Friday, September 30, 2016

Never Marry Someone Who Hates Their Parents

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My footsteps, Cape May, New Jersey

A man came into my office. I did not know him. He was in his forties. He said:

"I was looking for someone like you to talk to. My father is in a coma in the hospital. I was just in his room. I put my hands around his neck, and squeezed. I was crying, and saying, "Why did you do it to me? Why? Why?" I wanted to kill him! Before that happened I took my hands off his neck and left. I hate my father. Can you help me?"

Yes. I'll try. There's a lot at stake here. This man will never amount to anything when it comes to relationships if he does not get this raging bitterness against his father fixed.

Until then, for the rest of us...

Never marry someone who hates their parents.

Pastors: Never hire someone who hates their parents.

Never covenant with someone who hates.

Because: their inability to forgive their parents will soon come down on you. You will become their new parent-figure. You will soon remind them of their father, or mother. You will hurt them in some familiar way (it won't take much), and their unhealed wrath will be triggered. You will displace their parents and become the hated one.

Psychologists call this "projection." Like a movie projector sends the internal image to an external blank screen, the unforgiving unconscious, looking for its release from the inner prison, projects its unresolved anger onto the external world, and the issue is suddenly seen in someone else. In this case, you.

How many times have I consoled a counselee by saying, "I know they are hurting you. But their hurt is not really about you." Hurt people hurt people.

Unhealed people project their stuff onto us, and conclude that their stuff really has to do with us. They treat us as if their projection was true. (See this article in Psychology Today, e.g.)

Pray for the parent-hating person's healing. Pray for their release, but don't live in their prison. This will only happen if they learn forgiveness from heart, and discover A Forgiving Life

My new book is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

The Rhythm of My Spiritual Life Is a Wheel Rolling Forward

When I became a follower of Jesus forty-six years ago I was an undergraduate at Northern Illinois University. I began to attend a campus ministry. I was asked if I wanted to be in a Small Group for Bible study and prayer. I was told this experience would be one of the keys to my spiritual vitality and growth.

That proved true. I've been in a Small Group all forty-six years of my Christian life. Linda and I have been in a Small Group Community all the forty-three years of our marriage.

The early Jesus-followers met in small groups of Jesus-followers; in homes, in upper rooms, wherever they could find a gathering place. Small Group Community was essential to the explosive spiritual and numerical growth of the early church. It's also essential to my spiritual life and growth.

The rhythm of my spiritual life looks like this:

I meet alone with God. I spend time with God in "the secret place." 
This is the Very Small Group (VSG) - God and I.

I meet weekly in a Home Group to study scripture and pray together. 
This is the Small Group (SG) - 6-12 people.

I meet Sunday mornings to worship and listen to the preached Word on Sunday mornings and other times.
This is the Large Group (LG)

Today it's Friday morning, and I have spent time alone with God in the VSG.

Two nights ago was the SG - Linda and I were there.

On Sunday morning I'll be with my LG.

VSG-SG-LG; VSG-SG-LG...  over and over again and again.

It looks like this:

Note: this is a circle rolling forward on a path, led by God, progressing in the spiritual life and the movement of God and his kingdom. (It is not "the eternal recurrence of the same.")

My new book especially focuses on the VSGPraying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Affirmation Is Not Equivalent to Love

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Sleeping Bear Dunes, Michigan

If I don't affirm all your beliefs it does not mean I can't love you. Loving someone does not mean affirming everything they do or believe in. If that was true, love would be nonexistent.

Take the statement: X is wrong, with X referring to, say, a behavior. Or a moral position.

Now imagine I say, "The statement X is wrong is true." That is, I believe it is true that X is wrong. It's wrong to do X, or hold to the moral position of X.

Next, imagine you believe the statement X is wrong is false. That is, you believe it is not true that X is wrong. It's right to do X, or right to hold to the moral position of X.

This means we disagree on the truth-value of the statement X is wrong. It means that you think I am wrong about this statement, and I believe that you are wrong about it. Make no mistake about it. This is about right/wrong, true/false. Statements are either T or F, without exception. (This does not mean we know which it is. For example, There are an even number of stars in the universe.)

You, therefore, cannot affirm me in my belief that X is wrong. I should not expect that you would. Why would I expect you to affirm something you thought false, or wrong? And I cannot affirm you in your belief about the particular state of affairs that X refers to. You should not expect that I would.

OK. This may cause us to vote differently. It may mean we go to different churches. It may mean that I go to church but you do not. It may mean I believe in God, but you don't. It may mean we have different beliefs about guns, or about fidelity in marriage, or about marriage.

Even though you think I am wrong, you should not force me to affirm something I do not believe in. Nor I, you. Anyway, coercion cannot produce belief. 

But at least one of us is mistaken about our belief. We cannot both be right. Ethical relativism will not work here. This is precisely why we disagree; viz., because we believe there is such a thing as rightness, and truth. This is why you are concerned to convince me that it is false that X is wrong. Maybe you are upset with me, angry with me. You think I ought to affirm you because you are right, and I am wrong. Objectively so.

Let's say I have studied the claim X is wrong for forty years. I have read everything pro and con about it. I have taken classes on it. I have dialogued with contrarians over and over about this. And still, after all this, I cannot in my heart and mind affirm what you believe about this. Let's further say you have done the same, and come out thinking I am wrong. It happens. You cannot nor should be expected to affirm me regarding my belief, and vice versa. You should not expect me to endorse X, or to engage in X, or to champion X, or get all excited about X. Depending on the level of importance the matter has to us, this may result in a certain parting of ways.

But we can still love. 

I mean, Jesus said we are even to love our enemies, and my enemies believe things I vehemently reject. An enemy is someone who affirms a set of beliefs which you do not, and cannot, affirm. But even if I am to you the enemy of your deepest beliefs, you can still love me. And if you have the expectation that I should affirm what you believe, I feel misunderstood and disrespected by you. Perhaps we can agree on this, and agree to love in spite of, and in the process learn what such outrageous love is and then talk about where it comes from and what it means.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Dispelling the Fog Machine (The Presence-Driven Church)

Linda, on a Michigan beach

Years ago one of our youth leaders bought a fog machine. One night we put it in our church building's gym, invited our kids to a roller skating party, and fired the machine up. I felt like a kid as I watched fog fill the room, and skaters emerging out of the thickness only to disappear as they rolled past me.

I thought about bringing it into the sanctuary. On a Sunday morning. I'll be back stage. Worship will be happening. Someone pushes a button.

The fog.

It's pointed toward the platform. It achieves the texture of cumulus clouds. I emerge.

No one sees me yet. Rock guitars screaming a Queen-like worship song. Colored stage lights suspended on scaffolding rotating side to side.

The house lights are down.

Spotlights on.

Through the cloud of glory a podium is seen.

There, approaching from  behind, the shadow of a human figure.

It is I.

I preach. How awesome am I? There is a hush as people put their phones away.

I look better in the dark. I appear sculpted and trim. I am a rock star of a preacher wearing tight jeans.

The alarm goes off. I wake up, and put on the bathrobe I've had for twenty years. My hair, what there is of it, is punked, au natural.

I shake my head and breathe a sigh of relief. The nightmare is over. I reassure myself - "I am not pastor of a performance-driven church."

The presence-driven apostle Paul once wrote:

You’ll remember, friends, that when I first came to you to let you in on God’s master stroke, I didn’t try to impress you with polished speeches and the latest philosophy. I deliberately kept it plain and simple: first Jesus and who he is; then Jesus and what he did—Jesus crucified.I was unsure of how to go about this, and felt totally inadequate—I was scared to death, if you want the truth of it—and so nothing I said could have impressed you or anyone else. But the Message came through anyway. God’s Spirit and God’s power did it, which made it clear that your life of faith is a response to God’s power, not to some fancy mental or emotional footwork by me or anyone else. (1 Cor. 2)

No staging.

No ambiance.

No set up.

No performance.

No fog machine (but, yes, we do have one).

Just faith.

Just Jesus.

Just the Spirit.

Just the power of God.

Just his presence.

I'm working on two books - Leading the Presence-Driven Church, and Transformation: How God Shapes the Human Heart.

My book on prayer is Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

The App-identities of Today's Youth

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Warren Dunes State Park, Michigan
I usually arrive early to my MCCC philosophy classes. As students come they sit down and bow before their smart phones, apping away. 

This is our world today. We're immersed in a surging sea of technological change that would cause Alvin Toffler to confess that he underestimated the coming "future shock." 

How shall we understand this? I recommend Howard Gardner (Harvard) and Kate Davis's The App Generation: How Today's Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World. Gardner and Davis examine the three aspects of the lives of young people that are most affected by digital technology:
·                     their sense of identity
·                     their capacity for intimate relations
·                     their imaginative powers

What about identity? The apps on a person's smartphone are a kind of fingerprint. "It’s the combination of interests, habits, and social connections that identify that person." (The App Generation, p. 60) Gardner and Dixon ask: "How are youth’s identities shaped and expressed in the age of the app? Are they truly different or just superficially so?" (Ib.) They respond:

"We found that, as suggested by the app icon itself, the identities of young people are increasingly packaged. That is, they are developed and put forth so that they convey a certain desirable— indeed, determinedly upbeat— image of the person in question. This packaging has the consequence of minimizing a focus on an inner life, on personal conflicts and struggles, on quiet reflection and personal planning; and as the young person approaches maturity, this packaging discourages the taking of risks of any sort. On the more positive side, there is also a broadening of acceptable identities (e.g., it’s OK to be a geek). Overall, life in an app-suffused society yields not only many small features of a person’s identity but also a push toward an overall packaged sense of self— as it were, an omnibus app." (Ib., 61)

This suggests that the capacity for today's youth to engage in the classical biblical spiritual disciplines (solitude, silence, focusing on "Christ in me, the hope of glory") is diminishing. Spiritually, this is disconcerting. As a culture we are a mile wide and an inch deep. (I see students interested as they are introduced to "deepness" in my philosophy classes, which is encouraging. That capacity, for many I think, has not been deleted from their cognitive hard drive.)

Gardner and Davis will help you understand this, non-judgmentally. 

We must first understand before we can evaluate. 

We must evaluate before we heal, if needed (depth is good, shallowness is bad). 

Monday, September 26, 2016

The Affliction of God's Refining Care

Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan

One of my seminary students wrote, saying: "God is telling me that I have a problem." 

I responded: "You do." 

I do too. We all need more change, more transformation. Here's the good news logic:

1. Either you've arrived or you need more change.
2. You have not arrived.
3. Therefore, you need more change.

Welcome to the kingdom of God, and the community of the King. Real "church" is a community of transformation. Wesley Hill writes: "Anyone who joins such a community should know that it is a place of transformation, of discipline, of learning, and not merely a place to be comforted or indulged.” 
(From Wesley Hill, Washed and Waiting: Reflections on Christian Faithfulness and Homosexuality,  p. 68)

Good-bye Consumer Market-Driven Church. 

Good night Starbucks in the church lobby. 

Sleep tight Entertainment Church. 

Prepare to be pressed but not crushed, struck down but not destroyed.

Consumers don't want inner heart-change. They want others to change, not themselves. They want to consume, rather than be consumed. This creates a problem since God is, among other things, a consuming fire. Meet God and submit to Jesus as Lord and you will never be the same. Hill writes:

"Engaging with God and entering the transformative life of the church does not mean we get a kind of “free pass,” an unconditional love that leaves us where we are. Instead, we get a fiercely demanding love, a divine love that will never let us escape from its purifying, renovating, and ultimately healing grip."

Are we having "fun" yet? Are we "happy?" Those are the wrong questions. "Fun" and "happy" are not the words to use here. When the self gets laid on the altar of God, stuff gets stripped off. There is a fiery, refining purging of one's being, as God morphs the self into Christlikeness. Let the fire fall and purify our hearts. Lord, bring restoration.

This is where the self gets denied. Who can go this far with our Lord? Hill beautifully writes:

"Though we may miss out in the short run on lives of personal fulfillment and sexual satisfaction, in the long run the cruelest thing that God could do would be to leave us alone with our desires, to spare us the affliction of his refining care. “Not only does God in Christ take people as they are: He takes them in order to transform them into what He wants them to be.”"

That's it. The affliction of his refining care. It is not fun, but it is very good.

My new book is: Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God.

A Letter to My Church Family

Praying for people at Redeemer.

(I sent this note to my Redeemer family this morning.)

Good morning Redeemer family:

Here are a few things I would like to share with you.

What a beautiful message Josh Bentley gave two Sundays ago - thank you Josh!

Yesterday morning Tom and Christy Hedke gave their testimony of how God has moved in Tom's physical body and in their hearts. We all applauded and gave thanks to God as Tom is now cancer-free!

Then we called anyone forward who is in any kind of difficulty and our people surrounded them, I anointed them with oil, and we prayed for many. What a beautiful moment. That is Real Church - no hype, no staging, no performance, just God's empowering presence.

I am asking you to keep the following Scriptures before you this week as we approach next Sunday morning, October 3 - James 5:13-16. Read them, over and over. Meditate on them. When God speaks to you, write it down in your journal. I feel it is very significant that these will be the verses I will preach on. I am already getting excited about how God is going to show up.

Yesterday morning I shared a story that happened to me last week, and how God told me, "John, I am up to something." I know He is.

Blessings to you all this day,


Oct. 2 - James 5:13-16 –The Prayer of Faith

13 Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. 14 Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15 And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. 16 Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

17 Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. 18 Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Peter Singer's Argument for Infanticide

I presented this tonight in one of my MCCC logic classes, as an example of logical argumentation, Peter Singer’s argument for infanticide. Note: I don't advocate infanticide. But Singer's argument is famous, and followed.

Tonight's class discussion was some of the best I've ever had in response to Singer's argument - thank you students!

Singer argues, in his essay “Taking Life: Humans” (1993), that it is morally acceptable to kill, in some cases, disabled infants. (Note: Singer has since refined his views.)

Before I show you the argument, here are some of Singer’s assumptions.

1.   A “person” has self-consciousness.

2.   Fetuses and newborn babies do not possess self-consciousness. They are “merely conscious.”
a. “The fact that a being is a human being, in the sense of a member of the species Homo sapiens, is not relevant to the wrongness of killing it; it is, rather, characteristics like rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness that make a difference. Infants lack these characteristics. Killing them, therefore, cannot be equated with killing normal human beings, or any other self-conscious beings.”
4.   “Killing a self-conscious being is a more serious matter than killing a merely conscious being. Killing a disabled infant is not morally equivalent to killing a person. Very often it is not wrong at all.”

5.   Being a member of the human species is irrelevant to a baby’s moral status.

6.   A parent may want to “replace” (the “replaceability thesis”) their defective baby with another baby, hopefully to be born.

Singer’s argument in his own words reads:

Or reframed this way.
1.   If we can morally kill a disabled fetus that has no self-consciousness, it follows that we can morally kill a disabled infant that has no self-consciousness.
2.   We can morally kill a disabled fetus that has no self-consciousness.
3.   Therefore, we are morally justified in killing a disabled infant that has no self-consciousness.

Singer is an atheist. He follows real atheism, like that of Nietzsche, who understood that with the loss of Christian theism's metaphysical foundation we've left "the land" and sail on a sea with an "infinite horizon" (the equivalent of "no [moral] land in sight"). So Singer advocates, among other things, "fourth-trimester abortions, i.e., the killing of infants after they are born." Singer writes:

"My colleague Helga Kuhse and I suggest that a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to life as others... Rats are indisputably more aware of their surroundings, and more able to respond in purposeful and complex ways to things they like or dislike, than a fetus at 10- or even 32-weeks gestation. … The calf, the pig, and the much-derided chicken come out well ahead of the fetus at any stage of pregnancy." (See here, p. 189, fn. 21.)

Surely Singer is right in that, if there is no God, then humans are no different than animals and to think so is to be guilty of species-ism. Ideas like "All men are create equal" and "Human life is precious" make sense on Christianity, but not on atheism.

I've long thought that, were I an atheist, I'd be in the Nietzsche/Singer camp I find it odd and at times humorous when atheists disbelieve in God but co-opt Christian theistic moral values to their advantage, like assuming the special-ness of humans.

Your Spiritual Base Is More Important Than the Wheelbase On Your Cadillac

"Some of [Dr.] King's most stinging speeches were to members of his own Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, saying 'You spend more money on liquor at your annual convention than you contribute to the NAACP. I know ministers who are more concerned about the wheelbase on their Cadillac than they are on the spiritual base to their commitment to this world."

Branch thinks King's favorite parable was in Luke 16:19-31. We read:

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21 and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

The rich man in this parable didn't go to hell because he was rich. He went to hell because he didn't notice the humanity of the man who was begging at his gate.

Lazarus was a man, not a piece of garbage. Lazarus was more important than the rich man's Cadillacs.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

If He Comes, He Will Build It (The Presence-Driven Church)

Ann Arbor

In the movie "Field of Dreams" we heard words that have since been immortalized and even used in Christian circles: "If you build it, he will come." This was about building a baseball diamond in the middle of the Iowa cornfields. When the father finally emerged through the corn rows and played catch with his son, tears came to my eyes. What a meaningful scene. I could not help but think of my dad, playing ball with me.

As beautiful as that is, there is no meaningful analogy between the movie and the father's appearance, and the kingdom of God and God's appearing presence. Spiritually, it's not true that, "If you build it [something, whatever], then God will show up."

But...  When God comes, he will build it. 

Here God's earth-shattering, empowering presence comes first. Wherever God shows up he builds his kingdom, on earth, as it is in heaven. Jesus-followers are invited to join him in The Great Edifying, The Great Upbuilding.

If He comes, he will build it. You will join him in the labor, empowered by God's Spirit.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Troubledness Has No Place In a Trusting Heart

Ann Arbor

Jesus, in John 14:1, says, "Do not let your hearts be troubled." The Greek word here can be translated as "agitated." Like the "agitator" in a washing machine that goes back and forth, back and forth.

This verse implies that we have a responsibility, that we can "let" the agitator into our hearts. We can allow troubledness to dwell in our inner, spiritual home. When we do this it's like saying, "Trouble, I give you permission to make yourself at home in me."

How can we stop Trouble at the doorstep of our spirit? Jesus' answer in John 14:1 is: "Believe in me." Given the context of John chapters 14-15-16 we see that "to believe" is not mere intellectual acknowledgment, but intentional engagement and abiding-connectedness to Jesus. To believe is to abide. Real belief abides. Real belief takes up residence in a certain "abode." "Belief" always abides somewhere. In this case it's either:

a) "Trouble" makes its home in me, by my permission; or
b) I abide in Christ, giving Christ permission to set up home within me.

There are "works" of Trouble and works of Christ. "Troubledness" has causal effects and deeds. Implications. Manifestations.

Christ-belief also has consequences. If you trust Jesus (the antecedent of the conditional statement we are making), then you will do the works Jesus does and even more (the consequent of the conditional statement; therefore when the antecedent is affirmed, there follow the Jesus-like consequences.). It looks like this.

1. If I trust Jesus, then I will do what Jesus does and more.
2. I trust Jesus (in the sense of abiding in Him).
3. Therefore, I will do what Jesus does and even more.

In John 14:24 Jesus says, "Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them." The agitator is unwelcome in the Father's home. Troubledness has no place in a trusting heart.

My recent book is: Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Third Annual 23inME! Pastors and Leaders Abiding Retreat

Thousands of Pastors Will Burn Out and Leave the Ministry This Year

In the recent addition of Christianity Today Karl Vaters writes:

"This year, thousands [of pastors] will leave the ministry, burned out and hurting. From big and small churches, growing and stagnant ones." 

This is, writes Vaters, an "epidemic." (Vaters, "Epidemic: Another Pastor Burned Out and Quit Last Sunday")

Scholars have been writing about clergy burnout for decades. Not only is this phenomenon still with us, it seems to be accelerating. 

One cause of this is people's expectations of what a pastor should be. Vaters writes:

"We have to let go of the unbiblical expectations that have been placed on pastors' shoulders. That we’ve placed on our own shoulders. Pastors were never meant to carry this big a burden. No one person is capable of being the preacher, teacher, vision-caster, CEO, leader, evangelist, soul-winner, fundraiser, marriage counselor, and all-around paragon of virtue that we expect pastors to pull off – many of them while working a full-time job outside the church walls."
I often thank God that forty years ago he led me to take a half day every week to go alone to a quiet place and meet with him. (In my book Praying I write about this, and in seminaries and conferences I teach pastors how to do this.)
No pastor is immune, whether their church is micro or mega. The burnout is happening weekly. For example, Pete Wilson pastored a church of 7000. Until last weekend, when he stepped down. Wilson told his church family this:
"I haven’t prioritized some other things that were equally as important. Leaders who lead on empty don’t lead well. For some time, I’ve been leading on empty… I think the best thing for Cross Point is for me to step aside. And so I’m resigning as the pastor of Cross Point … I really need your prayers and I need your support. We’ve said that this is a church where it’s OK to not be OK, and I’m not OK. I’m tired. And I’m broken and I just need some rest." ("Megachurch Pastor Pete Wilson Is Resigning: "I'm Not OK. I'm Tired. I'm Broken.")
Vaters asks us all to pause, and pray. He writes:
"Today, let's pause. Take a breath. And pray.
Pray for the hurting pastors, known and unknown, who have left a church they loved - and maybe still love.
Pray for the famous pastors suffering under the unbearable glare of the spotlight.
Pray for the unknown pastors feeling lost and forgotten.
Pray for their families who have borne years of pain silently, and who are bearing even more right now.
Pray for the church members who don't know whether to feel angry, sad or something else.
Pray that the God who promised that his yoke was easy and his burden light, will ease the much heavier burdens we have placed on our own shoulders. And replace it with his peace, his comfort and his hope."

Do Not Let Your Hearts Be Troubled

In Eldoret, Kenya, with a Masai Pastor

John 14:1 - “Do not let your hearts be troubled.”

Jesus' words imply that we have a responsibility for the spiritual and emotional condition of our hearts.  We have a say-so when it come to inner agitation. There is something we can do about our troubledness, some action we can take. 

We can trust. Jesus immediately goes on to say, "You *trust God, don't you? Trust me." (The Message)

The antidote to inner troubledness is trust. Where there is trust, troubledness does not exist. 

The object of our trust, what we place our trust in, must be sufficient to alleviate our troubledness. For example, were I to take a plane trip across the ocean, I place my trust in: 

  • the pilot (he must have sufficient training, knowledge, experience, and physical and emotional well-being; 
  • the airplane (it must be structurally sufficient, have the requisite capacity of range, and so on); 
  • the airplane mechanics; 
  • and so on.

The question becomes: Is Jesus a sufficient object of trust? Can we trust Jesus? We only find this out by placing our trust in him. Trust is learned, and earned.


In John 14:1 The Greek word the NIV translates as "believe" is πιστεύετε [pisteuete], and can be translated as "place confidence in," or "trust in." )

Praying is an act of trusting. See Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God