Thursday, December 22, 2011

Psalm 40... free download

Our CD, "Great Redeemer," is now available, and we thought it would be great to give away downloads of our song, "The Song of the Redeemed." To download this song, go to our NoiseTrade page and if you like it, consider leaving a tip. The song is based on Psalm 40, and we hope it is a blessing to you (here is a link to a live performance of the song). If you are interested in using the song, following are the lyrics and chords, and we would love to hear from you:

.G D/F# C G D/F# C D
Lord be magnified! He has heard my cry
.G D/F# C D/F#
He saw my need, and picked me up
. a7 b7 C Dsus - D
and set my feet upon a rock!

.G D/F# e C
Many will hear this song of the redeemed
.G D/F# C D
Many will see all the lives that you have changed
.G D/F# a7 b7 C - D G - D/F# - C - D
Many will fear and will place their trust in the Lord

.G D/F# a7 b7
The sacrifice of bulls and goats could never pay the debt
.G D/F# C Dsus - D
but long ago the prophet spoke of a promise to be kept,
.G D/F# C G
of the Father's loving kindneess shown, to send the Holy one
.G D/F# e C Dsus - D
to come display His righteousness, to do the will of God

.G D/F# a7 b7
While resting in the kindness and compassion of the Lord
. G D/F# C Dsus - D
the saviour bore the sins of all and cried out to be heard
. G D/F# C G
bring sorrow to the ones who take delight in all my pain
. G D/F# e C Dsus - D
but let the ones who seek the Lord rejoice and sing again

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Video of last week's service

We were blessed to have a supporter arrange for a video to be made of last week's worship service, so we decided to start a YouTube channel for Sermons in Song! If you would like to help it go viral (heehee... or if you just want to take a listen or add a comment), you can see it at our channel page or you can just hit play on the embedded video here:

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Prediction for Tomorrow

I am so thankful that the end of all things happens after I get to celebrate my anniversary with my wife. As of today, we have been married for 16 years, and it has been a marvelous time. The first ten years (number of perfection) were devoted to uniting our hearts together in preparation for the work of ministry, and the following 6 years of labor were ordained to follow that perfect preparatory time. Now, at the end, comes the seventh year of rest... coincidence?

Now, you might suspect that this is all mere conjecture, but how could such things be anything but God-ordained signs of the end? I am sorry if your anniversary date was not so perfectly ordained, but since the end of all things is here, it does little good to fret about it now. Of course, for those who refuse to believe these things, a great earthquake awaits them tomorrow. Those who survive this will be in for miseries upon misery. But enough of this silliness... I have a more original prediction than to copy Harold Camping's spiritualistic conjecture and self-righteous arrogance.

Here is my prediction for the beginning of the end that Camping has predicted:
1) Tomorrow will be as today - there will be wars, there will be financial troubles, and there will be earthquakes...lots of them (there are many, every day, all over the world...nothing new here)
2) The next day, Camping will issue a statement something like this:

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Rejoice With Trembling

Psalm 2:11 says, "serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling." Then Psalm 114:7 says, "Tremble, O earth, at the presence of the Lord, at the presence of the God of Jacob." One main point of Psalm 114 is that the presence of the Lord is not something to be treated lightly. These Psalms have been my meditation for quite a while, and I posted a line from one of my new songs to Twitter, "Lord, we long to know your presence, but we live with Adam's fear. Hide us in eternal mercy, as we tremble and draw near."

One friend responded to challenge this, asking how that squares with the confident approach to Christ that Hebrews 4:16 encourages, "Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." It is a good question.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Meditations from the Psalms: Twitter Feed Explanations

#ResurrectionMeditation 1/7: Psalm 8 He is most glorified at the cross (humility) and is given a name above every name (exaltation)

Imagine the most beautiful sight you have seen, the northern lights, the Grand Canyon, Angel Falls, or any other of the spectacular portions of His creation. God has given Him a name that is far more glorious and beautiful than any of it or all of it combined.

Psalm 8 is quoted by Christ, when the Pharisees had to try and get Jesus to silence the kids who were singing Psalm 118 to Him, "Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord." Jesus points to this Psalm as if to say, the kids have it right.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

All is Well - Psalm 16:8-11

As per a few requests, the following is a chord chart for our song, "All is Well." While working on a different song, based on Psalm 16, a friend called to tell me that they had just lost a loved one. At the same time, I was meditating on verse 8-11 and the implications of Christ's resurrection. It is a song that seeks to capture the peace that comes from a mind who is focused on God, who is walking with God, who has been made alive in Christ, and who is following His path of life.

With Him, not even death can shake you, because He is the firstborn from the dead. He who knows our weakness became sin for us and suffered the wrath of God in our place. Then the Messiah, Jesus, did not stay in the grave long enough for his body to decay, but He rose to life again on the third day, and by His resurrection, we are enabled to live a life, alive to God and dead to sin.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Trajectory of Godliness

What does godliness look like? In describing godliness, we would probably come up with some sort of list, outlining characteristics and behaviours of a godly. It isn't difficult to cull several examples of this in Scripture, such as the the great commandments, loving God and loving others or the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.

We could articulate all these factoids as a bullet point list of descriptive characteristics, and this would give us a rather comprehensive picture of the ideal behaviour of a Christian. Then this could serve as an apt description of Christ-likeness and could be represented in this way:

Godliness -----> -----> Descriptive List

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Interrupting Life

Have you ever had an important and extended conversation, with your kids around? You know how it is; when they need something, you do your best to cover the mouthpiece and quickly answer their needs without breaking the flow of the conversation. If you do it well, the other side of the phone conversation won't hardly even notice the interruption and your kids will know their needs are important to you.

Too often we act as if prayer is this sort of interruption to life. It is as if the conversation with God is interrupting whatever activity is important at the moment, and so we address the need for prayer efficiently and relatively quickly, but not too quickly, since we don't want to give the impression that talking to God isn't important. This is completely backwards!

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Does the Music Matter?

Does music communicate? While there are a few would argue otherwise, there is a growing body of scholarship that indicates audiences can understand the emotional tone of a given piece of music with astonishing predictability. However, this matter isn't the main point of this article; rather, let's accept the idea that music communicates emotion and run with it. What then? For the worship leader who believes our communication matters, we should explore how we might be able to evaluate a given musical expression.

Before beginning, there are some who will welcome this discussion for all the wrong reasons. They suppose that accepting the idea of musical communication will send all the "evil" styles of music scurrying back under the rock, and others, in reaction to them, try to minimize and dismiss the idea of musical communication altogether. For both, music is often spoken of as a disconnected thing, fixed in time and space, and for those who prefer to ignore musical communication, it is ephemeral and completely subjective - irrelevant to the verbal message of a song.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Praise God for Who He Is

Here is a quick, and wholly inadequate tour of some of His attributes:

God is Great

He is everywhere, all at the same time. He knows every thing, even our thoughts before we think them. God is all-powerful; He can do anything that is consistent with His nature. God is the sovereign ruler of the universe, and He created all things to display His glory as the best and highest possible good for His creation.

Praise His Greatness!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Remember Charlie Brown's Teacher?

If you can understand Charlie Brown's teacher, you can understand that music communicates, but first, let's take a look at how understandable words are, by themselves.

Have you ever noticed that missunderstandings are easily started through textual communication? With the advent of email, many businesses have found it necessary to advise their staff to be careful what they write in emails for precisely this reason. This same tendency can also be observed in social networking and online forums. In a text driven environment, meaning can be lost or even reversed, in some cases, in the mind of the reader, simply due to a lack of “tonal” information. Since, tone of voice, and even facial expressions, contribute significantly to effective communication, care should be exercised in seeking to understand a textual communication in their absence.

So in spoken language, we can readily acknowledge that how something is said is often just as important as the verbal content of what is said. For example, I can say the words, “I love you,” and alter my tone of voice to communicate meaning that is sarcastic, deep, flippant, casual, questioning, or even completely opposite of what the words would seem to say. Context also plays a role in this, since the words spoken in my home, alone with my wife, will likely carry a different connotation than if they were spoken in church to the whole congregation.

Moving beyond the text, it is possible to communicate (more generally) with only the tone of my voice. Remember Charlie Brown's teacher? Isn't it interesting that you could understand, "Whaah Whaah wa wa Whaah Whaaaaahh?" The cues from the other characters and the context provided enough information that your imagination supplied words that went perfectly with the rising and falling of her voice. Then there was Woodstock and snoopy…no words, but you could clearly understand what was being “said” simply with tones and visual context.

To suggest that these characters don’t communicate would be silly, but we should observe that they don’t have the precision of communication that would be added with the inclusion of words. The fact is that music is just like tone of voice, it can and does communicate, though its communication is fairly general. It is as if music simply amplifies the tone of voice. So to suggest, as some Christians like to do, that music does not communicate apart from the words would be just as incomprehensible as suggesting that tone of voice does not communicate apart from the words. You can do, with music, everything that you can do with your tone of voice…often better.

Some would like to run with this idea and begin to construct a taxonomy to describe the communication of music in precise terms, but this is the equivalent of trying to build a taxonomy of tonality in language. Such an effort is doomed to fail, because while tone and music do communicate, they are (at best) general approximations of meaning. There is absolutely no precision to it, and the situational and cultural contexts both play a critical role in understanding the expression.

In any case, it really doesn’t matter how it communicates; the fact is that it does. When we can observe that it is even possible to musically mock good doctrine with exactly the same words you use for proclaiming it, we should be driven to consider carefully what our music is communicating to the audience. As pertaining to how we approach worship music, we must understand that music is a crucial part of the over-all message, and how we sing matters as much as what we sing.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Unshaken Worship is Godless Worship

Worship leaders...

The presence of the Lord shakes everything, just as it shook Mount Sinai at the giving of the law (Psalm 114). We also know that there is coming a day when the presence of God will shake all creation, until only that which cannot be shaken will remain (Hebrews 12:27). For those who believe and follow Christ, there is a promise in Psalm 16:8, "I have set the Lord always before me; because He is at my right hand, I shall not be moved" (Hebrew: "shaken")

This promise speaks first of the buffeting from around us, but it also speaks of the unshakable stability we have in Christ. Our union with Him gives us a stability that transcends death, so that we remain even when heaven and earth crumble at His coming. The wicked may claim that they cannot be shaken (Psalm 10:6), but the righteous King will come one day in judgment.

The presence of God in your life has the same effect. Where God is, sin cannot remain, and those who are indwelt by His Holy Spirit cannot help but have that presence shake their idolatry and wickedness from them. If this is true, then there are some profound implications of this idea to our worship.

Worship leaders often claim to be leading a group of people to experience the presence of God, but if that experience doesn't shake lives, then you can be assured something is wrong. In Psalm 40:6 we see a person who has a song that can be seen. That is a song that springs from a changed life, a life where sin is being shaken free.

That reality must mark our worship, both expressively and experientially, and if sin remains, the presence of the Lord will shake it lose. It is the mercy of God that He doesn't shake hard enough to destroy the wicked entirely, but that time will come. In the mean time, the bottom line is that the church's songs should be songs that you can see, in the changed lives of both individuals and the church body.

If you desire this kind of worship, you need to pray. Pray for God's presence, because music, though powerful, cannot ultimately shake a person's life. Beg God to use your worship to display His glory and press it upon the hearts and mind of those you are leading. Pray that God would shake your life, and repent of sin in your own life. Draw near to Him, because it is impossible for you to lead people where you have not gone. The following will go nowhere without this.

Then you must choose the expressions of worship (commonly called songs) to display accurately who God is, and this should include both the content of the songs and the emotional force of the music. It makes little sense to sing about the love of God to angry music, but it also makes little sense to sing about the wrath of God toward sin with loving music. Each expression should appropriately display the glory of God to the church.

Don't obscure your congregation's view of God with unintelligible or false lyrics. Turn their eyes to God, in the person of Christ, and leave them there to soak in His glory. Where their focus is on themselves, worship will be anemic, even if it is exuberant. (People who idolize themselves have no trouble reveling in what they get.) Show people that the best life is one in fellowship with God, freed from all that He hates and loving all that He loves.

You can't do that if your music is stale, and I am not suggesting anything about style. Any style of music can be either vibrant or anemic, and it is possible to allow any style of "worship music" to devolve into little more than a concert. You must use music to communicate, but you should not allow it to eclipse the community based nature of public worship. Make sure the congregation can and does participate by choosing your music carefully to fit the lyrics. Also, practice your craft so that you can communicate as effectively as possible.

Plan elements of prayer, doctrine, and response in your service and never lose sight of the fact that worship is relational. It isn't about what you know or how many elements you tick off a checklist. It is about a community expression of a right relationship with God. Where that relationship is made clear, God's presence will really shake things up.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Dangerous Fences - Epilogue

(a parable)

A few days ago, my daughter showed up at the doorstep with her four children. It was a great surprise, since we hadn't heard from them in a long time. Her eyes were red with tears and she began sobbing almost as soon as she sat down in our couch. My heart broke as her story poured out... (in her words)

"Dad, I am soooo sorry that we cut you off five years ago. I don't know where else to go, but I knew we would be safe here. The last few years have been miserable for me, as my husband began putting up many more fences for all of us. At first it was ok, because you always taught us to stay within the fences, but the fences became so constricting that we couldn't leave the house. All the shades had to be drawn on the windows, and the walls we had built kept us from any meaningful contact with almost anyone.

It didn't feel right, but I didn't know why. I went to the salesman for advice, and he showed me how the supplemental manual required us to stay inside the fences. I went along with it until my husband began wiring the fences with electricity. No one really understood or believed what he was doing. From the outside everything looked great, and the salesman said as long as we stayed in the fences, there shouldn't be any problems.

But the problem was that our whole house had become a dangerous place, and it was all fenced off, so the danger was not evident to those outside or even to us. There was no where to go, and the fences weren't able to protect us. They had imprisoned us in our own home; we were definitely not safe. There were no more fences to build, and there was no way to avoid danger.

I found the power switch to the electricity and turned it off; then I began taking down the fences. It was the only way to get out of danger, but my husband objected and called the salesman. The salesman came over right away and advised me to stay within the fences. When I told him that the danger was actually inside the fences, he couldn't see it. He urged me to get back in the fences, but when I refused, the salesman and my husband built a fence, cutting me and the children off.

We had no place else to go, but we remembered that beautiful spot in your yard and we just wanted to come here, so we can figure out what to do."

[My heart broke for my daughter, but I couldn't help but realize my acceptance of the supplemental manual for fence building had paved the way for my daughter's pain. I hoped the manufacturer would give me a chance to help others avoid the same kinds of fence building monstrosities. That is why I have shared our story with you.]

[Beware of fences! They are all dangerous, so you need to follow the manufacturer's directions very carefully. Small alterations to it seem ok, at first (or even desirable), but the danger in doing so is very real.]

Previous: A Sad Letter to Dr. Salesman

Monday, April 4, 2011

Dangerous Fences - A Letter to Dr. Salesman

(a parable)

[A Letter From the Daughter / Sister to her fence salesman]

Dear Dr. Salesman,

It is with great distress that I write this letter, since we have heard that you lost my father as one of your fence-builders. I wanted to assure you that your fence building advice has not been lost on us, and we continue to follow your supplemental manual religiously. The audio tapes have been especially motivating.

You were right that if we built a few very high fences and rebuked the children sharply they would eventually not want to go outside of the fences toward the danger. We were still concerned about my brother and his influence on Dad and the rest of the family, but we had made the difficult decision to build a wall and fence to prevent their influence on our own children's desire for the other side of the fence. Eventually we came to believe you were right, and now we agree that we should have done it sooner.

It has been hard, but the results have been effective, and our children have almost entirely quit going over, around, or through the fences. Your guidance has been a real help, but we were hoping you could come over and help us maintain these fences. There are just so many of them that we need your expertise. You are so good at explaining how to build and maintain them, and I want you to know that we really appreciate your work. It is no wonder that you have such a large sales base.

The children love and admire all fence salesmen (especially our own), and they are all very good at marching around the fences singing, "The Foolish man Built His Fence Upon the Sand" and "Father Salesman." Thank you for all the good teaching materials. The children have had great fun learning from them, and it has really opened their eyes to understand how many dangers there are on the other side of the fence. The "History of Fence builders" has been especially helpful, since it has helped us see that all who build fences will be made fun of.

In any case, our family is safe, and we have you and your sales force to thank for it!

Respectfully Yours,

Sister Fences

[Reply From Dr. Salesman]

Dear Sister Fences,

Of course the path you have chosen is difficult, and the rigors of fence building and maintenance are a challenge, but the manual has said that it wouldn't be easy. You need to do your part, and the manufacturer will always help you. That is why I am here to guide you as you build more fences. Make sure you attend every fence building session, since it is there that you will gain motivation, encouragement, and advice on how to build fences, and don't forget to read the manual in light of the supplemental materials.

Also, make sure you continue to tell others about the importance of fence building. Your experience will be an encouragement to them, and teaching others will solidify your commitment in your own mind as well. Especially avoid those who don't love the manufacturer. You can always recognize them because they will be using the wrong edition of the manual, and they don't have very high fences. Its usually best to build a wall when you find one of these. They are very dangerous to fence building.

It was sad to have to deal so sharply with your Dad, and of course, you know your brother abandoned fences long ago. It always happens the same way. They start claiming that the supplemental material isn't in the manual, and then they start tearing down fences. At first they will start claiming to be free, and then they will run all over the place until they trip into some danger that they didn't have fenced off. It is so foolish to try to live your life with low fences, and especially to have so few of them. In time, when they do fall into danger, you will be assured that your children are safe.

I had heard that your oldest has gone around the fences a few times, as children often do at their age. Don't worry too much about it; it is normal for children to fall into minor dangers from time to time. Just make sure you keep the big dangers fenced off thoroughly and rebuke them sharply. Follow all the directions I gave you carefully, and I will see you next week.

Much Love,

Dr. Salesman

Next: Epilogue - Dangerous Fences
Previous: One More Time Around the Fences

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Dangerous Fences - One More Time Around the Fences

(a parable)

Well, it had been a long time since we had visited our son, and we at least wanted to give him another opportunity to return to a proper view of high fences. Also, in part I was curious to see how his children were doing. Over at my daughter's house, it was becoming quite a challenge. Since the increasing influence of neighbors and the ever-increasing dangers were demanding more and higher fences, their house had become a confusing labyrinth of fences.

When we arrived, we noticed that there were no new fences, but we were surprised to see that there were a few fences still up. I made a mental note to ask why he kept them, even though he didn't seem to value the safety of closer and higher fences. We also noticed the older children happily playing, out in the open, unprotected, in the middle of the yard. It was clear to us that he hadn't changed course, and we needed to try one more time to encourage our son to protect his children.

I told him about his sister's difficulties, and he seemed genuinely concerned when he asked, "Has she figured out that she is going about things the wrong way?" There wasn't a hint of anger or bitterness in his voice, and I was confused to see a confidence about him that wasn't expected. I asked him a few questions:

Son, why do you have so few fences?

"Its funny you should ask that, Dad," he replied. "It all started when I began to read the fence builder's manual. I discovered that fences actually serve to demonstrate the tendency of children to go over, under, or around them. I also learned that the fences were very specifically designed to assist children in learning to see and avoid dangers by guiding them toward the good places to play. I was surprised to learn that the manual didn't include protecting kids from danger as one of their purposes." [Now I was really confused - I always thought he was against fences...and what did he mean that protecting from danger wasn't listed? I was taught that it was by a very fine fence seller! He even provided me with a fence-builder's supplemental manual.]

He continued, "You had always taught me to follow the manual, so that is what we set out to do. That was when I noticed one section near the back of the manual that described a few of the dangers that could accompany fence-building. The prime danger was marked in bold red letters: Beware that you do not vary your installation from the recommended height, length, and placement of your fence! It could produce unintended consequences. It also warned that there were some fence sellers that were known for producing supplemental fence-building advice, and it specifically suggested that heeding such advice would void the warranty." [I wonder why I had never paid much attention to this? Maybe it was because the salesman told me that those portions of the manual were for a different kind of yard?]

"So we decided to eliminate all fences that were not found in the manual and to make sure that any remaining fences were installed strictly according to the manufacturer's instructions. that was just before you came to our house the first time. The whole concept was new to us, so we didn't know how to tell you that we hadn't rejected fences or the manual. We were only rejecting the supplemental materials."

But how can you keep your children safe with so few fences?

"You know, we were really nervous about that as well, but the manual also said that we needed to institute a danger-awareness program in our home. I also noticed a warranty card that said the fence manufacturer guaranteed the safety of all children when following the right method of fence building and instituting consistent danger avoidance education." [I had seen that portion of the manual before, but the fence salesman assured me that the updated educational program was designed to protect the children no matter what..."higher is safer and more is better" was their motto.]

"We decided to trust the manufacturer, even though we were very nervous about it. Everyone that we loved was insisting that this approach was sure to lead to disaster, so the decision wasn't easy. It just seemed that the one who designed the fences should know how to install them, and the instruction program seemed very thorough. We enrolled that next week."

What is this educational program? [I had to wonder because I had never even heard of such a thing. The education we were given by the fence salesman was simply how to build fences, and the advanced class then taught us how to teach others about building fences. We faithfully spread the word about how effective the fences were and were instrumental in recruiting so many new fence-lovers that we were honored as excellent sales associates by the Salesman's Quarterly.]

"It is interesting that you would ask that, because we thought it was a little odd at first. The educational program director came to our house and simply observed us for a few days while we tried our best to keep the kids from danger. After this observation period, we sat down at the kitchen table to go over his recommendations and lesson plans. We were not prepared for what he told us."

"He told us that we didn't understand the nature of danger, and that our main problem was that we were too focused on keeping the kids from going over, around, or through the few fences we had left. Even though we had the fences as they were supposed to be, we were told that unless we used them for the right purpose, they would not have the desired effect. To say we were confused is an understatement, but the lesson that really took us by surprised was when he showed us that the manufacturer clearly explained the biggest danger was actually found in the children themselves and had very little to do with anything in the yard."

Wait a minute! How can you keep children from danger if they ARE the danger?

"That was what we wanted to know as well. 'It is their desire to go toward the danger that is the real problem,' he said, 'however, you need to learn the next lesson before you will be able to help your children.' Then he took us to a spot in the yard that we rarely enjoyed, then he showed us its beauty and all of the great places to explore for children. (I confess that we also have a great time exploring this part of the yard.) He kept showing is around until we grew to love this area of the yard, and then he showed us how the fences were perfectly constructed to guide children toward this place."

"The only way to protect your children is to bring them here and teach them to love this place. The more they love being here, the less interested they will be in the dangers.

Ok...I think I get it, but why can't we build a few more fences to make their journey easier and faster?

"You know, we asked the same question. We had already figured out that the fences cannot prevent children from going over, around, or through them. Now we accepted that they simply served as a guide. On top of that, it turned out that if you add or modify those fences they always block the paths to the best part of the yard, and we learned that some families build so many fences that they never get to see the beauty of it. His description reminded us of my sister's yard.

We also learned that as long as we trusted the fences to keep our children safe, we were actually voiding the warranty, and we were told that we needed to teach our children about the fences, show them the beautiful spot to explore, and show them how the fences act as a guide to take them there. It definitely takes a lot more work, and we had to put in a lot of windows to keep watch over them. Whenever they began to go from the beautiful place in the yard, we would go out and teach them some more about the fences and guide them back to the beautiful place in the yard.

However, this has not only been more effective at keeping our children safe, we have had so many wonderful times together as a family, that none of us want to leave this spot in the yard. We live to go back there, if only for a few moments, and we spend so much time there, that the rest of the neighborhood has begun to notice. Would you like to see it, Dad?"

[Me and my son walked to the fences and then walked along it toward the center of the yard. There I saw so much of interest and beauty that I could scarcely go home! My son assured me that there was a spot just like this in everyone's yard.]

A few months later, I invited my children to our home for a party. That night I planned on burning the supplemental material, my sales associate of the year awards, and the remaining wood and stubble from our old fences. I also hoped to introduce my daughter to that wonderful place in the middle of our yard.

Next: A Sad Letter to Dr. Salesman
Previous: Higher and Stronger (Walls and Fences)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Dangerous Fences - Higher and Stronger (Walls and Fences)

(a parable)

A few weeks after building the fence between us and our son, we were sitting at the kitchen table of our daughter's house. The mood was sad, and we missed our son's lively conversation. It broke our hearts to have to cut him off like that, but what else could we do?

While we were discussing how we had no choice, we heard a giant CRASH. When we ran into the yard, one of my daughter's kids was breaking down a fence. The anger and bitterness in her voice was palpable, as she screamed about hating fences and oppression. Our son's influence was being felt already. This merely confirmed for us that we had made the right decision.

 Of course, we had to rebuild that fence, but we made it stronger and higher. The offending child was given a few extra temporary fences, and the problem seemed to be addressed effectively. But it wasn't, and soon the fence was knocked down again, only this time a couple of the kids were involved. It didn't matter how strong or high my daughter made the fences, they would get together and smash through it.

It was a hard decision, but my daughter confined the offending children to the house. They had to be kept safe from the danger, and danger seemed to be cropping up more and more these days. What else was she to do? She obviously loves her children, and their safety is her primary concern. It seemed that walls were better than fences.

The difficulty of keeping the children occupied in the house was obvious, but my daughter is a clever lady. She poured her life into the kid's education, making sure to teach them about the importance of high and strong fences. She paid special attention to explaining the danger of going over, around, or through fences. That way, when they left the house, they would be able to stay safe.

Every once in a while they would venture out, but only when she was there to tell them exactly what to do. That was when I noticed the children had learned a secret way out of the house. As long as their mother thought they were playing in their rooms, they could go outside and play. My daughter was doing everything right, but the high walls and strong fences didn't seem to help. They always seemed to find a way over, around, or through both walls and fences.

No wall was high enough, and no fence was strong enough. As a grandfather, I couldn't do much other than watch, and I couldn't help but feel that the children were like a seething pot. While the kids were relatively well managed, they didn't seem contented or happy. They say you get to see how effective you were as a parent when you watch your grandchildren, and I was beginning to get nervous. The situation seemed hopeless...

Next: One More Time Around the Fences
Previous: Fences or Windows

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Dangerous Fences - Fences or Windows?

(a parable)

The following is what transpired, as best as I can remember it, of the conversation I mentioned at the end of the previous post:

"Windows are much better than fences," I heard my son assert, but his sister's retort was quick and decisive, "You've got to be kidding! Haven't you learned anything from mom and dad?" [I was not a little nervous at this turn in the conversation, but I was also too interested to interject. My whole life was invested into these two and their siblings, and there was too much at stake to simply ignore such an important conversation. Besides...I was curious as to why my son had so thoroughly rejected my fences.]


Of course, I love mom and dad dearly and greatly respect what they were trying to accomplish [I was thankful for this]. However, I don't think the fences they built really did what they expected. You know, as well as I, that the fences didn't prevent our playing on the other side; we simply learned how to do it so that we looked like we were playing on the right side of the fence. Remember how we used to do it? [I confess that my curiosity was piqued]

Daughter: could I forget? It is true that there were certain places where we could play that had the appearance of staying in the fences, but we were too careless. Higher fences would have prevented that, and the added benefit would be the removal of temptation. Higher and stronger fences help our children learn to stay in the fence. [I couldn't help but resonate with her assertion, but an uneasy nod of approval was all I could muster]


Why would I want them to learn how to stay in the fences? The danger isn't even close to the fences, and I would rather them learn to recognize and avoid it...


That is simply irresponsible! Children always go over, around, and through the fences, and if you put the fences so close to the danger, they will surely get hurt! [Amen, I thought]


...give me a chance to finish...don't you see how you are contradicting yourself? All those fences are built on the assumption that children always go over, around, or through fences, and you haven't actually prevented it. All you have done is make it safer, but don't you remember what we discovered about the danger? We seemed to always discover some new and dangerous places inside the fences. Sometimes we got hurt, but we hid the hurt so that dad wouldn't build another fence.


But that is why parents must be increasingly vigilant and keep building fences! We really need to cultivate a relationship with our kids that allows them to be open about the dangers, so that we can build fences to help them avoid the dangers. How is it that you could leave dangerous places unguarded? [Good question, I was really proud of that girl]


Who said that they were unguarded? We simply have chosen to build windows in the house so that we could keep an eye on the yard. Every danger is in full view, and we spend a lot of time walking and playing with the children. We simply don't have time to build a lot of fences, and it really hasn't been necessary.


But don't your kids get hurt?


Sometimes, but we are usually nearby. We have chosen to spend the time we used to spend building fences by watching over them, helping when they fall, and instructing them how to see and avoid the dangers. When we lived inside the fences all the time, we didn't learn to recognize the dangers, or we learned the hard way. [He did seem to be making sense, but everybody has fences. It is impossible to go through life without them.]


However, you can't simply get rid of the fences. Every house has fences, and it is impossible to live without them. [That's my girl] We can't possibly be so vigilant as to prevent the kids from every danger, and what happens when you aren't looking? The fences keep them on the right side of the fence when we aren't able to watch.


But we have already agreed that it didn't prevent us from playing on the other side of the fence. [His frustration was beginning to show]


True, but we could still play safely, even though we went over, around, or through the fence. That is the true genius of dad's fences [heheheh...that was probably a little over the top]; as long as they were far enough away from the danger when they go over, around, or through the fence, they wont be hurt by their actions. [Atta girl]


But we have already seen that there were dangers both inside and outside the fences, and those dangers increase over time! [hmmmm...]


Exactly...and that is why we must keep building fences. We should never tear them down, and the whole window thing...that seems extraordinarily dangerous. Without high fences, there will be nothing to prevent the children from seeing and going near the dangers. If we build windows in our house, it would only make it easier for them to see where there are weaknesses in the fences. If we put in windows, like you suggest, there would be nothing keeping the children from making a b-line to the danger. [That was a really good point]

Son: higher fences don't prevent danger; more fences don't prevent danger; and no matter where you set the fences, danger is not as far away as you would like. Don't you see the problem? Fences cannot prevent or help to avoid danger! [My discomfort was on the rise, and I simply couldn't stand by and let my son destroy all those fences. I had to interrupt...]

I told my son that I was disappointed at his position on fences, and it was plain to me that he had clearly fallen into danger himself. He was so affected that he didn't see it. We were grieved, and though he stammered and denied he was in danger, it was clear. For the sake of our other children; we wouldn't be coming back to visit.

I had to build another fence.

Next: Higher and Stronger (Walls and Fences)
Previous: Second Generation Fence Building

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Dangerous Fences - Second Generation Fence Building

(a parable)

I have already explained how and why we came to have all these fences (and a few barriers) around our house, but I haven't really told you the whole story. Many of our neighbors watched our lives carefully, and they genuinely seemed to appreciate how well behaved and orderly our house was. However, they were very critical of how we "sheltered" our kids.

They warned us that there might be problems after our kids started building homes for themselves, and we dismissed their critique as simply being people who loved the product but didn't like the process. We were very proud of our kids.  It wasn't long after we built the fences with our back-yard neighbor that things began to unravel, and before we knew what had happened, everything we had worked for began falling apart.

It was at this time that our oldest son soon moved away to begin his own household, and we were very careful to help him establish all the right fences and barriers for his family. After didn't make sense for him to have to learn the hard way. He would be ahead of the game by using our yard as a template.

We thought things were going well, and he seemed to have gotten a good start following our advise. Of course, we didn't mind the few minor changes that he made here or there. As long as he had high fences, his kids would be safe. Of course, it wasn't long before he began to notice that his kids were finding their way over, around, or through their fences, and he would always come to us for assistance in how to construct and maintain strong fences. However, we knew something was wrong when he gradually stopped coming to us for advise.

As concerned parents, we worried that he might be tempted to remove some of those good fences, but we didn't want to interfere with their home. After a long period of near silence, we drove down their road, looking those familiar fences, but to our horror, most of the fences were removed or destroyed. He had lowered what few fences were left, and to top it off, he had built many windows in his house, overlooking the dangerous places. His kids were definitely not being kept safe.

We thought we had taught him better than that, and we pleaded with him to put the fences back and protect his family. We reminded him of the hurt that always happened to those who played on the other side of the fences, but he didn't seem to listen. We also tried to help him understand that the windows he had built would only make his family desire the other side of the fences more, but he was immovable, and our hearts were broken.

There was one bright spot in our lives. Our oldest daughter married a fine young man, very much like her father, and he was especially careful about fences. We were glad to see this because we didn't want her to have the same problems that her brother was having. Our son-in-law even asked permission to use our yard as an example, and even though he took away a few minor fences added a few of his own, he had very high fences, and we knew that at least their kids were safe.  All we could do is watch and see what would happen to our children; it was a very helpless feeling.

On the one hand, our daughter's kids were the picture of goodness. They were growing older, and of course, they tried the fences as all children tend to do, but our daughter was right on top of it. She remembered how her and her brother used to secretly play on the other side of the fence, so she was careful to construct new fences and repair the ones that were getting old.

Then on the other hand, we were increasingly burdened by our eldest son. There were very few fences in his yard, lower than they should have been and painted red, instead of white. He seemed to be rebelling against the high fences that we had made a part of his youth. The worst part was the many that you could see every area of the yard, including the dangerous places. It was almost as if he was rejecting everything that we taught him.

Thanksgiving we all met at our son's house, and we determined to try one last time to help him see his error. We asked him why he built all the windows and took down the good fences, and he started by reminiscing about sneaking around the fences with his sister. He described how they learned that they could go over, through, or around the fence, as long as they were careful not to look like they were on the wrong side. We were surprised at how often they played there.

In the middle of the conversation, he and his sister began to argue. She contended that higher fences were needed, and she claimed this was what she and her husband had done with great success. He, on the other hand, said that all the extra fences didn't address the dangers at all and that windows were a far better way to address the problems that they were describing. It would be hard to tell you the gist of the discussion, so next time, I'll just bring a copy of their conversation for you to read.

Next: Fences or Windows?
Previous: The Other Side of the Fence

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Dangerous Fences - The Other Side of the Fence

There is an interesting article from Dave Doran, on his blog. In it, he talked about building fences, and it reminded me of a series of posts on my old blog called "Dangerous Fences" that was one of the all-time most read series of articles. It is a parable about a family and their experience with fences, and I will post the series over the next few days:

Dangerous Fences - The Other Side of the Fence
There was an open place in our yard, with an unobstructed path to a dangerous spot, so I built a fence to prevent my kids from going there. It wasn't long before one child discovered that the fence didn't extend into the trees, and they went around to play on the other side. What is a good father to do? I built another fence.

This one extended further and was set back a little more from the danger, just in case one of my kids might go around again. Can you believe it? The pull from the other side of the fence was so strong, that one of my kids tested the fence until they discovered they could go through a small opening in one side. I had no choice, I built another fence, longer and stronger than the last. My children must be kept safe.

The fence wasn't all I was going to do this time; my children needed to be cautioned about going beyond the fence. It was there for their own protection. So I explained that when I was younger, I went to the other side of the fence and got hurt, and I didn't want them to be hurt as well. They needed a healthy fear of what is on the other side of the fence. The only problem was my trouble-making neighbor.

He let his kids play on the other side of their fence, within sight of my own children. When my kids began to notice and questioned why I built the fence, I explained that the other father was unwise to allow his children to play so near to the danger. They would get hurt sooner or later.

Well...the other day, the thing I feared the most actually happened. One of my children crept around the fence to play with the neighbors, and my child was hurt. So what was a father to do? I built another fence and again explained how playing on the other side of the fence was dangerous. At least now they had an example of the danger, and to remind them even more, I put up a sign, with a picture of their brother, hurt on the other side of the fence.

It wasn't long before one of the neighbor's kids were hurt as well, and I was sure to point it out to my children. "That is why we have all these fences," I said, "They are good and right." Only unwise parents allow their children to play on the other side of the fence, and only unwise children go around, through, or over the fences that their parents have built.

You know...that wasn't the end of the matter.

I discovered one afternoon, that one of my children was talking through the fence to one of the neighbors. Their friendship was tempting my kids to try to find a way over, around, or through the fence. What else could I do? I was forced to build a barrier to keep the neighbor's kids away from my yard. My children had to be kept safe. At least they could play with the neighbors on the other side of us; they had the same fences that we have. Their children were safe.

Our problem was first noticeable when my neighbor said that he didn't agree with the barrier we had erected. After all, he had a neighbor that didn't have the right fences either. However, one by one, his kids were enticed over the fence into danger. Some even got hurt, but even worse than that, they began undermining my neighbor's fences so that other children could get through. After I noticed my kids playing on the other side of the fence, I knew there was no other choice. I built another fence and another barrier between us and them. My kids must be safe.

I was in the back yard a few days later and I discovered that the family behind us had the same experiences. They were so very like-minded that we got together and built another fence. This one extended around both of our houses, so we made certain that our families were both safe together. It was so wonderful to see the kids playing with their friends in the back yard, and the front yard was so close to the danger, they were better off back there anyway. An added benefit was that our united approach to fences gave our families the opportunity to meet together to reinforce the dangers inherent on the other side of the fence. We were careful to point out how much better it was in our yard and how unwise it was for the other neighbors to have so few fences.

We didn't know it at the time, but the kids usually went to the front yard to play when we weren't looking. However, as wise parents, we expected that they would test the fences (kids always do), and this is why we built those fences so far from the danger. At least now that they have grown older, they are still safe, even if they go over, around, or through the fence. As long as we are careful to encourage them back, they will be kept away from the danger on the other side of the fence.

Of course, you might not understand all the fences and barriers in our yard, but at least our kids are safe...

Next: Second Generation Fence Building

Friday, March 25, 2011

Worst Ever Worship Experience

While traveling through the south one Sunday, we found a church and stopped in for services before continuing our trip. At that time, our two oldest kids were very young, and we had no idea that we were in for quite a unique experience, but there were a few harbingers of things to come that we began to notice as we entered the building.

Walking through the auditorium, we heard the organist playing an arrangement of "Amazing Grace." It was unique, to say the least. The stop selections evoked a Calliope sound that was more reminiscent of a carnival than anything, but at least the organist was playing in a style that was consistent with her stop selections. Unfortunately the effect, musically, was comedic.

It wasn't long before we were greeted by a smiling couple, who proudly informed us that there was no nursery for our kids because, "Kids don't disrupt our services." As I said, our kids were very young, and even though they were fairly well behaved, I had a hard time understanding how that could be. Either way, we took our seats near the back and waited for the service to start, curious about how this would work out.

As we sat, listening to the organist's caricatures of various traditional hymns, I noticed that the drum set on the platform had microphones set up to amplify them. That was odd, since the auditorium was definitely not large enough to warrant amplifying the drums, and in the moments before the service started, my mind started to connect the dots while trepidation replaced curiosity.

The music was painfully loud, even where we were seated in the back of the auditorium, and the sounds were a confused cacophony at best. Calliope music from the organ was being hammered into submission by the drum as a piano and other instruments struggled to get some attention as well. The lyrics were completely overwhelmed by a sonic experience that was so out of control it made thinking impossible.

At least the loudness served one useful purpose. The people around us probably thought my oldest son (who now plays keyboard with us) was singing as the music drowned out his insistent observation, "Bad music, daddy! Bad music!" He was right. It was awful, and although it might seem impossible, the whole service went downhill from there.

This experience is still the worst ever example of a worship service I have ever heard, but how do we evaluate it? Can we really say it was bad? Is there some way to determine what is good worship music? If it is left to the audience, then those around me seemed to have a very different reaction than mine, and we would have to say that it was good...for them. So can we really judge a piece of music as being bad?

I would like to suggest that there are a few items that we should consider when choosing, playing, or leading worship music: the communication of the music, the content of the lyric, the quality of the art, and the question of the heart.

Briefly, we should be concerned with what our music is communicating, and we should evaluate this according to a broader cultural context than the local church. Either way, it is a mistake to think that your music isn't saying something about your church and its message, and if what the music communicates is important, then the content of our lyrics should be very important. So if you really want to be effective, the emotional communication of your music should match the lyrical content, which should be thoroughly grounded in the word of Christ and blossoming with spiritual fruit.

Music that is artistically superior, will stand the test of time. It will have a melody and core harmonic structure that are timeless. One of the ways you can recognize a good song is if it can communicate effectively outside of its original context. Bach is a tremendous example, as his music is so enduring that it is still recognizable and communicates effectively, even when played in a variety of contexts and styles.

We should strive to keep the art of our worship music as high as we can, with the resources that we have at our disposal. This doesn't mean that we need professional musicians in order to have good worship. Quite the contrary, the desire for technical and artistic quality needs to be balanced with the communal nature of worship music that is concerned with the heart of each individual and the unity of the church.

An inferior musical expression can have greater impact and clearer communication when the participants are authentic. In other words, just as the emotion of the music should match the content of the lyrics, the heart of the song should be matched by the heart of the musician. Just as it makes little sense to pair loving lyrics with angry music, it makes little sense to have a wicked heart singing songs of holiness.

When music reflects an emotion that is consonant with the lyrics, when the lyrics express truth that reflects Christ fully, when the worshipers are in a right relationship with Christ and are bent on loving Him and one another, when all of these elements are in harmony with one another, we will have truly amazing worship. When this chain is disjointed, out of alignment, or broken, the worship will be qualitatively (or possibly even morally) inferior.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Love vs. Justice - Brian Mclaren weighs in

Brian Mclaren has recently written a rebuttal to Al Mohler's critique of Rob Bell, which really shouldn't surprise anyone. I would like to address a piece of Mclaren's article that relates to my own critique of Bell's book. Here is what he wrote:
First, many of us are concerned about the traditional doctrine of hell for reasons of justice and holiness, not mere sentimentality. Even putting God's loving nature aside for a moment, it's very hard to square the idea of eternal conscious torment with a just or holy God, especially when Jesus repeatedly encourages us to trust God as a just and holy father (in contrast to human fathers who, Jesus points out, can be downright evil). If a human father decided to throw his child in a fireplace for just ten seconds as punishment for disobedience, we wouldn't fault the father simply for being unsentimental: we would say such behavior was unholy, an act of torture in violation of our most fundamental sense of justice. Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own.
That doesn't solve the problem, and it doesn't address all the biblical texts that those who defend the traditional view can quote from memory. (Which is a legitimate topic for civil discourse - discourse that I hope will come in the next innings of play.) But it does demand that the question be opened so the traditional interpretations of those texts can be reconsidered - alongside the other often-marginalized texts that argue for a wideness in God's mercy and a compassion in God's justice. Having grappled with those texts myself, like Rob I found it more reasonable and faithful to the full witness of Scripture to conclude that love wins through God's restorative (not merely punitive) justice. And no, that's not traditional universalism because it works within a very different framing narrative than traditional universalism, exclusivism, and inclusivism all assume.
In answering Mclaren, Dr. Mohler has addressed each of his four critiques, but there is something here that I would like to address specifically that is related to my previous post. In that article, I argued against Bell's position, suggesting that he is wrong in regards to the relationship between Love and Justice. That article is focused on the nature of divine love, and in this article I would like to look at Mclaren's defense of Bell in relation to divine justice.

Categories are Important:
Of course, whenever we discuss these sorts of things, it is important to know that we are talking about the same things, so with that in mind, I would like to examine a few key ideas that under-gird the above quote. In the process, I will contend that Bell and Mclaren have shifted the terms and categories of the discussion in making a case for their position.

Child / Enemy?
In the example that Mclaren uses, that of a father throwing his child into the fire, there are several assumptions that require some scrutiny. In the first place, the traditional position has God's enemies as the objects of His wrath, rather than God's own family. By telling the story in this way, the discussion is prejudiced against hell, but the story doesn't match the Biblical narrative. A better, more biblical, story would be something like this:

A father wakes up to gunshots only to discover a murderer and thief in his house, who has shot and killed his son. After warning him and calling on him to lay down the weapon and surrender, the criminal responds by shooting at the father and empties his gun. The father then moves in and throws the man into the fireplace. But now imagine that the criminal in the above story actually lays down his weapon and asks the father's forgiveness. Then, in response, the father forgives the criminal, accepts him into his house and treats him like family.

That version of the story is far better aligned with the Biblical narrative than Mclaren's, and the emotional impact, rhetorically, is quite different. The fact is that we must be reconciled to God before we are considered anything more than an enemy, but when we have been reconciled, we are adopted into His family. The truth of reconciliation, in Mclaren's narrative, does not adequately consider the state of man as confirmed enemies who have participated in the murder of His son. It also does not adequately consider the significance of those enemies who repent being adopted into God's family.

Imperfect / Rebel?
This problem shows up again when Mclaren says,
"Any definition of justice and holiness that involves being unsatisfied unless the imperfect are suffering eternal agony seems to many of us as unworthy of a human being and if so, how much more unworthy of God whose justice must be better than our own." 
Again, you can see that he is shifting the verbiage to minimize the significance of sin as active rebellion rather than the result of a flaw. Using the language of mere "flaws" implies that the problem of the human condition is introduced through no fault of their own, or at least that it makes sin understandable or even excusable. A flawed person needs our pity and our help, where an evil person must be destroyed.

This can be easily seen in respect to Satan. First consider that the original rebel took up arms to overthrow God and then deceived our first parents, which introduced untold human suffering and ruined the perfect God-glorifying creation. Then consider that hell is a place that was prepared for him and all those who follow him. Those who remain in Satan's family, following him in his rebellion and participating in the defacing of God's glory, earn their place with him in the day of vengeance.

The bottom line is that the human race is not simply passively flawed, every one of us are confirmed and active rebels to God's rule. This places us in the category of children of wrath, and unless that changes, God is perfectly just to punish us with the vengeance that our father, the devil, has earned.

Restorative / Punitive (or both)?
This leads us to a question; is justice ever restorative? Well, yes - when God chastens his children, he is moving them toward Himself and correcting them in a way that will produce more Christ-likeness in them. Is justice ever punitive? It would be hard to argue that it wasn't, particularly when God's justice is meted out upon Pharaoh, for example. Didn't his rebellion earn him the plagues? Who would argue that he didn't deserve what he got?

But Mclaren inserts the word, "merely" in a way that suggests three main thoughts. First is that punitive justice is inferior to restorative justice, and second is that even punitive justice, if it is present at all, is expected to be restorative. Finally, there is the intimation that God's divine justice could never be "merely" punitive, since his justice is expected to be better than ours and restorative justice is better. Regardless of whether allowance is made for limited punitive justice, the effect is to assert that God's justice is always restorative.

At least one path we may take to test this idea is related to Satan. If Mclaren is correct, the door must be open for God's restorative justice to reconcile with Satan himself. Yet Jesus taught, regarding the nature of hell, that it is a place that was prepared for him and the angels who followed him. This means that Bell and Mclaren must leave the door open that this place can be emptied, even of those for whom it was prepared, otherwise God's justice can, indeed, be purely punitive.

We can also examine this matter in the light of the cross for a clear understanding of the key issues, for if Bell and Mclaren are correct, the idea that the Father's wrath was poured out upon the Son must be discarded for some alternate view. The alternative would suggest that the transaction on the cross is not Christ taking the penalty for our sin but is really a demonstration of restorative forgiveness in the face of human violence. We can examine this notion without too much difficulty.

Upon scrutiny, the alternative offered is inadequate, at best. In the first place, Jesus Himself did not think of Himself as a victim of violent men on the cross. In John 10:18 Jesus said no one takes His life, but He has the power to lay it down and take it up again. That is exactly what He did. We cannot perceive the cross in a different light than our Lord, who viewed it as an act of obedience to the Father to lay down His life - on our behalf.

That phrase, on our behalf, is not insignificant. We see this concept in Galatians 3:13, Titus 2:14, 1 Peter 2:24, and 1 Peter 3:18. In each of these verses there is something inherent in the crucification that belonged to us, which was our sins, lawlessness. Jesus, who kept the law perfectly, was crucified for those who broke it continually, but where is the justice in that? How can God punish the Innocent? Did Christ deserve the cross? To this question we must answer, yes. Wait! The answer is no... isn't it?

This is important; when Jesus took sin upon Himself, he owned them as His own sins and took the guilt upon Himself as well. It isn't simply that he took the punishment; He claimed your sins, and the wrath of God, and the condemnation that was upon you as a result! In a very real way, He became a sinner so that you could become righteous in the sight of God. This was the exchange made on the cross, and lest we misunderstand, the physical suffering was not the worst of it. God the Father turned His back on the Son.

So sin brings death, separation from God as well as physical death, and Christ owned your sin unto death. That sounds like punishment of the just for the unjust, and indeed, that is exactly what happened on the cross. Bell and Mclaren both undermine this transaction and mute the glory of the cross. They redefine love and justice then switch the categories of the discussion so that they can tell their better story, but what they give us in return is a social gospel that neuters the Scriptural teaching.

What makes a story "better"?
That brings us to this important question. Bell proposes what he thinks is a better story, but what actually makes it better? The heart of this question is an interpretive distinction that is at the core. For Bell, love (as he conceives of it) defines God and constrains justice, but if we are to take revelation seriously, God defines both love and justice infinitely and completely in Himself. God does not do justice and love because they are right; He is not constrained by some outside rule of these notions. He defines them, and his actions in the world, in the entirety of Scripture, define what is loving and just.

Bell defines God by his notions of love and justice and fashions the story to fit. Then he passes that story off as a better, more believable, story. This becomes an interpretive framework that must ignore large swaths of Scripture. However, a better story is the one that most rightly understands the revelation of God in Scripture and in the person and work of Christ. We are not free to fashion a better story to suit ourselves or our audience, and we are not free to redefine the attributes of God. We must believe that He is (as He has revealed Himself to be), and that He is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him.

In the final analysis, Bell's story is not actually better, but at least to the carnal mind, it is more palatable. Unbelievers will come to the God of Rob Bell's story, but they will not find the cross or the God who died on their behalf. They will only find a metaphor that serves as an affirmation for their own prejudice. For those who would know God on God's own terms, Bell's story is corrosive to truth and ultimately makes a God in man's image.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Destruction began with a question

In our LCN discussion group in Hudson we are planning on discussing Rob Bell's recent book, "Love Wins." To suggest that the book has engendered controversy would be an understatement, and there is little doubt that the discussion is likely to continue for a while.

On the surface it seems to some that Bell is denying that there is a hell and it seems that he believes that everyone is ultimately saved in the end. I say on the surface because  those who would defend Bell's position are quick to point out that he has flatly stated that he believes in hell and that he is not a universalist. Of course, this assumes that we agree on what is meant by both hell and universalism, but before we go there, we should perhaps wonder if it isn't too much to attack a guy just for simply asking questions.

And Bell does ask a lot of open-ended and provoking questions, but what is the harm in asking those questions? Any belief that is worthy of trust should be solid enough to stand up to scrutiny, but lest we think that questions are harmless, remember that the devastation of the human race began with a simple question regarding what God actually said. "Hath God said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden?'"

No, questions are not harmless, and they can be powerfully deceptive, if only because they can be used to lay the groundwork for persuasive rhetoric that can be used as a lever to move the audience. This is exactly what Satan did. He followed up his simple question with a statement that was a half truth, but notice that even his statement carried implicit questions regarding the nature of God, undermining their confidence in His goodness, His faithfulness, and His justice.

His questions were disarming, powerful, and deadly.

Ultimately this is exactly what Bell's book does. He asks questions to challenge a view of God that He believes is "toxic." Then he tells his "better" story in terms that directly confront what many churches teach regarding the nature of God. Of course, if he is correct in his understanding, then the false views he confronts should be undermined, but if he is wrong, he is actually perpetuating Satan's argument in the garden and participating in yet another attack on a true and right view of God.

Either way, the argument is not really about heaven or hell.

The argument is about the nature of God,

and for Bell,

it is all about God's love.

"Love Wins" is the big idea, a rubric that frames Bell's understanding (or at least his journey). As such, Bell's understanding of the love of God is both central and critical to the discussion. He ends the book,
"Love is what God is, love is why Jesus came, and love is why he continues to come, year after year to person after person. Love is why I've written this book, and love is what I want to leave you with. May you experience this vast, expansive, infinite, indestructible love that has been yours all along. May you discover that this love is as wide as the sky and as small as the cracks in your heart no one else knows about. And may you know, deep in your bones, that loves wins."
So if the book rises and falls on Bell's presentation of the love of God, what exactly does he say about the love of God? Throughout the book, the theme of God's love is placed as opposite judgment and divine retribution. For Bell, the former is God's nature and the latter is found, at least primarily, in separation from God. Any notion that God actively punishes forever is subjected to ridicule and caricature,
"[The inferior view is] God is loving and kind and full of grace and mercy - unless there isn't confession and repentance and salvation in this lifetime, at which point God punishes forever."
Implicit in this caricature is the idea that God's love, kindness, grace, and mercy are incompatible with divine justice and retribution. For Bell, this is a key assumption, that God cannot be loving at the same time He is meting out justice. As a result, getting what you deserve has been morphed, by the end of the book, into simply getting what you want. And while there is an element of truth to the idea that it is an act of judgement for God to deliver wicked people to their own imagination and attending consequences, Bell's view presents God's role in judgment as almost exclusively passive.

For example, in describing what Jesus was teaching, Bell says,
"[Jesus] was trying to bring Israel back to its roots, to its divine calling to be a light to the world, showing the nations just what the redeeming love of God looks like. And he was confident that this love doesn't wield a sword. To respond to violence with more violence, according to Jesus, is not the way of God." (emphasis mine)
There is another aspect of Bell's view of God's love that is crucial to his entire argument. It is that God's love demands the recipient's response be completely unencumbered and optional, and this is asserted as if it is an unassailable fact, without any supporting Scripture or argument. This lack of defense seems odd to me, since this statement is also critical to his argument leading toward his passive view of divine justice,
"Love, by its very nature, is freedom. For there to be love, there has to be the option, both now and then, to not love. To turn the other way. To reject the love extended. To say no. Although God is powerful and mighty, when it comes to the human heart God has to play by the same rules we do. God has to respect our freedom to chose to the very end, even at the risk of the relationship itself. If at any point God overrides, co-opts, or hijacks the human heart, robbing us of our freedom to choose, then God has violated the fundamental essence of what love even is." (53)
To make sense of this paragraph, we need to clarify by restating it as generously as possible: "God's act of love, by its nature, requires that the one loved be able to either reciprocate that love or reject it." So, as respecting man's freedom, Bell's position forces us to conclude that God's ability to love depends upon the preservation of human nature in a neutral state. If, at any time, man's nature is inevitably predisposed in any direction, God would cease to be able to love. This means a person can never be brought to a permanent state, either in reprobation or in glorification. This also means that God cannot guarantee a progressive future that culminates in a complete reconciliation of all things, and this would mean Bell cannot rightfully conclude that love wins.

Now, if we find that the Scriptures teach us the nature of fallen humanity is so corrupted that they cannot even respond rightly to God without a divine operation that changes the nature of that person, then Bell's position would be either falsified or it would require mankind be left, without hope, in that state of condemnation, since changing the nature of a person means they will inevitably act according to that nature.

If we turn the question of love requiring freedom around, from man toward God, we can get a clearer sense of the problem. Assuming that Bell's position is correct, in order for man to love God, God must be free to accept or reject that Love, but is God free to act contrary to His nature? He is love, and He created man to find His deepest joy and satisfaction in Him. If God were to act contrary to His nature, then He would cease to be God. Thus it is impossible for God to act contrary to His nature, so it is impossible for God to reject genuine love, offered from His creatures. Bell's view of human freedom as necessary for love to exist cannot be sustained.

Bell also has a problem as to how he seems to understand the inter-relatedness of God's attributes. Particularly regarding God's love and God's justice. As we mentioned earlier, his perspective regarding God's love requires that divine justice be passive. The idea that God stands ready to exact divine retribution on those who rebel is intolerable to Bell.
"This leads us to another distinction, one that takes us back to the recurring question, What is God like? Many have heard the gospel framed in terms of rescue. God has to punish sinners, because God is holy, but Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and so we can have eternal life. However true or untrue that is technically or theologically, what it can do is subtly teach people that Jesus rescues us from God.
Let's be very clear, then: we do not need to be rescued from God. God is the one who rescues us from death, sin, and destruction. God is the rescuer."(90)
This seems hard to reconcile with the message of Psalm 2, where the Father says to the Messiah, "They all belong to you, and you will break them with a rod of iron." Then the Psalmist urges the rebels to reconcile with the Son before his wrath is kindled. Then you have Psalm 110, where the Messiah ultimately executes the heads of many nations. Passages like this can be multiplied, but Bell persists in presenting death, sin, and destruction as things we choose for ourselves, and God simply gives us what we want.

The reason is that Bell's view of love cannot allow divine justice to coexist with it. Notice how active justice is portrayed and juxtaposed in opposition to love in the following:
"But there's more. Millions have been taught that if they don't believe, if they don't accept in the right way, that is, the way the person telling them the gospel does, and they were hit by a car and died later that same day, God would have no choice but to punish them forever in conscious torment in hell. God would, in essence, become a fundamentally different being to them in that moment of death, a different being to them forever. A loving heavenly father who will go to extraordinary lengths to have a relationship with them would, in the blink of an eye, become a cruel, mean, vicious tormentor who would ensure that they had no escape from an endless future of agony.
If there was an earthly father who was like that, we would call the authorities. If there was an actual human dad who was that volatile, we would contact child protection services immediately.

If God can switch gears like that, switch entire modes of being that quickly, that raises a thousand questions about whether a being like this could ever be trusted, let alone be good.

Loving one moment, vicious the next. Kind and compassionate, only to become cruel and relentless in the blink of an eye.

Does God become somebody totally different the moment you die? That kind of God is simply devastating. Psychologically crushing. We can't bear it. No one can.
And that is the secret deep in the heart of many people, especially Christians: they don't love God. They can't, because the God they've been presented with and taught about can't be loved. That God is terrifying and traumatizing and unbearable." (85-86)
In His view either God is loving, or God is acting with justice. This misunderstands the nature of God and requires God to be less than He is at one point or another. But God cannot change; He is never more or less. He is perfectly and simply complete. With every action and in every moment, God is fully just and fully loving - all at the same time. However, for Bell, judgement is simply missed moments and never final.
"Jesus told a number of stories about this urgency in which things did not turn out well for the people involved. One man buries the treasure he's been entrusted with instead of doing something with it and as a result he's 'thrown outside into the darkness.' Five foolish wedding attendants are unprepared for the late arrival of the groom and they end up turned away from the wedding with the chilling words "Truly I tell you, I don't know you." Goats are sent 'away' to a different place than the sheep, tenants of a vineyard have it taken from them, and weeds that grew alongside wheat are eventually harvested and 'tied in bundles to be burned.'

These are strong, shocking images of judgment and separation in which people miss out on rewards and celebrations and opportunities."
Bell uses these stories to press urgency on the reader, but the bottom line is that his handling of divine justice fails to encompass the full scope of what God means when he says, "Vengeance is mine, I will repay." His view of God's love ultimately confounds what Scripture teaches regarding the nature of God and sets attributes of God's holiness at odds with one another.

I haven't even touched the reduction of the cross of Christ to little more than an enduring symbol and metaphor, rather than a real event that reveals God's active justice against sin, upon the Son He loves. If Bell's rhetorical flourishes were aimed at the cross, what kind of God would be intimated? If we saw a father punish his son for wrongs that other kids at school had perpetrated, what would we think of that father's sense of justice?

Then there is another major problem, both interpretively and practically, regarding the person of Christ being abstracted in such a way that the gospel becomes potentially pliable and even unrecognizable. On top of this, there are more interpretive problems, logical fallacies, and historical inaccuracies in the book, but the core problem of the book is how Bell handles the nature of God, undermining who He has revealed Himself to be. In the final analysis, "Love Wins" bears more similarity to the deception of Satan than the teachings of Scripture.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

What do we do?

Preaching the Gospel
Are you an evangelist? That question can be one of the most difficult questions I have to answer, since the answer depends upon what is meant by both "evangelist" and "gospel". To many, the evangelist is a showman who travels from church to church employing little more than the tactics of a used car salesman, with a motivational speech dressed up with a few (usually out of context) bible verses.

We believe that God gave His Word, exactly as He intended, for the purpose of declaring His glory and reconciling His people to Himself, so the sermon should be presented with the authority of God's revelation and must adhere closely with the text. This doesn't mean it should be a running commentary; on the contrary, God's revelation must be communicated in such a way that the congregation understands what God said about Himself and what response God expects from them. The message must communicate clearly and carefully, but it must also be communicated with appropriate emotion, rather than as a dry academic presentation. This is the soul of expository preaching.

So if you define an evangelist by one who seeks to preach the gospel in this way, then I would also need to know what you mean by the gospel. Some consider the gospel to be limited to a small subset of doctrines or to a method of getting people saved. The gospel is not shorthand for TULIP, and it is not a fire escape from hell. The gospel we preach could be simply described as "Christ crucified, so that we may die to sin, and Christ risen, so that we may live to the glory of God." The gospel includes directing all people to see the glory of God in the person and work of Christ and all aspects of calling them to repent of their sin and put on Christ, both for salvation from sin and for deliverance from sins.

God is, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, and we endeavor to participate with Him in that ministry of reconciliation. If this fits your definition of an evangelist who preaches the gospel, then I will gladly consent to the label.

According to Colossians  3:16
Are you a musician? Now that is an interesting question, but it also needs some qualification. Some look at Christian musicians as professional entertainers, and there are many who fit that description. However, we are not aiming to perform music as a way to entertain God's people, and we are skeptical of the commercialization of worship in particular.

Others might tend to see the musical end of our ministry as simply leading worship, and while we do love participating with God's people in musical worship, this isn't the focus of our music. We think Colossians 3:16 has something specific to say to our age regarding the purpose for which music in the church should be crafted. From this text we see 2 essential purposes - teaching and admonishing the church, which means we should first to instruct God's people in the Word of Christ and then seek to influence or express a right response toward God, in the light of any circumstance. This can only be accomplished if the musician has so saturated their mind and life with the Word of Christ that this has become their native language - the most natural expression of both heart and mind.

We further believe that diversity in music should be encouraged, with the Psalms as a divine paradigm that we should employ and even imitate in our own Hymns and Spiritual Songs. This is one reason that we have spent so much time exploring and communicating the Messianic Psalms.

So what is Sermons in Song? It is expositional preaching, accompanied by music that is written to exposit both the truth and emotion of the Word of God.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Worthy Investment

As many of you know, we are now based in Southern Michigan so that we can spend a greater percentage of time working on the Log College Network. We will still be traveling, preaching, and singing, but I would like to share with you the burden God has given us for coming along side pastors and churches as they endeavor to disciple their own leaders into productive ministry.

We completed the first year of the Log College Network just as the first Sermons in Song tour began, and we were delighted to participate in the ordination of the first candidate to work through the ordination preparation program. He continues to minister faithfully to his congregation in Fremont, California. Then, this past year saw a group of men the Lord brought together in Hillsdale County, Michigan, and we joyfully watched as those men have gone on to minister in their respective ministries. This year we are excited to have another group formed in St Clair County, Michigan, while we also have a follow-up year with a few of the men from the Hillsdale County group.

There are many men who desire to be mentored into ministry, but the most common solution of obtaining seminary education is inadequate to the task. While the classroom can educate the mind of the pastor well, Scripture lays the task of training these men at the feet of their pastor. This responsibility of leadership development was modeled by the Lord’s training of His disciples, and it was modeled by the apostle Paul’s relationship with Timothy.

But what happens where the art of mentoring into ministry has been passed off to Bible Colleges and Seminaries? We end up with churches who don’t see pastoral training as part of their mission, and we end up with pastors who are poorly equipped to reproduce themselves. Some educational institutions see this need and institute some sort of mentoring, but the educational environment is not well suited to such relationships. The church, however, is ideally suited for the task.

Thankfully, many pastors and churches are increasingly aware of the need, but where is a busy pastor going to find someone to model the mentoring relationship and help them through the process? For those who press on, the resources that are available to them are scattered and disconnected, so training a young leader becomes a daunting task. LCN exists to collect resources and organize them in a curriculum that enables local churches and their leadership to reclaim their responsibility to mentor men into ministry. We also aim to use technology to facilitate the sharing of experience and expertise between churches that share this goal.

LCN provides a rigorous (but flexible) curriculum designed around the best materials collected from centuries of Christian scholarship. Then, using that curriculum as a framework, participating mentors are guided through the year-long process of training a future leader. Along the way, the mentors are invited to collaborate and encourage one another as they discover the invigorating joy of seeing a leader’s ministry blossom before their very eyes. For every leader who is trained, a congregation is blessed beyond measure, but when both that leader and church capture the vision to reproduce themselves, the potential for the spread of the gospel is staggering!

We are convinced this is a worthy investment, and we are committing much of the time and resources God has given us. In addition, we would like to invite you to partner with us this coming year; your prayers and continued support are vital to this endeavor. If you would like to hear more about LCN or schedule a personal tour through the curriculum, please call or get in touch with us through this website, Facebook, or email. As always, we earnestly covet your prayers.

Your servant,
Tom Pryde