Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Christian & the Secular

Boundaries were never intended to become inescapable prison cells, where the external actions are more important than the heart and where God is patterned after our image. Yet that is exactly what happens when we treat boundaries as inviolable boxes. God must be comprehensible. Life must be reduced to the lowest common denominator. The world must be classified as either/or with no room for “both,” “and,” or “neither.” Everything must be Christian and therefore safe for consumption—or not.

Such a view of our world, however, denies both the doctrine of human fallibility and the gift of God’s common grace.

Author J. Mark Bertrand puts it this way:

“You cannot draw a line between the Christian and the non-Christian, between the evangelical and the non-evangelical, between us and them, and declare everything on one side safe and everything on the other suspect…For one thing, every person and thing is tainted by the fall which means there are no pure influences under the sun. For another, God’s grace and truth are active throughout creation, which means that not only do we get lies from truth tellers, but we also get the truth from liars.”
(Re)thinking Worldview, Chapter 7, “A City Without Walls: Five Lessons for Siege Warfare”

What Mr. Bertrand is saying is that Christians can and do make mistakes. Often such mistakes are unintentional, but it doesn’t change the reality that we too are “sinners saved by grace.” Moreover, we all start our journey in following Christ as infants, who must grow up into mature believers. And just like physical babies, children, adolescents, and even adults, we will err and even outright disobey some aspect of Christ’s teaching along the way as we learn to live according to our faith. Yes, those mistakes should become rarer as we grow. Yes, those things labeled “Christian” have increased odds of conforming to the standard of Scripture. But this doesn’t mean wrong teachings and interpretations never happen.

So when we automatically assume something “Christian” must be true, we lower the defenses around our minds and hearts. This, in turn, allows error to creep in unchallenged and undetected, which can then infect other areas of our lives. Even worse, we become easy prey for false teachers, who excel at getting themselves braded as “Christian.”

Now just as we can “get lies from truth tellers,” it is also possible to “get the truth from liars.” Or as apologist Gregory Koukl notes in his book Tactics, “a nonbeliever’s conclusions should not be dismissed because he is not among the ‘faithful.’” (Chapter 12, “Rhodes Scholar”)

Yes, just as the Christian has increased odds of conforming to biblical truth, the secular is less likely because the god of this world has blinded their eyes (2 Corinthians 4:4). Yet God frequently uses those not of His people (think Nebuchadnezzar and Cyrus in the Old Testament), sends the rain on the righteous and unrighteous (Matthew 5:45), and has displayed His power in creation so even a non-Christian can’t miss it (Romans 1:20). Moreover, the non-Christian has to live in the world God created and abide by its rules, whether or not the person acknowledges those rules. As a result, the secular often becomes an unwitting vehicle of truth—if we will only listen.

But when we trash the secular as having no value simply because it is secular, we develop an attitude of spiritual superiority, which is nothing more than pride in one of its most heinous forms. This results in our churches becoming ingrown, and we lose touch with the very world we are to evangelize. Finally our vision narrows and our perspective deteriorates until we become irrelevant—even though the God we serve and the message we proclaim are anything but irrelevant.

And that is a tragedy indeed.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Guidelines as Boxes

“Is it Christian?”

This is probably the most common question I receive when I vend a homeschool conference. An understandable question when you glance around my tables and see covers decorated with dragons, fairies, and superheroes. And I am proud that I can always answer that every book was written by authors who claim to be Christian.

Yet at times the question rankles me, for underlying it often is the idea that somehow the label makes the books safe for consumption. Indeed, that the only thing safe for consumption is the “Christian.” This attitude points the second common view of boundaries: that boundaries are inviolable boxes.

Just like treating boundaries as arbitrary guidelines, this perception also causes problems. Yet this may be the harder view to refute because it sounds so right. After all, many of us have no desire to break God’s commands, and aren’t we supposed to be undefiled by the world? (e.g. James 1:27) And how are we to prove we are undefiled by the world if not by a “clean” life?

So in order to prevent the possibility of contamination, we separate the world into two boxes: The “safe” Christian and the contaminating secular. As a result our homes become filled with Christian books, Christian movies, Christian music, Christian décor, Christian clothing. Moreover, anything that isn’t obviously Christian is automatically eyed with suspicion as a potential road to Hell…or at least, sin.

Yet God didn’t intend for us to live this way any more than He intended us to live without boundaries!

Yes, when we encounter the unknown, we should exercise caution. Yet Scripture also proves that God loves to work in new and surprising ways, as evidenced by the fact that He rarely performed a miracle or delivered His people exactly the same way twice!  

Yes, checkboxes can be helpful, and lists can aid us. Indeed, I would be lost without them. But lists and checkboxes are supposed to be tools—something that serves us, not something we serve.

Yes, God has given us rules and absolutes which are not to be violated, and when we do violate them, they carry harsh consequences. However, I think there are far fewer absolutes than many of us believe and far more flexibility within the absolutes which do exist.

Yes, we are to bear “good” fruit (John 15:16, Colossians 1:10). At the same time, a “clean” life doesn’t equal a “clean” heart—as shown by Jesus’ criticism of the Pharisees, men known for their impeccable lives (Matthew 23).

Likewise, we are to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:16), conducting our lives in purity. But true holiness doesn’t result from checking all the boxes and rigidly following a list of do’s and do-nots. Nor does it come from isolating ourselves from the world. Rather, God give us His holiness through the work of Jesus Christ, in which we learn to live as we walk in this world according to God’s unique standard.    

So while God is a God of order, He created boundaries for our protection, not our entrapment. After all, Christ came to redeem those under the Law so that we would no longer have to live under the Law (Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-5, 5:18); we are saved by grace, not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).

So rules can’t save us—nor do they prevent us from sinning. Quite the opposite! If we are relying on boxes to keep ourselves from sinning, then we are trying to save ourselves on a personal, daily level. If we are trying to save ourselves, then we are not acting out of faith. And if we are not acting from faith, then we are sinning (Romans 14:23). That means relying on boxes to prevent sin actually causes us to sin!

Rather, just as we are to rely on God’s grace to save us from eternal punishment, so also we should rely on His grace to live each and every day as He desires.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

New Christian Fiction Releases - June 2017

Here's some of the new releases in Christian fiction for June 2017! For more in-depth descriptions of these books go to the ACFW Fiction Finder website.

Contemporary Romance:
Engaged by Julie Arduini -- Trish Maxwell returns to Speculator Falls with egg on her face and apologies to make as she tries to determine what's next, especially when around paramedic Wayne Peterson. (Contemporary Romance from Surrendered Scribe Media)

Sweetbriar Cottage by Denise Hunter -- When Noah and Josephine Mitchell discover their divorce was never actually finalized, their lives are turned upside down. But when Josephine drives out to Noah's North Georgia cottage to deliver the corrected papers, they are trapped there during a snowstorm. Things couldn't get worse…until they are forced out into the storm and must rely on one another to survive. (Contemporary Romance from HarperCollins Christian Publishing [Zondervan])

Then There Was You by Kara Isaac -- Would you give up everything for a life you hate with the person you love? (Contemporary Romance, Independently Published)

An Encore for Estelle by Kimberly Rose Johnson -- A former A-list actress seeks to redeem herself in the most unlikely of places—a children's theater. The writer/director didn't anticipate a famous actress would ever show interest in his musical much less him. Will their pasts pull them apart or join them together? (Contemporary Romance, Independently Published)

The Cowboy's Baby Blessing by Deb Kastner -- When Ex-soldier Seth Howell suddenly becomes guardian of a two-year-old, he needs Rachel Perez's help. Though she is gun-shy about relationships, this handsome cowboy and his adorable son break through. (Contemporary Romance from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

Finding Love by Toni Shiloh -- Delaney Jones is putting her life back together after widowhood when in walks Army soldier, Luke Robinson. Luke had a part in the death of Delaney's husband--will his secrets widen the gulf in their relationship or will he finally find absolution? (Contemporary Romance from Celebrate Lit)

Cozy Mystery:
The Copper Box by Suzanne Bratcher -- When antiques expert Marty Greenlaw comes to Jerome, Arizona to search for a copper box she believes will unlock the secrets of her past, deadly accidents begin to happen: someone else wants the copper box, someone willing to kill for it. (Cozy Mystery from Mantle Rock Publishing)

General Contemporary:
Coming Home – A Tiny House Collection by Yvonne Anderson, Michael Ehret, Kimberli S. McKay, Pamela S. Meyers, Ane Mulligan, Chandra Lynn Smith, Linda W. Yezak -- Tiny houses are all the rage these days, but what can you do with something so small? Here are seven stories about people chasing their dreams, making fresh starts, finding love, stumbling upon forgiveness, and embarking upon new adventures in tiny houses. (General Contemporary, Independently Published)

Katie's Quest by Lee Carver -- Katie Dennis hopes for fulfillment as a single missionary nurse after the death of her fiancé. She trusts God for a new direction, but she'll never fall for a pilot again. (General Contemporary, Independently Published)

Historical Romance:
A Sweetwater River Romance by Misty M. Beller -- Rocky Ridge Stage Stop Manager Ezra Reid is put in a difficult situation when two ladies show up on his remote doorstep seeking refuge, one of them being Tori Boyd, the mysterious correspondence partner writing him letters for over a year now. Tori refuses the most proper solution to their circumstance—marriage. But when danger follows, it will take a lot more than luck to ensure Ezra's heart is the sole casualty. (Historical Romance, Independently Published)

High as the Heavens by Kate Breslin -- In German-occupied Brussels, a WWI nurse struggles to keep two life-threatening secrets. She's in league with the British Secret Service, and she's harboring a wounded British pilot. (Historical Romance from Bethany House [Baker])

Seven Brides for Seven Mail-Order Husbands Romance Collection by Susan Page Davis, Susanne Dietze, Darlene Franklin, Patty Smith Hall, Cynthia Hickey, Carrie Fancett Pagels, Gina Welborn -- Meet seven of Turtle Springs, Kansas', finest women who are determined to revive their small town after the War Between the States took most of its men. . .and didn't return them. The ladies decide to advertise for husbands and devise a plan for weeding out the riff raff. But how can they make the best practical choices when their hearts cry out to be loved? (Historical Romance from Barbour Publishing)

The Captain's Daughter by Jennifer Delamere -- When a series of circumstances beyond her control leave Rosalyn Bernay alone and penniless in London, she chances upon a job backstage at a theater that is presenting the most popular show in London. A talented musician and singer, she feels immediately at home and soon becomes enthralled with the idea of pursuing a career on the stage. A hand injury during a skirmish in India has forced Nate Moran out of the army until he recovers. Filling his time at a stable of horses for hire in London, he has also spent the past two months working nights as a stagehand, filling in for his injured brother. Although he's glad he can help his family through a tough time, he is counting the days until he can rejoin his regiment. London holds bitter memories for him that he is anxious to escape. But then he meets the beautiful woman who has found a new lease on life in the very place Nate can't wait to leave behind. (Historical Romance from Bethany House [Baker] Publishing)

Grounded Hearts by Jeanne M. Dickson -- Set in WWII, an Irish woman must choose between her heart and her freedom when she finds a downed combatant pilot. (Historical Romance from Waterfall Press)

Mail Order Sweetheart by Christine Johnson -- Singer Fiona O'Keefe must make a wealthy match to support her orphaned niece. Musically talented Sawyer Evans is a self-made, but not wealthy, sawmill-manager. Unwilling to live off his father's railroad fortune, can Sawyer prove to Fiona he's the man she needs when she's already determined to mail-order a rich husband? (Historical Romance from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

Freedom's Price by Christine Johnson -- On a quest to find her mother's family in Louisiana, Englishwoman Catherine Haynes enlists a dashing Key West man seeking revenge for his own family. When an incredible secret comes to light, she and Tom will face a choice. Can they relinquish their dreams to step forward in faith? (Historical Romance from Revell [Baker])

Sutter's Landing by Betty Thomason Owens -- Still reeling from tragic losses, Connie and Annabelle Cross face life with their signature humor and grace, until fresh hope arrives on their doorstep. (Historical Romance from Write Integrity Press)

Romantic Suspense:
Hidden Legacy by Lynn Huggins Blackburn -- When someone threatens the baby she's adopting, Caroline Harrison must rely on Detective Jason Drake, the man who once broke her heart, to figure out why. If Jason wants a chance at a future with with Caroline and her son, he'll first have to help them outrun a hit man. (Romantic Suspense from Love Inspired [Harlequin])

Weaver's Needle by Robin Caroll -- Pitted against each other to recover a map to the Lost Dutchman's Gold Mine, two recovery specialists follow the trail to Arizona. But someone doesn't want them to find the map. . .or the mine. They must work together despite their mistrust and growing attraction, to save themselves. (Romantic Suspense from Barbour Publishing)

The Revisionary by Kristen Hogrefe -- Revisionary or Rogue? To rescue her brother, Portia might have to break every rule in the book she set out to rewrite. (Speculative from Write Integrity Press)

Women's Contemporary:
Redemption's Whisper by Kathleen Friesen -- Desperate to escape her past, a suicidal young woman flies from Toronto to a Saskatoon pastor's home, the only people who may be able to help her. If only someone could love her, in spite of all she's done. On the flight, she meets a young man torn between seeking affirmation in the big city and helping his parents in Saskatoon. Can these two troubled souls gain the peace they need—and in the process, find love? (Women's Contemporary from White Rose Publishing [Pelican])

Young Adult:
All Things Now Living by Rondi Bauer Olson -- Her whole life Amy has been taught the people of New Lithisle deserve to die, but when she falls for Daniel, she determines to save him. (Young Adult from Written World Communications)

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Freedom & Boundaries

God has granted us freedom. He wants us to live in that freedom. But He never intended this freedom to be used as an excuse to live however we want. Rather, the freedom He gives is the freedom of choice.
You see, before we became Christians, we had no choice. Oh, we might have thought we did, but in reality, we were enslaved to sin and stuck under Satan’s dominion, with no choice except to follow his ways. But when God liberated us from sin and death and Satan, we were freed to choose. Daily we can decide whether we follow God or return to our old habit of listening to Satan. We can decide whether we use our bodies as instruments of righteousness or unrighteousness. We can decide whether we dress ourselves in Christ or in sin’s old rags.
So yes, God has given us freedom, but not to indulge in our own desires. That is what enslaved us in the first place, after all. Rather, He desires us to use our freedom to do good and serve others. (Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 2:16)
As a result, freedom doesn’t equate with being boundary-less. Indeed, a world without boundaries would be a world of unimaginable chaos: The ocean, without the boundary God set to hold it back (Jeremiah 5:22), would overflow the land. An object thrown up into the air might float away or hit the ground with a thud. Diseases would not only be incurable, but also untreatable and even unable to be diagnosed as random symptoms would strike for no logical reason.
And what would be true in the physical realm would be true in the spiritual: Justice would be impossible and truth could not exist, because right and wrong would be eradicated as meaningless. Power would become your ultimate end-all. Life would be reduced to the survival of the fittest. The possibility of human dignity would be erased. Worst of all, our magnificent and compassionate God would be reduced to a vicious and capricious tyrant, who forces His ways upon the world through the sheer force of His power.
So we have boundaries for a reason. They provide order and structure to the world. They add an element of predictability and stability. They enable logic, uphold justice, allow for human dignity, and promote truth. In short, boundaries act like guardrails . . . parachutes . . . bungee cords, even. They aren’t there to keep you from enjoying what God has given. They’re there to prevent you from dying senselessly.

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Boundaries as Arbitrary Guidelines

In Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, the governor’s daughter Elizabeth tries to negotiate the safety of her city with some pirates. When negotiations go sideways, Elizabeth points out it is a violation of the Pirate’s Code. To this, the captain replies, “First, your return to shore was not part of our negotiations nor our agreement so I must do nothing. And secondly, you must be a pirate for the pirate’s code to apply and you’re not. And thirdly, the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” (Captain Barbossa, The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl)

This quote perfectly embodies the first common view of boundaries: That the rules may or may not apply, and if they get in my way, they are easily dispensed with. After all, I should be able to do whatever I want, however I want, whenever and wherever I want, all without consequences…right?

As you might suspect, such an attitude can have deep and profound effects on the person who holds it. They often believe that they can read and watch anything they wish—it’s just entertainment. Besides, there is good in all things, so mustn’t all things be good?

These people also like to quote verses like, “Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.” (Romans 5:20 NIV) As for tradition, it’s just another form of legalism, and rules only create Pharisees. Forgiveness, on the other hand, means the eradication of consequences. 

Like so many things in this world, this view mixes truth and fallacy. Yes, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins when we confess them (1 John 1:9), but this forgiveness doesn’t eradicate all consequences, as revealed by the death of the son of King David, despite his repenting of his adultery and murder (2 Samuel 12:13-18).

Yes, we are saved by grace and grace alone (Ephesians 2:8-9), but grace was never intended to be an excuse to keep sinning (Romans 6:1-2). Such an attitude reveals a warped understanding of grace at best, while a true knowledge of grace propels us toward a life of holiness.

 Yes, there is good in almost everything—but that doesn’t mean it is good for us! By that reasoning you should be able to drink arsenic without effect as long as you mix it with a protein shake.

 Yes, much of our media is created to entertain, but entertainment doesn’t eliminate the possibility of impact. Actually, just the opposite! Entertainment provides a backdoor past our normal defenses, and I’ve yet to meet a storyteller—Christian or secular—who doesn’t hope to use that backdoor to influence you.

So yes, God grants us freedom, but He didn’t give us that freedom to indulge in our own desires. Rather, we are to use it to do good and serve Him. (Galatians 5:13, 1 Peter 2:16)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Views of Boundaries

Pushing boundaries is a necessary part of life and a necessary part of following Christ. So while pushing boundaries often can feel uncomfortable, doing so enables us to grow and mature as God directs us.

But there is a danger in pushing boundaries. If we don’t view boundaries correctly we won’t push them correctly. And if we don’t push them correctly, we won’t grow correctly. So it is imperative that our view of boundaries is properly aligned with God’s perspective.

However, a right perception of boundaries can be difficult to obtain. Our natural inclination is toward extremes, rather than balance. Our view of boundaries is not immune to this propensity. Rather, we tend to swing to one of two extremes: boundaries as dispensable guidelines or boundaries as inviolable boxes. We’ll look at each more in depth over the next month.



Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Necessity of Boundary Pushing

I am a boundary pusher.

While I have been aware of this tendency in myself for many years, it is a fact with which I’ve struggled much and even now am not completely comfortable. Indeed, it is a fact that I’ve tried to squelch, hide, change, and even pray away. All unsuccessfully. For even when I try my best to not push boundaries, I often discover later that I was pushing boundaries simply by being me.

And that is tough. Many people don’t like having their boundaries stretched. It forces them to step out of their comfort zones. It dares them to face change. It challenges them to think through long-held beliefs—even correct beliefs. As a result, many in the church equate boundary pushing with boundary breaking and therefore automatically condemn it as evil.

Yet I am not a boundary breaker—at least, I try not to be. For God has given us boundaries and has given them for our safety and benefit. This means there are absolutes in the world. There is a standard of right and wrong by which we are to abide. We cannot live however we wish without consequences.

But at the same time I have become more and more convinced that God desires us to live with far more freedom than we often do. After all, we live by faith, not by works. We are saved by God’s grace, not by the Law. Nor were we made slaves to fear again but were given the Spirit of sonship!

So while boundary pushing remains an uncomfortable part of my world, I’ve slowly come to realize that pushing boundaries is not only good but even a necessary part of life. For God commands us to grow up in our faith, and He desires everyone to become fully mature. Such growth and maturity, whether physical or spiritual, come when we stretch our “boundaries” in some way—whether through learning a new skill, expanding our knowledge, or experimenting with our methods. Therefore, if we aren’t pushing our boundaries in some way, then most likely we aren’t growing, and if we aren’t growing, we are disobeying God.
This means every follower of Jesus Christ should strive to become a boundary pusherof the right sort. It is possible to push boundaries in the wrong way. So over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at how to handle our boundaries correctly so that we might push them rightly and consequently grow properly.