Cleaning Out, Looking Back

In the process of de-cluttering some of the “stuff” that accumulates over the years, I recently came across a letter I wrote during my senior year of college to the administrator of the Christian school where I was hired to teach after I graduated. Reading through the letter, which I had no idea I had saved all of these years, definitely brought back some memories. In the letter I explain how I came to learn of an upcoming opening at the school due to the retirement of the teacher who taught social studies courses at the school. I was about to enter my final semester of undergraduate study, majoring in Political Science. As I explained in the letter, I was applying to a number of graduate schools in both Political Science and American History, but I was not sure what God’s plans were for my future. As I wrote at the time, “I do not consider it a coincidence that my parent’s mentioned [the teacher’s] retirement to me the same day I had spent a significant amount of time praying that God would show me what He wants me to do after graduation.”

Discovering this letter allowed me time to look back on the last seventeen years of my life and see how God has orchestrated a path I never intended to follow. The truth is, when I wrote that letter in 1997 I had no real interest in working with children. The possibility of spending my life teaching young people was nowhere on my radar screen. The few times it had ever been mentioned to me I immediately shot down the idea. I had plans, goals and dreams. I was going to do big things. Children were not part of that plan, other perhaps having a few after I got married. God’s plan was different, though.

I was accepted to graduate school, by the way. I was offered admission to one of the top programs in the country in Public Policy Analysis. To a lot of people that may sound about as appealing as a bowl of sawdust for breakfast, but it was something that fascinated me. I spent considerable time and effort during my undergraduate studies studying and writing about the federal budget and the federal budget process. I had done an independent study course on that very topic, written a lengthy paper and presented at a regional honors council on my findings–after which I had professors from other colleges ask for a copy of my work. That door was open for me! Yet, for reasons I could not articulate, I had no peace about accepting the offer. I assure you, some of my professors were wondering what I was smoking when I told them I was turning down the offer in order to go teach in a Christian school. One of my professors joked, “One of the advantages of teaching in a small private school is that you can quit and not notice a drop in pay.” (He was kidding, but not all that far off, I would find!)

By following God’s lead, I was in the right place to meet the woman who would become my wife. She was a first-year teacher at the same school, a place she had not intended to be, either, according to her plans. I would discover that I really enjoy teaching–communicating ideas, developing thinking, helping students learn to apply the knowledge they have acquired in meaningful ways. The teaching position at that school did not last all that long–only three years–but it was a step that led to the steps to come later, which of course eventually led me to where I am now. Never in my wildest imaginations would I have become the Executive Director of a multi-site non-profit ministry with an annual budget in excess of $3 million at the age of 28, but that happened later. Never in my wildest imagination would I move to central South Dakota to lead a school that attracts students from across the state, the country and the world, but that is where I am now. Never would I have imagined spending more Sunday mornings filling the pulpits of other churches that I spend sitting in the congregation in my church, but that is my present reality.

Looking back, in this instance, has been an affirming exercise for me, as it has reminded me of how God has been at work over those seventeen years. The path has not always been easy and the realities have not always been pleasant. After all, being fired from two leadership positions within less than twelve months was never a part of my wildest dreams, either, but that happened, too. Seeing our life savings disappear and a considerable debt result from plunging wholeheartedly into the pursuit of a dream that I thought surely God was directing me to pursue is something I would rather not have experienced and certainly hope not to experience again. There have been other bumps along the way and there will no doubt be more to come. The simple truth, though, is that God has always been in control, still is in control and will always be in control. Sometimes I will be able to look back and see clearly how He orchestrated events to accomplish great things for my good and His glory. Other times I will look back, scratch my head and wonder, “Why did I have to go through that, again?” Looking back can be fun, it can bring memories, smiles and tears. Most importantly, looking back will hopefully cause us to look up, to thank God for His provision, His plan and His purposes being fulfilled in our lives.

Love Wins

Unless you live under a rock you have been already been inundated by news stories, blog posts, Facebook status updates and tweets about the Supreme Court’s decision last Friday making homosexual marriage legal in the United States.I could comment at length on the decision itself, and perhaps at some point I will. In reality, most of what I would say has already been shared in this space before in my warnings about the slippery slope we are on and where that will lead once we step onto it. With Friday’s ruling I believe we have stepped fully onto that slope–not gingerly or cautiously, but jumped on with both feet. As we slide down that slope we will pick up momentum and there is, sadly, no telling what kind of condition we will be in when we come to a crashing stop at the bottom.

Perhaps the most common hashtag over the past few days has been this one: #LoveWins. I have no idea how many times it has been tweeted or otherwise posted around social media but I suspect it would be in the millions. President Obama and Vice President Biden both tweeted it. Hillary Clinton tweeted it with instructions on how to get a free bumper sticker from her presidential campaign that features the word HISTORY in the ubiquitous rainbow color scheme of the homosexual movement. Above the bumper sticker was the headline “All love is equal.” tweeted “It’s only a matter of time before #LoveWins worldwide.” Coca-Cola was one of many companies quick to embrace the ruling and be sure everyone knows that they celebrate the decision, and Facebook made it possible for uses to place a rainbow-colored overlay over their profile pictures in a show of support.

The problems here are almost innumerable, so I am not going to get into many of them. Let me just say this briefly. The definition of marriage, and the redefinition of marriage by SCOTUS, has nothing to do really with love. Love is both an emotion and a decision, and it is something that many people feel and have toward many other people. Whether or not someone loves someone else is not the only necessary ingredient for marriage. (Indeed, one could argue whether or not it even is a necessary ingredient, but that is a completely different conversation). That “love” seems to be what everyone is celebrating with this decision is part of that momentum with which we are hurtling down the slippery slope toward a high velocity collision at the bottom. If marriage will be based and defined solely on whether or not people love each other than we have–as I have warned repeatedly before–obliterated any grounds on which we could now restrict marriage to a man and a woman, two men or two women. How could we now say that if a man and three women love each other they cannot be married? How can we say that if an adult and child love each other they cannot be married? If someone claimed to be in love with a dog, how could we not allow that person to marry that dog? Anyway, enough on that; it is not really my point here today.

What troubles me most of all about the #LoveWins mess is that it distorts what love really is. I will not delve too deeply into that right now either, though. Instead, I want to focus on the fact the love won a long, long time ago. Actually, Love won, and God is Love. In the beginning, God created humans with a free will. If I were God, I would have seriously considered nixing that idea I think, particularly since God’s omniscience means He was well aware of what we would do with that free will. That free will led to Eve yielding to Satan’s temptation, Adam following her lead, and the sin nature that each of us is now born with. That free will God gave us paved the way for every sin we have ever committed, every decision we (collectively) have made to reject God completely or to reject His instructions and guidelines periodically or consistently. It was because God loves us that He gave us a free will; He would rather be loved by those who have chosen to love and follow Him than by legions of human robots who have no choice but to love and obey.

More importantly, God’s love is so great that when sin did separate us from Him He decided to send His only Son to pay a penalty we could never pay–a perfect, sinless blood sacrifice on the cross at Calvary. When Jesus Christ was crucified, paying for your sins and mine, when He was buried and rose again, conquering sin, death, hell and Satan, love won. Satan cannot win. He still fights on with dogged determination but even knows how the story ends. Our understanding of love from a human perspective is distorted, perverted and skewed by selfish desires and the pursuit of pleasure and happiness. God IS Love, and His love is unfathomable. We can understand it enough to appreciate it and accept it, but the realities of its scope and depth and breadth are incredible. I have addressed this here before as well, and it would be easier for to you just read God’s Love Is than for me to restate what I think has already been well articulated. What I want to leave with here is this: Yes, Love Won, but not on Friday when five people in black robes decided to redefine marriage. Love Won over two thousand years ago when Jesus Christ died, was buried and rose again. Love Won from the moment God spoke the universe into existence. The approval of a redefinition of marriage to allow homosexuals to marry is not evidence of love; rather, it is evidence of the workings of Satan and of man’s desire to remake truth to fit his own wants and whims. Despite our best efforts to ignore, change or destroy His Truth, God’s Truth and God’s Love are the same today as they have always been and as they will always be. Not because of the SCOTUS decision, but in spite of it, Love Wins.

A Blog Post A Day…

With my last post I reached a milestone. You could now read one of my posts each day and have it take you a full year to get through them all. That is something I am not sure I ever imagined would happen when I started blogging a few years ago, but I suppose it is rather neat. When I started I did it because I thought it would be a nice opportunity to share my thoughts on a few things. I had no specific expectation as to how many people would read it, or even that anyone would read it. I was not very good a self-promotion then, nor am I now. Very rarely do I volunteer the information that I have a blog. Yet, it gets found and people do read it. In the world of blogs, mine is pretty insignificant. Some blogs have millions of followers and tens of millions of visits all time. My blog is followed by just under 100 people–many of whom I do not even know–and has received about 16,500 visits in all, with a single-day high of 204 visits. Interestingly enough, the most viewed post all all so far has been Checking My Gig Line, actually a pretty short post. Yet it has more than 150 more views than the runner up. Most surprising to me is that my blog has been viewed by people in 84 different countries. True, 74 of those countries have fewer than ten views each, but it’s still kinda neat. Perhaps most significant is that the number of viewers and visits continues to increase each year. I suppose that means that people think that at least every once in a while I have something meaningful to say!

Ultimately, this is not about the views, viewers, followers, etc. To be perfectly honest with you, most of my blogging is just me thinking out loud, processing through my fingers on the keyboard something that I read, saw or have been thinking about. Rarely do I look at the stats. In fact, until looking at them to make this post I cannot remember when I looked at them last. And the reality is, in the world in which we live, there will continue to be plenty of things for me to blog about for the foreseeable future. There have been probably five or six things today, in fact, and I have not even had much time to look around or see what’s in the news. So, for now anyway, I’ll keep on writing. It’s good therapy for me if nothing else. And, when you feel so inclined, I thank you for reading. If, from time to time, I give you something to think about, challenge your thinking a bit or expose you to something for the first time, that will be a plus. I do not get many comments, and that’s okay. I suspect that those bloggers who get comments by the dozens either stop reading them or get worn out by them anyway. Still, if you have a comment or a thought to share sometime, please do. I may just lead to another post!

Don’t Cheer for Stupid

A few evenings ago I was watching a baseball game on television. Not being a big fan of commercials I decided during a break to see what else was on. Scrolling through the guide I saw that America’s Got Talent was on. I could not remember the last time I had seen the show, and I do not think I have ever seen a full episode, but I thought, “Maybe there will be some decent talent on there.” So I pushed the button and switched the channel. The first thing I saw was an older woman–I think she said she was 78–about to do some power lifting. I think she lifted 185 pounds or so. That was impressive, but not particularly exciting. I have never seen a senior citizen lift that kind of weight so, sure, it got my attention. The judges had a similar reaction; they were impressed, and told her so, but they did not vote to move her on.

Next came another older man. I do not remember how old he was but he said he was a grandfather. He was a former real estate agent who said he decided a few years ago that he was tired of selling real estate and wanted to do what he was really passionate about–extreme stunts. Whether he had ever done any extreme stunts before quitting real estate I do not know for sure, but I got the impression he had not. Now he does things that most people with common sense would never attempt. So foolish, in fact, are his shenanigans that he said his wife will not watch him perform. He strode onto the stage carrying a chain saw. When Howie Mandel asked him how long he had been doing extreme stunts he did not really answer; he just said, “For this one, this will be the first time.” “How dangerous is it?” Madel asked him. “I could die,” came the response. Thus, before he had even done a single thing, he had everyone’s attention.

He proceeded to start the chain saw, set it on the ground, and then walk on his hands directly over top of the chain saw–meaning, of course, that his face was just a few inches from the whirring blade. This got some gasps and looks of astonishment, but the dude was nowhere near finished. Next he picked up an apple, bit into it so that it was mostly protruding from his mouth and put on a blindfold. He then picked up the chainsaw and proceeded to cut the apple in half with the chain saw–again, obviously, bringing the moving blade within a coupe of inches of his face. Heidi Klum was aghast. Mel B almost immediately said no, he was not getting her vote. But Howard Stern and Howie Mandel both said yes, they were intrigued and wanted to see more. With the crowd cheering wildly and Mandel and Stern pressuring her, Klum yielded and gave her assent. The man who called himself The Grandpa Show was moving on past the audition round. As I flipped back to the baseball game I thought, “How incredibly stupid!”

Stupid is something that has always irritated me. When I was a rookie teacher the student council at the school where I taught asked each teacher to complete a questionnaire for some activity they had planned. One of the questions was, “What irritates you more than anything else?” Truth be told, there are quite a few things that irritate me. Once I heard myself saying, “Nothing irritates me more than…” and then realized that, whatever it was that came next was probably at least the fifth or sixth thing I had inserted into that blank. Hmmm… To this question, though, I responded, “Stupidity – which I define as refusing to use the intelligence that you have.” That has been my answer ever since whenever I am asked that question. I just find it irritating, aggravating and frustrating when someone knows better and chooses to do something stupid anyway. Something like passing a running chain saw within a couple of inches of one’s face while blindfolded. Thinking about it a bit more I was struck by how many times people will cheer for stupidity. The crowd was going wild for the chainsaw wielding grandpa, after all. No doubt you can think of examples, too, of when you saw others–or you yourself–cheered for something that was just plan inexcusable. I remember attending a professional baseball game once when some idiot climbed up the foul pole. We was probably drunk, and I am sure he spent the night in jail, but dozens, if not hundreds, of people were cheering him on. Once in while someone will go too far and we will, collectively, call them on it–think Michael Jackson holding his child over the railing of a hotel balcony–but more often than not many of us are more than happy to cheer on stupidity.

Further thought brought to a few more conclusions, too. First, we tend to cheer on behavior that we ourselves would never engage in. Perhaps that is why it excites us. Second, we tend to blur the line between stupidity and skill, or stupidity and courage, by classifying them based on the results. Had The Grandpa Show miscalculated and sliced the front of his face off I doubt anyone would have been cheering. “What an idiot!” would have been the more likely result. “What was he thinking?” would no doubt have been uttered frequently. And, no doubt, “Why would they even let him do that?” would have been asked of America’s Got Talent by more than a few people. Yet, since he pulled it off, the majority of the crowd and three-fourths of the judges said they want to see him do more stupid stuff–and you know he will have to continually up the stakes. Using a chain saw to slice an apple you are holding in your mouth, by the way, is not talent. When performed successfully it may demonstrate a certain amount of skill and precision, but it is not talent. It is not a natural ability or an aptitude grandpa was born with. (Neither, by the way, was grandma’s power lifting).

Most of us are bright enough to use the intelligence we have and refrain from doing things as stupid as slicing apples in our mouths with chain saws. Many of us, however, do like to walk that fine line in other areas of our lives. Convincing us that we won’t get hurt is one of Satan’s great strategies. We like the thrill and the rush that comes from doing things we know we probably should not do when we actually pull them off or get away with them. We know the risks are real, but we choose to think they do not apply to us. If grandpa slices apples with chainsaws every day and never gets hurt does that mean it is a good idea? No. Does it mean we should all try it? Certainly not. No doubt, however, many people will continue to cheer loud and long for such stupidity.

Believe it or not, the Bible has a a fair amount to say about stupidity. Depending on your translation, the word “stupid” may not appear, or not appear much, but the principles are there. Stupid people are those, biblically speaking, who resist instruction. Those who seem to know everything themselves, have it all figured out not need any advice or direction from anyone else. These are the people who only learn, if ever, the “hard way.” Job 11:12, after all, says, “But a stupid man will get understanding when a wild donkey’s colt is born a man!” (ESV). This of course, will never happen; rather like the Job-era equivalent of saying “when pigs fly.” Proverbs 12:1 says, “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, but he who hates reproof is stupid.” This one is tricky. None of us want to be called stupid, but few of us like reproof. Why? More than likely because we are proud. Reproof, however, when properly motivated and delivered, is for our own good. Reproof, by the way, is telling someone who is slicing apples in their mouth with a chainsaw that it’s really not a good idea, not cheering for them.

Those of us who tend to frown on stupidity can be ostracized at times. We may be called sticks in the mud, party poopers, old fashioned or even puritanical. Don’t worry about it. There is an adage that fits here quite well: “Better safe than sorry.” Yes, maybe some of us need to lighten up sometimes and get a little silly, but there is a still a definite line we must not cross. Fun and silliness must never become stupidity. And when you do see it on display, for goodness sake, don’t cheer for stupid!

Messing with the Master Plan

You perhaps have heard the comments made by Adam Swift during an interview on Australia’s ABC Radio National. Swift is a Professor of Political Theory at Warwick University and he has been doing research, with Harry Brighouse, on family values. Swift and Brighouse published a book entitled Family Values: The Ethics of Parent-Child Relationships last August. According to the blurb on Amazon, the book “provides a major new theoretical account of the morality and politics of the family, telling us why the family is valuable, who has the right to parent, and what rights parents should–and should not–have over their children.” I have not read the book, so I will not comment on what it contains. From the description I just quoted it sounds both interesting and frightening. I say scary because when someone starts talking about the “morality” of family I get nervous. The family is an institution created by God, so its morality is unquestionable. I am also somewhat troubled by the question of who has a right to parent. While I agree that the act of procreation does not a parent make in any sense other than biological, if we start questioning who has a right to parent we are necessarily implying that some people do not have the right to parent. When we reach the conclusion that some people have the right to parent and others do not, we also necessarily imply that someone, or some group of someones, have the right to determine who has the right to parent and who does not. This notion should trouble us all. Still, it is not the book itself that led to Swift’s rise to national, even international, attention. That was due to the comments he made during his radio interview.

In that interview, Swift said that from a purely utilitarian position it would seem desirable to eliminate the differences between families and the resulting gaps that can impact educational opportunity, material provision, employment and more. “One way philosophers might think about solving the social justice problem would be by simply abolishing the family,” Swift said. “If the family is this source of unfairness in society then it looks plausible to think that if we abolished the family there would be a more level playing field.” Plausible maybe…if we were all robots or the human differences that make us unique could be eliminated. Swift is not the first one to speculate on this, though; Plato suggested it a couple of millennia ago. Aristotle did not agree with Plato though, and Swift tends more toward the Aristotelian position. So that’s a relief, at least. Swift and his colleague determined that the parent-child relationship is valuable and in the best interest of the child. That did not satisfy them though, as they wanted to know which familial activities contribute to the social inequalities that exist in the world. “What we realized we needed was a way of thinking about what it was we wanted to allow parents to do for their children, and what it was that we didn’t need to allow parents to do for their children, if allowing those activities would create unfairnesses for other people’s children.” So this was what Swift and Brighouse set out to examine. Again, I maintain that this entire notion should scare us all. Do we really want to explore the possibility of forbidding parents from doing certain things because of the possibility that it might disadvantage someone else’s child? Of course we should prohibit things like cheating and bribery, but behaviors that are not illegal should be permitted and even encouraged because, again, where do we draw the line? Who decides where we draw the line? For example, my daughter wears eye glasses. Would Swift and Brighouse suggest that by purchasing those for her I am providing her with an unfair advantage, since many children around the world do not have parents who can purchase glasses for them?

Here is how Swift and Brighouse address that question. They developed a test for what they call “familial relationship goods.” Joe Gelonisi, who condicted the interview for ABC Radio National in Australia described “familiar relationship goods” as “those unique and identifiable things that arise within the family unit and contribute to the flourishing of family members.” That is a quite a broad stroke in my opinion, so what Swift and Brighouse have to say about these goods would be interesting indeed. What would be some examples of acceptable and unacceptable familial relationship goods? Providing a private school education for one’s children is not an acceptable example, Swift said. “Private schooling cannot be justified by appeal to these familial relationship goods. It’s just not the case that in order for a family to realize these intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships you need to be able to send your child to an elite private school.” Hmmm… I could convincingly argue that a private school education is not necessary for “intimate, loving, authoritative, affectionate, love-based relationships” but then I could just as convincingly argue that homeschooling provides a greater opportunity for such relationships that public education does–so are the parents who homeschool the only ones providing legitimate familial relationship goods? While he did not address homeschooling in his interview (that I can find), and I do not know if he addresses it in his book, I suspect Swift would argue that homeschooling is an illegitimate familial relationship good too, providing homeschooled children with an unfair advantage, particularly when the homeschooling is done by highly educated parents and/or in conjunction with the opportunity to travel extensively or pursue other private instruction in athletics, music or art.

What really got everyone’s attention was Swift’s assertion that parents reading bedtime stories to their children is an acceptable familial relationship good, but not one that parents should necessarily feel good about. “The evidence shows that the difference between those who get bedtime stories and those who don’t–the difference in their life chances–is bigger than the difference between those who get elite private schooling and those that don’t,” Swift said. He continued:

You have to allow parents to engage in bedtime stories activities, in fact we encourage them because those are the kinds of interactions between parents and children that do indeed foster and produce these [desired] familial relationship goods. We could prevent elite private schooling without any real hit to healthy family relationships, whereas if we say that you can’t read bedtime stories to your kids because it’s not fair that some kids get them and others don’t, then that would be too big a hit at the core of family life. I don’t think parents reading their children bedtime stories should constantly have in their minds the way that they are unfairly disadvantaging other people’s children, but I think they should have that thought occasionally.

I have read innumerable stories to my children, at bedtime and otherwise, and I can say without hesitation that it has never once even crossed my mind that in so doing I was somehow “disadvantaging other people’s children.” Sure, I am aware that children who are read to are likely to perform better academically and more likely to develop both a love for reading and a greater level of literacy, but the fact that not all parents read to their children does not mean that I am disadvantaging someone else’s child. Indeed, the reality is that those parents who do not read to their children are the one’s disadvantaging their own children, if we must use that word. There is no need for me to feel guilty about reading to my children just because not all parents do. There is no need for me to stop reading to my children in some bizarre attempt to level the playing field.

So overwhelming was the backlash against Swift’s comments that he was forced to take to his faculty page at Warwick to refine his position. “We would never discourage anybody from reading their children bedtime stories, nor criticize them for doing so. Where parents are not willing or able to provide that kind of help, then they should be encouraged to do so, and where necessary supported in doing so,” he writes. The hullabaloo was a result, Swift says, of “careless polemical journalism” which “has seriously misrepresented my views and led to a barrage of abusive emails.” I am certainly not suggesting that Swift should receive any abusive e-mails, and I have not contacted him, but when one writes a book and goes on the radio to tout a theory regarding the appropriate role of families and the advantages that may result from some parent-child activities, one must also be willing to accept that the theory is going to be examined, critiqued and perhaps even attacked. Swift concludes his explanation about his position (and presumably that of Brighouse, as well) like this:

We argue that the various means by which parents confer advantage on their children are not all equally important for loving family life. In our view the grounds for protecting elite private education, for example, are considerably less weighty. We also think it is good occasionally to be mindful of the children who, due to factors entirely beyond their control, are disadvantaged because of lack of loving attention from parents. Of course many will disagree with those views. But if you have read or heard that we object to bedtime stories, or want to create a level playing-field between children in different families, then you have read or heard someone who has misunderstood our theory.

I do not think I would have a problem with the notion that elite private education is not necessary. I would, however, defend wholeheartedly the right of any parent desiring to do so, and able to do so, to provide such an education for their child(ren). (Please note that this position is not purely a result of the fact that I am the administrator of a private school, either; I believe that one of the fundamental rights a parent should have is where and how to provide the best possible education for their children). Swift says that he does not favor creating a level playing field among families, yet it certainly seems that he is suggesting that a more level playing field should be desirable and that, when it does not exist, parents should at least feel guilty about it. I fail to see how this will benefit anyone.

By the way, what has received far less attention, no doubt because this notion is much more politically acceptable these days, is Swift’s suggestion in the radio interview that “parent” is a position that is not restricted to the biological parents and that the number of parents may be more than two. “Nothing in our theory assumes two parents: there might be two, there might be three, and there might be four,” Swift said. “Politicians love to talk about family values, but meanwhile the family is in flux and so we wanted to go back to philosophical basics to work out what are families for and what’s so great about them and then we can start to figure out whether it matters whether you have two parents or three or one, or whether they’re heterosexual etcetera. We do want to defend the family against complete fragmentation and dissolution. If you start to think about a child having 10 parents, then that’s looking like a committee rearing a child; there aren’t any parents there at all.” It is a relief to know that Swift thinks parenting by committee is not a good idea, but again, who decides how many “parents” is okay? If two, three or four are all acceptable but ten is not, who gets to decide where between four and ten that line is drawn? In reality, this is only an additional attempt to redefine what “family” is and what it means, and it is all connected to the redefinitions occurring the areas of gender and marriage, as well. After all, if one can decide what gender to be, regardless of the biology, and if we can change what marriage means, why not adjust what “parent” means too?

Ultimately, all of this chaos and confusion comes from our attempts to mess with that which God has already determined. God created human beings, male and female, God created the family and God created both the ability to procreate and the responsibility to parent. When we mess with the master plan–really the Master’s plan–that’s exactly what we end up with: a mess.

One Unchanging Message

Dave Furman wrote an article entitled “The Same Gospel” that appeared in the May 2015 issue of Tabletalk. Furman is the senior pastor of a church in the United Arab Emirates. Based on his location and the description in his article, it seems that his is a culturally diverse church. His comments are specifically targeted at the unique challenges of cross-cultural ministry, by which I mean different ethnic cultures and nationalities. However, in light of recent research and efforts by those who claim to have the most effective approaches for reaching those of different generations within the same culture (such as Gen X in the U.S.), the principles he addresses are just as applicable there.

Early in his article Furman writes,

The gospel changes lives. Though there are certainly cultural differences between the West and the East, we must resist the temptation to change the gospel. If we do, and people respond, then we have won people not just to a “variation” of the gospel, but to a false gospel, which is no gospel at all. Only the gospel of God concerning His Son is the good news. We want people to hear God’s truth and not a deceitful version of the message. The truth is that our sin against a holy God deserves death and God’s judgment. It is only through faith in Christ’s sacrifice for sinners that we will be saved.

I have heard and read a number of arguments for “presenting” the gospel in a way that fits within the culture in which it is being presented. I have always been reluctant of these approaches however because (1) in almost every instance “presenting it” is code for the message itself, and (2) if the message itself is changed it is necessarily different than the message the Bible contains. Something cannot be both different and the same; that is simply not possible. Even many relativists would agree that this is an impossibility. So, if changing parts of the Bible message is necessary to make it palatable to someone then we have a problem. Let me put it this way: I do not like pecans. It’s not that I do not care for them, I really do not like them. At all. How ridiculous would it be then for someone to tell me they would fix a pecan pie for me but leave out the pecans? Whatever I ended up with may well be tasty, but it would not be pecan pie. That is exactly what happens when we alter the gospel message in some way in order to “overcome” or “avoid” elements of the gospel message that are unpleasant, undesirable or even offensive.

I have heard of this working various ways. In some instances, the idea of Jesus being God’s Son is inconsistent with the beliefs and traditions of some cultures, so that wording is changed. In some places, the idea of a blood sacrifice or the idea of sin is objectionable, so that is tweaked or removed. The idea that we are fallen sinners is not a popular notion. It does not create warm fuzzies for anyone. The reality that we cannot work our way to heaven or earn forgiveness of our sins is inconsistent with what we teach and believe in almost every other area of our lives. Why not change the message a little bit to make it more appealing? Some megachurch pastors have said they will not talk about sin because it offends people. Imagine that! The Bible says it will be an offense; the gospel message will be a stumbling block. Whether it is refusing to talk about sin, changing the message to “culturally appropriate” or using bells and whistles (read lights, loud music and silly activities) to attract people to church, the reality is simply that such methods are nothing other than false advertisement. Okay, perhaps the lights, loud music and silly games are not exactly false advertisement, but when we use gimmicks to bring people in so that we can try to slip in the truth for a few minutes in between the stuff we really attracted them with, are we not operating under false pretenses?

Vacation Bible School and other activities designed to appeal to children can fall victim to this approach, too. There is nothing wrong with games, crafts, songs and skits in and of themselves. When those things became the primary focus of a VBS, though, the church is doing a disservice both to itself and to the children it is endeavoring to reach. If a church wants to offer a babysitting service or activity time or drama camp, no problem. Do that–and call it what it is. If a church wants to have a Vacation Bible School, though, the emphasis and most important part of the schedule need to deal with the Bible. (I have been a part of many VBS programs over the years, as a participant, a leader and as a parent of participants. Some of these out-of-the-box programs are much better than others in this regard. Answers in Genesis, for example, produces a program that is very “meaty” and ensures, when properly utilized, that children are receiving solid, in-depth instruction in the Bible. Generally speaking, though, I think VBS curriculum is like school curriculum. By that, I mean that the ultimate success of the instruction will depend far more on the teachers than on the materials being used).

Furman later writes, this:

There is no better message that we can share. And so there is no need to change it, distort it, rewrite it, add to it, or subtract from it. If you adjust the gospel, you destroy it. Gospel revision always equals gospel reversal. In a culture that is different from ours and even in dangerous contexts, why would we ever want to risk our lives to proclaim news that has no power unto salvation?

One of the most incredible and powerful evidences of the truth of the gospel message is the transformation that occurred in the lives of the followers of Christ after His resurrection. Where there had been fear, there was boldness. Where there had been cowardice, there was courage. Where there had been doubt, there was certainty. If we are going to go to the time, effort, trouble and expense of sharing a message–whether to children in our own church or to unreached people groups halfway around the world–shouldn’t we at least make sure that we are sharing the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Why waste the time and effort for anything less?

Finally, not only would it be a foolish waste of time, effort and resources to share message that was less than the truth, it would be unauthorized. Here’s how Furman puts it:

Long ago, before there was television and the Internet, when a military had a big victory the king would send a herald into the town centers of the villages, and they would declare the good news and then run into the next town square proclaiming the victory. The herald had no ability to make the news but only to share what the king had declared. That’s what we are called to do: to take the same gospel as it is and proclaim the good news about what our King Jesus has already done.

May we resist all efforts to alter, abridge, tone down or otherwise manipulate the message that all have sinned, all need a Savior, and God has provided one through His Son–a Son who lived a perfect life, suffered a cruel and undeserved death, was buried, rose again three days later and lives now in heaven with God the Father. Wherever we go, wherever the gospel message may go, may it go in boldness and in truth, unapologetically and unashamedly.

Exciting Worship

A few days ago Bob Kauflin, Director of Sovereign Grace Music, wrote a post on his blog Worship Matters entitled, “How Exciting Should Our Sunday Meetings Be?” He began his post by sharing a comment from a friend, who told him that his pastor “wanted their meetings to be more exciting.” Kauflin then proceeded to expound upon why striving for excitement in our church services–at least excitement as our culture defines it–is not what we should be pursuing. If you look at the definition of “exciting”, as Kauflin does, then you would no doubt agree with his conclusion that anytime the body of Christ is gathered together should be a time of excitement purely because of the very nature of the gathering. Kauflin writes,

Certainly, nothing should cause greater enthusiasm and eagerness than meeting with the church to recount what God has done to save us from his wrath through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. All our sins are forgiven! We have been adopted into God’s family! Jesus has triumphed over sin, death, and hell! We are new creations! We are part of God’s unstoppable, unchangeable, unrelenting plan to have a people on earth who will display his glory, truth, righteousness, love, and compassion!

What can be more earth-shattering, soul-shaking, and EXCITING than rehearsing and reveling in those realities?

To that I would say a hearty Amen! However, I would also agree with Kauflin that that is almost certainly not what his friend’s pastor had in mind, nor is it what many people in church leadership, worship ministry and the schools who train those individuals likely have in mind. When we think about the things in our lives that we might describe as exciting we probably think about things that get our juices flowing, that get our heart beating, that bring a smile to our face and a twinkle to our eyes–things that we enjoy in the moment and think back on fondly after the fact. Depending on who you are and what your interests are, “exciting” for you could be a theme park roller coaster ride, a deep sea fishing excursion, a professional sporting event, a classical music concert in a world class venue or a hike in the Rockies. All of those things are fine and good–there is nothing wrong with any of them. Rarely do any of us think about church the same way we would think about one of those activities, though. I think that is interesting for several reasons, and I see some similarities and some differences.

First, with the exception of hiking in the Rockies, each of the activities above occurs in a setting designed specifically for the purpose. (Yes, I realize the ocean is not a venue designed specifically for deep sea fishing, but the boat and equipment used would be specific to the activity). Similarly, church services are often–though, I realize, not always–held in facilities specifically designed for corporate worship or, if not designed for that purpose, at least set up accordingly. Second, excluding hiking again, each of those activities have personnel present for the specific purpose of aiding and assisting in your experience, whether to take tickets, provide directions, show you to your seats, explain the safety instructions, sell you food and beverages or ensure that you are outfitted appropriately for the event you are about to experience. Similarly, many churches have ushers, greeters, teachers, etc. to assist members and guests.

Here are a couple of differences I see, too. First, rarely does anyone engage in any of the activities I described above without planning and preparation beforehand. I realize that someone with easy access to the Rockies may decide on a whim to take a hike or someone in close proximity to an amusement part may decide to go spend the day there, but for many of us any of those activities will involve planning: buying tickets, getting direction, arranging our schedule, organizing our finances so that the necessary funds are available and so on. I would suggest that there are very few people–myself included–who put anywhere near that kind of preparation into going into the House of the Lord. I know I’m going to church on Sunday, so I do not plan anything else to do and I make sure I am up on time, but the intentionality, planning and preparation that goes into my attendance at church on Sunday is not even close to the level of preparation I would put into one of the activities above. Second, every one of the activities above would involve, for the vast majority of people, dressing in a manner specific to the occasion. Whether it means wearing the jersey of your favorite sports team, putting on a suit or dress for the concert, lacing up your hiking boots and strapping on your backpack for a hike in the Rockies, putting on your swim trunks and flip flops for the fishing trip or whatever the case may be, rarely do any of us engage in any of those activities wearing whatever we usually wear for our normal day-to-day activities. Many people do exactly that when it comes to going to church, but I have addressed that topic elsewhere, so I will leave it go at that.

Kauflin addresses the growing tendency in churches to make their services more exciting, more stimulating, more emotional. “[A]n increasing number of churches,” he writes, “have sought to add elements to their gatherings that will make them more ‘exciting.’ Meeting countdowns. Fast-paced videos. Engaging dramas. Creative humor. Breathless, energetic emcees. More upbeat songs. Smoke machines. Light shows. And a mindset that views dead space as the supreme excitement killer.” In other words, too many churches are trying to turn their services into a show that gets everyone’s adrenaline pumping and hands clapping. I am not suggesting that church services should be boring or sleep-inducing. I have defended the position that worship should be an emotional experience. (After all, how sincere can worship be if it has no connection to one’s emotions?) When we go to church and just go through the motions, God is not pleased by that. At the same time, when we go to church and get wrapped up in the show and the activities at the expense of why we are there in the first place and Who we are there to worship, God is not pleased by that either.

I have been to churches at both ends of that spectrum. I have been in churches where all the routines of a worship service were present but it seemed as if no one was engaged at all. There was no emotion, no energy, no excitement. Everyone was basically putting in their time. That is draining, let me tell you, and I would seriously question whether anyone was really worshiping. I rather doubt God was feeling worshiped! I have also been to churches where there are huge screens, massive choirs, full orchestras, live bands, “recognizable” personnel on stage and so on. It looks like, sounds like and feels like a major concert experience. There is a lot more emotion, energy and excitement but the question in that situation is, on what–or on whom–was that emotion, energy and excitement directed? If it was directed at the “worship leaders” then God is not pleased. If it was directed inwardly, at how it makes “me” feel, then God is not pleased with that, either.

“Strictly speaking,” Kauflin writes, “God never says the goal of the church gathering is excitement. It’s edification for God’s glory. We meet to stir up one another to love and good works, not simply to have an emotionally electrifying time. We meet to behold God’s glory in Christ through his Word, responding in ways appropriate to his self-revelation (Heb. 10:24; 2 Cor. 3:18).” Here is the rub. I do not believe God is displeased or dishonored by lights, bands, orchestras, mass choirs and recognizable people on stage. I believe any or even all of those things in combination can be used to worship the Lord and to lead a church service that is appropriate focused. To a certain extent, the focus of the service depends on the people sitting in the pews (or padded chairs). The person(s) leading the service can have their focus in the right place and the heart and mind of the folks in the congregation can be elsewhere. That is a personal matter between those individuals and God. What is not a personal matter is the heart, focus and intention of the pastor and other personnel leading the service. If the purpose is to generate excitement purely for excitement sake, that is wrong. If the intention is to sell more books or CDs, or to increase one’s Twitter following, that is wrong. If the purpose is to engage those in the congregation in order to help them grow in their knowledge and understanding of God, in order to stir them up for good works and to be doers rather than hearers only, then that is a good thing and God is pleased. Kauflin clearly sums up the purpose of a church service as follows:

Our greatest need when we gather is not simply to feel excited, but to encounter God: to engage with the certainty of his sovereignty, the reality of his authority, the comfort of his mercy in Christ, and the promise of his grace. We need to be strengthened for the battles against the world, our flesh, and the devil that will confront us the moment we wake up Monday morning, if not before. Mere emotional excitement, however it might be produced, won’t be sufficient. We need God’s Word clearly expounded, God’s gospel clearly presented, and God’s presence clearly experienced.

If that is what is happening in your church, then you are at a great church, regardless of whether you use hymnals or words projected on massive screens, whether you have an old upright piano or a live band, whether you have the local insurance salesman leading the singing or an internationally-recognized worship leader at the front. Ultimately, everything other than what is contained in Kauflin’s statement above is peripheral. Maybe that sounds harsh or oversimplistic, but that’s the truth. We could get into debates about all of those other elements of church services, and the odds are good that we may have very different opinions about what what we prefer or think is most effective. Since God does not give explicit instructions on the order or elements of a worship service, though, I think there is room for a variety so long as the focus and purpose remains where it needs to be. When he explains that church services are not to be rock concerts or pep rallies, Kauflin also explains, “They’re something much more mundane, and at the same time something much more eternally and cosmically significant. Our plans, lights, smooth transitions, technology, videos, sound systems, visual effects, and creativity don’t make it so. Christ dwelling in the midst of his people through his Holy Spirit makes it so. That’s why if we understand what’s going on, sharing the bread and cup during communion can be one of the highlights of our week, transcending the greatest of world championship sports rivalries in its effect on us.” That is where he hits the bulls eye. All of that extra “stuff” is, as I said, peripheral. None of it makes the church service successful from God’s viewpoint. At the same time, none of it prevents the service from being successful from God’s viewpoint when it is all used to accomplish the purpose of encountering God, growing in our knowledge of Him and truly worshiping Him, in spirit and in truth. So the real question is not, “Should our services be more exciting?” The real question is, “What are you trying to accomplish with that ‘excitement’?” If the purpose is excitement, then there is a real problem. If the purpose is to stir the hearts of the people to know and worship God, then go for it–so long as that focus never changes. Yes, church leaders need to carefully and prayerfully reflect on why they do what they do and why they want to do what they are considering. At the same time, each of us needs to carefully and prayerfully reflect, too. When we say we’re looking for something “more” from the services at church, what do we really mean? What do we really want–and why? If anything, and I mean anything, seems to be more exciting or desirable than the sovereignty, grace, mercy and love of God then we better check our definition of “exciting.”