Sunday, June 27, 2010

You - Yes, You - Bless the Lord!

Psalm 134:

Come, bless the Lord, all you servants of the Lord,
who stand by night in the house of the Lord!
Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the Lord!
May the Lord bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth!

It may seem obvious, but servants of the Lord need to bless the Lord. I was reading this the other morning as I was sitting in my church office, and I thought, "Hey, this means me."

This psalm applies universally, but is focused in particular on "full time" ministers. We need to begin each day and each new minute with blessings to the Lord on our lips. We need to constantly praise the One we serve, remembering that it's His goodness - His blessedness - that led us to serve Him in the first place. We need all our service to flow out of a real delight in Him, and desire for others to know Him.

Unfortunately, at least for me, we can fail to bless the Lord in our busyness to help others bless the Lord. Does that make sense? No, of course not. But it happens!

What a great reminder. What a great way to start each day.

I think it's great that the psalms ends - rather than begins - with a prayer for blessing on those who serve. Because there is no gain in serving the Lord apart from blessing the Lord.

Friday, June 25, 2010

A Calvinist Mystery

Back in 1994 I came to embrace what is commonly called Calvinism and is better termed "the doctrines of grace." This helped me take passages like Ephesians 1:1-14 and 2:1-10, Romans 8 and 9, the Gospel of John, and many other passages at face value. I no longer had to ignore or explain away the New Testament teaching concerning predestination, election, mankind's deadness concerning spiritual matters, etc. There was clarity.

At that time, I would have been wary of any talk of "mystery" in the debate concerning God's sovereignty and man's free? will. It would seem any ground taken away from God would have to be parceled out to man, which didn't seem right.

Eventually, however, D.A. Carson helped me see that there is indeed a mystery. It is not so much a mystery concerning who wins in the battle of God's will and man's will, the classic tension. The Bible, I think, makes the answer to that one clear. Instead, it is a mystery within God Himself: He is both sovereign (His will reigns supreme) and personal (He interacts with humans, meaningfully).

So, in the Bible we see both these realities at work: Jesus was the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world; those who nailed Him to the cross did so according to the eternal decree of God (Acts 2:23). Yet Jesus cried out in prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, pouring out His heart while surrendering to the Father's will. No Stoicism. Or, look at the missionary passion in the book of Acts: apostles who knew God was responsible for anyone's eyes being open to the gospel (Acts 13:48) yet prayed and preached up a storm to see it happen.

God is sovereign, and God is personal.

God calls the shots, and God truly, meaningfully responds to prayer.

What is commonly called Arminianism actually seeks to alleviate the mystery. This position claims, "Here's how it works: God looks down the corridor of time and sees who will choose Him; then, He chooses them." This attempts to give God's will and man's will equal footing, but really end up selling the farm to man--at the crucial moment, God is passive. While this sounds like a theological option, I don't think this is what the Scriptures as a whole teach.

Meanwhile, Calvinists can try to alleviate mystery another way. I think I've seen this more in deeds than in words, and it's what drives those who are more free-willish in their thinking crazy. It's when Calvinists undermine prayer, preaching, or sacrificial living by an attitude that speaks louder than words, "God will do what God will do, I will go back to my books now." It's not so much about how one is saved (it's all of God!) but of the means God uses. For example, He uses the impassioned prayers of those who love their friends and desire to see them saved--in short, he uses us!

I should note that God's choosing is also mysterious. The Bible refers to God's choice being based on love, and being for His glory, but does not give us an algorithm. The biggest mystery is that God would set His love on any of us! It certainly does not permit someone dead in sin to boast in the gift of resurrection life.

The Reformed tradition calls this the mystery of providence. And it uses the term "secondary causes" to refer to those means by which God accomplishes His will, including the examples I've given here already -- prayer, preaching, and so forth.

So here is my position: There is a mystery, but it is a Calvinist mystery. And fully believing in God's sovereignty is actually necessary for there to be a mystery.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Speaking as a Christian...

The Bible has A LOT to say about the way we speak. In fact, one could probably argue that the way we speak should be one of the primary differences marking out those who believe in Christ.

How then should we speak? I was thinking about three recent experiences lately, about Christians talking about how to talk.

1. One of my professors from college once decided that he was no longer going to tell people he was proud of them. Instead, he would say that he was humbled by what they had been able to accomplish. Interesting. Pride, of course, is a sin. And though we all sort of know that we mean it in a good way, and not a self exalting way, still we should ask, why are we using the language of vice to express a virtue?

2. Christians often talk about Jesus coming and turning the accepted world of social norms upside down. N.T. Wright suggests that we instead recognize that it is the unbelieving world which has turned everything upside down, and Jesus came to turn it back right-side up. This flows into the third one...

3. A friend of mine used to often express the Christians sojourn in this world as being "in the enemy camp." I once suggested to him that perhaps we should say instead that the enemy is in our camp. After all, this is my father's world, "The earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof." Why give away the whole thing to unbelievers?

Simple suggestions like these about the way we speak are important. As my rhetorically inclined brother will no doubt attest, the way we use language not only expresses a worldview, it shapes and creates a worldview. Speaking as a Christian means finding simple ways to create and maintain a Christian point of view in an increasingly upside down world.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Ministry Endurance

I was wandering the Charlotte airport the other day, taking some time to pray as I waited for my flight to board. And as I prayed, I began begging (I know it sounds unseemly) God for endurance and for zeal over the long haul.

It was one of those times when God sent an answer to prayer, or at least a fairly clear message, quickly.

I wandered past one of those book and magazine stores, and my eye caught a spinning rack filled with Christian books. Couldn't help but take a look of course, and at the very bottom of the spinning rack--underneath the books about visits to heaven and hell--there was a tiny paperback book about Christian leadership. It was by a guy named Jeff Iorg (I've never heard of him, have you?).

There was a chapter in his book called "Sustaining Passion." I read through the entire chapter.

What he basically said was this. Sustaining passion in ministry is actually about sustaining compassion for people. Don't try to take the direct route--maintaining passion for ministry per se. Instead, invest in the people around you, love them, spend meaningful time with them so that you truly like them. It is this that will sustain you.

He looked at Jesus through this lens. He wrote about how much time Jesus spent with people--by intentionality, but also by the nature of the culture of the day. The lifestyles of Jesus' day required much lengthier times with people as you walked together, ate together, etc. Much different that the quick runs we do into people's lives, as if they were 7-11 stores.

I hadn't ever heard this path to ministry endurance prescribed. It struck me as quite true. Endurance in ministry is not about being passionate for the concept or systems of ministry, even less is it about being passionate for our chosen career path. Dare I say, it's not about being passionate for theology unapplied or for pure worship or for being missional or for any other isolated cause. It's about having compassion for people, so that we really truly want to bring them to Jesus again and again.

I realize this is only one part of the Great Commandment to love God and love others. Surely ministry endurance is about both sides--and this post has done no justice to the absolute desperate necessity of ever growing in our love for our Savior God. And in fact, Jeff Iorg mentioned in his little chapter that Jesus even removed himself from people to spend time with his heavenly Father. But that will need to be a different post for a different day.

Jesus, for the joy set before him, endured the cross. Surely that joy involved his people, those for whom he died, else he would have never set foot on our globe. Let's follow those footsteps.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Theological Question of Alvin Greene

Disclaimer: This is a blog of theological reflection, not political rambling. Any political opinions expressed are those of the author, and not necessarily all moose in general. These opinions, while probably correct, are free to be disagreed with, and should not be the cause of hating anybody. Especially me.

South Carolina has been the state of political weirdness lately. Most recently we have Alvin Greene. Mr. Greene is an unemployed veteran, who came out of nowhere to win the democratic nomination for the Senate. Many people are suspicious (namely the democrats), because, to be blunt, he doesn't seem like he knows what he's doing. Moreover, some people are worried, and Christians are beginning to engage in the necessary theological reflection.

The is at least one camp of people that are rightly concerned. Because the scriptures tell us that our government officials are God's servants, and they do not bear the sword for nothing, it is important that we take elections seriously. We are right to take seriously our responsibility to elect those candidates who will fulfill their obligations.

But there is a second camp of people who see the tragedy even deeper. Because the scriptures speak of the authorities that be, being 'appointed' by God, perhaps the nomination of Alvin Greene is worse than we thought. Perhaps God is putting Greene in a position of power, because he is the kind of candidate that we deserve. That is, we no longer deserve good leadership, and the appointment of Greene is going to be the beginning of the end.

Both of these positions have biblical truth within them. And hopefully they both lead to concern and prayer that God will be gracious. However, there is also a third perspective that I think has even more merit.

One of my college profs had this remark on his blog... "The problem, of course, is that no one has the capacity to see the relative insignificance of the elections, except the poor. They know that they will be excluded no matter who sits in what chamber to cast votes. One can not have justice without just persons, and one cannot have just persons unless one begins with proper worship of the Triune God."

Indeed, if any good can come from the seeming absurdity of Greene's nomination (and it can!), it is that he is a stark reminder to Christians not to put our faith in the political system! Neither democrat, nor republican, nor any other political party in all creation has the power to be the instrument of the renewal of creation. Such is the task of the church, which is the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is the church which holds the keys of the kingdom. It is the church which will inherit the new heavens and the new earth. It is the church which is a living preview of the New Creation, where truth is told, people are treated fairly, all are loved. Such things can only come about through the gospel of Christ, and 'proper worship of the Triune God.'

Some trust in chariots and some in horses,
but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.
Psalm 20:7

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Fear. Blessings.

I've been making my way through the psalms this year, often reading several at a time. One of the benefits of this is seeing how certain themes are clustered together, so that several psalms will hit the same target from different angles. Or they might even offset each other.

For example, Psalms 127, 128, 129, 130 speak of God's blessings on the righteous--but speak of our absolute dependence on the Lord for blessing (127), our need to fear the Lord to obtain blessing (128), and that even the blessed man is at times afflicted (129). He hopes in the Lord (130) as he awaits God's promised blessings.

Also, I noticed a significant connection between some familiar verses in Psalm 128 and 130:

"Blessed is everyone who fears the Lord, who walks in His ways!" (Psalm 128:1)

"But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared." (Psalm 130:2)

Time for one more observation? I was thinking based on 128:1 that we often ask God to bless people we love. Well, maybe we should ask God to help them fear Him. The blessings will indeed follow.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Humility in a Time of Twitter

He leads the humble in what is right,
and teaches the humble his way.
Psalm 25:9

Inasmuch as I consider pride and self-interest to be the root of all other sins, I also consider that humility is the beginning of godliness.

A humble spirit is one that desires for God to be glorified in all things, "He must become greater, I must become less." A humble spirit also desires the good of others, and desires to see them happy, even when it comes at a personal cost to oneself. It considers others as more important that itself (Phil 2:3). A humble person is willing to set aside their own interests, in order that the focus might be elsewhere. A humble person does not want to be the center of attention.

As I've thought this week about what it means for husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, I realized that it takes a lot of humility. To sacrifice your own desires in order to build others up. In fact, humility is really just another word for love.

Humility is a difficult virtue. Most of us are hard wired to pursue our own desires at all costs, and to avoid personal sacrifice for the sake of others. I know that for myself, I need to find more practices, and surround myself with more influences that teach humility, rather than those that feed my illusion that I am, in fact, the center of the universe.

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for
“God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”
1 Peter 5:5

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Is Creativity a Pastoral Gift?

I suspect that creativity is an underappreciated pastoral gift.

We live in a “creative age,” and the church has incorporated artistry into its worship and websites, but I’m not talking about graphic design or video.

I’m thinking, rather, of a pedagogical creativity that aids preaching and teaching. Jesus was extremely creative, as the parables reveal. These were not just cute stories thrown in to keep the hearers’ attention; these were potent illustrations that challenged and even condemned the hearers. And they were tightly packed, which is another way of saying they packed a lot of punch.

Creativity is also a great benefit for how we structure our teaching as well. Do all our messages follow a predictable pattern, or do we have a variety of means by which to draw people into the text or topic at hand? When we teach a class, have we considered some unique ways to keep interest or reinforce the lessons? Creativity can be as simple as “mixing things up” with testimonies, times of prayer, or hands-on application. Yet at the same time, we need to be pastorally wise and not merely clever; creativity has to be in the service of instruction.

Here are a few other areas where creativity comes in handy…
- Leading prayer. Don’t be rigid, but be creative with how you guide others in prayer. Pray through Psalms, follow the pattern of the Lord’s prayer, read (or sing) the words of a rich hymn and follow it up with praise/prayer, take requests, change course midstream, don’t take requests, gather in a circle around someone and pray for them, take walks through the neighborhood and pray for it, etc.
- Developing outreach or other ministries. I think being “missional” involves prayerful creativity. What works elsewhere probably won’t work in your church. Nor will it be what your church needs. But as you pray, there might be an idea that surfaces that is uniquely fit to your community and circumstances.
- Sharing the gospel. Boy does this require creativity. No two conversations are the same!
- Children. I think this is obvious… and maybe the lesson here is that it needs to be more obvious to us when we’re dealing with adults!

Thinking about Jesus again. Not only were his words the most creative in history (partly this is because truth seems creative when you are swimming in falsehood), but he also “mixed things up” a bit didn’t he? He healed by touch, by spit, by mud. He gave some prepared lessons and grabbed teachable moments. He prayed for and with people. He put children in the center and others on the spot. He gave examples, set an example, used parables, pronounced woes, pointed at temples, surprised and tested listeners, gave away food, and instituted sacraments. And he approached subject matter in unique, provocative ways—but always grounded in truth.

Unless there are any objections, I move that we approach ministry with both wisdom and creativity.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How (not) to use words.

One of the things I've been impressed with since studying at Erskine Seminary, is the desire of my professors to be Christian Scholars. Not only that they are scholars who are Christians, and not only that there scholarship is focused on Christian issues, but the way that they strive to do all of their scholarship in a Christian way. That is, they seek to represent their opponents fairly. They make honest efforts not to exaggerate claims. They undertake scholarship as a means to sanctification, not a means to publication.

Even in 'regular life,' that is, outside the world of academia, I've noticed the easy tendency to not represent others fairly when we disagree with their position. Even in the church this happens as we discuss the differences between various theological positions. Two words stand out to me which are commonly misused.

The first is the word "legalism." We all know legalism is a bad thing, and we are quick to pin the label on those we disagree with. But do we really know what it means? Technically, the word "legalism" means the belief that people are saved by keeping the law (of Moses). I don't believe I've ever met a Christian of any stripe who believes this. However, we often throw the word around in an informal way to describe anyone who we believe puts too much emphasis on obedience rather than grace and mercy. But I can tell you, I've been preaching through Ephesians, and Paul puts an awful lot of emphasis on living a holy life. Does this make Paul a legalist? Me genoito!! Paul believes firmly that salvation is by grace, but that the life of faith also leads to a life of obedience.

I propose that we take more care in using the label 'legalist.' Let's honestly appraise the full position of those with whom we may disagree, then give them the benefit of the doubt if we are uncertain. A zeal for holy living should not automatically be equated with legalism.

The second word is related, though opposite, "antinomiansim." This slightly less common word refers to those who believe that all forms of law have been abdicated by Christ, and that there is no expected ethic for those saved by grace. Those this careful definition is rarely used. More commonly, the word is thrown around in an imprecise, pejorative sense, as a label for those who emphasize our freedom in Christ. Again, in my experience, I don't believe I have ever met a true antinomian, who believes that the grace of Christ really can lead to any conceivable life. I have, however, met people who believe it is ok to drink beer. And more often than not, it is these people, who get labeled, by those whose convictions differ.

Again, I propose that we exercise more care, and more importantly, more Christian love in the way we discuss those with whom we may disagree. What scripture are they attempting to explain, understand, or apply, that we have not thought about as carefully? I believe that if we speak more carefully, it will not only help to demonstrate Christian unity, but also open our eyes to areas of sanctification and growth that we have hitherto be blinded to.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Day of the Groom

Several years ago my friend Matt got married. The wedding was beautiful and memorable, if slightly unconventional.

The minister took his place at the center of the stage. Matt stood alone in the aisle facing him. The minister began by acknowledging the inviolable place of the bride as the queen of wedding day festivities. Everything is about the bride. This is her day, if the bride ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. And yet, the minister continued, treading now in dangerous waters, this is not the biblical model. In the bible, the wedding day is The Day of The Groom!

And indeed it is so. Consider the description in Revelation 19 of The Marriage Supper of the Lamb. The consummation of heaven and earth is described as the wedding banquet uniting Christ (the groom) to the church (the bride). This is a wedding ceremony designed to honor and glorify the accomplishments of the groom. It is he who has gone out to find himself a wife, he who has won her over and pledged himself to her, and it is he who has purified his bride, in order that she might become his radiant wife! The bride invites her guests to join in celebrating the glory of the groom, and her happiness in him.

Consider this image a bit further. In the OT the covenantal relationship with God and his people Israel was occasionally described as a marriage covenant, Israel was engaged to by the Lord's. And yet, too often, this metaphor was the more memorable because of the way it was used to heighten the shame of Israel in her disobedience. Hosea famously is commanded to marry a prostitute as an object lesson demonstrating the spiritual whoredom of Israel. In disobeying, and seeking after other gods, Israel was acting faithless in regard to her engaged Lord.

What would the groom to with his unfaithful bride? He would take upon himself the responsibility of cleansing her, purifying her, forgiving her, and getting her all cleaned up until she was worthy to be his own wife. Ephesians 5 says as much,
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish.
At the wedding supper of the lamb, although we, as the bride of Christ, will be presented to him "holy and without blemish" all the glory will go the our faithful, loving, sacrificial, glorious groom. And when people look at the bride in her splendor, they will marvel at the power of the groom. And we will get to enjoy his goodness forever.

Then the minister, having offered some such explanation, looked at Matt and said, "Go claim your bride." Matt turned around and walked back down the aisle, and out the back door of the church. We sat in silence. A few moments later, all the shutters on the enormous church windows were opened, and the previously dim sanctuary was filled with light. Then Matt appeared again at the back of the church with his bride on his arm, and marched triumphantly up the aisle. The groom had won his bride and she was beautiful. We celebrated, and looked forward to the day...

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Having an Answer

Do you want to share the gospel with others? Do you want to have an answer to those who question the faith? Here's the most important ingredient: assurance of your salvation.

The psalmist prays for this in Psalm 119:

"Let your steadfast love come to me, O Lord,
your salvation according to your promise;
then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me,
for I trust in your word." (vv.41-42)

Similarly, David prayed in Psalm 51: "Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and uphold me with a willing spirit, then I will teach transgressors your ways, and sinners will return to you" (vv.12-13).

It's not just an Old Testament concept, either. Far from it, in fact. Martyn Lloyd-Jones argues in Joy Indescribable that the "power from on high" Jesus promised in Acts 1 is expressed primarily in the assurance of salvation. The "power" is not speaking in tongues, prophecy, or miracles, though all those are wonderful. Assurance of salvation -- aka faith -- is the fundamental gift of the Holy Spirit that is then expressed in many different ways, resulting in bold, powerful, effective witness to others.

I tend to agree with Lloyd-Jones, and with the psalmists.