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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Least Common Denominator

I'm puzzled. I'm trying to come up with a wise way to handle things, but I'm not that good. Maybe one of you homeschoolers can help me out? Seems like it would be your problem as well.

The problem is the level of teaching. It could be school or church or Sunday School or AWANA. The question is to what level do you teach? There are smart kids in class (or seasoned adults in church or ... you get the idea) and there are ... not so smart kids. Do you teach to the smart kid level and lose the lower kids, or do you teach to the lesser kids and bore the smart ones?

It seems like an every day problem to me. One of the problems with public education is that the prevalent mindset is one of "compassion": "Don't lose the kids who are challenged." So they try to minimize the push. Don't teach too much stuff. Don't try to meet the standard of the grade level they are in. Try to make sure that the least advanced kid in the class is up to the same level as the most advanced. That is accomplished by not teaching the advanced kid as much as by teaching the less advanced. In other words, you can only teach to the least common denominator.

It's also the common problem in churches, small groups, and Bible studies everywhere. You have a group of people who have gathered. They are there for the same reason, but each is at a different level of understanding. To which level do you teach? From what I've seen, it appears that churches, small groups, and Bible studies are following the same path. Teach to the least common denominator. I mean, if you speak on penal substitutionary atonement and 10% of the congregation doesn't know what "penal", "substitutionary", or "atonement" means, you've wasted their time, right? And just because there is that upper 10% that can probably explain it as well as any seminary student or pastor doesn't mean that you can afford to lose that bottom end group.

I see that side of it. But I also know that when I played sports the only time I improved was when I was playing against people that were better than I was. There is something that drives us when we are in the presence of something beyond ourselves. It takes more work, sure. It isn't easy. That's a given. But being in the water above your head forces you to swim. So maybe we should be pushing toward a higher mark rather than the lowest.

I'm not sure. What I am sure of is that most of public school kids suffer from LCDS -- Least Common Denominator Syndrome (a syndrome of my own making. Hey! If the AMA can make them up, why can't I?). And the Church today suffers from the same thing. Educationally we are in dire straits, and spiritually we are in an equally sad condition. Depth of knowledge, real understanding, and maturity are not the things that mark our schools or our churches today. Maybe LCD is not the right approach.

Monday, July 30, 2007


Addiction. What is it? The dictionary says it is "the state of being enslaved to a habit or practice or to something that is psychologically or physically habit-forming, as narcotics, to such an extent that its cessation causes severe trauma." Okay, let's break it down. Note that, first, a "habit" is not "addiction". Instead, addiction is enslavement to a habit. Second, addiction includes the idea that if you stop it will be traumatic. Another definition says it is a "compulsive physiological and psychological need". It is a physical or psychological perception of a need.

The first definition I listed references narcotics as an example. What else can we be addicted to? Clearly it doesn't necessarily need to be drugs or alcohol, even if they are the most obvious examples. Addiction to gambling or sex or pornography are well known and commonly understood. There are many things that can be considered addictions. Some addictions are not necessarily bad. Robert Palmer's hit "Addicted to Love" suggests a good thing -- that we cannot live without love. And that's not bad. I've read about people who become addicted to volunteerism. They just aren't happy if they aren't volunteering their time for others.

What about other very common things? Can they be addictions? And if they are, are they good or bad? I wonder about television, for instance. How many of us are actually addicted to TV? Can you turn it off if you want to? What about the prospect of going without for extended periods of time? There have been studies that suggest the television is detrimental to its users. It is worst for children who are still developing. The medium itself is a problem for them. But even adults suffer consequences. Apart from content, there is wear and tear on eyes, extended sitting (you know the term: "couch potato"), and the elimination of other activities. That is, if you are watching TV, you are not doing other things. You aren't reading your Bible. You aren't visiting with your neighbors. You aren't at church or having a Bible study. Then there is the content. First, most of us know that TV cannot be trusted to tell us the truth. Worse, we have a tendency, even though we know it, to forget it. So we allow this stuff to seep in anyway. And the worst is that TV tends to eliminate thinking. If you read a book, you are making the pictures in your head. If you watch TV, you are simply absorbing the feed. It is detrimental to imagination. And, yet, no matter how many problems are included on the lists you can find, most of us will say, "Welllll, yeah, I know ... but I just don't think I will turn off my TV." Addiction.

How about something even closer to home? How about computer addiction? I know people whose spouses complain that they are being replaced by a computer. Wives speak of being "computer widows". Kids "need" to spend time gaming or chatting with friends online. What about computer addiction? Can you turn your computer off? If you went without for an extended period of time, would it be a problem for you? Do you think of it as a "need"? You may be addicted to computers.

Or how about telephones? Me, personally ... I dislike phones. I prefer face-to-face conversations. Phone conversations are brief if I have anything to say about it. But judging by the numbers of people I see with cell phones glued to the sides of their faces while driving, walking, in the restaurants, in the theaters, anywhere you care to mention, I have to wonder if there isn't a significant problem with cell phone addiction.

Paul wrote, "All things are lawful for me, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything" (1 Cor. 6:12). Is that your idea as well? Are you (and I) willing to examine your life and see if you are, indeed, engaging only in that which is "profitable" and not in that which has mastaered you? You might be surprised if you look very closely.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Hymnody Themes - Suffering

This is likely my last in the hymnody series. For those of you who weren't particularly interest, it's good news. For those of you who have enjoyed it, I'm sorry. Enjoy the last one.

I want to explore, for a moment, the unusual slant the hymns have on suffering. Their viewpoint seems to be different than ours. Now, of course, most Christians would say they were willing to suffer for the sake of Christ. We in modern day America don't have too much of that occurring, so we can easily concur that suffering for Christ is the right thing. How, then, do we respond when our employer fires us for talking to a co-worker about Christ during a lunch break? Righteous indignation? Or peaceful acceptance of our suffering for the sake of our Savior?

The question gets harder. You believe that suffering for your faith is the right thing to do. You see it as right, even admirable. You have a great deal of respect for the martyrs who gave their lives through the centuries for the sake of Christ. But how do you respond when a parent snubs you because they don't like your choice of jobs or spouse? This isn't a matter of religious conviction. There's nothing commendable in this. Or how do you respond when you are in an accident on the freeway and lose a leg? There's nothing noble in this. You haven't been persecuted for your beliefs. This is just suffering. Do you degenerate to the "Why, God?" syndrome that beats angrily at the door of heaven demanding an answer from the Creator as to how He could do something like that to one of His own?

The hymns see suffering in a much different light. While we differentiate between sacred and secular, religious and real life, they seem to meld the two. Look at "Be Still, My Soul":
Be still, my soul! The Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide,
In every change He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul! Thy best, thy heavenly friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
There doesn't seem to be any discrimination between the sacred or the secular. It speaks of "the cross of grief or pain." That could be any grief, any pain. The last verse speaks of "disappointment, grief, and fear," of sorrow and change. These sufferings have little to do with one's beliefs or faith. They are sufferings common to everyone. Each of us suffers disappointment, fear, and the trauma of change.

What does the hymn provide in the way of comfort? "The Lord is on thy side." "Thy heavenly Friend through thorny ways leads to a joyful end." How does the hymnist deal with pain? She places her trust squarely on the reliable Lord of the universe, the One whom "the waves and winds still know." "He faithful will remain." Other hymns agree. "Precious Lord", for instance, places our hands in the hand of God, resting in Him to take us through the trials. This attitude changes entirely the face of difficult circumstances.

"How Firm A Foundation" trusts God to take us through fiery paths, and adds a further twist to the problem of suffering. "The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design thy dross to consume and thy gold to refine." Can you actually believe that God is at work in the suffering, that He is using it for your good (Rom. 8:28, 29)? This would almost make suffering desirable, wouldn't it?

"It Is Well With My Soul" gives different enlightenment on the question of "Why do bad things happen to good people?" and some help on how to handle it. The second verse is as follows:
Tho' Satan should buffet, tho' trials should come,
Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ hath regarded my helpless estate,
And has shed His own blood for my soul.
This blurs the line between secular and sacred. It attributes suffering to Satan. From this vantage point, suffering for your faith differs little from other harsh circumstances. It all comes from Satan, and it is all under God's control. (The book of Job illustrates this perfectly.) Further, the verse looks to Christ's regard for "my helpless estate," to His death for me as comfort during my trials.

In "Nearer, My God, To Thee," there seems to actually be a request for suffering. In the first verse the hymnist states a longing to be near to God, even if a cross is required. Darkness (verse 2) and woes (verse 4) are seen as welcome friends that bring one closer to God, and death brings the ultimate closeness (verse 5).

Scripture supports this view. Peter says that insomuch as we share in the sufferings of Christ, we should rejoice (1 Peter 4:13 14). Paul told the Corinthians that suffering allows us to experience the comfort of God and to comfort others (2 Cor. 1:3 6). Beyond that he says, "Our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all." (2 Cor. 4:11 18) To the Colossians he said, "Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church." (Col. 1:24) He saw suffering as adding to the cause of Christ! James tells us to rejoice in suffering because God is at work building perseverance and maturity (James 1:2 4). Peter says we were called to suffer (1 Peter 2:21), and that suffering weans us from sin (1 Peter 4:1).

How different is our view today? We see suffering as barely tolerable in the case of the sacred, but unacceptable in the realm of the secular. We flee pain at the onset and pursue no course that looks like trials will be included. Further, we see hard times as God's stamp of disapproval. Clearly the one who is suffering has angered God somehow. We have built churches around healing the wounded and ministries around binding the suffering. The pursuit of pleasure and escape from pain has become our lifestyle - our god.

What a unique view of suffering the hymns have! The hymnists see suffering as the loving work of God in the lives of His children. It is not pleasant, nor is it unbearable. God is disciplining His children for their good (Heb. 12:1-11). His aim is to form their character into a reflection of Christ. God, in fact, cares more about character than comfort. Shouldn't we? Scripture says that suffering provides comfort for us and others, brings glory for the future, adds to Christ's work, builds maturity, and drives us from sin. The hymn writers wanted that. How can we not?

Saturday, July 28, 2007

The Extremist

Earlier I wrote about the Muslim who claimed that killing Westerners was simply part of the theology of Islam. Now there is this email that has been making its circulation enough to finally get to my doorstep. Being the email-skeptic that I am, I doubted its veracity ... until I found that it was confirmed rather than denied. So, rather than giving you the email version, you can see the Snopes version.

Basically what we have is an angry mob of Muslims who are expressing their view of those who disagree with Islam. Their position was that they recommended killing anyone who disagreed with them. The article says that the crowd was too large and too dangerous to break up. Now that's something.

We are told repeatedly that Islam is the religion of peace. We are told repeatedly that the violent ones are the "fanatics". And, we are told repeatedly not to talk about it. "Those fanatic fringes are not the real Islam, so don't talk about it like it is." But I still have to wonder.

I hate to do this, but it's from the subject I know best, so here goes. Consider the Christian parallel. If you examine the largest group that identifies themselves as "Christian", you will find that they are an extremely ambivalent group. They don't hold any beliefs very firmly. They don't claim a Trinitarian doctrine or some Bible infallibility thing or Christian exclusivity. In fact, they largely abhor those things. The largest body of folks who identify themselves as "Christian" jettison many of the beliefs that we Evangelicals claim are fundamental to Christianity. So what do we find? We find that there is a small group in the overarching realm known as "Christianity" that hold to a "pernicious" belief that Christ is the only way to God, that the Bible is the infallible Word of God, and that anyone who dies denying these things is going to Hell. Talk about "fanatics". Now, I hate doing this because the most obvious difference between the fanatic Muslim and the fanatic Christian is that the fanatic Muslim will kill you if he gets the chance, and the fanatic Christian finds that "killing the infidel" is an abhorrent concept. (I know ... there are truly fanatic folks that claim to be Christian who are violent in their views. They blow up abortion clinics or kill prostitutes or urge the murder of homosexuals. I'm not talking about those fanatics. I'm talking about the "fanatic" Christian who simply follows what our source book, the Bible, says is true. The important fact in this parallel is that the particular "fanatic Christian" in view follows the teachings of the book. Those truly fanatic Christians that will kill people over it are not following the Bible by any stretch of the imagination.)

The parallels are there. Those who claim to be Christians, followers of Christ, clinging to the Bible as true, are relatively few in numbers. They are disdained by the larger body of "Christians". (They are likely more disdained by the larger body of Christians than the "fanatic Muslims" are disdained by the larger body of Muslims.) While their views are seen as "extreme", they are supported clearly and fairly by the source book they use. And in both cases the "fanatics" believe that they are the true representatives of the true religion while the rest are not. That is my primary point here. We believe that we are the true Christians and those who don't agree are outside of Christianity. They believe they are the true Muslims and those who disagree are outside of Islam.

Two of the primary differences between the fanatic Muslim and the fanatic Christian I'm pointing to are that the fanatic Muslim will kill you while the fanatic Christian will give you the Gospel, and the fanatic Muslim is marginalized while the fanatic Christian is targeted. You know ... the evil "Religious Right". The Press hates it. The blogosphere hates it. There are entire organizations that have been constructed to fight it, both in the realm of "Christianity" and outside that realm. The fanatic Muslim, on the other hand, only has the police and the military against them. The Muslim world isn't combating them, and the Press is trying to stay quiet about them. "Don't talk bad about 'fanatic Muslims'. Be nice. Remember, they're a fringe. Not all Muslims are like that. Tell you what ... let's not even mention their religion. Those people that are killing innocents day in and day out ... let's not talk about their religion at all. Why should we when we have the Evangelicals to kick around?"

I wonder. In a war against terrorism, is it possible to defeat someone if you don't take into account their core values? Think about it. A criminal typically has some core values that we comprehend. They like their life and freedom. If we threaten their life and freedom, we can often stop their actions. A nation likes their life and freedom. If you threaten their life and freedom, you can often stop their aggression. But when you come across someone who doesn't care about life and freedom -- whose core values are not what you're used to -- defeating them is another matter entirely. Threatening a suicide bomber with death, for instance, simply offers them what they want. If we don't take into account the fact that the core teachings of Islamic theology include the command to kill infidels, can we ever really come to grips with Islamic terrorists? Can we actually find methods to address the problem if we don't ever address the core beliefs? Judging by our success thus far, I'd say not.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Confused Again

This whole thing gets very confusing to me. Too often, I suppose, I find that I lack the wisdom to solve all the world's problems. Go figure. Here's one that I can't answer.

A local radio station is reporting on a campaign to accept gays in the military. They want to eliminate the "Don't ask, don't tell" rule and simply allow them to be openly homosexual. Rep. Ellen Tauscher, a California Democrat, also introduced a bill that would ban any discrimination in the military on the basis of sexual orientation.

It seems as if those who are arguing for this aren't taking into account the realities of the situation. In normal human thinking there are two types of humans: male and female. The "standard" perception is that males and females have sexual differences and sexual attraction. Therefore, for the safety and security of both, we provide different facilities. Women are provided different bathrooms, showers, and sleeping facilities from men. While people are quite used to exposing themselves to others of the same gender in, say, locker room environments or gym showers, it is not deemed appropriate to share those environments with the opposite sex. It would produce uncomfortable and potentially dangerous sexual situations. No one questions that we should have "Men's rooms" and "Women's rooms" in venues where both genders are present because it's the right thing to do to protect both.

Now factor in the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transsexual folks. Suddenly men who are sexually attracted to men are allowed the views that men who are attracted to women are not. Heterosexuals of the same gender showering in the same area are not at risk because they are not worried about sexual attraction. However, gender now is not the condern; sexual orientation is. The problem: How would we go about providing sleeping and bathroom facilities based on sexual orientation that would allow people to be safe and comfortable?

This was precisely the problem recently here in Arizona. A "transgender woman" (I'm sorry -- these things get very confusing to me) complained because the owner of a local favorite night spot banned them from using the women's restroom. Why did he do that? Because his female patrons complained when male-looking people went into the women's restroom and used the facilities in a male way (standing up). The female patrons were upset. Of course, the transgender patrons were equally upset when they were banned. They shouldn't have to use the men's restroom; they're not men. Somehow, then, their right to be transgender counters the women's right to be uncomfortable around the whole thing.

The same is true for the military. The right of individuals to be gay, it seems, should overpower the concern of the military to avoid sexual situations in their facilities. I say that because I cannot come up with a single answer that would remedy the problem. You see, if you put heterosexuals with heterosexuals, there is an automatic disconnect with sexual situations. Throw in the rest, however, and the permutations become impossible. Put homosexuals with homosexuals and the sexual tensions will be present. Throw homosexuals with heterosexuals of the same gender, and the sexual tensions will be present. Of course, you can't put homosexuals of one gender with heterosexuals of the opposite gender. That's a mess. Factor in bisexuals and the whole thing becomes simply impossible.

I believe that homosexual behavior is a sin. However, I do not believe that I have the right to throw people in jail for sin. I am not favoring banning homosexuals from society. I am simply asking that people who fall outside of the norm take into account the effects they have on those around them. When my preferences impact other people, why do I think my preferences outweigh theirs? In the military especially, if one's sexual preferences are going to negatively impact the military mission (and, believe me, it will), why should the military be required to allow it? They regulate how you wear your hair and what clothes you put on. They can't regulate who they allow in?

Like "free speech", I don't think this is an issue of freedom of expression of one's sexual orientation (a concept I find bizarre anyway). No one is saying, "You can't be gay." They're saying, "It doesn't work in this venue." It's like "Men and women are equal. It just doesn't work when it comes to sharing bathrooms." The two are different. Why can't people see that?

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Free Speech

Ward Churchill has been fired. Who's that? He is a professor from the University of Colorado who, after the Sep. 11 attack, wrote an essay calling some of the victims of the attack "little Eichmanns", a reference to one of Hitler's officers who orchestrated the Holocaust. Churchill's essay brought outrage and now they've fired him.

Of course, Churchill is firing back. He says that the fact that he is accused of plagiarism and research misconduct is a smoke screen. He says that he was fired for having unpopular views. The real issue here, according to Churchill, is free speech. He believes he has the right to publish his opinions on the university's dime because he has the right to free speech.

This isn't an uncommon claim. If an Internet forum blocks certain inputs, there is the "free speech" cry. If a blogger refuses to publish certain types of comments, there is the "free speech" cry. Then there's this whole "Fairness Doctrine" thing, where some are trying revive the requirement that television and radio outlets provide equal time for opposing viewpoints -- "free speech".

Me, personally? I don't get it. No one has told Churchill, "You are not allowed to think that" or even "you are not allowed to say that." No one is being arrested for speaking their mind on controversial subjects. Bloggers do not have the right or even the capability to prevent someone from speaking out against their perspective. They simply have the right to prevent it from occurring on their blog. And that's the key issue.

Does free speech require that those with opposing viewpoints have the right to mandate that others endure their speech? Does a university have to pay for someone to say whatever they want to say? Do privately-owned businesses like television or radio outlets have a legal obligation -- nay, even a moral obligation -- to pay for people to speak on their programming? If not, does that eliminate free speech?

I don't think so. When certain speech is made illegal, free speech is impinged. When people are arrested for making statements, free speech is impinged. This last April Don Imus was fired by NBC for making racial statements about the Rutgers University women's basketball team. NBC did not deny Don Imus's right to say what he pleased. They simply refused to pay for him to do it on their network. That's the difference.

Too often the rights that we believe we have in this country can be used as hammers to beat people over the head instead of the tools for positive values for which they were intended. Americans have the guaranteed right to say what they want. We call it "free speech", and we enjoy it. We do not have the right to exercise it wherever and whenever we want regardless of who pays for it. That's called "totalitarianism". Mr. Churchill has the right to his views, and he has the right to express them freely. He does not have the right to require that the university support him in doing so. That is not one of the rights protected by our constitution.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

What I Mean To Say

Libby Purves has published a list of "30 Most influential religion blogs". The list includes blogs on Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and, of course, Christianity. Oddly enough, among the top 30 most influential religion blogs are two atheist blogs.

Now, wait. The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (© Random House, Inc. 2006) defines religion as "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe, esp. when considered as the creation of a superhuman agency or agencies, usually involving devotional and ritual observances, and often containing a moral code governing the conduct of human affairs." American Heritage Dictionary says it is "belief in and reverence for a supernatural power or powers regarded as creator and governor of the universe" (The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, © 2006 by Houghton Mifflin Company.) So ... how is it possible to make "belief in no god" the equivalent of "belief in a supernatural power"?

We are so loose with our terminology these days. While Christians (who definitely fall in the category of "belief in a supernatural power") deny vehemently that Christianity is a religion, those who vehemently deny the existence of any supernatural power are classified as "religion". And somehow we're supposed to understand all this. More to the point, so many do. They nod and agree and move on. Not me. I don't get it.

If words have no meaning, then we have no dialog. If "no god" means "god", then we have no room for discussion. If religion doesn't mean religion and no religion does, we have nothing on which to base any conversation. If words have no meaning, we can't use words to express what we mean.

Now, if the ambiguities of the term "religion" were all that were in view, I'd be happy. But it's not. "Freedom" now means "do anything you want without consequences." "Deserve" no longer means simply, "to be worthy, fit, or suitable for some reward" (© 2007 Merriam-Webster, Inc.), but more at "I live therefore I deserve." Even if you sit around the house and do nothing all day, "You deserve a break today," McDonald's assures us. "Responsible" used to mean "honest, capable, reliable, trustworthy," but now means more at "someone else's problem." "Privilege" has turned to "right", "grace" to "fairness", and "mercy" is something that can be demanded.

Is there any wonder our society is so confused? We are using words that we all know, but they don't mean what we all think they mean. We are people separated by a common language. And I mean every word.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007


I don't know how many of you have heard of AWANA. The name is an acronym for "Approved Workmen Are Not Ashamed" taken from 2 Tim. 2:15. According to their website, "Awana is the leading ministry to help local churches reach children and youth with the gospel and train them to know, love and serve Christ. Awana blends Bible teaching, Scripture memorization and tons of fun."

Is Awana a good thing? There are those who defend it vehemently and those who argue that it's useless at best and detrimental at worst. I worked with Awana at my church several years ago, so I'm not speaking from a lack of experience. Additionally, my kids were in Awana for several years. I'm not speaking in a vacuum.

I understand the complaints. Awana offers little to no depth. They say they blend Bible teaching with the rest of what they do, but the Bible teaching is aimed at such a broad group that it typically doesn't have any real substance. The real core of Awana is Scripture memorization. That is done by rote. Pound through it. Commit it to memory. Don't examine it, study it, dig into it. Memorize it. Why? Because you can earn ribbons and awards and things.

I understand, but I don't necessarily agree with the complaints. Does Awana offer little depth? I agree that it does. Therefore it ought to be discontinued? I don't agree. I don't agree because of something David wrote: "Thy word have I laid up in mine heart, that I might not sin against Thee" (Psa. 119:11). It would seem that David, a man after God's own heart, thought that it was valuable for life to collect God's Word in his heart. Three times in Psa. 119 David talks of meditating on God's Word. That means pulling it up in one's mind and mulling it over. It seems to me that the most efficient way to do this is to have it in one's mind. In other words, I think there is great value in memorizing Scripture, even if it is by rote, and even if it is by children who don't yet fully comprehend it.

Now, to be fair, Awana wants a leader to not merely have the kids spew verses back at you. They want the leaders to ask questions about what it means and how they understand it. That's a good thing, isn't it? I think so.

Is Awana the best thing for kids? That would be a reach. Is it less than optimum? That would be likely. Is it bad? That conclusion would be a mistake. Let me illustrate by way of a story. One day I found my son had cleared off all the trophies he had earned for memorization in Awana. I asked him why. He told me, "I shouldn't be rewarded for memorizing Scripture." He likely had a point. But there was another point there. "Let me tell you a secret," I told him. "Do you know what you do when you memorize Scripture? Just about any time I can point to in my life that I know God spoke to me, He did it with Scripture that I had memorized. Sometimes it was Scripture from when I was a kid, stuff I had long ago forgotten. But He was able to call it out of long lost memory banks and use it to tell me something He wanted me to know. When you memorize Scripture, you give God a vocabulary for your life."

Is it perfect? I obviously don't think so. But it is of value. It is certainly of greater value than sitting in front of a TV or video game for hours on end. It may not provide the depth of teaching that kids should have, but I have already ranted about the failure of parents to take the responsibility for being spiritually responsible for their kids. Is it the job of Awana to provide depth, or is it ours? Nothing is perfect. A good thing can be abused or mishandled. Fine. But I think there is innate value in inculcating children with Scripture, so I won't speak badly of Awana even if it is imperfect.

Monday, July 23, 2007

Shhh! Someone's Listening!

My mother reads this blog. I don't know that it's all the time, but she comments with sufficient frequency via email to let me know that it's not uncommon for her to read this blog. You have to know that this knowledge has an effect on what and how I write. For instance, Mom knows her grammar, so I'm careful to get that malarkey important stuff right. (I'm kidding, Mom.) More importantly, Mom knows her Bible. If I were to try to write some stuff that just didn't line up, she'd know it. And, ultimately, Mom loves me. That means that she wouldn't just ignore it if I made a real mistake in the content of this blog. Because she loves me, she would let me know. Trust me ... she has.

So what? So what if my mother reads this blog? What do the rest of you care? Well, for me and for the rest of you, there is Someone else who reads what you write, who watches what you do. If I'm concerned about my mom, He is of much higher concern.

I don't have to wonder what some of you think about what I write. Some (0kay ... very few, but not zero) of you tell me. And I don't have to wonder what my mother thinks of what I write. She tells me. I do have to wonder what God thinks. And I suppose, more to the point, I ought to. We often enter things online that are done "in a vacuum", so to speak. We don't think about what others will think. We don't care about how others will feel. It's just something that comes from inside and there's no one here but me and this monitor and I'm going to let this monitor know what I think. It's not true; it's simply not true. I'm not alone here with this monitor. I'm not even here with my mom reading over my shoulder. It's important that I don't offend her. It's valuable that I don't write stuff that would be detrimental to others. But most of all I need to keep in mind -- actively -- that my Lord and Savior is always reading over my shoulder, and what I write should not offend Him. What I write should bring Him pleasure. It's true for this blog, and it's true for my life.

God watches my life. And God knows how it should be done, so I ought to be careful to get that stuff right. More importantly, God knows the truth. If I were to try to offer you some stuff that just didn't line up, He'd know it. Ultimately, God loves me. That means that He won't just ignore it if I make a real mistake. Because He loves me, He will correct my thinking. Trust me ... He has ... many times.

"Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer" (Psa. 19:14). Don't forget that, Stan.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Hymnody Themes - The Cross

There are lots of themes in hymns. Look at the "Topical Index" of any hymnal and you'll find a lot of topics. I just wanted to hit on one or two.

One of the common themes in hymns that is very rare in choruses and praise songs is the cross. The question of "why?" can be inconclusive and alarming. The fact remains that the cross is as much a central theme in Scripture as it is in hymns; in fact, more so. Paul said, "We preach Christ crucified." (1 Cor. 1:23) He told the Corinthians, "I determined to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified." (1 Cor. 2:2) We are to live all of life with a view to the cross (Heb. 12:2). The daily operation of the Christian life is the taking up of one's cross (e.g., Matt. 10:38; 16:24; Mark 8:34; Luke 9:23; 14:27) It is at the cross that we learn how to love (e.g., Eph. 5:25; Rom. 5:8) and how to view trials (e.g., Rom. 8:17,18; Phil. 3:10; Heb. 5:8; 1 Peter 4:1,13).

The hymns join in this theme with vigor. "How Great Thou Art" devotes an entire stanza in awe of the cross. "And when I think that God, His Son not sparing, sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in; that on the cross, my burden gladly bearing, He bled and died to take away my sin."

Isaac Watts spends his entire time "At the Cross" recognizing the unfathomable wonder of what occurred there for us:
Alas, and did my Savior bleed, and did my Sovereign die?
Would He devote that sacred head for such a worm as I?

Was it for crimes that I have done He suffered on that tree?
Amazing pity! Grace unknown! And love beyond degree!
Another Watts hymn, "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross," puts all of life in perspective through the filter of Christ's sacrifice:
When I survey the wondrous cross on which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss and pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it Lord that I should boast save in the death of Christ my God.
All the vain things that charm me most I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet, sorrow and love flow mingled down.
Did e'er such love and sorrow meet, or thorns compose so rich a crown?

Were the whole realm of nature mine, that were a present far too small.
Love so amazing, so divine, demands my life, my soul, my all.
Toplady's "Rock of Ages" is the argument based on salvation by the blood alone. His main point: "In my hand no price I bring. Simply to Thy cross I cling." Elizabeth Clephane takes the argument a step further, claiming that the cross is the place we should be living. "Beneath the cross of Jesus I fain would take my stand," she says, and goes on to explain why. Further, she urges us to remain focused there by telling what she sees:
Upon that cross of Jesus, mine eye can sometimes see
The very dying form of One who suffered there for me;
And from my smitten heart with tears two wonders I confess -
The wonders of His glorious love and my own worthlessness.
Perhaps this is why we avoid the cross in our songs today. While we certainly enjoy the concept of God's love, we don't like the concept of sin. Self-esteem may be damaged. Guilt might be imparted. Our fragile egos can't stand the stress. And a look at the cross certainly produces stress when we see the need. God required DEATH because of my sin.

We won't accept that. We nod our heads and agree, but we don't really believe it. We stand, with fists raised, and defy God to prove our guilt. "I'm just not that bad, God," we protest loudly. "I haven't killed anyone ... if you leave out that 'hating your brother is murder' stuff. I'm no sex offender ... as long as you leave the 'lust equals adultery' thing out of it. I don't worship other gods ... let's not talk about the idolatry of greed." And we glibly compare ourselves among ourselves and stand firm on our conviction that we're not that bad. But the truth is the standard is God and His perfection, and we are sinners from the inside out. We have all but blotted out the image of God in us and replaced it with the arrogant Self.

The cross was costly. It showed the great extent to which God would go to save worthless ones like us. It demonstrated love toward the unlovable. Its horror graphically illustrated the horror of our sin and the depths of our depravity, contrasting us with the perfection that was Jesus Christ. It is only when we see this, only when we realize this, that we can grasp the cross with both hands, cling to it quite literally, for dear life.

Beyond that, living in the shadow of the cross is the sole place to abide:
I take, O cross, thy shadow for my abiding place -
I ask no other sunshine than the sunshine of His face;
Content to let the world go by, to know no gain nor loss,
My sinful self my only shame, my glory all the cross. (Gal. 6:14)
"O Sacred Head, Now Wounded," taken from a much longer seven-part medieval poem, devotes its entire text to Christ's head as He suffered on the cross:
O Sacred Head, now wounded,
With grief and shame weighed down,
Now scornfully surrounded
With thorns Thy only crown,
How art Thou pale with anguish,
With sore abuse and scorn!
How does that visage languish
Which once was bright as morn!

What Thou, my Lord, hast suffered
Was all for sinners' gain;
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But Thine the deadly pain.
Lo, here I fall, my Savior!
'Tis I deserve Thy place;
Look on me with Thy favor,
Vouchsafe to me Thy grace.

What language shall I borrow
To thank Thee, dearest Friend,
For this, Thy dying sorrow,
Thy pity without end?
O make me Thine forever!
And should I fainting be,
Lord let me never, never
Outlive my love to Thee!

Spafford devoted an entire verse of "It Is Well With My Soul" to the bliss of Christ's blood shed for us:
My sin - O the bliss of this glorious tho't -
My sin, not in part, but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!
Many, many more hymns are devoted to the cross. Pick up a hymnal sometime and look in the topical index. You'll find multiple listings under various topics such as Atonement, The Blood of Jesus, The Cross, and The Crucifixion. Their titles betray their content. "Beneath the Cross of Jesus" "Near the Cross" "At the Cross" "When I Survey the Wondrous Cross" Title after title speaks of the cross and their focus there.

Why this "morbid" preoccupation? Why should they -- and by implication, we -- spend so much time looking at the cross? The answer I have already stated. The central theme of Scripture is the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ at the cross. In that single event, all of life changes. Where there was only the certainty of righteous judgment now comes the hope of grace and mercy. Where there was only our fruitless attempts at virtuous living is now freedom. Where there was fear of punishment now comes love.

And the Bible doesn't stop its crucifixion focus at the Resurrection. Certainly we serve a risen Savior, but we see His character magnified large enough for us to recognize at the cross, and the Scriptures are sure to point this out. So everyday, practical living is derived from looking at the cross. Husbands, how are you supposed to love your wives? What does it look like? Look to the cross. Love her "as Christ loved the church and gave Himself for her." (Eph. 5:25) Now look at the cross and see how that looks. That means that when all were reviling Him, He did not return the insults. That means that when all had forsaken Him, He still died in her place. That means that although it cost Him everything, He willingly gave all for her, withholding nothing for Himself. All this and more we see at the cross. Indeed, Paul says, "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Gal. 2:20). That is the Christian life -- a life dead to me and alive to Him. That comes through the cross.

Are there difficult circumstances in your life? Do you suffer? How do you deal with it? Look to the cross. "If you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in His steps." (1 Peter 2:20,21) "Since Christ suffered in His body, arm yourselves also with the same attitude, because he who has suffered in his body is done with sin." (1 Peter 4:1) "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like Him in his death." (Phil. 3:10) "Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus . . . He humbled himself and became obedient to death even death on a cross!" (Phil. 2:5-8) "Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Heb. 12:2) By looking at the cross, we see that suffering has a purpose, and that we are not alone in it.

These are just a couple of examples of the biblical perspective on the cross. In fact, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ touches every aspect of the Christian's life. Why should we be so focused on the cross? How can we not be focused there? It is the focus of God's Word. It must be our focus, too.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Sober Judgment

How do you see yourself? (No, "In a mirror, of course" is not the kind of answer I am looking for.) There are some of us who see ourselves as really hot stuff. Maybe it's appearance. Maybe it's skills or talents. Maybe it's income. Maybe it's a conglomeration. But we're really something. There are some of us who see ourselves as miserable failures. We can't do nothin' right. We're ugly and our mothers dress us funny. Everyone hates us. We might as well go and eat worms. (I love Rodney Dangerfield's line. "I told my dad, 'Everyone hates me.' He told me, 'Don't say that! Not everyone has met you yet.'") But I suspect, for the majority, there is a mixture. In our eyes we are good at some things and bad at others. There are some things we have mastered and some that defeat us every time. Very few human beings are actually on one end or the other of the spectrum.

Here's the thing. "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9). It is my suspicion that however you see yourself, it's likely not accurate. We tend to expand on our strengths and minimize our weaknesses or plunge into the depths of our weaknesses and minimize our strengths. We tend to do so at various times, depending on mood, circumstances, and other influences. Sometimes we might see ourselves as capable, likable, darn good folks. Other times we might see ourselves as "the worst of all sinners". At almost no time are we actually accurate in our assessment.

It is said that you are how you see yourself. No, no, others say that you are not as you see yourself, but as others see you. Still others say that you are not as you see yourself, but as you see how others see you. Oh, it's all very confusing. Paul said, "I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned" (Rom 12:3). "Sober judgment" -- that's the call. I suspect that sober judgment -- on both ends of the spectrum -- is often the lack as well.

I suspect that when you think, "Hey, I'm really good at that", you're not likely as good as you think. I suspect that when you think, "I'm just a miserable failure at that", you're not as bad as you think. Most of the time we are comparing ourselves with others around us ... and that's a really poor standard to use.

Every human being is unique. I think, however, that we are, on one hand, far more unique than we realize, but, on the other hand, not for the reasons that we think we are. For instance, "No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man" (1 Cor. 10:13). I bet that most of us think that we are unique in some of our struggles and failures. The Bible disagrees. The same is true with strengths.

Many of us suffer from "poor self-esteem". I despise the term. "Self-esteem" refers to the value one places on one's self. There is no point in that. The only value that matters is the real value and our estimation is irrelevant there. The truth is that most of us suffer from "poor self-image". We do not rightly examine ourselves. We tell ourselves lies. We tell ourselves "I'm the best there is" or "I'm the worst there is" and both, typically, are lies. "Sober judgment" -- that's the call.

For those of you who suffer from a sense of failure, rest assured that your senses are failing you. "The heart is deceitful above all things." For those of you who think "I'm God's gift to the world", you can be equally confident that you're likely mistaken. "The heart is deceitful above all things." "Sober judgment" -- that's the call. We are not called to evaluate ourselves in relative terms. We are called to examine ourselves to see if we're in the faith (2 Cor. 13:5). If you are good at something, thank God. If you lack, ask God. But dwelling on your positives or negatives will simply distract you from where you need to go.

Friday, July 20, 2007

What is a Christian?

Look around. It seems to be harder and harder to define "Christian" if you listen to the cacophony of voices that are using the same word to mean a vast array of things. Wikipedia defines it this way:
A Christian is a person who adheres to Christianity, a monotheistic religion centered on the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth as presented in the New Testament. Christians believe Jesus to be the Son of God and the Messiah prophesied in the Old Testament.
Simple, straightforward, plain as day, right? Not really. They go on to say that "Christian" means "born again" to some and "one who is a member of the church" to others. It means "Western" to the Muslim world and "cultures and people" in other applications. Some think of it as "an organization for social change", "of European descent", "a right-wing political group" or "a moral system". In other words, it's not clear at all.

Depending on who you ask, you will get a variety of answers. To clear things up, try doing a Google search on "What is a Christian", and you'll find that clarity is elusive. The dictionary says it's "Professing belief in Jesus as Christ or following the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus." says, "A true Christian is a person who has put his or her faith and trust in the person of Jesus Christ and fact that He died on the cross as payment for sins and rose again on the third day to obtain victory over death and to give eternal life to all who believe in Him." A Puritan's Mind has a more complex definition. It says that a true Christian is 1) one who has seriously considered their sin problem, 2) one who has seriously considered the divine remedy for sin (that would be Christ and His Substitutionary Atonement), 3) one has complied with the terms for God's provision for sin (repent and believe), and 4) one whose life reflects that the first three items are true. Not a simple definition. And puts it more succinctly: "A real Christian is one who has realized that he is a sinner and can only be saved by God's grace. It is someone who has accepted Christ's sacrifice on the cross as the payment for his sins and who realizes that he cannot work his way to heaven."

I asked others how they would answer the question. Here's what I got. One said, "A Christian would be a person who believes that God sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to pay for his/her sins (understands that he/she is a sinner) by dying on the cross and believes the Holy Spirit works in us." Another echoed that with nuances: "A Christian is a person that believes into the deity of Christ, the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and the atoning work of Christ, which is the salvation of the elect through His death and resurrection." (Note: The phrase "believes into" is not a grammatical error here. It was intentional, suggesting more than mere mental acquiescence.) A more detailed version went like this: "My 'easy formula' to tell folks is A B C -- Acknowledge you are a sinner in need of a Savior, Believe Jesus is who He said, Commit your life to Him and receive His life in you. Consequently, I'd have to say a Christian is one who sees he needs to be reconciled to God (II Cor. 5:20) (however one wants to put that), believes Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9) -- God (John 8:23), exclusive entry to God (John 14:6) -- recognizes the issue of cost i.e. death to control (Matt. 16:24), (which includes the Spirit's indwelling authority/power (Rom. 8:9)), and wills/chooses to commit/yield (report for duty)."

The problem comes in when we start to add stuff to the simplest of definitions. If "belief in the Trinity", for instance, is part of the definition, then what does one say to someone who has never heard of the Trinity but has recognized their sin and placed their faith in Christ who died for them? "Sorry ... not enough. There are deeper theological issues that you need to agree with before you can be considered a Christian." Is it required that a person understand that Deity of Christ before they are classified as "Christian"? When the Philippian jailer asked, "What must I do to be saved?", Paul's answer was simple: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved" (Acts 16:30-31). So is it that it just doesn't matter? The jailer recognized his need for salvation (albeit it was likely his need for salvation from being killed for a prison break, not from eternal damnation), and the answer was "believe". Can it be that simple?

I suspect it is that simple ... but not. I suspect that a true Christian is found in what he or she affirms and in what he or she denies. The first hint of this is in Paul's very words: "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved." There is an aspect here that is often missed. Paul calls Jesus not merely an historical figure and not merely a man that lived at the beginning of the Common Era. He is both "Lord" and "Christ". He is Sovereign and the promised Messiah. In other words, simply believing that Jesus existed is not going to do it. There is a package that these words contain. It is possible to embrace it in its simplicity and you'll be fine -- a Christian. It is not possible to deny its components and be fine. So implied on the surface are several components that must be affirmed. 1) "I need to be saved." A failure to recognize one's sin condition and inability to fix it means that you won't need to believe to be saved, and that would preclude a person from being a Christian. 2) "Jesus is the only means to remedy my sin problem." Now, this "Jesus" has certain characteristics. If these are not affirmed, it is not the same "Jesus" of whom Paul speaks. First, He is the Master -- Lord. Thus, a person must affirm His lordship. Second, He is Christ -- the Promised One from God. Thus, a person must affirm His special status as the Messiah.

Those cover the two basic aspects offered by most of the definitions. However, there are, however, aspects that may not need to be affirmed at the outset, but must not be denied. If faith is the key, and "the Lord Jesus Christ" is the object of that faith, then the truth about the person of Jesus cannot be denied. A Jesus who, for instance, never died and never rose again is not the same Jesus. That's a denial of the biblical Jesus. A Jesus who is not both God and with God (John 1:1) is not the same Jesus. That's a denial of the biblical Jesus. There are aspects of the person of Jesus that may not need to be affirmed to be saved, but they must not be denied, or that person is not "the Lord Jesus Christ".

Lots of people have lots of definitions of "Christian". However, if "Christian" is simply "whatever you want it to be", it is a meaningless term. It is a term with meaning, and we don't get to redefine it to match culture or preference. It is a biblical term that demands a biblical definition. Others may choose to disagree; that's fine. Just don't call them "Christian".

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Kid-Controlled Culture

I heard the report the other morning on the news. Some major food marketers have decided to establish limits on advertising to children. Companies like Campbells (you know, the soup company) and General Mills are going to limit their advertising to children under 12 if their product doesn't meet certain nutritional standards. The companies represent about two-thirds of all food advertising dollars aimed at children. All well and good.

Here's the part I don't get. What is the point of advertising? I always thought that the point of advertising is to get people to buy my product. Here's what frightens me -- I may be right. If I am, apparently it is children under the age of 12 who are buying these products or at least deciding which products are bought. Thus the need to curtail advertising to this age group.

That frightens me. It appears that parents are allowing their children to determine what they will eat. The parent doesn't decide; the child does. The parent, who should have nutritional sense and parental control, has apparently surrendered any sense or control to children who are not old enough to see PG-13 movies. (Yeah, right, like children under the age of 12 aren't seeing PG-13 movies.)

American culture has long been a youth-oriented culture. In the 60's they said, "Don't trust anyone over 30." Over 30? And the culture has pressed on that way. It is the young people that determine what is right, not the experienced people. The youth -- anyone under the age of 30 -- believe that they know what is best and older folks are, well, just stupid. This view is reinforced over and over these days in movies and television. Watch any family presentation and it is highly likely that those brainless parents are going to be doing witless things that require the children to correct. Wisdom these days comes out of the mouth of babes, not from adults.

So the culture has continued as a youth-oriented culture, and then some. When I was 30, I asked my young son, "Do you think your dad is old?" "Oh, yes, Dad," he told me. "How old do you think I am?" I asked. "Oh," he said, real old. At least 18." "I love you son," I replied. "At least 18." That's old. So our under-12 group are determining what they should eat, what they should wear, how they should live. They decide when to have a cell phone. Many parents fear losing their parental rights to the government. What's the point? We've already surrendered them to our children. You can't lose what you don't have.

"Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov. 22:6). We've decided that makes no sense. Let them go the way they want to go, and everything will be fine. They will like us. We will have peace. They're on their own. Great! CBS is putting on a new reality show called Kid Nation in which kids between the ages of 8 to 15 are going to make their own world without adults to show they can do it better. (Hey, plans are already in the works for Kid Nation 2. Casting call is out. How about sending your 8-year-old into a hostile environment without adults to prove how much smarter they are than you?)

Parents, we have a responsibility to our kids. It is not to let them do as they please. It is not to be their buddy. It is not to allow them to grow up however they want to grow up. We have a responsibility to train them, to parent them, to prepare them for life. It is a God-given responsibility, not one to be taken lightly. It is not the popular perspective today ... but it is the biblical one. And, oh, by the way, "eternal youth" is not the answer to a good life. Regardless of the culture and the advertisements you will find, "Gray hair is a crown of glory; it is gained in a righteous life" (Prov. 16:31). Kids, remember, "Wisdom is with aged men; with long life is understanding" (Job 12:12).

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Terms

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego -- there are three names you don't run into every day. These were three friends of Daniel in, of all places, the book of Daniel. They were exiled Jews, captives in the land of Babylon. One day the king, Nebuchadnezzar, decided to find among the captives, "youths without blemish, of good appearance and skillful in all wisdom, endowed with knowledge, understanding learning, and competent to stand in the king's palace, and to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans" (Dan. 1:4). Daniel and his three friends were among them. After Daniel impressed the king by not only interpreting a dream the king had, but also telling the king what the dream was (Dan. 2), these guys were placed in high positions in Babylon (Dan. 2:49).

It wasn't long before they were in trouble, as you might imagine. The king set up an image of himself and, when the music played, commanded that everyone worship it (Dan. 3). These three guys wouldn't do it. Some native Chaldeans complained (Dan. 3:8). So Nebuchadnezzar explained it to them. "Apparently you didn't understand. If you don't, I'll throw you into the fire. So ... as soon as the music plays, I'm sure you'll do it ... right?" (Dan. 3:14-15). These three guys didn't hesitate. "Don't bother waiting for the music, King. We won't do it." What was their thinking on the matter? "Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king" (Dan. 3:17). See? They're thinking, "God will save us." If God will save them, then it's completely safe to defy the king because they're safe. No, that's not quite accurate. They had more to say. "But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up" (Dan. 3:18). These guys were not going to bow. It didn't matter if God saved them or not. They weren't taking God on their terms. They were submitting to God's terms:
"I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before Me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate Me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love Me and keep My commandments" (Exo. 20:2-6).
Well, you know the rest of the story. They were bound and thrown into a fire so hot that it killed their executioners. Nevertheless, all they lost was the ropes that bound them. They were saved by the "fourth man" in the fire, and the king radically changed his tune.

Various people find various lessons in the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. You can always trust God. Good. Going through the fire isn't always a bad thing. Fine. All you lose in the fire is the ropes that bind you. I like that one. But the question I come away with is this: Are you willing to take God on His terms?

I don't know how many times I've heard, "If God is like that, I don't want anything to do with Him" or something similar. "If I can't have my favorite pet in heaven, I don't want to go." "If God will do thus and so for me, I'll serve Him forever." These three guys didn't take God on their own terms. I'm sure they would have liked to. "As long as God promises to protect us, we'll do the right thing. We'll do what He says as long as there is reward for doing good and no downside." We all like that. But they didn't do it. They believed that God was capable of saving them, but it wasn't the issue. Even if He didn't save them, they wouldn't bow to the image. They surrendered their terms to God and took Him at His terms.

It's a running theme in Scripture. Isaiah agreed to speak on God's behalf. His expected results?
And He said, "Go, and say to this people: "'Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.' Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed." Then I said, "How long, O Lord?" And He said: "Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump" (Isa. 6:9-13).
Isaiah was going to preach a message that would never be heard. That was the plan. And Isaiah took God on His own terms. Read through Lamentations and see Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. He was chosen from the womb (Jer. 1:5) to be a prophet to a people who would ignore him. Look at Jesus Himself. He prayed, "Let this cup pass from Me", but He still went to the cross.

God's people are constantly called to take God on His terms, not their terms. Sometimes the results are pleasant, like for Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Sometimes they're disastrous, like those in Hebrews 11 who were tortured, mocked, flogged, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, killed, afflicted, and mistreated (Heb. 11:35-37). What about you? Are you going to take God on your terms or on His? Are you going to take God as He reveals Himself or as you want Him to be? Are you going to obey if it's beneficial or because He is God? Whose terms are you going to use?

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

A Clearer Bible

"Why isn't the Bible as clear as we would like it to be?" That was the question being discussed on my local Christian radio station on my way home from work the other day. Why doesn't it have a specific doctrinal passage that fully explains the Trinity? Why didn't God anticipate the abortion question and make it abundantly clear? Couldn't God have known the debates we would have over the centuries and simply have addressed them in the book? And callers had a wide variety of answers. "God intended only to cover the things necessary for salvation." "It was meant to cover all time." "Well, it's unclear because God didn't write it." Some answers were decent and some were, well, wrong ... as you might expect. The point is not what their answers were. The point is that it made me think. How would I answer the question?

I had several thoughts on it. One is a general thought. If I were to write a book that would encompass every question and every heresy ever suggested for the last 2000 years, what do you suppose that book would be like? The book would need to have all that we currently have in our Bibles. It would also need to have a "catechism" of sorts, an outlined process that gives line-by-line doctrinal statements. It would need commentaries on each of those statements to preclude confusion, taking into account every possible objection and question. Then it would have to address the vast varieties of questions that would be asked by the vast varieties of people that have used it over the centuries. Should a Christian join the military? Is tithing still required? How exactly is a church to be named, constructed, governed and all that? What do you think a biblical writer would have thought when he penned God's instructions on the ethics of embryonic stem cell research? It would be tough to cover all questions for all times. Then, it would have to address slavery in changing societies. It would have to address women's issues in changing societies. It would have to differentiate. If, for instance, slavery that was practiced by Israel in the Old Testament (which included a 7-year limit and many other rules) was acceptable, but slavery that was practiced by the South prior to 1865 was not, it would have to indicate that. If women prior to the 20th century were not to have pastor roles but women after the mid-20th century could, it would have to indicate that. It would have to take into account language differences and shades of meanings. Consider, for instance, the evolution of the concept of "love" from the biblical version to today's society. This book would need to be able to cross the gap of languages and what words mean to varying groups. In other words, this book would be vast, unreadable, and unusable. Here, picture this. Imagine every single question that you can think of. Now, go to the Internet and find an article that answers the question as fully as you would like. (For this example, it doesn't matter whose side the answer is on.) Now, with your imagination, print out that article. What is it ... 1, 2, 5, 10 pages? Do that for every single question you can come up with. How many pages have you printed in this imaginary exercise? Now imagine the questions that you likely didn't come up with -- you know, questions from other cultures, other languages, other times. How many more pages would be added? At some point it becomes too big, too bulky to even bother with. We might end up with a clear Bible that answers every question and delineates every doctrine ... but who is going to use it?

I suspect that one of the reasons that the Bible isn't as clear as we would like it to be is that it is intended to be that way. We find Paul, for instance, writing about meat sacrificed to idols (Rom. 14). Is it right or wrong? Paul doesn't really say. He says it's not wrong for him. But he also says "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23) So it's not wrong for him, but it is for others. I suspect that much of everyday Christianity is exactly this vague. It is wrong to drink alcohol and it is not wrong to drink alcohol. It is wrong to smoke and it is not wrong to smoke. It is wrong to dance and it is not wrong to dance. It is an individual thing, and the Bible cannot answer individual things categorically. I also think that there is a "vagueness" to it not because some of it is to be vague, but because we are called to "the renewing of the mind" (Rom. 12:2). That is a process, not an event. Some of it you get now, and some you won't get until later. Who gets what when is very individual. So part of the process of sanctification and renewing the mind includes spending time in the Scriptures and letting the Holy Spirit illuminate your understanding. A book as explicit as is suggested by the question, "Why isn't the Bible as clear as we would like it to be?", would eliminate any of that process. So because of individual requirements and because of the need to learn at an individual pace, I suspect God had it written exactly as clear as He intended.

One of the problems of the clarity of Scripture is unrelated to Scripture. It is related to the reader. It is a simple thing, for instance, to read, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (John 1:1). Plain as day, isn't it? Jesus was both with God and was God -- one of the basic statements on the Trinity. Yet, as clear as that is, it is debated by readers. "No, it doesn't mean that." But ... how can they say that? Because they can. I suspect that no matter how vast, how wordy, and how clearly the Bible was written, readers would still mitigate and debate it. We have many reasons. Sometimes one passage will appear to contradict another. That's a valid reason to suggest that it doesn't mean what it says at face value. You'll have to dig deeper. That's where we get complicated doctrines like the Trinity. There must be a correlation between the undeniable monotheism of the Bible with someone who is both "with God" and "is God". But more likely it's a different reason. More likely the reason for discarding the plain meaning is that we don't like the plain meaning. Surely Paul couldn't be writing about women pastors in 1 Tim. 2! That would go against our current culture! No way! Sure, it seems clear from any surface reading that the Bible is against homosexual actions, but that would mean that some people are wrong in their actions, and that doesn't seem right ... so that can't be the case. It would violate our culture. No way! And the reader mitigates the plain meaning of Scripture.

This leads us to the more specific answer that I had to the question. Most Evangelicals would tell those readers that change the plain meaning of Scripture to suit their preference to leave it alone. Let God say what God wants to say. Take Him at His Word. The truth is that this is the answer to the broader question. The question is, "Why isn't the Bible as clear as we would like it to be?" The comeback is, "Who said it had to be what you would like it to be?" Who made us the arbiters of what is "good enough"? For those of us who might like to think, "God could have made it clearer, couldn't He?" we must settle on the same answer that we would tell those who mitigate Scripture for personal reasons. "Let God say what God wants to say. Take Him at His Word." We all need to learn to take God as He presents Himself rather than as we would like Him to be. The same is true with His Word. The question, in fact, is backward, as indicated by the phrase "as we would like it to be." Instead, we should start from this: "Since the Bible is exactly as clear as God intended it, how can I learn to better understand it?"

Monday, July 16, 2007

The Answers Are Out There

There is no perfect answer.

I live in Arizona. Where I am, the average year will have 300 days of sunshine. One would think that this makes it the perfect place for solar power. Indeed, it is. We could power the country if we placed enough solar panels in this state. So, let's do it, right?

Not so fast. Remember, there is no perfect answer. According to studies, there are other factors to consider. Are you aware, for instance, of the amount of energy it takes to make solar cells? If you include the manufacture and frame and all, the estimates are that it would take a minimum of two years at best for the solar panel to replace the energy it took to make it. Then there is resource depletion. Depending on the method of manufacture, large numbers of solar cells could have a large impact on natural resources like silver or indium. Waste management of decommissioned solar panels is a problem because of their components. And the emissions from some of the module types are potentially hazardous to the environment. Then there is the health and safety risks. Certain processes can be explosive or toxic and need special handling and large scale storage of some of the chemicals required is potentially hazardous.

Solar power is clean and has no negative impact on the environment. Creating solar power, on the other hand, isn't quite so clean. Cost, energy usage, resource depletion, and potential pollution are all a part of the manufacturing process. There is no perfect answer.

Go down the list. It holds true in almost every single part of life. Gun control, anti-bacterials, auto safety features, Patriot missiles, every answer we come up with to a problem in life is imperfect. The problem is that we keep expecting perfection. Doctors should be perfect. If something goes wrong, sue them. Cars should be perfect. If something goes wrong, sue the manufacturer. If you're not happy with something, get rid of it.

We spend so much time trying to find satisfaction here. We seem not to notice that this world is, according to Scripture and simple observation, an imperfect place. According to Paul, "the creation was subjected to futility" (Rom. 8:20). We live in a world of sin-sick humans on a decaying planet that cannot provide absolute satisfaction. We are humans created for fellowship with God and every moment on this world is, at best, an imperfect experience of that fellowship. There is no perfect answer.

We should do all we can to make this existence the best we can. We should try to make things safer. We should try to do less harm to the environment and more good to people. We should try to help the poor and feed the hungry and all of that. We are called to do that. Nay, we are commanded to do all of that. But let's not be confused. There is no perfect answer this side of heaven. Don't expect Man with his deceitful heart and imperfect vision and understanding to produce anything perfect with the decaying world in which he lives. You will surely be disappointed.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Spirit Of God, Descend Upon My Heart

It's a longer one, but I think, obviously, that it's well worth the time. (Besides ... it's likely the last.)
Spirit Of God, Descend Upon My Heart
George Croly

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
Stoop to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
And make me love thee as I ought to love.

I ask no dream, no prophet ecstasies,
No sudden rending of the veil of clay,
No angel visitant, no opening skies;
But take the dimness of my soul away.

Hast thou not bid me love thee, God and King?
All, all thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.
I see thy cross; there teach my heart to cling.
O let me seek thee, and O let me find.

Teach me to feel that thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.

Teach me to love thee as thine angels love,
One holy passion filling all my frame;
The kindling of the heaven-descended Dove,
My heart an altar, and thy love the flame.
One of the common differences between hymns and contemporary praise songs is the depth of their content. Praise songs tend to be light and “milky”, while hymns generally are weightier and “meaty”. It is difficult to spend much time chewing on a praise song, but one can meditate on a hymn, pulling out more and more good stuff. This particular hymn is a prime example. It was written by George Croly, a pastor in London in the 1800’s. Some of his works included Scenes from Scripture and other Poems (1851) and Psalms and Hymns for Public Worship (London: Kendrick, 1854). It was intended to be his reminder to himself of his goal and focus. If you take a few minutes to examine the hymn, you will find it is rich in good theology.

Croly opens his prayer to the Holy Spirit in a request to have him “descend upon my heart” and “wean it from earth, through all its pulses move.” We all have ties to earth. We all live here. And we all suffer from this strange malady that limits our vision to the world in which we live and leads us to falsely believe that this is all there is. What we need is to be removed from this world. What we need is to be, as the hymn writer put it, weaned from earth. It is high on his list of priorities in the work of the Holy Spirit. “Keep me in this world, but teach me to rely on You, not it, for my sustenance.” That is his initial request.

“Stoop to my weakness, mighty as Thou art, and make me love Thee as I ought to love.” To many today, this would almost be offensive. Sure, we’d appreciate that God is mighty and we are weak, but make me love Thee? What we fail to remember too often is that “it is God who is at work in you both to will and to do His good pleasure” (Phil. 2:13). We need God to make us love Him. And He is willing and able to do so. We need to contrast our weakness with His might. We have this illusion that we aren’t that weak. The simple truth is we are that weak, and we must have God’s strength to make us love Him.

In the second verse, the hymnist seems to ask not for the things we would dearly love. He doesn’t want to have some special event with God. He doesn’t ask, like Moses, “Show me Your glory” (Exo. 33:18). Why would that be? Perhaps he remembered that Scripture says, “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psa. 19:1). Perhaps he called to mind that creation displays God’s attributes, power, and nature for all to see (Rom. 1:20). Perhaps he recognized the beauty of the Word of God and the boldness with which we can enter the Throne of God. We all know all that, yet we still cry, “Show me Your glory.” What prevents us from reveling in all that we already have? Croly said, “The problem is not You; the problem is the dimness of my soul.” That is his prayer: “Take the dimness of my soul away.”

The third verse starts with the recognition of a command given: “Love the Lord your God” (Deut. 6:5; Matt. 22:37). As King, He has the absolute right to issue the command. As God, He has absolute ownership. “All, all Thine own, soul, heart and strength and mind.” As God and King, His command is not “Give me your soul, heart, strength, and mind.” It is “Give Me what is Mine already.” And we say, “No.” At best we say, “I’ll try.” We actually resist giving Him what is already His.

What is it that prevents us from surrendering to Him what belongs to Him? It is our flesh. So he says, “I see Thy cross – there teach my heart to cling.” There is a sense in some of the Church today that the Cross is the starting place, but that we need to move beyond it. Look at the topical index in a typical book of praise songs, and you will find very little if anything related to the Cross. Many in the church have the same idea. Sure, we’re saved there, but now we move on to the victorious Christian life, and that’s certainly not a cross. But Jesus said, “Take up your cross daily” (Luke 9:23). The significance of the Cross does not end at salvation.

The Cross is, indeed, the starting point of Christianity. It is a starting place that must not be left behind. Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper to remind us of His sacrifice. Paul said, "I determined to know nothing among you except Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 2:2). There we see the substitutionary death that Christ endured on our behalf. We see the cost of sin. We see the distance God would go to save His children. This death, this starting point, is the key message throughout Scripture, starting with "the wages of sin is death" (Rom. 6:23) to "I am crucified with Christ" (Gal. 2:20) all the way to "present your bodies a living sacrifice" (Rom. 12:2). It is the beginning and ending point. It teaches us to repent and to hate sin. It teaches us to die to self. The mortification of the flesh, killing the old man, is the life long process of every Christian.

The Cross produces love in us as we respond to the display of love from God that it represents. It produces joy in us as we realize the salvation it represents. It produces peace in us as we see that we are no longer at war with God, but instead united to Him. As we see what Christ did for us on that cross, we develop patience with other fellow sinners, being forgiven as much as we have been forgiven. It teaches us kindness in response to the love, joy, and peace we have. It provides deterrence to sin and teaches us, instead, to be good. When we recognize what He did on the cross, it calls us to be faithful as a natural response to His care for us. The Cross leaves no room for harshness, but encourages, instead, gentleness. And as we put to death the old man and put on the new at the Cross, we learn self-control. (See Gal. 5:22-23.) The Cross, indeed, drives us toward everything that we need to be. It gives remembrance and gratitude and humility and the fruit of the Spirit. It is indeed our starting place, but it is necessarily our abiding place as well. Instead of moving on, we need to pray, "I see Thy cross -- there teach my heart to cling."

"O, let me seek Thee and, O, let me find" is the last line of the verse. Somehow that doesn't seem right to many Christians today. After all, doesn't Jesus say, "Seek and you shall find"? We have forgotten that Man's original condition is that of hostility to God (Rom. 8:6-8). We have forgotten that "there is none who seeks for God" (Rom. 3:11). We have forgotten that, unless God grants and unless God draws, we have no power to come to Christ (John 6:44, 65). So we pray, "O, let me seek Thee and, O, let me find", and we learn a new appreciation for our relationship with the Most High. We need to remember that it is purely by the grace of God that we even approach Him.

The first line of the fourth verse seems odd to us. "Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh." We might ask, "Hey, what do you mean? God is always near." Croly isn't questioning God's omnipresence. He is recognizing his own limitations. Of course God is always near, but do I realize it? His prayer is that he would be constantly aware of that very dear truth that God is always there. It's called "practicing the Presence", and its impact is large to those who do it.

"Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear." This would be one of the primary impacts of the constant presence of God. Knowing He is always near, I am more capable of handling the most difficult trials I face . . . the internal ones. What kind of internal struggles beset the hymn writer? He lists two: rising doubt and the rebel sigh. Note that he doesn't say, "Teach me not to doubt." There is a perception that Christians should never doubt. This is a misconception. In reality, doubts properly addressed bring about certainty. Doubts fully examined and answered produce conviction of the truth. So he doesn't ask for doubt to be removed. Instead he asks that the Holy Spirit teach him to deal with doubts instead of pushing them aside and letting them fester. Not, "don't let me doubt", but "teach me to deal with my doubts immediately."

The second struggle seems a little odd. "The rebel sigh"? Anyone who has had children has heard "the rebel sigh". You know: "Okay, it's time to turn off the TV and clean your room." "Ah, Mom!" They may obey, but they do it with "the rebel sigh". We do that to God. "Wives, submit to your husbands." "What?! Me submit to him? He doesn't even know enough to come in out of the rain." "Husbands, love your wives." "What?! She's a nag." Instead of cheerful obedience to the God we love, we give Him "the rebel sigh". "Holy Spirit, teach me to check the rebel sigh."

The last request in this verse seems a little odd as well. We all know that there is no such thing as unanswered prayer. God always answers prayer. He might say, "Yes" or "No" or "Wait", but He always answers. Unfortunately, this simple response -- God always answers prayers -- doesn't soothe very well when we get a "no" answer or when we are in that "wait" condition. In fact, too often the "Yes" is in a way we don't expect and can often miss it. So we sit and wonder "Is God going to answer my prayer?" Croly asks "In those times, when I can't see Your answers, teach me patience."

"Teach me to love Thee as Thine angels love, one holy passion filling all my frame." What a marvelous prayer! What a wonderful desire! There are none more devoted to God than His angels. They are consumed with their love for Him. They do His bidding and surround Him with adoration. There is no higher calling than to be consumed with that one, singular passion of love for God. Nor are words sufficient to describe it. George Croly sees that, so his prayer ends with that thought. “Holy Spirit”, he prays, “descend on me and consume me with love for God. Light me aflame with this love for You.”

There is another interesting approach to this hymn, one I believe is worth exploring. It is telling how much one learns of the person who wrote the hymn, a person who could be considered “everyman”.

He recognizes his need. “Spirit of God, descend upon my heart.” It is the biblical need – “Be filled with the Spirit” – but for him it is deeply personal. He sees in himself a dependency on the world from which he needs to be weaned. He sees a weakness that is countered by the strength of the Spirit. He sees in himself a propensity to fail to love God as he should.

In the second verse he recognizes his preference for the spectacular. From ancient times, the call has been “show us a sign.” Instead, he recognizes that the real problem is dimness of soul, not the reality of God.

In the third verse he sees his own primary failure – the failure to obey the Great Commandment. People talk about being good and living perfect lives, but this singular command to love God with all your heart, soul, and mind is much too big to even grasp for most. Our proclivity is to wander rather than cling.

In keeping with his previous shortcomings, we get a real glimpse of the man in the fourth verse. At times he feels that God isn’t near. At times he struggles with himself in ways that seem beyond his endurance. Sometimes he doubts; sometimes it is rebellion. Then there are times that God’s seeming lack of response to his prayers seems like he is being ignored. All of these are common to us. All of them are natural results of our flesh, of our dependency on the world, of our weakness and dimness of soul and failure to love God as we ought.

Then, rejuvenated by his prayer of confession as much as supplication, the hymn writer rises in his plea to love as the angels love, to be filled with that one holy passion. His deep, inner longing is to be the altar, the “living sacrifice”, on which God is glorified by the Spirit in the man.

This approach serves to illustrate that part of knowing God better involves knowing ourselves and our shortcomings. Only by doing so can we truly recognize our need for Him.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Debating Baptism

Over at Vons Takes there has been a cross-blog debate about baptism ... or, more specifically, infant baptism. Eric defended it; Von opposed it. What's new?

It is my suspicion that the majority of those who oppose infant baptism have never actually examined the reasons for the position. It is my suspicion that if they bothered to examine the arguments, they wouldn't be so stunningly opposed to it. You see, there are biblical reasons for the belief. Over at Biblia Theologica, Professor Caneday offers the following maxim: "Be wary of attempting to persuade individuals with reasoned arguments out of views or beliefs that they embraced devoid of reasoned arguments." I suspect that many who affirm believer's baptism over infant baptism do so without having been persuaded by reasoned argument. Thus, the reasoned arguments for infant baptism are of little value. Too many of us hold positions for reasons other than "It is the most reasonable." Too often it's other things, and defying such a belief would put them at odds with their favorite pastor or their mother or father or their upbringing ... things too awful to face.

I'm not here to defend infant baptism. I have examined the arguments, and while I find them compelling, I don't find them convincing. But neither do I think that those who hold to that view are nuts for their position. I can see it. Let's see ... some of the arguments ... well, there are more than one. For one, there is the fact that it appears to be the historic position of the Church. Then there is Peter's words in Acts 2:38-39. "Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself." There is the somewhat odd statement from Paul in 1 Cor. 7. "The unbelieving husband is made holy because of his wife, and the unbelieving wife is made holy because of her husband. Otherwise your children would be unclean, but as it is, they are holy" (1 Cor. 7:14). Of course, they really like the comment in Acts 16:33, where it says about the Philippian jailer "he was baptized at once, he and all his family."

One of the most compelling arguments seems to be completely ignored by the believer's baptism crowd. "No, that doesn't mean that." What argument? In Col. 2, Paul writes, "In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead" (Col. 2:11-12). Paul seems to draw a very clear parallel here between New Testament baptism and Old Testament circumcision. Now, who was circumcised in the Old Testament? It was all 8-day-old male children. Did circumcision mean that they were saved? No, not at all. It meant that they were part of the community of the God's chosen people, but not that they were saved. "So," the paedobaptist argues, "infant baptism parallels circumcision. It doesn't save the infant. It simply puts them in the community of those who are set apart."

The believer's baptism folks will deny it. "No, no, that's not what that passage means." Why I don't know. I suspect they deny it because, well, it's too hard to argue against if it is true. So the best approach is just to deny it. Bad approach if you ask me. (Yeah? Who asked you?) Denying an argument isn't the same as answering it. So ... if we leave that as an actual parallel between circumcision and baptism, can we still hold to believer's baptism? I think so.

Look again. When were the children of Israel circumcised? They were circumcised immediately after birth. It served to mark them as members of the chosen people of God. So, I ask you, when are we in the New Testament born? We are born into the "chosen people of God" when we are "born again", not when we are first born. Thus, it would seem to me that to parallel the Old Testament practice of circumcision, we would need to be baptized after we are born again. And this baptism would not actually confer salvation, but would serve as a mark of being a part of God's chosen people.

It is for this reason that I still hold to believer's baptism. I think it most clearly parallels circumcision only by referencing the spiritual birth. So I'm still an adherent of believer's baptism. I think you can also see that I'm not a staunch opponent of infant baptism. When I need to I can even defend it. If you believe in paedobaptism, I can understand why. Maybe, just maybe, we ought to examine ourselves before we come to the argument table. Have we looked at all the arguments, or are we holding to a position because giving it up would be too emotionally costly? That is not a good reason to argue a position.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Christians by Birth

I have been interested, of late, with the popularity of this argument that religion comes from parents. I suppose the fact that popular atheists like Dawkins have written it make it more popular. It has been around a long time, but it seems to be gaining ground. Oh, I suppose some of the reason is that it is largely true. Yeah, that might be a significant factor. People tend to stay in the religion in which they are raised as children. This is largely the case and equally true in the case of many who classify themselves as "Christians". The religion in which you are raised as a child is most often the religion you will be when you are an adult.

There is a problem, however, with this argument when it comes to biblical Christianity. You see, "Christian" isn't defined as "the country I live in" or "the church I go to" or even "the beliefs I espouse". Jesus said this:
"The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field, but while his men were sleeping, his enemy came and sowed tares among the wheat and went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the tares appeared also. And the servants of the master of the house came and said to him, 'Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? How then does it have tares?' He said to them, 'An enemy has done this.' So the servants said to him, 'Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he said, 'No, lest in gathering the tares you root up the wheat along with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Gather the tares first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn'" (Matt. 13:24-30).
According to Jesus, the Church will be riddled with "weeds", tares among the wheat. Now, it doesn't take a genius to figure out why "tares" and "wheat" were selected here. It's because tares look so much like wheat. And the real problem is illustrated here: "Lest in gathering the tares you root up the wheat along with them." You see, ripping out the pretenders would have a damaging effect on the real crop.

We have it on good, biblical authority that the Church will be infected with false members, people who look and sound like Christians but are not, in fact, real Christians. They will be difficult to tell from the real thing. Sometimes they will be impossible for us to tell apart. Jesus's explanation of the parable included this: "The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous" (Matt. 13:49). Not us.

Back to the point. In most religions, the religion in which you are raised as a child is most often the religion you will be when you are an adult. And if you subscribe to decisional regeneration -- that we are the ones who determine our outcome -- then it is also true for Christianity. If, on the other hand, you subscribe to the notion that human beings are dead in sin, hostile to God, blind to the truth, and unable to accept spiritual reality, then the argument falls apart in Christianity. You see, in most religions you are whatever religion as the church you go to, the beliefs you espouse. That is not a valid biblical definition of a Christian. A Christian is defined as one who is no longer spiritually dead (Eph. 2:5), one who has been given the righteousness of Christ (2 Cor. 5:21) and is alive in Christ (Gal. 2:20), one who has been chosen by God (John 15:16). These are aspects of a biblical definition of a true Christian.

I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but none of this is determined by your upbringing. The church we go to, the beliefs we espouse, the "Christian country" in which we live ... none of these classify us as Christians. We can't be brainwashed into being real Christians or indoctrinated into being real Christians. No one is born Christian and no one is a Christian because they come from a Christian family and quote Christian beliefs. A Christian is one who has been born again, who has the Spirit residing in him, who is a "new creation" (2 Cor. 5:17). I hate to break it to the skeptics, but none of us has the capability to make ourselves a "new creation", fine upbringing or "Christianese" (the language of "Christians") notwithstanding.

The heart is deceitful and desperately wicked (Jer. 17:9). We can easily be deceived into believing we are a Christian. That's why we are warned to "be all the more diligent to make your calling and election sure" (2 Peter 1:10). Christianity stands alone in its necessity for supernatural intervention. We don't get to be Christians by merely choosing to be. We don't get to be Christians by agreeing with doctrinal statements. We only get to be Christians by being born again, and that's not something we get to do on our own, Christian parents or not. Let's be careful when we consider both who is a Christian and arguments from skeptics that often seem so right. More importantly, let's be careful in thinking that we are among the chosen simply because we were raised Christians, live in a Christian country, go to a Christian church, and mouth all the right words. Let's make our own calling and election sure. (Go look it up -- 2 Peter 1:1-10; there are some helpful hints on how to do that.)