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Thursday, September 30, 2010

Servant and Son

I have a book on my shelf called Servant and Son: Jesus in Parable and Gospel, by J. Ramsey Michaels (1982).  It's an examination of the person of Christ (technical term: Christology) using the depiction of the life of Jesus in the Gospels as the starting point.  (I could get more technical than this, but that won't be helpful to most readers, I'm guessing, and it's beside the point.)  I'll be honest with you: I haven't read this book.  As with many of my books, I got it from a pastor looking to unload a significant portion of his stash in the thought that it looked good and I hoped to read it sometime, knowing deep in my heart that there is almost no chance that I ever will.  However, I mention this book because its title is a neat way of viewing my spiritual life right now.

Jesus is the Servant of God as well as the Son of God.  Today we get kind of squeamish about calling Jesus the Servant of God because we are afraid of denying his Sonship and his full divinity, coequal with the Father. But the Church in its Pentecostal infancy had no such qualms.  Peter calls Jesus God's Servant in Acts 3:13, 26, and the whole church follows his lead in 4:30.  This title doesn't imply that Jesus' nature is less than fully divine and inferior to God the Father's.  Rather it implies two things: (1) that Jesus is the Servant prophesied in the latter chapters of Isaiah (see esp. 52:13-15 and the chapter that follows) and thus the New/True Israel (see, e.g., 44:1-2); and (2) that even though he and his Father are equal in nature and value, the Father always calls the shots and the Son always does what he says, and it never works the other way around (see, e.g., John 5:19-30).

This matters not just because everything about our beloved Lord matters to those who love him but because of what it means to be "in Christ."  Being "in Christ" (i.e., being saved) means that whatever is true of Christ becomes true of us in the sight of God.  There are lots of implications and examples of this, but what I want to point out is that if Christ is the Servant of God then each person in Christ is a servant of God.  And if Christ is the Son of God then each person in Christ is a son or daughter of God.  Make sense?

We see these terms applied to believers throughout the New Testament.  For example, in Paul's letter to the Galatians he asserts, "So you are no longer a slave but a son, and if you are a son, then you are also an heir through God" (Gal. 4:7).  On the other hand, earlier in the letter he refers to himself as a slave of Christ (1:10).  Is Paul contradicting himself?  No—he just tended to be very flexible with his use of metaphors, shifting easily to the best illustration to get his point across.  His point with the "Father-son" analogy is that our relationship with God isn't based on how meticulously we have followed the rules (the "works of the Law") but on God's grace to adopt us into his family while we were unworthy.  But he uses the "Master-slave" analogy to assert his obligation to make God's will his own in everything because God paid his Son to buy Paul from slavery to sin so that Paul could serve God instead.

When I see contrasting pairs in the Bible, my instinct is to elevate both sides and be careful not to make one more important than the other, because that's how heresy gets started.  (For example, make Christ's humanity a little more important than his divinity and after a while you or your followers end up denying his divinity, and vice versa.)  So I intend to elevate both Christ's Servanthood and Sonship and also both my servanthood and sonship.  And intellectually, I do this.  But I'm not sure I'm elevating both sides in my relationship with God.

See, I think I've got that Master-slave relationship with God nailed down.  I truly and gratefully want to do God's will because I owe him my life.  I could go the rest of my days receiving nothing more from his hand and still want to serve him out of gratitude for redeeming me from sin and Satan.  I'm not a perfect servant by any means, but I am a willing one.  Out of loyalty to my Master, I will grit my teeth and push through to accomplish any task he gives me, no questions asked, because he deserves it, and I want to give it to him.

The problem is that I don't have the same zeal about my Father-son relationship with God.  That one is fuzzier.  It's not that I doubt that I'm a son of God in my head.  It's just that there's some part of me that doesn't want to hear it.  Maybe deep down I'm afraid it's not true.  Maybe part of me doesn't want it to be true because it has some implications I don't want to contemplate.  Maybe I'm afraid of being let down somehow.  Maybe it's that I don't believe that God owes me anything as my Master but that he does owe me something if he's my Father, and maybe I'm afraid that he won't deliver—or that he hasn't and he should.  Maybe I'm afraid of those accusatory thoughts themselves.  Maybe I'm confident in my service that I think I can control but not confident in his grace that I can't.  Maybe I'm comfortable with a certain distance between us if he is so high and I am so low, but I am afraid of what will happen to me if we embrace.  And yet many times I have felt the love of God intensely and have accepted it—no, reveled in it.  It's by no means a foreign concept.  So why is it so hard right now?

Perhaps for some it is easier to be loved by God than to serve him.  For me it's the reverse: "Give me a job to do, God; just don't tell me that you love me."  I've noticed that the longer I serve as a pastor, a "professional Christian," the more my attitude drifts this way.  This is a dirty secret, but a disturbing proportion of the retired pastors I've observed have little to no evidence of an active relationship to God.  I think this is because through their ministries they became more and more servants of God and less and less sons.  That enabled them to drift from being servants of God to servants of people, then servants of organizations, and finally servants of self, and once they stopped taking a paycheck the facade crumbled and there was no relationship with God left.

I don't want to end up like this.  But these ominous examples prove that if I fail to drink deeply of God's love, then I cannot serve him as he deserves to be served.  Jesus demonstrated this.  Only the Father's beloved, his Chosen One in whom he is well-pleased, could go to the cross for those he desired to save.  And likewise I cannot represent him as I must if my love-relationship with him is replaced by a crisp to-do list.  I become dried out, trying, exhausted, to give people ever-diminishing cupfuls of mud from a broken cistern when I no longer have living water springing up to eternal life within me (Jer. 2:13; John 4:13-14).

Jesus is equally Servant and Son, and it is heresy to suggest otherwise.  In the same way, I am servant and son, and it is spiritual disaster if I fail to identify fully and gladly as both.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Love Me Where You're At

I've linked to Francis Frangipane's stuff before.  He's recently re-posted his account of a pivotal part of his own life story which happens to be my all-time favorite piece by him.  It's called "Love Me Where You're At."  Check it out and be blessed.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Beauty and Mike Tyson

Facing Tyson: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories (book [2006] and audiobook [2010]), by my dear friend Ted Kluck, is a book that is not a Christian book but is written by a Christian who also writes Christian books.  It's also a boxing book by a boxing fan who questions whether to remain a boxing fan while writing this book that every boxing fan will love but which someone who doesn't like or know boxing (like me and my wife) can't put down.  Got it?  Good.  Get it.

Based on the model of Facing Ali: Fifteen Fighters, Fifteen Stories, by Stephen Brunt, Kluck interviews fifteen of heavyweight champion Mike Tyson's opponents in the ring (or in two cases those close to them) to get a fresh perspective on Tyson through those who fought him.  After an opening chapter on the author's brush with Tyson himself, each chapter details Kluck's encounter with one of the other boxers.  The result is a subtle, complex, and profoundly humanizing portrait of Tyson and all of those Kluck interviews as well as the boxing world itself.

Kluck writes in the first person so that we not only see Tyson from his own point of view and Tyson from his opponents' points of view but also Tyson and his opponents from Kluck's point of view.  He artfully weaves himself and his Everyman journey through the boxing world into the book while being careful to keep the book about the fighters and not about himself.  The author's own story—which becomes our story as we follow him—is possibly the most interesting of them all.

I encourage you to read or listen to this book in defiance of why you might think you wouldn't like it.  It's not a Christian book.  The interviewees use highly vulgar language at times, and Kluck records it verbatim.  But the author's faith gleams through and is reflected back again (or starkly contrasted) in unexpected ways—like in the born-again testimony of Marvis Frazier, the gospel of success of Evander Holyfield, and a prayer for Iron Mike in the back seat of a taxi cab.  It is a good book for a Christian to read because it's about the humanity that God made, that fell, and that he is redeeming.  We see it in the book among the famous, the once-famous, and the nobodies and never-weres, in people ekeing out a life, stealing their life, or living the high life.  We see in Mike Tyson himself a sort of latter-day Preacher from Ecclesiastes, a man who has seen it all and had it all and lost it all and wonders out loud with shocking honesty and depth what it all means.  And we see, over and over again, grace and beauty that transcends all the stories in paradox with the violence and sometimes sleaze of the sport itself, something from beyond that backlights and ennobles all the oversized characters in this book, the author as he writes, and you and me as we read.  There's something about Facing Tyson that makes it more than a boxing book without it ceasing to be a boxing book.  You'll just have to read or listen to it yourself to understand what I mean.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Why I Believe: Experiential

Let me tell you why I believe the gospel, experientially speaking.

(Incidentally, when it comes right down to it, when I am most inclined to doubt, this is the area of argument for belief that is most convincing to me.  But it is the least convincing to me when someone else tells me about their own experiences.  In other words, I gain great assurance from my own experiences but am largely unpersuaded by the experiences of others, unless perhaps it is someone I am very close to.  I don't know if I'm unique in this or not.)

I believe because of so many times that I have been in prayer or worship and I have gotten very emotional, with tears, out of nowhere.  Or when I have read a passage of Scripture again and again and narrowed it down to a verse or a sentence or a phrase or even a word, and there seems to be more there than mere words, and I feel a deep sense of something awesome like I'm standing at the edge of Niagara Falls when there is nothing in the room but me and my Bible.

I believe because of times that I've felt just like this in the presence of other Christians.  Sometimes it is in worship or prayer.  Sometimes it is when I'm being preached to and sometimes it is when I am preaching.

I believe because of the times that I've been with certain other Christians who give off a strange aura as if they're operating on another plane, like these elderly fellows (R.I.P., Clair Yingling).  It's not their experiences with God that hit me—it's that I feel like I'm experiencing God as long as I'm in the room with them.

I believe because after many times that I told people about Jesus, hopefully moving them a bit closer to the kingdom, I sat in an Italian restaurant in Newark, New Jersey with my friend Joe, and he eagerly prayed with me to turn his life over to Christ.  I believe because in the years that followed he always seemed to know the question to ask to grow in his faith before I could tell him what he needed next.  Similarly, I believe because of the countless times that I've known what someone needed to hear from the word of God and spoke it without knowing that I knew it.

I believe because of moments when I've heard God speak to me in response to my prayers to him.  It's always been inside my head, and it generally sounds like my voice.  What distinguishes it from me talking to myself is that it tells me things that I wouldn't think up, and occasionally things that the rest of my being utterly recoils against.  That to me is the proof that it's not coming from me.  It started for the first time in 3rd grade when God helped me find my winter glove in my locker when the rest of my classmates were outside at recess.  It thundered in my mind when he told me to switch my college major to Bible two weeks before I started, and I knew that my call to pastoral ministry had begun (a longer story).  But in more recent years I've heard it often, even daily at times.  I've heard it enough that I know who it is when he speaks.

I believe because, slowly and with fits and starts but surely, I appear to be becoming a better person, and this seems to be closely associated with the time I try to spend with God as I mentioned above.  I believe because I not only feel guilty when I do something wrong but because after I seek God I eventually get a certainty of forgiveness and innocence that conforms to what the Bible says and flies in the face of the reality of my actions.

These things might not mean much to you, and that's okay; I don't expect them to.  They mean a great deal to me.  But you need your own experiences; no one else's will do.

So this is why I believe the gospel, experientially speaking.  Why do you believe?

Monday, September 13, 2010

Why I Believe: Rational

Let me tell you why I believe the gospel, rationally speaking.

Let's approach the four canonical Gospels—the only biographies of Jesus believed to be put to writing within a generation of his life (for comparison, picture a book written today about John Lennon)—as if they were any other ancient document that claims to depict historical events.  We have to approach them with an innocent-until-proven-guilty mindset.  We don't assume that they're 100% true and accurate, but we assume that they're basically accurate unless we find some evidence that points otherwise.  We don't discount them just because they claim supernatural causes for events and miraculous happenings.  All ancient historical documents do that.  If we were to discard every ancient historical document as useless if it talks about the supernatural, or if we were to say that a book tells us nothing if there's anything inaccurate in it—guilty until proven innocent—then we would have no knowledge of ancient history at all.  Zero.  So just like we do to Tacitus, Livy, Plutarch, Herodotus, and the like, we assume that the canonical Gospels are basically true unless we find something we know can't be right.

Well it happens that all four Gospels claim that Jesus died by crucifixion and came back to life "on the third day" (if Friday, the day of his death, is the first day, which is how they counted things in that culture), and that after that he went directly to heaven instead of dying again.  That's the kind of crazy talk that would lead us to discount those portions of each of these books.  But the problem is that we have four roughly contemporaneous written witnesses to the life of Jesus, and all four contain this.  And each of these written witnesses recounts the stories of multiple witnesses who claimed to see this—not all the same ones either—and even gives their names, so if you read one of these Gospels when it was first written you could conceivably track down the witnesses and ask them yourself.  We don't have any account of the life of Jesus so close to when it happened that does not attest to his resurrection in multiple ways.  Even though it is ridiculous, that makes for a pretty strong claim.

Even more perplexing, try as we might we can't find any convincing alternative explanation for this.  One might claim that Jesus didn't really die.  Given the physical abuse he endured, that's astonishing enough, much less how he rolled away a huge boulder from the mouth of his tomb, singlehandedly overcame a squad of armed Roman soldiers, and convinced the people who saw him that he was immortal rather than in serious need of medical attention.  Another possibility is that the disciples stole the body and made up the story—indeed, according to Matthew this is the story that the chief priests encouraged.  But if so, why were they so willing to risk their lives—and almost to a man spend them horrifically—for something that they knew wasn't true?  I can imagine what a cult leader might gain from duping his followers, but where do savage beatings, crucifixion, and being fed to the lions fit into this?  Maybe Jesus' followers—all these different recorded witnesses—somehow experienced some simultaneous mass delusion.  Despite the glaring question of how this could have happened, there's the fact that the Jewish Council would still then have been in possession of Jesus' body and could have produced it and squashed the rumor of resurrection as hysterical right there and then.  Sure, some people might still have believed that Jesus was alive (and that Elvis is still living), but it never would have caught on like it did.  And it doesn't answer the question of why Paul, who claimed to see the risen Jesus long after everybody else, endured such suffering as well.

So if there is uniform testimony from multiple witnesses that Jesus came back to life after dying and that he went to heaven bodily without dying again, and if there is no plausible alternative explanation, then I have to believe that Jesus' resurrection and ascension actually happened.

Now, if this man Jesus really was stronger than death that way, that makes him totally unique among all people who have ever lived.  I don't know of a single other person who died, came back to life, and then didn't die again after that.  And I find that extremely interesting, because I would really rather not die.  That's probably more important to me than anything else when it comes right down to it.  So if I'm looking for advice on how not to die like everyone else, or at least not die permanently, Jesus really seems to be the only one to go to, because he is the only one with a better than 0% success rate.  And I had better take what he says really seriously; who am I to argue with him when he's the one who is stronger than death and I'm not?

When I read what Jesus said I start finding all kinds of amazing claims.  There is a God who made everything.  Jesus is his Son in a unique way.  In fact, Jesus existed before God made everything else.  He has the authority to do what only a Righteous Creator God can do, everything from stop storms to forgive sins.  And he lays down the law about what is right and wrong; he says that everyone but himself violates that law and thereby sins.  In addition, he also repeatedly claims that rejecting those sinful ways and trusting Jesus himself is the key to life for everyone else, from being healed to having your sins let go by God to living forever.  If I want those benefits, I had better do what he says.  So I repent of my sins and put my trust in Jesus to save me.

Jesus also teaches lots of other things about the world and how it works and why things happen the way they do that I haven't mentioned here.  But one of those things that is particularly interesting is how he regards the Hebrew Bible or Tanach, which Christians call the Old Testament (which is another story).  He repeatedly talks about it as if it is the word of God—that is, as if the people who wrote those works were either taking dictation from God, being imperceptibly moved to write what they wrote by God, or something in between (depending on the book), so that all the books that make up the Hebrew Bible are God's written communication to humanity and intrinsically true.  We don't have any evidence that he regarded the Hebrew Bible as anything but the word of God; the testimony is uniform.  So once again, if I really want to overcome death, and I take Jesus' advice seriously in order to do that, then I have to conclude that the Hebrew Bible is God's true word too.

By now I have to grapple with the fact that I'm getting this knowledge from these canonical Gospels that I've considered to be basically accurate without quibbling about various fanciful details.  But since I have the infallible standard of truth that Jesus has, the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, it's worthwhile for me to compare the Gospels to those documents.  I find that repeatedly the Gospels reach back to Old Testament texts, themes, and concepts to validate their message.  Even when there is some shift, something that I wouldn't expect signalling a new direction, there is a constant appeal to the Old Testament for justification.  Jesus himself does this, and the Gospel writers do too.  And in fact when I look at the other writings that make up the New Testament, I find the same pattern.  Again and again the writers write in such a way that demands Old Testament corroboration for their claims.  "As it is written" shows up everywhere.  I also note that these books are either written by people who saw Jesus in his resurrected state, most of whom spent serious face-time with Jesus on earth (2 Pet. 1:16-181 John 1:1-3) or were the intimate associates of those who had.  I'm beginning to wonder if God has inspired the New Testament writings the same way he did the Old Testament ones.  I find that the ancient church believed exactly that, so I have a choice about whether to take their word for it or not.  And without going into too much more detail, I do.

I do not believe that the claims that Jesus Christ is the risen Son of God and that the Bible is the reliable word of God can be proven beyond any doubt.  But I do believe that these claims and their corollaries can be proven beyond a reasonable doubt.  Lots of people have lots of objections to them for lots of reasons.  But I've never heard an objection based on reason and logic that doesn't at some point collapse on itself.

That's why I believe the gospel, rationally speaking.  Why do you believe—or not?

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Why I Believe: Biographical

Let me tell you why I believe the gospel, biographically speaking.

For as long as I've been alive I have had a deep craving for Truth—truth about everything.  I acquired knowledge voraciously and instinctively believed that all of it—whether about dinosaurs or how airplanes fly or why the sky is blue or why people do what they do or how our country was founded—was all one piece.  That one piece included the truth about God and his relationship to us.

From my earliest Truth-craving days I heard about Jesus.  Some of this came at the church that we attended, Christ United Methodist Church in Lakewood, New Jersey, where some of my earliest memories are set.  As a preschooler I remember going to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School there.  But I got a much bigger dose of the gospel at home, particularly from my mom.  I still remember where I was playing in our house on Manetta Place when I abruptly called mom to come to where I was and told her I wanted to "accept Jesus into my heart."  She prayed with me for me to do just that.

Now it's worth noting that I don't really know now what I thought I was doing then.  "Accept Jesus into your heart" is a really odd phrase, especially to a highly literal 4-year-old mind.  The phrase is highly symbolic and hardly shows up in the Bible.  (The closest we get are a few places that talk about "receiving" Christ like Mark 9:37 and John 1:11 and Paul's prayer that Christ would "dwell in [the] hearts" of already saved people in Eph. 3:17.)  But that's the way that the people I was listening to talked about salvation.  The one thing I know that I knew was that accepting Jesus into my heart was the right thing to do.  It had to do with being close to God and not having to be afraid of hell, and those were things that I wanted.

So, why did I want these things so much, and why did I think they were important?  Because I trusted the people who told me about them.  My mom loved me, and my Sunday School teachers did too.  I had no doubt that they did.  They kept me safe when I got scared, they met my needs, they truly liked me, and they were reliable and consistent.  Though I didn't think it through consciously at the time, I am certain that I trusted what they said about Jesus because they proved their trustworthy love in all other aspects that mattered to a 4-year-old (or was I 3?).  If their love could be relied upon, their message was too.  If they were true, their gospel was true—an essential, even the essential, part of the Truth that I craved.

As I grew older and my ability to grasp things intellectually increased, my knowledge of God and the gospel did too.  All along the way there were people I greatly respected—my parents, adults at Redeemer Evangelical Covenant Church in Liverpool, New York, and later teachers at Faith Heritage School in Syracuse, New York—who continued to tell me the truth.  And I continued to trust them because they continued to love me consistently and reliably.  When they told me that God created the world out of nothing, I believed it.  And I believed them when they told me that I was a sinner along with all humanity and that Christ's death was the substitutionary atonement for my sins that could only be received by repentant faith, not by my religious actions and good deeds.  Again, I trusted the message because I could trust the messengers.

It wasn't until much later that I realized how these people that I trusted themselves believed because trustworthy people told them, and those people believed because trustworthy people told them.  I can actually trace this back some generations in my own family through my maternal grandfather's ancestry of an unbroken line of Mennonite pastors going back at least to 18th-century Switzerland.  But of course, the line actually extends all the way back to the apostles themselves, who believed the message of Jesus that they heard from his own mouth because he and his love were trustworthy.

So that's why I believe the gospel, biographically speaking: I trust the people who told me.  Why do you believe?

The testimony I gave above is actually the result of a much deeper examination of the beginning of my spiritual journey than I had ever done.  Credit goes to "The 3 Whys" exercise employed by Rev. Tom Beers.  You can do it too!

1. Take a piece of paper and write out a paragraph in longhand that starts, "Here is how I became a Christian."  Write what comes to you automatically; don't think about it too much.  Don't cover more than about two thirds of the paper and don't take more than five minutes.

2. Underline every thing you did or reaction you had.  (Hint: Look at the verbs.)

3. Flip the paper over.  Hold it in landscape format (the long sides are the top and bottom).  Divide it into four columns by drawing lines or creasing.

4. List the things you underlined in your paragraph in the right-hand column (the 4th column).  It doesn't hurt to abbreviate.  If you have more than eight, combine some that seem to go together.

5. Look at the first thing you listed in that right-hand column.  Ask yourself, "Why did I do that?"  Write the answer next to it in the column immediately to its left (the 3rd column).

6. Look at what you just wrote in the 3rd column.  Ask yourself, "Why did that happen?"  Write the answer next to it in the 2nd column.

7. Look at what you just wrote in the 2nd column.  Ask yourself, "Why did that happen?"  Write the answer next to it in the 1st (leftmost) column.

8. Repeat steps 5 through 7 for each of the things listed in the 4th column.

9. Now look at what's written in the 1st column and how you got there.  What are the recurring themes?  What matters to you?  How did God work the miracle of salvation in your life?  That is your testimony.  Rewrite your story incorporating your insights into what happened and how it happened.

10. Tell people what God has done in your life!

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Why Do You Believe What You Believe?

In the last week I've had conversations with two friends surrounding the question posed in the title of this post.  One was a Buddhist friend to whom I asked this question point-blank, and once he understood what I was asking, he gladly and sincerely obliged.  The other was a Catholic Christian friend.  I didn't ask him the question, but rather we were sharing our consternation over people, especially professedly "spiritual" people, and even worse professedly Christian people, not only not having an answer for this question but never having even conceived that one might be asked such a question in the first place.  In fact, it appears that people can live for decades making statements, performing actions, or affiliating with others that imply or outright state a religious conviction and never once be asked why they hold that conviction or have any clue how to answer the question once asked because they just don't know.  Maybe I shouldn't be surprised, but I keep scratching my head over it.  (Then again, maybe I just need to use more shampoo.)

So for the next few posts I'm going to answer the question pertaining to myself.  It's not because my answers are especially clever or because they should be your answers.  It's more to give you a launch pad for you to consider how you might answer the question yourself, since all of us believers must be "ready to give an answer to anyone who asks about the hope you possess" (1 Pet. 3:15).

I actually have three ways to answer this question, each from a different angle: biographical, rational, and experiential.  I think it's valuable for each of us to be able to articulate honestly why we believe what we believe from each perspective.  Stay tuned.