Challenges: Point of Reference

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.
START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST

Not long after arriving at seminary, I hit one of the lowest points in my life. I found myself kneeling on a cold, hard floor in the back room of the hotel lobby where I was working the night shift. I spoke into what felt like nothingness: “God, I’m just not sure that I can believe in You anymore.”

Since the China mission trip mentioned in a previous post, questions and doubts had been piling to the ceiling of my mind. Some were big questions, like: “Why do You allow evil in the world?” and “How could You create a place like Hell?” But on that night, the questions were much more basic and practical: “Why would you call me to go to seminary and not provide a way for my family to be taken care of?” (I had only found a part-time job up to that point) and “Am I even cut out to be a minister?”

Eight and a half years later, I find it ironic – almost humorous – that I was tempted to abandon faith in the very God to whom I was addressing my questions and doubts. Whether I liked it or not, my point of reference was: there is a God.

I’ve since realized that we all start from some point of reference. It’s unavoidable. No one looks on from the outside and examines the nature of reality from an objective point of view. The question is whether or not we are willing to honestly assess the validity of our assumptions. Yes, my assumption was: there is a God, but not just that. I believed: there is a God…and He has spoken through the Bible…and, if I’m honest, some of the things He has said confuse or frustrate me. That was (and still is!) my point of reference.

The other two most common points of reference I see in the world around me are: feelings and niceness. Let me explain…

Some assert that the answers to life’s questions can only be known by means of personal experience. “It’s not real if I don’t feel it,” they insist. This is why skeptics doubt and atheist deny the existence of God. They think that they haven’t experienced God – that they haven’t “felt” Him with their five senses. And, given this point of reference, their conclusion makes perfect sense.

But how someone feels about a truth claim can’t affect its validity. It’s either true, or it’s false: God either exists or He doesn’t. The Bible is either God’s word, or it isn’t. How I feel doesn’t affect reality.

Others borrow loads of moral capital from monotheistic religions, customize that point of reference to their liking, and end up with a philosophy of niceness. “We all just need to love each other,” the mantra goes. And I don’t disagree. However, I know that sometimes the most loving thing you can do for a person is confront them about the self-destructive lifestyle they are living. But this practice is only partially acceptable to the philosophy of niceness. It’s okay to have an intervention with an alcoholic or a hoarder, but don’t dare confront a couple who is living together before marriage, and don’t even consider questioning today’s popular consensus on social issues. Again… Borrowed morality + customization = niceness.

To be clear, I think we should be nice to each other, and I affirm that no one truly believes anything until they experience it. But these ideas are only two parts to a larger whole, and I find them far too subjective to hold the weight of being my ultimate point of reference.

There are so many other points of reference I could examine here, and I could do a much better job at treating these two, but I need to get to the point.

If there is a God…and if He has spoken through the Bible…and if how I feel about what He said doesn’t affect its validity…but if I still need to experience this God (by some means!) in order to believe in Him…and if I am willing to examine the validity of my point of reference…then the next important challenge I need to address is: “Can the Bible be trusted?”

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Challenges: The Gospel is for Christians

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary.START AT THE BEGINNING or check out the PREVIOUS POST

In my previous post, I talked about the joyless seriousness that often characterized my heart in the mid-2000s. Somewhere along the way, I also picked up the belief that any imperfection in me could be dealt with by means of even greater seriousness and determination. This, however, only led to further frustration and failure.

But – praise God! – during my first two years in seminary, the Holy Spirit began to use professors, fellow students, and brothers and sisters at my church to help me more clearly understand the gospel of grace.

I still remember the moment when I heard for the first time that the gospel is not just what gets us in to Heaven but also what gives us the power to live the Christian life. I thought the gospel was for justification, and hard work (Sure…dependence on God in some undefinable way…but mostly hard work!) was for sanctification, but the chapel preacher I heard on September 27, 2011 told me that I needed the gospel for both. I needed to keep “preaching the gospel to myself” if I had any hope of becoming more like Jesus. I needed to continually…daily…multiple times a day…fall upon the mercies of Christ to overwhelm my heart with a greater happiness than my sin could offer.

This started a revolution in my life.

Not only did passages like John 15:1-17 (“…apart from me, you can do nothing,” ESV) and Romans 12:1-2 (“I appeal to you…by the mercies of God…,” ESV) make more sense than ever, but I began to see how Paul aimed at heart change by continually preaching the gospel…TO CHRISTIANS! What was the content of the first half of most of Paul’s letters to Christian churches? The gospel. He reminded Christians of the gospel before giving them practical commands; and, even in the practical commands, gospel truths were embedded.

Before this realization, I was one of those Christians who was bothered by Reformed people always talking about, “Gospel, gospel, gospel.” Now I understand, as Jeff Vanderstelt puts it, “Paul knows that if people are going to grow up into Christ in every way, they need to hear the truths of Jesus (the gospel) and learn to speak them into everything,” (Gospel Fluency, 28; cf. Eph. 4:11-16; 1:10; Col. 1:20).

So, if there was only one thing I could pass along to you through this Challenges series, it would be Paul’s message in the letter to the Galatians. We don’t leave the gospel behind after being regenerated in order to grow in the Christian life (Gal. 3:3). We continue deeper and deeper into –  turning over new, beautiful, and exciting facets of – the significance of a God who loved us so much that He took on human flesh, humbled himself to the point of death on a cross, and rose again to give us eternal life. This gospel sets us free from daily temptation and sin; and this gospel motivates us toward happiness in holiness! 

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Challenges: God is Good and Wants Me to Be Happy

*This post is part of a series on challenges I’ve faced while in seminary. START AT THE BEGINNING.

No, I didn’t turn prosperity preacher during seminary. But I am convinced that the two most important truths I’ve learned during this time are two of the most important truths anyone can learn in life: God is good and wants me to be happy.

In some sense, most of the posts in this series will be devoted to why I am convinced that God is good. I probably won’t get too much push back on this claim. But some may think, “How can he claim that God wants him to be happy? That just sounds so self-centered and shallow.”

My answer begins and ends with the ministry of John Piper. Passion OneDay 2000 was a watershed moment for many believers in my generation. I wasn’t there in person, but it didn’t take long for me to hear about Piper’s sermon, “Boasting Only in the Cross.” (If you’ve never heard it, take a listen, and see why it impacted so many.) In this sermon, I heard loud and clear, “Don’t waste your life on trivialities! Pour it out in service to the kingdom!” I heard the hard sayings of Jesus and, like so many, became determined to do hard things for Jesus. A year later, I even found myself in China teaching English for half a summer in response to this call.

But in being introduced to Piper so late in his ministry, I missed some of the foundational writing which provided context for that OneDay sermon. I missed concepts like, “The goal of missions is the gladness of the peoples in the greatness of God” (Let the Nations Be Glad, 35, emphasis mine) and “God is most glorified in me when I am most satisfied in Him” (Desiring God, 10, emphasis mine). Yes, Piper said these kinds of things in the OneDay sermon, but I don’t think I heard them.

I heard that I needed to work hard for God. I heard that I needed give and live sacrificially. I heard that I needed to “deny myself.” (And I still believe these things!) Yet, even if subconsciously, I began to believe that these truths meant I needed to deny myself of happiness. Why? Because seriousness and sternness are innately godly…right?

Long story (for another time) short, I returned from China disappointed…disillusioned…and unhappy. For various reasons, I found myself questioning both God’s goodness and His desire for my good. And unfortunately I wasn’t able to shake these for a long time.

But what I’ve discovered during my time in seminary is that happiness in Christ is the fuel of the Christian life. Sure, there is a time and place for doing our duty when we don’t feel like it; but even in this, we know there is greater joy on the other side. It is our delight in God and His ways which ultimately make our obedience pleasing in His sight (cf. Ps. 27:4; Ps. 119:47).

The promise of the New Covenant is the gift of a new heart, which, by the power of the Spirit, is compelled to walk in God’s ways (Ezek. 36:26-27). This heart is a heart of joy, for the fruit of His Spirit is joy (Gal. 5:22).  As the psalmist says, “…in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Ps. 16:11 ESV), and “I delight to do your will, O my God…” (Ps. 40:8 ESV). And, in the words of Jesus, “Happy are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6).

Why do I use “joy” and “happiness” interchangeably? Because for so many I think the word “joy” has come to mean merely a sort of contended peace. And that’s not bad! But I do wonder if, in only using “joy” to describe the Christian life, such believers miss the command to “Delight yourself in the LORD…” (Ps. 37:4). Yes, we are content. Yes, we have peace. But our faces also light up and our hearts leap at the blessing it is to know and be known by – to love and be loved by – God! 

In this, my final semester of seminary, I finally read Let the Nations Be Glad and am almost halfway through Desiring God. I wish I’d read them two decades ago. Still, I am grateful for the help they have been in overcoming this emotional challenge.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I now believe that the most important thing I can do each morning, as I start my day, is find happiness in Christ. This helps me rightly delight in God’s good gifts without allowing them to become idols. Of course, I don’t live in a constant state of happiness. I have to fight for joy just like everyone else. But I’m grateful for the realization that this is something I can…no, I am commanded to…fight for.

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Why Daily Time with God?

My parents instilled in me the habit of daily time in God’s word and prayer at an early age. In my teen years, I struggled to maintain the habit, but these days I wrestle more with the why. Why am I doing this? What’s in my heart? What do I hope to gain from this time?

I think there are several good reasons to spend daily time with God.

1. Increased knowledge about God. Faithfully walking through a daily Bible reading plan increases your overall familiarity with the things of God.

Paul prayed that God would give the Ephesian believers “the Spirit…of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph. 1:17 ESV). Don’t minimize the importance of the foundational activity of increasing your knowledge about God. This is necessary for an experience of God. If your experience of God is not informed by the scriptures, it may not be God you are experiencing.

As we seek to know God through memorizing and mediating on the biblical stories and instructions, we are shaped in our thinking and character. We begin to think like the Bible thinks, and the result is that we begin to live as the Bible directs. This leads to the next benefit of daily time with God.

2. Increased wisdom for life. Paul also prayed that God would give the Ephesian Christians, “the Spirit of wisdom” (Eph. 1:17). When we think of gaining wisdom from God’s Word, our minds probably go to the book of Proverbs. But, all of Scripture is intended to teach us how to live faithfully before God (2 Tim. 3:16). Don’t downplay the dos and don’ts of passages like Colossians 3:5-17 and 1 Corinthians 5-14 (most of the book!).

We might call point 1 “the foundation.” We need to grow in our knowledge about God.

And we might call point 2 “the result.” Daily time with God should affect the way we live.

But neither of these are the heart – the true why – of daily time with God.  In fact, just before Paul’s prayer for wisdom and knowledge for the Ephesians, he spent 12 verses, Ephesians 1:3-14, rejoicing in the gospel!

In Christ, God the Father has “blessed us…with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places…,” chosen and adopted us, redeemed and forgiven us, lavished grace upon us, given us an eternal inheritance (Himself!), and given us the Holy Spirit as the guarantee of that inheritance. These truths cause Paul to burst forth in praise!

The purpose of daily time with God is happiness in God.

3. Increased happiness in Christ. Above all, I hope to get up from my kitchen table and my time with the Lord each day delighting in what Christ has done for me. Like you, I don’t always reach this goal, but I think that just knowing what the goal is helps me reach it more often.

Denver: Days 3-4

Our team is sitting in the Denver airport about to fly home, so I thought I’d take these few minutes to finish telling you about our vision trip to Denver, CO. Thank you so much for the prayers and encouragement via comments, Facebook, email, and text. They have been an invaluable part of the trip.

On day 3, we spent the morning with a precious family in the northern Front Range, who is a friend of one of our team members. They were so gracious. They prepared breakfast for us, mapped out a tour of the Fort Collins area, and took most of their morning to show us around. Thank you Matt and Becky!

In the Fort Collins area we found a culture that felt familiar to us North Raleighites, along with more affordable housing. We also drove by the newly constructed Mormon temple.

There seems to be a stronger church presence in Fort Collins than Denver, but there is still great need.

For example: the Alliance for Suicide Prevention of Lamier County states: “On average, one person in Larimer County [the county in which Fort Collins is located] dies from suicide every 4 to 5 days.” Our team talked about how hard this is for us to understand. Fort Collins is highly educated and affluent, offers almost unmatched opportunity for recreation, and has the Rocky Mountains for its backyard. Why then is there such depression and hopelessness?

I would never want to oversimplify a problem as big as this, but as believers we understand that beautiful landscapes were never meant to offer lasting peace. Their beauty is intended to cause humans to recognize the Creator and worship Him. No amount of knowledge, money, or fun will quench our spiritual thirst for love and joy. This is why a continued and ever-growing gospel witness through church-planting is so important.

We finished our morning tour with an even clearer vision of the need for church planting along the Front Range and with excitement about where God might call us. And since we weren’t able to secure any more meetings for Saturday afternoon/evening, we decided to head into Rocky Mountain National Park for some fun and to talk through all that we’d experienced over the previous 48 hours.

Once inside the park, it’s not hard to see why the mountains are such a draw. They are magnificent! God was just showing off when He formed those jagged peaks and crystal clear streams.

After our time in the park, we headed back down to the city of Denver. What a contrast! We transitioned from taking pictures of Elk (who couldn’t care less if we were around) to attempting to navigate the city’s public transportation system.

I’m really glad that we ended our exploration of the Front Range by spending Saturday night walking around the city. To me cities accentuate most vividly the brokenness caused by sin. How can a person who has limitless parties, partners, entertainment, food, and drink never find contentment? How can someone who has lived in the city for almost a decade soberly and sincerely state, “I have no friends” (True story told to us by one church planter, and apparently not an uncommon one)?

They need Jesus – the Friend of sinners – to heal their brokenness and satisfying their longing. And they need the church – His body – to be the tangible representation of that healing and satisfaction.

On our last day, we visited a brand new church plant (in only their second week of public worship services), which is working hard to be the hands and feet of Christ; and after worship, we had a final team meeting to discuss where we need to go from here.

There is still a lot of work to be done before it can be decided if Denver is where we will plant. Many follow-up emails need to be written and phone calls made. Further study needs to be done on specific neighborhoods. But more than this, as all of the knowledge we’ve gained and experiences we’ve had begin to settle in our minds, we need God to direct us.

Pray that He would continue to direct us.
Pray that if Denver Metro or somewhere else on the Front Range is where He wants us to plant a church, He would make that clear.
And pray that when steps of faith need to be made in the coming days, we will not shy away from them but move forward in obedience to our King.

For His sake and for the joy of the nations,
Andy

Denver: Day 2

Our team’s second day was spent in the city. We met Dave, the city missionary, downtown at 8:30 AM and spent the whole morning driving around two sections of the city. First, we drove west from the heart of downtown to the edge of Denver Metro. Houses went from packed-in and fairly small to huge and more spaced out. I thought to myself, “Urban, suburban, or somewhere in between? Are you calling us to this city, God? And if you are, where specifically do you want us to plant our lives?”

To be honest, Friday was a difficult day. The whole group was filled with mixed emotions, and it seemed like the more real estate we surveyed, the more muddled things became in our minds. Dave did an amazing job giving us snapshots of the city. (I can’t imagine doing this without his help.) But it’s daunting to consider where you should plant a church when over 100 are needed in Denver Metro, and there are 30 more cities in our nation in the same kind of spiritual shape (or worse).

In addition to this challenge, Denver has become a very expensive place to live over the past few years. The metro area has become one of the fastest growing cities in America, and housing construction has not been able to keep up. For this reason, homes cost around 40 percent more than the national average. Obviously, this is a big factor to consider in church planting. As I said before, there are reasons why the most underserved cities in our country are as they are.

So Friday was tough, as all of these realities began to sink in.

But that afternoon, as I was sitting in the hotel lobby trying to get some perspective from the Word, a lady walked up to me; and, seeing one of my books sitting on the table in front of me, she struck up a conversation. She was Catholic, but also held to some tenants of other religions. We had a great conversation, and I was able to speak truth into her life a little; but I believe that this encounter was mostly what God knew I needed in order to get my head back in the game.

You see, talking about facts and figures is important, but it is also, by nature, impersonal. It’s the conversations like the one I had with this lady that remind me why we’re doing what we’re doing. She needs the gospel. She is working so very hard to “stay in grace” with God. But this is a position/state which Jesus has already purchased for her! And it’s our job to tell her this. I certainly tried, but discipleship takes time, which takes presence, which takes believers planting their lives in a community.

So for the sake of the souls of people like this lady, I ask the same thing that Paul asked the Colossians: “Pray also for us, that God may open to us a door for the word, to declare the mystery of Christ…” (Col. 4:3). Pray that He will make it clear to us where we are to plant our lives that we might plant His gospel and His church.

Church Music: Content, Unity, & Style

“Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.”
-Col. 3:16, ESV

My pastor is preaching through Colossians this summer; and he covered chapter 3, verses 12-17 this past Sunday. This triggered some new thoughts in my mind about how we should select songs for our worship services.

My priorities, in order, are: content, unity, and style. 

1. Content
First and foremost, the content of a song needs to be true. The words need to communicate something and that something needs to be biblically accurate. I also believe that that communication needs to balance theological depth with clarity. In other words, I’m still glad to sing “A mighty fortress is our God,” even though no one knows what a bulwark is in anymore; but we need to be careful with overusing songs like this that need translation.

If we’re honest, there is a tendency in the human heart to view archaic things (even archaic language) as sacred simply because it’s archaic (think the KJV-only mindset). We need to resist this urge. Theological depth doesn’t mean we have to talk like Puritans. Every language in every time period has the capacity to communicate clearly and robustly.

[And just so I’m being fair: some also tend to consider me-centered, self-help psychology language in our worship songs to be sacred too.]

Why do I place content first in my priorities?

Because here in Colossians 3:16 the Apostle Paul makes a direct connection between “The word of Christ” and singing. One of the ways in which the word is to dwell richly among us is in our singing.

For this reason, I think one of the best practices in song writing is to paraphrase or summarize specific passages of Scripture. Also, one of the great features of many hymns is the movement from addressing sin or struggle to proclaiming the gospel and future glory (e.g. “It is Well,” “O Great God”).

 

2. Unity.
In the context of Colossians 3, and other similar passages in the New Testament, unity in local church worship is of the utmost importance.

Col. 3:12-14 says, “Put on then…compassionate hearts…bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other…And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
Ephesians 5:21 says, “…submitting to one another out of reverence for God.”
And 1 Corinthians 14:26 says, “Let all things be done for building up.”

Unity under content and over style means that each church member exhibits passionate devotion to the truths of God’s word and deference toward the others’ preferences. In a context of obvious diversity, one should find themselves regularly and joyfully thinking: “This song isn’t really ‘my thing,’ but I’m so glad that it ministers to the mind and heart of my brother or sister.” This is what Paul means in Philippians 2 when he says, “…in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (vv. 3-4).

 

3. Style
Every culture in the world has its own unique expressions of worship; and this, so long as it is biblical, is beautiful. It is a picture of the diversity of the kingdom of God, and we should celebrate this diversity.

I don’t think that this means that every church must become as culturally diverse as possible; but, let’s be honest, at this point there seems to be little danger of that. As Lecrae pointed out, “Most segregated time of day is Sunday service / Now what you think that say about the God you worship?”

Truth is, just like we tend to consider archaic or emotional language sacred, we all tend to think of our favorite worship style as sacred. And that’s where the southern American church went wrong 20+ years ago. “Traditional” and “Contemporary” church members alike used their tongues to “bless our Lord and Father, and…curse people who are made in the likeness of God” (Jas. 3:9). They sacrificed unity on the altar of preference.

Yep. For me, this subject always seems to come back around to the regret I feel for what was and what could have been. Instead of gently integrating new styles of music into the church, the young started talking against “the old people;” and instead of being excited about and accepting of new cultural expressions of worship, it was said that we were letting the world’s (or the Devil’s!) music in. And the result looked more like Darwin’s rapid and catastrophic evolution of species than the advancement of the kingdom of God.

I truly believe that if the southern American church had prioritized depth and clarity of content (particularly on the contemporary side) and unity (on both sides) over style in the 90s and early 2000s, our churches would be healthier today and our witness to the world would be much more convincing.

Unfortunately, we can’t go back.
But we can move forward.
And I pray we will, with theologically rich, edifying singing.