Friday, March 7, 2014

Ash Wednesday, Lent, and a Slow Repentance

A couple of days ago, Sojourn Heights held its second Ash Wednesday service. It was a heavy, somber time of reflection and confession, capped with a reminder that, left on our own, we are sinful unto death. That is serious, which is why the cross is so glorious. But all of this has been explained before. Right now I want to address the Lenten season specifically and what I think it can mean for us as a whole. 
Lent is the 40-day period between Ash Wednesday and Easter, a representation of the time in which Jesus fasted in the desert in preparation of his public ministry. The number 40 is significant in scripture. Rain fell in Noah’s generation for 40 days and 40 nights. Moses lived in the desert for 40 years before the Exodus. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years after their disobedience. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days before being tempted by Satan. And after his resurrection, Jesus’s ministry continued for another 40 days. There are many more examples, but the point is this: 40 is a number in the Bible often associated with cleansing, repentance, and testing. 
So that’s what we view Lent as: a time of cleansing, repentance, and a testing of our faith. Forty days of it. If that seems like a long time to be sorrowful over your sin, please consider these things. Moses, the judges, and the Israelite Kings often implored the people to don sackcloth and ashes for a period of 40 days in order to repent as a nation of their sins. It was a period of mourning for how they had offended a holy God. And it was a time to earnestly seek God in repentance.
We are doing something similar when we consider our sin and lament it before God for 40 days during Lent. In a culture that places a premium on instant gratification, we often question the value of a consistent somber state for such a “long” period of time. Isn’t it depressing? Where’s the good news? Jesus wants us to be happy, right? Those are all legitimate concerns, and believe me, there is plenteous good news in the gospel of Jesus Christ. But wouldn’t the good news be that much greater after we’ve spent a considerable time unearthing and facing our deepest sins? God, in his loving kindness, shows us the depth of our sin so that he can refine us, like the gold or silver whose dross rises to the top when exposed to the fire. In the same way, let's allow the Holy Spirit to expose the sins hidden deep in our heart—once they are exposed, the Spirit will remove them faithfully because He loves us.
Here’s my challenge: let’s take Lent seriously this year. Let’s really spend 40 days asking God to uncover the depths of our sin. Let’s ask God to make us mournful over the many ways in which we grieve the Holy Spirit and damage our fellowship with him. Let’s take a humble posture before the Lord that reflects the inner reality that we are more sinful than we thought. And when Easter rolls around, we will be ever more thankful and in awe of what Christ’s resurrection accomplished. 

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Remember this? NIMBY Challenge Begins on San Felipe High-Rise

an Felipe Construction
(Cross-posted from
Remember the Ashby high-rise trial? Get ready for round two. The San Felipe high-rise is gearing up for a similar legal battle. Here’s where the rubber meets the road, so to speak, when it comes to our desire for space and our need to accommodate a fast-growing city.
How far will the bounds of nuisance law stretch in order to accommodate these types of lawsuits? In one sense, the jury has a lot of power in determining the reasonableness of new construction and the diminution of value of surrounding properties. It may all come down to voire dire—and whether one party gets a favorable jury. That’s just how it goes.
On the other hand, if the residents win (again), I would not be surprised if it prompted City Council to seriously consider adopting a comprehensive zoning ordinance. Such a measure would, I believe, curtail nuisance lawsuits related to new construction. It would also have numerous other benefits, but that is irrelevant here.
In the courtroom scene, recent successes have emboldened property owners to stand up to developers for what the owners perceive are irresponsible and senseless developments. It will be interesting to see how the law adapts to these challenges (especially through appeals) in an economy that has a reputation as a developer-friendly atmosphere.
But I think, if we are really honest, we must recognize at least a slight case of NIMBY-ism from the homeowners.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Taking Possession

[Moses]  said to them, 'Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word to you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.' (Deut. 32:46–47).
God promised Israel long life in the land if they would keep the covenant between them and God—if they kept the law and obeyed God's word. The Word was their life. That sounds so...Pauline. "When Christ who is your life appears..." (Col. 3:4). But back to the story. It's no secret that Israel failed at being "careful to do all the words of this law." They couldn't even if they tried. God's promise to them, however, was that they would live long in the land He was giving them. Keep that scenario in mind. Israel had this promise—and the Word—but they failed, repeatedly. Just like we do.

Then Christ came. And he did keep all the words of the law. Some even say he was the embodiment of the law—he was the Word of God made flesh. So it's easy to see how Paul could say that Christ is our life. It wasn't a novel concept—Moses said the same thing way back in the desert. But here's the great news: despite our failure, Christ obtained the promise for us, and he gave his righteousness to us. Therefore, we have an even greater promise. Where Israel (a type of the church) was promised long life in the land through their obedience, we (the church) are promised eternal life in the New Jerusalem through Christ's obedience. What a promise! What a salvation! What a possession!

Moses was right. The Word of God was no "empty word," as if it were powerless, but our very life. For without The Word, we have no life. And as Israel went over to possess the land for a long time, we go over to possess a greater land for eternity. Both by God's word, our life.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Recovering the Missionary Roots of a Democratic Society

You don't learn this in high school history class, but there is a close causal nexus between the Great Commission and the benefits of a free, liberal democratic society. Apparently freedom in the gospel and freedom in society go together like a hand in a glove. One provides the form for the other.

The reality is that protestant missionaries and their work set the stage for many of the cultural and political reforms that helped shape our nation's founding identity. And when I say protestant missionaries, I mean the reformed-types from the theological traditions of Calvin, Bullinger, Luther, and Knox. They understood that, in order to transform a culture, you must transform peoples' hearts. Repentance breeds reformation. Not the other way around.

Anyways, I have been making my way through this book (which chronicles the influence of reformed covenant theology on the current democratic systems), trying to get a firmer grasp on the historical influence of evangelical Christianity on our culture at large. The more I read, the more I find out that we are riding the coattails of a society created with orthodox Christianity as a main foundation. Of course, we're doing a bang-up job of throwing it all away, but the connection between a society gripped by the gospel and a free society is non-ignorable.

Then, out of the blue today, this guy pointed me to an article that summarized some important research on this very topic. How serendipitous. Or fortuitous. Either one.

The article on Desiring God does a good job of highlighting the research and its results. The original research, a paper entitled "The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy" by Robert Woodberry, systematically catalogues the connection between the missionary presence in a society and that society's grasp of democracy and similar principles. But it's the "nuanced" conclusion—which Desiring God calls an "atomic nuance"—that deserves the most attention. It is the distinguishing fact that drives the conclusion. Quoting from the original paper, the article notes, "'[t]here is one important nuance to all this: The positive effect of missionaries on democracy applies only to ‘conversionary protestants.’ Protestant clergy financed by the state, as well as Catholic missionaries prior to the 1960s, had no comparable effect in areas where they worked' (40)."

The implication, says John Piper, is that "the way to achieve the greatest social and cultural transformation is not to focus on social and cultural transformation, but on the 'conversion' of individuals from false religions to faith in Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins and the hope of eternal life." How true. And now the data backs it up: if you want to change the culture, you need to change hearts first. Really, you should want to change hearts before you change culture. If pastors and evangelists make cultural transformation their energizing focus, Piper said, they will lose their culturally transforming power. Amen to that.

But let's continue to think about this on the arc of history so that we can see where we are headed, or at least where we should set our sights. What we see is that where the gospel goes forth and takes root in a society, democratic and free principles soon follow. In other words, the transformation of peoples' hearts results in a transformation of that society. And the fruit of that transformation is freedom and liberation—religious liberty, widespread education, economic flourishing, artistic expression, and widespread engagement in non-governmental civic organizations. Again, they go hand in hand.

Now let's look at where we are as a society today. Our cultural milieu does not place a high value on traditional liberal democratic ideals. Religious liberty and economic liberty in particular have seen better days. And we know that, on a pop-culture level, the gospel of Christ is despised to the core. It is anathema to what the prevailing culture considers to be "freedom."

So here's the good news. Just like the "conversionary protestants" that evangelized the nation, producing the societal fruit that we now despise, we are poised for a similar harvest in future generations. Slowly gaining momentum in several parts of the country—and in our city in particular—is a movement of gospel-centered evangelism and church-planting. Don't underestimate the power of the gospel preached to sinners. It is the power of God for salvation. In other words, we have the resources for a cultural renewal at our disposal. We have—and are cultivating—everyday missionaries who are willing to lay down their everyday lives for the spread of the gospel. We are making disciples, multiplying neighborhood parishes, and planting churches. That's how we plant the seeds of the gospel that reap the fruit of cultural change in the future. Because God authored the gospel in such a way that widespread heart change always produces cultural change, we can have faith that our disciple-making will have an earthy, tangible impact on future generations.

There are several things we can learn from Robert Woodberry's paper, and I hope he turns his research into a full-fledged book. The church would be well-served by it. But the thing we can learn—and that we ought to take to heart—is that a robust Christian society isn't some relic of a bygone era or a mere fantasy. It is the result of Christ-driven evangelism. And it is something we can look forward to as we labor in making disciples and watch the Holy Spirit transform hearts. Because after He transforms hearts, those hearts use their hands to transform the culture.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Surgery and God's Providence

For all of you who prayed for my surgery yesterday, I thank you. But the surgery almost didn't happen. Since it did happen—and since it was completely from the mighty hand and outstretched arm of God that it did happen—I ought to give thanks to Him by explaining how it all went down.

So what happened was this. My surgery was scheduled for Thursday morning at 7:30 a.m. On Wednesday afternoon, however, I received a phone call from the Doctor's office explaining that they could not verify my insurance coverage. In fact, they said, my insurance policy had been cancelled since November. Odd, I thought. Because on Monday I had verified my coverage and even printed out a letter of proof of coverage to take to the doctor. Regardless, I had to figure this out, and pronto. It was 4:30 at this point. I was supposed to be checking into surgery at 6:00 a.m.

I do some scrounging around online and in my files and find out that my insurance company had threatened to drop me back in November due to non-payment of premiums. I thought this was especially strange considering I had signed up for auto-draft from my bank account. Even more so because my bank records showed a premium payment back in November. At this point, the reality is sinking in that my insurance carrier dropped my coverage without a cancellation notice or any attempts to collect overdue premiums. It's time to scramble.

So I call the insurance company's member services line, collect my documents to prove up my case, and hear this on the other end: "due to the Affordable Care Act, there are a high volume of callers. Your expected hold time is in excess of 60 minutes..." Thanks Obama? Regardless, I've got to wait it out; I need to talk to someone pronto. In the meantime, I convince the surgery center to bump me to the last surgery of the day (12:30) to give me some more time to get it all straightened out. That at least buys me a couple of more hours. Maybe a miracle will happen.

About three hours later, I finally talk to a real person. (I could probably sing to you the on-hold music from somewhere deep in my sub-conscious). I explain my story calmly and logically. "Ok, sir, I'm going to have to connect you to someone in Member Services. Please hold for a while longer." Please no. At this point, it's 7:30 p.m. and things are looking slim for tomorrow. I'm about to call it quits when someone picks up from member services. It's good news: the insurance company realizes they screwed up and shouldn't have cancelled me. If I pay my back premiums, they can re-issue coverage and I'll be good to go for surgery. At this point I'm ecstatic! Good to go. I pay up and head out to be with my parish, with assurances that I'll be approved for surgery first thing in the morning.

Morning comes, and I am ready for surgery. Only one hurdle remains: I need to call the doctor's office, and they need to get in touch with the insurance company to approve my coverage. Should be easy. So I call the doctor at 8:30 and they say they're on it; they will get back to me soon. Thinking this will be a fairly straightforward process, I start packing my bags. Then another phone call, which I think will be something along the lines of "Mr. Bryant, you've been approved. See you soon." Instead, it was "Mr. Bryant, we still can't get in touch with your insurance company. We're going to have to cancel the surgery." "I'm covered, I promise," I said. "Please, give it until 10:00." They agreed to give me a little leeway, which bought me some time. It's now 9:45, and I have no idea if I will be having surgery today.

Twenty minutes roll past, and I know this probably means bad news. But I get in my car and head to the surgery center anyways. I'm going to keep saying yes until someone tells me no. Halfway down Heights Blvd., however, the doctor's office calls and says they still can't get in touch with anyone at the insurance company; they have to cancel the surgery. I said that I understood why, and thanks for working with me until the last minute. Now I call my parents, who are already at the surgery center, and tell them the news. There's nothing I can do, so just come on home.

About five minutes later, the doctor's office calls again. This time it's good news: the surgery center was able to verify coverage with the insurance company! Come on down! So I turn it back around and wheel off to the surgery center. But when I get there, there's no such good news. The surgery center is actually still on hold with the insurance company and hasn't verified anything. They haven't even talked to a live person yet. Obamacare's jamming the system! Or so I tell myself...

So I sit down with the nice lady at the counter and see what we can do. She tells me that they are still on hold with the insurance company, but she believes what I told her about getting caught up on my premiums. I suggest we go ahead and do the surgery regardless, but she tells me to just be patient; they will keep trying up until game time.

That means another couple of hours of waiting, at the surgery center, not knowing if I will have surgery. I'm not trying to complain, and I wasn't complaining then, but sometimes I prefer certainty to uncertainty in things like this. But it was not so, and I was ok with that.

12:45 rolls around (I am scheduled for a 12:30 surgery), and still no word from the insurance company. The nice lady from the counter comes back and says "I believe you, and so do they upstairs. Your insurance company is being whack, so we are just going to worry about that later. We've never done this, but we got the administrator's approval to do the surgery without insurance authorization. Lets' go!" Well, she didn't have to tell me twice. So I went back to surgery as if nothing had ever gone wrong. And nothing did go wrong with surgery once I got there. The doctors and nurses were great, anesthesia was awesome, and my mom cooked some out-of-this world chicken and dumplings for dinner when I got home (which promptly made me sick because of the medicine, but it was totally worth it).

The real wonder in all of this is how God's hand was guiding everything during the confusion. As soon as I knew something was wrong, I also knew that God was preparing me to trust Him completely. That was my overarching prayer during the "unknown" 24 hours. Yes, I did want the surgery, and I surely prayed for God to work a miracle there, but ultimately, I wanted to trust His plan and purpose for this. Which is why, to me, it's kind of funny that there was so much back-and-forth about whether I was going to have the surgery or not. Yes. Wait, no. Yes! Turn around and come back! Oh, we don't know. You are scheduled in 15 minutes, but we still don't know. Ok. I get it, God. Trust you. I am, gladly.

When I tore my ACL (and split my meniscus in two), I had a hard time dealing with it. All my life I had been somewhat athletic, able to play most sports, and generally lived an active lifestyle. I took pride in that, too. Sinfully so. But a blown knee blew all that to bits. I had to face my self-idolatry, so to speak. In a real, physical sense, I idolized my body and its abilities. How Grecian of me.

The reality is that all of our bodies are deteriorating from the moment we are born. Injuries happen. People are born with physical deformities; that's the price of sin for all mankind. But the Bible promises that, through Christ's resurrection, we will have resurrected bodies as well. And these bodies will be perfect in every way, just as Christ is perfect. They will not break, nor deform, nor wither. They will share in the physical glories of Christ, and they will be everlasting bodies. So I shouldn't place my faith in my body as it is now. Even with a new ACL. It's still going to break. Instead, let us place our faith in Christ and the glorious, unbreakable bodies that await us. That's a reality, and a promise from our Creator. That we will be re-made—for good.

So thank you all for praying for my surgery; I am grateful for you. It was an interesting couple of days, but the Lord showed His might and power in how it all played out. I am thankful that I was able to have the surgery, but even if I wasn't, God is good, and someday I won't need surgery anyways.

Friday, December 20, 2013

What A&E should have said about Phil Robertson's comments

A&E made this statement concerning Phil Robertson's comments:

"We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in 'GQ,' which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series 'Duck Dynasty.' His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. The network has placed Phil under hiatus from filming indefinitely."

Here's what they should have written:

"We are extremely disappointed to have read Phil Robertson's comments in 'GQ,' which are based on his own personal beliefs and are not reflected in the series 'Duck Dynasty.' His personal views in no way reflect those of A+E Networks, who have always been strong supporters and champions of the LGBT community. But because of A+E's commitment to diversity and inclusion of all viewpoints—even those with which we strongly disagree—we have decided to continue filming and production of 'Duck Dynasty' as scheduled. A+E Networks recognizes that Mr. Robertson's personal views may be offensive to some, but A+E Networks welcomes all viewpoints in an environment of inclusion. We hope Mr. Robertson retracts his statements, but we stand by our pledge and commitment to diversity."

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

High-rise with high stakes

This was adapted from a post at

Jury awards alt="Jury awards $1.7 million to residents in Ashby case - Prime Property" .7 million to residents in Ashby case - Prime Property

Yesterday a Harris County jury determined that the Ashby high-rise project “was the wrong project at the wrong site,” awarding several plaintiffs just over $1.7 million in damages—if the project is built.

This case comes at an interesting time in Houston—which lacks any cohesive zoning ordinance—when developers commonly pit their interests against those of the community. As Houston continues its rapid growth, the city will need to find some way to appease the demand for development with the desire of residential areas to keep their distinctive aesthetic. And it’s not going to be easy. This latest trial only highlights the disparity between interests.

But some people are saying that the neighbors can’t have it both ways—advocating for a robust free market in Houston while simultaneously trying to curtail the lawful development of property through judicial means. Whatever happens with this case, the problem is not going away immediately. Unless —and until—we have a comprehensive zoning law, keep your eyes open for similar lawsuits in the near future.
What I find interesting, though, is the philosophy behind this sort of "NIMBY-ism." People are all for growth and development, until it happens in their own backyard—their own little kingdom. It's no secret that Houston is exploding in population, and that includes areas inside the Loop. People are moving here, and there's not a lot we can do to stop them. And if we are going to welcome them and be excited about the city's growth, it is going to take some compromise and sacrifice—especially on the part of people who live in the urban core. Gone are the days of 6600 square foot lots just a couple miles from downtown; the population growth won't support it. So when we come to those who extol Houston's growth out of one side of their mouth, but snarl at the growth in their backyard out of the other, what are we to make of it? 
I think that people—and I am guilty of this, too—want growth and development as long as it comes at no cost to them. We want to become a premiere urban environment, but only if we don't have to drive on crowded streets, or give up our sense of sprawling space (or our parking space). We want the ideal without the toil and trade-offs it takes to get there. Because we are kings within ourselves, and the people around us are our subjects. No one will admit it, but I believe that's the real issue. 
Maybe zoning will fix these problems. Maybe not. I can imagine the political circus that would accompany changing Houston from zoning-free to a comprehensive zoned plan. And still the root remains. We need to realize is that sometimes it's ok to "suffer" through a little crowdiness here and there if it means more people can enjoy our great city.