Category Archives: relevant

Ecclesiastes – the treadmill of existence

Can’t wait.  I, a preacher wrestling with my scary dependence on God to cover my inadequacy and weakness and sin… get to preach from Ecclesiastes – where “the Preacher/Teacher (Qohelet)” gives a solid dose of worldly realism… about the spiritual depression that should befall us all apart from the mercy and grace of God in Christ! 

“Vanity of vanities, all is vanity” – or vapor or mist or meaningless or fleeting or pointless or dissatisfying or broken… call it what you will.  We need the grace of God to crash into our world because simply put, apart from God and his eternal mercy, “Life is full of trouble, and then you die” (Tremper Longman on the message of Ecclesiastes).

I will be blogging through Ecclesiastes as it is a book about weakness.  For those who are weak, it is thankfully confirming to their predicament… it affirms their desperate cry for the gospel.  For those who do not feel weak, it clearly shows us why we may be blind – the vanity of life under the sun is weakening, debilitating, deathly frustrating.  THAT is why we cry out for the gospel.

So pray for West  Valley PCA, as we publicly launch this Sunday, and as we (during Advent of all times) turn to this refreshingly depressing book about life in a broken and weak world where we NEED outside gracious redemption from God which he provided in Christ!  I look forward to combing through the Scriptures and cultural mouthpieces like music and art and literature to show how our world inherently KNOWS that Qohelet is right… it speaks the same language of spiritual depression that only finds its answer in fearing God who will set things right and has done so in Christ (12:7).

thanks be to God for his relevant revealing Word.

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weakness for the glory of God

I have been weak lately. 

In honesty, it has been with a measure of intentionality as I have been asking God to show me who I am…  who I really am… which is different than who I think I am or who I want to be. 

Before we launch out with the West Valley church plant, this is a timely season to secure my personal life on the foundation of God’s gracious gospel… which leads me to ask (without a preformed answer): Who am I?  What are my blind spots?  What image do I work to keep up at the expense of authenticity?  (As most of you know, I don’t hide much.  I can be authentically me – transparent and the whole bit – but who is the “me” I am being transparent about?  If it is not the real me, it is hardly authentic.)  All this has  come as a result of church planter assessment and Kori and my desire to explore each other and ourselves in new and honest ways.  I am reading a book by David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself – a timely tool to plow the depths of my being.  In sum, Benner makes the point that true experiential gospel transformation cannot occur merely by applying new gospel ideas and truths to the old self.  We must first discover and know the image-bearing gift of our real selves – the self that God has created with unique gifts and characteristics… the self that does not find its identity in social/cultural ‘attachments’ or image-conditioning and maintaining. 

Before setting aside this time to dig deep, I was afraid.  Honestly afraid at the layers of self that I don’t necessarily know are even there.  The layers of the me I don’t know because I am consumed with the me I wish I was.  But there is nothing to fear.  Why would I not want to know more about the true sinful broken self that I am – because all I will find there is more of the nature of God’s gracious love in Christ which has always been for the real me, not simply the me I wish I was? 

Perfect love drives out all fear.

It is not a frightening process, though it is quite afflicting.  I am going through a season where I question everything about myself.  This too, shall pass, but hopefully not right away.  This morning, Isaiah 48 helped me make sense of it all and why this is a very good time. 

Speaking to his people Israel, in Isaiah 48:10-11, God says: I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.  For my own sake, for my own sake I do it, for how should my name be profaned?  My glory I will not give to another.

What I hear in my whole self is this: my “not-sure-who-I-am-for-this-season-because-I-don’t-know-why-I-do-what-I-do-or-why-I-care-about-what-I-do-or-why-I-say-what-I-say” season of life is the furnace of affliction simply because, at present, I do not bear the name of my Creator and Redeemer as I should.  I know this.  I do not bear his glorious name as a husband or father or pastor or man as I should.  His glorious name deserves more than the “me” I have been putting forward. 

I need no other reason for this season of question – soli deo gloria.  Weakness in the furnace of affliction for the glory of God.  Thanks be to God for sending his own Son into the costly furnace of affliction – the real furnace that the real me in my sin deserves.  My whole self has been spared… so now I pray with Augustine: “Grant , Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.”

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my existence

There is only one problem on which all of my existence, my peace, and my happiness depend: to discover myself in discovering God.  If I find Him I will find myself and if I find my true self I will find Him. 

–  Thomas Merton

There is no deep knowing of God without a deep knowing of self and no deep knowing of self without a deep knowing of God.

–  John Calvin

A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep knowledge.

– Thomas a Kempis

Grant, Lord, that I may know myself that I may know thee.

– Augustine

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Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis

C. S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters is a correspondence between Uncle Screwtape and his nephew Wormwood, two demons setting about the deceit of their ‘patients’ – you and me – who they DO NOT want to be in the secure grip of their Enemy – Christ.

Last night I read something that is worth broadcasting:

Screwtape wrote to young Wormwood about you and me, his “patients”…

Their nearest approach to constancy, therefore, is undulation – the repeated return to a level from which they repeatedly fall back, a series of troughs and peaks.  If you had watched your patient carefully you would have seen this undulation in every department of his life – his interest in his work, his affection for his friends, his physical appetites, all go up and down.  As long as he lives on earth periods of emotional and bodily richness and liveliness will alternate with periods of numbness and poverty.  The dryness and dullness through which your patient is now going are not, as fondly suppose, your workmanship; they are merly a natural phenomenon which will do us no good unless you make a good use of it. 

Screwtape writes on:

To decide what the best use of it [this life of peaks and valleys] is, you must ask what use the Enemy [God the Father] wants to make of it, and then do the opposite.  Now it may suprise you to learn that in His efforts to get permanent possession of a soul, He [God the Father] relies on the troughs even more than on the peaks; some of His special favourites have gone through longer and deeper troughs than anyone else…   It is during the trough periods, much more than during the peak periods, that the patient is growing into the sort of creature He wants it to be.  Hence the prayers offered in the state of dryness are those which please Him best. 

But of course the troughs afford opportunities on our side also.  Next week I will give you some hints on how to exploit them,  Your affectionate uncle Screwtape

What an acknowledgement of the GOSPEL becoming LIFE for us when we are in the troughs of weakness.  What a warning on the necessity that we look to God alone in our times of trial – the “troughs of life” afford immense opportunity for the enemy as well.

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West Valley church planter(s)

At our initial West Valley PCA church plant gathering on Sunday night, I tried to be intentionally vague about most things while annoyingly clear about other things.  For example: where will we worship?  vague shrug.  When exactly will we begin? vague shrug (with clearly stated ‘launch indicators’)  What kind of music?  vague shrug.  Frequency of the Lord’s Table?  vague shrug.  Interestingly, I have my hopes and convictions about each of those things… but they are not for now… nor is this church plant enterprise about my hopes.

One of the things that I hope to make excitably clear is that the West Valley PCA project will NOT be about one church planter who (by God’s grace) ministers among core group, out of which a launch team is formed.  Rather, the kingdom prayer is that God would CALL church planters (plural) to engage our neighborhoods with the gospel and Christ incarnate through the body of the church.  I failed, in the midst of the details, to share a text that invigorates me in this regard.

Isaiah 32 speaks of the King.  God’s King.  The King whose kingdom we are to be praying would come to earth in justice and mercy and extravagant unconditional gospel-love. 

32:1 – Behold, a king will reign in righteousness.

But as the text moves on to describe his rule… it includes his people!  … and princes will rule in justice.  EACH will be like a hiding place from the wind, a shelter from the storm, like strams of water in a dry place, like the shade of a great rock in a weary land.

Notice, it is not merely the King who is the hiding place from the wind.  His kingdom is made up of princes (plural) who shelter others from life’s storm and brokenness, who are like streams of water bringing satisfaction to the people in our dry and despairing world; our weary land!  The picture, for me, is one of Christ being the King of a kingdom made up of princes who PLANT the benefits of his glorious kingdom in our weary context (wherever that might be).

The translation into church planting is simply in the plurality of planters, much the same as the plurality of princes!  O God, would you call out churchplanters, such that “EACH will be like a hiding place from the wind (for their neighbors being blown like tumbleweed), a shelter from the storm (for their family and friends who are sick and tired of being beaten be the storms of guilt and family distress, etc), like streams of water in a dry and weary land (in Emmaus and Lower Macungie and all of the West Valley).  May your work be so ‘pluralized’ among church planter(s) that we embody one unified Christ-centered community!

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church plant gathering

It’s here.  Finally. 

On Sunday, March 9th, from 5-7pm, we will hold our initial west valley church plant meeting at Mas Cafe in Emmaus PA.  This gathering will be for the sake of burden inculcation and kingdom anticipation in the West Valley through a PCA church plant.  We will not be vision casting or planning… but rather discussing the unique needs of our demographics in the East Penn area of the Lehigh Valley.  What are the needs?  What are our responsibilities before God if we would be his church in our target area?  Who should be involved?  How will things unfold in the next 6 months?  What is it to be a church plant that is wide open for the sake of kingdom and gospel ministry among our neighborhoods and communities?  Why is there a need for a church plant? 

Ray and his wife Courtney, owners of the new Mas Cafe, will be providing a full slate of coffees and cappacinos – in addition to snacks.  Childcare will be a block away at the Powell home where we will have a handful of college/career age adults watching our children during our gathering.  If you know you and your kids will be joining us, it would help if you would leave a comment or let me know.

If you are curious as to the nature of the church plant, the needs of Emmaus/Lowermac, or the sacrifice involved for those God will call to be ‘church planters’ – then join us!  Will you consider DOING KINGDOM and planting a church that will be for the renewal of the West Valley (west side of the Lehigh Valley) – for the renewal of our broken, sinful hearts – for the renewal of our families and neighbors – for the renewal of our secular culture and its comprehensive need for mercy and worldview transformation through Christ and his BIG gospel!

Mas Cafe

332 Main Street, Emmaus

Sunday, March 9

5-7pm

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the zeal of the Lord ALONE will do this

We are back from the PCA Church Planting Assessment Center.  Words cannot encapsulate the experience.  It was the most gruelling, honest, beautiful, unifying (Kori and me), enjoyable, corporate (new friends) and mexican (nice restaurant across the street) week I can remember.  I heard the Word declared with particular application to a person like me. 

Kori and I then went to a Bed and Breakfast in PA (Glasbern, Fogelsville PA) for processing and cool white robes – sorry, had to say that.  This was my assessment of our experience at Assessment:

I was found out.  Kori was found.  Both of us are now driven to the gospel in new ways AS ONE COUPLE.

Anyway, one thing I will share (most of our experience I will not): I am zealous.  Excessively.  Apparently my zeal can be of good kingdom use, but it can also have its people-effect that is less than desirable.  I see it now.  This morning, I was reading from Isaiah 37, and I came across a powerful statement that I have read thousands of times in the prophetic books. 

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this (37:32)

I read it.  Then again.  Again.  The assessed-self was seeing something powerfully apropos.  Ministry is about the Lord’s zeal, not my zeal.  In my zeal I am either winsomely “effective” (at best), OR deceptively manipulative (at worst).  Because of that, my zeal is NOT the means by which I hope the Lord will do this church plant or any other ministry.  Rather, there will be a church in the West Valley of the Lehigh Valley ONLY if the zeal of the Lord does this.  

Why was the recognition of my zeal such a focus of assessment?  Partly because I was blind to it.  Partly because it affects people in ways I don’t intend.  But mostly, I think I see the reason in Isaiah 37:32 – my zeal is NOT the zeal by which kingdom things will be accomplished.  No, only the zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish his purposes in my home, my life, the church plant or any other locus of his work.

O God, even now I am excited because this makes so much sense and will have its impact…  but may my excitement be about YOUR safe/powerful ZEAL, and not my own.  I can control my zeal about as much as my son (18mo) can control himself when he sees food he wants.  This HAS to be about something BIGGER than my zeal.  And it is.

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learning curve

There’s a learning curve in every are of life.  Family.  Occupation.  Marriage.  Ministry.

I was recently soberly confronted with a lesson I have yet to learn.  Simply put, in the pastoral life – one knows a lot about people and their lives and struggles and needs.  I understand the reality to put a ‘hedge’ around my family so that I can go home at night and play with 3 kids (or go home with an honest intentionality to deal with my own life and struggles and needs).  I have been taught to distance myself, in a sense, from what I know about people so that I don’t absorb what they know in life as my own life.  I understand that.

BUT – I am learning that it is one thing to KNOW life-facts about hurting people… it is another thing altogether to break with them.  To hurt with them.  To fully empathize.  I have often thought I was doing that… but maybe (today atleast) I have been simply knowing about people’s lives – then speaking the gospel into it – then knowing that I had done what was required.

Maybe that’s not what is required.  Twice, recently, I have failed to break alongside someone and to plead God’s mercy with them.  I was satisfied to know their need.  There’s privilege to “be in the know” (you know). 

The beauty of learning is that it alerts me to who I really am and softens me in what I think I know.  I guess I actually learn more when I realize how far down on the curve I am.  And that’s a good thing (kinda fits a weakness theology).

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blue like jazz deux

It has been a long time since I was able to read a 240 page book in 4 sittings.  Going to bed early to get up at 5:30 to read again…  Weird, because I know I am culturally late having just now read Blue Like Jazz.

Friends, foes, family, liberal believers, conservative believers, non-believers (liberal or conservative), modern, postmodern, Gen x, hippies, moms, dads, laypersons, clergy, skeptical, frustrated, missional, emerging, emergent, reformed, dispensational, coffee drinking, beer drinking, Southern Bible-belter, Northern ?!, college kid, high school kid, city-monger, rural farmer…  have I missed anyone?  Please give this a read.  Give Donald Miller’s words a chance, all of them.  Read, and read on.  Or maybe just read him because he’s from Portland.  Cool.

I am not saying that it is the best book I have ever read.  Not that it is the perfect book.  Not that I agree with every last word.  But that they are real words.  Words that made me laugh and stunned me and led to worship or repentance or introspection.  They are Donald Miller’s words… and even though it is impossible to hear all that he is saying, I have heard something profound.

From his final chapter:

I was watching BET one night, and they were interviewing a man about jazz music.  He said jazz music was invented by the first generation out of slavery.  I thought that was beautiful, because, while it is music, it is very hard to put on paper; it is so much more a language of the soul.  It is as if the soul is saying something, something about freedom.  I think Christian spirituality is like jazz music.  I think loving Jesus is something you feel.  I think it is something very difficult to get on paper.  But it is no less real, no less meaningful, no less beautiful. 

The first generation out of slavery invented jazz music.  It is music birthed out of freedom.  And that is the closest thing I know to Christian spirituality.  A music birthed out of freedom.  Everybody sings their song the way they feel it, everybody closes their eyes and lifts up their hands…

This book is about the songs my friends and I are singing…  ((p.239)

Interesting enough, I feel like singing.

 _______________________

Addendum.  I would be remiss not to pass this quote along to you, especially for those of you who know that I am inching forward in my book-writing adventure.  ‘Bout a hundred pages in and here is how I feel…

Now, I am not a real writer as is Miller, but his words made me laugh. 

Writers don’t make any money at all.  We make about a dollar.  It is terrible.  But then again we don’t work either.  We sit around in our underwear until noon then go downstairs to make coffee, fry some eggs, read the paper, read part of a book, smell the book, wonder if perhaps we ourselves should work on our book, smell the book again, throw the book across the room because we are quite jealous that any other person wrote a book, feel terribly guilty about throwing the schmuck’s book across the room because we secretly wonder if God in heaven will notice our evil jealousy, or worse, our laziness.  We then lie across the couch facedown and mumble to God to forgive us because we are secretly afraid He is going to dry up all our words because we envied another man’s stupid words.  And for this, as I said before, we are paid a dollar.  We are worth so much more…  (p.187)

When you are writing without a contract, you feel as though everything you say is completely worthless (technically it is, until you get a contract).  You can write all day and still not feel that you have done anything.  (p.188)

And that, my friends, should tell you how I feel about the progress I am not making in my ‘project.’

Grace.

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Blue Like Jazz

I mean not to make this blog into “Book-Review Central”… I think the 3 books I have thrown at you recently are The Wounded Healer (Henri Nouwen), Metamorpha (Kyle Strobel), and The Bruised Reed (Puritan Richard Sibbes).  Well, surely some of you have read Donald Miller’s Blue Like Jazz – Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality.  I started it yesterday and am 140 pages into it after only two sittings. 

 Here’s the thing: Donald Miller is an amazing writer.  I appreciate his ability to enjoyably engage our post-modern very spiritual culture with the relevance of Christ.  Now, I’m not sure where Miller stands with regard to “postmodernizing the gospel” in our attempt to reach our postmodern culture… but he is refreshing, interesting, and intelligible nonetheless and, so far, I have only read his affirmation of the centrality and truth of Christ.  I am thankful for the words God has gifted him with.  Let me give you an example of his work and why it is effective for our postmodern culture (and why many of us should tap into his words for reference sake, at a bare minimum).

Rather than declaratively stating that the Bible teaches us that God has written a story about a King redeeming a people broken and in need (which it does tell us in epic fashion)… instead, Mr. Trendy Writer (which he doesn’t want to be called) uses the fourfold elements of story that are consistent throughout good literature (appreciated asthetically by our artsy culture): setting, conflict, climax and resolution.  What he says is that the reason why we naturally resonate with stories or movies – is because the best of them have a setting that is realistic, a conflict that is all-encompassing (subliminally reminds us of our lives), a climax where the conflict is addressed, and a resolution of some sort (even if not what we expect – most of us still assume life will resolve in some way).  Why does that fourfold ‘package’ continue to be defined as good literature (proven by books purchased and movies watched)?  Why do these elements make sense?

Miller says it is because they reflect the cosmic story where the setting is our struggle in this broken world, the conflict is realizing that the dark struggle is not just in the world but inside our very souls, the climax is when belief in salvation through Christ “happens to us” and the resolution is the kingdom transformation that will come presently and in the future.  In his own words:

There it was: setting, conflict, climax, and resolution.  As silly as it seemed, it met the requirements of the heart and it matched the facts of reality.  It felt more than true, it felt meaningful.  I was starting to believe that I was a character in the greater story, which is why the elements of story [all stories] made sense in the first place.  The magical proposition of the gospel, once free from the clasps of fairy tale, was very adult to me, very gritty like something from Hemingway or Steinbeck…  Christian spirituality was not a children’s story.  It wasn’t cute or neat.  It was mystical and odd and clean, and it was reaching into the dirty. 

Now, I am not in favor of a postmodern gospel, just as I could do without a modernist gospel.  The gospel is trans-cultural.  It transforms the postmodern spiritual individual into a socially active Kingdom-minded follower of Christ, even as it transforms the modern intellectual individual into a Truth-defending but gracious believer.  We don’t modernize or post-modernize the gospel (we don’t enculturate it), but we MUST take the gospel in an intelligible way to the culture we are in – be it postmodern or modern, be it rural or urban, be it homogonous or heterogonous (we DO trans-culturate it).

So far, Blue Like Jazz is like a window into such a philosophy of ministry.  Thank you Donald Miller.  After reading a book with absolutely NO Scripture quotes or references… I come away wanting to know the God of grace who has/can touch my world in Christ.  I come away repenting of my self-obsession.   And I come away excited about the relevant truth that is just that… TRUTH.

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