Sunday, November 2, 2014

When Mars Hill Was Leveled

Sitting on my bookshelf is an autographed copy of Mark Driscoll's book (written with his wife Grace), Real Marriage. I won it a couple of years ago for tweeting the best caption to a photo posted to Driscoll's Twitter feed. (Don't ask me what the picture or my caption were; I don't remember.)

Real Marriage is the book that came under fire after it was revealed that Mars Hill Church paid a firm to get the title on The New York Times' bestseller list. And that scandal came shortly after it was discovered that Driscoll had plagiarized portions of A Call to Resurgence. There were also lots of Mars Hill staff complaints about Driscoll's behavior, and someone uncovered years' old filthy and profane chatroom comments made under Driscoll's handle, "William Wallace II."

Monday, September 8, 2014

More Than a Chicken Sandwich

S. Truett Cathy, the founder of Chick-fil-A, passed away early this morning. I never knew the man, but I know his sandwich. And I am a fan.

Much has been said today about Truett's life's accomplishments, his character, his faith, and all the lives he touched through his generous spirit. And of course, various news outlets brought up the controversy over Chick-fil-A's support for traditional marriage. But regardless of what you think about that issue or about my favorite Chicken sandwich (I take mine with extra pickles and Chick-fil-A sauce), Truett Cathy was able to do something in life that many Christians aspire to do but few achieve. 

We see it often in Christian music. Some artists believe their music is their mission: that the songs they write should only be for worship or evangelism. Others shout that they are musicians and songwriters who happen to be Christians. They want to write and sing about everything—and don't want to be put in a box. 

But what if there's a third way? What if there were a way to be a musician or a lawyer or a teacher or a writer . . . or a restaurant owner who happens to be a Christian AND be the best in your field AND use what you do to influence culture and share Jesus with others? 

That was Truett Cathy. He ran his company the way he thought Jesus might—at least as best as he could figure from a lifetime spent following Him. And everyone who bumped into Truett or Chick-fil-A was confronted with his Christian worldview. Wherever he set up shop, he shined a light into the darkness—not an obnoxious, overbearing light, but a warm, soft, beckoning light (that may or not be warming waffle fries). 

I think Russell Moore said it well today: "The 'closed on Sundays' sign on his store is a countercultural statement that man does not live by bread alone, and there is more to life than a bottom line."

Rest in peace, Mr. Cathy. Tonight, we eat Chick-fil-A in your memory.

Friday, August 29, 2014

What Jesus Might Have Done in Ferguson


I will freely admit that I treat politics like hugs. I only share mine with people I trust and in appropriate social situations. But I read something this morning that caught my eye on Barnabas Piper's blog. In a post entitled, "Why White Christians Should Care About Ferguson," he made this statement:

No one culture is better and no one culture is worse, though we are inclined to think of our own as the best and overlook its flaws.

This sounds reasonable and gracious, and when I first read it, it smelled like truth to me. But then I stumbled over this thought when I considered another news story: the slaughter of religious minorities in the Middle East by ISIS (or ISIL or The Islamic State or whatever they're going by this week). Regardless of where one lands on the question of Islam's supposed virtues, can we not all agree that the strand of jihadism that spawned ISIS is a culture, and one that is not as good as others? A worldview that would allow for the beheading of innocent children and journalists, the rape of mothers and wives, and the systematic extermination of anyone who will not join their cause is not neutral, and it's not just as good as any other. It's evil.

I'm certainly not comparing the looting and sometimes violent protests in Ferguson with ISIS. Conversely, I'm also not suggesting that if it turns out that Darren Wilson did, in fact, use deadly force without proper justification, it'd be akin to genocide. I'm merely holding out ISIS as an extreme example that disproves Barnabas Piper's thesis, though I actually didn't have to. Piper disproves his own statement about all cultures being equal in the two sentences that preceded it:

Our respective cultures all reflect His [God's] creativity and character. But we all also bear the stains of sin.

I respect Barnabas Piper, and nothing in this post is meant to be a jab at him, but culture is a human invention. And just like everything else we touch, there is a mix of goodness (reflecting the fact that we were created in God's image) and brokenness (because we are fallen creatures). But this does not mean that these characteristics are always doled out in equal measure. Some values reflect more of God's goodness than others, and some are so anemic in their reflective power that they're more or less worthless. This is the case with a group like ISIS. I'm sure if we looked really hard, we'd find something in that worldview that shines with truth and beauty, but I don't think it'd be possible to find enough of that glimmer to make such a culture tolerable.

But once again I've wandered away from Ferguson into the Middle East. And so, let's get back to the heartland. As I've listened to the gaggle of Christian voices speaking in defense of Mike Brown or in defense of Officer Wilson, one thing has struck me: Though we might not always put it this way, in one form or another, we're picking sides for Jesus. We're asking what He would do. We're looking for the thread of justice—what should have happened, and by extension, what should happen now. And that means we're appealing to the only One who is truly just, Jesus Christ.

In my mind's eye, when I put Jesus on that street with that police cruiser and those two black teenagers, I don't see Him on the side of the cops, but I also don't see Him fighting the law either. I have no magic powers. Like everyone else who heard of the shooting from Fox News or CNN, I don't know exactly what happened on August 9th. I can only hope that the civil authorities and our court system will be able to determine the facts and dispense justice accordingly.

But from what I know about Jesus, here's what I think He would have done: I think the Son of God would have walked over to Michael Brown's body with tears in His eyes, and as He looked down on the young man who reflects His Father's image lying there in the street, I think He would have called Him back to life from the dead, like He did with Lazarus, with Jairus' daughter, and with the widow of Nain's son. In God's kingdom, death does not have the final say.

And then I think Jesus would have turned around to view the police officer holding the smoking gun, no less beloved of His Father. I think Jesus would have walked over, placed His hand on Darren Wilson's fractured eye socket, and healed him, just as He did with the ear of Malchus in the Garden of Gethsemane. And I imagine that after meeting Jesus, neither Officer Wilson nor Michael Brown would ever be the same again. I imagine they would have left that blood-stained street committed followers of Jesus Christ . . . and brothers. I don't think either would be concerned with the other's race ever again.

Jesus didn't come to tell us who is right and who is wrong. We see this time and time again in the Gospels when He refuses to condemn the Romans in favor of the Jews. He didn't come to get involved in the culture wars. He came and died for people of all cultures—ignorant folks and the well-informed, men who would rob a shoe store in protest and those who would fire tear gas into crowds, cops and robbers, black and white. He even came for folks who would seek to join ISIS. The point is not which culture is right and which is wrong. Cultures are not equal, to be sure. They're all broken. None of them have everything right. That's why we're supposed to be seeking the kingdom of God—and we ought to celebrate whenever we stumble upon something that reflects the kingdom's values, no matter what culture we come from. I think if we did that, we'd find much more common ground.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

What No One Tells You About Becoming a Dad

At 9:01 p.m. on July 9, I became a dad. Since then, I've been doing on-the-job training. I think God makes babies adorable to make this training more bearable. Honestly, some days are a joy, and just as honestly, other days are hard . . . really, really hard. Some nights, Laurin and I are amazed at his ability to sleep for so many hours in a row, and other nights, we argue over whose turn it is to try to soothe the beast and stem the screaming.

But I've learned something from this new chapter of life. That's not to say I've got everything figured out—or anything figured out. Mostly, what I've learned are the things no one tells you about having a baby.

1) When a baby is born, his stomach is full—really full—from being in utero. That means that for the first 24 to 48 hours, new parents get to think they have the most well-adjusted, content baby on the planet. They are also free to think about every other parent they know and feel superior. I remember Jonah just lying there in his hospital-issued bassinet looking out at us without making a sound. My baby is definitely cooler than all those other babies in the nursery. Then, of course, those hours of feeling full dwindle, and the baby experiences his first real discomfort: hunger.

I am now proud of my baby's incredible, almost supernatural, lung capacity.

2) Babies steal. I know you wouldn't think so because of their soft, squishy exterior and their sweet doe eyes, but babies are the biggest ripoff artists ever. The first time I held Jonah, he stole my heart. Now, I am irrevocably attached to the little guy. I love him more than I could have imagined. As a result, I can't bear the thought of any harm coming to him. It's so bad that I think it's ruined me for any television shows or movies where children are harmed or put in danger. We've had a long run, Law & Order: SVU. I will miss that *dum-dum* sound you make between scenes.

3) Having a child fills parents with fear for the future, and also with hope. For as long as I can remember, I've always said I wanted to save a newspaper from the day each of my children are born. I think it's because of that song "Levon" by Elton John. Anyway, on the day Laurin went into labor, I asked my brother James to pick up a paper. He kindly picked up an Atlanta Journal-Constitution, our local paper, and a copy of The New York Times. The New York Times has a picture of an explosion on the front page: Israel and Hamas had just begun fighting. The AJC has details about the VA scandal. Both papers featur an article about the crisis on the border. I'm sorry, Jonah, but there were a lot of bad headlines on the day you were born. There still are.

I am afraid of the kind of world that Jonah will inherit. Will there be much of it left? And I wonder what America will be like during his teenage years. It almost certainly will not resemble the country I grew up in.

At the same time, Jonah is a blank page, innocent and new, and he has been sewn together by a loving heavenly Father for just this moment in history. He may be one of the people God uses to bring about good in this world. He will undoubtedly get to see things in his lifetime that I have only dreamed of. He can really be anything he wants—or more hopefully, anything God wants. And that thought fills me with excitement.

Nobody tells you these things before you have a kid—and it's probably because you wouldn't believe them if they did. Oh, and the poop. There's so much poop.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Lazy Age of Christian Publishing?

A few weeks ago, Philip Yancey lamented on his blog about the death of the "golden age" of Christian publishing. Changes in the publishing world mean that authors typically receive less for their work and that anyone who wants to become an "author" can simply self-publish. This has flooded the online market with more books than ever but with fewer gatekeepers to ensure any measure of quality.

And earlier this week, Karen E. Yates, a guest writer over at Her.Meneutics, offered another perspective—one that was a little more upbeat. While Yancey bemoaned the fact that today authors are pressed to build their platforms rather than focus on their writing, Yates argues that this is not such a bad thing and highlights all the positive outcomes of having a tribe. And she says that self-publishing doesn't just flood the market; it also gives a voice to books that might not otherwise see the light of day, citing The Shack as an example.

After reading both pieces, I can't help but see things more like Yancey does than Yates. The changes in the publishing industry, while probably inevitable, are not necessarily good. When the music industry went through its digital revolution, there was a place to land when the floor fell out from beneath singers and songwriters. Artists can make money from tours and their back catalogue if the perceived value of their albums is little or nothing. In fact, as Noisetrade.com has shown time and time again, giving away a recording could be the best thing to generate new fans. But in the publishing world, the book is all there is. Authors don't go on tour to perform their books (book tours are only promotional). The book is their revenue stream.

Earlier this year, I went to a writer's conference with some colleagues from the ministry where I work and was saddened to learn that many of the authors presenting that week had to hold down other full-time day jobs. I left feeling mighty blessed to call myself a full-time writer and editor. Still, the changing shape of the publishing landscape suggests that people will not be willing to pay what they once did for a book—even a hard copy—since ebooks and online reading have given us a taste for free and cheap books. It makes my dream of someday being a full-time author harder than ever to achieve.

More disturbing is a trend that both Yancey and Yates hinted at. Christian publishers are less willing these days to take a chance on an unknown. Many would rather publish something unnecessary or sub-par that will sell than something refreshing and insightful that comes from someone without an established platform. In other words, if Rick Warren took to writing poetry for use in the bathroom, he would be more likely to find himself a lucrative publishing deal with a well-known publisher than Ann Voskamp would had she written her notes of thankfulness in her journal rather than her blog. Publishers, by and large, are looking past authors to their tribe—the book is even less important.

But there's self-publishing, right? All voices can now be heard even if publishers fail to see a diamond in the rough, can't they? While self-publshing can be a great option for established authors or for niche projects, the influx of books is crowding the market. A new author who convinces a traditional publisher that their book is worth publishing now faces a tremendous fight to be noticed among the thousands of titles newly available on Amazon every day. Many consumers are not savvy enough to recognize a self-published book, so the result is the cheapening of the word "author." (I recently filled a writer position on my team, and I cannot tell you how many people listed their first credential on their résumé as "author." But with the exception of one or two, every one was self-published. Anyone with a word-processing program and a few hundred dollars can add the same honor to their C.V.)

In this new world, it seems to me, we've lost the role of publishers. They were supposed to be the gatekeepers, ensuring that books making it through their stringent weeding-out process were worth a person's time. But now, it's more about the platform than the book. And we've lost the role of author. Anyone can become one, so no one can be one—or at least it's much harder to make a living at it. In the end, readers might get more and cheaper books, but there will undoubtedly be fewer great reads in the mix.

As a writer, I am faced with the choice every day to spend my time building my tribe or working on my writing. I choose to write—for magazines I'm a part of, for work, for special projects, and yes, sometimes for this blog. But I'm focused on the writing because that's what I love. If I ever have a "tribe," it will be fun to bounce ideas off of my peeps and get instant feedback. But the tribe itself can never replace finding something worth saying.

I have worked with a few different book publishers in a variety of capacities. My last book was published by a small and very targeted publisher, but they chose to publish my book—one of only six they published last year. Knowing that my story was something someone else was willing to take a risk on (especially given the subject) mattered so much to me. I have a new project in the works (more on that later), but it's with another traditional publisher—and again, it means the world to me to know that they think my writing is worth their time and investment. And it's so much fun working with people who want to help me produce something worthwhile, something that will bless others and maybe even challenge them.

I may have missed out on Yancey's "golden age," but I hope there's still room in this new world for those of us who mourn its passing.

Friday, July 18, 2014

The Essence of a Thing: A Word About Gordon College

Hebrew thought has more to do with what a thing is for—its essence—rather than with how a thing works. 

It was in Dr. Marvin Wilson's Old Testament survey course that I first heard this idea expressed. It was during a lecture on the difficulties we, as modern, enlightenment-conditioned men and women, have when we read the creation account in Genesis. We want to know how creation happened. Was there a big bang? Did it take millions or billions of years? Did God use some form of evolution to bring the natural world into being as we have it today? How is it possible that there were trees planted on day three but the sun was not in the sky until day four? 

But these are not the questions that the ancient Hebrew mind would ask—at least not primarily. For the Israelite hearing Moses' account of the six days of creation, what would have resonated would have been the power of God, the original goodness of this world, and the place God has given mankind. These elements speak to the nature of our God and this universe, and they are what make the creation story in the Bible different than the competing creation accounts in the ancient Near East. The mechanics of how things happened matter little as the listener gains insight into the story he is living and feels a connection with his world and with his Creator. 

That Old Testament course was taken during my sophomore year at Gordon College. Though I know some people have mixed feelings about their college experience, I loved every minute of mine. Four years was far too short a time to spend in such a wonderful place. That is not to say that Gordon College was perfect or that I was so naïve that I didn't see the moments of brokenness. I just latched on to the essence of the thing: Gordon College was—and is—a good place. 

Since graduating, it's been fun to see my alma mater pop up in the news or in pop culture now and again. A number of years ago, a Gordon College talent show performance became a YouTube sensation. A fellow alumnus, Pete Holmes, found success on late night TV. And even the handicapped parking signs in NYC now have a Gordon connection. 

But in the last few weeks, Gordon College has been in the news for another reason. College President D. Michael Lindsay attached his signature to a letter asking President Obama for a religious freedom exemption to an executive order the president has promised will be coming soon. The order would ban organizations from receiving federal contracts if they hold discriminatory hiring practices affecting gays and lesbians.

Discrimination is an ugly word, almost so weighty that its very use implies wrongdoing on the part of the person its levied against. But discrimination is not always bad. The kind of discrimination Lindsay asked President Obama to allow is the kind that makes Gordon College special. Of course, Gordon is not special because there is no LGBT presence on campus (that's not even true, anyway). Gordon is special because, since its founding in the basement of Clarendon Street Church in Boston, it's been a community set apart to nurture Christian faith. Gordon's motto has long been "Academic Freedom Within a Framework of Faith." And one of the ways this freedom-framework balance is maintained is through its Life and Conduct Statement, which all students and faculty agree to live by. As a Christian college in the evangelical tradition, it should be shocking to no one that, regardless of sexual identity, sexual acts outside of heterosexual marriage are prohibited. 

Think what you will about Gordon's policies or about the issues surrounding the morality of homosexual practice. No one is forced to study or work at Gordon College; each of us is free to choose whether or not we even want to be a part of such a community. For those who say Gordon should forego access to federal funding, like grants and the student loan program, I wonder if you would feel the same way if the president of the United States were a conservative and the situation were reversed. In other words, if an executive order requiring colleges that receive federal contracts to hire creation scientists. Folks at liberal universities across the land would be up in arms (that is, if they believed in the second amendment right to bear them). It sounds ridiculous, right? Obama's proposed executive order is ridiculous, too. 

At stake here is nothing short of American religious freedom. If we no longer have the recognized right to set ourselves apart in distinctive communities for the pursuit of academic freedom and the practice of faith, we will have lost one of the greatest blessings God has bestowed upon America. When it comes to Gordon College, the essence of the thing is good, and it's worth preserving just as it is. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

The red lights in front of me would not budge, so I stepped on the brakes firmly. All I could do was pray and trust. My Hyundai screeched and skidded and finally came to a stop, inches from the car in front of me. My brakes had done their job. But the moment of relief was short-lived, and I felt the impact of the car behind me, and then seconds later another jolt, as a third car ran into us both. With the last crash, my car spun, and I found myself sideways on the highway, staring up at an approaching semi.

Thankfully, it was only the machines who lost on this day. Every person involved in the accident walked away. For the rest of last Thursday and in the days since, I've been thinking a lot about timing. What if that 18-wheeler had been just a fraction of a second ahead of schedule? What if I had left the house just five minutes later or five minutes earlier? What if I had stopped for gas before driving to work, or what if had decided to work from home that morning? And then I began to wonder about all the ways God adjusts my life's timing—ways that save me from harm that I'm not even aware of.

And it's not just the accident that's got me thinking about God's timing. Every since last October when we found out we would be having our first child, Laurin and I have been fiercely awaiting July 1. That was the day, according to our doctors, that Jonah was due to be born. And while we've known all along that not every baby is born on his due date, July 1 has been our focus. As I write this post, Jonah is 5 days late. (I hate being late to things, so he must get his tardiness from his mother.)

God is good, so even though I don't know why my Thursday morning ended in a crunched car or why Jonah is "late," I'm trusting in His good purposes. As God is teaching me patience (admittedly my least favorite flavor among the fruit of the Spirit), I am seeing just how rushed and hurried I normally am. 

These past few days, Laurin and I have been able to slow down a bit. Since we were expecting to be adjusting to life with a new baby this weekend, we've got little on our to-do lists. There's not much to do but enjoy this calm before the storm. We spent time with family, celebrated the Fourth, even took time for a picnic at the place where we got married last year. It's been a nice change of pace, but I think this is how God expects us to live all the time. Since He is sovereign and has timed everything for our good, we are supposed to rest in His shalom, His perfect, immeasurable peace. As James says, "You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes . . . You ought to say, 'If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that'" (James 4:14-15 NIV).

This talk of mist is a bit deceiving. On the surface, mist is unimportant and inconsequential. It would be an insult to tell another person that his life was nothing more than a vapor. But when compared to God's plans, our lives are nothing more than a mist. God is the One writing the story we're all living in—and James reminds us of that. But there's another side to this mist talk. Like mists that breathe up off of a lake in summertime, we ought to spend our time living within the pace of life that God has set before us. He has not asked us to live in such a hurried manner. We can only move as quickly as the breeze will take us. 

So I don't think Jonah is "late" after all. He's just living in sync with his Creator's timing. And it is me who needs to adjust. 

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

The "Christian Writer" Label

This morning, I read this statement from Philip Yancey:
Primarily, I write books that do focus on my faith. I’ve tried writing other kinds of books, but they always feel like they’re leaving out something important to me. So maybe I am a “Christian writer.”
These days, it seems that whether you're a writer, a musician, or anything creative, it's not okay to identify yourself as a "Christian ________." It's much more appropriate to say "I am a Christian who writes," or "I'm a Christian who plays guitar" or whatever. There's even that famous C. S. Lewis quote,
The world does not need more Christian literature. What it needs is more Christians writing good literature.
I wholeheartedly agree, and I'm sure Yancey would as well. But it's only fair to remember that Lewis was writing in a different age. The cultural struggles we face today are different than those of Lewis' day. While it may seem more authentic or trendy not to want to be boxed in with the label, "Christian," it's also an easy cop-out.

Like Yancey, I've tried writing about other things, but it always feels like I'm leaving out the most important part of the story. And I'm okay with that. After all, shouldn't we as Christians be developing eyes that see the world as God's sees it?

I don't think the problem is that we're so focused on eternal matters, we're just not connecting with people. I think it's just the opposite; we don't spend enough time contemplating the things that are most important to God. And I have no fear that writing through the lens of faith will limit my subject matter. It does just the opposite; it opens it up.

Pardon my rant, but I'm happy to be a "Christian writer" as well, in whatever small capacity I can be. If I ever cease to be, I think I'll have forgotten the most important parts of life, and I don't think anything I write at that point will be worth reading.


Saturday, May 3, 2014

A Letter to My Unborn Son

Dear Jonah,

From what people tell me, my life is about to be turned upside down and become messier than I can imagine. They say my days of sleep are numbered, as are these times of sitting down to write without distraction. The cup of coffee by my side is about to be replaced with a bottle, and this Mac on my lap will soon be set aside so you can occupy that space.

So while our home is still filled with sweet silence, I wanted to write you a letter—something that you can turn to years from now, in those moments when you are convinced I am the worst dad in the world, and something I can look back on when I forget that being your dad is an extravagant gift from God, something much like saving grace, completely undeserved.

You'll probably hear a lot about God in our home. Your mother and I bring His name up often. More than anything else in life, we hope that you come to know Him, that you learn to follow Jesus and recognize His voice. One of my biggest fears is that I'll fail to show you what that looks like. I don't walk with God perfectly; I stumble and trip over myself daily. In those times, I hope the lesson you'll take away is that God's grace is larger than my sin.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Easter-Weekend Resurrection

I have yet to see a church sign that says, "Believe our message, and you may be killed for that belief someday," nor have I seen "We take a collection at every service" or "The things you may come to believe will make you wildly unpopular at work." All of these statements are true, of course (though the last one may depend on where you work), but we don't advertise these things. Instead, we point to the those elements that will resonate with people where they are right now. Everyone wants community, everyone wants hope, and everyone wants to be set free—so we highlight these.

I suspect something like this is taking place when we read the Good Friday and Easter narratives in the four Gospels. Matthew includes an event that the other evangelists leave out:
At that moment, the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split, and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people (Matthew 27:51-53, NIV).
To me, dead people coming back to life and walking around the streets of Jerusalem seems like news. But Mark, Luke, and John are silent on the subject. This has led many Bible scholars—even very conservative ones—to doubt the historical truth of Matthew's claim.

These commentators reason that perhaps Matthew was using apocalyptic language to describe the cosmic significance of Jesus' death. Maybe it was a literary device to show the monumental impact of the Son of God laying down His life, akin to Ralph Waldo Emerson describing the first shot of the American Revolution as "the shot heard round the world." No one believes Aborigines in the Australian outback were listening to the musket balls flying at Lexington and Concord. So they argue it is with these Old Testament saints coming out of the ground on Easter weekend: History turned so sharp a corner on Good Friday that it was like the dead had come to life to see the turning of the ages.

I believe in letting the Bible speak on its own terms, that we should read poetry as poetry and historical narrative as historical narrative. I believe apocalyptic literature is unique and should not be interpreted like an Epistle or a Gospel. But I think we do great damage to the text of the Bible when we attempt to import a separate rule of interpretation to a single verse or two because we find content difficult to swallow when read as presented. In other words, Matthew 27 and its larger context is clearly historical narrative. No conservative Bible scholar would see Jesus' resurrection as figurative or a mere literary device. Jesus was arrested, tried, tortured, mocked, and nailed to a Roman cross in history. It actually happened. If we were able to travel back in time with an iPhone in tow, we would be able to capture the whole thing in stunning HD video.

So pulling out the bit about the dead coming to life as illustrative fluff that didn't really happen is unfair to the text. Readers are free to disregard the Gospels as mere fiction, but let us not pick and choose which parts of the story are true. The real difficulty with this passage is not what Matthew tells us. If we are willing to believe that God stepped down out of heaven, was born as a baby, lived as a carpenter, performed miracles witnessed by thousands, was crucified, and then raised from the dead, why is it so difficult to believe that a few others were also raised to new life? The real difficulty with this passage is that the other Gospel writers are silent on the subject and that there is no mention of the event in other historical records of the period.

But I don't think it's really all that strange. There are several other events mentioned by only one Gospel writer. Matthew alone tells us about Herod's slaughter of toddlers and infants (Matthew 2:16). Only Luke tells us that Jesus restored the ear of the high priest's servant on the Mount of Olives after one of his disciples (Peter, according to John) cut it off (Luke 22:51). And it is just John who mentions Lazarus being raised from the dead (John 11). As for Roman and Jewish historical archives from the time. I'm not sure what we'd expect to find. Those who rose from the dead were not zombies (contrary to the Lego image above), and they didn't wreak havoc on the unsuspecting citizens of Jerusalem. They were people—there's no reason to think they looked any different from you or me—and it would have been wildly difficult for secular historians to believe they were the dead come to life, even if that was the rumor floating around town.

The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is central to the Christian faith—it changes everything about life—and each Gospel was written so that its recipients might believe in Jesus and be saved. It's not surprising then that Matthew includes the event. It fulfills, at least in part, what God had said through the prophet Ezekiel (see Ezekiel 37:12-13)—something that would have been of particular interest to Matthew's largely Jewish audience. For the other Gospel writers, these dead followers of God kicking up dirt and strolling through town add little to the hope found in the gospel. In fact, including such an event would have introduced a lot of new questions, rather than providing answers, as it does today when believers who are less steeped in Old Testament prophecy read Matthew's account.

So what do we do with these strange few verses? I have a rather simple suggestion: Believe. Matthew provided us with a glimpse of the resurrection that will take place when Christ returns. In the pages of his Gospel, we have a real-world preview of one of the most difficult-to-swallow bits of Christian theology: Death does not have the final say. Those of us who know Jesus will be raised to new life and will live with Him forever. This is the good news of Easter, so let's embrace this small preview of the goodness of God yet to come as we celebrate the more important resurrection that took place that same weekend.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

When God Stops the Rain

I have a love/hate relationship with rain. On a Monday morning, rain is my enemy. Wet roads and lower visibility extend my already uncomfortable commute. Like a perfectly ordered line of ants disrupted from above by a small child with a cup of water, rain brings an extra level of chaos to the highways of Atlanta. But on a Sunday morning, when I'm sitting at home with a cup of coffee and my Bible, the sound of rain falling outside is a welcome visitor.

Jesus says that God the Father "causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matthew 5:45, NET). God's world is not a world of karma but of grace. And grace is both wonderful and dangerous.

In a world where only the good receive sunshine and rain, it would be easy to spot the bad guys—and it would be easy to self-diagnose and make course corrections. That guy at the office constantly under a gray cloud with neither sunshine nor rain? He's a jerk. That woman in your neighborhood whose path always seems to be lit by sunshine? She's a godly woman. And when you're having one of those days where nothing seems to be going right, you would have a clear indicator that you've messed up. But God has said things don't work this way. The righteous and the unrighteous do life together; sunshine and rain fall on them both.

Except when it doesn't.

The Book of 1 Kings records a time when God brought a famine upon the land of Israel. For three and a half years, it didn't rain a drop. And the text is clear: this drought was ordained by God because of King Ahab's sin of idolatry (1 Kings 18:18). Ahab and his wife Jezebel had led the people into Baal worship. Baal was a Canaanite storm god, so by shutting up the heavens and stopping storms, God was showing the people just how worthless and false their god was. It is the true God of Israel who brings rain and sun—and who has the power to stop them both.

This is how a tremendous drought can really be an act of grace. God's people were walking along a path of sin and disobedience—one that leads to death—so God took action to show His people how deluded they had become. Surely they would see Baal is no god at all, for no matter how fervently they worshipped or how many sacrifices they offered during the drought, no rain fell.

But do you know what's incredible? The drought has zero effect on the sins of the people. When Baal stopped working like they thought he should, the people simply adjusted their theology. Israel began to believe that Baal had become trapped in the underworld and was temporarily unable to grant the people rain. Their faith in him did not wane.

At the end of the time set by God for the drought, the prophet Elijah challenges the prophets of Baal to a contest—a god vs. God battle royale. The true God shows up with fire, and the people immediately fall on their faces in sorrow and cry out to the Lord (1 Kings 18:25-40). It's an old school showdown of good vs. evil, one of those great Old Testament stories where the power of the Almighty is displayed miraculously for all to see. But there is a detail that shows just how gracious God is, even while His people are living in outright rebellion.

The contest calls for the prophets of Baal and Elijah to each build an altar and to prepare a bull for a sacrifice. The true God will be able to set the altar ablaze with no help from His prophets. The prophets of Baal fail—their bull remains one rare piece of meat. When it's Elijah's turn, he does something remarkable. He orders four large pots of water to be poured onto the bull and the altar—so much water that it fills a trench that's been dug around the altar. Despite the soaked wood, God consumes Elijah's offering with fire from heaven.

But did you catch that detail? Elijah has water poured on the sacrifice—and not just a little water either. In the middle of a severe drought, God is still supplying his stubborn and rebellious people with life-giving water. Brooks and rivers still flow throughout the land. Water is scarce, but it is still there. God still supplies what His people need.

Our God is a good God, sending rain upon the righteous and the unrighteous. And even when the rain stops, He has mercy on those who thirst.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Needed Post About Parenting and the Bible That's Actually About Neither

A disclaimer: This was going to be a post about religious freedom, a foray into the national conversation about gay weddings and florists and conscience and who Jesus would or would not bake a cake for, but this is not that post. This might also have been a post about what goodness truly looks like—whether it's possible to experience things that are truly good apart from God. But this is not that post either.

This is, instead, the post I was led to write after wrestling with both of those things, and it's the result of the conviction I felt after hearing Andy Stanley speak earlier this week. He said a couple of things that have stirred my heart since I heard them. I've been told they're things he says fairly regularly, so forgive me if you've heard them before.

The first thing Andy said that got me thinking was this: "Our goal is to have the kind of relationship with our kids so that, when we no longer have to be a family, everyone will still want to be a family." (That may not be the exact way he put it, but that's the idea.) Since Laurin and I don't have kids yet (our first baby is due in July!), I feel like I have a perfect record as a parent. No complaints. No dysfunction. I am acing this whole parenting thing. And when our baby is born, that will be my goal—to keep our family relationship strong. Think about it: No other goal we have for our families will matter if we miss this one. No matter how much we want our kids to love Jesus, succeed in life, or become contributing members of society who love their fellow man, we'll have no opportunities to speak into their lives if they don't want to be around us.

The other thing Andy Stanley said that stopped me in my tracks had to do the Bible. He said we should avoid using the phrase "The Bible says ..." when teaching and preaching. Having worked at the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association a number of years ago, I can't hear that phrase without imagining Bill Graham delivering it in his commanding southern drawl to a packed stadium. But Andy's purpose in saying this was not to second-guess the Bible's authority or to downplay the effectiveness of men like Graham. Instead, he was arguing that in today's modern, ever more secular context, the Bible carries little weight with most people—especially the unchurched.

He made the case that it's more powerful to appeal to Jesus or one of the New Testament writers. Jesus is still well-respected by all but the most cynical. And the New Testament writers—specifically Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, and James—each have a wonderful testimony that can be shared when we mention their names. For instance, instead of saying, "The Bible says if anyone needs wisdom, he should seek God," we could say, "James, Jesus' brother, says if anyone needs wisdom, he should seek God. Oh—by the way, have you ever thought about how powerful it is that James believed Jesus was the Son of God? I mean, what would your brother have to do to convince you that he was the Son of God?" Much more powerful, right?

But what do these two statements from Andy Stanley have to do with anything? And why did I bring up what I was going to write about but didn't? Because Andy's way of thinking got me thinking, How much time do I spend contemplating things that are right, good, and true but ultimately do nothing to draw people into the next conversation? We can be absolutely orthodox and even rather brilliant, but if we're not making it so people want to continue the conversation, what difference does it make? As someone who loves words and is honored to make a living writing and editing them, I am thoroughly convicted that I don't spend nearly enough time thinking about my approach.

The most loving thing we may be able to do for people is maintaining the relationship—this is true with our children, and it's true with everyone else God places in our paths. And when it comes to wanting to share the gospel with people, this is so very important—it makes no difference if we're right if no one is listening.

This post began with a disclaimer, and it ends with a confession: Too often, I've failed to keep the conversation going. Too often, I've used the gift of words to be right, rather than to cultivate an approach that draws people in. And for these things, I'm sorry.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Day Atlanta Stopped

Last Tuesday, I ate a bowl of butternut squash soup as I peered out the window of the dining room at my office. When the light was just right, and I squinted at the bushes, I could make out a few flakes. The moment I had been waiting for all season long had begun. It was finally snowing.

People had told me that this sometimes happens in Atlanta, but in my three winters in Georgia, I had yet to see anything more than a passing flurry. I'm from New England, so snow doesn't bother me, doesn't cause me to drive erratically, and doesn't inspire me to purchase a three-week supply of milk, bread, and toilet paper. Instead, I find it beautiful—a pristine white blanket over creation. And I find it exciting. As the intensity of the snow showers increased, and I hurried to finish my lunch, I was just slightly more restrained than a kid about to find out he has a snow day home from school.

But as innocent and fragile as those flakes seemed through the dining room window, they brought lots and lots of friends—friends who would turn to ice and stick to the roads. Before too long, the slippery conditions of the highways and bridges coupled with the mass exodus from the city turned Atlanta into a parking lot. I was one of the lucky ones. My drive home from work took was a mere two hours and change. Some friends weren't so fortunate. Some got stuck at work; others spent five, six—even 12 hours in their cars. I heard on the news that one woman even gave birth in her car because the roads to the hospital were jammed. Hundreds of accidents were reported. Hundreds more cars were abandoned. The images of Atlanta on the local news really did look like images from The Walking Dead—a comparison too ripe not to make.

But following the mess of the drive home, I got to spend two days at home with my bride, "snowed in" from the storm (even though the grass in our yard wasn't entirely covered). I was thinking about this storm today on my drive to work this morning. There is no more snow, no more ice, and no sign that any winter storm had ever even approached Atlanta. It's now just a fun memory. Well, it was fun for me. And while I recognize that many people were frightened, and some did suffer as a result of the storm, there is something beautiful about everyone being given a break from the routine of the everyday just to rest. 

In an agricultural society, winter is a time for the farm, and the farmer, to rest. But in our societies today, there is no season of rest, no natural cycle of Sabbath. We take vacations, have an occasional holiday, and collapse when we've worked too hard, but there is no Sabbath. So while many were outraged at public officials, school boards, and even the clouds in the sky, I am thankful for snowpocalypse and thankful for all the Sabbaths God has commanded. And more than anything, I am refreshed for the next storm to come. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

An Unexpected Reminder of the Renewal of All Good Things

I feel terrible. Absolutely horrible.

I am notorious for being a little clumsy, a little oblivious, and at times a little like a Tyrannosaurus Rex in a room full of irreplaceable ancient manuscripts. (The bull in the china shop is forgivable compared to my atrocities.) I've broken things, I've hurt myself, and I've made loud, embarrassing noises. But tonight I did my worst.

Tonight, while opening a box for Laurin, I put it back down on our coffee table and accidentally crushed something very important to her—and to me: the rose I had given her on our very first date.

I had brought Laurin a rose and Timothy Keller's The Prodigal God when I came to pick her up for our first date. The Tim Keller book was because she had told me the Parable of the Prodigal Son was one of her favorite passages of Scripture, and the pink rose was because I wanted her to know how much I liked her already. (I thought red might seem too serious, too soon and scare her off.)

Laurin, the sentimental soul that she is, hung the rose upside-down and dried it out to preserve it. But now it's more like half a rose next to a small pile of potpourri that's lost its scent. When she walked into the room and saw what I had inadvertently done, she was upset. When I looked down and saw the rose fragments, I was upset. She was mad that I had crushed the rose. I was mad that she had placed the box so close to the rose in the first place. Doesn't she know I don't do well with not destroying things? Hadn't she learned from Beauty and the Beast that all important roses should be kept under glass?

There's no replacing the rose, but thankfully, our relationship is more than just artifacts. The truth is, while we both would have liked to have kept the rose forever—to show to our kids and our grandkids—nothing lasts forever.

First Corinthians 7:31 tells us, "For the present form of this world is passing away." God is creating a new heavens and a new earth. This one is being renewed, but right now, it is in decay. The curse of sin has subjected creation to bondage (Romans 8:21); things are not as they should be.

I don't know if our rose would've survived forever in a world without sin. I don't know if it too will be redeemed and remade when the heavens and the earth are made anew. But I am faced tonight with a reminder of life's fragility in the disappointed eyes of my beautiful wife. And I long for a world where disappointment will be swallowed up in the tidal wave of God's glory and in the resurrection of the good, the true, and the beautiful things of life.