Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Heart of the Motive—Sermon Notes, 11/29/09

November 29, 2009—Mark Seekins: "The Heart of the Motive"
[Christ Chapel Bible Church, Ft. Worth, Texas]

Sermon text: Luke 17:7-19 (NIV)
"Suppose one of you had a servant plowing or looking after the sheep. Would he say to the servant when he comes in from the field, 'Come along now and sit down to eat'? Would he not rather say, 'Prepare my supper, get yourself ready and wait on me while I eat and drink; after that you may eat and drink'? Would he thank the servant because he did what he was told to do? So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, 'We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.' "

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, "Jesus, Master, have pity on us!"

When he saw them, he said, "Go, show yourselves to the priests." And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus' feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, "Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Was no one found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?" Then he said to him, "Rise and go; your faith has made you well."
Mark Seekins is one of the pastors at Christ Chapel Bible Church in Ft. Worth, where Jaimie and I visited today while down with her family for Thanksgiving. We've been there before and enjoyed it, so we thought we'd stop in again. They're teaching through Luke, currently, and chose this passage as a fitting point for reflection around Thanksgiving.

Pastor Seekins opened the sermon by noting that, "When it comes to following Christ, motives are important," and then asked: "Why are you following Christ?" He offered up a list of motives that many of us have had at various points in our lives:
  • others' expectations of faith
  • duty to people or God
  • fear of hell
  • love of God
  • gratitude toward God
  • the proverbial insurance policy
All of these, he argued, fit into one of two heart categories pictured by this passage. The first is a heart that is motivated by duty and fear (vv. 7-10). There are unworthy servants, he said, who do only what obligation or the threat of punishment demands. The servant does exactly what he is ordered to do, no more, and no less. Pastor Seekins suggested that it's likely this servant was simply working for wages: he needed the money to eat. The servant, he concluded, is "unworthy" because he did nothing but what duty and fear demanded.

Pastor Seekins pointed us to the rich young ruler by way of comparison: a man who had done everything the law demanded, yet could not go the next step to true faith. The modern picture, he argued, is the hard-wroking, moral, curch-attending, family-loving "Christian" without real faith in and love for Jesus.

The second heart is that pictured by the second narrative: a heart that is motivated by love and gratitude (vv. 11-19). Jesus commanded the men to show themselves to the priests—to be obedient to the Mosaic law—just as the servant above was commanded to serve by his master. All ten were healed, and they would have understood that Jesus was promising them healing: they had no other reason to see a priest. Of these men, only one returned to thank Jesus and praise God.

Unlike the other nine, he had been truly transformed as well as physically healed. While the others met the bare demands of the law, he understood that he was called to give thanks to God. Pastor Seekins argued that, though this man was still an "unworthy servant," as are we all, he was one who recognized Jesus' work. Jesus statement that the man's faith had made him well followed his return for thanksgiving: the wellness in sight here is a spiritual wellness that exceeds mere physical healing.

Pastor Seekins brought up the woman in John 12 who washes Jesus feet with her hair as another example of a person who truly understood what we owe to Christ. The modern equivalent, he said, may look much like the unsaved "Christian" above... but their motives will be vastly different. Instead of duty and fear, this true believer is motivated by love of God and thanksgiving to Him for all He has done.

Finally, Pastor Seekins concluded by asking four application questions:
  1. Are you taking God's gracious actions for granted?
  2. Have you taken time to thank and praise God?
  3. Do you live in such a way that displays that the Gospel is for all?
  4. Have you chosen Jesus

As far as Thanksgiving sermons go, this was a pretty good one. I appreciated that Pastor Seekins mostly stuck to the text (with the exception of some suppositions about the servant's motives). I had one significant issue with this sermon, though. As I've written elsewhere, the gospel is everything. Especially when we're trying to increase in love for God and gratitude toward Him, we need to remember that simply telling people, "Hey, change your motive!" isn't terribly helpful.

Rather, we grow in thankfulness because we know better what it is to give thanks for, and we love because we understand how he has loved us (for example, John 3:16, Romans 5:6-8, and 1 John 4:10). Today's good sermon would have been a great sermon if Pastor Seekins had taken the step beyond rightly exhorting the congregation to come to God with right motive and shown them how. The gospel is just as effective for sanctification as it is for justification.

Friday, November 27, 2009


I sit here typing on a nice computer, listening to music given to me, with my beloved wife near and my in-laws working hard on Thanksgiving dinner. (I'd help if I could, but there's simply not that much room in the kitchen!) We are free to travel as we wish; we can buy whatever books we want without censors restricting our access. Nothing hinders the free practice of our faith.

We have much to be grateful for.

On Tuesday, Jaimie and I went shopping for some Christmas decorations for our house. As we walked into Hobby Lobby, we were confronted by seemingly endless shelves filled with paper and wreathes and lights and trees: a monument to the insatiable commercial appetites of our culture. We live in an age driven entirely by consumption. Our world spins on selfishness. We take one day to reflect on the good things in our life, and offer gratitude to some abstract deity who we ignore the rest of the year. Then we glut ourselves again in cultic worship of our real sovereign: shopping.

Capitalism is not inherently evil—man is. We may have forsaken the Olympians, but in their place we have raised a more fearful colossus: greed, exalted to high heaven like a new tower of Babel. And we have called ourselves wise.

[A day later]

Along the way in this life we find ourselves in circumstances that leave us straining for understanding, wondering at the plan of this one who is nothing like a genie in a bottle. The night before Thanksgiving, a 17-year-old young woman of my acquaintance died of cancer. How is her family, including one of my very best friends, to have said, "Thank you" yesterday?

We can give as many pat answers as we like about the years they did have with her, that they were together, and so on. The pain remains. A family spent Thanksgiving grieving. What do we say to them? What do we say to everyone who prayed? That we should be grateful for God's not acting?

Yet here, as everywhere, we are to "give thanks in all circumstances" (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). How does this work? Honestly, I don't know. What do you think?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

From LEGOs to Theology Proper to Tasty Food [5 100-word thoughts]

LEGO Star Wars is the most purely enjoyable game I have played since MYST. (The two games couldn't be more different, but they both appeal to our childlike natures.) Jaimie and I played through the prequel trilogy six months ago, and now we're working our way through the original trilogy. Whether it's hilarious variations on the original or simply watching Chewbacca pop LEGO stormtrooper arms off, the game is fun. It helps that dying just loses you a few coins and a moment's frustration; you're back quickly enough that you hardly know you died. Good game.

I'm taking today off to spend time with my wife. God has provided above and beyond what we expected in my current job: it's relatively close, it's work that I enjoy, and it far exceeds meeting our basic needs. I pray He keeps me focused on how He provides and reminds me of the excellence of his provision, even when the job is hard. I also pray that He reminds me that, as wonderful as the material provision is, God's provision for me (and all believers) spiritually far exceeds it. He gave himself.

Friendship is a beautiful thing. Every new moment in the friendship is better than before, even as the budding of a rose is increasingly beautiful—and every time you think it cannot get better, it does. The day when the petals first open is amazing—but seeing them fully open a week later is something else entirely. The early thrills of friendship, fun as they are, eventually give way to a much deeper, richer and more satisfying maturity. That's a good thing. Early moments of meeting cannot last forever, but the steady exploration of personalities that follows can and does.

The study of theology is not, as some have thought, something reserved for the white halls of academia. It's gritty, practical and meaningful for the everyday Christian. We rightly reject the intellectualism that thinks that knowledge is the same as godliness, but we should be just as quick to scorn the opposite crime of thinking ignorance equates to holiness. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge, and the knowledge of God—theology proper—is eternal life. I study my wife every day, and I do mean study. How much more we should study our God!

Food is a strange and wonderful thing. Eating not only satisfies our needs, it delights our senses. (At least, it does when well-done. Badly cooked food is another story entirely.) The same holds true for nearly every aspect of life: even when something might be marked by need at best and pain at worst, it's often accompanied by pleasure instead. The mark of a happy God could not be clearer, as far as I'm concerned. It makes me think: the wedding feast of the Lamb awaits us... how much better will that food be than today's fare?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Mutual funds: Sermon thoughts, 11/22/09

November 22, 2009—Bruce Hess, "Right Choices: Choose to Invest in the Kingdom"

Sermon text:
Philippians 4:14-19
Nevertheless, you have done well to share with me in my affliction. You yourselves also know, Philippians, that at the first preaching of the gospel, after I left Macedonia, no church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving but you alone; for even in Thessalonica you sent a gift more than once for my needs. Not that I seek the gift itself, but I seek for the profit which increases to your account. But I have received everything in full and have an abundance; I am amply supplied, having received from Epaphroditus what you have sent, a fragrant aroma, an acceptable sacrifice, well-pleasing to God. And my God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
Bruce preached this week on money: a topic to send shivers through the soul of any evangelical preacher worth his salt. Perhaps I exaggerate, but given the history of the evangelical movement over the last twenty years, it's hardly surprising that money is a touchy subject. Since Bruce has been moving through the book of Philippians verse by verse, however, he could hardly ignore the subject. I think he did an excellent job in his treatment of these verse and the topic in general.

Bruce began by noting the context of Paul's discussion of giving: his own bold statement that he could be content no matter what the circumstances. (For a discussion of that passage, see my notes on that sermon, one of Bruce's best that I've heard.) Keeping that in mind helps us understand that Paul is not getting at his own gain in the passage; he earnestly desires the good of the Philippians.

The first point in the text is that Paul applauds the generosity of the Philippians (verses 14-16). Bruce noted that Paul boasts about the Philippians to other churches (see 2 Corinthians 11:9), and that they were one of the only churches to support him financially. Moreover, he observed, they didn't have an abundance of wealth from which to give. They gave despite being in "deep poverty" (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-5). Their resources were not the issue; God could and did use even their relatively small gift. Their hearts were the issue.

Bruce's second observation was that the Philippians embraced the principle of eternal investment (Matthew 6:19-21). He illustrated this point by noting that we're like a northerner living in the South near the end of the American Civil War. Even if rich in Confederate money, the best plan would not be to try and gain more Confederate money, but to use only enough to live on and turn the rest into gold useable elsewhere after the war. We are temporary citizens here, and we should turn as much of our wealth in this age, which perishes, into eternal reward. Where you put your treasure determines whether you are moving toward or away from it as you approach death.

"The only money we're ever going to see again," Bruce commented, "is the money that's invested in the kingdom of God."

The second point Bruce drew out of the text is that Paul assures the blessing of the Philippians (verses 17-19). His joy was not in what the Philippians had given for its own sake, but because it yielded a reward for them. It was a good investment. The "pleasing aroma" referenced in the text looks back to the old covenant practice of offering sacrifices to God—not for sin, but simply to show love for him. Our giving today does not earn salvation; it is a picture of our love for God, and only one of many such sacrifices in the new covenant (see Romans 12:1-2, Hebrews 13:5,16).

Bruce noted that Paul's closing promise that God would supply all the Philippians' needs is often memorized and used without the supporting context. God's supply was not a blank check, but assurance that he would provide for the Philippians' daily needs even as they had given beyond their means. As Bruce put it, God provides "for our needs, not our greed."

Bruce then explained Jesus' words, quoted in Acts 20:35, that it is more blessed to give than to receive. Recipients are blessed, God is blessed (because he delights in our generosity), the giver is blessed now (by the joy of giving) and the giver is blessed in the future (with reward in heaven). "Too often we're just tipping God rather than investing spiritually," Bruce finished. We can't out-give God.

Bruce's closing questions for application were solid:
  • How much of your money is going to gospel causes?
  • Is He your God?

This last question was particularly fitting in context, and while I wish he'd dwelt on it even more, I'm so glad he touched it. The ultimate supply for our needs is not financial, but spiritual—because our deepest needs are spiritual. We have a need for rescue and restoration that cannot be met without God being our God.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Beauty, Complexity, Simplicity: A Meditation on Writing

I love words. I love stringing them together in long, elegant phrases. I love letting them tumble over each other like waves rumbling up a beach at high tide. And I have, perhaps, devoted too many hours to Tolkien.

When your literary heroes are half a century gone, you have a tendency to write like you are half a century gone.

Two friends of mine have long loathed my writing for its needless complexity. Their dislike used to annoy me. Now I simply smile at them and look forward to heaven, where I will be free to enjoy long, florid sentences.

I've written nearly 500 blog posts in the last four years. My writing has changed nearly as much in that time as I have. In the last three months, it's changed even more.

It's said that John Calvin helped shape modern French by using short, colloquial sentences. Making oneself understood is a noble goal, so thus do I write henceforth: as colloquially, conventionally, briefly, coherently, and especially unseparated-by-an-endless-chain-of-commas-or-hyphens-ly as possible.

I have spent nearly as much time writing these past months as my wife, the professional writing major. Writing for two blogs will have that effect, of course. (No doubt Jaimie will be writing far more than me in the coming semesters, when she writes short stories and then a novel.) Along the way I have thought about Eliot's admonition to use fewer words, chosen more carefully. In general, I agree.

On the other hand, I miss poetry in prose. I miss the long rising and falling of breath in a sentence. I miss landscapes and textures of clothing. I miss an age when we delighted in paintings.

I sometimes fear that in seeking to communicate as concisely as possible, we can miss opportunities for splendor. There may be as much beauty in a simple wooden church building as in a Gothic cathedral—but not more. Profundity can often be embodied in very few words. Sometimes it cannot.

Many of the greatest discoveries in physics were mathematically straightforward, however revolutionary. From Galileo through Einstein, each discovery pointed to modernity: determinism embodied in simple, elegant equations. Then quantum mechanics came and flipped the world on its head, especially when Feynman got ahold of it. It points to complexity and choice: postmodernism embodied in probabilities. It has taken a generation to recognize the orderliness and coherence of the quantum world. It will take another—at least—before we reconcile these two visions.

I mourn the loss of high language in writing, even as I appreciate the gain in precision we have made. Perhaps, with enough practice, we can learn to mingle the two.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Suspense, Memorization, Time, Prayer, Economics - 5 100-word thoughts, 11/20/09

On Monday night, I watched the theatrical adaptation of Michael Crichton's Sphere. Interesting movie, and interesting concept. I discovered—again—why I habitually avoid suspense movies. Put plainly, I don't like them. I don't enjoy the constant tension, and I find the incessant wondering when something bad is going to happen to be annoying and emotionally draining. I enjoy many an intense movie, but the tension I enjoy is not one of being horrified. Drama, action, and nearly anything in between suits my fancy just fine. You won't find me watching another Crichton adaptation any time soon, though.

Nearly a year ago, I decided to undertake a pretty huge project: memorizing the book of Hebrews. Recommendation to my readers: if you want to memorize a book, pick one that’s a little shorter. Hebrews was an ambitious place to start. My goal was to finish it in a year. That actually wasn’t unrealistic... except that I became a complete slacker for about six months. I’m back at it, though, and plugging on through chapter 7. I’m more convinced every day of the value of the project, as God continues to use it to encourage me and others alike.

One consequence of working full time is that it leaves me a lot less time to write than I had in college. Another is that I barely have time to practice one instrument, much less two, and there’s no time at all to compose in that mix. Of course, that’s probably because my wife and I love having people over, and so we have company at least once almost every week, and are often out seeing others on other nights. Add worship practice (for me) and prayer (for Jaimie) and community group (together). Eventually, we'll get the hang of it.

Prayer is hard work. At work, I have a timer set that reminds me to pray every fifteen minutes. (It goes along with my hourly reminder to run through some of Hebrews in my head.) I’ve realized this week that I need to be more faithful to build a daily prayer list. Otherwise, I get into something of a litany, and cover much less territory than I would like. Next week I plan to include: Jaimie, family, lost friends, ill friends, unreached people groups, America, our church, our community group, our church leadership, and our friends on mission abroad.

I’ve been enjoying an interesting application, WriteRoom. I downloaded it in a giveaway, but somehow missed the license, so now I’m left with a dilemma: do I opt to pay $25 to keep using it, or switch to a less-elegant-but-free alternative? An interesting economics exercise here: If it were $10, I'd buy it in a heartbeat. As is, I’m left wondering my cash or that little bit of extra polish and ease-of-use is more valuable. Maximizing the "cost-value curve" must be tricky for someone making a product like this. (What’s your vote - should I buy it or go freeware?)

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Calling All Dawns review

The song cycle has been a nearly-dead form for a century. Off the top of my head, I can't think of any composers of the 20th or early 21st centuries who are well-known for song cycles. There are a few, no doubt, but they're certainly not household names, as earlier practitioners of the form were.

Hopefully that will change in the years ahead. One reason I'm hopeful is the recent release of Christopher Tin's first album, Calling All Dawns. Tin is a relatively young composer who has done most of his work to this point in film and video games. To date, his best known piece has been "Baba Yetu," a setting of a Swahili version of the Lord's Prayer, composed for videogame Civilization IV. I suspect, having spent some time listening to this CD, that his stature as a composer will be increasing significantly in the years ahead.

Calling All Dawns is a orchestral song cycle, with twelve songs broken into three parts: Day, Night, and Dawn. The lyrical content ranges from "Baba Yetu," which opens the CD, to a selection from the Bhagavad Gita and a modern French ballad. Tin sees the CD as a celebration of the "cycle of life," a representation of "the fluid, cyclical nature of the universe." The work proclaims that "regardless of race, culture and religious belief, we are all connected through our common human experience."

Tin and I obviously have some differences of philosophy, but one of the things I've found interesting in listening to the cycle is that I agree with him. Before you skin me for a heretic, hear me out. We are united by common human experience. Each one of us longs for meaning, transcendence, love, community, and purpose. There is not a culture in the world that has not sung of hope and of sorrow alike. We all share in the agonies and the joys of life, and we all ache for a world better than this one.

The friend who gave Calling All Dawns to Jaimie and me as a wedding gift noted that he thought Heaven might sound a lot like Tin's work here. I agree. Tin has done a generally masterful job of weaving an incredibly disparate set of source material into a coherent whole: always a challenge, and the more so when your sources include everything from a haiku to the Torah and back again.

Tin proclaims his message of unity in the midst of diversity by his musical choices. The album is a very consistent album (with one exception; see below). It's very purposefully tonal, and the vocal settings from song to song, while varied enough to maintain interest, are almost never different enough from each other to be jarring. The pacing of the album is excellent: the first five songs (Day) are upbeat and rhythmic, while the next three (Night) are slower and relaxed, with less emphasis on percussion and more on gentle lyricism, and the concluding four (Dawn) are once again energetically orchestrated.

His vocal writing is excellent throughout, and I'm most impressed by how he managed to convey traditional cultural sounds without going over the top or breaking consistency with the rest of the album. His orchestral writing was solid and occasionally stunning.

Tin's use of strings was superb. Spread across the Night section is some of the finest pure strings work I've enjoyed from a new composer in quite some time. He used the brasses relatively sparingly, and to good effect, effectively lending punch and emphasis where needed. One of Tin's best musical decisions, in my mind, was his consistency in rhythmic structure. He varies the instrumentation over the course of the CD, but maintains a recognizable "beat" whenever the percussion appears.

The one weakness of the entire work, in my opinion, is "Rassemblons-Nous," the conclusion of the first section. Tin chose to put in a more modern pop-sounding piece here, a male soloist ballad in French. "Rassemblons-Nous" is one of only three songs on the work with a male soloist, and the only one where the male is the primary vocalist. I wish that Tin had chosen to go with a stronger setting for that moment. That being said, I don't think the song noticeably detracts from the overall quality of the work, however jarring it was on the first listen-through.

I wrote in my reflections on "Baba Yetu" a year and a half ago that, "Sometimes—rarely—a piece of art surpasses that which it was created for." A year and a half later, I find myself saying much the same about Calling All Dawns. Tin's ode to humanity has within in it the sounds of Heaven, when every tribe and tongue will sing praise to God. It's also smashingly good music in its own right. "Baba Yetu" is a good piece of music, but it's excelled by a majority of the other pieces on the CD. Tin is good and getting better. I've deeply enjoyed Christopher Tin's work thus far, and I look forward to his next concert works. I highly and unreservedly recommend Calling All Dawns.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Petition Repetition

November 15, 2009—Mark Robinson, "Can You Hear Me Now," pt. 2
Sermon text: Luke 18:1-8
Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up. He said: "In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'

"For some time he refused. But finally he said to himself, 'Even though I don't fear God or care about men, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will see that she gets justice, so that she won't eventually wear me out with her coming!'"

And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off? I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?"
Mark opened this week's sermon (see his own introductory thoughts here)—like last week's—with an analogy to cell phones. If someone called you again and again, he pointed out, you'd either answer or demonstrate that you really didn't want to talk to the person calling you. The sermon text leaves us asking if God is in fact that person: the one you have to call over and over and over again to get through, no matter how important, because they just don't answer the phone.

It's a reasonable question. Jesus compares God to an evil judge who gave justice to a widow only so she would stop pestering him. We naturally ask, "Is Jesus really saying that God only answers our prayers so that we'll leave him alone?"

Of course, as with last week's sermon, the answer is revealed in how the story is told. God is good, so if even an evil judge will eventually hear a righteous plea for all the wrong reasons, how much more will God delight to hear our prayers? We should, as Luke points out at the beginning of the parable, be encouraged not to give up praying, even when it seems our prayers are going unanswered. God who is just will certainly respond more righteously than the evil judge.

Mark commented, "Waiting in prayer is a very significant thing for each of us." Every Christian who has walked in The Way for any length of time has probably had to wrestle with the question of seemingly unanswered prayers. Whether it is for a friend's salvation, a parent's health, or a child's rebellion, most of us have spent long months or years praying for something to happen, and waited a long time for the answer. Sometimes the answer we've prayed for never comes. Jesus' parable offers two lessons for us as we seek to endure in prayer.

First, we need to keep an accurate view of God's character. Jesus draws a contrast between a good Father and this wicked judge. We are like the widow: we do not have the power or authority to effect a change in the circumstances we are praying about. We are utterly dependent on the judge to accomplish our hopes. If we believe that God is like the magistrate in the parable, we will pray reluctantly, if at all. When we do pray, we will find ourselves trying to twist God's arm so he will do as we wish. In contrast, if we believe God is good and that He delights to answer our prayers, we will pray with confidence. We will be able to trust that He is good and working for good. We can believe that God is working, no matter how little we see.

Second, we are called to keep the faith. Prayer and faith are directly related. Why are we praying? Is it because God does not already know the outcome, or because he calls us to participate with him and to grow in faith? Mark argued that prayer fixes our faith on the One whose plan is already working.

Mark often does something I really appreciate: instead of offering up simple checklists for his applications, he raises questions for us to ponder. Instead of simply offering condemnation to the people who don't meet the requirements and pride to those who do, he challenges us to examine our own hearts with the questions he offers.

Today, he offered up two applications, one a question and the other an encouragement:
  • Are you praying consistently about the things that trouble you?
  • Pray with other believers, in church, with family, and with friends.

Mark's closing point deeply resonated with me today. Our vantage point, he noted, is too narrow to truly see how God is working. He is doing more than what we can see—much more! When we repeat our prayers, it is not because we do think God has not heard, but because we believe He has.

Repetition of prayers is a declaration of faith.

Friday, November 13, 2009

A poem fit

I was struck by the simple power of these words this week:

Ah, my dear angry Lord,
Since thou dost love, yet strike;
Cast down, yet help afford;
Sure I will do the like.

I will complain, yet praise;
I will bewail, approve;
And all my sour-sweet days
I will lament and love.

— George Herbert
HT: Desiring God

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Flower bazookas - 500 words, 11/11/09

To men: remember that flowers are a veritable bazooka amongst weapons of love. (There's a turn of phrase you don't hear very often: "weapons of love." I'm going to use it regularly.) You should make a point to bring home flowers as often as you can, in as many unexpected and varied ways as you can. Go to the grocery store as a generous overture, and come back with flowers. Don't do it to get a favor, or to manipulate; bring her flowers because you love her. One last thing: bring whatever kind she likes best.

Actually having work to do is incredibly fulfilling. As much as it sounds nice to get paid to sit around and do nothing, it's actually quite frustrating. Simply put, man was made to work. God designed us for it. Work became unpleasant after the Fall; it was instituted from the beginning. Thus, when we aren't working, we very soon feel useless, and life begins to become rather dull and frustrating. Having experienced that recently, I am really enjoying being able to meaningful work to the glory of God. (Though if someone wants to pay me to simply read and write...)

My content on this blog has been low all year. The reasons have varied even while the results have remained the same. Shockingly enough... that's not going to change, for what I might call obvious reasons (the new blog PJ King and I just launched). In some sense, the reasons haven't changed: part of the reasons I've written so little of late is because I was spending many an hour working on getting the HTML and CSS properly set up and building images. It's nice to finally be able to write there. Long story short: writing beats coding.

I'm inclined to think the old saying, "When as Rome, do as the Romans" has limited value. There are times and areas of life where that's good advice. There are also times when it's awful advice. For example, hypothetically speaking: if I were in a community where education and intelligence were seen as tolerable at best, would it behoove me to act uneducated and intelligent? Or should I find some other course in which I tried not to offend but did not mask my personality? Or should I tray to sway the community? It's quite a balancing act, I think.

Last Sunday night, Wildwood Community Church hosted a worship night. I was blessed to be able to participate with the worship team, as I am on Sunday mornings. There is such joy in coming before God with people of all ages, from a variety of backgrounds, to offer praise and adoration to Him. One of the great joys of this particular service was the children: in normal Sunday services, the children are all in Sunday school. Here, they worshiped among and with us. It was a small, beautiful picture of heaven.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Announcement: new blog on church

Three months, a full and complete scrap-and-redesign, custom CSS and HTML, content preparation, and lots of prayer have culminated in a beginning today.

Pillar on the Rock, a new blog by PJ King and yours truly, went live at 11 am today.

The blog is focused on the church: her purpose, her function, her Biblical character, and her King. PJ and I are not experts by any means; we're simply two twenty-something guys who are deeply passionate about the church. We certainly don't think we have all the answers, and you'll find that a good deal of our content is other people's content: we will be pointing out good articles, blogs, and books that talk about the church.

You can expect at least two posts full of original content every week—one from each of us, debuting on Mondays and Thursdays. The other weekdays will have posts pointing to other blogs, highlighting insightful quotes, and the like. Occasionally, if we're particularly motivated and particularly unbusy, you might see more, but we're not making any promises.

I'd be remiss not to mention our brilliant, Godly wives who have been incredibly patient and helpful as we've worked over the last two months. Jaimie has put up with a lot of long afternoons spent doing image design and coding, and she's been an invaluable help in making decisions along the way. I've no doubt she will continue to be an inspiration and help as we go forward.

I hope you stop by and take a look around, and I hope God encourages and challenges you through Pillar on the Rock!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Prayer - Sermon Notes, 11/8/09

November 8, 2009—Mark Robinson, "Can you hear me now?" pt. 1
Sermon text: Luke 11:5-13
Then he said to them, "Suppose one of you has a friend, and he goes to him at midnight and says, 'Friend, lend me three loaves of bread, 6because a friend of mine on a journey has come to me, and I have nothing to set before him.'

"Then the one inside answers, 'Don't bother me. The door is already locked, and my children are with me in bed. I can't get up and give you anything.' I tell you, though he will not get up and give him the bread because he is his friend, yet because of the man's boldness he will get up and give him as much as he needs.

"So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.

"Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!"
Our executive pastor Mark Robinson preached today. Earlier this week, he blogged on this week's sermon topic: prayer.

Mark began by directing our attention to the context: this teaching moment follows what we call "The Lord's prayer." Some of Jesus' disciples asked him to teach them how to pray. He does so, and then immediately follows by telling them the parable and giving them the illustration of a father with his children. Jesus not only told his disciples what to do, he helped them understand what that would mean for their lives.

There were two points in the sermon, and I applaud Mark for letting the text define the structure of his sermon rather than the other way around!

1. Ask, seek, and knock (vv. 5-10):
Mark first asked, quite pertinently, if Jesus is in fact comparing God to the begrudging neighbor. The passage certainly seems to read that way. The answer? —absolutely yes, but in an entirely favorable way. The conclusion of the passage points out that if even a begrudging neighbor will help, how much more will God, who delights to give good gifts?

If we doubt that, it's because our daily experience does not always seem to line up. We often feel that God is not hearing us or is not willing to come to the door with bread. This passage is a rock for us in times like that, though, because Jesus doesn't offer up a "maybe," here. He firmly promises that, no matter what our experiences, God does hear and answer us.

We might also feel that God will not hear and answer our prayers because we misunderstand the doctrine of God's immutability: if God doesn't change and is truly sovereign, the reasoning goes, then our prayers cannot change anything. Of course, this runs directly contrary to Scripture: time and again God answers prayers. Some prominent examples include Moses, Hezekiah, and Jonah. The apostle James bluntly informs us that we do not have because we do not ask. Clearly, God both is unchanging and answers our prayers.

Mark concluded the first section of the sermon with one very straightforward and important question: what would you pray for today if you knew God would hear and respond? No request is too small, no prayer has been prayed too many times, and no situation is unchangeable.

2. Believe God gives good gifts (vv. 11-13):
Mark pointed out that the choices Jesus presents in this passage are not as strange as they seem to our minds. There are snakes that look like fish, and white scorpions that, when curled up, might look like an egg. No father but the very most cruel would use either as an opportunity to play a mean trick on his child, though. Of course, Jesus points out that even "good" fathers are actually evil—so how much more will a good God give good gifts?

Yet the passage goes even farther than that. It doesn't merely say that God, like men, will give what we ask for. It says that he will give us his Holy Spirit. He will give us himself. That was a stunning promise when it was spoken: they lived in a day before the full coming of the Spirit, when the greatest blessing imaginable was for the Holy Spirit to come and rest on a person. That he would freely come to all believers was jaw-dropping. Of course, it still is, because it means that God will give of himself freely. We can make light of that because it's familiar to us, but it is incredible.

This brings home Jesus' point with a hammer blow: if God will give us his own Spirit, what would he hold back? Of course, we feel like we get scorpions instead of eggs sometimes: children we pray for die, marriages we pray for fall apart, and so on. First, we must remember that God knows what is truly good for us, even when we do not. Second, God works for what is best for us, not what we think is best for us—and he often does so through painful circumstances.

In the end, we must trust God—and when we do, we have the joyous liberty to ask Him, knowing that He will give us good things, and that He will not give us bad things. He is good, and that is our rock. It is, in fact, the point that the entire passage turns on: even evil men give good gifts... how much more so God, who is good?

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Good songs, bad politics, good marriage - 500 words

I’ve been listening to some of Brooke Fraser’s music recently. It’s very good, and I’ve found myself with the nearly overwhelming urge to sing along. That’s great, until it happens when I’m at work, desperately trying to quash the urge before I have everyone in my area yelling at me… especially since I always have head phones in. Fraser is, from what I understand, a New Zealander who moved to Australia. She’s also an excellent lyricist and songwriter. Her personal albums are some of my favorite listening, and her worship songs are among my very favorites. Check out her music.


One of Fraser’s songs includes the lines, “I am changing, less and less asleep / Made of different stuff than when I began.” The statement, along with the rest of the song (“Shadowfeet”) seems to be a fitting summary of my life right now. God is working to transform me, and of course that’s a process that takes a long time and a lot of work. It’s also incredibly rewarding. The joy of sanctification is incomparable. That’s good, because the pain can seem to be equally incomparable. Gladly, it’s not, and it’s only for a season.


Marriage, no matter how hard, is one of the greatest gifts God has given us. In my admittedly brief experience thus far, I can wholeheartedly say that after salvation, it is the greatest joy in my life. Our marriage has been anything but perfect thus far: it’s challenging, sometimes painful, and often tiring. Yet it has been such a blessing to me. Nothing in my life has stretched me so much, taught me so many things, or humbled me so deeply. Equally, nothing has encouraged me, delighted me, or filled me so deeply with life. I highly recommend it.


I find myself increasingly frustrated by Washington politics. I have never been one to think politics the solution to all our problems, though I’ve certainly been tempted. More and more, however, I’m aware that the problems of our world cannot and will not be solved by any political action, no matter how well intentioned. As Douglas Wilson has pointed out, the only hope for our culture’s reformation is in the reformation of the church. Heart change must precede policy change, or the policy change will be ineffective at best. This is as true for healthcare as abortion.


As I was working today, I ran into a significant snag in the program I’d written. I spent the next hour tracking down the root of the problem. In the end, the problem was in the last place I thought to look: the inputs. Lesson learned: when a functioning program suddenly stops working, check the inputs, as well. It’s certainly possible that a heretofore unrevealed problem has raised its head… but just as likely, the external conditions are different. In life, of course, we see the opposite (which also happens in programming): circumstances simply expose what’s in our hearts.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Great expectations - Sermon notes, 11/1/09

This week's message was by John Abernethy, our pastor for marriage and families. I've only heard John teach one other time, but I've always heard exceptionally good things about him from people I trust. Today's message was on expectations in relationships. Rather than a single sermon text, he taught from several passages throughout Scripture. As such, I'll quote those in the text as we go along.
Psalm 33:18-22, NASB
Behold, the eye of the LORD is on those who fear Him,
         On those who hope for His lovingkindness,
    To deliver their soul from death
         And to keep them alive in famine.
    Our soul waits for the LORD;
         He is our help and our shield.
    For our heart rejoices in Him,
         Because we trust in His holy name.
    Let Your lovingkindness, O LORD, be upon us,
         According as we have hoped in You.
The passage points us to focus on God: on His promise, his name, his all-sufficiency. His lovingkindness is hope, he is help and shield, he is our trust, he is hope. No one but God will meet our needs; no one but he can meet our needs.

With this as his foundation, John moved on to discuss how so often our relationships suffer because of our expectations.
Proverbs 13:12, NASB
Hope deferred makes the heart sick,
         But desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
He argued that expectations are not only a regular source of conflict in many relationships, especially marriage; they're also something we can actively deal with and change. "Understanding, verbalizing, and changing expecations can have a large impact," he said. The expectations that we have are learned, so they can be relearned; the things we pick up from friends, family, and media can be substituted for better, healthier (more Biblical, I add!) expectations of each other, no matter the relationship.

John commented that there are three ways he sees expectations causing problems, summarized by three U's: Unaware, Unreasonable, Unspoken.

We are often unaware of the expectations we have. We expect our days to pass, our spouses to interact with us, and our friends to behave in rather particular ways, but we often don't realize exactly what it is we're anticipating until our hopes have been deferred. Then we find ourselves frustrated and angry because of those expectations. We need to carefully think about what it is that we're expecting of our days and our relationships - even as simply as writing a list.

Unreasonable expectations can upset us just as quickly, and have unpleasant consequences. John pointed to the example of Peter: a man blessed for recognizing that Jesus was the prophesied messiah, and then moments later rebuked for telling christ he wouldn't go to the cross. Peter's expectation was for an earthly king, but that wasn't what Christ had come to do; his expectation was unreasonable. We require humility to hear that our expectations are unreasonable, and gentleness and kindness to tell others as much.

Finally, we often deal with the consequences of unspoken expectations. People cannot meet expectations they are unaware of, even if they are reasonable. Especially in marriage, this one is both one of the most common and the most easily resolved problems: it simply requires straightforward communication.

Our goal is to be sweet to others souls, setting them before us and serving them.

I thought the message had a lot of good content, and it was filled with a lot of practical application. John's heart for marriages came through very clearly, and he's both a good communicator and a good teacher. I did wish that he would have spent some more time dwelling on Christ as our soul-satisfier. It is good to deal practically with our expectations, but in the end we will always be thirsty until we quench our thirst in him.
John 4:10-14, ESV
Jesus answered her, "If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, 'Give me a drink,' you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water." The woman said to him, "Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock." Jesus said to her, "Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life."