Love Does Indeed

I am presently at a conference called THRIVE in Northern California, hosted by Bayside Church. Yesterday Bob Goff of Love Does fame spoke. Here is his deal if you don’t know. He is one of the most inspiring people you could ever meet. I had the privilege of hanging out with him a couple of years ago until all hours of the night with a few other people, and the things God has used him for that he explored with us are insane. And his whole message is that that can, and should be, all of us. We should impact the world around us through love. Acts of love that make the world around you better, and more felt by God’s love and grace. My church is actually partnering with Bob’s organization this year at our annual golf tournament to build a hospital that will serve over 7000 women and kids in Mosul, Iraq who have been displaced by ISIS.

What a great opportunity to love.

Early Church Love

Historian and sociologist Rodney Stark points out the anomaly of Christian charity in the early years of the church’s existence. More than any other group Christians served the poor and sick with little to no regard for their own lives. They reacted very differently to widespread suffering and pain than those who adhered to the established polytheistic religions of the time. The Roman Emperor Julian said, “The impious Galileans [Christians] support not only their poor, but ours as well, everyone can see that our people lack aid from us” (approx. 360 A.D). Dionysus, the Bishop of Alexandria, confirms this report saying:

[During the great epidemic] most of our brother Christians showed unbounded love and loyalty, never sparing themselves…Heedless of danger, they took charge of the sick, attending to their every need and ministering to them in Christ…Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead… The [pagans] behaved in the opposite way. At the first onset of disease, they pushed the sufferers away and fled even from their dearest, throwing them into the roads before they were dead” (260 A.D.).

The difference in what these people did was in what they believed. In Christianity God is not a distant, uncaring God who offers higher levels of enlightenment or religious principles for life, but a God who became one of us, suffered in our midst, calls us to love and actually rose from the dead and offers everlasting life to all those who trust in him.

The early church really believed that Jesus rose and thus they didn’t need to fear death either. And that freed them up to love in a way that didn’t have boundaries. Because even if they gave away all their money in an effort to love, they had eternal security and homes and rewards that transcended this world (Matthew 5-7, read these chapters for yourself!). Even if they contracted a disease, they were going to a place with no more sickness or tears or death (Revelation 21-22, and these!).

Willie Robertson from Duck Dynasty spoke yesterday as well. He shared a story that on the runway on his way to the conference, the plane had to go back to the terminal three times for problems, and as they waited he listened to the stewardess’ talk. One had bills she was trying to pay because she was a med student and was talking to the other about the stress she was going through because of it. So as he left the plane once they landed he took all the cash out of his pocket (which would likely be more than you and I carry!), and gave it to her with a note that said “God bless you.” He said he never did this kind of stuff until he met Bob Goff, and read his book.

Random acts of love, but life changing, even for a few days, or months, for another person who may or may not know the God behind such acts, such power.

The truth is: the gospel doesn’t just free us up to believe the right things, or have some kind of private spirituality, it frees us up to love. It frees us up to do what God did: give stuff up to bless others.

And in those acts, change the world.

Are All Religions True?

One of the things modern people often say about different religions is that ‘they are all basically the same’: they teach about being a good person, about a higher being of some sort, but all lead to the same place – just different paths to the same thing. While this position sounds good, we must understand that it turns out to not even be close to true, and that’s important because we should be seeking out not what is easy to live with as human beings but what is ultimately true, and lines up with reality.

University of California, Berkley, professor Huston Smith explains, “As soon as the notion of sameness, between the religions, moves beyond vague generalities, that every religion has some version of the Golden Rule, it falls apart on the fact that the religions differ in what they consider essential and nonnegotiable.”[1] Smith is saying that when we dig into any religion we will find contradictory ideas when compared to other religions. This is true about a number of foundational beliefs around which religions are shaped. Here are a couple of examples:

1 – God

Religions differ on their views of who or what God is. Christianity says God is one God in three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit), eternally one but eternally distinct. An eternal community, which is why there was love and humility and servanthood, before there was a universe, or people. This is by definition how John can say things like “God is love” (1 John 4:8). You can’t have love without community of some sort, which this view of God allows for. This description of God is known as ‘Trinitarianism’.

Islam and Judaism on the other hand have a Unitarian view of God, wherein there is a strict oneness to God that does not consist of this plurality, or trinity, at all. In fact, both religions see this concept as a heresy. In contrast to Islam and Judaism, Buddhism and atheism says there is no God, while Hinduism says there are hundreds of millions of gods. Which religion is right? Modern western culture says ‘they all are’ and ‘they all teach the same thing’. Clearly we are ignoring the facts, and being irrational, which is the one thing an informed skeptic does not want to be.

 2 – Jesus

Consider also the question of Jesus Christ himself. Christianity says it’s essential that Jesus died to pay the sacrifice for sin, taking on the wrath of God and then rose again from the dead. If these things did not happen, belief in Christianity is “vain”, and useless, and Christians are “still in our sins,” and the most “pitied among men” (1 Cor. 15:13-18). Their view of God, and salvation, is not just different, it is wrong. Islam is vastly different than Christianity in that it says that Jesus didn’t die on the cross at all, and thus, that he did not rise from the dead either.

The reality is: Jesus died or he didn’t die. Islam and Christianity can’t both be true at the same time. There are massive implications on every level of life and civilization to the claims of these faiths and it’s the height of laziness to claim them both somehow true at the same time, even if it is in the name of civility. Someone once said, ‘the road to hell is paved with good intentions’ and it is nowhere more clear than in this postmodern effort.

Pluralism in India

When I was in India, we were sitting at the top of a mountain. The team I was leading, and I, were praying together and talking around the campfire and off to the side there was a Hindu man worshipping and praying to Shiva and Vishnu and what he called “the monkey god.” He came and joined us by the fire and told us all about his beliefs and then we told him about Jesus. None of us around the fire that night said, “Hey, both versions of reality are true and reliable at the same time.” That would have been a mockery to our beliefs and to his.

The reality is that our options are that one view is right, or at least more right than the others, or that all religious views that have been developed so far in civilization are possibly wrong, but not that they are all right. That is not only the most irrational position but the laziest.

Steve Turner wrote a poem about the absurdity of this postmodern approach to life:

We believe that all religions are basically the same. They all believe in love and goodness. They only differ on matters of creation, sin, heaven, hell, God, and salvation. We believe that each man must find the truth that is right for him. Reality will adapt accordingly. The universe will readjust. History will alter. We believe that there is no absolute truth except the truth that there is no absolute truth.[2]

Turner’s tongue is firmly planted in cheek as he satirizes the modern approach to truth.

And it should be.

How You Can Change in 2017

This is long post. I like to write four or five paragraph blog posts because I know our attention spans are short, but I also wanted all of this info in one spot. So here is a post that I think will be helpful for the New Year! 

The best book I read this year was James K.A. Smith’s You Are What You LoveThe basic idea of the book is to present the Augustinian model of how we function as human beings versus modern presentations, most importantly the fact that we, even in the church, are pitched a version of ourselves that we are primarily thinking creatures (the power of the mind and all that) and that therefore discipleship and transformation in our lives is primarily about changing and influencing our thinking. Thus, the solution to all of our problems are focused on things of the mind: reading the Bible more, sermons that transfer right information, etc., This seems plausible enough, and in some senses is true. Discipleship is a lot about the mind (Rom. 12:1-3). The very term disciple (mathetes) is derived from the idea of being a learner. But, Smith argues, we learn in far deeper and more profound ways than just our thinking. We make decisions and live life out of other, deeper level, ‘under the hood’ convictions. Some call it our “gut”, others our “heart,” others our “affections”. The Bible talks of Jesus feeling “compassion” for people, and it uses the word splagchnon, literally a feeling that comes from his bowels (Mat. 14:14).

Whatever one calls these feelings and compulsions they are arguably more powerful and more influential on our actions than just our conscious thoughts. So Smith says “we could say that human beings are fundamentally erotic creatures” (You are What You Love, p. 9). Not in the sense of eroticism, but that we are heavily controlled by our desires. We are controlled and driven by pleasure – by what makes us happy, not by what is most rational, or right, in any given moment. And to ignore this fact is tragic if you are looking to change or get better in any way, whether that is simply making new years resolutions (to lose weight, or be more disciplined in your devotions) or the bigger call in life for the Christian: to become more like Christ, to kill sin, and grow in godliness. It means we must go beyond our thinking and start to work that deeper part of ourselves.

Thoughts Aren’t Enough 

The bottom line, Smith says, is that “you can’t just think your way” to right living. A way of life is not arrived at by convincing the intellect alone, but by allure – our wants, and desires. Not just data, whether true or false. In fact, pleasure is likely more influential on our lives than just information. Which is why the culture around us sells us maps of ‘the good life’ that aren’t primarily information based, but appeal to us aesthetically; romantically, not rationally. Think of the car commercials, or the ads for Apple products. It’s not about data and information but about a look, a colour scheme, a feeling. Art, not science. They appeal to our imagination not our intellect.

(ASIDES: First, it is of course not even clear which, the ‘head’ or the ‘heart,’ influences the other first because, as science is now showing us, our brains are influenced by everything else going on in our bodies including our stomachs! Secondly, a point which Smith doesn’t draw attention to but which I think is important to talk about: I think the terms ‘head’ and ‘heart’ and the distinctions of brain versus ‘soul, or gut’, or even ‘intellect’ versus ‘imagination’ are somewhat flawed because we know there is not something called the ‘heart’ aside from the brain. We don’t actually have a ‘soul’ somewhere inside of our rib cage. It is all about our brain. Even our affections, and desires, are brain-oriented things. The point still stands, however, that there is a part of ourselves that is more information/data/intellect driven and a part of ourselves that is more affections/desires/wants driven, both which likely reside in our brain. Once we understand that then we can still talk about those parts of ourselves as ‘heart’ and ‘head’ if we like).

Our Longings are Learned

The next point Smith makes is that our loves, longings, and desires are learned. But how? We often say, through our thinking, and so we need more right information – theological or otherwise, and what we have failed to recognize, Ok, maybe you already knew this, so what I have failed to recognize, is that we learn to love “not primarily by acquiring information about what we should love.” Well then how do we learn to love something? What shapes our desires? I tend to emphasize right thinking, almost exclusively, or at least first, but Smith says, no, it’s not right thinking but right habits, “rituals that form and direct our affections.” These habits, Smith calls “pedagogies of desire”. So, we can’t counter the power of the cultural story over us, he says,

“with didactic information poured into our intellects. We can’t recalibrate the heart from the top down, through merely informational measures. The orientation of the heart happens from the bottom up, through the formation of our habits of desire” (p. 25).

So how do we get new habits? Again, we can’t think our way to them, he says, we must habit our way to them! You can’t just think your way to a better golf swing, or to losing weight, or to new tastes. These take certain habits. They are learned. That’s why golf teachers talk about ‘muscle memory’. Muscles that swing and do a certain shape over and over again until a person does it without thinking about it. And over time the habit produces a result which then produces a desire. Like someone starting to run. At the beginning running at 5:00 AM is not fun, but over time, the practice forms a habit from a desired result (literally an addiction to the feeling that the release of certain drugs in the brain gives to the runner). So,

A PRACTICE -> A HABIT -> A WANT

So, Smith says, our discipleship of Jesus is more like a Weight Watchers program, meant to retrain our hunger, than listening to a book on tape (which is what many preachers have made the mistake in thinking it is). If godliness is the end goal, which is all about God not changing what I do but what I want to do than habits are a key part of the way to get there! Our habits end up informing what we want to do.

Who knew?!

And that is how you are going to change this year.

The Bible, raising kids, and temptation

All of this has a thousand applications.

+ You want to start reading your Bible but just can’t get into it. Don’t try to get into it! You aren’t. Just read it. Make it a practice (everyday for 30 days say), and then that will give way to a habit, and over time the habit will create neural pathways forming the desire for more of it.

+ Raising our kids: we not only have to shape our children’s thinking by reading them the Bible at night, or by teaching them the Bible stories, and right doctrine. If we want them to love and follow Jesus, we need to also build into them certain practices, which will then create habits that will shape and create desires in them for more of God.

+ Having victory over sin: Temptation is not just a mental battle. “Because we tend to be intellectuals [we] assume…temptation is an intellectual reality, where some idea is presented to us that we then think about and make a conscious choice to pursue (or not). But once you realize that we are creatures of habit you’ll realize temptation isn’t just about bad ideas or wrong decisions; it’s often a factor of de-formation and wrongly ordered habits” (p. 54).

In other words overcoming temptation requires more than just knowledge, but rehabituation, a re-formation of our loves. How? By new habits that will form and inform that love.

So, how can you change this year? How can you become more like Jesus, or have a better marriage, or lose weight? Start from the bottom, not the top. Train the gut, not the head. Admit you don’t presently feel a particular way about someone or something, that’s ok, start by acting toward them the way you want to feel, and over time it will start to take shape.

Instead of starting by trying to force yourself to want something by thinking about it, reading about it, forcing your brain to want it, change your habits first, into one’s that will over time cause the change you want to want but don’t yet want.

I think that last sentence makes sense, and is the key to the whole thing.

I am excited about the new year, and how my life may change by new habits and rhythms of life that will in turn create in me desires that I have been trying to force myself to just have by sheer will for years.

Dummy.

Overcoming the Monster: What Story Are You Telling?

In Christopher Booker’s book The Seven Basic Plots, he outlines the fact that every story we tell ourselves as human beings – since the beginning of time, whether around the campfire or in a big budget superhero movie – all fit into seven basic categories:

1 – Overcoming the Monster – The protagonist sets out to defeat an antagonistic force (often evil) which threatens the protagonist and/or protagonist’s homeland. (Beowulf, Nightmare on Elm Street, Star Wars, Jaws, The Dark Knight, James Bond, Jurassic Park)

2 – Rags to Riches – The poor protagonist acquires things such as power, wealth, and a mate, before losing it all and gaining it back upon growing as a person. (Cinderella, Aladdin, Pretty Woman)

3 – The Quest – The protagonist and some companions set out to acquire an important object or to get to a location, facing many obstacles and temptations along the way. (Iliad, Indiana Jones)

4 – Voyage and Return – The protagonist goes to a strange land and, after overcoming the threats it poses to him or her, returns with experience. (The Lord of the Rings, Odyssey, The Wizard of Oz, Interstellar)

5 – Comedy – Light and humorous character with a happy or cheerful ending; a dramatic work in which the central motif is the triumph over adverse circumstance, resulting in a successful or happy conclusion. (Much Ado About Nothing, Mr. Bean, Dumb and Dumber)

6 – Tragedy – The protagonist is a hero with one major character flaw or great mistake which is ultimately their undoing. (Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Breaking Bad)

7 – Rebirth – During the course of the story, an important event forces the main character to change their ways, often making them a better person. (Beauty and the Beast, A Christmas Carol, Despicable Me).

This observation – that we find these same basic story structures all over the world, and throughout time, is fascinating in and of itself – but the thing I was pondering recently, especially since we just came through eight straight parables Jesus taught in Matthew 13 at our church, was the power of stories and their place in our lives, and more specifically, how we can leverage that to influence others in every area of life from ministry, to business, to even raising our own kids.

Trump vs. Hillary 

Let me use an illustration from American politics. It surprised everyone that Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the end. The media, the politicians, and the institutions were all surprised, and of course there are complex reasons why he did beyond my understanding, but I think one reason he won is because he told a better story than she did (whether that story is true or mean-spirited, etc., is again, not the point). Whatever one thinks of the content of the story he told, they must admit it was a clear, large, simple, and compelling. It was about bad guys and good guys and an old America which was perfect and wonderful, and simple solutions to get America back there again (a combination of “Overcoming the Monster” and “Voyage and Return”). And it was a story that invited people into it.

The power of story is its ability to influence and capture the imagination of millions of people, and to influence them in one direction or another. Not to equate the one with the other : ), but this is the same reason Jesus brought his message of salvation and the kingdom in the form of stories and not just prose. Stories inspire, re-frame the world, turn facts into meaning, answer our biggest questions, and in so doing, change our very behaviour. It’s why we shouldn’t just answer our kids questions with straightforward answers, but tell them stories about why the answers are what they are. Frame their lives in the context of the larger narrative of the world to help them find their place in it.

What story are you telling?

What churches, ministers, charities, and businesses need to ask when thinking about how they get their message out most effectively is “What story am I telling?” “Is it compelling, big, inspiring, and inviting enough?” “Is it clear, or convoluted and complicated?” “Is it boring or exciting?” “Am I presenting just facts, or something more – a mythology?”

I am watching the Netflix show The Crown right now. Elizabeth’s coronation as Queen is one of the most moving scenes of the whole show, and while the guests are watching it on TV, there comes a part in the ceremony when they put a barricade around the Queen so the audience can’t see and a group watching the TV ask why they blocked the cameras, and the answer one of the characters gives is telling:

“Symbol upon symbol,” he says. “An unfathomable web of arcane mystery and liturgy, blurring so many lines no clergyman or historian or lawyer could ever untangle any of it.” “It’s crazy,” one of his guests remarks.

“On the contrary, it’s perfectly sane,” he replies. “Who wants transparency when you can have magic? Who wants prose, when you can have poetry? Pull away the veil and what are you left with? An ordinary young woman of modest ability and little imagination. Wrap her up like this and anoint her with oil and hey, presto — what do you have? A goddess.”

The sub-story

As a Pastor and church leader I have the greatest story of all time to tell on a weekly basis: the story of the gospel of Jesus, and how it in many ways is the combination of all of the seven basic plots (think for instance how the story of Jesus is all about “Overcoming the Monster” of Satan, sin and death, how it is “Voyage and Return,” of Jesus from Heaven to earth, and a “Rags to Riches” story as well, with Jesus as a poor baby who is vindicated in the end). The question for a church leader then, as an example, becomes the sub-story that you invite your city, community, church, or guy in the coffeeshop into as a local expression of that larger story of the gospel.

What local monster can you overcome? What global ones can you kill together? When we do our annual Golf Tournament, this is what we do. The Monster of slavery and sex trafficking needs to be defeated and we are invited in to overcome it. What great Quest and adventure are we all on as disciples of Jesus to “get to the location” of heaven in the end, “facing many obstacles and temptations along the way”?

When my wife Erin and I lead Marriage Conferences we often end, not by cute stories and how-to’s of ‘communicating better’ and ‘having a better sex life,’ but by explaining that the most important thing for their marriage is to be swept up into the mission God has for their lives as a married couple: to together push back the evil in the world, to love and bless the poor, and to fight sin and Satan in the lives of their friends and families, and in their own hearts, and that if they are busy in the trenches doing that they won’t have time to turn the guns on each other. Usually at the end of this rallying cry people cheer and amen and clap. And when I ask them why they usually say they’ve never thought of their marriage in this context of the global spiritual war around them and their place within it before and it helps to frame their problems (usually making them look small and insignificant) and give them something to work toward together.

So, if you own a business, or lead a church, or even just a family – what story are you telling to frame your lives, your product, or your mission? Is it big enough? Clear enough? Compelling enough? And does it invite people in? If not, work hard at figuring out a way to do so. Why? Because, as Elias Canetti once pointed out, in his Nobel Prize winning book, The Voices of Marrakesh:

“The largest crowds are drawn by the storytellers. It is around them that the people throng most densely and stay longest…their words come from further off and hang longer in the air than those of ordinary people.”

Indeed.

And as a Pastor I admit, I want people to linger. I want people to stay longest, to hear the greatest story ever told and one that can change their lives now and forever. A story about a God who loves them, and died to save them. Who overcame the monster for them, so they never have to. Who turned a Tragedy into a story of Rebirth – and who now invites everyone to experience the joy of that accomplishment.

Q & A Monday: Why do we lose our faith because of suffering?

“I’m having a very hard time. There is this pain I’m struggling with regarding how logical my brain is and the pain I see around me… It literally keeps me up at night struggling to hold onto my own faith.”

-Ian

Preamble

Thanks for the honest question Ian. These are some of the deepest waters we wade into as human beings, and I must admit it is my biggest struggle as a Christian most days, so I get it. The first thing I’d like to say is that I won’t attempt a detailed response here to the larger question of ‘suffering and evil’ itself, though I am of course tempted because I want to help as much as I can, but that would be a very long response (for example, I just submitted a 35+ page chapter on this question in a recent manuscript for a book to be published in Fall 2017).

Secondly, I do think Christianity offers not detailed answers to every suffering event we go through in life, but it does offer the best answers, and the best hope, among the marketplace of idea, including atheism (which is what we are tempted to slip into during times of trial). Christianity offers the God who brings comfort in the midst of suffering, it says God came and suffered himself, God himself wept, God himself was scared, God himself was beaten and killed. God himself didn’t always get to walk on the water, but actually drown like the rest of us, and won’t always protect us from drowning, but offers us life on the other side of it. He died, but he rose again – and now lives in a state of glory that all the suffering in the world can’t compare to if we trust him and hold on to him as we live and as we die (Rom. 8:18).

All of that comfort and peace are where the true answers to your question lies. But for now I would rather hone in on just one idea which you are asking about, namely, your logic on this issue. So, in a sense, this is not an answer to the problem of suffering as a whole, but is a first step toward a fuller answer to what you have focused in on here: the inability for your logic to comprehend the suffering if a loving God really exists. And I think that point by itself is extremely important.

A Unique Doubt

The Bible is very honest with the question you are asking. One of the earliest stories the Bible records is the book of Job – an entire treatise on this topic, but, you will notice that it does not present the question of suffering as an objection to the existence of God. Which in and of itself is the point I want to make. That in a book that examines suffering and it’s relationship to us and God for forty-two chapters should not conclude that God doesn’t exist, but the opposite – that he is completely sovereign over everything that happens in the world – should cause us to pause and consider. Beyond that, the fact is that even though ancient people were arguably exposed to more suffering, grief, loss and evil than we are in the modern western world, and their writings are filled with laments and mournings of these experiences, they do not conclude that evil and suffering equals the absence of gods/God.

“There is virtually no ancient thinker who reasoned from such evil that, therefore there couldn’t be a God” (Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God, 37).

So, we must ask why we in our day make this jump.

Philosopher Charles Taylor connects our ‘logic,’ as you rightly call it, to our belief and confidence in the power of our own intellect as modern, post-Enlightenment people. He says that ancient people didn’t assume they could understand the exact ways of the complex universe as we do. They did not assume they had enough wisdom and knowledge to judge how an infinite God maintains every aspect of the working world and how it unfolds. It is only with the certainty and confidence of the modern person that we have developed such a doubt that connects evil/suffering with the possibility that God may not exist. But,”the reality is, it is assumed, not proven, that a God beyond our reason could not exist” (Ibid).

In this way, the problem of suffering is a unique kind of doubt to us as modern people.

Being Aware of Our Own Background Beliefs

This is an encouragement to simply be self-aware of our own pre-suppositions, and our own process of thinking about things, and to recognize that we are a product of our times and geography, and to be careful to not let those factors be the primary framework through which we experience the world and make decisions about the most important things. To slow down and say ‘Okay, how is my environment and even the time in which I was born, and the ideas I have come to adopt, influencing me right now in making me have these doubts versus these ones, etc.,’  How are your background beliefs (as a modern, Canadian person living in 2016) setting up your conscious reasoning to fail to be able to hold the idea of suffering and the idea of God together at the same time?

The answer lies in the fact that you are not abandoning faith altogether, but are simply trading one kind of faith for another – “a new kind of faith, one in the power of human reason and the ability to comprehend the depths of things,” and this new faith position is displacing the “older, more self-effacing kind of faith” (Ibid).

Conclusion

Like I said, this is not a detailed answer to the question of evil and suffering itself which I will post about in the future (and which you can watch some thoughts I have offered in the past if they are helpful here), but more of a clearing away the deck for future thinking, a preliminary step in the midst of the crisis, and one which I think is important for all of us to consider as we then take the next step to humbly come before the world and its evil and its pain and connect it to the question of God. A connection which is wholly natural, but when we conclude that the one means the other can’t exist we must tread carefully, and recognize that in that moment we may have simply slipped into a doubt/new faith position which is simply a product of modern thinking and experience – and not an objective view to build our life on at all.

Two Thoughts on Prayer

Quote

The other day I was pondering the deep difference between our public and private lives – loving God in public versus loving God just because he is God. A couple of major ideas hit me around the same time.

The first was from Charles Spurgeon. He pointed out that Jesus taught his disciples not to preach but to pray, and it hit me that Jesus did this not once, but multiple times (Luke 11; John 13). That our call in life is not to be good preachers, but good pray-ers. This stopped me in my tracks and made me want to work on my prayer life more and more. Let it inspire you too.

The second set of ideas on this same topic hit me from another source. Tim Keller in his book on Prayer, points out that the seventeenth-century English theologian John Owen wrote a warning to popular and successful ministers:

“A minister may fill his pews, his communion roll, the mouths of the public, but what that minister is on his knees in secret before God Almighty, that he is and no more.”

To discover the real you, look at what you spend time thinking about when no one is looking, when nothing is forcing you to think about anything in particular. At such moments, do your thoughts go toward God? You may want to be seen as a humble, unassuming person, but do you take the initiative to confess your sins before God? You wish to be perceived as a positive, cheerful person, but do you habitually thank God for everything you have and praise him for who he is? You may speak a great deal about what a “blessing” your faith is and how you “just really love the Lord,” but if you are prayerless—is that really true? If you aren’t joyful, humble, and faithful in private before God, then what you want to appear to be on the outside won’t match what you truly are.

Just prior to giving his disciples the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus offered some preliminary ideas, including this one: “When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. . . . But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen . . . in secret” (Matt 6:5–6).

The infallible test of spiritual integrity, Jesus says, is your private prayer life.

Why Church Leaders Need To Stop Hanging Out With Each Other

Quote

It is pure invention that popes, bishops, priests, and monks are to be called the ‘spiritual estate’; princes, lords, artisans and farmers the ‘temporal estate’. That is a fine bit of lying and hypocrisy.
-Martin Luther (1483-1546)

I love my friends who work in churches (pastors, directors, etc.,) but  I have come to realize that the friendships and relationships I have with those not in formal church ministry are far more important and for good reason. I will break down three reasons, and the reason I bother to note this at all is not to dis those of us who work in churches (God knows we need all the encouragement we can get as days can be dark), but because I want to encourage all of you who work hard at your normal, everyday, 9-5, shift work jobs who never get the air time you deserve. After all it is your work that supports and allows those in church gigs to have their jobs! This is for the teacher, the stay-at-home mom, and the dentist. I want you to know the crucial role you play in my life. The reasons I feel compelled to write this are mostly unknown to me except that I sense that: (1) There are some of you out there needing the encouragement right now, (2) The record has to be set straight: formal ‘ministry’ jobs (pastoring, etc.) are not necessarily the ‘toughest jobs in the world’, which is often what people working in ministry say and (3) I think vocational ministry people need to encourage you as much as you affirm us.

First, you teach me how to be a good pastor. Of course, I have a ton to learn from other pastors and church leaders in my life as I read, talk to them and get advice. In many ways, though, you have far more to teach me than they do. When I am out with people, I am always asking questions: “What would you do if this or that happened?” and “What is your opinion about X, Y or Z?” Recently, I was out with a business owner and instead of posturing myself as, “I am going to teach you things now as your pastor”, I asked him for his advice. He began his answer with, “Thanks for asking”, likely because no one working in a church had ever asked him for advice! Now, let me be honest. I don’t say this to brag or make you think I am ultra caring. In fact, it is somewhat the opposite. I think, at times, my litany of questions are self-serving. I am a student of YOU. I want to understand you on a deeper level, so I can be better at my job as a pastor, a leader, a communicator. I want to know how you–the custodian or the CEO – processes tragedy in your life, or quits smoking, or stays married. Once I understand you better, I can better explain the Bible to you and lead where I think God wants us to go.

Second, you teach me how to be a good Christian. You teach me about following Jesus in the real world versus following Him in the world of church meetings, conferences and exegesis classes. Just when I think leading a church is the hardest job on the planet, I remind myself of the cops and the small business owners and the recovering addicts who make up our church. I realize again that the real world is hard. It’s hard to show up at a person’s home and be the first to tell them their loved one has died in a car accident. It’s hard to run a business in a world full of sharks. It’s hard to stay clean and work at your sobriety in a society of accessibility. Add on these jobs to being a follower of Jesus and things get interesting and difficult and, at times, grey and complicated. As a Christian, I need to lean into learning these everyday realities. Decisions between one bad thing over another. Confusion over what God is calling us to do when there is no clear choice. God is humbling me every time I put myself in your shoes.

Lastly, you teach me how to be a good leader. In church settings, there is often a lot of theological discussion about methodology with Bible verses attached to each. There is little priority given to things essential in your workplaces and much needed in the church, especially as we try to reach post-Christian Canada, not first century Palestine. Things like: leveraging technology, ensuring we keep our staff lean and goal-oriented, executing ministry effectively, doing things with excellence and working diligently, like the men and women who we serve every day. Which is why in 2 Timothy 2:3-13, Paul called pastors to work like athletes, farmers and soldiers. Up early. Working hard. Heavy lifting.

500 years ago, Martin Luther popularized the idea of ‘the priesthood of all believers’, speaking of the average person’s work (blacksmiths, shoemakers, etc.) versus the clergy, arguing that all work is sacred work. There is no ‘Christian work’ and ‘secular work’. If a person is a musician, or a plumber, or a teacher, their work is just as important as the job of the priest or pastor to the unfolding story God is telling in the world. I believe with all my heart in the priesthood of all believers. When you are out there being a soccer mom, or running a publicly traded company, or trying to make it in show business, know that your work is fundamental to God’s will being done in the world. So, I just want to say thank you. For all you do. Waiting tables, running companies, being nurses. What you do matters, and it is not in vain. And while I hope I can teach you a thing or two as your pastor, know that you are teaching me everyday.

Q & A Friday: Why does my husband lack sex-drive?

I get lots of questions sent to me from many amazing people around Canada – and even from around the world. Everything from general advice about marriage and life choices to leadership, church planting and theology. Today begins a new segment on this blog, which is that I am going to answer one of these questions every Friday.

To kick it off, a question from my hometown of Toronto:

Why does my husband lack sex-drive?

Thanks for writing the Radical Sex book. I would like to hear your thoughts on my case of ‘reversed’ desires. My desire for sexual intimacy is much stronger than my husband’s. He considers sex is to be an expression of love and that there are many ways to express this love. My desire for sex is more like a man’s and his like a woman’s. In terms of frequency, at best, he desires sex only once a quarter. I’ve raised this issue with my counsellors and had multiple talks with my husband. I’ve grown to be more patient and be more understanding most definitely. Not having that intimacy is extremely difficult and indeed, temptation is a daily struggle.

Thank you for your honest question. First, you are not alone. There are many couples who have ‘reversed’ desires when it comes to sex. There is a spectrum among both men and women. I know many men who desire sex every day and many who are fine to have sex once a week or once every two weeks. For them their sexual desire is more tied to circumstances of life, emotional connection, level of busyness, stress, etc., So it is not completely ‘abnormal’ in that sense. And if you and your husband were aligned in regard to sexual drive than it wouldn’t be a problem, but you happen to be a woman who desires sex more than your husband, and are experiencing temptation and dis-satisfaction because of it, so there is intentional work to be done.

Secondly, I want to affirm your husbands conviction that there are many ways to express love, and sex is just one of those. In many of my marriage counselling sessions I talk to couples about the Love Languages (quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, and gifts). Notice ‘physical touch’ is one among many ways we give and receive love. So, for him, he may not be motivated to connect sexually unless these other forms of love are being experienced first. His emotional connection to you is directly wired to his desire for physical connection, so if the way he feels loved and connected to you are not happening (lots of quality time with you for instance), his sexual drive won’t fire up very often. Make sure you study your husband and love and respect him the way he needs you to, not the way you, or others, may feel love. Sexual desire is part of eco-system of emotions and affections, and if one part is not firing on all cylinders, the others will be effected. So, ask your husband what ways he feels loved, and make sure to work on those.

I met with a couple recently and the husband was in the same boat as yours and when we got into it he confessed that he wasn’t motivated to have sex with his wife because of a number of seemingly disconnected, orbiting factors (the fact that she just sat on her phone all evening not talking to him in her old ragged pyjamas she’s had since she was thirteen). He couldn’t connect to her physically because there was an emotional disconnect. The two things were connected, which she never had thought of.

Lastly, I would counsel your husband in the same way Paul exhorts the Corinthians when he tells them that there may be short times when they don’t have sex with their spouse for whatever reason, but that that time shouldn’t last very long (1 Cor. 7) precisely because of what you have shared here. If sexual desire is not being satisfied, people are more tempted to stray, look at pornography, and fantasize about others, etc. Be honest with your husband and let him know you are very attracted to him, show him respect by loving him the way he feels loved, and let him know about your fear of being tempted if you guys do not get to a healthier place sexually.

Don’t lose hope though!

I have seen marriages get on track from this and much more complicated challenges. Keep resting on Jesus and pouring into your marriage and it can be better on the other side of this!

Transformation Trios: how they work & the 15 questions.

In light of another pastor/leader I admired years ago having moral failure and being removed from ministry this week by his church, on Sunday I talked about the accountability that I was pursuing in my personal life to help me grow closer to Jesus devotionally, and to help guard against sin and temptation in my life which “so easily entangles” (Hebrews 12:1-3) – a scary verse if there ever was one. This was based on Jesus teaching about ‘secret sin’ (Matthew 10:26). I also challenged those who make up Village Church to pursue similar relationships/community in their lives. I told them I was going to be starting what my friends church in Amsterdam (Crossroads Church) calls Transformation Trios. I had many people asking to get the information on how this works, so here is the concept if you want to join in:

What is a Transformation Trio?

A Transformation Trio (TT) is a grassroots tool for discipleship and spiritual growth. It is a group of three people that gets together regularly (usually every week) to grow in discipleship and pursue life transformation by sharing what God has spoken to them through reading his Word that week, being accountable to each other, and praying for each other and for those who do not know Jesus yet.

Characteristics:
* A TT meets once a week/every other week for approximately one hour (at a time which works best for all participants).
* A TT is made up of 3 persons of the same gender (because of gender related accountability questions).
* There is no curriculum involved other than the Bible and a list of accountability questions.
* New members will naturally learn as they join an existing group, so no on-going training is required.
* There is no leader in these groups. They are peer based and everyone participates.

*We encourage each group to select a book of the Bible to read through during the week. Together you agree on how much reading to do each week. The number of chapters per week varies per group but ranges from 7 to 30 chapters per week. If the group is reading a book of the Bible with fewer chapters – e.g. James -they may agree to read the book through two or three times in one week.

We believe that real accountability stimulates growth and confessing our sins to each other gives inner freedom and healing (see James 5:16). At each meeting group members ask each another questions which stimulate conversations about character, life-style and confession of sin. This should happen in a safe environment that values honesty, vulnerability, confidentiality, and grace.

The list of accountability questions to ask one another each week are these:

1. How have you sensed God’s presence during this past week?

2. Have you taken enough time to be with God alone in prayer?
3. Have you received a specific answer to your prayers?
4. How did you do in your Bible reading this week?
5. What has God been speaking to you through his Word this week? 6. How can you respond to this?

7. Did you express a loving and forgiving attitude toward others?
8. Have you remained pure sexually?
9. Have you lacked integrity in your financial dealings or coveted something which does not belong to you?
10. Have you taken enough time to rest?
11. Do you need to confess any other sin?
12. Did you pray for your non-Christian friends?
13. Did you share Jesus with someone (in word or deed)?
14. What worries or other issues are you currently facing?
15. What would you like to pray about?

I pray that you can find two people you trust enough to do this with in your life and that you stick with it!

Of Porn and Prostitutes – an excerpt from Radical Sex

3,000 people have downloaded the Radical Sex book since its release at the end of December 2015. Here is in excerpt from Chapter 3 – Of Porn and Prostitutes.


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In their book Superfreakonomics, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago, Steven D. Levitt, and journalist Stephen J. Dubner examine prostitution and point out the dramatic change sex has gone through in the last century alone. Prostitution has always existed based on a simple fact of economics, men have always wanted more sex than they could get for free. In more traditional cultures in order to have sex at all, unmarried men would have to pay for it. It is estimated that at least 20 percent of American men born between 1933 and 1942 had their first sexual intercourse with a prostitute.[1] As a result this was an economically booming time to be in the prostitution business. In fact, in the 1910’s, they estimate that 1 of every 50 American women in their twenties was a prostitute![2] Yes, I know. Crazy right? Go check the footnote. I didn’t believe it either. Now, what does this have to do with anything?

Well, how is business today? The prostitutes “wage premium” today pales in comparison to the one enjoyed by even the low-rent prostitutes from a hundred years ago because “demand has fallen dramatically.” Not the demand for sex. That is still robust. But prostitution, like any industry, is vulnerable to competition.” Who poses competition for a prostitute? Simple; “any women who is willing to have sex with a man for free.”[3] And of course, it is precisely this market that has taken off in the last century. “It is no secret,” Dubner and Levitt say, that sexual mores have “changed substantially in recent decades. [As] the phrase ‘casual sex’ didn’t exist a century ago (to say nothing of ‘friends with benefits’)….The shift in sexual mores has given [us] a much greater supply of unpaid sex.”[4]

This approach to life, wherein we offer our bodies and ourselves on the alter of impatient pleasure, casual sex, and sex-as-entertainment, has a staggering effect on our culture as a whole, but most prominently on male culture. In their book, The Demise of Guys, Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, address the impact:

This is the first time in U.S. history that our sons are having less education than their fathers. When confronted with an abundance of women, men become promiscuous and unwilling to commit to a monogamous relationship. Today’s well-educated, empowered, successful women don’t want lame, slacker husbands, and most men don’t want to feel inferior to their wives. Will this push us into becoming more of an individual, rather than a family-based, society?  “Men are as good as their women require them to be,” said one 27-year-old guy we interviewed. This statement made us wonder about how easy access to sex affects men’s motivation to achieve other life goals. Given the choice between masturbating over online pornography and going out on a date with a real girl – that is to say, a girl who doesn’t look like a porn star and isn’t wearing lingerie – more and more young men [say] that they prefer online porn.[5]

All of this has created a culture in which sexual exchanges, whether real or virtual, are viewed more flippantly than any other point in Western history. How has all of this affected us? Zimardo and Duncan hint at a few important cultural trajectories (for example, causing us to become more of an individualized rather than a family-based society and the lack of motivation in men to have real relationships), and there is a long list of other negative impacts of which sociologists warn as well…

Get the Radical Sex ebook free HERE!


 

[1] Steven D. Levitt, and Stephen J. Dubner, Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance (Toronto: Harper Collins Publishers LTD, 2009), 23.

[2] Ibid. 30.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Philip Zimbardo and Nikita Duncan, The Demise of Guys: Why Boys Are Struggling and What We Can Do About It (New York: Ted Conferences, 2012) <http://www.contentreserve.com/TitleInfo.asp?ID={E7E5D67C-E030-4902-AA9C-43122E53BB79}&Format=50>.