Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The End of an Era

Over five years ago, I started what ultimately became Thoughts; A Flame—a project that has lived under many names, and carried many different kinds of content—poetry, songs, web design tips, theology, personal stories, everything but recipes and child-rearing advice.

And now it is coming to a close. Not because I have any shortage of things to write about (I still have 15 ideas sitting on virtual sticky notes on my computer) but because my priorities are taking a dramatic shift over the next year. I have a limited amount of time for writing, along with the various other tasks I pursue, and I am taking on a fairly significant endeavor for next year: writing a novel. The hook is half science fiction, half drama, and all intriguing—everyone I have talked to, even the people who don't enjoy science fiction, think it's a solid idea. So I am going to write it. Unfortunately for this blog, however, that means that all my non-novel time will be very small, and all of it devoted to Pillar on the Rock and 52 Verses.

The decision to shut down this blog may seem sudden, but it really isn't; it's a thought I have been quietly chewing on for the last several months. As much as I enjoyed my spate of daily blogging in October, it highlighted for me just how adrift this blog's content has been. That lack of focus is not necessarily a bad thing, but when I get back to blogging (probably in a year or so; we will see), I intend to write with considerably more focus. Secondary topics will get split off onto their own blogs so that theology is not mingled with Blogger tips. Even if I were not going to write a novel next year, I would almost certainly be putting Thoughts; A Flame to rest for that reason alone. As it is, I simply will not be blogging at all.

That may prove quite a challenge, as many of you who know me will understand—but I really do need to devote all of my spare writing time to the novel if I am going to do a good job with it. It really is my aim to write the sort of book that I can publish, God willing!

You can expect exactly one more post in this space: a follow-up to last year's 12 Days of Christmas project—this year, James has upped the ante to 25 days, and the project is already live. You can see the first art here.

If you want to see what I'm thinking about and follow my writing over the next year, your best bet will be Pillar on the Rock, as I will continue writing regularly and serving as one of the general editors there.

With that, God bless. It's been fun, and I will always treasure everything I have learned writing here.

The site will of course remain online, with relevant posts available for the searching, seeing as there are several pieces of content here that remain highly trafficked.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Debt and Dogged Discipline

Over the course of college, I racked up a total of $16,500 in scholastic debt—not much by comparison to many of my peers, but still far more than I wanted. God willing, that will finally be paid off next month. I can hardly wait to click the button that will confirm the final electronic payment and free me once and for all from this chain.

Make no mistake: it is a chain, with a heavy ball at the end, and it can pull you down to the depths and drown you if you are not careful and disciplined in the way you handle it. I had little choice: my scholarships (the reason I have much less debt than I would have otherwise) required me to be a full-time student, and they fully covered only four years. A mistake with some paperwork one semester—unnoticed and unreported until it was too late—left me needing a loan to cover the remainder, and of course loans from the federal government never come in custom sizes, so I ended up with substantially more than I needed.

When Jaimie and I married last summer and I started my job, we resolved to pay down my debts as quickly as possible. When we finish my car next spring, God willing, we will have zero outstanding debts. That will be a wonderful thing; I can hardly wait. The path has been somewhat longer than we initially hoped, because sometimes life happens: a computer needs replacing, the car needs repairs, a friend has a financial need that we can help meet, etc. Even with all of that, we will still have paid down about $25,000 in loans in 22 months. On the one hand, that's a testament to the generosity of our God and the provision He has given us. On the other, it has happened because we have been disciplined with his gifts.

More on that in a moment, but first, you must understand that while I am pleased at how well we have done, it is deeply frustrating that we will have essentially lost that money. $25,000 would pay for seminary, or be a substantial down payment on a house, or open the door for us to adopt a child. It would be wonderful to have that money, instead of having it go to debts. So I strongly encourage anyone reading this post to consider before you go into debt. Sometimes it is unavoidable. For all other times, avoid debt like the plague. That includes college, especially if your degree will not land you a job that will let you pay the debt off quickly. It especially includes everything else but houses—don't ever buy a television on credit. It's not worth it (not least since, with a little discipline, you could save the same amount of money you would pay each month for 2/3 the time and buy a better TV at the end).

Now, how exactly did Jaimie and I manage to do so well? Even with a good job, it hasn't been easy. It has required us to sacrifice—not terribly painful sacrifices, but sacrifices nonetheless. We have made precisely two major purchases (over $100) since we got married: a new television, bought entirely with gift money, and a new computer for Jaimie when her old one died. The first was pleasure, but not something we took out of our budget; the second was a necessity for Jaimie's schoolwork. By contrast, a coworker hired at the same time as me bought a motorcycle and a new truck in the same period of time. (I intend no criticism: he's debt free and single; those were perfectly responsible decisions on his part. My point is simply that the money I make could readily be spent instead of applied to the debt.)

In addition, we kept a close eye on our budget. Initially I did that mentally, with fairly good results—but I soon realized that using a formal budget and tracking our expenses closely would allow us to be even more diligent about paying down these debts. So, at the beginning of this past year, we decided exactly how much we would put toward the debt every paycheck. With the exception of a few unavoidable pauses (like the month we bought Jaimie's computer), we have kept on that track. We have kept our other costs down by simply deciding how much we were willing to spend—whether on gas, on entertainment, or on groceries. If we don't have the money budgeted, we don't spend it. It's that simple.

Second, we have used a "snowball" approach to eliminating debt. This simple technique is recommended by most financial experts. You pay the minimum payment on all but one of your existing loans—the one with the lowest balance (or, if two have similar balances, the one of those two with a higher interest rate). You pay as much as you can afford on that one every month. (If, like us, you can afford to pay on it twice a month instead of just once, do it: you'll pay less interest.) Once you finish paying that loan off, you take all of the money you were putting into that loan and add it to your minimum payment on the next larger loan, and repeat until you're done. Each debt you pay off allows you to pay off the next debt even more quickly—it snowballs. Counterintuitive though it initially appears, paying off the smaller debts first allows you to pay down the larger debts much more quickly.

Again, that requires diligence. We didn't allow ourselves to spend more money entertainment after we paid off the first student loan (other than a celebratory pause—which is a good idea). We held our lifestyle constant (and we made wise decisions about that lifestyle from the getgo, choosing to live in a comfortable but inexpensive apartment rather than a more lavish one, and so on). We will do the same when we finish this second loan, and the same when we finish the car payment—so in another two years, we will have saved as much or more than we have paid on debts, God willing. And why should we up our standard of living? We have everything we actually need; we, like Paul, have learned to be content with what we have—all of which is more than nice enough for us.

Avoid debt. If you're in debt, be disciplined and get out. Is it hard? Yes, it is. It takes time. As my dad once commented about getting physically fit, it's a marathon, not a sprint. If you work at it faithfully and regularly, you'll get there, just as steady effort in the gym over a course of months will get you in shape. Little bursts of exercise never made anyone a successful athlete, and little bursts of financial wisdom will never get you out of debt. Work hard, be disciplined, thank God for his good gifts, and escape the slavery of debt. You will never regret it.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Praying Threats Against Evil Men

This week, I saw evil, clear and real and personal—the kind of evil that enrages, that enflames the kind of deep and violent anger that I rarely experience for any reason. I learned of circumstances that touched a friend's life, and wrath burned in me.

I have never experienced anything quite like it.

Of course, I have been angry many times in my life—but nearly all of those were times I was angry on my behalf, or even selfishly angry on the behalf of those I was close to. Rarely, I have been angry because of injustices or people's apathy toward the things of God—but even those, I am afraid, were tainted by self-righteousness: that sort of smug pride in how I cared more or was doing more than they were. This was different. There was nothing about me in it—simply fury that someone could do such a thing, especially to someone so deeply vulnerable and helpless to resist.

For the first time, I think I glimpsed a little bit of the fiery, righteous anger of God at sin and injustice and evil. He hates it. Time and again the Scriptures affirm that God abominates injustice, abuse of the poor and weak, and those who take advantage of those with no defense. He is incensed by murder and rape and torture and every unnecessary violence of this world.

Driving home, yesterday, I was praying for God to show His grace in this circumstance. All week, I have thought about what that prayer means. The God we serve, after all, is,

The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation.

That's a wonderful and terrible passage, the foundation of all God's subsequent revelation of himself. It calls us to stand in awe: he is slow to anger; he overflows with steadfast love and faithfulness; he is merciful and gracious; he forgives iniquity and transgression and sin but he does not clear the guilty; the sins of the fathers have deep consequences in their families.1

God's great mercy on display here is sobering. You see, the way my wrath remained unrighteous and unlike God's, at least initially: it was not tempered by loving kindness and mercy. I simply wanted God to strike dead the man who did this evil. Now, in part, that is a righteous desire: it reflects just how deep God's anger burns against those who sin—all those who sin, more on that in a moment—and how fierce his judgment against evil is and will be. Nevertheless, there is more to God than his righteous anger.

The same who God who pulled me out of my sins and opened my eyes to the light of his glory and goodness when I was six or seven can save this man from his sins and open his eyes to the light of the glory of God. Had I committed smaller evils? Yes, of course: I was a child. But I was a sinner, through and through. I was selfish, self-righteous, angry, and prideful, to name but a few of my many faults. God is still saving me from those sins and more besides; they may no longer have dominion over me, but I certainly run back to them frequently enough that you'd think they and not God were my true heart's desire.

All of that to say: God's mercy to me is no more deserved than it would be toward this man who has done this great, wrath-enflaming evil. God's anger does burn hot against this man, far hotter than my anger burned even at its hottest. His anger is a searing, destroying flame that punishes evil violently and completely. Lest anyone complain: that is a good thing. Think how outraged we would be if a human judge sentenced a convicted serial rapist to a stern talking-to and a few weeks of community service! The abortion of justice is a terrible thing—not something we really want in God. Our tendency in the other direction is ultimately because we don't want to acknowledge that his justice necessarily includes all of our sins—not just Hitler's or Dahmer's.2 No, God's anger is a good thing, as is his judgment against sin, precisely because it is fierce and terrifying.

But God's mercy is a good thing, too—and here, too, we run off into the weeds, because we think his mercy should only be offered to those above a certain moral level. In other words, we think we deserved God's mercy by being better people than the Stalins or Ted Bundys of the world. We are wrong, and praise be to the God who makes no such distinctions in his offer of grace. All of us are undeserving wretches, saved only by grace of God in the death of Christ, applied to our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Not one of us has a better claim on the forbearance and loving kindness of God than this evil man does, because every one of us is evil. We have no grounds for self-righteousness; our rightly angry prayers in circumstances like this must always be tempered by the unmerited favor God poured out on us in all our wretchedness.

So yes, we can and should pray for God to do justice against evil, but we must also pray that in his mercy God would redeem those who do evil. Over the course of the week, my prayers about this unquestionably evil man became, "Oh God, restrain him from evil. Save him, send to him to jail, or strike him dead: let him do no more evil. In your mercy, please draw him to you and redeem him, restoring the many relationships he has destroyed. But protect those he has hurt, and never let him harm them again." It is not a perfect prayer, but it is the best I can do at summing up the tensions that run so deep here. It is a prayer for mercy and salvation, but also a prayer for justice, and above all a prayer that evil would be ended—in whatever way God chooses.

How would you pray here?

1For some helpful discussion of the hard parts of this passage, see John Piper's sermon, The Lord, a God Merciful and Gracious [transcript available]. He concludes: "[God] simply lets the effects of the fathers' sins take their natural course, infecting and corrupting the hearts of the children. For parents who love their children this is one of the most sobering texts in all the Bible."

2Note that I have in view here not those who object at a deeply thought through philosophical level their opposition to hell, etc.—though they are still wrong—but the general population's outlook on hell, which essentially reduces down to, "But that would make God mean!"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Hiding Post Page Content on Home Page [Blogger Hacks]

One of the features I implemented for Pillar on the Rock a few months ago is a means of showing different content on the main page than on the post pages. Oftentimes, we have introductory or editorial content that's simply extraneous in the context of our magazine-like landing page. People are not interested in reading an introduction to each post; they want to see whether the article itself grabs their attention or not. (Similarly, what's the point in having a great first sentence if it's buried below a bunch of other content?) At the time, we were shifting from showing entire articles on the front page to showing snippets. I took the opportunity to implement a small, easy fix that allows us to hide any content in a post from the front page while still displaying it normally on the post page.

Before you implement any of the following, make sure you backup a copy of your full Blogger template (Design→Edit HTML→Expand Widget Templates, then after the reload, choose Download Full Template). Now, you're going to need a couple pieces of CSS, and then some HTML implementation in Blogger's post-generating XML code. We'll start with the CSS. You can update this one of two ways. If you're using a new Blogger template, the CSS can be customized in Design→Template Designer→Advanced→Add CSS. If you're using a classic template, the CSS is available in the <head> section. Either way, you'll want to add some code like the following (the particular name of the class is not important; that you can remember it and it's descriptive of what you're wanting to do with it is important).

We're going to add a CSS "class" that we can apply to our content. (If you're unfamiliar with CSS, W3C Schools' tutorial is a great place to start. It'll explain concepts like ids, classes, and how CSS works in general.) Here's the class:

.hidden-content {
    // any styling you want applied to this content on your post pages

You could actually ignore that entirely, but if you want to do anything special with the content on your post pages, you should add the styling to that class here.

Next, on the Edit HTML tab, run a search for "Blog1" (the name of the blog widget element). Scroll down (or just run another search) until you find the following code:

<div class='post-body entry-content'>
    <div style='clear: both;'/> <!-- clear for photos floats -->
Here, we are going to insert some code to tell Blogger what to do in the particular case that we are not on the post page, which Blogger identifies by setting the pageType to item—that's the section highlighted in yellow below.

<div class='post-body entry-content'>
<b:if cond='data:blog.pageType != "item"'> <style type='text/css'> .hidden-content { display: none; } </style> </b:if>
<div style='clear: both;'/> <!-- clear for photos floats --> </div>

Aside: Those of you familiar with Blogger's templates may wonder why I didn't use pageType == index rather than pageType != item. The answer is that if you do that, archive pages (those accessed by searching by label or date) will all still display the content. Obviously you'll need to decide whether that makes sense in your case. For me, I only wanted the content to appear on the post pages.

Now, save your template, and you're done with the template changes. Now, any time you want to hide text on the front page but show in on the post-page, you simply need to wrap it in an element that has the class article-hiddne-content. For example, if you want to hide a whole section of text, you might do the following in your post (of course you'll have to be using the Edit HTML tab of the post creator):

<div class='hidden-content'>
Donec fringilla lobortis metus eu sollicitudin.
Nam eros quam, venenatis ut ultrices sit amet,
tincidunt ac nisl. Phasellus varius ante ut nibh
mattis dapibus rutrum purus pellentesque. Morbi
congue risus et metus pellentesque vel pulvinar
leo sagittis. Duis sapien diam, volutpat sed
pharetra sit amet, consectetur vel sapien.

Donec dictum sapien at ipsum suscipit id
condimentum turpis tristique. Nam bibendum
molestie libero, sed imperdiet quam pharetra non.
Maecenas bibendum nunc ut libero congue volutpat.
Vivamus eu ante lorem, eu sodales risus. Mauris
ultricies gravida interdum. Praesent eu tortor
nibh, vitae facilisis orci. Duis et justo eu
libero tempus viverra. Nulla.
Alternately, you could hide anything else just as easily:
  • Images: <img src='image_url' class='hidden-content'/>
  • Links: <a href='target_url' class='hidden-content'/>[link content]</a>
  • Paragraphs: <p class='hidden-content'>[paragraph text]</p>
  • Spans: <span class='hidden-content'>[span text]</span>

It's that simple! Of course, you can apply the same technique to accomplish substantially more sophisticated behavior as well. In my case, I not only wanted to hide some content on the front page, I wanted to change certain styles when on the front page (e.g. I didn't want my drop-cap first-paragraph effect to appear anywhere except the post-page, so I reset the styling for it to match ordinary text). All that requires is adding other styling elements inside the <style type='text/css'>...</style> block we created—those styles will only be applied when you're on a post-page, because Blogger won't even create that code for other kinds of pages.

(Much Delayed) Reflections on a Month of Blogging

Last month, I wrote 24 consecutive days, missed one, and finished out with a small bang on Sunday. I still have a dozen more ideas for posts, and plenty more to say. I am not entirely sure where to go from here, however.

Blogging takes time. Even a short post demands a certain amount of mental energy, and producing 500 words takes me at least 20 minutes. That's a bare minimum: depending on the 500 words in question, they might take me an hour to whip into a satisfactory shape. I might be able to push out 1000 words in 35 minutes—but only if I refuse to edit the piece, if I intentionally let the written record be simply what I thought at first. As any good writer—and especially any good editor—will tell you, that's a terrible strategy. So, given that I was publishing posts between 500 and 1000 words long every day, that was an average of 45 minutes each day that I spent on blogging. That, in turn, was an average of 45 minutes each day I did not spend on other things.

As it turns out, I didn't particularly miss most of those things. While there were a few days I didn't want to put out a blog post, by and large I enjoyed writing far more than I missed any of the other things I wasn't doing with that time. Halo: Reach is fun, but not nearly as enjoyable as thinking through interesting concepts, synthesizing ideas from the books and articles I'm reading, and generally forcing myself to grow by forcing myself to write.

That is part of why I love blogging so much. Like many others before me, I find that I learn by writing. I start out with a rough idea what I think on a subject, and tease out its intricacies, its twists and turns, its interesting corners by writing about it. Sometimes I find that I have to rewrite the opening of a position piece because, by the time I finish it, I have changed my mind. The process of wrestling through ideas and their consequences is transformative. At its very best, it forces me to distill vague notions down to concrete terms, forcing the vapor of my original conception to materialize into a solid shape.

Add to that the challenge of saying something meaningful day after day, and writing proves the best sharpener of my thought—and indeed, the best means of provoking careful thought throughout the day—that I know of. I enjoy writing not only for its own sake, but because it forces me to think throughout the day, not merely to drift along in the current of consciousness but to seize a paddle and force a direction through my stream of thought. It forces me to take hold of a notion and grapple with it until I understand it well enough to say something about it to others.

On the whole, I loved blogging every day last month. It was draining at times, certainly, especially when combined with a busy schedule and another major project running simultaneously. (You can see the results of that project here.) That sort of busyness is not itself a problem, at least from my point of view. My time was being spent productively and effectively, and I enjoyed it more than I would have enjoyed any of the purely entertaining alternatives.

For my beloved wife, however, the month was a bit different. She was not inside my head, enjoying the adventure of thinking, processing, understanding with me. Much as I try, I can never quite communicate the thrill I get from thinking and writing—to anyone, even her. For her, those hours not spent playing Halo were hours not spent playing Halo with her. She felt separated from me, isolated by my tapping away at the keyboard. We are different, she and I. I feel happily connected if we are sitting near each other, occasionally pausing from our own tasks to talk, or share a quiet moment of holding hands, or an amusing thought or idea from a book or our own musings. She feels connected when we are sharing the activity itself. In short: I like writing side by side, she likes watching movies together.

While there are several reasons I haven't written a post since the start of November, one is that I haven't yet worked out the balance here. On the one hand, blogging is good for me. For all the reasons outlined above, it benefits me deeply. It sharpens my thinking and forces me to think, and in the sheer mundanity of my daily routine, that's important. At the same time, my relationship with my wife is exceptionally important. If I value my own intellectual satisfaction over caring for her and making sure her emotional needs in our relationship are met, I am just being selfish. When you add in all our other activities, especially in the evening, it is easy for her to feel disconnected (even if I don't). That is not a situation I can or will tolerate. As such, I am chewing on how to both serve my wife and achieve the ends that blogging helps me reach.

When I figure it out, I'll let you know. Until then, I will be here, fitfully and irregularly as ever.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

500 posts

Happy Reformation Day.

I'm feeling sick, so I'm going to read for a little bit and then go to sleep in the hope that tomorrow I will be well enough to go to work. I will, regardless, post my 501st blog on this site then, and offer some thoughts about what I've learned in the last month, what I plan for the future, etc.

Sleep well, and God bless.

Friday, October 29, 2010

One of those nights

Jaimie's car died today.

I walked in circles for half an hour tonight.

No one reads my poems. (I think perhaps no one reads poems anymore, period. Or maybe mine are just bad.)

My job is frustrating.

At times, I feel very lonely.

I'm not sure what this post is about.

God is still good.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Real Reason I Write

Self-exaltation is, I think, the single most common sin in the world. Idolatry is the root of every other sin, and self is far and away the most common target of worship directed away from God. Modern America's particular brand of this sin is our obsession with fame. This particular brand of idolatry has seeped into many corners of the church, as well as culture at large. We live in an age that glorifies people with big personalities and bigger followings; quiet faithfulness is not terribly interesting or laudable from the eyes of most American Christians.

Men like John Piper or Matt Chandler (to name but two of the more popular preachers for the Reformed crowd) find themselves the center of attention, emulated and even adulated by crowds of young Christian believers. Evangelicals in general see big churches (and correspondingly, popular preachers) as the ultimate measure of success. Popularity is the barometer of God's blessing.

This view is deeply contrary to the gospel, which points us again and again back to God's greatness and worthiness to be worshipped—and which highlights how our self-worship destroys so much. To be perfectly fair to men like Piper and Chandler, they handle all the fame well, doing their very best to point all the glory back to God. Yet as Piper himself has acknowledged in a very public way, fame can be poisonous. It puts the attention on us instead of God; faithfully and consistently turning that attention toward God is difficult enough when it is only external—but our deceitful, wicked hearts are harder still to turn toward him, especially when the praises of man sound strongly (and sweetly).

Blogging, interestingly, fits right in this same vein. A friend of mine, Wes Martin, noted recently that the lure of fame has a particularly insidious temptation for those of us devoted to sharing Christ-exalting truth on our blogs. On the one hand, our goal is to edify other believers, stirring them up to follow Jesus more faithfully and wisely. On the other, popularity is always tempting us. Sometimes it is the overt and obvious temptation to write something provocative just to get more hits, or not write something controversial to avoid offending others. At other times, though, it is the quiet sin of pride at advancing the kingdom of God—and being known for it. We want the kingdom to advance, but we want it to advance through us, with our name being known and honored for the part we played.

As I have passed 5 years of blogging, and am quickly closing in on the end of this 25-day-long experiment—as I near a year of work on Pillar on the Rock—I am deeply, intensely aware of this struggle in my own heart. Over the course of the last year in particular, since I actually began tracking the traffic to my sites, I have wrestled with the question of why I care whether I have many readers. (And I do. I care a lot sometimes.) I have to constantly ask whether my desire to see these sites grow, especially Pillar, is rooted in selfishness or in the love of God. Sometimes, to my shame, it has been the desire to feed my ego, not to see others edified and my Savior glorified.

I want this blog to grow. I want Pillar to reach a wider audience. In large part, those desires really are because I believe the things I write about are important—and of course, I believe the things I'm saying about these topics are accurate. (Here, too, is a temptation toward arrogance and ego-stroking: do I write simply because I think I am the only voice saying these things, or because I overvalue my own wisdom? The same temptations rear their ugly head.) In part, however, I recognize that I write because I want people to like what I have to say, and accordingly think well of me. I want my wisdom extolled. I want my words to be widely appreciated.

In short, I am guiltiest of all: I use posts that allegedly make much of God—sometimes posts that really do make much of God—to make much of myself. The real goal is Chris-glory, not God-glory, however much the words on the page may run the opposite direction. My heart is wicked and prideful. In myself, I twist even the things of God to my own ends.

With Paul, I am left saying,

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. (Romans 7:24-25)

Thanks be to God in Christ Jesus: he will deliver me from this body of sin. Amen.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Baptism, Communion, and the Human Body

Communion and baptism, like the Passover feast and circumcision, are powerful reminders of the work that God has done for His people. They are also material in nature—substantially so. In each case, the actions we take are not merely some sort of mental affirmation, but a physical action corresponding to our verbal affirmation of truth and our commitment of will to the truths affirmed. In baptism, we proclaim ourselves dead to sin and raised to new life in Christ—all by his grace. In the Lord's Supper, we proclaim two beautiful paradoxes: the power of his blood to wash us clean of sin and the power of his body, broken to heal us of our brokenness.

Baptism involves body and water; the Eucharist consists of bread and wine. These are normal parts of our existence put to a spiritual use. The water of immersion and the elements of communion are sanctified: set apart for holy use. Our tendency is to think that they are thus set apart in spite of their mundane nature; I wonder, however, if the reality might lie somewhere in the opposite direction. Is it possible that God instituted these practices as fully physical experiences to prevent us from running off in the direction of Platonic dualism's disdain for the body and glorification of the spirit? After all, if the body is taking part in such important spiritual activities, it too must partake of that same spiritual life. The two cannot be so separate as we Westerners are wont to make them.

Over the past year or so, I have been mulling over the questions raised by these two ordinances—questions that have begun to come to a head in my mind. How we treat them, and what we believe about them, is important. The ordinances are not as important as the good news itself, of course, but they are so closely tied to it that they nonetheless deserve our attention—far more attention than we are typically willing to give to them. While I remain unconvinced that they are worthy of the denominational splits that controversies over them have historically engendered, those splits had at least one thing in their favor: the men and women of that day at least recognized that these are important. Generally speaking, I fear we trivialize them in one way or another—rare is the evangelical church that places sufficient importance on the Lord's Supper, either in stated intent or in practice. Many Baptist churches do well to practice and preach baptism, but all-too-often that is simply a denominational distinctive, rather than a carefully thought through practice of one of the most important aspects of our faith.

Even when the ordinances themselves are done well, I think we often miss some of the heady implications offered by them—particularly in the "ordinance" mindset so prevalent in America today.

There are two dominant views of Baptism and the Lord's Supper: that they are sacraments, and that they are ordinances. In the sacramental view, these acts are understood to be means by which God actively imparts grace into the life of the believer. (Don't go running off the rails here; this is a theologically well-developed view, and when a Lutheran, for example, suggests that God actively gives grace through the elements, he does not mean that we are saved by partaking of the Table.) In the ordinal view, the two are held to be remembrances and proclamations of how God's grace has been given in the past. Baptists (and I) hold to the latter view.

We stand in danger of losing something that is hard to miss in the sacramental view, though. If you believe that when you take the elements, or when you are baptized, God is actively pouring his grace into your life, it is very difficult to lose sight of the goodness of the material world. God acts in and through it in your life in a meaningful way—and if you take Communion regularly, these spiritually significant material acts are regular. By contrast, when we see these actions as simply remembrance and proclamation, we can more easily be fooled by subtle jabs at the physical world. We can be fooled into thinking that our bodies are basically bad, that the earth is most of all in need of being destroyed, and so on.

The reality could not be more opposite. Though twisted and corrupted by the fall, our bodies are good, as is the earth beneath our feet. The earth will be burned up by fire, yes—to cleanse it and ready it for new, holy inhabitants (see 2 Peter 3:1-7, often taken to indicate the world's destruction; actually, it points to a final cleansing by fire to which the "cleaning by water" of the Flood was but a precursor). These bodies we have will fall away for a time, yes—but we will take them up again, renewed and transformed in ways we cannot fully imagine.

In the final reckoning, we ordinance-oriented folk really need to do a better job holding on to our theology and teaching carefully on the ordinances. For while they are not present-day means of grace, they point to a past means of grace that was physical through and through—and also spiritual through and through. Just as the Passover was a remembrance of an act, so is the Lord's Supper—but in both cases, the original was as physical as death itself. Real blood was shed by an innocent, unblemished body, and through it, God's justice was satisfied and his mercy revealed. So too, baptism (like circumcision before it) declares our entrance into the covenant community of God, and it does so physically. Why? Because it points at a spiritual reality that occurred in thoroughly material ways: the death and resurrection of the human body of Jesus Christ. It points us forward to the physical death and resurrection of our own body.

If we actually understand our own view thoroughly, we will be equipped to have just as complete a view of the goodness of this world as our sacramentally oriented brethren. We can point to the inherent physicality of the means of God's grace poured into the world, even as we remember that grace in inherently physical ways. We can look back to what He has done in the world with gratitude, and look forward to what he will do in joyful expectation. But we must get our theology here clear!

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Head-Knowledge and Humility

Over the course of the last week, I've had several conversations about humility. It's always an interesting topic for me, as pride is probably the area I struggle most. Today, I had a couple realizations that were humbling—and a neat analogy to help fit it all together.

I try to work out fairly regularly. It's important for staying healthy—I have a desk job, so if I don't work out, my body will deteriorate. My employer provides access to a nice gym nearby (five minutes from the building I work in), so I have no excuse not to exercise, and lots of reason to. After all, my body is a good thing, a gift from God that He calls "very good." I need to take care of it. Given that, I make a twice-weekly pilgrimage to the gym, where I buckle down for some running and weight training. (I also add in Ultimate a few times a week—but that's fun, so it requires a good deal less discipline.)

I have been working out at least twice a week almost every week since May—the longest stretch I have ever gone since I stopped training for football in high school. (Yes, readers who have been with me a much briefer time, I played high school football—not very well, but I played.) I enjoy the fact that I'm substantially slimmer, more toned, and—dare I say it?—even a little bit well-muscled in a few places. Or at least, I like to think I'm well-muscled in a few places. Alas for that idea, I go the gym twice a week—where I am surrounded by people who work out far more frequently, and who have been at it for far longer, than me.

It is humbling, to say the least, when despite your best efforts, you're constantly surrounded by people who are simply bigger, faster, and stronger than you are. (That, in fact, is a very nice summary of my high school football career.)

When it comes to head knowledge, I probably have a better grasp on the essentials of effective conditioning than many people my age—including some in the gym with me, and yes, including some of the guys who are in substantially better shape. Ultimately, it doesn't matter, though: I can be as chock full of good information about how to run faster and build more muscle mass; if I never actually run or lift, I won't get better.

The same is true, in many ways, of our Christian walk. On the one hand, I have a good deal more theological knowledge than many of my peers—and for that matter, than many people who have been walking with God much longer than me. However, that knowledge does not itself make me a better Christian. It doesn't automatically make me closer to God. It doesn't somehow transform me into a super-Christian just by dint of having it. No, despite the fact that I know more than many other Christians, I have a lot to learn from them. The Christian walk, like exercise, progresses not merely by knowledge but by practice. We grow closer to God (and thus, more like Him) by walking with Him, not treating Him as merely the subject of academic study.

Don't get me wrong: that knowledge helps. Understanding the mechanics of the human body and having good form help me train more effectively—but the knowledge is effective only when applied. So too, theology is incredibly helpful, but only when it is put to practice in our lives. Knowing in the abstract that I am saved through faith by grace alone is good—but do I live like it, or do I rely on my own abilities to carry me through? Knowing that men are to lead their wives sacrificially is essential—but do I actually lead, especially in ways that are costly to me? So it goes. I can have all my theological ducks lined up in a neat little row, but if I'm not practicing the knowledge, it doesn't matter.

That's why you can meet people who know very little theology and are nonetheless seriously Godly—they've walked faithfully with the tools they do have. Just as one can get a long ways athletically just by working hard, even without the best tools and knowledge, we can grow very close to God indeed simply by walking with Him. After all, sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit, not our own abilities. That doesn't diminish the importance of theology: the more we know God truly, the better we are able to walk with Him faithfully. Getting our theology right is important; there is nothing more important than knowing the living God as He really is. We need to know Him as well as we possibly can, and that means having good theology—but it means having good theology that we live out.

If we're not living it out, we're just getting flabby as we sit on a couch reading about exercise techniques.

All of that brings me back to the original point of the post: humility. Just because I have more theological training than others—indeed, even if I am more theologically accurate than them—doesn't mean I do not have a great deal to learn from them. People who have been walking with God 20 years may have less head-knowledge than I do, but if they're applying what they do have better (and let's be honest: they've been doing this 20 years, so they almost certainly are), then I have something to learn from them.

Taking that a step further: seeing as everyone grows differently and struggles differently, every believer I meet understands something about God better than I do. If I am teachable enough, I will learn from them. If not, I'll miss out because of my own pride—pride, no less, in something that does not itself produce righteousness, however necessary an ingredient it may be.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Pay For Your Music

A few days ago, I put up streams of Page CXVI's music—not only with their permission, but at their express suggestion. They want you to hear their music. They want you to enjoy it. And ultimately, they're hoping you'll buy it. So am I. If you enjoy the streams, go to their site, spend the $7 for the download, or $10 for download and CD, and listen in your car and your computer and everywhere else to your heart's content. Two things you really shouldn't do, even if you can:

  1. Rip the recordings in any way, shape or form without paying for the music. I'm well aware (and no doubt so are they) that this is easily doable with a stream out there like this.
  2. Keep streaming the recordings indefinitely, enjoying the music at your convenience but never actually buying the music for yourself. If you like it, buck up and buy it. (In fact, that's what I would say even if the music were available for free download.)

This is a rare case where good ethics and pure pragmatics coincide, at least if you're willing to take a view longer than your nose. The first action is clearly an ethical breach, insofar as it's a violation of the law of the land. The second, of course, is not morally suspect: as I said, Page CXVI wants this music streaming, in hope that it will broaden their audience and ultimately bring them more paying customers. Pragmatically, however, you still should buy their music if you like it—indeed, the pragmatics here are so compelling that I'll simply leave aside the ethics of piracy for the rest of the discussion. (I'll take it up another day, perhaps.)

That desire to be compensated isn't crass, isn't wrong, isn't selfish—whatever you may think, and whatever the most common view on the internet these days is. I think it is beyond dispute that the record label system is fundamentally broken—perhaps irreparably so. The internet has both contributed to that brokenness and exposed what was already present. It has also empowered an entire group of people—my generation—who feel entitled to whatever they want, whenever they want it, for nothing at all. The result is devastating not only to record labels but to artists. Indeed, an argument can be made that the major labels are hurting the cause of good music and shafting good musicians, but all of that is incidental: for most artists, you can't hurt the label without hurting them, too, and by and large most labels aren't good hearted enough to put the musicians first. If you hurt the label, you're hurting the musicians most, not their corporate intermediaries.

Legal enforcement is not an option here. The Internet is too big, with too many channels, and too much rerouting ability, for the hammer of law to have any impact at all in the long run on illegal file-sharing. Piracy, as we have come to know it, will inexorably crush any governmental or regulatory attempts to squash it. The War on Piracy is more futile and more pointless than the War on Drugs. The only possible remedy is cultural: only if we have a deep-rooted change in the views of th people doing the downloading and sharing will artists receive compensation for their work.

Why should you care? Why shouldn't you download music for free if it's available legally, and never pay a penny? Why shouldn't you stream Hymns I and Hymns II all day long without buying them from Page CXVI? It's not a moral issue, right?

The answer is simple: how much do you like Page CXVI? If you enjoy them enough to spend any significant amount of time listening to their music, buy it—because you buying their music is the only way they get to keep making more music. Sometimes, given the way the music industry works, it's the only way for an artist to make up the money he spent creating the album in the first place: yes, much of the music out their is produced at a loss to the artist, even the good stuff. You're undermining the most basic aspect of capitalism: coupling market value to revenue stream. Other factors contribute here, as well, especially oversupply on the market: so much music is produced that all of it begins losing worth. However, if the music is of sufficiently high quality that you want to listen to it all day long, you're without a good excuse: if you listen to it but refuse to pony up some cash for it, you're devaluing the work that went into it and furthering that economic decoupling. The result is a loss not only for the artist but also for the society to which they're contributing. That means you.

There are solutions outside of those proposed by the record labels. Many artists are building their careers successfully on the, "Try it and do us the favor of paying if you like it" model. The same model has had a modicum of success in the software development world—but only a modicum, and in th elong run it becomes difficult to sustain. After all, unless your product is simply astoundingly good (and even if it is), people would generally rather not pay for it. Being honest here: there are several pieces of software I use regularly but which I have never supported financially. They're available for free, and I take advantage of that. However, it's in my best interests to do so—something I've been increasingly thinking on over the last few months as I've pondered the relevant issues in art.

Making music, like creating good software, is hard. The current laws on both are a mess, and enforcement is a nightmarish joke. Something has to change. In my view, that something must be culture: as a culture, if we are not predisposed to value others' work and time, we will take it for free, and deprive future culture of the future contributions of those artists and workers who can no longer afford to spend their days without renumeration. People need to eat, and every argument I've heard advanced from supposedly capitalist views ("If it's good enough, people will pay for it!") leaves me asking one simple question: if you don't think their music is good enough to pay for, why are you listening to it?

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Sabbath Rest for Dummies

Rarely is the need for rest more evident to me than it has been today. That's a bold statement, considering how I have often been much more tired than I am right now—but it remains true. I worked hard yesterday on a personal project—about 10.5 hours, when all was said and done. That, on top of a long and busy week, left me feeling drained and sleepy this morning. (It probably doesn't help that, with clouds like we had this morning, it's dark until 7:30.

I made the conscious choice midway through the afternoon not to do any more work on the aforementioned personal project this afternoon—I have plenty of time available the rest of the week. Instead, I spent my time talking with a friend, laying down on the sofa with my wife while listening to music, eating dinner, taking a long, relaxing walk with Jaimie, and playing Halo with her (and my sister and her fiancĂ©). It helped. I needed the downtime; I needed to truly rest.

Not long ago, Justin Taylor posted a helpful discussion on whether Christians, who live in the New Covenant, are obligated to observe a Sabbath. I agree with the conclusion he highlighted—that we are not required to observe a particular Sabbath every week—but think the ensuing discussion missed an important point. While we may not have any outside demand on us when it comes to a day of rest, we're pretty silly if we think that God gave it for no reason and accordingly toss it aside with nary a thought.

Americans value productivity over almost any other virtue. As long as you are generating something, somehow, we have little patience for tiredness, rest, and downtime. We are easily bored, frustrated by the slow pace that members of other cultures often enjoy, and obsessed with squeezing every last moment in a day to its fullest (productive) potential. This is bad. Moments are frankly not made to be squeezed. The juice that they ooze out as we wring the last drops from them is sour from overtired, overstrained people who fail to enjoy the good life God has given because they are so concerned with doing something—anything!—with every moment of that life.

Is this obsession not ultimately rooted in our desire to self-validate through our accomplishments? If we can trump our neighbors' number of deeds done, tasks finished, etc., we feel superior to them. If we achieve everything we put on our to-do list at the start of the day, we think the day was a success (even if those tasks were ultimately banal or meaningless). We shuffle aside friendships, trading them for more work, more time spent doing, less time spent being.

Make no mistake: productivity and drive are good things. The problem is that we have made them idols. We have taken a gift and perverted it—how surprising! We cannot take joy in the days God sets before us if we do not slow down enough to actually notice the day itself—if we are so wrapped up in everything we're doing that we miss every sunset, every quiet moment of thought, every delighted outburst of laughter at something silly.

We need Sabbaths. We need rest, a rest that is not only about not doing but about simplicity. Our lives are tangled busynesses—and we take pride in the tangle as well as in the busyness. When we take a step back, set aside the infinite connection to the ceaseless chatter, and simply be with each other, we do far better.

Hint: I'm not necessarily very good at this, yet. I am, after all, typing a blog post on a Sunday evening when I decided to rest. I made this goal, and so I'm keeping it. In the future, however, it seems likely that I will not be typing away at 10:40 pm on a Sunday evening. I will write the blog post earlier in the week, or I will simply take one day off. Rest is important.

I'm only about a week from the end of this experiment—at which point it will be time to reevaluate and see whether posting daily is still a goal I want to pursue. Without a doubt, blogging daily takes a great deal of time and mental energy. It's even more taxing when you're not sure if anyone is reading—so, if you made it down this far, do me the favor of leaving a comment; it's always nice to know who's reading!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Speaking Too Quickly/Wisdom

What do you do when you hear something that simply infuriates you? It's hard to know, especially in the moment, so I'm increasingly learning to simply sit on it, bite my tongue, and pray and think for a while before I respond.

Those of you who know me in person can stop laughing, pick your jaws up off the floor, etc.—yes, I know this is a pretty radical concept for the guy who always has a quick response to anything anyone says. Somewhere in the last few years, God smacked me in the head enough times for me to begin realizing that sometimes, a quick response is unhelpful—even if that response is technically accurate. Sometimes people just need to be heard; sometimes I don't have all the facts; sometimes my opinion isn't relevant even if it's correct.

I have had several opportunities to put this new approach into practice recently, both related to the same general topic. In line with the new policy, I'm not actually going to address it in a blog post, at least not directly, for a while. Maybe ever. Any writing I do on the topic will avoid naming names and specifics in any case. Suffice it to say, I have had several friends bring up a situation and some issues that are incredibly near to my heart, about which I feel more passionately than almost anything else—and I cannot respond at all.

Again, those of you who know me well might recognize that this is hard for me. There are in both cases very good reasons for my keeping my mouth shut—circumstances that mean it would not be profitable for me to speak my mind. That doesn't make it any less difficult.

For a long time, I understood the many condemnations of quick speech in Proverbs to simply refer to speaking foolishly. I saw no problem with my own quickness of speech, except where it directly hurt someone. More and more, however, I begin to understand that those who are quick to speak—me included—are rarely those who are quick to listen, quick to understand, and quick to discern wisely. More often, they are those who are quick to judge, quick to assume, and quick to misunderstand. It is difficult to answer wisely, especially in complicated situations—and let's be honest, most situations in life are at least somewhat complicated—without taking time to carefully consider, to ask good questions, and to pray through the situation.

Woe to those of us who are ready to snap off an answer without taking time to consider carefully the implications of that answer.

Sure, it is possible to go too far in the other direction. I know people who are so afraid of giving wrong answers that they simply will not give answers—or at least, not without constant hedging and qualifying and playing devil's advocate until their answer is obscured beyond recognition. We do people a disservice when they ask us for advice and we refuse to say either, "I don't know," or "I think you should do thus-and-such." Either is a fine answer, provided we have given the situation some thought and prayer, but we should stop wasting people's time with halfway-in-between answers.

For my part, in the situations I referred to above, I do have a strong opinion—but it's not one I can give right now. How does that fit into what I just said? Well, there are a few more options: "I haven't had time to think through a God-honoring response, yet. Can you give me some time and I'll get back to you?" is one. Another is, "Look, I don't have enough information." Yet another is, "I'm too close to this to give you a good answer." All of those presuppose that we're seeking to honor God and give legitimate, helpful answers, though—none of the tiptoeing around an answer for fear of offending someone. (Note: if you give one of these answers as an excuse not to simply tell someone what you believe, rather than because it's the truth, you deserve a swift kick in the shin. Tell the truth.)

Honoring God sometimes requires us to remain silent. Other times, it requires us to speak kindly, graciously, and firmly. In one or both of these situations, the time for such speech may come. I will address the broader issue underlying both situations at some point in the future, but when that time comes, it will not be a response built out of my immediate emotional backlash against something that bothers me. The most helpful and edifying responses may involve an emotional component, but wisdom involves both careful thought and considerable prayer. Reacting in the heat of the moment is almost never wise. Yes, occasionally we need to be able to answer immediately—but such moments are far rarer than my proclivity for quick answers would suggest if we took it as normative. (Thankfully, my proclivities are not normative for the Christian walk in any way or area: far too much sin in me for that to be anything but a deeply horrifying nightmare.)

In short: be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath—for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God (James 1:21). Take time to think things through carefully, and then give people the best answer you're able. Don't feel ashamed of that answer if it was decided in careful thought and prayer. Simply trust God to do his work far better than we are able.

Friday, October 22, 2010


One of my favorite discoveries of the last year is Page CXVI (pronounced "Page One Hundred Sixteen)—a group devoted to modern arrangements of some of the very best hymns and traditional Christian music. They're excellent musicians, and I deeply appreciate the modern settings to the songs. Even some of the newer hymns (like In Christ Alone) have been freshened—and I actually like Page CXVI's arrangement better than the original.

Today, they sent out an email to their fans with links to streamable content. They want you to hear these arrangements. They want you to fall in love with them, just like I did, and buy them. I agree with those goals. So here we are: I'm streaming the music. You can stream as much as you like; please enjoy. But if you really like the music, do yourself the favor of actually buying it—that way you can listen to it on car rides, as alarms, as cell phone rings, and in any other way you please. You'll also be supporting an excellent group that's putting out great music.

If you like their stuff, you should also take a look at their main page, including their concert schedule. They'll be in fun places like Denver; Manhattan, Kansas; and Oklahoma City between now and the end of the month—so if you can, go hear them in person!

Hymns I:

Hymns II:

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Across Language, Ethnicity, Social Strata, Continent, and History

Today at work, I had a long, meandering conversation with a coworker inspired by his looking through some of the material at Pillar on the Rock last night. The fellow in question is a convert to Catholicism who started out as a Southern Baptist—obviously our views diverge a bit on the correct form of church government, as well as a host of other issues.

As I was driving home, I was pondering the conversation with him, and thinking through some of the factors that might lead someone toward Roman Catholicism. For completely unrelated reasons, I was thinking about Christian bookstores, and how very little space in them is devoted to Catholicism—despite the fact that, despite my significant differences with Roman Catholic doctrine, it is far more orthodox than much of the dreck that is pushed front-and-center at the local Mardel. For some reason, the two different thought processes merged together and highlighted just how local much of Protestantism is in contrast to the global unity inherent in the Catholic structure.

Before anyone gets riled up, I'm not suggesting we return to the Catholic church or dump the principles of congregational government. I don't think either would be a good idea. However, I think it is important to reflect on some of the things that have been lost since the Reformation, especially as Protestant churches have continued to splinter and factionalize. There are many problems with the hierarchical structure embodied by the Roman, Anglican, and Eastern Orthodox churches. One thing they do well, however, which other denominations do less well the more congregational they are, is consciously reinforce the connection of believers all around the world.

I am united by faith with believers in Peru, Italy, the Sudan, and Vietnam. However, I am united with them only by faith. We have no organizational ties; there is nothing mundane (other than perhaps missions donations) connecting me to them or them to me. That can make it difficult to remember that we are part of the same church, connected as deeply as can be. For all their other flaws, the hierarchical structures have an institutional connection to each other—they have common leaders and authorities, common methodologies, common doctrine. In short, there is a practical advantage to those structures in some ways, despite the theological problems with them—at least when it comes to remembering that we are part of the church universal.

There are a number of ways to help correct this deficiency in Protestant circles. First, of course, is simply teaching. We need to be reminded of our commonality with our brothers and sisters around the world, because we do not have existing institutional reminders. Pastors must find particular ways to highlight this as it is relevant in sermons. They can also make a point to model prayer for fellow believers in countries on the other side of the world. If the church has particular missions ties to particular people groups or nations, they can regularly make mention of those not only in the service but in prayer request emails and on their websites.

Second, I think it may be helpful to just get outside of our cultural box as much as possible. Even breaking out of the walls of our own church to partner with likeminded but culturally different churches in our own area can help here—the middle class suburban church teaming up with an urban plant, a primarily-Hispanic church joining with a largely-Asian fellowship, etc. Beyond this, short-term missions that focus on developing relationships with both nonbelievers and missionaries in foreign cultures, receiving visitors from foreign cultures, and long-term partnerships with ministry workers in cross-cultural evangelism can all help us see how we are connected to believers around the globe.

At an individual level, many of the same options are valuable, but others exist, as well. Resources like Operation World can help us see the big picture of God's work in the world. Church history can help us see our place not only globally but historically, and emphasize that we are part of God's ongoing work throughout all the world—every tribe, every tongue, and every nation. Wherever we can break out of our narrow, localized perspective, we will be able to see our connection to believers the world over better—and perhaps that will help us be more faithful and effective where we are.

In closing, one final, striking thought: I've spent this whole post discussing ways we can remember that we are united with believers the world over. So stop for a moment and ponder that: you and I, by faith in Christ, are deeply, meaningfully united with people who have nothing else in common with us—not language, or ethnicity, or social strata, or continent, or history. But our unity in Christ far surpasses everything that could divide us. Remember that.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

10 Minute Drill

It's late. I had (a very productive) worship practice tonight, got back late, edited PJ's article for Pillar (going up on Friday), finished editing and scheduled my own article for Pillar (a review of Kevin DeYoung's Just Do Something, going up tomorrow). That, combined with a simultaneous conversation with my younger sister on the telephone, pretty much maxed out my abilities for the evening. But here we are, because I'm committed: a blog post every day in October. The 31st should be #501.

A few of the things I've been batting around in my head today:

  • The difficulty of the transition into adulthood, relationally speaking. As many challenges as there are in growing up, I think the single most difficult (at least in our culture) is the readjustment in relationship with parents. I can say that both from observation—that is, watching many of my friends deal with the tensions there—and, sadly, experience, in that I muffed a lot of that transition along the way. There is a natural yearning for independence and the respect that comes with adulthood—but the way we go about seeking those things is often quite backwards. For me, it certainly was: demands to be treated like an adult are, well... childish. And thus, counterproductive.

    The challenge, it seems to me, is to learn how to honor one's parents even when disagreeing with them—how to seek their counsel even if you don't always take it, how to respect their opinions even when you think they're wrong, how to demonstrate to them and everyone else that they are a blessing from God. The transition is hard on their end, too: they have to learn how to treat us like adults, when our whole lives their job was to keep us safe and guide us in the right direction, in large part by making the right decisions for us. It can be a very rocky patch. Hopefully I will remember that in 20-ish years when Jaimie and I walk through it with our own children (God willing).

  • The simple beauty of the gospel is a marvelous thing. I've been listening to an audio book version of Greg Gilbert's What is the Gospel?—it's a fantastic book, and you should go buy it immediately—and I have repeatedly been impressed by how marvelous the Gospel itself is. This is a theme I plan to return to at length, perhaps tomorrow, because it is also something that hit me hard in my Bible study today, as I looked at just how imperfect David was: a marvelous foreshadowing he may have been, but in the end he just left Israel (and just leaves us, reading along) hungry for the real deal, the true Messianic King to come.

And that is all I have time for tonight. Not amazing, but not terrible, for 10 minutes. Sleep well, all. I'll be back tomorrow, with pithier thoughts.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Worship "Experiences" (A Rant)

One of the great dangers we face in the modern worship music setting is a tendency to overemphasize our emotions. Because we (rightly) recognize that we are to worship God not only intellectually but with our feelings, we have esteemed music that moves our emotions highly—and this is a good thing. However, it can also lead us astray very quickly. We begin to evaluate our worship services purely in terms of how deeply moved we felt. We think that because we had strong emotion, we were close to God (and accordingly, He was honored)—even if the songs we offered did not honor Him or make Him look great to anyone, even if, as is too often the case, the songs were really all about us.

Eventually, we become junkies, always looking for the next fix of emotionally satiating sound. Power chords, the kick drum, and evocative solos come to define our worship more than well, worship does. We stop seeking to honor God and start seeking cheap thrills. If left to run unchecked, emotional worship becomes worship of emotion—the idolatry of self-worship.

I suspect it is not a coincidence that the advent of churches offering "worship experiences" (as opposed to the traditional wording, "worship service") has come in a distinctly non-creedal time, as ties to history are cut off and the theological grounding of worship is cast aside. A people who will not take the time to speak God's word aloud together, or who categorically refuse to link themselves to the Great Tradition on the basis that creeds are somehow stuffy, are in danger of running off into the weeds. Yes, the creeds and corporate reading of Scripture can both become worn-out traditions.

So can Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, and David Crowder.

The problem—always—is not so much the particular elements of our worship, as whether it is in fact worshipping God, and whether it is doing so properly. Worship is not something to be offered cavalierly, it is not about self-gratification, and it requires reverence. A look at the header of my blog points us in the right direction: we are to offer God an acceptable worship, with reverence and awe—because God is a consuming fire. The reference is to God's promise to the Israelites in Deuteronomy if they offered Him an unpleasing worship—a fire that destroys. God takes worship seriously, and most Americans simply don't.

We need to return to a theological grounding for worship. Not at the expense of technical excellence—though, frankly, more theological excellence would make up for a great deal of technical failure: remember that we are worshipping God, not performing at a concert. In the end, though, our goal must be to make our technical excellence serve one and only one end: turning the congregation's eyes away from themselves (and away from us) and toward Christ on His throne.

That means including Scripture more actively in our service, and actively calling the congregation to participate in reading it aloud together. That means incorporating the creeds—at least time to time. If, for historical reasons, the creeds are uncomfortable to people, bring them back in slowly and with a lot of introduction—but don't leave them by the wayside; they are too valuable to waste because of our discomfort. We all need to grow up out of our pasts, difficult and slow though that process may be.

Most of all, it means setting aside the constant desire for emotional highs and seeking to glorify God. The worship service ought to be just that: a time of self-sacrificial service to God, not a time of self-serving experience-creation. I am not saying that we will not have strong emotions at time—grief and repentance, joy, adulation, etc. are all good and right parts of worship. But the one emotion we must stir up in ourselves is not any of those but deep, abiding affection for God (for from it come all the others)—and that is stirred in us not by power chords (though they have their place) but by knowing Him more deeply and praising Him more truly. So it is that the most important emotion of all can be inculcated through some of the very means that evangelicals have cast off in the quest for more emotionally charged experiences.

We should keep singing Chris Tomlin, Matt Redman, the Gettys, Hillsong, and a dozen more besides. Yet we should not stop there: we should also remember that we stand in the line of a great many thousands of believers who have affirmed the faith through the Apostles Creed, with its magnificent proclamation of God's Lordship. We should also remember that God's word is the most appropriate source of worship, for all it says is true. Every song we write that does not quote the Word directly, however good it is, can never measure up to the truthfulness of saying God's word back to Him in praise.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Do Duo Devotions Diligently: A Challenge to Married People

One thing Jaimie and I have slowly been working out since we got married (and even before) is how to seek God together. Both of us generally have fairly solid devotional lives: though not without our ups and downs, we both regularly read and memorize Scripture and pray. It is far more challenging to know how (and when!) to seek God as a couple. Individually, the pattern is simply: read the Bible and pray, and work on Scripture memory and pray more throughout the day. As a couple, however, we must set aside the time and work out a plan for what we will do.

(It is important, you'll note, that we each have strong walks with God ourselves. While we can support each other immensely in our walks with God, we can do so only insofar as we know Him ourselves. As ever, the Christian walk stands in tension: we need to pursue Jesus as individuals, but we do so in community.)

In the first year of our marriage, we began by praying together every morning before I left for work. That went well for a while—until I started leaving earlier and Jaimie started getting up later. The result is that we usually don't see each other until after I get back from work; aside from phone calls or text messages, the first time we actually communicate is late afternoon! Obviously, the original plan wasn't working. It also didn't really include much time spent on Scripture, and even when it was working, the time was much too brief. (I eat quickly.)

On our one-year anniversary, we made a point to review the year: what had we done well, and what had we done poorly? We also discussed the areas we wanted to work on in the year ahead (this year)—and one of the areas was our joint spiritual lives. It is important that we lay a solid foundation here now, so that by the time we have children (God willing!), we are already established in our familial walk with God. Children will simply be integrated into an existing pattern; we will not be struggling to figure it out then. (Actually, we still will, as we'll never have been parents before... but hopefully not as much as if we had no experience in pursuing God as a family!)

As the spiritual leader, the responsibility for coming up with a plan, or at least leading the discussion on a plan, fell to me. Over the next few weeks, I mulled over a few things, was Providentially guided to a few good articles, and prayed over how to do this well. The plan I came up with—the plan that we have been following since then, with varying degrees of success—looks like this:

  • Sunday: We take a walk, usually spending the first half just chatting about various aspects of life and being silly, and the second half talking about spiritual things we've been considering—new things we've learned about God, desires we have for the church, etc. We have a two mile loop, which makes for a comfortable half-hour walk: plenty of time for good discussion.
  • Monday: We pray. Our focus is on our marriage, each other, our families, and our very best friends, PJ and Katie, with whom we are as close as family in many ways.
  • Tuesday: We pray again! This time, our focus is on our spheres of ministry. In Jaimie's case, that includes the woman she is mentoring, her friends and acquaintances from class, and the foreign families she has met by riding the bus to and from OU (really neat people, and a great ministry opportunity). For me, it includes coworkers, my work on Pillar, my service on the worship team at church, and the younger man I mentor.
  • Wednesday: We briefly discuss the things we have been learning in our devotional material throughout the week. One of our goals is to have at least one concrete thing we have learned that we can share during this time—whether something new we learned about God, or an application for our lives. That challenges us to be more proactive in our own devotionals.
  • Thursday: We pray—can you tell we think prayer is important? Our focus on Thursdays is missions and ministries we support. We have a number of friends on the mission field, we are privileged to support people on staff with various campus ministries and mission teams, and there are many unreached people groups in the world—we try to pray for each of these categories.
  • Friday: We take some time to focus on our marriage. Normally, I prepare a question to ask. Sometimes we get to it, and sometimes our date night conversation naturally turns to marriage-oriented conversation, obviating the need for a prepared question.
  • Saturday: We study Scripture together. Right now, Jaimie is using a through-the-Bible-in-a-year plan, so we simply go to wherever she is reading and work through those passages together—it would hardly be fair to ask her to do double reading on Saturdays (especially given how much the plan demands). We have also done book studies together in the past—something we're looking forward to doing again in the future.

We're getting close to hitting every one of those days; doing so is one of my goals for this week. Stop back by in a week and see how we did.

Obviously the schedule has some flexibility to it; this is a general plan, not a definitive roadmap. Right now, date nights are usually Friday nights, so that's when we discuss marriage issues. However, that's already a change from date night being on Thursdays as it was until a month ago, and the schedule changed accordingly.

This schedule works for us. Different couples can and should figure out different ways to pull this off. Every night might not be an option, for various reasons (though I would encourage it if at all possible—it does wonders for your togetherness). Different times of day, and different emphases, may be necessary. The main point is that you shouldn't be drifting along, thinking a mutually beneficial couple-oriented devotional life will just happen. It won't. You need to work to make this happen, whatever the details look like.

Men, the responsibility most of all falls on you here. Most women I know would love for their husbands to step up and take the initiative to set aside even one chunk of time every week for spiritual things. The reality is, if your wife has to initiate it all the time, she is going to be frustrated and you are probably going to feel nagged. If you initiate it, your wife will appreciate it and you will have the fulfillment of doing what God calls you to do. It may not always be what sounds most fun, and it has a cost in time and energy, but the rewards are immense. Your marriage will be stronger and your own relationship with God will be deeper.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Blogs and Journals are Different. Next?

After church today, I finished editing a friend's church history paper, played Halo, went on a walk with my wife, and played some more Halo with one of my best friends. All of it—including the paper-editing, strangely enough—was incredibly relaxing. That's a good thing; I've needed to sit back and relax a bit. Courtesy of our busy schedule, opportunities to sit back and relax for any lengthy periods of time have been few and far between. Even when we are not doing something work-like, we have often been engaged socially, and as I noted the other day, I'm an introvert. I need time simply doing something by myself without interruptions.

I suppose that introversion is a significant part of why I enjoy blogging, writing for Pillar, and editing people's papers so much. Each is an activity I can do that ultimately reaches others in some way, but that I can do by myself, in the solitude of my own mind. Aside from the occasional (enjoyable) interruption by Jaimie, nothing really comes between me and the keys I type; I am alone with my thoughts and able to really process whatever is going on in life. THe same always held true for journaling, back when I journaled more frequently.

Journaling and blogging are less similar than they might at first appear. The one is private and the other public, of course, and that radically impacts the way that one writes. The things I put down in a journal, I was confident no one but me would ever read—or at least, no one but me and the people I choose to share those pages with. Thus, I could be completely and utterly open, dealing in very great detail with pains, struggles, frustrations, etc. I could name names when people hurt or angered me; I could rant to my heart's content; I could ramble on without fear of an audience growing bored. The sole point was expressing (and thereby expiating) emotion for which I had no other outlet.

Blogging, by contrast, is inherently social and searchable. If I were to write, "PJ King is a jerk" in a moment of annoyance at him, it would show up in his reader the next day, and be recorded across the internet in perpetuity—possibly remaining even if I took it down, thanks to the way that some internet archives work. In any case, word would get back to him; our friendship would be damaged, and things would require patching up that would never even have occurred were I to put my frustration to pen and paper rather than keyboard and screen. (Not to worry: I have never been tempted to write anything of the sort about him; he's a very excellent fellow.)

The other significant way in which blogging differs from journaling is the medium. Tapping away at keys and watching text scroll across a screen as you write is a very different experience from ink scratching across a page as you drag your hand along to form the letters' shape. The medium informs the words chosen, the mood set, the feel of it all. It is strange, almost inexpressible, but true. (I suspect this is a significant part of why, despite my best efforts, any electronic journaling attempt I ever made failed within days: it's simply not the same thing. Transpose the medium, and you have changed the message embedded therein. That's a truth we would do well to remember better, as our lives are constantly bombarded with new forms of media and new ways of processing information. Not all ways of processing data are equal—in fact, none are. Each has tradeoffs and balances that must be considered.

Over the course of this week, I may just try to write one journal entry—a real journal entry. We'll see. At the least, I will continue to make time to enjoy some solitude, lest I let myself be overwhelmed by socialization. I will write a book review for Pillar, put up my daily posts here, do some web design work, and do my daily tasks—but hopefully, I will do them well, and I will remember to enjoy the Sabbath along the way. (That's a post for a future day, though the thought underlies much of what I have written here.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Don't Play Chicken With Sin

It's a typically rash high school adrenaline move. Two cars, headed directly toward each other at high speed—and whoever swerves first is the "chicken." If no one swerves, both people die. It's all about pushing as long as you can before fear takes over and compels you turn the wheel—about the thrill of nearing the cliff's edge and skating along it as it crumbles.

I never played chicken with my car. The whole idea seemed dumb to me—why risk life and limb for that sort of pointless thrill? I wonder though, if this isn't exactly what we do with sin, all the time.

Christians who are dating love to ask one question more than almost any other: "How far can we go without it being fornication?" In a broader sense, I think that's often the question we're asking: "What can I get away with?" These are, of course, completely the wrong questions. We're playing chicken with sin, but there's just one problem. Sin never swerves. Either we swerve soon enough—and the temptation to swerve later and later is always growing, because the thrill of almost doing something wrong is so powerful—or we hit the other car, and sin wins.

The approach is dangerous, fool-headed, and one we need to break ourselves of. The longer we play chicken with sin, the more likely we'll fall. People who toy with lust end up in adultery. People who toy with greed end up embezzling from their company. People who toy with gossip destroy friendships and tear apart churches. Pick your sin; the consequences are inevitable. When you play with fire, you get burned.

The question we really ought to be asking is not, "What can I get away with?" but "How can I best glorify God?" You see, it's more than the fact that sin will win every time in our games of chicken. It's that asking "What can I get away with?" is itself sinful. It betrays the real attitude of our hearts: not a desire to honor Jesus Christ as Lord, but a desire not to be punished. It shows that we do not understand the gospel or know God well. In Christ all our sins are forgiven; God's mercy is very great and his love beyond our understanding. If the only question we are asking is, "How much before God punishes me?" then either we are still very immature in our faith, or we are not believers at all.

The more we know God, and the more we understand what Jesus accomplished on the cross, and the more we seek the wisdom given by the Spirit, the more we will learn to love God—heart, soul, and mind. We will do good and hate evil not as a means of avoiding punishment but out of love, and because—more and more every day—we truly do love doing good and we truly do hate evil. We will treasure the things God values and cast off the things God despises not out of some misguided attempt to curry favor but because increasingly we are like him. That sort of radical transformation marks the difference between real gospel transformation and therapeutic moralism with a Christian imprint.

And most of us are playing chicken with sin. God help us.

The Dark Knight, Taste, and Discernment

The Dark Knight was one of the biggest, best-received movies ever made. It garnered nearly universal praise, even from reviewers not normally fond of superhero movies or summer blockbusters, despite the fact that it fit thoroughly (if perhaps not neatly) into both genres. The movie also polarized some Christian viewers. On the one hand there were those who acclaimed the movie as a fantastic piece of art. On the other were those who decried it for its the unbiblical message they felt it sent.

Jaimie and I rewatched the movie tonight on Blu-Ray, having borrowed it from her father (on the player we inherited from him, no less). This was my fourth or fifth viewing, and every time I sit down with the film, I come away more solidly in that first came: believing it to be an outstanding piece of art. That is not to call it flawless, but rather to affirm that the artistic and yes, thematic excellence of the piece far outweigh the places where the film stumbles.

(I will be covering spoilers, so if you haven't seen it read, you should skip the rest of the post, go watch the movie, and then come back.) Most of the criticism of the film focused not on the general artistic quality, which was undeniably excellent, but on the story's conclusion. A brief review: Harvey Dent, corrupted by the Joker's continued taunts, insults, and destruction, has killed several police officers in revenge for his girlfriend's death. Batman arrives on scene as Dent is about to kill another officer's son, and eventually stops him, but kills Dent—who had, until his fall, been a shining symbol of hope to the city.

None of this was controversial. What followed was: Batman volunteered to take responsibility for the deaths that Dent had caused, saying that the people of Gotham could never know that Harvey had fallen. They deserved better, he believed—and so he would take the guilt that belonged to Dent, though he and one other knew it to be a lie. The lie tripped a lot of people up, and for good reason: Batman essentially says that it's better for the people to believe a lie, as long as they still have hope, than to know the truth.

So far as this goes, the criticism was justified. Lies are not the best, most ethical option. Moreover, the decision undercuts some of the other thematic material in the movie, particularly in Bruce Wayne/Batman's oft-repeated belief that the people of Gotham will not play the Joker's game of chaos and evil, but can be inspired to rise above it. The lie here does those same people, who only minutes before had proved him right, considerable injustice. It assumes they can't handle the truth.

At the same time, it's hard to miss the parallels to Christ here. (Whether they were intended or not is a separate question, and in some ways an irrelevant one: much of Western art ends up referencing Christ unconsciously because of how deeply the gospel narrative has been embedded in our conceptual frameworks.) One man takes another's sins on himself. One man sacrifices his own well-being, respect, and honor for the sake of many others. One man willingly subjects himself to public scorn, to being hunted for punishment, so that others might have hope.

The analogy isn't perfect. Then again, neither was David's prefiguring of Christ; his life was marred murder and adultery. Few of the Biblical characters escaped unscathed—even those whose lives most dramatically pictured Christ. In my viewing of The Dark Knight, it seemed to me that, likely because of Christianity's impact on our culture, we have in this film a shadowy echo of the gospel. It is not the whole picture, and it is distorted in some very particular ways by the postmodern ethos that underlies much of director Christopher Nolan's output—not least in the notion that the hopeful lie is better than the discouraging truth.

The question we are left asking is: do those postmodernist impulses overpower the hints of Truth (yes, with a capital T) that come through in the rest of the film? And if so, where is the line to be drawn? Should we throw out any art that does not muster up to some arbitrary line that we have defined?

Of course I think the answer must be no—but that is a cautious, thoughtful no. We shoudl not simply ingest whatever messages are being fed us by art and culture. Even excellent artists and Christians like C. S. Lewis' best fiction requires some careful, discerning, thoughtful engagement. Despite their many merits, The Chronicles of Narnia have quite a few theological missteps. We don't throw them out on that basis, but we should read them more carefully than most do. The same can be said for movies and other art produced by Christians and non-Christians alike. For all our fallenness—and we are fallen very far indeed—we remain made in the image of God, and so there is much that is good created by all people.

Our job as responsible Christians is to engage that art, understand and rejoice in the parts that glorify God, and repudiate those parts that do not. I can appreciate the analogies to Christ in The Dark Knight without believing that we should lie when expediency seems to demand it.

As a closing aside: discernment may be primarily spiritual, but taste is good, too. We do no one any favors when we gush over movies that frankly are not all that good. I'm looking at myself in the past here, so this finger is pointing back at me. In cases like the one linked there, we can appreciate the message presented while being more critical of the art—rather the inverse of the situation with many secularly produced movies. Christians need to stop raving about art of any kind simply because it is produced by other Christians, and start valuing excellence in art in all its forms.

(This does count as Friday's post, because as far as I am concerned, the official day may be Saturday, but I am still functioning in Friday mode, and I have yet to go to sleep. Accordingly, there will be another post tomorrow/later today.)

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Another Day in the Life

I had a fantastic idea when walking out of the gym this afternoon. I planned to call myself with is—now that my Google Voice number has snazzily been set up—so I would remember it. The major problem with that plan is that I not only forgot to call myself; I forgot that there was any reason to call myself by the time I got to the car. The fact that there had been an idea for a post didn't even flicker back into my mental space until I was in the shower much later. This, combined with yesterday's frustrating work issues, combined with today's different but equally frustrating work issues, combined with the headache that simply would not go away today, leaves me only one response: the heavy sigh.

I feel quite urgently the need for some rest, some "video game" time tonight. Whether I will actually play a video game or simply read a book after I write this post is still up in the air, but do something relaxing I certainly will. Alas, it is late—but that is one of the prices you pay for community; as tired as I was, Jaimie and I still went to our community group tonight, and it was good that we did so. Unfortunately, I got home and still had an hour of work to do to prepare tomorrow's Pillar article—the cost of writing it quickly and, frankly, rather poorly on Tuesday. It needed the hard edit that PJ gave it, and in fact it needed a bit more in some places, which I gave it. Add in the time to edit a small picture to go with it—we've not had nearly enough pictures/illustrations recently—and the time adds up quickly. So here I am writing at 9:40, tired, but resolved. This project/plan/purportedly purposeful production of ponderings will not fail or falter simply because of tiredness. It is too important to me.

(I remembered the blog post idea. Or at least: I remembered a blog post idea. [time gap while I jot the note down, remember another idea and jot that one down as well—and by jot, here I mean write on a sticky note... write electronically via typing on a virtual stickynote in Dashboard on my Mac]

I have been reading Tim Challies off and on for the last several years. The amount of stamina he has to simply keep blogging day after day after day—he hasn't missed a day in something like five years, maybe more, what with having guest authors post when he's on vacation—boggles my mind. Just doing this day after day can atke a toll at times, particularly when I just want to realx in front of Halo: Reach and not "work" anymore, especially when we've been going nonstop for the last couple weeks. Since the Tuesday before last, we've had one night (this Monday) where we didn't have something going on. Now, I have enjoyed almost every one of those activities, but it certainly makes life busier and more tiring. Nor does the adventure stop. I think—I hope—that we'll have a normal night off on Sunday night. Tomorrow night is date night (which is awesome, but still a "doing" night), and Saturday night we're having a friend over.

Most people don't realize it, but I have fairly strong introverted tendencies. When I was younger, I was painfully shy—refusing to go talk to the neighbor kids until my mom shoved me out the door shy. Even now, sometimes a quiet night away from anyone and anything sounds like the most relaxing thing I can imagine. Gladly, I have gotten past the shyness, at least in general, though I still occasionally lock up a little if I am in a strange group of people where I know no one. I suspect, in our extroversion-idolizing culture, there are probably many more people like me—sociable, outgoing, talkative, and nonetheless introverted—than it might at the surface appear.

Hopefully tomorrow's post will be better. For tonight, I am simply happy to have written at all.