Wednesday, June 29, 2016

When Relieving Stress Turns into an Addiction: How to Help Each Other (Part I)

For Part II - Confronting Deception and Concealment, Pride and Shame, click here.

You would probably be surprised at how many people you know who have addictions. When we think of addiction, we almost always think of alcoholics, smokers, or drug users. Those definitely qualify, but there are countless other types of addictions. They affect far more people than we realize because most people hide their addictions very well. In the last 10 years, I have discovered so many types of addictive behavior affecting fellow Christians and others I come in contact with through criminal law that I know this problem is going to show up eventually in the lives of people in your circle of friends, your small group, or the people you care for at church.

Ed Welch, probably one of the most valuable voices on addiction and idolatry in biblical counseling today, has a short post at CCEF (Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation) with extremely good advice for helping confront an addiction. I am going to expand upon his post because I haven't really addressed addiction directly on this blog, and I want this to be a solid starting point. I'll break this up into a couple of posts. I've learned in my law practice and in church counseling participation that addictions have special challenges to achieving accountability and cooperation from the person trapped in his or her behavior. Being aware of these patterns can save a lot of wasted time and discouragement.

Addictions Are Basically Idolatry - and They Enslave People

Virtually anything can become an addiction. What makes it an addiction is the role it plays in your life, and how it negatively affects other things in your life. If you turn to something to escape from stress, or anxiety, or depression, or pain, or loneliness, or fatigue, or fear, or any other problem, and it becomes your "go-to" escape (the thing you turn to again and again for relief), you're in danger of developing a habit of addiction. What makes it cross the line is when you don't have complete control of the behavior anymore: you start using the escape even when you really should be doing other things, or you use it in ways that leave you unable to meet your responsibilities afterwards. Think of the person who drinks too much and can't come into work on time the next morning, or the person watching pornography or playing online games all night and unable to stay awake at work the next day.

Other signs include taking risks in order to get the relief - doing things that a clear head would tell you are wrong or dangerous. For instance, doing things you know are sin in order to get relief, or using drugs illegally (so now you're risking criminal charges), or being under the influence of something while at work, or drinking before driving to go pick up your kids because you're going to be with them all night and won't have a chance later, etc. For people using pornography, already sinking into sin, it may be moving on to chat rooms where they seek interaction with real people, leading to meeting someone solely for sex or following an advertisement connected to prostitution.

What these all have in common is that the person trying to satisfy an addiction is now jeopardizing other things in life to fulfill their need. It is no longer something they do that seems harmless or private; it is now something they need so much that normal common sense doesn't guide their thinking anymore. The addiction must be satisfied, no matter the risk, and even things that are recklessly foolish don't stop the person because the alternative - that you don't satisfy this need - is unthinkable to them.

Welch says: "Addictions continue their upward swing. Given that we live during a time when self-control is not yet prized, our cultural strategy with hardships is to medicate them away rather than stand in the midst of them. And the possibilities for medicating hardships are always increasing. To sexual obsessions, add illegal drugs, then prescription narcotics, then computer games, and there are more to come. With this in mind, the church has a perennial project: to draw out fresh insights from Scripture on modern addictions, and move toward those who are enslaved by them.

"Many of these insights exist within biblical teaching on idolatry, which has both voluntary and involuntary aspects to it. Human beings both purposefully indulge their desires—we sin because we like it—and we are dominated by those desires. We are both in-control and out-of-control." Welch, Two Underused Biblical Resources

You can see that addiction looks just like idolatry: anything can become an idol, and an idol is something we devote ourselves to so much that it takes disproportionate weight and importance in our lives, being fed at the expense of our devotion to God, our marriage, our children, our job, etc. The idol becomes the thing we must have at all costs. Welch and other CCEF counselors like David Powlison and Paul Tripp have done a great deal of work showing the link between sin and idolatry and addiction, and identifying the patterns of behavior that cause us such trouble. Searching the CCEF site on these topics will bring up a host of useful resources.

Idols aren't just 'false gods' like the carved images described in the Old Testament. Here's Powlison on how Scripture describes idolatry:
First, the Bible internalizes the problem. “Idols of the heart” are graphically portrayed in Ezekiel 14:1-8. The worship of tangible idols is, ominously, an expression of a prior heart defection from YHWH your God. “Idols of the heart” is only one of many metaphors which move the locus of God’s concerns into the human heart, establishing an unbreakable bond between specifics of heart and specifics of behavior: hands, tongue, and all the other members. The First Great Commandment, to “love God heart, soul, mind, and might,” also demonstrates the essential “inwardness” of the law regarding idolatry. The language of love, trust, fear, hope, seeking, serving—terms describing a relationship to the true God—is continually utilized in the Bible to describe our false loves, false trusts, false fears, false hopes, false pursuits, false masters. 
If “idolatry” is the characteristic and summary Old Testament word for our drift from God, then “desires” (epithumiai) is the characteristic and summary New Testament word for the same drift. Both are shorthand for the problem of human beings. The New Testament language of problematic “desires” is a dramatic expansion of the tenth commandment, which forbids coveting (epithumia). The tenth commandment is also a command that internalizes the problem of sin, making sin “psychodynamic.” It lays bare the grasping and demanding nature of the human heart, as Paul powerfully describes it in Romans 7. Interestingly (and unsurprisingly) the New Testament merges the concept of idolatry and the concept of inordinate, life-ruling desires. Idolatry becomes a problem of the heart, a metaphor for human lust, craving, yearning, and greedy demand.
From Idols of the Heart and "Vanity Fair"

Addictions Are Idolatry - But They Are Also 'Medication' for a Bigger Problem

Addiction is definitely an idolatry of the heart, a craving for something other than God to satisfy you. But there is an important layer underneath all of that. Virtually all addicts are enslaved to their addiction because they are hiding from something else. They began using the addiction to 'medicate' away something they couldn't cope with. That means that even if you strip out the drug or alcohol or pornography the person is addicted to, there is a problem underneath that is also out of control. Addictions don't just come from selfishly indulging yourself regardless of the damage it does to others (although they certainly look like that too); they come from deep wounds or fear or anxiety or pain or another affliction. The person underneath is suffering, and they have run to the addiction to make that suffering bearable.

To understand how to help a friend with an addiction, you have to be aware of these things:

  1. The addict is afraid to give up his or her addiction. What drives them back to their addiction again and again is something else they feel they can't handle, and they are scared to face it without the numbing escape of their addiction.
  2. This means the addict does not really believe he or she can face life without using the addiction.
  3. In fact, far from thinking their addiction is ruining their life, a person with an addiction probably believes that using whatever they're addicted to is what makes them able to face life. They think it's what keeps them from falling apart.
  4. That means that anyone pressuring them to give up their addiction is threatening to them. It feels like an attack on the one thing they are depending on to make life bearable.
  5. Often an addicted person will never believe that their addiction is a problem until things collapse so badly that they realize it is ruining their life. That means that the crucial time to get a person with an addiction into counseling or treatment or other help is right after something disastrous has happened (a DWI, a spouse moving out, losing a job, etc.). The window of shock that allows them to see their addiction as a problem is short. Eventually they will 'medicate' away the shock with their addiction.
  6. The answer is not only to convince him or her the behavior is wrong or dangerous, but to also convince the person that they can face life and can overcome whatever it is that is underneath the addiction. They need to believe they don't need it.
  7. You need to help them figure out what the underlying problem is. This probably means they will need to see a counselor who has some experience helping people with addictions. Your best help to them is probably to convince them to start counseling.
  8. If you don't address the underlying problem, this person will not be able to shake off their addiction. Some people may even abandon one addiction under pressure only to take up another because the same root problem is overwhelming them.
  9. This is also why people with addictions can seem to be "cured" for a month or a few months, which often causes friends to stop being vigilant. But when the pressure of life gets too heavy again, or the person feels hopeless, they return to the same addictive behavior to cope. They may tough it out for a while, but unless they have learned to deal with life without the addiction, that's what they'll turn to when they can't take it anymore.
For example, this quote explains a lot about how an addict thinks: "Sharon Hersh is a therapist and an expert on addiction. ... Sharon says that addicts believe two things that fuel their destructive behavior. The addict believes she deserves relief, and that she should be able to choose when and how she gets it. In that sense, we’re all prone to addiction." (From Drunk Believers, by Erik Guzman. Guzman presents a thought-provoking picture of someone who may or may not be an alcoholic or addict.)

Therefore, a massive part of overcoming an addiction is helping the person learn to cope with suffering in a healthy and biblical way. It is also essential to remember that the person is vulnerable, and they turn to their addiction out of desperation. They need a lot of encouragement and positive support. The battle to change these patterns of thought and dependence is hard, and it is common for people to fall back into their addiction because they hit a period of hopelessness and despair where it doesn't seem like it matters anymore. Being sensitive to their moods and the life pressures that are happening to them is very important, so that you can perceive when they may be discouraged and help them fight it.

Click here for Part II - Confronting Deception and Concealment, Pride and Shame, which covers what makes addicted people habitually lie and conceal their behavior, and why it takes so much careful work to get them to be honest and open about what's going on.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: A Beautiful Life Raising Kids with Special Needs - Feast of Theology with John Webster - Teaching Children Obedience Without Legalism

Here are three things worth feeding your mind. You can find prior roundups under Spiritual Coffee, and stay tuned for new installments later this week.

The Beautiful Trial of Raising Kids with Special Needs, Paul Martin reviews Andrew and Rachel Wilson's book The Life We Never Expected: Hopeful Reflections on the Challenges of Parenting Children with Special Needs. (TGC)
The Wilsons "are part of the leadership team at Kings Church in Eastbourne in the United Kingdom" and their parenting took a completely unexpected turn when "both their children (Zeke and Anna) showed signs of autism around age 3. It was regressive autism, meaning both had been meeting typical developmental milestones, but then started going in reverse." Most people flee from the idea of having a child with any developmental disabilities or special needs. The Wilsons seem to have done a remarkable job of both showing the beauty and hope involved in parenting these unique and precious children, while also being blunt and honest about the discouragement, difficulty, and demands. Consciously or unconsciously, most of us pin our happiness on having the life we expected. But there is a glorious and breathtaking part of experiencing God that can only be seen and felt by people who have surrendered and let God use them to humbly serve other lives. We usually fight tooth and nail against that surrender, and it is helpful to be shown the reward of what's on the other side by people like the Wilsons who have been taken there.
 "When you read The Life We Never Expected, you feel like you’ve been transported into the Wilsons’ living room to shoot straight with them about life and parenting—only with a twist. 
"God, in his great wisdom, saw fit to bless the Wilsons with two children with autism. It may be worth stopping here to say what autism is and isn’t. Some tend to think a few good spankings, more rigid discipline, and a parenting course or two will straighten things out, but you cannot discipline genetics. Autism is 'a neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, and restricted and repetitive behavior.' Its cause is unknown, and it manifests in a variety of ways—Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder, not otherwise specified PDD-NOS, and childhood disintegrative disorder are all related disabilities on the Autism Spectrum." 
"Andrew isn’t ashamed to tell us how, when the second diagnosis came, he
was overwhelmed by the most sweeping, drowning sense of pain and anguish I had ever experienced, ran into the playroom, curled up on the floor, and wailed until I thought there was nothing left. It was, and still is, the lowest point of my entire life.
"That’s the kind of raw honesty that pervades The Life We Never Expected. And that’s what I loved most about it. There’s a kind of denial the Christian church tolerates when it comes to disability. We often ignore things that scare us or we don’t understand. The Wilsons, however, bravely invite us into their world to taste their anguish and joys.  
"This book is much more than a lament. It’s that, but it’s also a vivid description of God’s dependability amid the sorrow and chaos of disability."

Perfection & Presence: God With Us, According to the Christian Confession, John Webster (Carl F.H. Henry Center at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School)
Webster, a massively influential theologian, passed away last month. At that time I posted some links to articles detailing his life and contributions to Christianity. Here is a great chance to absorb some of his work through six audio lectures. And yeah, this is probably much more than one coffee break, but consider it a chance to stock up and take these in little sections at a time in order to reflect on them.
"Professor John Webster delivers a rich reflection upon the perfections and presence of God. The question at the center of this lectures series is the nature of human fellowship with God. The Investigation of the nature of this fellowship entails for Webster, a comprehension of the divine perfections and their relation to the Trinitarian relations and missions. From the nature of God, the Trinitarian relations and the nature of Divine presence more generally, it can then be understood more clearly what scripture means when it speaks of the Word becoming flesh. Webster offers, therefore, an extensive reflection upon the human history of the divine Word and the nature of his presence in the flesh. Finally, Webster moves to discuss the nature of the resurrected and exalted Lord’s presence, a presence manifest in his Lordship over his creatures and in the practices and Sacraments of the holy church."
Is It Anti-Gospel to Teach Kids Self-Control Before Conversion? - Owen Strachan (For the Church)
Valuable reflections from a remarkable theologian, who is also the president of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (in other words, a man who cares very deeply about families and children). If we really understand the Gospel, then we know that obedience to God does not earn us salvation. Instead, obedience is frequently described in Scripture as "fruit." Fruit only grows on a tree that is already alive. Unless we are made alive by the Spirit, we cannot bring forth the fruit of obedience and good works. These things come after saving faith in Christ, not before. And the last thing we want to do is confuse our children by making them think that they have to "be good" in order to get God's approval, because that is the deadly peril of legalism. Strachan has a very practical answer for parents. Read on:
"No true transformation can happen without miraculous grace.  There is surely truth to this argument.  Without the gospel, we are slaves to sin.  We cannot conquer sin or master it; as long as we are unconverted, sin is in fact our master.  We need God-given faith in Christ to know true and lasting transformation.
"But I am wondering if, in highlighting this ultimate truth, we might forget a penultimate (secondary) reality.  It is good and well to train children, pre-conversion, in obedience and self-control.  If you do this in a way that indicates that successfully resisting a given temptation equates with the highest form of pleasing God, then that’s problematic.  In other words, if you train kids that doing right actions saves them, that’s tragic.  But it’s also tragic to not raise children to discern right from wrong and to think that they have no ability whatsoever to follow commands.
"If, though, you train children in good habits while always holding out the need for repentance and faith, I think you’re being a wise and godly parent.  The father who speaks repeatedly to his son in Proverbs clearly directs him to steer clear of sin.  The father is forming habits in his son, and those habits are not opposed to saving faith.  They are creating channels through which the life-giving water of the gospel will flow."

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: Barnabas Piper Leadership Podcasts (Spiritual Disciplines) - Sports Community Replaces Church - Richard John Neuhaus, Liberal and Orthodox?

Catching up on a week of interesting developments. Here are three of the most useful things I've come across to stimulate and sharpen your Christian thinking. As always, prior selections are under Spiritual Coffee.

5 Leadership Questions podcast: Spiritual Disciplines and Leadership, Todd Akins and Barnabas Piper (with Kevin Spratt)
The bonus here is discovering this podcast by Akins and Piper, which has weekly episodes where they "ask five questions of different guests or about different leadership topics. The aim of the podcast is to inform and encourage Christian leaders whether they serve in the pastorate, the business world, non-profits, or on a volunteer basis." This one has a valuable perspective on why we can't take the spiritual disciplines for granted, or get tired of them. Kind of like we shouldn't get tired of breathing or eating. Some things are so basic that you just can't opt out of them if you want life to work.
In addition to a useful concept, Akins and Piper have quotes from each episode posted below the player so you can skim what they talk about.
“Many times the delta between our knowledge and our application is immense.”“Without the fundamentals you don’t have anything to build off of.”
“There are some things that there simply isn’t a newer better way to do.”
“Character is as valuable now as it ever has been, and there aren’t different versions.”
“You can’t really innovate spiritual disciplines.”
“You can’t lead people in a direction you’re not going yourself.”

Check out the episode with Jon Acuff too. Good thoughts on developing yourself for success and staying away from moral failure.
“I try to surround myself with people who have the kind of lives I want to live.”“Hustle is an act of focus, not frenzy.”
Lessons from Cleveland's Religious Devotion to Its Teams, Ed Uszynski (Athletes in Action)
This is a remarkably well-written comparison that identifies the community-bonding and identity-formation aspects of the investment people have in their cities' sports teams. It contrasts how those aspects used to be served primarily by church community. There are some valuable observations here about what may be missing from our churches, as well as what we need to make sure we are getting from church instead of simply from sports and other recreational friendships.
"They actually fill a void previously filled by church attendance and the experience of being a church member. With the decline of institutional religion as an influential reality in communities across America, a key component of human development and one of the primary areas that Christian education used to fill—identity formation—has been taken over by sport culture."
The Liberalism of Richard John Neuhaus, Matthew Rose (National Affairs)
Neuhaus was founder and editor of the Christian magazine First Things, a commentary on religion and public life, up until his death. He is probably one of the most well-known voices addressing the absence of religion in the public square and civil government. He coined the phrase "the Naked Public Square" with his book in the 1980s, describing what had happened to social and civic discussions by the exclusion of 'religion' as an accepted aspect of those discussions. He was a great champion for the importance and appropriateness of religious thought being applied in society, politics, law, and education, but also a very wise and reasonable thinker who didn't suffer from the extremes that some Christians do in trying to 'put the Bible back in school.' He is a man well worth studying and knowing. It's only fair that I include a link to the reminiscences of First Things writers about Neuhaus as well. This article is by no means the definitive portrait of Neuhaus, but it is a great picture nonetheless.
"At the time of his death in 2009, Richard John Neuhaus had been a public figure for nearly four decades. To admirers and friends, he was arguably the most influential American Christian intellectual since Reinhold Niebuhr or John Courtney Murray. The New York Times described him as a 'theologian who transformed himself from a liberal Lutheran leader of the civil rights and anti-war struggles in the 1960s to a Roman Catholic beacon of the neoconservative movement of today.' It was a conventional biographical arc — Neuhaus's life was defined by exchanging the ideals of liberalism for the dogmas of religious traditionalism."
"But that story is misleading, if not worse, since it distorts the convictions of a man wholly defined by his convictions. Neuhaus spent his life contending for the soul of the liberal tradition. Conversions great and small marked his career, and he often quoted Cardinal Newman, saying that 'to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.' But his commitment to political liberalism, far from being a youthful error he later repudiated, was one of his life's few consistent threads. The other was his orthodox Christian faith."

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Today Is the End of the Christian Right - Mike Farris Sees It Happening

As about 1,000 evangelical leaders met with Donald Trump today at Trump Tower (including Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, tweeting a picture of himself with Trump in front of Trump's wall of magazine covers that includes a framed cover of Playboy magazine), Michael Farris posted this essay declaring that today is the end of the Christian Right. Considering that Farris helped pioneer the Christian Right in the 1980s and beyond, his words carry some serious weight. Please read them. I quoted the main points below.
[In case you may think that Falwell, Jr., likely unaware of all the covers on the wall, would have been scandalized to find a Playboy magazine in the photo he shared: he has shrugged it off and said everyone criticizing him is a hypocrite, because he's proud to be seen with sinners and tax collectors. And, apparently, snap photos with them and their pornography.]

"I attended the very first meeting of the Moral Majority held in Indianapolis in February of 1980. I was the Washington state director of the MM and have been a leader of the "Christian right" ever since.
Today an estimated 1,000 evangelical leaders are making a pilgrimage to Trump Tower to "listen" to Donald Trump."
"This meeting marks the end of the Christian Right. The premise of the meeting in 1980 was that only candidates that reflected a biblical worldview and good character would gain our support."
"In 1980 I believed that Christians could dramatically influence politics. Today, we see politics fully influencing a thousand Christian leaders.
This is a day of mourning."
(Farris, Trump's Meeting with Evangelical Leaders Marks the End of the Christian Right)

He puts it very clearly: the religious right joined together in order to support candidates that would represent biblical values and worldview. Today we see Christian leaders on the right following after a candidate who reflects neither. They are not influencing politics for Christ. Politics is influencing them, so much so that they will not let go of clinging to political power and influence no matter what compromises they are required to make. If you cannot disentangle yourself and your faith from politics over a man like Trump, then politics owns you.

This is shameful for a Christian. Our crucified Lord told his disciples when He was being arrested, knowing torture and death awaited Him, that they should put away their swords. He asked them if they didn't realize He could immediately call upon the Father and have twelve legions of angels fighting for Him. But He did not, for the same reason he told Pilate: His kingdom is not of this world, otherwise his servants would be fighting for it now. And it still isn't. America is not Christ's kingdom. He does not need us to fight for control of America at all costs, no matter what we lose in the process. If America goes the way of Trump, or of Clinton, that is the world's business. Our business as Christians is to remain true to our Lord, put our hope in His coming kingdom, and be sure that we represent it rightly to people in the world. Making certain that the Church looks just like Christ is far more urgent and important than trying to make America look like the Church.

This means we can afford to let go of political power. We can afford to not be influential over immoral candidates. We can afford to have nothing to do with them. We do not have to run off a cliff with Republican candidates. They are not our only hope. In fact, our hope is completely set on something else. Peter, one of the disciples that Jesus had to rebuke in the garden for fighting as if His kingdom was of this world, says it plainly:
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one's deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:13-21).
That is where all of our hope is set. This is the kind of people we ought to be before the rest of the world. Mike Farris sees it. Do you?

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Spiritual Coffee: Christians, Don't Always Insist on Rights - The Eyes of Wendell Berry in Film - Southern Baptists Find Unity, Humility

Friday's roundup to help you set your mind on things above as we go into the weekend. As usual, I summarized why I think these are worth pondering, and included the quotes that left the strongest impression upon me.

Click on Spiritual Coffee for other good stuff from past posts.

Following Christ, Relinquishing Rights, Brett McCracken (
I believe Christians must have this category in their minds: 'rights I have, but I will choose not to use.' That is what McCracken (a contributor for Mere Orthodoxy) is saying, making a simple but difficult point that Christians are not supposed to be concerned first with protecting the full use of their rights - whether it is the right to own firearms or the legal basis to keep refugees and immigrants from entering the country. With the religious liberty we have enjoyed in the United States being attacked with increasing ferocity, and other rights we are used to depending on being questioned or limited by a government we do not trust (regardless of who is in the White House), it is sadly very easy for us to get indignant and defensive. We often become very vocal about insisting upon total freedom to use our rights however we see fit. But this pattern of thinking doesn't fit the Scriptures. Although I don't agree with every example McCracken gives, and I think many Christians would not need to adopt them all, he does a very good job of confronting the un-Christian attitude of insisting on all of our rights.
Christians do have rights, and we do use them, but we don't need to be insistent about using them every time we have them. And we don't need to use them fully. We can (and should) give up our full rights on many occasions. The reason is that the Christian is supposed to be concerned first with showing what kind of hope we have in God and what security we have in heaven, not with guarding our own security and comfort on earth. Although McCracken didn't quote this, John Calvin summed it up in saying: "There is nothing plainer than this rule, that we are to use our liberty if it tends to the edification of our neighbor, but if inexpedient for our neighbor, we are to abstain from it." [commenting on 1 Cor. 10:23-24.] In other words, only make use of your rights if it will not cause your neighbor to stumble. But if it does, don't use them. "For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another." (Galatians 5:13)
"The Christian way is to set our rights aside when they are an an impediment to the love and grace of the gospel, let alone when they endanger the safety of others. Does this mean we never appeal to our rights? No. Paul himself appealed to his rights as a Roman citizen when he was about to be flogged (Acts 22:25). Does this mean we fully surrender our freedom to believe certain beliefs and to live our lives consistently with those beliefs? No. But it may mean we exercise our freedoms more quietly or that we cede some of our freedoms for the sake of others’ flourishing. It may mean we open ourselves up to inconvenience and discomfort and pain.
"This is a hard truth for Christians, but it is a foundational truth in our faith. The New Testament is full of calls to follow Christ’s model of humble, self-effacing and status-relinquishing love (Phil. 2:5-8); to submit to one another out of reverence for Christ (Eph. 5:21), to consider others more important than yourself (Phil. 2:3), to see freedom in Christ not as a weapon but as an opportunity to serve others in love (Gal. 5:13-15), to serve our neighbors before we serve ourselves (Rom. 15:1-3), and so on. 
"This is the upside-down, countercultural nature of the kingdom of God, and Christians in today’s world have an opportunity to reclaim our witness as emissaries of this “others before myself” kingdom."
The Eyes of Wendell Berry: A Cinematic Portrait of a Camera-Shy Man, John Murdock (First Things)
Author Wendell Berry is one of those writers (like Marilynne Robinson) who make a profound impact on many Christians, while transcending any categories such as "Christian fiction" or "Spirituality." Indeed, it would not be fair to label their work in any such terms. It is bigger than any narrow genre or category, and like authors such as John Steinbeck and Flannery O'Connor, we honor its ability to capture human life so completely by calling it "literature." I would like to be more familiar with Berry than I am, and so this brief introduction and the film it describes are very welcome.
"Berry, who lives life without a television or a computer, is about as un-Hollywood as he can be. Yet, the executive producers for Dunn’s labor of love were heavyweights Robert Redford and Terrence Malick[.]"
"Dunn’s film is not your run-of-the-mill biopic, and how could it be? Berry, though very much alive, agreed to participate in the project, but with the complicating condition that he would not appear on camera. The viewer sees recent interviews of his wife Tanya and daughter Mary, but the man himself is present only as a voice and in images from the past. With their differing views of progress, both fans and critics of this farmer/writer, who has done his varied work with draught horses and a 1956 Royal typewriter, will likely see his elusiveness as fitting. 
"The Seer centers on Berry’s debates in the 1970s with Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Butz had rural roots that rivaled Berry’s, but he came to see a decline from 45% of the population working the land at his birth to some 4% at the time of their encounters—what Berry labeled The Unsettling of America—as a positive development. 'Butz’s law,' which he formulated, was 'adapt or die,' and its measure of success was 'P-R-O-F-I-T.' 
"Berry is seen by many as a prophet of a different sort. Archival footage shows him—then with a full head of dark hair—acknowledging that he and Butz would likely never agree, because 'he’s arguing from quantities and I’m arguing from values.' For Berry, the calculus must acknowledge such incalculables as 'the Hebrew-Christian values' of neighborliness and kindness. He concludes, 'I don’t think you can love those old values and love what has come to be American agriculture at the same time.' It is a message that has permeated the more than forty books of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry that have issued from his literary perch overlooking the Kentucky River."
Southern Baptists Elect Steve Gaines as President, Renounce Confederate Flag, and more.
The Southern Baptist Convention met this week to elect a new president and passed several important resolutions. Even if you aren't Southern Baptist (as I am not), this was a historic convention that affected one of the largest bodies of Christians in the United States. Here are a few reasons worth knowing, with some links for details:
  • It's significant to know that the election for president, which was evenly divided on the first two ballots and was set to go to an unheard-of third ballot, was also a difference between those in the SBC who hold to Calvinist theology and those who fit with Arminian theology.
  • Even more important, the election never went to a third ballot because J.D. Greear, pastor of Summit Church in Raleigh, NC, withdrew his name and pledged his support behind Steve Gaines before the Wednesday morning vote. It was an extraordinary display of humility and unity (he and Gaines met and talked it through and prayed over it the night before) that allowed the convention to move forward together. Here's Greear's explanation, a great example of seeking the good of Christ's body above your own plans or vision.
  • The convention voted to renounce the display of the Confederate Flag, passing an even stronger resolution than the one initially proposed. Some may see this as long overdue, others may think it is out of place. But I think this needed to be said: wounds of racial distrust and historical disharmony need to be healed by demonstrations of humility and empathy with each other's pain. The speech by Dr. James Merritt urging that all the flags in the world are not worth the loss of one soul was a powerful moment that seemed to stir the convention to action. Russell Moore praised the decision and explained his support for it.
  • A resolution on caring for refugees was passed as well. I hope the example this sets for the church and for individual Christians will help us be wise and generous in our political engagement on this issue in addition to acting it out in our churches and communities.
  • Here is a link with a recap by the SBC of the convention, and here is a collection of video of the speeches at the convention.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Why You Should Let G.K. Chesterton Baptize Your Christian Mind

If the title seems a bit irreverent, I hope you'll forgive me for quoting C.S. Lewis. Lewis said that what Chesterton did for him was to baptize his intellect much the same way George MacDonald had baptized his imagination. In other words, Chesterton persuaded a young and atheistic Lewis of the rationality and sensibility of Christianity. It would be some years before Lewis fully converted to Christianity, helped largely by J.R.R. Tolkien, but Chesterton's book The Everlasting Man was one of the most significant steps forward. (Here is more on that story.)

Yet that is only a fraction of what Chesterton accomplished. My prayer is that I can persuade you to increase your joy and encouragement by seeing what Chesterton has to offer every Christian.

G.K. Chesterton died 80 years ago today, but in life he was one of the towering intellects of the 20th century. There are certain Christians that virtually every believer feels they should know something about: Augustine, Martin Luther, John Wesley, John Bunyan, Charles Spurgeon, C.S. Lewis, etc. Chesterton definitely qualifies. He contributed his reason and wit to almost every possible subject that a Christian might encounter. He wrote dozens of books applying Christian truth and reason to the problems of culture and society, addressing everything from materialism and secularism to the culture of death and the disintegration of marriage. He was not trained as a theologian, yet wrote on theology with a brilliance and perceptiveness that stunned professional scholars. His biography of St. Thomas Aquinas was called perhaps the best book ever written on Thomas by Etienne Gilson (himself probably the most significant Thomist scholar of the 20th century).

He debated George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells on philosophy, reason, science, and culture - but they were also his friends. Indeed, Chesterton had a gift for being on good terms with almost anybody, and an irrepressible joviality and cheerfulness that make his writing delightful to read. He wrote biographies of Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson and more. He published a newspaper column for decades as well as his own newspaper. He wrote poetry. He wrote plays. He wrote detective stories that rivaled the Sherlock Holmes tales in popularity. He wrote on history and literature. He debated Clarence Darrow on evolution in New York City in 1931 after the Scopes Trial publicity. Several commentators believed Chesterton won the debate.

On top of all that, Chesterton was a tireless defender of the common man, and skewered political systems and social agendas that pretended to be progressive but in effect really hindered or oppressed the average person. He was relentless in holding ideas and people accountable to plain common sense, and showing how even the most sophisticated rhetoric often fell down when exposed to it. In the conclusion to his book What's Wrong With The World, he gives perhaps the most powerful and thundering defense I've ever heard for why government social engineering must give way before the basic virtue of individual human dignity. Chesterton was not about to tolerate for one minute any social scheme or government plan that made the man (usually the poor man) merely an object manipulated by the state.

As a Christian, you can probably find something Chesterton wrote that speaks to anything in your life. One of the remarkable resources to help you do just that is the American Chesterton Society. They have put an enormous variety of Chesterton's work online and indexed and explained it so that you can pick and choose where to start and what to explore. The Society is really responsible for much of the availability of some of Chesterton's work today, and is a very precious tool.

The American Chesterton Society's "Discover Chesterton" page gives a brief overview of the diversity of his work, and links broken down by category for a sampling of his most interesting writing in each area:

o    The Critic
o    The Detective
o    The Essayist
o    The Historian
o    The Poet

Additionally, they have 94 lectures covering both the major works and a generous variety of his other writings. I shared earlier today some other suggestions and an article for getting started with Chesterton. I hope these links will be a doorway to delight and inspiration for you.

As a post-script, the book I treasure most is Orthodoxy, Chesterton's spiritual autobiography. Although it may not be the most accessible place for some people to start, once you are ready for it, what awaits you is a story of enchantment that unfolds Christianity like a fairy tale - and demonstrates why only Christianity makes sense of the world. This is the story of how Chesterton discovered through his own ponderings about life, and his own experiments in searching for truth, beauty, and reason, the great story of Christianity and how it made sense of everything in life. The difficulty people encounter in reading it is that Chesterton uses metaphor and imagery very heavily, and some of it can require a lot of careful thought and imagination in order for the concepts and arguments to come through clearly. It is well worth the investment, but working up to it by getting used to Chesterton's style may be helpful.

Happy reading.

Spiritual Coffee: Why Read Chesterton? - Challenging Hollywood for Despising Disabilities - How to Spend Your Life on What Matters Most

Here are the top three things that impressed me as worth your thoughts and reflection from the past couple of days. I put some extra thought into summarizing and quoting some of the main ideas and gems because these topics were so interesting. There were several more I came across while out of town, which I'll catch up on posting later this week. In the meantime, past collections of useful links are under Spiritual Coffee.

Why You Should Read G.K. Chesterton (Even When It's Hard), Matt Nelson (Word on Fire blog)
This is the 80th anniversary of Chesterton's death in 1936. Matt Nelson has a nice and simple set of reasons that Chesterton is desirable reading for anyone (especially any Christian), and some good suggestions for how to stick to it even when he may be difficult to grasp. He also links to the American Chesterton Society, which is a goldmine of resources and help for finding a place to start with Chesterton and understanding his ideas. Here are two suggestions of my own for enjoying Chesterton without getting discouraged:
1) There is a sensory expansion that comes by reading Chesterton. You don't have to "get" everything he is saying in order to grow in your awareness. Like learning to recognize certain scents or colors by experience, you can learn to see wisdom even without fully understanding the logic behind it. Chesterton has an extraordinary gift for turning the world around you into a painting or a fairy tale so that you simply see with different eyes. Some of this is just absorbed from spending time in his mind, so that you begin to notice things you didn't observe before. There is even more value, and some protection, in understanding the logic as well, but it's surely worthwhile to get the wisdom even if the logic trails along afterwards. You have to start seeing before you can understand. I wouldn't say this about any writer, but knowing there's so much solidity and brilliance to Chesterton's thinking makes me very comfortable telling people: "Yes, this is definitely the fountain you want to drink from. Trust me on this one."
2) My second encouragement is to simply enjoy Chesterton. Don't feel pressured to work through the meaning of every single thing he is saying. Feel free to just delight in his prose and wit and the wonder of his imagination. He is a giant among storytellers, so by all means just sit and listen to the story. Chesterton's work often refreshes your soul even when you don't work your way through the intellectual ideas, simply because he pours beauty and wonder out of his pen into everything he writes. On some occasions the best use of a work of art is just to admire it and be moved by it, instead of trying to understand it. Feel free to take what comes freely from Chesterton, and at other times ponder over the parts that make you think. Both are full of grace and truth.
[Nelson:] Nonetheless remembering that “angels can fly because they take themselves lightly”, this larger than life apostle of common sense also took himself lightly because he took his faith seriously. He came to know God but he came to know himself better; which made him a better man. He was—to summarize—a joyfully serious thinker and wordsmith whom people loved (and love).Chestertonian scholar, Dale Ahlquist, writes:“There’s a goodness that just exuded from him...The biographical accounts of Chesterton always portray him as being very joyful, and humble, and good, so that everyone was just drawn to that, including his intellectual and philosophical enemies. The people who violently disagreed with Chesterton on the issues were drawn to him as a person because of his charity.” 
Remember that good physical nutrition presupposes “good chewing” to ensure good digestion. Good intellectual nutrition thus also presupposes “good chewing” to ensure good digestion. Chesterton’s words are like steak, not pudding. Hard work will make your head work, and reading Chesterton is hard head work. Hard work in a Culture Of Convenience might seem inconvenient, but adventuring with Chesterton is worth the rigour. As Chesterton himself says:“An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered.” (from “On Running After Ones Hat”)

Would Hollywood Want the Disabled Dead? - John Knight (Desiring God)
Me Before You: Dear Hollywood, Why Do You Want Me Dead? - Ella Frech (Aleteia)
The movie Me Before You, recently released, tells a disappointing and all too familiar tale of a person with a disability who is surrounded by friends who help him make the 'courageous' choice to destroy himself to escape being disabled. Ella Frech, an 11-year-old girl who is paralyzed and in a wheelchair, wrote the most stunningly insightful rebuke of Hollywood's obsession with portraying disabled people as better off dead. Her courage and bluntness, as well as her peace of mind with her life and her clear understanding that there's nothing "wrong" with her, are magnificent. John Knight has some great observations to go along with it, but Ella Frech definitely steals the show here.
"You sit there with your able bodies, and look at people in chairs and think you feel pity for our sad little lives, but the truth is you’re afraid. You don’t want to imagine that you might be one of us one day. You think you can be perfect, and think you’d rather die than have parts that don’t work right. I think that’s sad."
"While you’re sitting in your offices crying about the bravery of this guy who kills himself and leaves everyone else to mourn him, which seems pretty selfish to me, I’m going to be out living the amazing life you didn’t even bother to know was possible. I have friends, and go on sleep-overs, and live a regular life. A life that doesn’t make me want to die. It makes me happy that it’s mine." 
"This could have been a great movie. It could have been the love story of two people and one of them just happens to use a chair. It happens all the time. The people in love don’t think about the chair. It’s the other people who think it’s a big deal."
"You may not believe in God. You don’t have to, and I can’t make you. But I do, and because of that I believe in the value of all people. I believe we are all made in his image and likeness. That’s why I believe all people are worth something. If you believe that people only get their value from each other, then people can take that away. But if our value comes from God, then nobody has the right to say someone who walks is worth more than someone who doesn’t." 
[John Knight:]
Just as interesting are some comments on her article and other articles with the same viewpoint. While the comments for Ella were mostly supportive (who is going to directly attack such an articulate young girl, especially one with a disability?), even her article generated comments that sought to “correct” her perspective. These comments generally fall into one of two camps:
§           * She isn’t qualified to speak on the subject because she has not read the book or watched the movie.
§          * She misses the point about the movie. It isn’t about disability but about “choice.”
Both assertions are absurd. The one who has lived the life doesn’t need to read another book, or watch another movie, to comment on how the culture treats her.
And, of course, the movie is about disability. The whole “choice” argument made by the right-to-die movement is clearly discriminatory against disability. Even the hashtag for the movie (#liveboldly) applies to the lead character who is not disabled, while the one with the disability only gets to die boldly. At least they didn’t have to make up the organization that kills him — that one really exists in Switzerland.

How to Avoid the Worst Form of Failure, Tim Challies (
[Also includes a link to video/audio of his presentation at a Ligonier conference.]
Everyone struggles to keep their time focused on the most valuable tasks instead of the ones that draw away our attention. Smaller, or simpler, or more pleasant tasks that are less important are constantly luring us away from what really matters most. So any help in keeping our discipline is welcome. The quotes below capture why this is such a wise piece of advice. Challies zeroes in on the core of what makes the difference between a productive, or important, task vs. what makes some things less worthy of our time.
Of course, his advice is a general rule of thumb, and sometimes the opposite will be true. But the value of a concept like this is that when we're struggling to decide where our focus should be, it will steer us right most of the time and save us wasted time going in circles or in the wrong direction. That's worth accepting the necessary footnote of figuring out when to make exceptions. 
"Don’t we all live with this fear that we will succeed at the lesser things in life while failing at the greater things? It’s not like those lesser things are always bad things. Some of them are actually very good. It’s just that they are, by definition, lesser things. They are not the matters of first importance. There is an order to life and we all know that sometimes those lesser things can look so attractive. They can be so distracting. They can keep us from giving attention to the things that matter far more." 
"We are so tempted to throw away all the big things to succeed at the lesser things. But we can’t deny it: Succeeding at lesser things at the cost of the greater things is the worst form of failure." 
"The art of productivity is the art of succeeding at things that matter. At its best, productivity is ensuring that you succeed at the things that matter most. It is meant to ensure that you don’t look back over your life someday and realize you’ve only succeeded at the fleeting things, the minor things, the things that just don’t matter." 
"I believe we can read through the Bible and see something like this: Productivity is effectively stewarding your gifts, talents, time, energy, and enthusiasm for the good of others and the glory of God. What matters most in life, what matters most in the universe, what matters most to God, is the glory of God. God calls us to bring glory to him in every way we can in every area of life and especially by doing good to others (see, for example, Matthew 5:16). We do good to others and God gets the glory. That means that the greater things in life are the things we do for others, not the things we do for ourselves. The greater things in life are the things meant to benefit other people. The lesser things are the things meant to benefit ourselves."