My Evening with Christopher Hitchens

“I think, when a man says, ‘I never doubt,’ it is quite time for us to doubt him, it is quite time for us to begin to say, ‘Ah, poor soul, I am afraid you are not on the road at all, for if you were, you would see so many things in yourself, and so much glory in Christ more than you deserve, that you would be so much ashamed of yourself, as even to say, ‘It is too good to be true.'” – Charles Spurgeon

“It’s well known that, at times, Christians struggle with doubt. It’s safe to assume the same thing happens with atheists.”

Yesterday evening, our kids Zach and Lauren headed off on a 12-hour road trip to visit friends in Utah. On top of that, they dared to take along our 10-month old grandson, Jude!

The audacity.

Suffice to say, knowing that they would all be out on dark, distant stretches of highway in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, sleep would not come easy for me.

So, at about 7:00 p.m., I settled in to start reading a book that arrived in my mailbox just a few hours earlier: “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens: The Restless Soul of the World’s Most Notorious Atheist.” The book was written by Christian apologist Larry Alex Taunton.

Hitchens was a well-known atheist who conducted his debates, writings and interviews with a high level of vitriol and disdain for religion. He brought a no-holds barred approach to his endeavors, often leaving Christians and many non Christians blown away by his perceived callousness. Hitchens said it like he thought it.

I recall many years ago Hitchens being interviewed by Dennis Miller. In that interview, Miller brought up the fact that Hitchens was a vocal critic of Mother Teresa. Miller leaned in with his questions, expecting Hitchens to lighten up a bit, but instead Hitchens only went further and deeper with his scathing critique of a woman most people viewed as virtuous. It was classic Hitchens.

About six years ago, Christopher Hitchens life entered a new chapter. Hitchens developed cancer of the esophagus in 2010 and died about a year and a half after the initial diagnosis.

But enough background information. Onto my reaction to “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens.”

Before the book arrived, I read a few of the reviews at various websites. What I found interesting was how many people claimed to have not read the book, yet had very strong opinions regarding its content. Some atheists raged in anger because they thought that Taunton was re-framing the image of Hitchens to be much more amenable toward Christianity.  And some Christians wondered aloud how a follower of Christ could spend one iota of their valuable time with a person so slanderous of Christianity.

Anyway, I dove in and literally didn’t put the book down until I finished it a little after midnight. (other than to read a few short texts from my beloved wayfarers that read, “Missoula,” “The 15,” “Dillon for bathroom, gas and driver change,” “Ogden.”)

My overall reaction to the book was that I found it a thoroughly enjoyable read. Taunton has a real gift for flow in his writing style.

The source material for the book was drawn mostly from Hitchen’s own writings, interview and debates, as well as Taunton’s personal conversations with Hitchens. Taunton had spent about 5 years scheduling debates between Hitchens and other Christian apologists. On two occasions, Taunton and Hitchens shared the road on lengthy trips. It is the conversations on these expeditions (one through the Shenandoah Valley, the other through Yellowstone) that really make the book come alive.

Though the book has a lot of interesting aspects, the main takeaway for me was this: the gruff and argumentative Christopher Hitchens of the debate stage wasn’t always so difficult and demeaning in private. Though he certainly could be rude, impatient and arrogant with others, Taunton was able to see Hitchens display some softer edges, as well as display a willingness to have civil, inquisitive discourse about topics that would surprise many.

On one 12-hour road trip from Washington, D.C. to Alabama (the Shenandoah journey), Taunton and Hitchens talked about the ramifications of the Gospel of John. They didn’t fight about it, rather they simply discussed it’s implications and meanings.

My sense is that just like all of us, Christopher Hitchens was more complex and nuanced as a human being than the caricatures both atheists and Christians had created of him. (Not that Hitchen’s didn’t help a lot with that caricature.) Truth be told, we are all three-dimensional beings (although we sometimes seem to present ourselves as having only two or one dimensions).

It is my contention that the best view of a person’s life is the whole view. It’s easy to cherry pick certain portions of their life in order to try and define them, but we almost always miss out on the whole story. Christopher Hitchens wasn’t beyond changing his mind. The events of 9/11 and the Bill Clinton presidency brought about some dramatic shifts to Hitchen’s thinking about politics and war. (And many people were dumbfounded by these shifts, most likely because Hitchen’s dared to jump out of the box in which his followers wished him to remain.)

The goal of the book wasn’t to announce a triumphant deathbed conversion. No, this is simply the story of how one man of faith interacted with a man who claimed to have none. It is a story about an unexpected friendship that drew questions, confusion and disdain from some members of their respective ideological camps.

One thing for sure is this: Christopher Hitchens not only was able to hear the Gospel presented clearly, he was afforded the opportunity to see it in action. And even if it didn’t change his mind about God, I believe he  would have to admit that he was the recipient of relational blessings that came from his relationship with some of Jesus’ followers.

At the last debate event that Taunton organized, Hitchens debated Taunton. This was the first (and last) time they had ever squared off. Just prior to the debate, a local news team sat down with both men to get a read on their unusual friendship. Hitchens was asked what he thought about his opponent. Taunton shares in the book that he was a bit taken back (and humbled) when Hitchens made this pronouncement:

“If everyone in the United States had the same qualities of loyalty and care and concern for others that Larry Taunton had, we’d be living in a much better society than we do.” ~ Christopher Hitchens

Here’s a quick clip of the author of “The Faith of Christopher Hitchens” speaking with Chris Matthews:

 

 

When Winning is Losing

We live in a highly competitive society.

No one likes to lose.

Especially when they feel they have been dealt with unfairly.

Most of us have a strong sense of justice, and when justice hasn’t been served, we become agitated. We try to figure out how to transform a wrong back into a right.

God loves justice. God is just. He aches for those who have been hurt or abused.

God calls us to practice justice as well

Micah 6:8 tells us:

He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the Lord require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
    and to walk humbly with your God?

And Proverbs 11:1 reminds of how much God hates injustice:

The LORD detests dishonest scales, but accurate weights find favor with him.

Bottom line, the pursuit and execution of justice is important to God.

But…there are certain situations when seeking to right a wrong is actually the wrong thing to do.

In 1st Corinthians 6, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth about the fact that many of them were suing each other. The most likely explanation was that they were arguing over business dealings where one party felt the other had done them wrong.

But in this case, Paul was concerned that these Corinthians were committing a greater sin by going after their brothers and sisters through the secular court system. In other words, by trying to pursue justice, they were actually acting ungodly.

Here’s the passage from 1 Corinthians where Paul shares his concern:

1 Corinthians 6: 1-8 

1 If any of you has a dispute with another, do you dare to take it before the ungodly for judgment instead of before the Lord’s people? Or do you not know that the Lord’s people will judge the world? And if you are to judge the world, are you not competent to judge trivial cases? Do you not know that we will judge angels? How much more the things of this life! Therefore, if you have disputes about such matters, do you ask for a ruling from those whose way of life is scorned in the church? I say this to shame you. Is it possible that there is nobody among you wise enough to judge a dispute between believers? But instead, one brother takes another to court—and this in front of unbelievers!

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated? Instead, you yourselves cheat and do wrong, and you do this to your brothers and sisters.

At the heart of the issue for Paul is his deep concern about the message the Corinthians Christians were sending to those who didn’t know Christ. In essence, Paul was warning about going to battle in order to win a few dollars in small claims court, but losing any semblance of a testimony before the lost.

The Corinthians action were a fulfillment of an age-old adage: They might have been winning the battle, but they were losing the war.

Jesus is the supreme example of a person who could have stood up for His rights, but chose not to for the purpose of the cross. Jesus had a strong eye on our salvation, and as a result bore much shame and wrong doing.

One of the most challenging teachings offered by Jesus is found in Matthew 5. Because Jesus’ words were so radical, its not uncommon for a new believer to look at this teaching and wonder if He was really serious:

Matthew 5:38-42

38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ 39 But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. 40 And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. 41 And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.42 Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

As followers of Jesus, we are often challenged to take on new perspectives that don’t line up with how the rest of the world sees things.

In the economy of God, sometimes wining is losing and sometimes losing is winning.

May God give us wisdom as we pursue justice, but also as we pursue mercy, peace, kindness and compassion.

May we maintain a “long view” when it comes to our testimony before the world.

 

 

What Discipleship is NOT

In the pursuit of discipleship, its easy to get off track. There are some things that look like discipleship, but really aren’t.

Here’s a list of things that discipleship is not:

Discipleship is NOT a program

Discipleship does not equal curriculum and classes (although curriculum and classes are often a part of the process of discipleship). Programs can help, but programs alone don’t make disciples. Just because a person took a six-week discipleship class, that doesn’t ensure they are a functioning disciple. Rather, discipleship is a life-long learning process.

Discipleship is NOT a production line

The process of discipleship is not meant to churn out robotic, mass-produced, uniform people. It’s not a mold where we all come out looking and talking the same.

Sure, there are some things that are core to every disciple’s experience. We rally around true doctrine. We practice the same disciplines. We respond to the Bible’s commands.

But God has made each one of us unique. As a result, the expression of our discipleship will be marked by nuances that make us different than anyone else. We have different temperaments, personalities, experiences and so on.

Discipleship is NOT just for new Christians

Simply reading through one book designed for new believers isn’t enough to carry us through the rest of our Christian life. We will be met by new challenges at every stage of life. A true disciple gets it in their head that they are never to sideline themselves from the processes of discipleship. Not even if they’ve been a believer for 50 years!

In athletics, the coach often has to remind some of his best players to return to the fundamentals, which get forgotten over time. So it is with the Christian!

Discipleship is NOT just for “super saints” or the “spiritually elite”

Sometimes younger Christians are content to leave the “heavy lifting” to those who have been in Christ for a longer time. When someone asks the younger Christian a question about the faith, the younger Christian doesn’t go to find the answer; instead they go searching for their older Christian friend to explain things to their friend.

The Bible makes no distinction between Christians who are non-disciples and disciples. Everyone is called to be a growing, learning, serving follower of Jesus.

Discipleship is NOT easy.

Salvation is a free gift. Easily attained by trusting in Christ. Discipleship is the practice of following Jesus. This can prove to be quite arduous.

Part of the process of discipleship is giving up favorite idols and pet sins. Not easy!

Part of the process of discipleship is learning how to face challenging life situations from the perspective of a believer. Not easy!

Part of the process of discipleship is disciplining ourselves to spend time in the Word. Not easy!

Part of the process of discipleship is leaving behind harmful habits and false beliefs. Not easy!

Part of the process of discipleship is applying our Christianity to our relationships. Not easy!

 

 

Don’t Settle for “Faux” Discipleship

I grew up in a beach town that was deeply marked by surf culture. But out of all the people who dressed and acted like surfers, much fewer actually surfed. Some people wanted so badly to identify as a California surfer, they would go to great lengths to appear as if they surfed. Some even attached surf racks to their cars. They were surfers in name, but not in practice.

When I was about 18, I remember once planning a day of skiing with some fellow employees at a restaurant where I worked. One of the waitresses heard about our plans and begged us to let her join us. She talked about her skiing prowess, making it sound like she was a black-diamond master. Well, on the day of the trip, we quickly learned that she found the bunny hill to be more than challenging. Hello reality.

When Jesus calls us to discipleship, He isn’t calling us to be a poser. He’s really inviting us to follow Him in His ways and His Word.

As Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, the path of discipleship is narrow and arduous, and for that reason, few will take it.

Perhaps no teaching on the rigors of discipleship is more challenging than what Jesus said in Luke 14:25-33:

Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple.  For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?  Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’  Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

Strong words, aren’t they?

Just a quick read through reveals that:

  • We are called to love God above all else
  • To be a disciple means we will sometimes have to dies to our own will
  • We must enter discipleship with “eyes wide open’

Dwight Pentecost said of discipleship:

“Discipleship is the journey from moving beyond curiosity to being convinced to the point of being committed.”

Before we get freaked out and decide discipleship sounds too demanding. I think its important to contrast the teaching of Luke 14 with something Jesus said in Matthew 11:28-30:

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

When Jesus put out the call to the disciples, He simply said “follow me.” But a better translation of that phrase is “follow with me.” Yes, discipleship is challenging, but Jesus doesn’t leave us alone to flounder. He provides His Spirit and His Word to strengthen and guide us. As He said at the end of the great commission, “And, lo, I am with you until the end of the age.”

 

Sanctification: The Stuff that’s Supposed to Happen between Justification and Glorification

At the bookends in our experience of journeying with Christ, we find two things that occur instantaneously: justification and glorification.

Through justification we are spiritually saved; and through glorification we spiritually completed. Both take place in the blink of an eye.

But in between the experiences of being justified and glorified is a long journey called sanctification.

Sanctification and discipleship are mostly synonymous.

Sanctification is the space in our life between being born again and dying where we are challenged to keep growing in our relationship with Christ.

Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit, coupled with the Word, prompts us to become more like Christ in all we do, think and desire.

Throughout the New Testament, we see the exhortation to grow. And it is never presented as being optional.

Here’s 4 quick thoughts about sanctification:

  1. Sanctification is a life-long process. We graduate when we get to heaven.
  2. Sanctification is only made possible by the fact of regeneration. There is no sanctification apart from a spiritual rebirth.
  3. Sanctification is arduous. It is filled with highs, lows, victories, losses, thrills and disappointments.
  4. Sanctification reminds us that Jesus didn’t die just to free us from the guilt of sin, but also from the grip of sin.

On sanctification, J.C. Ryle said:

“In justification the word to be addressed to a man is believe – only believe; in sanctification the word must be ‘watch, pray and fight.'”

 

Embracing Tension

(This post is a reprint from something I wrote last week for our church e-news)

The difference between whether someone enjoys or despises skiing often comes down to how they embrace tension.

For some who are new to the world of skiing, the idea of having their feet attached to a pair of wooden slats seems downright crazy. To them, a morning of having their legs wobble uncontrollably, coupled with the fear of injury is enough to drive them straight to the lodge, never to venture out on the slopes again.

But others figure out how to make tension of skiing work for them, and in time (and with a lot of practice), they find themselves moving up the mountain, actually enjoying the challenges skiing presents.

Let’s be honest: when it comes to most things in life, the majority of us don’t like tension. Instead, we prefer order. We like things to resolve. We like things to be peaceful and calm. We like the feel of solid ground under our feet.

But I believe to be a follower of Jesus we must, at times, embrace tension. That’s because some biblical truths create tension.

Think about these questions:

  • Is Jesus human or divine?
  • Is God one or three?
  • Was the Bible written by human authors or by God?
  • Is the kingdom of God future or present?

The answer to all these questions is, “YES!” To take away from either side of the equation is to create a false teaching (in fact, it is the failure to embrace tension that generates so much doctrinal error). Our fallen tendency is to want to affirm one area of God’s truth at the expense of another. But God, through His Word, presents many truths that seem difficult to reconcile.

Since we view the Bible as God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16) and without error, we can trust it to mean what it says. Although something may seem contradictory in our minds,  we can rest in knowing that God does not contradict Himself.

Two words that may help us navigate through all this are: paradox and mystery.

A paradox occurs when two apparently contradictory things are, in fact, both true. Until we understand a paradox, we can find a paradox to be really frustrating! But our frustration doesn’t make the paradox any less true.

A mystery is when something is difficult or impossible to understand. Paul wrote in Colossians 1 about the mystery of the Gentiles being included in the plan of salvation. For the Jews, this was a real brain-bender!

But, once again, the Jew’s confusion didn’t change God’s truth.  They just had a hard time wrapping their minds around it.

Sometimes we find our to figure out (at least as much is humanly possible) a paradox of scripture. It’s just part of growing deep in our faith.

And in other cases, we must humbly admit that some things fall into the category of mystery. Either God has not revealed enough on the matter for us to figure it out, or we don’t yet possess the ability to understand God and/or His dealings.

Most things we read in the Bible provide us with certainty. But every once in a while God puts two truths together that challenge the abilities of our mind. Yet, we can trust that if these truths come from God, they are good truths indeed!

Five Random Reasons Teaching Discipleship is Important

  • Because in Matthew 28 Jesus called upon His disciples (which includes us) to make disciples. This means we must understand what a disciple is and what we are to be making.
  • To pursue discipleship is to embrace the concept of John 10:10 described as “the life abundant.” To forgo discipleship is to miss out on much of God’s plans and purposes for our lives.
  • Because the Christian life is viewed as a process, as opposed to a program. Paul wrote in Philippians 1:6, “He who began a good work will complete it…” God wants to grow and expand the good work of salvation.
  • Discipleship opens our eyes to the many areas of our lives that God desires to influence and impact. Marriage, family, work, friendships, recreation, words, thoughts, etc.
  • Discipleship is taking the “knowing about God” and applying it to our lives so that we might experience “living for God.”

What is Discipleship?

The most basic definition, drawn from the text of the Bible, is a learner.

Perhaps a better term to help our understanding is the word apprentice. An apprentice learns a craft from an expert, then in time can practice the craft themselves. And then the apprentice can teach others.

Through the years, I’ve come across a lot of good definitions of discipleship. Essentially, they are all describing the same thing, but each definition provides a bit of nuance to help understand the scope and spectrum of discipleship. Here a few of my favorites:

“Discipleship is the process of becoming a genuine follower of Jesus Christ. We don’t complete the process this side of eternity, but it is a continual learning of who Jesus is and striving to be like Him. Discipleship combines teaching, studying, circumstances of life and Holy Spirit revelation to transform us into His image.”  –Ron Edmondson, pastor and thought leader

“A disciple of Jesus is one who is living his/her life as Jesus would if He were us; given our setting—our family, our friends, our church, our skills, our gifting, our vocation, and our circle of influence.” —Steve Palich, director of Ministry Center Development, CMF International

“Discipleship is filling the vacancy left when someone accepts Christ as their personal Savior and sweeps clean the garbage of their former life. Unless that life is filled with sacrifice, service and regular communication with God, bad habits will return.” —Ken Hoving, teacher and mentor

“I want to share with you where my mind has come to rest as I approach the end of my pilgrimage on earth, and it is: God wants His people to become like Christ. Christlikeness is the will of God for the people of God.” John Stott (from the last sermon he preached:”The Model: Becoming More Like Christ”)

One simple definition I use to explain discipleship to others is this: a disciple is a person who seeks to submit themselves to the lordship of Jesus Christ. It’s handing the reins of our life over to Jesus with a willingness to let him remove our favorite idols and deeply-embedded sins so that we might live in a way that glorifies Him and blesses others.

Discipleship is about life. It’s not going from irreligious to religious, but rather it is moving out of spiritual death and into redemption and regeneration.

Here’s one last quote to chew on:

“The Christian life is more than saying a prayer and getting “fire insurance,” so to speak. It is following Jesus not only as your Savior, but also as you Lord. It is having Him not only as your friend but as your master.” – Greg Laurie