Saturday, May 30, 2009

Preparation for Preaching

Tony Reinke shares this post:

“I have a conviction that no sermon is ready for preaching, not ready for writing out, until we can express its theme in a short, pregnant sentence as clear as a crystal. I find the getting of that sentence is the hardest, the most exacting, and the most fruitful labour in my study. To compel oneself to fashion that sentence, to dismiss every word that is vague, ragged, ambiguous, to think oneself through to a form of words which defines the theme with scrupulous exactness—this is surely one of the most vital and essential factors in the making of a sermon: and I do not think any sermon ought to be preached or even written, until that sentence has emerged, clear and lucid as a cloudless moon.”

—J. H. Jowett, The Preacher: His Life and Work (Harper & Bros, 1912), p. 133.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Prayer for Assurance

O God, preserve me from delusion in a business of everlasting importance! Let me feel a thousand terrors rather than perish with a lie in my right hand. But if I am thine, save me now from the uncertainties I now feel. Give me the full assurance of hope unto the end. Let me know, not only that there are exceeding great and precious promises, but that I am an heir of promise; not only that in the Lord Jesus all fullness dwells, but that I am blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in him; and say unto my soul, I am thy salvation.
William Jay (1769-1853) in Morning Exercises for May 28

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Worship, OT Style

And all the people gathered as one man into the square before the Water Gate. And they told Ezra the scribe to bring the Book of the Law of Moses that the LORD had commanded Israel. So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could understand what they heard, on the first day of the seventh month. And he read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand. And the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law…They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading. Neh. 8:1-3; 8

In modern culture, we are so sensitive to the laws of learning. We realize that modern people have short attention spans, that they respond better visually, and that they retain information in which they participate as a learner. With this in mind, this passage in Nehemiah seems to us like a strange tongue. Can you imagine gathering together for about 6 hours straight listening to a reading of the Law of Moses (Genesis – Deuteronomy) with exposition? This would be considered today to be at best, dry, tedious, and boring; at worst down right torturous.

As foreign as this may seem to us, there are noteworthy features in this passage that certainly have relevance to modern hearers. First, observe who attended this gathering. Present were “men, women, and those who could understand.” This seems to imply that the people were gathered in families, including older children who could understand the proceedings. There is something Biblical to exposing children to the truth of Scripture, more than the basic “Bible story” fare with which we usually entertain them.

Secondly, note that the people were gathered out of doors. Granted they had no large auditorium to hold a mass of people, so their options were few. It strikes one as odd that today, with modern, attractive, and comfortable buildings it is difficult to get people to come unless there is some attraction. Who would still come if we met outside each Sunday?

Thirdly, they assembled to hear the Law expounded. This was the pure teaching of God’s Word. There was no Praise Team, offertory, power point, choir, etc., all those elements that many think are absolute essentials to worship. In fact, the result was closer to what we might call worship than anything most of us have experienced. The people “lifted their hands” (Neh. 8:6), shouted “Amen” (6), “worshipped” (6), and “wept” (9).

The modern church has done everything imaginable to manufacture genuine worship – from the Ladies’ Ensembles and Gospel Quartets of the 40’s and 50’s to modern contemporary Praise bands – yet we cannot make it happen. So what’s wrong with following an inspired example? Maybe we should give it a try.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Memorial Day

This is a post published last year on Memorial Day.

Since 1999, my view of Memorial Day has been profoundly different. That year, my wife and I spent the first 2 weeks of May in France visiting missionaries from our church who had returned for a station relief assignment. The highlight for my wife was the Louvre, Versailles, and Giverny, the home and studio of Claude Monet, her favorite artist. Of course, being the dutiful husband, I tried to feign interest, but after 25 years of marriage (at that time), her expectation level was low. I will admit to being impressed with Giverny. We could have spent more time there. The house and gardens were beautiful.

The highlight of the trip for me, however, was more personal. I was anxious to visit the American Cemetery at Normandy to see the place where an uncle I never knew is buried.

As I a child, I remember seeing his photo on the wall at my grandparent’s house. There were 4 pictures: my mother as a teenager, her youngest brother’s high school graduation picture, and her 2 older brothers in their army dress uniforms. Of course I knew 3 of them, but I remember asking about the 4th one who bore an uncanny resemblance to a younger version of my grandfather. The only answer I ever remember receiving was this: “That’s your uncle James. He died in the war.” When I asked why grandma was riding in the Gold Star Mothers car with several other older ladies during the “Decoration Day” parade, it was: “Uncle James died in the war.”

I confess that I was not very curious about the affair, maybe because around the kids it was not a topic of discussion. It was only as we planned the trip to France that I was determined to find out as much as I could. My aunt had learned that he was buried at St. Mere d’ Eglise, in a temporary cemetery. All else that they knew was that he died on June 10, 1944 – 4 days after the D Day invasion. In Caen, we were told by a missionary (Dan Lacy, a great guy, now with Lord) that the remains at all the temporary cemeteries were reburied at Normandy.

In the final analysis, we have learned no more about the circumstances of his death. I have questions that, 65 years later, will likely never be answered. How did he die? We heard a rumor that he was last seen driving a jeep (I wonder if this is borrowed from the Patton story. My grandparents loved George Patton). Did he survive the initial landing on Omaha Beach or did he come later after the beach was secured?

I can only imagine the pain that my grandparents felt when the black sedan pulled up in front of their house in tiny Mogadore, Ohio. This was not an uncommon occurrence during that time, and the whole town knew when those official-looking men showed up with the horrible news.

Today, there is only one member of that immediate family left, my uncle Ken, the youngest. Grandma & Grandpa, uncle Harold, and my mom are all gone. So far, I have been the only family member to visit the grave at Normandy. That visit was one of the most moving experiences of my life. It was made all the more poignant by a remark spoken by our friends; “Ron, your uncle gave his life so I could preach the gospel in France for 33 years.”

Uncle James was weeks shy of his 19th birthday. He lies besides hundreds of those who made the ultimate sacrifice for for a cause greater than himself.

Friday, May 22, 2009


I am becoming more convinced that the sins that plague me most are not the ones that are most observable. No, they are the ones that are hidden from view, but not from God. Particularly, I refer to idolatry.

It is not by accident that 1st of the 10 commandments begins with this prohibition: You shall make no other gods, no image or likeness of God (Ex. 20: 3-4). We are normally conditioned to think of idolatry as making images or statues of pagan deities and bowing and burning sacrifice to them. But heart idolatry is much more subtle.

American idolatry is rather obvious: sex, money, power, fame, influence, and such like. These are issues that drain spiritual vitality from Christians to lure us away from the priority of Christ. But there are also others. A failure to forgive others of wrongs against us is a form of idolatry. It says, in essence, “God may forgive you, but I won’t forgive you.” Does not this place us as one greater than God?

When Moses repeated the Law to the 2nd generation of Israel, he listed the commandments in chapter 5 (Deut. 5:1-21), and gave the corrective in chapter 6, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and might.” (Deut. 6:5). How do I keep myself from idolatry? By loving God supremely! To love anything or anyone more than God – including myself or my family – is idolatry.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Shack Part 4

This will be the final post on this subject. I don’t want to be considered hyper-critical, but when we see error, it needs to be exposed. The error is rather subtle (though I do not see how anyone who knows the Bible even in part can fail to see it); Young woos the reader with a compelling story that keeps you reading. I will admit to this: he tells a good story.

Scripture claims that there are certainties that can be and should be known. For example, according to Heb. 11:1, faith is not some blind adventure, rather it is substance and evidence. John tells us that we may know the certainty of life with Christ (Jn. 20:31; 1 Jn. 5:13). One of my seminary professors gave this excellent definition of faith: “Faith is sufficient reason to believe.”

According to The Shack, certainty will get you nowhere. Indeed, it is the chief obstacle in the Christian life. To Mack (the main character) God says, “Faith does not grow in the house of certainty.” Sarayu, leads Mack to a garden that she has produced where Mack “unsuccessfully tries to find some order in this blatant disregard for certainty.”

This is postmodern thought at its best. The new intellectualism holds uncertainty in high esteem. To really know is to know nothing for sure. This is diametrically opposed to historic Christianity which is rooted in historical fact and propositional truth.

Young’s slavish devotion to political correctness is splattered throughout The Shack. Here is but one example:

“I’ve always wondered why men have been in charge,” Mack pondered. “Males seem to be the cause of so much of the pain in the world. They account for most crimes, and many of them are those perpetrated against women and” – he paused – “children.” To which Jesus replies: “The world would be a much calmer and gentler place if women ruled. There would have been far fewer children sacrificed to the gods of greed and power.”

The Shack’s outright heresies have been chronicled elsewhere (see Tim Challies reviews). I think this is enough said. I could rant, but it would be not be productive.

For all who have read The Shack and love it, I offer this counsel. Regardless of what William Young says in this work of fiction (remember, it is fiction), do not devalue the Word of God. If you, as an evangelical Christian, believe that Scripture is the inspired Word of God, then gather your knowledge of God, forgiveness, and eternity from the Bible, not from someone with a chip on his shoulder.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Shack Part 3

One of the disturbing features of The Shack is William Young’s attitude toward Scripture. Revealed Scripture apparently is too confining when it comes to the knowledge of the Holy. In fact, one has the impression that Young thinks that the Scriptures are untrustworthy. Note this observation from the narrator:

In seminary he had been taught that God had completely stopped any overt communication with moderns, preferring them only to listen and follow sacred Scripture, properly interpreted of course. God’s voice had been reduced to paper, and even that paper had to be moderated and deciphered by the proper authorities and intellects. It seemed that direct communication with God was something exclusively for the ancients and uncivilized, while Westerners’ access to God was mediated and controlled by the intelligentsia.

I doubt that even those of a more charismatic persuasion would be comfortable with sidelining the Bible, as Young appears to do. History informs us that the heart of the Reformation was to take the Bible out of the hands of the “proper authorities” and place it into the hands of the plow boy and blacksmith.

Young does not completely disavow Scripture. He acknowledges that it may provide some information about God, but apparently religious people have gotten it all wrong. The Holy Spirit character, named Sarayu, says;

My ability to communicate is limitless, living and transforming, and will always be tuned to Papa’s (Young’s name for God) goodness and love. And you will hear me and see me in the Bible in fresh ways. Just don’t look for rules and principles; look for relationship – a way of coming to be with us.

Jesus tells us in John 16:13 that the Holy Spirit will not speak of Himself, but will exalt the Savior. And further:

The Bible doesn’t teach you to follow rules. It is a picture of Jesus.

While it the case that Christ is the theme of Scripture, it does not follow that with one stroke we can dismiss propositional truth. Are the Ten Commandments irrelevant? Can we ignore those “rules” and opt for the relationship with God that the rules are pointing to? I would love to see how this works if someone “stole” William Young’s ideas by plagiarizing his book and violating the copyright. I think that “Thou shalt not steal” may become amazingly relevant.

Why is The Shack so popular? Is it because it’s new, controversial, and heart warming? Let’s hope this is the reason. Let’s hope that it is not because those who profess to know God are tired of the Bible, of sound doctrine, of objective truth.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Shack Part 2

The Shack is promoted as a work “wrapped in creative brilliance…spiritually profound, theologically enlightening and life impacting.” Wow. This is quite an endorsement from a pastor. However, this is not cutting edge stuff. It is one of the most politically correct piles of postmodern scatology written in a long time.

William Young’s bias against religion and Christianity in particular, leaps out in the opening pages of The Shack. The father of the story’s main character is portrayed as an elder in the church, one with a good reputation in the congregation, but a closet drinker and a physically abusive hypocrite. Of course, we have all met people like this. Hypocrisy is rife within Christian circles. However, Young mentions this to set up his assault on traditional Christianity. Given his rearing in a missionary family, I wonder if this is partly autobiographical.

Theology takes a beating in The Shack – maybe because an understanding of theology would ruin an otherwise interesting story. Mack, the main character, was once in seminary until he “had his fill of theology and philosophy.” Later in the book, when Mack arrives at his life changing revelation about the true nature of God, he reflects upon the institutions that provided him with what he had previously believed, those institutions being the church and seminary. Of these, Jesus said, “It’s all false.” Mack then has an epiphany. He says, “I have been told so many lies.”

Postmodern themes of power and control abound in The Shack. All organized structures appear to exist to oppress and control. In one exchange, Mack is told by God that organized religion aka, the church is one of the “man –created trinity of terrors that ravages the earth and deceives those I care about” (the other 2 being politics and economics). Sounds a little like Marxist propaganda to me!

There is so much more in this book that should cause alarm. I will mention more as the days follow. My concern is how any Christian who knows Scripture can be taken in by such deception. More to follow.

Monday, May 11, 2009

The Shack

Several people have asked me if I have read The Shack. I will admit to being a Johnny-come-lately in this. I tend to be contrary about a lot of things, especially when others are “ga-ga” about them. For example, I have yet to see the movie It’s a Wonderful Life even though it has been on television as frequently as any other holiday “classic.” A friend even bought the VHS tape for me some years back, trying to repair my cultural deficiencies. Alas, I still did not watch it. I am now going for a record; to be the only male of my generation in the United States to have never watched this movie (give me National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or A Christmas Story any day).

So, when everyone was abuzz over The Shack, my natural inclination was to leave it alone. Fads don’t intrigue me – I do not own a Prayer of Jabez mouse pad or a Purpose Driven Life coffee mug. But, I read recommendations from others that drew me into the book. One person – a graduate from a well-known Christian college – said, “The Shack taught me things about God I never knew before.” Another involved in a Christian ministry said, “Drop what you are doing now, and go out and buy The Shack. You will thank me for it later.” A dear lady in our church told me that she attended a funeral where there were copies of this book available for everyone, because it had so transformed the life of the deceased person.

Wow, how could I not read this book! Apparently my study of the Bible has not been sufficient! I have missed some life-transforming truths by narrowly focusing on God’s Word.

I will be at the Basic’s Conference this week, so posting will be sporadic (like I do this often in the first place). In future posts, I will give you my thoughts on The Shack. I know that you are waiting with bated breath.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Page versus Screen

This is a great segment from Tim Challies interview with Doug Groothuis about his book The Soul in Cyberspace:
A quote from your book: “The book, that stubbornly unelectric artifact of pure typography, possesses resources conducive to the flourishing of the soul. A thoughtful reading of the printed text orients one to a world of order, meaning, and the possibility of knowing truth.” Is there a way, then, in which the printed word is inherently superior to the digital word? What do we stand to lose as we transition to the digital word?

The printed word, as a unique medium, has strengths (and weaknesses) not shared by the digitized word. I appeal to McLuhan: “The medium is the message.” Or, to dilate a bit: each communications medium shapes its content distinctively and shapes the perceiver necessarily. For one thing, we lose a sense of history when we move from books to screens. Books can be old friends, both the content (which stays in our minds) and the artifacts themselves, which we treasure. For example, I would not part with my 1976 edition of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There, which I read shortly after my conversion. It was that book, those ideas, that sparked my vision for Christian ministry. Moreover, I love the cover of that edition and enjoy looking over the many notations I put into the book through multiple readings. Having the same book in a digital form, while worthwhile in many ways (for example, I could capture text and put it on my blog!), would not be the same. Much would be lost.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Dred Scott's Revenge by Andrew Napolitano

For many in my generation (early Baby Boomers), Judge Napolitano’s book will slaughter a sacred cow or two. Dred Scott’s Revenge provides a history of racism in the United States. Had anyone else written this book, they would be accused of being a revisionist. However, coming from one such as the Judge makes this accusation difficult to maintain.

From our founding as a nation to recent days, racism has marked American culture. This comes as old news to black Americans, but to others, the roots of racism have long been hidden. Andrew Napolitano charts the course of this blight from our founding documents to civil rights legislation. On page 220, he summarizes the theme of his book; “Ever since July 4, 1776, the federal and local governments in the independent United States have aided in the treatment of black Americans as chattel property or as second class citizens.”

No political persuasion escapes responsibility for this. Our first Presidents were slave owners, Abraham Lincoln, author of the Emancipation Proclamation, favored emancipation as a means of preserving the Union, not because he believed in the inherent equality of all people. Both the right and the left are complicit in promoting racist policies. Concerning the criminal justice system, Napolitano says, “The right disbelieved in big government, yet helped create a prison system of unprecedented scope and size. The left opposed racially discriminatory punishment, yet reinforced and expanded the most racially skewed prison population in American history” (pages 222-223).

This books needs to be read by every American, regardless of political party. As has been commonly remarked, the only way to avoid making mistakes in the future is to learn from the mistakes of the past.

Thomas Nelson Book Review Blogger Program