Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Bible in the Breakroom

When I lived in California, I used to visit my family at Christmas. Often, this meant traveling to Michigan's Upper Peninsula, where my mother moved after my father's death. She is remarried to a wonderful man who takes good care of her and loves our family. When I would make these trips, I would often have to inform people that Michigan indeed has an Upper Peninsula -- many hadn't heard of it.

So, for those who are still in the dark about this, please note the above picture. The part that is shaped like a mitten is the "Lower Peninsula." The upper part is the (you guessed it) "Upper Peninsula." While not a particularly cosmopolitan place, the Upper Peninsula has beautiful places to hike and enjoy the outdoors. Now is the time to enjoy this, before winter comes -- roughly late August through April!

So here's the news: I'm heading to Michigan to visit family for a week and will likely not be able to post while I'm away. Bible in the Basement will be back in action after May 30. In the meantime, I welcome you to visit many of our fine archives or links!

Saturday, May 20, 2006

The Greatest Day

Eighteen years ago I went to a concert with my sister Joni and her husband Bill. It was a Christian concert – the 2nd Chapter of Acts farewell tour. I sat in the back row and talked to my sister and brother-in-law about Christianity, pretty much ignoring the music. I had some complaints about Christian music – isn’t it just a low quality version of truly good music, etc. For me, this was actually just a disguise for my fear of Christian discipleship. I didn’t want to surrender my life, including my musical tastes (dear to me at the time) to Jesus Christ. Afterward, we went to a Denny’s restaurant and talked some more.

Sometime late into the night, in the wee hours of May 20, 1988, sitting in a nearly deserted Denny's restaurant, Bill asked me if I would like to pray. He didn’t fully realize it, but I had been prepared for this moment. God had been hounding me through various means – those who have been hounded know what I’m talking about. My understanding of the gospel, let alone my understanding of my own sin, was far from mature. All I knew was, “God is after me. I haven’t yet surrendered to him. I have to do this sometime – why not now?” So I prayed a prayer of repentance with Bill, surrendering myself to God and entrusting myself to the Lord Jesus Christ.

I don’t remember the exact words of the prayer, but I afterward felt that something significant had transpired. Not everyone feels something like this immediately, but I did. I walked out of that Denny’s restaurant with a sense of God’s powerful presence. Joni and Bill weren’t quite sure anything had happened at all, though. It wasn’t until I turned up at their apartment some months later with a page of handwritten questions about the Bible that they realized, indeed, God was at work inside me. In fact, from that moment my interests, desires, and direction were forever changed.

That was the greatest day.

“Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.” (Luke 18:7)

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Thursday, May 18, 2006

Home Building Basics

“Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain.”

“Behold, children are a heritage from the LORD, the fruit of the womb a reward.” (Psalm 127:1, 3)

God’s work and our work. Understanding how these two intersect is one of the most fascinating and frustrating aspects of theology and the Christian life. And it deserves this status, for ultimately we are describing how humans interact with the mighty God of the universe. Psalm 127 tackles this issue head on. And it answers the question by affirming that we must build, but the master builder must approve of the plans for them to succeed.

This psalm moves from speaking about building houses (v.1) to building homes (v.3) – that is, families. The psalm remains the same: God’s stamp of approval is required. “Children are a heritage from the Lord.” In Scripture, we also learn that “a prudent wife is from the Lord” (Proverbs 19:4).

So what does it mean to receive approval from the master builder?

First, God must allow our plans to go forward. He must allow everything from the air in our lungs to the hammer in our hand – and woe to the person who takes these for granted. As a friend of mine says, “We are not guaranteed our next breath.”

Second, God must allow our plans to go forward successfully. Plenty of people build houses and homes – but if they are not built according to specs, they turn out badly. Houses and homes alike. Only by following God’s word can we expect our deepest dreams to come true – families united not merely by blood but by faith, hope, and love.

Don't push God out of the picture. As another friend says, "If it's worth doing, it's worth doing right."

By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established;
by knowledge the rooms are filled with all precious and pleasant riches. (Proverbs 24:3-4)

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Couldn't Script It Any Better, Part Two

On April 27, I wrote about movies being marketed to Christians in "Couldn't Script It Any Better" (click to read).

On a similar - though even more disturbing - note, Peter Boyer has written an essay in The New Yorker regarding the manner in which The Da Vinci Code has been marketed to those who would normally be its biggest critics ... Christians.

Since I cannot post the entire essay, here is a summary from the New Yorker's website:

In the May 22, 2006, issue of The New Yorker, Peter J. Boyer reports on how Sony Pictures Entertainment has gone to unique lengths to market “The Da Vinci Code” to Christians (“Hollywood Heresy,” p. 34). Boyer writes, “Christians were broadly united in their opposition to the book, and to the movie, but badly divided on the question of how to deal with it.” Sony, fearing an outright boycott, hired a public-relations firm that aimed to capitalize on that division by drawing the Christian community into an expansive discussion of the film. In February, Boyer writes, Sony launched a Web site, “ ‘The Da Vinci Dialogue,’ which contains some forty-five essays by religious leaders and Christian scholars questioning and correcting, in civil tones, various of Dan Brown’s assertions.” Now, Boyer writes, that “theme of engagement has come to define the Christian response.... Sony is undoubtedly pleased by this outcome. If Christian leaders are speaking of ‘dialogue’ and ‘engagement,’ they are not saying, ‘Don’t see this film.’ ”

As I asked a few weeks ago - must we be so predictable?

* * *

UPDATE: Wait a minute. Maybe The New Yorker is using me to sell its magazines! Aiieee!

Monday, May 15, 2006

Evangelism - Whose Job Is It, Anyway?

And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Jesus, Matthew 28:18-20)

Evangelism. Whose job is it, anyway?

Is it Jesus’ job? After all, the authority is his.

Is it our job? We’re the ones told to go.

Is the pastor’s job? After all, Jesus was speaking to the apostles – not just ordinary folks. (The apostles were paid professionals, right?)

Jesus’ words contain a wonderful balance. We are indeed commanded to go. Yet before and after Jesus’ great command – his Great Commission – he reminds us that he is with us. We can only effectively go, make disciples, baptize, and teach if his presence empowers us. Furthermore, we will only have the encouragement and stamina we need if we comprehend that Jesus is with us. To Jesus be the glory!

Now it’s true that, in context, Jesus was speaking to the apostles. This also aids our understanding of evangelism: Jesus doesn’t intend each Christian to try to fulfill this command on his or her own – evangelism (and discipleship!) can only be effectively and properly fulfilled in the context of the church.

Before his tragic death in 1982, Keith Green used to travel the country exhorting Christians to get out onto the mission field. He sang these words:

Jesus commands us to go -But we go the other way.
So he carries the burden alone,
While his children are busy at play,
Feeling so called to stay.
(“Jesus Commands Us to Go”)

Keith Green’s theology was not at its best in this song. It is true that we often “go” the other way… And it is true that Jesus “carries the burden.” But he never carries it alone. He empowers believers, and empowers the church, to do the work he has commanded.

And come to think of it, I don't think that Jesus would call the work a "burden." And neither will we, when we experience the joy of being used by him in this great work.

Friday, May 12, 2006

Every Season

Some of you may remember the winter pictures from our front window. If not, you'll find them in the February archives to the right -->

Now, spring has fully come and the view from our window has changed. What a reminder that we are to worship God in every season of the year, even as we are to worship him in every season of life and every "season of the soul" (Matt Redman's phrase).

If you look closely, you'll notice some ears at the bottom of the picture. Our dogs like to look out the window. I hope you do, too -- in order to worship our wonderful maker (also MR's phrase!).

Thursday, May 11, 2006

A Toast to Obedience

[King Nebuchadnezzar said], “Now if you are ready when you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, lyre, trigon, harp, bagpipe, and every kind of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, well and good. But if you do not worship, you shall immediately be cast into a burning fiery furnace. And who is the god who will deliver you out of my hands?"

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego answered and said to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up." (Daniel 3:15-18)

In the verses above, three men refuse to disobey God’s first commandment: “You shall have no other god besides me.” They did not know whether God would miraculously deliver them or not. They knew he could, but they did not know that he would. For all they knew, they were about to be toast.

Obedience to God generally yields a healthy, balanced, and ethical life. This is why so many people who do not even remember the Ten Commandments generally speak well of them. But the very first commandment – have no other gods – reminds us that obedience is first of all meant to yield a worshipful life.

If we wish to obey God when it will yield blessing, we must also be ready to obey God when it will bring forth trial – even a fiery trial. And the only way to be ready is to live a life of worship, to make sure the first commandment really is first in our hearts.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Jesus and the Stones

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, "Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?" This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him.

Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her." And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground.

But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, Lord." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more." (John 8:3-11)

Is solidarity the heart of spirituality? Some believe this to be so. In past decades, a variety of “liberation theologies” proclaimed that God is unilaterally on the side of anyone oppressed – in fact, the more oppressed you are, the more assuredly God is on your side. Such theologies have therefore proclaimed “God is black,” “God is red,” “God is woman,” and so on – meaning that he is most present in the plight of those who feel disenfranchised.

Certainly God hates oppression and the dehumanization of others. However, God’s compassion may be misunderstood, especially in our politically charged society.

Jesus did not love outcasts simply because they were outcasts, but because they were human beings – fallen and broken individuals that he came to redeem. Therefore, he spoke up for the adulteress with the familiar words, “Whoever is without sin, cast the first stone.” Yet he told this same woman, “Go and sin no more.” Notice that he was not so much on the woman’s side as on his own side; calling her, as well as her accusers, to repentance.

Jesus knew more deeply than we do the depth of sin in all of us, and therefore the universal need we possess for forgiveness and transformation. The woman presented to Jesus was clearly guilty of adultery. Those who would cast the stones at the woman were guilty of unbelief (they were ultimately just pulling a PR stunt against Jesus) and mercilessness (using this woman as a pawn).

Jesus calls all kinds of people to repentance. He calls boastful conservatives to repentance as well as prideful liberals, the greedy as well as the slothful, the sexually unrestrained and the spiritually sluggish. He does not affirm their sin, but promises to transform hearts. One thing to note, though, is that the Bible does proclaim the poor “blessed” – not because they have a free pass to heaven, but because their disadvantages make it easier to understand their spiritual needs.

Jesus was not on anyone’s side. He invited people – people of all sorts – to his side.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Distracted With Much Serving

Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord's feet and listened to his teaching. But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, "Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me." But the Lord answered her, "Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her." (Luke 10:38-42)

Martha was distracted “with much serving,” which kept her from sitting and listening to the teaching of Jesus. Jesus gently rebuked her, and encouraged her to be more like her sister (ouch!) who simply settled down, sat down, and listened. Many have pointed out what a unique picture this was in the ancient world, that a woman would have such an opportunity for discipleship.

But what about Martha? Was Martha attempting to impress the Lord by serving him? Or was she busy and distracted because she felt that hospitality required perfection – a perfect home and a perfect meal?

Also, what did Jesus mean when he said, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things”? Were the “many things” those she was already doing – or was Jesus implying that her busyness was the result of a deeper spiritual unrest?

I’m sure that Martha could hear Jesus’ teaching – he was probably within earshot. But she could not think deeply on it, she could not really “make it her own.” What about you? Do you believe that Jesus is your own, and therefore you do not need to impress him - or avoid him?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

A Man After God's Own Hand?

God’s hands have much to offer.

If God opens his hand to us, we are given all we need – and who doesn’t want his or her needs met, or perhaps a financial boost? If God points with his finger, we are given the direction we desire – and who doesn’t want guidance? Also, if God holds us in his almighty hands, we know we have protection – and who doesn’t want security in a world of uncertainty? Jesus also said, with divine confidence I might add, that he holds his own in his protective hand (see John 10).

No wonder that Christians find it so easy to pray for God’s hand to be with them. We pray for God’s provision, God’s guidance, and God’s protection.

Yet our soul longs for something far more. We need not only God’s hand, but his face – his complete presence. This is why God encouraged the priests of long ago to bless the children of Israel with these words:

“The Lord bless you and keep you,
the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.”
(Numbers 6:24-26)

Moses knew this. He prayed to God, “If your presence does not go with me, do not bring us up from here” (Exodus 33:15). How many of us would pray this way? Don’t our prayers often sound more like this: “As long as you will provide for me, that is sufficient. If your hand is with me, I’m content.”

David knew this as well. He was known as a “man after God’s own heart” rather than a “man after God’s own hand.” He prayed this way:

“One thing have I asked of the LORD,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD
and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4)

Likewise, Jesus hands – though they helped, healed, and fed – are not sufficient for those who love him. This is why Paul boasted that God has given “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). And this is why the Christian takes such comfort in Jesus’ words, “Behold, I am with you always – even to the end of the age.” He is with us. Not just his hands.

Let us seek him, then, with our whole heart… because God is likewise not so interested in what our hands bring to him, but how highly our heart prizes him.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Truthiness & Consequences

“Speaking truthiness to power.” That’s how Stephen Colbert’s recent performance at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner has been described, picking up on Colbert’s famously coined word. Basically, Colbert lampooned President Bush to his face, with jokes such as this:

“I stand by this man. I stand by this man because he stands for things. Not only for things, he stands on things. Things like aircraft carriers and rubble and recently flooded city squares. And that sends a strong message, that no matter what happens to America, she will always rebound -- with the most powerfully staged photo ops in the world.”

And this: “The greatest thing about this man is he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.” (Transcripts and video are readily available everywhere on the internet, if you’re interested.)

In spite of Colbert’s role as a comedian, the audience was uncomfortable. Laughter was muted. The president looked perturbed, as did the First Lady. So the question everyone is asking is, why? Can’t these folks take a joke?

While many reasons for the lack of laughter have been proposed, here’s my take: people didn’t laugh because deep in their gut, they know that insulting a President to his face in such a manner is dishonorable.

The Bible tells us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Romans 13:1). Furthermore, “Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed” (v.7).

I heard an excellent sermon on this passage when President Clinton was in office. At this time, conservatives and plenty of Christians enjoyed “Bill Clinton” jokes. Yet most such jokes and parodies were clearly demeaning to the president. I’ll never forget the simple exhortation my then-pastor gave, to always refer to “President and Mrs. Clinton” - not “Bill and Hillary.” God placed President Clinton in power. Then, as now, God orders us to demonstrate respect to those who hold high offices.

Does this mean we can never laugh at political humor? I don’t think so. I think the difference is whether, in our laughter, we are able to retain respect. One way we retain respect even in laughter is when we are humble enough to see ourselves in our leaders, to realize that we have the same or similar faults. This didn’t come across in Colbert’s monologue, and people winced.

Another way we retain respect in laughter is when we are humble enough to realize that there is another side to the story. This is another reason laughter was stifled last Saturday – Colbert did not come across as evenhanded.

I have often laughed at Stephen Colbert’s humor. I enjoy much of The Colbert Report and find him to be quite talented, and his parody of cable news shows pretty funny. He parodies the all-American, anti-liberal, confident conservatism typified by folks such as Bill O’Reilly and Joe Scarborough. I “lean right” and tend to agree with folks such as O’Reilly and Scarborough (don’t ask me about Sean Hannity) – so in effect, Stephen Colbert helps me laugh at myself.

And that’s why people didn’t laugh last Saturday night as Colbert dug into President Bush. The jokes may have been funny. However, no respect or humility was demonstrated because there were not, for example, other jokes made about the media, the Democrats, and so forth. It was clearly a disrespectful attack – a rant, of sorts.

Ecclesiastes is right: “There is a time to laugh, and a time to weep.”

Monday, May 01, 2006

The Christian Minister and Vice Versa

“Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Jesus, Luke 10:20)

Jesus said that we should not rejoice in our perceived blessings or accomplishments, but in the privilege of eternal life. For someone in “full time ministry,” it is tragically easy to shape our identity around who we are in the church, or what we do in the church, rather than who we are in Christ. In other words, a minister must be a Christian! He is not a minister, but a Christian minister – and it is the word “Christian” that must always be capitalized.

Satan also tempts ministers to think, “It sure would be nice if I were just an ‘ordinary’ Christian. Life would be so much easier.” Yet Jesus said:

“No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Luke 9:62)

This stark statement applies not only to ministers, however. Just as all ministers are called to be Christians, so also all Christians are called to be ministers. It is tempting to think, “No need to fight too hard – after all, I’m just an ‘ordinary’ Christian.” Yet the discipleship Jesus demands is for all his followers – we are all called to personal holiness, imitation of our Lord, and service to him within our sphere of influence.

By the way, Jesus is the only one who put his hand to the plow and never looked back. Even the greatest apostles grew weary, denying Jesus with their words or actions. We must rest entirely in what Jesus has done for us, not what we can do for him. Yet at the same time, we must have it as our intention and desire to follow Jesus fully – for this is the kind of heart God gives his true children.

Are you a Christian minister? Or are you a ministerial Christian? Either way, make sure the word “Christian” is capitalized – but also make sure you are ministering in his name, to his glory.