Sunday, December 26, 2010

God-Centered Evangelism

In response to the Facebook version of my recent post, "Man-Centered Worship:  Our Altar-Call Culture", our old friend Chief chimed in with some thoughts I thought worth posting in full:
The Altar Call is another legacy from the early revivalism of the 2nd Great Awakening - C.G. Finney's emphasis on a kind of science of revival emphasized the methods of bringing people to Christ (the anxious bench, judicious selection of music, illustrations that draw attention to themselves rather than to the Scripture they are supposed to clarify, etc. ... sound familiar?). Revival was now a means that depended not on the Holy Spirit's intervention but on the right means to ensure His presence. My concern is not about the altar calls so much any more since we have to live with so many of them at the school where I teach, but how to conserve the fruits of those who make commitments there. Often I find that there are zero commitments, only vague emotional reactions to stimuli.
This seems right to me, and is an excellent reminder of why a familiarity with church history can help us recognize the roots of our thoughts and methods, and how many of those we assume leap right from the pages of Scripture have rather evolved through the centuries--and not always in a godly direction.

R. B. Kuiper's little book on God-Centered Evangelism was penned in response to this phenomenon, and only seems to gain relevance as an indictment against the present infatuation with emotional manipulation so prevalent throughout our churches.  In essence, we resort to manipulation because we don't trust God to save by His methods:  prayer, the Word, and His Holy Spirit.  

Saturday, December 11, 2010

We Are Not As Strong As We Think We Are

Anyone who reads these pages knows what a huge Rich Mullins fan I am. As I think back along my long, crooked road--one highlighted by selfish motivations and splintered relationships--this particular song has always hit me in the gut.

Well, it took the hand of God Almighty
To part the waters of the sea
But it only took one little lie
To separate you and me
Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are

And they say that one day Joshua
Made the sun stand still in the sky
But I can't even keep these thoughts of you
From passing by
Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are

We are frail
We are fearfully and wonderfully made
Forged in the fires of human passion
Choking on the fumes of selfish rage
And with these our hells and our heavens
So few inches apart
We must be awfully small
And not as strong as we think we are

And the Master said their faith was
Gonna make them mountains move
But me, I tremble like a hill on a fault line
Just at the thought of how I lost you
Oh, we are not as strong as we think we are


And if you make me laugh well I know I could make you like me
Cause when I laugh I can be a lot of fun
But we can't do that I know that it is frightening
What I don't know is why we can't hold on
We can't hold on

When you love you walk on the water
Just don't stumble on the waves
We all want to go there somethin' awful
But to stand there it takes some grace
'Cause oh, we are not as strong
As we think we are

Friday, November 26, 2010

Man-Centered Worship: Our Altar-Call Culture

Having once dared to suggest that excessive prayer requests can lead us into the ditch of man-centered worship, I will now turn my attention to another mainstay of our current Christian culture:  the altar call.

Now, what could possibly be wrong with giving sinners the opportunity to publicly repent of their sins?  After all, John the Baptist essentially made something like it the centerpiece of his ministry, while Peter famously presided over an altar call of massive proportions. Clearly, a public call to repentance--an "altar call", if you will--can be an integral part of an evangelistic outreach.

Once again, however, my concern is about the culture, not the act.  It is the alter call as the necessary affirmation, the required proof that the pastor and the "worship team" has hit the mark.  Consider some of the more absurd displays we engage in when our every worship service builds inextricably to an altar call:
  • The final song/hymn is less about worship and more about enticing congregants to approach the altar for anything at all--everything from repentance to requests for baptism to decisions about membership.
  • The unseemly, often interminable pleading for "just one more" to come forward.
  • The ridiculous spectacle of "I see that hand" call-and-response by the pastor.
  • The sense that only an altar-call response qualifies as a real "decision".
Beyond this, however, lies something more insidious.  We have in our churches the subtle destruction of the corporate worship experience when its report card is visible response.  Thus does the church succumb to our craving to immediate gratification, in which "rescued souls" serve as our validation.  This is the worship service as a weekly tent meeting.

There also exists a temptation to see the visible responses we see at altar calls to be determinative, when in fact they are often very problematic.  We fail to see how seriously returning evangelistic "false positives" can harm the church and those we seek to save.  By this I mean that our desire for validation can drive us to hound people into emotional responses often without substance.  To paraphrase R.C. Sproul, it is the tendency to see every "profession of faith" as automatically implying the "possession of faith", neglecting the truth that "Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire."

Understand I'm not against alter calls per se.  They have their place.  It's not the activity I have trouble with, but rather its ubiquitous application to every worship service.  As I said previously, "Worship has intrinsic value, which is often lost in the context of our methods." 

It is my suggestion that the main reason we gather together for "worship services" is ... well, it's to worship our Risen Lord.  By seeking a visible response within every corporate worship service the message we often send is that the chief reason we congregate is to validate our ministry.

Perhaps most alarmingly, it may even be true.

    Sunday, October 31, 2010

    Your Guilty Conscience: a Blessing or a Curse?

    When is it good to feel guilty?

    Of course, the Spirit of the Age says "Never!  Guilt is a negative feeling ... a psychological weight to be lifted by channeling positive energy and living in the now."  Even in Christian circles, there are libraries full of victorious-living strategies for the believer to "find healing from guilt" (interestingly, a phrase unknown in Scripture).  Is guilt merely a psychosis, a disease upon self-esteem, or perhaps a symptom of demonic oppression?

    Well, certainly there is "bad" guilt, if we define it as the refusal to accept and believe that, "Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."  (Romans 8:1-2)  To the extent that Christians--we who have had our sin fully paid for by Christ's blood--continue to carry the stench of condemnation, we suffer needlessly and hold Christ's glorious sacrifice in contempt. It is for us that the Scripture promises confidence, hope, and a clear conscience!
    "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful." (Hebrews 10:19-23)
    On the other hand, there are at least two kinds of guilt which are entirely appropriate.  First, the guilt of the unbeliever who has not been delivered from his sin is entirely valid and necessary.  For him to feel no guilt is self-deception of the deadliest sort, since there is then nothing to chase him into the arms of Jesus.  "... to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted." (Titus 1:15) Guilt for the lost sinner is the smell of gangrene in the wound, warning the patient that his infection will claim his life if he does not seek aggressive treatment.  To provide him superficial "healing" in the form of soothing words and psychological comfort is not ultimately to love him, but to watch him die of negligence.

    For the Redeemed of the Lord, there is yet another kind of guilt--that of unrepentant sin.  It is the guilt of David when confronted by the prophet Nathan ("You are the man!") or when he penned Psalm 32:
    When I kept silent,
    my bones wasted away
    through my groaning all day long.

    For day and night
    your hand was heavy upon me;
    my strength was sapped
    as in the heat of summer.

    Then I acknowledged my sin to you
    and did not cover up my iniquity.
    I said, "I will confess
    my transgressions to the LORD"
    and you forgave
    the guilt of my sin.
    This guilt also is necessary, for it alerts the Christian to his fault.  It says to him, "confess, repent, and be forgiven your guilt!"  It is not the guilt of condemnation--for indeed Christ's blood has fully and irrevocably paid for every sin--but rather of rebuke and correction.

    On the other hand, when I am guilty of sin and fail to respond in repentance, it is not God's benign approval I am experiencing, but rather the numbness of a seared conscience.  Because He loves me, God will chip away at that numbness until I return to him in humility.  Back to the medical metaphor:  like pain in a wound, I need my guilt to alert me to the problem.

    So how can I tell whether my guilt is a blessing or a curse?  Well, perhaps a better question is, "Does my guilt draw me nearer my Savior, or does it merely drive me into depression or denial?"  For truly, it is my response rather than the emotion itself which bears the most consequence.

    Sunday, October 24, 2010

    Confessions of a Church Discipline Wimp

    I have a confession to make:  I'm a church discipline wimp.  Oh, I know the right answers, and I can talk the talk.  But when it comes down to action, I can be found philosophizing in the corner, making recommendations about what others should do or just hoping it will all blow over.

    Why?  (Hint:  it rhymes with "elfishness").

    Of course it's no secret that the church at large has had trouble with this since Paul penned his rebuke to the church in Corinth, which is worth quoting in full:
    It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father's wife. And you are proud! Shouldn't you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this? Even though I am not physically present, I am with you in spirit. And I have already passed judgment on the one who did this, just as if I were present. When you are assembled in the name of our Lord Jesus and I am with you in spirit, and the power of our Lord Jesus is present, hand this man over to Satan, so that the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.
    Your boasting is not good. Don't you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—-as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival, not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with bread without yeast, the bread of sincerity and truth.
    I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people—-not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.
    What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. "Expel the wicked man from among you."
    From the perspective of our domesticated, polite, man-pleasing Christian society, there's really nothing here to like. In fact, I imagine 1 Corinthians 5 is excluded from your copy of "The Positive Bible" (no, I didn't make that up).  There is the passing of judgment, the handing over to Satan, the shunning and expulsion.  Ugh.  Let's talk about something more happy and genteel.  C'mon, sing along with me!  "I'm so glaaaaad I'm a paaaaart of the family of God ..."

    So why do I always find excuses for myself when matters of discipline come up?  Since I know the clear teaching of Scripture, I'm unable to argue in good conscience that this is not commanded, and I clearly understand that the biblical course is to confront the wayward brother--first individually, then with one or two witnesses, and then before the church.  Only by being both firm and loving may I serve the good of my brother and the integrity of the church.  Serious infections need to be treated aggressively or the patient dies.  But still I hesitate.  Why?

    Ultimately, the reason is simple.  In the final analysis, I love my own ease more than I love either my brother or the church.  I fear the consequences of confrontation for my own life:  from the time and energy confrontation will require; to the fractured relationships I will likely suffer; to the high potential for broader conflict within the church.  I believe the Bible's instruction in this matter in the abstract, but fail in the particular when it involves action by me personally.  Instead, I allow myself to rationalize away my own responsibility, hoping someone will pick up the ball and run with it. 

    I don't have the relationship.  It's not my place or my gift.  Wake me up when the dirty work is over.  I'll be in the corner philosophizing. 

    Such is the posture of a church discipline wimp.

    Sunday, August 29, 2010

    In Search of the Perfect Church

    My friend Kathy had just finished recounting to me the myriad insufferable problems with our church.  The theology was impure, the congregation was insufficiently devoted, the leadership was distracted and divided ... in short, the church was hopelessly off-course.  She and her husband were thinking of leaving for another church that promised better everything:  from the pastor to the laity to the doctrine.  It was time to go find a congregation more pure, united, and Christ-like ... well, you know, like those wonderful first-century churches.

    "Okay, Kathy", I said.  "I completely understand.  I just ask you one favor.  Call me when you find the perfect church."

    I didn't want to quibble with Kathy's complaints.  There was at least some merit in many of them.  Rather, I wanted her to see the danger that comes with church shopping.  In many ways, it's like shopping for a car.  This year's model looks perfect on the showroom floor.  When you first bring it home you're thrilled with the "new-car smell", the shiny paint, and all the things it does that your old car didn't do.  And yet over time the flaws start to manifest.  After each one the thrill wears off a little more, until pretty soon it doesn't feel new anymore.  Inevitably, you start staring longingly at car commercials and in showroom windows again.

    And yet, in another way a relationship with the local church is less like a car than it is a spouse.  At first everything is full of hope and promise--for better or worse, till death do you part!  That is, until you realize that it's not everything you dreamed ... it has serious flaws ... irreconcilable differences even!  Everything's changed--if only you'd known before you said "I do"!

    But like in marriage, the glory of committing yourself to a particular body of believers is in actually honoring the commitmentIf loving one another was easy, we wouldn't have to be commanded to do it.  Every church has problems, many of them severe.  Every church struggles, changes, has bad apples, and goes through ugly trials.  It is the nature of a congregation of sinners that they will, in fact, sin, and that will be unpleasant for all involved.

    Just as it was unpleasant for those wonderful first-century churches.  Just as it was in the immature, divided, sexually immoral, gluttonous church in Corinth; or the foolishly legalistic, "bewitched" church in Galatia; or the "lukewarm" church in Laodicea; or ... well you get the idea.

    Is separation ever called for?  Certainly, as in marriage, infidelity to God's truth may be cause for divorce.  Yet this is and must be a very high bar, not mere differences over peripheral, disputable matters.  How high?  Well, even that great Protestant reformer Martin Luther persevered within the Roman Catholic church for nearly 3 years from the time he posted his provocative "95 theses" until he was separated by excommunication.  Even so, it was not he who severed the tie with Rome, but rather Rome which cut him off when he continued to preach the truth from within, until the corrupt church leadership could no longer stomach his insistence on the centrality of salvation by faith in Christ alone.

    In relationship to my local church, as in my marriage, fidelity must be my first and overwhelming inclination, my consuming passion, and my ultimate objective.  As long as there is still love for Jesus present, there is still work for me to do in the place where God has planted me.

    Oh, and Kathy?  I'm happy to say that she and her husband remained and served that church well and faithfully for as long as we knew them, and the church was richer for their ministry.

    Sunday, August 1, 2010

    Ministry Burn-Out

    Disillusionment ... frustration ... burn-out.  They proceed as naturally from a life of ministry as weeds in a garden.  Left untended, they overrun the flowers as we lay down our tools in despair over the fruit we cannot see.

    The great Elijah, alone, exhausted and overwhelmed despite his impressive victory over the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel, could not muster the fortitude to respond to either God's mighty signs or his gentle voice at Mount Horeb.  His earthly walk ended abruptly, if spectacularly, as a passenger in God's fiery chariot.  It was a testament to his life of obedience in ministry, but a stark contrast to its ignominious final weeks spent largely in fear and despondency.

    Elijah's bleak end serves as a warning to all ministers of the gospel--which is to say to all Christians, for all who are saved by grace are called to give our lives to ministry in His name.  The nature of ministry is to give to those who will not give back in equal measure, or respond to our satisfaction.  Contrary to our wishes and dreams, a life of ministry is not one of unending excitement over the visible fruits of our labors, but rather one in which we must believe God that He will ultimately bless, honor and value our sacrifices for His name.

    Therefore, if we seek to gain the strength to continue from those visible fruits, we are setting ourselves up for failure.  We are, in fact, committing idolatry, insofar as we are attempting to squeeze from earthly labors such nourishment as can come only from our Lord Himself.  Ultimately, our strength must come from the eternal hope we share in Christ, and from the internal ministry of the Holy Spirit.

    The writer of Hebrews makes this clear in the starkest of terms, when he reminds us of the example of those who have passed before us:
    Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison. They were stoned; they were sawed in two; they were put to death by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.
    These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.
    Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider Him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
    The Apostle Paul knew all about this.  Languishing in a Roman prison near the end of his life, he experienced the full measure of earthly disillusionment:  alone, betrayed and virtually abandoned by those for whom he'd been "poured out like a drink offering," he discovered anew how his hope lay not in seeing the earthly fruits of his ministry, but in the knowledge that he had a "crown of righteousness" awaiting him in glory.

    "Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees," but know that such strength does not ultimately lie in seeing our labors bear fruit, but in knowing that the Master Gardener is alive and working through us in ways we cannot yet see.  We shall one day stand in wonder at His feet as we gaze on all that He has done.

    Sunday, July 11, 2010

    Paul the Octopus Predicts the Rapture (Parody)

    By Tomas Brandt
    Staff Sports and Religion Correspondent
    Oberhausen, Germany

    Paul, the prophetic German octopus who has recently become famous for successfully predicting the outcome of World Cup soccer matches, has determined that the Rapture will occur on October 15th 2014.  Stock prices dipped sharply on the news as cautious investors moved their money into gold and canned goods.

    The octopus, known by his most ardent followers as "The Apostle Paul", has been under witness protection since he successfully predicted Germany's loss to Spain in the World Cup semifinals.  Still, his most devoted followers remain convinced he has cracked the code to the end-times prophecies.  "Repent!  No prophet is accepted in his hometown!" shouted Hans Steinfelder outside a Frankfurt sports bar following Germany's predicted 10 July loss to Uruguay in the World Cup consolation game.  Shortly thereafter, Steinfelder was pelted with calamari seized from a nearby seafood market by a drunk and agitated mob of German soccer fans.

    The process of coming up with the Rapture's exact date was an arduous one, in which Paul chose from tasty morsels placed in boxes labeled "Before" and "After" particular dates.  "It took months to narrow it down, and the World Cup certainly slowed the process," stated Helmut Schmidt, Associate Marine Biologist at Sea Life Park in Oberhausen.  "Paul can only eat so much, and frankly, football simply took precedence over the Apocalypse."

    The setting of a date just 4 years from now has placed even more demands on Paul's services.  "There are just so many more questions that need answering," confessed Anna Geld of the newly established First Church of the Octopus in Berlin.  "What can Paul tell us about the Great Tribulation?  After all, if it hasn't started yet then I guess that rules out the post-tribbers, since we simply don't have 7 years to fit it in."

    For Gelda Stern, one question remains paramount.  "Who is the beast who comes out of the sea in Revelation 13, and has Paul ever met him?  Ten horns and seven heads ... I just know he must be another octopus mutated by BP's oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but the heathens at Sea Life Park refuse to let me ask the Apostle."

    * * * * *

    "At that time if anyone says to you, 'Look, here is the Christ!' or, 'There he is!' do not believe it. For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect--if that were possible. See, I have told you ahead of time ... No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father ... Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come ... So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him." (Matthew 24:23-25, 36, 42, 44)

    Wednesday, July 7, 2010

    "The Late Great Planet Earth" (Eschatology is Hard II)

    More on the "last days" from my ongoing discussion group over at LinkedIn.
    Having previously invoked the "88 Reasons" in this discussion, kindly allow me to toss in yet another blast from the not-so-distant past (1970): "The Late Great Planet Earth". Hal Lindsay made quite a bit of money combining premillennial dispensational eschatology (still much in vogue) with then-current events. Daniel, Ezekiel and Revelation were naturally the featured texts, and the 1980s were eventually picked as the time for Jesus' probable return. There was even a movie! Were some called to repentance? Probably. Were many others momentarily enthralled, but ultimately disillusioned and embittered? Assuredly.

    What makes this remarkable is that it's historically unremarkable. There have been attempts for two millennia to equate current events with Biblical prophecy (and that's if you count just the time since Christ arrived--largely unexpectedly--the first time)! Who or what exactly is Babylon the Great ... the Beast ... the Dragon ... the False Prophet ... Gog and Magog? How does Nero fit in ... or Saladin ... or Napoleon ... or Hitler? At some point, some historically tiny number of these will--one supposes--actually prove accurate, but the overwhelming evidence suggests that there is much peril involved in such things.
    We are by nature self-referential. Every culture and generation tries to see itself in prophecy. There is always another formula, a new variation on the old theme, and an explanation as to why the previous one didn't work out. The danger is not in reading prophecy ("All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful, etc."). No, the danger is in laboring to fit prophecy into our own particular time and culture. Could you be right? You could. But walk humbly and carefully ... many, many have gone before you and have proven utterly wrong.
    John wrote, "Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour." (1 John 2:18). His readers were already trying to foresee the onset of the end times, but John steered them in another direction: "Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son." (v. 22) John tried to move his readers from an attitude of looking for a specific danger to recognizing that they are surrounded by dangers. We are all to live as if it is the "last hour", "for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." (1 Thess 5:2).
    Once again I stress, it is preparation, not prediction, for which these prophecies were given to us. It is good and right to gaze into Scripture and see ourselves, so that we might be called to grace and repentance. It is dangerously self-centered, however, to gaze into Scripture and always see our own time and place in its prophecies. The church has fallen into that trap for 2,000 years. Eventually I suppose someone will be right, but only after far too many have been wrong ... and some of them quite destructively.
    Somewhere, someone is writing a book about how Barak Obama ... or BP ... or the Federal Reserve ... or Lady Gaga is the such-and-such of Biblical prophecy. It has always been so. But again, it is for preparation, not prediction, that we have these prophecies.
    "So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be self-controlled, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing." (1 Thess 5:6-11)

    Saturday, July 3, 2010

    "88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988" (Eschatology is Hard)

    I recently joined an online discussion about eschatology, or the study of the "end times". I began my thoughts with reference to a modern "classic" (er, sort of):
    Actually JB, the book that comes to my memory is "88 reasons Why The Rapture Will Be in 1988". Apparently we missed it! :)

    The truth that strikes me about date-setting specifically (and predictions more generally) is that, despite the fact that Jesus' first coming was, at the time, the most prophesied event in human history, nearly everyone got it wrong ... including (indeed, especially) the most humanly "prepared"--the Jewish clergy. Their problem was not a lack of information, it was the hardness of their hearts compounded by the inability to imagine God's actual plan beyond their narrow, self-referential interpretation of Scripture.

    What this tells me is that the purpose of the prophecies about His second coming is not prediction, but preparation.

    If pressed, I will confess to amillenialist leanings, which is to say that I tend to think the "last days" began in the 1st Century (Heb 1:2) and that the "thousand years" of Revelation 20 is a figurative reference to Christ's present reign over His church (this interpretation requires a non-chronological reading of Revelation). I generally admit to that tentatively, because I find the topic to be more divisive than it ought to be; because I think Jesus' first coming demonstrates that interpreting prophecy is much harder than we tend to think it is; and because it is far from being a central point of the Faith.

    Moreover, my understanding of church history is that eschatology can be very trendy ... in other words, the popular view of this subject often changes with the times, with the ebb and flow of world events. This is an understandable phenomenon, but should caution us that our interpretations are easily influenced by the specific places and times in which we live.

    My guess is that, when He does return, the circumstances will be unlike anything most of us has quite imagined, yet all of us will afterwards conclude that we should have known (and, more importantly, should have been prepared), as the prophecies will have clearly foretold precisely the way it actually happened. In other words, it'll be kinda like the first time, if only in that sense ... :) 
    Back to my point about "not prediction, but preparation", I rather like the way Keith Green put it (*Update -- the old Keith Green YouTube video was taken down, so I've replaced it with another version of the same song):

    Sunday, June 20, 2010

    The Strange Life and Death of Modern Evangelicalism

    What on earth is an "evangelical" in the 21st century, and does it even matter anymore?

    The term--which in its most basic form refers generally to a belief in the gospel--is often traced back to the period leading up to the Protestant Reformation.  During that time, it served to distinguish the high view of Scripture and belief in salvation by grace alone through faith preached by the Reformers against the heresies and abuses of the Roman church. 

    Throughout the years it has been problematic to distinguish the line between Evangelicalism from Protestantism generally, though beginning in the early 20th century it was increasingly used to do precisely that.  As the rise of liberalism presented an existential threat to the future of the church by undermining the authority of Scripture, thus corroding the coherence of the gospel message, "evangelicals" clung to the term as a way to preserve unity among like-minded Protestants, while also distinguishing themselves from the so-called "mainline" church.  The significance of the old denominational tags had begun to fall apart, so that an "evangelical" Presbyterian, for example, would find more in common with like-minded Baptists than his "mainline" Presbyterian cousins.  Thus of necessity was the term adapted to its modern usage.

    But a century later, the term appears to have lost most of its significance, even in this modern sense.  As I noted last year in "The Milky Church", an alarming number of self-identified evangelicals hold to blatantly non-Christian beliefs about such foundational subjects as the way of salvation, the authority of Scripture, and the divinity of Jesus Christ. 

    Moreover, the term has never really broadened to encompass the African-American church.  Though certainly a great many African-Americans would fall into the early 20th-century understanding of the word, as a practical matter they never embraced the designation.  While the 2008 Pew Survey I referenced in my "Milky Church" post attempts the distinction between mainline and evangelical, it jarringly does so for whites only.  The black Protestant population is unceremoniously lumped together.  Of course, the fact that much of the visible Southern "white evangelical" church became identified with (or at least tolerated) white supremacist political views in its midst makes this phenomenon unsurprising.

    The bottom line is that what we're witnessing is the death of a word by slow ambiguity.  If I refer to myself as an evangelical, I do so tentatively, as I'm not sure of what exactly the word means to those I'm speaking to.  Does it unite me with those whom I should shun, and divide me from those with whom I should unite? 

    Why does any of this matter?  Because in the end, a Christian is properly defined by his beliefs--not by his lineage, church membership, political views, demographic category, etc.  Moreover, as John warned:
    "Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage—with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths."
    Myths and heresies come from within the visible church as well as from the outside, and there must still exist ways to identify where and from whom one might find the truth faithfully proclaimed.  With the slow death of the term "evangelical", that task has become harder.

    Saturday, June 5, 2010

    Come and Die II: "'Bless Me Lord! Bless Me Lord!' You Know It's All I Ever Hear."

    I was recently reminded of this song during a Bible study, then posted the video on my Facebook profile. The theme of "costly grace" has been swimming around my head ever since. Following my last post, Come and Die, a friend posted a link to the very same video in her comment. So I suppose it's time for the timeless Keith Green to make another appearance on the cell walls ...

    Monday, May 31, 2010

    Come and Die

    I'm grateful to Ben Seal over at Unbreakable Joy for this superb quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian, author and martyr. As it is a short post, I hope Ben will forgive me for copying it in full:
    The world upon whom grace is thrust as a bargain will grow tired of it, and will not only trample upon the Holy, but also will tear apart those who force it on them. For its own sake, for the sake of the sinner, and for the sake of the community, the Holy is to be protected from cheap surrender. The Gospel is protected by the preaching of repentance which calls sin sin and declares the sinner guilty. The key to loose is protected by the key to bind. The preaching of grace can only be protected by the preaching of repentance.
    Bonhoeffer's best-known work, The Cost of Discipleship, begins with a call to remember that "Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace." Bonhoeffer was one of those rare men who backed up his words with deeds, choosing to return to Nazi Germany--where he was an outspoken opponent of the regime--on the last scheduled steamer from the US prior to the outbreak of war. Refusing to hide his lamp under a bowl, he was hanged in 1945 for plotting against Hitler.

    What do I know of this kind of cost-counting?  Frankly, almost nothing.  My faith costs me shockingly little.  I can barely be bothered to spend a more than few minutes on my knees or in His Word.  I am routinely far more ashamed of the gospel than I can bear to admit, though little more than gentle scorn awaits the gospel's fiercest advocates in our society.  I shudder to contemplate whether His reputation is truly, demonstrably more valuable to me than my own.

    If I were to offer a simple but extremely lame excuse for my appalling spiritual vapidity, I might point to my culture.  Western Christianity is comfortable Christianity.  Our challenges are to "make time for God" so that we can "live victoriously" in our suburban neighborhoods.  Don't talk to us about the cost of discipleship ... unless it's tax deductible. 

    But as I said, that's just my lame excuse.  The real reason is more elementary ... I'm self-absorbed because I want to be.  My sin isn't just a bad habit, it's a cancer.  I need God's grace more than I can possibly imagine, so I mostly just choose not to imagine. 

    One of Bonhoeffer's most profound statements was also one of his simplest:  "When Christ calls a man, He bids him come and die."  Die?  Not now, Lord, I'm busy.  Can it wait until the commercial break?

    Death Panels, Memorial Day and Nebuchadnezzar

    “this is only the beginning of what they will do” (Gen. 11:6)

    Governor Palin made a considerable stir when she coined the phrase “Death Panels” in the context of the current health care debate. However, consider the following hypothetical, but not at all implausible scenario: A man in his 60s has acute diabetes. Already, his circulation has deteriorated to such an extent that there have been amputations, and, if heroic measures continue to be taken, there will be more. The choice that faces him and his family has to do with the point at which they will cease to authorize heroic measures and ask instead for merely palliative care. In effect then, with the members being the man and his family, relying on God for wisdom in the matter, and taking into consideration both his financial circumstances and other very personal matters, what we have already is a sort of “death panel”.

    So the stir that Governor Palin caused doesn’t really stem from the fact that men and women will be called to make life-and-death decisions, since that is already a fact of life, but just who those men and women will be, and what their relation will be to the life involved. Even as things are, we find it disturbing that some of them may be pencil-pushers in some insurance company or Medicare office. But, at least as things are, the man and his family have a real say in the matter. However, as things move toward a paradigm where medical care is controlled by central authority, that say will evaporate: “Experts”, who know better than we do, will make the decision for us. It is this “death panel” that causes the stir.

    Memorial Day is a good time to pause and reflect on how things got to this point, a point where we cannot not only envision the possibility of government auditors and social workers telling us when it’s time for us to die, but we can envision it happening in the not-too-distant future and, worse yet, can envision ourselves doing little more than whine about it: The purpose of Memorial Day was originally to commemorate the approximately 390,000 who died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. In time, it’s purpose expanded to include the approximately 290,000 who died fighting for the Confederacy, and then, given more time, to include those who died in other wars. But the Civil War context is especially important since, in a very real sense, the sort of Constitution we had had, with its Jeffersonian-Jacksonian emphasis on the limitation of government power, was also among the casualties. As James McPherson points out in his “Battle Cry of Freedom”, the dominant theme in the pre-Civil War amendments is found in insistence on the things government “shall not” do. After the Civil war, the phrase “Congress shall have the power” becomes predominant.

    The developments latent in this change did not bear fruit immediately, but, with the Progressive Era, things picked up, and they’ve continued to do so since, with only an occasional pause. The character of this process can be captured in the Progressive Era’s contrast between “Negative Liberty” and “Positive Liberty”: In that view, we need to outgrow childish individualism and learn to enjoy together the fruits that an enlightened elite will give us. That elite has yet to fully embody itself in one Nebuchadnezzar-like figure (see Daniel 2), but it seems to be collectively as sanctimonious and intolerant of dissent as Nebuchadnezzar was. (Read David Brooks in the Times!) We don’t know what the Lord’s timing is in all this. Perhaps, He will bring the current power structure down and we will again see “a new birth of freedom”, or, perhaps the “coming of the lawless one” (2 Th. 2:9) is just around the corner. Indeed, “It’s not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority.” (Acts 1:7) Rather, we are called to be “salt and light” (Mt. 5:13-16), to “put no confidence in princes”, but rather to affirm that “Blessed is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the LORD his God.” (Ps. 146:3, 5)

    Thursday, May 13, 2010

    12 + 10 = 12 (more or less)

    When the foundations are being destroyed, what can the righteous do?” (Ps. 11:3)

    Not long ago, I had a Facebook interchange with a man in his early 20s in which we agreed that, where young men staying in school to avoid work is concerned, not much had changed in the last 50 years.

    His Facebook “wall” has confirmed my view that another place where things remain pretty much the same is the banter of many young “men”. While the slang may differ and the style too among groups, too many of them sound pretty much the same as they did in junior high school. Where their age is concerned, there seems to be a perverse arithmetic: 12 + 10 = 12

    As for the substance of their banter, style and slang aside, a lot of it is predictable, involving filthy language, sexual allusions and homosexual allegations. It was that way 50 years ago. Junior high school boys don’t seem to change.

    (It should be said that this state of affairs isn’t always limited to men in their early 20s. I personally first “grew out” of it, then fell back in during my late 30s, until the Lord snatched me out of that particular sewer - among others. Still, I think it’s true that the early 20s is the time when the problem is most acute.)

    There were “social networks” too 50 years ago, just not Facebook. When I worked on a construction gang in Nevada before and after my 22nd birthday, we chatted back and forth on the job that way. Then, after work, we retired to a place like “Sue’s Desert Club” in Battle Mountain, where Sue (the madam) and “the girls” joined in. But that was about the extent of the network: All of us, prostitutes included, would have been ashamed to use that kind of talk around our parents, especially our mothers. In the case of us over-grown-12-year-old boys, while we might have refrained around our mothers at 12 out of fear, the extra 10 years had at least changed us so that at 22 we refrained out of respect. So I suppose, at that time, the arithmetic was: 12 + 10 = 12 (plus a bit).

    Facebook seems associated with a change in that, at least where this young man’s “wall” is concerned: Though when he speaks of his mother directly, he seems to esteem and respect her, he’s not ashamed to take part in filthy public interchanges where he knows she (and his aunts, and ...) can see what is said. That, at least, seems to have changed in the last 50 years: 12+10 adds up now to less than it did then.

    I suppose the defense for this sort of boorishness would turn on the word, “hypocrisy”, an undervalued commodity: While little could be clearer in the gospels than the fact that hypocrisy has no place in the church, La Rochefoucauld’s maxim that, “Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue” tells us that the more we have of it in the civil sphere, the better. Facebook, inasmuch as it lends itself to breaking down the barriers between the private and the public, and doing away with seemly reticence generally, seems to me to reflect an age which is, in a word, growing more “vicious”.

    But these periods of history come and go (and will until the Lord returns). So I guess, there’s really “nothing new under the sun”. (Eccl. 1:9) As Solomon put it 3000 years ago: “The bond among fools is guilt.” (Pr. 14:9, Berkeley Version) It’s just that, sometimes, they’re more obnoxious about it.

    Saturday, May 1, 2010

    The Virtue of Being "Contemptible"

    What makes King David such a wonderful study is the extent to which we can not only be inspired by his triumphs, but also identify with his follies.  At least this is true for me. His experience in bringing the Ark of the Covenant up to Jerusalem is one which cuts me to the heart.

    Fresh off his anointing as King of Israel and subsequent defeat of the Philistines, David was understandably riding high.  That God had proven so faithful to exalting this shepherd boy from obscurity to royalty ought to have weighed heavily on David, but at this point he became arrogant and careless.  This would be inexplicable were David not a sinner like me, easily intoxicated by his own success.

    Awash in confidence, David yet sensed that that the Ark ought to come to Jerusalem, but he delegated its movement to his underlings.  He'd managed to neglect what made the Ark so astonishing--that its purpose was to represent God's holy and immediate presence among His people, and that it therefore was to be approached but once a year, by but one carefully prepared representative, and only with the blood of that special sacrifice which was for the sins of the people. 

    But after all, David was the king ... a very important man. 

    David had already started to forget that he was king only because Israel had rejected the King of Kings in favor of his predecessor, Saul.  Here was the perfect opportunity for David to lay his own glory aside and firmly reestablish God's sovereignty.  Instead, he busied himself with various kingly duties in Jerusalem as his minions casually transported the symbol of the Lord's holy presence on a cart.  One of these minions--the unfortunate Uzzah--would pay for David's sloppy arrogance (and his own) with his life.

    David's next step was naturally to throw a pity party, banishing the Ark to Obed-edom's household.  But as was often true with David, he eventually regained his composure and responded to God's chastisement.  David humbled himself, took off his royal robes, and "danced before the LORD with all his might" as the Ark was moved reverently and properly by the priests.  To his credit, he risked becoming undignified and disrespected before the "important" people in Jerusalem in order to humble himself and thus exalt his God.

    As usual, I find more to identify with David in his folly than in his victory.  Like him, I get utterly lost in the task of ensuring the fleeting and illusory wonderfulness of my own life and legacy.  Rather than "consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord", I am preoccupied with my earthly treasures.  Rarely do I doff my "royal robes" and throw myself before God's throne with anything approaching reverent abandon.  I'm too busy protecting my worldly image and the things that bolster it, for fear that I may lose the respect of those who don't ultimately matter.

    Sunday, April 4, 2010

    He Is Risen! Alleluia!

    Wishing you all the joy of Resurrection Sunday, from the Philippian Jailer ... with an assist from Keith Green.

    Monday, February 15, 2010

    Cliche Theology

    I recently took part in a Bible study in which the well-worn phrase "God hates the sin but loves the sinner" came up.  Something about this phrase has always grated on me, in part because I'm more than a little suspicious of Christian cliches, and in part because it seems to contradict much of what is written in Scripture about the relationship between God and sinners.  So, giving in to my well-documented penchant for provocation, I plucked out a few verses from Psalm 139 and tossed them carelessly into the middle of the room:
     If only you would slay the wicked, O God!
           Away from me, you bloodthirsty men!

     They speak of you with evil intent;
           your adversaries misuse your name.

     Do I not hate those who hate you, O LORD,
           and abhor those who rise up against you?

     I have nothing but hatred for them;
           I count them my enemies. 
    Objective achieved ... NOT!  Rather than a lively discussion, I merely provoked confusion, and quickly retired the question ... not because it is an unimportant one, but rather because I approached a serious issue haphazardly and without a good idea of where I wanted to lead the discussion.  Memo to Jailer:  not all provocation is good all the time.

    Even so, I remain intrigued by this question of whether "God hates the sin but loves the sinner." 

    In some ways, this phrase seems to work quite well as a simple way to understand that God must punish sin but takes no pleasure in pouring out his wrath on mankind.  Indeed, God's saving love for "the world" as expressed in John 3:16 is probably Scripture's best known truth. Moreover, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.  Yes, God hates my sin, but thankfully loved me, the sinner.

    On the flip side, serious people need to recognize that this phrase marks the beginning of the theological discussion, not its culmination.  It is the very epitome of a cliche:  "a trite, stereotyped expression; a sentence or phrase, usually expressing a popular or common thought or idea, that has lost originality, ingenuity, and impact by long overuse."

    What's more, in many ways the import of the phrase is to answer the question, "Can God love me, a sinner"?  Where it loses its impact is in modern Western thought, in which the core assumption that God (where He is recognized at all) is really compelled to love everyone.  In that sense, grace is not really so amazing ... it's just part of God's obligation as a father.  Ho hum.

    The problem with cliches, by definition, is that they quickly lose "originality, ingenuity, and impact" because we try to make them more than they are.  Does God hate sin?  Undeniably.  Does God love sinners?  Certainly, else we would all be lost.  But what's missing is an honest discussion about wrath--a word that appears 190 times in Scripture (NIV), as in:  The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.

    Of course, when our culture (and an increasing number of Christians) believe that our core problem is that we've got a misplaced sense of self-worth and a dysfunctional relationship with our Father, this language about "godlessness and wickedness" seems harsh, unnecessary, even archaic.  Let us woo the lost with uplifting sermons and sincerity!  After all, God loves the sinner ... it's just that nasty sin problem we have to take care of.  A quick sinner's prayer and a baptism thrown in for good measure should take care of it.

    Alas, this is where our cliches run dry, and where our easy converts quickly revert to worldliness when things get a little tough.  Grace means little to them, because sin means little.  God didn't save a wretch like me; he ran a wayward child through the Sin-B-Gone and hung an air freshener from my mirror.

    Of course, that's not the Gospel.  We don't just have a sin problem ... we are the problem!  Scripture describes us as God's enemies--by nature objects of wrath before the searing holiness of His presence.  It is for good reason that the Apostle Paul begins his epistle to the Romans with a discussion about His wrath upon our wickedness before he unpacks the astoundingly great news that He has redeemed us from our hopeless condition.  It is only when I truly appreciate my shocking condition before Him that I truly appreciate the glory of His grace.

    This is not advanced theology, this is the foundation of our faith ... and many our churches are filled with people who have little concept of it.  They know little more than our cliches.

    Sunday, January 31, 2010

    Land of the Free and Home of the Brave?

    “When a land transgresses, it has many rulers,
    but with a man of understanding and knowledge,
    its stability will long endure.
    ” (Pr. 28:2)

    On the first of every month a “Dow 30” company, call it “Very Big Conglomerate” (VBC) makes pension payments to tens of thousands of its retirees. One of them goes to me. Much of the payment is used to cover the premium on the retiree medical insurance policy that VBC makes available to Mrs. Presbyter and me.

    So VBC, “bless its heart”, is an important one of my “cash cows”.

    A condition for supplying that retiree medical insurance policy was that, when I turned 65, I was required to enroll in Medicare, Parts A and B, and, when Mrs. Presbyter turns 65, she will be required to do the same. So VBC has an emphatic interest in government policy towards “senior citizens”: If the government did not supply us with medical insurance, we could cost VBC a lot more.

    But this is by no means the end of the VBC interest in government: When I worked for them, our division supplied “process measurement and control” systems to various industries. A purely economic argument can be made in favor of these systems, since more efficient process control saves material and energy. But government imposes extra constraints that also incline industry toward buying these systems, some very defensible (like cleaning up the emissions that once denuded nearby hillsides) and some less so. Among the less defensible constraints will be the one currently being debated to impose very substantial energy taxes under the guise of restricting carbon dioxide emissions. Taxes like these would greatly tilt the economic argument for the systems VBC sells by making savings in energy much more attractive. So we can expect VBC to be all in favor of these taxes (but not for calling them that!) and to issue occasional press releases stressing their corporate concern for polar bears.

    So large, intrusive, regulatory government, “bless its heart”, is an important one of VBC’s “cash cows”, and so, once removed, it is one of mine.

    It’s at this point that we come to the catalyst for this post, the recent Supreme Court ruling striking down some constraints on issue advocacy by corporate entities. The letters column of our local newspaper has been filled with indignation about this, and the following quotation can be taken as representative: “Who gets to make the laws? Citizens or corporations? Duh!” If this sentiment had any validity, then it would follow that VBC should be elated at the ruling. Is it? I haven’t seen any press releases yet, but I doubt they’re very happy. The sort of activity that the ruling now legitimizes simply isn’t their style, nor that of most other large organizations. Indeed it’s more the style of a number of lesser players in the government-manipulation game that VBC probably would rather see driven out. They’re annoying competition.

    This isn’t to say that VBC wouldn’t encourage its employees to form Political Action Committees and give to various candidates that have a reasonable chance of being elected. Of course they do that and have ways of making sure that winning candidates are aware of their sympathy. But their principal means for influencing public policy is surely the same one that other large organizations use: They form relationships - at substantial expense! - with various entities, of which there are hundreds, and which make it their business to form relationships with various government officials and use those relationships to influence policy. These organizations (“lobbyists”) would say that they simply “inform” the officials, but it’s also the case that they provide them with various “perks”, including jobs for the officials’ friends and relatives, and, should the official be constrained (say by losing an election) to leave government, even, after a decent interval, a job for the official himself. None of this was affected in the least by the recent ruling and, even had it been, everyone involved would have quickly figured out how to effect the same sort of results with suitably-adjusted means. None of this is easy. It all costs money, a lot of money, and only organizations like VBC can afford it. And, if the truth were to be told, this state of affairs probably suits them just fine.

    A quick reaction to all this might be that, “There ought’a be a law!’ But the awful truth is that laws are a large part of the reason that things are as tangled and opaque as they are. VBC is very well adapted to manipulating government regulation through a process that is itself highly regulated. Indeed, the more regulation of elections and lobbying we have, the better for VBC and so too, to the extent that my welfare depends on VBC, the better for me. It’s a distasteful thought, but “full disclosure” demands it.

    Still, it is a distasteful thought and the question rises as to “What can be done about it all?” An obvious answer is “limited government”, since, with less influence to peddle, there’d be less influence peddling. But is this a likely outcome? The verse cited at the top of this post (Pr. 28:2) would seem to indicate that, in a democracy at least, it’s very unlikely, and that “many rulers” is associated with “transgression”. This seems to be consistent with the opinion that Plato ascribes to Socrates in his “Republic” (sections 557 and following). There democracy is described as “a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequals alike”. But, Socrates then maintains, the appetites aroused, along with the disorder, lead in the end to tyranny.

    Does Scripture lend any support to that picture? Consider the following two verses from Proverbs 29:

    “By justice a king builds up the land,
    but he who exacts gifts tears it down.”
    (Pr. 29:4)

    What is true for a king is also true for a democratic electorate, and experience seems to teach us that these have a substantial penchant for “exacting gifts” (or “taxing heavily” - ESV margin). But, surely, we might argue, won’t the electorate’s common sense tend to arrest the destructive process of treating itself to more and more “benefits” that, in the end, lead to ruin and tyranny? At this point, the second verse comes in:

    “If a ruler listens to falsehood,
    all his officials will be wicked.”
    (Pr. 29:12)

    Democratic electorates certainly have a history of listening to attractive lies, and a companion history of rule by scoundrels.

    I’m purposely painting a gloomy picture here in order to raise the question, “Is the gloom warranted?” Or can we see any signs of hope in Scripture that the country where I live will be, for my grandchildren, “the land of the free and the home of the brave”? Or will it be just a tangled web of “cash cows” and those who milk them, sinking into a “soft tyranny” and poverty? And what can - or should! - our churches do about all of this?

    Sunday, January 17, 2010

    The Grandkiddie Chronicles - Episode 3471: “The S Word”

    “ Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
    but he who hates reproof is like a cow.”
    (Pr. 12:1, Berkeley Version)

    One of the “perks” of being a grandparent is that one gets to star in the sit-coms scripted by the grandchildren. A favorite story of mine along those lines took place some months ago, when some grandchildren were playing in one part of our back yard, while I was gardening in another. One of them rushed up and accused his cousin of using “the s word”.

    Not too surprisingly, I was incensed and let his cousin know that, under no circumstances was she to use that word. She was young, and not too articulate, but she made it clear that the word was not on the forbidden list, and refused to budge from that stance. We parted with the very stern warning on my part that use of that word was out. I went back to my gardening, wondering at her stubbornness (and she can be stubborn!) and then, after a while, “the nickel dropped”: I called her cousin over and asked if, when he had said “the s word”, he had meant “stupid”. “Yeah”, he replied (in a “what else?” tone).

    There is a verse from Proverbs that speaks to my predicament at this point in the story:

    “If one gives an answer before he hears,
    it is his folly and shame.”
    (Pr. 18:13)

    However, bad as things were, they did recover a bit: I went to his cousin and confessed to her that I had wronged her, and told her I was sorry. It had a good effect.

    Still, my heart wasn’t really right. There were internal grumblings about “political correctness” and all that for a while. In addition, I took pains to let her cousin know that he was not to use the phrase “the s word” in that sense again. Just to reinforce the point, I introduced him to Proverbs 12:1, in my bible:

    “Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge,
    but he who hates reproof is stupid.”

    On reflection, that was a “stupid” thing to do and I doubt he was helped by it. While it does make the point that, as “s words” go, “stupid” is hardly down at the bottom of the scale, it doesn’t really tell us what to do with the word. When should we use it?

    One can gain some insight by comparing Pr. 12:1 in different versions of the bible: “Stupid” is by far the most common rendering (NIV, NASB, NKJV, CEV). But the King James rendering, “brutish” is sometimes found (KJV, ASV, YLT). As for what is meant by “brutish”, my favorite rendering is in the Berkeley Bible: “like a cow”. For those of us who have limited experience with cows, take a look at this link. If the intent of the Berkeley version had had to do with intelligence only, they might have chosen “like a sheep”. Instead, they chose “like a cow”. Perhaps the intent was to say that someone who resents being reproved has reduced themselves to acting no better than a cow, a donkey, or any other “brute beast” that is particularly stubborn and stupid.

    So perhaps the following lessons as to what to do with the word “stupid”, at least in the sense that it’s used here, can be drawn:
    1. It’s meaning here is very emphatically moral: It’s a type of wickedness in this context, not a measure of someone’s IQ.
    2. Because of that, there definitely will be times when it will be appropriate to confront someone over “stupid” behavior, but one has the responsibility to be ready to explain the sense in which it’s being used: We need to be able explain that, in terms that aren’t needlessly offensive, “You’re acting like a cow.”

    I doubt that my little granddaughter meant it that way. Instead, she probably meant it as simply an insult or put-down. (I imagine her cousins had made her angry - and she does anger easily.) So, had I thought all that through at the time, instead of “acting like a cow”, we might have been able to sit down together and work the issue through in terms of the loving conduct toward one another to which we are called in Christ. Young as they were, I think they could have understood the meaning of another verse from the same chapter of Proverbs:

    “There is one whose rash words are like sword thrusts,
    but the tongue of the wise brings healing.”
    (Pr. 12:18)

    Instead, I reacted as I did and “a teachable moment” was lost (though asking her to forgive me did recover some good from the affair).

    Sunday, January 10, 2010

    Rejoice Always ... even from a Wheelchair!

    Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I keep your word
    .” (Ps. 119:67)

    Rejoice always, ...” (1 Th. 5:16)

    This post is something of a follow-up to Jailer’s post “Doesn’t God Want Me to be Happy?” and my own post “Hard, but Amazing Grace”:

    The second post deals with the fact that many come to Christ only after having made a real mess of their lives - and many relationships. Others, despite real faith, may persist in “simplicity” and likewise make that sort of mess, before finally humbling themselves before the Lord and submitting to Him. But then, while the Lord does “lift them up” (1 Pt. 5:6), rather than snatching them out of all that and into earthly bliss, the Lord puts them to work living with that mess, making it better where they can, and letting their faith glorify Him in the midst of it all.

    Jailer’s post deals with the refusal of many Christians to accept that there may be things in this life that they simply may not have, at least not for their good. The two posts are connected in that this refusal is “simplistic”, in the sense of some of my earlier posts, and so is an important mechanism in the process many “little ones” in the church use to make that mess of their lives. One thinks, for instance, of the role that “Doesn’t God want me to be happy?” plays in so many of God’s little ones entering into relationships that will cause them lifelong heartache.

    The subject of this post is a story of that sort, of one of His children, a dear friend, who came back to Him, only after many years of ignoring Him, and who, having left Him as a vital young woman, came back to Him much older, and as a stroke victim in a wheelchair. I think of her whenever I think of the subject of a “life verse”. Hers was Psalm 119, verse 67:

    Before I was afflicted I went astray,
    but now I keep your word.

    Before she was stricken, my friend would have been seen by the world as a bright, effective, energetic and successful professional. But, though raised in the church, she had long since decided to live apart from God. Of course she did not altogether despise His precepts. Even in this “crooked and twisted generation” (Phil. 2:15), it’s hard to succeed doing that. But still, she did “what was wise in her own eyes” (Pr. 3:7). To her eventual dismay, she let that mindset also affect her response to her doctor’s warnings about being careful to take her blood pressure medicine. The result was a major stroke, which left her paralyzed on one side of her body. In addition to the purely physical effects, while she was by no means left mentally incompetent, she testified often to being slower in grasping things than she had been.

    As another consequence, she was left with medical expenses that all too quickly gobbled up all her assets and left her supported only by Social Security’s Supplemental Security Income. That situation, in turn, left her in a nursing home near our church, where the arrangement was that the government check went to the nursing home provider, except for $35 which was left for her to spend each month on odds and ends. Along with that, life in the nursing home had many frustrations, including the fact that any valuables which the patients might have were often stolen. Many of them became quite bitter over all this, and the bitterness often seemed to harden them. My friend wrestled with these feelings.

    Then, one day, just as we were closing up after a morning worship service, there she was: We were a presbyterian church and she had been raised in a presbyterian church, and so asked about worshipping with us. We straightened matters out where worship times were concerned and she began to attend. After a while, she asked about joining the congregation, and satisfied the elders that her profession was genuine. I won’t go into the details about my subsequent involvement in the life of this dear sister, or of that of several others in our congregation, but we were an important part of her life, and she of ours, up until the time of her death.

    As I indicated above, when we knew her, she was not nearly as quick mentally as she had been while in the world, and so there is no dazzling story about books written, or classes taught, or anything of that sort. There’s just the story of a simple life of faith in a wheelchair, lived before - and encouraging - a few of her brothers and sisters in Christ. But, in the essential sense, she was able to “rejoice always” (1 Th. 5:16), and she helped all of us to do so too.