Monday, December 28, 2009

The Trinity, Chesterton, and the Wells quintet

My reading list is three pages long and growing. Every time someone recommends a good book that sounds interesting—in person, on a blog, in a sermon—it gets scribbled, e-mailed, or straight-up added to the document. This year for Christmas I asked for precisely two categories of gifts from friends and family: books, and gift cards for my wife to use decorating our apartment.

My current reading list, then, includes David Wells' quintet of books on American evangelicalism (minus Above All Earthly Pow'rs, which I've already read), Volume VI of the Collected Works of G.K. Chesterton, and The Holy Trinity: In Scripture, History, Theology, and Worship by Robert Letham. Light reading, eh? My plan, though we'll see how well I accomplish it, is to rotate one of these and many other similar books with some lighthearted fiction, trying to read one of them every two weeks, over the course of the next few months. I hope to write reviews of each book as I finish it—at least, the nonfiction. Toss in some composing, writing for Pillar on the Rock, and hopefully studying Greek, and last but most importantly spending time with my wife, and I've a lot to do!

There are, of course, worse problems to have...

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Enanthropoisis (Enhumanment): for orchestra

In honor of my 400th post on Blogger, and in honor of Christmas, something entirely different... I recommend you download the piece and play it with some good speakers; it'll be a much better listen.

Oh come, oh come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel!

ἐνανθρωπήσαντα (enanthropoisis—enhumanment)

We sing songs of reflection, as we should. The incarnation is a stunning moment, worthy of all our quiet meditation. But it should also remind us that we are at war. The enhumanment of God the Son was not an olive branch—it was a frontal assault on the very fortress of the enemy, an arrow to the eye of the dragon.

We think of the baby in a manger as God's peace offering to the world, when in reality he was exactly what the Jews expected the Messiah to be: a mighty king who would smash through the enemy's resistance and humble every power in the world. They failed to recognize the enemy. We forget there is an enemy. They got the trees wrong. We ask, "What's a forest?"

That celebrated birth was a martial act, the most stunning entry in the millennia-long war. The manger was the first step on the long march to Golgotha.

Remember, this Christmas, as you celebrate the beauty of that silent, holy night: it was an act of war.

Christus Victor.

Rejoice, rejoice! Emmanuel has come for thee, oh Israel!

You can download the piece by right-clicking here and choosing "Save As," "Save Link As," or similar.

[Originally posted as part of James Metalak's 12 Days of Christmas Project]

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Surprise: neither sermon notes nor 500 words long!

Life is good right now. Challenging, but good.

Today, I'm going to do two things: work on an Advent composition, and clean the apartment before my lovely wife gets home from visiting her family.

This morning I posted the first book review we've done for Pillar on the Rock, Who Runs the Church?

Christmas is three days away, and that means that I've been chewing on and contemplating a good Christmas post. Look for it on Thursday or Friday.

Speaking of Christmas, this is my first Christmas married, and correspondingly it will be my first Christmas day spent apart from my own immediate family. Jaimie and I are going to spend Christmas together in Norman before we drive out to visit my family. We have the wonderful opportunity to begin to decide how we will celebrate it together now. One of our biggest thinking points is how we're going to really celebrate Christ without being distracted by the material aspects of our culture's celebration of the holiday. When we figure out what we're going to do, I'll probably make a short post to that effect as well.

You can look forward to more regular posting after the new year. Thanks to a good deal of change—from marriage and a new job to car accidents—and the launch of Pillar on the Rock, this simply hasn't been the best semester for this blog. Don't worry... I'm not going anywhere.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

A babe and a dying messiah

December 20, 2009—Bruce Hess, "Christmas Contrasts"

Bruce preached a unique and excellent sermon today. He walked through the song "Silent Night" and contrasted its lyrics (and the corresponding picture of Christ's birth) with passages speaking of Christ's death. He spent very little time commenting on the texts and much more simply allowing the words to speak for themselves. I'll content myself with doing the same. (Note: Bruce exclusively used the NLT today, so that is the source for all Scripture citations.)

Silent night:
Mark 15:6-13
Now it was the governor’s custom each year during the Passover celebration to release one prisoner—anyone the people requested. One of the prisoners at that time was Barabbas, a revolutionary who had committed murder in an uprising. The crowd went to Pilate and asked him to release a prisoner as usual.

“Would you like me to release to you this ‘King of the Jews’?” Pilate asked. (For he realized by now that the leading priests had arrested Jesus out of envy.) But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

Holy night
Mark 15:16-19
The soldiers took Jesus into the courtyard of the governor’s headquarters (called the Praetorium) and called out the entire regiment. They dressed him in a purple robe, and they wove thorn branches into a crown and put it on his head. Then they saluted him and taunted, “Hail! King of the Jews!” And they struck him on the head with a reed stick, spit on him, and dropped to their knees in mock worship.

All is calm
Mark 15:11-14
But at this point the leading priests stirred up the crowd to demand the release of Barabbas instead of Jesus. Pilate asked them, “Then what should I do with this man you call the king of the Jews?”

They shouted back, “Crucify him!”

“Why?” Pilate demanded. “What crime has he committed?”

But the mob roared even louder, “Crucify him!”

All is bright
Matthew 27:45,51
At noon, darkness fell across the whole land until three o’clock... the curtain in the sanctuary of the Temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook, rocks split apart...

Round yon virgin, mother and child
Psalm 22:6-8,12-18
But I am a worm and not a man.
I am scorned and despised by all!
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
let the Lord rescue him!”

My life is poured out like water,
and all my bones are out of joint.
My heart is like wax,
melting within me.
My strength has dried up like sunbaked clay.
My tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth.
You have laid me in the dust and left me for dead.
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.
Luke 23: 35-36
The crowd watched and the leaders scoffed. “He saved others,” they said, “let him save himself if he is really God’s Messiah, the Chosen One.” The soldiers mocked him, too, by offering him a drink of sour wine.

Holy infant
John 19:17
Carrying the cross by himself, he went to the place called Place of the Skull (in Hebrew, Golgotha).

So tender and mild
Matthew 27:46
At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”

John 19:28-29
Jesus knew that his mission was now finished, and to fulfill Scripture he said, “I am thirsty.” A jar of sour wine was sitting there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put it on a hyssop branch, and held it up to his lips.

In heavenly peace
Matthew 10:34
“Don’t imagine that I came to bring peace to the earth! I came not to bring peace, but a sword."

Sleep in heavenly peace
Luke 23:46
Then Jesus shouted, “Father, I entrust my spirit into your hands!” And with those words he breathed his last.

Bethlehem was remarkable, beautiful, and strange—but it was only the first step on the road to Calvary and a cross. It is beautiful because it ends with an open tomb and the promise of his return.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Stars and Stones—Sermon notes, 12/13/09

December 13, 2009—Bruce Hess, "The Star That Becomes a Kingdom"
(All references NASB unless otherwise noted.)
Sermon text: Matthew 2:1-11
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him." When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, "In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet:


Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, "Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him." After hearing the king, they went their way; and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.

After coming into the house they saw the Child with Mary His mother; and they fell to the ground and worshiped Him. Then, opening their treasures, they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

This week's message was a meditation on the incarnation, but one rather unlike our normal meditations. Bruce summed up the entire sermon in two words: "domino effect." The Son of God entered the world in a moment that was both much louder and much quieter than anything we might have done ourselves. But from that shining star, from the angels singing, from a baby in a manger, came a stunning transformation in all the world that is still ongoing.

Bruce noted that the star shining to guide the coming wise men has a significance that reaches beyond its own life. It represents Christ: a light of revelation that spreads to to all the world (compare Luke 2:21-32, John 8:12, Matthew 13:31-33 and Daniel 2:31-45, especially vv. 31-35 and vv. 44-45). "The ultimate result of this—that one day, the kingdom of Christ will fill the whole earth—begins with a star," Bruce said.

Bruce then asked two important questions that this raises:
  1. Who is included in the kingdom?
    The answer is straightforward: according to Acts 4:12, "And there is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved." Jesus Christ, and He alone, gives us entrance to the kingdom of God. We come only by believing in Him (see John 3:36 [NIV]). For our part, we are completely incapable of earning our own salvation by sheer good deeds, and cannot pay the cost for our own sin.
  2. What are the children of the kingdom to do?
    Bruce opened his answer by noting that "the dominos haven't all fallen yet." We, he said, are the dominos: the light that began in the star now spreads through us. In Matthew 5:14-16 [NLT], Jesus told his disciples that they were the light of the world. We are to show the world our good works with one aim: all people glorifying the father. His two takeaway points here were:

I really appreciated how Bruce drew attention away from the manger and to the whole picture of history. The manger was a stunningly powerful moment, but part of its power is how it informs all history before it and transforms all history after it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A cubicle poem

Poetry is harder to write
when you're under the influence
of hard, fluorescent lights.
Word choice is harder to summon
when people through cubicle world
are steadily comin'.

I'm left with slant rhymes and failing
mis'rable tries to generate
metrical smooth sailing.
I'm stumbling and grasping at straws
with a mind now doomed to create
grand poetic faux pas.

These sorts of trials no poet should bear
for not even Seattle's gray skies can compare.
Else they will soon be completely consumed
by the madness that dreadfully o'er them looms.

They'll be starting a fresh, new stanza,
a crazy poetic bonanza—
Poof!—their minds, lost!

"Computers," he said," are a delectable delight, best enjoyed with a side of whipped cream."

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Philippians in a Phlash—Sermon Notes, 12/6/09

December 6, 2009—Bruce Hess, "Philippians in a Phlash"
Sermon text:
The book of Philippians, all 104 verses.
Bruce finished his series on Philippians today, concluding by summarizing the entire book and reviewing the main points covered in his sermons over the past months. (Where I took notes on his sermons, I will linke to them.) He reminded us that Philippians was one of Paul's prison epistles, written while under house arrest in Rome, and that it is one of Paul's most personal letters, and certainly his most affectionate. Most of all, the letter is deeply saturated with the person and work of Jesus Christ: out of the 104 verses in the book, 51 of them mention our Lord.

Bruce's outline roughly followed the contours of the book's chapters. For each chapter, he proposed a theme and a life response.

Chapter 1—An Essential Perspective: Difficulty is common in the spiritual life. We must keep centered on our lives with Christ (v. 6). Bruce brought up the example of climbing a telephone pole for repairs: it's easy, as long as one leans back into the belt instead of trying to climb with one's own arms. Likewise, we can only succeed when we lean into Christ. Here, Paul introduces the theme that carries the rest of the book. As Bruce put it, "Keep the main thing the main thing," and the main thing is the gospel (see vv. 5, 7, 12, 16, and 27).

Chapter 2—An Essential Mindset: Humility in serving is integral to the spiritual life. We must live distinctively as children of God. This chapter is a lengthy call to selflessness. We are given a perfect picture: Christ has modeled the right attitude for us (compare Mark 10:45). Just as importantly, the selflessness and humility we are called to are not things we muster up ourselves but something God accomplishes in us. Paul then supplies two more examples: Timothy (vv. 19-24) and Epaphroditus (vv. 25-30). "Selfishness," Bruce said, "will sap the life of an individual. Selfishness will sap the life of a church."

Chapter 3—An Essential Dependence: Reliance on the flesh submarines the spiritual life. We must press on to daily dependence on Christ. Relying on the flesh for our relationship with God will lead us to total failure. All our good works are simply "rubbish"—the Greek word σκυβάλον, which Bruce translated as "stinky crap." We cannot coast, but must press on and focus forward, regularly asking, "Have I settled?" and "Do I live in the past?" We should remember that our citizenship is heaven, not here on earth. The only permanent things in this world are people and the word of God. Thus, we should daily ask, "How can I advance the gospel?" remembering that our strength is in Christ alone.

Chapter 4—Essential Living: Maintaining right choices is vital to the spiritual life. We must choose wisely. Here, Bruce reminded us of the five ways in which Philippians calls us to choose wisely:
  1. Defuse disharmony (vv. 2-3): We must rejoice in the Lord (v. 4), relying on gospel truth. When we do, everything else diminishes in importance by contrast with the hugeness of the gospel.
  2. Choose prayer over anxiety (vv.4-7): Bruce commented, "Remember that God is large and in charge." The rhyme neatly sums up a great deal of truth. We must also hold fast to his promised peace.
  3. Choose to focus wisely (vv. 8-9): A worldly focus on evil and scandal runs smack up against Paul's instruction to set our minds on good things. Paul offers up here a "menu for our minds."
  4. Choose contentment daily (vv. 10-13): Though we are tempted to think, "If only ___, then..." we should instead depend on Christ. The reality of our relationship with Christ is our ultimate strength. "He will give you the grace for the place," Bruce commented.
  5. Choose to invest in the kingdom of God (vv. 14-19): We are blessed by giving now, and we will be blessed more in heaven when we receive our reward.

Finally, Paul gives a simple but powerful benediction, one that I intend to memorize and use to bless and encourage others:
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit.
Philippians 4:23

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Tree Conspiracies, and the Ironies of Language Randomness

My wife (still fun to write!) and I just put up a Christmas tree together for the first time—our Christmas tree. I don't get overly excited about these sorts of things, and frankly I find myself disgusted by much of what passes for "Christmas" tradition: I'd rather focus on Christ's advent into this world. And, as my family can attest, trees and ornaments really haven't done much for me the past few years. Even so, I deeply enjoyed spending the time with my wife and the tree, covered in ornaments, looks rather lovely.

Circumstances do seem, as they say, to conspire against us sometimes. The very moments when we find ourselves rejoicing in a success, it's wiped away before our eyes. We are tempted to rage at God, and sometimes, like the Psalmist, we do rage at Him. In those moments, I return to an unshakeable confidence that the last few years have birthed in me. No matter how little I see God's sovereign goodness in the moment, I know in the depths of my soul that He is in control of every circumstance, and He is good.

Language is a funny thing. As I wrote a few weeks ago, there is both power in simplicity and beauty in sprawling language. As much as some of my friends may protest, Dostoevsky remains one of the greatest authors ever to live—because of, and not in spite of, his wordiness. In layering word upon word, phrase upon phrase, he built up scenes and sometimes entire days of narrative in ways that resonate deeply with me whenever I read his works. More, he does so in a way that fewer words could not accomplish.

I reflected yesterday, in a moment of dreadful irony, that it's a terrible thing to be forced to study interesting topics for work. I find it even more dreadful that my pay is contingent on learning and applying intriguing ideas. I mean, really! It's quite an affront to my general sensibilities: work ought to be dull, boring, and and unexceptional in every way. The notion that it could be interesting has never crossed my mind, and I'm not sure whether to be frightened or infuriated by the concept. Perhaps meditating on the tastiness of chocolate chip cookies will help.

And now, for a bunch of random—wait, make that miscellaneous, as none of this is actually random—things to fill up the end of the post. First, my mom has written more blog posts in the last week than in the preceding 17 months. I find that impressive, most impressive—but I'll end the Darth Vader imitation now. Second, I cannot remember what the second miscellany was to be. Third, I remembered: because it's been so long, she's still pointing to my old blog. Fourth, there's something mildly amusing about critiquing brevity in writing in posts designed to practice just that...

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."

Saturday, October 31, 2009

179,676 Days

For years, I've promised to write a Reformation Day post. Every year, I've failed. This year, I've made no such promise, but here I am succeeding. Irony, thy name is Chris Krycho, at least for the next hour.

492 years ago—179,976 days, including leap years—Martin Luther nailed up a list of issues he saw with the Catholic church of his day on the door of a Wittenburg church. What followed was one of the most momentous changes in the history of the church, and indeed the world. It is no exaggeration to say that I sit here today, typing away, because of Martin Luther and the men that followed his lead. They shook the world, both for good and for ill.

I am grateful for men like Luther and Calvin and Zwingli. I walk with Christ because these men were as faithful as they could be to the Bible. They took it as their authority, let it rule their doctrine and their lives. They were horribly imperfect men; from Luther's anti-Semitism to Calvin's failure with Servetus, they stumbled along the way. I find it encouraging that these men, sinners all, were used powerfully by God. He is not limited by our weaknesses.

One could say many things today. For my part, I want to focus in on one thing I think the reformers themselves did very well that Protestants have generally done quite poorly ever since: reform.

The Reformers' name isn't a misnomer. Luther and Calvin both deeply valued unity, and wanted an internal restoration of the church they loved. By all accounts they were grieved that their own excommunication was the result of their efforts. They fought hard for what they believed was true, but they also cared deeply about following Christ's commands that we seek unity. For too many Christians since the Reformation, schism has become the easiest out when a doctrinal difference appears. Instead of asking whether or not we can find a way to either resolve the difference or live with the difference, we simply split and go our own way.

Worse, schism has become such a norm that churches have split over the proverbial carpet color. Instead of being a people known by their love for one another, Christians (at least, of the Protestant fold) have become a people known for their divisions. When any given topic has the potential to produce church-splitting conflicts, we are not modeling the love of Christ. We need to learn right practice as well as right doctrine from the reformers. Yes, we must hold fast to right teaching, to sound doctrine, and to the primacy of Scripture. We should not be afraid to call heresy out for what it is. At the same time, we need to be careful not to call heresy things that aren't, and we need to show grace to our brothers and sisters in the Lord. We must strive to reform our churches instead of splitting them.

When Christ is rightly esteemed, we have a much better grasp on just how unimportant things like our own decor preferences are. When He is understood to be the center of and the aim of all we're doing, our own ministry aims must be subsumed to the greater goals of the church. When Christ crucified and come to life again is our gospel, we understand that many of our doctrinal differences are simply unworthy of schism. Indeed, only heresy is worth a violent separation, and few doctrines are worth any separation at all! I may not be a Presbyterian, for example—I'm not much one for infant baptism!—but I certainly ought to have close fellowship with my Presbyterian brothers and sisters in Christ. We have much more that unites us than separates. We shouldn't paper over our differences, but we can treat them as what they are: trifling, compared to our unity on Christ and His work. When issues arise in our own churches, we should work with all of our power to resolve them or to come to a place of amicable disagreement. If at long last we should come to the conclusion that it is best to go our separate ways—e.g. over infant baptism—then it ought to be done with the deepest charity and the most heartfelt affection. When churches do separate, they ought to do it with love for one another and with the aim to continue in fellowship and in cooperation for the gospel.

Happy Reformation Day. Keep reforming.

Sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, solo Christo, soli Deo gloria.
By Scripture alone, by faith alone, by grace alone, through Christ alone, glory to God alone.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

5 100ish-word thoughts, 10/28/09

Composing Training Trials while Reading and Writing

(1) I'm going to make this one a habit if I can, too. It's fun, and it's a good writer's challenge: say meaningful things, briefly. It's especially a good challenge for me, as I'm sure my friends agree! I will write 5 thoughts, none of which will be longer than 100 words (they might be a bit shorter!). Topics will range from theology to humor to current events, and probably back again. Each week will include a wide range of topics. Short, easy, good practice, and hopefully fun reading! Alas, I must move on, as I'm at 99 words already...


(2) As I, and I'm sure many others, have observed before: it's not the big, short trials that are the hardest. (They can be plenty hard, but they're not the worst.) The most difficult trials to endure are the ones that simply keep going. I noted several years ago that James' famous exhortation to "count it all joy" continues by promising that the testing of our faith produces steadfastness. Implication: we're going to be facing the trial for quite some time. We'd better start learning to count it all joy: we'll be doing it a lot!


(3) Training can be one of the dullest and most tedious affairs I've ever experienced. Especially training for software tools. Elegant and powerful this tool may be, but the book would be powerful only as an implement of pain, and never elegant. My days this week have been long and dreary. Three things help, in ascending order: (1) the instructor has a superb British accent; (2) I know that my wife is waiting for me at home; (3) I get to have a very short work day on Friday. Thus do I endure my pain. Longsuffering, indeed!


(4) The joy of reading a new book is difficult to overstate. That being said, I'm pretty sure the joy I have in reading a new The Wheel of Time novel is quite impossible to overstate. I love the characters, I love the world, and I love the story. I'm reminded, every time I sit down to read this fantasy epic (and epic it is) of the power of words to stir the imagination, and how powerful and important the imagination is. Reading good novels is as good for us as reading good nonfiction, the Bible aside.


(5) Composing is a strange pursuit. Not that I've done much of it recently, but I've missed it, and I've thought about it quite a bit. I do not quite understand the mechanism by which people can pull music seemingly out of nowhere, despite having experienced it myself many times. It is, to me at least, one of the deepest proofs of God's existence: we create because He does. (I'd say it's one of the quietest proofs, but that's not quite right, and it'd be a bit paradoxical to claim music as a quiet proof, don't you think?)


God bless, and good night!

Monday, October 26, 2009

An Act of Worship: Sermon Thoughts, 10/25/09 (a day late!)

This weekend proved busier than I expected, in a number of ways, not least in working on my current secret project. That should be unveiled in all its glory sometime in the next two weeks. Keep your eyes open. I think you'll enjoy it. Between that and an extra long work day today - a surprising training opportunity that stretches my days out to nine and a half hours! - I simply haven't had a chance to sit down and type until now. A day late it may be, but I'm determined not to slack off on sermon summaries after only one week.


October 25, 2008 - Bruce Hess, "Right Choices: Choose Contentment Daily"
Sermon text: Philippians 4:10-13, NASB:
But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly, that now at last you have revived your concern for me; indeed, you were concerned before, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.
This was an excellent sermon, and one that Jaimie and I found very timely.

Bruce opened by noting how powerful and how pervasive advertising is in America - it's everywhere, and it performs entirely on the basis of discontent. "If you don't have this," it says, "you're nothing." But this discontent, far from satisfying us, will rob us of the joy that God longs to give us.

The two-point sermon (thank you, Bruce, for sticking to the text's outline instead of substituting your own for a convenient three points!) focused on our struggle with contentment and Paul's secret for contentment.

We struggle with contentment for two basic reasons. First, we have a bad case of what Bruce called the "if only" syndrome - "If only I had ____, I would be content." This is simply not true... it's nonsense, in fact. The discontent never ends, and as soon as we have that ____, we're questing on for something else. The important question to ask, then, is whether there is anything we would put in that blank. Do we find anything but Christ ultimately satisfying? Second, we fall prey to discontent because we don't trust God. We forget and underestimate the power of Christ that now dwells in us. If we remembered that, we would know that God supplies all our needs just as faithfully as He has given us salvation. (More on this later in the sermon!)

It's striking that in verse 10, Paul notes that he had "rejoiced in the Lord greatly" - while in prison! He was glad for a financial gift the Philippians had given, but he rejoiced in Christ;. A brief moment of application: we have an opportunity to similarly encourage people in ministry, especially those who we have let fall by the wayside, whether in prayer or financially. More, by contrast with most of us, Paul proclaims in verse 11 that he had "learned to be content." What was his secret? First, contentment is learned. It's not instinctive for us; our fallen selves tend in exactly the opposite direction. Second, it was not his financial circumstances. Paul was content in good circumstances and bad. Bruce's comment here was dead on: "Just because someone has a lot does not mean they will be content... Prosperity can feed discontent." He pointed us to a very helpful prayer: Proverbs 30:8.

Paul's secret was "all about attitude... there [was] an active reliance on the reality of his relationship with Christ." As Paul himself pointed out elsewhere, he had learned not to boast in anything but knowing God. Bruce pointed us to a fabulous passage in Jeremiah that's worth memorizing:
Jeremiah 9:23-24:
Thus says the LORD, "Let not a wise man boast of his wisdom, and let not the mighty man boast of his might, let not a rich man boast of his riches; but let him who boasts boast of this, that he understands and knows Me, that I am the LORD who exercises lovingkindness, justice and righteousness on earth; for I delight in these things," declares the LORD.
Similarly, Hebrews 13:5-6 reminds us that our contentment is grounded in God's promise: He will not leave us, and He will not forsake us. We can rest in the confidence that we are His. In particular, we are assured by all of Scripture that we may rely on God's providence, and that His provision is perfectly sufficient (see Philippians 4:13). We rely on God's indwelling power - the same power that raised Christ Jesus from the dead! - for our provision. We can rest assured that we will have all that we need. Remember: that means that rich or poor, God has met our needs according to His perfect wisdom. As Bruce said, our attitude toward God should be, "Whatever you call me to experience, you will provide for, and I will rely on that."

I think the best moment in the sermon was Bruce's closing. He spoke to the issue dearest to my heart, reminding us that all of these things ultimately come down to whether or not we are glorifying God. "Contentment at its core," he said," is an act of worship: worshipping God for the sufficiency of His power, for the reality of his provision." God owes us nothing; we owe him thanks for everything, because every part of our life is a free gift.

Our response can be summed up in three parts. First, rejoice in your relationship with Jesus Christ above any other person or thing in this world, for He is our great treasure (Habakkuk 3:17-19). Second, keep your eyes on eternity (2 Corinthians 4:17). Finally, count your blessings: don't lose sight of all that God has done, blinded by the greed of this world.

I appreciated how saturated with Scripture this sermon was. Bruce didn't make it more than about two minutes at a stretch without reading or quoting Scripture, and doing it well and accurately. That sort of sermon is too rare in many churches, and it's always a joy to hear.

I challenge you, as I was challenged, to walk this week in contentment, remembering that contentment is an act of worship.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Name-Calling and Image-Bearing

My friend Jessica just made an excellent post over at her personal blog. You should also take a look at some of the ministry she's doing - there's some fantastic stuff there. (N.B. She's dealing with significant sexual addictions, so it's not light reading.)

Yesterday, as I drove to school, for some reason, I was thinking of Christianity. Recently, I have been working with a ministry that is predominantly Catholic. Mind you, I am not Catholic and do not intend to convert to Catholicism. In fact, I have been dubbed 'the Protestant' by their founder. The fact is, this Catholic ministry is doing more than any 'Protestant' ministry has done. Why is that?

...Do you realize that the world gave them that name [Christian]? It means "Christ-followers" or "Christ imitators." The world, at that time, had seen Christ, so they would know what a Christ follower would look like. Hence, the coinage of the term.

However, it has now come to mean anything from right-wind extremists to anti-government. Now, I know Jesus was not loved and He told us that we would not be accepted because He wasn't accepted, but would someone like to tell me why we are instigating this problem? Did Jesus instigate? No. He didn't. Did Jesus walk up to people, smack them upside the head and say, "You better listen to me, because I am God"? No! Jesus loved them. He reached out to them. He fellowshiped with sinners, and THAT is why people hated Him. Too often now the church is all about hating sinners, which would be why the world hates us.

My thoughts were capitalized last night when author Ted Dekker posted a similar line of thinking on his Facebook page.

According to a Barna Group poll, only 9% of those outside the church think Christians in America are nice, loving people. Whatever happened to ‘you shall know them by their love?’ Throughout most of the world Christianity is simply no longer associated with the core beliefs of sacrificial love that birthed our faith. It has become like a large vessel of dirty bathwater, full of nasty associations that fly in the face of Jesus’ teaching which centered on love and the cry that ‘we judge not lest we be judged.’ A Newsweek cover story cited the dramatic decline of Christianity in the United States. We live in a post Christian world, many would say. They might be right. And who’s to blame them? No one wants to swim around in dirty bathwater.

But wait a minute. There is more than dirty bathwater in this vessel. There is something precious and live-giving! And there is a rising generation of thinkers who are as eager to protect and cherish that life as they are to throw out the dirty bathwater.

Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, we say.

His cry was to get back to what it means to follow Christ and forget all of the hoopla and drammada of religion. We cling so tightly to the label "Christian" and it no longer means what we think it means. We spend so much effort and energy defending our stand and faith that we look more like Pharisees than followers of Christ. It's ridiculous really. So, I think I am actually going to drop the whole label of "Christian." I am not a Christian, I am a follower of Christ. Sadly, yes, there is a difference.

I definitely feel her here, and I've felt a lot of the same frustrations. I think Luke didn't really care for the term "Christian" much, either... he keeps saying "the followers of the way" even after the term is introduced in Acts. And the term has a lot of baggage with it to be certain.

A few other thoughts stemming from her post: While I appreciate where Dekker and Barna are coming from - and I certainly do think that there's an issue with the church involved! - I'd hesitate to take that finding too far. Certainly Dekker overstates his case when he claims that Christians "in most of the world" are not living out Christlikeness. Problems in the US church are simply not universal, and there is a lot of good going on in the world church. Insofar as the critique is accurate - and I think it is, at least for the American church - there are a couple root issues that we need to deal with to address the issue.

First and foremost, I think "Christians" in America by and large aren't. We have churches full of people who think they are believers who give no convincing evidence of that fact. If, over the course of years, one's life displays no fruit - however much moralistic attempting goes on - then the person is simply not a Christian. We're not being kind to pretend otherwise; we're sending people to hell who think they're saved. That's problem number 1, and until we deal with it, we're not going to see the world's perspective change. The world doesn't see Christians as loving because it actually sees not Christians - not disciples - but a bunch of moralizing deists (to borrow a term from Matt Chandler) whose moralizing makes them arrogant. They need a good dose of the real gospel, the one that says that Christ has become the source of eternal salvation to those who obey him (see John 3:34, Hebrews 5:9). Faith produces works. If it doesn't, it's not faith. Solutions: preach the gospel, exercise church discipline (which means practicing meaningful church membership, among other things), and build a church environment that recognizes the basic necessity of community - it's not something cool on top; it's foundational in the healthy life of the church.

On a much smaller, but still significant scale, we need to remember that the world's definition of love and God's tend to differ pretty radically. At this point, anyone who makes any sort of moral stand is considered to be inherently "unloving." I don't deny that Christians have done much to exacerbate this. The doctrinal position we hold on homosexuality may be perfectly accurate, but we've done a very poor job in communicating that position in a way that demonstrates Christ-like love. It's tended to be, instead, either an arrogant superiority or simple fear that gets communicated. I.e. "We're better than you, you dirty heathen," or "Stay away, I don't want you contaminating [insert vulnerable loved one of choice]." Both of which are distinctly unChrist-like responses. All of that to say, yes there's a great deal of growing to do there, but we should judge ourselves not on the basis of the world's perception but simply on the basis of Scripture. It's critique is much louder than the world's ever could be. (And I think Jessica would agree with me there.)

It's not surprising to me that Catholic ministries tend to do a better job than a lot of Protestant ministries at actually working in the world. They, and the Eastern Orthodox, both have a much stronger grasp on incarnational theology - understanding how Christ's incarnation impacts our mandate here and now - than most Protestants. Protestants also, quite rightly, have a historical revulsion for any sort of "social gospel." Unfortunately, that's had a tendency to bleed over into Protestant views of all social action (except political, apparently!). To restore that, we need to deepen our own incarnational theology and recognize that, though our hope is for a kingdom to come, we have transformational, serving work to do in the here and now.

Two major caveats, though. First, it's worth note that in many of the Catholic ministries I've encountered - certainly not all - the sort of good works being noted here are motivated by bad doctrine. When salvation comes by works, as is certainly still taught in many parishes, the faithful Catholic has no choice but to work very hard indeed. There are segments of Protestantism that are just as industrious and for precisely the same reason. As we deepen our theology, and remember that faith produces works, we need to remember that it is still grace that saves. Indeed, a real understanding of grace should prompt us to work.

My second caveat is that we need to be careful not to mistake serving in the world for proclaiming the gospel (or the other way around!). Both are necessary components of our faith, and thankfully we are not left with a contradiction between the two. (Again, I've no doubt Jessica and I are on the same page here.) It's easy, in recognizing the need for social action because of the good news, to forget that we're here as ambassadors. Our purpose is to proclaim that good news. All our social action is gospel-oriented. I'm not speaking of a sort of action that only goes in with the aim of converts, but rather social action that is so Christ-centered that gospel-proclaiming will inevitably be a part of it. If ever we lose the cross and God's grace displayed therein, all our social works are in vain.

The challenge, then, is to go forth and work - to be Christ-followers, disciples, image-bearers, intead of merely name-bearers. Work in the world, proclaim the gospel of peace, and keep the cross and the empty tomb ever in sight.