Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Doctrine on Which the Church Stands or Falls

Presbyter has been working on a web site entitled "Justification by Faith:  Its Meaning and Importance".  Here he attempts to offer a succinct explanation of why this doctrine is not a "mere theological quibble", but rather "the doctrine on which the church stands or falls." 

In my experience, it's fair to say that a surprisingly small number of professing Christians have any kind of appreciation for this.  Most know at some level that they've been saved "by grace ... through faith ... not as a result of works ..."  This is central, of course, but understanding of the issue tends to run out quickly after that.  This leaves the Christian unable to discern the edge of the slippery slope, vulnerable to a paralyzing insecurity on one hand, and susceptibility to heresy and even cults on the other.

There is a natural tension between unity in the Body of Christ and the rejection of serious error.  As I have written before, widespread biblical illiteracy means we are likely to find ourselves among professing believers "who know shockingly little about the beliefs they profess."  Whereas most would probably say they believe in the doctrine of justification by faith, upon careful examination you may find their understanding of it runs out rapidly.

Presbyter's site remains a work in progress, and he values your thoughtful input.  I invite you to post your comments here.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Homeless Don is Home for Christmas

"Oh, great."  My first thoughts are not charitable.  Someone is intruding on my evening, and Christ's unfortunate words come almost instantly to mind:  "... as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me."  In other words, I'm stuck.

The man being presented to me is pretty much right out of central casting--unkempt and smelling strongly of tobacco and two weeks worth of body odor, with a large black pack full of his worldly possessions.  Exactly the type you'd expect to find at a homeless shelter.  But I'd arrived with simpler motives:  our church is performing its occasional service to the needy, and I've dropped in to pitch in where I can.  I fully intend to depart on time and unencumbered.  Or I did.  I hadn't figured on Homeless Don.

A church member brings him to me (why does she hate me so?).  He needs a ride, he says, because the shelter is out of beds for males.  Naturally ... it's the added "no room at the inn" angle.  And did I mention it's almost Christmas?

You see, Homeless Don, the problem is you're off script!  This is speed-ministry we're engaged in here.  It's like speed-dating.  No complications, no commitments.  We're like two ships that pass in the night.  I'm not interested in stopping to pick up lifeboats.  Your job is to eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow I go back to work. 

Of course I've blogged about this very scenario.  Keith Green even made a cameo.


Perfect.  I'm stuck.

What on earth am I going to do with Homeless Don?  Can I take him home?  The usual nightmare scenarios jump to mind.  Fortunately, I have a convenient excuse ... we currently have other houseguests.  I can't very well foist Homeless Don upon my guests, can I?  My inn is full too.  Right?

Nor can I simply turn my back on him.  More Scripture leaps to mind unbidden:  "But if anyone has the world's goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him?Okay, right ... I get it.  But what am I going to DO with him?

Lacking a clear plan, we get in the truck--Jailer Jr. riding shotgun and Homeless Don in the back seat.  He wants a ride downtown so he can wander the streets and look for a place to sleep.  Yeah, so I can't very well drop him off at the train station.  I'm pretty sure that's not on the list of acceptable options.  "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares."   

So, God, I left your angel at the train station. Can you send someone to pick him up?

Maybe I'll put him up in a motel.  Yes, that's it.  One night.  He can take a shower and come back to the shelter tomorrow.  It's clean, and relatively cheap.  It's non-committal.  It's weak.  Sigh.  What will I do with you, Homeless Don?

Lacking a plan, I talk to the man.  What?  He has family in the area?  At least 2 brothers ... well, there's a third but he thinks he wouldn't be happy to see him.  Will any of them be happy to see Homeless Don?  I sure hope so.  I imagine the alternative scenarios and they don't end well.

Homeless Don doesn't remember where they live exactly.  He hasn't seen them in ages, but he has an unusual last name.  Out comes the smartphone.  Hope, thy name is whitepages.com! 

We get a lead on Brother Dave, but when we arrive at the house he has moved away.  The euphoria begins to wane ... the sick feeling returns.  It all rides on Brother Tom now. 

As we approach our second destination, Homeless Don apologizes again for the trouble.  I ask him if he's ever read the New Testament.  He hasn't.  I tell him about Matthew 25 and "the least of my brothers".  He promises to read his Bible.  Maybe he will.

The trailer park is dark and the house numbers are hard to make out, but eventually we find the place.  I leave Homeless Don in the truck while I knock on the door.  A voice from inside ... "Yeah?"  Not sure if that translates to "Come in", I repeat the sequence.  Finally, I ease the storm door open and see a man, a woman and two kids. 

"Are you Tom?"

"Yeah!"

"Do you have a brother named Don?"

"Yeah!"

"Well, I think I have him in the truck."

The woman speaks for the first time:  "Donnie?"  She turns out to be his aunt.  She doesn't sound angry, terrified or ambivalent.  She sounds, dare I say ... happy?  It's a beautiful sound.

Explanations, reunion, relief.  Homeless Don is now just Don.  He will not spend another December night on the streets of Fredericksburg, but will have a Merry Christmas with his family.

God's lesson to the Jailer household:  Trust and obey.  I've got this.  Just get in the truck, talk to the man, and watch what I do. 

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Praise the Lord and Pass the Condoms

The most shocking statistic cited in Relevant Magazine's recent article (Almost) Everyone's Doing It is not merely the fact that 80% of unmarried self-identified evangelical Christians in America have already had sex. 
Chart extracted from the September/October 2011 edition of Relevant Magazine.
Yes, that's highy alarming, even for the most sober and realistic among us, but it only gets worse as we dig deeper.  Consider that fully 42% of single evangelicals are currently involved in a sexual relationship, and that nearly two out of every three had sex within the past year, a statistic that comes stunningly close to the ratio (76%) reported among the general population.

The article brings out some other important points:
  • Three in four single evangelicals recognize that premarital sex violates biblical instruction.  It's hard to know whether to be more distressed that one in four do not, or that so many of those with the correct understanding of the matter remain brazenly unrepentant.
  • Our rapidly rising average marriage ages (which are up 6 years since 1965) contribute to the problem by increasing the opportunity.  Put another way, "It’s one kind of challenge to wait until you’re 18. It’s another challenge entirely to wait until you’re 28." (Hat tip:  David French)
Of course, this is also cause to reprise that burning question posed by one of my favorite authors: "What on earth is an "evangelical" in the 21st century, and does it even matter anymore?" After all, since, "an alarming number of self-identified evangelicals hold to blatantly non-Christian beliefs about such foundational subjects as the way of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the divinity of Jesus Christ," why should it surprise us that they're also engaging in premarital sex?

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Cell Block Renovation

Blogger has introduced a feature called "Dynamic Views".  I'd been holding off on using it because frankly I've grown accustomed to the old look and I like some of the navigation widgets.  Still, I have to admit the new look is cleaner and loads much more quickly, and has some customizable features for the reader.  So please take this for a spin and let me know what you think:



Also, if you haven't yet checked out of Facebook fan page at www.facebook.com/philippianjailer, I invite you to try it out.  Besides the Jailer's posts, you'll find some excellent bonus content from our dear friends at Dwell and Cultivate, Penned Pebbles, and Love Everlasting Ministries.  NOTE:  Please don't forget to click on the big "Like" button (example circled in red below) to add this to your favorite Facebook pages:



Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thank You Jesus

Happy Thanksgiving from the Jailer and family ... and our old friend Keith Green (special guest appearance).

 


Psalm 100

His Steadfast Love Endures Forever
A Psalm for giving thanks.
 1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth!
 2 Serve the LORD with gladness!
    Come into his presence with singing!
 3 Know that the LORD, he is God!
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
 4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving,
    and his courts with praise!
    Give thanks to him; bless his name!
 5 For the LORD is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever,
    and his faithfulness to all generations.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Altar of Me

There is perhaps no manifestation of my sinfulness that is more frustratingly insidious than my own self-regard.  I say insidious because it is so integral to my psyche that I seldom recognize it as real--or as sinful--unless God confronts me directly with it.  I regularly worship at the Altar of Me.

It expresses itself in the simplest of ways, such as in my instinctive, outsized annoyance at the anonymous driver who darts in front of me on Interstate 95.  In most cases I am annoyed not because he did anything dangerous, inconvenient to my own purposes, or that I wouldn't do myself given the opportunity, but rather because ... well, because now he's in front of me.  He's wrong to be there.  I should be in front of him, because ... well ... because ... you know.

Fellow blogger Lora's heartfelt 2009 essay, Worshipping Myself, described the problem in terms of her young marriage, which she called "the most unique petri dish for bringing forth disastrous behaviors":
I began to realize that my frustrations were due to my self-absorption; that in my world, I am king, and Eric is sinning against my unstated and ever-changing morality. I am an idol-worshipper. I worship myself! Moving the oatmeal to a different place is a sin against my will, which put the oatmeal where it was in the first place. 
This sounds vaguely familiar ... in fact, I wrote about just this phenomenon just a month after Lora in Reading My Wife's Mail:
Stated another way, in the same way my focus on the driver's responsibility with respect to the crosswalk took my eye off the stop sign, fixating on Mrs. Jailer's responsibility takes my attention off my own, and can serve to rationalize my own bad behavior ... Even worse, excusing my wrongs by citing hers reduces me to idolatry. I'm effectively saying, "I can't be expected to obey unless my wife does!" My wife thus displaces God (in my mind) as my enabler for obedience. The truth is that "it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose". Transferring that power to Mrs. Jailer (or Jailer Jr., or Jailer Boss, etc.) is idolatrous, unfair, and a losing strategy.
Lora came to the same conclusion.
Yes, we are both selfish – but the only selfishness over which I have any control – is my own. Often, I’ve realized, that correcting another person based on my kingdom’s morality or preferences, is just another way of regarding equality with God as something to be grasped – or rather, crowning myself as king in relationships with other people. The annoyances, therefore, are really a result of my relationship with God and the gospel’s impact on my soul at present. Do I perceive my selfishness as worse than Eric’s (regardless of whether I have a million excuses, or whether MY selfishness makes sense..)? Or am I so obsessed with his flaws and irritations that God’s work in me is merely the work of trying to break through the hardness of my heart, rather than the work of producing fruit in fertile, humble and selfless soil?
I have become increasingly convinced that the ability to discern the extent of my own penchant for self-worship is one of the most important--and painful--lessons I have ever learned ... and one I expect to have to re-learn continually for the rest of my life.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Tim Tebow's Philippine Hospital

When I wrote last month about Tim Tebow's promotion to starting quarterback for the Denver Broncos, I could not have forseen what would unfold in subsequent weeks.  It's not just that he's brought the 1-4 Broncos to a respectable 5-5 ... it's that he's managed to do it while simultaneously confirming the worst suspicions of his critics (his inaccurate delivery) and the fondest hopes of his fans (he wins anyway).  I find myself somewhere in the middle ... unsure about whether he can keep this up, but hoping for the best.

In fact, my affinity for this remarkable young athelete just ticked up another notch, and not merely because I just watched him drive the Broncos 95 yards for yet another improbable game-winning score against the New York Jets on Thursday night.

No, it was something he mentioned in the post-game interview that really piqued my interest.  It seems that Tebow's charitable foundation has been busy working with CURE International to build a $3 million hospital in Davao City.  Where's that?  Glad you asked!  Davao happens to be the chief city of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao ... and it also just so happens to be Mrs. Jailer's hometown. 

The hospital itself will be "a 30-bed surgical facility focusing primarily on orthopedics" to treat early childhood conditions such as clubfoot, bow legs, spinal deformities, etc.  According to CURE's Mark Necht, it will also meet spiritual needs:  "The medical care is our vehicle to share the Gospel with the patients and families we serve."

In his official statement on the project, Tebow affirmed his continuing commitment to his childhood home:  "I was born in the Philippines and my parents have been missionaries to that area since 1985. The Philippines have always had a special place in my heart."  The funny part is, most Filipinos don't even watch football.  Basketball and, of course, boxing are far more popular in the country where Manny Pacquiao is a congressman.

Still, maybe now that will change just a little, seeing as there is at least one football player with an affectionate eye on them.



Friday, October 28, 2011

An Irrelevant God?

Is our god relevant?  (Hint: the small "g" is intentional.)

Several of our recent posts have wrestled with the following question in different ways: what is wrong with the church? Of course, there is no single right answer to this question. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that we no longer live in the light of grace, because we have no idea what "grace" really is. By the way, lest you find me self-righteous, I do not absolve myself in this indictment.

To begin with, we cannot truly grasp the amazingness of grace until and unless we understand the enormity and very wretchedness of our sin. And this intense sin awareness also lies beyond our grasp, because we have a massive underappreciation for God's holiness. In so many ways, we worship a different god ... one who is crafted after our own collective image. Any reevaluation of our Christian faith must begin with recapturing a proper fear and awe of its Author and Perfecter.

Fear and awe? Consider Isaiah, who had every human reason to consider his understanding of God's true nature to be quite adequate. After all, he was Israel's foremost prophet ... a veritable holy man on a mission. Yet, this "holy man's" response to an encounter with the "Holy Holy Holy" One seated on His throne was supremely jarring:
"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty."
Isaiah's encounter with God began with a terrifying realization: God is holy, and he was filthy. In short, he was doomed. No other outcome but instant and consuming firey judgment was imaginable when his sin came up before the unfiltered holiness of God. However, God did not mete out His justice on Isaiah, but rather forgave him, and Isaiah's response was unqualified, total obedience: Here I am, send me!

Scripture demonstrates repeatedly that this is the way it must be--true obedience is born of a sincere experience of God's grace. Yet such grace is bereft of meaning absent a true recognition of the enormous stinking corpse that is our sin ... but this sin is just an abstract notion outside the bright white holiness (i.e., majesty and purity) of God. Yet it is this true holiness that has slipped from our collective consciousness.

Indeed, I fear this is not the God we carry to the nations or our neighbors. It is not the God we preach from our pulpits or whose songs we sing. Dare I say it is not the God many of us carry in our hearts? Instead, we have internalized a different god ... one who inspires no fear, no trembing, no awe. The spirit of our age, the god of our choosing ... well, he's nice and all ... in a Mother Theresa sort of way, only better. Really, we're glad he's around and grateful for his kindness. We have a vague appreciation for his overlooking our "mistakes", but we feel little obligation to break out of our comfortable apathy on his account.

Why has the church become increasingly irrelevant? Can it be because we serve and preach an irrelevant god of our own making, rather than the "Holy Holy Holy" God of Scripture? Can it be that any hope of Christian renewal, either personal or corporate, must begin with a genuine "Woe to me" moment?

*Note:  This post originally went up on February 14, 2009, but was accidentally deleted.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Tim Tebow: The Missionaries' Kid Gets the Ball

Tim Tebow will start for the Denver Broncos this Sunday. In other news, the Greek economy is tanking, the Presidential election is heating up, and some guy in Libya was killed. Whatever ... did you hear about Tebow?

With as much controversy as Tebow has stirred up in Denver and across the country, you'd think he was either a self-promoting prima donna or an insufferable religious fanatic. Just 23 years old with one NFL win under his belt, he already carries the hopes and dreams of millions of Brocos fans seeking a spark for a bad team. Social commentators have held Tebow up of all that is right and wholesome in America, or have regarded him with suspicion as an evangelical stalking horse. Christian attitudes toward Tebow range from pleasant good will to near idol-worship.

Although he was one of the elite college football players of all time, but most football analysts doubt Tebow's skills will translate to the professional level. Can he develop the accuracy, the patience, and the quick release the pro game demands of its quarterbacks, or will his talents crumble once savvy teams develop a successful counter to his unorthodox style?   Is he a flash in the pan, merely able to briefly spark a bad team and inspire a desperate fan base, or can he be the long-term answer?  Time will tell, but right now Denver coach John Fox, faced with a 1-4 record, an ineffective Kyle Orton under center, and a stadium full "Tebow!" chanting fans, appears to have no choice but to give him the ball. 

Tebow has been a hot button on the social front as well.  His parents were missionaries to the Philippines when Tim was conceived, and were at first urged by their doctor to abort the "tumor" growing in Pam Tebow's womb.  Strongly pro-life, they determined to carry him to term.  Focus on the Family seized on his story to make a 2009 Super Bowl commercial, which generated much smoke and fury from the abortion rights camp, although the commercial itself turned out to be very tame.  His virginity has also become a talking point, provoking admiration both admiration and scoffing across the social spectrum.  Meanwhile, for many evangelicals the unwillingness of NFL talking heads to believe in Tim Tebow demostrates anti-Christian bias

In short, everything about Tim Tebow seems to provoke something.

These wide-ranging perceptions make it easy to forget that Tebow is, after all, still just a young man. Almost everyone who meets or interviews him is struck by his authenticity, leadership, enthusiasm, kindness, and humility. He has the appearance of a man comfortable in his own skin and with his faith, but uncomfortable with praise and unwilling to take the bait when people attempt to make him the issue.  In a word, he appears genuine.

Regardless, I do think this longtime 49ers fan will be quietly rooting for the Broncos this year.  I will refrain from adding to the controversy surrounding him, but I will pray for Tim Tebow ... that he will continue to live out his faith with integrity. 

Oh, and that he will develop a quick release and hit timing routes over the middle of the field. 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Say What?

To quote Dave Barry, "I am not making this up." 

The year was 1998, and little Jailer Jr. was 4 years old and quite precocious.  He and his 1-year-old sister, Jailerette, kept Mrs Jailer and I hopping.  In fact, like most young parents, we felt we needed a break from time to time.  Sunday afternoons usually set up nicely that way.

On Sundays we would leave church after morning service, eat a quick bite, and then take a drive while the kids (and often Mrs Jailer) would sleep in the car while I would listen to the radio.  At the time there was a major drama playing out just up the road in in Washington DC, so I would tune in to C-SPAN radio and catch all the Sunday talking heads as they discussed an impending Presidential impeachment.  As political theater it was riveting stuff, though the kids were of course too young to comprehend it.  This was good, since some of the discussion was, shall we say, not appropriate for young ears.

Still, we thought at least Jailer Jr. was old enough to have a grasp of basic civics so he could grow up brilliant and all that, so we prepared little quizzes for him.  One day I asked him if he could name our leaders:
Who's the President of the United States, son?
     "Bill Clinton!"
"Why that's right!  Very good!  Who's the Vice President?"
     "Al Gore!"
"Wow!  That's great!  Let's try something a little harder ... who's the First Lady?"
     "What's a First Lady?"
"You know, the President's wife."
     "Oh.  Monica Lewinsky!"
So ... Mrs Jailer and I decided maybe we should cut back on the C-SPAN for a little while ...

Monday, October 10, 2011

2012 and the Mormon Question

Political analysts generally refer to the late summer as "the silly season", because political reporters tend to fill the dead space when politicians go on vacation with non-stories.  In the era of 24-hour news cycles, however, the silly season really never ends.

As Exhibit A, I present this Associated Press story via the Boston Herald:  "Cain, Bachmann refuse to say whether Romney is a Christian." 

Seriously?  This is what is called "invented news".  How is this relevant to who should be President of the United States in 2012?

Well ...

The fact that orthodox Christians consider Mormonism to be a non-Christian religion is hardly breaking news.  Mormons reject the trinity and embrace a form of polytheism known as henotheism, which is to say they claim to worship one God while accepting that others exist.  They believe that the God they worship was once a man, and that Satan and Jesus were both his children (and were therefore brothers).  In the words of RC Sproul:
Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses argue that the New Testament does not teach the deity of Christ; rather, they argue it teaches He is the exalted firstborn of all creation. They say He is the first creature made by God, who then is given superior power and authority over the rest of creation. Though Jesus is lifted up in such Christology, it still falls far short of Christian orthodoxy, which confesses the deity of Christ ... The way in which this identity is denied by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and other cultists is by substituting the indefinite article in the text, rendering it that the Logos [of John 1:1] was “a god.” In order to wrest this interpretation from the text, one must have a prior affirmation of some form of polytheism. Such polytheism is utterly foreign to Judeo-Christian theology, where deity is understood in monotheistic terms. 
In short, the Jesus of Mormonism is fundamentally different from the Jesus worshipped by orthodox Christians, and if you change who He is, you change whom we worship.  Add to this the extrabiblical texts Mormons add to Scripture, and you have what is at the very least a fundamentally different religion.

OK, so Mormons want to be called Christians, and orthodox Christians don't want to oblige.  Again, this is old news.  So why are we talking about this in a political campaign, and can any good come of it?

Frankly, while I'd love to lay it all at the feet of the media, in truth this is happening in large part because we Christians ask for it.  Every four years or so  a significant number of us get suckered into putting our faith in princes, and off we go.  For this year's edition, note the prayer rally sponsored by Governor Perry just one week before he announced his candidacy for President.  I'm sure it was an uplifting event for those who attended, but its plain appearance looked troublingly like that quadrennial grab for the evangelical church's political capital I have come to dread.

It is into this context that Robert Jeffress, a Southern Baptist pastor, interjected his endorsement of Perry over Romney based upon the "mainstream (Christian) view, that Mormonism is a cult."  Of course, Perry has since had to distance himself from Jeffress, the question is further muddled, and Americans are left to wonder how it came to the point where our politicians are being asked by reporters to weigh in on theology.  Well, because somewhere along the line we decided that pastors should be endorsing political candidates.

What a waste of time. 

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Born Again: The Complete Works

Here it is--the entire "Born Again" series in one place.  I believe it is the single most important written project I have undertaken, because the lives involved are real, the lessons life-changing, the consequences eternal.

But don't take my word for it:
  • This is such an amazing testimony of one woman's path to a relationship with God, and Jailer's prayerful interactions with her. I hope many will take the opportunity to read the whole series--it's a guaranteed blessing! - Barbara Parker, Standing in Faith Ministries
  • This brought tears of joy! Awesome! Praise God for His faithfulness! Thank you so much for sharing this series! -- Petra, This Good Steward 
  • This is one of my favorite series on the blogosphere. I love a good salvation story: hearing how God reaches into someone's life and draws them to Himself never ceases to bring me unsearchable joy and leaving me praising Jesus. -- Stephen Porter, Manifest Blog
  • Wow!!! Most impressive thing I've ever read ... or even heard about!!! -- reader Steve Brown
I invite you to to enjoy the story and share it widely with those who have ears to hear.

Born Again 1: A Letter From Sharon
Born Again 2: Assurance and the Quest for Inner Peace
Born Again 3: I'm Just an Emotional Wreck!
Born Again 4: He Rewards Those Who Earnestly Seek Him
Born Again 5: I'm Constantly Battling With Him
Born Again 6: The Harsh Truth That Gets in Your Guts
Born Again 7: I Want it Now
Born Again 8: An Act of the Will
Born Again 9: Jesus Without Religion
Born Again 10: What Do You Want?
Born Again 11: The Jesus Who Lives in Me
Born Again 12: My Husband Thinks I'm Weird
Born Again 13: God's in the Heart-Changing Business
Born Again 14: I Have Taken That Leap

Finally, the most important testimony of all:


Jailer,

I just wanted to let you know that I truly enjoyed the final chapter of your series. Thank you for taking great care of the story to make sure that it portrays a lesson. I am very honored that you cared enough to share my story with other people. I truly felt uplifted as I read through it from an audience's point of view. I think I'll be visiting these pages time and again to gain encouragement if ever I feel the need. I am very fortunate to have you as my friend. You have my utmost respect and gratitude.

Love in Christ,

Sharon

The Tame Lion: Domesticating Jesus

“Do you think I keep him in my wallet, fools?" said Tirian. "Who am I that I could make Aslan appear at my bidding? He’s not a tame lion.”  -- CS Lewis, from The Last Battle
Those of us who grew up loving the Chronicles of Narnia by CS Lewis will never really warm up to the movie versions.  This is often true of book-to-movie translations, of course, but there is a certain richness to the language in the books that the movies give mere lip service to.  If your Narnian experience has been limited to movies, I strongly encourage you to read the books.  Or even better ... read them to your children!

I have very fond memories of my father reading Narnia to us as we gathered around his bed.  None of us were Christians at the time, but still I remember getting goose bumps at hearing various astonished Narnians exclaim about Aslan (the Narnian Jesus character), "He is not a tame lion!"

I knew virtually nothing of Christ at the time, so there was much in the Narnia tale that I naturally missed.  However, at least one central truth made its way into my consciousness:  whoever God was, His nature was not up to me to define.  By imprinting this vital truth deep within me early on, God prepared me to ultimately reject the false gospels and, in the fullness of time, humbly embrace the true King of Glory. 

Who is this King of Glory?  In the words of the wise Mr. and Mrs. Beaver:
“Is – is he a man?” asked Lucy.

“Aslan a man!” said Mr. Beaver sternly. “Certainly not. I tell you he is the King of the wood and the son of the great Emperor-Beyond-the-Sea. Don’t you know who is the King of Beasts? Aslan is a lion, the Lion, the great Lion.”

“Ooh,” said Susan, “I thought he was a man. Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”

“That you will, dearie, and make no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver; “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”

“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.

“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver; “don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the king I tell you.”
A crucial truth that Narnia was able to communicate to a young, unbelieving boy has faded from much of the church's postmodern theology:  Jesus is not tame.  He is not safe.  But He is good!

Much of the history of Christianity has been devoted to domesticating Jesus—to reducing that elusive, enigmatic, paradoxical person to dimensions we can comprehend, understand and convert to our own purposes ... None of it works because once you domesticate Jesus he isn't there any more ... If Jesus makes you feel comfortable with your agenda, then he's not Jesus. -- Fr. Andrew Greeley

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Joy in the Journey with Mrs Jailer

Tuesday will mark our 21st wedding anniversary. There is truly a joy in the journey, and sharing it with such a beautiful, faithful and wise friend and lover has magnified that joy beyond measure.

Oh, and we both love Michael Card!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Born Again 14: I Have Taken That Leap

Previous:  Born Again 13:  God's in the Heart-Changing Business
Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works

It's time to come clean.

What I have not told you -- though you may have guessed -- is that Sharon and I had briefly been romantically involved, back when this saga began 25 years ago.  The relationship had crumbled as I realized my girlfriend did not really know the Jesus I knew, and could not really share what was most precious in my life.  Although I was still very young, I knew that hoping to convert my girlfriend was probably wishful thinking.  There were too many other emotions (and hormones) at work, let alone how it presumes on God's mercy.  The brutal fact was that I was "unequally yoked", and I was forced to break it off.

Young people don't generally recognize the damage done by the careless romances typical of that age.  Though I am gratified that God kept me sexually pure (in deed if not in thought) through that period of my life, I am not particularly proud of my adolescent conduct.  In the decades since I have offered up a few overdue apologies, and probably yet owe a few more.

Even so, Sharon's story reminds us that God's promises stand on His holy character, not our weak imitations.  It also reminds us that spiritual rebirth is not microwavable, and His mercy is not on-demand; God works on His timetable and in His way.

So now, as we draw her long and wonderful saga to a close, it's appropriate the final word should go to Sharon.  She sent me this after the fourth installment of this series, because she wanted me to be clear on a few things.  She began by quoting my blog:
"I pressed the 'Send' button with a wave of gratitude tarnished only by a hint of doubt. The gratitude sprung from my sense of great privilege at being chosen for this sacred charge, a moment toward which I'd truly done so little to contribute--indeed, perhaps not a little to impede many years ago. The doubt came from my inner pessimist. Sharon was reaching the threshold of eternity. When she at last arrived and counted the cost, would she pull back?"
You absolutely left me speechless after reading the 4th in the series ... I'd really like to say something. 
Twenty five years ago, you introduced me to a concept that was so powerful. I have never met anyone who was so truthful in his relationship with Christ and I was in awe. I truly did want what you had, but I didn't know how to obtain it. After you left my life, I befriended people who showed similar characteristic as you when it came to Christianity. I still remember the guy who gave me my very first Bible that I wrote notes on and the girl who studied Hebrew and Latin as her majors just so she could read the original text of the Bible. They were all very wholesome and godly people, but none of them had the conviction that you had. You were so forceful with your beliefs that most of the time, I did pull back, yet I still wanted what you had. But you left, leaving what you started unfinished.  
I don't blame anyone but myself in understanding where I am today. I just realized that maybe this part of my life was meant for you to finish, and you've just done that. Questioning my feelings about my relationship with Jesus is like standing on a ledge of a cliff and a voice calling out telling me to take a leap but I always said no. I have been standing on that ledge all my life. Today, I am happy to tell you that I have taken that leap. 
You have NO IDEA how free I feel. THANK YOU for returning home and completing what you started.

Yours in Christ forever,
Sharon

Sunday, September 4, 2011

When it's Day to Me, it's Night to Someone

Location: Fredericksburg, VA, USA
Since my passion for introducing the cellmates to 20-year-old music can't begin and end with Rich Mullins, I thought I'd detour into the realm of Mark Heard. Mark died in 1992 of heart failure, but not before establishing his music as some of the more searching and honest of the genre.

This song, "Some Folks' World" is a simple but profound call to true compassion. 



Some folks' world is war-torn
Some folks' world is fine
This planet makes no sense to the untrained mind

Some folks hope for fortune
Some folks hope to die
Each man sees his fate through his own two eyes

And when it's day to me it's night to someone
And when it's night you might not want to go on

Some folks eat what flies leave
They get what they can take
Hunger has no heart and it will not wait

Rain can ruin your weekend
Or rain can spare your life
Depending on who you are and what your thirst is like

And when it's day to me it's night to someone
And when it's night you might not want to go on

All folks' days are numbered
But most folks do not care
And no man calls his coin when it's in the air

Some folks taste of Heaven
Some folks taste of Hell
Some folks lose their taste and they cannot tell

And when it's day to me it's night to someone
And when it's night you might not want to go on

Written by Mark Heard © 1982 Bug 'n Bear Music ASCAP

Friday, September 2, 2011

War Is Interested in You


In her poem Of a Forgetful Sea, Kelli Russell Agodon talks of the forgetfulness invited by the seashore:

Here war is only newsprint.

How easy it is not to think about it
as we sleep beneath our quiet sky,
slip ourselves into foam, neglectful
waves appearing endless.


Just before, however, there is an ominous note, as she writes of her daughter’s attempts to save the small creatures she finds from the threats she sees:

She tries to help them
before the patterns of tides
reach their lives.

She knows about families
who fold together like hands,
a horizon of tanks moving forward.


So, while “Here war is only newsprint”, one can’t quite forget it (or disintegrating families) even at the seashore: It’s out there – “a horizon of tanks”. Moreover, if we try too hard to put it out of our minds, we run up against the truth very loosely attributed to Trotsky (by Alan Furst, at the opening of his novel Dark Star):

You may not be interested in war,

but war is interested in you.


Indeed, the Lord warns us in the 24th chapter of Matthew that in this age, “… there will be wars and rumors of wars” (verse 6) and the history of the 20th century was surely replete with all of that: Most of Furst’s novels are set in the 2nd world war, a maelstrom which perhaps ended 50 million lives. Looking to a larger stage, Niall Ferguson sets his history War of the World in the period from the beginning of the 1st world war to the end of the Korean war, and apologizes for ending his tale even there.

So, whether or not it’s valid to tie the name of Trotsky (who certainly played a significant part in 20th century conflict) to the saying, it seems pretty safe to accept it as a truth worth remembering: “War is interested in you.” Having attended Jailer’s change of command ceremony early this summer, I’ve reflected a lot since then on that saying, and on the question it raises: How ought a Christian to respond to this, and, especially, how ought Christians in the military to view themselves in light of it?

One possible answer would turn on a dichotomy suggested by this truth: Members of some militaries (like Hitler’s Waffen-SS) were pretty unambiguously vehicles for furthering war’s interest. Others (like the modern Swiss Armed Forces) are pretty unambiguously vehicles for responding to that interest, should it intrude. So, while uncompromising pacifism certainly has its place in Christian history, it seems pretty straightforward that, if they are not pacifists, many Christians would feel comfortable about the role of the latter sort of military, but few would feel comfortable about the first.

But, given that a Christian may feel comfortable serving in a military which he views as existing to respond to war’s interest, how is he to respond if he finds the ground shifting under him? A case in point might be the more traditional German military, as events led up to the 2nd world war: Even during the early years after Hitler came to power in 1933, they might have viewed themselves as legitimate defenders of their nation. Then, suddenly in 1939, they’d have found themselves plunged into wars of aggression where, especially to the east, the populations they overran were to be regarded as literally sub-human (“Untermenshen”) and treated accordingly. We know how some did respond, culminating in failed assassination attempts, but most just went along. Many of the latter must have been believers. Had they been on a slippery slope for years before they became involved in atrocities? At what point ought they to have got out?

Closer to home, what is a Christian supposed to say about service in an “imperial” military? Surely Rome’s military during the Church’s early years was that, and there were many Christians who served in it. More to the point, the British military in the 19th century was surely imperial, and, though we may feel more comfortable with the term “hegemonic” than “imperial”, so is that of the United States today (and so has it been for over half a century). One point of view about this is expressed by Niall Ferguson in his book Colossus, where he urges the argument that the U. S. role as hegemon is a good thing (as was the British role before it), and that, were the U. S. to demit that role, the consequences could well be catastrophic. But a contrary point of view is that of the presidential candidate Ron Paul, who condemns U. S. foreign policy as “imperialistic”, and ties it (echoing President Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex”) to oppressive government and loss of freedom. (See Congressman Paul’s book, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace, Commerce, and Honest Friendship.) What is a Christian supposed to say about issues like this? Ought he to be indifferent to them? If not, are there lines he ought to draw?

As I said above, seeing Jailer’s ceremony just after reading Trotsky’s “quote” got me to thinking. Might events lead Jailer into the sort of bind in which some Christians serving in the German military found themselves less than a century ago? Short of that, and going back a bit more than a century, what would it take to precipitate the sort of situation where British soldiers herded Africaner families into concentration camps? Should that – or something like it – happen, how ought he to respond? Should he be, even now, in a role that might lead to that?

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Born Again 13: God's in the Heart-Changing Business

Previous:  Born Again 12:  My Husband Thinks I'm Weird
Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works

Sharon's previous letter had raised a couple of critical concerns.  First, she'd been conditioned to think of the term "born again" as something of a derogatory.  Of course, Jesus emphasized the need for spiritual rebirth in very clear terms, and so she'd need to be able to separate Biblical mandate from the catch-phrase.  I started there:
I understand your hang-up with the term "born again". I'm pretty anti-cliché by nature, and tend to be a little (over)critical about certain habits of the church.
I really am, as any regular reader of this blog would know--probably to a fault, in that it makes me a bit reactionary.  Be that as it may, this text and the concept were no less real and relevant to where Sharon stood at that moment.  So:
However, the concept of being born again goes back to Jesus himself in John 3. This is a rather long passage, but worth quoting in full:
Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, "Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him."

Jesus replied, "Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again."

Jesus answered, "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born of water and the Spirit. Flesh gives birth to flesh, but the Spirit gives birth to spirit. You should not be surprised at my saying, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows wherever it pleases. You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going. So it is with everyone born of the Spirit."

"How can this be?" Nicodemus asked."

"You are Israel's teacher," said Jesus, "and do you not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know, and we testify to what we have seen, but still you people do not accept our testimony. I have spoken to you of earthly things and you do not believe; how then will you believe if I speak of heavenly things? No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven--the Son of Man. Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him."

"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life."
I thought about ending here, but everybody ends here, and I often worry that we lose the larger meaning.  In fact, John 3:16 itself has become shockingly cliche, having been relentlessly robbed of its context and trivialized on a billion bumper stickers and football game signs.  Everyone has been told God loves them.  Far fewer have been told why it matters or what their response must therefore be.
"For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God."
Sharon, there is much to take away from this passage. Of course, everyone knows John 3:16, and it is a wonderful verse. It is also a little frightening however, for the gospel is the best news in the world ("whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life"), but it comes in the context of the worst news in the world ("whoever does not believe stands condemned already"). 
Ultimately, we experience our spiritual rebirth (being "born again") as an act of the will. We struggle through the intellectual side of wondering whether this is all true. You've certainly been going through this process with all the reading you've been doing. We also struggle through the emotional part ... how do we "feel" about the idea of surrendering our lives to Him? It seems to me from what you've written that you're really there already. 
So then, where does that leave us? Like the fisherman Peter at his nets, we hear Jesus call. He says "Follow me", and we make a decision. Do we stay here and fish, or do we get up and follow the Lord? We don't know precisely where he will take us, and the idea of surrendering our wills to his is frightening. But, as Peter later said, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God." So we decide to follow Him, for in Him is life.
Having challenged Sharon to lay down her nets, I had yet to deal with her other huge concern ... the poor woman's husband thinks she's weird!  Now, we are to be a "peculiar people" after all, but I'm not sure "weird" is the effect we're shooting for.  Yes, I think there's a difference.

I'm reminded of a friend of mine who went to his mentor to ask what was to be done about his wife, who just didn't seem to "get" Christianity.  This wise elder leaned forward, smiled softly, and said:  "Greg, love your wife."  This has always seemed to me to be the simplest and most profound advice I've ever heard on the matter.
Of course, this is likely to be alarming to your husband! What does it all mean? Will you now become one of "those people"?   Well, yes ... but is that good news or bad news for him?  When I look at what the Bible commands us as husbands and wives, it is truly good news!  For it tell us to love and submit, even if the person we are married to is not (yet) a believer!  By loving Christ, we are actually freed to love our spouses and children all the more, because we no longer require them to fulfill our deepest personal needs.  We gain our security and our significance from the Creator and Savior Himself!
Instead of demanding that my wife meet my need for unconditional love, I turn to Christ who never changes and whose love never falters, and am then empowered to extend that same love to her. Instead of demanding that my children validate me by being successful and obedient, I turn to Christ in whom I am eternally significant as a loved child of the King of Kings. I can then patiently pour my life out for them, because my cup is being filled by the Almighty One! Therefore, the news for your husband is truly good. You're not going to come home and try to "change him", because of course you can't anyway. Rather, you're going to come home and love him better than you ever have before!

God's in the heart-changing business.
 

Monday, August 8, 2011

The Energy and Audacity of Youth

Preparing to depart from LA.
Having previously blogged rather one-sidedly--and perhaps unfairly--about the "energy and arrogance" of youth, a chance encounter today offered a glimpse at the other side of the coin.  Four impressive young believers engaged in a tremendous endeavor for the Kingdom of God reminded me that youth is not necessarily wasted on the young!
 
The Southern Walk is HOT!
I came across Jessica, Amy, Joe and Nancy at a Starbucks just minutes from my house, as they prepared to complete the final leg of their journey across the country with Crossroads, an annual pilgrammage which draws attention to the plight of the unborn and promotes a culture of life in America.  These four college students were members of the Southern Walk, and were nearing their destination in Washington DC, where all 40 walkers will converge on August 13th.

There are many ways to draw attention to the outrage of a million or so children destroyed annually in America.  (Note:  If we settle for the more conservative estimates of over 800 thousand, is it really that much less appalling?).  For those who don't understand the Christian revulsion against this practice, it is only that we treasure all those handmade by God to carry His image:
The walkers gather for prayer outside an
abortion clinic in Abilene, Texas.

For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,when I was being made in secret,
intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them,
the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.
- Psalm 139:13-16

Surviving the trek across Texas
is something to celebrate!
It's true, an unfortunate few resort to violent or simply obnoxious tactics, and Christians must continue to speak out against any repayment of evil for evil.  Even so, the willingness of this peaceful, cheerful, prayerful and dedicated band of young men and women to "walk the walk" on behalf of those who literally have no voice is a powerful antidote against cynicism and despair.

They will walk and not grow weary ...
(no, I won't reveal whose foot this is)

I thank you, my dear brothers and sisters, for remembering your Creator in the days of your youth, and expending your strength on worthy pursuits.  Thank you for standing up for righteousness, justice and compassion, and for daring to make a difference.  I salute you all in the words of the Apostle John:
I write to you, young men,
because you are strong,
and the word of God abides in you,
and you have overcome the evil one. 



Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Born Again 12: My Husband Thinks I'm Weird

Previous:  Born Again 11:  The Jesus Who Lives in Me
Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works

I was recently accused by some very fine military personnel of being a "dork", by which they meant I use words and phrases that are ... well, dorky.  Frankly, I prefer "poetic", but be that as it may ...

Sharon also struggled somewhat with my, er ... poetry.
When you write, it takes me a while to fully understand what you are saying because your emails to me are very profound. In fact, all of your writings in your blogs are very profound that it takes a few readings for me to “truly” understand them. I guess you’re just a “profound guy” :). Or that, I’m slow to understand things! :) I’m surprised that you didn’t change your career choice to become a minister. You have a calling for it. Although I know that you do not have to have such title to minister to others, but you do have the calling for it!
See?  It's profundity!  Which is waaaaay better than dorkiness.  You go girl.
I absolutely love reading your responses to my emails. You have a special way of using God’s words to relay them to current situations. Please know that I am learning a lot from you and I do take it to heart all that you share with me in your letters. I also am continuously reading my Bible whenever I can, whether that is at work during my breaks or at home (hiding in the closet, most of the time). You mentioned about being “born again” and I have to tell you, that’s a word that I am still struggling with for several reasons. First, I don’t really know what it means. Second, I have met quite a few “born again Christians” in my lifetime and, frankly, some of them have scared me. I don’t know what “born again” is like. When I met you, I knew that you were “one of those people”, because you told me. Why that didn’t scare me away from you then, I don’t know.  But all memories aside, “born again” has always had a negative connotation, for me. But if that is what I’m going to go thru or will be going thru, I guess it’s really not so bad. I’m still not sure what I’m going thru, to be honest. I’m scared to think that it is only a phase ...
This is not the first time I have heard of this complaint about the effect of the so-called "born-agains".  I've never heard any Christian describe themselves using "born-again" as a noun, and Sharon wasn't using it this way here.  But I have heard it so used in other places, generally as a perjorative.  Like this for example:


The problem with this, of course, is that being born again actually is a crucial, biblical event, and it was critical that Sharon grasp its true meaning.  I would need to walk her through that, but we'll save that for the next installment.
My husband just told me that he thinks I’m "weird". I have been contemplating sharing with him all the e-mails we have exchanged so that maybe it can explain what I am “going through” but I do not know if he will respond to it the way that I’d like him to respond to it. I’ve tried to explain to him why I have suddenly felt the need to explore my faith, but whenever I talk to him, I just get so emotional that nothing seems to come out right.
All emerging Christians struggle with the question of how to relate to their friends and families, and especially spouses!  Those early days may be filled with reckless enthusiasm, sheer terror, or some weird mixture of both.  How to feed the enthusiasm, overcome the terror, and mold the recklessness into purposeful boldness ... well honestly I still struggle with that!  Another huge issue to deal with in my response.  But Sharon had more to say:
But like I said in my last email, I think I became more curious about my Christian faith while I spent some mornings just meditating in my daughter’s school coffee shop. There are lots of Christian books there to read and again, the music is soothing. (I have to say though that Starbucks latte is better, but I’m not really there for the coffee, am I?).
Editor's note:  She's already more spiritual than I am ... I'm always there for the coffee.  Just sayin'.  She continued:
There was a small book of quotes in there on a man named John Wesley. All I know of John Wesley is that he is the founder of the denomination that my family practices, Methodism. Unfortunately, I do not know anything else about him. I just picked up the book and started reading and one of his quotes struck a chord:
“In my return to England, Jan. 1738, being in imminent danger of death and very uneasy on that account, I was strongly convinced that the cause of that uneasiness was unbelief and that gaining a true, living faith was the one thing needful of me.”
There was something about that sentence that started to make me think about my own “uneasiness” about death.  And then, this is one of the things you said to me in one of your emails:
“I have come to understand over the years that what we all seek is assurance of our salvation and our relationship to God.”
One more quote: The last chapter of “Jesus Without Religion” says:
“Having read through the Gospel, you should have seen a clear message and mission emerging from the ministry of Jesus: redemption”
I don’t think I need to say more. They’re all pointing to the same thing. I need to do THIS. I want to do this. Otherwise, I will never be at peace.
Sharon was still searching for peace, but she now understood that true peace is more than an inner, emotional cease-fire.  Sharon sought the only kind of peace that matters:  eternal, saving, redeeming peace offered to all who believe by the Lord God Almighty.  Despite her hangup with the phrase, she was experiencing her spiritual rebirth ... and was willing to risk a little "weirdness" for it.   

Next:  Born Again 13:  God's in the Heart-Changing Business

Monday, July 18, 2011

Jailbreaker Breaks Out

It was bound to happen.  Our old friend the Jailbreaker, a former missionary to Japan who thrives on challenging our assumptions about the gospel and culture, has slipped his bonds and made for open country with his new blog, For the Sake of the Gospel, for which his stated purpose is to create "An Online Learning Community Seeking to Cultivate & Sustain a Movement of the Gospel within Everyday Relational Networks."

Longtime readers of this blog will recognize some of the posts from years gone by, when the Jailbreaker stoked our creative juices and started more than one spirited debate with challenges such as these:
When crossing cultures with the Gospel just how difficult of a task is it to bring “the message” to a particular people without entangling that message in the “cultural trappings” of the messenger? Does it even matter?

If by “culture” we mean eating with silverware instead of chopsticks, or shaking hands instead of bowing, it’s probably not very difficult at all to leave culture out of the message.

However, if by culture we mean "church culture," that is, the forms, practices, and deeply rooted assumptions of the "western church system," it’s another matter entirely.
I urge you to stop by often ... if you dare!