Movements and the Master: Thoughts on Joshua Harris

This week Amanda and I joined many others in being sad over the divorce and spiritual defection of another Christian leader. I’m a bit too old to have been influenced much by Josh Harris’  I Kissed Dating Goodbye  (1997) or Harris’ account of his own courtship in Boy Meets Girl (2005). My (forever) young Amanda isn’t so old as to have missed out on the target demographic of the books, however. And, we’ve been aware ever since of Joshua Harris’ contributions as a former homeschooler, a senior pastor in his church, and a mover-shaker type in the Sovereign Grace network that forms a stripe of the, so-called, Young Restless Reformed movement—which in turn gave birth to the Gospel Coalition.

Not much is private anymore. When a leader goes down, there’s usually announcements on social media. Such was the case a few weeks back when Josh Harris announced on Instagram that his marriage had failed and shortly later announced that he was undergoing a “deconstruction” of his Christian faith. Since then, leaders like Al Mohler and Janie Cheaney have weighed in, together with friends of Harris like Kevin DeYoung and Collin Hansen.

Like everybody else, Amanda and I have tried, just between the two of us, to talk some sense out of the tragedy. How could this happen? How could Josh touch off such a movement, but then fall so short?

We expect other announcements to come and much public finessing of anything Josh writes about his spiritual adventure. But, the point that comes through for Amanda and I (and the one we ought to heed in our own Woodland Community Church) is that following movements isn’t the same as following the Master.

That’s important for us at Woodland at this juncture of our church’s history. It would be super-easy for us to get whipped-up over the growth of our dynamic, little church up here in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. We might even float some talk about the “Woodland brand,” whatever that would be. Amanda and I might share some thoughts from the Classical Christian homeschool movement, which fascinates the two of us. We might take a group to the next Gospel Coalition conference and all come back with matching TGC tee-shirts.

But, following these movements isn’t the same as following Jesus!

Popular Bible study curricula, RightNow media, blogs, ministries that help us study the Bible or rear our kids, popular or historic schools of theology. Much of this (if not all of it) is great. But, none of these movements will save us. And, none of these little eddies in our wider Christian culture will produce guaranteed results.

Jesus will and does produce guaranteed results! That’s what Paul said when, after visiting Athens, he wrote to the less-complicated than Athenian citizens of Corinth:

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Corinthians 2.1-2).

So, we need to be careful at a lively, happy, growing church like Woodland. We need to be careful that we aren’t mixing up some secret sauce, some magic Kool-aid that will leave us far short of Jesus Himself.

Next time you see us, let us know what you think of this thought. Let us hear from you about how following Jesus, the Master, has taken you to better places than following any movement ever could.

 

Missed you this week, at Woodland …!

It’s just doesn’t feel right, you know. The week starts with the Lord’s Day (i.e. Sunday), and that’s the day God’s people, since the beginnings of the church of Jesus, have gathered: Acts 20.7; 1 Cor 16.2; Rev 1.10.

We gather on this first day of the week: because that’s the day Jesus arose from the grave … because we begin the week as new creations in Christ (2 Cor 5.17), and because we begin (not end!) the week in the rest Jesus has earned for us.

And, then, comes this:

And, this …

And, this …

And, this:

And, just like that, no big gathering for worship on Sunday. And that feels disorienting. A big letdown, like falling through a hole in your roof when you’re up there shoveling. Be careful up there, everybody!

But, we did gather. Just six of us. And we did pray for you all. And we did sing the doxology. And the tradition of SOMEBODY meeting at Woodland each Lord’s Day did continue. And God’s big-picture plan for his worldwide church did continue to move toward that precious return of Jesus our Lord. And God was and is glorified.

And we’re planning to meet again this coming Lord’s Day. Right, everybody?!

So, hang in there and lean forward—just like when you step from your ladder to your snow-covered roof. The snow will (probably) catch you, and the Lord will do His good work in each of us when we rely on Him this week.

And don’t be discouraged about the weather. Think on what is true (Col 3.2-3). And, if you’re a local reader around here, plan on joining us this coming Lord’s Day, at Woodland.

See you then …

Books on my nightstand: “Lila”

During our now bygone holidays I read a little. My present reading artery relates to an idea I call “rural renewal”—the transformation of rural communities through Gospel-preaching, disciple-making work.

There’s precious little written here. But, from what exists, my favorite by far is actually fiction, a trilogy of fairly recent novels by the Iowa writer Marilynne Robinson: Gilead, Home, and Lila

Robinson’s literary landscape involves the fictional Iowa town of Gilead—in 1950s Iowa, the northwest region (my guess). John Ames, her central figure, is an aging congregationalist minister who, defying every convention, marries Lila—a deeply troubled former prostitute (though we learn this only gradually, right along with John Ames).

We’ve met Lila before, in the first two novels, and she’s married to Ames at the beginning of Lila, but how she’s come to be the pastor’s wife—after wandering into a church service to “get out of the rain”—becomes apparent only gradually throughout the book.

What I find fascinating is how Robinson, in the figure of Lila, helps me understand the sometimes maddening logic of those who act out of deep hurt. We know them. (Maybe, we are them.) We love them and only wish we could understand them better. These are those who come to our congregations seeking to be anonymous. Serve them, care for them, draw them to the center, and they bolt and are gone. Lila helps us understand why.

Lila’s early life, only a vague shadow of memory to her, involved a dysfunctional family of birth that ostracized her by leaving her on the family porch, for days on end. During one of these periods of rejection, she’s snatched up by Doll, a member of a wandering, hobo community. Doll is a strong, maternal figure who takes Lila to herself like a chick to a mother hen and comes to represent to Lila everything solid and real Lila will search for the rest of her life. Later in the novel, Lila describes the Doll “feeling”,

She wanted to rest her head on a bosom more Doll than Doll herself, to feel trust rise up in her like that sweet old surprise of being carried off in strong arms, wrapped in a gentleness warn all soft and perfect

Lila eventually finds herself alone after Doll commits murder with a “wicked, old knife” that Lila inherits and keeps under skirt. After a coterie of odd jobs over many years, Lila runs and comes to live in an abandoned shack outside the town of Gilead. There, in the lengthening shadows of the twilight each evening, Lila copies biblical passages from a Bible she’s stolen in her travels. Her favorite passage she finds in Ezekiel where Israel is described as an abandoned child the Lord has taken in, Then washed I thee with water; yea, I thoroughly washed away thy blood from thee, and I anointed thee with oil.

Lila wants to be that baby. And, when she meets John Ames, she does, so to speak. To that point the only constant in Lila’s life has been running. And, even after Lila meets, marries, and comes to learn that she is expecting Ames’ child, Lila is planning to, all of a sudden, walk out the front door. Her maddening logic takes on a kind of sense as Robinson narrates Lila’s personal history, right up to the critical moment when Lila, having just been baptized by Pastor Ames, reveals to Ames what has been forgiven by God,

“I worked in a whorehouse in St. Louis. A whorehouse. You probably don’t even know what that is. Oh! Why did I say that.” She stepped away from him, and he gathered her back and pressed her head against his shoulder. He said, “Lila Dahl, I just washed you in the waters of regeneration. As far as I’m concerned, you’re a newborn babe. And yes, I do know what a whorehouse is. Though not from personal experience. You’re making sure you can trust me, which is wise. Much better for both of us” (89-90).

And Lila does grow in trust. But, like all of us in life, she’s not completely healed this side of eternity. Even late in the book, newborn baby at her breast, Lila reflects on that residual tension from her former self,

The problem is, she thought, that if someday she opened the front door and there, where the flower gardens and the fence and the gate ought to be, was the old life, the raggedy meadows and pastures and the cornfields and the orchards, she might just set the child on her hip and walk out into it, the buzz and the smell and the damp of it, the breath of it like her own breath, her own sweat. Stepping back into the loneliness, a dreadful thing, like walking into cold water, waiting for the numbness to set in that was the body taking the care it could, so that what you knew you didn’t have to feel (256).

Books like Lila change our mental maps. We could read an instruction manual on how to love those struggling with deep hurt, and it might say “be kind, be patient; don’t judge, listen.” Or, we could read Marilynne Robinson and see our imaginations formed through the character of John Ames as he, haltingly and with uncertainty, loves Lila like Christ loves the church (Ephesians 5.25).

I recommend Lila with a caution. This is literature! You’ll need cold weather, hot drinks, a fire and lots of time to nibble through Robinson’s book. Discuss it with me, if you do. And, enjoy it …

I’ve returned my copy. Why don’t those of you in the area order it in through your Westboro Public Library?

Have a great read, and a great week!

Young people love liturgy, it would seem …

Here’s my quick and cursory contribution to church life in America, on this Monday morning in late 2018.

Yesterday proved a glorious Lord’s Day at Woodland, our dynamic and somewhat quirky little church in the snowy Northwoods of Wisconsin. (By this I mean that we have a church family of nearly 200 souls in a mostly disappeared rural town of 169. By 21st century church growth standards, that’s quirky, fantastical even.) In our rotation of (what is it?) seven worship teams, Scott was “up” leading with classic hymns. Gary played the organ. We dedicated little Eira Kay, looking pristine and classic in her flowing dedication dress made from her mother’s wedding dress. The elders laid hands on Dan, who  this morning is undergoing cancer surgery. The platform was dedicated in a sylvan scene with white lights and long candles, anticipating advent. The whole morning had a touch of formality; liturgy, even. (By dropping the “l” word here, I mean that the worshipping work of the people toward God took on form. That’s what the word means, anyway.) But, there was nothing fusty or traditional about it. This service moved and breathed!

Here’s my big observation, though: We had young people. Oh, my goodness, did we have young people! Young families and singles in their 20s and 30s, the so-called Millennials. (Sorry, don’t want to lump you all in together.) The young people observation wasn’t mine alone. Visitors from Chicago couldn’t believe it. “What have you got here?” What’s going on?” I was asked, in wonder and disbelief.

So, here’s my heuristic guess, my working thesis about liturgy and our newest, rising generation of church leaders. It kinda blows smoke in the faces of consultants and church growth “experts” writing and working for the so-called Boomers, the parents of the rising generation we’re seeing at Woodland.

Young people love liturgy. 

Really … In contrast to the post-institutionalism of their parents, young people want to belong to something. They like baby dedications where parents and congregation pledge in turn to preach the gospel to the growing child, to bring the child up in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to share the joyfully light load of teaching and discipling and including the child in the form of worship to God that is our liturgy. And, it would seem, young people delight in reaching back to past forms of worship that go deep and strong back to the roots of our faith in the early church that gave primary witness to Jesus and to the events of the Gospel.

That doesn’t sound like come-as-you-are, feel-good stuff to me. That sounds like material for come-and-be-changed. I like it, and I think others do to!

So, those are my thoughts before I get into the matter of the week. I’m excited about where we’re going at Woodland, and about the worship I’m sharing with my (slightly!) younger friends.

Why don’t you scroll to the bottom of this page and toss up a comment on what you’ve observed about our younger people and worship. Do you see what I’m seeing?

Have a great week!

Do His Thing!

You haven’t seen me much on Facebook, have you? I lurk there a bit to see what I ought to know people are doing, but I won’t show you my lunch or make you jealous with pictures of my vacation. Still, I have my show-and-tells, and sometimes  a story has to be shared …

My staycation last week yielded a wonderful artefact of purposeful image-bearing in the shape and form of my authentic Westboro, barn wood and plumbing-flange shelves. (Special thanks to Dick and Viv Angelo for the raw material!) I don’t think I’m boasting here, except on God, but there’s some inventiveness going on here. Barn wood comes in the shape(s) it comes off the barn in. So, the only standard dimensions are unique ones. Plumbing flanges and nipples make the perfect mount, because they can be mixed and switched out individually to fit irregular lengths and depths.

Here’s where things spin off into theology. All this is like what God does. In the work of redemption, God takes all our irregular dimensions, and He adapts us, fits us, and repurposes us for His uses.

Reclaiming us is His Thing!

But, there’s more. Genesis 1.27-28 describes humankind’s creation in God’s image. Then, we’re told that God’s blessing carried the mandate to “be fruitful … multiply … fill the earth … subdue [the earth] … and have dominion …” Significantly, that’s basically what God had just done in the work of creation. So, our first purpose is to imitate God in His creative work. Imitating God in creation and doing good work in Christ is much of what we’re reclaimed by God to do.

Bearing God’s image in creation in imitation of God is our Thing!

Seg back to my shelves. There’s satisfaction here, because such inventiveness (the Latin root means “to discover”) involves careful planning, repurposing, adapting for new and good work, and filling (my house, in this case) with purposeful, creative design.

A woodworking craftsman could have built better shelves. But, anybody, working by faith in Christ, can connect his thing to God’s thing. And, there’s enormous satisfaction in that. It’s worth a staycation even.

How about you? What purposeful work are you doing this summer, or planning to do this fall? How does this work reflect our first purpose of bearing God’s image? How does it reflect God’s further work of reclaiming us in Christ?

Why not hit the comment link and share your thoughts for the good of everybody?

Have a great weekend. And find joy in doing His thing!

Watch it, slow …

Youth baseball has ended in the Northwoods, at least for now. But before we pack the gloves and balls away in the sports tub for the year, I have a thought, and it has something to do with the pleasant month of August.

There’s a saying in baseball (at least they used in say it to me) that when you’re batting you’re supposed to “Watch the ball come in, slow.” So, you anticipate the pitch, and see it (laces and spin and all) as though it were in slow motion. It doesn’t make a world of sense, really. The ball moves just as fast as if you’re not really “seeing it,” but, somehow, getting your mind around the spinning pitch this way can turn a batter into a hitter.

August is a month of goodness. Still, it spins toward us just as fast as any other month—and maybe a little faster, what with everybody breathlessly trying to slip in an eleventh-hour vacation, while getting nervous already and trying not to think about everything rushing toward us in the fall. But, it’s a month with an opportunity.

It’s an opportunity to consider our God, the Father of all goodness. And, to “Watch it, slow” … 

How precious is your steadfast love, O God! The children of mankind take refuge in the shadow of your wings. 

They feast on the abundance of your house, and you give them drink from the river of your delights.

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light do we see light (Psalm 36.7-9, ESV).

Do we believe, in this month of goodness, that God is really the source of all goodness? If we do, and press ourselves to see the month of August in this light, I bet we’ll each take some time to ponder a bit—to sit in that lawn chair for an extra ten minutes, to putter in the garden an extra hour, and consciously give praise and thanks to our God of goodness.

We’ll take the time to “Watch it, slow”.

Every Careless Word …

It’s quiet in the chicken house, for once. And that seems strange, because each morning for the better part of a year I’ve started my morning with Pepper, the Barred Rock rooster.

Pepper was an accident, as people sometimes say. A year ago when we picked up our box of peeps at the post office, we’d hoped for all “layers”. But something was different about Pepper. As spring turned to summer and our chicks grew, Pepper found (her?)self often rejected by the other girls and would wander off alone. When Pepper didn’t lay an egg and finally threw back his head and crowed like a lonely adolescent boy, we knew we had a rooster.

Pepper had his moments. In the fall when Grandma Katie’s Yorkie dog, Penny, escaped to pursue Sabel, everybody’s favorite Red Star hen, Pepper gave chase. It was a good picture—Sabel out front, Penny close behind, Pepper in hot pursuit of the dog, and eight-year-old Henry, coming up behind with Coco, the Toy Australian Shepherd on a leash. A lap around the house, through the garden and the woodpiles and Penny caught Sabel, but couldn’t execute the kill before Pepper was there to rescue.

Pepper won points that day, but there was another day. It was the day early this spring when Pepper got proud. He lost sight of who he was, a lowly chicken, after all. His day and night (by now) crowing came to mean, we understood, that he believed he could chase anybody he chose. As Pepper grew proud he began to jump on the hands, and bodies, of those who fed him. Jack and Henry grew afraid to approach the chicken house. Amanda slipped and fell once while fending him off. Then, Pepper came after me. Carrying a load of wood, I caught sight of him coming, lost my balance while spinning to address him, and then, under the weight of the crashing wood, landed in a bed of snow and mud. I fought him off with a six-inch stump of wood that had been broken in two as I’d swung it at the dandered-up rooster. I knew right then we’d reached the point of judgment.

After that—while Pepper crowed, staking his claim to the chicken house, the yard, and everything and everybody else—he was being discussed. We’d sit at the dinner table talking about Pepper. He might have even come up in our family prayers. He appeared in to-do lists: “deal with Pepper”. The universe, and Pepper’s responsibility in it, turned out to be a lot bigger than Pepper ever accounted for.

Then, two Saturdays ago, I took Pepper to a neighbor’s farm and, well—as farmers say—”moved Pepper on”.

There’s a moral lesson in all this. In Matthew 12.36-37, Jesus says, I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned (ESV).

Those are striking words. They mean that there’s coming a day when each of us will have a conversation with God about His evaluation of our lives. In the context of Matthew 12, the religious leaders of Jesus’ day had just stamped their judgment on Jesus: “Jesus isn’t from God, not worth listening to … from Satan, even.” This they crowed out in their own little chicken house while God the Father waited at the family dinner table, taking notice.

And so it is for us. God’s evaluation of our lives will be solely about how we’ve responded to Jesus. Did we ignore Him or abuse Him, starting in our actions, moving to our casual speech, extending to our thoughts even? Romans 2.16, speaking of those who don’t even have God’s law in the Bible, indicates the scope of God’s evaluation of our lives: … their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them, on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.

Every bit of our lives (actions, words, thoughts) will be used as evidence of what we’ve made of Jesus. Sobering, isn’t it? … But even that isn’t the point.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1)

That’s the point, and the Goods News! What redemption there isn’t for a rooster gone bad, there is for us. My actions, words and thoughts will be taken into account, but they’ll be covered by Christ’s work. And that I receive by faith. That’s the Gospel!

So, while the kids enjoy the chicken house now turned hen house, and while I wake up under my own power and listen to the morning quiet, these moments of  tranquility become their own pictures of my peace in Christ.

And that is truly a thought to wake up to!

 

“Taking advantage of every opportunity …”

White out!

And, just like that, the preparation of a week is buried in what, by tonight, will be several feet of Northwoods April snow.

This is a first for me. I’d thought, if ever church were snowed out, that I might be relieved to rest, to have a spare message in the hip pocket. But, I’m not. I’m disappointed! Sunday morning is the high point of the week. And, this week, we hoped to follow the momentum of last week’s baptism. This week we were looking forward to hearing Liz and Paul Bowman, here from Spain. This week, Tim and the worship team were ready; the slides were all done. Both Bryn and Lauren’s moms were here from Iowa to celebrate Lauren’s baby shower, rescheduled for the second time … White out!

But then, this morning as I was skiing the two miles down the Pine Line to check in at the building to intercept any who didn’t get the cancellation message, a line from the morning’s message crossed my mind: Look carefully then how you walk … making the best use of the time … (ESV). Or, as a looser translation might say, “taking advantage of every opportunity.”

Now, here is an opportunity, this April white out. I thought of how, just an hour before, Amanda and I had (maybe for the first time ever in our married lives) made coffee, sat in bed on a Sunday morning and talked about what God has for us in the next season of our lives. Been looking for a chance to have that conversation, haven’t we, Dearie?  I thought of other married couples at Woodland who might have benefited from the same break in the routine.

Then we arrived. (Katja and Henry came up behind on snow shoes). We weren’t alone. A couple elders and a few others joined us. We made a circle, right where all the singing and sharing and teaching would have been, and we, well, made the most of the opportunity. We let our minds run over how God is the one doing the work at Woodland. While we pressed ourselves to prepare our parts for a service that was not to happen, God spent the week preparing a snow storm, so we’d have opportunity to “take advantage of the opportunity,” to pray for our Woodland church family, to have those over-due conversations, to rest even.

God is about 10,000 things at Woodland, isn’t He? We’ll take advantage of every opportunity, but let Him do the work.

And then, this coming week, we’ll go right down into the crisis of the week (there’s always one, you know), and we’ll trust Him to draw us together on Sunday, once again and as next week’s very own work of grace.

Spring, … “around the edges”

Karen said it, said it to Amanda, who brought word back to me: “In the Northwoods, spring comes, but you have to look for it around the edges.”

Poetic, we thought, so poetic we had to pause and think about what it means. When much of the country has been in flip-flops for weeks now, we burn our woodpiles in single-digit nights and wait for the sap to thaw; so we can make our syrup, of course.

But, spring comes. What had only to be believed before can now be seen. Living things warm with the life within. Snow recedes from trunks of trees. Drips of sap tremble at the tips of the taps, and then drop—perhaps once each minute—into waiting buckets. Groves of pines now reveal their harvest of needles, dropped in a former season. The life, always there to be believed, grows to be seen.

Psalm 27 contains a favorite refrain of mine: I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living (:13, ESV)

“The land of the living.” That’s where God lives. And, the psalmist (take a look at earlier verses) had to believe that despite “evildoers” and “adversaries” God’s goodness was there, and he, the psalmist, would one day live in God’s land.

That’s a comfort, in all of life. While our lives slip from us, God’s goodness, always there, always to be believed, grows to be seen.

Where do you see God’s goodness? If you’re with us in the Northwoods, let our spring that thaws its way in from “around the edges” remind you of God’s goodness: Wait for the LORD; be strong, let your hearts take courage; wait for the LORD! (:14).

So, believe what you see, around the edges. And have a good week …

 

 

Thru the Bible in … a bit longer than a year!

It’s that time to begin again. There’ll be lots of talk in the next few days about New Year’s resolutions. Then, after a week, or so, you’ll not hear much about these fresh starts, did you ever notice?

While I’m not much for New Year’s resolutions, I do like to start new things.

Here’s one … Last year I discovered the 5 Day Bible Reading Program, put out by Lower Lights and available at www.BibleClassMaterial.com. (Since they encourage us to reproduce the plans, everybody attending Woodland will receive one in her bulletin).

This is the Bible reading plan I’ve always wanted. Basically, the entirely of the Old and New Testaments are broken into five readings per week for 52 weeks. There’s little bubbles, so obsessive types like me can ink in the circles at completion of each day’s reading. When an entire week’s reading is complete, there’s another column to record the date when that week’s reading was finished.

Important for me, I’ve found, is that you keep pressing forward. Don’t go back to read material you’ve missed! Save that for the next year. So, now at the beginning of 2018, I see that I competed the first three weeks of January in 2017, but then, “Ah, oh,” I got behind. No worries. I’ll just start on the fourth week of January in 2018, and try to keep ahead. If not, no worries again. I’ll just pick it up in 2019. The idea is to keep moving through the material.

Another important idea: when I come to hard-to-read, arcane writings, I need to move quickly and not get bogged down. I’ll recognize all those genealogies and codified lists of rules, but I’ll read for the big picture. Scan even, sometimes. This is Bible reading, not detailed exegesis. If ever I teach through Leviticus, that will be a different matter. For Bible reading, I want to keep going.

So, there’s your picture of me in the winter months … Early mornings in my basement, favorite chair in front of my Woodchuk stove, coffee in my blue mug (reminds of the winter sky), and with my ESV and 5 Day Bible Reading Program.

Why don’t you grab your own reading program at the site above? Join me, and let me know how you’re doing, after all those resolutions have faded away.