Marriage and Faithfulness

Whenever a pastor preaches on the subject of marriage and divorce, he’s always in grave danger of being misunderstood, of not saying enough, or breaking the number one rule of preaching. That rule is “Comfort the afflicted with God’s gospel, and afflict the comfortable with God’s law.” If I were doing a lengthy sermon series on marriage then I might be more at ease. But as it is, in this series on universal human longings, we’ll only devote one sermon to marriage and faithfulness. So I’ll make a deal with you. As we examine Jesus’ words in Matthew 19, when you have a question, an objection, or a comment, jot it down for later, because I’m going to avoid everyone after the service! Why did I choose this passage? Because its teaching is extremely important but often neglected in the church. And it addresses one particular ache that almost every single person has deep in their soul.

We all need to love and be loved, to know and be known, especially in the most intimate of relationships—marriage. You are right to jealously expect love and faithfulness from your spouse, but despite good intentions you know you’ve failed in one way or another to be loving and faithful. At some level everyone fears betrayal, so people become adept at guarding their hearts—some more than others. And you know how a guarded heart eats away at love and faithfulness in a marriage! Marriage is hard, and it seems to be getting harder to stay together. The statistics don’t offer much hope that the institution of marriage will stabilize anytime soon. Most people believe that having a happy marriage is a longshot. And so more and more people are opting out or even declining to opt in. Yet the vast majority of us still desire to be married someday. All of this begs the question: Is there any realistic and solid hope today of laying hold of the universal human longing of faithfulness in marriage? Thankfully, as we look at Matthew 19:1-15, we’ll find the answer is Yes. Jesus’ teaching on divorce, which is rooted in God’s creational design for marriage, is difficult to accept but demonstrates its goodness in the way it protects and provides for husbands, wives, and their children. God alone can give us his love, his faithfulness, and his empowering grace to have faithful marriages. Continue reading

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The Benedict Option (Book Review)

Judge not a book by its cover

It’s not often that a book aimed at Christians makes such a big splash in mainstream culture.  I’m not talking about the occasional “Purpose Driven Life”  kinda book that makes it to the New York Times best-seller list.  That’s not rare enough to make me blink.  No, what I’m getting at is a book by a conservative Christian, written to address the choir, that gets widely read, discussed (and usually unfairly portrayed) in secular newspapers, journals, and other media outlets.  That’s what happened when blogger, journalist, and author Rod Dreher published The Benedict Option (TBO) back in March 2017.  For his faithful readership at The American Conservative, they had been reading and debating this strategy Dreher calls “The Benedict Option” (or for short: The BenOp) for nearly 10 years.  But the rest of us didn’t have the benefit of that decade-long conversation.  All we had was the book that landed like a bombshell in the wake of the Donald Trump presidential election victory.

Lots and lots has been written about TBO since it first appeared on shelves, and I have no intention of trying to top the excellent reviews out there.  My goal is different and threefold:

  1. Present myself as an honest, informed reader who has not just read the book, but also studied and digested it.  My copy is full of marginal notes recording my dialogue with the author.  I’ve read it three times (once with my wife) so that we could discuss its implications for our church, family, and Christian friends.  And not just the implications, we’ve actually begun to put some of these strategies into practice in our own home.
  2. Summarize the main points of TBO for those who have been subject to the cacophony of noise surrounding the book.  As I mentioned, there are some excellent reviews on the internet, but there is regrettably an (un)fair share of poor reviews to sift through as well.  Not negative reviews per se–I believe thoughtful and honest negative reviews are profitable for everyone.  But hit-piece reviews that seem to come out of left field to anyone who has actually bothered to, you know, READ IT!
  3. Collate and annotate some of the best reviews and discussions about TBO book and the BenOp as a macro-strategy for Christians in these troubled times we live in.

So why, you might ask, is the book so praised and maligned?  In my observation, the book tends (although unintentionally) to function as something like a Rorschach (“inkblot”) test for its readers, particularly its critics.  I’m not sure if people are mostly snap-judging it by its Title (The Benedict Option: A Strategy for Christians in a Post-Christian Nation) imposed on the cover image (the Benedictine Monastery in Norsia, Italy).  My wife, who in the end loved the book, judged it negatively by its cover the first time she saw it.  She grew up around hard-core homeschool culture and witnessed several families crack down with serious “Christian discipline” only to lose many of their kids to prodigal rebellion in their teens and early adult years.  So I suspect when TBO gets judged by its cover, spoiling a person’s opinion of the book, it’s because the photograph, the book title, and their own personal baggage collude to create a toxic mix.

As with any book, the Introduction that precedes Chapter 1 presents the main thesis, states the intended audience, and more or less sets the stage for the main body.  TBO does a good job in this respect.  Before I proceeded to the first chapter during my first read-through, these were my “virgin thoughts”, recorded in the margins as I paused to interact with the author, and at the end of the introduction I synthesized them.  I hope such an exercise is helpful and convinces you to read further.  So for what’s it worth… Continue reading

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You Only Get One Life to Live

So proud of my cousin and the way she is spending her life for others because of Jesus!

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Liberal Arts for the Christian Life (Book Review)

College.  If you had to do your life all over again, would you go to college?  A different college?  Do college differently?  Take it more seriously?  I had a great college experience at my alma mater Virginia Tech.  I changed my major a few times—from Mining Engineering, to Accounting, before finally settling on what they used to call “Management Science” (which is just another name for Information Technology).  During my two years or so of indecision, I toyed with studying history and English literature.  But the siren call of student loan repayments, and the fear of ending up like Pauly Shore’s “eternal college student” character in the movie “Son in Law” compelled me to avoid settling into the liberal arts.  That’s not a regret, because I’m satisfied with the way God has directed my path.  In fact, I think that, for me at least, pursuing the liberal arts—especially the creative arts—has been more profitable after college since I’ve matured as a person and become seasoned in life.  Still, I wonder what my life would have turned out like if I had chosen a Christian Liberal Arts college like Wheaton where esteemed Professor Leland Ryken teaches in the English department.  So when I stumbled across a used book that has been on my reading list for a long time that promised to scratch the itch, I snatched it up for a buck.  Liberal Arts for the Christian Life (LACL) is a collection of essays by Wheaton professors and influential alumni that highlight the value of a devoting the college years to the liberal arts from a Christian perspective.  The book is a festschrift—essays in honor of Leland Ryken and his distinguished teaching and publishing career at Wheaton.  As such its audience is two-fold: (1) prospective college students considering the lifelong benefits of a Christian liberal arts education, and (2) people like me who want a guide and reminder why liberal arts are worthy of our attention regardless of whether we attended a liberal arts college or not.  In this sense LACL is a kind of introduction that makes the case for devoted and sustained attention to liberal arts. Continue reading

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Judges: Such a Great Salvation (Book Review)

Usually when I prepare to lead a group in Bible study, I try to go the extra mile.  Besides reading the Bible text that we’ll be looking at (that’s the necessary bare minimum!), and reading the same supplemental material I assign to the group, the extra step is consulting one more commentary.  That protects me from just parroting back what they’ve already read, and helps me to interact with a third perspective on the passage—the first being mine and the second being the shared supplemental resource.  Recently I taught a study on the Bible’s book of Judges and the extra-credit commentary I used was a hoot to read.  Not that it surprised me coming from the snarky, insightful, studious, persuasive, and best of all faithful pastor-teacher Dale Ralph Davis.  His commentary in the Focus on the Bible series is called Judges: Such a Great Salvation (hereafter JSGS).  My first introduction to Davis’s unique style was a year or so ago when I consulted his commentary on 1 Kings in preparation for a sermon.  The way he presented his interpretation of chapter 18 convinced me to change what I thought was the main point of the story.  While I didn’t have another paradigm-shifting epiphany this time around, his take on the book of Judges was invaluable.  What makes JSGS such an excellent Judges commentary?  I’m glad you asked! Continue reading

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Judges For You (Book Review)

“That’s the best Bible study I’ve ever done!”  Such praise is not something a Bible study leader hears very often.  I wish I could say it had a lot to do with my amazing exegetical insights, deft (daft?) use of humor, or thoroughly lovable personality.  Yeah, right.  Ha!  But this was the comment from more than one person in the group at my church that just recently wrapped up a study of the Bible book of Judges.  All things considered, the unique success of this particular study owes the lion’s share of credit to the resource we used: Tim Keller’s Judges For You (JFY; coupled with the accompanying study guide).

Now, I’m a firm believer in a quip I heard once uttered by a popular Bible teacher who responded to the compliment, “You make the Bible come alive!” with a bigger truth: “The Bible makes me come alive.”  I mention this because there is a notion some people hold that goes something like this—the Bible is a hard and tedious book that is difficult to enjoy unless it is mediated by the presentation of a gifted Bible teacher.  Admittedly there is an element of truth in this.  But what I like to believe is that a good author, teacher, or leader is able to help us see what is so inherently wonderful about the Bible.  Most of us need a little help to uncover the treasures throughout God’s Word.  Please understand I’m not tooting my own horn here.  What I’m saying is that I used Keller’s studies to lead our Bible study group to the rich, penetrating, and timeless truths that God placed in Judges.  And boy, did we discover that Judges is relevant for today’s American culture!  It’s a book about pluralism, religious syncretism, faithlessness, spiritual compromise, national apathy, moral depravity, revival, compromised leadership, idolatry, relativism, barbarism, war, sex, tribalism, etc.  The list goes on and on.  It’s especially about our groaning unmet need for a savior. Continue reading

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Family and Belonging

If there is one topic that everyone has settled opinions about, it’s family. Every single person has a family. And no family looks or acts the same. Most are basically loving, all are dysfunctional to some degree, but no family is worthless because families can begin to meet the universal human need for belonging. I can relate to the way Matt Groening, creator of the TV show The Simpsons, sums it up: “Families are about love overcoming emotional torture.” If I could put my finger on what he’s saying, it’s that family is wonderful and heartbreaking, sometimes in the same day.

How would you describe your relationship with your family? Do you feel like you truly belong in your family? Do you feel like you fit, are accepted for who you are, and are a vital contributing member? None of us is an island. We are all born to a father and mother, and we all come from a particular people who in many ways define and possess us. But there is also a competing message our culture tells us: while we should love our family, we must not be defined by our family, but instead must go find ourselves in a chosen tribe through individual accomplishments, shared values, or common interests. In this way we must define ourselves by looking within. But here’s the problem: we do not remain the same, and our chosen tribes are subject to the changing times, making us vulnerable to rejection. Can we fall back to find belonging in our family of origin? Many people do this, but some measure of disappointment, heartache, loneliness, loss, and possibly rejection awaits them.  Thankfully, the Bible has answers to these questions. And I hope to show you what God has to say in Romans 8:1-17 on the topic of family and belonging is deeply satisfying. Everyone longs and searches for the unconditional love and acceptance that one gains by belonging to a family. Only in the family of God will you find such a sure and unchangeable belonging, which is rooted in the Father adopting us by his Spirit as his own children alongside his only begotten Son, Jesus Christ. Continue reading

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