What Marriage Is All About

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Note the emotional tenor conveyed by the underline and punctuation. My wife is an expressive writer.

It’s February now, so thoughts of romance and love are in the air. As I think about my sweet McKenna I’ve realized that great moments have not been lacking in our marriage. She’s kinda the best for all sorts of reasons–one of which is her ability to constantly surprise me. This was easily one of my favorites so far. Admittedly I’ve only been at it a year and a half, but waking up to find this lovely little note on a Sunday morning, right before I had to get ready for church, was a humorous chance to be what I’m supposed to be as a husband–a sacrificial servant who dies to himself for the sake of his wife. (Eph. 5) And there was joy in that.

Obviously, killing one cockroach in the morning before work isn’t an extreme “death to self” moment. Yes, it was a truly GINORMOUS beast and put up a serious fight. At most though, I had to simply swallow the inconvenience of time wasted on a busy Sunday morning. Still, most of the time love looks like the little things. Yes, the dates, the romance, the big decisions, and all of the normal things that we focus on in a marriage are key, important, and foundational. And so is taking out the trash when she asks you the first time and cleaning up beard trimmings in the sink, even when you’d rather just sit down and watch TV, or read a book–without whining. In the end, it’s through the little acts of daily faithfulness and service that we honor God in our marriages.

As we look towards Valentine’s Day this month, a word to husbands: yeah, plan out the big date. Make it romantic–you know, put on nice clothes and stuff. Buy the flowers–make ‘em classy. Try going to a restaurant that doesn’t wrap its food in foil. And while you’re at it, kill a bug or two, make sure your towel isn’t on the floor, vaccum something–seek out the joy of serving her. I’m not great at this, but by the grace of God, I want to get better.

Soli Deo Gloria

In Memoriam: Grandma Flora

grandma

Flora Rishmawy–My Grandma. I think she’s like 19 or 20 here.

This last week, my grandma, Flora Rishmawy, passed on to be with Jesus. I was honored and blessed to deliver the message at the memorial service in Las Vegas. Some people asked to see it, so I’ve reprinted it here with minor corrections. 

We’re all here to celebrate my Grandma, Flora Rishmawy’s life. And just looking around the room, clearly there’s a lot to celebrate. I’ll start with what I know:

Grandma –The first thing I knew about Flora Rishmawy was that she was my grandma. That was her name for years before I ever found out she was “Flora”. She’s just always been ‘Grandma’ to my sister and I. My earliest memories of her consist of trips out here to Las Vegas, or her and Grandpa coming out to visit us in Hacienda Heights or Yorba Linda. They were some of the biggest highlights of our year. Things I knew about Grandma back when I was kid:

  • Let’s be honest, she always had something for us. It didn’t matter what or when, like most grandmas, she liked giving us things. Connected to that, I knew she liked “finding” things, wherever. Shopping was a thing with Grandma. She wasn’t a spender– she was a shopper, though, and when it came to her family, it was a labor of love and joy to find us things we might like or need.
  • She always looked nice for my Grandpa. My Grandma’s hair was perfect at all times. Honestly, I can still remember the smell of her hairspray. When you’re a little kid, that’s impressive.
  • I also knew that whenever we were with her, we were going to eat good food. Everybody here knows, Grandma could cook. Whether it was snacks like sambuses, or large meals, or desserts, nothing was ever “okay” when she made it. It was great. Seriously, I don’t get how Grandpa managed to stay decently trim. Ironically, some of my favorite memories of her are not at the crazy intense meals she could make at holidays, but at the breakfasts she would cook for us. Whenever we were going to leave Las Vegas after a short vacation, she would cook up an amazing breakfast with bacon, eggs, bread, and all the basics. Nothing crazy, but somehow though, she made all the basics taste better.
  • Finally, I knew she loved us and we loved her. That was never in doubt.

Of course, over the years, I came to realize that she was far more than a Grandma.

Tino and Flora Rishmawy - 53 years solid.

Tino and Flora Rishmawy – 53 years solid.

Wife - I found that there was once a young woman, born in Honduras in 1933–a beautiful young woman who caught the eye of my Grandpa who pursued her and married her when she was 19. I remember Grandpa telling me about courting her as a young lady, and I got a kick out of thought of young Grandpa, dating a pretty young Grandma. I mean, you look at the pictures and you see it. My Grandpa looking like Errol Flynn and Grandma just a beautiful sweet thing. For 53 years after that, she was a loving wife to my Grandpa Tino until he passed 6 years ago. They kept their vows. She loved him—she didn’t just feel nice things about him, but actually loved him in word and deed, the way a wife should.

Friend – Flora was also a friend. Grandma had a lot of friends—friends she raised kids with, friends she played poker and bingo with, friends she cooked, and laughed and was a friend to. Some of those friends are here now and know a lot more about this than I do.

Mother – And of course, she was a mother—to my Dad, my uncles, my aunt, and a niece she loved like a daughter, my aunt Gera. All you have to do is look at her children and you know something about her: she was a wonderful mother. Their love for her, their devotion, is a testimony to her faithful care for them over the years. I specifically get to see it in the way my Dad is a father to me and my sister. I know he gets a lot of it from his mom. Actually, that’s part of why my mom calls him “Florita” sometimes.

Now, in all of these roles, she was one thing: she was hospitable. She took care of people, hosted them, and of course, cooked for them—it was a labor of love for her. She was a hostess, and everybody knew that—it didn’t matter if you were family, or friends, neighbors. People remember Flora’s kindness, her care, her hospitality.

This is why we’re going to miss her, and why we can rejoice: somebody else is taking care of her now.

Jesus is Taking Care of Her: - For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell.  I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Phil 1:21-24

Grandma always believed in God. She was a good Catholic, brought my dad and family up in the church. Like my Grandpa though, towards the later years, she began to trust God in some deeper ways. She decided to trust Jesus to care for her as she was less and less able to care for herself.

The promise of the Gospel is that for those who let him, Jesus will take care of them, both in this life and in the next. The apostle Paul here is writing to his church in Philippi and he goes back and forth as to what he should do, remain there with them, or depart to go be with Jesus, which, he says, is far better. He ultimately says God has left him with the church to care for it, but he looks forward towards that day when God calls him to himself to rest.

Why? Because he knows that Jesus is the sum of all our human strivings. All that we seek in our lives with our families, our friends, spouses, works, the rest that we try to achieve for ourselves through our own efforts, that’s found in Jesus. And, of course, we shouldn’t be surprised. If God is the maker of heaven and earth, then all the good things about this life, all the joys, the laughter, the meals, the reunions, all the meaning in every beautiful sunset we’ve ever experienced has come to us as a gift from his hand.

All of that beauty was in God before he gave it to us. And he gave it to us so that we might look up at him in gratitude, in love, and in delight. In fact, the NT says that Christ is the pattern for all of these things.

Now, sin, both ours, and others, has broken up that joy. There’s a brokenness in all of God’s good gifts.  It has shattered some things, twisted others, introduced tears and pain into that transcendent tapestry God wove in Creation. There’s disease, heart-ache, and worst of all, the sting of death.

This is why, for Paul, to go to Christ is to go to the source, pure and unbroken goodness. All the things that Grandma loved most about life, she is enjoying right now in the arms of Jesus. She’s no longer frail, or weak. And she has the joy of knowing Jesus, her love, her savior, her creator, better than she ever could have imagined. This is part of why Paul writes to another congregation:

Like Those Who Have No Hope. But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about those who have died, so that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope.  For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have died. (1 Thess. 4:13-14)

Paul says that we don’t grieve without hope—now, notice what that doesn’t mean: it doesn’t mean we don’t grieve.

See, it is okay to grieve. We’re here celebrating her life, but it is okay to cry. The Gospel is not that there isn’t pain now—it’s that one day, all pain will cease. But that day is not right now for us. For now, death does have a sting. Grandma isn’t here with us right now. So, you know what, go ahead and cry. Go ahead and weep. Go ahead and feel that loss. God is not an unfeeling God that tells you to just smile and put a cheerful face on it. Jesus himself wept at the graveside of Lazarus, even while he knew that he was about to raise him from the dead. It says that he was moved to tears because of our pain.

The one thing that Paul says is that we don’t grieve without hope. I have hope because Grandma is with Jesus. And the thing is, Jesus is coming back. He came, he lived the life we should have lived, took the consequences our sins deserved, then rose to life again, and ascended to heaven. And the promise is that the resurrection he experienced isn’t for him alone. The promise is that for all who trust him to take care of them, all who put their faith in him, they will one day return with him, fully resurrected, with new bodies, perfect bodies, bodies that can love, and touch and sing and embrace and reunite with loved ones.

The hope is that, on top of seeing Jesus, we get to see each other again in the new world God has promised to make—because that’s what is happening—God is going to fix all things, and make all things new again, and everything we ever loved and hoped for, including Grandma is going to be in on it.

So, if you’ve accepted the Gospel, there’s hope. Grieve, but hope.  Weep, but let some of those tears be mingled with tears of joy at the fact that because Jesus lives, we’ll see her, and my grandpa, again. And on that day, the Bible says God will wipe every tear from our eyes—including the ones we weep for Flora today.

Please pray with me.

Soli Deo Gloria

A Prayer for My Nephew, Jack Emmet Stewart

My sister Valerie and her husband Shawn just had a baby.  Jack Emmet Stewart was born on November 16th at 10:20 pm, weighing in at 8 lbs, 3 oz., 21 1/5 inches long. Jack is my first nephew and a handsome little guy.  Although he was peacefully asleep when I met him, I am convinced he could, if he so chose, destroy Chuck Norris. The awesome contained in this little bundle is hard to gauge at this point.

Now, I’ve been joking around for the last few months about how excited I am to be an uncle–all fun, no responsibilities. Well, not really joking, I meant most of it. Thing is, I’ve been praying for this little guy for a while now and, as the months have progressed, the reality of the responsibility I have towards Jack has started to dawn on me.

One of the first things I figured out I have to do is pray for him. That’s one of my main jobs now—I’m part of the Jack Emmet Stewart Prayer Team. (We are accepting all walk-ons at this point.) So, to kick it off, this is a prayer I’ve written for him:

Father, thank you for Jack Emmet Stewart. We’ve been waiting for him for a little while now. You’ve known about him for an eternity. We’re excited that he’s finally here, safe and sound. We know you have good things in store for him.

I thank you that from the first breath he took, he’s been a testimony to the Gospel. “Jack” means “God is gracious” and it fits—he is an unmerited gift of your kindness. “Emmet” in Hebrew is “truth, faithfulness”, and his arrival is a reminder of the fact that you are true and faithful. I pray that these twin truths would be the rails on which Jack’s life runs: your grace and faithfulness. Let him be ever aware of your loving-kindness, your ever-present help, your deep, deep grace—that you are faithful even when we are faithless.

There are so many things I would ask for him, things I will ask for him when the time comes, but for today I pray that you would bless him with:

Salvation- God, you are his maker, I pray that you would become his Father in Christ; adopt him by your grace. Let him come to repent and believe the Gospel early and deeply, be united by faith to Christ, and given the gift of your Spirit. I pray that someday quite soon he could answer Heidelberg’s first question, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” with the proper answer, from the heart:

“That I am not my own, but I belong– body and soul, in life and in death–to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven:  in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.”

Father, as much as I love having him as a nephew, I want him as my little brother in Christ. Let this be the reality that forms the core of who he is.

Strength- Jack has strong parents. Shawn and Val are, in their own distinct ways, two of the strongest people I know. It is often over-looked because of their great gentleness, but it is a deep, deep strength that comes from being firmly planted by the streams of your grace. I pray that Jack would be planted by those same streams, drink deeply, and be rooted in such a way that the storms, the tempests, the breezes, the dryness, the spring—all the seasons of life—would leave him unshaken.

Empathy- Let that same strength be a source of strength for others. May it come with the ability to enter into the feelings, the concerns of others without being overwhelmed by them. Bless him that he might be a blessing.

Creativity- Help Jack to see beyond the normal possibilities and fears that constrain most of us from living truly God-soaked lives. Form him by your Spirit into a man whose imagination is governed only by the reaches of your power and goodness. Help him to live in ways that amaze people, glorify you, and give Jack great, great joy.

 Joy- Give Jack a deep, cavernous joy–joy that revels in the beauty of creation, that takes in all that you’ve made and wells up with gratitude for the redemption that you’ve wrought.

Depth- Jack comes from a line of thinkers, let it be so with him. But Father, I ask that he not only have head-knowledge, but heart-knowledge—wisdom that comes from knowing his Father and the character of his Father’s world through Christ.

Assurance- Give Jack a deep assurance about who he is in Christ, the man who you’re making him into, with all of the particular gifts, talents, and personality quirks you’ve written into his spiritual DNA. Let him know down to the marrow of his being that his Creator and Redeemer did not make mistakes with him.

Community- Finally, gather people around Jack—family, friends, neighbors, and most of all the covenant community of the church—who can pour into him, protect him, encourage him, love him, correct him, affirm him, and constantly point him to Jesus.

I ask these things with great faith and anticipation, grateful in advance for what you’re going to do, in the Name of Jesus, Amen.

Soli Deo Gloria

 

The Most Important Thing You Can Ask for in Ministry

Ever since I was a kid, the story of Solomon’s prayer for wisdom has been a favorite of mine. My mom would read it often to me and recall it to mind when we were talking about pretty much any subject, so that I should always seek wisdom from God before anything else. I think she knew I was going to need it.

For those of you who don’t know the story, the first half of 1 Kings 3 recounts the story of God appearing to the young Solomon in a dream after the death of his father King David. God grants him one request at the beginning of his reign. To God’s great delight, Solomon replies:

And now, O LORD my God, you have made your servant king in place of David my father, although I am but a little child. I do not know how to go out or come in. And your servant is in the midst of your people whom you have chosen, a great people, too many to be numbered or counted for multitude. Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people, that I may discern between good and evil, for who is able to govern this your great people?
(1 Kings 3:7-9)

Understanding, wisdom is Solomon’s request. God has put him in charge of a great people and he knows that he needs wisdom in order to administer justice among them for he is only a young man. God hears this and is greatly pleased and tells him that because he did not ask for money, power, the defeat of enemies, or anything of the like, but rather wisdom to administer justice, he will have all of these things and in spades. Not only will he be wise, but he will be wiser than any that have come before and any that follows. Beyond that, God will bless him with peace, wealth, and general prosperity in a way that Israel will not experience under any other king.

Ruling a Great and Mighty People I come back to that story now as a young guy starting out in ministry and I read it with new eyes. As a minister of the Gospel, I’ve been called to “rule”, administer, and care for the people of God. Call it what you want, there is an authority and a responsibility to shepherd God’s flock given to those of us who work in the church, paid or not. This is a scary task. Many of us don’t stop to think about it, but we are taking care of GOD’s people. They’re his. He cares about them. They are his blood-bought  people, so for him to place them in our hands is a weighty thing. It’s the kind of thing that we probably need a lot of understanding to accomplish.

When I read this story it is humbling and kind of convicting to think about my prayer life (and, at times, lack thereof.) What am I praying for as a minister? Working at an North American church it’s really easy to get caught up in asking for all sorts of things besides wisdom. We can get caught up asking for numbers so the attendance sheets look full and your ministry seems effective. Or how about funding? It’s easy to think that if I just had a bigger budget, I’d be able to buy the right tools to make my ministry cutting-edge, or position us to host the right events, etc. Or maybe we pray for more leaders? If I just had a little more help this thing would come together, more people would be ministered to, and the Gospel would go forward.

Now, all of these things would be nice. They’d be great. It’s no shame to ask for them. In fact, you probably should be praying for these things. Funds do help. The harvest is plentiful and we need more workers in the field. Numbers are not a bad thing. A lot of really “spiritual” Christians think that it’s a virtue to not care if your church is empty. It can be when that means fidelity despite unpopularity, but otherwise we should want people to be joining the family of God in our congregations. Still, none of these things means anything if you don’t have the wisdom to know what to do with them. Without wisdom you will spend your cash foolishly, your leaders will fail, and people will walk in and then walk out the doors–or worse still, remain in your church unchanged.

We need to be praying for wisdom. Much of Solomon’s wealth, success, and the peace of his kingdom came as a result of his wisdom. Wisdom helps you find good leaders, work with the funding you have, and know what to do with your people when you get them.  Thankfully, God is rich in wisdom and generous with it. He gives it to any who asks in faith. (James 1:5) So, just ask.

(What are some things that you pray for your ministry about? What do you usually feel is the most pressing need? Why? How good would it be without wisdom?)

Wisdom is Needed Even for Two  Something else to realize is that this goes for you–whoever you are. Everybody needs to be asking for wisdom to care for the people of God, even if you only have a congregation of two.

That’s one of the things we see in the final story of the chapter, with Solomon’s famous decision about the two women and the child. (1 Kings 3:16-28) Two prostitutes who were room-mates bore children within days of each other. One woman’s child died in the night and so she switched the two babies, claiming the live one was hers. They came before Solomon with a plea for justice. Solomon came up with a way of determining who was the true mother by offering to chop the baby in half and give each a piece. The true mother said to give the child to the other mother in order that it might be spared; the other one didn’t care. Solomon then gave the child to the one with compassion. Scary, kinda gruesome, but wise.

In context, the story shows Solomon’s wisdom was sufficient for administering justice within the whole of the nation. But here’s the thing, essentially the problem occurs between two women. That’s all it takes. Small-group leaders and one-on-one disciplers need wisdom just as much as mega-church pastors running congregations of thousands, because people are people no matter the size of the group.

Really Ask for Wisdom A final point when considering this story: we really need to be asking for wisdom. No, this is not just pointless repetition. One bad way of reading this story is to think that if we ask for wisdom, God will automatically give us all these other things. No, that’s not how it works. You can’t trick God into giving you a bigger budget or a bigger congregation. If your real desire is these things, wisdom will not come because you’ll fall into the foolishness that comes with obsessing over these things. Worry about getting wisdom first, seeking righteousness in the way that you care for the flock of God, and all these things shall be added unto you. (Matt 6:33)

Soli Deo Gloria

Becoming the Archetype’s I AM = The Doctrine of God + Death Metal

Alright, so this is the one where I blow my credibility with a bunch of you: I love metal music. I’m not an expert, a connoisseur, or even an amateur. I’m just a fan. Still, I love the speed, the ferocity, the heaviness, and the creativity involved with the genre and its multiple sub-genres.

One of my favorite acts is a Christian progressive death metal band by the name of Becoming the Archetype. (Think Christ as the archetype of humanity made in the image of God into whose image we are being conformed.) They embody what I’ve been saying for the last few years: some of the most creative, theological song-writing is coming, not out of the worship music industry, but the metal and hardcore scene. With albums titled Terminate Damnation and songs like  “Ex Nihilo” and “Elemental Wrath: Requiem Aeternam”, it’s obvious they don’t pull theological punches. Redemption never sounded this brutal. Thankfully they’ve been thoughtful enough to actually handle deep theology within the medium, producing complex concept albums like “Dichotomy”, which they based on C.S. Lewis’ Space Trilogy in order to explore themes of resurrection, the knowledge of God, biology and technology. (It also features the most brutal rendition of “How Great Thou Art” you’ve ever heard.)

Now, when I learned of that the band had lost bassist and frontman, Jason Wisdom, I was worried both that the music and the message would suffer a drop-off in sound as well as theological content. (He left when his wife became pregnant. Something about wanting to be a good dad or something.) With release of their 5th full-length studio album I AM, my fears were assuaged.

In terms of sound, Christ McCane’s vocals come through loud, low, and aggressive.  The clean vocals shine at times and at times, not so much. Overall, very solid. There are quite a few good technical riffs, (the opening of the title track “I AM” comes to mind), solid drumming, a few good bass-lines, and a number of heavy break-downs, even though they’ve backed off a bit from other albums. Continuing the trend off of their last album Celestial Completion, they’ve continued to place increasing focus on progressive elements. Still, it regains some of the speed, heaviness, and aggression of Dichotomy. It’s a solid metal album. The more I listen to it, the more pleased I am. My face is quite sufficiently melted.

This is not the main reason I am excited by this album. What I love most is the theological ambition driving the sound. With I AM Becoming the Archetype has attempted to do something many academic theologians no longer try: say something substantial about God.

I AM

In the Old Testament God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush as the great “I AM that I AM” (Exod. 3:14), or simply “I AM” (Yahweh). This is his specific covenant name by which Israel was to call him.  In Isaiah, specifically 40-55, a section that draws on Exodus themes of liberation and redemption, God repeatedly emphasizes that “I am” the one who will redeem Israel. (Isa. 41:4; 43:25; 47:10; 48:12; 51:12) In the NT we find Jesus taking up the divine self-designation in the book of John with its seven famous “I am” (ego eimi) statements. Using prominent OT images of salvation he declares himself to be the bread of God (6:33), the bread of life (6:35), the light of the world (8:12), the gate for the sheep (10:7), the resurrection and the life (11:25), the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), and the true vine (15:1). Each of these predicates symbolize some aspect or form of the salvation that Jesus brings or in fact is.

In the same vein, I AM is an extended reflection on the glorious, terrifying predicates which can be ascribed to God in his saving actions, especially as they are manifested in Jesus Christ. Check out the track list:

  1. The Ocean Walker
  2. The Time Bender
  3. The Eyes of the Storm
  4. The Sky Bearer
  5. The Machine Killer
  6. The Weapon Breaker
  7. The War Ender
  8. The Planet Maker
  9. The Sun Eater
  10. I AM

Now, let’s be honest, we’re not dealing with Thomas Aquinas, or Barth, or Bavinck here. This is a death metal band. Some over the top metalness is to be expected. Still, there’s something great about a band that will speak in the first person for God and utter:

Traversing the infinite
Transcending the evident
Watch as reality bends to my will

Navigating eternity
Dispatching uncertainty
Navigating eternity
Behold in my presence
Time standing still

I am the future
I am the past
I have seen you breathe your last

The metal epicness is almost too much to bear. What I do love is that song after song we see some attribute or action of God’s, whether eternity, the act of creation, judgment, or consummation, being defined through the Son. Ending on a truly Johannine note, the refrain of the title song simply states, “I AM THAT I AM/I AND THE FATHER ARE ONE.” We know God in and through Jesus Christ or not at all.

To sum up: if you like metal, or Jesus, check out the album. Prepare for theology and epicness.

Check out the first single, “The Time Bender” below.

Playful, Passionate, Principled, but never Putrid Polemics (Or, Don’t Forget Jesus in an Argument)

If you’ve ever had an “intensely engaged” discussion with a friend in person, a facebook comment, a blog, etc. the odds are that you’ve engaged in polemics. The Webster definition of polemics is “an aggressive attack on or refutation of the opinions or principles of another” or “the art or practice of disputation or controversy.” Basically it’s a form of reasoned argumentation against a position with which you disagree.

Having spent a couple of years in a philosophy program, then seminary, as well as far too much time on the blogosphere, I’ve observed and participated in quite of bit of polemics myself. I have what you might call a “polemical bent”,  which is probably why I like thinkers like Luther, Calvin, Pascal, Kierkegaard, and Plantinga. Brothers can argue.

In that time, I’ve had some time to think about  some of the basic attitudes and approaches to polemics, some of which are consistent with Christian life and some of which are not. I’d like to offer up some reflections three qualities or attitudes that should define your approach to whatever discussion you engage in, and one that shouldn’t. These aren’t comprehensive, exhaustive, or entirely correct, but, for what it’s worth, here they are.

Playful- The first quality that I think should be cultivated within our discussions with others  is playfulness, a certain amount of mirth and good humor. It’s that kind of light-hearted reasonableness that G.K. Chesterton seems to embody in his works like Orthodoxy and Heretics. To say that his arguments are playful is not to say that they aren’t “serious”, or aren’t dealing with serious issues, but that they are clearly not driven by fear or pride but rather a humble self-forgetfulness and joy deeply rooted in the Gospel. His ability to sport and laugh at, and with, his interlocutors managed to communicate both disagreement with and real fondness for them. This is not an excuse for being flippant, disrespectful, or condescending. When your heart is filled with confidence in God, it allows you to speak with humor and grace knowing that whatever the outcome of the argument, you’re securely held in the arms of your Father because of the Son. One of the benefits of engaging your intellectual “opponents” with this attitude is that it is attractive. So often people are used to dealing with Christians arguing out of their insecurities or pride which drives them to be snippy, harsh, humorless, and retaliatory. Nobody wants to listen to someone like that, or end up believing whatever they’re arguing for. The Gospel should lead to a confident, good-naturedness that, on the one hand, respects the other person, and at the same time allows you to take yourself less seriously.

Passionate- The second quality that ought to characterize our polemics is passion.  Like the first, it is deeply rooted in the truth of the Gospel and a deep love for people. You can see this is all over Paul’s letters. Paul is nothing but passionate in his polemics for the sake of the Gospel. Galatians, anybody? Paul goes aggro in that letter because of his great gospel-fear that they might be abandoning Christ, and so he forcefully makes his points at times, giving voice to his real concern in order to communicate just how important the issue was. Sometimes people might know you disagree, but really have no idea how important an issue is until they hear the concern or passion in your voice. Paul’s letter not only communicated truth, but the way he communicated it gave it an emotional tenor, an urgency, that was just as vital as the content. A lot of us may be scared of passionate engagement with our neighbors and friends over the truth. We’re scared of offending, or coming off as pushy or unloving. In a world like ours where our radios, TVs, and blogs are full of people just yelling and trying to brow-beat people into submission, that’s a real danger. I don’t want to minimize that. We should never argue just to argue. So often that’s what we find ourselves caught up in: meaningless arguments about things that really, nobody should get that agitated over. Still, this shouldn’t stop us from engaging passionately with our friends about things that really matter. Love engages over truth. Apathy or an unwillingness to trouble yourself with have a difficult conversation out of fear is not the loving thing to do. The truth is something to be passionate about because truth is about life.

Principled- The third quality that it ought to possess is that of being principled. (Honestly, I could have used other words like “integrity”, “honesty”, etc, but I’m a sucker for cheap alliteration.) We must always strive in our engagements with others to be principled in our dealings, speaking honestly, actively avoiding unfair caricatures, and cheap shots. Whenever arguing against a position we must strive to represent our interlocutors accurately, fairly, and charitably. In other words, don’t purposely take the dumbest interpretation of any statement they make and argue against that.  That’s just dishonest. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a place for irony, sarcasm, and the reductio ad absurdum in arguments. There is a place for humorously following someone’s premises out to their surprising conclusions, or creating humorous, sarcastic analogies to bring out a point. Still, there is absolutely no place for a lack of integrity in our communication with others, even those with whom we deeply disagree. This is part of how we love our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus taught us to. Being people who confess the lordship of Jesus, the one who is the Truth, we should never play fast and loose with the truth in order to score a cheap, rhetorical point.

Never Putrid- If we strive for and keep these three qualities in mind as we engage others, they will keep us from descending into the putrid polemics that seems to define our culture’s approach to “rational”discourse. So much of what we hear and read today pours out of corrupted hearts darkened by arrogance, rage, pride, fear, and the rot of our decomposing sin nature. So much of what is popular out there is just straight-up lies, fear-mongering, cynical mockery, caricature, manipulation, gracelessness, straw-manning, cheap shots, and rhetorical bullying. It is simply putrid. For those of us who have been raised in Christ and indwelled by the resurrection Spirit of God, there should be nothing rotten or foul about what we say. Even those words we utter that cut should only cut in the way a doctor’s scalpel does–in order to heal. They should be words of life, not death, because we are made, and are being remade, in the image of the God who, by his Word, speaks life into existence.

Once again, I write all of these things, not as someone who has achieved or arrived. Lord knows I have not even come close in this area. Instead, I write them as one still struggling alongside; still fumbling about trying to become the kind of person who speaks rightly and righteously.

good_news-deyoung

Beefing Up Your “Quiet Times”: Catechisms and Confessions as Devotional Literature

A little bit ago, a buddy of mine was musing about the fact that he doesn’t connect to most devotional literature of the type that truly “spiritual” people normally rave about. His critical, analytical mind and personality just doesn’t connect with warm meditation, but rather with critical analysis of history and culture.

For a while I’d found myself in a similar place. After seminary, my devotional life became a bit trickier. I find that my mind comes most alive to God when I’m reading systematic theology, or wrestling with some interesting piece of biblical theology, but when I try to slow down, pause, and meditate on something like My Utmost for His Highest, I just can’t do it. (That’s not to disparage Chambers. I loved it in college. The sad thing is, most current, popular stuff doesn’t even come close to his depth.) Because of this, finding good devotional material has been a challenge.

This didn’t trouble me much at first. I would simply pray, read my Bible, and then move on to my academic reading. Still, after a while I realized that I need a slowing down, a place for a more contemplative, heart-oriented approach to God in my devotional life. When I “just read my Bible” I found it hard to turn off the analytic mode. When I did, I didn’t really find my heart moved, but rather just bored.

The Good News We Almost Forgot

Just when I thought all was lost, I got my hands on The Good News We Almost Forgot: Rediscovering the Gospel in a 16th Century Catechism by Kevin DeYoung. The book is basically a commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, which you can read for yourself here. For those of you unfamiliar with catechisms, they are a series of questions and answers designed to be memorized by either new believers, old believers in need of depth, or children in order to teach them the content of the Christian faith. They’re employed across various confessional church traditions and they usually they have scripture references attached to the answers for believers to look up and study as well.

The Heidelberg Catechism was written at the University of Heidelberg at the commission of Elector Frederick III and was approved by the Synod of Heidelberg in 1563. The Catechism has 129 questions and answers that are basically commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and the 10 Commandments, but it is divided into fifty-two sections, called “Lord’s Days,” so that pastors could preach through them on each of the 52 Sundays of the year.  It is one of the most universally recognized pieces of Reformed theology across confessions and was adopted by the great Synod of 1618-1619, as one of the Three Forms of Unity, along with the Canons of Dort and the Belgic Confession.

How exciting!!!

Now for myself, having been raised in a barely-denominational Friends church, I hadn’t spent more than a minute with anything like a catechism, except to know \the Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question and answer: “Q. What is the Chief End of Man? A. Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.”  To my less-than-enlightened mind that was great, deep, but spare stuff.  The thought of spending a whole book reading about a catechism didn’t originally strike me as an edifying experience, because at that point, “I already knew that stuff.”

Still, my buddy told me that he’d been using DeYoung’s book as a devotion because it breaks up into 52 short chapters (2-3 pages) commenting on each of the Lord’s days.  I figured, why not? It can’t hurt.

After a short introduction to the catechism much more exhaustive than my paragraph, I got to the first Lord’s Day and read Question and Answer 1:

Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my Father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

When I read this I nearly started to tear up immediately. The first sentence alone gripped me: “I am not my own.” There is nothing sterile, dry or impersonal about this answer. At the same time, it deploys in a matter of sentences the doctrines of atonement, providence, adoption, union with Christ, the Holy Spirit, assurance, and sanctification, in order to draw me into the saving reality of the Gospel. As you read through the rest of the catechism, there are other questions of similar depth and power. DeYoung’s commentary each day was solidly theological, scriptural, and very pastoral. For the next month and a half I found myself daily edified by the truths encapsulated in the short answers and the meditation that followed.

I had finally found something to found the devotional gap in my life.

Why Read Catechisms- After this I went on a search and started reading through the different catechisms and confessions I could find, (Westminster, Luther’s, Belgic, Scots), as a part of my daily time of prayer and scripture. I found myself time and time again, blessed, challenged, and moved to worship and delight. I also found myself wondering why I had never done this before.

If you’ve never spent time with a catechism, here are three reasons you should in no particular order.

1. Hearing voices from other centuries- Christianity has been around for 2,000 years. This means that Christians have been reading, praying, thinking, and writing about the Gospel for 2,000 years. It is foolish to not pay attention to what our mothers and fathers in the faith have said in past generations as if the truth of the Gospel had a 2 month shelf-life. Their voices are needed if we are to hear the Gospel in all of its fullness in our own day. Catechisms  are a great way of doing that given that most of them were written centuries ago and have still been found spiritually beneficial after all of these years.

2. Deep truths; short phrases. Most catechisms and confessions are doing serious theology and yet condensing it down into short, memorable phrases that are perfect for meditation and contemplation throughout the day. They are perfect for engaging the mind as well as the heart with the truth of God throughout your day.

3. Know Your Bible- Finally, most catechisms and confessions are packed to the gills with scriptural references backing up every statement. You can trace them down as a devotional exercise that can help you get to know your Bible better than you did before, as well as learn the deep, biblical basis for what we believe. It also can help you get into the scriptures in a focused, guided way that is less intimidating for some people than just opening the thing up and reading it.

Where Do I Start?

Honestly, I think DeYoung’s book, The Good News We Almost Forgot is a great place to start. I don’t have a copy of my own any more because I keep giving it away. When one of my college students asks me if I know of a book they should read, it’s one of the first two or three that I recommend.

If you want to start checking out catechism right away, you can start here.

Confessions

I have a confession to make: this is not my first blog. Back in the days when MySpace wasn’t just the punchline to jokes about irrelevance (Irony!), I blogged fairly regularly on faith in the MySpace blog forum. It was a formative experience for me. I was just a 19-year old who knew next to nothing, but for some reason I was getting read. I met a lot of great people and great writers through that blog, some of whom I still keep in touch with. I learned a lot about respectful dialogue with people from various worldviews as well as differing tribes within Christianity. It was a great part of my spiritual and theological development in college that I look back on with much fondness.

At the same time, I’m glad it died.

the rise and fall of my blog

For a while was going well; I was posting on a regular basis, once or twice a week as my school schedule allowed. My blogs were being read and regularly ranked in the top 10 of the Religion and Spirituality section on MySpace in terms of views and comments. (I know that’s not much, but it was pretty good for a 19-year-old with a brain full of mush.) At a certain point though, I began to notice that the posts were slowing down until I eventually found myself unable to write anymore. I mean, I could write, but I couldn’t find the will to write. When I stepped back to think about my writer’s block, I realized that it set in about the time that I started to do serious theological reading. While I have always been a reader, I had not starting reading books relating to Christian theology until my college years, and even then I didn’t start reading what I would call “serious” theology until my last year.

In looking back on the experience, I’ve realized that one thing that came with reading, growing, and learning is that I began to learn how much I had left to read, grow, and learn. I knew next to nothing. I wasn’t even aware of how much I didn’t know. I dare say I’m still just scratching the surface of my ignorance. At the time I came to realize that most of what I could say or write had been said and written long before I started typing by men and women with greater depth, insight, and skill than myself. It was a humbling experience.

In realizing this, I also recognized one my main motivations for blogging: I had been captivated by the feeling of saying something novel and being applauded for it. I loved the feeling of writing something and getting “likes”, seeing comments engaging my thoughts as if they were important insights, and getting acclaim for it. Of course this wasn’t my only motive. I am a natural teacher. I like sharing thoughts. At that point though, the love of being heard was novel and captivating. I don’t say that this is not a temptation even now–it is. At the time it was easy for it to become consuming. When I realized that I wasn’t actually saying anything new, or that people ought to be reading others instead myself, a large portion of my motivation died.

Again, I take this, in many ways, to be a good development. Writing for applause doesn’t do good things for your soul. At the same time, the death of my blog was not an unambiguously positive event. In being humbled, in coming to realize my smallness, relative ignorance and foolishness, I also was struck with a peculiar voicelessness. In coming to know that I knew very little, I fell into a certain of paralysis that robbed me of the ability to try to write about the things that I did know. I just didn’t see the point, or even feel competent to.

the birth pangs

Since that time I have gone to grad school, written a few papers, read a great many books, preached regularly for a couple of years, spent far too much time pontificating in Facebook conversations, and been humbled time and again in various contexts (as I’m sure I’ll continue to be.) In other words, God’s been working on my heart for, knowledge of, and ability to communicate the truth of the Gospel. I’m in a better spot in that respect than I was a few years ago.  After prayer, deliberation, and counsel, I came to the decision to start blogging again.

Surprisingly, this has not been an easy one. For the amount of time that I’ve spent in online forums expressing myself, discussing, debating, as well as preaching on a regular basis, coming to the point of committing my thoughts to print in an intentional and sustained fashion has felt daunting. Temporary disengagement from an activity can become habit that leads to the eventual atrophy of the talents or will required to participate in it. This is true, I am finding, in nearly all areas of life. There’s a part of me that still asks much as I did a few years ago, “Why write? There are much smarter and more valuable things that have already said by more capable writers than myself?”

the hope

I’ve been asking myself this question for a bit and, for the most part, I have not really had any good reasons other than a basic sense that I ought to be writing. It was only until a friend of mine gave me some good advice in personal correspondence that I have been able arrive at any sort of conclusion. In discussing the issue, my friend wrote, “I would say that you should write as a discipline for yourself. If others want to participate in that, awesome, but the goal should be developing to skill of creatively communicating what truths the Lord has revealed. That is, as you know, the task of a theologian.”

This is what I want to be the heart behind my writing. I want it to be an act of discipleship and obedience to my covenant Lord; another area in which to grow in humility and grace; a means by which I can continue to grow in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and share it with others according to the gifts and abilities God has given me; another area of my life in which I can strive to glorify God and enjoy him even now in this life.

This is my hope and my prayer.