Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Agreement Amongst Friends

Friends are great.  I love it when I look across the room, make eye contact, and we each know what the other is thinking.  It’s great to be known so well that a friend can finish my sentences.  When my emotions are in turmoil and I can’t figure out who I am, my friends know who I am deep down, and can remind me.  People can be hard to understand.  Figuring them out, getting on solid ground from which to communicate, can be a challenge, one I usually look forward to.  I don’t want a friend who is just like me.  What redundancy to duplicate my thoughts into another person’s brain, to hear them repeated back to me!  There is only one whose thoughts I would think after Him.  Others, though I may agree with them, though I want to find commonality and fellowship in the truth, bless me by being different.  They challenge me with being unlike me. 

I do rejoice in agreement.  It can be lonely to feel that I am the only person who lives a certain way or who believes something, the only fan of my favorite movie.  I need someone to share these things with.  There is peace and comfort in knowing that I am understood.  Agreement affirms me. 

On the other hand, disagreement is one of my favorite things.  My brain is stimulated by a good conflict.  I understand the world better through discussing it with someone who holds an opposing view.  And there is so much clarity in being able to identify the root point or points of disagreement.  Definition comes partly through describing what something is not.

Both agreement and disagreement can be taken to extremes.  I know, because I do.  Sometimes I love to argue so much that I will almost pick a fight.  For the sake of having something to say, I’ll focus on where I differ with the others in the conversation.  I draw a line and take sides.  No matter how much common ground we share, I will persist in skirting any similarities so that I can exaggerate the conflict to make a point (or to find a point). 

When I do understand and do agree, I tend to go overboard.  Speaking a thought that I know will get an “amen” in the minds of my friends is my way of letting them know that, at least on that point, we are the same.  I have paid enough attention to what they believe, and have continued the thought in my own mind, reaching the heights of conclusions from the same foundation.  But I get afraid to speak a completely independent thought, lest I find disagreement where I was reveling in union. 

There is safety in saying a simple, “We are the same,” or, “We are different.”  But friendship is not about same or different.  People are complex.  I agree with my friends to a point, and then our ideas part ways.  Even when we do agree, sometimes our personalities express our views so they sound different.  And union is not erased because sometimes we disagree.  Perfect accord should only be found around complete understanding of truth.  Being human, that isn’t really possible.  But it is our goal. 

It is possible that by speaking, that I and my friends could be growing nearer the truth.  Even if, on previous days, a friend had held a different view, my boldness to declare a position in opposition (or in ignorance) of their belief may influence them to change.  Or when I venture to say something with which my friends may or may not concur, I might be exposing an area in which I needed correction. 

I should not be so timid nor so arrogant as to assume that I am merely classifying my acquaintances and myself.  One reason is that a person defies labels.  He is not defined by his creeds, however essential they are to forming his character, perspective, and choices.  Certainly, I should be concerned that I find friends with honorable character, godly perspective, and good choices.  The reason for this is that they will be affecting my character, along with my creeds.  And, in turn, I will be influencing theirs. 

I am tempted, when I find my friends holding ideas that I believe are false, to sigh and put them in a cabinet where I keep all my acquaintance who believe such.  They are no longer friends, then, in positions of respect and trust.  And I suppose I am fearing that my friends will put me in such a cabinet, for their part.  But not only do people defy labels; they also change their minds. 

Is this not what it means, to love instead of to judge?  To judge a person is to see them as a firm set of beliefs.  Are their convictions true or false, good or evil?  If too much falsity and too much wickedness, depart from me; I know what you are!  But this is not love.  Love sees people as relational.  Growing.  Alive.  Changing.  Men and women communicate with each other.  They learn.  What is the point of judging someone for an opinion they may not hold tomorrow? 

Certainly, discern their character.  Apply wisdom to whether they would most benefit from a word of correction or an acquaintance for encouragement.  It is sometimes better to listen than to speak that word of agreement or of controversy.  Where do they need to grow?  How are they influencing me? 

Jesus and Paul, in the New Testament, and Solomon in the Old, give guidelines for extreme cases.  Those persisting, without regret, in sin should be confronted, even disciplined, for their own good and for my good, too.  We should not walk in the ways with scoffers. 

But to travel with companions is good, for if one falls, the others are not to run away, but to help him up again!  James addresses this, as well, in the very end of his book, when he encourages his audience to convert the sinner who errs from the truth.  In fact, throughout the book of James he advises sincere love and peace, rather than judgment (for it is laws we are judging, not people).  Do not show favoritism, but rather value everyone’s role in community. 

So whether I speak or am silent, I do not want it to be because I am afraid of being classified and shelved.  Nor do I want it to be because I need more information to appropriately label others.  My friendship needs to be centered on my friends and I becoming more like Christ, conformed to the truth.

To God be all glory.

Graphic Abortion Signs Bypass Irrational Thought

I don’t know how to start this subject.  Let me try to tell a story.  We’ll see how that goes.

There is sunshine, but the air is thin and cold.  A wide open street on the edge of the old Stapleton Airport campus in east Denver invites the wind.  I stand a few feet into the street, for several reasons.  From there I can see past the cars parked on the curb, to quickly profile cars coming down the block from either direction.  I’m away from unwelcome shade provided by the black tarps draping the encircling fence.  And I can see my friends’ faces from their perch at the top of a couple ladders. 

Cars parked on the curb function as easels to signs bigger than I am.  The wind sneaks under the vehicles, between tires, and swirls to drag down larger-than-life graphic images of aborted children.  The pictures show blood and entrails.  Decapitation.  Tongs holding body parts.  Tiny feet and hands held in the gloved hand of a medical professional.  Still babies curled up, skin blackened by unnatural death.  I don’t like to look at those signs. 

But I pick them up when they blow down.  I help set them out each morning I sidewalk counsel.  Without them those who drive by wonder what we’re doing.  We don’t look serious. 

In my few years’ experience sidewalk counseling, I have noticed that men and women planning to abort their sons and daughters are not very rational.  We can take any verbal approach to explaining why abortion will not solve their problems, and they walk in anyway.  Sometimes they even respond, revealing the level of their irrationality. 

They’ll tell us to go save starving children in Africa, for example.  As if the fact that children are dying somewhere else makes it ok to intentionally kill them here, and I should say nothing about it.  Pro-choice people will argue that if a baby was conceived through rape, the baby should die.  But if a 20-year-old was conceived in rape, they should not be aborted. 

We talk about heartbeats and fingers and toes, DNA, and blood type.  Abortion has been linked to increased risk for breast cancer, depression, and infertility.  Planned Parenthood wants their money, and we’re out there as volunteers, offering free help.  If they can’t keep the baby, they could choose adoption.  Women are made to nurture, not murder their kids.  Men are made to protect, not destroy life.  Why get your healthcare from people who think it is healthy to pull the arms and legs off of babies?  God hates the hands that shed innocent blood, and without turning to Jesus, the parents and staff must give an account to God for the lives they took. 

But before they hear any of that, they see the pictures.  For a moment their irrational thoughts cannot even pretend to refute a picture.  It wakens an instant emotion: disgust, fear, compassion - that no words can wipe away.  Faced with images of death, no desperate thoughts of boyfriends or fathers or college degrees or finances can compare.  They drive on by.  They get out of their cars.  They hear sidewalk counselors through tarps and from ladders.  

Honestly, the words we say are only the follow up.  We make eye contact and speak up to plead for the lives of the babies.  Sidewalk counselors cry out the warnings women will not hear inside.  Those women who think they have no other choice hear our voices letting them know that we offer help. 

This week a woman rode by our signs, instantly crying.  She and her partner pulled into the parking lot but stayed in their car.  We stood on the ladders, trying to make eye contact in their rear-view mirrors.  And then the couple drove out, stopping for a moment to let us know they had changed their mind.  We gave them information on where to get free help, and sent them on their way. 

Some pro-life groups and even sidewalk counselors protest the use of graphic signs.  But those that use them report that more people have testified that they changed their minds because of those pictures than for any other reason.  They see the pictures and cannot go through with an abortion.  

Four kinds of people see those graphic signs, our strongest argument against the choice of ending a brand new human life. 
  1. Pro-lifers see them.  We are reminded of the reality sterilized by large brick buildings prettily landscaped.  It is hard sometimes, watching staff drive in nonchalant and unconcerned by the carnage a few rooms away, to be convinced that cruel murder takes place behind those doors. 
  2. The staff sees them.  Some of the staff witness actual abortions.  I wouldn’t imagine the signs have much effect on them (except in that they expose to the world what they do every day).  But other staff does paperwork and counseling and escorting.  Perhaps their hearts will be softened when they see what they are supporting. 
  3. Customers who are not pregnant see them.  A few women stop by for birth control or STD testing or other gynecological procedures.  Before they are in a desperate situation, pregnant and emotional, they have been exposed to the gruesome facts of “choice.”
  4. Mothers and fathers with appointments see them.  There are a lot of efforts to prevent them from even reaching this point.  Government programs attempt to teach people what they need to prevent unwanted pregnancies.  Christian ministries offer help to pregnant moms with counsel and physical aid.  Friends are out there offering support for keeping the baby, praying for the women they know or don’t know.  But if this mom slipped through the cracks or chose to come anyway, there are two last efforts: unmistakable graphic signs and people who care enough to try to stop her up until the last minute. 
A lot of people in these groups think illogically.  They don’t understand consequences.  They act on emotional impulses, and practice very little self-control.  That’s why graphic signs are more effective: they bypass reason and appeal to emotion. 

To God be all glory.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Duty as the Will of God

A lot of Christians talk about the will of God.  Whether they are talking about a “call” for their lives, or direction for day to day choices, a lot of people are curious how they can know God’s will.  Part of the mystery is that whatever process we use for determining the will of God doesn’t seem to work. 

We pray, sometimes using a specific method or for a scheduled amount of time.  We submit ourselves, “Thy will be done.”  We seek counsel.  We study.  And then a choice comes, and we listen closely.  Nothing. 

We throw out a fleece, like Gideon, and still get nothing.  We put God in a box, making deals with Him, and however it works out we take it as confirmation that we should do whatever we want.  “God, if you want us to build that new sanctuary, supply the 1.2 million dollars for the down payment.”  Only $750,000 comes in, and we decide that God wants us to step out on faith. “I mean, it’s a big thing for God to bring in so much money for the project.”  Or we say, “God, if you don’t want me to do this, close the doors; stop me.”  And months later, we look back thinking, “The devil sure was resisting me in my service to God.  Look at all the persecution I went through!”  Which is the correct view?  Should we make deals with God?  Which voice is limiting Him? 

Some people claim to know the will of God.  They get a sign.  They have dreams.  A quiet voice whispers to them.  How can we trust these mystical revelations, when the Bible has so many examples of people being influenced by other powers in the spiritual realm? 

Why did the life of a prophet seem so much simpler?  How did he hear God’s voice?  When the early church gathered to pray, what did it look and sound like for the Spirit to say, “Set apart Paul and Barnabas”?  Men in the early church could not be stopped by chains or prisons or even stonings.  We see in these instances the disciples pressing forward, confident that God desires them out on the streets and in the courtyard, preaching the gospel.  What does it mean when Paul said that He tried to go to Bithynia (Acts 16:7) but the Spirit prevented Him?  If Paul wanted to bring the gospel somewhere, but God wouldn’t let him, he was obviously not just trusting that his desires were from God.  So how did Paul know? 

But keep reading, because in 2 easy paragraphs, I’m going to solve the problem of the will of God!  No, I’m not making that claim.  I think part of our problem is that we don’t want to walk by faith.  We want to know every step way in advance.  We want a list of do’s and don’t’s.  When we wait to hear from God, we get impatient and conclude that we won’t hear from Him.  God gave us brains.  Maybe we should work it out.  Or maybe God doesn’t care what we decide. 

Some people really do take finding the will of God that far.  Should you give $50 to feed the poor, or $50 to send a missionary, or invest the $50?  None of those uses are sinful.  All can be good and God-honoring.  So it doesn’t matter which you choose.  God will bless you anyway.  God has a will for the big things, but the little things are up to us.  (People have to decide where to draw the line between big things and little things:  Prophecy must be a big thing.  Jesus coming to die for us had to happen.  Sometimes big things are whom we marry or where we go to school.  For other people, they consider those life-changing decisions to be some of the little ones where God leaves us to decide on our own.)  In any case, it takes a lot of study and extreme moral clarity to make sure that one of the options we’re considering is not sinful.  We’re left to make a score sheet for each choice.  And how do you add in factors like selfishness or vanity, good stewardship or discernment?  What is wisdom anyway? 

Or maybe we should stop worrying about the will of God.  God’s in control, so everything that happens is what is meant to happen.  We’re not going to change that, so why stress?  Que sera, sera.  There’s an easy way to figure out God’s will: hindsight. 

Here’s what I believe.  God is in control, and no one will change His plan.  His plan covers the details, even the details of how we decide and that we sought to please Him in our decisions.  His plan includes His guidance and revelation.  Wisdom is not knowing the tally sheet for all the different options.  It is a dependence on God’s perspective, even when His way doesn’t seem to be practical or likely to work out.  Part of having a relationship with God is waiting on Him.  He is faithful to provide the guidance we need, and merciful enough that, if we are seeking Him and asking for His help, our feet will not stumble; our lives won’t be ruined by our God-submitted choice. 

Some things are clearly revealed as the will of God.  He desires our sanctification.  He desires us to be thankful and to pray to Him.  He tells husbands to love their wives, and disciples to preach the word.  To trespass those instructions would be sinful.  So the possibilities are narrowed down. 

Duty is another way to make our decisions easier, by limiting our options.  We make a commitment (according to the will of God), and follow through.  A father may wonder whether to take a job in New Jersey or Texas, but he knows he must provide for his family.  A conference speaker may get to choose his topic or his wording, but he’s obligated to speak.  A mom must change a diaper.  My friend volunteered at an orphanage.  Once she was there, she had to do what she was told.  Her duty made the will of God for her simpler.  When Paul decided to heed his vision and go to Macedonia, he didn’t have to ask God:  “Should I move my left foot?  Now right?  What about my right foot?” 

Of course God is helping us just as much to accomplish what we know He wants us to do as He helps us find out what He wants us to do.  It is easy to be relieved at knowing we are where God wants us, and forget to excel, forget to walk in the Spirit as we obey.  We think God sent us on an errand and now our own intelligence and strength will get it done.  There’s danger in duty, the danger of empty legalism.  But there is peace, too, in knowing what one ought to do: what must be done. 

To God be all glory. 

Tough Questions for Arminians

Why would God make a world that He knew would be corrupted by sin?  If God truly created people, as evangelicals are so fond of saying, so that He could be in a love relationship with them, and if that is why He gave them free will, so they could choose Him or reject Him… then why didn’t God destroy mankind immediately after they rejected Him, and start again?  Why not keep flipping the coin until it turns up heads? 

Ok.  Love isn’t like that, you say.  God already loved mankind, and so devised a way to rescue them from the consequences of their rebellion.  He planned to demonstrate His love to them.  Unpersuaded by creation, perhaps people would choose to love God because of His merciful sacrifice of His Son.  So.  Why did God let any more people come into the world?  Why, knowing that there would be millions of men and women who still reject His grace and refuse to love Him, would He allow those men and women to exist – or if free will is still a possibility with the sin nature, why not eliminate them immediately after their first devastating choice (thereby preserving the rest of the world from much of the wickedness it has actually suffered)? 

People are quite often posing God-impugning questions to Calvinists.  They see our God as a cruel puppeteer, causing suffering for no good reason.  Such a God cannot be loved, for He forces those who love Him to love Him, and those who hate Him to hate Him.  Then He judges the haters by sending them to hell for His choice.  And He judges His Son for God’s choice in causing the redeemed to sin in the first place and need redemption. 

Calvinists, because they believe in a God who is above their judgment, rarely pose to Arminians what are equally troublesome questions – questions that, to the created vessel accustomed to think the world was created so that God could shower love on him, also indict their God.  I wish for the Arminians to realize their contradiction not because it defeats them, but because it directs them to a view of God that brings Him worship, and a view of self that creates humility. 

Another complaint leveled against the God of the sovereignists (tired of using “Calvinist” so I coined a new word) is the question of whether, when a person gets sick, it is an intentional act of God.  Is God so cruel as to cause pain and death and tragedy just because He likes some of the outcomes, somewhere down the line (it brings people closer to Him, teaches people patience or compassion…)?  But is it not more cruel to imagine a God who has the power to prevent pain, but doesn’t use it? 

The God of the Arminian “sovereignly” chose to exalt man’s will above His intervention.  In the beginning, He stood back and let man choose to eat the forbidden fruit.  As a result, there is death and pain and toil, sadness and continued wickedness.  But, we know, because it has been recorded in the Bible, that God still sometimes uses His power to intervene, to prevent or alleviate suffering.  He heals the blind and the lame.  Jesus brought dead children back to life so that their parents would weep no more.  If God can and sometimes does stop the natural, deserved suffering – why not do it all the time?  God lets a child be born with AIDS, knowing only that, being all-powerful, He will work everything for good for those who love Him.  That is a God who has no better motive than that He wants us to experience the consequences of our free will.  He is the God who is still waiting for men to love Him.  He isn’t even continuing to try to buy their love.  He made His final offer: Jesus on a cross.  If God was really trying to persuade us to love Him, wouldn’t He be more successful if He held back more of this pain and death stuff that makes life so hard? 

Look.  You may not like my God’s motives for causing suffering.  You may not like that the damnation of millions brings God glory.  That’s a position I can understand.  But stop pretending that some invented God can escape those same accusations or worse. 

To God be all glory.

PS: I really like the Wikipedia article on Arminianism.  It's well-written, concise, interesting, and seems fair.  

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Review of Emma starring Romola Garai

This cinematic remake of Jane Austen’s Emma is delightful, from the music to the shadows.  It is less comic than the version starring Gwyneth Paltrow, focused instead on watching characters develop.  I think that Emma is the most realistic of Jane Austen’s novels, the most relevant to an average person’s life.  Other renditions of the potrait of humanity in Emma do not leave this out.  However, Romola Garai and Jonny Lee Miller delve deeper. 

Emma has never been challenged, never been exposed to new places or new ideas.  She honestly thinks she is always right.  And she wants to excel.  As the movie progresses, she discovers she is lonely.  Playing with one’s own creations ends up dissatisfying, however painful it is to relate to real, independent people.

Mr. Knightley has also been content with his life, set in a routine that keeps him happy enough.  Everything he’s known could change, though.  Disruption is not impossible.  And what if he is wasting his life?  On the other hand, should he want to change something, is it even possible?  He cannot control Emma, this he knows – Emma who is ever declaring that she shall never marry.  What will give Mr. Knightley the confidence – or desperation – to try to win the heroine’s heart?

Surrounding the main characters are all the other inhabitants of Highbury: Miss Bates, Mr. Woodhouse, Mr. and Mrs. Elton, Mr. and Mrs. Weston, Jane Fairfax, Harriet Smith, and Frank Churchill.  Each is shown with their own struggles with identity, love, and managing their friends.  Staying in Highbury or leaving it has shaped their lives.  They all fear change, while simultaneously fearing that change may never come again.  Can good friends help them endure whatever life sends their way? 

Watch as Emma goes from playing with dolls under the table, to arranging flowers, to arranging matches, back to arranging parties and managing a house – and her own heart.  See Mr. Knightley through the window, gradually approaching Emma’s loneliness.  Experience the light and seasons shift.  Feel the restrained emotion at the ball.  Dream of what might be.  And fall humbly into the beauty of what really is.  

To God be all glory.  

Monday, April 12, 2010


Winter was dragging on.  More out of defiance than comfort, I'd been outside without my coat.  The nights still dipped well below freezing.  Dreary clouds came from the east, shading the still-brown grass and smooth-branched trees.

Overnight and into the morning snow fell.  Big flakes layered across the ground, mounting to over half a foot - for the third time in ten days.  I pulled on my clunky shearling boots and plodded out into my day, bereft of sunshine, pining for summer.

When I got off work the snow was only asserting its memory in patches of well-shaded remnants and dirty piles on parking lot edges.  The sunset gleamed on the wet runoff skimming the pavement on my weary drive home.

And then the next morning I woke up.  I got out of bed and went upstairs.  Blew my nose, suffering the symptoms of my annual spring virus.  Washed my hands at the kitchen sink, ignoring the running water while I watched the back yard.  It needed watching.

When I hadn't been watching, even while I slept, the world had transformed.  Green struggled through the old year's lawn growth.  Tiny buds swelled on twigs of bushes and trees.  Birds were singing!

All sudden and without warning.  When a snowstorm had driven back expectation of spring anytime soon, beating me down with the power of winter to persevere past decent dates.  Last time I looked, no sign of renewed life.  Now, everywhere.

Thursday, April 01, 2010


I have always struggled with the word “propitiation.” In Awana’s elementary-school books was included 1 John 4:10, an excellent verse I don’t regret memorizing. All of my friends at the time struggled with the pronunciation of the dauntingly long word. A few years’ practice rendered us able to speak the word, and Awana supplied a definition sufficient for rudimentary comprehension. I believe their paraphrase was “the payment Christ made for my sins.” At about the same time, I attended my parents’ Sunday morning Bible study at which the teacher was discussing the concept of propitiation. He described it as “the mercy-seat of Christ, through which man has access to God.” To a fifth grader the two definitions were not nearly similar enough to be joined. I understand the word has to do with redemption, with sacrifice and salvation. For years that has had to get me by.

The word comes up, you know, a grating little piece of ignorance: a something I cannot understand no matter how hard I try or what sources I reference. Searching for the Greek word in Strong’s Concordance is not all that helpful, adding nothing to my understanding of the English word. So I read the verses that say “propitiation,” pretend to understand while wondering why I don’t.

And last week it happened. I wasn’t even reading very closely. A page was open, and my eyes lit on the word “propitiate,” the verb form of “propitiation.” All at once I saw the root word, sitting right there, disguised by the ‘y’ converted to an ‘i’: pity. A series of clicks could be heard in my brain as the meanings fell into place. Pity is strongly associated with mercy. Add the prefix, “pro,” and you have something that advances or makes the way for active mercy, for pity. The substitutionary suffering Christ endured for my sin was what made forgiveness possible before a just God. Jesus is the living way by which we enter the holy of holies, where the mercy seat used to be in the Temple.

(It just so happens that, when I went to look up the etymology of propitiate and of pity, the dictionarians have not noted a connection, but associate the word "pity" more with "piety," or duty than with "propitiate." Nevertheless, I feel I have much better grasped the meaning of propitiation, and still wonder whether the two words share roots.)

To God be all glory.