Take Joy in Being the People of God

Last night I went to an event where author Eric Metaxas was speaking about his new book, a biography of Martin Luther. It was held at a church in Greenwood Village, and after speaking for about an hour about Luther and the writing of the book, he answered questions and then signed books.

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During the Q&A time, Metaxas said a few things which I thought were particularly powerful. The question was one about how Christians should always be reforming the church. Eric responded by saying that: yes, the Reformation must always continue, but in his opinion, oftentimes the church is too critical of the church. That Christians spend a lot of time deriding Christians and bemoaning the church, when in fact we should find an immense amount of joy in being the people of God who are called to take the message of God’s grace and love into the world. This is something we should revel in!

He went on to say that he grew up in the secular culture, and that for him – he saw the church as a living connection to God. When you’re drowning and someone throws you a rope, he said, it may be an imperfect rope, but it is a rope nonetheless, and rather than focusing on its flaws, you are thankful for the rope!

Metaxas went on to point out that the cultural elites in our day all speak the same language of secular humanism, and they together have collectively agreed that Christianity is old fashioned, obsolete and passé – and too often, we as Christians bow down to that and say: ‘Yeah, you’re right,’ and we shrink back into the shadows or retreat into an insular Christian sub-culture. Instead, we should stand in confidence as the people of God, with the truth of God, and use all avenues available to us to bring God’s truth and the message of the gospel into our society.

Eric has done this very well with his radio program and his books, which are published by a mainstream publisher (Viking Books) and several of which have made the New York Times bestseller list. He has a unique perspective on the church, having become a Christian later in life, studying at Yale and living in New York City, none of which are generally considered particularly friendly towards Christianity. He has been a good steward of the gifts that God has given him and has become an important and influential voice in our society, heralding the gospel as he can.

 

Mission & Mental Health

I recently finished reading Sebastian Junger’s book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.

It was recommended to me by someone at White Fields, who had read the book and found a surprising correlation between something I had taught at church and the main thesis of the book.

The sermon was one I had taught in our Church Matters series on the topic of “Mission.” (Audio of that message here: “So That They May Have Joy”). My text was John 17:13-19, where Jesus prays over his disciples at the end of the last supper. In that prayer, he says that he was given a mission by the father, and now – in order that his disciples might have his joy in fullness – Jesus is giving them his mission.

The point is: there is a correlation between mission and joy. Mission is a prerequisite for joy. If you want to experience joy, you need to have a mission. Without a mission, you can’t have joy.

This truth can be seen in the fact that children, when they think about what they want to be when they grow up, they think of their future vocation in terms of mission: they dream not of being office workers, they dream of being teachers, police officers, firefighters, missionaries, astronauts, doctors, veterinarians, etc. In other words: jobs full of adventure and serving other people. Why? Because they find joy in that.

And yet, our society encourages us to look out for ourselves, be practical, don’t bother trying to “save the world” – just worry about yourself. And here’s the irony of that: the more that you focus on yourself, the less significant your life is in the big picture, and the less joy you will have.

This same point is made by Sebastian Junger in Tribe. His big idea, which he backs up with evidence throughout the book, is that hardship, rather than being bad for us, is actually good for us – in fact, it’s one of the best things that can possibly happen to a person or a society.

And yet, the whole focus of our society has been to make life more and more comfortable and free of hardship; the result of which has been an incredible rise in mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and even violent crime. Times of crisis, such as terror attacks and natural disasters, indirectly have a positive affect on mental health in a society. The reason for this is that crisis causes people to band together and gives people a mission and a purpose to work towards and fight for, even sacrifice for. Without such a mission, people become unhealthy.

In other words: Junger is stating what the Bible has said for millennia: you need a mission. It’s a basic human requirement.

Here are some quotes from the book:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. (xvii)

According to a global survey by the World Health Organization, people in wealthy countries suffer depression at as much as 8 times the rate they do in poor countries, and people in countries with large income disparities– like the United States– run a much higher lifelong risk of developing severe mood disorders. (p. 20)

[Poorer people experience lower rates of depression.] The reason for this seems to be that poor people are forced to share their time and resources more than wealthy people are, and as a result they live in closer communities. Financial independence can lead to isolation, and isolation can put people at a greatly increased risk of depression and suicide. (p. 20 – 21)

Modern society seems to emphasize extrinsic values (money, possessions, status) over intrinsic ones (sense of purpose, competence, moral/ethical/spiritual conviction), and as a result, mental health issues rise along with growing wealth. (p. 22)

Speaking of the extremely close bonds created by hardship in danger, “We are not good to each other. Our tribalism is to an extremely narrow group of people: our children, our spouse, maybe our parents is alienating, technical, cold, and mystifying. Our fundamental desire, as human beings, is to be close to others, and our society does not allow for that.” (p. 94)

The last time United States experienced a significant period of unity was briefly after the terrorist attacks of September 11. There were no rampage shootings for the next two years. The effect was particularly pronounced in New York City, where rates of violent crime, suicide, and psychiatric disturbances dropped immediately in many countries, antisocial behavior is known to decline during wartime. New York suicide rate dropped by about 20% in the six months following the attacks, the murder rate dropped by 40%, and pharmacist saw no increase in the number of first-time patients filling prescriptions for anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. (p. 115-116)

I agree with Junger’s thesis and much (not all) of his analysis, but – unsurprisingly – he does not give a solution. The only part of Junger’s analysis which I disagree with is that he chalks everything up to human evolution, whereas I, as a Christian, believe that the need for mission is part of God’s design in creating us. That aside, the main idea of the book is absolutely correct – and the Bible has been teaching these things for millennia, AND giving the solution!

In fact, there are so many verses in the Bible which relate to this subject, that I only have space here for a few:

But those who desire to be rich fall into temptation, into a snare, into many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.
But as for you, O man of God, flee these things. Pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. (1 Timothy 6:9-12)

we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5)

Furthermore, in Christ, we have been given a mission – THE mission – which really matters and is worth living for and dying for and sacrificing for, and all of us are called to play a role in it – no matter what our vocation. It is the only mission which ultimately matters; it is the only mission which will ultimately save the world, and we have full confidence that it will succeed, because we’ve already been told how the story ends…

In order to have joy, you need a mission. Embrace Jesus and get engaged in his mission.

And a final thought: How did Jesus design his mission to be accomplished? Through the church. That’s one of the reasons why church matters… to God, to you, and to the world.

Why Ethics Depends on Origin

In my last post I mentioned how much I appreciated the intellectual integrity of Penn Jillette for saying that he respects Christians who share their faith and evangelize, because if you really believe the gospel, then the only appropriate response is to share it with others.

Today I’d like to address the opposite approach: a very common and yet completely contradictory set of beliefs about the meaning and value of life.

I recently came across this quote from well-known atheist Steven Pinker, author of the book, “How the Mind Works.”

“When it comes to ethics, ethical theory requires free rational agents whose behavior is uncaused. Now, ethical theory can be useful even though the world as seen by science does not really have uncaused events.” – Steven Pinker

Do you catch what he’s saying? He’s essentially saying that ethics are useful to society, but that they really have no basis in reality. In other words: ethics help society function, but in a view of the world in which there is no God who created you, ethics are completely baseless.

To put it simply: if there is no God who created you, there is absolutely no rational reason for saying that you are any more important than a stick. And you really have no original thoughts or creativity. Everything you do is programed, nothing is uncaused. You are just a hunk of matter, and therefore your life is utterly insignificant.

And yet, Pinker is saying that in spite of this, we should live as if human life is special and we as human beings are valuable, because it is helpful to the functioning of society, even if it isn’t true.

Here’s the point: an atheistic/humanistic worldview is incredibly conflicted.

On the one hand, modern Western society is obsessed with self-esteem. Our schools put a huge focus on telling kids that they are unique and valuable. We affirm that every life has innate value. And yet, at the same time we have a secular worldview which says that if there is no God, you still have to live as if human beings are significant, even though in reality they are not at all.

In other words, if your origin is insignificant and your destiny in insignificant, then the conclusion is that your life and everyone else’s life is insignificant. However, at the same time we are told to believe that we must pretend that it is.

That’s not intellectual integrity, that’s intellectual schizophrenia.

Atheism has an inherent problem with human rights: on the one hand our modern Western culture believes in individual human rights, and yet on the other hand, there is a push for an existential and eschatological narrative which undermines the very foundation for believing in equal individual human rights.

I have written more on this subject here: Atheism and Human Rights: An Inherent Problem.

Christianity, on the other hand, tells us that human beings were created by God, in His image, and therefore our lives have innate value and purpose – even if there is nothing that we can contribute to society, such as in the case of handicapped individuals.

Furthermore, the message of the gospel is that the lord of the universe left His heavenly throne and came to the Earth in order to save us by giving His life in order to redeem us — which means that you and your life have more value than you can even comprehend.

Modern Western culture has held onto the belief in individual value and human rights, something which has its basis in Christian doctrine and theology, while trying to eschew Christian doctrine and theology in the areas of origin, existence and destiny.

Ethics depend on origin. If you believe that human life has equal and inherent value, please remember where that idea comes from: the Word of God.

The IOC on Religion: Nothing New Under the Sun


One of the things we do at White Fields Church every week is invite people to text or tweet questions during the sermon and then I respond to them on our members’ website called The City. I really enjoy this aspect of it, and I think that such engagement aides in the learning process.

For the past several weeks I have been teaching through Paul’s letter to the Colossians, and what I have found most interesting about it is that the core message of the book is something which is incredibly relevant to our day, which is the uniqueness of the Christian gospel as it relates to every other religion and philosophy in the world.

When you look into the culture of the Roman Empire, interestingly what you find is a society which was very similar to modern Western society in many ways. It was a pluralistic society, a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic society, in which there was freedom of religion – and yet… the prevailing notion was that in order for there to be peace in a mixed society, no one should say that their tradition or religion was any better or more true than anyone else’s – only that it was different. Furthermore, a person’s religion or tradition was considered to be something they were born into rather than something they had a responsibility to choose for themselves, and therefore it was considered taboo, rude and even wrong to try to “convert” someone to another religion than that which they were born into or brought up in.

Now, if that doesn’t sound familiar to our day and age, then you should check your pulse.

I discussed this in more detail this past Sunday. If you’re interested, check out the audio of that message here.

In response to that teaching, a member of our church texted in:

The unifying/melting pot of religions that Paul is warning the Colossians about in today’s passage is the same message delivered by the president of the IOC at the opening of the Olympic Games. It’s clear that making exclusive claims about right or wrong in regard to religion is frowned upon internationally.

I unfortunately missed the opening ceremony of the Rio Olympics, and have not been able to find a way to watch the whole thing online – if anyone knows a way, please let me know!

Although I am not surprised by this, I am surprised by the naivety in thinking which it represents. For educated people to say that no one should make exclusive claims is to ignore the fact that EVERYONE makes exclusive claims, including the people who say that you should not make exclusive claims. For example, if you say that it is wrong to say that something is wrong, you are doing the same thing which you are claiming should not be done. I only wonder if this overlooking of the obvious is sincere/naive in nature, or it is it a willful ignorance for the sake of pragmatism; in this case that everyone would just get along. Either way, to make such a claim reveals a sort of patronizing disregard for the validity of the claims of any and all religious beliefs, which is itself a form of judgment about them… Oh the irony…

Don’t fall for this underdeveloped, recycled logic. We can absolutely live in a free society where honest and open dialogue of the validity of certain ideas, traditions, practices and beliefs exists.

Shaping Culture: It’s Your Job

There’s a concept I want to share with you: it’s called “the cultural mandate” – and here’s the big idea behind it:  It says that part of God’s design for mankind is that we would be responsible for shaping culture.

The cultural mandate is found in Genesis 1:26-28; 2:15 and is repeated in Genesis 9:1-3.

Here’s the gist of it: In speaking to Adam and Noah respectively as representatives of the human race, he commissions them with a task. It was a matter of stewardship, which involved overseeing the natural and social aspects of this world – for the purpose of human flourishing.

One author puts it this way:

This mandate involves the whole realm of human culture, from habitat to agriculture, industrialization and commerce, politics and social and moral order, academic and scientific achievement, health, education and physical care – a culture which benefits man and glorifies God.”
(G.W. Peters, A Biblical Theology of Missions)

Interestingly, this mandate from God to shape the culture was given two times: once before sin entered the world, and again after sin had entered the world. That means that this mandate is incumbent on us regardless of our spiritual state. It also means that, although the world is broken and fallen, we are still responsible for stewardship over this world – and that doesn’t apply only to natural resources, but to the shaping of the culture of our society.

Just as the Jews in exile in Babylon were told to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the Lord on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7), and just as Mordecai was commended for being a person who “sought the good of his people and spoke for the welfare of his whole nation” (Esther 10:3), we are called to do the same in our day and age and in the societies we live in as people who love and honor God – even as we wait for the ultimate eschatological fulfillment, when all is made as it was once intended to be by Jesus at his return.

Christians: shaping culture is YOUR job!
Yes, sin, brokenness, selfishness and evil in the world make this task much more difficult, but this mandate has still been given to us by God.

One author put it this way:

“Even fallen man has the potentiality and responsibility for faithfulness to his wife, for diligence in training of his children, for skill in the performance of his daily work, for justice in dealings with others. He has the capacity for running schools and hospitals, for tilling the ground and causing even unfertile ground to produce. He still has the capacity for governing society.”
(D. Pentecost, Issues in Missiology) 

To that, I would only add this:  If fallen man has these capacities, how much more so do those who have been redeemed and regenerated by God through Christ and has his enabling Spirit dwelling inside of them?!

This cultural mandate also doesn’t diminish in the least our “spiritual mandate” to bring the life-changing message of the Gospel to the world, which alone is able to bring eternal salvation to people. Jesus himself warned against those who “gain the whole world and yet lose their own soul” (Mark 8:36). Both mandates are important. The results of spiritual redemption will touch every part of man’s life and being and will influence culture and social aspects of life.

So for Christians, rather than retreating from culture or creating an insular counter-culture – it would seem that we have a God-given responsibility and call to shape the culture and society we live in through direct engagement. What that looks like in each of our lives is a matter which we must work out in our own situation before God.

 

My Thoughts on the Supreme Court Ruling on Gay Marriage

I have been hesitant to write anything about the SCOTUS ruling which disallowed States to ban gay marriage, simply because I have seen how social media has been so consumed by it, and it is clearly an issue which people have made a dividing line, which greatly saddens me. My initial feeling was that it is a lose-lose to write anything on the issue for these reasons, but I keep returning to the idea that I should share some thoughts, since the purpose of this blog is to give a pastor’s voice on happenings in society.

So here are some thoughts:

I’m not surprised by the decision. It didn’t happen overnight. This is the culmination of things which have been in the works for a long time. The debate is basically between identity and practice. For some time now in our society, there has been a movement pushing to see homosexuality as an identity which a person is inherently given, and therefore not to act on it would be to betray who they fundamentally are. The Bible, on the other hand, doesn’t say that homosexuality is a person’s fundamental identity, but that it is a practice – but not who a person is. A person may have inclinations towards certain behavior, but that doesn’t mean that they must act on those inclinations at risk of betraying who they are – rather every person must choose to deny certain inclinations and act on others, and the Bible says that homosexuality is a behavior which should be denied – not an identity which defines who a person is.

The Supreme Court’s decision marks a change in the cultural climate – where now homosexuality is to be celebrated and anyone who doesn’t celebrate it will be marginalized. Whereas historically in America, for the most part churches and religious organizations have been regarded in a positive light, that is less and less the case, as they are increasingly being portrayed as “hate” groups, unless they are willing to compromise convictions held for thousands of years. This change of climate is something American Christians are not used to, although it does exist in other places in the world – namely Canada and France.

The biggest implication for churches will not be in the realm of officiating or hosting homosexual marriages. See this article for more details on that.  The biggest implication in the long term for churches will be in the area of tax exempt status. Just this past week, Time published an article in which the author stated that “Now’s the time to end tax exemptions for religious institutions”. The author references a 1983 court ruling from a case involving Bob Jones University, which stated that a school could lose tax-exempt status if its policies violated “fundamental national public policy,” and states that in light of the Supreme Court decision on gay marriage, this might now be applied to religious organizations.
That prospect seems daunting to many Christians, and I personally wouldn’t like to see that happen – but I do keep in mind that the early Christians had no money, no tax exemptions, they were considered an illegal religion for hundreds of years and were considered radical in their statement that Jesus was the only way to heaven.  And yet, the message of the Gospel changed lives and brought about love and new life, whether it was legal or illegal, preached in a tax exempt mega-church or an underground meeting.
You may not agree with the direction things are changing, but we can have confidence both historically and eschatologically of the victory of Jesus and the ultimate need of every person in the world for the Good News of the Gospel to give them new life.

Should Christians Try to Improve Society?

Tomorrow morning I’ll be teaching on Jesus’ salt and light metaphors from the Sermon on the Mount, as part of our CounterCulture series at White Fields.

I found this quote in a book by John Stott, about the social responsibility of Christians as part of our identity as the salt of the Earth. Since salt has a healing and preserving effect, the idea is that Christians should have a healing and preserving effect on society.

There are some who would say, What’s the point in trying to make society better?  If Jesus could come back any minute, and this life is short anyway, then shouldn’t all our efforts be towards saving people out of this world, rather than “polishing a turd”, to put it crassly?

However, it seems to me that it is an inherent part of the calling of a Christian to make the world a better place, if for no other reason than to “let your light shine before others so that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in Heaven.” (Matthew 5:16)

Here is that John Stott quote:

Too often evangelical Christians have interpreted their social responsibility in terms only of helping the casualties of a sick society, and have done nothing to change the structures which cause the casualties. Just as doctors are concerned not only with the treatment of patients but also with preventive medicine and public health, so we should concern ourselves with what might be called preventive social medicine and higher standards of moral hygiene. However small our part may be, we cannot opt out of seeking to create better social structures, which guarantee justice in legislation and law enforcement, the freedom and dignity of the individual, civil rights for minorities and the abolition of social and racial discrimination. We should neither despise these things nor avoid our responsibility for them. They are part of God’s purpose for his people. Whenever Christians are conscientious citizens, they are acting like salt in the community.

As Sir Frederick Catherwood put it:‘To try to improve society is not worldliness but love. To wash your hands of society is not love but worldliness.’

Stott goes on to say that SALT is not all that the world needs. The world also needs LIGHT – the truth of God, ultimately found in the Gospel.

The American Religion of Parenting

A few days ago I was scanning Twitter and was intrigued by the title of an article: How American parenting is killing the American marriage

The article is a very insightful critique of the culture of parenting – or “religion of parenting”, as the author calls it – in our society, and the results of it.

Of particular interest to me was how the author points out that there is an unspoken understanding in our society that the value of a human life peaks out at birth and diminishes from there.

The origins of the parenthood religion are obscure, but one of its first manifestations may have been the “baby on board” placards that became popular in the mid-1980s. Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don’t see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, “Middle-aged accountant on board.”

Today I talked with a great lady from our church who heads up an outreach called “Project Greatest Gift”, in which we provide Christmas gifts for children in foster care. Weld County told us that many of the children in foster care are living with elderly people, and they asked if we might be willing to provide gifts for the caretakers this year as well.
This seems like a great opportunity for us to show that we value all human life, both young and old.

Another important insight of the article is how this religion of parenting has led to a quickly rising divorce rate among empty nesters:

In the 21st century, most Americans marry for love. We choose partners who we hope will be our soulmates for life. When children come along, we believe that we can press pause on the soulmate narrative, because parenthood has become our new priority and religion. We raise our children as best we can, and we know that we have succeeded if they leave us, going out into the world to find partners and have children of their own. Once our gods have left us, we try to pick up the pieces of our long neglected marriages and find new purpose. Is it surprising that divorce rates are rising fastest for new empty nesters?

I think that one of the things the Christian church has done well is championing marriage. The writer to the Hebrews says: “Let marriage be held in honor among all.” (‭Hebrews‬ ‭13‬:‭4‬ ESV) I have had the privilege to see successful Christians marriages that thrived even after the kids left the house, because they made their marriage and not their children the center of their family.

How Does Marriage Affect Violence Against Women and Children?

How Does Marriage Affect Violence Against Women and Children?

This article in the Washington Post this week showed that statistically, women and children in married families suffer far less domestic violence than those in other situations.

Married women are notably safer than their unmarried peers, and girls raised in a home with their married father are markedly less likely to be abused or assaulted than children living without their own father.

As Christians, one of the best things we can do for society is to uphold and promote strong biblical ethics.

“The Dopest Job Ever”

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Yesterday, while riding the lift at Eldora, I had an interesting conversation with a guy who, like me, was up snowboarding alone.

He was from Boulder, probably in his late 20’s or early 30’s, and works in some area of the tech industry.

He was very interested when he found out I was a pastor, because he said he’d always been interested in what goes on in churches, but had never been to church himself.  Here’s how our conversation went:

  • “Wow, you’re a pastor?!  Like in a church?”
    • “Yeah”
  • “So, what do you do there?”
    • “I teach the Bible and counsel people and lead the church as an organization in all the endeavors we are involved in.”
  • “Do you like emcee the shows and stuff?”
    • “You mean the church services?  Yes, I lead the worship services.”
  • “So you’re kinda like an emcee!  That’s dope!”
  • “Wait, so you’re married?  (I had mentioned my wife and kids to him)
    • “Yeah, I’m married”
  • “I thought priests couldn’t get married”
    • “Well, that’s a rule in the Catholic church – but we’re not Catholic. In fact, even in the Catholic church, they only introduced that rule a couple hundred years after Jesus lived and established the church, so most Christians don’t follow that rule, and most pastors get married.”
  • “Wow. I always thought that would be a pretty dope job, but the one downside is that you couldn’t have girls. But, you know, if you can have girls, then that’s like the dopest job ever!”
    • “Well, I mean, as a pastor, you can’t just go around having lots of girls – you can have a wife and a family, but it has to be monogamous.”
      • “Yeah, but same thing – you get to have a girl. That’s dope!”

About this time the lift reached the top of the mountain – and I encouraged him that he should really check out a church sometime for himself, and that he ought to give some consideration to who Jesus was and what he taught. After that, we bid each other farewell and got off the lift, and went separate ways. Who knows if we’ll ever meet again.

It did surprise me though, how little this man knew about church and about Jesus. It served as a reminder that we live in a post-Christendom society. Boulder has long been considered a trend-setting, cultural hub for Colorado and the Western United States. That means that as Christians, increasingly we can no longer expect that most people in our society have a basic understanding of Christian doctrine and practice, and know who Jesus was and what God requires of them. More and more people in our society are growing up without that, and we as Christians need to be prepared to present Jesus and the message of the Gospel to people without the assumption that they have some basic background understanding of Christianity – because more and more do not.