Five Reflections on #T4G 2014

t4gWith thousands of others from across the country, and indeed, world, this last week I had the privilege of attending the 2013 Together for the Gospel conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Far too much happened for me to adequately give an account for it all. Still, I had a few brief reflections on my experience I figured were worth sharing:

  1. Hospitality and Generosity - I only made it to T4G because of the generosity of others. I couldn’t have afforded it myself. From my friends on twitter lobbying to get me to the conference, to my gracious benefactor providing the ticket, my parents helping with airfare, and good friends giving me lodging, every single bit of this trip was due to the gracious giving of others. Along that same line, I was deeply struck by the hospitality of friends, in particular that of my hosts, the Clarks. Richard (my editor at Christ and Pop Culture) and his wonderful wife Jen put me up–and put up with me–for the whole of the conference, providing me with lodging, rides, and the warmth of their care. All of this without us ever having met in real life! I told them a number of times, either I have really low standards of hospitality, or they are champs at it. The entire experience left me with a deep, concrete picture of our generous, hospitable God who gives abundantly and makes undeserving sinners welcome in his home.
  2. New York Calvinists – I find I tend to live a parochial existence in my head. As much as I might affirm the existence of a global church where every tribe, tongue, and nation will one day (and even now) worships King Jesus, I don’t think I have a thick, lived sense of it most of the time. This is why it was such a delight to have the opportunity to meet, if only briefly, brothers and sisters serving, preaching, and teaching the same gospel all around the nation. I think of one brother I talked with briefly, serving young adults in a difficult area of Baltimore. Or again, of the pastors from Albany I ran into, talking in thick New York accents in the airport terminal about the love and wrath displayed in the cross. Or finally, my brother Johnny from New Jersey, serving youth in Detroit, who prayed with me for my college students as I was away from them on Thursday. God-centered ministry is happening in sorts of places that it never occurs for us to think of as centers of gospel-work.
  3. Hey, I Follow You on Twitter – Following off that point, I met a bunch of people I follow on Twitter (and occasionally, those who follow me.) I think I noted this last year after the TGC conference, but it’s lovely to find out that the people you see tweeting and blogging all of this encouraging material actually believe it and are living it out. Beyond that, fellowshipping in the flesh with them made me realize both the blessings and the limitations of technology. I love that I know, laugh with, and am stirred up to service by so many that I know only through social media. That said, being in the same place, able to shake hands, embrace, and grasp hands in prayer made me keenly aware of the blessing of physical presence. As I think of the new friends I’ve made, and older friendships deepened, I begin to feel the weight of Paul’s longing to commune and worship with his brothers and sisters he can only write to and pray for in a new way.
  4. Evangelism is Awkward – So, the conference topic was evangelism and I have to say it was convicting and encouraging. I got on the plane Friday morning looking for new ways to engage my fellow passengers, or fellow travelers in the airport with the gospel, and you know what? I didn’t really get to. I mean, I’d strike up conversations, keen to look for opportunities to mention the gospel, and try as I might, I hit wall after wall. I don’t know if it was that I wasn’t bold enough, prayerful enough, or these were particularly difficult crowds (I mean, once people find out you’re a pastor, things either open up or shut down fast), but it just didn’t go anywhere. Why do I share this? Shouldn’t I wait until I have a nice little story with a bow on it about converting the atheist or the Muslim in the seat next to me? Maybe, but we need to be prepared to hit some difficulties along the road when it comes to sharing the gospel. It’s easy to get discouraged by one or two failed encounters and stop trying to find ways of sharing the news of Jesus. It’s also simple to fall into the trap of thinking this sort of thing just happens naturally and easily for pastors. It doesn’t. We have to work on it too. But remember that God is at work even in our “failed” attempts, working in our own hearts and lives, preparing us for greater service in his kingdom. God is a father who is pleased even with our stumbling efforts in his name.
  5. We Don’t Really Want What We Pray For – Finally, I’m once again reminded of God’s sense of humor. I rarely miss a college group, or am missing for it, so I tend to get a bit anxious the few times I have been away. This week was no different. Though I had my very trustworthy and capable buddy covering for me, great volunteers, and a pretty normal week, I was still kind of worried. That night, though, I prayed with a friend that God would show me that he could glorify himself in the group without me—that he remind me of my essential unnecessariness (not sure that’s a word) in his works. Well, about an hour later I call and check with my wife who tells me the group packed, there are new people, things are bumping, and my first reaction is to think, “Oh great, the one week I’m not there to run things…” Then the thought struck me, “Isn’t this what you prayed for? For things to go smoothly without you? For God to show you he’s perfectly capable of handling things without you there?” And that’s when I was reminded of the reality that so often I don’t actually want the sanctification I pray for. I pray for patience and resent the situations that build it. I pray for compassion and try to harden my heart to opportunities to demonstrate it. Thank God that in his faithfulness, he answers according to our actual needs, not our whims.

As always, there’s more to say, but I’ll cap it there. All in all, the conference was another good gift from God’s hands whose blessings I can’t begin to number.

Soli Deo Gloria

Arguing Against the Argument Culture (Christianity Today Interview)

Tim Muehlhoff

Blood pumping. Temperature rising. Voices thundering. Anger and confusion. Do all of our conversations about difficult topics—politics, family, finances—need to be this way? Tim Muehlhoff, a marriage expert and professor of communication studies at Biola University, doesn’t think so. In I Beg to Differ: Navigating Difficult Conversations with Truth and Love (InterVarsity Press), Muehlhoff charts a path for navigating difficult conversations with grace and truth. Derek Rishmawy, a minister to students and young adults in California, spoke with Muehlhoff about combining modern insights from communication theory with timeless biblical truth.

What makes the subject of communication methods so urgent?

As a culture, we’re losing the ability to talk about the deepest things in a tolerant and civil way. That’s bleeding down into our personal relationships. Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen calls it the “argument culture.” You see it in American politics any time we try to talk about same-sex marriage, immigration, or other hot-button issues.

We have to find productive ways to communicate with family members, coworkers, and children, whether it’s sharing our faith or talking about the kid’s schedule that’s gotten out of control. This book takes modern research on communication and develops a practical strategy for entering tough conversations in a productive way.

Please go read the interview over at Christianity Today, or catch it in this month’s print edition. Also, please pick up this book. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Soli Deo Gloria 

Akot Beatrice: A Portrait of Empowerment

I have a friend named Sean Galaway. He’s fabulous. One of the reasons he’s fabulous is because he works for a great non-profit named Krochet Kids. Here’s a little picture of what they do:

I love the model. There are a lot of great charity organizations out there, or even enterprises that harness the power of the market for the common good. But the focus that I so love about Krochet Kids is the holistic approach to empowering the women in the programs, beyond just the first job they get with organization. There are education programs, banking options, mentors, and a host of other facets to their multi-layered approach to community uplift.

beatriceNow, I normally don’t do this sort of thing, but, I’d like to ask you to consider joining in their work in one of three ways:

You can buy – This one is maybe the simplest. Krochet Kids makes and sells clothes for men and women, bags, hip baby attire, and other such things. These things are good quality. They look good. You can wear them and also look good. This is an easy win. You can shop for stuff here.

You can donate – If you’re not sure you can pull off a beanie or a knit bow-tie, they will allow you to simply give them money, without them sending you clothes. That’s also a good option. You can do that here.

You can pray – Please pray for the work. It’s that simple. J.C. Ryle says that prayer “moves him who can move heaven and earth.” Ask God to bless the efforts of the Krochet Kids team, the women working in Uganda and Peru, and the communities being transformed by the work.

If you want to know more, you can read about their story here, and their model here.  Also, transparent as they are, they’ve posted their financials here.

Soli Deo Gloria

If God is a Blackguard, then He Isn’t

C.S. LewisTucked away in this fabulous little essay by C.S. Lewis on the problem of the “futility” or pointlessness of the universe, is the crux of one of his more famous arguments against the problem of evil:

But there is a real difficulty about accusing it of anything. An accusation always implies a standard. You call a man a bad golf player because you know what a bogey is. You call a boy’s answer to a sum wrong because you know the right answer. You call a man cruel or idle because you have in mind a standard of kindness or diligence. And while you are making the accusation you have to accept the standard as a valid one. If you begin to doubt the standard you automatically doubt the cogency of your accusation. If you are skeptical about grammar you must be equally skeptical about your condemnation of bad grammar. If nothing is certainly right, then of course it follows that nothing is certainly wrong. And that is the snag about what I call Heroic Pessimism–I mean the kind of Pessimism you get in Swinburne, Hardy and Shelley’s Prometheus and which is magnificently summed up in Housman’s line ‘Whatever brute and blackguard made the world’. Do not imagine I lack sympathy with that kind of poetry: on the contrary, at one time of my life I tried very hard to writ–as far as quantity goes, I succeeded. I produced reams of it. But there is a catch. If a Brute and a Blackguard made the world, he also made that very standard in them whereby we judge him to be a Brute and Blackguard. And how can we trust a standard that comes from such a brutal and blackguardly source? If we reject him, we ought also reject all his works. But one of his works is this very moral standard by which we reject him. If we accept this standard then we are really implying that he is not a Brute and Blackguard. If we reject it, then we have thrown away the only instrument by which we can condemn him. Heroic anti-theism thus has a contradiction in its centre. You must trust the universe in one respect even in order to condemn it in every other.

De Futilitate, in Christian Reflections, pp. 65-67

So, if you want to accuse God of being a Brute and a Blackguard, if you think your complaints are just and true, and not simply your own preferences about things, then he isn’t a Brute and Blackguard.

Soli Deo Gloria


Are We All Just Fred Phelps Fundamentalists? (CaPC)

phelpsWhat is Fred Phelps’ one virtue? Honesty, according to Matthew Paul Turner writing for The Daily Beast: 

Since my first introduction to Phelps and his God-ordained hate, we’ve witnessed the lengths he was willing to go to spread his version of the gospel, a message that always focused on God’s disgust for humanity and his soon-arriving damnation…But therein might lie the one, dare I say, redeeming quality of Phelps: that he was always upfront about his beliefs, intentionally wearing his fundamentalism proudly—like a badge of honor—and without a filter.

According to Turner, though Phelps is dead, his “fundamentalist” God lives on. Turner knew if first-hand in an only-so-restrained form in the churches of his youth, and now he detects it hidden in a milder, sound-bite friendly form in the teachings of others:

Is Christian fundamentalism dead in America? I don’t think so. Among this country’s wide and varied Christianities, fundamentalism is very much alive; it’s just harder to recognize. Rather than being fanatical, loud, and obnoxious, today’s fundamentalism masquerades under wide smiles, hipster garb, flowery poetic language, and synth-pop beats…

And here’s where we run up with the problem: Turner’s use of the word “fundamentalist.” Whenever I see the term used in common parlance, especially in media outlets like The Daily Beast, I’m always wary due to the fact that there seems to be some slippage in terminology.

You can go read me disentangle the meaning of ‘Fundamentalism’, find out who counts, and why this matters over at Christ and Pop Culture.

And, P.S.  For what it’s worth Matt, I still like you!


Hey, So I’m Going on The Radio Today–in Pittsburgh

word fmI wrote a little post on the problem of evil yesterday that gathered some attention. John Hall and Cathy Emmons from 101.5 Word-FM in Pittsburgh have graciously asked me to take part in a little phone interview on the radio with them on that subject this afternoon. I’ll be chatting with them at 4:40 pm Eastern and 1:40 pm Pacific time. You can tune in to listen live online at their website HERE.

It sounds like a lot of fun and I’m excited, but I’d love it if you’d take a minute to pray for me today as well. Thanks reading (and maybe listening).

Soli Deo Gloria

Everyone’s Worth a Shekel (Or, the Ground Is Level At the Foot of the Cross)

shekelThere were a few different taxes in Ancient Israel, but one of the most fascinating was that of the Temple Tax:

Then the Lord said to Moses, “When you take a census of the Israelites to count them, each one must pay the Lord a ransom for his life at the time he is counted. Then no plague will come on them when you number them. Each one who crosses over to those already counted is to give a half shekel, according to the sanctuary shekel, which weighs twenty gerahs. This half shekel is an offering to the Lord. All who cross over, those twenty years old or more,are to give an offering to the Lord. The rich are not to give more than a half shekel and the poor are not to give less when you make the offering to the Lord to atone for your lives. Receive the atonement money from the Israelites and use it for the service of the tent of meeting. It will be a memorial for the Israelites before the Lord, making atonement for your lives.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

At first, this might strike us as an unfair regressive tax.  A half-shekel might be a pittance to a wealthy man, while to the poor tenant farmer, this is a great financial sacrifice. All throughout the Old Testament, though, there seems to be an acknowledgment of the different responsibilities that greater or lesser wealth places on those who possess it. Yet here we are faced with a straight, flat tax. Is this a callous requirement neglecting the poor by placing a disproportionate burden on them? Did Yahweh forget the poor here?

In his commentary on Exodus, John Durham suggest something else is going on here:

The sum thus fixed was not by any standard a large amount, but the instruction that rich and poor alike were to give precisely this payment is an important indication of the equality with which all men were received in Yahweh’s Presence. They were all to give equally because they were all to be received and remembered equally; the money was to be used for the expense of the Tent where Yahweh by appointment came to meet them. (Comment on 30:16-17)

Similarly, Craig L. Blomberg says,

The flat rate ensured that even the poorest, who might not be required to give nearly so much via the various tithes, would have to give sacrificially at least here. –Neither Poverty, Nor Riches: A Biblical Theology of Possessions, pg. 47

The equality of tithe speaks to the equality of persons before God. All stand equally condemned before a holy God in need of atonement, and all are equally welcomed into his reconciling presence in the Temple. None can claim greater rights to God’s peace and covenantal blessing, through payment, or inherent extra worth. None ought feel unworthy to come to him in prayer simply because of a lower financial stature. The tenant-farmer’s life is to be redeemed at the same cost as the mighty land-owner’s.

In other words, everybody’s worth a shekel in God’s eyes, which, I suppose, is an Old Testament way of saying “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”

Soli Deo Gloria

If Your God is An Object , Then People Become Objects

petersonI was chatting with a friend last night online about the link between the prophets condemnation of idolatry and their abhorrence of social injustice. In the course of things I said to him, “If you think about it, idolatry is a failure to do justice to the beauty of God. From there, it bleeds out into a failure to do justice to the beauty of God’s Image-bearers.” The two phenomena are inseparable–eventually one leads to the other.

Reflecting on Elijah’s condemnation of Jezebel’s treachery against Naboth in pursuit of his property, Eugene Peterson puts some biblical heft to that principle:

When you have a god that is a thing, a god that you can use, an object, neighbors also become things, something to use, objects. With an impersonal god, you end up with an impersonal neighbor. Jezebel certainly did.

The champions of Baal, priests and queen alike, did not have an easy time of it with Elijah. On Mount Carmel Elijah championed Yahweh, the name of God; in the Valley Jezreel Elijah championed Naboth, the name of the neighbor. Elijah was as much a prophet in the valley as he was on the mountain. Elijah lived his life on the margins–marginal to the popular religion of the day, marginal to the power politics of the day. Because he lived on the margins he was unimpressed by what went on in the center: the impressive worship experience put on by the 450 priests of Baal on the mountain, the impressive demonstration of hubristic contempt of a neighbor by the patroness of Baal in the Valley. As it turned out, it was from the margins that Elijah re-centered the life of Israel both in worship of their God, Yahweh, and in respect for their neighbors.

-The Jesus Way, pg. 121

May we be a people who are unimpressed by the worship of the gods of this age–money, sex, power–and therefore impressed with the sacredness of our neighbors. When Money is not god, we will not make our neighbors commodities to be bandied about in of the pursuit of wealth. When Sexual Fulfillment is not god, we will not treat our neighbors as mere bodies to be used and consumed in of our pursuit of pleasure. When Power is not god, we will not treat our neighbors as pawns to be manipulated in our pursuit of power.

When the LORD is God, we will love our neighbor in our pursuit of giving glory to their Maker, in whose sacred Image they are formed.

Soli Deo Gloria

Don’t Be a Sneering Calvinist (TGC)

sneering calvinismI’m fairly new to the Reformed tradition and still piecing it all together, especially when it comes to the thorny issues of election and sovereignty. In a sense, I’m a reluctant Calvinist; I still prefer words like “Reformedish” to describe myself, yes, because of my identification with the broader tradition, but also because of how slowly I’ve been drawn in. That being the case, I still remember what it’s like to find Calvinism and Calvinists thoroughly off-putting.

There were different reasons for this wariness.

Okay, for the rest of the article, I give my reasons and tell Calvinists not to be terrible. You can read it at The Gospel Coalition.