23 September 2017

The End is Near, 2017

The world was supposed to end today.  Again.

Since it's still before noon Eastern Time, I suppose the apocalypse could always make a mid-afternoon appearance, though I'd imagine there would be more preliminary earthquakes, drastic temperature spikes, and maybe horns blasting in the heavens before that penultimate moment of final judgment.  Or, if you're an atheist, nothingness.

We all have an idea of how the end will go down.  Right now, Hollywood is infatuated with a zombie-related apocalypse.  A few years ago, it was an apocalypse related to climate change and careless mistreatment of Mother Earth (The Day After Tomorrow, anyone?).  Other runners-up remain post-nuclear war and vampires, but Planet X crashing into the earth is as good an option as any.

Jabs aside, pausing to actually consider the end -- realistically, death, as opposed to cataclysm or apocalypse -- should be a sobering practice.  Not morbid, but focusing.  When we consider the end of our lives, we reach for the things that are important to us.  Nothing quite reveals our treasures like the threat of losing them, or the knowledge that we will soon leave them behind.

In that regard, for the Christian, predicting the end is less important than living with the end in mind.  In other words, I don't want to set arbitrary (or hypothetically "informed") dates on the end of the world so much as I want to live like that date could be tomorrow.  There's a difference.  On one hand, I have a deadline, but on the other, I have a priority.

How many of us in younger years were given responsibilities by our parents before they left for the day or the evening, and we spent the hours doing what we wanted, only to scramble to accomplish the chore in the last fifteen minutes before Mom and Dad returned?  Knowing the time of their return fostered laziness and irresponsibility, because we knew exactly how much time we had to get done what they wanted and yet still prioritize what we wanted.  That's not truly living a life of obedience.  

Better yet, remember cramming for a final because you didn't spend any time preparing in the weeks since receiving the syllabus?  That isn't really learning the material -- it's merely memorizing for a deadline, and then regurgitating information that we will promptly forget, leaving no real or lasting impact.  That's not truly being studious.

In the same regard, if we are to pursue the priorities of Christ and live as He did, we can't presume upon time to come any more than we can assume a final date.  Rather, we should take Paul's advice to the Ephesians, which is to "make the best use" of the time we have, or to "redeem" it -- that is, to purchase it back and make it profitable (Eph 5.16).  In other words, in the same way that our lives were spiritually dead, cold, and ultimately fruitless before the Spirit called us out of that darkness and made us alive and fruitful, we should give the time that God has supplied the same treatment: not using it wastefully, spending it on ourselves, but using it productively for His Kingdom.

If, in His earthly ministry, the Son of Man Himself didn't know the hour of the final judgment, then how am I to possibly hang my hat on a calendar date of my own choosing?  Furthermore, Jesus' advice regarding the end of all things isn't to become a mathematician and scientifically wager on the details of when.  To the contrary, He speaks fervently of the priority of readiness, which isn't based on a knowledge of when the end will come, but on a wholehearted commitment to worship.

In other words, be a Christian.  It's who you are.  You can't just mechanically do the stuff a Christian is supposed to do on your own timeframe and assume that you're in the clear because you're making the deadline.

When the Master does finally come, may He find each of His children faithfully laboring on behalf of the orphan and widow, loving Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength.  Living that way, with an eternal perspective, is an expression of a changed heart that truly knows the Savior and delights to live for Him.

21 July 2017

Ordination, 2017

I've had an eventful month of July.

On Sunday, July 2nd, I preached my first Sunday morning sermon at Fellowship Bible Church.

On Saturday, July 8th, I went before an ordination council comprised of mentors, peers, and church elders, and then -- on Sunday, July 9th -- was publicly ordained as a pastor before my church family at FBC, and alongside my friend and fellow pastor/elder, Scott Foreman.

Photo courtesy of Julie Moore @ Julebug Photography.

I've been deeply encouraged by friends and family at FBC throughout this process, and it has been such a blessing to see the Lord at work in my life, preparing me for this journey.  Over the past weeks, I've recounted to a number of people that my mom was the prophet, not me.  She told me at 13 that I should consider one day becoming a pastor instead of a writer, which is what I always envisioned myself being.  Perhaps as few as 5 years ago, the pastorate still wasn't a goal for me.  But that was before I entered into the realm of full-time ministry, by virtue of simply being available, and gradually fell in love with local church ministry.  Since then, the Lord has been preparing me for this noble task, training me in matters of the heart, leadership, and administration, and appointing in His sovereignty the perfect time for me to step into the role of FBC's youth and worship pastor.

I thought I'd use this post to answer some of the questions I've frequently been asked in the days leading up to and following ordination.

"Are you now an elder now?"

Yes.  As a non-denominational, independent church, Fellowship Bible is governed by a plurality of elders rather than by a top-down, Senior Pastor or executive-style power structure.  We believe that this is the biblical model of church government (as per 1 Timothy 4.14; 5.17 and 1 Peter 5.1), and also that it provides our pastors and bi-vocational elders with a great degree of accountability and encouragement.  Because the Scriptures also use the Greek terms for elder, pastor, and overseer interchangeably (1 Timothy 3.1ff1 Peter 5.1-2), we also bestow the title of elder on each pastor of our church family.  This is a role I am deeply humbled to hold, alongside godly men who have demonstrated themselves to be above reproach over years of service to our local body.

My transition from FBC's youth/worship director to youth/worship pastor/elder hasn't brought any immediate changes, simply because my previous role already carried with it a number of pastoral responsibilities.  So my schedule and priorities largely remain the same in my current areas of oversight, though there will inevitably be new responsibilities and considerations for me as we shape our church leadership team and seek to hire a children's' pastor this year.

"What seminary did you go to?"

The answer to this question might be surprising to some, but seminary is a yet-future goal for me.  My background is actually in English (BA from Rowan University, class of 2012), but I have 5+ years of studying and teaching the Word as a paid, full-time employee of Fellowship Bible Church, in addition to 20+ years of sitting under the pastoral insights of our teaching pastor, Phil Moser, as well as 13 years of discipleship and training under/beside our former youth pastor, Jack Klose (Sr. Pastor at Evangelical Free Church of Keokuk, IA).  This, plus a lifetime of personal investment into the Word of God, which I believe I have been Spirit-gifted to understand and teach.

So seminary is a future goal.  Several months ago, I applied to Southern Theological Seminary to pursue an MDiv with a concentration in Biblical Counseling, and could possibly begin online studies as early as spring 2018.

"Did you get grilled for your ordination?"

No.  And as a positively encourageable person, I'm very thankful for that.  Rather than an adversarial, stump-the-pastoral-candidate kind of ordeal, the ordination council was actually an immensely thoughtful, conversational, and warm experience for me, structured more to discuss sticking points of theology and potential ministry challenges (such as hypothetical scenarios and difficult counseling topics).  In fact, I wish it had been a little longer.  We began at 8:00 AM on Saturday morning and were done by noon.  Scott and I both had one hour each for sharing our testimonies to the council and defending our statements of faith, and forty-five minutes each to interview on our ministry papers.  Because the men comprising the council had ample time to consider our character, beliefs, and Spiritual gifting, as well as serving hand-in-hand with us in various FBC-based ministries (and in Scott's case, in ministry partnerships in Word of Life Canada), the vetting process differed greatly from what might transpire at other churches of various denominations.

It has therefore been my unique experience to begin pastoral ministry as a hands-on disciple, to grow and learn via experience alongside a mentor, and to enter the role of an ordained minister with both feet on the ground, with the loving accountability and support from a leadership team that has watched me grow over the years.  Not every pastor gets to have that kind of homegrown experience, and I'm immensely grateful for it.

For anyone interested, I'd like to make available my Statement of Faith and Philosophy of Youth Ministry paper, documents I wrote/compiled for my ordination.  I welcome dialogue or questions on either.

My heart is full as I look forward to what the Lord will do through me at Fellowship Bible Church over the years to come.  To Him be the glory.

"Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, to the only God, our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen."
Jude 24-25

23 May 2017

Three ways "internet culture" trains us

I stand by the "right tool for the job" adage.  There's nothing worse than stripping a bolt because you're using the wrong wrench.  I've removed plenty of license plates that way and regretted it.

I also believe in progressively replacing old tools with new ones, because new needs require new methods.  Outside of a "green" agenda and nostalgia, no one can earnestly advocate that we go back to pulling carts rather than driving automobiles, because the tool matches the pace and demands of life.

The internet is a modern tool.  It is the access point for information, for communication, for entertainment, and more.  However, unlike a more conventional tool like a car or a hammer, the internet brings with it some detrimental side-effects -- not just because of the morally compromising content it can supply (though that is certainly a factor), but primarily due to the ways in which its accessibility and pervasiveness can negatively influence our thinking and priorities.  Briefly, here are some subtelties of internet culture impacting our lives.

First, internet culture trains us to require instant gratification.  This is the big one, so I'll get it out of the way.  Thanks to the immediacy of the digital age, I demand service and entertainment at every second.  Whether I'm concerned about my megabits-per-second downloads, or I'm annoyed that the e-mail someone sent me seconds ago hasn't yet appeared on my screen, or Netflix is just lagging, I am in some way expressing a desire for instant gratification.  In fact, the digital age is all about removing the need to be patient, as it seeks faster processers, more reliable cell signal, quicker load screens, better transportation, faster checkout lines, instant downloads.  Furthermore, these things should be accessible wherever you are, and the same philosophy should apply to to needs that aren't digital -- anything in life for which you are required to wait should be reconstructed to deliver a more immediate payoff.

I don't know about you, but whether I'm waiting in the checkout line at Shoprite or sitting in standstill traffic, my immediate urge in any moment of pause is to reach for my phone -- even though I just checked to see if I had any messages, even though I know the notification didn't chime.  We don't know how to be still in the digital age, to be alone with our thoughts, or to enjoy human interaction in a public setting, because internet connectivity demands constant stimulation, constant interaction.  We require titillation at all times.  This is an underlying motivation for replacing percolators with K-Cups, for raging when 2-day shipping isn't a free option, and for trading the genuine intimacy of marriage in favor of casual sex.  Because there should be a way to get what you want faster, without the time, the effort, or the commitment.  Because anything worth having later is better had now.  Because waiting sucks.  Because you should never have to be bored.

Internet culture also trains us to prefer fake interaction to real interaction.  I'm not the only one I know who hates talking on the phone -- I'd much rather text or e-mail because I like having the time to think through what I'm saying.  Only part of this is excusable on the basis of wanting to express my thoughts clearly: the rest falls under the prideful desire to leave a good impression.  It's the same reason we crop and edit and filter our profile pictures, and nitpick the details of our bios.  We prefer texting to talking because we don't have to stammer, we can reply at our leisure, and we can disguise whatever emotion our body language might reveal in an in-person conversation.  We want people to perceive us as intelligent and attractive.

Ultimately, we fear what they think.

In fact, the common defense of "I'm socially awkward" or "I'm introverted," given by people who are absorbed in their phones when they are in public places, is often just a coverup for the idol of boredom.  People are boring and awkward and uncomfortable -- unless we're viewing them through Facbeook, Instagram, or Snapchat, where we can select what, when, and how we want to view their content.  Furthermore, those same individuals who struggle to have a simple conversation face-to-face with a person they know will spew volumes of heated speech to any person they don't know in an online comment thread, at the drop of a hat.

Internet culture provides a false intimacy, an artificial flavor, and we've come to prefer its accessibility and anonymity to the real thing.  The root of this tendency is undeniably pride itself, but sin seizes opportunity wherever it might arise, and the internet left that back window wide open.

Lastly, internet culture trains us by groupthink to believe the worst of people.  By "groupthink," I mean modern witch-hunting: casting topics in extremes, as EITHER supremely righteous OR completely egregious, and rallying troops to share in these voracious opinions.

Groupthink is what inflates the most heated political issues to enormous headlines, and is a major source of the increasing polarization of conservative and liberal peoples.  Groupthink is also why words like "awesome," "awful," "love," and "hate" are commonly applied to pizza, because authenticity in internet culture is measured in exuberance.  Ultimately, groupthink relies on biased, unsourced, and negatively skewed information to demonize those who think differently and glorify "the cause" by uniting its disciples under a crusading banner.

Groupthink is particularly rampant via internet news and other media-based communications.  Those of us who use these tools as platforms for written communication recognize them as powerful vehicles for self-expression, and certainly for sharing particular viewpoints.  And therefore, if we aren't careful, we'll discover that we too are falling into this tendency to draw battle lines, to attack, rather than rationally stating our point of view after carefully considering the other side(s) of the issue.  The internet is a megaphone.  Its booming declarations create radical divisions of EVIL vs. GOOD, training us to think the best of those who share our opinions and the absolute worst of those who don't.

As stated, I don't believe the internet is inherently evil.  It's an incredible resource that fuels society's forward momentum.  But like all things man-made, we must be increasingly aware of our own motivations for using it, and the ways in which we allow it to shape our thinking and our self-discipline.  In fact, it is internet culture, not the internet itself, that I'm seeking to challenge -- that is, the priorities and worldview of a demographic that clings to the internet-fueled priorities outlined above.

Paul cautioned believers to be actively filled with the Spirit rather than wine, because drunken living is a form of debauchery (Eph 5.18).  Rather than simply being a critique of alcohol, this passage communicates a much bigger principle: the only thing that should control a believer should be the Holy Spirit Himself, not any sort of sensual desire.  Instant gratification, false intimacy, and hateful speech are all underlined by such.

Therefore, as a Christian, I must be active, taking responsibility for sin and making God-honoring choices; I must not be passive, allowing cultural trends to shape my thinking and behavior.  In fact, the Spirit's influence should press out any worldliness that might threaten to compromise my testimony as a follower of Jesus.

The priorities of internet culture have the dangerous capacity to do just that.

The next time you're in the check-out line at Shoprite, rather than pull out your phone, force yourself to make eye-contact with the cashier as you say hello, and maybe even think of something kind or encouraging to say.  Maybe the window for gospel truth might even open.  Who knows what God might do when we stop browsing Facebook and pay attention!