Throwing the baby out with the manger

Wasn't Ryan's talk on Sunday terrific?

To see his introductory video, check out: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JDb4EiYu3dY.

Dealing with nuance is one of the most difficult things for human beings to do, especially if these human beings are followers of Jesus. Ryan pointed this out so well. We all know that Christmas gift-giving has been corrupted by the materialism and greed in our culture. But gift giving serves and has served a very important function in our lives. Why is it so rare for us to hear pro-gift-giving sermons around Christmastime? It's an interesting question, really.

It's interesting because for much of the year pastors and elders in churches spend a great deal of time and energy trying to loosen our hold on our stuff. This isn't a critique (it could be, but I don't intend it that way). We need good teaching on generosity, tithing, and money. We need to be pushed out of our self-centered orientation, the orientation that says "My money is mine and I can spend it however I damn well please." And the people who are teaching and pushing me to loosen my grip on my stuff do so with tremendous compassion and character.

But when Christmas comes around - when our greedy culture says "Giving is in" - we often say "Giving is now out." We're supposed to remember Jesus, worshipping and adoring him, not give gifts. Now, some gift-giving is still encouraged - give to the church, to the poor, to InterVarsity (which is almost but not quite the church and the poor) - but PlayStation 3's for your kids and jewelry for your wife...no way. The spirit of Christmas looks like an ally to the gospel call of charity, but the Christmas spirit is not spiritual enough for us.

We often feel guilty giving and receiving gifts. An example of this in action is the dread I feel when asked what I want for Christmas. Maybe I should say "Just worship Jesus," but I want to ask for new jeans. And I feel so unspiritual about that desire, so irreverent, that I end up saying "Nothing." How spiritual is lying?

I think our hesitancy to work with gift-giving - to give gifts wisely, appropriately and well - is indicative of deeper things going wrong in our thinking and theology. Ryan touched on this in his talk, if you remember. Some possible errors in our thinking that can lead to great hesitancy in gift-giving are as follows: our general interaction with and participation in the physical/material world; our attitude toward giving and receiving grace; the humanity and divinity of Jesus (ie. the theandric union); the complexity of our participation in culture; and the interplay of law, freedom and relationship with God.

Gift-giving and Christmastime provide us with opportunities to think about and work with these deeper things, to deal with nuance. Let's do that.

Modernity is too small

I've been thinking a bit over the past couple of weeks about Michael's talk from Large Group before Thanksgiving. The thing that's stuck with me is the idea that Freud, Marx, and Nietzche broke the back of modernity and that their critiques of modernity can be helpful to our growth in faith. Did I understand what he was saying correctly?

So much of our struggle with faith in modern culture comes as a result of unknowingly or unthinkingly accepting the assumptions of modernity. It's hard for us to fit the Truth of God into the box of modernity, which, because of it's smallness, doesn't have room to contain this Truth. How can you rely on science and observation if you have a unique act of creation at the dawn of time? How can you have an objective observer if our ability to see the world has been corrupted by sin? How can you create a society of good men when the best man history's ever seen was crucified for his goodness? How can you exalt reason when faith requires response before all answers have been given or understood?

As we engage the academy, it's good for us to remember that the box of modernity is too small to contain God's truth, that some of these assumptions are flawed, and that we don't have to defend modernity to defend God's truth. I wonder how our engagement of post-moderns would change if we joined them in their critique of the limits of modernity, loved the Lord our God with all our minds, and spoke up with a little bit of Michael's "irascibility."

Marriage...when are we ready?

In a sense, we'll never be ready to get married. We could always be a little more prepared, a little more mature, a little more stable. Marriage, if and when it comes, always draws our inadequacies to the surface. Marriage...when are we ready? Never.

Haha, clever, funny, but really, marriage...when are we ready? Never.

That question needs to be reshaped. It can carry a lot of weight and come with a lot of baggage. We may want help silencing the voices telling us (wisely or unwisely) to wait before getting married. We may want to make sure we know this person completely before we make this deep commitment to them. We may want assurance that our marriages will be easy or at least lasting. And this question is supposed to help with these wants.

But these wants present a problem for people who are considering marriage. At least, they certainly presented a problem for me. These wants represent our hearts' desires for a formulaic security. And there is no such thing as a formula for security!

Let's look at these three wants.

Silence the voices. I wish there was a formula to silence the voices that tell us to wait, especially when I see people in relationships and I think they're wisely headed toward marriage. But there's no formula to silence the voices telling you to wait. They are there, although they often distract and discourage, because you have loving relationships with people who are imperfect.

You, of course, have to ask "Is there wisdom in their voices to caution?" There may be. There may not be. It's possible that your family just isn't ready for you to grow up. It's also possible that your family sees some real potential for trouble in the relationship (he's already married, he's your brother, he's six years old, he's not a he...) that you don't see. You can silence the voices telling you to wait (or hurry up) only by cutting yourself off from imperfect people. But then you're left alone with yourself and without the wisdom those relationships also provide.

Next, know the person. It is great to know the person you're marrying very well before you get married. Great! Highly desired! Optional, according to the Bible. According to the Bible, your readiness for marriage has more to do with you than with the relationship and more to do with your call than with your readiness (oh, to be writing a book instead of a blog!).

On top of that, there's no way to know this person completely before you marry them (remember that intimacy and commitment are designed to go hand in hand, so there's an intimacy that you won't have until after you've made the commitment). If you are going to marry, you are going to marry a strange person, if not a stranger. You'll discover all sorts of stuff about them after you're married: some of it good, some not. Before you get married, you certainly need to ask "Given what I know about this person, is it wise for us to marry?" And you may need to know more to be confident in the wisdom of the decision, but there's not an absolute amount of knowledge that you need to have. How well did Ruth know Boaz or the Church Christ?

Lastly, ease and longevity. If you get married and your marriage lasts, it will not be easy. I guarantee it. If you want a formula for a challenging marriage, here it is: "Get married." (I'm happily married, by the way, this isn't me venting). Marriage is tough and there's certainly no way to time the start of a marriage to guarantee it's ease or longevity! It's the sin and otherness in a marriage that makes if difficult or makes it fail, not how it starts. We want secure, happy marriages and that's good. But that won't come apart from hard work and God's abundant grace. Instead of asking "When are we ready?" and trusting the timing, we need to ask "Would it be wise for me to marry this person now?" and trust God's grace when married life get's difficult.

Almost every day I uncover a new way that I was not prepared to be married to Amy. I don't think I am unique or that I married poorly. I just think that marriage is a relationship that requires growth and grace. I'm not ready to be Amy's husband. I need help to be her husband, help from her, help from my community, help from God.

If you're considering marriage, especially if you've already got the person picked out, I want to scare and comfort you. Marriage is a huge, life-altering experience. It's a huge commitment and if full of terrifying intimacy. Without God's help, you'd have to be crazy to get married. But God is gracious and compassionate, protecting and rescuing us when we don't deserve it or know we need it.

--- Now, I know I scared out more snakes than I could shoot in this post. This is a very general sweep. Shoot me an e-mail, post a comment or grab me when you see me this week if you want me to clarify something in particular. ---

Story break

So, Senior year was in full swing. I was getting ready to graduate and go off to graduate school in another country. Basketball season was also in full swing and I found myself attracted to a wonderful young lady in our InterVarsity chapter. It was a wonderful time of the year. That's the setting.

Here were the twists in the setting:
1) She was younger and not about to graduate
2) I had three good friends who also had crushes on her
3) I had already experienced the difficulties of a long-distance relationship
4) She and I served in Duke's IV chapter and spent time together often
5) We both were committed to Jesus and wanted to serve him wisely.

You know how the story ends, I think. Amy and I got married this past summer and are happily serving Jesus together. And Amy's not the woman from the story, in case you're wondering. So, how did I get from a crushed out Senior to a man married happily to Amy? That's the story.

March of my Senior year was a hard month. The Blue Devils lost in the tourney and I had to decide whether or not it would be wise to start something romantic with this friend. Every time we spent time together it was wonderful, fun, and life-giving (isn't that a good sign?). I should have been walking on clouds and floating on treetops, but I wasn't. I was sad. Why? It had little to do with the Devils, though I don't want to downplay the impact that NCAA basketball has on relationships. No, my sadness was due to the fact that I was fairly convinced that pursuing something romantic with this friend was unwise, "the right thing at the wrong time" to quote Harris.

I was convinced that pursuing something romantic with my friend was unwise because I knew that the circumstances of the next year would make it almost impossible for us to seriously evaluate the potential of marriage. If that is to be a purpose in romantic dating, then romantic dating wasn't an option for us. In a few weeks, the attraction subsided and in a few months I was happy to see her dating one of my friends.

Flash forward a year and a half and I'm in Blacksburg, Virginia interning with InterVarsity before getting placed at Washington and Lee. I've been spending time getting to know Amy Whitaker. Sparks are flying, snow is falling, and that's the new setting. Amy and I start dating romantically, exclusively, and intensely and six months later are convinced that it would be wise for us to marry. Amy is an amazing woman and I'm so blessed to be her husband!

The main difference between these two stories, the difference that made it seem wise to start dating Amy but not to date my friend from Duke, was that with Amy the timing and situation allowed us to consider marriage. It wasn't easy. We did the long-distance thing for a year after we were engaged and are still recovering from some of the strain that that put on our relationship. It wasn't easy. But it was good.

Now there isn't much of a moral to this story or a formula for healthy, happy relationships contained in here. Just some flesh on ideas. Think about your context. Think about your motivation. Seek wisdom. How to do that will be the subject of the next post.

Teaser --- Andy Stanley's The Best Question Ever
--- What is the wise thing for me to do? ---
--- In light of your past experiences, your present circumstances, and your future hopes and dreams, what is the wise thing for you to do? ---

Dating...when are we ready? (Pt. 2)

After reading my last post, my wife kindly informed me that I didn't answer the question. I said that I think I answered a quarter of the question, but Amy responded that I answered the part no one cared about. I think, as usual, that she was right.

My thinking was that, in the Christian communities in which we participate, there's some hesitancy to relate to people of the opposie sex as non-romantic, close friends. Some of us are interested in dating partners or marriage prospects, but close friends? Not so much. This tendency makes me sad.

But, on to the next quarter of the question (I'll probably answer a quarter, a quarter, and then the remaining half). When are we ready to date romantically (as opposed to friendly)?

My answer is simple, but maybe unusual. Because I believe that intimacy and commitment are designed to go hand in hand, I believe that it is unwise to date romantically, exclusively and intensely unless you are ready to consider marrying the person you are dating. Is this a familiar or a foreign idea? Let me expand on it.

First, it's important to not kid ourselves about these relationships: they always escalate and grow. Spend every Friday and Saturday night for a month with a person and you already have momentum building commitment and the accompanying expectations. Talk deeply on those dates, hold hands and snuggle a little and you already have momentum building intimacy and the accompanying desires. This is natural and good: romantic, exclusive and intense dating should lead to deeper levels of intimacy and commitment. But know that the trajectory of these relationships is for the deep end of intimacy and commitment, which in the Christian life means marriage. These relationships either lead to marriage or some bent and twisted substitue or, with effort and a little heartache, back to friendship.

Secondly, if these relationships are either headed to marriage or a substitute or back to friendship, it would be wise for us to keep marriage in mind, to be considering marriage as the relationship grows. Considering marriage as the relationship grows is the best protection from the sub-marriage, sub-friendship substitutes.

Thirdly, we need a willingness to consider marrying, not an immediate willingness to marry. Please don't hear me saying "Don't date a person unless you're sure you're going to marry him/her." Dating with intent is a discovery process. What this means is that you're paying attention, watching to see if this person you're growing closer and more committed to is someone you would be wise to marry. If you discover something along the way that would keep you from marrying (she's already married, she's your sister, she's six years old, she's not a she...), the fact that you're considering marriage and not just having a good time should lead you to change the trajectory of the relationship.

So, when are we ready to date with intent? You're ready when you're ready to consider marriage (how to do that is the topic of a future post, of course). To show you what that looks like, I'll tell those stories I promised last time. But it will have to wait for next time. :)

"The right thing at the wrong time is the wrong thing. (Harris)"

Dating...when are we ready?

I have a bookshelf entirely devoted to books I've accumulated over the years that speak to relationships. My favorite thing about the shelf is that Joshua Harris' I Kissed Dating Goodbye spends every day next to Jeramy Clark's I Gave Dating a Chance (okay...this is isn't brain surgeon level material, but still...a whole shelf). Dating is somthing we all think about from time to time, right?

So, here are some of my thoughts on Dating, specifically on the "when are we ready?" aspect of it. Please feel free to contribute your thoughts in the comments section. :)

First off, I think we get our best picture of love relationship in the Trinity. In the Trinity, we see a unique unity: a deep intimacy and an inseparability. In our human relationships (including dating) we reflect to varying degrees the relational unity of the Trinity. I think this means that intimacy and inseparability (commitment) go hand and hand. In our relationships, as in the Trinity, the depths of intimacy and inseparability - unity - were never intended to be separated. Does this make sense?

What this practically means for our dating relationships is that a relationship that grows significantly faster in one of these areas (intimacy or commitment) than in the other is bending away from God's design. This is one of the core reasons why God designed sex (a very intimate act) to be reserved for marriage (a very intimate relationship). But this principle goes way beyond sex and marriage.

I had a friend who dated a wonderful young woman and was evaluating whether or not it would be wise for them to marry. This was a highly committed relationship: it would be tough for them to separate. But my friend was really failing to share his emotions and thought processes with his girlfriend, and they both knew it. This was a case where commitment was in danger of running ahead of intimacy. Can you guess what happened in their relationship when their level of intimacy caught up with their level of commitment?

So, thought #1...because our relationships reflect the unity of the Trinity, in our dating relationships we can't find deep intimacy without commitment (or vice versa).

Second thought, connected to the first: I think that there are necessary levels of dating. What's that mean? It's pretty simple. Dating can be considered either "appointments to meet socially" (Clark, p. 16; I would call this "intentional friendship" or "going on dates") or an intentional relationship to consider the possibility of marriage (Harris, p. 55-56; I would call this "courting" or "dating with intentionality").

At the broadest level, as brothers and sisters in Christ, we need non-exclusive dates with members of the opposite sex because in Christ we are committed to both men and women. For me to have no relational intimacy with women would rob me of some of what God has for me in the gospel. To be clear, I don't seek wife-like intimacy with every woman, because I've only been united to one woman in that way. I have one wife, but in the community of Jesus, I have many sisters. And though at times I think it might be easier to make all my "appointments to meet socially" with other men, I wrestle against my disbelief in non-romantic friendship with women because that disbelief reflects a deeper disbelief in a reality of the gospel, that God in Christ has really united me to the men and women who are in Christ.

So, we need low-level dates to enjoy the fullness of gospel-relationship. (Do you believe that or do I need to keep building a case?) When are we ready for dates at this level? In one sense, we're ready for these dates as soon as we're in Christ. In another sense, we're always going to be growing in our readiness for these dates as long as God's at work in us to make us more like Christ. We all know it's hard at first and at times to grow and maintain opposite-sex, non-romantic relationships. I recommend that it be done with wisdom, caution, and holy joy.

At another level, as men and women that God may be leading to a married life, dating in our culture can serve the purpose of helping us discern who to marry. Another way to look at it is that as you grow in unity with your brothers or sisters in Christ, some of these relationships may begin to stand out as relationships that may further God's purposes for you if they grow to deeper levels of intimacy and commitment. Can I tell you what that process was like for me and continue this conversation tomorrow?

Apologetic moment

Over the last coupla weeks, I've gotten more questions in the Question Box than can be handled in the AM's we have left this term. So...I'll pop some info on some of them up here for the interested. You can dialogue via comments if you'd like. ;)

This week's Web Question: "Dating? Marriage? When are we ready?"

I'll be posting some thoughts on this, as well as some comments about Prof. Anderson's talk, over the course of this week.

Traveling Team resources

It was great to have the Traveling Team in town this week, challenging us and giving us tools to grow as World Christians.

Check out their resources page if you get a chance: http://www.thetravelingteam.org/2000/resources/index.shtml.

You could also find some great missions material available at:
www.urbana.com
www.blueridgestim.com/resources2.html
http://home.wlu.edu/~sdittman/

Whose mission field?

A large sign near the exit of The Church of the Holy Spirit (an Anglican church in Roanoke, VA), reads "You are now entering your mission field."

This represents a radically different attitude toward missions. Your home, the restaurants you frequent, your workplace, the places where you play - all these locales are your mission field, the place to which God has called you.

Did you catch this in the talk from Sunday night? Scott and Susan are thinking deeply about this idea. Washington and Lee is part of their mission field: Scott is in missions through his service as Registrar/Director of IR and Susan is in missions through her service as Coordinator for Suicide Prevention.

Talk to Scott or Susan for ten minutes and you start to get a feel that they aren't just killing time in Lexington. They have a passion to serve people in St. Vincent, but that passion feeds off of and complements their passion to serve God in Lexington. Here are some thoughts as to how it's possible to desire to serve God both locally and abroad...

Firstly, in listening to Scott and Susan, they have a real awareness of God at work in their day to day context. This means that their desire to serve in St. Vincent isn't from a theology that says "God isn't at work in Lexington." They don't need to go abroad to "find" God. An awareness that God is at work in your day to day context is essential to keeping your passion for local, daily mission alive. Your mission field is also God's mission field.

Secondly, Scott and Susan approach their missions opportunities (both locally and abroad) with a great deal of humility, a right view of themselves. This humility leads to both their understanding that what they're doing in Lexington isn't the only thing God's doing (creating a desire to serve abroad) and their understanding that what God's doing in St. Vincent isn't totally dependent on their involvement (creating a freedom to return to Lexington). Have you seen this at work in them? Reflect on Susan's comments about the spiritual growth in the team and her prayer request that God would allow them to partner with Vincentians on the next trip. Humility, right?

Lastly, Scott and Susan serve a missionary God. Unless you also serve a missionary God, you will always be torn and always be pressured to go and serve in places where it looks like He's dropping the ball. But He never drops the ball. As I said before, your mission field is also God's mission field. Or better yet, God allows you to serve in His field. Whether you're going to St. Vincent with the Dittmans or St. Louis with Urbana, your calling is always to God's field. He's at work before you get there and He'll be at work long after you've left. So, feel free to serve both locally and abroad: it's all His field.

Partnership in mission

This past Sunday, Scott and Susan left us with a lot of great material to think about and work through in our conversation on missions.

The most challenging questions for me in the talk were: "What does it look like for missions to be personal as well as programatic? How can we engage the people we serve as partners rather than just as participants? How can we build something that lasts?"

In these questions, you really get a sense that the Dittmans love people more than ministry. And in loving Vincentians, I think that the Dittmans have provided us with an excellent glimpse of the effect that the gospel has on the way that we serve.

Have you ever taken time to ask how the gospel influences the way you serve people? It fills the Dittmans' above questions and runs all through the Epistles (especially Philippians). Check out Paul's prayer to the Philippians in Chapter 1 and see if you see any connections to the attitude the Dittmans talked about on Sunday.

Greensboro, Apology

I was so blessed to spend a large part of this week in Greensboro, NC with the InterVarsity Staff in our Region, doing an Urban Dip, talking about multi-ethnicity, and praying for our campuses. But, being in Greensboro meant no posting. Apologies again. Being in Greensboro was better than being in the ER, but the result is pretty much the same for you.

Text from Sunday

Here is the text from Augustine's On Christian Doctrine (Book II) that Professor Craun quoted in his talk on Sunday...

CHAP. 9.--HOW WE SHOULD PROCEED IN STUDYING SCRIPTURE.
14. In all these books those who fear God and are of a meek and pious disposition seek the will of God. And in pursuing this search the first rule to be observed is, as I said, to know these books, if not yet with the understanding, still to read them so as to commit them to memory, or at least so as not to remain wholly ignorant of them. Next, those matters that are plainly laid down in them, whether rules of life or rules of faith, are to be searched into more carefully and more diligently; and the more of these a man discovers, the more capacious does his understanding become. For among the things that are plainly laid down in Scripture are to be found all matters that concern faith and the manner of life,--to wit, hope and love, of which I have spoken in the previous book. After this, when we have made ourselves to a certain extent familiar with the language of Scripture, we may proceed to open up and investigate the obscure passages, and in doing so draw examples from the plainer expressions to throw light upon the more obscure, and use the evidence of passages about which there is no doubt to remove all hesitation in regard to the doubtful passages. And in this matter memory counts for a great deal; but if the memory be defective, no rules can supply the want.

Example

Here's an example of a faulty assumption that can cause communication to disconnect.

Let's look at a conversation about homosexuality. I've had people ask "How can God say that homosexuality is wrong if science has so much evidence that it is an innate orientation?" Have you ever had this conversation?

Our impulse might be to start quoting Scripture: we believe same-sex sexual relationships are not what God desires from us because the Bible tells us so.* On the other hand, if we're more scientifically inclined, we might attack the evidence that a homosexual orientation can be genetically linked to and present from birth and is, rather, an environmental or decisional orientation that can be reoriented by the (sadly) standard evangelical tools for life-transformaiton: change of scenery and willpower.

But both of these approaches ignore the underlying assumption. "Our innate desires are good." Now, is that true? Is God someone who denies us our good desires? No. Scripture presents us as a broken people before God, desiring darkness instead of light. Our innate desires are twisted, broken, corrupting. If this is true, then God's commands are not oppressive, but rather liberating.

How can God say that homosexuality is wrong? Because God loves homosexuals too much to stand silent and passive as they are twisted, broken and corrupted by their sin. How can God say that heterosexual lust is wrong? How can God say that drug abuse is wrong? How can God say that gluttony is wrong? How can God say that restlessness is wrong? Because God loves me too much to stand silent and passive as I am twisted, broken and corrupted by my sin.


*If you think differently on this, please pop a comment, give me a call or shoot me an e-mail before you write me off as a all-Christians-must-be-unthinkingly-party-line Republican. I don't consider myself one of those and would like a chance to explain myself further. :)

Intro to faulty dilemmas

"Yes or no: does your mother know that you're stupid?"

This is an example of a faulty dilemma (if you're not stupid).

These often come up in our conversations about the Hope that we have. We talked about this a little bit at the last Large Group. "If God is good, why is there evil?" can be rephrased "Is God powerful, but not good or good, but not powerful?"

In talking about our Hope, we want to serve people by answering meaningful questions. Occasionally, people will ask questions that they think are meaningful, but rest on faulty assumptions. An answer to the question, then, will have to connect at the level of the assumptions.

In other words, you can't just answer "Yes" or "No" (unless you are confident that you're stupid, in which case your answer may not be reliable); you have to ask something like "Why do you think I'm stupid?" or "I'll answer your question if you answer mine. Yes or no: does your mother know that you use philosophy to be a bully?"

Tomorrow morning, I'll put some stuff up on two contemporary examples of faulty dilemmas. G'night.

Questions for Reading Days

As you're enjoying Reading Days - resting, relaxing, and reading - it might be helpful to take this time to think through the following questions. Look at Mark chapter 1. How was Jesus' time of retreat (away from the crowds and the work) connected with his mission? Lucas talked about this some on Sunday.

I would encourage you, as you enjoy Reading Days, to think about this question and then turn it on yourself. How are your times of retreat (ie. Reading Days, breaks, weekends, early mornings...) connected with your mission on campus?

Quotes from Sunday

Below are the quotes that Lucas mentioned on Sunday...

Mark 1:32-39 / John 19:9-12a / Matt. 22:15-22

"Jesus concerns himself hardly at all with the solution of worldly problems. When he is asked to do so His answer is remarkably evasive (Matt 22:15ff; Luke 12:13). Indeed He scarcely ever replies to men's questions directly, but answers rather from a quite different plane. His word is not an answer to human questions and problems; it is the answer of God to the question of God to man." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics

"Who actually tells us that all worldly problems are to be and can be solved? Perhaps the unsolved state of these problems is of more importance to God than their solution, for it may serve to call attention to the fall of man and to the divine redemption." - Dietrich Bonhoeffer Ethics

"Most of us are not really approaching the subject in order to find out what Christianity says: we are approaching it in the hope of finding support from Christianity for the views of our own party. We are looking for an ally where we are offered either a Master or a Judge." - C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity

No pat answers

What a great talk Lucas brought on Sunday! It's been really great hearing people processing it.

One of the things Lucas mentioned that I've been thinking about this week is that Jesus didn't have pat answers to people's questions. Jesus may have repeated himself, but we know that he wasn't always repeating himself. He answered different questions in different ways. He answered the same question asked by different people in different ways. He always seemed to be paying attention to the specific question and the specific asker.

What would our gospel conversations look like if we made commitments to give no pat answers? I don't know, but I'd be excited to see.

What if no one's asking?

Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you...

But what if no one's asking?

If our conversation this week has you asking this question, there are two possibilities...
1) People are not asking
2) People are asking and you aren't recognizing it

These are two very different situations.

There are a variety of reasons why people may not be asking us questions about our faith.
1) We may not have set apart Christ as Lord in our hearts
2) We may not be living as if we have hope
3) We may be confined, disconnected from question-askers
4) People may be too afraid or hard-hearted to ask questions
5) The Lord may be lovingly giving us rest from questions
6) Any other reasons you can think of?

The Lord is calling us to live holy, hope-filled lives in the world. If we're doing this, we should reasonably expect people to be asking us for the reason for the hope that we have, asking us to talk about Jesus and the gospel.

Now, everyone won't ask and you probably won't be being asked at every moment of every day. That's ok. It's not all about you. You're a part of the process, but not the only part. Live a holy, hope-filled life in the world and always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that you have.

If no one's asking you, are you living a holy, hope-filled life in the world? If you're not, then do. If you are, then be patient and be watchful.

And if you're patient and watchful, you may find yourself noticing questions that you would have previously overlooked. I mean, what if people are asking and you're just not noticing?

The right answer to the wrong question...

...is always wrong.

Well...how can you guard against answering questions that no one is asking?

First, you can have deep relationships. When we think of apologetics, do we often think of deep relationships? Most of us don't. When I think of apologetics, I think of bow-tied professors behind podiums or contact evangelists working a crowd. But to be honest, the bulk of our apologetic work will take place in deep relationships - family members, lovers, friends, neighbors. And a foundation of deep relationship can give you excellent insight into the angle, the slant, the motive, the essence of the questions you're receiving.

For example, when Amy asks me why I think there's evil in the world if God is good, I know that she isn't just curious and she isn't trying to dodge some more uncomfortable issue. Her question's a question about trust. "There's so much evil and suffering...How can I trust God in the midst of it?" If a random person asks me the same question, I may not have a sense exactly what they're asking. Make sense?

Second, you can almost always ask a question to check. Few people expect you to be able to read their minds (and the ones who do should be paying you for the service) and most people will wait to flesh out their question until they're invited. Don't try to read minds (but if you do and you have success, please warn me) and don't be afraid to let people know you can't read minds. They might even take your interest in their question as a sign of respect.

How about an example of a check question? You can get a little more creative than "Why do you ask?" or "Could you explain what you're wondering about a little more?" If someone asks you if, as a Christian, you believe in the Theory of Evolution, you can ask if they're talking about a smooth Darwinian process or some sort of punctuated equilibrium theory. That's a check question. They may be really interested in talking about a specific scientific theory and how it intersects with faith or they may just be wondering generally if your faith prohibits you from thinking scientifically. The question creates a conversational wedge, allowing your friend to direct the conversation to where their interest lies.

Thirdly, you can watch and listen. What's that familiar saying about eyes, ears, and mouths? 2.2.1. Right. We should be watching and listening more than we should be speaking and smelling (unless you count nostrils separately). This is what distinguishes an answer from a lecture.

Someone may ask you a question to which you have a really snappy answer (like my answer to the problem of evil...to be revealed on Sunday). You start or even finish your answer and get a blank stare or a "What I meant was...". This is almost always a sign that you haven't really understood the question. Your temptation, however, is to believe that your friend hasn't really understood your answer and you must try harder. Don't try harder. Ask a check question.

If we're receiving questions in the context of relationship and are asking questions of the questions we're receiving and are paying attention to the people we're sharing with - if we do all that, we'll have taken huge, lunging strides toward answering the questions people are actually asking, rather than the questions we expect to hear.

Always be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you for the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect

Notes on 1 Peter 3:15

Context
Whole church...persecuted church...holiness

Why we answer questions...
Because in our hearts we have set apart Christ as Lord.
Because we have prepared ourselves.
Because we can render an apologetic.
Because people we love are asking.

How we answer questions...
Peacefully, reflecting the Lordship of Christ
Thoughtfully, reflecting our preparation
Specifically, reflecting their real asking
Honestly, reflecting our limited knowledge
Gently, reflecting our love
Respectfully, reflecting our position

Hope this helps!

Sneak Preview

Would you trust God if He were evil?

Conversational Apologetics

As Christians, we have wonderful opportunities to talk to people about the reason for the hope that we have - Jesus Christ.

But often we miss these opportunities. Sometimes, we're too ashamed of our own conduct to share our reasons for trusting Jesus. Sometimes, we're just unprepared. Sometimes, we're too afraid. Sometimes, we're just uncompassionate. Sometimes, we're too busy. Sometime, we're just unaware.

I'd love for us to be able to communicate our faith to our friends in a way that's honoring to God and helpful to them. To help us do this, we're going to be touching on Conversational Apologetics tonight at Large Group.

I hope tonight is helpful, but I think we may be "eating the elephant this week." Do you know that expression? There's way too much material for us to cover in one sitting, so lets take lots of small bites. By the end of the week, it's my hope that you'd be better able to give the reason for the hope that you have to anyone who asks you. :)

If you surf on over tonight, can I recommed an audio resource for you? Check out Michael Ramsden's talk on Conversational Apologetics at: http://www.bethinking.org/resource.php?ID=114&TopicID=12&CategoryID=13.

Assumptions

In this week's talk, Burr worked around the story of Jesus healing the man born blind in John 9. From the buzz I've heard, Burr's talk was really helpful. I wish I could have been there to hear it. It's interesting that while Burr was speaking on a healing of Jesus, I was in bed sick.

In my study of the passage this week, I was intrigued by the question that appears at the start. "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?" (v1). The assumptions in this question are really interesting.

First, they assumed that the man was born blind because someone sinned - a cause and effect assumption.
Second, they assumed that there were two parties (the man or his parents) that could have contributed to this man's blindness - a closed system assumption.

In Jesus' response, he shakes both the cause and effect assumption and the closed system assumption. Let's think some more about these assumptions and, perhaps, experience God's gracious shaking of our own assumptions.

Change in plans

So...after a trip to the ER and a weekend of taking meds that make me drowsy, my leg is still not healed and I haven't posted anything. I'm going to go ahead and drop the Rahab thread, if that's okay with you. Shoot me an e-mail if you want more Rahab material (tamayosteven [at] yahoo [dot] com).

This week, I'll pick up some ideas from Burr's talk on Jesus' dirty healing. I wasn't there, but my spies have told me that the talk was great and that there's some good material to dig through. Sorry for the change in plans.

Rahab's profession

At Large Group on Sunday, some of you may have noticed that Amy gently touched on, but didn't focus on the subject of Rahab's profession. Were you a little curious as to why this was?

There's a debate floating around in the circles of people who like to debate this sort of thing as to whether Rahab was a prostitute, a hotel owner, or a HO-tel owner (ie. madam). I'm not scholar enough to settle this debate or try a hand at arguing a case, but it opens up an interesting question for us.

Why do we focus on Rahab's profession?

I have a couple of theories that will be developed in later posts.

First, we are fascinated by sex; anything that has to do with sex will get our attentions, even if it has little to do with the story. Second, sexual sin is considered (with some, but not a lot, of wisdom) to be the biggest, baddest sin. Third, we naturally shy away from difficult subjects (like racial reconciliation and God-sanctioned genocide). Fourth, this story contains both racial reconciliation and God-sanctioned genocide, more difficult and less sexy topics than prostitution. Lastly, this story seems disconnected from our story, so we focus on whatever captures our attention first (and that's prostitution).

Interested?

Under the unpredictable plant

One last thought on Jonah...

Over the last year, I've benefitted a lot from Eugene Peterson's Under the Unpredictable Plant: An exploration in vocational holiness. He had some really insightful things to say about the Jonah story and it's connection to me as a pastor. And I love the way he connects the unpredictability of the plant in chapter 4 to our unpredictable God.

Let's focus on the interaction between Jonah and God in Jonah 4 (Chap. 5 of UtUP). If you remember, after Jonah preaches to Nineveh and they repent, he wanders off to a mountaintop to wait and see if God will destroy the city. As Jonah talks to God on that mountain, God uses a plant as an object lesson for Jonah (we skipped this part in Large Group). The plant grows and dies, making Jonah first happy, then angry. God then asks Jonah if he has any right to be angry, echoing a question posed earlier in the chapter (Can you find it?).

And then God - lovingly and humorously - prods Jonah to reconsider his attitude. Though Jonah did nothing to make the plant grow or die and though the plant only lived a short time, Jonah had a great deal of compassion for it. God then points out that Nineveh has thousands of residents who don't know their right hands from their left (children?) and many cattle as well. Many cattle as well! C'mon Jonah, you can't hate the cows - they're made of meat!

In all of Jonah's journeying and adventures he was still a stranger to grace. How often do we sit on a mountaintop, lamenting the loss of something we had only by grace?

It is appropriate, I think, from time to time, for us to examine our lives, looking for our unpredictble plants, searching our hearts for areas that have been hardened by the loss of a possession we had only by grace.

It is also appropriate, and perhaps wise, from time to time, for us to ask ourselves "How do we respond to our unpredictable God?" If an experienced prophet can miss God's bigger picture and be captured in bitterness by a small imagination, then I'm in trouble. Thanks be to God: who pursues me, even when I leave my place of calling to pout on a mountaintop; who corrects me, even when I lash out to him in response; who graciously loves me, even when I'm still unsure whether or not I love his grace.

Jonah's motivation (Part 2.1)

So, what might Jonah's motivations have been? Below are ten possibilities. If you want to have a wild observational/interpretational time in Jonah, take some sweeps through the book and weigh the different options for his motivation. In my reading, I thought that all 10 were possible motivations, but that reasons 8 and 9 best account for the intra-textual and historical-cultural data. Another way of saying that is that I thought reasons 8 and 9 hit closest to the motivation the author communicated in the story. Happy reading!

1) Fear of failure/embarassment -
What if I prophecy and it doesn't come true?
2) Fear of the Lord's wrath -
What if the Lord destroys Nineveh and I'm caught in the crossfire?
3) Desire for glory -
What if I preached the same message in a more exotic locale, like Tarshish?
4) Misunderstanding of his call -
Did God say Nineveh or Tarshish?
5) Disbelieving his message -
Would a tolerant, loving God really destroy a city?
6) Lack of self-confidence -
Who am I to speak to people for the Lord?
7) Patriotism/fear of the Israelites -
What will happen to my people if I do this?
8) Abstraction*
9) Cynical skepticism/compassionlessness*
10) Fear of the Ninevites+

*covered in Large Group
+covered in a previous blog

Jonah's motivation (Pt. 2)

So, you may wonder why I spent so much time (both at Large Group and in the last entry) looking at and discarding potential motivations for Jonah to not go to Nineveh.

It's a good thing to wonder. Why didn't I just jump right to what I thought the author was trying to tell us?

My reason for meandering: I want you to learn how to evaluate different means of interpreting Scripture. One method is to look at the historical-cultural context as a basis for conclusions. This method draws from archaeology, history, anthropology, literature, and forensic science to piece together a picture of the Bible. It's wonderful, like something on the Discovery Channel or CSI: Ice Cold Case. You want to be able to carry historical-cultural analysis (or criticism as it's also called) in your Bible-study toolbelt. But like all tools, it's good for some purposes and not for others.

In the story of Jonah, historical-cultural criticism can tell us a great deal about Nineveh, Assyria, the political scene of the day, and the scientific probability that a man could be swallowed by a whale and live to tell the tale. But in the story of Jonah, all this data can direct our attention away from the author's main points. If we focus on Jonah's natural fear, then we'll miss out on the lesson that's to be learned from his unnatural lack of compassion.

As students and lovers of Scripture, we need commentaries and historical-cultural criticism to make sense of narratives that were written long before we were born. Our need for contextual assistance, however, shouldn't supplant our careful listening to the texts and prayerful asking of the Holy Spirit for guidance in reading them.

Jonah's motivation

So, why did Jonah refuse to go to Nineveh?

There are lots of possible reasons. Let's work through a few of them.

The first, and most famous, reason for Jonah to refuse to go to Nineveh is the reason of fear of the Ninevites. This would make perfect sense. Nineveh was the capital city of the Assyrian Empire, the major power in the region. Assyrian armies were known for bloodthirsty and ruthless tactics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Assyria). And on top of that, there is historically little love between the Assyrians and the Israelites (see Nahum).

Jonah's message to Nineveh was neither flattering nor comforting. Given the size, power, and character of the occupants of the city (as well as the violent ethnic tension he could encounter), it would make sense that Jonah refused to go to Nineveh because he was afraid.

This leads us to an interesting place in our study of the story. Although the idea - Jonah's fear may have led to his refusal to go - makes a great deal of logical sense (and may have kept us from going if we had been in Jonah's Birkenstocks), we must ask if this is the conclusion the author intended us to draw. Does this conclusion fit the story?

In my talk, I shared that I didn't think the conclusion that Jonah fled because he was afraid of the Ninevites fit the thrust of the story. My opinion was based both on the evidence against this theory and on the evidence for other theories.

For evidence against this theory, look at the scene of Jonah on the ship in the storm in Chapter 1. Jonah showed no fear of either the storm or the foreign (ie. non-Hebrew) sailors. He also showed no fear either of dying in the sea or dying at the hands of foreign men. In fact, he chooses to sail with foreigners (rather than stay home) and to be cast into the sea (rather than have the sailors try to row it out). The author does not present us with a picture of a coward here. Instead, we see something else...

What that is will have to wait for a later post.

Shift in purpose

For those of you familiar with YoSteve, we're shifting the purpose of the blog (at least for now). On a trial basis, I'm going to be posting a bit about the Large Group talks we're currently working through.

Below, you'll be able to find some entries that stem from my study of Jonah and the talk from Large Group last Sunday.

I hope you find this helpful. :)