Tuesday, March 27, 2007

'Tis the Seasons

Either Spring or Summer has arrived in New Jersey. Here's a picture of our animals showing their hospitality to Summer, inviting the warm weather to stay longer. (No, you're not on the wrong website...)

Rumor has it that Summer is only visiting, perhaps making plans for later this year.

Spring, however, plans to stay for a little while. Here's a picture I took when Spring finally pushed that ice storm aside and made its entrance...

Ahhh, you gotta love it.

No, really, you gotta! "From the rising of the sun to its setting, the name of the LORD is to be praised!" (Psalm 113:3)

So, in only the space of 10 days we've had visits from Winter, Spring, and Summer. It makes it hard to plan a vacation. Nevertheless, I will be on one for the rest of the week, so if you don't hear from me please check back next week. Chances are it will be Autumn by then...

Monday, March 19, 2007

All Creatures of Our God and King

This has been a very moderate winter in New Jersey. I think there were only a couple snowstorms, and the snow didn't prove particularly durable. So when the temperatures hit the 70's last Wednesday or so, we were pretty certain that Spring, if not summer, had arrived.

Not quite.

On Friday, ice rained from the sky. All day long.

Apparently, some birds were as surprised as we were. Their dining options suddenly became more limited and they had to scrounge in the few areas untouched by the ice.

Other animals were caught off guard as well. This one had plans for another rousing game of "chuck it" but instead realized the best she could hope for was a little slip & slide.

I found myself thinking about how unpredictable the weather can be, (weathermen notwithstanding), and how unpredictable God's plans for us can be as well (theologians notwithstanding). Since God created the weather, I suppose this makes sense!

Friday, March 16, 2007

That Thing Called Hope

Hope can have some pretty powerful effects. Look at what it’s doing for people who have placed their hope for a cure to stubborn diseases in stem cell research: money is raised, and voices are raised, too; lobbyists are employed, laws are passed, opinions are shaped.

Meanwhile, the days march forward to Easter. This is the day of ultimate hope, in which Christians celebrate the centerpiece of their faith: Jesus Christ, on a specific morning in history, rose from the grave. And everything about his life and teaching certified that this death was not for his own fame but for our salvation – that those who are mysteriously but really connected to him by faith will also triumph over our twin enemies, sin and death.

Yet people don’t want this hope. It’s become a nationwide joke that, as soon as spring training begins, so do the latest TV specials and news magazine reports that (allegedly) undermine any version of Christianity that actually inspires hope. Whether The Gospel of Thomas or The Lost Tomb of Jesus, something is always unearthed, along with some dubious claims that are sexy enough to sway the unsuspecting viewer.

But why? Why has this become our Spring ritual, rather than a fresh examination of the evidence for the empty tomb? Well, there are many reasons of course. Money is one, of course. The “discoveries” are always perfectly timed to coincide with a new glossy book and a new TV special.

But money isn’t the only reason. New glossy books and TV specials about the evidence for the resurrection would attract a wealth of viewers, too. Probably more.

Could it be that we don’t really want to hope? Hope is hard work. It changes your priorities, determines how you spend your time and money, and even adjusts your moral compass. This is, in fact, the ethics of biblical Christianity: those who have hope in the resurrection of Jesus, and in their union and ultimate eternity with him, will live far differently than those without hope. They will live different, better, wiser, freer, if indeed that hope is allowed any leverage.

And so begins the other Spring ritual… The Christian witness to the empty tomb, offered to those who have spent enough on hopelessness and are ready for a change.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

We Aren't the World?

A smiling contestant sang “Waiting for the World to Change” one evening on American Idol. Perhaps this upbeat song reminds some of the “We are the World” optimism of the 1980’s. That song urged that because we are, after all, the world, we should change it – lend a hand, start giving, and so forth. (The lyrics are a little too sappy to print on a website that children can access, so I will have to refer you here to job your memory.)

The words to “Waiting” are quite different. John Mayer’s song does not call to action; it explains the apathy of the younger generation:

Me and all my friends
We’re all misunderstood
They say we stand for nothing and
There’s no way we ever could
Now we see everything that’s going wrong
With the world and those who lead it
We just feel we don’t have the means
To rise above and beat it.

So we keep waiting
Waiting on the world to change
We keep on waiting
Waiting on the world to change…

The song goes on to describe how swell things would be if “they” didn’t hold all the power. They meaning they, not they meaning us. Well, you know what I mean.

What you get is what you got
Cause when they own the information, oh
They can bend it all they want.

I recently heard Mayer interviewed about his song. He said that he knew the song would never succeed if its message was “let’s change the world.” And apparently he was right: the song as it stands has been a huge hit. An excuse with a catchy tune, perhaps, but a pretty popular one. I have to give it to John Mayer, he understood what the public would and would not respond to. We are not the world – nor do we want responsibility for it!

So there are at least two responses to the broken world we face. The “We are the World” option optimistically roles up the sleeves and goes to work. Yet it runs into two problems: first, there is something about the world’s problems that is much too deep to resolve by sheer goodwill. Second, there is not enough goodwill anyway – there is a lot more apathy than we’d like to believe.

Which leads to the second option. The “waiting” option, the path of least responsibility, is the least heroic option one could possibly take. Is this the stuff that creates the next greatest generation? It’s difficult to complain that “they own the information” when you own the internet. Time’s Person of the Year is you, not them.

The biblical view of world change is not overly optimistic (or overly sappy). It recognizes that the problem is, in fact, far deeper than we imagine – and that we are part of it. Yet the biblical view of world change is not apathetic, either. Every prophet and apostle calls for action. And furthermore, the biblical approach to world change actually works. While not everything done in Christ’s name is Christlike, Western culture would be unrecognizable apart from its Christian roots. Its Christian worldview produced hospitals, universities, and concerns for equality, philanthropy, and justice.

Since this post is already long enough, I’ll cut to the chase. The most distinctive element of the Christian world view is its emphasis on personal sin. The world’s problems are not “out there.” They are right here, in our hearts. We are the world after all.

Because Christianity is a life of ongoing repentance – or should be – the results are profoundly different than “We are the World” or “Waiting on the World to Change.” We need to change the world… but it has to begin with me. And that’s not just talk. The Bible calls for a pretty ruthless self-investigation. And yet we do not grow apathetic… by the grace and work of God, we see change in ourselves. And then in our family. And then in our church. And then in our community. And then…in the world.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Filling the Silence

Occasionally someone asks me: what is the difference between preaching and teaching?

Both are verbal communication, both pass along information, and both (generally) have some kind of application associated with them. The difference is not that one is “spiritual,” since there is plenty of teaching that takes place in the church that is not preaching.

So what’s the big difference?

The first difference is that preaching is defined by exhortation, whereas teaching is defined by explanation. This is a matter of emphasis: a preacher is hopefully explaining, and a teacher may – if only on occasion – rouse his hearers to action. Yet the emphasis in preaching is on exhortation, and the emphasis in teaching is on explanation.

Second, preaching is representative. The pastor speaks as a called representative of God, a “minister” and herald of another’s message. While a Bible teacher – such as in a Sunday School class – may feel that same responsibility, it is more profound in preaching. A preacher avoids opinion, whereas a teacher sometimes offers an array of opinions on a given subject in order to excite learning. A good teacher even solicits opinions, questions, and ideas from the students, whereas a preacher does not. (This makes preaching intensely personal, by the way. To represent God’s message, one must absorb it himself.)

Third, preaching is more focused. The ultimate message of all preaching is the gospel - the work of God on behalf of mankind, and how this is displayed in our lives. The preacher is constrained by this particular goal. A teacher – again, even a skilled Bible teacher – may set for himself the same goal, but may not. No one should complain if a teacher limits his lecture to the historical evidence of Jesus’ empty tomb; but if a preacher stops here, God himself will act as judge and jury.

Fourth, there are different promises associated with preaching and teaching. The Bible says that God ordained preaching to turn hearts to Christ in repentance and faith (see 1 Corinthians 1-2). On the other hand, God promises to mature us through teaching (see Ephesians 4).

Well, those are my thoughts… I hope I have explained this well, and I’m happy to hear your opinions!

Monday, March 05, 2007

Breaking the Silence

Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. (1 Peter 2:11-12)

For this is the will of God, that by doing good you should put to silence the ignorance of foolish people. (v.15)

Welcome back to Bible in the Basement! I’m glad you’re here, in spite of my protracted (ten day) leave of absence. During this silent period, I’ve had occasion to reflect on that very subject: silence.

It is said that actions speak louder than words. This is certainly the philosophy of the apostle Peter in the above exhortations, and in the background are similar statements made by Jesus and Paul. I’m actually somewhat surprised at what a pervasive sentiment this is in Scripture, given that preaching and teaching are such prominent tools for the gospel trade. Peter does go on to say that Christians should always be “prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you, yet…with gentleness and respect” (3:15-16); but his assumption is that people will only "ask" if they see something worth asking about.

Words cannot be understood apart from a context, and that context should be lives of beauty lived by believers. Apart from good lives there is no good news.