Monday, December 24, 2007

Why did Jesus got born?

My four-year-old nephew, Liam, has developed a keen interest in the meaning of Christmas this year. He has asked several of us why we celebrate Christmas (no doubt checking the facts in order to make sure that no one has given him a faulty answer), and upon hearing the answer to that question asks why we celebrate Jesus' birth. Not bad questions for a kid in preschool.
A few nights ago, Liam stepped up his questions and asked his dad, "Why did Jesus got born?" My brother kindly told him that he should ask me that question, because I am "good at answering questions like that." This was, no doubt, a compassionate act on my brother's part. He works as a paramedic, and because of his schooling, is capable of saving a person's life in an emergency. I, on the other hand, am now a senior theology student and the only thing I really can do is answer questions like this. Redirecting the question to me is something like asking a toddler to carry the apples into the house while unloading groceries. It one of the few things he really can carry and it makes him feel as if he is doing something.
In accordance with his father's directive, Liam found me in the next room and posed the same question to me, "Uncle Sam, why did Jesus got born?"
As I took a moment to think about how I would answer his question, it occurred to me that this was in fact a huge question, the question. Why was Jesus born? This is the question of the Virgin Birth, the question of the meaning of Christmas, the question of why we celebrate Jesus' birth, the question of the very Incarnation. How could such a profound question come from such a young boy?
As I continued to chew on the question, it occurred to me that explaining Christmas would require me to explain Easter. "Why did Jesus got born?" is the same question as "Why the Incarnation?" I chuckled a little to myself as I reflected on the fact that Liam's question was the same one that St. Anselm of Canterbury devoted a book to answering. His book was even titled similarly: Cur Deus Homo? or Why did God become Man?
Once I had gone through this process of thought, which thankfully happened more quickly than it appears here, I began to attempt an answer for Jesus.

"Well Liam, do you remember celebrating Easter this year?"
"Yeah."
"Do you remember why we celebrate Easter?"
He looked at me with a befuddled expression.
"Well, you have learned about Jesus in Sunday School and from your parents right?"
"Yup."
"And about all the great things He did?"
He nodded.

And then it occurred to me that he might not have ever heard what I was about to tell him. Thoughts shot through my head like darts, "Is he too young to hear this? Will it upset him to much? How will he respond?" I knew, though, that I had to tell him. It was the only way to answer his question, and he needed to know this anyway.

"Well Liam, after Jesus did all those great things, the people got together and, and killed Him."
"They killed Him?"

Liam's grin disappeared and his eyes crinkled as he clearly began to fight back tears. He had never heard this before, or at least he had been too young to understand it when he had heard it. Going on with this would be painful.

"Yeah, Liam. They did kill Him."
Liam fought harder against the tears that were trying to work their way out.
"Why did He die?"
"Hm. Have you ever done anything bad Liam?"
He looked down at the train in his hand, "Yes."
"Me too. Everyone has. Jesus never did though, and when He died He took the punishment that should have been ours for all the bad things we did."
"But! Liam, the great news is why we celebrate Easter. Three days after they killed Him He got back up! He came back to life!"
"He did?! How did He do that?"
"Well, you heard that Jesus is God right? And that Jesus' Dad is God too?"
"Uh huh."
"Well God raised Him from the dead."
He smiled, "That's strange."
"Yes. Yes it is, and great. And that is why Jesus was born. So that He could die for us and come back to life so that we don't have to stay dead when we die."

At this point Liam was satisfied and contentedly returned to playing with his train. In that conversation with a four-year-old, God reminded me of something profoundly important. In fact, God reminded me of the most profoundly important thing in the history of the world. Jesus was born to die and to return to life. The story is so familiar to us that it can lose its impact, but for a brief moment I was reintroduced to the tragedy of Christ's death and the joy of His resurrection through the face of a little boy understanding the Gospel story for the first time. I'll leave off with Philippians 2:5-11, the best Christmas summary of all,

"Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made Himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Sin of the Sober

Recently, I have set myself upon the first five books of the Bible for my personal devotions. I have read these books (also known as the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the Law) before, but feel that it is time to read them again. Beginning in Genesis, my study has been interesting (especially with the accompaniment of the incredible Africa Bible Commentary), but up until now had not been particularly moving. Sometimes, it seems, simple familiarity with passages can cramp their impact upon me.
This changed, however, in reading Genesis 9:18-27. These verses contain a story of Noah, but not that story of Noah. This story takes place after the flood and after God's new covenant with His creation. Somehow (through the Holy Spirit, most likely) this passage jumped off the page to me. In it, Noah plants a vineyard, makes wine from his produce, drinks it until drunk, and passes out naked. His son, Ham, sees his father in his debauched and shameful state and goes off to tell his brothers about it. Shem and Japheth, Noah's other sons, walk in to Noah's tent backwards, so as not to see him in his shame, and cover him with a garment. Upon waking the next morning, and probably while hung over, Noah discovers what had gone on in the night and curses Ham's firstborn son. Clearly, this is the stuff of flannel-graphs.
While this story was familiar to me, it stood out as never before in my most recent reading. It abounds with important themes and lessons (e.g. honoring of parents, the dire consequences of family feuds, the bitter effects of drunkenness, etc.). One lesson in particular stands out among the rest, though. It is a lesson regarding the sin of the sober.
Although Noah's drunkenness stands out in our reading of the story, the sinfulness of his inebriated state does not appear to be the central theme of the passage. Instead, it is the wickedness of Ham's treatment of his drunken father that is most pronounced. This struck me as I realized that the vast majority of Christian literature regarding drunkenness focuses upon the sin involved in intoxication and the need for Christians to abstain from becoming drunk. This is, of course, an incredibly important principle for anyone who follows Christ (though I do not support a ban on drunkenness as a ban on all alcohol consumption). Still, this is not the only principle a Christian should have with regard to intoxication. A sober saint must learn to treat those who are drunk with respect.
Most know through experience or through story that there is a temptation for those who are sober around those who are inebriated to treat them worse than they generally would. This generally involves failing to discourage and sometimes encouraging the drunk person to do foolish things as their inhibitions have been lowered. The mental justification is something along the lines of, "It is their fault if they do what I am telling them to do. It is their decision and it was their decision to become drunk that allowed for it." The thought can be summed up with the words of Cain a few chapters before, "Am I my brother's keeper?" Such an excuse did not go well with God for Cain and will not serve the disciple of Jesus any better, for the answer to Cain's question stands out brilliantly against our ingrained individualism with a resounding "Yes!"
Although it was sinful for the drunk person to place themselves in a state of drunkenness, that in no way diminishes the responsibility of the saint. The drunk person is your brother or sister and you must love them as such. They are more easily taken advantage of, and so you must protect them. They are easily degraded but remain human made in God's image, and so you must respect them and preserve their integrity. They are often sick (or will be soon), and so must be cared for. There is almost no earthly reward for caring for a drunk or hungover person, but perhaps that should drive us to excel in caring for such a person all the more (see here, here, here, and here).
Following Christ entails the avoidance of intoxication, but what a shame it would be if it was defined by such avoidance. Would it not be an even higher example of true faith if Christians were known for their committed care for the drunk? I will end this post with the words of 1 Peter 4:8-10,
"Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling. Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God's grace in its various forms."

Sunday, November 4, 2007

The Priesthood of All Believers (or "Long Live the Laity!")

There is a very subtle and silent temptation present in my own life that I would wager exists in the lives of many people in similar situations to myself. There is an ever-present temptation to somehow think of myself as just a little bit more godly or wise or spiritual than others because I know that I am called to vocational ministry. The temptation is, in fact, quite subtle. It must remain that way if it is to retain its power. If I were to be asked directly whether or not I thought that someone in vocational ministry is necessarily a more godly person than anyone else I would immediately respond with an emphatic "No!" I really do know better.
It is clear in Scripture that all believers are members of a royal priesthood. It is from this principle that we Protestants derive the idea of the "priesthood of all believers," which believes that no Christian has a higher status than any other by simple virtue of an official position within a church.
We also see again and again Jesus commending the faith of "sinners," tax collectors, Gentiles and prostitutes while calling out many religious leaders as utterly unspiritual in the midst of all their obedience, knowledge and ritual.
There is no real justification for this temptation, but then again, such is the nature of temptation. And I will confess, to you, that I have recognized this temptation in myself. Thankfully, this is one of the temptations that is largely vanquished when its presence is realized.
I do not want to lead you to think that your pastor or Bible professor or youth pastor necessarily gives into this temptation nor even that they face it. This ungodly arrogance sits waiting for me to let it in the door, but it would not surprise me if this is not a universal temptation to those in ministry. So please, do not look down on them for this personal admission.
It is of some interest to note what, in particular, helped me come to this realization about myself. The simple truth is that Christian friends of mine who are neither in nor pursuing vocational ministry show me exemplary faith that cannot help but cause me to recognize my own silent sin of pride.
It takes almost no time spent with Dave the elementary school music teacher, Eric the engineering student, my brother Zach the paramedic, or Wes the junior high school teacher to not only be convicted of my arrogance but to have it utterly dashed upon the rocks of reality. In spending time with people like this, I realize that they have a more vibrant faith than myself. Without being paid to do ministry, they are all serving in ministry out of their love for Christ and His Church. They are the Church's most important and impactful evangelists, doing their jobs well and bringing the Good News to those with whom they work.
How, in the presence of such saints, can my pride be left in tact? Thankfully, it simply cannot. Long live the laity!

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Does God favor the poor?

While it is undeniably a common (mis)perception that God favors the rich, that the wealthy are wealthy because they are God's favorite, it seems as if there is a counter-view that sees the poor as being favored by God. On my Christian university campus, this is a fairly common stance and we find it in places such as Rick Warren's The Purpose Driven Life. I must admit that until recently I have subconsciously held to this view as well. After all, aren't the rich generally proud and arrogant? Don't the rich idolatrously worship Money? Are not the rich the oppressors of the poor? Didn't Jesus commend the poor widow instead of the rich men? Are we not commanded to care for the poor and to refuse to show favoritism to the rich? This all made sense until a few weeks ago. Clearly I am commanded to love the poor and recognize that they are just as human and have the same dignity as the rich. Clearly God cares deeply for the poor. Clearly the poor make up the majority of those who worship Jesus. All things considered, however, where do I get the idea that the poor are the favorites of God? Does God have favorites? From my perspective as an Arminian, I believe strongly that God offers salvation and redemption to all human beings, regardless of whether they are rich or poor. From the perspective of my Calvinist brothers and sisters, God unconditionally elects those who are to be saved, meaning that He doesn't even elect them on the basis of being poor because their financial status is no more a condition for salvation than anything else. Jesus commended many poor people, but also commended some who were rich and powerful. Even though the rich young ruler would choose not to follow Christ, we know that Jesus loved him. We are not to show favoritism to the rich, but surprisingly we are not to show favoritism to the poor. In Exodus God even demands the same atonement offering from the rich and the poor. We are commanded to show partiality neither to the rich nor the poor, for doing so either way perverts justice. We are told that when we give to the poor, we are in reality giving to Jesus and storing treasure in Heaven. Why is this is not so when we give to the rich? When we give to the poor, we are giving to those who legitimately are in need and therefore we are fulfilling the law of love. When we give to the rich, we are often doing so in the expectation of receiving something in return: favors, social connections, invitations to events, etc. There is nothing particularly commendable about giving to those who can repay you (although it would be commendable to give something a rich person does need, e.g. a kidney), just as it is not particularly commendable to love your family (which is simply expected) whereas it is to love your enemy or annoying acquaintance. We are told again and again not to show favoritism to the rich, not to lead us to show partiality to the poor, but because our natural sinful tendency is to favor the rich and so the commands address our most common sin. If we are going to oppress anyone, it will generally be the poor and not the rich and so we are commanded with regard to that truth of sinful humanity. Of course we must be generous and care for the poor, but this does not mean that the rich do not matter to Christ. It has been my temptation on nights where my friends and I have spent some time with the homeless in Santa Monica to feel compassion for these poor and contempt for the rich who a few feet away in beach-side condos. I have even felt self-righteous for feeling this way, thinking that in doing so I was cutting myself off from the influence of materialism. This was the case until recently it occurred to me (through helpful insights of my friend, Adam) that Jesus was totally free from the concern of possessions, totally liberated from the chains of Mammon, and that it looked different than my own supposed freedom. Jesus could live and move among the rich and the poor. He could attend an extravagant wedding banquet, dine with Pharisees, and spends days among the masses and nights without a bed on which to lie. He recognized that people came rich and poor, and that their economic status had an impact on who they were, but they were never defined by their wealth or lack thereof in His eyes. He could love and have compassion for the poor in their suffering and the rich in their meaningless pursuit of money. To be like Christ, to be free from the influence of wealth, we cannot simply learn to hate money for in doing so we are simply defined negatively by it. We must become so free that money is simply no longer a concern except when it specifically stands in the way of a person's pursuit of discipleship. The implications of what it means to be a rich Christ-follower are difficult to discern and even more arduous to apply in obedience. We must plunge into these implications and applications, particularly because you and I are "the rich" and are most likely surrounded by communities of "the rich." We must seek to understand what it means to be rich and to be a disciple of Christ, even if in the end it requires us to sell our possessions and give them to the poor. Even in the midst of all this, we cannot allow ourselves to show partiality to the poor anymore than we may be excused for favoring the rich. For, "Rich and poor have this in common: The LORD is the Maker of them all."

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Does God favor the rich?

I met Tony last night in Santa Monica. He was a very interesting man, probably in his late thirties and I talked with him for about an hour and a half. In the midst of our conversation, the topic of wealth and God came up again and again until we finally just addressed it specifically. Tony held that the wealthy are not only blessed but apparently favored by God, that financial provision was a sure sign of a life well-lived. He told me about a couple of pastors he knew and respected, largely due to their luxury cars, fine suits, and palace-like homes. He was particularly impressed with one pastor's house, "in a very nice gated community."
I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Those very traits in a pastor generally turn my stomach. How could he respect these signs of prosperity as clear indications of God's favor and a successful ministry when I see a minister indulging in wealth as a sign that portions of his heart still worship at the altar of Mammon?
If you are like me, you might be disappointed with Tony for his views on God and prosperity, but there is one thing you should know about him before you jump to conclusions: Tony is a homeless man.
The total mass of Tony's earthly possessions can be carried in a backpack and a gunny-sack. Whereas I am a middle-class university student with a general disdain for the pursuit of wealth (ignoring my own consumption, of course), Tony the man without a home sees the wealthy as blessed and favored by God. While I cannot deny that material provision is indeed a blessing from God, I cannot justify tying it to God's special favor.
I talked with Tony about the story of Job whom God loved so deeply and yet was so severely afflicted. We talked about Jesus who spent time with both the rich and the poor. We discussed the God-in-flesh Who had no place to call home.
At the end, I think both of our perspectives had changed a bit, but I am not yet sure what to make of it.

Monday, October 1, 2007

Theology: is there a point?

I assume that it is fairly obvious to anyone who might read my blog that I am a theology major. I love theology and I study it. Recently, though, I have been reflecting on what being a theologian entails.
My two passions are to pastor and to one day train pastors, which has an impact on my view of theology. In my view, theology is at its best when it ascertains truths about Who God is and what His interaction with humanity is like, and when it is able to communicate these truths to all believers and help them to apply these truths within their own lives.
This view on theology drives me to generally have little use for innovative theology. It seems as if the truths of God have been revealed through Jesus Christ and Scripture, and that the task of theology is to discern these truths that are already present and to unpack their implications and meaning. In order to do this, we study Scripture well while begging God for the guidance of His Holy Spirit and we also look to Christians who have gone before us for wisdom in how exactly to unpack these truths.
Because I believe that God has maintained His Church on the earth since the time of Pentecost, I have got to believe that good theology has existed on the planet for about 1,970 years. I must assume that I can find good theology in the writings of such historical figures as Irenaeus, Athanasius, Augustine, John Chrysostom, Gregory the Great, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Wesley, etc. The truth about God and His interaction with mankind has not changed since the inception of the Church, and so I expect the truth to be found in all ages of the Church. Real, radical innovation seems as if it must be a departure from the truth because it is a departure from that which the Church has maintained throughout her history.
Fortunately, what often seems to be radical new theology is often simply a re-appropriation of some of the most ancient and valued theology in the Church. This is not always the case, though, and theology is sometimes pursued for the sake of the truly new. God is infinitely multi-faceted and there will never be an end to our ability to learn more about Him and to know Him better and more intimately, but new insights into His character that contradict the ancient orthodox and Scriptural insights into His character cannot be true if the old beliefs were also true.
Of course, when we read ancient theologians we are reading words that were at one point the most cutting-edge theological works around. Still, it appears that when these seminal works are written, they are not written out of a desire to pursue new things but instead out of the desire to learn and appropriate ancient truths about God.
With all of this in mind, my vision for a great theologian is the theologian who (1) knows God intimately and also knows true things about Him, (2) is familiar and well-marinated in Scripture and the interpretations of Scripture seen through the history of the Church, and (3) is capable of delivering these truths to all believers and helping to apply them to the context of real life. In doing this, a theologian may develop something somewhat new (such as a new allegory or analogy to explain a bit of theology) or incorporate old truths in a new way (such as bringing greater clarity to the different Scriptural views on how exactly Christ conquered sin on the cross), but the pursuit is not for invention and innovation but truth and more importantly the Truth.
As I give this more thought, I will undoubtedly uncover myriad reasons for the pursuit of new avenues in theology and I have not given other approaches to theology a fair hearing. For the present, though, I will make this admonition of failure and leave it at that.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Thanks, I guess

I do not have much time this week to write for pleasure, but there is one thing worth taking a moment to discuss. In the midst of a stressful few days of studying and finishing big assignments, God has taught me a little something about thankfulness. My roommates and I are all jam-packed at the moment, which means the apartment is falling into disrepair. Looking at the overflowing pile of dishes in the sink, my thoughts somehow drifted from annoyance to a sort of thankfulness that we apparently had enough to eat and enough support to have too many dishes.
Walking to class yesterday, it dawned on me that I was thankful for class. Class now serves as a respite from homework.
In the midst of my homework it occurred to me that I am being given the chance to attain an better education than 99% of humans have ever enjoyed. Not only that, but my studies are all in subjects that I want to learn.
Let's not say that I am "too blessed to be stressed." I am indeed blessed, but still fallen enough to be stressed. It does cast a different tint on the world, though, to see things through eyes of thanksgiving.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Social Distortion

Do you have a MySpace or a Facebook? I do. One of each, to be honest. The fact of the matter is that you probably do as well, which means that you should read this article (which I was directed to by this blog). In it, Christine Rosen takes a fairly in depth look at the consequences that these sites have on the people who participate in them.
The article does not just speak of the dangers associated with the sites, but reading about the dangers gave me cause to pause. In my freshman year of college, especially, a large part of my life was dominated by Facebook. "Did that person I met in class friend me yet?" "Do I have any new wall posts?" "I need to look up that person I just met, to see what kind of books they like."
Fortunately, I am no longer there, but I do still check my Facebook daily and my MySpace (is "my MySpace" redundant?) whenever I get an e-mail telling me that I have a new message or comment. I could develop an argument for the benefits of these sites, but I am not sure I would believe it. For instance, I appreciate that they help me to keep in touch with others, but if my "keeping in touch" with those people is only through Facebook or MySpace is it really worth it? Were humans meant to have those kinds of relationships with one another?
As the article insightfully points out the sites, "encourage users to check in frequently, “poke” friends, and post comments on others’ pages. They favor interaction of greater quantity but less quality."
Greater quantity but less quality. Exactly. It is nice, when your birthday rolls around, to get 30 or so "Happy Birthdays," but they do not mean that much. Both Facebook and MySpace notify your friends when you have a birthday coming up. This results in more well-wishes but you cannot know whether or not any of your friends would have actually remembered had it not been for electronic updates.
I really just hope to raise these questions, not to necessarily answer them. I have no radical plans of cancelling my accounts on these sites. I really do value the benefits enough that I am not at a point where it seems advantageous to leave the networks. Still, I will have to work through these next few weeks whether or not I am distorting my view of human interaction by participating in these "communities." Perhaps you should, as well.
At the very least, we should refuse to neglect in any way pursuing communion with the Triune God and with our brothers and sisters. Let's focus more on our friends and less on our "Friends."

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Sacred and the Secular

I am currently taking a church history seminar focusing on the history of the Church in the United States. We are looking at the Puritans at the moment, and they are a thoroughly interesting people. They are generally nothing like the stereotypical image we receive through history classes and reading "The Scarlet Letter" or "The Crucible." I find myself admiring these people and being astonished at the impact that their practices and beliefs have had on the contemporary church in America. One of these influences stems from their view on the sacred and the secular. Unlike the Roman Catholic church on the European continent which tended to highlight somethings such as the sacraments and the altar as sacred, the Puritans held a view in which all things were sacred. They expected to meet God in their milk-barns just as they met him in their church buildings. They saw the opportunity for household chores to be acts of worship. God created all things, and so all things were sacred.
Reading this brief bit of Puritan history sparked my interest because I have grown into my faith in a way that has seen all things as sacred, undoubtedly an influence being exerted on me by some of America's earliest colonists. By and large I truly appreciate this view because it places so many things in the proper context. It assures me that when I especially feel God's presence while camping I am truly being pointed to the Creator by sacred creation. It reminds me that in the midst of my mundane tasks and responsibilities, I can choose to do them in such a way that they will be transformed into the worship of almighty God. It helps me to look at the Church and see the priesthood of all believers. It provides the framework within which every moment can be a holy moment, consecrated by the God of the universe.
To say that this view is wholly positive, however, seems to miss some of its propensities toward error. For instance, I am tempted to look at Easter Sunday and ask why it is so important to celebrate the Lord's resurrection that day. After all, that day is no more holy than any other day and I should be celebrating the resurrection of Christ every day. Unfortunately, this is unrealistic and gives me more credit than I am due. Perhaps some people could live up to this ideal, but I find it extremely difficult to truly celebrate the resurrection every day. There are some days, sadly, where the thought of that history-changing event never enters my mind. I am not capable of living as if every day is Easter. For this reason, I will try to return to a full-blown celebration of the resurrection on Easter Sunday. I am not giving up on celebrating my God's victory over death every day, but I do not want to be robbed of the one day in particular in which I should give my thoughts and energy to that event.
Similarly, my view of the Lord's Supper is not that of the good Catholic*. Although I also do not hold the bread and wine to be strictly symbolic and commemorative, my innate tendency is generally to view them as only representational. In that sense I might truly say that I hold the bread and wine of communion to be no more sacred than any other food. Unfortunately, in my commitment to the sacredness of all food I have given up the special sacredness of the elements of the Lord's Supper. In this way I easily convert it into a simple ritual and remove its transformative qualities.
This last example stems from the Christian culture that I am immersed in. In my circles it is no longer allowed to refer to the musical part of the church service as "worship." If you do so, it will quickly be pointed out that "everything is worship" and that we are denying our constant high calling to continuous worship by referring to that one time a week as worship. There is undoubtedly truth to this and I appreciate the sentiments represented by such gentle chastisements, but I think that they fail to live up to their spirit. Surely everything I do should be an act of worship, but this is simply not true of my life. Even at my best, when I am doing my homework as an act of worship, it is worship of a different quality. No doubt it is still an important and valuable form of worship, but my studies are done for various reasons. In singing at church, I really approach one of the few times in the week in which I am solely dedicating myself to the worship and contemplation of God. If I do the dishes for God, great, but whether or not I do them for God it is necessary that they be done. If my worship in church is not done for God then nothing of any value has been produced. I see no problem with referring to this act as "worship" as it is likely the most dedicated worship I offer to my Lord all week.
I do not reject the Puritan ideal of all things being sacred. I do not know how I could dispute that point. It does seem that a danger lies in not recognizing some things as more sacred, though, or perhaps the danger lies solely in the actual results often produced by such a view. Generally, when we point out that all things are sacred, we do not do so in a positive manner. We do not point out on Tuesday, "Today is a sacred day, let us dedicate ourselves to the Lord." Instead on Sunday we say, "Today is no more sacred than any other day; do not superstitiously treat it differently."
In Disney's "The Incredibles" Helen Parr tells her son Dash that everyone is special, to which he replies, "Which is another way of saying no one is." In the same way, it seems that in recognizing all things as sacred, we risk producing a worldview in which nothing is.

*For those not familiar with the theological positions on communion, Catholics believe in what is known as "transubstantiation." This position holds that when the bread and wine (known as "the host" or "the elements") are consecrated in Mass they actually become the real body and blood of Christ, although they still appear to be bread and wine to the senses. Protestant views tend to be "consubstantiation," "spiritual presence," and "symbolic." Consubstantiation holds that the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but are infused with the presence of God just as a piece of metal in a fire remains a piece of metal but is infused with the heat and the light of the fire. Spiritual presence is similar and holds that in some way God is active in the act of taking communion. The symbolic view holds that the bread and wine are strictly memory aids that remind us of what Christ did for us on the cross.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

September 13


Today is a great day in the calendar of the Church as well as in my personal calendar. Most personally, today we celebrate my sister's birthday, just as we celebrated my sister-in-law's birthday. They are both outstanding, and are hands-down two of my favorite women in the entire world. They are both well-worth celebrating, and you would be wise to join in.
If you do not think that you will be able to join that celebration, however, then join me in celebrating the feast day of one of my four favorite saints: St. John Chrysostom. St. John was one of those few characters in the history of the church who brought no scandal on himself or on the church. He undoubtedly continued to sin throughout his life as we all do, but he was an excellent example of a servant of God. Being an amazingly gifted speaker, he earned the nickname Chrysostom which means "golden-mouthed." He had studied for law but decided to instead use his gift for the building up of the church. He was made Patriarch of Constantinople against his will, gained fame throughout Christendom for his gift and yet remained humbly devoted to the glory of God. He was twice banished from Constantinople, the first time on trumped-up and untrue charges of treason. After much protest by the people who loved him, he was restored to his post. He would later be exiled permanently for a sermon in which he commented on the excesses of a statue of the Empress, which had been greatly distorted and inflated by the time it reached her ears. While exiled, St. John kept up correspondence through letters with his church, continuing to love and care for it. He would finally be martyred by being forcibly marched through the mountains until he died of exhaustion. He is today remembered as one of the four great Doctors of the Church.
St. John Chrysostom is well worth looking to as a model for Christian discipleship and I encourage you to celebrate his feast day today. Let us give thanks to God for providing the Church with such a gifted and humble servant. You should also check out this site, which provides a more comprehensive story of his life and access to some of his outstanding sermons.

Monday, September 10, 2007

What am I "Ghana" do?







I posted a while back in my pre-emptive blog that I would soon be posting on a "God possibly telling me something about Ghana." You could consider this the fulfillment of that promise. The story is best told long, so you are forewarned.



If you have ever checked out my brother's blog, you are probably aware that he has really felt a calling on his life in the area of medical missions. The short version of his story is that he is currently working as a paramedic, would like to start doing short-term medical missions, and I believe keeps the thought of full-time medical missions in the back of his head for the future. Africa is especially on his heart and particularly the region of Ghana and Togo in Western Africa. He has been talking about this with me since the beginning and gave me at least one book by missionaries in Ghana, which I devoured in about a day. It was all really fascinating; I was and still am terribly excited for what God is doing and plans to do in the life of my brother and his family.



Now for a bit of background on myself. In my freshman year of high school, I recognized a call to vocational ministry on my life, at the same time as 4 of my best friends. As time went by, I began to discern that my two primary spiritual gifts are teaching and preaching and that my heart beats for the church. With this in mind, and many other things as well, I began dreaming about being involved in pastoral ministry here in the United States. My hope was to plant a church, pastor that church for life, plant other churches out of that church's growth, and one day when I had acquired enough wisdom to raise up, train and disciple future pastors in that church. I say this as if this just was my dream, which is not entirely true. It really was, but in some ways it still is.


Before we continue with the story, there is one more factor that should be included. Around the time of my call to ministry, I offered myself fully to God. My prayer specifically stated that no matter where He called me, I would go. I offered to go overseas if that was what He had for me. At the time, I felt that He was pleased with that offer, but felt no prompting toward overseas work. This prayer would be repeated several times in the years since then and never would I feel as if I was in fact called to leave the United States.


Fast-forward now to May of this year. After reading the book on Ghana loaned to me by my brother, I started day-dreaming about one day serving in Africa, and particularly the area of Ghana and Togo. I did not expect anything to ever come of that dream, but couldn't stop thinking about it.


Two or three other factors come into play here. The first is that I have been reading Philip Jenkin's "The Next Christendom," which projects where the Church will be statistically in about 50 years if things continue as they currently are (a gutsy proposition no doubt, considering the Holy Spirit is intricately involved in the life of the Church). The projection of this book, however, states that 50 years from now, there will no longer be a global center of the church in North America. There will instead be three centers of the Church in Africa, South America and South-East Asia, with Africa serving as the primary center. There will still be a strong and thriving church in North America, but Africa in particular will be the most influential sector of the global Church, producing literature, theology and missionaries.


Although there are still unreached groups of people within Africa, the continent is presently in a different situation with regard to the Gospel than it once was. Africa (especially sub-Saharan Africa) is full of passionate, believing Christians. Two things are in shorter supply on the continent, though: finances and theological education. Some churches (by no means the majority however) are repeating old heresies, simply because their leaders have not had the opportunity for theological education.


As I was thinking about this and day-dreaming about serving in Africa, it dawned on me that my gifts and passions could coincide perfectly with the need in that continent. Thinking about one of my professors who regularly travels to Sudan for the summer to teach seminary classes, it occurred to me that I could serve as a full-time seminary professor in Africa. I could have the chance to teach, train and equip the upcoming leaders of the African Church. I could spend time with them, investing in their lives, and discipling them. My favorite topic within theology, Church History or Historical Theology, would be incredibly useful for educating the up-and-coming pastors about the precedents set by the Church, the examples of those who have gone before us, and the development of orthodox theology. I could be used to help shape the future leaders of the global Church for God's purposes. I really have none of the qualifications for such a task, but if God has called me He will qualify me. He used a stuttering Moses to lead His people to freedom; He used the runt of the litter, David, to serve as the best king Israel ever saw; He used the child Jeremiah to speak His mind to an adulterous nation; He used fishermen and tax-collecting traitors to establish His kingdom on the earth. As my pastor says, "God does not call the equipped but equips the called."


Still, at that point, it was still just something my thoughts continually turned to. I did not really expect anything to come of it. That began to change in August.


My church at home is non-denominational, but belongs to a community of churches (called Grace Covenant) across the country who have come together for fellowship, accountability, mutual support, and the support of new church plants and missions. Grace Covenant holds a few meetings a year, one of which takes place at my home church in Oakdale. I always look forward to the conference and was excited for this year's, especially as I somehow expected to hear something about this African dream.


The first night of the conference the founder of Grace Covenant, a man named Dallas, began the service by introducing another man to all of us. There were several faces from out of town, pastors from other Grace Covenant churches whom I recognized, but thankfully he was introducing the one man I did not know. Dallas explained that this man, Frank, had no actual connection to Grace Covenant whatsoever. He was in the United States for an extended trip, visiting a few churches across the country, and somehow stumbled upon the Grace Covenant website. Frank had gotten in touch with Dallas for some reason he did not really know and was invited to come to the conference if he wanted to. Frank, in Portland, Oregon at the time delayed his trip to Florida by a few days and headed down to Oakdale for the conference.


Dallas explained that Frank is actually Pastor Frank (really though, Bishop Frank). Frank hails from Kumasi, the second largest city of Ghana. He oversees more than twenty churches, two schools for more than 600 children and a vocational training school for teenage girls.


All of this was fascinating, I thought, but the next thing Dallas said would rock me. "Frank has a heart to start a training school pastors in Ghana, as well."


I actually had the nerve to think to myself, "Maybe this is why he is here."


I waited impatiently for the next two hours for the service to end so that I could get a chance to talk with Pastor Frank. When I finally introduced myself to him, I sat down and explained what had been on my heart, to which his first reply was, "Maybe this is why I am here."


He went on to tell me that this is currently the most pressing desire for him, that he hopes to start this training school and through it plant churches all over Ghana, but also throughout the continent of Africa. He explained that he hopes people might come internationally to teach there, as well. I couldn't believe it.


I told him about my brother's heart for Ghana as well and his desire to begin doing short-term medical missions. My brother was the one who got me thinking about Ghana. Frank told me that he had just met people at a church in New York who were planning on bringing out a medical mission sometime in the next year. He invited my brother and I to come out sometime in the upcoming year; my brother could work alongside the other medical missionaries and I could spend the time with Frank, seeing what he does and learning about his vision. From what I know so far, he sounds like exactly the kind of man I would like to learn from.


This brings me close to the present. I do not know if God is calling me to full-time service teaching and training pastors in Ghana, but I hope He is. If you know me, you likely know that I have at other times thought that I might be led to Alaska, Texas and Utah. Thus, I am now a little (but just a little) gun-shy about claiming to be called to a specific place. Things might change and if God leads me in a completely different direction I will gladly follow. Still, this is what is happening, and I think that God may finally be cashing in on my offer to go anywhere for Him. And I really hope that He is.

Them

Do you know any people that just seem to make you feel a bit more alive? I am not talking about family members or even close friends; they are the people who keep you alive. They are of the utmost importance in life, but I am not talking about them because their very familiarity rules them out from being in this special class of people. Friends and family members probably would have been or once were these people for you, but they cannot be any longer because simply becoming accustomed to them is enough to dull you to the full effect of their presence. Trust me, the fault is not theirs but your own. We take things for granted, and we pay the price for it.
No, the people I am talking about are most likely people whom you know and see every six months or once a year. Perhaps you have only spent time with them once. But if you have any of these people, you know it.
These are the people that make you feel comfortable in your own skin. When you leave them, you thank God for convening your paths. You walk away with a bit more hope for the world, a bit more faith in the fact that the Holy Spirit really is at work. You are glad that they are going to be raising children. You hope that you can be this sort of person too, so that others can benefit from your simple presence.
I have quite a few of these people, and undoubtedly more waiting in the future. I have worked with them at camp, I have sat in their classes, I have visited them in their homes, I have met them in my church. Sometimes I will even recognize those who are most familiar to me as carrying this spark. Once or twice my eyes have been opened to see it in a stranger.
I love these people. I want to be one of these people.

"Sharks Moving to New Jersey" or Newsletters Sent Before Consideration


Please forgive me, but this blog will have nothing to do with theology or the faith. I just received this e-mail (on the right) from the San Jose Sharks fan newsletter. Read what you can of it first, then continue reading my writing.
Really, read the e-mail first.
Really.
Ok, I assume that you have read it, otherwise you are really spoiling this for yourself. You will no doubt have noticed that the SHARKS are MOVING TO NEW JERSEY! When I read that, my heart skipped a beat, my stomach turned over, my palms grew sweaty. MY Sharks are leaving San Jose for New Jersey? This cannot be! I quickly read the rest of the message and came to discover that the Sharks are not in fact leaving the West for the East Coast, but are simply going to begin wearing their new jersey with the updated logo. Exciting, but not frightening. I cannot help but think that the poor phrasing of this e-mail scared many a fan.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Good Books = Good Times

Classes begin tomorrow and I picked up my books for the semester. I am really excited about them, so I thought I would share what I will be reading for the next four months. Feel free to read along!

"Philosophical Fragments and Johannes Climacus" by Soren Kierkegaard
"On Job: God-talk and the Suffering of the Innocent" by Gustavo Gutierrez
"The Humanity of God" by Karl Barth
"The Churching of America" by Roger Finke and Rodney Stark
"After Christendom" by Stanley Hauerwas
"The Gray Wolf" by George MacDonald
"Jesus Christ for Today's World" by Jurgen Moltmann
"The Civil War as a Theological Crisis" by Mark Noll
"A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada" by Mark Noll
"Studies in the Sermon on the Mount" by Oswald Chambers
and
"Windows into Old Testament History" edited by V. Philips Long, David W. Baker and Gordon J. Wentham.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Moved In and Coming Home

Well, I am all moved in back at school. The moving-in process is responsible in the delay since my last post, but really, the last post was long enough to make up for a couple of weeks.
A mildly interesting thought on moving in:
When I return to my hometown and house over Christmas and for the summer, I have a definite sense of coming home. As I come down the Grapevine heading north and see the large expanses of land without buildings cluttering the horizon, I know that I am headed home. As I continue north and pass through miles and miles of agriculture, recognizing the crops from the smell and the sight, seeing tractors dotting the fields, I feel as if I am almost there. When I finally pull into my driveway, open the front door, smell the smell of my own house (which I can only smell after being gone for a good period), hear my dog's jingling collar as he jumps up to my chest, and hug my parents, I know that I am home and it is good.
Oddly enough, in a different way I now feel as if I am coming home when I return to Azusa. How is it possible for two places to both feel like home? How is it possible to feel the pain of leaving one home only to experience the joy of returning to my other home a few hours later?
I have these experiences about four times a year: moving into my Azusa quarters in the Fall, coming home to Oakdale for Christmas, returning to Azusa after the Christmas break, and returning to Oakdale for the summer. Four times a year my thoughts are especially given to Heaven. As I make these homecomings, I reflect on the fact that when the time comes for this life to end, that it will be no mere euphemism to say that I "have been called home." Although the New Heavens and the New Earth in the total presence of God, His angels, and His people will in some ways be an alien thing, I believe that it will also be the fullest experience of coming home. I will feel as if I have finally made it back to a place that I have never been before. I will reach the very place that I was created for.
The writer of Hebrews lays out this principle in regards to God's faithful disciples,

"All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on the earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country--a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared a city for them."
-Hebrews 11:13-16.

How great is that promise made by the Lord Himself,

"In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am."

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Ye Olde Sin Nature

St. Paul's epistle to the Romans has always been one of my favorite books of the Bible, for both its incredible insight and its ability to deal with the tension between the new spiritual nature and the old sin nature within every Christian this side of Heaven. Paul pulls no punches but deals with the matter head-on, confessing that this struggle also takes place in his own life. His words are sometimes almost paradoxical.

"If we have been united with [Christ] like this in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection. For we know that our old self was crucified with Him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin--because anyone who has died has been freed from sin."
-Romans 6:5-7
and
"In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus. Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer the parts of your body to sin, as instruments of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God, as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer the parts of your body to him as instruments of righteousness."
-Romans 6:11-13

Paul writes again and again of the Christian's victory over sin, that we have been set free from sin, that the sinful nature has been killed. He also commands us not to submit ourselves to sin as our master, to daily kill our sin nature, and to offer ourselves to God and not to sin.
I have often struggled with the idea of Christians still having a sin nature. When we commit our lives to Jesus the Holy Spirit takes up residence within us and births a new holy nature. We are born again into God's family. We become adopted children of God. We become ambassadors for Christ. We are finally enabled to refuse our sinful nature and to live holy lives. Why, then, must we still have a sinful nature at all, the old flesh*?
It occurred to me a few days ago that there may be a very good reason for still having the sinful nature. While Scripture is clear that I am made new through the work of the Holy Spirit, I often miss that I am made new. God is birthing a new creation within me. My new nature is of course a new creation, but it is also a continuation of me. Paul's discourse on the resurrection in 1 Corinthians provides insight here:

"So will it be with the resurrection of the dead. The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body."
-1 Corinthians 15:42-44
and
'I declare to you, brothers, that flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable. Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: "Death has been swallowed up in victory." '
-1 Corinthians 15:50-54

Just as our resurrection bodies are described as being the same as our mortal bodies, but different, we too are the same people, but different. Although I am a sinful man, I am still God's good creation. God did right in creating me, but I have been severely marred by sin. It is clear in Scripture that God could have simply destroyed His fallen creation and made a new one, but instead He is graciously redeeming and recreating that which has fallen so that it will be better than it was to begin with. Thus, God does not desire to simply destroy us but to birth His life within us. Our old selves must die, but only so we can truly live.
All of this has been the build up to why we might still have our old natures. God is in the process of conforming us to the image of His Son, sanctifying us and bringing us into submission to His will. He wants each of us, individually, to be all His. He does not simply want to destroy His older, good but marred creation, but to make that creation new. We still have our old nature because that too needs to be transformed into the new nature if we are to be completely transformed. It is as if God painted a perfect picture, which has now been marred almost to the point of being beyond recognition. God could have simply thrown it away and painted a new one, but instead He is restoring it better than ever on the same canvas.
Our old self must be put to death, but like a seed being planted, it does not die for the sake of dying, but so that it might be born anew.
Why do I still have a sin nature? Perhaps because it has not yet been returned to God, but must be returned to God.

*Remembering that we as Christians do not think of spirit as good and material things as evil, the "flesh" refers not to our bodies but to our sinful nature. Spirit can be bad (i.e. demons) and physical things can be very good (i.e. Genesis 1:31).

Pre-emptive Blog

I don't know if it is proper to write a blog preview about possible upcoming blogs, but in this blog we push the envelope and take things to the limit by doing so. Watch out: I'm a loose-cannon blogger who doesn't play by the rules.
I need to go to bed, but I also want to post a blog, but I also do not currently have the mental capacity to compose a blog worth reading, so here is a taste of what may be coming soon.
!!! Thoughts on why Christians still have a sin nature !!!
God potentially telling me something about Ghana?!?!
~Whether or not there is such a thing as "The American Church."~
---What theological justification I have for disbelieving in rational alien life forms---
And more...

(The term "blog" is used nine times in this blog, if you count the three instances of "blog" in this final sentence).

Saturday, August 18, 2007

On a Church Sign


I just found a site (with the help of AOL) that allows you to generate your own church sign. They have five different sign designs to choose from and the lettering is up to you. Please, though, only use this power for good.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Prisoner of the Law

Galatians 3:21-25 reads (with the emphasis belonging to myself for this post):

"Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.
Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law."

There seems to always be a struggle in reconciling the relationship between the law and grace through faith. The questions arises again and again, "If the law could not save anyone, what good was it?" Of course, at some points Paul points out that the law helps us to understand just how sinful we are, and leads us to the need of a Savior, but at the same time makes our sins more sinful by removing our potential plea of ignorance.
The above passage, though, seems to give one more little glimpse into the role of the law. It jumped out at me a couple of days ago when I realized that it actually says we were held prisoners by the law, locked up by the law until faith was revealed. Of course the Bible says again and again that we were prisoners of sin, which is clearly a bad thing, but I had never noticed that we were once prisoners of the law. The law is always considered to be a good thing in Scripture. What does this mean to say that we were prisoners of the law?
It occurred to me (which I believe was inspiration from the Holy Spirit) that being in prison is not necessarily a horrible thing. It is clearly not the best thing, but it is also not the worst. Consider the modern penal system:
We place criminals in prison partly to punish them, but also to keep them from committing any more crimes. If we could somehow instantly reform them we would not have the need to keep them imprisoned for so long, although we still might for a while for purely punitive measures. If we have no way to reform them, though, the best option we have is to restrain them so that they might not do their worst again.
We, as humans, were in a similar situation. We were depraved sinners, constantly acting out the wickedness stored up in our hearts. For so long, there was really no means of reform. There was nothing that could change us internally from our criminal and sinful state and so we were given the Law as a means to restrain us from our wickedness. The Law was powerless to reform us, it was helpless in regards to making us into good and righteous people, but it was an effective external restraint that held us back from doing our very worst, or at least made it clear when we crossed the boundary lines.
When Christ came, we were able for the first time to be released from the prison of the Law, because there was now One who could reform us. We no longer were in need of the external restraints because One who could heal us internally had come.

"Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death."

Friday, August 10, 2007

The Patriarchs weren't Pansies

I spent the past two days helping my brother and his family move. I could really end this post right there and you would understand, but I won't.
Moving stinks. Even when it's not really that much stuff. Even when the move is only three miles. Even when you are the one moving and you get to go sleep in a fully-assembled bed at night. Even when the people you are helping are nice the whole time and don't yell at you for doing things the wrong way. Moving stinks.
The whole moving thing got me thinking, though. I was only helping other people move a relatively small amount of stuff three miles for two days with the assistance of trucks, dollies and hand-trucks, and it was not terribly fun.
The fathers of the faith had it much harder. Take Abraham for instance. As a 75 year-old man, he recognized the call of God on his life, packed up his wife and servants and set out to travel hundreds of mile by foot. Being a wealthy man, he also had herds of livestock to keep moving along with his possessions. God promised him a land, but he passed away without really having a home. Abraham moved perpetually in order to gain a homeland for his descendants, and basically died while on the move. All that in order to follow God.
Moses, Joshua and the rest of the Israelites were kept in a perpetual state of moving as well, for 40 years. Of course, it was a punishment for idolatry, but what a punishment! They bore the punishment though, for the sake of their children inheriting the Promised Land.
The Apostle Paul, once he took up his missionary call, was constantly moving from place to place. I doubt that he had many possessions, and he did manage to stay in Ephesus for three years, but beyond that he had no home and was constantly moving so that others might inherit the Kingdom of God.
When we read the stories of these patriarchs, we do so in the matter of a few minutes and we completely miss the struggle and toil they put forth year after year. They struggled and waited and suffered for the sake of following God. I'd like to say I could do that, but compared to those guys I am a pansy.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Abuse and the Sin Cycle

Recently, I have met several men who have unintentionally set me on a course of learning what appears to be an invaluable, and yet remarkably painful, lesson. Getting to know these guys, I learned that several of them had common experiences growing up in abusive homes. Coming from a healthy and loving family background, it was surprising to have faces applied to the statistics of abuse that we have all heard about. I would never have guessed that something like child abuse could be so prevalent, or that these guys had that in their background, no matter how removed from those situations they now are. They all now carry within themselves a sort of hatred and bitterness toward their fathers and stepfathers, to the extent that they have not seen them in years and feel as if they would attack their former attackers if they ever did encounter them again. Whether or not they would act on this wrath I do not know, but the fact that they carry such anger around is meaningful in itself. Some of these guys have already emotionally hurt people around them, no doubt in some part related to their own experiences of being hurt. It seems fair to guess, both from anecdotal and statistical knowledge, that the men who originally abused these men were at one point abused themselves. The majority of people who were abused as children do not go on to abuse others themselves, but it is estimated that 80% of those who do abuse their children were themselves the victims of abuse. A person who suffered abuse is more likely to abuse others than a person who was not, and any person who abuses others was likely abused themselves.
This does not mean, of course, that we can simply write off a person's culpability for abusing others simply because they once suffered the same treatment. As humans, we are given free will and are responsible for our actions.
None of this is really the point that I am hoping to make, though, or the lesson that I am learning. What I am learning is that severe ramifications follow our actions. So many of us (myself included) are incredibly individualistic. No matter what we say, we see the world revolving around ourselves and are motivated by selfish ambition. We behave foolishly and sinfully and claim that at most it hurts no one but ourselves. We fool ourselves into thinking that we live in self-contained little bubbles, so that our actions never affect anyone but ourselves. Either that, or we simply do not care how our actions might affect others. The truth is that our every action, including private and secret actions, actions done within the privacy of our own homes and our own families, have consequences for the whole world that we cannot predict.
When my friend's mother first started experimenting with drugs in high school, she was only hurting herself, or so she thought. Now, years down the line, as a result of her addiction her son has to be raised by extended family members who cannot allow her to come by the house because when she does she steals from them in order to buy her next high. His father, too, made the selfish decision to fornicate at one point, which was just between him and my friend's mother. It was just between them except that she conceived and gave birth to my friend who now struggles to find any value in himself because he was raised without the father who abandoned the mother of his child.
In the end of Stephen Chbosky's The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie struggles with the revelation that he had been abused by his Aunt Helen as a young child. His words speak well to these situations:
"It's like if I blamed my Aunt Helen, I would have to blame her dad for hitting her and the friend of the family that fooled around with her when she was little. And the person that fooled around with him... And I did do that for a while, but then I just couldn't anymore. Because it wasn't going anywhere. Because it wasn't the point." (p. 211).
It is a biblical truth that sons are not to be held responsible for the sins of their fathers and that fathers are not to be held responsible for the sins of their sons. At the same time, it is also clear that the sins of the fathers are likely to reappear as the sins of their sons. I do not know why sins tend to passed on. Whether something is transmitted from soul to soul, whether there is some genetic predisposition, whether the enemy tends to tempt father and son in the same way, whether the sins are a learned behavior, or whether parts of all of these are true, it does not matter. It is simply true that the same sins tend to be repeated generation after generation.
What does that mean for you and me? Among other things, it means that our every action has serious consequences. Our little indulgences, our secret sins, our vices that we think impact only ourselves and those closest to us have the potential to cause enormous harm. Little does a young man beginning to enjoy drunkenness realize that he may be on the path to one day having four generations of alcoholics following in his footsteps.
Galatians 6:7-8 says,
"Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction; the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life."
Our thoughts, words and deeds are always sowing some sort of seed. We cannot remain neutral. We are either sowing sin or righteousness, one which will one day reap a harvest of destruction and one which will reap eternal life. Our current deeds will return later on in the midst of our careers, marriages, families and relationships.
Up until this point, this (very long) post has focused mainly on the negative, but there is hope. We might ask, "How can we escape this cycle of sin, abuse, pain and death?" Or, we might echo the question of St. Paul, "What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"
Thankfully, he answers that question in the next line: "Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!"
When we come to Christ and put our lives in His hands; when we accept both His salvation and His lordship in our lives; when we recognize that we have no righteousness of our own and accept His as He offers it; when we hand Him the broken pieces of our lives and ask Him to make them into something beautiful; when we ask Him to take the seeds of destruction that we have sown and to somehow transform them into a harvest of life; when we ask that His righteousness be planted within us in such a way that we will become truly righteous, it is then that we can be set free from this cycle of sin.
Titus 2:11-14 says,
"For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say "No" to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good."
The grace of God brings us salvation and teaches us to live godly lives!
Exodus 20:4-6 tells us that while the sins of the fathers may be passed on to the third and fourth generation, God shows His love to a thousand generations of descendants of those who love Him and keep His commandments. We have the severe potential to bring great harm to the world, but by placing our lives in the hands of the Son of God we have the glorious potential to do immense good for the whole world.
Joel 2:25-26 gives this promise to those who repent of their sins and turn to God:
"I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—the great locust and the young locust, the other locusts and the locust swarm—my great army that I sent among you. You will have plenty to eat, until you are full, and you will praise the name of the LORD your God, who has worked wonders for you; never again will my people be shamed."
Up until this point, we may have been sowing sin for a harvest of destruction. Up until now, the years of our lives, so full of potential, may have been devoured by the locusts of sin and folly. But God is far greater than our sins and has dealt with them on the cross. He can, and will, restore those years to us, producing a harvest of life far greater than what has been destroyed.
Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Running away from God

As I was driving back from junior camp this past Saturday, I confided in my friend Dustin a (perhaps) startling truth that I have not experienced God's presence in musical worship more than once or twice in the past couple of years. Earlier in my life it was uncommon for me to sing along with my church without being ushered in to meet God, but things have reversed themselves. I still meet God in Bible study and prayer, but even there not quite as much as I once did. Dustin seemed fairly nonplussed about this admission, but actually saying it took me by surprise.
Two days later, I was reading through Bonhoeffer's "The Cost of Discipleship" which is simply rich in truth through and through. If you are familiar with the book, you know that one of Bonhoeffer's primary arguments is that the Church has in many ways watered down the Gospel to cheap grace. This argument is powerful, but one particular section of chapter two The Call to Discipleship was gripping me. It reads as follows:

"Are you worried because you find it so hard to believe? No one should be surprised at the difficulty of faith, if there is some part of his life where he is consciously resisting or disobeying the commandment of Jesus. Is there some part of your life which you are refusing to surrender at His behest, some sinful passion, maybe, or some animosity, some hope, perhaps your ambition or your reason? If so, you must not be surprised that you have not received the Holy Spirit, that prayer is difficult, or that your request for faith remains unanswered. Go rather and be reconciled with your brother, renounce the sin which holds you fast-- and then you will recover your faith! If you dismiss the word of God's command, you will not receive His word of grace. How can you hope to enter into communion with Him when at some point in your life you are running away from Him? The man who disobeys cannot believe, for only he who obeys can believe."

As I read that, it was as if Dietrich was speaking directly to me, or perhaps more accurately the Holy Spirit was speaking to me through the words of one of His servants. I knew that this passage was right about me, and I knew exactly at that moment what area of my life has been in rebellion against His good, pleasing and perfect will. I was cut to the core, and right then and there I offered it up to God. Through His grace I have been winning the battle since then in handing this area of my life over into His hands. It has only been a few days, but already I am beginning to feel as if I am enjoying communion with Him once again.
Due to His faithfulness, I had not lost my faith, or doubted Him or lost the actual presence of His Spirit. I had, however, lost my sense of an intimate relationship with Him which is even now being restored.
If you have been suffering in any of these ways; if you have missed God's presence; if you have lost your faith; if you are unable to pray or read His word; if you simply have a hard time believing, let me encourage you to listen to Bonhoeffer's words. If we are deliberately disobeying God, resisting His explicit will, kicking against His commandments, how can we expect to be able to hear His more specific will for our own lives? If we ignore the instructions which He has already written down for us, do you we really think we will have ears to hear His still, small voice? Turn yourself in to Him, relinquish the claims to your own life, forsake your desire to rule your own fate. Cast yourself upon His mercy, because He cares for you.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Milk-bones and Divine Providence

A few minutes ago my dog, Bravo, brought my mom a 3x5 notecard he found somewhere in the house. She thought it was cute and gave him a Milk-bone in response. A minute or so later he brought me the same notecard. I gave him a Milk-bone too but told him, "I'm not giving you this bone because of the notecard, I'm giving it to you because I love you." It was a cute gesture, but I honestly had no use or desire for a slightly soggy index card. He didn't really seem to understand.
You might be laughing that I tried to explain this concept to my dog, and the truth is I knew he wouldn't get it. It just felt like it should be said because it was true. As I said it, though, I realized that it was symbolic of a much larger truth.
God is always giving us such good gifts: family, friends, the Church, pets, homes, clothing, food, education, sunrises and sunsets, cold mornings and sunny afternoons, good books, 24 hour taco shops, running water, baseball on broadcast television.
Some of these may seem trite or insignificant, but every good thing is a gift from God. And yet, so often we find ourselves trying to do little good things here or there, or trying to sacrifice something so that we might earn God's favor and blessings. The fact of the matter is that no matter what we do, no matter how hard we strive, there is nothing that we can offer to God that did not already belong to Him. There is no good thing that we can claim to have made with our own hands that He did not actually design. He provides for us, and protects us, and blesses us, and cares for us, and even walks with us through the hardest moments of life not because we brought Him something of great utility or of profound beauty but because He simply loves us. He just plain loves us. He just plain loves you. He loves you.
As for my dog; he won't stop bringing me papers.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Trinity

I am a little bit nervous. Over the summer I am teaching a mini-theology class on essential doctrines that every Christian should know to a group of high school students at my old youth group. We are going out of Wayne Grudem's Christian Beliefs: Twenty Basics Every Christian Should Know, which is an aptly titled text for such a class. (As a side-note: should you be interested in studying Christianity's essential doctrines, I highly recommend this book as it is one of the only texts out there that covers these and only these topics). It is not the next that is making me nervous, though. It is the fact that we are talking about the Trinity tonight.
If there is going to be a week in which the students will have a lot of questions, it will be this week with this topic. The Trinity is not an easy subject. I've re-read my textbooks' chapters on the Trinity. I have looked through my Systematic Theology class notes. I read St. Augustine's thoughts on the Trinity in his Enchiridion again. I've even looked at the Bible and prayed about it. The fact of the matter is that I know what I will say in general to lay out the ground rules for the doctrine of the Trinity, but it seems like such an immense task.
I'm just a kid, really, and here I have put myself in a situation where I am responsible to talk to these students about one of the most mysterious aspects of our Eternal, All-powerful God. His Triune nature is really inexplicable, and yet I am going to try and explain it. It is beyond human reason, and I am going to try to help others grasp at it.
One of the most shocking things I discovered in my theology classes this past year was that no one really gets the Trinity and no one really ever has. Of course, as I mentioned earlier, we do have the general guidelines for the way in which we discuss the holy Trinity, certain things we can and should say and other figures of speech that must not be allowed. We can mark the boundaries of the Truth on this matter and walk freely within them, but we do not know just where to set up camp. When it comes to the Trinity, as with the Incarnation especially, we must be comfortable with mystery.
Being comfortable with mystery. That leads to the next shocking discovery in my pursuit of theology. After struggling and talking with God about the mystery quite a bit, I came to realize that I could not only be comfortable with the mystery but take comfort from the mystery itself. It is terrifying, no doubt, but also comforting in some ways to be taken aback by God. To catch a glimpse of His true size, His sheer immensity, His infinitely complex and yet perfectly simple nature. It is good to remember that the God that I worship and offer my life to is huge.
The mystery even provides evidence to me that the doctrine of the Trinity is true. If Christianity had said that there was only one God plain and simple as Islam and Judaism do, that would have made sense. If it had said that there were three gods who had joined forces, that too would make sense. If it had taken the path of any one of the Trinitarian heresies (Arianism, Sabellianism, Modalism, Adoptionism) it would have made more sense. The fact of the matter was that the Church was and has continued to be committed to the authority of Scripture that presents us with the paradox of the One God eternally existing in Three Persons. It is a concept that can be seen out of the corner of your eye, but that disappears as soon as you try to to focus on it. It is like sand which can be held with light pressure but which slips through your fingers if you try to grasp it too firmly. God's Triune nature can be glimpsed with the human mind, but not comprehended. Why would the early Church have ever invented such a doctrine? It makes almost no sense to us, and there is little doubt that it made just as little sense to the saints of the early centuries. Why concoct a doctrine that is so hard to explain, so impossible to fathom?
The answer seems to me to be that the Church did not concoct or invent this doctrine at all, but simply discovered it through faithful devotion to God's own Word. If the Church had settled on any other explanation of the Trinity, it could be argued that it was man's invention, but not with the doctrine that we actually have. The very fact that the Trinity is beyond explanation, but not totally beyond imagination; beyond reason, but not irrational hints at its truth. A slight glimpse of the glory of our God will blind you, but how much better it is to have been blinded by Him then to see any other thing.

Friday, June 15, 2007

MAN-ual Labor

You wouldn't know it, but I enjoy manual labor. I enjoy it in moderation, that is. I am not sure I would want to make my living at it, but at the same time a part of me thinks that I could love it. Especially outdoor, botanical, horticultural labor. I say this all, because I have spent a couple of days this week working in the yard at my pastor's house. Something feels right about doing it.
Where is the theology behind this? This is just a thought, but my original grandparents, way down the line, were the first humans set on this planet and their job was to garden. The end of the chain of people in the Bible that I know are in my ancestral line (Noah) was the keeper of a vineyard. Apparently agriculture is in our blood. Perhaps it would have been the vocation of every person to garden if the Fall had never occurred. We cannot know. Still, I believe something of the gardener echoes in every human being. Perhaps this is overly esoteric, but give me some credit: I'm a little tired from working outside.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Confessions

If you have looked over to the right at my "Currently Reading" list, you will have seen that I am currently reading (hence the catchy title) St. Augustine's "Confessions." As long as I am in a punny mood, let me begin by "confessing" that when I first started the book I was really doing so mainly for pride's sake. I was looking forward to being able to tell people that I had read this work and in doing so wow them with my prowess over the ancient classic literature of the Church. It turns out, this version is a modern English translation which makes it a great read and also saps all of the pride out of the reading. Thankfully, despite my impure motives, God had something great in store for me with this book.
Page after page, St. Augustine pours out his heart in a prayer to God confessing his sins, his thoughts, his actions and his motives. In the midst of this he calls out to God for help and thanks God for His miraculous and often hidden mercy (at times thanking God for graciously preventing Augustine from falling into sins that he would have otherwise given into). It is the story of his own journey to faith, through the murky trails of pride in his great intelligence, the allure of worldly ambitions and the lust of his own flesh. The book is one of the most rewarding I have ever read and every line deserves to be quoted, but one section especially hit me today. Augustine was recounting a story he had heard of two secret service agents of the Roman Empire who had stumbled upon the story of the life of St. Anthony and were moved on the spot to give their lives over to Christ. The account had a profound impact on Augustine and the words of one of the agents to the other also moved me. After reading of the saint's life, the agent turned to the other and said,

"Tell me, I beg you, what goal are we seeking in all these toils of ours? What is it that we desire? What is our motive in public service? Can our hopes in the court rise higher than to be 'friends of the emperor'? How frail, how filled with peril is that pride! Through what dangers must we climb to a greater danger? And when will we succeed? But if I chose to become a friend of God, I can become one now."

How convicting this message is! Reflecting on myself, I too find that I am filled with vain ambitions to be recognized, to be a friend of the powerful, to be well-respected. But what is the chief end of that? Those who achieve celebrity seem to hate it as their lives become constant sources of public scrutiny. Those with recognition make many enemies who hope to see them fall. If only I can make friendship with God my one ambition, everything else will be secured. If I can please Him, I will have pleased the only One Whom matters. Only then can my life take the course it was created to take. Only then will I be used in the best way possible.

"But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well."