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."

Friday, June 8, 2007

A Sunday morning Baptism

This past Sunday, my sister-in-law Elizabeth (not to be confused with my sister Elizabeth) was baptized before her congregation and good portion of our family. You should check out my brother's insightful blog about it. I cannot do the same justice to the event as my brother but I have been wanting to write about it as well.
Having spent the my last two semesters in a systematic theology class and living with friends who enjoy good theological debate, the topic of baptism has come up several times. Does baptism wipe away original sin as Catholics generally believe, does it claim a person for the Church instead of leaving them in their default state of belonging to the world as Reformed churches tend to think, or is it a simple yet profound profession of one's faith to the Church, the world and to God? Should infant baptism be recommended or is believer's baptism the only way to go? If someone has been baptized as an infant (as I was) should they also later undergo a believer's baptism once they have given their life to Christ (as I also was)? These are, of course, important questions that deserve discussion and deliberation. At the same time, however, witnessing Elizabeth's baptism left me for a time not caring in the least for these questions but instead simply revelling in the joy of her public confession of and commitment to Christ.
I have had the honor of getting to know my sister-in-law better in a few years than many people are able to know their in-laws in a lifetime. I have seen her love for Christ grow by leaps and bounds and have been impressed by and proud of her time and time again. This Sunday was something at a completely different level. The church aired a video of her testimony that had to have moved everyone in the church. With that set up, she was then baptised before the church and I (as well as many others) had the mixture of emotion that left me wanting to cry and wanting to shout at the top of my lungs for celebration. It was truly as if God had opened up a window between Heaven and Earth for a few moments in that church building allowing us to hear the shouts of joy resounding from the angels.
The baptism reminded me of my own commitment to Christ and the truth of the matter that I have become a new creation through His death and resurrection. I can't help but think that it inspired everyone there to seek to live in accordance with their new life. Having witnessed this difficult step of obedience, I look forward to seeing what else Christ will do in my sister-in-law's life. I am also reminded of this reality for all believers, and cannot wait to see just what Christ is planning to do in the lives of all His saints. What a great salvation.

Monday, June 4, 2007

GotQuestions, quietly delivering the Good News

I have been a volunteer writer for GotQuestions.org for about three or four years, and while I have had nothing to do with their pages that share the good news of the Gospel I am still extremely proud of the ministry that this website is doing (especially of the editor and his wife who have amazing hearts for the Lord). In case you are not familiar with the site, allow me to share a few quick statistics from the month of May. GotQuestions had:

579,282 total visitors;
392,837 unique visitors;
2,257 questions answered,
30,998 visitors to the English salvation pages;
3,190 salvation decisions indicated.

Of the salvation decisions indicated, 534 were from English-speaking visitors which means 2,656 were from non-English speakers. As a small sampling, 76 were Turkish, 18 were Thai, 69 were Farsi, 6 were Urdu and 101 were Indonesian. The amazing thing is that May was not at all an abnormal month. This ministry is humbly and quietly introducing people to Jesus and helping people along in their path to discipleship. You should check them out.

A bad mood in Paradise

I spent a good portion of the day in a bad mood, without any real reason. Of course, I haven't had much sleep in the past few days and I felt like I had a reason or two to be upset. Driving in my car I decided to complain to Jesus; of course He would understand. I have some of my best prayer times in my car where no one can hear me if I speak with normal volume, cry or yell. I began by complaining about the two or three things bothering me as well as the gloominess that I could not shake. In the middle of my rant I said, "Jesus, I don't des..." and stopped. I was going to complain that I did not deserve this but somehow I could not.
As I thought of Whom it was that I was addressing, the eternal, holy and perfect God who took on human flesh and suffered an excruciating death for my sins, I could not bring myself to claim to deserve anything. It does not need to be explained that it was upsetting to discover that I could not continue my rant.
As God pierced my hardened mind with a sliver of His Truth, the tone of my prayer changed in way that I could not have effected myself. It became something along the lines of, "God, I do not deserve any good thing. What I deserve is Hell. I live with a loving family, have great friends, attend an amazing university and live in a nation at a time that makes me one of the wealthiest one percent of people in the history of the planet. I sin constantly, love almost everything more than I love my own God and I am ungrateful for all the good gifts that God has given me. I deserve Hell, but You went through that for me. I deserve nothing but to suffer eternally and yet You have given me eternal life."
How often do I give in to the temptation to complain and simmer in bitterness without any justification whatsoever? What an amazing miracle that the Creator and Lord of the Universe can love a wretch like me.

Saturday, June 2, 2007

Behold, the local church

In my last post I discussed the need for a unifying love between all Christians around the world and from all denominations and traditions. It will not be easy to bring all Assemblies of God and Baptists, Catholics and Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians and Foursquare members into a unifying love that refuses to belittle and berate. This is indeed a large task before us. At the same time, however, I propose that such a love for the Church Universal is in reality a much simpler task than one that we may take for granted: genuine love for the local church.
Let me begin by putting this out there: I am on the path to vocational ministry, which I believe I will serve as a pastor. I can think of no other career in all the world that would make me as happy as fulfilling that calling. With that being said, however, I never want to go to church. As soon as I arrive at church on a Sunday morning I am happy to be there and enjoy being in the presence of God amongst His people. Until I arrive, though, I sincerely do not wish to go. I suspect that this unites me in a small way with many Christians around the world. Why is that I so dislike getting up on Sunday morning more than any other morning, and desire to skip out on something that I enjoy so much? I can think of no other reason than that my sinful nature hates to be reminded that I am not my own God and that the enemies of my soul would do whatever is necessary to keep from meeting with my fellow saints as God's word commands.
This brings me back to my original point, it is hard to love your local church; harder than it is to love Christians whom live a world away (in my case, this would mean African, Asian or South American Christians). To love our brothers and sisters around the world generally means to provide financial contributions and pray for them. To love the Christians who attend our church, live a few doors down or even in our own household is to learn to love on a much more intimate and challenging level. To interact with people who talk too much or talk too little; who seem to check out in church or those who seem too enthusiastic; who volunteer for every activity or for none; who take too much interest in your life or who don't seem to care enough requires real Christ-like sacrificial love. I live in North America and I am sure there are African Christians who are hard to love, but I do not know them so it is easy for me to love them in an abstract way. It is much more difficult to love those Christians who are closest to us in a concrete fashion when they are hard to love. Being committed to loving those around you by seeking the best for their lives is difficult.
Because this is hard and requires sacrifice, we must ask why we should even take the time to be involved in the local church at all. More on that next time...