compassion without compromise

Another extremely helpful book that came out this fall is from my friend, Adam Barr, and his friend, Ron Citlau. Compassion Without Compromise wisely and biblically guides Christians through the minefield of issues surrounding homosexuality. Just about any scenario that you will encounter is addressed in this book, and new ones that arise are handled on their website, compassionwithoutcompromise.com.

Barr and Citlau answer questions about truth: Is homosexual practice worse than other sins? If it’s so important, how come Jesus didn’t talk about it? Is the Bible really against homosexual practice? If we’re going to be consistent, don’t we also have to give up eating shrimp? Are we hypocritical to speak out against homosexual practice when we also sin? Should we expect people to be healed of their homosexual desires? (Citlau testifies that this happened to him, but they note this may not happen for everyone—in which case celibacy is required).

Barr and Citlau answer questions about practice: what to do when fellow Christians want to ban the school’s gay-straight alliance club, when a gay couple brings their child to church and asks to serve, when your gay son wants to bring his lover home for the holidays, and when fellow church members take a more affirming position. They give wise advice for interacting with gay friends and neighbors—how do we love them without seeming to condone their lifestyle? What to do when they invite you to their wedding? Or when they tell you they want to follow Jesus? Must they first leave their homosexual relationship?

Compassion Without Compromise is easily read by lay Christians yet serious enough that pastors will also benefit. This is a book to keep on hand for those who come to us with questions.

ordinary

Now that the semester is over, I’m digging into the pile of books I’ve been longing to read. Yesterday I enjoyed Michael Horton’s new book, Ordinary. This delightful reminder of the value of a normal Christian life covers one of the points I make in my forthcoming book, Becoming Worldly Saints: Can You Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life? My copy arrived two days ago, but it won’t be available for a couple more weeks. I’ll say more about it then.

Okay, just one thing. Becoming Worldly Saints is the fruit of 15 years of teaching, preaching, and writing on Christian worldview. I’ve field-tested the exegesis, analogies, and humor, and they communicate well both to academics and lay Christians. If you wonder how to integrate your earthly and heavenly life, your Christianity into your humanity, or if you have felt some misplaced guilt after reading David Platt’s Radical or John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life, then you need to read this book.

Back to Ordinary. This book will encourage any Christian who feels something might be wrong with them because they aren’t a pastor or missionary or don’t experience regular seasons of revival. Horton shows how our American obsession with the Next Best Thing actually hinders us from growing in the normal means of grace of Word, Sacrament, and Church. Even our pious attempts to “change the world” can be nothing more than idolatrous attempts to make something of ourselves. Rather than obsess over our individual legacies, we must lose ourselves in the limiting yet life-giving fellowship of our local church.

I wish every lay Christian who feels like a second-class Christian would read page 164. I wish every pastor who ministers to these people would read it. Here Horton explains how ordinary believers serve Jesus in their various callings. These callings count, and they will be rewarded just as much as service in the church. What a liberating word!

This book contains much wisdom. I’m leaving too much out, but here are some of the more provocative quotes:

“If our Christian life is grounded in a radical experience, we will keep looking for repeat performances. Not slow growth in the same direction, but radical spikes in the graph. This keeps us always on the prowl for The Next Big Thing” (81).

“[Multi-site church] runs against the grain of the incarnation. It is not virtual presence but a real presence that Christ gives us when he speaks and acts among us. He did not remain in heaven while writing messages in the sky or on giant screens” (116).

“Regardless of intentions, the medium ensures that he can never be the pastor, but only a celebrity teacher. By being the ‘pastor’ of many churches, he is actually the pastor of none. Furthermore, it is his board that has the last word. This model seems far more hierarchical than the others it rebelled against” (119).

“We need to take the pressure off of both parents, let them take a breath, and, resting in God’s grace, let them revel in the ordinary chat in the car, the normal conversation over family devotions, and the countless moments that add up. Our families, including us, do not need more quality time, but more quantity time. That’s when most of the best things happen. We think that such events are spontaneous—and to a certain extent they are. But they are really the things that bubble up when people are living ordinary lives together” (193).

Then this exquisite quote from George Eliot’s Middlemarch: “…for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs” (2).

latest funnies

The good news is that my grading is done for the semester. The bad news is that the final papers only gave me three bloopers to add to my list. I’m now up to 75. Next week I will post the all-time best, as a Christmas gift and to give my students something to shoot for.

73) “God has no begging and no end”

At least the Calvinist version. The Arminian God has been known to beg a little.

74) “The visible church is composed of people who, only by the grace of God, are wholly sinners and saints.”

Here’s proof that you shouldn’t praise God for everything.

75) “God’s existence is independent from himself.”

Which would make him dependent. Some praise comes on so strong it’s actually weak.

do dogs have souls?

Today’s New York Times reports that Pope Francis has once again said something controversial. He consoled a boy whose dog had died by saying, “One day, we will see our animals again in the eternity of Christ. Paradise is open to all of God’s creatures.”

The Times added, “Theologians cautioned that Francis had spoken casually, not made a doctrinal statement,” but his words seem pretty clear. The article describes how various popes have disagreed about whether pets go to heaven. Pope Pius IX (1846-1878) said no; John Paul II said yes, remarkably asserting that our pets are “as near to God as men are” (what?!); and Benedict returned to sanity, saying that when an animal dies, it “just means the end of existence on earth.”

Here’s what I think.

1. Of course animals have souls. A soul is simply the immaterial aspect of a being, and I’m sure that my dog has one. Sammy’s soul is evident in how he greets me when I come home–tail wagging, standing on hind legs as he watches me climb out of my car. He’s got a different greeting for the UPS man and my next door neighbor, whom he doesn’t seem to trust. She seems like a nice lady, but I’ve seen enough Disney dog movies to know she probably stole something from my garage when I wasn’t home. Sammy knows about it, and it’s driving him nuts. You’ll never convince me that Sammy is nothing more than chemicals and neurons firing. He’s clearly got an immaterial side as well, and it’s very loving toward the people he likes.

2. But having a soul does not mean Sammy goes to heaven. We only think that because we’re influenced by Plato. But Plato was a pagan, and his views aren’t necessarily compatible with Scripture. Christianity teaches that God created everything from nothing–not just our bodies, but our souls as well.

Before my conception in 1966, I did not exist. No part of me existed, neither my body nor my soul. The same God who created my soul from nothing could extinguish it, taking it back to nothing if he chose. I know he won’t, because I have his promise that he will sustain me forever–not just my soul but also my body (we believe in the resurrection!). But I don’t have that promise for Sammy. God may resurrect Sammy and give him back to me on the new earth, but I don’t expect him too. There will be animals on the new earth (Isaiah 65:25), maybe one that looks suspiciously like Sammy. But I don’t have God’s word, so I won’t follow the pope’s example and make promises that God hasn’t made.

3. What separates humans from animals is not that we have souls and they don’t, but that we alone are image of God. Pope John Paul II apparently forgot this when he said animals “are as near to God as men are.” As image of God, we are commanded to exercise responsible stewardship over the animals. We may still eat them, but we must treat them with care, as our fellow creatures. Our animal factories may make economic sense, but they are immoral. We should not stuff pigs in crates with no room to turn around or suspend cows so their feet never touch the ground. Animals deserve a normal, better than miserable life, right up until the moment we eat them.

The pope is half-right. Animals do have souls, but this has no bearing whatsoever on whether they go to heaven. If you think it does, then you’re thinking like a pagan. You should do better, especially if you’re the pope.

pace and preaching

My family watched “Father of the Bride,” the Steve Martin sentimental comedy from 1991. The movie was still funny, but less than I remembered. Mostly because it seemed slow. Some scenes lingered too long, without changing camera perspectives. Dinner conversation was reflective and took time to develop—true to life but a bit hard to watch. I don’t think any of this bothered me when I first watched the movie in the early 90’s. What was natural then seems tedious today because the pace of everything has quickened.

You can see the change in sports. Football teams no longer huddle, basketball is imagining alternatives to the free throw, and baseball is contemplating a pitch clock. Whatever it takes to speed things up.

I wonder how this quickening pace is influencing Christian ministry, and what we might do to adapt. One change I’ve made is to break my books into shorter chapters, then write more of them. And use humor whenever I can. And personal stories. And shorter sentences. Whatever it takes to keep people’s attention when—ding, they just got a text!

How do you think our shrinking attention span and need for speed is changing the sermon? How should it change?

students write the funniest things

This Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for the bloopers that make grading bearable, if not outright fun. These aren’t the funniest I’ve received (I’m up to 72), but they are the most recent. I’ll receive more in the coming weeks, which I’ll post by the end of the year. I’ve italicized the key words and given my commentary after each quote.

68) “Baptism is a sign that seals our fate.”

This sounds sinister, though it’s actually true in a way.

69) “Women are too qualified to hold church leadership positions.”

Not sure if reverse psychology is the way to go here.

70) “For non-Christians, the Lord’s Supper is a testimony of the church to Jesus Christ and an invitation to except him as Lord.”

I think non-Christians are already doing this.

71) “The Son is the Creator, El Salvador, restaurateur, the redeemer.”

Nothing wrong with opening a restaurant, though I doubt it belongs in the same list with Creator and Redeemer.

72) “Jesus will return in the clouds to remove the church from the earth”

This makes sense. A secret rapture would require Jesus to hide in the clouds. “Hey, isn’t that cloud drifting a little too close? It might be Jesus, sneaking up on us!”

what can brown do for you?

I don’t have anything to add to the national conversation on race, but here’s how I see it. I don’t think I truly appreciate the cloud of suspicion and harassment that black men experience. This fall one of my students, a large black man, was late for class. When I asked where he was, he shrugged and said he had been pulled over while driving on the East Beltline. He didn’t get a ticket. He was simply the wrong color, in a large. He didn’t think much of it, because it happens often, which seems grossly unjust. No wonder some black men seem to have a chip on their shoulder. Who wouldn’t?

I don’t fully understand the black experience, but I am determined to listen. And I’m wondering what it would look like for the body of Christ to take the lead in racial reconciliation. Especially given the heat the church is beginning to take on sexual issues, this one seems tailor made for the church to regain some cultural respect. Admiration from the culture isn’t the most important thing, but it may open doors to the gospel. Regardless, we do this because it’s right and because we love our brothers and sisters.

It’s easy for white and black people to spot the problems in each other’s community. We each tend to think that God sees things our way. We forget that neither one of us has God’s perspective. Jesus isn’t white or black. He’s brown.

ETS 2014

The best part of this year’s meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society was its location. Over two feet of snow fell on my driveway while I enjoyed stimulating conversations by pools lined with palm trees. All things considered though, I’d rather live in West Michigan than San Diego. Our beaches are more beautiful, our lawns are greener, and our roads have a lot less litter.

Here are some of my takeaways from San Diego:

  1. There seemed to be less significant new books than in other years. Maybe I’m jaded, or maybe I don’t see the need to buy yet another biblical commentary, but there were fewer books that I thought I had to get. I am looking forward to reading these: James Smith, How (Not) to be Secular, Stephen Westerholm, Justification Reconsidered, Kevin Vanhoozer, Faith Speaking Understanding, J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth, and Matt Perman, What’s Best Next.
  1. This was the year to honor our leaders. Zondervan surprised Doug Moo with a Festschrift in his honor, Leland Ryken received a standing ovation at the literary session devoted to him, John Feinberg had a similar session, Stan Grenz’s wife and children attended a session dedicated to his influence, and Stan Gundry honored his former professor at the Zondervan breakfast. If you were 80 years old and weren’t surprised by a Festschrift or ovation in your honor, you probably left a little sad.
  1. I attended an interesting conversation between Biologos and Reasons to Believe. Each seemed respectful of the other, but they clearly disagreed about the reading of Genesis, whether humans come from lower life forms, and whether one has to believe there was a historical Adam. I enjoy these conversations, though I worry a little that they can grant legitimacy to unorthodox positions. For instance, I have noticed a change in some of my students since I’ve started using Four Views on the Historical Adam. One of the contributors, Denis Lamoureux, denies there was a first man who brought sin and death into the world, and another, John Walton, says there doesn’t have to be. The sheer fact of their existence in this book stretches the boundary of what is acceptable in evangelicalism. I’m not saying they should be kept out—and obviously we need to have this conversation—but just as the challenger gains stature by appearing on the same stage as the president in a debate, so new views on Adam gain points just by being included in the conversation. I like the book and will continue to use it, but I’ve noticed that some students are more willing to entertain novel views on Adam after reading it. That worries me.
  1. Doug Moo gave a helpful talk on translation theory at Zondervan’s banquet in honor of the NIV. He was responding to some critics who favor the ESV and say the NIV isn’t literal enough. Moo made several good points, though I would have enjoyed hearing the other side respond. Of course, that would grant legitimacy to their criticisms, which wasn’t the purpose of the banquet (see my point above). It was interesting to hear the Committee on Bible Translation respond to questions from the audience. In all I learned that translating the Bible is hard, and translating the Bible into English is really hard.
  1. I heard a stimulating talk by Philip Ryken on using literary forms in preaching. The lecture was in honor of his father, Leland, and made me want to go home and prepare a sermon that used a biblical image. Love these inspiring talks.
  1. I led a workshop on whether Baptists can believe that God is doing something in baptism. I’m not sure how easily I can reproduce the paper here, but I may try to give the gist in the future.
  1. My friend Wendy treated herself to something that most other ETS attenders wouldn’t consider. She said she was going to the spa to get a pedicure. I thought it would be funny if she ran into Al, or Wayne, or Don while she was in there. We figured they would make her promise not to tell, so I guess we’ll never know.

contingency

Our seminary family is pleading with God for the life of Kawika Hughes, a baby born last week to our student, Keoni, and his wife Andrea. Kawika was taken five weeks early because he came down with the enterovirus. Last Tuesday doctors were giving him no chance of survival, but by Wednesday afternoon his kidney had begun to function and they were saying his odds had improved to 20-30%. His liver and kidneys still have a long way to go, and he continues to have bleeding on his brain, so please pray with us for him and Keoni and Andrea as they bravely endure every parent’s nightmare.

Besides the sheer tragedy of potentially losing a child, one aspect that makes it worse is the contingency of it all. What are the odds that this child would contract the enterovirus? Millions of children don’t. There are many more plausible scenarios in which Kawika is born perfectly healthy than scenarios in which he isn’t. And yet here he is.

Evil is tragic in part because it could have been so easily missed. The oncoming driver didn’t have to be texting, applying makeup, and yelling towards the backseat as she came toward you. But she was. She swerved and almost missed. An inch or two more, and you would be shaken but without a scratch. But here you are, with years of surgeries and therapy ahead. Your life will never be the same.

I am helped with the contingency of evil when I remember the larger contingency of life. Yes, it didn’t have to be my car that was sideswiped or my child that is sick, but it also didn’t need to be my life that Jesus saved. God wasn’t logically required to create this world. He chose to. God wasn’t logically required to redeem this world. He chose to.

Whether you are a Calvinist or an Arminian, you must concede that whatever happens goes all the way back to God’s will. God may have directly decreed it, or decreed to allow it, but ultimately the buck stops with him. Because it is God’s will, it is contingent. It didn’t have to be this way. This is true for the really bad stuff, and it’s also true for God’s decision to bless us with all good things.

Whatever happens is contingent upon the will of God. This God has chosen to incorporate our prayers in his sovereign rule of the universe. So I’m praying for Kawika. Won’t you join me?

Update:  you can follow Kawika’s status by clicking on his name above. The latest news is grim. Please remember this dear family.

Working for Jesus

I wrote an essay on work for The High Calling, which you can read here. The High Calling turns out encouraging and theologically informed essays on work every week. I was turned onto it by Bob Robinson, who happens to live in my hometown village of Hartville, Ohio. It’s unusual to find someone who has even heard of Hartville, but this semester one of our student’s wives is from there, and two weeks ago at a conference in Lansing I ran into a pastor’s wife from there. So maybe it’s time to put us on the map.

In my essay I referred to Jordan, because that’s his real name. He’s probably distracted with his new girlfriend, but I’d like to see how long it takes him to find this essay about him. I’m preaching at his church the next two Sundays, so Jordan, if you don’t find it by then, I may penalize you from the pulpit.

One of the points of the essay is our need for patience. I bring this up as an excuse to mention the little joke I thought of yesterday. When you pray, “Dear God, give me patience but not yet,” does that mean he already has?