Ash Wednesday and Lent: Empty Tradition or Full Opportunity?

I remember the first time I heard about Lent in someway that wasn’t in reference to Roman Catholicism. A Baptist classmate of mine at Houston Baptist University had decided that he was going to give up Mountain Dew for Lent. What struck me first was that this was a big sacrifice for Thomas, as he drank Mountain Dew with regularity.

What surprised me secondly, was that he was doing something for Lent.

I was familiar with the season of Lent that led up to Easter. 40 days (technically 46 if you count the Sundays as well) of fasting that I had always associated with the Roman Catholic church. I knew when Lent started only because I saw Mardis Gras coverage on the news, or saw “King Cakes” in the grocery stores.

This was a foreign practice to me. Something strange and different that never appealed to me, or seemed to have nothing to do with the form of Christianity I was raised in.

This stayed the same until I attended Truett Seminary and discovered a whole new world of opportunities for worship and Spiritual growth. I learned about the rhythms of people’s lives in the church – birth, life, death, and expectation of Christ, but in hallway conversations and class discussions I also grew attuned to the rhythms of life in the church calendar – which is also oriented around birth, life, death and the expectation of Christ.

Church Calendar rather than “Hallmark” Calendar

First of all, I think all Christians would agree that the Church runs in a way that is counter to culture. We do things differently. Christians give of their time, give of their money, and give of their worship (typically on Sunday mornings) in ways that are not normal for the world.

Growing up, a Sunday morning rhythm came naturally to me. While others were sleeping in, sleeping it off, or enjoying lazy Sunday morning routines, I went along with my family to our place of worship. But on a yearly calendar, our church congregations and family tended to follow the “Hallmark” calendar more than anything else.

We celebrated American Independence, Veteran’s Day, Memorial Day, Thanksgiving, Mother’s Day, sometimes Father’s Day, and the of course the two Church/Hallmark crossover days of Easter and Christmas.

What I didn’t know was that if there was a calendar in the Church with lots of strange days, but also a few seasons. Days and seasons like:

Advent Season – 4 Sundays of expecting Jesus – particularly His second coming
Christmas Day – Celebrating the birth of our savior
Christmas Season – The 12 days celebrating Christmas starting Christmas day
Epiphany – Celebrating the Gospel’s reach to the wise men (thus to the whole world)
Shrove Tuesday – The last feast before the time of fasting
Ash Wednesday – A day to remember our mortality and the lostness of creation
Lent – 40 days of fasting modeled after Jesus’ fasting in the wilderness
Palm Sunday – The triumphant entry of Christ
Holy Week – The week of remembering the last week of Jesus’ life
Maundy Thursday – Practicing foot washing and remembering the last supper
Good Friday – Mourning the death of our beautiful savior
Holy Saturday – Knowing the silence of the grave (even if only temporarily)
Easter Sunday – The great celebration of life and Resurrection
Easter Season – 40 days of celebration remembering Jesus’ work after the resurrection
Pentecost – Celebrating the birth of the church and the work of the Holy Spirit
Ordinary Time – Season of the simple and ordinary (our own lives are also full of “ordinary” time)

This calendar surprised me with unfamiliar worship practices and traditions.

Empty or Full Tradition?

But what was at first strange, foreign, and seemed like “empty tradition” soon became valued and appreciated as my understanding grew. I started to see how the rhythm of the church calendar was intentionally out-of-sync with the Hallmark calendar. This reminded me of the ways in which the Christian life is also intentionally out of step with the world.

During seminary I led and worshiped with Baptist churches that followed many of these calendar seasons and days. Sometimes informally, sometimes formally, and sometimes not at all. In this time I began to see how this experience of the Christian faith better prepared me for the rhythms of life.

I saw the value of not simply going from the triumphant entry on Palm Sunday to the enthusiastic celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. I saw that this Church calendar reflected my understanding that the Christian life was not one day of triumph and celebration after another, but that the Christian life was as full of dark and sad days of sacrifice and struggle, as well as intense beautiful celebrations.

In short, I found that my faith matured and increased in compassion, love, and balance. Many of these worship opportunities drew me closer to God in ways I had never experienced.

Ash Wednesday

My first Ash Wednesday service was surreal. I had never been in a worship service so thoroughly focused on sin and repentance. It was strange because it was new – not because it was lacking in value or meaning.

And when I walked the rest of my day with a cross of ashes on my forehead there was no mistaking that I was a Christian. No matter who saw me, and no matter how many times I saw myself in a mirror, it was obvious that my faith was not something that could be missed.

That it was also something made of ashes (the leftover byproduct of heat and light) and in the shape of a cross (the Roman instrument of torture and execution), also kept me grounded in the life of sacrifice and challenge that often is the Christian life.

My heart is full each Ash Wednesday. Full of the weight of the world’s sin, and my own. Full of the awareness of just how far from God we were/are. Full of the awareness of the sacrifice of Christ.

Lent

And beginning with Ash Wednesday many choose to partake of certain Lenten practices – this time of “giving up” or “taking on”. It is a time of being uncomfortable for the purpose of allowing God to form and shape one’s spirit. Some give up something to eat, or give up a comfortable entertainment, and others might take on a season of volunteering more, reading a particular devotional book, or doing some other Spiritually significant daily practice.

Over the years I have tried giving up a few things for Lent, and my wife and I have encouraged our kids to do the same.

One year we as a family gave up pizza
Another year our three boys gave up their favorite LEGO toys for Lent
I have taken on various devotional practices and regular times of prayer
I have several times given up hot showers, red meat, sodas, candy, etc.
My wife has read a particular book, or given up social media
Together we have had regular family prayer times

Each Lent I seek to discern in what ways I can learn about my faith through being a little more uncomfortable than normal. In setting something down voluntarily so that each time I crave it, miss it, or wish I had it, it is a time to pray and seek God.

This is the point of Lent. To have moments throughout the day when, instead of doing our normal thing, we replace it with a God thing.

Instead of drinking a Coke, I say a prayer and consider those who lack clean water.
Instead of a hot comfortable shower I remember being on the mission field with only cold showers, and am thus prompted to pray for all those who serve Christ in missions
Instead of the convenience of pizza, we pray for those lacking in food security

In these ways and more we are not simply following “empty traditions” that Baptists and others have long rejected, but rather we are participating in full and spirit-forming worship practices. Ways of worshiping, growing, and praying that we often need.

Your Opportunity

This season of Lent may be an opportunity for you to seek God in a new way.

Perhaps you will try to go to an Ash Wednesday service at a local congregation, or in your own congregation.

Maybe you will give up a food or entertainment comfort.

Or perhaps you might try to take on a particular practice – like daily Scripture reading and devotional practice like you would find in Truett Seminary’s 2017 Lenten Devotional Guide.

Whether you feel led into something this year or not, we pray and hope that you will continually be formed by Christ, and continue to learn how to connect to Christ in vibrant and life-giving ways.

May you be challenged in your faith and may you be strengthened in your faith. Amen

Posted in Blog Entries

Arminianism and Calvinism

the following is an excerpt written for the Introduction to Theology course in Truett Seminary’s Certificate of Ministry Program

In the subject of theology, there is often no greater disagreement than over the matters of Calvinism and Arminianism. These two perspectives are often pitted against each other, and their supporters can often be adamantly opposed to the opposite view. With many books being written from both sides.

This matter is also compounded by the frequent misunderstanding of Arminianism because of the constant misrepresentation Calvinists have made of Arminianism.

(Upon this subject of misunderstood Arminianism there is probably no one better to consult, than the Truett Seminary faculty member, Roger Olson. He is widely known as being an expert on this matter, and though we will be fairly brief in our consideration of the matter, interested students will want to turn to his writings, particularly, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities.)

What I hope to do is to provide some helpful overviews of both sides, along with some quality further readings that will allow each side to be fairly represented and explored.


Helpful Acronymns

When studying theology, one of the crucial steps towards healthy understanding is care in selecting sources and materials. And within the subject of theology there is no more difficult task than finding quality materials on the subject of Arminianism and Calvinism. There is a HUGE amount of information online that is not as helpful or as accurate as it could be, and so to help out we have put together 4 pages on the subject to both introduce the subject, and to help you navigate it well.

Should this subject interest you, many longer readings have been provided, and should it not interest you at all, we have tried to keep our explanations concise and helpful.

To begin with, here are two acronyms to help us understand Calvinism and Arminianism more easily.

T.U.L.I.P. and F.A.C.T.S.

TULIP.png

TULIP is a very widely known acronym, and it sums up what are commonly referred to as the “5 Points of Calvinism”.

(This short essay, Calvinism Defined by Ben DallyPreview the documentView in a new window is a recommended read for anyone wanting a scripturally supported argument regarding T.U.L.I.P.)

 

Each of the 5 points of Calvinism are intertwined and dependent on each other, and one might hear the phrase, “I am a 5-point Calvinist.” Meaning that person believes and holds to all 5 points. On the other hand, some of these points are difficult to come to terms with, so someone else might claim to be a 3-point or 4-point Calvinist, meaning that they only hold to 3 or 4 of the 5 points. Usually someone of this type will disagree with Unconditional Election or Limited Atonement.

What these 3 or 4-point “Calvinists” often don’t understand is that 3 or 4-point “Calvinism” is Arminianism. But Arminianism has been so misrepresented that it is often viewed in negative ways. In his previously mentioned book, Roger Olson describes over and over how he encounters Calvinists who claim and argue that Arminianism is the same thing as a heresy called semi-pelagianism.

Semi-pelagianism or Semipelagianism 

An understanding of salvation which holds that the beginning of faith is the work of humans, and the growing in faith is the work of God. That people will choose to trust in God, and that God will then work in their lives. It goes against the Christian doctrine of Total Depravity (that sin prevents us from even wanting to choose God on our own), because this “beginning of faith” would be considered a “work of righteousness”. Something which everyone is incapable of while still lost in sin.

As a result of this severe misrepresentation of Arminianism, it is often misunderstood by most, and harshly condemned, criticized, and put down by its critics (often well known people like John Piper, Matt Chandler, or Mark Driscoll).

The first towards a more accurate understanding of Arminianism is a handy acronym like the well known TULIP.

FACTS.png

For the purposes of convenience the acronym F.A.C.T.S. is quite helpful and easy to remember.

(The F.A.C.T.S. acronym is courtesy of Brian Abasciano’s essay, The FACTS of SalvationPreview the documentView in a new window – a very helpful and comprehensive overview of Arminianism – it is a highly recommended read for anyone wanting a strong scripturally supported argument – though it is rather long)


Visual Illustrations

One of most helpful experiences I ever experienced was when a theology professor drew out an Arminian understanding of prevenient grace on a whiteboard in class. It was as if a light bulb went off, and it immediately helped me understand everything so much better.

In my attempts to help you in similar fashion, I have created the following two illustrations. They are not perfect, but they should hopefully help to illustrate Arminianism and Calvinism. Some additional comparison is offered on the next page.

 

Arminiansim.png

In Arminianism the elect and non-elect are properly known as “conditionally elect” and “conditionally non-elect”. This means that God elects those that he knows will choose him. The moment at the cross is the moment of choice – the moment of “conversion”.

 

Calvinism.png

In the Calvinist model, the non-elect are more than “lost in sin” they would perhaps more properly be described as the enemies of God. In addition, as the lines demonstrate, the elect have always been destined to salvation, and the non-elect have always been destined to damnation.


Comparing the Two

Now that we have a passing understanding of the Calvinism and Arminianism, let us compare and contrast the two a little further.

As you can see below, each of the 5 points correspond with a point on the opposite side. Due to the inter-workings of history, this matchup is intentional.

TULIP vs FACTS.png

Total Depravity vs Total Depravity

Calvinists believe that humans are so utterly affected by sin, that there is no possible way for a person to respond to God’s offer of salvation – thus God has to select them entirely of God’s own will, and then grace works in them to compel them to conversion.

Arminians believe that a humans are so utterly affected by sin that there is no possible way for a person to respond to God’s offer of salvation except that God extends prevenient grace to restore our ability to accept or reject God’s offer of salvation.

Unconditional Election vs Conditional Election

Calvinists believe that God elects (chooses) everyone’s eternal destination (predestination) unconditionally (without free choice), while Arminians believe that God only elects those whom he knows will freely accept the gift of salvation (foreknowledge of our free choice).

Limited Atonement vs Atonement for All

Calvinists believe that Jesus’s death is only effective for those whom God has already chosen (the elect), but Arminians believe that Jesus’ death is effective for everyone.

Irresistible Grace vs Freed to Believe by God’s Grace

Calvinists believe that God’s offer of grace cannot be resisted – this is tied to the belief of Unconditional Election, andLimited Atonement -essentially God offers grace to specific people, and it is always accepted, because it cannot be rejected.

On the other hand, Arminians believe “God does not save people without their free assent but gives them prevenient grace (grace that goes before and prepares) to liberate their wills from bondage to sin and make them free to hear, understand, and respond to the gospel call.” (Roger Olson, Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities

Perseverance of the Saints vs Security in Christ

Calvinists believe that because God does the choosing, it is impossible for a true Christian to lose salvation. This is because the individual’s actions have nothing to do with their eternal destination.

Arminians believe that a person’s salvation is secure as long as that person believes and trusts in Christ, but that it might be possible for someone to recant their salvation. Though many would argue that these recanters were not true Christians to begin with (on this last point, many Calvinists and Arminians might be in agreement).

Posted in Blog Entries

The Landscape of Evangelicals

the following is an excerpt written for the Introduction to Theology course in Truett Seminary’s Certificate of Ministry Program

In the Introduction of Practicing Christian Doctrine, Beth Felker Jones introduces the subject of “Evangelical Theology”. Roger Olson, one of the preeminent theologians on faculty at Truett Seminary has written extensively about the messy and imprecise nature of the term “Evangelical”. He has often described how the term has gotten to the point where it means everything and nothing.

The author of your text does a good job of summing up the term on page 7, but in the representative context of of Baptist life (Truett Seminary is a Baptist seminary after all), what does Evangelical mean?

To attempt to smooth over some confusion, I have tried to put together a chart that shows how various Baptist groups typically see themselves in relationship to each other:

Baptist Chart 3.png

This is not meant to be a precise illustration, but a rough guide (for one, the scale does not represent numbers, as Southern Baptists heavily outweigh all other Baptists in the US). First of all, you can see that even within the Baptist faith, there is a wide variety of diversity.

This diversity extends well beyond the very limited representation shown. The limited graph does not show various subgroups in the broad Baptist denomination: Anabaptists, Missionary Baptists, Primitive Baptist, a wide variety of other Baptist congregations and groups of differing racial and ethnic backgrounds, as well as a large variety of other international, state, and regional Baptist groups. More so, it also does not show the bigger picture on where most Baptists fit into the greater spectrum of the church – it does not show how Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics, or other Christian denominations have a similar broad spectrum of beliefs within their respective groups.

Interestingly enough there is also an area (not depicted) on the left side of the spectrum that is sometimes referred to as the “fundamentalism of the left” – similarly to the Fundamentalism on the right hand side, amongst other things they insist that proper belief and adherence to specific views are essential for Christian participation.

It’s All Relative

One thing to understand is that this type of spectrum is often relative. We like to think of ourselves in relative terms to other people or groups, but in doing so we often magnify the differences in our beliefs to the point of emphasizing our distance, rather than or similarity. When in reality all of these Baptists groups, and even more so all Christians in general agree on most of the essentials of the Christian faith.

Perhaps we ought to better think about this greater ecumenical approach in the following way:

Orthodoxy 3.png

 

Here the illustration is far more obvious. The amount these four groups share is quite large. There are only a few minor differences on certain beliefs.

Now, this is merely intended to be an illustration, but the actuality of the issue is represented fairly accurately, and it is on the light brownish green common ground that we want to spend our time looking at ecumenical theology. But first, we want to provide clarification on a very commonly misused term – Liberalism. (see next page)

A Little Something Extra

Incidentally if you enjoyed the above graphs, the following one might be quite interesting. It uses data from the Pew Religious Landscape Survey to chart the political ideologies of churches and religions in North America.

http://religionnews.com/2014/08/27/politics-american-churches-religions-one-graph/ (Links to an external site.)

Political Ideologies of Churches

 

Posted in Blog Entries

Expanded Horizons

You’ve perhaps heard the jokes that compare seminary to cemetery, but that has not at all been my experience. I confess that there were many unanswered questions that I had about the Christian faith before seminary. Questions about scripture, questions about missions, about God, and even questions about what a pastor is supposed to be. So many of these questions have been answered that my mind reels thinking of it. The end result is that not my spiritual foundation is shaken, but that the foundations of my faith have been dug down deeper than they ever were. This is a wonderful praise to God, and the work that God has been doing in my life for the last several years. What I have gained, in addition to wonderful growth and understanding of my personal faith, has been an expanding of horizons when it comes to the practice of the Christian faith.

View of the Rogue River in Oregon

View of the Rogue River in Oregon

In the past few years I have had the blessed privilege to worship and interact with conservative Baptists, moderate Baptists (there is a difference), Methodists (both traditional and liturgical), Catholic monks, charismatics, Mennonites, Anabaptists, and non/other denominational Christians of all types. All have something wonderful to offer the Christian faith as a whole. All have taught me something about the different threads of worship and tradition that weave together the tapestry of our Faith. Richard Foster uses the analogy of streams of living water, from his book of the same name. He describes each stream of tradition as part of the same faith that flows together from Christ. Each stream has the same source, but takes a different course.

The Celebration of Togetherness

It has been a great joy to worship in so many different ways, for there is very little in common with the form of worship of remote Catholic monks, and the huge charismatic church in Central Texas. However, the God being worshiped is the same. The Lord of each body of believers is the same. There are countless differences in the ways that all of us worship and understand God. But we agree on so many things. For the most part, regardless of the stream of Christianity, we all agree on the basic tenants of our faith. It’s easy to get caught up in all of the differences in theology, church practice and organization (many of these differences are quite significant), but at the end of the day, all of us sleep with an anticipation of the same sunrise, and a celebration of the some risen Son: Jesus.

The bonds of the Christian faith are deep bonds. They go beyond the church we attend, the denomination we are a part of, or any other superficial matters. In Paul’s letter to the Galatians he dwelt on this matter of equality in the most revolutionary way. To a world that was rife with classism and filled with all manner of dividing lines over wealth, race, occupation, religion, and even gender, Paul wrote a wonderful few sentences that bring to the forefront the equality that is Christianity. For with the radical salvation offered by Jesus to all believers, we are all included in the same family as equals. The Gospel breaks down barriers, it does not create them. This is what Jesus showed us time and time again in his life on earth, and what Paul wanted us to recognize. ALL of God’s children are equal and in need of the same salvation, and all of Christ’s followers will receive the same inheritance – that of God’s only Son. We are united now and for eternity.

In the Kingdom of God there are no elites or rejects. God has given the gift of life to everyone who gives Him their lives. Whatever barriers that exist within the body of the Church, in the worldwide sense, are there because of us. The walls between denominations, between congregations, races, genders, countries, or anything else – they are there because we have trouble living up to the true nature of the Kingdom of God. So let us focus on the bonds that tie us together instead of looking for reasons to be apart.

Posted in Blog Entries

Next Generation Leader – Book Review

book cover

Next Generation Leader

As the author of Next Generation Leader, Andy Stanley is writing not for pastors specifically, but for leaders in general. However, as the senior pastor of the North Point Ministries campuses with over 20,000 people attending weekly, Stanley is primarily experienced in the leadership of church. In addition, as the son of Rev. Charles Stanley, Senior Pastor of First Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, and founder and president of In Touch Ministries, Andy Stanley is in a very unique position to not only have grown up watching his father lead churches and ministries, but also to have experience himself as a leader of the same.

That being said, though this book is not intended for pastors, it is highly beneficial for them. Much of the subject matter and reflections come from someone with a pastor and spiritual leader’s heart. This makes the leadership suggestions and techniques not only beneficial for those in a secular context trying to be godly and effective leaders, but doubly so for those in ministry leadership roles. I have not served in a non-ministry related leadership role in many years, but it seems that there are many helpful leadership skills and techniques that would probably crossover just fine from church to business.

However, the goal of this book being included in my mentoring reading was not for the benefits of secular leadership, but of generic leadership skills that would be appropriate in a pastoral context. For that reason, this book fits perfectly. Stanley writes with heart that is concerned for the cohesiveness of work environment, the growth and development of his staff, and his success as a pastor and leader. His writing is clearly born out of pastoral reflection as well as good “leadership” skills in general.

Stanley has made a very easily remembered cluster of five leadership concepts that serve as the outline for his book. These are the concentrated and core set of leadership essentials according to Stanley: Competence, Courage, Clarity, Coaching, and Character. They are presented in the context of God’s gifts of leadership, but these five areas are the jumping off places for his consideration of what it means to be a successful leader. Stanley’s quantifiable measurement of leadership success is succession. This measure of success seems to crossover just fine between secular and sacred, because in the business world it’s a crucial task of long-term focus for leaders to have followers that are being formed into the future leaders. In a church this is even more essential, the very foundation and task of the church is to form followers of Christ, and the long-term effectiveness of a specific congregation is dependent on the formation of future leaders. So for the remainder of my reflection I will be considering the book purely from a church oriented perspective, with each of the leadership foci being considered purely in regards to a pastor.

The first essential of leadership, according to Stanley, is Competence. This is many things, but he boils it down it down to three key areas: not doing too much, doing the right things, and finding a groove. Doing too much seems to be consistent temptation and trap for pastors to fall into, it has two primary drawbacks according to Stanley. The first drawback is that doing too much leads to a pastor accomplishing less. This is the time old tale of being spread too thin to be very effective, and as it plays out, the pastor spends a lot of time on the things that she is not naturally gifted in, because the the ways in which she is gifted come naturally. This is backwards, Stanley argues, the things that the pastor is not skilled in should be delegated, so that the areas that the pastor is skilled in can receive the primary focus.

Very helpful advice, particularly as there are certain things (preaching being a big assumed example) that the pastor is particularly gifted and expected to do, while other tasks might be more inline with the gifts of others. He desires to see the pastor do only the things that only the pastor can do, the other things can be done by others. This allows the pastor to be much more focused and thus more effective. This focus on not doing too much then becomes intrinsically tied to doing the right things. The second drawback is simply the inverse of the first, if the pastor is doing too much, that means that others with gifts do not get to exercise them because the pastor is doing everything. The result of a pastor backing away from certain areas, allows other gifted people to step into those areas.

In the area of Courage, Stanley desires for the pastor to be the first one moving in a specific direction – to lead from the front. This is the area where courage is necessary to be first in, to not simply see the opportunity, but to seize the opportunity. It does not necessitate being without fear, but merely to be strong and courageous despite the fear. This is the type of courage displayed by the young David in standing up to the huge enemy of Israel. Stanley writes that the act of killing Goliath is not what made David a leader, but it identified him as a leader. This is how the story played out in scripture, and in similar fashion a pastor needs to identify opportunities and seize them boldly, even, as he points out, when the how is not eminently clear.

This courage includes three specific expressions according to Stanley, the courage to say no, to face current reality, and to dream. Saying no is an essential role of a leader, and a pastor. This could be no on the personal level, but also no on the church-wide level, saying no can open time and opportunity to say yes in other areas. Courage to face the current reality is what it takes to avoid denial and turning a blind eye to situations that need to be dealt with. Often in a church this means that the pastor needs to be the first one to recognize that the way things are currently being done is not best or right, and then to do something about it. Lastly, the courage to dream is what separates a leader from a great leader, and the same would hold true for a pastor. Dreaming small dreams does not inspire anyone – Martin Luther King, Jr. did not dream of people merely tolerating each other, but of people of all races being one. That was a bold dream, and it is this type of courage in dreaming that a pastor needs to have.

The third area Stanley focuses on is the Clarity a pastor needs to have in the face of uncertainty. It is the uncertainty in life that creates a need for a leader, without uncertainty leaders are not needed. This seems to be related most of all to the courage of the dream, or rather to be more specific the vision of the pastor. If the vision is fuzzy and unclear, the leadership will be fuzzy and unclear – it is the clarity of focus that a leader must have that will provide others with confidence and trust in her or his leadership. In order to do this, it is necessary for a pastor to understand the ways in which he might be uncomfortable with uncertainty, because just because the leader needs to have clarity, it does not remove the uncertainty. This uncertainty can even be held in the open rather than hidden, because as Stanley puts it, “Uncertainty exposes a lack of knowledge. Pretending exposes a lack of character.” This uncertainty might simply be expressed with the greatest response in the pastor’s tool box, “I don’t know…” With the right clarity, a pastor can inspire with a vision, and help calm an anxious system rather than stir it up.

Stanley argues that Coaching is another of the essential foci of a great leader or pastor. It’s the coach who helps spur others onward to do their best, and to provide leadership in training and in execution. A good coach prepares ahead of time, and executes with confidence and capability. But contrary to my expectation, in this section Stanley is arguing for a pastor to receive coaching. This struck me by surprise, because I am primarily familiar with coaching from the pastor’s perspective in coaching others. Stanley, however, wants leaders/pastors to recognize that our greatness is best unlocked through the influence of a coach. Someone in a position to asses the present, so that a pastor can operate more effectively in the future. This coach is best suited for someone who is on the scene watching in order to give the best feedback. A proper coach for a pastor would need to be someone in the congregation to give feedback and experienced critique. It is then up to the pastor to actually listen to the coach and submit to the outside voice of authority and experience, rather than stubbornly continue along the current trajectory. A good coach will observe, instruct, and inspire – an interesting counterpoint to the pastor who is often seen as the one doing these tasks.

It is the last focus of Character which seems to be the most logical one for a pastor. It is depressing to think that a pastor could actually serve as pastor without a Godly character, but unfortunately any naivety that may have existed in previous years has been dispelled by conversations with staff members who have served underneath pastors without character. The stories of being mistreated and abused in church service are all too common unfortunately. That being said, though this section seemed to have the least to offer in new information for the vocation of pastor, it does not diminish its importance for a pastor.

I was not certain of what I was going to be reading when I selected this book for my mentoring schedule, but I was impressed by the book. I have been inspired in many ways, and informed in others. Though it is hardly an imposing book, and I doubt it has won any awards or spent anytime on a best-seller list, it is nevertheless one that I was blessed by. Andy Stanley speaks from experience and a position of authority on the subject of leadership. And though it was not directed towards pastors I feel that having this book as a reference and a continued part of my ministry will help me to be a better pastor. I would recommend this book to others going into pastoral ministry, and would even recommend it to others in secular leadership. It is also highly intriguing to think about the opportunities that this book might present in a church class on leadership for business or local leaders.

I found little I disagreed with or objected to, some of the leadership example from scripture seem forced in some ways, but not in a heavy handed way. The spiritual side of prayer and other practices could be better emphasized, but this is probably more due to it being directed towards leaders in general than pastors, but all the same I hope to have a pastoral ministry full of Competence, Courage, Clarity, Coaching, and Character.

I would give this book an 8 out of 10 for pastors, and a 9 out of 10 for others.

Posted in Blog Entries, Book Reviews

Streams of Living Water – Book Review

Streams of Living Water

As a renowned theologian and author, Richard Foster is a strong but gentle voice on a variety of matters. As a Quaker, he brings a viewpoint that seems almost outside of the mainstream conversations on practical theology and spirituality, but it is not a voice that is misguided, simply one that does not seem to be within the normal scope of conservative Baptist life. This is not a mark against him in any way, but merely an observation that his voice and perspective seem almost distant to the ins and outs of Baptist life for many. He wrote this book with the seeming intention to bring seemingly disparate practices of faith together again, to tear down barriers between more than denominations, but to overlook denominations entirely and instead to focus on the essence of the different types of Christian practice. He is like a wise desert sage whose teaching and writing carry the authority of experience, and the fresh perspective of someone not entangled in the usual matters.

Whether this is the view others take of Richard Foster seems hardly to matter, because this seemed to be my impression of teaching this book to a class of very conservative, mostly Southern, Baptists. Whether Foster’s faith as a Quaker was the defining factor, or simply him being someone the class was not familiar with, he was a voice that was warm and inviting for everyone. I first became acquainted with Richard Foster in college as he was a collaborator on a devotional we used in a small group, but as the devotional was primarily a collection of writings from great men and women of faith, his influence was diminished. The result was that for over a decade, Richard Foster was to me, “That guy who helped put that one devotional together.” I never had read any other of his books until this one. This was my loss.

In reading this book I was stretched and affirmed in a variety of ways, and by the time I had read this book I had become well acquainted with his reputation. Never first-hand, but I nevertheless knew that I was excited to be finally reading one of his books. Though I came late to Foster’s writing, I do not foresee leaving his writing behind anytime in the future. He managed in this unassuming book to articulate in a simple manner much of the stretching that I had to do in my first year or two of seminary. I have come to learn over the last few years that my Christian background has been skewed far more Fundamentalist than I realized. This resulted in a very close-minded view of other Christian traditions, and a downright disdain for anything that smacked of “Catholic”. As a result I was not open to other practices and traditions outside my own. Foster’s book is an outstanding antidote to that flawed way of thinking.

Foster has taken all of the various threads of Christian practice and tradition and divided them into what he refers to as streams which together form and flow into the main river of Christianity. These six streams are Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational. Together these streams encompass all (or at least the majority) of Christian denominations, and more so, in a way in which is not strictly bound to the often superficial or misunderstood denominational terms.

In considering each of these streams in turn I was able to differentiate the various facets of my faith and practice and was able to see that there were many areas in which I was very restricted and close minded. Embracing these streams one by one, and trying to value each of them was a very beneficial and profound experience.

The Contemplative stream has been the stream that I have embraced most in the last year or so. It is one that resonates deeply within and has given me a great peace and inner grounding within Christ and routine prayer. I have found benefit in adding structure and routine to my prayers, and over the summer I embarked on a journey of trying to pray the daily office. I succeed in making time about half the time, but that is a big step for me and a really enjoyable time. I find that I really want to keep daily hours of prayer, but the challenge is in the varied schedule in which I have, so I don’t sweat it for the most part. Instead I keep trying to keep my daily appointments throughout the day, but not in a way that becomes legalistic.

The Holiness stream is one with which I still have room for improvement. I find that there are many times throughout the day when I need to be more mindful of my continued need to be Holy. This is a challenge at times, and is something I used to be good at, but very legalistic. Now I am trying to not be legalistic, but still seeking to be Holy. I still have a lot of progress to make in this regard.

Reading and studying the charismatic stream has made me far more aware of the Holy Spirit at work in my life. I am now addressing prayers to the Holy Spirit, and embracing the Spirt’s leading in a more fluid and open way. Even simply giving credit to the Holy Spirit is something that I am doing more. This wasn’t a particularly hard stream for me to grow in, but one that might be challenging depending on the context of what type of church I serve in.

The Social Justice stream has been a stream in which I have done a lot of growing over the last few years. Being at Truett certainly has gotten me far more involved and caring about this stream of Christianity. I would not say that I was not a compassionate, but I did take a spiritual gifts test several years ago, and compassion/empathy was one of my lowest areas. However, for Christmas I received a copy of Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, and after having prayed through that most days I have become far more aware of the Social Justice stream. This section then of Streams of Living Water, built upon that experience, and the experience of being in Truett around so many caring, involved, and compassionate people. As a result I am far more sensitive and aware of these issues, but I know I still have much room to grow.

The Evangelical stream is the one I am most experienced in, but even so, to consider its roots and the core tenants, was a good process. I felt grounded, but also realized that after having spent time in and with the other streams, I consider my self less Evangelical (strictly speaking). Though this is more having to do with the ways in which that term gets used in America, more than what Foster had to say. In considering the stream from Foster’s perspective, I am still rather Evangelical, and will, as a Baptist, always be so, but now I don’t simply want to be only experienced in the Evangelical stream.

The last stream, Incarnational, is one that I first became exposed to in my reading and experiences in Truett. Dallas Willard and T. B. Maston both write on the subject, and though both of them might not be considered Incarnational, they were engaged in that discussion. As a result, this was not my first exposure to this type of spiritual practice, but in reading Foster’s book I was  struck by the inherent need for this stream to receive more emphasis within the Baptist tradition. It was an excellent building block in my own faith that skillfully fleshed out thoughts that I had had regarding art and vocation and many other things. This was a very good section.

Over all this was a wonderful book. I am glad that I read it, and very glad that I also had the opportunity to teach through it. The book and study seem to be an excellent thing for Baptists, particularly those who, like me, have had a close-minded faith for a long time. This opened my eyes wider in many places, and gave me an excellent tool to use in the lives of others.

I would give this book (and study) a 10 out of 10.

Posted in Blog Entries, Book Reviews

Get out of the Boat? Are you Crazy?!

Peter Sinking

In Matthew 14:22-33 we can find the story of Jesus walking on water, and the subsequent account of Peter stepping out of the boat with his own attempt at water walking. Upon reading this it is very easy to slip into “Sunday School” mode and go straight to the faithfulness of Peter. But for a moment, let’s step out of our typical approach to this passage and simply be honest and open with one another.

Based on every worldly scale, we would place Peter’s actions all the way over on the crazy side of the scale. He steps out of a perfectly good boat to attempt to walk on the surface of the water. Not smooth, sold, winter-frozen, drive your car onto the lake to go ice-fishing water, but the rolling, wind tossed, heaving water of a stormy lake. Peter is the only one that sees Jesus out on the water, and says to himself, “You know, I think I should go out on the water also.” The other disciples seem to be acting far more level-headed by staying in the (relatively) safe boat. In fact, I imagine that most of the disciples at that point would have much rather been on dry land, rather than in the wind-driven boat, let alone trying to walk on top of the chaotic waters in the dark. Staying in the boat seems to be the far more sane option. More sensible. The right thing to do. The best option, and quite simply the only option.

But Peter is not what you would call a “by the book” kind of guy. Read the gospels and you will find that Peter is what some might call impetuous. It certainly seems that way here. On the surface it is really easy to sit back and sort of shake our heads at Peter, saying, “Poor Peter. So rash and quick to jump. He needs to think about what he does first.” Much in the same way that I imagine the other disciples thinking.

It’s at this point that the “Sunday School” mindset can no longer be restrained, because we know that Peter is going out onto the water to see Jesus. That Jesus has invited Peter onto the water. We don’t have to make logical sense of Peter’s actions, because he is clearly responding to Jesus. With the full understanding of the story we also can understand that Peter is being faithful to step out into the unknown and uncertain. The presence of Jesus’ call trumps rational thinking, it drowns out logic, and dare we say makes crazy things sane.

In looking at this story we are confronted by Christ, inviting His faithful disciple, to join Him on the storm swept sea, and if we can just for a moment capture even a tiny piece of Peter’s faith that evening, we will not be the same. Peter’s faith may have been small according to Jesus, but Peter stepped out of the boat. May we also step out of comfortable places to stride upon the uncertain waters in response to the call of Christ.

View a related sermon: Come on In, the Water is Fine

Posted in Blog Entries

Cause for Laughter?

Three Angels Visiting

In Genesis 18:1-15 we have the story of three “men” who appeared to Abraham and his household. With the good hospitality of the day, Abraham and his household made these strangers welcome and gave them the best of their food. It’s clear in the story that these three visitors are not merely what they might appear to be on the surface. As the story progresses it becomes clear in verse 13 that the LORD is present. The Hebrew text shows that YHWH, God, the Eternal One is there having a conversation with Sarah and Abraham. And the message is that Sarah will conceive and bear a son.

The text makes it quite clear that Sarah and Abraham are well on in years. Sarah is long past the days of child bearing. So, as Sarah overhears this message of a coming child – a son – and their firstborn at that, she give a response that seems quite natural given her frame of reference – she laughs.

Now, it’s easy to be hard on Sarah for this response. She laughs in the face of God’s message of what is to come, and not just a rough idea of what is to come from a spokesperson of God. No, Sarah overhears the Eternal One telling Abraham that she will have a son. It seems so easy to judge Sarah for her response. But, how many of us could say that we would have a better response? Perhaps you or I would not laugh when we hear such a turn of direction for our lives, but don’t we often respond with similar disbelief at times?

Nobody Expects the Unexpected

The thing is, no one expects something unexpected. It’s a fact of life. Even when told by well meaning people to expect the unexpected, there is no preparing for the things we have no idea are coming. Sarah is not expecting this message that she will have a son. So, she responds with a laugh that is both instinctive surprise and perhaps a bit doubtful. She responds to the unexpected news in a genuinely surprised fashion, albeit one that is undoubtedly tainted with disbelief. But I know from personal experience in my life, and in conversation with others, that responses like this are the all too typical responses to the unexpected from God.

Oh sure, we would generally agree that we expect to be blessed, and full of joy in an abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. We tell ourselves and others that Jesus is in charge of our lives, and we will follow God wherever we are led. But deep down we all, I think, have this innate expectation of what that leading will be like. We expect that the road that we are on is the one that God has placed us on, and that God will continue to lead us down the road we are familiar with. This is not always the case.

When the Unexpected is Expected

God leads us where God needs us to go. He cares for us and pays attention to our desires and abilities, but I think God longs for us to simply let go of all of our expectations and kneel before Him with simple obedience to go anywhere and do anything. This is not easy. We are creatures of habit and routine. We like to know what is coming, and where we are going. Following God in true obedience means that we may not know what happens next week or month, let alone next year. For instance, my wife and I unexpectedly went from being friends with no intentions for more, to being husband and wife in less than one year.

A lot can change in a short period of time, and those quick shifts can leave our head reeling with confusion or disbelief. Not because we don’t trust God, but because we too often get settled into our own ideas of what is going to happen. If we are going to call ourselves Christ followers, than it is important that we genuinely live our daily lives following Christ. When we do so, we understand that all of the details of our lives are no longer our own. We belong to God – even our expectations.

Posted in Blog Entries

For the Praise of God

Now, of course I and every other person in ministry should be serving the Lord for His praise, and not for those around us. The moment that our reasons for serving are focused on the praise of men is when our motivation becomes sinful.

In Ephesians 6 and in 1 Thessalonians 2:6 Paul makes it very clear that our motivation in service should not be for the praise of men, but that it should be out of love for our God, who is always watching. Sometimes this is particularly hard for us to do when we struggle with our own desires for thanks and recognition. Nevertheless we are to strive against those desires for praise from those around us and instead find fulfillment in the words of our God.

Scripture also can confront us by the contrasting example in John 12:43. There we see that some “loved praise from men more than praise from God” (NET). It was this love of the praise of men that kept many of the Sanhedrin from salvation. It was the type of behavior that Jesus spoke of Matthew 6:5, “Whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, because they love to pray while standing in synagogues and on street corners so that people can see them. Truly I say to you, they have their reward.” Jesus’ point was that if their motive of praying was to get recognition from those around them then they received their reward in the recognition of those around them. However, God was not moved by their prayers.

Serve the Lord with Gladness

So, we know that our service to the Lord should only be for his praise, and not for the praise of men. That He is the one that has called us to where we serve, and our service is for Him alone.

Over the last few years as a missionary and as a pastor, one of the things I have become keenly aware of is the need for encouragement. Encouragement from the spirit is absolutely necessary to go day to day, but encouragement from others is such a welcome breath of fresh air.

There have been many rough days that I have labored and struggled with discouraging thoughts, and I have received a note, an email, a phone call, or even a short little statement from a friend, congregation member, or a SONlight supporter. Nothing special or extravagant, but a simple word of encouragement. Perhaps a reminder that they are praying. Maybe an affirmation that a particular message spoke to their heart. Sometimes it is even something as simple as a genuine inquiry into how things are going with some aspect of ministry or personal life that shows that I am cared for and prayed for.

Many times I have gone from discouraged to encouraged in a matter of seconds, and it is much easier to effectively work and labor when one is encouraged. The burden is lighter and steps are quicker and easier, and these moments have often been a timely reminder from the Lord that I do not labor alone.

Son of Encouragement

Barnabas was originally known as Joseph, but he was so well known for his encouragement to the body of Christ that the apostles called him Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement”. And it is evident that in the life of Barnabas, and in the life of Paul, that encouragement was a big part of the effectiveness of their ministries..

So hear from my experience on behalf of the many people in your church, circle of friends, missionaries and ministries, that the small gestures of appreciation, thanks, or encouragement are tremendous blessings. Be sensitive of the sacrifices of those that serve in the kingdom, or that are close to you.

Let them know that you appreciate them and their service and sacrifices. Pray for them, and let them know periodically that you are praying, and even what you are praying for. Send your missionary friend a note or email, and let those at your church know that they are loved and appreciated.

But not only that, but pay attention to the ones that serve around you that don’t have titles. Pastor’s and ministerial staff get discouraged and work hard, along with missionaries, but give encouragement to the ones that don’t show up on the roster of the church staff, or the missionaries at the church.

Give a word of encouragement to a Sunday school teacher, particularly one that teaches children or youth. Have kind words of community and appreciation for the janitor at your church, or the church secretary. Or the person who works in the sound booth at church. Maybe you could call someone at a ministry you support and ask to pray for them.

Posted in Blog Entries

Turning Things Upside Down

My current favorite way of thinking about the good news of the Gospel is in terms of right side up vs ǝpᴉsdn uʍop. This is something is often lost in our contemporary understanding of the Gospel, because we generally do not see the things that Jesus said in the revolutionary way that his audience did. Those of us who have grown up in the church are used to the hearing the words of Jesus. I’ve been hearing the Words of Jesus my whole life, but his audience’s lives would have been turned ǝpsdn uʍop with his words.

It’s hard as a church to get some of the radicalness of Jesus’ words. Because we have (rightly) made them such a large part of our culture and of our individual lives that they often no longer seem radical. But if we really want to get a glimpse of the ways in which Jesus’ words must have turned the 1st century world ǝpsdn uʍop we have to try to see things through their eyes. 

The Good Samaritan 

The term “good-samaritan” has become such a part of our culture that we even have “good-samaritan laws”. Laws to legally protect those sculpture by Dennis Oppenheim that give aid to others in need. But in the story becoming a part of our culture we have lost the shock of the original version that Jesus told. 

You’ve probably heard a pastor preach this text and explain that the Samaritans were despised by the Jews, and yet it was a Samaritan that stopped to help the robbed and dying Jew. The scandal was that the loathed and unclean one is the one who was the example of the good neighbor. Clarence Jordan tried to reclaim the shock of the original by retelling the story in The Cotton Patch Version of Luke and Acts. It’s a profound retelling of the story written in the 1960‘s that builds on racial tension to reclaim the scandal of Jesus’ words. (read it at http://sammywilliams.wordpress.com/2010/07/12/quotes-from-clarence-jordan/)

What I want to challenge you with is to spend some time putting yourself in the sandals of Jesus’ audience. Look for the ways in which their world was turned ǝpsdn uʍop. Then pray and think about the ways in which Jesus might be calling from the pages of history and scripture to turn your world ǝpsdn uʍop. Experience the vertigo of the Gospel and you will have a far clearer idea of how Jesus calls you to live out our faith.

Posted in Blog Entries