Today in Christian History: May 4

How a Catholic priest demonstrated Christlike ministry.

41f-kynl07l-_sx331_bo1204203200_4“And the King will answer them, ‘I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’

Matthew 25: 40

Okay, aside from being Star Wars Day (If you have to ask, you wouldn’t understand), today is a pretty cool day in Christian history as well. This was my gem from J. Stephen Lang’s Christian History Devotional for the day.

1father-damien
Father Damien 

On this day in 1873, a Catholic priest named Father Damien won a free trip to Hawaii! That’s not as glamorous (nor as trivial) as it sounds. At that time, the island of Molokai, Hawaii, looked like the setting of a horror movie. It was home to a large leper colony. The church had asked for volunteers to minister to the lepers, knowing that the assignment would likely be a death sentence for anyone that volunteered. But the 33 year old Damien, a handsome, healthy Belgian, took the job. When he arrived on the island, he found the conditions to be literally inhuman. Not only was the disease rampant, but the lepers seemed to have forgotten they were human beings. Rape was pervasive, and stronger lepers were throwing the weaker ones out of their shelters and taking them over. In  time, Damien helped them build new huts, a cemetery, schools and farms. Most importantly, he led many of them to Christ.

Inevitably, the priest contracted leprosy himself. But rather than heading back to the

saintjct
Damien, after contracting leprosy

mainland for treatment, he stepped up his activity, wanting to do as much as possible before he died in 1889. 120 years later, he was made a saint by the Catholic church.

The comparisons to Jesus don’t stop with the fact that Damien was 33 years old when he came to Molokai. Jesus stepped into our world and showed us a better way. He took our disease of sin upon Himself, and it killed Him. I am so challenged by Damien’s example of incarnational ministry.

Four Speedometers to Watch as a Groups Pastor

forester13-dash1
This past Sunday was a great Sunday for Small Group Bible Study at the church I serve. Let me give you a few reasons why:
  • We had over 1,000 people in small group Bible study. That’s good!
  • We had 58 more people in small group Bible study than we did on the first Sunday of May last year. That’s really good!
  • We only had 100 fewer people in small group Bible study than we had in worship attendance. That’s spectacular!! 
Why am I so excited about that last number? Every week, I keep track of how many people are in Sunday school relative to the number of people in worship. Why? Because our strategy is to move people from Worship to Grow (Small Groups) to Serve (Missions and Service opportunities). Getting bigger in any one of those areas isn’t a bad thing. But when we see the gap between those three begin to shrink, it tells me that we are doing a better job of moving people from one step to the next. It tells me we are growing in a balanced way.
May 1 was the smallest gap from worship attendance to small group attendance we’ve had since I got here. By a lot. Just to give you a frame of reference, in April we had an average of 204 more people in worship than in small groups. So, whatever you guys are doing to encourage people in your class to go to worship, keep it up! And whatever our worship leadership is doing to encourage people to go to Sunday school, keep it up!
As an education minister, I try to keep in mind four speedometers:
  1. Enrollment: The number of people we can potentially influence with our small group ministry
  2. Attendance: The number of people who are in a small group Bible study on a given week
  3. Engagement: The number of weeks per month someone attends a small group Bible study
  4. Movement: The number of people in small groups relative to the number of people in worship, and the number involved in serving relative to the number in small groups.

It’s that fourth speedometer that has me most excited today. The closer that number gets to zero, the more indication that our strategy is effective.

Please remember that every single person in your small group is more than a number. They are a person with needs, hurts, challenges, and victories. Every Sunday you teach, you are not standing before a “group.” You are standing before individuals who are sitting together. But we keep track of numbers so we can have some indication of how we are doing in meeting those needs, mending those hurts, facing those challenges, and celebrating those victories. To borrow the old cliche, we count people because people count!  

If you are in education ministry, how do you measure the effectiveness of your ministry? 

Romans 6 Recap

Last night, we discussed Session 9 of Tommy Nelson’s Romans: The Letter that Changed the World, which covers Romans 6:1-12.

When we talked about Romans 5, we all agreed that we can’t lose our salvation. We have eternal security, according to Romans 5:1-5 and John 10:28-29. But last night, we began with two key questions:

  1. What theological problems does the fact that we cannot lose our salvation cause?
  2. Does this truth scare the church?

The 2nd century church father Tertullian said,

Just as our Lord was crucified between two thieves, so this great doctrine of justification is continually crucified between two heresies.

The first heresy is legalism. We’ll talk about that in a minute. The second is liberalism, or, to use the five-dollar theological term Nelson uses, antinomianism.

51s30wtxs4l-_sx351_bo1204203200_In his book Stop Asking Jesus Into Your Heart, J.D. Greaar recounts the conversation he had with a young man he tried to witness to on the basketball court. The young man stopped him, and told him that he used to be a “super Christian”– going to youth camp, doing the True Love Waits thing, even leading other people to Jesus. But when he discovered sex, he decided he no longer wanted God telling him what to do:

So I decided to put God on hold for a while, and after a while just quit believing in Him altogether. I’m a happy atheist now.” He then added: “But here’s what’s awesome: the church I grew up in was Southern Baptist, and they taught eternal security—that means ‘once saved, always saved.’ . . .That means that my salvation at age thirteen still holds, even if I don’t believe in God anymore now. ‘Once saved, always saved,’ right? That means that even if you’re right, and God exists and Jesus is the only way, I’m safe! So either way, works out great for me. . . . If I’m right, then I haven’t wasted my life curbing my lifestyle because of a fairy tale. OK, it’s your shot.”

How would you respond to this young man? The Bible says you will know whether someone is saved by their fruit, right? But clearly this kid bore fruit in his earlier life. So now that he claims to be “a happy atheist,” is he still secure in his salvation? Can he fall back on his “get out of hell free” card and live how we wants the rest of his life?

Paul’s answer, in verse 2, is another of his famous me genoito  statements, which has been translated as everything from “May it never be” to “perish the thought,” to “hell, no.” “How shall we who have died to sin still live in it?”

If we are dead to sin, it cheapens grace to still chase after it, and it is a denial of who we are in Christ. Martyn Lloyd Jones compared it to the salves following the Civil War who, though they were legally released from slavery, they still quaked with fear whenever they saw their old master again, petrified that they would be sold into bondage again. Or the scene in the Shawshank Redemption, where Brooks, the released convict, can’t cope with how big the world has gotten on the outside. He longs for the comfort and familiarity of his prison bars. Eventually, he takes his life.

When we have died to sin, we are truly free. Before our conversion, we are not free to not sin. It cheapens grace to think that our freedom in Christ means we are now free to sin. What it really means is that we are now free to not sin.

Tim Keller details what Paul doesn’t mean by “We died to sin” in verse 2. It doesn’t mean…5117z9zxxul-_sx312_bo1204203200_

  1. That we no longer want to sin (duh). If this were true, there would be no need for verses 12-14.
  2. That we no longer ought to sin. Paul doesn’t say, “We ought to die,” but “we died.”
  3. That we are slowly moving away from sin. Again, we aren’t dying a slow death. The aorist tense of the verb refers to a single, past, once-and-done action.
  4. That at the moment of our baptism, we renounced sin. According to verses 3-5, our death to sin is not the result of something we have done, but something that is done to us.
  5. That we aren’t guilty of sin. Keller acknowledges that while this is true, it isn’t what Paul means here. He is trying to teach about why we seek to live without sin. “Simply restating the truth that we are pardoned in Christ is not the answer” (Keller, pp. 138-139).

We still struggle with sin, and we will until the day we die. This is part of our sanctification process. When Paul says, in verse 12, “Do not let sin rule over your mortal bodies,” he challenges us to continue to fight sin the way we would fight a guerrilla army, who keeps on waging a battle even after it knows the war is lost.

How do we do that? Tommy Nelson talked about several “nifty tricks” (his phrase) that people throughout history have used to aid in the sanctification process:

Asceticism (more sacrifice ): Through rigorous self-denial one can conquer the desires of the flesh

Mechanics (more ritual): Through habits of holiness and spiritual discipline one can master one’s fleshly desires

Scholasticism (more study): Through focused Bible study and Scripture memorization, I can hide God’s Word in my heart that I might now sin against God (Psalm 119:11).

Experientialism (more emotions): Through emotionally uplifting experiences such as worship services and retreats I can keep my heart turned toward God and away from the flesh.

Legalism (more rules): Through strict obedience to the law I can conquer sin.

The trick is to keep these in perspective. Tommy is right to call them “nifty tricks.” All of these can help in our struggle against sin. But we commit the other heresy Tertullian talked about when we add any of these to the gospel.

Next week: Session 10: We Must Obey (Romans 6:13-23)

April Book Reviews

At the beginning of 2016, I set a goal of reading 104 books– roughly two a week. I am using a plan developed by blogger Tim Challies, which requires you to read across genres. To find out more about the plan, go to http://www.challies.com/resources/the-2016-reading-challenge

Song of Redemption (Chronicles of the Kings, #2)25. Song of Redemption by Lynn Austin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Started: March 23

Finished: April 4

Challies Challenge Category: Novel by a Christian Author

This is the second book I’ve read (well-listened–they are available in audiobook form)in Lynn Austin’s Chronicles of the Kings series. She is very skilled at taking the details we know from Scripture (which usually aren’t many) and creating a compelling story from them that still rings true to the context of the Bible. I’ve enjoyed her work, and look forward to listening to the other books in the series. For Challies challenge, this was my entry for “novel by a Christian author.”


An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture26. An Approach to Extended Memorization of Scripture by Andrew M. Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Practical, concrete, helpful

Started/Finished: April 2

Challies Challenge Category: Book less than 100 pages

This book was recommended by both Tim Challies and John Piper. I’m in a group right now that’s trying to memorize Romans, so it was well worth the 99 cents to download this one. The title is well-said: this is “an” approach. Not “the” approach. And as such, it’s pretty good.


Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me27. Taking God at His Word: Why the Bible Is Knowable, Necessary, and Enough, and What That Means for You and Me by Kevin DeYoung

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Challies Challenge Category: Book about theology

Started: April 4

Finished: April 8

Fantastic! The audiobook of this is the free book this month in christianaudio.com, (April, 2016) but after listening to about half of it I ordered a hard copy from Amazon. There really needs to be a small group study on this. The SCAN acronym– the Bible is sufficient, clear, authoritative, and necessary– is worth the price of the whole book. In addition, there is an an annotated bibliography of books at the end– grouped by category and graded on degree of difficulty, that makes me glad I don’t just have it on audio.


Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word28. Expository Apologetics: Answering Objections with the Power of the Word by Voddie T. Baucham Jr.

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

Started: March 31, Finished April 9

Challies Challenge Category: Book about Worldview

I appreciated Voddie’s commitment to keep the ultimate goal of an apologetic conversation in mind–to share the gospel. He reminds the reader that according to Romans 1:18-20, people don’t have a knowledge problem. They have a righteousness problem.

I’m also challenged to spend more time learning the creeds, confessions, and catechisms that have been used to teach the faith for hundreds of years. As a Baptist I’ve never studied them much, apart from memorizing the Apostles Creed. But now, and especially as a Christian educator, I appreciate their value for helping us teach and learn how to “give an answer for the hope that is within us”
(1 Pet. 3:15)

My only complaint with the book is that I wished he had used a different example of an apologetic sermon in the appendix. He had already summarized the sermon in same sex marriage and the divisions of the levitical law earlier in the book; so the appendix felt redundant.

 


Martin Luther: In His Own Words 29. Martin Luther: In His Own Words by Martin Luther

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

Started: April 4

Finished: April 9

Challies Challenge: Book by or about Martin Luther

The main part of this book is the 95 Theses, followed by various letters Luther wrote to defend the theses. Also included is his Shorter Catechism, and a handful of his sermons. It was very enlightening to me, primarily to realize that the Theses weren’t initially intended to start the Reformation, but to reform a specific practice in the Catholic Church. As with a lot of books that start off for me with the audio version, I found it very helpful to download a Kindle version as well.


Orthodoxy30. Orthodoxy by G.K. Chesterton

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Orthodoxy

Started: April 10; Finished: April 20

Challies Challenge Category: Book more than a hundred years old

So, Chesterton himself called this a “chaotic volume,” and I don’t disagree. For the first three-quarters of the book, I couldn’t figure out why it was called “Orthodoxy.” It was hard to follow any organizing principle, and if he was arguing to make a point, he argued more like a poet than a lawyer.

It didn’t help that I was listening to the audiobook. Even though it was narrated by the amazing Simon Vance (whose narrations of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End are some of the best audiobooks I’ve ever heard) I don’t recommend the format for Chesterton. This book is meant to be chewed slowly, like a really good steak. You need to be able to roll the words around in your mind, and unless you’ve got your finger constantly on the pause and rewind buttons (not recommended while you are driving), you can’t do that.

So, I bought a hard copy, and now I feel like I have to read it again.

 


Handel's Messiah: Comfort for God's People31. Handel’s Messiah: Comfort for God’s People by Calvin R. Stapert

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

 

 

Started: April 14; Finished: April 16

I’d had this in my Christian Audio library for awhile, and when I saw that yesterday was the anniversary of the premiere of Messiah, I started listening. Great read. The two best takeaways are George Bernard Shaw’s criticism of mass choirs performing Messiah, and the theological question of “why doesn’t ‘Messiah’ end with the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’?”

Challies Challenge category: Book about music.


32.  Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest DisasterInto Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Started: April 11; Finished: April 16

Challies Challenge: Book written in the 20th century

This was the second time I’ve read this. I picked it up again after watching the “Everest” movie. I don’t think the previous edition I read had the postscript about the ongoing fight between Krakauer and the author of another book about the same events, which is critical of Krakauer’s criticisms of one of the guides. It is an interesting read on its own, dealt with issues of journalistic integrity and fact checking.


33.Look Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger'sLook Me in the Eye: My Life with Asperger’s by John Elder Robison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Date Started: April 16
Date Finished: April 21
I really enjoyed this book. Robison writes with clarity and humor (whether or not it is intentional humor is hard to say, given that he is writing as an Aspergian). There are times when he comes across like a real life Forrest Gump–a social misfit who winds up in the right place at the right time to make an impact on the world that a so-called “normal” person could never make. The main difference is that instead of meeting Presidents like Forrest Gump, Robison met rock stars.

The book is also genuinely moving as it gets into the time Robison spends with his own son.

I would recommend this book to anyone that has someone on the autistic spectrum in their life, as well as anyone that just enjoys a well-written, if quirky and oddball–memoir.

Challies Challenge: Memoir


Cry, the Beloved Country34. Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Date Started: April 20
Date Finished: April 28
Challies Challenge Category: Novel set in a country other than your own

This book was a feast. Moving, deeply Christian, informative, poetic, redemptive, beautiful. The characters are richly drawn, multidimensional, and fully realized. The prose is gorgeous. The message and the issues are timeless, as relevant to Ferguson, Missouri as they were to Soweto, Johannesburg. I will go back to this one again. And for what its worth, the 1995 film version starring James Earl Jones and Richard Harris, is on Netflix. While it isn’t a perfect movie, it is perfectly cast.

Today in Church History: May 2

41f-kynl07l-_sx331_bo1204203200_This year, I’m using J. Stephen Lang’s The Christian History Devotional during my daily quiet time. Every so often, I’ll pass on some thoughts here.

 

 

On this date, in 373, Athanasius, one of the most influential shapers of Christianity outside the NT writers, died. We can thank Athanasius for the fact that we have 27 books in the New Testament; and that the Nicene Creed affirms Christ is the “same substance” as God. One of his most famous quotes, from On the Incarnation:

God became what we are that he might make us what he is.

All great reasons to remember him, even if he looks a lot like Saruman from “Lord of the Rings.”