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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Is it just me ...?

I manage of team that makes biomedical instruments for research. My job is software. I have an engineer that designs hardware and another engineer that designs firmware. (For clarification, "hardware" is the electronics itself, "firmware" is the program that is stored in hardware to tell the hardware what to do, and "software" is the stuff that goes in the computer to tell the firmware what to tell the hardware to do. Now ... that's clear, right?) We're deeply involved in a project using complex hardware, intricate firmware, and an overcoat of software to make it do what the scientists need it to do. Since everything is new (that is, we've designed each piece), it's a complex system with bugs that need to be worked out while the scientists work out their own bugs. So it's no surprise to me when one of the biologists comes to me and says, "We have a problem with the instrument ..."

I've noticed something interesting in the responses to that simple phrase. My first response, before I ever know the symptoms, is, "What did I do wrong?" I assume that something in my software is causing a problem. Then they'll give me their description of the problem and I'll think, "Well, I can't think of how my software can cause that, but I'll look into it." I seem to be unusual in that response. My firmware engineer will say, "Well, it can't be my firmware because it won't do that" and my hardware engineer will say, "Well, when I tested my design it worked, so the problem can't be my hardware."

I don't offer this for your analysis of my engineers. I offer this as an illustration of a larger concept. I used to be baffled by this type of response -- "Can't be me" -- until I started to wonder, "Is it just me?" Am I the only one who thinks, "If there's a problem, I likely caused it"? It's not just work. I do the same thing at home. If my wife is having some difficulty, I wonder what I did. And it's not a "down on me" kind of thing. I just know that I make mistakes and if I do I need to remedy them.

So is it just me? Am I the only one making mistakes out there? Are you one who thinks "It could be me at fault" or are you one (like what appears to be the vast majority) who assigns the blame elsewhere until it can be proven that the problem is yours? I know my limits. I make mistakes. The fastest way to fix one of my mistakes is to recognize it and fix it. The slowest way to fix one of my mistakes is to point the blame elsewhere until I can no longer assign the blame to anyone else and then finally admit that yes, maybe, it was me. That seems inefficient. The question I really have, though, is it just me? Am I in the minority that it feels like I'm in, or are there more people out there that recognize that they're fallible and aren't afraid to admit it?

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What I Learned on My TV

Watch some TV like essentially all Americans do and you can learn some important lessons in life. And, despite the claims of some, that is the point, isn't it? The media has a message it wants to get across, and the television is a great way to do it. So what have I learned? Well, mostly that I'm wrong about a lot of stuff.

Take, for instance, the recent Christmas season. TV has taught me well. What is the primary message of Christmas? You have to believe in Santa Claus! That's it. If we don't believe, how is he going to deliver all those gifts? And who knows this best of all? Well, obviously the children who do believe need to teach this to the adults who don't. See, I thought Christmas was about Christ's birth and all, but you won't find that message on TV. No, no, it's Santa and warm feelings and being nice. That's what Christmas is all about. I was wrong.

Or try following the local news. I learn all sorts of things from their "hard hitting investigations" that I never expected. I always believed that there was a worm in everything, so to speak, but the news has assured me that it's far worse. In the last month I've learned that the police are crooked and don't do their job, the airport isn't safe because the TSA isn't doing their job, and don't even think about calling an ambulance if you're hurt because they're not safe either. (Seriously, the tagline was "The next time you are thinking about calling an ambulance, think again.") Crime is bad. People are crazy. It's not safe. It's just not safe. I used to think that the terrorists were those religious fanatics wanting to wipe out America, but they have nothing on the local media. These people dispense terror every night as "news". And while I thought I was fairly safe and warm, I find out that there is nothing safe and nowhere warm and all is lost.

I find I'm wrong on so many things. I read that about 10% of the population was considered homosexual. Watching the television, I find that this can't be true. Based on the number of shows with homosexual themes and messages, it has to be more like 50%. I was told that age brings wisdom and that older people are worthy of respect because experience has provided them lessons in life from which youth can learn. This is obviously a lie. Television is full of the message that only young people have the truth and adults would do well to sit at the feet of their children to learn their pearls of wisdom. Experience? Piffle! Youth is the source of all enlightenment.

Watching TV, it turns out that most of what I thought I knew was wrong. Religion is dangerous, not admirable -- Christianity in particular. Good is boring and bad is fun. The best good guy is a bad guy. God is a myth, but science is infallible. And while asking questions should have been a good thing, it turns out that asking questions of the wrong places (like science or the government) is a really bad thing. Sex isn't valuable; it's recreation. Love is only a momentary warm feeling and everyone gets divorced ... regardless of what the statistics may say. And marriage? Well, it's still a good thing ... I guess ... but I can't say why. I feel so much smarter.

End sarcasm.

Are you sure you want to spend that much time in front of something that is so antithetical to so much of what we believe?

Monday, December 28, 2009

Defining Reality

How do you define reality? No, no, not in terms of some philosophical definition. I mean by what means do you determine what is or isn't true?

Simple question. I'm sure it's not a simple answer. First, you've not likely thought about it. More importantly, if you did, you'd likely find lots of answers. "I believe things are true when the science supports it." "I believe things are true when reliable people tell me." "I believe things are true based on intuition." "I believe things are true that coincide with what I already believe is true." (That last one sounds convoluted, but it's not as bad as it seems. That is, if A is true and B would naturally follow A, then you would naturally agree with B.) "I only believe what is provable by evidence or argument." Yeah, that would be a favorite. Not a truthful favorite, to be sure, but a favorite. You see, much of what we believe to be true is without evidence or logic. We believe in love and liberty, free will and the equality of Man, morality, that sort of good stuff ... not based on evidence or logic. The very notion that it is good to believe in things proven by evidence or logic is a belief apart from either. "I only believe what I can touch, see, feel, experience." Now that is a popular one, too, but very dangerous these days. (If you stuck with that one, you'd believe in a planet called Pandora where a guy named Jake Sully could actually inhabit a body of an alien ... well, you get the idea.) (For those of you who haven't been there yet, that was a reference to Avatar.) Given the apparently rampant ability to trick people (con games, magic tricks, computer generated graphics, photoshop, etc.), that might not be a good place to stand.

Here's a not-so-popular place to go. How about this? "I believe what the Bible tells me is true." Now, Christians would shout "Hallelujah!" and give a round of applause, perhaps, but even among those of us who believe the Bible is true it's not a very popular place to stand. We know, for instance, that slavery is bad ... but there is much in the Bible regulating (not forbidding) slavery. (There are answers for that; that's not my point.) In fact, did you know that the New Testament describes believers as slaves? I pointed that out once in a Bible study and was met with outrage. "I'm not a slave! I'm a friend of Christ!" Well, don't tell me; tell Paul. When the Bible describes the creation of the world as a deliberate act of God and science describes the formation of the world as a matter of chance -- and has evidence to prove it -- which are you going to believe? When your senses tell you that babies are innocent human beings and the Bible describes all humans as born sinners, which are you going to believe? When civilization tells you that annihilating an entire race of people (yes, that's called genocide) is an evil thing (and we're all agreed on that) and the Bible describes God commanding Israel to do just that, what are you going to believe?

We like to believe that our Bible is God-breathed. It is, in its original form, inerrant and infallible. We like to believe that. In fact, we need to believe that to give us foundation beyond mere conjecture. If you conclude that is true, how far will you go? Will you allow the Bible to reshape your thinking on other topics it touches, or are you going to shape the Bible to your previous beliefs? Does the Bible have to pass the "evidence" test or is it simply true ... making you wrong more often than you realized? Will logic and evidence form your worldview, or will you allow the Word to form your worldview? Trust me, if you choose the latter, it won't be a pleasant place to be ... but it might just be right.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

History -- The Short Version

You know, in the years that I've been blogging, I don't think I've ever explained myself. That is, I've never given what we in the Christian realm refer to as "my testimony". What's my background? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Maybe you'd like to know. (If not, feel free to read something else.)

I was born an extremely fortunate child, brought into the world in a family of believers. These weren't just any believers; these were serious believers. I learned the important things in life early, like going to church, reading my Bible, praying, memorizing Scripture, all that good stuff. I made my first profession of faith around the age of 5. That, of course, needed to be followed by a more "adult" version later, but I did all the right things growing up. I went to youth group, obeyed my parents, was part of the small groups studies, invited friends to church ... all the right stuff. It wasn't enough.

The day came when my desires overran my teaching and I jettisoned that entire portion of my life. At 18 I moved out and went to live with my girlfriend. Oh, my parents tried to stop me, the dear folk that they are, but I was in lust and God didn't much matter at that point. I'd run my own life, thank you very much. And I did. Right into the ground. It took several years, but the day finally came when I surrendered. I wasn't better off. I wasn't happier, more fulfilled, a better person ... any of that. And I tried it all. So I came back again, like the prodigal son, seeking my Father's forgiveness.

Life since then, contrary to what some would have you believe, has not been peachy. I got married and, four months later (right after my wife told me she was pregnant), got fired from my job for something I didn't do. I joined the military to get some training in a field in which I had no interest, but could give me a regular paycheck. My wife (after 12 years and two sons) left me for another guy. I struggled with besetting sins. Life didn't turn rosy because I turned it over to Christ. But it did turn, oh, so much better.

I now have a wonderful wife for whom I have nothing but gratitude every day. I have a job my meager planning skills would never have provided. (Remember that field in which I had no interest? Turned out to be a lot of fun.) The military taught me to be a teacher (I spent three years as an instructor) and I found that I really enjoyed teaching ... the Bible. My unpleasant work schedule (nights) in the military gave me the time to raise my two boys, both of whom I am very proud now that they are out on their own.

Things have not always been smooth. I still struggle with sin. I still have tough times. I still have trouble tracing God's hand. One thing I've learned over the years, though, is that God is good and always works things together for my good. Even when I can't see it and even when times are painful or perilous, I've learned I can lean on Him. He has proven completely reliable in all circumstances.

Some people have asked me if I'm a pastor. No, I'm not. Some have suggested I become one. Fun idea, but not my calling. I'm just a regular guy, blessed by God with a good background, a genuine faith, a heart for God, and a blessed life (family, friends, wife, children, job, etc.). (Please read that sentence carefully because I intended to convey that all that is a gift from God.) I love the Lord and love the Word and I'm very human. All this to tell you where I come from ... and to offer you good reasons to disagree with me at times. :)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas

In an attempt to be completely original ... let me just wish you all a glorious celebration of the birth of the King.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Origin of Christmas

I love stories about origins. Where do common phrases come from? How did popular traditions arise? All that stuff is of interest to me. So ... do you know the origin of Christmas? I know, I know, you're quite sure it's of pagan origin. Lots of people will tell you that. I would suggest otherwise.
... in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began and at the proper time manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior (Titus 1:2-3).
Paul, writing to Titus, makes this dazzling claim. According to Paul, God promised "before the ages began" salvation for sinful Man. (Who He promised is interesting, but not the point here.)

There is often a sense among Christians that God's plan of salvation was "Plan B". What He really wanted was a perfect race of humans, but Adam messed up God's plan, so He had to come up with an alternative to try to salvage this whole mess. Paul disagrees. Before time ("ages") began, God planned a Savior -- His Son. Adam didn't mess up God's plan; he fulfilled it. Christ wasn't "Plan B"; He was the original intention.

Where does Christmas come from? Well, we can argue over various origins of various traditions, dates, components, whatever you wish, but the whole notion of "Joy to the world! The Lord has come" was God's idea from the beginning. We are not celebrating "Plan B". The birth of our Savior was not an alternative plan. We are celebrating God's successful plan laid down before time began and carried out to perfection.
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the newborn King!
Peace on earth and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th' angelic host proclaim
Christ is born in Bethlehem!
Hark! the herald angels sing
Glory to the new-born King!
Whatever you believe about December 25th, its traditions, or its current condition, that is something to celebrate.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Problem with Peter

One of the popular, heartwarming passages that we like is found in 2 Peter 3. If you don't have it memorized, you can still probably quote it when I start it:
[God is] not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance (2 Peter 3:9).
Mmm, yes, like a cup of hot chocolate on a cold winter's evening, that just warms you right up to know that it is God's will that everyone be saved ... unless, of course, you actually examine the passage and the concept itself.

Is it God's will that everyone be saved? If so, it looks like He will fail. "No, no," you answer, "He just desires it." Well, according to the psalmist, "Our God is in the heavens; He does all that He pleases" (Psa 115:3). All, except, it seems, saving everyone. You see, if it would please Him to save everyone, then there is only one possible outcome; everyone is saved. And we know that doesn't happen. Problem. The problem gets worse when you examine the context.

You will note, first, that the passage I quoted above starts with a bracketed phrase -- "God is". That's because the verse doesn't actually say that. I quoted it, as almost everyone does, completely out of context. Here's the actual verse from the ESV:
The Lord is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.
Of course, that doesn't change much of anything, does it? Well, yes, it does. It gives us context. It actually forces a further question of context. Peter said that the Lord wasn't slow to fulfill His promise. What promise? Well, the context of the verse is by way of comfort because scoffers will come in the last days saying "Where is the promise of his coming? For ever since the fathers fell asleep, all things are continuing as they were from the beginning of creation" (2 Peter 3:4). Peter's readers, then, were concerned because their enemies were telling them that Jesus was not going to carry through on His promise to return. Peter is addressing this concern. Jesus keeps His promises. Don't worry.

How does Peter calm his readers? He tells them what it is that is delaying Jesus's return. It is His patience toward us. You see, He is "not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." That's what's delaying Him. When that is settled, He will return just as He promised.

Do you see the problem? If you understand 2 Peter 3:9 as a desire on God's part for all human beings to be saved, and if you see that this desire on God's part is what's delaying the return of Christ ... Christ will never return. Why? Because this is a desire on God's part that will never be met. There is no doubt whatsover that people will perish, that not all will repent. It is a given. If God is waiting for that to change, then indeed the scoffers are right because it won't and Christ won't return.

Is there an alternative? Well, of course. You'll see, if you pay attention, that we made a leap. The verse says that the Lord doesn't wish "that any should perish", but we made a leap to define that "any" as "any human being". It's not there. We fabricated it. And we did so badly. The most logical way to understand "any" is by reading the context. Any what? The context of the verse is "you". The Lord is patient toward you. Thus, the only rational term to fill in behind "any" is you. He doesn't wish that any of you should perish, not any human being at all. And who is the "you" Peter is addressing? Is it all humans? Not at all. It is "those who have obtained a faith of equal standing with ours by the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ" (2 Peter 1:1). It is, then, anyone who will come to faith.

What is holding Christ back from returning? He still has some He intends to save. When they are all saved, then He is free to return. What this verse promises is not a God who wills to save all but fails. It is not a warning that Jesus can never return because of God's wishful thinking. It is a promise that all whom He plans to save will be saved without fail. Now that is comfort.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009


I saw it the day it opened ... in 3D. I mean, how can you pass up a $500 million special effects extravaganza guaranteed to change the way we watch movies? I'm told that director James Cameron spent ten years developing the 3D camera system to produce this whole effect. So ... 3D it is.

The story is hackneyed. You know ... the good sweet gentle simple folk being threatened by the evil military-industrial complex fight back. If you're looking for a moving, intense story line, you're going to be disappointed. It just wasn't that good.

But I wasn't. I was looking for special effects and I got it. The computer graphics were seamless. At times it had me wondering where they found these 12-foot-tall skinny people to play the parts. And I would have really hated to be the animal trainer on this show, what with all the rotten beasties they had to manage. There were scenes of unparalleled beauty in landscape, flora, and fauna. There were wonderful scenes of flying creatures and their friends who flew with them, of floating mountains, and a forest that lit itself at night. There was cool technology in use by the humans on the planet, ranging from in-depth 3D representations of everything on, above, and below the surface of the planet to the premise of being able to project oneself into another body. The movie title is Avatar, which, as anyone who does online gaming knows, is the alter ego gamers get when they play. There need be no real connection whatsoever between this avatar and the user, and often I suspect there is none. But it gives computer geeks the opportunity to trade their pocket-protectored, bespectacled, nerd appearance for a demigod with a sword -- to be something they're not. So when Jake Sully, a Marine in a wheelchair, gets to run around as a 12' tall being from another planet, that is so cool.

It was effects like these that made the movie quite enjoyable. It was the overwhelming propaganda that almost choked off the movie for me. The whole thing was filled with up front, overt claims that all of life is linked together and we need to honor the actual, living mother planet. James Cameron appears to be a Gaia sympathizer. If you're familiar at all with the Gaia hypothesis, you'd know that there are a group of people out there that believe that the Earth is actually a single organism ... ala Avatar. Fine. It's a distant planet. Whatever. But these special effects ... still, we're not done with the propaganda. You see, it's the big, evil corporations trying to strip-mine the innocent little planet that causes all the problem. They are being protected by the big, evil military who is only, ultimately, interested in killing everything. Rotten military. Fortunately we have Jake Sully who turns traitor to fight his own people. Yeah for the hero! Wait ... the traitor is the hero? Yes, of course, because, once again, "Man was in the forest" (ala Bambi).

I'm tired of being the bad guy just by showing up. I'm tired of being the problem just by being human. I'm tired of being told that human life isn't nearly as important as every plant and animal in the forest. And I'm tired of being told that corporations, the military, and Americans in particular are the bane of all existence. That, dear readers, was the unmistakable message of Avatar.

If you're going for a story line, don't bother. If you're going for a message, run! If you don't need a story line and you can wave off the propaganda, this movie is indeed rich in special effects worthy of the hype. The 3D was the best I've seen yet. The computer graphics were flawless. If you would enjoy 2 1/2 hours of jaw-dropping special effects, this film is for you.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Private Interpretation

One of the big issues in the Reformation was over the question of who was allowed to read Scripture. The Roman Catholic church argued that it took special training and the vast tradition of the Church to be able to understand Scripture. The Reformers argued for what is called the Perspicuity of Scripture. Oddly enough, perspicuity means something that is plain to the understanding. (You'd think they would have used a more perspicuous word.) The debates have continued to this day with neither side giving way. But the most popular "biblical proof" of the Roman Catholic position is found in Peter's second epistle:
Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation (2 Peter 1:20).
I mean, what more do you need? It's clear there that private interpretation is not allowed. Do you need some roadmap to see that?

What did Peter mean? Was he arguing as the first pope that average Joe Christian couldn't read and interpret the Bible? Or did he have something else in mind?

To answer the question, we should look at the context.
16 For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17 For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased," 18 we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19 And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20 knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21 For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:16-21).
First, then, the topic. Peter is telling his readers that they could have great confidence of the truth they believed. It wasn't something magical they made up. Theirs were eyewitness accounts. Peter actually witnessed the Transfiguration (Matt 17), actually saw Christ in His glory, actually heard God speak. This wasn't made-up stuff. It was real. Beyond their experience, Peter told them that they had genuine prophecy. Now, true prophecy is defined as the divinely inspired utterance of a prophet. A prophet is a person someone who speaks by divine inspiration or as the interpreter through whom the will of God is expressed. That is, it is not just foretelling things, but forthtelling what God says. Or, to be more clear, all of Scripture is prophecy, the divinely inspired expression of God. And Peter is arguing that, better than eyewitness accounts, we have the God-breathed Scripture.

Why is God-breathed Scripture better than eyewitnesses? Well, the answer to that is in the passage we are trying to unravel. To do so, look at the verse that follows. "No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit" (2 Peter 1:21). God-breathed Scripture is better than eyewitness accounts because of the origins of the two. Eyewitnesses are human accounts. As good as they might be, they are subject to human error. God-breathed Scripture, on the other hand, doesn't suffer from that possibility. You see (and here we are at our verse), Scripture doesn't come from human interpretation, but from God.

That is Peter's argument. We have confidence in what we believe because eyewitnesses reported it, sure, but we have utmost confidence because we have infallible Scripture. If we minimize verse 20 to warn against individuals interpreting Scripture, we essentially wipe out Peter's argument. First, it is not a call to confidence in Scripture, but a warning. Second, even if Scripture is fully reliable, you could never know it because only a select few are allowed to read and understand it. No, no. Peter isn't warning against private interpretation. He's saying that Scripture is not produced by private writers, but by God. Seems like an appropriate claim today considering the attack that the infallible Word of God is under today.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Glorify God

I give thanks to You, O Lord my God, with my whole heart, and I will glorify Your name forever (Psa 86:12).

May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 15:5-6).

You were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body (1 Cor 6:20).

In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven (Matt 5:16).

Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness (Psa 29:2).
We are designed to glorify God. We are commanded to glorify God. We are intended to glorify God. But what, pray tell, does it mean to glorify God?

Here's what the dictionary tells me. Glorify: To make glorious, To cause to be or seem more glorious or excellent than is actually the case. So, how do I make God seem more glorious than is actually the case? You might glorify violence -- make it seem more glorious than it is -- but can you make God seem more glorious? No, that can't happen. Maybe I'm supposed to make Him glorious? A prince who becomes a king becomes more glorious. Can we do that with God? Nope. He has that handled. What does it mean to glorify God? We cannot add glory to Him. We cannot make Him more glorious than He is. One definition says "worship". Okay, fine, but is that it?

To glorify God, then, is somewhat different than our normal human experience. Everything here has a worm in it. Everything can be spruced up, cleaned up, "glorified" by adding to it. God cannot. To glorify God means something different. God, the Most Glorious, can only be glorified by removing things. We can remove the blocks that occur in our own hearts, hiding His glory (Psa 86:12). We can remove the conflicts that exist between believers, uncovering more of His glory (Rom 15:5-6). We can lay aside the sins we indulge (1 Cor 6:20), learning to display in our actions His glory (Matt 5:16). We can recognize how short we fall in seeing Him for how glorious He is and ascribe to Him the glory He is due(Psa 29:2).

We cannot add to the glory of God. When we glorify Him, we can only do it by getting the garbage out of the way that we and others have erected to cover it. There are lots of ways to do it. Today's a good day to focus on it. Every day is a good day to practice it. We are, after all, designed for this purpose (1 Cor 10:31).

Saturday, December 19, 2009

What do you want for Christmas?

All around the country hundreds of Santa-suited store employees are asking this question of thousands of children gullible enough to think he cares or it matters that they tell him. We're not that gullible. I suspect, though, that many of us have also given up asking the question of others. You see, thanks to the magic of gift cards, we don't actually have to know anymore what the people we wish to gift really want. We just give them a piece of plastic loaded with some money and they go get what they want. Success!

With rare exceptions, I don't like gift cards. I'm not talking about getting them. I'm ambivalent about that. It's giving them that bothers me. What is it that makes us give people gift cards? (And what kind of nut spends any time analyzing a question like that?) If you think about it, there are normally two reasons for giving gift cards. First, the people to whom we are giving them are often far away. They're not next door. They're not in town. We are mailing them a gift, and what could be easier than tucking a little flat piece of plastic into a cheery greeting card and -- voila! -- we've given them a gift. So much more convenient than wrapping a box and trudging off to the post office to mail it. The other reason is equally common. We frankly don't know what they want. Either the people we know have so much that we can't imagine what more would please them, or we are too far removed to actually know what they would want or need. "My niece is a teenager and I don't have a clue what she would want, so I'm sending her a gift card and let her get what she wants. Then if she doesn't like it, she's got no one to blame but herself." I actually overheard that in a conversation the other day (the curse of riding the light rail). That pretty well encompasses the idea. Ignorance and/or apathy. I don't know and I don't care.

Maybe you see now why I don't care much for giving gift cards. On one hand, the people I love are too far away. Gone are the days of the nuclear family, of close relatives being geographically close. The idea of staying close to family, in fact, seems abhorrent to a lot of people these days. Truth be told, much of my family and my wife's family live in generally close proximity, and it was she and I that moved away, so I'm not pointing fingers. It's just unfortunate in my view. The other sad part of gift cards is that we don't know the people we're giving gifts to anymore. Part of that may be geographical separation. Part of it is simply being "rich Americans". Everyone knows the question, "What do you give to someone who has everything?", but these days too many of us fall in that category. The other side, though, is just that we don't care enough to know that stuff. And even if we do, like that person I overheard on the train, we're pretty sure they won't be grateful. A general sense of entitlement has stolen a lot of our sense of gratitude, and "that's all I get?" is just too common. Why bother? Send a gift card. Let them be responsible for getting what they want.

Kind of steals the fun, if you ask me. Getting people things they want, seeing them discover it with joy, hearing a spontaneous "Oh, I love it ... thank you!" -- these are not quite as common as they once were. No one ever liked Aunt Mabel's knit sweaters or Gramma's homemade fruitcakes, and the disease has spread from there. I want what I want and you're not likely to get it right. Don't try. "Yes (sigh), I wanted jewelry, but this necklace isn't what I had in mind." So close ... so far. Oh, there are times when the gift card works. Sending the young, struggling newlyweds a gift card to their favorite restaurant is almost like taking them out to eat (without actually having their company). It is thoughtful. (You know they like to eat out but can't much.) It is personal. (You know what their favorite restaurant is.) It's appreciated. It's rare.

What do I want for Christmas? Nothing, thank you. I'm pretty satisfied with all I have. I know. Unacceptable answer. People feel they need to get me something. I'll be grateful for a gift card. And I'll be sending them out as well. I just don't like what it says about me. That's all.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Change of Pace

I've been blogging since June 20, 2006. I've worked hard at posting at least once a day. In the 1277 days that have elapsed since then, I've posted 1326 entries. I guess I'm keeping up to my goal of posting at least once a day, at least on average.

I don't actually know how many regular readers I have. I can't actually imagine anyone starting out their day thinking, "Oh, I can't wait to get to read 'Winging It' today." Still, I won't rule out the possibility that there are some faithful readers who might become confused or concerned if I fail to post something someday.

All this to say that, due to a variety of circumstances (work, home, the season, lots of stuff), it may be necessary for me to skip a day or two. Not to worry, my friends. All is well. Pressures of time and opportunity might cause me to be unable to post for short durations. There is nothing wrong. I'm not giving up. I'm not worn out, discouraged, sick, or tired. Mostly, I'm busy. So if I miss a day or two, relax. I'll be posting as often as I can. I just may not be able to keep up the pace I've managed for the last few years. And thanks to you loyal readers for being concerned.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Self-Centered God

We hate arrogance. It's so unbecoming. We don't like the bragging guy who thinks he's God's gift to women and we don't like the supermodel who knows she's all that and we don't like the sports star that disdains others. We don't like it one bit. Self-centered people are just annoying to us ... even though we are all, at heart, self-centered. That accusation is a stinging one because we know it's wrong to be self-centered and we know we all suffer from it.

The question, however, takes a turn when we ask it about God. Is God self-centered? C.S. Lewis wrote that one of the things that bothered him early in his Christian experience was God's constant demand for praise. What was He, some sort of megalomaniac? Well, no, actually. A megalomaniac is someone who suffers from a psychotic condition characterized by delusional fantasies of wealth, power, or omnipotence. And God has no such delusion ... because it's genuine. God, according the Bible, is primarily concerned with His own glory. He wants it to be recognized, displayed, respected, honored. "His own glory" is a reference to the totality of His character ... you know, being glorious and all. God is, then, at His core, self-centered. We are commanded to be God-centered ("Love the Lord your God with all your heart ..."). We are told "No other gods before Me". When we place anything at all in that central place besides God, we have a term for it: Idolatry. Therefore, if God actually is the reason for everything that is, if He is indeed the center of the universe, if He is actually the singularly most important Being, then to fail to be self-centered would be stupid, incorrect, and even sinful. He would be an idolater.

This, of course, will rub most of us the wrong way. Why? What is it that we don't like about people who are self-centered, who monopolize the conversation with themselves? Well, we have a term for that. It is called "self-aggrandizing". Self-aggrandizing is to make self appear greater. We should have warnings on our bathroom mirrors: "Objects in this mirror will likely appear much more important than they really are." We all tend to this self-aggrandizing. We suffer from smallness and want to make ourselves appear bigger. We compensate for our known shortcomings by focusing on our apparent strengths. Like magicians, we use these things to distract from the less-than-stellar stuff we're doing behind the scenes. Voila! We're people worthy of respect! And, frankly, we're not buying it from others or from ourselves.

God doesn't suffer from this problem. He cannot make Himself appear greater than He is because He is already great. Nothing comes close. He doesn't suffer from deficiencies He has to cover because He has none. He has no blemishes to hide, no errors to cover, no weaknesses to disguise. He does not make Himself appear greater; He can only try to share some of His greatness with us.

Is God self-centered? You'd better believe it. He is indeed the central issue, the point of all things, the reason for all existence. He deserves to be self-centered and must be if He is to be true. He demands praise because He deserves praise and it is to our benefit to praise Him. If we get a glimpse of God's glory -- a glimpse of who He really is -- we would agree wholeheartedly that He must be the center of all. How could He be otherwise?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Why do the Christians rage?

Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against His Anointed ..." (Psa 2:1-2).
A valid question. Why do the unsaved rage against God? But the psalmist asks it well, so I won't go there. I am asking something of the opposite.

Over the last few years we've seen Christians up in arms because those dirty, rotten heathens are attacking our Christmas. They change "Christmas" to "Xmas" and they change "Christmas tree" to "holiday tree" and, oh, so many bad things. We started with the saintly Nicholas and they made Santa Claus. It's wrong, and we're not going to stand for it. There have been boycotts and battles trying to force merchants to stop the practice of minimizing Christ in Christmas and minimizing the celebration of Christ's birth that is Christmas. And it makes me wonder. Why do the Christians rage?

We are told that the unbelievers of this world are blinded by the god of this world, that they are hostile to God and dead in sin, followers of the prince of the power of the air. We are told that our Gospel is folly to them, foolishness at best and offensive at worst. Do we Christians not know this? So why are we anticipating, expecting, requiring of them to "play nice"? Why are we demanding respect? We are promised suffering and "holiday tree" hardly comes close to suffering. Why are we expecting something better?

You may not know this, but Jesus wasn't actually born on December 25th. There were no wise men at His birth. (They came later.) There were no Christmas trees. There wasn't even room for Him in the inn. You may not know this, but Christians actually stole Christmas from the heathens of their day. They took the celebration of the birth of the sun god to be a celebration of the Son of God. (Please note: I'm playing with words -- "sun" and "son" -- but they didn't.) The traditions we've come to know of Christmas were taken from various places -- sometimes pagan -- and adapted for our use. The tree was stolen from the druids who believed there were spirits in the trees and we argued against them. The mistletoe was a pagan fertility rite that we stole to be a show of love. Oh, and that whole "Xmas" thing that so irritates so many Christians ... that was actually taken from Greek. The "X" in Greek was the word for "Christ". (Perhaps you've seen the fish sticker with IXOYE in it? That "X" is "Christ".) It was never intended as a slight.

Look, Christians, we are not promised benevolence from the world. We are promised hostility. And we don't own December 25th. No matter how much we stamp our feet and complain, people will miss the genuine message of Christmas and the world will not be our friend and the heathen will still be our enemies. So why not just celebrate Christ's birth without trying to force people who don't even believe to "play nice"? Or, as others have said, preach it by walking it rather than saying it.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Elect according to Foreknowledge

Peter writes his epistle "To those who are elect ... according to the foreknowledge of God the Father, in the sanctification of the Spirit, for obedience to Jesus Christ and for sprinkling with his blood ..." (1 Peter 1:1-2). It's an interesting phrase, suggesting that foreknowledge precedes election. (Note: There is a possibility that the "according to the foreknowledge of God" references "those who are scattered abroad" -- that their scattering was according to the foreknowledge, but we won't go there now.) And to those who disagree with Reformed Theology, it is the proof that God elects based on foreknowledge. You see, Reformed Theology holds that God elects based on God's own reasons without reference to the elect. He does not choose who will be saved because someone will choose Him. That gives a reason to boast. No, no, He chooses apart from the elect as indicated in Romans 9. And those who disagree will simply point to Peter here and say, "See? Election is based on God's foreknowledge."

Here's the difficulty. Predicating election on God's foreknowledge doesn't help the problem. What's the problem that is trying to be avoided when we argue that election is based on foreknowledge? The problem is that if God chooses whom will be saved apart from our choice of Him, then our free will is violated. That is, if we would not be saved unless God first chooses us, then how is it free will? Those who never choose Christ never had the option, right?

I'm sorry, but foreknowledge doesn't help. It doesn't help at all. Here's why. God is omniscient. He knows everything, beginning to end. He declares the end from the beginning. David said He wrote down every day of his life in a book before David was born. God knows all contingencies, but knows nothing contingently. He has no "what ifs", no "Plan B". He knows everything that will happen and He knows it correctly. Now, if He knows everything that will happen and knows it correctly ... what is the possibility that something else will happen? Well ... zero, actually.

Here, imagine this. Someone offers you a cup of coffee. In a momentary suspension of time between "Would you like a cup of coffee?" and your answer, the perception is that you have a choice and can choose either one. It is, in fact, true. However (and it's a big "however"), God already knows which you will choose and it is impossible that He could be wrong so it is impossible for you to choose something else. So without coercion or force of any kind, your choice is predetermined simply because God knows what it will be. See?

Take that down to an important choice like "Repent!". Will you or won't you? Because God already knows, it is already determined. Your choice appears to be free, but you cannot choose anything but what God already knows. So how free is it?

For those who throw up a nice "foreknowledge" screen against election, it doesn't really help. If God chooses in advance whom He will save or if God simply knows in advance who will choose Him, the outcome is inevitable either way. He would make no other choice, and the elect could make no other choice. It is ... predestined.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Salvation and Other Theological Terms

We are often quite sure that we understand simple biblical principles like, oh, I don't know, "justification", "sanctification", and "salvation". I wonder sometimes if we are wise in being so confident.

Take, for instance, "justification". We understand that to mean that moment in time when God declares a sinner justified. It references the imputation of Christ's righteousness onto a sinful human being. We get that. Good. We're on our way. Or are we? I would argue that it often means that, but not always, and simply substituting "imputed righteousness" for "justification" can be problematic. For instance, if you read James 2, you find, "Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?" (James 2:21). If you understand "justified" to mean "imputed righteousness", then we have nullified the Gospel and ended up with a justification by works, something the Bible clearly disputes. So what does James mean? Well, "justification" most accurately means "declared right". Often, then, that is a reference to God declaring the unrighteous righteous. But not always. As an example, Jesus said, "Wisdom is justified by all her children" (Luke 7:35). "Oh," we might be tempted to think, "wisdom was unrighteous, but because of her children she was declared righteous." No, that makes no sense. No, this is a more conventional understanding of "justified" -- declared right. Jesus was saying that wisdom is shown to be right when you look at the results of wisdom. And James was saying that Abraham was shown to be right in his faith because his works demonstrated it. So, you see, "justification" doesn't always mean declaring the unrighteous righteous.

Salvation is another of these terms. Often it references that point at which we called on Christ and were saved from God's wrath ... but not always. Paul says of women, "She will be saved through childbearing -- if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control" (1 Tim 2:15). You see, men are saved by faith in Christ, but women are saved by having children. No, no, no. That's not right. This "saved" references something different. Nor is salvation always a one-time deal. We used to ask people, "Are you saved?" meaning, "Are you a Christian? Have you come to trust Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins?" Then we run into this fascinating phrase from Peter:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time (1 Peter 1:3-5).
Wait! This salvation is future tense. This salvation hadn't even been revealed when Peter was writing it. Believers are being guarded for it, but it is for a later time. A friend of mine once said, "I'm not entirely sure where salvation begins or ends." I thought it was odd, but Scripture seems to agree. There is a sense of "already" along with a sense of "not yet".

What's my point? I'm asking you to be careful. Understand Scripture for what it is saying. Don't assume that "justification" always means the same thing or that "salvation" always means the same thing or ... well, you get the idea. Read the Word ... and read it for all it's worth. Shorthand is nice, but don't let it shortchange you.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, 5 who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, 7 so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; 8 and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls (1 Peter 1:3-9).

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Mix and Match

According to a recent Pew poll, Americans in large numbers are mixing and matching their religions. One third of the respondents, for instance, say they attend services at more than one place, with nearly a quarter of these attending services of a different faith. More often, you find Catholics attending a Protestant church (or vice versa) and the like, but it's still significant.

And the oddities just keep coming. Almost 30% of self-professed Christians claim to have been in touch with the dead. Nearly a quarter of self-professed Christians believe in astrology, spiritual energy in trees, and reincarnation. There is a popular mixing of faith and spiritualism, allowing various believers to mix their religion with Eastern religions to include yoga as a spiritual practice rather than merely a physical practice, for instance. It appears that Americans are taking advantage of the smorgasbord of religions available and mixing and matching whatever they like.

I am not, I suppose, particularly surprised. I already believe that people in general including Christians simply prefer not to think. "Give me a program or some steps or some rules and leave me alone. Don't ask me to analyze it." I say that because the concept, while heartwarming, is stupid (not to put too fine a point on it). Look, if religions claim exclusivity (and almost all religions do), then there are very few possible conclusions, and "pick and choose" is not one of them. One possibility is that all religions are false, in which case it doesn't matter what you choose ... you're wrong. Another possibility is that one of them is true, in which case all the others are false. In that case, picking and choosing from false religions is nonsense. But the possibility that all are true is simply impossible. Well, to be fair (and to avoid the fallacy of the false dichotomy), it is possible that most religions would carry some measure of truth. If this is the case, however, we can rule out Christianity entirely because Christianity alone claims that the only way to God is through Christ and if that's not true, Christianity can be ignored. So feel free to pick and choose from any other religion you want ... except Christianity.

It does highlight a real problem. People who call themselves Christians are too often not only unwilling to think things through, but also misinformed. In another survey a few years ago, for instance, 75% of Christians surveyed believed there was no such thing as absolute truth. Really? Then on what would you base your Christianity? They call themselves Christians (followers of Christ) and deny His Deity by relying on astrology. Really? In what sense are you a Christian? (Denying Christ is not following Christ.) Scripture is abundantly clear and not in the least ambiguous about reincarnation -- it doesn't happen. So on what would you base this belief? The problem, then, is that "self-professed Christians" are not, in far too many cases, Christians and obviously don't know it.

I'm not amazed that unbelievers are confused. Their eyes are blinded. I get that. I would like all those who classify themselves as Christians, however, to really question themselves if they are going to contend that they are followers of Christ while denying Christ's nature, followers of Christianity while denying its exclusivity. I'm afraid this group is in the most danger of all, being completely unaware of their perilous condition.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Speaking Evil

Do not speak evil against one another, brothers. The one who speaks against a brother or judges his brother, speaks evil against the law and judges the law. But if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is only one lawgiver and judge, He who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor (James 4:11-12)?
I've been trying to figure this one out. It appears, on the face of it, to be another "judge not" passage. "Don't point out to others that they're doing anything bad." Of course, when Jesus said it, He couldn't have meant "Don't recognize sin in others" because He went on to explain that you had to. What about James?

Well, it's pretty clear that this isn't what James meant either. Why? Well, James very next thought is a correction to anyone who thinks that we can make plans without taking God's will into account. In fact, the entire epistle is one of "Do this" and "don't do that". "Count it all joy when you encounter various trials" followed by "A double-minded man is unstable in all his ways." "Do this" (Count trials as joy) and "don't do that" (be double-minded). Just the opening examples. And he doesn't mean "It's okay to recognize sin, but don't point it out to individuals", either. Why? Well, he starts out Chapter 5 with "Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you." That's personal. And he ends the epistle with "If anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins." You have to admit that turning a wandering brother from sin requires personal intervention. So James cannot be saying, "Never point out when someone is wrong."

Explaining what James does not mean, however, doesn't explain what he does mean. The first clue, I think, is in the first phrase: "Do not speak evil." It isn't "Do not speak of evil", but don't say someone is doing something wrong that they aren't doing wrong. Don't accuse of evil when no evil is present. Or, in the Old Testament vernacular, do not bear false witness. The second clue is found in the phrase, "If you judge the law ..." The problem, then, is accusing someone of doing evil who is actually doing what is right.

Let me give you a blog example. One of the blogs I read is Von's The Practical Theonomist because sometimes he has some interesting stuff on there. The other day he wrote a blog on The Marriage of Isaac from a "politically correct" standpoint. Von, you see, is a proponent of the biblical concept of betrothal. He holds that fathers should select spouses for their children. Now, you can imagine that this kind of position will draw fire. I even heard some prominent Christian women decry the practice as evil. And that, dear reader, would be what I'm talking about. To "speak evil against" Von, in this case, would be to call his position which is based on Scripture and even affirmed by God (He, after all, chose a bride for His Son) would be to judge the law. It would be inaccurate to call his position "evil". You might argue that it isn't particularly practical today or you might suggest that it's an "Old Testament position no longer in use today" or some such, but you cannot argue that it is evil.

Of course, that's just an example. There is a lot of this out there today. The Bible clearly portrays homosexual behavior as sin, but we are told we are evil for saying so. The Bible clearly says that women should not usurp authority over men, but we are told that we are evil for taking that position. The Bible clearly endorses corporal punishment, but we are told that we are evil for agreeing with the Bible. The Bible is quite clear on a lot of things that we are told are evil positions. Not merely wrong; evil. And that, I believe, is what James was warning about.

Just when I thought that I had another passage that told us that we weren't allowed to point out sin in others (an oh, so popular idea today), it looks like I was wrong. Love demands that we turn those who are wrong toward the truth. Truth demands that we point out error. But I don't think the case can be made that Scripture demands that we "stop being so judgmental and intolerant". It just doesn't work.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Feast to the LORD

Exodus 32 records a marvelous story of the people of God who longed to have a closer, more relevant relationship with God. So they begged their leadership to switch from the old style of worship and incorporate the modern styles. They asked to have a more "real" God, something applicable and tangible rather than theoretical or doctrinal. And the leadership complied. "You pay for it and we'll do it." So they gathered the means, declared a feast to the LORD, dispensed with the traditional old stuff, and engaged in contemporary worship. And everyone loved it.

Well, not everyone. God's opinion was something like "I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them." Not exactly "happy talk". And Moses had the Levites kill 3,000 people. Not a congratulatory response. But, hey, the people liked it.

Much of American church scene has also appropriated this approach. "Let's make worship more relevant. Let's take up the entertainment and music styles of the day, eliminate all that traditional singing and old-fashioned preaching, and make it more user-friendly." We're quite sure that, because we're not pulling golden calves out of a hat, we're okay. I'm not so sure.

Take, for instance, the rock music that has been so quickly incorporated into worship. Rock is not associated with sex and drugs for no reason. The style of music has its roots in teenage angst and continues to feed youthful rebellion. It is designed to be angry music. And there may actually be a place for anger. Jesus certainly showed it in the Temple. But I don't see how "anger" and "worship" fit together. The music is designed to encourage desires, and I don't understand where we get the idea that this is a good thing in a worship service. I'm not saying that rock music is bad. I'm saying that it doesn't seem to be appropriate for worship.

That's just one example. Many churches have deliberately set out to compete with our current worldview of entertainment as god. We need to be as entertaining as they are if we are going to get them in on Sunday morning. Really? Jesus preached repentance because judgment was at hand. That's not ... entertaining. Paul promised that the Gospel would be a bitter pill to swallow. We're trying to sugar-coat it, but that doesn't make it more palatable. It's like hearing the pastor say, "Repent, sinners, for the day of judgment is at hand. Now, let's all join hands, sing a chorus of 'Pour Some Sugar On Me', and close in prayer." Now, my mother won't get the "Pour Some Sugar On Me" reference, never having heard Def Leppard, and she's better off for it, but you get the idea. It makes no sense (especially when you look at the lyrics of the song, which I do not recommend), but it is the same sort of thing we're trying to do when we make the world the standard for worship.

Look, we aren't called to redeem the culture. We aren't called to make worship "relevant". We aren't asked to "spice things up" in church. Frankly, it's not about us. Worship is about God. Declaring what we do as worship -- "a feast to the LORD" -- doesn't make it worship. That really ought to be a function of what God wants to hear, and the Israelites learned the hard way that a cavalier approach is not the right approach.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

A Thief in the Night

Sometimes when I'm writing, I get to typing too fast. I'll jumble up letters in a word or just plain misspell it. So I went back over something I'd written the other day and found that, instead of "Santa Claus", I had typed "Satan Claws". "Oh," I thought, "that's not right."

Santa embodies the spirit of Christmas. He brings toys to all the good boys and girls and, let's face it, even to the bad ones. He gives them whatever they ask for and asks nothing in return. He's a jolly fellow, a real happy guy. He is Christmas personified. But don't think about that too long or you might end up in the same uncomfortable place that I have.

We all know that Christmas is actually about Christ. How do Santa and Christ compare? Well, Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever, absolutely sure to keep His promises. What about Santa? Christ came preaching repentance, spoke often of hell, and warned of judgment. Santa has a list and checks it twice, sure, but who has ever really heard of anyone actually getting coal in their stocking? Christ's miraculous birth, perfect life, substitutionary death, and glorious resurrection provided the gift of justification by faith apart from works, the true Gospel. Santa's gift giving is predicated on works -- what Paul says is "not another gospel". Christmas is about Christ; Santa makes Christmas about me and what I can get. And how many of us have heard this? "When did you stop believing in Santa Claus?" "When I didn't get what I asked for." And when that little child realizes that Mom and Dad have been lying about Santa Claus all this time, it seems inevitable that they will ask, "What else have they been lying to me about? You know ... I've never seen Jesus, either."

I don't know ... the more I think about it, the less sure I become. The guy that's supposed to show up in the early hours of Christmas delivering joy for countless children seems more and more like a thief in the night. He steals joy and faith, robs us of the gospel, substitutes the misery of self-centeredness for the endless joy of Christ, breaks his promises, and misappropriates a true sense of judgment. He replaces Christ with self, the spirit of Christmas with the spirit of greed. I mean, how does the tale of a guy who gives me whatever I want teach me to give to others? It seems to me that "Satan Claws" is more appropriate than it first appeared.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Right and Wrong

Right and wrong ... everyone knows it's there. We may not always agree on what it is, but we all know it's there. Even atheists with no logical basis for it other than mere pragmatism know it's there. There are things that are wrong to do and there are things that are right to do. We all know that. And we all violate them.

I'm not arguing that point. Here's what I'm considering. Why would we avoid what is wrong and do what is right? For various people there are various answers, I'm sure, but for Christians "because God said so" should be enough. It is my suspicion that, if you are human like me, sometimes it isn't.

Here's what I'm thinking. Do we do what is right because it's right, or do we do what is right because it is expedient? Do we do what is right because God says to (and we want to please God) or do we do what is right hoping for a particular outcome? It doesn't sound pretty, and we'd likely be quick to deny it, but I'm pretty sure we've all failed to do what is right because we don't expect it to "work". On the other hand, I'm equally sure that we've done what is right and been disappointed because it didn't produce the results we wanted. Two sides of the same coin, you see.

I remember once talking to a friend about a particular problem between he and his wife. I told him, "You need to talk to her about this, you know." He answered, "Yeah, but it won't make any difference. Why bother?" "Because it is right" was not a sufficient answer. And in that case, he knew what was right to do but wouldn't do it because it wouldn't work.

I'm sure we've all experienced that moment when we muster the courage to apologize to someone for doing something wrong only to have them rebuff your plea for forgiveness. "Ouch!" you may have thought. "That didn't' work." And it makes it all the more difficult to do the same thing next time, doesn't it?

We are supposed to be Christians -- followers of Christ. Christ's "successful mission" had Him telling the truth, preaching the Gospel, healing and forgiving, and ... killed. "Ouch!" He may have thought. "That didn't' work." No, of course not! Because doing what is right is its own reward. Avoiding sin is its own end. Pleasing God is sufficient purpose.

We even have a phrase for this. "No good deed goes unpunished." Yeah, we get that. But remember the next time you wonder whether you should do what is right, even if it might not have the effect you hope for. Doing what is right is always right. Doing what is right for the reward of it cheapens it. God said it. Believe it. Do it. It's much better that way, pleasant outcome or not.

Monday, December 07, 2009

Winning Isn't Everything

The lighter versions of humans like to play with that phrase. "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." That kind of thinking. But the "wiser" of us will say, "That's right! It's not whether you win or lose; it's how you play the game." And we come away feeling superior. But ... is it true? Or, more to the point, do you really believe that?

My family has a tradition of reuniting at Thanksgiving time. My parents, my siblings, and all the family we can muster show up someplace and spend the weekend together catching up on each others' lives. One of the traditions for the last three or four years has been a ping pong tournament. All in fun, you know. And my personal tradition for that time has been not to participate. I'll watch and take pictures and all that good stuff, but I feel no need to compete. Something ventured, nothing gained in my book. So I tell myself I'm somewhat superior because competition doesn't drive me like it does others. (And, really, is it competition? Not really. My brother wins every year, including this one, despite the nephews' year-long practicing to beat him.) So I explain to my family when they ask that I don't feel the need to compete and I'm happy just watching, thank you very much.

The truth, of course, is that I've been lying to myself. You know ... that old deceitful heart. While I've tried to tell myself I'm above all that, the truth is that I have been unwilling to compete because there is no chance at all of winning. I mean, how is that even competition? So, to save my pride, I've built this wise-sounding wall ("I don't feel the need to compete") and avoided the sound thrashing that I know I'd receive at the ping pong table. In other words, while I tell people, "Winning isn't everything", my actions say otherwise.

The point of this little story is not ping pong or winning. The point is that we always act on what we believe. I say "winning isn't everything" and I say "I don't need to compete" and it all sounds so good, but my actions say something else. I say I love Jesus and I say "nothing I desire compares to You", but my actions say something else when I sin.

This is a simple test of faith for all of us. You will tell yourself what you believe. Who knows better than you what you believe? But would you like to know what you truly believe? Look at what you do. You say that God is good, but do you thank Him when life gets uncomfortable? You say that God loves you, but do you rejoice in suffering or count it all joy when you encounter various trials? You say that you love Jesus, but do your actions reflect a love of Jesus or a love of sin and self? Remember, we all suffer from deceitful hearts. If you can use this simple test to examine what you truly believe, it will help you to know where to apply your prayers and your work in becoming a better reflection of Christ. And that's a good thing, isn't it?

Sunday, December 06, 2009

James on Sunday Morning

22 Be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. 23 For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. 24 For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like. 25 But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing (James 1:22-25).
It's Sunday, and if you aren't hearing the Word today, it's time to find a new church. Assuming you are at a church that preaches the Word, James was concerned that we might only hear the Word and not act on it. That, he assured us, would be self-deception.

The epistle of James is all about faith. The basic message of James is this: You always act on what you truly believe. Thus, saying you believe in Jesus was all well and good, but if there were no confirming behaviors that surrounded it, your faith would be a dead faith. There are more tests in James, of course. How well do you control your tongue? Do you show preference to one type of person over another (specifically referencing rich folk over poor)? Are you a friend of the world or a friend of God? And on it goes. So the passage here is simply a summary of the epistle. You say the Word is important. You say that God is speaking. You say these things, but if you don't act on it, you don't really believe it.

So, how was the sermon today? Did the pastor give you something to consider from the Word? Are you moved? Be careful. Our tendency, I know, is to be hearers and not doers. Don't nod and say, "Good sermon, Pastor" and walk away unchanged. Be doers of the Word and not hearers only. Or, to put it another way, what are you going to do with what you heard today?

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Contextual Commands

The New Testament is full of commands that most of us who have spent any time in the Word are at least vaguely familiar with. Husbands, love your wives. Love the Lord your God with all your heart (etc.). Let the marriage bed be held in honor. Lots and lots of commands. And we know it.

Our problem is that we succumb to the world's perspective too easily. Christianity is a morality code. Do this; don't do that -- you're a good Christian. But the Bible doesn't support such nonsense. The vast bulk of the commands in the New Testament are given in context. We aren't simply told what to do; we're told why. Or, to put it another way, "Given this as true, it only makes sense to do that."

Take the commands of Hebrews 13:
1 Let brotherly love continue. 2 Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares. 3 Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body. 4 Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. 5 Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, "I will never leave you nor forsake you." 6 So we can confidently say, "The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?" 7 Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb 13:1-8).
There is a whole string of commands there, and by themselves it would appear overwhelming. Do this; don't do that. But the commands come at the end of chapter after chapter of doctrine about the vast superiority of Christ as our High Priest. Because of who He is, we know that we have a better possession than the mere stuff of the world (Heb 10). Because of faith, we can be confident of this even if we can't see it (Heb 11). So even if we endure hardships (and we most certainly will), we can be sure that God is in charge working things for our best (Heb 12). Therefore ...

Given all this truth, the commands pale in comparison. Love your brothers ... because you are so dearly loved by Christ. Show hospitality ... because you are given so much. Remember those in prison ... because you are not of this world. Honor marriage ... because it is an image of our relationship with Christ. And so it goes. And, lest you forget, the author of Hebrews gives us another reason: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." None of His greatness, gifts, or goodness will waver. So you can be content and imitate your leaders and rest in His presence.

Now, to be sure, the reminder in verse 8 is also the basis for verses 9 and following, but, really, is obedience on these matters such a big thing considering who He is and what He has done and continues to do for us? You see, while other religions make morality the goal, Christianity makes morality the result. While other religions strive to be good, Christianity sees it as a simple act of gratitude, the obvious response to God's abounding grace and love for us. It only makes sense.

Friday, December 04, 2009

A Christmas Tale

A fictional Christmas story.


It was a "Christmas shopping" weekend. You know the kind. We had put off too long that necessary buying spree for everyone we know and it was now or never. So we joined the seemingly millions of others in the same boat and crowded into the mall to start our quest.

First it was the toy store. All those little kids in the family need something new to play with because the toys that already have their rooms half filled are now boring. I wondered how long the little angels would enjoy the shiny new toy before it joined the heap of boring with the rest of them. It was nice to know that their mother would require a "thank you, Gramma" from them (odd ... why is a "Thank you Grampa" never included?), so we would get a sense of proper gratitude ... sort of. Of course, the toys they wanted were either not available or equivalent to our annual gift budget, so I wondered further how grateful they'd be in any form for the toys they didn't really want.

For Uncle Bill and Aunt Nan, we stopped at the Hickory Farms store. You know the one. Sausages and the like. Mmm, good. Ought to last them, oh, a week or so. But they liked that stuff, so that would be good. Grampa Joe wasn't really all there anymore, but we stopped in to the watch store and got him a pocket watch. He'd like that ... I guess.

So we trekked on like this through the shopping nightmare picking up items that Beverly would love but her husband would hate or things that would simply add to the excess that Carrie and Jim already had and, well, it just didn't seem conducive to Christmas. And what, do you suppose, were the chances that anyone anywhere would get me something that I wanted?

Why were we doing this? Why were we buying things for people that they didn't really need and maybe didn't even want to celebrate Someone else's birthday? Hey, didn't these people know that Jesus wasn't even born on Christmas? And why did this "season" start back in October? Why were we spending all this time, money, and aggravation on this silly exercise while enduring those mundane Christmas carols piped everywhere? I mean, we live in Arizona! We are not dreaming of a white Christmas ... not if we have any sanity left. What was the point?!

The song changed and I heard, "Hark! The herald angels sing, 'Glory to the newborn King'." I took pause. The next one was a Sinatra tune: "Joy to the world! The Lord is come. Let earth receive her King!" And it hit me. Complaining to myself about the lousy spirit of Christmas, I had forgotten the Spirit of Christmas. Attempting to gain an other-worldly perspective on gift-giving, I had slumped into a totally worldly viewpoint. It's not about me. It's not about the gifts or the songs or the crowd or the money. It's not about giving or getting. It's not about a day of the year or even what songs are sung when.

I realized (again, it seems) that Christmas (regardless of when it is recognized) is the celebration of the arrival of the Greatest Gift of all ever given to mankind. Life was a good gift, but eternal life was much, much better. The gift of the arrival of the Son of God demanded celebration. And said celebration was not about me either. It wasn't about whether or not they were grateful or needed or wanted or any such thing. As long as my heart was in celebrating Christ, I would have a successful Christmas ... even if that cute little 2-year-old grandchild enjoys the box more than the doll.

Thursday, December 03, 2009


I would be less than honest if I did not admit that there are things in the Bible that disturb me. Now, understand ... "disturbing" does not necessarily equate to "not true". In fact, it is the fact that I believe them to be true that makes them disturbing.

One of the big ones is hell. The idea that a large number of humans will refuse Christ, die in their sin, and spend eternity in torment is disturbing to me. It is painful to think about, especially when I know personally some of those people.

It is disturbing to me to know that there are those who actually believe that they are doing God's work without actually having a relationship with Christ. They are completely unaware, it seems. And they're not doing trivial things. They believe they're prophesying and casting out demons and doing miracles in God's name. They're just wrong.

It is disturbing to me that there are those who are quite sure they are people of faith, but their lives don't reflect it. They believe in God, sure, and they're fine with that, but without works, the faith they hold is dead. So they go on about their business comfortable in their dead faith, self-deceived, never realizing they're doomed.

It is disturbing to me that there are those who believe themselves to be born-again Christians who are quite happy to live in sin. I'm not talking about genuine, born-again Christians who are struggling with sin. That would be all of us. I'm talking about those who claim Christ but defend their sin. "God doesn't care if we live together without being married. Why would you?" Not realizing that those who are born of God cannot make a practice of sin, they demonstrate that they do not have the seed of God in them and move on with confidence to their demise.

It is disturbing to me that good people are going to hell. That is disturbing to me because I am disturbing to me. I look at these folks and see that they're not rapists or axe murderers (who would want to murder an axe anyway?) or child molesters. They're hard working folk who love their mothers and are good to their children and don't spend any time in jail. They're good ... right? And don't you tell me otherwise because these are people I know and love. This is disturbing to me because I'm wrong. I am comparing sinners to sinners and denying that God has the right and responsibility to set the standard ... the standard to which none of us measure up. I am more comfortable questioning God's justice in condemning people to hell than I am agreeing with God. I am more concerned about the comfort of people whom God calls "lawless" than I am about the glory of God. I am more enamored with the world than I am with my Savior. And, in being this flawed, I am losing my deep concern for the lost who appear by my faulty standards to be good folks.

Some day this will change. Today I'm disturbed. As time goes by I will agree more and more with God and less and less with the world that hates Him with their deeds and their lives and their words. Together, the Holy Spirit and I will be working on that.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

The Hall of Faith Revival Meeting - Reprise

Okay, so this is a repeat of a post way back in 2006. Likely most of you have never read it. I thought it was appropriate based on yesterday's post and based on the fact that I've been studying Hebrews. Enjoy ...

From Hebrews 11, “the Halls of Faith”, this special Revival Meeting is held in an imaginary tent meeting to hear the testimonials and praise the Lord ...


“Welcome tonight to your Hall of Faith Revival Meeting,” the preacher says. “Tonight we have something special for you. I won’t be preaching tonight. Instead, we’ve invited people throughout time to testify of God’s faithful care for them.”

The congregation offers a polite applause, with a few “Praise Jesus!” calls barely autible mixed in.

“To start us off, we have Abel, the brother of Cain. Abel?”

Abel stands up. “I was a shepherd, and I offered a sacrifice in faith. God called me righteous!”

The congregation applauds, with a “Hallelujah!” and more calls of “Praise Jesus”.

“Over here we have Enoch,” the preacher says. “Enoch, can I get a testimony?”

Enoch stands up. “I put my faith in God, and he prevented me from dying.”

“From dying?”

“Yes, preacher ... from ever dying. One day He just took me into His presence.”

“Praise God! He is so good! Thank you, Enoch. Now we have Noah. Noah, tell us what God has done for you.”

“I trusted God, and He saved my family and I from a flood that killed the entire world.”

“Hallelujah! Praise God! He is marvelous! Thank you, Noah. Over here we have two people you will remember – Abraham and Sarah. Don’t they make a cute couple? Tell us what God has done for you.”

Abraham stands with his wife. “God told me to leave my home and go to a place he would show me. I did, and He took me to the Promised Land. Then, my wife was barren for nearly 100 years, but God promised us a son, and He delivered!”

The congregation applauds. Several people stand with hands raised. Some shout “Hallelujah!” and “Praise Jesus” and “Praise the Lord!”

Abraham gestures for quiet. “There’s more. When that son was older, God told me to go sacrifice him – to kill him.”

A gasp and sudden hush falls on the congregation.

“I did what He said because I believed God could raise him from the dead. But when I put him on the altar and prepared to kill him, God stopped me and provided a ram to sacrifice in his place.”

The congregation applauds. People leap to their feet and shout “Praise God!” Some are waving their hands. More shout “Praise Jesus” and “Praise the Lord!” The preacher waits for the noise to abate, then speaks again.

“Let’s skip on over to Moses, now. How about it, Moses? Tell us what God did for you.”

A man who looks nothing at all like Charlton Heston stands and speaks. “I grew up in the palace of the Pharaoh, but I knew that I couldn’t place my confidence in man. I trusted God and left the riches of the palace. Although I went to the desert, I knew God had something better for me than the wealth of Egypt.”

The congregation listens with rapt attention. Their faces betray a mixture of puzzlement and anticipation.

Moses continues. “But God used me to free His people. I celebrated that first Passover with the people and we headed out of slavery! And when we got to the Red Sea, and ol’ Pharaoh was bearing down on us, God Himself opened up that water and we walked through on dry land!”

The congregation goes wild. People are standing, shouting, stomping their feet, applauding. They are glorifying God for His greatness and faithfulness. Again, the preacher waits for the noise to subside, then speaks again.

“Now, some of you may not be as familiar with this next guest, and may I say, shame on you.” His smile diminishes the sting. “She was a prostitute in Jericho when God found her. Her name is Rahab.”

“Yes, God found me when I was deep in sin. I lived in Jericho when the people of God sent spies. I recognized them as God’s people and protected them from the people of my city. Because of my faith in God, when the walls fell and Jericho was destroyed, God saved me.”

And as the congregation begins to respond, the preacher adds, “Some of you don’t know this, but God so thoroughly saved this woman that she is in the genealogy of our Lord Jesus Christ!”

The congregation applauds. People leap to their feet and shout “Praise the Lord!” Some are waving their hands. More shout “Praise Jesus” and “Praise God!”.

A few other quick testimonies are given.

“Hi! I’m Joshua, and God used me to capture the entire Promised Land for Israel.”

“My name is Daniel, and I sat in a lion’s den all night, but God shut their mouths and I was saved.”

“We are Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, but you probably remember us as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. We trusted God, and he delivered us from the fire.”

A lone woman stands up. “You don’t know me, but my baby died suddenly. We prayed, and God raised my baby back to life!”

The congregation goes wild again. Almost everyone is on their feet shouting and applauding. They are praising God at the top of their lungs.

Another lone woman stands up. “You don’t know me, either, but I was arrested for being a Christian. They offered to release me if I rejected Christ ...”

An anticipatory hush falls on the crowd.

“... but I refused, and they left me in prison for the rest of my life.”

The congregation is quiet, stunned.

Someone else stands up. “Yes! I was arrested and beaten and chained.”

Another chimes in. “Me, too! But when they were done, they stoned me to death!”

With a rising fervor completely unmatched by the deathly silent congregation, more stand and shout their praises to God.

“I was fed to the lions for the sake of Christ!”

“I was cut in half with a saw!”

“I was stabbed to death with a sword!”

“We had nothing to eat, no decent clothing, and nowhere to live but caves in the desert!”

“I lived in a hole in the ground until I died!”

“I never received what was promised!”

Despite the jubilant-sounding tone of these last testimonies, the congregations sits soundless, bewildered.

* * * * * * *

And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection; and others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect. (Heb. 11:32-40)

Is it sufficient that God has provided something better, or do we require that God do “nice things” for us, that God bless us according to our narrow definition? What would it take for us to consider it worthwhile to not receive what we ask for or expect or even see as promised?

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

What are you trusting God for?

We lose something, I'm pretty sure, by the helpful chapter/verse structures we enjoy in our Bibles. Yeah, it's good when it comes to referencing things in a way that others can find them, but it's bad when it breaks up thoughts. Hebrews 10-12 is a prime example.

Chapter 10 talks about those who endured hardship because they knew they had a better and abiding possession (10:34). This concept provides the context for chapter 11. What are the people of faith in this famous faith chapter trusting God for? It isn't simply about faith; it's about something more specific. It's this better and abiding possession. It is this promise that they died never seeing (11:39). It is this promise that is in view in chapter 12 when we are told to "lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12:1-2). Because, you see, Jesus Himself exemplified this worldview: We have a better and abiding possession.

In this life, we are promised, we will endure hardships. That is a promise we will see. All, in the final analysis, comes from the hand of God and is designed to be discipline. (If you're thinking that "discipline" is simply intended to convey "training", think again. The imagery of Hebrews 12 is "scourging" and the guarantee is that it will be "painful" (12:11).) While we endure these difficulties that we know come from the hand of a loving Father, we can exercise faith. We can believe that the Father loves us and is doing it for our benefit. We can believe that this world is temporary, that suffering is short-term, and that we have a better and enduring possession. We can run the race in spite of the hardships.

What are you trusting God for? Too many times I think we're expecting God to be ... nice. We're trusting God for comfort and pleasant living and "good stuff", not realizing that our shortsighted view misses the longer panorama of a possession not of this world. We are expecting God to make things nice for us down here and He's working on matters of eternal importance. If that is what you're trusting God for, rest easy. You'll get it. If you're looking for comfort and wholeness rather than discipline and holiness, I am pretty sure you'll be disappointed. Trusting God for something better than this world has to offer will never be a disappointment.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Don't Think About It

"Mom," the little tyke whined as the family drove down the desert highway on another family vacation, "I have to go to the bathroom!" With little opportunity to do anything at all for the poor little guy, his mother tried to be helpful. "Try not to think about it."

"Don't think about it." That's a fairly common solution offered either directly or by implication for many of our maladies. "I have a paper cut!" "Try not to think about it." "I am grieving for a lost loved one." "Try not to think about it." "I seem to have this recurring temptation to sin." "Try not to think about it."

It is, of course, a pretty foolish suggestion. I mean ... think about it. "Okay, they told me not to think about the pain in my head and it will go away. So ... I won't think about the pain in my head. I won't think about the pain in my head. I won't think about the pain in my head." And you've managed to focus your attention on the pain in your head. When I took driver's training (way back when), my instructor warned us, "Don't look at the line of parked cars that you want to avoid. Look instead where you want to go. Why? Because you tend to go where you look." It's true in driving; it's true in life ... sometimes with tragic consequences. I would guess that we all know someone who grew up with a rotten parent or two. They told themselves from a young age, "I'll never be like my dad (or mom or whatever)." Unfortunately, the focused attention on avoiding being like whomever has ended up making them exactly like whomever, and the problems are perpetuated rather than terminated.

On the other hand, every parent of an infant knows exactly the solution to the problem. Little Johnny or Susie trips and falls, not very hard, but with quite a surprise. He or she is on the verge of crying ... and mom or dad provides the answer by simply distracting Johnny. That's right. They don't suggest that the little one does not think about the shock of the fall, but simply makes him or her think about something else. It would have worked the same for that poor unfortunate fellow who so hated his dad that he became just like him. Most likely if he had, instead, picked up a positive role model to emulate, he might have gone a better direction.

"Don't think about it" doesn't work. By working at not thinking about something, we end up thinking about it by design. What does work more often than not is substitution. It's not "don't think about it", but "think about something else." Since the mind cannot focus simultaneously on two different thoughts, you would end up not thinking about it. Better, if you thought about where you would rather be, you'd likely go that direction.

"All of this is a fine little mental exercise ... but, really, Stan, what's the point?" There is an important point here. All of us suffer from "besetting sins", those things that keep bothering us while we're seeking to be holy reflections of Christ. Lots of people offer lots of fixes. Usually it is along the lines of "Don't think about it." Don't think about whatever is tempting you. That's the basic plan. Of course, working at not thinking about whatever is tempting you simply focuses your attention on the temptation. What can you do? The answer is simple. Until the passion we have for our Savior is stronger than the passion we have for our sin, it will always be a problem. Forget about "don't think about it." Look to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart." The problem isn't the temptation, but the love we all carry for the sin we all hate. When we are thoroughly enamored with Christ, the whole problem will go away. Maybe that's a better direction to look.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Give thanks to Him

For although they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Rom 1:21).
Listed at the very beginning of the chain of problems that Paul attributes to mankind in Romans 1 is this accusation: "They did not honor Him as God or give thanks to Him." Ingratitude, it seems, is an epidemic in the world.

What is gratitude? The dictionary defines it as a warm or deep appreciation of kindness or benefits received. The first thing, then, that needs to be acknowledged for gratitude to occur is the fact that someone else has conferred kindness or benefits. Gratitude, then, at its core, is unself-centered. (Yeah, yeah, I just made that word up, but tell me if you don't know what I mean.) Gratitude also carries with it "appreciation". What is that? Well, the dictionary says that "appreciate" means "to be grateful". Okay, enough with the circular references. What does it really mean? It is, in fact, a "business" term. It means to prize, to value, to realize the worth of something. You know, like when a house appreciates as opposed to depreciates. There, perhaps now you can see the idea. Gratitude, then, occurs when we recognize that someone outside of ourselves has given us something that we value.

What is the block to gratitude? Why is ingratitude a problem? Well, if the most common mode of humans is "self-centered", then thankfulness would fly in the face of our normal sense of things. We are the most important, and now we're saying that someone else has given us something that we value. So we do one of two things. Either, we fail to admit that someone else provided it, or we devalue what we are given.

So test yourself. Do you value the things you receive from others? Do you see worth in what God gives you? Do you prize the blessings as well as the tough times God provides? Do you honor God for who He is? You see, that's where thankfulness begins -- outside of self. And, oh, by the way, the alternative to gratitude, according to Paul, is futile thinking and foolish hearts. Something to think about on the Sunday after Thanksgiving.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Faith Is

I will be the first to admit that I don't fully understand all of Scripture. There are things there that are crystal clear to me and some that are ... foggy. The question isn't their truth, but my understanding. The funny thing is that in many cases it seems that I'm 180° out of phase with other Christians.

Take, for instance, the "sticky" question of predestination versus free will. Lots of Christians puzzle over that. Seems like it's tough to figure out. To me, I'm puzzled by their confusion. It is clear in my head. Simply put, limited options is not the same as either no options or coercion. So I don't see a problem. Obviously, others do.

One on the other side of the coin is Hebrews 11:1. Most Christians enjoy that verse, quite happy with its clear definition of faith:
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Heb 11:1).
Mmm, good stuff ... except I've never understood that definition. That is, if I start with "What is biblical 'faith'?", I don't a clear explanation in this verse. I've never been clear on that at all, while most Christians see it quite plainly.

Then, the other day, I read the passage and saw something ... different. What if it's not a definition, but a description of the function of faith? We do this in English. We might say, "Time is money." Yeah ... everyone gets that. Except we're not defining time in that statement. We're explaining that if you get paid to do something, your time translates into income or cost. It's a function of time, not a definition. Or how about this example? "Money is the grease that lubricates the wheels of business." See? Money, then, is defined as some sort of petroleum-based lubricant that ... well, no, of course not. We're saying that a function of money is to make businesses work more smoothly. That's how I suddenly saw Hebrews 11:1 -- a description of the function of faith.

Two things are offered here in this verse: 1) Things hoped for and 2) things not seen. To what is the author referring? Well, the chapter break is unfortunate because he gave that in chapter 10 and, too often, we miss it. In chapter 10, the author of Hebrews speaks of how his readers endured hardship to visit their brethren in prison. The reason they were able to do that was "you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one" (Heb 10:34). In chapter 11 he goes on to explain that people of faith died without ever having seen the promise. Our "great reward" (Heb 10:35), then, is the thing that we hope for but don't see. The question is why hope for something you cannot see? The answer, in verse 1 of chapter 11, is faith. Faith gives us assurance when we hope for something we don't have and faith gives us confidence when we expect something we cannot see. That's not a definition of faith, but it is a good explanation of the function of faith.

Look, like I said, I don't fully understand all of Scripture. This passage, however, suddenly made a lot more sense to me when I saw it as a description of the role of faith rather than a definition of the word, "faith". And I thought that maybe -- just maybe -- someone else might benefit from this perspective.