Wednesday, June 29, 2011

I Would Rather Live on the Verge of Falling

Any discussion about Rich Mullins has to include the words "brutally honest".

This little monologue made a profound impact on me when I first heard it. I love his statement "I had to think back over our conversation to see if I was [Rich Mullins] or not, and decided that I must be."

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Curse II: And He Will Rule Over You

It's been two years since I discussed The Curse and its long-term effect on women:
This translation captures more closely the power struggle that sin prompts between men and women. It's more than just dependency and subjugation, it is a struggle for control brought upon us by the curse of sin. The woman's desire will be frustrated by the man's physical strength, so she must resort to subtler manipulations to wrest control away. He then responds with his own sinful impulse to crush her resistance.
Those of us who live in the West can possibly be excused for thinking that this "sinful impulse to crush her resistance" is either largely a relic of the past, or we equate it with pay inequities or institutional resistance toward women in positions of power.  If this is you, you may want to consider watching The Stoning of Soraya M. 

First a warning ... The Stoning is as gut-wrenchingly violent as The Passion of the Christ, but without the latter's undercurrent of messianic triumph.  It is merely tragic and enraging.  It is based on the book by Freidoune Sahebjam:
The international bestseller book tells the true story of one of the victims of stonings in modern Iran. Soraya Manutchehri's husband Ghorban-Ali was an ambitious man, prone to fits of rage. He wanted a way out of his marriage in order to marry a 14 year old girl but did not want to support two families or return Soraya's dowry. When Soraya began cooking for a local widower he found a way to achieve his goal. Abetted by venal and corrupt village authorities, he accused his wife of adultery. She was convicted, buried up to her waist, and stoned to death.
A casual tour of the Old Testament reveals that, absent the restraint of law, custom or conviction, this base male instinct seethes to the surface.  From the practice of polygamy to unspeakable acts of violence, the Curse's impact is clearly manifest.  Witness the hideous abandonment, gang rape and murder of a Levite's concubine in Judges 19 for one of the most shockingly vile accounts of raw evil in all of Scripture (spoiler alert ... there are no heroes in this story).

Such barbarity can seem primative and nearly extinct, but the Taliban in Afghanistan demonstrate that the Curse-induced impulse by men to abuse power gained by strength and fear is very much alive and well in today's world.  The 29 July 2010 edition of Time Magazine recounts one horror:
The Taliban pounded on the door just before midnight, demanding that Aisha, 18, be punished for running away from her husband's house. They dragged her to a mountain clearing near her village in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan, ignoring her protests that her in-laws had been abusive, that she had no choice but to escape. Shivering in the cold air and blinded by the flashlights trained on her by her husband's family, she faced her spouse and accuser. Her in-laws treated her like a slave, Aisha pleaded. They beat her. If she hadn't run away, she would have died. Her judge, a local Taliban commander, was unmoved. Later, he would tell Aisha's uncle that she had to be made an example of lest other girls in the village try to do the same thing. The commander gave his verdict, and men moved in to deliver the punishment. Aisha's brother-in-law held her down while her husband pulled out a knife. First he sliced off her ears. Then he started on her nose. Aisha passed out from the pain but awoke soon after, choking on her own blood. The men had left her on the mountainside to die.
The fact that our modern, Western society does not tolerate such things is a testament to the benefits of God's common grace, as well two millenia of Christian influence on laws and culture.  The Stoning of Soraya M. is a grim reminder of what is possible when the effects of the Curse on male behavior rage unchecked.  There but for grace ...

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Born Again 9: Jesus Without Religion

Previous:  Born Again 8:  An Act of the Will

Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works 

In the fifth installment of this series, I'd noted the sensation that "evangelism is supposed to be harder than this."  One reason I felt this way was that Sharon had thus far been responding mostly to my own writings, which of course simplified my research since I knew precisely what I meant when I said such-and-such. 

I am constantly aware, however, that there are many other voices out there, and our running conversation brought these to the forefront.  In response to a question about my blogging, I issued a gentle caution:
Yes, I have definitely learned the perils of social media. When you throw something out there for the public, "the public" has the ability to chime in. Not everyone in "the public" is necessarily worth listening to. Sometimes I respond, sometimes I give up.

What it does draw attention to is that there are people out there who hold some very odd and sometimes very harmful views about Christ, the Bible, etc. Even our "Christian Book Stores" can contain some very off-base stuff, and of course the Internet is the wild west.

Ephesians 4:14 is instructive: "Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming." And they didn't even have an Internet in those days! :)
So, like I said, Sharon, listen only to me ... the fount of all wisdom!  Yeah right. 
Well anyway, this exclusiveness couldn't possibly last forever (frankly, even if it were possible it would be a lot of pressure).  So God decided it was time to open up Sharon's aperture:
Anyway, since you mentioned "harmful views about Christ, the Bible, etc.", I came across a book that's been collecting dust at one of our restaurants here. I started to read it yesterday during my break while waiting for my food to be cooked. It had an interesting title. One of the employees there told me that I could have it because it "didn't belong to anyone". So I took it (borrowed...I'll return it). It's a book by Rick James, titled Jesus Without Religion. Have you heard of it? I'm asking because I value your opinion highly and would like to know if I should continue reading it or not. So far, it's "fun reading". I just don't know what to make of it yet.
Honestly, I had never heard of this book, and the only Rick James I knew of was a particularly sleazy and drug-addicted pop star who died in 2004. 

I rather hoped this was a different Rick James.

Still, she had come to me for guidance, so I did what Jesus would have done ... I Googled it and found it in Campus Crusade's bookstore:
Jesus Without Religion paints a compelling portrait of Jesus and after finishing the book, the reader will clearly understand the words, works and claims of Jesus. The book concludes with a clear presentation of the gospel as well as an opportunity to respond. Think of JWR as the More Than a Carpenter for this generation, especially as the writing style is far from formal.
Well, it didn't look like heresy.  Frankly, this seemed like a pretty good plan.  Glad I thought of it.  Or something. 
I haven't read it, but a quick look at the summaries I see online make me think it's probably a good book. I'd like to hear more about what you think of it.
I suppose asking her for a book report is something of a cop-out. A responsible guide would actually read the book and then give her some brilliant insight. Unfortunately she was already way ahead of me and there was no time to catch up. I was going to have to trust God, and I was going to have to trust Sharon. God had of course proved himself faithful, and Sharon had proved herself responsible and insightful.

Next:  Born Again 10:  What do you Want?

Cliche Theology II: The Shallow View of a Weak Gospel

Gary over at Spiritual Healing and Growth has linked to my previous post on Cliche Theology with some interesting thoughts, which he culminates with:
Cliches will not speak to the whole gospel or to the whole person. Thus, we have a truncated view of fallen nature, a truncated view of the gospel and a truncated view of Christian redemption.

Cliches then are forced to fit into the shallow view of fallen nature and a weak gospel.
Check out the whole thing at his post:  Why Are Cliches So Rampant In Christianity?

In Search of the Perfect Church II

Having previously denied the existence of such a place, I was astonished to find there was one.  Who knew?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Born Again 8: An Act of the Will

Previous:  Born Again 7:  I Want it Now

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As I considered Sharon's journey toward Christ, two issues were foremost in my mind. First, I needed to give her some helpful guidance in approaching Scripture. Her last note about feeling discouraged and "flipping to a page" reminded me how big and mystifying the Bible can be to someone who doesn't know it well. I decided to give advice on three issues: what books to read first, finding a good study Bible, and what to do when you're confused. Those were three things that I remember needing help understanding when it was all new.
If you're looking for something to just sit down and read, I might suggest this ... start with John and then just keep going ... Acts, Romans, etc. You'll find much to challenge and encourage you, and probably plenty that you don't understand. But that's fine ... just say, "God, please reveal to me what this means when I'm ready" and keep right on going.

Also, you might think about picking up a nice "study Bible" if you don't have one. I personally am a fan of the NIV Study Bible, because it's clear and easy to understand and has lots of helpful notes, but is also very reliable and true to the original meaning. It can really be a help!
The other issue involved how to move Sharon from inquiry to decision-making. More than anything I wanted her to make an informed and sincere decision to follow Jesus. It was time to start talking about acts of the will.
I once saw a video that depicted a person struggling with whether to follow Christ. He was trying to come to terms with 3 things: his intellect, his emotions, and his will. I think this is helpful, because we all fight through our objections, but it's helpful to know where those objections come from. Are they intellectual, are they emotional, or do we just not want to make a decision?
Figuring out where our objections come from can help us to figure out what we need to do next.
This all seemed very wise and perceptive to me, but as the old saying goes, "Man plans, God laughs". Indeed, God was about to move things along in His own way ... a way I had not contemplated. He would remind me once again that His salvation relies on His work, not on my cleverness.  For that you'll have to wait for the next chapter!

In the meantime, suffice it to say that this unexpected turn would mark the confluence of two competing theological understandings: the role of "free will" as opposed to God's sovereignty in saving the sinner. To me, this has gradually ceased to be such a great dilemma. Man does indeed choose to follow God, of course, but only because God chose him first. From man's perspective, his choice is very real and wholly "free".  However, because his unregenerate will is enslaved to sin, Scripture makes it clear that God's intervention is required to enable man to choose Him. Or, as I have blogged previously:

The tension between predestination and free will is real, but exacerbated by the limits of our human understanding. To many of us, to accept the idea of predestination would seem to reduce us to mere automatons. To be sure there is mystery here, but choice is not a zero-sum game. The Bible clearly teaches that God foreknew, predestined and then called me, but it also clearly places upon me the responsibility of choosing to "Repent and believe the good news." God chooses, and I also choose ... both are true without diminishing the other, in the same way that my body occupies physical space without in any way reducing the amount of space left available for the omnipresent God to occupy.
(For more on this subject, please see my entire post at "Predestined to Write This?")

This concept is difficult to grasp at first, but it is also wonderfully freeing to the evangelist. My wisdom, advice, concern and prayers may be useful to Sharon, but only God's sovereign will and action would be decisive.   Put more simply, I couldn't be smart enough to pull this off or dumb enough to screw it up, because it really wasn't up to me.

Next:  Born Again 9:  Jesus Without Religion

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Sometimes the Night was Beautiful

The Jailer's long-time readers know what a sucker I am for Rich Mullins. Sometimes by Step is one of the first of his songs I really fell in love with, and this is a simple and beautiful rendition.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Born Again 7: I Want it Now

Previous:  Born Again 6:  The Harsh Truth that Gets in Your Guts

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Sharon's notes were beginning to reflect a growing and palpable hunger for God's Word.  One thing I've always found energizing about emerging Believers is their sense of wonder and discovery at those things we "mature" (sadly a euphamism for "stagnant") Christians take for granted.
I re-read a verse you cited in one of your previous emails, from Hebrews 4:1 and then you jumped on to 12-16.   I found the verse after your "..." interesting:

"Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it ... For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith".
Sharon found this passage "interesting" because in it she saw herself.  That may sound obvious, but those of us who teach are prone to a very bad habit -- we tend to read for other people.  By that I mean we think to ourselves as we read the Scriptures, "Oh, I should remember that for Sunday school!"  Or, "Joe should really read this passage.  It would really address his problem with such-and-such a sin." 

But for Sharon, everything was new and exciting and personal.
I've read the Bible more seriously in the last week than I've ever had in my life and am feeling that I might be reading it just for the sake of reading it. I was up until 1:00 am last night reading and feeling discouraged for some reason. And then, as I was about put The Book down, I flipped to a page and read the verse on Philippians 1:15 and 18:
When's the last time I read the Bible until 1:00 am?  Never mind, I'd rather not answer that ...
"It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill...But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. Yes, and I will continue to rejoice".

So, I got to thinking. I know what my motives are and that is to find my true faith in God. I'm just being impatient about it because I want it now. But if God can be patient with me and you will be patient with me, I suppose I should be patient with myself in trying to understand what I need to understand.
I'm reminded of one of my very first posts back in 2008 ... a very brief one about a brother named Patrick, whose enthusiasm over Scripture caused me to observe that, "The longer I walk with Christ, the more I need new Christians to remind me of the joy that comes with salvation."

Next:  Born Again 8:  An Act of the Will

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Your Guilty Conscience II: Guilt Gets a Bad Rap

"Isn't guilt a sin?"

I got this question during Sunday school last week, recalling my previous post on the subject to mind.  The question didn't surprise me, because this idea that all guilt is wrong is so ingrained in our culture today.  I answered with an analogy.

Guilt, like pain, is unpleasant.  If we are in great pain, we understandably want it to go away.  We want relief quick!  But pain also alerts us to some medical malady.  If by treating the pain we mask the malady and leave it untreated, the results can be catastrophic.  For this reason, those who suffer from leprosy and lose their nerve endings learn to very carefully monitor their extremities.  Because they may not feel the pain of a simple cut, infection can set in before they realize they've been injured.

Guilt plays a similar role with respect to sin.  Its primary function is to alert us to a deeper problem.  David needed to feel the guilt of his sin with Bethsheba.  Denying it merely prolonged his rebellion.  In the end, God used Nathan to apply the scalpel to David's conscience, revealing David's guilt and enabling him to repent.

Of course, our culture flatly rejects the concept of rebuke (see this post for more on that), because rebuke implies guilt, and guilt is bad!

Now, is it possible to experience false or extreme guilt?  Sure, in the same way it's possible to suffer from hypochondria or health anxiety.  But on the whole, guilt gets a bad rap.  The biblical answer to guilt is not to treat the symptom, but to go after its root cause through confession, repentance, and then--like David--to experience the cleansing grace of God.

I plead guilty, Your Honor, and throw myself on the mercy of the court!
Have mercy on me, O God,
   according to your unfailing love;
   according to your great compassion
   blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
   and cleanse me from my sin.

For I know my transgressions,
   and my sin is always before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
   and done what is evil in your sight;
   so you are right in your verdict
   and justified when you judge.
Surely I was sinful at birth,
   sinful from the time my mother conceived me.
Yet you desired faithfulness even in the womb;
   you taught me wisdom in that secret place.

Cleanse me with hyssop, and I will be clean;
   wash me, and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
   let the bones you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins
   and blot out all my iniquity.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
   and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
   or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
   and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me.

Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
   so that sinners will turn back to you.
Deliver me from the guilt of bloodshed, O God,
   you who are God my Savior,
   and my tongue will sing of your righteousness.
Open my lips, Lord,
   and my mouth will declare your praise.
You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart
    you, God, will not despise.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Born Again 6: The Harsh Truth that Gets in Your Guts

Previous:  Born Again 5:  I'm Constantly Battling with Him

Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works 

Sharon had provided me every possible clue that she was more than ready to hear the unvarnished truth. She was not holding back. How on earth could I? 

I had recently been teaching out of Hebrews, a book full of both warnings and encouragement. This wasn't a coincidence. God was showing me the way ...
Of course I'm not going to lose patience with you. In return, can I ask you to keep up your quest to know the true God?

"Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it ... For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God's sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need." (Hebrews 4:1 and 12-16)
Be careful. Do not fall short. God judges our thoughts and attitudes. Nothing is hidden. Hold firmly. He knows our weaknesses. Approach with confidence. You will find grace.
God give her ears to hear. 
I want you to know that I am making efforts in terms of finding ways to learn whom our "true God" really is by surrounding myself with friends such as you who have, as far as I know, found the way. Yes there are other things I can do, but for now, I'll have to take little steps at a time before those people close to me accuse me of "being weird". So having said that, you asked me if I can "keep up my quest to know the true God?"

My answer is, "I promise".
It was a wonderful promise, but I was still looking for her to grapple openly with the core of the gospel. It was plain that God had rubbed her conscience raw.   Her conscience.  Perhaps that was the angle He wanted me to take.
God places our conscience inside us to guide us toward Him. This is our inner compass, our sense of right and wrong. It’s a good thing, but it’s not perfect. The Bible talks about our consciences as being "seared" and "defiled", meaning that over time we build up a resistance to the truth about ourselves. It’s like when you look at your daughter’s room and tell her to clean it, and she says it’s clean enough. But you can see the socks under the bed and the crayon on the wall and the dust on the dresser. 
Her conscience may be clear with respect to her room. Her problem is that she has become used to a certain amount of clutter and dirt and she no longer sees it as being messy. It’s normal for her. This is what happens to our consciences over time. They become defiled and seared so they no longer see our sin as bad. It’s just normal.

Another way of looking at it is like a callous. If we say a person is calloused, we mean he’s insensitive. We also can be insensitive to sin, basically getting so used to it that we no longer see it as such a problem. 
It’s by drawing nearer to God that we become aware that there’s a problem. First, we are aware He is holy--100% clean, righteous and pure. This cuts through our callous so that we once again feel the terrible wrongness of our own sin. Our sin is so much worse than we thought, standing out like a dark blot against the white light of God’s perfection!
Fortunately that’s not where the story ends, because His grace is sufficient to cleanse even the worst parts of us. But until we draw near to Him and face our own sin, grace doesn’t really seem so amazing.
The holiness of God. The corruption of sin. The amazingness of grace. The core of the gospel.
Illustration by Sheri Lynn Boyer Doty
Thank you for this message. It’s nice to start my week with a lesson that’s simple enough to comprehend, yet can easily be ignored. The Bible is "harsh" in many ways because it’s honest. It gets in your guts.
Next:  Born Again 7: I Want it Now

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Born Again 5: I'm Constantly Battling With Him

Previous:  Born Again 4:  He Rewards Those Who Earnestly Seek Him

Navigate:  Born Again:  The Complete Works 

It had been nearly a quarter century since Sharon and I had gone our separate ways, but suddenly I felt time pressing on me. In part it was my excitement at seeing her draw near the point of decision, but I also sensed her anxiety at knowing she had business to do with God. She was looking to me to guide her, and I was 3,000 miles away. The wonder of technology had compressed the distance, but still ...

On the other hand, a part of me can be surprisingly (even disturbingly) ambivalent about leading people to Christ. Having seen enough "prayers to receive Christ" upon which time and lack of fruitfulness later cast doubt, I'm biased toward slowness. This is also wired into my personality and my own gradual, deliberate, and rather cerebral Orthodox Presbyterian path to salvation. Oh, and did I mention I can be kind-of a coward?  Despite my moniker, were the actual Philippian Jailer to cast himself at my feet and cry "What must I do to be saved?", I suspect I would send him away with homework to make sure he was serious. 

Anyway, I was still in second gear, which I'd reached more as a result of Sharon's white-unto-harvest eagerness than by any inner boldness on my part.  I was trying to help my friend establish a foundation for faith by sending her little notes of encouragement:
“The grace of our Lord was poured out on me abundantly, along with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst. But for that very reason I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his immense patience as an example for those who would believe in him and receive eternal life.” (1 Timothy 1:14-16)

Dear Sharon … thinking of and praying for you this morning.
One thing I love about new believers is how they get excited about the very things all of us "mature" guys should be excited about.  Whereas my faith can seem tired and worn, Sharon expressed a child-like excitement at hearing the truth that I'm supposed to retain:
You ALWAYS seem to know which verse to pick out from THE BOOK to make sense of the day. Thanks! I’ll keep reciting it all day. :)

“ that....Christ Jesus might display his immense patience”. Seriously, sometimes I think that HE WILL lose patience with me because I’m constantly battling with HIM all the time...

Please don’t lose patience with me because I know I may become your biggest challenge.
I certainly wasn't having a patience problem yet.  In fact, the depth of her self-awareness and determination to engage with God were really motivating.  I was also thinking to myself that evangelism is supposed to be harder than this.  Or maybe we just make it seem harder by trying to force God to react to our little manipulative tricks and methods.  Regardless, God was clearly at work in Sharon's heart in a remarkable way--and had been for some time before I showed back up.  My job was straightforward:  guide her by following Him.

Next:  Born Again 6:  The Harsh Truth that Gets in your Guts