Posts tagged ‘Theology’

The Limits of Human Freedom

Statue of LibertyWe, in America, like freedom.  We talk about it.  We write about it.  We even sing about it.  Anyone who has ever attended a sporting event where our national anthem was sung has heard in soaring melody how we live in “the land of the free and the home of the brave.”

We, in America, like freedom.  And we will fight, protest, and lobby to protect the freedoms most near and dear to our hearts.  Some fight, protest, and lobby to protect the freedom of religion – to practice their beliefs as they choose.  Others fight, protest, and lobby for the freedom to keep and bear arms.  Still others fight, protest, and lobby for the freedom to marry whoever they want – even if whoever they want is of the same gender.

Perhaps it is our love of freedom that makes the doctrine of predestination so offensive to so many.  Jesus summarizes predestination thusly:  “You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16).  The doctrine of predestination, then, is simply this:  it is God, not us, who is in charge of our salvation.  When it comes to our salvation, we are not free!

This is where the hackles of our freedom-loving hearts can get raised.  Indeed, the most common objection that I hear whenever I teach on predestination is, “But what about our free wills?  Doesn’t predestination mean that God turns us into automatons – unable to accept or reject Him?”

I have addressed this question many times and in many ways.  But to address it this time, I would turn your attention the midcentury American sociologist Philip Rieff who, I believe, writes about the limits of our free wills – and the goodness of these limits – in a poignant and powerful way.  Rieff writes:

There is no feeling more desperate than that of being free to choose, and yet without the specific compulsion of being chosen.  After all, one does not really choose; one is chosen.  This is one way of stating the difference between gods and men.  Gods choose; men are chosen.  What men lose when they become as free as gods is precisely that sense of being chosen, which encourages them, in their gratitude, to take their subsequent choices seriously.[1]

To choose without first being chosen, Rieff explains, is a miserable manner of existence.  After all, if there is no God who loves you enough to choose you, what does your choice of Him – or of anything else, for that matter – matter?  Who would want to choose a God in their limited power who doesn’t care enough to first choose them out of His infinite power?  This is why the apostle Paul speaks of predestination in such glowing terms:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For He chose us in Him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in His sight. In love He predestined us to be adopted as His sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with His pleasure and will – to the praise of His glorious grace, which He has freely given us in the One He loves. (Ephesians 1:3-7)

Paul is thrilled by the doctrine of predestination!  For Paul knows that the only way he is free to make decisions worth making is when believes and sees that he himself is a decision that God thought was worth making in predestination.  Paul’s limited free will is of no consequence if it cannot come under the tender loving care of God’s perfect free will.

So, do you long to be free?  Do you fight, protest, and lobby to protect the freedoms that are near and dear to your heart?  If you do, remember that your freedom of choice is only as good and meaningful as your bondage to Christ.  Without being under Christ’s rule and reign, your freedom is futile.  Under Christ’s rule and reign, however, your freedom is purposeful.  And I don’t know about you, but I want my freedom to mean something.

_______________________

[1] Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966), 93.

August 4, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Decidophobia

Credit: thebeaconmag.com

Credit: thebeaconmag.com

I have a confession to make:  I suffer from decidophobia.

Now, before you accuse me of making up words, this term is not my own.  Walter Kaufmann, who served as a philosophy professor for over 30 years at Princeton, coined it.  He explains decidophobia like this:

In the fateful decisions that mold our future, freedom becomes tangible; and they are objects of extreme dread.  Every such decision involves norms, standards, goals.  Treating these as given lessens this dread.  The comparison and choice of goals and standards arouses the most intense decidophobia.[1]

Here’s what Kaufmann is saying:  decisions form futures.  Those who suffer from decidophobia worry that their decisions will tank their futures.

Now, to a certain extent, this is true.  Foolish decisions can lead to bad futures.  If one wracks up a lot of debt now, it leads to a lot of bills in the future.  If one is having an affair now, it can lead to a heart-wrenching divorce in the future.

But there are other decisions – decisions that don’t always carry with them the ethical clarity that getting into a bottomless pit of debt or having an affair do.  Decisions like, “What job should I take?”  “What vehicle should I buy?”  “What house should I live in?”  I am trying to make a decision on the last of these three quandaries.  And I have come down with a bad case of decidophobia.

As I have looked at neighborhoods and floor plans and features and storage space, I’ve become worried and concerned.  Will I make the right decision?  But here’s what I’ve come to realize:  decisions like these, though not always easy, are not devastatingly determinative of my future.  If a house does not have all the features I might like, it will still provide me with a roof over my head at the end of the day.  If a job you take does not meet all your dreams and expectations, you will still have a paycheck at the end of your pay period.  If a car you buy isn’t the one you’ve dreamed of since you were a teenager, it will still get you from point A to point B by the end of your trip.

I have long suspected that God gives us some decisions to make not to teach us about decisions themselves, but to teach us about the anxiety that so many of us feel when we are in the throws of a decision-making process.  I read somewhere that we should “not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself” (Matthew 6:34).  Many of the decisions we make carry with them no biblical mandate.  Any decision we make will be fine.  Being free from worry, however, does carry with it a biblical mandate.  That’s why it’s time to stop incessantly fretting.  Decidophobia is sinful.

So what’s causing you decidophobia?  Before you get your stomach tied in knots, remind yourself of Christ’s words in Matthew 6:34.  These decisions are not worth your worry.  You are in God’s care.

___________________________

[1] Walter Kaufmann, Without Guilt and Justice:  From Decidophobia to Autonomy (New York:  Peter H. Wyden, Inc., 1973), 3.

July 14, 2014 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Beyond the Pale: What UK Hospitals Are Doing With Aborted Babies

Baby Hand 1Moral standards are moving targets.  Ask three people for their thoughts on a contentious moral or ethical issue and you’ll get four opinions.  But there are some things so unequivocally horrifying – so undeniably mortifying – that they command universal and reflexive shock, outrage, and revulsion.  Enter an exposé by London’s Telegraph newspaper on what’s heating some UK hospitals:

The bodies of thousands of aborted and miscarried babies were incinerated as clinical waste, with some even used to heat hospitals, an investigation has found.

Ten NHS trusts have admitted burning fetal remains alongside other rubbish while two others used the bodies in ‘waste-to-energy’ plants which generate power for heat.

Last night the Department of Health issued an instant ban on the practice which health minister Dr. Dan Poulter branded ‘totally unacceptable.’

At least 15,500 fetal remains were incinerated by 27 NHS trusts over the last two years alone …

One of the country’s leading hospitals, Addenbrooke’s in Cambridge, incinerated 797 babies below 13 weeks gestation at their own ‘waste to energy’ plant. The mothers were told the remains had been ‘cremated.’[1]

No matter how many times I read this article, it still makes me sick to my stomach.  And I’m not the only one who finds this story nauseating, as the comments posted under the story indicate.  One reader comments, “I think I am going to be sick.”  Another writes, “The horror of it … what has our country become folks?  This is just too much.”  And still another existentially inquires, “Dear God, what have we become?”

Though much could be written about this story – and, I would add, I hope much is written about this because this is a story that needs to be thoroughly vetted – I want to offer two initial observations about this terrible, tragic report.

First, it must be admitted that here is an unabashed display of human depravity at it most dreadful depths.  Just the thought of treating fetal remains so carelessly and callously should turn even the most hardened of stomachs.  In Western society, we pride ourselves on making moral progress.  We trumpet our advances on the frontier of human rights.  A story like this one should give us a gut check.  Moral progress is never far from moral regress.  Indeed, even secular theorists are beginning to realize that humanity is not on an ever-improving, ever-increasing moral arc.  Alan Dershowitz, one of the great secular thinkers of our time, admits as much in an interview with Albert Mohler when he says:

I think the 20th century is perhaps the most complicated, convoluted century in the history of the world perhaps because I lived in it, but it had the worst evil. Hitler’s evil and Stalin’s evil are unmatched in the magnitude in the world … On the other hand, it was the century in which we really ended discrimination based on race and based on gender. We made tremendous scientific progress … So I think the 20th century has really proved that progress doesn’t operate in a linear way … We don’t evolve morally, we don’t get better morally as time passes.[2]

Morally, we must be continually careful and endlessly vigilant.  We will never become so good that we are no longer bad.  To quote the caution of the apostle Paul:  “If you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don’t fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12)!

The second observation I would offer on this story is that we are sadly deluded as a society if we decry the burning of fetuses on the one hand while supporting abortion on the other.  There is a reason incinerating fetuses to heat hospitals has raised so many moral hackles.  And it’s not because these fetuses are nothing more than “tissue.”  Indeed, I find it quite telling that The Telegraph refers to these fetuses as “remains.” A quick perusal of a dictionary will find that the noun “remains” refers to “dead bodies,” or “corpses.”  In other words, dead people.  This is not just aborted tissue.  These are aborted people.  Aborted babies.  But now these babies have passed.  And to treat the dead in such an undignified manner as these UK hospitals have is unconscionable.  The difference between the passing of these babies, however, and the passing of others who die in hospitals is that these babies have died intentionally at the hands of abortion doctors.

Yes, I am well aware of arguments for abortion that center on a woman’s right to do with her body as she pleases.  But if she can do with her body as she wishes, I’m not sure why a hospital can’t do with its procedural remains as it wants.  If it can throw away fluid drained from someone’s lungs in a biohazard bag, why can’t it burn a baby?  Yes, I am aware that some may accuse me of making a fallacious “slippery slope” argument and they would counter-argue that you don’t need to ban abortion to decry the burning of fetal remains.  But this counter-argument intimates that abortion is somehow a lesser evil than burning aborted corpses – an assumption I do not share.  Indeed, I think abortion is a great and deep evil – but not just because I believe it deliberately ends the life of a child, but because I hate what abortions do to the women who suffer through them.  Case in point:  a recent study in The British Journal of Psychiatry shows that women who undergo abortions have an 81 percent higher risk of subsequent mental health problems.[3]  Nevertheless, proponents of abortion could claim that one can support abortion without sliding all the way down the slope into the moral morass of these UK hospitals.  But I would point out that we already have, in fact, slid all the way down this slope.  The charred now non-remains of 15,500 babies testify to it.  So perhaps it’s time to repent and, by the grace of God, start scaling the slope – and not just halfway up the slope, but all the way off the slope.  Human depravity warns us that if we don’t, we’ll slide right back down again.

______________________

[1]  Sarah Knapton, “Aborted babies incinerated to heat UK hospitals,” The Telegraph (3.24.2014).

[2] Albert Mohler, “Moral Reasoning in a Secular Age: A Conversation with Professor Alan Dershowitz,” albertmohler.com.

[3] Priscilla K. Coleman, “Abortion and mental health: quantitative synthesis and analysis of research published 1995–2009,” The British Journal of Psychology 199 (2011), 182.

March 31, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Unreal Sales for Real Marriage

Real MarriageIt seems as though the New York Times bestseller list just isn’t what it used to be.  In an article for the Los Angeles Times, Carolyn Kellogg writes about the saga of a recent book that became a New York Times bestseller not because lots of people were buying it, but because a company called ResultSource was buying thousands of copies of the book with the express intent of turning it into a bestseller.  Kellogg begins by citing from World magazine, the news outlet that broke the story:

“The contract called for the ‘author’ to ‘provide a minimum of 6,000 names and addresses for the individual orders and at least 90 names and address [sic] for the remaining 5,000 bulk orders. Please note that it is important that the makeup of the 6,000 individual orders include at least 1,000 different addresses with no more than 350 per state.’”

Measures like these are designed to game the systems set in place by BookScan and other book sales talliers to protect the integrity of their bestseller lists …

After getting thousands of names with geographic diversity, RSI took another step to place [the book] on bestseller lists, according to the World article. The agreement specifies, “RSI will use its own payment systems (ex. gift cards to ensure flawless reporting). Note: The largest obstacle to the reporting system is the tracking of credit cards. RSI uses over 1,000 different payment types (credit cards, gift cards, etc).”[1]

Wow.  That sure sounds shady.

Did I mention the book in question is Real Marriage, written by famous mega-church pastor Mark Driscoll?  And did I mention his church, Mars Hill in Seattle, shelled out, according to some reports, over $200,000 to get his book to the top of the New York Times bestseller list?

In many ways, Mark Driscoll and I are kindred spirits.  We share many of the same theological commitments.  When it comes to preaching, we both believe a good sermon must not primarily be about what we are to do, but about what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  When it comes to Scriptural authority, both of us hold doggedly to the doctrine of inerrancy, even though some voices are seeking to discredit it these days.  When it comes to salvation, we both believe that, contrary to our society’s pluralistic ethos, salvation is found in no one but Christ.  We share a lot in common.  But for all our theological similarities, what happened with Real Marriage represents a weighty ethical difference.

I know sales number shenanigans are not at all unusual in the publishing world.  Authors do this kind of thing all the time.  Sarah Cunningham of the Huffington Post explains that Real Marriage’s marketing strategy is only a symptom of a systemic disease:

This book launch strategy … wasn’t shocking to anyone who has been involved in the publishing industry … There have always been ways to underwrite the success of authors in any field, religious or not, when the efforts were attached to a deep enough bank account.  Don’t doubt for a second, then, that some of Mark’s … counterparts haven’t done (or tried to do) the same.[2]

According to Cunningham, when it comes to cooking sales numbers, “everybody’s doing it.”  But this go-to teenage quip is a sorry justification for what is a seriously unethical practice.

When I visited ResultSource’s website, I found it curious that although they made all sorts of promises that they can get a book onto the New York Times bestseller list, they didn’t give a clear explanation of how they can get a book onto the New York Times bestseller list.  Here’s a sampling of what their website boasts:

We partner with authors to create and tap an audience – to connect the potential buyers of your book directly with the bookseller to leverage your launch potential.  Our goal is to reach further than just typical launch management – our deep relationships enable us to create opportunities outside of what’s expected, to gain substantial traction within the critical “first 90 days” of your launch – or booksellers will send your book back to the publisher.

RSI can:

Leverage our relationships with individuals in “Seven Channels of Influence” to promote your book.  Research shows that people are influenced by multiple touch-points – and that our buying decisions are driven by as many as seven channels within our culture.

Send email promotions to as many as 300,000 book buyers on our proprietary database of business and self-help book buyers.

Write and design electronic promotions such as banners, excerpts, and Q&As.

Build a powerful merchandising program with key retailers like airport booksellers, Amazon, B&N (Brick-n-Mortar and BN.com), Borders, Books-A-Million and independent outlets.  The key to a winning book launch campaign is to have copies of your book in prominent positions at as many retailers as possible – and then drive sell through.[3]

Now, besides being a little leery of any company that makes selling a book through Borders (NYSE: BGP $0.00 +0.00%) a featured component of their marketing strategy, I am also deeply unsettled by the ambiguity of their claims.  I honestly have no idea what they’re talking about.  What are the “Seven Channels of Influence”?  What, exactly, does it mean to “build a powerful merchandising program with key retailers”?  And why don’t they mention that their primary strategy to drive sales is for this company to buy thousands of copies of a particular book in a way that dupes bestseller lists into believing thousands of people are buying the book?  If a company can’t talk openly and honestly about the services they offer, perhaps they shouldn’t be offering them.

Ultimately, I point out what happened with Real Marriage not to pick on Mark Driscoll, but because this scandal is indicative of a wider, toxic pattern that needs to be addressed.  In this particular instance, I appreciate how the Board of Advisors and Accountability at Mars Hill has responded to this controversy, writing, “While not uncommon or illegal, this unwise strategy is not one we had used before or since, and not one we will use again.”[4]  I am glad to hear that.  I hope others follow suit.

From a theological perspective, Driscoll pinpoints the root of the problem in this whole saga in another one of his books when he writes, “This world’s fundamental problem is that we don’t understand who we truly are – children of God made in His image – and instead define ourselves by any number of things other than Jesus.”[5]

I couldn’t agree more.  If the prestige of being a New York Times bestselling author is so bewitching that a whole company can be created to help authors pay their way onto this list, something is terribly and tragically awry.  We are defining ourselves by all the wrong things.

Regardless of whether or not Mark Driscoll actually is a bestselling author, he is a child of God.  So am I.  And that’s good enough.  Because, in the end, that’s what really matters.


[1] Carolyn Kellogg, “Can bestseller lists be bought?Los Angeles Times (3.6.2014).

[2] Sarah Cunningham, “The Injustice of Silence: Why Our Culture Pulled Mark Driscoll Over For a Broken Headlight,” Huffington Post (3.6.2014).

[3] ResultSource.com, “Book Launch Campaigns.”

[4] “A Note From Our Board of Advisors & Accountability,” Mars Hill Church (3.7.2014).

[5] Mark Driscoll, Who Do You Think You Are? Finding Your True Identity In Christ (Nashville, Thomas Nelson, 2013), 2.

March 17, 2014 at 5:15 am 1 comment

Rob Bell and Inerrancy

Rob Bell 2The other day, a friend sent me an article by pastor and provocateur Rob Bell on the subject of inerrancy.  Traditionally, the term “inerrancy” has been defined as the belief that the biblical authors, guided and inspired by God’s Spirit, “are absolutely truthful according to their intended purposes.”[1]  In other words, the biblical authors, under divine inspiration, produced writings that are “without error.”  It is important to clarify that to say the Bible is “without error” does note preclude “a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.”[2]  In other words, part of claiming biblical inerrancy is recognizing what does and does not constitute an actual “error.”

Regardless of the specifics concerning what does and does not constitute error, it is clear that “inerrancy” asserts an extraordinarily high view of the nature and reliability of Holy Writ.  Some, however, including Rob Bell, are troubled by such an assertion.

Rob Bell teases out his beef with inerrancy thusly:

My 13 year old son is currently doing an education program that requires him to listen to a certain amount of classical music every day. So on the way to school each morning instead of listening to our usual Blink 182 and rap, he listens to…Mozart. Not his first choice, but just lately he admitted that classical music has grown on him. (How does a parent not smile at that?)

A few questions, then, about Mozart:Did Mozart’s music win?
Would you say that the work of Mozart is on top?
Is Mozart the MVP?
In your estimation, has Mozart prevailed?
Do Mozart’s songs take the cake?

Odd questions, right?
They’re odd because that’s not how you think of Mozart’s music. They’re the wrong categories.

Why?
Because what you do with Mozart’s music is you listen to it and you enjoy it.

Which brings us to inerrancy: it’s not a helpful category. And if you had only ever heard about Mozart as the one who wins, those arguments would probably get in the way of you actually listening to and enjoying Mozart.[3]

So Rob Bell’s problem with inerrancy is that for him it’s not a helpful category.

Though Rob may question the usefulness of the inerrancy “category,” countless followers of Christ have, do, and will continue to find this designation extraordinarily helpful.  Yes, the word “inerrancy” is of fairly recent origin.  But what it denotes – the trustworthiness of Scripture because of divine origin of Scripture – is as old as Christianity itself.  Nichols and Brandt, in their book Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, helpfully sample some patristic evidence that indicates how the early Church saw the divine origin and inspiration of Scripture:

Clement of Rome, writing in 96, exhorted, “Look carefully into the Scriptures, which are the true utterances of the Holy Spirit.”  Another Clement, Bishop of Alexandria, declared similarly, “I could produce then thousand Scriptures of which not ‘one tittle will pass away,’ without being fulfilled.  For the mouth of the Lord, the Holy Spirit, has spoken these things.”  As for a statement about the whole Bible, Origen once observed, “For the proof of our statements, we take testimonies from that which is called the Old Testament and that which is called the New – which we believe to be divine writings.”[4]

Jumping ahead to the sixteenth century, Nichols and Brandt note that John Calvin referred to Scripture as “the sure and infallible record,” “the inerring standard,” “the pure Word of God,” “the infallible rule of His Holy Truth,” “free from every stain or defect,” “the inerring certainty,” “the certain and unerring rule,” “unerring light,” “infallible Word of God,” “has nothing belonging to man mixed with it,” “inviolable,” “infallible oracles.”[5]  Whoa.  Calvin leaves no question as to where he stands on inerrancy.

Rob does offer some reasons as to why he believes inerrancy is not a helpful category, the first of which is, “This isn’t a word the Bible uses about itself.”  But this is like saying “Trinity” is not a helpful term to describe God because it is not a term God uses to describe Himself.  Terms can be helpful even when they’re not used in the Bible if these terms describe what the Bible itself teaches.  And the Bible does indeed claim inerrancy for itself.  One need to look no farther than the Word of God’s magnum opus on the Word of God, Psalm 19:  “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple” (Psalm 19:7).  If the word “perfect” doesn’t include being “without error,” what does it include?

Rob finally plays his hand as to why he is uncomfortable with inerrancy:  “The power of the Bible comes not from avoiding what it is but embracing what it is. Books written by actual, finite, limited, flawed people.”  Rob Bell takes issue with inerrancy because he takes issue with the doctrine of divine inspiration.  He takes issue with what Clement of Rome, Clement of Alexandria, Origen, John Calvin, and, for that matter, the Bible itself claim about the Bible.  Rather than being a book a written by God using men (cf. 1 Peter 1:21), the Bible for Rob is a book written by men who recount their experiences with God, which, by the way, could be mistaken and wrongheaded.[6]  How do we know if their experiences with God are mistaken and wrongheaded?  Rob answers:  “Central to maturity is discernment, the growing acknowledgement that reality is not as clean and neat and simple as we’d like.”  In other words, it’s up to us to figure out what in the Bible is wrong and what in the Bible is right.  But if our world’s genocides, sexual promiscuity, oppression, economic injustice, and refusal to stand for truth because we’re not even sure of what truth is serve as any indication of our powers of discernment, in the words of Ricky Ricardo, we “have some splainin’ to do.”

Perhaps we’re not as discerning as we think we are.  Perhaps, rather than tooting the horns of our own discernment faculties, we should ask the question of the Psalmist:  “But who can discern their own errors” (Psalm 19:12)?  Our blind spots are bigger and darker than most of us recognize.

I will grant that inerrancy has sometimes all too gleefully been used as a bully club against supposed – and, in some instances, presupposed – heretics.  But I will not give up the word or the doctrine.  For when inerrancy is properly understood, it is not meant as a club, but as a promise.  It is a promise that we can trust this book – even more than we can trust ourselves.  For this book is God’s book.  And I, for one, delight in that promise because I delight in the Lord.


[1] James Voelz, What Does This Mean? Principles of Biblical Interpretation in the Post-Modern World, 2nd ed. (St. Louis:  Concordia Publishing House, 1995), 239.

[2]Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy,” Article XIII (October 1978).

[3] Rob Bell, “What is the Bible? Part 21: In Air, In Sea,” robbellcom.tumblr.com (12.10.2013)

[4] Stephen Nichols and Eric Brandt, Ancient Word, Changing Worlds (Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2009), 78.

[5] Ancient Word, Changing Worlds, 78-79.

[6] Bell writes of the biblical authors in another post, “They had experiences. They told stories.  They did their best to share those stories and put language to those experiences” (“What is the Bible? Part 17: Assumptions and AA Meetings”).

December 16, 2013 at 5:15 am 2 comments

Godly Vision, Not Personal Agenda

Window 1It is axiomatic that vision is integral to leadership.  No less than Warren Bennis, a pioneer in the field of leadership studies, defined leadership as “the capacity to translate vision into reality.”[1]  If a leader does not have a vision, he will lead aimlessly.  If he cannot articulate a vision, his organization will wander aimlessly.  Leadership requires vision.

But that’s not all leadership requires.  Leadership also requires mission.  After all, mission is what gives purpose to an organization’s very existence.  Vision, then, is when the leader of an organization understands his organization’s strengths, gifts, and capacities, and capitalizes on these in ways that fulfill an organization’s mission.  Thus, the mission of an organization and the vision of its leader must work in synergy with each other.

When it comes to the organization – or, better yet, the body (cf. 1 Corinthians 12:27-28) – that is the Church, her mission is clear.  After all, her mission was crafted and communicated by Christ Himself:  “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:19-20).   The mission of the Church is to make disciples by baptizing in God’s name and teaching God’s Word, all the while exuding a lively confidence that Christ is continually with us, empowering us as we carry out His mission.  How precisely this mission is accomplished from congregation to congregation is a function of the vision of a congregation’s leaders – specifically, its pastor.

Sadly, in my years of ministry, I have seen far too many pastors who, rather than casting visions that capitalize on their congregations’ strengths, gifts, and capacities, push agendas based on their own likes and dislikes, preferences and antipathies.  They may say they’re casting vision to congregations that have none.  But what they’re really doing is asserting agendas that bully congregations at their weakest points.

To the leaders in Christ’s Church, I offer this plea:  don’t confuse your agenda – no matter how noble it may seem – with Godly vision for your congregation.  One, by God’s grace, can breathe life and excitement into a congregation.  The other can frustrate and deflate God’s people.  And Christ’s mission is far too important to settle for that.  Christ’s mission deserves true vision.


[1] Kevin Kruse, “100 Best Quotes On Leadership,” Forbes Magazine (10.16.2012).

December 2, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Ghana Eye Clinic – Day 3

Today’s numbers:  We shared the gospel with 354 people and gave away 253 pairs of glasses.  This was our biggest day yet!

Check out the pictures and captions below to find out more about today’s clinic.

Pam works hard sorting reading glasses for the hundreds that need them.

Pam works hard sorting reading glasses for the hundreds who need them.

Arnold and Tristina have been working hard all clinic!

Arnold and Tristina have been working hard all clinic long!

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Our host, Ivan, talks to the pastor who is the president of the Lutheran seminary in Ghana and is taking some time out of his busy schedule to share the gospel with hundreds during the eye clinic.

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Tristina poses with one of our fabulous volunteers, Justice. Justice works hard routing people through the clinic to make sure everyone gets to the right place.

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More of our fabulous volunteers! This devoted group sat outside all day in the hot Ghana sun welcoming visitors to the clinic.

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Tristina and Pam are still smiling even after a long day at the clinic.

Michael

This little boy’s name is Michael and our team has decided to “adopt” him. He has a degenerative eye disease and will need ongoing medical care to preserve what little vision that he has.

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Michael’s eyes.

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Our host, Ivan, has a friend, Mustapha, who works to build bridges between the Muslim and Christian communities in Accra. Thankfully, the relationships between Muslims and Christians are very good in Ghana. Mustapha has invited several of his friends to the clinic.

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Tristina uses the portable autorefractor to measure a boy’s eyes for new glasses.

The children of St. Paul Lutheran School in Accra are a talented bunch!  Check out this video of their mad musical skills.

November 20, 2013 at 3:47 pm 1 comment

Waiting To Be Adopted

15-year-old Davion Only with his caseworker Credit:  Tampa Bay Times

15-year-old Davion Only with his caseworker
Credit: Tampa Bay Times

It’s heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time.  15-year-old Davion Only attended St. Mark Missionary Baptist Church in St. Petersburg, Florida on a recent Sunday with a request:  “Somebody, anybody, please adopt me.”  Lane DeGregory of the Tampa Bay Times sets the scene of this boy’s dark past:

Davion Navar Henry Only loves all of his names. He has memorized the meaning of each one: beloved, brown, ruler of the home, the one and only.

But he has never had a home or felt beloved.  His name is the last thing his parents gave him.

He was born while his mom was in jail.  He can’t count all of the places he has lived.

In June, Davion sat at a library computer, unfolded his birth certificate and, for the first time, searched for his mother’s name.  Up came her mug shot: 6-foot-1, 270 pounds – tall, big and dark, like him.  Petty theft, cocaine.

Next he saw the obituary: La-Dwina Ilene “Big Dust” McCloud, 55, of Clearwater, died June 5, 2013.  Just a few weeks before.[1]

It’s hard to imagine how this young man’s childhood could have been more heart-rending.

By Davion’s own admission, he has had rage problems in the past.  His caseworker once took him to a picnic hosted by an organization devoted to helping foster kids find permanent homes, but he lashed out – throwing chairs and pushing people away.  But the death of his mother changed him:

When he learned his birth mother was dead, everything changed.  He had to let go of the hope that she would come get him.  Abandon his anger.  Now he didn’t have anyone else to blame.

“He decided he wanted to control his behavior and show everyone who he could be,” [his caseworker] said.

So someone would want him.

The only thing more heartbreaking than the story of Davion’s past is that state of Davion’s present, encapsulated in this one line:  “So someone would want him.”

There’s a reason the Bible often uses adoption as a descriptor for the Gospel.  Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-6).  Elsewhere in his writings, Paul makes it clear that God’s adoption of us as His children is in no way based on our desirability.  Quite the contrary.  Paul minces no words explaining just how undesirable we are:  “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Romans 3:10-12).  Our adoption as God’s children is not based on our desirability, but on His grace.

The Gospel, then, is this:  We do not have to wait for someone to want us.  For we know that someone does want us – so much, in fact, that He’s willing to die for us.

Lane DeGregory’s article ends with this postscript:  “At publication time, two couples had asked about Davion, but no one had come forward to adopt him.”  Praise be to God that when we are slow to adopt, our Lord is not.  He signed the papers for us 2,000 years ago.


[1] Lane DeGregory, “An orphan goes to church and asks someone, anyone to adopt him,” The Tampa Bay Times (10.15.2013).

October 21, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

Syria’s Setting the Stage for…the End of the World?

Credit: The New York Times

Credit: The New York Times

I had to chuckle.  While I was doing research for this blog, an email hit my inbox with an ominous subject line:  “History’s final chapter will be written in Jerusalem.”  It was a promotion for the latest Christian apocalyptic thriller, matrixing today’s headlines with cherry picked Scripture verses which come together to portend disaster.  This email was especially funny to me because I was researching precisely these kinds of doomsday declarations for this post.

These days, of course, doomsday’s ground zero is Syria.  And for those who have a penchant for taking ancient prophecies and sensationalizing them in light of current crises, Isaiah 17:1 has taken center stage:  “See, Damascus will no longer be a city but will become a heap of ruins.”  Joel Rosenberg, author of a new book, Damascus Countdown, is leading the charge of Syrian doom and gloom, writing on his blog,  “No, we don’t know that these prophecies will come to pass soon, or even in our lifetime. But yes, it is possible that Isaiah 17 … could come to pass in our lifetime.”[1]  Predictably, news outlets are picking up on his new take on this old passage.  Everyone from the Huffington Post to USA Today to Fox News to Mother Jones to The Blaze has run stories on Isaiah’s prophecy and its relationship to the current Syrian imbroglio.

For the record, let me say that I highly doubt the prophecy of Isaiah 17 will come to pass in our lifetimes.  How can I say this?  Because it already has come to pass…over 2,700 years ago.  Isaiah originally proffered this prophecy during the Syro-Ephraimite alliance of 735-732 BC.  This is why the fates of the Syrians and Ephraimites are linked in verse 3: “The fortified city will disappear from Ephraim, and royal power from Damascus.”  Ephraim – that is, northern Israel – made a treaty with Syria in a last ditch effort to defend herself against an immanent attack from Assyria, one of the most menacing superpowers of the eighth century BC.  This is why we read in Isaiah 7:2:  “Syria is in league with Ephraim.”  The alliance did not work.  In 732 BC, the Assyrians, led by Shalmaneser, sacked the Syrians, destroying the alliance between Ephraim and Syria.  Ten years later, the Assyrians came for Ephraim, and northern Israel was no more.  Yet, even after this devastating defeat, God made a promise that His people would endure:  “Some gleanings will remain, as when an olive tree is beaten, leaving two or three olives on the topmost branches, four or five on the fruitful boughs” (Isaiah 17:6).  Isaiah uses an agricultural metaphor to describe how God’s people, though defeated by the Assyrians, will never be destroyed.  There will always be a remnant faithful to Him.

To turn this ancient prophecy, fulfilled some twenty-seven centuries ago, into a modern day harbinger of hopelessness is to do violence to it.  Indeed, I am frustrated that many journalists reporting on this story and the debate between those who think this prophecy has already been fulfilled and those who think it is yet to be fulfilled are casting this debate as one between theologians who look at this text literalistically and others who do not.  Take, for instance, this line from Time magazine:  “Nearly all Biblical scholars … argue that such a literalist interpretation of the text is highly problematic.”[2]  The debate over this text is not between those who read this text in a literalistic manner as a prophecy of things to come and those who read it as already being fulfilled in ancient times.  Being “literal” or “non-literal” has nothing to do with this debate.  Rather, this is a debate over how to handle this biblical text responsibly, carefully looking at its context and seeking to understand this text in the manner Isaiah himself would have understood it.  Thus, a responsible reading of this text would note that this oracle against Syria is just one of a series of oracles against places like Philistia, Moab, and Cush, all of which no longer exist.  In context, then, it is clear that Isaiah is speaking not of modern day Syrian warfare, but of an attack against the Syria of his day along with attacks against other nations of his day, leading to their demise.

Ultimately, what is happening in Syria is the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, but not of the one in Isaiah 17.  Instead, words from Jesus come to mind:  “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.  Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” (Matthew 24:6).  Jesus tells us there will be war.  And not just war, but wars.  The current conflict in Syria is just one such example.  Jesus also tells us that these wars do not mean the end of the world has arrived.  Conflicts are indicative that the end is indeed coming, but they are not determinative that the end has come.  Finally, and perhaps most importantly, Jesus reminds us that we should not be alarmed at these troubled times.  Indeed, instead of fear, we should feel compassion toward those whose lives have been turned upside down by this terrible conflict.  The fear mongering that passes for theology in many best selling books is in direct contradiction to Jesus’ admonishment to be not afraid.  After all, what do we have to fear?  Jesus has the end of the world – and everything leading up to it – taken care of.

We can trust in Him.


[1] Joel C. Rosenberg, “Pastors: here are 24 pages of study notes on Isaiah 17, Jeremiah 49 & the future of Damascus. Please feel free to share with others,” flashtrafficblog.wordpress.com (9.11.2013).

[2] Elizabeth Dias, “Some Evangelicals See Biblical Prophecy In Syrian Crises,” Time (8.29.2013).

September 23, 2013 at 5:15 am 1 comment

The Value of Patience

Credit: baycitizen.org

Credit: baycitizen.org

I am not a patient person.  I wish I was, but I’m not sure I really have the patience to learn patience.

The other day I had to go to the DMV to get a registration sticker for my truck.  I had renewed my registration online some two months earlier, but my registration sticker never came.  When I called inquiring about my vehicle registration, they informed me that the sticker must have gotten lost in the mail and that it was my responsibility to drive to a DMV office and purchase a replacement sticker.

So that’s what I did.

When I arrived, I found two lines.  One line took care of vehicle registration renewals and the other line took care of everything else.  I was hoping I could wait in the registration renewal line, but because I was not renewing my registration and instead getting a replacement sticker, I had to wait in the other line.  Did I mention that the other line was longer and moving much slower?

After over an hour waiting in line, I finally got my sticker.  It took less than a minute.  Needless to say, I walked out with less than a smile on my face.

I am not a patient person.  God, however, is patient.  The Bible regularly celebrates God’s patience:  “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” (Psalm 103:8).  Rather than getting upset easily and quickly, God’s patient love prevails.

For all of God’s patience, it is important to note that even His patience does not last forever.  When Israel rebels against God for centuries in wickedness, God warns:  “You have rejected me … You keep on backsliding.  So I will reach out and destroy you; I am tired of holding back” (Jeremiah 15:6).  God will only tolerate unrepentant sin for so long.  Such sin will eventually lead to divine judgment.  Thus, although we are called to trust God’s patience, we should not try God’s patience.

I got frustrated because I had to wait an hour to get my vehicle registration sticker at the DMV.  God has been waiting thousands of years so more and more people might repent and trust in Him.  And if God is can wait that long for us, maybe I can wait a little longer for others.

September 16, 2013 at 5:15 am Leave a comment

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