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Big League Sin

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If you see a fellow believer sinning in a way that does not lead to death, you should pray, and God will give that person life. But there is a sin that leads to death, and I am not saying you should pray for those who commit it. (I John 5:16)

We do not know what the “sin that leads to death” actually is. However, we do see it as so severe in John’s mind, that he wonders a loud if it’s even worth praying over. This individual evidently is so hell-bent on his own destruction that John sees that perhaps prayer energies would be better spent on someone else. How does one make that judgment? Without more explanation how is this passage helpful? Is this a descriptor of the modern-day terrorist? The modern-day pedophile? I hope not, because this sinning person is referred to as “a brother”. Is this then about someone who would claim to be Christian but yet is so decidedly evil? In this epistle John is particularly hard on 2 types of people

  1. Those who claim to be Christian yet have hearts full of hate
  2. Those who claim to be a Christian yet deny Christ’s real identity. (In those days the tendency was to accept Jesus’ divinity but not his humanity, now a days, the mistake is the other way around)

Are these people so far gone into their own destructive hate and delusions about the person of Jesus that they are beyond the point of return? Is this what John is talking about? I wonder if it’s even possible to know for sure.

What is the lesson for us? Is it that some sins are more severe than others? Yes, certainly that is one point, but I don’t think that’s the main point. The Christian must take all sin very seriously.

We know that God’s children do not make a practice of sinning (Vs 18)

The Christian person will run from and resist all sin at all costs. The Christian life will manifest itself in loving actions and attitudes toward other humans.

If we don’t love people we can see, how can we love God, whom we cannot see? (4:20)

If it does not something is “deathly” wrong.

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Seeking Allah Finding Jesus

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It’s costly to convert — I always feel that anyone who writes a book like this must be very brave. Muslims don’t really have the option to change their religion. It’s one of those unthinkable things, something that still warrants capital punishment in many parts of the world. The cost of leaving the Muslim faith is immense. If physical death is somehow avoided, there is certainly the death of relationships, career opportunities and social standing. Nabeel was not just a cultural Muslim, he was a devotee to his Ahmadiyya sect of Islam. From the time of his birth he was indoctrinated in his faith, as he grew up in the west, his parents were delighted to see their only son become a staunch defender of Islam. In the Western world, preconceptions are freely and regularly challenged but Nabeel met these challenges with apologetic fervour. Eventually, over the course of many years, Nabeel left Islam to embrace Christianity, the price for him, even in the west, was tremendous.

Sharing ones faith is best accomplished in the context of a relationship  — The book is about Nabeel’s story but it certainly could be David’s story as well. They were best friends through high school and university, the two were inseparable even though David was a committed Christian. Regarding evangelism Nabeel points out that

“Effective evangelism requires relationships. There are very few exceptions, the discussions that we had about faith arose naturally after we became friends and in the context of a life lived together. In fact I was the one who brought them up.”

I could not agree more.

Historical probability, truth and faith. — David and Nabeel were debaters in high school and university, they constantly challenged each other to find out the truth about whatever topic they were debating. Rational and reasonable argument became the norm for discovering truth. When it came to historical discussions the highest amount of probability based on the historical method was the criteria for distinguishing truth form error. One day David asked Nabeel the following question.

“Nabeel, stop trying to win the argument instead look for the truth — If the truth could be known, would you want to know it?

Nabeel’s answer was both “Yes” and “No” because he knew full well the cost if truth was not on his side. This launched his intense search for truth about the Bible, Jesus, the Quran, and Muhammed.

What about Jesus, the Bible, the Quran and Muhammed? Acknowledging the possibility of truth based on historical probability, Nabeel set out to undercut the claims of Christianity. Christians claim that Jesus died on the cross, Muslim’s say he didn’t. Christians claim that Jesus rose from the dead, Muslims say he did not. Christians claim that Jesus is divine, Muslims say that he is not. Looking at the evidence by use of the historical method the goal was to set the two stories side by side and determine which one is more likely the true one. This book settles into a relentless search for truth, but never does it disconnect from the humanity of this story or the cost of this search. It’s way more than just straight up apologetics.

The book reads like it might feel to be on board a ship that’s sinking. Nabeel doesn’t want the boat to sink, you as the reader can feel his anxiety and alarm, he writes in such a way that you don’t want the boat to sink either. After all, the boat of Islam is all he has known, it’s been a good boat for him. But the holes in the boat he discovers are real holes. They are undeniable. To leave the boat is the right course, if truth matters, but oh the struggle.

Faith more than just facts  — Towards the end of the book Nabeel is broken, Christianity has withstood his withering scrutiny and his own faith has fallen. Muhammed is not the man Nabeel thought he was, the perfect preservation of the Quran is a myth. The ancient Muslim historians upon whom he depended for vindication of his faith, revealed the truth, and the truth was far from the story upon which his faith was built. Even still, it was too costly to leave his faith. If Jesus was real, If he was who the Christians claimed then Jesus would just have to show up and tell him directly. In three successive dreams, Jesus did. Nabeel knew the truth. To embrace Jesus as Lord would cost him everything, but hanging on to a lie would ultimately cost him more.

Serious Study — Nabeel is not like most people in the Western world who are content to embrace at a minimal level whatever cultural and religious back drop they are born into just so long as it doesn’t interfere with their personal freedom to do and be whatever they want. Truth was all that mattered to Nabeel he had to find it and align himself accordingly. In the end It was Christianity that was true not Islam.

Everyday Church

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Another book about the church. There are a lot of them out there. This is one of the better ones. These men offer us a powerful critique of where the church has lost it’s focus, but they don’t just blast away, rather, with a gracious spirit they offer some tremendous assistance in moving forward. For 2015 this book receives my strongest recommendation. If you are at all interested in the church, read this book. Below is simply a compilation of snippets, woven together, to give you a taste.

If I build it will they come? Merely opening our doors each Sunday is no longer sufficient. Offering good products is not enough. What is clear is that great swathes of America will not be reached through Sunday morning services. (15) Since the Bible no longer has authority in public discourse increasingly less and less of our population has any interest in church attendance whatsoever. (19) Our persistent ‘come to us’ mind set suggests that we really believe that people who refuse to come in the front door are beyond the reach of Christ. We cannot assume people will come to us. We must go to them. (28) We cannot assume that people feel any need or obligation to attend church (37) – they don’t.  Even if we could produce cool church events, we would create a generation of Christian consumers who look to the church to entertain them. (49) – Sadly, this in many cases is exactly what we have done. When church becomes a performance in which most people are observers of the super-talented, the people of God eventually become disenfranchised. (96)

What about persecution? It is a daily thing to experience marginalization and hostility. (36) We need to discover or recover the sense that if this year we are not imprisoned it has been a good year .(38)

What is evangelism? It’s not a question of “improving the product” of church meetings and evangelistic events. It means reaching people apart from meetings and events. (17) Programs are what we create when Christians are not doing what they are supposed to do in everyday life. (50) It is not simply that ordinary Christians live good lives that enable them to invite friends to evangelistic events. Our lives are the evangelistic events (89) When we think of evangelism, we should not first think of guest services, evangelistic courses, street preaching, or door knocking. We should think of Gary at a meeting of the resident’s association. We should think of Hannah in her office. (90)

Being the church The church needs to understand itself as a people sent on a mission together rather than the storefronts for vendors of religious services and goods. (98) The gospel community is the core unit, when understanding church. These little communities on mission should be the primary organizing principle of the church.  It is within these collections of people that the work of evangelism, pastoral care, discipleship, and sharing life take place. A gospel community is a network of relationships that will probably have a regular meeting, but they are sharing life throughout the week (105) However you do church, let it be nothing less than the people of God on mission together. In this way we are a city on a hill and a light of the world. (111) Everyday church fills everyday, but it does not necessarily fill it with extra activities. It’s fundamentally a matter of becoming intentional about the everyday stuff of life. (143) No new life is possible without the Spirit of God, so we arrange to pray together because we see it as our  primary missional activity. (149) Everyday church is not primarily about a structure but about a culture or ethos. (155) Weekly Sunday gathering is important but it cannot achieve all that the New Testament envisions for church life. It cannot be a context for the one anothering of the New Testament. Moreover, if it is seen as primary, then all these other things are viewed as secondary. If the bulk of a churches time and energy goes into the Sunday meeting, then everyday church will not happen. (160)

Where are the lost? If we could place people on a range of one to ten depending on their interest in the gospel, where one is no interest and ten is a decision to follow Christ, lots of evangelism assumes people are at around eight. We teach our gospel outlines. We teach answers to apologetic questions. We hold guest services. We put on evangelistic courses. We preach in the open air or knock on doors. All these are great things to do, but 70 percent of the population is at one or two. (112) It’s not so much attractional events that will win people it is attractional communities. (88)

Speaking the gospel story into peoples stories. — Obviously, people do not use the categories creation, fall redemption, and consummation. But they will talk about who they are and what they are meant to be (creation) They will talk about what is wrong with them or what is wrong with the world — somebody or something will be blamed (fall) They will also have a sense of what needs to happen for things to be put right (redemption) and some sense of the state of affairs that they are hoping will give them meaning or satisfaction. (consummation) Creation = my identity who I am. Fall = My problem. Redemption = my solution. Consummation = my hope.  (115)  People are throwing out their versions of this grand story all the time or job is to look for points of intersection. (119)

Measurements of success — What is a good church? What criteria do we use to make assessments? Preaching? Youth Work? Music? For the apostle Peter a good church is characterized by love, compassion, forgiveness, generosity, service, and grace…A good church is a church in which the believers share their lives together as an alternative and authentic society. (140)

Re-thinking professional ministry — The most important evangelistic work of the minister appears to be not in the church and the pulpit but in two other kinds of relationships: one to one meetings with non-Christians and the ‘lapsed’ and group situations, particularly those where there is an opportunity to talk about the nature of faith. (24) Authentic leadership can be bi-vocational, and in a marginalized context this may be preferable. Unbelievers are often suspicious of professional clergy. They are more willing to listen to someone who works hard with integrity in a “normal” job. It also brings leaders into contact with people who would never attend a church service. (146)

Christian History in Plain Language (Book Review) Bruce Shelley

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I love history, so I am bias, but I think that even a non-history person would be captivated by this book. Shelley captures well the heart of history, which is a story well told. In this volume it’s the story of Christianity. The glories and wonders of it, as well as the dirty laundry. He knits the whole story together by telling lots and lots of fascinating little stories along the way.  This is not a history book that buries you with mind numbing lists of dates, places and events. Yes, they are in there but covertly woven into incredible, despicable, charming, disgusting, and miraculous stories of real people like you and me.

I know it sounds crazy, it’s a history text book after all, right? but I couldn’t put the book down and I learned so much.

I think it should be pointed out, that Shelley is not interested in glossing over the less glorious side of the Christian story. You will not just find a celebration of what is good in this book about Christianity but also an evaluation and analysis of what was not at all good.

Untamed (Alan & Deb Hirsch)

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The call of God for his people is discipleship but discipleship doesn’t happen without an unyielding untamed missionary mindset. Yet countless numbers of people today who would identify themselves as Christians, could hardly define “missionary” let alone be one. Why is that? There are 6 reasons that stood out to me. Untamed, however, was far from simply being a book of reasons. It is a passionate, story filled appeal for Christians to embrace the wild untamed way of Jesus and in so doing be who they were meant to be.

  1. Love verses Reason — Reason is always in the employment of love. Our heart tells us what we want and our minds do whatever is necessary to make it happen. In short, people aren’t interested in the missionary life, because they don’t really love Jesus.
  2. Holy Spirit — In referring to to Alan’s conversion they talk about how he had an ecstatic tangible experience with the Holy Sprit after which Alan said that he felt as though his mind was on fire and that he had never really had thoughts before that time. Later on an appeal is given to the reader to take the risk of encountering the divine so that “you can experience God in wild and wonderful ways”   What does that even mean? What if the reader (like me for example) doesn’t have any experiential frame of reference? Without answers to these questions, the point is clear enough: the Holy Spirit’s power is what makes missionaries and his very real presence is absolutely necessary.
  3. Consumerism — Entertaining consumers into being disciples is a failed experiment. One does not consume his way into following Jesus. Consumerism is what has filled the vacuum of meaning in the 21st century and the church has not been unaffected. Church has become a vendor for religious services and a mature Christian is one who makes good decisions on what he will consume. Church has become a feeding trough where people come to “get fed”  by trained professionals. Hirsch points out that it is babies who need to be fed, and laments  that we have created a religious system designed to employ professional food distributers while keeping Christians in perpetual stages of infancy.
  4. Fear & Laziness – The two greatest vices that keep Christians domesticated are fear and laziness. These vices are employed as an attempt to obtain security and comfort. Sadly, what is sacrificed in the vain pursuit of security and comfort is freedom and life itself. Like a domesticated goose that ends up on the dinner table because he is too fat to fly away so it goes with Christians who give in to these vices.
  5. Sexual judgement — Christians are masters it seems in their universal condemnation of sexual sin. Sexual sin is frowned upon far above any other sin. This judgemental reaction against all things sexually illicit greatly reduces the possibility of actually being a missionary in the sex saturated culture of west. The Hirsches advice when it comes to sexual sin: “it’s not what we believe about sexuality that matters it’s how we treat those with differing perspectives on sexuality…when it comes to sexual sin disciples must leave the judgement of those sins to God” If all this was only considering not yet believers, absolutely, I agree. Where the issue gets complicated is with regard to Christians who embrace sexual sins. On this the Hirsches are silent. But the Bible is not. Biblically informed Christians know that what they believe about sexuality matters and that they are responsible to help restore brothers and sisters who stumble. This restorative process requires judgement.
  6. Mistaken view of Holiness — Christians seem to think that authentic holiness requires separation from all things sinful. In looking at the life of Jesus that doesn’t really seem to be the case. Sinners flocked to Jesus who was as holy as you can be. It was religious people who were repulsed by his holiness. Somehow our version of holiness, seems to attract religious people and repel sinners. The mission heart of Jesus established in his followers will will not embrace this mistaken view of holiness which runs in terror from all things unclean.

“Abandon the safe and tame life of conservative religious morality and live a life that has stories to tell”

Ocean Swimming & Christianity (IBT #1)

IBT stands for “I’ve Been Thinking” A visual blog

I have a lot of thoughts that are rolling around in my brain about all kinds of stuff. You probably do too. I am hoping to share these thoughts with you and hoping you will interact with them, that way we both can learn together.

Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert (Book Review)

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By Rosaria Champagne Butterfield

Rosaria Champagne, was a very successful tenured professor at Syracuse university. Holding a PhD in english literature & cultural studies she was the key professor in the critical theory department. Her specialty was queer theory. (a post modern form of gay & lesbian studies) She endeared herself to “radical leftist ideology” embracing the philosophical & political views of Freud, Marx, and Darwin. She genuinely believed that her perspective and her activism was making the world a better place.  As a result, she was deeply loved by the GLBT community and served as faculty advisor for all the gay and lesbian organizations on campus. She was a sought after key note speaker at gay pride parades and desired visiting lecturer at such reputable schools as Harvard. But all that changed…
The local newspaper had printed her scathing assessment of the “gender politics” displayed by a national evangelical Christian organization. As usual mail that hated her, and adored her poured in. There was one letter, however, which didn’t seem to fit in either pile. The letter from pastor Ken Smith suggested that she explore and defend the presuppositions that undergirded her conclusions. The letter was gentle, open, inquisitive and challenging. Rosaria was unable to let the letter leave her mind.
Life moved forward and Rosaria decided to write a book on the religious right. She believed that religion was as Marx wrote. “The opiate of the masses” an imperialist social construction made to soothe the existential angst of the intellectually impaired. But in the interest of good scholarship she knew she must study. She learned Greek, started reading the Bible, and tried to immerse herself in this thinking that was so foreign to her. It didn’t take long before she knew she needed a tutor. She thought of Ken Smith, Rosaria, suspected all Christians to be narrow minded, bigoted, and anti-intellectual, but maybe, just maybe, Ken was different. She called and started blasting him with questions. Ken responded, “These are the kinds of questions that need to be talked about in my living room in front of the fire place after dinner, would you come?” And so it began, the remarkable friendship between a 36 year old lesbian feminist, and a 70 year old reformed Presbyterian minister. After 2 years Rosaria converted to Christianity. She describes her conversion as a “train wreck” because of the massive destruction that it wrought in every aspect of her life. “When you die to yourself you have nothing from your past to use as clay out of which to shape your future.” Rosaria has little use for the concepts of easy believism. As Roseria reflects back on her incredible transformation she has a multitude of wisdom for us. I think it best to simply quote her.

  • Where everyone thinks the same nobody thinks very much.
  • There is a core difference between sharing the gospel with the lost and imposing a specific moral standard on the unconverted.
  • In the court of public opinion, Christians have lost the war on intellectual integrity.
  • I couldn’t come to church, it was too threatening, too weird, too much. So Ken was willing to bring the church to me. Ken Smith spent time with me — and not just spare time. He spent pricey time — real time. He didn’t hide behind bumper stickers or slogans.
  • How do you have the strength of character to repent for a sin that at that time didn’t feel like sin at all — it felt like life, plain and simple…sins of identity take a while.
  • Repentance requires greater intimacy with God than with our sin.
  • Christians still scare me when they reduce Christianity to a lifestyle and claim that God is on the side of those who attend to the rules of the lifestyle they have invented or claim to find in the Bible.
  • I needed to be shepherded, I did not need the glitz and glamor that has captured the soul of modern evangelical culture.
  • God’s people surrounded me. Not to manipulate. Not to badger. But to love and to listen and to watch and to pray. Eventually instead of resisting, I surrendered.
  • Homosexuality — like all sin — is symptomatic and not casual — that is it tells us where our heart has been, not who we inherently are or what we are destined to become. Pride and not sexual orientation is the root problem.

Roseria, had come to see herself as the controlling, manipulative, arrogant, rebellious person that she was. She stopped justifying herself and repented even when the feelings were not there. Differences in her were duly noted by her network of friends. Her lover suggested she take a holiday. Her drag queen friend told her she was sick. Eventually, Roseria knew she had to “come out.” She picked The graduate student orientation convocation as the time and place to do it. She was the key note. Towards the end of her speech which landed like a bombshell in the ears of all her listeners she said:

“I discovered that God isn’t just a narrative we pick like summer berries or leave for the next person; nor is God a set of social conventions tailored for the weak of mind; nor is God a consumerist social construct who exists in the service of Christian imperialist ideologies and right-wing politics. Rather, I discovered that God through Jesus Christ exists, the triune God of the Bible exists, whether we acknowledge him or not. I discovered that God wasn’t very happy with me.” (August 1999, Graduate Student Orientation Convocation) Syracuse University.

There was nothing in the speech the was pejorative or inflammatory, but even still it wrecked everything. The line up outside her office became long and the requests for her to resign her advisory posts poured in. She remembers one exchange with a young GLBT activist;
“How do you know you are not gay?”
“How do you know you are?”
“I’m a gay man because the GLBT community is the only safe home I have, a home that was made safe by you! How could you?”
She had nothing to say, she just hugged him while he cried.

Rosaria ends up becoming a pastors wife, adopts 4 children, and takes on the role of homeschool mom. As a reformed Presbyterian she embraces something called the “regulative principle of worship” — essentially all singing in a church gathering is reduced to the the singing of psalms without accompaniment. She attempts to make the case for this position by saying. “If God gave us a book of praise songs, who are we to add to them?” However, If God gave us creative minds and gifts. Who are we not to use them for his glory? To not use our gifts is to insult the giver of these gifts. I recognize that all followers of Jesus practice some form of regulation when it comes to worship. The RP practices the strictest of regulation, that’s fine. Rosaria makes her case and leaves it at that. Diversity among Christianity is healthy.
This is my favorite book of 2013 so far, and a worthy read no matter what perspective you are coming from.

Christianity is Bad for Business

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It was a great idea. “Lets buy them some food & coffee, they don’t expect it, they are working hard, it will be a real encouragement to them.” Said my wife, I quickly added, “and we can make a sign saying, ‘with love from Meta’ (our church name)”  that way I thought to myself, they would know where the love is coming from. We could get a possible ‘return on the investment’, people in the neighborhood would start to see how kind and generous we are, they would appreciate us more, and want to be a part of what we are doing, this is “relational entrepreneurialship” at it’s finest, who could fault this kind of thinking, it’s a win for everyone, these blissful thoughts continued to fill my mind, as I envisioned what the card might look like. My wife didn’t seem as convinced as me.  Then like a party ruining rain cloud the words of Jesus drenched my mind. “But when you give to someone in need, don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.  Give your gifts in private, and your Father, who sees everything, will reward you.” Well that kind of talk doesn’t help me get the publicity I need to build this church! That is precisely Jesus’ point. The Good news of Jesus has nothing to do with with self glory. Healthy churches serve in the shadows. Self glory is the opposite of God’s glory and when it comes to following Jesus individually and as a community you can’t have both. Christianity is bad for business but its great for life.

Am I Better Than You?

Psalm 106… Save us O Lord our God!
The people of God had forgotten God, they had rebelled against him, they refused to listen to him, committed idolatry, they were envious and jealous, they committed murder they embraced evil practices and grumbled, they let their desires run wild. The result was their own misery and destruction. In many regards the people of God today — Christians — are just as broken. It’s the cry at the end of the Psalm that distinguishes the Christian from the non-Christian. The Christian cries out  “God help me” Under no circumstances does a Christian feel like he is better than someone else or somehow more worthy of blessing. A Christian is simply a broken person who is crying to God for help.

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