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.