It Only Takes One

If I could study any of the biblical cities, I’d study Ephesus. I’d study it because it was a burgeoning, multi-ethnic, religiously diverse metropolis. I’d study it because it’s the best preserved of the ancient cities, having been vacated by a majority of the population after a wicked bout of malaria. And I’d study it because, through it, a couple of Christians changed the world. 

Imagine that if you decided to teach the faith to one person, you would create out of your city a hub of Christian teaching, writing, and thinking for the next hundred years. Imagine that if you decided to teach the faith to one person, one day people would talk about your city the way they talk about Salt Lake City – you know, “it’s ok to visit, but there sure are a lot of Mormons there.” Substitute “Christians” – that’s what a single mentoring relationship can do.


The theater in Ephesus, where Paul preached (Acts 19)

At Ephesus, Paul went and preached, staying 3 years and beginning a church. He appointed Elders and empowered saints. Then he left. But while he was there, he mentored Timothy, his “son” in the faith, to whom he passed on the best of what he knew.

John, the disciple of Jesus, settle there and became a pastor. He led the church, continuing to pass the faith on. We know of just a few names of individuals who moved from rural and distant parts to the big city, and that changed the city.

Ephesus became one of the centers of the Christian church in the centuries to come. By the 5th century, when the Roman Emperor wanted to call together a council of the bishops of the church, he called them to Ephesus.

It’s not inconceivable that any American city could have such a legacy. It only took one or two people gathering, engaging, loving, and teaching. Anyone can do that, in any city. Why can’t it be your city? Why can’t it be mine?

Three, Two, One

A snow-capped couple used to sit next to me in a café, clucking away with each other and passing friends. The first time I noticed them, I was trying to read Athanasius’ “On the Incarnation,” but couldn’t pay attention. I was privately amused at the way they loved each other, giggling as they finished each other’s sentences and offering to get up one for another, because at their age, it was too much of a commitment for them both to stand up.

I was conscious of my eavesdropping, but not of the effect they were having on me. They became part of the aesthetic of the café – the warm, sun-filled widows, the robust, walnut-toned coffee, and the happy old couple as familiar as the furniture. They were always there.

Until one day I saw her alone. When I stopped to ask, I withered to hear of his passing. She was thereafter different than she had been before, as was the café.

cloverThat couple for me is a better metaphor for the Trinitarian God than most of the go-to illustrations. St. Patrick notably used the three leaf clover to explain the Trinity to the pagan Irish, but his metaphor was flawed, because if you pull a leaf off of it, you still have a deformed clover, but a clover nonetheless. A widow is something fundamentally different than a spouse. One does not merely lose a spouse, one loses spousehood. When we love and are beloved, to lose love changes our identity.

Imagine the Trinity not as a mechanical philosophical concept requiring technical definitions of “substance” and “nature,” but rather a being who is so infused with and exuding love that the Father, Son, and Spirit are giddy at finishing each other’s sentences, that within the nature of the one God is a love so overwhelming that it must be reciprocated. Trinity is love immune the frailties of human love. It’s love made perfect, love like the first time a baby laughs, love like a wedding, love like a hero dying to save someone else. Imagine a love so urgent it can’t resist exposing itself to the risk of betrayal and brutality. It will pay the cost if only to love one more. Imagine a kind of love that promises a day when inseparable lovers are reunited, because that’s how a good story is supposed to end.

A friend of mine who is a missionary in a Muslim country tells me that she sometimes tells Muslims that there is “love if,” “love because,” and “love despite” – you can love someone if they will do something for you, because they have done something for you, or despite anything that they do for you. She has been told more than once by the people to whom she ministers that “love despite” isn’t real.

Imagine love despite. That’s a better description of Trinity that most of our metaphors.

Keep Dreaming

Posted on the ECO blog….

ECO blog

“Pastor Ken Fong spoke at our Session retreat about the power of change and innovation. He described how his father took part in the initial designs of those computers that we’ve all heard of which took up an entire room and could do little more than function as a calculator. But for their day, those computers were anamazing innovation. Pastor Ken then shared how late in life his father didn’t even own a computer and didn’t care to own one. “Something happened,” Ken said, “and what happened was that reality exceeded his dreams.”

My sense is that….”  Read the rest here

10 Years Without TV (sort of)

When my daughter was born, 10 years ago, my wife and I talked intentionally about what exposure we did and didn’t want her to have to TV.  In the first two or three years, we didn’t really let her watch it at all.  After that, we decided we would let our kids watch to a limited degree on the weekends, but not on week days.  It’s now been 10 years in our house of limited TV.

Yesterday, after their sports camps, my kids spent a good part of the day reading.  At one point, my wife caught them arguing over who owned which book and got to read it next.trash

For all the damage done through my parenting foibles (we’re starting one fund for college, one for therapy), this may be one of the best decisions we ever made.  And I have to admit, it was my wife’s idea.  To this day, the kids usually don’t even ask to watch during the week, because they know our family’s habit – no TV, video, or internet during the week.

If you’ve got a young one in the family, or if you’re a grandparent or uncle or aunt who can be a part of the conversation, staving off video addiction may be the healthiest thing you can do for your kids.

  • Most programming isn’t of any educational or moral value in the first place
  • Most programming isn’t even that entertaining
  • The brain’s adaptive ability, “neuroplasticity,” will condition your kids to have sudden, jerky attention spans if that is the input they get for hours each day
  • Time spent reading is going to better prepare them for school
  • Time spent playing with other kids is going to better prepare them for relationships
  • Time spent in exercise will make them healthier, which will in turn make them happier

It’s neither too soon nor too late to start.  And giving in to a child’s tantrum to get them to stop is nowhere near as rewarding as having your child in their adult years thank you for being a good parent.


See: “Media and Children,” the American Academy of Pediatrics,

Cathedrals and Haunted Houses

sailI’ve spent a fair amount of time decrying the decline of the Church in America, particularly so much as it is a consequence of a lazy Christianity that just assumed lost neighbors would find their way to church without any effort from the converted. But if you asked me if I was afraid if the Church in the world was going to pass away, I would have to admit I’m not afraid of that at all. My reason for that confidence is not a strident declaration about the gates of hell never prevailing. It’s far more amusing than that.

It’s because we live in a haunted house.

By house, I mean the planet Earth, and by haunted, I mean haunted. The free-wheeling secularist cannot suppress the cathartic tears at sunset and at the symphony. She can’t muster up a plausible grounding for all of the passionate ethical positions for which she tirades and votes and argues. She will never sufficiently suppress nor rewrite a history that is filled with church-going grandmothers who find her life a shame. And to be honest, one out of every ten people I talk to has actually seen a ghost. The world is haunted, or to use Charles Taylor’s more pleasant term, enchanted. The hard-nosed laboratory researcher who claims to have dissected away the enchantment doesn’t come off as a genius. He comes off as one in denial, like a captain who keeps insisting the leak isn’t that bad.

I’m happy to say there will always be a Church, because the world will always be haunted. The intrusiveness of its ghosts can be dodged by denial no more than a bee sting can be avoided by closing your eyes. They will keep poking us. My worries for the Church in America have far less to do with anything about metaphysical reality and far more to do with the fact that my son and my daughter will likely marry and raise kids in this generation, and they will be surrounded by blind captains sailing sinking ships.

It’s Time to Talk About This


Published on the ECO blog – it’s time to talk about why we’re changing denominations.

A friend of mine recently told me that he wanted his church to join ECO, but, he admitted, “We haven’t even started talking about it yet.”

I’m noticing how fast my life is going by. A day ago my daughter was born, and today she’s ten. She’s more than half way to being out of the house. I still remember how to change diapers. I remember the rubbery skin of a pacifier. I remember waking her to have breakfast with me, us both wearing large, flowery hats at the table and eating chocolate for breakfast, because Mom wasn’t up yet, and because that’s what French people do, I told her. Now she’s old enough to

Read the rest here….

Don’t Become A Pastor Until….

Don’t become a pastor until….

…you’ve invited someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus to believe in Jesus.  That’s what pastors are for.  If you don’t do it in your daily life now, you’re not going to be better at it when some seminary or denomination says you’re ready to.

…you pray and worship when no one is listening.

…you can pray and worship without telling everyone you did.

…your knowledge of the Bible is as thorough as your questions about it.  The questions shouldn’t come from what you don’t know; they should come from what you do know.

…you’ve given up the dream of getting rich.  We print “In God We Trust” on the back of his leading competitor.

…you’ve given up the dream of being famous.  There should be a pretty distinct difference between a sermon and a selfie.

…you’ve given up the dream of being attractive.  If the dream comes true, you’re likely to embarrass the ministry.  If it doesn’t come true, but you keep hoping, you’re going to look ridiculous.preacher

…you’ve realized your wedding vows are more important than your ordination vows.

…you could competently do ministry without a formal theological education.  And once you don’t need it – go get it.

…you’ve learned how and when to say “I could be wrong” and “I’m sorry.”

…you can name the places that you’re broken with no more shame than if you were describing what you like about a painting.  Brokenness is something we need to accept about ourselves so that we can deal honestly with the problems it creates, rather than trying to hide it from everyone else until the problems become public.

…you have a stronger passion for releasing other people’s gifts than releasing your own.

…God’s call to ministry is louder than your desire to do ministry and other people’s affirmation of your ministry.

That said, I don’t know that I would have become a pastor 17 years ago if I was following my own list.

To the Power of One

I found an interesting piece of trivia about the church at which I pastor, Glenkirk Church. Apparently, back in 1965, the church was meeting in a little chapel at another location, and the day came when the congregation had grown too large for the little chapel. The pastor at that time named the need to build a bigger sanctuary on that lot. Apparently the congregation was divided on this. I wasn’t there, so I can only guess how the conversations went.

“It’s too expensive! Why would we spend so much money on ourselves?”

“Why do we need to grow anymore? The church is fine the way it is!”

I know these kinds of questions came up, because as it was told to me by one of the old-timers who remembers, “It passed by one vote.”

One vote!

Just one person enough to move that congregation forward. I don’t know who that person was (or technically, who that 51% was), but I owe a debt of thanks. Without them, we wouldn’t be here. The church wouldn’t have grown. It wouldn’t have gone through a later move to an even larger campus on which it could keep growing. Children wouldn’t have received Christian education. People wouldn’t have been sent into full time missions. Countless people would not have become Christians at Glenkirk. Hundreds of thousands of dollars would not have been spent on missions with the poor.

To that one person who voted “yes” – thank you so much!

Because of you, there are three children of Glenkirk who are now in full time ministry in Muslim countries. There is one who is a youth pastor on an island in the Atlantic. There is one family who became Christians at Glenkirk and are now rebuilding an orphanage in Haiti that fell down in the 2010 earthquake. One is a chaplain at Fuller Seminary. Without you, my two children, along with many others, wouldn’t have been baptized at Glenkirk. And now each week, we gather as a family, young and old, to sing to a good God, as we have since that 1965 vote.

Thank you so much! Without you, I wouldn’t pass each week through the shadow of this cross and remember the One who said “yes” to God’s call for the sake of we who would come after him. Whoever you are – well done!


The Glenkirk Cross

The Glenkirk Cross (Photo courtesy of S. Vance)

Jesus Definitely Wasn’t Married

WifeAn ancient fragment was first publicized to the modern world in September of 2012 which features the words, “Jesus said to them my wife….” This created a frenzy of speculation about the possibility that Jesus was married.  I am absolutely sure he was not.  I can also say that, as an evangelical Protestant, it really doesn’t matter to me theologically whether or not he was.  (For my celibate brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church’s leadership, I could see how there would be more concern.)  But though his marital status doesn’t matter, it’s absolutely critical that everyone know he was single.  Here’s why.

Time magazine reports this week that the document is not a forgery, but actually dates back to the “ancient” world (whenever that began and ended).  The Harvard Theological Review reports (vol. 107, issue 2) that the document may date from somewhere around 741AD, some 700 years after Jesus’ life, give or take.  This seems to be making the news despite the fact that his marital status has no theological bearing.  What matters is the critical thinking skills of a modern society which swallows feeble ideas whole.  It makes a sad statement about our gullibility, and it leads to implications that shouldn’t be drawn.  Specifically:

1.  700 years later is a stretch in terms of reliability.  This would be roughly the equivalent of us finding a document dating from 1983 claiming that St. Francis was married.  It’s a little hard to be convinced.

2.  There is not multiple attestation, and no subsequent confirmation.  One fragment, and a late one at that, shouldn’t merit serious consideration.

3.  Marriage was the norm for Jewish men in Jesus’ day.  It would not have been scandalous for him to have been married, and thus there would have been no need to keep it secret if it were in fact the case.  It also isn’t odd that he was single, as even the Apostle Paul encouraged singleness, using himself as an example (1 Cor. 7).

4.  The gospel writers include some really embarrassing stories about Jesus’ life (baptized though sinless, fighting with the religious leaders who should have endorsed him, rejected by eye witnesses, mocked, cursed to hang on a tree – Deut. 21:23, strange post-resurrection sightings that weren’t immediately recognizable).  They really don’t hold back on provocative and incriminating details.  The idea that there was a wife-hiding conspiracy doesn’t jibe with the nature of the gospels.

5.  Luke claims to be doing research on Jesus’ life in the first generation, and a marriage would have been an impossible oversight.

Here’s why the fragment matters.  It opens up the implication to casual modern listeners that the history of Jesus has always been mistaken, and that there are secrets about him left untold, making the biblical story appear to be an official front masking the true story.  And this is the real damage done by the publicity of this document and by the gnostic writings generally.  The Bible is the real thing.  Its story is so scandalous and conspiratorial that it doesn’t need a scandal to make it juicy.  There was no great cover-up in its writing or compilation that changed the meaning of Jesus’ life.  There aren’t parts of it that are waiting to be discovered in order to complete our picture of Jesus.  We know of him what we need to know to believe in him and to live faithfully in his name.  Whatever else the Bible is, it’s good enough.  No new discovery is going to change the power it still has call people from death to life.

So for the record, he wasn’t married, and if we are clear-headed thinkers, it ought to take more than a never before heard of scrap of paper written 700 years later to make us think the biblical authors just forgot that detail.

Correcting Sin

Of the central doctrines of Reformed theology, the doctrine of sin is more often misunderstood than any other.  As critical as it is to the heart of Christian theology, a lot of people who call themselves Christian simply don’t understand what the Bible says about it.  I want to clarify a few missteps.

When it comes to the doctrine of sin, there are some big misunderstandings.  Some people seem to see sin as a list of criminal offenses which are dramatic, quantifiable, and offensive to the civilized person’s senses.  You’ll hear people talk about murder as “a worse kind of sin” than others.  That person obviously thinks there are a list of sins posted on the wall of heaven, like the rules hung on the chain link fence beside the public pool.  And if you break one, God blows his whistle like a lifeguard.  Likewise, some people think sin as a set of nagging and perpetual behaviors that are to be overcome.  These folks like the idea of confession and accountability, and the more the better.  Sin is an even longer list of little temptations.  As a result, they have trouble knowing how to think about children when it comes to salvation and imagine that there’s some kind of age of accountability at which children’s sins start to “count.”  After all, what could an infant have done wrong?

Sin is a state.  It’s as pervasive as that collection of oxygen, nitrogen, and carbon dioxide that we call “air.” It’s all around us and all through us.  It’s what we’re born into.  It’s not a list of vices that are distinct from normal behavior.  We can’t step outside of it by our own inclinations.  When we become Christians, we are granted a reprieve by the power of the Holy Spirit, an inner power to resist sin like we’ve never had before.  More importantly, we’re freed from the ultimate consequences of our sin.  When Jesus calls us, our soul and our bodies part company, in a sense, and our mortal bodies go on to deterioration and death, while our souls go on to perfection, freedom, and eternal life.  But in the meantime, we’re still surrounded by sin, and our efforts to overcome it are like the constant work of physical exercise to try to keep an aging body fit.

Sin is a birth defect.  Picture DNA like the human computer code that tells us what we have to do, what we are to do by nature.  And that code itself is corrupt when we’re born.  We’re born broken.  It’s not so corrupt that we can’t function; it’s broken enough that we can never quite function right.  We can’t do what we’re supposed to do.  And worse yet, we’re so broken that part of our brokenness is a blindness to our very own brokenness.  We don’t see what a mess we are, because we aren’t born with eyes that see correctly.  This is why all talk of a form of sexuality being moral because it comes naturally is simply absurd.  What is natural is itself broken.  Our intuition is broken.  Our feelings are broken.  Our natural sense for right and wrong is broken.

Sin is not just a mistake, it’s a willful rejection of God.  Because we’re born broken, part of our brokenness is that we reject God.  We don’t just have casual intellectual doubts about God, we consciously avoid God and goodness.  And our brokenness even clouds our perception of this – we think we have good reason to doubt, when in fact we’re avoiding truths we don’t want to hear.  We’re not merely the victims of sin, we’re every bit the perpetrators.

Sin results in ultimate condemnation.  We are born broken.  It’s not something we choose, it’s where we start.  The world on the whole has pushed God away, and as a result we don’t start out innocent and later start to sin.  We start out in the wrong.  No one is innocent, not one.  Our guilt doesn’t have to do with making mistakes, it’s simply a matter of having started off hopelessly wrong. If we are a computer that was wired incorrectly, we’re destined for the trash heap, because broken is broken.  It might be regrettable that something is made wrong and must be discarded, but it’s a matter of fact.

Only the Creator can fix his own creation, and he does it by his own power, through his own inclinations, for reasons that are his own.  All that’s left for us to do, so much as we think we can, is to beg him to fix us, and then sing his praise when he does.  But enough of the silly claim that sin is something we just choose now and then.  And by all means ignore anyone who tells you that their natural inclinations must be ok.

The upside of the doctrine of sin is that it levels the playing field.  It is the ultimate doctrine for a democracy – we are all equally lost.  And in turn, God’s grace shines all the more brightly.  He can even overcome this broken world.

For further reflection consider Romans 1-3 and Ephesians 2:1-10.


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