Faith for Thinkers. Wed, 18 Jan 2017 10:04:08 +0000 en-US hourly 1 50456626 If You Question It, Delete It. Wed, 18 Jan 2017 10:04:08 +0000 “Kill your darlings.” – William Faulkner.

There is an editor inside you.

He doesn’t always give you answers, but he often, as you reread, highlights something. It’s the sentence that keeps catching your eye – the one you keep questioning. It’s the point you’re just not sure about.

Of course, your inner editor is passive aggressive, so he won’t say anything. He’ll just keep highlighting it, every time you read.

Until you delete it.

If you question it once, play with it. If you question it twice, delete it. I’ve never regretted it.

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I Need Risk Calculators. Tue, 17 Jan 2017 10:05:36 +0000 Calculating risk is a good thing. 

You may be a risk calculator. You may err on the side of caution. Good – the church, your organization, what have you – we need you. 

Or, you may be like me: I tend toward pioneering, Han Solo style: “Never tell me the odds.” Risk? I don’t want to hear about it. The more risk, the better.

But I need risk calculators, and risk calculators need pioneers. Why?

Because risk calculators help us assess our values. Pioneers know that everything worth doing is a risk. But risk assessors know not everything risky is worth doing. 

If we’re looking to spend our church savings account on a $1 million bowling alley, that’s risky. A risk assessor will say, “Hey, that’s got all kinds of pitfalls.” That’s a good and helpful observation. 

Now the pioneer must ask: “Is this worth the risk?” In other words, “Is this at the center of our values? Are we really that passionate about a bowling alley?” 

Probably not. 

On the other hand, there are plenty of things I’d be willing to stick my neck out for: justice, mercy, community, truth. The risk assessor will rightly give us pause on those issues: “You know, pursuing justice in this particular way has a lot of potential pitfalls.”

To which the pioneer says: “True. And in this case, it’s worth it.” 

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A Theology of Privilege Mon, 16 Jan 2017 10:01:11 +0000 From the first, I don’t see anything inherently wrong in privilege. But I do – as Jesus – see something inherently dangerous.

And I think we white, western protestant types are particular susceptible. Take some case studies:

  1. Relativism – A symptom of not having Assad’s bombs hovering over your head every morning and evening. Relativism is a cute idea when it is closeted into cloistered rooms for folks with a PhD in philosophy. But it simply isn’t workable when life isn’t moldable at the touch of an app. Relativism is a product of privilege (for more, see liberal reactions insisting on truth-telling now that a rogue conservative is in office).
  2. Limp-Wristed-Ness – What else do you call this? We are offended at a God of justice, a God of wrath, a God of hell. Why? Because we are privileged. Justice is assumed, for us. Of course we receive justice from our world – more than justice, privilege. So we are naturally offended at a God who dishes it out. But most of the world needs justice; a God of justice is in fact attractive to a normal person. A limp-wristed god is, too, a luxury of the privileged.
  3. Health and Wealth – It doesn’t matter how much faith you have, or how hard you work – if you live in a society with no upward mobility (most of the world), your faith simply doesn’t equate to wealth. In a privileged society of easy whiteward, upward mobility, we naturally equate blessings and faith with wealth – then we dangerously export it to the underprivileged. This, too, is less a product of thought than of circumstance.

There are hosts of other ways – equating spirituality with knowledge (a product of having access to education), scoffing at a miraculous God (a product of having all the medical resources we need), or measuring church quality by flavor (a product of having everything we do auto-customized to our whim).

The important thing is not that we eschew privilege – we have it. It won’t change.

The important thing is to engage theologically with a worldwide and historical church that doesn’t, and let them check our privilege at the door.

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ScribblePreach Awards 01.14.17 Sat, 14 Jan 2017 12:00:11 +0000 From the Pub: A New Year

“The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet, a new backbone, new ears, and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things, he will certainly do nothing effective. Unless a man starts on the strange assumption that he has never existed before, it is quite certain that he will never exist afterward. Unless a man be born again, he shall by no means enter into the Kingdom of Heaven.” – GK CHESTERTON

Kindle Deal of the Week: Fierce Convictions: The Extraordinary Life of Hannah More: Poet, Reformer, Abolitionist 

I’ve been a big fan of Karen Swallow Prior’s online presence over the last year. She’s a literary scholar and talent, and her book is on sale for 99 cents. You’re welcome.

Apologetics: What Christianity Alone Offers Transgender Persons

“Knowing these things should make us compassionate. While much of the thinking around transgender issues today is flawed, the pain experienced by those with gender dysphoria is all too real. We of all people should appreciate why, for we of all people understand the true depth of what’s wrong with this world. Our churches should be the places people feel most safe trying to articulate their own sense of not being right.”

Preaching:  Simplicity in Preaching

J.C. Ryle my man backing me up with his mad skillz.

Theology: Our Pseudo-Reformed Rhetoric

I wrote three brief posts this week on the ways we reformed folks can use the sufficiency and power of God’s word as an excuse, rather than a call to act in accordance. Here’s part 1, part 2, and part 3. 

A Glimpse of Truth: Entitlement is Optional

“Entitlement gets us nothing but heartache. It blinds us to what’s possible. It insulates us from the magic of gratitude. And most of all, it lets us off the hook, pushing us away from taking responsibility (and action) and toward apportioning blame and anger instead.”

Books and Lit: Francis Schaeffer and the Arts: A Retrospective.

This is a really epic and scholarly treatment of Schaeffer’s critiques and reflections on the arts by an excellent scholar and art historian.

Writing: Get It Out There

I needed to hear this: “If you have a good idea, get it out there. For every idea I’ve realized, I have ten I sat on for a decade till someone else did it first. Write it. Shoot it. Publish it. Crochet it, sauté it, whatever. MAKE.” – JOSS WHEDON

Christians and Culture: Os Guinness on the Church and Civilization

This is an extraordinary use of your time. Guinness did yearly lectures at Gordon Conwell while I was there, and I’d start salivating a month ahead of time. Listening to him always felt like waking up out of a cultural dream and seeing for the first time.

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Why Must Paul Preach With Clarity? Fri, 13 Jan 2017 10:29:57 +0000 “At the same time, pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ, on account of which I am in prison— that I may make it clear, which is how I ought to speak.” Colossians 4:4

How can Paul say he “ought” to speak clearly? Does it really matter? Isn’t God’s word sufficient to do the work? Doesn’t Paul trust in the “power of the word?” 

Of course he does! But unlike us in the reformed mold, he doesn’t see any tension between the power of God’s word and our ethical obligation to clarify it. 

“But doesn’t God love to work with poor communicators?” 

If by “poor”, you mean unimpressive to unbiblical Greco-Roman standards of rhetorical flourish, perhaps. 

But if by “poor” you mean unclear, then clearly the answer is “No. He does not.” 

“Well, it’s not like I’m preaching to my English congregation in Spanish! I’m contextualizing!”

Well, Paul goes further – he’s not praying that he might preach in Greek, as he ought – he’s asking for prayer that he speak greek in a way that will best enable his hearers to understand. Furthermore, he sees this as his ethical duty. 

Why? Because a failure to clarify is a failure to love. 

Maybe that’s the root of much of our pseudo-reformed rhetoric, in the end. 


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Why Aren’t the Reformed Wise? Thu, 12 Jan 2017 10:05:39 +0000 One reason is our refusal to look at the situation we’re in.

Again, citing the sufficiency/power/what-you-like, we often proudly refuse to lift a finger to help the lost, preach with clarity, strategize for mission, or otherwise do anything to shake ourselves out of traditionalism or passivity.

We downplay “techniques” and “strategies” for the contemporary situation because we are – we say – honoring scripture. My contention isn’t against honoring God’s word – just the opposite. I believe those citing this line over and against technique don’t, in fact, believe it.

Why? Because true honoring of God’s word requires a careful study of our situation.

Think of it: how does one “obey your parents” if you don’t know who your parents are? At least that much is required. Furthermore, obedience requires an understanding of your parents’ particular desires and needs, as well as the particulars of your culture which make for “honoring”.

But let’s press further back: someone, somewhere, had to understand the Hebrew language, as well as the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary of the English language in contemporary usage to translate that commandment for you. You also have a basic grasp of your situation – the language your situation provides – to comprehend.

You couldn’t possibly downplay any of these understandings in the name of honoring scripture.

Scripture is normative, no doubt. But a norm without a situation isn’t a norm at all. It’s just an abstraction. And that’s a lot of the reformed mold – abstraction by abstraction from abstraction. That’s not obedience, but hypocrisy.

I might also put it so boldly: Understanding the situation is not less important than obeying scripture – it IS obeying scripture. If we refuse to understand our situation, fine – but let’s at least set aside the notion that our motive is the honor of God’s word.

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On Using The Power of God’s Word to Disobey It. Wed, 11 Jan 2017 10:35:33 +0000 One of the things I strive to do here is help theologians care for the situation we find ourselves in, and vice versa.

The pat response on eternal loop is thus: “But I trust in the power of God’s word to do the work.” I’ve heard it as a reason to avoid illustration, adjust curriculum, change musical style, make clear sermon points, strategize small groups for mission, etc etc ad naseum.

It’s convenient, isn’t it?

Anything we don’t like to do may fall under the purview of “God’s word doing the work”.

But let’s examine this. What’s the scriptural justification? Isaiah 55:11 is commonly cited:

“So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”

Yes and amen. I see the “power of God’s word” aspect.

But what of the “to do the work”?

The context of chapter 55 doesn’t allow it:

Verse 1: “Come to the waters…”

Verse 2: “Listen diligently to me…”

Verse 3: “Incline your ear, and come to me, hear that your soul may live…”

And let’s not forget the climactic moment of the passage, in 56:1:

Keep justice, and do righteousness,
for soon my salvation will come,
and my righteousness be revealed…
…who keeps the Sabbath, not profaning it,
and keeps his hand from doing any evil.”

How, exactly, does one extract passivity from a passage like that?

We ought to say, “I trust in the power of God’s word.”

But if it’s an excuse from “doing the work”, may it be anathema.


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No More Channel-Flipping Sermons. Tue, 10 Jan 2017 10:55:00 +0000 Sermons should not feel like channel flipping.

One text here, one text there, one text over there. Citing 20 verses in a sermon does not an expositional sermon make. Just the opposite.

If it’s narrative, it should feel like a story.

If it’s dialectical, it should feel like an argument.

If it’s poetic, it should feel like singing.

But it should never feel like channel flipping from one verse to another.


Channel flipping sermons don’t teach people to read the Bible. They’ll hear a prosperity preacher do the same thing, and you’ve not taught them to read texts in context.

Channel flipping sermons don’t compel. They are overwhelming and confusing.

Channel flipping sermons don’t keep us faithful to the scripture we’ve selected. We make the text submissive to us when we draw so much outside it. If you need to fish all over scripture to make your point, you’re not making the point of the text.

Channel flipping sermons confuse outsiders. They don’t know the Bible – constant references to sources all over scripture, if overwhelming to Christians, will certainly turn away those who are unfamiliar. It’s a failure to translate the gospel into the language of the locals.

Channel flipping is cheap preparation. Anyone can sit down and list off 46 related scripture verses by looking at the footnotes in their study Bible. That’s not communication. It’s not being clear “as [we] ought” to be (Col. 4:4). And it’s being more lord than mastered by scripture.

So pick a section of scripture, and stick to it. Put down the clicker. Maybe change the channel once, from Old Testament to New, or vice versa. But hunker down. Tell the story, make the argument, sing the song. If I had to make a rule of thumb, I’d say three different texts is plenty, but two is ideal.

But don’t channel flip. That’s garbage entertainment.

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Don’t Speak. Say. Mon, 09 Jan 2017 10:48:38 +0000 There’s a sense in which you don’t understand anything until you concretize it.

There’s a sense in which you’re not saying anything until you concretize it.

If I say “Place”, I’m not saying much.

If I say “Victorian style home on Michigan Avenue in Chicago,” I’m saying more.

In communicating, strive for the concrete. “Climb down the ladder of abstraction,” as a wise professor of mine once quipped.

If you can’t do that, maybe you don’t know what you’re saying. And if you don’t, no one else will.

So concretize. Illustrate. Make a word picture.

Otherwise, you’re not saying. You’re just speaking.

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Three Ways Not to Respond to Culture Sat, 07 Jan 2017 10:21:49 +0000 Over-simplistic perhaps, but a helpful hand-guide I use with students:

Retreat – We can’t run away from the world. It would be like getting a prom dress but only wearing it in your closet. We’re clothed with Jesus to show off:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” – 1 Peter 2:9

Defeat – We can’t use worldly power to establish God’s kingdom. Think of a teacher who changed your life. Did they do it through threats? Grades? Powerplays? No – servanthood. Inspiration. If at heart Christianity is a matter of the heart, power has no place in spreading it.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” – 1 Peter 2:21-23

Delete – We can’t self-identify with the world. It would ruin the point we’re making. I remember justifying my going to an inappropriate movie with friends in high-school so that I could “be a better witness.” Yeah, because we totally did a Bible study right after. NOT.

Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.” 1 Peter 2:12

So what do we do?

We Robin Hood our culture.

Here is Robin Hood, in the midst of a usurped kingdom, awaiting the coming of King Richard. He and his merry men don’t retreat. They stay.

They don’t defeat – they don’t rise up and vie for the throne.

They don’t delete – they stay true and faithful to the just and righteous king.

They live in the midst of their culture, according to the principles of the true king (it’s not stealing, in that sense, since they’re just working in tandem with the true king’s laws). They take the resources of their world and do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with their king.

And that’s us. No, don’t go rob your local liquor store to feed the hungry.

But do “plunder the Egyptians”, and walk humbly with your true hero and King, Jesus. Don’t retreat. Don’t defeat. Don’t delete.


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