Hope Church. It’s happening. We’ve been praying and preparing for months. We’ve seen God move in our congregation and experienced his power and presence on our leadership team. We’ve felt the support of prayer and financial gifts from people all over the country, and especially from the leadership of our denomination. There’s still so much work to do, but ready or not, by the power of God we’re launching Hope Church on Sunday, September 27th.

Hope Church launches on Sunday, September 27th, 10AM, at 75 E. Schrock Rd. in Westerville.
I’m excited. I’m really, really excited. Church planting is one of the most thrilling vocations on the planet. We get to start on the ground floor of a brand new body of Christ. In our case, we get to see the fruit borne from the marriage of two congregations. We get to see God move in unique and profound ways in the lives of people who have not known him or have been far from him.

Our family has been through hell and back. We’ve discovered the power of the hope that we have in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus has conquered death, and through his resurrection, we have a living hope for our own resurrection, and for eternal life. We’ve learned that, no matter what happens in this life, nothing can separate us from the love of God that is displayed in Jesus. He is alive, and the hope that he offers is a hope of life beyond death, a life that is more powerful death and that cannot be stained by sin or disease. This is why we’re called Hope Church.

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As my friend Rachel said on Facebook this morning, Lent is the time when everyone is going to get back on the #yearofno bandwagon. (If you aren’t familiar with the #yearofno, you can find all the relevant posts here.) Whether or not any of that actually happens I don’t know, but Lent is an excellent opportunity to revisit your entitlements and indulgences, and your plan to learn to say “No” to them.

Many of us are giving things up for Lent, saying “No” to idle pleasures and innocent addictions so that we can draw nearer to God in this season. The intention of this is good, but as many others have been writing recently, we need to go deeper.

Lent is a season of repentance, and a season of repentance requires repentance before self-denial can mean anything. We cannot simply subtract an idol from our lives without first confessing, “I am an idol worshipper.” When we try self-denial without repentance, the idol simply goes off into arid places until it finds seven other idols more powerful than itself, and then brings them all back to fill your heart again, leaving you worse off than before. You cannot simply ignore an idol out of existence. You must destroy it with repentance.

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When it comes to sexual activity, what is moral and what is immoral? Where do we draw the boundaries? (We all draw the boundaries somewhere.) And, just as importantly, how do we decide? What are the principles that inform our sexual ethic?

The Cultural Sexual Ethic

While it would be nearly impossible to get everyone to agree on something, I think it’s realistic to speak generally about the sexual ethic of our non-religious culture. As I see it, there are four principles that inform the Cultural Sexual Ethic: Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice. I’ll try to describe each of these briefly.

Autonomy is the belief that I have the right to make decisions for myself. My body belongs to me, and nobody can tell me what to do with it. I am, so to speak, my own master, free to do as I see fit.

Consent, when it comes to sexual activity, is the primary (only?) limiter of my autonomy. When others are involved in the sexual act, they must be willing participants. Sexual coercion is immoral because it violates the other’s autonomy. But as long as all parties are willing, anything goes. 

The four principles that guide the Cultural Sexual Ethic are Autonomy, Consent, Pleasure, and Justice.

Pleasure, or enjoyment, is basic to the sex act because that is the primary intended result. All parties are seeking to derive some kind of pleasure from the activity, whether physical, emotional, or both. Sexual preference and taste are important factors in achieving a pleasurable experience.

Justice, in this case, is the pursuit of fairness in sexual activity, particularly for those whose preferences or tastes have been shamed or criminalized in the wider culture.

If I could articulate the Cultural Sexual Ethic, I would say it like this: All humans are in charge of their own bodies and therefore have the legal right to pursue sexual pleasure by whatever means they desire, without shame or discrimination, insofar as all partners are willing participants. I’ve tried to state this as clearly and fairly as I can. My hope is that those who generally take this stance would agree, at least in part, with my statement.

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It was a busy year for me, and I wasn’t able to read as much as I would have liked. Still, I was able to get into some good books, especially the new biography of C.S. Lewis, and Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson. Looking back over the previous 12 months, I can see that this was a year of learning, sometimes through books.

The Resurrection of the Son of God – N.T. Wright

res sonN.T. Wright’s new book on Paul came out this year, a 1700 page masterpiece that I was very excited about getting into. It was the fourth volume in his series Christian Origins and the Question of God. Unfortunately, I had stopped reading The Resurrection of the Son of God, the third volume in the series, several years ago, and I wanted to finish that book before moving on to the new one. Resurrection is a 750 page monster that defies being summarized in a single paragraph. By the time I finished it, I was too mentally exhausted to pick up the book on Paul, though I am looking forward to digging into it next year.

Resurrection is a scholarly book intended to converse with, and profoundly shape, the current state of scholarship on the resurrection of Jesus. It has more than succeeded on both fronts. Wright has examined both the liberal and conservative perspectives on the resurrection and found them wanting.

Practice Resurrection – Eugene Peterson

practice-resurrectionEugene Peterson gets me every time. Reading his books are like having an intensive discipleship session with a pastor you’ve never personally met but who gets you completely. Peterson has been as responsible for shaping my pastoral ministry as Wright has been for shaping my theological perspective. I am always in good, pastoral hands with Eugene Peterson.

Practice Resurrection is Peterson’s exegesis of the book of Ephesians. Extremely quotable, of all the books I read this year this is the first one that I would recommend. Peterson is one of the best writers of prose you’ll find in evangelical Christianity. Add to that his conviction and one-crying-in-the-desert prophetic voice, and you have a memorable and formative work on your hands.

Death by Living – N.D. Wilson

_240_360_Book.903.coverI had not heard of N.D. Wilson before I got his book via booksneeze.com, but he is an excellent writer with a very unique style. Known more for his works of fiction, Wilson writes like a film director, using story and image to draw you into this book. You can find my review of Death by Living here.

Apparently there is a film version of C.S. Lewis’s The Great Divorce in the works, and N.D. Wilson is attached as the writer. After reading Death by Living, I’m excited to see how this will turn out. Wilson has a lot of talent, and The Great Divorce is one of my favorites by Lewis. If you’re a big fan of Lewis, you may want to get acquainted with Wilson’s style to prepare yourself for what Divorce might look like.

Fight – Craig Groeschel

_240_360_Book.901.coverI’ve always enjoyed Groeschel’s casual, funny writing style. His appeal is very broad, and his book, Fight, certainly fits into that mold. It’s a book about the fights that Christian men must engage with in order to be the men that God has called them to be. You can find my review of Fight here.

The biggest takeaway from Fight, for me, was that he named entitlement as one of the things men must fight against. I find that this is especially true in my own life. I live with a deeply-ingrained sense that I deserve good things, and ought only to have good things happen to me. I don’t know where I picked up this sense of entitlement, but I have certainly paid a price for holding onto it.

Fight is a good book, and I would recommend it to guys who aren’t quite ready to jump into deeper books.

Hopeful Imagination – Walter Brueggemann

61u-SpyY-9L._SL1360_A lot of the people I respect the most really love Walter Brueggemann. I’ve tried several times to get into his work, but for one reason or another, was just never able to get too excited about him. Hopeful Imagination, his book on the prophets of exile, finally got me over the hump. This is an insightful book on pastoral ministry in the place of exile. Much like N.T. Wright, Brueggemann works hard to find a middle ground between liberal and conservative Christianity, though conservatives would certainly be put off by his insistence that Isaiah 40-55 was written by someone other than 8th century Isaiah of Jerusalem, and written sometime after the exile in Babylon. Admittedly, this was something that was difficult for me to get over, as I have always held the book of Isaiah to be written by a single author. Brueggemann’s pastoral insights, however, overcame any distancing I felt from his critical perspectives.

C.S. Lewis: A Life – Alister McGrath

CSLewisBookCover_smFew authors have shaped me as thoroughly and deeply as C.S. Lewis. I began reading his books in high school, when I prided myself on being able to finish Mere Christianity. (How much I really grasped of his argument is open to debate.) From there I read The Great Divorce, The Screwtape Letters, and The Abolition of Man. Oddly enough, I still have never read the entire Narnia series.

McGrath’s biography of Lewis is both thorough and engaging. I have a great deal of respect for McGrath, and so I knew that I would appreciate his work on Lewis. Since this is the only biography of Lewis I have read, I don’t have anything else with which to compare it. Some, I have heard, have objected to McGrath’s interpretation of Lewis’s relationship with Mrs. Moore. Whatever the true nature of that relationship, this was a very insightful look into one of Christianity’s most important thinkers.

Evil and the Justice of God – N.T. Wright

0830833986This was a book that I had been hoping to pick up for quite a while, and finally got around to it after I had boxed up all my books and couldn’t find anything to read. It is one of Wright’s shorter books, and in that sense is fairly accessible to most readers. For too long, he argues, we have believed in the inevitable progress of mankind toward a utopian society where evil has been expunged from the world. Invariably, we are shocked when evil rears its ugly head, whether in the terrorist attacks of 9/11, or in the tsunami of 2004.

This book is more pastoral than philosophical. Evil, he says, is not a problem that can be solved in this life. Instead of arguing apologetics or waxing philosophical, the task of the Christian is to be and build signposts of God’s wise rule in this present evil age. Overcoming evil is not a matter of argumentation or explanation, but of incarnation. While this book might not help you win any arguments against the new atheists (see Alvin Plantinga’s God, Freedom, and Evil for that task), it will help you become the kind of person through whom evil is pushed back just a little bit.

The Passionate Intellect – Alister McGrath

9780830838431This was another one of those books that I had been looking to purchase for quite a while, but never really got around to it until all my books were in boxes. The title of McGrath’s book intrigues me, and as a preacher with a theological bent, seemed to be right up my alley. In simple terms, McGrath’s aim with this book was to provide an avenue for the combination of head and heart. Too much of modern Christianity, evangelicalism in particular, has gotten the reputation of being anti-intellectual. Deserved or not, this is a troubling indictment, particularly considering the church’s long history of intellectual rigor and discovery. It is possible, he argues, to be both passionate and intellectual, and the Christian must feel no need to sacrifice one for the other.

In the ongoing debate between Christians and the New Atheists, Alister McGrath remains one of the go-to guys for Christianity. He devotes a significant part of this book to refuting the ideas of Dawkins, Dennet, Hitchens, and the other New Atheists. If you’re interested in apologetics and the life of the mind, this book would be an excellent addition to your library.

Follow Me – David Platt

373287_1_ftcI picked this book up for free at a conference I attended in March. Though I didn’t like Radical, I appreciated a lot about this book, and agree with Platt in his basic assumption that the Church isn’t doing a great job of making disciples out of converts. Much is needed to improve our discipleship efforts, and the longterm health of the Church depends on pastors and leaders transitioning from their vain attempts at empire-building and into humble efforts of kingdom-building.

My fundamental disagreement with Platt is along theological lines. He makes a fairly accessible case for his Reformed position on salvation, and I have addressed that with a response here. A long discussion with a friend ensued in which I elucidated my position further. You can read that exchange in this post and comments section. Because of our theological differences, I’ll never recommend a book by David Platt, John Piper, or Mark Driscoll, but I will admit that I resonated with Platt’s basic premise.

A Long Faithfulness – Scot McKnight

A Long FaithfulnessOn the other end of the theological spectrum, the side that I call home, lies Scot McKnight. One of the world’s foremost New Testament scholars, McKnight put out an ebook on the difficult “perseverance” passages of Hebrews. The underlying question is this: Can a committed Christian lose their salvation? McKnight views this as the fundamental question – the very backbone – of Reformed theology. If, contrary to the Reformed position, a genuine Christian can lose their salvation, then the whole Reformed house of cards falls apart. McKnight asserts that everything in Reformed theology is built upon the perseverance of the saints.

The book of Hebrews, however, indicates that it is possible for a Christian to lose their salvation. While it isn’t easy, and never happens by accident, apostasy is real. God has given us the freedom to choose, and to un-choose, himself. You can read more about this fascinating study in my book review here.

The Good and Beautiful God – James Bryan Smith

Good and Beautiful GodThis book was part of our life group curriculum while we were at LifePoint Church in Columbus. It is the first part of a trilogy of books, though I haven’t gotten to the other ones yet. This worked well in the group, allowing us to converse together about the “false narratives” we have come to believe about God, ourselves, and the world. The thesis of the book is “transformation happens through training my soul,” which corresponds to one of the five lessons I learned this past year.

I intended to blog my thoughts on the book, chapter-by-chapter. As usual, however, life got in the way and I wasn’t able to meet my goal. However, you can find my thoughts on chapter 1, chapter 2, and chapter 6 on the blog.

Against Calvinism – Roger Olson

olRoger Olson is among the foremost Arminian biblical scholars in America. This small book is meant to be a companion to For Calvinism by Michael Horton. My wife pointed out that the tulips on For Calvinism were in bloom, but in Against they are dried and dead. Nice touch, book designer!

This wasn’t necessarily a book I needed to read. To be honest, I probably should have read Horton’s book so that I can have a better understanding of the Calvinist perspective. This was more of a pleasure read, which just underscores how much of a nerd I really am. Overall, I thought Olson did a great job of debunking some of Calvinism’s more extreme views. The next step, I suppose, is to create a For and Against Arminianism collection.

I didn’t read as much as I would have liked this year. My time and energy were spent on other things, especially my family’s needs in the midst of Zeke’s illness. My hope for 2014 is to use more of my free time to read, and I already have a healthy stack of books lined up for the new year. The really ambitious goal is to get through a book a week, though if I read two a month I think I could live with that. I hope that you’re able to take some time next year to devote to reading, learning, and growing.

When the calendar flipped from 2012 to 2013, I thought there was no way I could have a year worse than the one I had just experienced. In 2012 we lost Ember Church, I lost my job, and, worst of all, Zeke started having his seizures. While 2013 has had its share of blessings, I’d have to say that it has been just as hard and painful as the year before.

In 2013, we found out that Zeke’s seizures are more than seizures – that he has a rare, fatal, neurological condition known as Batten Disease. He has regressed significantly, and it seems to me that we will likely lose him in 2014. Shortly after his diagnosis, Breena and I made the difficult decision to leave Westerville, where we had been raising our family for the previous seven years, and move to Toledo, where both of our families live. We needed the support that only family can provide in such dire times. We had built a life in central Ohio – a life full of amazing people with whom we had shared so much of ourselves. Leaving is hard. Leaving because your child is dying and you need to be close to family for his last days…well, that’s something else entirely.

It’s been a rough couple of years. God is faithful.

Putting those two thoughts together gives me hope. He has been active in my life this year, teaching me, molding me, refining my character. Here are five lessons I’ve learned this year (four are serious, one is trivial).

1. God is a refuge in times of trouble, not a safeguard against them.

This is a lesson I’ve been learning over the past couple of years, actually. When “bad” things happen to “good” people, we tend to complain that God is being unjust or, perhaps worse, incompetent. Jeremiah made this kind of complaint to God in Jeremiah 12:1.

You are always righteous, Lord,
when I bring a case before you.
Yet I would speak with you about your justice:
Why does the way of the wicked prosper?
Why do all the faithless live at ease?

You see this sort of thing throughout the Psalms, as well. In fact, Scripture is soaked in this kind of complaining to God that the righteous do not get a fair shake from him in this life. But faithfulness to God is no guarantee of a painless life. This can come as a surprise to young pastors. It certainly did to me. (I’ve written about this here.)

Suffering can feel like a sort of exile, like God has abandoned me and now I am alone, exposed, vulnerable to the forces of evil that terrify the world. I’ve wrestled through all of this with God, especially in the wake of losing my church and now, more importantly, as we have walked with Zeke through his disease. What I’ve learned is that the deep, relational knowledge of Jesus Christ is forged in the furnace of suffering, loss, frustration, and disappointment. The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering and failure are kingdom victory.

The secret of the kingdom of God is that redemptive suffering is kingdom victory.
God is present in our suffering in very deep and profound ways. Granted, it doesn’t always feel like that. But part of living with God is learning to trust him beyond what you can feel. He won’t necessarily keep the hard things of life away from you, but when they come, he is there. Without him, Breena and I could not make it. Without him, Zeke’s suffering would be meaningless. With him, however, we have found a hope beyond reason and a faith that transcends our emotions and our circumstances.

2. Suffering can be used as an excuse to be lazy, entitled, and self-centered.

The most dangerous element of our suffering is not that we will lose someone we love, but that we will become engulfed by our own self-pity and our identities will become submerged in a self-centered victimhood that robs us of the joy of giving and receiving love. The worst thing that can happen is for your suffering to steal your empathy. Devolving into victimhood is no way to honor the memory of those you have lost.

Breena and I are losing a child in one of the worst ways I can imagine, but that does not entitle us to live self-centered, lazy lives of burdensome self-pity. In the midst of our sorrow there has been tremendous blessing. God has even been at work in our trial to expand his kingdom. Our eyes have been opened to the suffering of those around us. We have, by the grace of God, become more empathetic. Though, at times, I can become self-centered and shut out the world in my victimhood, I have sensed myself becoming more aware, and more compassionate, of those who suffer.

It is a constant temptation to let my son’s terminal illness be an excuse for laziness. “Sorry, I don’t have time for that. MY SON IS DYING!” is a refrain that echoes through my heart and mind all too often. Sure, my capacity is severely limited by the extremity of my circumstances, but it is no excuse to be lazy in my relationships and responsibilities. Suffering exposes your weaknesses, and in that exposure, offers you the grace to grow in character in the power of the Holy Spirit.

3. Vocational humility is pleasing to God.

Losing my church at the end of 2012 was a big blow to me, personally. (You can read more about the story of Ember, and its closure, here.) I have always had high expectations of myself, vocationally. Church planting was the culmination of a long, arduous journey in ministry where I often put my own desires and dreams ahead of everything else.

Losing my church, and then losing my job, put me into a tough situation, vocationally, at the start of the year. The good people at LifePoint Church in Columbus took a risk with me by hiring me as a Video Producer and Graphic Designer. In terms of ministry vocation, this was a significant step away from being the Lead Pastor of a church, which I had been for a year and a half. In order for this to work, I had to swallow my pride and release my sense of entitlement to vocational ministry. I had to accept the fact that I was someone who worked behind the scenes, contributing in ways that were not as “significant” as preaching and teaching. It was humbling.

This was a very significant change in attitude for me. For too many years, I lived with a sense of entitlement, that I deserved to be doing “more” than I was doing. I wanted more responsibility, more opportunity, more chances for my voice to be heard. To let go of that was freeing, and I think it pleased and honored God. It is an attitude of heart that I am intent on maintaining because there is life in humility.

4. Positive character development requires active participation.

The opposite is also true. Negative character development requires passivity. In other words, you don’t need to do anything to either stay where you are, from a character development perspective, or regress. If I want to grow, and I do, then I need to be actively engaged in that process. Some of the things that I try to incorporate into my life are:

  • daily Bible reading 

    We may be saved by grace, but we grow through hard work and perseverance.
  • prayer journaling
  • solitude
  • reflection
  • study

There are other things that I could do, and some of the things I’ve listed might not be what you need right now. There are many spiritual disciplines that you can participate in, and I would encourage you to find the two or three that suit your temperament and situation in life. But I’ve found that the more faithful I am with these few disciplines, the more I become like Christ. I am changed, and I notice it. (So does my wife!)

Spiritual development just doesn’t happen by accident. You have to be committed to it. We may be saved by grace, but we grow through hard work and perseverance. This is a lesson I will be learning for the rest of my life.

5. Winning championships in sports is really hard.

This is the trivial one.

I follow three sports teams: the Detroit Tigers (baseball), and the Ohio State Buckeyes in football and men’s basketball. All three teams were very good this year – fully capable of winning a championship. None of them did.

After the sports heartache I experienced this year, I’m not sure if it’s worse for your favorite team to be bad or almost-good-enough-to-win-the-championship-but-not-quite. Watching and cheering for these teams has underscored just how hard it is to win championships. I’m trying to learn how to disassociate myself from these teams so that I’m not such an emotional wreck when they lose. So far, it hasn’t worked. I guess there’s always next year.

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