Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March Madness

A couple of days ago I watched some of the NCAA Men’s Basketball tournament online. Since we don’t have television I don’t have occasion to see many advertisements and so when I do see them it is easier for me to view them from a distance and think about them.

Among the advertisements I saw during the game was for an automobile. The setting was the downtown business section of a city. Tall buildings, professional men and women on the sidewalks moving with an air of importance, affluence, knowledge. They had countenances which projected, “What I do is important. What I know is vital.”

A few automobiles are seen on the street, but no one takes notice. Presumably the pedestrians are absorbed in the deep space of the business world and cannot be bothered with noticing passing vehicles – or acknowledging each other for that matter.

Then it happens. A car with stylish contours and “lines” appears. It is silver, has a sleek front end, sparkling chrome, and is driven by another professional-type person, a man who hopefully is paying more attention to his surroundings than the pedestrians have been – we wouldn’t want to have an accident would we?

Suddenly the pedestrian professionals are delivered from their isolation, they are beamed back to earth from deep business space, they leave their mental and emotional cubicles, and they behold (drum roll) the CAR!!!! The CAR stops and as it stops the people are drawn to it, drawn from their contemplation of balance sheets and income statements, drawn from their meditation on that afternoon’s marketing presentation, extracted from the depths of company politics, even jerked away from adoring the new title on their business cards.

The CAR draws all to itself as if every cell phone, Blackberry and I-Phone have been magnetized and are drawing their owners to the sparkling CAR. “What model of car must this be?” the announcer in effect asks. Is it a Lexus, a BMW, a Cadillac, a Mercedes?

One can only wonder whether the shepherds had a comparable reaction to the angelic announcement of the birth of Jesus when they said, “Let us go and see this thing.” I hope they did – I hope they gave this advertisement some competition.

How can the driver of the car stand all the focus? No doubt he is basking in the attention, soaking it in – if only his friends could see him now, hopefully some of them are in the crowd and recognize him. If only Mom and Dad could see him now, they’d know he had “made good.” If only someone was videoing this supreme moment of life so he could share it at the next holiday party – but why wait for the holidays, let’s put it on YouTube.

The crowd gathers around the CAR, admiring its well-defined lines, its glistening grill, its headlights reflecting light from the sun. No one remains on the sidewalks, no one continues on his own way, all are coming to the CAR. What of appointments that will be missed? What of deep space business contemplation that must be left undone?

I wonder if when Peter, Andrew, James and John left their nets to follow Jesus that they did so with the alacrity demonstrated by these men and women leaving all to behold the CAR?

Have any traditional pagan crowds ever adored a traditional idol the way these important men and women adore the CAR? The power of the image not only draws the men and women on the street – it draws the viewer of the advertisement. The image of success, the image of sex, the image of knowledge, the image of wealth, the image of fame – how many images can we find in this advertisement? It is an idol with many faces projecting itself on millions of willing worshipers, and perhaps millions of unwilling worshipers.

And oh the power of this idol. It will cause people to offer up one year’s salary (for many). It will entice them to exchange the image of God for the image of the many-faceted idol. It will consume the people as the people consume it – we are consumed as we consume – a cruel trick, a diabolic design, an exquisite deception.

Would that this Madness be confined only to March.

Psalm 115
  PS 115:1 Not to us, O LORD, not to us
    but to your name be the glory,
    because of your love and faithfulness.
  PS 115:2 Why do the nations say,
    "Where is their God?"
  PS 115:3 Our God is in heaven;
    he does whatever pleases him.
  PS 115:4 But their idols are silver and gold,
    made by the hands of men.
  PS 115:5 They have mouths, but cannot speak,
    eyes, but they cannot see;
  PS 115:6 they have ears, but cannot hear,
    noses, but they cannot smell;
  PS 115:7 they have hands, but cannot feel,
    feet, but they cannot walk;
    nor can they utter a sound with their throats.
  PS 115:8 Those who make them will be like them,
    and so will all who trust in them.

[See also Isaiah 44:9 – 20; 1John 2:15-17; Romans 1:18-23]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Pruning The Apple Tree

Sunday I walked over to my friend and neighbor David’s house. We are blessed to live on a homestead that has been in his family for generations and we cherish the friendship of his family.

Dave had been pruning his Stayman apple tree, and when I say “pruning” I mean pruning. He had a step ladder, an extension ladder, a chain saw and other tools, and had been working on the tree for a couple of days. There were branches, large and small, all over the ground. As I helped him load the debris into his trailer to haul to a brush pile he said to me:

Until I saw how growers prune these trees up in the mountains (the Blue Ridge) I didn’t understand how to do it. Staymans want to grow vertically, to shoot up high, but if you let them do that it will inhibit their ability to bear fruit – so you’ve got to prune the vertical height.

Isn’t that what the Lord does to us? Or at least to me? I want to shoot up vertically, I want height, but Christ wants me to bear fruit and so my egotistical propensity to desire personal height has to be pruned in order for me to bear fruit in Him. I can’t say that I enjoy the pruning, and sometimes it is so radical that I wonder whether I can stand anymore of it – and yet if it comes from the hands of the Divine Husbandman I can trust it to be merciful and I can live in the hope that the result will be the image of His Son.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sharing A Prayer

My morning devotions currently include a Scripture passage (I work through a Biblical book at a time, short passages to ponder); a Puritan prayer from the collection titled, The Valley of Vision, assembled by Arthur Bennett; and then a reading from The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas a’ Kempis.

A few mornings ago one of the Puritan prayers really struck me. While they all speak to me, many of them deeply, this one got my attention in a way that I can’t quite describe. I thought I’d share it, it is titled The Second Coming.

O Son of God and Son of Man,

Thou wast incarnate, didst suffer, rise, ascend for my sake;thy departure was not a token of separation but a pledge of return; thy Word, promises, sacraments, show thy death until thou come again.

That day is no horror to me, for thy death has redeemed me, thy Spirit fills me, thy love animates me, thy Word governs me.

I have trusted thee and thou hast not betrayed my trust; waited for thee, and not waited in vain.

Thou wilt come to raise my body from the dust, and reunite it to my soul, by a wonderful work of infinite power and love, greater than that which bounds the oceans’ waters, ebbs and flows the tides, keeps the stars in their courses, and gives life to all creatures.

This corruptible shall put on incorruption, this mortal, immortality, this natural body, a spiritual body, this dishonored body, a glorious body, this weak body, a body of power.

I triumph now in thy promises as I shall do in their performance, for the head cannot live if the members are dead; beyond the grace is resurrection, judgment, acquittal, dominion.

Every event and circumstance of my life will be dealt with -

the sins of my youth, my secret sins, the sins of abusing thee, of disobeying thy Word, the sins of neglecting ministers’ admonitions, the sins of violating my conscience – all will be judged;

And after judgment, peace and rest, life and service, employment and enjoyment, for thine elect.

O God, keep me in this faith, and ever looking for Christ’s return.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Electronic Cocaine – II

A couple of months ago I had a meeting with a consultant who works with executives in a number of industries and disciplines. As our conversation turned to the state of business in America he said, “The problem is that no one knows how to think anymore. The cell phone, email, Twitter; they are all so distracting that no one thinks and because they don’t think they make poor decisions.” 

I think he was surprised when he found that I agreed with him. The msnbc.com article referenced  in my previous post describes a firm that has instituted “quiet time”. No emails, no phone calls – just think and do your job. It also relates a story about an employee who checks his email only twice per day – and how this person is not only actually getting work done – he is somewhat sane. 

Quiet time has long been a concept among Christians, but recent observations indicate that we’ve jettisoned the idea. There is a “ministry” that will call you throughout the day with a Bible verse, you set the schedule and it calls, and if you can’t answer it will leave the Bible verse on your voice mail. I wonder if this is what David had in mind when he wrote of meditating on the Law of the LORD? There are a number of other “time-saving” devices to help us read Scripture, pray, etc. – but what is wrong with this picture? Jesus Christ doesn’t call us to a data dump, He calls us into a relationship. 

A few months ago I checked the website of a professor and writer who I appreciate, he has done quite a bit of work in the area of spiritual formation. I was amazed that he was promoting his “tweets.” I really couldn’t believe it. I thought, “What message is this sending about spiritual formation?”

Now I realize you might think I’m nit-picking and maybe even judgmental – but I don’t make the observation judgmentally, and I know there are things in my life that need adjusting, but I do suggest that if short attention spans and addiction to outside stimuli are significant threats to growth in Christ that Christian leaders ought to give their modes of communication some thought. And yes – I admit that blogging can be suspect as well.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Electronic Cocaine

An article on msnbc.com titled, Blunt the Email Interruption Assault, http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/35689822/ns/business-small_business/, reminds me of a Saturday morning men’s Bible study in my church years ago. As we were discussing the challenge of mediating on Scripture and responding to God’s Word in obedience in a society with increasingly shortened attention spans, Kenny Brelsford said, “Pastor Bob, the way we live with all the noise and interruptions is like being on electronic cocaine.”

In the ten years since I heard Kenny say that I haven’t been able to improve on the image. Pascal said that the most difficult thing for a person to do is to be alone, for then he has to confront himself and God. I wonder what Pascal would think today with electronic cocaine coursing through our systems?

We are addicted to noise, to interruption, to outside stimuli. The above article, which is well worth reading, points out that one result of our addiction is that we (including executives) no longer know how to hold sustained face-to-face dialogue.

A few years ago a friend of mine at M.I.T. embarked on a project to analyze the deterioration in decision-making among leaders at top-notch universities. What he found was Kenny Brelsford’s electronic cocaine. His team was then charged with coaching leaders off the compulsion to read their emails 50 times a day and respond to emails immediately – they had to coach decision-makers through electronic detox – to use Kenny’s paradigm.

Psalm One tells us that blessed is the man who…delights in the law of the LORD and in His law mediates day and night. Psalm 123:2 says, Behold, as the eyes of servants look to the hand of their master, as the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress, so our eyes look to the LORD our God.

Short attention spans are incompatible with meditation on the Word of God, as they are incompatible with looking to the LORD our God. We cannot give God sustained attention if we are addicted to interruptions. We cannot give people humane attention if we are on electronic cocaine – we come to see people as just interruptions to be dispensed with so that we can move on to the next interruption – and of course we think nothing of interrupting others.

Psalm 131:2 says, ""Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; like a weaned child rests against his mother, my soul is like a weaned child within me.”

Our souls are made to feed not from the world, but from Christ and His Word. The Word of God is to be our sustenance, our source of life. Our minds and hearts are to feed on Christ and His Word, we are to engage life in koinonia with the Trinity – but how can we do so if we replace the symphony of Trinitarian koinonia with the cacophony of the age?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

My Foolishness - Hedging the Bible with Marketing

A couple of days ago I received the latest CBD Bible catalog. On the cover is the Fire Bible – Global Study Edition. Ok, I’m curious, just what is the Fire Bible? Is it something the Boy Scouts take camping so they don’t have to rub two sticks together or carry a magnifying glass? Is it something that smoke jumpers can pack in their gear? Or is it what employers give employees when there is a reduction in force?

On page 3 I find that is a tool for Pentecostal Christians. I assume the word “fire” relates to Acts Chapter 2.

Also on page 3 I see that The Case For Christ Study Bible is “Coming in February!” It’s about time we had a Bible that presents a good case for Christ. I guess I’ll trade what I have in.

On page 4 I see we have “Economy Bibles”. Are these the equivalent of the Yugo or Nash Rambler?

On page 17 (see, I’m sparing you a lot) we have Adventure Bibles, you can purchase either the previous edition or the updated edition. I read that I can transform Bible study into an adventurous safari for your 8 – 12 years olds! What happens when they reach age 13? What happens when they are adults? Oh – I know the answer to that one, we can just all get wild at heart.

Oh my! On page 18 there is a VeggieTales Bible, and wonder of wonders there is a Bug Collection Bible - “these cut-as-a-bug Bibles are sure to please your little nature lovers!"
On page A4 there is a Revolve 2007: The Complete NCV New Testament for Girls, this is rich…I read that “Teen girls love this New Testament Biblezine!” What’s more, “Relationship and ‘Guys Speak Out” articles” are included. Wonder if Jesus can be found there? He is a guy isn’t He? Looks like He has competition in this Bible. Oh excuse me, in this Biblezine.

On page 35 is the Archaeological Study Bible – and surprise, I like that one – just the facts Ma’am, just the facts. Now there ARE good study Bibles out there, but that is beside my point in this piece. There ARE great reference Bibles, and that is also beside my point. 

Page 38, there is the New Spirit-Filled Life Bible, and then a Spirit-Filled Life Bible for Women. The page is titled, Charismatic Bibles, I guess we need lots of help. Does this make sense? I thought we were going to trust the Holy Spirit to illuminate the text for us?  How about some Presbyterian or Baptist or Methodist Bibles? This ain’t fair!

There is a Life Principles Daily Bible with Charles Stanley’s name on the cover. I wonder if he has noticed that his Bible is missing? Not to be outdone Hank Hanegraaff has the Legacy Study Bible, and then the team of Gary Smalley, Jack Hayford, Darelene Zschech and others have produced The Maximized Living Bible. Is this fair? How can Stanley and Hanegraaff compete against all of these people? Where is the IOC when you need them?

Oh no…here it is, for you fans of The Red Green Show, there is actually something called The Official NCV Duct Tape Bible, it’s on page A4, I kid you not. 

I could keep going but just in case anyone is still reading I won’t. Is it any wonder our folks want entertainment on Sunday mornings? Is it any wonder we don’t read the Scriptures? Is this what our ancestors in the faith died for? Is this why people smuggle Bibles into closed countries today? 

As I said, there are good study Bibles out there, serious study Bibles that (hopefully) direct readers to the text. But what about this other stuff? What is the subtext when we market Bibles like this? The subtext is that the Bible in and of itself cannot be read, learned, and taught. The subtext is that the Bible in itself is not relevant or transformative.

The ancient rabbis often hedged the Scriptures with their tradition. It looks like we’re hedging the Scriptures with marketing.

The Refraction of His Glory

In George MacDonald’s sermon, The New Name, found in his Unspoken Sermons, he writes:
Not only then has each man his individual relation to God, but each man has his peculiar relation to God…In every man there is a loneliness, an inner chamber of peculiar life into which God only can enter…From this it follows that there is a chamber also – (O God, humble and accept my speech) – a chamber in God himself, into which none can enter but the one, the individual, the peculiar man, - out of which chamber that man has to bring revelation and strength for his brethren. This is that for which he was made – to reveal the secret things of the Father.
Relative worth is not only unknown – to the children of the kingdom it is unknowable.
While MacDonald may be pushing the envelope for some of us, his point is that each of us is called, in Christ, to reflect a facet of Christ to our brothers and sisters. We are a body with many members, a multitude which no man can number, and the Infinite – Personal God, in Christ, desires to display His splendor through His people, individually, peculiarly, and corporately.
This ties back to an earlier post about friendship and co-inherence, C.S. Lewis, Charles Williams, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Dante. We reflect God’s glory and beauty to others and God places special people in our lives so that we may behold His glory and beauty through them. It is not for us to be conscious of the glory and beauty in ourselves – that would be toxic, but it is for us to seek God’s glory and beauty in others.
In Lewis’s essay, The Weight of Glory, he writes:
It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor…It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship…There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal…Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object presented to your senses. If he is your Christian neighbor, he is holy in almost the same way, for in him also Christ vere latitat – the glorifier and the glorified, Glory Himself is truly hidden.
Life in the Body of Christ is sacramental, the koinonia of the Body of Christ is the sharing of the life of Christ, we are one bread (1Cor. 10:16), sharing one Life. When we profane and desecrate a relationship in Christ, we bring that which is unclean into the Temple. MacDonald, Lewis, Williams, Sayers, and Dante give me much to ponder about relationships. I know I have failed to appreciate others, failed to honor others, failed to protect others – I hope that our merciful God will teach me to behold HIs beauty in others and to seek their glory and honor in Christ above my own.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Study Bibles - Do You Want A Little Coffee With Your Sugar?

With each passing year, and each passing Bible study, I find myself ruing the day study Bibles were born; for time and again I see that the study notes drive the interpretation and interaction rather than the Biblical text; it is like someone putting 10 tablespoons of sugar in 8 ounces of coffee, the sugar drives the drink, not the coffee.

The last time I led a Bible study in my church I found that my first challenge was to insist that we read the text and not the notes - the notes could come later, but only after we had engaged the text to the point of coming to conclusions. In the beginning I frustrated my folks with this persistent insistence; but later they came to appreciate it. 

In the men's group in which I currently participate I see again and again that those men with study Bibles gravitate to the notes before they gravitate to the Biblical text - rather than wrestle with the Biblical text and hold the Biblical text as authoritative they functionally hold the study notes as authoritative.

If we can't read the Scriptures without the notes we certainly can't read the Scriptures with the notes; and I am convinced that we can't read the Scriptures - we don't know how to read, we don't know how to hang with the text and in the text, we don't know how to eat the book. We will submit ourselves to the study notes before we will submit ourselves to the text for there is no effort in submitting to the study notes - our work is done for us, we need not till the land to have plenty of bread. 

Do I think that there is a place for study Bibles? Yes I do, I think their place is on the bookshelf; to be taken down when the spade work is done within the Biblical text in the same way a commentary should be taken down only after the Biblical land has first been tilled. I say this with all respect to many (not all!) producers of study Bibles; I have good friends who are contributors to the Archeological Study Bible and I honor our friendship and respect their work, and study Bibles can be quite helpful in many ways. However, as instruments of first impressions they are not helpful, they are, in fact, detrimental. They are also visually distracting - in spite of protestations to the contrary; when people tell me that they are not distracted  from the Biblical text by reading a Bible with copious study notes they might as well tell me that they can drive while talking on a cell phone and not be distracted.

to be continued...

Friday, March 5, 2010

Friendship - The Refraction of His Glory, Joy, and Beauty

C.S. Lewis, in his section on Friendship in The Four Loves, writes:

...Friendship exhibits a glorious "nearness by resemblance" to Heaven itself where the very multitude of the blessed (which no man can number) increases the fruition which each has of God. For every soul, seeing Him in her own way, doubtless communicates that unique vision to all the rest. That, says an old author, is why the Seraphim in Isaiah's vision are crying, "Holy, Holy, Holy" to one another (Isaiah VI, 3). The more we thus share the Heavenly Bread between us, the more we shall all have.
As Barbara Reynolds discusses in her book, The Passionate Intellect - Dorothy L. Sayers' Encounter with Dante, Charles Williams took Dante's figure of Beatrice and worked out a concept that Williams termed co-inherence, quoting Reynolds on page 176:

It is a principle of divine community, involving substitution and exchange. To the lover, beholding the glory of the Divine in his beloved, the moment of revelation is unique; but it is also universal. The revelation can be experienced by anyone at any time. What is more, the beholder, as it might be Dante, may in turn be a vehicle of glory for someone else.
A number of years ago it struck me that relationships are sacred trusts. They are treasures placed in our hands by God. Of course there are different types and degrees of relationships, but those in the Body of Christ should certainly be calling to one another, "Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD God Almighty."

Lewis, Dante, Sayers, Williams and, as I'll touch on in a future post, George MacDonald, saw that we can behold the joy and beauty of the Trinity uniquely revealed and refracted in others. This takes the Body of Christ beyond function and into nature or essence. This is beholding the New Jerusalem, a Bride adorned for her Husband with His glory; the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb being the light and the temple.

The NT's portrayal of the Body of Christ is first and foremost organic; function arises out of organic relationship, organic relationship does not arise out of function. While this is tangential to this post, I'll mention that I consider the greatest theological error of my life to be the idea that if I could reproduce the right "form" of church life that I'd have the right substance.

I find myself reflecting on the subject of friendship for a few reasons. On my other blog I've been looking back over my pilgrimage in Christ and thinking about people who have influenced me, and as I've thought about folks I've gained a renewed appreciation for them. Another reason for my reflection is that I've been spending time the past couple of years with Charles Williams, Dante, and Sayers, which has added to the appreciation of friendship that I'd previously gleaned from Lewis and MacDonald. Then there is the fact that Vickie and I are in a challenging season of life which is causing me to consider the things that are really important. And lastly, as I approach my 60th birthday, more than ever I find myself valuing relationships in general and friendships in particular. For years I've known that I'm the product of friendships - anything in me that is any good, any grace that has come to me or through me, is the result of Christ, either working in my heart directly or through the lives of others, especially through friends.