I Can’t Breathe. But I Must Write.

Well, I don’t think I’ve ever been so scared about writing a blog post. Last week I allowed my fear to silence me about Ferguson. But here I am, sleepless at 3.30am, deeply troubled about Eric Garner’s homicide and irresistibly burdened to write.

I start with hardly any idea about what to write, but I do know why I ‘m writing. I want to stand with my African American brothers and sisters. More than that, “I’m all in” with them.

And that’s why I’m scared. Because I know that for many people, that automatically puts me “outside.” It puts me on the other side. It makes me suspect. It makes me soft. It makes me left-wing. It makes me anti-police. It makes me pro-thug.

And I could defend myself as Paul did when he said, “I am a Hebrew of the Hebrews, concerning the law, a Pharisee.” Similarly I could say, “I am a conservative of the conservatives, concerning the law, a Fox-Newser.”

But this is not about me. Me must be sacrificed at times. And this is such a time.

Disgusted with Hannity
I think what pushed me over the edge was Sean Hannity. I’ve been finding it increasingly difficult to listen to him since the Trayvon Martin case. Some of his bullying interviews with Michael Brown supporters last week were repulsive. But when I turned on the radio yesterday to hear his commentary on Eric Garner’s murder, only to find him aggressively blaming New York’s excessive taxes on cigarettes for Garner’s death, that was it. There wasn’t an ounce of sympathy for Garner or his family. There was only diversion and distraction from the real issue. I was sick to my core.

And remember, I’m coming at this with the strongest possible default in favor of the law, the police, the courts, etc. If Hannity and Fox lose people like me, they’ll lose everything.

But, and I think this is what I really want to say here, I believe good will come out of all this personal pain and national distress.

Previous cases, like Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, were never strong enough to challenge the majority white community’s worldview. The Brown case actually just confirmed it. But Eric Garner’s case is different, very different, different enough not just to challenge our worldview but change it. As I said last night on Twitter, “I see a cloud about the size of a man’s hand. Aslan is on the move.” God’s wise providence is being worked out here as He sovereignly moves in and through these events.

What possible good could come out of this? I see four goods.

End of Denial
First, white people can no longer deny the problem. We have it in technicolor on Youtube. The Michael Brown case was escalated by Brown. We sat back and said, “Well that’s what you get when you rob a store, threaten a shopkeeper, assault a police officer, try to grab his gun, etc.”

Sure, there were some things that disturbed us even about this case. For example, I was deeply shocked by the callous insensitivity of Officer Darrin Wilson when interviewed on TV last week. He said he had a clean conscience, would change nothing about what he did that day, and would not apologize to the family. Even though he was acting in self-defense, his words and attitude struck me as incredibly revealing and frightening. Change nothing? Wilson did a lot of damage to the police in that interview.

Garner’s homicide is impossible to excuse or explain away. When Hannity’s strongest defense is an attack on New York’s tobacco tax, you know you’ve got a strong and persuasive case. It’s strong enough to bear the weight of worldview challenge and change.

More Black Police Officers
There is no solution to this problem without a massive increase in black police officers. Few white people realize how strongly communal the black community is. There’s a solidarity and a togetherness that more individualist whites cannot fully understand. That’s why it’s so important for far more black police officers to police the black community. The problem is that the police are now viewed so much as the enemy that to join them is considered an act of betrayal among many blacks.

But there are other situations where similar problems have been overcome. In Northern Ireland, the police force was largely Protestant, and therefore hated by the Roman Catholic community.

Part of the political settlement of “the troubles” there was the formation of a new police force with a commitment to much greater Roman Catholic recruitment. It’s nowhere near perfect, but much progress has been made and can surely be a model for re-constituting the make-up of American police forces over the next several decades.

This is also going to take strong and brave leadership from African American leaders to persuade African Americans that these forces have changed and that they should join.

Grand Jury System
It appears that the Grand Jury system is not so grand. America is practically the last country in the world still using this as part of their legal system. While it may have had its good uses, I don’t think many Americans realize just how bad it looks to outside observers.

As has often been said, “It’s not enough that justice is done, it must be seen to be done.” The problem is that secret justice can so easily become injustice, or be perceived as such.

Recent grand juries do not seem to take into sufficient account the “public interest” aspect of justice, with too much focus on technical legal terms like “probable cause” etc. I don’t see how it’s possible for public trust to be rebuilt in the justice system without it becoming a much more public and accountable system.

Christians are stirring
Christians are discussing these things more than at any time in recent history. On the whole, the tone has been civil and constructive. And I hope that continues. Most of us are on a journey here, and we sometimes take wrong turns and say wrong things. But with continued patience and Christian love, we will hopefully all arrive at a better place. 

We’re also listening to voices, Christian voices, outside our own churches and communities. We’re learning about other people’s lives and problems, seeing things from different perspectives, letting go of prejudices and faulty presuppositions. The greatest hope of reducing violence and persuading people to pursue change through peaceful means is to convince them that we are listening…and changing.

We’re praying for police officers as never before. It must be extremely frustrating for the majority of good officers who have devoted their lives to fairness and justice, to be tarnished as racists and have their own lives endangered because of the actions of others. If it was hard to be a police officer before Michael Brown and Eric Garner, then it’s ten times harder now. I can hardly imagine what it must feel like to get up in the morning or go out at night and know that you’re moving into communities that are extremely hostile and dangerous to your life. I know I couldn’t do it (although my son is hoping to) and have the utmost admiration for those who do.

Above all, we’re hoping for Gospel transformation. We’re looking to Christ and the power of the Gospel to break down walls of hostility between black, white, and every color in between. If God can reconcile sinners to Himself, and Jews to Gentiles, then he can reconcile every color of American through the blood-red sufferings of THE barrier-breaker and bridge-builder.

20 Reading Tips

It’s been a while since I added to my “Tips For New Students” series, so here’s one on the vital topic of reading. I’m not going to get into the “Why” of reading. I’m assuming that you’re a student because you want to study.

1. Start: If you want to be a successful student you have to read. If you’ve never been much of a reader, doing just the bare minimum through High School, then you need to learn how to do it. And there’s no other way of learning how to read than by reading. Don’t start with War & Peacestart with something small and simple, maybe under 100 pages on a topic of interest, and slowly work up to larger and more complex books.

2. Schedule: If you want to develop a reading appetite and aptitude, you need to do it regularly, preferably daily. If you schedule it, maybe 15-30 minutes of reading every day, say at 7 am, within a few weeks it will become an automatic and instinctive habit. Then you can either increase the time 5 minutes a week, or you can add another time in the day. Even if you read only 15 minutes a day you will read between 15-20 books a year!

3. Target: Although some of our reading may be just for leisure and pleasure, usually our reading is for a purpose and therefore should be purposeful. One of the best ways I’ve found for doing this is to set a time limit like 30 minutes and set a target of a specific number of pages. I then record each day how many pages I managed to read. I find this helps me to focus and concentrate my mind much better, and keeps me accountable.

4. Vary: If you want to become a skilful reader, you need to learn how to read different topics, genres, and authors. Sure, you might want to start with Duck Dynasty books, but you will want to move on to more demanding subjects such as history, theology, classical novels, and so on. Although we should remain open to learning in many fields, it’s better to choose five or six subjects to keep abreast in, and maybe one or two to really specialize in. Especially in the area of Christian books, you should vary between reading modern books and the classics that have been around for decades, if not centuries. 

5. Double-up: Research has shown that our understanding and recall starts diminishing after about 30 minutes of reading a book. But science has also shown that if we change to another book after 30 minutes, it seems to refresh and refuel our minds and we return to higher levels of comprehension. The reviving effect is especially noticeable when it involves a change of subject as well. That’s why many experienced readers read two or more books at a time and work through them in parallel. Students often find that they can motivate themselves to read a “required” book by rewarding themselves with a chapters from a book of their own choosing.

6. Retain: There’s an ongoing debate about the value of paper books versus their Kindle versions. There does seem to be increasing evidence that paper books help readers retain more of what they learned. On the other hand, there’s the advantage of the Kindle’s highlighting and note-taking abilities. Most of us will probably end up using both electronic and paper books, depending on differences in cost and purpose. The main thing is to work out a method for retaining what we learn by highlighting, marginal notes, summaries, and personal indexing.

7. Pace: We need to adapt our reading style and speed to the nature of what we are reading. For example, if we are reading a book in a field we already know a lot about, it’s unlikely that we will read every word in it. Rather we will skim over much of it and only slow down to read and note more carefully when we come across new material. When reading the best authors, we will ponder every carefully chosen word. If you’re wanting to speed up your reading for certain books,, you may want to learn some of the common speed-reading techniques.

8. Discuss: One of the best ways of learning is to read in partnership with someone else. You both read the same chapters each week and get together to discuss and share what you’ve learned.

9. Concentrate: It’s amazing how much more reading can be done when there is a disciplined focus and a shutting out of all distractions like phones and computers. You also need to find a quiet spot away from possible interruptions from people. Even if you’re not interrupted, if you think you might be, then you will not read at maximum efficiency.

10. Claim: Many successful readers carry a book with them at all times so that they can read the odd paragraph or page here and there as they wait for appointments or have a coffee. They are always looking for small segments of time to claim and use for personal profit.

11. Discern: You shouldn’t just believe everything you read. That’s true of Christian and non-Christian books. You need to read with discernment to separate the true from the false, the wheat from the chaff. The foundation for discernment is reading the Bible. Regular Bible reading will build a biblical worldview and sharpen your critical faculties. You might also want to read good books reviews by reputable reviewers like Tim Challies or on the TGC Reviews website in order to help you develop discernment.

12. Budget: Set apart a specific amount each month for books. This will stop you from overspending, it will help you narrow down to the best books, and it will also “force” you to buy and read books. If your budget is limited, keep your eyes open for Kindle deals which often offer books at a third of the price.

13. Humility: Some people read to boast about their reading. Don’t be the guy (or gal) who has read everything and who makes everyone else feel so stupid.

14. Stop: Don’t keep reading a book just because you’ve started it. There are too few minutes and too many good books out there to waste your reading time on inferior books.

15. Challenge: Force yourself to read above your comfort level now and again in order to stretch your reading muscles and equip you for more strenuous mental exercises.

16. Share: When you’ve read a book, why not give it away to someone else. Or if you’ve really enjoyed a book, why not give a copy to a friend so they can benefit too. Try to be a contagious reader, one who makes other people read. Some people will value your recommendations and maybe start on a lifetime of reading and learning.

17. Stop: You have to stop reading to start reading. By that I mean you’ve got to cut back reading blogs, Facebook, Social Media if you are going to read books.

18. Specialize: Pick a subject and try to read all you can in that area. Pick an author and try to read all he has written. That might be an old author like John Owen or Jonathan Edwards: it might be a modern author like R C Sproul or John Piper.

19. Read about reading: Lastly, read books about reading. The best I’ve come across are:

Lit: A Christian Guide to Reading by Tony Reinke
How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading by Mortimer Adler
Reading Between the Lines: A Christian Guide to Literature by Gene Veith
The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment by Tim Challies.

20. Read the Bible above all!

Previous Tips

New Student Tip #1: Dropbox
New Student Tip #2: Wunderlist
New Student Tip #3: Evernote
New Student Tip #4: Diigo
New Student Tip #5: Lastpass
New Student Tip #6: Calendar
New Student Tip #7: Feedly
New Student Tip #8: Covenant Eyes
New Student Tip #9: The Why of Note-taking
New Student Tip #10: The How Of Note-taking
New Student Tip #11: Time Management
New Student Tip #12: Memorizing
New Student Tip #13: Money Management

Dear Evangelicals, You’re Being Had

In an open letter to conservative evangelicals at The Daily Beast, Jay Michaelson, a Prius-driving, vanilla-latte-drinking, gay rabbi who is married to a man, appeals to evangelicals to join him in opposing the sexualization and vulgarization of society and other signs of cultural decay.

You may want to read that sentence a few times.

Yes, a homosexual rabbi is appealing to Christians to help him stop the demoralization of America. He admits that he and evangelicals disagree about the solution to this problem; but he believes we are all agreed that there is a problem.

Although it’s difficult not to see a gay rabbi who has long campaigned for gay marriage and gay rights as a major part of the problem, there is one sentence in his letter to evangelicals that hits the bullseye of truth. Here it is:

The trouble is, you’re trying to solve cultural problems with political solutions—because politicians have convinced you to do so.

He makes the persuasive case that although the Republican party have never really believed or practiced evangelical Christianity, they have used evangelicals to get themselves elected in order to further their primary constituency – the super rich.

Who’s Winning?

He then asks, “Which side of that partnership has won and which has lost over the last thirty or so years.” He answers by demonstrating the hyper-success of the ultra-rich, in contrast to the dismal defeats of numerous evangelical causes over the same period.

Not only is gay marriage now the law for over two-thirds of Americans while the value of marriage in general has been declining for decades; not only are television, film, music, and video games more vulgar than we could have imagined in 1980; but more Americans are declaring themselves “Nones,” that is, people of no religious affiliation, than ever before in our history. Sure, some churches are expanding, but overall, your way of life is in steep decline. In short, you are losing horribly.

Michaelson challenges us:

So, who is using whom here? Have the rich Republicans been good for you, or have you been good to them? I look at the alliance you’ve forged with these people, and I don’t understand why you’re in it. Their agenda keeps winning, and yours keeps losing.

Culture Not Congress

While denying that he’s trying to get Christians into the Democratic party, Michaelson warns “that this Republican claim that you can build a Christian nation through politics is bogus, and only serves their goals. You’re fighting the wrong fight. You should be making your case in culture, not in Congress.”

Michaelson urges Christians to learn from the LGBT movement’s failures and successes. When they took the political approach (campaigning for equal rights, civil rights, etc), they failed. It was only in 2000, when they moved into the cultural arena through personalities like Ellen and shows like Will & Grace that successes began gathering unstoppable momentum. And carefully ponder this line:

We went into churches and synagogues, testifying about our lives and our families. We changed people’s hearts, not their laws.

An Enemy’s Advice

It’s difficult to know what to make of this “friendly advice” from an enemy. I don’t agree that Christians should give up the political battlefield – there’s still an important role there for some Christians. I do agree, though, that too many of us have for too long “been trying to solve cultural problems with political solutions.”

Or to put it more accurately, we’ve been trying to solve spiritual problems with political solutions. We’ve petitioned Presidents and Governors more than we’ve petitioned the King of Kings. We’ve tried to change people’s laws, but forgotten about their hearts.We’ve also failed to testify positively and persuasively about our lives and families.

Apart from working towards a more winsome and winning witness, the best reply we can make to Jay Michaelson is not another open letter, but to print it out and use it as Hezekiah did when he received a letter with similarly mocking threats dressed up as friendly advice:

And Hezekiah received the letter from the hand of the messengers, and read it; and Hezekiah went up to the house of the Lord, and spread it before the Lord. Then Hezekiah prayed before the Lord, and said: “O Lord God of Israel, the One who dwells between the cherubim, You are God, You alone, of all the kingdoms of the earth. You have made heaven and earth. Incline Your ear, O Lord, and hear; open Your eyes, O Lord, and see; and hear the words of Sennacherib, which he has sent to reproach the living God….Now therefore, O Lord our God, I pray, save us from his hand, that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that You are the Lord God, You alone (2 Kings 19:14-19).

R. C. Sproul and the Call to the Ministry

When examining whether certain men are called to the ministry, the greatest focus today is usually upon gifts. Does the man have communication skills? Is he good with people? Does he demonstrate leadership ability and administrative competence?

What’s rarely examined is the man’s experience of God.

In chapter 2 of The Holiness of God, R. C. Sproul makes the case that Isaiah’s call to the ministry provides a pattern for all calls to the ministry. While admitting that it was the most dramatic call in the Old Testament, Sproul says:

There is a pattern here, a pattern repeated in history. God appears, people quake in terror, God forgives and heals, God sends. From brokenness to mission is the human pattern.

From Brokenness to Mission

I agree with Sproul in principle, although in practice the experience of brokenness will vary from man to man. Isaiah was broken all at once; other men will be more gradually broken over a period of time. Isaiah was called to an exceptionally difficult ministry; other men are not and will not need such a deep experience of breaking and healing.

However, despite these qualifications, every called man of God must go through an Isaiah 6 experience to some degree. “From brokenness to mission is the human pattern.” And the key to that breaking and commissioning is a personal experience of the holiness of God. Notice the stages of this:

He saw: Isaiah saw the LORD. As Sproul says, this is not just a title of God but His personal name, and the supreme name given to Him in the Old Testament. “This is the unspeakable name, the ineffable name, the holy name” of God.

He heard: He heard the holy angels crying, “Holy, holy, holy!”  Sproul says, “To mention something three times in succession is to elevate it to the superlative degree, to attach to it emphasis of superimportance.”

He shook: The holiness of God shook the whole temple and the whole Isaiah – his body and his soul.

He wailed: “Woe is me!” In prophetic vocabulary, “Woe!” is an announcement of divine doom. When Isaiah saw the holiness of God “he pronounced the judgment of God upon himself,” says Sproul.

He disintegrated: “I am undone.” The holiness of God undid him. He felt as if he was coming apart at the seams, disintegrating, unraveling.

He confessed: Sproul comments, “For the first time in his life, Isaiah really understood who God was. At the same instant, for the first time, Isaiah really understood who Isaiah was.”

He was cleansed: Any lips that speak for God must be purified, cauterized, the dirt burned away. His lips were refined by holy fire.

He was sent: “God took a shattered man and sent him into the ministry. He took a sinful man and made him a prophet.” Sproul highlights how God did not destroy Isaiah’s personality or identity, but redeemed it. “Isaiah’s personality was overhauled but not annihilated.”

A Vital Question

Given this biblical pattern of a divine call to the ministry, local churches, ministry boards, seminaries, presbyteries, etc., should be asking all candidates for the ministry, “What’s your experience of the holiness of God?”

No, we shouldn’t normally expect the same depth, degree, or suddenness as Isaiah’s call, but all these elements should be there, at least in seed form. And it’s an experience we should want repeated and deepened over time in the ministry.

I pray that candidates for the ministry and seminarians would know the essential elements of this call; and may existing ministers continually seek such life- and ministry-changing encounters with the holiness of God.

What a difference it would make to our prayers, our praises, our preaching, and our pastoring.

World View

A few links to highlight some cultural trends in church and society.

The Rise of Daddy Daycare

  • Fathers now perform 4.6 more hours of childcare and 4.4 more hours of housework each week than they did in in 1965
  • The number of stay-at-home dads has risen from 1.1 million in 1989 to 2.0 million in 2012, according to Pew.
  • 24 percent of married women earn more than their husbands.
  • For married couples with children, women were the primary breadwinners in 37 percent of households.
  • 51 percent of respondents felt that kids were better off with a mother who stayed home,
  • Only 34 percent said that kids were just as well off if their mom worked.

The Geography Of Gratitude

OK, the sample was not exactly representative (90% women), and the pollster was Facebook, but still some fascinating (and frightening) findings from a Facebook survey of what each state is most thankful for.


Higher resolution version here.

The Bible belt is still the Bible belt, thankfully. Orgeon chooses Yoga! The folks in California and Virginia really need to get out more – Youtube?! Some pranksters in Illinois, obviously. And Florida continues to rub it in.

Congratulations To Class Of 2014, Most Indebted Ever

As college graduates in the Class of 2014 prepare to shift their tassels and accept their diplomas, they leave school with one discouraging distinction: They’re the most indebted class ever. The average Class of 2014 graduate with student-loan debt has to pay back some $33,000.

And if you want a really scary graph, here’s one comparing average student earnings with average student debt.

Student Debt

More Pastors Embrace Talk Of Mental Ills

Evangelical leaders are increasingly opening up about family suicides, their own clinical depression and the relief they have received from psychiatric medication.

Apart from one ridiculous statement by one pastor, this is a very helpful and encouraging article.

What If We’re Wrong About Depression?

Dr. Andrew Miller’s research on depression is currently looking at the link between depression and infection/inflammation.

His team has experimented with treating depressed patients with an anti-inflammatory drug, and found that those with high levels of a particular blood marker for inflammation improved significantly. “This for us in psychiatry is a first,” he said, “where you can actually measure something in the blood.” Such an approach “gets into personalized medicine in a way that is very exciting for us in psychiatry.”

This is a reminder of the need to be cautious and careful when pronouncing on what causes depression and other mental illnesses.

The Economic Case For Supporting LGBT Rights

According to M. V. Lee Badgett, India could be throwing away more than $26 billion a year by stigmatizing LGBT people.

Economic reasoning is part of what propelled the modern women’s empowerment movement. And now, it’s informing an emerging argument for LGBT inclusion: Unequal treatment of LGBT people, as it turns out, can cause economic harm, leading to lower economic output for individuals, businesses, and even countries. And on the flip side, inclusive policies can boost a country’s GDP.

One of these articles where we don’t need to guess the author’s own sexual preferences. Just one small factor he/she doesn’t take into account: the blessing or curse of God.

How To Teach Kids To Be Grateful: Give Them Less

Worth remembering at this time of year:

As parents, despite wanting to give our kids everything, one of the greatest gifts we can give is to literally give less, to force decision-making and awareness among all their choices. We need to have more faith in them and let them be challenged. It’s not easy to watch your kids struggle—but in the end, it does breed gratitude.

Three Vital Words For Successful Teens

Based on my experience of parenting teens, pastoring teens, and being a teen, I’d like to burn three words into the hearts and minds of all teens: FOCUS, FORCE, FAITH. These three words are the key to success in any walk of life, any calling, any course of study.


“Focus” is not a word many of us would associate with teens. “Blur,” maybe, or “Diffuse.” Instead of traveling down one road and aiming at one destination, they often try every road they can with little idea where they hope to eventually end up: college, work, social media, church, business ideas, home, sports, trucks, hobbies, shopping, TV, Internet videos, music, fashion, books, photography, sleep (sometimes), friends, and on and on. And that’s just in the morning.

This is partly a cultural problem; there’s just never been so much choice, mobility, accessibility, availability, and possibility. And never so much insanity!

The fact is, I’ve never seen anyone succeed who is not totally focused on one thing. That doesn’t mean they only do one thing; it means everything serves, advances, and contributes to one thing.

For example, the teen who’s totally focused on his studies works part-time, but only to pay his tuition. He plays sport, but only to relax and reward his hours in the library. He has a friend or two, but not dozens of them and they don’t dominate his life or distract him from his goal.

The focused teen ruthlessly cuts out everything extraneous. Nothing secondary is ever allowed to become primary. Nothing peripheral becomes central. Without harming physical or spiritual health, the maximum number of hours are devoted to a single aim.

What should that “one thing” be? “Follow your passion” say many today. No, no, no! The biblical route is “Follow your talent.” Passions may not be God-given; talents are. Your gifting is the primary indicator of God’s guidance and call.

The biggest favor we can do our teens is to help them to find and follow this focus; to sharpen their vision and encourage them to aim at one thing.


“Force” should naturally follow “focus.” Just as the river increases in speed and force when narrowed by rocky gulleys, so a focused life should be a much more forceful life, with forward drive and unstoppable momentum.

However, this doesn’t necessarily follow. We all know people who have only one or maybe two interests, but they approach life with too much of a laid-back and casual mindset. They stroll along a single path but with little energy and make little progress.

Yet, such is the cut-throat competition today, that without drive and determination, half-hearted teens will quickly be left behind. Also, there are so many “thorns and thistles” in their path that they will need tons of motivation to push through difficulties and setbacks.

I know it’s not “cool” to be hot about anything today. But I also know that without passionate enthusiasm, mediocrity is guaranteed. No, we don’t want our teens to be characterized by ruthless and selfish ambition, but we do want them to do whatever they do with ALL their might (Eccl. 9:10).


FOCUS + FORCE can be a horrific combination, if not combined with FAITH. Without FAITH, without the blessing of God, FOCUS + FORCE will produce nothing, or at least nothing worth having. Sure, you might make a pile of money, but what shall it profit if you gain the whole world and lose your soul? (Mark 8:36)

Christian faith helps a young person find their focus. The Christian teen comes to God and says, “I can’t do everything. I can only do one thing well. Please show me what talent you’ve given me and what you want me to do with it. Help me to cut everything that would hinder my life purpose and to get everything essential in the right position and proportion in my life.”

Christian faith helps a young person find their force. The Christian teen comes before God recognizing her limitations and liabilities, and says, “Lord, please give me the drive, the determination, the energy I need for my calling. Help me to be deaf to the discouragements, and to persevere through the difficulties. Help me to show that I am energized and enthused by your presence and pleasure in my life.”

Christian faith helps a young person look to God for blessing, and for contentment with whatever their God-given focus and force produces.

In summary, I’d say to any teen (as I often do to my own), “With God’s help, pick one thing, pour yourself into it, and plead with God for His blessing.”