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.