Tuesday, April 25, 2017

"You Don't Know Everything!"

I'm getting to know my limitations, and hope you are, too!

In the past week, I've had three different people (two after our services Sunday) come to me with what they thought was a compliment. The composite of the comments were, "It is really great when you get up in the pulpit and say what you don't know." What was meant in every case was an appreciation of my having to say at numerous times (including last Sunday's sermon) that "I don't know" how to explain or figure out some things in the Bible. In one case I was told how good it was for kids to hear that. 

We live in a community dominated by a university and featuring a new school complex, and in each place knowing things is not only celebrated, but graded. So, you might think that admitting you don't know something would be a bad thing. But, in this case, it is not.

This truly is a compliment, and I agree that it is important to be honest about what we don't know, what we do know, and what we can't know.

Of course, I don't mean to celebrate all ignorance, either in me or in others. But humility about what we know is both honest and hopeful. I grew up in a day when it seemed that pastors were always confidently asserting everything about all biblical subjects--and even some non-biblical ones.

I had preachers tell me that Jesus wore his hair in a modified crew cut--never shoulder length. After all the Bible says a man having long hair is a shame, and Jesus would never do anything that would shame himself.

One Christmas, a sermon on the virgin Mary asserted confidently that she would never have gone around wearing lots of makeup or tight jeans. I don't think she would have, either, but I'm not sure where we would get that in the text--and most of us were not thinking that we should replace the figure of Mary in the manger scene with a "Bible Times Barbie." 

Pastors told me that women wearing pants were in sin because they were wearing "things pertaining to a man." My grandma's polyester pantsuits didn't really belong on any man, but that's what they said.

And when it came to prophecy, "everyone" knew that the European Union (the "Common Market" back then) was the kingdom of the coming Antichrist. There were many other details we were sure of that just haven't proven to be true.

One of my pastors told me that, while we believed in God's sovereignty, we wouldn't talk about it because it was too confusing and not important. In his thinking, it was better for us not to know of God's ultimate control of all things. Instead, we would avoid those passages, and any talk of God's election. We actually had a tract around that referred to election in relation to salvation as "God votes 'yes,' Satan votes 'no,' and you cast the deciding vote!"

Then I went to college and seminary and learned that some of those things I had been taught so confidently were wrong--or at least not the only way to look at the Scriptures. Thankfully, I was encouraged to study, draw conclusions, and keep studying. The profs that influenced me most were both confident in what they taught, but also able to discuss those areas where there were different possible conclusions to draw and still be faithful to Scripture. In some cases, they were transparent enough to share how they had come to change their understanding of a matter based on further study of Scripture. The greatest gift they gave me was not a new set of answers (although they offered many good ones), but how to think through things, and the principles needed to gain understanding of the text of Scripture. 

I have tried to emulate that combination of diligent study and humility about my own conclusions. One seminary teacher wisely told me that, if I am the only person I know who holds a view, then I could be confident I was wrong. He said that based on the Holy Spirit's promised function of guiding us (the Church) into all truth, it would be prideful to assume that 2,000 years of church history could go by waiting for me to figure something out!

Practically speaking, my own awareness that there are others out there--and I am talking about you--who can check up on me, leads me to go as far as my knowledge of the text and subject can take me, and then to stop! And I'm grateful to have some "Berean" types in this congregation who examine the Scriptures to see if what I say is found in the text.

The hopeful part of this humility is that we have the ability to keep learning as we study God's Word. Only a supernatural book can have a finished text and yet have more and more that can be understood as we apply ourselves to learning from it. That is why my sermons change even when preaching a text I've preached before. Through my own study and the confirmations of commentators (living and dead), including our leadership, my own grasp of truth grows.

So, I'm thankful that you are OK with having a pastor who doesn't know it all, and is ready to acknowledge it. I'm glad that you have that kind of pastor--otherwise, I'd be out of work! Let's commit--all of us--to being lifelong learners, ready to assert the truth we know, and seeking to lessen the amount of truth available to us that we don't know. Let us also agree to let God be the only one who understands all things perfectly, and the only one who understands some things at all! As we see in Romans 11, his judgments are "unsearchable" and his ways are past finding out! Our confidence is that they are also holy, righteous, and good, and are meant for the joy of his people.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Anti-Social Media

Nine suggestions for a healthier online community.

I remember when I first joined Facebook—I certainly wasn’t early to the game in 2006, but it was still fairly new and simple. People who had an email that Facebook would accept (usually associated with a school at first) could join, post notes and then pictures, and stay in touch—particularly keeping aware of things in my kids’ lives. Memes weren’t a “thing,” nor ads on your “wall” (I don’t remember if it was called a “feed” back then).  I joined Twitter a few years later, more as a curiosity, and then as a way to get news and messages to and from people about things we cared about. Then came Instagram (all about the pictures) and more recently, Snapchat—not something I’m particularly adept at.

Fast forward 11 years, and now I almost dread getting on Facebook or Twitter. The number of flaming stories, memes, and otherwise undesirable or offensive material is growing by the minute. I must scroll through any number of posts I don’t want to see in order to actually discover something from a friend, or a helpful link from an uplifting publication.

Worse, it seems that many of those who are my friends on FB (and I have a lot of FB friends for various reasons), have decided that they must repeat and repost every “news” story from Buzz Feed or Young Conservatives or Vox or IJR that agrees with their political position. Every pronouncement of the President (Obama first, and now Trump) must be met with scorn, suspicion, and hyperventilating that would have you believe that this person is the ANTICHRIST! or HITLER! The Republic is DOOMED! And if you support that person you are EVIL!

So, in a last ditch (and probably pointless given the small reach of this blog) effort to try to make our social media a little less anti-social may I suggest the following as the start of a list of “checks” to consider before posting?

1. If you are posting 100% of the time in line with your political party, you probably have stopped being a critical thinker. And if all the posts are from opinion sites, then you are letting someone else do your thinking for you

2. If your posts are mainly reposts or memes, stop. Social media is meant to be social, not some sort of echo chamber circulating others’ ideas. I'm not saying don't repost, but tell me why you think this is worthy of my time. And let me know that you are there, behind all the memes, by sharing something that is from you.

3.  I’m happy to see pictures of you and your loved ones. I like you telling me what’s going on in your life. I don’t mind seeing recipe videos you decide to share (in moderation). But your need to feel affirmed by my copying and pasting your status to show I read it and am your friend is not appropriate—in fact, you may be sure I will never honor that kind of request.

4. If you post a constant stream of political comment, don’t be surprised if I or others “unfollow” you, which means we are still friends, but I’m not viewing your posts. Social media isn’t my source for information about political issues—and it shouldn’t be anyone’s.

5. Think about what you “like” or “retweet.” Do you really want to endorse that idea or post, or do you just like the person who posted it?

6. What if we all simply decided to use social media to be sociable? We can say what we are doing, and ask others questions and seek responses. We can let people know of events in our lives, and we can ask for prayer. We can discuss our own actions and decisions, including political ones—I can handle hearing about your attending a rally for a cause, even if I don’t agree. But don’t pontificate, telling me how this means you are righteous (and implying those who were not there are not). We can tell funny stories, or if we read something online that is inspiring or thought provoking, we can share it with our own comment as to why we are doing so. We can post a verse of Scripture or a quote that is meaningful to us—and be sure to say what makes this important to you.

7. We don’t have to preach, but work to make our posting redemptive and helpful. Don’t pretend to have a better life at the moment than you do. Instead, remind yourself and others of the grace you find God gives in less than perfect circumstances, often through the people you are connected to. We can speak a good word about our Savior, we can encourage with Scripture, and we can be kind to the others who join us there.

8. I know there are different ideas about Jesus’ caution about being held accountable for every careless word we speak (Matthew 12:36), but something to consider is that such words can be a part of what we write as well as what we say. How would you evaluate your social media output? Does it reflect good fruit produced from a heart changed by God’s salvation?

9. Consider using blogs or other long forms of communication to actually talk about what you think, rather than the short bursts that the more common social media prefers. OK, that's probably not going to happen. But it's a thought.

Let’s see what we can do to make social media sociable again, and in so doing make it a tool for good things. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Blessings in Books and Blogs (and other media)

How my spiritual life is continually enriched by others

I am so grateful for the privilege, as a pastor, of devoting significant time to study and the preparation of sermons and lessons. While others might find it hard or tedious, I find it challenging, stimulating, and life-giving. But I cannot let my study for lessons be my only interaction with the Scriptures, nor can I rely only on myself as a source of learning about God, the gospel, and the Scriptures. That is why I have developed the habit of looking for opportunities to gain insight and instruction from books, blogs, and media posts. I joke with other pastors that I'd enjoy hearing them preach, but I'm usually busy on Sundays! Now, through various means, the teaching of others is available to me (and to you, too).

My "go to" source of teaching for years has been books. When I read a book, an author can "preach" to me and I can take the time to highlight, reread, and sometimes "fact check" if a scriptural assertion is made. I don't always read authors I agree with--sometimes I want to see ideas I disagree with expressed well so that I can understand that point of view, or determine what might be right about the view or how to answer any errors I see. This isn't just about preparing for a message--often it is an area of spiritual life I am thinking about and I want to sharpen or deepen my understandings.

Here are two fairly recent examples. I read the book, The Trellis and the Vine, after getting it at The Gospel Coalition conference four years ago. I was challenged in my thinking about the issue of discipling in the church and it shaped a number of my ideas. It uses and builds upon a very simple illustration to point out the importance of a proper focus in this essential task. Later, when our staff was deciding to go through a book on the subject, it was easy to recommend that we use it, and we all benefited in the process. So, this book not only helped me grow, but became a tool I could share profitably with others.

On my recent trip to California, I started reading John Ortberg's book, Soul Keeping. Ortberg is one of those recognized as a leader in the field "Spiritual Formation," but he is a part of a larger school of thinking with which I have some disagreements. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the book, as I have when I've read a number of his other books. His transparency with his struggles and growth, and his wrestling with the question "what is the soul" were both a great encouragement to me. Have you ever tried to answer that question, by the way? Is your soul just your immaterial part (body and soul), or one of two immaterial parts (body, soul, and spirit--and if so, what is the separation of the soul and spirit), or the whole of you (as in, "there were 300 souls on board the ship"). Is the "soul" the same as the "self" (how would you feel singing, "Then sings my self, my Savior God, to Thee"). I've taught on this subject, and he didn't change my basic understanding , but he added dimension that I found helpful and stimulating to think about. He tells a lot of interesting stories as illustrations, and there are some moments when I was reading (and this has happened in some of his other books) where I just have to stop and take stock of my own heart. I could list a number of books that have raised a lot of questions that keep me thinking, and I would encourage you to continue to read good books. I have published lists from time to time, and I know my  companions on the pastoral staff and elders would have many more.

But you may think, "I don't have time to read much!" OK, if you have read all the small but powerful books that are out there (and I've found quite a few), would you consider blog posts? These are often shorter essays that can be read fairly quickly, but still pack a spiritual punch. In addition to my occasional blog posts (most of which you would see here first, anyway), I would suggest a few sources that consistently provide good reading. One is the website for The Gospel Coalition--tgc.org is the link. Here you can find various writers on manifold subjects. While not every article is a winner, most of them are very good. Desiring God Ministries (desiringgod.org) is another good source of material. And while John Piper is the driving content engine here, there are many articles by many others as well. It was from this site's link (on Facebook) Thursday that I read and referenced Rosaria Butterfield's powerful post on defeating sexual sin. My only gripe with the article was that it's title was accurate but limited. The content was applicable to defeating any pattern of sin. Click here for the article. For other materials I go to the websites and blogs of the following (note that this is not an endorsement of everything you find--if I have to say that, I can't recommend anything):  Ann Voskamp, Al Mohler, Tim Challies, the bloggers at "Mere Orthodoxy" and "Bereans at the Gate," Russell Moore, and Doug Wilson (his humorously titled site is "Blog and Mablog"--but he wrestles with serious stuff--not always in a gentle way). 

And if you insist that even that amount of time is hard to find, how about audio sources (video is good, too, but it requires you to sit and watch, while audio can be enjoyed while walking, traveling, etc.). In the past week, I have had my soul stirred by messages from Alistair Begg (Truth for Life), Matt Chandler (The Village Church), and most recently, by our Grace Family member and teacher J. R. Gilhooly. I was so well instructed and blessed by his recent chapel talk, "Why Did God Create the Devil?" that I have recommended it to a number of people and linked to it on social media. He does a great job of engaging his audience and moving us to consider why we are even asking the question!

My own soul (whatever it is) has been enriched over the last seven days by reading and by listening, and I'm so grateful to have these kinds of resources available--something most Christians over the ages never had. And so do you. I hope you will consider using them in the times between our corporate worship.