Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Moses and the Rock – III

In pondering Moses and the rock in Numbers Chapter 20 I turned to Keil & Delitzsch (a commentary) and found that they express in a few words what might take me many words:

He [Moses] then struck the rock twice with the rod, “as if it depended upon human exertion, and not upon the power of God alone,” or as if the promise of God “would not have been fulfilled without all the smiting on his part” (Knobel).

As a young Christian my devotional readings focused on Jesus teaching that He could do nothing of himself, but could do only what the Father within Him was doing. That same teaching planted Galatians 2:20 deep in my soul, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

As a pastor the great temptation was to “make something happen”. I’m certain I crossed the line more than once, I’m certain I’ve attempted to make things happen. I’m equally as certain that those actions were costly. You see, if Jesus Christ is our Sabbath Rest, if He is our completeness, then (to echo Hebrews Chapter 4) we are to cease from our own works even as God ceased from His works on the seventh day.

The context of Numbers Chapter 20 suggests that Israel had been in the wilderness for many years; for all of those years Moses had obeyed the voice of Yahweh and not taken things into his own hands (yes, there was the frustration exhibited in breaking the Ten Commandments – an interesting comparison with striking the rock) but now, toward the end of the journey, when the prize is so close, Moses takes things into his own hands and does not trust the Word of God. Is this so? Perhaps…perhaps not. Whether Moses trusted God’s Word or not, his anger and frustration usurped obedience. Can we say that anger and frustration overshadowed obedience?

The pressure to make things happen is great in vocational ministry. It is a pressure aided and abetted by a “numbers and success” mentality, by a consumer-driven mentality. I wonder how many of us are barred from Canaan, from the experiential fullness of Christ in this life, and don’t know it?

And the thing is that striking the rock takes so many forms that what looks like striking the rock in one place may not be and that what looks like trust in Christ in another place may be striking the rock – it is a matter of the heart, a matter of restful obedience to Jesus Christ. Only the person with the staff of leadership in his hand may know for sure.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

C.S. Lewis – From Oxford to Cambridge

In a November 1, 1954 letter to Mary Willis Shelburne Lewis writes:

Did I tell you I’ve been made a professor at Cambridge? I take up my duties on Jan. 1st at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Note the differing in spelling [from Oxford’s Magdalen]. It means rather less work for rather more pay. And I think I shall like Magdalene better than Magdalen. It’s a tiny college (a perfect cameo architecturally) and they’re so old fashioned, & pious, & gentle and conservative – unlike this leftist, atheist, cynical, and hard-boiled, huge Magdalen...

It is nice to be still under the care of St. Mary Magdalene: she must by now understand my constitution better than a stranger wd., don’t you think. The allegorical sense of her great action [see Luke 7:37ff] dawned on me the other day. The precious alabaster box wh. one must break over the Holy Feet is one’s heart. Easier said than done. And the contents become perfume only when it is broken. While they are safe inside they are more like sewage. All v. alarming.

 While Lewis mentions his change in colleges to many correspondents, this is the only letter I’ve read in which he expresses the above thoughts about Oxford. Since 1925 Lewis had been a “tutor” at Oxford, not a professor. When professorships had opened Lewis had not been elected. Through this discouragement Lewis worshiped Christ, served his students, and became a national and then international voice for the Gospel. Where others might have become bitter and turned inward, Lewis creatively flourished and blessed others with his mind, imagination, and book royalties.

The allegorical meaning of St. Mary Magdalene’s “great action” may have just dawned on Lewis cognitively, but thank God Lewis had already been learning to live as Mary – whether he realized it or not.

Here are a couple of other excerpts regarding the change in colleges that you might enjoy:

January 17, 1955, written to Belle Allen from the Kilns (Lewis’s home in Oxford):

No, my change of address does not imply retirement – or at least retirement from academic life; what has happened is that Cambridge has given me a Professorship. [The professorship was established especially for Lewis.] In many ways I regretted leaving Magdalen, but after nearly thirty years of the tutorial grind, I shall appreciate the less strenuous life of a ‘Chair’ at Cambridge. I am now settling in there, and think I shall be happy: many of my colleagues are Christians, more than was the case in my old College; my rooms are comfortable, and Cambridge, unlike Oxford, is still a country town, with a farming atmosphere about it.

February 19, 1955, written to Joan Lancaster from Cambridge:

You see I have changed my job and my address. Note the different spellings: Magdalen at Oxford and Magdalene at Cambridge. But are both pronounced Maudlin. This is a lovely little college and looks nice to-day, all covered with snow

Monday, March 28, 2011

C. S. Lewis and the Presence of God

In his February 20, 1955 letter to Mary Willis Shelburne Lewis writes:

One mustn’t make the Christian life into a punctilious system of law, like the Jewish. Two reasons, (1.) It raises scruples when we don’t keep the routine (2.) It raises presumption when we do. Nothing gives one a more spuriously good conscience than keeping rules, even if there has been a total absence of all real charity & faith…
And of course the presence of God is not the same as the sense of the presence of God…It is the actual presence, not the sensation of the presence, of the Holy Ghost wh. begets Christ in us. The sense of the presence is a super-added gift for wh. we give thanks when it comes, and that’s all about it.

I’ve experienced the truth of the first paragraph in my own heart and mind in both its obvious and subtle forms.  I know what it is to be legalistic without charity and I know what it is to feel guilt over not measuring up to something that started out as a well-intentioned discipline.

Jesus tells us that He will never leave us nor forsake us; that He is with us always, even to the end of the age. If we believe this, and if we believe that the Trinity lives within those who are given new life in Christ, then we can acknowledge that the presence of God is not the same as the sense of the presence of God. I wonder if we might retitle Brother Lawrence’s little book from The Practice of the Presence of God to The Practice of the Acknowledgment of the Presence of God?

When I quote this line from Lewis, the presence of God is not the same as the sense of the presence of God, I often get the same reaction from others that I experienced the first time I read the words, “Why didn’t someone tell me this years ago?”

While I have known the truth of this both intellectually and experientially for many years, Lewis’s words brought me from black and white to Technicolor; they moved me from Kansas to Oz.

I suspect that we each have our own inward journal of the presence of God. After all, God is our Father and He draws us into relationship with Himself. Hopefully we also share in a collective journal as members of the Body of Christ, as brothers and sisters experiencing the koinonia of the Trinity.

There can be an expectation in Christian gatherings that all members will experience and respond to the presence of God in the same way; this is probably more the rule than the exception. (Perhaps 1 Corinthians Chapters 12 – 14 can help with this?) Can we learn to rejoice in the many responses to the presence of God in the church? Can we learn to respond to the presence of God in our own lives without self-consciousness, resting in Christ and trusting our brothers and sisters?

Acknowledging the presence of God, whether or not we sense the presence of God, expresses trust in the Word of God and the character of God. From the acknowledgment of His presence we can hopefully be a source of light and life in Christ to those around us.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Moses and the Rock – II

In Deuteronomy 32:50 – 51 Yahweh says to Moses, “Then die on the mountain where you ascend, and be gathered to your people…because you broke faith with me in the midst of the sons of Israel at the waters of Meribah-kadesh, in the wilderness of Zin, because you did not treat me as holy in the midst of the sons of Israel.”

Numbers 20:12, “But Yahweh said to Moses and Aaron, Because you have not believed me, to treat me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.”

Deuteronomy 34:10, “Since that time no prophet has risen in Israel like Moses, whom Yahweh knew fact t0 face…”

How did Moses fail to treat Yahweh as holy? How did Moses break faith, how did his faithfulness to Yahweh fail? The answer, at least in part, is that Moses not only failed to obey the Word of Yahweh in striking the rock twice instead of speaking to it, but he twisted the Word of God in making it an instrument of his own anger and frustration; he used the Word of God to satisfy himself rather than please God.

I wonder how many times I’ve used the Word of God to satisfy myself, my goals, my self-centeredness? I wonder how many times I’ve been demonstrative for the sake of self-satisfaction or show as opposed to speaking the Word of God in trustful obedience? (I am not against being demonstrative, lest you should misinterpret my words; I am reflecting on motivation and trust in God’s Holy Spirit to do the work of God.)

 Certainly there have been numerous leaders in Israel and the Church who have taken things into their own hands, and with whom God has been slow to anger and merciful; why then such a severe punishment for Moses? Is this a situation in which to those to whom much is given much will be required? Is this a lesson in the greater the leader the greater the accountability? The greater the leader the greater the consequences of disobedience?

The Divine consequences, the Divine decree, concerning Moses’s failure to hold Yahweh as holy was made known to Israel, as it has been made known to generations since then. Moses is an example not only of faithfulness, but also of the consequences of unfaithfulness in leadership.

Do we manipulate the Word of God in the church and in our lives to achieve our own ends? Are we aware of the myriad dangers of striking the Rock in disobedience? How often do we conjure up ways of wielding the Sword of the Spirit so that it will elicit the approbation and respect of men for us…rather than for our holy God?

And what about our view of leadership as a place of high accountability, of such accountability that disobedience may render a leader unqualified for certain future tasks and positions? Can we dismiss the example of Moses, who knew God face to face, so blithely?

As I look back over my own life I can only marvel at God’s mercy toward me and His forbearance in the midst of my self-centeredness and self-will…in the midst of the times I have not held Him holy in the midst of His people.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Moses and the Rock – I

Holy intimacy is not profane familiarity. But, what begins as holy intimacy may slide into profane familiarity; or be propelled into profane presumption. On the obverse, legalism and self-righteousness may mask as holiness but it will seldom mask as intimacy for performance will nearly always be its middle “C”; relationships based on performance cannot be relationally intimate; how can we know one another if our focus is on behavior rather than heart?

John Chapter 17 reveals holy intimacy in the Trinity and in those in relationship with the Trinity; Moses striking the Rock in Numbers Chapter 20 portrays the tragedy of profaning that intimacy; a tragedy for Moses and a tragedy, I think, for Israel. While Moses’s intimacy with Yahweh was restored by Yahweh, it was restored through the mercy of judgment, “…you shall not bring this assembly into the land that I have given them.” Moses accepted the judgment, he accepted the verdict of Yahweh…otherwise how would the narrative read?

What can the professing North American church learn from Moses striking the Rock? While we will explore Numbers Chapter 20 in a forthcoming post, I want to begin at the end of Moses’s life.

Moses came and recited all the words of this song in the hearing of the people, he and Joshua the son of Nun. And when Moses had finished speaking all these words to all Israel, he said to them, “Take to heart all the words by which I am warning you today, that you may command them to your children, that they may be careful to do all the words of this law. For it is no empty word for you, but your very life, and by this word you shall live long in the land that you are going over the Jordan to possess.” Deuteronomy 32:44-47

Above I termed Moses’s striking the Rock a tragedy for both Moses and Israel; in one sense it was and in another sense it wasn’t. How sad that Moses, in the midst of a long life of humble leadership, should throw away the experience of leading his people into their destiny. How sad that in pent-up anger he should cast off, for an extended moment, the mantle of humility and revert to the man who killed an Egyptian, taking things into his own hands. And what would it have been like for Israel if Moses had led them across the Jordan? Of course we don’t really know the answer to the question.

However, the God of Redemption redeemed Moses’s profanity and in that redemption the tragedy is transformed into glory and intimacy is restored.

Moses says with conviction and authority, “For it is no empty word for you, but your very life…” because he has experienced the doubled-edged sword in his own life and he has submitted to the work of that sword. He knows what occurs when man puts his own hand on the sword and attempts to have it to do man’s bidding; he knows what occurs when God says, “Speak to the Rock,” and man instead grabs the hilt and strikes the Rock. Moses knows the danger of attempting to force the Word of God to submit to the will of man; rather man submitting to the Word of God.

I wonder if we, as His people, know this danger? Do we seek to mold God’s Word and fashion it into our image, whether an individual image or a doctrinaire or collective image? Or do we trivialize it into trinkets and pithy sayings devoid of context?

The beauty of Numbers Chapter 20, and the beauty of the end of Moses’s life, is the Redemption of our Father; Moses submitted to the Word of God in repentance, intimacy was restored, Moses mentored his successor, blessed his successor, and Moses remains an example for us all. A future day, if it can be called a “day”, comes in the life of Moses when he appears on the Mount of Transfiguration and speaks with Jesus concerning the crucifixion and resurrection; ah…what a sacred moment that must have been…what a moment of holy intimacy.

To be continued…

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Plastic, Paper or Truth?

The homeowners’ association meeting turns to recycling. As soon as the subject is raised a religious atmosphere pervades the room.

“Our neighborhood doesn’t have recycling,” one man solemnly says. He is a priest indicting a parish. His neighbors, the parishioners, nod and murmur their acknowledgment of the sin.  

“What must we do to be saved?” a lady asks.

“Let us petition the county,” the priest continues. “Amens” permeate the room.

This is the second time in two weeks that I have witnessed this liturgy in a homeowners’ association meeting. My sense both times was that if a heretic were discovered in the room that he or she would be burned at the stake of ostracism.

It isn’t that recycling is wrong. It isn’t that recycling isn’t worthy. But could we have had a conversation about transcendent truth? If there is no transcendent truth then recycling really doesn’t matter because whether we last another one or two generations doesn’t really matter – if the end is the end then it doesn’t matter when the end comes for it is simply the end.

Excuse me, I have to go, I see another piece of cheese.

Goose Eggs and Babies

            Why do we need physical prisons when our minds and tongues have been incarcerated?
            I sit in a company staff meeting and listen to a colleague share about a problem one of her communities is having with geese around its lake. What can they do to control the geese? Their feces will kill the lake and pollute the surrounding land. In the course of her presentation she talks about the treatment of eggs, she uses the word “humane” and there is a grave acknowledgment in the audience that yes, indeed, the eggs of geese must be treated humanely.
            We have the liberty to talk about the humane treatment of unborn geese; we do not have the liberty to talk about the treatment of unborn babies; we don’t see the incongruity. I have to go now; my keeper has just thrown a piece of cheese into the cage.

Monday, March 14, 2011

C.S. Lewis and The Mere Christian – II

Lewis uses an abbreviated quote (see previous post for context) from St. Vincent of Lerins, ‘Let us hold on to that which has been believed everywhere, always, by everyone.’

            Lewis follows this with: The point of view from which this agreement seems less important than their divisions, or than the gulf which separates both from any non-miraculous version of Christianity, is to me unintelligible. Lewis then references Richard Baxter who wrote:

You know not of what Party I am of, nor what to call me; I am sorrier for you in this than for my self; if you know not, I will tell you, I am a CHRISTIAN, a MERE CHRISTIAN, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church, and hath been visible where ever the Christian Religion and Church hath been visible.”

            I have seen division in the church and I have seen unity; I much prefer unity. I have seen Christians focus on their differences and I have seen Christians celebrate their MERE CHRISTIANITY; I much prefer the celebration of MERE CHRISTIANITY. Christ (John 17) prays that we will be one as the Trinity is one; Paul exhorts us (Ephesians 4) to guard the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace; and in 1 Corinthians Paul chides God’s people for their sectarian mindset and actions – they are living as mere men rather than as Mere Christians.

            Christians who are secure in Christ and knowledgeable of their tradition can celebrate the traditions of others; Christians who are insecure cannot celebrate the traditions of others because they are too busy defending their own traditions. Insecure Christians mine their rhetoric with the term “heresy” the way terrorists mine roadways with IEDs (improvised explosive devices). Followers of Christ who acknowledge that we live in a grand Kingdom can take delight in learning the ways and traditions of their brothers and sisters; whether they agree with practices and doctrines or not they can understand them (to various degrees) and honor their fellow members of Christ’s Body.

            What can compare with Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Cross, the Resurrection, the Second Coming of our Lord Jesus (in all of its varied understandings), and the glory of death being a portal to Heaven? Can my understanding of baptism, communion, church government, or anything else compare to the Incarnation of Christ? The Life of Christ? The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? If it cannot, and I don’t think it can, then how can I allow anything outside of Mere Christianity to inhibit my love for, fellowship with, and appreciation for my brothers and sisters who are also Mere Christians?

            We need not ignore our differences, which can be rich indeed and which can often be a source of delightful Divine diversity; and from which we might even learn. But oh how right Lewis is when he writes: The point of view from which this agreement seems less important than their divisions, or than the gulf which separates both from any non-miraculous version of Christianity, is to me unintelligible.

            “Oh Father,” Jesus prays, “that they may be one as we are one. That they may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me and love them as you love me.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Time Change?

            Today is March 13, 2011; at 2:00 AM this morning the time changed to 3:00 AM. I wasn’t awake to see the change; I slept through it. Usually when there is a time change from Standard Time to Daylight Savings or vice a versa I ask Vickie if she is going to stay up and change the clocks at 2:00 AM. I also threaten to call friends at 2:00 AM to remind them to change their clocks.

            I didn’t feel the time change. Oh, I’ll probably feel it today and tomorrow having lost an hour’s sleep, but I didn’t feel it change at 2:00 AM. We reset the clocks before retiring, and as I write this I note that the computer reset its clock; the cell phones have the correct time as well. 

            The time change occurs in the midst of other time changes; Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Wisconsin, Japan, New Zealand; the codification of human relationships beyond the pale of Divine sanction; the termination of life on utilitarian grounds without regard to its Divine origin; the debasing of mankind into programmable mechanistic resources and behaviorist systems walled in and walled off from the transcendent. 

            The Japanese know that a tsunami has hit; they don’t need our thoughts, they need our intercessory prayers and material assistance. The rest of us have been in the midst of a tsunami for years and don’t know it; one house of consumption falls and we build another; a socio-political edifice crumbles and we erect what we think is a better and more enduring one, only to see it swept away. Blind to transcendent truth, intoxicated by sensory consumption, infatuated by ourselves; we congratulate ourselves for ourselves the way asylum inmates congratulate themselves on being Napoleon, Elvis, or Einstein.

            The contradictory cry of the world is, “Give me nihilism or give me death!” Nihilism is death; death to meaning, death to beauty, death to transcendence, death to joy, death to love, death to family, death to marriage, death to life, death to character, death to personhood, death to dignity, death to coherent social fabric. We have assumed a collective Kevorkian persona, collective assisted suicide as we drain the image of God from ourselves and replace it with embalming fluid.

            Perhaps when we are finished and laid in our collective casket the lions and tigers and bears will say, “Oh, don’t they look good.” Then again their commentary might be, “Damn fools.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

C.S. Lewis and The Mere Christian

In a letter from Lewis to the Church Times, published February 8, 1952, he writes:

I welcome the letter from the Rural Dean of Gravesend, though I am sorry that anyone should have regarded it necessary to describe the Bishop of Birmingham as an Evangelical. To a layman, it seems obvious that what unites the Evangelical and the Anglo-Catholic against the ‘Liberal’ or ‘Modernist’ is something very clear and momentous, namely, the fact that both are thoroughgoing supernaturalists, who believe in the Creation, the Fall, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the Second Coming, and the Four Last Things. [The Four Last Things are: death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell]. This unites them not only with one another, but with the Christian religion as understood ubique et ab omnibus.

The point of view from which this agreement seems less important than their divisions, or than the gulf which separates both from any non-miraculous version of Christianity, is to me unintelligible. Perhaps the trouble is that as supernaturalists, whether ‘Low” or ‘High’ Church, thus taken together, they lack a name. May I suggest ‘Deep Church’; or, if that fails in humility, Baxter’s ‘mere Christians’?

The letters I’m quoting from C.S. Lewis are from The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis, edited by Walter Hooper. This is a three-volume set well worth the journey.

Hooper notes that the Latin quotation, ubique et ab omnibus, is “an abbreviated form of the quotation from St. Vincent of Lerins, ‘Let us hold on to that which has been believed everywhere, always, by everyone.’ ”

The reference to Richard Baxter is to Baxter’s statement in 1680:

You know not of what Party I am of, nor what to call me; I am sorrier for you in this than for my self; if you know not, I will tell you, I am a CHRISTIAN, a MERE CHRISTIAN, of no other Religion; and the Church that I am of is the Christian Church, and hath been visible where ever the Christian Religion and Church hath been visible.”

Some thoughts and observations on the above:

Today it would be necessary to describe an Anglican bishop as Evangelical (if that were the case) since, to use Lewis’s criteria, many Anglicans no longer believe in the supernatural. How things have changed in sixty years.

Then there is the question for those of us who claim to be Evangelicals or Anglo-Catholics in the sense Lewis means; While we ascribe to supernatural Christianity, while we profess belief in the great doctrines Lewis lists, is our ascription intellectual or is it holistic? That is, do we live in the supernatural in Christ or do we simply say that we believe these primary doctrines? For Biblical belief is not solely intellectual assent, it is holistic engagement; heart, soul, mind, and body. Biblical belief is not compartmentalizing; it is not looking at a glass of water and acknowledging there is water in the glass; nor is it taking the glass of water and drinking it; it is rather bypassing the glass altogether and throwing oneself into the ocean, swimming in it, living in it, and becoming one with it.

The world will often tolerate to some degree those who acknowledge water in the glass; and the world will often tolerate to a lesser degree those who drink the water in the glass; but seldom will the world tolerate those who throw themselves in the ocean and declare that ocean to be their biosphere. And yet, in a naturalistic Western world this is exactly what Christ-followers are called to do – to throw ourselves into Jesus Christ, to live in Jesus Christ – and can there be any other life in Christ than a supernatural life, than a life that is above and beyond the gravity of earth, the pull of the natural? Is it any wonder a dominant New Testament phrase is; in Christ? We are to live in Christ, to breathe in Christ, to love in Christ, to die in Christ.

There is no ocean as vast, as wide, as deep, as grand, as life-giving…as the ocean of the Trinity.

To be continued…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Vicarious Suffering

On September 12, 1951, Lewis wrote to Mary Van Deusen:

            Dear Mrs. Van Deusen,
            It is remarkable (or wd. be if we did not know that God arranges things) that you shd. write about our vicarious sufferings when another correspondent has recently written on the same matter.
            I have not a word to say against the doctrine that Our Lord suffers in all the sufferings of His people (see Acts IX.6) or that when we willingly accept what we suffer for others and offer it to God on their behalf, then it may be united with His sufferings and, in Him, may help to their redemption or even that of others whom we do not dream of. So that it is not in vain: tho’ of course we must not count on seeing it work out exactly as we, in our present ignorance, might think best. The key text for this view is Colossians 1.24. Is it not, after all, one more application of the truth that we are all ‘members of one another’? I wish I had known more when I wrote the Problem of Pain.
            God bless you all. Be sure that Grace flows into you and out of you and through you in all sorts of ways, and no faithful submission to pain in yourself or in another will be wasted.
            Yours ever
            C.S. Lewis

            Another Biblical passage that supports the above is 2 Corinthians 1:1 – 11; in fact, this is a theme of 2 Corinthians.

            In a pain-avoidance society; in a pain-avoidance Western church, Lewis’s counsel is incongruous. We hawk the Gospel as a means to a prosperous life, a happy life, as (to quote a popular book title) Your Best Life Now. The idea of embracing suffering on behalf of others in an intercessory fashion is alien to our thinking. We idealize those “special” people who have embraced suffering; but they are the equivalent of a religious painting with figures beneath halos – we frame them and segregate them apart from our lives and the lives of our congregations lest the virus of intercessory living and suffering spread. Have you ever read a book on church growth that coaches the reader to proclaim a message of suffering to attract people?    

            I have a dear friend with chronic and progressive pain who told me that he is offering it up to God for the blessing of others. He also shared with me that he wants our heavenly Father to accomplish His work in him through the pain; he wants to be shaped into the image of Jesus Christ through the pain. As he shared his heart with me I had a sense of assurance for him; assurance that he is resting in the Presence of the Most High; assurance that his pilgrimage is on the trajectory of glory.

            This is a mystery; this connectedness we have in The Trinity, this “members of one another”, this filling up the sufferings of Christ (Colossians 1:24), this having the “sentence of death in ourselves that we should not trust in ourselves but in God who raises the dead” in order that we might “comfort those who need comfort with the comfort we receive from God” in our dire circumstances (2 Corinthians 1:1-11). A mystery indeed; but a mystery that we are called to enter into that we might know the “fellowship of His sufferings” (Philippians Chapter 3).

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Egyptian Christians

I have been praying for the Christians in Egypt ever since the unrest began. I have been praying that they will be a light and graceful testimony to their neighbors and to the watching world. The headlines today indicate that they are protesting for their rights and that they have engaged in violence. Of course I don't actually know this to be the case because I'm not in Egypt and I've not done any research on current events. But if this is true - then an opportunity for peaceful and graceful witness has been missed; perhaps it can be recovered?

I pray that there will be a peaceful and suffering nucleus that will bear testimony to both "Christians" and non-Christians. Whether Lebanon, or Palestine, or Egypt, the Balkans, or Northern Ireland...or the United States and Canada - to be born into a "Christian" family does not make one a Christian. When civil restraint is cast off what do we have? 

A few months ago I wrote about "be not overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." That is a command to those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ. Our words, our actions, the meditations of our hearts; all of these reflect either obedience or disobedience to the Cross of Christ and the Christ of the Cross. I don't think those of us in North America are immune from the insidiousness of sin and the temptation to use the elements of the natural in response to evil; whether those elements are vitriolic rhetoric or violent actions - are we learning to guard our hearts? Are we learning to fear our hearts when they are not ruled by the Prince of Peace? Are we in the school of discipleship of Christ so that as our society sprials down into the whirlpool of evil that those around us will see in us the Prince of Peace?

Let us pray for brothers and sisters in Egypt; that they will not be overcome by evil but that they will overcome evil by good.

C.S.Lewis and Professor Haldane - VI

Lewis writes in his reply to Professor Haldane:

            I am a democrat. [Lewis is speaking of democracy, not a political party] Professor Haldane thinks I am not, but he bases his opinion on a passage in Out of the Silent Planet where I am discussing, not the relations of a species to itself (politics) but the relations of one species to another…

            I am a democrat because I believe that no man or group of men is good enough to be trusted with uncontrolled power over others. And the higher the pretensions of such power, the more dangerous I think it both to the rulers and to the subjects. Hence Theocracy is the worst of all governments. If we must have a tyrant a robber baron is far better than an inquisitor. The baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity at some point may be sated; and since he dimly knows he is doing wrong he may possibly repent. But the inquisitor who mistakes his own cruelty and lust of power and fear for the voice of Heaven will torment us infinitely because he torments us with the approval of his own conscience and his better impulses appear to him as temptations. And since Theocracy is the worst, the nearer any government approaches to Theocracy the worse it will be. A metaphysic, held by the rulers with the force of a religion, is a bad sign. It forbids them, like the inquisitor, to admit any grain of truth or good in their opponents, it abrogates the ordinary rules of morality, and it gives a seemingly high, super-personal sanction to all the very ordinary human passions by which, like other men, the rulers will frequently be actuated. In a word, it forbids wholesome doubt. A political programme can never in reality be more than probably right. We never know all the facts about the present and we can only guess the future. To attach to a party programme – whose highest real claim is to reasonable prudence – the sort of assent which we should reserve for demonstrable theorems, is a kind of intoxication. [Bold print mine.]

When I read the above a number of thoughts came to me. The history of the church on earth provides ample evidence that the closer a government moves to a theocracy, or to what amounts to an exclusive relationship with one religious tradition, the more difficult life becomes for those Christian traditions outside the exclusive relationship. While Protestants are often smug about Christians persecuting Christians, raising the specter of the Roman Catholic Inquisition, some Protestant traditions have had blood on their hands from time-to-time, both in Europe and in North America. Additionally, traditions that may not have blood on their hands, may have wielded their position of influence to ban other traditions from their geographic areas, the violation of such bans leading to fines, imprisonment, or both. My own state, The Commonwealth of Virginia, saw nonconformists fined and imprisoned as a result of the relationship of the Episcopal Church to the Colonial Government. Colonial Massachusetts witnessed those outside the Congregational Church imprisoned, expelled from the colony, and in the case of Quaker Mary Dyer, executed by hanging.  

Certainly in the history of the United States of America it would be hard to find a greater moral issue than slavery. (I place alongside slavery the genocide and treatment of American Indians and the sanctity of life in our own time; now that I’ve written those words they seem to me to be one and the same…I’m going to explore that relationship. Of course, there could be other moral issues of the same gravity – but I’m going to use slavery right now.)

Therefore, one would think that the President of the United States during the American Civil War would be quick to assure himself and his nation that God was on the side of the Union; yet here are oft-quoted words from Lincoln:

The will of God prevails. In great contests each party claims to act in accordance with the will of God. Both may be, and one must be, wrong. God cannot be for and against the same thing at the same time. In the present civil war it is quite possible that God's purpose is something different from the purpose of either party -- and yet the human instrumentalities, working just as they do, are of the best adaptation to effect His purpose. I am almost ready to say that this is probably true -- that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By his mere great power, on the minds of the now contestants, He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds

I would welcome such humble reflection from the leaders of our current political parties and movements; and it seems to me that those who profess to be the standard bearers of Biblical virtue and morality should be those most inclined to display Biblical humility and an awareness that we are all fractured and imperfect people.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Professor Haldane – V

Not long ago I was in a discussion with a pastor about the closing of a church. “Well”, he said, “you know congregations have life cycles and this church reached the end of its life.”

Considering the church in question was only about ten years old, and considering it closed because its founding pastor left for other pastures, I found it difficult to accept the life cycle explanation; but more importantly, I questioned the Biblical basis for the paradigm.

“Where do you see that in the Bible?” I asked.

“Well, the human body is born, grows old, and dies. There’s the Biblical basis,” my friend replied.

“But,” I said, “what is the nature of the Church? Is it not the Body of Christ? Doesn’t the life of Christ live in His people? Is not that life eternal? Is there really a Biblical basis for thinking that the norm is for churches to be born, grow old, and die?” (Thank God no one has told the many vibrant churches in New England, founded in Colonial times, that they should have died by now!)

My friend, who is typically a critical thinker, had bought into a way of thinking in vogue among many in the professing church – churches have life cycles. These life cycles are now the benchmark, interpreter, and arbiter of pastoral ministry and leadership – not the Bible and Lord Jesus. We accept as “natural” these cycles rather than challenge ourselves and others to renewed commitment to Christ and the Gospel. We view decline as inevitable rather than fast and pray, confess and repent, and encourage one another to be faithful to the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ. Where is the source of this life cycle paradigm? In the social sciences. The Church, the Bride of Christ, bone of His bone and flesh of His flesh; that which is inherently supernatural, having its roots in the Trinity; has been reduced to a sociological phenomenonby those who are to shepherd it supernaturally.

The roots of many church health programs popular in the professing church are not found in the Bible but in sociology and psychology. The engines of many church endeavors are not fueled by Biblical narrative, command, and precept; but rather by social-scientific constructs which appear to make sense and work; until of course we require a new model construct to keep the machine moving. It is much like buying a smart phone; buying the phone is just the beginning – then there are the apps you need to purchase and download.

 The title of Lewis’s book which Professor Haldane attacked is That Hideous Strength. I wonder why Lewis chose that title?

Monday, March 7, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Professor Haldane – IV

Three or four years ago I was in a day-long gathering of pastors in Charlottesville, VA. Because these gatherings had generally been edifying I invited one of the men in our church to come with me. The presenter that day was from a seminary. At this seminary he had developed an institute with a focus on developing pastors and congregations and coaching leaders. Now I’m sure this man is a fine man, a fine brother in Christ; so please don’t interpret what follows as personal, it can’t be personal because I don’t know the man, but I want to use this experience and one or two others as foils to describe what I’m talking about when I write of the professing church adopting the scientific ethos of the world-system.

My first observation is that programs, institutes, and other offerings in seminaries and many parachurch ministries are often economically driven. While this may not be quite on point with our current discussion regarding science, the issue of ethos is relevant. Just as a scientific ethos has permeated much of the professing church, so has an economic ethos. “Ministries” must be economically viable in order to be sanctioned and supported by many professing Christian institutions and organizations. It seems that the notion of trusting the leading of the Holy Spirit and trusting the God of Abraham for provision has departed the camp; we may sing Jehovah-jireh but we’ll trust in marketing. We now know a thing is from God if it provides a return on our economic investment.

The day in Charlottesville consisted of a Power Point presentation with graphs, statistics, maxims built on the statistics, and more graphs and statistics. Coaching, church growth, leadership, and more coaching, church growth and leadership. On the way home I asked my companion what he thought, “I didn’t understand much of it”, was the reply. The fact was that there wasn’t much that was understandable.

I had brought my Bible for the day; I need not have done so. With, I think, one exception, the Bible was not referred to. Here we are, a group of pastors and other church leaders, gathered for the day, considering the church, pastoral ministry, and our mission to the world; and the Bible is not necessary, we can get through the day without it. No wonder my companion couldn’t understand much – it was not Biblical language, they were not Biblical paradigms – it was the science of sociology reigning as arbiter and director of pastoral ministry and church growth and church health. And Jesus? What about Jesus? While I don’t recall Jesus being referred to during the day, in similar contexts Jesus would more likely be referred to as a “coach” than as Lord.

Similar scenarios are played out throughout the professing church, on seminary campuses, in pastoral workshops, in leadership seminars, in parachurch ministries, in “Christian” books and DVDs. The Scriptures and Christ are placed within the framework of social science, social science is not placed within the framework of Christ and the Scriptures.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Professor Haldane – III

Is the enthronement of science confined to the world-system or can it be identified in the professing church? If by the word “science” we include the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and psychology then I suggest that the professing church has been significantly affected by the prevailing scientific-mechanistic ethos of society. Of the three aforementioned disciplines, anthropology, because much of it is interpreted through a Darwinian lens, has a significant effect on those elements of the church that do not hold a high-view of Scripture; however, I want to focus on the professing church which within its profession claims to continue to hold Scripture as the Word of God.

The danger of going down this path of observation is the same one Lewis risked when writing That Hideous Strength, the accusation that I am opposed to the learning and observations of science, including the social sciences; this is not the case. However, of all the areas of what we term science today, the social sciences are the most susceptible to subjective interpretation and manipulation of data because people are interpreting people – not physical objects. In daily life we all face the challenge of correctly interpreting the actions and words of our neighbors, and most of us, myself included, come up woefully short in understanding those around us. Consider that our daily interpretations of others are based on our empirical experience, and yet we continue to get it wrong with others. Granted some days we get it more right than wrong, but we still get it wrong. What does that say about the danger of placing empirical experience on the throne of social engineering? Social engineering may be able to manipulate but it cannot understand us as persons. It may be able to reduce us to rats and dogs but it cannot engage us as men and women with souls. The social sciences approach their statistics with a priori grids and those grids dictate the interpretation of data, indeed, they dictate the categories of data collected.

Filtering social sciences through the lens of Scripture is not always easy, at least not for me. Filtering the sciences that overlap between the social and medical, such as psychology and psychiatry, is not always easy, at least not for me. Sometimes these sciences can inform a situation, whether it be on a basic level or a more complex level, but if I permit these sciences to be the arbiter of my relationships and interpreter of family systems, of marriages, of congregations, of society…then what have I done?

As a pastor I have had occasion to work closely with professionals in the mental health sciences; but I have been careful to know the grid upon which these professionals base their practice, and my goal has been for my parishioners to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Shepherd of their lives; not counseling, not science, not me.

To be continued… 

Friday, March 4, 2011

C.S. Lewis and Professor Haldane – II

In reply to Haldane’s attack on That Hideous Strength Lewis writes:

Thirdly, was I attaching scientific planning? According to Professor Haldane ‘Mr. Lewis is clear enough. The application of science to human affairs can only lead to Hell.’ There is certainly no warrant for ‘can only’; but he is justified in assuming that unless I had thought I saw a serious and widespread danger I would not have given planning so central a place even in what I call ‘a fairy tale’ and ‘a tall story’. But if you must reduce the romance to a proposition, the proposition would be almost the converse of that which the Professor supposes: not ‘scientific planning will certainly lead to Hell’, but ‘Under modern conditions any effective invitation to Hell will certainly appear in the guise of scientific planning’ – as Hitler’s regime in fact did. Every tyrant must begin by claiming to have what his victims respect and to give what they want. The majority in most modern countries respect science and want to be planned. And, therefore, almost by definition, if any man or group wishes to enslave us it will of course describe itself as “scientific planned democracy’. [Bold print mine].

There are, I think, a number of facets emitting light in Lewis’s words. Among them:

It is not unusual for a criticism of science, or of the way science is used, or of the integrity of certain scientific theories, to be construed as a reactionary or uninformed or prejudicial attack on all science. It strikes me that this is much the same as the way a criticism of religious systems has been viewed at times in history, and even in the present day in some quarters; science is a religion to many and we should not be surprised when a criticism of it evokes reactions sometimes observed in religious circles.

While it seems unlikely that anything so obvious as Hitler’s brand of scientific planning will arise again in the West; an observer may conclude that scientific planning has been refined to the point where physical coercion is no longer needed since brainwashing has been refined. “If science says so then it must be so”, is the mantra of society. “If science says so and tells us that in the light of its proclamation we must live thusly, then we must live thusly”, is another mantra. Society marches to it, dances to it, allocates its resources according to it, makes life and death decisions in conjunction with it, and justifies its narcissism with it.

We have placed ourselves in a cage, locked ourselves in the cage, and we eat what our masters toss into the cage. We raise our young in the cage, form and dissolve what passes for relationships in the cage, and often have no compunction about ignoring the welfare of our fellow prisoners in the cage because, after all, the natural selection process is what it is.

Well, at least our keepers don’t put us in physical concentration camps; why should they? They need not spend the money, they imprison our hearts and minds and then have us live as they would have us live…paying for our own food and shelter…after making us men and women without chests; that is without hearts and souls, to import an image of Lewis’s from The Abolition of Man.

To be continued…