Christian, nondenominational.

That’s how I’ve always defined myself. From childhood, through college, and for all of my years in ministry, I have always attended nondenominational churches. My churches have been a part of networks (like the Willow Creek Association, or the Alliance for Renewal Churches, with which Ember was associated), but never a denomination. Now, however, Breena and I attend LifePoint Church, which happens to be part of the Southern Baptist Convention. I’m certain that God finds this hilarious.

Today at LifePoint we had the privilege of hosting the SBC-Ohio’s annual evangelism and church planting conference, called Momentum. There were four plenary speakers, David Uth of First Baptist Orlando, Phil Hotsenpiller of Influence Church, Tony Merida of Imago Dei Church, and Michael Catt of Sherwood Baptist Church. (Sherwood is the church that produced the films Courageous, Fireproof, and Facing the Giants.) There were also several workshops, including one by my old friend Matt Pardi of H2O Church in Bowling Green, and another by Shane Tucker, the Worship & Arts Pastor (and my boss) at LifePoint.

I wasn’t planning on “attending” the conference because I was really there to work, but I did get to sit in on just about everything, so I really felt like an attendee. The first highlight for me was Tony Merida’s message, which was so good I pulled out my notebook and started taking notes. He was talking about endurance, and he made the excellent point that grace is the means of endurance. “If you are fatigued,” he continued, “then you are an excellent candidate for grace.” I am fatigued. My wife is fatigued. Like all parents of kids with special needs, we’re exhausted in just about every way you can imagine–physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, relationally. We’re just tired. It was restorative, if even in just a tiny way, to hear Tony say those words. On the flip side of that, though, I was challenged when he said, “It takes great discipline to be a pastor.” Ouch.

The second highlight was Phil Hotsenpiller’s breakout session on transformational discipleship. (I only went to this session because Shane wouldn’t let me go to his on Creative Process. I’m pretty sure he didn’t want me in there because he was going to be dogging on me the whole time.) My takeaway from this teaching was that it’s vital to challenge the minds of men. So much of what Phil said on this point resonated with me because getting people to think more deeply, more critically, and more creatively is a major driving force in all of my communication, whether on this blog, through the preaching I did at Ember, or the teaching I did while at Heritage. Using a teaching on Satan as an example of how he disciples men, Phil asked some very good questions that pretty much blew my mind, but he did it in the same way that I try to approach the Scriptures. The point he was getting at is that men need to be challenged, particularly intellectually, because they’ll get bored after 3 years of church. Amen, brother.

I really enjoyed my time at the conference, and know that God used it to speak to me in several ways. After attending a church planting conference, I’m surprised to find that I’m not jonesing to get back out there and plant again. It’s not that I don’t want to plant another church or be a lead pastor again; it’s that I know that the time is coming, but it’s not now. Even stranger, I’m totally content with that, which is how I know that God has me right where he wants me. This conference was wonderful to take in as an attendee/worker, but it also confirmed the contentment I’m currently experiencing as I pursue God in this pulpitless season of my life.

What’s next? I don’t know. But I’m happy to have spent the day with the Southern Baptists.

Theology isn’t just an academic exercise; it really matters. A.W. Tozer wrote that the most important thing about us is what we believe to be true about God. How we think of God, and what we believe to be true of him, will determine, more than any other thing, the manner in which we live. To live well—that is, to flourish in God—we must be rooted in rich theological soil. We must have a vibrant and robust theology in order to stand against the stiff breeze of popular philosophy and common cultural religion. In a billowing and raging sea of political correctness and therapeutic moralistic deism, a rich and robust theology will be what lashes you to the Rock, preventing you from drifting away in the rolling tide of dumbed-down, liberal spirituality, or short-sighted, fundamentalist dogma.

In fact, knowing God well is a worthy end in itself. It is a tremendous joy to know, deeply and truly, your maker, redeemer, and re-creator. To think rightly of him is freedom from despair and deception. Good theology, according to the author of Hebrews, is the cure for spiritual apathy (Hebrews 2:1). To know God is to love God is to obey God.

My hope is to be a part of a community that develops a rich and robust way of thinking about God. We must search out the deep things of God, meditate upon the Scriptures, and form, as best our shallow minds can comprehend, a thorough and faithful understanding of the character of God. We will not know him fully, but we can know him well.

But where do we begin? What is the foundation of God’s character? What is the most important thing about him? Is it his love for all creation? Is it the relentless pursuit of his own glory? Is it his yearning for justice? Is it his complete holiness? Is it his omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence?

All of these, and more, are vital for understanding God because they are important elements of his character. But I believe there is one thing that underlies them all—the humility of God. God’s humility is the soil out of which his other, better-known attributes grow, and it defines how he exhibits them to his creation. Behind the Trinity, behind Creation, and behind the Incarnation is God’s infinite humility. If we are to ever understand God, we must first know that he is humble. At the root of all that he is and does lies an infinite well of humility.

So then, what does it mean to be humble? For us, to be humble means to see ourselves rightly, particularly in relation to God. Paul urged us “to consider ourselves with sober judgment.” Maintaining a humble view of oneself requires that we know ourselves well and honestly, being neither swelled with pride nor deflated with self-hate. A humble life is lived in right relationship—that is, in submission—to God. It is to do things that you might otherwise consider beneath yourself–things that you don’t want to do, but know that God requires of you.

But what does it mean for God to be humble? There is no one above him by which he can define himself, no one greater who can set tell him what it means to “consider yourself with sober judgment.” Like all of God’s attributes, the humility of God does not depend upon an external standard for definition or judgment. God is humble in relation to himself. Humility is that condition of the heart which is directed toward others in service, even to the degradation of oneself, and this is exactly what we see in the actions of God as revealed in Scripture.

God reveals his humility when he does anything that is beneath the dignity of his divinity. The sheer act of God pursuing a relationship with beings he created is the most thoroughgoing example of his humility. It permeates our experience of God so much that we take it for granted. God condescends to use our words and our language to communicate to us. We can only know him because he humbles himself enough to be known. He bends down to us so that we might be lifted up to him.

When I started reading The Good and Beautiful God, I had hoped to blog my way through every chapter. It seemed a reasonable expectation, given that I was only supposed to read a chapter per week. However, though my reading has stayed on pace, the busyness of life has prevented me from blogging about the book, or much else for that matter. I last wrote about chapter two of the book, and today I’m going to skip ahead to chapter 6.

This is the chapter that deals with God’s holiness. When we say that God is holy, what we mean is that he is pure, unstained by sin, and completely other than (meaning above and beyond) anything else in creation, including humanity. One of the most important consequences of God’s holiness is his hatred of sin. Yes, God hates sin. (No, I don’t believe that God hates sinners, but that’s another discussion for another day.) But when we think about God in relation to sin (and, therefore, in relation to us), Smith says that we tend to believe one of two false narratives: 1) We believe that God is in a furious rage at us because of our sin; or 2) We believe that God doesn’t really care about our sin, and is pretty much cool with whatever.

Neither of these stories tell the truth about God, which is that wrath is God’s right(eous) action. So then, what is wrath? The image that comes to my mind is much like that first false narrative–of someone in a furious and destructive rage, completely overwhelmed by their emotions and totally out of control. But God never lacks for self-control, and his wrath, like his love, is not contingent upon his emotions. Just as God’s agape love is his self-willed act to lay down his life, surrender his rights, and forgive sins, so his wrath is his willful act to consistently oppose sin and evil. “God is not indecisive when it comes to evil. God is fiercely and forcefully opposed to the things that destroy his precious people.” (121)

The key insight that I gleaned from this chapter is that wrath is not an attribute of God, but rather a temporary action. God is wrathful as long as sin exists and wreaks havoc on humanity; but when sin is swallowed up in victory, then God will never be wrathful again.


God’s wrath must be understood in relation to his love. Wrath is not a permanent attribute of God. Whereas love and holiness are part of his essential nature, wrath is contingent upon human sin; if there were no sin there would be no wrath. (121)

God’s wrath (remember, not his rage, but his just and pure opposition to all sin and evil) was poured out upon Jesus at the cross. God’s final and perfect judgment of sin and evil occurred in the crucified body of his son. The wrath that we should have received did not rain down upon us because Jesus stood over us. The only shelter from the wrath of God is in the son of God.

So, then, since God has directed all of his wrath against sin and evil toward Jesus, does that mean that Jesus is sin and evil? Yes, but only for a brief time (“God made him who knew no sin to be sin for us”), because God then vindicated Jesus (ruling that he was in the right all along) by raising him from the dead. In the end God’s wrath is only a servant, even a symbol, of his love.

Smith concludes the chapter by writing, “God’s first and last word is always grace.” (127) Amen. Even in the wrath of God we see the extent of his grace, because his son stepped in to receive God’s opposition to sin and evil, to fully satisfy it in his death, to be declared innocent and true in his resurrection, and then to become king over all in his ascension and present reign.

When I was in full-time ministry, I would often lament the fact that all my friends (at least the ones I saw and interacted with on a regular basis) were Christians. This seemed wrong to me for many reasons, not least of which that my life and faith felt too insulated as a result. Being inside of this isolated, relational bubble caused my soul to atrophy, and created an inner detachment from that which I believe to be most true. I imagine that this is true of any tribe or affiliation – whether religious, ethnic, political, or whatever. The more we isolate ourselves from the outside, the more sickly and diluted we become.

I’ve come to conclude, then, that it is good for my soul to have friendships with those outside of my tribe (which is evangelical Christianity). This, of course, means that having friendships with nonChristians is vital for my inner well-being. So, how do I do that? How can a Christian and a nonChristian form a true friendship? Is such a thing possible? Or will there always be some kind of underlying, evangelistic/judgmental/I-don’t-want-to-go-to-your-church tension? I’d like to share a few observations (we can even call them “tips!”) that I’ve made, and picked up from others along the way, for both Christians and nonChristians on this issue of cross-cultural friendships.

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5 Tips for Christians

1. Don’t be weird (unless you’re weird). Sometimes we can get so focused on evangelism that we become awkward around nonChristians, like the geek who somehow gets to dance with the prom queen. We think that one wrong word from our mouths will doom this person to eternal damnation, and so we find ourselves doing and saying ridiculous things because we carry the weight of their potential salvation on our shoulders. But that’s not your responsibility. Each person’s salvation, yours or your friend’s, is based on a relationship between the individual and God, facilitated through Jesus Christ. So relax. Don’t be weird, unless you’re just naturally weird. In that case, be yourself!

2. Shut up and listen. Sometimes the best way to proclaim the Gospel is by making eye-contact and closing your mouth. Listening is a lost art, as it seems more and more that everyone is just waiting for their turn to talk, or “multitasking” by “listening” while looking at their smart phone. In a world of frenetic noise, one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person is to endow them with the dignity of being heard. It’s okay if your friend has a completely different/unbiblical/nonChristian perspective; they deserve to be heard. Listen without arguing. Ask questions so you can more fully understand their life, thoughts, and perspectives. I believe that Jesus can speak as powerfully through sincere silence as he can through even the best sermon. (And that’s coming from a preacher!)

3. Don’t assume that you’re morally superior to your nonChristian friends just because you are saved/have the Holy Spirit. The sad reality is that despite having access to the Creator God through the Holy Spirit, despite knowing Jesus, despite having seven different versions of the Bible on our bookshelves, we Christians simply do not live more noticeably moral lives than our nonChristian neighbors. Perhaps we should all take a lesson from Paul, who at the end of his life said this, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners–of whom I am the worst.” If Paul is the worst sinner, then what are you? There is simply no room for self-righteousness in the hearts of those who follow Jesus–nothing could be further from the heart of God. As Paul said elsewhere, “In humility consider others better than yourselves.” I think this is especially important for Christians to grasp and live out in our friendships with nonChristians.

4. Be honest. By this, I suppose that I mean that you shouldn’t try to manipulate your nonChristian friends into becoming Christians. It’s better to just be up front about it in a way that is appropriate to your relationship. After all, honesty is what makes relationship possible. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with telling your friend, “I hope that someday you know and love Jesus as much as I do, because he means everything to me.” What is wrong, in my opinion, is steering and manipulating conversations for the sake of conversion.

5. Don’t feel like you have to own all the crappy baggage of Christianity. We’ve all been through it before. We tell someone that Jesus loves them and died for their sins, and we get a response like this, “ZOMG! BUT THE CRUSADES!” The last Crusade was over 700 years ago. Can we move on, please? “BUT WESTBORO BAPTIST CHURCH!” Well, I don’t go to there. …I’m happy to own all my own baggage, and God knows there’s enough of it to turn anyone away from becoming a Christian just like me. But I don’t feel any sense of responsibility to own things like the Crusades, the Spanish Inquisition, or fringe churches of which I am not a part. To apologize for things others have done and with which I disagree seems dishonest.

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5 Tips for NonChristians

1. Don’t stereotype your Christian friends. Nobody likes to be stereotyped, and yet sometimes it feels like it’s culturally acceptable to lump all Christians together into one ridiculous caricature. This may come as a surprise to a lot of people, but the average Christian doesn’t look like a white man from Kansas. On a global scale, the average Christian is actually an asian woman. There really is nothing more culturally, ethnically, socially, or politically diverse than Christianity. It’s not acceptable to stereotype other groups, so please extend the same respect to your Christian friends. I’m not saying that you need to pay attention to all the nuances or subgroups of Christianity, but just be aware that there are all kinds of people in the world who love Jesus and have given their lives to him.

2. Be yourself. I’ve often felt like my presence has made nonChristians uneasy because they don’t want to offend me, particularly by their use of foul language. (When you work in the broadcast industry, you hear A LOT of foul language!) While I appreciate the thought, I don’t want to become someone else’s social conscience, and I think a lot of Christians feel the same way. You shouldn’t feel like you have to change who you are when you’re around your Christian friends. While I can’t speak for all Christians, I think it’s safe to say that we want to get to know the real you, and we deeply believe that God loves you as you are now. Like it says on the front page of this blog, “You don’t have to get all fixed up to find God, because God got completely broken in order to find you.”

3. Shut up and listen. This is just something that’s true for all relationships. Specifically, your Christian friends are deeply invested in things that are eternal. The most important thing in the world to them is the God who created the world, and they really want to tell you about him and how much he loves you. I’m not saying that you have to accept that and embrace it in order to have a healthy relationship with your Christian friends; I’m just saying that you should listen to them when they tell you about God. He is the most important thing in their lives, and as with the top priority in your life, that subject matter deserves to be received with respect. Sure, they may not have it all figured out, and there might be some other stuff that seems weird or false to you that comes along with the core of their beliefs, but that’s true for all of us. What’s most important for all human beings in relationship isn’t being agreed with, it’s being heard.

4. Know that your Christian friend really, really wants you to love Jesus. There, the cat’s out of the bag. All the cards are on the table. Your Christian friend wants you to become a Christian. However, it’s not so that you can be assimilated into some religious sect, but because we truly believe that in Jesus there is life and healing and peace and so much else that just can’t be found anywhere else. Think of it like this: If your friend found a huge amount of gold deep in the heart of a mountain, wouldn’t you want to know about it? Well, Jesus is much more valuable than gold, and he’s a person! This might sound weird, but being the one to “introduce” you to Jesus would be a top 10 highlight of your Christian friend’s life.

5. If you feel like your Christian friend is manipulating conversations in order to proselytize, tell them. Because we really, really want you to love Jesus, we can sometimes lose our sense of propriety in a friendship. We are, at times, also motivated by the fear that you will spend eternity apart from God in hell, and fear causes us to become desperate. This fear can lead to all sorts of strange behavior, including manipulation and becoming judgmental. If you sense that your Christian friend is doing this to you, don’t be afraid to bring it up. You could even say something like, “Listen, I know you want me to love Jesus and become a Christian, but I’m not ready for that. I understand that it’s really important to you, and that you may even be afraid for me, but I don’t want to be judged or manipulated by you. I want to be friends.” Most Christians, and most people, will respect that kind of honesty, and change their behavior accordingly.

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What other insights do you have? I’d love to hear more thoughts that would apply to and from both perspectives.

“Who sinned?” That was the question the disciples asked Jesus when they came across a man born blind. It was also the question a pastor asked James Bryan Smith, author of The Good and Beautiful God, when James’s daughter was born with a terminal chromosomal disorder. The disciples, and this pastor, may appear to be insensitive, but they’re only vocalizing a narrative that so many of us believe. Behind this question, “Who sinned?”, lies the belief that “God is an angry judge. If you do well, you will be blessed; if you sin, you will be punished.” (40)

This has been humanity’s controlling narrative for millenia, and it continues to live on in the church in spite of God’s best efforts to finally put this misnomer to rest. (He did, after all, send his own son to die for the sins of the world so that we can all be reconciled back to God. How’s that for an angry judge?) Perhaps no organization lives out this false understanding of God more faithfully than Westboro Baptist Church. They are infamous for protesting soldiers’ funerals, carrying placards emblazoned with “God hates fags” and other such bile. For them, the clearest image of God isn’t Jesus Christ dying and rising again for the sake of the world, but of God (or is it Zeus) astride a thundercloud with lightening bolt in hand, ready to strike fornicators and sinners dead.

Fortunately for everyone ever and everywhere, that narrative is false. At the core of God, in the very heart of the Trinity, resides an infinite well of self-giving, self-sacrificing love. How can a God, who is love, be so angry? How can he be so quick to dole out punishment on “sinners?” The truth is that he’s not. God is not angry, but eager. He is eager for us to repent, believe, and love him. He yearns for us to be reconnected to him in life-giving and soul-refreshing relationship. He longs to make us new, so new, in fact, that we become like Jesus.

So then, who sinned? Jesus’s answer is simple. Nobody. And everybody. In the case of the blind man, like in Smith’s case (and in our case with our epileptic son), nobody’s sin caused this disease. God is not doling out punishment for some sin we may or may not remember. These diseases have come because death rules the world, and death rules the world because everybody has sinned, and the consequence of sin is death. However, and this is an awfully big however, Jesus has conquered death! He did it when he rose again from the dead. We live in an entirely new world, one where we can look death in the face and laugh, crying out in mockery with the apostle Paul, “Where, O Death, is your sting; where, O Death, is your victory?” The victory over death resides in Jesus Christ.

What is Jesus doing now? According to that same apostle Paul (here I’m drawing from 1 Corinthians 15), Jesus is putting all of his enemies under his feet; that is, he is conquering everyone and everything that opposes him. One of those things, I believe, is disease. Particularly, diseases like blindness and epilepsy. While there are many ways in which Jesus is defeating disease (through medical research, gifted doctors, spiritual gifts of healing, faith healers, and many others), one of the most important ways he is putting this enemy under his feet is through the prayers of his people.

My wife and I are dealing with this enemy in our son, and we are praying and believing that God will heal him of his epilepsy. We long for the rule and reign of Jesus the King to be made manifest in our son’s brain, where the enemy of epilepsy wreaks havoc on him. We pray over him everyday, and we look forward to the day when he will walk without falling down, speak clearly and with extensive vocabulary, and testify to the power of Jesus the King in his own body and life. Many of you who read this blog are praying for him, as well. We are deeply grateful for your prayers and kindnesses. Someday we will all rejoice together at the powerful work of God in healing our boy. God is not angry; he is agape love.