Asking the right questions

Part of learning, especially when it comes to difficult theological subjects, is the asking of clarifying questions. We want to make sure we’re understanding what the Bible is teaching, and questions can help us get there.

And then there are those inquiries that aren’t raised to clarify understanding, but to challenge the point being made. Querys keep being made because the questioner doesn’t like the answer.

A clarifying question can let the teacher know if the listener is missing the point. “No, that’s not what I mean. Let me try again.” But occasionally, the questioner demonstrates by his interrogatory that he totally gets the point. The teacher at this point wouldn’t retract anything but double down on his assertion.

This happens a couple of times in Paul’s writing as he anticipates his readers’ questions.

One such occasion is in Romans 6:1. Paul has been talking about the gospel, and in particular, that where sin increased, grace abounds all the more.

This leads to the query: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

This question demonstrates an accurate understanding of the gospel points that Paul has been making: that “one is justified by faith apart from works” (Rom. 3:28).

Paul doesn’t at this point back off his point as if his readers misunderstand. Instead, the question asked reveal a clarity of comprehension.

The gospel is shocking. That the most heinous of sinners can receive forgiveness and justification without earning them is a most jarring thought when encountered fully. It leads naturally to the question of Romans 6:1. The query demonstrates that the hearer “got it.”

We see this also in Romans 9. Paul is discussing God’s sovereign freedom to dispense mercy as he pleases – “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18).

Then comes the anticipated objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'” (9:19).

Paul at this point doesn’t say, “Wait a minute. That’s not what I meant.” In fact, he goes all in on his statements (vv. 20-21), affirming God’s sovereign freedom and grace.

I’ll take it one step further. In this topic, which is full of mysteries which cannot be reconciled in our finite minds, we must get to the unanswerable question. If you’ve come to the place where you have “settled” these truths and questions like Paul raises don’t grab you, then perhaps you have not penetrated to the heart of the matter.

Paul not only doesn’t directly answer the objection, he also doesn’t hedge his statement. Instead, he turns the objection back on his readers to accuse them of “answering back to God.” He gives his answer: you’re in rebellion against God’s revelation.

Paul’s response to this objection accuses them of continuing to question God’s revealed sovereignty and right as the Divine Potter over the clay of his creation.

Paul understands the heart that drives this objection; it is a recalcitrant heart that does not submit to the God who dispenses mercy as he pleases.

This is a hard teaching to think about. But the revelation is clear at this point. God is sovereignly gracious to whom he pleases. Objecting to this teaching reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

Objecting to this teaching [of God’s sovereign grace] reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

The problem is not the questioning. The problem is that the questions keep being asked even after revelation has been given.

The question rightly asked demonstrates clarity of perception. The same question repeatedly asked demonstrates contrariness of posture.

How I became a “hobo”

“It’s a mighty river, rollin’ along…oh, washin’ clean, I’m over my head”

It was the summer of 2018, and I was standing in Headwall Sports, a thrift store in Jackson, Wyoming, browsing some used shirts. Eventually, the store’s music came creeping into my conscious thought. It was a long song with a driving groove and haunting fiddle part. Definitely jam band material.

“Hey, what’s this music?” I asked the shopkeeper.

He looked at his iPad. “That’s Railroad Earth. The song is “Seven Story Mountain.”

“Thanks, man.”

When I got into my car, I pulled up Amazon Music and did a search. For the next 14 minutes, I listened to a live version of that song (listen here) which is a heart-cry of regret and longing to live fully and speak boldly. My guess is that it’s roughly based on the book, Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Oh Lord, to see a light, but fail in strength to follow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it go
Oh Lord, to fail in heart, and each day grow more hollow
Sometimes I just don’t wanna know
But the road that led me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder where I am

Oh Lord, to hear a voice, but let it fade and wallow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it to
Oh Lord, to find the words, but keep them in and swallow
One day the top is gonna blow
But the road that left me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder who I am

Oh Lord, to stumble blind, for years without knowing
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
Oh Lord, to crumble quiet, watching from the silence
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life we live.
Got to find a light and fill my heart again.
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life ahead.
Got to find a voice and fill my throat again.

-Railroad Earth, lyrics by Todd Scheaffer (?)

I can now scarcely read these lines without an emotional reaction. So many times I find myself lamenting over missed opportunities and wasted moments. But then I’m reminded it’s a “long, long life ahead.” There’s still time to “find a voice and fill my throat again.”

Anyway, fast forward to January 2022, and Railroad Earth was coming to Asheville for a show at the Orange Peel. Now, I had only listened to other material by the band in small measure. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to hear them live despite only really knowing one of their songs. So I invited a friend and we gathered at the Peel.

What a show! Two long sets of Americana greatness. Think “Grateful Dead with bluegrass instruments.” Long extended jams. People bouncing, swaying, happy-dancing. But, no “Seven Story Mountain.” Still, a fun time.

I spent the next few weeks rectifying my Railroad Earth illiteracy, listening to and learning the songs I’d heard live and many others. Nugs released a recording of the very show I attended, so within a couple of days I was reliving my Orange Peel experience. I don’t think I really listened to much of anything else in those weeks.

A lively tune called “Elko” told the tale of travelers in the Nevada desert “shutting it down for the night” and “needing a winning hand.” It became my end-of-day work shutdown song. Songs had me “smilin’ like a Buddha” and “chasin’ a rainbow, no good reason why.” Sometimes I’d find myself falling into something, but, whadaya know, I “came up smilin’.” Other times I might feel like “just another bird in a house, trying to get out.” And in a cover of a George Harrison tune, RRE reminded me, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

So now it’s the middle of March, and I get an ad across my feed that Railroad Earth is closing their spring tour with two shows in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Hey, that’s only 5 hours away. Why not?”

I get there early on Friday night so I can stand up close. I meet some people for whom this is not their first or second rodeo; one fellow had taken the week off to follow the band and attend 5 straight shows. Others had been to dozens of RRE concerts. I come to find out that, much like devotees of the Grateful Dead were “Dead Heads,” these fans are “Hobos.” I guess I am too, even if on a lesser scale.

The lights dim. The band takes the stage. The drummer begins his cadence. Could it be? The fiddle comes in. Yes! It’s “Seven Story Mountain!” I wipe away tears of joy as I join the happy dancers. I punch my hands in the air and sing along, “one day the top is gonna blow!”

Later, “Elko” was launched and the guy next to me starts tossing playing cards. A young woman gives me a card because I had none. Puzzled, I look around, and hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs are flying all around the venue. “I need a card, I need a card, hit me! Not too hard!” Todd sings, and cards go flying up to the stage. What fun!

And then I learned something about Railroad Earth shows. They’re interactive. The next night, when “Give that boy a hand” was sung, tiny rubber hands were flying around. I also learned that it’s most definitely worth it to go multiple times. The second night, the song set was completely different. No repeated songs. In fact, only 7 songs from the Asheville show two months earlier were performed in Virginia. The extended jams might be different from one time to the next. It’s as close as I’ve come to what I understand the Grateful Dead experience was like.

I ended that weekend feeling happy, refreshed, positive, and content. I met some new friends. Some fellow believers in Christ. Some fellow musicians who talked tech with me. I joined the Hobos Facebook group.

I’ve been to 3 Railroad Earth shows. I can sing along to more and more songs. I hung a concert poster in my office. I’m awaiting the next tour.

Does that make me a Hobo? I hope so!

The seed must die

Jesus spoke these words after meeting some Greeks who “wished to see Jesus.” He made it plain that the time for his glorification had come. That’s an interesting way to describe the hour of your death. But then he explained, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

I think that when Jesus met with those Greeks, it brought to mind that the Kingdom of God is for everyone. We see the arms of Jesus open wide to receive people from every tribe, nation, and tongue…the “much fruit” of the seed falling into the ground and dying.

We look to the cross of Christ on this Good Friday, contemplating Jesus’ death to cover our sins and secure our redemption. May it continue to bear much fruit in the world.

*I am thankful to Matthias Media, from whom I borrowed the phrase, “the seed must die.”

Finally, Tanzania bound!

In the summer of 2020, I was making plans for a trip to Tanzania with a group of people from my church. We were going to encourage the saints that we have come to know, visit a couple of Compassion International centers (and perhaps meet our sponsored children!), and help Christian entrepreneurs develop the skills necessary for self-sustaining business.

An itinerary was set, tickets were purchases, a Visa was secured, funds were raised.

Then COVID happened.

Like so many other endeavors, our plans had to be scrapped. But not without hope.

Like Paul and his desire to visit the Roman church, I felt that I could say of my friends in Tanzania, “Without ceasing I mention you always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you – that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Romans 1:9b-12).

I like how Paul adds that last thought, that of mutual encouragement. For I was not thinking in a morally superior sense that I had anything to impart, but judging from past interactions with some of these African saints, I knew that we would strengthen each other.

Fast forward two years, and it looks like prayers are being answered. We now have tickets, an itinerary has been made, and all those funds raised two years ago will be put to use this year. We will be heading to Tanzania in July 2022!

Back in 2019, Richard and Verana Okech, a husband and wife from TZ met with me at a Chick-fil-A in Asheville. In Tanzania, they work with local entrepreneurs, hoping to train them to become self-sustaining in business. They wanted to “pick my brain” on some of the business practices that have made Chick-fil-A such a success. (If you aren’t aware, I have worked for my local Chick-fil-A for 9+ years in leadership development and guest experiences.)

We spent three wonderful hours together, showing them some of the systems that we employ, as well as some of the “theory” behind what we do. Richard and Verena took turns furiously writing in their notebook, passing it back and forth. It was a time of mutual encouragement.

Later, Richard emailed David and me (David is a local man in my church who is heading up this trip) saying, “It is our prayer that the Lord will keep us connected in our journey of doing business and creating the movement to many in disciple making who are doing business.” In a subsequent email, as we were planning the 2020 trip, Richard said, “Most who heard the stories we shared with them about the things we learned from you asked, ‘Can he [Mark] come and talk with us?’ My response has been, ‘let’s pray for that opportunity.'”

It has been exciting and eye-opening seeing how God is working through people like Richard. Instead of coordinating the receiving of a never-ending stream of financial support (which he sees often goes to corrupt officials), Richard and others are working toward ways that Tanzanians can grow their own businesses to support themselves and others. What I have seen work at Chick-fil-A, both before and during the pandemic, I believe is transferable in some way to other settings and cultures.

I truly feel that this is one of those Macedonian calls – Come and help us. I am humbled that I might have even a small part in building up the believers toward discipleship and sustainable business growth. But I know that at the end of it all, it will be of mutual benefit as I see our Sovereign God at work on a global mission, to the ends of the earth.

Additionally, I may be able to actually meet one or both of the children we sponsor through Compassion International. What a privilege!

So, I urge you, my friends and contacts to pray. Pray that the global situation with not prevent our travel. Pray that we remain healthy enough to travel. Pray for my companions and their fundraising efforts. As for my funding, I still have the funds I raised two years ago. I may still need a little more, so if you are inclined, you can contact me, and I’ll let you know how to give financial support.

The “heart” of Christianity is not one thing

It’s crossed my mind recently that anything of the Christian life that we may feel we’re “good” at, we tend to regard as THE heart of what it means to be a Christian.

Sometimes I’ll hear someone say they’re focusing on the simple work of the gospel, helping the poor and unfortunate. “That’s what Jesus did,” they’ll say, and proceed to declare that that’s the heart of Christianity. Sounds compelling, especially with Jesus on your side.

For others, Christianity is not about dogma and doctrine; it’s more about living in community with other believers. They don’t miss a chance to engage and connect with others, and since this is something at which they excel, this becomes the sine qua non of the Christian faith.

Still for others, they may feel that the work of the Holy Spirit is not regarded as highly as it ought to be, and since these folks pay great attention to the Spirit and express how vital their dependence on him is, well, living in the Spirit must be what Christian living is all about.

Then there are those (and I might find myself in this camp from time to time) who gaze out upon the Christian landscape and see a vast wasteland of biblical illiteracy. And since things like “zeal without knowledge” are to be avoided, and sound doctrine is to be nourished, and false doctrine is to be contended with, then the heart of the faith must be orthodoxy, and lots of it.

I could go on, but I think you get the picture.

We all have a tendency to take those things that we might do pretty well and think of them as ultimate. That everyone should have the same perspective and activity.

We think this way because then we don’t have to think about those other areas where we might be lacking. After all, they’re not as important; they aren’t the “heart” of Christianity.

Jesus was once asked which was the great commandment in the Law (Matt 22:34-40). I imagine it was hoped that he would identify that one commandment that would make his listeners feel proud of their own compliance. Instead, I find it amazing that he instructively gave them two, as if to say, “You know, it’s not one thing.” But he gave the two great commandments – love God with all your heart, soul, and mind; and love your neighbor as yourself. Scripture expands on these by teaching us that they are not two things, but really the same thing. You can’t love God and not love others.

Woven within the two-in-one Great Command is everything else Jesus and the Scriptures command – “On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

So, all these pet things that we call the heart of Christianity are really extensions of loving God and loving neighbor.

You want to feed the poor? That’s loving to your neighbor and by extension, to Jesus Christ (Matt. 25:31-40).

You wish to get close to other Christians, meet them face to face, and encourage the brothers and sisters in community to continue in the faith? That’s love displayed to Christ’s body, the Church, and thus love toward God.

You desire a greater dependence upon the Holy Spirit and wish to see others to the same? One of the greatest expressions of love to God is our reliance on his Spirit. It’s loving to others to instruct and teach them to do the same.

And doctrine? Correcting false ideas about God upholds his holiness and loves others with the truth.

Now, the point is not for me to think that one of these is my “thing” and the others are not. Yes, I may have a passion and gifting and skills that are God-given for one or another of these qualities. But that doesn’t stop me from my calling to do the others, to follow the whole instruction of God. And I surely don’t need to consider what I am zealous for as THE heart of Christian living.

I need to be a poor-feeding, community-engaging, Holy Spirit-relying, truth-telling, God-and-neighbor-loving follower of Christ!

John Cooper on “Deconstruction”

I’ve been wanting to write on “deconstruction” for some time now, but it’s been tough collecting my thoughts on the “good” ways to deconstruct your Christian experience vis a vis the “destructive” ways that invariably shipwreck one’s faith. This post, though long, is well worth the time you take on it. No one has written so clearly and forcefully as John Cooper.

I pray for myself and the friends of my days, that we hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful (Heb. 10:23).

Why Am I So Brazen? by John Cooper.

The relationship between calling and regeneration in the ordo salutis

I am in the midst of writing a new book on the “ordo salutis,” or order of salvation. Please enjoy this excerpt as I discuss how calling and regeneration are related.

The order of salvation is a way to discern and teach various aspects of God’s saving work, but it is one work. We enumerate and separate these facets only as a didactic exercise, but all of these aspects equally apply to every elect person. The same individuals who were chosen by God before the foundation of the world are the same people who are ultimately glorified in the end. One work, one people.

But it is helpful (or else, why this book?) to consider each of these concepts separately for the sake of our understanding. And yet, we must recognize that we cannot completely separate one from another like a surgeon might remove an intact organ from the body. There is a symbiotic relationship in these concepts that do not allow such isolation.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the link between calling and regeneration.

In a sense, the relationship of all of these aspects of the ordo salutis is logical rather than temporal. Calling, regeneration, conversion, justification, and adoption happen concurrently in the experience of a believer. But more than simply occurring at the same time, calling and regeneration have a stronger link – namely, the calling creates new life (regeneration).

The best way that I can think to illustrate this is to give you a word picture, one that is supplied for us in John 11 with the story of the raising of Lazarus from the dead.

Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, were close friends of Jesus. Eventually Lazarus falls sick, and the sisters send for Jesus. But Jesus bides his time, and Lazarus then succumbs to his illness and dies. When Jesus arrives, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Both Martha and Mary say at different times to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” Jesus assures them that he is the resurrection and the life – one of the great deity claims in the Gospels – and asks to be led to the tomb. Moved with great emotion, Jesus asks them to remove the stone. When they protest because of the smell, he says, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?” (11:40). After praying to his Father, he calls out to the dead man, “Lazarus, come out.” Lazarus, now returned to life, comes out, and Jesus instructs the people to unbind him from his grave clothes. What a miracle, causing some to believe and others to plot his death.

There is, in this story, both a calling and a regeneration. Jesus calls out to a dead man (this is instructive), “Come out!” Now, a dead person is incapable of not only coming out but of even hearing such a call. Therefore, there must be a regeneration, a new life. When did this happen? It happened when Jesus called, for the call created new life. Jesus’ command, in the words of a prayer by Augustine, granted what he commanded. When Jesus calls a person, his summons creates what it commands.

So then, the concepts of calling and regeneration are inseparably linked. We can only isolate them (partially) in our minds, and even then, we are not able to completely disentangle these two aspects of God’s redeeming work.

Love’s Redeeming Work: Treasuring our Savior and His Great Salvation (The “ordo salutis” for everyone) is currently being researched and written. I am working toward a summer 2022 release. Stay tuned for more excerpts and details…Mark