Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

Book Review – “Dissident Discipleship” (David Augsburger)

I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.

But, some things are just too good to pass up.

As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for  the material.

Cover of "Dissident Discipleship: A Spiri...

Cover via Amazon

The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.

I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.

Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.

The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.

However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.

But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.

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Some Thoughts On Guitars and Spirituality

Andrés Segovia

Cover of Andrés Segovia

I grew up loving guitar music. My father had several classical guitar records that I would play over and over again. I remember being enchanted watching a classical guitarist on TV, wondering how his fingers could fly so effortlessly across the fretboard. When I had a chance to take guitar lessons I jumped at the opportunity. I was going to be a concert guitarist. I even purchased several guitars – each and every one a very lovely dust collector.

Christopher Parkening

Cover of Christopher Parkening

Many years later I learned why I never quite made it to Carnegie Hall. I was watching a video on Christopher Parkening, regarded by many as one of the most accomplished classical guitarists alive today. Someone asked him how long he spent practicing. Parkening never fully answered the question as I remember, but he did point out that when he was a student he learned that Andres Segovia, certainly regarded as one of the finest to ever play the instrument, practiced for over 5 hours every day. Steve Kaufman, a legend in bluegrass music, warms up for an hour before a concert.

Roy Clark

Cover of Roy Clark

Oh, so that is why I never was asked to sign a record contract. I wanted to be a great guitarist – be right up there with Mason Williams and Roy Clark and Chet Atkins and the Romero brothers. There was only one problem (well, actually there were more, but let’s simplify things here…). I wanted all that greatness in about 15 minutes of doodling a day. To put it in perspective, I spent less time practicing than the great guitarists did in loosening their fingers to get ready to practice.

I wonder how many of us would really like to be known as a devout spiritual person. Maybe not a great spiritual person (because that would be a mark of pride, not generally considered a part of spirituality), but certainly someone who would be recognized as one who swam in the deep end of the spiritual pool. Yet, when we are told what it takes to leave the kiddie wading pool and actually launch out into deep water, we realize that maybe we did not want to be that great after all.

I have learned, much to my displeasure, that the great spiritual disciplines can be as difficult to master as the guitar. Very few of us are born spiritual giants. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation on Scripture, fasting, worship and others take time to develop. But more than time, they take dedication and perseverance. They take physical effort. And, mastering any skill takes a significant amount of will power.

So, I’m afraid that for many of us, our desire to be spiritual people sounds a lot like my adolescent “desire” to be a concert guitarist. I wanted all the results; but none of the gritty, day-to-day, dull boring practice. I wanted to be great, but not that bad.

So, how much time have you spent in prayer, reading Scripture, and worship this week?

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Christians Who Hate

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9, NRSV)

 

My thoughts turn to a dark theme today – Christians who hate. I have been tasked with a speaking engagement that really has made me do some thinking. It is obvious in this world there are many who claim to be followers of Christ who hate. Many of these, regrettably, stand behind pulpits and lecterns every Sunday morning. With the blessing of leaders who hate, is it any wonder that we are creating more generations of “Christians” who hate?

 

i hate you lemon cake

i hate you lemon cake (Photo credit: kayepants)

 

When challenged with such an accusation many who fit the above description would respond sharply, “Well, in the Bible we are told to hate that which is evil and cling to that which is good.” Their quotation of Scripture is far better than their exegesis. How do I know, you ask? Well, for one thing, take a look at what they hate:

 

  • Democrats, especially Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Many “Christians” have a pathological hatred of the leadership of the Democratic party.
  • Anyone who is pro-choice. You obviously cannot be pro-choice and be a Christian, therefore I am fully empowered to hate anyone who is pro-choice.
  • Dare I add anyone who sees homosexuality differently than I do?
  • Anyone who sees common sense efforts to curb gun violence as being a worthwhile endeavor. Because God so clearly established the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, if you want to challenge that inspired legislation you are obviously worthy of my hatred.
  • In fact, anyone who can be labeled as a “pacifist” is deserving of my hatred, because God specifically created the American Armed Forces to be his “sword of Gideon.”
  • And, let us not forget that we are fully permitted to hate those of other religious groups, even and especially those who consider themselves to be “Christian,” if they do not fit my definition of what it means to be a Christian. Everybody knows the Pope is the anti-christ, right? Who can I hate if I cannot hate people who refuse to interpret the Bible the way I do?

 

Do you see a common theme here? I have heard, and overheard, conversations where people who fit in these categories (and more!) are viciously excoriated – all with the assumed blessing of God because we are commanded to “hate what is evil and cling to that which is good.”

 

It is beyond comprehensible to me that people who quote (either verbatim or in spirit) Romans 12:9 are so totally unaware of the context in which the passage is found. Note, for example, how Paul begins the chapter:

 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:1-3, NRSV)

 

Did you catch that? Did you see how Paul begins this new section (Paul clearly wants these verses to be the beginning of a new section, cf. 11:33-36)? Present your bodies as a sacrifice to God. Do not be conformed to this world; be transformed. Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment. Then, in v. 9, let love be genuine, hate what is evil, cling to the good – which Paul clearly states in v. 2 is the will of God!

 

That which we are to hate has nothing to do with other people! We are to hate the powers and the destructive tendencies in our own lives that make our actions putrid in God’s sight. All of these issues are inwardly directed, not outwardly directed! If we cannot see this in Paul’s intention, maybe we can see it if he makes it blatantly clear:

 

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14, NRSV)

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (Romans 12:17, NRSV)

Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)

 

You see, those “Christians” who hate Democrats, Pro-lifers, Pacifists and Popes all stand self-condemned, and the great tragedy is that they will go to their judgment thinking that they have followed God’s command to “hate what is evil.” That’s what Saul of Tarsus thought too, until God gave him three days of pitch black quietness to think things over (Acts 9:1-9).

 

So, the next time you are tempted to “hate” anything – stop and take a really long, hard look at the object/person/situation that you are supposed to hate. It might be that God is actually calling on you to be a blessing to that person/situation instead of hating it.

 

For our own soul’s salvation, it is at least worth considering.

 

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Super Christians or Servants?

Stubby is better than you

Stubby is better than you (Photo credit: aloha orangeneko)

It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.

And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.”  (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)

It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.

There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?

The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.

I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??

Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:

What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)

This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)

For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)

See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.

"All is Vanity" by C. Allan Gilbert....

“All is Vanity” by C. Allan Gilbert. Life, death, and meaning of existence are intertwined. (Woman gazing into boudoir mirror forms shape of skull.) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.

So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.

And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.

Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.

One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:

So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)

Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.

Amen?

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Some Musings on Growing Up Spiritually Spoiled

Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.

I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth"

I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth” (Photo credit: Chevysmom)

Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.

Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?

~ ~ ~

As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.

Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!

You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?

I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.

~ ~ ~

My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.

~ ~ ~

Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.

And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.

~ ~ ~

I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.

So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”

~ ~ ~

The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.

Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.

Some Musings On A Sermon Well Preached

Holding Hands With a Newborn Baby

Holding Hands With a Newborn Baby (Photo credit: storyvillegirl)

The sermon topic this morning was Paul’s message to the older women in Titus 2. Now, I can’t tell you for sure exactly what all the points were, because like every good sermon this one prompted thought – and some internal processing. I got to thinking about all the wonderful senior saints who have had an impact on my life. The quirky, the eccentric, lovable each and every one of them.

So much is being said and written these days about how the Church of Christ in particular is being oppressive to women. Yea, verily, you would think we make our females wear burqas and sit on split rail benches behind a screened in wall in an adjacent room while the men sit in upholstered recliners in a gilded auditorium.

And I remember these heroic women of my childhood and wonder – if they were so oppressed, if the men of the congregation looked down on them so much, if they were so 2nd or 3rd class – then why are they so prominent in my memory? How did they come to have such an impact on my spiritual development?

I really feel sorry for a woman who feels like the only way she can gain any respectability is to preach a sermon, pray a prayer or “lead” at the Lord’s table. What a small concept of self-worth. Honestly ladies – once you do it a couple of times you will realize how little “power” you will have. The glory that God has given the female far exceeds the menial task of standing behind a pulpit. To look at a man and say, “I want to be like him” is the worst kind of self-deprecation. If you do not like being a woman, believe me, you will not be worth much as a man.

I realize those may be harsh words in the 21st century and the age of egalitarianism. But as I sat this morning listening to Paul’s words to the older female Christians I could not help but stop and think that I sure am glad I had some older ladies in my life who were sincerely grateful to be God’s daughters. They knew the power that they held in their grasp – and they had no desire to exchange it for the role of a male.

I don’t think that was the main point of the sermon. But, it was a sermon well preached anyway. It has been preached by dozens of women in my life. Godly women who received their giftedness with strength, humility and grace. It was a sermon that is preached every day by God’s servants both male and female who have the ability to say, “may it be to me as you have said.” (Lk. 1:38).

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If This is Heaven, You Can Have It

English: Confusing street signs directing traf...

English: Confusing street signs directing traffic in the Los Angeles, CA, area (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

What is going on in the United States?

  • A teenage girl is declared brain dead, the hospital begs the family to be able to remove “life” support and the family refuses.
  • A pregnant woman is declared brain dead, the family begs the hospital to remove “life” support and the hospital refuses.
  • It seems every week some sociopath shoots up a school, mall, or place of business.
  • “Transgender” children have won the right to use the bathroom facility of their choice, regardless of their birth gender, and regardless of the objections of parents of children who must share the facility with such “transgendered” but biologically dissimilar classmates.
  • A groups of homosexuals who “only want to be treated equally” stage a mass marriage ceremony to the song “Same Love” during the Grammy Award presentations.
  • Our Nobel Peace Prize winning President and his administration are guilty of the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in military drone strikes.

Many “conservative” Christians are asking how these things could happen in their “Christian” nation.

I can’t say I know for sure, but as one who is rarely without an opinion, I’ll give you my two-bits worth:

It is because we either allowed it to happen, or actively promoted the environment that allowed it to happen.

“Oh, but we are different” you say, “We are Christians and we honor and worship God!”

  • Yea, we worship God by supporting the same educational and governmental bodies that dictate that little girls cannot safely and privately use a “Girls” restroom because it is offensive to a “transgendered” little “boy.”
  • And we worship God by supporting and promoting a medical establishment that has so blurred the lines between life and death that our medical professionals and judicial elites cannot even agree as to when a body is “dead” and should be removed from “life” support. And when you throw in the ethically challenged and morally suspect issue of organ and tissue “donation” the question becomes even more murky.
  • And we worship God by holding 2nd Amendment rallies and “God Bless America” parties and we pray for this God to fight the battles for the Red, White and Blue regardless of the issues that caused our government to send those troops into battle in the first place.
  • In other words, we worship God, not by refusing to participate in this broken down, sin-sick and decaying process we call “culture,” but by actively promoting it, working for it, voting for it, and by making sure it continues by virtue of our monetary contributions and our devotion.

With worshippers like that, why does God need any enemies?

As I study the Scriptures, (especially the New Testament writings but even in the Old Testament) I see a much different picture. I see a people dedicated to God, challenged by that God not to accept or to participate in their decadent culture, but to transform and renew it. I see Abraham being told that by his faith he would bless “all peoples.” I see Moses being given a law that was culturally transformative – beginning with the nature of the God who gave it and ending with a “promised land” that would be a blessing to all people. I see a small but dedicated group of social outcasts, called “Christians,” who loved and cared for the sick and dying people in their towns and cities, and for the sick and dying culture that seemed to be bent on destroying God’s most precious creation – human beings.

I’ve read the “we have to be a part of culture in order to change culture” arguments until I’m cross-eyed, but I still don’t get it. How do you change the sin of drunkenness by participating and promoting the consumption of alcohol? How do you change the sin of pornography by participating and promoting the degradation of human sexuality? How can you change the warping of human sexuality by accepting and promoting the brokenness of those who refuse to acknowledge the difference between male and female? And in the name of the Holy God, how can you change the culture of violence and killing by promoting the militaristic and violence oriented culture of guns, bombs, tanks, and missiles? How can we eliminate racism, greed, and hate by being hateful, greedy racists?

I’ve read the Bible through several times, and I still cannot find that verse that says, “Be a part of culture and do what your culture tells you to do until that culture finally comes around to seeing that it is wrong.” I have, however, found many passages that reveal the world will hate God’s people, that if God’s people are faithful to him they will often find themselves in lion’s dens, prisons, and under the executioner’s blade. I read over and over that God sets the standards for human behavior, not the government of one country or the constitution of that government. I read that God tells his people to “follow me” even if, and especially when, that path leads through the valley of the shadow of death.

If this is a Christian nation, if this place is just one election away from utopia, if we can fix our problems with one more war or one more law or one more talk radio host, then you can have it. It holds no joy or interest for me.

As I read it, I am to pray thus:

Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.  (Matthew 6:9-10, ESV, emphasis mine)

I do not see anything about supporting a rabid nationalistic militarism. I do not read anything about excusing or protecting sociopathic miscreants who kill simply for the thrill of killing. I do not read anything about letting those who reject God’s plan for love and reproduction feel that they are welcome to enter into a church that wears the name of God or his Son and promote a lifestyle which has been specifically condemned by a Holy God.

But, here is the kicker – if you are a “conservative” Christian chances are you have no one to blame for the current state of affairs other than yourself.

And until we can come to grips with that truth, we will never be able to address the resulting chaos…

(Author’s and editor’s note: the young lady who was declared dead may have been a pre-teen; my apologies if I “misremembered.” Also, heartfelt condolences to both families. These are heart-wrenching stories and have no easy solutions. Such is the fog of modern ethics).

Ephesians: Theology and Poetry Combined

English: page of the codex with the text of th...

English: page of the codex with the text of the Ephesians 1:12-19 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last semester I was privileged to teach a course on the book of Revelation, so readers of this blog were treated to several entries either focused on or inspired by the book of Revelation. This semester the assignments take me to the historical books of the Old Testament (Joshua – Esther) and the prison and pastoral letters of Paul. Thus, this semester will probably see quite a few entries related to the Old Testament prophets, Judges and  Kings, and also the letters of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, 1-2 Timothy and Titus.

Hence my thoughts today on the book of Ephesians. Few books, if any, in the New Testament can claim a poetic beauty equal to Ephesians (obviously Philippians 2 comes close, but that is another day). For three extended chapters Paul writes some of the most elevated and theologically profound material to be found anywhere.

Three things stand out to me about the opening chapters of Ephesians. First is the phrase “in Christ” or its cognates (in Him, etc.) Paul wants his readers to know that it is only through our relationship with Jesus that we have the blessings that he discusses in this book. That pretty much destroys the “all roads lead to heaven” argument that I hear so much of these days. No. There is only one “road” that leads to heaven, and that is the path that Jesus opened up for us through his blood, shed on the cross.

Two, the riches of the blessings of Jesus are to be found only in the church. The church is truly the main focus of the first three chapters of the book. All who are “in Christ” are also “in the church” and it is the church that is the final revelation of all the wisdom and goodness of God. I know that sounds so horribly exclusionary. But it is pure Pauline doctrine, and it is found all throughout the New Testament, not just in Ephesians (the other prison letters are replete with the same claim).

Three, nowhere in the New Testament is the love and plan of God more beautifully described than the book of Ephesians. This message must be preached without fear or favor or the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ, is robbed of its power. Without the first three chapters of the book of Ephesians it is possible to turn Christianity into another human religion on a par with Buddhism or Hinduism. It is possible (although, I might add, extremely difficult) to turn Jesus into just another prophet, just another martyr for his beliefs. But, by reading the gospel stories in light of, and in connection with, the letter to the Ephesians the entirety of God’s divine plan becomes clear. And, when we realize that the first readers of the letter to the Ephesians may not have had one of the four gospel accounts, this letter then may be described as Paul’s shorter gospel of Jesus Christ (the “long version” would be Romans, of course).

I encourage you to feast again upon this short little letter. What poetry. What theology. What a masterpiece!

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Muddy Waters and Shattered Wells

Cistern

Cistern (Photo credit: Chris Hunkeler)

Okay, so I am not going to start out 2014 with a happy, happy, happy post. But this post has been “building” inside of me for some months, and I finally decided to take some time to put it in writing. I hope it is not too depressing.

Let me begin with the word of the LORD, as penned by Jeremiah:

Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils;
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13, RSV)

I have been studying and teaching over the past 18 months in the field of philosophy. Now, to be sure I am simply a neophyte in this field, my studies have been more along the lines of “tread water as fast as you can to keep from sinking” rather than any esoteric deepening of mankind’s understanding of itself. However, if I may say so myself, my studies have proven to be somewhat fruitful in that my eyes have been opened to the depths of understanding that I have hitherto been blissfully unaware.

As the old saying goes, “ignorance is bliss, when it is folly to be wise.” Or something like that.

The LORD revealed to Jeremiah two substantive sins: the sin of rejecting Him, and the sin of attempting to replace Him with a broken and useless substitute.

I have come to realize that the church is facing two equally critical sins today. Perhaps they are the same as the sins in Jeremiah’s day. They are certainly related.

In the language of philosophy, today’s church is facing a crisis of epistemology and ontology. Put those terms in “Freightdawg” language and what I am talking about is that the church is facing a crisis of knowing what is truth and how to determine truth on the one hand, and on the other hand it has lost its understanding of what it is supposed to be.

First, the church today has lost its confidence in Scripture. While there is much talk about listening to Scripture, and studying Scripture, and hearing the “Word of God,” much of what is being discussed is just a thin veneer of biblical language glued to a plank of particle board made up of human intuitions and interpolations. You only have to enter into a conversation regarding the role of women in the public worship service or the issue of homosexuality to discover how shallow this veneer really is. Passages of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) that have been viewed for centuries as being unambiguous are now discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. There are typically three reasons for excising certain passages of Scripture that are now seen as “controversial”: (1) the author of the passage was writing in a culture that was (according to the modern worldview) ignorant and repressive, therefore the writings of said author cannot be relied upon today; (2) especially in regard to the supposed writings of the apostle Paul, the passages which are viewed to be repressive and “unChristian” are delegated to the sub-apostolic time period, therefore nullifying their “Scriptural” authority, and (3) regardless of their inclusion in the Christian canon, these backward and repressive texts are superseded by the “progressive” nature of the Word of God in which the literal words of Jesus are supposed to take precedence over any previous or later misinterpretations of God’s ultimate will.

You see, we are to look beyond the text to see what Jesus REALLY meant, not look to the text to see what the Holy Spirit lead the New Testament (and, I might add, the Old Testament) authors to understand what the will of God is. But, this is all a mirage, a phantasm. We cannot move “behind” the text to find out what the will of God is. It is doubly dangerous to posit that we can determine what God’s “progressive” will would be, especially if that “progressive will” is seen to be in direct contradiction to his previous “revealed” will.

To bring in a picture from church history, what these neo-liberals are asking the church to swallow is a huge helping of Gnosticism, without the giblet gravy. We are not to trust the real Scripture, we are to seek some ephemeral, non-corporeal, ghostly “essence” of what Scripture should be.

And, amazingly enough, what these Gnostic-come-lately’s discover in their “proto-Scripture” looks exactly like them: postmodern intellectuals who want to be loved by everyone, accept every form of piety no matter how heterodox, and welcome every syncretistic practice and belief into the church no matter how foreign to the revealed Scripture.

This leads me to my second point: the church has lost its purpose. The church was never supposed to be a social club where all who wanted admission were granted membership simply upon the payment of annual dues and the memorization of the secret password. The church is the post-Pentecost identification of the “people of God” that formally dates all the way back to Abraham. This people is not identified by their desire to be a part of some earthly social organization, but rather they are identified by God’s choosing and their submission to HIS standards of belief (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis).

Simply put, if you disagree with God, or you continually act in ways that are contrary to His revealed will, you cannot be a part of this “people of God.”

I have simply grown weary to the point of nausea with individuals who claim to have a high view of Scripture in one breath and then in the next breath (or in the next sentence) begin to explain why we cannot trust Leviticus or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians because these books or portions thereof violate some post-modern sensibility.

Either the author(s) of the Torah and the New Testament apostles were guided by God’s Holy Spirit or they were not. There really can be no middle ground, no “hedging” of our bets. We cannot have the revealed Word of God and at the same time look for another “intended” word of God. It is time the church demand of its leaders a firm commitment: in the words of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge, “Do you believe in me or not?!”

The LORD told Jeremiah very succinctly: if you reject Him you must depend upon your own devices, your own strength, your own ability in order to survive. Realistically, all that means is you end up with a mess of broken cisterns. Those cisterns might sustain life on a minimal level, but nowhere close to the abundant life provided by the living streams of God’s Holy Spirit.

The church today is trying to exist by drinking muddy waters from shattered wells.

Let us go back to the pure water of God’s life giving words. Our eternal existence, and the future of the physical church, depends upon it.

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Bible Reading Schedule – 2014

KJV Bible

KJV Bible (Photo credit: knowhimonline)

Every year one of the more viewed posts on this site is a recommendation for a daily Bible reading schedule. I think most people are looking for a .pdf they can download or print out, and if that is what they are looking for, they will be disappointed when they arrive here. In past years I have discussed one of my favorite schedules of daily Bible reading, and this year I want to discuss another. However, this time it will cost you just a little bit of money.

The method, or schedule, that I want to discuss this year is one that is published by the Moravian Brethren and can be ordered through their website, www.moravian.org. There are several different editions to choose from, from a plain little book with the daily texts and prayer printed out, to my favorite edition, a spiral bound journal that has the texts, the prayer, and a short space at the bottom for reflections or journaling.

I was initially introduced to the Moravian reading schedule through the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He used these readings for his daily Bible study, and frequently published the Scripture readings for his students and seminarians to read and meditate upon. I was curious, and with a little bit of research was able to find the website and ordered my first copy about four years ago. Since that time I have used them, either in part or completely, for my devotional reading and I have found I truly enjoy the Moravian schedule.

A brief word of explanation – the daily Bible readings from Monday through Saturday are divided into three sections: a Psalm, an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading. (The Sunday readings will be discussed below).  The readings are scheduled so that the entire Bible is read through once every two years. This is quite a change for me, as previously the least that I was reading through my Bible was twice in one year (see my reading schedules for 2012 and 2013). The slower pace means that the passages being read are much smaller, and that allows for more time to meditate and absorb the content of the reading. The selection of a Psalm, an O.T. reading and N.T. reading also allows the reader to have some diversity – some familiarity along with some unfamiliarity, as well as forcing the reader to work through the entire text of the Bible, albeit more slowly.

Any and every Bible reading schedule is created by man, and as such is going to have weaknesses and foibles. There is no “perfect” Bible reading schedule – the best one is the one that works the best for you, whether it is to read a verse, a chapter, or an entire book every day. As much as I like the Moravian reading schedule I am just a little disenchanted with some of the breaks in the readings. I feel like some readings need to go another few verses, or perhaps end a few verses earlier. Particularly in the Psalms I note that some are divided in strange places, or a Psalm that could be easily read in one sitting is divided into two parts. However, this can be seen as necessary in terms of dividing the 150 Psalms into two years worth of readings. So I simply read the Psalm more than once (all the way through on successive days) or if I note a problematic division in the reading I simply read ahead a few verses, or stop a few verses short of the printed schedule and make an appropriate note on the next day’s reading schedule. Honestly – if you cannot figure this out on your own maybe you should not be reading the Bible on your own anyway.

Each Sunday the readings come from the Revised Common Lectionary, and for those of you who do not know what the lectionary is, it is a collection of readings that allow for most of the Bible to be read through (although not anywhere close to sequentially) in a three year period. Each Sunday there is a reading from the Psalms, the Old Testament, a gospel, and a reading from a New Testament letter or the books of Acts or Revelation. For most of the year there is a common theme, either obvious or somewhat more disguised, found in each of the four readings. On some occasions there is no related them or connection between the readings at all.

The Moravian reading schedule also contains readings for “high” church days, such as feast and fast days, and for days that have special meaning to the Moravian church. You can read or omit these selections according to your personal preference.

I had originally intended to write this post about a month ago so readers who wanted to could order their copy and have it available by January 1, 2014. Perhaps that is still possible even at this late date, but even if your copy does not arrive until after the new year, you can still benefit greatly from this reading schedule. 2014 begins the reading cycle again, so we will begin reading with Genesis 1, Psalm 1 and Matthew 1.

Blessings on your daily Bible reading in 2014.

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