"Valleys Filled In and Mountains Made Low" a metaphor for Social Justice

When Isaiah prophesies about John the Baptist, he predicts that every valley shall be filled in and every mountain and hill made low. Is this a metaphor for social justice? Watch the entire Advent message here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=PCLNiEtinOY

Testing the New Blogger App

It has been a while since I have posted to this blog. A lot has changed in my life. I am now the Lead Pastor at the church where I have served for the last ten years. It has been an amazing process and transition and I feel like I am still getting my feet under me. I also finally switched to an iPhone after being a loyal Blackberry user for over seven years. And now I am composing this post with the Blogger app. I also need a haircut. Change is good.

Review: 'The Church Is Flat: The Relational Ecclesiology of the Emerging Church Movement' by Tony Jones

I just finished the book today and have to say that I am very impressed with Jones' latest work. A "lightly amended version" of his recent doctoral dissertation, the bibliography reads like a who's who of postmodern scholarship. The first chapter in particular goes in depth in outlining the variety of intellectual property from which Jones draws to underpin his research into the Emerging Church Movement (ECM). It is not a light read by any stretch of the imagination. Acknowledging this, Jones admits that the dissertation style is not his favorite, and jokingly offers the reader forgiveness for "skipping the sections that don't interest you."

At the core of the book is Jones' own study of the ECM. He performed research into eight leading churches within the movement, including his home church of Solomon's Porch in Minnesota (founded by Doug Pagitt), Cedar Ridge Community Church in Maryland (founded by Brian McLaren), and Vintage Faith Church in California (founded by Dan Kimball). From both the quantitative and qualitative data he obtained through his research, Jones identifies four concrete practices common to all the studied churches: Communion, Worship, Preaching, and Community. He also identifies five practices of virtue: Hospitality, Theology, Creating Art, Priesthood of All Believers, and Sacred Space. Jones sees relationality as the "binding characteristic" of these practices, and turns to the "relational ecclesiology" of Jurgen Moltmann as a means for bringing theological understanding to these practices.

And for me, this is where the book shines. As a founding leader within the ECM himself, Jones readily admits that the theology of the ECM is not well articulated. But he understands that the longevity of the movement is dependent on the existence of "thorough and robust theological reflection". I see this book as Jones' attempt to begin this reflection for the movement, by taking a studied look at the practices that exist within it, and seeking to draw theological conclusions from them. (He relies heavily on Moltmann for this, devoting an entire chapter to his theology. But Jones has criticism for Moltmann as well, and does not turn to him exclusively.) In my opinion this is a much needed course of action, and I am thankful that Jones has begun this process. It will be interesting to see if the ECM can indeed take some firm theological stands on a larger than local basis while still practicing a local communal hermeneutic. Its continued existence may depend on it.

As a side note, the book also includes a wonderful short history of the Emerging Church Movement. This historical synopsis, along with the in-depth study of the core churches currently leading the movement, is enough for me to recommend the book to anyone who is even remotely interested in the ECM. Feel free to skip the parts that don't interest you.

Are Christians Persecuted In America?

I am preaching again on August 21. The passage I'm covering is Acts 4 where Peter and John are called before the Sanhedrin for "teaching the people, proclaiming in Jesus the resurrection of the dead." Recently Jon Stewart discussed the issue of religiously motivated terrorism, highlighting the difference between how Christians and Muslims are treated in the American press.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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And here is the rest of the segment, where Stewart continues to discuss the "victim card", albeit with a more political slant.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
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The topic of Christian persecution is not new territory for Stewart. Here are a couple recent quotes from him:

"Does anyone know...does the Christian persecution complex have an expiration date? Because...uh...you've all been in charge pretty much since...uh...what was that guys name...Constantine. He converted in, what was it, 312 A.D. I'm just saying, enjoy your success."
- Jon Stewart

"I have to say, as someone who is not Christian, it’s hard for me to believe Christians are a persecuted people in America. God-willing, maybe one of you one day will even rise up and get to be president of this country - or maybe forty-four in a row. But, that’s my point, is they’ve taken this idea of no establishment as persecution, because they feel entitled, not to equal status, but to greater status."
– Jon Stewart to Mike Huckabee on The Daily Show

As I dig into Acts 4, I see great opportunity to speak on the issue of real religious persecution around the world. But at the same time, I have heard WAY too many sermons where Christians in America are told they are victims. Ever hear of the Humanist Manifesto? Francis Schaeffer? Dominionism? Do you have a worldview? Is your worldview in competition with someone else's? This is a topic that runs very deep. If you've never studied it, perhaps this post has piqued your interest? Or piqued your disinterest?? Love that verb!

The Resurrection of the Body

My Easter message on the Resurrection of the Body. Going to heaven is not our hope. 1 Corinthians 15.

Cessationism vs Continuationism

My most recent message on Acts 2. Speaking in Tongues: Cessationism vs Continuationism. Enjoy the mullet!

Ignorance Is Bliss

Is premarital sex damaging? A recent study from BYU seems to suggest so, at least with regard to marital satisfaction. I am a big fan of The Young Turks news program on YouTube. And several months ago they posted a video (actually a pair of videos) on the BYU study. Ana, one of the hosts of the show, seemed to not like the study and claimed that it was biased. Check out the second video below:

As I found myself disagreeing with some of Ana's assertions, I posted some comments on the video. They elicited quite a response from the TYT faithful. Here are some excerpts from the YouTube comments section. Mine are in italics

The study found that people who did not engage in premarital sex were 15% more satisfied with their marital sex lives than people who did. It compared two groups of married people: Those who had sex before marriage and those who didn't.

If you don't plan to get married, then the study results are basically meaningless for you. But if your goal is to one day be married, and you want your marital sex life to be as satisfying as possible, then you would be smart not to engage in premarital sex.

The reason these kinds of studies most often come from religious organizations is not because they want to intentionally bias the results to push an agenda. It is because no one else is interested in finding out the answers to these questions. Most people are satisfied assuming that premarital sex is not harmful. They don't want to study it to actually find out if it is or not. I say let's study it and try to discover the truth.

To Emergingworshiper: Yes, they would be happier because THEY WOULDN'T KNOW WHAT THEY'RE MISSING!!!!

I think you are exactly right. The problem with premarital sex, from my experience, is that it creates preferences and expectations that a future spouse cannot completely satisfy by themselves. Having a wealth of sexual experiences with a variety of partners will certainly teach you a lot about sex. But it will not make you happier if your goal is to one day be truly satisfied with only one partner for the rest of your life. As you said, you will know what you are missing.

@emergingworshiper: Yes. It's no surprise that those with a sample size of one are more satisfied. I thought my first time was great at the time. (if a bit awkward) But in retrospect, no it wasn't. I'm sure I'd be satisfied with a dial-up internet connection if i'd never heard of broadband. Ignorance is bliss, we all know this.

Then we agree. Those who remain virgins until marriage feel more sexually satisfied than those who don't. The study is accurate. Ignorance is bliss.

So the question is, which is more important to you? Would you rather have knowledge and experience or satisfaction? I would rather have the latter. You are free to choose the former.

What if you were married to the person you had that awkward sex with the first time? What would sex be like with them now? Probably much better!

@emergingworshiper: Not really shocking that those who've has only one sexual partner are going to be more satisfied with their sex lives... When you have a sample size of one and only social/religious conditioning about how awesome it's supposed to be as a point of reference, it's fairly unsurprising that you'd get skewed results. When I was 16 and had had only one sexual partner, I was satisfied with all the sex I got too. Impressive study there mormons.

The point of the study is not how awesome the sex is, but how satisfied the people are.

If a happy marriage is not important to you, then go ahead and get as much sexual experience as you can. Then you will have lots of experiences to compare your spouse to and be unsatisfied about. Or don't get married at all. But if you want to have a satisfying marriage, you would be wise to avoid sex beforehand.

@emergingworshiper: THINK ABOUT IT.. if you only had SEX WITH one person.. you would think its the best. cause you have nothing to compare to.. as to people who had many sex.. knows.. there is better things.

So what is more important to you? Being satisfied, or knowing better? If you want to be married to and satisfied by one person for the rest of your life, then you would be wise to heed the findings of this study and avoid premarital sex. But if a happy marriage is not important to you, then go ahead and get as much sexual experience as you can. Then you will have lots of experiences to compare your spouse to and be unsatisfied about.

@emergingworshiper: Notwithstanding the unrepresentative methodology, is it possible to say that the people who engaged in pre-marital sex have experience and they are going to know if they are with a terrible lover than those who have nothing to compare it with.

Besides, celibates will just be happy they finally got there.

I agree. But the reality is that no one is a perfect lover, so terrible is a relative term. It is relative to your experience. Not to pick on Hugh Hefner, but he has so much experience that I wonder how good a woman would have to be to keep him satisfied? Probably most women could not satisfy him.

@emergingworshiper: "If you don't know any better then of course you're going to be more satisfied. "

"That wasn't no regular cracker was it? ... that was a Ritz!"

So which is more important to you? Being more satisfied, or knowing better?

I suppose porn stars KNOW all about great sex, but I bet it is harder for them to be satisfied with just one person.

If you want to be married and happy with one person for the rest of your life, then avoid premarital sex. But if you don't care about having a happy marriage, then this study shouldn't matter to you.

To demonstrate cause you have to randomly assign people to one of the groups (not ethical for this) or follow people over time to demonstrate that one variable was preceded in time by the other. Here, participants had selected themselves into the premarital sex or no premarital sex group. Therefore, whatever lead them to that choice (tending to conform to dogma, conscientiousness, etc.) could have also lead them to report more satisfaction. CORRELATION DOESN'T EQUAL CAUSATION!!!!!

Yes, correlation does not equal causation. But trying to control for all possible variables is not realistic, especially those as vague as conscientiousness or conformity. Therefore, as you probably already know, statistical causation is basically impossible to prove in sociological studies like this. What the study shows is that waiting is positively correlated with increased satisfaction. That's enough to warrant a discussion about the potential results of one's personal choices.


I congratulate BYU on their efforts, but I hope the research does not end here. There need to be more studies, larger studies, and better funded studies, from a variety of sources. A small study from a religiously affiliated institution is too easy to dismiss, as The Young Turks have done here.

I am still quite a fan of The Young Turks. In fact, I just got their iPhone app. You should definitely check out Cenk's video on why he quit MSNBC. Fascinating insider stuff. Here is the link to that vid: http://youtu.be/5x7o0sNrulg

In the end I am happy to concede that ignorance is bliss. There are many issues in my life where I would happily trade my knowledge and experience for more happiness and satisfaction. I don't have a problem with that at all.

Agape vs. Phileo in John 21

I am preaching John 21 this Sunday and have gone around and around with this… here are my thoughts on the distinction between agape and phileo. This discussion has been around for quite a while, but has been renewed by changes in the recent updates to the 2011 NIV translation. Here is the passage in John 21 from the 1984 version of the NIV (emphasis added):

"15 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me more than these?”

“Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.”

16 Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you truly love me?”

He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.”

17 The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?”

Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep."

Notice Jesus' use of the phrase "truly love" as distinguished from Peter's answer of simply "love". The 1984 NIV translates this way in order to show the distinction between the word agape (which Jesus uses twice) and phileo (which Peter uses all three times, and Jesus uses the third time). However, in the 2011 NIV this distinction has been removed, and both words are translated the same, simply as "love" (as opposed to "truly love" for the case of agape in the 1984 NIV).

Why was this change made?

Current scholarship believes that a meaningful distinction between these two words for love does not exist here in John 21. Many point to John’s tendency to use synonyms as a stylistic tool and say that because John likes to use synonyms, we should deduce no other meaning than that. They also point to the fact that these two words are used interchangeably in some places in scripture, where Godly love is described as phileo and wordly love is described as agape. So therefore it is not safe to attach any strict definitions to the words. They can mean the same thing, simply love, and John is only making use of them both here in order to avoid repetition.

But there are a couple problems with this reasoning.

First, it doesn’t actually seem to be true that John uses these words interchangeably to avoid repetition. There are six passages in the John’s writings where agape is used multiple times: Jn 14:15-31 (15 times in 15 verses – no phileo); Jn 15:9-17 (9 times in 8 verses – no phileo); Jn 17:23-26 (5 times in 4 verses – no phileo); 1 Jn 3:1-23 (9 times in 23 verses – no phileo); 1 Jn 4:7-21 (27 times in 15 verses – no phileo). There are only 2 passages where both words are used, John 11:3-36 (where phileo is used twice – once by Martha and once by the pharisees; and agape is used once by the narrator) and John 21:15-17.

So the stylistic argument doesn’t seem to pass muster. John seems more than willing to repeat agape many times over without resorting to phileo for style. Additionally, we likely assume that Jesus and Peter were speaking in aramaic, and so we do not have a definite knowledge of what words were actually used. We only know what greek words John chose to describe the conversation. And since style does not seem to be a plausible motivation for his choice here, we are left to wonder why he chose different words.

Secondly, although I accept that the two words may be fairly synonymous, and that there has been much meaning attached to them that is unwarranted, the fact remains that they are different words. So let us agree with the scholars that the words are mainly synonymous, yet slightly different, and that we should not attach strict definitions to them in order to distinguish them. In so agreeing, we can STILL deduce a deeper meaning from the dialogue than what appears in the 2011 NIV translation.

For example, if I were to ask you a question such as “do you love me”, and you were to answer, “yes, I do care greatly for you”, I would be left to wonder if you had really answered my question or not. If you were to answer, “yes, I have deep feelings for you”, or “yes, I am very much fond of you”, or if you were to insert ANY other synonym for love other than the specific word I had used, I could have cause to be suspicious of your answer. Why would you answer me by using a different word? Even if that word was for the most part synonymous? It would be an uncertain answer, a vague answer, an evasive answer.

Attorneys and politicians often answer questions in this way to avoid admitting something or to appear to be in agreement with a statement without actually committing to full agreement, saying what they want to say rather than giving a clear and direct affirmation. And it seems to me that answering a question in this evasive manner would almost certainly result in what we find in John 21, a repeating of the question.

So I believe that there is an implication in Peter’s answer that he does not want to fully agree with Jesus’ question “do you love me”. He wants to say yes, but he can’t fully do it. He does love Jesus, but he feels the guilt of his denial. Maybe he isn’t exactly sure what Jesus means by “love”. And though he knows that he does love Jesus, to be safe, he uses a slightly different word to describe it. Maybe he is afraid of Jesus’ rebuttal? “If you love me, why did you deny me?” So he uses a different word to try to avoid that. Whatever the possible motivation, Peter's answer seems evasive.

So I think we are right to point out a distinction between the words in John 21. At the same time, we are right to move away from the popular definitions of agape and phileo that are inaccurate and can be very misleading. But fully dismissing any possibility of there ever being a meaningful distinction between the two seems obtuse. Especially in John 21, where a slight distinction is very explanatory for the repetition of the question, as opposed to the somewhat reaching (yet very popular) explanation that Jesus asks three times due to Peter’s three denials. I would argue that it is safer to teach that Jesus repeated the question due to Peter’s evasiveness, because that at least is found clearly implied in the text. A direct connection to the three denials is not nearly as clear. But the 2011 NIV takes the distinction away from the average reader, removing the more obvious reasoning for the repetition, and leaving them to draw more speculative conclusions. Hardly an improvement, even if undertaken for good reason.