Category Archives: Religion

Book Review: Dick Staub, The Culturally Savvy Christian

The power of popular culture to catechize us is incredibly strong.  We will all be catechized by something.  Will it be by our culture, or by the gospel?  Dick Staub points the way for us to become culturally savvy Christians.

Culturally Savvy Christian

 

Dick Staub, The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture In An Age of Christianity-Lite

John Wiley & Sons, 2007.  ISBN 0-7879-7893-0.

The Problem and Solution

This is a book written by an Evangelicals to Evangelicals.  Dick’s concern is that while evangelicalism has had a commitment to influence culture from the beginning, it has unwittingly been “more influenced by the culture than influential in it” (Introduction, xi). The solution is for us to become culturally savvy Christians.  This means being “savvy about faith and culture, serious about faith, and skilled at relating the two.”   The structure of the book flows directly from this thesis.

The culture we are in is superficial, diversionary, mindless, celebrity-driven, soulless, centered on money, spread by marketing, and sustained by technology.  Unfortunately, in an attempt to be relevant to this culture our churches often end up mimicking these very qualities rather than speaking prophetically to them.  This is the essence of “Christianity Lite”.  As an acquaintance of mine, Aaron Scheer puts it, our churches end up focused on “noses and nickels” instead of “disciples and generations of disciples” (Chap. 1-3).

We need to take a more serious approach to being catechized by our faith.  This means seeking God’s deep presence, God’s transforming presence, and God’s loving presence (Chap. 4-6).

If we become savvy about the formative influence of popular culture, and serious about countering this with the formative influence of the gospel, we can then become skilled at speaking prophetically and redemptively to our culture.  The key steps are to counter culture like aliens, communicate in culture like ambassadors, and create culture like artists (Chap. 7-9).

Why It Matters

This is the best book I’ve read since Francis Schaeffer’s The Christian Manifesto on how we can pursue our faith in a way that transforms culture versus being transformed by it.  Rod Dreher just came out with The Benedict Option.  The institutional rehabilitation he calls for there is something Dick Staub shows us how to do very practically here.

I don’t think most evangelical churches and pastors are intentionally trying to mimic culture.  They are honestly trying to be relevant in an attempt to save lives and change lives.  Yet what we so often miss is the transforming power of Jesus, the Bible, and the Spirit.  We have to get back to these divine reference points if we are to understand how popular culture is seeking to mold us, and how we can be transformed in response to it.

One of my heroes is Stuart Briscoe.  He, Peter Mitskevitch of Moscow Theological Seminary, and I were sitting in the cafe of my church one day.  Peter asked Stuart, “What’s the secret of your ministry?”  Stuart replied, “I found a good book and I share with people what I’m finding there.”  Simple, profound, yet prophetic.  We can’t all preach and teach like Stuart, but we can certainly follow his lead!  The answers are not with the brilliance of our leadership.  The answers are in this very good book that we call our own.

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Want to make a great name?

Genesis 12:1-4a
For Sunday, March 12, 2017
Second Sunday in Lent

Want to make a great name for yourself?  Surprise: it’s not about us.  Making a truly great name is all about aligning with God’s purpose.

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Abraham and the Visitors at Mamre“, Marc Chagall (1887 – 1985), Musée du Message Biblique Marc-Chagall, Nice, France.

As Executive Director for Pinnacle Forum Wisconsin I’m constantly listening for what challenges high influence leaders face and how best to serve them.  One way I do this is by looking at what books leaders are reading.  The top three books on Amazon’s list for Management and Leadership are:

  • Gary Keller, The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results
  • Tim Ferriss, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World Class Performers
  • Jocelyn Glei, Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus, and Sharpen Your Creative Mind

There is a common thread in these three titles.  How do we cut through all the distractions in order to find our purpose?   There is another book that has much to say about this:

  • God, The Bible

I searched for a web page to link to for God but apparently he doesn’t have one.  He is however reachable anytime via divine media at #Prayer.

There is one crucial difference though between the Bible’s focus on the focus of the books above.  While the books above focus on our success the Bible focuses on God’s success.  God’s ultimate purpose is to redeem us and our planet back to Himself.  He has already guaranteed this result by sacrificing his own Son Jesus on the cross for us.  He is now in the process of implementing what he has already guaranteed.

So, as we pursue our own success, will it be in line with God’s purpose, or across it?  We can either align with God’s will or get run over by the locomotive of his divine intention.   As my friend Mark Erdmann says, God is the ultimate business partner.  He’s never wrong and he never fails.   Abraham understood this and we know his name today as a result.

In this passage we see three steps for making a great name for ourselves within God’s purpose.    Our first step is to own the promise.  For Abraham to succeed he had to trust fully in the promise God gave to him.  This is exactly what he did: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3).  There were times in Abraham’s life where things looked bleak, especially when as a 70 year-old he had no heir.  Yet he succeeded in owning the promise, and those of us who believe are now here as his legacy.  Own the promise!

Our second step toward making a great name is to be a blessing.  “(I) will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Gen. 12:2).  The beautiful thing about Christian leadership is that it’s not a zero sum game.  The idea is not for one of us ultimately to succeed by besting the rest of us to grab the brass ring.  The idea is rather for all of us to succeed together.  Think about a goal you are currently trying to reach.  How could everyone win in the pursuit of it?

Our third step toward making a great name is to go.  God asked Abraham, “Leave everything you know and go to the land I will show you” (v. 1).  Abraham was willing to go where God led him.  Where is God leading us?  Are we willing to go there?

Connecting with God and his purpose will quickly turn down the volume of our distracted lives and give us the clarity we need to move forward with purpose.

Your turn:
What is your current favorite business book?  How is what you are learning there connected to the counsel the Bible provides?

Cattywampus

Psalm 32
For Sunday, March 5, 2017
First Sunday in Lent

Left untended our lives have a tendency to go cattywampus.  Psalm 32 is a Lenten invitation to get back into alignment.

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A cabin crying for restoration by the Barnwood Builders.  

One of my favorite TV shows is “Barnwood Builders”.  It’s about a group of West Virginians that restore or repurpose old log cabins like this one.  There is history, legacy, and beauty in every one of these logs, just as there is in every bone of our lives, no matter how dilapidated we may be at the present moment.

A fun part of the show is the banter that goes on among the crew .  One of the terms they’ll sometimes use, especially when trying to get log notches to align, is “cattywampus”, which means “not lined up correctly”.  They’ll say say in their wonderful West Virginian accent, “Now that beam is just all cattywampus”.  Then Sherman, the chainsaw expert of the crew, pulls out a chainsaw, shaves a piece off, and suddenly the log snaps into place the way it was intended.

Without the restoring presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives we quickly go cattywampus ourselves.  Hiding our sin only makes it worse.  “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long” (v. 3).  Fortunately we don’t have to stay here.  “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered” (v. 1).  What changed?  “I acknowledged my sin to you … ‘I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,’ and you forgave the guilt of my sin” (v. 5).

God promises to put us back in alignment if we will only invite him into our cattywampus selves.  “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go; I will counsel you with my eye upon you” (v. 8).  “Many are the torments of the wicked, but steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord” (v. 10).

Once we invite him in to restore us everything changes.  “Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (v. 11).

‘Lent’, which we start this week, derives from the Old English word ‘len(c)ten’ which means “spring season” (1).  It’s the forty days leading up to Easter and the point is to get ourselves ready for the Resurrection of Christ.  Just as the days lengthen and the temperature warms, our souls can experience greater light and warmth by eliminating something that tends to entangle us.  I’ve decided this year to give up sweets.  This is a common one but a good one.  I need to lose weight, and too often I go to the snack cabinet when what I ought to be doing instead is going to the prayer closet.

Which verse of this Psalm most encourages you to let the Spirit re-align your cattywampus self?  What is God leading you to do to get yourself ready for the glorious joy of Easter?

(1) Wikipedia, “Lent”.

I Was There

2 Peter 1:16-21
For Sunday, February 26, 2017
Transfiguration Sunday, Year A

Following Christ well means giving special consideration to those predecessors who were there from the beginning.  We have just such an example in the Apostle Peter who says of the Transfiguration, “Look, I was there.”

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Giovanni Bellini, “Transfiguration of the Christ“, circa 1480, Galleria Nazionale di Capodimonte, Naples, Italy.

At 53 I’m old enough now to remember important things in our country’s history that aren’t part of the collective memory of younger generations.  As I read Peter’s account of the Transfiguration this week my mind went back to “The Miracle On Ice” in Lake Placid, New York, in 1980, when the U.S. Olympic Mens’ Hockey Team, a bunch of amateurs, somehow managed to defeat the mighty juggernaut represented by those red jerseys with the white letters that spelled C.C.C.P. (for Сою́з Сове́тских Социалисти́ческих Респу́блик, or in English, U.S.S.R.).  This was supposed to have been impossible.  Yet I saw it happen live on TV.  I was there.

Peter was there when Christ was Transfigured.  This was among the few seminal events of his life.  As Matthew tells us in this week’s gospel reading, it was Peter who upon seeing Jesus along with Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain where the Transfiguration took place said, “Lord, if you like I could put up tents for each one of you.”  At that very moment a bright cloud overshadowed the already brightly transfigured beings and said not of Moses or Elijah but only of Jesus, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”  So awe-inspiring was this that the disciples fell to the ground in abject fear.  Peter suddenly understood the significance of who Jesus really was in a new and dramatic way.  This was literally God’s own son!  That put Jesus beyond category even with respect to the great Moses or Elijah.

Peter is concerned that his readers keep their faith anchored in Christ Himself as the Son of God.  There were “cleverly designed stories” (v. 16) threatening to lead his fellow believers astray.  So it is in every age.  What are some of these stories in our own day?  Perhaps that Jesus promises health and wealth.  Perhaps that Jesus didn’t really intend marriage to be between one man and one woman.  Perhaps that Christianity is just one attempt to lay claim to ultimate truth among many others.

In order to discern truth from deception we need the help of our friends who were with Jesus from the beginning.  Peter is just such a friend.  Here is the help he gives us in this passage:

  • Anchor our faith in the truth of God’s word.
    We have the prophetic message” (v. 19a).
  • Interpret subsequent revelation in light of the revelation already given.
    You would do well to be attentive to this as a lamp shining in a dark place” (v. 19b)
  • Remember that ultimately Scripture comes not from men but from God (v. 20-21).
    No prophecy of scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation …

This last point is especially important.  The difference in the way progressives versus conservatives interpret Scripture can be represented in two contrasting syllogisms, as I learned from the dear Dr. Harold O.J. Brown at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the 1990’s.  The progressive syllogism goes like this:

  • Scripture was written by men
  • Men are fallible
  • Therefore, Scripture is fallible

Conservatives however, follow a different syllogism for their interpretive approach:

  • Scripture was written through men but ultimately by God
  • God is infallible
  • Therefore, Scripture is infallible

Each of us must choose which syllogism or paradigm we will follow.  This choice will then determine whether we interpret the Bible in light of culture, or culture in light of the Bible.  Only in the latter case do we obtain a point of reference from which to discern where our culture is blind and how it can begin to see again.  In the former case we are merely a bunch of blind people mumbling to one another within an ever darkening room.

What are the formative events of your own life for which you can say, “I was there?”  Do you approach Scripture with the same authority that Peter did?   What are your thoughts regarding the extent to which our belief about the infallibility of Scripture impacts our ability to speak prophetically to culture?

 

It All Belongs To You

1 Corinthians 3:10-23

For Sunday, February 19, 2017
Seventh Sunday After Epiphany, Year A

In a well-intentioned desire reach people we put great effort into making our ministries attractive.  Yet in so doing we run the risk of forgetting what matters most.  It all belongs to them.

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St. Martin and the Beggar, San Francesco, Assisi, Italy, 1320.

It’s so easy to get caught up in ourselves, especially in ministry.  I used to run the college-age ministry at my church.  We worked hard on putting together good meetings.  On our best days these meetings honored who God wanted us to be as a worshipping community. Yet on other days we would get so caught up in what we were trying to do for people that we forgot the significance of the people themselves.  Without realizing it we started to presume that the people were there to serve our program rather than our whole ministry being there to serve them.   The same dynamic can play out in any organization, whether in business, education, or government.

In light of this notice what Paul says to the Corinthians in this week’s reading:

So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.
– 1 Cor. 3:21-23

What matters is not the attractiveness of our events.  What matters is the inheritance every Christian has in the gospel of Christ.  “It all belongs to you.”  It isn’t about who is leading.  What it’s all about is the inheritance we have received in Christ, an inheritance which conquers the world, life, death, the present and future.

If we really get this we will lead differently.  We will lead in a way that honors the inheritance reflected in each person we serve.  My former pastor Stuart Briscoe’s philosophy of ministry was this: “Preach the Word.  Love the people.  Follow the Spirit.”  Notice that second part.  The reason we “love the people” is precisely because all that we are about as Christians belongs to them.  As leaders we are not more important than the people we serve.  We are less important because it all belongs to them.    Whenever I’ve been with Stuart I’ve felt this tangibly.  I mattered more to him than he mattered to himself.  There is a huge difference between a leader whose focus is his program versus a leader whose focus is his precious people.

So how do we live and lead in a way that affirms that “It all belongs to you”?  Here are some ideas:

  • Invest at least 30 minutes a day praying for those we lead and serve
  • When meeting with those we serve, really listen with an intent to understand, love, and serve, rather than to defend, discount or dismiss.
  • Slow down and simply serve in the moment.

As a member of your own church, business, or organization, when have you most felt like it all belonged to you?  What does this experience suggest about ways to affirm in our fellow believers the precious inheritance we have in Christ?

 

 

 

All God wants

Micah 6:1-8
For Sunday, January 29, 2017
Fourth Sunday After Epiphany

All God wants is that we open our hearts to the amazing love he lavishes upon us.  Micah 6:1-8 is an invitation to do just this.

 

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From Shittim to Gilgal was when Israel actually entered the Promised Land (http://www.israel-a-history-of.com/battle-of-jericho.html)

I have a special love for this passage because Micah 6:8 is my favorite verse of the Bible.  In fact this verse is largely responsible for inspiring my wife Heather and me to become missionaries in Irkutsk, Siberia for 10 years from 1994 through 2003.  I distinctly remember when we first arrived at the Irkutsk airport.  We had 10 big duffle bags (9 too many, but we didn’t know any better).  We weren’t even sure if anyone was going to meet us at the airport.  But we were there.  God had done amazing things to get us there: he provided colleagues, funds, and training in Russian culture and language.  Yet what a thrill to put our own two feet on the ground so long promised and hoped for.

This must have been how Israel felt when they crossed the Jordan river.  Yet how soon we all forget and fall back into saying, “God, what have you done for me lately?”

Our passage alludes to this whole dynamic with the simple phrase, “and what happened from Shittim to Gilgal” (v. 5).  In the Expositor’s Bible Commentary Thomas McComiskey, who was a Professor of Old Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School during my years there, does a wonderful job explaining just what happened.  In this small stretch of what was a much longer and larger journey God defeated the Midianites (with whom Israel had been illicitly sleeping), stopped the flow of the Jordan so Israel could cross it on dry land, and then worked for them to bring down one of the great fortress cities of all time, Jericho.

A God who would do such things, even when we are sleeping with the enemy, is a God who really loves us!  As McComiskey goes on to say, the context of the passage is God asking his people, “What have I done to weary you of wanting to love me?” (v. 3).  The answer is nothing.  The mountains and hills which have witnessed all things from the beginning of time (v. 2) know this to be true.  They are the jury here.

Now if you were a people who had been rescued from slavery, rescued from a far-away foreign country (Egypt), given great leadership (in Moses, Aaron, and Miriam) (v. 4) – note that last one is a woman – if you were a people who had all of these blessings, how could you not fail to follow faithfully?  What a bunch of dumbbells!  Well, hello pot, meet kettle, whom you have just called black.  This is us.  We blow it persistently.  We are broken but God is still unfailingly committed to blessing us.

In our honest moments, we will find ourselves saying, “Well, yes, God is indeed good, but how could I possibly thank him enough?  Why even my firstborn son wouldn’t be sufficient thanksgiving!” (v. 7).

Here then is the kicker.  God says, “Look, I don’t want your firstborn son.  I don’t even really want your offerings.  All I want is your heart.  All I want is that you make an attempt each day to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with me (v. 8).

This invitation is so welcoming and so freeing, it’s remarkable.  We can do this!  In most situations, do we know what the right thing to do is?  Yes, of course!  Do we know what it would mean to be kind?  Well, give us a minute, but sure!  Do we know what it means to walk humbly?   We certainly know it when we see it, and we can emulate what we’ve seen.  So yes again.

“That’s it?” you say?  “That’s all God wants?”  That’s all God wants.   So how do we give God our hearts.  Here are three simple suggestions:

  • Make your highest priority each day a personal appointment with your boss (the spiritual one – God):
    • Read his Word.  The lectionary is a great way to make this a habit.
    • Journal.  What’s happening in my life?  What is God saying to me about it?
    • Pray.  The first step in humility is recognizing we can’t figure it out on our own.
  • Create a daily reminder on your smart phone that says simply, “Do justice, love kindness, walk humbly”.  This alone will transform your life.
  • Ask God to give you one random act of kindness to extend each day. It’s a blast.

Your Turn

God not only extends his heart to us corporately through his word, but he does it personally with each of us?  Where and how has God done this for you?

 

A call for expository preaching

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Baptism of Christ“, mid 12th century Cappella Palatina di Palermo, Palermo, Italy.

When we read God’s word, or preach and teach it, it’s important that we come to own what we’re reading, and that our hearers come to own it for themselves. We ought to meet people where they are, yes, but also lead them to where they need to be. Where we need to be is with Jesus and on his mission. As for preaching, I prefer the expository method because it still seems to be the best vehicle for accomplishing these ends.
Here is an expository sermon outline for one of next week’s Lectionary readings, Isaiah 42:1-9:
We are called to bring justice to the nations through Jesus.
4 aspects of Jesus’ ministry of justice:
As the servant of God the Father (v. 1)
  • Upheld (v. 1a)
  • Chosen (v. 1b)
  • The delight of his Father’s soul (v. 1c)
Working according to the Father’s heart (vv. 2-4)
  • Softly (v. 2)
  • Graciously (v. 3)
  • Resolutely (v. 4)
Leading God’s people
  • Called in righteousness (v. 6a)
  • As a light to the nations (v. 6b)
  • To heal and liberate (v. 7)

With the seal of divine authority

  • His name (v. 8a)
  • His exclusive glory (v. 8b)
  • His ability to foretell the future (v. 9)
If you were preaching or teaching this passage, what approach would you take, and why?
For me, it is incredibly encouraging as a New Year begins to realize that Jesus is and will bring justice to the nations. How we all need this, whether in the U.S, Russia, Syria, Israel, Iraq, or anywhere else. How amazing it is that we carry a message that actually is good news to EVERY people upon the earth, because one day, it’s all going to come together, in a way that affirms the best in all of us.  Where and when in your life have you already experienced glimpses of this future reality?
I’ll be visiting the U.N. and meeting some world leaders in February. This might be a very encouraging message to share with them.
Happy New Year!