En Route, in Prayer

24,000 miles. In the last four months or so, that’s how far I’ve traveled. I’ve returned to the U.S. after spending three years in New Zealand. I’ve flown from Birmingham, AL to San Diego, CA and then to Chicago, IL. And I’ve driven from Birmingham to Orlando, FL; Fort Worth, TX; and countless other destinations. Since 2015 hit, the traveling has slowed down. In what has seemed the stationary month of January, I’ve come to learn something about myself: traveling affects my prayer life. I pray much more on the journey, for when I travel the destination seems all important to me.

Early this morning, as I was considering the connection in my life between traveling and praying, I was reminded of a book written by the late Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer. In the book, Miller tells of the peregrini, seafaring Celtic pilgrims of old. World-travelers they were. And great people of prayer. Unlike the Spanish conquistadors, the peregrini weren’t after earthly riches, but the treasures of following Christ and participating in his plan for the world. In their tiny boats called coracles, the peregrini were often rudderless, so that God might let his tides take his servants to whatever distant shore he had in store for them. These Celtic missionaries prayed as they went, wherever they went. For them, the pilgrimage was the prayer, and since they were always en route, they were always in prayer (1 Thess 5:17). This doesn’t mean that every moment in his coracle a peregrine was uttering words to the Lord. The point, rather, is that these mariners remained in a state of prayer–always mindful of the fact that they journeyed in the presence of the triune God.

Our God is a traveling God. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Bible is teeming with pilgrim tales. Abraham journeyed to an unknown land (Gen 12:1-4). The apostles were sent to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8). And today, Christ bids us: “Come, follow me.” My prayer life would be profoundly altered if I would stop thinking in terms of physical destinations reached. Instead, I should view life as an ongoing journey. A hike through new summits of discovery. Or for the slightly less adventurous among us, a walk on a luminous street, where at each lamppost God reveals something more of his person and his plan. To borrow a line from Tolkien’s Old Walking Song, “The road goes ever on and on … ” So, too, the prayer.

A Glaze-Free Approach to Ministry (Book Notice)

The last thing we need is another Church, Inc. book. Today’s bestselling books on church growth, preaching, and pastoral leadership promise to improve our ministries by promoting popular business models. Pastoral success, we are told, is only one strategy away. Apparently, all the twenty-first century shepherd needs is savvy.

The remnant that resists the professional approach to ministry will be encouraged by Doug Webster’s two-volume work, Living in Tension: A Theology of Ministry. Webster currently teaches pastoral theology and preaching at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. He served as pastor of First Presbyterian Church of San Diego for fourteen years, and has also served churches in Colorado, Indiana, and Canada. In Webster’s own words, ministry is not his profession; it is his passion. Webster is not interested in turning to Krispy Kreme to find a marketing plan for the church. His is a glaze-free approach. He opens the Bible and explores the nature and practice of ministry, and he trusts that the Word and the Spirit will produce resilient servants who are faithful to the very end. This sets Webster’s work apart from the fluffy ministry books that mar our bookshelves. But Living in Tension is just as different from the meaty pastoral theologies on the market, such as Thomas Oden’s work, Pastoral Theology and T.F. Torrance’s work, Royal Priesthood. Where pastoral theologies tend to focus on the pastor and his office, Webster widens his gaze to the entire congregation. In essence, Webster’s book is a sustained argument for the priesthood of all believers. He insists: “Books on pastoral theology that target the pastor inevitably and unfortunately split up the ministry into clergy and laity categories. We need to hold the ministry of the church together and resist the clergy-laity divide” (xi). Webster’s goal is to develop a theology of ministry that strengthens the authority of the pastor without diminishing the responsibilities of the congregation.

Webster is not afraid to go after the Christian leadership gurus, and those in the entrepreneurial camp may find him too harsh on some points. In my view, however, his criticism of the corporate approach to ministry is warranted. Though I do not agree with Webster on every point, this important work helps balance the scales that have been tipped to the clergy-do-it-all side for far too long. Webster’s work is a wonderful reminder that every member of the church is called to salvation, service, sacrifice, and simplicity.

A Family That Doesn’t Do Sleepovers

Tim Challies and his wife, Aileen, have set what I think is an excellent rule for their children. Challies writes about the rule here. And here is a short section of his post:

Before my children were even old enough to ask, Aileen and I talked it through and decided we would not allow our kids to do sleepovers. Now let’s be clear: there is no biblical command that forbids them, so this was not a matter of clear right and wrong, but a matter of attempting to act with wisdom. We determined we would make it a family rule: Our children would not be allowed to spend the night at their friends’ homes. We believed they would face a particular kind of vulnerability if they found themselves alone and in bed outside our care, and we wanted to protect them from it. So they have stayed at their grandparents’ and have stayed with my sisters when we’ve visited the South, but they have not stayed at friend’s homes.

Some may call this overprotective behavior. I prefer to call it discerning parenting. I have often said that the job of the Christian parent, simply stated, is to prepare your child to leave your home and go out into the world as a participant in the Triune God’s plan of redemption. It seems to me that one of the ways we prepare our children to leave our homes as devoted disciples is by keeping them in our homes when they are young. Of course, I don’t mean for you to keep your child in your home all the time. Just this morning I was trying to think of a way to get my two boys out of the house so I could get some work done in peace and quiet! What I mean is that the more opportunities for families to eat together at the dinner table, the better. The more gatherings for evening family worship, the better. The more words prayed by a father and mother over their children as the children are tucked in at night, the better. You get the idea. Overprotective? No. Loving? Caring? Wise? Yes.

Thorin Oakenshield’s Last Words

Last night, my wife and I went to see the final installment of The Hobbit. It was a great film, and we were especially pleased to see Matt Landreth (son of Chris and Glenda Landreth) mentioned in the credits. The Landreths are friends of ours from New Zealand. Congratulations, Matt!

My favorite part of the movie was the powerful scene where Thorin Oakenshield utters his final words to his friend, Bilbo Baggins. Here are Thorin’s last words, as originally written by Tolkien:

“Bilbo knelt on one knee filled with sorrow. ‘Farewell, King under the Mountain!’ he said. ‘This is a bitter adventure, if it must end so; and not a mountain of gold can amend it. Yet I am glad that I have shared in your perils—that has been more than any Baggins deserves.’ ‘No!’ said Thorin. ‘There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world’” (The Hobbit, 272-273).

Peter Jackson slightly altered Thorin’s last words for the movie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies:

‘If more of us valued home above gold, it would be a merrier world.’

Words worth remembering!

Churches Die in Manhattan. Or So They Say.

Kate Bachelder of The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Tim Keller, Yoda-smart pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan. You can read the full interview here. It is interesting to hear that, of the thousands of people attending Redeemer on a weekly basis, most of them are under the age of 35. This seems to support my conclusion that, if churches want to reach the younger generation, dumbing down everything in the church is not the way to go. In my experience, the next generation is not looking for Christian cliches or platitudes; rather, they seem to be searching for opportunities to engage in intelligent conversations, specifically within the context of authentic communities. If you have some free time, read this short version of the Redeemer story. It’s encouraging. Christ is building his church.

“We’ve All Been Indoctrinated”

Currently, I am working through Kevin Vanhoozer’s newest book, Faith Speaking Understanding: Performing the Drama of Doctrine. Only three chapters in, and already I recognize that this will be a book to which I will return again and again in my own ministry. In fact, since I have been engaged in the job search as of late, I have had a number of people ask me: “What is your philosophy of ministry?” In the future, my answer (at least in part) will be: “Read Vanhoozer’s, Faith Speaking Understanding.”

At one point in the book, Vanhoozer rightly says: “Doctrine is inevitable. We’ve all been indoctrinated: everyone has absorbed some system of beliefs and values” (53). He then proceeds to summarize Christian Smith’s work, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Vanhoozer writes:

[Smith] discovered that the majority of American teenagers are still religious, believers active in their churches. However, they are ‘incredibly inarticulate about their faith, their religious beliefs and practices, and its meaning or place in their lives.’ This does not mean that they do not hold to certain doctrines. On the contrary, Smith says they have an implicit theology: ‘Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,’ or MTD for short (an apt acronym for a socially transmitted disease). Adherents to MTD are often affiliated with traditional faith communities, unaware that they are practicing something very different from their historic faith communities. It has also infected people who no longer go to church, so much so that it may be ‘the new mainstream American religious faith for our culturally post-Christian, individualistic, mass-consumer capitalist society.’ If those who hold this faith could articulate it as a creed, it might go something like this:

I believe in a creator God who orders and watches over life on earth. I believe that God wants people to be good: to act nice to one another [the ‘moralistic’ tenet]. I believe that the central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about oneself [the ‘therapeutic’ tenet]. I believe that God is not involved in my life except when I need God to solve a problem. I believe that good people go to heaven. Virtual worlds without end. Amen.

This, too, is doctrine, but alas: it expresses an unbiblical, non-Trinitarian faith (54-55).

The Path of Death is the Only Way to Healing

J. Todd Billings is quickly becoming one of my favorite theologians. His book on theological interpretation of Scripture is outstanding, and I’ve recently finished reading his book, Union with Christ: Reframing Theology and Ministry for the Church, which likewise is excellent. In a recent article, Billings writes of his battle with cancer. I highly recommend the article. It’s short, yet powerful. Here is an excerpt:

As I lived through my ordeal, my eyes were opened anew to what it means for sinners like us to receive deep healing from God. We don’t just need a vitamin; we don’t just need a bandage to cover a flesh wound. We need strong medicine—we need death and new life united to Christ in order to be healed. Far too often, I have acted as if the gospel were a self-improvement plan to strengthen a muscle, to heal a small wound, to enhance my success. But the gospel is about losing our lives for the sake of Jesus Christ, tasting death to the old self in order to experience true life and healing. “Count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 6:11). Our hope is not in ourselves, but in our engraftment—our union with Christ. “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (Rom. 6:4). There is no way to healing apart from death. This is a reality for all of us. God’s gospel medicine is not a light massage or an energizing pill. We cannot have only resurrection, skipping over our union with Christ in his death, our death to the old self. We desperately need healing. And the Great Physician provides this in mysterious ways.

An Interview with Mark Dever

Here is an excellent interview with Mark Dever, pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church and president of 9Marks Ministries. At one point, Dever is asked about the importance of expositional preaching. He responds:

A lot of preaching in America is cruddy. It’s terrible in liberal churches because they don’t understand God or the Bible, and terrible in conservative churches because they take it for granted and just want people to have good families. Whether a preacher is a hipster church planter or an overconfident revitalizer who’s going to take care of the last cruddy guy’s ministry, the main work is to open the Bible and tell the people what God’s Word says.

Couldn’t agree more! I encourage you to read the full interview.

Sport and Christianity

As a graduate of Beeson Divinity School, I regularly listen to the Beeson podcast. Recently, Dr. Douglas Webster, a good friend and former professor, talked about sports and Christianity. You can listen to the conversation between Dr. Webster and Dr. Timothy George here. Dr. Webster is part of a team of Christian coaches, administrators, and academics who have been working on the Declaration on Sport and the Christian Life, a statement designed to encourage dialogue and invite action from Christians, leaders of Christian institutions, and Christian influencers in the sports world. The Declaration has twelve parts:

1. Sport has a legitimate place in the Christian life.

Sport has its basis in a divinely-given impulse to play and deserves a rightful place in Christian living. People play sport primarily for the love of the game, the thrill of competition, and the sense of community that comes from participation. When played and watched in faithfulness to God sport occupies a legitimate place as part of the created world and helps express our relationship to God and to one another. When passion for sport exceeds passion for Christ or the work of His church, or when sport becomes all-consuming and commitments such as worship, service, and family are diminished, sport poses a challenge to the consecrated life. In light of who God is and who He calls us to be, we must examine and order our affections and priorities regarding sport.

2. Sport touches all dimensions of human life.

God created humans as holistic, unified creatures. Sport engages us, not only bodily, but mind and spirit as well. It can powerfully affect our emotions, mental states, and spiritual lives. Our experiences in sport can, at times, uplift as well as disappoint us. When sport is viewed only as a physical activity, participants miss important transcendent moments that engage one’s entire being.

3. Sport can be a means of spiritual formation.

Christians acknowledge the bodily dimension of spirituality and practice faith in and through sport as embodied people. Like aesthetic endeavors, sport can remind us that God is the source of all strength, grace, and beauty of movement. Sport can help focus our attention on the reality of God and our humanness in special ways offering formative experiences in which God communes with us. When sport is approached self-indulgently and apart from the wisdom of God, spiritual growth is thwarted, hindering our formation.

4. Sport can glorify God.

To glorify God is to reflect the will and way of Christ in everything. Thus, the quality of the Christian’s play and participation should be distinctive, marked by Spirit-informed virtues including love, hope, faith, patience, kindness, humility, self-control and other fruit of God’s Spirit. Success in sport competition can help garner public acclaim for oneself, one’s team, one’s community, or one’s country. These forms of glory should not be confused with bringing glory to God.

5. Competition is an essential element of sport.

In competition, players test their skills and strategies in an environment of uncertainty and drama. Competition provides opportunities for personal growth, friendship and enjoyment, and can lead to maximum athletic performance. During games, relationships are characterized by a playful antagonism in which competitors elevate their own interests above those of their opponents. This playful antagonism is central to the concept of sport. However, when winning becomes an end in itself it can breed resentment and may dishonor God. Tactics and environments that persuade players, coaches and fans to supplant playful antagonism with mean-spiritedness have no place in a Christian approach to sport.

6. The true value of sport is inherent in the experience itself.

We can delight in our role as Christ-followers in the world of sport and understand that our behavior in contests is a form of witness to the kingdom of God. Our experience in sport reveals our playfulness, our desire to be excellent, and our desire to belong. When the human experience of sport is subverted to other ends, for example, as a means of commerce, a way to achieve fame, publicity, money, or personal glory, attention is diverted from the importance of the sport experience itself.

7. Sport has many benefits but they are conditional.

When we do sport well it has the potential to improve health, develop social and familial relationships, strengthen moral character, foster positive life habits and civic engagement, and act as a vehicle for peace, reconciliation, and the witness of the good news of Jesus Christ. But these effects are conditional. Their realization depends upon the moral and symbolic meanings we give to sport as well as the motivations of the participants. It should not be assumed that sport, irrespective of these considerations, will have its intended beneficial effects.

8. God created our bodies for His service and our enjoyment.

Sport can promote physical health and well-being and encourage the stewardship of our bodies. At the same time, sport entails a risk of injury and the potential for abuse. Sometimes sport encourages violence as part of a competitive strategy and elevates the probability of injury beyond a reasonable level. An unhealthy pursuit of excellence can encourage the use of questionable training habits and harmful performance-enhancing practices. The human body is a reflection of the image of God and such practices should not be condoned.

9. We do not control whether God favors one player or team over another.

In a Christian view of sport God is acknowledged as Father of all who compete. God shows no favoritism.   All players, coaches, and fans – regardless of team affiliation – are created in the image of God and are deserving of Christian goodwill, kindness, and love. God should not be portrayed as favoring one competitor over another, and Christians should not think of opponents as less than human, less honorable, less deserving of Christian love, or less loved by God than ourselves.  We thank God for good moments in sports, yet we also thank him for apparently bad moments – all for His purposes.

10. Christian virtues are revealed in behaviors that go beyond obeying the rules.

Rule governing sport define how games are to be played and ensure a measure of fairness in competition. By joining the game, players implicitly agree to follow the rules. Therefore, Christians should not seek ways to circumvent the rules governing sport contests. Yet, Christians are bound by a higher calling, not only to obey the rules, but to apply self-imposed behaviors upholding the witness of Christ even when such acts might work to their competitive disadvantage.

11. Sport programs are a vital component of Christian education.

Sport is an effective complement to classroom knowledge when wisely integrated into Christian schools and universities. Participating in sport can lead students to truth and assist them in developing a mature faith. This requires careful thought and planning with an eye toward educational outcomes. When institutions disproportionately emphasize sport or yield the purpose and practice of sport programs to those interested only in winning, they undermine the educational promise of sport.

12. Sport is powerful.

Sport inspires us with displays of grit and grace. Competitive drama moves us in ways that few other forms of entertainment do. Watching sport can be a means of celebrating God’s creation and goodness, leading to a spirit of hope and joy. Left unchecked, passion can lead to obsession. The power of sport has the potential to cloud spiritual discernment and invite both idolatry and the neglect of self, family, and church.

The Sport and Christianity Group is calling for Christians to stand with them by endorsing these principles. Check out the website here and consider signing the Declaration.


Mark Driscoll Resigns: What Can We Learn?

On Tuesday, October 14th, Mark Driscoll submitted his resignation as lead pastor of Mars Hill Church. The story has been covered by CNN, Huffington Post, Christianity Today, and the list goes on. One of the best things I have read is the sagacious little piece by Trevin Wax, in which he focuses on what churches can learn from Driscoll and the Mars Hill mess. Here are the four excellent points he raises:

1) What we can learn: Leadership matters. Church members need to know what spiritual abuse of leadership looks like, and church leaders need to be trained well, enthusiastically supported when they walk in line with Scripture, and held accountable when they abuse their position of authority.
2) What we can learn: Polity matters. Know your church’s structure of authority well and do your best to empower godly people to lead well through times of crisis.
3) What we can learn: Don’t dismiss people outside your theological circles who exhibit the fruit of a vibrant walk with Christ. Also, don’t overlook or excuse character flaws from leaders inside your theological circles, as if doctrine matters more than life.
4) What we can learn: Look for wisdom and maturity more than glitz and glamor. Be willing to ask tough questions of the popular leader no one wants to challenge.
You can read the full piece here.

There and Back Again

10641040_10152732384471972_5921206948559689171_nTomorrow we bid farewell to the beautiful land of the long white cloud. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, we will arrive in Birmingham, AL on Wednesday night. Below is our itinerary and a few prayer requests. We are excited to see family and friends very soon. And heaps of thanks for the prayers!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014   

Out of Dunedin 6:00pm (Tuesday 1:00am Birmingham time)

Arrive in Auckland 7:45pm (Tuesday 2:45am Birmingham time)

Out of Auckland 9:30pm (Tuesday 4:30am Birmingham time)

Arrive in Los Angeles 2:45pm (Tuesday 4:45pm Birmingham time)

Tuesday Night, September 16, 2014

Holiday Inn Express Los Angeles International Airport

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Out of Los Angeles 1:35pm (3:35pm Birmingham time)

Arrive in Houston 6:55pm (Same in Birmingham)

Out of Houston 7:30pm

Arrive in Birmingham 9:05pm

Prayer Requests

Please pray for Dillon and his wife, Jamie. Specifically, ask the Lord to give them patience, kindness, and gentleness as they endure the long journey with two wee boys.

Please pray for Aidan (age 5) and Cullen (age 3). Especially, pray that they will be able to sleep (for a long, long time) on the flight from Auckland to LA.

Please ask God to place polite people at key points of the Thornton’s journey, people who will help them get six checked bags, four carry-on bags, and two children through the numerous check points and across the various airports.

Please pray that the Thornton family will arrive safely in Birmingham, with suitcases and sanity intact.

Port Chalmers: The Place We Have Called Home

Insiders Dunedin has put together a great little video on Port Chalmers, the place we have called home for the past three years or so.

Port Chalmers is a vibrant community with a population of 3,000. The village lies around 15 kilometres northeast from Dunedin’s city centre. Port Chalmers has a strong cultural scene and is home to a number of artists, potters, musicians, jewellers, designers and sculptors. The people who call Port Chalmers home come from all walks of life; from Port workers, creatives, teachers, farmers, business owners and more. This diverse community coupled with the area’s natural beauty and historic buildings makes Port a particularly interesting place.

The video has some beautiful aerial shots of Port. Check it out.


God’s Grace is Greater Than All Our Sins

Lyle Dorsett, Billy Graham Professor of Evangelism at Beeson Divinity School, has written an excellent article for Christianity Today. In the article, Dorsett celebrates the “unbroken chain of God’s grace” in his life. In short, Dorsett shares his testimony. It’s powerful. At one point, he writes:

During the first six years of our marriage, I taught full-time and pursued research. Promotions came quickly, as did publications and grants. But despite the blessings of a lovely wife, two children, and professional success, no rest came to my soul. To fill the void I began to drink heavily. Although most people didn’t know it, I became an alcoholic. I never missed classes and seldom drank during the week, but I often binged on weekends.

Mary continued to pray. And one of my favorite students spent money he couldn’t afford to buy me a copy of G. K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy, then challenged to me read C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity. Simul­taneously, my car radio malfunctioned and stuck on a gospel station. I kept the radio on because I needed noise. Gradually the programs began to warm my soul.

Still doubting, I received a year’s leave to write a book. When I finished it early, I rewarded myself with a binge. One evening when Mary implored me not to drink around the children, I stomped out, found a bar, and drank until closing time. I left armed with a six-pack, drove up a winding mountain road, stopped at an overlook, and blacked out. The next morning I found myself on a dirt road next to the old Pioneer Cemetery in Boulder with no memory of the drive down.

Despite the hangover, I realized I had experienced a miracle. In utter desperation I cried out, “Lord, if you are there, please help me.”

You can read the article here. Or, if you prefer, you can watch Dr. Dorsett share his story here.

Teaching My Boys the Apostles’ Creed

We have devoted part of our family worship time in recent months to learning the Apostles’ Creed. If you are unfamiliar with the Apostles’ Creed, I recommend Alister McGrath’s book, “I Believe”: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed. McGrath writes: “[The Apostles’ Creed] is the oldest and simplest creed of the church. All Christian traditions recognize its authority and its importance as a standard of doctrine. To study the Apostles’ Creed is to investigate a central element of our common Christian heritage. It is an affirmation of the basic beliefs that unite Christians throughout the world and across the centuries” (14). Here is a video of my sons reciting the Creed (with only the slightest bit of coaching from dad).




A Lesson from Jesus’ Use of Illustrations

In his Lectures to My Students, Charles Spurgeon compares illustrations in preaching to windows in a house—they “let in light.” A house made of windows is unstable. A house with no windows is just plain dull. Somewhere between these two extremes is where I try to live.

I recently listened to Richard Bauckham give a lecture on becoming “fishers of people” (Matt 4:19; Mark 1:17). Toward the end of the lecture, Bauckham made the interesting point that, though Jesus was a carpenter, we find no carpentry illustrations in Jesus’ teaching in the Gospels. He went on to suggest that this is precisely because Jesus made an effort to find illustrations in the lives of the people he was trying to teach. I think there is an important point for preachers and teachers here. It’s easy for me to think of an illustration about running, because I like to run, and I know a decent amount about the subject. But do I have any other runners in my congregation? In a rural church, would I “let in [more] light” by using an occasional farming illustration? If I have a number of architects in my congregation, would an illustration from their domain be more effective? I might not know anything about farming or architecture. It might require a bit of research, a little more effort on my part, to craft a quality illustration that comes from an area of life with which I am fairly unfamiliar. But it seems to me it would be worth it. We pastors probably should spend more time thinking about the people we are trying to teach when crafting our illustrations.

And if I’m right about all of this, if some of the best illustrations come from the lives of the people in our own congregations, then this is one reason why we pastors should not—not even for all of Spurgeon’s cigars!—use a book of generic illustrations.

Just a thought for your Saturday morning.