Monday, November 30, 2020

The Season Of Advent - 01/12/20

(Welcome to Christmas Vignettes 2020, a short daily reflection on Christmas and its meaning for Christians)

A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn

Christians have a strong tradition of celebrating Christmas not just as a day, but as an entire season. In fact, according to the traditional Church calendar, the season of Advent actually marks the beginning of the year. The word Advent means “arrival” or “coming”, and the idea is that for the four weeks that lead up to Christmas, we are eagerly waiting for the coming of someone worldchanging. 

It’s not about the presents! Sometimes I feel like we Christians can be a little severe when it comes to the whole “presents under the Christmas tree” thing. I mean there’s good reason to be skeptical; Christmas in the modern world is a crucial cog in the consumerist machine, manufacturing happiness with material possessions. But there is one good thing that has come out of this practice, and that’s teaching the lesson of anticipation. For weeks, children all over the world feel pain. Pain? During the most wonderful time of the year? Why and how so? 

It is the pain of longing, of knowing the good that is over the horizon, that is approaching but yet feels so long away. It’s there, under the tree! I can see it, I can have it, it’s as good as mine, and yet still I wait. 

During the Advent season, Christians assume a posture of anticipation. Before Jesus’ arrival was a long wait in darkness. We enter that experience and reflect on the hopelessness of a world weighed down by sin with no end in sight or possibility of relief. Long is the suffering, and heavy is the sorrow. The slaver’s chain is burdensome, and I can’t break them. How much longer, O Lord? How long will you allow your people to remain in bondage? 

The people living in darkness

    have seen a great light;

on those living in the land of the shadow of death

    a light has dawned (Isaiah 9.2)

If you can appreciate longing for something better, then you can appreciate the Advent. If you can understand the desperate desire for an end to suffering, then you can get something out of celebrating this season. The ancient Church often practiced this season by intentionally spending time in darkness. It wasn’t as hard to do back then, before the advent (pun not intended) of the electrical grid. It’s also a little bit easier to do when you live in the Northern hemisphere, because right now in Sydney, the sun sets around 8pm. 

However, something you can try is, for five or ten minutes before you go to bed, turn off all the lights and just sit there and meditate on Christmas. Meditate on how drastically the fate of the world changed when Jesus, the light of the world, arrived. I like doing this in my living room; when all the lights are off, I can still see the fairy lights of my Christmas tree. Their relative dimness express to me that the hope is coming, faint though it be now. This season, practice anticipation. Let it teach you that the current world, with all its pleasures and sorrows, is not the forever thing. The forever thing is still coming. It’s on its way. He is on his way.

Friday, May 1, 2020

You Should Be Driving A Mercedes

It’s the truth, you should be driving a Merc. It’s just how things are supposed to work. You were born in Taiwan into abject poverty, one of the youngest of eight children. By the sweat of your brow and the sacrifices of your mother and older siblings, you earned a university degree and moved to America with mom to pursue higher education. You toiled for years to bring your family up out of the class you were born into and raise them to upper middle. Because of you, mom and Andrew and I have had a good life. Especially in recent years, we have had all our needs more than met and grown accustomed to comfort. However, you’ve reached the point in your life where you are no longer battling to help your family survive and the path should have turned towards you enjoying the unprecedented fruits of your labor. Your children are now adults with their own jobs, the bills are paid well in advance, and you should be thinking less about needs and more about luxury and recreation. I’ve seen this pattern before. People in your stage of life, who have done what you have done, and arrived where you are shouldn’t still be driving ten year old Honda Pilots and going on annual holidays to Lancaster, PA staying in Days Inns and “treating themselves” to a nice dinner at Ruby Tuesdays. You should be going on cruises, driving a Mercedes (of course), and yam cha-ing all the time because of all the free time you now have. And you shouldn’t even be home for 4-6 months of the year because you finally have the time to travel and see the world and take a picture in front of the Eiffel Tower and come see your grandchild in Australia and eat cocktail shrimp at the buffet on the “Spirit Of America”, cruising through the Hawaiian archipelago. But you’re not doing any of that. You don’t travel, don’t buy anything you don’t absolutely need, don’t shop for luxury goods, don’t bother upgrading anything you have even though you can afford to… phone, car, clothes. You don’t own a second home (unless you count my home, which you helped me buy). And you don’t play golf. You are spending your golden years working harder and more joyfully than ever before in your life. While holding down a full-time job, you put yourself through seminary, graduated, and then started your own church. You spend your days reading the Bible, writing sermons, and organizing activities, and cooking for people. You spend your evenings in church meetings, running Bible studies, and visiting people’s homes. And you spend your late nights catching up on your work as a software engineer. At the age when most people start to slow down, “live a little”, and enjoy the fruits of a lifetime of hard work, you are only picking up the pace. That’s why you’re my hero. Whenever we talk, you are quick to tell me how much you are enjoying life right now. How happy you are. How, after a lifetime of fulfilling obligations, you are finally getting to pursue your dream of serving God and preaching the gospel to your heart’s content. Dad, because of you, our family is prospering like we never have before. This is the time when you should be able to loosen up and spend a little bit more on yourself. And in a way you have. Your spending habits would be characterized by any prudent financial advisor as reckless and extravagant. But not a penny of it is going to you! It’s always going to others. Your wallet’s always open towards those who are in need, whether it’s in formal giving or through spontaneous acts of generosity. You have told me time and again how happy you are to have the ability to give so freely. You have taught me and Andrew that it is better to give rather than receive. You have told us over and over again never to worry about money. You said to us with pure conviction that we are all rich in Christ and that the Lord will look after all our needs, so we should never lose sleep over financial troubles. You have always emphasized to us how important it is to honor God and not be miserly. And you practice what you preach. Maybe there was a time in your youth when you envied people who had nice things. But for as long as I’ve known you, you have never been enticed by material wealth. You enjoy simple things. You have taught me that many of the best things in life are free or surprisingly inexpensive. And you have taught me that in comparison to the immeasurable riches that are in store for us in Christ, worldly pleasures are silly to pursue. I can go on and on and on about how much I admire you, how much I still look up to you even to this day, and how much I love you for how you’ve raised me and taken care of our family, but I learned in the art of writing that there is a law of diminishing returns. The average person is capable of reading up to about 1000 words, but anything you write that’s longer than that, you end up alienating your audience and losing readership. And I want people to read this. I want people to know what a great man you are. I want it to be known that everything that is good about me, everything noble and honorable within me, is because of you. You’ll get a longer version of this birthday card emailed to you. I want to wish you a happy birthday. God has made you in a great man and a strong, powerful, humble leader. We are so fortunate. 

My dad loves being a grandpa. He is always telling me to make sure to lead Abby in prayer every day and to read the Bible with her. We read through her entire picture Bible just a little before she turned one.

My dad was intermittent fasting before it was cool, and before it even had a fancy name. His way of keeping his weight is to just not eat unless it's socially.

The Shih men are deceptively emotional. I'll never forget what an ordeal it was when you had to say goodbye to Abby at the airport last year.

This is a good example of the kind of lavish meal that he and mom prepare several times a week for church groups ranging from 5-25.

Happy birthday, dad.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Great Divorce - Trump and American Christianity

Yesterday I stumbled upon a magnificently-written article analyzing why American evangelical Christians have largely decided to go to bed with Donald Trump, a man whose life is so obviously contrary to the high biblical standards of Christian living. And then last night I couldn’t sleep. I woke up this morning after a fitful night, realizing that everything that I had been feeling about American Christianity towards the Trump campaign just lined up with my own experience of growing up in church in NYC.

Since the 1980s, with the founding of the Moral Majority, politically engaged evangelicals have tried to impose their moral outlook on the country through political means.
But many evangelicals tried to keep to themselves, walling themselves off from secular culture. All the while, the tectonic plates of culture shifted beneath their feet. When the Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in 2015, that set off alarm bells inside a community that had tried its hardest to sing praise hymns and hope for the best. It was a break-the-glass moment that alarmed many who had tried to ignore the changes in culture to that point, and it put them in a more darkly pessimistic mood.

    The independent Chinese church that I grew up in wasn’t technically evangelical, and in a lot of ways, it would have looked similar cosmetically to GracePoint or any CPC/CCC in Sydney. But in a few keys areas like cultural conservatism and its church members’ emotional feelings towards social issues like gay marriage, it aligned squarely with the sentiments of more Bible-belt, Baptist churches.

Trump’s reductionist promise of protection politics was the inevitable culmination of decades in which evangelicals did little to enter the dominant institutions in the public square and popular culture, instead choosing to hurl rocks at them, create pale imitations of their products or isolate themselves from them. Having forfeited the game of culture formation by leaving most areas of the playing field, evangelicals now had no choice — in the view of many — other than to throw in their lot with a man whose life and values were in stark contrast to their teachings, because he was their only hope for maintaining political power.

The damning words of this article resonate so strongly with my own experience of church growing up in the U.S. that when I read it, I also felt at fault for the type of cultural retreat that Christians made in the public sphere.  So much of  church culture was about building a wall and hermetically sealing itself off from the corrupt, outside, non-Christian world. I was taught implicitly through the songs that we sang and the activities we did in youth group that the purpose of being a Christian wasn't to preach the gospel of saving grace to the lost but to have a safe place to go to on Friday nights where uptight Chinese parents who are obsessed with their children's future worldly success could be assured that their precious kids aren't being subjected to bad influences like drinking or smoking or partying or swearing. And I 100% sh** you not, I'm not exaggerating because I just had a PTSD style flashback of the time angry Asian parents stormed into youth group when I was in year 10 to complain to my youth leader (who actually did care about reaching the lost) about rumors that there were actually kids attending church who SMOKE CIGARETTES. Seriously I didn’t  even realize I still had that memory buried deep down somewhere.

Jonathan Edwards likes to use the metaphor of sun and shadow to describe the difference between worldly pleasure and joy in God. Just as God is the sun, worldly idols are like shadows of the reality. I think that could be an apt metaphor for secular art and the embarrassing Christianized facsimiles that cropped up to appropriate it. Everything we sang at church, from Chris Tomlin’s edgeless, flavorless, pseudo-alt rock, to those yearly WOW Worship releases, were pale, shamelessly derivative imitations of truly beautiful and groundbreaking things that non-Christians were doing from the big bad outside. Every now and then we would watch the latest awful, awful, low-budget, heavy-handed, moralizing Christian movie that was always either about the end times (pretty much the only part of the Bible where you can drum up any Hollywood-worthy drama) or the good Christian kids getting through to their gangster school friends with the Bible in scenarios so laughably unrealistic that I would call it evangelism porn.

We American Christians are one hundred percent at fault for the mess we made when we chose the wide road of political power and cultural wall-building over the messy, narrow path of cultural engagement. We forgot that God called us to do evangelism and cultural renewal in the trenches of daily life and faithfulness in all the little areas of life. Instead, we choose to believe the far simpler lie that if we could just win a few key battles,  then the West would once again be ours. Think Roe vs Wade, Obergefell vs Hodges, righteous Mitt Romney (Mormons count as Christians, right? Ah, he's close enough for our purposes) versus Barack "Antichrist-wasn't-even-born-here" Obama.

As an American Christian, I repent and take responsibility for the part that I had in creating the current political quagmire where millions of people who profess to love Jesus feel that they have to, for the sake of their nation, throw their lot in with a clueless, thrice-married, arrogant, disrespectful, egomaniacal, compulsive liar.

I think that the way forward now is to acknowledge that we now have a beautiful, if scary, opportunity to be witnesses from the margins of society. We have a chance to shape culture from where Jesus himself was, as socially irrelevant, politically powerless outcasts whose mindbogglingly selfless way of life won over the elect even while eliciting scorn from the damned, just as the recipients of the Apostle Peter’s letters did. And we do it by rejecting the notion of being a Moral Majority and embracing what Russell Moore called the Prophetic Minority. It won’t be easy. It will be risky, costly, and sometimes infuriatingly unfair. That last part is what gets me the most; just how unfairly we will be represented in popular culture and the media, but that’s part of the calling to be foreigners and aliens in this world, and to have our citizenship in heaven.

Christians of the gospel were always the most powerful when they were at their most powerless. They left the most lasting impressions in the moments before their lives ended in between the jaws of lions. We Western Christians enjoyed a brief moment of reprieve in church history, where life was comfortable for a while, but the rubber band of history is snapping back. I confess that I am equal parts terrified and exhilarated for my future and the future of my children, because the stakes are getting higher. The costs of discipleship are rising. Instead of getting made fun of at the workplace, it’s getting refused work for my oppressive belief in the exclusivity of salvation. But the fires that our enemies are lighting down the road for us are the same fires that our God will use to purify and refine his people. I for one, am ready to face the future, albeit with hot urine in my pants, but also with resolve in my heart.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

"Marrying my coffee machine" - Why being right in the same-sex debate doesn't always equal being helpful

The other day, I was surfing on facebook, when I saw that one of my friends put up a facebook status defending the Christian position on same-sex marriage. I can't remember how it goes, but the long and short of it was:

"Calling same-sex marriage the fight for 'marriage equality' rigs the debate from the start. It positions you on the side of what's simply 'good' and 'fair', and uses semantics to antagonize anyone who opposes your position." 

As a Christian in Christian ministry, I completely agree with that assessment. After all, who wants to be against equality?? What it says is that if you're not on the side of same-sex marriage, then you have the right to shape marriage your way and deny other people the right to have marriage their way, and by logical extension, it means you're a hypocrite.

When you think about it, one can say that this is an argument crafted not on logic, but on careful use and exploitation of terminology. There's no more reason for same-sex marriage to be called "marriage equality" than for traditional marriage. Both sides are seeking to define marriage in a certain way. Traditionalists want to define marriage as "that which is ONLY between a man and a woman." And the other side wishes to make a slightly more open, but just as strict boundary by defining marriage as "that which is between two people regardless of gender." The idea of equality technically shouldn't figure into either side. It's all about who has the right to define marriage.

With me so far? Because I've seen this point made more or less any time a Christian talks about the marriage debate. And it's an insightful one which definitely needs to be made. However, what I think is profoundly unhelpful is when Christians take this point to its next logical step and say something like:

"If you were really pushing for marriage equality, then I demand the right to marry my books"

"If this is marriage equality, then what's next? Marrying goats? What's to stop us from saying that you can marry anything you want, animals, plants, and inanimate objects? Same-sex marriage is a slippery slope towards bestiality."

"If gay marriage were legalized, then polygamy would have to be. Once you begin to alter the traditional definition of marriage, under ‘equal protection’ you can’t stop at one alternative situation and then deny others." - O'Reilly Talking Points memo from 2006, The O'Reilly Factor

While I get why Christians (and Bill O'Reilly) says things like this. Here are the reasons why I think this is not only unhelpful in the debate, but also WRONG:

1) There's no logical reason why someone who defines marriage as between any two humans regardless of gender should also want to define marriage more broadly to include non-humans.

2) There's actually a great theological reason why even same-sex marriage proponents would want to draw the line at animals and such, and that's because people are categorically different to animals and God created us this way. Of all the birds of the air, beasts of the field, and fish in the sea, God created man alone in his image; there's a certain pride of place and boundary line between us and the animals that's not just speciesism. Now please DO NOT read me wrong: I'm not saying that same-sex marriage is okay because we are all created in God's image. That is definitely NOT what I'm saying. What I mean to say is that even in sin, creation order is not completely annihilated in the human mind and even non-Christians and same-sex marriage proponents can understand and affirm species exclusivism in marriage. Same-sex marriage is not a slippery slope and to call it that is to oversimplify the very complex issue of what sinful people believe is right and wrong. Did not God write his law in man's heart? There are a lot of plateaus on this slope, plateaus that God, in common grace, put in to keep society from imploding on itself.

What this means is, saying that all gay people are also okay with bestiality or polygamy (or any form of that statement, whether subtle or outright) is as straw-man and indefensible as saying that all non-Christians are amoral or believe that right and wrong are relative or are just socially-conditioned anarchists.

3) At the end of the day, ridiculing gay people and demanding the right, by their logic, to marry your books or your coffee machine or Katoomba conference bracelet is slanderous, insulting, doesn't make you any friends on the other side, and fails to lift up God and his created order as the truth. The reason we fight for Christian marriage isn't so that we can be right and they can be wrong, but it's so that we can glorify God and love our neighbors at the same time. The engine that drives my position in marriage is my belief that God's glory and human flourishing is not mutually exclusive; it's only when God's will for human life is followed that humanity can flourish. And though it's not my end goal, I do want to see humanity flourish, society to be healthy, and homes to be holistic.

So Christians, please, always speak the truth in love.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Religious Politics: Reflections from the 2012 Election

Through a combination of the Election season and my unshakable impulse to check Facebook every time I lose focus on what I'm doing right now, I have learned so much more about the political leanings of my friends that I care to find out. I've discovered that I have at least one Christian friend in every major political category: Apathetic (gotta start with that one, right?), moderate, left-leaning, right-leaning, God is going to abandon America if Obama doesn't win, and God is going to straight up Sodom-and-Gomorrah everything from sea to shining sea if Romney doesn't win.

I fall into one of the categories that I listed above, but what bothers me most during politics time is not how other people can be a Christian and have a different political view, but how exclusively and explicitly some Christians have connected their religious hopes with their political alignment. This blog has written about how our politics have revealed that our eschatological hope isn't ultimately in Jesus. I should back up and define eschatological hope: When you think about the future, and whether things in our world are going to end well or poorly, on whom or what does it all hang? When you think about the defeat of evil, the overcoming of sin, the end to poverty, the eradication of disease... how are we going to get there and who is going to get us there? However you answer, that is your eschatological hope.

I fear that in America we may have so religiously charged our politics that we've accidentally gone overboard in our heads and made the next president our savior or made our political party the instrument through which God is going to redeem the world. I can think of a couple of reasons why this may be and they both have to do with a poor understanding of how God is actually working to accomplish those things:

Weak Missiology: The entire message of the Bible is the story of God's mission to save his people and redeem his creation. Whether you're a Christian or not, chances are if you're reading this, then you are a socially-aware, civic-minded, loving, and compassionate person who is genuinely concerned about the state of your country, the welfare of its people, the economic climate, and the deteriorating state of international relations. I want to say that in an indirect, but very real way, God is concerned about those things too and he is much more capable of bringing about a resolution. I say indirect because I don't think that God's interests are limited to the affairs of the U.S. So I'm not a fundamentalist crazy; I don't think that God loves America to the exclusion of all other nations, but God loves his world and seeks to save it. It's just that God recognizes that the REAL issue behind every other issue is actually human sin, and that's what he's dealing with.

If we understood that God has been on mission through human history to save us, and he's doing that through Jesus Christ, who has died to sin and overcome it with his resurrection, then would our hopes be devastatingly crushed or overwhelmingly lifted depending on who our next president is?

Weak Ecclesiology: So God is on mission to save the world to him by dealing with sin through Jesus. How does that affect the welfare of our nation, and how does that actually play out to the benefit of our country. The answer to that is through the church.

In 1 Peter, the Apostle Peter is writing to Christians who are scattered across the Roman Empire and being persecuted for their beliefs. Throughout the letter, he encourages them by reminding them of who they are, "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's possession" (1 Pet 2.9), a people who have been brought together and given significance through God's work of mercy in Christ. And he also encourages them by reminding them of their purpose in the world. "Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us." (2.11-12)

Peter says that our job right now is to live such stellar lives, lives that bring good, peace, and prosperity to our neighbors and to our countries, that glory is given to God. We may be citizens of another kingdom, but being good citizens of God's kingdom makes us stellar citizens of whichever one we are a part of in this world. We're called to seek the peace and prosperity of the country that we are a part of today, pray to God  on its behalf, and love those who are there.

Contra Bono, America isn't God's country. Neither is present-day national Israel, Ireland, or any physical piece of land in the world. That means that the way that God's kingdom is going to grow won't be from a Christian moving into the White House; it is ultimately through the people of God reaching out in love, mercy, and with the Word of life in every city, nation and world. A Christian doesn't need to be living in White House for God to be glorified in the U.S. The church can impact the nation from the margins of society.

This doesn't mean that we shouldn't vote or take part in the government process. Just a few verse later, Peter urges the Christians to live as God's slaves, but also honor the emperor (1 Pet 2.16-17). Citizenship on earth and in the kingdom isn't an either-or affair. We're to honor those that God has put in authority and submit to them (Rom 13) regardless of their political affiliation, and we're to use our vote selflessly and in a way that most brings honor to God and good to our neighbor.

At the end of the day, whoever is elected president is still a sinful human being; he isn't our savior. He didn't conquer evil and death. He won't rule with perfect justice and righteousness and love. But that's okay because our ultimate hope isn't in him. It's in Christ.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Reflections On Preaching

In my three years of doing ministry in Sydney, I've written and preached about fifteen to twenty sermons, which means that I'm still a very, very young and inexperienced preacher. And in my endeavor to become a a better preacher, I've noticed that whenever I go back to read one of my sermons, if it's older than six months, I end up hating it and wondering how anyone could have ever let me read THAT on the pulpit.

You might have experienced this same phenomenon, especially if you keep a journal. Have you ever gone back to read something you wrote a long time ago and start feeling the flush of embarrassment, like "How could I have thought or written those things?" It's a sign that you are growing as a person and maturing in thought and intellect. In the case of my past sermons, it's a sign that I've growing and maturing as a preacher.

Now don't get me wrong; as far as I know I haven't ever preached heresy or mis-exegeted the Bible, or at least not grievously. I get my sermons checked by people before delivering them, but I do learn to go deeper into the text, to apply the passage better to the congregation that I'm speaking to, and to use more vernacular.

And because of this, inevitably after every preaching gig I have, the thought that always pops into my mind is, "I want a mulligan." I want a do-ver. I messed up the main point, I thought of a more relevant way to apply the passage, my illustration made no sense and went around and around in a confusing way, I looked down at my notes too often and didn't engage the congregation with my eyes.

But lately, I had read the book of Acts, and had a thought about Acts 7, where Stephen gives a speech before the Sanhedrin. Many scholars say that this sermon, of the 25-30 found in the book of Acts, is the most significant because it so clearly explains the universal scope of God's salvation plan in Jesus.

My thought about the sermon was, this is perhaps one of the best sermons recorded in the whole Bible, and possibly one of the most important ever preached in all Christendom... but what came out of it? Stephen's audience became enraged at what he was saying, accused him vehemently of blasphemy, and rage-stoned him on the spot. Could there have been a more negative response to a sermon than that?

Contrast this with another sermon from the Bible. The prophet Jonah, in his book, preached possibly the shortest, worst sermon, ever recorded. In Jonah 3.4, this was the extent of his message, "Forty more days and Nineveh will be overturned." That's it! No illustrations, no points, and no word of grace. Yet what came out of that? Immediately in the next verse, it said, "The Ninevites believed God. They declared a fast, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth." Jonah hadn't even proclaimed a word of hope, yet the Ninevites believed and repented!

Now, I know that neither of these are examples of typical sermons that a preacher would give on a Sunday, but in these message, you couldn't have a greater contrast in the proportion between sermon quality and sermon success. I doubt you could find a prophetic word today better constructed than Stephen's magnificent biblical exposition of redemptive history, and I doubt you could find a preacher who cared less about his audience than Jonah. Yet I doubt you could find a more discouraging response than Stephen's Pharisaical accusers and I could you could find a more impassioned repentance than that of the wicked, amoral Ninevites.

What I mean to say from all this is that ultimately God accomplishes his will through his word. Every preacher is an imperfect, sinful person. We are not infinitely wise and we don't know the hearts of our people perfectly the way that Jesus does. Moreover, most regular preachers have to craft their sermon each week while keeping up with all of his other demands and responsibilities in the church. I at least have the luxury of having weeks and months to prepare my sermon.

But as inadequate and rushed our work is, we have the comfort and assurance of knowing that we have a perfect God who works out his will through imperfect people. And how do I know this?

What happened immediately after Stephen's preaching in Acts 7? He was lynched by a mob of hardened, ungrateful, unloving people who hate God and reject the Holy Spirit. But what happened right after that in the next chapter? Stephen's death triggered a great persecution against Christians all across the city of Jerusalem, and as a result Christians were driven out of Jerusalem and scattered all across the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria. It's like you had this great field of dandelions that you tried to stamp out and destroy, but instead you scatter the seeds through the wind to all the nearby fields, and you end up spreading the plant even further because of that.

So was Stephen's speech really a failure? Or was his martyrdom, seemingly the ultimate defeat, actually a profound victory because it was used by God to bring his good news to all the world? Remember who else bore witness to the whole thing? Saul, the guy who later became the greatest missionary and the one who brought the gospel to the entire Roman empire?

As a young preacher, I know that by God's will I'm going to grow and improve. But I also know that God will use my work, however good or bad, however rushed or imperfect it is, for his will. And that's a great comfort that motivates me to trust in him, depend on him, and be faithful to him, giving him my best. I hope that you, whether you're a preacher or just a layperson who leads Bible studies and disciples people in church, can take comfort in this truth as well, and let it motivate you to serve him with joy, regardless of what results you seemingly produce.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Instruments In The Redeemer's Hands: Book Review

This was a book I read with my pastor, Owen, last year while I was doing ministry apprenticeship. It's one of my favorite books on not just ministry, but Christian relationships in general. I highly recommend it to all Christians.

  “As we listen to eternity, we realize that the kingdom is about God radically changing people, but not in the self-absorbed sense our culture assumes. Christ came to break our allegiance to such an atrophied agenda and call us to the one goal worth living for. His kingdom is about the display of his glory and people who are holy. This is the change he came, lived, died, and rose to produce.” (5)

       Paul Tripp's book, Instruments In The Hands Of The Redeemer, reads, more than anything else, like a chameleon. Different people with different life situations will pick up this book and read it as exactly what they needed to hear. A pastor will read it as a guide for doing biblically faithful pastoral counseling. A married couple may read it as a guide for understanding what is wrong with their troubled marriage in God's eyes. Any Christian can use it as a resource for understanding Christian relationships and what God intended for our marriages, our friendships, our families, etc. Perhaps the most fundamental way to describe this book is, “a biblical treatise on God's agenda for his saved people in a world still broken by sin, with a focus on its implications for Christian relationships.
       Tripp's book is is divided into two sections. In the first section, he establishes his central thesis, which is that “the heart is the target”. And in the second section, he outlines the implications of this thesis for ministry as well as Christian relationships in general.
       Tripp's main point is that, in personal ministry and Christian relationships, the focus must first and foremost be on an individual's heart orientation and the object of his worship rather than on errant behavior or sinful habits. He reasons from a biblical view of human nature. Every person's life is oriented in one of two directions; towards God or away from God. That orientation is determined by the heart. “The Bible uses the heart to describe the inner person. Scripture divides the human being into two parts, the inner and outer being.” (59) Tripp goes on to argue that an individual's entire life is determined by the state of that inner being, even his actions and behavior.
       For Tripp, true healing and transformation takes place when the heart is changed by the gospel. The source of every kind of brokenness, anxiety, depression, insecurity, neurosis, identity issue, or addiction is rooted in the idolatry of the heart. “An idol of the heart is anything that rules me other than God.” (66). Thus the main task of every kind of personal ministry, pastoral counseling, 1-1 discipleship, or even a simple Christian friendship must be to help the other individual to re-orient his heart to worship God. Tripp repeats this idea throughout the entire book and grounds all of his practical insights for personal ministry on this.
By stating that idolatry is anything that steals a heart's affections from God, Tripp also grounds his personal ministry in God's glory. To bring healing and transformation into a broken life is not only to bring them joy and liberation from the bondage of sin, but also to bring praise and glory to the great healer, Christ, whose saving cross work is the enabler of true healing.
       Tripp's thesis is invaluable not just because it is so thoroughly biblical, but also because he identifies a tragic mistake we tend to make as pastors. Oftentimes, we are too concerned with the errant external behavior of our people rather than the fountainhead of that behavior, which is idolatry. We do this to our own detriment and to the detriment of our people. By addressing behavior, we are allowing sin to rule our people while at the same time merely suppressing the symptoms of that sin. In doing this, we do an incomplete job of transformation that stops short of helping a person become a new creation in the gospel. For pastors, the challenge of seeking heart change is intensified by people's natural propensities away from dealing with heart issues. “When most people seek change, they seldom have the heart in view. They want change in their circumstances, change in the other person, or change in their emotions... But when the focus is put only on the outward circumstances, the solutions are seldom more than temporary and superficial” (109). But according to Tripp, the only gospel-centered and gospel-informed way is to do the messy work of dealing with the heart.
       In the second part of the book, Tripp seeks to set out some practical principles for dealing with the heart. The framework that he uses is “Love, know, speak, do”. By starting with love and knowledge, Tripp asserts that truly effective personal ministry requires both enormous commitment and Christ-like sacrifice. It requires sacrifice in order to love a flawed, sinful, and oftentimes disagreeable person, but it is a necessary start. The chapter on “Knowing” was perhaps one of the most insightful chapters to me. It highlights the importance of seeking a deeper relationship that gets beyond a casual acquaintance. “Our effectiveness as ambassadors (of change) is blunted because we don't know others well enough to know where change is needed or where God is actively at work” (163). In the chapter, Tripp implores people to avoid making the mistake of assuming certain knowledge, to take the effort to make sure that our conclusions are correct, to ask good, focused questions, and to be committed to the often slow, laborious, and confusing process of really understanding a person.
       The transformation process does not stop at “knowing”. It must be followed by ascertaining where change is needed, and speaking truth about that change. Personal ministry seeks to apply the gospel and the implications of the gospel into a person's life so that his errant, idol-worshiping heart seeks to reorient itself towards God. It is only by the application of the gospel that a person can find true, lasting transformation.
The great strength of Dr. Tripp's work is that it is eminently biblical and gospel-centered. In his first chapter, rather than diving straight into the main substance, he first outlines God's grand redemptive agenda in the world as it centers on Christ. In doing so, Tripp sets the context of Christian relationships within the redemptive story, thus making sure that our agenda for life transformation starts with and fits into God's greater agenda for his world. And all throughout the book, Tripp makes an exceptional effort to connect the practical to the theological, reminding his readers that ultimately all of the work of personal ministry, discipleship, pastoral counseling, or simple “iron sharpening iron” Christian friendships must be grounded in the gospel.
       I highly recommend this book to be used as a resource for churches. Another strength of Paul's book is that its principles can be contextualized in all manners of Christian relationships. To that end, I would recommend this book for pastors seeking to improve their pastoral ministry, for husbands and wives seeking to strengthen their marriage and make their spouse more Christlike, for Bible study leaders working out how to better understand the needs of their people, or even simply for a Christian seeking to put all of his relationships with other people under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.