Thursday, March 29, 2007

Strange Bedfellows

"What, then, is the position of the thinking Christian, face to face with the cultural situation which I have described? As he reads the things worth reading, whether imaginative or polemical, he is continually meeting with accounts of the human situation or with critical analyses of man's current lot, which make him sit up and say: This is profound and penetrating. This represents a deep and wholly human response to present-day life. It is so crucial, fundamental, and illuminating that it cannot be overlooked. It touches me pre-eminently as a Christian. Yet this writer is not a Christian. I share his vision for a moment over this issue or that, and the next minute I am jerked back into awareness that he and I are poles apart, separated by a chasm, by a contradiction in our most basic presuppositions. But (and this is the tragedy) the only way I can pursue this vital current of thought further is by more reading of non-Christian literature written by sceptics, and by discussion of it within the intellectual frame of reference which these sceptics have manufactured. In short, there is no current Christian dialogue on this topic. There is no Christian conversation which I can enter, bringing this topic or this vision with me.

"There is no Christian dialogue in which the issues are being thrashed out that disturb the rebellious artist and the rebellious prophet. Thus the thinking Christian who is concerned over these issues finds himself fitfully and perversely at one with fiercely - and even blasphemously - non-Christian writers and, at the same time, mentally out of touch with his fellow-Christians. And he scarcely dares to say (how difficult it is to clinch the thing in words anyway) exactly what it is, hidden away among the rabid obscenities of a Henry Miller or the irritable resentments of a Martin Green, which hits him in the eye and searches him out, not just as a man but as a Christian."

Harry Blamires, The Christian Mind: How Should A Christian Think? (Servant Books, 1978), 11-12

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Biblical Counseling Resources

I recently described an article by David Powlison as one of the most thorough treatments on the subject of lust that I've ever read. With P&R's permission, Justin Taylor is posting excerpts from a revision of that article as it appears in Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture. Here's what he's posted so far: Introduction, Question 1, Question 2, Question 3, Question 4. Do yourself a favor by reading these and forthcoming excerpts.

Tim Lane, coauthor with Paul Tripp of How People Change and Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, has been appointed as CCEF's Executive Director.

Tom Brown reflects on the church's role in the counseling process:
In the contemporary world we have all become familiar with the notion of the support group. The local church is God’s ultimate support group. But unlike the contemporary model that orders its support around habitual sin like alcoholism, gambling or gluttony, the New Testament orders its support in Jesus Christ as Lord among the visible community of forgiven sinners. The ministry aim of this community is not just to deal with the symptoms of sin but to go to the heart of the matter and deal with sin at its root. This happens when the church can competently say with Paul, “We proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28).

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Teachers in the School of Suffering

Almost two years ago I posted some thoughts prompted by a talk given by Judy Asti, author of A Spiritual Journey Through Breast Cancer. Judy told our assembly of pastors that cancer would in somehow affect the life of every person in our congregations. I had no idea at the time how that would play out in our own church family.

Last Monday, a man who has served our church faithfully for over 35 years, died of an inoperable brain cancer that had slowly robbed him of his ability to articulate his thoughts. This was especially tragic since Karl was an eloquent man with great poetic skill. It was heartbreaking to watch this man, who for so many years recited Luke's nativity account from memory at our Christmas Eve candlelight services (where he also led us in caroling), gradually lose the ability to verbally express himself. Amidst his numerous ministries, Karl was also one of our elders who, in the absence of a senior pastor, filled the pulpit, opening God's Word to His people.

Over the last 5 years or so I had the privilege of meeting weekly with Karl and some other men for the purpose of praying with and for each other, studying Scripture together, and confiding in each other concerning our joys, aspirations, disappointments, temptations, and failures. Being the creatures of habit that we are, we almost always took the same seats in the room we met in each week. Karl and I usually sat directly across from each other. One of the things I remember most about those meetings is how often I was challenged by Karl's example to be a more attentive servant of my wife. Years back Karl's wife had brain surgery to remove a benign tumor. The procedure impaired her vision and equilibrium which meant that she could no longer drive and that Karl had to assume more responsibilities which he did with gladness. Never did he complain about the changes in their lives and the new demands placed upon him. He viewed his service to his wife as the fulfillment of the vows he made to her and their Lord almost 44 years ago. As one who didn't have the opportunity to witness such marital commitment in my own family, I am grateful beyond words for Karl's example.

Last Friday I conducted the funeral of my dear friend who gave me my "Got Jesus?" golf ball. The morning was filled with music he loved and testimonies from people of all ages about how Christ touched their lives through Karl's. Among those who couldn't join us is a missionary now in Ukraine largely due to Karl's influence. In 1994 he was one of 6 people from our congregation whom Karl led on a short-term missions trip to Latvia, thereby planting the seeds for future long-term labor.

Amidst those gathered for Friday's service was another stalwart of our church who days before was released from the hospital to begin hospice care at home after battling colon cancer. John is another dear friend and former elder who, like Karl, has been a father figure to me and so many others in our fellowship. He's a quiet man of impressive stature who has also modeled sacrificial devotion to his family and the body of Christ. Throughout the course of his cancer treatment his wife has distributed e-mail updates that, while asking for prayer, leave the reader with gratitude for the edification received through her words. Shortly after we received word that nothing more could be done to stem the tide of John's cancer, some of us were praying for him in his hospital room. When we concluded, he recited Hebrews 12:1-3, a passage he had committed to memory, and added "Lord Jesus, I pray that for everyone in this room." On another occasion he related how grateful he is for the instruction he received over the course of his life concerning the sovereignty of God.

John and his family were in church this past Sunday as were Karl's widow and their teenage granddaughter whom they used to bring to church each week when she was a child. I can't describe the wave of emotions that overtook me as I watched them singing the praises of their God and Savior but one word that comes to mind is "beautiful." In that post on cancer I wrote two years ago I also mentioned Judy Asti's observation that the American church's theology of suffering is anemic, if not nonexistent. Through the lives of Karl, John, and their families, the Lord is teaching us what faith-filled suffering looks like. Oh, how privileged we are to have teachers such as these.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Joe in WaPo

Joe Carter of Evangelical Outpost fame is featured in a Washington Post article on evangelical bioethics and the web.

Is it just me or does Joe resemble Kevin Spacey?

Sunday, March 18, 2007

For The List-less

Number 5 on Guy Davies' list of Ten Things for a Christian Blogger reads "Do lists. People like lists." Guy's conviction about this is evidenced by a series of "ten things" posts including the following:

Ten things for the Lord's Day
Ten things for a Christian mum
Ten things for a Christian dad
Ten things for a new Systematic Theology
Ten things a Pastor needs to be
Ten things to do while singing hymns and Psalms
Ten things to do while preaching
Ten things to do in a prayer meeting
Ten ways to encourage a preacher

Here are some other lists worth pointing to:

Joshua at Church Redone is in the process of searching for a new church home. As a result of his quest he's assembled a list of 10 ways churches can keep people from discovering and/or connecting with them. Pastors in particular should check this out. (HT: Church Marketing Sucks)

Doug Groothuis has posted two lists of tips for getting the most out of reading. It should come as no surprise to anyone who knows Dr. G. that one of his recommendations is to stop watching TV. If you, like me, need help with that one, check out this article from Tim Challies' archives that has continually haunted me since I read it almost two years ago.

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Friday, March 16, 2007

Promise Keepers on 'Roids?

While readying for work yesterday I caught an interesting segment on Good Morning America about the latest effort to beef up Christianity to make it more appealing to men. The group is called GodMen and is the brainchild of comic Brad Stine who states that the day-long sessions held around the country are intended to toughen up Christian men. "It's about men stepping up and being strong again," he said.

Here's an excerpt from the group's web site:
We have committed to see what would happen if, for one day, our faith and its struggles would be discussed with absolute honesty, transparency and openness - not sugar coated or framed in church language but instead spoken in frankness and maturity where men can see their innermost fears, shames, and secrets brought to light in a safe environment. Not for judgment but instead to reveal a commonality of unique male struggles shared with their own tribe, a band of brothers who promise to walk this journey with them to the end. The GodMen event is:
  • More powerful, raw, and real than any other men's event you know.
  • A place to explore issues like fear, isolation, numbness, aimlessness, pornography, passivity and more.
  • An opportunity to discuss sensitive subjects without using sugar coated or safe church language.
  • Speakers who speak honestly about their struggles through short messages.
  • Hosted by comedian, actor and author Brad Stine. Other speakers include Paul Coughlin (author of No More Christian Nice Guy), Dave Bunker, Illusionist Ken Sands and more, plus the GodMen Band.
  • A place to ask questions and receive honest answers.
  • A chance to celebrate the masculine spirit.
I share GodMen's concern that many expressions of American Christianity have been feminized as evidenced by contemporary worship songs which Stine refers to as "prom songs to Jesus." I'm also in agreement with the group's encouraging of Christian men to talk openly about our common temptations. That said, I'm not sure how bending frying pans with bare hands and other such stunts contribute to the formation of godliness.

Based on what I saw I fear that GodMen might be in danger of repeating Promise Keepers' errors. In their desire to be entertaining, ecumenical, and accommodating to the attention-span challenged (note the promise of short messages), doctrine and theology may get short shrift with the end result being a more muscular biblical and theological illiteracy.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Purpose-Driven Strife

Conflict over the application of Rick Warren's "Purpose-Driven" principles is one of the topics of tonight's ABC News program Nightline. Read more and view an excerpt of Warren's interview with Martin Bashir here. (HT: Chris Rosebrough)

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Reviving Lust and Idolatry

A few weeks ago, on Justin Taylor's recommendation, I listened to a sermon by C. J. Mahaney on James 4:1-2 called "Cravings Underlie Conflicts" and I encourage you to do likewise. It was very timely as I'm team teaching an adult class at our church using a video series from Peacemaker Ministries on biblical principles for resolving relational conflict and that week the lesson, "Conflict Starts in the Heart," focused on the same passage.

Both Mahaney and Ken Sande (President of Peacemaker Ministries and author of The Peacemaker) discuss how our interpersonal struggles emanate from intense desires or lusts that captivate our hearts and become substitutes for God. Sande describes the process by which a desire, even for something which is good, can progress into an idol. Desire becomes demand. When those around me fail to meet those demands, I judge them and resolve to punish them in some way. This might be through overt anger or some more subtle expression of displeasure that we display until our demands are met.

Biblical counselors frequently employ the concept of idolatry to answer questions about what motivates us to act in certain ways but not all find this satisfying. Jim Beck, for example, professor of counseling at Denver Seminary, characterizes biblical counseling in the following manner in a paper he wrote on the importance of integrating psychology and theology:
It only appears, we are told, that the Bible does not address issues such as anorexia, paranoia, or panic attacks. If we dig deep enough into the teachings of Scripture we will uncover the true underlying causes of even the most recent of diagnostic categories. By “probing the unfathomed depth and breadth of Scripture”.... biblical counselors can find relevant material for every human struggle. They accomplish this feat in large part by reductionistic strategies that collapse most all psychogenic pathologies to some form of idolatry.
Beck insinuates that biblical counselors exaggerate the part idolatry plays in our behavior. Of course, it would be overly simplistic to boil all kinds of emotional, behavioral, and relational problems to idolatry. But Beck's comments make me wonder. If biblical counseling is charged with making too much of idolatry as an explanatory category, cannot the opposite charge be made against so much of what goes on in the name of Christian counseling? Why is such a recurrent biblical emphasis so glaringly absent from so much popular Christian literature about the nature of our problems?

In preparation for the class I'd be leading I turned to an article by David Powlison which I consider one of the most thorough treatments of the subject of lust that I've ever come across. (Incidentally, Mahaney cites Powlison as the "living guy" from whom he's learned the most about indwelling sin and progressive sanctification, John Owen being the "dead guy" who's taught him the most about those subjects.) I first came across it about ten years ago when it appeared as a chapter ("How Shall We Cure Troubled Souls") in The Coming Evangelical Crisis: Current Challenges to the Authority of Scripture and the Gospel, edited by John Armstrong. A more recent and somewhat revised version appears as Chapter 8 ("I Am Motivated When I Feel Desire") in Powlison's book Seeing With New Eyes: Counseling and the Human Condition Through the Lens of Scripture.

Powlison notes that while "lusts of the flesh" (sometimes called cravings or pleasures) is a summary term for the divine diagnosis of what is most wrong with us, the understanding of "lust" held by most Christians is both narrow and shallow:

...the term "lust" has become almost useless to modern readers of the Bible. It is reduced to sexual desire. Take a poll of the people in your church, asking them the meaning of "lusts of the flesh." Sex will appear on every list. Greed, pride, gluttonous craving, or mammon worship might be added in the answers of a few of the more thoughtful believers. But the subtleties and details are washed out, and a crucial biblical term for explaining human life languishes. In contrast, the New Testament writers use this term as a comprehensive category for the human dilemma! It will pay us to think carefully about its manifold meanings. We need to expand the meaning of a term that has been truncated and drained of significance. We need to learn to understand life through these lenses, and to use these categories skillfully (Seeing With New Eyes, p. 148).
To support his claim concerning the centrality of "lust" to understanding motivation and bad behavior, Powlison offers a brief sampling of New Testament passages:

For example, 1 John 2:16 contrasts the love of the Father with "all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life." (See also Rom. 13:14; Gal. 5:16-17; Eph. 2:2 [actually, v. 3]; 4:22; James 1:14-15; 4:1-3; 1 Peter 1:14; 2 Peter 1:4.) This does not mean that the New Testament is internalistic. In each of these passages, behavior intimately connects to motive, and motive to behavior. Wise counselors follow the model of Scripture and move back and forth between lusts of the flesh and the tangible works of the flesh, between faith and the tangible fruit of the Spirit (p. 148).
As I've noted before, I am persuaded that a major contributing factor to our unfamiliarity with the biblical language of lust is the fact that we have become more conversant in the language of need as taught by secular psychological theorists. Our self-understanding has been largely shaped by views depicting our essential problem as being emotionally and psychologically unfulfilled as opposed to being captives of our cravings. Sadly, some of the most effective tutors in the language of psychological needs are Christian authors.

Related: Justin Taylor's Five Lust Languages?