Saturday, February 28, 2009

So You're a Christian

After a couple of weeks of heavy gospel-and-culture debate (and then Jailbreaker made us all misty), you can probably use a little lightness ...

The Limits of Biblical Integration

For those of you interested in how broadly the Bible may be applied to various other disciplines (say history, science, etc.), Chief considers the matter over on his blog:
A couple months ago I finished a history ... of the rise of the animal rights movement in England in the late 18th century, a battle in which many evangelicals participated. Their defense of the created order under God is certainly one that any teacher, Christian or not, could use in a science or history classroom (I used it today to illustrate the strands of reform that accompanied the movement against the English slave trade). The scriptural principles these defenders employed in moving anti-cruelty legislation were sound. The book’s examples became an opportunity for me to ask my 9th graders the question “how would you defend against animal cruelty on the basis of Scripture?”

Read the whole thing and leave Chief your thoughts over on Jesus and Clio.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Man From Szamotuly

[Jailbreaker's Note: I’m going to postpone Part 2 of the Gospel & Culture until sometime in March but in the meantime I’d like to share a short tribute to a very special man]

Born at the start of "The War to End All Wars," the man from Szamotuly (Sha-moe-too-we) grew up in a land where it was common for foreign armies to roam and rule. The right to self-determination, though restored to Poland for the first time in well over a century in 1918, lasted a mere 21 years, and it was during this difficult, but relatively peaceful time in Poland, that Boleslaw grew into manhood.

After completing mandatory schooling to the 6th grade, Boleslaw enrolled in a trade school to learn the art of horticulture. The promise of a new era of peace and self-rule filled the hearts of young Poles. The young man from Szamotuly was no exception, and he lived his life with great anticipation of the future, completely unaware of the devastation that awaited him and his country.

There were rumors going around Poland that summer of ‘39, and, at the still young age of 24, Boleslaw was conscripted into the Polish Army, trained in the art of war for a mere three weeks, and sent out with hundreds of other brave men to help defend a major Polish city.

The horror of what he saw was beyond words--slaughter all around him as the powerful German Army rolled over his position seemingly at will. With 90% of his regiment dead and he himself riddled with 3 bullet wounds, Boleslaw lay there bleeding, expecting at any moment to be finished off with a bayonet.

As he lay there for what seemed to be an eternity, words that every young Pole memorized came to mind and he was strangely comforted:
“He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge … You will not fear the terror of night nor the arrow that flies by day … A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you … If you make the most high your dwelling …then no harm will befall you, no disaster will come near your tent. For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways …”
Moments later, in the midst of all the chaos, Boleslaw heard a gentle voice. As he looked up he suddenly became aware of an innovative hiding place nearby and found safety in the midst of certain death, just as the mysterious voice had told him. When the heat of the battle was over he was taken prisoner, and, like many of the other Polish soldiers, was put to work on German farms near the Baltic Sea.

Though nothing like the infamous concentration camps, the living conditions were nonetheless inhumane. In addition to the cruelty of their captors, Boleslaw and the other Polish prisoners contended with starvation, malnutrition, disease, lice, worms, dysentery, and frostbite, not to mention 6 years of hard labor. Someone seemed to die of something all the time, the least of which was a bullet to the head execution style.

When the war was over, the man from Szamotuly and the other Polish survivors had no home to call their own. Many of their loved ones were dead and their country once again ravaged and ruled by a foreign power. For 5 years after the war, the Polish Soldiers were reassembled under British command and put to work in the reconstruction efforts. When their contribution was no longer needed, they were given a free pass to anywhere in the world, and Boleslaw chose to go to Chicago.

Now, at the age of 36 and living in yet another foreign land, the life Boleslaw once knew and enjoyed in Szamotuly seemed a very distant memory. Outside of Warsaw, Chicago held the largest contingent of Poles in the world and everyone was eager to help their fellow Poles transition to the new world. Though he himself was fluent in Polish, German, French and Russian, he knew nothing of the English language or American ways, and would need all the help he could get.

He had a new life ahead and, once again filled with hope, went about making the best of it. Though he was an expert gardener by both training and experience, Boleslaw was content to live out his days as a janitor, leaving the beauty of the work of his hands for only his friends and family to enjoy. He married a lovely young Polish woman fluent in both Polish and English, who was herself the daughter of an immigrant family, and had 3 children.

I’m one of those children, and a few weeks ago on Christmas Eve I said farewell to my father. On more than one occasion he told me that he never thought he would live past the age of 24--let alone 93--but yet here he was. He never quite mastered English, in fact, it was terrible, and right up to his death still looked and acted like someone who “just got off the boat.”

Being that he was only a janitor and didn’t care about the Chicago Cubs or the Rolling Stones, there was a time in my youth when I was actually ashamed of who he was and where he came from. There was also a time in my spiritual youth when I even doubted his own personal trust in Christ simply because he didn’t use evangelical terminology. I’ve come to see things very differently over the years, especially since the day it dawned on me that the Holy Spirit speaks perfect Polish and is quite capable of clearly communicating with my father even if I am unable.

Three days before he died, our entire family gathered and spent a very special afternoon together. Though he was weak, he had enough energy to thrill the kids with a few of their favorite antics. Their most favorite was when he’d throw both of his arms up in the air and yell “Hooray!” There was just something about his strong Polish accent, his youthful enthusiasm, and the movement of his arms that made it so much fun for the grandkids to watch.

When we said good-bye that day, I put him down for a nap and we spent several minutes silently looking each other in the eyes. As I looked at him and he at me with eyes fixed, I saw no panic or fear, what I saw was a man completely at peace and ready to die.

On the day he did die I was back in Pennsylvania, but my sister tells me that he was lying in bed, completely unaware that anyone was with him, with his arms resting at his side, his mouth wide open, and his eyes fixated on the ceiling above. Suddenly, she said, without saying a word he threw both of his arms up into the air, not once but twice and died not long after. As my sister reflected on what she saw, she said it almost seemed like he was staring into heaven itself, giving one last “Hooray" in eager anticipation of the new home he was seeing right in front of him. I think she's right--I think that's exactly what he was seeing!

I will deeply miss the man from Szamotuly. This summer my son and I are planning to travel to the very land that my father knew as a young man......wish I would have done that a whole lot sooner.

[Postscript Note: I forgot to mention when I first posted this that my son and a handful of other cadets at the US Air Force Academy are being sent to Poland over Spring Break to interact with and learn from members of the Polish military as part of their Academy training -- I can't tell you how thrilled I am that my son has the opportunity to learn firsthand about his grandfather's heritage]

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Angry Young Christians

There's a place in the world for the angry young man
With his working class ties and his radical plans
He refuses to bend he refuses to crawl
And he's always at home with his back to the wall
And he's proud of his scars and the battles he's lost
And struggles and bleeds as he hangs on his cross
And likes to be known as the angry young man
(Billy Joel)
Americans have a soft spot for revolutionaries. Whether it be George Washington or Luke Skywalker, we love to see the brave, usually young, usually good-looking hero take on the despotic establishment and emerge victorious--or even to fail tragically but valiantly.

Such is our romance for heroic rebels that we find them where they are not. Che Guevarra was little more than a murderous thug who helped bring a half century of repressive dictatorship to Cuba, yet his face continues to adorn merchandise as a symbol of some glorious resistance against ... whatever.

This romance extends to the church, sadly, and is the siren's song of the heroic "revolutionary" who is, in many cases, merely a contemptuous and rebellious troublemaker. Revolution of this other sort has no positive vision, no hopeful calling. It is merely the call to be an "Angry Young Man" (or Woman), sniping at the church's faults and treating even Christ's most devoted and selfless servants as if they are merely part of some great Evil Empire. Such wanton destructiveness, as noted by the Presbyter below, disrespects many of those we ought most to respect--those who do much good work on behalf of the Kingdom of God at great personal sacrifice. Moreover, it brings discredit to the honest and necessary revolution and reform happening elsewhere.

To illustrate, consider the cultural revolution that began in the 1960s. This revolution marked a critical turning point in the war against racial discrimination which was still so shockingly prevalent across the Deep South. Much good and many heroes marked the period. Yet the same generation so honored with nobility among some also featured shocking and destructive excess among many more. The truth is, those who were the true and necessary revolutionaries often became entangled and confused with and among those who were merely arrogant rebels along for the ride--youths who despised their parents' generation and used the guise of "revolution" as an excuse for self-indulgence.

There is likewise a temptation to arrogantly savage the organized church without issuing--or better yet, living out--any higher calling. In many cases, the self-righteous rejection of the organized church serves as little more than a cover-up for sin. Freed from the "oppression" of the church (or should I say the accountability to the church), there is often a descent into sloth. This is not a spiritual revolution ... it is a temper tantrum.

The church needs its revolutionaries and its reformers. It needs those who will, like Jailbreaker, live out a bold new vision in order to be his witnesses "in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." But those who merely snipe at the church's faults do the cause no credit and no good service. In fact, they harm it gravely.

The Apple of God's Eye

This post began as a comment on Jailbreaker’s last post. Thinking about it since, it’s grown a bit:

... the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God ... we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. (1 Cor. 1:18, 23-24)

These two verses make it pretty much indisputable that those who preached the gospel in the 1st century saw themselves as preaching a message that was hardly "culturally conditioned." Jailbreaker's post does a good job of making the point that many of us have lost sight of that truth.

However, there seems to be a tendency on the part of some to draw from this insight some conclusions that, in the end, are simply indefensible, prominent among them the notion that what we call the "visible church" is more of a hindrance than anything else, and all that matters is what we call the "invisible church".

It would be an error to try to argue from the New Testament that the only content one can find there for what "the church" is supposed to mean is either the "visible" or the "invisible church", to the exclusion of the other. But more than one commentator has pointed out that, if one chose to do so, it would be the "visble church" that would have much the stronger case. The very fact of Paul's letters is a case in point. They were written to particular groups of believers, organized and with officers, and it was generally expected that they would be read to particular congregations and passed on to other particular congregations. Included among their exhortations is one "to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work." The writer to the Hebrews offers a similar admonition.

It would be hard to defend the notion that these admonitions meant anything to believers who never met with other believers, and who weren't under the care of elders. Moreover, Paul's pastoral letters make it clear that God does call certain men to to oppose those who will come into the church and try to corrupt its message, and, instead to proclaim its true message, and also to pass on their charge. Moreover, these letters make it clear that congregations should, if they can, afford these men support, so that they can pursue this calling.

So there it lies: Yes, we are one with "all the saints" in all ages and places, but we gather in particular congregations, which meet in particular places, have men in their midst who are called to proclaim God's word to them, and to "keep watch over their souls", and whom we are exhorted to support so that they can be free to do this--"professional clergy", if you will, or some other term if you won't. (Whatever term you choose for Christ's ministers, be sure not to make it one of denigration. One retired minister I know told me that he knew it was time to retire, when he found that he was the one who was crying in a counseling session. My personal opinion is that to treat him dismissively would be picking a fight with his Lord.)

Of course, there are dangers in this: If we gather as particular congregations in particular cultures, we will be tempted to confuse what is merely cultural in our organization for its essence. Even worse, the church will find "false sons in her pale" who will make it their business to substitute the culture's message and agenda for God's. We have to recognize that and constantly examine and reform ourselves. What we don't have to do is to fall into the trap of thinking that we should treat the "visible church" with contempt and devote ourselves exclusively to the "invisible church". Indeed, we should be very careful that we're not falling into a prideful trap when we think that way.

As we seek to “constantly examine and reform ourselves”, there are some questions which ought to be primary, and one that comes to mind may seem surprising to some: What about preaching?

It’s my understanding that, in the original languages, “to preach” carried something of the flavor of a herald, stepping forward to make a proclamation on behalf of a king. So, when we hear “preaching” (that is, a sermon), the proper spirit in which we ought to receive it is that, in a very real sense, Christ is speaking to us. Moreover, what is going on is essential, both in conversion, and in Christian growth (sanctification): “... how are they to hear without someone preaching? .... So faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ.” Of course, after we hear a sermon, we do well to follow the example of the Bereans and go home to review it and to be sure that what we have heard from Christ’s herald was really Christ speaking to us, but that doesn’t change the basic expectation we ought to have when we “sit under preaching”.

Moreover, the importance of preaching is underscored by the use the Holy Spirit makes of it: “... you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; .... And this word is the good news that was preached to you.” Spurgeon, the great Baptist preacher of the 19th century, when asked by a visitor why he had such success, took the visitor to the church basement and showed him some women praying. He understood that, in the words of the American folk hymn, “Holy Manna”, “All is vain unless the Spirit of the Holy One comes down”. His preaching, be it ever so faithful, would still be “folly” to his hearers, unless the Holy Spirit made it effective in their lives.

Is this our view of preaching and its effects, when it is faithful and the Holy Spirit blesses it? Do we pray that our ministers will be faithful, true heralds of Christ, and that His Spirit would bless their proclamation? If so, then we have the central touchstone which we ought to use to “examine and reform ourselves”. But, and here is one point where I have some trouble with Jailbreaker’s post, no “outsider looking in [at] our forms, practices, and mindset” could have been of the least help in leading us to this view. To this outsider, preaching simply “takes the cake” among all the things he might be seeing (and many of them may be, even probably are, simply cultural) being the one that outdoes all the rest in being the most foolish!

Instead of turning outside our culture for this particular insight, we ought instead to turn “back” into it: The reformers of the 16th and 17th centuries went to great pains--admittedly imperfectly--to discern what the Bible, and especially the New Testament taught us of what is essential in the life of the visible church, and what ought to be excised from it. While much of this is forgotten now, a great deal of their attention was devoted to the worship of the church and the place of preaching in it. They, and especially those who came from the Swiss Reformation and the English Puritans, clearly saw the dangers described in Calvin’s saying that the heart of man is “an idol factory”.

To put things in Old Testament terms, the path from the illegal worship of Jeroboam in 1 Kings 12 to the apostacy of Ahab in 1 Kings 16 was not a long one. Or, in terms of the 10 Commandments, break the 2nd, and breaking the 1st won’t be far behind. This is a lesson that the American church has gone beyond just forgetting. It hardly recalls that it was ever taught in the first place, and, when it does deal with it, it tends to do so with condescension. If we are to see reform and renewal in our churches, this sin (and it is that) needs to be lovingly confronted. We need to work for the day when our lives as congregations are once again oriented around the pulpit, faithfully filled and Spirit-blessed.

That brings me back my original theme of our attitude toward the visible church: We are not to treat her with contempt, but we are to be realistic about her failings, and it’s very hard to do the second of those without lapsing into the first. Moreover, even if one worships in a “Puritan” church (and I do), there will be all sorts of things that will drive one to distraction. It was hardly untypical that the minister friend I mentioned above was eventually worn out by his pastoral duties. The word “pastor” is supposed to remind us of “sheep”, and, as those who have ever heard a good “sheep sermon” can attest, the idea there isn’t supposed to be about cute, woolly lambs, but rather of stubborn, foolish animals whom the shepherd doesn’t dare let out of his sight for a minute! And, even in very faithful churches, they will do some awful things. It’s hard, for instance, for anyone who has ever been through a church “faction fight” to deal with the very fact that it could have happened.

Because of that sort of thing, I can personally attest that, “my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped”. In the course of that, I wrote a long letter to this same minister friend and, a few weeks later, we met and talked about it. He was understanding, but his bottom line was uncompromising: “Don’t you dare talk that way about Christ’s church! It’s the apple of His eye.”

Monday, February 23, 2009

Church and Culture--Chief's Historical Perspective

I just love Jailbreaker's thoughts on culture and Christians--particularly western Christians--and I have learned so much from his perspective over the years.

When I think about culture and Christianity in the context of our discussion, I guess what is at stake is the fact that our model of "church" doesn't (and really can't) connect with another culture. Really, what we are dealing with is how we organize Christians in fellowship with one another. How did we start the journey? When did we begin to change our focus?

Somewhat oversimplified, our Christian culture in the United States began as a community, planted in a New World (new to Europeans, at least) to create a pure church. Their vision of a church was a body of believers in covenant with Christ and with one another, accountable to each other, possessing a high view of Scripture and a mistrust of their own motives. Gradually, through our own history we traded community for individuality as we settled the frontiers.

American Christians tend to think as individuals and our churches reflect our fragmentation. Consider how we divide our church worship services into contemporary or traditional and have small groups for every age group or interest. It is the penetration of the church by the market. In a broad sense, we "do church" as individuals without building community in the church. Americans select churches, not because they see people loving each other in a variety of situations, but because they "meet my needs," a phrase I interpret as "this church is entertaining or the pastor preaches interesting sermons, there are lots of activities for us and our kids, and the music is great."

Contrast our contemporary church experience with the church as portrayed in the first few chapters of Acts. The first century church is an anomaly--people willing to lay down their lives and possessions for others, confront sin lovingly, and preach the truth. And lest someone say that I long for a Golden Age or some form of primitivism, we must recall that even the early church was full of imperfect people. So were the churches of 17th century Puritans. Right or wrong, this is the way it has been and it is hard to for the leopard to trade in his spots for a new coat, particularly as post-modernist attitudes continue to make inroads into the church.

Not only wouldn't we want to impose our forms on other cultures, we really can't. No cultural form, be it social, political, economic, or religious can be "cut and pasted" onto another culture. Period. Certainly, there are absolutes which can and should be (justice, freedom, human dignity to name a few) but even these can and will be interpreted in ways that are culturally accepted while still biblically sound.

Still, in some ways I think we are asking the wrong questions. Perhaps it is best to ask, not "how do I adapt to this culture?" but "how do I bring these people I love face to face with Jesus Christ as he is revealed in the word of God?" Then, we need to ask "how can I get these lovers of Jesus Christ to love one another?" Josh McDowell has said that adults in our own country need to recognize that we have two cultures (I would add "at least two") in our churches today - that of the adults and that of our youth. As I walk into the classroom every day in a Christian school and face this youth culture head on, it is not as crucial for me to speak their language or to know their songs as it is to answer the cry of their heart, spoken or unspoken: "We want to see Jesus." And once they see Jesus, how do I then teach them to love one another instead of tearing each other apart as teens do. Unless we all see church culture in these terms, we do not see the church (or Christ) rightly.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Men and Brethren (and Women and Sisteren)--What Shall We Do?

On one of Jailer's recent posts, Ellen B basically asked, "So what should we do about it"? This is my question too, and I could use your wisdom out there. For the past four years I've been teaching a Worldview course at the Christian school where I serve. I have increasingly noticed that my students, present and past, seem to have an admirable grasp of Bible knowledge. However, their ability to translate it all into "living proof" (this is for you, Jailer and Jailbreaker!) leaves much to be desired.

My course focuses on several areas that Christian young people will encounter after they leave our hallowed halls and go to college (or enter the work force). It's all the standard stuff--I want them to focus on how to think as Christians in the areas of natural science, politics, economics, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and history.

Tall order, I know. All they get is a taste of each of the areas, current thinking out there in society, and biblical models for each. Still, I battle with how to get them past the information and to get them to apply their Christian thinking outside the classroom. Sure, they can write the papers, take the tests, and answer the questions. But do they know how these make a real difference in their lives beyond the issues of the mind?

So waddya think? (By the way, you can also leave your comments and read my other posts at

Editor's Note: Chief, perhaps the secret is to just get your students to "Think History"! :)

Stop Running in the House of God!

Jailbreaker's post below highlights a common fallacy rampant in the church: The church building as the "house of God".

In Old Testament Israel, the answer to the question seemed quite simple--the temple in Jerusalem was the house of the LORD, though the LORD Himself expressed some ambivalence over the designation: "Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be?" Still, the temple was where God officially met with His chosen people, and it was referred to as His house. Even Jesus defended it as such: "How dare you turn my Father's house into a market!"

But Jesus also came to usher in a new covenant, announcing that the time for worship in Jerusalem was ending ... the time for worship "in spirit and in truth" had arrived. God's temple is now in His people, both individually ("your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit") and corporately ("we are the temple of the Living God").

This is no small point, and reveals a downside of church organization, and a trap into which we all fall--the tendancy to value to the physical over the spiritual. A church building may be a useful thing, but it is only that. Sadly, it very easily becomes the center of our corporate existance, and too easily displaces the true house of God (and perhaps even God Himself) in our hearts.

Next time you hear someone refer to the church building as the house of God, gently remind them that it is not the building, but we ourselves "like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Gospel & Culture (Part 1)

When crossing cultures with the Gospel just how difficult of a task is it to bring “the message” to a particular people without entangling that message in the “culture” of the messenger? Does it even matter?

If by “culture” we mean eating with silverware instead of chopsticks or shaking hands instead of bowing it’s probably not very difficult to leave our culture out of the message. However, if by culture we mean the forms, practices, and mindset of the western church system it’s another matter entirely.

The message we bring to the nations is a truly radical message and, in every respect, is wholly unlike any other message on the face of the earth. Unlike the other messages, God does not respond to what we do, we respond to what God does. Unlike the other messages, the focus is not on the outward, the focus is on the inward. Unlike the other messages, God does not dwell in a building, He dwells in human hearts. And unlike the other messages, this message is not bound to a particular earthly culture or religious system, it’s bound to a unique culture all its own – kingdom culture!

But wait a minute! When we stop to take an objective look at our forms, practices and mindset what do we see? Are they more reflective of the truly unique and radical message that we hold so dear, or are they more reflective of the other “messages” that exist in the world today?

No matter how we spin it, an objective look reveals the simple fact that the other messages have special houses of worship and we have special houses of worship. The other messages have specially trained professionals and we have specially trained professionals. The other messages have sacred days and we have sacred days. The other messages have formal religious practices and we have formal religious practices. The other messages have……and we have……and the list goes on and on and on.

Our message might be unique, but to the outsider looking in our forms, practices, and mindset do not necessarily reveal anything unique at all. In fact, it can reveal just the opposite. Sure, we can spin it a thousand different ways, but when all is said and done, the outsider often sees our forms, practices, and mindset as having much more in common with the practices of other religions than with the unique and radical message that we hold so dear.

Several years ago a missionary colleague of mine was reading the Bible with a Japanese friend over lunch. The Japanese man felt badly that more Japanese didn’t go to my colleague’s church (including this particular man) and he offered a suggestion. As he put it, “We Japanese don’t feel comfortable going into a church because we don’t know what to do, but perhaps if you place a big window in the back of your church so that we Japanese can look in and watch what goes on we might feel more comfortable joining you at some point in the future.”

Interesting idea (to say the least) but let’s just say that my colleague actually took him up on his suggestion and built an observation deck outside his church. Let’s further say that this man and others like him actually came to peer in through the observation window at each gathering. After weeks of viewing our forms and practices from the observation deck, what conclusions might this Japanese man reach about our message? Would he go away with even a rudimentary understanding of the unique and radical message that we hold so dear? What exactly would he see after weeks of observation?

Well, amongst other things, he would probably see people stand up, sit down, and bow their heads on cue and in unison many times during a gathering. He would see people up front playing musical instruments and people in the general seating area singing. He would see individuals placing money into a basket as it was passed ceremoniously from person to person and row to row. He would see a professional looking person standing behind a lectern giving a very long talk, followed by more singing, followed by a mass exodus. He might even see smiling faces and genuine warmth displayed, but after weeks of observation, what might he conclude about our message and our views on “formal religious practices"? Would he be able to understand anything at all about the unique and radical message that we hold so dear from the many hours he spent peering in on us through the observation window?

Ah, but we’re forgetting something important you might say. Observation alone isn’t enough. He also needs to hear the message in order to understand and believe. Furthermore, what he might see as formal religious practices is not at all the substance of our message it’s just how we go about “organizing” ourselves. After all, relationships are what matter most.

Yes, that’s certainly true, but that’s precisely the point. The problem isn’t necessarily in what we say, or in what we profess to believe, and it’s definitely not in the message we hold so dear. The problem lies in the centuries-old system that we've built up around the message, particularly the "forms" we deem to be indispensable to every "legitimate" body of believers.

Simply put, if those things are not the substance of our message, why in the world do we organize ourselves as if they are the substance of our message? If relationships matter the most to us, why do we organize ourselves as if formal religious practices matter most? Why don’t we organize ourselves according to the substance of our message or at least be willing to allow the new believers in other nations/cultures the freedom to do so?

Furthermore, if Jesus walked among us in the flesh today, would He come to the defense of our existing forms, practices, and mindset? Would He consider the "system" we have built as indispensable to the message? What insights can we glean from the Scriptures about these crucial issues? What can we learn about the tension between the Gospel, culture, and our prevailing mindset as we go to the nations?

If you have any thoughts fire away ... stay tuned for Part 2 next week!

Soil Getting Rockier: UK Muslim Population Explosion

We've had much conversation over time about the "rocky soil" countries. This is a reference to Jesus' Parable of the Sower, in which the term is used to describe hearts in which the Word of God doesn't take root. Jailbreaker likes to expand the parable to refer to countries in which the gospel has had little impact.

But this stunning article in London's Times Online indicates that Western soil will soon be growing rockier far more rapidly than we perhaps anticipated:
The Muslim population in Britain has grown by more than 500,000 to 2.4 million in just four years ... The [Muslim] population multiplied 10 times faster than the rest of society ... But while the biggest Christian population is among over-70s bracket, for Muslims it is the under-4s.
The implications of this phenomenon for British society are legion, but those are for another blog. I want to address it in terms of what it means for Christians who live in the West. Europe is in the midst of a massive demographic shift, and as those "under-4s" grow up, it will become far more pronounced. It's projected that within the next few years, Brussels, Antwerp, Amsterdam and Rotterdam will become majority Muslim. This is unlikely to shift back anytime soon, since one of the reasons the Western church hasn't grown is that Western Christians don't have children at nearly the rate they used to.

So assuming this trend is (1) going to accelerate and (2) going to make its way across the Atlantic, how are we to respond? How would it change our approach to ministry if the majority of our fellow citizens were not even nominally Christian? Or, to quote the Jailbreaker:
Imagine a time in America when we enter an age where, just as Jesus predicted, God’s people are hunted down and killed. No more First Amendment Clause to protect our right to freely gather and worship as we please; no more tax-exempt status for church property or Christian organization budgets; no more “full-time” Christian workers receiving a salary for their labor; in short, no more tolerance for God’s people and a great increase in hostility toward us.
Now, I am not suggesting that your Muslim friends and neighbors are secretly plotting your demise. Rather I am saying that change is coming to the Western civilization--the bosum in which the church has nestled--perhaps in ways we have not yet begun to anticipate.

Ultimately, we must be prepared to answer the crucial questions: Who are we as Christians? How will we prepare our children to live and minister in the society they will inherit? When all the supports are stripped away, what do we truly believe about Jesus Christ and His gospel?

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tearing My Robes

My last post posed these questions:
Why has the church become increasingly irrelevant? Can it be because we serve and preach an irrelevant god of our own making, rather than the "Holy Holy Holy" God of Scripture?
Over in one of my LinkedIn groups, I received a response from Ellen B. that was brilliant in its simplicity:
Assuming this is true (which most of us probably agree that it is), what should we do personally?
Well, yes indeed! That is the question, isn't it? Since none of us has been elected Dictator for Life over the church, we don't have the option of emloying all of Josiah's comprehensive national renewal plan, which goes something like this:
  • tear your robes
  • inquire of the LORD through your local prophetess
  • call together all the elders
  • read the Scriptures publicly
  • renew the covenant
  • cleanse the temple
  • burn/desecrate the idols, Asherah poles, high places, shrines, etc.
  • banish (or otherwise dispose of) the pagan priests
  • lead a nationwide Passover celebration
Probably each of us will find ourselves confined to somewhat smaller spheres of influence than Josiah, but the example is still instructive. After all, it's easy to complain about the church, but by itself it has as little effect as complaining about the weather. For my own part, I will say that any action plan must certainly begin with me:
  • I must tear my robes! I must fear, honor and glorify this holy, holy, holy LORD Almighty. I must forsake the world, repent, obey, pray, read, love ...
  • I must lead my family, teaching them to understand and appreciate who God truly is
  • I must use my gifts and talents within the place that God has put me to bear witness to the God who is holy, holy, holy
It is in this third place where we each must look carefully to realize that we have opportunities and responsibilities to act. In my capacity at church, for example, I have the opportunity and responsibility to teach, preach (occasionally), take part in leadership meetings, encourage the pastor and other believers, etc. All of these mark places where I need to emphasize God's holiness and how it should influence our activities.

Oh, and I also have this little blog, which I hope to use to encourage others to do likewise ... :)

Please consider this an "open thread", and post your answers to Ellen's question in the "comments" section below ...

Saturday, February 14, 2009

An Irrelevant God?

Is our god relevant? (Hint: the small "g" is intentional.)
Several of our recent posts have wrestled with the following question in different ways: what is wrong with the church? Of course, there is no single right answer to this question. But I'm increasingly of the opinion that we no longer live in the light of grace, because we have no idea what "grace" really is. By the way, lest you find me self-righteous, I do not absolve myself in this indictment.
To begin with, we cannot truly grasp the amazingness of grace until and unless we understand the enormity and very wretchedness of our sin. And this intense sin awareness also lies beyond our grasp, because we have a massive underappreciation for God's holiness. In so many ways, we worship a different god ... one who is crafted after our own collective image. Any reevaluation of our Christian faith must begin with recapturing a proper fear and awe of its Author and Perfecter.
Fear and awe? Consider Isaiah, who had every human reason to consider his understanding of God's true nature to be quite adequate. After all, he was Israel's foremost prophet ... a veritable holy man on a mission. Yet, this "holy man's" response to an encounter with the "Holy Holy Holy" One seated on His throne was supremely jarring:

"Woe to me!" I cried. "I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.
Isaiah's encounter with God began with a terrifying realization: God is holy, and he was filthy. In short, he was doomed. No other outcome but instant and consuming firey judgment was imaginable when his sin came up before the unfiltered holiness of God. However, God did not mete out His justice on Isaiah, but rather forgave him, and Isaiah's response was unqualified, total obedience: Here I am, send me! Scripture demonstrates repeatedly that this is the way it must be--true obedience is born of a sincere experience of God's grace. Yet such grace is bereft of meaning absent a true recognition of the enormous stinking corpse that is our sin ... but this sin is just an abstract notion outside the bright white holiness (i.e., majesty and purity) of God. Yet it is this true holiness that has slipped from our collective consciousness.

Indeed, I fear this is not the God we carry to the nations or our neighbors. It is not the God we preach from our pulpits or whose songs we sing. Dare I say it is not the God many of us carry in our hearts?

Instead, we have internalized a different god ... one who inspires no fear, no trembing, no awe. The spirit of our age, the god of our choosing ... well, he's nice and all ... in a Mother Theresa sort of way, only better. Really, we're glad he's around and grateful for his kindness. We have a vague appreciation for his overlooking our "mistakes", but we feel little obligation to break out of our comfortable apathy on his account.

Why has the church become increasingly irrelevant? Can it be because we serve and preach an irrelevant god of our own making, rather than the "Holy Holy Holy" God of Scripture? Can it be that any hope of Christian renewal, either personal or corporate, must begin with a genuine "Woe to me" moment?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

What You Know That Just Ain't So

I recall a day about 16 years ago while I was working in a military intelligence unit. My colleagues and I were onto something really big! As we pulled the information we had together, we saw it coalesce into a tantalizing picture … a report we were sure would end up on the desks of the nation’s senior leaders. Every subsequent fact and interpretation confirmed our initial suspicions, and all our most seasoned experts agreed that we were right. We could hardly contain our excitement as we prepared to send out the account that would shock the world!

The report went out, and we got all the attention we expected … except that we were absolutely wrong and wound up looking quite foolish! We’d started with a misinterpretation of a basic fact, which then led us to misconstrue each other detail. All the validating evidence we’d gathered actually fit an altogether different picture, only we couldn’t see it because our own seemed so logical, so very right. 

It was a textbook analytic mistake, and one with an important spiritual parallel. We’re all analysts of Scripture, and as sinful and finite creatures we struggle to grasp our Creator’s holy and infinite character. We often have a hard time even with the revealed truths of Scripture, and especially when it comes to what Paul referred to as “disputable matters.” We fail to see how easy it is to contort God’s Word to suit our preconceived notions of what is “right” or “self-evident.” Oblivious to our limitations, we stop learning once we’re at ease within a tidy doctrinal framework.

This problem is as old as sin. Jesus Himself entered unwelcome into a world of overconfident people who were unenthusiastic about seeing their beliefs challenged. The Pharisees had perfected a system under which every question had an answer and every action was dictated by a code. The Sadducees had a competing system, while the nearby Samaritans had erected a very different theology based on their unique history. Each sect met the needs of its subscribers, answering important questions about God and rooted in well-developed dogma based on an interpretation of Holy Scripture.  Each was profoundly wrong, blinding its followers to the truth.

No passage more clearly illustrates our capacity to be blinded by our assumptions than chapter nine of John’s Gospel, where Jesus encounters a man blind from birth. It’s his disciples who first demonstrate their limited comprehension when they ask Jesus a simple question with a flawed premise: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Their thirst for knowledge was commendable, but their question revealed a fundamental error, a belief that all suffering must have some proximate sin as its cause.  

Before healing the man, Jesus revealed to them a new truth, forcing them to expand their thinking: “It was not that this man sinned, nor his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.” The disciples had to absorb the idea that sin and suffering may not be so directly linked as seemed logical. In order to grasp this truth, the disciples would first have to surrender a doctrine they had previously regarded as obvious on its face. It would be neither the first nor the last time, but because they’d submitted themselves to Jesus’ teaching, it was a shift they could work through.

If this was difficult for the disciples, however, Jesus’ actual healing of this man touched off a much more jarring dilemma across the community. Could such a thing happen? Could this Jesus be more than he appears? If so, what does that mean to us? As the participants in this drama attempted to embrace the miracle, they’d be enabled or impeded by their own core beliefs and what they “knew” to be possible.

The blind man’s personal struggle was one with which we can relate—why did he suffer, how to find healing, and who is this man Jesus? The answers would gradually come into focus for him after he gained his sight for the first time in his life. When accosted by the Pharisees, he initially testified to what little he could comprehend: “He put mud on my eyes, and I washed, and I see.” This essential truth paved the way for him to accept its more profound implications. As the interrogation evolved, so did his core belief, as he first concluded that Jesus was a prophet, then began to defend him vigorously, and finally surrendered himself to the One who opened his eyes.

His neighbors and family faced a somewhat different challenge, as each was forced to draw his or her own conclusion about the man. Some, whether they simply knew the man better, or were perhaps persuaded to believe, accepted that this was indeed the same blind man who used to sit and beg. Others, however, rejected the truth. Unable to accept the “impossible,” they simply embraced the most convenient fallacy—he must be a look-alike!

The Pharisees, on the other hand, could not even begin to entertain the truth. Despite their encyclopedic knowledge of Scripture, they relentlessly embraced a core belief that blinded them to the facts plainly before them. They expressed this belief clearly: “We know this man [Jesus] is a sinner.” This conviction compelled them to construct a false narrative to explain everything that followed, which all evidence was then shaped to fit. Wherever they were unable to reconcile their certainty with the evidence, such as the refusal of the man’s fearful parents to renounce him, they resorted to flinging spurious charges and insults. They accused the man of being one of Jesus’ disciples (obviously part of an elaborate ruse), and then of being “born in utter sin,” before finally casting him out of the synagogue, thus removing the inconvenient evidence from further consideration.

Each of these examples demonstrates how flawed assumptions lead us to distort the facts and evidence to fit whatever belief systems we’ve constructed for ourselves. Those systems may be built variously upon our education, or the worldviews of our culture, family or close friends, or even church doctrine! Failing to appreciate our imperfect ability to grasp God’s perspective while clothed in these sinful and finite bodies, we treasure the easy answers. We forget the meaning of 1 Corinthians 13:12, that even believers see “dimly” and know “in part” while still clothed in our earthly bodies. Whether lazy, arrogant, or merely desiring to feel self-assured and confident, we round off the sharp corners to make everything fit within our tidy theological paradigms. 

In order to avoid these pitfalls, explore the boundaries of your doctrinal comfort zone and expect to be challenged on what you “know.” Remember that Elijah knew he was “the only one left” before God revealed to him that there were still 7,000 who had not bent the knee to Ahab’s false gods. Job was convinced that God had made a mistake in exposing him to harm, before God opened his eyes and caused him to put his hand over his mouth. Peter firmly believed that he must not go into the house of a Gentile, before God taught him that he should not call any man unclean. Each of these saints was a strong, Spirit-filled, upright and mature follower of God, and yet each had to let go of some basic error in order to learn a surprising new truth.

Allow yourself to be uncomfortable with God’s Word from time to time. Remember that “as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are [God’s] ways higher than your ways and [his] thoughts than your thoughts.” Don’t be afraid to read the parts that confuse you, and resist the temptation to instantly assign every messy and inconvenient passage a place within your orderly framework. Re-read, cross-reference, consult wiser souls, and don’t neglect to ask God himself to reveal the truth. Then learn to wait on him, for it’s better to admit confusion for a time than to force an interpretation just to make it fit. Accept that maturity is a lifelong process, not a plateau to be reached, and expect God to continue to surprise you with significant new insights throughout your life.

The famous American humorist Will Rogers once said, "It's not what people don't know that hurts them. It's what they do know that just ain't so." You’ve begun by choosing to follow and obey Jesus Christ for a lifetime. Now continue to mature by letting your understanding be continually challenged by the Word of God, and accepting that some of the things you think you know ... may just not be so.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Joy in the Journey

Today is the Jailer's 42nd birthday.  I don't generally think much about such occasions, but kind people remember them on my behalf.  It is a good day to consider the joy in the journey and to be grateful.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Our Lord and the Rich Young Ruler

Jailer’s thoughts on our Lord’s interchange with the “rich young ruler” are an opportunity to think about evangelism in terms of some basic categories: The young man’s opening question, “What must I do to have eternal life?” was a “covenant of works” question. The context for this is set forth in Chapter 7 of the Westminster Confession of Faith:
The first covenant made with man was a covenant of works, wherein life was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and personal obedience.

Man by his fall having made himself incapable of life by that covenant, the Lord was pleased to make a second, commonly called the covenant of grace; wherein He freely offers unto sinners life and salvation by Jesus Christ, requiring of them faith in Him that they may be saved ...
The conceit that the covenant of works has to do with something less than “perfect and personal obedience”, with simply being “a pretty good person”, and so that many of us are at most a detail or two away from eternal life, is hardly one that has ceased to be held since the young man’s time. A plausible case can be made that most of our “nice” neighbors think that way today, at least on the surface. So an important task in evangelism is disturbing that conceit. Of course, our Lord gives us a perfect paradigm for that. First, He challenges the notion that goodness is that easy: “There is only one who is good.”; Second, He insists on a standard: “... keep the commandments.”; Finally, He exposes the truth that, contrary to the young man’s self-assessment (“All these I have kept.”), the young man was, like us all, desperately corrupt, by, as Jailer put it, exposing the fact that “his riches were his god”. If we are to follow this paradigm, then the crux will come with that last step, as we’ll have to take the time and trouble to understand the particular person with whom we’re dealing. People are different, and have different characteristic sins. A “cookie cutter” speech won’t suffice.

We can hope that the young man “went away sorrowful” not just because “he had great possessions”, but, much more importantly, because he now realized that he had a desperate need of goodness, if he was to have any hope of eternal life. If our neighbors can be brought to that point, they may move with the original Philippian Jailer to the covenant of grace question, “What must I do to be saved!”

Jailer's Note:  Welcome to the Presbyter, a man I have known literally all my life, as he is my father.  We were saved at about the same time, through the patient love, prayer, testimony and teaching of the same man.  I'm grateful to have the Presbyter on board, and I think you'll find his insights challenging and biblical, and his historical perspective illuminating.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

From the Rocky Soil -- "God Knows What Happened to Him"

Here's a remarkable story I promoted from the "Comments" section of the previous post:
I had the experience in my home country during my military service & I'll tell you the story. A devout Muslim truck driver, (who turned Kabe every morning, prayed on a prayer mat very early in the morning ) came up to me four days before I finished my mandatory military service & told me this, "I have seen only two people who never sweared ever, one is one and the other is you. Why don't you come up and there is an empty bunk bed next to me, sleep there until you finish your four days here". I accepted this invitation and moved my belongings to one higher story in the building.

As I was being prepared to going to sleep the first night, he turned to me and asked me this question, "Are you Christian?" (remember this is an Islamic country and you don't reveal your religion to anyone, however, I had changed my identity card's religion from Islam to Christianity before the military service; so some people knew that I was Christian and passed the info to others). "Yes, I am" said I. He asked, "What would happen to me if I die today?"... I thought for few seconds and responded, "You'll go to hell". He than asked me, "Why then don't you try to save me?"... I was overjoyed to hear that ... so shared the gospel very clearly; [then] listened some Christian teachings over the radio. I didn't want to force him to a decision but make his own decision ... days after I finished my military service; he visited my church after he finished his service as well. He came very close to the decision point but I lost contact because I moved out of the country. So, God knows what happened to him.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Jesus Flunks Evangelism

What would you do if someone ran up to you, threw himself to the ground before you, and begged to know how he might be saved?  Surely this is the kind of opportunity every aspiring evangelist must dream of ... so what was Jesus thinking when he engaged this guy?

Christ and the Rich Young Ruler by Heinrich Hofmann
As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him. "Good teacher," he asked, "what must I do to inherit eternal life?"
"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.'"
"Teacher," he declared, "all these I have kept since I was a boy."
Jesus looked at him and loved him. "One thing you lack," he said. "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."
At this the man's face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.
It seems to me that Jesus would have flunked out of evangelism class with this interrogation.  Where were the Four Spiritual Laws?  The Bridge Illustration?  The Romans Road?  He didn't even need an alter call ... the guy was on his knees already!  It certainly wasn't very seeker sensitive of him to hit this fellow with a demand that he sell everything before following Him.  We enlightened, sensitive believers would have instead told him just to believe and receive Christ in his heart, and then all the rest of that stuff comes later.  My word, hadn't he been taught that you need to be patient with seekers?

Perhaps what Jesus knew is that "there is ... no one who seeks God."  The presumption behind much of our evangelism seems to be that there are all these seekers just trying their best to find God, and we need to woo them in so that they can finally meet the One they seek.  Well, okay ...  I suppose there are seekers, and surely they need God.  But what do they in fact seek?  Comfort?  Fulfillment?  Meaning?  What if they find all these things in the church, but they don't find true peace with God?  

This is not a minor point.  Much of the energy behind our evangelism presumes that the church needs to open its doors be ready to receive this body of seekers into our comforting embrace.  The danger is that the church will succeed in giving them a place to feel accepted, but that place will offer them only a kind of fulfillment, not actual salvation from sin.  They will achieve truce, perhaps, but not peace with God.  They may achieve a false sense of salvation, finding themselves among those who say "Lord, Lord" on the day of judgment, only to learn the horrific truth:  "I never knew you.  Away from me, you evildoers!"

The Scripture tells us that Jesus looked at the rich young man and loved him.  He then told him what he needed most to hear at that moment--that his riches were his god, and that he wouldn't find the true God without repenting of his materialism.  

Perhaps sensitivity impedes our love and impairs our message.  Perhaps the church's biggest problem is not that we are insensitive, but that we are unloving, arrogant, self-absorbed, timid, materialistic, and lovers of this world.  Certainly that sounds like my problem.

Update:  It looks like Seth is having similar thoughts over at Contend Earnestly.

Felix - "I Need to Learn to Love You"

Felix and I were the oddest of spiritual partners. God brought us together into the same leadership team for the Navigators' singles ministry at Clark Air Base in the Philippines in 1988. We were just different: Felix the charismatic, I the orthodox; Felix the officer, I the enlisted; Felix the Hispanic, I the Caucasian; he played the zealot, I the intellectual ... a legend in my own mind.  I could go on and on. Frankly, Jesus' command for us to love one another was highly necessary.

Each of us was hard-headed in his own way. Each was convinced of his own rightness, his own basic superiority (though I'm sure neither would have admitted to this so brazenly, even to himself). Each of us was very young in the faith, yet each felt he was more mature. We had many showdowns. I remember once Felix looking at me, his eyes showing the strain of our repeated wrangling: "I need to learn to love you." Each of us waited and hoped for the other to either change, or perhaps just to leave the team.

I distinctly remember when once we were in a leadership meeting, and Felix had had enough. He was out. After laying down his plans and bidding us farewell, lightning struck from the blue. Our teammate Brian--Mr. Analytical, who seemingly never displayed any emotion whatsover--said, "Well, Felix, I just have to say that I love you and I'm unwilling for you to leave." You could have heard a pin drop. Felix stayed. God had another plan.

Like the parent who locks the two fighting kids in a room, God was going to force us to figure this out. Felix and I were both going to have to learn to humble ourselves and learn from one another. God held us together because he was working on both of us. He wasn't going to let either of us off the hook.

By the time Felix was married in 1990, we'd been through it all: there was nothing left to argue about, and we'd both done quite a bit of growing up. Felix asked me to be his best man, and I enthusiastically accepted the honor. Nobody who knew us in 1988 would have believed it.  He had learned to love me, and I him.  

Today, Felix is in full-time service with the Navigators Military Ministry, building up young Soldiers in Christ. I'm not sure what part in his growth I can really claim to have some part of, but I do know that I was the one he had to learn how to love along the way, and vice-versa. In that sense, each was necessary to the other. To God be the glory.