My Thoughts on the Elephant Room

Today, I attended the simulcast of the Elephant Room at Calvary Chapel in Fort Lauderdale. It was a great event, listening and learning. Connecting with and making friends was a huge highlight. The big controversy, if you haven’t heard, was about the invitation of Bishop T.D. Jakes, who allegedly had denied the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. I actually registered before Bishop Jakes was invited to join the discussion, and, honestly, I would not have registered afterward. When I registered Mark Dever was lined up to participate, and I was disappointed when he was no longer going to be involved. However, I am still glad that I went, and here are some of my thoughts on the cluster of conversations.

1. I was encouraged by Bishop Jakes affirming a more orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. He explained he was converted and trained in a Oneness Pentecostal church, and that he has grown in his understanding of the doctrine of the Trintiy. He flat out said, “One God, three persons”, even though he explained that he doesn’t like the word “person” because it creates some problems. But it is clear that he has grown significantly in a biblical direction on this crucial issue, and that is worthy of celebration and joy.

2. However, I was also discouraged by the conversation between Jakes and Pastor James MacDonald and Pastor Mark Driscoll. They did address the issue of the Trinity, but there was also a lot of ducking behind the mystery of an infinite God. It disappointed me that no one distinguished between incomplete knowledge of an infinite God and incorrect knowledge of an infinite God. In other words, we can never know God completely or perfectly, but we can know him truly. There are some things about God that are simply wrong, such as Oneness (modalist) theology. This was not sufficiently addressed. I appreciated the humility and brotherly love between all of these great men, but I think all of the expressions of mutual admiration took a lot of the time, and it would have been helpful to spend more time in serious discussion about the most important subjects in the universe.

3. I was convicted and encouraged by the spirit of “assuming the best about a brother.” I have too often been guilty of assuming the worst about someone based upon their reputation. As Christians, our impulse should be to assume the best about someone who claims to be a Christian. We should not be naive. We should be shrewd and unflinching in our commitment to the truth, but we should not accept a charge against a brother unjustly.

4. I was helped by the discussions on pastoral burnout and moral failure. I was reminded again of the importance of guarding myself and my family for the sake of Christ. I believe it was Wayne Cordeiro who explained that our pastoral impulse is like being on an airplane when the oxygen masks fall from the ceiling. We often do the equivalent of exactly what they tell you not to do in the safety information on the airplane. They say to put your own oxygen mask on first. Because if you pass out or die, you won’t be any good to anyone. The same goes in ministry. A pastor is always tempted to neglect his own spiritual health in an effort to help others. But that will end up being detrimental to the sheep and deadly for the shepherd in the long run. I was reminded that if I’m not close with Jesus, I’m no good to anyone.

5. I was encouraged to preach the Gospel wholeheartedly and urgently. Crawford Loritts said something that hit me between the eyes. “Don’t front-load the Gospel,” he said. I am too often guilty of not pointing people straight to Jesus in a simple and direct way. I will never be able to dot every “i” or cross every “t”. I must simply preach Jesus and him crucified and call people to repentance and faith.

6. I was impressed with the staff of the event. Last week, I emailed the generic Elephant Room information email address, because I needed to change the location I was attending. Within ten minutes, I got an email from Luke MacDonald, who got the issue taken care of immediately. Super impressive.

Overall, I’m glad I went to the event. I was encouraged, challenged, and helped. I think I will be a better pastor in the long run because I attended. If you went, what did you think?

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Even Atheists Can’t Stop Worshipping

We are designed to worship, to wonder at the grandeur of things bigger than us. More specifically, to worship in wonder at the majesty of the God who reveals himself in Creation and Redemption.

We can’t get away from it, none of us can, even those who believe that no god exists and that we exist by the forces of a mindless and designer-less process. Look at this video and tell me if I’m wrong.

One of the repeated refrains: “There is grandeur in this view of life…most beautiful…most wonderful.” In another context, that could easily glide off the lips of a devoted Christian, worshipping a grand God of grandeur. And in fact it already has. Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote two centuries ago: “The world is charged with the grandeur of God.”

And even longer ago, the Apostle Paul said, “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made” (Romans 1:19-20).

We default to worship and wonder, either at some thing or some one, or of the Only One worthy of our wonder.

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A Bible Impulse

Recently, I was meeting with a group of folks and someone was sharing an issue in their life. Several people in the group offered counsel, and I was about to recommend a book I had read that I though might help. It’s a really good book, one of the best I’ve ever read, definitely worth reading.

But before I said anything, another person spoke up and began to encourage this person with Scripture: verses and stories I would never in a million years have thought about. It convicted me, because my first impulse was, “Hey, you should read X, Y, or Z book written by C, D, or E author.” My impulse was not toward Scripture. I wish that it had been.

What is your first impulse? To quote a theologian, a blog, a book, an author, a commentary, an “expert”? To recommend this or that resource? Or is it to draw people to Scripture?

By God’s grace, I want that to be my first impulse.

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Como Se Dice

I downloaded Propaganda‘s album awhile ago. He is a talented Christian spoken word poet and rapper. One song on his album hadn’t really infected me, though, until a few weeks ago. Since then, I’ve been listening to it non-stop.

When I first met Laura, I wrote a poem about not having the right words to capture her. This song captures that same feeling. Stanzas like this:

Some things can’t even be said in poetry,
but I’ll give it a shot:
You are what I’m not.
What I wish to be,
Let me find a simile.

And, it captures the idea that meeting the “right” person is strange, because it is so “right”,  but feeling “right” is a weird feeling. Because you’ve never felt it before:

It feels so right,
which ironically doesn’t feel right,
’cause it ain’t never felt right.
You feel me, right?

Listen and enjoy.

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Ms. Bea

When Laura and I first visited Pembroke, a few things about the property stuck out to us. One of them was a sign in the west parking lot, reading: “Reserved for Bea Williams.” We figured she was important, and soon we met her: a sweet, 88-year-old pioneer member of the church where I was interviewing for a position. Almost everyone calls her “Ms. Bea”, and she is indeed important and dearly loved in our congregation.

Recently, Ms. Bea, who is now almost 92, had to be moved into a full-time assisted living facility, and she is not able to attend worship very often anymore. Still, she pervades the hearts and prayers of Pembroke’s people and its pastor.

I visited Ms. Bea recently. She was in bed, lying back under a blue blanket on a Monday afternoon. Her face broke into a huge smile when she saw me, and I pulled up a chair next to the bed and we visited. She told me she was in pain. She told me she prays every day, all the time, that God would bless the people of Pembroke “according to our needs and His will.” She told me she was ready to go to heaven whenever God wanted to take her. (“My daughters don’t like me saying that,” she said.) We sang, “Jesus Loves Me” and “Jesus Loves the Little Children.”

And then she humbled me. Her roommate is a Jewish woman. “We’re really working on her,” Ms. Bea said, in her faint Georgia-born drawl. “I really believe God put me here to be a witness.” Wow. That’s encouraging, amazing, and humbling.

Days like that Monday afternoon, I thank God I’m in a multi-generational church. Because guys that don’t get to sit with someone like Ms. Bea, singing old hymns and hearing about a warrior for Christ in her final season, are missing out. Big time.

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Why Jesus Had to Be Fully God and Fully Man

If Jesus were not fully man, he could not have represented us instead of Adam and Adam’s sin.

If Jesus were not fully God, he could not have born the infinite wrath of an infinitely offended God.

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Stitch by Stitch and God Breaks us Before He Heals Us

This past summer Javier Colon won the NBC singing contest The Voice. He is super talented, and I love the single he recorded as his finale for the show, “Stitch by Stitch.”

Here are some of the words:

Blue and black, heart torn out,
You uncover what’s beneath my skin.
There and back, there’s no doubt,
Your touch is my medicine.

I’ll be OK , ’cause you heal me;
And I’ll give you all my pieces broken.
In your hands, there’s nothing that you can’t fix.
My heart is frayed, my scars are open,
So put me back together now, stitch by stitch.

What you say without words,
Resuscitates what was numb inside.
So repair me, every bit of me,
‘Cause your bringing me back to life.

I was thinking how Christian this theme is: healing touch, new life. But I was also reflecting on my sermon from Sunday on Jacob wrestling with God. God’s touch doesn’t just heal us, it breaks us first. Here is what I said yesterday:

Jesus was broken so that we could be healed.
But we must be broken ourselves before we will grasp the glory of Jesus’ brokenness for us.

To use the metaphor from Javier Colon’s song, he unravels us and then he stitches us back together. He shatters us, then remolds us. Or, as Jared Wilson says in his fantastic book, Gospel Wakefulness, “He razes us before he raises us.”

Brokenness is a blessing, because it brings us to Jesus who was broken for us.

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How I Became Southern Baptist and Why I’m Glad I Did

In 2003-4, as an undergraduate at San Jose State University, I was looking for a seminary. I wanted a strong theological education, and, at first, I didn’t want to leave the West Coast. I looked into Phoenix Seminary and, most seriously, Westminster Seminary in Escondido (San Diego), where I used to live.

Providentially, God directed my attention to The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. Now, when you’re from the heart of Silicon Valley, a California native, and a non-denominationally bred young dude, Kentucky is not the most attractive option. But looking closer, I concluded two things: (1) SBTS would provide the best available education; (2) SBTS would provide the best opportunity not to remain single (i.e. a larger enrollment of girls than the other options).

For my first semester, I paid full, non-Southern Baptist tuition (double), because I could not in good conscience sign a covenant saying I would agree to minister in the Southern Baptist Convention. I was expecting to go back to California, maybe San Francisco, so I could watch the Giants at home and minister to a beautiful city that needs Jesus.

Jesus had other plans.

I got the two things I was looking for. I got a top-notch theological education, and I am grateful. Even better, I got a super cute girl to notice me, like me, and marry me. Laura was born and bred Southern Baptist. In a recent conversation, someone referred to her past as “SBC royalty.” So there was the “Laura-is-SBC-factor”; but, also, God was moving my heart toward South Florida and toward Southern Baptist life.

It’s a long story, but we started looking for a position, and God opened one at Pembroke Road Baptist Church, where I began pastoring in March, 2009.  By God’s grace, I plan on serving my life in ministry here, in this church, and therefore in this Convention. In some ways, I feel like the SBC is a family I married into, and the longer I know the family, the more I see the good and the bad up close. My friends who are life-term, SBC born-and-bred, often have a more jaded view of things, and I see their point. I’m new, and I tend to see the good in general, so I’m not as sensitive to the broken parts of this Convention of churches. I see broken parts, but I also love the parts that work. Here are a few reasons why:

1. Missions. The heart of the SBC is the Great Commission, and funding missions is a high priority. I am from a non-denominational background, where all mission is “faith-based”, meaning it’s based on faith in God to raise support. This model was popularized by Hudson Taylor, and until I went to Southern, I had no idea there was another way. But there is, and it is much better. Some of my good friends are “independent” missionaries, and they have to spend a lot of their lives raising and sustaining financial support networks. Their only financial infrastructure is the one they build and maintain. It’s hard enough to preach Jesus in a far away place, to people very different from you–but always having to worry about money? That stinks.

Enter the Cooperative Program. I know, I know. It’s broken in a lot of ways: Too much money stays in the state, gets sucked into bureaucracy, and doesn’t get to Mumbai, Myanmar, or Manila (SBC folks understand what I mean). But it is still so much better than the other way around. SBC missionaries are free to serve without having to raise their own salaries. That’s good. No, that’s awesome, and before I was a Southern Baptist, I didn’t know it could be done that way.

Likewise, the (increasingly renewed) emphasis on church planting from the North American Mission Board encourages me. We need more good churches everywhere. The SBC was committed to church planting before it was cool, and that commitment has grown massively since I started at SBTS. I love that.

2. Ecclesiology. The biblical teaching on the church. Ok, so the SBC in general is not strong on this point. In fact it’s currently lamely weak Convention-wide. But if I had never been connected to the SBC, I would likely not have been immersed in historic Baptist ecclesiological convictions. In my second semester of seminary, I went with my buddy and roommate Will to a 9Marks Weekender at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C. That ministry has profoundly shaped my theology and philosophy of ministry, and it is more “Southern Baptist” than many Southern Baptist churches. It is truly and historically rooted in Baptist convictions about the church. I had a non-existent ecclesiological framework when I started at SBTS. That has changed.

3. It’s where the fireplace and food and fellowship are. At the end of Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis says:

I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in.

Of course, some traditions place too much emphasis on the tradition itself, as if the tradition is more important than Christianity itself. On the other hand, evangelicalism in general tries to live in the hallway of Christianity, disconnected from any historic stream of Christian faith. It seems lonely there, and I don’t think the solution is to set up camp in the hallway and make a fire on the floor. It is so much better to enter one of the rooms and get connected. For me, that room is the (Southern) Baptist room, where I would rather stay than set up a cot in the hallway and hope someone says hello. Sure, there are people there who are different than me, there are folks who don’t care about the family, there is all sorts of dysfunction, but I think the warmth of the fire and the feast of fellowship is worth it.

I have a lot more thoughts on the SBC, and they’re not all glowing. But I am grateful that Jesus called me where he did. This is my family now, and I’m glad.

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Worth Praying For

Last week, David Platt tweeted:

Would you ask the Lord to use you to lead someone to faith in Jesus this year? Let’s be disciples who make disciples.

I felt convicted about this last year while reading Letters from a Servant Leader by Jack Miller. In the book Miller mentions a man who could not point to one person who had come to faith in Christ in his 20 years of ministry. That terrified me, and I began to pray. I know God has used my teaching and preaching, but I could not point to one person who I could tell had been converted unmistakably through my ministry. Heart-breaking, and, like I said, terrifying.

So I prayed that by Easter 2011, at least one person would come to Christ.

God answered. On April 24, 2011, Jorge Lithgow, an awesome young man, marked on his connection card that he had made a decision to trust Jesus for the very first time. Over the next months, Jorge was discipled by some of the other young men in our church, along with having several conversations with me. In August, I baptized Jorge.

That’s just one story, and more by God’s grace have followed: people moving from nominal Christianity to fully devoted Christ-followership. Since July 2011, we have baptized nine people, more than double what our church had baptized in the previous two years combined.

Pray that God will use you. He delights to move sinners from darkness to light, and he delights to use me—and you–to do it.

Let’s pray big this year, by God’s grace and for his glory.

Who are you praying for? If no one right now, will you commit to pray this year? 

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God’s Love First (a spoken word I recorded)

I have at different points in my Christian life struggled with slowness of heart toward God. I often don’t feel what I know I should feel.

I wrote a spoken word poem about it, and recorded it with the help of Serge Gustave, our church’s worship leader and talented rapper/producer. I hope it encourages you.

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