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Sunday, May 31, 2009


Come on ... we all know it's there ... the perception that Christianity in general and devout Christians in particular are, well, killjoys. Everyone outside the Church knows it, and, to tell the truth, a lot of people in the Church think so. If you really want to be a good Christian, you need to be dour, joyless. Let's face it; all this "obey" stuff isn't really designed to make people happy, right?

Of course, it doesn't take a whole lot of reading in the Bible to find that this is a ridiculous notion.
"I have come that they may have life and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).

"These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full" (John 15:11).

"I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you" (John 16:22).

"Until now you have asked nothing in My name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full" (John 16:24).

"I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves" (John 17:11-13).

For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17).

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law (Gal 5:22-23).
That's just a cursory look. The Scriptures are full of them. (Think, for instance, "Beatitudes".) One of the key components of a genuine Christian is ... joy. No, that's not accurate -- full joy! It is a fruit (product) of the Spirit, a mark of "the kingdom of God", a result of answered prayer, a natural response to simply knowing Christ and hearing His Word. It was part of the very purpose for which Christ came.

Now, to be quite honest, this joy is not ... worldly. It's not mere "happiness". To the ears of the normal listener, it can be, in fact, somewhat bizarre.
"Blessed are you when people hate you and when they exclude you and revile you and spurn your name as evil, on account of the Son of Man! Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven; for so their fathers did to the prophets" (Luke 6:22-23).

"Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy" (John 16:20).

And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region. But the Jews incited the devout women of high standing and the leading men of the city, stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and drove them out of their district. But they shook off the dust from their feet against them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit (Act 13:49-52).

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part (2 Cor 8:1-2).

Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2).
These are kind of ... odd accounts of joy. We are to "leap for joy" when we are hated, reviled, and spurned. Our "sorrow will turn into joy". In Acts 13 we read "the disciples were filled with joy" right after we read that they were driven out of the district. Paul tells of the churches of Macedonia who gave generously "in a severe test of affliction" and "extreme poverty" out of "their abundance of joy". James tells us to count it all joy when we have trials. Now, come on ... does this make sense?

This is one of the key differences between the world's joy and the joy we are promised. Theirs works when times our pleasant. Ours is for all time. Theirs is temporary and fleeting. Ours is permanent. Theirs fails in bad times and ours is bolstered. How is this possible?
May you be strengthened with all power, according to His glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy, giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light (Col 1:11-12).
Brothers and sisters, we've all heard that Christianity is a downer and that living the Christian life is a killjoy. Don't believe it. We have, as in so many other cases, been lied to. We are offered the opportunity to "rejoice always" (1 Thess 5:16). Even that, my friends, is an understatement. "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice" (Phil 4:4). Don't buy the lie. Let your joy be full!

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Are you sure you want to go there?

In the past I haven't shrunk from writing what I believe to be the truth even if it isn't popular. I don't intend to start now. However, I realize that this topic is high on the "volatile" list and more likely to lose friends rather than influence people. I used to think I was "in left field" a lot of the time with my views, but everyone knows that the real remote place is right field because there are fewer balls hit out there. This post ought to secure my "right field" position. Still, if I believe it to be God's truth, I cannot afford to not speak the truth in love, right? Maybe, if I do this on a Saturday, I'll get away with it ... right? Maybe not.

The topic is divorce. The question is about what the Bible says regarding divorce. I'm sure there is a diversity of views on the topic among Christians, but most conservative, Bible-believing Christians would assure you of this: "We are not allowed to divorce and remarry except in the case of adultery or desertion." You're all pretty much on board for that, right? I mean, isn't the Bible abundantly clear on this? Well ... I would contend that this is one of those cases, like when we read the qualifications for elders, that we might be interpreting with our feelings and experience rather than with the texts at hand.

Both Matthew and Mark give accounts of Jesus commenting on the topic of divorce. Mark gives this account:
2 And Pharisees came up and in order to test him asked, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?" 3 He answered them, "What did Moses command you?" 4 They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce and to send her away." 5 And Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote you this commandment. 6 But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.' 7 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two but one flesh. 9 What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." 10 And in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 And he said to them, "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her, 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery" (Mark 10:2-12).
The text is rather black and white. Divorce and remarriage is adultery. There ... that should settle it, right?

"Oh, wait," you protest, "what about the 'exception clause'?" You see, we all know the exception clause. And we shouldn't avoid it in the least. But before we go there, please keep in mind, whatever it says and means, it must be consistent with Mark.

Both of Matthew's accounts have the exception clause built in:
"It was also said, 'Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.' But I say to you that everyone who divorces his wife, except on the ground of sexual immorality, makes her commit adultery, and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery" (Matt 5:31-32).

3 And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, "Is it lawful to divorce one's wife for any cause?" 4 He answered, "Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, 5 and said, 'Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh'? 6 So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." 7 They said to him, "Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?" 8 He said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. 9 And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery" (Matt 19:3-9)
First, let's note what Jesus's answer is to the question, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce His wife?" The answer is the same in both Mark and Matthew. No. The Pharisees found an exception in "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of divorce", but Jesus chalks that up to hardness of heart. Both accounts explain the facts this way: "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." Why do you suppose that this answer from the lips of our Lord is insufficient for them and for us?

Then there's the exception clause. The phrase is "except for sexual immorality". You're nodding knowingly, now. "See? Adultery is the exception to the no-divorce rule." Fine ... except that's not what it says. It says "sexual immorality". There is a word in the Greek for adultery. In Matt 15:19, in fact, they appear in the same sentence. So ... why didn't Matthew use that term? Could it be that he didn't intend it? "Well, no," you assure me, "he intended adultery along with any other sexual immorality." Okay ... but now we have another problem. Why didn't Mark include an exception clause? I mean, this is an important issue. Why did he miss it? And beyond that, why would Jesus include adultery (and a variety of other sexual immoralities) when the existing Law required death for such things? These things seem ... problematic.

I think a clue is found in the other mention in Matthew about divorce.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly (Matt 1:18-19).
Oh, now, wait ... what's all this, then? Mary and Joseph weren't even married. How could he divorce her? Well, in biblical times, betrothal meant something. The only means by which you could terminate a betrothal was by divorce. In this account, Joseph's betrothed "was found to be with child". What was he to conclude? Well ... sexual immorality, of course. So Joseph, "a just man", set out to divorce her. Had he done so "on the grounds of sexual immorality" (which was not adultery), he would not have been married and, therefore, would not have been causing or committing adultery. In other words, it is perfectly consistent with what Jesus was saying.

I would suggest that we have taken a far too liberal approach to divorce and remarriage in the Church. Jesus wasn't unclear on His answer. "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate." That's not vague. But we push it. "Really? Never??!!" If we are to keep Matthew and Mark compatible with each other, we can either say that Mark missed something vital or that the exception clause from Matthew was not what we thought it was. If the exception clause is actually in regard to betrothal rather than our version of "marriage and divorce", Jesus's answer of "What therefore God has joined together, let no man separate" makes perfect sense. And, in view of God's notion of marriage as an image of Christ's relationship to the Church, it makes perfect sense.

In other words, as far as I can tell, being true to the text without trying to reinterpret it through feelings and experience rather than Scripture itself, it appears to me that the biblical view of divorce and remarriage is "Don't do it ... ever." There. I said it. Let fly the tomatoes of war.

Footnote: I need to make it abundantly clear that I do not see divorce and remarriage as some "unpardonable sin". Don't even go there. Don't even think it.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Like Me

We have a strange tendency, I think. Humans in general tend to think that everyone else is just like them. Of course, the more you are exposed to other people, other places, other cultures, that doesn't seem to hold true, but in general we tend to think that way until we are radically convinced otherwise.

There's another part of this. Most of us tend to think, along with the above, that we're basically pretty good people. We're doing things right. We've mostly got it together. Oh, the better of us are knowingly aware of our shortcomings ... but what we feel is important to change we've mostly changed.

With part one above in mind and this part added, we end up in an interesting position. We often get a sense that "if you aren't doing what I am doing ... well, you're just falling short." This kind of thing comes from various angles. Someone immersed in politics finds that someone else isn't particularly concerned and they're befuddled. How can that be? It's important! Why aren't they? A person in "full-time ministry" might view "lay people" as "lesser" somehow. "Surely they aren't as learned, as informed, as dedicated as I am because, after all, I'm in 'full-time ministry' ... and they're not." And so it goes. This one works at missions on skid row to help the homeless and that one is busy trying to invite all his neighbors over for a Bible study and the other one seems to just kind of drift around and hug people who are sad and no one measures up to the other.

It's a mistake, you know. It's a mistake from the beginning. We are not all alike. We are all different. No one is the same as you, as much as you might think they all are. Further, you're not that good. We all fall short. We are not the standard by which others should be judged. (And the minute I say it you know it's true.) And, finally, we are not all doing the same thing ... by design. We are, in the Body of Christ, parts of the body. We are not superior because we function this way when others don't. Nor are we inferior because those others seem to be doing that and we're not.

No one is like me. That's God's design. Doing what God intends me to do is what I am supposed to do. You're not. You're supposed to do what God intends you to do. And I'm not supposed to do that. It all works out very nicely, actually. Now, if we can only keep that in mind ...

Thursday, May 28, 2009

The Homosexual Argument

Many still remember the popular television series, The West Wing. I don't. Well, I saw exactly one episode or, to be more precise, part of one episode. In the series there was a famous scene (you can find it on YouTube if you look) where Martin Sheen as the President puts a famous radio talk show host in her place for believing that the Bible teaches that homosexuality is an abomination. The show called on the well known, deeply revered Bible knowledge of Hollywood writers to exegete the passages in question for the benefit of all believers everywhere so we could see how wrong we've had it all these centuries. It was a resounding smack down about how much the President hated anyone who had the view that the Bible actually teaches against homosexuality. I'll call it "antihomophobe" where they respond strongly without actually offering ... well, we'll get there.

The truth is that the arguments cause some people problems. Faced with such problems, people can choose a few possible courses. They can ignore the objections ("I know what's right; I'm not listening to you."), agree with the objections ("Hmm, never thought of that. Perhaps I've been wrong all along about the subject."), or face the objections down. I'm offering the last. Why is it that I believe that homosexual behavior is a sin, and what do I do with the standard objections? Let me say at the start that it is not my aim or hope to sway people. If you've decided that there's nothing sinful about the act, my bit of logic won't make much difference. I get that. You have the same options as I've offered above. My hope is that some people who have either ignored the objections or faced the objections and found themselves wanting will have better footing. So if you plan to refute my position, be aware that it is not something I haven't thought through nor is it likely that "You're so wrong" will be an argument that might sway me, nor do you need to feel like I'm attacking your position.

The standard argument for the position that homosexuals are sinning comes first, foremost, and, indeed, clearest from the Old Testament. It is the one, in fact, quoted in The West Wing. Leviticus 18:22 says without mitigation, "You shall not lie with a male as with a woman; it is an abomination." I wrote a piece on "abomination" back in 2007 along with a follow-up because this is precisely the kinds of things that are thrown at us. "Well," they argue, "if you believe that a man lying with a woman is an abomination, then you also think that wearing polyester is an abomination as well, right?" And a lot of Christians are stumped. They'll deny it ... but not be sure why. So keep looking. There are answers. The primary thing you'll find is that people lie to you about what the Bible actually says (or doesn't say). For instance, the brave president fired this at the poor talk-show host as if it was real: "Does the whole town really have to be together to stone my brother John for planting different crops side-by-side? Can I burn my mother in a small family gathering for wearing garments made from two different threads?" Funny thing ... you will not find anywhere in Leviticus the command to stone or burn anyone for planting crops side by side or for wearing polyester. It is prohibited, but not as a death penalty.

The first argument, then, is that the act of sex between two males is "an abomination". Oh, we don't like that language today. And other things are listed as "abominable" as well, but not the same "abominable". Some things were abominable to the Egyptians (e.g., Gen 43:32; 46:34; Exo 8:26). Some things were abominable to Israel (e.g., Lev 11). Some things were abominable to God. The Egyptians could change. Israel could change. God does not. If a particular act is an abomination to God, it remains an abomination to God.

"But things change all the time. You don't argue that we shouldn't wear polyester. Why do you argue this is true but not that?"

So very common. Here's an interesting quick study. Look at Leviticus 20 and read through the section in which you find "a man lies with a male as with a woman". Here's what the section looks like:
10 If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.
11 If a man lies with his father's wife, he has uncovered his father's nakedness; both of them shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
12 If a man lies with his daughter-in-law, both of them shall surely be put to death; they have committed perversion; their blood is upon them.
13 If a man lies with a male as with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
14 If a man takes a woman and her mother also, it is depravity; he and they shall be burned with fire, that there may be no depravity among you.
15 If a man lies with an animal, he shall surely be put to death, and you shall kill the animal.
16 If a woman approaches any animal and lies with it, you shall kill the woman and the animal; they shall surely be put to death; their blood is upon them.
First note that the entire context on either side of verse 13 is sexual sin. It is not rituals, idolatry, or other topics. It is sexual sin all the way through. There can be little doubt what is in mind in verse 13. Unless God was horribly unclear, it is straightforward homosexual sex.

Here's where we start to run into problems. If the argument is, "Well, that changed since then", on what basis do we say "but the adultery, intra-family sex, and bestiality are all still wrong"? If the one in the middle has been done away with, why not the rest? It would make sense that all of the sins that fall in this particular category are still ... sins.

"But it's clear that we don't kill these people anymore, so it has changed, right?"

Well, we're still stuck at this point. If "we no longer kill these people" means "it is no longer a sin", then we're back to allowing all of the above ... and murder, and rape, and ... well, you get the idea. The truth is that these verses all have two parts. The first part references the crime. The second part references the penalty. That is, "This is wrong" (part 1 - The Crime), "therefore you should ..." (part 2 - The Penalty).The crime is the product of God's definition of right and wrong. The penalty is the product of a theocracy. A government that is run by God will do what the passage says to do. A government that is not run by God will do whatever they choose. Since we do not have a theocracy and since no one else does, you won't likely see these penalties carried out. That doesn't mean that the sin described in the first part of each verse is no longer a sin. It means the government changed.

"But you still argue that there are changes from the Old Testament."

Okay, fine, let's leave that alone. God considers it abominable, but there are still those who think He doesn't anymore. He didn't change ... He just doesn't see it the same anymore. And if the penalty changed, why is the crime still in effect? Fine. The other way to tell if something is still in effect is to go to the New Testament. We have, for instance, Jesus affirming that adultery and murder are still sins. He also clarifies the Sabbath. "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mar 2:27). He declared all foods clean (Mark 7:19). When Peter objects to eating certain foods, God tells him, "What God has made clean, do not call common" (Acts 10:15). We have some modifications and we have some reassertions of the original. What about this law against men with men? Romans 1:26-27 describe "women lying with women as with men" and "men lying with men as with women" in clear terms. 1 Cor 6:9-10 also doesn't mince words. As abundantly clear as it is in Leviticus that homosexual behavior is abhorrent to God, the New Testament restates the same prohibition.

As a back up check to all of this, I submit this confirmation. There has been no time in history that the Church has believed that the Bible taught anything else. At no time did the Church argue that this was not what was intended in both the Old and New Testaments. In other words, history agrees. Or, to put it another way, the Spirit of Truth either failed to get this across until now ... or He got across what He intended to get across and those who don't see it today don't see the Truth.

There are "modifications to the contract", so to speak, in Scripture. Cleanliness rules, for instance, aren't an issue these days. Whether or not you can plant two different seeds in one spot (as foolish as that might be) or wear mixed threads fall under the laws of Israel customs. Clearly the sacrificial codes have been fulfilled in Christ. That leaves us with one particular set -- the moral law. If we are going to argue that the moral law is a variable and it's up to you to decide, we're moving into odd territory. God doesn't hate what He used to hate. He changed His mind about His views on morality. It's no longer "abominable" to Him. He wasn't clear anyway. "No, no, we now have the capacity to figure this stuff out ourselves. Do you feel that homosexual relationships are sinful? No? Well, then it's not. I really think we are at the place where we can each do what is right in our own eyes." Hmm, maybe that's not such odd territory after all. Not territory I want to live in, however.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Can I Get an Elder?

5 I left you in Crete, that you would set in order what remains and appoint elders in every city as I directed you, 6 namely, if any man is above reproach, the husband of one wife, having children who believe, not accused of dissipation or rebellion. 7 For the overseer must be above reproach as God's steward, not self-willed, not quick-tempered, not addicted to wine, not pugnacious, not fond of sordid gain, 8 but hospitable, loving what is good, sensible, just, devout, self-controlled, 9 holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that he will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict (Titus 1:5-9).
We are people of the Word. In the Reformation they departed from the Roman Catholic Church because of the singular doctrine of sola scriptura -- Scripture is the sole source for matters of faith and practice. We hold that the Bible is God-breathed, accurate, inerrant, infallible. Amen and amen! And then we get to passages like this.

The passage is a near-duplicate of Paul's instructions to Timothy on the topic of appointing elders, and both are full of ... well, problems. Let's look at a few, assuming that we take Scripture at face value.

1. Paul directed Titus to appoint elders. They weren't elected, voted on, chosen by the local church, or put in place for a renewable 4-year term. Now, I know churches that have no elders. (They equate "head pastor" with "elders", as if a single pastor is the same as a group of elders.) I know a lot of churches that have elders, but they are not appointed; they are elected. I know of no churches where elders are appointed by an outside entity. (Note that most churches select their own pastor as well, so if "pastor" = "elder", then we've run into this "appoint" quandary there, too.) So it raises questions.

2. Qualification: "Above reproach." The man must be blameless. Who, pray tell, is blameless? I mean, we're all sinners, right? And we all sin, right? We have as a basic belief that no one arrives at sinlessness in this life. So ... how are we to understand this qualification? Appoint the man ... until he commits a sin, then kick him out of the elders? A little help here.

3. Qualification: "Husband of one wife". This one has been a hot button for a long time, but, remember, we're taking the list at face value. If we take this qualification at face value, who is excluded? Well, obviously polygamists are excluded. Whew! That was easy. But wait, it gets harder. No "never-married" men would be allowed. Certainly no divorced men would be allowed, remarried or not. And if an elder is married and his wife dies, he would no longer be qualified because he is no longer the husband of one wife. I'll let you debate among yourselves about whether he would re-qualify if he married again. I mean, isn't that two wives consecutively?

4. Qualification: "Children who believe". Talk about a thorny issue! I mean, children who are "not accused of dissipation or rebellion" ... that's understandable. The elder is not working through what it means to be a good father. He's already a good father. Of course, if he's a good father now, but wasn't in the early years and ended up with rebellious children, then he'd be excluded, right? But "children who believe" -- that one is a bit tougher. You see, the suggestion is that a good father will always produce "children who believe". If he doesn't, then he has failed to properly manage his household and, as such, is not qualified to be an elder. Or if he has "believing children" and is an elder and then, when they leave home one leaves the faith, well, then, we'd need to fire him, right? The truth is that most of the PK's (pastor's kids) that I've known in my life were little hellions, the worst behaved kids in the youth group. So ... given this qualification, we'd need to fire most pastors ... right?

Most of the rest of these qualifications don't cause much of a problem for people. I mean, maybe someone will ask, "What about 'not addicted to wine'? Can they drink wine with a meal and be qualified?" And it is possible to wonder "How do you quantify this? How do you determine 'devout' or 'hold fast the faithful word'? Everyone has variations." I'm not talking about small stuff. I'm talking about our position that we take the Bible at face value. I've read -- and written -- lots of stuff that explains these qualifications in more "friendly" terms. "Oh, 'above reproach' simply means that when he sins he takes care of it. And 'husband of one wife' simply means that he is a 'one woman man' -- devoted to his wife. And that whole 'children who believe' thing ... that's about children who are not unfaithful, not in rebellion." But it seems to me that there is a valid concern that we are mitigating our own sola scriptura position here. Are we reevaluating these passages because they're unclear? They don't seem unclear. Are we reinterpreting them because they contradict other Scriptures? I don't know of other Scriptures they would contradict. Or are we simply changing what they plainly say to fit our feelings and experiences? If the latter, we had best step carefully, because now we are standing precisely where we complain the liberals stand -- deciding what Scripture is valid and what it says by something other than Scripture.

I am not actually offering an opinion here. I am not chiding or exhorting. I'm asking. On what basis do we reinterpret these qualifications? If we reinterpret based on experience and circumstance, how are we different than those who have a view of the Bible that we reject? If we do not reinterpret these qualifications, is there actually anyone qualified? Are there actually men (sorry, ladies, but "husband of one wife", no matter how you interpret it, precludes female elders) who are completely blameless and remain so, married and only once, without possibility of fallen children, and meeting all the rest? If not, what then? If they violate it later (e.g., fall into blame, no longer "husband of one wife", have children who believe and then no longer do) what then? Can I get an actual elder? Questions ... always questions.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Effective Warning

Imagine, for a moment (because it requires extensive imagination), that I am a wealthy fellow who decides to build a wonderful house at the top of a tall mountain. Of course, I have to get to my house, so I build a road from the bottom to the top. The mountainside is steep in places, so the road is actually somewhat dangerous. To preclude any problems, then, I put a sign at the bottom of the road. "Caution! Dangerous Road! If you don't drive carefully, you could go off the road!" You know ... bright yellow sign ... reflective lettering. You can't miss it. Well, in the entire time that I own the house I have many visitors, but not one ever goes off the road. What, in this imaginary scenario, do you conclude? Would you say, "Oh, he lied. No one went off the road, so it couldn't happen."? Or would you conclude that the warning was effective and just because no one did go off the road is no reason to assume that no one could go off the road -- no reason to conclude that my warning was a false one?

There is a fascinating passage in Acts. You know the story. Paul has been arrested in Jerusalem and is being sent to Rome for a hearing with Caesar. On the journey, the ship encounters bad weather. So bad is the storm that the crew and the passengers begin to worry about survival. But one morning Paul announces to everyone the good news:
"Men, you should have listened to me and not have set sail from Crete and incurred this injury and loss. Yet now I urge you to take heart, for there will be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night there stood before me an angel of the God to whom I belong and whom I worship, and he said, 'Do not be afraid, Paul; you must stand before Caesar. And behold, God has granted you all those who sail with you.' So take heart, men, for I have faith in God that it will be exactly as I have been told. But we must run aground on some island" (Acts 27:22-26).
Well, there it was, the assurance from God Himself that no one would die in this storm. The outcome was sure. The ship would be lost, but everyone was certain to survive.

An odd thing, though. The story continues with a twist. After 14 nights of storm and no relief in sight, the crew started to panic. They headed for the life raft intending to escape with their lives. Read what Paul says next: "Unless these men stay in the ship, you cannot be saved" (Act 27:31). Okay, now, see? This is confusing. Paul had a very clear statement from God. No one would die. Now he has a warning. If the crew leaves, "you cannot be saved." If the sailors escaped, everyone would die. How was that possible? Paul already had God's word on it that everyone would live.

Well, the centurion listened, the soldiers cut loose the life boats (Acts 27:32), and, although the ship was lost, "all were brought safely to land" (Acts 27:44).

Here we have the effective warning. Like my imaginary caution on that winding road, Paul gave an actual caution. When he gave it, he knew the outcome. There was no way, in the final analysis, that anyone would die. So what do we conclude? As in my imaginary version, you can conclude that Paul lied. He knew no one would actually die, so the warning was bogus. Or you can conclude that, just because no one did die is no reason to assume it wasn't a valid warning. Instead, the warning was genuine ... but effective.

You see, just because the outcome was certain didn't mean that it was not possible for them to die if they violated Paul's warning. It simply meant that God knew before Paul gave the warning what the response to the warning would be. God knew (more likely assured) that the warning would be effective. That is, if the sailors had left the ship, everyone would have died ... and God would have been wrong in His assurance to Paul that no one would have died. In human terms, that was "possible". In God's terms, it didn't happen.

There is one particular discussion topic that bears the very same earmarks ... the topic of whether or not a believer can lose his or her salvation. One side points to the promises that the outcome is certain, passages like John 5:24 ("He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.") or Philippians 1:6 ("He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.") or Jesus's assurance that "no one will snatch them out of My hand" (John 10:28). (Trust me ... there are lots of these promise passages.) The other side is not unbiblical. They point out the warnings -- the genuine biblical warnings -- about what will happen if you transgress this or that. You'll find lots of these as well, such as Hebrews 6:4-6 ("It is impossible ... to restore them again to repentance...") or John 15 ("If anyone does not abide in Me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned."). Perhaps, after having seen my imaginary sign story or, better yet, Paul's genuine warning in the face of a genuine guarantee from God, you might begin to see what is going on here. One set of passages gives the promise of the outcome: "There will be no loss of [eternal] life among you." The other set of passages gives the immediate warning: "Unless [you] stay in [Christ], you cannot be saved." And we have our dilemma. We can assume that one set of passages or the other (or both) are simply wrong ... or we can assume that we have genuine warnings that effectively produce the result God intends in the final outcome, and both sets of passages are accurate.

You choose.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Memorial Day, 2009

In May of 1868 General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic, declared the observance of an official Memorial Day. It wasn't until 1873 that the first state officially recognized the holiday, but by 1890 all of the northern states were observing the day designed to remember those who had died in our nation's service. The southern states refused. They chose a different day. But after after World War I, almost every state recognized May 30th as the day to honor those who died to keep us free. I served 10 years in the U.S. Air Force, with an honorable discharge. I was proud to be a part of the Armed Forces, doing my part for my country. But Memorial Day is not for me. (That would be Veterans Day.) Today is a day we recall people who gave the ultimate sacrifice.

Memorial Day used to be honored with various events. They used to sell artificial poppies, the red serving as reminder that the "blood of heroes never dies". The proceeds would go to war-orphaned children and widowed women. There used to be parades and flags and a general sense of sort of solemn celebration. People would visit cemeteries and place flags on the graves of soldiers. We were grateful for those who died on our behalf. Perhaps it was the change to the last Monday in May, making it easier to think of "holiday" rather than gratitude. Maybe it's just that we are humans, people of short memory. But Memorial Day isn't so much anymore. Google, for instance, likes to put up special pages for various holidays, but refuses to recognize Memorial Day. Protesters of today's so-called wars are miffed that there are wars and forget that freedom didn't come to us without a cost. For the most part, people would just like to celebrate the unofficial beginning of summer rather than think about the cost of freedom.

I would ask you, today, to remember. Remind yourself that the freedom you enjoy cost many people their lives. Bring back to mind the fact that we live in the country we enjoy because people thought it was worth dying for. Maybe you can thank a veteran today. More appropriate, if you know families whose members have given that ultimate sacrifice, let them know you're thankful. Do some kindness for them. Gratitude is often in short supply. Use today as a reminder to be grateful.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Love the Lord your God

We all know the passage, don't we?
"Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?" And He said to him, "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets" (Matt 22:36-40).
To which we should all say a hearty "Amen!" The questioner was a lawyer from the Pharisees, and even he agreed that Jesus was right (Mark 12:32). We all get that. Have you ever noticed, however, the apparent contradiction in these commands? Seriously ... think about it.

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart ..." Jesus says that your entire heart should be spent on loving God. So ... what's left for your neighbor (or you)? See the problem? If we are commanded to devote everything to loving God, how is it remotely possible that we could also love ourselves or our neighbors?

I said that this is an apparent contradiction. I think, in resolving this contradiction, we will find a basis for the entire Christian life that we may or may not have missed. So this isn't merely an exercise. It's outcome is important.

The answer to this dilemma is suggested in one of David's psalms. "I say to the LORD, 'You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.' As for the saints in the land, they are the excellent ones, in whom is all my delight" (Psa 16:2-3). Here David indicates that in God alone there is "good". The only good we have is in God. Therefore, David delights in the saints. All good is in the Lord, and that is the reason that David rejoices in the saints.

You see, in this scenario "the great commandment" is the motivation and power behind "the second". It is in an absolute and complete devotion to God that we can find an overflow that allows us to love our neighbors. It is in the perfect love for God and His perfect love for us that we can have so much to give to others. I'm not scrambling for myself. I'm not fighting to be loved. I'm not "loving myself" and finding too little left over to love my neighbor. Indeed, it is precisely that love for God that motivates me to love others ... and even myself. That is, in loving God with my whole heart I will, as an act of love for God, love my neighbor.

I am convinced that herein lies the entire Christian life. Here, consider it from this viewpoint. There is debate about whether or not to spank kids. One side says, "It's required." The other side says, "It's mean." If a parent loves his (or her) child and out of that love disciplines that child, it won't be mean, excessive, or any such thing, will it? It will be measured and intentional without being misguided or blindly permissive. That is, actions motivated by love change the actions without necessarily removing them. Now, if I am an obedient believer -- loving the Lord with all my heart, all my soul, all my mind -- the result will be loving my neighbor correctly, loving myself correctly, obeying Christ's commands from the proper motivation (love, not duty), and so forth. With loving God as the aim, living the Christian life becomes an act of joy rather than an obligation.

Christian, love the Lord your God. It is a wonderful motivation and a great benefit.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

The Parable of the Sower

We all know the parable of the sower. It was important enough to show up in all three synoptic gospels. I'll use the one from Luke as a reference.
5 A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. 6 And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. 7 And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. 8 And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold (Luke 8:5-8).
It's probably best to include Jesus's explanation of the parable for this discussion:
11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience (Luke 8:11-15).
The parable is about a farmer who is throwing seed, the various ground conditions on which it falls, and the results of the sowing. Jesus explains what each component means. The seed is the word of God. Not much confusion there. The various types of soil are people receive the word of God. Okay, fine. And we're pretty clear on what it all means. Some have the word snatched away by Satan. The "rocky" folks have a positive initial response but burn off when testing comes. The "thorny" people also seem to take it in, but are soon choked out by the world. What's left? The "good" kind of people (not to say they're morally good -- just the soil that is prepared) grow and produce fruit.

Even as clear as that is, there are disagreements. Did those "rocky" and "thorny" folks have salvation and lose it? And what, pray tell, is "fruit"? (Some would argue it's financial benefit and that sort of thing.) But it's still pretty clear. Thorny arguments aside (pun intended), the parable is pretty obvious (thanks to Jesus and His explanation).

Here's something that I don't know if you caught. The seed ... is the word of God. "No, we got that. It was clear from the beginning." Yes, but ... isn't it interesting that it wasn't something ... more? It wasn't "a good apologetic", "a cogent argument", "a well-planned event", "an effective program", "a seeker sensitive service", and so on. It was the word of God. So effective is this "word of God" that everyone responds to it. "No they didn't," you might correct me. "That first group didn't." No, they didn't because they never saw it. "The devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved." Did you see that? According to Jesus, if the word remained, they would believe and be saved. It is, in fact, the word that is God's primary mechanism for producing faith (Rom 10:17).

Today's churches are trying all sorts of methods and programs and gimmicks to try to get out the Gospel. Jesus said that the word was sufficient to produce saving faith. So ... why are we messing around with better programs, new music, or coherent arguments? Oh, if you can use those things to disseminate the word of God, then I'm all for it. But wouldn't it be best to use the tool that Paul said was what produced faith and Jesus said could cause them to believe and be saved? Shouldn't we be preaching the word of God rather than some other "nice stuff"?

Friday, May 22, 2009

Original Sin

The term has two basic meanings. One references the "Original Sin", where Adam and Eve defied God in the Garden of Eden. Big deal. No acrimony there. The other meaning, however, seems to be a very unpopular concept these days. The doctrine of Original Sin says simply this: We are born sinners.

The idea is certainly not popular today. It is not popular first from the world's viewpoint because, as everyone knows, people are basically good. In other words, despite all the evidence to the contrary, lots of people still think that humans are good at their core. In other words, Natural Man is a Pelagian. Sadly, the doctrine is also roundly denied among Christians (real or imagined). "No, no," my faithful Christian readers might say, "that's not so. We believe that 'all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God'. Isn't that what you're saying?" That's only part of it. The doctrine of Original Sin says, "We are born sinners." In other words, that innocent baby you may be holding or thinking of ... isn't innocent. If your response is, "What??!!" or something similar, you've discarded, along with Natural Man, the doctrine of Original Sin.

Now, I'd like to point out from the start that the doctrine is rooted in Scripture. That doesn't help much, I know, because people who value Scripture still disagree, but I'll still make the case from Scripture. Beyond that, though, it is a historic, orthodox, Christian doctrine. I didn't make it up. I didn't surmise it from my reading of the Bible all on my own. It has been around since Scripture was finished, of course, but it was affirmed by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Jonathan Edwards, and on and on. They aren't proof, but they certainly serve as "character witnesses" for the doctrine, so to speak. That is, it isn't some obscure, remote, unheard-of notion that no one held and no one believes. It is a historical doctrine.

So ... where do I find it? I find it first stated, ironically enough, by God. "And when the LORD smelled the pleasing aroma, the LORD said in his heart, 'I will never again curse the ground because of man, for the intention of man's heart is evil from his youth'" (Gen 8:21). You get the gist of what God is saying here. "Why do this again? Their sin is a constant." But what you may miss is the concept of Original Sin: "The intention of man's heart is evil from his youth." There it is, stated as clearly as it can be stated. The word used here, "youth", is not the same concept as when you think of a "youth group" at church. That group is likely junior high and above. It is the Hebrew version of "not adult". It is "childhood" from infancy to adolescence. According to God, "The intention of man's heart is evil from infancy on." That is God's commentary on the doctrine of Original Sin.

It's elsewhere as well. David assumed it when he said, "I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me" (Psa 51:5). That is not "My mother sinned when she conceived me." No ... it's "I was a sinner at my conception." Paul says it in Romans -- "Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned" (Rom 5:12) -- and in 1 Corinthians -- "For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive" (1 Cor 15:21-22). So here's the basic concept. In Adam all died spiritually. Adam's sin is imputed to all of Adam's race. All humans are born sinners, regardless of whether or not they've actually committed an initial sin.

"Oh, my ... how can you say that about those little babies?" you might say, and I'd fully understand. I mean, look at those innocent faces. And think about the sins we commit, even as Christians. They've done nothing at all like that! True ... so true. The problem here is that we're making comparisons -- comparisons to the wrong thing. First, let's ask ourselves, was Paul accurate when he wrote, "As it is written: "None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one" (Rom 3:10-12)? If we hold that he was accurate, then we will have a problem with our own argument that babies are innocent. In other words, "Well, Paul, you're close, but 'no one' is an overstatement because every single infant is righteous, valuable, good. Really close, Paul, but, seriously, that's an overstatement." Yeah ... I don't think that's where we want to go. So what can we conclude? If no one is naturally righteous, then something about that sweet, innocent-looking newborn is wrong. First problem: Human beings are stillborn, spiritually speaking. Born spiritually dead, that sweet thing is under God's wrath. Second problem: "Righteous" entails not doing what God doesn't want and actually doing what God does want. What does God want? It's simple. "No other gods." He gets all the glory. He is the one to be honored. "Love the Lord your God with all your heart" ... that kind of thing. Very simple. And what is an infant doing from the moment of birth? Thinking only of self. Oh, that's mostly what we all do all the time, and therein lies our problem, but babies aren't immune. They're ... guilty.

Don't get me wrong. I like babies. I don't look at that sweet little grandchild of mine and say, "Ewww, repent, sinner!" She is certainly "more innocent" than I am. But ... if the Bible is to believed, the doctrine of Original Sin cannot be avoided. The fact that it is regularly denied by both unbelievers and believers simply serves as a reminder that ... we're all sinners. We all tend to operate from a faulty measure of "sin" and we all need salvation. Yes, even that dear little child.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


Here's something I bet you didn't know. According to John Piper's book, What Jesus Demands from the World, there are over 500 commands in the New Testament from Jesus. I bet you didn't see that coming. In the book, Piper has gathered all of Jesus's commands, eliminated the ones that don't apply (like "Take up your bed and walk"), then broken them down into categories. The book has 50 categories -- basic commands that Jesus has given.

Now, we like to think that Jesus is our friend. We like to think that the Father is the demanding one, but Jesus is our pal. He loves us. He wouldn't make any demands on us. You know ... friends don't do that.

We are, of course, victims (again) of a lie, or even a group of lies. Friends don't make rules. Yeah, that's right. In what universe? Jesus has a different set of values than the Father. Ummm ... not according to Jesus. Telling us what to do isn't kind. Tell that to the parent that tells their children not to run out in the street.

But here's what really struck me. We call ourselves "Christians" -- followers of Christ. Jesus even said, "If you love Me, you will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). So ... why would we balk at any commands He might give? Why would we even consider taking issue with Him for laying down so many commands? Wouldn't we be wiser to just step up and say, "Yes, Lord ... and is there anything else I can do?" Do we really want to make our relationship with our Savior a minimalist thing?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Intended for Good

In a recent radio show our local Christian host asked his callers the question, "Should the government take care of people in need?" He had one caller who worked in a local program that fed children at school who wouldn't get a good breakfast at home. The host asked (but didn't get an answer) an interesting question. "If there were no programs available, how many of the kids currently being fed would still get fed?"

I'm not asking that question. I am interested in the concept. When I was in the Air Force, the government was considering charging for medical visits. The problem? Well, it seemed that, since the medical care was completely free to the whole family, it was being abused. Military doctors, intended to care primarily for military members, would be treating sniffles and scrapes. It was overkill. So I begin to wonder about the concept.

I would guess that there are quite a few programs and ideas that were started to serve the needs of people and end up in abuse. There is the whole proverbial problem of welfare where the perception is that women intentionally get pregnant to get more money from the system. They wouldn't have been getting pregnant if they had to support their kids on their own, but the "help" has created a problem of abusing the system. A school meals program is introduced to give meals to the needy and parents who are not too poor to feed their kids, just too lazy, sign their children up.

In considering these kinds of things, one came to mind that could likely get me in trouble. I'm thinking of what used to be called "Sunday School" -- a place where kids get taught Christianity. They originally started in the late 18th century primarily to teach street children and control their Sunday activities. By the early 19th century they had shifted to teaching religious values to the unchurched poor. Now, is anyone noticing something about all this? Nowhere in any of this start is there a place where churched children were being taught on Sundays. So ... where did that take place? That was the job of the family, especially the parents, along with mid-week classes on catechism. Well, by the 20th century Sunday Schools were primarily church-based institutions taught almost entirely by volunteer women to church children. What's my point? Well, I wonder about that concept of a good program that ends up as an abuse.

I think that Sunday School, good at one point, has created its own set of problems in our time. Parents, offered the chance to have someone else teach their children, took the opportunity to fail to take responsibility for training up their children in the way they should go. They assumed "good programs" and "good teachers" and let the church do the job that God commanded them to do. They figured, "My kids have gone to Sunday School ... they're getting taught all they need to know" when God's idea was to teach your kids "when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise" (Deut 6:7). Funny. An hour on Sunday morning suddenly doesn't seem to measure up, does it?

In Genesis 50, Joseph tells his brothers that while they intended evil, God intended good. God is really excellent at taking something bad and making it good. Humans, on the other hand, are pretty skilled at taking something that was originally intended as good and turning it bad. The trick, of course, is to recognize it ... and fix it.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Sweet Comfort

You sit down and you read through various news items. So you come across a news story from the Barna Group. You know them. They're a group like the Gallup organization that provides "research and marketing expertise as a service to Christian ministry." This should be of interest. The headline reads "Most American Christians Do Not Believe that Satan or the Holy Spirit Exist."

Any genuine Christian would be saddened by such a story. Clearly that group called "most American Christians" are not Christians, but deluded people who have no concept of what Christian is. And the details of the story don't really get better. Nearly a quarter of such "Christians" believe that God is something like "the realization of human potential" or "the god in everyone". A number approaching 60% believed that Satan is just a symbol of evil. Only 22% believe in the divinity of Christ. (I mean, seriously, people, how can you call yourself a "follower of Christ" and not even know who He is?) It doesn't help when something like 73% believe that "the Bible is accurate in all of the principles it teaches" when they obviously haven't a clue what it teaches. A third of them held that the Bible, the Quran, and the Book of Mormon all taught the same truth. Not a clue.

The tendency, then, is to get discouraged. I've talked to many when these types of things arise and they wonder, "Is there any hope for the Church?" You might feel like, "If God doesn't do something drastic ... and fast ... there won't be anything left!" And I get it. That kind of discouragement is to be expected. In fact, it was Jesus Himself who said, "When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:8). Even He knew it would be this way.

So I thought I'd offer a little bit of hope both for those who read such stories and those who are aware of the sorry condition of the Church. When Jesus made that statement in Luke 18, He did so at the end of a parable. Here's what Luke wrote at the beginning of that parable: "[Jesus] was telling them a parable to show that at all times they ought to pray and not to lose heart ..." (Luke 18:1). The point of the parable was encouragement. That alone ought to encourage you. The other thing that I constantly have to keep in mind (and, apparently, so many churches have forgotten) is this: Jesus said, "I will build My church" (Matt 16:18). In Acts we read, "And the Lord added to their number day by day ..." (Acts 2:47). It's easy for us -- believers -- to lose sight of the fact that God Himself is in charge, that Christ will build His church, that nothing is catching Him by surprise, and the outcome is a given. When the Son of Man comes, will He find faith on earth? Yes, He will -- exactly the amount of faith He intends. "... And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Comfort one another with these words.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Chicken or the Egg

The classic question about the chicken and the egg is really not about chickens or eggs. It is about cause and effect. The question of what causes what can get a bit confusing. Does something occur that causes something we can see, or is that which we can see the cause? What I'm thinking about primarily here is this: Do belief systems cause people to go a different way, or do people who are going a different way produce a new belief system?

I'll admit up front that the answer is hard to prove. It has been argued (at least in jest) that carrots cause criminal behavior. How do we know? Well, they serve carrots in prisons, and who occupies prisons, but criminals? There it is! Proven! Okay, so maybe you can see the problem. Still, on this question of belief system causing behavior changes or behavior changes causing belief systems, I think there is a valid question of cause and effect.

Consider Charles Darwin. His father was a secret "freethinker", a philosophy predicated on discarding religious beliefs at the outset. Darwin was "raised Christian" and even set out on a path toward ordination, but found he couldn't subscribe to Christian theology. Instead, he set out on a 5-year trip on the Beagle. What he experienced on that trip (along with the baggage he already carried) caused him to shift his theology entirely. According to his own autobiography, he cites that period as the point of his loss of faith. Thus, his theory of the origins of species became an attempt to build a case against God's special creation. So ... which came first ... the theory or the loss of faith? It would seem, from Darwin's own writings, that the new philosophy he developed of natural selection was intended as a replacement for Paley's "Natural Theology", the argument of the existence of God from nature and design. The chicken or the egg?

Look at Friedrich Nietzsche, the famous author of the phrase, "God is dead." Did Nietzsche come to this conclusion because he was driven there by philosophy, or did his personal life drive him to develop that philosophy? Nietzsche was a theology and philology student with an emphasis on interpretation of biblical and classical texts. With various injuries and illnesses (he was diagnosed with syphilis), he ended up rebelling against the culture in which he lived, eventually had a mental breakdown, and died an incapacitated philosopher. The question remains to this day. Did Nietzsche determine that "God is dead" because of his drug use and sexual immorality or did his arguments for atheism determine his behavior?

A name you may or may not have heard is Michel Foucault. He was one of the leading proponents of post-modern philosophy. Foucault determined that the best thing he could do in life was ... whatever he wanted to do. Live life to the utter extreme. Of course, there were "rules", "norms", reasons not to do that. In order for Foucault to pursue his drug use and wanton (extremely wanton) sexual desires, he had to produce a new set of "rules", a redesign of "normal". So he argued that words have no meaning, there is no overarching reality, and the only reason people make truth claims is to take power over others. Poof! Now Foucault has no reason not to do whatever he wants to do. The "battle cry" of post-modernism is "transgress all boundaries", and Foucault lived that cry. His desires determined his philosophy; his philosophy approved his desires. And in 1984 he died of AIDS, overcome by his own revelry.

We live in a world beset by differing ideas. While we muddle about out here arguing about ideas, I have to wonder. Did the ideas come on their own, or did they occur because of the error they permit? Did someone read through 2 Timothy 2 and say, "You know ... I don't think this means that women can't be pastors at all", or did someone determine, "Women have the right to be whatever they want, so we will reexamine 2 Timothy 2"? Did people read through passages like Romans 1 and 1 Corinthians 6 and say, "I don't see anything in here that says anything about homosexual behavior. Clearly the text is talking about something else"? Or did they engage in homosexual behavior and then try to reinterpret these passages to approve their behavior? I am convinced that many of the ideas that we have to deal with today are not ideas that would stand on their own if it were not for people who wanted to use them to approve sin. It seems a little gratuitous to have to fight off ideas and philosophies that are intended simply to approve sin. Wouldn't it be nice if they just came with tags? "This idea is just a smokescreen so its users can revolt against God." I don't suppose any such "truth in advertising" rules will be soon forthcoming.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

The Vineyard Parable

Jesus told a parable about a man who owned a vineyard:
"There was a master of a house who planted a vineyard and put a fence around it and dug a winepress in it and built a tower and leased it to tenants, and went into another country. When the season for fruit drew near, he sent his servants to the tenants to get his fruit. And the tenants took his servants and beat one, killed another, and stoned another. Again he sent other servants, more than the first. And they did the same to them. Finally he sent his son to them, saying, 'They will respect my son.' But when the tenants saw the son, they said to themselves, 'This is the heir. Come, let us kill him and have his inheritance.' And they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him. When therefore the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants?" They said to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death and let out the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the fruits in their seasons." Jesus said to them, "Have you never read in the Scriptures: "'The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord's doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes'? Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him" (Matt 21:33-44)
We all get it, of course. The "master of a house" is God. The "tenants" were the Jews. The "servants" the master sent were the prophets. And the son, of course, was Christ Himself. The story elicits the proper response ... outrage. And Jesus was saying, in essence, before the fact, "Thou art the man!" That is, they were the ones that would kill the Son of God, and they were the ones on whom the Son would fall and crush. Yeah, yeah, we get it.

But there was something I missed until now. If this story is about God and the people of Israel, why did "the master" actually send His Son? Did He send Him to collect? Or did He send Him ... to die? It's an interesting dichotomy, isn't it? God sent His Son to die. He sent Him to die for them. They killed Him. And they bear the load of it. They did exactly what He intended, and they are still liable for the sin. And, of course, it doesn't stop there. We all stood at the cross and nailed Him to that tree.

How terrifying it is to realize that we cost the life of the Son of God! How astounding it is to realize that the Father sent the Son to die. We have earned the wrath of God. The mercy of God should astound us.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Count the Cost

Everyone likely knows by now that Miss California lost her chance to be Miss USA because she chose to stand on principle when asked about her view on the oxymoronic concept of "gay marriage". It cost her. The news had a story a few years ago about a Christian trucker who told his boss he couldn't do overnight trips with a female partner because he was a Christian and was married. When he refused to take a load because they assigned a female driver, they fired him. It cost him. Of course, the next thing that happened was that he sued. He, apparently, had every right to stand on his principle, but the company for which he worked didn't have the right to hold to their own principles.

The Scriptures are full of promises -- yes, promises -- that God's people will suffer for doing what is right ... and that it is a blessing. Why is it, then, that when God's people suffer for doing what is right, we are outraged? We raise a stink. We complain. We fight. We argue. What we don't do is "count it all joy". We don't see it as a blessing.

Could it be that American Christians are too often more devoted to comfort than principle? Are we so sold on the importance of feeling good that we aren't willing to do what is right at any cost? Do we believe that obedience should always be comfortable, should always feel good?

Hebrews speaks of people who had not received the things promised (Heb 11:13). There is a stunning list there:
Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword. They went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, afflicted, mistreated (Heb 11:35-37).
The author describes these people as "of whom the world was not worthy" (Heb 11:38). So I'm wondering. Which are we? Are we the ones who will act in faith, aware that we will possibly suffer and allow that pain and injustice because we know we have a better life? Or are we the ones who will only act on principle, only stand for truth, if it doesn't cost us?

In his second letter to the church at Thessalonica, Paul urged them "Do not grow weary in doing good" (2 Thess 3:13). The author of Hebrews wrote, "Consider Him who endured from sinners such hostility against Himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted" (Heb 12:3). Why would Christians "grow weary"? Why would doing good be problematic? It is certainly not because it's so fulfilling, so pleasant, full of so much positive feedback, so rewarding. No, it's because it often goes without reward, without notice, and, worse, often costs us. We are called "Christians" -- followers of Christ. It is His example we are to follow. He didn't grow weary or fainthearted in doing good, and it cost Him everything. There's our example.

Friday, May 15, 2009


The word is defined as "clearness or lucidity as to perception or understanding; freedom from indistinctness or ambiguity".

We live in a "noisy" world. There is TV and radio and mp3's and so much other actual noise. There are work and family and fatherhood/motherhood and husband/wife and so many other roles and relationships. There are demands on our resources like "feed the poor" and "feed the family" and "get to work" and so much more. At best we have a list of potentially good things to choose from in so many areas of life that are clamoring for our attention. It provides ... "indistinctness or ambiguity" -- a lack of clarity.

I know someone (who will remain nameless to protect the guilty) who is struggling with a variety of "good" things. He wants to feel like his life means something. He wants to pursue his dreams. He feels trapped and wants to be free. He also has a wife and kids and wants to do right by them. There are things he'd like to look into and try but because he's married, has children, and bears all that responsibility, he can't. So ... he is struggling with the problem of remaining in the family. In the vacuum of everyday life, he lacks "clarity". It's so easy to pick up this thing (say, "significance") and say, "Oh, that's important" and, shortly thereafter, pick up that thing (say, "What I want to do") and say, "Oh, that's important" and, when they collide, be at a loss. It's an easy thing to do. What he needs, of course, is clarity, some way to remove the indistinction and clear out the ambiguity. How does he do that?

I found out the other day that my sister (my baby sister) has been diagnosed with cancer. I, of course, am having the reactions of a big brother ("Don't you mess with my little sister!"), but I got to thinking about the others who are more closely connected. She has a husband who deals with daily stresses at work and daily stresses at home and these demands and those wishes and ... lots of stuff. She has four kids who are floating along in normal life doing normal things in a normal world (like school, church, home life ... all those kinds of things). She has parents who love her -- amazingly even more than I do -- along with their other kids and the rest of their events and living. Then the doctor comes in and says, "You have invasive ductal carcinoma" and suddenly ...there's clarity. How stressful is work really at this point when the important person is in trouble? "Do I trade in the car for something better?" becomes a trite concern at this point. (Not suggesting he had that concern, but these are the kinds of "noise" we deal with day to day.) "Mom won't let me do what I want" suddenly gives way to "Mom is in trouble and I don't care what I want at this moment." "Should we take the grandkids on our trip to Alaska?" suddenly vanishes as an issue as "Take care of our daughter" comes to the clearest forefront. And so it goes.

Years ago my older sister was diagnosed with lupus. She was diagnosed practically on the eve of her departure for a Christian college in the U.K. The doctor told her, "Oh, no, you can't go. You have to stay here under constant care." Her reaction was fascinating. She said, "I feel bad for everyone else's reaction. They're going to think, 'How sad!' I think, 'God has spoken clearly about His will.' I now know exactly whether or not I should go to college in the U.K." Clarity.

God has a way of making things clear -- free from indistinctness or ambiguity. Very often His method is hardship, pain, and suffering. C.S. Lewis said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world." I am quite sure that my first example above would have a sudden change of attention if such an event occurred in his life. I am quite sure that my sister and her family are much clearer right now on what is and is not important than they were a month ago when life wasn't quite so hard. Not to suggest that any of these examples are "bad people". It's just that we all get engulfed in the noise, and God is outstanding at using that megaphone of His to get our attention. Perhaps that's why James told us to "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds" (James 1:2). It is in those moments of clarity that we can see from God's perspective what is most important in the midst of what we thought was important. God is faithful that way.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

What We Need

What's wrong with the Christian church today? You'll find lots of suggestions. It's too traditional (because everyone knows that tradition is bad). It's too old (because all of America is quite sure that "new" and "young" is good and "old" is definitely bad). It's music is too dull. Sermons are too preachy. We need a new style, better programs, more marketing, better management, new routines.

Ummm ... I don't think so.

What does the church need? According to David F. Wells, we need to recover a sense of antithesis, of being at odds with the world rather than friends. And we need to keep in mind what that antithesis would look like.
If it is for God, for His truth, for His people, for the alienated and trampled in life, then it must give up what the post-modern world holds most dear: it must give up the freedom to do anything it happens to desire. It must give up self-cultivation for self-surrender, entertainment for worship, intuition for truth, slick marketing for authentic witness, success for faithfulness, power for humility, a God bought on cheap terms for a God who calls us to a costly obedience. It must, in short, be willing to do God's business on God's terms. (David F. Wells, God in the Wasteland, pg 223, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1994)
Now that is something to think about.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Something New

We have been warned, "You can't interpret Scripture from history." Okay, maybe you've never heard that, but I'm sure you would agree with it. You wouldn't want to determine what Scripture means by what others in history have determined it meant. I mean, wouldn't that put you in league with those flat earthers who argued "The Bible teaches that the Earth is flat, so you had better believe it"? Wouldn't that put you at odds with Galileo when he stood against the Church for what was right?

I would never argue that we need to interpret Scripture in the light of tradition or the Church. I would never make that suggestion. Here's what does concern me, though. Jesus promised to send His Holy Spirit. He promised, "When He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth" (John 16:13). It is my belief and contention that the Holy Spirit is an effective teacher, a skillful guide. I would argue that Jesus promised it and the Holy Spirit accomplished it.

How does that play out? I don't see history or tradition as methods of interpreting the Bible. I do see them as valid checks. When I read my Bible and I come to a conclusion about a particular doctrine, is it consistent with the historic understanding of that passage or doctrine? Or am I finding something new? I have a real problem with the idea of finding something new. It casts aspersions on the skill of the Holy Spirit as guide.

There are constantly new things cropping up on the market of biblical perspectives today. We can thank Women's Liberation for clearing the air about that whole darn "I do not allow a woman to teach or exercise authority over a man" (1 Tim 2:12) thing. Yeah, yeah, no one in Christian history saw it for anything but what it said at face value, but we've finally wrangled the truth out of the Holy Spirit 2000 years later and we now know what no one prior knew -- that Paul didn't mean it. Then there is the fine work done by the scholarly Jesus Seminar with their advanced degrees and sound skepticism to finally clear up all the mistakes made in the Gospels. They took a vote and decided what Jesus did and didn't say and do. All this time we thought it was all real and reliable. They've managed to clear that up. And we shouldn't over look the wonderful assistance from the homosexuals for wresting the real meaning out of those pesky "anti-homosexual" passages in the Bible. Yeah, yeah, everyone has always thought that these were prohibitions against sexual relations between same-gender couples, but now, after all these centuries, the Holy Spirit finally found a listening ear and told the truth that this is really only about inhospitableness, rape, and pagan ritual sexual events. Whew! It took you long enough, Spirit, but we're finally there! These are by no means the only "new things" floating about. Some big ones would include the entire Mormon Church and the concept of Dispensationalism, beliefs with no small following.

I wouldn't recommend you interpret the Bible from history. I would, however, urge you not to toss out history and tradition. I would hold that the Holy Spirit hasn't been so mute, such a dismal failure at leading His people into all truth. See what you find in Scripture. Then, hold it up against historic Christianity. If it is genuine, it has likely been present from the New Testament all the way through to today. If you've discovered something new ... run! Or get a new Holy Spirit ... one who doesn't take 2000 years to get things across.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Criminal Intent

Intention is everything. We tend to think of actions as the end-all, but I think it is intentions.

Take, for instance, the lie. If I believe something and tell it to you as truth, have I lied? Most people would automatically answer, "No!" But ... what if I was wrong? Now I gave you, as truth, an untruth. Did I ... lie? You see, to me, a lie requires the intention to deceive, not merely untruthful substance. In this idea, you'll find lies committed without ever giving false information. A kid could come home from school and say, "My teacher was completely sober today." The implication? The teacher isn't completely sober every day ... just some days. If the intention of the kid was to misdirect you to that misunderstanding ... it's a lie. Sometimes remaining completely silent can be a lie. A lie is simply the intent to deceive.

One item that we seem to miss that hinges on intention is the concept of pornography. Pornography occurs when there is an intent to sexually arouse. The word comes from two Greek roots. The second simply means "writing" and means anything "graphic" at all. That's easy. The first one is a reference originally to prostitutes, but is expanded to mean any sort of sexual immorality. It is the same root word found in the New Testament translated "fornication", "sexual immorality", and all manner of the same. Thus, pornography would be a display of sexual immorality. And that is where the intention comes in. If an artist (or author) is intending to portray sexual immorality, it is pornography. If a viewer (or reader) is looking at something with sexual immorality in mind, it is pornographic for that person.

What a mess this stuff has made of our society. Since the pin-up girls of the 40's translated into the Playboy models of the 50's, pornography has worked at defining some very important parts of our society. What is "sexy"? What is "normal sexual behavior"? Even what is pornography? We've moved from finding those pin-up girls as morally questionable to showing them without clothes in PG-13 movies and standard television commercials. And they've done it all by lying to us. The intention of pornography -- to incite lust for sexual immorality -- has been constructed on the intention of a lie -- to deceive. And it has worked! Men indulge in fantasy ("Hey! What's wrong with a little fantasy?") that twists their views of what women ought to be (you do know, guys, that women in those photos don't actually exist ... right?) and what sex ought to be. These fantasies are devoid of relationship. They strip of any of God's intention for sex ("The two shall become one") and make it about self. And it is about self. Make the man in the fantasy feel powerful and masculine as he uses and abuses the willing creature we call "woman" (although, as I've already said, this particular version doesn't actually exist). Women, in turn, lose out to the fantasy. They don't live in an air-brushed reality. They can't (in fact, shouldn't) measure up to the fantasy. So while the men find real life no longer satisfying and the real wife no longer sexy, the women try to figure out why they aren't what they "ought to be". And building on this, society begins to (has now) define "moral" as "whatever I want to do ... whatever feeds my appetites".

I doubt, given the glut of the lie we call "pornography", that there is hardly a single American male left that isn't struggling with it in some sense or another. It's on the TV. It's in the magazines. It's on the billboards. It's on the Internet. (One site says that every second of every day there is over $3,000 dollars being spent on pornography and more than 28,000 viewers of Internet porn.) It's everywhere. So, given that it is against Scripture (all manner of sexual immorality is against Scripture), and given that we shouldn't set even the worthless things before our eyes (Psa 101:3), what's a Christian to do? Well, first, recognize the problem. It's a lie! You're lying to yourself. It's an attack on God, an attack on truth, an attack on morality. It's not "maybe not so bad". It's evil. But most Christian men will tell you, "Fine ... now what? I've tried not looking and I still go back to it." What now?

It's a funny thing. Nowhere in the Bible does it say, "Don't look at it." No, no, I'm not being funny. Here's the problem. You all know how it works. It's a childhood prank. "Don't look in there!" you shout, knowing that the command will result in everyone looking. So well-meaning Christians shout, "Don't look at porn!" ... and we keep looking. In fact, some look who didn't before. No, that is not the biblical approach. The biblical approach is to "destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ" (2 Cor 10:5). It is an active approach. Paul wrote, "Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect" (Rom 12:2). It is a process of renewing the mind, not a process of avoiding something. Here's where Paul gives the clearest instruction: "Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things" (Phil 4:8). You see, the biblical solution isn't "don't think about this", but "think about that". The answer isn't "avoid looking", but "look intentionally at what you ought".

Yeah, right, like that's the answer. I've got it all sewn up, don't I? Clear as a bell. All fixed. No, it's not an easy thing. Addiction of any type is hard, and don't be fooled ... it is addiction. But this sort of thing isn't broken by avoidance. It's not stopped by "don't go there". We need to be in the places we ought to be, thinking on the things we ought to be thinking about. And we can't likely do that alone. That, perhaps, is one of the most devious lies that pornography tells you, fellow believer. "You're all alone in this." You're not. We need to work together, confessing our sins to one another (James 5:16), praying for one another, working together at renewing our minds. It is an insidious, long-standing lie we have faced in pornography. It will take a determined, long-standing effort to combat it ourselves. Not beginning to do so it not the answer to the problem.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Transmission of Values

In the late 18th century, the world encountered its first Industrial Revolution, but it was the second one in the mid-19th century that really had a profound effect on American life. I suspect it has had effects we haven't noticed and surely didn't anticipate. (I mean, seriously, when was the last time you gave any thought to the effects of the Industrial Revolution?)

In a society that is largely agrarian, you'll find a culture (remember, "culture" is the shared set of values of a group of people that serve to define "normal") that is somewhat spread out and largely family-oriented. The children, while maybe going to school, will also be involved at a young age in working with Mom and Dad -- sharing in their labor. "Career choices" are typically done by parental choice (with or without input from the offspring) and accomplished by apprenticeships rather than formal education. In this world, then, values are passed on in a narrow way from parent to child. There are outside influences, of course, but they aren't as pressing due to the "spread-outedness" of the society.

Times changed. Families gathered where jobs appeared. Craftsmanship was replaced by automation. Apprenticeships were replaced by public education. Fathers took on careers at factories and corporations ... away from home. The task of passing on values just became more difficult. Dad wasn't at home as much now, and it was largely left to Mom. Besides that, competing values were being offered due to closer neighborhoods. Of course, that wasn't too much of a problem since values at that time were largely shared. Mrs. Casperman was allowed to smack Mrs. Lang's son when she caught him stealing from the candy shop because they shared the same values. In this way, then, values were reinforced even if they came from a wider variety of sources.

Times changed. In the 1920's we began what was known as "The Golden Age of Radio". Families began piping in new values. Oh, they were largely innocuous. Try this soap rather than that one. Buy your gas from this station instead of that one. Harmless stuff. But there were other values stuck in there. You had radio serials like The Shadow and The Great Gildersleeve, crime shows and comedies. These were different values than the ones you'd normally find in the living room. They were generally filtered through family gatherings around the radio, but they were new and different. And there were movies. This provided visual stimulus as well along with another set of values. Gone with the Wind, Citizen Kane, and Casablanca provided an increasingly different set of values for families to manage.

Times changed. Radio is replaced by a new technology -- television. Very few (if any) at the beginning of the phenomenon could foresee its reach. There was the issue of the medium itself, flashing images on flickering screens. There was the growing number of options available. There was matter of content. And now children could be fed values without their parents being present. Dad is off working long hours or multiple jobs and Mom is off seeking her career fulfillment, so kids are being fed values completely apart from parents. Are they the same values of their parents? Not necessarily. Not even likely. Eventually art moves from mirroring life to defining it. Today we've added on-demand movies, the Internet, and full-time music. Children are inundated with values, very little of which are their parents', who aren't home enough to counter them anyway. The plurality of the country and the ubiquity of technology coupled with the world where children and parents spend less and less time together has radically changed the transmission of values.

Have you ever noticed that people today live their lives largely as they watch television? Oh, not just television. Whatever the variety of entertainment. There used to be a concept known as "brand loyalty", and it still exists to some extent today, but not so much. People tend, instead, to look for the "next big thing". This notion plays itself out across all of life. Loyalty to family, to an employer, to a spouse, to community, to country, and so much more ... these are all on the way out. Instead we're "channel surfing", so to speak. What grabs our attention this season? What is entertaining today? Do not commit by any means because nothing and no one will commit to me! I might find something (or someone) entertaining for a little while ... but only for a little while. Then it's "channel surfing" again. Our media determines our fears for us. They tell us that the economy is in trouble and consumer confidence plunges. They tell us that a killer flu is invading and we fill hospitals with our sniffles. Our media -- music, video games, movies, television -- define life for us. And parents who want to pass on a set of values to their kids are washed away in the glut of competing ideas.

What to do? Homeschool? Well, that would certainly have an effect, but everyone except those crazy right wing types knows that it's only those crazy right wing types that do it. Besides, if one parent is home schooling the kids, that's one less income. And how can we afford our two cars, satellite TV in all twelve rooms, fancy clothes, fancy restaurants, and the rest of the "good life" that we enjoy? After all, isn't that kind of controlling of kids some sort of child abuse? Someone might suggest that losing those media inputs wouldn't be a bad idea. But then what would Dad watch when the big games are on? And so it goes.

There are answers. They aren't easy. The question becomes "How badly do you want it?" How badly do you want to fulfill your God-given obligations as parents? How much do you care that your children learn what God intends them to learn and avoid the ideas that they must avoid? Conversely, how much of the lies of today's society about homeschooling or child-rearing practices or what is needful are you going to swallow ... to your kids' detriment? There are answers. They're not easy.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Mother's Day

It's Mother's Day and you know I have to introduce you to my mother. To be truthful, I'm not exactly sure how to do this. I just got done telling you that I'm not the writer I would like to be. Now I plan to tell you about my mom. You see, I'm not actually sure there are words to express the admiration and affection I have for my mom.

I've had a tough life. Unlike other kids, I had parents who loved me. They always tried to teach me what was right. They didn't abuse me. They intended my best. So while everyone else was complaining about their parents and struggling through tough home lives, I had nothing to say. How did I survive that?

I have already told you about my father, but when I was a kid, Dad was at work and Mom was the one who dealt with everything. She sat with me through measles, mumps, and rubella. I made sure to get chicken pox at the most inconvenient time ... when we were away at a family church camp. So while everyone else was off playing and going to hear speakers, Mom was sitting with me and my pox. You see, no matter what, Mom was a mother first.

I had a somewhat unusual relationship with my mom. I could ask her anything at all and she would tell me. I asked my mom the "sex questions" of a junior high boy and she never flinched. I always anticipated straightforward answers without the suggestion that I shouldn't be asking ... whatever. And she has always had the answers.

We've long since moved beyond childhood. Mom has been a "living Christian" for me. When you think "saint", you might think of "Saint Peter" or "Saint Augustine" or some other name. I think, "Mom." She has given her family a lifetime of exemplary living. From orthodoxy (right doctrine) to orthopraxy (right living), she has been the best guide in my life. And we still talk, but about better things than junior high issues. She is one of the very few who can carry on a discussion with me on all topics theological.

I love my dad. I think I've said that before. The truth is, however, my mom has been the largest influence on me. When other people meet her for the first time, they invariably come to me and say, "Oh, now I see what made you what you are." She has given me the best education, the best instruction in righteousness, the best living example of what "Christian" looks like. And, folks, I'm only scratching the surface.

Happy Mother's Day, Mom. And, dear Father, thanks so much for giving me my mother.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

The Writer I Want to Be

To me, the mark of a good writer is that he (or she) is able to get across to the reader what he (or she) intends to get across to the reader. That may be ideas, concepts, mental images, or some sort of emotional response (among other possibilities). In examining the feedback I've received over the time that I've been blogging, I find that I'm not, by my own definition, a good writer.

One recurring comment that I've had from multiple sources, even very friendly sources, is that I'm pretty hard to read. I'm apparently talking at a level above the average reader. It's too intellectual. There are too many big words. Now, on one level I know about this. I sometimes use big words intentionally, and then I try to explain them. You know, a little education isn't a bad thing, right? On the other hand, it's apparent that my explanations aren't working, so my attempt at a little education isn't doing any good, is it? (Rhetorical question.) So it seems that, while I know what I'm saying and I hear it as the same way I talk every day, apparently it's not clear to a large number of readers.

The other thing of which I'm quite sure is that my personality doesn't exactly come out in what I write. Here's the truth. When I write, I am almost always amused. I am writing about something that is interesting to me. I generally have a smile in my head, so to speak. On the other hand, I am absolutely certain that when my readers read my stuff, they don't receive that smile. Most of what they see is more akin to the proverbial nun ready to smack your knuckles with a ruler. I write with humor in my head, but I am perceived as a curmudgeon, "a crusty, ill-tempered, and usually old man" (according to the dictionary). I try to sprinkle hints that I'm having fun when I write, but they appear to be too vague, to confusing, too few and far between.

Clearly, then, I'm not the writer I want to be. I want to get across the truth without beating you over the head with it. I want to share with you my light sense of fun as I write, not some "it's clobberin' time" approach. I want you to understand what I'm saying, not dazzle you with some self-perceived brilliance. I want to say what I want to say clearly and concisely and with a little humor. I'm not doing that. How do I fix that? Your feedback has been helpful thus far. How about some suggestions here to make me a better writer?

Friday, May 08, 2009

Culture Wars

Culture is defined (in one sense) as the set of values held by a group of people that determines what is considered normal. Cultures are derived from the people that hold the shared values ... from people. And cultures will obviously change with time. Consider, for instance, the family from Leave It To Beaver. June wasn't an unusual wife when they shot the series. Theirs was a normal family life. Today, of course, June is considered an oddity, quite bizarre. And Beaver's hi-jinks would be considered bland compared to today's youth. "Who lives like that?" we ask. Well, in the '50's, most of America did. Today? Hardly anyone. You see, the values that are held in common have changed and that which is considered normal with them.

American Christians tend to be somewhat unclear on culture. We know (mostly) that Man is sinful. Human beings are sinners -- yeah, we get that. But culture, from our perspective, is good ... neutral at worst. And it stands to reason. Since culture defines what is considered normal, we think that it's, well, normal. We incorporate culture into our worship, into our preaching, into our lives. We willingly separate "public life" from "private life", the sacred from the secular. We've gotten used to high divorce rates, sexual sin of all types, the music and entertainment of our time, and so on. We like to think we're a little above it (morally), but it's not wrong; it's normal. So we hear phrases like "redeeming the culture" because, well, culture is essentially neutral.

The problem, of course, is that it's not true that culture is good or even neutral. Devised by sinful humans and informed by sinful values, today's culture is defining sinful as normal. You know, just like Paul says: "Though they know God's decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them" (Rom 1:32).

What we are mostly oblivious to is how culture has invaded our own thinking. That's because it's ... normal. We've mixed Christian values with cultural values and come up with a hybrid that is, in fact, a contradiction. You're pretty sure it hasn't affected you? Let's see if I can suggest some views you might hold without thinking that come not from Scripture, but from today's culture. "Personal fulfillment is an important thing." "Theology is important, but what is much more important is my personal relationship with Christ." "It is important to first love yourself, then others." "It's important to do what makes me feel satisfied." "We shouldn't let things get in the way of achieving our dreams." I have even heard Christians defend pornography at home. "It's in the privacy of our bedroom for our own use. We're not lusting after them, so what's the problem?" We've bought the lies. Well, it's the central lie. Without even being aware of it, we've "exchanged the truth about God for the lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator" (Rom 1:25). To a large extent, we are the important ones. God expends His efforts on us because we are the point. Self-healing, self-fulfillment, self-satisfaction, self-realization, self-esteem, self-help ... we're steeped in self and self first. Our culture says it's normal. We buy it. We decide what church to go to by how it makes us feel. We decide whether to stay married by how our spouse makes us feel. We decide our career by how it makes us feel. We decide our view of God by how it makes us feel. We've bought the lie.

Some of you may wonder who I have in mind. "Is it generic, or is he thinking about specific people?" Some of you who know me may be thinking, "I wonder if I know who he's thinking about?" Yes, when I write this, specific people come to mind. The problem for me is that all of my readers know the first person who comes to my mind because it's me. I'm not ranting here because you are all so bad. I'm on a rant because I see such nonsense in my own thinking. Sadly, it's not just me. Do you find that you're in there, too? Do you see some room for you, too, to adjust your thinking ... like I do? Do you suspect that you, too, have bought the lie?