Friday, October 29, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Let’s “Rock”

Note: I have once again left off illustrating the blog for a while, as all my artistic vigor is being channeled into another project with the one and only Ted Kluck.

It was looking to be one of my busiest weeks in at least three months—one of those perfect storm things where an already-tight schedule is complicated by the seemingly un-providential/coincidental convergence of multiple meetings, projects, and appointments (both personal and professional), leaving you to wonder how/if you can possibly deal with everything on your plate.

In the midst of this, a friend of mine from overseas, whom I haven’t seen in over a year and who is currently stateside for a very short time, called to see if we might get together this week. “I’d love to,” I told him, “but it’s not possible. If we can’t work it out for early next week, then I’ll have to catch you next time.” There was just no space in the schedule.

I was already falling a good deal behind by mid-morning on Tuesday when my son’s day care called. He had a fever and was acting lethargic and clingy and they wondered if I wanted to come get him. Erin was in Grand Rapids for work and so, suddenly, my schedule cleared itself. I sped over and picked him up, scored some chocolate milk and cookies on the way home (mostly for Calvin), and settled in on the couch with him, where he alternately played with toy trains and soaked up TLC for the balance of the day.

Just after lunch, in a doomed-from-the-word-go attempt to salvage the work day, I lugged my PC (I don’t have a laptop) and 2-ton monitor down to the basement and fired it up while Calvin indulged in a couple episodes of Bob the Builder (spoiler alert: yes, we can fix it). But before I had so much as answered an e-mail or parsed a Hebrew verb, my little son was climbing up onto my lap, where he summarily fell asleep against my shoulder, snoring and drooling as I gently rocked him.

It was the best Tuesday I’ve had in a long time.

As I sat there, afraid to make any large movements lest I wake my sick child, I pondered how tricky priorities are. I’d just preached a message on the topic two days earlier, but right here on my lap was a living reminder of how we truly do have control over our own priorities and the way they play out in our lives (even though we might tell ourselves otherwise).

For instance, I had told my friend that I don’t have a spare hour this week, but with a single call about my son, I suddenly found more than six. We might tell a church or charity that we don’t have another dollar to spare, but if the car breaks down, we’re suddenly able to scare up a few hundred, simply by a forced shift in priorities. We might tell a co-worker that we lack the emotional energy needed to care for a pet at this point in our life (so please stop trying to give me one of your kittens), but if a spouse, child, or parent falls ill, emotional energy will suddenly be in record supply, at least for a time. The issue with the kitten is that it’s just not a priority.

The variables here seem to be willingness and intentionality. When I’m protecting my life’s status quo from a new element that is vying for a chunk of my time, money, or energy, I tell myself how impossible it would be to displace something else (anything else!) from its current rank in my life in order to accommodate these new items. Nine times out of ten, I don’t go to the trouble of evaluating each and every time-, energy-, and money-zapper in my life to see how each compares to the new prospect. And yet, when something significant happens, it becomes very easy to overturn old priorities. Compared with a basement filling with water or the chance to finally meet Eric Estrada, my formerly top priorities find themselves downgraded. And the only thing that has changed in such situations is my willingness to make the comparison and act on it.

I think this (our lack of willingness and intentionality) is why Christians often fall drastically short of our own expectations in the areas of prayer, Bible study, evangelism, tithing, and the like. We wish that we “had the time” or “had the money” to follow through in these things, but alas, our resources are all tied up. We don’t analyze what’s got them tied up and then compare the importance of these things with different elements of discipleship. Rather than being governed by our values, we usually just follow the inertia of the status quo. It might be laziness that keeps us from making needed changes or it might be workoholism. Either way, being intentional about our priorities (not just knowing what they are, or should be) is essential to being an effective disciple of Jesus Christ.

There’s a rather corny old illustration about time management (which also applies to most areas of stewardship) that I’ve come across about twenty times, and yet it always strikes a chord of truth with me:

An old professor was once addressing a group of top executives on the subject of time management. Rather than just give a lecture, he provided an object lesson by way of an experiment. Pulling out a large empty jar, he proceeded to place tennis ball-sized rocks into it until no more would fit. Turning to his audience, he asked, “Is the jar full?”

“Yes,” they replied.

Without a word, he reached under the podium and pulled out a box of pebbles, which he slowly poured into the jar. The pebbles fell into the cracks between the large rocks and, before long, almost the entire box of pebbles was in the jar, such that not one more would fit. Again he asked, “Is the jar full?”

Having caught on, the executives answered, “No!”

The professor smiled and produced a box of sand, which he very slowly poured into the jar, allowing it to fill in all the space between the large and small stones. He then surveyed the crowd and asked, “Now, what is the point of all this?”

One man in the audience raised his hand and suggested, “You’re telling us that, no matter how full our schedules may seem, we can always fit in more client meetings, more phone calls, more staff training, etc. if we fill in the cracks.”

“Wrong,” said the old professor. “The point is that, if we don’t put the big stones in first, we will never be able to fit them in later.”

We all have our “big stones” in our lives—those things that we would identify as top priorities if asked to list them out. Family, health, maybe time with friends. For the Christian, these should include time in prayer, time in the Word, service in the Kingdom, financially supporting missions and ministry. And yet, because we are not intentional about putting them in the jar first, we find that the pebbles and sand of life too often crowd them out.

Television or mindless Internet screen-sucking can steal an evening and give you nothing back in return, and yet we might tell ourselves that we don’t “have time” for personal devotions or exercise or a Bible study group or whatever the big rock is. “I’m only giving 2% to the local church and missions, but I’m stretched as far as I can go,” one might say, even while the sand of satellite TV and web-enabled smart phone payments, along with the pebbles of payemnts on two brand new cars and countless meals out are poured in first, leaving no room for the rocks that we wish marked our lives.

Although God’s resources are infinite, he’s entrusted each of us with only so much time, so much energy, so much material wealth. Stewardship means looking at that finite jar and putting in the big rocks first. I find that I’m continually working on this, re-building my schedule and priorities from the ground up. This sometimes frustrates me, but I suppose it’s better than the alternative. I pray that I’m getting closer and closer to a life that seeks first the Kingdom of Heaven and trusts God to provide the rest—a life where the big stones are placed in the jar before the sands of life fill in every little crack.

And while nobody is perfect, I’d love to reach the level of Martin Luther who used to (unironically) say, “I have so very many things to do today that I can’t afford to spend less than three hours in prayer this morning.” May the priorities of the Kingdom be the biggest rocks in our lives, and may we place them firmly and firstly on the Rock of Jesus Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria,

        Pastor Zach
Monday, October 25, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Where Are HERESY, FALSE, and BUS?

I’m working on a project that includes a spoof of a wordle word cloud.

In light of my most recent post (wherein someone suggests that Pastor Zach is all about pointing out falsehoods and heresy and “throwing people under the bus”), I decided to run my blog content from 2010 through the cogs of wordle and see what came out the other end.

Here's the result:

(Click to enlarge)

First and foremost, any little nagging doubts lurking in my mind, that maybe I’m not preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the love of God from pulpit and keyboard alike faded away.

I did notice some little problems with the distribution, however. For example, I may need to talk about sin and God’s law more. (As it is, I talk about them less than I talk about Frank Turk; but, then again, sin and Turk are related subjects, no?). I'd also like to see “cross” be significantly bigger. Although, just because I don’t use the word “cross” in a given sentence doesn’t mean I’m not talking about Christ’s sacrificial work on the cross.

All in all, I’m pretty please with the result of the wordle analysis. But two things keep me from patting myself on the back:

1. The thought of how disappointed I would likely be by a word cloud of what I’ve said in 2010.

2. Although I wish I could say I didn’t also wordle my accuser’s blog (and find a little sinful pleasure in the result), I can’t.

Here’s praying that 2011’s words will be all the more honoring to Our Lord Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

Wednesday, October 20, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels

Bombing Bridges


Carifications Born of an Internet Blow-Up

Note: The following post is more or less part 2 of this older post. In the former, I addressed why I think it is often necessary to respond strongly to false religious ideas that are being advanced in the public square. In this post, I explain how I go about deciding which claims warrant such a response. I know it’s insanely long and you probably won’t read the whole thing. That’s okay; I wrote it for me.

Also Note: I am well aware that, in many ways, arguing on the Internet is akin to entering a Twilight Saga trivia contest—even if you win, you still entered a Twilight trivia contest.

If you don’t find yourself publicly rebuked once in a while, you’re doing it wrong. At least that seems to be the conventional wisdom among we New Calvinists (and, I suppose, Christ’s words in Luke 6:26 could be offered as biblical evidence of this to some degree). The word troll was invented for those who intentionally invite the public rebukes because they like the feeling, but most people—healthy people— aren’t crazy about the prospect. You can count me among that number.

Recently, though, I was harshly admonished (first on a blog and then on facebook) by a guy who’s been my friend for much of my life. The long and short of it: I’m apparently a self-righteous jerk who “throws people under the bus” if they aren’t of the exact same theological stripe as me or don’t do things in the exact same way that I do. The idea is that I’ve got God in a box (although those words weren’t used, the equally trite phrase “my God is bigger than that” was), and I’m unnecessarily divisive to boot. The case in point was my posting a video of a Hannah Montana song being performed at a mega-church service (where it was billed as “worship”) and posing the question, “If this is worship, who is being worshiped?”

I deleted the entire exchange, which ended in private message and began with the issuing of anethamas in my direction (albeit slightly softened by replacing “cursed be...” with “shame on...”). Lots of buzzwords and clichés, but little actual content, followed, capped with, “No wonder we haven’t reached the whole world yet.” (And here I didn’t even know we were trying to proclaim the message of Hannah Montana to all nations).

I can’t be too critical here, though, as my friend’s words and tone remind me of myself about ten years ago, when I was just starting seminary. My theology was undeveloped and based more in popular trends than serious study, but I tried to make up for it with extra-strong opinions and an extra-incredulous disposition. (Of course, that being the case, I would have responded incredulously to the very suggestion).1

I answered all this by pointing out that St. Paul often responded very strongly to false teaching that was in danger of twisting or obscuring the Gospel, as did St. John, St. Peter, Jude, and pretty much all the prophets—in ways that make me look like Stewart Smalley.

After all, it was the Apostle Paul who wrote, “We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.”

But when I brought that up, my friend said,

“... quote Paul all you want, i’ll stick with Christ who encourages us to go, live, and love... ”
Of course, this “Red Letter hermeneutic” shows a lack of understanding regarding the inspiration of Scripture, but it also overlooks much of what Christ taught during his earthly ministry. Our Lord Jesus taught more about being on guard against false doctrine, false prophets, false christs, false teachers, wolves in sheeps’ clothing, and dangerous theological leaven than anyone else in Scripture. The love Jesus taught and modeled doesn’t look like path-of-least-resistance, flower child love. Sometimes it looks like this or this.

But here’s the funny thing: from the other side, I’m occasionally accused of having way too big a tent when it comes to the Church. For those who know me, the very notion that I make a habit of excluding Christians of other traditions is downright laughable. My view of the Kingdom stretches from Rome to Constantinople (the long way around) and includes everything in between. (See this post and this post, where I talk at length about this topic.)

Compared to many in the circles I travel, I am laid back to a fault when it comes to what should be exposed, anathematized, and refuted. I have again and again come out against neo-gnostic Calvinism (the notion that everyone who leans Arminian is a suspect Christian, unfit for service or ordination). I don’t dismiss Roman Catholics out-of-hand as non-Christians. I don’t indulge in screeds against the use of “worldly” music styles in worship (so long as it is actually worshiping Our Lord I don’t care what genre or instruments you employ). And I totally want to meet Billy Graham before he dies.

By holding a big-tent view of the Church, even while defending to the wall the doctrines of the orthodox faith, I’m often seen as reactionary and harsh by emergent types and seeker-driven Christians, and as compromising and overly accommodating by my more confessional/ fundamental friends.

Now, is it possible that I am the kind of jerk who gets off on confrontation and, therefore, just says whatever will get a rise out of the present company/ audience, thus cementing my identity as a “persecuted reformer?” I have considered this and rejected it for a number of reasons, most tellingly that there are many, many people (the vast majority of people) with whom I have no beef in these matters whatsoever and who have no beef with me. And this highly diverse, beefless group contains people with whom I differ greatly (here are just a few examples)—people with whom I can share a wide view of the Christian faith, but not so wide open that it lacks distinctives; people with whom I can disagree vehemently and debate passionately without the bridge being bombed (see below) and the inevitable, “Shame on you; you’re the reason we haven’t reached the whole world with the Gospel.”

Just because I often feel like either the most liberal or most conservative guy in the room at many clergy gatherings (depending on the group) doesn’t mean that it usually gets personal. It almost never does—this is one reason I love being a Baptist. We historically have been able to carry out the lively debate without dulling the edges of God’s Word, and then continue to embrace each other as brothers and sisters. Besides, I happen to know for a fact that I dread this kind of spat. Dread it. Still, one can’t stop speaking truth and exposing lies just because it is uncomfortable.

Another friend of mine (who can’t be hyperlinked because he lacks a blog) once told me that he also has no problem getting along with both liberal and conservative Christians and, in his ministry context, thinks of himself as something of a bridge between the two. “That’s awesome,” I said. He wasn’t so sure. “What’s the first thing they bomb when a war starts?” he asked.

Yeah, some people clearly view bridges as something to be burned.

But here’s the point: I don’t know many who would argue that—if someone is actively, clearly, and publicly teaching false doctrine—that no one should point out the error. To let people be led astray while doing nothing to help them see the Truth (usually in the interest of unity (read: uniformity)) is not loving in the least. I don’t care how open-minded you claim to be, within three guesses I can identify a teaching that you believe should be called out and refuted. Obviously, my friend agrees that there are certain things that should be boldly corrected, as he felt the need to try and correct me.

Therefore, the question that remains is: When has one crossed the line into error touching on essentials? In other words, when are we just quibbling over methods or details and when are we obeying the biblical call to contend earnestly for the faith once for all handed down to the saints? Everyone ultimately has to answer this question for himself; I can only tell you how I do it.

Last night, my wife and I watched the Robert Duvall movie, The Apostle, which has been my favorite film since it came out in 1997. It’s one of those Gen X phenomenon things, where it’s not just two hours of entertainment that I appreciate— no, loving this movie kind of helps define me. I almost always cry when the man at the bulldozer is converted and/or the final evangelistic sermon before the Apostle E.F. is arrested. (Oops: I meant to say, “spoiler alert”). And, in light of this whole bridge-bombing, I found myself reflecting on the film I had just watched and wondering, “Why does this story touch me, inspire me, and cause me to give glory to God?” It became kind of a test case in my mind.

Let me explain. The Apostle is a story about a Pentecostal Holiness preacher who pastors a large “tabernacle” (with a rather flashy, carnival-esque service) and travels from town to town, preaching revivals, and then (due to unforeseen circumstances) heads to a small town, where he builds up a church in the Deep South. In other words, we’re talking Finneyism par exellance, Arminianism, enthusiasm, slaying in the Spirit, the anxious bench ... basically, a lot of the very American spiritual elements that I roundly reject. This is not my tradition and I do believe that my reading of the key texts involved is the correct reading.

But I know a few local pastors in this same tradition. I pray for and with them. I worship with them from time to time. I greatly appreciate their ministries. We might have some good discussion or friendly debate, but I feel no need to warn the Christian community at large to be on guard, and I certainly don’t worry in the least about violating St. John’s admonition in 2 John 1:10 by supporting their ministries.

Why not? Going back to the test case of The Apostle film, Duvall’s character takes part in ministries that differ very much from my own, built on traditions and understandings very different from my own, but which have something vital in common with my own: absolute Christocentrism,2 continual reference in every form, action, song, and sermon to the Lord Jesus, His death for our sins, His blood which paid our debt, the concept of salvation by grace through faith alone, and a commitment to glorifying God with every aspect of life (although Sonny himself falls very short, as we all do).

Even if I would not personally want to join a church that sings “Jesus, He’s Alright” for ten minutes or encourages speaking in tongues (i.e., Duvall’s church in the film), I love to celebrate and experience diverse traditions that lift up Jesus Christ and glory in his death for the forgiveness of our sins and resurrection for our justification. I love the Eastern Orthodox church, where the notion of Christ’s body and blood, broken and spilled for me, is front and center in the eucharist (the high point of the service). Certainly, I have issues with Eastern Orthodox doctrine and even with elements of their liturgy, but Christ is proclaimed in it as Savior and Lord. Ibid concerning my friends at All Saints Episcopal in East Lansing, who are significantly more liberal than I (both theologically and socially), and yet I don’t know how Christ could possibly be more central to their life as a church. The same is true of a number of Independent Fundamentalist churches whose pastors are firebrands and likely think of me as too theologically liberal. But they love Christ and they proclaim Him clearly to the lost.

I would bring this all back to Paul’s statement, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”

Where I take issue and where I see danger is where Christ, His cross, and His blood are toned down, twisted, perverted, obscured, or obfuscated; where they are hidden behind or presented as serving “my dreams for my life,” “the vision I’m casting,” or the notion of prosperity. If one gets the impression that Christ is here for my comfort, my entertainment, my glory, or my cultural proclivities, a false soteriology is at play.

A man-centered Gospel is no Gospel. And while my friend’s heart is in the right place as he pleads with me not to “turn people off to the message,” I sincerely want nothing more than to turn people off to that message. For once someone thinks they’ve found salvation in themselves, their heart will be all the more hardened to the true Gospel, which, although it is foolishness and a scandalous thinga stumbling block—to this world and its us who are being saved, it is the power of God, for God has chosen the foolish things of this world to shame the wise.

Solus Christus,
Pastor Zach


1 There is indeed a certain sense of newly discovered freedom (and perhaps an initial smugness) that comes with realizing that your tradition is not the extent of the Christian faith, that things may not be as black-and-white as they were presented to you in high school youth group, and that there are a lot more questions and a lot fewer pat answers than you once thought. But that’s only beneficial if you come out the other side with stronger faith, having wrestled with these things and having realized that, while not everything you thought was cut-and-dried is such, the Bible is still trustworthy and you can know what you believe and why you believe it.

2 I realize that the charismatic/Pentecostal traditions do sometimes overemphasize the Third Person of the Trinity, but as with any tradition, there are different strains and I cannot deal with them all at once, nor would I like to lump them all together.
Monday, October 11, 2010 | By: Zachary Bartels


There’s a phenomenon that I bump into maybe once or twice a month, which occasionaly manifests itself in ordinary spoken conversations, but is usually found on Internet social networking sites. And since I’ve never seen anyone else identify/ isolate/ name said Internet sensation, I’ve decided to refer to it as being holified.

What does it mean to holify someone? Well, the holifier is a relative of the “story-topper” or “one-upper”—you know, the guy who always has to out-do you in conversation. If you got two speeding tickets in one week, he talks about the time he got three. You had painful surgery on your foot; she had the same surgery twice, and the second time, they left a pair of snips inside her big toe, which then became infected. If you say which ‘80s punk bands you like, he scoffs and explains how none of those are really punk, then schools you on which bands you should like. Story toppers are very versatile; they will one-up your story no matter the topic or context.

Holifiers, on the other hand, are more specialized. They also can strike at any time, regardless of the subject being discussed, but they only spew uber-spiritual stuff. This leaves the one holified with the implied message that he hasn’t been holy enough in how he has expressed himself or even in his topic of conversation.

This may all sound absurd and quite random, like nothing you’ve ever encountered before. Let me show you some concrete examples, and I’m sure you’ll recognize when you yourself have been holified!

It often starts with a quote, quip, or inside joke to which the holifier is not privy. For example,

Facebook status:Do you ever just get down on your knees and thank God that you know me and have access to my dementia? [this, of course, is a quote from George Castanza on Seinfeld]

Comment/response:I thank God that I know HIM and have access through Jesus Christ!

You’ve just been HOLIFIED!

Do you see how, even though you weren’t actually talking about gratitude or heavy spiritual matters, all the same you sort of look like the jerk now? I mean, compared to what that second guy is thankful for, your thing just looks downright irreverent, am I right?

Some more examples:

Facebook status:I hate it when people cut you off in traffic because they’re texting, applying makeup, and eating at the same time.

Comment/response:Hate? How is that Christ-like? They only text while driving because they are in dire need of sound doctrine and religious conversion. You should be on your knees praying for these people, not on facebook complaining about them!

Facebook status:Check out this video; Mark Driscoll is awesome.

Comment/response:No man is awesome; that belongs to GOD ALONE. Soli Deo Gloria!!!

Facebook status:I hate so much...of the things you choose to be.” [this, of course, is perhaps the funniest sitcom line ever, penned by Steve Carrel for The Office Season 2 finale]

Comment/response:Maybe I'm just stupid, but I thought Jesus told us to LOVE our enemies last time I checked!” [This begs the question: do I need to love Toby Flenderson to be a good Christian—even though Toby is a fictional character and does not really, ya know, exist?]

Most of the holificiations I’ve encountered have been directed at other people’s statuses, tweets, etc., but I’ve been holified a good number of times. Of course, not every critical comment of a spiritual nature makes the cut. It must be at least somewhat passive-aggressive and come out of nowhere. If one is truly holified, it’s a straight-up topical ambush!

You get it, right? At this point, you probably think I want to hear examples of when you have been holified. You are correct, and bonus points if they took place OFF-LINE.