Sunday, July 30, 2006

From Darkness to Light

While I was away, St. Louis experienced a major power failure. One person who found himself blacked out was Jim Armbrecht, who wrote the following "reflection."

The Second Coming of Electricity

Life without electricity was a shadow of our former life. In a hot, dark room, we crouched around the battery-operated radio with poor reception, listening for news. It was hard to see the dial by the flickering light of the candles lined up on the table. Outside the neighbor’s generator whined. Occasionally a hot breeze would come through the open window. The candles would flicker in the air casting grotesque shadows on the walls. The only relief was a cold soda from the ice cooler. Outside the street was totally dark. Life without electricity was not life as it was meant to be.

Without a warning, it returned! Bright light filled the room, the whole house! The refrigerator kicked on, the air conditioning whined, the telephone messages started to play. Light switches that were formerly dead now provided light on call. Outside, houses were now lit again up and down the street. Someone set off firecrackers in celebration.

Suddenly, our former efforts, as well meaning as they were, now seemed puny. The candles on the table, once so important, were now insignificant as they were bathed in the strong brilliance of the room lights. The scratchy radio was forgotten as we gathered around the big screen TV listening to the latest news. The window with its hot breeze was quickly shut to make way for the air conditioning. The contents of the ice cooler were quickly moved to the refrigerator. This is the way things weresupposed to work. This is the way things were meant to be. For a time that seemed like an eternity there was no electricity, but now it had come back again.

- Jim Armbrecht

Friday, July 21, 2006

Break Room


Thank you for visiting the site!

I will be away from the computer for about 10 days beginning Saturday, July 22. I look forward to returning at the start of August. Till then, I invite you to visit the sites linked from this one, or explore the archives here.

Till then!


World Without Actresses

Can you imagine a world without actresses? No long, fancy, revealing dresses on Oscar night, no “best actress” awards, no heroines to be saved by the heroes. Definitely no damsels in distress.

About a year ago, I noticed something. In what seemed a rather sudden shift, I began hearing actresses refer to themselves as “actors.” I’m sure the trend began long ago, but I probably noticed it when I started occasionally surfing onto Inside the Actor’s Studio on Bravo.

I have now seen the elimination of actresses codified into law. In a recent list of proofreading guidelines that I received into my email box, I read this:

It is important to avoid exclusionary forms. The following words can be easily substituted with other words or expressions:

man the deck—staff the deck
congressman—congresswoman (or congressional representative)

mailman—mail carrier

stewardess—flight attendant

Miss or Mrs.—Ms.

No more actresses? It seems that this will make the movies quite boring. In fact, it seems this makes life a little boring, too.

I prefer the way God designed things: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.”

That verse is interesting because there is diversity (“male and female he created them”) within unity (“God created man...”). It's a beautiful balance that Hollywood doesn't understand.

God created actors and actresses! Of course, that was a long, long time ago…

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Jump Right In

Pray then like this: "Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9-13)

The Lord's prayer contains a pattern for prayer. Years ago, I learned to extend my prayer time by working through these words as a template. To this day, I continue to do this.

I've often heard it said that this prayer begins with worship: "Hallowed by your name." The point often made, then, is that we too should begin our prayer with worship (rather than jumping right into petitions). Not a bad thought. However, there are two things wrong with this as an explanation of the Lord's prayer.

First, the prayer actually begins with an address: "Our Father in heaven." These are extremely important and intimate words. The prayer, then, does not begin with worship but with relationship.

Second, the words "hallowed by your name" (which means, "Let your name be regarded as holy") is a petition! It is a request to God that he would make us recognize his limitless worth. There is therefore no part of this prayer our Lord taught us to pray that is "mere" worship. Instead, we are taught to jump right in with our petitions!

So, it is no sin to spend a lot of time in prayer asking God for things. We shouldn't feel guilty that most of our prayer time is spent asking. But the question is, what kind of things do we ask for...and why? Our adoration of God should lead us to daily pray, "Father, let your name (not mine) be recognized as righteous, honorable, wonderful...holy." This is not a petition to rush through, to get out of the way in order to ask for what we really want. It is the first and foremost petition because it is most honoring to God and most satisfying to our own souls.

May the Lord transform our prayer lives -- not so we stop asking, but so that we finally start asking.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Wide Asleep?

Just finished Mark Driscoll’s Confessions of a Reformission Rev. This is a popular new book concerning the history of Mars Hill Church, which has grown to over 4000 members in secular Seattle under Driscoll’s driving leadership. “Driving” as in “driving rain.” As you learn through this autobiographical tale, Driscoll nearly destroyed his health and marriage, and certainly destroyed a variety of relationships, as he surged forward with his vision to plant and grow a missional church.

(NOTE: I posted a full review on Amazon here. A longer review by Steve Camp here.)

Near the end of the book, after the chaos has seemingly ended and the church seems relatively stable, Driscoll writes:

“I was sitting at my new desk… I was sitting on a nice office chair, which someone had anonymously left with the note “For my pastor.” We owned our church building outright and had money in the bank. I had a large staff for a church our size and was sleeping like a Calvinist at nights because things were under control.” (page 140, emphasis mine)

I must admit, I laughed out loud when I read that line…but I guess you had to be there.

Let’s analyze this metaphor.

What is a Calvinist? In general, a Calvinist is someone like me – and I think like Driscoll – who affirms the biblical doctrine that everything that happens is under God’s dominion; nothing happens apart from his will. In this case, a Calvinist sleeps well because he knows he is not working to earn his salvation or to seal the fate of his fellow men – that is God’s domain.

But there’s another meaning, it seems. In Driscoll’s world, a Calvinist is someone who debates (Calvinistic) theology rather than practicing it, someone who is more interested in controversy than in evangelism. For example, here’s what he says elsewhere about some Calvinists who advocated theonomy – the view that (in his words) “the church should rule the world”:

The young rabid Calvinists who were pushing for this doctrine did not yet own homes, most did not even have wives, and some still lived with their mothers. I tried to set them straight by telling them to get dominion over their room before they took over the world, but like most fools, they were not deterred. (page 130)

In this case, to “sleep like a Calvinist” would mean to relax from the demands of the gospel, to live in comfort rather than maintaining a missionary mindset. It reminds me of the Apostle Paul’s words:

But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

If anyone was a Calvinist, it was Paul (though of course we should say that John Calvin was Pauline). Paul reveled in the truth the God refused to advocate his throne, including his Lordship over who is and is not saved (see Ephesians 1, Romans 9). Yet he also said that he worked harder than the other apostles. He was a driving rain in his own right. Yet refusing to be misunderstood, he adds a qualifier: “Not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” Yes, God remains in charge – but this doesn’t slow us down, it speeds us up!

So this leads to the natural question… How hard am I working for the gospel? And how about you? And if you are working hard, is it a matter of sheer will power – or can you say, like a good Calvinist, “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me”?

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Why Believe?

I wrote the following short essay a number of years ago. Recently, I found it floating aimlessly around the internet and decided to bring it back home. I'm posting it today after reading someone who posed a variety of questions on - you might want to read the questions on his site (the July 8 post) before reading my thoughts, below.

Why should you believe the Christian faith?

We believe that Christianity is not only reasonable, but it is indeed the best explanation for the world in which we live. It most consistently accounts for beauty, truth, sin and evil, human personality, meaning, concepts of right and wrong, science, and more. In this short essay, I seek to show you how the Christian world view is able to make sense of sin and evil.

This is only one example of the way that Christianity provides us with the answers we are looking for ‑‑ in fact, the answers we often don't want to hear. This is not a complete argument for the existence of God or of Christianity; it is a starting point for discussion. I welcome you to send your comments after you read.

Sin and Evil: Two Choices

The word sin is not used much anymore, but the word "evil" is. It is a word that we reserve for the worst human actions imaginable. Do you believe that what Hitler did to the Jews was evil? The Christian can say, "What Hitler did was absolutely evil." Can you? You may be surprised to find that you cannot.

Consider the thought, "It is wrong to mutilate my neighbor's child." Why is it wrong? Maybe it hurts the child and the parent, but why is hurting others wrong? Perhaps a billion people agree that it is wrong, but that is irrelevant to whether it is inherently wrong. Only God is the basis for any kind of absolutes, namely, absolute right and absolute wrong. Arguably, only a personal God ‑‑ a true, living God who is interested in the affairs of mankind ‑‑ is the basis for meaningful absolutes, because only a personal God will reward good and punish evil.

A major problem of the man who tries to think in a God‑free manner is that he naturally wants to think in categories of right and wrong. People want to determine good and evil, right and wrong. Admittedly, there are many today who claim that they hold to no standards of right and wrong, but in reality they continually attempt to make absolute statements. (Some examples of absolute statements: "It is wrong that he cut me off on the freeway," "It is good to eat this food," "All people deserve freedom," "All people do not deserve freedom," "There are no absolutes," etc.) Because there is no standard of right and wrong apart from God, the alleged God‑free person shows himself to be continually dependent upon the God he seeks to deny, thus affirming His existence.

The result of denying God is immorality and injustice. Having no "high" standard for right and wrong (God and His word), much lower standards are accepted. Here's an example of how God's word contains a much higher standard for right and wrong than everday human reasoning: God's word teaches, "Do nothing out of selfish ambition"; man apart from God has no reason to deny his appetite for wealth, power, sex, etc. God's word teaches, "Thou shalt not murder"; apart from God, man has no ultimate answer to the question, "Why is murder wrong?"

Sin and Evil: Two Illustrations

Allow me to illustrate this point with two illustrations. First: Following a debate regarding the existence of God, an atheist, Dr. Stein, was asked the question, "Why was Hitler's holocaust wrong, since the Nazis considered Jews to be non‑persons?" In other words, if morality is a matter of personal preference, why can't one group decide that it is not wrong to kill another group? Dr. Stein answered the question by appealing to tradition: "Hitler had no right to go against the consensus that had been established before him [in Germany] by its Judeo‑Christian heritage." This question, which begs for an absolute, receives none, because an atheist cannot simultaneously reject God and claim that murder is inherently wrong. Claiming that Hitler had "no right" to go against a consensus is still declaring an arbitrary absolute, and therefore begs the question. Until God is "allowed" into the reasoning process, the question can continually be asked: Says who?

Second: I decided to "try this at home." One day, I asked two seemingly intelligent men, "Why is murder out of hatred wrong?" The first said, "A feeling inside." The second, who to the best of my knowledge never met the first man, said the same thing, "A feeling inside." These men, who denied the certain existence of a personal God, had no absolute standard of right and wrong. If one claims that murdering out of hatred is wrong because of a feeling, another person can as easily claim that murdering out of hatred (or murdering for fun) is right because of a feeling. Until there is an absolute that transcends ourselves, reasoning is impossible.

A Basis for Morality

At this point, it should not be difficult to see how God‑free thinking leads to immorality. Autonomy has no basis for morality. Again, a vivid example of this is the holocaust, wherein a mass of people made their own decisions about right and wrong, and millions suffered unjustly as a result. The word "justice" does not even have meaning apart from the absolute standard of a God who declares what is right and wrong and therefore what is just and unjust.

Admittedly, religious people have also committed great injustices. All kinds of people have been immoral and unjust. There are non‑religious people who have been moral and just (at least in an outward sense). However, the question being asked here is: On what basis can a person determine what is right, wrong, just, or unjust? To answer these questions in any kind of meaningful, absolute way is to depend upon the transcendent God. One cannot meaningfully declare that murder out of religion" is wrong any more than one can meaningfully declare that murder out of hatred is wrong; both are absolute statements that depend upon the existence of an absolute standard ‑‑ God ‑‑ for their value.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Faith to Move Mountains (And a Whole Lot More)

The apostles said to the Lord, "Increase our faith!" (Luke 17:5)

A time came in the training of Jesus' disciples that they asked for an increase in faith. It occurs to me that such a request would seem very unlikely today. People might ask for increased prosperity, increased pleasure, or improved relationships. But faith?

The disciples made this apparently exasperated request after Jesus dropped this command on them: "If your brother sins, rebuke him, and if he repents, forgive him. And if he sins against you seven times in the day, and turns to you seven times, saying, 'I repent,' you must forgive him" (verses 3-4).

It takes faith to move mountains. But not much more faith than it takes to forgive, when forgiveness seems foolish. Not much more faith than it takes to practice patience, when God has taken too long. Not much more faith than it takes to profess our beliefs to friends or coworkers, when we fear we might lose them.

Oh, Lord, increase our faith!

Thursday, July 06, 2006

No, Really, the Sky is Falling

Yesterday morning, I was in a coffee shop and overheard a talk show. One of those morning shows where gender-diverse, good looking hosts sit around, laugh, and talk about local news and, on an as-needed basis, world events too.

At one point one of the carefully chosen hosts said, "This is a big problem for the whole world!"

I am not sure whether she was speaking about Iraq, Korea, or Brad and Angelina. I'm not sure it mattered. Something in her voice, and that of her co-hosts, told me they probably hadn't researched this story too deeply, or even researched it themselves, or even researched it at all. Planet Earth might live to see another day. I'll have a bagel and iced coffee to go, please.

But this got me thinking: we hear warnings and dire predictions almost daily. War and terrorism. Global warming, gay marriage, gas prices. Some of these warnings worry us, some don't. Some come from authorities we trust, some don't.

Who is it that we trust to warn us? And what kind of warnings truly concern us?

Jesus warned us about a number of things. For example, he warned us to beware of hypocrisy (Luke 12:1). He said, "Beware, and be on your guard against every form of greed" (Luke 12:15). One day, when he was given the day's alarming news (about some innocent suffering in Galilee), he even said, "Unless you repent, you will likewise perish!" (Luke 13:5)

Jesus' warnings were on the mark. Planet Earth really has suffered a millenia-long plague of hypocrisy, greed, and hard heartedness.

If you're like me, you tend to worry about the wrong things. Let's trust Jesus' analysis and worry about the things we really can change... or rather, that he can change if we let him.

"And you will be hearing of wars and rumors of wars; see that you are not frightened, for those things must take place, but that is not yet the end." (Jesus in Matthew 24:6)

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Doctor Robert

Last week, I sat in on my friend Rob Gibson’s thesis defense at MIT. I saw him make the transition from Mr. to Dr. Robert Ross Gibson.

Rob’s field, or rather Dr. Gibson’s field, is astrophysics. His thesis concerned AGNs (active galactic nuclei). I tremendously enjoyed observing his thesis presentation, although I understood almost nothing that was said. The language of astrophysics completely and embarrassingly flew by me.

Lacking the ability to think meaningfully about AGNs, I had these thoughts instead.

1. Way to go, Rob!

2. I am pleased to have such interesting friends. One of my close friends recently passed the bar, and now another has earned his Ph.D. in the incommunicable attributes of astrophysics.

3. God’s creation is wonderfully complex.

4. I can appreciate better why those in scientific fields sometimes (okay…often) have trouble relating to church people. The world they interact with is complex, so complex that ordinary folk cannot enter easily into it. Yet the great mysteries of the faith are often handled in a trivial manner. This drives thoughtful people nuts, especially if they are thoughtful for a living.

God’s word should be clarified. It should even be “popularized” in the best sense of the word – that is, expounded in a manner that any layman can understand. Yet it should never be treated as commonplace and superficial, as something small and inglorious. After all, faith in Jesus Christ is spiritually unattainable due to our darkened understanding; it comes as a surprising gift. The ethics of Jesus Christ are morally unattainable, yielding (if not despair) deep humility. The theology of God’s word is devotionally inexhaustible. If those in our pulpits and pews don’t remember this we won’t have much to offer those pursuing something more marvelous and mysterious than themselves.

5. A final thought. It will be nearly impossible to call my friend Rob “Dr. Gibson.” In fact, to do so would be offensive to our friendship. Friendship is a marvelous thing, too.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Friendship - An Introduction

Friendship is making the headlines!

Or rather, the lack of friendship… A recent study claims that people have fewer close friends than in past decades – down from four to three. Well, three friends sounds pretty good – Jesus’ inner circle (as it is sometimes called) was three fishermen named Peter, James, and John.

But if nothing else, friendship is certainly in flux. We communicate with friends differently than in the past, now that we have cellphones, blogs, blogrings, and the like. We call some people “friends” who are not even acquaintances – they are merely links!

Well, we are in the middle of summer and July 4 is coming up. What better time than to think about friends? So for two or three days, this blog will be devoted to this subject. Today, I am going to feature a “guest blog” from my friend Peter Dishman.

I met Pete at Covenant Seminary. We studied together if I remember correctly. But what I know for sure is that we worked together, drove to church together, and talked together. Pete is a great counselor – he is good at taking your muddled thoughts and distilling them into a straightforward decision. Some other facts about Pete: He has strange eating habits, worse sleeping habits, and is a campus minister at the world’s largest university – in Mexico. He is a close friend and link.

May I introduce to you, then, Peter Dishman! His guest blog is below...

Peter Dishman, Emigrant for the Gospel

Written by Peter Dishman, missionary to Mexico City and the guy in the middle with the tie - his website is here.

A long time ago, Ken asked me to send him a blog from Mexico City, where I work as a campus minister with Mission to the World (MTW) and Reformed University Fellowship (RUF). After a computer meltdown which may send me over to the dark side of Macintosh and a lot of end of semester activities, I am finally getting around to making good on my commitment to do something for BITB. Here goes…

On my desk I have a little green booklet that is very important to me. Inscribed on its drab green cover are these words: "United States of Mexico, Government Secretary, Non-Immigrant Migratory Document. FM3." This document brings joy to my heart.

Why do I love my olive colored booklet "printed in the graphic workshops of the nation"? First, because it represents a great deal of time fighting through bureaucratic madness. Although the National Institute of Migration has been upgraded substantially over the last several years, you still have to take the time to figure out that the "official payment forms" are to be found outside of the building at the snack bar, or that your picture will not be accepted unless it is precisely the right size and your hair is brushed off of your forehead so as not to obscure any potentially distinguishing marks.

Eventually you make it through, though, with the appropriate forms filled out, the appropriate documents translated, the appropriate lines waited in for hours, the appropriate moments spent wringing your hands and hoping that the agent won't be having a bad day or somehow take offense at you. It could take days, weeks, even months, but finally you are issued your new migratorial lifeline.

But my little booklet is important to me for another reason as well – it's my Mexican security blanket. When I take a trip out of Mexico and return, it says to the immigration agent that I am a legitimate visitor here. When I get pulled over by the police for a random check, it says to the police that they shouldn't impound my car since the green book protects it. And when I think about some official person asking whether I belong here or not on a long trip to a different part of the country, my little green book gives me increased confidence that even in that scenario things might still turn out OK. The little green book says that I belong here, if only temporarily.

All of this makes me wonder – what must it be like to live on the other side of the border, your side of the border, without a little green book? Definitely something to ponder and have a position on, given that an estimated 10% of Mexico lives in the United States, much of that percentage sans book.

And in a larger sense, what does it mean that our citizenship isn't ultimately in a country here on earth, but that "our citizenship is in heaven….[from where] we eagerly await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body"? (Philippians 3:21)

Are we a little too dependent on our blue and green books for comfort?