Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Law and Liberty in the Sharing Economy

“Responding to an evolving hospitality industry, the Texas Hotel & Lodging Association recently started crafting legislation that would give property owners reason to pause before opening their homes and apartments to temporary guests.” The Houston Chronicle reported this story on December 10, 2014, which details the THLA’s attempts to introduce legislation that would regulate innovative short-term lodging businesses such as Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO.  

In my last article on government regulation, I dealt with the Houston City Council’s similar attempts to regulate ride-sharing services Über and Lyft. This story is the same old story.   Businesses like Airbnb, HomeAway, and VRBO allow homeowners to put up rooms in their homes for short-term lodgers, much like a hotel or inn, except it is a cheaper and “cozier” alternative to more traditional lodging choices. These rental websites have grown in popularity thanks in part to the success of the “sharing economy,” and it has benefitted both travelers and homeowners. The barriers to entry are low for homeowners, and the lodging choices are cheaper for travelers.

See the rest of my article at HBU's The Kingdom Economy website here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

A Time to Build Up, and a Time to Break Down

In light of recent events in our country, yesterday our church called its members to fast and pray for racial reconciliation. Initially I was skeptical; I have a natural reticence to go along with something just because someone tells me to do it. I want to be able to put my intellectual and emotional support behind something before committing to it. So instead of abstaining from food, I considered abstaining from the fast. But that's precisely why I needed to participate, and I did. I fasted and prayed for racial reconciliation—sort of. I will explain.

I am not going to write about Ferguson, Eric Garner, the situation in Cleveland, or any other recent incidents involving police brutality and racial tension, although the temptation to do so has been strong. I am writing about what God revealed to me during our fast, and what I think it means more broadly for the church, or maybe just for my own heart. I normally deal in polemics, but this time I am writing personally.

I had a hard time with this fast initially. From the outset, I've thought that the response and reaction to these situations has been overblown and misses the real issues. I didn't see the need to talk about racial reconciliation—I thought the real problems were elsewhere. So I rolled my eyes, so to speak, at the idea of fasting for racial reconciliation. What does that mean? Nevertheless, I committed to doing it because I knew, deep down, that there were likely sinful attitudes polluting my motives and creating a divide between me and my brothers in Christ. I am glad I did.

Let me be clear up front: I believe—and passionately so—that every human being is created equally in God's image. We are all descended from Adam, every one of us. And we are all reconciled by the same blood of Christ. So there is zero distinction along racial lines in terms of human dignity and worth. Zero. (Secularism, by the way, can offer no such unambiguous foundation). Despite my beliefs, however, I have to deal with the reality that there are racial tensions in our country (and even, I have to assume, in some of our churches).

This is difficult for me personally because I do not harbor real, objective prejudices against any particular race; I really believe in the equal dignity of all people. So, my thinking goes, if I'm not harboring racism in my own heart, then it's not a problem. This attitude tends to foster another attitude further down the line: minorities' concerns and fears of systemic racial injustice are, at worst, illegitimate and, at best, merely misplaced.

And here is where the Lord revealed my sin in the midst of this fast. My racial sin is not thinking or acting like one race is inherently better than another. My racial sin is believing that certain minorities aren't thinking properly about race in the first place. It's the sin of pride. My pride says that I am the one who is defending true justice, that I am the one who is thinking properly about racial tension, and that I am the one who has a firm grasp on the nuanced truth of these situations.

I wasn't esteeming my brothers and sisters as better than myself; I esteemed their thinking as inferior to mine. I wasn't bearing with my brothers and sisters in their burdens; I was secretly thinking their burdens weren't really burdens. And I wasn't considering the sufferings of others in how I approached the situation. That's unwise and prideful.

The book of Ecclesiastes says there is "a time to break down, and a time to build up." My timing was wrong.

This was because of my own pride. Therefore I must repent of that way of thinking and instead build up my brothers and sisters before I seek to break down bad arguments. As a wise friend explained, "we want to win people, not arguments."

So while it may not be that I have harbored overt racial animosity in my own heart, I have not fostered a foundation upon which to listen to those who have legitimately experienced it. Regardless of the merits of any of these individual cases that sparked this fasting and prayer, it's never unwise to listen first, judge later.

In light of that, I am sincerely excited—and hopeful—for the upcoming conversations in our church regarding racial tensions and what reconciliation looks like. I have devoted serious thought to these issues before, but I believe that God will honor our fasting and prayer to bring about true reconciliation—the reconciliation that only occurs through our mutual need for the forgiveness of sins, bought by the precious blood of Christ.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Promised to David, Fulfilled in Christ, Given to Us

From 2 Samuel 7:11–14:
Moreover, the Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house. When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son...
The events immediately preceding this covenant are interesting, and frankly, expose God as the gracious God that He is. David had recently been crowned King of all Israel, but he was ruling from the city of Hebron, a southern city in the region of Judah. David decided that Jerusalem would be a better place to rule because it was centrally located and geographically tough to take down. The only problem was that Jerusalem was inhabited by the Jebusites, and they taunted David, saying that even the blind and lame could keep him out of Jerusalem. David decided to have his men sneak through a water shaft at the city's wall and attack it from the inside. Obviously, it worked, and David sets up shop in Jerusalem as the new capitol. The only thing missing was the Ark of the Covenant. 

So David sends a convoy to bring the Ark to Jerusalem, which they do (after a 3-month pit stop at someone else's house). Once the Ark is back in Jerusalem, David pitches a tent where the Ark is to be kept and stored. But as he goes to bed one night, David is dissatisfied with this solution. "See now," he says to Nathan, "I dwell in a house of cedar, but the ark of God dwells in a tent." He wanted to build a house for God—a dwelling place.  

God answered through Nathan, "would you build me a house to dwell in? I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day..." God then goes on to say that He would instead build David an everlasting house. 

This is called the "Davidic Covenant," where God established an everlasting covenant with David. The fulfillment of this covenant, however, rests with Jesus. David is merely the type, a shadow of what would be the fulfillment of the Davidic covenant. 

Let's take a look at the particulars and how they point to God's fulfillment of the covenant in Christ. "I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his Kingdom." King Solomon came from David's body, and the Lord established his kingdom as one of the most prosperous times in Israel's history. Similarly, Jesus came from David's line, and God established his everlasting kingdom at his incarnation. 

"He shall build a house for my name . . . ." Solomon built a temple for God to dwell in, "a house for my name," when he completed the Temple at Jerusalem. In a much greater way, Christ built (and is building) a permanent house for God's name, that is, his people. The Bible says that in Christ we "are also being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit" (Eph. 2:22).

"I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son." This is talking about Christ, the coming Messiah, and the kingdom that he established when he came to earth in the form of a man (Heb. 1:3–5). And when Christ ascended to the right hand of the Father, he ascended so that he would reign until God made all his enemies his footstool (Heb. 1:13). He is reigning. And He will reign forever. This is how the Davidic covenant is fulfilled—through the Lordship of Christ and the building up of the Church as the dwelling place of God.

As interesting as the story of the Davidic covenant is, it reveals much more about God's character and his love for his children. Look at David: he thought that God not having a permanent dwelling place meant that God lacked something. So he endeavored to provide for God by building him a house. Or, giving David the benefit of the doubt, he believed that it would be dishonorable for David to have a house but not God.

It was not an ignoble desire, but God had different plans. When David wanted to build a dwelling place for God, God desired to build David a house, which would ultimately become the dwelling place of God. What grace! David says "God, let me bless you," and God replies, "No, I will bless you and establish your house forever!" Why? Because God delights in making and keeping covenants with his people.

So what does this have to do with us now? It has everything to do with what we cannot do and yet God does. We walk around on this earth thinking that we are going to provide for God by the little houses we build for him and the deeds that we do for him, but God turns that on its head and instead gives such gifts to us. He makes us into his dwelling place, and he prepares for us good works that we should do to glorify him. We do not bless God out of the strength of our own hands. We are blessed by God in spite of our weakness and insufficiency. Therefore salvation is God's gift—and God's gift alone. He gives it to us from his good pleasure and out of an overflow of his grace, much like he did with David.

When David heard the words of the covenant, he wondered, "Who am I, O Lord, and what is my house, that you have brought me thus far?" Yes. Who are we, and what is our house, that you have brought us this far? We are no one, but it is God who establishes his house and his kingdom. There is no one like our God who could accomplish such things. And because of this, we can say together, "for you, O Lord, have spoken, and with your blessing shall the house of your servant be blessed forever." Amen.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Revision That Didn't Revise

Last week, news broke that Mayor Parker's legal team subpoenaed five area pastors' sermon notes (among other things) on topics related to HERO, gender identity, homosexuality, and Mayor Parker. A swift outcry soon erupted from the Christian sphere, decrying the subpoenas as an abuse of governmental authority and serious threat to religious liberty. I covered that topic here.

In response, the Mayor distanced herself from her original position that "if the pastors used pulpits for politics, their sermons are fair game." But it wasn't much distance. City Attorney David Feldman said that, while the original requests were overly broad in their scope, if the pastors engaged in political speech from the pulpit, it would not be protected. Someone needs a First Amendment refresher course. 

On Friday, however, the City filed a response that revised the scope of the original subpoenas. But the "revision" doesn't seem to have revised much. Here's what the response says: 
Request No. 12 originally read: 
All speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuals, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession. 
Defendants [the City of Houston] hereby revise Request No. 12 as follows: 
All speeches or presentations related to HERO or the Petition prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by you or in your possession.
No definitive word on whether a sermon counts as a speech or presentation. What the response also omits is that Request No. 12 represents one request out of seventeen total document requests. Left untouched are requests like these: 
1. All documents or communications to, from, CCing, BCCing, or forwarded to you, or otherwise in your possession, relating to or referring to any of the following in connection in any way with HERO, the Petition:...the topics of equal rights, civil rights, homosexuality, or gender identity; 
4. All communications with members of your congregation regarding HERO or the Petition.
In other words, the City hasn't backed off from its original demands. David Feldman issued a revision that didn't really revise anything. In my opinion, instead of backing off, the City is trying to double-down on its position with political savvy to appease the public. Many Christian leaders are not taking the bait.

From a legal standpoint, it will be interesting to see how the judge rules on the pastors' Motion to Quash. I suspect he will quash at least some of the more onerous requests, if not most of them entirely. The requests are still so overly broad, burdensome, and harassing (not to mention unrelated to the underlying issues of the litigation), that I don't think they will survive a challenge under the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure. The judge likely will not entertain a First Amendment argument on the issue. But if the Court did address the First Amendment, I think the pastors win. The requests would have a chilling effect on religious participation, and there are numerous other ways to get the requested information—they are not drafted narrowly enough to warrant the intrusion, especially for a non-party.

Culturally, this "scandal" says much about our beliefs and assumptions as a society. If we boil the case down to its essence, we have a group of people who sought to petition their government for a redress of grievances. In response, that same government set out to harass and bully them into submission through the litigation process (a burdensome and expensive undertaking). The right of the people to "petition the Government for a redress of grievances" is fundamental to a self-governing society. The plaintiffs didn't even make it past the petition part; it was thrown out by the same government that was established to protect their right to petition it.

We are facing competing worldviews on the nature and purpose of government. One loves liberty, distrusts centralized political power, and understands the depravity of man. The other entrusts our greatest needs to the government as our source of goodness. 

I believe that the City's actions bely a deep misconception about how society ought to function. Whereas, at America's founding, we established a society in which the government was accountable to the people, the City of Houston has repeatedly shown that it believes the people are accountable to their government. This type of thinking is anathema to a free society. That lawyers representing a governmental entity could issue such demands with a straight face tells me that the concept of liberty is in serious peril among our nation's political actors. 

I don't know how this case will turn out. Trial is set for January, and I hope the City loses. I am still bewildered that the City isn't the plaintiff. But what I do know is that this case has served as a medium of exposure—exposure of underlying political philosophies that are competing for dominance as we speak. 

Casting the political sensitivity of this case aside, it should serve as a wakeup call that this is an ongoing ideological battle. Is the government accountable to the people? Or are the people accountable to the government? Your beliefs about the nature of man will influence your answer to that question. And your answer to that question will largely inform your response to similar situations in the future. 

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Victory Through Defeat

Someone told me recently that we would never face religious liberty issues in Houston. There wouldn't be a need for a religious liberty lawyer in such a conservative state. Well, the pigs have flown. The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance controversy continues, this time with heavy religious liberty implications.

Before we get started, a little background is in order. That can be found herehere, and here.

The HERO ordinance and subsequent repeal referendum efforts have been embroiled in litigation since August. Yesterday, news broke that the City of Houston's legal team had demanded, among other things, "all speeches, presentations, or sermons related to HERO, the Petition, Mayor Annise Parker, homosexuality, or gender identity prepared by, delivered by, revised by, or approved by" a list of area pastors who are not parties to the lawsuit. The City of Houston issued non-party subpoenas for the document requests, which are punishable by contempt of court if not properly responded to (or quashed by the judge). An example of the subpoenas issued by the City can be found here.

As an attorney, I know that these subpoenas are not quite as big a deal as some people make it out to be. This isn't the Inquisition. But it is unnerving. If the pastors refuse to respond (e.g., turn over their documents), and the Court does not quash the subpoenas or issue a protective order, the pastors theoretically could face jail time. That is scary. Normally, non-party subpoenas aren't that big of a deal. Lawyers issue them all the time. But there is something quite different when a governmental entity demands to comb through sermon notes on hot-button moral issues from non-party pastors. (Phrases like "separation of church and state"—the darling phrase of liberals—come to mind). Alliance Defending Freedom wrote a compelling memorandum in the case on why the Court should quash the subpoenas, which you can read here. Their press release on the case can be found here.

As a matter of normal legal practice, I doubt that Mayor Parker, David Feldman, or anyone at the City of Houston read the subpoenas before they were sent, much less specifically ordered the discovery and confiscation of sermon notes and other communications involving homosexuality and gender identity. Typically in litigation lawyers will throw a bunch of jello at a wall and see what sticks, so to speak. Or, to put it another way, they'll fill up the kitchen sink and see what takes. In other words, the lawyer drafting the discovery requests and subpoenas probably tried to think of every conceivable thing that could possibly be related to this lawsuit and asked for it. You don't get it if you never ask, and litigation is all about being aggressive and taking anything that the other side will give you. Again, these are just requests (issued by a lawyer), and the judge can quash the subpoenas or issue a protective order for the pastors. 

Usually when we address litigation tactics, we are dealing with private parties, commercial disputes, and other non-religious issues. The "sensitivity" in this case comes from the fact that the government is demanding to review sermons and other religious speech in connection with certain pastors' opposition to the HERO ordinance. And, frankly, I think the City of Houston is on a mission to shame the pastors and their beliefs by exposing their sermons and the content of their communications. If it can show that the pastors were spreading an irrational and bigoted fear of the ordinance's moral consequences, then the City can shame the pastors out of the controversy and dismiss their petitions as mere fear-mongering. The only problem (besides glaring First Amendment issues) is that the contents of the pastors' sermons, communications, or anything else requested (one request was for the pastors' resumes!) has nothing to do with the underlying lawsuit. This case, at its core, is about whether the City Secretary properly certified the petition signatures according to the City Charter. You don't need a pastor's sermon notes to figure that out. 

As Russell Moore put it,
 [t]he preaching of sermons in the pulpit of churches is of no concern to any government bureaucrat at all. This country settled, a long time ago, with a First Amendment that the government would not supervise, license, or bully religious institutions. That right wasn't handed out by the government, as a kind of temporary restraining order. It was a recognition of a self-evident truth.
Amen, but I don't think the government is trying to supervise, license, or bully religious institutions here. Not yet, at least.

As we analyze what's going on, I want us to be careful in how we think about the liberty implications of the City's actions. Is this the worst thing that has ever happened to Christians for their faith? Not by a long shot. But it is unnerving. Do not succumb to the lie that "anti-gay" Christians are trying to divert attention away from the real victims of harassment and discrimination. That's a red herring. And don't believe Mayor Parker when she says that if the pastors used sermons for politics, then they are fair game. I disagree. Jesus Christ has lordship over everything, including our politics. Therefore, I believe our preachers should especially preach on politics from the pulpit. From a theological perspective, at least, the Bible has ample advice on the political sphere. You should read Puritan and Reformed pastors' sermons during the Revolutionary War. Pastors routinely addressed political happenings from the pulpit, and this was the milieu that enshrined religious liberty in the Constitution. So I don't buy the argument that political sermons are fair game. They're not. Not even in the ballpark.

Religious liberty, freedom of speech, and freedom of association are foundational principles of this nation. People fought and died for our religious liberty. For hundreds of years and in hostile cultures, people were martyred so that we may enjoy the first-fruits of their sacrifice. So let us not take threats to our religious liberty lightly, no matter how innocuous they may seem.

At the same time, the reality is that we are merely dealing with an overbroad discovery request from a zealous trial lawyer employed by the City. So the sky is not falling. This is not a government-wide "approval" system of pulpit messages. The pastors aren't being threatened with punishment merely for the contents of their sermons. But this is harassment, and the small things add up. A government that tries to intimidate pastors who would seek to employ the democratic process to repeal a morally questionable piece of legislation is no friend of liberty, religious or otherwise. The government answers to the people; the people do not answer to the government. Remember that. The subpoena is only step one in their 12-step program.

In all of this, however, there is good news. And it is a glorious prognosis:
Only let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ, so that whether I come and see you or am absent, I may hear of you that you are standing firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel, and not frightened in anything by your opponents. This is a clear sign to them of their destruction, but of your salvation, and that from God. For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have (Phil. 1:27–30).
We are not to be frightened in anything from our opponents. Yes, we have opponents. And when we stand firm in one spirit striving side by side for the gospel (including what it says about gender identity and sexuality), it is a sign to our opponents of their destruction and of our salvation.  We will suffer in some ways, engaged in this conflict. Maybe those pastors will go to jail, but they probably won't. The mere threat of jail time, though, is serious. If they do go to jail, it will be a sign that we have won. Our victory will be wrought through suffering, whether great or small. This has been granted to us by God as a sign of our salvation. Praise God for that; it cannot be taken away.

So what do we do in the meantime? Pray for wisdom, think, and never cease to preach the Word of God and all its implications for our lives. And pray that, by God's grace, those who seek to threaten our liberty will soon strive side by side with us as brothers. It's happened before. May it happen again.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

The NFL and Moral Authority

I think what Ray Rice did was wrong. You probably do too. Most of the country does—wife (or fiancee, or any woman) beating is not a moral outlier that people are divided on. And I understand that Ray Rice most likely violated the NFL Code of Conduct, which he is contracutally bound to obey. So the NFL is on solid legal footing. But where does the NFL get the moral authority to suspend Ray Rice? They're obviously imposing a moral standard here—wife beating is bad, you're a wife beater, therefore you are bad and can't play in the NFL—but where does the NFL get such authority in the first place? What is their moral standard?

It's interesting that in a society with such perceived moral subjectivity, there's a lot of moral absolutes being thrown around and imposed upon people. What is Roger Goodell's moral framework, and why can he impose that moral framework on the players? Is anyone asking these questions? Countless drug offenders, weapons offenders, absentee fathers, and the like are free to play in the NFL with impunity. Ray Rice cold cocks his fiancee and is banned indefinitely? What gives? Excuse me if I raise an eyebrow at this newly found moral uprightness when, to my knowledge, the NFL has done zero to stem the tide of abortions and deadbeat dads that plague the players' personal lives. 

If the NFL truly cared about what was right and wrong and just, a million things would have happened to other players before Ray Rice was suspended, but they didn't. And the NFL's silence on a host of issues within the league is an indictment on the NFL that it doesn't care about right, wrong, truth, or justice, but about what will make the NFL look good right now. It's not about integrity, it's about self-preservation. 

This leaves me a bit confused, but hopeful. The actions of Roger Goodell show that the NFL is looking out for itself and its image. Ray Rice's public conduct made the NFL look bad, so Ray Rice has got to go. All those players behind on child support and abdicating their fatherly duties? Those are less public, so those guys can stay. Michael Sam? We better not say that his sexual expression is wrong; we shouldn't impose our morality on players. The confusion lies in the arbitrary and capricious selection of which moral standards will be objective (applied and imposed on others) versus subjective (left to the whim of the person). How are we to know what the standard is and whether is applies to everyone? 

On the other hand, the public's response shows that society demands an objective moral standard. This is good news, because it means we need to have a conversation about what that objective moral standard is or ought to be. Moral relativism in its pure form will not withstand the demands society has placed upon it. That house is in ruins. What will we build in its place? Now is the time to be talking about it.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Uber-Capitalists and Food Trucks

The Houston political scene has seen its share of hot-button issues lately. In June, I wrote about the Houston Equal Rights Ordinance (HERO), which the City Council passed in May. In the intervening months, the City has undergone a public debate concerning two separate industries and whether to allow certain forms of competition in the marketplace. 

First, there’s the restaurant industry’s battle with Mobile Food Units (food trucks). As anyone who has lived in Houston for a while knows, food trucks have become increasingly popular in the last five years or so. These culinary caravans hop from spot to spot serving up interesting and unique food choices—mostly dishes that you can serve in a plastic bowl or in a paper bag. Food trucks must be permitted, inspected, and follow similar health regulations as brick and mortar restaurants. They are also subject to other requirements but generally permitted to serve food wherever they want—except for downtown, which boasts a bustling daytime population and, therefore, an opportunity for increased revenue for the food trucks. - See more here.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Just Like the Church

Last Wednesday, our brothers and sisters at Sojourn Montrose got a little write-up in the Houston Press. If you're not familiar with the Houston Press, let's just say it's where I go to keep my "ear to the streets" on the counter-sub-counter-sub-sub-culture in town. It's an interesting publication, but it's not the bastion of fairness that the Houston Chroni...it's not a bastion of fairness. The articles have an agenda, and that's fine for them. I write with an agenda all the time. 

The article focuses most of its attention on Sojourn's beliefs about human sexuality, which happen to be biblical. This excerpt expresses it well enough: 
But Sojourn isn't likely to budge on its theological stance against same-sex relationships. Church leaders are upfront about that, and though some attendees leave as a result, others stick around to wrestle it out. Gays are welcome to be members, provided they repent for their same-sex attraction. Gay members that refuse to renounce homosexuality would eventually be booted from the church.
To be clear, I'd say that Sojourn wouldn't ask people to repent from their same-sex attraction, just like the church wouldn't ask me, a single man, to repent of my opposite-sex attraction. There's nothing to repent of. But we ask all people everywhere to repent of their lust. There's a difference between attraction and lust. Attraction is a predilection to a certain desire, whereas lust is thought, imagination, or desire that leads to sexual misconduct. So keep that in mind when you read sentences like the one in the article. It belies a fundamental misunderstanding of what is really going on. 

What I want to do is address some of the fallacies implicit in the article—and made more explicit in the comments section. By the way, take a look at the comments if you want to see what modern tolerance looks like in practice. 

First, there is a deep underlying assumption that the morality of a person's desires and their actions cannot be separated, at least when we are talking about homosexuality. Of course, no one would extend this thinking into many other areas of life. "I really desire my neighbor's stuff, therefore I have a right to take it" doesn't fly when you are in front of the judge on theft charges. But notice how, in the article, the author has a terribly hard time distinguishing same-sex attraction from homosexual activity. It's just assumed that if you identify as gay, then homosexual activity is inherently a part of your life. The article says that "gay members who refuse to renounce homosexuality would eventually be booted from the church." Well, yes and no, depending on what you mean. This is the fallacy I'm talking about. 

Maybe the author truly doesn't understand that we would not excommunicate someone merely for their sinful desires, which everyone has. Maybe, under their moral framework, asking a gay person to be chaste for life would be inhumane. Or maybe that notion is so unconscionable that it didn't cross the author's mind as a distinct possibility. Who knows. But I do know this: rarely have I seen people give equal treatment to the fact that we ask all people who are not married to a person of the opposite sex to abstain from all sexual activity. Chastity is not limited to gays. Maybe that makes us even more oppressive...

Second, a common objection I hear is that Christianity is really about love, acceptance, and tolerance, so we should be loving, accepting, and tolerant of the LGBT crowd. This is always a troubling statement for me. What do you mean by "love?" What I think people really mean when they say this is that Christians should support and affirm each aspect of a person's identity. So love, accept, and tolerate get wrapped up into approve. Therefore, we have a completely different framework for what love means. If you are not approving, then you are not loving. This, of course, is false. The Bible defines love as the laying down of one life for the good of another. And that which is good is defined by that same Bible. So how could it be loving for us to refuse to lay down our lives (and popularity) and watch the destruction of another? It is, rather, utterly hateful.

Third, and this is closely related to the first one. The underlying assumption here is that, for a homosexual, that person's dignity and their sexual activity are irrevocably intertwined. If you ask a person to change their sexual behavior, it is tantamount to denying their humanity. (Although you would never say the same thing, for instance, about a pedophile or abuser—a remarkable denial of a logical conclusion). But this notion is simply untrue—and ignorant. A person is so much more than their sexuality. That's why, as Christians, we can encourage each other to "put to death" the sinful lusts of the flesh—because those things are not our identity. Killing sin will not kill our humanity. Our identity is in Christ and Christ alone. And that is the fundamental misunderstanding: one of mistaken identity. 

Fourth, let's get down to the root—idolatry. What's really going on? A deification of the autonomous orgasm. And according to the doctrine of this idol, all religions are welcome as long as their god bows to the great Sex God. Therefore Sojourn Montrose's presence is acceptable so long as its moral priorities conform to the moral priorities of the neighborhood (hint: sexual autonomy). So we can worship God however we want, as long as God submits to the prevailing sex god of our culture. Sorry—not gonna happen.

Fifth, there is some real irony in all of this, courtesy of the comments section. (As an aside, we've thrown around the word "bigot" so much in our society that it's lost almost of all of its original meaning). Marshall Dallas is excoriated for his bigotry, hatred, animus, and intolerance for homosexuals (all of which, of course, is blatantly untrue). His presence in the community, really, is not tolerated. It's a harsh reality these days that the most "tolerant" communities are the most intolerant of different viewpoints. Where's the appreciation for diversity? Where's the real tolerance? 

In the comments you'll notice a consistent demand for moral conformity when it comes to sexuality—just like the church. Consider my eyebrow raised. And the eyebrow says "ironic, isn't it?" Inescapably, we come to this end: it's not whether morality will drive our communities, but which morality will drive our communities. To me, it's better to build a culture of righteousness—not because it is justifying, but simply because it's better to live in a culture of righteousness than it is to live a culture of unrighteousness. That applies across the board. 

Last thing, I promise: I wrote this to help us think through these things foundationally. When we engage in these conversations, I want us to think about what everyone's assumptions are—and to challenge them. But when we work through these things on the way to the cross, things are different. The cross allows us to bear a burden on the hard road to its eventual destruction. As I've said before, a commitment to holiness is so much more than righteous indignation at sin. It requires us to enter into sin as we make our way out of it. And that can only happen through repentance and faith in Jesus Christ.

When revival sweeps through Montrose, we'll have no recourse to ourselves; we will only be able to credit the work of the Holy Spirit. So come, Jesus, and repair our minds as well as our hearts. 

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Patient Pursuit of Holiness

The pursuit of holiness is more than righteous indignation at sin. In a community of believers, it requires patience and long-suffering. It requires burden-sharing.

Think of the way the Lord—our holy God—has dealt with us. Bountifully. Patiently. With long-suffering and kindness. With sacrifice. His steadfast love endures forever. This is not contingent on our performance and works but rather on God's promises. Since turning to God in faith many years ago, have I maintained holiness of heart and deed? Not a chance. Has God remained faithful and holy, even in the midst of my unholiness? Yes, he has. And he will. God continues to push me (and pull me!) towards holiness, even when I am unwilling, unfaithful, and adamant about pursuing my own selfish ends. Yet he perseveres, and he preserves me. He is patient with me as the transformation takes place.

A holy God's faithfulness in the amidst of our unholiness has huge implications for us as a community committed to holiness. And it turns things on their head, in typical Kingdom fashion. We think of holiness as being "set apart," blameless, without sin, and utterly pure—singularly righteous. Yet in our communal pursuit of holiness, we are called to wade through each other's muck and yuck, with patience, in order that we may be refined, like gold being put through the fire. We are called to restore people, to be patient with them, and to forgive them.

Why must we put ourselves in the wake others' sin if we are pursuing the absence of sin? Because it reflects the character of a holy God, who did the same for us. "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God" (2 Cor. 5:21). Because God wanted us to be free from sin, he entered into our sin. It was the only way. When you are a slave and prisoner (to your sin), someone has to come to the prison and set you free. You cannot break your own shackles. Christ had to do it. Once he did it, with all authority in Heaven and on earth given to him by the Father, he told us to do the same. And then he gave us the same authority and the same power.

So with all the authority of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit, we were commissioned to enter into peoples' brokenness, in pursuit of holiness. Think about this. Let it imbue your marrow.

Holiness does not retreat from darkness. Rather, it shines forth a brilliant light into the darkness that seeks to envelop us. And in order for the light to reach every corner of our hearts, we have to search out the dark places together. For holiness.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Equal Confusion

On Wednesday, May 28, Houston City Council passed the controversial Houston Equal Rights Ordinance after an 11–6 vote. The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of protected characteristics in city employment, city services, city contracts, housing, public accommodations, and private employment.

The language in the ordinance is controversial, and its passage raises a host of questions for individuals, employers, and small businesses in Houston. For example, what does the ordinance specifically protect? To whom exactly does it apply? What are the consequences if one disobeys the ordinance? And how might it affect Christian business owners? The following is a bullet-point summary of the ordinance and what it prohibits:
  • The ordinance prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex, race, color, ethnicity, national origin, age, familial status, military status, religion, disability, sexual orientation, genetic information, gender identity, or pregnancy.
  • The ordinance applies, with certain limited exceptions, to Employers with 50 or more employees (that number decreases to 25 employees in year two and 15 employees in year 3); City employment; City services; City contract awards; public accommodations; and housing.
  • Religious Organizations are exempt (Religious Organizations include churches, educational institutions controlled or managed by churches or denominations, and non-profits controlled or managed by churches or denominations).
  • People who believe they have been discriminated against must file a written complaint with the Inspector General within 180 days of the alleged violation.
  • Violations of the ordinance are punishable by fine up to $500 for the first offense and no more than $5,000 for the same complaint. It is also a Class C Misdemeanor for the first offense.

For small businesses and employers who fall within the 50-employee minimum, there are a couple of provisions that will be important to consider. Federal anti-discrimination laws, which have been in place for many years, cover most of the acts prohibited by the Ordinance. The new areas of protection, however, are gender identity and genetic information.

The ordinance prohibits places of public accommodation from discriminating against a person on the basis of their gender identity, an inherently subjective characteristic that is determined by a person’s perceived gender expression apart from their biological sex. In other words, there is no objective way to verify a person’s gender identity like there would be to identify someone’s race, ethnicity, or age. When we legally protect the dissonance between someone’s feelings and their reality in this way, we have laid the foundation for confusion and abuse of power. Imagine if we gave the same protection to someone’s perceived race, age, pregnancy, or military status—“yes, I know I am only 14, but my body and experiences tell me that I am 21. Can you please serve me a beer?” Or, “I know I never served in the military, but I inherently identify with those who have. Where are my veteran’s benefits?” We may scoff at such ridiculous examples, but the underlying reasoning is the same. When it comes to sexuality, our culture has replaced true reality with a false reality and called it equality.

In light of this new reality, however, Christian business owners (and Christians in general) need to be discerning in how they think, speak, and act with regard to this ordinance. 

Christians should recognize that certain parts of this ordinance are an attempt to normalize and protect activity that turns God’s creation on its head. The Bible tells us that God made men and women, and he made them differently (Gen. 1:27). Gender is given to us as a grace of God and reflects different aspects of the glory of God. Therefore, we are right to treat men as men and women as women. The cultural confusion surrounding gender and sexuality, however, now makes it illegal to treat men as men when they view themselves as women (and vice versa). The City of Houston is inadvertently requiring business owners to forsake their conscience or face fines and penalties. The ordinance is bad for families, bad for businesses, and bad for society.

But how should Christians act in light of these new prohibitions? At the very least, faithfulness to God’s Word in this area requires much wisdom. The Bible tells us to be submissive to the rulers and authorities that God has placed in the civil realm (Titus 3:1). Peter also reminds us to be “subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution . . .” (1 Peter 2:13). As Christians, we have the freedom to do this because we know that the Kingdom of Christ is not of this world. Christ’s Kingdom will not be brought about through legislation, political power, or the prevailing rulers in our municipalities. It will be brought about by the transformation of peoples’ hearts through the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No city ordinance can accomplish that. 

At the same time, this new ordinance places extra restrictions on our liberty and poses a threat to our society. In this sense, Christians should resist this and any similar ordinances through all lawful means. Business owners should make use of the public square to declare the excellencies of God and the way he ordered creation. We should be well-reasoned in our positions and passionate in our pleas for robust liberty. We should implore our representatives to allow business owners to conduct business according the dictates of their consciences. Most importantly, we should strive to spread the gospel in Houston and live honorable lives. But until the Holy Spirit moves first in peoples’ hearts, we should not be surprised that the culture continues down this path. 

Christians are called to be reformers, not revolutionaries. And reformation moves from the bottom up, not the top down. If we’re honest, we can likely act in full obedience to this ordinance without disobeying God’s ordinances. Until a full-throated revival takes place in Houston, we should work towards obedience whenever possible. That said, if you find yourself having to choose between obeying God and obeying man, obey God. Ultimately, we only answer to Him.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The End from the Beginning

I ran across this little snippet in a piece of correspondence between the great John Milton and one of his friends concerning the reformation of education:
"I am long since persuaded, that to say, or do aught worth memory and imitation, no purpose or respect should sooner move us, than simply the love of God, and of mankind."
Later, he says this:
"The end then of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright, and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him, as we may the nearest by possessing our souls of true virtue, which being united to the heavenly grace of faith makes up the highest perfection."
From whence have we come? And how shall we return?

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

The Real Counterculture

I want to follow up on this post with a few more thoughts. Not on Don Sterling per se, but on the way in which our culture treats people like him—people guilty of serious cultural sins.

First, consider the culture at large. Our morality as a culture is so whimsical, yet we are willing to metaphorically crucify people when they offend that morality. I can name several examples in the past six months alone. The main culprits of late are verbal offenders of our culture's obsession with sexual liberation and what I like to call "haters"—people who don't get along with the tolerance police. The most serious offenders of this squishy morality are cast out of the public square and the marketplace. Their ideas and opinions have no place among us, so they become ideological pariahs on their way out.

In other words, we live in a culture with a deeply imbedded "scapegoat" narrative. In order to appease our conscience as a nation, we place our sins upon the backs of the designated scapegoats—homophobes, racists, and evolution-denying crazies. Then we send them packing from the public square feeling much better about ourselves in the process. It's so cathartic, but there is no forgiveness there. And as long as we heap judgment on the appointed class, we never have to examine our own hearts—dark as they are. No introspection, no condemnation, and no forgiveness. We don't need true forgiveness when we have a scapegoat.

But here's where the gospel is countercultural. The culture at large is not willing to forgive offenses against its whimsical morality; Christ is ready and willing to forgive offenses against his perfect, pure, and consistent law. The culture at large avoids self-examination and condemnation by placing its guilt on others who are "more deserving" of it; the gospel confronts each of us with the darkness of our own hearts, but places the guilt of that darkness on the one who didn't deserve it but can actually remove it. The culture at large will not abide the haters; in the gospel, Christ redeems his own haters and makes them his sons and daughters, not his enemies.

The prevailing culture isn't forgiving of people who commit serious cultural sins. I think it's because we are trying to avoid the actual guilt of our own sins. The good news, however, is this: though our sins are many, Christ offers us forgiveness through his death. And when he rose from the dead, those sins were no more. The culture at large, no matter how many people we banish, can never accomplish something like that. That's why the gospel is truly countercultural.

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sterling, Silver, and Gilded Standards

Yesterday Adam Silver, the Commissioner of the NBA, banned Clippers owner Don Sterling for life, based on racist comments he made to his girlfriend in private. And he also fined Sterling $2.5 Million, banned him from any League activities, and is urging the collective owners of NBA teams to force Sterling to sell his interest in the Clippers. If you follow the news, at this point the story isn't news anymore. However, I do want to address a few things and ask a couple of questions.

First of all, I am not going to talk about the merits of Commissioner Silver's decision or of Don Sterling's comments—or of racism in general. Others have done so ably, here and here. What Don Sterling said only accentuated and made public what he has believed and practiced for years.

I think it interesting that this whole thing exploded over comments made in the privacy of Don Sterling's own home. It just so happened that his 20-something girlfriend hit record on the iPhone when this conversation took place. Magically, then—not to mention illegally—we discover that Sterling is in fact a deep-seated racist, philanderer, and a creep. So the NBA must do something, right? They have to punish the immoral evil-thinker, which is what Adam Silver did—in the most heavy-handed way possible. Cultural "death penalty" sanctions.

But let's step back and look at what is really going on here. I believe there's a deep-seated inconsistency, and a process that, under the right conditions, would not bode well for Christians. First, what were the circumstances surrounding the exposé of Don Sterling's views?  He made a statement in the privacy of his own bedroom, albeit to his mistress. It was a nasty and dirty statement, but it was behind closed doors. We shouldn't go around prying into what goes on in peoples' bedrooms, right? At least that's the message we get regarding who's sleeping with whom. When it comes to sexuality, the sanctity of the "bedroom" is off limits from public scrutiny and judgment. Just ask Jason Collins. But why isn't it off-limits when it comes to issues of race? We're not even talking about one's actions (sexual behaviors); merely one's beliefs. Can you imagine the uprising if Commissioner Silver sanctioned Jason Collins in a similar way for his homosexual preference? It won't happen, because it goes against our society's moral consensus, but I think it illuminates the inconsistencies of our cultural mentality.

The bedroom is off limits in matters of sexuality because we worship our sexuality as a culture. And the reason we want the bedroom to be off-limits is because we know that our sexual worship is deeply, deeply wrong, and we don't want it exposed to the light. So as long as we keep the door closed, we can keep the lights off, so to speak, and go about our merry way without fear of judgment. I don't even think the issue is homosexuality and the moral position of the behavior itself. The real issue is that, once you start prying into the bedroom actions of homosexuals, you have to also pry into the bedroom actions of heterosexuals. And believe me, there is just as much to hide there, too. So we give a wink and a nudge and say "I won't worry about what you do sexually in your bedroom if you don't worry about what I do in mine." Repentance would have to start with the home, not homosexuals. But that's too hard.

Racism, on the other hand—not many people are holding on to that as their object of worship. At least not publicly. The White Supremacist lobby is not working public opinion to just get a little bit of tolerance for their views. Racism is condemned (rightly so) across the societal board—it generally knows no political or socio-economic grounds. It just happens to be one of those moral issues we all agree on at the moment. That's why no one raised an eyebrow when Don Sterling's words and thoughts behind closed doors were made public—everyone thought that he was wrong, so why bother? Here is where we uncover the deception, however slight.

The reality is that any society will form some moral code, enforced by those who have the most social power. Sometimes we refer to them (whether pejoratively or not) as the "cultural elite," etc. Or we just call them "the media." These social moral codes may or may not have any resemblance to the moral code of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible. Either way, the root is the same: the mob mentality, which is thirsty for judgment and vengeance against those who violate that mob's moral code. It's terribly unforgiving.

So when society says that what goes on in the bedroom is off-limits, that's not what it really means. The principle is not the sanctity of the privacy of the bedroom. If it were, then Don Sterling would not be banned from the NBA. This would be a non-issue. The real issue is the enforcement of society's moral code, which has no solid foundation. The lynch-mob is the foundation. As Doug Wilson put it, "lynch mobs sometimes hang guilty people, but this is not a good argument for the protection of public manners being turned over to lynch mobs." I agree. Yes, the societal moral code got it right this time. But do I want that to be the foundation? Of course not. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, but the squirrel is still blind.

I place zero faith in the ability of our society to grasp, affirm, and police the intrinsic worth and dignity of all human beings. I don't care how many Don Sterlings the NBA banishes, or how much money they donate to anti-discrimination causes, or how loudly the media cheers when it does. I will still be dubious about our ability to pursue true justice in this area. When we have a hard time understanding what a person is, we are not qualified to judge whether someone else accurately affirms the inherent equality of those persons. How could we? We will never get it because we are fallen. There is only one way we will get this right, and it involves the total desecration of the Asherah we have set up in our straw homes built on our foundations of sand. Repent and believe, and build your foundation on the eternal Word. Then we will truly see.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and a Slow Repentance

A couple of days ago, Sojourn Heights held its second Ash Wednesday service. It was a heavy, somber time of reflection and confession, capped with a reminder that, left on our own, we are sinful unto death. That is serious, which is why the cross is so glorious. But all of this has been explained before. Right now I want to address the Lenten season specifically and what I think it can mean for us as a whole. 
Lent is the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, a representation of the time in which Jesus fasted in the desert in preparation of his public ministry. The number 40 is significant in scripture. Rain fell in Noah’s generation for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses lived in the desert for 40 years before the Exodus. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after their disobedience. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days before being tempted by Satan. And after his resurrection, Jesus’s ministry continued for another 40 days. There are many more examples, but the point is this: 40 is a number in the Bible often associated with cleansing, repentance, and testing. 
So that’s what we view Lent as: a time of cleansing, repentance, and a testing of our faith. Forty days of it. If that seems like a long time to be sorrowful over your sin, please consider these things. Moses, the judges, and the Israelite Kings often implored the people to don sackcloth and ashes for a period of 40 days in order to repent as a nation of their sins. It was a period of mourning for how they had offended a holy God. And it was a time to earnestly seek God in repentance.
We are doing something similar when we consider our sin and lament it before God for 40 days during Lent. In a culture that places a premium on instant gratification, we often question the value of a consistent somber state for such a “long” period of time. Isn’t it depressing? Where’s the good news? Jesus wants us to be happy, right? Those are all legitimate concerns, and believe me, there is plenteous good news in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But wouldn’t the good news be that much greater after we’ve spent a considerable time unearthing and facing our deepest sins? God, in his loving kindness, shows us the depth of our sin so that he can refine us, like the gold or silver whose dross rises to the top when exposed to the fire. In the same way, let's allow the Holy Spirit to expose the sins hidden deep in our heart—once they are exposed, the Spirit will remove them faithfully because He loves us.
Here’s my challenge: let’s take Lent seriously this year. Let’s really spend 40 days asking God to uncover the depths of our sin. Let’s ask God to make us mournful over the many ways in which we grieve the Holy Spirit and damage our fellowship with him. Let’s take a humble posture before the Lord that reflects the inner reality that we are more sinful than we thought. And when Easter rolls around, we will be ever more thankful and in awe of what Christ’s resurrection accomplished. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Remember this? NIMBY Challenge Begins on San Felipe High-Rise

an Felipe Construction
(Cross-posted from www.bryantlaw.net)
Remember the Ashby high-rise trial? Get ready for round two. The San Felipe high-rise is gearing up for a similar legal battle. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, when it comes to our desire for space and our need to accommodate a fast-growing city.
How far will the bounds of nuisance law stretch in order to accommodate these types of lawsuits? In one sense, the jury has a lot of power in determining the reasonableness of new construction and the diminution of value of surrounding properties. It may all come down to voire dire—and whether one party gets a favorable jury. That’s just how it goes.
On the other hand, if the residents win (again), I would not be surprised if it prompted City Council to seriously consider adopting a comprehensive zoning ordinance. Such a measure would, I believe, curtail nuisance lawsuits related to new construction. It would also have numerous other benefits, but that is irrelevant here.
In the courtroom scene, recent successes have emboldened property owners to stand up to developers for what the owners perceive are irresponsible and senseless developments. It will be interesting to see how the law adapts to these challenges (especially through appeals) in an economy that has a reputation as a developer-friendly atmosphere.
But I think, if we are really honest, we must recognize at least a slight case of NIMBY-ism from the homeowners.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Taking Possession

[Moses]  said to them, 'Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word to you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.' (Deut. 32:46–47).
God promised Israel long life in the land if they would keep the covenant between them and God—if they kept the law and obeyed God's word. The Word was their life. That sounds so...Pauline. "When Christ who is your life appears..." (Col. 3:4). But back to the story. It's no secret that Israel failed at being "careful to do all the words of this law." They couldn't even if they tried. God's promise to them, however, was that they would live long in the land He was giving them. Keep that scenario in mind. Israel had this promise—and the Word—but they failed, repeatedly. Just like we do.

Then Christ came. And he did keep all the words of the law. Some even say he was the embodiment of the law—he was the Word of God made flesh. So it's easy to see how Paul could say that Christ is our life. It wasn't a novel concept—Moses said the same thing way back in the desert. But here's the great news: despite our failure, Christ obtained the promise for us, and he gave his righteousness to us. Therefore, we have an even greater promise. Where Israel (a type of the church) was promised long life in the land through their obedience, we (the church) are promised eternal life in the New Jerusalem through Christ's obedience. What a promise! What a salvation! What a possession!

Moses was right. The Word of God was no "empty word," as if it were powerless, but our very life. For without The Word, we have no life. And as Israel went over to possess the land for a long time, we go over to possess a greater land for eternity. Both by God's word, our life.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Recovering the Missionary Roots of a Democratic Society

You don't learn this in high school history class, but there is a close causal nexus between the Great Commission and the benefits of a free, liberal democratic society. Apparently freedom in the gospel and freedom in society go together like a hand in a glove. One provides the form for the other.

The reality is that protestant missionaries and their work set the stage for many of the cultural and political reforms that helped shape our nation's founding identity. And when I say protestant missionaries, I mean the reformed-types from the theological traditions of Calvin, Bullinger, Luther, and Knox. They understood that, in order to transform a culture, you must transform peoples' hearts. Repentance breeds reformation. Not the other way around.

Anyways, I have been making my way through this book (which chronicles the influence of reformed covenant theology on the current democratic systems), trying to get a firmer grasp on the historical influence of evangelical Christianity on our culture at large. The more I read, the more I find out that we are riding the coattails of a society created with orthodox Christianity as a main foundation. Of course, we're doing a bang-up job of throwing it all away, but the connection between a society gripped by the gospel and a free society is non-ignorable.

Then, out of the blue today, this guy pointed me to an article that summarized some important research on this very topic. How serendipitous. Or fortuitous. Either one.

The article on Desiring God does a good job of highlighting the research and its results. The original research, a paper entitled "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy" by Robert Woodberry, systematically catalogues the connection between the missionary presence in a society and that society's grasp of democracy and similar principles. But it's the "nuanced" conclusion—which Desiring God calls an "atomic nuance"—that deserves the most attention. It is the distinguishing fact that drives the conclusion. Quoting from the original paper, the article notes, "'[t]here is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked' (40)."

The implication, says John Piper, is that "the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the 'conversion' of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life." How true. And now the data backs it up: if you want to change the culture, you need to change hearts first. Really, you should want to change hearts before you change culture. If pastors and evangelists make cultural transformation their energizing focus, Piper said, they will lose their culturally transforming power. Amen to that.

But let's continue to think about this on the arc of history so that we can see where we are headed, or at least where we should set our sights. What we see is that where the gospel goes forth and takes root in a society, democratic and free principles soon follow. In other words, the transformation of peoples' hearts results in a transformation of that society. And the fruit of that transformation is freedom and liberation—religious liberty, widespread education, economic flourishing, artistic expression, and widespread engagement in non-governmental civic organizations. Again, they go hand in hand.

Now let's look at where we are as a society today. Our cultural milieu does not place a high value on traditional liberal democratic ideals. Religious liberty and economic liberty in particular have seen better days. And we know that, on a pop-culture level, the gospel of Christ is despised to the core. It is anathema to what the prevailing culture considers to be "freedom."

So here's the good news. Just like the "conversionary protestants" that evangelized the nation, producing the societal fruit that we now despise, we are poised for a similar harvest in future generations. Slowly gaining momentum in several parts of the country—and in our city in particular—is a movement of gospel-centered evangelism and church-planting. Don't underestimate the power of the gospel preached to sinners. It is the power of God for salvation. In other words, we have the resources for a cultural renewal at our disposal. We have—and are cultivating—everyday missionaries who are willing to lay down their everyday lives for the spread of the gospel. We are making disciples, multiplying neighborhood parishes, and planting churches. That's how we plant the seeds of the gospel that reap the fruit of cultural change in the future. Because God authored the gospel in such a way that widespread heart change always produces cultural change, we can have faith that our disciple-making will have an earthy, tangible impact on future generations.

There are several things we can learn from Robert Woodberry's paper, and I hope he turns his research into a full-fledged book. The church would be well-served by it. But the thing we can learn—and that we ought to take to heart—is that a robust Christian society isn't some relic of a bygone era or a mere fantasy. It is the result of Christ-driven evangelism. And it is something we can look forward to as we labor in making disciples and watch the Holy Spirit transform hearts. Because after He transforms hearts, those hearts use their hands to transform the culture.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Surgery and God's Providence

For all of you who prayed for my surgery yesterday, I thank you. But the surgery almost didn't happen. Since it did happen—and since it was completely from the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God that it did happen—I ought to give thanks to Him by explaining how it all went down.

So what happened was this. My surgery was scheduled for Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. On Wednesday afternoon, however, I received a phone call from the Doctor's office explaining that they could not verify my insurance coverage. In fact, they said, my insurance policy had been cancelled since November. Odd, I thought. Because on Monday I had verified my coverage and even printed out a letter of proof of coverage to take to the doctor. Regardless, I had to figure this out, and pronto. It was 4:30 at this point. I was supposed to be checking into surgery at 6:00 a.m.

I do some scrounging around online and in my files and find out that my insurance company had threatened to drop me back in November due to non-payment of premiums. I thought this was especially strange considering I had signed up for auto-draft from my bank account. Even more so because my bank records showed a premium payment back in November. At this point, the reality is sinking in that my insurance carrier dropped my coverage without a cancellation notice or any attempts to collect overdue premiums. It's time to scramble.

So I call the insurance company's member services line, collect my documents to prove up my case, and hear this on the other end: "due to the Affordable Care Act, there are a high volume of callers. Your expected hold time is in excess of 60 minutes..." Thanks Obama? Regardless, I've got to wait it out; I need to talk to someone pronto. In the meantime, I convince the surgery center to bump me to the last surgery of the day (12:30) to give me some more time to get it all straightened out. That at least buys me a couple of more hours. Maybe a miracle will happen.

About three hours later, I finally talk to a real person. (I could probably sing to you the on-hold music from somewhere deep in my sub-conscious). I explain my story calmly and logically. "Ok, sir, I'm going to have to connect you to someone in Member Services. Please hold for a while longer." Please no. At this point, it's 7:30 p.m. and things are looking slim for tomorrow. I'm about to call it quits when someone picks up from member services. It's good news: the insurance company realizes they screwed up and shouldn't have cancelled me. If I pay my back premiums, they can re-issue coverage and I'll be good to go for surgery. At this point I'm ecstatic! Good to go. I pay up and head out to be with my parish, with assurances that I'll be approved for surgery first thing in the morning.

Morning comes, and I am ready for surgery. Only one hurdle remains: I need to call the doctor's office, and they need to get in touch with the insurance company to approve my coverage. Should be easy. So I call the doctor at 8:30 and they say they're on it; they will get back to me soon. Thinking this will be a fairly straightforward process, I start packing my bags. Then another phone call, which I think will be something along the lines of "Mr. Bryant, you've been approved. See you soon." Instead, it was "Mr. Bryant, we still can't get in touch with your insurance company. We're going to have to cancel the surgery." "I'm covered, I promise," I said. "Please, give it until 10:00." They agreed to give me a little leeway, which bought me some time. It's now 9:45, and I have no idea if I will be having surgery today.

Twenty minutes roll past, and I know this probably means bad news. But I get in my car and head to the surgery center anyways. I'm going to keep saying yes until someone tells me no. Halfway down Heights Blvd., however, the doctor's office calls and says they still can't get in touch with anyone at the insurance company; they have to cancel the surgery. I said that I understood why, and thanks for working with me until the last minute. Now I call my parents, who are already at the surgery center, and tell them the news. There's nothing I can do, so just come on home.

About five minutes later, the doctor's office calls again. This time it's good news: the surgery center was able to verify coverage with the insurance company! Come on down! So I turn it back around and wheel off to the surgery center. But when I get there, there's no such good news. The surgery center is actually still on hold with the insurance company and hasn't verified anything. They haven't even talked to a live person yet. Obamacare's jamming the system! Or so I tell myself...

So I sit down with the nice lady at the counter and see what we can do. She tells me that they are still on hold with the insurance company, but she believes what I told her about getting caught up on my premiums. I suggest we go ahead and do the surgery regardless, but she tells me to just be patient; they will keep trying up until game time.

That means another couple of hours of waiting, at the surgery center, not knowing if I will have surgery. I'm not trying to complain, and I wasn't complaining then, but sometimes I prefer certainty to uncertainty in things like this. But it was not so, and I was ok with that.

12:45 rolls around (I am scheduled for a 12:30 surgery), and still no word from the insurance company. The nice lady from the counter comes back and says "I believe you, and so do they upstairs. Your insurance company is being whack, so we are just going to worry about that later. We've never done this, but we got the administrator's approval to do the surgery without insurance authorization. Lets' go!" Well, she didn't have to tell me twice. So I went back to surgery as if nothing had ever gone wrong. And nothing did go wrong with surgery once I got there. The doctors and nurses were great, anesthesia was awesome, and my mom cooked some out-of-this world chicken and dumplings for dinner when I got home (which promptly made me sick because of the medicine, but it was totally worth it).

The real wonder in all of this is how God's hand was guiding everything during the confusion. As soon as I knew something was wrong, I also knew that God was preparing me to trust Him completely. That was my overarching prayer during the "unknown" 24 hours. Yes, I did want the surgery, and I surely prayed for God to work a miracle there, but ultimately, I wanted to trust His plan and purpose for this. Which is why, to me, it's kind of funny that there was so much back-and-forth about whether I was going to have the surgery or not. Yes. Wait, no. Yes! Turn around and come back! Oh, we don't know. You are scheduled in 15 minutes, but we still don't know. Ok. I get it, God. Trust you. I am, gladly.

When I tore my ACL (and split my meniscus in two), I had a hard time dealing with it. All my life I had been somewhat athletic, able to play most sports, and generally lived an active lifestyle. I took pride in that, too. Sinfully so. But a blown knee blew all that to bits. I had to face my self-idolatry, so to speak. In a real, physical sense, I idolized my body and its abilities. How Grecian of me.

The reality is that all of our bodies are deteriorating from the moment we are born. Injuries happen. People are born with physical deformities; that's the price of sin for all mankind. But the Bible promises that, through Christ's resurrection, we will have resurrected bodies as well. And these bodies will be perfect in every way, just as Christ is perfect. They will not break, nor deform, nor wither. They will share in the physical glories of Christ, and they will be everlasting bodies. So I shouldn't place my faith in my body as it is now. Even with a new ACL. It's still going to break. Instead, let us place our faith in Christ and the glorious, unbreakable bodies that await us. That's a reality, and a promise from our Creator. That we will be re-made—for good.

So thank you all for praying for my surgery; I am grateful for you. It was an interesting couple of days, but the Lord showed His might and power in how it all played out. I am thankful that I was able to have the surgery, but even if I wasn't, God is good, and someday I won't need surgery anyways.