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One is a Tragedy; Two is a Catastrophe

Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusa...

Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (on a Bible subject). Oil on paperboard. 91.3 × 75 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I love the book of Jeremiah. I don’t know why. Most people love Isaiah. Isaiah is majestic, beautiful, poetic – Isaiah is a lot of captivating things, that is for sure. But Isaiah is also very white-collar. Although there are several passages in the book of Isaiah that resonate with me, the overall feel of the book just eludes me. Jeremiah, on the other hand, connects with me. Jeremiah shakes his fist at God and has the audacity to accuse God of taking advantage of him. Jeremiah is blue-collar, dirt under your fingernails, sweat dripping in your eyes kind of prophecy. Isaiah gets to see the throne room of God; Jeremiah gets thrown into a stinking, muddy cistern. Jeremiah can at times rise to the heights of Isaiah, but he does not do so nearly as often, and when he does he does not stay there nearly as long as does Isaiah.

So, my daily Bible reading has me in the book of Jeremiah for a while. I am going to enjoy the next few days reacquainting myself with this “weeping prophet.” Today I read one of the more well-known of Jeremiah’s teachings/lamentations:

My people have done two things wrong. They have abandoned me, the fountain of life-giving water: They have also dug their own cisterns that can’t hold water. (Jeremiah 2:13, God’s Word Translation)

Here Jeremiah identifies two tragic, catastrophic decisions that the people of Judah have committed. One, they rejected God. That is the tragedy, but if that was the only thing they had done, a remedy would be available. When you reject something you can eventually return to it, because there is a likelihood that you will come to miss that which you have rejected. You will learn you really needed it. Unless it was absolutely worthless, you will come to recognize that you are not complete without that which you rejected, and you will seek it out once again.

But, if you find a cheap substitute for that costly item the temptation, indeed the likelihood, will be that you will be content with the impostor and you will not feel the need to return to the genuine article. This is the catastrophe of the Judean “faithful.” They not only rejected the priceless and irreplaceable life-giving water that came straight from God, they replaced that treasure with a bunch of broken, worthless, meaningless cisterns.

In these words from Jeremiah we can hear the pathos of God. It is God’s voice we hear through the pen of Jeremiah. It is God Himself who is being rejected – not some physical chemical composition. Even though we often say that God is omniscient (which is a Greek concept, not a Hebrew one, by the way) there are some things that God does not understand. He does not understand why His people can wallow in the riches and greatness of his love, and then almost in the blink of an eye replace that heavenly comfort with the filth and muck of an earthly pigsty.

One of the great evangelical past times today is lamenting the decline of the American moral situation. I suppose that is tragic – it would be far better and far healthier for us if our culture would return to a more “Christian” framework. But, tragic as that might be, it could be remedied if it were not for the catastrophe that has followed the tragedy. The catastrophe is that the American “Church” has followed American culture into the pigsty of relativism. Once the church decided it could hew out its own cisterns, broken and worthless as they might be, it decided that it no longer needed the life-giving water from above.

There is no hope for American culture if the American church has given up on God.

I read and hear evidence of this collapse every day. “The church needs to listen to the people who are leaving.” No it does not. The church needs to listen to God! Do we need to hear what the people who are leaving have to say so that we can correct unchristian attitudes and behaviors? To be sure. But there is only one voice that we need to listen to and that is the voice of God. “The church needs to be more open and affirming.” Affirming of what – sin? How can we “affirm” a sinful lifestyle and even remotely proclaim to be a holy people. We are commanded to be holy, but I can not think of a single passage of Scripture that commands us to be affirming – especially when it comes to affirming unholy lifestyles. “The church needs to be more modern, more relevant to today’s culture.” This one is truly fascinating. In the midst of today’s utter and complete moral chaos, people are asking for more rootlessness and subjectivity, as if getting drunk for longer periods of time is the ultimate cure for alcoholism. No – the answer to today’s moral and religious vacuum is the return to solid ground. The church needs to be the one place where people can have a safe refuge from the endless and meaningless cycle of change and relativism.

Jeremiah had it right – but the people refused to listen to him, and what he prophesied came true. Jerusalem was destroyed. You can recover from a tragedy, but not if that tragedy is compounded by the willful, catastrophic rejection of the only thing that can save you.

Are we going to go back to the pure, life-giving water from God, or are we going to continue to depend upon our broken cisterns?

In the Footsteps of Jeremiah

Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusa...

Cry of prophet Jeremiah on the Ruins of Jerusalem (on a Bible subject). Oil on paperboard. 91.3 × 75 cm. The State Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The daily Bible reading schedule that I have been following for the past several years calls for me to read through the Bible twice each year. It is a lot of reading, but actually not that much if you set aside enough time (each reader is different). As I have followed this plan for about three years now I have noticed several trends in my reading. One is that I am finding some books of the Bible are becoming my favorite texts, books that several years ago I barely  paid any attention to.

The book of Jeremiah is just one of those new-found favorite texts. Jeremiah is an interesting character. He follows God whole-heartedly, and yet simultaneously complains bitterly and forcefully to God. He follows God’s instructions, yet despite his faithfulness the southern tribe of Judah is destroyed. Jeremiah preaches faithfully for years and, for all visible intents and purposes, achieves nothing for his effort.

Jeremiah as a lot to say to the 21st century church.

More and more I am hearing an uncertain sound in the church. It is a voice that is magnified by the number of those who proclaim it; yet it is, at its very core, an unsure sound. It is a voice that says we (the church) must go along to get along. We must not be too doctrinaire or we will push people away. We must not challenge people’s emotional attachments. We must look to numbers as visible signs of success. We can rely upon human strength and ingenuity to overcome our problems. Popularity is a sure sign of godliness; and large, expressive crowds are to be the goal of every work of the church. The difference between sacred and profane is to be erased, and there is to be no separation between the clean and the unclean. Human ignorance is to be the basis for all judgments, and since we cannot know the heart of God we can never speak as if God Himself has made any judgments. The greatest sin is to preach that people sin. We are told that even though we are walking past a dark and foreboding graveyard, it is just a graveyard and if we just keep whistling we will be okay.

In other words, we are being told the same things that the religious leaders were telling the people of Judah during the time of Jeremiah.

Jeremiah spent his ministry trying to rid his people of the gravitational pull of syncretism. He was told he was treasonous because he spoke the emphatic warnings from God. He begged his people to accept their punishment and to trust utterly and totally in God. He preached that popularity is rarely, if ever, a blessing and is virtually always a curse. He sought in vain to re-establish the dividing wall between the sacred and the profane. He pleaded for his people not to trust in the human strength, and especially the strength of surrounding nations. Jeremiah could see that in order for God’s kingdom to go forward it would have to undergo a hellish fire of purification. Jeremiah preached the judgment of God, and he tried to get his people to understand that they were not whistling past a graveyard, they were marching full throttle into one.

I hear and read people argue, “Look at brand X or group Y and look at how popular and excited and growing they are. If we could just be like them we could be popular and exciting and growing.” We see people leaving “our” churches and we lament that they left because of a doctrinal stand or a statement of belief. We are terrified almost to the point of petrification concerning the possibility that our young people might leave “our” church if we disagree with them or do not submit to their every request.

Brothers and Sisters, we do not own the church. There is no “our” church. There is the Lord’s church. If people leave the Lord’s church because they disagree with the Lord’s teaching, then they have left the Lord. If they leave one of “our” buildings because we are not longer teaching the Lord’s word, and they leave so they can find an assembly where the Lord’s truth is being taught, then they are not leaving the Lord’s church at all. There is a situation in which people leave the church, and there is a situation when the church leaves the building, and God’s people have to leave in order to stay with the church.

Lest we forget, Jeremiah was specifically told by the LORD to “pluck up and break down, to destroy and to overthrow” before he was going to be able to “build and to plant.” (Jeremiah 1:10). We are repulsed by the concept that God would order one of his prophets to be so destructive before he could be constructive. Jeremiah is not a popular book in today’s church. We would much rather read Max Lucado or Rob Bell, right? After all, isn’t God all about being my “personal savior” and doesn’t love always win?

But maybe we are walking in the footsteps of  Jeremiah more than we recognize. Maybe God has had enough of prophets who speak falsely in His name. Maybe he is sick of the stench of what is falsely called worship and praise and adoration (Amos 5:21-23). Maybe God is pruning his vine once again, so that His true people can bear pure fruit. (John 15:1-2)

I do not know these things to be true. I write and speak as one who “sees in the glass darkly.” Maybe I am just in a funk and I am not seeing the whole picture. But I believe in my heart that God has preserved his word so that we might learn and profit from our spiritual ancestors.

And I see a lot of Jeremiah’s Jerusalem in the walls of our American church buildings today.

A Radical Sermon – “Mourn” (Matthew 5:4)

Tears

Tears (Photo credit: TimOve)

I begin with a seemingly incoherent digression. My father was one of the most sure-footed individuals I have ever seen. He could scamper over rocks, tree limbs, logs – he loved the out-doors and it really did not matter where he was, he was able to keep his feet under him. I honestly cannot ever remember seeing him fall, and I have seen him in some pretty amazing predicaments. One vision is especially clear, and that is how he ferried me and my sister on his back across numerous rivers and creeks without so much as getting our feet wet. I don’t know how many times I was carried across the Pecos river, it has to be in the hundreds. No matter how strong the current we always made it across safely. When I was old enough to get my own pair of hip boots he taught me very carefully how to wade across a river. After having dunked myself in the same river more times than I really care to admit, my admiration for his sure footedness only grew.

I was especially impressed with my father’s ability to wade across a river when it was murky or even more than murky. It is one thing to cross a river when you can see the rocks beneath your feet. When you cannot see the bottom the challenge is exponentially more difficult. But, somehow he managed to feel his way along the bottom, finding just the right crevice or big rock to brace his foot against.

So, what does my father’s ability to wade across free-flowing trout streams have to do with interpreting the Sermon on the Mount? Interestingly enough, much if I do say so myself.

I have already mentioned the difficulty we as Americans have in understanding the word “Blessed.” This is illustrated in translation of the Greek word makairos  that was published in the Common English Bible as “happy.” We in America want our Christianity to be a happy one, full of little smiley emoticons, full volume hip-hop music and stories that end “happily ever after.”

In my last post I discussed an equally difficult problem we have with “poor in spirit.” We as Americans are just so proud of our ability to be self-sufficient, do-it-yourselfers. We rebel against any suggestion that we are or even have been dependent upon anyone. In the words of the Pharisees to Jesus, “We have never been slaves to anyone!” And, just for good measure, we refuse to be slaves to anyone now. Unfortunately, that includes God as well.

So, we are in murky water here. This sermon, which I have labeled as “radical” is profoundly disorienting – especially to a culture such as ours. We are barely a few verses into it and already our head is spinning. That, I am convinced, is its perfect design.

So now we turn to the word “mourn.” And, I must confess right up front, the water under my feet is no more clear than it is for anyone else. There are as many interpretations of what this word means as there have been for “blessed” and for “poor in spirit.” But, using other passages as a guide, I think there is a way to understand what Jesus is teaching.

First, as I so often do, a couple of things I think Jesus is NOT teaching. One, I do not believe Jesus is advocating some kind of histrionic cataract of tears that can be called up on a moment’s notice. I have in mind the paid mourners as is illustrated in the story of the little girl Jesus raised from the dead in Matthew 9. A stout onion and a good crowd is all it takes to get some people weeping and wailing. Second, although I am not 100% sure of what he was talking about, I am not convinced that Jesus is talking about the tears that Ignatius of Loyola was talking about in his Spiritual Exercises. I am not a Jesuit, so I must admit some ignorance here.

Rather, I think what Jesus is referencing here are the tears of the great prophets – Ezra, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel just to name a few. And, because the blessing on those who mourn comes immediately after the blessing on those who are poor in spirit, I believe the two are inextricably linked. When we realize our utter dependence upon God we realize how frail and weak we are as humans. That realization should also reveal our sinfulness and brokenness, and having come to that realization we are driven to our knees in sorrow. In other words, we mourn our human frailty and sinfulness. In his great vision of the throne room of God, Isaiah first comprehends the majesty of God, and then comprehends his own unworthiness. Isaiah’s “woe is me” is not the rambling of some deranged neurotic, but is the honest reflection of a person who has come into the presence of the Holy One. It is the response of EVERY person who comes into the presence of the Holy One as recorded in the pages of Scripture.

Second, and just as important, I believe Jesus is speaking here of our ability to weep over the sins of others. It is not only our own sin that should drive us to our knees, but also the brokenness of humanity. Jesus wept over the city of Jerusalem (Luke 19:41). Ezra wept for his people. Jeremiah has been labeled “the weeping prophet.” Our inability to weep over the sins of others is manifested in countless ways. Every year I hear of calls to march in front of Planned Parenthood offices, but I never hear of services where Christians are called to weep for the women who make use of the doctors inside those facilities. We rant and rail against all kinds of sexual promiscuity and perversity, yet how many of us weep for the young women caught up in the sex trade? How many of us weep for the men and women so broken by the world that they have lost the reality of their own gender? We cheer the death of some “terrorist” whose name we cannot pronounce, never even once stopping to ask ourselves about the manner in which they were killed, or about those who were killed with them whose only offense was that they happened to be in the same vicinity?

We cling to our “rights” as American citizens, never ever even once stopping to consider how those “rights” affect countless millions across this globe, or even how they are a part of the massacre of 26 innocent people whose only “crime” was that they happened to be in an elementary school.

Americans, and disciples of Christ in America, have lost the ability to mourn. And, following the words of Jesus, if we cannot mourn, we will never experience God’s comfort.

As long as we are self-sufficient, as long as we proudly bear the banner of our “inalienable rights,” as long as we are able to look down upon others in self-righteous contempt, as long as we are able to overlook our own brokenness and sinfulness, we may have the comfort of our own pathetic little egotistic shell. But that comfort will be fleeting, and we will have to grasp another “right,” we will have to find someone yet more contemptible, we will have to turn away from our own reflection even more violently in order to shore up our crumbling self-defense.

Or, we can hear the words of this radical sermon, and we can confess our utter and complete dependence upon God, and we can fall upon our knees in the depths of righteous sorrow, and pray that God will see our tears and hear our sighs.

Then, and only then, may we receive the blessing of comfort.

People Cannot Follow If They Are Not Led

"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Je...

“Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My daily Bible reading had me in the book of Lamentations this morning. One of the real blessings of my daily Bible reading is that my schedule calls for me to read a section long enough to be challenging, yet not so long as to be oppressive (or, at least in my mind. YMMV). Just to let you know, I read anywhere from 7-8 chapters a day, not counting Sundays when I have a different schedule. Even though this is a lengthy reading, every so often one or two verses jump out at me as if I have never read them before. That is what I find so interesting about this particular plan. The text speaks to me in its own way, rather than me telling the text that it has to say something to me. Of course, sometimes I am so distracted that I can’t hear any of the verses, but that is okay because I know that tomorrow is a new day, and I will read that passage again in due course and at that time it may speak volumes to me.

So, as I was saying, today I was in Lamentations. Now, I don’t know about you, but I cannot recall ever hearing a sermon taken from Lamentations, and to the best of my recollection, I have only preached one. So, as I was reading along and following the prophet’s anguished cries over the destruction of Jerusalem I came across 4:13, which in my Common English Bible reads this way:

It was because of her prophets’ sins, her priests’ iniquities, those who shed righteous blood in the middle of the city.

Wow. Reading the books of Kings and Chronicles and the prophets you would get the idea that Israel and Judah were punished because of the sins of the kings. The author of Lamentations thinks otherwise. Oh, to be sure, the kings were a sinful bunch (at least all of Israel’s kings were, and a great many of Judah’s). But the author of Lamentations (Jeremiah?) saw through to the real lack of leadership – the spiritual leaders.

Today, especially among conservative pundits, bloggers, and preachers, the entire problem with the United States resides solely in the White House, the Senate and the House of Representatives. Why, if we could just sweep out the mean, nasty, ugly heatherns that are making all those mean, nasty heathern laws, well we could fix up the country just like she should be.

I don’t think God is going to give our political leaders a pass when it comes to morality and the way in which they have led our country. But I think there is another group that is going to get a lot more scrutiny than I think they are going to be comfortable with, and that is all those conservative pundits, bloggers and preachers that are calling for the roof to fall in on all the liberal politicians.

Simply put, the people cannot go where they are not led. And if the so called leaders who are complaining the loudest are not forging a way for the people to follow, then they need to shut up. And if they are forging that path, then they need to shepherd those who are following instead of shooting arrows at the other guys.

Real leadership involves more than just identifying where the other guys are wrong. It means that you have to both teach and live the ideas that you believe are right. Leadership does not mean holding up a wind sock and then going in the direction of the prevailing current. It means setting your course and courageously maintaining that course whether the wind is at your back and the sun is shining brightly or if the wind blowing mercilessly against you and the sun is hidden by the clouds. The one who says, “I will take a poll and whatever my people feel is best, that I will do” is not a leader. That person is a charlatan. That person is a fake. That person is a coward.

Real leadership means standing at the point, and quite often standing alone, to take the arrows from the enemy in front and, quite frequently, arrows from the discontented hiding behind. Leadership is not acquiescing to the whims of the majority, but it is confidently proclaiming the way of truth and safety. Real leadership means that the leader makes demands that might at times cause his or her followers to make sacrifices. Fake leadership promises only blessings and success.

As I view the religious scene in the United States I see a lot of men (and women) who are comfortable in their positions who have done their homework well and know exactly where the winds of popularity are blowing. They know how to play the game of politics with brutal, almost demonic efficiency. They know how to play the fearless general when necessary and they also know when to pull out the robe of the martyred hero when the situation calls for it.

Jeremiah provides the perfect illustration of the concept of Godly leadership in a time of personal unpopularity. He tried desperately, with only minimal and fleeting success, to get the people to hear and accept God’s truth when virtually every power – political and religious – was against him. He may have lost the battle, but we have his story as a lasting tribute to the necessity of having spiritual leaders who are willing to go against the current of modern culture in order to speak the word of God.

English: South façade of the White House, the ...

English: South façade of the White House, the executive mansion of the President of the United States, located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. Español: Fachada sur de la Casa Blanca, la residencia oficial del Presidente de los Estados Unidos, situado en 1600 Avenida Pennsylvania en Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am really growing weary of preachers who stand in the pulpit and declare that the real problem with American resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington D.C. No. That person is just the result of the real problem with America.

The real problem with America stands behind the pulpit every Sunday morning and preaches a false word – a lying deception. The real problem with America is the spiritual leader who refuses first to hear the Word of God, and so refuses to proclaim it. The real problem with America are the so called “conservative” preachers who preach week in and week out “peace, peace” when there is no peace.

If the preachers in the pulpit would lead the people in the pew, then the president on Pennsylvania Ave. would be of no consequence. If our politicians have so much authority in the realm of morality and ethics, exactly whose fault is that?

To Pray or Not to Pray?

"Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Je...

“Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem” by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I interrupt my series outlining my 15 Undeniable Truths For Theological Reflection in order to actually practice some theological reflection.

I have been interested in the response to the recent election results. The response this year was basically that same as it was four years ago, but there is a distinct difference. Four years ago we had no idea how then President-elect Obama would govern. Now we do know.

The response I want to evaluate is the virtually unchallenged concept that as a Christian my duty is to “honor” the president and pray for him. The texts usually referred to are Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17. It is that response that I want to hold up to theological critique.

I want to begin by referring to another set of texts, this time from the prophet Jeremiah. Twice in the book, in 11:14-17 and in 14:11-16 the prophet Jeremiah is specifically told by God not to pray for his people. Now a couple of issues need to be emphasized: God is doing the commanding not to pray, and it is God’s people, not just Jeremiah’s who are the object of the command not to pray. It is important to keep the entire context of the passage in mind, so be sure to read before and after these texts.

What I want to point out is that God is not bound by some legalistic principle that he himself provided through Paul and Peter. And it is a good thing that He is not bound by that principle, or we would be practicing a lot of truly wretched behaviors and we would still be deem them “Christian.”

Take, for a brief example, the Civil Rights movement. If our parents or maybe grandparents held strictly to the “honor the king” principle, the African American race would never have been given the right to vote, or even to use a “white” restroom or drink from a “white” water fountain. If the “honor the king” principle had been inviolate, the movement in South Africa to abolish the practice of Apartheid would never have been successful. If the “honor the king” principle had been inviolate then the German Christians were absolutely correct in bowing the knee to Adolf Hitler and in pursuing his goals. If the “honor the king” principle had been inviolate the mythical “iron curtain” and the very real wall separating East and West Germany would never have been torn down. There are many other examples of civil disobedience leading to a more civilized society that would have simply been impossible had the body politic simply followed the mantra of “honor the king.”

Returning to the passage in Jeremiah. Why, if God was bound by the principle that prayers be uttered for all rulers, would he tell his chosen prophet not to pray for the people and their ruler? If God is God and is therefore beyond self-contradiction, there would seem to be a real issue with this text. Why is God commanding the cessation of prayer?

The answer cannot be derived from a slavish obedience to a generic principle based on texts taken out of context. In a more straight-forward sentence, the answer must be derived theologically.

I do not have time to do a full exegesis of every text that demands consideration here. I simply want to point out some relevant questions. Is Paul saying in Romans and is Peter saying in 1 Peter that a Christian must fully and completely obey every command and edict of his or her ruler? What is the meaning of the word “honor?” Is the command given by Paul and Peter specific to a given time and situation? In other words, would they ever support civil disobedience? If they would not support civil disobedience, explain their subversive work through the work of evangelism, even when they has specifically been told to cease evangelizing. And, returning to the nature of God – did the God of Paul and Peter counter-mand the God of Jeremiah? Do we erase the Jeremiad passage because it was on the other side of the cross? Or is the Christian God the same God that Jeremiah worshipped?

I am writing here to challenge a deeply held conviction. That conviction is that it is the duty of all Christians at all times and in all situations to “honor” their “king” and to pray for them. It would appear to me from just a cursory reading of the biblical story that this kind of reductio is unwarranted. Moses disobeyed Pharaoh. Daniel and his three friends disobeyed their kings. Jesus certainly did not bow the knee to Herod. Paul and the other apostles disobeyed the direct orders of various civil rulers and payed with their lives. I think the history of our world since the conclusion of the inspired texts continues to bear out this conclusion. In times of great spiritual turmoil great men have always stood in opposition to kings and rulers and demanded change. In a beautiful and powerful image, Dietrich Bonhoeffer once stated that it is not enough to simply bandage the wounds of those who have been run over by the wheel. At some point we have to ram a spoke in the wheel and stop it from creating more damage.

In other words, there are times in which a disciple of Christ must simply and abjectly refuse to honor his or her political leaders if by honoring the leader we dishonor God. I do not want to be an alarmist, but I believe President Obama presents the clearest challenge to Christian discipleship than has been faced in this country in many, many generations, and perhaps ever in our history.

Perhaps a solution to this apparent conflict can be reached with a redefinition of the term “honor” and a specific limitation to the purpose of the “prayer” that is to be said on behalf of the ruler. I said “perhaps” because the passages in Jeremiah still exist, and unless one wishes to excise them with a pocket knife (continue reading in the book of Jeremiah), it would be very dangerous to overlook them.

We as Americans in 2012 know how President Obama intends to govern. We know his opinion on abortion, on the use of drugs, on the sanctity of marriage, on the virtually unrestricted use of un-manned but heavily armed drones to kill suspected (but not convicted) terrorists. We know he disparages religion, and has implemented policies that are blatantly anti-Christian. We know he has increased the national debt to a level that is unsustainable, meaning drastic cuts in Federal giveaways (something he is not going to do) or drastic increases in taxation which will only serve to drive the economy back into a recession or a depression. This debt will cripple the economy of our children as well as our grandchildren. We know his desire is to further those policies, and his political appointees are working diligently to achieve his goals.

My question is this: at what point does a disciple of Christ say, “Enough. While I might be able to honor the position, I cannot honor the position holder. While I can pray for God’s intervention, you have made it clear that I cannot pray for your restoration. I must pray for that which is God’s will, and you have proven you have no interest in that Will.”

One more brief comment lest I be accused of overlooking a key insight. It is also through Jeremiah that the people of Israel are told to pray for their captors, the Babylonians (Jeremiah 29:1-23). So here we have yet another fascinating piece to the theological puzzle. Jeremiah is not to pray for the rebellious and idolatrous people of Israel, but the Israelites are to pray for the Babylonians, because at least the Babylonians are obeying their instructions from God.

Does that mean today we should cease to pray for our leaders, and cease to honor those who refuse to honor God, and begin to pray for a nation as yet unnamed, who will do the will of God, and who will eventually overthrow our democracy?

Just thinking out loud here folks. Thinking like Jeremiah. And hoping in many ways that I am utterly and completely wrong.

Towards Developing a Christian World View

The Earth seen from Apollo 17.

The Earth seen from Apollo 17. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I am developing a series of sermons on the topic of developing a Christian world view, and I will be sharing, or working through, some of my thoughts in this space as well. Before I get into the positive aspect of this process I have to do some “splainin” about why I believe we have lost a Christian perspective on life and perhaps some reasons for that loss.

First, it is important to note that a “Christian” world view is not synonymous with a particular time or cultural world view. That is to say an American world view or a Protestant world view or a Post-Modern world view are not the same as a Christian world view. To falsely equate the philosophy of a particular time or place with the timeless mind of Christ is the height of arrogance and stupidity. However, it is virtually impossible for a human to extricate him or herself from his or her cultural surroundings, so within the effort to discover and apply a “Christian” world view one must be extraordinarily careful to be self-critical. If we cannot remove ourself from our time and culture, at least we need to admit that fact before we make any mistaken conclusions.

Next, a world view is not the same as blind allegiance to some code or set of principles. I followed the strict guidelines of the FAA for about 10 years, but I would never have said that I had an “aviation world view.” So, we may obey certain principles, or even laws, of a given church and not come anywhere close to a Christian world view. This can be illustrated in the statement of the rich young ruler when he said that he had kept all of the Mosaic law from his youth, yet he clearly loved his money more than God, thus proving that he violated the very first commandment! (see Luke 18:18-30)

In my use of the term in this context, I am saying that a world view goes far beyond mere acceptance or adherence. In one sense it can be compared to a philosophy, but it even exceeds that. It is trans-philosophical, or in good post-modern lingo, it is meta-philosophical. A world view as I will use the term works like the air we breath. We depend upon it, but we rarely, if ever, notice it. We only consider it if it is fouled (smoky or stagnant) or there is something wrong with our nose or throat. The apostle Paul did not consciously set out to create a “Christian world view,” he simply lived one. So, in a sense, what I am proposing to do is counter-intuitive, but because I fear we no longer have what we claim to have, I believe we need to “clear our air” and either return to, or create, a healthy Christian world view.

Why have we lost a Christian world view? At least in America I would have to say that one of the chief reasons is that for too long we have equated “Americanism” with Christianity. If America did it, it was Christian, because we are a Christian nation. That kind of thinking led us to justify owning slaves, exterminating thousands of Indians and relocating the rest to reservations. That mentality led to some great achievements, to be sure, but it has also led to the acceptance of abortion and the targeted assassination of our political enemies. The Constitution is quoted as much, if not more, than the Bible, and often people do not recognize the difference. The Bible has been wrapped in the American flag, and a Christian world view has been replaced by a distinctly cultural one.

As I work through this process I may return to these thoughts again. In his commission to Jeremiah, the LORD made it clear that there would have to be some “uprooting, tearing down, destroying and overthrowing” before there could be any building and planting. So, according to that math, there needs to be twice as much plowing and furrowing as there is planting. I aim not to destroy critically, but to get to the root of the matter so that I can make the changes in my life that I need to make. If I can help someone else along the way I will count that as an additional blessing.

As always, please feel free to jump in with any thoughts, corrections or ideas.

The Ancient Paths

English: Prophet Jeremiah (Jer. 1:9-10) Русски...

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In my last post I attempted to point out a great failing of some within the American Restoration Movement. That failing is the attempt to move the church forward by focusing only on the past. I hope I made clear that I am no opponent of our history, but I did want to point out the folly of trying to drive forward by staring in the rearview mirror.

Where did that desire to make the present or future perfect by going back to some idyllic past come from? It is partly in our American DNA. We, as a people, have always believed that our country is founded on principles that go all  the way back to a secular “Garden of Eden” as it were. You hear this when you read our Constitution and our Declaration of Independence. We were moving forward by going back to the primitive beginning. The American Restoration Movement, birthed right in the middle of this move to the past, picked up on the language and the fervor of the culture in which it was born. Barton W. Stone and Alexander Campbell, along with a host of others, were simply children of their age, and they did what other children of their ages have done. They used the common language to tell their story and to move their people.

Because the American Restoration Movement was also very much a “Back to the Bible” movement there was also a strong sentiment to do things the way the Bible taught. And so any passage that encouraged a return to a pristine past was especially valuable in the arsenal of these early restorers. Perhaps the most valuable was Jeremiah 6:16:

This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.'” (NIV)

No plainer message could be found to provide ammunition for a return to a pristine, undefiled church. All we had to do was to ask for the “ancient paths” and when we found them to stay right there. Jeremiah 6:16 has become a bedrock passage for the heirs of the Restoration Movement as we seek to restore New Testament Christianity.

But, I have to ask: have we not taken this passage out of context? Or, if not, have we not at the very least mis-interpreted it? Have we not misapplied it?

Notice what the LORD is telling the people through Jeremiah. He is not telling them to return to an ancient place or an ancient time and to stay permanently attached to that place or time. He is telling them to return to the ancient PATHS. A path is not a destination! A path is not the goal. A path is the route to the destination, to the goal. The people were to WALK in the path, to move forward, not back. Time only moves in one direction and that is forward. The paths that they were to choose were ancient, to be sure, but they were paths that were to lead the people to their God.

This point is further made in Jeremiah 18:15:

Yet my people have forgotten me; they burn incense to worthless idols, which made them stumble in their ways and in the ancient paths. They made them walk in bypaths and on roads not built up. (NIV)

When you examine the context of the book of Jeremiah these two passages are perfectly in line with the message the LORD was trying to get the people to hear. God wanted the people to accept their immediate destiny (Jerusalem would fall, the people would go into captivity, but they were to accept this punishment and in 70 years they would be released) and move forward. He was not calling on them to return to some pristine past. Humans just cannot do that. Time does not have a reverse gear. We can, and should, learn from our past. “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” That is an undeniable part of life. (Maybe I will add that to my “Fourteen Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection.”) But we cannot recreate something that existed in another time period in another culture.

I believe the New Testament is full of restorationist language. But it is not a language that calls us to return to a specific time or place. The New Testament writers did not say, “Be like Jerusalem, be like Antioch, be like Ephesus.” The New Testament writers said, “Be like Jesus.” The restoration that the New Testament writers called for is a return to Jesus. Their eyes were set firmly ahead, all the while remembering the message of the past. The Lord’s supper was a remembrance of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus, but it was a proclamation of those events, until he comes (1 Cor. 11:26). The author of the book of Hebrews said, “Here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (Heb. 13:14).

I am an unabashed restorationist. I love the history of the Churches of Christ in America. I believe Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell were geniuses that were centuries ahead of their time. But I fear that in our haste to follow in their footsteps we have made a tactical error. It does us no good to build a mansion where our forefathers pitched their tents. To be a true heir of restorationists is to return to the pure message of the Bible, not a mythical pristine manifestation of the church, no matter whether that manifestation of the church is the first century, the 19th century, or the 1950’s and 1960’s.

Returning to the book of Hebrews, the author called upon his readers/hearers to: “…fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.” (3:1) That is our clarion call for restorationism in the 21st century. Look forward. Look to Jesus. Proclaim his death, burial, and resurrection until he comes again. Make the church become what he wants to find when he returns. The only way to do that is to live in the here and now (the “penultimate” of Dietrich Bonhoeffer) with the vision of the pure bride of Christ firmly in our focus (the “ultimate” as Bonhoeffer would say).

You cannot drive, or fly, by looking in the rearview mirror. Let us renew our commitment to become the living church of Christ for today, not a museum of ancient artifacts of a bygone past.

Jehoiakim’s Knife

Jehoiakim-Eliakim was king of Judah. He was th...

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The writers of the Bible give us a wonderful description of many tools that they used, or that God used through them, in the course of fulfilling his plan. First we might list all the tools Noah used to build his floating zoo. Then there is Aaron’s rod, Moses’ staff, David’s slingshot, Peter James and John’s fishing nets, Paul’s sewing needle, and many, many pens. However, I think the one tool that has been used most frequently by modern Christians is the one that God never intended to be duplicated at all: Jehoiakim’s little knife.

The story, if you want to refresh your memory, is found in Jeremiah 36. I won’t recount the whole story as Jeremiah (or Baruch) does a much better job. But suffice it to say that Jehoiakim did not like what he read in Jeremiah’s prophecy so he cut it up and burned it. Silly king, as if that would stop God. Jeremiah just wrote another copy, and a longer one at that.

As I survey Christianity today in all of its various models and permutations there are several things that truly disturb me. One is the obvious division.  Like the apostle Paul, I would assume some division is necessary, because what some people call Christianity is clearly anything but, and true disciples must stand firm on revealed truth. But most of the divisions within Christianity are just plain personality issues. The second thing that bothers me about the church today is this absurd desire to cut huge swaths of Scripture from the canon simply because it does not correspond so someone’s perception of reality. Jehoiakim’s knife is in just about everyone’s hand these days.

Name a current hot-button issue in the church and tell me that there is not wholesale biblical deconstruction going on: sexuality (including, but not limited to homosexuality), leadership roles in the church, worship practices, baptism, the Lord’s Supper, even deciding which translation of the Bible is to be read! If every debated or “unapproved” Scripture was cut out of the Bible what would we be left with? Don’t tell me John 3:16, because it calls Jesus the Son of God, and that will just not make the feminists happy at all. Too bad John didn’t just say “child.” But then, the anti-blood atonement folks would just pop a cork because of all the divine child abuse issues that raises. Huge sigh. If we cannot even agree on the translation of a Greek word I do not have a whole lot of optimism that we can solve the division problem.

Every week as I prepare a message from God’s word I am struck with a truth that is both beyond understanding and also immensely comforting. God is bigger than we are. God’s word is bigger and deeper than our human minds can fully comprehend. Revelation is God-given, not man created. That means there are paradoxes and ambiguities in the written word of God that I do not have to fully understand, indeed I probably will never be able to understand. God did not give us a text-book, he gave us a record of his divine intention so that we might believe and love Him and ultimately the One whom he sent. Faith precedes and exceeds knowledge. We can believe our way into knowing, but only in the most extreme cases can we know our way into believing.

That truth speaks volumes about our seeming unending desire to cut the Bible down to a size that is comfortable to us. And I speak in the plural here, as I have to admit my own blind spots (refer to my 14 Undeniable Truths of Theological Reflection, #1). I cannot tell of the times I have become absolutely convinced of the correctness of my interpretation of a passage of Scripture, only to find other passages which not only question my “assured results of modern scholarship,” but sometimes flatly reject it. God’s word truly is “living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb. 4:12). Here I have a lousy little pen knife in my hand and I think I’m so powerful. What is my knife in the sight of God’s living sword?

Jehoiakim thought he was destroying the words of Jeremiah. In actuality all he was doing was preparing a path for a renewed and even deeper word from the prophet. Many well-intentioned interpreters of Scripture think they are improving on or enriching the word of God by removing passages they do not like. God’s word is bigger than they are, and at some point he will cause his word to have its desired effect (Isa. 55:10-11).

God gave us a lot of tools to use – hammers and saws and shepherds crooks and slingshots and fishing nets and sewing needles and writing pens. Why are we so driven to use that filthy, worthless knife?

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