Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Blogging Around

My latest blogs have been at http://godcenteredchristian.blogspot.com, including my latest one on gambling in Washington, Illinois.

I plan on continuing to use this blog, but in some different ways.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

New BFC Blog

This week, the new blog I'm doing with the other senior pastors from the Bethany Fellowship churches (plus Scott Boerckel from East White Oak Bible Church, who we try to claim as a BFC pastor whether he likes it or not) goes live.  My weekly update this week can be found at God Centered Christian beginning Wednesday morning.  I'm looking forward to seeing how God uses this project for His glory.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Puddleglum Wisdom

This morning, I received a mass email sent out by President Obama’s campaign manager.  As I read it, I found myself wishing that I could get excited about a second Obama term.  The president seems like a good husband and father and a decent human being.  On a personal level, I like him.  I want him to do well and I want good things to happen to him. 

As I continued reading the email, I saw a phrase that has been frequently used by the Obama campaign that filled me with sadness and reminded me why I could never support his candidacy.  The email warned that Obama’s opponent had a horrible record when it came to “women’s issues.”  In this election cycle, that phrase has come to be synonymous with abortion.  It meant that this president remains committed to—in the name of choice—supporting some of the most aggressively pro-abortion policies this nation has ever seen.

The idea that being pro-life is synonymous with being anti-woman is bizarre.  And yet, in this strange world we live in, many take it as fact.

As I read the email, I was reminded of a scene from The Silver Chair.  It is toward the end of the book and the children and their guide named Puddleglum have traveled deep beneath the earth.  The wicked Queen of Underland has captured them.  Lighting an enchanted fire, she attempts to convince the children that there is no world above them and no Narnia.    

What she say seems right.  Denying reality and embracing a lie seems so enticing.  But just as it seems the children will fall for her fiction, Puddleglum bravely stamps out the fire with his own foot.  Then gives the following speech:
“One word, Ma’am,” he said, coming back from the fire; limping because of the pain. “One word. All you’ve been saying is quite right, I shouldn’t wonder. I’m a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won’t deny any of what you said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things – trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world that makes you real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we’re leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for the Overland.
It can be discouraging to live in a world where up is down, right is left and black is…aqua blue.  Puddleglum reminds us in our darkest moments—when real seems fiction and fiction seems so plausible—that we must continue to hold fast to the things of which we've become convinced.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Responding to Dr. Smolin’s “Of Orphans and Adoption” (Part 2)

Here is the second part of my blog posts responding to Dr. Smolin's article "Of Orphans and Adoption."  Part 1 of my article may be found here.  Dr. Smolin's article may be found here.

Fifth, Smolin notes that the Christian adoption movement diminishes the significance of the birth family.

Smolin argues: “The Christian adoption movement and the adoption movement more broadly, tends to diminish the significance of natural family ties in a highly selective, self-serving manner (32).  This is an issue I have wrestled with and will continue to consider.  There are competing Biblical principles that come into play when it comes to how to address the relationships between the adopted child and her birth family and the adopted child and her new family.  These principles require wisdom in rightly applying God’s Word.

Sixth, the article suffers from a lack of direct quotations.

I respect that Smolin has a difficult task ahead of him.  I certainly do not have a handle on all the nuances of the evangelical orphan care movement.  Far too often, however, Smolin makes bold assertions about the evangelical orphan care movement without providing direct quotations.  Furthermore, the citations he offers do not reference specific pages but often entire chapters.

Consider this paragraph, in which my book is cited in a footnote:
In its strongest form, proponents of the adoption and orphan care movement perceive adoption as the essential and primary way of understanding the Christian’s relationship to God, and hence as essential and primary way of understanding the Christian’s relationship to God, and hence as essential and primary to the communication and practices of the gospel.  Indeed, all scriptural passages about the relationship of God’s people to God are read through the lens of adoption (3). 
The citation refers the reader to pages 67-81 of my book.  To establish that we read “all scriptural passages about the relationship of God’s people” necessitates more specific citations.    

Seventh, the evangelical orphan care movement is not monolithic.

Again, I appreciate the difficulty of the task before him.  Smolin has done his research and captures the essential unity among the four books cited most frequently. 

However, the movement is not as monolithic as it is presumed to be in the article.  For instance, Smolin seems to implicate the orphan care movement as a whole when he notes that Dr. Moore “emphasizes the lack of significance, to his internationally adopted children, of their original names, language, culture, nation, and (implicitly) family” (30).  Smolin is referring to Dr. Moore’s convictions regarding his sons’ new identity as members of his family and how those convictions will play out in practice. 

Our daughter was born in Guatemala and, even though she is a full member of our family, I don’t believe her adoption into our family obliterates her Guatemalan roots.  We will choose to continue to celebrate her ethnic heritage.  Our family will change as a result.

In other words, even though I would consider myself in the same “camp” as Moore (his signature appears twice on the diploma in my office), it doesn’t mean we are in agreement over the right way to apply every biblical principle when it comes to adoption.

This is a minor example but I think illustrates that making broad statements about the “movement” can be dangerous and unfair.

Eighth, Smolin fails to interact with or understand the nuances of my argument.

It may be unfair of me to criticize him on this account.  My book is by far the least influential cited and, quite frankly, I was surprised to see it included.  However, because my book was included, it would have been nice to see some of my arguments addressed.

First, my call to engage in orphan care ministry begins with worship.  Second, the focus of my book is not an exhortation to adopt but an exhortation to compassionate care of orphans.  Third, this compassion is not based primarily upon our adoption (though I think there are important points to glean from that theological truth) but is based upon a passion for God and His glory. 

The layout of my chapters is instructive.  The book begins with the uniqueness of Christian orphan care.  Chapter 2 then deals with the theme of compassion, the disenfranchised and how the orphan falls into the category of the disenfranchised.  This means that my argument to care for the orphan is rooted in an argument to demonstrate compassion to all disenfranchised for God’s glory.

As I mentioned before, I think Smolin cites my second chapter, but I’m not certain.  If so, it is only once.  It seems that he mostly focuses on chapter 4, “A Theology of Adoption.”  When he cites it, he only refers to the page numbers, not the actual arguments.  He lumps the chapter in with other theologies of adoption that he says draw a 1-for-1 parallel between earthly and heavenly adoption. 

But I was very careful not to do that.  The chapter addresses our adoption by God the father and makes application not to just adoption of children but how our adoption by God impacts our entire orphan ministry.

I believe this failure causes Smolin to see me and others in the evangelical orphan care movement as “foes” where there are instead potential allies in some significant areas.  For instance, he argues that the orphan care movement’s “distorted teaching on adoption and orphan care causes the church to minimize or pass over the primary Biblical call in relationship to ‘widows and orphans’ and the ‘fatherless,’ leading to practices that exploit the very persons the Bible has called Christians to assist” (5).  This is key point I attempt to make in chapter 2.

Another  example of his missing a point of significant agreement should suffice.  Smolin argues that “both Christians and secular sources promoting adoption commonly claim that there are more than 100 million orphans in the world, a staggering figure indicating a virtually limitless need for adoption” (3).  This exaggeration has serious consequences:

 Putting together the Biblical call to orphan care, the understanding of adoption as a living representation and proclamation of the gospel, and the nearly endless need for adoptive parents to provide homes for well over 100 million orphans, the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement proclaims a call for virtually all Christians to be involved in adoption (3).

But that’s very similar to an argument I make.  Here's a quote from my book: 
There are several seemingly contradictory estimates regarding the number of orphans worldwide. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that there are currently over 132 million orphaned children. A few words, however, should be said about UNICEF’s orphan estimates. UNICEF defines an orphan as “a child who has lost one or both parents.” This would mean that a child who still has a surviving parent, or is living with his or her grandparents or other extended relatives would still be considered an orphan.
 If one were to define an orphan as a child who has lost both of his or her parents—a “double orphan”—UNICEF estimates that 13 million of the 132 million orphaned children fit that definition. Of these 13 million double orphans, a still smaller percentage are available for adoption.
 The church must help their people gain an understanding of how they can be involved in meeting the needs of all orphans, not just those who are “adoptable.” Most of the current resources being produced by the church are focused on adoption and not orphan care. Adoption is easier to understand than other forms of orphan care ministry, is sometimes less messy, and the stories are often more heartwarming.
 We certainly need resources to equip the church to engage in the ministry of adoption, but we must simultaneously realize that orphan care ministry is far bigger than we can imagine. UNICEF is right when it expresses concern that too narrowly defining who is an orphan may “lead to responses that focus on providing care for individual children rather than supporting the families and communities that care for orphans and are in need of support.” In other words, the church needs to understand that the needs of orphans in the world cannot simply be met by adopting children—though that is an important component. The church must understand that there is an overwhelming need to which Christ’s church has an opportunity to respond (22-23).
 Ninth, Smolin presents those who wish to care for orphans with false dichotomies.

Earlier, I noted my agreement with Smolin that the evangelical orphan care movement must reassess its commitment to caring for families in impoverished nations.  But he sometimes presents us with a false choice: either exploit children by taking them out of the homes of poor people or focus our efforts on humanitarian efforts within their family unit.

I believe this cannot be an either/or scenario.  There is a real and immediate need to provide families for children who have no hope of being reunited with their families.  At the same time, I have told parents who adopt that I believe they have a moral responsibility to work to alleviate the conditions that caused their children to be available to adopt.  Our family sponsors children and their families in Guatemala so that others will not have to endure the tragedy our daughter and her birth family have had to experience.  The sponsorship is both physical and spiritual in nature.

To be fair, Smolin acknowledges that sometimes adoption is the best option (30), but just as he feels that the orphan care movement fails to adequately acknowledge the need to address systemic problems in the adoption process, I would argue he fails to adequately focus on the positive aspects of adoption and how it is the best option for millions of children.

Tenth, he oversimplifies the Greco-Roman first-century adoption process.

Smolin believes we misunderstand adoption language in Scripture and read U.S. adoption law back into Scripture.  He maintains that our failure to understand first-century adoption leads us to theologically erroneous conclusions.  A few points to consider.

A.     There is evidence that the adoption process was more diverse than Smolin would have us believe.

Smolin contends:
This vision of adoption as central to the church presupposes a certain form and image of adoption as both the referent to our vertical adoption by God, and also as the kind of practice of horizontal adoption to which Christians and the church are called. . . .  [F]rom a legal perspective the Christian adoption movement presumes the kind of adoption which exists in the United States, which in comparative law terms is called full adoption” (4).
The degree to which the Christian adoption movement presumes this can be disputed, but it should be noted that U.S. adoption law is based on Roman law.  In 530 A.D., Emperor Justinian codified existing adoption laws.  This codified law was influential in establishing aspects of U.S. adoption law (http://www.adopting.org/uni/frame.php?url=http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/535institutes.html#XI.%20Adoption.)

B.      Adoption was a means in ancient societies to care for children in need.

Smolin argues: “When Paul’s audience heard his references to adoption, they would have had in their minds young adult males who became emperors, or who otherwise moved upward in Roman society, through adoption” (15).

And elsewhere:
For purposes of this essay, a fundamental point is that neither Roman nor Greek adoption was focused on the adoption of child orphans.  Adoption generally had nothing to do with providing for the weak, the poor, dependents, or children.  Adoption took young adult males who generally had families and a position in society, and gave them a social promotion to a higher position in society through provision of a new legal identity… (17).
The inclusion of the word “generally” in the second sentence is important.  I would concede that adoption was not always, or even primarily in the Roman culture, about caring for orphans in the ancient world.  I would argue, however, that (1) adoption was more diverse that Smolin suggests (see above) and (2) there are other ancient examples of adoption being a means to care for children in need.

For instance, the ancient Code of Hammurabi speaks of the children of prostitutes being cared for through adoption.  It further admonishes that adopted children need to be grateful to their adoptive parents or their tongues should be cut off!

Eleventh, Smolin does not adequately address the theological implications of spiritual adoption.

Smolin may overemphasize the extent to which Paul was influenced by the Greco-Roman background.

As James Scott argues in his article on adoption in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, “Paul seems to be the first to use the term (huiothesia) in a theological context” (16).  Scott explores the possibility of that Paul’s concept of divine adoption was influenced by the Greco-Roman mystery religions but concludes “there is no evidence for divine adoption in the mysteries.”

Scott also considers the possibility of adoption as a legal metaphor, based upon Greco-Roman law and argues that “circumstantial evidence such as Paul’s Roman citizenship and the prevalence of Roman adoption in Paul’s day also fails to establish the case for a legal metaphor” (16).

His conclusion is that it is best to understand the concept of adoption from the Old Testament/Jewish background: “Despite frequent claims to the contrary. . . the concept of adoption—even divine adoption—was certainly known to the OT and Judaism” (16).

This is similar to the primary critique Dan Cruver of Together for Adoption levels against Smolin’s article.  In “The First Step in the Way Forward: A Response to David M. Smolin’s
“OfOrphans and Adoption,” Cruver writes:

The problem with Smolin’s interpretive approach is not so much in what he does, but in what he fails to do. When interpreting any section of Scripture, we must take into account both how the historical and cultural setting of each text(which Smolin does quite well) and how Scripture’s metanarrative of redemption inform our understanding of the text of Scripture (which Smolin, Lyall, and Burke do not do). Smolin’s failure to consider the redemptive-historical significance of adoption is the fatal flaw in his interpretation (2).

This lack of attention the redemptive-historical context of adoption causes Smolin to fail to rightly apply the doctrine of adoption.  Cruver concludes:

How should the climax of adoptive-history as told in Romans 8 inform our understanding of James 1:27 (“visit orphans and widows in their affliction’)? The story of the Bible is the story of God visiting us in our affliction, like he once visited Israel (Exo. 4:31), in order to deliver us from it. So, how should this play out with James 1:27? To visit orphans and widows in their affliction means that we work for orphan prevention through family reunification and preservation, and when reunification is not possible, we actively support indigenous adoption efforts. For some children, though, adoption becomes the way we “visit” them (5).

Twelfth, Smolin fails to appreciate the historical progressive application of the gospel in caring for orphans and adoption. 

Smolin needs to see the implications a changing cultural context has on how to apply Scripture’s teaching regarding the church, the orphan and adoption.  He gets close to making this argument himself, but doesn’t quite connect all the dots.

He notes that the lack of an orphan problem confronting the church was due to the size of the church and the Jewish culture.  First, concerning the culture he writes: “Presumably, the reasons for the lack of an ‘orphan’ problem in the New Testament church, was due first to the initial Jewish setting of the New Testament church” (25).

Second, as it relates to the size of the church and its interaction with the Roman world:

So far as appears from the New Testament, remedying the infanticide, abandonment, and the exposure of infants in the wider gentile world outside of the church was not a project of the church during the New Testament era.  The tiny size of the church during the New Testament era, its various crises of survival, unity, and persecution, and its position of political vulnerability and powerlessness, presumably medicated against any organized efforts to assist the comparatively vast numbers of infants victimized by the pagan practices of infanticide and exposure.  Those efforts would have to await another day (26).

But we no longer live within a Jewish culture.  And the size of the church has grown.  There are children in need.  Is not adoption an appropriate application of Biblical injunctions to care for children?  Is not adoption an appropriate application of the gospel to a culture with children who are not being cared for?  The church since its early stages has answered both of those questions affirmatively!

In essence, Smolin is engaged in an argument from silence.  There are many social issues that individual believers engaged in as they applied biblical principles.  It is indisputable that orphans in Scripture are cared for, sometimes through adoption by close relatives.  While it is interesting, as Smolin observes, that (1) the ethnic identity of individual orphans is sometimes maintained and (2) families bear a special responsibility to care for the children of near relatives, this has little bearing on the appropriateness of adoption for dealing with the orphan crises in our cultural context.


This response is far longer than I intended it to be.  No doubt there will continue to be dialogue on this important issue.  I’m grateful for Smolin’s call to call us to Scriptural fidelity.  As I read Cruver’s concluding thoughts, I don’t see an unbreachable chasm between Smolin and Cruver.  It may be that God uses Smolin’s article to ensure that the evangelical orphan care movement begins to proclaim more loudly things that it already believes, such as the need for orphan prevention and holistic orphan care.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Responding to Dr. Smolin’s “Of Orphans and Adoption” (Part 1)

The following is part 1 of 2 blog entries that deal with Dr. Smolin's article, "Of Orphans and Adoption."

Recently, I had the distinction of being mentioned in Dr. David Smolin’s article “Of Orphans and Adoption.”  My inclusion in the article was due to my book, A Passionfor the Fatherless, being cited several times throughout the article—and usually not in a good way! 

Nevertheless, I found the article instructive and encourage others to read it and think through Smolin’s argument.  The article may be found here.  

The primary purpose of Smolin’s article is “to demonstrate that the scriptural and theological analysis undergirding the evangelical adoption and orphan care movement is patently and seriously erroneous” (1).  His secondary purpose is to demonstrate that these errors have led to serious consequences in terms of the orphan care ministry.

In one of his first footnotes, Smolin refers to four books that serve as representatives of the evangelical orphan care movement: Adopted for Life by Russell Moore; Reclaiming Adoption by Dan Cruver; Orphanology by Tony Merida; and my own A Passion for the Fatherless.  Of those four books, mine is certainly the least well-known, so it was—in a weird way—an honor to be included with men I respect and some I have the privilege of calling friends.

At the conclusion of his article, Dr. Smolin offers an invitation for continued dialogue.  I have already corresponded with Dr. Smolin and told him I appreciate his critique.  In my correspondence with him, I have found him as good as his word.  He is cordial to those with whom he disagrees and enters into discussions with good faith.     

Here are some of my thoughts on Smolin’s article that may be helpful for continuing a dialogue:

First, Smolin rightly realizes that theology has practical consequences.

The impact of theology on our actions is a major concern of my ministry and book.  I appreciated that Smolin’s article is a theological argument.  He is concerned with dangerous currents within the pro-adoption movement and realizes that faulty theology may be to blame.

He contends that “the errors of scriptural and theological analysis have produced, and are producing, practices that in scriptural and Biblical terms would be called ‘sinful’ and in more secular language can be called exploitative” (1).

While I disagree with aspects of his contention regarding the extent of the scriptural and theological errors and the extent of the exploitative effects of the ministry,  Smolin and I are very close in terms of where the starting point of the discussion should be.  Furthermore, his desire to be faithful to the biblical evidence has certainly caused me to search the Scriptures more carefully in the days since reading his article.

Second, he rightly understands the need to care for the disenfranchised.

This is obviously an area of significant agreement.  Smolin cites my work at the conclusion of the following paragraph:

…God asserts his role as the protector and provider of this vulnerable family unit, and demands that His people, rather than exploiting the vulnerability of this family unit, imitate Him by protecting and providing for the widow and the fatherless (20).

I’m uncertain as to whether or not Smolin is citing me to indicate my agreement with this statement or to suggest that I disagree with it.  I’m also unsure why he cited pages 23-56 of my book.  I think he meant to cite pages 39-55.  So, while I may be wrong, I will assume he understands that I absolutely agree with this statement and the larger point he is making. 

Third, Smolin is right when he warns of the danger of confusing texts on caring for orphans with calls to adoption. 

Smolin argues that one of the fallacies of the evangelical orphan care movement is to see “adoption” injunctions in every text dealing with caring for orphans (e.g., 2).  He is correct to see this tendency.  While I would argue he overstates the discontinuity between adoption and caring for the orphan, his point deserves consideration.

I make a similar point in my book (e.g., 22-23; 195).  There is a reason I tried to make my book deal with orphan care ministry and not just adoption.  I’ve been concerned that churches have focused too much on adoption and not enough on holistic orphan care ministry.  Even though I’ve been vaguely aware of this danger, I certainly haven’t been able to articulate it as well—or as strongly—as Smolin. 

Fourth, he grapples with moral issues that must be addressed by the evangelical orphan care movement. 

Smolin offers a blistering critique of the evangelical orphan care ministry’s intercountry adoption focus. 

The intercountry adoption system routinely is willing to spend $20,000 to $40,000 on an intercountry adoption, while not being willing to spend even a few hundred dollars on the preservation of the original family.  Hence, taking away children from the poor is not considered a corrupt or illegal practice by the modern intercountry adoption movement, but instead is considered standard practice.  Intercountry adoption systems that offer family preservation assistance to avoid relinquishment due to poverty are, in developing nations, the exception rather than the rule.  The movement has yet to learn that taking away the children of the poor and vulnerable is neither a Christian nor a humanitarian act” (30, emphases added).
 Yes, Smolin verges on presenting a false dichotomy between adoption and family preservation and over generalizes, both of which I will address later.  But my stomach churned as I read these words because I fear Smolin is largely right.   This reality must be forcefully addressed by the evangelical community. 

Sometimes when I look at my adopted daughter, I mourn for her birth family.  It saddens me that her father will never get to experience the joy of being the dad of this amazing child.  The fact that she is not with her birth family means a tragedy has occurred.

Next blog will look more closely at areas of disagreement with Dr. Smolin's article.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Teaching Compassion

I want my children to know and love God and one of the indications that someone loves God is that they are compassionate.  Therefore, creating hearts of compassion in my children is vital for their spiritual health.  I recognize that my children face the danger of living in an affluent society that can lull them into complacency.  Surrounded by "stuff," instead of developing hearts that love others, they—and I!—may become indifferent to suffering.

In Isaiah 58, the Lord criticizes His people for merely going through the motions of worship.  The fast that God would have His people participate in is a fast grounded in compassion “to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?  Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?” (vv. 6-7).

At my second session at the conference on Friday, I shared some suggestions for parents to help their children develop hearts of compassion.  Here are four of those suggestions.

1.      Teach your children the gospel, not legalism.

Having a heart of compassion begins by understanding the gospel.  It is God’s compassion towards us that gives us hope of a relationship with Him.  Those who do not have compassion are like the wicked slave who was forgiven a great debt but unwilling to exhibit the same grace to a fellow slave (Matt. 18:21-35).  True compassion flows out of understanding the gospel, not out of obeying legalistic decrees.

2.      Give your children a passion for God.

A passion for God is the only thing that can replace a love for this world and awaken us to the needs of others.  The essence of God’s compassion is found in Isaiah 61:1-3.
The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn; to grant to those who mourn in Zion— to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit; that they may be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified.
God’s compassion is fueled by His passion for His own glory.  Our passion must have a similar motivation.

3.      Give sacrificially and train them to give sacrificially.

Since the Great Recession, the prophets of choice among many evangelicals have been financial counselors who advocate austere living in order to get out of debt and amass a comfortable level of savings.

While I think many of their principles are sound, I fear that we have traded one idol for another.  We have traded the idol of profligate spending for the idol of hard-hearted saving.  We still love material possessions.  We've just decided that saving is the best way to acquire those things.

The Macedonians had a different financial philosophy.  Notice what Paul says about their giving:
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.  For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord (2 Cor. 8:1-3).
I'm not sure how wise such giving is from the perspective of many Christian financial counselors.  But, as hard as such counsel is, my advice is to be a “Macedonian giver” and let your children learn how to give similarly.  Give not out of your wealth but even out of your extreme poverty.

4.      Immerse your children in the culture of need.

It can sometimes be hard to understand the needs of others.  The gospel calls us to enter into the world of the needy. 
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’  And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me’ (Matt. 25:34-40).
 It can be hard to enter the world of the suffering.  A good parent helps her child begin to understand and relate to that world.  To respond with compassion, your children must be exposed to needs.  Let them volunteer at the local food pantry or pregnancy center.  Visit people from your church who are in the nursing home or hospital. 

Our children are already immersed in a culture of wealth.  They need to understand that the world God calls them to minister to is a world that is hurting.  If our children do not manifest a love for the world, it is doubtful that they truly have a love for God.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Idolatrous Homeschooling

This Friday, I have the privilege of leading two workshops at the APACHE homeschooling conference.  One of my talks is entitled "The Idol of Family."  While Whitney and I have enjoyed our years of homeschooling very much, the homeschooling lifestyle can easily cause my heart to begin to create an idol out of my family.  Homeschoolers face some unique temptations to idolize the family because of decisions they have made regarding the structure of their lives. 

Before I continue, a few caveats:

(1) What I'm saying is not an attack on homeschooling.  It's some "in-house" observations.  All decisions we make can lead to creating an idol of something. 

(2) The idol of family is not a problem exclusive to homeschoolers.  In some ways, I could just switch around some words and give this talk to Christian school parents or public school parents.  If our family went to Peoria Christian School, I'm sure I'd have some observations about the manifestation of idolatry in the hearts of private schoolers.  In the coming years, I'm sure my heart will be challenged as my kids attend public school and I'll have another talk or two about that. 

(3) Don't read between the lines too much.  I'm not trying to launch a veiled attack at anyone.  I'm not really a movement homeschooler and so although I'm aware there are homeschooling "camps" (or militias?), I'm not a member of any, nor do I understand all of the differences between them.  I may be saying some things that sound like an attack on some camps but, to the best of my knowledge, that would be unintentional.  (That being said, maybe the nerd picture is a little harsh...?)

(4) Loving one’s family is biblical.  The danger comes when I set my heart’s ultimate affection not upon God but upon the five other individuals who make up my immediate family.

In my talk Friday, I’ll be defining idolatry, briefly looking at the story of Hannah in 1 Samuel 1-2, then considering six signs you struggle with idolizing the family.  Here’s a rough overview of some of the things I plan to say about those six signs.
Six Signs You Struggle with Idolizing the Family

#1: You abuse your God-given parental authority.

Homeschooling parents, as they envision the type of children they would like to raise, can become confused regarding the nature, extent, and purpose of their authority.  This leads them to potentially abuse the authority God has given them.
The purpose of parental authority is not to impose our will upon someone else.  As Jesus said regarding the difference between our natural understanding of authority and God’s design for authority among believers:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:25-28).
The purpose of authority in Scripture is to serve.  Parents exercise spiritual authority not by conforming their children into caricatures of themselves but by helping them know and love the Lord Jesus Christ.

This doesn’t mean that biblical parental authority is devoid of decrees and dictums that are to be obeyed.  To the contrary, as biblical parental authority is properly exercised, children should be all the more careful to follow their parents' instructions exactly.  But the goal of exercising authority is radically different for the believer who wishes to avoid idolatry.  The parent is mindful of the biblical restraints placed upon his sphere of authority.  There should be a reluctance to go beyond that sphere or impose his will.

Homeschooling parents can struggle with the notion that their children will act in ways that are contrary to their preferences for their life.  Their idolatrous conception of what the ideal family looks like may drive them to exercise authority in realms where it is unwise to do so.
#2: You are motivated not by trust in God but by fear of man.

God calls us to trust in Him and believe in His good plan for us.  Making decisions regarding  your children’s schooling because you are fearful of people is idolatrous. 
This does not mean we should treat sinful influences in our children's lives lightly.  God has called you to be mindful of the environment you place your children.  If a family decides that the best school for their child for a period of time is in their home, that is wonderful.

Do not, however, be so fearful of the world’s power that you believe God is at its mercy.  A teacher does not have the power to turn your child into a communist or vegetarian.   God still sits enthroned in the heavens and laughs at the schemes of the rulers of the earth (Ps. 2:1-4).
#3: You respond sinfully when your goals for your family are not met.

Our reaction to disappointed dreams reveals what we really worship (James 4:1-10).  When our goals for our family—however noble—are frustrated, the response of our heart reveals whether we were worshipping God or an idol.
#4: You view your children as an end instead of a means.

Hannah desperately longed for a child.  But as 1 Samuel 1-2 makes clear, she did not view her precious child as the end goal.  Even the gift of a child was a means to worship God.
Your children are not the end goal.  Your children are yet another means God has given you to engage in worship of Him.

#5: You teach your children to have an unbiblical view of the family. 

The way many homeschoolers conceive the family is not how the Bible would understand family.  They rightly love the individuals who live in their home, but they are tempted to believe that their familial responsibilities are fulfilled by simply meeting the needs of the nuclear family. 
In Exegetical Fallacies, D. A. Carson addresses “semantic anachronisms.”  Carson writes: “This fallacy occurs when a late use of a word is read back into earlier literature” (33).  The way we center our lives around the nuclear family is a recent cultural phenomenon.  When we encounter the family in Scripture, we are sometimes guilty of the semantic anachronism of which Carson speaks, assuming that Scripture understands the family the same way we do in North America. 

It is important to teach children not to idolize the nuclear family.  Our family doesn’t exist simply to meet the needs of the individuals who live under our roof.  We seek to honor and care for our grandparents, cousins, aunts, uncles and the family of God.

#6: You teach your children to have an unbiblical view of the church.

The unbiblical view family leads to an unbiblical view of the church.  Homeschooling families can become so consumed with their nuclear family that they don’t have the energy or desire to engage in ministry in the local church. In some circumstances, families may even say that homeschooling is their ministry. 
But this attitude is harmful for both the church and the family.  It deprives the church of the vital spiritual gifts that the members of the family possess.  It hurts the family as they fail to experience the joy of serving others.


These are just some of my initial thoughts about what I plan to share Friday.  I reserve the right to make adjustments to this blog throughout the week so feel free to offer insight or suggestions!

Monday, April 2, 2012

Why It's Wrong to Win the Lottery

We drove back from Texas on Friday, March 30.  As is my habit on long car trips, I listened to the radio quite a bit.  The lead news story on every station from Dallas to Peoria was not the economy or the health care bill or the latest crisis in the middle east.  The story capturing everyone’s imagination was the lottery and the record-breaking prize drawing that was to be held in just a few hours.. 

I’ve written before about what I believe are the spiritual dangers of gambling (e.g., here and here).  Let me take a moment and share a few additional thoughts on the lottery.  As I told my kids Saturday evening, the problem with the lottery goes beyond being a poor use of money.  In other words, it’s not just wrong to lose the lottery—there are also problems with winning. 

These thoughts are not novel or original with me, but let me share five reasons why I believe it’s wrong to win the lottery.  And, of course, I understand that good folks disagree on this issue and I respect the right of believers to come to different conclusions.

1. When you win the lottery, you take advantage of the poor.

Even when you play the lottery, you are participating in a system that disproportionately affects the poor.  According to some estimates, the poor spend up to 9% of their income on the lottery.  Furthermore, the entire lottery system relies upon poor people, especially ethnic minorities, participating in it disproportionately (for examples, see here and here).

When you win the lottery, you are therefore enriching yourself off of the resources of the poor.  James warns us of the danger of defrauding the poor for our own gain (5:1-6).

2. When you win the lottery, your financial gain is not the fruit of your own labor.

As I sat down with my kids to talk to them about the lottery, I opened up the book of Proverbs.  It did not take long to find words of caution against the heart attitude behind the lottery.  Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.  A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.” Proverbs 28:19-20.

The believer should avoid attempts to procure material resources in a way contrary to those advocated by God.  Quick riches are not a healthy way to acquire financial gain.

3. When you win the lottery, you are tempted to not trust in God’s provision.

The prayer of Agur in Proverbs 30 is instructive: “Two things I ask of you; deny them not to me before I die: Remove far from me falsehood and lying; give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is needful for me, lest I be full and deny you and say, “Who is the Lord?” or lest I be poor and steal and profane the name of my God.” (30:7-9).

There is a temptation the rich person faces to fail to rely upon God and depend upon his provision.

4. When you win the lottery, you are tempted to love the things of this world.

In our North American culture, we often fail to understand the real danger love of this world presents. "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.  For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world" (1 John 2:15-16).

The danger of wealth to your soul is very real.  You cannot love both the world and God.

5. When you win the lottery, you may be given more money than you can handle.

The lottery bestows amounts of money that most believers are ill-equipped to deal with.  We believe that having riches is a “blessing” but Jesus describes it differently.  In the Sermon on the Plain, Jesus warns: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God…. But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation” (Luke 6:20b, 24).

I'll admit it.  As we were driving and listening to the radio, I thought about what it would be like to be worth a half-billion dollars, overnight.  But then we listened to the testimony of a man who had won the lottery.  Far from bringing him joy, it had brought him misery.  He wishes he had never won.  However...he had purchased a ticket for the current lottery!  Behold the deception of riches!

I've never talked with someone who had pursued God with their whole heart and then regretted it.  

Pursue Him, the pearl of great price and the true treasure.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Identifying Future Elders

On Sunday, I listened with joy as Kirk Hoffman and Mike Chambers shared their testimonies with our church.  They shared stories of God’s grace at work in their lives and I thanked God for the people He has placed in the body of believers at Bethany Community Church. 
Over the next few weeks, the members of our church are going to be evaluating and (I believe) affirming Kirk and Mike’s fitness for the office of elder. 
But what about future elders?  Are there other men in the church who fulfill the biblical requirements for the office of elder?  I believe so. 
Perhaps there are men you have observed in ministry whom you believe would do well shepherding the church.  As I introduced Kirk and Mike, I mentioned that one of the ways we identify elders is by people in the church recommending men to us.
So how can you know for sure whether or not a man is qualified for leadership?  What traits or attributes should we be looking for as a church in our leaders?  Or, put another way, what are some of the traits that should be true of a man who meets the biblical qualifications of an elder (e.g. 1 Tim 3:1-7; Titus 1:5-9)? 
Let me encourage you with some words from Thabiti M. Anyabwile’s Finding Faithful Elders and Deacons.  In a chapter entitled, “Desires a Noble Task,” Anyabwile notes four important traits to look for in a prospective elder:
1.      Take note of those men who regularly attend the church’s services and the church’s business meetings. 

2.      Note the men who already appear to be shepherding members of the church even though they don’t have the title “elder” or “pastor.”

3.      Note those men who show respect and trust in the existing leadership, who work to understand the directions pursued by leadership, who ask good and appropriate questions in appropriate settings, and who avoid creating confusion or dissension in public meetings.

4.      Be patient and note those men who evidence the desire [to be an elder] over time.
These suggestions are not exhaustive, but I think they provide some excellent examples of things that should be true in the life of a man who meets the biblical qualifications for eldership.  We do not put me into these roles hoping they become qualified.  We put them into these roles because we believe they have already demonstrated they are qualified.

Please continue to pray for God's direction and guidance for our church.


Monday, March 5, 2012

Cleaning Up My Files

Once again, the number of articles I had planned on blogging about has piled up beyond manageable levels. I'll be deleting some and putting others below...

Those of you who know how much I disdain the health-and-wealth prosperity gospel will have a pretty good idea how sad this article made me: Ka-ching-in-the-ka-church

Or this article: The Five Richest Pastors in Nigeria.

Articles like these make my heart resonate with this statement: "The Scriptures forbid charging for ministry . . . in any circumstance or situation. It is that black and white." To get the full context, click on the following link and prepare to be seriously challenged: "Peddling the Word of God for profit . . . should we be charging for ministry?" Nov, 2011.

A word of advice to future pastors, based on this article: War and Peace. Someday, there may be an opportunity to take a position at a church where a beloved founding pastor has just left.  Be careful.  There is a saying in pastoral circles: Never be the guy that replaces "The Guy."  Be the guy that replaces the guy that replaced "The Guy."

Fascinating article on "the marriage gap."  Asks the question: what are the economic consequences of choosing to marry or not marry?

You don't want to miss this.  The President and the Prophet: Obama's Unusual Encounter with Eric Metaxas.

Bonus link!!!  Links to multiple additional articles via freakonomics.

Have a great week!


Thursday, March 1, 2012

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Danger of Benevolence: Church vs. State

Caring for those in need is good, admirable, and biblical, but the Christian is also called to participate in discerning charity.  Some assistance produces results exactly opposite of what is desired.  For this reason, sometimes the Christian is called to not help someone in need (1 Tim 5:3-5; 2 Thess. 3:10).  

In his book What’s Wrong with Benevolence, David Stove warns that some types of benevolence harm rather than help.  While Stove doesn't write from a Christian perspective, I believe he makes some excellent observations about benevolence that echo biblical teaching.

Stove argues that by providing some types of assistance in certain circumstances, our benevolence actually causes harm. He gives three characteristics of “dangerous” benevolence.

The first characteristic of dangerous benevolence is universality.  Instead of targeting an individual in need, unhealthy benevolence “has for its object all present and future human beings.”  Most of the entitlement spending in our government is universal.  It is not designed to target needy individuals but rather large (voting) blocs.

A second feature of dangerous benevolence is disinterestedness.  As Stove puts it, when Karl Marx plans for “universal happiness, there is ‘nothing in it’…for Marx himself.  Whereas, of course, when a father plans his child’s happiness, or a teacher his pupil's, or a friends his friend’s, there is something in it, should the plan succeed, for the father, teacher or friend….”  

A politician or government entity has no relationship with the ones they are giving aid to.  What happens with the individuals who receive this money is of little concern to them on a personal level.  This, too, is a feature of much of the state-run benevolence structure currently in place.

The third aspect of dangerous benevolence is externality.  As Stove notes: “That is, it [dangerous benevolence] is proposed to bring about the happiness of others, not by changing them, but by changing their circumstances: by giving them money, for example, or better surroundings, or legal rights which they did not have before.”

This, too, is a dominant feature of the benevolence practiced by the state.  There is a belief that the difficulties that an individual faces are primarily caused and solved by lack of or access to financial resources.   

The benevolence characterized by these features produces a culture in which individuals are dependent upon the aid of others.  I think Stove is on to something here and it highlights why the church is such an effective means for practicing benevolence.

The benevolence the church practices is not universal.  God's call for the church is to meet the needs of the receptive disenfranchised. 

The benevolence the church practices is not disinterested.  The church deals with individuals with whom it has a vested interest in bringing in to the community of faith.  Within that community comes help that transcends the immediate physical needs.

The benevolence the church practices is not focused on externals.  The church seeks total life-transformation of those it helps.

The church should not be discouraged from its benevolence efforts by the state.  Rather, it should have renewed gospel-centered focus on continuing to meet the needs of the least of these for the glory of our Heavenly Father.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Orphan Care Bible Study

This Sunday, we begin our six-week orphan care Bible study.  We will be using my favorite book, A Passion for the Fatherless, by Daniel J. Bennett.  The study is not just for those who are considering adopting but for anyone who desires to think through how they can help our church care for the fatherless. 

As I was preparing for the study this week, I read an article by Dan Cruver, the director of Together for Adoption, that has implications for our ministry to orphans and others who are in need.  In “Caring for Orphans as the Exiles We Are,” Cruver writes: 
One of the challenges for Christians in the Western world is that we are often guilty of trying to dry up our profound “sense of exile” with the nonabsorbent paper towels of the incomplete joys of this world. That’s not to say that it is wrong for Christians to enjoy themselves in the here-and-now. God gives His children many good gifts to enjoy now with gratitude in our hearts. But our here-and-now enjoyment was never meant to be the way we deal with our deep ache of exile. When we deal with our “sense of exile” by using God’s good gifts to self-medicate, we’ll find ourselves moving away from the world’s most needy rather than to them. Self-medicating people are not easily mobilized for self-sacrificial service.
The reality is that all Christians are in exile, whether we recognize it or not. Eden has been lost. As a result, we are exiles in the here-and-now (1 Peter 1:1). The period of time in which we live as exiles is deeply marked by suffering, brokenness and unrest (Romans 8:18). The presence of 163,000,000 orphaned and vulnerable children in the world is irrefutable evidence of this very fact.
Cruver goes on to observe that the gospel provides the answer to the longing we feel as exiles.  “Only when we rest in what Jesus has already done to one day bring us back home (Romans 8:19-23) are we able to move toward our world’s most needy now.”

My hope is that our church continues to embrace “exile living.” A worldly discontentment seeks fulfillment in material things.  Godly discontentment finds hope in the gospel then proclaims that hope to others.  To think through how the gospel impacts our ministry to the fatherless, plan on joining me this Sunday at 9:00 A.M.