Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Greatest Treasure in Life is the Faith that Clings to Christ

In the little book of daily devotionals entitled Teach Me to Pray (Urichsville, OH: Barbour, 2011), Andrew Murray writes this of faith: 

“Scripture teaches us that there is not one truth on which Christ insisted more frequently than the absolute necessity of faith and its unlimited possibilities. Experience has taught us that there is nothing in which we fall so short as the simple and absolute trust in God to literally fulfill in us all He has promised. A life in Christ’s abiding presence must of necessity be a life of unceasing faith” (56).

If we conceive faith as that trust which looks to Christ, clings to Christ, and loves Christ, then we must agree with Murray. There is no greater treasure in this life than the faith that clings to Christ. And how are we to get this faith? Hudson Taylor would answer, "Not by striving for faith, but by looking to the Faithful One." That is, by contemplating and interrelating with Jesus. 

So may we seek Christ today by his Word, by prayer, and by the Holy Spirit. And may he fill us with that faith that is the treasure of life. 

Friday, March 27, 2015

C. Wright Mills and the Sociological Imagination

In 1959, American sociologist C. Wright Mills published his most famous work entitled The Sociological Imagination (Oxford University Press). In that book Mills argued that the sociological imagination is the mental ability “to grasp the interplay of man and society, of biography and history, of self and world.” Mills desire was to forge a middle ground between structural-functionalist sociology which argued that broader social forces were the key to understanding the individual, if indeed there is such a thing, and psychology which argued that internal mental and emotional dynamics were the key to understanding society, if indeed there is such a thing.

The practical import of Mills’ point of view was that it shed light on personal troubles and societal issues alike by putting both in the context of the other. For instance, suppose a man loses his job. This is a personal trouble because it has to do with one man’s life. But suppose that along with him 10 million other men and women lose their jobs. This is a societal issue because such a high rate of unemployment is undoubtedly due to a failure of the broader social structures that were created to maintain order and stability in society.

Neither the personal trouble nor the societal issue can be properly understood in isolation from the other. The societal issue is the conglomerate of the personal troubles of millions, and the personal trouble of millions is influenced, in large part, by the societal issue. The ability to see the interplay between the two and envision multi-faceted solutions to both personal and social problems is, in short, what Mills called the sociological imagination.

As a student, Pastor, and wanna-be-theologian, Mills has helped me gain the mental capacity to envision everyday problems in light of larger issues and vice versa, and for this I’m thankful. However, I must say that I find his work to be of limited value because he omitted a necessary element from the equation, namely, the existence of God.

Mills was an avowed “pagan agnostic,” although I think he used the term a bit tongue-in-cheek, so I’m neither surprised nor offended by the fact that he ignored the foundational fact of being and society. But in order to get the most out of his work I have begun the process of re-imagining what he imagined and sketched out what might be called “the theological imagination” or the “theocentric imagination.”

Next week I will share my thoughts with you, but for now let me ask this question: in light of Mills’ work, how would you define “the theological imagination”?

Sunday, March 22, 2015

To Truly Help People we Must Preach Christ

After being stopped by the Holy Spirit from going into either Asia or Bithynia, Paul and his team landed in the port city of Troas. While there, “a vision appeared to Paul in the night: a man of Macedonia was standing there, urging him and saying, ‘Come over to Macedonia and help us.’ And when Paul had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go on into Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.”

Notice how Paul interpreted this vision—he interpreted the man’s cry mainly to mean that he should preach the gospel. Like Paul, we should have a heart for the practical needs of people in the world, but we must never forget that the church exists to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ. We should feed, but we must preach Christ. We should clothe, but we must preach Christ. We should visit those in prison, but we must preach Christ. We should heal the sick, but we must preach Christ. We should pursue justice, but we must preach Christ.

As for Paul and his team the proof was in the pudding. When they reached Macedonia and made their way to the city of Philippi, Lydia and her household believed in Christ. A young slave-girl was delivered from an evil spirit and believed in Christ. The Philippian jailer and his household believed in Christ. Surely, as Paul got to know these people and others, he cared about their practical needs. But mainly, he preached Christ and therefore the largest issues of life were totally settled. And this pattern repeated in Thessalonica, Berea, Athens, and Corinth. Everywhere Paul went, he cared for people by first preaching Christ.

So indeed, in order to love we must care about people’s practical needs. Both James and John make that clear in their letters (James 2:1-18; 1 John 4:20). However, in order to care for people most deeply we must preach Christ to them.

Friday, March 20, 2015

How's Your Prayer Life Going?

In his book Teach me to Pray (Minneapolis, Bethany House, 2002), Andrew Murray writes this: “Prayer is what we need to be taught. Though in its beginnings prayer is so simple that even a small child can pray, it is at the same time the highest and holiest work to which anyone can rise. It is fellowship with the unseen and most holy One” (page 11).

So how’s your prayer life going? What steps would the Lord have you take today to grow in this privilege and grace? May the Lord teach us to be like him, that is, to pray without ceasing.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Thanks for Praying!

Thanks so much for praying for Kim and I last week! I was so excited for Kim to finally see where I stay when I’m in Chicago, to see Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and to attend some class sessions with me. My class started on Monday morning and ended on Thursday evening. Normally, our profs don’t give us work to do in the evenings, but this one is new and he poured it on! Unfortunately, this meant that I was going from 6:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. every day which was exhausting. And of course, as the Swedish work-horse she is, Kim worked long hours as well! But God really blessed our time, and we were able to connect during our many hours in the car and during gaps in each day. 

When my class was over, we headed down to East Saint Louis to see our friends and fellow church planters, Kempton and Karen Turner. It was a short but blessed visit, and again, I’m so glad Kim could be there with me. 

Thanks again for praying for us, it means more than words can say. May the Lord gain glory for himself through the fruit that was borne while we were away.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Book Review: “World Religions in a Nutshell” by Ray Comfort

Ray Comfort is a passionate, Christ-exalting evangelist. He does just about everything he does to maximize his time for the purpose of sharing the love of Jesus with unbelievers. So, we are not surprise to read these words at the close of the brief Introduction to his book, World Religions in a Nutshell: A Compact Guide to Reaching Those of Other Faiths (Alachua, FL: Bridge-Logos, 2008):

“I don’t mind admitting that books on world religions, with a spine the size of my fist, intimidate me. While they might look impressive on my shelf, I literally have little time for them. I want a book that will say, ‘Here’s what you need; now go to battle’—a book that will give me what I need in a nutshell.”

Accordingly, Comfort moves on to offer brief synopses of Judaism, Mormonism, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Islam, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Atheism, and Modern Christianity. Each chapter gives an overview of a religion’s origins, basic beliefs, and customs, as well as tips on how to share Jesus with adherents. 

While the information in these chapters is fairly accurate and helpful, the paucity of research that went into the book sometimes causes Comfort to misstate or mischaracterize aspects of each religion. For example, of the Jewish view of Scripture Comfort writes, “Orthodox Jews believe that the Torah was written by God through the hand of Moses…They also believe the rest of the Old Testament, which is called the Tanak, but don’t give it as much authority as the Torah.” 

In truth, the name “Tanak” derives from the acronym “TNK” where “T” stands for “Torah” (the Law of Moses), “N” stands for “Nevi’im” (the prophets), and “K” stands for “Kethuvim” (the writings or poetic literature). So for the Jew, the entirety of what we call the Old Testament is instead called the Tanak.

Details matter, and I wish that Comfort and his team would have taken more time to ensure that the details were right. However, I still think the book a valuable resource and recommend it to anyone who needs a quick overview of one or more religions, or who perhaps isn’t “the reading type” and thus won't take the time to read a more detailed book.

One more minor criticism. When it comes to entering into a discussion with a person of any faith, Comfort is a one-trick pony. This is no surprise to those who know Comfort's ministry, for he believes in using the Law of Moses, and the Ten Commandments in particular, to prick a person’s conscience and lead them to faith in Christ. Far be it from me to criticize a man who is so fruitful in evangelism, but I must say that there is more than one way to share the glory of the gospel with unbelievers. So let us learn what we can from Comfort, and also acknowledge that there are other biblical approaches to sharing the gospel. 

Overall, I recommend the book, mainly because I’m grateful to the Lord and Comfort for how I have grown from it. May the Lord use this brief work to empower and impassion his people to share the hope of Jesus with a lost and dying world!

Friday, March 13, 2015

The "High" of Multitasking

In her book Alone Together (New York: Basic Books, 2011), Sherry Turkle writes, “But multitasking feels good because the body rewards it with neurochemicals that induce a multitasking ‘high.’ The high deceives multitaskers into thinking they are being especially productive. In search of the high, they want to do even more. In the years ahead there will be a lot to sort out” (163).

The fact of the matter is that constant multi-tasking makes us less productive, less excellent, less happy, and more tired. In fact, earlier in the book Turkle asserted that constant connectivity via phones and computers exhausts us to a level similar to losing an entire night’s sleep!

So don’t let the culture, or the neurochemical “high” fool you—as a general rule, multitasking does not work. May we push back against the tide and learn to focus, rest, and pursue excellence for the glory of Christ and the good of others.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Preachers: We Must Keep our Spiritual Bearings

In his book Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), J. Ellsworth Kalas warns preachers of the personal and corporate danger of getting sucked into the culture of constant distraction.

He writes, “If our souls are adrift, multiplied other souls are in danger. So in a world of distractions, we are under special admonishment to keep our spiritual bearings. We are compelled, under God, to be selective in what gets our attention, because what gets our attention gets us—and what gets us gets the attention of numbers of other people who pay attention to us” (40).

Kalas does not think that preachers, in order to be good and godly preachers, must monkishly withdraw from the world of technology and distraction. To the contrary, he thinks our engagement in this world is an advantage for our ministries because in this way we feel the same pain and pressures and opportunities as God’s people.

But he does think that we must give special care to giving ourselves wholly to God and allowing him to set the agenda for our lives. When God takes his proper place, all other things take their proper places as well. And he does think that we must give special attention to what effects the use of technology et al. has on our souls.

For since we ourselves are not the fountain of truth and life, we can only minister out of the overflow of our relationship with God. If that relationship is thin and filled with distractions, our ministry will be superficial and harmful to ourselves and others. But if that relationship is primary and vital and growing, our ministry will substantial regardless of how many people God entrusts to our care.

So, my fellow preachers, let us listen to the wise counsel of this seasoned minister of the gospel and guard our souls against the dangers of monkish withdrawal, on the one side, and constant distraction, on the other. May the Lord help us as we seek to love him and carry out our ministries in a manner worthy of his Name.

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Doctoral Study and Some Prayer Requests

Today I’m traveling to Chicago for the latest course in my doctoral program at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. The course is entitled "Preaching and Culture," and it deals with the interface between faithful biblical preaching and the cultural realities of technologization, secularization, and interculturation. For the course we have read a number of articles (about 12), as well as the following books:
  1. David Livermore. 2011. The Cultural Intelligence Difference. New York: American Management Association. 
  2. Leslie Newbigin. 1986. Foolishness to the Greeks: The gospel and western culture. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
  3. Sherry Turkle. 2011. Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. New York: Basic Books.
  4. George Barna and David Kinnamen. 2014. Churchless: Understanding today’s unchurched and how to connect with them. Austin, TX: Tyndale Momentum.
  5. J. Ellsworth Kalas. 2014. Preaching in an age of distraction. Downers Grove: IVP Press.

I’m so excited to have Kimmy coming along with me this time, as she’s never been able to come in the past. So please pray for our travel time, for any time we can spend together this week, and for my course study.

After the class is over on Thursday evening, Kimmy and I will be driving to East Saint Louis to visit with a church planter and friend, Kempton Turner. The goal is simply to spend a day with him and pray for his family and ministry. We really look forward to what the Lord will do while we're there, please join us in prayer for that time, too. 

And then, Lord willing, we’ll hop in the car on Saturday morning and drive back to Elk River just in time to get a little sleep and go to church the next day! Kimmy and I are really looking forward to the trip, and we thank you for your prayers. May the Lord richly bless you even as you lift us up in prayer. 

Friday, March 06, 2015

Distraction and our Eternal Purpose

With all the distractions of the modern age in mind, J. Ellsworth Kalas writes, “It’s as if some evil genie has decided to drive us mad by spreading before us more than we want, more than we can imagine, certainly more than we can contain, and then cursed us with an inability to really enjoy any of it because we won’t focus long enough on any one thing to savor its flavor” (Preaching in an Age of Distraction, page 31).

And why does this matter? “Well, it matters if you and I matter. If we see ourselves simply as grazing animals, moving from one excitement to another the way the beast moves from one tuft of grass to the next, then I suspect it doesn’t matter. But if we see ourselves as creatures of purpose—and indeed, if we see ourselves as God sees us, as creatures with an eternal purpose—then it matters profoundly” (page 31).

Amen. Why not take some time to reflect on Kalas’s words, search your heart before the Lord, and commit yourself to enjoying the greatest things of life by taking more time to reflect on Christ? Kalas has helped me much in this regard, I trust he’ll help you as well. 

Wednesday, March 04, 2015

Are you Lost in the Maze of Spiritual Waste?

J. Ellsworth Kalas, in his book entitled Preaching in an Age of Distraction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014), leads us to think about how the various distractions in our lives affect our ability to think well, and more importantly, to think about great things. The following quote is a bit long, but I encourage you to read it carefully.

“How does such a daily culture [of constant distraction] affect our sensitivity to issues that are eternal? Do we spend so much emotional and spiritual energy on material choices that we have neither the time nor the inclination to focus our souls on the kingdom that fadeth not?

“The apostle urged first-century believers, ‘From now on, brothers and sisters, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise’ (Phil 4:8). If the foods that feed our bodies influence our physical health, certainly the ideas and impressions that crowd their way into our minds help shape and determine our intellectual, emotional and spiritual welfare. That’s why we need so badly to focus our thoughts, because otherwise they will be lost in a maze of spiritual waste” (Kalas, 26).

What a moving final phrase. Not all distractions are bad, but at some point distractions become destructive. At some point, distractions cause us to “be lost in a maze of spiritual waste.” I take that phrase seriously, and I for one don’t want to find myself trapped in such a maze. The glory of God is too beautiful and the work of God is too serious to allow that to happen.

So how do we avoid the maze? How do we escape it when we find ourselves trapped in it? I think the answer is simple, even if the process is hard. By the grace of God in Christ, we force our eyes to turn toward Christ and we fix them there. We read our Bibles carefully and prayerfully. We contemplate the words and ways of our God and Father. We converse about such things with those who love Jesus. We seek to be doers of the Word and not hearers only. We sing praise to God and otherwise express our affections for him. As we engage in such things, our hearts are more and more turned toward Christ and we find ourselves freer and freer from the maze of spiritual waste.

The difficulty is not in understanding these things; the difficulty is in living them. May the Lord grant us grace to seek his face, and to be released from the maze all the days of our lives.  

Sunday, March 01, 2015

Book Review: Preaching in an Age of Distraction

A few days ago I finished a book by J. Ellsworth Kalas entitled, Preaching in an age of Distraction (Downers Grove: IVP, 2014). While it’s not the best book on preaching I’ve ever read, it was  still surprising and helpful. It was surprising because, while Kalas accurately assesses and decries the level and nature of distraction in our age, he also affirms the worth of distraction for human beings. In fact, he argues that distraction is a necessary part of life, one positive word for which would be “creativity.” After all, if we were never distracted we would always settle for the status quo and would never innovate. We would never invent. We would never improve ideas, mores, habits, products, and even relationships.

Indeed, distraction is a necessary part of being human, but we must learn to discern when distraction becomes destruction. Too much distraction keeps us from seeing and savoring beauty and all the best things of life. It diminishes our joy in life. It saps our energy. And it makes us poor preachers because we are less able to hear from the Lord, we are less able to creatively and passionately express what he’s given us to say, and we are less able to love others. 

With this "scale" of distraction and destruction well in mind, Kalas goes on to write about preachers and distraction, congregations and distraction, and some specific benefits of distraction. He then encourages preachers to overcome the problems of distraction by committing to excellence in their preaching, for he feels that excellence still awakens the soul to the greater things of life no matter the level of distraction.

Next Kalas addresses issues of creativity and “packaging” in preaching, closing out the book with two superb chapters on the power of biblical and doctrinal content in preaching, and the “secret resources” available to preachers. With regard to content, Kalas writes, “However dull of interest the listener may appear to be, and however distracted by the uncounted voices that clamor for attention, the preacher’s claim was there first. The breath came from God. The soul bears the branding of eternity, no matter how transient its pursuits, no matter how trivial its ambitions” (135). Indeed, we must be sober about the age in which we live, and we must be filled with hope that the Word of God still has power in human lives because the God of the Word is still alive!

With regard to the preacher’s secret resources, Kalas writes of love for the people of God and passion for the truth of God. I greatly benefited from what he wrote in this regard, but I was surprised and disappointed that he barely mentioned the place of prayer in the life of the preacher. Be that as it may, the closing chapter is the crowning jewel of the book, and offers welcome wisdom from a seasoned preacher and teacher of preaching.

If you're a preacher or teacher, this book will help you to understand the nature of distraction, identify helpful and hurtful distractions in your own life, better understand helpful and hurtful distractions in the life of your church, and remember the power of the Word of God in any age or particular context. As I mentioned above, Preaching in an Age of Distraction is not the best book on preaching I've ever read, but it's worth the time and money. And, for what it's worth, it's an easy read. 

Lord Jesus, may you make us better preachers and teachers by giving us eyes to behold your glory, minds to understand your Word, hearts to love your people, and creativity to preach your Word in a way that exalts your great name and stirs the souls of your people to greater and more eternal things. In your most excellent and captivating name we pray, amen.