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.