Posts Tagged ‘Faith’
Every time I get ready to write a book review, I start to feel like I'm about to do something huge–like lead worship with feeble guitar skills, or send out the starting line-up for a little league game, or get in the ring with a prize fighter. It's always nerve wracking and it's always a bit daunting–especially when the author of the book is someone who is fairly well known and fairly well respected.
With that being said, I have to ask an honest question: Why does anyone want to read a book by Barnabas Piper? And an extension of this question goes something like this: Can I read/review this book without making even that passing reference to his, arguably, more famous father? One shouldn't have anything to do with the other, right?
Yet this is exactly where my first question comes in: what has Barnabas Piper done in his life that is justification for reading his book about matters of faith, Jesus, Church, being a disciple of Jesus, and so on and so forth? Is it his struggles, his doubts, his family name, or something else? There is nothing novel or unique about what he says in this book. There is nothing extraordinary in this book that I haven't read before. There is nothing about this book that makes a little light bulb hover above my head.
I'm not saying it's a terrible book. I am saying that it's nothing new and so I wonder who it was written for, what the market is, and why I would want to buy this book. Can the book stand on it's own?
Piper states his purpose in writing: "My goal is to help you see that belief isn't blind faith and that questions, if asked well, are building blocks for strong faith rather than stepping stones away from it." (Kindle, Location 87). OK. This is good. But why should I trust that this particular author has the answers to these questions? And does the author, ultimately, accomplish his purpose? The first question, I am unsure how to answer. Some people will trust his answers, but I'm not sure they know why they trust his answers. This gets back to that second question I asked above which had something to do with whether or not I can read this book apart from the knowledge of who he is related to. I think other people will find his answers shallow or cliched. This is not a deep book, it's not a book that takes you on a whirlwind, big city adventure through the Bible. It's full of lots of nice quotes from famous people and anecdotes about his own personal journey.
The second question (does he accomplish his purposes) is a yes/no for me. Let me give you an example of the problem as I see it.
Piper asks some difficult questions in the book, but what if his particular theological disposition that underlies his answers is flawed? How do we understand his answers? So: "If He chooses who will be saved, then why are unchosen people held responsible for their actions and His choice?" (Kindle location 447; he does mention human free will at location 577, but I'm not sure how he means it given everything else he has written in the book). This is a question he asks that has a presupposition underneath it: God intentionally saves some and intentionally condemns the rest. I simply cannot agree with his proposition and it was difficult for me to separate what I suspect/know of his theological tendencies and the answers he gives to some of the questions in the book.
I just read this morning, 2 Peter 3:9: "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient towards you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance." (ESV) Or what about Paul in 1 Timothy 2:3-4: "This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior who desires all people to come to the knowledge of the truth." (ESV) I think this is the main problem I have with the book. It is beholden to a theological proposition that simply cannot be maintained logically if one reads the entire Bible, observes human nature, and thinks logically. There is no way we can say that God wants all to be saved and then turn around and say that God only saves a few and that the unchosen are, well, lost. There is no way to say that God chooses some for salvation and not others unless you are willing to attribute evil to God.
This is the No side of my answer.
On the Yes side of my answer I had to wait until I got all the way to the appendix 1: Reading the Bible to Meet God. This was the most satisfying part of the book for me: "We must learn to read the whole story of Scripture from beginning to end." (Location 1449). I think in this part of the book he offers us the solutions that I had been waiting for through the entire book because it is here that he finally engages Scripture–to an extent–or should I say encourages us to engage the Scripture. It was most disappointing that this section only made it to an appendix–as if we will find more answers to our doubts and struggles by reading anecdotes about Piper's doubts and life instead of reading stories from the Scripture.
Nevertheless, the points he makes in Appendix 1 are quite good–I only wish he had explored them more in the main text because frankly they would have made better chapters: Read the whole Bible; look for Jesus; get to know Jesus; don't shy away from the hard stuff; start small (I'm iffy on this section); don't read the Bible as a set of rules; pray for the Spirit's help. These are actually the answers we needed when it comes to living in the tension between doubt and faith because the chapters he gives us are really only his beliefs and theological dispositions–many of which, as I noted above, are simply incompatible with the whole Bible he encourages us to read (such as his acceptance of the five solas; I still struggle with how there can be five 'onlys'. Kindle, chapter 2).
One final note of importance. I agree with the author that it is OK for the church or individual Christians to say things like 'I don't know.' I have had to learn this as a human who always wants to have an answer to the questions people ask me. I think we are afraid if we say 'I don't know' people will think we are stupid so we end up giving answers that absolutely confirm our stupidity. So it's OK for the church, or for Christians, to have no answers to all the suffering and violence that goes on around us. It's OK to ask questions: "Questions are an indication of trust." And here I think Piper answers his own questions well: "By revealing what He did in Scripture, God created a massive mystery. He gave us an enigma, a puzzle, a riddle with so many dimensions and plotlines and layers and themes that even just those sixty-six books have generated libraries of volumes of thought, argument, and questions" (Kindle location 225). Yes. Even in our doubts, in some mysterious way, we point to Jesus for answers even if our mouths happen to stay closed.
In short, we do not have to have all the answers to all the questions or perhaps better, we do not have all the answers to all the questions. It's OK to sit in silence for a while and pray. As the time worn conclusion goes, "It's better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to open the mouth and remove all doubt." I think this is something that the Church in general should learn and I think Piper is right to emphasize this point. I think it's OK to live in the tension between grace and doubt and to let grace be sufficient. (See chapter 8, So What and What Now?, Kindle location 1381ff).
Overall, the book is not terrible. It's not the best I've read, but not the worst either. I think for some people it will be wholly unsatisfying and for others it will be a good introduction. He has some good and important things to say and he has some other insufficient things to say–especially as it relates to his theological under girding. I didn't come away from the book wholly satisfied, but I didn't come away wholly unchallenged either. I think if a person can weave through some of the theological underpinnings and get to the core of his discussion (which I confess was difficult for me) then there may be some fruit to be realized. At least Piper is humble enough understand that the church is bigger than his opinions and ideas and thoughts and for this I respect him (see the Afterward) and my disagreements with him theologically are not to be interpreted as personal attacks.
At the end of the day, his best advice was found near the end: "In God's infinite wisdom the best way to bring more people to belief is to show them a massively varied story pointed in one direction–to Himself" (Kindle location 1355). I think he is correct on this point and that he does well to point it out. Maybe soon the church will become the place where all such things are discussed in detail precisely because we are all looking for Jesus to arrive…because I'm inclined to think that Jesus will arrive long before any of us do. And this keeps us hungry. And humble. And searching. All things Piper suggests we need to do and be.
Doubt, in a way, keeps us safe because it keeps us moving forward in search of Jesus. Someday he will surprise us and be found. I know that I personally long for a church where I am free to live in the tension and find satisfaction in Jesus alone.
So, to answer my earlier question: Yes. I think this is a book that can stand on its own. I'm not buying all he is selling, but neither am I dismissing it. There's much to think about and much to enjoy.
Important Book & Author Things
- Where to purchase Help My Unbelief David C Cook (Trade Paperback, $14.99) Amazon (Kindle, $9.99) Christian Book Distributors (Paperback, $10.99)
- Author: Barnabas Piper
- Publisher: David C Cook
- Pages: 176
- Year: 2015
- Audience:Pastors, preachers, Christians, missionaries, elders, deacons, young people, old people
- Reading Level: High School
- Disclaimer: I was provided a free advance reading copy courtesy of David C Cook via NetGalley
- Interview with Barnabas Piper @Christianity Today
- Page numbers in this review are based on a Kindle version ARC. Numbering may be different in final publication.
Several years ago I became rather obsessed with the book in the New Testament we call 'Hebrews.' I don't remember the exact dates off the top of my head, I just remember catching a glimpse of it one day (I think I may have been reading N.T. Wright's book Following Jesus) and then diving in deeper until I absolutely fell in love with the short letter. Aside from those concerning chapter 11, I have heard very few sermons from Hebrews–which is a shame. It's a beautiful book in every way and, in my opinion, not terribly difficult to interpret.
Well, of course there are some parts that are difficult to understand and which might call for some more nuanced explanations, but I think if a person reads the book slowly and looks for some key clues in context (which are rather easy to find in our English Bibles), then the book begins to make sense in every way. And the truth is, I'd love to share that with you and perhaps someday I will. Tonight though I'd just like to focus for a minute on the particular verse that is kind of my theme verse during this Lenten season.
"And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God." (Hebrews 12:1b-2)
I kept coming back to this verse today…thinking about Jesus being the author (pioneer; trailblazer) of our faith and why, if this is true, I should 'fix my eyes' on him. Because let's be honest,it's not like I can literally see him no matter how hard I stare and no matter how fixed my eyes become on a particular spot in the sky. It's not that I think Jesus is in the sky, but, well, I guess that's where I have been trained to look for God: up there.
So the questions are something like: How do I fix my eyes on Jesus? and Why do I fix my eyes on Jesus.
I have heard a lot of folks get down on the church or Christianity or even Jesus. They have things to say like, "Oh you are just running away from your problems." Or, "You are just avoiding all the lousy stuff in the world." Stuff like that. But I don't think that's it at all. The book of Hebrews does not say we are running away from anything–but we are running to someone. Just because we are running to someone doesn't mean we are running from anything though. I look at all that went on in the life of Jesus, his apostles, his saints…they were hardly escapists practicing escapism. I think the key is found in the first word of chapter 12: Therefore.
The word 'therefore' follows closely on the heels of everything that was written in the 'great faith chapter', Hebrews 11 which, interestingly enough, begins with a discussion of faith: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for" (11:1-2). Oh, so faith is being certain of things we do not see…therefore…fix your eyes on Jesus the author and perfecter of faith. Faith is not about not seeing, it's about seeing the right things. Faith is not about blindness, it's about being perfectly sighted. Faith is not being oblivious to what we see or endure in this world, it's about being fully aware that this world is not all there is.
Faith is about knowing where to look. Faith is about knowing to whom we look. Faith is about being able to discern who gives us hope and who does not. I find it not one bit ironic or strange that the author of Hebrews then points us to the one place where there is absolutely no historical doubt: Jesus was crucified. Of there there is not one shred of doubt–except from the sort of people who would not have faith anyhow. Yet because of this crucifixion we have faith that sees beyond this culture of death we have created–the world walks hand in hand with the devil who comes to 'kill, steal, and destroy.' Don't mistake it; it's all around us. Yet we are among those who do not fear death, even though we fear it, because we fix our eyes on Jesus.
Like when Stephen was being stoned to death in Acts 7: "Look, I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God." That is faith! Faith that sees.
So look at all of chapter 11 and see the sort of trouble all those saints got into precisely because they refused to look anywhere but Jesus. For example, "By faith, Moses, when he had grown up refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh's daughter. He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy a season of sin. He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king's anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible." Amazing…Moses had eyes powerful enough to see someone who is invisible!
Faith isn't about 'blind-leaps'; faith is about being able to see beyond what normal eyes can see. Faith has eyes to see things at a distance and welcome them. Faith has eyes to see a better city, a better land than the one we live in now. Faith has eyes to see beyond the destruction of the flesh. Faith looks forward to a better resurrection. Faith has eyes to see Jesus…even amidst the clutter and culture of death that surround us.
You see, I think what I've been learning is this: it is terribly difficult to go through life with eyes that scatter all around–like Mad-Eye Moody from the Harry Potter books whose crazy eye was constantly zipping this way and that. Life doesn't function so well when that's what we are doing with our eyes. Our eyes need to be fixed on Jesus–the pioneer, trailblazer, architect, author and perfecter of our faith. I think sometimes I work too hard trying to muster up faith and I get discouraged when I fail. I'm always looking around trying to catch a glimpse of what faith looks like, heroic faith, radical faith. And people, some people, make a living telling the rest of us what real faith looks like. And then we try to recreate that faith in ourselves.
We don't need radical faith. We don't need heroic faith. We need Jesus. And if that sounds naive and simple, you're welcome.
I'm tired of tips and techniques for mastering faith. I want simple. I want simply to fix my eyes on Jesus because it seems to me if someone else was able to pioneer and perfect our faith we would have been told to fix our eyes on that person. But the author of Hebrews says we are to fix our eyes on Jesus…who understands the faith he calls us to and will perfect that faith in us…because he too endured the cross. He led the way!! He has blazed the trail he asks us to follow. So even if he calls us to 'take up our cross daily, deny ourselves, and follow him' we know he will not fail…and the faith he creates in us will not either.
It's kind of like taking a business model that works in city A and recreating in city B–which has nothing of the demographic markers that city A has and expecting it to work. Or it's like trying to take a model of church growthism and recreating it in another church in another town and expecting it to work the same wonders. All are doomed to failure. Well, here's the thing: I can neither create nor perfect faith…any faith. I simply cannot be entrusted with such a task. It is, and I am, doomed to failure. And so long as I look to myself or to others or all around that faith is doomed to destruction. Only Jesus can create and perfect the sort of faith that I need in my life…the kind of faith that looks beyond the failures and deaths of this world. This kind of faith, the sort spoken of in chapter 11, is resurrection faith. It's faith in Jesus, who, "shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil–and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15).
Faith is not perfected by ignoring what's going on around us, but rather by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus despite all that is going on around us. We fail because we try to create our own faith. We fail because we think we know what faith is and what it looks like. Do we really think self-manufactured faith will be enough to see beyond the deaths of this world? Will our own manufactured faith be enough for us to scorn family like Abraham? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to deny the pleasures of this world like Moses? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to obey God when he asks us to do something ridiculous as he did Noah? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to speak boldly the word of God in the face of death as did the prophets? Will our own manufactured faith be enough to scorn the cross for the joy set before us? Will our own manufactured faith be enough for us to run the race marked out for us?
Do you trust yourself to create and perfect that sort of faith? I don't.
Whatever else this verse teaches me, it teaches me that I absolutely cannot get by a single moment of my life apart from Jesus. And what's more? We fix our eyes on Jesus because…wait for it…because He is our reward…He is the joy set before us….He is the goal of our faith.
And if we fix our eyes on Jesus, then we know exactly where we are going and to whom we are heading. Right? If we are fixed on Jesus, then we have no confusion whatsoever about our path or our destination.
[Feel free to leave a comment. I'd love to hear from you.]
Title: Surprised by Scripture
Author: NT Wright
Anyone who has read any of my book reviews knows that NT Wright typically gets rave reviews from me–both as a lover of literature and as a Christian who loves Wright's theological perspective. Fact is, I can scarcely ever find anything in his books with which I disagree.
With this book, that changed just a little because I found much of what he wrote to be provocative and challenging to some long held theological ideas I have held. Letting go of long-held ideas isn't easy; being challenged at an intellectual level is sometimes discouraging. If we are not careful, we can label those who challenge us as abrasive or mean. He doesn't hold back, challenging all those sacred-cows current Christians have championed as 'thou shalt not violate orthodoxy in these matters' kind of doctrines. Sad truth is that entire ministries have been built around some of these sacred-cows in recent years–trumpeting theological perspectives that are important, yes, but often exist to the exclusion of a more comprehensive narrative, or to the exclusion of the Person to whom they point. It's kind of like the way a lot of books are put together in today's Evangelical publishing houses: authors find a single verse that supports an idea and then scratch around other tangential passages to find more support and then, voila!, a book is born. And all the while these authors pay very little, if any, attention to the meta-narrative of Scripture.
Yet this is precisely what NT Wright refuses to do in his writing. Taking a sort of 'damn the torpedoes' approach to the sacred-cows and theological pillars of current incarnation of the church, he plows through each subject by constantly reminding of us what Scripture says, and not just what a verse says. What I mean to say is that the meta-narrative is always in his view when he writes. It matters not the subject matter: Wright always has 66 books in his vision when he is writing about even the smallest word, sentence, paragraph, or book of the Bible. And so it is with Surprised by Scripture. There's not a subject he touches that isn't somehow connected to the larger context of the Bible, of the story of God coming down to rescue broken and sinful humanity in Jesus and the project begun at Jesus' resurrection to rebuild this earth and it's people.
This is what I simultaneously love and hate about NT Wright's books. On the one hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so I know that he is not trying to hoodwink me or convince me of some specious theology that is born out of a reaction to some perceived threat or otherwise. Many authors/preachers are good at this and it is reflected in the lack of depth in their work. On the other hand, he always has the meta-narrative in mind so he is constantly challenging my presuppositions about Scripture and God and what God is doing, or has done, in Jesus. That is terrifically threatening and makes me constantly uncomfortable. It ought to be so with all authors who dare speak on matters of faith. It ought to be so with all preachers: comforting the afflicted; afflicting the comfortable.
Surprised by Scripture made me clench my teeth more than any other of Wright's books precisely at this point. Yet I think this is exactly what happens when you take the bulk of Wright's heavy theologies and filter them down to the every day church. And if we do, and if we are honest, we simply must admit that we have gotten a lot of it just plain wrong. We might also go along with admitting that many of the ministries that are build around some of these wrongs are also, sadly, beside the point. Taking the example of the creation stories, for example, we might say something like: It's important that God made the universe; it's not so much important how he did it. But we might go further and say: It's important that God made the universe, and it's tremendously important that all throughout the Scripture the authors affirm that God is going to remake & recreate the universe. We can go even further: It's important that God made the universe, sustains the universe; that the authors reaffirm this frequently; that the authors reaffirm frequently that God will renew, recreate, remake the universe; that God has already begun to do this in Jesus and will bring it to fruition at some point. One way of saying this ignores the big picture; one way affirms it.
Well, we cannot prove creation in any ex nihilo sense of creation. We can surmise. We can guess. We might ask: Is it a mountain upon which I am willing to die? But what we can do is point to the Resurrection of Jesus (chapter 3) as a point in history where God's breaking in and stirring up the pot of recreative materials that can actually be demonstrated. The point, of course, is that we Christians get all frustrated because we have tied ourselves to the posts of things that are not quite as important as some other things–or because we feel compelled to prove something about Jesus that doesn't need proving because we think that if we don't the whole world of faithism will die. But we are to be found in Jesus, loving Jesus, loving people. Seems to me that everything else is so much frosting.
If we are more willing to die for a doctrine than we are for a person then we have utterly missed the point. I suspect at times this is Wright's point.
The only real gripe I have with this book is Wright's points about politics–especially American politics. He seems very sensitive to the way American politicians do things–especially as it relates to events surrounding September 11, 2001 and the ongoing drama of how 'we' deal with terrorist organizations. He says he's no pacifist; I believe him. But he seems to forget that the 'war on terror' although led mainly by the USA was, in fact, a coalition of nations who decided enough was enough. I disagree with his subtle criticisms of then president Bush (although he never mentions him by name) and the manner of response to the actions of evil people. I think this is even more pertinent now as we see our current president simply doing nothing against terrorist threats, beheadings of women and children, and the systematic destruction of churches and christians in the Middle East.
The problem with Wright's critique of American political processes is that he gives us no viable alternatives. He thinks American democracy is worse than his British Socialism. He thinks that we should be voices in the wilderness hammering out our prophecies against politicians and governments, and perhaps we should, but he doesn't tell us with what or with whom we are to replace them. Should we go back to Medieval Feudalism? Should we revert to the monarchy we escaped from? Should we adopt Sharia? Perhaps we should let Anarchy rule and go back to the time of Judges when 'everyone did as he saw fit in his own eyes'? My point is, it's fine to criticize the way we do things in America if in fact you have a superior alternative. I simply do not see in any of Wright's books a superior alternative to the representative republic in which I happen to live. And if I may add one last point, for as much as I love Wright, for as much as I think he is dead on in keeping the narrative vision alive and in front, I think he is dead wrong when it comes to his critique of the United States. Dr Wright has indeed benefited greatly from the freedoms we enjoy here in America–not least of which is freedom to say what he wants, write what he wants, and criticize who he wants and then return back to the safety of Great Britain. I think it is disingenuous to say on page 112 that 'Western politicians knew perfectly well that al Qaeda was a danger…' and then criticize the reaction to September 11, 2001 as a 'knee-jerk, unthinking, immature lashing out.'
This is a case where the president at the time was damned for doing and would have been damned for not doing (when in fact nearly everyone in government at the time supported the idea of taking action). Frankly, I think Wright's critique beginning on page 112 and ending somewhere on page 114 is wrong (as I think much of his criticism of the American political system is wrong). Perhaps if the British government, who had suffered worse before the USA on September 11, had done something we wouldn't have had to act in the way we did or at all. Fact is, however, no one was doing anything about rampant terrorism until our president took action–and if that's true, then who is to say his actions were merely 'knee-jerk, unthinking, and immature'? It's easy to shift blame which is what Wright does here. His government did nothing about it so when ours did it was, somehow, wrong. And this is all beside the point that our president was acting as the president of a sovereign nation–humanists, atheists, christians, Jews, Gentiles, etc. All of us. He was not acting on behalf of a church or a synagogue or a mosque or professor's chair; he was acting on behalf of the people he swore to protect.
All that being said, I enjoyed the challenge the book afforded. I especially found the last chapter to be one of the best chapters I have read in a long time on the subject of hope. It also goes without saying that Wright is his typical exegetical genius. He brings fresh insights to the Scripture and challenges our presuppositions in a host of ways. I think he would be the first to tell you he doesn't have all the answers to all the problems we face, but in my opinion, he has laser vision on where we should start looking.
I have a long day today with not at all that much to do. I'm happy about that. I can get some reading done and enjoy a relaxing day. Today's readings are from Proper 8, Year 2 of the Book of Common Prayer. I won't have comments for all these selections and remember my thoughts are simply off-the-cuff kind of ideas. I'm simply thinking my way through Scripture each day. I think this is a good way to set the right tone for my heart and mind each day.
Psalm 122 It's a terrible thing to live with anxiety. It's a terrible thing to sit around waiting on that phone call from a doctor or a lawyer or a friend or a boss. It's a terrible thing how the bowels get turned inside out and start heaving up into your chest and that tickling feeling spreads across the plane of your entire soul makes matters worse. Is there a solution? Is there a fix? I suppose one could take some pills. I tried that for a while when I was younger, but it didn't help. Anxiety medications do just that: they medicate. They do not solve the underlying problem of why we are anxious in the first place which is not always a biological problem even if the results of anxiety are biological. "I will say 'Peace be within you.'" "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem." "May those who love you be secure." "May there be peace within your walls and security within your citadels." Why is there peace in Jerusalem? There's peace in Jerusalem in the throng of worshipers going up to Praise the name of the Lord. Worship isn't, then, a mere distraction or something we do on Sundays. Jerusalem is the city of the Great King (Matthew 5:35). Worship is our citadel of peace and what we do in Jerusalem is seek the Lord who is our peace. Eugene Peterson wrote, "[Peace] gathers all aspects of wholeness that result from God's will be completed in us" (A Long Obedience in the Same Direction, 56). Maybe peace flows from trusting God's will and trusting God's will flows from worship–coming face to face with God and knowing him and his character. Maybe our own peace comes not from understanding all things but from being near someone who does, being near someone who is Peace himself. (See Isaiah 9:6 and Ephesians 2:14. Admittedly, these passages are both taken a bit out of context, but in some way they point to true peace as is found in Jesus.)
Numbers 22:21-38 Ever notice how important animals are in the Bible? Aside from the serpent in Genesis 3, animals typically are fairly positive in the Bible. Noah found doves helpful. Here Balaam's donkey talks to him. Later ravens will feed Elijah. In another story Jonah is swallowed up by a great fish. Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is the Lion of the Tribe of Juday who sits on God's throne (Rev 4-5). I'm sure there are others, but these few stand out as significant. Kind of makes one think that we ought to be a little or a lot more careful about the way we treat animals–one of them might save us some day from something we'd rather not have to face.
Matthew 21:23-32 "What we should also be asking is this. What should Jesus' followers be doing today that would challenge the powers of the present world with the news that he is indeed its rightful Lord? What should we be doing that would make people ask, 'By what right are you doing that?', to which the proper answer would be to tell, not now riddles about John the Baptist, but stories about Jesus himself?" (NT Wright, Matthew for Everyone, pt 2, page 77). Because people still ask these questions and many Christians simply have no answers. Or we have the wrong answers. Perhaps we rely on some outdated mode of logic or we rely on some well-worn favorite theologian. Or perhaps we put all of our eggs in the basket of US Constitution or decisions by the Supreme Court. Some even rely on the Bible itself–as did slavers in past centuries. But there must be a way where we can say that our lives are in accord with the life and actions of Jesus. It's not merely a matter of what would Jesus do because I don't think that will do for very long. And I don't think it boils down to merely propping up a moral decision that we thing Scripture justifies. So when the Chief Priests and elders came to Jesus they said, "By what authority are you doing these things?" We might ask, "What things are they talking about?" What was he doing but taking over the temple leadership and setting himself up in place of the chief priests and teachers and elders: he was teaching and he was healing and he was concerned that the house of prayer (that is, trusting reliance upon God who will bring about his will in his way in his time) was turned into a hive for brigands and revolutionaries (that is, those who will bring about a kingdom through their own violent ways without regard to God's will or justice).
It seems that our Psalm for today (122) and Jesus's words and actions in Matthew have something in common. Ultimately, they are both about peace and where that peace comes from. "I was glad when my friends said 'Let's go up to Jerusalem' and 'seek the house of the Lord our God.'" And what do we find when we go up and seek the house of the Lord our God? Well, we find Jesus: we find him rebuking the faithless way of violence. We find him welcoming those who had been excluded from temple worship (blind and lame). And we find him teaching the way of God's kingdom, faith, and righteousness. And isn't it funny who gets upset when Jesus does these things? You know, those who seem to have the most to lose–that is, their power. I love how Jesus simply loves, welcomes, and heals people and in so doing strips away the power of the powerful who will not.
That's all for now. I hope to let all this sink deeply into my heart today as I continue this journey of learning to trust God's way and have faith that His will will be done.
Grace. "It's a name for a girl" (U2). Grace falls all over us and colors us clean. Grace marks as children of the living God. Grace prevails upon us when we have no clue who we are, what we are doing, or where we are going. Grace guides, teaches, sustains, and reveals to us the mystery of God. All we need to know is found in grace–charis.
And why not? While all the other gods of this world demand from us, Jesus gives to us. Grace enlivens the heart and enlightens the eyes. Grace creates space inside of the void of our selfish and survivalist existence and then fills the vacuum. Then slowly it begins to expand like a universe and what started as a mere pinpoint of light eventually has expanded into a galaxy full of light and life within us. We are consumed. We are lost and found again in grace. We are destroyed and made by Grace.
Grace is our peace. Grace is a thought we can never lose, yet we can never track it down. We can scarcely pin down and yet it never lets us go. Never let me go. Never let us go. Let your grace conquer the abyss of wickedness that swims and swirls in our hearts and minds. Dear Father replace our inclination to evil with a bent towards your mercy and love and forgiveness.
Grace like rain. Grace like a waterfall. Grace like an ocean. These are all ways various artists have spoken or sung about grace. It's always about drowning, being overwhelmed by a fluid density that we cannot stand up under: we are lost, we are drown, we are suffocated, we are consumed and of us there is nothing left when grace is finished. Can we overstate the case for grace? Can we condense grace to a single point? Can we contain grace or keep it from expanding in our lives until it replaces all of us we hate and even bleeds into the lives of others? I think not.
If grace once infects us, we can neither contain nor control its growth. It grows and spreads with a rapidity we cannot imagine or believe. We cannot stand before the flood, the rushing tidal wave of forgiveness, mercy and love. Once we see it, it's too late. Grace utterly wrecks and makes us less useful to the world of self-interests and more useful to the ministry of Jesus.
And we cannot stand before God any longer without fear and trembling once grace has taken over our lives. So with reckless abandon we hurl ourselves and are ourselves hurled into a broken world where the Father invites us to trust and believe and hope despite all that speaks against such things. We are asked to live as though his grace is all we will ever need–it is sufficient–and that it will somehow sustain us now and forever come hell or high water.
We need grace just to live in grace.
Title: I Still Believe
Author: Jeremy Camp with David Thomas
Pages: 213 (plus photo spread)
[In order to comply with certain FCC guidelines, I am required to inform you that I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale Publishing in exchange for my review on my blog.]
I went to Bible College in the fall of 1991. I had just married my wife in June of the same year. By the time December of that year rolled around, we knew she had Hodgkin's Disease–a cancer of the lymphatic system. By January of 1992, we were fully engaged in the first round of a six-month regimen of chemotherapy. This would be followed up with six consecutive, five-day a week radiation treatments. This is how we spent the first year of our marriage.
I Still Believe is a memoir written by popular Christian musician and songwriter Jeremy Camp. I was on the early bandwagon for Jeremy and still own and listen to his first three records. I have always enjoyed his music, his guitar playing, and the tone and depth of his vocals. After reading this book, I think I can now say that I also appreciate the lyrics to his songs as well. It's not that I didn't enjoy them before, but I think like most, I listened to the lyrics, often sang along, but rarely gave thought to what they might mean or what the background might be. Frankly, I am a big fan of musicians sharing the background to songs they write. It makes the songs more meaningful.
That said, this was a difficult book to read. I'm sure it was a difficult book to write. It made me think about my own walk with my wife: after her cancer at the age of 20-21 we have enjoyed nearly 23 years of marriage. But I am also acutely aware of the fact that her cancer could manifest itself again at any time. We are not so much in control as we like to think. And the struggle is summed up nicely in Camp's song and title: I Still Believe. But will we? We suffer and struggle a lot in this journey and it is terribly easy to fall back and forget that we are like so much gold in the fires of purification. We often blame God, accuse God, yell at God, shake our fist at God–and sometimes we just flat out ignore him. I think God is big and strong and can handle it and waits for us to come to our senses, but he waits. He is that Father who is waiting on his son and sees him off in the distance and runs to him.
And I think this is what troubles me the most: he waits. Sure there are sermons (or poetry) about God the great hound nipping at our heals. The Psalms tell us over and over again to 'wait on the Lord' and it is just that that bugs me. We are told to wait; he is waiting; someone has to make the first move. Someone has to get the ball rolling. Someone has to take charge. What we are supposed to learn, I think, is that God is in charge and all we can do is weep, wait, fall face down on the floor in prayer. Maybe we are to be like Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego: God can rescue us, oh king, but even if he doesn't we want you to know that we will not bow down to your statue of gold.
When I was in homiletics class at Bible College, one of the first an most enduring lessons I learned about preaching was this: don't talk about yourself in sermons. If you do, we were told, you make yourself out to be a hero of sorts and that's not always happiness. That is, it makes the person speaking seem to be less than humble. To this day, I can say that I may have spoken about my wife's cancer (and a subsequent bout with hemolytic anemia 2 years later) only a handful of times–which is an arrogant thing to say. That's what made the memoir, the memoir of someone who hasn't had trouble succeeding, very difficult to read. There is a tremendous depth of honesty and candor in the writing, but it comes off as heroic; a lot. Camp probably doesn't intend it to be so, but it does nonetheless. This was the least redeeming aspect of the book.
It's a difficult path. You want to tell your story. You want to honor Jesus. But there's always the struggle of painting yourself too highly. It may not be intentional, but it is inevitable.
Yet it is a good story to read. I read the revised and expanded edition so I have no idea what was changed or altered from the previous (2011) version. I'm not sure this book is worthy of a second read, although some may think it is. I also think this book is written for younger people–maybe college age or high school. It's not going to win a Pulitzer Prize or anything, but he's probably not trying to either. He is sharing his testimony before the Lord in the hopes that one person might hear and be saved. I'm fine with that.
He deals with weighty issues: I too would have been devastated if my wife had died during that first year of our marriage. Jeremy Camp gives us a wonderful picture of what the depths of sorrow and devastation are like–and perhaps how to respond to such devastation. And in this regard, we can come alongside Jeremy and sit in the ashes with him for a while. It is good to be sorrowful together, to carry one another's burdens, and to weep together in the Lord. But he also gives us a picture of what it means to trust and wait on the Lord–to Stay 'right there in the light.' I might find him a bit too heroic at times, but I cannot say he is not faithful. I might not read the book again, but I'll keep listening to his music. There, in his songs, is where his testimony is.
I have a companion blog you can access here: Ten Thousand Places.
Thanks for visiting.
Like many people right now, I am reading Michael Spencer’s book Mere Churchianity, which was recently published by Waterbrook Press. I’m only two chapters in, but already I know the reason I bought the book and why I visited the late Spencer’s blog Internet Monk so frequently.
He tells his readers in the introduction exactly to whom he is writing and why:
Mere Churchianity is written for people who have come to the end of the road with the church but who can’t entirely walk away from Jesus. In the wreckage of a church-shaped religious faith, the reality of Jesus of Nazareth persists and calls out to them. I’m talking to those who have left, those who will leave, those who might as well leave, and those who don’t know why they are still hanging around.
And I’m writing to the outsiders who might be drawn to God if it weren’t for Christians.” (5)
I am one of those people to whom Spencer is writing. It’s a sad thing, really, that I am an ordained minister, have a Bible college education, earned my living from the church for the better part of fifteen years, and have been a Christian since I was at least thirteen, maybe sooner, and have very little interest, right now, in the church—and precisely because of the people who make up the church. I know it is a strange thing since I too am part of that problem, part of the church.
I’m not that far gone though. I still worship with the church on Sundays and when I am asked I am still willing to step to the pulpit and speak the word of God to God’s people. Truth be told, I love the church which is the main reason why it is so terribly painful to be living in this borderlands place that I am living right now. I know Jesus loves the church—ugly as the church is—and that he will never quit on the church no matter how far away the church wanders from or quits him. I know that I have no right to despise the body of Christ.
Yet I suppose that is the very temptation I have had to struggle with so much over the last eleven months of this pilgrimage: how can I not despise the very place where I have been so despised while serving as a pastor/preacher? Oh, it’s that grace thing I suppose and I’d rather not think of that; it’s much easier to keep provoking and nursing those needling thoughts about all I would like to say. The first time I was treated poorly by a church I went right back to the pulpit and took out a lot of frustrations on unsuspecting congregants. This time, the Lord is not so quick to allow me that opportunity again. So I have been wandering for nearly a year.
William Willimon wrote a smart little book he titled Sinning Like a Christian wherein he explores the so-called seven deadly sins. I was minding my own business tonight when my wife grabbed the book, opened to a random page, and began reading:
Maybe that’s why the Scripture tells us, ‘Vengeance is mine,’ says the Lord, ‘I will repay.’ Vengeance, once of the most popular motivations for indignation, righteous or otherwise, is not a gift God gives to us. Vengeance, the ultimate, final righting of what’s wrong with the world, is God’s business, not ours. Because our anger can be so self-deceptive and delusional, so very dangerous to ourselves and others, the church has called Anger a sin, and a deadly one at that. We are to guard against it, fight it with all our might, repress it and stuff it in because, not being wise or as loving as God, we are not to be trusted with Anger.” (76)
Well, I wasn’t too happy with my wife after she read that ‘random’ passage of Willimon to me. I would have been much happier if she had read me a love-letter or a birthday card or the menu from our favorite local Chinese restaurant. Truth is, it hit me hard.
In about five minutes, on June 23, I will turn forty. I don’t care any more. I had my mid-life crisis when I turned thirty ten years ago and celebrated with folks from the church who, nine years after that fact, terminated my employment and sent me into a tailspin of anger, church homelessness, and depression. Forty? Pshaw! I can do forty standing on my head in the snow.
But forty is a special day because it also marks the first day of the rest of my life and the beginning of another change I need to make. I haven’t been on good terms with my Lord for the last year; he is so patient. He gave me a year or so to sort it out or, rather, to wrestle with all the emotions that come from such a drastic change as I have had to make. July 12 is the real anniversary, but June 23 marks my fortieth birthday and it is also the day I have decided to open up my Bible again and begin to read it and pray it.
I needed a break from it. I needed to know that I still hungered for it. I needed to know that it was still the Word of the Living God. I needed to know that despite everything that had changed about me, the Word was still capable of changing me even more. Frankly, I had to know that I still believed what was written in the book. So I am breaking my fast (it hasn’t been as complete as I make it sound) from the Bible and beginning all over again again because I believe that the Bible was also written to misfits like myself—people who are on the brink of walking away—people like those to whom Michael Spencer wrote. And Spencer did not write to justify their walking away, or thinking of walking away, but rather to show there is a reason to continue loving the church.
The Bible too.
I will be reading the Bible afresh, with fresh eyes, with new perspective, and with a new confidence—not confidence that it has ‘all the answers’ to my questions or that God will all of a sudden reward my diligence with new sermons or jobs or ideas or anything of that sort. No, nothing like that at all. Rather I will be reading the Bible just to see what it says about God and his way of dealing with rebels like me.
I have known my anger. I have known my bitterness. I have known my disgust. I have known hatred and a desire for revenge. I have known rebellion, distance, and blasphemy. I have known cursing. I’m tired of all that. I’m tired of the exhaustion that comes from living apart from a real living faith and conversation with the Living God.
I want to know Jesus. Better, He still wants to know me. And maybe together, Jesus and me, I will learn how to love the church again like I used to; like he never stopped doing, the way He always does.
Today’s readings: Numbers 16:20-35. Romans 4:1-12. Matthew 19_23-30. Psalm 94.
Reflections on Pentecost Sunday, May 31, 2009
“Faith has to do with marrying Invisible and Visible. When we engage in an act of faith we give up control, we give up sensory (sight, hearing, etc.) confirmation of reality; we give up insisting on head knowledge as our primary means of orientation in life. The positive way to say this is that when we engage in an act of faith we choose to deal with a living God whom we trust to know what he is doing, we choose a way of life in which bodily senses and physical matter are understood as inseparable and organic to vast interiorities (soul) and immense beyonds (heaven), and we choose to no longer operate strictly on the basis of hard-earned knowledge, glorious as it is, but over a lifetime to embrace the mystery that ‘must dazzle gradually/Or every man go blind.’ (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 44; the quote at the end is from Emily Dickenson, The Complete Poems.)
I preached from Ezekiel 37 this morning but only the first 14 verses. The Lord takes Ezekiel for a walk through a valley, a plain—maybe the plain of Meggido—and shows him the remains of what had probably been a battle. The dead, likely of the losing army, had been left on the battle field. Their bodies over time had decayed and been picked clean by the animals and birds. All that was left was bones. A valley of dry, very dry bones. And as Ezekiel retells the events of that day, he recalled that the Lord had showed him all around the valley that day after setting him down in the very middle of that pile of bones. Listen to Ezekiel recall the day’s events.
The hand of the LORD was upon me, and he brought me out by the Spirit of the LORD and set me in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me back and forth among them, and I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry. He asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?” I said, “O Sovereign LORD, you alone know.”
Ezekiel was shown a valley of desolation, a plain of hopelessness, the valley of the shadow of death. There was nothing there but death, dead, dry bones and that is all that Ezekiel saw. Ezekiel was far too literal; he hadn’t yet developed the eyes of faith, eyes that see what eyes cannot see. The Lord showed Ezekiel everything there was to see: A vast, endless, sea of dead, dry, very dry bones. From a purely human point of view, the question the Lord asked Ezekiel was unfair and I believe that Ezekiel’s answer betrays that: “Lord, you alone know.”
This was, I believe, Ezekiel’s way of giving a perfectly orthodox theological answer without being committed to faith: “You alone know Lord.” Yes. The Lord knows. I think it was Ezekiel’s way of saying something like, “Lord, you can do anything, but I seriously doubt that this valley of dry, very dry bones can or will live. You alone know, Lord; yes, I agree. But this is a valley of dry bones. That’s all I see. There’s no hope for this valley of dry bones. And yet, Lord, I will obey; I will speak.”
The thing is, that’s not what the Lord saw. Later we learn what the Lord saw. Listen to what the Lord told the prophet.
Then he said to me: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, `Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off. Therefore prophesy and say to them: `This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live, and I will settle you in your own land. Then you will know that I the LORD have spoken, and I have done it, declares the LORD.’ “
That’s the difference between God’s view of things and our view of things. God sees the things that we do not, or cannot. God sees life where there is death; hope where there is hopelessness; the House of Israel where there is only a valley of dry bones. God sees things that we cannot. You might say that God has a sort of faith that we do not. I might say I want that sort of faith.
Maybe Ezekiel wasn’t quite ready to give up control; maybe I’m not. He knew what he saw: A valley of dry, very dry bones. Maybe he wasn’t ready to give up sensory control or his insistence upon a purely intellectual, visual, orientation to life. It’s not easy to live in that sort of, from a human point of view, randomness. We like control. We like knowing, seeing, hearing. We do not like things being out of the ordinary; we like routine. Faith is a way of living that says, if I may, ‘to hell with routine; to hell with what I know, see, hear; to hell with control.’ I know that sounds almost like anarchy, but I assure you it is actually the sort of life (the only sort of life) that can say, “Yes Lord I will take my son, my only son, whom I love, and sacrifice him on a distant mountain even though I don’t see the sense of it;” or “Yes Lord I will prophesy to a valley of dead, dry bones even though I don’t think anything will happen when I do;” or “Yes, Lord, continue believing in you even though there are people who want to kill me for doing so;” or, “Yes, Lord, I will dance and become even more undignified even though people will mock me, people from within my own family; or, “Yes, Lord, I will go to the world with your hope even though they will reject me and crucify me.”
That kind of faith is the kind of faith that defines the people of Christ. And it is also the kind of faith that we are asked to exercise in every situation. The hardest times to exercise such faith are the times when we happen to think that such faith isn’t actually necessary. “Oh, it’s a small decision. I can make it on my own. God doesn’t care what sort of toaster I buy. All I need here is common sense and Sunday’s ads.” But that is not faith. Faith is that extraordinary trust, small and often indiscernible, even when things seem simple and uncomplicated. It might be easy to display a herculean sort of faith during times of great stress and pressure and attack, but I think it is most important to practice such faith when things are at their easiest and least complicated. It shows that we don’t trust ourselves at all; that we need guidance in all ways.
If we don’t practice such faith then, do you think we will practice such faith when life is up in arms and the enemy is crowding us, desiring more space in our lives, when things are really, really hard? If I won’t have the faith required to preach faithfully to a captive audience (let’s face it, a valley of dry bones is a rather captive audience; they’re not going anywhere; they can’t do anything but ‘listen’), then how will I faithfully preach to a living body of Christ? (Maybe it says something about Ezekiel that the Lord entrusted him to preach to a valley of dry bones first before he asked him to preach to the ‘whole house of Israel’.) It’s a small thing to preach to dry bones; it’s quite another thing to preach to the Living Body of Christ. I notice Ezekiel did preach to the bones; we are not told that he preached this particular message to the ‘whole house of Israel’ (See vss 7, 10, 12-14.)
I know I am mixing up all these words: Faith, faithfulness, God’s ‘faith’, my faith. What I’m getting at though is that perhaps faith is the letting go of what we know and see and hear and the living of life that comes from knowing, seeing and hearing and instead living a life that is oriented around what God sees, hears, and knows. I mean think about it, what’s better? Preaching to what we see, that is, a valley of dry bones or preaching to what God sees, the whole house of Israel? But until we have the sort of eyes that see what God sees, the whole house of Israel, our efforts, our preaching, our faith—indeed, our very lives–will be full of frustration and futility.
We live by faith, not sight. But it’s that kind of faith; God’s kind of faith. So Ezekiel prophesied.
And there was a noise, a rattling sound.
Here is my first installment of this week’s Lectionary notes. These notes are on Psalm 23. For part of the time while I was writing these notes I was listening to David Crowder*Band’s A Collision or 3+4=7. There are ten (10) pages of notes that include relevant cross-references and quotes and personal observations about faith. An obvious choice of books in this lesson is Philip Keller’s Psalm 23: A Shepherd Looks at the Psalm 23. I have chosen not to utilize this source, but it is available for others if they so choose. My notes sort of play with the themes of Presence, Abundance, Dependence and Journey. The notes are in semi-random order. You can download them from my box.net account.
Update: I turned this lesson into a Bible School Lesson. Access here at box.net.
Asleep in Anxiety
Genesis 7, Psalm 3-4
There are wounded people all around the world. There are people whose lives are under constant threat from enemies. There are people whose lives are under constant strain of economic instability. There are people whose lives are marked by constant floods and the daily concern of what to eat and drink.
Enter Psalms 3-4. “Lord, how many are my foes! How many rise up against me? Many are saying of me, ‘God will not deliver him.’” We are entering the prayer of someone whose life is in serious danger. This is a person who says ‘tens of thousands assail [me] on every side’ (6). (Well, he says he will not ‘fear’ them, but even if its merely hyperbole, the point is the same: This is a person in serious trouble from other humans.) The story of Absalom’s rebellion against David is a terrible tragedy and David must have truly felt that the world was against him.
Still David can say, “I lie down and sleep; I wake again, because the Lord sustains me.”
As the reader of the Psalms, or the prayer of the Psalter, moves into Psalm 4 he is confronted with a similar situation. Here is someone calling out to God because he is in trouble again. “Give me relief from my distress; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” I suspect that during much of the day such prayers are going up before God and I have no doubts that he hears all these cries of the oppressed. It could be that this Psalm speaks very poignantly to our current situation in America: “Many, Lord, are asking, ‘Who will bring us prosperity?’”
Again, the Psalmist writes, “In peace I will lie down and sleep, for you alone, Lord, make me dwell in safety.”
I’m confused. I thought, and I could be wrong, that we smart people were supposed to stay awake all night long and worry about the turmoil in our lives? You know, like when the world (‘tens of thousands’) are rising up against us; or when the economy (‘grain and new wine’) is faltering. I thought we were supposed to struggle through these things, fill ourselves up with all sorts of anxiety and fear and turmoil and stress and allow these things to slowly dismantle us from the inside to the outside. I don’t remember anywhere being told that we should, let alone can, sleep during times of discomfort and distress.
Kind of makes me wonder if Noah ever had any sleepless nights, full of restless anxiety, while he was on the ark full of animals, his children, and his wife. Nah.
Asleep in anxiety? Can it be? At some point the Psalmist realized that he was in so deep, surrounded by so many, undone by so many struggling economic issues that if God would not rescue him or could not rescue him then he was hopeless. I think it takes just enough faith to allow us to sleep well. You might say there is a fine line between faith and fatalism. Still, it seems to me that when we don’t sleep well in the midst of all such turmoil it is likely because we are not trusting in God who is able to rescue us. (See Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego in Daniel’s Gospel.)
Is it naïve of me to think that rest can come so easily? I don’t know. In Psalm 3, David is confident that the Lord will answer his prayers (v 4). In Psalm 4, David is not so confident (v 1-2). David sleeps either way. It seems to me then that there is a sort of faith that is even greater than the mere expectation of an answered prayer. That is, David puts his faith and hope and confidence in the God who hears prayers (4:3), not in the answers (either with thunder or silence) to the prayers.
It seems to me that there is a peace that transcends the circumstance and confounds the flesh. David continues to pray. Sometimes he hears the voice of God shake the world from ‘his holy mountain’ (3:4) Sometimes David has to keep beating on the doors and pleading for God to hear him while he is being humiliated and embarrassed (4:2). Still, David sleeps; rests.
I wish I had that sort of faith. I wish I had the sort of faith that could sleep well regardless of whether or not God answers the prayers. I wish I had the sort of faith that is more confident in God than in my ability to rattle the heavens with words and petitions. I wish I had the sort of faith that could sleep through a storm, or a flood, or an economic downturn.
These Psalms really challenge our ideas of confidence.
I’d like to share some personal reflections concerning president-elect Barrack Obama and how I have chosen to respond to his recent election to the highest office in our land (save for that of the local church preacher.)
I shall state from the beginning of this post that I am a conservative. That does not mean I am a Republican. Nor does it mean I am not a Democrat. What it means is that I believe certain things about fiscal responsibility, certain things about morality, and that I believe certain things about personal responsibility. It does not mean that I am a misogynist, homophobe, redneck, indigent-phobe, or racist.
It does mean that I think homosexuality is a sin (although for some conservatives it does not mean this at all), men are men and women are women and we are not alike, and that America has come a long way in its race relations since the Emancipation Proclamation. It does not mean I think America is the best place to live for everyone, but it is the best place for me to live (and that our history is rich, diverse, and blessed.) It does not mean I think America is perfect. It does mean I think a lot of places in the world would be rather bad-off if the USA didn’t exist. It does not mean I love war and violence. It does mean that I am not so naïve as to think a world, fallen as it is, will be devoid of war apart from the reign of Christ. It does not mean that those in elected-office get a blank check from me, but it does mean that I respect the office they hold and that per the Scripture, I should pray for them. It means that I think abortion to be one of the most despicable, heinous and outrageous crimes a person can perpetrate against the human body, against life. It does not mean that I think those who have had abortions have committed the unforgivable sin.
Being a conservative gets a bad rap because most think it means being intolerant of those who are living differently or believing differently—as if God’s grace depends upon the rightness of our opinions and convictions. Being conservative does not mean we are intolerant of people even if we are intolerant of certain ideas that people hold or certain lifestyles that people, for whatever reason, live. For that matter, intolerance does not mean or equate to hatred. My conservatism flows out of my being a Christ-follower and not the other way around. It doesn’t mean this for everyone, but it does for me. Being conservative means not being liberal. Neither idea means being less than or more than human. It means having ideas about things that matter this much.
I have made a very difficult decision to champion Barrack Obama. I have written critically of President-Elect Obama and some of his (political and theological) views at my own blog. I had an argument with family members at a summer picnic because they already supported him (actually they just opposed President Bush). I have harbored terrifying thoughts about what an Obama presidency might hold for America. I have read the blogs of those who also live in terrific fear of what an Obama presidency might hold. Like here. And here. And here. (And there are many, many more just like this.)
Suddenly it came over me last week at a prayer meeting, as I listened to a man I know speak about some of his concerns and how God is using this shake this and squeeze that and how the church needs to get ready, that I don’t need to or have to fear a so-called liberal president. Why should I fear? Whom shall I fear? The Psalmist wrote, “Some trust in horses and chariots, but we trust in the Lord our God.” Whom shall I fear? I will not live the next four years of my life in constant fear of some imagined agenda people have put into his mouth. I have other things I’d rather worry about—like prayers, Scripture, those God has put in my life and the lives that God has shoved me into. Fear is not high on my list of fun ways to live, nor is it on my agenda for tomorrow.
So I have decided that I will be a supporter of Barrack Obama for a few different reasons.
First, I will be a supporter of Obama because it is not in my nature to act like an ADM. That is, I will not be one of those who will sit back and engage in schadenfreude. The writers of .info have always impressed me not because I agree with the position they take in regard to everything, but precisely because they do not engage in delight at the failure of others. I don’t want him to fail. Granted, I hope some of his policies fail and do so miserably. But I can hope for him, without supporting his particular ideas about morality.
Take abortion for example. When I went to Great Lakes Christian College in 1991, I remember gathering one night to pray for upcoming elections. The candidates were Bill Clinton and George Bush. We had one issue, mostly, on our minds: Abortion. Then Clinton was elected, much to the chagrin of many people. And you know what? Not a thing happened concerning Roe v. Wade for 8 years of the Clinton Administration. Then George W Bush was elected. And not a thing has happened to Roe v. Wade for 8 years of his administration. I’ll grant that Mr Obama is a flaming lunatic when it comes to his opinions on abortion, but I’m not naïve enough to think that John McCain, had he been elected, would have suddenly swung the pendulum so far right that Roe v. Wade would have been overturned. I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. I’m just saying that perhaps it is time for Christians to find alternative ways for dealing with the abortion issue besides putting all our stock in a presidential candidate who will ‘get the right people on the Supreme Court and get Roe v. Wade overturned.’ I think that is a pipe-dream at best.
To the point, I will not engage in schadenfreude when it comes to Pres-E Obama. I am not an ADM and I never will be.
Second, I don’t have to live in fear of him. He is a man and I just find it impossible to believe that it is his stated or secret goal and purpose to ruin the America we all know and love. Fact is, if he produces policies that differ from my point of view that is fine. If he produces legislation that is forcibly contrary to God’s Law, I have the biblical obligation to disobey. I don’t have the obligation to live in fear of Obama any more than liberals had reason to live in fear of George W Bush or than first century Christians had to fear Caesar. I will not conduct myself or raise my family or practice my faith based on fear of any man or woman in political office. The only fear I have a right to practice is fear of God.
The bottom line for me is this: God is still Sovereign. I heard someone say the other day that our fate lies in Obama’s hands. Pshaw! I saw an ad on facebook that has a picture of Obama with the word “Hope” underneath. Pshaw! I have heard people comparing him to the Messiah. Pshaw! I hear people say that the president of the United States is the most powerful man in the world. Horse****! He is none of these things for me because Christians are strangers, pilgrims, sojourners and aliens…I have as much fear of him as I do for the little old atheist lady who lives next door. Christians live under the sovereign watch-care and covenant-love of God Almighty. Whom shall I fear? This is not so much about should I support him, as much as can I support him. The answer is yes. I didn’t vote for him, but I’m not about to abandon him either. This is a matter of trust: Do I trust God who loves me or fear a man who cannot do me any harm?
Third, why not give peace a chance and take him at face-value? Pres-E Obama said he is a Christian and that his hope is in Jesus Christ: Why should I believe differently? For example, I might not like the things his pastor (Jeremiah Wright) said, but on the other hand…I don’t suppose that Jeremiah Wright would like everything I said about America either (and who’s to say that behind the sound-bites and rhetoric Wright is not making a larger point about which he is, well, right?) Point is, as a Christian, I belong to God first and America last. I am happy to be an American, but I am not defined by my nationality in the Kingdom of God. I’ll give Obama the benefit of the doubt and accept his word that he belongs to Christ. It’s the ADM culture that calls other people’s confessions of Christ into question, not .info’s. Barrack may have worshiped at a church for 20 years that has some questionable theology, but unlike many politicians, he was at least worshiping. Besides, whom among us doesn’t have impaired theology? None of us, not one of us, has it all right.
Fourth, I will support him because Jesus told us to love. He said, Love one another. Love God. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Love those who persecute you. Well, at this juncture, the worst Obama is is my neighbor. He’s hardly persecuted me. He’s hardly my enemy. In fact, if he claims Christ as he says he does (and who are we to question that?) then don’t I have a biblical obligation to love him as I love myself? Even when Jesus said, “Love your enemies” he did not put any conditional strings on that love. He didn’t say, “Love them until they do something that offends you.” When he said to pray for those in positions of authority, he didn’t say, “Pray for them so long as they make policy decisions that you agree with.” He said: Love. Pray. He left these terms profoundly undefined and agenda-less. If Obama is my brother in Christ…well, love keeps no record of wrongs. Is God’s grace only efficacious for those of us who are not politicians we disagree with fiscally and morally or preachers we disagree with theologically? Is being a liberal senator an unforgivable sin now?
Fifth, because I will not treat Barrack Obama the way liberals (and many conservatives!!) treated George W Bush. My heart breaks for President Bush because he is a good man who became president at the wrong time (or the right time!) and he has been treated like absolute garbage by everyone. It is downright shameful how people have treated that man, that fellow American, that brother in Christ (as he too claims). He has protected our country—perhaps in ways we disagree with—and done a good job. He was called to serve and did so.
I read an essay at Wall Street Journal online by Jeffrey Scott Shapiro who makes this very case. He wrote:
The treatment President Bush has received from this country is nothing less than a disgrace. The attacks launched against him have been cruel and slanderous, proving to the world what little character and resolve we have. The president is not to blame for all these problems. He never lost faith in or her people, and has tried his hardest to continue leading our nation during a very difficult time. Our failure to stand by the one person who continued to stand by us has not gone unnoticed by our enemies. It has shown to the world how disloyal we can be when our president needed loyalty — a shameful display of arrogance and weakness that will haunt this nation long after Mr. Bush has left the White House.
You know what? I will not treat Barrack Obama that way. Jesus also said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I will not stoop to the levels that many Americans have with respect to President Bush.
Finally, I will support Barrack Obama because I prayed that God’s will would be done and I trust that it was. Many Christians spent a lot of energy and blog space lamenting the campaign and election of Barrack Obama (I no less than anyone else). I have a friend who wonders how the nation is even going to survive the next 20 years. Well, you know what? It might not. We might all be swallowed alive tomorrow by a flying spaghetti monster, but does that matter? Tomorrow, the stock market may crash and we may have to actually start planting gardens instead of going to Wal-Mart for food. Or perhaps tomorrow the rights of the church will be taken away: We could lose tax-exempt status, or be forced to close our doors, or told we can ‘no longer speak His name,’ or perhaps people might start burning down our buildings and then what would we do without heat and air? So what? Do we think that this means God has suddenly abandoned us? Do we think that this means God’s will is suddenly being thwarted?
Are we the type of Christians who think that the election of one man to political office suddenly means that God has been escorted from his throne? Do we think God cannot handle such things? Do we think this is a mere eventuality to God? Do we think that this makes God shake and quiver?
I’m going to support Barrack Obama because I can, I should, and I must. I can because God is Sovereign. I should because he is my brother in Christ. I must because he is the president for the next four years. PT Forsyth wrote an amazing book back in 1917 called The Justification of God. It is a fabulous book written to the world in the midst of a Great War and a time of economic peril. It was reissued again after WWII. In that book, he said this:
“It is not easy to believe that the Kingdom of God is the greatest Empire now in the world—and especially at present it is hard. But faith’s greatest conquest of the world is to believe, on the strength of Christ’s Cross, that the world has been overcome, and that the nations which rage so furiously are still in the leash of the redeeming God.” (158)
He’s not my choice. I didn’t vote for him (neither did I vote for McCain), but I will support President Elect and soon to be President Obama because my faith is in God who is faithful. I will pray that he will be a vessel of God’s grace, an agent of mercy, an ambassador for freedom and liberty that we in America enjoy because of God’s grace and mercy. But I will not just ‘support’ him in some meaningless, backhanded way. I will go a step further and do for him what others have not done for George W Bush: I will love him, his wife, and his children, and give honor to whom honor is due. I can either work hard to make it hard for him and more difficult or I can love him and pray for him. I will love him because I am commanded to love, because I want to love, because I choose to love, and because I have been empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to love. Perfect love casts out fear and God has created us to love, not to fear; to love, not hate; to love without an agenda all those created in his image.
Soli Deo Gloria!
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This is the manuscript from part 6 of the series. We are reading through the Bible in 90 Days and at this point those who are participating are midway or so through the Psalms. This sermon, from Isaiah 60-66, is fairly simply and makes three major points–derived by scanning the entirety of Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. One, that the new heavens and the new earth and their creation are something that God is about the business of doing. It’s not, no matter how much we are Advance Signs, something we can accomplish on our strength. Second, that there is necessarily a future element to this work. You will notice as you read through these chapters in the Prophet that he continually uses the word ‘will.’ Not everything is accomplished now, which is one of the paradoxes of Christian faith. Furthermore, I might add as a side note, just because we are doing things now as Advance Signs, just because our work now gives hints and clues of what God will do, this doesn’t necessarily translate into an exact representation of what God will do. For that matter, it doesn’t necessarily mean that God is even involved in what we are doing. We give hints, glimmers, sign-posts, but we are shadows. God is the Real and His plans for the New Heavens and the New Earth are likely vastly different than ours. Finally, I will conclude the sermon by noting that what God has done and will do have been inaugurated and completed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus uttered those word ‘it is finished,’ and we sense in those words a finality and Luke tells us in chapter 4:18-19 that Jesus said these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him! Yet Luke, when he begins the book of Acts, tells that he wrote the first book (Luke) to tell of all that ‘Jesus began to do and teach.’ This leaves us with the distinct impression that his second book (Acts) is about all that Jesus continued to do and teach by His Spirit through His disciples. So God has done it; God will do it. Admittedly, I have too much text. The idea, however, was not to exhaust Isaiah’s vision, but, much like we are to the world, to give just a hint, a glimmer, of what he was pointing us to and we see completed in Jesus. Then we ask: Is Jesus enough? jerry
90 Days with Scripture
Week 6: November 2, 2008
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
“Chapters 58-66 begin, as does the book as a whole, by exposing hypocritical and manipulative approaches to worship that insult the glorious God whom Isaiah has so powerfully portrayed. If the worship that is supposed to restore and sustain fellowship with God is itself sinful, how can the barrier of sin between God and his people be removed? The answer lies in God’s commitment to his purpose and in his creative power. The God who created the world will not cease to work until he has defeated sin, turned hearts to him, and established new heavens and a new earth. All that remains is for people to recognize the true nature and work of God and to respond to him in faith.” (109, Briley)
I suppose that we cannot really begin to describe what that time will be like. I can’t even begin to imagine what that place will be like. Sure we have ideas and notions, but they are only ideas and notions; premonitions perhaps. I don’t know really. All I have to go one is Scripture. All I can do is take Scripture at its word and trust that God will make good on his Word.
Some say that we currently are involved in the process of making things better in this world. We are, they say, Advanced Signs of what God is doing or will do. Those who live out their faith in practice are ‘making this a better place’ or at least showing the better place it will be when God finally finishes the work he has said he will finish. We are workers for justice, among other things, but we are we really? I know we are supposed to be working for justice and for freedom and shining our lights before men…but is man realistically speaking capable of such a thing?
Admittedly, I have too much text for today, but if I learned any one thing out of all that I learned this: What Isaiah was prophesying, what he was pointing to, what he was directing our attention to, what he was promising-is that what needs to be done on the earth, even if we are Advanced Signs, needs to be done by God. So consider what led into this chapter:
He saw that there was no one,
he was appalled that there was no one to intervene;
so his own arm worked salvation for him,
and his own righteousness sustained him.
He put on righteousness as his breastplate,
and the helmet of salvation on his head;
he put on the garments of vengeance
and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
According to what they have done,
so will he repay
wrath to his enemies
and retribution to his foes;
he will repay the islands their due.
From the west, men will fear the name of the LORD,
and from the rising of the sun, they will revere his glory.
For he will come like a pent-up flood
that the breath of the LORD drives along.
“The Redeemer will come to Zion,
to those in Jacob who repent of their sins,”
declares the LORD.
“As for me, this is my covenant with them,” says the LORD. “My Spirit, who is on you, and my words that I have put in your mouth will not depart from your mouth, or from the mouths of your children, or from the mouths of their descendants from this time on and forever,” says the LORD.
I think history demonstrates rather conclusively that human beings are not that good at fixing things. We really do want things to be better, but we have only a marginal notion of what ‘better’ even means and an even worse idea of how to accomplish that. It’s a terrible way to live, really, but we seem to take some comfort from the fact that every now and again slight progress is made. I have to be honest with you though, I’m not particularly interested in the sort of world that man makes better.
It’s not that I am a fatalist or anything. I’m a realist. I know who I am: I know what I think is a better world necessarily conflicts with what 90% of the population thinks is a better world. Faith then consists of the willingness to allow that God’s version of what is a better world is necessarily right and that my conception is necessarily right.
This takes us back to Genesis 3 where we started all this. It was there that man had the silly idea that having knowledge of good and evil was a good idea. It was there that man said, I want to be the creator of life, the creator of destiny, the creator of a standard of living. We have lived content in that place for a long, long time, scarcely acknowledging that God’s way is right, that his judgment is just, that his creation is good and ours is not.
God, however, does not just take us back to Genesis 3; he takes us back to Genesis 1. The opening verses of today’s sermon reflect that:
“Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD rises upon you.
See, darkness covers the earth
and thick darkness is over the peoples,
but the LORD rises upon you
and his glory appears over you.
Here it is, then! Darkness covers the earth; thick darkness covers the people. And what sort of light to we want to cover the earth and raise our hopes? Artificial light? Fake light? Do we want light that man creates out of his conception of good and evil or do we want light of the glory of God? Well, truthfully speaking, we probably want the light of men. We are still likely convinced that man can solve all the problems that man has created.
I’m not so optimistic. I want better solutions. But the solution is not merely a solution. The solution is God. This is not about God setting the world right by our standards of good and evil, right and wrong, justice and injustice. This is about God setting the world right by His standards.
” ‘Hear the word of the Lord,
you who trembled at his word:
‘Your brothers who hate you, and
exclude you because of my name, have said,
“Let the Lord be glorified,
that we may see your joy!”‘
And God is not cautious in his description of what he means to do, in what he is already doing, in what he means to finish. But he does speak in futuristic terms. If it is something God does, it is something God will do, and something we will participate in.
- You will look and be radiant.
- Your heart will throb and swell with joy.
- I will adorn my glorious temple.
- Foreigners will rebuild your walls.
- I will show you compassion.
- You will be called priests of the Lord
- You will be named ministers of our God
- I will not keep silent till her vindication shines out like the dawn
- You will be a crown of splendor in the Lord’s hand.
- I will measure into their laps the full payment for their former deeds
- But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create, for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight and its people a joy.
- They will neither harm nor destroy on all my holy mountain
- See I will create new heavens and a new earth, the former things will not be remembered.
And there is more. All I am saying is that we may see Advance Signs now, we may be Advance Signs, but there is still an aspect of it that even we are looking forward to. In the meantime I believe we will find it terribly difficult at times to wait. We have to be ready, we have to be patient, we have to be busy. But we have to wait. It’s not all here now, even if it has been inaugurated.
Well, it will be a grad and glorious thing when it happens. He uses imagery that we can understand and relate to, images like weddings, wealth and prosperity, new clothes, great beauty, war, abundance, birth of a child, and more. He points us back to the beginning when God saw all that he had made and it was good. He tells us these days will be like those days of the Exodus when Moses led the people out of captivity. It will be a time marked by peace and joy and abundance and good food and justice and righteousness and peace (‘no longer will violence be heard in your land, nor ruin or destruction within your borders, but you will call your walls Salvation and your gates praise.’) He goes on:
“Then will all your people be righteous
and they will possess the land forever.
They are the shoot I have planted,
the work of my hands,
for the display of my splendor.
“The least of you will become a thousand,
the smallest a mighty nation.
I am the LORD;
in its time I will do this swiftly.”
Finally, this work, this mighty, mighty work, was announced in Genesis 3: You will strike his heal, he will crush your head. It was set in motion in Genesis 12: You will be a blessing to all nations. It was inaugurated in Jesus of Nazareth when he quoted Isaiah 61:1-3 as recorded in Luke’s Gospel:
The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me,
because the LORD has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim freedom for the captives
and release from darkness for the prisoners,
to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor
and the day of vengeance of our God,
to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion–
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of a spirit of despair.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
a planting of the LORD
for the display of his splendor.
Jesus said, after reading this Scripture: “Today this Scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Today? Fulfilled? Already? In Jesus? You mean we are already living in the time when God has begun his work of renewing, restoring, and re-creating? Jesus announced the beginning and ending of Scripture’s fulfillment. Jesus did. No one else makes that claim, only Jesus of Nazareth. And should we be so disappointed then when he is found at Calvary?
What I love about these verses here in Isaiah is that by and large, far and away, they are mirrored in the book of the Revelation. And Luke, combined with John’s portrait in the Revelation, demonstrate to us that God’s plan has not changed. In Jesus we see an inauguration and an acceleration of the plan, but not a change in his plan. This is what Jesus came for, this is what God is working towards, this is the fulfillment of all things: A New Heavens and New Earth. A new life that is free from the tyranny of the urgent, free from the tyranny of tyrants, free from the tyranny of obligations to anyone but God Almighty Himself. As Cottrell notes, “What this means is that heaven is not the elimination of time itself, but the elimination of time limitations. No more deadlines! No more expiration dates! No more having to quit before the job is done! No more, ‘I just ran out of time’!”
Should we then be so surprised and shocked that this work of God involved the cross?
Jesus makes a bold statement. He says: I am the fulfillment of this prophecy of Isaiah. He says, “I am the one whom the Lord has sent to start and finish this work.”
But as I noted at the beginning:
“All that remains is for people to recognize the true nature and work of God and to respond to him in faith.”
So I am asking: Where is your faith? In whom have you placed your trust? I suspect that many of us live with some sort of apprehension or anxiety about today or tomorrow or Tuesday. Where is your faith? Do you have confidence that this God who began a good work in you can and will finish it?
I don’t need to be complicated this morning, and I don’t need to go deep. I just need to ask you: Where is your faith? Is your faith in the One who certainly cannot fail because He spared nothing, even giving his own Son to die? Is your faith in the world which is bound over to destruction? Is your faith in the One who has guaranteed His promise in the Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth? Or is your faith here in the place and in the ones whose worm will not die, whose fire is not quenched?
18I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. 20For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.
22We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? 25But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.
Soli Deo Gloria!
I printed the manuscript below for this sermon on Isaiah 3:1-4:1. The audio takes about 22 minutes or so-I am becoming much more efficient in my preaching. In this sermon, I follow on the heals of last week’s sermon which dealt primarily with trusting God. In this sermon, what I did was take that to it’s next step: What will we do when all vestiges of visible strength are removed? It is terribly important to remember that the prophet is speaking to God’s people specifically and not the population in general. Doing this makes the prophet’s message even more significant to people in our generation who believe that we can plunder God glory for our own ends. Israel plundered God’s glory and made their sin and shame their glory instead. As I conclude, it must not be this way for the church.
You can listen here: Plundering God.
Or use the inline player below.
Other download options are available through feedburner and archive.org.
Always for His glory!