The Politics of Fear & Overcoming the World

When people are afraid they try to make sense of what they are experiencing. In those moments, the narratives we have ingrained in us come right to the front. The Boston bombers are a great example of this. Some immediately jumped on this news that these guys must be white right-wing wacko’s. Why? Not because that is what anyone knew that to be fact but because that fits some people’s agenda. It fits their narrative so they just made it up. When fear is present agendas become most obvious because fear is a great interrogator…it gets us talking and spilling our guts over our thoughts, values and preconceived ideas and puts them out there for all to see and hear.

Fear’s use in politics
This happens in politics all the time. You can’t have a good political speech without one of two things behind you. You either need a dozen American flags or else you need all sorts of people used as window dressing behind you. You don’t get placed behind the President or prominent politician on accident. The people who are placed there are very carefully selected. They are carefully selected because they are used to communicate something. If they are pressing for gun control, they put victims on the stage. If they want to talk education, they put some kids on the stage or the latest spelling bee champion. If it is about social security they put some elderly Americans up there. Here is the message – if we don’t do something BIG right now these people you see up here are going to get hurt (whether it is true or not, who knows). If you don’t support this then you don’t support those on the stage. You must be heartless.

Now here is what is important…It doesn’t matter if the bill they are pushing would actually would work or if they have their numbers right on the actual cost. All that matters is that they look like they care. That’s it. And fear is used all the time to promote change because you can get people to accept things they might otherwise never even consider when they are afraid. It is easier to hand over freedom to someone who you think will protect you when you are afraid. You can convince people of things that don’t even make any sense when they are afraid. You hear that in this quote from Rahm Emanuel (who would become President Obama’s Chief of Staff) in talking about the financial crisis in 2008 (more info on this quote),

“You never let a serious crisis go to waste. And what I mean by that it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.”

That is the politics of fear described very eloquently. That is using fear as leverage for the change that might not have a chance otherwise. Republicans and Democrats both do it. This is not about roasting one side and ignoring the other. Both sides should be ashamed of that but it is easy to understand why they do it…it is highly effective.

The good news
Now, here is the good news. God doesn’t want His people to be people who lived terrified lives. Compare this quote from 1 John 4:18 against the Emanuel quote above,

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.”

God’s love overcomes all fear because through Christ God took on fear and overcame. Fear was challenged in the Garden when Jesus prayed and fear was ultimately defeated when the tomb was found empty. When Jesus stands there and makes his appeal to us he doesn’t need flags behind him. He doesn’t need a crowd of people to make his point. Jesus can stand in front of the empty tomb and command, “Fear not” because the worst thing the world can do to you is send you to be with Jesus. Don’t let people sway you or push around your resolve with fear because God’s team wins. So be strong and courageous and do not be afraid.

Book Review: What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Rob Bell

When Love Wins came out I wrote an 11 part review that pretty much expressed my dissatisfaction and aggravation with the book. So when I picked up Rob Bell’s newest book, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God” I was pretty skeptical. The cover only confirmed my suspicions. I am not much of a design guy and things like this don’t usually bother me but this cover is an eye-sore. It is just all over the place and I just knew that the book would be too.

You really can’t judge a book by its cover…This is a really good book. Even in light of all the past aggravation I have no reservation in saying that. I know others have said it is bad. Rick Ianniello posted a review by Timothy Tennent entitled “Farewell Bell” that blasted the book and others have said the same. I am afraid that preconceived ideas and the new media of Bell saying he is for gay marriage is muddying the waters on how good this book really is if you just picked it up and read it, not knowing who Rob Bell is…just for what it actually says about us and about God and about how we talk about God. That doesn’t mean I have zero  complaints or disagreements. More on that later.

As mentioned in a previous post, this book is the result of Bell’s own faith struggles and the conclusions he has reached through wrestling with his doubts and questions concerning God, faith, religion, etc. Bell puts his finger on the pulse of contemporary culture saying that many view belief in God as a “step backwards”. This book is written to help people understand how that isn’t the case at all. This book is written to help Christians and non-Christians alike understand God in deep and profound ways. It is written to get us back in tune with God and with ourselves and with others. It is written to give us a glimpse into the complexities of everything from life to emotion to aesthetics and beauty to physics…God is not a step backward. Walking with God is a step forward. Bell shows us that from scripture and from science.

This book is popular level theology, anthropology epistemology, eschatology and apologetics all wrapped up and wrapped together with personal stories. In this book, Rob Bell explicitly affirms his belief in some very important Christian doctrines including the reality of God, the reality of sin, our need for repentance, reconciliation and confession. He affirms the human condition and the power of sin and our need for reconciliation with God. What is more, he affirms the reality of the resurrection. The post I linked to above says that Bell does not clearly affirm the Resurrection in this book,

“As noted earlier, Bell tells the story of his own growing doubts about the credibility of the Resurrection (p. 12), and only brings it up again late in the book when he says, “In Jesus we see the God who bears the full brunt of our freedom, entering into the human story, carrying our pain and sorrow and sin and despair and denials of God and then, as the story goes, being resurrected three days later” (p. 145). Using the phrase, “as the story goes” leaves the reader with the impression that this is what Christians teach, rather than an historical event upon which the whole faith rises or falls. Either Bell no longer affirms the Resurrection or he has failed to understand its true significance. Either way, it is very troubling. Throughout the book, Bell consistently gives us a pre-resurrected Jesus, carefully choosing texts which connect Jesus to the deeper spiritual consciousness which keeps our “reverence humming within” (p. 15), but carefully avoiding the radical exclusivity of Jesus’ teaching as well as the post-resurrection confidence in the cosmic supremacy of Jesus Christ.”

Let me give you the rest of what Rob wrote right after the “as the story goes” comment. Here is the very next thing Bell wrote on that page,

“For the first Christians that was the compelling part, the unexpected twist on Jesus’ life, the ending that is really a beginning. They saw in Jesus’s resurrection a new era in human consciousness, a new way to see the world being birthed, a way in which even death does  not have the last word…it isn’t over, the last word hasn’t been spoken–a savior dying on a cross isn’t the end, it’s just the start. And so when I talk about God, I’m talking about the Jesus who invites us to embrace our weakness and doubt and anger and whatever other pain and helplessness we’re carrying around, offering it up in al of its mystery, strangeness, pain and unresolved tension to God, trusting that in the same way that Jesus’s offering of his body and blood brings us new life, this present pain and brokenness can also be turned into something new.” (p.145-146)

In that quote Bell affirms the resurrection. He affirms the divinity of Christ. He affirms that this is not just about how early Christians saw it but that it comes back to us and how we live and interact with God in light of the resurrection…pain and defeat aren’t the last word for us either. I really don’t see why Timothy was so troubled by the section on the resurrection unless he just read part and got frustrated and didn’t get the rest of it.

What I do think Timothy got right was that what this book lacked was pointing us to Christ through scripture. It left me with the impression that Bell puts his own intuition on level with scripture if not slightly ahead of scripture. That bothers me a bit…we have to realize, though, that you aren’t going to put down every single thing you believe in the pages of any given book. If I had to ask Rob one question based on this book it would be about his view of Scripture’s place in the life of a Christian.

Last, I the only other criticism I have of the book is that it ended very poorly with some decent conclusion but horrible supporting evidence in regard to aesthetics, intuition, etc (like when he was trying to talk about the intangible connections between people and things and mentioned that we all exert a gravitational pull on each other, therefore we really all do affect and influence each other…good conclusion, terrible support). Also, in various places in the book Bell almost sounds like a pantheist and New Age. I know he wouldn’t support that but the book almost sounds New Age at times in talking about cosmic and spiritual humming and energy. I could have done without that…I think it really distracted from his overall point. On the whole, I was blessed by reading this book and found it very engaging. I actually just had a discussion with a friend who shared with me some of his doubts and I pulled a few thoughts from this book to help him see it more clearly and he was very thankful for the conversation.

Kids, Play and the Power of Narrative

millionmilesI have been reading Donald Miller’s book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, highly recommend it. This book is Miller’s reflection on working with producers on the movie version of Blue Like Jazz. Turns out, life isn’t like the movies…most of us wouldn’t make good movie characters. As Miller reflects on their take on his life and the producers’ need to spruce up his story a bit he realized his own need to live a better story than he had been living. Great book. I will share more thoughts on it later.

While reading this book I have been more in tune with the power of story.Turns out, it’s everywhere…everyday. This evening the our boys, ages 2 & 4 were playing. As I listened to the imaginative things they were saying, it dawned on me that when children play they create stories. Play is their work and that work often involves one of two things: the construction of false play narratives that are impractical and impossible. Second, play often co-opts existing narratives and changes some of the essential components of the narrative to be more appealing to them or try things out…like when they say things to their stuffed animal or younger brother that they hear their parents say.

So I hear the boys playing in Elijah’s room. Elijah is standing on his big firetruck. It was parked up against the wall, right under a brown tree we had painted in the nursery. Missy painted this tree when we set the room up for Jonah as a family tree, to be able to teach the kids where they came from. After we painted it, we hung pictures of family members on its branches so we could teach them who they (the kids) are, who their relatives are and where they came from.  So back to Elijah. He is perched up on the side of his firetruck, his back to the wall and says…”I’m Jesus!” Jesus on a tree, right? He is playing Jesus. Jonah says, “Put out your arms.” It was stunning. We painted that to show them where they came from. The tree hasn’t ever shown it more clearly than today when looking at that tree reminded me that God put his own Son on the cross for us. It is where we came from. It is part of who we are.

What happened next was play that was a reflection of real life…it wasn’t meant to be that but it taught me something important that I won’t ever forget. Moments later, Elijah got into a plastic bin and Jonah proceeded to push and pull Elijah around the house in that bin. He said it was Elijah’s car and he proceeded to “drive” him around the house. Aren’t we like that? One moment it is about the cross and identity and things of great significance…the very next we are back to our silly and senseless games! It is like going to church on Easter just to go back to life as usual on Monday. One moment, we are attentive to the story of the cross and the next something mundane and silly doing some sort of adult equivalent of pulling a 2 year old around in a plastic bin.


Seeking God’s Will is Tough

When it comes time to make a big decision it can sure be confusing. Is it difficult because God wants me to persevere through trials or is it difficult because God is trying to tell me there is a different path? Is success a sign to keep doing what you are doing or does it show you that the work is mature enough to make it on its own…or with a fresh set of ideas? What do you do when you seek godly council and two godly people tell you exactly opposite opinions on something? What if you fast and pray and you come up with no more direction than you started with? Why is it with difficult decisions that you only see what the right timing would have been in retrospect?

Now, I have never had all of that happen to me all at once. I have had each of those things happen at different times and different decision points in my life. It gets confusing. There are all sorts of strategies out there for determining and discerning God’s will. If there was a perfect plan, I have yet to find it because in my experience, God always finds ways around all those strategies to come up with something better than I could have planned for or anyone could have prepped me for.

So, here is the key – you don’t have to navigate through all those above questions perfectly in order to have a great outcome. Here is what you have to do…seek the Lord. Just keep seeking. Keep fighting on. Keep being faithful…seek the Lord. You will mess it up. It won’t be perfect. The timing could have been better or a decision could have turned out better…but what is most important is not making every decision perfect but that the distance between you and God is getting smaller every day.

What We Talk About When We Talk About God – Rob Bell

RobBell-GodFor whatever reason I ended up with a review copy of Rob Bell’s new book “What we talk about when we talk about God” and wow…it is not what I expected. In fact, from what I have read so far…it totally makes us for his book “Love wins”. Kidding there. I am going to do a fuller review in a future post but I want to make you want to read this book, not because some publisher asked me to do that but because I appreciate what Rob Bell is doing here and I believe it is extremely relevant. Here is what happened with this book…I don’t know if this violates some sort of word count limit or not but I find all of this so hopeful and helpful that I want to share it with you so that you can tell if this is something you might be interested in reading. Here is why Rob said he wrote this book,

“One Sunday morning a number of years ago I found myself -face-to-face with the possibility that there is no God and we really are on our own and this may be all there is.

Now I realize lots of people have questions and convictions and doubts along those lines–that’s nothing new. But in my case, it was an Easter Sunday morning, and I was a pastor. I was driving to church services where I’d be giving a sermon about how there is a God and that God came here to Earth to do something miraculous and rise from the dead so that all of us could live forever.

And it was expected that I would do this passionately and confidently and persuasively with great hope and joy and lots of exclamation points!!!!!

That’s how the Easter sermon goes, right? Imagine if I’d stood up there and said, ‘Well, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I gotta be honest with you: I think we’re kinda screwed.”

Doesn’t work does it?…

That Easter Sunday was fairly traumatic, to say the least, because I realized that without some serious reflection and study and wise counsel I couldn’t keep going without losing something vital to my sanity. The only way forward was to plunge headfirst into my doubts and swim all the way to the bottom and find out just how deep that pool went. And if I had to, in the end, walk away in good conscience, then so be it. At least I’d have my integrity.

This book, then, is deeply personal for me. Much of what I’ve written here comes directly out of my own doubt, skepticism and dark nights of the soul when I found myself questioning-to be honest-everything…What I experienced, over a long period of time, was a gradula awakening to new perspectives on God-specficially, the God Jesus talked about. I came to see that there were depths and dimensions to the ancient Hebrew tradition, and to the Christian tradition which  grew out of that, that spoke directly to my questions and sturggles in coming to terms with how to conceive of who God is and what God is and why that even matters and what that has to do with life in this world here and now” (p.11-14)

Wow…there are so many people who are in that boat or agnostics (fastest growing “religious” group in America) who will benefit from walking along side Rob Bell through this book.

Don’t Be Like the Early Auditions for American Idol…Instead, Listen for Confirmation

Want to know if God is up to something in a particular area of your ministry? Listen for confirmation. Notice, I didn’t say seek confirmation because often people will tell you what they think you will want to hear or smooth things over instead of hit you with the truth. If you watch American Idol you know exactly what I am talking about. You begin to wonder if this person has ever asked any other person in the world if they had any talent singing and just ignored them all. If you are going to seek confirmation, make sure you get it from people close to you who really care about you but also from people whose number one agenda is not placating your ego and tell them to be straight with you. Listen to what they tell you and take it seriously.

If you are wondering if God wants you to be involved in something new or dive into a new area or a new focus…test the waters and see if other people are noticing what God is up to and give you confirmation. Do other people see it? Do they get it? Is it obvious that some really great things are happening…or is it just your own wishful thinking or desire to want it to be good that has blinded you into thinking a part of your ministry is better than it really is or that God has gifted you in a given area. I have noticed the times looking back that I think God really wanted me to take a certain direction, he put people in my path who confirmed it.

Church in Decline? God Has Seen it all Before

There is a lot of talk out there about the future of the church. We are losing a generation and that can seem pretty hopeless. The truth is, the church has been here before. Only 3 chapters into the Bible Adam and Eve sin. They get kicked out of the garden because of their misdeed. In the very next chapter one of their kids, kills another one of their kids and suddenly the world population is reduced by 25% in a single murder. Two chapters later the world had gotten so evil, God sent a flood and started over again with Noah. During the exodus from Egypt God allows a whole generation to die in the wilderness but uses their kids to conquer the Promised Land. A little later there is a guy named Elijah who was very upset because the people of God had gotten so enmeshed in Baal worship that Elijah thought he was the only one left who wanted to serve the Lord. God let him in on a little secret. Things were bad, but not as bad as they seemed.  God told Elijah that God had preserved 7000 people in Israel who had not worshipped Baal. Fast forward to the New Testament…in the 40s-50s the church was persecuted so heavily that the Christians scattered everywhere. I am sure they lost a few people in the mix but it resulted in the church growing. Later in the first century, the church lost a bunch of people because they were afraid they might be killed for their faith. Still the church grew.

So here is my point. God has been through all of this before. God knows and sees things we don’t. God knows how to bring revival to his people and he will do it, even in spite of us if he has to. I have great hope for the church and for the future because the church is the bride of Christ and God will not ultimately let his bride be defeated, defamed or discouraged. The question for us is this, are we willing to get on board with what God is doing and going to do or will we attempt to hold down the fort and maintain status quo?

Making Our Will God’s Will – St. John of the Cross

And many of these would have God will that which they themselves will, and are fretful at having to will that which He wills, and find it repugnant to accommodate their will to that of God. Hence it happens to them that oftentimes they think that that wherein they find not their own will and pleasure is not the will of God; and that, on the other hand, when they themselves find satisfaction, God is satisfied. Thus they measure God by themselves and not themselves by God, acting quite contrarily to that which He Himself taught in the Gospel, saying: That he who should lose his will for His sake, the same should gain it; and he who should desire to gain it, the same should lose it.

St. John of the Cross (2010-05-23). Dark Night of the Soul, annotated, includes active table of contents (pp. 21-22). . Kindle Edition.

He is saying sometimes we make the measure of God’s will our own pleasure and satisfaction even when we are acting in complete violation of the will of God. That is a scary thought. How do we measure our understanding of the will of God? We measure it by His Word, by the input of the godly people He has placed in our lives, by our own conscience and by prayer.

Who Do You Find in the Psalms?

I have been teaching the psalms over the last two months with our 20s & 30s class. After the first three weeks I noticed something that had never occurred to me before. It hit me that a lot of the ways people approach the psalms have a lot to do with finding ourselves in the text. We have psalms for all seasons: lament when times are tough and praise psalms for when times are good. Walter Brueggemann took this approach in his books The Message of the Psalms & The Spirituality of the Psalms when he divided the psalms into three categories: Psalms of Orientation (all is well), Disorientation (things are tough) and Psalms of New Orientation (things were tough but now things are back right again). He noticed that the psalms seemed to go through these moves pretty regularly. I have to say that I love that way of dividing the psalms. I am not being critical of it and I think it is a good tool for studying the psalms. The weakness of this approach is that it has us trying to find ourselves in the psalms again. That isn’t a hugely bad thing. I think God wants us to find ourselves in the text, relate to it, let it speak to us, etc.

However, there is more to find in the psalms than ourselves. If we go there and just find ourselves and nothing more than we are to be pitied because we have no hope. Our hope comes from the Lord. He is who we find in the psalms over and above ourselves. The psalmist is not looking to find himself in these psalms. In all types of psalms the psalmists are looking for God. They already know where they are and if things are good or bad. If the psalms are only a mirror of our own condition with no offer of hope or change to be brought about from God on high then we are in trouble! In any and all circumstances of life, God is to be sought out, either to cry out for help or to praise with music and song. So I have adjusted my approach to not try to solely find myself in the psalms (while that can be helpful) but to first and foremost find God there and let Him work on me.

Why Are Young People So Drawn to Calvinism?

Calvinism is all over the place. Many of the best known young preachers are Calvinists. Many of the most well read blogs are from a Calvinist perspective. All of a sudden there has been a huge influx of Calvinists. According to Lifeway “nearly 30% of SBC seminary graduates between 1998 and 2004, now serving as pastors, describe themselves as Calvinists” (p.74 of Young, Restless and Reformed). What is the story? I asked a young neo-Calvinist what book they would recommend to help me wrap my mind around what is going on. They said I should read Young, Restless, and Reformed by Collin Hansen. Collin is a journalist, Reformed and at one time the youngest editor at Christianity Today. He is currently the Editorial Director of the Gospel Coalition.

This book gives us two insights into why young adults are drawn to Calvinism. The first insight is Hansen’s own perspective. The second insight comes from all the interviews he did in order to write this book. This book is a record of Hansen’s travels to various well known Calvinist and Reformed congregations and conferences. He shares the stories of many young people who didn’t start out believing in TULIP but share their own process of accepting it as central to the Christian faith.

Two things need to be mentioned at the start. First, I am not a Calvinist…so this critique will reflect that in some places. Second,  there is a difference between Calvinism and the Reformed movement itself. The Reformed movement includes Calvinism but not all Calvinists are Reformed. Hansen says that the Reformed movement emphasizes TULIP along with “the five Reformation solas (by grace alone, by faith alone, by Christ alone, by Scripture alone, for God’s glory alone). (p.111)

For those of you who aren’t familiar with TULIP, it is the five points of Calvinism:
T – Total Depravity – by nature mankind is unrighteous, selfish, and unable to love and seek God on our own
U – Unconditional Election – Salvation comes by God’s choosing/election that he established in eternity past
L – Limited Atonement – Jesus died solely for the sins of God’s elect/chosen people.
I – Irresistible Grace – If God has elected you he will draw you to himself apart from anything to do with your own goodness (due to total depravity)
P –  Perseverance of the Saints – God is so sovereign that once you are elect you will be saved. Nothing can keep that from happening

There are several reasons Calvinism is increasing in popularity. It is not because it is hip or attractive from a worldly point of view:

  1. Calvinism offers a God-centred approach to everything. It is not seeker sensitive. It is not pop-psychology. It is all about God, his power and authority.
  2. Calvinism lowers the position of man – It seems like some Christians want to focus solely on our value and esteem. Calvinism is focusing on our own lowliness. They say we are nothing. We can’t even pick God or want to pick God unless God elects us by his own sovereign will. Much of the way we (Arminians) motivate people is through talking about what is in it for them. If you come to Sunday night church you can grow closer to God, be blessed, etc…not so much with Calvinism. It is all about God.
  3. Calvinism offers certainty – Because God is so sovereign there is a solid foundation to live on. There is no wishy-washyness here. Hansen says, when John Piper speaks, he speaks with certainty (37)
  4. Emphasis on scripture – these guys love scripture, love study, and aren’t afraid to dive in deep.
  5. Passion – There is a sense of passion here because we often tend to get passionate about ourselves and that is all pretty shallow. When you passionate about the greatness of God and his overarching sovereignty…that is a passion that goes beneath the surface.
  6. Calvinism recognizes the control is in God’s hands, not ours. That is a liberating thought.
  7. It is a non-institutional institution. What I mean by that is they are less about church and more about God. That doesn’t mean church is emphasized less but in emphasizing our depravity and God’s election, grace and sovereignty they are putting God over church. They are moving outside the building
  8. Worship that is more all about God and not about us – Emphasizing God’s sovereignty and our depravity comes out in their worship. It is God-centered.
  9. This influence has made its way mainstream into a number of conferences and campus ministries that are affecting young adults all over the nation.

So what do we take away from this? There were a few things that I really appreciated about the Calvinist perspective. I really think they got emphasizing God and his glory right. I think too often we make self the driving force. We try to motivate people to attend or do things for what is in it for them rather than emphasize our participation in giving God the glory He deserves. That is solid. I appreciate their passion that comes directly out of a sole focus on God. We need more of that.

A couple of things were pretty unsettling to me about this book. I don’t know if this is about Hansen’s perspective or if this is common in Calvinism at large:

  1. It seems they really venerate men like Edwards, Calvin, Piper and others. I bet their names appeared over 100 times in this book. Names like Jesus, Paul, Peter, etc paled in comparison.
  2. Language of conversion – he talks about people converting to Calvinism. What does that mean? If they were elect to begin with how is there a conversion? A conversion of thoughts and views?
  3. Sovereignty meets Mercy – Calvinists will go on and on about the mercy of God that they are the elect. They are elect only because God picked them against their own will and desires. The flip side is God rejected giving his mercy to others. They had the exact same sinful desires and depravity but God just chose not to be merciful to them. Can God still be full merciful if atonement is limited and his mercy is forced?
  4. This book is a lot about personalities. He even says that if Piper weren’t so zealous in his presentation that young people wouldn’t listen to him (34).
  5. It takes this book 90 pages before Hansen says all of this is really about the Gospel itself and not about Calvinism but you just don’t get that feeling reading this book. If Calvinism is accurate to God’s intention for creation then this is the Gospel we are talking about here. We go on and on about how people converted to Calvinism? Why not just call TULIP the Gospel?

What is your experience with Calvinism? For those of you who hold this view, is this critique fair?