Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

A thousand people have said it better, and there are a thousand other articles worth reading on the meaning of Christmas and why we should be celebrating, so I'll say only one thing: Merry Christmas!  May the meaning of this day, that God was born, a child in the manger was the incarnate Lord himself, and that he lived, walked, died, and rose again for the glory of God and the forgiveness of sins, live in your heart now and forever.  Though the holiday feelings may pass, may the truth remain, firmly established in your mind, that he alone is worthy of worship, and whoever has faith in him will be forgiven their sins.  May the time with family and friends, if you are so blessed, be joyous and fill your heart with compassion and prayers for those who cannot be with those they love at this time of year, and always.  May the Lord bless you, as you have a very, merry Christmas!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Good Poetry, take 2

A wonderful poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley, worth remembering as we contemplate what really lasts in this world:


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Lack of Sufficiency

A recent conversation in the comments with my dear reader, "Anonymous" got me thinking about matters of sufficiency.  Really, Anonymous got me thinking about experience, but experience then lead me to sufficiency because of the questions I had in regards to experience.  Simply put, my question was this, "When is experience sufficient?"  Obviously that question will have different answers for different people, and for different situations.  But, there is a legitimate question with why we place "experience" as a qualification, and why certain amounts of experience are seen as sufficient, whereas other amounts of experience are not.

Admittedly, I have a dog in this game.  For the cause of full disclosure: I'm looking for work in a field in which I cannot claim to have direct experience.  Yes, I have experience serving in a church and working with pastors.  I have been in charge of a ministry and have been involved in multiple ministries over the last 3 years.  But, I have never been a pastor, I've never been an associate pastor, and I've never been in a paid position with any church.

So, for me, the idea of experience being a necessary qualification for any position seems rather difficult, philosophically speaking.  But, I have to admit that there is a good rationale behind the idea.  I mean, I'd rather have a doctor who has done 20 surgeries operating on me, not the just out of medical school intern who has never operated on a live patient before.  Yet, that young surgeon has to begin somewhere, and it is the responsibility of those who have placed me in the care of that surgeon to know that he is ready and qualified to actually do the surgery.  The idea of experience is important, because experience can demonstrate competence in a field, and almost all of us would rather have someone competent than someone untried in important positions in our lives.

But, not every job is the same.  For instance, would anyone say that a mathematician shouldn't be trusted because he does not have the experience of years behind his work?  Or would we dismiss the work of a physicist or a chemist, because of a lack of experience?  Hard sciences, or purely logical pursuits do not require high levels of experience.  Thus, we must recognize that there is a limit to what experience means, and whether or not it is important.

The challenge is to determine where a given job falls in the continuity of experience.  For those jobs which are learned skills, jobs that require quick decisions and have very flexible situations, experience becomes more important.  For those jobs that have rigid rules, that require the exact performance of a set duty, experience becomes less important (generally speaking).  A man working on an assembly line does not need to have a great deal of experience to do his job well, so long as his job is simple and repetitious.  A bank president who must deal with multiple people and multiple emergencies in a given day should probably have significant experience so that he is not quickly overwhelmed.

Yet, even in the case of someone who has significant experience and high qualifications, there is a warning.  Do not begin to think that your experience, your ability, and your persistence are the reasons you are successful.  Remember that success is a gift from God.  (Deuteronomy 18:17-18)  Give thanks to God for the good things you have received, be humble and remember that your experiences have been good because of God's blessing.  Do not boast in your own might, for Scripture is clear that the power of men is fleeting, and the one who does not give thanks to God stores up wealth for others whom they do not know.

At the same time, there is the reverse fact, that sometimes it is the one without experience who has been given the blessing of wisdom.  Look at the example of Elihu in the book of Job.  He says,

"I am young in years,
   and you are aged;
therefore I was timid and afraid
   to declare my opinion to you.
I said, 'Let days speak,
   and many years teach wisdom.'
But it is the spirit in man,
   the breath of the Almighty, that makes him understand.
   It is not the old who are wise,
   nor the aged who understand what is right.
Therefore I say, 'Listen to me;
   let me also declare my opinion.'" (Job 32:6-10)

So it is important that we remember, that sometimes it is not a matter of age and experience.  Sometimes the one God has gifted to do a certain job, or fill a position, is the one who is young and un-experienced, because it is that person who will most demonstrate the glory of God.

We could note any number of examples in Scripture of the foolish, the inexperienced, and the weak being used by God for the sake of his glory.  Likewise there are multiple examples of God using experience, age, and wisdom for the purpose of bringing glory to himself.  God is able to bring himself glory through whatever means he chooses, and it is not for us to say that one is too young or too old to be used by God.  Thus Paul gives Timothy his famous charge, "Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity." (1 Timothy 4:12)  We must also embrace this word from Paul, as a guide for our own thoughts, and make a point of not despising those who are young and those who do not have great experience, but must inquire of God to see if he is seeking to use "the foolish" for the sake of his glory.

Paul understood well the reality that it was not his experience and his work that made him anything special.  He says in 2 Corinthians 3:5, "Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God."  He understood that it was God who made him a minister of the gospel, not his own works.  Even in something as theoretically simple as sharing the Gospel of Christ, Paul did not take credit, but acknowledged that God was the one who empowered him.  So we, in whatever we do, whether seeking to fill a position, or seeking to find someone to fill a position, should be more interested in glorifying God than in worrying about matters of experience.

In trying to get the best possible person for a position, and in striving to be the best possible person for a position, let us avoid making experience into an idol.  Give experience its due, admit that those with experience and demonstrated ability are the ones most likely to succeed in the future.  But also recognize the limits of experience, and that sometimes God desires to work through the less renowned for his renown.  In success, be humble, and do not scorn meager beginnings.  Bow the knee to God, and let him glorify himself as he desires.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


Today I spoke with my pastor, Robert Keats, about Genesis 1 and the book of John.  I told him I was re-reading Genesis and John and trying to ask myself questions to get more from the text.  In view of how John presents Christ, as the Light of the World, as the life that is the light of men, and as the incarnate Word of God, I told him I think there is more to the narrative of Genesis than I have been reading.  So my questions of the text were these:  What connection do the first words of creation have with what John tells us about Christ?  How does, "Let there be light" relate to the Christ event?

As I began to re-read and think about Genesis, I then found yet another question that grabbed my attention: why doesn't God say anything was "good" on day two of the creation account?  On the first day we see that God calls the light good.  On day three, God says both the dry land and the plant life created are good.  On days four, five, and six God says that the various acts of creation are each "good."  And finally, on day six, after God has created everything else, he says that all he created is "very good."  But, on day two, there is no statement that anything was good.

There may be nothing to this omission.  It may very well be that there is nothing to be learned from the simple omission of calling anything good on day two.  After all, on day six God calls everything, "very good" thus indicating that creation was exactly according to his plan and purpose.  And if everything was created according to God's purpose, then obviously, what happened on day two had to a good thing.  In any case, Scripture does not give a clear or definitive answer to this question.

If you choose to do a quick search on Google, you can find various answers that people have to why God didn't call the second day of creation good.  Answers range from the idea that the waters above the firmament were set in the sky as a punishment for men (the flood of Noah) and therefore it was not pleasing to God to have this punishment prepared, to the idea that the creation of the firmament and the setting up of the heavens created the realm that Satan would claim as his own.  Unfortunately none of the answers I read really took into account the testimony of Scripture.  For instance there is nothing saying that the waters in the flood came from the water above the "firmament."  Likewise, there is nothing saying that Satan had already taken his domain in the heavens being that as of Genesis 2 he had not yet tempted Eve and Adam had not yet allowed sin into the world.

I have my own theory on why God does not call day two of creation good.  My theory is that day two tells us about God separating creation from himself, setting up the firmament as that which separates creation (the waters below) from the throne room of God (the waters above).  Thus when we see in Revelation 4:6 that there is what appears to be a sea of glass in front of the throne of God, we are taken back to the primordial waters that covered the world, and we are reminded that God is enthroned above the heavens.  God is separated from creation, because of his own design, but he does not intend for things to remain that way.  By the end of Revelation, in chapter 21 we see that God intends to make a new creation, one that will not be separate from himself.  God does not call the second day of creation good because it represents an imperfect idea of what God will one day do, when he will join himself to creation, when there will be nothing that separates him from what his hands have made.  (I do not mean this in a pantheistic or panentheistic sense.)

Obviously, my theory is just that, a theory.  I can't prove my idea is correct.  If I am right, then what that shows us is that God intended, from the very beginning of creation, to bring all things into fellowship with himself.  Thus when we read about the separation of day two we read about an event that was necessary according to God's divine plan, but one which would one day be undone.  This tells us that it should be our aspiration to be brought back to God.  And it tells us that reconciliation with God goes beyond ourselves, it involves all of creation coming into fellowship with God.

But, my point is not to attempt to prove my interpretation of Genesis.  Instead, my point is that it is only through re-reading Scripture that we notice things like the second day not being called good.  We only notice the connections between the waters above and the glassy sea around the throne of God when we read through both Genesis and Revelation enough times that the ideas in each of them take root in our minds.  Yes, reading what others think about Scripture, or hearing someone else point out connections we may not notice in Scripture is useful.  But, we will only begin to see connections ourselves when we become devoted the text of Scripture, in whatever way we have access to that text.

Re-reading Scripture has great value, because it helps us to see connections we might otherwise never notice.  It also encourages us to ask questions, which can be useful to us and help us to get more out of Scripture, even if we cannot definitively answer the questions we ask.  If our goal is to become more like Christ, even as Peter says we are being transformed, and Paul says we ought to live, then there is no better method to becoming like Christ than to dive into his word.  There is no other way to know the mind of God than to give heed to what he has said.  While there may be times we feel as though we are gleaning nothing more from what we are reading, we must remember that God can use those moments to plant something in our minds that will help us later.  Re-reading Scripture is incredibly important to the Christian, and its values cannot be overstated.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why International Missions isn't Foreign

Recently I had the privilege of teaching a lesson on international missions at my church here in Carrollton, Georgia.  The lesson itself was on missions going on in Thailand.  In many of the international missions lessons in local churches congregations learn about the demographics of the country, they hear about a few specific missionaries, and then they are told how they can pray for those missionaries specifically.  While there is nothing wrong with this method, and in fact there is a lot of very useful information to be learned from this method of teaching, I decided to take the lesson in a different direction.  My goal in the lesson was not simply that the congregation would learn facts about Thailand, but that they would understand that Thailand is not that different from Carrollton, and that international missions is not just something "over there," but that it affects us here at home, and what we do here at home affects international missions.

This post is a follow up to that lesson.  The fact is international missions ought not be some foreign concept or idea.  International missions should flow directly from home missions, from local missions, and from every Christian's personal mission in the world.  International missions is the spread of Christianity to every tribe, people, tongue, and nation, fulfilling the command of Christ to go and make disciples of all nations.  (Matthew 28:18-20)  Therefore, the mindset of international missions should be part of every Christian, as we strive to be faithful to what our Lord has called us to do.

There are two specific reasons I want to address as to what International missions is not foreign: people, and Scripture.  If we understand the reality of who we are serving, and who we have a mission to reach, we will understand that these are not just people who live thousands of miles away, but they are brothers and sisters, and no matter how far away family may be, family is not foreign.  Likewise, if we understand Scripture, then we will understand how what we are to minister is never foreign, it is the wonderful Good News of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, that all men might be reconciled to God, redeemed from sin and free to live to the glory of God.  The message is not foreign, and the people are not foreign, even if the culture is totally alien to us.

It may seem like a bit of a contradiction to say that the people are not foreign if the culture is foreign, but people are not just their culture.  Specifically, in terms of international missions, every person is exactly the same.  What I mean is that what Paul says about humans, he says about all of us, he makes no distinction between Jew and Gentile, Greek and barbarian.  Paul says, "As it is written:

'None is righteous, no, not one;
   no one understands;
   no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
   no one does good,
   not even one.'
'Their throat is an open grave;
   they use their tongues to deceive.'
'The venom of asps is under their lips.'
   'Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.'
'Their feet are swift to shed blood;
   in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.'
   'There is no fear of God before their eyes.'

Every human has sinned.  No one fears God naturally.  Not one of us is innocent, and all of us are condemned before God, according to what Paul says here.  Therefore, when we go to minister to humans in any place, any time, and any culture, we are ministering to sinners.  Just as you, if you are a Christian, were a sinner who received the Gospel from someone who ministered to you, so they are sinners in need of ministers who will bring the gospel to them.  There is nothing foreign in sin, we who walk in the light know the ways of sin, because we walked in sin ourselves.

But, not only are people the same, Scripture is the same.  Yes, translation is an art and a science.  And yes, there may be challenges in bringing Scripture to different cultures.  Due to linguistic barriers and the lack of a written language, it may be very hard to explain Scripture or make it widely accessible to certain peoples.  But, despite these challenges, Scripture itself does not change.

The reason Scripture does not change is because God does not change.  Scripture is the personal revelation of a personal God.  Unless God changes, his revelation will not change, and God has said of himself that he does not change. (Numbers 23:19, 1 Samuel 15:29, Malachi 3:6, James 1:17)  Therefore, in every culture we minister the same Scripture, the same message, and the same God, that all men may know of the Lord who made them and desires that they should come and fellowship with him.  This Gospel does not change, because it is the same to everyone, no matter who they are or where they are.

There are a lot of things that can be foreign in international missions, from language and culture, to location and climate.  But, the things that really matter, the needs of people and means of addressing those needs, do not change.  Every person needs to be reconciled to the God who made them, who requires worship from them.  And the only means of reconciliation is faith in Jesus Christ.  Therefore, international missions may involve going to foreign places, eating foreign food, learning foreign languages, and living under foreign shelters, but there should be nothing closer to home than the ministering of the gospel to those who desperately need to know of the hope that is found only in Jesus Christ.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

And be Thankful

"And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful.  Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God." - Colossians 3:14-16 (ESV)

From what we see in the above passage we note that there are three things Paul called the church to: put on love, let the peace of Christ reign, and be thankful.  Of course these are not three distinct events, they are, in fact, very closely tied together.  How can we love without the peace of Christ unifying us as a body?  How can we be thankful if we are not bound to God or to others through love?  In fact, the very idea of being one body is the reason we (Christians) ought to love one another.

Think about it like this: love unites.  Anger, hatred, fear, distaste, and discomfort all divide.  Those things which stand opposed to love do not bring the body of Christ together, they divide us.  We cannot be ruled by the peace of Christ because we are too worried about whether the man sitting across from us is dangerous, or we want to get away from the smelly bag lady who sat next to us in the pew.  More than that, we are not thankful to God for bringing this brother or sister into our lives, instead we sit in judgment of them, when God shed the blood of Christ to win them.

But, being thankless not only separates us from our relationship with God, it also separates us from those around us, and it separates them from us.  When we do not thank those who do good things for us, we insult them.  We insult them because we do not acknowledge the time, the care, or the resources they put into doing good for us.  We act as though we are deserving of that which we have received, as though somehow we earned some good gift that was given to us.

In my last post I noted that every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of Lights. (James 1:17)  But, James really begins that thought earlier, and the context around James 1:17 is important.  In James 1:16 he says, "Do not be deceived my beloved brothers."  My point being that James urges us to think about what he is saying more deeply than just saying, "okay."  James really intends for us to understand that every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from God.  When one of your co-workers did a favor for you, making sure you wouldn't be too overburdened, that was a gift from God.  When one of your friends called you up and asked if you wanted a coffee, just so they could spend time with you, that was from God.  Every good gift, every perfect gift, all of them, come from God.

It is so important to grasp this because it relates directly to what Paul says about being thankful.  If every good gift comes from God, then when you disregard a favor, or when you belittle the work of someone who sacrificed for you, then you are insulting the kindness of God.  Likewise, when you make light of someone trying to do good for you, even if it does not accomplish exactly what you wanted, it is not simply a slight to that person, it is an insult to God, because he is the one who gave you the gift.  Such an attitude shows that you have not put on love, you are not living in the peace of Christ, and you are not thankful to God.  Such an attitude shows that you have taken for granted the good things you have been given, as though you deserved them, when it is most pertinent to remember that those good things are a gift, and you have not earned any of them at all.

In addition to what being thankless says about your own life, it is also harmful to others.  When you disregard the good things people do for you, or try to do for you, it places them in a position of inferiority.  Instead of you showing appreciation for their kindness, now they have become mere tools, and if they perform well you give them no praise, for that was all that was expected of a good tool.  This is not love for your fellow man.  To be thankless is an insult to those who show love and respect for you.

But, there is one more point worth making: being thankless is a little demonstration of hell on earth.  What I mean by this is, if James is true, that every good gift is from God, then in hell there will be no good gifts.  There will be no friends, because there will be no kindness, because God will not motivate goodness or gentleness among those from whom he separates.  So, when we are thankless, we are demonstrating to those who would do good things for us a little taste of hell.  We are demonstrating the real sin that lives within every one of us when we do not thank people, or God, for the good things we receive, and, in hell, that sin will be given free reign, because there will be no common grace from God to keep it reigned in.

There is simply no excuse for Christians to forget to be thankful.  We, above all people, have received great and wonderful gifts that we do not deserve.  We who have trusted in the death of Christ and his resurrection as the payment for our sin, and the means of reconciliation with God, have been given a promise of eternal life with the Lord.  Every good gift we receive after that ought to refresh our spirits in memory of that which we have received and make us sing the praises of God, that not only did he redeem us from hell, but he also saw fit to give us more gifts on top of that.  Every generous hand, from every person, should invoke in us a deep and abiding thankfulness, for we know that our God is the one who has given this to us.  In short, we should have no problem fulfilling this command from the Holy Spirit, through Paul, "And be thankful."

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Happy Thanksgiving

I find myself in an odd situation today.  I am surrounded by family, I have a beautiful wife, I have eaten my fill, and I have all the blessings that come from living in middle class America.  I know that I will have a bed to sleep on tonight, I have clothes to wear and even a cellphone and a car in case I have an emergency and need to contact someone or go somewhere.  In addition to this, I have a wonderful church family, I have brothers and sisters in Louisville and Savannah, and I know that there are many people who love me.  In all of this, how could anyone not be thankful?

Yet, at the same time, I find myself in the same place as many Americans today: I am unemployed, my financial resources are taxed, and I'm not sure when that situation will change.  In addition to this I, like many others, have an advanced degree, and feel a specific calling on my life that I would like to accomplish, and that I have dedicated years to fulfilling.  Even though I have been the beneficiary of the wonderful generosity of family, so that I have a place to live, there is a distinct enjoyment missing.  An enjoyment that comes from working and providing for my family.  This situation is frustrating, and the reality of it cannot be escaped.

 In thinking about these two situations I am forced to conclude that being thankful really is about what perspective we choose to have in life.  We can look at what we want, what we have not yet accomplished, what we have lost or our ills and pains, and we can conclude that life is not as good as we would like.  Or, we can choose to look at what we have received and what we have, and we can be appreciative for life itself.

The second mindset, the one that looks at life with appreciation, is the one to which the Christian is called.  As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 4:7, "What do you have that you did not receive?  If then you received it, why do you boast as if you did not receive it?"  The point being that everything we have, from life, to love, to wealth, to family, all of it is a gift to us from God.  In addition to this we can add salvation, hope, enjoyment, and any number of other blessings.  For the Christian, we are called to be humble, acknowledging that God has given us great blessings, but that also then means we must be thankful, because in acknowledging that we have received blessing, what else can we do but be thankful to the one who has given those blessings to us?

So, on Thanksgiving, and on every day, let us consider what attitude we will have in ourselves, whether being thankful, or holding life in contempt.  And, as we are challenged to be thankful for all the many blessings we have received, let us remember who we are thanking.  Being thankful necessarily assumes being thankful to someone or something.  So, let us give God the glory, both for what we have received, and because he is the one who gives us these things.  Let us always remember what James says, "For every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change."

Let us be humble enough to appreciate the good gifts we have been given.  As I said to a friend not too long ago, when I was in Virginia I saw beautiful sights from the tops of mountains.  I saw valleys of green laid out before me and watched as below me hawks flew in search for prey.  Such wonderful sights remind me that I do not know what the future holds, whether I will stand on mountain tops and look across open valleys, or walk on the sea shore and hear the roar of the ocean.  But, I know there is still beauty in the world, even if I am in the midst of gray and dreary day.

So, I will be thankful for what I have seen, knowing that those beautiful days brought me to where I am now.  I will be thankful for today, knowing that where I am now must yield to the hope of what I will see tomorrow.  So, let us always give thanks to the Father of Lights.  Let us worship him who gives to us perfect gifts.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Isaiah 6:1-8

Recently (a couple of weeks ago) my pastor asked me to read this section of Scripture and lead the congregation in prayer as part of our worship service.  Reading this passage, and the sermon of that day, both changed the way I have looked at sin since.  I wanted to address this passage of Scripture and share a few of the things that really impacted me.  A couple of the points come from the Hebrew in this passage, so I beg your leave to discuss those, and I ask that you trust what I'm going to say.  Alternatively, I hope that my reading of this passage might encourage you to do some research on the passage yourself, that you may be challenged and transformed by the Word of God.

First, the English of this passage:

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple.  Above him stood the seraphim.  Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew.  And one called to another and said:

"Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!"

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.  And I said: "Woe is me!  For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!"

Then one of the seraphim flew to me, having in his hand a burning coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar.  And he touched my mouth and said: "Behold, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for."

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, "Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?"  Then I said, "Here am I!  Send me."

The first thing that struck me was the declaration made by the Seraphim: "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts!"  (A better rendition might note that he is called the Lord of armies, but that's a secondary point.)  The reason this declaration struck me is because of the triple repeated, "Holy!"  In the original Hebrew and Greek there was no punctuation.  No exclamation marks, no periods, no commas, no way to separate or accentuate a word other than either its placement in the idea, or a play on its form, or a repetition of the word itself.  Thus, when we see a repeated word or term it is there for one specific reason: emphasis.

For the Seraphim to call God "holy" three times indicates a serious emphatic statement.  It would be like standing in the midst of a courtroom and suddenly the bailiff picks up a bull horn and screams as loud as he can that the judge is honorable and just.  If you miss the implication, it is because you choose to ignore that which has been screamed at you.

God is holy!  He is utterly, indescribably holy!  His holiness is to be shouted, it is declared by those beings which are in his presence day and night.  This is the first and most important descriptor of God.  His holiness defines his other attributes, because it puts them in proper perspective.

God's holiness is his transcendence above and beyond this world.  He is like nothing in this world, utterly distinct and incomparable.  It is for this reason that Scripture says of God, "Who is like the Lord?" (Psalm 40:5; Psalm 89:6; Isaiah 40:18, 25; 46:5)  And here, you have heavenly beings, flying above the throne of God, which is itself a high and loft throne, and they are declaring this holiness, over and over again, yelling it loudly to one another.  That's how important it is that we get that God is holy, the seraphim yell not to creation, but to one another, even though they dwell in the presence of God.

This point only began to really come home to me when I began to consider the rest of God's attributes in relation to this holiness.  Think about it this way: God demonstrates his power so that we can understand that his power is beyond what we can comprehend, it is holy.  God works great and wondrous miracles so that we can understand that if God is able to do things which amaze us, how much greater are his works which we can not fathom!  His holiness, his indescribable nature, is declared by comparison with that which we can understand.  Likewise of any of God's attributes, his anger, his patience, his justice, and particularly his love.  We cannot really comprehend any of these attributes of God, because his holiness puts them beyond our grasp.  We can witness a declaration of his love or justice, but that only gives us a glimpse into the reality that we cannot fully grasp, because God is beyond us.

But, here's what blows me away more than anything else, what made me really begin to consider the beauty of God's holiness: he does not do his great works for himself!  What I mean is that God is holy, by his very nature, and there is nothing that adds to or takes away from this holiness.  Thus, when God shows his glory through his great works, he does not add anything to himself, but simply shows us, mere humans, how wonderful he is, out of a great love for us.  Remember, God has seraphim declaring his holiness, he already knows his holiness, he does not need us to praise him, but he gives us the opportunity to praise him for our good, because he loves us.

God is the only being who deserves this praise, because his beauty is perfect.  So, for us to be able to praise God is a gift to us, because being able to praise God means that we are getting some glimpse of perfection, some participation in the amazing glory of the one who defines everything good and beautiful.  It's like getting an invite into the most amazing art gallery ever.  God is not changed or made more amazing by our worship, but we who witness his holiness are changed, because we experience that which is truly beautiful.  This is the situation Isaiah found himself in: ushered into the presence of glory, confronted with that which left him dumbfounded (literally) because of how wondrous it was.

God is holy, he is awesome, and he shows his holiness to us because of his love for us, but this is only the beginning of this passage.  Add to that the very beings who are declaring this: seraphim.  (In the Hebrew the "im" ending is simply a plural ending, hence some translations read "seraphs" as a valid plural form of the term, since the Hebrew "seraph" is the singular form.)  The word itself means "burning ones".  Thus, here are "burning ones," or beings whose own glory makes them appear to be on fire (or who really are made of fire), who are declaring how holy God is.  His glory is made manifest through comparison with their glory, because they are declaring his holiness, and not their own.

Then, Isaiah gives utterance to words that simply do not translate into the English with the same nuance which they have in Hebrew.  Isaiah looks to the Lord and says, "Woe is me! For I am [compelled to be silent, brought to silence, made silent, or undone, ruined, destroyed]."  (Everything within the brackets could be viable interpretations of this passage.)  Thus, when we read from Isaiah, "I am undone" what he is saying is, "I am brought to silence."  Here the idiom of silence represents the idea of death or total destruction.  This ties the statement in with the rest of what Isaiah says, "For I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips."

The idea of unclean lips goes far and beyond simply the words of the people, it goes to their lives, their very being.  Thus, as Christ declared, "For out of the abundance of the heart, the mouth speaks." (Matthew 12:34)  For Isaiah, for his mouth to be silenced was a condemnation of his very life.  So, likewise, when Isaiah complains of the uncleanness of the lips of the people, he is condemning the way they live.  They are unclean in word and deed.  And he is one of those people, he is not innocent, he is not holy, he is not good.  I realized as I read those words what a condemnation that should be to me: though I might know how to say the right things, though I might appear to be a "good Christian" to the world, my heart ought to be condemned before God because of my sinfulness.  I am in the position of Isaiah, and I need to declare, "Woe is me!  I am compelled to be silent, I should be destroyed before my holy God!"

Yet Isaiah was not left there.  Here the Hebrew again plays on words and imagery: one of the burning ones takes a "glowing coal" and touches Isaiah's mouth with it.  One of those who is on fire takes a coal of fire and touches that which symbolizes Isaiah's wickedness, his lips, and declared Isaiah to be clean.  Imagine that scene for a minute, a flying being of fire holding a burning coal in his hand reaches out to you and touches your lips with a searing fire, and declares you to be clean.

Here the full imagery of the situation is brought out: Isaiah is not simply standing in the temple, he is standing in the middle of a sacrifice.  Remember, the temple was filled with smoke after God's holiness was declared.  Why would the temple be filled with smoke?  Because a sacrifice was taking place.  We know this because the smoke is not merely from the altar of incense, but there is a burning coal, which came from the altar, which means that a sacrifice was burning on the altar of God.

Here we tie into the imagery of Christ, because he is the lamb who was slain before the foundation of the world. (1 Peter 1:19-21)  He is the sacrifice that God accepted to quench his anger, which allows a guilty people to approach a holy God.  Isaiah was standing in the presence of the God who makes redemption for his saints, offering up a sacrifice to himself which we could not offer up.  And Isaiah was made a participant of that sacrifice.  A coal from the fire of God's sacrifice was taken and placed upon Isaiah's lips, so that he became a participant in this symbolic sacrifice that would one day be fulfilled in the death and suffering of the Messiah.

And look what happens to Isaiah because of his exposure to the sacrifice of Christ: the man who was brought to silence, who was compelled to recognize the sinfulness of his life before the holy God of the universe, suddenly has the courage to speak up and say to God, "Here I am, send me!"  Because Isaiah saw the holiness of God, he was brought low, he considered himself already dead.  But, because Christ died on his behalf and he was able to participate in that sacrifice, his words, the actions of his life, were made acceptable before God.  Isaiah was given a boldness to go from laying on his face to standing before the awesome God of all creation, all because of the sacrifice that God prepared for himself.

The more I studied this passage, just in preparation to read it at church, the more I was faced with the reality that I had lost sight of the holiness of God.  I had forgotten his glory, and I had forgotten that when I sin I am transgressing that holiness, that glory, that awesome and amazing attribute of God that cannot be fully understood here on earth, because it is the reflection of how utterly incomprehensible and beyond us God really is.  But, in addition to that, my sins made light of the sacrifice God prepared for himself.  Instead of allowing the coal from the altar of God to touch my lips, I would draw near to it, I would feign to touch it, and then I would go back again into the secret realms of my heart, and I would not let myself be singed by the purifying fire of God.

For this reason, for the last two weeks, I have been continually thinking to myself, "Would it glorify God for me to do that?  Would it glorify God for me to go there?  Would it glorify God for me to watch that, think that, or listen to that?"  The seraphim constantly declare God is holy, so how could I, who have enjoyed the benefits of the death of Christ, do anything less in my own life?  Do I really think God is that holy?  In being confronted with these questions I was forced to reconsider how I was living, so that I could be like Isaiah, transformed by my experience of seeing the holiness of God.

To be honest, for those who have read this far, I can only apologize.  There is something about being exposed to an experience that cannot quite be captured by simply writing about it.  Particularly when it is the Word of God that we are confronted with, there is an intrinsic and personal challenge that is hard to express to others.  I can only hope that you will be challenged by this section of Scripture as I was.  I can only hope that as you have read of my experience of going through this passage, you will be able to appreciate the imagery, the nuances, and the power of this passage more.  I hope you are challenged to think about the awesome holiness of God a little bit more, so that you can too can live a life changed by meeting the God of Isaiah, the God of the universe.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

To Birmingham and Back

Yesterday, Jen and I went to a wonderful wedding.  Our dear friend, Brandon, married his beloved, Tara.  I can't tell you how excited I was and am for both of them.  I haven't been excited about someone else being married in a long time.  Perhaps it is because of the way Brandon became such a brother to me in the years we spent together in Louisville, perhaps it is just a matter of having learned more of the wonderful bliss that marriage is.  I have no idea.  I know this, Brandon and Tara are going to have one of the most blessed experiences possible, because they actually get what marriage is supposed to be about, in a way I know I didn't when I first got married.

Later, sometime, I suppose I'll go into a long reflection on marriage itself, but that isn't really why I started writing this post.  In part I just wanted to mention that wonderful wedding.  Believe me, it was really beautiful.

My favorite chuckle of the evening: the processional of the Bride was "Come thou fount of every blessing."  I know, the song is about Christ, but I love the double meaning, the symbolic nature of marriage, and the way a bride represents, for many a man, that idea: she is the fount of every blessing (I know this is, metaphorically speaking, the way I feel about my bride, I can only hope it is the same for others).  I actually did laugh a little when I saw it, though I have a feeling I'm probably the only one who really thinks or thought it was funny.

On the way back I told Jen I was feeling a bit poetic in thinking about driving there and back.  She asked me what I meant, and I told her:

Today, I have driven over 200 miles.  That means that for 200 miles the engine of this car has been compressing gas, combining it with heat and pressure and causing the release of energy with explosive force.  The force that this engine harnesses would rip my body to shreds were I to seek to contain it.

At the same time, this energy has not only been contained, but directed, put to work turning crankshafts and powering the many aspects of this car that are essential to its function.  All of that turning and energy has created friction and heat.  That heat, were I to try to hold it, would singe my flesh and burn me down to the bone.

The turning shafts of metal in the car are hooked up in such a way that they spin the tires of this car.  Those tires spin and move with such speed that my muscles would tear and my tendons snap if I were to try to keep up with them.  And in those tires is air, countless molecules, bouncing and moving, impacting each other so often that I cannot even comprehend the number of collisions occurring within any one of those tires, much less all four of them.  And we are not the only ones on the road, there are so many vehicles on any one stretch of road in America that I doubt I could count them if they were all brought together at one time.

In all of this I am brought back to what Hebrews says, that Christ "upholds the universe by the power of his word."  For 200 miles, for 4 hours of driving, Christ has been keeping all of this together, where I could not hold together even one part of it.  Then I realize, it is not just these 200 miles, it is for the thousands of years that the world has existed, it is through eternity past, before creation began, when he with wisdom knew what he would do, with no teacher, no educator, no instructor, and no councilor, according to his awesome power and knowledge.  My God is so great he has been upholding all things, at all times, and he will do so even unto the last judgment, when he will create all things new, a perfect world for his children.

Grasp this: that this is the God we serve, this is the God we know and love, this is the power of God who is our all in all!  A spinning tire, a turning crank shaft, the compression and explosion of gasoline for the purpose of travel, my God holds all of this in his hand.  His word has spoken it into being and allows it to continue, and all of it is for his glory.  This is the God I serve, this is my God!  To whom will you compare him?  To what would you hold him up as his likeness?

How great and wonderful our God is, who does all things well!  His glory is proclaimed by all things, both the simple and the complex.  If we but meditate on any one part of creation and seek to understand what goes on within it, we are laid low in humility as we come before the awesome might, and awful reality, of the living God.  Hebrews so rightly says that it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.  For if he can do all of this, how much more are we assured that he can, and will, judge us who will stand before him when he calls us?

But, how wondrous it is to know that because of the death and resurrection of Christ, I stand innocent, justified before the judge of the universe!  He, who has the power to number and order the collisions of atoms within the heart of a star, has the power to wipe away my sins.  He, who has the glory of all of creation as a testimony to his beauty, gave that up to die on a cross for my sake.  And his Father, my God, has given him a greater reward: A bride more beautiful, because she partakes of his glory, covered in his blood.  This is the God I love.  How could I do anything else?

Yesterday, I went to experience one wedding, and I rejoiced with my dear brother as he married his beloved, but one day, I will enjoy a better wedding.  I look forward to that day, because then I will see the one for whom I have longed.  How then can we not rejoice, knowing what is coming?  How then can we not praise God when he demonstrates his glory for us on a daily basis?  Our God, he is an awesome God.  Hallelujah!

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Do You Know What You Believe?

Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, from which I graduated in May, recently got involved in another scuffle regarding his statement that yoga is not Christian.  The complaint has come back, of course, that many devout and well-meaning Christian's practice yoga and do not find it incompatible with Christianity.  Dr. Mohler has, effectively, made two responses to this.  His responses are that the individual is either involved in a form of syncretism, in which yoga is being adapted to Christianity, or that what is being adapted is not yoga at all.  It is worth looking at these two responses further.

Can yoga be adapted to Christianity?  Dr. Mohler contends that yoga is necessarily non-Christian because of the mind emptying meditation involved in it, and the focusing of sexual energies through the body as a means of communing with God.  I think Dr. Mohler makes an excellent point with this statement.  The mind emptying forms of meditation that are common among many Eastern religions are simply not compatible with Christianity.  The reason is because Christians are called to meditate on God's Word, his deeds and actions.  It is impossible to empty the mind when filling it with thoughts of God's law, his holiness, his love, and everything else that a Christian might meditate on.

Scripture never commands Christians to empty our minds, but only to empty our minds of sinful thoughts and selfish desires, which ought to be put far away from us.  Even Paul commands us to think of whatever is good and lovely.  To seek to escape from ourselves or reality is not a form of Christian meditation.  To be reminded of God, to find his holiness and awesomeness surrounding us constantly, that is Christian meditation.

Likewise, Scripture never says that we are able to commune with God in any way other than through his Son, Christ Jesus.  We cannot approach the throne of God through focusing sexual energy, personal energy, or even spiritual energy.  We approach the throne of God through prayer, according to faith in Christ, who died for our sins.  Regardless of whether we feel God's presence more or less, the Holy Spirit is poured out upon us at all times, we are never separated from God.  Therefore, we do not need to enter some specific pose or focus some mystical energy to hear from God and speak to God, we have his Word, written to us to tell us how to live, and we have the right to come before him in prayer to thank him, praise him, and petition him for our needs or wants.

On these two points, making up Dr. Mohler's first reaction to those who claim Christianity and yoga can be harmonized, it would seem that Dr. Mohler has said nothing controversial, what then of the second reason he gives?  If you strip the meditation and other religious elements out of yoga, is it still yoga?  On this point it is purely a matter of convention as to how we answer this question.  What I mean is that words can change meaning over time, and often times the actual meaning of a word is purely a matter of the convention of the society in which it is used.  Therefore, the question is simply, "What is yoga?"

For many people yoga does not involve any spiritual activities whatsoever.  Many people go to yoga lessons and stretch and talk and smile and get a good, low impact, workout.  In fact, if you were to ask most of the people across these United States, "What is yoga?" most of them would not include any discussion of "spirituality" or "religion" in their definition.  (This, of course, is based purely off of my own experience, I did not go out and conduct a survey for the sake of a blog post.)  Therefore, it would seem that when people use the term "yoga" to mean "a form of exercise that involves stretching, flexibility, and holding various positions that place strain on the anatomy" they are correct in saying that yoga can be practiced by Christians without a conflict of faith.

While this may very well be the common use of the term, "yoga" it is not the only use of that term.  A quick search of the web reveals that if you look up the definition of yoga you find that the most relevant websites all recognize either the Hindu origin of yoga, or they discuss yoga as a means of attaining greater spiritual consciousness.  Thus, it seems, that most teachers of yoga and most of those who have done research into yoga agree that it is not best defined as simply a form of exercise.  The best definition of yoga must acknowledge the spiritual aspects that go along with serious yoga practice.

It would seem, therefore, that Dr. Mohler is correct in saying that if what you do when you do yoga is simply a form of exercise, then fine, just don't call it yoga.

My point in bringing all of this up though is that it is interesting to me that Christians would actually complain about Dr. Mohler saying that yoga and Christianity are not compatible.  I really think the issue is simply that most of us simply do not know what we believe, or why we believe it.  When Christians think that the spiritual aspects of yoga can be adapted to Christianity, my thought is they simply do not know what Christianity really teaches about our communion with God.  Why would anyone seek to draw closer to God through physical and mental acts of will, when God has revealed to us that the way to grow closer to him is through his Word and his Son?

When Christians seek to redefine the term "yoga" to mean simply "exercise" then they are guilty of not understanding what the term really means, they are guilty of not understanding that words have meaning.  Even in this Christians are guilty of not really knowing what they believe, because, in redefining a term, they open themselves to adapting more than just a series of poses and an exercise routine into Christianity.  It is always important that we know what a word means, and that we understand that when we say we are doing something like yoga, the word means a lot more than merely sitting on a mat with our legs crossed.  When we understand what we believe, then we understand that changing what we do is not a light matter, because our actions are a reflection of our beliefs.

Where do you stand on this subject?  What do you really believe?  Only once you have figured out what you believe can you really understand why you believe it.  Have you given thought to the terms you use, the things you do, and whether those things are really compatible with your Christian faith?  If you aren't a Christian, have you ever taken the time to think about what you believe?

Saturday, September 25, 2010

A Good Father's Discipline

My parents can tell you that I was a curious child.  I'm sure in fact that they would confirm both implications of the previous statement, but I want to focus on the questioning nature of a curious soul.  My mother used to say I could ask the same question in 20 different ways.  I did ask a lot of questions, and often those questions were the same question asked in different ways, because I wanted to make sure that I understood what was being said.  Maybe it was because I was a bit thick sometimes, but I know that often I asked questions because I wanted to understand, well, everything.

I think that same principle animates most of us.  Not that we realize that we want to know everything, but that we will not do that which we do not see the purpose to doing.  For instance, to this day, I rarely make my bed, because I figure I'm going to get back into it anyhow, why bother making the sheets nice just so I can mess them up when I sleep?  Besides, I figure leaving the sheets open in a bit of a tangle helps to air out the bed from where I was sleeping on it all night.  But, if I know that I have a guest coming, or that, for whatever reason, someone may go into my room or see my bed, I'll take the time to make it, so as to keep a presentable room when necessary.  (Fortunately I am married to a wonderful woman who thinks much the same as me in this area.)

I think this is the way most of us live.  When we understand the purpose of something, we are willing to do it, we may even embrace an action that we find particularly meaningful.  But, when we do not understand we are less willing to do what seems to be a hindrance.  Sometimes we skip over what we think to be minor steps in an order of operations, and sometimes that is okay.  But, sometimes what appears to be a small thing turns out to be a major thing.  The problem is that we cannot understand everything, and sometimes we have to accept that what we are called to do we must do based on our faith in the one who has commanded it, and not based on our own wisdom and understanding.

I think that is what has happened with church discipline.  There was a time when we understood that discipline was necessary, and was an integral part of our faith and our walk with God.  Now a days, when people can simply go to any church and can move from place to place quickly, it seems more of a hindrance for a church to worry about discipline.  However, if we understood how serious discipline really was, perhaps we would be willing to do it.  Perhaps, if we understood how serious discipline is, we would embrace it as part of our culture once again.

I want to take a minute to explain what I mean by church discipline.  To be honest, until I went to seminary, that term was not one I was familiar with.  I belonged to what I have come to think of as the typical Southern Baptist church, one that did not practice church discipline, and had ceased to even teach on the subject at all.  Thus I think there is perhaps a large portion of this generation of Christians (in America) who have no idea what church discipline is.  I'll try and explain it briefly.

Church discipline, most narrowly conceived, is that process by which a church attempts to correct a wayward member.  Usually this starts with one person confronting another with some specific and public sin.  After that person has been confronted with this sin, if he refuses to repent and turn from his sin, whoever initially confronted him will bring others with them to confront the person again.  After this second confrontation, if the person who has sinned still refuses to repent, then after an appropriate season of prayer, the matter will be brought before the congregation, and the whole congregation will then join in asking the person to repent (often this is done through letter from the congregation hand delivered to the person in question, if they refuse to come to the meeting arranged for this purpose).  After this, if the person remains disobedient, the congregation will then move forward to discontinue fellowship with that person, basically saying that the person's continuous disobedience brings their salvation into question.

The last point here addresses the seriousness of church discipline carried through to its end on an unrepentant person.  The goal is to make clear that the behavior of the person in question is such that it cannot be tolerated by the church, and that no Christian should willingly engage in this behavior.  Therefore, the response of the church, if fellowship is withdrawn, is not that the church is saying, "We don't like you" instead the church is saying, "We cannot discern that you really are a Christian, and because we do not want you to be confusion as to your eternal state, we are going to treat you as a non-Christian, so that you may realize your need for Christ and repent of your sin."  Discipline is thus the most loving thing a church can do, because discipline takes seriously the question of a person's eternal fate, and encourages people to examine themselves before God that they may know if they are condemned.

But, because of the very serious nature of discipline carried out this far, it ought not be done for light matters.  For matters that can be shrugged off the church should bear with, and bear up, the weaker brother, so that his faith may be strengthened.  Judgment ought to be reserved for matters of clear sin, not for petty arguments and complaints.  Moreover, discipline ought only ever be done for matters of public sin.  "He said, she said" arguments ought never go to the point of discipline, because the matter is private, and ought to be resolved privately.

But, church discipline should not really be that narrowly conceived.  The fact is that discipleship is discipline.  When we tell someone that God needs to be Lord of his life, and that God has certain ways he wants things done, then we are asking them to submit to church discipline.  The goal is to get the person so disciplined in spiritual matters that he can go on to train and discipline others, creating a cycle of discipleship and discipline that glorifies God through many lives.  Everything the church does, from encouraging prayer and bible reading, to practicing witnessing and faithful living, is discipline.  That means that we need to always be open to rebuke, to correction, and to encouragement, in every aspect of our spiritual lives.

Hebrews says that our fathers punished us for a time as they saw fit, and that no man enjoys discipline while he is going through it.  But, the end result of discipline is that a man is better prepared for life, discipline is good.  Likewise Hebrews says our Father does the same for us, that he disciplines us for our good.  Therefore, the teaching of Hebrews is that discipline from God, when rightly understood is for our benefit.  Thus, though it is painful, we should embrace it, because it will bring us glory on the day that Christ is revealed.

Often I have read this verse and thought of the discipline that I have gone through in various trials and troubles in life.  From learning to do with little do to unemployment and poverty, to learning to enjoy the simple of things of life through having possessions stripped away from me, I thought this was discipline.  It has taken me a long time to realize that God does not just discipline through these events, but also through the church.  Those who have come along beside me, my brothers who have prayed for me, my sisters who have shared with me, my family who has taught me and walked with me in good times and bad, they have been the discipline of God in my life, and that discipline has been good for me, and good to me.

Discipline, godly discipline, is good in every way.  We ought to embrace discipline, training one another, correcting one another, loving one another enough to share not only in the good, but in the bad as well.  We think of discipline as only the hard times when a brother or sister refuses our correction, and we forget that the one who hardens his back is the one who is not being disciplined, because he will not submit.  We, who remain pliable clay in the hands of God, are the ones who are disciplined, and we find joy because of that discipline.  Sometimes we must disassociate with someone, because we want to love the stubborn soul.  Embrace discipline when it first comes upon you, and discipline others as well, because we are the tools of God, his hands and feet in performing his will here on earth.

Friday, September 24, 2010

More Than Bread

While wondering through the desert Satan tempted Christ by appealing to his hunger.  Satan said to the Lord, "Turn these stones into bread and so you do not have to go hungry!"  It may not sound like much of a temptation, but the real point was to get Christ to rely upon himself, instead of trusting that the Father would provide for him what he needed.  Christ responded by quoting Scripture and standing against Satan saying, "Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that proceeds from the mouth of God."  We have to eat to live, but if all we take in is bread, then while we may continue to exist, we are far from having full lives.

This was part of the problem that the church in Corinth dealt with.  Instead of taking in the Word of God, they were more concerned with the bread and wine of the Lord's table.  Paul condemns the church noting that some come and feast, and others are left to starve.  Instead of sharing love and compassion for one another they became selfish gluttons.  To partake of the Lord's supper is to share in Christ, to eat and drink of his memory and in obedience to his words, it is not just to fill our stomachs, but to live on the Word of God.

Christ promised his presence always, and proclaimed of himself that he is the bread of life.  Obviously there is metaphor involved in that statement.  Christ is not literally made of bread.  Likewise, as much as I respect those Catholics who take seriously the traditions that have been handed down, as a protestant and one who adheres to solo scriptura, I find nothing in Scripture that makes me think that the bread literally becomes the body of Christ and the wine becomes his blood in some metaphysical way.  But, despite the fact that the bread is not literally Christ, when we partake of the bread and the wine, we are joined to Christ in his presence, as we partake of the feast that he is preparing for us in heaven.

To eat of the Lord's Table is to partake of a heavenly feast.  Consider this: Christ began and ended his ministry with food and wine.  When his mother asked him to help with the situation at the wedding feast, Christ turned the water into wine.  When Christ gave his last instructions, before his death, to his apostles, he did it over a feast including bread and wine.  And, when Christ brings all things to completion, we will once again sit down to a feast with him, at the wedding supper of the Lamb.  When we eat of the bread and drink of the wine of the Lord's Table, we are participating in feasting with Christ, joining with him in faith to the Father, believing that one day we will eat at the wedding supper of his Son.

This is why Paul was so severe with the church in Corinth, and why he says that when we eat of the Lord's Table and fail to recognize the body of Christ, we eat and drink judgment on ourselves.  When we partake of the Lord's Table, if we do not recognize that we are eating a fellowship meal, a celebration of Christ and the feast that will join all believers together, then we are not acting in faith, but faithlessly.  We turn the admonition of Christ on its head: instead of living on the Word of God, we begin to treat the feast of Christ as nothing more than bread and wine.  Any church that treats the Lord's Supper lightly, not realizing the significance of what it means to partake of the body of Christ is asking for the same judgment that Paul says was already being poured out on the church at Corinth: weakness, sickness, and premature death.

It ought to be born in mind that death, weakness, and sickness, do not necessarily have to be upon individuals.  Those who sit in the congregation, who are ignorant of the reality of the Lord's Supper, while certainly responsible for failing to take seriously the Word of God, are not as accountable as those who teach them.  Thus as James says, "Not many of you should desire to be teachers, knowing that we who teach will be judged more strictly."  In this way, because those who teach from the pulpit have failed to properly teach the Word of God, and because those who sit in the congregation have failed to hold them accountable to what has been taught, everyone brings judgment upon themselves for their faithless living before God.  So, particularly in congregational churches, no one has excuse, and no individual can claim innocence if they have not been faithfully warning their brothers and sisters of the coming wrath of God.

Because Churches do not take seriously the Word of God in what it teaches about why we should do the things we do, the churches get weak.  The churches grow sick.  Eventually, those churches who fail to be faithful to God, who no longer reflect a healthy image of his body, die.  And no amount of man made emotion and passion can change what God has already said will be the judgment of those who take the Lord's Supper lightly.  But it does not have to be this way.

Our God is a God who forgives, who restores, who wounds and heals.  If we will turn back to him and seek him, then he has promised us blessing in Christ.  We, who are in Christ, do not need to fear that God will hold our sins against us, for we are already forgiven, covered by the blood of Christ.  If we seek to partake of the blood of Christ at his table, then we must be sure that we are covered in the blood when we are away from the table.

God is faithful to himself, and he will exalt himself through judgment, and through mercy.  Thus, we have great reason to pray to God for revival, if we are willing to embrace the discipline of God in our lives.  We do not need to continue to eat and drink judgment to ourselves.  If we will learn from the Word of God, and understand what it means to be a part of the body of God, then we have great reason to hope in God.  Our God is full of grace, and he speaks to us if we will be listen to his admonitions.

Let us eat of the Lord's Table with joy and with sobriety.  Let us recognize that what we do here prepares us for a feast we will share there.  But, let us also remember that when we eat and drink of the elements of the table, Christ is present with us, partaking with us as we are his body.  We eat and drink not simply in his memory, but also in his presence.  There is great reason to rejoice for those of us who rightly recognize the body of Christ when we come to the Lord's Table, so let us rejoice!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Wash and Wear Christians

One of the oldest arguments that baptists of all kinds have engaged in is the importance of believers' baptism.  If you are not from a baptist tradition, I'll try to explain the idea quickly, and then address the argument itself.  Basically the baptist tradition is that baptism is only for believers.  That means that baptists do not baptize infants, and, historically, have not accepted those who were baptized as infants as members of baptist churches.  Only those who are believers can submit to baptism, and therefore if someone was "baptized" as an infant, unless they undergo a real baptism, as a believer, they are not generally granted membership in baptist congregations.

There are exceptions to the statement that baptists do not allow membership to those who received only infant baptism (paedobaptists).  John Bunyan, for instance, advocated that paedobaptists should be allowed church membership, and that they should be allowed to come to the Lord's Table.  However, even in his day, there were those who argued against him.  More recently John Piper and Mark Dever argued about this point, with Piper taking Bunyan's side, and Dever taking what I am calling the historical baptist side.

I would like to make a point of clarification though.  I am not calling Dever's position the historical position because it predates the position of Piper, but only because it has been the position accepted by most baptists throughout history.  This is why most baptist ministers, at least until modern times, would "fence the table" when inviting people to participate in the Lord's Supper.  The "fence" could be put up with a statement as simple as, "We invite those of like faith and practice who are in good standing in their church..." wherein the "faith" is the Christian faith, and the "practice" is those who had received believer's baptism.  The "good standing in their church" indicated that the person was not under discipline, and therefore there was no question of that individuals standing before Christ.

This last point could be broken into a whole essay of its own, and I intend to address the point eventually, but for now it is sufficient to note that most early baptist churches (and most baptist churches up to the 1950's at least) practiced church discipline and took it very seriously.  It was in fact because of church discipline that this whole issue arose.

Why would church discipline cause baptist churches to need to discuss the question of membership of paedobaptists?  In part it was because of the Lord's Supper.  Most baptist churches held that there were effectively two (or three) ordinances of the church.  In the three ordinance division you have foot washing, baptism, and the Lord's Supper.  In the two ordinance division you can remove foot washing.  Most baptists today do not practice foot washing, nor was it ever the majority of baptists position that it should be practiced.

Ordinances for baptists are not a means of grace.  The acts of baptism and the Lord's Supper are spiritually significant and symbolic events.  In the case of baptism the believer is joined to the death of Christ, and his resurrection through baptism.  But, what baptists mean by that is that the believer who has been baptized has made a public demonstration of their need for cleansing, of which the baptism is only a symbolic demonstration.  The actual salvation of the individual happens at conversion, in which the person is sealed by the Holy Spirit and joined to Christ eternally.  Thus baptism (as commonly expressed and understood) is an outward sign of an internal reality, and an act of obedience to what Christ has commanded.

For baptists historically then the argument has been that those who refuse to be baptized after coming to faith are living in disobedience to Christ.  Because the individuals are living in disobedience to Christ they cannot be given church membership, nor should they be invited to the Lord's Table.  To invite someone who is living in disobedience to the Lord's Table to is make light of their sin, which is wrong.  Moreover, to invite someone to the Lord's Table who has refused to participate in one ordinance of the church then includes that person in another ordinance of the church, and thus would be to treat the person as a member, even though they do not meet the qualifications of membership.  Thus, those who cannot be members of the church, for a refusal to participate in the ordinances of the church, ought not to come to participate in that ordinance which is restricted to only members of the church.

To explain this position from Scripture, baptists take seriously the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 11.  In verse 18 he says, "For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part."  This indicates that what Paul is about to say he says to the church, not individuals.  Thus when he says in verse 26, "For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes," this is not a command to individuals, but to the church.  Therefore it is those who are in the church who should eat the bread and drink from the cup.

Further, we read, "For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself." (1 Corinthians 11:29)  This passage is not telling people that they must simply examine themselves, but that they must understand who they are in Christ.  Yes, an individual ought to examine himself to see if there is any unrepentant sin in his life, but what Paul calls us to here is a consideration of who the body of Christ is.  The body of Christ is to partake of the Lord's Table, and the body of Christ is the regenerate church here on earth.  The question then, for who can partake of the Lord's Supper, is one of who is a member of the regenerate church on earth.

This is where baptism enters the issue.  We have already seen that the Lord's Table is to be open to all members of the church.  But, baptism is generally recognized (by baptists) as the means by which one enters into the church.  Thus, if one has not been baptized, then they are not to be considered members of the church.  If they are not to be considered members of the church, then they are not to take of the Lord's Supper, and they are not subject to church discipline.

But, why should baptism be a required ordinance for church membership?  If, as baptists have historically professed, faith alone is the means of salvation, shouldn't the church accept all of those who profess faith in Christ, regardless of whether they have been baptized?  The answer to that question must be answered "no" if the historic argument is to stand.  But is the answer no?

Yes, the answer to the question is no.  Yes, all who call upon the name of the Lord will be saved.  Yes, we are saved by grace through faith, and this is not of ourselves, it is the gift of God. (Ephesians 2:8)  And yes, all those who are saved are part of the regenerate church here on earth.  But, no, the church should not simply accept those who profess faith in Christ as members with no reservations.

The reason for this is what James says, "Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works." (James 2:18)  The fact is that we, as humans, cannot judge perfectly the salvation of any person.  It may be that someone has been genuinely saved, though we cannot discern such from their lives.  But, we are called to judge the works of one another (ourselves included) and determine if those works line up with that which Scripture commands us.  Therefore, while we may wrongly exclude some from membership with the church because we cannot discern their salvation, we must labor to rightly discern the body, that we may know, as far as possible, that those who are members of the church do appear to be Christians.

Once again, this is where baptism enters the equation.  If baptism is a command of Christ (and baptists hold that it is, based on: Matthew 28:19, Acts 2:38, Acts 10:47, Romans 6:3, and many more passages besides) then those who refuse to be baptized are not simply refusing to undergo some specific event, they are refusing to submit in obedience to God.  Therefore, while these people may evidence many other signs of salvation, the fact that they persist in refusing to be baptized causes the baptist to look at them with some reservation, recognizing that the church should be wholly obedient to Christ, and not only obedient in some, or most ways.  Therefore, baptism becomes a necessary step for anyone to enter into church membership, because it is the sign that demonstrates that the person has indeed entered into the death of Christ, and risen with him.

The reason I have attempted to lay out this discussion is because unfortunately many baptists are losing their distinctiveness.  Most baptist churches have failed to seriously educate their members as to what the significance of baptism is, and why the Lord's Table is so important.  Most baptists would probably still say that they do not want to allow paedobaptists as members, but would they know why, from a biblical perspective?  Whether you agree with the argument or not, I hope that you understand now that baptism is not just a matter of one becoming a "wash and wear Christian" but it really is important.  Because it is so important we ought not neglect the discussion of baptism in our churches.

If you aren't aware, I am a historic baptist.  I was raised in the Southern Baptist tradition, and I have come to embrace that tradition as I think it is the most orthodox biblical position.  That does not mean that there aren't skeletons in the closet of Southern Baptists.  Our racial divisions and the long standing issue of slavery that lead to the formation of the Southern Baptist convention need to be dealt with.  The last generation of Southern Baptists made apology for how our tradition assisted in perpetuating slavery, but they were not able to overcome the racial divisions that still exist in most Southern Baptist churches.  But, despite the problems that exist within the Southern Baptist tradition, we must continue to hold to the importance of believers' baptism, and in order to do so we must understand the importance of the Lord's Table and church discipline, understanding which has been lacking in the last 50-60 years.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Hound of Heaven

On Sunday I listened to the end of one of Ravi Zacharius's sermons with my wife as we were driving to church.  If you are not familiar with him, he is a Christian apologist who addresses various philosophical issues with the Christian faith.  I have always found him imminently readable and enjoyable.  He is not always a scholarly apologist, sometimes writing popular works that address issues at a level easier for those with no philosophical training to appreciate.  But, he is also very intelligent, and some of his works are a bit more complex.

One of his favorite poems, if I were to judge based on how often I have heard him quote from it is, "The Hound of Heaven" by Francis Thompson.  It really is a very good poem.  However, the poem was written in a bit of the old English style of 19th century poets.  That means that some of the terms and language used is a bit archaic to our ears.  If you've never read the poem though, I would encourage you to do so.

I'll post the poem here, but you should know that has a glossed version of the poem, explaining most of the difficult terms used.  The link above will take you to that gloss if you would like to read the poem but need a little help with some of the language.  Again, I highly recommend that you take the time to read the poem, and hopefully, from this poetic testimony of a man who came to Christ after fleeing him for so many years, you can appreciate the love of God just a little more.  It is good to serve the God who does not give up on wayward sons and daughters.

This version as taken from

The Hound of Heaven
by Francis Thompson

I FLED Him, down the nights and down the days;
  I fled Him, down the arches of the years;
I fled Him, down the labyrinthine ways
    Of my own mind; and in the mist of tears
I hid from Him, and under running laughter.        5
      Up vistaed hopes I sped;
      And shot, precipitated,
Adown Titanic glooms of chasmèd fears,
  From those strong Feet that followed, followed after.
      But with unhurrying chase,       10
      And unperturbèd pace,
Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      They beat—and a Voice beat
      More instant than the Feet—
‘All things betray thee, who betrayest Me.’       15
          I pleaded, outlaw-wise,
By many a hearted casement, curtained red,
  Trellised with intertwining charities;
(For, though I knew His love Who followèd,
        Yet was I sore adread       20
Lest, having Him, I must have naught beside).
But, if one little casement parted wide,
  The gust of His approach would clash it to.
  Fear wist not to evade, as Love wist to pursue.
Across the margent of the world I fled,       25
  And troubled the gold gateways of the stars,
  Smiting for shelter on their clangèd bars;
        Fretted to dulcet jars
And silvern chatter the pale ports o’ the moon.
I said to Dawn: Be sudden—to Eve: Be soon;       30
  With thy young skiey blossoms heap me over
        From this tremendous Lover—
Float thy vague veil about me, lest He see!
  I tempted all His servitors, but to find
My own betrayal in their constancy,       35
In faith to Him their fickleness to me,
  Their traitorous trueness, and their loyal deceit.
To all swift things for swiftness did I sue;
  Clung to the whistling mane of every wind.
      But whether they swept, smoothly fleet,       40
    The long savannahs of the blue;
        Or whether, Thunder-driven,
    They clanged his chariot ’thwart a heaven,
Plashy with flying lightnings round the spurn o’ their feet:—
  Fear wist not to evade as Love wist to pursue.       45
      Still with unhurrying chase,
      And unperturbèd pace,
    Deliberate speed, majestic instancy,
      Came on the following Feet,
      And a Voice above their beat—       50
    ‘Naught shelters thee, who wilt not shelter Me.’
I sought no more that after which I strayed
  In face of man or maid;
But still within the little children’s eyes
  Seems something, something that replies,       55
They at least are for me, surely for me!
I turned me to them very wistfully;
But just as their young eyes grew sudden fair
  With dawning answers there,
Their angel plucked them from me by the hair.       60
‘Come then, ye other children, Nature’s—share
With me’ (said I) ‘your delicate fellowship;
  Let me greet you lip to lip,
  Let me twine with you caresses,
    Wantoning       65
  With our Lady-Mother’s vagrant tresses,
  With her in her wind-walled palace,
  Underneath her azured daïs,
  Quaffing, as your taintless way is,       70
    From a chalice
Lucent-weeping out of the dayspring.’
    So it was done:
I in their delicate fellowship was one—
Drew the bolt of Nature’s secrecies.       75
  I knew all the swift importings
  On the wilful face of skies;
  I knew how the clouds arise
  Spumèd of the wild sea-snortings;
    All that’s born or dies       80
  Rose and drooped with; made them shapers
Of mine own moods, or wailful or divine;
  With them joyed and was bereaven.
  I was heavy with the even,
  When she lit her glimmering tapers       85
  Round the day’s dead sanctities.
  I laughed in the morning’s eyes.
I triumphed and I saddened with all weather,
  Heaven and I wept together,
And its sweet tears were salt with mortal mine;       90
Against the red throb of its sunset-heart
    I laid my own to beat,
    And share commingling heat;
But not by that, by that, was eased my human smart.
In vain my tears were wet on Heaven’s grey cheek.       95
For ah! we know not what each other says,
  These things and I; in sound I speak—
Their sound is but their stir, they speak by silences.
Nature, poor stepdame, cannot slake my drouth;
  Let her, if she would owe me,      100
Drop yon blue bosom-veil of sky, and show me
  The breasts o’ her tenderness:
Never did any milk of hers once bless
    My thirsting mouth.
    Nigh and nigh draws the chase,      105
    With unperturbèd pace,
  Deliberate speed, majestic instancy;
    And past those noisèd Feet
    A voice comes yet more fleet—
  ‘Lo! naught contents thee, who content’st not Me!’      110
Naked I wait Thy love’s uplifted stroke!
My harness piece by piece Thou hast hewn from me,
    And smitten me to my knee;
  I am defenceless utterly.
  I slept, methinks, and woke,      115
And, slowly gazing, find me stripped in sleep.
In the rash lustihead of my young powers,
  I shook the pillaring hours
And pulled my life upon me; grimed with smears,
I stand amid the dust o’ the mounded years—      120
My mangled youth lies dead beneath the heap.
My days have crackled and gone up in smoke,
Have puffed and burst as sun-starts on a stream.
  Yea, faileth now even dream
The dreamer, and the lute the lutanist;      125
Even the linked fantasies, in whose blossomy twist
I swung the earth a trinket at my wrist,
Are yielding; cords of all too weak account
For earth with heavy griefs so overplussed.
  Ah! is Thy love indeed      130
A weed, albeit an amaranthine weed,
Suffering no flowers except its own to mount?
  Ah! must—
  Designer infinite!—
Ah! must Thou char the wood ere Thou canst limn with it?      135
My freshness spent its wavering shower i’ the dust;
And now my heart is as a broken fount,
Wherein tear-drippings stagnate, spilt down ever
  From the dank thoughts that shiver
Upon the sighful branches of my mind.      140
  Such is; what is to be?
The pulp so bitter, how shall taste the rind?
I dimly guess what Time in mists confounds;
Yet ever and anon a trumpet sounds
From the hid battlements of Eternity;      145
Those shaken mists a space unsettle, then
Round the half-glimpsèd turrets slowly wash again.
  But not ere him who summoneth
  I first have seen, enwound
With glooming robes purpureal, cypress-crowned;      150
His name I know, and what his trumpet saith.
Whether man’s heart or life it be which yields
  Thee harvest, must Thy harvest-fields
  Be dunged with rotten death?
      Now of that long pursuit      155
    Comes on at hand the bruit;
  That Voice is round me like a bursting sea:
    ‘And is thy earth so marred,
    Shattered in shard on shard?
  Lo, all things fly thee, for thou fliest Me!      160
  Strange, piteous, futile thing!
Wherefore should any set thee love apart?
Seeing none but I makes much of naught’ (He said),
‘And human love needs human meriting:
  How hast thou merited—      165
Of all man’s clotted clay the dingiest clot?
  Alack, thou knowest not
How little worthy of any love thou art!
Whom wilt thou find to love ignoble thee,
  Save Me, save only Me?      170
All which I took from thee I did but take,
  Not for thy harms,
But just that thou might’st seek it in My arms.
  All which thy child’s mistake
Fancies as lost, I have stored for thee at home:      175
  Rise, clasp My hand, and come!’
  Halts by me that footfall:
  Is my gloom, after all,
Shade of His hand, outstretched caressingly?
  ‘Ah, fondest, blindest, weakest,      180
  I am He Whom thou seekest!
Thou dravest love from thee, who dravest Me.’