How to Pass on the Faith, Part 2: The Case for Catechesis

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The Church of God will never be preserved without catechesis.[1]– John Calvin

Especially in our day, and whether you’re a fan of Calvin or not, it’s hard to dispute the need for a solid teaching framework in passing on the Christian faith. As theologian Al Mohler observed, “we live in a culture where many are not only lost [Isa. 53:6], they’ve lost even the memory of what it is that they’ve lost.” A case in point is the picture above.  In one sense, it perfectly summarizes the case for Christian catechesis: Catechize because now is not forever.  In other words, there’s more to this life. Eternal realities matter and we need to learn and teach God’s perspective. The “then and there” should inform the “here and now.”

The truth is, however, that the picture above has nothing to do with Christian catechesis. Rather, it’s a great visual from an aspiring alternative rock band (Nickelback-esque) that liked an old word and put their own spin on it. Their site says:

“Catechize is defined as ‘to question systematically or searchingly.’ Everyone out there has many questions about life, we just ask ours through music.”

For this band, the fact that catechize once meant primarily to teach and give answers through the use of questions is totally lost. Their re-imagining the term works because few have any memory of the original meaning.

It also works because these days questions are welcome in a way that answers aren’t. Yet, passing on the Christian faith means passing on a solid framework of revealed answers to important questions. It’s a mission that’s counter-cultural and it’s not easy. We all know, however, that growth in any important area requires discipline and intention: weight loss, fitness, playing a sport, writing well, etc. Even basic math or learning English requires memorizing a base structure like multiplication tables or ABC’s.  It’s the same with catechisms—collections of questions and answers designed for memorization and recitation to teach others the core doctrines of the faith.

Catechisms have different purposes:

  1. Instructional– To explain the gospel and the key building blocks on what it’s based (doctrine of God, human nature, sin, etc.).
  2. Apologetic—A catechism is more than a summary of what the Bible teaches; it stands out against the errors of the times. In our case, secularism is the water we swim in and includes beliefs like:[2]
    • I’ve got to be true to myself and certainly not some tradition or scripture unless I like what it says.
    • My beliefs should make me happy and if yours make you happy, then that’s good for you. It’s not right, however, for you to impose your answers or truth on me or anyone else.
  3. Pastoral—forming the character of Christ in the body of Christ (both as individuals and in community).
  4. Confessional—for example, we use catechisms to test our ministers related to licensing and ordination.

Tim Keller in his introduction to the New City Catechism Devotional gives four reasons why we still need catechisms:[3]

  1. Classic catechisms “take students through the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer—a perfect balance of biblical theology, practical ethics, and spiritual experience.”
  2. “The catechetical discipline of memorization drives concepts deeper into the heart and naturally holds students more accountable to master the material than do discipleship courses.”
  3. “The practice of question-answer recitations brings instructors and students into a naturally interactive, dialogical process of learning.”
  4. Catechetical instruction helps us be less individualistic and more communal. It reminds us that Jesus taught us to pray, “Our Father,” rather than “My Father.”

Besides the above, catechizing gives a framework so that Christian words and phrases are understood in a Christian way. Or to use carpentry imagery, think of it as “a mental foundation on which… spiritual life will be built.”[4]

What happens when we don’t have a framework of healthy, orthodox spirituality? In construction, when you don’t have a robust framework that’s to code, it affects everything: insulation, drywall, plumbing, electrical, HVAC, etc… Without a strong framework, we settle for chicken-houses, shanti’s, and cardboard boxes.  When you’re homeless spiritually, there’s no choice but to settle for hacks and “abandominiums.” Abandominium—that’s a word my friend who works with ex-offenders in Camden taught me.  It’s basically an old condominium that’s now abandoned.  Many of the residents of his halfway house jokingly say, “I got me an abandominium.”

One emotionally unhealthy gentleman I knew—I’ll call him Jack—had a brilliant mind. With no strong catechetical framework, however, he was susceptible to anyone who played on his emotions or claimed supernatural experience (e.g. “God spoke to me…” or “God told me in a dream…”). Without a strong understanding of historic Christianity, Jack gravitated to teachers who tended to yell loud, have little training, and always interpret the Bible literally.

Today, he’s tormented by false or inadequate concepts of things like hell, the unpardonable sin, suffering, and the silence of God.  Fear and shame are his masters, not Christ. He loves his spiritual abandominium and it’s difficult to get him to consider living anywhere else. In some ways, it would be better if he knew nothing about the Bible and Christianity. I’ve often wished there was some way to bull-doze his shack-like thinking so he could get a fresh start with a proper foundation and framework. Yet, we all know—even from experience with ourselves: it’s hard to teach old dogs new tricks.

That’s why catechesis is largely preventative work.  We catechize children so they don’t go through life vulnerable to “every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14) like Jack. Yet, even as adults with bad habits and various forms of “stinkin thinkin,” there’s hope: we can unlearn things and scripture memory and catechesis help. As noted above, memorization drives messages deeper in to the heart. It also drives out lies, replacing them with truth.

This year I’m teaching an adult Sunday School class on How to Better Understand and Pass on Your Faith. It’s designed to reintroduce attendees to the benefits of catechesis and in the process to help them 1) better understand and internalize their own faith and 2) pass it on in effective and healthy ways to the next generation. We will be using the New City Catechism, a modern-day resource aimed at reintroducing the essentials of faith.

If you’d like to join us, consider downloading the free app “New City Catechism” and/or getting this excellent and inexpensive package. For more related to the importance of teaching on children early, watch this fun and fascinating 7.5 min. video.

 

 

[1] Quoted in Westerhoff and Edwards, A Faithful Church, 127.

[2] https://www.cardus.ca/comment/article/5120/catechesis-for-a-secular-age/

[3] The New City Catechism Devotional (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.

[4] The New City Catechism: 52 Questions for Our Hearts and Minds (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.

How to Pass on the Faith, Part 1: The Problems with Catechesis

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One who is catechized must share all good things with the one who catechizes. Galatians 6:6 (a literal rendering)

Catechesis—teaching using questions and answers—is a strange religious idea and many have no clue what it means.

My friend, Jay, recalled his first experience with the word: He went to play ball with his neighborhood buddy but found, unfortunately, his buddy wasn’t immediately available.  Why? He had to go to something called “catechism” first.  And so Jay followed his buddy to the Catholic church and waited for him on the steps.  Then, after “catechism” was finally out of the way, they got to play ball.

Like my friend as a young boy, many view catechesis as a foreign and unwelcome experience—a boring interruption in an otherwise fun day. Others see the practice as antiquated, irrelevant, or even potentially brain-washing. Even people of faith point out that you can’t make kids Christian by dumping information into their heads.

Despite the unfamiliarity and bad press, catechesis is a biblical practice reflected in the verse above and is related to one of the marks of the earliest Christians: devotion to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). Catechesis comes from the Greek katechein and means to teach orally or to instruct by word of mouth. It is broadly defined as “the church’s ministry of grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, delight.”[1] Catechisms are collections of questions and answers designed for memorization and recitation. Throughout the history of the church, Christians have used catechisms in this way to teach others the core doctrines of the faith—especially as contained in the Apostle’s Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord’s Prayer.

Whether one is a fan of formal catechesis or not, passing on the faith to the next generation is important to all Christian parents. The question is how do we pass it on?

It may only take “a spark to get a fire going” but you don’t start the fire of faith by memorizing facts. As Jamie Smith has emphasized in his writings like Desiring the Kingdom, true change happens at the level of desire not knowledge. Not disagreeing with Smith, however, many arguing for the importance of catechesis point out that “you are laying the kindling and logs in the fireplace, so that when the Holy Spirit ignites your child’s heart, there will be a steady, mature blaze.”[2]

Those who argue for the ongoing use of catechisms face many cultural obstacles as well. Here are just three that the authors of Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old-Fashioned Way point out:

  • “Catechesis assumes the existence of authoritative truth that needs to be taught.” Our culture, however, roots truth, not in a sovereign God, but in the autonomous self. And so, my truth may not be your truth.
  • “Personal guesses and fantasies about God replace dogma as our authority…”
  • “Today’s agenda is learning Bible stories rather than being grounded in truths about the Triune God.”[3]

The older I get, the more I’m a fan of creeds and catechisms. Still, I’m with those that want—on the whole—to pass faith on informally, rather than formally. Those who have parented or worked with youth know well that significant things often happen at insignificant moments. Further, if you associate something like a catechism with a rigid, curmudgeonly parent or teacher, that’s going to affect how you view catechesis itself. Many studies show the importance of emotional health and parental attachment in raising healthy children. In fact, one study showed that “having an emotionally close relationship with fathers may provide a broad, secure foundation that is more important that specific interactions around religious topics.”[4] These studies speak to the priority of warm, accepting, safe, and enjoyable relationships in passing on faith.

Another problem I’ve personally observed, especially in reformed circles, is the tendency to elevate head knowledge—including catechesis—over topics like relationships, healthy marriage, vocation, emotional health, or a heart for God. That’s why for some “attention to doctrine is sometimes actually avoided, lest it induce contention and cold-heartedness and thereby diminish devotional ardor.”[5] But “rote memorization of catechisms without a lively, interactive relationship of didactic exchange between catechist and catechumens was not… the Reformers’ intent…”[6] Their aim was to change the heart through habit and ritual in repetition, and this is done by “lively, interactive” exchange in the context of loving relationships. Otherwise, familiarity breeds contempt and what is memorized will be just like a train that runs continually by that no one hears anymore.

Finally, there are some who feel that if you’re going to take the time to memorize something, why not just memorize Scripture?  What can compare with God’s word?  I sympathize with this view. Psalm 119:11 says “I have stored up your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.” (ESV) I grew up from the fourth grade on in a Christian school environment.  We were required to learn three verses a week and one chapter per month.  Honestly, it wasn’t too hard because we repeated the three verses out loud several times a day and we did the same once a day as a group with the chapter of Scripture (e.g. Psalm 1, 23, the Beatitudes, etc.). All the memorization was in the King James Version (KJV) and, I suspect, informed by the Westminster Shorter Catechism. Over the course of my life, I’m amazed at how many times scripture stored in my heart has benefited me, and how much I still recall.

God promises that his word will not return void (Isa. 55:11) but that doesn’t replace the need for a formal framework to pass on the essentials of historic Christianity. It is to this topic—the Case for Catechesis—that we turn, next week.

In preparation, consider learning more about one of the following that you know the least about: The Apostles Creed, The Heidelberg Catechism, The Westminster Shorter Catechism, or the New City Catechism.

 

 

[1] J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old –Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 182.

[2] The New City Catechism: 52 Questions for Our Hearts and Minds (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2017), 8.

[3] Op. Cit.,15.

[4] Greg Priebbenow, “Dad Matters! . . . The Spiritual Influence of Fathers,” Formingfaith, accessed November 14, 2016, https://formingfaith.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/dad-matters-the-spiritual-influence-of-fathers/. Used by permission.

[5] J.I. Packer and Gary Parrett, Grounded in the Gospel: Building Believers the Old –Fashioned Way (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 17.

[6] Ibid., 65.

Reflections on the March for Life

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A person is a person no matter how small. – Dr. Seuss

Last week marked my one year anniversary with Care Net and my second year participating in the March for Life. It was the 45th march protesting and marking the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the now infamous Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.

There were over one hundred thousand[1] folks there for this peaceful demonstration, although it got almost no coverage from the mainstream media. CNN, for example, largely ignored the march but prominently featured the women’s march (I guess unborn women don’t count?) that evening and the next day, live-streaming events in two locations. Why such bias? One of the biggest reasons is because “It is taken today as a truism that in order to be a feminist you must be ‘pro-choice’. The right to abortion is often deemed to be the most fundamental right of women, without which all others are said to be meaningless.”[2]

As I’ve written previously, I’m certainly an advocate for the equality of women. I’m confident, however, that a civilized society can find a way to protect one life in a way that doesn’t rely on destroying the life of another—especially a pre-born, defenseless child.

Our art often mirrors our values: In visually stunning 2017 sci-fi action movie Blade Runner 2049, the second installment in the Blade Runner franchise, there is a particularly harrowing scene [Spoiler alert, although not a plot spoiler!]. The main antagonist, Niander Wallace played by Jared Leto, is a “replicant” manufacturer—a god-like character who is trying to create “replicants” that can reproduce.  In the Blade Runner films a replicant is a bioengineered android.

Again, in this chilling scene, a newborn replicant drops out of a womb bag as a fully formed adult female.  Covered with amniotic fluid, she is extremely feeble and can barely stand. Using some kind of floating scanners, Niander examines her closely and finds her infertile.  He then takes a scalpel, slices her womb, and kills her because she is deficient—not what not he wants. The scene is meant to horrify and introduce us to one of the story’s main villains. Niander’s savage taking of the “newborn’s” life makes us fear him.  Part of what makes the scene work is that we connect the violence done to the “newborn” with a fully formed—otherwise perfect—adult female.

Somehow, today in America, we’re not similarly horrified by the violence done to a pre-born child. They’re among societies’ “invisibles”. Their embryonic form hides the monstrosity of our own disregard for life. For many, It’s not a real child.  It’s just a “fetus” or a “product of conception.” Ultrasound technology continues to help change these perceptions, but we still have a long way to go. Here are some fresh stats:[3]

  • 60% of the women having abortions are in their 20’s.
  • 40% have no religious affiliation.
  • 86% of those who have abortions are unmarried.

There are, however, some positive trends on the horizon: The faces of those who march are getting younger. Also, here are three encouraging things I learned at the Evangelicals for Life conference last week (held for three days coinciding with the march):

  • Millennials have a heart for societies’ “invisibles” and find abortion—especially late term abortion—more and more unacceptable.
  • For every abortion clinic, there are four pregnancy centers offering compassion, hope, and help to the pre-born, as well as moms and dads facing pregnancy decisions.
  • The abortion rate has decreased 50% since 1980.

All this begs the question: how does the Church best continue to care about and work to change things?  Here are three ways that also address the stats in bold above:

  1. De-link pro-life efforts from politics. Otherwise, we will not gain a hearing. Our twenty-somethings are not impressed with the weird tribal games of our current two-party political system. Once we do this, we can…
  2. Reframe the conversation around compassion for societies’ invisibles (refuges, the pre-born, victims of sex trafficking, those with down syndrome, etc.). In other words, the church needs to become known for how it loves rather than how it votes. As Pastor Rick Warren has said, “You can’t preach the gospel to those who aren’t listening [i.e. “no religious affiliation”]. How do you get people to listen? Love gets their attention.”[4] As Jesus said, they will know we are Christians by our unity (Jn. 17:21) not by which president roots for our cause.
  3. Focus and work on our own issues and sins, rather than everyone else’s. Instead of being known first in our communities for what we’re against, we need to become known for what we’re for. For example, evangelical churches decry co-habiting and gay marriage, all the while we have a divorce rate similar to our culture. Here’s an idea: Let’s tend to our own business—our own sexual impurity and weak marriages. Let’s repent of our own sins. Let’s work together so Christian marriage is once again viewed as a beautiful and compelling concept.

Finally, take heart! As Christians, we shouldn’t be marching primarily for political solutions. Our mind’s eye can’t be fixed on Washington’s power plays. Being enamored by and fighting for political power has and will continue to lead us seriously astray. Our misdirected focus causes us to devalue gentleness, respect, grace, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit—including how his power most often shines in weakness. As believers in Jesus, we march to the beat of a different drum and we serve a different King who promised, “…I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18-ESV)

And as Dr. Tony Evan’s recently said, “God’s not going to skip the church house to fix the white house.”[5]

 

[1] Number given by March for Life in their follow-up email.

[2] http://www.theliberal.co.uk/issue_9/politics/fof_hoskings_9.html

[3] Cited by Pastor Todd Wagner of Watermark Church at the Council for Life Pastor’s Breakfast in Dallas, TX on 1.9.18.

[4] From The Purpose-Driven Church.

[5] I heard him say this at the Council for Life Pastor’s Breakfast in Dallas, TX on 1.9.18.

Saying Yes to Diving in the Caribbean

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You’re never too old to set a new goal or dream a new dream. –C.S. Lewis

It’s not often you get an invitation to stay at a friend’s sea-front home on the Caribbean island of Bonaire, combined with an offer to take you scuba-diving every day. Bonaire is one of the most beautiful and easiest places in the world to dive. There are no sharks and lots of shore access points where you can gear-up and walk right in.

All my wife, Pam, and I had to do to accept this kindness was to buy our plane tickets and get certified to dive.

Saying yes to Bonaire had a financial cost. Besides the plane tickets, there was the initial investment: diving certification classes and various equipment to purchase or rent. God has always provided faithfully for all our needs—sometimes miraculously—but there’s never been much margin. Then there was the sacrifice of time. The only classes available involved six all-day Sundays in a row and reading in between. Some of our Christian friends frowned on the Sunday commitment: “Church should be important.” After all, scripture says, “And let us not neglect our meeting together, as some people do, but encourage one another, especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.” (Heb. 10:26, NLT)

Others viewed it as an incredible opportunity and encouraged us to seize the day. They saw life as bigger than a church’s program. They also viewed Heb. 10:26 as referring to an important overall lifestyle habit that six weeks of diving classes wasn’t going to break. They spoke life and supported expanding our worlds.

I’m grateful for those later voices. They said carpe diem when others offered a cage. They refreshed when others repressed. They encouraged delight when others saw only duty.

So, what did we do? Viewing our friend’s invitation as a once in a life-time opportunity and in celebration of my fiftieth birthday, we decided to go for it and become certified divers. It wasn’t an easy accomplishment, especially for me because I did most of the class blind as a bat. My glasses, which of course I couldn’t wear underwater, are super thick. What’s more, for 90% of the class I didn’t have prescription lenses in my mask. I thought Pam would be the one to have trouble getting certified, but it was me! The truth is, we were all surprised I even passed, the instructor included. By the way, if you decide to become a certified diver and can’t see very well, I recommend getting customized lenses in your mask before you start the class. Just sayin’.

But here are the bigger questions: Was the choice to say yes to Bonaire worth it? Was the dream worth all the hard work, money, and time? Absolutely.

Scuba-diving on the coral reef is like gliding weightless through an amazing world teaming with colorful fish, plants, and animal life (believe it or not, coral is an animal!). In fact, despite Disney’s Finding Nemo being child’s animated fiction, it really captures well the energy and brilliant-colored happenings under the sea.  Snorkeling also gives a view into this multi-colored, busy wonderland. Diving is unique, however, in that it’s much more immersive and offers an experience like flying in a kaleidoscopic three-dimensional reality. It really was and is and incredible experience. We just returned from our second trip. Pam completed her twenty-second dive and I my twenty-first.

By the way, I have to wear my prescription goggles beginning when we gear-up at the truck just so I can walk safely down to the water. Yes, I’m sure to fellow travelers I look less like a fashionista despite my James Bond wet suit. But at least that makes me less of a liability to Pam, our friends, and myself. 🙂

Given our experience, I do hope you’re inspired and get an opportunity to at least try snorkeling. More importantly, I hope:

  • You don’t let challenges or fear of what others think keep you from celebration, delight, and experiences that will grow, stretch, and expand your horizons.
  • That if you get a diving in the Carribean-like opportunity, you will do your best to say yes and make it happen.
  • You’re committed to your local church, but always in a way that encourages and empowers others (including yourself) to seize the day.

 

How the Holy Family Gives Laser Focus to Ministry

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[Note: In light of the holidays, I’m sending this post, also published here this week, a day early. I wish you and yours a wonderful Christmas!]

In my current vocational role at Care Net, the Christmas story is especially significant, as it deals with the most famous “unplanned” pregnancy in history.

Earlier this year, my wife and I went to Orlando to celebrate my mom’s birthday. While there, she gave me a figurine of the Holy Family. It was originally my grandparents’, and my mom thought I would appreciate it given my life’s work to strengthen fathers and families.

holy family_mary and joseph_nativity_christmas.jpg

The representation of Joseph as a significant presence and guide in the family is uncommon. He and Mary are united in love and marriage and their child is safe.

Now a cherished fixture in my office, this visual is a daily reminder of eternal priorities and perspective. It gives laser focus to my efforts to equip churches and pregnancy centers in offering compassion, hope, help, and discipleship to men and women facing unplanned pregnancies.

Here’s how:

1. The Holy Family is an “icon” that invites unity from all three branches of Christianity. I’ve written more about this here, but all churches—Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant—use and love the nativity story. Further, the Christmas traditions of most Christian families include setting up a manger scene. Children grow up playing with and being fascinated by it. Baby Jesus gets carried around and many of us have even seen baby Jesus’, cows, donkeys, etc. with broken arms or legs because they’ve been played with so much!

Children adore the story and, for many, it’s their first introductory glimpse into the gospel described inJohn 1:14: “The Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.” (NLT) Again, whatever our Christian expression, the crèche has played and continues to play a significant role in our spiritual formation. As we mature in our faith and through the lens of the cross, we come to identify with lyrics like these from Julie Miller’s, Manger Throne: “That dirty manger was my heart, too. I’ll make it a royal throne for you.”

2. The Holy Family is an image that presents and preserves the ideal of the nuclear family. The nuclear family is a mom, dad, and their child(ren) living in the same home. It’s an idea—even for some Christians—that’s considered passé or something that never existed until the 1800’s. Consider this attempt from The New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology to give clarity on whether or not the nuclear family is rooted in Scripture:

“Parenting itself was clearly shared within the extended family or household, possibly with servants.There is no description of the nuclear family, considered so desirable recently in the West. Perhaps Christians adopted the model as it seemed a practical outworking of the NT teaching on sexual continence within marriage, as well as honoring the teaching codes of conduct and respect between parents and children (1 Cor 7 and Eph 6:1–4). The criticism of muddled families often springs from that teaching…

The family of Jesus himself is the only clear NT model [of the nuclear family]: the son of Joseph and Mary, he is known to have brothers and sisters (Matt 13:55–56). The only extended family member referred to is Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin (Luke 1:36), and she was not local. Christians, therefore, may well also have tended to adopt this pattern as supporting the idea that the nuclear family is the norm in present times. They have generally paid less attention to the extended family, though worldwide there are, of course, cultural variations.”

Despite intentions, the authors above leave the waters muddy regarding whether the nuclear family is biblically supported and should be championed and protected, or not. Notice the contradictory statements I placed in bold above:

  • “there is no description of the nuclear family”
  • “the family of Jesus himself is the only clear NT model”

It’s an all-too-common example of the unwarranted hesitancy—again, even in the Christian community—to acknowledge the nuclear family’s existence and extol its virtues.

Yes, the extended family (grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.) is also important in raising children and should be valued and affirmed. This is no reason, however, to dismantle the nuclear family or denigrate the model in which Jesus himself was born into and raised. Indeed, you can’t have an extended family without a nucleus. Moreover, many individuals and social workers today have no choice but to focus on extended kin because the nuclear family is weak, fragmented, or non-existent.

3. The Holy Family is a picture that focuses us on gospel potential. Helen Keller famously said, “The saddest thing in the world is a person who can see but has no vision.” When a client comes into a pregnancy center considering abortion, or a pregnant mom comes to us for help, what should we see? Certainly, we should see the vulnerable life of an unborn infant. Life-affirming work, however, isn’t just about saving a baby; it’s about raising a child. If this is true, we should see dads as potential Josephs who have unique and irreplaceable roles.

And if we are in synch with Jesus’ vision for the world, we’ll recognize idols of the heart, too: convenience, a woman’s body elevated over the that of a baby, adult plans and potential held as more important than a child’s, etc.

We’ll also see and share hope—the message of the cross and the forgiveness of sins. Bottom line, we’ll have an eternal vision for all as those that need to become disciples of Jesus Christ. The pregnant mom, her baby, and the boyfriend/father—are all potential “holy families.”

Friend, God has blessed us more than we know with the biblical story of Christmas. It’s a primary way to pass on the Christian faith. As a mom, dad, ministry worker, family member, or friend, you are a storyteller of a nativity narrative. What’s more, in dependence on God, you can become an intentional conduit to see that story played out in the lives of all those who receive him (John 1:12).

May the joy and peace of Christ be with you in fullest measure this season. Merry Christmas!

Making Life Disciples: Lessons from Allison’s Story

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[Note: This post, also published here, gives a glimpse into the work I do at Care Net. The intro and lessons learned, however, have wide application to all of our ministry efforts.]

Sometimes we think—or certainly want—our discipleship efforts to be like biting into a York Peppermint Patty: joy explodes into the lives of those we’re ministering to and things are never the same. Somebody gets introduced to Jesus and they’re instantly transported into their “best life now” and live problem free, henceforth, forever more.

This is a fantasy and an unrealistic expectation that veteran believers must purge from their service to Christ. The problem is not God’s power. He can knock someone off their horse (Acts 9) or even cause a donkey to do his bidding (Num. 22), but that’s not His normal MO. The invitation to become a disciple of Jesus Christ is a costly, long-term journey, which many turn away from. Some go away grieved (Matt. 19:22) and we grieve when they go away. Further, the wise servant of Christ will avoid over-helping. Yet, this doesn’t change the need for patience and longsuffering. Nor does it change our excitement in seeing even one sinner come to repentance (Luke 15:10)!

Although it’s still a work in progress, Allison’s* story is a case in point.

Beth led a team at her church through Making Life Disciples (MLD) in the fall of 2016. After completing this DVD-based training designed to equip churches to offer compassion, hope, and help to men and women facing unplanned pregnancies, they were eager to offer their services. While waiting, Beth got a call from a couple in her church, Bob and Lori, offering to house a homeless pregnant woman should the need arise. Beth then told her local pregnancy center (PC) about the offer.

Shortly after, Brenda, the PC director, learned of a pregnant young woman, Allison, through a local foster care agency. Allison had aged out of the system and needed transportation for appointments and errands. Brenda called Beth, the MLD team leader, and Beth reached out via text to Allison. When they finally met, Allison had gone from considering abortion, to deciding against it, to apathy about her pregnancy.

Beth was eager to put into practice skills she had learned: authenticity, acceptance, humility and empathy. She began driving Allison on select errands and appointments, opportunities that gave plenty of time to begin to build a relationship. In fact, Beth wrote, “Once she [Allison] saw her baby’s ultrasound pictures, she moved from apathy to eager anticipation. She even texted them to ME!”

During this time, Allison was staying with an older couple that decided to downsize to a one bedroom apartment. This left Allison in need of housing and, providentially, Bob and Lori’s housing offer was still available. In fact, it was even in the same county Allison was receiving benefits from! She moved in with them in July of 2017 and then one of Allison’s friends bought her a car. This meant Beth didn’t need to drive her anymore, a good thing since she planned to be away for three weeks. Sadly, when Beth returned, Allison seemed to have no desire to see her anymore.

Beth then met with Brenda from the local PC for encouragement and learned that Allison, as her due date grew closer, was now considering adoption. Bob and Lori knew little about this this topic, so they turned to Brenda for help. This led to Allison choosing potential adoptive parents and all seemed well. When Allison had her baby in September, however, she changed her mind and sent the family away.

Although Allison had still not responded to Beth, Beth asked Bob and Lori to attend a PC gala with her “to celebrate, find encouragement, and be blessed.” They had a great time together and, after the event, Beth gave Bob and Lori a card with some cash to give to Allison.

During this time, still not hearing from Allison, Beth also learned that Bob and Lori felt hesitant to talk with Allison about the gospel. In fact, Beth learned that Allison would not even come to the dinner table until after Bob and Lori had prayed. Beth shared learnings with Bob and Lori from a Care Net conference workshop on sharing your faith, and they felt much better equipped to initiate a respectful and non-threatening conversation.

On October 11, 2017, Allison finally texted Beth to say “Thank you for the card!! You need to come visit!” Beth was ecstatic, as it was the first she’d heard from Allison since July. This interaction led to a personal visit, during which Beth was able to hold Allison’s new baby, Dillon! Beth’s church then had a baby shower for Allison, which she attended, and gave her many gifts and offers of help.

Truthfully, Allison still needs a lot love and support. She struggles to overcome the effects of previous abuse and some days can’t even seem to get herself out of bed without Bob and Lori’s help. Even now, with Allison getting ready to make yet another housing transition, Beth’s “life team” is in conversation with their church’s Deacons to potentially assist with Allison’s first month’s rent once she leaves Bob and Lori’s.

As you can see, Allison’s story is a fragile, work in progress—the ending of which is not yet clear.

So, what can we learn from this long and winding road? Here are five things this story teaches us about being a life disciple:

  1. It includes  many ups and downs, and requires commitment and emotional intelligence. Making life disciples is more than going through a class. It takes lots of perseverance and patience to partner with God in offering compassion, hope, and help.
  2. It’s very relational and requires working closely with others. As Beth noted in sharing the above, “I learned that sometimes we only play a small part in the rescue of a pregnant woman in need. It’s up to many of us, the centers, the church, and community resources to provide the support she needs.”
  3. Life disciples can coach and present options (even be part of saving a baby’s life!), but they can’t control outcomes and must always respect others’ choices.
  4. Life disciples keep a pulse on the situation: they can serve when called upon or fade into the background when necessary.
  5. Finally, it doesn’t always result in conversion. Still, life disciples never lose sight of God’s heart for those they serve : to trust Christ, pursue marriage to a good spouse, and raise kids like Dillon in healthy families, supported by a loving, grace-based church. For many of us, there’s no more glorious and compelling vision on the planet!

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” (Gal. 6:9, NIV)

* Names have been changed to protect anonymity.

Why I’m More Interested in Conversion Than Collusion

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One of the greatest joys I’ve had to date is baptizing new believers into the Christian faith—especially my children (that’s my son, Timothy, above!). Experiences like that—especially given the disheartening state of politics—are far more compelling than Hillary’s email server, collusion with Russia, or Donald’s tweets. It’s not that I don’t want justice to “roll down;” I do. It’s not that I don’t want to hold power to account, particularly if there’s deceit and nefarious intent; I do. It’s just conversion and transformation from the inside out connect me directly to Jesus’ heart for the world:

Jesus came and told his disciples, “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:18-20, NLT)

Here’s why this passage excites me:

  1. Jesus is the most powerful God-man over the world: “I have been given all authority in heaven and on earth.” “God is the “great king over all the earth.” (Psa. 47:2, NRSV) Putin, Kim Jong Un, and President Trump all seem puny from this perspective. The blow-hard rhetoric and actions of every world leader—even their true intentions—are under the sovereign control of God. As Proverbs says, “A king’s heart is a water stream that the LORD controls; he directs it wherever he pleases.” (21:1, NIV) Further, only the Sovereign Spirit knows the key to our hearts and can change our desires.
  2. Those who love Jesus have a very important job to do—one that requires initiative, intention, and action: “Go and make disciples…” The ESV Study Bible notes that, “The imperative (make disciples, that is, call individuals to commit to Jesus as Master and Lord) explains the central focus of the Great commission, while the Greek participles (translated go, baptizing, and “teaching” [v.20]) describe aspects of the process.”[1] This job requires that we reach out in loving relationship. That we also honor God, refresh, and serve in our vocational callings. That we also say something about God, give away an appropriate book about faith, or invite someone to church. As a professor of mine used to say, “If we have a testimony of life without ever having a testimony of lip, how will anyone ever know why we do what we do?”
  3. The local church is the primary context of discipleship: “Baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Baptism is an identification rite, a way to become part of both a local and universal body of believers. Baptism attaches us to the church of the living God and an organized structure of pastors, elders, and deacons. Discipleship is a long-term process, the beginning of which is closely associated with baptism into a local church or parish. Therefore, discipleship done God’s way requires local congregations. Practically, maturity requires mentoring and life-change happens best in community—especially Sunday morning worship, small groups, and marriage and family.
  4. Learning to be a Christian is a process: “Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you.” Newborns are very dependent, vulnerable, and need to learn many things. They’re not good at rules. It’s the same with baby Christians. Grace, watchful care, nurture, kind instruction, and lots and lots of patience are how discipleship gets done. And even when one learns to obey Jesus, rejecting the legalism of some church leaders, we still need to do so out of love and gratitude, not fear (1 John 4:18).
  5. God loves diversity: “Make disciples of all nations.” I’m a white guy that was born in America but, honestly, churches where everyone looks like me are sterile and boring. One day, people out of every kindred tongue, tribe, and nation will worship at the feet of the Lamb. (Rev. 5:9) This being so, it’s a lot of fun to start now worshipping and learning with and from other races, ethnicities, and cultures. That’s how churches expand and grow in healthy ways.
  6. We are loved by the King of the Universe and never alone: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In light of the good news of the gospel—including the eternal presence of Christ promised here, these psalms come alive:
    • “How precious is your steadfast love, O God! All people may take refuge…” (36:7a, NRSV)
    • “You give them drink from the river of your delights. For with you is the fountain of life…” (36:8b-9a, NRSV)
    • “Great is the Lord who delights in the welfare of his servant.” (35:27b, NRSV)

 

 

[1] The ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossways, 2008), 1888.

The Problems with Justification by Faith Alone

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“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Romans 5:1, ESV)

“You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:24, ESV)

I thought about titling this piece “How Wesley Helped Reformed Folks Get the Gospel Right” or “Orthodox Church Corrects Protestants for De-emphasizing the Mercy of God” or “The Imaginary Cage Fight Between Paul and James.” Along with being provocative, all three titles would be accurate.

As I stated last week, I believe in justification by faith alone, or sola fide as it’s sometimes called. Again, the doctrine—properly understood—was central for Luther and is clearly taught in Scripture. I prefer the fuller, clarifying phrase “justification by grace alone through faith in Christ alone” however, for the following reasons:

  1. The phrase “justification by faith alone” can be misunderstood to mean that we are saved by sincerely repeating a certain phrase or group of sentences. We have all heard or said, “Just pray this prayer…,” as if a certain “sinner’s prayer” is like one of Willy Wonka’s Golden Tickets, providing magical and sure entrance into heaven. In reality, the justification of the sinner is based solely on the mercy of God in Christ, and is received through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). Justification is based on Jesus’ righteousness, not the worthiness of our faith.
  2. The phrase “justification by faith alone” tends to elevate how Paul uses the terms “justification” and “faith” over James’ usage of them (James 2:24).  This has led some Protestants like Luther to disparage James and refer to his book as “an epistle of straw.” Additionally, it has reinforced the stereotypes of some Orthodox and Roman Catholics that Protestants contradict Scripture and distort the gospel.  For example, the Orthodox Study Bible in an article on “Justification by Faith,” notes how the Orthodox understanding of justification is different than Protestants: “Orthodoxy emphasizes that it is first God’s mercy—not our faith—which saves us.”[1] Of course, this is a mischaracterization of the Protestant position—but one that is perpetuated, in part at least, by the Protestant insistence of using the phrase “justification by faith alone.”
  3. If our concern is fidelity to Scripture, an accurate understanding of the Gospel, and the unity of true believers around God’s truth, we should use language that is biblical and not reinforce stereotypes.  Jesus walks in the midst of his churches—errors and all—and we should seek accurate language that builds bridges rather than that which further cements the divide.
  4. Our precision here (at least clarifying “justification by faith alone” with “justification by grace alone through faith in Christ alone”) could keep some from falling into error—error that becomes more attractive when Protestants de-emphasize or ignore the plain sense of James 2:24.
  5. Finally, Reformed scholar Donald Bloesch, gives this helpful note in reconciling the doctrine of “justification by faith alone” with James 2:24: “For those who adhere to the full inspiration of Scripture, as we do, the Epistle of James presents some difficulty, since it is expressly stated that ‘a man is justified by works and not by faith alone’ (James 2:24).  How can this be reconciled with Paul’s emphasis on faith apart from works?  Luther did not attempt any reconciliation and relegated James to the level of Law, not Gospel.  Wesley is better here for he points out that James has in mind a different kind of faith and a different kind of works than Paul.  James is speaking of faith as intellectual assent, not faith as the commitment of the whole person to the living Christ (as in Paul).  Moreover, he is referring not to the works of the law (which preoccupy Paul) but to the fruits of faith.  Our justification is exhibited and carried forward by the practice of our faith, though its ground or basis is in the free mercy of God.”[2]

For reflection:

  • Have you wrestled well with Paul’s question: Is your faith grounded in the free mercy of God or what you do (the works of the law)?
  • Have you wrestled well with James’ question: Is your faith mere intellectual assent or commitment of all you are to Christ?
  • Isn’t it cool how God used Wesley to help clarify Luther—how he used a less Reformed tradition to help a more Reformed tradition?
  • Have you thanked God recently for how different branches of Christianity and denominations help us clarify our beliefs?
  • Even if you disagree, do you listen well to others? Can and do you accurately represent their views?

 

 

[1] The Orthodox Study Bible (Conciliar Press, 1993), 348.

[2] Donald G. Bloesch, Essentials in Evangelical Theology, Volume I. (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2006), 228.

Why the Reformation Still Matters

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I’m a Protestant who believes Luther made an awful lot of mistakes, but got the big thing right—the gospel.- Mark Noll

This summer I traveled to Sacramento to attend the General Assembly of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC).  A highlight of my week was getting to hear EPC member and American historian Mark Noll. In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation this October 31st (Halloween is also Reformation Day, by the way), he was giving two keynotes on Martin Luther and “Why the Reformation Still Matters.” My wife, Pam, knowing how much Noll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind has influenced my ministry, talked me into getting the picture above.

It’s an amazing thing to learn “live” from one of the top evangelical historians in the world. Now at Regent College, he once served at Wheaton—the evangelical Protestant equivalent to Harvard.  He also taught at the similarly prestigious Catholic Notre Dame. Given his credentials and the breadth of his career, I knew Noll would give a picture of Luther and the Reformation that was true to its aim of being “responsible, humble, and accurate.”

Noll said the Reformation was a blessing because it empowered the laity and checked the power of the Pope. He said it was also a curse because it brought unprecedented strife and controversy. He called it “a crisis of authority that failed to unite.”  From a Protestant perspective, the Reformation did in fact reform.  From a Catholic perspective, Luther split the church.

Noll gave five reasons why the Reformation still matters. I use his outline and key thoughts below, adding my own for clarity and simplicity.

  1. Context matters – Luther’s world was a time of new learning and a return to sources. The printing press was invented and there was a return to sola scriptura (Latin for “by Scripture alone”). Noll pointed out, however, that sola scriptura was understood as a critique for reform, not revolution. In other words, it was not a rejection of all confessional authorities. Noll also noted that Luther would have met few in his life that weren’t baptized. By contrast, most people today don’t go to church, or believe that Jesus is the only way to God. Further, in our postmodern and pervasively secular culture, it is imperative that we emphasize an experiential and loving relationship with the living God, rather than cold religion, stony dogma, and being good at rules.
  2. Daily life matters – For Luther, this included vocation, marriage, and even simple gifts like wine and beer! Noll specifically called attention to how we still need an apologetic for marriage today. Statements like the Manhattan Declaration may serve a needed role in defending traditional marriage, but there is no better apologetic than a living, breathing, healthy, and joyful Christian marriage. Many young people, especially children in Christian families, hear much about how hard and difficult marriage can be. This is definitely part of the truth about marriage, but we all need to hear more of the life-giving directive to “enjoy life with the wife whom you love” (Eccl 9:9a) and how to do that well. One of the cool things about the 2003 movie Luther is how it captures the fun, delight, and spunk in Luther’s relationship with his wife, Katherine.
  3. Singing matters – Music has a sacramental quality and Luther is famous for saying “music is the handmaiden of theology.” In other words, music is a conduit of God’s grace; it can serve and connect us with biblical truth in powerful ways. Noll celebrated Luther’s most famous hymn, A Mighty Fortress, as “biblical, emotional, and long-lived.” Many of us love this hymn because, every time we sing it, it puts steel back in our faith and helps us remember the precious truths of Psalm 46:1: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
  4. Faithfulness matters – Luther went through bouts of depression and had a lot of set-backs; his influence, however, was amazing. His actual nailing of the 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Castle Church door may be more legend than fact, but not the size of the ripples associated with his legacy. Noll reminded us that “history is littered with people who felt defeated when they died, but history proved a different reality concerning their influence.” May we remember this when we get discouraged.
  5. The gospel matters – Noll called Luther “God’s violent physician.” Luther’s manner and rhetoric was often aggressive and caustic. He made some egregious statements about the Jews and he could be extremely cantankerous, especially as he got older. He even stubbornly refused Calvin’s kind overtures to seek unity on their respective views on the Lord’s Supper. Still, Noll concluded by saying this: “I’m a Protestant who believes Luther made an awful lot of mistakes, but got the big thing right—the gospel.” Luther reminds us that “the most dangerous sin of all is the presumption of righteousness.” Our good works cannot save us. The gospel is the good news that we are justified by grace alone through faith. Thanks be to God!

Noll believes the two greatest statements that came out of the Reformation were the Heidelberg Catechism and Luther’s Smaller Catechism. As a way of celebrating the Reformation’s 500th anniversary, why not pick one or both up, and give them a read? You might also order the 2003 movie, Luther, and watch it together as a family.

 

 

What I’ve Learned from My Catholic Friends

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In an interview celebrating the legendary friendship of J.R.R. Tolkien, a Roman Catholic, and C.S. Lewis, evangelicalism’s “patron saint,” British author Colin Duriez describes what Lewis learned from Tolkien:

[Tolkien showed him that] “the nourishment he had always received from great myths and fantasy stories was a taste of that greatest, truest story– of the life, death, and resurrection of Christ… Lewis learned [from Tolkien] how to communicate Christian faith in imaginative writing. The results were Narnia, the space trilogy, The Great Divorce, and so forth.”

This summer, my wife, daughter, and her fiancé celebrated the lives of two other special people: favorite aunts who were great in their own right. memorial service for one and then, the next day, a 90th birthday for the other brought our extended family together for a rare reunion. Amidst many precious interactions, I spent thirty minutes with my cousin’s family who are devout Catholics. Their kids are similar ages to mine, and it was a delight to get to know them and see just how much we shared—a love for fishing, the arts, favorite bands like Switchfoot, favorite movies like A River Runs Through It, and especially a faith that permeates our lives.

In the great hall of Christianity, I’m in one of the Presbyterian rooms within the larger Protestant corridor.  This isn’t because I’m better than others who have chosen other rooms. It’s simply because that’s where God has led me and it’s the best place I’ve found to carry out my faith with integrity.

Twenty-five years ago, at an evangelical Protestant seminary and overwhelmed by thousands of denominational possibilities, I longed for the comfort of dogma. At that time, a friend sent me a series of winsome and engaging lectures by Scott Hahn, a former Protestant pastor who became a Roman Catholic. I listened with an open mind and was surprised at how many of my Protestant perceptions of what Catholics believed were inaccurate, dated, or incomplete.  The historical authority of the Catholic Church was an attractive idea given the intellectual fatigue I was experiencing, trying to sort through difficult theological questions with only a Bible in hand.

In the end, I became both more settled in my Protestant roots and more respectful of my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters.

More settled—It was this statement by the late British theologian John Stott that brought rest to my evangelical angst:

“The true evangelical wants liberty and authority.  We want to ask questions, to think, to pry, to ponder.  We want to do all these things, but within a framework of submission to an ultimate authority.  But we’re asking questions about our authority: what does it mean and how does it apply?  So we experience an uneasy tension between liberty and authority.  I couldn’t find a lodging place in either Catholicism or liberalism, because one seems to major on authority with little room for liberty, while the other emphasizes liberty with very little room for authority.”[1]

More respectful—It was, and has since been, good and godly Catholics and their teaching on key matters that have bolstered my appreciation of their place in the great hall. Here are just four of the many ways Roman Catholics have blessed my life to date:

  1. Catholics stress the importance of regular confession of sin to human beings (in their case, a priest), not just God. Protestants love to quote 1 Tim. 2:5 to say that we don’t need to confess our sins to a priest because we can go to directly to God. We are content to ignore, however, James 5:16, which says, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed.” Catholics, even if one doesn’t agree with their confessional system, at least provide a safe place for the confession of sin to other caring human beings. In contrast, my childhood independent fundamentalist Baptist experience taught me to hide my faults, act as spiritual as possible, and judge others with problems.  There was no safe place or encouragement to be real with people. I now prioritize honest, safe one-on-one relationships, and in small groups. Yes, thank God, we can go directly to the Father through Jesus (1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 4:16), but we still need to be real about our faults and struggles with appropriate, safe brothers or sisters—faithful friends—who serve us in a priestly role.
  2. Catholic teaching helped me see the deeper reasons why pornography is wrong: it defaces the image of God and “does grave injury to the dignity of its participants (actors, vendors, the public), since each one becomes an object of base pleasure and illicit profit for others.”[2]
  3. Catholics, unlike many Protestants, have had a consistent moral and public voice for the sanctity of marriage and family, and against abortion. I will not write more on the pro-life cause now as I have already done so recently; however, here is an honest and compelling Roman Catholic video clip on marriage.
  4. Another example of rich Catholic cultural discernment can be seen in this incisive statement by former Pope Benedict XVI on the importance of fathers: “Human fatherhood gives us an anticipation of what God is. But when human fatherhood does not exist, when it is experienced only as a biological phenomenon without its human or spiritual dimensions, all statements about God the Father are empty. That is why the crisis of fatherhood we are living in today is an element, perhaps the most important, threatening man in his humanity.[3]

To all who may or may not have some “inkling” of what I’ve been talking about above, I close with this provocative observation from Protestant theologian Herman Bavinck:

“We must remind ourselves that the Catholic righteousness by good works is vastly preferable to a Protestant righteousness by good doctrine. At least righteousness by good works benefits one’s neighbor, whereas righteousness by good doctrine only produces lovelessness and pride. Furthermore, we must not blind ourselves to the tremendous faith, genuine repentance, complete surrender and fervent love for God and neighbor evident in the lives and work of many Catholic Christians.”[4]

[1] https://thirdway.hymnsam.co.uk/editions/no-edition/high-profile/life-in-the-spirit-of-truth.aspx

[2] Catechism of the Catholic Church, p. 565.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI cited from a speech given in Palermo, Italy in March 2000.

[4] Richard J. Mouw, Adventures in Evangelical Civility (Grand Rapids, MI: Bravos Press, 2016), 199.