Reformation Day #500

5 SolasFive hundred years ago, Martin Luther put forth his Ninety-five Theses (and may have nailed them to the door of the chapel at Wittenberg Castle) and caused a ripple effect that would forever change the course of western Christianity. Eric Metaxas describes the plight of the medieval Christian in his timely new biography of Luther:

“Although the theology of the Christian faith had always been that God saved us from our sins—that Jesus was the Savior, not we—and that in his mercy and love God rescued us who could not rescue ourselves, there had nonetheless crept into the reality of Christian life another idea altogether, one that was dramatically opposed to this first idea. There was in medieval Christian life the strong implication that if one could not earn one’s own salvation outright, one could certainly go a long way toward earning it, and one had better do what one could.”

He further hones in on the primary problem:

“Here was the central difficulty of late medieval Catholic theology: that one was brought to the place of understanding one’s sinfulness and one’s unworthiness before God but was not told what to do at that moment of understanding except to lie paralyzed with hopelessness, to confess and try harder. At some point, the sinner—and Luther chief among them—came to feel that he wholly deserved God’s fierce anger.”

As I grew up in the Roman Catholic Church, I came to empathize with the hopelessness of the medieval Christian: from an early age, I found myself presented with an unspoken implication—and sometimes explicit teaching—that my behavior affected how God viewed me. Please don’t think that my intent is to single out my Roman Catholic brothers and sisters here; no, this thinking pervades all avenues of Christian belief. Consider the great extent to which the medieval understanding described by Metaxas has crept into our modern thinking: We constantly try to put on a good face—not only in public, but in our private spiritual lives with God, as if we can keep things hidden from an omnipresent, omniscient God. We tend to create our Father in our own image, fickle as we are and predisposed to situationally-dependent love and kindness. We find ourselves like Paul, hopeless and helpless to resist: “For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Rom. 7:19). In our own power, we are unable to do anything to bridge the great chasm we find between our sinful selves and our perfectly holy Creator. We can’t earn our salvation through our own merit, because we are hopelessly bereft of meritoriousness.

The Reformation that Luther set in motion, though, had many consequences—not the least of which was a return to an understanding of how we are truly justified. “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) Luther highlighted and underlined this truth when he recognized justification sola gratia (“by grace alone”).

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of Luther and his predecessors. This understanding of God’s infinite, unwarranted love not only informs our concept of God, but breathes abundant life into our relationship with Him. It is with recognition of our desperate depravity and inadequacy that our understanding of God’s boundless love is augmented. The same God from whom none of our basest thoughts are hidden loves us, not because he doesn’t see our sins as they truly are, but in spite of it. “But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:8).

It is this grace that I unknowingly yearned for as I spent my early adult years searching for meaning and understanding. It is this very grace which was like purest water to me when I was thirsty to the brink of death. It is this grace that washed over me like a flood and brought me to my knees in tears of joy.

It is my earnest prayer that, whatever your faith tradition, you understand that God’s perfect love means that He loves you exactly as you are, in spite of your sin, because he sees you as he created you: a child of God made in his image. It is my urgent hope that you receive the freely-given gift of salvation, and allow yourself to truly experience life more abundantly.

I fervently hope that we would all come to such a pure understanding of the grace of God: the kind which gave blessed assurance to my father (who happened to be a lifelong Roman Catholic). A few weeks before his death, he was asked if he feared the end. He did not, because he knew that he would join the rest of God’s children. When asked about the reason for his certainty, he replied, “because it’s not about what I’ve done; it’s about what Jesus did.”

Honeymoon Redux

Woodlawn Farm

rear of the estate house, facing Calvert Creek

This morning, Starr and I will set off for southern Maryland, to spend four nights at Woodlawn Farm, where we spent our honeymoon.  Woodlawn is a bed & breakfast on a 180-acre historical estate in Ridge (just a few miles from the southernmost point in Maryland on the Chesapeake Bay’s western shore) with a mile of waterfront along Calvert Creek (and a fantastic view of Calvert Bay just beyond).

Woodlawn Farm

The front of Woodlawn’s 18th-century estate house

The estate house on the property was built ca. 1798, and was featured on a past episode of HGTV’s If Walls Could Talk. The innkeeper, Jim Grube, is perfectly suited for his work: an outgoing, charismatic man who can hold a conversation about anything (and one heck of a chef, to boot). We chose to stay in a small cottage separate from the main house, mainly because it has a full kitchen and living area as well as a bedroom.  Staying in a suite like this allows us to stay in, relax and enjoy each others’ company (not to mention eating meals in to save money).

Starr LOVES this kitchen

Many—including my own parents and parents-in-law—say that my wife and I are “old souls,” and we really can’t argue. For one thing, we will always choose a quiet bed-and-breakfast over a bustling city or a beach resort. Both of us enjoy nature, museums, and historical architecture above most anything else.

To be sure, a large part of this can be attributed to our respective parents, for instilling in both of us a love of learning and a respect for the past. Because of this love, Woodlawn is a perfect place for us to stay, being located as it is very close to historic St. Mary’s City, “the site of the fourth permanent settlement in British North America, Maryland’s first capital, and the birthplace of religious toleration.” A project is underway to rebuild the city’s Brick Chapel of 1667, and we are excited to see what progress has been made since we were last there a year ago.

sunset over Calvert Creek (view from Woodlawn's pier)

Last time around, Starr became… shall we say, “annoyed”… with me on several occasions, because I have a tendency to walk around with my camera glued to my face. While that gorgeous sunset to the left was taking place, for example, I was snapping away, trying to get the perfect shot of it, rather than just enjoying it with my wife. When I get like that, I don’t talk much… or really pay attention to anything else at all. This year, I don’t think this will be much of an issue; I’ve come to realize the importance of spending time with my wife and making sure that I’m not sucked into my own little world of photography. We’re going to plan out the week a bit beforehand, and make sure that we strike a balance between sight-seeing and spending time focusing on reconnecting with each other. (Also, I bought Starr a camera a few months ago, so she’ll surely have it glued to her own face, at least part of the time.)

From Woodlawn, we’ll be heading directly to Metro Maryland Youth For Christ’s Impact conference in Ocean City, Maryland, to spend the weekend volunteering and hanging out with thousands of high-schoolers. More on that next week (assuming I survive it)…

Cohabitation vs. Commitment

A couple of weeks ago, Starr and I were sitting in on a Bible study for high school students, on the topic of purity. At one point, the discussion turned toward dating, and almost all of the participants had personal anecdotes of family members (and, for the adult couple leading the study, themselves) who had known each other only a short time before being married. This raised the question: Why, with much shorter dating or courtship periods, did so many more marriages in years past result in longer-lasting unions than marriages today. This is curious, because this doesn’t really make sense, according to today’s conventional wisdom, which says that one of the secrets to a lasting marriage is making sure that you’re compatible with your partner (by living together for a while before marriage, for example).

About two-thirds of American couples today live together before they are married, and about 60% of Americans believe that cohabitation is the best way to establish a successful marriage. The late Dr. Charles E. Cook of Mountain Christian Church, who passed away just a few weeks ago, put together a great primer on the topic of cohabitation before marriage, which the church provides as a free resource on their web site (download the PDF here). In this pamphlet, Dr. Cook reveals a lot of surprising data, including the fact that, according to one study, cohabitation before marriage increases the risk for divorce by a staggering 46%. This flies in the face of the popular notion that living together somehow benefits a marriage. Cook matter-of-factly states, “The blunt reality is that no positive contribution of cohabitation to marriage has ever been found by any research.” He then goes on to speculate why this may be true; one suggestion is that, while marriage is based on a strong ethic of commitment, cohabitation relies on something else entirely. The difference, he surmises, is between two types of relationships: contractual and covenantal. In the former, Cook explains, “the individuals are ordinarily focused on their own personal autonomy – their personal interests, desires, and concerns.” Marriage represents the latter, though, and is focused on the best interests of the other person. Certainly, this fundamental difference in our attitudes toward marriage must have something to do with how well the relationship endures time and trials.

Engagement photos: Laurie & Sean

My wife Starr and I had the great privilege to take photos last weekend for some of our best friends, Laurie and Sean, who were just engaged in December. We met early in the morning and headed down to the Federal Hill area of Baltimore, where we took some shots outside of the American Visionary Art Museum and the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The skies were gloomy and gray, but we made the best of it, relying on a fill flash to augment the existing lighting in most of the shots. This was Starr’s first time working with models, and she did a great job. It was also our first time working as a photography team, and I think our styles complement each other perfectly and give us more versatility and creativity than either of us would have by ourselves. Here are a few of my favorite shots from the day:

Head over to my wife’s blog to see more photos from the shoot.

Two (Faulty) Approaches to Youth Ministry

Dan Wolgemuth

Dan Wolgemuth

Dan Wolgemuth, President and CEO for Youth For Christ, contributed last Friday to one of my favorite blogs, The Resurgence. Drawing on his experience with YFC, Wolgemuth offers some great insight about working with young people (The First Obstacle in Working with Young People is YOU). He has concluded that our perspective greatly affects the success of the interaction, and he outlines two common approaches to youth ministry:

An obligation: On one hand we find youth workers that feel as though they “must” work with young people. They engage with teeth gritted and resolve mustered… but their “will to work” far exceeds their “want to work.” They measure their success by how long they’ve been engaged with young people.

Just chillin’: At the other end of the spectrum there are youth workers who are just looking to hang out, to be a part of something fresh and new, exciting, and entertaining. These workers measure their success by whether they are included and accepted.

I struggle with the latter: I love working with young people, but I also love being liked. The trick to that, for me, is to remember what I’m really there for, and that any inclusion or acceptance I have is a gift from God, and a platform from which I can minister to young people with Christ-centered encouragement, guidance and teaching.

Both of the perspectives detailed above are equally hopeless, and Wolgemuth emphasizes the importance of approaching ministry with the proper heart and motivation. Youth ministry, and ministry in general, should follow the example of Jesus Christ, and be done with a heart of compassion. One of the most important things that we can pray for, then, is that God would instill in us an understanding of “authentic love” — the compassion exhibited by God Himself.

Morality is Not Judgment

Joel Osteen on CNN's "Piers Morgan Tonight"Charismatic televangelist Joel Osteen appeared with his wife Victoria last week on CNN’s Piers Morgan Tonight, where the recent successor to Larry King sought to rescue the dismal ratings of his debut week by capitalizing on one of today’s most controversial issues. In a clip available on Morgan’s site, Osteen—who rarely mentions sin, instead preferring to focus on how faith can improve one’s life—openly admitted that he believes that homosexuality is a sin. Osteen said he based his opinion solely on the fact that Scripture says so.

It seems from Morgan’s inquisition that the host would have you believe that Osteen was shirking responsibility by continually referring back to Scripture, but Osteen isn’t copping out when he repeatedly answers Morgan’s questions by replying that God is the judge, not Osteen himself. Confirming God’s Word as truth—and pointing out the sin His Law reveals—is not judgment; this is how we as Christians know what is right, not to mention how we know that we are hopeless sinners, and desperately in need of a Savior. Dr. Albert Mohler had this to say on the topic:

To Morgan, making any moral judgment amounts to judgmentalism. Of course, this leads logically to total moral insanity, since the only way to avoid being identified with judgmentalism is to make no moral judgments whatsoever — which no sane person can do.

Central to Christian living is the daily realization that I am a sinner; Morgan’s line of questioning about what Osteen would tell the host’s friend, Elton John, reveals one thing a lot of people, even Christians, really hate: actually being convicted by the Word, sermons, and Christian values (which, if we’re going about things right, fall in line with God’s Law). But I, for one, hate a sermon that doesn’t challenge me to examine the way I live and the beliefs I hold. If I am a sinner, if I’m going down the wrong path, then why wouldn’t I want someone to warn me? Even if you believe that people are born as homosexuals, I could argue that my selfishness, lust, quickness to anger, and other faults are traits that I was “born with” as well… but I don’t think anyone would argue that these things are “right.” As children of the Fall, we are all born into a struggle with sin. Part of our responsibility as Christians is to help shed light on what is wrong with the world—not that we may condemn others or make ourselves feel superior—but to point people toward Jesus Christ, whose grace and forgiveness they need.

Certainly, we must do this with the utmost love and caring, and be sure that we are not being judgmental. We can do this by putting ourselves in others’ shoes, and by genuinely getting to know the people who we seek to help. We must also keep in mind that we ourselves are sinners; Jesus teaches us that lesson in this way:

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Let me take the speck out of your eye,” when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye. (Matthew 7:3-5, NIV)

Our responsibility to stand up for truth and what is right requires us to be humble at the same time; we can’t constantly castigate others while fooling ourselves into believing that we are any better—or better off—than they. While “political correctness” dictates that we refuse to make any moral judgment and instead adopt a relativistic theory which determines what’s “right” by deciding what’s “right for you,” we have to realize that there exists a universal truth, and this truth includes an absolute morality. Understanding this does not mean that we are judgmental; it means that we accept the universe as it is, even when acknowledging that also forces us to swallow the hard truth that it reveals in us: we “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).

Lessons From the Lord’s Prayer

GethsemaneOn Wednesday, I wrote briefly about prayer, and I feel that I should make it clear that I wasn’t trying to belittle liturgical prayers in any way, only pointing out that prayer need not always be some grand affair.  Prayer should always come from the heart, but we can learn much from the prayers that have been handed down through generations from the early church. One such prayer—the Lord’s Prayer—is perhaps the most widely used model for prayer because, although Scripture gives us many insights into various aspects of praying, this is perhaps the only example in which Jesus was specifically instructive about how we should pray. Some interpret Jesus’ counsel regarding the manner in which we pray more literally than others: many believe that we should repeat his words verbatim, while others feel that they were simply provided as a guide. Regardless of your opinion on that matter, we can glean much from the Lord’s Prayer in terms of both our attitude toward—and our understanding of—prayer. By examining Jesus’ instructions with an open and investigative mind, I believe that we can discover how God Himself views our interaction with Him through prayer, and learn something about the things that He thinks are important.

This, then, is how you should pray: “Our Father in heaven, hallowed be Your name, Your kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, for Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.” (Matthew 6:9-13, NIV)

Can’t Find the Words

Prayer often becomes a real stumbling block for us as Christians, though it really needn’t be. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people, young and old, tell me that they don’t want to pray aloud in front of a group because they don’t think they’re “good at it,” and I can’t help but think this insecurity inhibits the private prayer lives of many of us, as well.

Praying Hands (Albrecht Dürer)Listening to the sophisticated and sometimes even esoteric prayers we often hear in church, it’s easy to get the idea that we need to be a poet versed in Old English in order to properly lift our prayers to God. But, just as we would if we were talking to a parent, sibling, or our best friend, we can simply be straightforward and eschew pretenses before the throne of God; we need only be ourselves (He sees us as we are, regardless). Jesus is our priest and intercessor (Hebrews 7:23-25), and those of us who know him—the Son—know God the Father in an intimate way through him (Luke 10:22, John 14:9, 1 John 2:23).

Sometimes, I just go to the Lord in prayer with a chaotic mass of thoughts and rely on Him to sort it out. Scripture says the Spirit intercedes for us even when we don’t have the words to say:

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us through wordless groans. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for God’s people in accordance with the will of God. (Romans 8:26-27, NIV)

In fact, if we feel like there needs to be some kind of refinement in the way we pray, we disregard the personal relationship with God which we are afforded in the person of Jesus Christ, and we risk convincing ourselves that some of us are better equipped to approach the Throne than others. We also put ourselves in jeopardy of becoming vainglorious, thinking that the ostensible elegance of our words—if we think we can muster such a thing in the presence of the Lord of all Creation—is somehow convincing God to work in the world or in our lives, and that the words we speak are more important than the outpouring of our hearts.

God entered our world in the form of Jesus Christ, fully human, that He might cultivate a profoundly personal relationship with each of us who place our faith in him. Let us not take for granted the depths of this sacrifice, nor the great privilege we have because of it. Our God is not one who is distant, but a priest and advocate who seeks nothing more than that we be near to Him.

Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4:14-16, emphasis added)

May we come to truly understand and genuinely appreciate the fullness of that confidence which Paul exhorts us to embrace.

What I Lack

Today, I’m going to exercise extreme candor and tell you, my readers, that there’s just something I hate about the idea of living off of the generosity and support of others; that was one of my major struggles when making the decision to go into full-time ministry. Mind you, I don’t look down on others who live by support (including those who I personally support); in fact, I recognize the value of their work. But, to me, something about ministry just didn’t feel like earning a living. I think there were three main things I encountered (and with which I continue to struggle), and I outline them here in an attempt to be completely honest and transparent about some of the impediments that I had to overcome in my decision to enter ministry as a full-time occupation. More importantly, I want to give a short summary of how God is helping me to surmount these obstacles as I pursue a life in His service.

Abortion & “Moral Confusion”

2009 March For Life

2009 March For Life in Washington, DC (photo by John Stephen Dwyer)

This Saturday marks the 38th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s detestable Roe v. Wade decision, and abortion has appeared in the news lately as a hot topic in several other instances:

  • Last week, the New York City Department of Health reported that, in 2009, 41% of pregnancies ended in abortion. Among the city’s African-Americans, the abortion rate is considerably higher—almost sixty percent—meaning that for almost every African-American child born in NYC, two more are aborted.
  • In Philadelphia, Dr. Kermit Gosnell was charged with eight counts of murder for killing seven infants as part of illegal late-term abortions, and one woman who was undergoing the procedure. D.A. Seth Williams said that Gosnell “induced labor, forced the live birth of viable babies in the sixth, seventh, eighth month of pregnancy and then killed those babies by cutting into the back of the neck with scissors and severing their spinal cord.” Prosecutors believe Gosnell may be guilty of killing hundreds of infants in the same way while raking in millions of dollars over the past 30 years.
  • An Australian couple aborted twin sons because they already have three sons and wanted a daughter instead. They are appealing to a legal tribunal for the right to use gender selection in the course of an IVF procedure, which is illegal in Australia.