Bell Creek Community Church

A non-denominational church in Livonia, Michigan with Biblical teaching, worship, and kid's ministries.

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The Comfort Found Only in the Church

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 12:00am

C. S. Lewis once said friendship is born at the moment when one says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . .” We’ve all had that “You too?” moment with another person when we discovered a common interest. We instantly felt encouraged, connected, and less alone.

While friendships based on similar likes and interests are wonderful, there is a deeper level of friendship. When we have friendships in the church, we receive comfort and encouragement we can’t get anywhere else.

Comforting Gospel

In 2 Corinthians, Paul points the suffering believers to their union with Christ in his sufferings, and he describes God as the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3).

Paul had experienced his own suffering while in Asia, even to the point that he “despaired of life itself” (2 Cor. 1:8), but God delivered him and his co-laborers. As he wrote to the Corinthians, then, he was thankful for the God “who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God” (2 Cor. 1:4)

Having received comfort from God, Paul was positioned to extend comfort to others.

But the Corinthians were also able to comfort Paul—though they did so after giving him some trouble. In an earlier letter, Paul confronted the Corinthians and was grieved by their sin. This grief was good, for it provoked them to repent. He wrote:

For even when we came into Macedonia, our bodies had no rest, but we were afflicted at every turn—fighting without and fear within. But God, who comforts the downcast, comforted us by the coming of Titus, and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you, as he told us of your longing, your mourning, your zeal for me, so that I rejoiced still more. (2 Cor. 7:5–7)

Paul had to confront the Corinthians, which was not a comfortable thing for anyone; but when they responded well, they brought Titus comfort, who then brought it to Paul. And when the Corinthians received this letter, surely they were comforted by Paul’s joy. So the news of the Corinthians’ repentance came full circle, comforting all who encountered it.

Comforting Church

This story of gospel comfort in 2 Corinthians reminds us that we’re all united to Christ, and that when he is at work in one of us, it affects all of us. God’s grace multiplies as it works through the life of a local church.

The comfort God gives, however, isn’t for us alone. We can’t hoard it. The ways the gospel has changed us must be shared; the truth of who Christ is and what he has done must be voiced.

Based on this truth, the comfort we give to one another in the church isn’t the “you can do it” and “everything will be okay” comfort of the world. No, this comfort is honest about sin and its effects. It doesn’t sugarcoat or wish things away. Instead, it seeks hope and help outside of our own strength and in the only One who can save. It’s grounded in the glad news of who Christ is and what he descended to do.

What does such comfort look like in the church?

  • When the Spirit helps us put sin to death, we share that joy with other believers so they too can rejoice in the gospel’s power at work.
  • When we’ve endured a season in which God met us in our pain, we share it with other believers so they too can see God’s faithfulness.
  • When God provides what we need in the eleventh hour, we share that joy so others can know that God is Jehovah-Jireh, our provider.
  • When God strengthens us in weakness, when he heals and brings redemption, when he teaches us through discipline—in all these ways and more—we share that comfort for another’s spiritual good.

May our friendships in the church be unique. May they be marked by gospel comfort. And just as Paul, Titus, and the Corinthians experienced God’s comfort, may the gospel come full circle in our own churches as we witness and testify together to what our King has done.

I Learned It the Hard Way: Our Best Life Is Later

Sat, 02/17/2018 - 12:00am

About five or six years into pastoral ministry, I encountered a situation that dumbfounded me. A 24-year-old woman, brimming with life, gave birth to a beautiful little girl. Three weeks later, after settling into a mothering routine, the shock came. The new mom’s skin and eyes became discolored. It looked like someone had sprayed a yellow film over her body. Her physician immediately recognized the problem. A few tests confirmed his alarm. She had terminal liver cancer.

I visited her regularly. I prayed God would heal her, believing he could. I only prayed for healing, convinced the Lord would showcase his mighty hand in our community by healing a young lady with terminal cancer.

At that stage of life and ministry, much of my theology—particularly concerning suffering, God’s sovereignty, and eternal hope—had little definition. So my visits and prayers always aimed toward immediate physical restoration.

But it didn’t happen.

Two months after her diagnosis, her husband called in the middle of the night. Shaking off drowsiness, I listened to a somber voice say, “She’s gone.” Maybe my eardrums had not yet started humming, and I didn’t get the message clearly. “Is she still making it?” I asked tentatively. “She’s dead,” he bluntly replied. Having been so fixated on healing, words escaped me. “I’m so sorry,” I said. “I’ll be right there.”

On the 10-minute drive to the hospital, I composed dozens of sentences to open my conversation with this grieving husband. None sounded right. I’d visited and prayed with them numerous times. But I soon felt the complete inadequacy of my words and optimistic demeanor.

I Failed Miserably

While faithfully visiting and praying, I had failed in my pastoral responsibility. I hadn’t taught this dear couple any hope beyond temporal healing. I prepared her to continue living in this fallen world instead of helping her live in the next, where there would be no liver cancer or chemotherapy or yellowed skin. My time would have been far better spent preparing her to gaze on the Lord Jesus she demonstrably loved, and whom she would see face-to-face (1 John 3:2). But I merely prayed for healing.

Thirty-five years have passed and my judgment of that situation remains unchanged: I unwittingly failed to cultivate hope in Christ.

No wonder I failed—I lacked the robust consciousness of hope in Christ that should typify his followers. I overcompensated for one bad theology by yielding to another. I lived with my eyes on the present moment.

We Need Eternity-Envisioning Hope

Such need for living in hope spurred Paul to pray this for the Ephesian church:

That the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of his calling, what are the riches of the glory of his inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of his power toward us who believe. (Eph. 1:18–19a)

In other epistles, the apostle spends ample time encouraging this full-orbed hope in the congregations he loved and prayed for (e.g., Rom. 8; Col. 1:21–27; 1 Thess. 4:17–18). Without hope we live aimlessly (Eph. 2:12), lacking God’s provision for living in this world and the next. Without hope, we give way to sin and despair. But a living hope subdues the flesh, animates desire for Christ, calms the heart, steadies the resolve, and gives strengthen amid weakness and opposition (1 Pet. 1:3–9). Hope reminds us that present circumstances—however difficult—are not the end (Rom. 8:18, 28). Life in Christ is.

I Learned Joy in Christ-Centered Hope   

That’s what I’ve learned to do since watching those prayers for temporal healing go unanswered. Neglecting to cultivate hope in a family with desperate need changed me—not immediately, but progressively. As difficult as it was, the Lord used that disappointing time to bring me face-to-face with my temporal existence. I repented (and continue to repent) of living for the moment instead of living in light of eternity with hope set firmly in Christ (Phil. 3:12–14).

The Lord has patiently shown me time and again that he is ultimate, so I need not be trapped by immediate, fretful circumstances—my regrettable tendency. I’m learning that my affections and thoughts need to stretch into eternity instead of being corralled by temporal satisfaction.

When I approach each day with a conscious hope in Christ, it affects the way I respond to demands, losses, even accomplishments. Like the 70 who felt incredible elation that the demons were subject to them in Christ’s name, I’m learning, as they did: “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20).

Much has changed in my understanding of biblical hope. It now underlies pastoral visits and counseling. Instead of only a few choice texts, I see hope throughout the Scriptures. This buoyant hope as a fountain of joy deeply affects my living, preaching, and teaching. Although I failed in that pastoral setting 35 years ago, the Lord has given immeasurable joy through the journey of tasting the hope that is ours in Christ.

4 Questions: Melanie Kirkpatrick on North Korea

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 12:05am

Kim Yo-jong, the sister of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, attended the Winter Olympic games this week as part of a “charm offensive” for her family’s brutal regime. Yo-jong formerly served as the vice-director of the propaganda and agitation department, which may explain why she received such fawning coverage by the Western media.

“Kim Yo-jong mesmerised South Korean audiences,” claimed the BBC. And a CNN headline swooned that, “Kim Jong Un’s sister is stealing the show at the Winter Olympics.”

Kim Yo Jong is the smiling face of one of the most brutal and repressive governments on the planet. Her diplomatic mission—which seems to be succeeding, ate least with the media—is to normalize the horrors in the totalitarian state.

I recently asked Melanie Kirkpatrick, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and the author of Escape from North Korea: The Untold Story of Asia’s Underground Railroad, to tell us the real story about what is going on in Kim’s country.

What distinguishes North Korea from other countries ruled by dictators?

The most comprehensive account of the depredations of life in North Korea is a 2014 United Nations human-rights report by a special Commission of Inquiry. The commission concludes that, “the gravity, scale and nature of these violations [committed by the Kim family regime] reveal a state that does not have any parallel in the contemporary world.”

Let me mention two lesser-known examples among the lengthy list of “unspeakable atrocities” that the commission identified.

One is guilt by association. That is, a North Korean who is sent to prison for committing a political crime won’t go alone. His family will be condemned with him. Most of the North Koreans I interviewed for my book Escape from North Korea did not want their pictures taken or their real names used. They rightly feared that doing so would put their families in North Korea at grave risk. The guilt-by-association policy is also an effective deterrent for diplomats or other North Korean officials who are thinking of defecting to the West. They know that if they defect, the cost of their betrayal will be the lives of their loved ones back home.

Another atrocity is North Korea’s apartheid system known as songbun. Under songbun, every citizen is assigned a status based on his perceived loyalty to the Kim regime. A person’s songbun determines his station in life, including where he lives, how much education he will receive, where he will work, and most cruelly of all, his access to food. The capital city of Pyongyang, for example, is a closed city. Only North Koreans of high songbun are allowed to live there.

How are Christians treated in North Korea?

As I’ve written before, to be a Christian in North Korea—to practice any faith there—requires courage.

In a 2012 report, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom describes “the arrest, torture and possible execution” of Christians, Buddhists, and others conducting clandestine religious activity in the North. It cites several widely reported cases of persecution of Christians, including the public execution in 2009 of Ri Hyon Ok for the crime of distributing Bibles. In keeping with the regime’s policy of punishing wrongdoers’ families, Ri’s husband and three children reportedly were dispatched to a political prison.

The commission report also describes how 23 Christians were arrested in 2010 for belonging to an underground Protestant church. Three were executed and the rest were jailed. The commission estimates there are thousands of Christians among the 150,000 to 200,000 North Koreans incarcerated in the regime’s infamous political prison camps.

North Korean Christians necessarily worship in secret. Many of the congregations are small family units consisting of just a husband and wife and, when they are old enough to keep a secret, their children. Other times a handful of Christians form a kind of congregation in motion. A worker for the nonprofit organization Open Doors explains how it works: “A Christian goes and sits on a bench in the park. Another Christian comes and sits next to him. Sometimes it is dangerous even to speak to one another, but they know they are both Christians, and at such a time, this is enough.”

Why does the regime fear Christianity? Eom Myong-hui, a North Korean refugee I interviewed for my book, says the regime fears Christianity because it points the way to freedom: “In my view,” she told me, “Christianity is about the individual, about accepting responsibility.” That is anathema to Pyongyang, which wants to control every aspect of its citizens’ lives. Ms. Eom, who escaped from North Korea 10 or so years ago, became a pastor in South Korea and is now living in the U.S.

Why is it so difficult for people to flee the country?

Unlike Kim Jong Un’s sister, who flew to the South for the Olympics, it is next to impossible for an ordinary citizen to depart from North Korea. It’s a crime to leave the country without official permission. Still, many North Koreans are desperate enough to try. Some 25,000 North Koreans have reached freedom in the South. How do they do it?

To escape from North Korea, it is impossible to go south across the Demilitarized Zone to reach South Korea. Despite its name, the Demilitarized Zone—the DMZ—is the world’s most fortified border. More than one million mines prevent ordinary North Koreans from crossing there. A North Korean soldier occasionally makes it across the DMZ to the South—as one did in December—but that is rare.

Rather, North Koreans who want to reach the South must first go to China, which shares an 800-mile border with North Korea. From there, if they are determined, and lucky, they will find their way across China to Southeast Asia and on to South Korea. The Sino-Korean border is heavily fortified on both sides. Many of the escapees I interviewed swam across the Yalu or Tumen river or walked across the frozen river in winter. Again and again, I heard escapees say that they were terrified of being shot in the back as they fled.

It wasn’t an idle fear. When Kim Jong Un came to power at the end of 2011 after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, there were credible reports that the dictator issued a shoot-to-kill order. According to exile organizations with contacts inside North Korea, Kim has boosted the number of guards along with border and installed surveillance cameras. He has also dispatched agents to China to kidnap or blackmail escapees and force them to return to the North. Reports from North Korea say that Kim Jong Un has even closed whole villages along the border and moved residents to the interior of the country. The purpose is twofold: to make it harder for North Koreans to escape by restricting access to the borderlands and to limit the inflow of information from China.

China is North Korea’s ally in all this. It does not recognize the North Koreans who flee to China as refugees—as it should under the international Convention on refugees, which it has signed. Rather, its inhumane policy is to track down and arrest North Koreans who are hiding in China and repatriate them to North Korea, where they are severely punished for the crime of having left. Pregnant returnees are forced to abort their babies. North Korea doesn’t want children of “impure blood”—that is, with Chinese fathers—to survive.

What is being done to help the refugees and the people still trapped in the country?

No one can provide direct assistance to either group of people. Neither China nor North Korea will permit it. That said, Christian missionaries—mostly South Korean but also American—are trying hard to help. They enter China posing as students or teachers or businessmen or tourists and head to northeast China, where they set up safe houses for North Koreans and/or help them find their way to the South along an Underground Railway. The Underground Railroad is a secret network that helps North Koreans find their way across China to Southeast Asia and on to South Korea. Some of these brave Christians have spent time in Chinese prisons for the crime of helping North Koreans.

The most positive development in recent years is what I call the “information invasion” of North Korea. Once they reach safety in the South, North Korean fugitives send news back into the country they left behind—via DVDs of South Korea soap operas, radio news broadcasts, and Chinese cellphones that allow families to speak to relatives who have escaped. So, too, the U.S. broadcasts news into North Korea on Radio Free Asia. It’s a serious crime for North Koreans to listen to foreign radio broadcasts, but many people do so nonetheless. In a country where only an estimated 1,000 people have access to the Internet, this inflow of information has the potential to be transformational. At the very least, it is having the effect of making some North Koreans skeptical of the Kim regime’s propaganda. If a North Korean knows about the prosperous South, the regime’s pronouncements that North Korea is “paradise on Earth” is hard to believe.

Total Depravity and Redemptive Hope in ‘Hostiles’

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 12:00am

“We are all hostiles.” That’s the tagline for Hostiles, the new western starring Christian Bale and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart, Black Mass).

It’s an appropriate tagline for a film where no hero is untainted by villainy and the “for all have sinned” reality of total depravity is painfully clear. Indeed, the film’s D. H. Lawrence epigraph (“The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. It has never yet melted.”) underscores the point, even if its implications go beyond just America.

All humans are depraved, wayward, helpless in sin. And yet there is hope:

And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him. (Col. 1:21–22)

All who were once hostiles have hope, because of Christ, of being presented “holy and blameless.” Though Hostiles doesn’t spell out this gospel arc explicitly, it’s a film with a distinctly Christian grasp of universal culpability and reconciling grace.

God’s Presence (and Absence) in the Western Genre

The western genre has long been conducive to vivid explorations of fallen humanity and questions of God’s presence or absence (current Netflix hit Godless nods to this in its very name). The barren landscapes and lawless savagery of the West (think survival-of-the-fittest narratives like The Revenant) make these questions more urgent, perhaps, as the gradations of good and evil are more vivid within such extreme environments.

Sometimes these explorations are strongly theological in reflecting on redemption or damnation (e.g., Unforgiven or True Grit). Other times they are more bleak and nihilistic (e.g., No Country for Old Men or The Hateful Eight). Often they are somewhere in between (e.g., The Searchers, Shane, Hell or High Water), exploring heroism and hope for redemption even with a sober honesty about evil and sin.

Hostiles fits well within this tradition. The film is set in 1892, in the latter years of the Indian Wars. Bale plays Captain Joseph Blocker, a seasoned soldier who has seen (and participated in) his fair share of injustice and horror. He and a small band of soldiers (including one played by Jesse Plemons of Friday Night Lights) are tasked with taking an imprisoned Cheyenne war chief, Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), and his family, from a fort in New Mexico to their tribal lands in Montana. But Blocker and Yellow Hawk are bitter enemies, so as the party sets out on horseback for Montana, the tension and threat of violence—from within and without—is palpable.

From Pulp to Contemplation

Violence is a constant in Hostiles, as you might expect. The film’s opening scene is brutal, as we see a woman, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), lose her husband and three young children in a violent Comanche attack. But Hostiles is less interested in showing violence as it is with grappling with the trauma it leaves behind, and how we might stop its cycles. Indeed, although violence is ever-present in the film, it is often described as remembered trauma, or insinuated in clever ways (the audience experiences one climatic scene of violence only in what we can hear of it), rather than shown explicitly. As the film goes on, more blood is spilled but less blood is shown.

In this way, Hostiles reminded me of No Country for Old Men. Violence happens more and more as the plots of these films progress, but their directors intentionally show it less and less. This reverse-momentum style runs counter to typical Hollywood action films, which rev up the blood and gore as the climax nears. Hostiles (like No Country) still has a climax, but it’s part of a longer, slow-burn trajectory of moving the audience away from pulp and into contemplation. Less important than the body count is the nature of the violence itself. Is there any sense to it? Is human violence inevitable, simply part of the “war in the heart of nature” that Terrence Malick ponders in The Thin Red Line? And where is God in all this?

Hostiles echoes Malick’s work not only in its theological rumination but also in its attentiveness to nature’s beauty. The violence in Hostiles unfolds against the backdrop of gorgeous scenery, from the red sandstone and sagebrush horizons of New Mexico to the lush green meadows and big skies of Montana. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi captures the fluidity of nature (including incremental weather and a fair share of sunsets) with camera work that is organic and observational (frequently handheld), lending the film a immersive, contemplative ambience.

God’s Rough Ways

Hostiles is patiently paced, allowing time for quiet dialogue scenes between characters pondering the bigger questions.

“Do you believe in the Lord, Joseph?” Rosalie asks in one scene.

“Yes, I do,” Joseph responds. “But he’s been blind to what’s going on out here for a long time.”

“But I have to believe it is times like these that strengthen our bond with him,” Rosalie says. “If I did not have faith, what would I have?”

In another scene, Rosalie opens up to Joseph about the challenges of faith in a hostile world.

“Sometimes I envy the finality of death, the certainty. And I have to drive those thoughts away when I wake,” she says. “We never get used to the Lord’s rough ways, Joseph.”

The persistent faith of these characters, in spite of the evils they encounter and the sometimes hard-to-grasp nature of the “Lord’s rough ways,” is inspiring. Everyone in the film is aware of the ubiquity of sin, and not just in “the other guy.” When one particularly nasty character says, “We’re all guilty of something,” no one disputes it. Same when Bale’s character says, “When we lay our heads down out here, we’re all prisoners.”

When one particularly nasty character says ‘We’re all guilty of something,’ no one disputes it.

God’s Mighty Hand

Some react to this hostile world with cynicism, nihilism, and unrestrained vice (a common path in the western genre). But some of the characters in Hostiles earnestly want to stop the cycle. They want to grow. They want peace. But they need God’s help.

One character sings part of an old hymn: “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah / Pilgrim through this barren land / I am weak, but Thou art mighty / Hold me with Thy powerful hand.”

The powerful hand of God is necessary because we are weak, prone to wander, hostiles to God and to one another.

The problem isn’t out there; it’s in here. This is a needed reminder at a time when social media amplify our tendency to rage against everyone else, calling out the sins of others but not lamenting our own.

In a divisive age, there is a heartening unity that can come when each person owns the reality of fallenness and need for salvation. Our differences don’t seem as big when the big picture comes into view: we are all frail sinners, mortal and headed for the same death, in need of the same new life. This was a theme in the excellent Mudbound [TGC’s review], just as it is in Hostiles.

Our differences don’t seem as big when the big picture comes into view: we are all frail sinners, mortal and headed for the same death, in need of the same new life.

The soldiers, Indians, fur-traders and frontier dwellers in Hostiles are diverse. They have different shades of skin. They speak different languages, some with French and Irish accents. But none is innocent. None is the obvious “good guy” or “bad guy.” All need grace and second chances.

Though the film stops short of suggesting Jesus as the only viable path for redemption—indeed, a bit of syncretistic spiritual vaguery creeps in near the end—it nevertheless presents redemption and sanctification as possible and desirable. Out of death, violence and depravity, new life can spring.

Hostiles can indeed become holy, thanks be to God.

Financial Stewardship, Forever Rewards

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 12:00am

“What things in our lives are we doing, related to money and possessions, which demonstrate a powerful work of the Holy Spirit of God, which are so great and radical that they suggest to those around us that it must be the Holy Spirit of God—not just something that a person would come up with on their own?” — Randy Alcorn

Date: May 10, 2010

Event: The Clarus Conference 2010, TGC Albuquerque

You can listen to the episode here.

Related:

How Google, Amazon, and Facebook Shape Your Mind

Fri, 02/16/2018 - 12:00am

Long ago I read the fable about a boy who discovered a magic spool of thread. When he pulled the thread, the “boring” days and weeks and months of his youth sped by as if they were mere seconds. Thrilled that he no longer had to experience the mundane, he began pulling on the thread more and more so he only experienced the most exciting, meaningful events. But one day, the thread ran out, and the boy—suddenly an old man—realized he had lived an empty, thoughtless, and ultimately meaningless life. While the magic thread had let him breeze through his years with no uncertainty, pain, or reflection, it had robbed him of those immaterial things that make life rich and valuable.

Consider the possibility that in 2017, the “magic thread” goes by another name: the internet. Such is the thesis of journalist Franklin Foer in World without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big TechWorld without Mind advances a sharp but increasingly compelling proposal, that the digitization of Western life—especially the digitization engineered by tech giants Google, Amazon, and Facebook—represents not just an epochal landmark in accessibility and convenience, but an outright assault on things that matter much more.

Like the spool of thread in the fable, Foer believes the internet age has collapsed our lives in the name of streamlining them, and that surrendering more power in the public square to massive technopolies, in exchange for innovation and ease, will have grievous consequences in our culture.

Attack on Knowledge

Foer, a former editor of The New Republic, is a journalist, and his professional perspective shapes his jeremiad. When he refers to the “existential threat” of tech, he’s not talking about the knotty challenges it brings to public morality, parenting, interpersonal relationships, and the like. Rather, Foer warns that Google, Amazon, and Facebook all represent different attacks on knowledge.

Google, Foer warns, is the undisputed gatekeeper of public information, and it desires to reach all areas of life. Amazon has forever altered the commercial relationship between creatives and the people who would support their work, and Facebook’s algorithms subtly manipulate millions to see the parts of their world Mark Zuckerberg’s engineers believe they should see. All of this trends, Foer writes, toward a technological monopoly on human thought itself:

When it comes to the most central tenet of individualism—free will—the tech companies have a different way. They hope to automate the choices, both large and small, that we make as we float through the day. It’s their algorithms that suggest the news we read, the goods we buy, the path we travel, the friends we invite into our circle. (3)

Speaking of circles, the portrait that Foer paints of Silicon Valley and the technopoly is startlingly similar to the dystopian nightmare The Circle, the 2013 Dave Eggars novel about a cult-like social media company that destroys the world’s private thought. Foer not only distrusts the effects of the technology itself on us, he distrusts the motivations and worldviews of the people running the show. Much like Eggars’s fictitious cult, big tech, according to Foer, wants to invade all corners of human life—and doesn’t particularly care what it has to do to get there.

What Is Big Tech?

Foer’s fears are not baseless. While his historical excursuses into the history of Big Tech aren’t the book’s strongest points, his warnings are well-taken. The architects of Western uber-connectivity aren’t simply playing with the toys they find; they’re advancing a coherent vision of human existence.

Foer traces this vision back to Stewart Brand, a child of the sexual and societal revolutions of the 1960s, whose publication the Whole Earth Catalog shaped the techno-eschatological worldview of people like Steve Jobs.

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it,” Brand declared, infusing the postmodern sensibilities of the hippie commune with unflagging trust in cutting-edge scientific novelties. Foer refers to the Catalog as a “foundational text of Silicon Valley,” and a window into why the Big Tech giants “view themselves as revolutionary agents, elevating the world to the state of oneness that Brand spent his life chasing” (20).

Foer spends a great deal of time profiling this ideological heritage and the self-referential, ruthlessly utilitarian ethos that it inspires in Big Tech. Sometimes his warnings about the techies land a solid punch, but just as often they feel over-sold and more like personal score-settling. Indeed, crucial to World without Mind is Foer’s testimony of losing his prestigious job at The New Republic because (in his telling) new leadership wanted to reshape the magazine in the image of analytics and big data. Foer freely acknowledges that losing his job left him disproportionately hostile to Silicon Valley.

Readers should take Foer at his word. The sins of Big Tech aren’t the sole responsibility of data miners, computer geeks, and Gen-X hippies. Facebook, Google, and Amazon flourish ultimately because ordinary consumers—perhaps unthinkingly, perhaps not—want them to.

Our Gains and Losses

Why do we want them? Because, as Foer writes, they make life easy. Each of the “big three” tech companies offers a tempting exchange: give up just a little bit of our privacy and organic thought, and in return they’ll give us speed, efficiency, and control. Social media algorithms curate our experience of current events (not to mention our experience of each other), making it easier than ever to “feel” informed, but harder than ever to actually be informed. “Facebook,” Foer observes, “is constantly tinkering with the quality of news and opinion that it allows to break through the din, adjusting the quality of political and cultural discourse in order to hold the attention of users for a few more beats” (74).

How many times do we stop to consider that the news we attain via social media is proactively filtered by a technology corporation, whose financial viability depends on users needing the service more than they actually need the information it provides? Likewise Google (abetting the death of expertise via advertisement-fueled data) and Amazon (choking artists and creatives through market dominance) act as “gatekeepers” to modern knowledge, subtly manipulating access to make their own monopolistic grip tighter and more profitable.

Foer’s concerns about the assault of Big Tech on journalism are valid and urgent, even though one wishes he were a bit more fair-minded about the role of digital platforms in keeping larger media outlets accountable for their mistakes. The New Republic itself, for example, was nearly undone in the 1990s when its star reporter was exposed, by a fledgling online journal, as a serial liar (Foer somehow makes it through an entire book on journalism and technology without mentioning this episode).

I sympathize quite a bit with Foer’s nostalgia for the pre-internet information economy, but the relationship between media and the web is more complicated than that of sheep versus wolf.

Inhabiting a World with Cheap Words

The readers who will benefit most from the revelations in World without Mind are those who sense intuitively that something is “off” about the digital information economy but have a hard time expressing what that is.

Whereas books like Alan Jacobs’s How to Think [20 quotes | read TGC’s review] are more directly concentrated at the experience of online life and its challenges to personal reflection, World without Mind takes a broader view of the economic and cultural consequences of the click. Foer compares consumer awareness of Big Tech to consumer awareness of food. “Over the last two decades, readers have come to regard words as disposable goods,” Foer writes, likening the advent of cheap ideas to the ascent of fast food.

That’s a powerful analogy that Christians ought to take seriously. Stewardship of our minds isn’t less important than stewardship of our bodies. And if not everything we put in our mouths is created equal, than neither are things we consume with our brains. Followers of Jesus have an special moral obligation to be truth-thinkers and truth-tellers, and that obligation entails being aware of how digital technologies, and the companies that create them, shape our experience of the world through the internet.

We divine image-bearers are embodied creatures, which means there is spiritual significance to the physical and local that the ephemeral and instant can’t fully match. Perhaps those of us in a social media, Google, buy-with-one-click age should periodically pause to contemplate the fate of the boy who pulled too much of that magic string. Life looks bright and thrilling on a screen, and you don’t need to wait long for anything. But it’s the mundane, the un-shareable, and the dust-covered that often yield better joys and evoke fuller gratitude.

Now Available: Songs from The New City Catechism 3

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 12:00am

Last March we released the first batch of Songs from The New City Catechism, which covered Questions 1–15, followed by Questions 16–31 in summer 2017. As I wrote then,

When The Gospel Coalition, Redeemer Presbyterian Church, and Crossway decided to bring The New City Catechism (NCC) to print, we knew we wanted to commission brand-new songs that followed the exact wording of The New City Catechism children’s questions and answers. What might take weeks to learn through repetition could take minutes to memorize when set to the right tune.

That has indeed been the case as both children and adults have responded enthusiastically to learning the catechism through song.

Today, we are pleased to release a third set of songs covering Questions 32–41, set to music by Frank Hernandez and arranged by Fletch Wiley. There are a several ways you can stream and download:

  • Play the songs through the NCC apps (iTunes | Google Play)
  • Stream Songs from The New City Catechism 3 album on this page or on Bandcamp (works best for iPhone)
  • Download the entire album from Bandcamp (must be downloaded on a computer then imported into iTunes before you can listen on an iPhone, though Android supports direct downloads)
  • Play the songs on NewCityCatechism.com (be sure the site is set to children’s mode to play the songs) or on this site (below)
  • Play lyric videos on Youtube
  • Download lead sheets for worship

Coming Soon:

Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition
Songs from The New City Catechism 3 by The Gospel Coalition

Lead Sheets

Related

This album was made possible through the support of a grant from the John Templeton Foundation. The opinions expressed in this album are those of the publisher and do not necessarily reflect the views of the John Templeton Foundation.

Enough with ‘I Am Enough’

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 12:00am

This has bothering me for a while. I often have a well-intentioned person or a motivational meme trying to tell me “I am enough.” While this idea sounds comforting, each time I hear it I must again wrestle down the lie.

I want to believe that I am enough; I really do. And I appreciate the attempt to correct a culture that overvalues performance, perfection, and photoshopped beauty. When people say, “You are enough,” they are trying to help me and other struggling women to walk in freedom and joy.

But the statement doesn’t work. In fact, it fails on two fronts. It does justice neither to the incredible beauty and potential in me because of Christ, nor to the scary caverns of envy and anger I harbor because of sin. “I am enough” can’t capture the simultaneous realities that I was created to be perfect, that I am deeply flawed because of sin, and that I’m a cherished daughter of the God of the universe because of Christ’s work.

Not Enough in Myself

We were made to be beautiful, flawless crowns of creation. As masterpieces of the Master Artist, whose creative play yielded sweeping galaxies and microscopic diatoms, all humanity is meant for much higher things than “enough.” We were meant to live in perfect harmony with him. But through our fall into sin we became distorted versions of ourselves, inflicting pain and misery and grief. Simon Blocker once said:

Man as he is by nature is not as he was when God created him. A vast devastation has struck him. Nevertheless he is great in his ruins. Like a glorious cathedral after a bombing, sinful man still displays the grandeur which was his when he first stood on the earth as created in God’s image.

The beauty of our humanity is still evident, but ugliness abounds. When I lose it with my children after a long day of interruptions, I see clearly, once again, that I am not sufficient. On my best days, when I make chocolate chip cookies and get down on my knees and play Legos with my children, I am still not enough. I am not enough for my husband, who is not enough for me or my children. We need and are wired for a perfect parent and spouse, and we will never be perfect or enough in this fallen world.

More Than Enough in Him

Yet when I admit and own that I am not enough, that I will fail my family and falter, that even my best days fall short, I finally discover the power that “I am enough” fails to offer.

When I admit I’m not enough, I’m freed to run and cling to the God who is.

In him, I far exceed enough. I rocket past mediocrity and no longer worry about keeping up with the Joneses, as his perfect power radiates through my weakness (2 Cor. 12:9). In him I am transformed from one level of glory to another (2 Cor. 3:18), as I press beyond human standards to take hold of that for which he has taken hold of me (Phil. 3:14). He will transform me until I begin to resemble him who redeemed me (Rom. 8:29).

The gospel tells me two truths, and holds both at full strength: In myself, I am not enough. In him, however, I am more than enough.

Holding Truths Together

G. K. Chesterton, in his masterpiece Orthodoxy, describes the way that only the gospel holds two paradoxes together without diluting them:

Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them both furious. The church was positive on both points. One can hardly think too little of one’s self. One can hardly think too much of one’s soul.

I reject the phrase “I am enough,” not because I don’t believe that people who say it mean well, but because God’s solution to the human dilemma is far better than a platitude. Even if it is harder to swallow at first.

How Memphis Second Graders Are Connecting Church and Community

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 12:00am

When Toronaka Houston walked into the first day of teaching second grade at Lucie Campbell Elementary School in Memphis, Tennessee, she was scared to death.

It wasn’t that she was new to teaching. Houston had 12 years of experience under her belt, all of it at a middle-class public school in Memphis.

But Lucie Campbell was completely different. It’s a Title 1 school, which means it has high numbers of children from low-income families. (In fact, 95 percent of its students are eligible for free or reduced lunch.) In 2015, only a quarter of them tested proficient in math and reading/language arts. As one of the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools, it had to either improve or be taken over by the state.

Houston’s principal, Jaron Carson, had a vision for the lower-performing, inner-city schools. He landed a job at Lucie Campbell and asked her to come along.

After a lot of hesitation, she agreed. “I want to be a helper,” she said.

The school she stepped into was nothing like the one she left. In the 2012–2013 school year, there were eight serious incidents related to student discipline (this category includes things like possession of weapons or aggravated assault). In the 2014–2015 year, more than 18 percent of the students had received an out-of-school suspension. (The median percentage of students receiving out-of-school suspensions in Tennessee that year was 1.4 percent.) At the same time, a whopping 44 percent of Lucie Campbell students had missed more than 15 days of school, compared to a statewide average of 6 percent.

“The first year I woke up many days crying,” Houston told TGC. “I lost 25 pounds.”

But there were also bright spots, and one of them was a simple reading program brought in by a church.

Arise2Read volunteers work with students for one hour a week.

Arise2Read was created by Donna Gaines—wife of Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) president Steve Gaines—in 2013. Each week, volunteers read and work on sight words with second graders for an hour.

“We are having unbelievable results,” she said. “Last year, in 13 schools, the children had a 142 percent increase of reading on sight-word grade level.”

In five years, Arise2Read has grown to 822 volunteers working in 28 Memphis-area schools. Reading to students led into starting Good News Clubs, sponsored by Child Evangelism Fellowship. It led to appreciation meals for teachers and uniform drives for children who didn’t have enough clothes. It led to coat donations, food pantries, and local pastors connecting with families in need.

And that was before the SBC’s Send Relief got wind of it.

“Any large urban area has the effects of forgotten-about schools,” said Send Relief president David Melber. After he heard about Arise2Read, using it to connect churches with local, under-resourced public schools seemed obvious.

He invited Gaines to train pastors, ministry leaders, and planters in Orlando and Dallas last summer, then asked her to do the training again at Send Relief headquarters in March. Planters from a dozen states have already asked Gaines more about how to implement the program.

“To teach a child they have value and worth—this may be the only place they ever heard that,” Melber said. “It’s a great privilege for us to do that.”

It’s a motivation that holds, even though test scores rise and dip.

“The Lord commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves,” Gaines said. “These children are my neighbors. That is my motivator, and has given me a real sense of urgency.”

‘Most Alarming Thing’

The “most alarming thing” about moving to Memphis was the startling poverty, Gaines said. She grew up in the city, leaving in 1980 to go to college, marry Steve Gaines, and get her master’s in education.

In 2005, she moved back when Steve took over as pastor of the 7,000-attendee Bellevue Baptist Church.

“Once we moved in, we looked at the demographics and realized we’d had an explosion of poverty and blight,” she said. The city routinely shows up on the lists of the worst places to live, with high rates of both poverty (about 27 percent) and crime (1,740 incidents per 100,000 people, or five-times the national average).

An Arise2Read volunteer helps her student write out the words she missed.

Bellevue is in a suburb northeast of Memphis, about 22 minutes from downtown. Under Steve’s leadership, the church started reaching into the city—resodding football fields, painting and cleaning up schools, and starting a mobile dental clinic.

“I started tutoring on Tuesday afternoons,” Gaines said. She worked with a faith-based charter school, tutoring at-risk—and later refugee—children.

“They made tremendous progress,” she said. “I started thinking, How can I reach a greater number of these children?

At the same time, Memphis City School District was dissolving itself in order to join with the Shelby County School District. The process was contentious and confusing, and just about everybody—from the state to the city council to the school board members—filed lawsuits.

Gaines was watching and praying. “I don’t know any other way to describe it—the eternal pierced the temporal, and God captured my heart,” she said. “It was a call to action. This is your city. . . . What are you doing about it?”

Adopt-a-School

She called the school district, where a volunteer coordinator told her they were looking for more faith-based organizations to adopt schools.

Gaines perked up.

The district was also looking for volunteers to come in to help second graders learn to read, the coordinator said.

Gaines perked up even more. Child literacy is something she can’t stop talking about.

“Children living in poverty are, on average, three grade levels behind by fourth grade,” she told TGC. “And if they aren’t reading proficiently by the end of fourth grade, statistics show two-thirds will end up on welfare or in prison.”

In Memphis, where the median household income is $37,000, about 43 percent of the children live in poverty.

An Arise2Read volunteer listens to his student read.

“But here’s the good news,” she said. “Children in poverty who read proficiently by the end of third grade have an 89 percent graduation rate.”

And those who graduate from high school make significantly more money than those who don’t (a median weekly income of $692, compared to $504). That’s a big jump, and Memphis needs it. The median annual income of a Memphis household is just $37,000, compared to $59,000 nationwide.

“It’s going to take the gospel and education to break the cycle of generational poverty,” Gaines said.

Know You Care

The public school system had already made a start at a volunteer-staffed reading program called Team Read. They handed volunteers the Fry sight word list (1,000 of the most common English words) and asked them to review them with students.

Gaines explained the program to Bellevue and asked for volunteers. She needed 110 to cover the second graders at Treadwell Elementary School; she got more than 200.

“We covered third grade also,” she said, “and then started putting them in other schools.”

Her team tweaked the program as they went, eventually creating a half-hour curriculum. First, volunteers read one-on-one with a child until he or she misses five sight words. Then the child reads the five words again, writes them, and play games with them. Toward the end of the session, the child and volunteer read together again.

At the end, the child can take a book home.

Arise2Read volunteers packing up bags of books for the students to take home over the summer.

“It sparks incentive,” Houston said. “I notice a difference [in the students]. It sparks an interest in them—they want to learn to read. . . . Our achievement scores are definitely improved in reading this year.”

But overall, scores at Lucie Campbell are dropping. In 2012–2013, the elementary school scored a 5 on the state test that measures student literacy growth—the best on Tennessee’s five-point scale. But literacy growth dropped to a 3 in 2013–2014, then a 2 in 2014–2015. In 2015–2016 and 2016–2017, under a more rigorous testing system, Lucie Campbell fell to a 1.

That drop was more gradual than Shelby County, which scored a 5 from 2012 to 2015, but dropped in 2016–2017 to a 1. (It’s hard to pull a bigger lesson from the scores, as the average ACT composite score for Shelby County stayed around 17 for the past three years, and the graduation rate climbed steadily from 75 percent to almost 80 percent.)

Still, Houston and Gaines know the program is working. A pre- and post-test of Fry word recognition—done just on the second graders who worked with Arise2Read volunteers at 13 schools—showed a score increase of 142 percent in 2016–2017. At Treadwell Elementary, 78 percent of second graders read sight words on grade level, compared to one-third of students system-wide. They had gained an average of 408 words over the school year.

Arise2Read volunteer reading with a student.

“Donna and her team are really God-sent,” said Dorsey Hopson, superintendent of Shelby County Schools and a member of Fellowship Memphis Church. “I spoke at their training, and saw people who clearly have a heart for God that translates into a heart for the city.”

Houston noticed the same thing. “You can tell [Arise2Read] is Christian-based because of their attitude. The volunteers are so loving, and the kids love it.”

The faith of the volunteers is more than a side benefit, because one of the most important things Arise2Read does is connect children with another adult who cares for them.

“You can’t teach [students of poverty] anything until you build a relationship with them,” said Arise2Read executive director Karen Vogelsang. She spent most of her career teaching in Memphis’s inner-city schools.

“They have to know that you care, that you believe in them,” she said. “When I saw the students arrive for their session, their faces lit up when they saw their coaches—I knew then that one of the program’s priorities was relationship building.”

‘Run Into the City’

Lisa Haywood is a pharmacist, not a teacher. She goes to Bellevue Baptist, and heard the pitch Donna made for volunteers.

“I feel like I don’t have the gift of teaching,” she said. “But I felt the Lord tugging on my heart.”

She felt a little more confident after her training, and a lot more confident as soon as she sat down with her first student.

“They light up,” she said. “It’s more than just teaching to them. To go week after week, and see their little faces light up—it’s somebody in their life that’s consistent. Week after week, we’re going to be there to tell them they’re doing a good job and that we’re proud of them.”

Volunteers like Haywood come in for one hour a week, splitting that time between two children. They come primarily from churches and Christian businesses that “adopt” a school, trying to provide enough volunteers for each second grader.

A second grader reads independently at the end of her session.

Not every week brings heady joy or even steady improvement.

“Some days when my students come in, they seem sad or disconnected, and that’s when I worry about what may be going on at home,” she said. “On those days when they have trouble focusing or don’t seem to want to try, it can be discouraging worrying about their progress. But they are still getting one-on-one attention, and that’s better than nothing.”

The relationships between volunteers and students “pour over into the lives of some of the families of these children,” Vogelsang said.

When the father of one student was hospitalized, Gaines contacted a local pastor. He was there for the family as the father passed away, eventually leading the mother to Christ. Now the family has joined his church.

“There have been so many stories of what I call ‘spin-off ministries’ once the volunteers get into the schools and see the needs,” Gaines said. “People get in there and fall in love with the children and want to do more.”

One retired couple saw their students needed clothes. They asked the school guidance counselor for sizes and colors needed for the uniforms, then organized a clothing drive at their church. The husband added shelves and a door to a closet in the counselor’s office, so she could store the clothes and disperse them as needed.

A volunteer and student read together.

Many volunteers bring food along.

All but three schools in the Memphis district are Title 1 schools, which means the children “get breakfast and lunch and snacks two to three times a day, but they might not have a snack if they don’t bring one,” Gaines said. “And some of them eat early. They might eat at 10:30 a.m. and get out after 4:00 p.m.”

Often teachers purchase snacks with their own money; now, Arise2Read volunteers do as well.

Gaines herself has been working with a single mom of eight. The woman’s father is deceased, and her mother has spent her life in and out of drug and alcohol rehab.

“She has no safety net or training,” Gaines said. “I’ve been helping her with her children and with her job skills and with her rent so they can stay stable. In getting involved with her, I realized she doesn’t have the things I have or my children have, so how can I expect her to think the way we think?”

Gaines is mentoring by modeling—inviting the woman to church, having her over for dinner, and showing up when one of her boys got in trouble at school.

“How can I love my neighbor the way I love myself?” she said. “I do for her what I’d do for one of my daughters.”

Gaines is also working to connect a Good News Club to each of her schools, finding volunteers and promoting the program. Arise2Read volunteers can’t talk about God during their program, but the extracurricular club can explain the gospel and hand out free Bibles.

“For so long Christians have run from the city,” Gaines said. “I believe God is saying, ‘Run into the city. Be the salt and light that I have called you to be, and preserve a dying, decaying society.’ He is enabling us to do that with the least of these, our children. We cheer them on to be productive citizens and, hopefully, one day to sit down and read the Bible themselves.”

On a Roll

Volunteers get snagged on the numbers—the rate of poverty, the rate of Arise2Read’s success—and stay for the children, Gaines said. Retired people, stay-at-home moms, and employees on their lunch breaks volunteer and then volunteer again the next year; Arise2Read’s retention rate hovers between 82 percent and 85 percent.

Volunteers and students often form close bonds.

One of them is Rufus Smith, pastor of the 6,600-member Hope Church.

“I was educated in the poorest school district in [Houston] and learned firsthand how crucial it was for committed teachers and volunteers to exercise the ministry of consistent presence,” he said. “For me, to remain indifferent in view of inequality in education is a sin of omission.”

Smith encourages his staff to volunteer with Arise2Read, paying them for the time they spend doing it. Overall, Hope Church has provided about 100 volunteers from its staff and congregation.

Schools are a microcosm of society,” Smith said. “We need an ‘army of volunteer missionaries’ to interface with the poor and disadvantaged children in our classrooms. We consider it a gospel imperative.”

He wasn’t the only one to catch Gaines’s vision. In five years, Arise2Read expanded from one school to 28, with more principals calling to ask how they can get in on it. The 200 initial volunteers have grown to more than 800, with another 600 trained this past fall.

Arise2Read in progress.

Gaines recruits those volunteers wherever she goes, sometimes on purpose, sometimes when her excitement about the program spills over into conversation after conversation.

One accidental recruit was David Melber. He’s the president of Send Relief, which focuses on connecting churches to ministry opportunities.

“I wound up at the same table as Donna and Steve at a dinner,” Melber said. He brought up poverty; she brought up Arise2Read. They talked all evening. A few months later, he came out to meet with Donna, her volunteers, and some school officials.

“It’s a very simple, easy program,” Melber said. “There’s no reason this couldn’t be implemented all over.”

Specifically, there was no reason that Send Network church planters—who focus on cities—couldn’t use the program. “In the bigger cities, the more overpopulated the schools become, the more students fall behind,” he said.

Volunteers get snagged on the numbers—the rate of poverty, the rate of Arise2Read’s success—and stay for the children.

Education is a great tool for helping to break the cycle of generational poverty, and that’s both hopeful and crucial for an organization that has “a lot of programs addressing the symptoms” of that poverty, Melber said.

Gaines trained Send Network planters at two conferences last year; another is scheduled for March. This time, they’ll videotape her to make it faster and easier to get the information out to planters.

It can’t come soon enough. Gaines has already fielded calls from interested planters in 12 different states.

Low Cost

The best news for both planters and schools—beyond the success the program has seen—is its low cost. Gaines pays for the flashcards, games, and books with grants, though sometimes a church or business will “adopt” a school and foot the $9,300 annual cost.

It’s worth it, Melber said.

“Every human has value and worth,” he said. “Seeing a need in a young student and meeting it for the purpose of building a relationship to minister not only to them but to their family—that’s a natural logical progression.”

Working in public schools—where volunteers can’t openly share their faith—doesn’t bother Melber.

The best news for both planters and schools—beyond the success the program has seen—is its low cost.

“There are at times certain regulations or boundaries that we have to adhere to in public settings, but that doesn’t mean you throw your faith out,” he said. “To say, ‘You can’t pray in a school, therefore the church has no place in a school’—that’s not correct. You may not be able to publicly assemble for prayer, but there are attributes—the fruit of the Spirit—that God wants us to live out. There are no limitations placed on the general care of a human being.”

Gaines isn’t the only one in Memphis to have implemented a volunteer-based reading program, and she knows she doesn’t have all the answers.

“If we come across something that works better—or someone else does—we’ll pass that on,” she said. “God puts his body together in such a way that we need each other. . . . It’s been so fun to see the body of Christ come together to partner across denominational and racial lines. It’s really encouraging to see where God has brought us.”

Sam Allberry on Singleness and Pastoral Leadership

Thu, 02/15/2018 - 12:00am

A healthy marriage is a tremendous gift and blessing. Marriage is God’s idea, and it is to be held in honor (Heb. 13:4). But one may also serve and glorify God in singleness. We follow a Savior who was single, and the greatest church planter ever—the apostle Paul—was also single. Single pastors have various advantages in ministry, such as flexibility in schedule.

They are also able, in Paul’s words, to “live with undivided devotion” (1 Cor. 7:35). One man who has taught the church much in recent years about being a single minister, as well as about how to fight sin and apply the gospel in every aspect of life, is Sam Allberry.

On today’s podcast we talk with Sam about what he has learned about preaching, the importance of a local church family, and about the ministry of hospitality. These are important issues, not just for the single church planter, but also for those who are ministering to single people.

You can listen to this episode here.

The Beauty of Lament in Sandra McCracken’s New Album

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 12:00am

As many as 40 percent of the Bible’s psalms could be categorized as psalms of lament. Their words pulse with protest, indignation, complaint, and sorrow, even as they contain hope. While the modern worship movement has done much good, it has largely missed the importance of lament.

Artists like Sandra McCracken help us recover this biblical tradition. 

McCracken’s new album, Songs from the Valley (released today), feels like a natural progression from her previous two studio albums, Psalms [interview] and God’s Highway [interview]. The psalms drive us to God, seeking his light in the darkness of earthly toil. They give voice to our protests and frustrations. They provide a framework and vocabulary for approaching God, even when he seems distant.

The protests and expressed frustrations of lament might seem beneath the Christian believer, but they are all over the pages of Scripture.

Songs for Valley Dwellers

As someone who lives in a (literal) valley, I have become accustomed to endless cloudy days, wet and muddy shoes, and longing for brighter, warmer days. Valley people understand the value and beauty of warmth and sun. They come out to public parks in droves when the weather allows.

Songs From the Valley gives a melody and an anthem for valley dwellers to grab onto, leading them into the joy of God’s morning light.

The protests and expressed frustrations of lament might seem beneath the Christian believer, but they are all over the pages of Scripture.

In the album’s opening song, “Fool’s Gold,” McCracken begins, Nobody needs another love song / Sometimes you need to sing your own song. It would be unloving to dress up the reality of life, she is saying. It’s a call for honesty, building into the chorus: But if it’s not okay / then this is not the end / And this is not okay / So I know, this is not, this is not the end.

McCracken isn’t voicing frustration just to vent. This is not an album of her needing to share the scars of her own story. Instead, this is music to remind us (and herself) that suffering does not have the final say. As Tim Keller observes, “Suffering is unbearable if you aren’t certain that God is for you and with you.” Songs From the Valley sees clearly the reality of our strife, while also seeing the God within it.

This is music to remind us that suffering does not have the final say.

Lament Has a Place in Worship

Recorded over a three-year period and overlapping with her recording of Psalms, the seven songs on this new album carry the weight of someone who knows what it means to experience loss—without pushing God away. This is a (sadly) uncommon expression in today’s church, where lament doesn’t always seem welcome in our conceptions of “healthy faith.” When chaos, difficulty, and loss strike, we are more apt to run toward disillusionment and cynicism than toward honest and vulnerable faith. Yet the book of Psalms is full of harsh honesty directed toward God.  Consider Psalm 77.

After seeking the Lord, the psalmist says, “I would not be comforted” (Ps. 77:2). This frustration leads to questioning: “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Ps. 77:9). Such questions may be uncomfortable to some ears, but to others it is a profound comfort: There is a place for full-throated lament in my worship of God.

Honest lament is the soil in which our pain and struggles can sprout new life. McCracken describes this in “Kindness,” singing: All hours of the night across the telephone line / How you have filled my glass / As we grieve the past / And how your kindness, your kindness / How it carries me. Here she recognizes the healing that comes through bearing each other’s burdens, sharing struggles with our brothers and sisters and before God. The chorus echoes Ecclesiastes 4:12: A chord with many strands is not easily broken.

Honest lament is the soil in which our pain and struggles can sprout new life.

With songs like this, Songs From the Valley ministers to other valley dwellers, while also leading the church toward the lament we often ignore. Finding God’s light within darkness is the theme of the album’s third song, “Oh Gracious Light,” in which McCracken cries out, Oh gracious light / I have been walking, walking so long / In darkness. The track’s reverberating acoustic guitar and drums push the listener toward the urgency of longing for light and warmth, while stuck in darkness and winter.

Towering Testimony

Psalm 139 reminds us that “even the darkness is not dark to [God]; the night is bright as the day, for darkness is as light with [him].” These hopeful words remind us that the Lord can be known and felt—often most clearly—in our darkest seasons. The heights of his love can sometimes be grasped most profoundly from the perspective of the valley.

Still, the harsh realities of the dark valley remain harsh. McCracken approaches this truth most honestly in “Letting Go”: I feel like I’ve been trampled by a tempest / I’ve been holding up the last of my defenses / Rise up, oh my soul / Love is letting go oh my soul. Despite feeling like she’s at the end of her rope, McCracken keeps reminding herself of God’s goodness: Lover of my soul / how you always know / what is best for me (“Lover of My Soul”).

On her website, McCracken describes the songs on this album as personal narratives of “friendship, sorrow, and comfort” that are “companions to David’s comforting words.” She expresses her desire for the album:

It’s my hope that these recordings will make space for meaningful questions. It’s my hope that these songs will be shared from one friend to another, for comfort in times of need. There’s no marketing agenda to promote, just a testimony of grace, received and given.  

Indeed, Songs From the Valley comes from a deep, thoughtful, personal place that stands as a towering “testimony of grace.” It’s an album that meets us all in our valleys and stormiest days, but calls us to look up for the breaking of the clouds.

Frederick Douglass: Thundering Prophet to America

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 12:00am

Today marks the 200th birthday of one of the most influential African-American leaders and voices of the 19th century.

Frederick Augustus Washington Baily was an abolitionist, social reformer, statesman, writer, and orator. He was born a slave in 1818 in Talbot County, Maryland, on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay. His mother was a field hand, and his father was purportedly her master. The date of his birth is unknown, so like many slaves Douglass could not tell how old he was. He later chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14.

Douglass miraculously escaped slavery and eventually landed in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he became a minister and joined the abolitionist movement. He decided to change his name to Frederick Douglass once he became free.

There are many articles, documentaries, and biographies about Douglass’s work as an abolitionist, writer, and orator. But not enough talk about his prophetic work: his call to America to turn from hypocrisy and walk in true biblical faithfulness by loving their neighbors as themselves.

Prophet to America

After his conversion at 13 years old, Douglass was discipled by a “good old colored man named Lawson.” He recounted Lawson telling him that “the Lord had a great work for me to do; and I must prepare to do it. . . . He had been shown that I must preach the gospel.”

And that’s what Douglass did.

Douglass’s prophetic proclamations thundered throughout North America and Europe. In one of his most renowned speeches, “What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?“, he sounds like the prophet Isaiah. Douglass rebuked the self-deception and spiritual blindness of the American church, and the hypocrisy of thanking God for the nation’s freedom while also, in the name of Jesus, keeping slaves from freedom themselves. After quoting Isaiah 1:1–17 he went on to say:

The American church is guilty, when viewed in connection with what it is doing to uphold slavery; but it is superlatively guilty when viewed in connection with its ability to abolish slavery. The sin of which it is guilty is one of omission as well as of commission.

In the Isaiah passage God says, “Even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.” To Douglass, the blood on America’s hands was the blood of men, women, and children whose souls were crushed under the nefarious yoke of chattel slavery. It would be insane to think God would be pleased with a “Christian nation” whose members continued to beat, whip, starve, and rape his enslaved image-bearers. Douglass called his hearers to repentance as Isaiah did: “Learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause” (Isa. 1:17).

Unmasking Hypocritical Christianity

Douglass’s calls to repentance rang throughout the nation. His autobiographies drew a contrast between the slaveholding Christianity of America and the true Christianity of Christ. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, he stated: “I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

His autobiographies drew a contrast between the slaveholding Christianity of America and the true Christianity of Christ.

Such hypocritical Christianity was inconsistent with the pure, peaceable, and gentle wisdom from above (James 3:17)—and therefore no Christianity at all. Douglass prophetically spoke against such polluted religion:

These ministers make religion a cold and flinty-hearted thing, having neither principles of right action, nor bowels of compassion. They strip the love of God of its beauty, and leave the throng of religion a huge, horrible, repulsive form. It is a religion for oppressors, tyrants, man-stealers, and thugs. It is not that “pure and undefiled religion” which is from above, and which is “first pure, then peaceable, easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy.”

Faith in God set Douglass ablaze on his prophetic journey to hold America accountable for its sins, hoping his neighbors would repent and walk in love and justice toward people of color. He thundered: “The feeling of the nation must be quickened; the conscience of the nation must be roused; the propriety of the nation must be startled; the hypocrisy of the nation must be exposed; and its crimes against God and man must be proclaimed and denounced.” Douglass was a powerful prophetic voice used by God to bring change.

Helping People See God

Douglass did incredible things in his 77 years of life. He escaped slavery (and helped others do the same), surreptitiously taught other slaves to read the New Testament, delivered countless speeches, advised President Abraham Lincoln, championed women’s rights, joined the abolitionist movement, became a statesmen, and stridently condemned the diabolical system of chattel slavery. He saw the false Christianity of the land as an obstacle to seeing and believing in the true and living God. He knew a Christianity that supported oppression and violence misrepresented God’s character and would hinder people from seeing him for who he truly is.

Douglass’s fight for justice was also a fight for people to see God correctly—which in turn allowed them to see one another correctly. The legacy of Frederick Douglass is one of indelible faith, courage, sacrifice, and service for the good of neighbor and the glory of God.

For Further Reading:

My Bondage and My Freedom by Frederick Douglass The Narrative of The Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass: America’s Prophet by D. H. Dilbeck What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July? by Frederick Douglass

Cleanup on Aisle 13

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 12:00am

“[Nehemiah] is wondering, ‘God, was all of this worth it? Is this renewal, this return, this restoration going to stick for your people? The wall is up, worship is back, and I’ve got another cleanup in aisle 13.’” — Jon Nielson

Text: Numbers 13

Preached: January 7, 2018

Location: Spring Valley Presbyterian Church, Roselle, Illinois

You can listen to this episode of TGC Word of the Week here.

Related:

Does God Care Where You Go to College?

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 12:00am

Perhaps no decision, other than whom you marry, will influence your life as much as where you go to college. Choosing a place to spend two to four (or maybe five or six) years of your life can be incredibly exciting, but it can also be incredibly difficult. For some, the weight of the decision can feel almost crippling. The decision can be even harder for young Christians, who sometimes feel as though God must be calling them to one particular path, and that they must identify it or live the rest of their lives outside of God’s plan for their lives—and I mean this only partly facetiously. For a lot of young people, the stakes feel incredibly high.

As a college president, I’m always looking for new thinking on the college-selection process, so I was interested to read Todd M. Sorrell’s recent book, The College Choice: A Biblical Guide for Students and Parents. Sorrell—a biblical counselor, attorney, and businessman—does a good job outlining the generalities of college life before exploring what our culture views as important in a college experience. He then rightly challenges these cultural expectations and provides a framework for evaluating the value of college through a biblical lens.

Sorrell makes his point in favor of faith-based higher education forcefully; he wisely notes the many benefits that come to Christian students who are part of an academic community that nurtures faith and where professors and staff shape not only the student’s mind but also his soul. Sorrell also directly challenges the notion that there’s little difference between a Christian education and a secular education. He (and we) know that’s simply not the case. And to all of this I say, “Amen.”

Christian College Not the Only Option

But there are points I wish Sorrell would’ve made and perspectives I wish he would’ve considered for a book that endeavors to be a definitive work. As the president of a Christian college, I appreciate much of what Sorrell has to say about the strengths of schools like ours. But I think he goes too far in making his point: I don’t share his conviction that Christian institutions are the only acceptable choice for most Christian students.

The Bible makes it clear that the Lord can work through all people, places, and circumstances. And I have always viewed providence as the Lord’s work that occurs through multiple pathways, not just a single route. The Lord will minister to and work through young people in a variety of places. For some, a school like Gordon College is the ideal place for them to grow and develop, but God can also lead young people to places that are not as faith-affirming. And having spent a number of years at places such as Princeton and Rice, I’m certain the Lord is present and doing mighty works in secular universities across the country.

Law of Big Numbers

Let me also mention one line of reasoning I wished Sorrell would’ve used in advocating for Christian institutions. Let’s call it “the law of big numbers.” Research shows that if a person only makes one best friend in life, that’s likely to occur during the college years. And to this day, college provides one of the best places for young people to meet and fall in love with the person who eventually becomes their spouse. So one factor to consider in the college decision-making process is the likelihood of finding and developing lifelong relationships at one institution over another.

At a school like Gordon, with a student body more than 2,000 students, there are hundreds of possible relational connections students can form with fellow classmates who share their most fundamental faith convictions and worldviews. But at schools without a shared faith commitment, the odds of building relations with fellow students who share faith convictions is significantly less.

Even if a student attends a state university with 40,000 students and gets involved with the largest Christian ministry on campus, the numbers simply don’t work in his or her favor. Let’s say this student attends a weekly ministry that reaches 500 students (which would be an enormous ministry on any campus). Out of those 500, he or she will probably only mesh with about half of the group. That’s just the way human nature works: within any group—even Christian fellowships—we’re lucky to have the same tastes in music or the same political outlook as half of the group (to name just two factors that influence one’s likelihood to forge a lifelong relationship). So within this Christian fellowship, the student’s prospects for finding a best friend or a spouse is really about 250 students, or approximately 62 students per class. That’s not a large group of people to spend four years with and out of which one hopes to forge some of the most important relationships that can be developed during the college years.

On the other hand, at a Christian institution (even with a much smaller total student body), because everyone has an affinity to the faith, the student can draw from a much larger number of students, even as much as half of the entire student body, to find those relationships. So the law of big numbers underscores the value of a Christian institution. I’m surprised that Sorrell didn’t consider this line of argument in making his case.

At the end of the day, of course, the Lord controls each of our lives and will lead and guide us as we yield to his will. I appreciate The College Choice: A Biblical Guide for Students and Parents for what it is, but I also encourage families to consider additional perspectives. Surely one of the most important factors to consider is for students and their parents to think deeply about the kind of community that will surround students during these formative years. After all, we become the company we keep.

9 Things You Should Know About Frederick Douglass

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 12:05am

Tomorrow is the 200th anniversary of the chosen birthday of Frederick Douglass (1818-1895). Here are nine things you should know about this writer, orator, statesman, abolitionist, and women’s-rights advocate:

1. Douglas was born into slavery in Maryland circa 1818. (Like many slaves, he never knew his actual date of birth and so chose February 14 as his birthday.) He was given the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey but decided to change it when he became a free man. Although he was set on keeping his first name “Frederick,” he asked his friend Nathan Johnson to help him choose a last name. Johnson had been reading Sir Walter Scott’s narrative poem Lady of the Lake and recommended the name of a main character: Douglass.

2. In his youth, Douglass taught himself to read, aided by scraps of reading material he found and with the help of some white children he came into contact with in his neighborhood. Soon after, while hired out to a Maryland farmer, he surreptitiously taught other slaves to read the New Testament at a weekly Sunday school. During these meeting he plotted his first escape attempt, for reading and writing sparked a desire for freedom. “Once you learn to read,” he would later write, “you will be forever free.”

3. In 1845 Douglass wrote about his life of bondage in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. The book became an instant bestseller and the preeminent example of the literary genre known as slave narrative. Douglass published three versions of his autobiography during his lifetime, revising and expanding on his work each time. His second, My Bondage and My Freedom, appeared in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass was published in 1881 and revised in 1892.

4. After escaping to the North, Douglass settled in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where he became a preacher in an African Methodist Episcopal Zion church. Honed in the pulpit, his oratorical skills would make him one of the most sought-after abolitionist speakers of his day. Douglass was associated with a school of the antislavery movement that believed slavery should be ended through moral persuasion, and he attempted to use his writings and speaking events to educate slaveholders and Southerners about the evils of slavery.

5. Douglass spent nearly two years traveling in Great Britain speaking for the abolitionist cause. He was even encouraged to settle in England because his fame made it risky for him to return to the United States, where federal law gave his slave master the right to seize Douglass. Two of his English friends, however, raised $710.96 to buy his freedom. At the age of 28, Douglass finally became a free man.

6. Even before the Civil War brought an end to the American slavery, Douglass became active in the women’s suffrage movement. In 1848, he was the only African American to attend the first women’s-rights convention at Seneca Falls. At that convention, many women opposed expanding the right to vote to women. Douglass gave a speech in which said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man if women could not also claim that right. (He’d later be criticized by women’s-rights activists for doing just that: he supported the Fifteenth Amendment, which abolished restrictions on voting by race, but not by gender.)

7. Douglass became so famous within the women’s-rights movement that in 1872 he was nominated for vice president of the United States at the Equal Rights Party convention. Although he declined the nomination and refused to campaign, he became the first African American to be listed on a presidential election ballot.

8. In 1888, Douglass also received one vote from the Kentucky delegation at the Republican Convention in Chicago, making him the first African American nominated to be a U.S. presidential candidate for a major political party (he had also received a single vote to be a U.S. presidential candidate during the National Liberty Party Convention in 1848).

9. After the Civil War, Douglass served as president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and as chargé d’affaires (i.e., a diplomat who heads an embassy in the absence of the ambassador) for the Dominican Republic. He was later appointed minister-resident and consul-general to the Republic of Haiti, a post he held between 1889 and 1891. Douglass died on the evening of February 21, 1895, at the age of 78 as he was preparing to leave to give a lecture at Hillside African Church.

Other posts in this series:

Memphis Sanitation Strike of 1968 • Winter Olympics • The ‘Mississippi Burning’ Murders •  Events and Discoveries in 2017 • Christmas Traditions • Sexual Misconduct • Lutheranism • Jewish High Holy Days • Nation of Islam • Slave Trade • Solar Eclipses • Alcohol Abuse in America • History of the Homeschooling Movement • Eugenics • North Korea • Ramadan • Black Hebrew Israelites • Neil Gorsuch and Supreme Court Confirmations • International Women’s Day • Health Effects of Marijuana • J. R. R. Tolkien • Aleppo and the Syrian Crisis • Fidel Castro • C.S. Lewis • ESV Bible • Alzheimer’s Disease •  Mother Teresa • The Opioid Epidemic • The Olympic Games • Physician-Assisted Suicide • Nuclear Weapons • China’s Cultural Revolution • Jehovah’s Witnesses • Harriet Tubman • Autism • Seventh-day Adventism • Justice Antonin Scalia (1936–2016) • Female Genital Mutilation • Orphans • Pastors • Global Persecution of Christians (2015 Edition) • Global Hunger • National Hispanic Heritage Month • Pope Francis • Refugees in America • Confederate Flag Controversy • Elisabeth Elliot • Animal Fighting • Mental Health • Prayer in the Bible • Same-sex Marriage • Genocide • Church Architecture • Auschwitz and Nazi Extermination Camps • Boko Haram • Adoption • Military Chaplains • Atheism • Intimate Partner Violence • Rabbinic Judaism • Hamas • Male Body Image Issues • Mormonism • Islam • Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence • Anglicanism • Transgenderism • Southern Baptist Convention • Surrogacy • John Calvin • The Rwandan Genocide • The Chronicles of Narnia • The Story of Noah • Fred Phelps and Westboro Baptist Church • Pimps and Sex Traffickers • Marriage in America • Black History Month • The Holocaust • Roe v. Wade • Poverty in America • Christmas • The Hobbit • Council of Trent • Halloween and Reformation Day • Casinos and Gambling • Prison Rape • 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing • Chemical Weapons • March on Washington • Duck Dynasty • Child Brides • Human Trafficking • Scopes Monkey Trial • Social Media • Supreme Court’s Same-Sex Marriage Cases • The Bible • Human Cloning • Pornography and the Brain • Planned Parenthood • Boston Marathon Bombing • Female Body Image Issues • Islamic State

Mistakes Seasoned Pastors Make

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 12:00am

“Being able to stand up close to the gospel as your life’s work is beautiful, but it has dangers. There’s something about the more you see something, the less you really see it—the more you’re around something the less you celebrate it.” — Paul Tripp

In this roundtable discussion, Bryan Chapell, Paul Tripp, and Russell Moore discuss dangers that can creep into the lives and ministries of ministers who have served the Lord for years. They include familiarity that leads to a loss of awe, self-protectiveness, and choosing numbness to avoid being hurt.

Listen to their discussion here.

Related:

Why Hospitality Is Vital to Church Planting

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 12:00am

Hospitality is so important that Paul lists it as a qualification for pastoral leadership (1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8). But it is still neglected. Some pastors are so diligent to “not bring ministry home with them” that they avoid practicing hospitality altogether.

Gospel-centered leaders should set the example of hospitality. By opening up our hearts and homes to others in hospitality, we experience fellowship within the Christian community (Rom. 12:13; 1 Pet. 4:9), and we can do mercy ministry and evangelism toward those outside the Christian community (Luke 14:12). 

I often tell prospective church planters, “In many ways, church planting is about learning to practice hospitality well. It’s about meeting, welcoming, listening to, and loving people.”

In many ways, church planting is about learning to practice hospitality well. It’s about meeting, welcoming, listening to, and loving people.

A church planter in Detroit told me about efforts to build “visible currency” in the early days of planting a church. He simply grilled hotdogs outside his house every Friday night during the summer. He worked hard to develop relationships in a hard place, and one of his main forms of outreach has been hospitality.

Another friend planting in a poor part of Raleigh put up a basketball hoop outside his house and stocked his refrigerator with popsicles. It’s not uncommon for him have eight to ten boys from around the neighborhood at his house playing ball, drinking lemonade, or sitting on his couch watching football on a Sunday. His hospitality has opened many other doors for outreach in the area.

Gospel Motivation

Good hospitality is an outworking of the gospel. In the gospel, God is hospitable to us. In the beginning of the Bible, we find God caring for Adam and Eve in the garden.

Good hospitality is an outworking of the gospel.

As we trace the biblical narrative, we see God caring for his people in the wilderness. God’s people are to welcome the stranger, just as he welcomed them (Lev. 19:34). God sustains his people until he brings them to the “land flowing with milk and honey.” God welcomes, hosts, cares, provides, and blesses.

We see hospitality in the ministry of Jesus. He prioritized eating with people. Robert Karris says, “In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus is either going to a meal, at a meal, or coming from a meal.” Jesus gets labeled “as a drunkard and a glutton, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34). He hangs out with people hated by society, like Levi and Zacchaeus (Luke 5:27–32; 19:1–10). After his resurrection, Jesus breaks bread with his disciples (Luke 24:30). And now, we remember his sacrifice and look forward to his return by way of a meal (Matt. 26:26–29; Mark 14:22–25; 1 Cor. 11:23–26).

The early church exhibited hospitality in numerous ways, expressed throughout the book of Acts and across the New Testament. The Bible ends with a glorious vision of the great wedding banquet (Rev. 19:7), and with God dwelling with his people (Rev. 22). There’s an invitation for the “thirsty to come” to God and be satisfied forever (Rev. 22:17). What a gracious, hospitable God!

6 Ways to Grow in Gospel-Fueled Hospitality

To practice hospitality well, we need to lay down our idols and consider our context.

1. Expand Your Guest List

Jesus rocked people’s world when he said:

When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just. (Luke 14:12-14)

Jesus had already rebuked the guests of the party (Luke 14:7–11); then he corrected the host. When you have a party—Christmas party, birthday party, or some other significant event—invite those who can’t repay you. Invite the marginalized. And you will be repaid “at the resurrection of the just.” Jesus fills up ordinary events with eternal significance.

Jesus fills up ordinary events with eternal significance.

2. Serve Others Rather Than Trying to Impress Them

Many confuse hospitality with “entertaining.” Entertaining is often about the host, not the guests. It’s about showing off, not serving. You can be thoughtful without being extravagant. You don’t have to wow people with expensive china and food. Aim for warm rather than wow.

Your goal isn’t to draw attention to yourself, but to Christ.

3. Reject the ‘My Home Is My Refuge’ Mentality

Jesus is your refuge. Anything else we make our “refuge” is idolatry. When it comes to our homes, we should think stewardship rather than ownership. A home is a place to welcome and love the broken. Hosting reflects the values of God’s kingdom, giving people a foretaste of what’s to come.

When it comes to our homes, we should think stewardship rather than ownership.

If you have a small house, consider other ways to welcome and host—especially newer residents. Show them around town. Give advice on places to eat, shop, and play in your area. Introduce them to your church family.

Be on the lookout for that lone person at your church. Invite them to go eat after the service, or hang out with them during the week.

4. Pay Attention to People’s Needs, Likes, and Concerns

Surprise guests with their favorite food or beverage. Supply them with material items they need. These little touches will leave a lasting impression on your guests. It doesn’t need to be anything pricey, just a thoughtful touch to show that you care.

These are great pathways into further conversations. Pay attention to the deeper heart issues: a person’s fears, dreams, hopes, and questions. Let’s learn how to “answer each person” (Col. 4:2) rather than giving rote presentations.

5. Don’t Feel the Need to Copy Others’ Practices

My wife currently hosts a monthly book club at our house. This is not a “Christian book club,” but a group of ladies from our neighborhood reading popular books together. They eat and talk about the monthly selection.

I coach baseball, and this has allowed me to hang out with many dads. Perhaps you can cook. Perhaps you need to learn!

Whatever you do, do it with gospel intentionality and cultural sensibility. Densely urban areas will differ from suburban areas. Dangerous areas will differ from safer ones. Do good, contextual hospitality.

6. Greet Warmly, Engage Sincerely, Say Goodbye Thoughtfully

The greetings and farewells in the New Testament have always struck me (Acts 20:36; 21:5–6; Rom. 16:16). They are filled with warmth, love, and meaning.

When someone comes into your home, greet them affectionately. Take their coat. Offer them a drink. Give them a place to sit. As you talk with people, ask about their life. Don’t turn everything back on yourself. Put your phone away. Draw attention to Jesus’s grace.

When they’re ready to leave, walk them to the door, or even to their car. Invite them back. All of these gestures convey value and love. And people remember them.

Be a Good Guest

You’ll learn to show good hospitality by learning to receive it. Be thankful for people’s generosity. Write the host a thank-you note or an email to express your gratitude. Hospitality flows out of a humble, grateful heart.

Hospitality flows out of a humble, grateful heart.

Be a student of hospitality when hosted. You will grow in hospitality as you seek to humbly learn from others.

Finally, meditate on the goodness of God. We were the orphan, but God adopted us into his family. We were the stranger without a country, but we have been brought into the kingdom. We were the widow, but Jesus has become our Groom. We were the poor, but we now have a glorious inheritance. We are pilgrims here on earth, but Jesus has gone to prepare a place for us. Marvel regularly at this grace, and remember that the proper response to God’s grace is grace—a lifetime of gratitude, generosity, and hospitality.

50 Shades of Love

Tue, 02/13/2018 - 12:00am

50 Shades Freed—the third installment of the infamous trilogy that began with 50 Shades of Grey (2015)—is being eviscerated by critics.

The first film traded on its transgressive concept. But a mainstream movie series pushing the boundaries of danger and erotic acceptability struggles to find itself when the third film begins with the protagonists getting married.

While most of us long for a happy, stable, committed relationship, the routines of marriage are seldom the stuff of movies. Yet as much as this third film is apparently poorly executed—and I have no desire to watch it or its forerunners—the idea of this awkward move from transgressive eroticism to marriage can teach us something about the human condition. It is perhaps something those of us who identify as Christians, and rightly champion marriage as the only context for sex, will hesitate to acknowledge: marriage is ultimately unsatisfying.

Marriage Is Not Meant to Fully Satisfy

Stay with me for a moment here. This is not heresy, but an orthodoxy that Christians have embraced for thousands of years. Like a sketch compared to the real painting, a doll to a real baby, or a toy car to an actual Tesla, marriage at its best hints toward the greater reality. It is designed to leave us in some sense unsatisfied.

Marriage at its best hints toward the greater reality. It is designed to leave us in some sense unsatisfied.

This longing for something more—someone other—can often lead us into the wreckage of sin. But at its root, the feeling of dissatisfaction stems from a deeper desire that no mere human can satisfy. When we look for a mortal solution (perhaps I married the wrong person?) we ruin the good gift we have. But when we look to our immortal Lover, the good we have in marriage deepens and becomes better, because it is part of a larger love story.

Part of us longs for intimacy with someone who is eternally fascinating. But no mere human can sustain that longing. We certainly can’t be that person to someone else. But there is someone who is not only human but is also filled with the fullness of God, someone who loves us with an everlasting love that constantly challenges us while also keeping us safe in his arms. He can literally take us to the moon and back and fulfill every dreamy metaphor of every love poem ever written. He can give us more than we can ask or imagine.

That’s the answer for our straying hearts, and we must not be fooled by any fake or substitute.  

Christian Love > Christian Grey

The entertainment industry has long sought to take advantage of our desires and dissatisfactions. By selling polished fantasies—whether in the form of “innocent” rom-coms or steamy sexualized romances of the 50 Shades variety—Hollywood cashes in by framing itself as a safe outlet and catharsis for unfulfilled longings. But the fantasies it propagates are neither safe nor cathartic when they fool us into commodifying and abusing sex, or when they distract us from the truths about love that will actually satisfy.

The male protagonist of the 50 Shades series is a beautiful billionaire with a personal helicopter, abusive desires, and an evocative name: Christian Grey. In honor of Valentine’s Day, here’s a verse I wrote to remind us what we’re missing out on if we buy into the fraudulent, cheap, unsatisfying sort of love he represents:

Though they market 50 hues
Of that monochrome, Abuse,
Study Love and you will find
Love is patient, Love is kind,
Love won’t envy, boast, or bait,
Love does not manipulate.
Love won’t push you into bed,
Assault your mind, mess with your head.
Love will treat you with respect,
Cherish, honor, care, protect,
Not delight in your disgrace
But give his life up in your place. 
Feeling wanted may entice
But Love is seen in sacrifice. 
So don’t be fooled by Christian Grey
When Christian Love wants you. Today.

Your Quiet Time Is Not About You

Mon, 02/12/2018 - 12:00am

As a new Christian coming out of an agnostic family, my first encounter with so-called spiritual disciplines came through my youth pastor. Upon my baptism, he was quick to say that my next step as a Christian was to start spiritual disciplines—that is, start waking up early to have a “quiet time” with God that mainly included Bible reading and prayer.

As a 14-year-old boy interested in getting better at playing sports and dating girls, I didn’t see how these spiritual disciplines would affect my life all that much. I knew I needed forgiveness for my sins, but I had already covered that in my profession of faith. These spiritual disciplines, I was told, would make me a better person—more “godly”—but I felt like I was doing just fine.

My experience might be similar to yours. It’s probably not a stretch to say that just about every evangelical church in America discusses the important of spiritual disciplines. These disciplines often include Bible reading, prayer, stewardship, and fasting. We often think we’re doing them for personal growth. However, in Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, Kyle David Bennett—assistant professor of philosophy at Caldwell University in Caldwell, New Jersey, where he also directs the Spirituality and Leadership Institute—challenges the overly individualistic practice of spiritual disciplines.

Horizontal Disciplines

While reading Isaiah 58:1–12, Bennett was struck by the way spiritual disciplines are described:

Essentially, God is telling the Israelites that they’ve been selfish in their practice of what we nowadways call “spiritual disciplines.” Now in a sense, they have been doing everything that they’re supposed to be doing. They have been doing these practices; they have been disciplining their lives. But in another sense, they have done nothing right and everything wrong. (11–12)

What did they get wrong? According to Bennett, the Israelites (like us) lacked “a focus on the neighbor and the benefit that these disciplines have for one’s neighbor” (13). In other words, even when we nail our “quiet time,” we stunt the power that spiritual disciplines can have on the world around us.

Now, the 14-year-old me would’ve been much more intrigued by Bennett’s proposal than my youth pastor’s. I was never told that these disciplines weren’t just for me. Maybe my selfish teenage self wouldn’t have cared anyway, but the sense of story, purpose, and bigness of a vertical and horiztontal discipline would’ve piqued my interest.

In nine chapters, Bennett lays out several spiritual disciplines with a particular focus on how they affect those “out there” and not simply us “in here.” These include owning and giving, meditating and thinking, fasting and feasting, solitude and socializing, silence and talking, service and working, and Sabbath-keeping and resting. As is obvious from this list, Bennett is careful not to bifurcate the need for disciplines to be both personal and communal, though he no doubt focuses on the outward (horizontal) implications.

His first chapter helpfully sets up this premise by noting that “Jesus did these basic, human activities differently. He didn’t do them in self-centered and selfish ways” (33). This isn’t a Jesus juke; Bennett raises this point to get us thinking about how habits start with us but inevitably bleed into our everyday activities and interactions. Jesus’s character drove his mission—and we’re called to (imperfectly) imitate him and continue that mission.

Finding the Balance

Practices of Love is a needed corrective to the way we often talk about the spiritual disciplines. While Bennett’s proposal isn’t entirely novel, he rightly raises this concern with a great deal of biblical and theological care. Lest one thinks he is offering up warmed-over works-based righteousness, Bennett wisely clarifies:

We do not save ourselves through spiritual disciplines, nor do we save the world through them. Jesus is the only one who saves us and saves the world, if he so chooses. (171)

And this is the best aspect of this book—Bennett continually points back to Jesus, the gospel, and the Scriptures.

While the book is overwhelmingly helpful and well-argued, I came away with the same concern I often feel with books or ideas that seek to correct the “common assumption” of the day—that it pushes too hard to the other pole. Similar to N. T Wright’s critiques of Pauline scholarship or Roger Olson’s critiques of Calvinism, the nature of taking a posture of correction or dissent means the author will almost inevitably overcorrect to the point of caricaturing the other view, even if unintentionally and subtly. Nowhere does Bennett insult other positions, but it’s clear he is cutting down what he sees as an exaggerated individualism. While Bennett is right to bring up the imbalance he sees, I wish he had spent less time trying to correct the imbalance and more time simply laying out a balanced view.

Toward the end, he writes: “Our calling is first and foremost to live in a particular way. This call is tied to the lifestyle featured and welcomed in these practices that we call ‘spiritual disciplines'” (177). Yes and amen—kind of. The Christian calling is indeed tied to a “lifestyle” and not merely mental or emotional assent to belief, but this is a case where Bennett oversimplifies the point. Salvation in a biblical sense starts with the individual in his or her vertical relationship with God as primary, and then always leads to an outflow to others. This is evident in places like Genesis 1–3, John 6, Romans 1–3, and Ephesians 1; the individual heart is addressed, and then the outflow to others is explained.

This perhaps-inevitable overcorrection notwithstanding, Bennett has written a helpful and commendable book that seeks to challenge our individualistic tendencies, and I’d recommended it not only for personal reading but also for small groups. Hopefully this book will help others see that the story of the gospel starts with vertical implications, but quickly tips over into the horizontal.

Related:

Why I’m Nervous about Driverless Cars

Mon, 02/12/2018 - 12:00am

Teaching my two teenage sons to drive is filling me with dread. My angst is not so much about their driving (though that can be harrowing). Rather, I can’t help but think every time we venture on the road that I am probably the last in my family to do this, to teach the next generation to drive. If technology proceeds at the current pace, driverless cars will be the norm well before my future grandchildren are ever born. To them, “getting a driver’s license” will seem no more a rite of passage than getting a video-store rental card. To both they will say, “What’s that?”

In many ways, this is good news. Driverless cars will probably be much safer, given how many accidents are due to human error. And yet, I can’t help but think about how many people I know—including in our churches—who make their living directly from driving cars and trucks. I am no Luddite. I recognize that advances in technology are often feared and derided at first but then come to benefit people and societies. My grandfather was a milkman. My children can’t even imagine what that job is, and yet milk today is more plentiful and delivered more efficiently. Still, I wonder about what happens to those people, to those churches, in the meantime?

Future of Work

That’s especially true when driverless cars are just one piece of a larger dilemma. What happens to a view of work when increased automation seems to be constantly “disrupting” careers and even entire industries? Unlike previous generations of Western people, ours increasingly has little understanding of the world our parents and grandparents lived in, in which one expected to learn a skill, find a job, and remain in it, or perhaps be promoted upward through it, for life. Those days are gone. Instead, younger people find they must increasingly compete in a “gig economy” where they may change jobs multiple times in a five-year period, if they can even find work at all.

At first glance, this would seem to be a cultural or political problem, and indeed it is. Forward-thinking economists and policymakers are already debating what can be done. They ask whether a universal guaranteed income, subsidized by the state, is the way to ameliorate the potential devastation here, as well as other proposals.

The future of work, though, is also about the future of the church.

Economic Crises, Spiritual Consequences

When I was serving in local church ministry, I would become especially nervous when the local factory would announce the possibility of downsizing. I knew that downstream from that, in just a matter of months, I would be faced with a much heavier counseling load—with marriages especially in crisis. Usually this would be due to the men in my congregation, faced with the loss of work, spiraling into fear of the loss of not just their incomes but also their sense of themselves and their worth. This fear would manifest itself in different ways—sometimes in a deep depression in which a person would want to stay in bed all day, sometimes in a pornography addiction, sometimes in an adulterous affair, sometimes in alcoholism or dependence on prescription drugs.

The crisis would start out being economic, but would end up being spiritual.

The crisis would start out being economic, but would end up being spiritual. What may seem episodic in some places is epidemic in others. Notice the hollowing out of entire swaths of the country; the places where industries once thrived and now are gone. In many cases, what has departed is not just wealth but also social cohesion. One church—once a booming, evangelistic congregation—told me they have no deacons. This church, which has a male-only diaconate, could not find qualified men who were not too elderly to serve. Men in this community were, to the person, barreling through multiple divorces or opioid addiction. Behind all of that is joblessness and the stress that goes along with it.

Recovering Meaning and Mission

As Christians we ought to expect something of this, since the biblical portrait shows us how work is bound up in human nature. That’s true in creation, where the primal humanity is given a mission, immediately, to carry out (Gen. 1:26–28). This is true also, though, in the new heavens and new earth, where we are told that we will rule and reign with Christ. At the same time, though, the biblical witness shows us that we are not defined in our value and dignity by the work we do. Many of those “disrupted” by economic changes are not just asking “What can I do now?” but “Who am I now?” The church has an answer for that question, and should be prepared to give it.

Driverless cars and other technological shifts may well be good for the world and for the economy, but many are going to be left behind. The church should be the community that cares for those who are hurting, tangibly and economically, as both Israel and the early church modeled for us. Beyond that, though, we must also speak a word of hope for people who have bound up their identities in jobs that are gone and not coming back. People won’t just need income, but also a sense of meaning and mission. Jesus has given us that.

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