Friday, April 30, 2010

Christians and Atheists - Some Common Ground

What do Christians and atheists have in common?

Well, for starters, they have both been dubbed “atheists.”

It’s true. Back in the first century of the church’s life, Christians were considered “atheists” because they wouldn’t sacrifice to the gods of the Roman Empire. Incidentally, those gods are no longer with us except in history books so it was a good choice.

In an early Christian writing called The Martyrdom of Polycarp (c. 160), for example, we read that the authorities tried to get the venerable old Polycarp to denounce his faith. They told him to say, “Away with the atheists!”

It may seem strange that “away with the atheists!” was a way of denouncing Christianity, but it was. Again, the Christians were viewed as atheists for refusing to bow to the gods of the day.

Now, I don’t get into conversations with many atheists these days. Meaning anti-theists. But when and if I do, perhaps this can be a source of common ground.

But a wonder whether we have common ground with the “atheistic” Christians of the first centuries. Polycarp and 11 others who were burned alive for their “atheism” in Rome. When we meet these 12 disciples, and a host of others, will we be able to look them in the eye and say, “We too denied the gods of our age.”

To live is Christ, to die is gain.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Will God accept me?

Raise your hand if you've had a read-straight-through-the-Bible plan derailed around Exodus 25.

Who can blame you? You've diligently made it through the first 74 chapters of the bible, enjoying the delightful prose narrative, only to have your resolve mightily tested by seven straight chapters detailing (and I do mean detailing) the ins and outs of the tabernacle furniture. If you make it through to Exodus 32, you're rewarded with three more chapters of story, the easier-to-read, but kind of depressing Golden Calf incident. But just as you are picking up steam, Exodus plunges back into six final chapters describing the craftsmanship of Bezalel and Oholiab fashioning the tabernacle. It's a six chapter stretch that only, well, Bezalel and Oholiab's mother's would love.

Many thoughtful Bible readers have pondered why Exodus ends this way. Why are the tabernacle instructions given in such detail, only to be repeated in equal detail as the instructions are being carried out? And why are the two sections separated by the Golden Calf incident?

The first tabernacle episode, chapters 25-31, is still taking place at Mount Sinai. Moses is on the mountain, and he is receiving the instructions for the tabernacle straight from the Lord. The instructions are obviously detailed, and we can begin to get a picture of what everything looked like, and how it was laid out. (although interestingly, scholars who try to reconstruct the furniture from the descriptions are frustrated by the lack of completeness and detail!) The impression made on the reader is one of exactness. Even if we don't know all the significance, or the meanings of the details, we know that God has a very precise pattern in mind for the tabernacle, and it will be important for the Israelites to follow the pattern to the letter. God is a God of precision. He has high standards. And for the people for build a dwelling place for God, they must follow God's instructions exactly, or his presence in their midst will be jeopardized. The section ends with a repetition of the Sabbath law. Not only must the people work as God commands, but they must rest as he commands as well.

However. In contrast to the holy precision of God's instructions, Moses comes down the mountain to find the Israelites engaged in gross idolatry! This isn't the letter of the law, this isn't even close to the law! Moses breaks his tablets, he breaks the calf, and his anger burns hot. While he had been receiving instructions for the tabernacle (to be built mostly from gold), the people were busy putting their gold to another use.

The real tragedy here goes beyond the idolatry, the narrative makes us wonder whether Israel has forfeited its chance to have Yahweh dwell in their midst... Will God still live among them?

Thankfully, in chapter 34 God renews his covenant with the people, and in chapter 35 the craftsmen get to work fashioning the tabernacle. The repetition of material lets us know that they are obeying the instructions to the letter. God will still dwell in the midst of a sinful people, but his presence is mediated through the tabernacle, which must be built exactly according to his specifications.

What this says to me is that the prerequisite necessary for God to dwell with his people is not a perfect people, but a perfect mediator. God took the sanctity of his tabernacle very seriously. It was built according to his law, purified according to his law, and maintained according to his law. And this law was gracious, just as the tabernacle itself was a gracious gift, a way for a holy God to make his dwelling in the midst of a sinful people without the people being destroyed!

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Should I Get Married?

1 Corinthians is a masterpiece. Not surprising, since it's inspired by the Holy Spirit, but it really is an amazing piece of work.

What makes it so profound is the way that Paul applies the gospel, in a penetrating way, to everyday struggles inside (and outside) the church. Incidentally, I think this is the most important way to help people learn the gospel--by applying it concretely to everyday situations. And make sure that when you pour the concrete you use enough of it; concrete is usually measured by the bucket or the truckload, not in tablespoons or cups.

So anyway, in chapter 7, Paul answers the classic young adult's question, "Should I get married?"

Here's Paul's answer: "I think that in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned. ... Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that" (1 Corinthians 7:26-28). He then goes on to explain that even if you do get married, you should see it as secondary to your eternal calling to know and proclaim Jesus Christ.

So he basically says: "Should you get married? No, not with everything going on right now. You can serve the Lord more effectively in this evil world by being single. But if you must be married, go ahead, you're free to do what you need to do. But remember, I warned you."

The typical response by an American evangelical like me is to frantically race to defend marriage and, more specifically, our Christian subculture's near idolatry of it. We want to take the teeth out of this passage. But we shouldn't.

If Paul were a counselor, he would answer the question "Should I get married?" with probing questions like these:

"What is your motivation?"

"You do realize you're complete in Christ, don't you?"

"You do realize that marriage is only for this life, right?"

"Is your goal to serve Jesus Christ? Do you see yourself as a missionary in this world? How do you see marriage fitting into this framework?"

"Are you making this decision with a lot of self-awareness, and with humility? Do you realize that marriage shows your desperate need for help and not your advanced degree of godliness?"

"You aren't planning to settle down are you? Because that's a sin." (See vv.29-31.)

I'm not sure Paul would get many referrals for his counseling services. However, he would rest at night knowing that he mixed a lot of gospel that day, filled up the truck, laid a firm foundatin with it, and had some left over to patch up the cracks and crevices. (This is my overly clever way of saying that he didn't hold back.)

Then, if the young man or woman did choose marriage he could launch into his Ephesians 5:21-32 speech. Which basically says to the happily married couple: "What I told you earlier still applies. It's all about Jesus."

The Bible has a high and lofty view of marriage. But it's secondary to its high view of Jesus. We never want to think that marriage is a final destination when in reality it is only preparing us for the "marriage supper of the Lamb."

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Living with Freaks

I’m not always up on the latest trends. I was surprised last week when I saw that the word “Eyjafjallaj√∂kull” was “trending” on Yahoo! I later learned this was the name of the volcano (which I had heard about, by the way) and then it made sense.

Some time ago a word that began trending in Christian circles was “community.” And not one to miss out on trends, I’ve been hearing a lot about it lately.

I’ve been reading Don Miller’s Blue Like Jazz, which was a big hit in 2003. He has a chapter called “Community: Living with Freaks.” That is a fantastic description of Christian community.

It also fits well with a sermon I heard recently in which Mark Driscoll spoke about Jesus forming a team of disciples. He mentioned that Jesus put the tax collector on the zealot on the same team, and his sound byte was that Jesus forms "weird teams." I.e., if God is at work in your church, you should find yourself surrounded by people who aren’t like you. He made the insightful comment that if everyone is just like you, there’s affinity but not necessarily community; whereas community is meaningful precisely because of the different personalities, backgrounds, etc. Or as Don Miller would say, community is about living with freaks.

Speaking of sermons, we just began a sermon series on Philippians at our church. Jeff Elliott (not Moose Jeff but Different Jeff) was telling me, in preparation for this series, that Philippians showcases (among other things) partnership in ministry. And if you look through Philippians, you find that this is indeed a very significant theme—or rather, an assumption. You just don’t find many people going solo in the Scriptures. Paul had his Barnabas, his Silas, his Luke, his Timothy. He wrote letters to churches, or to pastors about their churches. Jesus gathered disciples—twelve of them.

Which circles back around to our trendy Blue Like Jazz book. Miller has a great line in there… drat, I left the book at the office. Well, anyway, he says that when he browses the Christian bookstores he sees a lot of books written to individuals about the Christian life. He sees very few written to churches. (For the record, his didn’t break the trend either.) And yet, the Christian life can only be lived with others. And specifically, with freaks.

I prayed last night that God would help our church love more people who aren’t like us. And I prayed that when God sends this opportunity we won’t miss it.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Why I'm pretty sure God would want me to have a leaf-blower.

I own a rake. It has a wooden handle, and a plastic rakey part. It cost about $12 at Walmart, and as far as leaf removal devices go, its about as Luddite as they come. Which would be fine, except that I have trees in my yard. Lots of big trees that produce a healthy leaf crop every year, which makes raking operations a pretty serious business.

I have a hate/like relationship with my rake. Most of the time I hate it. Raking is hard work, and the wooden handle gives me blisters. And on select fall afternoons when I'm sitting by my office window, watching my neighbors blow away their leaves with the greatest of ease, (plus the one neighbor who has a riding leaf sucker!) then I really despise my sad little Walmart rake.

But there is a part of me that also likes my rake, and in a strange way is proud to own the rake. You see, raking is hard, and it takes time, giving me ample opportunity to feel a sinful pride over my rake wielding ways, and look down my nose at my leaf blowing neighbors. I begin to rejoice in the fact that I am not afraid of a little hard work, unlike my neighbors with their fancy leaf blowers (most pitiably the riding-leaf-sucker neighbor two doors down). I exult in my own thriftiness, having had the wisdom and foresight not to spend lavishly on unnecessary frivolities.

It's easy to see what is happening here. I like my rake because I like the opportunity to feel a little self-righteous. I like to feel like I earned my clean yard by the sweat of my brow and I deserve the glory for it. My leaf blowing neighbors are simply cheating, cranking up a gasoline powered engine for ten minutes is nothing of which to be proud. This is just the way my heart works. You'd think that having a more powerful, more costly, more efficient leaf blower would be cause for pride, and having to make do with a rake a cause for humility. But no, I find a way to take pride in using the cheaper, harder, more mundane option.

This is why legalism is so sickeningly attractive and the gospel remains so offensive. The prospect of having to garner favor with God by my behavior sounds to most rational minds like a pretty tough row to hoe. Especially if you know anything about the holiness of the one true God, and the height of his standards! And yet our hearts continue to incline toward this route, because if we can impress God with our obedience and earn it by the sweat of our brow, then we will have something to be proud of. We will be able to glory in ourselves, and look down our noses at those around us who haven't been so successful as ourselves.

The message of the gospel is that we can stop breaking our backs and blistering our hands trying to earn God's favor through our diligent labor. His favor is ours as a gift, all of the work has already been done by someone else, the spotlessly clean yard is ours, and we never had to lift a finger. It stings my pride, but let's face it, this option is better by far. Christ has done what we could never do. He has actually accomplished the feat, he has won the favor of the Father, not only for himself, but for all who are in him by faith. And all the glory goes to Jesus.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Clouds

Yesterday I was flying above the clouds, on a one-way trip to Baltimore. From there, I took a variety of trains in an attempt to get to Philadelphia. Leaving Baltimore, from the window of the train, I saw miles of buildings with broken windows and broken walls. Some were old factories, some were old homes. And after that, suburbs and bridges and towns.

At first, in the plane, I was wrapped up in my thoughts and in some anguished prayers, but mostly just wrapped up in myself. When I opened my eyes, I noticed all those clouds outside the window. Some were shooting up in the distance like mountains. Directly below the airplane, the clouds were like mist—you knew you would fall right through. But just beyond the wings, the clouds appeared formed, firm, and stable.

As I looked out at the clouds, I saw how they stretched on as far as my eyes could see. And in a minor moment of spiritual realization, I thought about the verse that says God has cast our sins as far as the east is from the west. And it had greater meaning to me, I think, because I was lifted so high above the cares of the world below me.

It was nice to enjoy the clouds, because I had recently gone through a period of time in which I had stopped enjoying the clouds. Fifteen to twenty years ago, I used to make a yearly flight across the country from San Diego to Michigan. And I remember one flight in which I planned to do some reading but all I could do was stare at the beautiful scenery out the window—mountains and canyons and clouds. It was a memorable time of silent praise to God for His handiwork. But then, over this past year, I realized that I could get into a plane and sit there and barely enjoy the scenery; I was too concerned about the cares of life.

I had thought that the days of enjoying clouds were past. I was too old and nothing was new anymore. But instead, I found myself silently worshiping God again this morning from Southwest Flight 0760 from Norfolk to Baltimore. And I’m so grateful that God can make us young again.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Easter: For Daily Use

First of all, a little personal boast: My wife gave birth to our son two weeks ago, and in my objective, unbiased opinion, he's the cutest thing yet created. Check him out on our personal blog.

As it turns out giving birth can be a painful ordeal. So between that, and our dog losing a fight with the neighbor dog last week, a small corner of our kitchen counter has been taken over by prescription medications. To be honest, I get a little nervous around prescription medications. I suppose it comes from a childhood full of brainwashing with the "say no to drugs" campaign. But these drugs, even though they're the good kind, are still pretty powerful stuff, and I don't want to mess anything up. They have such detailed instructions: Take with food, Do not take with food, Take with water, Do not take with grape juice, etc. I tend to read over the labels many times, just to make sure I'm doing it right. The most common instruction on prescription meds is to not stop taking your medicine until you run out.

Last week I applied some Easter to my life. It's pretty powerful stuff too, and I applied it not a moment too soon. Because some of you may not be up to date on the instructions for applying Easter, let me catch you up...

Easter for Yearly Use: it may play second fiddle to Christmas in the modern imagination, but for Christians Easter is the best holiday of the year. During the week leading up to Easter, together with its attendant holidays of Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, we have the opportunity to go through the whole range of emotions. We celebrate Jesus' kingship in his ironic donkey ride into the city. We let him teach us, wash us, and serve us, for if he does not, we have no part in him. We feel the agony and see the humility on Good Friday, wait in eager expectation, and celebrate cosmic victory on Sunday morning. This is reality, this is life, this is the best thing in the world, as we renew the hope to which we are called.

Easter for Weekly Use: once a year is not nearly often enough to celebrate (and apply) Easter. So we do it weekly. The reason the first Christians gathered for worship on Sunday, rather than on the Sabbath like the rest of Judaism, was because Jesus the messiah had been raised from the dead on a Sunday. They worshiped in the morning because that is when the tomb had been found to be empty. So every Sunday is in fact a commemoration of the resurrection of our Lord Jesus. Easter is the first day of the week, the beginning of the new creation. Every Sunday we are reminded that in Jesus God is renewing the world, in Jesus God has begun his final redemption of his creation. Our Sunday morning worship is an outpost of the new creation, God's redeemed humanity, a community of life formed by the resurrection of Jesus, meeting in the midst of the old world which is passing away.

Easter for Daily Use: truly though, in order for Christians to stay totally healthy, Easter must be applied daily. Easter is the message that Jesus was put to death for our trespasses, and raised for our justification. I admit that my day-to-day conscious identity focuses mainly on my identity as a person, what I do, how I look, how I relate to people, how many people like me, etc. Left untreated, this is a condition that can easily lead to despair. Instead, my identity should be formed by who I am in Christ. Apply a generous dose of Easter thusly: God demonstrates his love for me in this, while I was still a sinner, Christ died for me. I am loved by God. Jesus came and lived a perfect life on my behalf, died a substitutionary death for me, and was raised to life victoriously. By faith I am united to Christ, and so my identity is as a saint, loved by God, having the righteousness of Christ, enjoying eternal life, fellowship with God, and all of my sins are forgiven. That is who I am. Who are you?

The most important thing is that you keep applying the healthful salve every day until you run out (never). Let Easter do its healing work...

"Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered." -Psalm 32:1

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Laying Down the Law

My son has a communication problem, even though he’s not a teenager yet. We have to work hard with him in a couple areas: first, in getting him to initiate communication, and second, helping him practice putting sounds together.

One day, he wanted something that I had purposely placed out of his reach. He reached for it, but I wanted him to practice his speech. “Say book,” I required. Had he simply said, “buh-kuh” that would have been fine.

Now, I like to model my parenting style after God’s. That’s ambitious, but we are called to it. We use the Bible to learn how God treats us and try to help our children learn about God the Father through, say, Ken the Father. (Poor little guy.)

So as I was insisting that he say “book” in order to get a book, I reflected on my relationship to God. His love is unconditional, right? As Christians, we delight in the fact that we are saved by grace and not by law, right? So why do I have to set up these law-systems for my son?

The answer is that the goal of the law (that is, of saying “buh-kuh” to get his book) is not to get my son to prove his mettle. He’s not in a real good position for that anyway. The point of saying “buh-kuh” is so that he can ultimately communicate with me, and have an even better relationship with me. And not only me, but his mom, the other great people in his life, and even God.

So the goal of the “buh-kuh” law is relationship.

And this was God’s goal with the Old Testament law as well. He taught His people through routines and rituals to understand some basic principles they were going to need to know. How could they understand God’s relationship with them without profoundly understanding sin, sacrifice, forgiveness, holiness, and all the other things the law demonstrated? They needed to learn to speak the language.

Yet once His people were full grown, they no longer needed to persist in the routine—just like some day my son won’t need to say “buh-kuh” to get the book. He can just take it, bring it to me, and ask me to read to him.

“Oh Lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise” (Psalm 51:15).

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Hot Dogs and Preaching

Recently Aubrey and I met some friends at a bar in nearby Abbeville for dinner. It's not a place that we are accustomed to frequenting, but it has pool tables and hot dogs, two things I don't complain about.

We settled in, got a couple games of eight ball going, and ordered our hot dogs from the bar. They came with onions, mustard and the option for chili. When the dogs came out a certain member of our party asked for ketchup. The humble proprietor responded gently, but with conviction, that in 32 years of running his bar he had never served ketchup, and he certainly didn't intend to start now. Although I myself was not the ketchup requester, I was more than a little caught off guard by the concept of a hot dog dive that didn't carry ketchup.

I will admit to having mixed feelings about chefs whose stern "my-way-or-the-highway" ethos is allowed to dictate what the customers eat. We are the paying customers, after all, and I feel deeply that the final buck of condiment authority should stop with us. If I want a tomato based sauce on my processed meat product, so be it.

But I can also respect a chef like this. He knows hot dogs, he loves hot dogs, he lives hot dogs. He is a connoisseur of the perfect dog. He is convinced deep in his heart that the best dog is a ketchup-less dog, and he's not about to let you come into his shop only to have a sub-par hot dog experience.

Pastoring a church is a little bit like running a hot dog bar with pool tables. One of our main duties as a pastor is to serve the people. Every week we bring a message from God's word, and present it for the people. And like the snobby hot dog chef, we must also eschew the "customer-is-always-right" mentality. Paul says as much in 2 Timothy 4:3. Our calling is to be a connoisseur of the word of God. To know it, to love it, to live it. And to be able to present it to our people as the wonderful, gracious, life-giving, soul-reviving, wisdom-imparting thing that it is.

More than this, sometimes the calling of pastor requires a little holy meddling, a little sanctified butting in. As the novice hot dogger will willingly, but unwittingly, degrade his dog with improper condiment selection, so we sinful people are all want to mix our holy living with sinful practices. It is the calling of the pastor to develop a taste for pure holiness, and to come back week after week, to extol the wonders of Christlikeness, and to announce gently, but with conviction, that no, you may not have a side of idolatry with your sanctification. Want a scoop of adultery with your Old Testament meditation? Not in my shop. I happen to know that such things will totally ruin Christian living and the enjoyment of higher pleasures, such as God. You think you would like them, but trust me, they don't go.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Bible Reading Plans: Quantity Time with God

I decided long ago that I wasn't a Bible Reading Plan Guy. Most plans have you march through about 4 chapters per day, in order to read the entire Bible in a year. I think reading the entire Bible in a year is a wonderful goal, yet personally... I like to slow down a bit.

When I was a young man and young Christian, I would sometimes spend hours each morning in prayerful reading of God's word. Yet even then, I think I only made it through a couple chapters each day. It doesn't take long to read 3 or 4 chapters, but it does take a long time to ponder them. When God says that we grow not through simply reading the Bible but through meditating on it, I take this to mean that we need to read slowly--and take notes, too.

Another reason I kept away from reading plans is because I like the flexibility of choosing which book (or section of the Bible) to study on a roughly month to month basis.

However...

I think the time has come for a change. The pendulum has swung. I'm somewhat satisfied with the quality of my time in God's word, but not satisfied with my progress through the different sections of Scripture. I want to read through the entire Bible in this coming year.

So yesterday I test drove a reading plan. It was a nice model, especially given that I'm starting this in April rather than January. This one picks up at the beginning of Mark, 1 Corinthians, and Joshua in April - so I'm not landing in the middle of those books. It also picks up at Psalm 72, and it just so happens I read through the first 71 psalms this year already.

It looked like a winner. But you know... I'm not so sure. It was very distracting to try to read 8 verses of Mark, 17 verses of 1 Corinthians, 2 chapters of Joshua, and then a psalm to boot. What am I going to sink my teeth into?

So, great. That lasted one whole day.

So now I'm thinking this way. Most plans are roughly four chapters per day. And if you do that, you can have 5 catch-up days per month and still read all 1189 chapters of the Bible within a year. So I might just choose which 100 chapters to read each month, and just keep ticking off which books of the Bible I've read until I finish up next March. So for example, this month I could read Job (42 chapters), Mark (16), Philippians (4), and 38 more psalms. We're teaching in Job, and preaching on Philippians, so that's the reason for those two choices.

It will be interesting to see which is the last book standing next March...

If I get that far!

(Hope I do, though.)

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Brief History of Good Friday

Good Friday is the Friday before Easter, commemmorating Jesus' death on the cross. If you're going to have just a few days marked on your Christian calendar, you definitely need Christmas (Incarnation/Birth), Good Friday (Atonement/death), and Easter (Resurrection). You should probably add Pentecost, remembering the giving of the Holy Spirit--not like a gift once given that we have some old pictures of, but more like the celebration of our wedding day which inaugurated a relationship we still enjoy to this day. We are still waiting on the exact date of Jesus' return, otherwise that would probably be the next most important.

Or, you can be like Charles Spurgeon (I think it was him) who had two days marked--"Today and that day." Or Luther, who intended to live "like Jesus was crucified yesterday, rose from the dead today, and is returning tomorrow."

Back to Good Friday. When I was growing up, Good Friday was a big huge deal. Services were always at noon, since this is when Jesus died. Of course, this was no problem since obviously people were off work and stores would close at least for the noon hour. I remember one year there were multiple services in the afternoon that corresponded to Jesus' seven words from the cross.

When I moved to San Diego as a young adult, I attended a megachurch that also had a Good Friday service at noon. It was held outdoors, in Balboa Park, and was very evangelistic. The cross was preached, it was just sunnier than the inside of the Lutehran church (and the music was less somber).

When I began attending Reformed churches in San Diego, I found that they did something very unusual. They had a Good Frida service in the evening. That was odd. But I was still able to find noontime services... I drove up the coast one time to a relatively evangelical PC(USA) church who knew the proper starting time.

A few moves later, and I'm in Virginia Beach. And I've been surprised because more than one Reformed church, including my own, have a tradition of celebrating Maundy Thursday instead (not that it's an either/or). And some churches have neither!

It's very strange...

But I will say this. I'm hearing the cross preached and Christ exalted on a weekly basis, probably more than any other time in my life. By God's grace I'm understanding the cross more deeply. And that is, after all, what makes Good Friday good.


"And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified." (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)