Wednesday, January 27, 2016

If It's Not Unmerited, It's Not Grace

And...the 2015 Song of the Year is...
All About that Bass,
'bout that bass, no treble.

I do have a song of the year, but that's not it.
If you've been paying any attention at all over the past two years, you know I've been on a journey of grace. There are times when God needs to get my attention and the gentle urgings along the way are not working. I'm not always the sharpest knife in the drawer. So He klonks me on the head in a big way, and..finally...I'm listening.

In terms of grace, I've come a long way, baby. But in other terms of grace, I've got a still got a long way to go. Even as I was learning grace with those I love the most, I was dimly aware that my next lesson would be extending grace to those I don't love quite as much. Admit it. You're the same way. You and I love some people more than we love others. I'm not saying that's flawed. We can't possibly have the same level of intensity in every relationship. Life is like the Bohr Model of Love. As our inner circles fill up, people have to find their places in each concentric circle out. But I do find that grace comes easier to me with the inner circles and not as easy as I work my way out.

In some ways, 2015 was a very good year. Three times I had major reconciliations with friends. THREE! I initiated one. Two came out of the blue from more distant friends. Without going into detail, let me say that my heart just sang over God's faithfulness to bring restoration where I was not able to.


I remember a book (I have not read) that came out some years ago called, "Jonathan Edwards: Marriage to a Difficult Man." What struck me was the 'difficult' part. Jonathan Edwards, difficult? Wasn't he the rock star of the Great Awakening???

CS Lewis once wrote that people with cold temperaments can be believers, too. If you have not met these believers, you have probably not been a Christian for very long. But I've been in the Church for more than forty years. And I've known my share of cold Christians across the decades. Difficult Christians. Christians who have old third grade report cards somewhere that read, "Has difficulty getting along well with others."

I've also learned that 'cold' can take many forms. Some cold Christians are proud. Some cold Christians are prickly, easily provoked. Some cold Christians are peevish. And some cold Christians are just that: cold. About as easy to relate to as a wooden post.

Some Christians are cold because life has been hard. Some Christians are cold because they were born that way. I would be rationalizing if I said they make it hard for me to extend grace. It's more truthful to say that I'm unwilling to do the hard work of extending them unmerited favor.  Worse, what I've begun to observe about myself is that to the prickly, I am prickly. To the provoked, I am provoked. To the peevish, I am peevish.  Do not pass Go; do not collect $200. Go directly to my outermost ring. I am ungracious to the ungracious.

And here's the cold truth of my own: Contractors.  I treat cold Christians like contractors. You want to do cold? We can do cold. You abide by the terms of the contract, we can work together. You violate the terms of the contract, we are done. There is no long-term commitment to, no concern for, no come-hell-or-highwater. Contractors. It's just good business.

Turns out, I'm a bit frosty myself.

Covenanters. I should be treating Christians of all makes and models as covenanters. We've got each other's backs. We are in this for the long haul. We are faithful when the other party is unfaithful. We are loving when the other party is unloving. The fire, the friction, the failures, come what may, we are warm and full of grace when the other party is prickly, provoked, and peevish.

To treat someone like a fellow in the Covenant, I would do well to remember that she has a story.
That from Heaven, He came and sought her.

So, the song. This post was about a song, remember?

Someone (who shall remain anonymous) played that other 2015 song for me a few months ago, Meghan Trainor's All About That Bass. And I was ruined. That sucker got stuck in my head, and I'm still singing it. But I like it. It's actually kind of sweet. And she's got a point. Everyone is not the same. And you ARE beautiful from the bottom to the top.

Don't get your panties in a wad, Church Lady. All About That Bass in not my song of the year. I may (mostly) sing along when I hear it...
but when I heard these lyrics:

If I should speak, then let it be
Of the grace that is greater than all my sin,
Of when justice was served and where mercy wins,
Of the kindness of Jesus that draws me in. 
To tell you my story is to tell of Him. 

I wasn't singing; I was weeping.
In the car.
A big, mushy, snotty mess driving to Costco and boo-hooing and trying to collect myself before I got out of the car.
And then I heard it again a few days later.
And I boo-hooed again.
This song broke me.

Grace that is greater than my sin.
I know my heart. That's some pretty big grace to be bigger than my sin.
Justice served and mercy wins.
I know what justice is and what I deserve. It is a price I could never pay. That kind of mercy, not getting what I deserve, that's amazing.
The kindness of Jesus.
To be kind to me, who is ungracious to the ungracious.
My story has nothing to do with me and everything to do  with Him.

To a certain extent, this song is inward looking, understanding the work that Jesus accomplished for me. But to a certain extent, this song is outward looking, grasping the concept that my sisters share this story. If I could manage to keep this in mind, would I be less likely to write cold Christians off? Would I be less likely to treat them like parties in a contract rather than members of the covenant? Would it help me to remember that grace is UNmerited when I'm looking into the face of Prickly, Provoked, and Peevish?

If I told you my story, you would hear hope that wouldn't let go.
If I told you my story, you would hear love that never gave up...

Can I, who have been on the receiving end of such unmerited favor, be stingy with my own unmerited favor to fellow covenanters? Can I, whose righteousness was filthy rags, demand of others that they work for my favor? May it never be.

Because if it's not unmerited, it's not grace.
If it's not unmerited, it's not grace! 
If it's merited, it's business. If it's merited, I have forgotten my sisters' stories. More importantly, I have forgotten my story. My story is not a story of good business. My song is not Amazing business, how sweet the sound. 
Grace. Unmerited favor.
Even to my outermost circles.

My 2015 Song of the Year.
Big Daddy Weave's My Story

Cuz it's all about that grace.
All the right junk in all the right places. ;)

Friday, January 8, 2016

A Year of Reading Badly: My 2015 Reading List

There were the three books I brought home from a used book sale that all hit the trash within the first two chapters.

There were the two books I couldn't finish. Divine Rebels by Deena Guzder is a series of mini biographies in the social gospel crowd, people who cite Jesus as the reason they do good deeds. As with other redletterchristian presentations, it was heavy on social, lite on gospel, a paean to self-righteousness. There is more to say here, enough for another post, but let it suffice for now, there was nothing divine about these rebels.

The Complete Stories of Flannery O'Connor, I'm more reluctant to pan. She comes highly recommended by serious saints, and some of the stories were good. But. Perhaps I'm revealing my shallow side, but it is very hard for me to identify the redemptive among so much raw. Maybe someday I'll pick it up again. Maybe not.

There was 'Til We Have Faces by CS Lewis, proof that even the best authors have their off days. I managed to have some fun with it when my kids read it. During discussions, I was literally chewing the inside of my cheek so as to not burst into laughter as their eyebrows worked up and down in puzzlement. And I put on my best poker face as I assigned them an analysis paper in which I gave them permission to opine. They managed to pull it off with less snark than I expected, and only then did I show my cards. I think they were relieved that I agreed with them.

And then there were the bad books, in terms of bad ideas.  This fantastic article makes a good case for reading the 'worst' books. Of course, the notion of 'worst books' implies there are the 'great books,' and great is in the eye of the beholder. I find I am less and less enthused with other people's lists of 'great books', much of which is mere intellectual gibberish. In other words, I'm far more impressed if you knocked out Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology than if you hung on through Plato.

I read a couple bad ideas this year. I gagged my way through, but I did it.
And that is my year of reading badly.

It wasn't all bad, though. I did accidentally discover a new author. It was one of those crap shoots, standing in the library, desperate for a decent summer read that wouldn't be crass or depressing or just plain dumb. May I introduce Charles Martin? I was so taken with the first book I read by him that I went back for two more.  I also discovered and enjoyed Khaled Hosseini and Wendell Berry.

Sixty-nine books in all. Some good, some bad.
Some of them I read with or for the kids.
One or two I read with Brett.
This is my reading list for 2015.

Know the Heretics by Justin Holcombe
Greenmantle by John Buchan
Is God Anti-Gay? by Sam Allberry
Iliad and the Odyssey by Padraic Column
The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brendan Manning
The Unadjusted Gospel by Mark Dever et. al.
The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare
Gaudy Night by Dorothy Sayers
The Blessing Book by Linda Dillow
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey

BFG by Roald Dahl
Introduction to Covenant Theology by Michael Horton
Julius Caesar by William Shakespeare
Gone Away Lake by Elizabeth Enright
Uncle Dynamite by PG Wodehouse
Liberty Defined by Ron Paul
Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Future Men by Douglas Wilson
Children of Hurin by JRR Tolkien
What's Best Next by Matt Perman

Call It Courage by Armstrong Sperry
Wisdom of Father Brown by GK Chesterton
Indian in the Cupboard by Lynn Reid Banks
Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte
Aunts Aren't Gentlemen by PG Wodehouse
Magician's Nephew by CS Lewis
Singing Sands by Josephine Tey
Inklings of Oxford by Harry Lee Poe
Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George
The Supreme Court by William Rehnquist

Mom Enough: The Fearless Mother's Heart and Hope by Desiring God
Napoleon's Buttons: 17 Molecules that Changed the World  by Jay Burreson
Instructing a Child's Heart by Tedd Tripp
Accidental Feminist by Courtney Reisig
At Home in Mitford by Jan Karon
Goodbye for Now by Laurie Frankel
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
Five Points by John Piper
The Last Battle by CS Lewis
Girl Talk by Carolyn Mahaney

Women's Ministry in the Church by Ligon Duncan and Susan Hunt
The Two Towers by JRR Tolkien
'Til We Have Faces by CS Lewis
When Crickets Cry by Charles Martin
Life With Strings Attached by Minnie Lamberth
A Life Intercepted by Charles Martin
On Earth As It Is In Heaven by Wyman Richardson
Love or Die by Alexander Strauch
Beowulf translated by Seamus Heaney
Chasing Fireflies by Charles Martin

The Biggest Story by Kevin DeYoung
Otto of the Silver Hand by Howard Pyle
The Gospel's Power and Message by Paul Washer
The Church of the East edited by John Holzman
The Gammage Cup by Carol Kendall
The Shining Company by Rosemary Sutcliffe
Ginger Pye by Eleanor Estes
Sermon on the Mount by Sinclair Ferguson
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Way of Ignorance by Wendell Berry

Christianity and Liberalism by J. Gresham Machen
A Parcel of Patterns by Jill Paton Walsh
Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstattd, Jr.
More Than a Carpenter by Josh McDowell
Calm My Anxious Heart by Linda Dillow
The Harvester by Gene Stratton Porter
What If Jesus Had Never Been Born? by D. James Kennedy
Sailing Alone Around the World by Joshua Slocum
How Long, O Lord? by DA Carson

Friday, November 27, 2015

Courtship in Crisis? Nah. The Book Review

He needs to be courageous. He needs to be the kind of writer who punches up. As King Lune of Archenland puts it, "Never taunt a man save when he is stronger than you. Then, as you please." And the motive force of all that he writes should be that he deeply loves what he is defending. Some people sign up because they have to shoot something, and wolves will do in a pinch. But others, who are more faithful at the task, fight because they love what they defend. (Douglas Wilson "Pithy or Toxic? How to Write Good Satire" Intercollegiate Review, Fall 2015.)
So I'm in a bit of a pickle. A while back, the anti-courtship blog post came out, and I came out swinging. So far, so good. But I also speculated publicly about the author's motives. Not so good. I should mention here that the author and I have never been introduced. To me, he's just Joe Stranger, author of Book. But as we live in the same region and our social circles have significant overlap, weighing in is not inconsequential. He's an 'international speaker,' as his book cover reminds us, and a public persona. I'm not even a blip on the regional radar screen. In that respect, I should feel free to 'punch up', as Douglas Wilson suggests. On the other hand, he is my younger brother in the Lord, and I should not taunt the man.

Alas, this is a two-edged pickle. I would like to be known as the Courtship Lady about as much as I would like to be known as the Sabbath Lady or the Libertarian Lady. I am fully convinced, but conviction needs a conscience, not a fan club. And Majority has always been a poor way of plumbing wisdom. I do not defend courtship because I deeply love courtship. I defend courtship because I deeply love my children, and I deeply love wisdom. The trick, then, was to write a response in which I say nothing that should not be said and everything that should be. I think this post succeeds.

My wish for Mr. Umstattd is the same as my prayers for my own single adult children: a godly spouse and a rugged marriage, and a heaping helping of contentment in this interim of singleness providentially appointed for him by his good and sovereign Heavenly Father. What follows, then, should not be taken as personal attack but as a critique of his methods and assertions.

Courtship in Crisis by Thomas Umstattd, Jr.
1. The Hook
The book opens with the author's personal story of a courtship gone very, very wrong. If events unfolded exactly as is documented in the book, then it was truly a hurtful, horrifying experience. If. However, I would caution readers here that  one man seems right until another states his case. It is natural for us to rally around someone who has been wounded. I found myself thinking, "Poor guy! This is just terr--HEY! Wait a minute!" I've been bitten too many times, taking up one person's offense, only to have the other side come to light, and the villain, it turns out, is no villain at all. It may be absolutely true that the dad in this story was unreasonable and capricious. Or it might not be true. There is another, untold side to this story. And as it was a private affair, we should expect never to be enlightened; there can be much honor in silence. This narrative can only be regarded as complete when BOTH sides have stated their cases. If the dad were to bring contradictory facts to light, well...We would be naive to take sides right now. As it stands now, it is an appeal to pity.

2. The Research
There were several problems with the claim that lots of research was done for this book. First, when there were personal stories, there seemed to be zero effort to corroborate facts with the accused. Even a simple, "Mr. Jones declined to comment' would have eased my mind at least a little. And the guy who was rejected by twenty fathers. TWENTY? This is a claim of legendary proportions. No footnotes, no verifiable facts whatsoever. Did the author 'do the research' and get those twenty names, dates, locations? And if it is true, should we not consider with Douglas Wilson that this is a feature, not a flaw, of the system? Are you not curious about just what kind of guy could get rejected by twenty fathers? You should be. Second, the author does seem to have read some opposing viewpoints, like Wilson or Harris, and that's commendable. However, the silence on Baucham was deafening. I don't know why What He Must Be If He Wants to Marry My Daughter was never addressed. But this is the handbook on courtship, after all, and it's hard for an "I googled courtship, and it's not in the Bible" hermeneutic to stand up to Baucham's level of exegesis. (To be fair, the 'google' comment was not made in the book but in the time leading up to the book.)
For every bad idea that gets its own book, there's a better book with a better idea. Engel has his Bastiat; Bell has his DeYoung; Umstattd has his Baucham.
Third, scriptural proof was scant at best. It gave this reader the impression of having been waved lightly over the flames of scripture in an effort be be taken seriously as Christian meat--but it was still mooing. If we're going to talk about how scripture informs this area of our lives, we should probably talk about how scripture informs this area of our lives.

3. Sweeping Statements
This one could link back to the research concern. "In many churches, it's taboo for married couples to talk about sex." Stats? Footnotes? Sources? Did the author visit 'many churches' and interview the married couples? Unfortunately, it was sweeping assertions like this one that seriously weakened this reader's trust in the author's ability to present a strong argument. And it isn't the only one. "One of the common modifications in Modern Courtship is for couples to keep their relationship secret from friends until the engagement. Couples do this because they fear their community will blow out the fire of their budding relationship with expectations, pressure, and meddling." Ehhhh, not sure he got his facts. I expected more scholarship than this.

4. Naivete
(Okay. I think I've been quite restrained, golden even, up to this point. But here's where I 'punch up.' If one is old enough to be an international speaker/public persona/thrower down of anti-courtship gauntlets, one is old enough to have the smack laid down wherever smack is required. And, boy howdy, some smack needs to get laid down here regarding just horrid comments on sin and sexuality. If my own adult children said this stuff, they'd get the same response. So you can swallow back the 'You're so mean' nonsense. I'm not mean; I'm Mom.)
The author asserts that willpower will keep us out of sexual sin. Just say no to Froyo after the movie. And his proof text is not scripture, but a study on cookies and radishes. Not.even.kidding.
He also says, and I quote, "If we focus on the banquet, we won't be tempted by the dumpster of premarital and extramarital sex." I have this hilarious friend who would quip, "Hey kids, sex is GREAT. Now go have fun, and don't put anything of yours into anything of hers!" Focusing on the banquet of all of God's righteousness does NOT keep us out of the dumpster of sin. Thus, Romans chapter 7...and the rest of the epistles. And the gospels. And the Law. And the pro--well, you get the point.
Here's another one: "In Erica's community, no strict ritual full of 'guard your heart' rules governed dating, and the community lacked a 'hook up and break up' culture. Because of this, most hearts were guarded and most promiscuity disappeared naturally." Um. I may or may not have laughed out loud at this point. Promiscuity has been going on since time immemorial. Without even trying, I can think of five people conceived in the good ol' days of going steady. If his grandmother thought boys weren't thinking about sex when they were dating, perhaps he would have done better to talk to his grandfather. His grandfather would have assured him, as men have assured me, that boys were thinking about sex. Boys think about sex because that's how God made them. And that's good, good for marriage, good for creation; it just needs boundaries.
Umstattd's flippant treatment of sin and sexuality incensed me, especially when I think of impressionable young people reading it. 

Back to restraint...

5. Jurisdictions
"We value liberty more than life itself." Aha. THERE it is. There is the driving force behind this book, a kind of 'you're not the boss of me!' approach to life. My problem with this statement is the confusion between 'liberty' and 'libertine.' Someone who values liberty values good government. So we value a state that does what a state is supposed to do, a church that does what a church is supposed to do, and a family that does what a family is supposed to do. We disdain a state that excommunicates adulterers or raises children, a church that raises children or punishes criminals, a family that punishes criminals or excommunicates adulterers. We are glad when the state punishes criminals, the church excommunicates adulterers, the family raises children. In contrast, the author speaks like a libertine who disdains the role of the family in an adult who is ready for marriage. But listen to Baucham: "Nothing in the New Testament would suggest that fathers should stand down as protectors of their daughters' virginity." (55) There's an example of the heavy lifting in What He Must Be. Umstattd's book doesn't even break a sweat.

Honestly, I'm puzzled by all of this. I am left wondering what the burr is under the author's saddle. What I would love to see is some statistics on the percentage of the Church that actually favors courtship; I imagine it's minuscule. And if it is, courtship can hardly be left holding the bag for what the author sees as prolonged singleness. But attacking the families who do courtship (like all twelve of us) is like attacking your quiet neighbor for being quiet. You might as well wage war on Zoroastrians.

Did I get anything positive out of the book? Yes. While the author's fundamental premise, 'courtship hurts people' is about as sound as 'guns kill people,' I am mindful that even gun enthusiasts respect guns. Likewise, as parents, we would do well to approach courtship with the same respect. These are real people. These are real men and women with real giftings and uniqueness and hurts and sin and baggage. These are Image Bearers. And they deserve courtesy, gentleness, and kindness even in the midst of rigorous inspection. I like to think that by the time all of our children are married, anyone who has ever interacted with our family will have been treated respectfully, even if firmly.

Let me reiterate. I wish the absolute best to the author in his pursuit of marriage. I have a high view of marriage because God has a high view of marriage, and it doesn't matter a whit to me whether you got to the altar via dating or courtship. This post is not about my view of courtship. There are several places I could have elaborated on what I think, but this is strictly a book review, so I refrained. Second, maybe courtship is really in crisis, or maybe not. I am not personally convinced, but only time will tell. We have not gotten a child to the altar via courtship, but it seems like the wisest course of action at this time.

The work that can ably prove that courtship is truly in crisis will require:
1. A publisher who oversees bona fide research, as in actively gathering hard data, corroborating facts, interviewing representatives from all sides (yes, even the dreaded dragons), not merely passively assembling a bunch of blog comments. No scholar worth his salt would regard that as actual research.
2. A pastor/theologian who oversees and ensures careful use of scripture.
Maybe someone will write that work. But Courtship in Crisis in not that work.

In the final analysis, I predict this book will find a comfortable spot on the shelves of the average Christian bookstore, alongside Osteen and Eldredge. I predict it will get rave reviews from teens and twentysomethings, egalitarians, and hands-off fathers.

I'll be over here giving thanks for my Dragon. :)

Saturday, October 17, 2015

The Beauty of Stewardship

Just finished Wendell Berry's The Way of Ignorance.
Mind blown.

I've always had a rather suspicious view of art. First, there's my own make-up. I am much more comfortable with things that are measurable and quantifiable. I much prefer things I can track or prove to things that are subjective. Facts don't need a beholder; they just are.

Second, though, is my experience with representatives from the art world. I get all squinty-eyed and suspicious when dealing with artists. And my art appreciation prof back in college essentially finished me off.

He defined art as "the manipulation of materials by a human being for aesthetic purposes." Dr. Courtney would be pleased, I suppose, that I still remember his definition, word for word, twenty-six years later. He would probably be less pleased to know that it was because I was on to him.

'By a human being.' That was the important part. Why? I'll tell you why. The great art hoax of 1964. One Pierre Brassau, who wowed the art world in Goteborg, Sweden, and prompted one art critic to write that he "paints with powerful strokes but also with clear determination. His brushstrokes twist with furious fastidiousness. Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer."

Modern Art is Dumb.
Exhibit A:
Brassau was really a monkey named Peter.
Not even kidding.

Yup. Journalist Ake Axelsson gave a monkey a canvas and some paints--and dumped the modern art world on its head. You know you're in trouble when a monkey can keep up with your brilliance...

Anyway, back to my class.  Dr.Courtney also insisted, when not attacking Truth with broad strokes (and I'll get to that in a moment), that art does not imitate life. Up went a slide of Eric Enstrom's Grace accompanied by a monologue peppered with disdain and a flick of the thumb and 'anyone can do that.'

Oh? 'Cause I couldn't.

No, real art shakes off the surly bonds of earth and transcends mere creation. Catch what he was saying there. The work of the Master Artist was not worth imitating. We creatures could do better. And speaking of God, who really believed all that stuff about sin and salvation anyway? His eyes surveyed the class.

Seminar class.
Over 300 students.
This was my heart-pound-in-my-chest, I-don't-have-a-choice, I-have-to-do-this moment.
I raised my hand. I was the only one.
His eyes locked on mine.
"Do you?" he asked. "And can you briefly explain what you think the Bible says to the rest of the class?"

Speak the truth, even if your voice shakes.
"That we are all sinners; that Jesus had to die for us because of that; that without Him, we go to hell--

"Actually," the good doctor interrupted, "the Bible never mentions hell. Not once. But thank you for being honest."

Oh, he was a peach.

Alas, the midterm was a nightmare. I can't even remember the picture, but I remember the test. He put a slide up on the screen. We wrote an analysis in our blue books. The end. I got a 'D.' Apparently, though, so did the rest of the class. So the last half of the semester came and went, during which he continued his relentless attack on 'bad' art, which was really good art,  and praised 'good' art, which was really not art at all. Then there was that field trip to the Norton Museum of Art where he told us (I promise I am not making this up) that the best painting in there was a Jackson Pollock. No way. I could have sworn it was a drop cloth.

Modern Art is Dumb.
Exhibit B.
Jackson Pollock.
Rumor has it that Pollock set out, with his drip paintings, to prove chaos. What he did, though, was prove order. Tortured soul? Perhaps. Artist? I can't even.

But the final. That was memorable. Here was the deal. He told us that if we could ace the final, he would toss the midterm and give us an 'A' in the class.

And the slide? Oh gosh, I couldn't believe it. The slide was...
Composition III in Red, Yellow, and Blue by Piet Mondrian. (Look it up; I'll wait... ... ...) I about fell out of my chair. I didn't know whether to laugh or get really angry, throw my blue book at him, and march out of the auditorium.

Modern Art is Dumb.
Exhibit C.
Piet Mondrian.
I could paint this thing with no eyes, no hands, and the stump of my tongue. Peter the Monkey could paint this thing. And I was supposed to analyze this?

Now let me just say that I am not one to get on your prayer chain unless there is blood, fire, or exposed bone.  But I did call in the reinforcements for this day. And knowing that people I loved were praying for me, I started to write. I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote. Oh, this was rich. This was good. I knew it was good. And I didn't believe a word of it.

I got an 'A.' (Thank you, Lord!)
The great art hoax of 1989. Trust me.

So. Have I sufficiently defended my squinty-eyed suspicion of art?

Modern art is manipulation of materials, dappled by human arrogance and disdain for the Creator, for the purpose of self-glorification.

Enter Wendell Berry.
Start with arrogance, and end in destruction.
Start by humbly admitting our human limitations, and end with creational flourishing.

I don't just mean human flourishing. I have been very focused on human flourishing, certainly in term of what is most important to me: my marriage, my children, my friends, the Church. I mean creational flourishing. I mean taking this world we steward and treating it with greater care, greater understanding, greater awe. I mean seeing the art of the Creator everywhere.

It is Berry's fascination with the earth that has really shaken up my take on the world. And by 'earth', I don't mean 'planet' so much as 'dirt.' When I think of the beauty of the earth, I think of our planet: the magnificent mountains, the towering redwoods, and our vast oceans. I think in grand, large-scale, epic proportions. But Berry thinks of the dirt right underneath our feet, the creek running through our property, the working animals, and the diligent caretaker.

Berry loves the dirt. He loves the things that live in the dirt and on the dirt and off the dirt. He loves living forests and clean water and working farms. This agrarian topic is so far outside my areas of interest, part of me couldn't believe I was still reading. But Berry's humble, gentle love for Creation compelled me to read one essay after another. My art prof thought Creation wasn't even worth imitating; Berry leaves his reader understanding that Creation is not just worth imitating; it's worth preserving.

Art has always been the Ecclesiastes of my story: meaningless, meaningless, all is meaningless.

I now see art in other places. I see art in a logger and the way he loves his horses and his forests.
I see art in a rancher who turns his land from an overgrazed wasteland to a working wilderness.
I see art in man finding, not job, but vocation.

In short, I now see art in stewardship, and I'm inclined to re-write my art prof's definition of art:
Art is the use of Creation by the stewards of Creation to reflect back glory to the Creator. 

I don't think God ever intended for elbows coming out of foreheads to be art. Or nudes walking down staircases. Or green crayons on notebook paper.

But that's precisely what we get when we forget there is a Creator, and He has a purpose.
That's what we get, Denethor, when we forget we're stewards, and we think we're king.
We act like monkeys trying to make masterpieces--and it shows.

Modern 'art' today fails because of its insipid self-absorption and its disdain of creation. On the other hand, environmentalism fails because it deifies the earth and vilifies the steward. Only dominion helps us to see everything as God intended in the very good beginning.  Therefore, only dominion will bring about creational flourishing, for flora, for fauna, and for man.

It's as if the Master Artist had beauty in mind all along. Only His plan of dominion can redeem the manipulation of materials by a human being for aesthetic purposes. Veer into either the ditch of modern art or the ditch of environmentalism...
and we miss beauty completely.

We have a great capacity to hurt. That includes not just each other, but the places where we live. That's the Fall. But we have a great ability to rule and to restore. That's grace.
And that's beautiful.

That's a beauty that Pollock and Mondrian and Dr. Courtney know not of.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Blood Moons and Suckers

We've been told,
God has warned us,
Jesus is comin' soon. (Blind Willie Johnson) 

I watched the blood moon last night. I don't know about your house, but over here, we've pretty much had a collective shrug at all the eschatological hubbub around this event. Like I tell my kids, "If anyone starts telling you that they've figured this thing out, run. Run fast. In the other direction." There's only one thing we know for sure. No man knows the hour. I have that on good authority.

But as I sat there that night and watched the shadow of the earth creep across the face of the moon, I couldn't help but think. Jesus IS going to come. There WILL BE a day when that happens. Until then, He orchestrates these beautiful lunar eclipses that demonstrate His glory and His majesty. I hope you didn't miss that as you watched.

A few years ago, Brett attended a conference on eschatology, in which seven different views of the end times were presented. Seven. Talk about a theological fun-house. Someone is distorting what's said in the scripture. The problem is...I'm just not sure which one. They were each, after all, arguing from the scriptures. You gotta give them credit for that.

John Piper recently wrote an article in which he exhorted his students not to be suckers--eschatological suckers. He pointed out that we all have a tendency to think that there are nothing but blue skies head, even though God has warned us, in the scriptures, of a coming final judgment.

Seems John Piper and Blind Willie are of the same mind on that point. I have to agree.
Where is the promise of His coming? 
I don't want to be that sucker.

Still, there is another side to that coin. We can be suckers in another way, too. We can be suckers by getting sucked into much ado about blood moons. I don't want to be that sucker, either. I don't want that distraction.

I want to be a good wife, honoring and helping my husband.
I want to be a good mom, bringing up my kids in the fear and nurture of the Lord.
I want to be a contributing part of my church.
I want to work out my salvation in fear and trembling.
I want to be kind and tender-hearted and put away all anger, wrath, and malice.
I want to make it my aim to live a peaceful and quiet life.
I want to be transformed by the renewing of my mind.
I want to rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all things.
I want to do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.

I do not want to distracted, not even for a moment, by blood moons. I don't want to suspend any of the good things, things I know I'm told to do, to run to the hills. Blood moons shouldn't make me scoff; neither should they make me fear. Blood moons should make me worship the One who holds the world together by the word of His power.

We are salt and light. But some people track Jesus' return like NORAD tracks Santa on Christmas Eve. What a waste of the brief time that's been given to us. I suspect that while they're circling the wagons around their star charts and their 'prophets,' they are salt losing its saltiness; they are lights under a bushel.

(Pause here for a rant about John Hagee. John "I left my wife for the church secretary and I don't care" Hagee? Hagee's got a thing or two comin', none of which look like a crown of life. If Hagee's your hobby, you need a new hobby. And that's all I'm going to say on that point...)

Jesus did not come back the other night. No surprise there. Some of you are laughing that I even had to say that. On the other hand, some of you were seriously thinking about hunkering down.

I don't want to be a blue skies sucker.
I don't want to be a run-for-the-hills sucker.
I want to be the Church.
I want to be a salty preservative in a culture of death.
I want to be light in a dark place.

So let's keep on keepin' on, one foot in front of the other, loving God and living holy out in front of a watching and dying world. Let's live in such a way that our Lord receives us with, "Well done, Salt and Light. Enter into the joy of your Master."

Like a bride waiting for her groom, we'll be a church ready for You,
Every heart longing for her King, we sing, 
Even so, come, Lord Jesus, come.*

*(Even So, Come by Jason Ingram, Chris Tomlin, Jess Cates, 2015) 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shout Your Abortions?

Shout your abortions?

Dear woman who has had an abortion,

If you had an abortion because your father failed to protect you, because he thought treating you 'like an adult' meant cutting you loose to do your own thing, because he abdicated his responsibility, because he'd rather be your 'friend' than your 'father,' because he insisted that confronting you would drive you away rather than bring you to safety,
or because he abandoned you, never knew you, abused you, or had better things to do or more important relationships to pursue, I am so sorry.
Please know that there is a better Father out there.

If you had an abortion because your church shamed you, rejected you, cast you aside, tossed you out, I am so sorry. Please know that there is a better church  out there.

But be honest.
Did you give your father a chance to protect you?
Did you give your church a chance to support you?
Or, if you're really, really honest with yourself, down in that part of your heart where only you and God can see...
Were you proud?
Were you willful?
Determined to have the quick fix?

Do you find that you have, not so much a compassion for women who have had abortions, as a solidarity with them?
Do you find that you want to lend your voice to the cacophony, rejoicing in this murderous, self-worshipping, God-rejecting mayhem?
Do  you find that you try to civilize abortion by shifting the terms of the debate?
Do you find that you'd rather talk about a barrel full of red herrings (like government programs or blame-shifting or social 'justice'...) than the tiny soul who has inherent worth and is entitled to life?
That's right; that baby is more than just a tiny body with a beating heart. There's a soul there, a soul, and you have NO IDEA what you are dealing with. Or Whom.
Do you find a certain smugness for mincing pro-life and pro-birth? or 'yeah, but' attitudes that claim I can't have principles if I don't also have perfection?
Do you find it cathartic to shout your abortion?

Don't do this wicked thing. Please don't do it.
There is a way which seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. Proverbs 14:12 
You think your way leads to validation.
You think your way leads to freedom.
You think your way leads to life.
But it doesn't; it leads to death.

There is a way that leads to life.
There is a faithful and just Father who will forgive you and cleanse you from all unrighteousness, if you confess your sin to Him.
There is a Savior who became abortion and selfishness and rebellion on the Cross and absorbed all of God's wrath against those things, so that you could boldly approach the Throne of Grace.
There is a real body of bona fide believers who have received mercy and grace in their time of need, and they stand ready to be conduits of that same mercy and grace for you.

Do you know where the dignity is found in this debate?
Not amongst the shrieking divas shouting their abortions and waving hangers around like deviant keepsakes. Dignity is found in the sisterhood of saints who love much because they have been forgiven much.

Lay down your weapons and your arguments and your fight.
You will not win this one.
Neither your volume, nor your passion, nor your numbers will win this one.

This is not about winning.
This is about living.
You living.
Living with a forgiven past, a new heart, a fresh start, by way of a faithful Savior.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God?
Such were some of you. But you were washed; but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.
I Corinthians 6:9,11

Now, that's something to shout about!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

The Gospel of Psalm 121

I flagged the other night. I could feel it. Funny when sin comes upon you unsuspecting, crouching at your door. I was just puttering around the kitchen, and, whamo! there it was in my heart. It spread to my mind, and I was beginning to 'go there' where I shouldn't. It spread through my body, where I could feel my jaw tighten and my muscles clench.

Take every thought captive...
Master it, or it will master you...

It was a momentary stand on the precipice of sin, vanishing almost as quickly as it came. I fought it; I caught it--thanks only to the Holy Spirit. But it had come. I can't deny that. I don't mean to imply that me battling sin is somehow infrequent. It's just that this time was more like a weird out-of-body experience in which I was simultaneously fighting the battle and observing it.

The heart is desperately wicked...
Every inclination of the heart is only evil all the time...

Sin did not pounce on me from the outside. It was not lurking around the corner. The devil didn't make me do it. Sin came from inside my heart because that's where sin always comes from. I was nobody's victim. I didn't need therapy, counseling, or healing. I needed to repent.

I lift my eyes to the mountains. From where shall my help come?

Psalm 121, my favorite psalm, is a Song of Ascents. When the Jews made each of three annual, required pilgrimages to Jerusalem, they sang songs of ascent. And those mountains? We're inclined to read into the text that they were a source of help. But Ligon Duncan disagrees. Those mountains, which signified Jerusalem, were a menace. They were the reason the psalmist was crying for help in the first place. I have to agree.

But forget for a moment the physical dangers of the road. Forget the wild beasts. Forget the lawless men. Forget the blistering heat of the day or the terrifying darkness of the road at night. They were going to Jerusalem to meet the Lord.

If there's one area where the ancient Jew has the modern Christian licked--in spades--it would be the way he feared the Lord, as in, he was terrified. These were people intimately acquainted with what the Lord could do, not for them, but to them. It was part of their psyche because it was part of their history:
the earth opening up and swallowing people whole...
serpents biting and killing them...
fire consuming them...
plagues decimating them...
enemies dragging them off to captivity...
(For a more complete catalog of God-induced misery, see Deuteronomy 28. Yikes.)

So here's the Jew, making his annual pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It was supposed to be a time of feasting, celebrating, not what the Lord had done to them, but for them. Nevertheless...he will be cut off from his people if he doesn't go. And he must not appear before the Lord empty-handed when he does go--you know, the same Lord who did those things cited above...

Where does his help come from, indeed.

My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.

Oh. So the Lord, who is making this requirement of me, is going to help me carry it out. Now hold on. What does that sound like? The gospel. This sounds like the gospel. God is going to ask me to do something hard...and then He's going to help me get it done.

Author Trevin Wax says in his book, Gospel-Centered Teaching, that we must be careful to read all of Scripture in a way that is distinctively Christian. He says that if we read, for instance, the Old Testament in a way that a faithful rabbi would concur with...we're reading it wrongly.

So how does the gospel impact the way I read this, my favorite psalm? I can see how the Jew on his pilgrimage might read it. But how do I read it through a cross-centered lens?

He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day, nor the moon by night.

Sleep is an incredible gift. On a good night, the sun sets, the work is over, the melatonin kicks in, and we're off to LaLa Land. On a good night. But not all nights are good nights. I can think of a number of things that keep me from having a good night:
A child heavy on my heart...
A difficult relationship...
A health issue...
The future...
The past...
But most of all, the ultimate sleep stealer is the reality of my sin and the fact that that makes me not right with the Lord. Scares the livin' daylights out of me. For some reason, I'm able to think more clearly when the sun is up. For some reason, I'm able to see the facts, preach the gospel to myself, and understand the renewing mercies of the Lord during the day. And that's why I need to sleep, not think, at night.

But He will not allow my foot to slip. That truth should give me rest. He keeps me, AND He will not slumber. Here's the good news: the Lord does the work of wakefulness so that I can find rest and sleep. No wonder the psalmist says elsewhere that He gives sleep to those He loves.

The Lord will protect you from all evil; he will keep your soul.

Evil. My first thought of evil is bad guys. Criminals. Terrorists. Tyrants. People who seek to do me harm. But the fact is that the most damaging evil is the evil in my own heart. I know that. Deep, deep down, I know that. We have got to start thinking correctly about evil. God does NOT promise to keep me from the bad guys. He promises to keep my soul.

When I had that out-of-body experience the other night, it was sobering. I was instantly aware of how sinful that was against the Lord, what a precarious place that put me, how quickly something offensive could bubble up out of my heart. But He was faithful. As quickly as I sinned, He was right there with a warning. And He was right there with forgiveness. He was keeping my soul.

The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever.

One day, two thousand years ago, another Man made this pilgrimage. He looked to the hills of Jerusalem, set His face like flint, and went. He went, not to celebrate what the Father had done for Him, but to receive what the Father was about to do to Him. He did not come empty-handed; He offered Himself. And the awful irony is that His sacrifice cut Him off from the land of the living. The Father poured out His wrath...and then the Father turned His face away.

Because Jesus did not appear empty-handed before the Lord, I do not appear empty-handed before the Lord.
Because Jesus was cut off, I will never be cut off.
Because of what the Father did to Him, I can celebrate what He will do for me.

The Cross is not ancillary to Psalm 121.
The Cross is key to Psalm 121. 
So let's read it again, this time through the lens of the Cross.

I will lift up my eyes to the mountains. From where shall my help come?
My help comes from the Lord who made Heaven and earth.
He will not allow your foot to slip; He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun will not smite you by day nor the moon by night. 
The Lord will protect you from all evil; He will keep your soul. 
The Lord will guard your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever. 

The Lord brought me in. And the Lord will bring me all the way home.
My help comes from the Lord.
That's gospel, people.
That's gospel.