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.”

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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).

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NOTE: To obtain the above referenced sermon by Tim Keller, one of my personal favorites, visit www.redeemer3.com/store 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," however...as 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.