April 14, 2014

Reflections on T4G

This year's T4G conference in Louisville (8th-10th April) entitled 'Unashamed of the Gospel' brought together 7,000 attendees to the worlds worst-named sports arena - 'The KFC Yum! Center'. Anything positive taking place in a venue with that name is a bonus, and this year's edition of the biennial conference certainly had a lot of bonuses.

Worship was led by Bob Kauflin as before. He leads very well, though I found it disconcerting that he did so from a grand piano, in the middle of the arena rather than the front. It gave his voice a
disembodied quality for the 1,000-2,000 of us in front of him, though it was a boon for the guy whose Ecuador football shirt reflected so brightly in Bob's stage lighting that I was reaching for my Geiger counter.

Some highlights from the plenary sessions, with links to the audio:

Thabiti Anyabwile on, 'The Happiness of Heaven in the Repentance of Sinners'.
Repentance is increasingly thought of as unnecessary, Thabiti pointed out, even though it is "the goal of the gospel". He was disarmingly candid about his own struggles with personal evangelism, while issuing the uncommon challenge, "Do we approach evangelism expecting to share in the heavenly joy?"

Matt Chandler: 'Christ is All'
"For you to be a beast in the pulpit and scared of your neighbour helps no-one", was coupled with the timely advice, "Don't get tazed by an air marshall", as he invited us to be bold - but not obnoxious - in sharing the gospel. He shared his personal go-to passage of Job 38 for those times when he slips into self-sufficiency. Wonderfully counter-cultural reminder that actually we DON'T have what it takes to persevere, but God does and he will share it with us.

Mark Dever with a title so long it needs an exposition all of its own.
In a fallen world, some fears come true, and yet our fears tend to lie to us about how important they are. Satan uses truths about terrible events to build the lie that God has abandoned his people.

Kevin DeYoung's title was even longer and more deeply encoded than Dever's
This wasn't some rabble-rousing, locker room team-talk designed to make us amped up about the Bible's inerrancy. Rather, it was a logical and relentlessly Biblical explanation of the inerrancy of Scripture that made us...amped up about the Bible's inerrancy.
One of his closing points addressed the nonsense about accepting Jesus' words but not the rest of the what the Bible says, as DeYoung pointed out that Jesus doesn't stand above Scripture, he obeys it and fulfils it.

Ligon Duncan, whose sermon titles and deportment promise few thrills...
...and yet who always seems to deliver brilliant, pastoral exposition from the gut. I think his greatest achievement in this sermon was that he made getting to the gospel from Numbers 5 look easy.
"If you are going to bring people to Jesus, you need to know that he knows what to do with them when you do."
Oh, and he also took us to Hebrews 13:13, which I'm a sucker for...

John MacArthur: 'Mass Defection: the Great Physician Confronts the Pathology of Counterfeit Faith'
Looking at John 6 and the masses of people who left Jesus at the end of his message, MacArthur pointed out that "Nothing Jesus did offended them. What he said offended them. Don't make people accepting your gifts or service as accepting the gospel. Salvation is by believing the words".

Al Mohler spoke many highly educated and impressive sentences on, 'The Open Door is the Only Door: the Singularity of the Gospel in a Pluralistic Age'
Unfortunately for me, I didn't track with him very well. I think my struggle with listening to Mohler is that because many of his sentences are densely packed with meaning and implication, they take
time to think on, which distracts me from several subsequent sentences. Couple that with his weak spot of not giving us a clear structure to follow and my weak brain, and I get kinda lost...

John Piper was "Persuading, Pleading and Predestination: Human Means in the Miracle of Conversion"
Romans 9...Piper pondered...why is it there? Both at all, but more particularly at that point? Because if God is not faithful, all the encouragements of Romans 8 (e.g. "There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus", v.1), mean nothing. If God was not faithful to the Jews, why would he be faithful to Christians? Romans 9 chronicles God's faithfulness.
What effect did the doctrine of unconditional election have on Paul's relationship to lost people?
It sustained him in his sorrow over lost fellow Jews, empowered his labours to persuade the lost to be saved, and impelled the earnestness of his prayer for the salvation of the Jews.

David Platt on 'Relenting Wrath: the Role of Desperate Prayer in the Mystery of Divine Providence'
Our prayers affect God's actions...said the reformed pastor. :) Focusing on Exodus 32 Platt showed us how God's perfections, plans and promises are unchanging, and yet his purposes are unfolding. Moses (and the Ninevites after Jonah's visit), fulfilled rather than changed God's plans. It was striking as he also took us through Acts, demonstrating how every major move of the gospel in that book came in response to prayer.
"God hasn't called us to watch history, but to shape history for the glory of his name."
"Let us not settle for prayerlessness, and so settle for powerlessness."

This was my fourth T4G, and the combination of fellowship, encouragement, great preaching and cheap books ensures I'll do my best to be there again in 2016. 

February 10, 2014

A Great Commenduction to Romans

Commentaries have a very bad name and no-one, it seems, wants to read them. I've been able to talk a

few of my non-preaching friends into reading a commentary, but on the whole my recommendation has been met with the kind of knowing smile I would give an astrophysicist should he or she claim that rocket science isn't really that complicated.

Which explains why both the author and the publisher are at pains to convince us that Tim Keller's new book, 'Romans 1-7 For You' "Is not a commentary", but rather "an expository guide". The intent is not to juice every syllable or leave no phoneme unturned in the search for meaning. Rather, Keller takes what Paul wrote, explains it a good deal without being exhaust(ing/ive), applies it to the every day, pokes at how you think and what you want, relates it with culture and leaves you with the distinct feeling that you understand and appreciate the text rather more after reading Keller's comments…I mean expository guide...than you did before.

I'm not sure you get to say it's "not a commentary" and follow that up within two paragraphs of the start of the book by helpfully explaining that, "Servant here is literally slave - doulos". Or pointing out, as he does, that "Much has been written about how to translate the word Paul uses here, hilastrion…" etc…
On the other hand, it's not a very detailed commentary, and certainly if you subsist on a diet of William Hendriksen (does anyone?) then you'll regard this as superficial.

So I'll just call it a 'commenduction'. Part commentary, part introduction. And really, it deserves its own word because I'm not sure anyone else has done this. There are introductions, there are commentaries for preachers, there are commentaries for the phoneme-splitting PhD-ers…The closest I've come to an engaging, well-written commentary before this is the 'Welwyn Commentary Series'. Most of those are simply expository sermons however, and are far less commentary-ish than what Keller's doing. Booksellers should ease their conundrum of where to put this book, but stocking it on the 'Christian Life', 'Bible Study', 'Small Group Studies', 'Commentaries' and 'Theology' shelves…that should cover it.

For normal people, this book will be a fantastic way of getting you into the book of Romans and getting it into you. For understanding what's going on behind the text as well as in it, and making you want to read your Bible more. It boldly and humbly and lovingly addresses personal, moral and societal issues such as homosexuality, and encourages you to sit under rather than on top of God's Word.

For preachers, it will do exactly the same thing. No-one's going to throw out their complete set of Lloyd-Jones commentaries as a result of this book and its presumed successor, 'Romans 8-and-some-other-chapters For You'. But possibly having not seen the wood of God's truth for the trees of Lloyd-Joneses comments, this may prove a blessing.

For small group leaders, it gives a great format for leading discussions (including questions at the end of each chapter), as do the first two books in this series: Galatians and Judges (I've greatly enjoyed leading my small group through the Galatians volume).

And there are enough piercing one-liners to keep Twitter feeds busy until the next volume is released. Not just twee throwaways, but as one friend doing counseling work put it to me, "If no Lewis quote is to hand, Keller is the next best thing". That is, short statements that open up deep truths and leave you thinking more deeply about the Word and how it impacts your life. For example, "If you don't understand or believe in the wrath of God, the gospel will not thrill, empower or move you", and "Faith is simply the attitude of coming to God with empty hands…[it is] only the instrument by which you receive your salvation, not the cause of your salvation".

I do have quibble on the content, which is where Keller says that "The main difference between a Christian and a religious person is not so much their attitudes to their sins, but toward their 'good deeds.' Both will repent of their sins; but only the christian will repent of wrongly-motivated good works, while the religious person will rely on them."

Doesn't that mean that the "religious person" - a non-Christian - has not in fact repented of their sins at all? The Pharisees and Judaisers being cases in point. I don't think the Bible leaves room for the notion of a truly-but-only-partially repentant person, and such a concept seems a little unhelpful, reducing repentance to something more akin to regret than genuine sorrow, a la 2 Corinthians 7:10 and godly v worldly sorrow.

All in all, the series is a great concept, and in this third book of the series Keller has in my opinion done an outstanding job of helping us better know and love what God said, who God is and what God has done.

January 3, 2014

Discipleship Focus for 2014: Personal Devotions

'Beating Satan to a Pulp', 'Redeeming the World a Million Converts at a Time', 'Conquering Spiritual Army on the Move'…those would make way cooler headings for 2014's Discipleship Focus here at
Google 'exciting personal devotions' and this comes up.
First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman.

Maybe one day I'll try and get away with doing that. But for now, what I'm excited about, what I hope you will be excited about, and what I think is most important is this: encouraging each other about our personal devotions.

It's like the accounting department of the corporate world though, isn't it? No-one ever launched a marketing campaign by punching the air and shouting 'we're gonna be ROCKING the book-keeping this year!!' while macro formulas flash across the screen and their air is filled with pounding music.

And whilst I'm not sure what it would look like to rock your personal devotions, I'm looking forward to what God will do this year as we make his glory our focus and look to serve him every day of our lives.

I don't know any Christian who has the devotional life they'd like to have, or think maybe they should have. Either we end up complacently thinking "hey, it is what it is", or we beat ourselves up endlessly for having failed to meet an arbitrary standard that keeps moving just beyond our reach.

So as we head towards the end of the first week of 2014, with new year's resolutions already mostly broken, let's encourage each other into the Word and into prayer - not by saying "you gotta do that", but by talking to each other about God. About who he is, what he's done, and the immense privilege of being his children.

January 2, 2014

Is Jesus Enough…When I've Lost a Loved One?

Preaching about bereavement here at First Baptist Church of Grand Cayman on Sunday was almost as intimidating as it was a privilege. Having an albeit limited amount of training and experience in grief counselling, it has been a concern of mine for a number of years that many people are suffering great, debilitating and ongoing pain from unresolved grief. The opportunity to address that from a Biblical perspective was wonderful, and as I looked in the faces of a number of people on Sunday who are in the dark hole of grief right now, it was a reminder that the comfort they need can only come from God, and yet there is much that we can do to channel that comfort, point people to our gracious Saviour, and just BE THERE for them.

I wanted to use this space just to paste a fuller list of the points I made aimed at helping people support those who are suffering with grief:

i.       Don’t try to fix them
Ø  You can’t, and to act as if you can is insulting their intelligence and denying them the validity of their grief (e.g. “They will live forever in your memory” – no, they won’t. There will be a memory of them in your memory, which you treasure and enjoy. But they don’t live there.)
Ø  Not even with Bible verses
People sometimes have enough self-awareness to realize that they can’t fix the grieving person, so they try to get God to fix them instead by quoting Bible verses at people like they’re handing out Advil. “Here you go – read this verse, you’ll feel better”. Maybe you’ve picked a brilliant verse about God’s sovereignty or his plans for his people, but if you present it as a cure, you’re hurting more than helping. There is no cure, there is only comfort. God’s comfort. Take God’s love to people at these times more than his sovereignty.
ii.     Don’t tell them you know how they feel.
They don’t know how they feel, much less you. The fact that you’ve lost someone, the fact that you
and they may both have lost, say, your respective fathers…it doesn’t matter how similar your situations, you don’t know how they feel. The fact of your having lost someone and are still trusting your Saviour will encourage them that God can bring them through too. Claiming to know how they feel won’t.
iii.    Do what Job’s friends did at first / If in doubt, keep your mouth shut.
Or even tell them you don’t know what to say, but you know they’re hurting.
“When they saw [Job] from a distance, they could hardly recognize him; they began to weep aloud, and they tore their robes and sprinkled dust on their heads. Then they sat on the ground with him for seven days and seven nights. No one said a word to him, because they saw how great his suffering was.”
(Job 2:12-13)
Note that for this first week, the amount of suffering was inversely proportional to the amount of talking!
iv.    Do give them God’s comfort (1 Cor 1:3-4)
Sympathise, love, and seek to bring comfort without judgement. This isn’t about you or what you think about grief, it’s about them, their suffering, and their need to cling on to the God of all comfort.
v.     Do give specific offers of help
(e.g. “Can I bring you dinner on Tuesday?”) rather than general ones (e.g. “Give me a call if there’s anything I can do for you”). They’re completely incapable of working out what they need to do, never mind asking someone to do it for them. When we have people round for dinner and someone sees me cooking and asks if there’s anything they can do to help, I tell them yes there is. When they ask what that is, I tell them I have no idea. If they’d asked me the previous day, when I wasn’t in the middle of it, I could have easily given them a task, but when I’m in the middle of cooking…no chance. Same kind of deal, a thousand times worse, when someone is grieving.
vi.    Do pray
vii.  Do make church a place that bereaved people want to be
“If one part suffers, every part suffers with it…” (1 Cor 12:26)
Ø  Do we reject all thoughts of judging their grief?
Ø  Do we hold out God’s comfort?
Ø  Do we do more than hope someone else is caring for them?
Ø  Do we find out the birthdays or anniversaries of the ones they’ve lost? Or give them particular comfort over Christmas?
viii. If you want to ask them how they are, make sure you’re prepared for a proper and full answer. If you don’t want a proper and full answer, think of a different question.
ix.    Do treat them like normal, uncontagious human beings
x.     Don’t rationalize the death, e.g. “God always takes the best ones early” or “They had a long/full life”
xi.    Don’t ignore them
xii.  Don’t judge how they’re feeling by how they’re looking.
A cheerful face does not mean they’re doing well, and it does not mean they’re more full of faith compared to the person who looks depressed.
xiii. Don’t worry that you can make someone’s grief worse. You can’t, any more than you can cure it. Next to the death of their family member, your insensitive comment is next to nothing.
xiv. Don’t try to offer a silver lining, e.g. “Well at least you’ll be able to get that wallpaper changed at last”

That's not intended as a definitive or full list, but as a contribution to a neglected area. 

Still Loving the Sinner, Still Hating the Sin

One of the latest trendy religious thoughts popping up in places like this, is that we should ditch the phrase "love the sinner, hate the sin" from our vocabulary as Christians. Nothing terrible there - it's a popular Gandhi quote, not a Jesus quote, so we can ditch it if we like...

The idea of ditching it seems to be based on people's experiences of obnoxious/judgemental/ostracising/unwelcoming/homophobic people who don't quite seem to know what to do with people who think/act/believe differently from them, except to make sure to be standing in a different part of the room. I have known people like that...I have been like that myself; it's not very winsome, and not like Jesus at all.  

The article rightly points to the problem of Christians obsessing about one particular sin (whatever it is) and jumping up and down about it. But in its reaction against bad experiences of Christians, or the his own struggles with how to think of sinfulness, he seems to be confused about how Jesus talks about sin.

For example, near the top of the piece Micah Murray says that, 
"I thought I just needed to try harder. Maybe I needed to focus more on loving the sinner, and less on protesting the sin. Even if I was able to fully live up to that "ideal," I'd still be wrong. I'd still be viewing him as something other, something different". 

The theory is that to hate a person's sin is to treat them as an "other" in the way that Jesus never did. The writer makes the bold claim that Jesus "didn't act like they were sinners. They weren't a "project," a "mission field." They were his friends"…which is to drive a tragic wedge between two interconnected parts of (Jesus) life: having genuine friends and telling them about Jesus (including the bits they might not like the sound of). 

Jesus did in fact talk about a group of people as being "other", and was completely unabashed about the "us and them" of salvation. His mission involved bringing people into the "us" that is his family, and out of the "them" of lostness due to sin. When Jesus said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matthew 4:17) it was because people needed to repent.

When he talked about God saying "I never knew you" to people who claimed to know him, Jesus was being VERY  'us and them' (Matthew 25). When he told a prostitute to "go and sin no more", he did not as the author claims "affirm[ed] that sin is not her deepest identity", but told her to…well…sin no more, while showing people clearly that people lost in their sin are to be lovingly confronted, not judgementally avoided or persecuted.

The author seems so afraid of characterising people as something that might upset them, or being judgemental himself, that his column loses the central part of Jesus' mission, which was not to make people feel better or avoid upsetting them, but to save them from death and rescue them from the consequences of their own sinfulness. 

Murray also appears to make no real distinction between sins that people who have never repented continue to refuse to repent of, and sins that we as Christians still struggle with. He quotes Romans 8:1, where Paul the Apostle says that, "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" [italics mine], whilst skipping the importance of being in Christ Jesus, i.e. a new creation and not just a creation. 

Go ahead, ditch Gandhi's quote, but when we're thinking about sin, the best thing we can do for people is to be like Jesus and lovingly hate their sin, not pretend it doesn't exist. 

I HATE other people's sin. Although not, I hope, as much as I hate my own. 
I HATE sin because it comes between people and God.
I HATE sin because it's ruined the world.
I HATE sin because it means eternal death. 
I HATE sin because Jesus does.

I LOVE sinners because God made them - i.e. everyone - in his own image.
I LOVE sinners because Christ died to reconcile them - including me - to God.
I LOVE sinners because Jesus does.

September 23, 2013

Tragedy, Grief & Sin

I don't remember too many other weeks as bad as this one for the sheer volume of tragic incidents around the world:

- 16th September - Washington DC, USA. 12 killed by a lone gunman with unknown motives.
- 16th September - Mexico. 110 dead after the country is hit by two storms: Hurricane Ingrid and Tropical Storm Manuel. 
- 21st September - Baghdad, Iraq. 60 Muslims killed by Islamic militants at a funeral.
- 22nd September - Peshawar, Pakistan. 80 killed in a suicide bombing by Islamic militants at a church.
- 23rd September - Kandahar, Afghanistan. 11 Afghan police killed by Islamic militants.
Super Typhoon Usagi

c.130 casualties of environmental disasters.
c.310 murders.

Oh, and let's not forget: Mar 2011 to date - Syria. 100,000...that's ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND killed during civil war/massacres (UN estimate)

And yet...we don't know a fraction of it. These are just the incidents near the top of my BBC News feed. In truth, given global averages, there were likely around 9,000 killings across the world in the last 7 days. In the last year, India topped the global killing charts with 43,000 murders while Honduras endured the highest rate of murders, with 92 murders per 100,000 inhabitants last year. 

Sixty-six children under the age of 15 die from physical abuse or neglect every week in the industrialised world. Twenty-seven of those die in the US - the highest number of any country. 

Regarding the killings by Islamic militants, Western public opinion continues to oscillate between naiveté that says, "if we'd only listen to their concerns we could make this all OK", ignoring 1,000 years of ingrained hatred, and on the other hand the violent prejudice that wants to lash out against anything off-white and thinks we're a few well-placed bombs from fixing the 'Middle East problem'. 

Thinking through all this as Christians, we can vary in our responses. Sometimes an incident will hit home particularly hard, and leave us almost gasping for air at the news of several deaths, while we shrug our shoulders at the news that 89 people were blown up. Then we might feel guilty about it for a second...but ultimately realise we don't have the capacity or the obligation to feel deep personal grief at every tragic killing in the world. 

However, there is one who does feel deep personal grief at every death in the world - 'tragic' in the emotive sense or not. Every time a human being dies, God sees the symptoms of sin and it grieves him - His sovereignty over all things does not diminish that grief in any way. See Genesis 6:5-6, for example:
"The Lord saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become...The Lord was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain".
And when that person who dies has chosen to reject God and be without him forever, God's grief is immeasurably greater - regardless of how 'nice' that person was. The damnation of a terrorist is no more or less tragic than that of a smiling mother-of-two who worshipped at the church of self.

How do we respond to God's grief at sin and the effects of sin? 

August 28, 2013

Getting Over Miley Cyrus

Or more specifically, getting over her act on Sunday night at the Video Music Awards (an MTV production).

So what happened? Well, essentially she wore almost nothing, simulated sex with a (married) co-performer and made many lewd gestures with the help of a giant foam finger.

As a result, Cyrus herself rejoiced over her ability to attract an apparent 300,000 tweets for each of the several minutes of her "performance", most viewers were shocked, many were appalled, it was generally agreed that she is a hopeless dancer and some people thought it was great that she was doing what she wanted to do without fear of what anyone thought about it.

What made people particularly horrified was that Miley Cyrus used to play the role of Disney creation Hannah Montana, a pleasant enough tween/teen in a family-ish TV series based around a real singing career created around the character. For years she played to live audiences of tens of thousands of screaming tweens and pubescents, and parents were happy to go along, safe in the knowledge that they were getting nothing but what they felt was morally appropriate entertainment.

Miley Cyrus is now 20 years old however, and has long since shed any pretence at appealing to tweens or children. In fact, she'd rather those folks would go away because it detracts from her credibility as the serious artist she thinks of herself as being.

Sunday's act was not off-the-cuff. It was choreographed, planned, thought about by her managers and agents, and settled on as a great way to finally put the lid on Hannah Montana and move her posters from the walls of 10 year old girls and onto the walls of 15 year old boys.

Maybe it works for her, maybe it doesn't.

But why the outrage? Was anyone seriously surprised by this? And why do people seem to think this is anything different from what's already going on? Have any of the horror-struck people ever heard of Lady Gaga, Madonna, Christina Aguilera, Pussycat Dolls, Britney Spears, Beyonce Knowles...etc., etc...? Newsflash folks: this is what modern pop music is.

That's why I'm slightly confused, even concerned, at the warnings I see written about how parents must keep their kids away from Miley Cyrus material. I mean, I agree they should...but what music videos SHOULD they be watching? Are people leaving their kids in front of MTV unsupervised? Of course many are doing just that, and have done ever since MTV became to kids and tweens what pacifiers/dummies are to babies. But Cyrus's antics are little different to what is already saturating the music video market.

Further, had anyone noticed the lyrics of the song she was dancing to?
"It’s our party we can do what we want
It’s our party we can say what we want
It’s our party we can love who we want
We can kiss who we want
We can see who we want...

Doing whatever we want
This is our house
This is our rules
And we can’t stop
And we won’t stop"

This has been riding high in the charts for weeks, so no-one should have been surprised at the dance moves that accompanied it. Children across the world have been singing along to Cyrus's self-absorbed, immature, sexually promiscuous lyrics without many people saying much of anything about it, and all she's done now is perform a dance routine entirely in keeping with what she's been singing.

Hopefully what this will do is make more people realise MTV is not a safe place if you want your children/teens to grow up with any sense of self-respect or godly attitudes to (the other) sex. If it takes Miley Cyrus' desperate act of sexual attention-seeking to wake people up to the moral sewer that is the music video industry then great, but please let's not lay this all on Miley Cyrus, or talk as if she's markedly more immoral than the next attractive young woman using titillation to make money.

She is merely trying to carve her own sordid niche in an already morally bankrupt industry.