Wednesday, November 16, 2011

God’s Sovereign Election Demonstrates His Grace

Note to reader: This particular post is very theologically charged and focuses on a very specific stance on certain theological doctrines. This point of view can best be categorized as Wesleyan. I often reserve such posts for a separate blog site, but I am making an exception this time for several reasons. If you do not feel that you can read such commentary without offense or the like, I recommend skipping this particular post. This is meant to spur on healthy thinking, even if the reader does not agree with my point of view. 

Some time ago, I watched a video posted on an old acquaintance’s blog with the title “God’s Sovereign Election Demonstrates His Glory.” I am probably parodying the points within since it has been well over a year since viewing the hour long video, and I do not have the time nor patience right now to review, but, in short, I remember the speaker, Thabiti Anyabwile, suggesting that the ninth chapter of Romans is meant to suggest that, while we might not wish it so, God is glorified by his choice to pick and choose who does and does not go to Hell without any basis in human response or responsibility. So, he concludes, by the sheer fact that God is in such control, one should respond in worship. I believe that video was what spurred me on to write a previous blog, “Glorified For Our Sakes,” in which I argued that God needs not be glorified by us yet chooses to be so that we might be blessed. I guess this blog is somewhat a continuation of such.

My concern for such topics was once again ignited when I heard another famous pastor pointing out, to the chagrin—so he suspected—of many of his audience members, that election can be found throughout the Bible, and such stories demonstrate that God’s grace certainly is not based on merit of any sort. His main example comes from the OT, which was the topic of his talk, and revolves around the election of Israel, especially some of Israel’s main figureheads.  He began with Abraham and pointed out that Abraham was doing nothing to merit God’s election. Instead, it was by God’s initiative that Abraham was chosen. Likewise, God chose Isaac over Ishmael and Jacob over Esau. Certainly, these are biblical examples of God’s sovereign election. No theologian of any orthodox stripe should find offense to such. However, this pastor also invoked the name of John Calvin, which gives the term election a certain spin does it not? Now, in the mind of the listener, this preacher is suggesting that God elected the patriarchs and Calvin taught election, and, therefore, this proves Calvin right.

So, does that settle it? Does God’s individual election of these Israelite leaders prove that there is such a thing as Calvinistic election, predestination typified by double, individualist election of who goes to Heaven or Hell merely based on God’s pleasures, or is there more to the fact of God’s election of these patriarchs? If we are going to use these patriarchs and there counterparts (those who God passed over in order to choose these individuals) as our examples of election and/or double predestination, then let us also get at the heart of what the Bible says about God’s choosing these persons.

Let us begin at the logical starting point, the Patriarch, Abraham. God certainly plucks an unsuspecting man from history with no coercion on the part of the human individual, and if this was all the information we had, we might rightly conclude that all there is to being of God is His mere election, unbiased and without basis. However, the Bible makes it clear that while God’s election is necessary and is certainly of His own accord, it is not the only factor, as if election was an ends within itself to gathering up a people for His own. No, it is a means with another end. While God’s election of these individuals certainly has profound consequences for the elected individual, God uses election for a further purpose:

Now the LORD had said to Abram:

“Get out of your country,
From your family
And from your father’s house,
To a land that I will show you.
I will make you a great nation;
I will bless you 
And make your name great; 
And you shall be a blessing.
I will bless those who bless you,
And I will curse him who curses you; 
And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
(Genesis 12:1-3 NKJV)

Here the Lord’s election of Israel is played out in real human history. The Lord is choosing Abraham, at this time known as Abram, and is calling Him to be set apart for the Lord. But, is this being set apart, leaving all that he knows, simply for the fact of being set apart. The Bible clearly says, “No.” God has elected Abraham for a purpose beyond individual predestination. God has chosen Abraham to be a blessing to “all the families of the earth” through a great nation that will come from his seed. So, yes, election of the patriarchs continues. Not only is Abraham chosen, but also is his son Isaac, and Isaac’s son Jacob. Can you guess what happens when God chooses these men? He promises them the same promise He promises to their father, Abraham (see Genesis 26:1-4, 23-25; 28:14). To all these men God suggests that they will be blessings. God’s election of individuals throughout Scripture then is surely to be seen as a blessing to the individual, but more importantly, it is to be seen as a blessing to the world, not an in your face, “the elect are in and you are out” statement.

Three elections come to mind when I reflect upon the great blessing of God’s sovereign election.  The first election that comes to mind is the election that was mentioned and sparked this whole blog, the election of Israel. Israel was certainly elected as an unassuming people. They were slaves. They had not merited any right of election. They were not overly pious people seeking the Lord at the time of their deliverance. No, they were simply making bricks, but God had chosen them long before they had even became a people, and not simply from whim. God had chosen them for a purpose that He soon reveals to them.

Picture the scene. A group of slaves have just been delivered from the hands of their oppressor by feats of strength only the Most High could perform. The supposed God-man pharaoh has fallen, and the people of Israel have done nothing but follow the Lord to gain refuge. They are at the foot of Sinai with no reason to boast in themselves, and God reveals His purpose in election:

In the third month after the children of Israel had gone out of the land of Egypt, on the same day, they came to the Wilderness of Sinai.  For they had departed from Rephidim, had come to the Wilderness of Sinai, and camped in the wilderness. So Israel camped there before the mountain.

And Moses went up to God, and the LORD called to him from the mountain, saying, “Thus you shall say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel:  ‘You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Myself.  Now therefore, if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people; for all the earth is Mine.  And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words which you shall speak to the children of Israel.”  (Exodus 19:1-6)

God has thus reminded Israel that it was He alone that brought Israel to Himself. Once again, God not only points out that He has elected, but also reveals his purpose for such: “And you shall be to Me a kingdom of priest and a holy nation.” Israel has a role and purpose to play. They will serve as priest. In other words, the nation of Israel, through their holiness, shall be God’s means of mediating His blessings to all the nations of the earth, for “the whole earth is mine,” says the Lord.

Before we discontinue our discussion of Israel's election, I must, once again, address the original discussion that sparked this whole conversation. Thabiti Anyabwile suggested that Romans 9 is a demonstration of God’s sovereign election of some individuals over others (Calvinistic election), a fact Anyabwile thinks we Christians must come to grips with. However, from what we have been reviewing, it does not seem that election has always if ever been used as an end within itself for Israel or individuals within, and Paul is certainly addressing issues concerning Israel in chapter 9 of Romans (see vv 3,4). In fact, as Mr. Wesley points out in his NT commentary, individualistic, double predestination is far outside the scope of Paul’s purposes here. Paul is addressing the concerns of many who say of Israel, God’s means of salvation, redemption through Christ, seems to fail many of Israel since they do not believe. But, as Paul points out, God’s Word has not failed as some assume. It is not as if God was simply scrapping Israel and starting over with the church. Israel, through election, was meant to serve a purpose bigger than themselves and they had and were still serving that purpose. In fact, Christ came from Israel, the greatest blessing of all. Paul is defending the election of God and its effectiveness to serve its purpose, blessing the world. If there are those among Abraham’s physical progeny that are willingly rebelling, they are not truly Israel, who had been called to be holy so that others would know God as holy. So, their place in God’s fold did not merely depend on God’s election of Abraham’s physical offspring, but upon their response to such. Only the faithful remain, thus God’s words in His original covenant ring true: “…if you will indeed obey My voice and keep My covenant, then you shall be a special treasure to Me above all people.” Thus, Paul is not here focusing on Calvinistic, individual predestination at all, but whether or not God can be understood as faithful to Israel, even when His decisions seem to be precise and some vessels, individuals within the nation, are used for greater purposes over others. Paul suggests that God is faithful and who are any of us to say, “Well, if you would have just willed for me to be as great as so-and-so, I would believe.” Election is not merely about who is in and who is out, but who will be the one to best fulfill God’s will in election. So, once again, election is God’s means of mercy, mediated to the families of the earth, and Paul is out to defend such. Much more could be said about the individual arguments of Romans 9, but I have done that elsewhere and we need to move on.

The second election that comes to mind is that of the church: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (I Peter 2:9). Like Israel, God has chosen the church to be His, but, once again, this is not an end in itself. There again is a purpose for our election. We called to be a priestly nation, a holy nation that shines light into a dark world. Our calling is not simply a blessing for us, but a blessing for others, a blessing for the lost and hurting world who finds itself in darkness.

The final election that comes to mind and speaks volumes to the present discussion is that of Jesus Christ who “was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (I Peter 1:20). This verse really speaks for itself. The Father did not choose Christ so that only Christ would be blessed through this election. He was chosen and revealed for our sakes. In Christ, the predestined one, those who repent and believe find their redemption.

In the end, election is God’s means to bless the world. Through election, grace is poured out, not merely on the individuals elected for certain purposes such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Jesus. Those who are chosen are given a great responsibility, to mediate God’s grace to others as priest, Christ being our High Priest.  So, when preachers see election in the OT, there is no need to give a wink to those who cringe at the idea that God gives some no grace to choose Him. There is no need to mention Calvin in passing, so as to suggest, “Well, although I do not have the time to explain all the passages here, election is evident, and, therefore, Mr. Calvin must have been right.” The question is not whether or not God uses election. The question is, “for what purpose does He do so?” It is to demonstrate His grace. We should give Him all praise and glory, for election, even when viewed through this lens, proves our need for God. Without His mediation of grace, we have no hope. He alone decided we could receive redemptive grace, and we all have been given a blessed opportunity to receive grace through those He has elected: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Israel, the Church, the Disciples, the Apostle Paul and Jesus Christ.

As your Wesleyan friend, I implore you: Praise God for His sovereign election!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Missional Church (Part 2): Identifying Our Gifts:

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brethren, I would not have you ignorant. Ye know that ye were Gentiles, carried away unto these dumb idols, even as ye were led. Wherefore I give you to understand, that no man speaking by the Spirit of God calleth Jesus accursed: and that no man can say that Jesus is the Lord, but by the Holy Ghost. Now there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God which worketh all in all. But the manifestation of the Spirit is given to every man to profit withal. For to one is given by the Spirit the word of wisdom; to another the word of knowledge by the same Spirit; To another faith by the same Spirit; to another the gifts of healing by the same Spirit; To another the working of miracles; to another prophecy; to another discerning of spirits; to another divers kinds of tongues; to another the interpretation of tongues: But all these worketh that one and the selfsame Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he will. For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. -I Corinthians 12:1-14
I hope that any given gathering of believers has a wide variety of members that encapsulate what it means to be eyes and ears and feet and hands, and, for that matter, armpits and ankles, and so on and so forth, and I suspect that this is a reality for most churches that have a thriving congregation. With this as a reality, the local church has the ability to do many and varied tasks that promote the kingdom. It is my prayer that we (i.e. each local church) would have a robust and well-rounded view of our mission as the Church (i.e. the body of all believers), and that we would be mindful of all the parts of the body and their talents as we pursue and follow the missio dei. This is certainly a priority given to the local church and its congregants by Paul (I Cor. 12:1-14), and we need to be ever mindful of it.

With our diversity in mind, the local church needs to be well rounded. However, is it the case that each local congregation has to do all the tasks that their neighboring congregations perform, as if we are in a competition? While I believe wholeheartedly in the need for a well-rounded body, I also find myself believing more and more that each local community has its own strengths that others do not. In other words, it is perhaps the case that while one congregation is filled with people of various talents so that we find all sorts of varying body parts within, when these parts come together as a whole within the local body, the whole, which is still a part of a much larger body (the universal Church), might best be described as a body part, having a few great strengths, rather than a lot of average strengths. I hesitate here to give an example because I hope that each church would be able to find for itself its own unique strength that could contribute to the whole, and I in no way wish to influence the discovery of such a call and gifting. 

Certainly, no church should ever settle by saying, “Well, we have this down and not that, and we are satisfied with feeding our strengths and ignoring our weaknesses.” I certainly am not suggesting we ignore our weaknesses. If a church feels it can ignore any facet of ministry that might utilize one part of the body over others, then there might be several people in the congregation that have their unique gifting ignored. Even so, there is nothing wrong with admitting that, as a whole, the church body can be used most efficiently for this or that Kingdom task.  I am merely saying we come to grips with our strengths and try our best to serve others (individuals or other local bodies) in these areas that might not be as strong in that given area. There are certainly varied attributes that should be held by all local bodies, and this is not a denial of this fact. I am merely speaking of those gifts God gives above and beyond the general gifts promised to all who are faithful. Let me see if I can show the practicality of what I am musing about at this moment:

For the past several years now, I have been involved in a project to raise awareness for the needs of the Navajo Nation and its people. Some time ago, I felt God speaking to me and asking me to stop with my normal pitch, which involved sharing with various church and organization leaders all of the various good deeds my organization was able to provide to these people, which was geared to convince others to support our own efforts, and, instead, God asked me to share the overwhelming issues that we (as a small organization) are unable to touch. So, instead of asking for assistance in the form of support for what is already being done, I was commissioned to ask for help for the Navajo apart from what we were able to do. When God first asked me to change my approach, I was a bit frustrated and did not understand why He would ask such, but I reluctantly followed, and I was often met with the same question.

Although in years past I have found this question to be quite ligament and still find it has its place, I have nonetheless found it increasingly strange for a church leadership to only ask others who are looking for missional assistance: “So, what do you want from us?” As one who has been asked this question several times now, I find it somewhat cutting. It carries with it, most of the time unintentionally, a sense of superiority. Once again, this is not to say the question does not have its place, but, perhaps, it could be reworded to be more servant oriented: “How can we be of help?” Even still, I find this question, no matter how it was framed, frustrating in light of the new approach God had given me.

 Before I share why this question became increasingly frustrating, I must make certain I am not heard as saying it is totally without warrant. Certainly, this question might reflect the reality of the reason the person who comes soliciting church leaders is asking for help in the first place. In other words, the person might be coming with a particular need in mind, such as financial support, and it helps to prevent beating round the bush. This question swiftly moves all involved to put all their cards on the table. The Church need not waist its time tiptoeing. But, what I often found is that, while I did my best to convince others I was not looking for direct support, unless that group felt led above and beyond my petitioning to do so, I was still heard as asking, “Support us,” instead of “Support the Navajo in the unique and special way God has given you, if He has indeed given you such gifts.” Much of the time, certainly not all the time, I was speaking past my audience because they had a preconceived notion of what I was looking for.  So, the question should be asked, and if that is what the person is looking for, then the cards are down, but perhaps, that is not what is being asked, and the conversation needs to continue by a discussion that demonstrates the local church’s understanding of its own call and unique gifting to help promote the Kingdom.

So, why was the question: “How can we help?” so unhelpful to the particular pursuit I was engaged in? Simply put, that was the question I was asking them. God was not interested in my sharing what we were doing so that the local body would know what they were supporting if they simply donated. He was interested in me presenting the issues beyond our control so as to say, “Does this church know of a way to move towards assistance in this or that area that we at my organization have no means to assist in at this time?” I would much rather hear the answer, “We do not feel called to help the Navajo, but we will pray that God calls out a group to assist them with their needs,” instead of “We do not think we can help you at this time.” Believe it or not, I was their asking on behalf of a needy people, not on behalf of a Christian organization looking to improve their own efforts in assisting others.

So, what am I trying to say? What was God trying to teach me by having me present these issues to church leaders, instead of giving them precise ways I, and the organization for which I work, planned to help? I think He was, at least in part, trying to share something of a need within the church on local levels: If the church has a very well-rounded understanding of its own strengths as part of a much greater whole, the leaders might best serve other’s of the greater body and the causes they present by being able to truly say: “We cannot do everything, but we certainly can help with this or that area.” Even here I do recognize that churches can become stretched too thin, even in areas of strength. However, if the body being asked for assistance cannot physically or financially support, I cannot help but think they could, if they knew their own gifts well, help those looking for help, by teaching them to strengthen their own body in this area by saying, “While we know how to help, we cannot physically do so without weakening the areas of ministry we are already involved in, but we would be honored to help you think this through and teach you what we have learned in this or that area of which we are very proficient.”

I certainly do not think this is outside the scope of Paul’s purpose for speaking of gifts and our need as local bodies to recognize that God gives us unique gifts for a specific purpose. While I recognize here that Paul is speaking about individuals, his argument is based on the fact that the individuals are part of a larger body. If this is at least one of his premises for arguing for the individual accepting his uniqueness as part of a bigger whole, I simply wish to use that same premise as it applies to the local church, which is certainly a part of a much, much larger whole. Isn’t it likely that He gives us these unique gifts so that collectively we can complete a specific purpose as well? Our church will most certainly be more affective if we know who we are and what we are called to do. This is not to neglect that each local body has callings that are shared by all local bodies, but it certainly is not limited to the general call, and the general call is certainly not an all inclusive call so that each church must do this or that at every turn. It is not as if we are failing in our outreach if we do not have a mission for every single need that exists. How wonderful would it be if local bodies would share one with another, “Here are our strengths so that if one local body was presented with a need that they where not called or equipped to help, they could tell the seeker: “We know where to send you for help!” Could you imagine what a larger community that houses such local bodies would look like? Instead of having ten churches all serving the food bank and none serving the women’s shelter, the community’s needs are met by the larger church working as a body made up of cohesive parts…

 Just something I have been considering…what do you think?

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Missional Church: A Reflection

Recently I have heard a lot of discussion swirling about in evangelical circles that suggests that the Church needs to refocus its idea of its own purpose and identity. Church leaders, in light of the burden brought about by the current confusion that suggests that the church is a place and is run and cared for by a select few, are now on a mission to reorient the lay persons' minds to the radical truth that the church is not a place, but exists as the community of all believers, that its purpose hinges upon all our participation. With this in mind, I want you to watch a quick yet moving video that demonstrates the church leaders’ attempts to refocus and reorient the body:

What if…? What if we actually mobilized like this and acted as the early church, organically. I hope that this reality really catches on. I hope our church leaders are successful in their endeavor to promote this Kingdom work that reflects the missio dei. I will pray until we find success through His grace and power. Will you join me?

...On the other hand...

Now that I have shared my heart on the issue, I hope you will hear my earnest plea to not take what I am about to say as a critique of what our leaders are doing through this message. I am merely trying to promote a proper understanding of what is being said.

In light of this video, and in light of what church leaders are saying concerning “how we do church” today, it can become easy to become cynical concerning what we still do on Sunday morning (worship, listening to sermons, serving in childcare-see note at end for a deeper look at this issue). If we are being told as a congregation that we have the wrong idea of church, we might miss the point and think that Sunday morning service is the issue. Sunday morning service does not sum up church, but it is a part of church, a part of what we do, gathering.

So often in the history of the church, reformers, as they are called, have come to bring a corrective to the body’s mindset, to call the church back to its rightful place and purpose. Usually these reformers are acting because of some extreme shift church leaders have allowed and perhaps even encouraged to happen that molds the church body's understanding of itself and its faith in a negative fashion. In an earnest attempt to right the wrong, these God-sent activists preach vehemently about the way the church is behaving, the result sometimes being an extreme shift in the other direction.

This need not happen in this case. In fact, I am of the opinion, right now, that it should not happen. We need not jump out of one ditch into the next. Yet, I am afraid that church member malaise, when and where it happens, might, in some cases (certainly not all, and probably not the majority of the time) stem from a lack of purpose, from a lack of understanding of who we are in light of all the ideas that are floating around. Some might feel that what they do on Sunday mornings matters little in light of the missio dei, and they might develop this understanding from a wrong attitude towards the proclamation that "how we do church" is wrong. They might assume that what is being said is that unless they are "out there" in the world, there service amounts to little. Certainly going out should be a large part of what we do. As the video above suggested, Jesus commands us to, "go," But does this mean that gathering and serving the gathering of believers is not a worthy cause. Certainly not:

And let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good works, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but exhorting one another, and so much the more as you see the Day approaching. Hebrews 10:24-25

Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all, especially to those who are of the household of faith. Galatians 6:10

What I am trying to say is this: What this emphasis on identity seems to suggest is that we do church wrong because we do not understand the identity of the Church. In fact, that is exactly what is being said, as illustrated by the video, which suggests that the Church should look more like a mobilization than a mere gathering of people on Sundays, more of a servant movement than a concert, and certainly there is cause for a shift. Clearly the Church needs to understand that "church" is not a building or a once a week gathering. The Church needs to know it is the Church. We must have identity to properly act. However, does this mean that we must drop everything we are doing on Sundays for this re-visioning? By no means… I certainly do not believe that this is what the church leaders are suggesting. It would make no sense for them to say such while still doing the normal Sunday routine. Instead, I believe what is being called for is a shift in mentality concerning our purpose.

We still need to gather. Gathering is not the antithesis of going. Going is something that needs to be the overflow of our gathering. The idea of “going” stresses the fact that we need to impact the world outside our church walls. But, I think that this stress of going as a means to reach the world can cloud, if we let it, the fact that gathering, as we do, can be impactful, even for those of the world. Our community can be a reflection of something great. Make no mistake. The world watches us, even coming inside our walls to see what we are up to. To better understand what we are doing in the here and now as we gather together, maybe we need a clear vision of where we are going:

What Wright is saying here is that we will be active in the life to come. We will not get a personal cloud with a harp. In fact, Wright points out that we will be leaders in the New Earth. We will have something to do. However, do not be confused; we will lead in the manner that Christ has already demonstrated for us in His first advent, not the way humans are accustomed. Jesus had a radical idea of leadership that certainly did not reflect the Greco-Roman model of leadership of the day. Instead of an idea of absolute, heavy-handed ruling, we will lead through our service to one another. So, what does this have to do with the role of the church in the here-and-now?

What Wright will also say in various places is that the Church is to be a reflection of this reality about the life to come. In other words, our job here on earth is not simply to ensure others will make it to a heaven, which has little to do with what is going on here and now. In fact, the New Testament is clear that heaven is not some ethereal and eternal resting point. Instead, heaven and earth will be joined together, as the Kingdom is consummated. In light of this great fact, we mustn’t forget that we are the representatives of the Kingdom. The good news that Christ shares and has appointed us to share concerns the reality of the Kingdom (Mark 1:15, Matthew 4:23). Our role is to share this reality with the world. In other words, part of what we do now, if not all that we do, is doing Kingdom...

One of the greatest proclamations of the Kingdom of God is the living example of the Kingdom, embodied by believers (Matthew 5:14-16). Through our service, one to another, we exemplify the truth of the Kingdom. When we gather in worship on Sunday morning, we are, if in the right spirit, a glimpse of the life to come. Through servant-leadership, we speak to the world, and we say, “This is how life is to be done, now and forever.”

At the local church gathering that I attend, Saint Simons Community Church, the leaders have been in the pangs of recasting a vision that holds together the truth of our calling: “Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out.”They are doing exactly what I am musing about above: holding together the reality of gathering together (RI) to worship God (RU) so that me might be ready and refreshed to go out into the world (RO). The leadership has been tirelessly seeking after the body’s heart to capture it and proclaim to it: “We, all of us, are the church.” We are the priesthood of all believers. We must go. We must reach out. We must act. In light of this, I have been reflecting on this call to be better at reaching out, and I have come to the conclusion I hopefully fleshed out above: While reaching out means we go beyond merely reaching up and in, it does not preclude these efforts. Instead, the beginning point of reaching out is reaching up and reaching in. By our worship of God and service to others, we speak to the world in a soft, but clear voice, saying:

“The Kingdom of God is like this, that we love God and love others, and through this love, a radical new way of living is discovered. Don’t you want to be a part?”

Let us not give up on being this picture, but let us be enlivened by this picture so that we might go and make disciples, so that the picture can spread across our globe.

A Further Reflection: This blog has already overreached the comfortable reading length for a blog, so, if you are already fatigued, I apologize and suggest you take a break and come back to read the rest. The following is simply an application to the above. It is part of another piece I am working on, but I thought it would fit well with the above:

From "What Good News is This" -Essay by Rev. Tab Miller, TSM Inc:

As the Church, in everything that we do, we act out of one inspiration given by God, to proclaim and demonstrate the good news. It is often the case that we perform service projects and volunteer our time at church because of some sense of obligation, and, at these times, we need to remind ourselves of the truth of the good news, that we, through service, are not merely fulfilling an obligation to help out, but we are reflecting the reality of the Kingdom of God in a lost and broken world, that something has truly happened that has called us to action. Through our care one for another, we show the world another way, the right way, His way.

I know at times people serve in areas such as, let’s say, child care at church, and they might wonder, “What does this have to do with the good news of Jesus Christ," and even a sense of guilt might wash over them when they think, “I could be out there really proclaiming the good news right now, out in a lost and hurting world, and, yet, here I sit allowing people the luxury to sit in a service while I watch their kids. Could we not do better than this? Should we not be out in the world acting instead of shutting ourselves in this building away from the world?” I certainly cannot help but think that this sense of guilt is not proper, but it might be the sense that some gather by many evangelicals' attempt to reorient people away from the idea of the “church, as it exists today.” I think some might be moved to throw the baby out with the bath water. I think that this misunderstanding is damaging to the call of the gospel. So, where is the disconnect? Have we really understood our call if our understanding of the call becomes burdensome instead of exciting.

What we must do at these times is go back to reflecting on the good news, the good news of a kingdom where people do not race to the top to be first, a kingdom where the last shall be first, where people will rule by washing feet. Instead of feeling burdened, live with a Kingdom heart, because, in the Kingdom of God people selflessly serve one another. With this at the forefront of our mind, childcare, that seemingly lowly act of service, becomes a reflection of the heart of the Kingdom, that heart being service. The good news is a radical proclamation of a “now, but not yet” reality. The Kingdom of God resides in the heart of the Church, and we live as resident aliens in the world. When we serve one another, we testify to the world: “The Kingdom of God is like this.”

In light of this reality, it is always beneficial to remind our selves about the radical reality of the good news and why we serve...

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

My Soul Is Haunted and Hurting for the Navajo

I woke up this morning and rolled out of bed, taking for granted the quality of sleep afforded me by my tempurpedic mattress. As I sat at the edge of my bed, I wiped my eyes and silently thanked God for the day, taking for granted the fact that I knew God was available to talk and actually wanted to hear from me. I stumbled into the kitchen and poured a glass of water because the air conditioning I take for granted had been so cold throughout the night that my throat was dry. I drank the water from the tap, taking for granted the ease of access and the quality of the contents of my glass. By this time, my body was warming up, and so my stumbling turned into a walk. As I went back into the bedroom, I opened my drawers filled with the multitude of clothes I take for granted. After I was dressed I slipped out the door telling my wife and daughter, those healthy and loving family members I take for granted, that I love them. I hopped into the car filled with the gas that is nearly four dollars per gallon, and, even so, I took for granted, even at such a premium, the fuel that I burnt between home and here at the coffee shop. As I sit here and peer out at the sun light, I am struck by an eerie reality.

The sun that has been pouring out over this little south Georgian island for almost two hours now is just now peering over the ridges of the Navajo Nation’s plateaus, spilling into the valleys, and crashing into the little tin roofs that cover the precious heads of the people called Navajo. For so many, there is no mattress to awake upon. There is no knowledge of the Holy One who wishes to speak with each of them. If water is available, which is not always the case, it is full of uranium and e coli. As they sip the water before passing the cup to their siblings, the heat in the house slowly rises, and the window unit is out today, as it is so many days. Each child goes to his or her designated corner and does not have to dig through piles of clothes to decide what to wear. All that each child owns is right there before him or her in a small stack. It is now reaching temperatures in the nineties, yet one of the young boys slips on his North Face jacket that some kind soul from thousands of miles away sent him at Christmas. It is his prize possession, so he wears it. As he turns around, he sees his mother drinking out of a cup, but he knows it is not water. She’s doing it again, which means he is in charge of taking care of his siblings. There is no car to drive to the nearest hangout. It is just the family, alone in the dilapidated singlewide trailer in the desert. And the sun relentlessly beats at all sides.

It is easy to feel passionate about the peoples of the world right after feeling the spiritual brokenness afforded by a short-term mission. Piety fills the veins and righteous indignation strikes to the bone and shakes us to our core. We shiver when seeing the waste of our own culture, including our own. Resolution to be better sets in. We walk and talk a little bit differently, and this is good. However, those children are still out there, and we are here. Fear sets in because I know the routine. The wound is fresh in my heart, but it will eventually close up, and, while the scar tissue remains, I will become use to it again. I do not want it to close; I want to bleed. Although it hurts, I do not want to forget this pain. The wound beckons me to action; my mind moves a thousand miles a minute, revolving around the needs of the Navajo, but, again, I am here and they are there, and I wonder, timidly, how God is going to use this pain. I have yet been called to move my family to full time missions, but I know the need is there and my heart sinks into my stomach when I think of how forgotten the Navajo really are.I wonder respectfully what God is up to with the Navajo, and the "Whys" fill my mind...

Sunday, I awoke from my post-mission trip crash, and had yet to fully recover. As I walked into the church, I knew my eyes would grow increasingly heavy. I resolved that God would understand if I dozed off here and there. While God understood, my wife did not, and she jabbed her sharp elbow into my rib cage. I came to just in time to hear the preacher introduce a couple who will be moving to Haiti for a life of mission work. As I heard of the call that God had placed on their lives, and the deep understanding they had of God’s mission in and for the world, I began to covet, for the sake of the Navajo, the call they had for the Haitian people. Do not misunderstand what I am about to say. I know God has called these people to Haiti, but I cannot help but wonder. In light of the massive influx of missionaries to places like Haiti and Kenya and China, when is God going to call for such a convergence upon the Reservations of the Native Americans who are as lost, if not more lost, than the peoples of the foreign world. Why are the Navajo so forgotten? They sit in our backyard, hopeless and ignored. HOPELESSNESS. For even very young children like Sabrina, who was fourteen the first time our team reached out to her family and community, suicide seems to be the only option out of the hopelessness they awake to every day. Hopelessness over took this child, and she did that thing most of us find to be unimaginable. I once heard it said that when we wish to ask, “Where is God in this place,” our question should be, “Where are God’s people?” God resides in our hearts, and He goes with us to the far reaches of the world and even to the backyard. Who will God send, or even more to the point, who is God trying to send, and are they listening?

I have been sitting here writing for some time now, trying to express this painfully consuming thought that I just cannot express, because it is more of an emotion than an idea. I am not sure I will ever be able to express what I feel, but I think I can tell you an idea that it elicits each time it washes upon the shore of my heart. This feeling is closely associated with the realization that, while I am home safe and sound, the reservation is still there. It is a real place where real people live, precious people, forgotten people. For so many, it is an uncomfortable home and not a place to visit like it is for me. At this very moment, some two thousand miles away, those precious children are living, breathing, feeling, wanting, and many feel hopeless. Right now, as I think about these children, they are living. Even outside my reach, they still exist. Savannah and Eli are out there, in need of help, in need of love, in need of God, and here I sit, heart broken and bleeding. And I wonder, whom will God send. Is it I Lord? I know He has a plan for the Navajo, and I must take solace in His love and provision, but I am begging you, Oh, Lord, my God, do not allow this wound to close. I wish to bleed.

For now, God has me where He wants me, but He has called me to raise awareness for these forgotten souls, these precious people:

I, the Lord of sea and sky
I have heard my people cry
All who dwell in dark and sin
My hand will save:

I who made the stars and night
I will make the darkness bright
Who will bear my light to them?
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

I the Lord of snow and rain,
I have borne my people's pain,
I have wept for love of them,
They turn away...

I will break their hearts of stone
Fill their hearts with love alone
I will speak my word to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

I, the Lord of wind and flame
I will tend the poor and lame
I will set a feast for them
My hand will save:

Finest bread I will provide
Till their hearts be satisfied
I will give my life to them
Whom shall I send?

Here I am Lord
Is it I Lord?
I have heard you calling in the night
I will go Lord
If you lead me
I will hold your people in my heart

("Here I am Lord" -Dan Schutte)

He is calling, and we must listen. His heart breaks, and ours should as well...


Monday, July 11, 2011

How it happens to be:

This blog is an addition to the last post…

Since the Scripture is such a large body of work, albeit telling one grand narrative-the narrative of redemption, we do not receive the story in a unified whole, and this is only practical. Instead, we are given bits and fragments to digest. Practically speaking, devotionals, sermons and teachings can only be so long, and we can only read for so long in any given sitting. So, there is no possible way to study Scripture in full at any given time. While we must study in small sections so that we have time to digest what we are trying to understand, it is not practical to only think of our study of the Scripture in bits or fragments. Instead, we should work towards being able to place each bit or fragment we come to reflect upon into a much larger context of the one story line. When we hear a message we should ask ourselves, “Where does this fit into the grand narrative of Scripture?” By asking this question we dive to the root of the issue at hand, and we are able to better apply it to our lives that are to be modeled after God’s great story for our lives. If we are unable to answer the question of how a particular topic fits, we come to realize one of two things. Either what is being taught really does not apply to Scripture and therefore it does not apply to the Christian, or we have yet to understand the fullness of the story, which should not be discouraging in the least, but a motivator to seek more and more. The better our understanding the better we can test the words of those who teach us about Scripture, and the more framework we are able to see in light of the grand story of Scripture, the quicker we learn the importance of the tidbits we receive each time we turn to the word or hear a sermon. The quicker we learn, the quicker we realize we have so much more to learn, a beautiful cycle indeed.

Friday, June 24, 2011

The Need for Christian Identity

A vision for a step towards church revitalization…

Note: This is a rough draft of a much larger document I am working on, but I wanted to go ahead and share my initial thoughts. Any ideas are welcome. Keep checking for more updates to this particular post

There are countless numbers of voices in our culture that affirm the church needs help, needs reform. To be a little more specific, most of these voices are referring to the American Church, which is simply a portion of the church, but a portion in need of help nonetheless. The voices are certainly not speaking of the Global Church, for it is in light of what the other churches of the majority world are getting right that we can see what we are not getting right. However, we must not assume that the majority world would not benefit from a revival of the American Church. It most certainly would. The stronger the church is across the globe, the stronger our impact will be. The voices are not really speaking about the local church either. However, as I see it, it will be revival in local churches, spurred on by awareness, that will change the overall American Christian culture that is in such desperate need of change. However, just as there exists countless voices crying out for change, there are countless suggestions on how this change needs to happen, and here I sit, wanting to add my voice to the confusion, to a conversation in which that “thing” that needs to change has yet to be agreed upon, because the problem has yet to be fully identified. All we see are the symptoms, the decline of Christian adherents and social morality and the rise of pluralism in an emerging, postmodern culture.

So, why do I think that what I have to say has any more merit than what is already our there? In short, I do not find my ideas any more or less profitable than many voices that are out there. I am sure that there are some that are quite better and others that are not. However, since I have a voice and vision, a voice and vision that I truly feel comes from beyond myself, I need to speak and raise awareness where I can, for what I know does not belong to me, but to the church. I do not find my ideas to be new, but they are ideas passed through my filter, a filter that no one else has, and, in that way, God, through me as His instrument, gives them new life. For what if I, repeating what has already been said, say it in such a way that it finally finds the ears of those who have unwittingly ignored before. Whatever the case, we cannot be idle when we observe problems, especially when we have ideas that we find might be beneficial to the discussion. If we have ideas, we must find a way to give them strength and life, blood and sinew. We must find ways to give feet and hands to those ideas in our minds, even when we as individuals do not find within ourselves the right hands and feet for the job. If the idea is worth anything, there will be someone suitable for the task.

The true key to the issue of our church malaise will be solved, not primarily by words, but by actions. There needs to be a group of people, perhaps a local church somewhere, that gets it right, whatever “it” might be, and in turn wants to share their success with others, not for the benefit of their own local church and its notoriety, but for the benefit of the American Church as a whole. While words are not the primary solution, they may be the catalyst, the fire, to ignite the process, and right now, all I have are words. My hope is to share my concerns with as many as possible, so that someone or some church body will put hands and feet to the ideas given me, that they will take my words, refine them by removing any me that I might have inadvertently left behind, and live them in truth. So, maybe, just maybe, the words to follow will help some ball somewhere to begin rolling. By God’s grace alone…

Time will tell.

I do not imagine there exists one person who has complete knowledge and vision for every aspect needed for growth. Some have more clarity than others. I have quite a little, so that, what I do say should not be heard as if I am giving a full treatise on church revival. There is always another side to any given coin and issues and needs that I will never consider on my own. But, what I do know I do believe in as a means to assist the conversation, and what I do know is this:

The starting point for positive church life is developing and sustaining Christian culture. For people to operate well, they need identity, and one gains identity by relating to his or her own community and culture. The Christian Church cannot merely be part of a culture. It must be a culture itself, a community with its own unique story and purpose. The church has always had the story and purpose; this is not something we need to manufacture. Simply put, the American church just has not paid enough attention at all to the story and purpose of faith, for if we did, church would never be something we merely do, but it would be the primary identity of those who rightly call themselves Christian. For so many Americans, church is something that we happen to do, but the reality should be that for so many Christians, America is somewhere we happen to live. We have not negotiated this reality very well, often times moving to one extreme or other, either hating the world and those in it, or being so much a part of the world that we become indistinguishable from the world.

“Christian culture” denotes that Christians should share in a bond, a bond beyond mere apostolic affirmations (although these affirmations are crucial), but also a bond that lends to true brotherhood through true brotherly love, one for another. In a world that does not share one’s cultural habits or convictions, people find great comfort when they happen to find another who is also an alien from his or her common land. There is something energizing about such discovery, such as when I might find a fellow American while visiting places of the Middle East. The two of us might have never met before, and he might be from Boston while I am from rural Georgia, but, somehow, when we cross paths in a foreign land, we do not feel so alone anymore, as if we have a friend with us now. Our only bond is a common culture, but what a bond it is, and it is a bond that many Christians lack when they, walking as strangers and aliens in the world, cross each other’s paths.

For Americans, it is not an effort to be part of American culture, to know what it means to be American (or to at least have an opinion of what it means). We grow up knowing our identity, learning it as soon as we are able to learn. This is not as true for the Christian searching for a Christian identity, and this is understandable. Before becoming a Christian, what it is to be Christian is completely foreign. Therefore, the convert must learn. It is imperative. There is no other way about it. We must be taught our identity, but this is not as big of an issue as we might at first assume. People long to be a part of their community, even if the community is a new one. People want common identity and brotherhood, and so college students leave their colleges calling themselves by the name of whatever the schools mascot might happen to be and knowing much about the history of the school. When alumni happen to cross paths, while they might have never met before, they often recognize each other by the patriotic colors they happen to wear as part of identifying themselves to their alma mater, and they are not without much to discuss with one another.

The key to all of this, helping the church discover its identity, is information. We must be taught our identity. It does not merely come to us when we receive Christ; we are to grow and must be made into disciples. In other words, and as Dr. Timothy Tennent so succinctly put it in a title of a recent blog post, “The First Step in ‘Making Culture’ is Catechesis.” Too often seekers approach ministers, church leaders, or other persons of vocational ministry suggesting they want to accept Christ and the minister’s response is to pray and send the person on his or her way, maybe adding something about the need to get involved, as an afterthought. However, the primary thing that should be on our mind, and the primary thing upon the minds of the early church fathers who instituted catechesis, should be explanation and clarity. What the seeker really needs is honesty and clarity about what it is that he or she is truly accepting, and this cannot happen in an hour-long counseling session. Christ told us that the way to make disciples is by “…teaching them to observe all things I [Jesus] have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). This does not seem to be optional. If we want to make disciples, which should be our goal for any seeker ready to accept Christ, we have an obligation to teach them. If they are not ready to learn, they are not ready to accept.

When the seeker comes, have them pray for Christ’s salvation. We need not make obligations to becoming Christian that are not there, but, at the same time, we need them to know that it is an expectation of the church, even our local church, that they grow through learning. It is imperative, and we have let way too many people slip through the cracks. Our churches are full of persons that at one point in time expressed the want to know Christ and yet have never once been to any sort of class or received any sort of true instruction, and they have led mediocre Christian lives, maybe even content in their ignorance. We do not want to tell those in our congregation who do not care to be a part of something completely new, a new culture, that they must leave, but we do need to do a better job explaining the reality of the church to those who attend our local congregations each week. If enough people begin to align themselves with our true identity and culture, then those who are sitting on the fringes content in ignorance will begin to see the movement and will react, maybe not always for the positive, but things will be change for the better overall. People need to be brought out of their ignorance. It is crucial to culture that Christians gain identity.

I have yet to explore how this learning that I suggest is at least part of the solution to the issue of church malaise should look, and I do not think this post is the place to do such. The point of this post is not to give a concrete “how to,” but to cast a vision for the need of proper education within the church. Of course all learning of Truth needs to be understood as coming from God, knowing that it is God that even prepares the hearts of others to learn, but we have a responsibility as well. We are commissioned to make disciples by teaching. The point to all of this is to say that I see a need, and while there are surely many other needs that I have yet to perceive, the need to instruct is imperative and can be enacted at any time, even if we do not have all the other kinks worked out. Teaching (catechesis) does not need to be an afterthought of the church. It must be a top priority for it is Christ’s commission to us as disciples. While it might be true that we change lives, we see conversions, one life at a time, this does not mean that the church does not have a social agenda, a part of this agenda being the uplifting of its own society, its own culture, so that it can be more affective in the world. People need identity to operate effectively, and the church is made up of people. Therefore, go and spread the vision.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Approaching A Lost and Hurting World:

Note: I am aware that this post is a bit wordy and needs some serious proofing. I allowed a bit of stream of consciousness to take priority over style. I plan to go back and refine this post a bit, but in light of the last blog that urged us to be loving toward the lost and hurting, I wanted to give some practical advice for application. I felt the need to provide advice in a timely manner was more important than refining before posting. Make no mistake, sharing a rough draft is difficult for an English major.

I wanted to dive a bit deeper into some things mentioned in the last blog post. I mentioned the need to reconsider our method by which we approach the topic of homosexuality and the homosexual in particular. We should not buy into the world’s caricature of our approach, a false dichotomy in which Christians either ignore orthodox belief in favor of tolerance or spew hate by condemning and judging the homosexual community. These are certainly not our only two options. When broaching the topic, especially with a homosexual, the Christian must keep in mind that this is a person with feelings and understandings that might not be equal to our own. We are not simply trying to excise a sin from a life, but we are trying to reach out to that life itself. How, then, do we lovingly approach those hurt and in need of Christ yet hindered by a calling to let go of that which they do not want to give up because they cannot yet see the reason to give up that which they have come to understand as a part of their life (In context of the last essay this thing is, but is not limited to, sexual preference for the homosexual. But this can apply to anything that a person of the world puts before Christ)?

There is a right time and place, just as there are wrong times and places. One must make sure the Spirit is guiding and is in the conversation. To imagine any good coming from a Christian who wishes to fully take on the task of explaining Christian ethics that have been instilled in the Christian by the transcendent Spirit of God to a person who is not willing or being made willing to listen is to think too highly of our powers of reason and powers of conviction and too lowly of the need for God’s grace to go out before us. The Scripture seems clear that some persons, who have yet to submit to the Lord, the natural man as they are called, not only will not understand the ways of God, but also cannot understand the way of God (I Corinthians 2:14).

Once again, I must stress that the Spirit must be involved. Therefore, when I suggest that there are times that people will not understand our message, this is not to suggest that Christians should never attempt to explain our position or try to promote them as reasonably as we can without coercion. We are called to proclaim His way, and we are called to move towards seeing His will done on earth as it is in heaven. Often times, it is the case that we should speak forth His truth even to someone who has yet come to have a relationship with God because our vary proclamations, as guided by the Spirit, are the tools God uses to soften the heart of the seeker. However, with this all in mind, there are times when trying to explain God’s way is futile. If we do not feel called to speak, then perhaps God has not yet made this person ready to hear. Be certain to listen for His call to move before acting rashly.

Even when we do feel called, we might not be called to give our full reason, but called to share, in a more pastoral manner, the human need to submit to God. From the Christian perspective, each person is born into a state of self-centeredness and must begin a process of deliverance from such reliance before he or she can obtain the knowledge of the Kingdom of God. In other words, to truly know Christ and His ways is to walk with Him. Before such a walk, full spiritual explanation is not always beneficial. This is nowhere more evident than in the conversation Christ has with the rich young man who cannot let go of the self’s want for riches in order to follow. At this point in the conversation, Christ does not go into a long treatise concerning the evils of the reliance of riches. Instead, He tells the young man that if he wishes to see the Kingdom, he will simply give up his riches. Indeed it is not only explicit evil that man must let go of in order to commit to Christ. Any person, object, idea or the like that one holds as more important than Christ must be given up or at least put in proper perspective. This is seen in Christ instruction for persons to hate their family (Luke 14:26). Of course this is a dramatic statement, but it is deliberative in that it stresses the importance of placing God as first and only in our heart. While we will still love others once Christ is first, our love for others then flows, not from the self, who is selfish and manipulative, but from Him. If there is any one thing that a person decides is too important to give up for Christ’s sake, that thing, no matter what it is, is a hindrance to relationship and has one remain in rebellion against God. It is our roll as followers of Christ to explain this reality boldly, yet lovingly. We do not speak up because we hate, but because we love.

Understanding takes time, but commitment does not demand full comprehension. One does not have to accent to some understanding as to why this or that is not good before coming to Christ, he or she must simply follow Christ, giving up whatever is asked of us for the sake of obtaining life hidden in Christ. This is a matter of trust and not understanding. True understanding cannot happen until the Spirit fully enters the heart, and the Spirit cannot enter when some other thing is in His rightful place as Lord of one’s life. In other words, until God has been given room to work, and conviction is allowed to soften the heart, one cannot come to know God and why He asks of us what He asks of us. It does little good for someone to say, “Before I allow God anywhere near my life, I must understand why He wants to do with it what He wants to do with it.” It does not work that way. God does begin to convict the heart of humanity before acceptance and salvation, but He is still involved and the heart has to be willing to listen to His urgings. There is still interaction, and as long as one runs, He cannot be heard properly.

Even when a self-centered being is beginning to break in light of the revelation that the self’s ways are insufficient, sometimes a straightforward, “this is why you should not do this or that” is not the proper approach, for they are not quite ready to go so deep. Basic steps are often needed before bigger steps can take place. Instead, a loving approach in which one simply encourages the seeker to trust, to trust that God knows best and that he or she will be fulfilled despite giving up one’s self-wants, might be the best approach. In the end, we all come to realize in light of spiritual maturity that there are several areas of life that we do not at first understand why we must give up, and there are even areas of life we do not realize are sinful until we have spent some time walking with the Lord. If this is true for all Christians, then every Christian should be understanding when one is frustrated and even hurt by the idea that God would want one to give up something the individual has come to feel affection for.

Even though, for discernment’s sake, we might choose to limit our conversation on how we feel upon this or that, focusing on the love of God, this should not ever lead us to feel ashamed of our beliefs. If asked, we should feel able and willing to tell the truth about our beliefs. Often times, Christians who adopt a platform of love and acceptance for the sake of the hurt and infirmed of the world, begin to let this tactic be harmful to their convictions instead of being a proper expression of discernment. I have often taken note of the psyche of pastors, whose focus to be inclusive to all people, showing the good new is for all. At first they simply begin with that good messages of acceptance for all who repent and turn to God, but, as their fame leads them into the public spotlight, they allow their passion for the message of acceptance to bring shame to the truth of the exclusive nature of Christ’s message, that He is the only way. While Christ’s message is for all, it is a narrow way. We must not allow our approach, becoming all things for all people, to begin to reshape our convictions. We must not be like those pastors who shudder and stutter when a non-believing talk show host asks if he or she needs to accept Christ’s message to be saved. If we really care for that person, we must be bold.

Remember it is the Spirit’s role to convict, not ours. While we may and should remain firm in our conviction, in the end, all the yelling back and forth about why this or that is wrong or not does very little good. While deeper relationship that is being promoted by the Spirit might one day lead a Christian to share exactly why he or she affirms this or that as something that must be given up for Christ, the starting point should be one of understanding, sympathy, and love. Our role is to share what Christ has done for us and what He has taught us. It is not our job to force an opinion on another. Once our case has been made in love, it is then the Spirit’s job to work on that person’s heart. If the Christian sharer begins to try to convict, He or she is stepping in the way of the Sprit’s work. Once the case has been made, it is not our job to rub it in, but to support the one who hears, for conviction can be a painful experience, and we all need someone present when we are in pain. Simply put, many times all one needs to hear is that no matter how they feel at a certain point in time, God’s will still demands us to let go, and this letting go, whether we see it this way or not, is for our benefit and will be rewarded by God who wants to be first, not because He is selfish, but because He knows what is best for us. We need to be those persons who remind others that we too know the pain of letting go of our selfishness, for all of us at one point or another must let go to be His. The pain should not be lost on us. We should be sympathizers strong in our convictions not condemners strong in our judgment, and never allow our need to be sympathizers strong in conviction be confused with tolerators strong in our self-righteousness.

In sum, Christians do not have to accept the world’s options of letting go of conviction or remaining bigots. We can be loving while firm in our convictions. We must remind ourselves that the Spirit is and always should be in control of our calling to go forth and tell the truth. With this in mind, we must wait upon Him, for His timing is not always our own. Even when we know the time is right, we must remain aware that He should be in control of our words. We need not always give a full treatise on our beliefs, but we must meet people where they are, sharing in love above all else. We rail against the world’s way because we love those in the world. We must remain patient with the seeker. If they are listening, then they are where they should be. We should never try to accelerate the process beyond the pace the Spirit wants to work, lest we run the seeker off. Our role is to help the person understand that coming to understand God’s ways takes a submission to God, a readiness to listen to Him. Yet, even though it is our role to love, we must not allow this want to limit our words for others’ sakes to lead to embarrassment of belief. We must be bold in our conviction. In our boldness, we must also constantly remind ourselves of our place. If true change is to take place in the life of another before our eyes, it is not because we changed the person’s life. It is because the Spirit changed the life, and we were just there as His instruments. What a privilege, a privilege to be Christ for others in need. Remember this: The world is hostile to the Truth. Our attempts to be loving towards the lost can help soften the worldly hearts that approach us, yet our message is still hostile to their way of life, and, in the end, no matter how loving we are, our need to remain firm in conviction will mean that we will be hated by some. But, take heart, for it is our love for those who hate us that allows us to be hated and vulnerable. It is this vulnerability that shows that we are the true humans, awakened by the Love of God. It shows that love fills our hearts.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

A Review of Bell’s Reviewers (Picking My Wedgie)

The latest Christian controversy surrounding pastor Rob Bell’s book, “Love Wins,” demonstrates a scary reality among the Christian community. Here we have a book with no footnotes and only one text in the bibliography, which happens to be a work of fiction, and those within the Christian community that disagree with the message are, for lack of better terminology, “freaking out,” as if this book is the undoing of everything we stand for. How can such a “lightweight” book, as I have heard it called, cause so much drama?

Should we ignore simple reads as if they have no real means to influence? I am not saying that. Bell meant to write a simple and accessible book so that others would consider his position. Surely people can be influenced by simple reads; just look at the “Tao Te Ching,” the “Gita”, or “Your Best Life Now”. Whether this books warrants a reaction or not, I must say that the sort of reaction that seems so pervasive does not seem to work. Does not such uproar generate more interest? Although I believe Bell is genuine when he states that he was not attempting to cause a firestorm, I can bet that it has helped his bank account as well as helped to disseminate his message. Good job, protestors. I bought the book thanks to this publicity. Now I support the enemy; Bell can get a Big Mac meal on me now…What have I done!

Last time I wrote about the common reaction to the book, I had not read it. I have now, and I was right in my assumption: I agreed with Bell in many of his statements, and I disagreed with him in others. No big deal…I am sure that others sometime agree and at other times disagree with me as well. But, I will tell you this. I am not quite ready to tie him to a stake and burn him. All the man really says is that he hopes that everyone makes it to heaven. What is so wrong with that? While he suggests that he sees this as a great possibility, he never comes out and says it is for certain. So, sue him. Does his book downplay the important doctrine of Hell? Maybe. But then again, I find people of varying backgrounds to downplay doctrines I find important, even vital, all the time. Do I discredit all that they have ever said? I would not have much to read if that were the case, except for the things I write. That would be a bit repetitive…

Before I go much further in my critique of the responders to the book, I must say this. I am not trying to suggest that this book does not warrant a response, even a negative one. Most every book warrants a response, and if one disagrees, so be it. However, these public denouncements of Bell and his book are uncalled for. Do I think that this book is great reading for the seeker wanting to be grounded in biblical theology? Maybe not… But, there are many books written by fine Christians that I would say the same about. Heck, I have written things I would not recommend to certain people. As I said in my last blog on this topic, our response should not be to outright condemn the book. A better approach would be to highlight Bell’s concerns, and then offer an alternative solution. (Dr. Timothy Tennent has demonstrated this sort of model very well in his blog response to Bell:

What is my point? Well, I find this controversy to be revealing of our Christian culture, and church leaders’ view on said culture. Here we have a non-scholarly take on heaven and hell, in that it was written from a more pastoral and not academic stance, and Christian leaders are worried that their flocks might be led astray. Can such a simple book lead people in certain directions? Surely it can. Just look at all the persons who flock to the messages of Joel Osteen. What does this say about the foundation that we are giving our community of believers? Is it our job as the church to censor any threatening reads that come down the pipe? If so, we would be exhausted in our efforts. There would be no time to preach. Our primary problem is not misleading readings, but our response to such: *Gasp, “Don’t let them see this. It might ruin them.” Instead, we should ground our community in proper and rigorous theological training. This should not be reserved for the seminaries. This should be the Christian reality. If people knew right doctrine, then we leaders could rest easier knowing that they, having the same faith, mental capacity, and education as we, could see what we see, if we indeed find so many flaws in a text.

We should be less worried about Bell and more worried about ourselves. Why are young Christians leaving at an unprecedented rate: they have no theological backing to sustain them in light of defeaters, arguments against the faith. They fall apart because they are ill prepared. We should spend less time censoring books and more time training. We cannot hold everyone’s hand in his or her walk. We have to prepare through proper discipleship: “Teaching them EVERYTHING” Christ has taught us.

Wow…I feel better. I feel as if I just picked out a wedgie that has been bothering me all day. What a cathartic experience…

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Where Have all the Miracles Gone?

A dear friend of mine posed a question that is tough to answer: Why does God not perform miracles any more? Of course there is an assumption being made, but in reality God does not seem to interact with us modern folks as He did with the ancients. Could it just be that we are more mature in all our knowledge than these ancients who might have been mistaken about the reality of God? Maybe, but could there be another valid conclusion as well. I think so. I have mentioned it before in my article, “Divine Hiddenness,” but I wish to revisit the thought today.

Why do miracles not happen before our eyes so that we might believe? Those who pose such a question will say that they would believe in God if God would but provide inescapable proof. One obvious rebuttal is that this would then preclude the need for faith, but that is a discussion (with certain objections) for another time, that discussion being the very reality of faith itself. Nonetheless, these people wish for an outward sign so that they might form an inner relationship. They want the flesh to experience the spiritual, but what the flesh experiences cannot create a spiritual experience. Flesh begets flesh, and spirit begets spirit (John 3:6). These people who wish to seek Christ on their own terms, wish to seek God apart from His spirit, and all they can discern in this state comes from natural eyes (1 Cor. 2:14). Therefore, all the fire and smoke that God could conjure will benefit men nothing if the Spirit is not involved in the process, opening spiritual eyes as well. This was the mistake of the rich man spoken of by Christ in Luke 16:19-31. To wish for God to create a supernatural sign before one is willing to seek His way is to place God under the human. The hard reality is that we must seek God on His own terms. Moreover, when unspiritual eyes take hold of spiritual realities, it does not take long for the human mind to begin to discredit what has obviously happened.

Some would suggest that the time for God’s vocal interaction and miracles is consigned to the past, a dispensation now gone. There are many in the Christian culture who want to affirm this point so that they might retain some perceived credibility, only to have the skeptical community mock their belief. Christians with good intentions will use this excuse that they derive as a matter of observation, and the skeptic will say, “How convenient?” In an attempt to not be seen as fanatical or crazy, this Christian makes a mockery of his or her belief. What else can well-intentioned Christians say in light of the reality that they have never seen a miracle, right? The truth is that miracles happen all around us, and it often takes a spiritual eye to be seen. This is not to suggest that supernatural phenomenon do not break into the natural realm so that even unbelieving eyes can see. But, in a society of skeptics as our own, God will often refrain from such demonstrations in order to protect the skeptic and His order of salvation (see essay “Divine Hiddenness”).

No one must assume that they can come to Christ apart from Christ simply because they are able to, in light of new evidence, accent to truth. We cannot come to God apart from God and His work in the heart. While His outward work might serve as confirmation, it is not the same as His inner work that brings forth salvation. The first step is God’s and our call is not to demand how He must work for us personally, but to submit to His work in our lives. It is hard to let go of control, but that is our call.

A dear friend of mine posed a question that is tough to answer: Why does God not perform miracles any more? Of course there is an assumption being made, but in reality God does not seem to interact with us modern folks as He did with the ancients. Could it just be that we are more mature in all our knowledge than these ancients? Maybe, but could there be another valid conclusion as well. I think so. I have mentioned it before in my article, “Divine Hiddenness,” but I wish to revisit the thought today.

Why do miracles not happen before our eyes so that we might believe? Those who pose such a question will say that they would believe in God if God would but provide inescapable proof. One obvious rebuttal is that this would then preclude the need for faith, but that is a discussion (with certain objections) for another time, that discussion being the very reality of faith itself. Nonetheless, these people wish for an outward sign so that they might form an inner relationship. They want the flesh to experience the spiritual, but what the flesh experiences cannot create a spiritual experience. Flesh begets flesh, and spirit begets spirit (John 3:6). These people who wish to seek Christ on their own terms, wish to seek God apart from His spirit, and all they can discern in this state comes from natural eyes (1 Cor. 2:14). Therefore, all the fire and smoke that God could conjure will benefit men nothing if the Spirit is not involved in the process, opening spiritual eyes as well. This was the mistake of the rich man spoken of by Christ in Luke 16:19-31. To wish for God to create a supernatural sign before one is willing to seek His way is to place God under the human. The hard reality is that we must seek God on His own terms. Moreover, when unspiritual eyes take hold of spiritual realities, it does not take long for the human mind to begin to discredit what has obviously happened.

Some would suggest that the time for God’s vocal interaction and miracles is consigned to the past, a dispensation now gone. There are many in the Christian culture who want to affirm this point so that they might retain some perceived credibility, only to have the skeptical community mock their belief. Christians with good intentions will use this excuse that they derive as a matter of observation, and the skeptic will say, “How convenient?” In an attempt to not be seen as fanatical or crazy, this Christian makes a mockery of his or her belief. What else can well-intentioned Christians say in light of the reality that they have never seen a miracle, right? The truth is that miracles happen all around us, and it often takes a spiritual eye to be seen. This is not to suggest that supernatural phenomenon do not break into the natural realm so that even unbelieving eyes can see. But, in a society of skeptics as our own, God will often refrain from such demonstrations in order to protect the skeptic and His order of salvation (see essay “Divine Hiddenness”).

No one must assume that they can come to Christ apart from Christ simply because they are able to, in light of new evidence, accent to truth. We cannot come to God apart from God and His work in the heart. While His outward work might serve as confirmation, it is not the same as His inner work that brings forth salvation. The first step is God’s and our call is not to demand how He must work for us personally, but to submit to His work in our lives. It is hard to let go of control, but that is our call.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Scripture in Context of Ancient Near Eastern Religion

The Scriptures cannot be separated from the historical, religious, or cultural setting in which it was written. If it is, then an essential message is missed. A vital importance as to the purpose of Scripture goes unrevealed, and thinkers then hold a lower view of Scripture than is warranted. This is not to suggest that its context as it relates to space and time has no real bearing for those of another space and time, like the modern reader. On the contrary, Judeo-Christian theology is set apart in that it uses history as a vital vehicle to teach theology, and that is just the point. God uses real, unrepeatable history to teach us of His nature, and He begins His teaching on a great scale with Israel. Thus, to understand the Bible, we need to understand Israel and how they saw the world.

Just as a nation's history is of utmost importance to the future decisions of that community, so the Scripture is of utmost importance to the Christian community, giving us a trajectory and purpose. Without historical context, we might wrongly appropriate or miss portions of Scripture for our life today. Furthermore, and more important for this particular discussion, if the historical context is ignored, then one will never see the stark contrast and uniqueness of Scripture as compared to the various pagan religions of the day when Scripture was actually written, a contrast that is purposefully demonstrated by the Scripture. By coming to understand that much of what is said in Scripture, although applicable to the modern reader, was primarily important for the purpose of giving the ancient reader a set-apart  (holy)worldview from the entire rest of the world, we might come to understand how the Judeo-Christian faith differs from all other religions of old, and seeing this contrast demonstrates the importance of the Judeo-Christian worldview.

In modern times, with the applications of critical scholarship, which has many merits, many persons see the emergence of all world religions as coming from some common and basic human need to explain reality in order to have comfort or control. The main focal point of the conversation would be in discussing how Israelite religion, what we might call YHWHism (remembering that Judaism is a particular later development of the overall belief of all Hebrews, the religion shared by all twelve tribes, not just Judah), the beliefs shared in the OT canon, came from the same starting point that all Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) religions come from. It is a convoluted conversation, filled with many errors, but if the secular scholar concludes that Israelite religion had to have a different origin than its ANE contemporaries, then he or she has to face the reality of that origin. Instead, many secular, critical scholars begin with a priori idea that Hebrew faith had to come from the same humanistic concerns as all the other ANE religions.

In other words, all religion is just an expression of a shared, inner human desire to have purpose and guidance. In light of this claim, many have come to the conclusion that religion is a manmade device and is a hindrance to coming to know truth. In many of these persons’ minds, humanity needs to come to grips with our finitude and take responsibility in light of such truths. One of the biggest proponents of this worldview in more modern times is Simon De Beauvoir (1908-1986). In her book, The Ethic of Ambiguity, she contends that humans, as the highest life form, have a responsibility to develop an ethic that benefits life in general. We take God's place in deciding what is right and wrong. Others of the same mindset (that religion is a ploy for control/comfort and that human life has no purpose or value assigned by a creator ) differ from Beauvoir and the like and simply suggest that life came about by chance and has no real purpose and cannot be given any value by any means. Nihilism then becomes their lens to view the world. Either conclusion makes since in light of the assumption that all religions are essentially the same and that humans are alone in their intellect. One simply demonstrates a more optimistic view than that of the other. However, is it true that all religions are the same? And what would it mean if one foundational, ancient religion were different than all other ancient religions?

The earliest historical worldviews, other than those given in Scripture, revolved around the influence of paganism, and monotheism did not take hold (in any lasting sense) until the Israelite community was formed. Some might suggest that the only distinction between monotheism and the polytheism of the pagans was the number of gods. This is a very uneducated claim, and has little to do with reality. The idea of how many gods exists is intrinsically related to the worldview/philosophy of the religion. There do exist others, scholars at that, that suggest that Hebrew thought did emerge from ancient near Eastern (ANE) myth, but over time they developed their own thinking, paganism evolving into monotheism. To suggest such comes from that a priori philosophy that all religion emerged from the same origins, and this too has little to do with reality. To think that the Hebrews ever borrowed from others to create the basis of their culture is to misunderstand the Hebrew people. They have always distinguished themselves, and they account all their misfortunes to times when they have assimilated. There is almost no illusion to myth in Scripture, and when there is, it is contrasted with the transcendent thought of the Hebrews. Thus, the theory of myth as foundation for the Hebraic worldview has to contend, with little backing, that the Hebrews’ thoughts over time changed so drastically that they swiftly and completely ridded themselves of this mythical undergirding. In other words, what is being suggested is the wild theory that while the Hebrew sources for Scripture and earliest thoughts revolved around mythic thinking of the pagan world, the Hebrews eventually completely removed all this talk as they developed their own religious writings, the Old Testament. This is to say that they eventually removed their whole foundation. This fantastic view of the development of Hebraic thought is all based on a philosophy, and this is proven by the claim that, while there is no evidence anymore due to the radical stripping of all evidence by these Semites, the foundation used to be there, even if we cannot see it. Now that is faith, misplaced as it is.

The reality is that it is much easier to affirm Hebraic thought was radical and revolutionized thought from the outset, not that it began one way, but totally went against its foundations so that no record shows a strain of its old self. Monotheism did not just bring with a new idea of the number of the gods, but the idea of God as transcendent and the creator of nature, not nature itself. This idea was revolutionary for human thought. It was completely different than anything ever thought of before. Before talk of the uniqueness of Hebraic thought might be expressed, we must first speak of the worldview of pagan myth, a reality very often not understood by modern thinkers. It is truly foreign to our thought process, but it used to be all that existed, as far as broad sweeping worldviews are concerned. History is clear on this fact. This is not to say that God was not at work in the lives of humanity, but humanity before the establishment of the Abrahamic covenant had wondered very far away from God and had developed humanistic views of reality.

The Pagan world did not distinguish between subject and object. People were simply part of one great whole. Individuals interacted with the world and saw the world as an extension of everything else. The world, and the things in it where not just things for the ancients. They did not see things in nature as objects, but other individuals like themselves. The overwhelming reality for the ancients was a sense of continuity. While there was recognition of nature, humanity, and deity, there was not a distinction made between the three in the sense of separateness. They are all parts of one whole. The conclusions that are made from this sort of thinking lead to a wholly different worldview than that of the modern thinkers’. For example, since all things are essentially the same, human value is downplayed (this view of religion is still evident in Hinduism). For the vast majority of the ANE, with the one exception of the Hebrews, the reality was that everything is in the same realm and somewhat connected to the divine, pantheism. Therefore humans had some interaction and bearing on nature and the divine. This is why they created idols. If something looked the same or sounded the same, then it was the same. If the idol represented a god, and looked like that god, and the ANE pagan thought it did, then the idol bearer could manipulate the god by manipulating the idol. Incidentally, this is why one of the Ten Commandments suggests that humans are not to make idols. God is saying that such an idea is wrong. God cannot be controlled. For the pagan, this intellectual idea had a very practical function. If I am like the gods, and my reality reflects theirs’ and vice versa, then I have some control. If I do something here, then it is done in the heavens. This is the thought behind magic as a religious practice.

Two of the greatest distinctions for the ancient thinker were 1) their view, or lack thereof of history, and 2.) their idea of continuity. For the ancient pagan, the only reality that had any bearing upon the person was the present. There was no value given to human history. While there was a primeval history of the gods creating this realm, that had no bearing on reality in the present. While there are examples of "historic" writings in the ANE, the value of such writing was not as it is today. the ANE thinker did not view history as something to learn from, rather it is something to manipulate (just like the gods) in order to determine certain outcomes. Neither did the future have any value. Only what happened to “me” had any bearing on the self. Greeks did find social value in history, but not in any real transcendent sense, at least not as early as the Hebrews (Undoubtedly the Greeks eventually bring a high level of sophistication to this way of thinking). History did not pertain to the gods as a tool to teach humans. The Oriental world also recorded history, but found no eternal value in history because it always changed. The idea of God and history as intricately related was unique to the Hebrews.

Continuity, as previously explained, meant that there existed in the earliest history of the world no distinction in the minds of people between subject and object. There was only continuity, and this recognition was of utmost importance for the self. Others had no real value since they are just a small part of everything else. When God reveals Himself as other and distinct from the world, the Hebrews begin to understand themselves as distinct as well. For the first time, people were observing objects as other, and they contemplated how things worked. This is the most fundamental realization for modern science, and it was the Hebrews who first made this distinction. The Greeks later develop this thought from their own philosophy, but it is the Hebrew people who, as a whole, first note this as a reality. The majority of the people who upheld myth denied the early Greek philosophers their recognition. Only the Hebrew culture can claim that as a people they were the first to introduce the importance of history and subject-object distinction across their whole culture (as primitive as it might have been). And this reality is attributed to the event, some merely recognize it as a story, of YHWH’s revelation to Abraham, when God reveals that He is other. It did not take long before the Hebrews realized that if God was different from them, that they might be different from other things as well. In other words, they are not the same as the trees, the rocks, and other objects of nature.  The Hebrew Scripture stands alone in the ancient world as holding a subject-object distinction, which is the common view of the modern world that we take for granted. Without the contribution of Monotheism no one can be sure when a high regard for history and subject-object distinction would have entered the world.

Again, the Greek philosophers were the closest to the Hebrews in thought, but the Hebrew people still hold the genesis of many thoughts we take for granted today. No other ancient people other than the Hebrews thought of the idea that reality had a beginning. For the Greeks, the world was assumed eternal. Today most persons believe in creation ex nihilo, whether these persons are atheistic or believers. Moreover, the Greeks were trying to figure out who their gods were. The Hebrews knew their God and worked from there. Their God was the maker of all things, and He was not that which He made. If God made humanity, humans have worth, and if He is personal then He is part of history, and history is important (this is not to say He is subject to history, but He is a part). With all this in mind, we can explore our world, but we cannot manipulate fate. On so many fronts, the biblical worldview, first revealed to the Hebrews, stands alone as a way of thinking in the ANE. Thus, the Bible is not just one of many books written, but it stands alone as a whole other system of thinking altogether. Therefore, one is not warranted to toss out Christianity based on his or her view of religion as a whole.

Many scholars will point out that the myths of the pagans and the stories of the Bible have similarity, but they do not continue to speak to the differences. When the stories seem to have similar qualities, the thought that should come to mind is to see where they differ. For example, most ANE creation accounts, which do not really focus on creation at all, but the gods’ interactions and the accidental making of humanity, focus on gods creating reality from chaos and battle. When the Genesis account opens, God is not at war. There are no other gods over which he must establish Himself. He does not have to struggle to create, and He creates all that is, not just placing things into some order. Moreover, everything is purposeful. Man is not an accident, but the crown jewel of creation. Where else is this expressed in the ANE? On a superficial level, similarities can be seen, but the messages of each are completely different. The ANE, just like our world today, has shared vocabulary and constructs (such as literary genres). It is not that these documents share a common vocabulary of sorts or a common structure that we should take note. It is how they use these constructs to speak their thoughts, and, as shown above in this one example, Pagans and Hebrews thought very differently. They did not come from the same starting point. 

The Bible stands alone, and any self-respecting scholar should deal with it as such. This means that the Bible has a whole separate genesis than all other religions and that the Hebrew people, by some means, became the first people of recorded history to make the subject-object distinction, the distinction we base most of our value of truth (especially in the practice of science) today. Were the Hebrews just that much more in tune with reality and smarter than everyone else? That is a possibility. However, it is unlikely that these people that spent so much time in captivity, exile, and wandering would find the time to philosophize on their own. It is much more likely that someone revealed to them these truths, and since there were no ANE contemporaries in their world that held this belief and the Greeks only developing similar ideas later in history, there were no people capable to give the Hebrew people such a thought, a more plausible idea is that it came from elsewhere, and the Hebrews suggest that this elsewhere is the mouth of the divine, transcendent God. We have no better explanation, no matter how hard we try. It is probably prudent, then, to take them at their world.

For more on this topic: Oswalt, John: The Bible Among the Myths (Grand Rapids: Zondervan. 2009).