The Worst (and most popular) Basketball Player in the World

Here’s an illustration I’d like to spin today.. it’s a bit unusual, but stay with me.  There once was a basketball player (Who we’ll call Kenny).  Kenny had every trait you would want in an elite-level basketball player; He was fast, could shoot, handled the ball well, and could jump “out of the gym.”  But when Kenny took the floor for his first professional game, well, something odd happened.

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Kenny didn’t dribble, he simply ran as fast as he could with the ball, knocking over several defenders as he unleashed an epic dunk.  The entire auditorium was silent, except for the sound of whistles indicating his violations (and flagrant fouls).  After a moment, the fans went absolutely wild. It was shocking, it was unexpected, it was athletic.. they had never seen such a thing.  Both coaches were shocked, and the officials were bewildered that such an odd thing had taken place. The other team was awarded the ball, and quickly scored.  As Kenny’s team received the ball again, there was a sense of tension as the ball was passed to Kenny. As soon as Kenny had the ball, he did it AGAIN! Full speed, monstrous dunk, raucous cheers from the crowd.  Before the officials could repsond, the opposing team inbounded the ball, ran the length of the court like Kenny, and dunked too.  Now the crowd was delirious, and the officials could only blow whistles and try to tell the coaches that this game would be declared a forfeit.  This mattered little to both teams now, who had completely jettisoned the rules and were now actually tackling each other as they ran full-court to dunk again.

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There were the obligatory meetings of the referees, coaches, and league officials. They were in complete agreement that what had happened was both bizarre and unacceptable.  The problem?  The players preferred this new style of play, and the fans couldn’t get enough of it.  It was “new”, “fresh”, and “exciting”!  Not only was it shown repeatedly on ESPN, but it was impossible to turn on any TV station without seeing the clip.

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The next scheduled game played out the same way. Tip off, player taking the ball the length of the court and attempting to dunk before he was absolutely leveled by an unknown player.  The crowd went crazy, and the media were quick to jump on this unknown player; who as it turns out, was 24 year old Brent Bednarik, who had never played basketball before that game, but had played middle linebacker for The University of Indiana.  This set off an avalanche of trades and new signings.  Mark Cuban, owner of the Dallas Mavericks hired former NFL head coach John Gruden, “effective immediately.”  “I think John is just what we need”, said Cuban. “The league has changed and we have to change with it. We need a new skillset and the old school basketball coaches just aren’t cutting it. John brings with him a great defensive coordinator which will allow us to be the hardest hitting team in the NBA! The fans are gonna love it!”

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And for the remainder of the season, the game got more physical. The hits were bigger. Teams found that they needed bigger runners and that their former All-Stars weren’t built for this new brand of basketball.  The referees? They blew whistles frantically, calling every foul as it happened.. but in time, the crowd didn’t even notice the whistles, which had become nothing more than background noise.  The league responded as best it could, but ultimately gave in as ratings, attendance, and sales skyrocketed to unimaginable levels.  New stadiums were constructed in nearly every city to house the overflow crowds. New television deals were made with stations dedicated to 24/7 broadcasts of this “new basketball.”

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Kenny became a legend, and was soon everywhere on TV and making hundreds of millions of dollars from book deals, and from sponsors. A shoe company has ensured that every kid in American now dares to “Innovate Your Game!”

In an interview, Kenny shared the genius that started this global juggernaut:  “You know, basketball was just getting boring to me.  Same old same old. Man, i’d been playing the game the same way since I was a kid.. but I thought, Hey, people like dunks, so I’m just going to go for it.. and i’m fast without dribbling, so, you know…”  When asked about ongoing protests from the NBA Referee’s Union, Kenny responded “I don’t know, man. I mean, nobody comes to see those guys blow their whistles,  you know? The fans love it, we love it.. they just need to change. I don’t mean to hate, but those guys are straight up haters. They just judge everybody. I know they say ‘that ain’t basketball’, ‘it ain’t what Michael Jordan or some other old dude did’. Whatever, court, players, ball. Man, I play for the Lakers, how are you going to tell me that’s not basketball? The fans love this basketball!”

And, the game continued. It was wildly popular and it was…. what? Basketball?

That story may seem a bit long, but I think it encapsulates nearly everything that has led us to where we find ourselves in American evangelicalism in 2013.

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1. American evangelicalism has spun out of control because it’s become SUBJECTIVE instead of OBJECTIVE.  The point where Kenny decided to just listen to his heart and what it lead him to do, he got away from actual basketball pretty quickly! It’s based nearly entirely on what we feel. Some sort of cloudy view of a “Jesus” who we talk about hugging, holding, talking to our hearts, “feeling” leading us… instead of a real, defined, historic event which happened in history (that whole “under Pontius Pilate” thing in the creeds? Yeah, it actually happened.)  We teach our kids to listen to their hearts and that still small voice instead of teaching them the actual tenants of the faith. No longer seeing a need to catechise, we’re just happy that kids have a big warm felling and “love” Jesus.  But what “Jesus” is that? The historical Jesus who came to earth to be crucified under Pontius Pilate to save us from the impending wrath of God?  Seriously, when was the last time your kids heard that truth? God has NOT given us a subjective faith, but an objective, historical faith.

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2. American evangelicalism has spun out of control because it’s PRAGMATIC.  I believe most American evangelicals swallow the poison of pragmatism because it fits so perfectly with the “American Dream” that we are sold on every day through TV, Movies, and Music.  In a nutshell, something is true and has value if it works.  If it meets the goal.  Kenny’s “New Basketball” was, pragmatically speaking, a huge success.  Giant arenas were packed with fans, players enjoyed the new game, huge TV contracts were signed. What more could you want?  Never mind that it had, by definition, become something completely OTHER than basketball, they kept the language and kept right on going. The requirement of a Pastor is no longer the biblical requirement to preach the WORD, and administer the sacrements. No, like Mark Cuban in the example above, we’ve changed what we’re looking for in a preacher on our new requirements. He’s got to be funny, presentable, inspiring, be business and leadership savvy (which means he attended the seminar of the latest fad-leadership guru) and a great speaker. Throw in a book deal and you’ve got you “John Gruden”. How do you know if he’s successful, by how faithfully he exegetes scripture or the quality of disciples? No, by the size of his arena, the number of fans, and the TV deal.  Sound familiar?

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3. American evangelicalism has spun out of control because of it’s obsession with RELEVANCE.  The NBA has a great history and a great parade of great players throughout the ages. The sublime beauty of a George Gervin finger roll,  the precision of a Larry Bird three-pointer, or the finesse of Magin Johnson running the floor are all lost if we subjectively, pragmatically change the rules. Once we see the rules as changeable based upon our redefinition of the game, those guys aren’t admirable, they’re “old school”, “boring”, “dead”.   No longer judging the success of a church by the biblical standard of preaching the scriptures, from the bible, in context, we judge the success of a church by size, “relevance” (whatever that means), national exposure, and innovation.  Ask yourself an honest question, who is more successful, Joel Osteen or Brent Kuhlman?  According to American evangelism, it would have to be Joel Osteen. I mean, Brent who? Brent Kuhlman pastors Trinity Lutheran Church in Murdock, Nebraska (population 235).  Treat yourself to one of Pastor Kuhlman’s sermons online and ask yourself who is handling God’s word properly.

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This article is already long past the “recommended” word count for successful (pragmatism rears it’s head again!) blogging. But these concepts are important. If you don’t understand the subtle deception *ingrained* in our sinful nature, you won’t see the slight change in course of your faith until you are in a mega-arena, built by pragmatism, cheering on something called basketball which Larry Bird and Dr. J wouldn’t even recognize.  (And they’d probably just be the “old guys hatin’ on everybody” in the new league anyway.)

In this example the league caved in to the style, the new direction.  God? Never.  We have been given a faith “once for all delivered to the saints”.  While we may ignore the blowing whistles, when the game ends we don’t get the game ball if we’ve made our own game out of what we were delivered.

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To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

(Jude 1:1-4 ESV)

So how do you know the real from the fake?  Easy, the real is, well, simple:

1. You are born in sin and an object of God’s wrath.

2. Jesus came in the flesh and lived a sinless life and atoning death to satisfy God’s wrath.

3. Those who repent of their sin and believe in Christ’s atoning work for the forgiveness of sin will be saved.

4. We are called to receive the sacrements of communion, baptism, and preaching of the word in the same passive manner we were made righteous.

The hammer of the law and the balm of the gospel.  If what you are hearing each Sunday isn’t THAT, then you’ve got an arena, a ball, and a court.. you’ve got a coach and a crowd, but the whistles are blowing “Foul!”.  Call it basketball, call it “church”, but it’s something entirely different. “It is what it is, but church it ain’t.”  Instead, the overwhelming majority of American evangelicalism has created it’s own gospel;

1. God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.

2. Become a Christ Follower and discover that purpose.

3. God’s plan is bigger than your plan! Dream audaciously!

4. Begin to; Believe, Speak, and Step out in faith to “birth” this dream that God has for your life.

No wrath, no repentance, no atonement. In short, you don’t need a bloody cross for that; that’s nothing more than subjective, pragmatic, narcissism.  And look around, it sells! (which, according to pragmatism, makes it both true and successful, right?)

Keep your eyes, ears, and minds alert. Listen for the subtle perversions.  Listen to your preacher, does he sound like a man proclaiming a historic fact (news anchor) or does he sound like someone trying to sell you his pragmatic vision (sham-wow-guy)?  What would our brothers and sisters in the early church have thought of “God has a wonderful purpose for your life” mantra as they were fed to lions?  Does your “best life now” sound anything like the earthly ministry of Jesus? Or, are they simply using “church language” to sell the American dream? Kenny continued to use “basketball terms” and call it basketball long after it had been replaced with a different game. All the “new” players would tell you they love basketball and play basketball, but look at what they are doing and promoting. Is it, in fact basketball?!?!?

Think about it.

Marc

The Worst Birthday Party Ever

After looking forward all week to the festivities, I walked into Chuck E. Cheese’s and looked for the guest of honor.  He sat, tucked away in a corner, nearly hidden from view by the beautiful decorations, signs, and balloons which had been carefully arranged around the table.

As guest were arriving, there were hugs and laughter and everyone was genuinely glad to see one another. The mood was festive as the children were handed cups of tokens to use in the arcade. But the guest of honor sat quietly, lost amid all the activity.

And then… the music!

“Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls! Please return to the party area to celebrate our special guest!”

The children rushed back to the tables, the adults quickly found their seats as the party started with blaring music from the Chuck E. Cheese band.  The crowd would sing along and shout out the guest of honors name at all the appropriate times in the song. The entertainment was well received and ended just as the pizza arrived!  Parents and children alike dove into the pizza and seemed to really be enjoying themselves, except for the guest of honor who still sat quietly, overshadowed by the noise and decorations.

Then, things got, well, weird.  First, party planner extraordinaire (Mom), quieted the crowd and began to speak:

“Thank you all for coming!  Wow, what a party, huh?  I think it turned out pretty well! (the guest cheered in approval) I spent weeks planning this, so enjoy yourselves!”  The crowd cheered and thanked her for her hard work. It was indeed a beautiful party.  And the guest of honor sat quietly on the sideline.

Next up?  The Manager from Chuck E. Cheese!  He thanked everyone for coming and marveled at the beautiful party. The most impressive he had ever seen in his store!  And then he did something truly odd:

“Chuck E. Cheese is built around making every child the guest of honor at their party!  And to that end, we’re expanding the size our store to nearly double it’s current size!” (And the crowd cheers)  “It’s going to be EPIC!  We’re adding more games, and more than 10 jumbo screens to enhance the party experience.  We’re also adding more than 50 new employees to facilitate this growth! How ’bout that?!?!?” (And the crowd showed it’s enthusiastic approval.)  And the guest of honor sat quietly on the sideline.

And they came, one after another; guests to speak about how the guest of honor made them feel, the cooks to talk about the pizza, the baker to talk about the cake, and a dozen talented musicians and singers taking turns performing songs about the guest of honor with tremendous skill and passion. And through it all, great festivity and great fun.  And the guest of honor sat quietly on the sideline.

Finally, the mother wrapped up the party:  “Thank you for coming! I hope you enjoyed yourself. Let’s have a hand for all those who made this special day possible!” (applause)  “Isn’t it wonderful to celebrate someone we love so dearly?”  (applause).

And with that, the guests smiled, hugged, and left.  And the guest of honor sat quietly on the sideline.

For all the trappings, and mentions of his name, he was overshadowed by the activities, the festivities, and the entertainment.  All good things, but shameful when used to overshadow the guest of honor.  For all the fun, it was… The Worst Birthday Party Ever

And yet, this scene plays out Sunday after Sunday in some of the largest, most “successful” churches in the country.  People gather for the purpose of honoring the one deserving of all honor, and we spend so much time with entertainment, with speaking about the interworking and program of the organization, focusing on our gift bags, and enjoying the party itself that, well, apart from a few mentions during the singing  (which is often about how He makes us feel) and a verse or two of His word, we forget to actually focus on the guest of honor.

Talented musicians, tremendous programs, entertaining and humorous speakers, and beautiful campuses; All good things. But if we can spend 10 minutes on intro, 30 minutes on blazing guitar riffs and angelic special singing, time for humorous stories and jokes, and time to sell merchandise.. how then do we skip entire sections of His word due to time constraints? I’ve actually heard speakers say “Time doesn’t allow me to read the entire chapter, so I’ll unpack the following verses:” How do we stand to read God’s word only to be met with 10 minutes of story telling, not to explain the context of the scripture being read, but setting the narrative into which we will drop a verse or two out of context?  When we leave do we know more about the “party” and the “planning” than about “the guest of honor”?

Lord, forgive us for abandoning our first love.  Forgive us for making time for every manner of program and entertainment and only giving you a round of applause and a nod of the head as we spend less time working through your word than we do on talking about explaining the logistics of our next event.  Do I think the people at the birthday party love the guest of honor? Of course I do. Do I think they meant harm? No, I don’t. But at some point they lost focus. They forgot why they were there.  Let’s return to our first love.

I know that I’m sometimes perceived as “negative”, a “hater”,  or “nitpicky”.  I understand that, I really do.  I’m not saying the activities of the party are bad.  What I’m saying is that I truly love the guest of honor.  I came to spend time with him and to make it about him… and to see him pushed into the corner as we speak about the party?  It breaks my heart.  As a wise man once said;

So if you are somewhere where there is a focus on reading and learning the Word of God, you are truly blessed. I attend a service every week where I hear the reading of large portions of scripture, often entire chapters in context; feeling both the weight of the Law, and the grace of the Gospel.As an example, in a recent service we bowed our head to confess sin, to read together Christ’s words declaring us forgiven, confessed our faith together, read large portions of 3 chapters of scripture, had the gospel of repentance for the forgiveness of sins clearly presented, and met together at the Lord’s Table where we received His body and blood. And, yes, we worshiped together in song.  Certainly not any tremendous vocal performances, no melt-your-face-off guitar solos, no performances of any sort actually. But we worshipped. Together.

In an hour.

Does your church have time for multiple solo performances and none to spend actually reading the text of God’s word?  Do you spend more time on announcements than on scripture? Are you getting a verse or two which serve as nothing more than an amplifier to a story about the speaker, or merely a nod in His direction as you sing songs that could just as easily be about your boyfriend as they are about the Savior? If so, you’re too much party and not enough guest… and it may be time to leave the party.

I’m sure you love the party, who wouldn’t? It’s FUN! You love the other guests! The music is FUN! The people are FUN! The entertainment is FUN!  But do you love that fun more than the guest? Nobody at the birthday party would have ever said they loved the party more than the guest of honor.. but their actions spoke volumes. Nobody wants to leave a good party, especially if it’s aimed at our enjoyment.  If you leave the party, you may end up with a few less balloons and decorations, and you may hear grandma doing an off-key rendition of  “happy birthday” instead of the Chuck E. Cheese band, but our “guest of honor” deserves all honor.

Marc

The Five Solas: Sola Scriptura

What are the Five Solas, and why would I spend time reading about them on your blog instead of playing Doodle Jump? Or Words with Friends? Or watching sneezing Pandas on YouTube?

The Five Solas (sola from the latin “alone”) are the bedrock of much of what you believe if you are an evangelical christian. (Great, a history lesson.. with latin no less.) OK, before you run off and start looking for “fail compilation” on YouTube, stick with me for a minute. You need to know these things for a few key reasons:

1. Only by knowing what you believe can you identify and defend against what you don’t.

2. Really smart people have defined these truths over the centuries. I get it, they dressed funny and they’re all dead now, but in spite of the fact that they didn’t have iPhones or access to google, they did the heavy biblical, linguistic, and theological lifting that most of us have no ability (or work ethic) to accomplish.

3. It gives us an early warning capability. There is truly nothing new under the sun; every “new wave” that hits the modern evangelical church is a simple twist on a centuries old heresy. If you don’t understand them, you’re easy prey to them. (Molinism anyone?)

4. We’re called to do so in scripture:

[15] Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

(2 Timothy 2:15 ESV)

With that, the first Sola….. SOLA SCRIPTURA “Scripture Alone”

Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone) is the belief that the Bible is the only inspired word of God and the sole guide to our faith. This means that everything that God has ordained for us to know is made clear in scripture alone.

[16] All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, [17] that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

(2 Timothy 3:16-17 ESV)

Let that scripture sink in. Understand that Sola Scriptura was written in response to the Roman Catholic church which believed that scripture alone was not the sole guide to faith, but also the extra-biblical (outside of the bible) traditions and rulings of the church. The scriptures make it clear that scripture is “God-breathed”. The greek here is fantastic… θεόπνευστος (theos/God pneuo/breathe). Literally, the scriptures were God-breathed. (Make you want to read your bible more?)

Not only is scripture God-breathed, but it is sufficient to equip the believer for every good work. It’s ALL you need! It’s the breath of God!

(This is NOT to mean “solo scriptura”. We believe the bible is sufficient in all areas of our faith, but there are other books which are helpful for subjects outside of our faith..like car repair, mathematics, world history, etc.)

Now, this was written to say that we have what we need in the Bible. Most of us agree 100% there. We don’t tolerate church leaders giving us “new” stuff outside of scripture. (Joseph Smith/Mormons, Jehova’s Witnesses, etc.)… but do we truly believe Sola Scriptura in practice, or do we allow people to take information, which is not θεόπνευστος (theopneustos/God Breathed) and put it on par with scripture?

In practice, we often unwittingly deny the sufficiency of scripture. How are some ways the modern church brings in extra-biblical sources and puts them on the level of scripture?

1. Vision Casting: If you haven’t been exposed to the seeker-sensitive movement, this is THE focus. The pastor has a vision for what God wants for the church, puts it into a plan, “casts” the vision before the church and that vision (since it’s “directly from God”) is now on par with scripture. (If you ever hear “without vision the people perish” and the speaker is talking about church planning.. run.) In fact, this plan often takes the place of the biblical mandate in many churches, and puts them in direct contradiction/competition with God’s stated plan for the church. (Preaching the Gospel of repentance and forgiveness of sins, and making disciples is often pushed aside for “Meeting the needs of the community”.)

2. Extra-biblical sources/Personal Experiences: Every few years, someone comes out with a “return from hell/heaven” type book and they sell like hotcakes. The problem? It’s not biblical. To say you believe that scripture is sufficient, and to then grab another source is absurd. If you won’t read your bible, but are willing to devour the testimony of a 4-year-old, you need to reconsider. We’ve reached such a state of post-modernity in our country that the one thing you cannot question is someone’s personal experience. So, we unwittingly take personal experience (feeling, “burdens on the heart”, visions, extra-biblical prophesies, “words from the Lord”) and make them equal to scripture. This is absolutely not sola scriptura.

3. Pragmatism: Pragmatism is, in a nutshell, a philosophy which assesses the truth of beliefs in terms of the success of their practical application. In other words, if it works, it’s true. (The problem here should be glaringly obvious! We base truth upon scripture, not upon what the world views as “success”.)

How does this play out?

The Church Growth Movement (aka Seeker-Sensitive)

We’re called to preach a crucified savior, and to call sinners to repentance and faith for the forgiveness of sins. The problem? Telling visitors that they stand as objects of wrath before a Holy God will not likely lead to the “success” of your church.  So what do we replace the offensive message of the gospel with?

The Church Growth Movement (aka Seeker-Sensitive)

Is growing the church bad? I mean, don’t we want more people? Church growth isn’t bad, it’s just not our mission! We are to focus on and preach the gospel, GOD grows His church! If our focus is growth and not gospel it leads to adoption of what works, not faithfulness to what we’re called to.

This is pragmatism. This is pragmatic to the core. It’s market driven. Find out what people want to hear and give it to them. Maybe season it with a “verse” here or there, but nothing offensive like sin, wrath, atonement.  How about better marriages? Better kids?  Happy communities?  And to grow you can’t ask people to repent of sins against a holy God… that won’t do at all. How about “make a decision” to become a “Christ follower”?  “Step into the great plan God has for you?”  That’ll sell.

The problem? In a pragmatic search for “success”, we’ve replaced the god-breathed scriptures with… what?

The Bible speaks very clearly to this in 2 Timothy 4:

[4:1] I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by his appearing and his kingdom: [2] preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching. [3] For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, [4] and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.

(2 Timothy 4:1-4 ESV)

Ouch.

Ask yourself the next time you’re listening to a sermon; Are you hearing Scripture? Are you hearing the very breath of God, sufficient for every good work? Is the speaker fulfilling his obligation to preach the word of God? Is the focus on reading, understanding, and applying scripture in context, or are you having you ears scratched?

Here are a couple of ways to tell if you’re hearing the word:

1. Are you learning sections of scripture, in their original context or are you getting a single sentence, without context, sandwiched between cute stories or jokes?

2. Can you take your notes from the sermon (or series) and find it clearly laid out in the text of scripture, or does the message need single verses, plucked from context, to assemble a thought not found clearly taught in the bible? (Red flag:  “This word/verse speaks to…..”  you’re about to hear something from OUTSIDE the text added to it, and I can almost guarantee it will be “do this”/law).

How to test it?  Take the verse that is used, take notes on what is said.. now go BACK to the verse, read the chapter in CONTEXT and see if what was preached is found IN THE TEXT. Is it what the author wrote or would the sermon you were given be completely foreign to the author. Would you ever, from an actual reading of the TEXT, get out of it what was just preached to you?

3. Is the focus more on your felt needs (more money, better job, your goals, happiness) or on Christ? Is the problem you face being defined as a “best life now” or as a sinner under judgement and in need of a risen savior?

4. Is the hero in the story Jesus and his victory of sin, death, and the grave or is it you over the “giants” in your life?

5. Is there a presentation of sin, repentance, and forgiveness or is it a checklist for self-improvement?

Jesus said the scriptures were about HIM. We are called to teach about Him for the remission of sins. If you aren’t hearing scripture, and you aren’t hearing about Christ and his atoning work to call sinners to repentance, what are you trading it for?