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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“Jesus Was Not God”

balance scale

balance scale (Photo credit: winnifredxoxo)

Okay, I hope I did not vacuum someone in here that did not want to be here, and if I did I apologize. In no way, shape or form do I agree with the message of the title of this post (notice the quotation marks??). However, an increasing number of people do believe this, but not in manner that you might suspect. On a surface “intellectual” level they will say that yes, indeed, Jesus was the living embodiment of the eternal God. However, on a functional “gut” level they simply do not accept that Jesus is in any way the one, true, living God.

Just this week I was reminded (in reading another blog) that there is a deep seated repulsion of the idea that the loving, kind, and all-forgiving Jesus of the New Testament could be associated with the mean, nasty, wrathful and genocidal God of the Old Testament. This is especially true in two specific areas: capital punishment and homosexuality. The God of the Old Testament, it is averred, was a deity best described as cold, austere, vengeful and angry. Offer the wrong kind of incense and poof, God just zapped you dead. Touch the Ark of the Covenant in an unworthy manner and pay for it with your life. Simply go outside and pick up a few sticks on the Sabbath and kiss your next birthday goodbye. And that whole sex thing? That was just one entire death sentence just waiting to happen. It is a wonder any babies were born.

However, turn the page from Malachi to Matthew and all of the sudden we have Jesus – meek, mild, gentle little Jesus who cradled sinners and hobnobbed with the wretched. Jesus, it is proclaimed, never had a bad word to say about anyone, forgave everyone, and basically told his followers, “You know, all those stories about God punishing the unrighteous – well, that was true up until I was born, but now its ollie-ollie-in-come-free.” Why, we have Jesus getting drunk (or at least tipsy, so it is insinuated), thumbing his nose at all those restrictive 10 commandments (or at least that pesky Sabbath one) and promenading around with the promiscuous. Amazingly enough, Jesus looks just like a rebellious teenage or a baby-boomer looking for a second childhood.

Of course, all of this is post-modern deconstruction and re-historizing. Individuals who have this myopic view of Jesus and God have never done one, or perhaps either, of two things. They have never deeply read the Old Testament, and they have never deeply read the New Testament. For in the Old Testament we see God repeatedly begging His wayward people to return to Him and demonstrating time and again how He has made it possible for them to do so. Likewise, we see in the New Testament, especially in the words of Jesus, how God’s patience is limited. There will come a day of judgment in which some will be blessed and some will be punished. Jesus himself pronounced specific and eternal curses (woes) upon those who rejected his words, as well as offered tears because they would not.

Yes, God demanded strict obedience in the Old Testament, and He punished those who defied His Holiness. If I read Acts 5 correctly, He did so in the New Testament as well. And, yes, God forgave blatant sinners in the Old Testament (insiders as well as outsiders to the faith); and, clearly, He did so in the New Testament. So, you tell me – exactly how is the Jesus of the New Testament different from the God of the Old Testament? It seems to me that the entire point of the New Testament is that Jesus IS the God of the Old Testament – only briefly made human so that we could see and hear from Him directly (Jn. 1:1).

Please do not get caught up in this postmodern falderal. Of course it is not new – according to the writer of Ecclesiastes nothing is ever entirely “new.” But it is certainly becoming more prevalent. The New Testament portrayal of Jesus does not contradict the Old Testament portrayal of God. The gospel of Jesus is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets just as clearly as it is in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles. However, the Holiness of God is just as prevalent in the Gospels, Acts and the Epistles as it is in the Pentateuch, the Writings, and the Prophets. We worship One God, not two. That God has one will, not two. There is one people of faith, not a pre-faith and post-faith. And we will all be saved by the one grace of God, and judged by the one revelation of that God.

Hear O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. (Deut. 6:4)

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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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In Memorium – Glen H. Stassen

I image008just discovered that one of my recent professors, Dr. Glen H. Stassen, passed away today. Dr. Stassen was the Lewis B. Smedes Professor of Christian Ethics at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, CA. This is extremely difficult news to hear. I only knew Dr. Stassen through a couple of phone calls and his comments on my course work, but even those all-too-brief encounters with Dr. Stassen were life changing.

I was assigned to Dr. Stassen as my professor of record in a guided study on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I had visions that the course would be fairly easy – it was a topic of my own choosing and I knew nothing of Dr. Stassen. I guess I found out how serious a scholar and theologian Dr. Stassen was when he sent back some comments on my suggestions for my course work. He agreed with my list of books (although he had some comments) and he had a slight alteration on the book reviews I suggested. I suggested a page to a page and a half, double spaced. He said three pages. Single spaced. Oops – this was not going where I wanted it to go.

Well, I did the three pages, single spaced book reviews, and also some reviews of lectures that I heard on Bonhoeffer in Chicago, and a comprehensive paper comparing Bonhoeffer’s theology to that of the Restoration Movement, particularly Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone. It was over 90 pages of work. I really had no idea how Dr. Stassen would respond. I waited in equal parts terror and despair.

When I received my work back I was blown away. I was pleased that Dr. Stassen liked my submission, but what astounded me was the detail with which he responded to my work. He commented on all of my book reviews. He commented on my lecture reviews. He made extensive comments on my paper. He critiqued, he corrected my grammar, he added insights, he challenged, and when appropriate, he agreed with me.

Dr. Stassen was an accomplished author and leader in the realm of Christian ethics. I have a couple of his books, and now I am challenged to add to this collection. His epic Kingdom Ethics (co-written with David Gushee) is a masterpiece in the genre. His A Thicker Jesus is thought provoking and life changing.

I will remember Dr. Stassen for many things. He was an accomplished scholar in Bonhoeffer studies. He was a leader in proposing new steps in Christian ethics. His scholarship cannot be questioned. He demanded his students to perform at a high level, and he rewarded that high level of work. But, most of how I will remember Dr. Stassen is what a wonderful gentleman he was. He was so kind. The couple of phone conversations I had with him will be treasures in my memory. I will also treasure his written comments on my papers until I am no longer around.

Dr. Stassen’s death is a huge loss to the Bonhoeffer studies community, those who work in the realm of Christian ethics, and especially hard hit will be the Fuller Theological Seminary community. I was profoundly lucky to have had the opportunity to work with Dr. Stassen. One of the things that I was looking forward to in finishing my Doctor of Ministry program at Fuller was the chance I was going to have to meet Dr. Stassen in person. Now that opportunity is no longer a reality, but in a very small way I did get to meet Dr. Stassen, and I hope that as I finish my dissertation I will remember what he taught me and that I will create a final product that would have met with his approval.

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God’s Counter-Cultural People

Politically Incorrect Area

Politically Incorrect Area (Photo credit: Scott Beale)

Another gem from my daily Bible reading today – Leviticus 18:1-5 (Yes, it is okay for Christians to read Genesis-Malachi):

 

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the people of Israel and say to them: I am the LORD your God. You shall not do as they do in the land of Egypt, where you lived, and you shall not do as they do in the land of Canaan, to which I am bringing you. You shall not follow their statutes. My ordinances you shall observe and my statutes you shall keep, following them: I am the LORD your God. You shall keep my statutes and my ordinances; by doing so one shall live: I am the LORD. (NRSV)

This passage, of course, precedes the great holiness chapter in Leviticus 19 where the phrase, “I am the LORD” falls like a drumbeat on the ear. But maybe more on that another time.

 

I was struck this morning with the profound counter-cultural message of Leviticus 18:1-5. God cannot make it any more clear – do not be like the people that I am delivering you from, and do not be like the people that I am going to drive from you. You are my people, therefore you will follow my statutes and my commands and my ordinances.

 

I wish more religious/spiritual/Christian leaders would read the Old Testament. Especially the holiness passages.

 

Today what we hear from far too many spiritual gurus is that the Lord’s church has become too exclusive, too secluded, too provincial. What the church needs to do is get with the culture – become more affirming, more inclusive, more accessible.

 

To be specific, if the dominant culture dictates that there are no differences between the genders then the church must become gender neutral. If the culture dictates that marriage is simply a matter of “love” and physical attraction then the church must not only accept same-sex marriages, it must bless them. If the culture dictates that nationalism is synonymous with spirituality then the church must preach subservience to one’s country, and perhaps even one political party within that national structure. If the culture dictates what is acceptable in dress, in language, in entertainment then the church must alter its message to accept that clothing, that language, and that entertainment. If the culture dictates how a person is to spend his or her time, then the church must alter its schedule to find a time in which a person who is “busy” with soccer or softball or football or gymnastics or dance or whatever else may conflict with previously scheduled times of worship may attend without missing out on the “important” aspects of life.

 

To be perfectly blunt – the 21st century church has forgotten from whence we have been called and whither we are being called. We have forgotten that Egypt was our place of slavery and that Canaan is nothing but a spiritual cesspool.

 

Okay – we have never been slaves in Egypt and Canaan is all the way around the world, and several centuries removed from our experience. But the message of Leviticus is clear: our God is a Holy God and he expects us to disregard the culture in which we find ourselves and to follow only His commands, His statutes.

 

That means we have God’s commands as a priority when we find ourselves in an unfriendly culture and when we find ourselves in a friendly culture. Maybe especially when we find ourselves in a friendly culture.

 

For far too long Christians in America have soothed our consciences by repeating the mantra: “America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation, America is a Christian nation.” Well, whether that has been true in the past is a matter for debate (I, for one, do not think so). But it clearly is no longer true. We may not have moved to Canaan, but we certainly have allowed Canaan to move into the U.S.

 

Let us be done with cultural accomodation. Let us stand and be recognized for what we claim to be – God’s holy and chosen people. If that earns us scorn and ridicule and censure then so be it. Those are the promises given us by none other than our Savior, Jesus (Matthew 5:10-11; John 15:18-16:4). If the shoe is supposed to fit, maybe it is time we tied it on and started walking in it.

 

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6 Questions That Make Me Nervous

1.  Would what I preach get me killed?

2.  Would what I preach get me arrested?

3.  Would what I preach even get someone angry at me?

4.  Would what I preach even upset someone?

5.  Would what I preach even get someone to take notice?

Jesus, Peter, John, Paul – they all stressed to their readers that the proclamation of the gospel would result in rejection, tribulation, persecution.

Handcuffs

Handcuffs (Photo credit: Txspiked)

Today we sugar-coat everything. The gospel will make you richer, more peaceful, help you with your marriage, your career, maybe even your health.

All of which makes me wonder if we are preaching the gospel at all. It just seems to me that if we bend over backwards not to have happen what Jesus, Peter, John and Paul all said would happen places us in a very precarious position.

I do not want anyone to hate Jesus. I do not want anyone to hate the church. I do not want to drive anyone away from the truth. So, I try to make the gospel palatable. I try to “accentuate the positive.” I try to shine the spotlight on the empty tomb and try to keep the bloody cross carefully out-of-sight. And, the question still nags at me: does what I preach and teach even matter at all?

The apostles practiced some pretty severe “boundary protection.” They made sure everyone that entered the church did so under the shadow of the cross, and they were not afraid to hand certain malefactors “over to Satan” so that their soul might be redeemed.

Us? Do we tell people – “Hey, get baptized today and tomorrow you may be fired from your job”? Are we willing to tell people that as far as we are concerned they are Satan’s play toy until they learn what being in Hell is really like? Paul had some pretty sharp language, you know (1 Tim. 1:20, 2 Tim. 2:16).

All of which leads me to ask #6 -

6.  Are we preaching “peace, peace” when there truly is no peace? (Jeremiah 6:14, 8:11. Notice the context!)

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The Value of Bright Lights in Dense Fog

Mike's Approach

Mike’s Approach (Photo credit: Sarahnaut)

I’ve been trying to articulate something for some time, and for whatever reason I just cannot seem to get the words right. If you are reading this that must mean I hit the “publish” button, so maybe I’ll get it right this time.

Back when I was flying the most stressful (nay, terrifying) aspect of flight was the last few thousand feet of the flight when I was cutting through some dense fog on an instrument approach. According to the FAA rules under which I was operating, I could begin an approach as long as the visibility at the airport was one-half mile and there was a 200 foot space between terra firma and the base of any solid cloud layer. (This was the lowest minimum visibility required – at other airports the minimums went up due to less accurate navigational aids). Now, what that means is when I broke out of the cloud base there was 200 feet between me and mother earth, and I could see 3,000 feet in front of me. The only problem (well, not ONLY) is that on final approach I was flying at roughly 100 miles an hour. It does not take long to cover 3,000 feet horizontally or 200 feet vertically if you are traveling at 165 feet per second (give or take a few).

Add to that there was the issue of keeping both eyes glued to my instruments, making sure I had flaps and landing gear down (the chirp of rubber meeting concrete is much more comforting than the shriek of aluminum grinding on concrete), maintaining proper airspeed, monitoring all my approach and navigational aids, and talking on the radio whilst at the same time keeping one eye pealed out the windscreen hoping to catch a glimpse of the ground before it reached up and smacked me. And, I was doing this all single pilot – nobody named Auto sitting next to me to make sure I was not about to kill myself and spread thousands of pounds of freight all over the countryside.

So, when I saw the bright strobes and approach light system announcing the approach end of the runway I always let out a huge sigh of relief. It was always nice to breathe again when you have been holding your breath for 5 minutes.

The thing that was so comforting about seeing the approach light system was that it meant I was almost home. The lights did not have to worry about the fog, the ceiling level of the cloud base, the rain, the snow, or if everything in the plane was functioning properly and had been properly tuned, pushed and set. The lights were solid guides in a very fluid and dangerous system.

Oh, and one other thing I forgot to mention:

When flying in fog so dense I could not see my wingtips I had to turn off the strobe and landing lights on my airplane. This was true in daylight, but was especially critical at night or in snow or rain. If I did not the disorientation from the resulting strobe or the reflection from the landing lights could get me killed graveyard dead in a matter of seconds.

I had to make sure that the only lights my eyes would focus on were the lights of the approach light system on the end of the runway. Any other light was distracting, and potentially fatal. Once free of the clouds a quick flip of a couple of switches and I had my strobes and landing lights back on (if necessary).

I may be an alarmist, but I see way too many preachers and authors trying to fly in the theological fog with every light in and on their airplane turned as bright as it can, while ignoring the lights at the end of the runway. In other words, they are focusing entirely upon their constantly changing nature, their culture, their wants, their wishes, their desires, and the way they have decided God must think, act and judge; and they are totally ignoring the solid, immovable structure that tell us exactly how God in fact does think, act and judge.

Stated another way – we need to turn the lights off of ourselves and let the light of God’s Word guide us home.

I’m sick to death of preachers saying that some passage of Scripture can be ignored or rewritten because our culture is different from the culture in which the author lived. Yes, it is. And the culture of Paul was different from the culture of Abraham or David. But you never read of Paul disavowing Abraham or David just because they preceded him in terms of earthly chronology.

Our world is moving and changing at a speed far in excess of 100 miles an hour. The fog of contemporary culture is far more dense than any in which I ever flew. We cannot just sit back and “fly by the seat of our pants.” We have to end this infantile obsession with our narcissistic culture and realize that if we are going to safely lead others to a distant shore then we are going to have to trust the approach lights that God has given us – not our own fickle and changing opinions.

We have to turn the lights off of ourselves. God hasn’t moved since the days of Adam and Eve. He knows where firm ground is. He knows where our destination is. He has provided us with all the guidance we need. He has the approach lights turned up as bright as he possibly can.

Let us have a little faith in the light of God’s Word, shall we?

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Grief and the Loss of a Pet

Munchkin

Munchkin

This post has nothing to do with theology – or at least the academic kind. I suppose it is very theological in the sense that everything we do relates in some form or fashion back to our Creator.

This past Friday we had to say good-bye to one of our little pets, a cat named Munchkin. We have owned a total of 7 cats, and now we have had to say good-bye to 4 of them. Each has been difficult in their own way – we had Half-Pint for 19 years. Mouse was the quirkiest little cat you could imagine -and he was almost telepathic. I think he knew when we would be hurting before we knew it. Bear we only had for a couple of years, but he was an absolutely gorgeous orange tabby and he had the heart of a full-fledged saint. He always curled up on my lap when I would do my daily Bible reading. Munchkin was a feral kitty we “rescued” (she would say kidnapped) from our backyard. We had her for 11 years – the second longest lived of our cats. Our cats (and now our puppy) are not just pets – they become a part of our family. Now we are down to Callie, Raven and Duchess, and these three have taken on an even greater significance as they age and fill the void that Munchkin left.

I don’t know why the death of a little animal touches me so deeply. But, I’ve pretty much quit fighting the emotions. Friday I was a blubbering, sobbing wreck. I bonded very closely with little Munchkin, and losing her was like losing my right arm.

Its the little things that still knock me for a loop. Saturday, a little more than 24 hours after we took Munchkin to the vet, I went to feed the other cats. We had been feeding Munchkin on her own separate plate so we could keep her strength up. I grabbed three saucers instead of  the two I needed to feed the others. I lost it. Today the garage door blew open and I had to count noses to make sure none of the cats had escaped. Instead of stopping at three I briefly started looking for #4, even getting so far as to call out for “Munch…..” I lost it again.

I grieve the loss of all my pets – even the dog I had as a boy growing up. I was in college when my father had to take her to the vet for the last time. It just breaks my heart to know what he had to go through.

They are precious little gifts, our pets. If you own a cat or a dog do me a favor and give them a hug for Munchkin’s sake for me. And one for Half-Pint, Mouse and Bear as well. As for me, it’s time to cuddle with my little Duchess. She’ll tell me all about her day and go to sleep against my tummy purring contentedly.

If only pets could live as long as the love they give is complete…

Thanks for letting me rattle on for a while. Maybe this week I can get back to thinking theologically.

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Dialoguing On The Need For Christian Dialogue

not equal

not equal (Photo credit: holeymoon)

I just made a discovery – about my own interpretive process. The process itself is not something new to me, I guess it is the way I have been thinking for quite some time. But the end result of my thinking has just become much more clear. You’ll have to wade through the whole post for my last sentence to make any sense. But it is where I am today.

Let me begin by saying dialogue is great. I heartily support dialogue. Dialogue is necessary and in most cases is quite pleasant. Dialogue is absolutely necessary if two people, or two groups, are to find common ground and negotiate a mutually acceptable position in the midst of a heated and bitter conflict.

Which is why the Church of Christ should never, ever, in any way, shape or form, enter into a dialogue with anyone or anything.

A dialogue takes place between two equals, or between a lesser who appeals to a greater, in the hopes of finding a mutual agreement. A dialogue is a prologue to a compromise. Married couples sometimes need to have a refereed dialogue. Big companies and organized labor quite often need to come to a bargaining table and have a refereed dialogue. Prosecuting and Defending attorneys dialogue quite often to avoid the bother and expense of a trial. On occasion antagonistic countries need to be brought to a negotiating table in order to have a peaceful dialogue.

The Church is not a marriage partner to anyone or anything in this world. The Church is not a big company, nor is it an amalgamation of unionized workers. The Church is not a country, or an aggrieved individual. The Church has no equal on this earth with whom it can compromise. When the Church compromises it loses its nature. It simply ceases to be the Church. To put it bluntly, the Church has no one or nothing with whom it can dialogue.

Over the past 50 years virtually every church group, religious group, denomination, whatever you want to call it, has entered into a “dialogue” with a group that wanted it to become more modern, more “relevant,” more in tune with secular practices and mores. The “Social Gospel,” militant feminism and now militant homosexuality are just three areas in which a religious group has “dialogued” and come out looking far more like the world than when it entered the conversation.

Can you name a major religious group, denomination, or independent church that is theologically more conservative or less “progressive” today than it was 50 years ago? I cannot. Some may not have changed (although, I would argue very few), but I cannot think of a single Christian faith group that is more conservative today than it was just a scant half-century ago.

The only way a group has been able to maintain any kind of conservative, narrowly biblical interpretive stance is to split off from a larger, more “progressive” movement. So we have seen huge defections from the Anglican/Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church, the Lutheran Church and many Baptist and Church of Christ congregations. Whenever anyone says, “We need to reexamine our beliefs about….” what they are really saying is “we need to change our beliefs about…..” and “dialogue” becomes the vehicle by which that change is effected.

All of which makes me very nervous and very skeptical when I hear certain voices promote a new or ongoing “dialogue” between the church and atheist movements, or agnostic movements, or further dialogue with proponents of homosexuality or feminism or militarism or any other king of “ism” for that matter. This would extend, by the way, to “dialogues” with religious groups with whom I might share one or two core convictions, but who have chosen to make substantive departures from what I believe to be Scripture itself is to be viewed.

So my question for these proponents is this – what exactly do you mean by “dialogue?” The way I read the Bible, the Church of Christ does not negotiate anything. The Church does not have the power to compromise with anyone or anything. The Church of Christ is not an equal to any secular power or entity. Therefore, the Church of Christ is under no compulsion or expectation to “dialogue” with anyone.

Nor am I, as a member of the Church of Christ, authorized or deputized to “dialogue” with anyone or any group and speak for “The Church of Christ.” I can only speak for my own convictions, my own beliefs, and my own interpretations of Scripture. And, as much as they may want to argue, no one can speak for me based on his or her interpretations, convictions, or beliefs. I cannot even speak authoritatively for the congregation of which I am a part, and for which I serve as a minister.

In a sentence, the “Church” is a group of people who live their lives in a submissive relationship to the absolute authority of Jesus Christ the Son of God.

So, when you say “the church needs to dialogue with ……,” exactly what authority are you giving the Church that God himself has not given it? And who will speak for the “Church” that you think needs to enter into this dialogue? And what power or authority does that person (or persons) have to bargain with?

Membership in the Church is non-negotiable. That is the thing about the church that the world never has understood, does not now understand, and will not likely ever understand. Discipleship is a total and complete surrender to a Lord and Savior who demands our complete devotion.

So, when I say that I cannot enter into a dialogue with a certain group or with a certain person, I am not trying to be mean, nasty, ugly or unduly obstinate. I am simply living out my conviction that I do not have have the power, the authority, nor the freedom to “dialogue” with someone who refuses to accept the God under whom I have placed my life, and His Word, which I hold to be absolute in guiding my life. I can teach, I can “give a reason for the hope that is within me.” I can evangelize – that is – spread the good news. But I cannot, and I will not, lower my understanding of the nature of the Church of Christ to make it be something that is equal to or lesser than a vain philosophy of this world.

And that, dear reader, something that I am discovering in increasing measure, is profoundly unpopular.

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Credulity Crisis – Critiquing Christian Themed Entertainment

test

test (Photo credit: DaveBleasdale)

This post is a continuation of my last post. In this installment I will be making a careful examination of the claims of the book and soon to be released movie, “Heaven is For Real.”

For those who have not read the book, the story is about a little boy who suffers terribly from a misdiagnosed appendicitis attack, comes close to death and experiences a vision in which he claims to have seen (among other things) Jesus, his deceased grandfather, and his sister, who was actually never born. In his vision the grandfather has become younger in heaven, while his never-born sister has aged to a young girl. There are many problems with the story, but I just want to focus on the theology.

I need to make something absolutely clear here as I begin. In no way do I want to suggest that the little boy on whom the book and movie is based did not have the visions that are claimed in the book. I have personal reasons for allowing that he did, indeed, have those visions. This critique is not an ad hominem attack on that little boy. However, the interpretation of those visions has become the basis of a multi-million dollar enterprise, and there are serious repercussions that flow from the veracity or falsity of those religious interpretations. It is to those interpretations that I now turn.

Disciples are commanded, not merely encouraged, to test the veracity of the spirits that claim to be from God (1 John 4:1). I do not have to guess that a book or movie that discusses a vision of heaven and the residents thereof to be a message from God. The parents of the little boy, the publishers of the book and the producers of the movie all claim that the message comes from God. So, I can rest on a firm foundation that I am not arguing against a straw man. I am testing a spirit that claims to be from God.

So, I begin by asking, “Does the message support or contradict a portion of Scripture that we can all agree upon as being a clear message from God.” The first text I want to point out is Luke 16:19-31. The relevant words are found in v. 27-31:

He answered, “Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my father’s house, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.” Abraham replied, “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.” “No, father Abraham,” he said, “but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.” He said to him, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.” (NIV, emphasis mine)

This, of course, comes from the mouth of Jesus in the story of the Rich man and Lazarus. If we cannot agree that this passage is from the mind of God then I suggest we cannot agree on anything.

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant

English: Digitalis Purpurea young plant (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The second passage is much longer – 1 Corinthians 15:35-58. I can only summarize here, but I encourage you to read the entire passage. In sum, Paul teaches the Corinthian Christians that our resurrection bodies will in no way, shape or glory be similar to our present human body. While we will have “bodies” they will be as different from our human bodies as the leaf is different from the seed.

Once again, unless you want to remove one of the greatest teachings on the resurrection from the New Testament, we have to say that this passage came from the mind of God.

Third, I would turn to 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18, but for length we will only point out v. 15-17:

According to the Lord’s own word, we tell you that we who are still alive, who are left till the coming of The Lord, will certainly not precede those who have fallen asleep. For The Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first. After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet The Lord in the air. And so we will be with The Lord forever. (NIV, emphasis mine)

Here again we have the apostle Paul writing one of the foundational texts on the nature of the resurrection, and quoting Jesus no less; so I take this passage to be from the mind of God.

What do we learn from those passages? We learn that Jesus himself rejected the idea of sending someone back from death, or even near death, to accomplish the purpose for which the written Scriptures are more than sufficient. How much more sufficient is the story of the resurrection of Jesus and the rest of our New Testament?

Second, we learn that our post resurrection bodies will not resemble our present bodies. Simply put, we will not resemble what we look like now. To say that someone can take a peek into heaven and recognize its occupants is to contradict what Paul said about our resurrection bodies.

Third, we learn that there will not be “stages” of progressive resurrections. “We who are alive will not precede those who have fallen asleep” and “we will be caught up together with them” means that they (the saved dead) will not precede us, and we will not precede them. We make the final journey together. Once again to be blunt, our dearly departed loved ones are not in heaven – unless you want to reconstruct 1 Thessalonians 4 (and 1 Corinthians 15).

I would like to stop here and ask the question, “For what purpose was the book written and the movie produced?” The best answer that I can decipher is that God wants us to know that he loves us and he wants us to go to heaven. That’s it. The opening chapters of Genesis are not sufficient. The soaring poetry of Isaiah is not sufficient. The melancholy songs of Jeremiah are not sufficient. The life of the Son of God as recorded in the gospels is not sufficient. The hours of agony suffered by that Son of God on the cross are not sufficient. No – it takes a little boy suffering an extended illness and coming close to death and returning to life to get the message out that God loves us and wants us to go to heaven.

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Píse...

Jesus on the cross on the Stone Bridge in Písek, Czech Republic (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The publishers of the book and the producers of the movie have placed anyone who criticizes the book in a difficult position. All they have to do is accuse the opponent of despising a little boy, disbelieving in God, rejecting the power of God or maybe all three. Obviously I reject that accusation. I believe the theology of the book and movie is horribly flawed – certainly sacrilegious and bordering on blasphemous. Whatever the little boy did or did not see, the resulting production is unbiblical and dangerous.

I started this post by saying I do not disbelieve the little boy’s experience. I would be a reprehensible fool to suggest that I have knowledge that the little boy did not have the vision he claims to have experienced. I can, however, hold the interpretation that a group of adults have made regarding that experience up against the measure of the Word of God. As I have demonstrated, that interpretation fails miserably.

Two other issues bear very quick mention at this point. The interpretation told in the book and movie has made a lot of people a lot of money. This is not some altruistic telling of a gospel story. Serious amounts of money are exchanging hands here – and all based on the events that took place when a little boy was experiencing tremendous pain, was receiving numerous drugs, and was for a time under anesthesia. The entire process just seems scandalous to me.

Second, what pressures are being placed on this young boy? For the rest of his life he will be known as “the little boy who went to heaven.” We have all seen how notoriety destroys the lives of child actors. What happens when the boy grows, and, heaven forbid, stumbles or experiences a valley to match the mountain top experience he had as a child? How will his “adoring fans” respond? How will the world respond? But, more important, how will he respond? You cannot live a perfect life. Somewhere in his life he will experience the desert of spiritual emptiness. I hope the adults in his life are preparing him for that eventuality, so that when it does happen (NOT IF it does happen) he will be prepared to come out on the other side unharmed.

We are not supposed to check our brains at the door when we enter the waters of baptism. To think critically does not mean that we reject everything we see, hear and read; but to be a disciple does not mean that we uncritically swallow every story that claims to be “Christian,” whether that story is titled, “The Passion of the Christ,” “God’s Not Dead,” or “Heaven Is For Real.” Let us test the spirits, and that means some will pass the test, and others will not. Let us pray that God helps us make those decisions humbly and with extreme caution.

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