Saturday, April 23, 2011

Insights from James - Part 1 Count it all joy

I recently hopped into a new men's Bible study at our church - the Black Coffee Dude's study. It's obscenely early in the morning (6:00am), but the guys and the coffee make it worthwhile. We're going through the book of James, so I thought I would post some insights from our study each week. Today we looked at verses 1:1-18.

Context: The author James is a pillar of the early church and is writing to a Jewish Christian audience scattered away from Jerusalem, facing significant persecution. As our study leader and D.A. Carson's father like to say: "A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text."

v2 - Gotta love how the letter starts out: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds." (quotes here are NIV)  Seriously?! Ouch! Talk about hard application. He follows with the reason "because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything."

-> Regardless of the reason for the trial, temptation, or suffering, there is the option to respond in joy for the chance to grow closer to God and grow in character (not joyful in the event itself). We'll have to face the trial regardless, and the pain is real, but the type of person who emerges from the trial depends on this choice of attitude.

v6 - why is it bad to pray for wisdom while doubting? Practically speaking, if you lack faith that God is listening, that He cares, or that He is able to see you through and help you grow, the result will almost surely be bitterness and greater confusion. When the circumstances don't change, our natural inclination will be to blame God for not rescuing us. But remember, we're to pray here for wisdom, not an escape from the circumstance of our trial.

-> The context is a group of believers suffering for holding on to their faith. Their suffering would go away if they simply deny their faith. To stay faithful means the persecution and pain will continue. What's needed in this circumstance is the strength to endure, and the wisdom to know how to live and witness. In doing so we follow in the example of Christ and grow in fellowship with Him.

What is the difference between trial and temptation? (v1,12,13,14)  Actually, these words are used almost interchangeably in different translations, and with good reason. The underlying Greek word is the same for both: peirasmos/peiraz┼Ź, which means the type of trial or temptation in which a man is tested. It's utterly natural for man to consider taking the easy way out, satisfying his own desire rather than God's desire. Circumstances plus this desire lead to the temptation - God does not need to do anything special.

-> The purpose of trial / temptation is not for God to find out how we'll respond (He already knows), but for us to realize what kind of person we are and how strong our faith is. Why is this necessary for us to grow? If we don't know when/how our faith is weak, we will not turn to God for strength. God through the Holy Spirit offers the strength and means to avoid temptation, but the choice is ours whether to seek His help. Pray for wisdom.

Back to verse 2... still, isn't it awful how rosy and unrealistic James is, asking us to reckon it as joy when we face these trials? What does he know about suffering and trials? It was a major "Aha!!" moment for me when I realized...

James is the brother (half-brother) of Jesus. Despite knowing Jesus well, he rejected His ministry and gave Him little respect. Then he had to watch the best brother the world has even known be tortured and killed on the cross. On top of that, he soon came to realize Jesus claims were true, feeling the shame of rejecting his brother and savior. (It's hard to convey just how powerfully and personally this struck me today.) Historians tell us that shortly after writing the epistle James faced the exact persecution he was telling others to count as joy! He was accused by religious leaders, facing being stoned to death unless he recanted his faith. His answer? James "declared himself fully before the whole multitude, and confessed that Jesus Christ was the Son of God, our Savior and Lord."  So this is a man who is acquainted with suffering, with trials, and who was in fact able to live out his own teaching - counting all this joy as a humble servant of Christ.
Ok, James, you've got my attention. Let's see what else the Spirit has to say through the words you wrote to your brothers - and to us. Father, grant us wisdom. Amen!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pretty Bad Week

It's hard to even imagine that just ten days ago I had a post called "Pretty Good Week" with everything looking rosy. This week is another matter. It's probably the most painful week I've had in the past two decades. Several painful things (and one extremely sad thing) are going on, and I've been crying on and off all day today. Most of the things going on I can't even get into, so let me just ask for your prayers this week. It would mean a lot to me.  Thanks...

I'm thankful that God's love, His blessings, and his sovereignty are constant, even though my circumstances and feelings are not. This week I'm extremely glad to say "He is risen!!"

Friday, April 15, 2011

Radical Revisited

Recently I took at look at David Platt's new books "Radical" and "Radical Together." These are good books that strongly make the point that the kind of obedience required to be a disciple of Jesus is more than most of us like to admit. Jesus' call is for a radical obedience that will follow Him in whatever He asks of us. The major issue I had with Radical was the suggestion that those who were choosing more exotic or dangerous paths (selling their homes and moving to a developing nation to share Christ) were inherently better disciples or glorifying God more than those who felt led to remain in the situation they are in.

Skye Jethani wrote a two-part article, "Redefining Radical" (part-one and part-two) where he makes the case that the call to radical mission is not the solution to consumerist Christianity. He had the same misgivings I had about the book.
“How radical do I have to be?” the suburban mom asked. She had recently read a number of Christian books decrying the self-centered nature of much of the American church. The authors had apparently had enough of the consumer orientation of their congregations. As a remedy, each of the books calls readers to live a counter-cultural life of radical sacrifice and mission. The books, while inspiring, left this woman feeling “exhausted.”
The rally cry to consumerist Christians is to become activists - whether that means sharing the gospel message (for traditional evangelicals) or compassion and justice (for many emerging and/or younger evangelicals). Jethani points out that if we're not careful, we replace one error with another. The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 shows two paths that ignore the father's love - the younger prodigal son choosing the path of consumerism, but equally wrong is the older son who is far more interested in obedience to his father than loving communion with his father.

Skye asks "Whatever happened to a theology of calling and vocation?" He points out that Platt seems to really miss the reformed view of calling and vocation, whereby each of us has an occupation that (with the right attitude) is pleasing to God and necessary for society. I think he nails the problem the view expressed in Radical and elsewhere when he says "perhaps even more disturbing than our implicit ranking of vocations is how we have pushed the Holy Spirit out of the picture and instead taken it upon ourselves to tell people what they should be doing for God, or at the very least what they ought to do if they want their lives to really matter." Have we ignored the teaching by Paul in I Corinthians 7:17 - "Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them." Paul stresses that keeping God's commands with a right heart is what counts.

As fully devoted followers of Christ, we should live out a radical obedience, and we should be willing to do anything the Lord asks of us, even to lay down our lives. Yet this does not mean that He is calling us all in the same way, or that the suburban mom is any less devoted to the Lord than someone sharing the good news in a distant land.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Pretty good week

It's only Monday, but it's been a pretty good week so far! On Friday night, I got to enjoy date night with my wife (Thanks Purdue BCM and Parent's night out!) Men's breakfast on Saturday was great, followed by going to see Megamind with the family. After that mom got to relax in the hammock, I got some reading in, and Sunday was pretty awesome too.

Today I found out I won not one but two books from blog give-aways :)
* Weird - the new book by Craig Groeschel (Thank you Michael Hyatt!)
* Launching Missional Communities - by Mike Breen and Alex Absalom
  (Thank you Ron Edmondson!)  I've wanted to read this one since seeing Rob Wegner's review.

Not every week goes like this, but I'll take it when it does!

Friday, April 8, 2011

Review - When Christians Get It Wrong

I recently saw a book with a catchy title and started reading it -- "When Christians Get It Wrong" by Adam Hamilton. He makes some excellent points in the book, and does a great job at describing the need for humility among church leaders (well, all Christians). There are a number of things that some Christians do, say or believe that are increasingly aggravating - both for people outside and inside the church! He does a good job with the discussion of the relationship between Christianity and politics. The book is easy to read, and is clearly written by someone with the loving heart of a pastor. And yet, I found myself growing increasingly uneasy reading this book. Hamilton isn't saying our practice of the Christian message is wrong, but he's saying that on several fairly important issues that our doctrine is wrong, promoting alternatives which do not seem biblical.

Looking on Amazon the reviews were almost universally positive (clearly showing that the issues Hamilton addresses are very important and resonate with many people). Also it's recommended by several pastors and authors I respect a lot. I must differ with them. There are two other books I've read which also do a superb job at pointing out several perceived and real flaws among the church today. These are unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity... and Why It Matters and They Like Jesus but Not the Church: Insights from Emerging Generations. There is a very significant difference between 'When Christians Get it Wrong' and these other books. The goal of the latter is for Christians to practice a Christian message that is closer to what Jesus himself taught and lived. The flaws they identify are more with the practice (and arrogance) of many Christians. In Hamilton's book, he goes a step further and says that the actual teaching or doctrine of the church is wrong - not just their practices. Specifically he espouses distinctly non-traditional views on the topics of salvation (where he promotes a very inclusivist view, bordering on universalism), beliefs on homosexuality, and about the omniscience and omnipotence of God (in discussing why bad things happen). Whether the lack of orthodoxy in this book's teaching is a good or a bad thing will depend on the perspective of the reader - in particular on their view of the authority of Scripture. But it's important to note the major difference in approach that Hamilton takes compared to the authors like Kinnamon and Lyons or Dan Kimball in addressing the important ways in which Christians don't get it right.

When Christians Get It Wrong raises some critical issues, but it should be read with careful discernment.

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Doing a 360

I mentioned recently that I'm taking a class on "Practicing the Focused Life." One of our key assignments was to go through a "360 Evaluation." Basically, a group of 5-8 people comprised of your supervisor, peers, and those you supervise respond anonymously evaluating how your are doing with respect to a set of competencies that are important to your organization and your your own development. In this case we did a self-evaluation on ourselves, answering the same questions as the reviewers. It was also something we self-evaluated a few years go, which allows the students to see progress. The 360 Evaluation can be a bit intimidating, and this was the first time I've done something like this. What if those you work closely with in ministry have a very different (lower!?) opinion of your competencies than you do? Well that would signal a major growth opportunity, but it would also be depressing.

In this case I was pretty relieved to see that my peers and colaborers in ministry had a very similar assessment as my own for a dozen competencies that had been targeted for development through classes and projects. The comparison to the earlier self-evaluation was also encouraging. Change has been so slow it has seemed insignificant, but over the course of two and a half-years I've made significant progress in a number of areas.

Have you ever been part of a 360 evaluation? How did it go?
What growth have you seen in your own character or competences in the past year or two?