Thinking Out Loud

November 25, 2013

What If It’s Not All About You?

Filed under: prayer — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:16 am

Someone else is prayingWhat if?

What if all those times you said you got “an answer to a prayer you haven’t prayed yet;” it wasn’t just that God had met a need before you voiced it, but rather, it was that someone else was praying for you. Someone you know well, or maybe know only superficially. Or someone who knows you, but you don’t know them at all?

What if prayer moves the hand of God more than we, or any theologian ever realized, but we don’t give God the credit because it’s hard for us to believe that out there are people who are the ‘pray-ers’; that out there are people who care about us?

What if people you sometimes are short with, who you sometimes criticize, who you sometimes don’t return their calls, or emails or texts are actually a major, central force in your life through intercession?

What if?

October 6, 2013

Christianity: Flying Solo

This is a rebroadcast (!) of an article which appeared here a year ago…

Increasingly, many people are following a solo track in their Christian life. With a proliferation of streaming church services, online sermons and podcasts and Christian books appearing at rate we’ve never before experienced, it’s both tempting and easy to go it alone.

In the past I’ve challenged some people to wrestle with a few questions:

  1. What do you do for Christian fellowship?
  2. What people or group comprise your covering when you need prayer?
  3. Where do you experience the Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/Communion?
  4. How do you experience corporate worship?

These are all serious questions which have theological underpinnings; and anyone who is actually maturing in their Christ-following is going to run up against these sooner or later.

But with the fiscal year-end serving as a reminder — though hopefully not fully the motivation — it’s also a good time to look at another question:

  • Where or how do you experience alms-giving or tithing?

If you are currently outside of a faith family, may I make a few suggestions?

First you should give something to whoever does provide you with teaching and nurture: The online church, the radio ministry, the provider of devotional literature you receive. I’m assuming that one or more of these exist in your life because absent those factors, plus the ones listed above, I’d question the arena in which your faith journey operates.

Second here’s a stretched analogy to help you find some giving possibilities:

Jerusalem

In our area this could include:

  • a ministry reaching youth such as a local chapter of Youth for Christ
  • a faith-based ministry reaching the poor and marginalized such as The Salvation Army
  • the local Christian radio station which relies on donations more than commercial revenue
  • the local crisis pregnancy center
  • the local Christian school which needs donation to supplement parent fees

Judea

Here you’re looking at regional ministries. In our area this might be:

  • Christian camp ministries, making a difference in the life of children and teens
  • organizations that place Bibles in prisons, schools, hotels such as The Gideons
  • faith-based group homes and residences for people dealing with addictions or family crisis

Samaria

In the original passage, Samaria is more of a descriptor of “the place you don’t want to go” than a geographic reference. To me, this represents a ministry to a select people group than a particular place. We’ve known of ministries to a select ethnic group within our country; to street people in urban centers; to Gay/Lesbians; to professionals; to people needing jobs; to people with a specific medial condition; to the elderly; to a specific arts community; etc.

Uttermost Parts

This could include:

  • worldwide Bible translations organizations such as Wycliffe or Bible distributors such as the various Bible societies or Megavoice
  • faith-based relief and development agencies such as Compassion
  • ministries raising awareness of religious persecution of missionaries and Christians in nations claiming religious liberty; and/or dealing with issues such as human trafficking
  • evangelistic organizations with worldwide impact such as Billy Graham’s

These are just suggestions.

As a Lone Ranger Christian, you are still part of the body if not a local assembly. Addressing the giving question still doesn’t address the prayer and worship and fellowship and communion issues, but it’s a place you can begin, even on a weekday.

Comments?

August 6, 2013

The Holy Catholic Church

“…I believe…in the holy catholic church…”

…Wait a minute, the what?

Those words in the Apostles Creed have been a tripping point for both young and old Evangelicals. We even made a last minute modification in our worship slides on Sunday to avoid the terminology. At the blog Internet Monk, in a classic Michael Spencer re-post from 2006, we’re reminded that many Baptists solve the problem by simply dropping the creed altogether.

The article is lengthy, and I know some of you won’t wade through it. But if you desire, especially if you’ve always wondered about that phrase, the link is here. For the record, “catholic” in this sense means “universal.”

Here’s how the article wraps up:

…We need a generous catholicity.” Not a competition where the winner plays the role of the brat, but a humble and sincere attempt to see Christ in his church, and not just in ours. It will not hurt us to say that Christ’s church is larger than our own, or to act like it.

  • We differ on Baptism. Can we agree that Baptism belongs to Christ, and is not dispensed by the church?
  • We differ on matters such as “eternal security” and speaking in tongues. Can we agree that the Holy Spirit manifests himself in his church according to his good pleasure, and not only within the bounds of our preferences (or nice theological conclusions?)
  • We differ on church government. Can we agree that Christ is the head of the church?
  • We differ on how we profess our faith. Can we agree that we receive a brother in Jesus name’ and not our own?
  • We differ on the Lord’s Table. Can we agree that all of us read the same texts with the same passion to be connected to Christ through that table, and that even if we cannot share it together, we can agree that it is our table, and the table where our elder brother seats us all in places of honor?

We differ on much and always will. Can we agree that we are all…all of us…the church catholic? The one, holy, apostolic, blood-bought, inheritance of Jesus? That we are all the fruit of his incarnation and suffering, and that our divisions do not divide Christ (I Corinthians 1:13), but only ourselves from our family?

Looking for an alternative? You could do a lot worse than this one, which I found at this site.

We believe in Jesus Christ the Lord,

* Who was promised to the people of Israel,
* Who came in flesh to dwell among us,
* Who announced the coming of the rule of God,
* Who gathered disciples and taught them,
* Who died on the cross to free us from sin,
* Who rose from the dead to give us life and hope,
* Who reigns in heaven at the right hand of God,
* Who comes to Judge and bring justice to victory.

We believe in God His Father,

* Who raised Him from the dead,
* Who created and sustains the universe,
* Who acts to deliver His people in times of need,
* Who desires all men everywhere to be saved,
* Who rules over the destinies of men and nations,
* Who continues to love men even when they reject Him.

We believe in the Holy Spirit,

* Who is the form of God present in the church,
* Who moves men to faith and obedience,
* Who is the guarantee of our deliverance,
* Who leads us to find God’s will in the Word,
* Who assists those whom He renews in prayer,
* Who guides us in discernment,
* Who impels us to act together.

We believe God has made us His people,

* To invite others to follow Christ,
* To encourage one another to deeper commitment,
* To proclaim forgiveness of sins and hope,
* To reconcile men to God through word and deed,
* To bear witness to the power of love over hate,
* To proclaim Jesus the Lord over all,
* To meet the daily tasks of life with purpose,
* To suffer joyfully for the cause of right,
* To the ends of the earth,
* To the end of the age,
* To the praise of His glory.

Amen.

This item first appeared here in August 2010

July 4, 2013

When Faith Doesn’t Stick

Recently, my wife and I have had a number of recurring conversations prompted by comments overheard that among some Christian parents we know that their children have arrived at their late teens or early twenties only to reveal that the Christian faith they were immersed in, for lack of a better phrase, didn’t take.

At that point, I usually shake my head in despair and usually lament the time and energy that was poured into their Christian education would appear to have been entirely ineffective, at least to this point. Specifically, my comments repeatedly run along the lines of:

  • “…all those Sunday school classes…”
  • “…all those nights at youth group…”
  • “…all those weeks at church camp…”

and other variations you can fill in. 

The other day when I was finishing up this litany my wife said something that arrested me in my tracks. Now remember that, (a) she is very wise, and (b) she had the advantage of experiencing multiple repetitions of my soliloquy before issuing a comeback.

So when I said, “…all those years in church…” she said, “Yes, but you don’t know what was said in the car on the way home.”

True.

Or over dinner.

I can’t imagine that any of the parents in question would do anything knowing that it had the least potential of undermining the nurture of their children’s faith, but that’s just the point, isn’t it?

How many kids are destined for a young adulthood (and beyond) without a faith component because we inadvertently did a really crappy job of modeling for them what Christ-following looks like?

You don’t want to think about that.

So parents, be careful what you say in the car ride home on Sunday. Your comments are being picked up by little ears.

Coincidentally, The Pew Research Forum has just released a report on the religious life of Canada, my home and native land. The charts and graphs all speak for themselves — two are reproduced below — but the message is clear that an attrition is taking place in the church as we’ve not seen before. Furthermore, in Canada and the United States, the religious landscape is forever changed because of immigration policy.

Pew Research - Canada - 1

Pew Research - Canada - 2

The results are similar to a study done by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC), called Hemorrhaging Faith, which we reported on here a few months ago. That study looked at four demographic areas: Evangelicals, Mainline Protestants, Roman Catholics in Quebec, and Roman Catholics Outside Quebec; and divided respondents into Engagers, Fence Sitters, Wanderers and Rejecters.

The Pew Study looked only at Protestants and Catholics, as well as respondents from other religions and the rapidly growing category known as “the nones” (not nuns) who check off the “none” box on census and other surveys. Unfortunately in the EFC study, the results for Evangelicals — while showing stronger adherence — did not point to a much brighter future over the long term.

Survey companies like Barna and Pew make money selling reports, and the very nature of the business means that bad news tends to get more attention. So books like David Kinnaman’s unChristian are better known than the counter response found in books like Bradley Wright’s Christians are Hate-Filled Hypocrites: And Other Lies You’ve Been Told reviewed here. People will flock to buy a book on how the sky is falling, but not so much toward one which advises the sky is intact.

But the Pew Research study and the Evangelical Fellowship’s study highlight statistics that are undeniable: Kids are leaving the church in record numbers.

May 30, 2013

A Homicide Investigator Looks at History’s Most Famous Death

Cold Case ChristianityEvery decade or so a great work of apologetics appears which breaks the boundaries of the discipline and reaches a wider audience. Josh McDowell did it years ago with Evidence That Demands a Verdict; Frank Morrison with Who Moved the Stone? and more recently Lee Strobel brought a large audience to the discussion with The Case for Christ series.

Enter former Los Angeles County homicide investigator J. Warner Wallace and his book Cold Case Christianity: A Homicide Detective Investigates the Claims of the Gospels. (2013, David C. Cook).  Like Strobel, Wallace was a skeptic turned believer, and like McDowell, Wallace leaves no stone unturned in his study of the reliability of scripture, from obscure passages to those central to core doctrine.

The book is divided into two parts, the nature of cold case investigation — and this case is 2,000 + years old, and the particular evidence that the Bible offers. But first one other book comparison, and you won’t see it coming. Years ago Philip Keller wrote A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23. People loved that book because there were particular insights that only one who tended sheep could offer toward interpretation of the text that begins “The Lord is my shepherd.” In many respects, Cold Case Christianity offers the same type of intimacy with the subject matter that only an insider who has worked in this vocation can contribute. So if you feel you’ve read enough apologetics titles to last a lifetime, allow me to offer you one more! 

It’s important to note that Wallace approached this originally from the perspective of an atheist. While the evidence in this case is compelling, I found the first part of the book (which is more than half of the total) most interesting. Possible recipients of this book would include men (Father’s Day is coming) and anyone who reads mysteries or watches mystery or suspense or programs related to the justice system on video or TV.

In a sense, in Cold Case Christianity you, or someone you know who is sitting on the fence in terms of belief, are the jury. So the other possible recipients of this book would be anyone who is investigating Christianity; including people who might not read other books in the apologetics genre.

The second part of the book is the evidence itself. Here, Wallace brings in much from non-Biblical sources, satisfying the oft-voice complaint that some apologists are simply using the Bible to prove the Bible.

J. Warner Wallace is now part of the ministry of Stand To Reason, and posts articles and blogs at PleaseConvinceMe.com . This is a handbook I intend to keep within reach and will no doubt refer back to many times.

April 25, 2013

Eric Metaxas: The Accidental Biographer

To hear him tell it, Eric Metaxas was as surprised as anyone at the success of his William Wilberforce biography, Amazing Grace: William Wilberforce and the Heroic Campaign to End Slavery and his epic-length Deitrict Bonhoeffer follow up with Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy, which clocked in at 608 pages.

7 Men And the Secret of Their Greatness - Eric MetaxasThis time around he offers a sampler of stories in Seven Men and the Secret of their Greatness. He draws on material from the earlier books for two of the sections, and the seventh is someone with whom he worked personally; which leaves us with this lineup:  George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddell, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, John Paul II, and Charles Colson,  

While I’m not a sports guy, I’ve mentioned here a few weeks ago that the Jackie Robinson chapter was my favorite, and the timing vis-a-vis the 42 movie works out well.  It also typifies Metaxas’ desire to bring us new narrative elements, and new backstory. It as if he is anticipating the question, “Can you tell me something I haven’t heard before?’

Was the inclusion of Washington pandering to a U.S. audience? While I can see the eyes of Brits and Canadians rolling, the chapter allowed the book to reach back into another century. At the contemporary end of the timeline, that Metaxas worked with Charles Colson gave him access to details others would miss.

There is literally something for everyone here: Sports, politics, Catholic interest, U.S. History, etc., and with Father’s Day coming up, this is a title I can highly recommend. If the 608 pages (of the Bonhoeffer book) is too much reading some men, this one is only 256 pages, but is a book to be measured by its depth, not its length. Readers are encouraged to read the chapters in any sequence as I did.

The book releases next week from Thomas Nelson in hardcover in the U.S., elsewhere paperback.

April 4, 2013

A Lesson Learned Too Late is Still a Lesson Learned

Was this the one time we disobeyed God? …Okay, maybe there were lots of times…

The time in particular that I’m considering is the time we moved to the city where we now live. It was 22 years ago, and we came with some “push” factors (wanting to get out of our 9th floor apartment in the city of three million) and some “pull” factors (liking the look of the town, as seen from the highway).

Later, I would write a song with an opening sentence that talks about the “pull” factors:

The part of the town that you see from the highway
Is never the part that the people there know.
The smiles and hellos that are so superficial
Filter the feelings we never let show.

When the business we were going to start in this town didn’t happen, we got caught up with the momentum of the “push” factors and decided we would move anyway. We would go into this foreign place and trust God to work out the details for employment and income. Not so smart.

(Tangent/aside: Never move to a town where you plan to raise a family if you don’t know anyone and therefore don’t have your potential babysitters or family supports lined up ahead of time. Ours included teenage girls who were (a) completely inexperienced — “You mean I was supposed to change him?” — with kids, (b) dealing with medical crises, (c) dealing with severe emotional breakdown.)

I think there was some element of God’s leading us to where we moved. We thought we were moving to start a business, but instead, we ended up getting involved with a church that really needed us. I got to write a newspaper column every weekend for ten years which paid for our groceries. My wife got to raise her boys in a house and not the apartment in the big smoke. I got to teach a year at a Christian school. My wife got to start a number of ministry projects which have made a big difference in the lives of people.

But did God just allow us to “make the best of it?” Was there a principle we missed?

I think there was, but I didn’t know the particular chapter and verse at the time. The verse is found in Proverbs 24:2 –

Do your planning and prepare your fields before building your house. (NLT)

First plant your fields; then build your barn. (Message)

Fix your business outside. Get your fields in shape and then build your house. (rough English translation of Louis Segond translation in French)

In other words, get a job, know where your mortgage payments are going to come from. Heck; know where your next dollar is coming from. Settle your career in that place first, then talk about your residence. Don’t move to Dallas, or Lisbon or Sydney without having a job waiting.

But we were young, we were idealistic, we were acting on a mix of faith and foolishness. I think we prayed about it — a bit — but earnestly praying together as a couple hasn’t been our strong suit. If you’re a younger married couple, and the shoe fits, take that as a personal admonition to do better than us when it comes to prayer. Starting now.

Joshua 9:14 — the story of Joshua’s ill-advised treaty with the Gibeonites — makes an even stronger case:

The Israelites … did not inquire of the Lord. (TNIV)

So the men … did not ask counsel from the Lord (ESV)

I really feel that God has journeyed with us and blessed us so many ways. But there have been some uphill battles that I believe trace back to not adhering to a basic scriptural principle. In many ways we’ve lived like monks who have taken a vow of poverty, nonetheless we’ve been blessed with some family circumstances that made it possible for us to live what appears from the outside to be a comfortable lower-middle-class life.

But my advice to people today is always the same: Prepare your work in the fields and then build your house.

March 23, 2013

8 Secondary Issues To Core Christian Belief

…It is my argument that often – far too often – conservative Christians become identified with issues that, while important, do not make or break our faith. This creates extremely volatile situations (from a human perspective) as believers’ faith ends up having a foundation which consists of one of these non-foundational issues. When and if these issues are significantly challenged, our faith becomes unstable. I have seen too many people who walk away from the faith due to their trust in some non-essential issue coming unglued. That is why I write this post…

C. Michael Patton

This week, Michael Patton presented a list of Eight Things that Do NOT Make or Break Christianity.

  1. Young Earth Creationism
  2. The authorship of the Pastoral Epistles
  3. The inerrancy of scriptures
  4. Whether the flood covered the entire earth
  5. The character witness of Christians
  6. The inspiration of Scripture
  7. The unity of Christianity
  8. The theory of evolution

Again you’re encouraged to read the entire article. There’s also a follow up piece that ran a few days later that captures the spirit of the discussion.

March 15, 2013

Extreme Makeover: Papal Edition

Wednesday night we were reflecting at dinner on all the free television coverage the Roman Catholic Church received as a result of its search for a new leader. I noted that in American terms, this was much like the ‘bump’ the U.S. political parties get after the Republican National Convention or Democratic National Convention. An infomercial that is broadcast free of charge for the parties and seen by the viewer free of any other commercials.

But Mrs. W. pointed out to me that much of the commentary up to the point where they announced the new Pope was actually somewhat undermining what was taking place. The talking heads on the major networks were pontificating (couldn’t resist that one) about how what was needed was a younger leader and someone who would address the changing role of women in society as it affects the church.

And then, switching analogies, she said, “It’s like you’re watching Extreme Makeover and Ty Pennington says, ‘Move that bus;’ and the bus moves out of the way and you find yourself left with the same house you started with.”

In a way, that’s what happened. The older white gentleman who was the Pope was replaced by another older white gentleman, albeit one is from another continent who up until this week insisted on cooking his own meals and taking public transit. Perhaps Pope Francis would bring some major changes and leave an impressive legacy, but on Wednesday evening things looked relatively unchanged.  

By Thursday afternoon however, the first-day reporting on Pope Francis’ tenure was offering some most positive signs. Things that make you go, “Hmm.” Could it be that things are really going to change? And then, this item on Mark Shea’s blog at Patheos concerning “then-Cardinal Bergoglio, chewing out some of his priests for refusing to baptize children of single mothers.”

“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio told his priests. “These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!”

Perhaps it is, indeed, a makeover.

March 7, 2013

The Edge, Shock Value and Shifting Standards

There are going to be people who think me a little too conservative for not posting the cover of the book referred to in today’s earlier post. Sigh.

no-godIt seems that we live in a time when standards are shifting, and even if your values are less progressive, it never hurts to go for shock value, as in Peter Enns’ article Why I Don’t Believe in God Anymore. Perhaps it’s just that people who blog on the Patheos platform are expected to be more controversial, but the word “God” with the red circle and red slash through it seems a bit over the top.

Peter Enns actually does believe in God, at least in the way most of you think. His article is saying that for him it’s really about trust.

…“Belief” in God connotes–at least as I see it–a set of ideas about God that may, if time allows, eventually make their way to other parts of my being…

…I see a huge difference between “I believe in a God who cares for me” and “I trust God at this particular moment.” The first is a bit safer, an article of faith. The latter is unnerving, risky–because I have let go…

In a way, Enns’ view is at the heart of Christian living. As people approach crossing the line of faith, our great desire is to see them reach that point of belief; but once the line has been crossed, the center of the Lordship of Christ is trusting Him with every area, every department of our lives.

I know someone who hasn’t crossed that line yet, but I know the ‘gay’ question is going to come up at some point and when it does I’m going to say, “Look, I want to let you in our playbook. Right now our concern for you is about believing, but for those of us on the inside, the fundamental question is: Can God be trusted? Can we see that out of good, better and best, He does indeed have a best for each of us, an ideal which represents His highest intentions?”

Trusting God has having our ultimate highest good in mind is a better way of framing difficult questions. It’s possible to look at people in an adulterous relationship and say, “I know you expect me to say what’s wrong with what you’re doing, but I want to ask you, ‘What’s right about what you’re doing? What do you derive from this that makes it worth the various inconveniences?’” I believe you could equally ask, “What’s right about your incestuous relationship that makes it worth the effort of keeping the secret?” or “What’s right about your gay relationship that makes it worth the separation from your family?”

It’s not rhetorical.  You’re going to get some answers in most cases. What makes it good. And then it’s easy to say, “I believe God’s intention was beyond good, beyond better. I believe God had a best, but we’re afraid of fully trusting Him.”

However, it’s important not to let this much more compassionate, much more sympathetic approach not undermine the idea of trusting God for the best. It’s vital that in the process, we don’t take scissors to scripture and excise the passages we think don’t fit.

Which brings us to United Methodist pastor Dave Barnhart’s article How Being a Pastor Changed My Thinking on Homosexuality. This piece has received a lot of attention online and is emblematic of what happens when theological convictions are transferred to real people engaged in real living in a real world.

Most people who have wrestled with this issue have come to recognize the personal disconnect that takes place when the convictions we would write on a list shatter in the face of people who have been damaged by dogma. No one reading scripture thoroughly can help but be caught in the middle of God’s holiness and judgment versus God’s compassion toward those who ‘miss the mark’ of His greatest standards.

The article says,

Being a pastor is more about being willing to be led by God and changed by the people I meet than issuing infallible decrees from a pulpit, more about admitting I’m wrong and sharing my frailty than pretending I know God’s will on a given subject. One friend describes preaching as a “homiletical wager,” and I’ve come to believe that pastoring, presuming to be a spiritual leader, is bit like gambling with God, where the stakes are very high but I’m betting the game is rigged toward grace.

So again, the title is edgy, it certainly goes for shock value, but has the writer really changed his view on the standards that God holds up for us, or has he simply come to see those standards in the light of mercy, come to a desire to confront the way The Church attempts to mete out its version of upholding God’s best?

Conservatives and traditionalists may feel the spiritual sky is falling, but I prefer to think of the present spiritual climate more in terms of a shaking. Too many people wrote things in ink that they should have written in pencil, or even chalk. But a massive rethink of terminology or approach doesn’t mean that we’ve completely tossed all our formerly held convictions.

As pendula swing wildly, the place of balance, the place of rest, is ultimately somewhere in the middle.

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