Bell Creek Community Church

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

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Updated: 1 hour 19 min ago

A Simple 3-Step Bible Reading Plan for Children

Wed, 01/02/2019 - 12:02am

To develop a biblical worldview, we need to saturate our minds in Scripture. This requires repeatedly reading and engaging with the Bible throughout our lifetime. The earlier we begin reading the Bible the more time we have for God’s Word to seep into the marrow of our souls. That’s why helping a child to develop the habit of Bible reading is one of the greatest gifts we can give them.

Numerous Bible reading plans are available that can help older children read through Scripture in a year. But as many adults who have tried such plans on New Year’s Day can attest, they are difficult to follow consistently and are usually abandoned by Valentine’s Day. We miss a few days, try to catch up, and eventually give up out of frustration.

Here’s a simpler, three-step approach that is ideal for helping children read large sections of the Bible.

Step #1 — The Chart

Take a two-sided sheet of paper or poster board and in the top corner of one side write “Old Testament” and on the opposite side write “New Testament.” Write out each book and the corresponding numbers of chapters for that book (see below for the numbers). For example, since Genesis contains 50 chapters, beside the word “Genesis” you’ll find “1 2 3 4 5 . . . 50.”[i] You can also download a copy of a reading chart here.

Step #2 – The Pattern

Read one chapter a day in the following pattern (the number of chapters are in parentheses):[ii]

Sunday: Poetry [Psalms (150); Proverbs (31); Ecclesiastes (12); Song of Solomon (8)]

Monday: Pentateuch (Genesis (50); Exodus (40); Leviticus (27); Numbers (36); Deuteronomy (34))

Tuesday: Old Testament History (Joshua (24); Judges (21); Ruth (4); 1 Samuel (31); 2 Samuel (24); 1 Kings (22); 2 Kings (25))

Wednesday: Old Testament History (1 Chronicles (29); 2 Chronicles (36); Ezra (10); Nehemiah (13); Esther (10); Job (42))

Thursday: Old Testament prophets [Isaiah (66); Jeremiah (52); Lamentations (5); Ezekiel (48); Daniel (12); Hosea (14); Joel (3); Amos (9); Obadiah (1); Jonah (4); Micah (7); Nahum (3); Habakkuk (4); Zephaniah (3); Haggai (2); Zechariah (14); Malachi (4)]

Friday: Gospels and New Testament history [Matthew (28); Mark (16); Luke (24); John (21); Acts (28)]

Saturday: New Testament letters [Romans (16); 1 Corinthians (16); 2 Corinthians (13); Galatians (6); Ephesians (6); Philippians (4); Colossians (4); 1 Thessalonians (5); 2 Thessalonians (3); 1 Timothy (6); 2 Timothy (4); Titus (3); Philemon (1); Hebrew (13); James (5); 1 Peter (5); 2 Peter (3); 1 John (5); 2 John (1); 3 John (1); Jude (1); Revelation (22)]

You may want to modify this plan for younger children, leaving out some sections (such as the Old Testament prophets) until they are older.

Step #3 – The Checkmark

After the child reads each chapter, have them check it off on their paper/poster. When they complete an entire book, highlight it so it stands out on the page. Marking off the chapters will give them a sense of accomplishment.

And that’s the plan—it’s that simple.

The Key to Success

The key to success is flexibility. If the child misses a day, just have them move on to the next section. If it takes longer than a year, don’t sweat it—there’s no rush. Be persistent but easy-going, encouraging rather than demanding. The goal is develop in your child the habit of wanting to read the Bible. Even if the child isn’t able to complete the entire reading program in a year (or two), if they follow the plan regularly they’ll have read large sections of Scripture and laid a solid foundation for future engagement with God’s Word.

[i] This step is adapted from Don Whitney’s “Bible Reading Record.”

[ii] This step is adapted from “The Bible Reading Plan for Shirkers and Slackers.

What If My Work Isn’t My Passion?

Wed, 01/02/2019 - 12:00am
What I’m most passionate about doesn’t pay well. Is it okay to have a less exciting “day job” that pays the bills and allows me to pursue my passions as a side gig (that may turn into more eventually)?

Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life. We hear this adage over and over, assuming it as a universal truth without analyzing its validity. So I recently searched for the quote’s origin, the science behind passion and work, and what Christianity might say about it all. Because if finding our passion is not, in fact, a path to vocational satisfaction, then what is?

A quick Google search reveals controversy over the quote’s origin: Some sources attribute it to Confucius, others to an unnamed teacher highlighted by a Princeton professor in 1982. Whether it originated with an Eastern philosopher 2,000 years ago or an American academician 30 years ago, the quote’s prevalence as a job-search mantra has increased significantly over the last 10 to 20 years. When I was seeking my first full-time job in 1989, not once did the career counseling office at my college ask me about my great loves. And you can be sure my parents did not either. Their concerns were, “Have you found a job? When does it start? Does it pay enough to support you?”

Yet in recent years, nearly every person I’ve talked to about jobs—whether they’re 20 and looking for an internship, or 50 and looking for a C-suite transition—somehow references passion as part of their job search. Google search history affirms the trend: Since 2010, internet searches for “passion at work” have more than doubled, with workers in the United States the most likely to be interested in the topic.

Both social science and also God’s Word refute passion as a major job-search criterion.

At the same time, Gallup reveals that more than two-thirds of the American workforce is disengaged (51 percent) or miserable (16 percent) at work. So if more people are searching for passion in their work, yet most are dissatisfied, where is the disconnect? I propose that both social science and also God’s Word refute passion as a major job-search criterion.

Here are four principles to bear in mind.

  1. “Finding your passion” assumes passion is a fixed and/or inherent quality, whereas social science research suggests it’s more of a developing and changing quality. Seeing passion as “fixed” can be limiting. Recently social scientists at Stanford and Yale-National University of Singapore published a paper arguing that passions are cultivated, not discovered. The study claims, “Urging people to find their passion may lead them to put all their eggs in one basket but then to drop that basket when it becomes difficult to carry.”
  2. Passions, when channeled into work, often don’t translate to giftings. For instance, we all know people who love to cook and might even consider themselves passionate about food and cooking. Should they open a restaurant? How many have the skills or natural gifts to manage large numbers of people with various educational levels, have the wiring to work under intense time pressure, and have the financial acumen to create a profitable business in a low-margin industry?
  3. Science reveals that turning a passion into paid work can cause it to lose its inherent pleasure. “Research shows that being paid to do something can make it mean less to us,” wrote David Silverman, a senior executive at a Fortune 500 company. “By turning something enjoyable, like a jigsaw puzzle or a knitting project, into a paid activity, we turn hours of freely given effort into a commodity. It’s no longer a labor of love; it’s $10 an hour. The intangible nature of pleasure that derives from the activity is lost.”
  4. Scripture reveals that even though God created us to take dominion and create productive flourishing, all work includes toil, regardless of its alignment with our interest and giftings. In secular verbiage, “work” is called “work” because it is “work.” The only people I’ve ever met who claim they “never worked a day in their lives” are ones reflecting back on their careers—and perhaps forgetting the difficulties the way a mother forgets the pain of labor. But those in the trenches, no matter how “called” they feel or how much they adore their work, almost always admit to its challenges and brokenness.

So if passions can evolve over time, are sometimes divorced from our natural giftings, and can lose their sense of pleasure if they become paid work, what should we consider in our job selections?

Of all the books I’ve read about career discernment, I find a section of Os Guinness’s The Call to be incredibly clarifying and encouraging. First, Guinness encourages us to think of having a “Caller” before a “calling.” So as you consider your work and your passions, are you considering what your Caller wants for you and how you can serve him by advancing his kingdom?

Guinness goes on to explain that we’re all awaiting our “call” on a megaphone, yet few receive it with such crystal clarity. Without certainty, therefore, we should consider our gifting and circumstance. Weighing our abilities and our situations allows for incredible vocational inspiration and hope, while at the same time honoring financial needs, relationships, geographic constraints, educational access, and more.

So, as a long-winded way to answer your question, I heartily endorse “a less exciting ‘day job’ that pays the bills and allows me to pursue my passions as a side gig.” Are some people thoroughly enjoying their work? Certainly so, but let’s stop seeking that as the imperative goal.

I encourage you to assess the following:

  • What are your gifts and wirings? Do you know? There are many aptitude tests available, but one that’s highly accessible online at a low price point is YouScience. There, you can learn how your unique aptitudes properly equip you for thousands of jobs.
  • What are your immediate circumstances? Consider your finances, relationships, geographic location, and education.
  • Which of these circumstances do you desire to change, and which do you see as fixed?
  • Given your current situation, your desired future circumstances, and your unique abilities, how does your Caller nudge you to work?
  • What opportunities exist at your less exciting “day job” that would allow you to serve the work instead of looking for the work to serve you (as Dorothy Sayers asks in “Why Work?”)?

I’m thankful we live in a world where discussion about vocational fulfillment and satisfaction is even possible, as the privilege of choosing work is a first-world opportunity that reflects a movement from scarcity to abundance. While God may enable us to work for him in our “sweet spot,” we must acknowledge and steward the gift of that choice, remembering that our only true fulfillment is in him.

Make Habits, Not Resolutions

Mon, 12/31/2018 - 12:00am

Change is the deepest dream of the human heart. We’d all like to become someone new. It’s also the great promise of the gospel—that Jesus makes all things new.

As 2018 fades into 2019, the whole world is getting caught up in the dream of change. In a way, this is wonderful. There is common grace in a calendar that regularly presents us with opportunities to reconsider how we live. The flurry of resolutions made this time of year reminds us that we really do long to be made new.

But there’s also a dark side. We waste the redemptive desire to be made new on resolutions that have no power to change us. This week, many of us will make ambitious, sweeping resolutions; and in less than a month our collective amnesia will set in. Our hopes will be quietly discarded, and our remarkable capacity to forget will be the only thing that saves us from the embarrassment of it all.

So here’s a challenge for next year: Don’t make resolutions—make habits.

Unlike resolutions, we actually become our habits. There are no changed lives outside of changed habits. And if we want to actually change, we need to take a sober look at where our habits are leading us.

Power of Habits

Habits form who we are, because habits are little liturgies of worship.

Think about it. A habit is something you do over and over without noticing it. We wake up and we scroll Instagram. We roll up to the stoplight and check our texts. We get a controversial work email and check the news headlines instead of facing the task.

We might be vaguely annoyed at these things, but we probably don’t think of them as deeply formative. We are terribly mistaken.

Unlike resolutions, we actually become our habits.

At the root of each of these little liturgies is a search for something fundamentalour eyes search the photos for a vision of the good life; at the stoplight we itch for a connection with another human; in difficult work moments we realize we’d rather numb ourselves with distraction than face the pain of life itself.

Humans were made to worship, so we can’t stop worshiping. Ever. And under each of these tiny, ordinary, and tremendously powerful moments lies a habit of worship. In a world where new technological habits are emerging in every aspect of our lives, to do nothing is actually to do something quite extraordinary. It is to submit to a strange and deformed modern order of worship.

This presents us with a problem: If we want to be formed in the love of God and neighbor, we must take hold of our habits.

Modern Problem, Ancient Solution

For millennia, communities of Christians have committed to communal patterns of habit as a way to resist formation in cultural habits and embrace formation in the love of God and neighbor. This practice has various names and forms, but in the monastic context these communal programs of habit were sometimes called a “rule of life.”

Some think these practices are legalistic. This is understandable, because if we were to try to pursue habits to earn God’s love, they would be. But when we’re so enamored with the love of God that we decide to order every bit of our lives accordingly—that’s simply responding to the beauty of our Savior. Habits before love is legalism. But love before habits is the logic of grace.

Habits before love is legalism. But love before habits is the logic of grace.

The fascinating thing about our modern moment is that we’re already semi-consciously adopting a new rule of life. But this new rule of life isn’t designed by those who care about our formation in the image of Christ—it’s formed by companies that want to attract our attention and sell it to advertisers. To do nothing is to adopt a competing rule of life that’s trying to get you to believe you’re loved because of what you buy, post, read, accomplish, or think. To do nothing is to submit to a rule of life that tries to talk you out of beauty of the gospel.

We urgently need to wake up. There’s a better way, and it lies in crafting a rule of life that uses ordinary habits to form us in the gospel.

We don’t need new resolutions—we need a better rule of life. We need counter-formational habits that will invade our moments of waking, our rhythms of work, and our patterns of community. We need tiny habits that point us to the gospel of Jesus in moments both big and small.

This is why I invite communities to try the Common Rule.

Adopt a Common Rule of Life

The Common Rule is a communal pattern of four daily and four weekly habits designed to counter the chaos of our modern technological life. It’s meant to be done with other people, and it’s designed to push ordinary life toward love of God and neighbor.

You can read more about the habits on the website. There are daily habits like Scripture before phone and turning your phone off for an hour a day of presence. There are also weekly habits like sabbath and pursuing intentional conversation with friends.

These habits are designed to disrupt the patterns of cultural formation that currently frame our lives and introduce habits that push us toward community, toward presence, and toward believing the gospel more deeply.

So here’s the challenge: Don’t make any resolutions this year. Instead, find a couple friends in your church or small group, download the guide on the website, and spend the first 31 days of January trying out some of the habits of the Common Rule.

9 Things You Should Know About Events and Discoveries in 2018

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 12:03am

We live in an era of 24-hour news in which we’re constantly bombarded by information from websites, social media, and television. Yet despite this deluge, there are still many fascinating news items that you are likely to have missed. Here are nine such events and discoveries from 2018 that you may not have heard about.

1.  A previously unknown painting of Jesus’s face was discovered at the Byzantine site of Shivta in the Negev Desert of southern Israel. The painting is believed to be an important discovery since it represents the first pre-iconoclastic baptism-of-Christ scene to be found in the Holy Land.

2.  Scientists may have discovered a new organ in the human body. In a study published in Scientific Reports, a team of researchers describe the interstitium, which is a series of connected, fluid-filled spaces found under skin as well as throughout the gut, lungs, blood vessels, and muscles. According to Time magazine, the new organ may play a critical role in how many tissues and other organs do their jobs, as well as in some diseases like cancer.

3.  A study released this year shows the ozone layer—a layer that protects life on Earth from harmful layers of ultraviolet rays from the sun—continues to heal from previous man-made damage. Ozone in parts of the stratosphere has recovered at a rate of 1-3 percent since 2000 and, at projected rates, Northern Hemisphere and mid-latitude ozone is scheduled to heal completely by the 2030s, followed by the Southern Hemisphere in the 2050s and polar regions by 2060.

4.  The murder rate in the United States in 2018 is on track for the largest one-year drop in five years, according to the New York Times. The final numbers won’t be available until the F.B.I. formally reports them in September 2019. But based on a comparison of 2017 data and 2018 data for 66 large American cities (population over 250,000), murder has been down about 7 percent on average this year relative to the same point in 2017.

5.  Over the past two hundred years, pandemic cycles of cholera have killed tens of millions of people around the globe. But because of cholera vaccines—many created in the past two years—the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts a 90 percent reduction in cholera deaths by 2030 and the elimination of cholera in at least 20 countries out of the 47 currently affected.

6. Excavations in Jerusalem have unearthed what may be the first extra-Biblical evidence of the prophet Isaiah. Just south of the Temple Mount, in the Ophel excavations, a team of archaeologists discovered a small seal impression that reads “[belonging] to Isaiah nvy.” According to Bible History Today, the upper portion of the impression is missing, and its left side is damaged. Reconstructing a few Hebrew letters in this damaged area would cause the impression to read, “[belonging] to Isaiah the prophet.”

7. Sickle cell anemia (also know as sickle cell disease) affects millions of people throughout the world and is particularly common among those whose ancestors came from sub-Saharan Africa. The disease occurs among about 1 out of every 365 African-American births, and among about 1 out of every 16,300 Hispanic-American births. In March 2018, an article in the American Journal of Human Genetics announced scientists have determined the origin of sickle cell anemia. The scientists involved in the study hope this research can help improve medical care for people with the disease, and make it possible to better predict whether a patient will develop a severe or mild form. Also, in April, the first adult stem cell transplant performed on an adult sickle cell patient resulted in a woman being declared cured and disease-free.

8. For the first time, a woman who received a uterus transplanted from a deceased donor gave birth to a healthy child. The procedure of transplanting uteri from deceased women could drastically increase the availability of the organs, helping more infertile women become pregnant. It could also replace the current procedure of a acquiring the organs from living donors, an expensive option that can lead to risky complications such as infections or serious bleeding.

9. Almost 300 million Christians—approximately 1 out of 7 worldwide—live in a country of persecution, subject to violence, arrest, and human rights violations. According to a report by Aid to the Church in Need, aggressive nationalism, hostile to religious minorities, has worsened to the degree that the phenomenon can be called ultra-nationalism. Violent and systematic intimidation of religious minority groups has led to them being branded as disloyal aliens and threatening to the state. The report also finds that in the eyes of Western governments and the media, religious freedom is “slipping down the human rights priority rankings,” being eclipsed by issues of gender, sexuality, and race.

Other posts in this series:

Apostles’ Creed • George H. W. Bush (1924–2018) • Religious Freedom Restoration Act • Jim Jones and the Jonestown Massacre • Out-of-Wedlock Births • Bethel Church Movement • Christian Hymns • Hurricanes • Infertility • The STD Crisis • Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) • Russian President Vladimir Putin • Supreme Court Nominee Brett Kavanaugh • MS-13 • Wicca and Modern Witchcraft • Jerusalem • Christianity in Korea • Creation of Modern Israel • David Koresh and the Branch Davidians • Rajneeshees • Football • The Opioid Epidemic (Part II) • The Unification Church • Billy Graham • Frederick Douglass • 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

5 Things Failed New Year’s Resolutions Teach Us

Sat, 12/29/2018 - 12:02am

I used to have a tradition for New Year’s resolutions. I would find some quiet time before New Year’s day—maybe when the kids were napping—and sit on the porch with my Bible and a journal. I would, in sequence, read Scripture, pray, and journal. At the end, I would write some resolutions for the year to come.

I recently flipped through some of my old journals and the resolutions were pretty much the same each year, only with different wording or different color ink. Some were casual, like deadlifting X number of pounds. Others were more serious, like learning to serve my wife with joy instead of duty.

After writing my resolutions, I’d look at them in the coming days—never often. Most of the time, I forgot they existed. By June, they had evaporated from my mind.

I’ve failed at keeping most of my resolutions, and most of us have failed at keeping resolutions, whether they’ve been to pray more or lose 10 pounds. The University of Scranton did a study that showed only 8 percent of people keep their resolutions. Thus, it’s wise to learn from these failures and reframe the way we think about meaningful life changes.

Here are five things our failed resolutions tell us.

1. We’re unable to change ourselves.

Our wills are not strong. We can read all the self-help books we want, but growth in character and holiness are not DIY projects. In fact, self-help can be detrimental if we aren’t careful.

Growth in character and holiness are not DIY projects.

Life change comes from heart change, and heart change comes from God.

2. We don’t even know what we want.

So often in my resolutions I’d want something that became worthless to me months later. Our interests change, and as we grow in wisdom our desires elevate and mature. Even with wisdom we still see dimly, and if our goals alone charted the course of our lives, we’d end up lost. We need the Lord to guide our lives and desires.

3. We have an unhealthy and unrealistic interest in our earthly future.

In C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, the senior demon Screwtape tells Wormwood, his understudy:

We want a whole race perpetually in pursuit of the rainbow’s end, never honest, nor kind, nor happy now, but always using as mere fuel wherewith to heap the altar of the future every real gift which is offered them in the Present.

Here’s what Lewis was driving at: we are obsessed with the future and unsatisfied with the present. Really, we are obsessed with our earthly future. But our earthly future is merely an idea. The past has passed. And while we should plan for our future on earth, it’s not guaranteed. Far better to seek contentment in the present and hope in our eternal future. These are guaranteed.

4. We’re not content in every circumstance.

Our failed resolutions teach us that we’re not happy with how God cares for us. We want more: more muscle, more money, more notoriety, more everything. True contentment in the grace and hope of Christ is not circumstantial; it flourishes in the dungeon as well as the mansion. We fail to comprehend our fortune because of what Jesus has accomplished for us, and we fail to appreciate the outrageous grace of merely being alive.

5. We need Jesus.

Our resolutions are often shallow, but even the deep ones and our failure to keep them shows a dire need for heart change. We’re not what we should be, and we want to be different. The transformation we seek is valid, but the means by which we seek it are often insufficient. We need Jesus to transform us into his likeness, and resolve alone isn’t enough.

Not Bad, but Often Ineffective

Resolutions aren’t entirely bad. It is by no means sinful to make New Year’s resolutions. Jonathan Edwards famously made them. So did T. S. Eliot, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and J. R. R. Tolkien. Resolutions aren’t wrong, but they’re not usually very effective.

My kids once made a treasure map of our back yard. They drew crossing dotted lines and an X, which marked the spot of reward. It was cute, but the map was useless. There was no treasure and their map was inaccurate. Too often, this is us. We tend to chart a childish course for our lives and pursue treasures which don’t exist.

The apostle James potently evaluates our attempts to manipulate the future:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” (James 4:13–15)

How to Make Resolutions

Okay, so it’s clear that resolutions are often short-sighted and ineffective. But what about those of us who like to make them? Here are some recommendations:

  • Make sure your resolutions align with God’s Word and with God’s aim to glorify himself by magnifying your joy in him.
  • Set realistic resolutions which are SMART: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Timely.
  • Seek counsel, and accountability, from brothers and sisters in Christ.
  • Pray over your resolutions and submit them to the Lord for his guidance.

Whether or not you set resolutions for 2019, don’t place your hope in your ability to change yourself. If we could change ourselves, Jesus wouldn’t have had to come. Only he can transform us. Resolve this year to praise him for what he has done, and seek to become more like him by this time next year.

Carson: Can We Be Sure of Our Interpretation?

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:04am

“If true human knowing depends on perfect, exhaustive knowing, we are consigned forever to ignorance because, whether in this life or the life to come, we will never be omniscient. . . . But that immediately suggests that the standard is too high. If you expose the relativity of human knowledge by appealing to a standard of omniscience, it’s an artificial standard. In fact, the first question I want to ask my postmodernist friends is, ‘How do you know that postmodern relativism is true?'” — Don Carson

Date: October 26, 2018

Event: 2018 TGC Chicago Regional Conference

You can listen to this episode of The Gospel Coalition podcast here.

Related:

Find more audio and video from TGC’s 2018 Chicago Regional Conference on the conference media page.

The Lost Spiritual Discipline

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:03am

Earlier this year a young woman from western Asia had been visiting our church in east Asia. A fairly new believer, she’d completed our membership class and was requesting a meeting with me to discuss a troubling issue before moving forward.

This is a common occurrence for any pastor. I was prepared to be peppered with questions of theological nuance. But her difficulty wasn’t with doctrine.

It was conversation.

She had gone out to a post-church lunch with a group of people for several weeks, and she was frustrated that the conversation didn’t turn more frequently toward spiritual health, sermon application, and spurring one another on toward godliness. Christian people were talking, but, as she rightly noted, that’s not the same thing as good Christian conversation.

This is the burden of Joanne Jung’s new book, The Lost Discipline of Conversation: Surprising Lessons in Spiritual Formation Drawn from the English Puritans:

Over the centuries, our conversations have suffered a decline in meaningful dialogue, intentional engagement, and selfless attentive listening, especially in matters of a spiritual nature. We have settled for quick exchanges when the selfless presence, attentive listening, and thought-filled words of a sustained conversation would better meet the needs of the soul. We are in need of a recovery. (18)

Indeed we are. To assist the recovery, Jung—associate professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University and chair of the Talbot School of Theology committee for online learning—points us to the 16th- and 17th-century English Puritans and their concept of conference, a coming together for intentional, meaningful, transformative spiritual conversation.

She divides her work in three parts. Part 1 establishes the type of conversations our souls need and how the Puritans addressed this need. Part 2 focuses on specific contexts where the Puritan idea of conference can be lived out: church, family, marriage, pastoral relationships, and so on. Part 3 provides seven Bible studies as examples of how to conference with others around God’s Word.

Recovering a Lost Discipline

Jung serves the church by simply by bringing this topic to our attention. She goes deeper as the book goes along, but the awareness generated by the first couple chapters is sufficient to jumpstart a search for more spiritual depth.

Jung’s work gives a name and historical credibility to what we all desire to encourage in our churches:

[Conference] will not be found on any contemporary list of spiritual disciplines, but it is found on some lists that are almost four-and-a-half centuries old. . . . A number of treatises written by Puritan ministers include exhortations to their congregants to pray, meditate, be watchful, and to exercise conference. (32)

Pastors today often make pleas for prayer and Bible study followed by an encouragement for something else—something communally experienced that we don’t have a good one-word descriptor for. Perhaps it’s “engage in Christian fellowship” or “enjoy Christian community.” Jung reminds us that “conference” is the old word we’re looking for.

The diversity of contexts in which conference ought to occur broadens Jung’s material to unexpected areas of practical application. My guess is that most Christians—once they get the idea of Puritan conference—would readily apply it to one-to-one discipleship and small-group interactions. But Jung shows that the Puritans experienced conference in many other areas. Consider:

  • Conference in the Family. William Perkins (1558–1602), speaking of family conference, wrote: “Use meditation and conference about heavenly things; assemble thy family together; confer with them what they have learned at the sermon; instruct and catechize them, read, or cause to be read somewhat of the Bible, or some other godly book unto them” (84).
  • Conference in Marriage. Nehemiah Wellington’s (1598–1658) private prayer was followed by “much sweetness and profit in reading and praying with my family: and these meditations and conference I had with my wife, I had in residue of the day” (104).
  • Conference in Pastoral Ministry. Richard Baxter (1615–1691) taught: “You know we cannot speak so familiarly, and come so close to everyone’s case in a common sermon as we may do by conference . . . and therefore I entreated you to allow me now and then an hour’s set and sober talk with you, when all other matters might for that time be laid by” (118).
  • Conference for Pastoral Development. Baxter, again: “Study, and pray, and confer, and practice; for in these four ways your abilities must be increased” (130).

The reader gains a vision for just how extensively helpful the idea of conference can be for personal use and church life.

Hindered from a Full Recovery

My main critique is that The Lost Discipline of Conversation doesn’t deliver on its promise. I don’t think we end up with a recovery of the discipline of conversation. Here are four reasons why.

First, the book’s structure doesn’t drive toward a definite goal. The topic is intriguing and the author qualified, but something seems missing. Part 1 is fairly introductory, and then we’re invited to skip to whatever future chapters appear most interesting. It doesn’t feel like we’re being thoroughly convinced of an argument, so the book comes off as being a little short on substance.

Second, the Puritans are underutilized. True, they’re quoted a lot, but I still wanted to know more, especially about their practical implementation of conference. At times it felt like their quotes were used as mere springboards into topics, rather than the backbone of the book. Some of Jung’s students, friends, and family are quoted more extensively than many of the Puritans.

Third, the book’s creativity sometimes impedes clarity of thought. For example, each chapter in Part 2 is subdivided under the same alliterated headings: Soul-to-Soul Purpose, Soul-to-Soul Perspective, Soul-to-Soul Perks, Soul-to-Soul Paucity, and so on. Such alliteration made the chapters bleed together. Throughout, the reader would’ve been helped with less creative and more self-evident descriptors.

Fourth, the practical encouragements seem too basic to lead to a recovery of Puritan conference. To be fair, the book’s title claims to recover the lost discipline of conversation, not the lost discipline of Puritan conference. But it becomes clear early on that the goal isn’t just to produce interesting conversationalists. The goal is to arm Christians with a field guide for deep, soul-stirring, Puritan-conference-type conversations.

How can my run-of-the-mill family dinner conversations look more like Puritan family conference? How can our church lobby chitchat make Richard Baxter proud?

What we need from this book, then, is a practical answer to the question of how to transition from normal conversations to these types of conversations. How can my run-of-the-mill family-dinner conversations look more like Puritan family conference? How can our church-lobby chitchat make Richard Baxter proud?

Jung’s “Soul-to-Soul Prompts” at the end of each chapter in part 2 are provided to lead the way toward such dialogue. These questions progress along three stages (informational, transitional, and transformational) meant to take us from the surface to the soul. But do they take us there?

Here’s a glimpse: “If you are with an Uber/Lyft driver: How long have you been a driver for Uber/Lyft? How did you decide to be one?” That was the informational prompt. Here’s the transitional: “Do you have a family? How is your family impacted by your driving for Uber/Lyft?” Finally, transformational: “Note a quality about your driver and affirm their value to you and to God” (62–63). This would certainly make for a nice car ride, but will it help us recover Puritan conference?

Helpful Resource

The Lost Discipline of Conversation raises an important discussion about a largely forgotten practice. It strikes a chord that will resonate with many Christians about the need for deeper, more meaningful conversations, and it points us in a helpful historical direction.

Yet it will be up to each reader whether or not Jung’s work will lead to a full recovery of conversation. For many, it will probably just be one helpful resource along the way.

The Best Movies of 2018

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:02am

With the rise of online streaming sites like Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime Video, more and more interesting movies are being made and widely accessed. A movie-lover’s dream, right? Not necessarily. The sheer glut of content on these sites—Netflix paralysis is a real thing—is often overwhelming. Where do you start? We need guides and critics more than ever before, I would argue, helping us sift through the heap of viewing options to recommend the ones most worth watching.

Every critic sees more movies each year than they’d probably like (I saw more than 60 new releases), so that audiences might be pointed to the best. We sift through the good, the bad, and the ugly, so that you can hopefully spend your time and money mostly on the good. In a world rife with cheap media distraction and soul-crushing consumerism, audiences—especially Christian audiences—must be more discerning than ever, not only in the quantity but also in the quality of what they watch.

In a world rife with cheap media distraction and soul-crushing consumerism, audiences—especially Christian audiences—must be more discerning than ever, not only in the quantity but also in the quality of what they watch.

What if Christians became known as the moviegoers who were not only the most able to spot and critically engage with wrongheaded and worldly ideas, but also the moviegoers whose bar of artistic excellence and appreciation for innovation were the highest? In my own criticism I have tried to do both. I’m committed to calling out the bad ideas of otherwise well-made and widely acclaimed films, like last year’s best picture winner, The Shape of Water, which I critiqued for its disturbing, perverse sexual ethics. But I’m also committed to highlighting films and filmmakers whose creative visual storytelling, by common grace, displays the good, true, and beautiful in ways that should be celebrated.

The films I highlight below are part of that second commitment, and I commend them to you with the important asterisk that viewers should research and consider a film’s content before they watch it, recognizing that even excellent films can be unwise options for some viewers (R-rated films are noted below). I’ve included my 10 favorites from 2018, plus 15 honorable mentions and 10 recommended documentaries.

Top 10 1. First Reformed

Paul Schrader’s First Reformed is not easy or particularly enjoyable. It’s a messy and disturbing film, but one befitting our messy and disturbing moment in American culture (and American Christianity). It’s the sort that pokes and prods in areas that need to be poked and prodded; one that lingers in memory in unsettling but ultimately constructive ways. Featuring a career-high performance by Ethan Hawke as a misanthropic pastor of a dying Dutch Reformed church, First Reformed is a “tale of two churches,” as I wrote in my TGC review. Its two churches represent two equally problematic extremes in contemporary Christianity, and Schrader’s film challenges audiences—especially Christian audiences—to embrace the tensions and costliness of faith rather than conveniently adapting it to one’s own disposition. Read TGC’s review here. Watch on Amazon. Rated R.

2. The Rider

There are long stretches of The Rider that are wordless, where characters are alone with themselves, or their horses, or just silent together. So intimate and real are these scenes that you forget the cameras are there. Such is the approach director Chloé Zhao takes as she tenderly and unobtrusively observes her characters—non-trained actors playing versions of themselves—in this one-of-a-kind, docu-fiction western set in contemporary South Dakota. Though its story of an injured rodeo cowboy is ostensibly melancholy, The Rider turns out to the be one of the most uplifting, humane, and pro-life films of the year. It dignifies image-bearing humans beyond their instrumental value and celebrates human life’s inherent preciousness, and inherent relationality, unlike any other film I saw this year. Read TGC’s review here. Watch on Vudu. Rated R.

3. Roma

The camera in Alfonso Cuarón’s exquisite Roma often sits in the center of the family’s domestic space, silently panning around, at times 360 degrees, observing household tasks, movements of people coming and going, and other mundane realities of everyday life. Yet this film is far from mundane. A cinematic requiem for Cuarón’s Mexico City childhood, the film is a stirring example of how the most personal art can often be the most universally resonant. At various points tragic and comical, Roma is ultimately about joyful resilience: choosing hope amid suffering; life amid death; commitments amid flakiness; fidelity to family in spite of absentee fathers. The film’s very aesthetic, which delights in the wonder of everyday life—from soap suds on concrete to the reflections in car windows—feels joyful. It’s a film that notices the often unnoticed—not only things but also people. A quiet maid, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), whose job is to be in the background, is foregrounded in Roma. She is seen and known intimately, her marginalized status elevated through the power of cinema. Watch on Netflix. Rated R.

4. Happy as Lazzaro

Watching Happy as Lazzaro, a beguiling Italian film from director Alice Rohrwacher, reminded me of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the challenge of depicting truly good characters like Prince Myshkin, whom Dostoevsky aimed to render as “the positively good and beautiful man.” It is indeed challenging to portray compelling and believably good characters, but Happy as Lazzaro does it. The film’s titular character gets his name from the biblical Lazarus, and that’s just one of many biblical references in the film, which evokes David and Jonathan, Isaiah 11, various New Testament parables, and feels at times like a cinematic interpretation of the Beatitudes. To say more about the film would be to spoil its surprises, but it’s definitely one begging to be interpreted through a Christian lens. Watch on NetflixRated PG-13.

5. Cold War

Filmmaker Paweł Pawlikowski’s Cold War is bookended by scenes in the ruins of a bombed-out Polish church. The space symbolizes the tensions of 20th-century Europe: shaped by Christianity but forever changed by the destruction of world wars and modernity, and yet still haunted by transcendence. Gorgeously shot in black and white in 4:3 aspect portraiture, Cold War is about the cross-pressures of existence in post-war, post-Christian Europe. The two Polish characters at the heart of the film’s romance (Joanna Kulig and Tomasz Kot) epitomize these tensions. They are pushed and pulled between Eastern and Western Europe, communism and democracy, the past and the future, marital commitment and sexual freedom, Polish folk music and jazz, love of home and the lure of beyond. They are unsettled, untethered, restless, lost. Freedom has not brought them happiness. What grounds them? Is anything stable? The film leaves the questions unanswered, though its return in the end to the church—ramshackle but enduring haven that it is—suggests an intriguing possible answer. In theaters nowRated R.

6. Leave No Trace

Debra Granik’s beautiful film is a father/daughter story about an Iraq War veteran with PTSD (Ben Foster) raising a 13-year-old daughter (Thomasin McKenzie) off the grid. The two live in parks and forests, Thoreau-style, though the authorities (particularly child protective services) are always on their tail. The film is partly about the scourge of PTSD and the way veterans often feel alienated from society. But it’s also about maturity and the hard choices we must make when the ones we love aren’t able, or willing, to grow with us. Subtle, quiet, dignifying, and deeply compassionate—I used the film as an example of what a Christ-like cinematic aesthetic might look like—Leave No Trace will not leave you unmoved. Watch on AmazonRated PG.

7. American Animals

This unique docu-drama from director Bart Layton (The Imposter) examines the bizarre true story of four college-aged men in Kentucky who, in 2004, attempted to execute an outlandish heist from a rare-books library at Transylvania University. The film is thoroughly engaging as a heist drama and a true crime documentary, seamlessly jumping back and forth between actors and the real people they depict. It raises unsettling questions about the existential malaise facing affluent young men in America today, as well as the symbiotic interplay of art, fame, and real life. More than almost any other 2018 film, American Animals powerfully depicts how sin’s roots are often mundane (in this case, suburban boredom), even while its effects are far-reaching, for both the sinner and also the people affected by the sin. Read TGC’s review here. Watch on AmazonRated R.

8. Three Identical Strangers

This documentary follows the incredible story of triplets separated at birth, raised in three separate families with no knowledge of one another, and then reunited in adulthood because of a chance encounter between two of the brothers who happened to attend the same college. With more twists and turns than an M. Night Shyamalan film, Three Identical Strangers was perhaps my most engrossing moviegoing experience of 2018. It’s a film that starts as a “whoa, what are the odds?!” story and gradually becomes an unsettling, wide-ranging reflection on profound questions: nature versus nurture, the ethics of adoption, the roots of mental illness, the limits of science, and so on. It’s a great film to watch in a group and discuss afterward. Watch on AmazonRated PG-13.

9. At Eternity’s Gate

This is the second year in a row that a film about Vincent van Gogh made my top 10 list. Last year it was Loving Vincent. This year it’s Julian Schnabel’s At Eternity’s Gate, which stars Willem Dafoe in a tremendously committed performance as van Gogh. The film—which focuses on the artist’s last years in Arles, France—tries to mimic van Gogh’s impressionistic, gestural painting in its own cinematic style (jagged movements and jump cuts that feel like quick brush strokes; unexpected jolts and juxtapositions of color and tone). But more than a stylistic achievement, the film (and Dafoe’s performance) compellingly captures van Gogh’s spiritual search. The son of a Dutch Reformed pastor, van Gogh says at one point in the film that “maybe God made me a painter for people who aren’t here yet.” Indeed, van Gogh’s is more beloved now than he ever was in his lifetime, as two films about him in two years can attest. In theaters nowRated PG-13.

10. Eighth Grade

Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade is a horrifying look inside the world of junior highers in 2018. There are no killers or ghosts in the film, but it’s definitely a horror film. With a focus on how phones and social media are shaping Generation Z, Eighth Grade is a funny/scary/cringe-inducing movie to pair with books like Nancy Jo Sales’s American Girls or Jean Twenge’s iGen. It’s not an easy film to watch, but for parents, pastors, teachers, or anyone else seeking to understand and disciple today’s youth, Eighth Grade provides an insightful glimpse into their world. But the film is not just about the contemporary anxieties of adolescence. As I wrote in my TGC review, it’s also about the anxieties we all have in this digital age, where existing human longings—to be known, loved, significant—are amplified and misdirected by the temptations of technology. Watch on Amazon. Rated R.

15 Honorable Mentions

A Quiet Place (TGC review), A Star Is Born, Black Panther (TGC review), Blaze, Chappaquiddick (TGC review), Christopher Robin (TGC review), Crazy Rich Asians (TGC review), Green Book, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie SocietyHostiles (TGC review), July 22, The Old Man and the Gun (TGC review), Operation Finale (TGC review), Paddington 2, Shoplifters (TGC review).

10 Excellent Documentaries

Here are 10 of the best documentaries released in 2018 (listed in alphabetical order), along with where you can watch them.

American Gospel: Christ Alone

Featuring interviews with a wide range of gospel-centered preachers and leaders (Paul Washer, Michael Horton, Jackie Hill Perry, Mark Dever, to name a few), this film is a strong primer on what the gospel is and isn’t. Watch on Vimeo.

Free Solo

Not for anyone with a fear of heights, this gripping film (no pun intended) follows free solo climber Alex Honnold as he attempts to become the first to climb the 3,200-foot El Capitan without a rope. In theaters now.

Leaning Into the Wind – Andy Goldsworthy

This film highlights the fascinating work of British artist Andy Goldsworthy, whose land art viscerally ponders the ways that humans dwell within, change, and are changed by natural environments. Watch on Amazon.

Minding the Gap

Bing Liu’s gorgeous, devastating film follows three skateboarder friends in Rockford, Illinois, whose lives converge and diverge as they grow up. Few films this year more poignantly capture the ways that absentee, abusive, or otherwise weak fathers wound and shape their sons. Watch on Hulu.

Recovery Boys

A look at the opioid crisis through the stories of four young addicts who enter a farm-based rehabilitation program in rural West Virginia, Recovery Boys also provides helpful lessons for the church on the nature of growth and discipleship. Watch on Netflix.

The Riot and the Dance

N. D. Wilson’s superb film proves the “supernatural nature documentary” is not an oxymoron. It’s like Planet Earth meets a worship service. Watch on Amazon.  

Strangers on the Earth

This film follows an American cellist, Dane Johansen, as he carries his cello along the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route in northern Spain, playing Bach’s Cello Suites in public concerts for fellow pilgrims along the way. Watch on iTunes.

Summer in the Forest

A documentary about Jean Vanier and the L’Arche communities he founded for intellectually disabled people around the world, Summer in the Forest is a beautiful visualization of 1 Corinthians 1:27 and the confounding wisdom of weakness. Rent on Amazon.

They Shall Not Grow Old

Peter Jackson’s attempt to recreate the experience of soldiers fighting in World War I, by restoring century-old war footage, is a stunning technical achievement and powerful example of how cinema can bring history to life in visceral and important ways.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

This look at Fred “Mister” Rogers is a sweet, nostalgic, timely film that succeeds in the often difficult task (see Happy as Lazzaro above) of portraying a good man in a believable and compelling way. Watch on Amazon.

4 Mistakes That Will Sabotage Your New Year’s Resolutions

Fri, 12/28/2018 - 12:00am

I love New Year’s resolutions.

Well, I love making New Year’s resolutions. In the waning days of December, I whip out my Moleskine notebook eager to dream up commitments for the year ahead.

Exercise five times a week.

Stick to the budget.

Read my Bible every day.

When I finish recording these goals, I’m almost jealous of my future self. He’s going to be so spiritual. And skinny!

Then January happens, and I find that making resolutions is much easier than keeping them. What started in a burst of excitement ends in quiet disappointment, a sad liturgy of willpower failures that repeats every year.

At least I’m not alone.

By February 80 percent of us have stopped jogging, started sleeping in, or jumped headfirst back into whatever bad habits we promised to break.

Why? That’s what I’ve been on a mission to find out. For the past year, I’ve read everything I can get my hands on about self-control and have interviewed a variety of experts on the topic. I’ve looked at both the science and spirituality behind why we fail to live up to our lofty expectations. Why do we find it so difficult to keep our resolutions?

Part of the reason, I’m convinced, involves some strategic blunders.

1. Overestimate Your Willpower

About 20 years ago, researchers discovered something fascinating about willpower. In a landmark study, participants were given a geometry puzzle to work on. The puzzle was impossible to solve, but the researchers wanted to test how long the participants would struggle with the task before giving up.

Before taking the test, participants waited in a room with freshly baked chocolate chip cookies. One group was free to eat them; the other was forbidden from snacking. When it came time to work on the puzzle, the cookie-eaters toiled for 20 minutes on the puzzle. The cookie-resisters, meanwhile, lasted only eight minutes before calling it quits.

Why the dramatic difference?

The researchers concluded that resisting the cookies had drained their willpower. When it came time to solve a complicated puzzle, their reserves were already low. The study—and hundreds of others since—showed that willpower is a finite resource, one that depletes quickly.

When I’m making resolutions, I feel like a superhero. Temptations will bounce off me like bullets off Superman’s chest. My resolve won’t waver.

Of course such findings merely illustrate what the Bible teaches us about our nature—that we’re fallen, finite creatures. I think of Jesus’s words to his disciples when he caught them napping on the eve of his crucifixion: “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matt. 26:41).

Somehow I forget this reality. When I’m making resolutions, I feel like a superhero. Temptations will bounce off me like bullets off Superman’s chest. My resolve won’t waver. Yet that delusional thinking actually sets me up for failure. It leads me to set large goals and lots of them. Then when the year starts, I quickly exhaust my paltry willpower reserves. In a cruel twist of irony, attempting to change multiple behaviors at once guarantees I won’t change any.

Part of the problem with New Year’s resolutions is that they’re resolutions, plural. The wiser approach: identify one modest change and focus on that until it becomes a habit.

Your willpower is limited. Plan accordingly.

2. Go It Alone

Recently, I struck up a conversation with an older man at the airport as we awaited our flight. I learned he was a recovering alcoholic who’d been clean for years. When I praised his self-control, he demurred.

“Self-control is important,” he said. “But if you just rely on self-control, you’re dead. You need a community around you. I know alcoholics who haven’t had a drop for 40 years and still go to the AA meetings.”

We need each other. When it comes to resolutions, lone rangers are dead rangers.

“You need a community around you.” I think that’s true, and not just for alcoholics. Whether your goal is to stay sober or start a new spiritual discipline, you weren’t designed to go it alone. You need support and encouragement. The idea of a solitary saint may be appealing, but it isn’t scriptural. Instead, the Bible speaks of people refining each other “as iron sharpens iron” (Prov. 27:17) and “spurring each other on to love and good deeds” (Heb. 10:24).

Most resolutions (at least the worthwhile ones) demand breaking the inertia of bad habits and forging new routines. That doesn’t happen without help. So share your goals with friends who will keep you accountable. We need each other. When it comes to resolutions, lone rangers are dead rangers.

3. Leave God Out

When I’ve set New Year’s resolutions in the past, God hasn’t always entered the equation. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true. I don’t remember praying about my goals (even the spiritual ones!), or asking for divine empowerment. I failed to reflect on how the resolutions related to my identity as a Christian. I just sort of made them—then tried to bootstrap my way to success.

That’s a massive mistake. Keeping resolutions takes a lot of self-control. While we may think self-control is all on us (it’s self-control, after all), the Bible describes it as a fruit of the Spirit, something that grows in our lives when we’re connected to God (Gal. 5:23). When we neglect our relationship with God, and fail to align our goals with his purposes, this vital fruit withers.

In the end it’s grace—not guilt—that enables us to lead holy, healthy lives.

Even social scientists know that getting spiritual about our goals is smart. Researchers tell us that “sanctified goals” (objectives that people believe have spiritual significance) have tremendous power. According to Michael McCullough, a psychologist who specializes in the study of religion and self-control:

The belief that God has preferences for how you behave and the goals you set for yourself has to be the granddaddy of all psychological devices for encouraging people to follow through with their goals.

The phenomenon doesn’t only apply to spiritual pursuits. As Baylor psychologist Sarah Schnitker explained to me,

Sanctification of even mundane goals changes the way people engage in goal pursuit. Take a goal, say being a good parent. It’s not necessarily a spiritual goal, but if you imbue that goal with sacred meaning, and say that God cares about this calling, you pursue goals related to that role with more effort.

If you see your resolutions in the light of spiritual reality, you’re far more likely to keep them.

4. Wallow in Guilt

If you’re like me, you’ve been there. It’s February, and your once-shiny resolutions have become, yet again, a source of lingering shame. The tendency can be to wallow in guilt and self-loathing, especially if your broken resolutions involved refraining from certain sins. You might think this guilt would lead to better behavior, but of course, it does just the opposite. I’ve already messed up, you reason, so what’s the point of even trying now?

Researchers actually coined a term for this tendency. They call it the “What-the-Hell Effect.” Basically, it means that after messing up, we tend to mess up even more. Our guilt leads to hopelessness, spurring even worse behavior.

Thankfully as Christians, we know just how to stop this vicious circle: forgiveness. “If we confess our sins, he is able and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). No matter how profound our failures, God gives a fresh start. That’s good news because in the end it’s grace—not guilt—that enables us to lead holy, healthy lives. That’s true on January 1—and every other day of the year.

Joe Novenson on Working through a Text in Community

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 12:04am

It was hard to decide on a title for this episode because there are two compelling parts to it—one, developing teaching in community, and two, ministering to aging adults. What Joe Novenson, pastor to older adults at Lookout Mountain Presbyterian Church in Lookout Mountain, Tennessee, had to say on both topics was equally profound and helpful.

At Novenson’s church, the sermon is prepared in community. More than one pastor does the exegetical work, which is then discussed and refined in a group setting. Anyone who prepares Bible teaching would recognize humility on the part of the teacher or preacher that this would require. After years of this practice, Novenson can’t imagine presenting the Word without going through this process.

As we continued our conversation into talking about his ministry to older adults, it was as if a fire inside him fanned into flame. His insights on sharing life and Christ with those nearing the end of life are applicable to ministry to people at any age. In addition, Joe’s transparency about his lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression will be an encouragement to anyone who battles these things in the midst of ministry.

You can listen to our conversation here.

Recommended Resources:

Church Planter, Reject the Corinthian Mindset

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 12:03am

It’s a danger for any church planter. We suddenly realize that the focus of our heart has shifted, that we’ve started to functionally trust in the wrong things.

Of course, we don’t plan to do this. But as time passes and the trials of ministry begin to take their toll, we can compromise on crucial convictions we once held. Like car tires that lose their traction, our hearts veer towards ministering in worldly ways.

Perhaps as the core team initially gathers there’s a humble, daily realization of our weakness and dependence on God. But then, more people  start to come and momentum gathers and websites need designing and flyers need printing and . . . you know what I’m talking about.

Desperate dependence on God can all too easily morph into subtle self-reliance. Our concern shifts from the pursuit of holiness to drawing crowds. We become enamored with worldly marketing tactics, spending inordinate amounts of time deciding which font looks best or whether it’s worth paying for online advertising.

Allure of the World

In light of all this, Paul’s second letter to the church in Corinth ought to be required annual reading for any church-planting pastor, because he’s writing to a church who’s experienced the allure of the world. He also wants to address the issue of the “super-apostles,” whose model for ministry was sounding plausible and attractive.

Humble dependence upon God can all too easily morph into subtle self-reliance.

To visit Corinth in Paul’s day would in many ways be like touring various global cities today. Boasting two harbors used for trade, it was a city of excessive wealth. Social elitism and rampant sexual sin were everywhere. Thus the city provided ample opportunity for superficial satisfaction.

When Paul visited Corinth in Acts 18, it was the largest city in Greece. Large, powerful, and impressive. It would’ve been so easy for the young Christians to feel overshadowed.

Wisdom vs. Weakness

Consider the significance, then, of how Paul begins his first letter to this church:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified . . . and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:2–5)

See Paul’s tactic? Knowing that the Corinthians cherished wisdom, eloquence, and power, he deliberately de-emphasizes such things. Paul knows the culture; he’s aware of people’s proclivity to trust in communication over content, style over substance. So he intentionally shows how the gospel subverts such ideas.

It’s as if he’s saying: I know what you’re impressed and enticed by, Corinthians. Majestic rhetoric and lofty ideas. So what will I give you? None of that. I’m going to come to you in weakness and need, in order that you might understand where—and with whom—the true power lies.

Then, in Paul’s second letter, it seems the ideas that reigned in Corinth have actually seeped into the church. “Imposter apostles” had come and gained the ear—and perhaps the trust—of God’s people.

But what’s interesting is that as you read the letter—all 13 chapters—there’s very little on the content of the super-apostles’ message. There’s no obvious heresy to confront. This isn’t Galatians, where God’s people are turning to a different gospel (Gal. 1:6). Paul’s concern for the Corinthians has more to do with philosophy of ministry.

Paul clearly shows that ministers are weak and unimpressive jars of clay.

A number of Paul’s statements reveal this. His ministry doesn’t rely on worldly wisdom but on divine grace (2 Cor. 1:12). He doesn’t distort the truth, but sets it forth plainly (2 Cor. 4:2). He looks not to what is seen, but to what is unseen (2 Cor. 4:18). Ministers are weak, unimpressive jars of clay (2 Cor. 4:7). We don’t wage war as the world does (2 Cor. 10:3).

Fix Your Eyes

Such ideas are foreign to the super-apostles. Their ministry model mirrors what’s trendy in Corinth. They treasure eloquence. They’re impressed by strength. So when they look at Paul, they see a laughably unimpressive man (2 Cor. 10:10). And in Corinthian terms, they’re right. But in gospel terms, Paul is simply following the model of Jesus.

It’s challenging to consider how easily we can become Corinthian in our thinking, especially in the West, where we’re increasingly marginalized and sneered at. How easy it is for us to want to appear wise, eloquent, powerful, and impressive. What church planter doesn’t want that?

But the sucker punch comes at the end. The super-apostles weren’t well-meaning ministers with slightly errant ideas about Jesus:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Cor. 11:13–15)

So take care, church planter, lest you fall. Fix your eyes on Jesus—or else your heart’s navigation system will veer in the wrong direction, and you’ll end up trusting in the wrong things.

Ministry models that aim at being impressive may indeed gather large crowds. They may even seem superior. But remember where true power lies (1 Cor. 2:5), and don’t fall prey to the one who disguises himself as an angel of light.

4 Marks of a Potential Bible Study Leader

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 12:02am

There were tears in many eyes as Barbara, always an encourager, told us how much we had meant to her. It was our group’s last meeting of the year, and Barbara was moving away.

Before she came to our church, she had never been involved in a women’s Bible study, but her wisdom and love for the Scriptures had been evident. Over the years, Barbara became a small group leader and then a Bible teacher, connecting with women in our church through her warmth and transparency.

In Dubai, we have a women’s Bible study leadership problem. Dubai isn’t a place where people stay. It’s a stopover—an exciting and profitable place to be for a while. We regularly have to say goodbye to leaders. To keep our program running, we need to reload each year.

Maybe you’ve had to say goodbye to your share of Barbaras too. Whether your leaders are moving away, having babies, or taking a semester off, your church—like ours—frequently needs new women’s Bible study leaders.

Here are four things we’ve learned to look for.

1. Committed to the Church

The church is the bride of Christ. One day, she’ll be presented to Christ “in radiance like a most rare jewel” (Rev. 21:11). Bible study is one of the means God can use to polish the jewel. Therefore, women’s Bible study shouldn’t be independent from the church but should build it up.

This is why we look for women who are committed to the church. They already have ministries among women: encouraging others, sharing the gospel, spending time together. These women know others in the church. The elders know them and send other women their way. They’re Titus 2 women, training others in the warp and woof of life.

Naomi is a good example. The mother of three almost-grown children, she surrounds herself with women. She gives them rides to church. She meets with them during the week. One young woman who needed a place to live moved in with Naomi and has lived with her for the past eight years. Women join our church and grow spiritually because of Naomi’s influence.

Bible study leaders who commit themselves to the church have fruitful ministries beyond the weekly meetings. They’re like glue that holds people together. They unify women and build up the entire church.

2. Delights in the Scriptures

One of the most exciting things about women’s Bible study is watching women get a taste for Scripture and crave more. They’re no longer content with just studying the passage for the week. They start looking up every cross reference listed in their Bibles. We want every woman in Bible study to show these signs of savoring the Scriptures. Don’t you?

This happens as the Holy Spirit works through God’s powerful Word, and it happens through contagious leaders. Love and delight can’t really be taught. It must be caught.

Our leaders should be women intent on understanding the meaning of texts and serious about applying them to their lives. A good leader’s affection for God’s Word also means she is constantly learning and studying it herself. She’s eager to grow in her knowledge and wants to share it with others.

I think of Ranjini, an empty-nester with a full-time job. In addition to leading a small group, she meets regularly with unbelievers to study the Bible and leads her employees in devotionals at work. She’s constantly strategizing about how to get women studying the Word and understanding it more deeply.

The Bible describes itself as “sweeter than honey” (Ps. 119:103), “more to be desired . . . than gold, even much fine gold” (Ps. 19:10). Leaders who delight in the Scriptures can encourage others to taste the honey they find sweetest and show them the treasure that truly satisfies.

3. Isn’t Afraid to Lead

“All Scripture is breathed out by God” (2 Tim. 3:16). Every word is true. In Bible study, we use our minds in reliance on the Holy Spirit to understand the meaning the author of the passage intended. We then apply that truth to our hearts and lives.

This means there are right and wrong interpretations of Scripture. In a group Bible study, we must not deteriorate into batting around what we feel the passage is saying. We search together for the truth. Our Bible study leaders shouldn’t be afraid to point to the text of Scripture to correct wrong answers.

Anna is the most gracious woman I know. She’s a medical doctor and is beloved by her patients. She cares for others physically, emotionally, and spiritually, and they feel it. She also studies the Bible rigorously. She thinks deeply and doesn’t let untruths slide. Anna’s gentle but firm explanations of truth mean other women go to her for biblical answers.

Certainly a leader shouldn’t be a lioness, ready to pounce on wrong answers. But Bible study leaders should be prepared to biblically explain why an answer is wrong and gently guide women toward the right answer.

4. Considers Her Ways

Women who lead Bible studies become role models for other women in the church. It’s the nature of handling the Scriptures. So we should choose leaders who think biblically about being women, sisters, wives, mothers. friends, and neighbors. They should be women who know they’re sinners and apply God’s Word to their own hearts.

Kate is a godly wife and deals gently and kindly with her children. She reaches out to neighbors and encourages friends. She thinks about what it means to follow Christ in all aspects of life and this thoughtfulness flows out of her as she counsels others in the church. Kate considers her ways.

The Titus 2 woman “teaches what is good” and trains other women in the church “to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled” (vv. 4–5). In a Bible study, we “teach what is good.” And it’s the perfect opportunity to model the Christian life that comes out of a dedication to God’s Word.

Saying goodbye isn’t easy. Barbara is irreplaceable. (So were Monica, Kim, Yuri, Sandhya, and others.) But as we wait on the Lord in prayer, we’re confident he will raise up the godly Bible study leaders we need and give us wisdom to find them.

Skip Resolutions in 2019—Make a Rule of Life

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 12:00am

Take heed, and keep your soul diligently,
lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen,
and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life.

Deuteronomy 4:9 (RSV)

I used to love making New Year’s Resolutions—in fact, I loved making them far more than I enjoyed keeping them. But about eight years ago, I was introduced to the old tradition of creating a Rule of Life, and since then, it has proved to be a much better use of time and energy.

A Rule of Life contains spiritual, relational, and vocational rhythms needed to sustain the life in Christ we’ve been called to, and it doesn’t change much year in and year out. For anyone who is unfamiliar with the Rule or hasn’t created one, January 1 provides the perfect time to establish your own Rule of Life.

This year, skip resolutions—make a Rule of Life instead.

Why Create a Rule of Life?

Every Christian has a well-established pattern of living, whether it’s an intentionally developed set of commitments or an unstated set of values and practices, like praying before meals and going to church twice a month. But many of us aren’t as deliberate with our spiritual development as we are with our time and priority management at work, and our lives and relationships suffer as a result.

Amid our busy schedules, we’re constantly juggling relationships and responsibilities and often feel like we’re dropping more balls than we’re keeping in the air. When we lack a consistent and thoughtful way of doing life well, we will end up distracted and overwhelmed by life, and our spiritual and emotional growth will plateau. Few of us want to take this approach to life, but it just seems to happen. We wind up:

  • Scattered: Our schedule is full but doesn’t reflect our purpose and priorities.
  • Hurried: We’re busier than we want to be, but don’t know what to change.
  • Reactive: It seems we’re never in charge, always responding to demands.
  • Exhausted: We end each day weary and discouraged, unsure if we’ve spent it well.

My experience as a pastor has shown me that many of my friends and church members aren’t undone by poor theology or a lack of biblical information. Instead, we often fail to grow spiritually because we haven’t planned and made space for a deep, abiding fellowship with God.

We often fail to grow spiritually because we haven’t planned and made space for a deep, abiding fellowship with God.

The lack of spiritual planning may be rooted in a lukewarm heart toward Christ, but at other times, we genuinely want to go deeper with God but don’t know how to make time and space to simply be with him and gain spiritual strength for each day’s challenges.

What Is a Rule of Life?

A Rule of Life is “an intentional, conscious plan to keep God at the center of everything we do. . . . The starting point and foundation of any Rule is a desire to be with God and to love him” (Scazzero, 196).

The Rule is a way to “begin with the end in mind”—to envision a sustainable, thriving walk with the Lord, in his Word, in prayer, in community, in our family, and in our work, then work backward to a set of commitments. It’s not about detailed to-do lists that must be maintained. A Rule of Life instead gives you the opportunity to prayerfully discern what roles and responsibilities the Lord has given you, and to organize your life in the manner most conducive to spiritual growth and depth in him.

The Rule of Life has a rich history in Christian tradition. The Rule has been traced back to the early monastic movement in the fourth century, and the most well-known Rule was written by Benedict in the sixth century. The Rule of Saint Benedict has influenced Eastern and Western Christians for roughly 1,500 years, and many Reformers and evangelical patriarchs have practiced similar spiritual routines without the title. Lately, many Christian traditions have returned to the Rule as an antidote to our Western culture’s lonely and fragmented lives. (Yes, Christians were doing 12 Rules for Life way before it was cool.)

The Five Basic Elements of a Rule

When helping others create a Rule of Life, I suggest five basic elements: Relationship with God, Personal Life/Health, Relationships, Church, and Work.

The goal of life is to dwell in deep communion with Christ and to be firmly anchored in our union with him. But how and when and where we practice these blessed realities will depend greatly on many factors, including our life stage, work, and physical capacity. If you have multiple jobs or small children, your Rule should reflect those responsibilities. In the words of Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry, “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Here are a few subcategories, and you’ll certainly want to prayerfully think of your own components.

Relationship with God
Scripture reading
Prayer
Silence and solitude
Study and reflection

Personal Life/Health
Sleep
Rest and Sabbath
Physical health and fitness
Recreation and hobbies
Money and possessions

Relationships
Friendships
Neighbors and coworkers
Marriage
Children and parenting
Extended family

Church
Participation and worship
Friendships and community
Service and mission
Generosity

Work
Calling/vocation
Current position and responsibilities
Workplace relationships
Education, personal development, and coaching

In each of these five areas of life, I write out one key verse, a vision statement, and four to eight commitments. For example, under Personal Life/Health, I might write:

Verse: “Only take heed, and keep your soul diligently, lest you forget the things which your eyes have seen, and lest they depart from your heart all the days of your life” (Deut. 4:9).

Vision: I am a human being, created in the image of God, with limits and needs; I am a steward of the health and life God has given me, and I honor him by refreshing myself spiritually, physically, and emotionally.

Commitments:

  • I sleep an average of eight hours every night (9:30 p.m.–5:30 a.m.).
  • I work no more than 50 hours weekly, including only two evenings each week.
  • I exercise five days each week (Mon–Fri from 4–5 p.m.).
  • I review our expenses each Friday and discuss our finances with my wife at the end of each month.
  • I reflect on my past week and plan the week ahead each Sunday (1–3 p.m.).
How to Create Your First Rule of Life

When writing a rule of life for the first time, I recommend a certain way of doing things. Many of these ideas were recommended to me originally by my pastor-friend Brian Howard and spiritual director Rich Plass.

1. Plan Ahead

Ideally, set aside an entire eight- to ten-hour day to focus entirely on writing a Rule of Life.

Goals are overrated; commitments are underrated.

The best thing you can do right now, if you’re interested in writing a Rule, is to get out your calendar and pick an entire day away for this. If you’re married, coordinate with your spouse to trade off days away.

2. Get Away

My family has a small cabin in the woods about an hour away—one of the benefits of moving back home. When I lived in Louisville, I’d spend a day at the nearby Abbey of Gethsemane. You could also spend the day at a public library or park, or even at home if it’s not too distracting. Go somewhere life-giving!

3. Be Prepared

I suggest taking with you only a Bible and a blank notebook. Don’t bring your laptop or smartphone. Type up your notes later and resist listening to music, if possible.

4. Start with God’s Word

Consider spending the first few hours of your day simply reading through passages of Scripture that help quiet and center your heart.

When re-writing or reviewing my own Rule, I usually read a few dozen Psalms and pick another book of the Bible to read in its entirety.

Also, take some time to pick a key verse for each of your five main categories. You’re not in a hurry!

5. Pray through Your Five Areas

Prayerfully reflect on the five main areas of your life, and you may get a good sense of which area to focus your attention. I have found it easy to ignore the area of my life that needs the most attention.

Often, our family finances are the last thing I want to spend time thinking and praying about, but it’s an area where my heart is easily moved to sin, and I need to practice regular submission to God with our money and possessions.

6. Write Out Your Commitments

There is a big difference between goals and commitments. A goal is something you want to achieve, such as running a marathon. A commitment is a rhythm of life that puts you in a place to get there, such as running four miles five days a week.

Goals are overrated; commitments are underrated.

When your retreat day is complete and you are back in the world of technology, translate each of your commitments into your calendar.

Deep Living

In the words of General George S. Patton, “A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan next week.” You don’t have to get it right. In everything, remember the purpose of the Rule of Life: to intentionally create time and space to enjoy deep fellowship with God, so that he can reorient and direct your days to increasingly glorify him along the way.

Since creating my first Rule in 2010, my life circumstances have changed significantly, but my weekly rhythms have been remarkably consistent—morning prayer and reading, Sunday afternoon reflection and planning, two work evenings weekly, Sabbath on Monday, semi-annual retreats, and so on. My roles have shifted and my responsibilities have increased, but the Rule and its practice have grounded me in a set of commitments and habits that have consistently facilitated peace, joy, and growth.

Creating and living by a Rule may not be for everyone, but in our busy and fragmented world, it’s a helpful, time-honored resource for deep, wise living.

Creating and living by a Rule may not be for everyone, but in our busy and fragmented world, it’s a helpful, time-honored resource for deep, wise living. In my own congregation and across many others, I long to see believers slowing down, planning prayerfully, and creating space to focus on God, his Word, and his calling on their lives. Imagine a whole church—even a whole movement of churches—stepping into the lives of their neighbors and the burdens of their communities from positions of rest, renewal, and spiritual strength.

This winter, you may want to make resolutions or pick a word for the year, but consider that your life in Christ may be even more substantially transformed by creating and living by a Rule of Life. In the spirit of Ephesians 3:16, may your inner being be strengthened in Christ!

10 Critical Religious Liberty Cases Coming in 2019

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:04am

Despite the continual threats to the religious freedom of Christians in America, there were a number of advances over the past twelve months (see: The 7 Most Significant Religious Freedom Victories of 2018). But continual vigilance is necessary, and we are fortunate to have groups like Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF), a non-profit legal organization that advocates for the right of people to freely live out their faith, working tirelessly to protect our liberties.

Although the new year is still a few days away, ADF is already preparing to defend a number of important legal challenges to freedom of religion. Here are ten cases coming in 2019 you should know about:

State of Washington v. Arlene’s Flowers

Barronelle Stutzman, the owner of Arlene’s Flowers in Richland, Washington, is headed back to court in 2019, with ADF arguing her case before the Washington State Supreme Court. Although Barronelle serves all customers, the state of Washington and its attorney general are suing her in her business and personal capacity because she politely declined to create custom floral art for long-time customer’s same-sex wedding in 2013. While targeting Barronelle for her biblical beliefs about marriage, the state chose not to take action against a coffee shop owner who profanely berated and expelled customers because of their Christian beliefs—even though the incident was caught on video. If the government succeeds in punishing Barronelle for her beliefs, she and her husband could lose everything—their business, their home, and every penny they’ve saved.

Tree of Life Christian Schools v. City of Upper Arlington

In a case that could make a major difference for churches, religious schools, and other religious groups across the U.S., Tree of Life Christian Schools is expected to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court in early 2019. Represented by ADF, Tree of Life has been kept from using its own building for the past seven years simply because the City of Upper Arlington—located in Columbus, Ohio—refuses to allow it to do so. The city’s ongoing discrimination against Tree of Life is a violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)—a federal law which was passed unanimously by the House and Senate before being signed into law by President Bill Clinton. A win for Tree of Life would allow the school to double its current enrollment of 660 students—which represents 18 countries of origin and a high percentage of income-based voucher and scholarship recipients—and would set legal precedent that would help other Christian schools, as well as churches, synagogues, and mosques facing discriminatory government regulations. Learn more here.

Downtown Hope Center v. Anchorage

Driven by its faith to help women victimized by rape, sex trafficking, and domestic violence, Downtown Hope Center provides a safe place for sexually exploited women to sleep at night. But Anchorage officials are demanding that Hope Center allow men who believe they are women to disrobe and sleep three to five feet from women in its overnight sleeping facilities. As one woman who stays at the shelter put it, “I would rather sleep in the woods than sleep in the same area as a biological man. If Hope Center follows its convictions and chooses to protect the privacy and dignity of the vulnerable women in its care, it could be forced to shut down its women’s shelter, depriving battered women of a much-needed safe place. ADF filed suit in federal court to protect Hope Center’s freedom to serve women consistent with its faith. Learn more here.

New Hope Family Services v. Poole

New Hope Family Services is a Christian adoption provider and pregnancy center that has placed over 1,000 children into adoptive homes since 1965. Yet, if the state of New York has its way, New Hope will have placed its last child into the arms of an adoptive family—all because of New Hope’s belief that marriage is between a man and a woman. In keeping with its Christian faith, New Hope places children only in homes with a married mother and father, while referring unmarried couples, same-sex couples, and others to nearby adoption providers.This October, the New York State Office of Children and Family Services (OCFS) gave New Hope an ultimatum: it could either violate its conscience by placing children in same-sex households, or submit a close-out plan for its adoptive services. Represented by ADF, New Hope has asked a federal court to stop the state’s campaign to shut down its adoptive services because of its biblical view of marriage. Learn more here.

Masterpiece Cakeshop Part II

Jack Phillips, owner of Masterpiece Cakeshop, is being harassed for his faith again by the State of Colorado. Less than a month after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June 2018 that Colorado cannot treat Jack differently than other cake artists who decline custom projects based on the messages they convey, the state has decided to prosecute him again for living out his faith. This time, an attorney asked Jack to create a cake designed pink on the inside and blue on the outside, which the attorney said was to celebrate a gender transition from male to female. Jack declined the request because the custom cake would have expressed messages about sex and gender identity that conflict with his religious beliefs. ADF filed a lawsuit against Colorado to immediately stop its attempts to punish Jack and ensure that he is not forced to express messages that violate his faith. Case page here.

Uzuegbunam v. Preczewski

One primary battlefield for free speech and religious liberty is the public university campus—many of which have instituted arbitrary, and often comically small “free speech” zones to chill speech. One of these zones was used to keep Chike Uzuegbunam from sharing the gospel at Georgia Gwinnett College. The policy—which Georgia Gwinnett has since abandoned—forbade any expression “which disturbs the peace and/or comfort of person(s)” and restricted speech to two tiny speech zones that made up less than 0.0015 percent of campus and were open only 18 hours per week. Administrators tried to get a free pass for repeatedly violating Chike’s rights by changing its policies and asking the court to dismiss his case. Although the trial court unfortunately did so, ADF appealed to make sure Chike’s rights are vindicated and to keep this all-too-common situation from repeating itself on other college campuses. Read more here.

Students for Life at California State University-San Marcos v. Abrego

Another major problem for free speech and religious exercise on public university campuses is the way administrators are putting their thumb on the scale through mandatory student fees. That was the case at Cal State San Marcos, which denied a Students for Life’s request to draw $500 from a $2.1 million pool of mandatory student fees in order to host an event to educate fellow students on abortion and the sanctity of life. Meanwhile, the university allocates $52 in mandatory student fees to two groups—the Gender Equity Center and the LGBTQA Pride Center—for every dollar it makes available to the other 100-plus on-campus groups combined. Students for Life and its campus president, Nathan Apodaca, is challenging the school’s unconstitutional use of mandatory student fees in federal court with the help of Alliance Defending Freedom. Read more here. Watch video here.

Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island v. Town of Edisto Beach

Redeemer Fellowship of Edisto Island, South Carolina, had rented the Edisto Beach Civic Center for Sunday worship on two occasions, but after the church proposed another rental agreement, the town council voted to reject the church’s application and amended the facility use guidelines to ban all rentals for “religious worship services.” ADF challenged the town’s unconstitutional action in federal court, and is expecting a decision in early 2019.

Brush & Nib Studio v. City of Phoenix

On Jan. 22, 2019, ADF attorneys will be arguing a case at the Arizona Supreme Court that involves two artists who risk jail time and fines if they violate a sweeping Phoenix criminal law. Joanna Duka and Breanna Koski co-own a Phoenix art studio called Brush & Nib Studio, which specializes in hand-painting, hand-lettering, and calligraphy for weddings and other events. Brush & Nib is challenging a city ordinance that, as Phoenix interprets it, forces the studio’s owners to use their artistic talents to create artwork celebrating same-sex marriage. The ordinance also forbids them from publicly expressing the Christian beliefs that prevent them from doing so and the beliefs that require them to create art celebrating only marriages between one man and one woman. The law threatens up to six months in jail, $2,500 in fines, and three years of probation for each day that there is a violation. Case page here.

Telescope Media Group v. Lindsey

Carl and Angel Larsen are professional storytellers that use film to help their clients tell their most important stories. They want to bring their talents to the wedding industry and use their gifts to promote their religious beliefs about marriage. Unfortunately, Minnesota’s government won’t allow them to do that. According to state officials, a state law mandates that if the Larsens tell stories that are consistent with their beliefs about marriage, then they must tell marriage stories that violate their beliefs as well. If they decline to do so, they would face steep fines and even up to 90 days in jail. The couple has challenged the law in federal court, and are awaiting a decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 8th Circuit. Case page here.

Famous Spy, Ordinary Life

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:03am

Glancing at the titles of biographies of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer would lead you to believe he lived a life of great heroism. Eric Metaxas’s playful subtitle claims Bonhoeffer was a “pastor, martyr, prophet, spy.” Another subtitle says he was a “man of resistance,” while yet another calls him both a spy and “an unlikely hero.”

The epic titles certainly grab the eyes of potential readers. And for kids who think Christianity is boring, what could be better than a spy who stood up to Hitler? See, kids, Christianity is exciting. This pastor was a spy who planned to help assassinate history’s most notorious madman.

This is all well and good until you take a deeper dive into the life and work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who lived—as far as we can tell—a relatively unexciting life. He spent a lot of time reading, writing, thinking, and teaching, and, while producing bold work, lived a quite normal and privileged life for a pastor, even in prison.

“Bonhoeffer himself would never imagine his actions as heroic in the least,” wrote Charles Marsh in his spectacular biography, Strange Glory (read TGC’s review). Bonhoeffer’s life didn’t include a lot of heroism until its end.

This is why I approached John Hendrix’s The Faithful Spy: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and the Plot to Kill Hitler with some reservation. This graphic novel, with the words “KILL HITLER” on the cover next to a small drawing of a middle-aged Bonhoeffer on the run—papers flying from his briefcase—ended up completely reversing my suspicions. This book gave me a deeper respect for Bonhoeffer as a singular life, the graphic novel as a form, and Hendrix as a writer and illustrator.

Bonhoeffer in Context

Hendrix desires to blend accurate history with the philosophical, theological, and political ideas of Bonhoeffer. The Faithful Spy starts in little Dietrich’s bedroom as he dreams and talks about eternity with his twin sister, Sabine. From there, Hendrix recounts not just the story of Bonhoeffer, but of Germany and Hitler too. He does this by utilizing a simple, tricolor design throughout the book (Hitler is red; Bonhoeffer is teal). The colors change as he either explores the Führer or the pastor.

Here it must be said clearly: this is a beautiful book.

Pages of red follow pages of teal, and, when needed, the two blend together. As I read, I realized how few Bonhoeffer biographies include a history of Hitler’s rise to power. Hendrix’s bibliography and endnotes are both impressive and insightful. While there are some glaring omissions (no Reggie Williams or Michael Pasquarello!), Hendrix certainly did enough reading and research to give us an accurate representation of both Hitler and Bonhoeffer.

Relationships in Action

The book takes the usual twists and turns on the pastor’s life, emphasizing the right moments at nearly all the right times. Perhaps Hendrix’s best work is the chapter he dedicates to Bonhoeffer’s season in Harlem, New York. This includes drawings of the pastor’s relationships with both Frank Fischer (who introduced Bonhoeffer to the black church) and the Frenchman Jean Lasserre. Hendrix traces Bonhoeffer’s life the way it must be traced: through a series of intellectual ascents he makes within his key relationships.

This is what makes Hendrix’s work both beautiful and difficult. Bonhoeffer wasn’t so much shaped by events as he was relationships. These included long discussions and extended correspondence with a diverse group of thinkers he was fortunate to meet. It was the ideas within these relationships that moved Bonhoeffer, and Hendrix honors this well. With plenty of opportunities to overdramatize this rare life, Hendrix doesn’t do it. And he honors the people who helped Bonhoeffer think rightly about the situation in Germany, leading him to take his stand and receive his death.

Bonhoeffer wasn’t so much shaped by events as he was relationships.

And this is why some readers, who are expecting more panel-to-panel events typical of graphic novels, might be disappointed. The book has a lot of text, particularly as the story progresses, and I was often disappointed when a page-turn meant another long section of prose (and I love reading!). I so enjoyed Hendrix’s panel work that I always wanted more, and yet, I wonder how he could’ve honored Bonhoeffer’s somewhat simple life and still included more scenes of action (Hendrix alludes to this in a superb afterword).

Beautiful, Not Boring

Here it must be said clearly: this is a beautiful book. Hendrix is a talented artist. A simple skim through the pages will leave you hovering over certain drawings for a long time. But Hendrix’s prose shouldn’t go unnoticed. A talented writer with a knack for both compelling motifs (e.g., his interplay of Hitler as a wolf) and sound word choice, Hendrix moves the story along while making his historical digressions clear and parenthetical. With its accuracy, readability, and beauty, it’s the best introduction to Dietrich Bonhoeffer I’ve seen.

Bonhoeffer led a Christlike life. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). And yet, like Christ himself, his seemingly ordinary life and habits are illuminated by his suffering. For Bonhoeffer, his suffering was the culmination of much thinking, writing, preaching, befriending, developing, teaching, talking, and philosophizing. There came a point where courage was required, and because of prior providential preparation, he was able to stand and die. There’s nothing boring about it.

Beware the Idol of Parenting Success

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:02am

We live in an age of overachievement. It affects adults and children alike. Alarming research shows that anxiety and depression in kids is at an all-time high. Teens report levels of stress higher than adults.

As a culture, we push our children not just to do their best, but to be better than the best, to stand out above their peers. Children spend their days pursuing excellence in sports, academics, and myriad other activities—all with the expectation of getting into the best college, followed by the best job, and then, ultimately, a happy life.

As a culture, we are worshiping the idol of parenting success. This idol tells us we must be perfect parents and place our hope in creating perfect children. Like many idols, though, the idol of parenting success can be difficult to identify because it’s an idol crafted around something good.

Good Thing

Being a parent is an important job and one we should care about doing well.

We should strive to care for our children’s needs, to teach them, to discipline them, and to prepare them for life. We should want our children to do their best in school, to grow and thrive, to develop into people who can care for themselves. As Christian parents, we should seek to teach and disciple our kids in the faith so they would know and love the One who created them. These are all good things.

It’s also true that parenting well doesn’t happen accidently; it takes intentionality and purpose. We have to learn what our children need and how to care for them. We must pursue wisdom in our parenting decisions. We may even need to utilize particular techniques or strategies.

But how do we know if our desire to be good parents has morphed into an idol that has gripped our heart? And where should we turn for hope instead?

Idol of Parenting Success

When we worship parenting success, we set our highest desires on particular outcomes for our children. At all costs, we want our children to be healthy, happy, and productive. We want them to have the best education. Play the right sports. Be the best dressed.

One sign of idolatry: We don’t rest until they’ve met our goals.

We so easily put our hope in results: our children’s behavior, achievements, and social acceptance. We stake our lives on the belief that if we parent well, our child will turn out well (however we define that). We often think this means if we follow the right parenting model—take your pick which one—our children will turn out how we imagine.

When success in parenting is our life’s great aim, we focus all our energies on fulfilling our desire. We want our child to be the best in the class, the top scorer on the team, and, yes, the one who knows all the catechism answers in Sunday school. So we push ourselves and our kids to hit the mark. We don’t rest until they’ve met our goals.

False Security

When we worship parenting success, our children become our trophies. We put them on display for all to see just how good a job we’ve done.

In the process, we exhaust ourselves trying to meet what our culture portrays as the image of a perfect parent. This is why, if our children fail, we take it personally. We get angry at them for embarrassing us. We feel let down. How did that happen? I did everything right. My child is supposed to fulfill my goals for her.

When we worship parenting success, our children become our trophies.

In Counterfeit Gods, Tim Keller defines the idol this way:

Personal success and achievement lead to a sense that we ourselves are god, that our security and value rest in our own wisdom, strength, and performance. . . . One sign you have made success an idol is the false sense of security it brings. . . . The false sense of security comes from deifying our achievement and expecting it to keep us safe from the troubles of life in a way that only God can. (75)

When we worship the idol of parenting success and achievement, we trust in ourselves. We rest in our achievement rather than in God’s grace.

Worthy in Christ

Ultimately, when we worship parenting success and achievement, we find our worth in what we accomplish as parents and, subsequently, what our children accomplish. And the success idol is never satisfied, so we have to keep striving, keep working, keep reaching.

But the gospel tells us something different. God doesn’t love us because of anything we’ve done. Whether we are the best parent in the cul-de-sac or our child gets the highest GPA has no influence on what God thinks of us.

Ephesians tells us that God chose us before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4). Before we attended our first PTA meeting or scheduled that first tutoring session, God created us in his image: “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well” (Ps. 139:14).

And while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). The Spirit awakened us from death and gave us new life. We were given the gift of faith and saved from the penalty of our sins (Rom. 6:23).

Regardless of whether our child makes All Stars or sits the bench, God’s Holy Spirit lives in us, comforting, guiding, and changing us. Christ intercedes before the Father for us, covering us with his righteousness. He promises us eternal life in the presence of God. All of this comes to us by grace; we do nothing to earn or achieve any of it.

Moms and dads, we do have significant value and worth. But it’s not based on what we achieve. It’s not about our success as parents. It’s not about how well our children turn out. Our worth is grounded in who Christ is for us, and what he accomplished on our behalf.

Rest in that today.

Who First Showed Bryan Chapell the Beauty of Jesus?

Wed, 12/26/2018 - 12:00am
Gene and Betty Mintz

Gene Mintz will have a forever impact on my life. When I was a shrimp of a third-grader, this mountain of a man, whose hand could have enveloped about 10 of mine, closed his heart around my life. At the time, I didn’t know that my family was one that pastors talk about behind closed doors as “troubled.”

My father was a lay minister, responsible for preaching on a three-state circuit of minuscule, one-room churches in an equally minuscule Baptist association. No church in the association had a sufficient number of people, or a sufficiently available preacher, to justify weekly services. So each church met once a month, allowing my father (who worked as a farm manager and real-estate appraiser) to manage the preaching of his far-flung flocks by driving many hours across the three states.

For our family to have a more regular church experience, my mom and siblings attended a local independent church where my father did not preach. As a child, it all seemed normal, but I learned in my adolescence that the reason for the pattern was more than church consistency for the children. My mother and father had significant problems that presented themselves as denominational differences, but were actually symptomatic of more significant marriage issues. My father going his way to church, and my mother going her way with the kids, was my parents’ way to keep the peace—most of the time.

Mountain of Calm

Gene Mintz inserted himself into my life without invitation, and without ever hinting that he was aware of the way our family foundations were shaking. He was simply a mountain of calm and tenderness for a child who didn’t know that the occasional upheavals in my family were the early signs of deep relational fissures—cracks in a marriage that were already apparent to pastors and would eventually become the earthquake that would shake my life and faith.

All I knew, as a third-grader in a Sunday school class, is that this huge man was kind to me. He asked questions about what I was reading, commended my answers and encouraged my love of books, and asked how I was growing spiritually. As a child, it all seemed normal.

Even after I left that class, when I would pass Mr. Mintz and his wife, Betty, in the hallways of that huge church, he would always stop, bend to me, extend that gigantic hand, and greet me: “Bryan, how are you doing? How is your walk with the Lord? I am praying for you.”

He did not cease to greet me, long after I was out of his class and no longer his official responsibility. Several years later, after more hallway greetings from Mr. Mintz than I can recall, my family moved away from that town and church. My father’s company transferred him. He continued to drive to his circuit of churches, but my mom gathered her children in another church in the new town, as her relationship with my dad continued to crumble.

Faithful Letters

Though I was out of the sight of Gene Mintz, I was not out of mind—nor far from his heart. Though I was no longer his responsibility nor in his region, he would write me during my high school years: “Bryan, how are you doing? How is your walk with the Lord? I am praying for you.”

When I went to college, the letters slowed down, but still—maybe once a year—the letter would come: “Bryan, how are you doing? How is your walk with the Lord? I am praying for you.”

When I entered seminary, another letter: “Bryan, how are you doing? How is your walk with the Lord? I am praying for you.”

And, when—after years of pastoring—I eventually became the president of that same seminary, another letter: “Bryan, how are you doing? How is your walk with the Lord? Betty and I have been praying for you all of these years.”

One Who Availeth Much

There came a day when I learned that time and age had claimed the life of the mountain man who had often reached toward heaven on my behalf. The ministry for which he’d prayed had taken me temporarily out of the country, so I could only write those who gathered to memorialize the one who had so faithfully shepherded my soul.

I wrote that one day in heaven I believe I will have the privilege of seeing how much Mr. Mintz’s outstretched hand really held me in God’s plan, how much his heart taught me of God’s heart, and how much his prayers strengthened me for God’s calling.

But, until that day, I simply have the privilege of telling you that there was a man named Mr. Gene Mintz who befriended a child named Bryan, by greeting him, and writing him, and not forgetting him, and praying for him for many years. There have been more able scholars and more powerful preachers along my course, but no one has been more influential than the man who really taught me, “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much” (James 5:16). Thank you for teaching me this truth, Mr. Mintz, and thank you, Jesus, for Mr. Mintz.

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3 Books to Help You Reimagine Familiar Bible Stories

Mon, 12/24/2018 - 12:03am

Every year, before my kids go back to school, I sit down with them and read Deuteronomy 11:18–25. Moses speaks to Israel as a father figure, and he instructs his children to lay up the words of God in their hearts and souls. They are to speak his words when they sit, walk, lie down, and rise. I use these verses to remind them that this new year of school is another year to learn about God through the story he has told us.

Russ Ramsey’s trilogy—The Advent of the Lamb of God (originally published by The Rabbit Room), The Passion of the King of Glory (originally published by Crossway), and The Mission of the Body of Christ—remind me of these verses, because Ramsey’s goal is to retell the story of the Scriptures in a way that will push people back to the source.

As Ramsey, a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, writes, “Biblical literacy is one of the most important goals of my work as a pastor. I want people to know what the Bible says” (4). Thus he has written three books that cover the prophetic hope of the Lamb and coming Christ (in the Old Testament and Gospels), the passion of the King (Gospels), and the mission of the church (Acts and Pauline letters).

Companions to Scripture

Ramsey notes that this first book (The Advent of the Lamb of God) was meant to be a companion piece to Andrew Peterson’s Christmas record, Behold the Lamb of God: The True Tall Tale of the Coming of Christ. But, he maintains, his books are far more than this. They can be used anytime, because the story of Christ transcends seasons. These books are meant to deepen people’s understanding of God’s ever-relevant Word.

Ramsey doesn’t retell the whole story of the Bible in these three books, but he does spotlight key moments. His central focus is on Christ, looking at the Old Testament as a precursor to Christ and concluding with the mission of the body of Christ. The bulk of his work looks to the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. Though these books are packed with Scripture, he generally paraphrases rather than quotes directly. Ramsey adds dialogue and inner thoughts, and interweaves other passages and truths to retell the story. He writes with a lyrical nature, making the stories more accessible and understandable.

Some might question the method of adding dialogue and expanding the stories, but it’s effective. I’d even argue many of the narratives themselves call for filling in gaps. I’ve long been convinced that many Bible stories are deliberately “under-narrated” or leave things ambiguous to make readers engage. Writers often leave gaps in narratives to stir the imagination of their readers. The narrative still sets the parameters, but within those parameters interpreters are called to imagine the story with the author. Umberto Eco even argues there’s a difference between open and closed texts. Closed texts (like the Epistles) show a strong tendency to encourage a particular interpretation. Open texts on the other hand (poetry and narrative) call readers to use their imagination to fill out certain details.

We’re to ponder how Abraham felt when he was ascending to sacrifice his son Isaac. We’re to put ourselves in Onesimus’s shoes when he returns to Philemon. We’re to think of Jesus’s mother as she watches her son die under the power of Rome.

Focusing on Christ

Overall, these books are helpful companions to the Scriptures. Though Ramsey takes some license, he does so with care. I only wish he would’ve more tightly tied the thread between the first two books with the third. The first two are thoroughly Christ-focused, and I was hoping he’d keep that line going into Acts and Paul. Though Christ has ascended, he’s present with his church through the Spirit, and Paul’s main message is “Christ is King!” If the Old Testament is about Christ, then so is the New Testament after Christ has ascended. Ramsey, of course, wouldn’t disagree, but it would’ve been nice if this point were more explicit.

Ramsey has done the church a service in putting his creative yet faithful pen to work. If you’re looking for a book to give people that summarizes the story of the Bible in a creative way—but don’t want to give them a children’s book, or think the Bible itself might be too intimidating at first—one of these would be a good place to start.

The Artist Who Entered His Canvas to Save It

Mon, 12/24/2018 - 12:00am

I once imagined an artist painting a masterpiece. With lavish brushstrokes and bold strikes, he threw splashes of rich, beautiful color, pouring himself into his painting with passion on a massive, wall-sized canvas bordered by an ornate gold frame. When the masterpiece was complete, he stood back and gazed with joy upon the wonder his hands had made.

As if to say, “It’s good.”

Something strange, however, happened next: a small, dark spot appeared in the center of the painting. I thought, What is that? The artist watched as the mold-like decay began to spread, like a crack in the windshield that starts at a point but gradually expands its fissures and fractures into the whole. The invasive intruder began to stretch its thin, straggly arms, creeping its corruption throughout the canvas. The masterpiece was threatened with destruction.

What will the artist do? I wondered.

What happened next was the strangest, most bizarre thing I would ever have expected: the artist lifted his leg, extended it forward, and . . . stepped into the painting. First his leg entered the canvas, then his torso, and finally his head. Then, with a whoosh! the integration was complete: the artist stood within the work his hands had made, at the center of the masterpiece.

That’s weird, I thought.

But even stranger was what happened next: the moldy rot began to attack the artist! The great painter had positioned himself in such a way that the central point of invasion was right over his heart. As the tentacles retreated from the cornered edges, they sank into the artist himself, blow by blow. The creator received the corruption at the core of his masterpiece.

Until finally, with a whoomph! it was gone.

The masterpiece was restored. The artist had absorbed the destructive power until it was extinguished.

To my surprise, however, the great painter didn’t step back out of the painting. Having united his life with the canvas, he remained permanently at the center of his restored masterpiece.

In a way, however, restored doesn’t seem like the right word, because the work was now even more glorious with his presence inside. He brought radiance and beauty such that the painting seemed to glow with his life. There was a sense that this was always the way it was intended to be: the artist at the center of his painting.

This was the true masterpiece.

Picture of Christmas

Jesus is the Great Artist, the one “through whom all things were made” (John 1:3), the “image of the invisible God . . . in whom all things were created” (Col. 1:15–16), the “heir of all things . . . through whom God made the universe” (Heb. 1:2). Jesus pours himself into creation as a great painter pours himself into his masterpiece, with passion, creativity, and imagination. The heavens and earth display the glory of Christ, the Master Craftsman.

When sin enters, however, it defaces and destroys. Its dark tentacles stretch and spread through God’s good world, unleashing dissolution and decay. The Great Painter’s masterpiece is threatened with destruction. Rather than discard this world and start a new one, Jesus’s solution is to step into his painting. At his birth, the Artist steps into his masterpiece. Through his incarnation, the Creator enters his creation, merging his eternal life with the canvas of his world, becoming part of the work his hands have made.

Jesus is God in the painting.

At his birth, the Artist steps into his defaced masterpiece.

In his earthly walk and ministry, Jesus lives the life we couldn’t live—embodying the kingdom for which we were made and bringing restoration to his creation. In his death on the cross, he dies the death we should have died—absorbing the sin, decay, and destruction we have unleashed into his masterpiece and carrying it with him into the grave. And in his resurrection and ascension, he is exalted at the center of creation as its Lord, to restore the masterpiece of his world in the power of his Spirit to the glory of God the Father.

Jesus at the center is, in an important sense, the way it was always destined to be. “Before the foundation of the world,” Peter tells us, Jesus was destined to accomplish this (2 Pet. 1:20). Jesus is not only our origin but our destination, both the “once upon a time” and “happily ever after” of our world. “There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ,” Paul reminds us, “through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:6). As early church father Athanasius observed, it is right that

the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word who made it in the beginning . . . for the One Father has [effected] the salvation of the world through the same Word who made it in the beginning.

Jesus is both kickoff and closure, start and finish, A to Z—beginning and end.

Jesus is not only our origin but our destination, both the ‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’ of our world.

Jesus wants to be with us. He doesn’t just fix the painting then leave his body behind; he doesn’t step back out of the painting. Rather, he remains permanently embedded in the canvas of creation through his resurrected body. God makes his home with us in Christ. And when his kingdom comes in glory, his restoring work will permeate the world through his presence at the center of the new creation.

The Creator creates us for communion with him. The Deliverer desires to dwell with us forever. The Resurrector reaches out to us for relationship. We’re invited to participate in the restoring life of Jesus, the Artist at the center of the painting.

Divinity and Dirt

So is God afraid of getting dirty? Some people fear he is a clean freak, backing away, frightened, at the first sight of our mess so as to not get tainted. In light of the great painter entering the painting: Is the Artist scared of our mess? Does the Creator back away from the corruption? Is God willing to get dirty?

It depends what we mean by dirty. If we mean physical dirt, God has no problem with that. In the beginning, the Creator reaches deep into the soil with divine hands to plant a garden, forms humanity from the dust of the earth, places his lips upon us to blow the breath of life into our lungs, then walks in the garden with us, kicking up dust with bare feet.

The Creator is distinct from his creation, in holy power and awesome majesty, yet he is intimate with the work of his hands, like an artist who pours himself passionately into his masterpiece. The Craftsman crafts dirt and sky, bone and bark, roots and rivers—then steps back upon completion to declare it good. And when we jumble things up, God pursues us. Our heavenly Father comes after us. Jesus breaks into the painting—the Word through whom the world was made becomes flesh—taking on dirt and blood and bone to pursue us in the muck and the mess we make.

Divinity gets dusty as the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit, comes after our world. God isn’t afraid of getting dirty.

Merry Christmas.

Parenting Advice Is Best Served with Grace

Sun, 12/23/2018 - 12:03am

Every mom has received unwanted advice from a random lady at the grocery store. While these strangers may have good intentions, the platitudes they toss rarely edify or encourage. Instead they can make us feel incompetent, judged, and even more overwhelmed.

Because giving advice can go so badly, older Christian women can be hesitant to offer any kind of counsel to younger Christian women. But when they offer biblical guidance out of love, in the context of a relationship, they can act as gentle gardeners who encourage growth.

A wise spiritual gardener observes the land, knows the soil’s composition and sun exposure, and prepares the ground for planting seeds of advice with prayer. A wise gardener waits for the appropriate season to plant such a seed, knowing, in the words of Solomon, “a word in season, how good it is!” (Prov. 15:23).

While no gardener can guarantee that a seed will grow, here are some ways to ensure your advice has the best chance of helping struggling mothers blossom.

Come on Gospel Ground

While it may easy for women to trade recipes or exchange information on amazing Amazon deals, it’s rarely easy for women to trade advice on mothering. Moms want to do right by their kids, and it can be devastating to hear they are falling short. As such, whenever advice around mothering is exchanged, the advice giver and the advice receiver must stand solidly on gospel ground.

Humility and honesty are disarming, and it’s helpful for the adviser to come as a fellow recipient of grace. All of us receive advice best when it’s communicated with gentleness and when the adviser acknowledges herself to be a sinner saved by grace.

Come with Gentle Confidence

As a women’s ministry director in a multicultural, intergenerational church, I see both sides of the generation gap. I see hesitant older women who, by their very reluctance to offer answers, deny the younger generations the perspective and wisdom they desperately need.

I also see younger women, longing for someone to affirm, comfort, and even lovingly exhort and direct them in marriage and parenting, afraid or unsure how to ask for advice.

Older women, your walks with God and your successes and failures drip with wisdom that the younger women in your churches need. Be encouraged! Your “gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body” (Prov. 16:24).

Come with Principles, Not Prescriptions

People tend to be quick to share practices, but, as we all know, motherhood is not one-size-fits-all or even one-size-fits-most. Each mother, each child, each marriage, and each set of life circumstances is nuanced and unique. Yet there are shared biblical principles that should inform and transform motherhood. Older women must differentiate between practice and principle.

Motherhood is not one-size-fits-all or even one-size-fits-most.

For example, an empty nester sees a young mother who dotes on her children, leaving their father overlooked. As someone who loves this woman and her family, the older woman is deeply concerned about the patterns being set in the wet-cement years of this family’s life.

She remembers how hard she worked as a tired young mother to have dinner ready by 5:00 p.m. so that the children were in bed by 7:30 to free up evening time to prioritize her husband. But rather than approach the mother with the specific practice of dinner at 5:00 and bed at 7:30, the older woman leads with the principle of working hard to prioritize her husband’s needs in the midst of the louder, more demanding needs of her children.

The empty nester can disarm the young, exhausted mother by joining her in empathy at the endless demands of early childrearing. She can then express her concern that, in the tyranny of the urgent, the wife’s relationship with husband has taken the backseat.

She could even offer to keep the children one evening so that the strained couple can have some time away from the hounding of the home front.

While the nuances might change from family to family, timeless biblical principles continue to inform and transform families across the generations and ages.

The twists and turns of motherhood were never intended to be navigated alone, and God has gently commanded the body of Christ to lovingly offer perspective and truth to one another. While such encounters will often be awkward and will always be imperfect, they are a kind provision until that final day when we will no longer need advice.

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