Category Archives: Pensees

Strengthen What is About to Die

You must become alert!  And you must strengthen the ones who remain, who are waiting to die, for I have not found your works to be fulfilled before your God.

(Revelation 3:2)

The seven letters of Revelation contain some devastating rebukes for those in the churches of Asia. Out of the seven churches, two receive no commendation and only rebuke; the church in Sardis is one of those two and is the church that receives these words of condemnation: your works are wanting, so strengthen what is about to die.

As a pastor, I must confess that this is about the last charge that any of us would want to hear. I suspect that all of us yearn to serve a church that is thriving and healthy and filled with spiritual life, where everyone who attends is hungry to be taught the word of God, to be engaged in worship, and desires to apply God’s word to every area of their life. I suspect we all dream of serving a church where God’s people will come together and act like God’s people, loving one another and not deteriorating into bickering and where marriages would be seen as a permanent covenant and children would grow up in humble submission to their parents’ teachings. And we hunger for the church body that lives out their faith in such an infectious way that they are constantly pointing others to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

At the same time, when going through the various ministerial resource catalogues, we find book after book written by a pastor of some “mega-church” somewhere who has found a way to bring people into the church by droves. My point is not to disrespect or arbitrarily write off such movements, sometimes these books contain some useful insights, my point is simply to say that such is not the model of church that most pastors have been called to. A rural church pastor, for example, may not even have 5,000 people in his town, let alone that many people in his church. In fact, according to the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, nearly 60% of protestant churches in America have fewer than 100 people in them on Sunday mornings.

In addition, many of these churches scattered across the countryside are predominately made up of older members where there may not be the energy, resources, or interest in many of the things that seem to attract the droves of people that may or may not be in their community to come to worship.

Again, my point is not to extol one model of worship service and put down another; those of you who have read my blogs for any amount of time know that I have some strong opinions in some of these areas, but that is not my objective today. My point is to reflect on the nobility of this call to strengthen what is about to die and to apply it in a way that we may not have otherwise considered. My purpose is also to honor those many pastors who may not have had ministries that the church culture would consider “glamorous,” but have faithfully served God’s people, often in churches that are dying whether due to age or due to an unwillingness to change in a way that communicates the truth of the gospel to a new generation. Many, many of God’s most faithful servants labor for decades in this context.

In some ways I have had the privilege of looking at this picture from both sides of the fence. For most of my pastoral ministry, I have served either full or part-time in small, rural churches dominated by septuagenarians and octogenarians. I have also spent time working amongst drug addicts and homeless, a group that may not be dying due to their age, but are just as near to death as the octogenarians due to the lifestyle they have chosen. I have also spent quite a bit of time doing nursing home ministry, again a group of people who are very much about to die. At the same time, I also spent several years as a chaplain of a Christian school working mostly with teenagers, a group who biologically are on the other end of the spectrum. They are filled with life and energy, but also bring with them a new body of issues and problems due to the frenetic lifestyle that many of them consider quite normal. It is true that the school is not the church, but life on life ministry takes place anywhere God places us and the relationships often bear a great deal of similarity.

All of that being said, I would like to apply this statement of Jesus’ in three ways. The first, in the context that it is given, and the latter two in perhaps a little different way, while at the same time trying not to do an injustice to the text.

In the context of the passage, Jesus is giving a rebuke to a church that has been unfaithful in its calling. Their works have a reputation for having life, he states in the previous verse, but they are really dead. The church puts on a good show and they do all of the right things, but what they do is simply going through the motions. Their good works are not done as a response to God’s saving work in their lives, but they are done out of a sense of misguided duty. Later on in the passage, Jesus speaks of those who have not soiled their garments, implying that most of the congregation members have given themselves either physically or spiritually to idolatry. In the midst of that, Jesus makes two statements: first, that he is going to destroy the church and second, that the pastor there needs to strengthen the church that is about to die.

There are many churches today that have fallen into this context. They are dominated by extremely influential people (often who have money) who decide what the church will and will not do, typically on the basis of preference and not on the basis of a heart committed to the Gospel ministry. Sadly, many pastors do not discourage this, either preaching in a way that keeps this dominant group satisfied or never rebuking the people for their actions. How often I have heard stories of ministry works being cut for the purpose of paying the pastor’s salary. It is a shame when the pastor becomes little more than a pawn in the game of church influence. Yet even in these churches, there is normally a remnant that is spiritually alive and who yearns to see the church break free from the bonds of the status quo and live. It is for those in this latter group that Jesus gives the command to strengthen the church. The institution is dying; it has a disease that is killing it from within like a cancer, but through the preaching of the Gospel and the teaching of God’s word, those healthy body parts are strengthened in the midst of a great and agonizing collapse. Though this is not the calling to which most seminary students dream of going, there is a nobility to such a call and such a call, more-so than a call to a vibrant church I would argue, that will teach the minister how to pray and how to confront sin in the lives of people. This is the call to which the minister of Sardis was called, and this is the call that many pastors have had to labor through as we have sought to do ministry in this fallen world.

The second context I have already alluded to. There are times when the death of a congregation is not so much about the indwelling sin a body has, but has to do with the increasing age of the body without a younger generation that will come and accept the baton of leadership. Again, my interest in this reflection is not to attack one style of service over another, but there is a reality that many young families would rather not go to their grandparents’ church, but want to take ownership of something uniquely theirs. And we must understand that the mindset works the other way as well; many older congregations would rather not have the noise and activity that comes with young families filling the sanctuary. I suppose that I could go on and on in that area, but that is not the aim of this reflection.

The aim of this reflection is to state that there is a huge need for ministry in these areas. Our older/dying churches are likely not the churches that will be building numbers rapidly through evangelistic ministries, etc… Typically they will dwindle slowly until there are so few that the church closes or until there are so few that the influence of the older generation ceases to be a driving force and the church experiences a transformation and rebirth led by a few younger families with a clear vision of what the church could be. Just because someone is older or dying does not mean that they no longer need pastoral care or that the pastoral care they get should be second-class. Nursing home ministry for pastors should not be an afterthought when it is convenient, but it ought to be something of primary concern. Men and women, as image bearers of God, deserve the dignity and grace of such care and they deserve to have the kind of pastoral teaching and care that strengthens them in their faith up until their dying day. My own hat is tipped in respect to those who serve as Hospice chaplains and whose entire calling is devoted toward strengthening those who are about to die.

The third application is a very broad one, though I would argue comes very close to the context of Jesus’ original letter to those in the church of Sardis. Many are lamenting the downfall of the church in western society. Europe is all but a spiritual wasteland, though there are some wonderful (but isolated) renewal movements at work (for example the one I am involved with in eastern Ukraine). America is following suit. Many in America still think of themselves as Christians, but given the state of our culture, comparatively few are living out their faith in all of life.

The question has often been posed to me as to whether I expect that God is bringing judgment on America or preparing us for revival. There is an old axiom that you hope for the best and prepare for the worst. Of course, in some ways, I do not think that judgment and revival are mutually exclusive ends. Does not God know how to judge the wicked while preserving his own (2 Peter 2:9-10)? With that being said, I do pray for revival, but I know that with true revival there must be true repentance and typically there is not repentance until the sin to which we cling hurts too much to keep it within us.

At the same time that I am praying for revival, my heart tells me that we (as a nation and as a church) are facing judgment. Typically the church is healthiest when it faces the greatest persecution (the seven churches in Asia are an excellent illustration of that). When persecution comes and it begins to cost us something to call ourselves Christians, then the “convenience christians” will fall away and the true church will find itself being refined under fire and made strong. And it is in the presence of such a reality that pastors need to hear these words to the church in Sardis all the more: strengthen what is about to die.

I suppose that there is always a temptation to spiritualize a text, and that is not what I mean to do here, but I think you will find that history bears out a remarkable truth. Just as there is a promise of death and resurrection for our physical bodies, there is a kind of death and resurrection for the localized Christian bodies here on earth. God always preserves for himself a remnant (Romans 11:4-5); that is God’s way. He may permit a church to close its doors, but in doing so, he raises up a new witness and testimony for himself. It is right for us to lament the death of a congregation just as we lament the death of a person, yet we still move on. Our God is the God of the living, not of the dead, he will not permit a dead church to play act at being alive indefinitely but will preserve a remnant. And we who have been called to the Gospel ministry will often find ourselves in the midst of such a context where we are commissioned by God’s word to strengthen that which is about to die. Doing so won’t get us a book deal with a big publisher, but faithfully laboring in such a call will receive a “well done my good and faithful servant.” I daresay that I do not need to explain which one is more valuable.

Ego Custodiam

The fourth of the relational statements that the early church fathers made reflected God’s relationship to the church. “I will guard them,” says God of his people. At first, we might be inclined to think that this statement could be fuller or more involved. We might expect God to say Ego Redimam (“I will redeem”) or Ego Amabo (“I will love”) or even Ego Sanctificabo (“I will sanctify them” or “I will make them holy”). At the same time, if we explore this idea of guarding something, we can argue that it contains at least an element of each of these statements. One guards those things that they love or hold to be valuable and one must have something in one’s possession to guard it, thus God redeems his people from the sin that once held us captive. Also, those things that we guard and cherish, we choose to refine, removing those imperfections that we can find in the object of our affection. Thus the language of Ego Custodiam includes all of the above comments.

So, why does God choose to guard his church? Certainly it must not be assumed that God places his affections upon us because of who we are or because of what we have done. All of our works, we must affirm like the Apostle Paul, are naught but dung (Philippians 3:8). No, he places his affections upon us because of whose we are—his own—and as a revelation of his glory. What we all deserve is eternal condemnation because of our sins and the guilt of sin we have inherited from our forefathers, yet he has chosen us since before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4), before we had done anything good or bad (Romans 9:11), and sent his Son to pay the price to redeem us from our just judgment, substituting himself in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21). As the value of an item is based on the price that one is willing to pay for it, our value to God is without measure, for his Son, Jesus, being eternal God, paid an eternal price for our souls. And because of that price paid, he will never let one of his own slip from between his fingers (John 10:28-30).

Beyond redemption is the idea of his guardianship. God does not save us to leave us saved but to our own devices. No, God preserves us and guides us through life. The Psalmist writes of God’s guardianship:

“For his angels he will command regarding you— 

To guard you in all of your ways.”

(Psalm 91:11)

The picture here is self explanatory; God is a jealous God (Deuteronomy 5:9) and he will not share us with any other. We are guarded, kept, and held secure for this great purpose and he will not revoke his calling upon us (Romans 11:29). Indeed, nothing on earth or in heaven can separate us from the love that is in Christ Jesus (Romans 8:38-39).

But what does that mean for us? It means that there is no reason for us to despair. How often we go through life and feel as if we are standing as one person against a host of enemies and that the world’s sole goal is to tear apart the things that we have sought to bring together. How often we feel lost, confused, and abandoned when confronted by tragedy in this world. How often we feel as if God is not listening to or responding to our prayers. How often chaos seems to dominate our lives and the world around us. Yet, all of these perceptions miss the mark. Because our hearts are deceitful above all things (Jeremiah 17:9) and from our hearts flow all sorts of vain imaginations and sin (Mark 7:20-23), we miss the glory that God has prepared for us even in the challenges of this world (1 Corinthians 2:8-9).

You see, we often get so wrapped up in the events of the moment that we forget that we do not see the big picture. Indeed, even when we begin to try and focus on the big picture of God’s redemptive history, because we are finite and grounded in this world, we still do not see with the scope and breadth that our Lord sees it. Indeed, compared to the immensity of God’s vision, our vision is minuscule to be generous. The sad thing is how often we take our minuscule vision as the whole of God’s vision and then wonder why God is permitting things to take place, all-the-while questioning his character and his goodness. There is none like our God (Psalm 77:13) who calls us not to be anxious about tomorrow (Matthew 6:34), but instead to cast all of our cares before him because he cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).

Reflect on what God speaks through the psalmist as Psalm 91 is brought to a close:

“Because he clings to me in devotion, I will save him;

I will make him untouchable because he knows my name.

When he calls me I will answer him,

With him, I will be in times of distress.

I will rescue him and honor him.

With long days I will satisfy him,

I will reveal myself to him in my salvation.”

(Psalm 91:14-16)


Ego Eripiam

The third of our statements deals with the relationship of Satan toward believers—“I will snatch them” or “I will steal them away.” While we would affirm in our theology that the believer is held by Christ and can never be separated from his hand (John 6:37; 10:28; Romans 8:37-39), the reality of Satan’s eventual failure does not dissuade him from this attempt to make us stumble and fall away from our Lord and master. He is a persistent foe. This phrase could be embellished with some of the means that our enemy employs: Ego Territabo (“I will intimidate”) or Ego Onerabo (“I will weary” or “I will oppress”).

In contrast to Jesus, who gives life and life abundant (John 10:10), but the thief, which is Satan, only comes to kill and destroy. He comes to undermine the work of the fellowship and to frustrate our labors. Though he knows he cannot win, he strives toward that end. Peter describes him as a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8) seeking someone to devour. Jesus describes him as a wolf, seeking to prey upon the weak sheep (John 10:12). John describes him as a dragon who deceives the world and seeks to lash out and destroy the followers of Jesus Christ (Revelation 12:9,17).

So, what is our response to this kind of wild enemy. Peter says that we are to be sober-minded and watchful. Being sober-minded means that one’s mind must be clear from distractions and from all of those things that would flatter us so as to lead us astray. As the man who is drunk acts in a way that is both unwise and unlike his character, so the man who is sober-minded should act in a spirit of wisdom and in a way that is consistent with the Godly character that the Spirit has instilled in us. It is to remain self-controlled even in situations where threat arises.

And to be aware of those threats, we must be watchful. This is a military term reflecting the guard that we must have on the wall to warn us of the temptation of sin (Ezekiel 3:16-21). We are not to be like the ostrich burying its head in the sand. We must not be found asleep at the post. The Apostle Paul even uses this term of watchfulness as an analogy of being alive (1 Thessalonians 5:10), a reminder that life and death are the matters with which we are dealing; a serious reminder indeed, particularly in a world that rarely takes seriously the warnings that scripture sets before us.

Though Harry Houdini may not be a model example of Christian faith (his heritage was Jewish), he is an example of what it means to be sober-minded and watchful as a Christian. Many of his stunts, from the perspective of an outside observer, were death-defying, reckless, and foolish. Yet, when you realize that Houdini never performed a stunt that had not been planned out and rehearsed many times with many safeguards in place, you must confess that reckless is not a term that can be properly applied. From the perspective of a non-Christian, sometimes the work that Christians do seems equally reckless and foolish. Christians regularly go and minister to people in plague infested areas knowing that they too might contract the disease, but doing so for the sake of the Gospel. My favorite missionary, John Paton, went to Tana Island in the New Hebrides which was populated by several cannibal tribes and his life was at constant risk. Yet, he went anyway. I have worked with inner-city drug addicts in a place where at one time the shelter’s director was stabbed by a man staying there. The Christian goes, though, because the Christian understands that the call of God is more important than the risks. At the same time, the Christian goes knowing the risks that are present and does not ever go until one has bathed himself in prayer and sought the prayers of others. Like Houdini, there are risks certainly, but the risks are approached in sober preparation.

The Devil seeks to snatch you out of the hand of God. That cannot be done, but that does not mean that the resultant tug-o-war on your life will always be a pleasant thing. At the same time, in knowing who the victor will be, it enables you to stretch beyond your limits and grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Given our fallen and sinful state, there is a great deal of stretching left to be done to prepare us for God’s heaven—what are we waiting for; step into the call that God has placed upon your life.

Ego Decipiam

While the pastor must confess that he will fail his flock, the world makes a different profession. The world says, “I will deceive them” or “I will ensnare them.” How much more sinister is this response than the one that went before, yet how often has this been our experience. The world promises us wealth and success if we just compromise this or that set of morals—which at first seems small, but like a drug, it demands more and more and more. At first it might take the form of justifying a little lie, then it may grow into envy coveting either the wealth or the success of another. Gradually it progresses from there onward. We end up make idols of the things of this world and in doing so, we compromise God’s law as a whole.

Jesus speaks of the cares of the age and the deception of riches as that which chokes the Word of God in our lives (Matthew 13:22). The cares of life often fill our days and rob us of sleep. We pretend that we are just trying to be responsible citizens and parents who provide for our families, but how often those words, while well intentioned, are placed in our mouths not by the Holy Spirit, but by those who are of this world. Yet this world and the things therein are passing away (1 John 2:17). While sounding noble, such cares betray a lack of reliance upon the promises of God to provide for his children.

The world masquerades its temptations as love and care for us, while in reality, the world hates us and the one we serve (John 15:19). Like a treacherous counselor, the world pretends to be our ally, all the while manipulating our thoughts and actions toward sedition against the great King and High Priest, Jesus Christ. Our ego is flattered and our lusts are excused. These are the ways of this world.

How essential it is for a person to keep their guard up against such treachery. The Apostle Paul warns us to be careful that no one takes us captive through vain or empty deceit (Colossians 2:8) and the author of Hebrews warns against the hardening that comes through the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13). It is likely, though, that Paul offers the strongest warning on this matter to the church in Thessolanica when he warns that with the coming of Satan’s influence and that the reason we are ultimately deceived is because we have refused to love the Truth and in turn, rejected salvation (2 Thessalonians 2:9-12). How often we are guilty of desiring the so-called comforts of the world that we choose to allow ourselves to be deceived, yet do not consider this willful deception to be a rejection of God’s Truth!

How do we protect ourselves from this deception? The psalmist sets 8 principles before us in the second stanza of Psalm 119.

    • We must guard our way according to God’s word (Psalm 119:9)
    • We must seek God with our whole heart (Psalm 119:10)
    • We must store up God’s word in our heart (Psalm 119:11)
    • We must seek to learn God’s statutes (Psalm 119:12)
    • We must declare to others the law of God (Psalm 119:13)
    • We must delight in the testimony of God and in his ways (Psalm 119:14)
    • We must meditate on God’s precepts (Psalm 119:15)
    • We must delight in the law of God (Psalm 119:16)

Seek these things, the Psalmist insists, and you will guard the way that is before you. Deception is all around; do not fall prey to the wiles of the devil, but indeed, guard yourself with the whole armor of God which he has given to you (Ephesians 6:11).

Ego Deficiam

“I will fail them.” The early church fathers reflected on the relationships between pastors, the world, satan, and the church flock and developed a series of statements that described each relationship. The first of these statements was that of the pastor with regard to his people: Ego Deficiam (I will fail).

At first, our response might be to think that this is a rather pessimistic view of the relationship between shepherd and flock. How is it that a pastor could go into his role with the assumption that he will fail his people? As churches, do we want to hire a pastor who says up front, “Oh, by the way, I will fail you.” It is food for thought.

There are two aspects of this statement, that we must understand. The first is the “I.” I will fail you. I will fail as your pastor, as your counselor, and as your friend. I will fail as a husband and as a father. I will fail as an employee and as a representative of the church in the community. I will fail. Yet, this is not a pessimistic view, but a realistic view (as well as a Biblical one). For while I will fail you; Christ will not do so. Christ will gloriously succeed not because of my efforts, but in spite of my best efforts. And when I serve not in my own strength, but in the strength of Christ, then glorious things will happen—not for my praise, but for God’s.

This is the reason that a pastor (all Christians really) must be a man of prayer. And not just a prayer in the morning or evening, but a pastor must be a man of constant prayer through the day. One of the reasons that I like Nehemiah is because he exemplifies this. Not only are there formal and structured prayers recorded coming off of his lips, but also he lifts up short little “bullet prayers” throughout the day as he is making decisions. Those of you who know me or who have sat under me teaching on Nehemiah know that I am not overly fond of his model as a manager of people (even though lots of books present him that way); read Nehemiah 13:23-27 and ask yourself if you want a governor or office manager who leads in this fashion☺. I do believe, though, he provides us with a good example of perpetual prayer, seeking God’s wisdom and strength.

The second aspect that we must understand is that the fact that someone fails is not nearly as important as what someone does as a result of that failure. The true humility of a man will always present itself in failures, not in successes. If a person covers up their failures or seeks to shift blame to others, then the person’s character is such that you ought not have him as shepherd. If he is humble, repentant, and takes responsibility for his actions, then that is a man you want to lead you. The Gospel is the good news of God reconciling us poor and spiritually bankrupt sinners to himself; we are all in the same boat together within the church—wretches who have been redeemed by grace. Why should we expect our pastor of not being a sinner and thus a failure in God’s economy?

Sadly, we often create a standard that a pastor cannot hope to live up to and then make him feel like he has to hide his sin to keep up appearances. Yet, if the pastor is living hypocritically, why are we surprised when the members of our congregations live hypocritically? Our goal must be very different. We must endeavor to create a culture of honesty and transparency within our church community that is seasoned with abundant grace. Then, when one fails, the community comes together to work toward grace-filled reconciliation. It must be said, that there are some failures that must, by their very nature, remove a man from the office of shepherd, but not that ought to remove him from the church.

In discussions and counseling sessions with members of my congregation, one of the things that I have said over and over is: “We are going to make mistakes; we are going to mess things up.” The fact is, we are fallen and sinful and despite the grace we have been shown by Christ, we will not always show the grace we ought to show. At the same time, what I have told people is that when we mess up, if you let us know, we will fix it.

Indeed, I will fail you. But in Christ, I will repent and strive to make it right.

Blankets as a Sign of God’s Grace

One of the ways in that my wife and I are different has to do with blankets. My wife is almost always warm when she sleeps, so typically a comforter is all she wants to sleep with. I, on the other hand, am perpetually cold when I sleep, so to me, the more blankets the better. This makes for a rather funny appearance, particularly in the wintertime, as I have stacks of blankets on my side of the bed and she has at most a single blanket on top of her side. We have a picture from when we lived back in Maryland of me with either 19 or 22 layers of blankets on my side of the bed. Some people may consider that a bit excessive; I suppose that they have a right to their opinion. In my opinion, blankets are not only there to keep you snug, but they are also a sign of God’s grace.

One of the Hebrew words that is translated as “atonement” is the term rDpA;k (caphar—ironically, it even sounds a little like the word “cover”), which means to cover over. Atonement, of course, is a gift of God’s grace whereby our sins are covered over by the blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ and thus we have been restored to a right relationship with God and with his Law. The idea of covering also reflects a picture of the righteousness of Christ being draped across us as new garments, not the filthy garments of our own labors.

As Christians, we do more than simply affirm the atonement as a doctrine, it is the source of our hope! The very fact that when we stand before an almighty God and he asks us why he should allow us to enter his heaven, we do not need to appeal to our own messed up works, be can cry out— “It is because of the blood of Christ! He has saved me and brought me to you! He is my righteousness and I am trusting in his promise alone!” It is because of Jesus’ work of atonement that we can find joy in this life because without it, all we would have to look forward to is judgment and eternal destruction.

Now, granted, we may not find hope and joy in the blankets we use on the bed on a cold night (okay, I even put blankets on the bed on a warm night…), but we do draw comfort from out blankets. I imagine Linus, from the Peanuts cartoon, walking along, dragging that blanket and clinging to it for dear life. For Linus, the blanket represents safety from the terrifying things of this world. Ironically, Snoopy (aren’t dogs supposed to be man’s best friend) is always trying to swipe the blanket from him. Isn’t it interesting how our modern, liberal, Bible-doubting, politically-correct society is always trying to reject or fictionalize doctrines like the atonement, thus trying to rob the church of its security blanket.

Oftentimes, in our modern society, we speak of security blankets as things that provide a kind of false comfort. Linus’ blanket can protect him from no real harm. At the same time, that is not the kind of security that a blanket is supposed to bring. It brings security from being left alone and a security from the cold; it is Linus’ assurance that he will find comfort even in the midst of his failures. The blanket of covering from the Atonement does much the same thing for us today. It cannot protect us from someone who will try and take our money or our job, but it is something that reminds us that we will never be abandoned by Christ (he paid too great a price for us than that!) and that will bring us comfort from that cold and calculating world in which we have been called to live and suffer in faith.

When I curl up under my 20 layers of covers on a cold winter night (okay, yes, I live in Florida), I confess to you that my first thought is not always of the Atonement. At the same time, when I think of the atonement, I do think about my covers and how nice it is that I am held by a God who will never leave nor forsake me and no matter what trials I may need to face, I am held secure and in eternal safety. Such is a blanket that can never be taken away.

 

The Gospel and Brushing Your Teeth

I publicly confess that I am not overly fond of brushing my teeth. I do brush my teeth, mind you, but it is not a part of the day that I look forward to. In fact, after I got married, one of the great sacrifices that I made to please my new bride was that I agreed to brush my teeth at least twice a day. Indeed, such monumental compromises only take place when someone is very much in love. And yes, after nearly 14 years of marriage, I am still scrubbing those teeth morning and evening as a faithful expression of my love for my wife.

Now, as random a piece of information as that may seem, there is a rhyme and reason to my madness. In our theological circles, we often talk about how the Bible is “our only rule for faith and practice” and that God’s word is there to equip us for “every good work.” Now, typically, we apply this as a guide to what we believe in our spiritual life and to what we do in our gathered worship. We also tend to be quite comfortable applying this principle to moral questions and for most, it is not too great a shock for me to say that we should rely on Biblical principles to guide our professional lives and our personal interactions in the community as well. So far, so good…

Yet, if we are going to take this language to its logical end, we ought to be able to apply the Bible and its principles to even the most mundane things that we do…well, like brushing teeth. So, the obvious question is, how does the gospel inform and even transform your teeth brushing?

Most of us will be quick to think of 1 Corinthians 6:19 and cite that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and thus should be cared for. This is a good start, though it does take a passage that is talking about not engaging sexually with cult prostitutes a little out of context. So, where else might we go? Peter reminds us that we are to always be ready to give a defense of the hope of the gospel we have within us (1 Peter 3:15) and Paul teaches us that we should be well thought of amongst the unbelievers in our community (1 Timothy 3:7). One logically might infer from those statements that it might be an impediment to sharing the gospel were we to have bad breath or a little piece of parsley leftover from dinner caught in our teeth. Moreover, if we are to be “winsome” with the Gospel (1 Corinthians 9:19-22), we ought to take care of ourselves in such a way that potential converts would want to fellowship with us and not see our presence as something to be dreaded. Yet, is this as far as the application of the gospel can go to the mundane areas of our life?

As Christians, we understand that we are made in the Image of God (Genesis 1:27). The idea that the scripture presents is that when we look at ourselves in the mirror or at others, we are looking at ones who represents God himself. Now, as you are reading this, don’t get a swelled head, the Bible also affirms just how far we are from a perfect representation as Christ is the only one who has done that for us. Yet, even so, it means that we carry within ourselves an inherent dignity and that as Christians, we have a responsibility to see that dignity preserved in others as well as in our own lives. God has given us these bodies and how we treat them with a certain degree of reverence ought to reflect the reverence for the one in whose image we are made. Thus, the abuse of our bodies is sinful because it reflects a lack of respect for God’s image and care for our bodies—even in simple ways like good hygiene—is an aspect of our worship, not of ourselves, but of the one in whose image we are made.

The atheist or non-Christian in our culture will have other reasons for their hygiene, most of which are quite practical, though some border on vanity. They will not, though, understand the fullness of their actions or root those actions in anything or in anyone outside of themselves. As Christians, we are ultimately “People of the Book,” and that book, the Bible, instructs us in not only the most significant things we do, but also in the most mundane aspects of our life. Of course, to be able to apply the book one must first know it, so I encourage you to drink deeply of God’s word and then apply it to things in your life both great and small. And, let the word of God, not practicality or vanity, guide your every action in all of life.

 

Do We Need a Polygraph in Church?

 

I suppose that all of us have seen the movies or read the pulp stories where the evil villain captures the hero and forces him to reveal some sort of important information by strapping him into a chair and hooking him up to a lie-detector machine of some sort. How the hero would sweat and squirm trying to avoid giving away the truth while diabolical questions are asked.

“You know the location of the secret government base…” the villain would press.

“No!” Our hero would lie to cover up the knowledge and the machine would quickly register the lie and the interrogation would continue.

In real life, the polygraph is a machine that measures changes in blood pressure, perspiration, pulse, and skin conductivity, and while the scientific basis for the machine is debated, its use by a skilled technician reportedly provides surprisingly reliable results in many cases. They even sell “home polygraph” units that can be plugged into a computer (to interpret the results) for use as a party game or perhaps to find the location of your spouse’s secret candy stash. And that is what brings us to the church.

One of the essential Christian virtues is that of integrity. As kids, we were taught that integrity is what you did when nobody was watching you. The Oxford American Dictionary defines it as the “quality of being honest and of having strong moral principles.” Both carry with them the same basic principle—integrity is doing what is right and honest even when it is unpopular or costly to do so. Integrity demands that you live up to your word and that you not try and convince the world that you are something that you are not. Such is an essential part of our Christian witness.

The problem is that the church is not viewed as having integrity by the broader culture today. Some blame it on false christians masquerading as genuine believers, some blame it on a culture that often intimidates people if they wish to live as a committed Christian, and some blame it on the church being in “power” over the past several hundred years in America, for when you are the only game in town, you no longer need to act with integrity.

In post-Russia Ukraine, there is a large group of Muslims emigrating into the nations. In those nations, there is a proverb: “If a Muslim tells you he will do something, it will get done; if a Christian tells you he will do something, it may get done or it may not get done.” Being in the minority, the Muslims who emigrate there work hard at building the trust of those in the community they live in, while Christians in that area, still dominated by the influence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, don’t feel the same urgency to live with integrity because they are in the majority. Such is true in America as well. Particularly in areas where it is the cultural norm to be considered “Christian,” there are a lot of nominal believers who may have a good speech in church on Sunday, but the rest of their life is never touched by their Christian faith. Similarly, when they arrive in church Sunday morning and are asked how things are going in their life (spiritually, physically, or with their general well-being), they typically respond: “Great, how about you?” Of course, the response that they desire to hear from you is that everything is just fine and if you start unloading your troubles in their direction, usually they will maneuver themselves out of the conversation as quickly as possible.

Hence my suggested solution to the problem: instead of wearing nametags, strap a portable polygraph machine onto every member when they walk in the door. Rather than attaching the polygraph to a fancy stylus like one usually sees in pictures, a much simpler light and beeper could be attached. While the beeper would be sufficient to alert most people of a lie being told, the light would be a useful resource for older members of the congregation who no longer hear so well. That way, the moment a lie comes from someone’s mouth, everyone would be aware of it.

At first, the response would largely be that no one would say much of anything (which as a secondary benefit would cut down on church gossip). Some may even storm out of the church— “How dare the elders force me to tell the truth!” Of course, dissenting folks would not word it in that way. You might even have some hurt feelings from those who are forced to hear the truth from their neighbor for the first time. One drawback is that most hymns would become un-singable. Can you imagine all the beeps and flashes if a congregation were forced to wear such devices while singing lyrics like:

“I love to tell the story, of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. I love to tell the story, because I know ‘tis true. It satisfies my longings, as nothing else can do. I love to tell the story, ‘twill be my theme in glory, to tell the old, old story, of Jesus and his love.”

Or:

“We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. We are one in the Spirit, we are one in the Lord. And we’ll pray that all unity will one day be restored. And they’ll know we are Christians by our Love, by our Love. Yes, they’ll know we are Christians by our Love.”

Or:

“When I survey the wondrous cross, on which the Prince of Glory died, my richest gain I count but loss, and pour contempt on all my pride.”

And:

“I love thy kingdom Lord, the house of Thy abode, the church our blest Redeemer saved with his own precious blood.”

Of course, as time went by, a wonderful thing would happen. People in church would not only learn to tell the truth and not put up a mask of false piety, but they would also learn to be honest with one another not only about their successes, but about their trials as well. And in that honesty, genuine fellowship would take root.

I am sure that there are some who may not appreciate my sense of irony and touch of sarcasm, and to those in that category I say, “I love you, but get over it.” In many ways, those who will be most offended are probably the ones who need this the most. If we remain in the pattern of “doing” church as many of our churches are doing today, then we will fade away from public view as a dead sect. Yet, if we get beyond the masks and layers of armor, we will discover the meaning of true Christian fellowship, of the healing of the wounded soul that comes as part of a body of intentionally honest and transparent believers, and the world will begin to notice the integrity that comes with being a body of believers who are new creations in Christ.

What we all desire in a friend is one who knows us as heartily as we know ourselves yet who does not hold that knowledge against us. How sad it is that people often can only find such relationships in the secular world. How sad it is that the ones who worship the God of Truth most need to be hooked up to a polygraph for the truth to be seen in them.

 

Polished But Worn

Recently, I was reading about the criminal investigation that took place around the shooting of President Kennedy. One of the investigators made note of something that I found quite striking: the shoes that President Kennedy was wearing looked as if they had been re-soled at least 10 times. To us, in our modern “throw-away” society, that sounds quite odd, since indeed it is often easier and cheaper to replace something than to repair or restore it to use. While the culture in 1963 was quite different than our own in the sense that “throw-away” was not the choice, the investigator was still struck that the most powerful man in the world would model such frugality with respect to his footwear.

As I was reflecting on this I began to reflect on the nature of relationships. How often, much like we would do with an old pair of shoes or a malfunctioning DVD player, we treat our human relationships things that can be disposed of when they no longer seem convenient and practical. How often, when we have trouble or frustrations with friends, we simply cut off relations and find new friends with whom we can do things. Even in marriages, the “till death do us part” has been superseded by “as long as we are in love” or “as long as it seems good in our eyes.” The same mentality seems to be applied to every aspect of our lives—our friendships, our jobs, and even our churches.

Yet, relationships are an interesting thing. Typically, when relationships are stressed the hardest, yet are able to survive the trial that brings them stress, they grow stronger rather than weaker. The scars are still ever-present reminders of what has been endured, though if shared, they also show as a sign to others of what can be endured in the grace of Christ. If you take the time to look around you at those friends with whom you are closest, you will typically find the evidence to support the principle—these closest ones are the ones you have not only laughed with, but you have also cried with and even bled with.

The key is that healthy and deep relationships are not easy and require maintenance. A pair of nice shoes needs to be polished at regular intervals. The polish not only serves to keep the leather shiny and to hide blemishes to the casual glance (so they don’t look shabby), but it also helps to keep the leather pliable and healthy. The polish that we apply to our own relationships is the polish of love—love that is, as is described in 1 Corinthians 13:4-8. Relationships like this also have a secondary benefit: they draw others into the relationship. People have an inherent need to be in healthy relationship with others, modeling such will naturally draw others. Our relationships may indeed be worn and scarred, but there is no battered life that the love of Christ cannot make fresh and new.

 

Ignorance and Vague Generalities

Of the tools at the devil’s disposal, it would seem that ignorance and vague generalities are most commonly in his hands in the landscape of the American church. Here is not simply an indictment of the unbelieving culture at large, for who should expect them to know all of the details of our Christian faith apart from an academic curiosity, but my indictment is against professing Christians who have been lulled into the false notion that they need not bother themselves with knowing the details of our most holy faith. Herein is the site of the devil’s great activity.

I read a recent set of surveys that stated that the majority of the church-goers polled could not name all four Gospels, let alone all of the Ten Commandments. Even fewer were able to name all of the books of the Old and New Testaments, let alone in order. How does one find a word in the dictionary if one does not know the order of the letters of the alphabet? How will you find a reference in Micah or Jude if you do not know where in the Bible to look? How will you know whether an idea is right or wrong if you don’t understand the basic grammar and vocabulary that is being used to communicate it? And when a bad idea is being introduced from the pulpit, how with the believer know the error if the believer does not know the details of the theology he professes?

The devil has lulled people into a sense of security within their pews and he has convinced pastors and church leaders that the most important thing in church is to keep people happy (and in most cases, entertained). Even seminaries have taken this tact, putting more emphasis on practical theology and classes in church growth than in Biblical knowledge and understanding. It would seem that a clear exposition of the Biblical text is about as unwelcome as active application to life even though such is what is most lacking in most church-goers lives. “Does it work?” tends to be asked long before the question, “Is it true?”

Yet what does the Bible expect of us on this matter? To Aaron and his sons, God instructs:

“You are to make a distinction between the holy and between the profane, between the ceremonially unclean and the ceremonially clean. You are to instruct the Sons of Israel in all the laws which Yahweh spoke to them by the hand of Moses.”

(Leviticus 10:10-11)

It should be noted that while God is directly giving this rule to the Levitical priests, as the people began to be dispersed into exile, it is a task subsumed by the Rabbi in a local community—a role that is arguably the forerunner for the Christian understanding of a pastor. In addition, since in the Christian era there is a priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5,9), the task of instructing others in the things that God has taught falls squarely upon our shoulders. This would apply not only within the context of the church where the pastor and elders are to be the teachers of the people, but also in the homes where the father is to be the primary teacher of his family. Since there are levels of authority described in this model, it is worth noting that the Father’s job is two-fold. It is first to study himself so that he can teach his family how to distinguish between the holy and the profane and secondly, to study so that he can ensure that the pastor is teaching doctrine consistent with what the Scriptures present. Not too that this principle applies not only to what his family may learn in church, but it applies to what his family learns in every aspect of their educational process (hence the difficulty with educating children in the secular, state-run school system).

Many object saying that faith is primarily about a relationship with God, not about facts, propositions, and doctrines as revealed in the Bible, thus seeking to justify some degree of ignorance in the faith. It is agreed that faith in Jesus Christ is about a relationship, but note that every relationship in which we engage is one where there are ideas, facts, and propositions that are known about the one in which we are in relationship. In fact, the deeper the relationship, the more we tend to know about the individual. The facts do not make the relationship, but without these facts, no true and lasting relationship will exist. Note too, the way that God speaks of the connection between knowledge and obedience through Moses:

“You stand here with me and I will speak to you in all of the commandment and the prescriptions  and judgments which you shall learn that they may obey in the land which I give them to inherit.”

(Deuteronomy 5:31)

Moses and the leaders must learn these things (with the aim of teaching them) so that the people will put into practice the command of God in the Promised Land.

The assumption, though, that is being made is that knowledge of the law yields obedience. On one level, there is the obvious principle that you cannot obey the things you do not know. Yet, Hosea builds this idea further:

My people are ruined for they are without knowledge. For as you refuse to accept knowledge; I will refuse to accept you from being my priest. You forgot the Torah of your God, so I will also forget your sons.

(Hosea 4:6)

Notice the comment that is being made. When there is a lack of knowledge amongst the people it is not simply because it is unavailable, but it is because the people have chosen to reject the knowledge of God as it is presented to them. And as the people reject the Law of God, so too, God turns away from his people. The principle is that it is not as if God has not made his word known to his people, but that they have chosen to set their minds and hearts on other things, being satisfied with only a passing knowledge of what God teaches.

It has been my contention for some time that the relationship that the majority of American Christians have with God is one-sided and unfocused. We tend to focus our praise of God on what he has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ. Certainly, this is a right and a proper thing for us to do and, especially for a new believer, this is something that is tangible in their lives. At the same time, we ought not stop there. Our aim should be to worship God for who he is and for his great excellencies of character.

When I was courting the woman who would become my wife, much of our relationship revolved around the special things that we did together. At the same time, as our relationship grew, the love was built less on our common activities and more on loving the person for who she happened to be. In married life, this is an essential transition, not because the common activities cease, but because those long romantic evenings tend to become more spread out during the activity of life and raising a family. Yet, after thirteen years of marriage, our love is deeper and richer than it was when we were first courting.

In terms of our relationship with God, it works in the same fashion. Early in our Christian walk, often the passion of our love for God is built on those “mountaintop” experiences that we have, yet as the Christian walk progresses, often those mountaintops seem to become further apart. If our faith is built solely on our experience of God and not on our knowledge of God, then the Christian life often becomes a pursuit of the next mountaintop. Yet, maturing takes sanctification and sanctification takes place most commonly in the valleys of life. David relates his time in the valley of the shadow of death (Psalm 23:4) as a place of darkness where he cannot see God at work. Yet it is the knowledge of God’s character as the shepherd and that the rod and staff are yet in the shepherd’s hand that gives him courage and is the basis of his trust. It is the knowledge that keeps the sheep from panic and flight.

Our culture has bought into the model that when they read scripture, the first question they typically ask is, “How does this relate to me?” or “What can I learn from this so I can have a better life?” My contention is that the first question we must always ask is, “What does this passage teach me about God and about His character?” The shift is an important one for two reasons. First, when we are focused only on personal application, we will not tend to read the whole counsel of God, but only focus on those things that can easily be applied to today. Why spend time reading the seemingly endless genealogies of the Bible, for example, if your focus is only on personal application. Yet the Apostle Paul insists that all scripture is both God-breathed and useful to every aspect of the life of the believer (2 Timothy 3:16-17)—even the genealogies! The second problem that arises out of reading the scripture primarily for personal application is that our motivation to study decreases in proportion to the comfort-level of our lives. If everything is going well, we often assume that we have gotten the principles right, so why bother challenging them?

My argument is not that we do not apply scripture to life, indeed, we must. Yet this ought not be where we begin, we ought to begin with a focus on God and then secondarily toward application and his works in our life. And since God is infinite, his word will provide us with infinite depth of reflection on his character to satisfy and strengthen our souls. And when we fail to pursue the character of God, our relationship with Him remains shallow. And when we fail to teach the character of God, the people’s knowledge of Him will be vague at best.

I began this reflection with the impoverished state of the church when it comes to Biblical knowledge. One would expect that if my supposition that Biblical knowledge is directly related to obedience (as the old song goes, “to know, know, know him is to love, love, love him”—and as Jesus states, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” [John 14:15]), the lack of knowledge that exists in the church today would betray a lack of obedience to God’s word in the church today. When one looks at the state of our country, our depraved culture, and the anaemic church in America, my point is made. When you realize that more than three-quarters of the American general public identifies themselves as “Christian” yet at the same time immorality fills our streets and rules our governments, we must conclude that something is horribly amiss.

The solution? It is not more programs or more gimmicks to get people to come to church, nor is it to water down the gospel so that everyone feels comfortable under its teaching. The solution is to combat the tactic that is being employed by the enemy and instruct people in the knowledge of God. Peter reminds us that we are to add knowledge to virtue as we seek to grow in our sanctification, building upon what God has initiated in our life.

 

Safety Inside Our Bondage

A strange thing sometimes happens when people have been held captive for a period of several days or longer. In certain instances, the captive begins to associate with his or her captors, and in some cases, not only resists rescue, but serves to help their captors in their criminal activities. This is typically called “Stockholm Syndrome,” named after an event that took place in 1973 in Stockholm, Sweden where four captives were taken and held in a botched bank robbery. Six days later, the hostages both resisted rescue and even refused to testify against their captors. The 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst by members of the Symbionese Liberation Army. Not only did Hearst’s sympathies run with her captors, but she would aid them in robbing banks. There have been some who have suggested that this syndrome helps to explain a variety of cases where captives become sympathetic to their captors, participation in cults, and even the loyalty that some people feel toward the use of PC computers☺.

It is granted that in kidnapping cases, statistics have found that this particular syndrome is a minority case, but I believe that if we apply the principle more broadly, we will find how remarkably common an experience it happens to be. How often, we stay in a situation that is bad, but has become comfortable. How often do people stay in bad jobs where an employer constantly berates them simply because they have become used to the setting and are made to feel that they would be a failure in any other setting. Women often stay in abusive marriages for the same reasons—their self identity becomes dependent upon the identity of their abuser and thus to abandon the abuser is to abandon themselves. Even children experience this in relationships. How often kids stay “friends” with people who treat them very badly because they feel so insecure outside of even that bad relationship. Teenage girls stick with “boyfriends” who treat them badly for the same reason—their self-identity has become so interwoven with their boyfriend that they cannot see themselves without him—no matter how better off they might be. The emotional and spiritual bondage begins to provide a wall of safety, within which people find comfortable.

It seems that this principle, as we take it broadly, can also apply to habitual sins in people’s lives. Their sins, though grievous, have become comfortable and being without those sins, while perhaps desirous at times, is fearful. Certainly, recidivism rates that are calculated by sociologists and criminologists would concur with this assessment. In Hebrews 12:1, the author refers to sins that are eujperi/statoß (euperistatos), which refers to things that ensnare, constrict, or otherwise bind themselves to you. Yet, the author of Hebrews does not simply allow us to look at those sins and leave them alone—you must put them off, lay them to the side, get rid of them! Why? The writer goes on to say that because Jesus has endured the cross to redeem us from the power of sin and death, we must live lives that reflect that redemption. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 5:17 that in Christ we are a new creation—in other words the new order should reflect the death of the old order in our lives.

Every time a Christian chooses to engage in serious habitual sin, that sends a message to those who are watching that the Gospel is not true. Certainly Christians will sin and will stumble into error and certainly we will not be perfect until we are with Christ in heaven. Yet a falter or stumble is not quite the same as habitual sin. In fact, the Apostle John would suggest that the presence of habitual sin may be a sign that the person is not a genuine believer (1 John 3:4-6). These are hard words for some, but for others, they should be words of assurance and empowerment. For in Christ we have been made a new creation—He delivers us from our sin—we are free! Habitual sin for the believer is a willful choice to turn back to the things from which we have earlier been delivered. It is a choice to go back to the slavers and away from the freedom that our Great Liberator—our divine Goel—who has come to take us to freedom. In some senses, we might refer to it as a spiritual form of Stockholm Syndrome, but Biblically we would say this falls under the heading of spiritual warfare. Whenever we are tempted with a major habitual sin, we are given a choice, will we trust the promises of Christ or will we slink back into the dark self-identification with sin that so long has kept us in chains.

 

 

 

Christmas

It seems that Christmas decorations are being put up earlier and earlier every year. More and more our community retailers want us to be in the “Christmas Spirit,” which usually translates out as the “Spirit to Spend Money.” I can almost hear the words of the Carol being sung:

Fill the Mall with lots of dollies, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la—

Tis the season to spend money, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la—

Get we out our credit cards, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la—

Run from elves in leotards, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Okay, so forgive my sarcasm and near rhymes, but I must ask the question, what is Christmas about anyway? We complain when people abbreviate Christmas as X-Mas (though we need to remember that “X” is the first letter in the Greek spelling of Christ) and we throw up our fists in rage when a store puts up a “Season’s Greetings” sign rather than a “Merry Christmas” sign, but is the way we celebrate the season any better than the way the culture does? Take a poll of the cards you send to people this year. What percentage of them depict a picture on the front of something that the Bible associates with Christmas? Compare that to the number of Santa cards you send out or pictures with pretty winter scenes. If we are going to complain that the culture is getting it all wrong, ought we not demonstrate something that is better?

What we know is that Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Christ—the second member of the divine Trinity, God the Son, taking flesh to himself and entering into this sinful world to redeem fallen man from rightful judgment. The gifts we give, then, are designed to represent the gift we have received and since when we “do this for the least of these” we do it for Jesus, we express our thanks for the gift that Jesus gave us by giving good gifts to others.

Therein, though, lies the challenge for us in today’s culture. The gift of Christ is designed to point our hearts and thanksgiving towards God. Thus, when we give gifts to others during this season, our gifts, too, out to direct the heart of the recipient toward Christ. Yet, most of the time, the gifts we give turn the heart of the recipient either towards us as giver or inward as the gift meets a perceived want or need.

My prayer for you not only this Christmas season, but throughout the year, is that you work to be intentionally Christian about all of the things you do. The giving of a gift is a wonderful opportunity for you to speak truth and life into the life of someone you care about. The Christmas season also gives you an excuse to offer a gift of Christian love to someone you have been in conflict with, for barriers seem to go down when a good gift is given. Some people will think that this attitude toward gift-giving makes you a little weird; to others, though, it may be the gift that points them to the greatest gift we can receive—eternal life in Christ Jesus.

 

 

Identity & Identity Theft

One of the threats within our culture is that of what we call “Identity Theft.” What we mean by that phrase is that someone has discovered enough personal information on you that they can charge things in your name, on your credit card accounts, or by withdrawing from your savings account. But surely our identity cannot be reduced to a list of numbers and bits of data in a computer somewhere? Surely our identity is based on something much more fundamental and important than our financial status.

According to the Oxford American Dictionary, the word Identity refers to “the fact or being of who or what a person is.” The English term is derived from the Latin pronoun, “idem,” meaning, “the same.” Identity is often abbreviated as “ID,” which is reminiscent of the Latin, “id,” which is the 3rd person singlular of the pronoun (it, he, or she). In Biblical Greek, the word  pro/swpon (prosopon) seems to convey the same idea, reflecting the entirety of one’s person—one’s physical and personal presence. In fact, when the early church fathers were discussing how to describe the fact that the Trinity contained three persons yet was one in essence, they opted to use the term pro/swpon (prosopon) when speaking of his person and the term oujsi/a (ousia) when speaking of his divine essence.

The question remains, then, if identity is the basis of who you are, how then is that identity derived? Do we define our own identity and thus have the ability to “redefine” ourselves? Or is our identity something that is placed upon us by a power or authority outside of our person? This might, for example, be our parents, who name us and train us up in a particular fashion, or this might be a government that assigns us an identification number—an “id” number—and uses that number to represent the totality of our being in life and culture? Certainly, we might like to lean toward the former, but how is our identity defined and based on that definition, can it genuinely be “stolen” as many speak about?

The modern educational system operates on the mindset that we are makers of our own identity. We encourage “free” thinking, the idea of the “self-made” man (or woman), and that we are autonomous when it comes to our own life. The quirky are celebrated in our culture and are the ones who eventually become trendsetters. We have embraced the idea that a mid-life crisis is not a terrible thing to have take place (as it is a form of re-definition) and we find that it is not uncommon to go as far as to redefine ourselves physically as well as intellectually and emotionally. People do this in minor ways like changing hairstyles or hair color, some take more drastic steps and get tattoos or have their body parts pierced, and some take even more radical steps and opt for elective surgeries and implants—even to the point of changing one’s physical gender through surgery and hormones.

What is striking, though, about the modern educational approach is that while they are teaching students to make their own decisions and define their own person, the very teaching that holds up radical independence as a virtue is a form of authoritatively imposing design on the student’s identity. When you authoritatively state that all students should construct their own identities, that very axiom is a means to conform the person’s mindset to a particular ideology. I point this out not to suggest that it is bad to encourage students (and adults) to think and act for themselves and not simply following blindly along behind an authority or a charismatic leader. Such blind obedience is the way we end up with Germans goose-stepping behind Nazi soldiers and educated Americans following David Koresh to their deaths. Yet at the same time, to affirm the idea of a radically independent self-definition is not intellectually honest as experiences, influences, direction, and other outside factors influence the formation of our identity. Much like a compass that we might follow, for that compass to work, there must be a magnetic north to direct the needle toward an absolute point of reference.

If, to maintain the compass analogy, there is the topography of life that influences the actual path that we take toward our destination, what serves as the fixed and absolute point of reference? My suggestion is that the answer to this question is that God provides that fixed point most specifically in his Son, Jesus Christ. For the Christian this should be pretty much a given, but I would submit that God also provides the fixed point for the unbeliever as well, though the unbeliever seeks to reject the direction to their own destruction. It is destruction because as we are made in God’s image and Christ provides us with the perfection of that image, fleeing from Christ is also fleeing from being all we are designed to be, pursuing a continued undoing of that image that God has placed within us. Yet, as the image of God within us is what makes us human in the very first place, then an undoing of that image within us is an unravelling of our very human nature, reducing us little by little to the level of animals.

Thus, if the development of our personality is both directed by an outside source and participated in by the decisions we make, then we should pose the final question as to whether that identity can be stolen. The answer to that question must, by definition be, “no.” Certainly, our identity may be mimicked and our governmental identification numbers can be stolen and abused, but who I am is not marked or determined by the numbers floating around in cyberspace by which the government or my bank might know me. Who I am is held by God and thus is held secure by God in whose hands I am positively held. To suggest that if someone steals my social security number and banking numbers is to steal my identity is to reduce who I am to nothing more than a statistic…something to which we must not allow our culture to reduce us.

Rockets Downrange for Jesus

Last week I saw this statement on a window sticker. Now, I live and work in a military community, so, it is not unusual to see slogans like this on bumpers and windows, but this one struck me as curious. At first, my “hawkish” gut reaction was to say, “Yes! Do all things for the glory of God, including blowing up bad guys!” I also thought about all of the imprecatory psalms and their outright call for the destruction of the enemies of God, and thought that this slogan was remarkably consistent with God’s call to the Israelites to lay to waste all of the cities of Canaan and the other enemies who flaunted their power against the people of God.

Then, I reflected on Christ’s command that we love our enemies and the irony of this statement really struck me. How is it that those who profess Jesus as Lord and Savior can celebrate the destruction of others? Mind you, I am not a pacifist by any stretch of the imagination and I do not believe that God is a pacifist. Jesus made a whip and chased people out of the Temple courts; God is referred to as the Lord of Armies 240 times in the Old Testament and twice in the New Testament writings; and Jesus is depicted returning on a white stallion wielding a great sword to destroy his enemies in the final battle (Revelation 19:11-16). In addition, one of the promises that Christ gives to the faithful church is that we will join him in crushing his enemies (Revelation 2:26-27). There can be no arguing that the God of the Bible is not a God of warfare when it comes to dealing with his enemies.

At the same time, God calls us as believers to be ambassadors of peace. Also, it is impossible to share the gospel with a dead man. Christians, of course, have wrestled with the question of whether they can serve in the Armed Forces for nearly two-thousand years; I am not sure that I add anything original to the conversation. Yet, what do we do with this seeming contradiction. To begin with, God has given the government the power of the sword to punish those who would do evil. Certainly this applies to wicked nations as well as to wicked men. Similarly, we do want godly men and women to serve in the military—we are to be salt in every area of life. Thus, that opens the door to the Christian serving in the Armed Forces. In addition, the Bible does present an argument for righteous anger to be expressed without sin (Ephesians 4:26) as well as a command that God expects believers to work justice in the world around us (Hosea 12:6; Micah 6:8). While working justice in a fallen world can sometimes be worked through diplomacy, often it requires force…and rockets shot downrange.

Which brings us back to where we began. As Christians we hold to what we call a Doctrine of Vocation. Essentially that means that whatever your profession happens to be, from the pastor to the soldier to the mechanic to the lawyer to the politician and to the trash collector, you have been called by God to serve in that profession and thus should do so to the best of your ability and to the glory of God. In short, that means, if your job as a soldier is to send rockets downrange to blow up things, then you ought to do so to the best of your ability and give glory to God in the process. Indeed, Rockets Downrange for Jesus is a sign that a soldier understands that all the things we do is to be done to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31). Sadly, in a fallen world, such rockets are sometimes necessary, may they be shot well.

One final note…there is a better solution than rockets when it comes to the wickedness of man in the world around us…and that better solution is the Gospel of Jesus Christ lived out in Truth and in Love. But until that day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, there will be evil men and evil governments that civil authorities will be forced to contend with, and like the soldier, it is expected that they, too, do so to the glory of God on High.

 

 

Stressed or Desserts

It was pointed out to me recently that if you take the word “stressed” and spell it backwards, you get, “desserts.” At first, I did not dwell too much on the idea beyond the idea that  isn’t it interesting that one of the ways we humans deal with stress is with what we sometimes call, “comfort food.” And desserts are one of the great, equalizing, comfort foods. Of course, in the English language, there are lots of words that when spelled backwards are other words (live/evil; tort/trot; and denim/mined to name a few), and such words are called “palindromes.” Yet with most palindromes, the two words have very little relationship to one another, which makes this pair a bit of an exception.

So, I began to reflect on this connection, wondering how it applied to the Christian life. Certainly, there is no question that we use food to relax us and ease the pressure of a conversation. There is a significant difference, for example, the tone of a business meeting around a table at a restaurant is entirely different than that of a meeting around a board-table. In addition, I have it on good authority that stress can raise hormone levels in the body, thus creating cravings for various things, often salty or sweet food.

So, how do cravings and distractions apply to the Christian life? To begin with, we must recognize that there is a spiritual aspect to pretty much everything we do, we cannot separate one from another. Thus, solutions to ease our troubles, stress included, need to include a spiritual component. In other words, dealing with stress purely on a physical level is not the most effective way to deal with stress, but instead, we must also deal with it on a spiritual level. Certainly, prayer is a tool that God has given to us as Christians, to aide us in managing our stresses (as well as the rest of life). The Holy Spirit’s indwelling us is a second help that we are given, for he is God dwelling in us. But third, and this is what I wanted to focus on, God also gives us the Scriptures to help manage our lives.

The psalmist words it this way:

How they are sweet to my mouth,

your words are honey to my tongue!

(Psalm 119:103)

Such is the sentiment of much of scripture, God’s word is for us to feed our spiritual needs and to provide our spiritual nourishment and not only is it rich, but it is sweet to the tongue of the one who loves the Lord.

So, how do we apply God’s Word to the managing of stress in our life and how does this tie back to desserts? To begin with, just as having a meeting over food can reduce the stress of said meeting, so too can beginning a meeting with God’s Word reduce the stress felt at that meeting, particularly if Scripture is used within the meeting to season the conversation (pardon the pun). Even when such meetings are not held formally as a “Christian” gathering, such wise counsel as the scriptures offers, in my experience, can be appreciated by Christian believer and unbeliever alike. Years ago, I used to purchase materials from a non-Christian gentleman who built his entire philosophy of doing business from the book of Proverbs; his interest was not in the faith of the Bible and he obviously was not proselytizing, he simply recognized the wisdom for life the Bible contained. Christians especially have reason to salt their conversations with Scripture, especially when speaking to other Christians. Can you imagine the church strife that could be avoided were all Christians to intentionally seek scriptural support for all they would say and do? Sadly, it seems that many if not most Christians have fallen for the lie that we need to do things the way that the world does them, and the word of God is never brought to bear on the problems found in life or business.

The second, and most critical element for Christians to grasp is this idea of craving. When we get stressed, we typically crave comfort food–particularly sweet or salty items. Just as we have physical cravings, though, we sometimes have spiritual and intellectual cravings as well. I have shared in other contexts that I enjoy science-fiction novels and movies—there are times when I just get an itch or a craving to put something on (one of my favorites is Dune). As we deal with stress in our own lives, we need to work to engender a craving for God’s Word. Jesus, in the Beatitudes, speaks this way:

“Blessed are the ones who are hungering and thirsting for righteousness,

For they will be filled.”

(Matthew 5:6)

Recognizing that the Scriptures teach us the meaning of righteousness according to God’s standards, the implication is that we will have this hungering satisfied as we give ourselves wholeheartedly to a pursuit of God’s Word. How then do we engender this craving in our lives? To begin with, you must recognize that it is sweet to the tongue—sweeter than anything this world can offer, as the psalmist is pointing out and you must intentionally use the Bible as a means of relieving stress (trust me, it is better than chocolate or television), and thirdly, you must seek God’s face within it (and he will reveal himself to you), recognizing that this book we call the Bible is no dead text from an ancient religious tradition, but that it is living and active, sharper than a two edged sword, and that it will be able to not only cut you bone from marrow, but also suture you back up to the glory of God on High.

Stressed? Yep, this life is full of it. Dessert? Well, you may look to the delicacies of this world; I commend to you the one true delicacy of eternity—the very word of God, breathed out through faithful men for our edification and growth.

 

 

Virtual Church

In the 1970s, George Harrison sang about “Living in the Material World.” In the 1980s, Madonna proclaimed to the world that she was a “Material Girl.” While those songs seemed to describe the culture of their day, it seems that we have transitioned from living in a material world to living in an immaterial—a virtual world. In this world of email, texting, blogging, Facebook, Twitter, Google, and Wikipedia, it seems that more communication takes place through the transmission of electrons than through physical human interaction.

We live in a world where “virtual reality” defines a great deal of our lives. What people call “reality television” is largely scripted and edited to fit the producer’s designs for his show. If you are unsatisfied with the “humdrum” routine of your life, there is Virtual Life. If you want to know what you will look like with a new hairstyle, there is Virtual Makeover. There are virtual games, virtual worlds, and even virtual pets. In this world of virtual activities and relationships, it is no wonder that people are rejecting the traditional church model and seeking to find church elsewhere…even in the virtual world. Gone are the days of church on television, today there is even virtualchurch.com.

Where are we going in this virtual world? Has the age of a traditional church come to an end? What is the role of the church in this virtual world we live in today? I believe that the church’s role is exactly the same as it was nearly 2000 years ago when Jesus gave what we know as the Great Commission. We are to go out and to make disciples of all of the nations (including our own) baptizing them and teaching them to obey all that Jesus taught. In a sense, the church is the one stable element in this fast-paced changing world and we offer something that is tangible and not immaterial—the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the demonstration of love and grace as Christ has shown that to us.

What then of this virtual world all around us—should we reject it as “of the devil” as some churches have? No, not at all! Paul said that to the Jews he became as a Jew, to those under the law, he was under the law, to those not under the law, he became as those not under the law, etc… (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). What Paul was saying is that he utilized the culture of those to whom he was giving the Gospel. The same can be applied today. The virtual world is technology for networking and communication that is at our fingertips. Let us use it, not simply for our own entertainment, but to draw people to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Building Museums or Kingdoms


Museums can be a lot of fun to visit. They contain relics and artifacts from which we can learn a lot about our past. They are monuments and testimonies to where we have been as a culture and from where God has brought us as a civilization. They serve a very important role in our culture as they help us to appreciate the sacrifices and successes of those who have gone before us in the hopes that we do not become proud and arrogant as a culture and they provide useful instruction in terms of the mistakes of the past in the hopes that we do not repeat them. There are many kinds of museums, but they all have one thing in common…they do not contain any life.

Sadly, churches can also fall into the trap of becoming museums instead of being the living, breathing marks of the Kingdom of God that we are meant to be. This does not mean we oughtn’t look back and celebrate the blessings of God that have been brought in the past and not learn from our errors as well, but if we spend all of our time dwelling in the past—dwelling in the museum of antiquities—the life that we are meant to have will be sapped from us and we will decline into a testimony of what once was, and not to what is.  Remember, God is a God of the living, not of the dead (Luke 20:37-38; 24:5).

Instead of a museum, we are called to build a kingdom (Matthew 6:33; Mark 1:15; 2 Thessalonians 1:5-12). Our great commission (Matthew 28:19-20) is to make disciples of all of the nations—that begins here at home. Our call within our church is to be at the task of disciple-making. Those who are not believers need to have the Gospel proclaimed to them and those who are believers need to be built up in the faith. We should learn from and celebrate the past, but we must never be tempted to dwell there.  Like that favorite hymn by Sabine Baring-Gould:

Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war,

With the cross of Jesus going on before.

Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe;

Forward into battle see His banners go!

Like an army, we are to march forward, and for that to take place, though kingdoms rise and fall around us, we must always keep our eyes fixed upon our great and glorious captain, Jesus Christ, who leads us on. Let us never lose sight of the goal that the church is to march onward, breaking down the strongholds of hell in this world around us.

Also, let us count Jesus’ own words to one individual as a warning against dwelling in the past:

“And he said to them, ‘Leave the dead to bury their own dead;

but you, go and preach the Kingdom of God.’”

(Luke 9:60)

Stuff

Thus, where your treasure is, there also your heart will be.

(Matthew 6:21)

Stuff, stuff, and more stuff…  We fill our lives with stuff, we fill our homes with more stuff, and we fill the homes of others with even more stuff.  In and of itself, stuff is not bad—we need stuff to survive.  We need food to eat; we need water to drink; and we need shelter and protection from the elements.  All of that is stuff.  Certainly, some have more stuff than others, but it still is stuff. Frankly, I like stuff; I cannot deny it, but I would suggest that God also likes stuff. Roughly 6,000 years ago, God decided to create, well, stuff.  And not only did God create stuff, but he pronounced it, “good.”

The problem with stuff is not the stuff itself, but what we use it for. Often, our stuff just collects dust. We fall into a trap of wanting to have stuff and more stuff just for the sake of having the stuff. Even worse, we find ourselves embattled with others, each trying to gain and secure more and more stuff than the other.  Our lives begin to be consumed by the pursuit of stuff.  Where does it all end!?!

Ultimately it does come to an end. There will come a time when all of us will die and leave behind our stuff to others. Death is the great equalizer as someone once said; we all die and we cannot take any of our stuff with us. Where we go next is not dependent on the stuff we have or even on what we have done with our stuff; where we go is dependent upon the finished work of Jesus Christ and whether or not our name is in his great Book of Life.

So, if my salvation is neither dependent upon the stuff I have nor upon how I use it, what does it matter? Jesus has some words to this question, because while your salvation is not dependent upon anything but Christ’s finished work, Christ’s finished work in your life should affect what you do with your stuff in this life. We are taught two major lessons about our stuff in scripture. The first is that God blesses us with stuff primarily so that we can be a blessing to others—not only in how we share our stuff with them, but in how we share our stuff with them for the purpose of sharing the Gospel.

The second thing we learn from Scripture is found in this verse—our heart will dwell with what we treasure. Now, for the Hebrew culture, the heart not so much reflects the passions as it does the personality and mind—in other words, the thing that you think about all of the time will be what you treasure. For the Christian, our minds and thoughts ought to be on Christ and upon God’s word; sadly, we often are tempted to fall into the trap of pursuing more stuff and in that pursuit they become consumed. The Apostle John warns about this trap:

Do not love the world, nor that which is in the world.  If a certain person loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all of the things in the world-the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and arrogant living-is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away as well as its lusts.  Yet, the one who does the will of God will continue living eternally. (1 John 2:15-17)

So, the question is not so much about the stuff, but it is about the heart. Have you set your heart upon God and upon the things of God or is it on the stuff that those who live in this world set their hearts upon. If, then, your heart is set upon God, the stuff that you have and accumulate in this life becomes rather secondary. And when stuff is secondary, using it to bless others becomes second nature. All our stuff comes from God anyhow, let us use it as an evangelistic tool and not an end in and of itself.

An Urgency of the Reforms of Church and Society: Calvin 500

This year marked the 500th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin, the theologian of the Reformation.  While Luther’s preaching sparked the fires of reform, it was Calvin that God had raised up to articulate the theology of those who protested against the Roman Catholic Church.  To commemorate what God did through Calvin, there are conferences that have taken place all over the globe.  I was given the great privilege of speaking at the international pastors’ conference held in Moscow.  I was one of three representatives from the USA, joined by representatives from Holland, South Korea, Japan, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Belarus, to encourage the Russian Reformed pastors.

In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when the Roman Catholic Church was oppressing the Reformers, Russia opened its doors to the Protestant refugees.  Since the Russian Orthodox Church had already fought their battles with the Roman Catholic Church, they took the attitude that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  Thus, many Calvinistic Christians found their homes in Russia.  These Christians not only brought their faith with them, but also quite a lot of technology from the west.

When Peter the Great began modernizing Russia in the late seventeenth century, it was the Calvinists he turned to for support.  The Russian Orthodox Church preferred the “old ways,” but these Russian protestants proved to be very progressive and built Peter the Great’s navy, army, and artillery as well as much of the Russian infrastructure to support the modernization of the nation.  These protestants, along with Peter’s vision for a modern Russia, are responsible for making the nation a European power.

When the Bolsheviks revolted in the beginning of the 20th century, the Calvinists in Russia supported the monarchy, thus, when the Communists took over, the Reformed Christians were systematically eliminated.  When “Perestroika” took place in the late 1980s, the Protestants rushed back into Russia to evangelize and at first were largely successful. As a result, people were leaving the Russian Orthodox Church at a rapid pace; something that the Russian Orthodox leaders did not much care for.  Thus, they began pressuring the government to restrict the ability of the Protestants to meet and organize.

A year ago, one of the Russian pastors, who was connected with a Reformed movement from South Korea, decided to separate from the liberals in his denomination and re-form a conservative and evangelical church from the “dry bones” of the older Russian Reformed church.  He was joined by three other pastors, and the four of them formed the Russian Evangelical Reformed Presbyterian Church.  One year later, they had grown to nine churches scattered around the greater Moscow area.  The primary purpose of this conference was to encourage and help equip these nine pastors to continue to build as God would allow them.  As a result of the conference, three churches in St. Petersburg, who were in a similar situation, decided to join the other nine in fellowship.  In addition, the two representatives from Holland were there to determine the possibility of fraternal relations between their denomination (a conservative sect in the Dutch Reformed Church) and this new Russian denomination—something that seemed to go very well.

The Russian churches are still in need of a lot of prayer as they face a great deal of obstacles—some that we face and others that we are not currently facing (though may in time).  It was a privilege for me to represent Westminster Presbyterian Church, Milton as well as the PCA to these pastors.  Seeds have been planted, I am excited to see what our Lord will do with them in the years to come.  Please commit Pastor Ten and this infant denomination to your prayers.

-Pastor Win

Two Group Pictures from the Convention

100_0414

100_0423

Defending Job’s Wife

Recently, I read an article that really came down hard on Job’s wife because of the statement that she makes to her husband, to “curse God and die.”  The author went as far as to suggest that this was a woman who clearly had no faith and was a blasphemer because of the statement that she made and her unwillingness to follow her husband’s example.  Granted, Job’s wife does not follow her husband’s example, but that being said, we need to be very careful about making judgments about her character and about her faith.

All too often, when folks come to texts like these, the matter of primary concern is, “What is the doctrine in question?” or “What moral or ethical principle can I learn?”  And while texts like this do raise moral and ethical questions, when we look to answer these questions first, we oftentimes lose the people who are living out the event.  Job and his wife are not fictional or allegorical characters, but they are real, historical people—human beings like you and me.  They come complete with worries and fears, good days and bad days.  They struggle with the same kind of struggles that you or I would struggle with, and Job’s wife, more-so than others in the narrative, needs to be looked at through this lens.  We need to see her humanity and her hurt and as a result, we need to discuss her character flaws with compassion and not analytical scorn.

Look to other characters in scripture that have committed equally heinous sins.  Look to King David who had his friend murdered to cover up his adultery with Bathsheba.  Look at Peter who denied our Lord three times and then later, after Pentecost, still falls into fear of the Judaizers and had to be rebuked by Paul, “to his face.”  Look at Abram and Sarai who doubted God’s promise and tried to force God’s hand through Hagar.  Look at God’s people through history and their stumbles and failures, their doubts and their fears, and when we look at Job’s wife in this light, we see her very differently.  Granted, we never see her recanting her statement, but she is restored in the end alongside of her husband.  Eliphaz, Zophar, and Bildad are strongly rebuked in the end; Job’s wife is not.

Remember something as well, it is not just Job that is going through this trial, but Job’s wife is going through the testing and trial as well.  Are not Job’s children also the children of his wife?  Are not the lands, the wealth, and the property of Job also the lands, wealth, and property of his wife?  Thus, in all these things, she has lost and suffered and hurt and grieved right alongside of Job—and been faithful, according to the account.  Now, though, she sees the hand of trial turn upon her husband to the point where he is reduced to a wretched state, covered with sores and scraping himself with pottery shards, sitting in ashes.  And it is here, at this point, that she breaks down and makes the comment that is recorded above.

Let me pose the question, how many confessing Christians have you known through the years who have come to this point?  How many Christians have sought euthanasia for a loved one to end their suffering?  Is this not the same thing as what Job’s wife is advocating?  How many confessing Christians have been so overwhelmed by the grief over the loss or suffering of a loved one, that they have railed against God in anger and rage?  Even many of the theological giants have gone through such crises—C.S. Lewis does us the favor of allowing us to see his inner doubts and fears about God as he watched his wife, Joy, wither and die of bone cancer.  Friends, if you do not see her grief in these matters, you will interpret her badly, but when you see her grief you will see that these are not the words of a faithless blasphemer, but are the words of a fearful, hurting believer who is not able to bear what she sees taking place in the body of her husband.

The beauty of this whole event, and of our own lives when we face such trials, is that God is bigger than our grief.  He is gracious in our doubts and merciful to us even in our anger.  And sometimes we need to be brought by God to that point where we can just stop and be still, finding peace in Him—even in the midst of our lack of understanding.  He is like a loving Father that once he has loved and held his child through a fit of rage, sits calmly with them and comforts that child in the wake of the fit.  The beauty, loved ones, is that we don’t need to understand, simply trust that God understands and will work even the most horrendous things for our well-being.  Thus, the next time you are ready to condemn Job’s wife, remember that she is human and remember that you are too; that ought to show her in a different light.

Education Versus Programming

(the following is excerpted from my essay, “Teaching Image Bearers, not just Warm Bodies,” which is part of the compilation: Docens Coram Deo: Teaching Before the Face of God.  This book is written as a festschrift in honor of Bob Grete and Harold Thomas, the founders of Rocky Bayou Christian School, on the school’s 35th anniversary.  Copies can be acquired at the above link; I served as the editor of this Festschrift.)

            As mentioned before, the naturalistic model sees the human mind as nothing more than a super-computer, capable of processing and retaining a vast array of data which is then manipulated by genetic programming in such a way as to output a result that we commonly describe as thought.  Thus, in principle, educating a human is akin to programming a computer.  Yet, if humans are altogether different than a computer, what must our approach to education be?

            The beginning of the answer to that question is found in the very meaning of the word, “educate.”  The English word derives from the Latin verb, educere, which literally means, “to lead out.  Thus, the purpose of education is not so much that of putting in, but bringing out.  Now one might argue that children are not born with an innate knowledge of history, mathematics, or even of the Bible and thus, “putting in” is an important part of education.  And indeed, that is where instruction comes in—instruction coming from the Latin verb, instruere, which literally means, “to pile in.”  Yet notice the relationship of these two terms.  Instruction is not the end goal—education is.  In other words, you instruct towards the end of educating a student—you pile in mathematics, history, science, and Bible not so that a student will be full of ideas (many of which a student may never use again in life), but you instruct so that something will be brought out in them.  What needs to be brought out?  It is the image of God that they bear which needs to be brought out.

            In the fall, the righteous image of God in man has become warped, distorted, mangled, and bent, but not lost (Genesis 9:6; 1 Corinthians 11:7; James 3:9).  We are born in the state of sin (Psalm 51:5), by nature we do not seek righteousness (Romans 3:10-11), we are at enmity with God (James 4:4), our hearts are corrupt (Mark 7:21), we commit sin through both action and inaction, and we sin with our intentions (Matthew 5:21-48) as well as with our activities.  In addition, when we break a portion of the Law, we are guilty of breaking it as a whole (James 2:10).  There is nothing good in us by nature (Romans 7:18)—we have been corrupted by sin in every aspect of our being.  Of course, education is not a substitute for the work of the Holy Spirit in redemption and sanctification, yet it is a tool by which the Holy Spirit can and does use, both in the process of growth in grace and to enable parents to fulfill their God-given mandate to raise up their children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4; Deuteronomy 4:9; Proverbs 22:6).

            Thus, if our teaching reflects only the idea of giving students information, we are not fulfilling our calling.  When little Billy asks, “Why do we need to study literature?”, it is not enough to tell him that he needs the knowledge of literature so that he will be able to communicate ideas with others in this world, nor is it enough to tell him that God has called him to take dominion of the world, and that means taking dominion of the literary culture as well as the geography.  These statements both may be true, but they are yet insufficient.  We must also be telling little Billy that he is made in the image of God and that God loves language and that God loves expressing himself through every form of language; thus, if he is to reflect that image of God faithfully, he needs to nurture within himself that same kind of love for language and the study of literature is designed to help nurture that love and appreciation for the expression of ideas through language.  I have applied this to literature, but the same argument can and should be applied to every discipline of study.  There is a reason that we expose students to a broad array of academic studies rather than allowing them to concentrate their studies in a particular area of interest, and it is not to make students more “well-rounded,” but it is because God’s character is reflected in each of these disciplines and to reflect the Imago Dei, each of these disciplines must be applied to our character.  Thus, if we are to educate and not program, and if education is a tool used by the Holy Spirit in sanctification to bring out the Imago Dei, we must instruct in every academic discipline.

Thoughts on Structuring a Discipleship Program

Recently, I was asked for some input on how I would structure a discipleship program if I were to have about 6 months of fairly intensive time to work with a small group of men.  I thought that I would share my initial thoughts here.

 

When I began doing homeless ministry, I spent some time looking at some of the sermons found in the book of Acts to gain some insight into a model to base evangelistic preaching/teaching on.  The model I came up with covered things in this order:  1) God’s glory, 2) man’s fallen state, 3) the work of Christ, 4) the promise of salvation coupled with the hope of ongoing sanctification in this life.

 

Unpackaging this in terms of a longer study would look something like this:

 

I.  God’s Glory

            a.  Who is God?

                        i.  names of God which reflect God’s character

                        ii.  character traits of God 

            b.  What has God done?

                        i.  Creation

                        ii.  Ordaining and Governing history

II.  Man’s Fallen State

            a.  What does it mean to be made in God’s image?

                        i.  the doctrine of the Imago Dei

                        ii.  human dignity as a result of the Imago Dei

                        iii.  the doctrine of the Imitatio Dei (how do we imitate God?)

            b.  What happened when Adam and Eve sinned?

                        i.  Genesis 3

                        ii.  The promise of a redeemer in Genesis 3

                        iii.  Inherited sin guilt and the impossibility of our paying God back that sin debt on our own merit

            c.  How has the fall corrupted and contorted the Imago Dei?

                        i.  Our aversion to the things of God and suppression of the truth

                        ii.  The problem of pain–why do bad things happen to good people?

III.  The Work of Christ

            a.  Who is Jesus and why is a Savior important?

                        i.  the person and character of Christ

                        ii.  the names of Christ

                        iii.  the Old Testament prophesies of Christ

                        iv.  The work of a mediator and paraclete

            b.  How Did Christ save us?

                        i.  the  preexistence of Christ

                        ii.  the humiliation of Christ in life and in death

                        iii.  the exaltation of Christ and his ongoing work as mediator at the right hand of God the Father

IV.  The Promise of Salvation and the Hope of Sanctification

            a.  Who is the Holy Spirit?

                        i.  the person of the Spirit

                        ii.  the work of the Spirit

            b.  What is Faith and how is that tied to salvation?

                        i.  The nature of Faith (Hebrews 11:1)

                        ii.  Regeneration, Conversion, Repentance

            c.  What does it mean to be saved?

                        i.  Justification

                        ii.  Adoption

            d.  What happens next once I am saved?

                        i.  Sanctification as a means to prepare for glory

                        ii.  Living all of life “Coram Deo” or “Before the Face of God”

                        iii.  2 Peter 1:3-11 and adding to the faith as “Partakers of the Divine nature” (untwisting the Imago Dei–like having broken bones set)

                        iv.  The fruit of the Spirit

                        v.  The gifts of the Spirit

                        vi.  Glory

 

What does Church Architecture Point Toward?

            With the coming of the reformation, particularly with the coming of Calvin’s reformation in Geneva, came a shift in the architecture of the Church building.  In the architecture of the medieval Roman Catholic church, the central item in the front of the church—the area that everything in the church pointed, so as to direct one’s attention toward—was the altar.  In the Roman Catholic service, it is the Mass that is central to worship, and since the altar was central to the Mass, the altar was made to be the focal point of the church.

            Yet, for Calvin, it was not the Mass that was central—in fact, the Mass was done away with altogether as being unbiblical and in contradiction with Christ’s sacrifice being once and for all time as pointed out in Hebrews 10.  For Calvin, the Holy Scriptures were central along with their exposition and proclamation.  Thus, as a result of the Calvinistic influence, the pulpit and the scriptures were moved to the central part of the church symbolizing its importance and its centrality to worship.

            This abovementioned transition is fairly well established in history, but I began to reflect recently on other changes that seem to be taking place in church architecture as churches move away from a traditional church model to a more non-traditional, assembly room/warehouse model of worship.  Architecturally, what is center?  In many instances, the stage has been cleared as to place nothing at the central point.  One of the trends that ties in with this has been a move toward a translucent pulpit, almost as if nothing is there at all. 

            Now, I confess that I have a bias toward a traditional church worship and traditional church architecture with the Lord’s Sacred Desk (the pulpit) placed centrally in the church to visually make the statement, “This is the most important thing we do!”  And, I suppose that by posting these views here I will be stepping on the toes of some folks even in my own denomination who have embraced a more non-traditional model.  I know that when you are reaching out to unchurched folks, many times they feel intimidated by the traditional elements of church architecture and worship—then again, is church supposed to be about making people comfortable or is it supposed to be about pointing toward Truth (and Truth never makes people feel comfortable, not even me).  The traditional architecture and the scriptures presented remind us that we are part of a tradition that is far older than we are.

            But can we set our biases to the side for a moment and pose the question as to what this new, non-traditional architecture points toward?  In other words, what does the eye focus on, what does the church layout communicate as being central?  I would suggest that in the absence of the pulpit or the altar, what is presented as central is the man, whether that man be the pastor or the worship leader, it seems to be the man that all of the eyes turn toward.  It is also worth noting, and this is where many more toes are going to be stepped on, that preaching has also reflected this change.  The systematic and consecutive exposition of scripture has largely been replaced by topical and practical preaching.  This does not mean that the preaching is not laced with scripture, it is, but the scripture becomes secondary to the topic and the topics tend to be very anthrocentric, dealing more with how to live in this world than with how God has revealed himself to this world. 

            In making this assertion, please do not think that I am rejecting application in a sermon—sermons must be laced with application, but I would suggest that application needs to be drawn out of the scriptures, while in the non-traditional model, the scriptures are used to support the application.  In the first, the scripture is the primary focus, in the latter, the application is the primary focus.  In a very real sense, this is reflected in the changed architecture where no longer is every eye drawn to the pulpit, but where every eye is drawn toward the man.  Every decision we make carries with it ramifications, and I think that we must be careful in seeking new models and contexts for church worship, for when we change the focal point, oftentimes other changes follow as well.

 

 

Samson or Sampson

            Growing up I remember being corrected on the spelling of Samson.  “No ‘p’ in his name!” I would be told over and over.  The interesting thing is not in that I was spelling the name incorrectly, but that so many people spell the name incorrectly.  In addition, there are many people in our culture today whose surname is Sampson, which seems to reinforce the use of the letter “p” in the middle of the name. 

            This year, as I have been teaching through the book of Judges, I posed the question as to what is the cause for this phenomenon?  Is this but a dialectical thing, or is there something in the original text that is not being carried over into our English transliteration?  What I found was quite interesting.

            The Hebrew spelling of Samson’s name is !Avm.v. (Shemshon).  While there is some debate over the source of his name, it seems that it is derived from vm,v, (shemesh), which means “sun.”  Since the Philistines worshiped the sun as one of their gods (the Mesopotamian god “Samsu” was revered as god of the sun), this seems to be a direct attack on their deity, much in the same way that the plagues in Egypt are attacks on the Egyptian gods of that day.  Yet, this does not help us solve the mystery of the “p” in his name.

            The “p” actually arrives from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible.  About 300 years before the birth of Christ, the Hebrews began translating the Bible into Greek.  Greek was the “lingua franca” of the day and many Jewish people in the dispersion could no longer read Hebrew well.  In addition, the Greek mind likes to engage in dialogue with other schools of thought and such a translation provided a medium for that discussion.  This translation is referred to as the “Septuagint” or the “LXX.”

            When the translators of the Book of Judges approached the name of Samson, they transliterated it as follows: Samyw/n (Sampson).  This transliteration not only explains how the “Sh” transformed into a “S,” but also explains the importation of the letter “p” into the center of the word.  Now, why they opted to use a psi (y) instead of a pi (p) is still clouded by the shadows of history, perhaps it was simply seen as an easier way to pronounce his name—there are a number of names that have been transliterated oddly both in the Septuagint and in our English translations.

            Thus, the next time you happen to slip, and pronounce or spell Samson’s name with a “p,” and someone curtly corrects you, all you have to do is to put on as serious and scholarly a face as you are able and inform them that you simply favor the Greek spelling over the English one.  That ought to get them scratching their heads for a while.  :8)

 

 

Does Sin Crouch? (Genesis 4:7)

Genesis 4:7

Can Sin Crouch and can sin Desire?

 

Genesis 4:7 (ESV) “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

 

Literal Translation:  “Will not, if you do good, to lift up?  And if you do not do good, sin is laying at the door.  And it’s longing is toward you, and you must rule over it.”

 

The question that was asked, is this passage simply personifying sin of does God’s word somehow suggest that sin is an entity which can act on its own volition?  The simply answer to the question is that sin is being personified by God to emphasize the point that God is making with Cain.  God wants Cain to truly understand the power that sin has over him, so the comparison that is being made is of a predator crouching in wait at the threshold of his home—ready to strike—and that it has a desire for Cain.

 

While the simple answer is that God is personifying sin for the sake of emphasis, perhaps the more interesting question is why might God have communicated in this way with Cain?  To answer that question, we need to know something about what is literally being communicated.

 

First, as you can see above, the initial question, when translated literally, makes rather awkward and unintelligible English.  And such is not overly unusual when going from one language to another—especially with idioms, so a few notes must be made up front.  First of all, the Hebrew language often uses word order to add emphasis to those things that are found at the beginning of the sentence, though typically not as much so as Greek. In other words, what is being emphasized is God’s beginning question—“Won’t this take place…?”  Oftentimes when my son has been disobedient, instead of just telling him that he was wrong, I will ask him a leading question so that he speaks the truth about his action.  I might ask “Surely, you didn’t think that such and such was okay to do…,” and in doing so, add a great deal of emphasis on the word, “Surely.”  Usually, when confronted in this way, my son responds by hanging his head and saying, “no, dad…”  I think that the word order and structure of the initial question lends itself to this tone on the part of God.  God knows that Cain knows right from wrong, God knows that Cain knows that he sinned, and God also knows that Cain knows that he needs to repent, but the leading question is designed to force Cain to respond properly—yet Cain’s heart is hardened and he refuses to repent.

 

The second thing that we need to note is the word af’n” (nasa), which means, “to lift up.”  While this term broadly refers to picking or lifting up anything in particular, it is also sometimes used in a judicial sense to some being restored to favor before a king, as with the cupbearer being restored to his office in Genesis 40:13.  That seems to be the context of its use in this particular pattern—if Cain does right (in this case, repenting of his heartless offering and make a proper offering, sacrificing what is first and best of his crops), then he will be forgiven.  Thus, the concept that the ESV is seeking to capture as they translate this word as “be accepted” is this idea of Cain’s being restored to proper fellowship with God.  Note too, that af’n” (nasa) is being used in it’s infinitive form, and thus carries with it no subject (as my translation above reflects), and though this makes awkward English, it is meant to remind us that in the repentance (doing what is good in God’s eyes), the process of lifting up—the process or legal restoration to his original position in the covenant community—takes place.  Yet, of course, if he chooses what is not good, in comes sin.

 

This raises the issue with respect to what is “good” and what is the relationship between “good” and “sin.”  The concept of “good” is understood in a number of ways, but in its absolute sense (from which we should derive our applications of the concept) only applies to God (Mark 10:18; Luke 18:19).  Psalm 119:68 is the basis for this concept:

“You are good and you cause good to be;

teach me your statutes.”

Note the structure of this psalm.  God is described as good—where the idea of “good” is functioning as a predicate nominative.  In other words, “good” is being portrayed as part of God’s essential character and reciprocally, “good” cannot be defined apart from a discussion of God and who he is.  The psalmist continues, though, by stating that not only is God good, but God’s work is good.  This second use of the term good, moves from the adjectival use of the word Good (a reflection of God’s character) to the participial use of the term, reflecting his ongoing actions.  In addition, the Hebrew uses the Hiphil stem of the verb in this case, which reflects causative action—in other words, God is the one who causes all good to come about.

           

            One note that we need to make in relation to this is the way in which we use the term “good,” because even as Christians we rarely use it in its absolute sense.  We often express the idea of good in relationship to our preferences, other people, or our general comfort.  And while they are all legitimate uses of the term, “good,” the general term must derive its meaning from some sort of inviolable standard.  God is the only one who can set such a standard.  This, of course, provides a problem for unbelievers who reject God’s presence, but in rejecting God, to where will they turn for the measure of what is good?  If they determine that preference determines the meaning of good, all intellectual interaction is reduced to meaningless babble—one can turn to the beginning of Genesis 11 to see what happens to a culture that cannot communicate with one another in any meaningful way.  If the unbeliever looks outside of himself, to perhaps the state, for a standard for good, they are reduced to excusing Nazi Germany for their execution of millions of people, for those in government saw themselves as doing good for the German people.  If you look to the Nuremburg trials, they defined good in terms of that which preserved life (though one might ask from where they adopted that absolute definition).  Yet many who would advocate such a definition would also advocate abortions, which terminate the life of an unwanted baby.  The unbeliever is reduced to an endless cycle of confusion and frustration unless he can appeal on some level to a supernatural standard, and then he has trapped himself in an unwanted contradiction.  If you don’t accept God as being who he is—and being the source of the definition of good—then you cannot use the term in any meaningful sense.  At the same time, this causes a great deal of practical difficulty for many Christians, because if you accept that God provides the absolute definition of what is good, we must define what is good on that basis, not on the basis of our own comfort or preferences—and that causes Romans 8:28 and similar passages to be taken in a very different light compared to how most Christians look at the passage.  Thus, while God does work all things for my good, what is ultimately good for me is not my comfort, health, or financial blessing, but being conformed into the image of his Son, Jesus Christ.

 

            So, for Cain to do good, he must repent from his sin—and in this case, sin stands as the direct opposite of good.  The term we translate as “sin” in the Old Testament is taJ’x; (chattath), and is derived from the verb aj’x’ (chata), “to miss the mark” or “to fail to hit the target” (see Judges 20:16).  And then, what are we missing when we sin?  We are missing God’s perfect standard (Matthew 5:48).  This, of course, is why we needed a redeemer who could come and live a perfect life on our behalf as well as to pay the debt we owed on account of sin (retributive justice).  Thus sin is not an entity wandering about on its own, but it is the result of our failure to live up to God’s perfect standard—and willful sin, being that God has revealed his law, is an intentional missing of the standard, and is thus outward rebellion against God’s holy and good character.

 

            There is one more note that we need to make on this passage, and that is of the language of “desire.”  The Hebrew term employed in this verse is hq’WvT. (tishuqah), which refers to a “longing” or a “desire” for something.  What is particularly interesting is that while this term is only used in two other places in the Old Testament, one of those places is in the previous chapter: Genesis 3:16 (the second other place is in Song of Solomon 7:10).  What is also interesting about this is that in both of these cases (Genesis 3:16 and 4:7) the word lv;m’ (mashal) is used in conjunction with it.  The verb lv;m’ (mashal) refers to ruling over something or someone.  In both cases, the desire is defined as something that must be ruled over—in the first case, Adam ruling over Eve in spite of her desire for him (or for his position as many understand it) and in this case, Cain ruling over sin’s desire for him (or to destroy his relationship with God as part of the covenant community). 

 

            The reality is that the struggle with sin, while an inward spiritual struggle, is like wrestling against a wild beast seeking to destroy, but instead must be dominated and ruled over.  Not only is God using this language to emphasize the urgency of Cain’s repentance, but also to communicate to us the very real battle that we face—one that is not a battle against flesh and blood, but against powers and principalities and thus we must take up the whole armor of God (Ephesians 6:11-12).