Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Social Justice Reading List

But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-falling stream” – Amos 5.24

The following is a brief reading list for those who are interested in finding out more about social justice and what the Bible says about it. Originally put together as a pastoral note for GracePoint Presbyterian Church in Sydney, NSW, 30th Oct 2011.


Generous Justice – Tim Keller
It is commonly thought in our secular culture that the Bible is one of the great hindrances to doing justice. In Generous Justice, Timothy Keller illuminates a life of justice empowered by an experience of grace: a generous, gracious justice. Generous Justice is a book for believers who find the Bible a trustworthy guide, as well as for those who suspect that Christianity is a regressive influence in the world.

Ministries Of Mercy – Tim Keller
Tim Keller shows through Scripture that caring for the needy is the call of every believer, not just through church programs or church leaders. He doesn't just tackle the why, but also the how, as in how we can carry out this ministry as individuals, families, and churches. Thoroughly biblical yet practical.

Good News To The Poor – Tim Chester
Tim Chester argues passionately that evangelism and social action are inseparable, as two arms of the church's mission. He presents a biblical case for truly evangelical social action that is shaped and inspired by the gospel showing how social activity is a response to evangelism, a bridge and a partner to it.

When Helping Hurts – Steve Corbette and Brian Fikkert
Most evangelicals, when thinking about helping the poor, feel a bit at a loss about where to start. When Helping Hurts is a practical book about ministering to the poor in a truly transforming, effective manner. The book is divided into three major sections: Foundational concepts for helping without hurting, general principles for helping without hurting, and practical strategies for helping without hurting.

Evangelism And Social Action – Matthias Media
A mini-zine (very short magazine) put together by Matthias Media addressing the issue.

Online Articles – For those who aren't ready to spend money on a book!

The Gospel And The Poor – Tim Keller

How Do We Work For Justice And Not Undermine Evangelism? – Don Carson

Seven Passages For Social Justice – Kevin DeYoung

Ten Theses On Social ActionJustin Taylor

Bonus: Videos And Sermons

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

What is a feeling but a thought that one is too lazy to think about?

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Reflections from "ONE"

Last night, I went with some church friends to hear John Piper and John Lennox give a talk at the Sydney Entertainment Centre. Here is a thought I had based on something John Lennox said and a prayer that I wrote at the end of the night.

John Lennox
A five-year old child and a father are spending time together by watching cartoons. That's a nice occasion. Do you know what would be a tragic one? A twenty-five year old son and his father spending time together by watching cartoons. Why is that tragic? Because they should have other ways to spend time together! They should be going to a baseball game or to a Broadway theatre show. They should be sitting at home by the fireplace chatting about work. They should be sharing drinks at a pub chatting about married life and having children! They should debate politics or theology, share about finances or where they're going next for vacation! They shouldn't be watching Spongebob!

Don't misread me. The problem isn't the idea of watching cartoons with your dad. There's nothing wrong with that. The problem is if you have nothing else to do, no other way to relate to your father than to watch cartoons with him. That's the real problem. If you've got no other dimension in your relationship, no other things in life to share with your father, that says that there's something wrong in your relationship. It's not that you don't have a relationship with your father; it's that it is tragically shallow.

Yet this is what so many of our relationships with our heavenly father are like. Every single church have people that have been going for years, five years, ten years, fifty years... but still demonstrate the same exact knowledge of God as a new Christian. After so many years of going to Sunday school or attending Bible study or listening to sermons, they still pray the same exact prayers, state the same exact biblical truths, and live the same exact lifestyle, not having grown deeper in their knowledge of God in years. They supposedly know God and are in a relationship with him through Jesus, yet feel so little passion for the one who went to the cross for their sakes that they can't be bothered spending time with him.

John Lennox last night mentioned 2 Peter 1.5-7: "For this reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge and self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love." The thing about all these attributes is that they do not save. goodness, knowledge, self-control... without them we would still be secure in the kingdom as long as we have the faith in Jesus that imputes on us righteousness before God. But they still matter. Why do they matter? Because they are things that we automatically seek if we have that saving faith. And if we don't seek them? "But if anyone does not have them, he is nearsighted and blind, and has forgotten that he has been cleansed form his past sins." (1.9).

To add to my faith other things does that mean that the gospel isn't central in my life. The knowledge that Christ died and was risen to atone for sins will always be central in my life. I am not departing from that truth, I am increasing in my knowledge of it in depth and breadth. As I go deeper in the Scriptures, I grasp all the complexities of the atonement that make God's redemption plan beautiful: the covenant of Abraham, the foreshadowing through the law and the prophets. As I grow in breadth of the gospel, I discover its implications for all the different aspects of my life; I grasp the way the gospel transforms my relationships with people, my pursuits in life, my finances and the way I spend money, my view of work and career, my view of family and marriage, my disappointments and regrets, my recreation and the way I relax, and on and on.

I am not unsaved if I do not add to my faith. I am saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ Jesus alone. I do not need to work to be in a relationship with God. I do not need to present myself perfect before knowing him. Christ has already secured that all for me. The problem is, if I do not add to it, then my relationship with God is tragically shallow. And who, knowing the greatness of God and his abounding mercy and steadfast love, knowing what he's done on the cross, who would WANT a shallow relationship with him?

I wonder how many people are going to go to heaven knowing pretty much nothing about God. I wonder how many people are going to know more about Jesus than the elementary ideas they learned in Sunday School. I wonder how many people are going to get to heaven, have a look a the supremacy of the eternal world over our world, and say, "If I had known what it was like, I would have invested more in it."

I resolve to making knowing God my chief pursuit in life. I resolve to consider all other investments a waste compared to the investment I make in my savior. I resolve to diligently study the Bible to know God more deeply in this present age, and in eager anticipation of the day when I will know him and see him face to face.

I resolve not to waste a second any longer on things that won't last. I resolve to know suffering and all manners of difficulty as gaining Christ. I resolve to use every challenge and difficulty to magnify Christ by declaring that he is worth me enduring every trial.

For Christ died for me, to give me himself, to secure for me pardon, to give me new life. And therefore every challenge that I face I rejoice in. I relish every tribulation as an opportunity to consider all other things loss for the sake of knowing him. I resolve to rejoice when I am counted worthy to suffer for his name. I resolve to pour out my life, reserving not a drop for myself. I resolve to know that every effort that is not made to gain Christ is an effort wasted.

I resolve to count every breath of life on earth a gift. I resolve to live my life reflecting the grace of my king, with an ever sure sense of his presence in my life.

God, help me to do all these things that I resolve to do. I know that I cannot do it of my own strength or will because in my sin I do not love your nor do I consider you great. What I need is such a revelation of Jesus' greatness, such a knowledge of his love and goodness, such a clear, real vision of his greatness and glory that my heart would be turned towards you, that I would consider you alone worthy of praise. In the name of Jesus, who bought me and who advocates for me before the holy throne of God, in his mighty name I pray. Amen.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Two ways to "do" in a church

I'm starting this blog back up again and this is the only fanfare for it.

"You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." Gal 5.4

"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.... But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law" Gal 5.16, 18

There are two ways to do things in a church. Well, actually, there are two ways to do things in the Christian life. There is the grace-based way, and the works-righteousness-based way.

The works-righteousness-based way does things in order to secure salvation, whereas the grace-based way does things as a reaction to being saved. Those who do things by a works-righteousness framework are seeking to be justified by their works. There are two different ways you can do this. One is, you do things in order to earn the love of God. The thinking behind it is basically, "If I do this consistently, then my relationship with God will be right." Ex: If I just go to church every week, if I pray and read the Bible regularly, because I heard that God likes that, if I try to do fewer selfish things, if I talk about Jesus all the time, wear a cross necklace, and make the bulk of my social circle Christians, then I will be right with God. The other way to do works-righteousness stuff is to do things in order to establish or prove your love for God. Now this way is a fair deal more sinister, because it is a sinful heart condition masquerading as a godly motivation. This method basically says, "I am doing this in order to prove, either to myself or to others or to God himself, that I love God." What makes it sinful is the second part that is implicitly tacked on: "...because if I love God this much, then he'll have to love me back and accept me.

What the two have in common is that both presume that the individual needs to initiate a love relationship between God. I need to make an effort, I need to go first and open a relationship with God, I cannot face God before I get this part of my life straight, etc. The problem is that no amount of righteous deeds can cover up this sinful heart of mine. For someone who operated under the works-righteousness framework (or as Paul says in Galatians, "seeking to be justified by the law", Gal 3.10-12), there are only two outcomes: self-deceived pride as I make myself think that I am doing just fine by my own efforts, or inescapable despair as I realize just how sinful I am and my inability to get rid of my guilt just by doing

Come ye weary, heavy-ladened
Lost and ruined by the fall
If you tarry, 'til you're better
You will never come at all

The grace-based way of doing things is when I realize that I am not made right before God by my own efforts, but by what Christ has done for me. In the grace-based way of doing things, I do them not because I want to earn my salvation, but because I already have salvation. Those who live this way say, "I do this stuff because I know that God loves me through Jesus and I am so overwhelmed, so taken, so changed, so transformed by the reality of that love that I respond in obedience." People who do things this way do not so much establish or create their love for God through deeds, but merely express their love for God, a love that was created as a result of God's first love for us. The key difference is that God initiated, not me (1 John 4.19).

The problem in church is not so much that we actively encourage a works-righteousness-based framework for doing ministry or serving; it is that we are passive in our teaching of grace. The human heart, when left to its own devices, ALWAYS gravitates back to the works-righteousness framework of faith. This is true even of seasoned ministry workers and Christians. Take church announcements for example. Say, I want to make a church announcement about doing a short-term summer missions to university students. I can do it this way:

"Let me encourage you all to seriously consider doing summer missions! There are so many opportunities out there; you can go to another country like Taiwan or Malaysia, or you can stay local and do a mission somewhere in another state. We're all uni students and we've got lots of time and this is the best way to redeem that time for the kingdom! You know here in Sydney (or NY), we take for granted the freedom to worship God and all the great teaching about the Bible that we get here, but out in other places, they don't even have Bibles. I went last year and I had so much fun and made so many new friends who were so passionate about the gospel... what could be more fun that hanging out with other Christians who are on fire for Jesus?"

Do you see what's going on there? What are the reasons I gave you to do summer mission?

1) It's a great way to invest your time in heavenly treasures as a university student
2) Lots of places outside of home need to badly hear the gospel preached.
3) Being with other passionate Christians is a great experience.

Now here's the astounding thing. None of those reasons are wrong or even bad. They can all fall either into a works-righteousness framework of doing, OR a grace-based framework. But for an average young Christian who is trying to work out what the Christian life looks like, which framework do you think he'll gravitate to?

If you don't give the grace of God as a reason, it doesn't matter how many other reasons that you give that are really good. Chances are, the average Christian will only come away thinking, "Wow, if I want to be a real Christian, I better go on summer mission sometime", and that's only a short step away from, "I'm an alright Christian. My relationship with God is just fine, because I went to summer mission last year. I'm doing my part, so I should be fine", which is only a short logical leap from the mentality that, "It's what I do that saves me."

So the application point here is, when you teach other Christians, never neglect to mention grace. Do not take it for granted. It can be anything from plugging your missions team to asking people to help out for an outreach event, to teaching your disciple how to be servant-minded, to preaching a sermon to writing a Bible study to having a godly conversation with a Christian brother or sister. Any time you tell someone to "do", give them grace as a reason.. It may sound forced the first few times you try it, but it's better to awkwardly mention grace than to coolly lead someone down a path of works. Here's an example of how I'd give an announcement about doing summer mission:

"One of the things about life is that joy is not make complete until it is shared. Isn't it true that one of your first impulses when you receive good news is to find somebody to tell? Well, this same principle holds true for the Christian life. That is why Jesus says to "go and make disciples of all nations..."; the reality that he is the risen King is so great that the disciples couldn't have kept it to themselves even if he tried! Well, if you're someone who is likewise so blown away by the good news of Jesus that you want to share it with someone, then let me tell you about summer missions...."

The whole idea is to make clear that, "If you're feeling so moved by the love of God and the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ, given to you so undeservingly and expressed through the cross, then let me tell you how you can express that joy!"

This is a MUST-DO in all our churches, in all our ministries, and in all the ways that we teach, disciple, and work for the kingdom of God. If we are not serious and intentional about this, we'll end up with a bunch of shallow Christians keeping our churches going but who ditch the work of the gospel the instant that the going gets tough or the going gets boring. Or we'll end up with a bunch of Christians who lack the assurance of salvation and frantically do thing after thing in the hopes that at the end of their life they'll muster just enough works to get into the gates of heaven but secretly in their heart no that it is not possible.

Come ye sinners, poor and needy
Weak and wounded, sick and sore
Jesus, ready stands to save you
Full of pity, love, and power


Thursday, April 7, 2011

Grace And Pastoral Counseling

I think I need learn to pastor with more grace. What does that mean? To live gracefully means to conduct your life in such a way that is consistent with the fact that you are yourself a recipient of grace. To speak with grace is to speak in such a way that points to the grace of Jesus Christ. One can live graciously in two ways. One can point to one's own sinful nature, essentially demonstrating the point that, “we are all in the same boat morally”. Or one can point to the beauty of God's goodness and the riches of his mercy. A gracious word is one that leaves the recipient thinking, “wow, this guy truly understands that he is no better than me.” A ungracious word leaves the recipient feeling sheepish or guilty. A gracious word leaves the recipient feel accepted and loved, shown grace from a fellow recipient of grace.
Consider the following scenario. You are looking after a Bible study leader who is constantly late for meetings, writing Bible studies late, and doing a poor job because of his under-preparation. How would you deal with it? Would you come down hard on him, or speak to him gently? Would you approach him with a whip or with gentle words? What outcome do you desire from your rebuke? Our mistake is that we too often seek to correct behavior and think that the right approach is whatever will get us the correction we want. We counsel as mechanics rather than as pastors. “As long as its running the way you want it, the problem is fixed” Consider, instead, these questions: “What's this person's theological issue? How can I help him realize his sin and the manner in which he is behaving in a manner that is inconsistent with his gospel reality? How can I speak to him in a way that demonstrates the grace of God and encourages him to change in light of the gospel rather than from fear of punishment?
What does it mean to pastor graciously? It means to live in such a way that my achievements and maturity and merit point not to my own goodness but to the goodness and power of the One who wrought it within me. As a mature Christian, it can be so easy to create an unbridgeable chasm in maturity between yourself and someone that you disciple. If you've conducted yourself in a way that causes your student to say something along the lines of, “my mentor is so godly and mature. I'll be lucky if I can be half as mature as him one day!” YOU'VE FAILED. Our pastoral work should NEVER point to our own goodness. When our goodness is observed, it should point to the wonder of a God who can make that out of a wretch like me!
We can pastor ungraciously in many different ways. We can glorify our own actions and service. In myself, I see a lot of insidious manners in which I do this. As a long-time Christian, I am quite savvy at disguising the ways I use my accomplishments to point to my own goodness. One way is by teaching in a self-centered manner. Rather than consider what my student needs to hear, I brashly and inconsiderately teach whatever my hobby horse is at the moment; I send off works of writing that I think will help them but really will just create in them a sense that I am so far ahead of them in godliness. Pastoring is always ever an other-centered work and we forget this so easily. All manners of true, disciplined, godly encouragement and admonishment focus on the the person we are caring for. There are so many ways to be uncaring in our care. We can be long-winded because we just love talking our thoughts out loud. That seems helpful because the things we say are godly things, but it can actually be very unloving if its something that doesn't suit the person at the moment. We can share too many of our successes while making no mention of our failures. We can just do something well in the name of modeling, but not use it as an opportunity to teach and encourage someone else to give it a try.
What does gracious pastoring look like? How can we accomplish this? To do this, we must constantly be returning to the gospel of grace. We must use every opportunity to reinforce in our people the belief that it is God who changes and transforms. Salvation is by grace alone, but so is sanctification. When I live a godly life, I must always be quick to remind those I model to that this is the result of a good, powerful God working in a rebellious, helpless sinner. When I perform a ministry skillfully, I do not let the opportunity pass to emphasize God's gifting of different people to do different things, all for the edification of the Church to the glory of God. When I give someone a chance to try a ministry, I am quick to emphasize what they did well, offer feedback that is constructive and grace-filled, and pray for them to grow as God allows them.
Our churches do not need more pastors who are good at everything. We needs more pastors who live unashamed, repentant lifestyles who openly admit that they themselves are still works in progress.
Our churches do not need more good doers. It needs more broken but redeemed people pointing with their thoughts, speech, and act, and entire life conduct to the one true Good-doer in this universe.

Monday, March 14, 2011

On Sin And The Elderly

The longer you live, the more it becomes evident in your life that we are all heading in either one direction or the other. Either we're becoming more like Christ, or we become more like our sin. If we are not regenerate and being sanctified, our sin and its conditions slowly take over until we become nothing but a caricature, a perverse exaggeration of the evil that was in our hearts.

When you get old, whatever it was that you hung your hat on, you become that thing.

As your higher intellectual functions shut down, you lose more and more of your common decency. And that's when your sin emerges. Whatever greed, pride, lust, malice, envy, hatred, discord, jealousy, selfish ambition, or bitterness you had before, you become consumed by it until it becomes all that you are. All that's left of you is that condition.
My landlady told me of an old woman that her daughter (who works in a nursing home) knew. She was so frail that she could not feed herself, yet she was so proud that she wouldn't let others assist her in eating either. It was a pathetic sight, watching her try to spoon food into her mouth and spilling it halfway, all the while angrily refusing to let anyone help. She was so consumed by her pride and independence that in her old age it manifested itself into a grotesque and tragic self-annihilation.
The unsettling part of this is, the spirit that made her seem so pathetic is the same one that we would see in a young person and call noble. Fifty years ago, her pride in herself and independence would have been praised as virtues, but in old age it looks so stupid. It's not that she was stupid to hang onto who she was; it was that time revealed how stupid that attitude was to begin with.

If you're not being sanctified by Jesus, you're not being saved by him either. And whatever emotional or mental damage sin has wrought on you will remain until you become controlled and defined by it.
I knew an old woman once. Month by month, parts of her body and mind would break down and what emerged intact in all of that mess is her jealousy of another old woman. She was so paranoid, so consumed with the completely unreasonable suspicion that people liked the other woman more than her. She thought people stole from her. She thought her son was conspiring to steal the affection of her grandchildren away from her. She thought that she was being neglected when in fact she was being perfectly taken care of.
What I realize is that the hate and insecurity was always there. The only difference between that old woman now and ten years ago was that a decade ago she had the mental faculty to hide it and keep it under control. We humans are so clever with our sin and deceit. Perhaps because of the nature of the fall, sin is always elementally something done in secret. But it comes out when you're tired, when you're deeply provoked, and when you're old.

What consumes your life? What sins or effects of sins aren't you allowing Christ to deal with? At the end of your life, what will you look like? Will you look like someone whose body is outwardly wasting away, but whose soul is deeply satisfied in Christ? Or will you look like someone who's perpetually miserable, an ugly, deplorable version of yourself, everything about you crumbling away but your rotten core?
What little sins live in your heart now that you refuse to deal with? What little things do you think are acceptable or inconsequential? What do you think that will look like when you're finally too old to pretend that it wasn't defining your entire existence?
What kind of things do you hang your hat on? That you went to a prestigious college? That you went to Stuyvesant? Do you know how awful of a feeling it is to try to tell people about something you think is a feat, but have them not care? Do you think your grandchildren are going to care all that much about what you did or who you were back in the day? Do you know how painful and miserable it is to be nothing left but a bunch of bygone achievements?
What kind of things do you hang your hat on? That you're a good speller and have impeccable grammar? Do you know how big of a jackass you're going to sound like when that's all you brag about and all that comes out of your mouth are corrections? Actually, some people, in their youth, already seem like this.
What kind of things do you hang your hat on? That you're really good at Starcraft 2? That you're a geek or a nerd? That you love Glee? That you appreciate classical music? That you can recite every line from Star Wars? That you succeeded despite the odds? That you're a triathlete? That you know your cars? That you've got an iron will and determination? That you make playing the flute look cool? That you're you? That you're a sarcastic, but funny person? That you love beer? That you love coffee? That you're a Steelers fan? That you're from New York? That you can turn a phrase? Are you prepared for that to be all that you are?

What's going to be the last thing you're conscious of before you draw your last breath? When everything else fades away, your liver function, your kidney function, your lungs and heart, your memories, your logic, your coherence, what will be the last thought to go? It is said that on his dying bed John Newton, the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace”, said:

My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things: that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great savior.

I earnestly pray to God that my identity will be so bound up in Christ that in my heart will be nothing but joy and anticipation in meeting my Lord. I pray that, starting today, God will reveal to me those sins that, if I don't fight now, will blossom into something so overwhelmingly ugly that I become nothing but that sin. I pray that each day I will more and more reflect the Lord's glory, being transformed into his likeness in holiness and beauty. I pray that even as my mind goes, to my dying breath I will remember that I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great savior.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Church For All People – The Argument For Diversity

A little over two months ago, I started a Word Document that I titled, "On Church Planting". In it I've been recording little nuggets of insights as they come to me related to church planting. As GracePoint starts a church service in a new suburb, there have been myriad little things that I've been thinking about that I want to remember if I ever get a chance to plant a church. Here is one that I wrote recently that I would like to subject to the review of others for sound doctrine and faithfulness.

In my church, I will not have FCG or Extreme*. I do not want to create a specific, targeted ministry. I believe that the gospel is relevant to all people and for all people. Moreover, it unites all people, no matter the diversity. “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit”.
I am convinced that God meant for his churches to demonstrate unity in the gospel by having all manners of diverse people worshiping him together. I want my church congregation to cut across every demographic, whether age or race or social class or upbringing or education or personality.

The key passage for me is Ephesians 2.11-22: Paul's great treatise on unity in the gospel (the theme of being one in Christ extends all the way to 4.16). In this section, Paul addresses Gentiles and Jews together and tells them how they should relate to each other. “He himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility... For through him we both have access to the Father by one spirit.” In the first-century church, the major obstacle for church unity was how to incorporate the Gentiles into the body of believers. But Paul makes it clear here that through Jesus the church was a new creation; one in which all people, both Gentiles and Jews, have access to God through Christ. He then goes on and says, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord” (3.21). Sharing in Christ means to be part of a building that is a holy temple to God. Furthermore, in 3.10, we are told that God's intent for this beautiful mystery (now revealed) is to make known his manifold wisdom to the heavenly realms!

God is glorified and his wisdom is made known in the gathering of all people, Jew or Gentile, into his family. What this translates to in terms of church-planting is that God is most glorified when people of all kinds of backgrounds and ethnicities gather to worship him. To the degree that we unite around another common interest that is not Jesus, we are robbing God of his glory! But how does God get his glory when people of all kinds come to worship him? His greatness is made known when the elderly worship with the young, when the rich worship with the poor, when former enemies lay down their arms before Christ, when people of different factions and families fellowship with each other. When people who normally don't get along embrace each other and worship together, it is a testament to the power of the gospel and the greatness of Christ. Before him, we break down all dividing walls and find supreme shared joy in considering him supremely great.

(On a side note, this also points to why it is such an affront to Christ when we wantonly call any hanging out time “fellowship”. When we flippantly use the term koinonia, we are in danger of mistaking “fellowship around another common interest”, with "fellowship around Jesus". Are we really expressing unity in Jesus when all the guys come over to play video games, or are we expressing unity in Marvel vs. Capcom 3? Are we really expressing unity in Jesus EVERY time we eat together, or are we expressing unity in our common physiological need for physical sustenance?)

More and more I see churches that target specific kinds of people as going against the unity of the gospel. According to Acts, the only demographic targets for missionaries were by geography. When Paul planted churches, he chose a city, preached at the synagogues there, preached at the city centers, the agoras, the downtowns and the CBDs, established a regularly-meeting assembly of believers, and moved on. He didn't say, “Alright, in Corinth we're going to need a church for the temple prostitutes, a church for the elite noble class, and a church for the peasant class, who are the patrons of the temple prostitutes.” He just preached the good news about Jesus to all who will listen, established leaders of that church, and left.
So why is it then, that when I think of New York City, I can't help but think, “Alright, we're going to need churches for the Latinos living from Corona to Woodside, a few more Chinese churches in Flushing, a few more Korean churches in Bayside, and a few more churches for people who wear skinny jeans and horn-rimmed glasses and wool caps in the summer, believe it's okay to smoke cloves and drink bad beer, and commute to worship service on fixed-gear bikes in Williamsburg”?

Why are there so many ethnic churches? Sometimes it's good. Sometimes, it's a matter of mission. Just as you need to learn the Japanese language to be a missionary in Japan, you need to have Spanish-speaking church services for the Hispanics who no hablan ingles in Queens. But I can't help but feel like there is also a great danger that our churches fall victim to, which is uniting around the language and the ethnicity and the culture and tradition. When we unite around being Chinese, we make a kingdom out of being Chinese. No thank you. My citizenship is in heaven.

The principle sin in my meditation is the sin of uniting around anything or anyone but Christ. The above is its application in ethnic churches. But this sin can creep up in any church in any number of sinister ways and I am only beginning to scratch the surface in trying to understand it. For one thing, I wonder if many otherwise perfectly healthy churches might have this problem; that its people are too homogenous and comfortable, that the way its people welcome newcomers is artificial and ineffective, that people who think differently or have different interests find it very difficult to worship God or be accepted there.

If I am so convinced of this, then it must follow that to not do so (build and plant diverse churches) is not only disobedient to God, but also to our own detriment. I believe that it is helpful to form ministries that target specific kinds of people, but detrimental to form churches that unite around that specific kind of people.
But why do our churches do this? Because it is easier. It's the homogenous unit principle. The like likes like principle. It is easier for us to unite around race or common interest rather than Christ. As individuals, it feeds our idolatry and as a people it feeds our primal “Babel” urges.
But when we plant a church for a specific demographic, we are disobeying God and we are sowing the seeds for numerous problems in the future. I wonder if the issues plaguing our Chinese-American churches is an apt example. So much time and energy and resources is spent on the generational, cultural gap; on the perpetual war between first and second generation, on the power struggle between the Chinese-speaking immigrants and their children that the gospel suffers. How can the gospel go our if a church is so mired in bureaucracy and worldly politics, each faction trying to get its own way and build its own little kingdom inside God's kingdom? What an affront to the great King!

In conclusion, I want to plant a church that is diverse in every way. It will be harder and it will require maturity and that each individual is truly in Christ, but it will be immensely rewarding. I will not build any ministries that seek to divide my people so that they don't have to go outside their own comfort zones and fellowship with believers who are different from them. I don't mind having specific ministries addressing specific needs of specific kinds of people, but I will not have them at the cost of unity. I believe that in God's infinite wisdom, he has ordained it so that people expressing fellowship across different life-stages is good and beneficial. This means encouraging the workers in my church to disciple and pray for the students. This means the families and couples in my church inviting the single people over to their homes. This means children sitting in the pews with their mom and dad to hear the Word of God together.

I want to plant a church united in Christ, for his glory alone.

*I don't mind having a Uni-targeting ministry as long as it does not supplant community groups. I want all my uni students and workers to be mixed together. Likewise, I don't mind having a high-school Bible study as long as it doesn't obstruct their presence in the worship service. The principle is that the church is unified. As long as targeted ministries do not impede corporate worship (Sunday service, community groups), I am alright with it and will even encourage my people's desires to meet the specific needs of different kinds of people.

Please feel free to correct and admonish or leave queries or comments, as long as they are edifying.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Teasing: A Meditation For Christian Leadership

It occurred me last night that teasing discourages godly relationships. At times. Not all the time. But quite often. Especially with those who already have trust issues and difficulty opening up and seeking godly counsel, whether from a peer or from a mentor. This is tricky because, under certain other conditions, teasing also strengthens and affirms friendships. There is a delicate balance between the benevolent belittling you find between good friends and the hurtful harassment of a one-sided relationship.

Teasing And Godly Counsel
Why is it so hard for some people to open up? Because as sinners, we all have things to hide; sinful things, shameful acts of evil, things we do that we're afraid to admit to others. For us, the command to “have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them” (Eph 5.11) terrifies us!
But some people do take that step. At some point in every young Christian's life, there is a realization that for growth and maturity to happen, they MUST confess their sins to other people and seek accountability. At that point in their spiritual walk, the road forks. One is the narrow, precarious path towards holiness and the other is the enticingly safe and firm highway towards a Pharisaical, outward, performance-based religion. Do you realize that sometimes Christians choose to take the narrow path and we punish them by teasing them?
When you are talking to a young Christian who is learning to open up to you and allow you to speak the truth in love into their lives, the absolute WORST thing you can do is abuse the authority you've just been granted. How does that happen? It happens when they're talking to you about a girl or guy they like and you tease them. It happens when you make light of their struggles and imply that it's not a big deal. It happens when you betray their trust and gossip their secrets away.
We are doing our people the greatest disservice when they take a big step to expose their life to the light (in the form of accountability) and instead of shining the light of the Word on them, we make light of their pursuit of holiness by making fun of them. Our job at that moment is to be Christ to them and to speak his Word into their life. HOW DARE WE, at that moment, choose humor and self-indulgence instead of choosing to love and encourage and soberly instruct?

One of the issues that I'm seeing at GracePoint, especially among the young men and women that I spend most of my time with, is a lack of accountability and godly, fruitful relationships. Most of us are content to hang out with one another in the name of Christian fellowship, but we shy away from rebuking and challenging each other to live the Christian life. I think there are a number of factors that contribute to this, but I'm realizing that teasing is a big one. If, on the rare occasion a young Christian makes the difficult decision to open up to an older brother, and we PUNISH him for that by making it really embarrassing, by badgering him needlessly for more information, by devilish banter, how can we expect accountability and trust to be a part of our community life? Take heed, leaders. Each individual is judged for his or her own sin, but teachers are judged more strictly in accordance with the extra responsibility they have (Jas 3.1).

How do I know when it is appropriate?
As I mentioned above, teasing in and of itself is not wrong. It depends on the motive. It can be for the purpose of advancing oneself by putting down others, or it can be for the purpose of affirming and strengthening a friendship. The first question you have to ask is, “what is going on in my heart?” Do you genuinely want to hurt that person? Even if you don't, are you at risk of being too careless with your tongue (your words and language), which James says can be used to corrupt the whole body (Jas 3.6)?
After you thoroughly examine and test your motives, you still need to consider whether your friend understands and appreciates your motives. If your language causes other people to stumble, then it is better for you to give it up for the good of others. Here are some practical questions you can ask to determine if teasing is appropriate:
Does my friend trust me? To what degree does he understand and believe that you love him and want to build him up? Have you adequately demonstrated to him in the past that you care for him? Have you demonstrated that you are trustworthy? Perhaps the biggest factor here is trust. When you make fun of someone, you are, in a sense, exposing a vulnerable part of their life and using it for humor purposes. Before you do that, consider whether you have permission to access your friend's vulnerabilities and exploit it for the funnies.
How sensitive is my friend? What is his disposition towards embracing playful ribbing? We must acknowledge that, due to different culture, upbringing, and personality, different people have differing sensitivity towards teasing. This diversity is a beauty of God's kingdom, where all different kinds of people are brought into unity under Christ. But it's also why you need to consider that some people are more sensitive than you are and you need to respect that and honor them. “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph 4.3)
How far am I going into indulging my appetite for putting down others? This goes back to the original heart motives question. We are all sinners. Sinners elevate themselves over others. To do a good job at that, we also need to put down others. Therefore, even as saved Christians, we all from time to time still need to wrestle with and kill that desire to hurt others. I know that I often don't notice myself crossing that line; I think I'm just taking advantage of an opportunity to make a joke and then later I realize what I said was really hurtful and definitely not worth the laughs.
Ultimately, teasing is not always unwholesome talk, but it can become so if you do it the wrong way or if you're not careful with your thoughts and attitudes. If in our language, there might even be a hint of impurity, we are clearly told to skip it (Eph 5.3)!

On Gay Jokes
We need to stop making gay jokes. We SERIOUSLY need to stop.

In Closing
There is a pastoral move that we leaders love to pull off; one that most people don't even realize they do, but sounds so familiar because we all do it. It is the, “lead off with playful teasing and then transition into the 'in all seriousness, this is what the Bible says mode...” move. It's a predictable trope, but it works well. The idea is that when you begin with teasing, you are building rapport. “Friends tease” you say, “That's what they do, so in order to get in good with this guy, I must tease. Plus, it'll also be fun.”
I'm becoming more and more convinced that this doesn't work. In fact, it can be harmful in a number of ways:
It makes accountability more of an ordeal than it needs to be. Some people just love putting others in the hotspot. A group of girls turn into a group of flesh-eating predators when the conversation turns towards the topic of romance, and often one girl gets devoured. But girls are not exclusive offenders. When we do this, especially leaders to the people they lead, we're putting a shame tax on godly counsel. We're saying, if you want my biblical wisdom, you first need to pay with your humiliation. Ultimately we're discouraging others to share their lives and seek the help of others. Whether they're confessing their sins, disclosing a portion of their personal life, or asking an embarrassing question, treat them with the utmost dignity and honor, and don't do anything that will make it harder for them.
Some teachers can't back up their jokes and teasing with actual godly advice. If your motive isn't edification, or if you lack the biblical knowledge to give godly wisdom, then kindly keep your (often) damning words to yourself. Also keep your jokes to yourself, because without counsel, they become little more than senseless aggravation.
It runs the risk of making light of something we want to take very seriously. We want to take holiness very seriously. We want to take sanctification very seriously. We want to take accountability, rebuke, correction, and edifying love very seriously. If we want these things to be a part of our community life, then maybe regarding these things with sobriety and solemness might be a good idea. Don't get me wrong; there is a place for light conversation and (as I've said many times already), teasing can be a very joyful thing at the right times, but maybe the right time isn't an occasion where you are hoping to give godly counsel. Maybe, for the sake of your people's spiritual health, you can skip the jokes during those occasions and make up for it during the times when you're just hanging out.

I should also mention that the above is a result of deep and sincere introspection into the way I lead and pastor my people. In everything I've said, I am the worst offender. I've hurt people, made too many inappropriate jokes, and discouraged people from trusting me. I am sincerely sorry for it and I resolve to be a better leader and model by being more wise with my words and my banter. Know that every grave command I issued to my peers at church is first and foremost one that I issue myself for the sake of my own godliness.

Oh God of all people, you created every living thing to give you glory. For man's sinful condition, you've given your Son Jesus as the ultimate, final, all-sufficient cure. For holiness, you've given us your Spirit, who moves us to hate our sin and to love and pursue Christ. And you've given us each other, to mutually encourage, strengthen, correct, and exhort. In our residual sin we exploit our relationships for self-advancement and empty, hollow, unproductive, cheap humor. For that we ask for forgiveness. Give us your grace to work with one another for your glory instead of against one another for our own. In Christ's name, amen.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The Story Of My Life - Revelation

It is a historical fact that never has a series that's been started on this blog ever seen completion. My posts listing is littered with drafts and random ideas that I've jotted down but never taken the time to fully develop. For that I apologize. I do, however, fully intend on finishing my faith journey series, because I see tremendous value in documenting how I became a Christian and hold out hope that people who are someone along the path I traveled might have a glimpse of where they are heading. Plus, it's all already completely written on my private journal.

Before I go on with that, I just wanted to jot down a few thoughts I've had as I read through Albert Mohler's excellent blog series (now there's an internet author that I can learn many things from) on the Christian worldview. In his first installment, Mohler makes the claim that a central axiom in the Christian worldview is that God reveals himself to us. God is not discovered. He is not conceived of by human ingenuity or formal logic. God is known as he makes himself known to his creation. Furthermore, what we know about God is what God reveals to us.

I think that last point is crucial. J.I. Packer, in his book, "Knowing God", makes a profound observation in that lower orders of beings are dependent on revelation for knowledge of higher orders of beings and that this principle works in degrees. For example, a human can learn much about a tree or a rock just by observation, but less about certain animals if they are reclusive (such as an octopus). As a creature's intellectual order increases, so increases its ability to withhold knowledge; we all have secrets from each other. Thus, if God is truly the highest being over and above all creation, and he is infinitely greater in magnitude over all other beings, then it stands that, while God can have total knowledge of us, he can also absolutely withhold any knowledge of him from us. Any creature can only know as much about God as God reveals to him.

There are two implications. First, God's self-revelation, then, is completely an act of grace. It is by an act of grace that we know anything about our own creator, for it is information that God could have easily withheld from us. He didn't owe to us knowledge of him. Therefore it must be a gift.

And second, having this axiom as a starting point avoids myriad (but not all) epistemological tangles. Divine self-revelation removes the weight of interpretation from fallen, error-prone humans and places it on a sovereign, mistake-free God.. What we know about God isn't dependent on how smart, or clever we are; it's not dependent on whether we've understood him correctly and it's not dependent on lofty biblical scholarship! Scripture's truth is perspicuous; it is plain and ready to understand because God's Word does not return to him empty, but accomplishes the purpose for which he has sent it" (Is 55.8-11). Those who have a biblical degree and have studied Greek and Hebrew and know how to use BDAG in a sense do NOT have a leg up on a lay reader of Scripture because the burden of knowing God does not sit on us, but on God himself. We do not discover, he reveals.*

This latter statement means a lot to me personally, because it was this realization that set me off of a path of despairing self-doubt and put me on a path towards secure, true knowledge. I always held deeply in my heart that if humans have any part in the attainment of something as crucial to life as knowing God, then we were doomed. There would be no hope. All throughout my life up until my third year of college, I felt the weight of pluralism on me, crushing me and suffocating me. There were too many beliefs in the world! If WE were the ones responsible for knowing God, then we're doomed! We're just as doomed as pure democracy once it left Athens. There was simply too much opinion, too much self-interest, too much personal stake. Moreover, there was too much perspective. No individual saw the whole picture, and we were all too selfish to be able to actually cooperate and put the puzzle together.

You know that feeling of having an upset stomach in your sleep? It hurts so much that you'll actually wake up in the middle of the night, but you're never fully awake because you're so tired. And so all night you just have this unsettled feeling; you don't get good sleep and you're so drowsy and groggy that you're only semi-aware of what's wrong. Every day for two years I had that feeling; before I went to bed in my dorm, when I woke up to go to class, during breaks, eating lunch with people, hanging out with people. Every day, for two years. I tried to banish it away; I tried to just fall back asleep, but I knew that the problem was always there, even when I ignore it. That problem was that I didn't know anything for sure and couldn't be sure of anything. I was a philosophy major and my peers delighted in that ambiguity, but I hated it. My professors and classmates loved the agora of ideas; they were indeed the men of Athens who wanted Paul to preach endlessly on a subject. I was only in that damned city because I was waiting for someone to tell me who the unknown god was.

Let me remind my readers that I went to a Christian college. See, this problem wouldn't have been a quarter as distressing had I just gone to a secular institution. But what really sent chills through my soul was knowing just how badly CHRISTIANS disagreed with each other. Gordon College celebrated those disagreements. They called it unity in diversity. My freshman year, the school recruitment tagline was, "Freedom within a framework of faith." Today I vomit at the thought of that. Today, I understand what that statement truly is: a thinly veiled desire to replace any unpleasant parts of your Christian belief with whatever it is that fits your fancy.

The resolution, the antacid to my unrest was when I realized that it was never man's prerogative learn about God. In fact, man, in his sinful state, is completely unable to know God or understand him. "Their foolish hearts were darkened..." Understanding this turned me to Christ, who is both revelation incarnate, and the solution to our blindness. Christ doesn't just come as God himself and say "here I am, now get to know me", but he also overcomes and removes my sin, which was the obstacle to me wanting to know him as who he truly is. I realized that the solution to the problem of interpretation is not a transcendent hermeneutical method, but that the object of interpretation is a self-revealing person. God isn't just knowable, he wants to be known by his people and he demonstrates his knowability in sending his Son, Jesus to earth to tabernacle among his people.

Therefore, a central tenet of the Christian worldview is that it is neither constructed nor discovered by humans; it is revealed as a gift of grace by God.

I thank you God, that you shroud yourself in darkness and yet you send the light of the world to us. I was once walking about in darkness, but a light has appeared. I was once blind, but my sight has been restored. In my helplessness, you reached out to me with your Son and saved me and gave me the truth. Jesus! Jesus! Oh how sweet your name is to me! I was once lost, but you saved me. I was once starving, so hungry. I thirsted, panted, for a drink that will satisfy me, and you were living water. Jesus! Jesus! I praise you for in you I have found my way home. Amen.