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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Joy to the World

The Western Christmas season is upon us yet again.  I really struggled with the idea of making a Christmas post or not, but here you go anyway. My main reason for struggling with the idea is that most of the posts I read are tired, worn-out, and redundant (no offense meant to any particular bloggers- I might have a jaded opinion). Hopefully, this isn't one of those.

Why do people suffer? Happy question, I know. I think there are several reasons for this, but the main amount of human suffering in the world is caused by other humans.  Well, what about the people who suffer because of a natural disaster or a random accident? I still think many of those could be prevented if humans, as a whole, could actually love one another. Most people know by now that the limit on human resources isn't necessarily caused by a strict limit on those resources. Instead, greed, corruption, and hostility often limit the amount of resources shared among people groups. This leads to inability of people to avoid things like monsoons, build proper housing, and get access to clean food and water. I could go on with how our sinful nature affects us individually and globally.

In the midst of this, Christians see the need for Christ, especially at this time of year. Christ calls us to live sacrificially for others.  By this love, we hope to share Christ.  We want to transcend materialism, physicalism, and the downright ugliness of selfishness that surrounds us and indwells us all too often.

So, here are my suggestions for remembering and living joyfully this Christmas season. As always, these are written with myself in mind just as much as anyone else. 
1. Give until it hurts. Use your commodities like you live to give them away- money, time, and friendship (see #4 below). 
2. Review what it is that actually hurts. This C.S. Lewis quote from Mere Christianity can help you get started:
“I do not believe one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot do because our charitable expenditures exclude them.”
3. Pray in a sacrificial manner. Try setting your alarm for the middle of the night and getting up to pray for friends, family, coworkers who need Christ.  Give up a couple meals this month to fast and pray for Christians who are suffering. 
4. Treat your friendship like a commodity people need. I know this could be taken in a weird way, but we already treat our friendship as a valuable thing. We withhold it from people if we don't like them or we are tired of them. Conversely, we give it to those we deem worthy of it because they have earned our trust. What if instead of the Law of Diminishing Returns living in the back of our minds, we just became friends with other people sacrificially. I don't mind thinking of economic terms- let's just turn those economics upside down with the Kingdom inaugurated by Jesus. 
5. Trust Christ.  I don't have all the answers, but I really believe I know the One who does. It is time for me to start living like  I know Christ.  This kind of trust is the essence of joyful living. It also explains why it is not a euphoric or happy feeling, although those feelings may happen at times.  
6. Be cheerful. So, what is good cheer then? It is a willingness to help others without complaining. It is an ability to listen without judging.  It allows us to spend time, energy, and resources on others without an expectation of return.  All these things together form a cheerful disposition.  It also means we don't force Christ on others during this time or approach them from a position of power, arrogance, or control. 

I really believe we can celebrate Christ this Christmas. As a Christian, He has done immeasurably more for me than I could do for Him.  I can truly celebrate, Joy to the world! 

And now, the words to my favorite Christmas carol by Isaac Watts:

Joy to the World , the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.

Joy to the World, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Luke 2:8-12 (GNT) 

There were some shepherds in that part of the country who were spending the night in the fields, taking care of their flocks. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone over them. They were terribly afraid,10 but the angel said to them, “Don't be afraid! I am here with good news for you, which will bring great joy to all the people. 11 This very day in David's town your Savior was born—Christ the Lord! 12 And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Monday, November 24, 2014

Three Books and a Few Thoughts on Reading

Three of the books I recently finished reading are:
1. With by Skye Jethani
2. Ordinary by Michael Horton 
3. After you Believe by N.T. Wright

I selected each of these books independently of the others, but they ended reinforcing similar enough principles I thought it wise to cover them in one post.

First, each book comes from a different perspective and tradition on the Christian faith. With comes from an evangelical, Ordinary is by a Reformed theologian, and NT Wright composes as an Anglican.   Despite these differences, each of the authors ends up addressing what Christian faith looks like in the long haul.   For this reason, I believe these books are best suited for someone who is ready to move on from the basics of Christianity to a longer path of obedience. 

Next, each book does a good job of making a unique contribution to discipleship literature.  In Ordinary, a case is made for the regular practice of Christian community.  Instead of seeking new methods as our identity, the local church must be committed to the original and simple institutions of the early church - i.e. communion, prayer, fellowship, and scripture.  When we realize the radical message of Christianity must be dependent on Christ alone, we give up trying to define ourselves in terms of our radical works. 

In this respect, With assisted me in thinking about the actual working out of personal discipleship.   The purpose of Skye's book is to help us give up life under, over, for, or from God and instead hold to a life of discipleship where we are in constant communion with God. Ultimately, this is about heart change. Being with God changes our perspective on the ordinary because it is here we find our satisfaction rather than in our attempts to control.

Wright is one of my favorite writers, and this book was no exception.  Although his slightly pedantic style can wear on me at times, in this book he winsomely crafts a middle road for the Christian life between legalism and antinomianism. Christian virtue becomes not an end in itself, but the product of a life lived regularly with God.  I think the common thread should be obvious between the three books at this point. 

In conclusion, none of these books on its own would have been a stand out classic. They are all good books, but they have their faults.   However, together these three together reinforced the importance of integrated discipleship. The flaws of individual perspectives can be crippling and distracting when I read.  While reading these books in tandem, the flaws were heavily outweighed by the complementary nature of the books. So, here are some things I've learned through the process, in addition to the things I'm thinking about long-term discipleship.

1. No one tradition has all the answers to a well-formed Christian principle, whether it by discipleship or any other important aspect of the Christian life. 
2. Reading more than one book at the same time can have benefits.
3. Particularly, reading with an awareness of the concepts, applications, and practical perspectives which may complement each other helps gives a deeper appreciation and useful of each individual book. The sum of the whole is greater than the distinct parts.
4. The Holy Spirit can work in ways I may consider mundane, such as my book choices. It is important to submit even those things in prayer to God.
5. My reading should be a regular and simple practice which benefits God's church. 

Overall, thinking about what I have learned has given me new perspective on Philippians 2:3-4, 
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (NIV)

When I read and study in the future, I want it to be even more for the glory of God, in service to His church. God continues to teach me excellent things and I must continue the process by living out in humility what I learn. 

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Ministry Cave

If you've ever read the Harry Potter series you know how terrible and lonely caves can be.  The main antagonist in the story arc, Lord Voldemort, used a cave to hide some of his darkest secrets. It was there he tortured other children as a child. It was there he hid many of the dead bodies of people he had murdered, and he used their undead corpses as protection for a part of his evil soul.

In Plato's Republic we are greeted by the Allegory of the Cave. The cave is the place where ignorant men remain ignorant about the true nature of the world.  The cave really isn't a good place, as the Good is something outside of the cave.  Much more could be said about this little parable.

Suffice it to say we don't want to live in caves. They are dark. They are lonely. They isolate us from the warmth and clarity of the sun.

Being in vocational ministry is an isolating place. It can often feel like being in a cave.

It may not be the most isolating vocation, but it has to be one of them. I'm sure being a doctor, psychotherapist, or mortician may all be equally demanding emotionally and spiritually. However, I only know my experiences related to professional ministry.

Sometimes you have weeks that seem like they aren't going to end. The apparent setbacks pile on top of each other as if they have a personality and are eager to bury you.  At times like this, ministry can feel like a dank, dark cave on an island in some forgotten, arctic sea. Every time you feel like you deal with the next gust of chill wind, another one comes to knock you down.

So, how do I deal with it?

1. Christ alone.

If I value myself, my work, or my relationship to any of it by the outside factors (i.e. the setbacks) then I'm stuck in the cave and I'm never getting out.  Every time one of these things hits me, I realize it's time to pray. One of the simple prayers that brings me back into the presence of Christ is St. Patrick's shield or breastplate prayer:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me.
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger.

I also pray for mercy based upon the sinner's plea in Luke 18:13. This leads me to my next point.

2. Perspective.

I'm a sinner saved by God's grace. God didn't need to love me, but He chose to because of His nature.  This changes everything.  "My" ministry isn't mine because even my life isn't mine anymore. I am Christ's- redeemed by Him and for Him. 

3. Reinvigorated clarity.  

When setbacks inevitably occur in ministry, it helps me to clear away the cobwebs of distractions and ambiguous purpose.   I am in ministry to help equip believers grow in Christ and introduce others to Christ.  Anything that hasn't helped with this dual purpose is not worth pursuing.  

4. Talking it out. 

Finally, I spend time with other believers who I can share my struggles with in a healthy way.  Staying positive and staying away from gossip are two of the marks of healthiness within these relationships. It doesn't mean I pretend everything is OK. It does mean we communicate clearly, assertively, and with grace. 

Of course, there are things I will never be able to share as far as details or names of those things getting me down within ministry. This would be a breach of trust.  However, I can and should share how I am doing and whether I am trusting Christ. This type of mutual confession is good for the soul and good for the church. 

This post helps remind me of my own calling as a disciple and as a minister.  I guess I couldn't sum it up better than Paul as he reminded the Roman church to work out their interpersonal stuff with love. 

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. 
(Rom. 12:2)

Time to let Christ drag me on out of this cave and into the sunlight.  Let's overcome some evil today. 

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The Excluded Middle

Last night I was reminded of how often people look at a position and assume there are only two alternatives. Usually this happens when someone fails to adequately distinguish what they mean. When this occurs, an oversimplification occurs and an individual asserts a generalization.

Generalizations are dangerous because they rarely carry the meaning a speaker or writer himself thinks of when writing or speaking the assertion.  Such statements fail to account for sense, time, and referent sufficiently. Since the communicator has a different meaning than the recipient, a closed communication loop is created where the original communicator has distanced himself from his audience.  At times, this distance is intentional.

One example may be a speech writer who is intentionally ambiguous and uses a lot of platitudes.  Such a person may want to call to mind, for the speech recipients, various undefined and broad ideas of patriotism along with emotional experiences which are left open to interpretation. This lack of clarity and vague feelings of loyalty may then be attached to the person who delivers the speech in broad generalizations.  In my experience, this seems to be a common tactic in writing speeches which engender support from a wide spectrum.  This is dangerous for both the individual and society as it encourages individuals to assume and then agree to work with other individuals based upon assumption, rather than upon actual knowledge.

This danger is present not only for political parties, government, and civil societies, but it is also present for the church. I cannot count how many times I have read sermon help materials, small group studies, and other materials designed, ostensibly, to help the church which have relied upon sweeping abstraction to make a point.  This happens when a study guide will present a question with only two alternatives- implying that one alternative is more Christ-like than the other.  Many times, the two alternatives are oversimplified in a way that does no justice to either alternative.

At this point, the author is relying on the Law of Excluded Middle to try to force Christians into a guilt based reversal of behavior.  This is problematic for a number reasons.

First, as mentioned earlier a generalization, especially in this case, fails to adequately describe its propositional referents.  This may sound confusing at first, but it is quite simple.  Propositions are statements which must have meaning.  Sometimes, Christians try to make propositions but in reality they are issuing non-nonsensical statements which have no referents.  More often, the propositions fail to specifically enough to a state of affairs to be relevant. If we are vague, then we flounder in our ability to communicate effectively.

Second, the two propositions Christians may be comparing as antithetical (opposites) may not in fact be the opposite of each other. This is a very common mistake.  Just because I have experienced something and then replaced it with a different experience does not mean the second thing I experienced was the universal, unilateral opposite of the thing I replaced it with.  Stated differently, following God and not following God are opposites, but there are number of different ways to do both.  On the outside, actions may usually be seen as neutral, it is the heart that matters.

This brings us to the third point.  Generalizations go wrong when they ignore the hidden qualities of the Christian experience.   One of the reasons people misunderstand the proposition in Christian materials is that they are looking at it from the wrong perspective.  One of the chief ways this happens is that the Law still rules Christians rather than Grace.  For a good introduction to the topic see this book:   Set Free .

Finally, the writer may have jumped to application before preparing the audience through a careful study of scripture.  When we think that application is the only or even the primary reason for studying scripture, we may miss out on God's presence in the reading of that scripture.  Not only that, but we may miss out on the specific meaning of the text which may bring us to even more broad applications.  In short, application is inserted into a proposition as being universally true. God's word is universally true, our application of it is not.

When we pretend that someone either follows our interpretation of scripture or they are disobeying God we employing the Law of the Excluded middle in a devious way. We have disastrously conflated our understanding of God's word with God's word and tried to apply it legalistically to someone else. I've probably been guilty of doing this in my writing before, but this post is a reminder of the need to be gentle, careful, and gracious in my application of scripture.

There are other ways the Law of Excluded may not apply to our readings of scripture, but this should be sufficient to get us reoriented towards humility for now. It was at least a good reminder for myself.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Fishies and Feets

I'm a stay at home (SAH) dad.  The church I currently work with is kind enough to let me work from home on my lessons, curriculum, and all my other administrative duties.  It just worked out that job was a part-time commitment and my wife would work full-time.

So, how do I like it? I never expected to be SAH parent.  In fact, I've pushed against it for the last few years.  Finally, I'm starting to feel alright with it.  I realized it when my 2 year old son asked me to trace his feet the other day.  My first thought, for the briefest of times, went something like this, "Why can't he leave me alone for 5 minutes!" To be honest, this is usually my thought when my boys ask me for something.  It's usually a struggle for me to focus on the things the little boys need to be kids. I'm often distracted by the things I want to do with my time.

This time was different though. It wasn't a struggle to say, "Yes, Blaise, let's do it!" I surprised myself with this reaction because although I still had the initial, "leave me alone," thought, I instinctively subdued that thought. Instead, I really wanted to play with my son. He was ready for me trace his "feets" and we giggled together as we found paper and a marker to do so.

I had a similar thought when I took my boys to the aquarium today. Many times, I take my boys to the things they like to do because I see it as something they need. Today I saw it as a tremendous way to spend time with them.

Life is odd.  I never intended to end up as a SAH. Yet, here I am.  I've been so busy for so many years of my life God finally had to use my kids to slow me down. Even as I write those words, I know it will appear strange to someone on the outside.  How in the world do a 2 year old and 6 year old slow someone down (besides at the end of the day)?  At least with my kids, God used them to show me how important the experience of life itself should be in the midst of all my busyness.

It's basically taken me 3 years to move internally, spiritually, emotionally, and intellectually from, "Hey, just leave me alone so I can get done what I want to get done." to "Yes, I'd love to be with you." I have a hard time just being- especially with myself. This is what God keeps calling me to though- just being with Him.  I pretend I know what that's all about, but it took little ones to really start to show me.

The Shema, the defining script for the people of God in the Old Testament, makes it clear what type of relationship we are supposed to have with God.  The aspect I've forgotten about is that God wants me to exist with Him, not on my own.  So many times, my busyness gets in the way of just knowing God.  Yet, God patiently calls me to hear from Him. He is no fragmented, crazy, fractured God. The Lord is one.  This is God's holiness.  The distraction is part of what I am being called out and away from.
Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your Godwith all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. (Deuteronomy 6:4-5, NASB)

God waits for me to respond to Him the same way my sons want my attention- no reservations, no holding back, no internal distraction, and no halfway heart.  It sounds so peaceful. Why can't I do it then? My sin, the old self is holding me back.  

It's time to be a kid again and enjoy fishies and feets with my Father. This time though, the roles need to be reversed and I need to open up joyfully to all the cool things my heavenly Father wants to show me. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Race and My Place

I live in a neighborhood that is a fairly good representation of the city of Cincinnati in terms of its character and racial makeup. I love living in my neighborhood. Not everyone looks alike, not everyone acts alike. In all honesty, there are probably safer places to live.  I feel comfortable having my family here. We are part of this neighborhood and we interact respectfully with our neighbors. Sometimes, I get the impression that many white Christians throughout the U.S. would feel very uncomfortable living in my neighborhood. They may even downright avoid my neighborhood because of its racial makeup. I believe this is a tragedy.

Ferguson has been on the minds of most Americans in the past few weeks.  I have no idea if we will ever know what actually happened the night Mike Brown died. There have been commentaries on both sides of the issue that paint either the cops or the black community as villains in the struggle.  I have no desire to take part in such petty arguments.  Why is it petty? I am not a person living in the community, I am not a business owner in the community, and I have neither lost or gained anything because of this ordeal. Most of the people who are casting judgment on the situation have nothing to gain directly or indirectly by what has happened in Ferguson. Instead, the gains made by such people are usually on an ideological level although it does not escape me that language may be used to subjugate (in various ways, through various methods) people who are different than the speaker.

Why would I bring up such a point?  I want to take more responsibility for my actions as a white man of privilege. I recognize that I have certain privileges merely because I was born a man who was white.  This is what Ferguson has brought to my mind with all the arguing.  As a white person, I have never known what is like to be profiled by the police purely because of my race.  I can go where I want to in this country with little to no fear of reprisal because of the the color of my skin. My skin happens to take on a slightly olive color which may be because of a great-grandfather of unknown ethnicity; he got off the orphan train from New York with an assumed identity and was adopted without a second thought into my family. Other than that, I am clearly a white man.  For years, I've had people share racist jokes with me with the expectation that I would laugh at those who were not of the white race. I don't laugh at those jokes  and they quickly go away because of it, but it is assumed that because of my whiteness I will share in the privilege and power those jokes embody.

The privilege doesn't end there either. Even within the church, I have doors open for me precisely because of my anatomy, sexuality, and gender (all of which happen to be interrelated but distinct things).  If I was a woman, I could not realistically hope to be an elder in the brotherhood I hold most near and dear to my heart. *

I could go on about my privilege and place in society, but I won't. Instead, I want to return to my responsibility. I must take on the role of servant.  This is my responsibility. Any power I have must be used to serve others. Admittedly, some of those people I serve include my family.  The people in my neighborhood are also those I must serve.

(Delacroix's Good Samaritan, which I do not own the rights to but show purely for educational purposes) 

Given the case of Ferguson, Christians must think in the same way. When Jesus was asked about those we are called to serve, he answered with a story.  If my anger is raised about the looting, vandalism, and rioting I must think about who I could serve.  If my anger grows deep and heated because of the actions of the police, then I must find a way to serve them.

Sin has left our society beaten, bruised, and robbed of the beauty God intends for His creation.  As the church, when we come across sin's effects and we react with indifference or angst we do a disservice to the cross of Christ.  We must find a way to serve and love those who are different than ourselves.  We must love them in a sacrificial way.

I am not a black person who was raised in this country. I am not a cop patrolling the streets.  I am not a business owner with a destroyed livelihood. I am a white man and I must love my neighbor.

The love expressed here is not from the principles of Old Testament sapiential literature.** Instead, this is the love of a savior who gave all. It is the love of someone at odds culturally with someone else who decides to sacrifice in order to partake in God's restoration and redemption of creation.

Paul sums up my feelings on responsibility towards race and service to others.

All the things I once thought were so important are gone from my life. Compared to the high privilege of knowing Christ Jesus as my Master, firsthand, everything I once thought I had going for me is insignificant—dog dung. I’ve dumped it all in the trash so that I could embrace Christ and be embraced by him. I didn’t want some petty, inferior brand of righteousness that comes from keeping a list of rules when I could get the robust kind that comes from trusting Christ—God’s righteousness.
I gave up all that inferior stuff so I could know Christ personally, experience his resurrection power, be a partner in his suffering, and go all the way with him to death itself. If there was any way to get in on the resurrection from the dead, I wanted to do it. (Philippians 3:8-11 The Message)

I have a place in this world, and it is wherever I can serve others.

*Some people in our brotherhood see a sea change happening with women's role in ministry and possibly in eldership.  At this point, I am trying to be faithful to scripture and not comment on anything other than the reality that women currently are not welcome as elders in our brotherhood. 
**I believe Christians can and should support the government in the way that Paul upheld in the NT, especially in Romans. However, I believe we are also paradoxically called to a life of subversion. This life is epitomized by Christ-like servant-hood to which is the essence of kingdom living.  

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Tone and Timbre - On Christian Speech and Writing

I'm a guitarist. I've been playing for about 20 years now. It's a great instrument and I'm usually inspired when I watch professionals and artists play it.  Every once in a while, I'll find someone who is technically proficient, but I just can't stand to watch them play.  Don't misunderstand me, I enjoy players as diverse as Paul Gilbert  and Phil Keaggy in their approach to the guitar.   However, there are certain players who just seem to be obnoxious  when I hear them. 

This mainly seems to be the case when someone knows all the notes to play yet fails to take the time to make their guitar sound good.  Guitarists refer to this as a lack of tone and timbre.  Now, it's true that tone and timbre are a matter of personal taste.  There are still some basic rules to follow as you develop your own tone. A chief one is to never be so obnoxious that you can't blend with the rest of the band. In my opinion, Kenny Loggin's "Danger Zone" is one of the worst all time offenders in this respect. The guitar in this song is horrid. Somewhat ironically, the song was used to great effect by recruiters.  In music, sometimes a job will get done by the guitar, but it could have gotten done a lot more graciously.

This is where my thoughts went after reading a recent post by a certain Christian blogger. Although the particular topic he was addressing (i.e. Robin Williams' suicide) may have been an appropriate topic given the amount of time addressed to it in the media, he handled it without a real sense of grace.  If he was playing guitar, his tone and timbre would have been brash, in your face, and without a consideration for the rest of the band.  It's an ugly tone.

If this was the only time this blogger had written in this way, I may not be writing my own thoughts on the matter right now.  However, again and again this individual chooses to interact with topics in a bombastic, kick-in-the-door manner. I thought about linking to more of his blog, but decided against it since I really don't care to drive more traffic to his site.  He's the theological-blogger equivalent of someone who presents a possible theological truth in all the wrong ways to a grieving family.  For example, if a family was grieving with the loss of a young child, he appears to be the type of person who would say, "Well, just remember God has a plan and we just have to trust God." There may be some truth in those words, they may have even be intended to convey comfort.  They don't though. They are a miserable failure in terms of solace, empathy, and grace. 

Before I get accused of being a pot calling the kettle black, let me make clear my point here.  I don't know that blogger personally. I do know myself.  I do know plenty of other Christians.  I know quite a few Christians who are teachers or leaders who are responsible for sharing their ideas with other Christians. I don't intend to correct him personally. I do intend to help correct the possibility of making the same mistake within the group of people I know.  At least, I hope that this blog post will contribute to the discussion as we try to become more Christ-like. 

As James taught about the power of the tongue, he wrote, "Can both fresh water and salt water flow from the same spring?" (James 3:11 HCSB). This is a reminder about the life-giving quality of our words. Specifically, he was talking about the power of our words as we teach and lead. The application turns us toward life and grace. When we speak and teach it should not just be done so that we are right. Our tone and timbre matters.

I mentioned kick-in-the-door delivery tactics. Such tactics are always more concerned with "truth" and proving a point than loving people or growing the kingdom. I say "truth" because facts are never just facts, objective truth always relates to a bunch of other things, like the people involved and the cultural context. Furthermore, there are several ways kick-in-the-door tactics employ logical slight of hand to accomplish their feats of intellectual entry.

First, logically valid arguments are assumed to be true (whether implicit, tacit, or focal) .  This is either devious or ignorant of the relationship between an argument and its premises.  It is completely possible to make a valid argument and yet be untrue. Consider the following 1. All refrigerators are made of titanium alloy. 2. All items made of titanium alloy are time-travel devices. 3. Therefore, all refrigerators are time-travel devices.   With this example, we immediately see the absurdity of the premises.  It is not always the case that we see the truth or absurdity of a principle or premise.  When this is the case, we must not assume we are telling the whole truth.  After all, a partial truth is also partially false. We need sound arguments where both the premises and the conclusion have at least a high probability of truth. 

Second, there are often other tactics used by those marshaling to barrel through intellectual doors. Some of these include equivocation. Equivocation is when two entities are made out to be the same thing.  Often, equivocation relies on the inability of others to distinguish between different types, tokens, classes, etc. Presumption is another tactic used by these go-getters. Presumption relies on underlying assumptions about the state of affairs as presented.  It is closely tied to equivocation in its application. 

What about our good intentions?  Doesn't it sound like I am the enemy of truth and justice and the American way? Good intentions mean very little if we do not consider our context.   As a Christian it must always be my goal to communicate life to others.   Are my words bringing life (not just what I think will bring life, but actual life, dependent on Christ)? If not, then I have failed to communicate objective truth. I have only communicated some "objective" ideas.

When James referred to our speech as either fresh water or salt water, I can't help but think James was thinking of Jesus (e.g. John 4:14).  My words, when spoken or written should bring fresh, living water to those who need it. Yes, it's true that my words may occasionally sting, as when water washes out an old wound.  I must gauge how I deliver those words though. Usually a power washer, and it's strong tone, is the wrong tool for delivering water to those in need. Sure, I can imagine a situation where it would be the proper tool. Most of the time though, the water will have a calm, musical sound to it as the clear waters of life are delivered.  

Friday, July 25, 2014

Surprise Party

At our local church, we've been going through many of the parables of Jesus this summer.  It's been great because studying the parables allows us to see what Jesus taught firsthand to people. I love re-reading what Jesus taught to people. It often hits me square between the eyes and gives me a kick in the pants (sorry to mix metaphors).

Last week, we looked at the Parable of the Mustard Seed (Matthew 13:31-35; Mark 4:30-34; Luke 13:18-21).   Each time we have studied a parable at youth group, we have taken the time to go deeper and read the surrounding context. This way, everyone who is there will be able to apply and teach the scripture to a friend or neighbor (at least in theory). This parable was no different. As part of this study, we read all of Matthew 13 and then discussed the background of expectation.

I guess we should back up, why were we talking about expectation in the first place? Expectation is one of the chief things Jesus was dealing with when he taught.  Many people had expectations about what the Messiah (Christ is transliterated from the Greek for Messiah) would be like.  As Jesus deals with those expectations, he talks about the Kingdom of Heaven.  In Luke and John, the same concept appears as the Kingdom of God. Matthew, as a good Jewish person, would have avoided using the name of God and instead inserts heaven.  For our purposes, it will be sufficient to look at what Matthew does with the concept.

In Matthew, the idea is introduced by John the Baptist (3:2) and then taken over by Jesus as he inaugurates his public ministry (4:17).  In this particular instance, Jesus reinterprets the prophet Isaiah as speaking about Jesus' ministry (cf. Isaiah 9:1,2 & 42:7).  From here on out, we start to see how Jesus sees himself fulfilling the role of Messiah for the Jewish people. Interestingly, Luke follows a similar path in allowing Jesus to interpret his role as Messiah through the voice of Isaiah the prophet (Luke 4:18-19; Isaiah 61:1-2 ff), but this time Luke is writing primarily for a Gentile audience.

As Matthew continues his narrative of Jesus' life, he keeps using the Kingdom language. In the Sermon on the Mount, this expression dominates the new way of living shares with the people.  For the Jewish people, it was not the newness which surprised them about how Jesus described the Kingdom. Instead, it was the fact that Jesus was not describing a kingdom on earth which would be marked by peace and signs of paradise (i.e. material wealth and glory- for a further explanation on this see (βασιλεύς, βασιλεία, βασίλισσα, βασιλεύω, συμβασιλεύω, βασίλειος, βασιλικός:
Vol. 1: Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. 1964- (G. Kittel, G. W. Bromiley & G. Friedrich, Ed.) (electronic ed.) (564). Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans.    מֶלֶךְ and מַלְכוּת in the OT and ff).

But Jesus doesn't preach to them about material wealth or earthly peace.  He preaches about things like loving our enemies, blessedness because of persecution, and a higher standard of sexual morality.

I can imagine the reaction to these things- "Aw, come on! You have to be kidding me Jesus! When is it our turn?" It's easy to imagine this reaction because many people feel the same way today. Sometimes I am one of those people who expects Jesus to bring me material bliss or earthly peace.  I don't usually, if ever say it, but I live that way and I pray that way.

In any case, Jesus has built up a story of the Kingdom which keeps slamming their expectations.  Very little is left of most peoples' previous thoughts on the matter, at least if they've been paying attention.

This is the state of things when Jesus tells the story of the mustard seed.  Here is a tiny little seed. Maybe even a seed that is regularly thrown away because it is insignificant and a bother to those who are not cultivating it. Then God does something amazing with it- he turns it into a plant big enough for the birds of the field to land in.

I am an advocate for the idea that parables only have one main point. All the other points are just in support of the main point. This one is no different.  Jesus is telling us that God is going to surprise us. How is he going to surprise us? He's going to use the Kingdom of Heaven just like a mustard seed. It's unexpected, not necessarily wanted, it's small, hidden, and just a little bit annoying if we're honest with ourselves.   How does a mustard seed grow? You let it go. You let it do it's thing. And then we are surprised by what happens.

We can't control God's kingdom. We can't control the results. We can't even control the means God wants to use. God is going to use the crazy things, the small things to break into our world and grow his kingdom. God wants to surprise us today. How must that happen? We have to give up control to God.

In our talk, the topic of choice came up. So, does this parable mean I no longer have any choice in my life? Nope, it just means we are going to give the choices to God.  For a high school student, it means I give the choice to God about whether or not I should attend a party, or drink, or have sex with someone I am not married to- all of these choices either lead to life (the tree/kingdom) growing or to death (retaining control and not letting the seed grow).   The difference really isn't that great for adults. We can either choose to let the kingdom grow in our lives or we can choose to retain control.

Control often comes with the allure of short term gain. It can be fun to know what kind of pleasure I will experience immediately.  In the kingdom, we give up control so we can see the benefit of God surprising us.

A surprise is hard to wait for, I know, I am really bad at being patient when someone tells me they have a surprise to give me.  Just imagine what God has in store for us though! When we give up on our short term control, desires, and expectations God has something better in store.  God wants to surprise us with his grace and love.

Let's let the kingdom grow. Let's be surprised. Let's give God control.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Revelations and Relationships

If you have spent a large amount of time around church people, you've probably heard someone correct someone else at some point about the name of the last book in the Bible. Sure, the correct name is "Revelation" as in The Revelation of St. John. I understand the reason most people try to make this correction. In fact, I have often been one of the people doing the correction. There is a concern to help the offender become enlightened. We also want people to know there is only one revelation from God about the end of the world and not multiple ones.

Sometimes though, our corrections come at wrong times. I would argue this happens a lot. If someone feels like I am more concerned with correcting them than having a discussion, the discussion shuts down. Later on, this can cause the relationship to start shutting down too. This is especially true if it happens more than once.

I'm a know-it-all at times. My wife would attest to this fact. I don't know when to shut up.  The good part is that I do know how to apologize and learn when I'm wrong. At least I hope that's the good part. We might be kind and call a child who knows a lot a savant, but by the time we reach adulthood we usually label such a person a jerk if it is not tempered by other things. We all know people like this in our lives (if you're reading this you probably know me and have thought I'm a jerk at one point or another, it's ok, I realize it).

So, why is this important for the church and not just me? The church is full of know-it-alls. In fact, we often set up systems in order for the people who remain a long time in the church to become know-it-alls.  This set up is foundational to having a church which is more systematic and business like than body-like.  We were meant to be a body, not a business. I know this is a tired theme for some people, but I'm focusing on one particular element. How do we teach people without making them experts?

You may be wondering why I would want to do such a thing.  Isn't being an expert a great thing?  Isn't an expert the equivalent of someone who has done extremely well?  The answers to those questions are, "it depends!" What does it depend on? It depends on the way you are evaluating an expert.

In the book Who Owns the Future by Jaron Lanier, we see two models of evaluation compared.  One model tries to encourage outliers or "stars" to appear. For our purposes, these would be experts- people who excel so much that they are beyond everyone else.  The entire point of this first model is to create people who are outliers. The problem with such a model is that by design most people will never achieve this status. The second model is based upon a Bell Curve of success. This model assumes that many more people will achieve a more modest form of success without ever aiming for the outlier position.  In this model, many people are rewarded for doing lots of things well without all striving for the few same things.

That's all well and good, but what does it have to do with the church? Especially given the fact that the book you gained the idea from is a business and management book?

Well, it got me thinking. What has been our goal in the American church? Why do we correct people over things that destroy relationships- like an "s" at the end of a word when the person is maybe only trying to reference something and we turn it into a discussion on meaning? Why do we feel the need to make people right? And that's where it hit home for me.

I believe we try to create Christian super stars in the U.S. Maybe not always, maybe not at every church, but in general I think this is the modus operandi. We continue to operate in a business model because our goals are pragmatic and not grace oriented.  A business cannot operate on grace. Bodies depend on grace for life.  I think this might be Paul's point in 1 Corinthians-  

13:13  Now these three remain:
   faith, hope, and love.
   But the greatest of these is love.
   14:1       Pursue love and desire spiritual gifts, and above all that you may prophesy. (HCSB)

How do we expect to teach people (prophesy, which I take to mean speaking truth) if we don't love them? We can say we love someone, but it is meaningless unless we serve them.  This has to include the way we correct someone. Do we correct from grace or from a need for that person to be right? Do we correct someone because we want to see the body succeed or because we want them to be an expert? Or maybe we correct someone because we want to show them we've already achieved expert status?

Do I think we shouldn't call for excellence in the church? I am arguing for some type of moral middle ground? Is using the Bell Curve to describe the situation an excuse to no longer want the best from people? Answering all these questions definitively- no. I think it is about thinking of people in terms of a whole rather than merely as individuals. We are the body of Christ- not the hand, the eye, or the foot of Christ.

This idea has implications for how we view things like holiness and moral action within the church body. It also has implications for the role of the local church and its leaders. I guess what I'm saying is that it is just a starting place. Let's live with grace as we help people to succeed in a new way. Let's make a go of it together with room for imperfection when it comes to the things that don't matter- which by the way includes an "s."

Friday, January 31, 2014

Child-Like Faith

One of my habits the last few years has been to read through the four Gospels in the month of January.  I usually end up teaching my students out of these books during the first part of the year, and it helps me re-focus on the person of Jesus.

As I have been reading this year, I have been struck by the need for simplicity in faith.  I know child-like faith is one of those things you hear about and learn about if you grow up in the church. It certainly wasn't a new concept for me.  I'm not completely sure why, but this year it especially hit me hard. It could be because I spend more time with young children than I ever have before. Or, it could have been prompted by the things I am dealing with in my own life as I get older- after all, I'm 31 now and that's old and stuff... Maybe the whole issue of people leaving the church from my generation and the younger generation has been on the back of my mind.

Maybe it's a little bit of all of those things.

Blogs like this one, from the Barna group, attempt to try to help bridge the gap between faith and unbelief in these groups.  I think the Barna group and many other Christians are trying to do a good job of reaching out to the "Nones" and other young people who are walking away from faith.  However, I often come away from the many sides of this debate just feeling hollow and a little hopeless.

Now, don't get me wrong.  I believe in the ability of the Holy Spirit to change lives. I also believe God can create miracles where nothing appears to be happening on the outside of a person.  It's just that I am not sure we, the church, are getting at the heart of the problem in all of our solutions. I think we need one solution- Jesus.

Sometimes my students get tired of that answer. It sounds trite at times, but I'm serious, we need more Jesus.  I know I need more Jesus in my life.

In Luke 20, Jesus has finally reached Jerusalem after an extended time of travel which included plenty of parabolic teaching.  At this point, the religious leaders and Jesus start to clash even more than they had previously (as if Jesus' judgments on them earlier in the book weren't enough of a clue, it starts to get real now). Compare Luke 2:41-52 with Luke 20:1-8 if you want to see something interesting in the buildup of tension between the religious leaders and Jesus in this Gospel. As the chapter closes, Jesus points out a fatal flaw in their lives, everything they do is "just for show" (Luke 20:47 HCSB).

Some people reading this might get all excited because they see the vanquishing of religion in favor of relationship. That is a really popular one these days too. I've seen it from people who don't claim to be followers of Christ as well as those who do.  From Christians, the sentiment recently spawned things like this video. 

I'm still feeling hollow and a little bit hopeless after watching the video. Maybe you're not, maybe it inspired you. I doubt I'm the only one though. You know why?  Religion in and of itself is not a bad thing, I realize Mark Driscoll and many others would disagree with me.  

The reason I don't believe religion, in and of itself is a bad thing? Jesus was religious (explain the Lord's supper to me without it), he just wasn't falsely religious. I think kids understand the difference implicitly.  Rarely can a child explain things as perfectly as an adult, but they know the difference in their gut.

By the way, I happen to hate false religion too.  I think the whole religion vs. Jesus thing might be a topic for another day, but it was important to point out the false dichotomy a lot of people are trying to use.  The false choice is this- Jesus or religion. In this scenario, religion is trying to usurp the power of the Gospel, grace, and love of God.  Religion, here, is just a man-made way to reach up at God with rules, regulations, lists, etc. It's all about power and Jesus is about servant-hood.

There is another way to consider religion. Religion can be a teacher. It is something which helps us make sense of the world, provide a little order, and even a little beauty. Would I ever consider building a cathedral? Nope. Do I think that some of the architects who designed the beautiful cathedrals of the world were offering up worship to God in their designs? Yes, yes I do. Were these designs and even their intentions formed out of religion. Sure. Was it still worship. Probably.

Here, it makes no sense to create a celebrity death-match between Jesus and religion. Although the combat can be more dramatic, it is often created by people who fail to see the real problem. We just need more Jesus in both.

And here we are back to our original conundrum, the religious people did what they did "for show." So, what is my alternative? Let's be children.

Kids love life.  Unless they have been hurt, beat down, or just squashed in some awful way, the default action of a child is to take life and live it.  What if we lived this way in our experiences with Jesus?

Alright, there might be one major objection to my fairly simple understanding of how we should live from Luke 20:47.  Someone might say, well kids put on shows too.  And this person would be right.  But when kids put on a show, it is completely different than the ways these religious people were just showing off.

Luke 21:3-4 tells how a widow put in "all she had to live on" (HCSB). This is one part of the greater context of the "just a show" comment. This context shows absolute trust in a loving Father. Overall, I think if you were to read chapters 19-21, and eventually all of Luke's Gospel, and the other Gospels too- you might see a pattern emerge.  The pretense or "just a show" part of false religion is done to keep other people and God at a distance. It is all about personal power and privilege. False religion doesn't need Daddy, except to show how much power or privilege you individually have.

When I was younger, my sister and I would dance to music. We weren't good at all. We didn't know how to dance, but we would dance. And we did it for show.  We loved to show our parents our dances. I remember distinctly one in which we put together a show around The Lion King soundtrack.

As an adult, I know my dancing was terrible from a certain point of view, the point of view of power and prestige. From my parents' point of view, it was an amazing show.

So, go ahead and show off in your faith. Just remember, it's a child's dance.