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Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The Boy with the Changeable Shirt (an Homage to Edwin Friedman)

Far, far away, in a remote hollow in the mountains, there is a tiny school for boys.  Every boy in this school, young and old, is on a team, and every day, those boys do everything with their team—eat, sleep, study, do chores, and play.  Each boy wears a shirt of the the color of his team from his first day at the school to his last, all the time, every day.  A boy on the Red team always wears red and never blue, and a boy on the Blue team always wears blue and never green.

But there was one boy in this school who was different from all the other boys.  This boy was very poor and only owned one shirt, but it was a special, magical shirt, for this shirt would change its color all by itself.  Unlike all the other boys in the school, this boy was part of all the teams.  When he was with the Green team his shirt turned green, and when he was with the Yellow team his shirt turned yellow.  He cared very much about the other boys.  When he was with a boy who smiled, he would smile too, and when he was with a boy who frowned, he too would frown.  On the whole, he was happy.  He enjoyed very much how all the other boys accepted him.

Now at this tiny school all the boys on all the teams look forward to the same wonderful event at the end of the year: a great tournament where all the teams compete against each other in games of strength, speed, smarts, and skill.  The boy with the changeable shirt looked forward to the tournament too and got more and more excited as the year went on, even though he didn’t know what games he would play when the day actually came or what team he would play them for.  He couldn’t wait to be with all of his friends at once.

At last the day of the tournament arrived.  The boy with the changeable shirt saw many of his friends early that morning wearing their best jerseys of Red and Blue, Green and Yellow, Purple and Orange.  He smiled back gleefully at each one as they smiled at him.  But soon the noise in the halls of the school began to diminish as the boys ran out of the building onto the grounds.  The boy in the changeable shirt tried to follow them, but he couldn’t move.  He stretched and strained after his friends, but he was stuck where he stood.  He called after his friends who were leaving him behind, but they didn’t hear.  And as the tournament began with every other boy gone, he became very sad.  His shirt became a drab off-white.  In fact, it ceased to look like a shirt at all, and he himself no longer looked like a boy.  For the boy with the changeable shirt didn’t know that he wasn’t actually a boy at all, and he didn’t wear clothes.  He was a mirror hanging on the wall of a hallway in the school.  His face and his shirt changed with every boy who walked past him.  And when they smiled at him, they were actually smiling at themselves.

It can be easier to be what the people around us want us to be than to be ourselves.  Rather than being honest about who we are and what we think wherever we go, we look like our family when we’re with them, like our friends when we’re with them, and like church folks when we’re with them, and they love us for conforming.  But unless we wear allegiance to Christ boldly whomever we’re with, we have no part of him.  “Whoever acknowledges me before people, I will acknowledge before my Father in heaven.  But whoever denies me before people, I will deny him also before my Father in heaven” (Matt. 10:32-33).  Such persons cannot inherit God’s kingdom.  The more they compromise themselves along the way, the more they cease to be persons at all.  They fade with the rest of the world they once reflected that is passing away.

Monday, December 27, 2010

"Sin" through the Centuries

This is a graph of the frequency of occurrences of the word "sin" (case-sensitive) in a 5% sample of all American works in English in Google Books.

The volatile line in the 17th and 18th centuries is partly because there is a relatively small number of works available from that era.  It's interesting how the frequency of "sin" in written literature shoots up not at, but a bit after both the Great Awakening (ca. 1740) and the Second Great Awakening (ca. 1800).  I wonder how much of the decline of the appearance of "sin" through the 19th and early 20th centuries is due to the explosion of Christian publishing in antebellum America before secular publishing gradually caught up.  It's also interesting to note the small bulge during the post-WWII religious revival (during which time "under God" was added to the pledge of allegiance, for example) which tapered off in the 1970s to rebound slightly and remain basically flat since.

A few questions for the comment thread.  (1) How does this graph reinforce or challenge what you've believed about American religious history?  (2) What does this graph tell us about the era we're living in?  (3) What can this graph teach us about how we can proclaim the gospel effectively?

Saturday, December 25, 2010

May Your Day Be Merry and Bright

The most enriching thing you are likely to read this Christmas Day is the pair of short devotionals by Charles H. Spurgeon that Zach Bartels has quoted on his blog.  Go on, click it.

Merry Christmas.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Calling

On Monday and Tuesday nights, PBS aired a 4-hour documentary entitled The Calling, which follows the stories of seven people—two Orthodox Jewish, two Evangelical Christian (one in a Black setting and the other a Samoan in a White setting), two Muslim, and one Roman Catholic—on their path from seminary into the beginning of their ministries as clergy.  Each subject was documented by a filmmaker of his or her own religion, and then director Danny Alpert wove all their stories together.

I hope you watched this film.  Really the only thing I can say about it is that I wish it had been longer, like ten 1-hour episodes, because I found it so compelling and because there are some gaps and unanswered questions in some of the narratives.  That also might have allowed room for other subjects, like Reform Jewish, Mainline Protestant, Mormon, Pentecostal, and Eastern Orthodox clergy candidates.

Unfortunately, I don't believe the film is available in full online, but you can watch a special 85-minute cut here.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

12 Questions (and Answers) of Christmas

He's done it again: Phil Vischer, co-creator of VeggieTales and mastermind of the current work in progress, What's in the Bible?, has released something terrific, "12 Questions of Christmas" by British naturalist puppets Clive and Ian.  Check out one of my favorite questions here:

This free web-based series of vignettes is predictably brilliant.  Vischer has a tremendous knack for explaining through story, and just like the What's in the Bible? series itself, he demonstrates his belief that kids are capable of grasping a heck of a lot more than adults often give them credit for.  Also like WITB, adults who watch these shorts along with their kids are pretty well guaranteed to learn something themselves.  Gather your brood and watch them all!

(By the way, my family hasn't kept up with the release of volumes of WITB very well, but when I get caught up I'll do a follow-up to my review of Volume 1.  Also, Vischer very graciously responded to my earlier post and engaged in dialogue about how concerns from me and folks like me might be addressed in WITB curriculum.  He's quite the class act.)

Thursday, December 16, 2010


If you are reading this blog (or writing it), you are almost certainly guilty of what is exquisitely lampooned in this video.  Please enjoy, and then define your terms.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Some Evidence for Paul's Authorship of the Pastoral Epistles

Some of the books of the Bible say who wrote them.  Others don't.  While scholars exert significant effort to figure out or hypothesize who wrote the anonymous works, they spend much more effort debunking or defending the authorship of the books that state who their author is.  This seems backwards to me, but there you go.  (Also, there is a third category: books that don't claim an author themselves, but other biblical books claim who authored those anonymous books.  The big example is the five books of the Torah, which are repeatedly attributed to Moses in the New Testament.  This is probably the most controversial ascription of them all.)

One area of intense wrangling is the "deutero-Pauline" letters—epistles that some claim were written by a "second Paul" in Paul's name.  The hypothesis is that Ephesians and Colossians (at least) were written by a disciple of Paul, and the Pastoral Epistles (1 & 2 Timothy and Titus) were probably written by another disciple of Paul (which I guess would make them trito-Pauline).

With respect to the Pastorals, each side in the debate has a number of arguments.  Some evidence that I believe supports Pauline authorship is Paul's farewell address to the elders of the church at Ephesus in Acts 20:17-35.  This is a passage written by a "third party"—not the hand that wrote either Romans or 1 Timothy—that puts in Paul's mouth many of the same themes that we find in the Pastorals:
There are other themes in the Pastoral Epistles that aren't in Paul's address, but this comparison does show continuity between the content of the Pastoral Epistles and what a witness recorded Paul as saying during his life.  (And it is worth noting that Paul's exhortation was delivered to elders in Ephesus, over whom Timothy later presided.)

Not that this settles anything or changes anybody's mind, because few people if any are objective about this.  Someone who wants to believe that the Pastorals were written by Paul (like me) will see the parallels with Acts 20 and find confirmation for what they already think.  Someone who wants to believe that the Pastorals were written by someone else will conclude that their true author was a very loyal disciple of Paul or a very skilled writer who took Luke's account as the inspiration for his own work.  But no one (or a very tiny number) is actually weighing the evidence without a foregone conclusion.

Now, I know why people like me are biased toward believing that Paul wrote the Pastoral Epistles.  We are theologically committed to the principle that the canonical books are the word of God, on which we desire to base all of our doctrine.  If Paul didn't write a book with his name on it, then that ascription is a lie, which means that the book cannot have been inspired by God, who doesn't lie—at least not in its entirety.  That raises the question of whether the book is inspired at all or how we distinguish between the inspired parts and the uninspired parts of it.  That in turn raises the question of whether the ancient Church, if they mislabeled this book as canonical, mislabeled other books as well.  Eventually this line of reasoning challenges whether we have any heavenly basis for our doctrine at all or if it comes from fallible texts generated solely by fallible humans.

So that's why I have a bias toward Pauline authorship of the Pastoral Epistles.  What I don't understand is why others have a bias against Pauline authorship.  I really don't get it—what's the principle that such people are guarding so defensively that they will predictably explain away all evidence for Paul as author?  (The same could be said for other things in biblical scholarship, like archaeological corroboration of history recorded in the Bible.)  From an outsider's point of view, it just looks like for the last 200 years or so a scholar isn't allowed to believe that the Bible was written by who it says wrote it and be taken seriously in the academic guild.  When academicians offer theories of what anonymous "community" produced the Pastoral Epistles or what some book's redaction history was, it just looks to me like they are trying to win the respect of their erudite peers and/or tenure.  Proposing alternative authorship theories is like a scholarly peeing contest, and the more creative the better.  (Yes, I just used the phrase "scholarly peeing contest.")  In the unlikely event that someone is reading this blog who has a bias against traditional authorship ascriptions (like Paul for the Pastoral Epistles) and I totally misunderstand your motives, please set me straight, because I'm at a loss here.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Parable of the Minas

Jesus' parable of the minas (pronounced m'NAH or in Aramaic m'NAY) in the Gospel of Luke is parallel to but not quite the same as his better-known parable of the talents in Matthew.  Here are some various observations on the parable of the minas (perhaps better entitled "the parable of the citizens and the slaves").  Go ahead and read it first or better yet have the text available to refer to.

1. Jesus' kingship takes time.  Jesus tells this parable because the people with whom he was traveling to Jerusalem, expecting him to be the Messiah, "thought that the kingdom of God was going to appear immediately" (v. 11).  This is a classic example of the "already but not yet" pattern in New Testament theology.  It was not unusual for Jesus to talk about the kingdom as already here (see for example Matt. 12:28), but at the same time it hasn't come yet.  He indicates here that it will take a while to happen, even though it is "near."  The coming of the kingdom requires both urgency and patience.  It reminds me of the saying, "Hurry, but don't rush."

2. Jesus brings his kingship.  You and I don't.  Nor do missionaries or social movements.  Nor governments or armies, nor marchers or wearers of hemp.  Jesus brings the kingdom.  Does he work through his church?  Of course.  But in the parable the slaves are working with what their master has given them while waiting for his return.  But his securing of the title and authority of king is really not their business.  He is fully adequate to take care of that himself.  The slaves' job is not to "usher in," "spread," "build," or "expand" his kingdom.  Their job is to be faithful with what is his until he comes back—and to the extent that they do, they are bearing witness to the legitimacy and reality of his kingdom in their own lives and actions.

3. Kingdom is kingship.  You may have noticed that I've been using these terms interchangeably in the foregoing paragraphs.  If you don't know why, it is because the Greek word basileía, generally translated "kingdom," does not mean a place (like the United Kingdom) but the right and authority of the king to reign, the king's "kingness" or kingship.  The situation in this parable reflects the Romans' willingness to manage their empire through cooperative client-kings like Herod the Great when possible rather than installing their own nobility as governors everywhere they went.  In Jesus' story an aristocrat in a Roman client-state is traveling to Rome to make a bid to be appointed as the next king of the territory by the emperor.  But "his [fellow-]citizens" (compare the Greek in Heb. 8:11), men of the same class as he, hate him and don't want him to be in charge of them, so they send a delegation urging the emperor to choose someone else to be their king.

4. Citizen or slave?  Everyone, and certainly Jesus' hearers, would naturally rather be the former than the latter.  But what distinguishes the two is that the citizens are unwilling for the aristocrat to be their ruler while the slaves (well, nine of them) obey him loyally.  There are two kinds of people in the world.  One sees Jesus as their fellow citizen, a human being not only just like us but merely like us with no authority to tell us what to do, and they live accordingly.  The other kind faithfully and humbly submits to whatever he wants.  When the aristocrat returns as king, the roles are reversed, and the divide in status is made more extreme than before.  The slaves, who were once despised, become rulers.  The citizens, who were once respected, become meat.  Which would you rather become?

5. Life is a test.  Each slave had a mina to work with—one to one-and-a-quarter pounds of silver, which today is worth $567 and then was worth about four months of wages for a day laborer.  It was not impossible for slaves, especially those who had sold themselves, to have this kind of money—some slaves bought their own freedom for five or six times as much—but it was still a lot, and some slaves weren't allowed to have money at all.  A mina might have seemed like an enormous amount to manage to a slave, but from the perspective of the wealthy aristocrat, it was "a very little thing" (v. 17).  It was simply a test given by a prospective king who would need trustworthy men to help him govern his kingdom.  The master didn't give the slaves minas to make money but to make rulers.  Proportionate to the skill, savvy, and most importantly faithfulness of his slaves he made them governors.  All that we have—our wealth and possessions, our relationships, our power, our health, our skills, our experiences—seem so huge to us; they are our entire world, all we can usually see.  But our worlds are tiny and rather insignificant compared to God's unfathomable wealth.  They are small gifts to test our faithfulness to Christ.  When he returns as King and recreates the earth, he will give us stuff to manage beyond our wildest imaginations exactly according to what we do with what we now have.

6. Opportunities are made to be multiplied.  What the aristocrat gives to each slave is intended to be multiplied.  The typical interpretation of the minas are things that God has given us (like talents—our English word comes from an interpretation of Matt. 25) to use for him.  I partly agree with this.  However, since the minas are to be multiplied, this can't strictly be the case—it isn't an application of this text to take one house we own and multiply it into ten houses or turn an ability to speak English into an ability to speak ten languages.  But all of these things that we possess do create opportunities to serve Christ; they can be used for him.  I think that each person's mina is the sum total of the opportunities to serve him.  Invariably, as we serve Jesus in all of our opportunities, the number and scale of the opportunities that we have increase.  If we make the most of the one person we have to touch with God's love, it won't be long before we have two, and so on.

7. Stewardship requires risk.  The one slave who isn't rewarded by his master is chastised for not investing the money he was given.  Let's think about the dividends yielded by the other slaves: as much as ten times what was invested.  That rate of return is astronomical.  The only way the first slave could have gotten a return like that was if he took big risks, gambles even, with the aristocrat's money and they paid off.  The one who took no risk in order to preserve what he was given was the one who remained a slave instead of becoming a governor.  Very often in my experience "being a good steward" is code in Christian circles for buying cheap toilet paper and keeping the thermostat turned down to 56°; it functionally means spending as little as possible.  But Jesus wants his servants to invest what they have in opportunities for him with abandon.  Jesus may be conservative in the sense of holding more tenaciously than anyone to the heart of Torah (see Matt. 5:17-20), but that must be the only sense in which he is conservative.  He doesn't want his servants to conserve but to take smart chances with what they have, even if that risks failure and waste.  Aggressive, high-yield, faith-straining attempts to give him glory and love the world are what stewardship is, and that certainly includes the choices we make with our "mammon of unrighteousness."

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

When It's Not Time for Asia

[Paul, Silas, and Timothy] went through the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been prevented by the Holy Spirit from speaking the word in the province of Asia.  When they came to Mysia, they attempted to go into Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus did not allow them to do this, so they passed through Mysia and went down to Troas.  A vision appeared to Paul during the night: A Macedonian man was standing there urging him, "Come over to Macedonia and help us!"  After Paul saw the vision, we attempted immediately to go over to Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them [Acts 16:6-10].
For some time I have felt an unusual attraction to this passage in Acts.  The apostles Paul and Barnabas wanted to leave Antioch in Syria to check on the churches they had planted on their previous missionary journey.  Because they couldn't agree about whether to bring along Barnabas's cousin John Mark, who had quit early on their last trip, they split up.  Barnabas took Mark to Barnabas's old stomping grounds of Cyprus while Paul took Silas to check on the churches in the southern reaches of the Roman province of Galatia, which took them through Paul's native region of Cilicia.  (I wish I could find the perfect map to show you all this, but I can't.  Here are three maps that, put together, help you visualize where Paul traveled: [1] a map of the regions of ancient Anatolia [modern western and central Turkey] with Greek placenames; [2] a map of the Roman Empire in A.D. 125, about 75 years after Paul's journey; and [3] a modern satellite view of the northeastern Mediterranean showing the location of cities mentioned in the New Testament.)

After Paul and Silas checked on the southern Galatian churches (and recruited Timothy in Derbe) they began looking for the next thing to do.  It was only logical to begin preaching Christ in the Roman province of Asia (consisting of roughly the western third of modern Turkey), which included most of Phrygia and Mysia among other places.  It was the next unreached ring beyond where Paul and the gospel had already gone.  But the Holy Spirit wouldn't let them.  Then they wanted to go north into Bithynia on the southwestern coast of the Black Sea, but the Spirit wouldn't let them go there either, so they wandered down to Troas, still stuck in Asia with nothing to do.

How confusing this must have been!  How many cities and villages did Paul and his comrades walk through, watching Jews reading the Law and ignorantly waiting for their Messiah who had already come, watching Gentiles worshiping statues of false gods and the invisible demons behind them and committing detestably immoral acts, and yet the Spirit would not let them do anything.  How they hoped to go to new places to preach the gospel, and the Lord wouldn't let them!  How could this be?  What did God want?  Why wasn't this going as smoothly and easily as when Paul and Barnabas just hopped on a ship, sailed to Cyprus, and started preaching immediately?

The answer comes when Paul sees the vision of the man of Macedonia in what is today northern Greece calling for help.  This is what God had denied the apostles for, so that they could go even further than they had imagined to proclaim the good news, two provinces beyond where Paul had planted churches last.

But what may easily be overlooked is that even as God denied Paul what Paul desired and must have believed to be logical—preaching the word in the province of Asia—he was silently working in multiple ways to see that Paul's dream would be fulfilled.

First, in Troas Paul and the gang found a new traveling companion—the author of Acts, whom we believe to be Luke.  We know this because in verse 10 he says that "we" went over to Macedonia.  This may mean that Paul disobeyed the Spirit and spoke the word in Troas, and Luke was saved there and joined up with them.  But it seems more likely, especially because of the maturity they must have found in Luke, that he was already a believer in Jesus when they met him.  We know that there were Jews from the province of Asia at Pentecost who believed in the Lord that day.  Luke may have been one of them who then returned home or perhaps had heard the word from one who did.  (Luke is commonly considered the only Gentile author of the New Testament, but I think he was more likely a Hellenized Jew.  I have my reasons, but that's another topic.)  In any case, God was already at work in this "unreached" region before Paul passed through.

Second, once Paul and his crew arrived in the Macedonian city of Philippi, their first convert was a Gentile God-fearer (i.e., worshiper of Israel's God who was not a full convert to Judaism) named Lydia.  But "Lydia" almost certainly was not her real name but her local nickname to the folks in Philippi, because Lydia had moved there from her hometown of Thyatira, a city in the province of Asia on the border between the regions of Mysia and Lydia.  (I once heard of a guy nicknamed "Bama" because he came from Alabama; it's a similar thing.)  Even though Paul had not presented the gospel to the people of Asia in Asia, God gave him the opportunity to bring one of them to salvation in a completely different place.

Third, as Paul continued his trip, he ended up in the city of Corinth in southern Greece (province of Achaia), where he met two other Jewish believers in Jesus who had recently relocated there from Rome, Aquila and Priscilla.  After a year and a half, the three of them (with Silas and Timothy) sailed east for Ephesus, the most prominent city in Asia.  But now that Paul finally had a chance to proclaim the word there, he only stayed there briefly, leaving Priscilla and Aquila to do most of the work.  Again, even though it wasn't in God's plan for Paul to speak the word extensively in Asia as he wished, God still planned to spread his kingdom through the work of others that Paul had equipped.

Fourth, a few years later, it was finally Paul's turn.  On his third missionary journey Paul once again passed through the cities where he had planted churches with Barnabas, but this time he went straight for Ephesus and stayed there for two whole years.  During this time God did astonishing acts of supernatural healing through Paul such that he was renowned by humans and demons alike.  His ministry was so effective that through him and the believers that he equipped that the entire province of Asia heard the word of the Lord.  That's right: the whole thing.

So Paul got his wish many times beyond what he expected.  His desire was to proclaim the word to the people of Asia, the logical next step after his work in Galatia.  Inexplicably, the Spirit told him no for some time.  But meanwhile God had already placed some initial believers there, gave Paul the chance to do what he wished in an unexpected setting, enabled Paul to equip others to pioneer the work, and finally gave Paul his desire having prepared the ground so thoroughly that it was probably the most Spirit-empowered and prosperous period of his entire apostolic career.

Paul's example hit home to me recently.  I had applied with my church for a grant that would have enabled a remarkable learning and growing opportunity for me and for all of us.  We felt sure that applying was the right thing to do, but months later we were disappointed—we were not selected.  It seemed like an opportunity that would never come again; the timing would have been perfect, and now the moment was lost.  But coming in the mail at about the same time as the rejection letter and sitting on my desk unopened for some time was an invitation to a very different but equally remarkable opportunity that I never saw coming.  In addition to being as enthusiastic and grateful as Paul and his companions were to receive the call to Macedonia, I feel certain that my Macedonia will somehow lead back to my Asia in ways I never would have imagined and that once I get there I will be more useful for the kingdom than I ever could have been otherwise.

If you are experiencing a similar disappointment and confusion to what Paul must have experienced as he was wandering aimlessly through Asia to settle at the dead end of Troas, I hope that his example is an encouraging lesson to you.  When God frustrates our holy desire to serve him in the way that makes perfect sense, he has a reason.  Whether through one or all of the means he gave Paul, he will give you the desire of your heart.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A Day-after-Thanksgiving Meditation from a Guy Who Hasn't Paid His Way

At a family Thanksgiving celebration yesterday I became embroiled in an unpleasant argument about politics with a family member.  Without getting into the substance of the discussion, I felt lingering discomfort for some time later.  Part of it was the abrupt nature of the conflict itself.  But it was partly because it raised afresh gnawing self-doubt in me that I've had deep down for some time.

The household that I lead, love, and attempt to provide for receives much from the world around us.  Some of these goods come from the church that I pastor, as I am paid from the free, voluntary gifts out of the hard-earned wages of its members, not to mention other favors and blessings (like leftovers from a meal) that these generous folks give us.  Some of these goods come from family, friends of the family, and friends that are like family.  These include assistance that made it possible for us to get into our home, the vehicle we drive, the furniture we sit on that is almost entirely hand-me-downs, and much of the clothes on our backs, among innumerable other gifts of love that we've received since my wife and I got married.  Some goods that we receive are social goods that governments secure for their citizens.  Some of those goods are general and shared with other citizens, like the fact that I can leave my house and not be afraid that it's been broken into while I'm gone, that I can travel on interstate highways without getting killed (most likely), that I can eat packaged food and not be afraid that it's poisoning me, and so on.  Other goods from governments are specific to my family, like the insulin pump my diabetic son wears and the education my children receive.

I can't put a price on the goods that we receive from the world around us, but that's only because I haven't kept a comprehensive list.  But if I had, an accounting could be made: a monetary value set on all we've received annually or through our whole marriage.  But what have I paid for it?  Monetarily, next to nothing compared to what I receive.  It's been virtually all take and no give.

I try to justify this, especially what I receive from governments.  I want to believe that as a pastor I contribute intangibles to society that improve the community's well-being.  I look at my four good kids and hope that their existence in the world and what they will become is a contribution, at the very least to increase the population to shore up Social Security.  I expect that as the kids grow up and leave the house I'll pay more and more in taxes that will pay for the next generation and the one after that as others are now paying for me.  But I can't measure any of this quantitatively with any confidence.  I haven't served my country or community in other ways, like in military service or the police.  I can't make any case that I'm paying my own way, much less being prepared to do anything about the $266,000 that is my family's share of the national debt.  I can't refute the charge that I'm doing my own thing subsidized by others and not giving anything in return.

This makes me ashamed as a citizen and as a man who is responsible to provide for his family.  It is very humbling and makes me feel very small and weak to recognize that my entire life and that of my family rides on the gifts of others.  But if there is anything that makes me equal with those who are paying my way as well as their own, it is that everything that they have, they have received too.  As Paul pointed out to the Corinthian church (which my dad has often reminded me), "What do you have that you did not receive?  And if you received it, why do you boast as though you did not?" (1 Cor. 4:7).  A person who has paid a hundred times more to the public than the public has paid back to them has not paid for the breath moving through their lungs right now.  They haven't deserved where they were born and to whom.  They haven't earned their raw intelligence or physical advantages no matter how hard they have worked to develop or maintain those things.  They haven't paid for their health; no matter how much their wealth may have limited disease, much of that is out of all of our control.  And they haven't purchased any genuine love that they have received from others no matter how carefully they have fostered those relationships.  Surely, none of us has anything that we can't identify as or trace back to something that we received through no merit of our own.

This fact does not absolve me of my responsibility to my world.  Justice demands that I give all I am capable of giving, even bearing the burdens of others if I'm able, and take as little as I can.  But this truth does encourage humility and chase away any temptation to boast about what I deserve.  All such claim to what one deserves is foolhardy.  I deserve nothing.  Everything I have I owe to others and ultimately to God.  Far better to know this and be ashamed than to be a proud fool.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

New Eyes on the New Testament, and a Meditation on Grace

There is a very short list of two books that have profoundly influenced my understanding of the New Testament.  The first is George Eldon Ladd's A Theology of the New Testament (orig. pub. 1974, rev. ed. 1993), which describes the basic categories of thought in the various sections of the NT (especially the Synoptic Gospels [Matt., Mark, Luke], Johannine literature [John and 1, 2, 3 John], and Paul's epistles).  The other is Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture, by David A. deSilva (2000).  After this many years of reading the New Testament, I might have thought that I had the basics nailed down (notice the pattern in my life lately?), but deSilva's work has profoundly enhanced the way I read and comprehend it.  It's not so much that he has changed what I believe.  It is more like I've been used to watching it in black and white, and now it's in vibrant color, or like going from holding pieces of a puzzle to recognizing that they are puzzle pieces and seeing how they fit together.

deSilva is a leading scholar in a movement to ascertain a deep knowledge of how 1st-century Mediterranean society/-ies worked, including the nature of people's relationships and the values that they employed usually without thinking in their day-to-day assumptions and decisions.  deSilva and his ilk believe that doing so enables modern Westerners in a far-removed culture to hear the words of Scripture as its original hearers did and thereby come closer to receiving the message God delivered to them through it.  Though this concept is not that original, deSilva and others have gone beyond most in how thoroughly they have explored the the social environment and values of the Jewish and Gentile cultures of the early Christians.

deSilva's book explores four themes that he believes are central to the way 1st-century Mediterranean people interacted with each other, reflected in the title of his book:
  • the honor-shame dichotomy as a marker of social standing and as a means to enforce conformity;
  • the patron-client relationship as the major means by which financial, material, political, and social capital moved through society;
  • kinship ties as the predominant delineation between "us" and "them" and the ethics those ties require;
  • purity maps that distinguished between holy and common and between clean and unclean to manage the power of the supernatural and to maintain social stability.
The author explores each theme in two chapters.  In the first he explains how 1st-century Jews, Greeks, and Romans understood and employed that theme with extensive documentation from writings of the period.  In the second he traces where those themes appear in the New Testament and often how they are profoundly reinterpreted by Jesus and the apostles.  The latter chapter of each pair is always longer than the former, but one still gets the sense that deSilva is only briefly surveying the appearance of these themes in the New Testament; one could spend a lifetime plumbing their depths.

As a brief example of the richness deSilva's book brings to the table, let's look at the patron-client relationship in the 1st-century Mediterranean world, the place where people saw grace displayed.

In the West in 2010—certainly in our ideal and often in practice—the two ways that limited physical or non-physical goods get distributed are by money and by merit.  Many desirables have a price tag, a market value, and they are available to anyone with the money to pay for them.  Other desirables (for example, a job) are distributed to those who by skill and prior achievement demonstrate that they deserve them more than anyone else—that is, they have more merit.  Governments exist in part to ensure a level playing field, understood as free access to these desirables with money and merit being the only discriminating factors.  Governments are also to ensure that the things that can be gotten with money and the things that can be gotten by merit are kept separate (with a few exceptions like bank loans which require both).  By contrast, if someone gets something at a price that isn't offered to anyone else or in place of someone more deserving through some personal relationship, we are grossly offended.

But our concept of fair play and our vast marketplace undergirded by enormous collective wealth could not be more different from the 1st-century world.  In that society, money and merit did have their place, but they were positioned differently.  In a world of such scarcity that most of most people's time was devoted to surviving to the following day, money was used for basics like food and clothing but for little else.  Any larger acquisitions—a boat for one's fishing business, a loan, a real estate purchase, legal advocacy—were in such short supply that they could only be acquired as a favor from someone who had the wealth or power to bestow them—a patron.  Merit played a role in the application for those larger goods, but they didn't define merit as we do.  Rather than merit being defined by work ethic, skill, or ability to repay as in our culture, merit was defined as the degree of loyalty and gratitude one could expect from one's client.  Consequently, far removed from our modern disgust at nepotism, capital flowed in ancient society almost entirely by means of personal relationships.  It really was "who you know" that mattered.  And as opposed to the impersonal relationships that characterize much of modern commerce, the bestowal of a favor was a step toward an increasingly exclusive and permanent relationship that was even passed down to the succeeding generations of both patron and client.  And though government was greatly concerned with justice, our idea of economic fair play was not much of a priority in the ancient world.  To the contrary, government and its rulers and officials functioned as patrons to the people they governed either collectively or selectively.  Getting favors from government was as personal as any other relationship, not mediated by an impersonal application process.

(By the way, the best possible way to see the contrast between the modern Western way of acquiring goods and getting ahead and the ancient way is to watch carefully the fascinating opening scene of The Godfather.  The clash of values between the Americanized Bonasera and the traditional Don Corleone is the perfect portrayal of what I'm talking about.)

The patron-client relationship was the setting for what the Greeks called kharis, most often translated in our Bibles as "grace."  Greek mythology included a trio of goddesses known as the Three Graces, traditionally portrayed as dancing in a circle.  The Roman philosopher Seneca speculated that the Three Graces represented the generosity of the giver, the gift itself, and the gratitude of the recipient of the gift respectively, because those were the three definitions of the word kharis.  The Graces danced in a circle, because ideally each step would naturally lead to the next—from the patron's generosity to the favor bestowed to the client's praise of the patron and back to another show of generosity.  To fail in one of these steps was to disrupt the dance of grace, and because the Graces were divine it was even blasphemy.  Naturally as the dance of grace spun on it bound the benefactor and his client in a tighter and tighter relationship.  The patron increasingly owed it to his client to be generous or risk being viewed among his peers as stingy and selfish.  The client was expected never to flag in gratitude, either repaying his patron in some way as he had opportunity or at least to praise his patron constantly and publicly for his generosity to give to one who could not repay him.  Above all the client was to be loyal, because to seek favors from another patron, especially an enemy of his own, was to show the most egregious ingratitude and dishonor to the one who had favored him.

Sometimes the best favor a patron could bestow was access to another patron who had what the client needed.  In such a case, the client would ask for that access and his patron would go to his friend or patron and ask himself, functioning as a mediator.  The mediator would vouch for the worthiness of his client as someone who would show gratitude and loyalty in return for the favor, and the other patron might bestow that favor because of his faith in the mediator.

Are you beginning to see anew what Paul meant when he wrote that we are saved by grace through faith?  The dance of grace in the New Testament begins with God's desire to be generous to human beings.  It continues with his bestowal of the gifts of salvation, forgiveness, eternal life, adoption, the Holy Spirit, freedom from Satan, the inheritance of the new earth, and anything and everything else that he gives us as a result of his generosity.  And it continues further with our endless gratitude and loud, public praise to him for his gifts only to spiral back again.

From this perspective, certain common heresies and confusions about God's grace become absurd.  For example, to claim that it is okay to sin because we are assured of forgiveness is to violate the dance of grace by failing to repay God's grace (as in generosity) with our own (as in gratitude).  No one who wanted to remain in a patron's grace would ever take such a foolish risk.  In addition, to sin is to believe the promises of God's enemy and rival patron, Satan.  It is totally inconsistent with gratitude to one's patron to chase after the benefactions of his hated adversary.  On the flip side, to expect to receive righteousness before God as a payment for services received is just as much an insult to grace.  It assumes that we have anything to give to our patron that he does not already have instead of recognizing our desperate need for what he has to give that we cannot acquire in any other way.  It is similar to the blasphemy of Simon the magician who sought to buy the Holy Spirit with money as if he were daily bread instead of a gift far more precious than anything available in the marketplace.  Both approaches confuse our relationship to God with a merit-and-money relationship instead of a relationship of grace.

Obviously, Jesus Christ is our mediator, the patron from whom we seek the favor of access to the grace of God the Father.  This is where we can get our hands around the concept of faith.  The phrase generally translated "faith in Christ" in our English Bibles is actually pistis khristou, "faith of Christ."  The "faith of Christ" is a faith that runs in two directions.  We who seek the grace of Christ to grant us access to the Father have faith in him that he has the ability to gain that access that we can't secure for ourselves and that no one else can secure for us—in other words, it is faith both in Christ's goodness and in his uniqueness before the Father.  But the Father also has faith in Christ that the people the Son vouches for to become the Father's clients are worth giving his grace to.  So the faith of Christ is nothing other than the relationship of grace between God and believers that is necessarily and solely mediated by Christ's faithfulness to both parties' faith in him.

What's all the more amazing is that the Father by his grace sent the Son to make it possible for us to ask for his grace.  And he bestowed that grace not to people who seemed like good candidates to be clients but to his hostile enemies.  And finally, he used our utmost expression of ingratitude—killing his Son—as the very means by which we might gain access to his grace of forgiveness.  He used our utterly unworthy act as the very means by which Christ could vouch for us as worthy to receive God's grace.  This exceeds by infinite orders of magnitude the most lavish expressions of grace of a patron to his clients the ancient world had ever seen and therefore it demanded the most effusive, outrageous, relentless, costly, unyieldingly loyal gratitude of those early believers who had received it.

This examination of grace and faith just scratches the surface of the insights in deSilva's book.  I strongly recommend it to every reader of the Bible.  The content meets high standards of scholarship, but fortunately his writing style doesn't, by which I mean he generally avoids using a word no one knows when a word most people know works just as well, and when he does use technical terms he explains what they mean.  It's not as easy to read as a novel or the sports page, but it's at least as readable as this blog, for what that's worth.  And deSilva even takes time to touch on the application of these themes in the New Testament to the present-day Church.  No one who works their way through Honor, Patronage, Kinship & Purity will fail to be enriched.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Eating with the Lowly and the Resurrection

In Luke 14:1-24 Jesus attends a dinner at a Pharisee leader's house (convened for the purpose of entrapment) and proceeds to insult everybody else there.  His overarching theme is that God esteems the lowly and so should we, and in fact God esteems those who do.  Included is a "parable" that Jesus tells as he sees guests jostling for the seats of honor at the table (which in fact is a fairly close restatement of Prov. 25:6-7):
When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, because a person more distinguished than you may have been invited by your host.  So the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, "Give this man your place."  Then, ashamed, you will begin to move to the least important place.  But when you are invited, go and take the least important place, so that when your host approaches he will say to you, "Friend, move up here to a better place."  Then you will be honored in the presence of all who share the meal with you.  For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted [Luke 14:8-11].
It occurred to me that all of us Christians are invited to the wedding feast of Christ and his bride, the Church, and the one who invites us is God the Father.  And though it is an unfathomable grace just to have a seat at that table, there will be places of honor there too.  It seems that those seats are reserved for those Christians who are bent on associating with the least in the kingdom of heaven—uncool, unpopular, unremarkable, poor, handicapped, dull, easily ignored believers—in this life, those who choose to sit at the losers' table instead of fighting for a seat at the jocks' table in the Church.  Indeed, in a remarkable display of impolite ingratitude, Jesus goes on to advise his host at the dinner that he invited entirely the wrong people:
When you host a dinner or a banquet, don't invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors so you can be invited by them in return and get repaid.  But when you host an elaborate meal, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.  Then you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous [vv. 12-14].
As Jesus points out elsewhere in Luke's Gospel, the repayment for such kindness will come at the resurrection because those who are unimportant now will be very important then and will actually be in a position to "welcome [us] into the eternal homes" or not (see also the parable of the sheep and the goats).

I admit that I haven't obeyed Jesus' counsel very thoroughly.  I haven't gotten into the habit of inviting people who aren't my friends and relations over to my house for a good meal as I should.  But there is another setting where it has been a privilege to put this into practice.  It's when I celebrate the Lord's Supper, especially in nursing homes and the homes of "shut-in" believers in our body.  There I'm honored to celebrate the most important meal with the humblest brothers and sisters of Christ, often people whose shoes I am not worthy to untie.  Maybe there is someone you know who is elderly or handicapped that you can spend some time with or share a sandwich or the bread and the cup with.  If we make a habit of such things, it will be natural for us to hear on the Last Day, "Friend, move up higher."

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

How Long?

If you want sobering reading in Scripture, read all the occurrences of the words "how long" in the Bible.

"How long" are words of lament.  They appear as in Habakkuk 1:2, "How long, LORD, must I cry for help?  But you do not listen!  I call out to you, 'Violence!'  But you do not intervene!"  And in Psalm 13:1-2, "How long, LORD, will you continue to ignore me?  How long will you pay no attention to me?  How long must I worry, and suffer in broad daylight?  How long will my enemy gloat over me?"  When I meditate on how far this world is from the kingdom of God both at the macro-level and at the level of individual words and actions by individual people, I grieve and ask God, "How long?" myself.

But "how long" appears more often not addressed to a seemingly aloof God but as God's lament over stubbornly sinful people.  "How long will this people despise me, and how long will they not believe in me, in spite of the signs I have done among them?" (Num. 14:11).  "How long will [false prophets] go on plotting to make people forget who I am through the dreams they tell one another?  That is just as bad as what their ancestors did when they forgot who I am by worshiping the god Baal" (Jer. 23:27).  Verses like this make me shut my mouth.  How often has God mourned, "How long?" while looking upon my words, thoughts, and deeds that don't measure up to the treasure of his Holy Spirit within this crumbling vessel?

God alone knows how long.  My confidence today is in his promise, "And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it" (Isa. 40:5).  This will happen, because God says so.  Oh, God, may it be, and may it be soon.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Flowin' Out

Earlier this fall I led a small group in my church through Outflow: Outward-Focused Living in a Self-Focused World, by Steve Sjogren and Dave Ping, and now I'm preaching on the same topic in coordination with a number of our sister churches who are studying the same thing.

You know, after being a disciple of Jesus for almost 30 years, pretty much my entire life, you would think that I had learned the basics by now, but apparently that's not the case.  Because Outflow has taught me stuff that I've more or less believed, experienced here and there, flirted with, bumped into, lived intermittently, and disjointedly preached and taught for years but never grasped and lived as simply and fully as I'm beginning to now.  Now I get it.  And though I should be careful before making such a sweeping claim, it's changing my life—or at least I sure hope it is.

Sjogren (pronounced SHOW-gren) and Ping's starting point is Jesus' promises in John: "Whoever drinks some of the water that I will give him will never thirst again, but the water that I will give him will become in him a fountain of water springing up to eternal life" (4:14); " 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me, and let the one who believes in me drink.  Just as the scripture says, "From within him will flow rivers of living water." '  (Now he said this about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were going to receive. . . . )" (7:37-39).  The authors then personalize Jesus' commission to his apostles in Acts 1:8 ("But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses to Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth") by assigning each place-name to a further reach of the Holy Spirit within a person's life.  Employing the image of a four-tiered fountain, Sjogren and Ping identify the pipe at the top as the Holy Spirit, the first tier ("Jerusalem") as a believer's one-on-one relationship with God, the second ("Judea") as one's family and friends, the third ("Samaria") as one's community (especially people not like oneself), and the fourth ("the ends of the earth") as everywhere else.

Sjogren and Ping maintain that there is no limit to the quantity and quality of the life in the Spirit that God will give us who believe in Jesus provided that we are oriented toward letting that life flow out of us into the world around us.  The idea is that if we are being filled up in our relationship with God, the natural thing is for his love and grace to spill out onto the people we know.  And we can't show effusive love to them for long without showing it to strangers, and we can't do that without spreading it to people we haven't even met.

If we're bent on giving all away, we'll never run out.  By contrast, most people live, as Sjogren and Ping call it, "a life that sucks," like the perversity of a bone-dry, defunct fountain that vainly seeks to suck in through its pipe at the top rather than flow out.  Humans' default setting is to be bent on filling ourselves up with what we want and need, but when we do this we find ourselves endlessly empty.  Only by looking to give do we receive.

Does this sound familiar?  If you have much experience with the Bible, it should.  "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my [Jesus'] sake and for the gospel will save it" (Mark 8:35).  "I [Paul] have shown you that by working in this way we must help the weak, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus that he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive' " (Acts 20:35).  "God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to make all grace overflow to you so that because you have enough of everything in every way at all times, you will overflow in every good work. . . . You will be enriched in every way so that you may be generous on every occasion, which is producing thanksgiving to God" (2 Cor. 9:7-8, 11-12).  Need I go on?

There's no way to put this into practice in impractical ways.  Trying to flow out with love has already cost me money, time, energy, and attention.  It has reoriented how I view each of these resources.  Giving them away has meant looking more at the opportunity to love than whether or not I have enough.  It is a test of faith.  Do I really believe that I have time to take for the person in my life who wants it when I still have a mile-long to-do list?  Do I believe that I have the money to give when my budget says I don't?  Do I believe that I have the relational energy to smile and show kindness to the cashier that I may never see again when I have a dozen more people who want attention and kindness from me today?  Or in terms of the fountain, if I empty out the water I've received, is there more coming behind it?  Will God supply so much more than I'm giving that I'll actually be more satisfied, prosperous, and abounding despite the sacrifice?

I'm inclined to say yes.  Last week I stood in line at Sam's Club on a weekday morning with three things in my cart, a huge thing of paper towels and a huge thing of toilet paper for a local rescue mission and a plate of cookies for the office in the hospital that I visited the previous week.  And as I stood there, in a place I rarely go at a time I would never go there buying things I would never buy for recipients I would never consider (the hospital more than the rescue mission), I found tears welling up in my eyes.  I had to get myself under control to exchange with the cashier; I've never been happier than I was at that moment.  It defies any explanation other than the explanation that Jesus himself gave about streams of living water welling up to eternal life.

Outflow is not precisely about evangelism (see this book by the authors for that), but it has everything to do with cultivating the situations in which evangelism naturally takes place.  Jesus preached the kingdom of God to eager audiences because he was performing miraculous healings that brought new life and wholeness.  I believe that such miracles still occur, but I also believe that encountering an others-centered, joyously loving person who shows kindness in unexpected ways is in its own way just as miraculous, because even if it doesn't turn upside down the laws of physical nature it defies the laws of spiritual nature.  We can be miracles in the lives of friends, acquaintances, and even strangers by showing the love that Sjogren and Ping talk about in Outflow as we eagerly receive God's love poured into us with an eye to casting it away.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

On Modalities and Sodalities: A Letter from a Friend


I have an honest question for you: what do you think is the chief value of the current evangelical religious system? I consider the system to be the procurement or control of brick-and-mortar buildings for the purpose of the normal weekly routine (teaching, singing, prayer), subsidization of a select few that facilitate the routine and, in most, managerial/hierarchical structures in oversight of the whole lot. It is the target of most evangelical resources, attention and general involvement, which probably goes without dispute, but we are observing curious scenarios out here that lead us to question its worth, both in Africa and abroad. I am not looking to discredit the kingdom value of activities within the scope of the system - singing, praying and study are all extremely worthwhile, particularly on a routine basis. But, quite obviously and also (probably) without dispute, there are equally efficient and credible non-system outlets for these sort of things.



Great question! First a few observations/comments before actually answering.

First, what you call the "current evangelical religious system" I would call "the Christian Establishment religious system" for a few reasons. (1) Though it's current, it's not new. It's been around in this form since at least Constantine and in some ways before (as I get into below). (2) Though it's not new, it has never been the story of the whole Church, because there have always been movements that have gone around, beside, or within or somehow subverted this Christian Establishment system—e.g., mendicant orders in the Middle Ages (the Dominicans and Franciscans stand out), the Jesuits in the Catholic Reformation, the Methodists under the Wesleys in the Church of England, revivalism on the post-Revolutionary American frontier, parachurch evangelistic organizations in post-WWII America (led by Billy Graham, Bill Bright, etc.). The hip terms for these today (borrowed, I believe, from Catholic ecclesiology) are "modality" (the Established Church) and "sodality" (the lean, flexible movement). (3) The Establishment is by no means unique to Evangelicalism. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church and Mainline Protestantism have an even more robust Establishment system because their ecclesiologies are more centralized with stronger and larger denominational overhead. Further, Mainline Protestantism has had generations to enjoy tacitly favored status in American culture and has accumulated a lot of wealth, liquid and solid, the administration of which is a pretty big job.

I think that there has been a sort of dialectical pattern of engagement between modalities (Establishment) and sodalities (movement) through the history of the Church. When the modality stagnates, a sodality arises to give it life that also challenges it. The modality and the sodality have a complex relationship that contains both reciprocal appreciation and reciprocal hostility ("They're just dead!" "They're just fanatics!"). After a while the modality absorbs and "establishes" parts of what the sodality does (e.g., putting an altar call at the end of a Sunday worship service, taken from the revival tent). Meanwhile, the sodality establishes itself to perpetuate its work a la the modality (buys land, builds an office building, becomes a new denomination, etc.). So they each become more like the other. And eventually a new sodality rises up to breathe life into and challenge that.

Sodalities are like fire—they burn hot and transform/consume much, but they don't last. Modalities on the other hand don't go places but it takes a long time to kill them off. I'm guessing that a lot of what you're seeing in Africa and elsewhere, where the Church is on fire, is like a sodality. In fact, to the extent that missions organizations from the West stimulated the initial growth, it was started by sodalities. But those sodalities will be forced to establish themselves somehow if they will consolidate their gains. For example, a ministry (sodality) that I support, Gospel for Asia, equips thousands of "native" missionaries to plant churches in South Asia through the donations of Christians in the West. But once these missionaries plant churches, they find it very beneficial to establish a presence in their villages by constructing church buildings, and each congregation is to grow to the point that it can support its own pastor so that the Western dollars can go toward new missionary recruits.

And maybe that leads us back to your question: what is the value of this religious system? Perhaps the main value of the admittedly inefficient, often resource-intensive system is that it consolidates the gains of the passionate kingdom movement that brought it about. It provides an environment for converts and their families to be socialized into their new family, the family of God. It is an intake point for resources that do make their way into the sodalities. And when they allow themselves to be positively influenced by vivacious sodalities (e.g., a church teaching its children with outstanding curriculum from a Christian publisher), they can remain alive, make converts, and pass that life on to them.

And this seems to have some biblical warrant. Jesus himself was a sort of one-Man sodality, but he chose disciples as the beginning of structure for the movement. (He also instituted the "pay the professional Christian worker" system—Luke 10:7; 1 Cor. 9:4-14; 1 Tim. 5:17-18). He trained those disciples to do the sodality-type evangelism that he did (Luke 9:1-6; 10:1-24), but as the Christian movement grew in numbers after Pentecost it eventually required some degree of administrative structure and division of labor to manage it all. But out of early church-modalities came new sodalities, like Paul and Barnabas being sent out by the Holy Spirit from the church at Antioch, who in turn planted new church-modalities.

So, bottom-line, if modalities and sodalities can serve each other, not only will each flourish, but each will take on some of the benefits of the other. The Establishment will live instead of being the living dead, and kingdom movements will keep their gains to the next generation and not break their tether to the kingdom itself.


Friday, October 29, 2010

Making the Most Room for What Matters Most

Check out this great post by Zach Bartels on how to make time and money for the things that are the most important—and how easy it is not to.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Who Are God's Children?

Isn't it funny how certain concepts rooted in the Bible have leaked out and become widely acceptable in popular culture whereas the rest are either unknown to most people or hated by them?  Someone should try to write a critical study of which Christian theological ideas have become mainstream and why.  (Not me.)  If it's already been written, somebody let me know the title.

One of these mainstream concepts is the idea that God is our Father and, in the words of the vaguely religious song "The Prayer," that "we [i.e., human beings] are all God's children" (though some prefer thinking of God as "Parent" rather than "Father"—remind me to write a post on why this isn't satisfactory).  This concept has become so pervasive that to suggest that people who don't belong to your religion aren't children of God is considered to be about as grossly hateful and intolerant a thing you can say.

But is the idea that "we are all God's children" biblical?  As a matter of fact, it is!  Well, sort of.  Actually the Bible talks about God as a father and humans as his children in a variety of ways depending upon what the writer wants to convey at the time.  Some of these ways are more inclusive than others.  Here's a brief survey.

1. God is the Father of Israel.  It was very uncommon in ancient Israel to call God "Father"—in fact, no individual ever considered him his own personal Father.  But on rare occasions Israel collectively is portrayed as God's son, because God "begot" the nation of Israel into existence and maintained an affectionate, protective, providing, disciplining yet merciful relationship with Israel through its history, a relationship that he did not maintain with any other nation.  (See Deut. 32:6; Isa. 63:16; 64:8; Jer. 3:19; Hos. 11:1; Mal. 2:10.)

2. God is the Father of God the Son.  Overwhelmingly the most common attribution of Fatherhood to God pertains to his Fatherhood of Jesus Christ, his Eternal Word [Logos].  Think how often in the New Testament that we see statements like Colossians 1:3, "We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."  John stresses that Jesus is God's "unique" (Greek monogenēs, "one of a kind," "one and only," in older [mis-]translations "only-begotten") Son—no one else has God for their Father like Jesus the Son of God does (John 1:14, 18; 3:16, 18; 1 John 4:9).  That's because the Father's fatherhood of the Son is more than a figure of speech: the Son really (and from eternity past) comes from the Father and derives his existence from him, and he really is of utterly the same nature as him (see, e.g., Heb. 1).

But Jesus also claims God for his Father uniquely because Jesus is the True Israel, the one who in his life fulfilled all the covenant faithfulness that Israel was supposed to but fell short.  So for example, as God says in Hosea 11:1, "When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt," Matthew claims that Jesus replicated this in a fuller way.  Likewise, when God promised to David to claim David's successor as his own son to make a permanent dynasty, the author of Hebrews asserts that this is true of Jesus far beyond how it was true of Solomon.

3. God is the Father of those who trust in Jesus.  One of the several ways the Bible describes the enormous salvation that God offers people in Jesus Christ is the staggering idea that people can actually become his children: "But to all who received [Jesus]—those who believe in his name—he has given the right to become God's children—children not born by human parents or by human desire or a husband's decision, but by God" (John 1:12-13).  Notice that this privilege doesn't come from natural birth, which means that you're neither lucky enough nor too unlucky to receive that status based on who your parents happen to be.  It also means that it isn't a privilege received merely by being born human.  The universal condition for becoming God's child in this sense is trust in Jesus Christ his Son as Savior.  As I've talked about before, faith in Christ is what unites us with Christ so that what is true of him (in this case, Sonship) becomes true of us.

Paul likes to describe becoming a part of God's family in terms of adoption with an eye to the authority and property that accrues to us as a result.  For example,
For all who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery leading again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, "Abba [Aramaic, 'Daddy'], Father."  The Spirit himself bears witness to our spirit that we are God's children.  And if children, then heirs (namely heirs of God and fellow-heirs with Christ)—if indeed we suffer with him so we may also be glorified with him [Rom. 8:14-17].
John on the other hand talks about it as being "born from above" or "born again" (depending on how the Greek is translated)—a spiritual birth, begotten by God and receiving his "genes," in contrast with one's physical birth, begotten by one's earthly father and getting his genes (see John 3:3-7; 1 John 5:1), so that we actually become transformed into his divine nature.

4. God is the Father of all humanity.  There are a tiny, tiny number of references in the Bible to God being the Father of all people.  The only one that is indisputable in my opinion is Acts 17:26-29, where Paul argues to the learned citizenry of Athens,
From one man [God] made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.  For in him we live and move about and exist [Epimenides, Cretica], as even some of your own poets have said, "For we too are his offspring" [Aratus, Phaenomena 5].  So since we are God's offspring, we should not think the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image made by human skill and imagination.
Paul, a Jew, is trying to establish common ground with the Athenians by identifying a single God as the one who oversaw the destinies of both their nations and that both have access to and even by quoting Greek authors to buttress his case.  He is arguing that since we agree that humans sprang from God's creativity in his image, it doesn't make sense to worship a god sprung from a human's creativity in his image.

God's creation of humanity in his image that Paul argues from in Athens is the source of the "we are all God's children" concept, and obviously that's entirely legitimate.  I do believe that this is worth talking about in order to establish common ground with people of other religions or no religion, especially those who have some "Only God" or "Chief God" concept.  It is also important as a means to detach religion from ethnicity, culture, and/or citizenship, which is a crucial distinguishing mark of Christianity from some other religions like traditional Judaism.  If we can agree that people of all nations are God's children and can "find him," then I can engage constructively with a Jew even though I'm not Jewish and with a Hindu even though I'm not Indian.

However, in our culture this genuinely biblical idea has been blown entirely out of proportion to its attestation in the Bible.  A bit over a century ago, "old liberal" Protestantism in the West identified the Universal Fatherhood of God, the Brotherhood of Man, and the Infinite Value of the Human Soul (to paraphrase Adolf Harnack) as the essence of Christianity.  As so often happens in these situations, generations down the line this rarefied idea suffused the popular culture.

But there are serious problems with making God's universal Fatherhood of the human race the primary or even sole understanding of his Fatherhood.  Paul used the idea of "God, the Father of all humanity" as a bridge to telling Gentiles about "God, the Father of God the Son," so that in turn he could proclaim "God, the Father of those who trust in Jesus," which is really where he wants to end up (later instructing new believers as to how this fulfills "God, the Father of Israel," which is basically what his letter to the Romans is about).  In other words, he was willing to talk about the family of God in the most inclusive sense to win a hearing for more exclusive senses of God's Fatherhood.  Because without knowing about God as the Father of those who believe in Jesus, Paul's hearers could never become God's children in that sense.

Unfortunately, the concept of God's universal Fatherhood has inoculated people to understand, care about, or even be open to the fullness of what it means to be a child of God.  The idea that Jesus Christ is the Son of God isn't striking to people who believe that everyone is a son or daughter of God.  The idea that we can be adopted into God's family isn't awe-inspiring to people who think they are already in it.  The unfathomable wonder of what it means to have the all-powerful Creator as one's real Father is lost to those who assume that in their run-of-the-mill lives they are already experiencing it.  And if all people—apparently good, apparently evil, and everything in between—are children of God, then the concept is empty of the ethical implications that would be obvious otherwise (for example, "Be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect," Matt. 5:48; see also 1 John 3:10).  This is yet another example of how when a little bit of truth gets blown out of proportion it becomes its own kind of lie and in fact is usually far more powerful than outright falsehood.

So, are we all God's children?  In one sense, yes, we are.  But in a sense more important to our eternal destinies, some people have become God's children while others remain estranged.  As repellent as this idea is in our faux-tolerant culture, holding fast to this distinction is a necessary part of inviting everyone to cross it.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Glory Revealed II: The Word of God in Worship

In 2007, David Nasser wrote Glory Revealed: How the Invisible God Makes Himself Known in conjunction with a compilation album called Glory Revealed: The Word of God in Worship.  Last year a follow-up album, aptly titled Glory Revealed II, was released, produced by Mac Powell of Third Day.  I listened to excerpts from both albums and recently bought the second one, because, basically, I thought it was awesome.

And after listening to it almost exclusively for a week or two, I still do.  The overall concept of the album lyrically is songs based on, quoting, and occasionally entirely composed of Scripture, which makes it an extremely inspiring and encouraging set of tunes as well as being a great Bible memory aid.

The musical concept is what I guess is being called "Americana," which appears to meanacoustic music with  Southern Appalachian country, bluegrass, and folk influences that features guitar, mandolin, banjo, and fiddle and at times sounds vaguely like Jay Ungar's soundtrack to Ken Burns' documentary The Civil War.  At one extreme is a track like "Never," based on Heb. 13:5-6, that's basically contemporary worship music with a hint of "Americana" influence, but at the other is "There Is a City" (Rev. 21:19-23; 22:1-5, 17) that sounds like it came right out of a 19th-century frontier campmeeting.

For this second album at least, a core band assembled at a remote farm and lodge in southern Georgia (the liner notes repeatedly say it belongs to "the Foxworthys"—as in Jeff Foxworthy???) to write the songs and lay down the instrumentals and some vocals.  Then most of the lead vocals got farmed out to a variety of CCM luminaries who recorded their parts hither and yon (i.e., Nashville).

Not a country music fan?  Neither am I, but I can't stop listening to this somewhat country-ish stuff.  And many of the tracks lead my thoughts to praising the Lord no matter what I'm doing at the time.  Take a listen yourself.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Obama: Christian or Muslim? Faith: Public or Private?

Two months ago, a political consulting firm called The Eleison Group wrote a public letter signed by many Christian luminaries that called on "public officials, faith leaders, and the media to offer no further support to those who misrepresent and call into question the President's Christian faith" by asserting that he is a Muslim.

This letter garnered some significant national attention, and because I agree with the basic request, which I'll explain in a moment, I was ready to sign it myself.  But just before clicking "Submit" I reread it more carefully and stopped.

The title of the letter is "Faith is not a political issue," by which I think they meant, "Faith should not be a political issue."  I agree with this in the sense that in any discussion we should stick to the point.  If we're hiring or evaluating someone whose job is public policy, let's talk public policy.  Let's not talk faith or sports or cooking or auto maintenance.  Unless a particular public policy position of the President stems directly and unambiguously from his religion, there's really no reason for his religion to come up.  There's certainly no reason for it to dominate political conversation.

But the letter goes too far when it says, "We understand that these are contentious times, but the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate."

Allow me to make a fine but important distinction between "political issue" and "public debate."  A "political issue" is an issue that has to do with the well-being of the polis, the society governed by the state. "Public debate" is discourse that happens in the public sphere, especially facilitated by the media.  Public debate includes discussion of political issues, but it also involves anything that happens in public (i.e., more people than the people in my household or private group observe it).

The very reason that President Obama's Christian faith shouldn't be a political issue and in fact shouldn't be a controversial issue at all is because "personal faith" is public, especially when it has been publicly professed, as Obama's has.

Now before going on, there's another distinction I should make, and it has to do with the word "Christian."  Setting aside where the word "Christian" came from, it has two meanings in the United States in 2010.  The sociological definition of "Christian" is basically "someone who calls him- or herself a Christian, especially if they perform the practices that other people who call themselves Christians perform."  The theological definition of "Christian" might differ somewhat among Christian traditions, but it basically means "someone who has been born again through faith in Christ, whose name is written in the Book of Life, who is adopted into God's family and an heir to his kingdom."  The theological definition is narrower than the sociological definition—in other words there are some Christians sociologically who aren't Christians theologically.  (This concept has substantial biblical support—see for example Matt. 7:13-23.)  It's important to understand that when Evangelicals use the word "Christian," they're generally using the theological definition, but when non-religious people use the term they're generally using the sociological definition.  (I'm not sure about non-Evangelicals who profess to be Christians; that might be a case-by-case situation.)  Does it surprise you that we're talking past each other?

Anyway, I contend that without a doubt President Obama is a Christian, sociologically speaking, not a Muslim.  The guy has said repeatedly that he's a Christian.  He said it early in his presidential campaign to Christianity Today, and he directly denied being a Muslim in that interview.  He said it last week in a backyard in Albuquerque, New Mexico.  He said in the CT article that he "believes in the redemptive death and resurrection of Jesus Christ."  That's something Christians say.  He hasn't been heard saying, "There is no God but God [Allah], and Mohammed is his prophet," something Muslims say.  He's been seen praying, worshiping, and hearing the gospel in church on Sunday morning with other Christians.  Those are things that Christians do.  He hasn't been seen bowing down in prayer five times a day, fasting through Ramadan, worshiping in a mosque on Friday afternoon, or making hajj (pilgrimmage) to Mecca, things that Muslims do.

In other words, the reason that people shouldn't be calling the President a Muslim is that he does things in public that back up his claim to be a Christian, at least sociologically.  His "personal faith" is validated by his public actions.

But let's pretend that the President's public actions were more confusing.  Let's say that he repeatedly called himself a Christian but was rarely seen in churches and frequently seen in mosques.  Let's say he took the oath of office with his hand on a Qur'an instead of a Bible (as has been wrongly alleged).  Let's say he has been seen bowing down toward Mecca five times a day.  If he was known to do these things but kept calling himself a Christian, would it be right to say with The Eleison Group's letter that "the personal faith of our leaders should not be up for public debate" and that "We believe that questioning . . . the faith of a confessing believer goes too far"?  Absolutely not!  It isn't acceptable for a public figure to claim a religious identity for whatever benefits that profession might garner if it's actually a masquerade.  A civic leader's walk matching his talk is always a matter for public debate, because integrity and honesty are qualities we demand from our leaders.  Failures of integrity and honesty are always to be publicly questioned, including if the failure is in religious territory.

But this leads us to the interesting realm of policy positions.  As I said before, there is no inherent reason for a public official's religion to come up when talking about his or her policy positions.  Those positions should be considered on policy merits.  But what do we do if an official advocates a policy that violates the tenets of his or her religion?  Pointing out the inconsistency doesn't really matter from a policy perspective.  But it does matter from an integrity perspective.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church explicitly teaches about numerous social issues—abortion, war, capital punishment, and economics among others.  If a politician claims to be Catholic but acts in the public sphere in total violation of Catholic social teaching, it is legitimate for citizens of all religions to ask if that politician is really being sincere about him- or herself, aside from the question of whether the politician's policies are good ideas.

Publicly questioning a politician's personal faith is all the more legitimate for people who share the politician's religion.  This is certainly true for us Christians.  The Eleison Group's letter says, "As Christian pastors and leaders, we believe that fellow Christians need to be an encouragement to those who call Christ their savior"—I'm totally on board with that—"not question the veracity of their faith."  I don't always agree with the latter part.  In most circumstances, sure, it's not my business to get on a professed Christian politician's case about whether he or she is walking with the Lord.  That person has a pastor and Christian friends who are much better positioned to do that.  But in extreme cases, if I believe that a politician consistently threatens to bring shame to the name of Christ or confusion to the gospel by his or her actions, then I might have to question whether his or her faith is genuine not for the sake of the state but for the sake of the gospel and the kingdom of God.

The thing is, I think that the signatories of The Eleison Group's letter agree with me on this point.  The Eleison Group happens to be a firm that consults with Democrats to reach out to and mobilize Christians toward progressive public policy objectives.  So not surprisingly, the signatories of the letter neatly represent Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, and the Evangelical Left (and a tiny number of Catholics).  At least one of the signatories that I know of, and probably more that I don't, openly questioned the veracity of George W. Bush's faith when he was in office.  (I think the self-congratulatory euphemism for this is "speaking truth to power.")  In other words, during the prosecution of the Iraq War at least one signatory of this letter didn't believe that Bush's "personal faith" was not "a matter for public debate."

Regardless, don't call President Obama a Muslim, and correct those who do if you can do so winsomely and gently.  If you're a political conservative this is even more important, because it truly isn't a policy issue, and it bolsters your integrity if you don't put up with someone else's integrity being wrongfully questioned (and it's loving your neighbor as yourself).  But don't buy into the idea that faith is "a private matter" that has no bearing on one's life in public, including for public officials.  Every religion I know demands that faith be represented in action, and Christianity is at least as emphatic about this as any.  Everyone who makes a faith-claim is daily proving or disproving it before a watching world and is constantly being judged in public.  That includes President Obama and me and you.  And that's as it should be.  "Let your light shine before people, so that they can see your good deeds and give honor to your Father in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

Oh, and one more thing: I don't know if President Obama is a Christian, theologically speaking.  Like many people, there are things he says and does that tell me he is and other things that raise concerns (which is probably how people view me too).  But for now, I'm going to hope that he is, trust that God has placed believers in his life to encourage and challenge him appropriately, and otherwise, God helping me, take care of myself and the people around me that I can encourage and challenge, a posture I commend to you too.