Thursday, July 23, 2015

Thriving in Babylon: A Title and a Challenge

Larry Osborne is a pastor from Oceanside, California that I've known since the late 1980s. He has led a solid church ministry in northern San Diego County, but it is his books that have really challenged me, especially the titles. They are such good titles, and they set you up for a great experience reading his books. 

His book on getting people connected in and committed to a body of believers? Sticky Church.

His book on what happens when our "standards" become too important to our Christianity at the expense of grace? Accidental Pharisees.

But his latest may be his best title yet (can't say about the book because I just got it). It is using the life of Daniel to learn about how those who love God can live, serve, and prosper even in a culture that stands for all the wrong things. It calls for "hope, humility, and wisdom." The title is Thriving in BabylonThe book is certainly timely, because of its subject matter. But that title just grabs hold of me, almost making me shout "That's it! That's what we need to do!" I don't know that there ever was truly a "Christian America"--in fact, I'm pretty sure there never was. But there was a time when America and Americans took most of their cues on the nature of life, right and wrong, the value of human life, the definitions of human relationships, and more, from biblical understandings. After all, all men being "created equal" doesn't stem from evolutionary thought, atheism, or rationalism. I know we are not the "morality police," but Christian faith has been the "morality source" for the underpinnings of the nation. It was that niggling "all men are created equal" that was the impetus for the abolition of slavery, the emancipation of women, and a few other good things.

Those days are gone. Forever. Don't assume the next election will change it all back. It won't. We are, as another book title from decades ago put it, Slouching Towards Gomorrah. Christians have always been "strangers and aliens" in this world, but in America, an illusion developed that because our values had shaped the nation's founding in so many ways, we would always have a better culture and an easier way in the world. No more. 

Unlike Daniel and his friends, we have not been carried off into captivity. Instead, we have had the true nature of being exiles made clear as the glossy curtains of America's civic Christianity have been ripped down. It's taken long enough that the coming generation has no real memory of it being different, but historically, the pace of the change has been breathtaking.

So America isn't the promised land. It is Babylon. A powerful nation with dangerous rivals who would eventually overthrow it, Babylon was not a friendly place for Jewish faith to thrive, and to do so as a captive carried off to serve in the palace would be even harder. But Daniel and his friends decided that a hostile environment didn't change the truth from God or the power of God to accomplish the will of God. When they could seek accommodation (in their diet for example), they did. When they could serve (interpreting a dream or serving in administration), they did. And when they couldn't compromise and needed to trust God (as in not worshiping an image on pain of death), they did. And they didn't just survive--they thrived. They made a difference and an impact. And they did so with no guarantees that it would all turn out for them. Even though it did, as Osborne says, they were "exceptions, not examples."

America is a powerful nation with dangerous enemies, and it is not necessarily a place that fosters faith or faithful obedience to God. It seems to have become (or is certainly on its way to becoming) another Babylon--not in the biblical prophecy in Revelation sense, but in its increasing opposition to God and His Word. Yet, many of God's people in Babylon managed to do so much more than just survive. It wasn't just Daniel and his friends. Whole communities of captives in Babylon kept the faith alive. Synagogues were born in Babylon, and biblical scholarship among Jews actually flourished--one of the great copies of their laws was called "the Babylonian Talmud" because it developed there. Many were able to thrive, because they didn't forget God, and they knew he had not forgotten them.

That's what we Christians need to do. We need to decide to thrive. It doesn't matter what the culture may adopt next, or whether we won't be popular or respected or tax exempt! We know our God, and he hasn't forgotten us or lost control of his plan. And because we are still here and the end hasn't come, there is still the opportunity to bear witness to truth and know that our witness and fruitfulness can thrive. So, let's do this. Let's not back off what we believe, but let's stop being surprised that others don't believe it. Let's expect iniquity to abound--these are, after all, the last days. But let's remember that when sin abounds, grace still abounds much more. Let's believe that God may be making the lines between truth and lies clearer, and pushing those who claim to know him to show where they stand. Let's believe that some pressure (and maybe some persecution) is going to be the catalyst for cleansing and empowering God's people. And let's thrive, like the faithful Jews in Babylon, or like the church just after Stephen was killed, or like believers in China for the past sixty years.

(Oh, and maybe you'll want to read the book, too. You can order it here. I haven't finished so I can't offer a full endorsement yet, but I like what I've seen so far.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

A summer of shifts and shocks

It's the midpoint of summer, and as often happens, plans for a slower pace have been blown to bits by the onslaught of the summer "specials"--those things that come along where you decide, "Sure, I can do that, it's summer and the normal stuff isn't happening." Except, as you probably know, much of the normal stuff does keep going, and now you have more to do than you thought.

Don't get me wrong; the special stuff makes the summer exciting and, well, "special." We've hosted a few special events at our church that have been a real delight. We've had unexpected guests in our home, spent enjoyable time away, and were blessed with unique opportunities to serve. This weekend, for example, we're hosting 40-50 TCKs (third culture kids) attending a cultural "re-entry seminar for a Nacho Bar!

But it's been a very different summer in a number of key points. The weather has been atrocious. Here in Ohio we had the same terrible winter that lots of the rest of the country had, and because of that you hope for a respite in a beautiful summer. We managed to get one week of that--in Myrtle Beach on vacation. Coming home, we've had mainly clouds, rain, and cool temperatures until this week, when we went directly to hot and humid with thunderstorms. I can count on one hand the number of warm, sunny days we've experienced (OK, maybe the thumb of the other hand would be needed). Our experience is not different than so much of the rest of the country.

There have been a few disappointments this summer for people and relationships. I've seen people who were seemingly getting healthy die, and had people who said they would be around decide to disappear.

But it's also been a summer of unsettling news and change. I won't take time to revisit the Supreme Court decision to require all states to recognize the union of same sex couples as "marriage." In overturning a fundamental definition that has existed from the beginning of history, five justices have just done something that undermines family and society, defies common sense, and finds a "right to marry" that simply does not exist in the Constitution (the basis for any ruling they are making). It would be as if they declared blue to be yellow, along with yellow being yellow, and pity the person of aesthetic soul and conscience, as well as logic and a smidgen of historical sense who says that only yellow is yellow.

ESPN ignored genuine heroics by people who achieved great things, paid incredible prices (and in some cases lost their lives) to achieve success in the realm of sport and have served as examples to inspire others, and chose a former athlete who is now a transgender celebrity whose actions have more of the self-aggrandizing than the self-sacrificing about them to designate as the winner of their "Courage" Award. How does milking your former athletic glory and subsequent celebrity marriage, reality TV show, and coming out on national television count as courage?

Planned Parenthood's medical director was video-recorded having a nice lunch over which she sips her wine and discusses the proper way for an abortionist to crush heads and legs of a fetus to save the liver for sale. It's guided by ultrasound, don't you see? And the reaction of many? How terrible that such "sting" videos make the news--unless it is a video for a cause we like!

Our government officials have negotiated a deal with Iran that ensures their continued ability to enrich uranium and move toward possession of a nuclear weapon, while they lead public chants of "Death to America" and continue to hold four Americans as prisoners for no justifiable reason, including a pastor. If you read Joel Rosenberg's novels and commentary on current events and prophecy (not to mention those scriptures themselves), you can't help but shudder at these developments, just a little bit.

And as we get ready to select a new president next year, one party can't field a single candidate who would say a good word about any abortion limitations (ban on late term procedures, require an ultrasound to be shown to the mother, allow the father a say, parental consent for minors, forbid when pain can be felt, etc.) for any reason [For me, abortion is one of those "beyond debate" issues, and when given the chance I will ALWAYS for a pro-life candidate, having led me to vote for candidates in the past whose other positions were not mine, but whose commitment to protecting life was solid. That's me, and I'm not telling you that you are wrong if you disagree, but do think about it.]. Their front-runner seems unable to give straight answers, tell the truth about past decisions, or hold a position held ten years ago, but the others just can't seem to attract any real attention yet.

And the other party? Well, it is quite a "party" actually, with more candidates than people who attended my last birthday party. I actually can respect a number of them, and they all support protecting life, EXCEPT THE CURRENT FRONT RUNNER! I am mystified that a blowhard billionaire can, by sounding mad as h###, move to the front of the pack when he supported the current president that he blasted seven years ago, gave money to his potential opponent from the other party, and has advocated policies most in his party abhor. He recently said a decorated veteran and senator, who was a POW in Vietnam, was not a war hero just because he got shot down and spent years in a POW camp. The billionaire says he likes guys who didn't get captured. He ought not to be taken any more seriously than his TV show. But I also have to wonder what makes a man (or woman) say, "I am sure I can pull away from 15 others and be the next nominee and president." When does self-confidence slide into self-delusion?

Just for good measure, I'm seeing reports of an expected mini "Ice Age" coming in my lifetime (maybe we can promote more global warming to stave it off), and a 30% chance of an earthquake that will wipe out the Pacific Northwest coast in the next few decades. The economic recovery isn't huge, and financial institutions are very nervous, as Greece's eventual default may rip through the world's banks, if China's massive economic slowdown doesn't shake them first.

So, let me see where I stand.
  • I can't count on my bank account or retirement.
  • I can't count on the environment.
  • I can't count on the ground under my feet.
  • I can't count on political candidates or solutions.
  • I can't count on my governmental leaders.
  • I can't count on the culture.
  • I can't count on the media.
  • I can't count on law or judges.
  • I can't even count on the weather. 
Even I can see that, perhaps, this is a not so gentle reminder from the God of our salvation that there is only One in whom we can trust and never be disappointed. How about you?

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Don't Waste Your Summer!

Time for some educational, apologetic, (and perhaps remedial) reading for such a time as this.

Augustine heard a voice in a garden say this when
sitting next to a Bible. He did, was converted, and
the rest is history. May you have such a powerful
experience as you read good things this summer.

I am a great advocate of reading, and I do so widely--theology and contemporary issues, history, biography, and fiction (classic and new) all interest me. But I also find that at times when there are very pressing issues or concerns for Christians, good reading can be an essential bulwark in building up both my faith and my knowledge so that I might give good answers to anyone who would seek them from me.
There are a number of such issues today, but none seems to have captured our attention like same-sex marriage (SSM) and same-sex attraction (SSA) and how we might respond to it. Let me suggest that the need to find ways to engage those who support SSM and believe that acting on SSA within "loving, committed relationships" is a biblical option is a great one; those who simply say, "well, there are good arguments and scholars on both sides" need to actually engage their brains instead of assuming we can't really know. In order to get yourself equipped for this ongoing conversation, let me suggest some reading that will help (clicking on the title will take you to an Amazon.com link where you can buy it):

What Does the Bible Really Teach About Homosexuality? by Kevin DeYoung. This is a short book, but a powerful one, and if you are only willing to read one book, choose this one. It covers the biblical texts, deals with the most common arguments against them, and then wrestles with the questions raised by many Christians. It is excellent.

Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry. Sam is a Baptist pastor from England who deals with SSA in his own life, and has written another short book on this subject, and his own life and testimony certainly provide the perspective of one intimately involved and concerned on this issue. I've heard Sam speak, and I have great appreciation for his work.

God and the Gay Christian? A Response to Matthew Vines, by James Hamilton, Denny Burk, and Owen Strachan. Vines, a former Harvard student and former "evangelical" wrote a book that became very popular repeating many of the claims that have been used before him to justify homosexual practice within "committed relationships" and it caused quite a stir. This book goes through those arguments and responds. Since Vine's material wasn't really "new," neither were the responses, but they were needed and they were good.

Out of a Far Country, by Christopher Yuan, is one of the best personal stories of both conversion and commitment to faithfulness to Christ. Yuan's visits to Cedarville University may have made his name familiar to you, but his book should be read if you haven't already.

The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Butterfield. This is the story of a former atheist, lesbian, feminist studies professor who came to a very unexpected encounter with Jesus Christ. Her story is incredibly powerful and informative.

Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality, by Wesley Hill. This testimony of a young man battling against SSA and trying to discover God's will is a powerful one. His commitment to celibacy and the development of spiritual friendship within the Church is commendable.

The Bible and Homosexual Practice: Texts and Hermeneutics, by Robert A. J. Gagnon. OK, for those who still want to argue about the texts, this book is the single most exhaustive study available, and has been strongly endorsed as accurate even by many who oppose Gagnon's conclusions that the Bible is opposed to all homosexual activity. It is big, it is detailed, and as someone once said in another context, "if this doesn't convince you, you may not be open to being convinced at all." This is not light reading, so don't take it to the beach.

There are other books I can also recommend, but these should get you started. Not every statement in every book is endorsed by me, but these authors hold high views of Scripture and demonstrate good understandings that make them all easy to endorse for your consideration.
Summer is always a time that people think about reading (perhaps taking a book on vacation), or may have a little more time to do so. Of course, you can now "read" through audiobooks, so that counts, too.

There are some other recent reads I can commend to you

I've had some vacation time, so I've read a good bit already, and I have a few things from this summer and the more recent past that you might find enjoyable, profitable, and hopefully both.

Encounters with Jesus, by Tim Keller. Keller is one of the best authors of our day, and this book was so encouraging and refreshing--I read it in two days! Keller uses Jesus' interaction with various characters in John's gospel to bring home vital truths for believers in all situations. I highly recommend this book! Keller has lots of other titles that would be worth your while as well.

The Distant Land of My Father, and City of Tranquil Light, by Bo Caldwell. These two books were some of the best novels I have read in the last ten years. They are both set in China, and both have commitment to 20th century history and missions in China. The characters are well developed, and the stories leave you wishing they would continue. Absolutely first rate fiction. I list them in written order, but read them in reverse.

Creature of the Word, by Matt Chandler and others. A very good read encouraging us, as the Church, to be people who are shaped by and submissive to God's Word in every way. If you have listened to Chandler's podcasts, you will hear him in the pages of this book.

I'll not list the latest Patrick O'Brian "Aubrey/Maturin" novel I finished (about halfway through the series), nor the Jeffrey Archer series that sucked Kathy and me in on Audible and now causes us to wait for him to write the next installment. And I'm resisting my urge to tell you to go get a book (any book) by David Platt (Follow Mewas great) or John Piper or Paul Miller (like A Loving Life), or Randy Alcorn if you haven't read his books--fiction or non-fiction.