Friday, May 16, 2008

reThink Conference 08 Notes

UPDATE: Alex Chediak has posted all notes.  Here is Session 1 (Leon Tucker), Session 2 (David Horner), Session 3 (Dave Owen), Session 4 (Steve Wright), and Session 5 (Randy Stinson).

Original post follows.

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As mentioned in an earlier post, Providence Student Ministries Pastor Steve Wright has written a book titled, reThink (check here for details).  The convictions that inspired that book also initiated reThink Conference 08, which was hosted today at Providence.

Here is the purpose for the meeting from the conference's registration website:

The reThink Conference is for youth pastors, pastors, education pastors, parents and youth leaders who desire a greater biblical understanding of how the two primary institutions that God has established in the Bible—the family and the church—work together in the context of youth ministry.

Today's conference was sponsored by Providence, Two Institutions, and InQuest Ministries.

If you missed the conference, my new friend Alex Chediak has offered you a valuable resource: he live-blogged the conference, which means extensive notes will soon be available for you.  He even flew in from California to join us for the event.  At this writing, Alex's notes from the first session by Leon Tucker are posted, and the remaining sessions will follow as soon as he able to edit them.

You can find Alex's reThink Conference 08 notes in his blog.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Inviting the Good Hand of God

The hand of God, as the term is used in scripture, can mean many things.  Often it illustrates the idea of God's protection, provision, and direction.  It can also mean deliverance or salvation, and can even be used with regard to discipline or punishment.

In the twin books of Ezra-Nehemiah, three times the phrase "good hand of God" is employed.  Each of the three instances displays the sovereignty of God as He acts in a particular way to bless an individual or group.  Certainly, scripture describes God's ability to do as He pleases (Psalm 115.2-3), and that whatever He desires to do, He can and will do (Psalm 135.5-6), even if it means changing the heart of a pagan king (2 Chronicles 36.22-23).

And yet, it is interesting to note that in Ezra 7.6-10, we have a brief explanation of why God's good hand was upon someone—in this case, Ezra.  The text says in verse six that the pagan king who was holding Ezra captive was granting whatever Ezra requested because the hand of God was on him.  And again in verse nine, it speaks of the speed and ease with which he was able to travel and begin his work, since "the good hand of his God" was on him.

What is very intriguing to me is that in verse ten, we are given a glimpse of why God's good hand was on him.  It says His good hand was working for the good of Ezra, "For," or because of, certain characteristics in Ezra's life.  Because of faithfulness in some specific areas, God was directly honoring Ezra's obedience and was blessing his work.  So what was it that Ezra was doing that, from a human vantage point, seemed to please the heart of God and invite His good hand?

Ezra 7.10 tells us the human side of the equation.  Ezra "had set his heart," or purposed or resolved within himself, that he would continue to do three things as he fulfilled his calling and work.

1.  He had resolved to study the scriptures.

...had set his heart to study the law of the Lord...

2.  He had resolved to apply the scriptures.

...had set his heart...to practice it...

3.  He had resolved to teach or share the scriptures.

...had set his heart...to teach His statutes and ordinances...

To be certain, we cannot manipulate God.  We can't orchestrate situations so that we gain His attention and hopefully draw His blessing on us.  But this scripture reminds us of what is near to the heart of God: that we would be people who study His word, actually live out the scriptures in our daily routines, and then, to whatever degree God gives us influence, share and explain with others what we have learned in our study and practice.

If only I would set my heart to the same three priorities, faithfully and passionately resolving to be faithful to God's word!  For Ezra, the result was God's blessing in his work, and favor and goodwill not only with the followers of God, but also with those in the larger culture who were not believers.

Now that's a good model to follow.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Why Progress?: How This Blog Got Its Name

What exactly is progress?  There are so many applications.

Much has been written in recent years regarding modernism and societal progress.  Whether with regard to technology, academics, business, or culture in general, many social thinkers have debated the value of progress.  Does progress ultimately benefit or harm society?  In an introductory chapter in his excellent book, Margin: Restoring Emotional, Physical, Financial, and Time Reserves to Overloaded Lives, Richard Swenson, M.D., discusses what he calls "The Pain of Progress."  This conversation about progress is certainly intriguing to me, but that's not what this blog is about.

A revived and in-vogue political term that has picked up its steam in the past few months and years is "progressive."  The concept, with regard to politics, has been around since the early 20th century (or even earlier), and became the name of a political party.  However, I have heard the updated version of usage much more frequently in the last decade.  Once conservative politicos had, as one left-leaning operative called it, "hijacked" the definition of the word "liberal" by attempting to turn it into a bad word the last few election cycles, many liberals decided to redefine themselves as progressives.  To the chagrin of true American progressives, who do not enjoy the supposed synonymy with American liberalism, this definition has stuck, at least for now, and remains as the descriptor of choice for forward-thinking liberal politicians who are anxious to portray themselves as moving away from supposedly negative traditions of the past.  This, too, is for me an interesting discussion, and while I chagrin at some liberals' hijacking of the term, progressive, that is not my concern here either.  Just a little shout out to my progressive friends.

When I was in college and took jazz piano and fancied the idea that I could actually play, at least I learned the basics—and learned my limits.  To this day I cannot read sheet music well, and I was never very good at improvisation, but for piano comping (a primarily jazz term short for accompanying), along with bass and drums to lay under an improvised solo, I learned how to navigate chord progressions with decent accuracy.  For true jazzmen, these charts are often referred to simply as the "progression," or "changes."  To me, this is yet another engaging aspect of the myriad applications of the concept of progression, but this is not what this blog is about.

So what is this blog about?

In this post, and indeed to a degree with most posts on this blog, I would like to think through what helps us to make genuine progress in our lives.  I want to encourage us to think of progress in terms of maturity and development on personal, familial, congregational and societal levels.  And at the core of this ongoing discussion is a very central biblical principle.

A few years ago, I was teaching through the biblical book of Hebrews and had some interesting and convicting realizations.  There is a wonderful section where the writer wants to explain something rich and full to his readers, but he seems to stop midstream with a genuine concern.  What I learned from his pause spun me like a windmill in a tornado.

The writer wants to tell them something about an important man with a funny (to us) name, Melchizedek.  He would like to draw a comparison to Jesus the Christ, and then make the contrast that Jesus is still far greater...but he pauses because he recognizes something curious about his readers.  It goes like this:

Concerning him [Melchizedek] we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing.  For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food.  For everyone who partakes only of milk is not accustomed to the word of righteousness, for he is an infant.  But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil.  Hebrews 5.11-14 (NASB)

Now admittedly, most scholars would not say that the letter To the Hebrews, (or, The Epistle to the Hebrews), is primarily about making progress in one's faith, per se.  But I would argue that, if clearly defined, this is in fact one of the main sub-themes.  How so?

Many would agree that the primary message the writer wants to convey is that Jesus is better than anyone or anything.  The Book of Hebrews is a patently Christian message that speaks of the value of the readers' Jewish heritage, but also then lovingly encourages and admonishes the readers not only to place their faith in Jesus, but to continue in their trust in Him, without looking back.

The writer asserts that what they have seen in their law has given a representation or a shadow of the true Redeemer, Jesus.  But Jesus is far greater than anyone or anything, because He actually fulfills the law—He is the reality of what had been prefigured in the law.  The law itself could never bring complete and continual cleansing, so the readers are challenged not only to trust in Christ, but also to keep pressing forward in their faith, and not waver in non-belief.  It is the message of endurance and perseverance in their trust in Christ.  To be sure, it is not a matter of leaving the gospel behind in order to move forward to presumably deeper things; it is about relishing in the gospel and continually digging further to mine the depths of life when one is constantly and consistently being transformed by the gospel.  It is about sanctification and endurance.  It's called maturity.  It's called progress.

Some interpreters argue that this paragraph is addressed to nonbelievers who need to grow in their understanding by placing their faith into Christ.  Others argue that this section is addressed to "backsliding" Christians who should have progressed by now.  Both interpretations may have decent arguments.  But to debate either side, in my opinion, is to miss the writer's point.  He is addressing a wide-ranging Jewish audience, which, like any Christian congregation today, includes some who are genuine, mature believers, some who are immature believers, some who think they are believers but are not, and some who cannot decide who or what they will follow.  In my view, at least part of what the writer is doing as he intersperses warnings throughout his letter is to use the letter (as a whole) to address all types within his wide range of readers.  His desire is to bring everyone up to speed—to maturity in Christ through faith.

So the writer has much to say about Melchizedek (whose name translates to righteous king, or king of righteousness), but cannot move forward because of the dull ears and eyes of the readers.  They should have progressed in faith, but like babies they have come to need continual milk instead of solid foods.  His indictment is clear in verse 14: they will neither be able to understand what he's writing about, nor to discern good and evil in life, unless by practice they are training their senses, and thus maturing and progressing in their faith.

The more I looked, the more I saw this principle throughout scripture.  And there's even more.

The sobering truth is, if you're not progressing, you're automatically regressing.

In a Christian's growth process, there's no such thing as reaching a plateau from which you cannot fall back.  We can liken this principle to swimming upstream in a river.  Once you stop actively swimming, you cannot maintain your position.  You automatically start drifting backwards.  In the same way, the follower of Christ who is not progressing may drift from what he has learned because he allowed it to become rote and thoughtless, or maybe she has forgotten how to apply what she once knew because she never practiced it.

The same is true in Hebrews 5.  The writer of Hebrews compares his readers (or at least some of them) to a baby who can only consume milk.  In fact, this baby needs milk again, even though he has had ample opportunity to move on.  Eating something more significant will make him sick, because he is not ready for it, not having practiced and grown into solid foods.  He says his readers need to be taught the same things again, even though by now they should have become teachers.

One of my great fears is that I would become dull of hearing like these folks.  My desire is to keep practicing, keep training my senses, so that I am enduring in life and consistently progressing in character for the sake of Christ.  I want to know Him more, and not look back.  I desire to grow and mature.  I want to progress.

That is what this blog is primarily about: Making progress in every area of life.  So as I mentioned, occasionally I will post thoughts about progress in terms of maturity and development on personal, familial, congregational and societal levels.  My sincere hope is that this process of thinking and writing will not only help me to consider life through the worldview of Christ, but that anyone who reads these posts will also be encouraged to make progress.

Let's join together in this Godward progress.