Friday, December 29, 2006

Prayer: No Apologies

Lately, one thought has recurred to me frequently concerning prayer: the goal of prayer is not to prove (or disprove) the existence of God.

It seems to me that prayer can sometimes become a game we play, either with ourselves or with others. If God “answers” our prayers - that is, gives us what we want - we feel affirmed in our belief. If God “doesn’t answer” our prayers - that is, does not give us what we want - we wonder whether he is there at all, or what good is he anyway.

Do you relate to this?

This approach to prayer sees prayer as, first, an opportunity to get stuff from God and, second, an opportunity for God to show himself to us. This is far removed from the biblical picture of prayer, however.

The biblical portrait of prayer is complex, and certainly contains examples where answered prayer provides a testimony to God’s existence or power. But generally, prayer is not seen as a way for God to prove himself to us by conforming to our wishes. Instead, prayer is a gift that allows us a chance to conform to his will.

That is why Jesus gave instructions such as these:

* “Pray for your enemies.”

* “Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest.”

* “Pray that you may not enter into temptation.”

* “Pray then like this: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”

In each of these instructions, Jesus urges that we make requests to God – but not the kind of self-serving requests that we often fill our prayer time with. These requests are those that conform our desires and direct our minds to God’s will rather than our own.

Of course, Jesus' most powerful example in prayer is when he prayed, "Not my will, but yours be done."

Should we make requests in prayer for personal concerns? Certainly. The Bible has many examples of such prayers being answered to the glory of God, and I can add a few of my own. But if our prayer life is solely concerned with self-oriented requests, well… this is a very strange and unhealthy relationship to have with Almighty God, and perhaps no relationship at all.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas: A Time to Give (In)

Sunday’s New York Times contained four engaging essays grouped under the title How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Holidays. Each fell back to the same basic theme: Christmas is a time to indulge in consumerism and, for a time, set aside our self-imposed standards. (Currently you can find the essays here.)

As a Jewish woman celebrating Christmas for the first time, Cindy Chupack threw herself into consumerism full force, as one making up for years of lost time. Observing her newly ornamented home, she writes, “I sit back and enjoy my first Christmas, in all its kitschy splendor. I feel a little guilty when I look at our lone menorah on the mantel (the only evidence of my faith other than my guilt), but I ask you: how can this much pleasure be wrong?”

In another essay, Mike Albo describes his yearly holiday retreat from the Big City to his home town in Virginia. He writes, “For a brief week, I get to be as ugly and out of it as Americans are always accused of being, and no one has to see it.”

And he adds: “I lose touch, for once, with my online pals, bloggy buddies, Netflix friends and MySpace chums. Finally I am logged off from the incessant broad-band stream of information of my daily life. I don’t have to eat properly, act locally, think globally, sync up, detoxify or Move On.”

And: “For once, I have zero concern for the homeless, global warming, my future and Darfur.”

What strikes me most in these Christmastime reflections is how they reveal the pressure with which these city dwellers live. It’s a weight that’s only acknowledged once a year, when it comes time to release the pressure – to give in, if not give up. It’s a pressure to conform to a prescribed righteousness, a kind of anti-consumerism, even while swimming in a city full of it. And since the pressure is admittedly too much to bear, caving to consumer comforts becomes a saving grace… at least once a year.

Jesus came to set us free. He has been often quoted as saying, “He whom the Son sets free is free indeed.” Since today’s post is long enough, I would like to comment on this freedom in a future post. For now, perhaps it is enough to admit that we need to be set free. Whether religious or not, every person seeks to be righteous – in their own eyes, in the eyes of others, ultimately in God’s eyes. But we can’t live up to even our own standards. We need a Savior.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Devil's Music

Back in 1972, Larry Norman asked the question “Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?” With that song alone, Christian rock was gifted with two catchy slogans: the question posed by the song title and also the phrase “Jesus is the rock that rolled my blues away.”

Whether or not the devil has all the good music has remained a hot debate (in some circles), but there’s one area in which the devil loses and Jesus wins hands down: Christmas music.

There is nothing more culturally sinister than bad Christmas music, except perhaps bland Christmas music. Not only is it bad, but it is practically guaranteed to be make the shopping mall playlists since a hefty volume of songs is required during the holiday(s) season. Now that starkly religious music is considered offensive, public spaces about with songs like Paul McCartney’s regrettable “Simply Having a Wonderful Christmas Time” or the exceedingly unconvincing “I Wish Every Day Could Be Like Christmas” by, of all people, Bon Jovi.

Devil's music indeed.
You can move up the ladder a little bit with kids’ tunes like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” “Frosty the Snowman,” or perhaps Alvin and the Chipmunks. You’ve attained to cute but certainly haven’t reached the profound. And “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire” can only get you so far. (Also, regarding Rudolph, don’t you find it a bit unbelievable that his reindeer bullies would suddenly turn into his strongest supporters at the end of the story – instead of crucifying him out of envy? Something to consider.)

Among the Christmas songs about Jesus, however, are some true winners. This makes sense, since the holiday was born to commemorate his birth. How can you beat this:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;
Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

Or the more familiar:

Hark the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"
Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies
With the angelic host proclaim:
"Christ is born in Bethlehem!"
Hark! The herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King!"

The best part of the Christmas hymns to Christ are usually reserved for the later verses however. Consider the second verse to “What Child is This?”:

Why lies He in such mean estate,
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through,
The cross be borne for me, for you
Hail, hail the Word made flesh,
The Babe, the Son of Mary.

That Word will top all the words to “Jingle Bell Rock” any day. After all, Jesus is the rock that… well, you get the idea.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Symbol or Savior?

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. Matthew 1:21

In this simple verse – you may wish to read it again – is the profound truth that Jesus was born to accomplish something.

At Christmas, Jesus is often treated as a mere symbol: a symbol of peace, love, or sentimentality. A symbol of cute babies everywhere, perhaps. Yet the story told of this newborn, in all the New Testament, does not allow for this baby to be left in the manger. He grew up and did something with his life, something profound: he accomplished an extraordinary rescue effort.

This simple verse – you may wish to read it again – also rules out the idea that Jesus was just another enlightened sage. A mere teacher is not someone who “will save his people from their sins.” And, again, the rest of the gospel story and the rest of the New Testament does not allow for such a view of Jesus. Was he a great teacher? Yes – he was the best. But he was more. His words were combined with deeds, and not only good deeds – saving deeds. Jesus was not just an ethical guy, he was the savior.

Who is Jesus to you? Symbol? Teacher? Example?

Or Savior?

Monday, December 18, 2006

More Popular Than Jesus?

John Lennon once earned notoriety by claiming the The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” Depending on the survey sample, it was possible he was right – but he was forced to apologize for the statement anyway. Which is too bad, because it was a statement worthy of a good debate.

Actually, the debate apparently continues. In London, fourth graders were asked – among other interesting questions – who is the most popular person in the world.

Jesus came in fourth!

However, he still beat out the Beatles. The top three were God, George Bush, and Madonna. Following fourth place Jesus is Father Christmas at number five.

No word about where the Beatles are on the list now, although they would be a better fit, in my opinion, than Madonna... or President Bush for that matter (sorry, Madonna fans and Republicans – and those who are, strangely, both).

So, holding strong at #1, God still reigns supreme among British children. They are apparently weak on the Trinity, however.

Here is the link to the story:

Where would you place Jesus on your list?

Monday, December 11, 2006

Puppet Show and Advent Wreaths

In the great mockumentary This is Spinal Tap, an aging rock band faces the reality that their popularity is waning. With a concert cancelled in Boston, their manager comforts them by saying, "Boston isn't much of a college town anyway." When they hear their song on the radio it is followed by a deejay who says the band is "currently residing in the where are they now file."

The best moment is when they are upstaged by another act. A marquee at an amusement park reads, "Puppet Show and Spinal Tap." When they arrive, the (new) manager complains, "If I told them once, I told them a thousand times. Put the band's name first, puppet show after."

I was reminded of this when I saw the Christmas decorations at a nearby university, a university with a Christian heritage. Find the Christian symbol among the competitors, if you can. (Hint: Don't bother looking for a manger scene.)

Clearly Advent has been reduced, by some, to the opening act for a range of holidays that celebrate a range of gods.

Yet far more powerfully, Advent is the opening act of the great moment in history when heaven came to earth, salvation came to the needy, and God became man. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus ushered in the fulfillment of promises made through the Hebrew prophets for centuries, and the fulfillment of all humanity's deepest longings. Not another religion where men would climb to God through great religious performances, but restoration and transformation offered by a God who forgives, redeems, and restores.

There is no other religion like this, nor will there ever be. There are indeed imitators, but these all reverse the message: men create God, find God, pacify God, reach God, become God. Some do this even in the name of Jesus himself, as he warned they would. Yet through Jesus Christ, the rescuing hand of God is extended outward to all who believe. God loves his enemies, saves them from themselves, and grants them true life.

If Jesus' birth was the opening act, the performance didn't end there - nor did it end with his death and resurrection. His promise to build his church continues to be fulfilled around the globe. In America, those who preach an unadulterated gospel - who make Jesus the main event rather than an opening act or sideshow - continue to experience growth. In places like China and Korea, the gospel witness is strong and the church has grown dramatically.

Jesus isn't content with popularity, however. In fact, he often resists it. He is much more concerned that his message be communicated accurately, even if that means losing a few fans. Because when that happens, people can hear for themselves...and be saved from themselves.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Earth in the Balance

You may not have noticed, but theology has taken a turn for the earth.

I first noticed this in my first year at seminary. I told my theology professor that I wanted to do a research paper on heaven. He was skeptical. “I think the movement in Scripture is that heaven comes to earth,” he told me. “Not that we go to heaven, but that heaven comes to us.”

Hmm. Very interesting.

He did not mean that heaven is an earthly achievement of mankind. Rather, he meant that the “new heavens and new earth that come down from heaven, as described in the book of Revelation, pictures God restoring this world – this very world we currently inhabit. This fits the terminology of Isaiah 65-66, which also speaks of the creation of a “new heavens and new earth,” and Romans 8 which says that this creation will one day be set free from its curse. It also corresponds to the idea of bodily resurrection; our bodies, as well as this earth, will one day be freed, restored, glorified.

God restoring not only human beings after the Fall, but also the sin scorched earth, sounds pretty cool. But still a bit strange: what happens to the good old fashioned idea of going to heaven one day?

When this was discussed in seminary, my friends and I joked about it. “I can’t wait to go to heaven” becomes “I can’t wait to go to earth.” Our loved one who passed away has “died and gone to earth.”

The truth is that we don’t have a description in the Bible of what the eternal condition of our bodies and of the newly created world will look like. But we know that there will be freedom from sin, restoration, and glorification. That glorification part is important, and means that our eternal state will be far superior even to mankind’s condition before the stain of sin.

On the one hand, it is important to broaden our understanding of the biblical teaching about eternity. If “going to heaven” remains a vague picture in our mind of floating around the clouds, strumming harps, and watching reruns of Leave it to Beaver, we need to improve our mental image of eternity. It will be something far more dramatic, glorious, and concrete. Furthermore, the idea that this creation will be restored gives us needed hope and encouragement in the struggles of our day; it is inspiring to realize that there will be restoration “as far as the curse is found.” This includes the perfection of the creation all around us, and apparently (from a few Scriptures) even its “culture.”

On the other hand, it is also possible to get a bit too excited about the restoration of earth. Some contemporary theologians are pretty excited about the idea that creation will be redeemed, and that the culture will be redeemed along with it, and this can get out of balance. It seems to me that the primary message of Scripture is not about planet earth or its culture but its inhabitants and their souls. Jesus spoke to men and women about their souls. The apostles urged repentance, salvation, and personal holiness.

This is not to say that we should be so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good, only that we shouldn’t also be the opposite: “So earthly minded we’re no heavenly good.”

Let’s imitate the Apostle Peter who struck a holy balance between heaven and earth:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

(2 Peter 3:11-13)

* * *

This post is long but nevertheless abbreviated! I welcome your comments, clarifications...

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Choosing My America

A cable news station which shall remain nameless was reporting on the election. Not the past election, the future election. The banner at the bottom of the screen read "YOU DECIDE 2008."

I actually laughed out loud.

It is indeed laughable to think “we decide” an election that will not take place for two years. Furthermore, the word “decide” needs to be qualified once for every dollar spent by the moneyed interests, and every minute donated by the media, which will serve to restrict our choices down to a few “viable” candidates by the time all is said and done.

For example, Evan Bayh’s announcement to run for presidency was carried on one website with the headline: “Clinton Actively Weighs 08 Bid.” This was kind of funny too, though not for Mr. Bayh.

Reporting on how folks get elected, the New York Times commented yesterday, “There is only so much money, seasoned political expertise and media attention to go around…” In the same story, a gentleman was quoted as saying, “Obama is a very serious candidate who will compete with [the others] for the limited supply of activists and media attention.”

Activists and media attention… Yes, indeed, “we” will decide who is president in 2008.

This brings up a host of thoughts about culture and freedom. Here are a couple of mine.

1. In spite of Americans’ love affair with “free will,” the will is actually shepherded along by a host of salesmen, some of them quite aggressive. Oh, perhaps we make the final choice – we pull the lever, push the button, buy the sneakers, or whatever – but we are far from making a choice that is entirely our own.

2. When it comes to choosing our beliefs, we are similarly affected. Many evangelists like to say that we need to make a “free will” decision for salvation, that God will not override our “free” will. But our will is in bondage – as Martin Luther and Jonathan Edwards rightly said – to a host of internal predispositions, commitments, and passions. The biblical view of free will is that, yes, we must “choose” – but we’re not going to really choose that which is countercultural and/or countersensual apart from some serious intervention on God’s part.

3. Christians should be humbled by #2. Is my faith, we might ask, really a gift of God – or have I been manipulated into this belief system? The best indicator that it is God, and not spiritual salesmen, that have changed our heart is whether our beliefs are truly countercultural – whether they demand or create something profound and beautiful, rather than more of the same.

First Peter begins with these words: “Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to those who are elect exiles of the dispersion…” That’s an interesting turn of phrase, elect exiles.

The question isn’t whether we have elected to believe in God but whether God has elected (or chosen) us. If he has, this should show itself in our own choices – not so much for president (since we have so little choice), but in the 1,000 other choices we make each day.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

1 Peter: Grace and Suffering

I’ve recently begun a study of 1 Peter, the sturdy epistle written by the fisherman whose name Jesus changed from Simon to the Rock.

Some people like to check out the ending of a book, its conclusion, before starting into it. After all, if the butler didn’t do it, why bother reading? Here’s how 1 Peter ends:

“This is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it” (5:12).

Understanding, and standing firm, in the true grace of God sounds like a good goal. But what is this true grace that Peter speaks about? Perhaps it has something to do with what Peter says immediately prior to this statement:

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen.” (5:10-11)

Grace and suffering. Do these relate?

American evangelicals (like myself) probably are not quick to understand the connection. Oh, perhaps we do as a theological abstraction but that’s about all. Yet grace in suffering, grace alongside suffering, grace in spite of suffering… these ideas are deeply embedded in the entire New Testament. Jesus was born into hostility; was tortured and crucified; and his followers were oppressed, threatened, and persecuted. Yet Jesus was raised from the dead and his followers lived with the joy and confidence of the resurrection during their fiery ordeals.

This is not to say that the early Christians weren’t caught off guard. Peter found it necessary to reassure his audience, “Don’t be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes to test you…” (4:12)

“Don’t be surprised…” If we are likely to be surprised by difficulty, opposition, or even persecution, perhaps 1 Peter is a book we ought to examine more closely. This is my goal in the coming weeks.

Jesus made a rock out of the disciple who denied him. He can make us stand firm as well.

The commentary pictured here is one that I am using as I work through 1 Peter. The Baker Exegetical Commentary series is evangelical, scholarly, and edifying – a breath of fresh air as commentaries are concerned. I highly recommend the series.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Worship: A Tall Order

“Bless the Lord, O my soul,
and all that is within me,
bless his holy name!” Psalm 103:1

If we view worship as primarily an external exercise, it will make us proud. We will boast in our particular worship tradition: ours is more historic, or more refined, or more cutting edge, or whatever. But if worship makes us stand tall, it is no longer worship.

Worship is a tall order, however: All that is within me, bless his holy name. God deserves more than a well crafted hymn or a cool praise song. He demands far more than an appearance on Sunday morning, or even a resume of religious accomplishments. Worship is something that demands all that is within us, and we should be brought low by our failure to accomplish this.

Then again, this tall order doesn’t seem quite so far reaching when you consider the end of Psalm 103:

“Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
you mighty ones who do his word,
obeying the voice of his word!
Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
his ministers, who do his will!
Bless the Lord, all his works,
in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!” (vv.20-23)

No matter how tall we stand, we cannot give God all the praise he deserves. We will forever be, at best, but one voice offering praise.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

Grammar Rock

Who said English grammar couldn't be fun? If you've ever listened to Schoolhouse Rock, you know just how fun pronouns can be.

Pronouns can also have huge societal consequences. The Beatles proved it with their song, "I, Me, Mine," a George Harrison tune that lamented the ease with which people live for only themselves.

Centuries earlier, the Hebrew songwriters also knew the importance of pronouns. Although we don't have the original tune, we do have the words to this temple favorite:

Know that the LORD is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture. (Psalm 100:3)

Look at those pronouns go! To take just one example, look at how important that third person male pronoun is, especially in its possessive form. "It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture..."

Not only is this a lightning rod in the gender wars, it should engender in us a reverence for the God who owns us. We are not our own... We should therefore not live for ourselves, but for Him.

Take a moment this weekend and think about which pronouns most profoundly control your daily life.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

Checked and Balanced?

What a great idea the American form of government was. Knowing that we all share a human nature prone to greed, selfishness, and corruption, a system of checks and balances was put in place. No one person would hold all the power, and those who held a portion of power would be held accountable through a system of checks and balances. Thus, in the system we enjoy, the Administrative, Judicial, and Legislative branches of government serve as one another’s watchdogs. Hopefully.

In Don’t Know Much About History, Ken Davis states that this system of checks and balances was put into place “whether out of wisdom or fear,” and “the fear was obvious: no one wanted anyone else to become too powerful.”

I think that in this case, wisdom and fear go hand in hand! “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” and “the fear of human corruption is the beginning of wise government.”

Have we ceased to fear the corruption of the human heart and what it means for those who govern us? There is certainly evidence for this. We look to those who lead as a kind of nobility, as those who are above the law. While this is true of each branch of government, I’m struck in particular by the way the legislature – the representatives of the people – have become a kind of “elected nobility.” Rather than being truly of the people, they are an elite class that vote for their own pay raises, fly their own planes, and are shielded from the effects of their legislation.

Oh, for a return to a Senate and Congress that had to live under the laws it passed: that had to pay their taxes, send their kids to their schools, and fight in their wars.

And now the punch line: hasn’t this happened in our churches as well? Some pastors (or “evangelical leaders”) are seen not as servants of the people, and accountable to their fellow believers, but high above them. And I think we somewhat enjoy the illusion that it is possible to achieve such super spirituality and bulletproof integrity. We like to have someone to point to of whom we can say, “See, world? See how good we are?” But this is foolish, and leads - as we know too well - to shock and heartache when spiritual celebrities come crashing down.

Church leaders need to be seen as fellow sinners who are gifted with teaching the word of God and shepherding souls. While they need to be held to a high standard of conduct, they need to be held to this standard by people who recognize just how much they need help – first from Jesus Christ, second from their fellow believers. There is no spiritual nobility, except in the sense that God's children are all "heirs of eternal life."

Friday, November 17, 2006


"Your religion is what you do with your solitude."

This quotation, possibly a paraphrase, is from Archbishop William Temple. I heard Tim Keller speaking about this in reference to the passage "love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength."

He then gave the following challenge: Examine where your mind goes when you have nothing to do, nothing to read, no one to talk to. Does it fly to thoughts of God - his character, his love, his gospel? No? Then to where does it go? Where our mind runs says much about who we are, and what we feel to be our greatest needs...hopes...desires.

When I take this test, I am humbled by the results. I think I would like to take it again after further preparation...

I have heard it said before that character is "who you are when no one's looking." But the point here is that your heart religion is determined by "who you are when even you're not looking"!

This weekend, monitor your thoughts. After they have gone running, chase after them and see where they have gone. And pray that you find them in a safe place, in the care of Jesus Christ, rather than wasting time with worry, trapped in self-absorption, or engaged in some other destructive activity.

Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. - Deuteronomy 6:4, Matthew 22:37

"You shall have no other gods before me." - Exodus 20

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Thanksgiving Cancelled Due to Lack of Funding

My wife asked what happened to Thanksgiving, and I didn’t have a good answer.

A manger scene is being erected in our front yard. The Christmas lights are already decorating a nearby town, and Santa is showing up early at the mall. Even the cups at the local coffee bar display a Christmas theme.

I understand the rush to celebrate the Messiah’s birth, but something seems amiss here. Setting aside a day to give thanks would seem a perfect way to celebrate the bringer of eternal life.

But, I hear someone saying, Christmas falls inconveniently on a Monday. That means there are only four full weekends of shopping between Thanksgiving and Christmas Eve, the day set aside for intentional last-minute shopping.

But why did our little Thanksgiving holiday have to get trampled in the mix? Couldn’t we have just extended our shopping an extra few weeks or months into the new year? Or extend the days prior to Christmas, perhaps keeping our stores open longer each day? Or couldn’t our “After Thanksgiving Sales” begin dreadfully early on the Friday after Thanksgiving? At this point I’d even be willing to sacrifice a little sleep on Friday for a chance to say “thanks” on Thursday.

The sudden loss of Thanksgiving this year caught us by surprise. We had plans to see family and friends: should we cancel these?

Well, I suppose that as we begin Advent we can try to work in some Thanksgiving sentiments edgewise. But we also need to think about something else. When Messiah appears, we really need to find a more polite way to say, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Election 2006: The View from Here

One of our the freedoms granted to us by the Chicago Manual of Style is to end sentences with prepositions, contrary to popular belief. So with that in mind, today's post:

What an election season it’s been. There are many people to vote against today… but I’m not sure how many people there are to vote for.

It seems that every generation of Americans must learn afresh what it means to live in a democracy, both its benefits and frustrations. Therefore, certain questions recirculate, such as these: Must I vote for the lesser of two evils? Why vote at all? Will our form of government stand the test of time?

For Christians, another question that has been raised - and will continue to be raised - is whether we can expect much from the political process at all. Christians have been elated at apparent political success only to feel betrayed more than once in our history.

The reality I find myself facing today is that there are two high profile candidates seeking a Senate seat in my state. I have the privilege of voting, yet I find myself wondering whether to vote at all. And trust me, I know that it is extremely unpopular to make such a despairing choice. So let me explain.

The candidate on one side of the aisle is opposed to everything I believe is important. I am not ashamed to be considered a values voter because, first, all legislation represents someone’s values. Second, to be a values voter means, to me, that the most pressing issues are deeper than economics or geopolitics. I do not wish for a theocracy prior to the heavenly one, but I do believe that we ignore the Theos to our own peril.

The candidate on the other side of the aisle is… well, it turns out he’s also opposed to those issues I believe are most important. His view of government is a little more promising, however, and so he would surely be the famous “lesser of two evils.” Yet here’s my problem: I heard him interviewed on the radio last week, and was incensed by his refusal to answer the questions the host asked him. Instead, every question was answered with an intelligence-insulting sound byte intended to demonize his opponent.

It may be – and I’m not so sure – better that this second candidate go to Washington. However, I don’t want to send someone like that there.

So, will I vote? Yes, I think I’ll go vote for a third party congressman and perhaps for a lenient dogcatcher. But I don’t think I’ll be able to vote for a senator today. Just can’t do it.

Martin Luther King, Jr., famously described the plight of African Americans this way: “We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote.”

Christian citizens should make wise choices concerning their civic privileges. But sometimes after giving thought and prayer to the matter a Christian may conclude that they have “nothing for which to vote.”

In which case, they should continue exercising their other civic duties with even greater earnestness: prayer, proclaiming the gospel, and helping the poor.

I urge, then, first of all, that requests, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for everyone— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. (1 Timothy 2:1-3)

Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Leaving a Legacy

Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.

As they go through the Valley of Baca they make it a place of springs; the early rain also covers it with pools.

They go from strength to strength; each one appears before God in Zion.

Psalm 84:4-6

The verses above describes sojourners who pass through dry, desert places. Yet as they do, they prepare the land to catch the water for those who will come after them.

Spiritually, we also should leave a legacy for those who will come after us. And this legacy is not necessarily created in the good times. In fact, it is more likely that what we need to pass on to the next generation will be forged in our difficulties.

Who are those that we esteem from the past? Think of a few right now. Then ask yourself, was their life one of ease – or one of difficulty? Were they swept along in a stream of comfort, or did they have to overcome tremendous obstacles to keep, and then to pass on, their faith?

Chances are good their legacy was forged in the furnace of difficult choices, opposition, and perhaps martyrdom.

Be encouraged as you experience the difficult periods of life. You have a chance to hammer out your legacy, and swinging that hammer will indeed make you stronger. You will go “from strength to strength.”

* * *

Well, speaking of "leaving." I will be unable to post on Bible in the Basement over the coming week. I hope you will enjoy perusing the archives, and check back again next week!

Saturday, October 28, 2006

This is Only a Test

In distress you called, and I delivered you; I answered you in the secret place of thunder; I tested you at the waters of Meribah. Psalm 81:7

Psalm 81 contains a review of God’s actions toward Israel, whom he redeemed from slavery in Egypt. In the verse above, look at the different verbs used to describe God’s dealings: delivered… answered… tested.

“Delivered”: great.

“Answered”: thank you.

“Tested”: wonderf—wait, what?

The testing of faith is indeed a part of our spiritual journey, as any patriarch would tell you. Even those God delivers, he tests. Even those God answers, he tests. In fact, Jesus himself was tested. The gospels record that step one of Jesus’ journey was that “The Holy Spirit drove him into the wilderness” where he experienced severe testing and temptation. The Garden of Gethsemane was another place where we see that Jesus’ life was marked by painful tests.

Tim Keller raised an important question on this subject. Concerning the fact that Jesus himself experienced such trials, he asked, If you could live up to your highest standards of morality, what do you think your life would be like? If you could actually live the way you believe you should live (but don’t), do you think your life would be easier?

Our tendency is to answer, “Why, yes! Of course my life would be easier if I lived right.” Yet if Jesus’ perfect life was marked by struggle against Satan and a sinful world, why wouldn’t ours?

Lest you feel blogged down by all of this, let me also add this from Tim Keller:

If we don’t expect life to include tests and trials, it will be twice as difficult. We will not only experience the difficulty, but the shock: why did this happen? what did I do wrong? who's to blame?

Life is tough enough without having to be shocked and dismayed by the trouble. But the greatest hope is to realize that Jesus promises to be with us through all life’s war zones. In fact, God’s promise is that such times will produce in those who love him depth of character, an experience of God’s sustaining grace, and the assurance of faith.

And, if obedience is at all important to us, we should also note that “Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8).

* * *

NOTE: To obtain the above referenced sermon by Tim Keller, one of my personal favorites, visit and search the individual sermon section for “The First Temptation of Christ” (12/22/02).

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Forgotten New Jerusalem

There’s a new book out entitled Forgotten New York, which has been discussed on the radio recently. The book describes historical sites in New York City that are often overlooked as attention is focused on the Empire State Building, Times Square, Woody Allen, and other famous attractions.

This reminded me of another book, Simply Christian by N.T. Wright, which I have found to be a pleasing update (as if one were necessary) to Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I commend both books to you as thoughtful presentations of the Christian faith.

The reason Forgotten New York reminded me of Simply Christian is an illustration that N.T. Wright gives concerning the Bible. He says that the Bible is much like the computer in front of us: capable of so many things, yet often used for so few. Like a computer that is used for word processing and email, with hundreds (thousands?) of other features left undiscovered, so also God’s word is intended to accomplish so much in our lives and yet we usually use it, as Wright says, to prop up the two or three things we are already doing.

In other words, we see clearly in the Bible what we want to see, and what is familiar to us, but we miss that which would be more likely to challenge and correct us. (If it’s not in the tourists’ guide, we miss it!)

What aspects of the Bible are “forgotten”… to you? to me? to the church? And how do we go about reclaiming the lost ground?

Another question we might ask is, what do we consider to be the Empire State Building of the Scriptures? What is at the center of the biblical world, the attraction that surely should not be missed by the traveler? Surely this would be the cross of Jesus Christ, the focal point of all God’s redemptive purposes.

Where the analogy breaks down somewhat is that the cross should be revisited time and time again. Though we must visit the forgotten parts of the Scripture, absorbing all its sights and sounds, these should always place us on paths that lead once again to the cross. From there, everything else is seen most clearly.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Message From the Trees: "Don't Worry"

"There's so much beauty around me, but just two eyes to see!"
- Rich Mullins

I've been thinking about Matthew 6 recently, where Jesus says: "If God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?"

The dazzling colors of autumn are further examples of how God clothes his creation. Jesus' point is that if you believe that God is your caretaker, and you also believe that he is creation's caretaker, then you can (and should!) be free from worry. You should recognize that God has many creative ways to care for you.

Yet it takes eyes of faith to draw such conclusions from the world around us. Jesus is not speaking these words of counsel to just anyone, but to his disciples who were (supposed to be) men of great faith. They often only possessed "little faith," do we.

If you possess faith, what conclusions do you draw from the world around you? Is all this beauty around us simply "the environment" that we need to care for? Or is it the creation of God, a sign that God cares for us?

Thursday, October 19, 2006

Faith and Doubt, Part Two: Disappointed Thomas

The apostle Thomas had the opportunity to be the first person to believe the gospel by faith. Instead, he became the 15th or so to believe the gospel based on sight.

Here’s how the story goes. Jesus appeared to several women, and to ten apostles, after his resurrection. But Thomas wasn’t around. Then we read:

So the other disciples told him, "We have seen the Lord." But he said to them, "Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe."

Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, "Peace be with you."

Then he said to Thomas, "Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe."

Thomas answered him, "My Lord and my God!"

Jesus said to him, "Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed." (John 20:24-29)

Notice how strongly Thomas expressed his doubt: “Unless I see…I will never believe!” Rather than Doubting Thomas it would be more accurately to speak of Unbelieving Thomas.

What do you think led to Thomas’ disbelief? There are a variety of possibilities. Perhaps he was simply a skeptic, the sort we encounter in our culture regularly – someone who believed only what his eyes could see. Yet this seems the least likely option considering that he was born into a long tradition of monotheism, had witnessed firsthand the miracles of Jesus, and had confessed his faith in God in the past. Thomas is probably not the patron saint of skepticism – if skeptics have need of such patronage.

Another option is that Thomas was unwilling to quickly adopt a belief that would so radically change his life. To believe in Jesus’ resurrection would affect his understanding of the resurrection - first century Jews believed the righteous would rise someday, but not now. More significantly, such a belief would radicalize his understanding of Jesus and of himself as Jesus’ disciple and spokesperson. I know that many people are hesitant to truly give Jesus a chance because they don’t want their life changed too dramatically.

But I think the strongest option is that Thomas had been deeply and painfully affected by Jesus’ death. Having followed Jesus for years, he had grown to like him, believe him, and hope in him. To see him violently executed was too much to bear. For a million personal, emotional, and religious reasons, he no doubt found himself saying to God: “Why? Why? Why?”

After all, isn’t disappointment often the birthplace of doubt? Although doubt sometimes creeps into our intellect, it can also burst onto the scene when suffering or pain explodes our expectations of what God “should” be and do.

Do you believe, or does personal pain, disappointment, or perhaps the fear of a changed life keep you from faith? Or for you is it something else?

The gospel of Thomas is that Jesus does not leave Thomas to die in (and for) his unbelief. He mercifully appears to Thomas, taking him up on his challenge. Thomas, however, simply worships – we don’t read that he ever put his fingers in Jesus’ wounds. And he gave a great confession of faith: “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus, after taking Thomas up on his challenge, then leaves us with a challenge: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Faith and Doubt, Part One

Doubt is closely connected to faith, the way an annoying relative comes packaged with an otherwise delightful spouse. It’s not that faith requires doubt. Rather, flawed as they are, human beings are simply bound to have some fragility associated with their faith.

This is why the Bible does not teach that we are saved, in the first place, by our faith. We are not made acceptable to God based on the perfection of our faith but by God’s grace. This word means that God takes hold of us in spite of our many defects – including defective faith.

We are saved by faith in the sense that faith is the lifeline that God throws us to connect us to his Son, Jesus Christ. But we don’t always hold as tightly to the line as we should, and we may even have doubts that the line will hold… but it is God who has thrown us the line, and God who will make sure we’re holding onto it in spite of ourselves.

This lifeline of faith is a gift. Yes, this gift becomes tarnished once it’s placed in our hands. It’s like a child who takes a shiny toy and within the hour has it dented and dirtied. And that’s why we need to recognize that we are not saved as much by the gift as by the giver of the gift.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” Ephesians 2:8

Now, what about doubt – is this a gift as well?

Stay tuned…

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Who Is Responsible

Yesterday President Bush gave a press conference. The first question asked was, are you responsible for the problem in North Korea?

His answer was no.

The question who is responsible colors most political discussions these days. Who is responsible for Iraq? For North Korea? For job losses, gas prices, and any other economic reality? For Foley? For Katrina? (I actually heard a Christian on TV admit God was responsible for that one, to Bill Moyer’s surprise.)

In most cases these are legitimate questions: what is a leader if not one who is given responsibility?

But wait – is responsibility truly something that is given, or is it seized…or won…or earned? What fascinates me is that such enormous responsibility as our leaders bear is something fought for, something campaigned for. Speeches are given, frequent flyer miles racked up, makeup worn, and sleep lost – all for the purpose of obtaining responsibility for thousands of people (and in the case of the president, hundreds of millions).

Of course, many don’t think about responsibility at all. Leadership might appear as merely a big paycheck and a shot at glory, rather than responsibility for the lives or welfare of others. Marriage might appear as a chance to have our needs or urges met, rather than a God-given opportunity for sacrifice and service to another. Children may seem to simply be cute accessories, rather than gifts of God who require two full time parents as long as they both shall live. You get the idea.

As Christians, we should recognize responsibility for what it is. It is not merely a political tool used to win elections or, more precisely, to keep our opponent from winning them. Nor is it simply an old-fashioned American value that old guys and pastors talk about. It is, instead, a reality that rests on the fact that God owns all things and is willing to hand some over to us for a time. And, in fact, God desires that our responsibilities would increase over time - as a sign of his blessing, our growth in godly wisdom, and our willingness to serve others.

Jesus, by the way, was given the greatest responsibility of all: living, dying, and indeed, bearing the wrath of God for the billions who would trust in his “leadership.” He was given this responsibility, Scripture says, and he willingly accepted it. And he never needed to apologize, blame others, or try to pass the responsibility to someone else… even when, in Gethsemane, he saw the terrifying end result of taking responsibility for such a sinful and helpless bunch.

So, for us, is responsibility given, earned, or seized? That depends… But if you have some of it, you are wise to recognize it as a gift and tend to it diligently. Because while we might find the question who is responsible elusive, God does not.

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Autumn Arrives in New Jersey

What impresses me about autumn is just how impossible it is to capture its splendor through pictures. Oh, the pictures are nice and all, and I hope you like these. But the reality is so much better still... Fyi, our home is in the foreground.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Are microwaves a blessing?

“Since microwaves exist, God cannot.”

This is what I call “The Fallacy of the Microwave”: the belief that because human beings have come so far technologically, God simply cannot exist. I must have read someone else discuss this, because otherwise I don’t know why of all things I would have chosen a microwave as the example.

In any case, this attitude seems truly embedded in our culture – I was even reminded of it again today while reading a discussion of faith and science. Yet it has often eluded me. Exactly why would someone believe that technological advancement, be it space exploration or human inventiveness, would eliminate the possibility of a creator?

I think there are a couple answers to this.

The first is, “Scientific discoveries provide sufficient explanations, thus eliminating the need to posit a creator.” In other words, religion is yesterday’s thing. One problem with this is that we haven’t come as far technologically as we think: at least seven wonders have been around for a long time, as well as mathematics, astronomy, and discoveries of all sorts. Also, the claim rings false because scientific explanations are insufficient in many areas. We do not have scientific explanations for morality and beauty and personhood that are compelling improvements upon the religious ones. (Yes, I know we’ve already debated this point to death; the fact that it can be so debated proves my point, I hope.)

The second reason is more subtle.

Second: People are accustomed to thinking in terms of how they can manipulate the world around them, what they can achieve. Yet the Bible contrasts human achievement with divine blessing, and to think in terms of blessing is essential to think religiously.

For example, in Genesis 11 those who built the tower of Babel said: “Let us make a name for ourselves.” After God ends this building project, we read about his call to Abraham in the very next chapter. He says to Abraham, “I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

That's not the only time in the Bible that God says, "I will." And sometimes he means, "I - yes, I and only I - will!"

Do you see the contrast? Religious thought – thought about God, at least in the biblical sense – is predicated on the notion of blessing. This is the idea that we need God, we cannot obtain everything for ourselves. In a world where we are so impressed with our achievements, it becomes easy to forget all that we cannot do on our own: we cannot save ourselves (i.e., from death), we cannot control our destiny, we cannot enter into a relationship with our creator.

An old friend of mine (happy birthday, Shari) used to be known at her workplace for using the word “blessing.” Instead of speaking of luck or achievement, she would say things like, “It was such a blessing that such and such happened.” Her coworkers were puzzled, or at least amused, by this language.

Are you?

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Colors Are Coming

Well, speaking of God’s creation, the leaves are starting to change color around here. I find that autumn is a great time to praise God for his creation. Sometimes it’s overwhelming... Not quite yet, though, there’s still more color yet to come.

The psalms are a guidebook for praise to God. On occasion, they move from creation to redemption – first recognizing God’s hand in creation (which all can see) and then moving to God’s hand in redemption (which some have seen). Psalm 19, a masterful example of biblical poetry, moves in this direction.

Psalm 65 moves in the opposite direction. Reading this psalm today, I noticed that it moves from praise to God for his “selective salvation” to praise for his abundant hand of grace in the world all around us. Praise flows both ways.

Psalm 65 begins with these words: “Praise awaits you, O God, in Zion.” It ends with, “The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.” Apparently, once one tunes his ear to offer praise he begins to hear it elsewhere as well.

A little color, then a lot more.

See comments for text of Psalm 65.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Is the Hard Edge the Straight Edge?

Post-Debate Thoughts

A lengthy discussion broke out in the comments section of my post from September 20. Makeshift Renegade, who turns out to be a friend from child- and teenagehood, defended agnosticism; I defended Christian theism. I found that Makeshift’s comments were respectful and thoughtful, though we disagree concerning something fundamental. Yet I was troubled because I wasn’t sure he would say that I was likewise respectful and thoughtful concerning his position. This signaled that I should think a little bit harder about how I present myself, and the gospel, in conversations like these.

So first I reminded myself: I was not argued into the faith, so why would I act as if others could be? While I think it is valuable to debate the existence of God, I am questioning whether the tone of my particular debate gives sufficient honor to the one I’m seeking to honor.

Also, I decided that I want to rethink my view of conscience. The rest of this post gives my second thoughts on this issue:

In my comments, I advanced the belief that people are directed to God through nature. It’s not that I believe people are directed to a thorough knowledge of God, but to a certain confrontation with the creator nevertheless. Makeshift claimed, on the other hand, that he doesn’t at all resonate with this argument. He argued that nature is neutral on the idea of God, since nature could be explained other ways that are equally appealing to him philosophically.

All of this got me thinking. I take it as an article of faith (kind of a pun) that creation testifies to its creator. It’s a biblical concept, it’s reasonable, and (here I go again) it "makes sense of it all." So is my friend consciously resisting this reality? Is he lying? Is he not in touch with himself? How do we receive the testimony of one who looks at the world with all its beauty, complexity, and longings and says concerning God, “Maybe, maybe not”?

Another way of stating this is that I’ve often wondered whether certain questions are really “good” or “honest” questions, because I’ve wondered if people who question God’s existence are actually being honest with themselves. If one believes that such questions cannot be honest questions, then you are quickly committed to taking a hard edged approach to anyone who claims disbelief.

Yet while the Bible does state that conscience directs us to God, at the same time it teaches that the light of conscience can become dim… perhaps even extinguished? The reasons for this can be personal or societal. Not to mention that the bare idea of God is not necessarily attractive until combined with a vision of his glory and a taste of his mercy. All this means, practically, that many are not living with a strong awareness of God. While some may be shaking their fist at God, some may be simply shaking their head.

(As an aside, let me say that this cuts both ways. While I believe that people can question God in either an honest or dishonest way, I also believe that belief in God can also be argued in intellectually honest and dishonest ways.)

So, speaking of honesty, I owe that same honesty to others. So that is why I write this post – to confess that these are issues I am thinking through, and I hope that my testimony to my creator is not a bad witness to his character.


Thursday, September 28, 2006

Unexpected This Is

Many Americans feel familiar with God as he is described in the Bible. Even if they don’t know him well, they think they have the basic idea: he’s loving, he’s forgiving, he’s big. He sides with the little guy and he’s against abortion. He was once more uptight (the Old Testament) but now he’s more relaxed (the New Testament). Of course these beliefs rotate between truths, half truths, and falsehoods – but this makes up the general picture of the American “God as we understand him.”

As a result of this felt familiarity, certain things surprise us and certain things don’t. For example, we are surprised if we find out that, yes, the Bible describes a God who doesn’t flat out love everyone equally. On the other hand, we are not surprised when we are told that God is willing to forgive…even if it means a violent crucifixion.

Today I felt a little bit of renewed surprise as I pondered just one verse of Psalm 60:

“O God, you have rejected us, broken our defenses;
you have been angry; oh, restore us.” (Psalm 60:1)

Isn’t it something that the prayers in the Bible move from “you have rejected us” to “oh, restore us”? Not only “forgive us” which is a natural expression of self-defense, but “restore us.” It’s a bold prayer. It doesn’t make sense, really.

I am encouraged by knowing that even when I fail (whether I know I have failed or not), there are prayers that I can pray. God is willing to not only forgive, but to restore - to make whole.

May our weak understanding of God be forgiven and made whole as well.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Commenting in the Basement

Most visitors to this site choose not to leave comments, but some do. For those who wish to leave comments, let me address a couple house cleaning items:

1. Despite appearances, you do not need a Blogger ID to post a comment. You may comment anonymously so you do not need to set up an account. However, signing your name is always nice.

2. If your comment does not appear immediately, it may be that your computer is caching the page. Simply ask your browser to refresh the page and it will update, along with your comments.

Keep up the conversation!

Wednesday, September 20, 2006


The fool says in his heart, "There is no God." They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good. (Psalm 53:1)

We tend to think of atheism as a philosophical position. The Bible does not. Instead, both Old and New Testaments treat atheism as a moral problem; a malady brought on by a desire to convince oneself that God will not see and will not judge.

In this psalm, the “fool” speaks these words to himself in order to protect his psyche as he commits blatant sin. (Click here to read the entire psalm.)

Such self-delusion is common in all of us, unfortunately. Anytime we go against our conscience, and it’s more often than we think, we somehow have to convince ourselves that our particular sin isn't so bad: this is normally wrong, but not in my case; I am the exception; no one has been in this predicament before; life is unfair… Etc.!

If we did not lie to ourselves like this, our sins would drive us crazy. We would feel ashamed and harassed by our conscience, and we would fear God’s judgment. It would take a miracle to be delivered from such guilt.

But wait a minute… If we are lying to ourselves, and trying to lie to God, aren’t we all crazy to begin with?

Well, not me. I’m the exception.

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Main Event(s)

Did you ever notice that TV specials no longer exist? Nope. Instead, what used to be called “specials” are now called “events.” In fact, TV shows hardly exist. Even these are advertised as “events,” so long as the advertisers can claim something slightly different about this week’s show – a longer running time, a main character who battles a cold, finds religion, or whatever.

This led me to reflect today on how the real eventful moments in life are rarely expected. Even something as life changing as a well scripted wedding takes place because two people, in seemingly less eventful moment, bumped into each other one day and found they enjoyed each other’s company. Or perhaps found they were both assigned the same seat on an airplane flight (as happened to friends of mine)!

As Edith Schaeffer once wrote, there are often drum rolls in our lives that we do not hear. We do not know the magnitude of seemingly simple events.

Yesterday, the New York Giants wholloped the hapless Philadelphia Eagles (pronounced “Iggles” by their fan base). This had all the makings of a made-for-TV event. Down 24-7 until the fourth quarter, some amazing drives, throws, and even a fortunate fumble brought the game to a tie and eventually to an overtime victory. One player remarked that they did not go into the locker room expecting to come out as champions. Nevertheless, a coach’s words gave a needed emotional boost. When the movie is made, a drum roll will be inserted right there.

The simple fact is that God controls the drum rolls. We would like to hear them, but we cannot.

A friend wrote to me the other day. Having just finished law school, he looked forward his new job that would perhaps, over the long haul, place him in position to have his own practice. Little did my friend know that a health crisis would lead his boss to suddenly hand over the practice, along with a teaching assignment. Now my friend finds himself fresh out of law school with a far heavier weight of responsibility, and opportunity, than expected at this time. Again, he couldn’t hear the drum roll that signalled these changes.

God is in control. We cannot know how he will direct our lives, or when. But there is one thing we can do, and that is to be faithful where he has placed us. After all, the one in charge of our fortunes says this: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much.”

I guess the other thing we can do is pray. If we are so bold, our prayer might go something like this: “Drum roll, please!”

But don't spend too much time listening for it. Just remain faithful.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

They Missed Him

In the news today: A survey conducted by Baylor University finds that one’s view of God is likely to determine his political views. In USA Today, where I first learned of this survey, the headline reads: “View of God can reveal your values and politics: Baylor survey of religion maps four images of God that shape who Americans see the world.”

The four views of God are: Authoritarian, Benevolent, Critical, and Distant.

There is much interesting here, and I encourage you to check out the widely published news story. However, a fellow pastor and I discussed how our God did not make the Final Four. My view of God is that he is both “authoritarian” and “benevolent.” He is both angered at sin and willing to forgive sin; he both demands allegiance and offers comfort. I might add that this is, in fact, the traditional, biblical view of God that has been confessed for centuries.
Which only goes to show… Whether at Baylor U or Boston U, it’s hard to move beyond stereotypes concerning God.

Christians need to maintain a “fair and balanced” view of the God we confess. And by this God’s grace, we need to be his mouthpiece to a world that just doesn’t get it. After all, neither did we—until he benevolently and authoritatively overruled our natural tendencies.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Our Creative Creator

More thoughts on the Book of books...

God's word is powerful, "like a hammer that breaks rocks in pieces" (Jeremiah 23). Why? Primarily, because God made us and knows our sins, pleasures, and longings. But the power of the Scriptures - testified even by those who reject their divine origin - is also based on the simple fact that the Scriptures are well-written.

The 66 books that compose our Bible represent numerous literary traditions. Contained in Scripture are varieties of narrative (story), poetry and song, prophecy and sermon, instruction, philosophy, and more. These different forms correspond to our diverse emotional, spiritual, and intellectual needs.

Would we expect anything less from our creator than...creativity?

The fact that the Bible works this way is also important to note because often commentaries or books about the Bible don't do it justice. Here's a helpful quote I ran across recently that makes this point:

"We take in truths the same way we take in nutrients -- extracted an absorbed naturally from the food we eat. Yet, as a Church, we are so concerned about exactly what nutrients we need that we often forget what the meal should actually taste like. Our theological scientists in their research seminaries have spent years analyzing the things we eat, distilling them down to their constituent parts and then labeling them in systematic test tubes. It's vital that they do this, because without their tireless work we wouldn't have such a clear idea of what is needed for a good healthy diet. On the other hand, if it was left up to them to cme up with the menu, we would end up with a plateful of pills and tablets instead of, say, braised salmon fillet wrapped in prosciutto with herbs, on a bed of spinach and yogurt."
- David Salmon (seriously), writing in "The Heart of Worship Files" (Matt Redman, editor)

As with my last post, I don't intend to knock the value of good books, and apparently neither does Mr. Salmon. But we need to be aware that absorbing the word of God is not a merely intellectual process...nor a merely emotional process...nor a merely anything process. Other books may make good companions - but poor substitutes.

To take things a step further, we could also mention that God's word is not intended to be merely read. It is to be heard in corporate worship, sung, pondered, and prayed.

Let God do his work in you through his word. If we can't ask for more, why settle for something less?

Friday, September 08, 2006

Books a Million

Solomon warned, “Of the making of books there is no end.”

For someone who loves to read books, this seems like great news. However, Solomon’s full quotation is as follows:

The words of the wise are like goads, their collected sayings like firmly embedded nails-- given by one Shepherd. Be warned, my son, of anything in addition to them. Of making many books there is no end, and much study wearies the body. Now all has been heard; here is the conclusion of the matter: Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 11)

His point seems to be that there will always be new speculations, new philosophies, and new arguments. Wholeness is not obtained through keeping up with every latest book, but through understanding and fearing God. Those things we need to know are hard hitting truths – “well driven nails.” Elsewhere God asked, quite rhetorically, “Is not my word like a fire? And like a hammer that breaks rocks in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23)

For this reason God gave us, as one of my teachers used to say, “Only 66 books.” The 39 books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus…) and the 27 of the New (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John…)

Don’t get me wrong. Other books can be insightful, funny, useful, whatever. I don’t believe Solomon, and the whole of God’s word, is urging us away from the gift of reading a good book. We’re being urged away from living a lopsided life. Most tragically this happens when one reads about God, about truth, about the world, but never truly engages it through righteous living and loving service to others.

Jesus kept busy.

Yet books often help us understand the One Book we’re expected to truly master. We read this ancient yet modern book called the Bible and naturally yearn to understand its background, or to uncover something about the original languages. As a pastor, I certainly use commentaries; they help to keep me honest and to keep me interesting.

Yet finding a good commentary is difficult. Here’s why. The Bible is described well by Solomon: its words are like “well driven nails.” Yet commentaries are generally dry, often self-indulgent, and nowadays are rarely aimed at promoting righteous living. Many commentaries belabor simple points (were there sycamore trees in Jesus’ day, or was Luke just making this up?) in order to appease Scripture’s nay-sayers. It’s harder and harder these days to walk away from a commentary feeling uplifted, challenged, repentant, or enamored of God.

I’m not saying commentaries are not helpful, and I might even say that some of the better ones are essential for a pastor’s work. But truth be told, I’m sure disappointed with the many words of men.

Which is why I have to go back again and again to those 66 books.

“Is not my word like fire?” (Jeremiah 23)

Yes, Lord, it is. Please keep your servants from quenching it!

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Heavenly Minded?

Speaking of heaven… the book pictured above is a recent publication by a pastor/writer who also wrote this book:

Now, does it seem strange that these books would be by the same author? One is on the glories of heaven, the other is on…money!

There are many books written about money management these days, including a wide assortment from Christian authors. But who is more qualified to write about money than one who has also thought deeply about heaven?

We should not partition these off in our minds. To think about money is to think about heaven, and vice versa. Jesus said. “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven… For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6). 1 Corinthians 15 speaks of our glorious resurrection and eternity, but then the Apostle Paul moves directly into speaking about money matters. Bear in mind that there are no chapter divisions in the original Greek text as you read this section from 1 Corinthians:

55 "Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?"
56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.
57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
58 Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.
16:1 Now about the collection for God's people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do.
2 On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made…

As Christians we should think about heaven – and we should think about our possessions, too. The challenge, as well as the lasting benefit, is to do both at the same time.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Mapping Out Our Future

Today I had the opportunity to preach a sermon based on this text: "And they shall see his face..." (Revelation 22:4)

This provocative phrase reminds me of 1 Corinthians 13: "Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known." The culmination of our relationship with God is to see him face to face.

Why do we think about this so infrequently? I fear that even if we believe in heaven, we fail to ponder its specifics. I think it's that we're afraid to believe -- afraid to believe, really believe, something of such magnitude. Tragically, our unbelief serves as a check on our imagination.

This is not the case with everyone, however. A woman spoke to me after church and said that she thinks about this subject quite often -- ever since she had multiple heart attacks about 10 years ago. She had her brush with death, as she said, and now she thinks much more about eternity.

As a general rule, Americans are not strong in geography. I am sometimes privately embarrassed about how little I know of a city or state before visiting it. So much life, so much personality, so much beauty may be present in, say, Ashland, Oregon – yet I know nothing about it. And I’m sure it works the other way, too; I doubt many Ashlandians know about, say, the Great Swamp in New Jersey.

However… If I ever take a drive to Oregon, I will pull out the map, and perhaps some books, and get educated.

So, if I ever find that I’m on my way to heaven, I should probably pull out a book about it and get educated.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Lost Art of Loving God, Part Seven: Pray for Your Pastors!

I love to go into New York City. I live about 45 minutes away, and approximately once a month I have reason to take a train into Manhattan. I enjoy seeing the people, feeling the energy, and being caught up in something big and merciless for a day.

On the other hand, I know people who work in the city; they rarely, if ever, wish to visit the city on their day off. They go when they must, which is most days. Otherwise, they would rather enjoy beautiful New Jersey.

Pastors have a unique dilemma. We are ministers of the word of God, which is filled with illuminating truth; glorious drama (the “greatest story ever told”); words of life; rivers of living water. It is the book of books. And yet, our day job is to study and teach this book. In fact, I am struck by how vain my job as pastor would be apart from this book. Yet because the study of this book is my duty, it is easy to fail be nourished and refreshed by its pages.

Pastors need spiritual disciplines as much as anyone. And pastors, as much as anyone, need to cultivate not only disciplined reading but delighted reading. I encourage you to pray for your pastors. You need them to communicate God’s word effectively, and they need you to pray that their own study would not create in them a harder – rather than softer – heart.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Lost Art of Loving God, Part Six: Humility

Overheard on Christian radio yesterday, as part of a program counting down (or “counting up” as they say) the top Christian hits: “Coming up, you’ll hear our number one artist being really humble about it!” (Cue as-yet-unnamed artist saying that his band is just glad to have the opportunity to do what they do, etc.)

Do we know the real value of humility?

Humility must be cultivated at all times, including when we approach God’s word. We should arrive with humility and leave with greater humility. Bible reading alone doesn’t guarantee spiritual growth – you may grow, but only in knowledge or pride! Therefore I believe that to rightly understand and benefit from Scripture, we should examine each passage with a view to humbling ourselves before God with respect to that passage’s basic message.

Humility involves repentance – recognizing that you have not lived up to God’s will. It also involves recognizing that only through Jesus Christ can we continue to approach this God whom we have sinned against. Humility acknowledges our disease; humility receives God’s cure. It is sorrowful, yet joyful.

These recent posts have given fairly specific suggestions regarding Bible reading. I have worked on the assumption that being spiritually disciplined is a good thing, and is far different from being legalistic. Yet legalism is always on the prowl. How easy it is to think we’re spiritual because we’ve opened the Bible a few days in a row! We must constantly combat this ridiculous notion.

I believe J.I. Packer said all of this with greater brevity. He said that each person is either more hardened or more softened each time he reads God’s word (or hears God’s word preached, for that matter). By God’s grace, may we not be hardened, but humbled.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Lost Art of Loving God, Part Five

Suggestions for Bible Study & Meditation on God’s Word, Part Two

11. Re-Read. Especially if the Bible feels familiar, you will benefit from the second and third read. This applies to verses, chapters, books.

12. Find a Bible with helps that you like, or a smaller commentary that gives background information. Spend time imagining the original context – sights, smells, surprises.

13. Yet always make sure you are studying the Bible and using the helps, not vise-versa.

14. Don’t get too hung up on which translation you use as long as it balances accuracy and clarity well. All the major translations (NAS, NIV, ESV) have their pros and cons. The ones to avoid are the loose paraphrases such as “The Message.”

15. Focus. Don’t be content to read the Bible “on the go,” when you know you’re not able to really process it.

16. But at the same time, you can add to your “quiet” time some “loud” time too – take advantage of podcasts, sermons, and websites that help you grow.

17. Three questions to ask of any chapter in the Bible:
• What does this teach me about mankind (me)?
• What does this passage teach me about God?
• How does Jesus Christ meet my needs or display God’s character?

18 & 19. Repent and worship based on what you read.

20. Don’t be legalistic. Seriously.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Lost Art of Loving God, Part Four

A friend and fellow pastor once developed a list of Bible study suggestions geared toward lay people and those new to studying God’s word. I was impressed; The suggestions were basic, but helpful. I was impressed because I think sometimes pastors, in an effort to impress, fail to outline the fundamentals.

I have merged his suggestions with my own, and so I tend to call this the “Ken & Phil List.”
These are suggestions rather than God given rules. However, I think you might find some of them helpful.

Suggestions Bible Study & Meditation on God’s Word

1. Put consistency before quantity. Better 10 minutes a day than an hour “hit and miss.”

2. Find a time that is conducive to reading and prayer. You want to choose a time when you are alert, but also a time when you are least likely to have other concerns pulling on you.

3. Find a place that is conducive to reading and prayer as well. Mentally stake out this space as a place of daily reading and prayer.

4. Before you open the Bible, pray for insight & teachable spirit.

5. Have a “flexible plan” for what you will read. A plan is very important, as is some the flexibility to break out of your normal pattern here and there.

6. Many like to read through the Bible cover to cover, but this is not always the best approach. What will really help you grow? Consider starting with the Gospels, Romans, or Psalms.

7. As stated in part two of this series, find a friend who will keep you accountable to your plan. (Don’t underestimate the value of this!)

8. Bring your own Bible to church, especially if your church prints the Bible verses in the bulletin. It is helpful to get a “feel” for where things are located in your Bible, and a “feel” for the surrounding context.

9. Because the church was (and is) God’s idea, don’t feel guilty utilizing its resources. Consider making the sermon a springboard for what you read in the Bible one or two days of the week.

10. Use a notebook to record thoughts about what you read. You don’t have to be a writer, and you don’t have to write much, but consider C.S. Lewis’ words, “Writing takes the fuzz of our thinking.” It also helps us better retain what we have learned.