Friday, August 29, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Squawk Against the Machine

I was looking through some cassette tapes the other day. Specifically, I was looking for a tape called Rap: Straight From the Streets (a 1989 sampler of bad Christian rap music and interviews with said bad Christian rappers), because I wanted to play a clip from a Toby McKeehan interview in my sermon that week. If this has awakened some morbid curiosity on your part, you can find the sermon here.

But, of course, the process of going through my many tapes turned into an aural trip down memory lane. I enjoyed re-visiting many memories of the '80s and '90s via their soundtracks. There was a good number of "cassingles" involved, including Ponderous ("...and my shoes started to squeak"), I Wanna Be Rich, and Another Night ("I tawk, tawk, I tawwk to youuu").

It was funny.

Then I happened upon a bunch of mix tapes I had made for my first car, the Spacious. Lots of MxPx, Value Pac, Rancid, Greenday, Ghoti Hook. Man, there was a lot of good music in the mid/late '90s; what happened?

It was on the B-side of one of my mix tapes that I found a dub of Rage Against the Machine's self-titled 1992 album. Why would a white middle class student at a Christian college be listening to Rage Against the Machine, you ask? Why, indeed. If you discounted all the albums purchased by white suburbanites, Rage has probably sold fewer albums than Gus Polinski and the Kenosha Kickers (they sold about 620 copies of Domavougi Polka, a.k.a. Kiss Me Polka; very big in Cheboygan.)

The Rage album in question was decorated with a picture of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death by way of protesting attacks on his religion and filled with music unequivocally calling for the destruction of the current order and the adoption of a new ultra-Leftist agenda. Might just lead you to believe that Rage Against the Machine stood for something and that they were willing to make enormous sacrifices to realize their lofty goals. Right?

I assumed so. You see, in the mid-'90s, like many just heading off to college, I went through a phase of wanting to be a radical. A student radical. Sure, most student radicals are strident Leftists, but that didn't stop me and my group of comrades. We might have been right of Jerry Falwell at the time, but we were just as angry at our culture and (so we thought) our country as your average weekend member of the New Weathermen Underground (Miami of Ohio chapter).We made flyers and tracts. We tried to crash forums at the liberal Fountain Street Church. We duct taped little manifestos to church doors. We wrote angry songs.

It was pathetic.

And, since there was not any angry pro-Christian-right punk music out there (sure, there were two or three anti-patriotic songs by MxPx, but they just served to whet my appetite), I grabbed on to Rage Against the Machine, heaped on a liberal (?!) dose of reader hermeneutic, and somehow sang along to most of it, redirecting its rage toward the secular humanism of the age and the guy in the White House who couldn't keep his story straight. That makes about as much sense as John Shelby Sponge selectively quoting Paul's epistles. When I taped the album for play in my car, I carefully left out the sophomoric tag at the end of Township Rebellion, which proclaims, "Shackle your minds when they're bent on the cross. When ignorance reigns, life is lost."

My affair with Rage Against the Machine was short-lived if intense. I even had a couple of posters on my wall. What prompted me to take them down was the fine print at the bottom, which read,"© 1995 Mega Merchandising." That's right, the anarchists who wanted to burn the flag, violently overthrow the government, and somehow give the land back to its Native inhabitants (not quite sure if they ever thought through the logistics involved in that last plank)--or at least claimed to want all that--were recording and selling their music on a major corporate record label and were in league with a giant corporation so large and faceless that it was named "Mega Merchandising." And their music, T-shirts, and posters were copyrighted so that you couldn't join "the movement" without the band, their agents, and their lawyers getting a piece of the pie.

So anyway, back to my basement a few weeks ago. I popped my Rage cassette into the tape deck (heh..."tape deck") and pushed play, expecting to be Marty McFlyed off my feet by the wall of incredibly powerful rock sound that I remembered. Instead, I heard an intro composed of a keyboard-demo-style generic drumbeat, followed by a ridiculously simple guitar melody that any Mel Bay Level 1 student with a Fender and forty-five minutes could have dreamed up. It did sound "big," but only because of the three dozen effects through which the yawn-inducing riff was routed. (Piping music through the $200,000 Fuzzmaster 2000? Hmmm... Doesn't seem very grass roots anarchist to me).

Then came the vocals. I remembered Zack de la Rocha as sounding furious, intense, almost frightening. But he doesn't. He sounds like a pre-pubescent twelve-year-old with a stuffed-up nose yelling with a slight speech impediment and an "Aw, wait up, guys!" whine. And all with just a little higher pitch than Avril Lavigne's "rap" on Let Go.

And the lyrics... Well, here's a sample:

Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...Ughh!
Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack...Yeah!
It goes one, two, three
Hey yo, it's just another bombtrack
And suckers be thinkin' that they can fade this
But I'ma drop it at a higher level
'Cause I'm inclined to stoop down
Hand out some beat-downs
Cold run a train on punk hos that think they run the game
It goes one, two, three
Another funky, radical bombtrack
Started as a sketch in my notebook
And now dope hooks make punks take another look
My thoughts you hear and you begin to fear
That your card will get pulled if you interfere

And who can forget the uplifting and imaginative bridge:

Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!
Burn, burn, yes you're gonna burn!

I am? I'm going to burn? Or, wait...who exactly is going to burn?

As the song came to an end and an almost identical one began, I reflected briefly on the phenomenon of Rage Against the Machine (assuming that they had long since disbanded). How hypocritical to over-produce simplistic effects-driven rock with an over-the-top anti-establishment bent and then get rich selling it to the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice crowd. How very consumerist. How very capitalist. How very ridiculous.

No one ever burned anything but CDs. Rage never really "flipped the script," whatever that means. They never actually handed out those beat-downs, nor did they "pull the card" of anyone who interfered. Really, there wasn't much to interfere with.

Rage really played on the tendency of those caught between immaturity and maturity to lash out against the world and demand that all wrongs be righted at once and all injustices be rectified (while justifying any injustice perpetrated toward that goal). Some people never outgrow this mindset.

Edward Norton makes an insightful analysis on the commentary track to Fight Club. He says that the film is really about how appealing Nihilism can be when you're young, but that, as one grows up, one has to come to terms with its weaknesses and how it folds in on itself when any weight is applied (I'm paraphrasing here).

Not surprisingly, this all reminds me of a sermon illustration I've used several times.
It's said that a city slicker was visiting a ranch. He watched for several days as the rancher tried unsuccessfully to break a wild stallion. Finally, realizing that he couldn't do it himself, he tied the stallion to a mule and opened the corral gate. The stallion went screaming out over the horizon, the poor mule in tow. They were gone for three days. The city slicker, who was going home the next day, assumed that they were gone for good. But finally, on the evening of the third day, over the horizon came trotting first the mule and then the stallion--now very calm--following along behind. Somewhere out there, on the edge of the world, the stallion got tired of spitting and fighting and flailing, and gave up. That's when the mule took charge and led him back home.

I usually use this illustration in regard to the Kingdom of God--how the heroes of the faith are not those who shouted the loudest, made the greatest claims, and whipped the people into the sweatiest frenzy; the heroes of the faith are those who persevered. Who, day by day by day, faithfully plodded along in the right direction no matter what tried to drag them away. The same thing is true of those trying to effect change in the world. It's not hard to vaguely threaten some unidentified "landlords and power whores" that they're going to burn when you "cold run a train" on them. It's easy to scream with Rage Against the Machine,"Motherf--- Uncle Sam!"; it's harder to love your country, even with its flaws, and work with a mule-like perseverance toward effecting real change. It's not as sexy. It's not as exciting. And you probably won't get a deal with Mega Merchandising in the process.

The most ironic thing is that earlier this week, I read about Rage Against the Machine performing a huge concert for a group protesting the Democratic convention. Zack de la Rocha, now pushing forty, is still scamming those stallions out of their allowance. If he gets the irony...well, then, more power to him.

But somehow, I don't think he does.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

The next new thing will save me...

I know a few Early Adopters. You know, the people who go out and buy the newest, sleekest cell phone with all the most ridiculous features the first day it’s available—not because they need a phone that can e-mail, play music, record video, and control whale behavior remotely using synthetic SONAR technology—but because they just like being ahead of the curve. And there really is a curve; I learned about it in seminary.

A communications scholar named Everett M. Rogers is fairly well-known for his “Innovation Adoption Curve,” which maps out five different groups of people and how they adopt new things (See Figure 1…I’ve always wanted to write that). The first group is the Innovators. These are the beta testers--the handful of people who come up with and adopt new practices, terms, disciplines, and technologies long before most people have ever heard of them. In fact most of us never hear about a lot of these innovations, because they never catch on. They come and go completely beneath our radar.

The Early Adopters are next. When it comes to new and somewhat risky ideas, Early Adopters are leaders, not followers. They try things out before they’re mainstream. If you have a LaserDisc player stashed somewhere in your basement, if you instantly took to the “New Coke” in the mid-‘80s, or if you once paid $300 for a 1 gig MP3 player (only to see it selling for half that price six months later), you’re probably an Early Adopter. These are important people. Someone’s got to be the first person on the block to install indoor plumbing or solar panels or buy that first Model A or electric car. And Early Adopters pay for this honor by filling their attics and basements with expensive-but-worthless trends that went nowhere. My hat is off to them!

After the Early Adopters come the majority of people (broken into Early and Late Majority) who wait until the bugs have been worked out and they’re pretty sure this item or practice is here to stay. Then, finally, there are the Laggards. If you still listen to 8-track, you’re probably a Laggard.

People often assume that I’m an Early Adopter—probably because I’m relatively young and often seen with electronic gadgets. In reality, though, I’m more of a Late Majority kind of guy. Yeah, I ride the back of the curve. Look closely and you’ll see that my Palm Pilot is a five-year-old model (an eternity in techno-years). I bought it on eBay for a song. In fact, that’s how I get all my gadgets—slightly outdated and dirt cheap.

You see, I know about things when they’re new; I just don’t embrace them. For example, ten years ago, it was rather cutting-edge to have a blog. (For you Laggards, a "blog" is an online journal for public consumption; you're reading one right now). At the turn of the century, it seemed like everyone had a blog. In fact, there were more people writing them than reading. By 2003 or so, what was the point? Well, I just started my blog this month. That’s me. I usually start liking popular TV shows in their final season and restaurants right before they go under (which is why I can’t shut up about it when I actually like something before it becomes popular. For the record, I was listening to Switchfoot in 1997.)

In the end, though, I’m perfectly happy not being on the cutting edge. When I was pastoring up at Lake Louise this summer, a bunch of people were complaining about how their $400 cell phones couldn’t get a good signal, despite the unsightly cell phone tower marring the once-beautiful view of Spirit Mountain. They could record movies and communicate with the whales (um…fresh water whales), but they couldn’t make a call. My phone, however, worked fine. I made several calls without a dropped signal or even much static. By the way, the church bought my cell phone for me (the first one I’ve ever owned) in 2005 for $14.99.

So why did I learn about this curve in seminary? Part of it was that pastors should be able to identify the people in their churches that will be on the band wagon early (“A new Wednesday night service? I’m there!”) and who will drag their feet and hold out to the very end (“…but we’ve always had anti-communism Sunday the third week in July--ever since the '50s!”) But there’s more to it. There’s a sense that being a good pastor in today’s world means being an Innovator or, at the very least, an Early Adopter. It means learning about the latest trends and dragging your church on board as quickly as possible so the world will be impressed and want to get on board too.

Thing is, it’s not really working. Sure, there are a handful of giant churches who qualify as Innovators and there are a whole lot of smaller churches buying the kits and trying to be the Early Adopters. But I’m convinced that the church on the whole will always come out a Laggard when it tries to copy the world. Just think about it; if we’re following, we’ll always be a step behind. Introduce committees to the picture and you’re many steps behind. The church was even late adopting dangerous ideas like Gnosticism, Deism, secularism, and relativism. We might think we’re Early Adopters, but the world disagrees.

Case in point, earlier this week, a pastor proudly told me about how his church had become so “seeker-friendly” that they had not only done away with the pews and the pulpit, but with the sermon and communion! Now they don’t have crosses on the walls or sing songs that sound too churchy. They’ve redone their building so that it looks more like a convention hall than a sanctuary and come up with new non-intimidating words for sin, atonement, church, and discipleship.

But wait! LifeWay Research just came out with a study that found a 2:1 ratio of unchurched Americans prefer traditional church architecture over “contemporary worship spaces.” Should they do another renovation? Eugene Peterson, who produced The Message (a modern pop-culture pararphrase of the Bible), has even found that unchurched people don’t want a church that imitates their culture. They want a church with its own culture—a Jesus culture. In March of 2005, he told Christianity Today,

“I think relevance is a crock. I don't think people care a whole lot about what kind of music you have or how you shape the service. They want a place where God is taken seriously, where they're taken seriously, where there is no manipulation of their emotions or their consumer needs. Why did we get captured by this advertising, publicity mindset? I think it's destroying our church… How do we meet [people’s needs]? Do we do it in Jesus' way or do we do it the Wal-Mart way?...When you start tailoring the Gospel to the culture, whether it's a youth culture, a generation culture or any other kind of culture, you have taken the guts out of the Gospel. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is not the kingdom of this world. It's a different kingdom.”

Now, I haven’t got quite that level of beef with churches who try to reach a particular group with the Gospel. I’m not one to say, “God didn’t call you to do that!” Rather, my beef is with our attitude that it’s the church’s responsibility to be Early Adopters, that it’s our job to figure out the most relevant forms for our meeting together and then hurry up and implement them before they’re outdated (usually without any concern of alienating older saints in our midst).

It’s true that the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt meet together on Sundays at 11 AM, sing hymns written between 1550 and 1940, preach from a pulpit, take an offering, and go home.” But the New Testament does paint a pretty clear picture of what churches should be about. Jesus told his disciples to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matt 28:19-20, NIV). The Book of Acts tells us that, from the beginning, the practice of the church was to preach repentance, warning people, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation”; and that “those who accepted the message were baptized…They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:40-42, NIV)

In the Scriptures, we see Word and sacrament taking center stage. The emphasis was on preaching against the world’s corrupt culture­ (rather than embracing it), proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and meeting together for study of God’s Word, fellowship, baptism, holy communion, and prayer. Interestingly, music—which has become the most defining (and divisive) issue in the church today—isn’t even mentioned in these passages. However, Paul does exhort us to “speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Eph. 5:19, NIV).

So, what’s my point? Am I just taking this opportunity to complain about the state of the church and pine for the “good old days?” Have I become grizzled and crotchety at 30? I hope not. My point is that our Way, our Truth, our Life is not found by looking to the world for trends or by looking into ourselves for hot new ideas. It’s not found by looking forward to the next emerging movement, but by looking back at the man on the cross 2000 years ago, who changed everything when he tore the curtain in half and kicked off the “A.D.” portion of world history.

I think that J.Gresham Machen put it best when he wrote,

“If you want health for your souls and if you want to be the instrument of bringing health to others, do not turn your gaze forever within, as if you could find Christ there. No, turn your gaze away from your own miserable experiences, away from your own sin, to the Lord Jesus Christ as He is given to us in the Gospel. It is the same old story, my friends, the same story of the natural man. Men are trying today—as they have always been trying—to save themselves by their own act of surrender to Jesus, by the excellence of their own faith, by mystical experiences of their own lives. But it's all in vain. True peace in God is only obtained in the old, old way: by attention to something that was done once for all, long ago, and by acceptance of the Living Savior who there once for all brought redemption for our sin.”

Spiritually, I don’t want to be an Early Adopter. I want to be the billionth guy in line, following the old, old way. Fads are fleeting, whether in the world or in the church, and will only keep people’s attention as long as we stay ahead of the curve. But we don’t have to stress about that. Because Christ is the ultimate Innovator. He made available a new righteousness, apart from the Law or our own efforts, which comes through faith in Christ to all who believe. (Rom 3:21-22). That doesn’t leave much room for a hierarchy of Adopters and Laggards. If you’ve put your faith in Him, that’s reason to rejoice; to sing songs, hymns, and spiritual songs; to meet together for preaching, prayer, study, and sacrament; and to proclaim that old, old story that set you free to a lost world obsessed with the next new thing.

Soli Deo Gloria,

Pastor Zach

Thursday, August 21, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Kingdom of God ≠ Kingdom of Man

Rev. Rick Warren: What does it mean to you to trust in Christ?

Sen. Barack Obama: It means I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins and that I am redeemed through Him.

Sen. John McCain: It means I’m saved and forgiven.

(from Saddleback Presidential Forum, August 16, 2008)

Oh no! What if both candidates for President are born again? What if we actually have to choose who to vote for based on who we believe would be a better leader? What if we have to acknowledge thatas Christianswe must live in light of two ages and two kingdoms?

Can't think of anything better. To paraphrase the Joker (the old fun Joker, not the new disturbing Joker), this country's political scene needs an enema!

Does God have a candidate? Wrong question.

God gave you the ability to think deeply about all the important issues and make tough decisions. Do you have a candidate?

Eat your heart out James Dobson. You too, Jim Wallis.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Potty, Playdates, and Presumption

I'm a father now.

I'm looking forward to wrestling with my son and playing catch and all that fun stuff that goes with being a father. I'm also well aware that fatherhood means I'll be wiping noses, changing diapers, and cleaning up unpleasant messes of various kinds for some time. There's no avoiding that--it's part of the package.

What I can avoid, however, is turning into a sniveling, half-regressed semi-moron just because I live with a human who cannot yet walk or speak. Sure, I coo a little at Calvin when he's being really cute, but in the interest of not confusing the heck out of him as he begins to recognize phonetic patterns, I do not speak to him in non-existent languages. Don't get me wrong; I'm all for the little guy learning some Spanish, Hebrew, and Koine Greek at a young age, but I'm not going to confuse him with Klingon (not that I know Klingon), because it's useless. It's not real. If he decides he likes Star Trek instead of girls, he can pursue that on his own during his teen years.

So with that in mind, why would I speak the useless and imaginary language of "baby-ese" to the poor little guy? Why confuse him with words like "ouchy," "binky," and "sippy?" Yes, I realize that he'll be able to say "Da Da" long before he can say "Dad." That's fine. He's a baby. I'll expect him to talk like one for quite some time. And, sure, as he learns to talk, there will undoubtedly be words he mispronounces and we'll find it cute and run with it, but why introduce a word wrong to begin with?

It's not a "fishy." It's a fish. It's not called "going potty." It's going to the bathroom. And what I find even more ridiculous is some people's inexplicable practice of intentionally breaking the rules of pronunciation and grammar when talking to toddlers and little children. "Aw, do you wike da widdew doggie-woggie?" "Does you have an owie on your little elbow?" What?! Are you trying to mess this kid up so he has a hard time mastering the English language??? And don't hit me with the "baby talk helps kids learn faster" nonsense. The studies you're thinking of have to do with speaking slow, simple sentences to a baby, not confusing the poor thing with a bunch of non-words and meaningless jabberwocky. Anyway, I don't care in the least if you talk to your kids in babytalk, Klingon, or Elvish. What I'm saying is that you won't find me doing it.

Call me weird, but even at three months old, my son is hearing me speak in these crazy units called "sentences" with subjects, predicates, verbs, the whole nine yards. I'd probably be doing this anyway by instinct, but it doesn't hurt that I have several friends who are parents of incredibly bright children and have gone the same route and swear by it. Teaching kids "baby talk" and then teaching them conversational English makes as much sense to me as starting with Sanskrit.

But, wait. I'm not done yet. There is a whole other subset of fake words that I am committed to avoiding like a stick of ebola-soaked Big Red: I call them "Mommy and Daddy words." You see, for some reason, not only do parents feel compelled to talk to their children like they were brain-damaged lower primates, but men and women alike actually start using that kind of "baby lingo" with each other! But not me. No, not me. Just like I'd rather be shot in the face with rock salt than teach Calvin that his blanket is called a "woobie," I will never use words like "preggers," "boppy," "playdate," "tummy time," or any of the slew of pointless abbreviations like "dipe" and "paci."

So a few days ago, I was discussing this with a friend of mine (the mother of two sweet little girls). Suddenly, a woman I've never met before lurched into the conversation and told me that I "needed to re-evaluate" what things annoy me. She then announced to everyone in the vicinity that she "gives me one year" before I, too, start babbling with abandon. Ugh. What cracks me up is that, in a setting full of little kids, her daughter was hands-down the worst-behaved one of the bunch. So why on earth would I want to follow in her footsteps? In any way? What if it's the annoying way she talks that is driving her daughter to act out like a Tasmanian devil on crack?

Rather than engage this woman in a debate about whether her prediction would come true, I just wrote myself a note in my Palm:
8/16/2009: Track down ______ _________ and inform her that she was wrong. Still don't talk to Calvin like he's an idiot and still find that highly annoying.

I win.
Wednesday, August 13, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Twelve Sixty? Forty-two?? Huh???

Okay, more than a few people have asked me about the name of my blog (both the "twelve60" URL and the "42 Months" title). So, time for a little Bible lesson. Please clear the flannelgraph in your mind and put your seat in its fully upright and locked position. (I cannot freaking believe that Blogger underlined flannelgraph as if it were not a legitimate word; for shame.)

The name comes from Revelation 11:1-3, which is part of a larger seven-part vision that St. John the Apostle had of the heavenly realm, together giving him (and us) a picture of what the church will endure in the time before Christ returns. Like the whole Apocalypse, this passage is steeped in symbolism. John sees the temple of God and is told to measure it with a rod. He is not, however, to measure the outer court with it, since it has been given to the Gentiles (Greek ος θνεσιν, "to the Gentiles" or "to the nations...") and they will trample it for forty-two months. During this time (described alternately as "one thousand two hundred and sixty days"), two witnesses with seeming miraculous powers (see vv. 4-12) will prophesy, wearing sackcloth.

That clears things up, right?

So, what does it all mean? Well, read a dozen commentaries and you might get a dozen explanations. The main question is, "When does all this take place?" That really narrows one's interpretation. There are a few major views.
  • Classical dispensationalists are probably the most interested in this time period. These are the Left Behind people. They take the forty-two months (three and a half years) and add it to the 1,260 days (three and a half years) and come up with (dah-dah-dah-DAAAAHHH) a seven year tribulation!! Why they are so interested in the minutiae of this supposed time period baffles me, since most dispies are expecting the Archangel Scottie to beam them up before the tribulation even begins.
  • Preterists (at least full Preterists) believe that this all happened back around AD 70 with the Great Jewish Revolt, while Historicists see the 1,260 days as prophetic years of papal power before the Reformation.
  • Then there are the Tinfoil Hat Prophecy Society® people who are stocking up on canned beef and ammo in anticipation of the Antichrist's arrival in a UN helicopter or Area 51 spacecraft or something. The really high-ups in the Society also sell the "survival rations," but I'm sure there's no conflict of interest there. Anyway, they're so busy tracking the suitcase nukes around the country via their night visions that they haven't had time to file their taxes...
  • Finally, there are the few, the proud, those who hold fast to the Historic Protestant interpretation (which also happens to be the historic Roman Catholic interpretation dating back to St. Augustine), that views these three and a half years as symbolic of the entire inter-advent period (the time between Christ's first coming and his second coming). I fall within this camp.
Why three and a half years? Isn't that kind of a random symbol? Not if we recognize the Old Testament roots and the intertextuality at play here. In Daniel 9, the Archangel Gabriel (Scottie's superior) told the prophet Daniel that there would be Seventy sevens "for your people and your holy city to finish transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for wickedness, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy." This is almost always understood (either figuratively or literally) to refer to a total of 490 years.

Gabriel says that the seventy sevens begin with the decree to rebuild Jerusalem and are broken up into three sections: seven sevens, sixty-two sevens, and one seven. Between the sixty-two sevens and the final seven years, the Messiah will be cut off and will confirm a covenant with many (yes, the "he" in v. 27 is Jesus, not the Antichrist--with or without UN helicopter).

So what happens to the last half a seven? Well, the Scriptures speak of it often. It is referred to as "a time, times, and half a time" (Dan 7:25, Dan 12:7, Rev 12:14), "1,260 days" (Rev 11:3; 12:6), and "forty-two months" (Rev. 11:2; 13:5). This is the time between when the Messiah is cut off (the crucifixion) and when he returns in judgment, bringing "the end like a flood." It's the time between Jesus' first advent to save sinful mankind and his second advent to judge the quick and the dead.

Does three and a half years still seem like a random length of time? Well, think about it like this: in Hebrew thought, the number seven represents completion. Seventy sevens, therefore, is the ultimate completion. At the end of seventy sevens, we'd expect every loose end to be tied up and every battle to be won. The time between Christ's first coming and his second is more than 2,000 years. But as far as the battle is concerned, as far as the story of Redemption and the great struggle between light and darkness is concerned, it's "all over but the shouting" as they say. Satan was defeated at the cross. What remains is for Christ to gather his own to himself. When that is done, it's all done. When Christ said, "It is finished" then rose from the dead, the story was 69½ sevens complete with only half a seven to go. While we, who think in terms of statistics and percentages, might say something is "99% done," in a culture that emphasized numerology and defined "done" in terms of sevens, 1260-42-3.5 was the way to get the point across.

Thus we are "in the thick" of the 42 months. This is it. This is the church age. This is the inter-advent period. This is the millennium (Rev 20:1-6). The two witnesses are wearing sackcloth now and proclaiming the message, "Repent" to all who will listen, even to a hostile world. And the two witnesses are us, the church. The world hates our message and will attack it, but as we see in Rev. 11:5-11, we will ultimately prevail because Christ will ultimately prevail.

That's one reason why the Book of Revelation shouldn't scare you (if you're a believer), but should give you hope. For all the messed up stuff in this world and how the devil seems to be ruling the day, remember he's defeated. He's a lion, but he's a lion on a leash. We don't know when the forty-two months will be over, but we know that it won't end with Christ secretly "beaming up" his own. It will end with him coming in glory and every eye will see him.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach
Tuesday, August 12, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

Here we go...

So first, I tried not blogging and failed. Then, I tried blogging and failed. I mean, two posts in six months? That's like some aborted '90s Xerox 'zine about the underground snowboard scene in Muskegon.

This blog, however, can only succeed. The skeleton of the thing is comprised of my articles from the Judson Journal. In the first four days of the blog's existence, I posted a backlog of thirty-one articles from the past three years...and my job demands that there will be a steady stream of future articles. So, at the very least, worst case scenario is one post per month. I can hear the roar of approval from the public. People love my free-association-style ramblings in the Journal for some reason. Really, the most unlikely people gobble them up.

But this blog will also be a prime forum for my abandoned mental hatchlings that are just too random, technical, theological, controversial, bizarre, or irreverent to grace the pages of a church newsletter with such a long and distinguished history of mimeographed clipart.

Now...somebody leave a friggin' comment so I know you're out there.
Friday, August 8, 2008 | By: Zachary Bartels

The most important thing is...end corny.

(From the Judson Journal, August 2008)

There are some concepts so complex that only the very gifted can be expected to grasp them. Certain mathematical formulas are way beyond my abilities. I’m interested in mathematics (yes, I actually wrote that), but there comes a point when there are too many variables and weird little symbols to keep in my brain at one time and I have to acknowledge that I’m in over my head. True, I can read biblical Greek or tear through philosophy and theology with little effort, devouring volumes like Calvin’s Institutes, Barth’s Church Dogmatics, or Kierkegaard’s On the Concept of Irony with Continual Reference to Socrates—stuff that would give most people a pounding headache—but if a car-savvy guy starts talking his way through the inner workings of an automobile, I just slightly furrow my brow, slowly nod, and hope I look like I’m following him.

Yes, we all have our areas of expertise, but there is one thing that should be within the grasp of every person on the street—man, woman, or child. I’m talking, of course, about the “crosswalk” principle. Let’s review. Where should you cross the street? Between the white lines we find at intersections. When should you cross? When the sign says “Walk” or has a picture of a guy walking. And just to make sure we’re all on the same page: where shouldn’t we cross? (All together, now): in the middle of the block. And when shouldn’t we cross? When the sign says “Don’t Walk” or has a big red hand.

Did everyone follow that? That’s the crosswalk principle. No biblical Hebrew, no physics, no car talk. Simple language that anyone out and about on their own can understand. So why then do so many people dart out into the street whenever and wherever they feel like it? I used to turn right from Diamond onto Fulton in Grand Rapids every single day when I lived in that neighborhood. And, for some reason, almost every day, some pedestrian would decide just to pop out into the street right in front of my car. By God’s grace, I never hit anyone, but I had some close calls. And you know what irked me the most? When I had to swerve and hit the brakes because someone chose not to live by that incredibly complex “crosswalk” principle, they would yell at me and shake their fist and call me a maniac. Grrrrr. I always wound up in a bad mood by the time I got to work.

I hadn’t really thought much about that phenomenon lately until one morning last week. When I came up over the little hill on Michigan Ave. in front of Sparrow Hospital, there were two people on foot right in the middle of my lane, slowly making their way across. I hit my brakes. I swerved. I avoided ending their lives (thank God). And do you know what they did? That’s right; they yelled at me. These people who were about twenty feet from a crosswalk that would allow them to cross in turn and almost directly beneath a skywalk that would allow them to pass harmlessly over the morning commute traffic. But no, they decided to shuffle out into the middle of the road. And somehow, it was my fault.

The pastor in me prevented the normal motorist reaction, but I threw up my hands and shot them the “What the heck is wrong with you nutcases???” look. (You know the look.) Who did they think they were? Did they own the road? Had vehicle/pedestrian protocol been reversed? Did I miss a meeting?! By the time I turned onto Cedar, I was mad. I wanted to go back and find those people and thank them for ruining my morning.

Into that situation rode a man on a motorcycle. I was apparently not going fast enough for him, as he kept coming right up behind me, then pulling up next to me, then back behind me again. Heavy traffic wouldn’t allow him to pass, but it seemed to me like he really wanted me to know how much he disapproved of my very existence. I’d had it. Taking my foot off the accelerator, I showed him how much more annoying it would be if I was going 28 mph…25…22. Mr. Motorcycle pulled up next to me, gestured, and shouted something. I ignored him. Just pass me already, I thought. He matched my speed and gestured again, the old “roll down your window” motion that everyone still does even though almost no one actually cranks down their car windows anymore.

I obliged him, rolling down my window, planting my face right in his, and demanded “What?”

“There’s a set of car keys on your trunk,” he shouted over the sound of the traffic. “I thought you’d like to know.”

“Oh. Um…thanks, man.” Have you ever tried to drive while you were only a few inches tall? It isn’t easy. I managed to pull into a parking lot and, sure enough, there were Erin’s keys right where I had left them the night before, hanging out from under the spoiler, threatening to fall to the street with any good bump (not that Michigan roads are bumpy or anything).

Standing in that parking lot, it occurred to me that I—an ordained minister—had moments earlier been fully prepared to have a high-volume argument between two moving vehicles three blocks from my church. How on earth could that have happened? Am I usually a jerk? I don’t think so. I hope not, anyway.

Then I realized that my attitude had been set to ANGRY by the incident on Michigan Ave. As a result, I was, by default, viewing everyone as an enemy. The delivery truck blocking the right lane with its hazards on: enemy. The nice guy on the motorcycle trying to get my attention: adversary. The couple crossing the street in the wrong spot: opponents. Could there be anything less Christlike than that attitude?

When I got to church, I found that I had an e-mail from one of our deacons. Her e-mail signature contained this quote: “Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle...” I’m not sure who said that, but it’s a great quote. What if I had left home with such a Christ-like attitude and spirit about me that I looked at each person, by default, as a beloved friend? I’d have thought about how those people crossing the street might have been jaywalking because their child was in the hospital and they were so worried that they couldn’t think straight. Maybe they were in a huge hurry because their father was in the emergency room with a broken back. Maybe they were in the midst of a nasty argument and both were preoccupied with trying to think of a way to apologize to the other. Maybe they were just kind of clueless. At
any rate, Jesus loves them. And, undoubtedly, they are fighting some kind of battle.

Convicted, I prayed that God would forgive me for my rotten attitude that morning. Thankfully, I’ve got an “in” with my Heavenly Father (my Lord Jesus) and so he immediately did forgive me. I wished I could go back and find the motorcycle guy and the couple who couldn’t figure out the crosswalk principle and apologize to them as well, but I’m sure that would have been a wild goose chase. Instead, I asked God to fulfill in me that passage in Philippians: “Let the attitude in you be the same as Christ Jesus’.” Jesus’ default setting was compassion and love and mercy. Jesus didn’t view everyone as an automatic opponent, but as someone in need of his grace—grace that he poured out on the cross.

If I am really his follower, that’s how I will view them as well—in light of what Jesus did for them on the cross. Now that’s a “cross-walk” principle! And, it too, is so simple that anyone can grasp it. But only in Christ can we actually live it.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

So...Still Got Those...Tattoos?

(From the Judson Journal, June 2008)

Oh, man—what to write about after this amazing week? I’ve got to choose carefully, as I have vowed that I will not become one of those pastors whose every sermon illustration, article, topic of conversation, etc. is drawn from the cute / impressive / heartwarming exploits of his adorable little kid. I mean, really, I’ve heard that kind of preaching and I can’t imagine a bigger bore. Whatever precocious phrase popped out of his mouth, however she misheard that Bible verse, whatever the contents of that diaper—it’s not going to make anyone a better disciple. It’s just going to be so sickly sweet, it makes us all ill. Besides, no one ever asked Calvin if he wanted his life broadcast from a pulpit.

I have no problem, however, sharing my own Calvin-related experiences. After all, he’s a huge part of my life now. Which brings me back to the question at hand: on which of the million things bouncing around in my pen shall I actually expound? I could gush about the feeling of holding my baby for the first time and how it’s a glimpse of how God sees us, but nah. . .too clichéd. Plus, I don’t want to trivialize that amazing experience by turning it into some pithy truth statement or moral application. I could use this space to try and tactfully remind people that we don’t want 1,100 germ-filled fingers poking and grasping at our vulnerable little infant each Sunday... at least not until his immune system has had a few weeks to get going (i.e. look with your eyes, not your hands.) But there’s no need for that—Judson people are sharp enough to figure that one out. Or there’s always the conversation we had with Dave and Valerie, in which we theorized that the horrid stuff coming out the bottom of the sweet little baby may be an overflow of original sin. Er... let’s not go there.

I guess I’ll go the route of observing how everyone else reacts to a new baby, or even the prospect of same. It’s one of those events that make everyone feel as if they have to say something about it. Every time they see the couple in question, they’re somehow obligated to comment on the obvious. Friends, family, strangers—everyone. It’s kind of like with newlyweds. For some reason, everyone feels the need to ask, “How’s married life treating you?” for a few weeks after the wedding. Someone asked me that in 2002 and I was like, “It’s been a couple years.” And he said, “Yeah, but you guys aren’t expecting a kid yet, so what else am I supposed to talk about?” It’s the same thing when you have a sunburn and everyone feels the need to say, “Got a little sun, eh?” You want to respond, No, I’ve set about dying my skin a deep fuchsia. You like it? Just two more treatments to go!

And then there are the pregnant woman comments. “Still haven’t had the baby yet, huh?” If it were me, I’d have a hard time not responding, “Oh, no, I had him. He’s just hidden away somewhere and I swallowed a watermelon.” There’s also the obvious advice and predictions. “You’re going to be up late feeding him.”“He’s going to cry in the wee hours of the morning and you won’t get much sleep.”“There are a lot of diapers in your future!” Really?? Babies cry? They eat? They poop? If only one of the initiated had warned me about that beforehand, we could have avoided the whole thing!

Okay, let me turn down the sarcasm a little. I realize that people are just excited and so they feel the need to say something, anything. But what I like is when the old guys just look me in the eye with a sparkle and say, “It’s a lot of work, but it’s awesome. You’ll love being a dad” or when someone says, “When you need someone to watch him so you guys can go out, give me a call.”

But why do we always feel the need to say the same old things ad nauseum? I catch myself doing it too. Someone is selling his house, so every time I see him, I ask, “Anyone interested in the house yet?” Part of it is that I really do care and want to know and part is that I’m not sure what else to say. There’s a guy at Erin’s office (where she goes every single week), who always asks, “You’re in Lansing now, right?” Yes, Lansing. “How’s it going there?” Still good. “How many people in the congregation again?”

So why is it that we’re so willing to re-hash the same tired conversation fragments again and again, but so loathe to bring up spiritual matters? I guess it’s good that we don’t usually hound our unbelieving friends (“So, when are you going to go to church with me? When are you going to get right with God? Huh? Huh?”), although I have had occasional success with such a tack. But where is that irresistible compulsion from deep within to ask our fellow believers, “How are things with your soul?” or “What are you struggling with this week?” or “What can I pray for?” instead of just asking, “Arm still broken, eh? When’s the cast come off again?” for the five hundredth time?

And those people who are outside of the Church and unaware of what Christ has done for them—why don’t we find ourselves automatically telling them, “I pray for you regularly” or, “Jesus loves you,” or asking them, “Have you ever considered the claims of Jesus Christ?” or even, “Do you have any spiritual beliefs? What are they?” I know, I know. We don’t want to annoy them, so we ask the easier questions like, “How’s married life treating you?” News flash: you’re annoying them anyway.

In the Bible, any time the Holy Spirit “comes upon” someone, the result is that person saying something. It’s true—check it out. When we don’t know what to say, we can either open our mouths and release whatever overused small talk and niceties are currently in the chamber, or we can ask the Holy Spirit who indwells us for guidance to say something that may have eternal value. Or we can emit an eardrum-piercing screech that takes the paint of the walls. That’s what Calvin often chooses to do.

They really do cry, don’t they?

Soil Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Making Converts or Making Disciples?

(From the Judson Journal, May 2008)

I’m very easily annoyed by repetitive noises. If I’m in a class or a seminar and someone behind me is clicking an ink pen, I find myself sending the old “stink-eye” in his or her direction to try and communicate what would be much easier said: “Please stop that; it’s making me want to crush your larynx.” Or if I’m in a bookstore or a coffee shop and someone is using one of those walky-talky cell phones—you know, the ones with the really annoying chirp before and after each transmission, the ones that allow all bystanders to hear both sides of the conversation… well, I have to consciously stop myself from becoming furious. I often try to calm down by asking the old standby question, “What would Jesus do?” And even then, there’s usually a protracted debate in my mind with the flesh arguing that Jesus would wrench the phone from the tactless hands of Joe Citizen and dash it to a thousand pieces on the floor. Ultimately, though, the Spirit wins out and I acknowledge that Jesus wouldn’t let it bother him because it’s really the polar opposite of a big deal.

So the pen keeps clicking, the phone keeps chirping, and I just deal with it. Yeah, I know; I’m incredibly spiritual. What do you expect? I’m a pastor!

Anyway, with that background, you can probably guess just how insanely annoyed I was upon my return to the church earlier this week after a week long pastor's conference, as I was trying to catch up on some paperwork, when I continually heard a “tap-tap-tap” coming from somewhere outside my office. The nursery? The kitchenette? I couldn’t tell exactly where. Every time I would set out to find the source of the offending racket, it would stop. Then, as soon as I returned to my office and sat down, it started up again. After half an hour of this, I decided that it was coming from outside. It sounded like someone was lightly tapping on the door to the church. I even ran down there and threw the door open as quick as I could, thinking it might be a youth grouper skipping school to try and drive his pastor crazy. But no dice. But No one was there.

I was starting to wonder, was it Jesus himself? Revelation 3:20 (the verse about Jesus “standing at the door, knocking”) is often taught as if Jesus is standing at the door of a sinner’s heart…but, of course, the actual context is Jesus standing at the door of a church, knocking and knocking, but unable to enter because no one is letting him in. I’m usually not one to jump to such conclusions, but my mind was full of the indictments of a half-dozen church growth and church health “experts” I’d recently heard, each of whom was all too ready to label the majority of our churches as lukewarm social clubs, concerned only with themselves and not with those on the outside—thus in imminent danger of having their lampstand removed from Christ’s presence. Maybe Our Lord was trying to reinforce that idea on my heart?

But then, mid-morning, I finally found the culprit: a bird. A robin red-breast sitting on the windowsill above the original Vernon Ave. entrance, whacking his little beak against the glass again and again. I felt really bad for this confused little animal, but I also really wanted him to stop, as it was driving me nuts. I chased him away several times, but the little guy kept coming back and pecking away at that window. Whack-whack-whack. When I mentioned it to Noel, she told me that he’d been there for several days, off and on, pecking at that same spot, almost like he was trying to get in! Was this a Baptist bird? Was he feeling convicted?

Erin—who knows everything about birds (and pretty much all animals…and plants)—finally introduced a little reason to my morning. The robin was a male, she explained. His mate and offspring were undoubtedly in the area and he was being territorial, defending his turf against the other male robin he saw in the window (not realizing that it was his own reflection). Knowing the problem, I implemented a quick and dirty solution, using masking tape to attach a bunch of paper to the window, thus removing the reflection and the alleged competing bird.

Problem solved.

But it was too late for me to just forget about all this—my mind had already entered the dangerous Baptist Pastor Parable Mode from which sermon illustrations are born. I had already begun thinking about that bird as one peering into the church, knocking and knocking to get in. And now that I had, in my annoyance, covered up the windows to shut him up and keep him out, I found myself thinking once again about what the “experts” call a fortress mentality. That’s when a church exists only to serve its own needs and maintain its own existence, rather than existing to serve Christ. It becomes a social club, rather than an outpost of the Kingdom. That seems to be the case with the church of Laodicea (outside of which Jesus is continually waiting and knocking in Revelation 3:20.) It’s also the mindset of many churches today.

Most of the self-styled church health and church growth experts I’ve heard recently have offered the same solutions to this problem. I know you’ve heard them too. Step one seems to be for the church to start looking and acting just like the world. This will bring people in, they tell us. So out go the ancient hymns of the faith, the pulpit, Sunday school, the choir, Bible study, and pretty much anything else that exists for the benefit of the church members. In their place should be less intimidating elements for outsiders. Fun activities. Light and sensitive teaching. Some kind of pop/rock ensemble. At the core of all of this is a fundamental principle that I’ve heard oft-repeated over the past few years: The church doesn’t exist for the people in the church; it exists only and exclusively for those outside of the church.

One particularly good communicator quipped that the reason we install stained glass is so we won’t have to see those people who are outside. Then we won’t have to worry about reaching them and letting them into our elite club. Is there some truth to that observation? You betcha! Churches are far too eager to focus only on ourselves and our own needs, spending 95%+ of our budgets on “us.” We tend to get very comfortable in our little Christian bubbles.

But is there any biblical mandate for swinging to the other extreme and declaring that church exists only for the unregenerate? After several years of searching and reading and pleading for someone to produce one Scripture in support of this idea, I’ve found that pretty much everyone just points to the Great Commission—that command of Jesus to make disciples. If we’re making disciples, the thinking goes, we’re focused entirely on those people who need to be converted and made into disciples, not on ourselves.

But here’s where I have to respectfully disagree with the “experts” and their fads (and thankfully, I’m not all on my own, but in the company of a whole other group of experts, dating from the early church on down to the present day). In their rush to correct the fortress mentality and fill their churches with new people, they’ve missed an important truth: There’s much more to making disciples than just making converts. In fact, the Great Commission spells it out for us: “So wherever you go, make disciples of all nations: Baptize them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to do everything I have commanded you.” (God’s Word translation).

If that’s really our goal, then we can’t just forget about people once they’ve moved from outside the church to inside. That means we can’t do away with everything inside the church that might put off outsiders with no regard to what effect this might have on the disciples-already-in-progress. In fact, when someone is converted, the job has just barely begun. What remains is to baptize them and teach them to obey every single thing that Jesus commanded.

In his epistles, St. Paul gives us the specifics, explaining that this process involves training and equipping believers to do ministry. The Great Commission was such a ground-breaking command because it turned everything upside-down. In the Old Covenant, Israel was to be a light to the nations. Light was to pour out from the temple in Jerusalem and, magnified by the good conduct of the people of Israel, reach every corner of the world, drawing people (at least spiritually) in to Jerusalem (the source of the light.) In the New Covenant, the light source itself—the Holy Spirit—fell upon a room full of people in Jerusalem and then, by Christ’s Great Commission, went out from Jerusalem to all the world. Aided by the massive flight from Jerusalem (beginning with the stoning of Stephen), there was soon an outpost of the Kingdom in every little burg and village.

God’s Kingdom doesn’t sit and wait for you to come to it; in the New Covenant, the Kingdom itself goes forth in the people of God, while they go about their lives (notice that the best translation is “While going, make disciples.” The go part isn’t a command; it’s assumed. You’re going to go somewhere).

How we get from “while going, make disciples” to “replace your choir with a light rock band and your Bible study with a movie night” is beyond me. I think it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what the church is and what it means to make disciples. The church is the body of Christ (those who are saved by grace). The church exists for the edification and equipping of the saints. That’s the job of the church. The job of the saints is, thus edified and
equipped, to bring that Kingdom and that Gospel with them everywhere they go. Whenever this is happening, the church will grow.

Just look at the description of the early church in Acts 2:
“Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” (NIV)
As they were faithful in meeting together to fellowship and share the Lord’s Supper, they were also bringing people into the church daily. The early church could have been a lot more “seeker-sensitive” had they done away with the controversial practice of “eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood.” The world at large found it creepy and used it to accuse Christians of cannibalism. But instead of replacing it with a more worldly, “seeker-friendly” substitute, the church actually asked the non-Christians to leave before they celebrated the Lord’s Supper. That was the standard practice for the first few hundred years of the church. Were some people turned off by it? Sure. Could they have gotten a bigger crowd by finding a “light rock” version of Word and sacrament? Sure. But their primary focus wasn’t hitting attendance goals; it was making disciples.

In this space last month, I wrote about my struggle to come up with just the right thing to say on our promotional DVD. What I wound up saying was this:
“There are a lot of churches being planted these days for people who don’t like church. Many of these are great ministries that will reach people who would probably never darken the doors of a traditional church—they can get fellowship and worship and discussion in a way that doesn’t seem like church. But, what about people who are looking for a church? If you’re new to the Lansing area or if you’ve fallen away from the church over the years and are feeling called back, or even if you’ve never
belonged to a church and just want to check out what we’re all about, I want to invite you to Judson Baptist Church. Now, here at Judson, it does seem like church. It is church. We recognize that, when you enter a church, you are in a sense entering another Kingdom: God’s Kingdom, where God’s Word is proclaimed, God’s values are lived out, and the language of love and grace is spoken. We think there should be a difference between a concert or a seminar and church. Yet, at the same time, we strive to make sure that everyone who visits Judson knows that they’re welcome and loved here, even as they’re challenged. And yes, there is tension there. But we say that’s good; if you’re not squirming, your God’s too small.”
There is some tension there, isn’t there? Bring them in without selling out. Make disciples, not just converts (even if they’re assimilated converts). But I thank God that my job isn’t to be a CEO in God’s business or a coach on God’s team. Rather, I’m called to preach the Word in season and out of season, to catechize and teach sound doctrine, to confute unbelief and defend the Gospel—in short, to make disciples. That’s the work of the Church according to the Holy Scriptures. We are doing that work and, by God’s grace, we will continue to do it more and more effectively.

So the question is: are you doing your job? Are you bringing the Gospel with you everywhere you go? Are you an extension of God’s Kingdom, giving everyone with whom you interact a little taste of what it’s like to be born again? Are you being used by God to add to our number daily? When is the last time you shared your faith? When is the last time you invited someone to our church (and actually picked them up) so they could experience a little of life in the Kingdom of God?

Let me assure you that I’m not so cocky as to think I can’t learn from the experts. If we’re letting our stained glass hide the lost world from our sight…if we’re taking a role of masking tape and a bunch of paper to the windows of God’s Kingdom so we don’t have to hear the annoying “tap-tap-tap” or (heaven forbid) let anyone else into our club…if there’s any chance that Jesus is at any time outside of our church, knocking to get in…well, let’s repent of that right now. We’re not called to mimic the world, but we are called to invite the world to the foot of the cross. As our church continues to get more and more serious about our job of edifying and equipping the saints, be in prayer about how you can get more serious about your job of bringing the Gospel to your corner of the world that, through you, he might add to his church daily.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Nothing But a Chemical In My Head...

(From the Judson Journal, March 2008)

Despite being seven months pregnant, Erin is acting just like herself—as sweet and kind as ever. I almost feel like I have to qualify that with an apology to my friends who warned me just how horribly mean and crazy pregnant women are. To their credit, most of these men seem to be understanding about such things. Men know it’s not the women’s fault—it’s the hormones and all those chemical changes in their brains. They just can’t help but act irrational (read: psychotic.)

You hear that sort of thing about women from time-to-time, pregnant or not: don’t question why they’re acting that way—it’s the hormones and chemicals in their brains. There’s no way a man could possibly understand it all, so just roll with it.

I’m sure there’s plenty of truth to that (most of the time) and if the ninth month of pregnancy turns out to be the crazy month, you better believe I’ll be ready to roll with it. Turn the heat up, down, whatever. Yes, I’ll go the store and get you some black cherry ice cream and miracle whip, no problem. Even though it’s 2 AM. No, you don’t look fat. No, not even with that baby inside of you. Not at all.

But this thing should go both ways. I’ve never heard anyone defend a man’s midlife crisis because of all the “chemicals and hormonal changes” the poor guy’s dealing with. I’ve never heard anyone harshly and in hushed tones say, “Leave him alone! So he bought a $40,000 sports car. You don’t know what he’s going through! There are chemicals in his brain you can’t possibly understand!” And likewise, when I was 18, 19, 20 years old, I don’t recall anyone cutting me a break on account of the changing chemicals in my noodle.

I’m sure you’ve read the same articles I have about this stuff and I can testify (as can any man) that the shift from teenager to adulthood is a wacky time in a man’s brain. Why do you think the armed forces want to attract men in that age group? Yeah, they’re in the best physical shape of their lives, but more than that, they feel invincible, they get really mad really easy, and they’re game for anything. You can’t tell me that has nothing to do with the chemistry of their brains.

For example, ten years ago, if someone cut me off in traffic, I’d risk life and limb to get back in front of that person and show him how very displeased I was with his driving abilities (ask Erin—she can vouch for that). Just a decade later, cut me off and I’ll mumble something about how you’re a “bozo” and shouldn’t be on the road. But waste a bunch of gas, risk an accident,and chance that the other guy has a gun and a screw loose? Nah. Not worth the trouble.

Part of that is just regular old maturing and growing up. But there’s more to it. I don’t even have the same impulse anymore. And ten years ago, if an appliance or an office machine failed me or made me really mad, you know what I’d do? My roommate and I would bring it out to a game area and shoot it. Yeah, with guns. Computers, CD players, mini-fridges, answering machines, you name it. They failed us, we shot them. Does that make any sense when I think about it now? No. But back then, it made perfect sense. I mean, you have to make an example out of these things or your electronics will start walking all over you. And don’t any of you women judge me either—I had chemicals going through my brain that you could never understand!

These days, what do I do if an appliance goes out on me? If it’s a computer, I’ll still whack it a couple times for old time’s sake, but for the most part, I just mumble something about how it was probably made by some “bozo” and I throw it away. (This is a good thing, since Paul prohibits men given to “fits of rage” from serving as pastors). In fact, I haven’t even fired a gun in years… until last Friday, that is.

Friday, I went with a buddy of mine to a pistol range in Mason for some target practice. We didn’t bring any broken coffee makers or stereos; we just settled for the traditional targets. Having not fired a gun for the better part of a decade, I was not expecting to be a crack shot and suggested that my buddy (a certain recently married, bearded, collegiate Baptist) go first. He sent the target out to the back of the lane and fired a few shots. They were all off by about the same amount, down and to the right. Examining the target, we both came to the same conclusion: the sites were off. In order to be able to shoot straight and hit the bullseye, he’d need to adjust the gun.

The guy running the place had a different idea. “It’s not your gun,” he said, and proceeded to give us some pointers on target shooting. We needed to take it slower, relax a little bit. Less finger on the trigger. With the right stance, the right grip, and the right technique, we were shooting pretty well before long.

Being a Bible geek, any time I see target shooting of any kind—whether it’s archery, darts, muzzleloaders, whatever—I can’t help but think about the word hamartia. It’s the Greek word for “sin,” but very literally it means “to miss the mark.” That’s quite a word picture. If I give in to temptation and sin, then ethically I “miss the mark.” And when we miss the mark, what is our usual response? Well, there must be something wrong with the gun, right? The site is off. I can’t expect to hit the bullseye with what I’ve got—I’m lucky to hit the target at all.

The Scriptures tell us that we were all born with original sin, a will that is bent away from God’s will. And we can see the results of that in every sinful choice we’ve made throughout our lives. Surely, the gun was broken. But for those of us who are in Christ, we’ve been made new. Our will is being realigned with that of our Creator’s. We are free to continually hit the mark. To blame our sins—our missing of the target—on faulty hardware is to minimize the effects of the cross. While we are not yet perfected, and while we are still tempted by the world, the flesh, and the devil, we can’t pin our shortcomings on any of them. If the devil made you do it, you blew it. In Christ, you could have hit the bullseye.

I’m 99% sure that the grizzled gun enthusiast at the pistol range has never been compared to Jesus before, but I can hear the Lord saying to me, “It’s not the gun” when I miss the mark. By his death and resurrection (and by my death and resurrection with him), he’s given me the ability to shoot straight and hit the mark. And while there may have been angry chemicals coursing through my 19-year-old brain, that doesn’t change the fact that driving like a man obsessed with revenge was sinful. I couldn’t lay the blame on the devil any more than I could on the flesh. It’s not the gun.

Am I implying that pregnant women have no right to act a little edgy? Of course not. Nor am I suggesting that people with a true chemical imbalance in their minds don’t need psychiatric help to get things back in order so their minds are healthy. In a fallen world, there are a lot of things to take into consideration. But even in a fallen world, I know that Jesus is actively renewing me and you and making us into the kind of people who can hit the mark every time.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach


(From the Judson Journal, December, 2007)

Look at the picture to the left. No, I mean give it a good, long look. Not pretty, is it? I know what you’re thinking: “Who is that… person? And what gender is that person? And why am I so incredibly uncomfortable looking at that person? There’s something oddly familiar, yet still creepy about it.” Yeah, you’re thinking all that.

Keep looking! Gaze into those unholy eyes! Okay, you can look away now. You were very brave. And as a reward, here’s the story behind…whatever that is.

My wife Erin and I started dating in 1995 when I was a senior in high school. We were always the annoyingly cute couple joined at the hip and continually making goo-goo eyes at each other. All of our friends wanted to throw up when ever we were around. Even back then, I totally knew I was going to marry her sometime around the turn of the millennium, which I totally did. I’m awesome.

Anyway, against that backdrop intersected two seemingly unrelated events: my senior prom and the advent of digital “morphing” software. Right about the time that they issued our prom pictures, my family acquired one of those new-fangled computer photo scanners, which came with a program that would take one picture and gradually turn it into another. These programs were in hot demand ever since Michael Jackson used the effect liberally in his Black or White music video.

I’m sure you can see where this is going. Foolish 18-year-old Zach thought he could use said software to determine what his future children would look like (assuming Erin and I had a child that contained no recessive genes and was completely androgynous). So I scanned our prom picture in, matched up her eyes to mine, her hair to mine, her smile to mine. The computer took over and created a three-second animated clip of Erin’s face slowly changing into mine. Then I paused the animation exactly halfway through to check out the hybrid.

I was initially horrified by the pseudo-mulleted result, but quickly realized that it was nothing to worry about—it was just a stupid computer program. In fact, I had quite a lot of fun showing off the half-Zach/half-Erin creature to my friends and family.

But that picture has again been haunting my dreams of late, and I’ll bet you can imagine why. What if the child that Erin is carrying really looks like that? I mean, sure, it doesn’t really matter what people look like on the outside, but I’m pretty confident that I can tell you at least three things about the person in the picture just by having studied the composite at some length and having made some clever Sherlock Holmes-style deductions. For example, I’m quite certain that you’re looking at someone so insanely obsessed with cats, figure skating, medieval warfare, and the Internet, that he/she almost never comes out of the house. I’m also guessing that, despite a genius-level IQ, Erach (as I’ve taken to calling him/her) keeps watching the Teletubbies religiously, well past driving age. And let’s face it; whether that’s a boy or a girl, it’s just straight-up ugly.

But Christmas gives me hope. And here’s why: as the BC/AD changeover was approaching, the people of God’s covenant in the Old Testament thought they knew exactly what their Messiah would be like when he arrived. And they didn’t just have some computer-generated photo to guide them. They had hundreds of prophecies, which had been studied and taught and pondered for thousands of years. They were ready for a conquering messiah. A zealous, charismatic, militaristic man who would undoubtedly be born in a palace, raised in Jerusalem, sit under the teaching of the world’s most famous rabbis, marry a beautiful woman, and start driving the Roman armies right out of the Holy Land.

That’s why most of them didn’t even recognize Jesus the Messiah when he showed up. Many of the people who should have been most excited for his arrival were downright angry with how greatly he differed from their expectations. Ultimately, his message of “love your enemies,” along with his passion for mercy and hatred of hypocrisy, led those very people whom he’d come to save to nail him to a cross and kill him.

Now what cracks me up is how we Christians are so sure that we know exactly how it will look when he comes again. We’re studying the Book of Revelation in our Wednesday night Bible study and, as we go through it, we’re looking at five different modes of interpretation. The only thing more striking than how completely different those five interpretations are is how incredibly sure most commentators and theologians are that they are absolutely correct down to the minutest detail. My philosophy has always been that they were wrong about most of it the first time he came, so we’re all probably wrong about something concerning his Second Coming.

Anyway, my point is only this: Christmas is a reminder that we can’t predict how God is going to work. Not even when he’s told us in advance. If he were confined to working within our categories of thinking, we’d still be dead in our sins. But God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, his ways are higher than our ways, and his plans are higher than our plans (Isaiah 55:9).

What looks hopeless and frightening to us is no sweat to him. Jesus said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God” and “With God, all things are possible!” Both of those statements were answers to the question, “Who then can be saved?” Whatever’s got you worried this Christmas, I pray that you can put it aside and remember that, while we may think we know what’s around the corner (we may even have a computer-generated picture of the dreaded thing), only God truly knows what he has in store for us.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Abe Lincoln and Charles Cheese

(From the Judson Journal, November 2007)

I love Thanksgiving! I love holidays. I love getting together with family and celebrating something worthy of being celebrated. And I love traditions.

My family has several Thanksgiving traditions. There’s this one that I just love where we get together and eat turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes. And pumpkin pie. Oh, it’s awesome. We then usually just lay around sluggishly for a few hours, stuffed with turkey, until it’s time to have some form of turkey leftovers for dinner. For a few years, the men of the family also had a tradition of going out to shoot off model rockets until our hands reeked of sulfur. Then we’d dress up as clowns and go scare little kids outside of Chuck E. Cheese.

Actually, we’ve never actually done the last one. My dad always just shakes his head, gives me this disappointed look, and says the idea is “sick.” I say don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. Maybe one of these years I’ll just go solo. Make it my own little tradition. After all, I do have a few of my own Thanksgiving traditions:

First off, I drink Jolt Cola to fight the turkey coma. There’s nothing worse than being tired. I also have a tradition of taking a roll, some mashed potatoes, some turkey, and some gravy, and making a sandwich out of Thanksgiving dinner. And one of my favorite personal traditions is not watching any televised sports whatsoever on Thanksgiving. It’s such a warm, cozy feeling to get together with family and avoid sports.

But I also have a meaningful tradition for Turkey Day. Every year, on the morning of Thanksgiving, I get out my Palm Pilot and read Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, establishing Thanksgiving as a holiday:

By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

A president who’s also a good theologian. Awesome. Maybe you’ll all keep a copy of that proclamation and make it your tradition as well. Abe’s right: we are prone to forget the source from which our blessings come. This Thanksgiving, I hope we all have a chance to acknowledge our God as the giver of all good gifts.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Zoo Day

(From the Judson Journal, August 2007)

My wife was just here for the last Kids’ Club meeting (I think we’ve successfully done away with the misspelled “Klub,” haven’t we?). Being a docent at the zoo, she had been asked to bring in some animals and use them to teach the kids about how amazing our God is. She brought a tenrec, a ferret, a tarantula, a dove, a snake—all sorts of cool stuff. We’ve got a few ties to Potter Park Zoo here at Judson: Cindy Douglas is a docent there, so is Erin, and so are David and Valerie Marvin (although I think Valerie was half-digested by a python or something last year and it kind of turned her off to the whole thing). I’m hoping to use all these ins at some point to secure a Siberian tiger that will pace back and forth behind me while I preach.

To me, church and zoo seems like a very natural combination. Interest in nature and science goes hand-in-hand with interest in the God who created all of the amazing things we see around us—at least it has for most of human history. John Calvin wrote that, "A knowledge of all the sciences is mere smoke where the heavenly science is lacking; man with all his shrewdness is as stupid about understanding by himself the mysteries of God, as an ass is incapable of understanding musical harmony." Ah, Calvin...

We’ve had different people bring animals in to Judson for teaching opportunities several times since I’ve been here, and I’m always happy to see that they’re not just used as props. While it may be mentioned that the dove is the kind of bird released from the ark and the form the Holy Spirit took at the Jordan River, the main point is to learn about these amazing creatures and marvel at the incredible beauty, grace, and engineering that only our Lord could effect.

Just look at the amazing defenses of a walking stick, a skunk, or a bombardier beetle. And no one’s ever brought a giraffe into Judson (at least not that I’m aware of), but they’re a prime example of God’s amazing creativity. A giraffe’s heart has to beat incredibly hard to fight gravity and push the blood all the way up its long neck to its brain. Their hearts are huge and powerful. Yet, think about this: when a giraffe bends down to get a drink, its brain is now below its heart and the blood is flowing with gravity, not against it.

That’s why there aren’t any more giraffes left: all their heads exploded the first time they tried to get a drink. Or at least they would have had our amazing God not included in the giraffe’s design a special valve that cuts off the blood supply to the brain when the giraffe bends down (but only after filling up a spongy membrane with a backup supply of blood.) The giraffe takes a drink, then stands back up, squirts the blood out of the spongy membrane into its brain, and opens the valve up again. This even allows it to make a fast getaway without getting light-headed should a predator come around the drinking hole. Incredible. This is equipment you’ve either got or you don’t. Half a valve does no good, so we don’t see this slowly coming about in stages over millions of years—it’s God’s own awesome design!

Erin also taught the kids a fun rhyme to easily distinguish predators from those who are usually prey: “eyes in front, likes to hunt; eyes on the sides, has to hide.” Each animal is designed to eat certain things, to behave in certain ways, and to live in certain habitats. He’s given them amazing abilities of adaptation, but I’ve never seen a horse decide to hop around like a frog, a moose burrow underground and build a den, or (President Carter’s horrific tale notwithstanding) a rabbit that gets a taste for blood and starts hunting instead of hiding. Watch all the nature shows you want, you’ll never see a gazelle take down a lion. They all seem to know what they’re made for.

All but one, that is. We humans are the exception that proves the rule. Not only were we designed with a specific purpose, we were also given something that no other creature has: we’re made in the image of God. What is the purpose for which we’re designed? The Westminster Shorter Catechism offers the answer, “to love God and enjoy him forever.” That’s why he made us—so we could have a relationship with him. And because we bear his image, we’re able to connect with him the way no other creature can.

This is why you never see animals doing philosophy. Parrots only say, “What is the meaning of life?” if we teach them to. I tried to read Sartre to my dog one time, but she just growled at me. Unfortunately, because of the Fall—because we’ve bent our own wills away from the will of God—we continually try to sub in other meanings for life. Pleasure. Fame. Some vague ideal without any intent to bring glory to God. We still bear our Creator’s image, but it’s tarnished. It’s fractured. And rather than give it all back to him to restore through the blood of Jesus, we humans will just embrace that fracture 100% of the time, apart from God’s grace.

Even when God has restored his image in us by his grace through our faith and begun the process of perfecting us, we still maintain some of that tendency to go against the original design, to make up a new purpose for our lives—one centered on me, and not on him. That temptation is a reality, but we don’t have to accept it.

In the coming week, try this for me: when you’re tempted to live in a way that runs counter to God’s will for your life and his purpose for you (to have a relationship with him), just remember how ludicrous that is. Envision the leap-frogging horse, the blood-thirsty rabbit (with nasty, sharp, pointy teeth), and the burrowing moose. That’s how silly it is to go against God’s design. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll have forgotten the temptation by that point, and you’ll be busy giving these guys names, quirky characteristics, and creating misadventures for them. (Hey, don’t judge me—being creative is part of bearing God’s image.)

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach