It’s All Related

23 April 2018

Last post, I addressed speaking as God speaks, and the fear that keeps us from doing it.  In earlier posts, I have several times addressed some of the more common manifestations of divisiveness in the body of Christ.

In this post, I want to suggest that those two subjects are closely related.  We don’t want to speak as God speaks because we know that our gnat-strangling, separatist brethren will begin to treat us like heretics if we do.  They’ve done it to better people than we are, and we don’t want to be next.  Moreover, we know perfectly well that “But that’s exactly what the Bible says” will not be a good enough excuse.  It may save us at the heresy trial — don’t count on it! — but all the accusations of lack of clarity and poor communication will still come our way, and we’ll still become outsiders.

Let me make a suggestion: why don’ t we really take the plunge and start by speaking as God speaks about gnat-strangling separatists?  I’ll get us started:

These people say they’re serving Christ. That’s what it says in the doctrinal statement, and the church constitution, and the membership covenant.  It’s even on the big sign out in front of the church: “Serving Christ in our community since 1982.”

They’re not. They are serving their own appetites, their own lusts.  Simple as that.  Some people want power, some want to feel superior, others have other sinful desires that they are gratifying by dividing Christ’s body.  But mark it down, no matter what they say, they are not serving Him, but themselves.

It gets worse. They get away with it for so long by flattering people.  They’re good talkers, sure, but bottom line, it’s a spiritual con game.  They tell you that by joining with them, you’re in the know, you’re more righteous, whatever you want to hear.  Because they’re stroking your ego, you don’t look too closely at the reasoning; you want it to be true.  They deceive you, sure, but you’re complicit in it; if you were struggling for godly humility the way you should be, you’d see right through their nonsense.

How do I know this?  How can I dare to judge motives this way?  Can I see their hearts, or yours?

Read Romans 16:17-18, and then ask yourself: Can you dare not to speak in exactly this way?

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If the Trumpet Makes an Uncertain Sound…

19 April 2018

I heard something really appalling the other day in a sermon by a Christian brother of mine.  Now you’ve got to understand, this guy hasn’t had any formal training in the Word, but he’s walked with the Lord for a long time, and he has a gift for being doctrinally spot-on.  I really expected better of him.  I’m not going to name the guy — I don’t want to embarrass him — but it so perfectly highlights a common problem that I’m going to quote you the offending portion of what he said:

Remember how God waited patiently back in Noah’s time, while they made the ark?  Remember how in the ark God saved eight people by water, the water of the flood?  This is a pattern for us, and it corresponds to our salvation.  In the same way, what saves us is baptism.  Now I’m not talking about just washing off dirt; I’m talking about baptism as a response to God from a good conscience.  And we can have that good conscience because Christ rose from the dead and has ascended into heaven to sit at God’s right hand, and all the powers are under Him.

Now, no matter what this sounds like, I know this guy, and I assure you that he soundly believes in justification by faith.  That’s why I’m so stunned that he would talk this way.  I mean, you expect it from a Roman Catholic, or a Church of Christ guy, but him?  No way.  In his defense, he does get the qualifiers in, right?  He’s very careful to say that it’s not just about the physical act of baptism; it’s about baptism as an expression of a heart that’s right toward God — so presumably the faith would be there.  But still, what a confusing way to say it!

When he’s discussing the use of tongues in the church service, Paul says this:

Even things without life, whether flute or harp, when they make a sound, unless they make a distinction in the sounds, how will it be known what is piped or played?  For if the trumpet makes an uncertain sound, who will prepare himself for battle?  So likewise you, unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air.

Let me be clear: Paul is speaking about interpretation of tongues.  That’s the primary context.  But the principle surely applies: If we speak unclearly, then people will won’t understand, and we’re just — at best — talking into the air.  If we’re lucky, they’ll just walk away scratching their heads and thinking, “I wonder what that was about?”  More likely, they’ll misunderstand, and in a case like this that can cause real spiritual trouble.

It’s obvious — or at least it ought to be.  If you say “what saves us is baptism,” you’ll have people starting to think that getting dunked in the water (or sprinkled) somehow has something to do with your salvation.  You’ll have people who haven’t been baptized beginning to wonder if maybe they’re not really saved yet.  You’re going to have all kinds of salvation-by-works trouble.

Back before I heard him say this, I would have thought it would be great to go out and evangelize with this guy, but now I’m starting to wonder.  Maybe I’m better off staying away from him, if he’s going to be that careless.

*****

Okay, so for those of you who haven’t tumbled to it yet, the “offending” quote is a paraphrase of 1 Peter 3:20b-22.

But I’m right, aren’t I?  If somebody got up and said “Water baptism saves you” out loud, across the pulpit, in one of our churches, he’d hear all the things I said, wouldn’t he? Of course, he could defend himself by saying, “Hey, it’s right there in 1 Peter!”

Do you think that would work?

If your answer is yes, then I want you to put your reputation on the line by trying it.

A little reluctant?  A little nervous about it?  Tell you what, I’ll let you qualify the statement however you want, just so the words “baptism saves us” come out your mouth — and you make it clear that you’re talking about water baptism.

Still nervous?

I was too.  And that’s sin. Let me ask you, is it righteous to speak in the way that Peter and the Holy Spirit are speaking?  Of course.  Should we speak about things in the way that God teaches us to speak about them in the Bible?  Yes.  And should we be hungry to learn how to do this?  Yes again.

But we aren’t.  We’re scared.  We don’t want to learn to speak like God speaks about things.  We don’t want to make waves, or rather, we want to make only the waves that are pre-approved by our communities.  We want to speak the language of our doctrinal statements, and if that means there are certain plainly biblical things that we just can’t say, then so much the worse for the Bible.  God should have been a little more clear if He wanted us to follow His example.

Oh, yeah.  This is sin.

Jesus had a different take on things: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled.”  If this is a righteous way of speaking — and it is — then we should be hungry for it.  And Jesus tells us that if we hunger for it, that hunger will be satisfied.  We will be able to see our way clear to speaking that way, if only we want to.

But we don’t want to.  Doesn’t Jesus know how people will talk about us, if we do this?

Jesus thought of that.  “Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake.  Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets before you.”

*****

So there it is: Water baptism saves us, just like the waters of the flood saved Noah and his family.

*****

You’ll note I haven’t tried to explain away the passage or rescue my theological credentials.  I just said what the passage says, and left it there.

Does that bother you?


Taking It Literally

7 December 2014

So I had occasion to talk with a feller — well-educated Christian and all — who was a bit unsure about various Old Testament miracles — Joshua’s long day and so on. It got me to thinking.

As I observed in another post earlier this year, allegorizing your way over the first eleven chapters of Genesis at 30,000 feet is downright common. Once you get past the flood, most people who would think of themselves as theological conservatives settle down and swallow the supernatural texts. There are some Red Sea doubters and like that, but it’s pretty uncommon among self-professed conservatives.

By the time we get to Jesus feeding the 5,000 or doing miraculous healings, pretty much everybody has landed the plane and is prepared to take the supernatural doings quite literally. And of course, you have to land the plane sometime before the resurrection and ascension in order to remain a Christian in any meaningful sense.

But if you have the sort of sensibilities that are offended by miracles, the resurrection is just as much an offense as any other supernatural text. Once you’ve conceded the need to land the plane, is there any reason not to land it earlier? Why is the resurrection of Jesus plausible, but turning water into wine is not? Why are Jesus’ miracles plausible, but Joshua’s miracles suspect? Why believe the Red Sea crossing, but doubt the Flood? Why believe John 1’s account of creation, but doubt Genesis 1’s account of it?

If you’re going to swallow the resurrection, what’s so hard about reading the whole Story as sober history from end to end?

This is far from the only area in which we balk at the Bible because it offends our sensibilities in some way. I have begun to feel generally that taking it literally — far from being a bonehead hermeneutical move — is in fact badly underrated.

I hope to explore this idea more in upcoming posts.


Never A Last Leaf

17 September 2013

This post is part of the September Synchroblog on the subject, “Loving Nature: Is God Green?”

I might as well begin with full disclosure. I believe that Yahweh spoke this world into existence about 6000 years ago, and I believe this because the Bible says so.

For a significant portion of the people reading this post, I might as well have just admitted to being a snaggletoothed hick somewhere to the right of Mussolini. I cop to the snaggletooth, but I’m going to ask you to suspend judgment on the rest of it for a little while. Let’s just see where a little unrepentant fundamentalism might take us.

God’s a big fan of green — He literally invented it. Every bit of greenness in this world-sized mixed-media self-portrait is His sovereign choice, a reflection of something about Him. The color is in heaven as well. The halo of glory around God’s throne is a rainbow, “like an emerald in appearance.” He spoke into being every tree, every tree frog, every garter snake. He was there when the first green leaf sprouted, and He will be there when the last leaf falls. Or He would, if there were ever going to be a last leaf.

In that world, He planted a garden, and in that garden, He placed a man “to cultivate and guard it.” Even before he was a husband, Adam was a gardener. But the Triune God was making a self-portrait, and a solitary person was not good, so God made a helper for him. Enter Eve, a distinct person, and different as another human can be, right down to the neurochemistry and the plumbing. These two distinct persons united by God in marriage together were the image of God in the world.

God gave them a responsibility to fulfill:

Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.

We have been reluctant to accept the responsibility God gave us. Today, we are troubled by the idea of exercising dominion, of subduing the earth. But surely it can’t be wrong to talk the way God talks. So why are we afraid to do it?

Two reasons: we are cynics, and we are egalitarians.

Cynicism is easy. There’s always a cheap shot to take. No matter how responsible the action under discussion, we can always find points of superficial similarity to other, irresponsible actions. Dominion language has been invoked by every Bible-thumping robber baron who ever wanted to strip-mine another species into extinction for his own personal profit, and that makes it easy to just sneer and condemn by innuendo every time someone talks about exercising dominion. It costs us nothing. It seems to risk nothing.

But underneath the sneering pretense, we are cowering. We are afraid, and we are addicted to immaturity.

That seem harsh to you? Consider this: the devil himself once invoked Psalm 91 to entice Jesus into flinging Himself off the pinnacle of the Temple, but do we shy away from taking comfort from that psalm? We do not. Why not? Because we discern between godly and diabolical uses of the psalm.

So why do we refuse to discern between godly and diabolical uses of Genesis 1:28? Because we are afraid. Offering someone the comfort of Psalm 91 is a popular and easy enough thing to do. Standing up and saying “I believe we should go ahead with the copper mine,” on the other hand, is wildly unpopular with the chattering classes (who apparently believe that the wiring in their houses appeared ex nihilo in the local Home Depot stockroom). We are afraid to make ourselves easy targets.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear.

We also shy away from dominion language because we are egalitarians at heart. We want to be buddies with the earth, just another piece of the circle of life. We want to just be part of nature. We are part of nature, but we certainly are not just part of it. God made us kings and queens of the earth, whether we like it or not.

Kings and queens are called to discernment. We are going to have to grow up. In some ways, we’re doing pretty well. You can take a walk by the Thames today without risking black lung. Of course, the Pyrenean ibex and the passenger pigeon might not feel that we’re doing as well as we could be, which raises another point.

Kings and queens don’t get a practice round. It’s not a game, and there are no do-overs. We screw up, whole species die and whole habitats disappear. The stakes are high. As a result, we are afraid to screw up, and in our fear, we are prone to hysteria. In 2007, the BBC reported an authoritative study that predicted the complete disappearance of the arctic ice cap by this year. With this year’s polar ice up 60% over last year, that prediction has joined a host of others on the junk heap of credible scientific studies that cried Tasmanian wolf.

Again: God has not given us a spirit of fear. We have a duty to God to care for the earth, but we do that as ambassadors of The Lord of the Universe. Our best Chicken Little impersonation does not represent Him well.

God loves the creation. He made it, and it speaks of Him. He has committed the creation to our care. We can’t pawn the job off on someone else; we’re stuck with it. God has so made the world that there’s no way to learn but by doing, and He knew, better than anyone, that there would be a learning curve. We cannot fulfill our commission to be His image on the earth without ruling well. We cannot rule well without learning, and we cannot learn without mistakes. In other words, God knew, from eternity past, that we would royally screw it up.

But God has not given us a spirit of fear. There is grace for even this. Faith means being willing to embrace the task God gave us, and trust God with our mistakes. We will grow up. The earth will blossom. In the end, heaven will come to earth, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory and honor into the New Jerusalem, where a river will flow from under the throne of the Lamb. Beside the river, the tree of life will grow, and the leaves of the tree will be for the healing of the nations. Forever.

***

This post is part of the September Synchroblog.  You can read the other contributions at the links below:


All I See Is Rocks

11 June 2013

This post is part of the June Synchroblog.

Much is made of having the courage to be authentic these days. This got me to thinking about how we discuss talking to God honestly. The article is on the subject of whether God gives us trials we can’t handle, and I think Mr. Pyle is right — of course God gives us trials we can’t handle — that’s why we flee to God for refuge. He closes the article this way:

I believe expectant waiting can only happen when we exchange our feeble platitudes for an authentic faith that engages God with the full brunt of our emotion and pain. Only then can salvation been seen.

But that exchange takes courage.

My first reaction was, “No it doesn’t.” I proceeded to write a curmudgeonly little essay on the contemporary cult of authenticity and why honest prayer is not a matter of courage — which has been deleted and will never see the light of day, God be thanked. Upon further reflection, though, I believe the gap between my experience and Mr. Pyle’s offers an occasion for reflecting on different forms of courage, and how they relate to one another.

In order to do that, permit me a few paragraphs of autobiographical reflection on how I learned to give up my platitudes and speak honestly to God. Don’t get me wrong; it wasn’t easy for me either. But for me, it was all about being honest and obedient. God began by challenging me to engage the Psalms more fully — all of them. He called me to learn them, sing them, chant them, be saturated with them. (It’s a project I’m still working on.) Saturating myself in the Psalms became a graduate course in prayer, in learning to meet God where I really am, rather than asking Him to meet me where I pretend to be. It was language class — I learned to talk all over again, with an expanded vocabulary that contained theologically “questionable” things like “Why have You forgotten me?” and “How long will You ignore me?” For me, saying these things wasn’t courageous; it was merely obedient. God told me to sing the Psalms (Eph. 5:19, Col. 3:16), and the Psalms told me to talk to God like that. If David and the Holy Spirit thought it was a good idea, who was I to argue?

Courage is about risk, and there’s no risk here. When I engage God “with the full brunt of my emotion and pain,” I am not Jerzy Popieluszko speaking truth to thugs in power, nor even a kid confronting his abusive alcoholic dad. I am not staging a Tiananmen Square protest in the courts of heaven. The specter of the gulag or the wide leather belt does not hang over the exchange. I am coming into the heavenly Tabernacle with the prayers of the Tabernacle. I am speaking to the Father of fathers, who made me and loves me, and I am speaking to Him in the way that He taught me to speak. Finally.

Far from facing danger, I am fleeing the dangers of disobedience and lying for the refuge of obedience and truth. I am escaping the perils of keeping the true state of my soul to myself. I am escaping the hazard of growing more and more isolated as I refuse to admit what’s really in my heart to God, others, or even myself. I am escaping the endless futility of trying to get God to meet me where I pretend to be, rather than where I really am.

Where’s the risk? He isn’t going to hurt me; He’s going to help me. If I cry out for bread, will He give me a stone? Of course not. So I have two choices. I can try to choke down some gravel and pretend that it’s nourishing and I’m grateful, or I can pray, “Look, You said You’d feed me, and all I see around here is rocks!” Which is the dangerous course, and which is the safe one? Crying out for God to save is, well, safe. He loves to do that.

Unfortunately, many of us who were raised in the evangelical world simply did not learn that. We were raised with a god composed of equal parts Victorian Santa Claus — doing nice things for nice people — and somebody’s tight-shoed maiden aunt. Dealing with anguish was just not his department, and heaven knows what he might do if your prayers strayed outside the polite boundaries of country club luncheon conversation. Confronting that querulous godling with “the full brunt of our emotion and pain” must feel risky as Hell. So to speak.

Not knowing Mr. Pyle, I don’t know whether this is his background or not, but many of my friends have come from that background, and they too felt like praying in Psalm-like ways required enormous courage. “I can’t say that!” has been a common refrain.

“David did,” I say.

“I’m not sure God likes me as much as David,” they say.

So yeah, there’s a sense of risk, and therefore genuine courage. It is vital that we celebrate that courage for what it is without taking it for what it is not. This is not the courage of David confronting Goliath, with his spear haft like a weaver’s beam; it is the courage of an agoraphobe going to the end of the sidewalk to get the morning paper. It is the small deliverance that opens the door to much greater salvation still. Yahweh is not that petty godling we imagine; He will not take vengeance on us for being honest with Him. The danger we feel so keenly is illusory — but we do feel it, and having to face our fears requires courage nonetheless.

I believe there is a progression here, for if we cannot face imagined risks, how will we face real ones? The little boy must learn not to be afraid of the imagined monsters in the dark before he can learn not to be afraid of the real monster in the Valley of Elah. The courage that slays giants tomorrow grows from the courage that slays illusions today.

Or at least it will, if we can maintain both proper celebratory gratitude and a sense of proportion. The act of courage that shreds a long-held illusion is a gift from God, and we ought to celebrate it for all it’s worth. At the same time, we need to remember that being honest with God and others — what we now call authenticity — is not an end in itself, but a beginning, a foundation on which much greater things are built. Let us be grateful for where we are, and look forward beyond authenticity to transformation, salvation, and yes, maybe even thrilling heroics.

***

Other entries in the June Synchroblog include:

This Is Courage by Jen Bradbury

Being Vulnerable by Phil Lancaster

Everyday Bravery: Overcoming the Fear of Being Wrong by Jessica

Moving Forward Takes Courage by Paul W. Meier

How to Become a Flasher by Glenn Hager

Ordinary Courage by Elaine Hansen

Courage, Hope, Generosity by Carol Kuniholm

The Courage to Fail by Wendy McCaig

The Greatest Act of Courage by Jeremy Myers

Sharing One’s Heart by K. W. Leslie

All I See Is Rocks by Tim Nichols

I Wonder What Would Happen by Liz Dyer

What is Ordinary Courage? by Jennifer Stahl

Loving Courageously by Doreen A. Mannion

Heart Cry: The Courage to Confess by Elizabeth Chapin

The Act to the Miraculous by VisionHub

the spiritual practice of showing up & telling the truth by Kathy Escobar

It’s What We Teach by Margaret Boelman


Headwaters Christian Resources

11 November 2012

We had been looking at the relationship between the institutional church as it exists on paper, and the situation as it actually exists in real life. I have some further thoughts that I am looking forward to exploring here, but this week I want to announce something special that I (and a bunch of other people) have been working on for a long time.

I am proud to announce the launch of the brand new Headwaters Christian Resources blog. Writing chronological Bible curriculum has been a real education for us, and this blog is a way to share with you some of what we’ve learned in that, and our other work. We only have two posts so far, but I think you’ll like them.

“Jesus Is the New Samuel” is an adventure in reading the biblical Story the way its authors — and its Author — meant it to be read. In it, my ministry partner, Joe Anderson, will lead you through an example of edifying typology at its finest.

“Stones into Bread” is my own modest effort to take a lesson from Jesus in how to read Deuteronomy. I conclude it with a couple of relevant devotional exercises that I have found very helpful in my own life. I hope you will too.

My sincere thanks to our web developer, Ben Tyson, our artist, Clay Tyson. We couldn’t have done it without you guys. And of course, I am deeply grateful to God for my dear wife Kimberly and our partners, Joe and Becca Anderson. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve never in my life been blessed with such a great team.


Seven True Things I Have Gotten In Trouble For Saying Out Loud

20 May 2012

In the ecclesiastical tribe that raised and trained me, we are accustomed to thinking of ourselves as absolute followers of Scripture.  If the Bible says the earth is about 6,000 years old (which it does), then it is, and carbon dating be hanged.  Some other explanation for the C-14 ratios must be found.  If the Bible says that the whole world was covered by water in Noah’s flood, then it won’t do to postulate that someone’s bathtub overflowed in Mesopotamia somewhere, and that’s all it was really talking about. If the biblical account of the Exodus doesn’t fit with our timeline of Egyptology?  Crying shame those poor historians put in all that work without taking account of the most important primary source we have….  Better luck on the next attempt, guys.

We take it all, straight up the middle, no matter who says “You can’t say that!”  We’re famous for it.

Except, of course, that we don’t.  I have to admit, I had believed our propaganda, and it was therefore with considerable surprise that I discovered that it just wasn’t true.  Not only that, but “I was quoting the Bible” turned out to be a highly inadequate defense for saying things that my community found uncomfortable.  With no further ado, I present to you seven such things.

  1. Baptism saves you.
  2. Belief takes place in the heart.
  3. The purpose of holiness is eternal life.
  4. In communion, we are sharing the body and blood of Christ.
  5. The things that happened to the Exodus generation are all types for our benefit.
  6. A cheerful Christian should be singing Psalms.
  7. God’s children don’t sin.

______

See 1 Peter 3:21, Romans 10:9-10, Romans 6:22, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 1 Corinthians 10:11, James 5:13, 1 John 5:18.

______

Feel free to question, challenge, or discuss.  The more the merrier.