Why I blog

I write to make sense of life. It’s as simple as that. The format that I most often choose is that of the blog post, most commonly writing here at Two Tasks. Sometimes I write for other blog, but most of the time getting words on a screen here is enough for me.

For some of you this will make absolutely no sense at all. I’m not getting paid to write and surely there are better things to do with my time. You’re right, I’m not getting paid to write but I have found that it’s critical for me to have space to think and express my thinking on a wide variety of things. You may have heard of Marcus Buckingham’s (et al.) work on strengths. His book Now, Discover Your Strengths has been very helpful to me in understanding what I like to do, do well, and derive value and positive energy from–his basic definition of a strength.

The Clifton StrengthsFinder assesses my strengths as follows:

  1. Intellection 
  2. Strategic
  3. Input
  4. Learner
  5. Analytical
Four of these strengths find a creative outlet in writing. Intellection is the quality or strength of being a thinking person. I enjoy the act of thinking and reflecting on a subject. When I don’t have the opportunity to do this regularly, I find myself deflated and fatigued.
Input is a funny little strength. In strengths literature it refers to ability or tendency to collect information. It’s a powerful inquisitiveness that often produces a great deal of information on a variety of subjects. Naturally, a blog is great way to express this strength since there is flexibility about the angle or subjects I approach here. Learner is obviously a related theme. I enjoy learning and in some ways believe it’s one of my main callings–it’s the foundation on which much of the rest of my life and work is built.
As an analytical person, I find blogging a helpful way to think through a subject and to interact with what others have thought or written on the matter. This often finds its genesis in reading something that doesn’t quite add up to me. Writing gives me the chance to think through the why and how of my objection.
Much of my writing is work-related, but I do it before the workday begins. Every morning I get up and get a cup of coffee between 5:15 and 5:30. I sit in my living room and start thinking and writing.Two cups later, I’m usually done and ready to start the breakfast routine with the kids. I find that a productive blogging session sets up the rest of the day quite well.

Space for creativity

I recently discovered The Accidental Creative, a blog for people who work in creative fields. I’m convinced that the work of a pastor is creative — there’s more connection between pastoring and art than there is between pastoring and business.

One of the snares of good pastoral work, a snare that has it’s grip on me at the moment, is busyness. A friend posted this as his Facebook status recently: “If the devil cannot make you sin, he’ll make you busy.” When we’re busy we tend to ignore the things that make us effective, the wellsprings of our pastoral creativity.

That’s why I appreciated this post at The Accidental Creative. In order to find inspiration to write, preach, cast vision at a meeting, or speak into the life of a friends, it’s important to keep room for these sources of inspiration.

How do you keep room for creativity in your own life and work?

The scandal of being evangelical

What does it mean to be evangelical? It’s something of problematic question exacerbated both by media inaccuracies (such as using evangelical as a synonym with fundamentalist) and shifts in the meaning of the word in popular culture. As a minister who still uses the word to self-identify, let me try to spell out briefly what I mean when I say that I am evangelical and reformed in the tradition the late John Stott:

  • The necessity of a person relationship with God in Christ. For me this is not the same as decisionism — that you need to be able to point to a moment in time in which you made a decision to follow Jesus. Instead, it is more significant to me that in this moment in time you are able to say that Jesus is Lord, meaning that in an ultimate sense Jesus occupies the center of authority as the one who is guiding and shaping your life. And while this relationship is personal that doesn’t mean that it is individual. We are in relationship with God in Christ together with all the company of Christians elected by God’s great love.
  • The primacy of the Holy Scriptures to shape both the content of our faith and the texture of our life together. Here, it seems to be, the evangelical movement has continued to affirm a central tenet of the Reformation where other parts of the church have moved into murkier water. Evangelicals, or at least this evangelical, affirms both that Jesus Christ is the Word of God incarnate and that the Bible is the Word of God written, the only infallible rule of faith and practice (Westminster Confession of Faith). What does this mean practically? Simply that Bible has veto power over any belief or practice that we may hold dear. Of course, getting to what the Bible teaches isn’t always a simple matter, but neither is the Scripture so obtuse as to be indecipherable. Rather, the Bible is the living Word of God to the Church and is given to us as a set of lenses (John Calvin) through which to see both God, the world, and ourselves rightly. It is impossible to set any person of the Holy Trinity against the Scriptures with any integrity. 
  • A respect for the Great Tradition as expressed in the Ecumenical Creeds of the Church. Here, as an evangelical, I would affirm that I believe the Creeds in their plain or ordinary meaning. This in distinction to a former United Church of Christ colleague who affirmed that Jesus was raised from the dead (metaphorically). While many (perhaps the majority) of North American evangelicals wouldn’t cite this as primary to their theological identity, I think it is critically important. Evangelicalism is a movement within the church rather than a new church. Consequently we are tied to the Great Tradition as a living tradition and don’t get to simply create a new identity but interpret the faith once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 3).

I realize that there are all sorts of other meanings and definitions and baggage added to the word “evangelical” that makes being one something of a scandal, especially amongst those who think of themselves as somehow enlightened and beyond the sort of silliness that produces these sorts of convictions.

Let’s just be clear about a couple of things. I am evangelical and yet here are some things I care deeply about:
  • Caring for the creation – I believe we have a God-given stewardship responsibility that flows out of Scripture (Genesis) to care for the earth.
  • Equitable distribution of wealth – a system that speeds the exponential growth in wealth of a tiny fraction of the world and, at the same time, the poverty of the rest is no just system.
  • Education for the common good – education is formation for living a life marked by intellectual curiosity and the learning of a profession that will serve the common good. It isn’t simply learning to beget earning.
  • Respecting and protecting all life – there is intrinsic value to all life whether that life is presently in utero, or living with a disability, or in a prison cell. It should be protected and cared for with respect. The murderer is no less human than the embryo.
  • Living peaceably with all – while the Scripture teaches that my most essential level of brotherhood is with the household of faith, there is a shared brotherhood of the human family. I wish to grow in knowledge and respect for those who are different from me in any number of ways.

This post isn’t all-encompassing, but it does capture at least some of the thoughts about being evangelical that are swirling around my mind.

Here’s the thing. I believe that evangelicalism, as a reform movement, is healthiest when it is in living conversation with a broader community perhaps even a community that is (at least to some degree) hostile to it. So while being part of a university or denominational community that often caricatures or misunderstands evangelicalism can be frustrating, painful, or even hilarious, it’s important for me to remain present and engaged in the places and with the people God has called me to trusting that there is some purpose greater than what I apprehend.


[Review] Tim Chester, Closing the Window

In June I took three days to go on a retreat in the foothills of North Carolina. I took several books with me including Tim Chester’s Closing the Window (IVP 2011). It was one of several books dealing with pornography that I have received from InterVarsity over the last six or so months (we get periodic copies of new releases from IVP, our publishing division, that may prove useful in our ministry to students and faculty). I was not familiar with Tim Chester, but looking around his website it seems like he’s involved in some intriguing ministries.

 Closing the Door isn’t a remarkable book. There’s nothing in it that is revolutionary. Of course, it’s something of a mistake to believe that the only books worth reading are those that are revolutionary and remarkable. We’re shaped by all sorts of things we read, the mundane and the paradigm-busting.

Here’s an outline of the five stages or steps that Chester proposes as part of a continuum of Gospel change.

1 abhorrence of porn a hatred of porn (not just the shame it brings) and a longing for change
2 adoration of God a desire for God, arising from a confidence that he offers more than porn
3 assurance of grace an assurance that you’re loved by God and right with God through faith in the work of Jesus
4 avoidance of temptation a commitment to do all in your power to avoid temptation, starting with controls on your computer
5 accountability to others a community of Christians who are holding you accountable and supporting you in your struggle

In many ways the book started off with a section that was remarkable. Chester spent several pages discussing myths that surround the sex workers who make porn movies. The popular conception is that it is a highly glamorous life of sizzling sex. The reality, Chester notes, is quite the opposite.

Most sex workers are deeply wounded people who mask their brokenness (as many of us do) with drug use. Life of the set of an X-rated movie isn’t particularly glamorous either. Chester notes that the very fact of the presence of a film crew changes fundamentally alters the encounter between actor and actress such that it is really a performance and not love-making in any true sense of the word.

Further, the encounter itself is scripted and staged in such a way as to allow for maximum viewing for the audience. This means physically awkward (and apparently not particularly pleasurable) positions for the actors, which actually means that the work of a filming a porn movie is exhausting and un-pleasurable (is that a word?). I could go into more detail about suicides, drug abuse, STDs, but I think you get the picture. Pornography is a profoundly de-personalizing and de-humanizing endeavor. Many performers remain in the industry not by choice, but by necessity.

On a related note, pornography can be viewed as a form of trafficking. Catharine MacKinnon argues in The Michigan Journal of International Law (26 Mich. J. Int’l L. 993 2004-2005) that in order to make pornographic movies, “…real women and children, and some men, are rented out for commercial sex acts. In the resulting materials, these people are then conveyed and sold for a buyer’s sexual arousal” (993). 

 

Much Christian writing on fighting pornography starts with the individual who is consuming it. There’s something profoundly right, however, about beginning a discussion of porn with the way in which is warps and diminishes the souls of those who star in movies even before it extends to the souls of those who watch.

The other section of the book that’s particularly helpful is Chester’s discussion of grace. It’s easy for the person who is fighting pornography to be consumed with a sense of deep shame and a sense that God must hate him. Certainly, there can be little doubt that God’s anger burns against pornography because it is such a particularly insidious snare that debases our humanity. However, for those of us who are in Christ God looks upon us and sees us not as porn-consumers, but in the likeness of His Son Jesus.

There’s a passage in The Pilgrim’s Progress (part 2, section 4) where Christian comes upon a mirror. When viewed one way, the mirror shows the likeness of the face of the one holding it. When viewed from the other side it shows the image of “the Prince of Pilgrims” (that is, Jesus). This is a powerful image for to describe our situation in Christ – looking into a mirror we see Jesus. This is particularly important for those who wrestle with besetting sins (which is all of us).

In all, Closing the Door provides a helpful primer on the theology and practice of fighting temptation, particularly the temptation to consume porn. The church has been strangely silent on this issue — we write about it, but fail to talk about it in our small groups and in our sermons. It is this silence that has allowed the problem of porn to become one of the single biggest issues for Christian people today.

Note: I have written critically elsewhere of Mark Driscoll. Here I would like to offer a word of praise for the forthright way in which he has addressed pornography in the context of his congregation. We certainly need more pastors who will speak pastorally and Scripturally to the issue of pornography in the midst of their communities of faith. Take a look at this pamphlet published originally for use with Mars Hill Church: Porn-Again Christian.

The marginalization of Scripture [updated]

[Update] Upcoming oral arguments and the subsequent Permanent Judicial Commission decision in the matter of Parnell v. San Francisco Presbytery (read briefs here) will be a key decision for the future of many evangelicals in the PCUSA. I’d appreciate your prayer for this on-going case (for all parties to it and for a good decision that is in keeping with the witness of Scripture and the tradition of Christ’s church). Specifically, the Permanent Judicial Commission will have the opportunity to rule that, despite passage of 10-A (read about this below), the witness of Scripture and of the Confessions of our Church still make uncelibate homosexuality incompatible with ordained office in the church.  In other words, the Church cannot redact Scripture for it’s own purposes.

During the process of my preparation and examination for ordination as a Teaching Elder in the Presbyterian Church USA, I had the opportunity to reflect upon an express what I believe about Scripture. Here’s what I concluded:

God is revealed perfectly in Jesus Christ who is God made flesh. And yet, God has also provided us with written revelation. The Holy Scriptures are both testimony to the revelation of God in Christ and revelation per se. Accordingly they are a sure and authoritative guide for all matters of faith and practice.  -Credo

Many in the Presbyterian Church USA would choose to drive a wedge between the Word of God written and the Word of Christ incarnate as second person of the Holy Trinity. Calvin compared the Holy Scriptures to a pair of spectacles, a lens through which to make sense of our experience both of God, ourselves, and the world.

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. -Calvin, Institutes, I.vi.1

Of course, there is also ample testimony in the Confessions of our Church that the Scripture forms our rule of faith and practice. So it is alarming (to say the least) when Scripture is sidelined and replaced by some other authority. In fact, silencing the Scripture is silencing God. Yes, God bears witness in our hearts. Yes, God speaks through the counsel of friends. However, the Christian Church has never allowed these things to be authoritative and binding upon the entire church.

So when proponents of the ordination of practicing gay and lesbian candidates claim that we such an action by the church frees these people to be “who they truly are,” it rings hollow. Part of our Reformed tradition (which, believe it or not, has a content) is the belief that people are deeply flawed and affected by sin. As a result, we cannot trust our “sense of self.” In order to know ourselves we need both to know God and to know God as He reveals Himself in Scripture.

In all of our dialoging around the issue the things I hear most often are that such and such “is a faithful believer” or “a lifelong Presbyterian.” These is an odd sorts of statements on all sorts of levels. First, calling someone “faithful” doesn’t make it so. Scripture teaches us what duty God commands of us. Living in a manner that is marked by unrepentant violation of that duty to God can in no way be regarded as faithful even if the person in question is very nice, gifted, talented, or all of the above.

Secondly, that someone has been a Presbyterian for 40 years or is directly descended from John Knox himself matters not a whit. The test of faith is in the living not in pedigree.

The tenuous position of the Bible in the national life of the Presbyterian Church USA means that the likelihood of a peaceful future is small. Liberals claim that the weakening of ordination standards is the beginning of a new age in the PCUSA will grow because we are finally expressing the love of God to all people. This thinking is deluded and will prove false.

I believe that this move will hasten the irrelevancy of the denomination. As has been the case for almost two decades, there will be islands of fidelity among a sea of indifference and outright rebellion. As the vigor of the denomination continues to erode (how can it not when there is no unity around any notion of essentials?) there are opportunities to form a more vibrant evangelical witness in this part of the global church. Especially exciting is Fellowship PCUSA, a group of evangelical pastors and churches that are actively exploring forming non-geographic presbyteries and/or a new reformed body.

These may be difficult days for the Bible, but God is still sovereign.


2011: Time to trim that “mind fat”

Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God–this is true worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is–his good, pleasing and perfect will.

-Romans 12:1-2, NIV

These verses show that how we think is intimately connected with who we are and how we act. I don’t wish to suggest that we are simply brains on sticks. Certainly not, we are a complicated interaction of mind, soul, and body. It is important, especially perhaps for evangelicals, to remember that mind is no less a part of our being than soul and body.

Os Guiness has suggested that we have fit bodies and fat minds. He wrote a book by that title, which contains this telling subtitle: Why evangelicals don’t think and what to do about it. We’re naturally concerned that our souls be reconciled to God through Christ. We’re concerned that we take care of our bodies (as evidenced by the proliferation of spiritually-themed exercise and weight loss programs). Google “Christian weight loss programs” and you will get more than 3.6 million responses. There are, however, few intellectual boot camps for Christians. Few resources for training the mind.

Paul’s words to the Roman church suggest that an essential part of faithful living in a fallen world is renewed patterns of thought. Growing up, I would have primarily applied this concept to personal, moral thoughts (i.e., renewing your mind means no longer having impure thoughts about attractive women, no longer thinking that it is acceptable to cheat on a high school quiz, etc.). Granted, the renewing of our minds would certainly entail the transformation of thoughts like this. However, these things are only the tip of the iceburg.

God is interested in our delving into deeper patterns of thought, patterns of thought that extend beyond our own inward and internal thoughts (i.e., what we think). God is also interested in what we think about and how we think (our process or method).

Followers of Christ need places to talk about what we think about important matters and how we go about arriving at the conclusions that inform our being and doing. Paul’s letter to the Romans reminds us these things are already being shaped and acted up by forces external to us. Paul refers to, “the pattern of this world” (v. 2). John R W Stott points out in his classic book, The Christian Counter Culture (IVP) that Jesus challenges his followers to chart a course that in informed by the values of the kingdom of God. Jesus outlines these in the Sermon on the Mount. This sermon is a manifesto, a starting place, for the renewing of the mind which is rooted in believing what God has said and done in Jesus Christ. That renewal is extended through the apostolic witness to Christ contained in the rest of the New Testament.

This is our foundation, our starting place. And the work of the Christian is to be so saturated by Scripture that the ways we think and act become profoundly informed by the same values that are expressed in Scripture. We go beyond Scripture such that we form arguments based on revelation to teach us how to act on matters not expressly addressed by Scripture following the lead of those great souls who have gone before us.

And we do this in the context of a community that is perpetually coming to God in prayer, Word, and Sacrament: humbling ourselves before God for the purpose of turning our lives over to him.

This is as much discipleship as receiving Holy Communion, reading Holy Scripture, or praying the Divine Hours. This is the discipleship of the mind that Paul calls us to in chapter twelve of Romans.

How do you understand the Bible?

Scot McKnight has posted a link to a hermeneutics quiz he developed for Leadership Magazine. Take the quiz to give you some feedback on how the ways you interpret the Bible relate to others in the evangelical community. I scored low (67/100) on  the progressive side (66 was the cut off). I’d encourage you to sit with several of the questions and answer them honestly. For me it was the foot washing one. I get the spiritual significance of foot washing (intellectually) but in reality the way I treat the text doesn’t match. At the installation of The Rev Canon Sam Wells as Dean of Duke Chapel, the service included his washing the feet of members of various constituencies that form the Duke community. I admittedly felt a real internal dissonance at the thought of doing that, which provoked (short lived) reflection. Try it for yourself.

Purple State of Mind | Screening

I am heading over to North Carolina School of the Arts for a viewing of an interesting documentary, Purple State of Mind. Here’s how it is described:  

Welcome to a conversation between two old friends. Welcome to a real conversation about the things that divide and unite all of us: our memories, our identities, our beliefs, our choices.Craig Detweiler and John Marks have known each other for twenty-five years. When they roomed together as sophomores at Davidson College, they were devout Christians. It was Craig’s first year in the faith, John’s last. After college, they parted ways, and when they met again, years later, they never talked about what happened… until now…Their conversation starts as a bull session between pals and becomes a story about how people make friends, and how they lose them; how people change, how they grow, and how they deal with the big stuff: death, sex, the meaning of life, God. The conversation between Craig and John captures in all its intimacy and difficulty a one on one reckoning between two people who want to understand each other but won’t compromise their beliefs.At a time when the country is ever more divided over questions of faith and doubt, welcome to a new way of talking… welcome to a new territory of the heart. Welcome to a Purple State of Mind. 

I’ll write a review of it soon.