Six observations from my silent retreat

slow down

I spent Thursday morning through Friday morning at The Hermitage, a retreat center just north of Three Rivers, MI. My days are filled with constant inputs and I wanted step back and spend time devoted to silence and prayer. My head is filled with content, but I need the help of the Lord – and time – to process that content in a meaningful way. I had no major insights, but the time was refreshing, relaxing, and instructive. Here are six observations from my retreat:

  1. The rule of the community is silence. I found it refreshing and relaxing. It provided a distraction free environment for me to quietly reflect and pray. However, meal times were hard. I have a hard time imagining a meal without conversation. I wanted to learn the stories of those who sat around the table with me, and I wanted to share mine. I love to leave space for silence, but a meal is made for conversation. I did love the way the director opened the meals: “Food is God’s love made edible.”
  2. I might have been the recipient of a minor miracle. I took a few hikes along the grounds. Foolishly, I really didn’t think about ticks. As I was walking through a field I had the sudden thought to check for ticks. I immediately looked down and there was a tick crawling up my bare leg. It had not bit down so I quickly brushed it off, none the worse. It’s possible I felt something or that something else triggered in my mind, but there had been lots of other bugs around me, so that seems unlikely. I’m inclined to interpret this event as God’s protection.
  3. I was deeply affected by Ephesians 2:10, particularly the idea that God has prepared good works in advance for us to do. It filled me with the anticipation that God has already gone ahead of me and prepared good works for me. This means that I can look for those opportunities and then act in obedience to God.
  4. Choice is not always freeing. As I reflected on possible futures, I discovered that I would gladly accept them if I were, by circumstances, thrust into them. But when I “get” to choose between possibilities, I feel paralyzed, or I feel like I’m being presumptuous. I’m not quite sure what to do with this realization yet.
  5. I spent time imagining “envisioning” a desired future – What would our church look like if it were thriving (more than it already is)? What would Sunday morning look like? What would a board meeting look like? What would it look like for members throughout the week? I tried hard not to just think in abstract, but to picture it with my mind’s eye. I found this to be a fruitful practice.
  6. Regardless of where the future leads, I need to continue to work on my inner life. That means a more robust prayer life marked by praise and confession. By God’s grace I have seen a resurgence in this area over the past month or so. And, while I’m now even more aware of the ways in which I am broken, inadequate, and guilty, I can also see steady improvement and growth.

Thank you all for prayed for me on this short retreat, especially to my wife Marj. I’m glad to be home.

I was baptized as a baby, should I be re-baptized as an adult?

Given that our little baptist church is in predominately Reformed West Michigan, it is not uncommon for people to come to our church from a Reformed background where infant baptism is the norm. As people get more involved, or begin to consider membership, we are inevitably asked about our view of baptism. Specifically, we get this question: “I was baptized as a baby, should I be re-baptized as an adult?”

Sometimes, though not always, this question is intensely personal. For some it feels like an unnecessary step. For others, it can feel like a rejection of one’s tradition, or of one’s parents.

Whether or not someone decides to be re-baptized as an adult, to participate in what we call “believer’s baptism,” depends entirely on what they come to believe about baptism. This post isn’t a defense of the baptist position (I have a longer post on that subject here.) Instead, I will only briefly discuss what we believe, not why.

Baptism is first and foremost a response of obedience to Jesus to his gift of salvation. Since salvation occurs when one puts their faith in Jesus. Pre-conversion baptism may serve some function (like a parental baby dedication) but it’s not the same thing – or doesn’t serve the same function – as post-conversion baptism. For that reason alone I would recommend pursuing adult baptism as a response of joyful obedience.

Second, baptism is an outward symbol of an internal reality. More than a symbol, baptism is a re-enactment. It is accompanied by a public confession, and a public confession is a critical component of baptism, but it is not only public confession. It’s more that just what we say but something we do. In baptism by immersion, the believer being baptized is lowered down into the water. This act symbolizes being buried with Christ. It symbolizes the reality that our sins are nailed to the cross with Jesus and that we have consciously decided to daily die to sin. Then the person baptized is raised up out of the water. This symbolizes being raised with Christ. It symbolizes new birth – both objectively performed by God – and subjectively lived as we live by the power of the resurrection.

Some of the push back we’ve gotten to our form of baptism has not come from the Reformed tradition, but from the hyper-dispensational perspective of nearby Grace Bible College. They believe that what matters is merely what is symbolized but that the symbol itself (e.g., baptism) is of secondary importance. For that reason, baptism becomes optional, one of multiple ways of expressing the inward reality. (As optional, a person must be specifically “led” to baptism by the Holy Spirit.) We believe that the action itself matters. The same is true for the Lord’s Supper. It is true that one of the main reasons we regularly participate in the Lord’s Supper is to remember that Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but that doesn’t mean we could just replace the Lord’s Supper with a time of quiet and reflection. For some reason, by God’s grace, God has given us these two communal practices which we get to participate in, and that help us to grow in our relationship with him. It is fitting to receive these gifts with joy.

So, if you were only baptized before you were saved, should you be re-baptized now as a believer? That depends on your view of baptism. If you come to the conclusion expressed above, then Yes, first as a response of obedience to Jesus, and then as a way to symbolize the inward reality of salvation in a public and confessional way. But I’m also sensitive to the fact that this is a position on which many good Christians disagree. I would not want to pressure someone into baptism. Without the beliefs in place, re-baptism can actually be a form of disobedience, as a way to please man instead of pleasing God. To someone considering baptism I say this: Consider what the Scripture teaches on baptism, and then act accordingly, without compulsion.

Pastoral addendum: Is my adult baptism a rejection of by infant baptism? I would say it doesn’t have to be, though it will likely be a re-interpretation of the infant baptism. It is possible to view the infant baptism as an act of good faith by the parents to dedicate their child to the Lord. If viewed in this way, then the believer’s baptism can actually function as a re-affirmation of that first baptism. You would then be saying: “Just as my parents dedicated me to the Lord as a baby, so now, as an adult, I personally reaffirm what they taught and show to the rest of the watching world that I have decided to follow Jesus.”

The best case against re-baptism (from a baptist perspective): Historically, re-baptism was seen as a repudiation of the church which performed the initial baptism. That is, it was a way of saying that the first church to perform that baptism was sub-Christian, heretical. If the same were true today, then re-baptism would be an offense to the fundamental unity all Christians have in Jesus. However, I do not think the practice today has the same meaning that it has had in other historical contexts. And I would counsel against such an interpretation from my Reformed brothers and sisters. Nevertheless, if I were to make a case against re-baptism, I would do so on these historical grounds, for the sake of the unity of the universal Church.

The time I counseled against re-baptism: Once a woman in our church approached me about being re-baptized. She had been baptized as a teenager after she was saved. Since that time, she had drifted away from the Lord, but had recently “returned” to following him. Her re-baptism would have served as marking a re-dedication to Jesus. In this case, I suggested she simply share her public testimony before the church without the act of baptism. Baptism in this context would have been performed purely for experiential and public testimony purposes. She had already symbolized new birth in her initial baptism. That new birth happens only once, and so the symbol should only be performed once. In other words, I would counsel against using re-baptism as a form of re-dedication.

9 Marks of a Healthy Church: Book Review

41Be-zFOs6L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Summary:

In 9 Marks of a Healthy Church Mark Dever “describes some marks that distinguish” healthy churches from unhealthy one. His book is less like an “anatomy of the body” (an exhaustive list of what a church is/should do) but a prescription (how a church can be/become healthy.)

The Marks:

#1: Expositional Preaching: It is the Word of God that forms and gives life to the people of God. Therefore, the purpose of preaching should be to faithfully explain and apply that Word to the congregation. For Dever, this is “far and away the most important of them all, because if you get this one right, all the others should follow.”

#2: Biblical Theology: Closely related to the first, this one particularly relates to correctly understanding the character of God, namely that God is the creator, He is holy, He is loving, and He is sovereign.

#3: The Gospel: A right understanding of the Good News flows out of our understanding of God. Healthy churches understand what the gospel is (and is not) and call people to faith and repentance.

#4: A Biblical Understanding of Conversion: A right response to the gospel – faith and repentance – leads to conversion, a radical change in the new believer’s life. Dever argues that this sort of change is necessary, possible, involves further reliance on Christ, and comes about through God-given faith.

#5: A Biblical Understanding of Evangelism: Dever promotes evangelism that is undertaken by the whole community of the church and not just left to the “experts.” Evangelism shouldn’t be done out of a desire to win an argument, but out of love for God and neighbor.

The first five marks are standard fare for evangelical Christians and churches, if not in execution, at least in philosophy. Marks six through nine cut against the grain of (at least older) church growth books.

#6: A Biblical Understanding of Church Membership: Dever argues for a making church membership more of a priority and of having there be a higher bar for membership. Against the trend to deemphasize membership Dever says, “membership in a local church is intended to be a testimony to our membership in the universal church. Church membership does not save, but it is a reflection of salvation.” Members commit to the church and have certain obligations to the church, to the pastor, and to fellow members. A high view of church membership makes the remaining marks more intelligible.

#7: Biblical Church Discipline: For many this is a scary one (and in a later Appendix Dever argues that in churches where discipline has not been exercised, that it should only be eased into slowly.) For those unfamiliar with this concept, church discipline occurs when a member falls into unrepentant sin. The end result is either repentance and reconciliation, or exclusion from membership. The goals of church discipline are restoration of the person being discipline, to serve as a warning to other believers to see the danger of sin, to promote the overall health of the church, to serve as a corporate witness, and to reflect the holiness of God. Mark number 7 relies heavily on mark number 6.

#8: A Concern for Discipleship and Growth: Here finally Dever explains more of what he means by a “healthy church.” Healthy churches are concerned about individuals “growing” and “bearing fruit” as disciples of Jesus. By “growth” he doesn’t mean numerical growth, but spiritual growth. A church should be concerned to see “people who are growing up, maturing, and deepening in their faith.” He then goes on to show how each of the other marks contributes to this kind of growth.

#9: Biblical Church Leadership: Dever’s Baptist distinctives come through in this chapter. He argues for congregational rule, with leadership work delegated to a plurality of male elders. The task of those elders is to exercise authority, lead by example, equip the church for ministry, and serve the congregation. Dever acknowledges that often authority is abused, but that God gives authority as a gift, and when exercised in a godly way, it is ultimately life-giving.

Review:

The goal of 9 Marks of a Healthy Church is to lay a biblical foundation for healthy churches. It doesn’t get into a whole lot of particulars. That’s helpful to know going in. I found myself skimming through some of the material because I take so much of it for granted already.

For church leaders, pastors or elders, this will serve as a good rubric by which to examine the health of your church. In reviewing this list, I see some areas where we could improve. Though, I would supplement this book with other, more practical ones.

For those who attend church, I recommend reading chapter six on the importance of church membership, and if not a member of a church, to consider it, or if a member of a church, to consider how you can better serve your church.

For discussion: If you were to add a “mark” to this list, what would it be?

The deeper wisdom of Future Babble

Last week I wrote critically of the worldview underlying most of the sociology books I read using Future Babble as the prime example.

Future Babble is all about expert predictions gone horribly wrong. Daniel Gardner’s basic thesis is that a lot of experts are really bad at predicting what will happen in the future, but that people tend to keep buying into these predictions anyway.

It was an interesting book, and even though I find fault with some of the underlying assumptions, the book still has a deeper wisdom that is worth paying attention. I took two big lessons from this book.

Humble people are usually better at analyzing the future

Gardner makes a distinction between experts who he calls hedgehogs and others he calls foxes. Hedgehogs know one thing really well. They are smart and confident. They are usually the ones who appear as talking heads on cable shows. They sell lots of books. But they are often wrong. If fact, they’re no better than non-experts at making predictions about the future. Hedgehogs are also great at “explaining away” their misses. “I just got the timing wrong,” “If only this hadn’t happened,” “you misunderstood what I said to begin with,” etc.

Foxes, on the other hand, don’t focus on only one thing. They are less confident and more cautious. Because they are more nuanced, they’re less likely to be on talk shows and TV. They’re also a lot more likely to be right about the future. When they get it wrong, they’re more likely to admit it and learn from their mistakes.

Hedgehogs are marked by pride; foxes by humility. I think I remember something about pride going before the fall. We should be wary of our own overconfidence.

Be cautious of experts who are confident of what the future holds

Don’t be a hedgehog. But don’t trust a hedgehog either. They’re often wrong.

There have been many doomsayers throughout the years. The world was supposed to be way overcrowded by now, with the end of affluence, and whole sections of the earth wiped out by famine. The age of oil was supposed to be over.

There have also been those who predicted that all would be sunshine and roses, that we would be living in a Utopian age.

Neither of these predictions, confidently given, turned out to be correct. But a string of bad predictions doesn’t dissuade a new generation of confident pundits from boldly predicting the future. We should be cautious of them.

Gardner’s argument for why experts so often get it wrong is two-fold. First, we live in a complex world. Second, we’re biased in our judgments. I would agree with both of these (though for slightly different reasons than he does). I would add a third element. There’s another hand at work: the providence of God. He holds history in his hands and his ways are beyond and above our ways. Though we can expect the future to be filled with both highs and lows it’s less important for us to know exactly what those will be or when they will occur than it is to focus on our relationship with the One who holds that future. Uncertainty is a cause for worry, but God has not given us a spirit of fear, but a spirit of wisdom and self-discipline. Leave the future to God, focus on following him now.

Is the Church weak or strong?

Pretty-ChurchIs the Church weak or strong?

Whatever adjective you put before the word “church” makes all the difference in this question. Is the global church weak or strong? Is the American church weak or strong? Is my local church weak or strong?

But the question I’m asking is if the Church (big C) is weak or strong? Are believers weak or strong?

If you know me at all, you’ll know that I rarely answer a question like this by picking one of the options. Is the Church weak or strong? It depends on what you mean. We are weak in three senses, and strong in at least one.

We are weak in the measure of our humanity. In our humanity we are a breath, we come from the dust and will return to the dust. We are finite and limited. We make errors. We get things wrong. Our strategies are sometimes ill conceived, our execution haphazard. Even on human terms of strength and weakness we are often seen as weak or foolish before a world that idolizes money and success. I have no faith in the human strength of the church.

We are weak in the measure of our sinfulness. Yes, the church is God’s holy people. We have been forgiven and redeemed. We are being sanctified. But our sin is still always before us. We wage war with it and we have the ultimate victory, but in the meantime, it wins some battles. Sin hampers our efforts. It weakens us beyond our humanity. This weakness is to our shame.

We are weak in the measure of our following after the crucified Christ. Jesus came in weakness. He emptied himself of the glory due him and came in humility. He humbled himself to death on a cross. He gained victory not through human strength, but through self-sacrifice. When he calls disciples, he calls them to take up their crosses and follow him. We take that same posture of weakness before the world, a posture of humility, death to self, and sacrificial love. To the extend we embrace this weakness, this weakness is to our glory.

But we are also strong. Or, at least, strength is available to us.

We are strong in the measure of our being filled with the fullness of Christ.

18 I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength 20 he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church,23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way. – Ephesians 1:18-23

Paul prays that the Ephesians will know, that is, experience, God’s “incomparably great power.” That power is the power of the resurrection, of Christ’s position at the right hand of the Father, and of Christ’s reign over every power and authority, spiritual and physical, present and future. Notice the path of exaltation. Christ is lifted higher and higher throughout the passage. But the passage ends in descent, with Christ’s unique relationship with the Church – those who have put their trust in him. He exercises is headship over all things for the church. To the extent that the church is filled up with Christ, it knows the power of God. In this, then, we are strong.

How can we be filled up with Christ? By trusting and depending on him. Paul himself was no stranger to the weakness of the flesh, or of his battle with sin. But he learned that he could depend on God’s grace so that when he was weak, then he was strong, not a strength from himself, but Christ’s work in him. God gives grace to the humble. He strengthens the feeble. When we participate with him in his suffering, we can be assured that we will participate with him in his resurrection.

What does this power look like? Is it what the world will recognize as power? Perhaps. But more often it will only be manifested in weakness. It will show up as courage in the face of danger, hope in the face of suffering, perseverance in the face of temptation, and steadfastness under pressure.

So, is the American church strong or weak? Is the local church strong or weak? Is the global church strong or weak? To the degree we depend upon God and are filled up with Christ, we will remain strong.

On the pain of misalignment

The greatest moments of physical pain I’ve ever experienced have come from dislocation and misalignment.

Last year, as I was youthfully* bounding up the stairs at my church, I tripped over the lip of the next step. The ring finger on my left hand caught my fall. I got up, looked at it, and thought, something doesn’t look right. It was pointing in an unnaturally bizarre direction. I had dislocated it. After a trip to the ER, and a fair amount of pain later, it has been reset in its joint.

Earlier that same year I tore a muscle in my shoulder painting the ceiling of my house. I didn’t realize it at the time but a few days later I was lying on my back in a conference room at work in utter agony. The muscle had become inflamed and had knocked my back way out of alignment. I had a pinched nerve in my neck. The right side of my left hand was completely numb. A coworker drove me to an urgent care center. I was prescribed pain killers and muscle relaxers. For a few months, I went to the chiropractor three times a week.

Have you ever experienced the physical pain that comes from your body being misaligned? From a joint being dislocated?

Have you ever experienced the spiritual pain that comes from spiritual misalignment and dislocation?

Spiritual Misalignment

Sin is at the root of all spiritual misalignment. God created us to live in union with him, our wills, desires, motives, and actions, all aligned with his, acting in creative freedom, in a way that coincided with his own creative freedom. When sin entered the world, the alignment was broken. Our wills were severed from his. We became dislocated. That dislocation causes spiritual pain which we can (often successfully!) find ways to numb or to dull, but which continues to gnaw at the back of our minds.

Coming to faith in Jesus causes significant healing. Our sins are forgiven and we receive power from God to live new lives. In repentance, our wills align to God’s. We say “yes” to his way, are set free from the power of sin, and begin to walk in creative freedom.

But even Christians continue to experience the pain of dislocation and misalignment.

The misalignment between desires and actions. Paul complained about this: “What I want to do I don’t want to do and what I don’t want to do, I do!” His spirit within him, guided by the Holy Spirit, desired to follow God. But his sinful nature still held sway, and sometimes won. “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” he asked. Christians in every generation can relate.

The misalignment between motives and actions. In some ways, this is the reverse of Paul’s experience, and it’s one I’ve experienced. As a pastor, almost everything I do, or at least everything I’m judged for, is public. It is seen by others who either approve or disapprove There have been times when that approval/disapproval has become more than just the natural outcome, but the motivation for my work. In those instances, I can still preach a good sermon, but my motivations are misaligned with the very sermon I’m preaching. I have found that often my actions are a lot easier to manage than my motivations.

Other misalignments. The list is long: The misalignment between the “ideal” Christian community and the actual physical church. The misalignment between the hope we know we should experience and the sadness we feel. The misalignment between our faith in God and the doubts we nevertheless experience (what James calls being double-minded.) The misalignment that comes from following God in private, but fearing to do so in public, or from boldly following him in public but turning away from him in the “privacy” of our own minds or rooms. These misalignments are always painful. They need healing.

Healing

Is healing from misalignment possible? Yes, by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus. “By his stripes we are healed.” God is faithful to continue the work in us.

In many ways, spiritual formation is the process of recognizing and then healing misalignments. We don’t always feel the pain of spiritual misalignment, not because it’s not there but because our hearts are too callous to feel it. We don’t feel it, but it’s sapping the life from us. When the Spirit convicts us of sin we feel the pain, but in feeling it, we are opened to the work of the great Physician.

Sometimes misalignments come from painful circumstances. Sometimes these circumstances cause misalignments, though I suspect that usually they just reveal them. This is one of the reasons why suffering often produces spiritual growth. When we heal, we heal stronger.

But some wounds don’t heal all the way. That’s the lesson from my two injuries from last year. My ring finger still has an unnatural bulge. My pointer finger, the occasional tingle. Maybe this is true for spiritual wounds and misalignments as well. I’m pretty sure it is. This side of heaven, the healing will ever be slow and jerky. But we look forward to the day, not only to the final redemption of our bodies, but the final redemption of our souls, once again free to walk in create, aligned, freedom with God.

‘* I’m gratuitously including that word here because the rest of this post is going to make me sound old.

On the Self-Defeating Nature of Modern Social Science

I really like Social Science books. I find them fascinating and, usually, helpful. But more and more I am realizing that they can be self-defeating.

I just finished the book Future Babble. The thesis of the book is that “expert predictions” are generally terrible. The more confident the person making the prediction, the less likely they are to be right.

There’s a certain guilty satisfaction that comes from this book. You read story after story of how pompous and self-confident experts failed miserably in predicting the future. But after a little while Gardner begins to sound pompous himself and it loses its charm.

But there’s a deeper problem. Why is future prediction so often wrong? There are two pillars to Gardner’s argument. The first is that the world is too complex. The second is that our brains were not wired for this kind of thinking.

Gardner, like the vast majority of social scientists who I read, is functionally atheist in his writing (I don’t know his actual belief system but heaps as much scorn on “prophets” as he does on pundits.) He believes that our brains are merely the function of an evolutionary process. We evolved to survive and reproduce, not solve complex problems or look deep into the future. Our minds simply aren’t suited toward the work of making predictions. We are hopelessly biased.

But if our brains are not evolved to do this kind of abstract thinking, why should we trust the author of this book? Is my brain biased to find his argument compelling? Then again, maybe I’m biased against his argument? Can I trust my brain to correlate to reality? According to Gardner, probably not.

And so, as compelling as some of the points Gardner makes are, those very arguments undercut my belief that he’s even capable of making those arguments. It’s self-defeating.

There’s a similar sort of self-defeating argument in Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind (a must read, by the way). Haidt’s argument is both descriptive and moral. He is describing how we make moral judgments, but he also makes implicit moral judgments about our proper response to this reality. But for Haidt, moral judgments don’t correspond to moral reality. They’re not pointers to objective right and wrong. They’re merely the result of evolution. So, while seeing moral judgments in Haidt we also see through them. His argument might be interesting, but it carries no moral weight.

C.S. Lewis described this in The Abolition of Man as “seeing through” everything until there is simply nothing at all to see.

Alvin Planitinga in Where the Conflict Really Lies shows how this self-defeating argument plays itself on the naturalist worldview. If our brains have not evolved to making abstract rationale judgments – only survive and reproduce in a limited environment – why should we believe our own minds in making judgments about science and God.

Plantinga’s argument, then, is that there’s a fundamental conflict between science and naturalism (the belief that nothing exists outside of the natural world.) I tend to agree, and see the same truth play out in social science.

There need not be such a conflict in a Christian worldview. In the Christian worldview, we should expect to see, and in fact do see, a correspondence between the observable world and our ability to understand it. The world is fundamentally complex, yes, and we struggle to wrap our minds around it, but we can understand it, and we can have confidence that we can understand it because the same God who made it, made us.