Friday, December 27, 2013

Bill Cosby – From Doctor Huxtable to Doctor Toxic

I’ve long known that laughter can be both enjoyable and toxic and that we tend to suspend our critical thinking when we’re laughing; laughing can bring barriers down quicker than chug-a-lugging a Mason Jar of Virginia Recipe. There are things society endorses today that it prohibited fifty years ago; Hollywood had a hand in bringing the barriers down by getting us to laugh at them – we were culpable because we paid for the entertainment, we laughed at the entertainment, and now we are the entertainment. Make something funny or cute or sympathetic and there is a good chance of getting that something accepted. By the same principle take something serious like the Gospel, or sex within marriage, or faithfulness in marriage and caricature it, make jokes about it, belittle it…and again critical thinking is suspended and the floodgates of toxicity open to engulf society.

I haven’t followed Bill Cosby closely but for the most part what I’ve seen I’ve liked. When I was in junior high school I had a record of his stand-up routines, they were clean and I enjoyed them. In fact, until this week there is only one routine of his that I objected to and it was one in which he used the name of Jesus in a profane manner. Again, there may have been other objectionable routines of his that I’m not aware of for I haven’t followed him closely. But my opinion of Mr. Cosby has changed and he has gone from Doctor Huxtable to Doctor Toxic.

You may recall that Doctor Heathcliff Huxtable was his name on The Cosby Show which ran from 1984 – 1992. In the show he portrayed a husband and father who was kind, honest, faithful, with a sense of humor, and wise. In 2004 TV Guide ranked Dr. Huxtable the #1 Dad in TV history. While I didn’t watch many episodes of this series, what I did watch showed a loving husband and wife who loved their children.

With the above as a backdrop, Cosby has a new standup performance titled, “Bill Cosby…far from finished”, that has been released on DVD. The back jacket of the DVD says, “Whether he is talking about friendship, first love, marriage or raising children, the result is people laughing so hard their faces hurt, their sides are splitting, and they can’t breathe. This extended concert event is a must-see for your whole family.”

My recommendation is to keep this DVD away from your family and anyone else you care about. For 95 minutes (I recall one exception when he weaves a story about driving children to school) Cosby cynically attacks marriage by lampooning wives as the equivalent of prison wardens and portraying husbands as prisoners in their own homes and marriages – it is the story of the overbearing wife and the mousey husband who is trained to say, “Yes Dear”. Cosby inserts toxicity with humor, with comedic timing, with signature facial expressions, and by taking isolated things which can and do happen in marriages and making them the motif of marriage – and by doing so he deprecates marriage. Wives are portrayed as domineering tyrants and husbands as bumbling serfs just trying to get along.

The fact that it is Bill Cosby delivering the message makes his delivery a Stealth Bomber; after all, this is the guy who played Doctor Huxtable, this is the guy who makes it a point not to use curse words in his comedy, this is the guy we trust.

A confession: in retrospect I wish he had started his routine with a few curse words because then we would have turned the DVD off…as it was we watched the entire thing…my excuse is that I thought it would surely get better – poor excuse. Yes, this is a confession – I was a fool to watch the entire thing but I did. I kept thinking, “What message is this sending to young people in the audience? What message is this sending to women? What does this say about marriage?”

So you see I was watching somewhat critically, but as I hope you also see I agreed to be sucked into the morass, I made the decision to keep watching – I was a fool. Don’t be a fool with me.

The experience is interesting to me on a few fronts; one is that it shows how laughter can overcome critical thinking and how being favorably predisposed to someone can entice us to drop our guards. Another thing about the experience is that it is a sober reminder to me that I must never suspend critical thinking and that when I sense something is awry that I need to deal with it then…not later…because the more one sips from the Mason Jar of Virginia Recipe the easier each subsequent sip is to take…and before you know it the entire jar is empty and you don’t know where you are or how you got there.

The Scriptures tell us to gird up the loins of our minds and be sober; how we use our minds matters; thoughts reproduce and reproduce and then reproduce some more – what thoughts are our minds generating, what images, what attitudes? I want to think sober thoughts in line with reality, corresponding to God’s truth and God’s word – I don’t want to be drunk on the world’s toxicity. 

Here’s another confession…since I’m laying this all out in public…watching this was not honoring to my wife Vickie…and that, my friends, was sinful and stupid and I’m sorry I wasn’t enough of a husband not to turn the wretched thing off. Shame on me.

Now…in all love and gentleness may I say…don’t let it be shame on you.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 4 – with Associated Thoughts)

Continuing with one last segment from Davidman’s letter to H.H. Lewis: “My last criticism concerns content. Poetry must appeal to the imagination and the emotions; correct political statement is not enough…And to appeal to imagination and emotion, the poet must use both himself; he must work through the five senses, not through the power of argument…if you do not take the trouble to imagine your subject completely, how can you expect the reader to do it for you?

“Just stop reining in your imagination; let it go and take a look at the real lives and sufferings of real people on this earth. Then come back and tell simply what you have seen.”

While argument has its place in prose and public speaking, I’ve excerpted the above comments on poetry because of Davidman’s emphasis on the imagination. In an age of data and information our imaginations are atrophying, we also confuse imagination with imaginary – they are not synonymous.

Is what the Apostle John saw in Revelation Chapters 4 and 5, the Throne Room, imaginary? If so, we should forget about reading them. Can we see what he saw with our imaginations? Yes we can. Was Jesus walking with two disciples on the road to Emmaus imaginary? No it was not. Can we use our imagination to walk with them, to hear them, to feel the road beneath our feet, to experience the ache of weariness, the perplexity of hearing (on the part of the disciples) that the tomb of Jesus is empty? Can we sense the disciples’ intrigue with Jesus, their wonder when He vanished from sight?

I have often heard others say that they found the subject of history boring; then there are the few who tell me about a teacher who made history come alive. The former usually had teachers who told others about history, the latter had teachers who showed their students history, who gave them a guided tour of people and experiences, who transported their classes to walk and talk with those who lived and loved and died decades or centuries or millennia ago. But you can only escort others to where you have been yourself, otherwise all you can do is to give facts and figures and read words – data and more data and more data – what good is it to read about the road to Emmaus  over and over again if we haven’t walked it?

This is one reason why I love using the historical present in speaking and writing, it helps in transporting us back to the time and place of focus. It isn’t, “Jesus said, Let not your heart be troubled,” it is rather, “Jesus says, Let not your heart be troubled.” It isn’t, “And Peter and John ran to the tomb,” it is, “Peter and John run to the tomb.” Go back with me to the Upper Room, go back with me to Easter morning; hear the words that Jesus speaks as the apostles hear them, run with Peter and John to the tomb, don’t be a bystander, don’t sit in the bleachers, get out on the field and play the game.

But our audience can only get out on the field if we take them there, and we can only take them there if we have been there first, and we can only go there first if we use our God-given imaginations. The Bible is a book filled with images, images that we try to explain away and reduce to the mundane – how sad…all those images without people who will use their imaginations to experience them and thereby understand them with their hearts. I’ll tell you what, if you’ve ever been to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon you won’t forget it; nor will you forget if you find yourself in the Upper Room.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 3 – with Associated Thoughts)

Continuing with Davidman’s letter to H.H. Lewis: “These defects [see the previous post] are thrown in sharp relief in your work by your habit of mixing styles. You will use the funniest, the least dignified of slang phrases in the same line with some of this pompous old stuff; and consequently the slang looks cruder and the fancy language sissier than ever. Once you pick a style, stick to it. It’s like the tone of your voice; it adds a great deal of meaning to the words themselves, and if you changed tones five times in speaking a sentence you’d confuse everybody.

While Davidman is writing specifically about poetry, her observation applies to all genres of communication; though I suppose in post-modernity many people might not notice – so accustomed are we to discontinuity and disjunction and disharmony. It seems that communicators and artists and musicians must be asking today, “How much noise can we make?” when engaging in what passes today for creativity. When I was a child we had “dot-to-dot” books (do they still publish them?). You drew a line from 1 to 2 to 3 and so forth and when you were done you had an image of an elephant or a dog or a house or car. In post-modernity a dot-to-dot book need not result in a discernable image. In today’s milieu a speaker or writer can change tones five times in speaking a sentence and few people will notice, so accustomed are we to our disjointed world.

Davidman continues, “Abusive epithets have no place in poetry; they belong on the back fence. Instead of calling Hitler a so-and-so, the poet must show Hitler doing something which at once makes it clear to everybody that he is a so-and-so; then you must have proved your case without even needing to state it.”

This is a tough rule to adhere to because it requires discipline and sweat and merciless editing. It is so much easier just to get to the point and call a spade a spade without describing the spade; it is easier but it is not memorable – not memorable for the audience and not memorable for the communicator.

When the communicator forces himself to show and not tell he is likely to gain a deeper understanding of what he is talking about, likely to discover nuances he didn’t see, likely to walk down paths previously hidden. Once the communicator takes the journey himself then he can describe the journey to others, once the communicator has seen something then he can show it to others.

Familiar territory is dangerous territory; we think we know the familiar and we think we can walk right by it and tell others about it without slowing down, stopping, and pondering what we think we know. This is one reason why working with children is both challenging and enlightening at the same time; it is challenging in that we need to communicate descriptively, we can’t take shortcuts by just telling them things (or at least we shouldn’t take shortcuts); it is rewarding in that as we force ourselves to describe subjects and objects we see new images which lead to our own greater understanding. Adults let us get away with laziness, children don’t. If children don’t see what we’re saying they’ll let us know one way or the other – by words, by body language, or by looking for something else to do.

A couple of years ago I read a popular biography of Dietrich Bonheoffer, at times when the author was dealing with Hitler and Hitler’s ideas he resorted to what Davidman was talking about in her letter to H.H. Lewis; I recall a passage about Mein Kampf; Hitler’s book was dismissed out-of-hand without any description of what Hitler wrote in the book – this was not helpful and it was lazy…it was also poor writing. There was so much of this type of thing in the Bonheoffer biography that I felt I was watching a DVD with gouges in it, stopping here and skipping there – shame on the editor.

Back to the danger of the familiar; some years ago when preaching through the Gospel of Mark I came to Mark 12:28 – 31 in which Jesus says that we are to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. I’d known that passage since I was fifteen years old, it was one of the first passages I learned by heart after meeting Jesus, but preparing to preach that passage by showing what the passage meant required more sweat and pumping iron than just about any passage I’ve ever taught; one of the most familiar passages to me required the highest degree of work, of dogged determination, of perseverance. I also knew that while my audience may not know the passage by heart that it was a passage whose concepts they had heard and therefore were likely inoculated against – I needed to take them on a journey to explore and see the passage. The result was a message that I could see and illustrate and could show to others.* If you were to put me on a plane land me in an unfamiliar land without Bible and notes, by God’s grace I could preach and teach that passage because I’ve seen it and showed it to others. I like to think that my listeners were turned into viewers that morning and that they could also share the images of that message with others. If my listeners haven’t seen then they haven’t heard.

Joy Davidman understood the difference between telling and showing; perhaps this is one reason she was a gifted collaborator with both William Gresham and C.S. Lewis; Lewis’s Till We Have Faces would likely not be the book it is without Davidman’s partnership. Her advice is a bastion for those who strive to maintain clear and meaningful communication in an age of incoherence; her advice was needful when she wrote it in 1943, it is indispensable today. 


*The message title is; A Ladder or a Loveseat? Is our relationship with God based on climbing a ladder to earn His acceptance, or is it sitting on a loveseat with Him in Christ, loving and being loved?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 2)

Anyone contemplating reading Out of My Bone, who has not read Lyle Dorsett’s biography of Davidman, And God Came In: The Extraordinary Story of Joy Davidman, might want to consider reading the biography before reading the letters. The biography will provide context for the letters; this is particularly helpful since the range of correspondence in Out of My Bone is limited.

Davidman, who was born in 1915, had a remarkable intellect, graduating from Hunter College in 1934 and then from Columbia University with a MA in 1935 (she graduated from high school when 14). Considering that she died when 45, I can’t help wondering “what might have been” had she lived longer; what books and essays might she have written, what might her literary and intellectual and spiritual partnership with C.S. Lewis have looked like, and how might have she continued to grow in her relationship with Jesus Christ?

One of Davidman’s letters that struck me was written to Harold Harwell Lewis (dated June 7, 1943 – no relation to C.S. Lewis) in her capacity as an associate editor of New Masses, the magazine of the Communist Party of the United States.   It begins: “Dear H. H. Lewis, I’ve been looking over some of your poems, and I’ve been impressed with the broadening scope of your work…You are certainly growing as a poet.”

Well into the letter Davidman writes, “Another way in which your work is getting above the heads of the audience is in its diction…Our task is to bring poetry back to spoken English; a good rule is to use no expression in poetry that you can’t imagine yourself using in conversation.”

When you show that you know more than your audience, it should only be something that your audience really needs and wants to learn. You have another trick of inventing words, using hyphens to create what are known as neologisms – horrible things; and using a jawbreaker where a simple one-syllabled word will do.

Not only do big words look grotesque; they are also limp and colorless, because they have no associations. A reader will get a mental picture when you say tulip tree, but if you call it Liriodendron tulipifera you will leave him blank. Or imagine using “maternal progenitor” for mother.

Her letter to H.H. Lewis covers six pages in Out of My Bone and I’m going to quote from it more in the next post; consider the time and thought Davidman is putting into encouraging and critiquing her correspondent, this is quite the investment – and one which Davidman is willing to make with those who “have an ear to hear” what she has to say. Unlike the passive communication style that our 21st century society is perfecting, Joy Davidman gets to the point, expands the point, and then gets to the next point without apology or without using phrases like in my opinion.

Her above-quoted advice is good for writers and speakers today, even writers of emails. I recall once, in Boston, hearing a seminary professor speak at a breakfast of business and professional people and cringing at his theological jargon – even if his audience could deduce the meaning of the jargon the process of deduction would have distracted it from following the speaker’s line of thought, it would have been akin to taking the wrong exit ramp from an interstate highway and then figuring out how to get back on the highway.

In terms of emails, how often have I read an email from someone trying to impress readers and thereby coming across unnaturally, using words that they would never use in normal conversation – and sometimes using words whose meanings they sadly do not know.

I like words, and I like increasing my vocabulary, and I like using different words, including words that aren’t used very often (because if I use them I’ll learn them) – and therein lies the danger if I forget my audience and forget the message – the goal in communication (unless your goal is subterfuge) is for the listener or reader to see what you’re writing or saying – it is incumbent on the one doing the writing or speaking to do it well – and that means to do it with the audience in mind.

There are writers and speakers that are Gnostic in the sense that they portray an air of mystery and secrecy; follow them to become initiated into hidden wisdom and knowledge; use their jargon and “voice” to enter the inner circle of acceptance and ascendency. We see this in art, we see it in religion, we see it in academia, we see it in literature; I suppose we see it just about everywhere – why I even see it in business with buzz words and phrases and in thinking that often has no foundation and that is not logical. We think fancy words indicate learning, knowledge and wisdom – too often they indicate shallowness and egotism. Davidman could see through fa├žade, some people appreciated that and some didn’t. I think Jesus probably would have said to her, “Behold an Israelite, in whom is no guile.”

To be continued…

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Out of My Bone – Book Review (Part 1)

I just finished reading Out of My Bone – The Letters of Joy Davidman, edited by Don W. King, Eerdmans, 2009. There is a particular challenge in reading this collection in that there are two distinct sections of letters, the first section covers pages 1 – 159; the second section pages 160 – 358. The letters in the first section are dated from August 18, 1936 to October 29, 1953; the letters in the second section cover November 14, 1953 through July 2, 1960 – Joy Davidman Gresham Lewis died on July 13, 1960.

The challenge comes in the second section, for the vast majority of the letters are to William (Bill) Gresham, her first husband, and their recurring theme is his lack of financial support for Joy and their two sons, David and Douglas. After Joy’s marriage to C.S. Lewis, on April 23, 1956, the focus on money shifts to the support of the two boys and is not as pronounced as prior to her marriage to Lewis; this is because Lewis has taken up the financial slack; in fact previous to their marriage Lewis was already helping Joy financially. Here are some snippets from her letters to Gresham:

“Check for $25 arrived. How long is Valley Forge going to last?” March 8, 1954.

“Why no, all is not well with me and the boys. How do you expect it to be, on five-dollar checks?” March 25, 1954.

“I supposed I’m a fool to go on being patient; any other woman would go to court.” January 14, 1955.

“Gee thanks; this month, for once you’re less than $100.00 behind!” March 25, 1955.

“You know, I get tired of labouring the obvious; you know as well as I do that $20 a week isn’t enough for me to bring up two boys on even in England.” November 28, 1955.

“Same old inflexible – ignore everything I say and go on paying as little as you please.” March 14, 1956.

The challenge in reading the second section is at least two-fold; firstly it is repetitiously dreary, with the monotony only breaking somewhat after her marriage to Lewis. Secondly, because her letters to Gresham dominate the second section, the reader has to remind himself that he is only reading a facet of Joy Davidman’s life through these letters – there was much more to this woman during these years than is reflected in the letters. Having said that, there can be little doubt in reading her letters to Gresham how finances influenced her activities and her health (she couldn't afford a balanced diet); they also restricted her ability to engage in activities that might have opened up opportunities for writing and speaking. In her letters we see a gifted thinker and author reduced to typing manuscripts for others in order to make ends meet.

One thing that comes through clearly in her letters is her love for her boys and her determination that they have educational opportunities and the best life possible under reduced financial circumstances. She writes to Gresham as a mother first and a soon-to-be former wife (and then former wife) second. She also shows genuine concern for Gresham and his new wife, her cousin Renee; Bill and Renee had an affair that was a catalyst in Joy and Bill’s divorce.

As difficult as the second section of her letters can be to work through, the reader will certainly sense that he has walked with Davidman through the peaks and valleys of life and will take special delight in Joy finding joy and peace in her marriage with Lewis…it was all too brief…but it was also a time of beauty for them both.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Student, the Fish, and Agassiz

I came upon the following story while reading Professor Roy E. Ciampa's webpage, he had it in his resource section; it certainly applies to reading the Bible.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Mona Lisa

Consider two scenarios:

A visitor to the Louvre, a lover of art, is contemplating the highlight of his trip to France, the Mona Lisa. Suddenly a woman runs toward the painting and throws an open can of red paint on the priceless portrait yelling, “Down with art!!!”

A visitor to the Louvre, a lover of art, is contemplating the highlight of his trip to France, the Mona Lisa. As he beholds the mystical portrait an employee of the Museum approaches the painting with palette and brush and begins making changes to the painting. When the visitor protests the employee explains, “We’re making changes to the painting so it will be more relevant to this generation. There is no need to present the painting as conceived and executed by Leonardo da Vinci; what matters is what we think of it today, how we interpret it, and how we can better present it.”

Which, I wonder, is the more painful experience? Seeing a priceless work of art desecrated by a vandal or by a well-meaning devotee of art? Suppose art museums the world over began “improving” on priceless treasures, making them more familiar to the contemporary eye? Suppose a new way of thinking permeated the art world that held that all art should be modified from generation to generation in order to meet the expectations of each generation, and that each generation should leave its artistic interpretations on the Mona Lisa and other renowned art treasures?

The vandal’s actions are but the actions of one person, but for the entire art world to adopt a way of thinking that leads to the work of Leonardo da Vinci and other Masters becoming indecipherable – that would be a tragedy of both action and of thinking – that the conservators would become the vandals – no matter how well intentioned – that is almost beyond imagination, akin to Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 in which the job of firemen is not to put out fires but to burn books.

Thus it is particularly disconcerting when Christians approach the Bible with professed respect but with functional disrespect. It is not the goal of Christians to vandalize the Bible, and yet our approach to the Bible is often one of vandalization, for when a Bible study reads incomplete passages of Scripture, when it fails to take in the Biblical context of a passage, when the readers fail to wrestle with the words and images and ideas presented in passages – and instead force passages into preconceived molds of thought – this is akin to the guardians of the Mona Lisa deciding to improve upon da Vinci’s work. Another way to look at it is that suppose the Louvre decided to only display a portion of the Mona Lisa? Come on Monday and see the lower one-seventh of the painting, come on Tuesday and see another one-seventh of the painting, and so forth. Imagine never seeing the entire portrait at one time? It doesn’t make sense does it? And yet we insist on not interacting with entire passages of the Bible at one time, we insist on not building context and interpreting and experiencing the Bible within its context.

I was once in a study (I have been in many such studies) in which a portion of a Biblical discourse was read and then we stopped reading and the facilitator (a man who dearly loves Jesus and the Bible) started asking questions about the Biblical speaker and the speaker’s audience. Most of the answers were speculative; they were speculative because we stopped reading midway through the discourse. Many of the answers were in the second half of the discourse but since we didn’t read the entire discourse people didn’t have the complete picture, they were viewing fifty percent of the Mona Lisa. This approach to the Scriptures is repeated time after time after time in Sunday schools and small groups and, sad to say, in many sermons. Sound bites do not make a symphony; the Bible is a symphony. A “Top 40” song may last only 3 – 5 minutes, the Bible is not a Top 40 song, it is God’s symphony.

How do we vandalize the Bible? By not submitting to the text but rather insisting that the text submit to us. By not investing time in the text but speeding through it. By not, as a first impression, interacting with the text directly but rather relying on a mediator (the study Bible syndrome!). By not reading the entire text we are working with, but rather reading and interacting with the text piecemeal. By not daily reading and meditating on the Bible in order that, among other things, Biblical thought patterns, contexts, and points-of-reference are formed in our mind, heart, and character.

The Bible is like the wardrobe that leads to Narnia, it is visibly small but it leads to something immense. The outside tells us nothing about what is inside nor where the inside leads to. It may look like other books, but it is not like any other book – for it is more than a book, its passageways lead to ages past and ages future and to the eternal “now”, they lead to the throne of God and intimacy with the Trinity. The Bible is more majestic than all the natural wonders of the world combined…who would be a world-traveler in the Scriptures? Who would be a time traveler? Who would experience the transcendence of the Almighty?

Jesus Christ cries, “Come meet Me in My Word!” And we reply, “Can’t you just send us a tweet?”

Saturday, November 30, 2013

Create Silence

My psalm for this week has been Psalm 62. In it the psalmist writes, “Truly my soul silently waits for God; from Him comes my salvation…My soul, wait silently for God alone.” So I thought it fortuitous that I came upon this quotation from Kierkegaard during the week:

“If I were a doctor and I had to prescribe one remedy for all the ills of the modern world, I would say: “Create silence.” For even if the Word of God were proclaimed in all its splendor, it would not be heard among all the panoply of noise in the modern world. Therefore, create silence.”

I wonder what Kierkegaard would say if he were alive today? He lived from 1813 -1855, hardly a world that we would call “modern”, but it was modern to him. If there was unceasing “noise” then what do we have today? We are so accustomed to it that we don’t hear it, we think cacophony is normal, we don’t know it for what it is, chaff drowning out the Word of God.   

I’m reminded of the following passages from Psalms, “My soul waits for the Lord, more than those who watch fro the morning – I say more than those who watch for the morning [130:6]. Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” [131:2].

It isn’t just that those who don’t know Christ are so noisy that they can’t hear the Word of God, it is also, and in a sense more distressing, that those who profess to know Jesus Christ are so noisy they can’t read and hear God’s Word. Our souls clamor for noise, for stimuli, for immediate diversion, gratification, and answers. We approach the Scriptures as if they are to be mastered like multiplication tables, when we are the ones who should be mastered by God’s Word. We cannot remain with a passage long enough to absorb it and to be absorbed by it, we move so quickly in our mind and heart that the Word has little opportunity to piece our inner person, the depths of our soul. We scatter the seed of the Word on surface soil…and then we complain that we can’t recall Biblical passages, or that we don’t understand this section of the Bible, or that we don’t really like reading the Bible because it’s so hard to understand.

Soil preparation is critical to gardening; only a fool of a gardener complains that there is no crop when all he did was scatter seed on rock and on the surface of the ground. Just as we’d rather purchase our produce at the grocery store rather than grow our own, we’d rather rely on someone else to tell us what the Bible means…never having a direct encounter with the Scriptures and the Holy Spirit, never investing our time, our minds, our hearts…never quieting our souls. It is amusing that some Protestants still accuse Roman Catholics of needing human mediators when the Protestants have their own mediators of Scripture and experience. (Yes, we all need others in our lives to experience the Bible and church life, koinonia is critical to our life in Christ – but we are all to participate in koinonia, we are all to bring produce from our gardens.)

How is it that daily Bible reading is looked upon as something that only a certain class of Christians do? How is it that daily Bible reading is looked upon as something unusual within the church? How have we come to this? How is this possible? And how is it that when we do read the Bible we often do it surrounded by noise? The noise of the world, the noise of electronics, the noise of study Bibles, the noise of commentaries? (Study Bibles and commentaries have their place, but it is not the place of first impression, it is not the place of learning the content of the passage, it is not the place of first-impression communion with the Word of God made alive by the Holy Spirit).

Two of the key characteristics of Biblical Christians are now looked upon in the Western church as only to be practiced by unusual Christians – daily Bible reading and witnessing. While this may not be an articulated attitude, it is a functional attitude. This is tragically amazing..we are too noisy to hear God and we see nothing wrong with that.

Friday, November 29, 2013

A New Measure for Witnessing

It seems we’ve now come to the place in the West where the important thing about sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ is whether or not we offend anyone – portraying the Biblical Gospel is not the goal, leading a fellow man or woman to Christ is not the goal, compassionately and intelligently communicating God’s love and provision in Jesus Christ to others is not the goal – the goal is not to offend. If a person just happens to come into a relationship with Jesus, all well and good, but whatever we do let’s not offend. We need to keep Jesus respectable, we want to make sure He’s invited back, we want to make certain He won’t be expelled from the country club or civic association…or…even our local congregation. It’s ok to be radical about our football team, passionate about our politics, emphatic about our economic system, but let’s keep it cool when it comes to Jesus.

Is it any wonder people no longer know about Jesus? The church has convinced itself that Jesus belongs on Madison Avenue and not the Cross, it has convinced itself that Jesus constantly needs to be repackaged and upgraded like an Xbox or new generation of the Windows operating system – and if we get complaints about Him we issue a “patch” so the offence will be removed. We play fantasy Christianity the way we play fantasy football – not in public, not so that it matters to our coworkers, our neighbors, our family, our generation. We wrap ourselves in cloaks that make us invisible Christians when we venture out on Monday mornings; or are they chameleon cloaks…changing according to our surroundings so that we’ll blend in?

Salt that has lost its taste is good for nothing – Jesus said that…I wonder if He meant it? I wonder if He really really meant it? He couldn’t have meant it; after all, Jesus would never say anything to make anyone feel bad or upset or uncomfortable.

If it is 2:30 AM and my neighbor’s house is on fire and my neighbor is fast asleep, do I stand on his porch and knock and ring the doorbell for five minutes and go home if he doesn’t answer? If my neighbor perishes in the fire do I have a clear conscience, knowing I did all I could do?

Monday, November 25, 2013

Does Friendliness Equal Relationship?

I’ve been pondering (once again…or should I write “yet once again”?) church life, the church experience, or however one wants to term it. I recently heard a pastor share his experience in visiting churches during his vacation, he was surprised at being able to visit congregations without being greeted or engaged in conversation. I get that, I’ve experienced it. I’m not sure what it means, maybe it just means that people aren’t comfortable talking to strangers? If so, that says a lot since the church is to be, among other things, a place for strangers to find help and shelter and friendship.

In my pondering, however, I’ve come to wonder whether friendliness equals relationship; I’m not sure it does. When people normally talk about “friendly” churches they mean congregations that meet and greet you and are outgoing during Sunday mornings – as I wrote above, I get that and I like it. I’d rather shop at a retail store that acknowledges me and asks if I need help and I’d rather gather with folks for worship who act like I’m welcome to join together with them for an hour or so in worship. But does friendliness for an hour or two on Sunday mornings mean that there will be relationships?

Relationships go beyond Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings, relationships are part of the ebb and flow of life and the ebb and flow of life are part of relationships. It isn’t as if a whistle blows at 11:00 AM on Sunday morning and an umpire calls, “Play ball (relationship)!” Then around noon or 12:30 the last out is called (the benediction) and we leave the stadium to return next week. That is more akin to going to the Richmond Squirrels baseball games where we see the same people around us week after week – some we exchange pleasantries with and some we don’t. There is a self-abandonment at the baseball games that isn’t usually seen on Sunday mornings; when the home team scores there is spontaneous applause and praise, and when things go wrong for the Squirrels there is collective sorrow – yet even though we share this experience with other fans of the Squirrels we don’t have relationships with any of them.

What should be the expectations of a visitor to a congregation? What should the expectations be when the visitor is looking for a church home and becomes a repeat visitor? How aggressive and proactive should the visitor be in seeking relationships and how should he or she go about it? Should the congregation cultivate relationships with repeat visitors? Do congregations cultivate relationships within their own members (remembering that “relationships” go beyond Sundays and Wednesdays and other organized church activities)? Or are these expectations and possibilities unrealistic? If they are unrealistic then do we really have “church” as the New Testament describes it (leaving room for local organic expressions and traditions)?

I think friendliness can lull us into thinking we have relationships; both require intentionality but both are different. I can be friendly to someone and yet not be a friend to that person, for to be a friend I need to know the person and the person needs to know me – friendship takes work. When Jesus wanted us to be His friends He went to the Cross.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Rush Revere and the First Thanksgiving; or - Why Bother with the Truth?

Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, has written two pieces on his blog about Rush Limbaugh's recent book on the First Thanksgiving, you can read his Faith and History blog here

What I find particularly interesting is McKenzie's discussion of people not caring about whether something is true or not as long as they like what they're reading. He surveys positive comments on the Limbaugh book on and notes that the vast majority make no mention of whether or not the book is true and factual - the book not only has errors but is misleading as it seeks to advance an agenda that the Pilgrims would not have recognized. 

I'm currently reading Peter Kreeft's, Heaven, the Heart's Deepest Longing, and I just happen to be at a place where Kreeft is discussing what McKenzie is writing about - that people don't ask whether something is true when they hear it or read it - if they like it and it makes them feel good then that is good enough. I see this all the time; I see it in the church, I see it in business, I see it in politics, I see it in society. Perhaps this subjective toxicity is one reason why the church no longer views the Bible as containing commandments that must be obeyed and precepts and principles that must be conformed to and propositional truth that must be either accepted or rejected - the truth or falsehood of what we read or hear no longer matters, it is all about how we feel about what we read or hear.

C.S. Lewis wrote that he would believe the Gospel of Jesus Christ whether or not it benefited him personally because the Gospel is true. That is strange to our thinking because we've been taught first and foremost to ask, "What's in it for me?" To Lewis "Is it true?" was the first question, to us the first questions are "How do I feel about this? What's in it for me? Does it meet my needs?" 

Last week the Tuesday-morning small group that I'm in looked at Paul's visit to Berea in Acts 17:10 - 15. Luke writes that the Bereans examined the Scriptures daily to see whether these things [Paul's teaching] were so. That's a novel idea in 2013, to actually read the Bible, to submit to the Bible, and to ask whether something is true before we ask anything else. As Kreeft writes, "True does not mean 'true to me', but 'I want to know what this truth means to me'.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Psalm 32

I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. Do not be as the horse or as the mule which have no understanding, whose trappings include bit and bridle to hold them in check, otherwise they will not come near to you. [Psalm 32:8 – 9].

The psalm begins with the blessedness of forgiveness – How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom Yahweh does not impute iniquity… This is a blessedness beyond comprehension, that God forgives those who once hated Him and who were in rebellion against Him; that God forgives those who, even after coming to Him, sin and refuse to obey Him times without number. Thank God for the promise that if we confess our sins He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.

Yet the Christian life is more than the blessedness of forgiveness, for the blessedness of forgiveness is to lead to the blessedness of intimacy with God, it is to lead to an intimacy in which His thoughts become our thoughts and His ways our ways; we are to have the heart and mind of Christ as we live in Him and He lives in us. While the horse and mule may need external bit and bridle to guide them, the sons and daughters of the living God are to be led by the Spirit of God (Romans 8:14) as the spirit of adoption (Romans 8:15) resonates in their hearts; our spirit and the Spirit of God join together in proclamation that we are children of God; we are no longer slaves to sin and this world, nor are we horses or mules; we are the daughters and sons of the living God learning the ways of our Father and Lord Jesus, becoming one with the Trinity and one with each other in the Trinity.

I will instruct you and teach you in the way which you should go; I will counsel you with My eye upon you. Let us ask our Father to help us see and hear Him today, to sense His presence and the guidance of His Spirit of wisdom and knowledge; let us ask Him to help us see and understand by the eye of His Spirit – let us live today in the koinonia of the Trinity.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Why Johnny Can’t Read the Bible and the Throne Room

Why can’t Johnny read the Bible? Let me count the ways.

From study Bibles to sound-bite commentaries (to use the word oh so loosely) to our inability to hold a paragraph or chapter in tension long enough to experience its force and meaning…there are many reasons why Johnny as an adult can’t read the Bible…or doesn’t read the Bible…or won’t read the Bible.

The Sunday morning class I’m in is a great group of men and women; we’re using a study guide by a well-known popular pastor-speaker-author-writer. This past Sunday morning we were in Revelation Chapter 5. In verse one John writes, “Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals.”

The question was raised, “What is the scroll and what are the seals?” That is a fair question, my problem is not with the reasonable question, my problem is with the answer; better yet, my problem is with the lack of process in discovering an answer. The study guide, written presumably to help people read the Bible, actually has the opposite effect, it has the opposite effect because it gives answers to questions rather than guide people in experiencing the Bible and discovering its truth and wonder themselves.

At Revelation 5:1 the study-guide tells the reader that the scroll and its seals portray an ancient Roman will that required seven witnesses and that the ancient reader would have understood the imagery thusly. Case closed. Not much reason to ponder what the scroll is, not much reason to ponder the seals, not much reason to experience chapters 5 – 7. Why visit the Grand Canyon if we can read a description of it?

How can I possibly understand and experience the scroll and its seals after only reading one sentence (5:1)? Even if I think I know what I’m reading how can I experience and understand the import of the sealed scroll after reading one sentence? After reading the Bible for almost five decades one of many things I’ve learned is that the Bible can be newer and fresher today than it was in the 1960s if I will only submit to it, ponder it, listen to the Holy Spirit, and seek to see Jesus. The most familiar passages of the Bible can become the freshest when breathed on by the Holy Spirit in my heart and mind - with new fragrances and poignant vision pouring forth from the words and enveloping my soul and testifying to my spirit.

When I was a boy I visited the Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. (the Smithsonian) a number of times; the precious gem exhibit was my favorite. Crystals and gems were displayed in cases and settings down a corridor displaying their intricate facets and beauty…culminating in the Hope Diamond. I can see the exhibit as I write this even though it has been many many years since my eyes last gazed on them; but I can still see them, I can still marvel, I can still ponder. If this is so with a physical display of earthly beauty, should it not be even more so with the display of heavenly wonder and beauty portrayed in the Throne Room of Revelation chapters four and five? 

In 1986 I visited the art museum of Emory University in Atlanta, GA; there was an ancient marble statute of a woman with fine features draped with a translucent cloak – the translucence of the cloak, so finely executed, captured my attention and imagination – I can still see it and when I mention it to Vickie, who experienced it with me, she knows what I’m talking about, she sees what I see. Can we see the Throne Room of Revelation Chapters four and five? Have we experienced the unfolding scroll of chapters 5 – 7? If not, perhaps we should spend more time there, perhaps we should ponder the chapters when we awake and when we lie down and as we move through our days, perhaps we should walk the corridors of the chapters, pausing and pondering, looking at the images from various angles, allowing their mystery to capture our imaginations…and above all…let us behold Him who sits on the Throne and the Lamb – for it is their light and life that animates all that we see and all that we’ll ever see in the Throne Room.

The Throne Room is not only a good place to visit…it is a good place to live.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Caring for Trees and Souls

Different trees should be pruned at different times of the year, and different trees require different nutrients for their health. To understand a tree and care for a tree it is important to know what kind of tree it is, what season of the year it is, and where the tree is in its life cycle. Pruning a tree out of season may cause permanent damage.

Trees and shrubs that have been long neglected look unsightly and the untrained may engage in radical pruning, but radical pruning taken too far may result in the death of the tree – better to prune a certain percentage now and see what happens, then more later, and then more yet later. Shocking a neglected tree by excessive pruning may kill the tree.

Guiding others in spiritual formation, shepherding others, requires that we know what kinds of trees we are working with, what stages of life they are in, and understanding their growth patterns. We should neither expect nor desire that an apple tree be a holly tree, or that a dogwood tree behave as a Bradford pear tree. Is the tree a sapling? Is it in middle age? Is it nearing the end of its life cycle? Is it a majestic oak which has witnessed generation upon generation come and go?

We err when we think that all trees must look the same, have the same patterns, bear the same fruit, require the same nutrients, and be pruned the same. While there are common principles in care that transfer from tree type to tree type – these principles are rooted in understanding and knowing types of trees.

When I insist that an apple tree become an oak tree I damage the apple tree and I frustrate myself and others; when I insist that an oak tree bear apples the angels think me foolish.

We often act as if God only planted one type of tree in His Garden; that tree just happens to be our particular way of thinking or our experience of God or our personal history or the particular flock of God with which we fellowship; while the Bible portrays God’s people as a many-membered body with different functions, gifts, and graces – we tend to gravitate toward those like us – we do this in our teaching, our expectations, our service, and our acceptance of others. In terms of discipleship, we often treat all trees the same; we provide the same nutrients, we prune them in the same season and in the same manner, and we expect the same fruit. This is not wise, nor is it showing deference to the Master Gardner who planted all the trees in His Garden. We do well when we look to Him for guidance on how to care for the souls which He has planted.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

“Get Behind Me…” A Temptation?

From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things…and be killed… Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but of man”.

Of all the temptations Christians face, the one we seldom talk about is the one we should be the most aware of – the temptation to avoid the Cross in our daily life, the temptation to avoid suffering through obedience to Christ, the temptation to spare ourselves.

Peter had just uttered the confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” and Jesus had responded, “Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonah…” But now, when Jesus speaks of His suffering and death, Peter takes Him aside and rebukes Him. In a sense Peter goes from speaking God-inspired words to words rooted in the machinations of Satan; Peter goes from eating from the Tree of Life to eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Peter in the supernatural sees Jesus as the Son of God, Peter in the natural sees Jesus crucified as an issue of Good and Evil – that is, it makes sense that Jesus avoid suffering and crucifixion, to avoid suffering is a good thing, to suffer is an evil thing – it is logical, it just makes sense. Peter succumbs to temptation, the temptation to spare Jesus, to spare himself, to avoid the Cross.

Jesus makes it clear in verses 24 – 28 that if anyone desires to follow Him that he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow Him; those who follow Jesus must reject the temptation to avoid suffering by affirmatively taking up the Cross and following in the footsteps of the suffering Messiah. Is this in our preaching and teaching today? Is it in popular preaching and teaching today? Is it a keynote among popular media teachers and preachers? For some the answer is “yes”, for many the answer is “no”. Can we think of a time when a best seller had as its keynote following Jesus in His suffering?

Do we know the temptation of avoiding the Cross? If not perhaps it is because our lives are so immersed in avoiding the Cross that Satan need not bother with us – after all, Satan need not tempt an adulterer to commit adultery, or a thief to steal – these things are a way of life. Is avoiding the Cross a way of life with us?

As we begin today let us take up our cross and follow the Christ of the Cross and embrace the Cross of Christ.   

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Psalm 31

Blessed be Yahweh, for He has made marvelous His lovingkindness to me in a besieged city, Psalms 31:21.

A city under siege is a city cutoff. When an enemy besieges a city the goal is to isolate the city, to reduce it to hunger and thirst, to wear down its inhabitants, and ultimately force the city’s surrender. A city under siege looks for help from the outside, knowing that resources within the city must ultimately vanish; both besieged and besieger know it is only a matter of time before the city capitulates unless it receives outside help.

Peoples in ancient times knew the danger of a siege; being caught in a besieged city without hope of relief was a death knell; history is replete with accounts of sieges in which the besieged were massacred in retribution for holding out against the attacker – besieging armies are not known for mercy.

Against this backdrop the psalmist writes of God, He has made marvelous His lovingkindness to me in a besieged city. Against all appearances those who know God are better off in a besieged city than all the armies of might arrayed against them; while unmerciful enemies may besiege the people of God the mercy and lovingkindness of God sustains His people and they need not fear.

One of the many dangers of looking at appearances and responding to them is that we end up using natural weapons and natural thinking rather than relying on the Holy Spirit and the Word of God and learning to see things as God sees them. Paul writes that the weapons of our warfare are not fleshly but mighty to the pulling down of strongholds; he also writes that we don’t wrestle against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers – our fight is not to be in the arena of flesh but in the realm of the spiritual, not in the seen but in the unseen. What we see with natural eyes is a distraction if we respond in kind; the temporal diverts us from the eternal. When God’s people are besieged they have the enemy surrounded.

2 Kings 6:8 – 23 relates an account of a city under siege, while not all inhabitants of the city of Dothan were followers of the true and living God, the prophet Elisha and his servant were enough to protect the city, in fact, the besieging army was there to capture Elisha – God’s people attract God’s enemies; the enemies of God need not attack cities that pose no threat to them.

We read in this passage, Now when the servant of the man of God had risen early and gone out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was circling the city. And his servant said to him, “Alas, my master! What shall we do?” So he answered, “Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Yahweh, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.” And Yahweh opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

No doubt the enemy surrounding Dothan thought they had it made, and no doubt Elisha’s servant thought all was lost; however Elisha saw with different eyes and the eyes of the invading army were made blind – of course in one sense they were blind from the beginning because they could not see the reality of the true and living God. Those who eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil have their physical eyes opened, but the opening of physical eyes and reliance on them results in spiritual blindness – it was so in Eden, it was so in Dothan, and it is so today.

We need not fear when we are surrounded by troubles, by enemies, by turmoil; for the true and living God and His Son Jesus Christ are with us and as John writes, Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world. When we find ourselves in a besieged city let us look to the lovingkindness of God and rejoice…for we have the enemy surrounded.   

Friday, October 25, 2013

Jesus Always

I haven’t heard from my friend George Will for some time, he’s overdue to check-in. If I don’t hear from him soon I’ll try to find his son Art in Florida and ask how George is, maybe George has gone to be with Jesus (I’ve written about George on my Kaleidoscope blog); though the phrase “gone to be with Jesus” isn’t really accurate because George has already lived with Jesus and in Jesus and for Jesus for many years.

A few months ago I read that Dallas Willard told someone that when he died it might take him a while to realize that he was in heaven. I don’t think that was boasting; I think we can be so infused with Jesus and enveloped in Jesus that being in Christ is an existential and transcendent reality that overwhelms us.

I’m thinking about George this morning because I’m thinking about a passage that I associate with George, a passage that could easily be his “life passage”, 1 Corinthians 1:30: But by His doing you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, so that, just as it is written, Let him who boasts, boast in the Lord.

George planted this passage in my heart in 1966 and 1967; I guess my life is a fulfillment of the proverb that tells us that if we train children in the way they should go that when they grow up they won’t depart from that way. While it’s a fact that during my growing-up I have had seasons of departure from the Way, it’s also true that I’m now more in love with Jesus than ever – you could say that I’m learning what it is to truly love Jesus, to be in love with Jesus, to adore Jesus; my heart skips beats and my eyes light up at the thought of Jesus. This is not poetic or romantic language for the sake of language – this is my experience.

A few years ago an acquaintance of mine left his wife of decades – they were both in their 50s and he left her. I hear of these things more and more and I wonder how could that be…after many years of marriage why would someone leave a husband or wife for another person – why shatter the sacredness of a holy bond?

In the same way I wonder how those who have followed Jesus for years become fascinated by tangential teachings, doctrines, and practices that push Jesus away – I wonder how anything can take the place of Jesus. I love my wife Vickie more everyday and I love Jesus more everyday. My two great joys in life are to be with Jesus and be with Vickie; associated with these two great joys are to share the love and grace of Jesus with others as Christ’s broken bread and poured out wine. What else could I possibly ask for?

I have two friends whom I dearly love who prefer other dance partners to Jesus and I just don’t understand it, I’ve known and loved them for years, they’ve been major influences in my life for years; they are advancing in chronological age as I am – and yet the storyline of their lives has changed from Jesus to other things. They are offended when I talk about Jesus being the center of all we do – how can this be? The situation reminds me of a time when I went to see the adulterous husband of one of my parishioners – he didn’t much care for me knocking on his door, he didn’t much care for me coming into his house (it was hardly a home at that point), he didn’t much care for what I had to say, and I’m sure he was glad to see me leave.

Jesus is our wisdom and our righteousness and our sanctification and our redemption; Jesus is the only one in whom we are to glory, there is nothing to be compared to Him. In the New Jerusalem there is no sun or moon or stars – all light comes from the Father and the Son – if that is the fashion of our future, should it not also be the fashion of our present?