What do the attacks in Ottawa mean for us?

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Yesterday, something most Canadians never imagined possible happened: a gunman shot and killed 24-year-old Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, a member of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, as he served as part of the ceremonial honor guard at Canada’s National War Memorial. The gunman, identified as 32-year-old Michael Zehaf-Bibeau1, then moved toward Parliament itself, where he continued his attack where he injured at least two more people before he was killed.2

Wednesdays events mark the second such attack on Canadian soil in the last week. On Monday in St-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent was killed by a young man, recently converted to Islam with strong ISIS sentiments.

Last night, my wife and I watched Prime Minister Stephen Harper address the nation and use a word many of us might have been thinking, but were still surprised to hear him say: Terrorist. 

“In the days to come, we will learn more about the terrorist and any accomplices he may have had,” Harper said. “But this week’s events are a grim reminder that Canada is not immune to the types of terrorist attacks we have seen elsewhere around the world.”

The idea of a terrorist attack in Canada probably seems bizarre. I mean, it’s Canada. We’re all nice and polite and we have criminals who plan massive maple syrup heists. We have incredibly complex gun laws that require people to apply for permission to think about buying a gun.

We don’t have terrorist attacks. Except, it seems, we do.

So, we need to consider how these events should affect our thinking and our living. At the very least, I need to consider this and I’m hoping you’ll do so with me. Here are three things I see as important takeaways:

1. We should not ignore this event. It’s helpful for American readers to understand that when events like this happen, Canadians don’t stop everything they’re doing and watch the news. In America, I’m guessing this would have shut everything down: everyone would be paying attention. That’s just not how it works here.In fact, there are a good number of people here who won’t have any idea that there even was an attack on Parliament. We tend to have a laissez-faire attitude about most things in Canada: politics, the economy, education, Jesus… arguably everything except hockey, coffee, and beer. So when the attack happened, most of us were doing our regular jobs. Some of us were paying attention, but for many, it was more or less business as usual. I would love to see this change in my fellow Canadians, and in me. This doesn’t mean we need to become overly paranoid, but should acknowledge we are not immune to terrorism, and we would be foolish to think otherwise.

2. We must not use it for our own interests. Thankfully, so far at least, no one has taken to the airwaves and touted the need for more stringent gun regulations, nor do we need anyone making up conspiracy theories about Harper government trying to force a police state upon us.3 Because we don’t know the full story of what happened yesterday—specifically the motivations behind the events, though it’s almost certainly retaliation for Canada’s involvement in the coalition against ISIS—we would be foolish to rush to any sort of conclusion or use it as a launch pad for personal or political agendas.

3. We need to pray. Ottawa is a city filled with lost people. Toronto is filled with lost people. London (where I live)  is filled with lost people. Winnipeg, Calgary, Vancouver… every major Canadian city and nearly every community is filled with lost people. But every Canadian community also has at least some faithful Christians. And every faithful Christian desperately needs to be praying right now. We need to pray for wisdom for our government and for the authorities investigating these events. We need to pray that any accomplices still at large would be brought to justice. That further plans would be thwarted. And most importantly, that there would be opportunities to be powerful witnesses to the family of Cpl. Cirillo, to those who were injured in Wednesday’s shootings, and to the millions upon millions of lost people in our nation.


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Why it’s good to disagree with your past self

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It never fails. You write something, you put publish it, share it, do all the stuff you usually do with a blog post… And then, a few years later, you come back to it for some reason, and realize “Wow, I’m not sure I agree with that anymore.”

When this happens, I actually get pretty happy. Though it might seem strange to say, I don’t want to agree with everything I’ve written over the last six years. Why? Three reasons:

1. I’m not the same person who wrote it. Someone told me you’re the same person you were five years ago except for the people you meet and the books you read. Which, is really a coy way of saying, you should be a very different person if you’re doing it right. A few years (or a few months) from now, we may no longer agree with a popular figure who once was a strong influence. We will meet people and have experience which will affect us in ways we may not even be consciously aware of. We will be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking through the books we read (at least, as long as we’re being appropriately diverse in our reading). These changes and influences may be conspicuous or subtle, but they will most definitely happen. And that is most definitely a good thing.

2. I’m a different kind of writer than I was then. A few years ago, I had no idea what kind of writer I wanted to be. Much of my old writing was (in my opinion) sloppy and filled with unnecessary filler (far too many thens and thats and such things). I wanted to be taken seriously, so I used more words instead of better ones. Today, I’m more looking to have fun with words than to present myself a certain way. I want to write in ways material that’s fun to read, and usually this means making things shorter.

3. I’m being refined by God. One of the ways I’ve seen God most at work in my life in this regard has been a slowly increasing concern with character over results. Results can be manufactured, as we all know. But no matter how hard we try, character can’t be. I want to have the kind of character that’s marked with the fruit of the Spirit, to be the kind of person who is self-controlled and considerate. I have a long way to go, but when I look back on things I wrote or said a few years ago, I have confidence that the Lord is at work.

Christian, don’t begrudgingly affirm God’s Word

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This past week, the folks at Hillsong found themselves in a bit of a pickle as founder Brian Houston, when confronted on the question of homosexuality and same-sex marriage. In attempting to provide a winsome answer, he said that it’s too important to reduce down to a “yes or no answer in a media outlet,” which many conservative evangelicals took to mean Houston and Hillsong are fudging on what the Bible says.

Fast forward a couple of days. Houston clarified, saying, “My personal view on the subject of homosexuality would line up with most traditionally held Christian views. I believe the writings of Paul are clear on this subject.”

Houston’s not alone in doing “the dance”—not wanting to deny the Bible, but wanting to keep entry to the faith as free from obstacles as possible. Tons of pastors (and “pastors”) have faced this. Even Joel Osteen (who has the most inoffensive to unbelievers personality on earth!) has been ambushed on the question. In the end, he said he didn’t believe it to be God’s best for people.

Public personalities like these aren’t alone in doing the dance. At some point or another we all do it. And as I’ve watched it happen (and occasionally been caught in it myself) time and again, one of the inevitable pieces of fallout is we wind up just having to come out and say what we were trying to not say.

This almost begrudging acceptance of the truth—we really do have to say what the Bible says.

Now, I get it. Many people want to avoid putting up a stumbling block to unbelievers coming to faith. They don’t want to be seen as “those Christians”—the ones who are always fighting about this or that, or who are considered hateful or bigots. But dancing around the Bible isn’t the answer.

We don’t really need to do the dance. We don’t have to be backed into a corner where we begrudgingly accept what the Bible says. Not if we are viewing the Bible as we are meant to.

If the Bible is the word of Truth (James 1:18; Ephesians 1:13; 2 Timothy 2:15), shouldn’t we be more comfortable standing by it? Not with a begrudging acceptance, but with a heartfelt confidence?

Shouldn’t we be willing to treat God’s word as, well, God’s Word?

Five opportunities to glorify God in Mark Driscoll’s resignation

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So… Mark Driscoll resigned.

There’s a lot that could be said about this, and undoubtedly much will be. Some of it will be helpful, some of it will be… less so. Hopefully this will be the former, and not the latter.

In all honesty, I’m very glad that Driscoll is out of ministry. After years of controversy, and in recent months the unceasing barrage of issues coming to light—including plagiarism, financial mismanagement at Mars Hill and a pattern of abusive behavior—this needed to happen, for the good of the people who have been hurt, for the people at Mars Hill and for Driscoll himself.

And while, undoubtedly, there are going to be some who will read his resignation and point out some of the troubling aspects (including his not being found disqualified despite being disqualified by his “domineering style of leadership,” [1 Peter 5:3]), I would love to focus on five opportunities to glorify God arising from this:

The opportunity for Mars Hill Church

Mars Hill’s at a crossroads: if the church is all about Jesus, now’s the time to prove it. The best place to start? Honestly evaluating their structure.

The model they’ve been running on—with an outside board of accountability—simply doesn’t work, nor is it biblical. If they’re serious about getting healthy, they need to put in place a model of governance where every leader really is one vote at the table, and are held to account. They need to become autonomous churches with elders who are biblically qualified and capable of preaching the Word.

They need to not be what they’ve been for the better part of the last decade if they’re serious about getting healthy and continuing on with Jesus’ mission to make disciples of all the nations. If that can happen, I believe God will be glorified.

If not, then it’s time to turn off the lights and shut the doors.

The opportunity for Mark Driscoll

Mark Driscoll is also at a crossroads. The pattern of public behavior we’ve all witnessed over the last several months have shown us what can happen when a man with natural ability but lacking in spiritual maturity puts himself in a position of great authority. One cannot escape from such a scenario unscathed.

While he says he was not disqualified by the investigation (and really, did anyone expect him to be), one thing is unquestionably clear in all of this: he desperately needs help. Driscoll desperately needs to do some real soul searching and ask himself hard, honest questions: How did things get this bad? Is he seeing his own role in this drama correctly? What would God have him do going forward.

And although, I’m glad he says in his resignation that he and Grace will be receiving support and counsel from men and women across the country, he needs something else: to be a member in a local church. He needs to be under the authority of someone (or rather, multiple someones) for the first time in his adult life.

To be perfectly honest, my hope for Mark Driscoll is that he stays far away from the spotlight and far away from ministry for a long, long time. He’s got serious issues that need to be worked out. The best place for him to do that is as a member of a local church, not as a leader in one. If that can happen, I believe God will be glorified.

The opportunity for those injured

For those who have been injured over the years at Mars Hill, I’m not certain the news offers much comfort. Some, understandably, had hoped to see him disqualified and fired. Instead, he’s resigned of his own accord.

Regardless, he’s gone. Whether the church stands or falls remains to be seen. This is an opportunity to be at peace and heal, even if the way the end came about isn’t the way they’d hoped. If that can happen, I believe God will be glorified.

The opportunity for those on the sidelines

Finally, those of us on the sidelines have a number of choices to make. Some have made their reputations blogging about these sorts of controversies (to varying degrees of helpfulness). For these bloggers, their work is more or less done, at least as far as the negative side of these events is concerned. My hope for them is they’ll be able to focus on what is good and pure and true, and celebrate what God inevitably does out of this situation.

Some bloggers have chosen to be silent about these sorts of issues in general and this one in particular. Sometimes it’s for good reasons, such as not having anything to say or not wanting to be accused of chasing controversies. I don’t really have an issue with that. But my hope for all of us— particularly those of us who claim to be “gospel-centered”— would be an increased willingness to confront evil, especially when it appears in our own houses. We should be willing to decisively condemn such practices. If that can happen, I believe God will be glorified.

The final opportunity

Finally, we all have one final opportunity to glorify God in this, and that is to pray. We need to pray for God’s will to continue to be done in the lives of all who have been affected by the drama at Mars Hill Church over the last several months and years.

  • That those who have been injured would find peace.
  • That humility would reign in the hearts of the remaining leaders at Mars Hill as they choose how to move forward.
  • That God would truly break Mark Driscoll’s heart in a new way so he can be closer to God as he says he desires to be.
  • That we wouldn’t just wait for the next rockstar megachurch pastor to implode, but would pray that God would cut through the garbage they’ve surrounded themselves with.
  • That we would put our houses in order and not sacrifice people and mission on the altar of celebrity.

If we can pray for those things, I believe God will be glorified.

Cancel your Halloween plans if…

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My latest article at Christianity.com:

“Do you let your kids do Halloween?” My coworkers and I discussed this recently as we decompressed from our Monday morning meeting. It’s an interesting discussion to have with fellow believers because we’re so split on the issue.

Although rarely does anyone declare you a gospel-compromising heretic if you allow your kids to go trick-or-treating, it’s not uncommon to get a sideways glance. So how are we to navigate Halloween? Should we avoid it entirely or embrace it unquestioningly? Or is there a way for us to engage it appropriately, in a way that honors Christ?

I believe this final option is possible, provided we take the following things into consideration.

Read the whole piece at Christianity.com – Cancel Halloween (Unless You Can Do These 5 Things)


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Five things I’m thankful for

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Today is Thanksgiving in Canada. Like in America, Thanksgiving weekend is accompanied by (arguably) excessive amounts of food, lots of family get-togethers, and a post-turkey coma. The major difference, aside from our Thanksgiving being on a Monday, is that the biggest shopping day of the year doesn’t immediately follow.

This past Sunday, we drove to Orangeville, Ontario, and enjoyed the day with our extended family on my wife’s side (specifically, my in-laws and my sister-in-law’s in-laws), with lots of great food and conversation. Thinking about the festivities on the way home and into the evening after putting the kids to bed made me consider what I’m thankful for this year. Here are five things:

1. My church: yesterday was the first time I’d actually sat in our weekend services in about a month. Prior to that, I’ve been preaching at another church, teaching in our children’s ministry, and (last week) teaching our baptism class in preparation for October 24th’s event. It was nice to just be there, for a change (even if the sleepy-time lighting makes it challenging to stay awake). Every time I hear them preach, I am grateful for our pastors’ commitment to the Word and desire to see people grow in their affection for Jesus. This is such a great gift.

2. My wife: She’s been working extra hard over the last few weeks, particularly as we’ve transitioned into homeschooling. What I’m really excited about for her is seeing how she’s taking to the task (which is to say, well). She especially gets little thrills when the kids randomly bring up things she’s taught them. For example, a couple of weeks ago, while doing a geography lesson, Abigail saw the word peninsula, and said, “Hey, I know what that means—’pen,’ is ‘almost,’ and ‘insula’ is ‘island.’ So, peninsula means ‘almost an island.'” You can understand why this was encouraging for her, I’m sure.

3. My kids: So far, my kids are thriving in homeschooling (as noted above). But school aside, these kids are just plain fun. I love being able to come home and have Hudson try to beat me up (he loves rough-housing so much). Making my girls squeal at a pitch only dogs can hear is also pretty amazing. And really, how can you not enjoy this:

My little Red Lantern

4. My work: I don’t talk about my day job very much here, mostly because I don’t have much to say about it that would be relevant for you to know. But lately, we’ve been having a pretty good season in our team. One of the things I’m most grateful for is a newfound willingness to take risks. Not foolish ones, but calculated risks where we can fail and learn or succeed and celebrate. One of the risks we took recently paid off, at the very least from a creative perspective, which to me is worth celebrating. I’ll share a bit more about that once the campaign it’s tied to officially launches.

5. My news: Friday, I learned something very cool—I got into school. Look for more details to come in the near future.

These are a few of the things I’m thankful for this Thanksgiving. What about you?


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Why is it so tempting to toss the Bible?

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For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to figure out where to start with a review of God and the Gay Christian by Matthew Vines. Like I seriously don’t even know where to start. It’s the same problem I have with trying to read and thoughtfully critique anything by Rachel Held Evans or the folks involved with Christianity21… all of whom claim to take the Bible seriously, yet routinely reimagine what it says.

(This is not the beginning of a book review, by the way.)

Believe it or not, I actually get where they’re coming from. I remember some early conversations I had as a new believer where I would say some pretty stupid and arrogant things—more than once the phrase, “Well, that was just Paul’s opinion” came out of my mouth. This wasn’t because I didn’t believe the Bible, I just didn’t understand it.

Over time, I got a better sense of what was going on in the Bible, but challenging passages still present themselves. How do we deal with the Bible’s contention that Christians should not intentionally become romantically involved with non-believers? Or that marriage is strictly to be kept between one man and one woman? Or that we’re to forsake all—even our families—in order to follow Jesus?

Honestly, there are times when I can see why it’s tempting to adopt a more novel reading of some of these passages (or abandon them altogether). I mean, who really wants to tell the Christian woman with a non-believing boyfriend that they shouldn’t be dating? Who really enjoys the scorn that comes from being against every “reasonable” person in the West (in the eyes of the media, at least) on the issue of same-sex marriage? Who looks forward to the awkward moments at get-togethers when family members’ eyes glaze over when you talk about what’s going on in your life?

And so the temptation comes to light. And far too many of us—whether willingly or out of sheer exhaustion—give in. We reinvent ourselves as “doubt-filled believers,” which too often seems like choosing to be blown about aimlessly by the wind. We try to maintain our identity as evangelicals, even as we saw off the branch upon which we sit. We try to do what we can to get along with everyone, but in the end please no one.

We’re too Christian for some, but not enough for others. You can’t win playing that game.

Which takes us back to the question: why is it so tempting to toss the Bible? Because it’s easier. The Bible is dangerous and obeying is it costly.

When “fighting the good fight,” it’s often us who take a beating. When running to “finish the race,” we hit a wall that’s almost impossible to push through as every muscle in our bodies screams for us to stop.

But even then, we don’t give up. Tossing the Bible might seems like the easy solution in our moments of weakness, but it’s a losing proposition. We may not want to be on the wrong side of anything, but if I had to choose, I’d rather not be on the wrong side of Jesus. I’d rather, in as much as the Lord strengthens me, to say with Paul:

“We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies.” (2 Corinthians 4:8-10)

What about you?

The courage to take a risk

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I spent the bulk of last week in Chicago for Story, a conference for those who are engaged in the creative world—storytellers, musicians, visual artists, and filmmakers, among others. I went to this event a couple years ago and found it… weird, but interesting, and a bit scattered in its message. This time around, it had its elements of pretension—the standard “You are creative and the world needs you!” type stuff—but it wasn’t all rah-rah this time. Instead, I noticed a pretty consistent theme come through all the speakers’ addresses: this idea of courageous creativity.

What do I mean by that? Being willing to take risks—real risks. Being willing to try something and fail.

This is something few of us are good at. In fact, it’s not something I’m entirely sure I know how to do. Working in the non-profit world, where we deal with money entrusted to us by donors, it sometimes feels as though we can’t afford to try something and have it fail. We can’t really take risks, which means we can’t really innovate.

Or so we think.

I wonder, though, how much would change for us if someone just said these five words: “You are free to fail”?

Would we be more willing to take risks? To experiment?

To maybe even have a little fun with our work?

And moving beyond creative work, consider how these words affect our relationship with God. Just as many of us who work in the non-profit world believe failure isn’t an option, many of us believe the same thing about following Jesus? That if we’re not “all-rise” in our approach to the Christian faith—always more baptisms, more bums in seats, more services—we’re blowing it?

Why do we keep forgetting that, although we will always progress on our march to holiness, it’s going to be of a stumbling, faltering sort? That there is a sense in which we are told in the gospel, we are free to fail? Not in a way that minimizes or blesses sin, but in the sense that it’s our failures more than our successes that we see our need for Christ—and God uses to shape us into the image of Christ?

This, too, requires courage. A kind of courage we too easily set aside for the sake of appearances. We want to be seen as godly, without actually wanting to take the risks associated with becoming godly. Confessing sin is a risk. Repenting of sin requires courage. But the reward—while it may never be fully seen in this world—makes the risk worth it, doesn’t it?

So what’s up with getting an education?

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Some time ago, I shared how I’ve been considering getting a formal education. This hasn’t been an easy road to consider since:

  • I’m in my mid-thirties and therefore can’t do full-time school; and
  • it costs a lot of money to do this (money which, at the moment at least, I do not have a lot of).

So… what have I been doing since I last shared about this and asked you all to pray with me?

In mid-August, I applied to a Master’s of Arts in Theological Studies program at a very reputable seminary. The program allows me the flexibility I need to maintain a healthy-ish schedule while getting a quality education. As of this week, the only thing that remains is for them to receive a copy of my transcript from the college I attended here in London. Once they have that, they will be able to make a decision on whether or not to accept me as a student. If so, I’ll potentially be starting school as early as January, 2015, which is kind of exciting.

There are other questions beyond acceptance that remain as I start planning for the possibility of becoming a student again:

  • How will I manage my time effectively?
  • What impact will this have on my blogging schedule?
  • How am I going to pay for my tuition?

There are a few options we’re considering, but I wanted to share a conviction that’s arisen about school: this is not something to which I’m willing to add another cent in debt. As you can imagine, this brings up more challenges. So I’m considering a few ideas that I’ll tell you more about should my application be accepted.

While there’s clearly not a lot to report, probably the best thing in the entire process to this point was taking the first step on the application—taking action on something I’d been hesitating on for a good long while. Whether I am accepted or rejected, I will at least know an answer. It won’t be another one of those “What if” things. And that is liberating.

So we’ll see what happens. I look forward to sharing more soon—and you wouldn’t mind praying for my acceptance, I’d certainly appreciate it.


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Links I like

Kindle deals for Christian readers

A few new deals for you:

What not to get your pastor for pastor’s appreciation month

Eric Geiger:

…I am grateful for the few folks in every church who remember Pastor Appreciation Month, likely because the Christian radio station they listen to reminds them. Because I am no longer a “pastor” as my full-time job, I feel some freedom to speak a bit bluntly about some of the gifts our pastors, your pastors, may be in jeopardy of receiving this year. If you have given your pastor some of these gifts before, don’t feel bad. There is no condemnation here. Only grace. And your pastor really did know you cared, was honored you remembered him, and likely thought, “It is the thought that counts.” But I want to be helpful and encourage you NOT to get your pastor the following this year.

The Hound of Heaven (trailer)

This short film written and directed by N.D. Wilson looks fantastic:

How the News Makes Us Dumb

Kevin DeYoung:

Of course, not all news is pointless. There are long form essays, insightful commentaries, skilled journalistic exposes, striking documentaries–all of these can come under the category of “news” and all of them, when done excellently, can point people to the true, the good, and the beautiful. Sommerville’s not even against the here-today-gone-tomorrow bits of news. Neither am I. The Lord knows–and so does the internet–that I’ve written blog posts on current events before, and every Monday I post two or three minutes of silliness, for no reason except to laugh a little. The news doesn’t have to make us dumb, but if we don’t take the necessary mental and habitual precautions it almost certainly will.

Repenting of Our Lack of Sleep

Scott Slayton:

We often fail to think about what our daily habits say about our view of ourselves and our view of God. When we push ourselves morning to night seven days a week for days on end we demonstrate that we have a Messiah complex. We think the world will fall apart if we are not constantly doing something. We face a major dilemma though. We cannot keep going day in and day out without feeling terrible and lashing out at the people around us. We were not made to function on a lack of sleep. The Psalmist says in 121:4, “Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” Only God does not need sleep. He is the one who made the world and who sustains the world. The world would fall apart if he took only a moment off, but we are not him.  Much to our chagrin, we find that the world continues to function quite well while we sleep. Sleep reminds us that God is God and we are not. John Piper said this as only he can, “Sleep is a daily reminder from God that we are not God. Once a day God sends us to bed like patients with a sickness. The sickness is a chronic tendency to think we are in control and that our work is indispensable. To cure us of this disease God turns us into helpless sacks of sand once a day.”

Does Apologetics Convert People?

Clint Roberts:

If we ask the question, “How many people became Christians because they heard a good defense of something like the existence of God, the historicity of the Gospels, or the archeological verifications of biblical narratives?” the answer is probably “very few”.

But the question, “Does apologetics convert anyone?” is a poor question to begin with.

Social Media and the Sensation of Missing Out

Joey Cochran:

Social media is both a blessing and curse as we all know and have experienced. One curse is that it facilitates the sensation of missing out.

For example, have you ever gotten onto Instagram to see pictures from all your friends who are at the same event together? But you didn’t go. Your immediate response of dismay, envy, and justification for why you didn’t go or why you weren’t invited is how you manage that sensation of missing out. Or have you ever gotten on Twitter and discovered an unreal conversation that went on for swipe after swipe of your forefinger? Did you not feel those twinges of dismay and envy again? Did you feel a tractor-force beam pull to exhaust fifteen to thirty catching up on the conversation and then add a triumphal tweet of your own? This sensation of missing out is a beast to tame. It will own you until you own it. Here’s two things to remember about your sensation of missing out.

Five ways to help the poor (that really do help!)

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My latest article at Christianity.com:

Caring for the poor isn’t easy—but it also doesn’t need to be overwhelming, at least when we recognize poverty from a biblical point of view. I explained in an earlier article that when we begin to see poverty the way the Bible does, we begin to see it as offering a number of practical opportunities to worship Jesus.

But how we will worship—how our concern will be expressed—will differ from one person to another. The expression of our concern neither reflects nor establishes our holiness before God. Our responsibility is only to serve in the way in which we feel compelled. With that in mind, here are five things you can do to help the poor that really do help.

Read the whole piece at Christianity.com – Five ways to help the poor (that really do help!)

The day ISIS got a little closer to home

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Yesterday, we received an email from a member of our home school co-op asking for prayer for family members who are Christian workers in Northern Iraq. Their community has been lost to ISIS, and the UN’s peace-keeping forces have pulled out. These workers and the local believers are on their own, forced to choose between renouncing Christ or holding fast as children are murdered in front of them.

For weeks now, I’ve been reading of the ongoing struggles of our brothers and sisters in Syria and Iraq, and more or less quietly praying for ISIS to be stopped and for the resiliency of fellow believers there. But even then, it’s been at a distance.

This email brought this suffering a little closer to home.

We often fail to realize how closely connected we all are. We look at the world we live in—specifically our North American context—and assume the way we live is “normal.” The persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria is a powerful wake-up call for us, if for no other reason than it reminds us that persecution is actually normal for Christians. It’s not something we read about in our Bible and think, “Gosh, I’m glad things are so much better now.” For many believers in over 100 nations, that’s life: beatings, wrongful imprisonment, verbal abuse, and martyrdom.

But because of the uniqueness of the West, we’re sheltered from these realities. Most of us don’t know anyone who has directly been persecuted. But we are probably only one or two degrees of separation from someone who has. And that should change the way we pay attention to such things. It’s closer to us than we realize. So we should care that the US has launched airstrikes against ISIS. We should want to pray for persecuted believers. And I know this is a novel concept, but we should actually pray, believing that God will be glorified in this.

What we get wrong about church discipline

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Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of stories come to light about evangelical churches practicing “shunning” as part of church discipline. This typically happens as part of the final stage of church discipline, when a congregation member persists in unrepentant sin is excommunicated—and then cut off socially, with friends (and sometimes family!) actively distancing themselves socially.

And herein lies the problem.

The key passages on church discipline

There are a few key passages of the New Testament that describe church discipline, the most famous being Matthew 18:15-17 and 1 Corinthians 5:9-13:

If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Matthew 18:15-17)

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)

The first deals with personal sin in general, while the second deals explicitly with sexual immorality (specifically, a church member who was having [a possibly incestuous, but regardless incredibly icky] adultery with his father’s wife).

There is a simple point here: habitual, unrepentant sin in all its forms should not associated with the people of God. Whether someone is a perpetual gossip, slanderer, malcontent, fornicator or adulterer, these things should not be known of among us, at least, not if we are to be people who are above reproach.

About the gentile and the tax collector…

But notice, something else, something very important that we see in Matthew 18:17: “And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.”

What Jesus says here is what is so often missed in our approach to church discipline (or more correctly, in the approaches of certain mega-churches): we forget that we have an active role to play in the offender’s restoration. We are called to pursue them with the gospel.

Before going further, I want to be 100 per cent clear: I am absolutely for church discipline, provided the way we handle it is biblical.

So consider Jesus for a moment. During His earthly ministry, we find numerous occasions where Jesus commends the Gentile’s faith, rather than the Israelite’s. Among them, the Syrophonecian woman (Mark 7:24-30), the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:1-45), and the official at Capernum (John 4:46-54). And among the tax collectors, we see no less than two breathtaking examples of repentance, including the apostle Matthew (9:9-13), and Zaccheus (Luke 19:1-10). In both instances, Jesus makes it very clear: His mission is to seek and save the lost. He does not pursue the righteous but sinners to repentance.

In other words, in church discipline we are to treat unrepentant offenders as though they are not believers. Which necessarily means we are called to share the gospel with them. 

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And yet, it seems we’ve forgotten this. Instead of pursuing those who have been “handed over to Satan” with the gospel, we entirely ostracize them. We are right to not permit them to serve in the church, to bar them from taking communion and no longer recognize their profession of faith as genuine until proven otherwise. But, we may go further in our application of this than Scripture does in the way many churches cut off contact.

Again, to be clear: we must be absolutely committed to the purity of the Church. All who continually besmirch the name of Christ through their ongoing, unrepentant sin should be dealt with appropriately. But we still face a tension: without compromising the purity of the body, we need to consider how we pursue these people evangelistically.

Yes, they are to be cut off from fellowship, as Paul says—but we also need to show fearful mercy to someone continues in sin, even as we carefully protect the purity of the Church—we are called to both reprove and exhort. We tear down pride with the Word and build up in humility. This is what Jude stresses in the final verses of his epistle when he writes, “have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh” (Jude 22-23).

Thwarting the schemes of the devil

We are not alone in our goofing on this. It seems the Corinthians fell into the same trap. Prior to writing 2 Corinthians, word came to Paul that while the church had, largely, repented of their rebellion against Paul and apostolic teaching, they had not reconciled with the one who was responsible for the rebellion. And so, Paul encouraged them to forgive and be reconciled.

Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs. (2 Corinthians 2:5-11)

“Reaffirm your love for him,” he wrote, “so that we would not be outwitted by Satan.” There is nothing the devil loves more than to mar the name of the church. And when we handle discipline wrongly—when we fail to pursue those who persist in unrepentant sin with the gospel and welcome those who have turned away from their sin back—we are undone. The devil “wins”.

So yes, let’s practice church discipline, biblically. Let’s also make sure our practice includes the earnest pursuit of those in sin with the gospel, so that they might come to repentance and fellowship can be restored.

 

The weird and the witty: an Electric Monk on a bored horse

If there’s one thing I learned as a grumpy, broke and pretentious teen and twenty-something, it’s this: It taking life too seriously is hard work. It takes a lot of effort to be dour all the time.

This is helpful for me to remember now as a thirty-something. After all, I work for for a ministry that does very serious (and very good) work. The material my team and I produce tends to be focused on very serious issues, even when we’re telling hopeful stories. And sometimes there’s almost this expectation that I’ll spend my free time focused on those areas, too.

But I don’t really like reading a lot of books on poverty and social justice, despite having written one. I don’t enjoy movies like Slumdog Millionaire; I’d rather go see something like Guardians of the Galaxy.

Which brings me to the point of today’s post: starting today, and over the next few weeks, I’m going to share with you some of my favorite weird and witty moments from books, movies and web videos. These are just silly, witty and weird things that make me laugh. I’m sharing them with you for one reason: It’s really easy to be far too serious as Christians and forget to do things like laugh. But God wants us to laugh—He gave us senses of humor, so we should use them!

So here’s the first bit of weird and witty, something from one of my favorite Douglas Adams’ books, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency:

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High on a rocky promontory sat an Electric Monk on a bored horse. From under its rough woven cowl the Monk gazed unblinkingly down into another valley, with which it was having a problem.…

The problem with the valley was this. The Monk currently believed that the valley and everything in the valley and around it, including the Monk and the Monk’s horse, was a uniform shade of pale pink. This made for a certain difficulty in distinguishing any one thing from any other thing, and therefore made doing anything or going anywhere impossible, or at least difficult and dangerous. Hence the immobility of the Monk and the boredom of the horse, which had had to put up with a lot of silly things in its time but was secretly of the opinion that this was one of the silliest. (4-5)

It’s a simple scene, but it sets up the absurdity of everything that is to follow in this book. And be honest, you smiled at least a little reading that, didn’t you?