Monday, June 26, 2006

Walk the (Fine) Line

Last night I saw the movie that documents a portion of Johnny Cash’s life, Walk the Line. Everything I know about Johnny Cash I learned in this movie, so I cannot vouch for its historical accuracy. However, this is the best movie I’ve seen in the past year. No scene, no line, no song was wasted or overdone. The music fit tightly into the movie’s storyline so you didn’t have to be a fan to appreciate the scenes that were powered by Johnny Cash’s (and June Carter’s) music. I am left curious about Cash’s faith, and will have to do some research on that. But overall, a great film.

My favorite scene is when Johnny Cash and his two backup men are auditioning for a recording contract. The executive isn’t impressed with the gospel song they are singing. The following exchange occurs between Cash and the exec:

“Gospel like that doesn’t sell.”
“Is it the Gospel or what I sing?”“Both.”
“What’s wrong with the way I sing?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“You don’t believe in God?”

The point is that Cash (at least at this point in his life) can’t sing the gospel convincingly. The executive urges him to sing something that he can sing from the heart.

Cash says:
“I got a couple songs I wrote in the airforce. You got anything against the airforce?”
“I do.”

And with a soft snarl of defiance, of bottled anguish being cautiously freed, the music really begins…

A sort of conversion is hinted at later in the movie, when Cash receives a “second chance” from God and heads into a church with June Carter. One of the deleted scenes offered on the DVD shows the sermon Cash hears when he is in the church. It is not so much the gospel message as a description of Cain and Abel, and we are led to believe that Johnny Cash is finding that he can relate to the wayward characters of Scripture. He next heads to Folsom prison to benefit the inmates and record his greatest record.

It is interesting that the writer/director said he deleted the sermon scene because he couldn’t convincingly portray the powerful way in which June Carter brought God into Cash’s life. Thus, the director practiced what he preached in this movie: Those who present the gospel (in song, in film) must do so convincingly. Better to not do it at all than to do it unconvincingly!

It’s tough to be both deeply devout and deeply honest. The best Christian artists do both. The best preachers do both. The best Christians do both. It’s our high and holy calling to interact with the great mysteries of the faith with honesty and humility. Though we are forever pulled toward hypocrisy by inside pressure (pride) and outside pressure as well, we must resist this just as we resist every other sin.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Does God Believe in Miracles?

"Is anything too hard for the LORD?" (Genesis 18:14)

This verse could also be translated from the Hebrew this way: "Is anything too wonderful for the Lord?" Or, "Is anything miraculous to the Lord?"

The word "miracle" refers to something that takes place outside the ordinary rules of nature. It should not surprise us that God could perform miracles, because he created what we call nature; he is above it, beyond it, outside it. Those who reject the miraculous are simply rejecting God and vice versa.

Yet to God, there are no "miracles" in a certain sense. That which is surprising to us is expected by him. That which is wondrous to us is straightforward to him. That which which is beyond our nature is never beyond him.

Is anything miraculous to the Lord? No. Although he has been known to marvel at human unbelief.

This is the LORD's doing; it is marvelous in our eyes. (Psalm 118:23)

And he marvelled because of their unbelief. (Mark 6:6)

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Who Do You Think You Are?

Who do you think you are? When you get up in the morning, as life becomes less blurry and you begin to remember where you are and who you are – who comes to mind?

Spiritually speaking, some people define their identity by what they are not. They motivate themselves each day (perhaps subtly) by the assurance that they are not the spiritual “bad guys.” Compared to others, therefore, they are doing well; God must be proud of them. Here are some best selling identities in this category:

I am not a traditionalist
I am not a fundamentalist
I am not a Roman Catholic
I am not a charismatic
I am not a weirdo

Finding our identity in what we are not can allow us to avoid the tough, personal questions that Jesus would prefer we ask ourselves. Now don’t get me wrong – I completely understand that Christians are commanded to be opposed to certain ideologies and practices. However, a mature Christian will never be content to spend every waking moment in this mindset.

I propose the following test. When you get out of bed, and you are about to face the day, ask yourself this triad of questions:

Does God loves me?
Did Jesus die for my sins?
Does the Holy Spirit live within me?

Make this your “get out of bed” test. Quiz yourself each day. If you can answer these questions affirmatively, and with a growing confidence, you will have good reason to wake up each day.

Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace... (Hebrews 13:9)

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Absentee Father?

Were you ever embarrassed of your father?

Some are embarrassed that God, in Scripture, is called “Father” and referred to throughout both Old and New Testaments as "He." In fact, Dan Brown in The Da Vinci Code reveals a biting anger at the Bible’s insistence on God’s masculinity. So some would therefore ask today, Isn’t such masculine language a vestige of ancient patriarchy, something to be reformed rather than embraced in our advanced day and age?

First of all, it should be kept in mind that God is not called “Father” and “He” because He is a great big male in the sky. God is neither male nor female, but transcendent above these categories. Male and female were both created in the image of God (Genesis 1). On occasion there are even metaphors of God in Scripture that compare Him to a mother – for example, in Isaiah 66:13 God declares, “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you.” (Though note that in the next verse He says, “The hand of the LORD shall be known to his servants, and he shall show his indignation against his enemies.”)

However – and this is an important however! – He is rightly referred to as “Father” and “He” because God’s relationship to humankind is overwhelmingly masculine. C.S. Lewis once wrote that God reveals Himself with masculine imagery and pronouns because, before his mighty presence, everything is feminine to him! In other words, if masculinity is generally speaking defined in terms of strength (of body, of character, of will) – there is nothing more masculine than God. Or, if masculinity is defined (as in marriage) in terms of headship, there is no one who is in charge of God.

And that’s why you have to look hard for the references that compare God to a mother, but you can open the Bible to any page and find scores of references to God as “He,” “Father,” “Husband,” “King,” and so forth.

We lose something important if we are embarrassed that the Bible speaks of a masculine, patriarchal God. In fact, we lose a Father. And hasn’t that happened in our culture enough already?

Thursday, June 15, 2006

The Perfect Church

My friend Jeff recently sent along his thoughts on finding the perfect church. As some of you are still looking, I thought you might find this helpful:

Since finishing seminary three years ago, I have spent a good amount of time looking for churches in which I might like to minister. Its really not all that different from looking for any job, and so I made a list of church qualifications...

1. The Senior Pastor must be a committed, reformed, presbyterian, evangelical, semi-liturgical, covenantal, bibliophile, with the same interests as me, who also challenges me to grow.

2. The staff must be good looking and agreeable.

3. The structure and make-up of the church must be explicitly biblical.

4. It should be in a good part of town, the members shouldn't sin too much, or too greivously. All the children should be well-behaved, and generally pastor themselves. Everyone should get along swimmingly, know and apply the Bible consistently, encourage and exhort one another regularly, dress in a style that makes me comfortable, and live happy middle class lives while still taking risks for Christ.

5. The music should be perfect, the sanctuary beautiful, and the golf course pristine. (Oh wait, now I'm thinking of the country club I want to join.) And there should be a Starbucks in the Narthex.

In short, I want to join Perfect Presbyterian Church (PPC, for short). The trouble is, I've had a good bit of trouble finding this church. In fact, it doesn't exist.

The reason it doesn't exist is because churches are made up of people like us. Sinners who are still in the process of being made holy, but with a long ways yet to go. But as James encourages us, "He gives more grave." And not only does this grace help us to humble ourselves and draw near to God, rather than fighting and quarreling, it is the same grace that is purifying His church. Though we are, in James' words, "an adulterous people," God is purifying us, making us into a perfect bride for his Son, spotless and pure. He is sanctifying his people, and we will one day be holy and without blemish.

We are a work in progress, and the reason we volunteer in the church is not because we like working with "adulterous" people, but because it is a privilege to help the bride get ready!

Wednesday, June 14, 2006


"The wicked accepts a bribe in secret
to pervert the ways of justice." (Proverbs 17:23)

"The show partiality is not good,
but for a piece of bread a man will do wrong." (Proverbs 28:21)

If you are not blind and deaf, you have probably noticed that our political system in the United States is in peril. The above verses tell us that, first of all, bribery destroys justice. The second verse says, basically, it doesn't take much to bribe someone... a man will forsake justice for merely a "piece of bread" -- how much more a freezer full of "bread"!

In order to avoid the injustice that springs naturally from human greed, a strong remedy is needed.

How about this: "Where there is no prophetic vision the people cast of restraint, but blessed is he who keeps the law" (Proverbs 29:18). (Old version: "Without vison a people perish...")

What is needed is a return to the law of God. But a return to the law of God requires a return to the love and fear of God, and this requires a changed heart. And a changed heart requires repentance. And repentance will not happen apart from the proclamation of hard truths. And the voicing of hard, unpopular truths requires men with prophetic daring. And prophetic daring only arises by the Holy Spirit, moving men to love eternal pleasures and dismiss temporary comforts.

Lord, please raise up daring men!

"The wicked flee when no one pursues, but the righteous are bold as a lion" (Proverbs 28:1).

"The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few. Therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest." (Jesus, Matthew 9:37-38)

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Despairing and Rejoicing

In a recent New Yorker essay, “Headless Horseman,” Adam Gopnik discusses the inescapable brutality of the French Revolution. The word “headless” in the essay’s title refers to the beheadings that took place as liberty was established. He states, rightly, that the violence of that era cannot be easily reduced to merely intellectual or political realities of the time.

He ends the essay with these words, comparing the violence of the Eighteenth Century to the brutal regimes of the Twentieth:

It sometimes seems as if history had deliberately placed Hitler and Stalin side by side at the climax of the horror of modern history simply to demonstrate that the road to Hell is paved with any intention you like; a planned, pseudo-rationalist utopianism and an organic, racial, backward-looking Romaticism ended up with the same camps and the same carnage. The historical lesson of the [French Revolution] is not that reason devours its own but that reason cannot stop us from devouring each other.

There you have it. Even The New Yorker can admit, now and again, that humanity has a deep and disturbing problem. To recognize this, to really recognize this, leads one to either cry out to God for redemption, or to accept somehow that a cloud of despair must forever hang over humanity.

Many, believe it or not, take that second option. In fact, have you ever noticed how that which is considered “high art” is often dark and disturbing? This is because those who seek to look closer at humanity and its condition, when they are honest, realize that what is there is rather…well, dark and disturbing. Many wardrobes have been built on this premise.

What does the Gospel of Jesus Christ offer instead? Rather than despair, the Gospel promotes joy. Precisely because humans are so damaged, we need a God who rescues – not a God who merely educates or commands. Finding this merciful God, and seeing all he has done for us through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a happy occasion indeed!

And yet…

Yet Christians like myself can sometimes lack joy. Why is this? Well, for me, I think the answer is that I take my eyes off that Gospel and place them back on myself. Even though I should know better, I forget that my sin-weakened frame will always disappoint me. I will always let me down. So I become glum, wishing I could do better, be better, pray better, love better, etc.

We must, ironically, begin with despair concerning ourselves. But if we are to honor the God of the life-giving Gospel, we cannot end there. We must discover and delight in the great rescue of God. When we do, we’ll have something to celebrate. We’ll have Someone to celebrate. May our worship today, and every day, reflect this true joy!

Friday, June 09, 2006

Speaking of Sports...

Speaking of sports, there's an important life lesson buried in today's NBA championship news:

DALLAS — In a game of stars, a role player stepped up and stole the show in the opening game of the NBA Finals.

Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks took advantage of being left alone most of the game Thursday and drilled the Miami Heat with shot after shot in a 90-80 victory.

Terry, who struggled with his shooting in the Western Conference finals against the Phoenix Suns, finished with 32 points. He was 13-for-18 from the field and made four of seven three-pointers to pick up the scoring slack as Miami concentrated on containing Dirk Nowitzki...
(Courtesy of USA TODAY)

As a pastor, I am quite enthusiastic about those who live out their faith in other vocations. Those in other roles can do things I can't do. They can apply biblical principles to the business world, and the Bible has much to say about that. They can more naturally develop non-Christian friends and acquaintances. Those who are especially successful can demonstrate generosity in unique ways. They can surprise others with their faith.

As a pastor, I enjoy unique benefits too. For example, I get to study God's word in depth as part of my daily line of duties. And because I'm called to serve the Lord in ministry, and because this is what God has gifted me to do, I don't desire anything different. But I'm certainly not going to surprise anyone when they find out I'm a Christian!

So, if "going to work" for you does NOT mean "going to church," take advantage of your ability to launch sneak attacks.

Take a lesson from Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks. When all eyes aren't on you, don't "relax" -- surprise the other team by taking your faith to the boards!

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Fool with the Flush

Poker may not be particularly athletic, but it is apparently a sport. When I traverse through the cable sports stations, I find that there is nearly always a circle of famous folks sporting cards and chips.

Poker seemed an apt illustration as I read Jesus’ words today. Jesus said, “Take care, and be on your guard against all covetousness, for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions.” Then he told the famous parable of the “rich fool” – you remember, the successful businessman who said to his soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” But God said to him, “Fool! This night your soul is required of you!” (Luke 12)

In poker terms, the rich man had a flush - maybe even a straight flush. Everything had come together nicely for him, and he was sliding his chips to the middle of the table. He didn’t have the perfect hand, but a near perfect one. He expected his chips, along with his opponents’ chips, to slide back into his account and form an impressive pile.

Sadly, he was betting against God. Holding a royal straight flush from the beginning, God knew this man’s attempts to accumulate wealth were doomed to failure. In fact, the larger the bet the man made, the more total would be his collapse. And when God laid down his cards, all the man could do was watch in horror as his possessions vanished away.

Jesus said, “So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God” (Luke 12:21).

The good news is that those who are rich toward God, offering everything to him, experience an abundance above human comprehension. While not celebrities here on earth, God’s children are rich beyond measure – sharing in all the winnings of their Lord.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Soul Priority

There are endless products on the market that will help you take care of your body. In fact, we daily tend to our bodies' many demands. And the body does have its place... Jesus’ resurrection teaches us that God wants to redeem our fallen humanity, body included. Nevertheless, the Bible really does place a premium on our inner life. Do you? Consider:

The inner life has priority psychologically:
“A man's spirit will endure sickness, but a crushed spirit who can bear?” Proverbs 18:14

The inner life has priority for facing eternity:
"I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him!” Luke 12:4-5

The inner life has priority in personal growth:
“Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths. Rather train yourself for godliness; for while bodily training is of some value, godliness is of value in every way, as it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come.” 1 Timothy 4:7-8

The inner life has priority for gaining true greatness:
“Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Proverbs 16:32

And the inner life has priority ethically:
“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” Galatians 5:16-17

Having said all this, however, what we do with our body really does matter. In fact, it matters even to our soul!
“Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul.” 1 Peter 2:11

Your body makes many loud demands, but your spirit makes quiet ones. Those quiet ones may not seem as urgent, but they are by far the most important.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Highly Recommended

Continuing to break from the norm during these early days of summer...

I recently added a link to the Calvinist Gadfly blog, and want to draw your attention to a recent, excellent post. In "Is Your Preaching Wimpy?" John White discusses not only what makes great (or at least faithful) preaching, but gives an interesting take on why people apostasize from the Christian faith. It's enough to think that people should apostasize if you're preaching well! Check it out!

While I'm at it, I want to plug John H. Armstrong's blog. I met John Armstrong recently, and resonate with his interest in seeing Christians unite around the historic Christian faith.

On a more personal note, if you want to see how rewarding, and just plain cute, it can be to adopt a child, make sure you see my sister's new site.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Memorial Day Weekend

Normally, this site is dedicated to observations on society, the Bible, and where the two cross paths. Summer is here, however, and the time seems right for a break from the normal. So I decided to offer a few personal pictures from my recent trip to the U.P.:

This is me at the Mackinaw Bridge, which connects Michigan's

Lower and Upper Peninsulas. (Confused? See my May 24 post!)

The bridge serves another purpose as well, which is connecting

my family which is divided between the two peninsulas

ever since one sister and her family moved there to

start a church.

Bethany was the reason for the occasion, as she graduated

from high school this past weekend. She is headed to the

Calvary Chapel Bible College in August.

She is pictured here with her good friend Matt.

My mom. She prayed earnestly for her five children,

and I was one of those five who greatly benefited.

Now she has a dozen or more grandkids.

Madison (lap) and Cori (right) are two of the newer models.

The aforementioned five kids: Ken and Jim in the back row,

and in the front row Joni, Karen, and Lisa.

During this trip I helped Karen set up her family blog,

now linked from this site.

Here's even more of the family...

The bright baby is my mom's first great grandchild.

So that's us. Or some of us, anyway. Tomorrow, back to normality, perhaps.