Monthly Archives: December 2011
(From the sermon archive, December 21, 2008, edited for length)
When you were a child what was the most mysterious thing about Christmas? For me it was how efficient Santa Claus was. Especially impressive was the year I forgot to mail him my wish list and had to put it on the fireplace mantel. He must have carried some spares that year, because I still got most of what I wanted.
As I have aged I have not lost all of that feeling of mystery. But now what intrigues me the most is the absurdity of Christmas. Not absurd in the sense of being opposed to reason, but absurd in the sense that it defies reason. So, for your consideration, I offer the following three tremendous mysteries of Christmas –
Mystery #1, that God would want to come to earth to save mankind in the first place. I mean, think about it. Ever since the garden of Eden man has been rejecting God, defying God, opposing God, and even now denying that God exists. Yet God has never stopped loving, caring, never stops trying to get man to come back to him. And, ultimately, God decides to enter this icky goo we call humanity in order to illustrate his redeeming love. Why? I believe 1 John 4:7-12 gives us the reason: God loves his ultimate creation enough to want to make it perfect.
Mystery #2, that God wold enter this world as a little baby. Okay, so God wants to redeem the world. So why not enter the world as a Roman or Greek god? Why in the world enter this world as the baby of a peasant girl? Ultimately, the answer goes back to mystery #1. The creator God shows his incredible love by becoming a part of that creation. It is God’s way of saying, “I created you right, I created you perfect, and I have the power to recreate everything perfect. And in order to do so I will enter a world YOU have distorted, in order to make it perfect again.” So, the limitless power of a creator God enters this world as a little baby, full of spit-up and dirty diapers and teething pain and the thousand and one other indignities that humans endure as they are born, grow old, and die.
Mystery #3, how can we as God’s created and recreated family despise these first two mysteries so thoroughly and frivolously? For the first time in human history the prevailing philosophical view has come to be that there is no real need for God. We may love the idea of God, we may worship our conception of God, but when all is said and done we put our real faith in medicine, the power of politics, dependency on drugs and alcohol, and the security of nuclear weapons. We don’t trust in God. We use God as a crutch.
And yet, there is one scene so powerful, so rich, so deep that no matter how many times it has been painted, no matter how many times it has been sung about, no matter how many times it has been used as the main image in poetry it cannot be fully described: a baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger, with a gangly, rag-tag group of shepherds gathered around and an angel singing with the heavenly host,
Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall to be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior, which is Christ the Lord.
Ultimately the question we must answer is not why or how God became a little baby. The question we must answer is, now that God has become a little baby, now that Jesus did live and die for us, now that he has gone home to be with his Father, what are we going to do about it?
That, perhaps, is the greatest mystery of Christmas of all.
This is a quick follow-up to my post of yesterday. In that post I described a rather extensive daily Bible reading plan that takes you through the Bible twice in a year. My suggestion was to read once from a formal equivalence translation, and once from a dynamic equivalence translation.
Today I just want to modify that somewhat. Many people are scared away from an extensive or complicated daily Bible reading schedule. They think, “that’s just too much for me” and so they either start and fail a few times and then give up, or they never start to begin with. I would like to offer another reading plan for these people.
Many people like to read a short passage, say a verse or maybe a parable from the gospels, and just think on that passage for a set period of time – perhaps all day. This is a wonderful method of Bible reading and is extremely valuable in letting the word of God “dwell in us richly.” So, if this form of Bible reading fits your needs and desires, by all means follow this path! I would only suggest that you read your passage once from your favorite type of translation (formal: ESV, NASB, RSV; dynamic: NIV, NLT, The Message, CEB) and once from the other style of translation. That way you are focusing on the same verse or story, but you are hearing it in two different voices. I believe this will enhance your devotional time significantly.
Either way, reading the Bible through twice in a year or maybe just focusing on one book for the entire year, you are reading, hearing, and listening to the word of God, and that is one of our main goals as his children.
May God bless your studies in 2012
What does it mean to listen to the text of the Bible? That question, of course, has been answered in many different forms throughout the centuries. With the arrival of the scientific revolution the answer to that question took a significant turn to the left. Prior to the 18th century (give or take a decade or two) it was generally understood that the text of the Bible had multiple meanings, but whatever meaning that was assigned to it, the idea that the text had life changing meaning was not seriously questioned.
But when man started questioning everything about his existence and then put the Bible under the same microscope the voice of the text was forever changed. Suddenly if there was a historical question or mathematical problem the validity of the entire text was questioned. The message of Genesis was discarded because of the difference in creation accounts in chapters one and two, and also because of the different names for God. The Pentateuch itself was marginalized because of some evidence that pointed to editorial reworking and a late date of writing. Isaiah suddenly became a mishmash of three different authors writing over a period of about 300 years. Daniel was moved to a post exilic date of composition, thereby negating the prophetic nature of the book. The gospels became heavily edited compositions of dubious character, many books that bore Paul’s name were actually 2nd century forgeries. It is a wonder that anything of the original Bible survived.
Of course, with this challenge came the expected backlash. “Fundamentalism” declared that every word of the text was inspired and inerrant (according to human definitions, not textual definitions), and every jot and tittle had to be explained and justified, regardless of some of the ridiculous explanations that were more far fetched than the original problem. A basic misunderstanding of the nature of the writing under consideration led to many of these well intentioned but never-the-less false defenses of the text (see Gen. 1-3).
What the non-believer (or even a Christian) faced in the early 1800’s was a bewildering array of opinions concerning the text of the Bible. On one extreme the book was simply a collection of myths and fairy tales, on the other it was a copy of the veritable handwriting of God. Over the past 200 years we have learned more about the world of the original authors of the Bible, and we have clarified many of the misunderstandings of previous expositors. For the statement of my own examination and study, I believe the Bible is the inspired word of God, true and complete in every aspect as determined and defined by the text itself. That is to say I do not want to place a 21st century understanding over the text that forces it to be something it never claimed to be. I want to let poetry be poetry, prophecy be prophecy, gospel be gospel, letter be letter, and apocalypse be apocalypse. That does not sit well with liberal reconstructionists nor fundamentalist hyper literalists. That is fine with me because I believe both extremes to be in error, and of the same basic type of error.
Both liberals and hyper fundamentalists place a human rubric over the text that tells the text it must conform to their own human understanding. The goals are 180 degrees opposite to each other, to be sure, but the process is identical. The liberals want the text to be the result of human composition. The fundamentalists preach a divine origin, but they expect that divine inspiration will fit their human estimation of what the divine inspiration should be. Neither side wants to admit it, but they are both saying the same thing. Ultimately, what matters to both the liberals and the fundamentalists is that the human mind can control the text. That, in my opinion, is the sin of human pride.
Let’s go back to how the text was viewed from the birth of Christ through, say, the 1600’s into the early 1700’s. Yes, man was still pre-scientific. But in this dark and even barbaric time the divine word was still allowed to be the divine word. I am touched by the deep and abiding faith of an Anselm or a Thomas a Kempis, or of Ignatius of Loyola, or of Francis or of Bernard. They simply read the text, listened to it as if they were hearing the word of God, and then went out and obeyed it. They didn’t dissect it, analyze it, put it under a linguistic or cultural microscope. When Luther read Romans he felt like God was speaking to him directly, just as with Augustine. And, I might add, just like the apostle Paul felt when he read the story of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God’s word was not a text book, but a life book. It was a record of God’s voice, and it was meant to be heard and obeyed.
This has been a rambling post, I admit. Perhaps I can flesh out some of my ideas more in future entries. I just wanted to share what I feel like is a huge need in the church today – the need to listen to the text, and not turn it into a scientific problem. I have to admit my own hubris in this issue. I am somewhat of a textual nerd, and even though I am not an expert by any means, I all too often find myself relying on my analytical skills more than my ears and my heart to discern the meaning of the text. This is wrong, and if we are to revive the church we must begin by listening to the text and not dictating to the text.
Unlike many in the church today I do not want to discredit or throw stones at my religious forebears. They were struggling with issues that I do not fully comprehend, and their struggles with the text have served to advance my own understanding by light years. But I do not want to build a temple where they pitched their tent for the night. God’s word is living and active, and I want to listen to that text and allow it to shape and reshape my life in Christ.
I appreciate any feedback you may have – as many before me have said, I am just an apprentice in the life of Christ, and I depend upon many for guidance.
In my series on congregational change and growth I realized that I had not really discussed the issue of the reality that ministries are limited by time and circumstance. Ministries take off, and by extension, ministries must come back to earth sometime. Although clearly not exhaustive, I hope these thoughts are beneficial, and may spark your own creativity in thinking about how to successfully end a ministry in a manner that plants the seeds for more and greater ministries to follow.
Of all the truisms in aviation, the truest is this: it is a whole lot easier to take off than it is to land. Very often during a student’s first flight I would get the airplane onto the runway, talk the student through advancing the throttle and what was going to happen, and then let the student actually fly the airplane off of the runway. It was priceless to look over and see the huge grin on their face when they realized that, “Hey, I just took off in an airplane!” Landing the airplane, however, is a different kettle of fish altogether.
There are many factors that make landing an airplane difficult, so I will just mention a few as those concepts relate to the process of a congregation bringing a ministry or service project to an end. There are some striking parallels.
1. Don’t let the passengers land the airplane. There is a reason the pilots sit up front and the passengers in the back. Those who are most involved in the ministry need to be the ones who decide whether it will end or continue. If someone objects to the cancellation of a ministry, gently but firmly let them know that if they are not going to invest themselves in the ministry they have no right to dictate either its continued service or its appropriate ending.
2. “Fly it ’til you tie it.” Because of their design airplanes are squirrelly things on the ground. The pilot has to be constantly vigilant lest something untoward happen while he or she is taxiing to the ramp. The same is true with ending a ministry. Work the ministry until the final event or service. Do not just simply decide on Wednesday that the ministry is cancelled, and then inform everyone that they do not need to show up on Sunday. Plan ahead, leave some room for the appropriate procedures, and above all, honor those who have been serving and those who have been served.
3. Airplanes are designed to fly, so landing one is reverse-intuitive. Likewise, ministries are designed to succeed. Ministries are started with excitement, people sign up with enthusiasm, and typically there are many good things that happen during the lifetime of a ministry. But, just like everything else, ministries have a certain life expectancy. When it comes time to end a ministry there are some counter-intuitive things that must occur. Volunteers must be told their service in that particular area is no longer needed. Budgets must be “de-funded” and the money alloted somewhere else. And, most painfully, those who have been served need to be informed and appropriate steps taken to ensure that they are taken care of. Just because a plane lands does not mean it will never fly again, and it certainly does not mean that the airport disappears. So, when one ministry ends, another more fruitful one can appear. But this takes foresight and some real gentle maneuvering.
4. Just like landing an airplane, the last few moments in ending a ministry harbor the most possibilities for something to go wrong. Landing an airplane is a gorgeous symphony of planning, execution, adjustment, anticipation, and touch. The closer you get to the runway the faster all of these things get jumbled together. Ending a ministry requires a choreography of many different things to accomplish smoothly. Remember, a ministry is designed to serve people, and if those people get hurt the ministry has failed. The ending of a ministry is no different. Keep your eyes on the people who served and who were served. Honor them, and let them know they will be taken care of.
I knew my student was ready to solo when I could sit in the instructor’s seat and never touch the yoke or the pedals during my student’s landing. It happened more than once that a student would execute a perfect landing and then look over at me and realize that my hands were folded on my lap and my feet were pulled back, and it just dawned on them. They were masters of the airplane. They took off virtually by themselves on day one, and now after many hours of practice had learned how to land. It was a beautiful moment. It is relatively easy for a congregation to start a ministry, but to bring one to a successful conclusion takes much more effort and planning. Best wishes for your
happy landings, but more important – for even more and greater take-offs!
A word to the wise – if you are not currently up-to-date on the recent arguments concerning the monstrosity known to college football fans as the Bowl Championship Series (BCS) then this post will have very little meaning initially for you. However, stick with it and maybe I can make things clear as I go along.
The BCS has had a long and torturous existence. From its very inception it has been plagued by errors and examples of extreme arrogance. It was created to resolve the problem of how to pick a national champion in college football. This should have been the first and only necessary clue that it was doomed to failure. You do not pick a champion. A champion is crowned only after honest and fair competition. That is the way college champions are crowned in every other sport. But in football, in the BCS universe, money is king and so a playoff is impossible, therefore a champion must be carefully selected.
How is this selection accomplished? Well, you take a number of polls and blend them with a number of computer rankings. So, a bunch of humans, with all of their biases and preconceptions, vote on who they think is the best. Actually, this is how it has been done for decades, but in order to avert a growing number of accusations of partiality, a complex system of computer rankings was also added to the mix. Now, I am not a computer genius. But I know that a computer can only generate data based on a pre-loaded program. So, if you do not want to be seen as skewing the data, all you have to do is skew the program. You get the same result, but the process is invisible to the casual observer.
That this is a hideous process by which to name a national champion has been exposed by the fact that in several “National Championship” games one of the teams involved not only was not the champion of their conference, but sometimes not even the champion of a division within their conference. Thus, this year a team that did not even play for their conference championship is now playing for (what has to be labeled a “mythical”) national championship. The reason given? “The computers have determined that this team is the most deserving to play for the championship.” The fans of this team view the result as righteous vindication. Everyone else views the result as garbage in-garbage out. If you pre-program a computer to give you the results you want, it is highly likely that you will get the results you want.
What does this have to do with Bible study? Just this – There is no such thing as “unbiased” or completely neutral Bible study. Everyone approaches the Bible with a skewed set of spectacles. The only way to legitimately overcome that bias is to admit it up front and honestly. Then, perhaps not totally, but at least somewhat, a person can limit or box out his or her preconceptions long enough to listen and consider contradictory evidence. If you say that “my computer gave me this result, and therefore it is completely bias free” you are not only wrong, but you are stupid (we can be wrong and innocent, or wrong and stupid – there is a difference). Somebody wrote the program to your “computer,” and that person had or has plenty of biases.
I see this play out frequently in comments such as, “Paul was writing in a patriarchal society, so therefore we have to eliminate this passage as being inappropriate for today’s culture.” That statement is profoundly biased, but because it is OUR bias it goes unnoticed, or if noticed, it goes unchallenged. Other examples: the American democratic republic political system and the capitalist economic system are defended even though they could not have been remotely discussed by the Old and New Testament writers; and our “war on terror” is defended at the expense of clear New Testament teaching regarding the use of power, especially anger unleashed in retaliation. However, because today’s society is transfixed with gender and gender issues it is virtually always the apostle Paul and his views on gender and gender roles that is attacked as being archaic due to their cultural settings. And, because the unbiased “computer” determines that what is contemporary is correct, Paul and his teachings are emasculated and the surgeons simply point to the system as being perfect.
I hate the BCS with a passion. It is a joke, it was created from its very inception being doomed to failure. I want to see a 16 team playoff where the last team standing, however bloodied and broken, is crowned the national champion. And, in theology, I want to see rigorous and passionate debate, but I want to see debate that is honest and controlled. I believe the Bible can be understood and is itself the standard by which we learn to interpret the Bible.
If I’m wrong, prove me wrong – but don’t even think about using a compilation of 6 computer rankings to use as your evidence. Moses, Jesus and Paul are still undefeated, regardless of what the pundits say.
I write this with only the slightest degree of “tongue in cheek.” But the easiest job in America today must be college or seminary level theology. Really, I’m 99.9% serious. Judging from the comments I am reading from individuals who are teachers or who have been teachers or from recent graduates, the effort to both teach and learn theology today is breathtakingly simple.
Based on my not-quite-exhaustive-but-yet-thorough research, here is what I have learned it takes to do qualitative theological study today. (1) you decide what you want your conclusion to be based on current cultural biases, (2) you do a concordance search to find a passage that presents your conclusion, either completely or in part, (3) you do a google search to find a well known writer who agrees with you, and (4) you present your “research” using as many emotionally loaded terms as you can, just to make sure those who disagree with you will be viewed with the most negative of responses. If someone disagrees with you and points out conflicting passages of Scripture, make sure you point out that (1) the passage they quote was not written until many years following the creation of “pure” Christianity, therefore it had to be the result of patriarchial proto-catholicism, or (2) the passage in question is not even to be considered to be a part of the canon anyway, or (3) if possible, a mixture of both (1) and (2).
Poor theology built on bad exegesis. Yea, count me in on that.
When I was in school my professors drilled the concept into me that I was to stand under the text. The only way to submit to the message of the text was to use proper (and stringent) exegetical tests that were designed to minimize, if not completely eliminate, my own cultural biases. I was taught that views that conflicted with mine were as important, if not more important, than views that I agreed with, for the simple reason that I had to reasonably overcome those conflicting views or alter my views if I could not challenge them. I graduated with an entirely new understanding of the text than when I entered school. I learned I was not to control the text, it was to control me.
I did not always agree with the conclusions of my professors. I still do not. But the one thing that I learned from them is that no human, regardless of how smart he or she is, can replace the wisdom that is embedded within Holy Scripture. It saddens me to see the changes being made to the meaning of the Bible simply because of the pressure of special interest groups within, or even more disturbing, outside of the church.
The early heretic Marcion removed large sections of the New Testament because he decided that the affected books were not consistent enough with the message of the apostle Paul. Today, a new brand of Marcionism seeks to remove huge swaths of the text because of conflicts primarily with well financed and very powerful special interest lobbies. The main difference between the first Marcion and the new Marcionites is that the church as a unified whole stood up and denounced Marcion as a heretic, and thus enshrined the “contested” works as canonical. Today, the church meekly follows the new Marcionites with barely a whimper of disagreement.
I see no change in the current state of theology, not at least for the foreseeable future. The new Marcionites are far too powerful, and are far too popular. However, I am not giving up. I know the power of God’s word, and I can read his promise in Isa. 55:6-11. God’s word will return to him bearing fruit and accomplishing his will, even if the size of the church must decrease numerically. God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts, and no amount of poor theology or bad exegesis can ever change that fact!
I have recently read several blog entries bemoaning the same apparent crisis. We are told by these bloggers that the Bible is hopelessly difficult to understand, that the gap between author and modern reader is just too great a chasm to bridge, and that the angst and ignorance of 18-year-old college freshmen should be enough to drive us to reevaluate the archaic assumption that the Bible has an enduring message for modern people. We are told in tearful detail of females who “feel” gifted by God and yet who “feel” that the church is denying them any chance to express that giftedness. We are not told, but by extension we must also accept, that there are many men who would love to marry their “husband” and engage in sexual behavior usually described by a reference to the biblical city of Sodom, but their church also denies them this “giftedness” given to them by their god. With exquisite skill these writers wring their hands and agonize over what the church is to do for these precious souls who read in their Bibles prohibitions against their preconceived conclusions, but must somehow overcome a culture of extreme patriarchy and homophobia. The answer, of course, is a complete turn to the tenets of postmodernism, which, not to confuse the issue, stipulates that there are no overarching tenets that anyone is to follow.
The main point, as I comprehend it, that these modern bloggers teach is that we cannot get beyond the written text to understand what the original author was saying. All we have is the text, so they say, and if the text was created in a patriarchal, homophobic society then we must purge the text of those tendencies in order to allow the text to “speak to us.” What I find utterly incomprehensible is that these authors write their blogs, and read the books of other postmodernists, with the implicit understanding that we and they understand exactly what they and the other authors intend their words to communicate.
In other words, we get behind their text to understand what they mean when they say we cannot get behind the biblical text to understand what the biblical authors meant.
If they are correct, then all writing, including this one, is completely meaningless, because ink stains on paper (or pixels on a computer screen) cannot communicate what the author thought he or she was communicating. So, why are they writing blogs to communicate their beliefs?
This all appears to me to be a childish, or at worst, an adolescent attempt to obfuscate the issue to the point that anyone and everyone can do exactly what they wish and no one can object. You don’t want to mow the lawn? Argue about the meaning of the words “mow” and “lawn.” Argue that operating the mower will increase global warming. Discuss the potentially life threatening possibility of contracting skin cancer due to hazardous radiation from the sun. But, what ever you do, do not ever, ever tell dad that you really just do not want to mow the lawn.
Now, to be fair, when there is a biblical injunction against something that a person finds objectionable we can be sure that they will say that this injunction is, by all means, intended to be an enduring norm. No one to my knowledge is promoting the right of murderers to continue their mayhem, or rapists the right to continue their carnage. So, at least for the time being, we can be assured that murder and rape are securely off-limits. But what about those pesky laws against having sex with children? Or animals, for that matter? What about the original Mormon belief that a man can have as many wives as he can afford to marry? Do we need to reexamine polygamy laws? Is there any biological reason to prevent an eight year old from having sexual relations with a 40-year-old? I mean, if two men can marry and have sexual relations with each other exactly where do we draw the line, and on what basis? Mutual consent? There are enough pregnant 12-year-old girls to discredit the idea that pre-teens do not want to have sex.
The point of this entry is to suggest that postmodernists have a problem that they are either unwilling or unable to answer. If the biblical text is too difficult for modern man to understand then let’s throw it away. There is no sense in attempting to remedy the situation by saying, “this is what the text means to me.” If the text has no enduring meaning, then it has no meaning whatsoever. Individualizing the text robs it of its greatest power – the power to create and maintain the life of the people of God. For approximately 4,000 years the written word has shaped and guided the people of God as they searched for Him and either found or rejected Him. I cannot accept the premise that, just within the last 50 years, mankind has finally become so smart as to finally figure out that all those people of faith were so stupid as to believe in the power of God’s word spoken, and yes, written.
The inspired psalmist wrote of God looking down upon the wisest of mankind as he mocked his creator, and God held them in derision and laughed (Ps. 2). I do not know about you, but I am going to maintain my faith in the timeless truth of God’s word written, as difficult and frustrating as it is to interpret sometimes, instead of the incomprehensible silliness of some pseudo-philosophies that rage at the wisdom of the creator.