Its a funny thing – a substance can either be the best thing in the world for what ails you, or it can kill you. I heard of a speaker one time who wanted to illustrate this point. He wanted to warn his audience of the dangers of di-hydrous oxide. Not only to warn his audience, but to actually drive them to take immediate action against this silent killer. Millions died from di-hydrous oxide poisoning every year, millions more were damaged to some degree. What was worse, di-hydrous oxide was everywhere! He had his statistics, he had his anecdotes, he had his impassioned pleas. After working his audience into a froth, he then called on them to eliminate the pernicious evil of di-hydrous oxide from their midst. There was nary a soul agin’ his proposal – but they did have one question – what exactly was di-hydrous oxide? Water. Plain and simple water. Two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. Pure poison, that stuff, if used in extreme amounts. Except, we can’t live without it, when taken appropriately.
What can be a prescription for health can also kill. Even that which is necessary for life can kill, if it is applied in incorrect amounts. That which is blatantly obvious in the medical world is also just as equally true in the political and spiritual world, although perhaps not quite so obvious.
For just a slight digression, I think of the concepts of grace and faith. Two of the pillars of the Reformation were the twin concepts of grace only and faith only. That is, sinners are saved by grace only through faith only. Can you preach or teach too much grace, or too much faith? Well, not to get anyone’s underwear tied up in a knot, but yes you can. The idea of grace which is taught beyond what is demonstrated in Scripture becomes universalism – everyone is saved regardless of beliefs or behavior. Clearly, Scripture teaches that God abounds in grace, and that we are saved through that over-abundance of grace (Ephesians, anybody?). But, scripturally speaking, even grace has its limits. Same with faith: faith pushed beyond its scriptural limits is the enemy of faith itself (just exactly what James explained!). This is why Martin Luther was right to stress grace and faith, but wrong to include the word “only.” Yes, we are saved by grace (anyone who wants to deny that has not read Paul’s letters), and yes we are saved by faith. But grace is limited by God’s righteous judgement (he will condemn evil!), and faith must be demonstrated through righteous behavior. I now return to my previous thoughts, already in progress . . .
The prescription I am thinking of today is the idea of individualism. Taken in the right percentage, individualism is a good thing – a healthy thing. Take too much though and individualism becomes a noxious, deadly poison.
The idea of individual rights and freedoms is one of the concepts that has made the United States so great. I would not want to leave any other place than the good old U. S. of A., and the freedom we have entrenched in the Bill of Rights is one of the main reasons I can make that statement. What other nation, or what other culture, has created the space for so many people to achieve their goals, dreams, and even fantasies? What other nation, or what other culture, tells everyone, regardless of race, gender, or other identifiable characteristic, that he or she can become anything that person wants or dreams about? It is true that opportunities for success are not always equal, but such inequalities are not systemic in the type of a caste or hierarchical system. In America we not only protect individual rights, we also promote individual industriousness and creativity.
However, that individualism has taken a decisively bitter turn. That which was healthy has now become toxic. Increasingly, the twisted ideations of a few individuals are overwhelming the rights and protections of the community. Individualism has run amok. The engine that has created so much good has now jumped the tracks, and the carnage that it will leave in its wake will be devastating – if we do not stop it somehow.
What is true in the political/social world is also true in the church. The concept that every person, each individual, can read and understand the Bible for him or her self should be self-evident (pardon the pun). However, taken to an extreme, that radical individualism is actually destroying the community of the faithful. The primary unit of faith in the Old Testament was not the individual, it was the qahal, the community, the people of God. In the New Testament the individual was not the primary unit of faith, it was the ekklesia, the community, the people of God. Individuals had value as a part of the whole – as a part of the community. Today, the community (the church) is only considered a by-product of our rabid individualism. If we do not like what our present community (that we selected because of our individual preferences to begin with) says, we simply leave and find a community more favorable to what we want. We have the cart in front of the horse, and we cannot figure out why we are not moving anywhere.
A friend and I were discussing this issue recently in the context of the value of a higher education. Our extreme attachment to “rugged individualism” has fostered a distrust, and sometimes even an active dislike, of higher education. How often have you heard (or said) the comment, “I don’t need those silly commentaries or study books- they’re just written by a bunch of ivory-towered egg-heads. All I need is my Bible.” Toxic individualism at its worst.
The fact is, we desperately need those silly commentaries and study books written by those ivory-towered egg-heads. It is those ivory-towered egg-heads that translated our Bibles into English in the first place – and then helped us understand all of the bizarre and often opaque words, ideas, practices, and concepts that we find in the pages of the Bible.
In short – we need our community of scholars to save us from our toxic individualism. Left to our own inclinations we will interpret the Bible to mean exactly what we want it to mean. The hundreds, if not thousands, of different “churches” in the United States is all the evidence I need to prove that point. The vast community of scholars (egg-heads) we have available to us keeps us from doing that – they hold our feet to the fire and make us wrestle with centuries of other voices. Sometimes these voices are not correct in what they say – but they often challenge and correct our false understandings as well.
I do not put my faith in those “silly commentaries.” I want to obey only the Word of God. But I am a stronger Christian when I stand in community than when I stand alone – and this is no place more true than in my interpretation of Scripture.
Jaroslav Pelikan wrote what has become the defining understanding of the value of hearing other voices: “Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living. And, I suppose I should add, it is traditionalism that gives tradition such a bad name.”
Traditionalism is the end result of unchecked, poisonous individualism. I want to, and I hope I do, teach the living faith of tradition.
A strange question crossed my mind this morning – what situations demand a verbal (or written) response and what situations are helped far more effectively with the deafening sound of silence? I think that most biblically literate people are aware of the dialectic illustrated in the seemingly contradictory teachings of Proverbs 26:4-5. Sometimes you shut your mouth, sometimes you shut the mouth of your opponent. But, how do you make that determination? When is a word aptly chosen to be like an apple in settings of silver, and when is silence to be golden?
I’ve wrestled with this question quite bit lately. I have witnessed some fairly egregious mistakes both in logic and in interpretation, and have (amazingly, for me) managed to keep my mouth shut. For someone who spends significantly more time with his foot in his mouth, I have been pretty proud of myself for my self-restraint. That is, until I feel guilty for letting somebody think he/she has won an argument when all they have really done is to advertise their ignorance. So, I come back to my conundrum – speak up and risk all kinds of negative fallout, or keep silent and risk the opposite, but equal fallout? I do not think I will ever really know for sure, but this is what I have learned in my ever-increasing but not excessively-long sojourn on this earth: It is far better to keep your mouth shut –
When you are not absolutely certain of your facts, or of your discernment of those facts.
There is a difference between knowing something to be true, and knowing beyond any question that said fact is true. I cannot tell you how many times I have offered an absolutely certain-to-be-true assessment of a situation, only to be utterly chagrined that what I thought was true really was not as true as I thought it was. Even if we would be correct about a situation if our discernment of that situation were to be infallible, it can still be wrong if we have missed an important detail. Solution: keep your mouth closed unless you know what you are saying is irrefutably true.
When speaking up would cause more confusion, or hurt feelings, than remaining silent.
I call this “Speaking the truth wearing army boots.” This is speaking the “truth” with a scorched earth policy in mind. “Go ahead and swing the axe and let the chips fall where they may.” How many marriages, families, and churches have been destroyed with such good intentions in mind? You may be right. You may be absolutely right. Keep your mouth shut anyway.
When speaking up simply does more to give validity to your opponent than it does to challenge them.
Believe it or not, some people, and their arguments, just do not need to be refuted – they are self-refuting. None of God’s inspired spokesmen set out to refute every single false teaching. “Have no other gods before me” is a whole lot easier to say than specifically eliminating all eleventy-million different idols that humans have invented. By specifically attempting to individually refute certain teachers (and/or their teachings) we give them far more significance than they are worth. Obviously some opponents do need to be singled out (and Paul and John do a pretty good job with a couple of rabble-rousers), but it is better to keep our powder dry for when we really need to use it, than to go “heretic hunting” and waste valuable time and energy on people and issues that ultimately mean nothing.
When speaking up is ultimately more about showing off your (real or imagined) expertise on the subject under discussion.
I read a book review recently concerning a book that I had just finished. I did not have that high of an opinion about the book, and I was wondering if I was alone in my response. I came across a phrase that made me laugh out loud, and it has become a favorite expression of mine in regard to certain preacher/authors: “(fill in the blank) sure likes to hear himself type.” I have to admit that one stings a little, because I think it is too often true of what I say (or type). I will try to do better, and only tap out what needs to be tapped out.
So, I doubt I have answered the question – but maybe I will print out this post and keep it handy – just in case I get an itchy tongue (or finger to type) something when I just should really keep my mouth shut.
Our culture has lost a great treasure. It did not happen quickly – in fact it has taken a couple of generations to completely disappear. Sadly, although the church should have been the caretaker of this precious commodity, we are complicit in its disappearance. What is it that has become for the majority of Americans a distant memory? Silence – the gift of utter and complete emptiness. The ability to be filled with the glorious sense of quiet.
Our world is dominated with noise – but not just any kind of noise. Our world is filled with the noise of words. From the time our alarm clock goes off in the morning until we finally collapse exhausted in our beds at night we are drowning in a toxic quagmire of words. Many of these words are verbalized, either in the form of speech or songs. Perhaps even a greater number of these words are printed – showing up on billboards, on posters, in newspapers and magazines, and always present on our computers, tablets and phones. We exist in a stagnant, putrefying, poisonous ocean of words.
The irony is that as you read this, you are reading . . . words! Christians gather on Sunday mornings to sing songs of praise to our God. We collectively lift up prayers to God. We expect, even crave, to hear words of encouragement from the eternal Word of God. I want to suggest, however, that none of these words will have any significance at all if we do not enter into our worship (either solitary or collective) out of the purifying quality of silence.
Before there was anything, before there was even time, there was God, and – silence. God spoke his first creative word out of the creative silence. In John’s mystifying vision of the future, amidst all the praise and worship that constantly surrounds the throne of God, there is the sound of awe inspiring silence. In order to hear God’s voice, there must first be silence!
Most westerners (Europe, England, the Americas) are terrified of silence. We do not understand those “mystical” people from the East who can sit for hours – alone or in a group – and do or say nothing. We even shy away from enclaves of silence within our own noisy culture, the Amish and the Mennonites and the Quakers, and those weird monastics. We may admire them from a distance, but we hope that we never catch their disease of quietness. Sad thing, really. Why are we so afraid to be silent, unless we are afraid to hear . . . God?
One question I hear almost constantly today is, “How could the United States fall so far from its founding principles is such a short period of time?” I’m sure that many answers could be given. I think, however, all the answers have a common root. I believe we have lost that fundamental ability – and necessity – to “Be still (silent) and know that I am God.” (Ps. 46:10)
Here is a crazy idea: inoculate yourself with 30 minutes of silence every day, and see how much more clearly you can hear the voice of your God.
I’m not sure exactly the time, but I can remember the speaker and the place. The speaker was Jim McGuiggan, and the place was Harding University. We had traveled to Searcy to listen to Jim speak at a youth event hosted by Harding. The quote has stayed with me for all these years, and it just seems to get more appropriate with each passing year.
I’m not even sure what Jim’s overall message was that afternoon, but at some point in the lesson he said, “We live in a bent and broken world.” Now, you have to hear that phrase through Jim’s measured cadence and thick Irish brogue for it to have its full effect. I think he might be the only person I know who could get two syllables out of the word “bent.” The phrase grabbed me, and has been a part of my preaching and teaching since that day.
It should not even be debated that we live in a bent and broken world. It has been ever since Adam and Eve took a bite out of that fruit. It became even more bent and broken when Cain killed his brother. I was reminded just how bent and broken the world was (and remains) when I pointed out to my Old Testament class that Moab (Moabites) and Ben-Ammi (Ammonites) were sons born of incest and the class almost had a collective heart attack. We are bent and broken now – and we have been bent and broken since the fall.
It would also seem to be beyond doubt that the major concern of the church today would be to heal this bentness and brokenness. I mean, would it not make sense that the church, which is the body of Christ on earth, should want to bring people to the great physician so that he can restore them to health and wholeness? Sadly, I just do not see that happening to any great extent today.
I see a large portion of the church simply turning blind eye to that which bends and breaks humans today. Worse than that, this faction of the church actively promotes that which bends and breaks humans. “Don’t worry, be happy” is the mantra. “You’re okay, don’t feel guilty – the only sin worth forgiving is the sin of feeling guilty – and you are forgiven!” Just like a hot air balloon that floats gently on the prevailing winds, this “church” simply coasts along, never even once suggesting, or even recognizing, that the winds of culture might just be carrying their members right into a disaster from which there will be no escape.
Conversely, there are those who look upon those who are bent and broken – and curse them. Not in so many words, mind you, just with their attitudes and sniffling high-minded prescriptions. Just like the Pharisees to whom Jesus spoke, these folks are long on solutions and amazingly short on assistance. “So, you are naked and hungry – why don’t you get dressed and eat some supper.” Or, in biblical terms, “Be warm and filled.” Some things never change.
Part of being human after the fall is recognizing that we are all, every one of us, bent and broken. We all share in the human predicament. But that does not mean we have to promote it, or refuse to help those who seek to climb out of the muck and mire of their squalid conditions. And it certainly does not mean that we have the right to condemn those that we feel are beneath our station (how did we make that decision, anyway??). No, we live in a bent and broken world. We must accept that fact that if we are healed, we are called to be healers and share in the healing of this world. We have to call sin, “sin,” and we have to name that which is destroying our world. But we must always remember that we are “wounded healers” (to steal Henri Nouwen’s beautiful phrase).
If I am anything in this world, I am a wounded healer. I am bent and broken, too. I believe I have been washed in the blood of the Lamb, but that does not mean I do not walk with a limp, and carry a few scars. Knowing that, I can share with others how I met the Healer. That, I believe, is the role of the church. We must confront that which bends and breaks the human soul. We can no longer make excuses for this toxic culture. We must not, however, shoot those who are wounded. Let us bring them to the one who will make them whole. Let us be what we claim to be – the hands and feet of Christ.
My daily Bible reading and devotional thought gave me quite a jolt today – but hopefully in a good way. I was reminded, once again, of how many different ways we as humans attempt to justify our existence by our awards, achievements, and accomplishments – the stuff of resumes. And, I was reminded of how virtually all of that striving is utterly rejected in the Kingdom of God.
That truth is especially meaningful to me as I survey the contemporary “postmodern” church scene. Scores of articles and research tools have been published informing church leaders how they are to modify their efforts in order to win and keep this or that generation of believers. The entire message can be encapsulated in the dictum that numbers mean everything, and if you are not growing you are not successful, you are just not “doing” church right. So we have to “re-imagine” church, or re-define church, or whatever the latest poll or survey says we need to do.
Preachers are especially vulnerable to this siren song. Perhaps it has always been this way, but is is clearly true today. Young men look to the trend setting churches and dream of preaching at such a “successful” church. Small congregations that do nothing but stay faithful to the gospel are not even given a second glance. Maybe one day they will be invited to speak at their favorite lectureship. You have to be a “senior” minister at a mega-church for that to happen, though. No “small congregation” ministers need apply. A church that is looking to hire a preacher demands “proven” success in evangelism and church growth. Lists upon lists are given as to what a preacher is to “do,” but very little about what he is supposed to “be.” Job descriptions can run multiple pages long. Sadly, many of the items listed could also describe a “community organizer.” Very, very few items pertain to the gifts of the Spirit.
Somewhere lost in all the search for praise and acclamation is the message of the towel and basin. Jesus gave the greatest lesson on leadership this world has ever witnessed, and he did it without a word. He took a towel, and a water basin, and washed his disciples’ feet. In the Kingdom of God, leaders are defined by service, not by stature. In the Kingdom, we descend upwards. The last will be first, the least shall be greatest.
This morning, I needed to hear a message from God’s word, and it was given to me:
In the Kingdom of God, we will be judged not by fame, but by faithfulness.
I had a strange dream last night . . .
It appeared that I was summoned as a visitor to a sublime and dreadful courtroom scene. A preacher (whom I recognized, but will not identify to protect his guilt or innocence) sat forlornly at the defense table, while the prosecutor’s table was empty. Instead of one judge, there were a number of men, dressed in strange robes that resembled bedouin clothing more than that of modern judges. The gallery, of which I was a small part, was quiet – acting almost fearful, as if we were not really wanting to watch the events that would unfold before us.
The heavy tone of the room was broken when one of the judges cleared his throat and spoke. “Mr. __________, you have been summoned to stand before this tribunal before your death, rather than following your death, for a very special reason. Your record of service in the name of the one who sits on my left is impeccable. You have devoted the better part of your life to promoting the good name of Jesus and furthering his church. However, it was determined that you have recently become guilty of hypocrisy, and of a type that borders on treason against the kingdom. You will now stand and respond to our questions, for the purpose of ascertaining whether you will be returned to earth to continue your mission, or if you are to be removed from an earthly life altogether. Let us proceed . . . ”
Another of the judges spoke. “Mr. ___________, for the record, let us clarify. When you began your ministry, you professed to speak only of things spoken by Jesus, and written by myself and my partners on this tribunal, is that not correct?”
The preacher, pale and quivering, nodded and mumbled a quiet “yes.” Apparently he was aware of the identity of his interlocutors, although their specific identity was still hidden to the rest of us.
“Thank you.” Replied the second speaker. “Now, based on that confession, we have some questions we would like to pose to you to determine if, indeed, you have been faithful to that promise.”
“Is it not true” spoke a third judge “that as a young minister you spoke often and lovingly about the need to openly identify the Lord’s church through clear references to his name, or title?” “Yes, I did” replied the accused. “Then, why, here in these later years, have you chosen to identify your assembly as “_________________”? (name redacted for privacy reasons). “Well, it became obvious to me that by using the name under which I was first serving, that many people were put off, and refused to give my message any hearing. I wanted to lead as many as I could to my Lord, so I had to change the name on the building in order so as not to offend.”
At this comment the character seated in the middle of the group of judges raised his eyebrows, but remained silent.
“Let it be entered into the record that the accused withdrew any reference to the name or title of our Lord because such a reference was embarrassing and he believed it to be a negative influence” spoke the third judge. The other judges nodded in agreement, “So be it.”
The second judge once again spoke. “Mr. _________, you have stated many times in your early ministry that the record we who are seated before you must be listened to wholeheartedly, and obeyed faithfully, is that not true?” Another nod of the head and a mumbled “yes.” “Then, your proclamations in these later years are very troublesome. Just to name a few – you caused a serious defection in your congregation when you insisted the addition of practices into the worship service which are clearly not present in our writings, and you openly ridiculed certain other practices which are clearly given. You devalued the leadership qualities of men while encouraging women to step outside of their blessed and holy giftedness. You have even gone so far as to recently suggest that marriage vows can be exchanged between members of the same sex, provided those vows remain faithful. How do you answer?”
“That is easy,” the preacher said tremulously. “Modern scholarship has unequivocally determined that many words attributed to my esteemed judges did not, in fact, come from your pens. As a faithful minister I could not preach what was not the word of God. I could not continue to promote a false and dehumanizing gospel. Once that veil was lifted from my eyes, how could I return to chauvinistic and homophobic traditions?”
The gasps from the gallery drowned out the whispered conversations among the judges. The first judge rapped the bench with his gavel, ordering silence.
“So, Mr. ____________, are you telling these judges that the accumulated wisdom of over 2,000 years has been ‘unequivocally’ overturned by your ‘modern scholarship?” A quiet wave of laughter spread through the gallery. The preacher did not answer, but dropped his eyes. We in the gallery could see his face turning red.
The third judge who had spoken earlier resumed the questioning. “Mr. ____________, these are serious allegations, but throughout the history of the church on earth, many similar serious issues have plagued the Lord’s people. God’s grace is certainly able to cover a multitude of misunderstandings – but we are not here to issue your final judgment, only to determine your fitness to return to your ministry. Far more troubling are some of your more recent lectures regarding the very nature of our Lord’s saving sacrifice.”
A fourth judge now entered the conversation. “Mr. ____________, your declaration to speak only the words of Jesus has been duly noted. Yet, you have repeatedly and clearly stated in recent sermons that the sign of solidarity with our Lord is no longer a necessary act of obedience to him. Baptism into our Lord’s death, a symbolic lowering into his grave, and a triumphant resurrection from that grave is, to quote your most recent offering, ‘something that is beneficial for the life of the believer, but cannot be made a requirement for salvation.’ Do I quote you accurately?”
Once again the preacher said, “yes,” but his mood had changed. Rather than meek submission, he was growing irritated with the line of questioning, and his ire was beginning to show. “Listen, I learned from my conversations with people from many different churches and even different religions that there are a lot of wonderful people out there, people who do not believe in baptism, but believe in Jesus. People who are good, moral, upstanding individuals with whom I could not find anything to question. Once again, I could not find any words that were clearly written by you all that would keep those people out of heaven.”
Finally the character in the middle of the group of judges raised his voice, along with his arched eyebrows. “I must disagree – for did not my inspired apostles record my very specific words, ‘Whoever believes and is baptized shall be saved”? Did not my inspired apostles speak clearly and repeatedly throughout my new covenant about the sacredness and importance of the new birth into my blood and resurrection? Did not my apostles make it clear that there are most decidedly two groups of individuals, one who trusts in my words of promise and obeys my commands, and one who because of willful rebellion refuses to accept my authority and/or my clear instructions?”
As the final words were fading into the background, a thick and heavy silence fell upon all the assembled – far more thick and heavy than was at first.
After what seemed like hours, but what could have only been a few minutes, the first judge spoke once again. “Mr. ________, you have been accused of hypocrisy and actions that are treasonous to the church that you have pledged your life.”
“It is the decision of this court that . . . ”
Just as suddenly and mysteriously as my dream started, it came to a terrifying end. What was the verdict? What would happen to this well known and popular preacher? Would he be allowed to return and continue his ministry? Would he be sent back to correct his errors? And why was I given this privy information?
“What we have here is a failure to communicate.”
Rest assured, brothers and sisters, the failure does not lie with the source.
I will not go to sleep comfortably any time soon . . .
Yesterday I shared how I almost came to hate the guitar – something that for virtually all of my life I have loved. I focused on how my instructors (who were undoubtedly good people, and who only had the best intentions, I am sure) almost drove my love of the instrument from me. I drew the conclusion that as teachers we have a tremendous burden, and responsibility, not to kill our student’s love of the Bible by promoting our own agendas. Today I want to look at the equal but opposite issue of a lack of desire and love of the Bible by many who would consider themselves faithful Christians.
Now, right of the bat I want to explain that I KNOW we are not supposed to worship or venerate the Bible. It is the word of God that points us to the Word of God – we are to love and worship God and his Son, not the message that teaches us about God and his Son. However, just as a musician loves the piece of paper that contains the notes that he or she will eventually transform into a glorious piece of music, so too we must love the medium that leads us to the author of our faith. And, for Christians, that medium is the Bible.
I understand my observations here are largely anecdotal, but in my half-century or so in observing the church I have noticed a decline in the interest in serious Bible study. I believe there are several reasons for this decline – some more understandable than others, but real never-the-less:
- As I mentioned yesterday, I believe bad teachers drive a love of Bible study away from us. On the one hand are teachers that make it sound like they, and they alone, can climb Mt. Biblius, the great peak from which all spiritual wisdom is obtained. Only they can see the great truths of the subject at hand (which makes we wonder if that truth is even there, but that is another story). Everyone else in the class is just plain ignorant, and this teacher communicates that feeling in a number of verbal and non-verbal ways. On the other hand is the teacher who never comes to class prepared, quickly reads over the class text about 10 minutes before class starts, and then “teaches” a class that revolves around reading one verse at a time, and then asking that most penetrating of questions, “What do you think [insert author here] meant when he wrote that?” Brilliant discussion question, that.
- There is a pervading sense of anti-intellectualism among Christians, and I have especially seen and heard that mentality expressed among members of the Churches of Christ. It is almost as if class members prefer their teacher to be uneducated – that way if they say something that is incorrect (or even incomprehensible) they cannot be corrected. There is something intimidating about being the presence of someone who can answer virtually any question you throw at them, and when it comes to questions of religion, sometimes we do not want all our questions answered or statements evaluated. I find that this is ONLY in regard to the Bible, as NO ONE wants a surgeon who barely squeaked by with C’s or D’s on his transcript, or a lawyer that passed the bar exam on his 10th try by answering one question correct more than the minimum needed to pass. We want the best surgeons to open our bodies, the best lawyers to argue our cases, the best pilots to fly our airplanes; I would suggest we need to demand the best Bible teachers as well.
- With regard to full time ministers, we do not allow for the kind of study required to actually teach a Bible class. If uncle Bob goes in for a 6 hour surgery, we expect Bro. Jones to sit with the family in the waiting room for every minute of those 6 hours. Plus there is the Kiwanis Club meeting, the luncheon at the Senior Center, 15 absentees to visit and cajole, and the ever-present high school football game or drama presentation. Between phone calls and “drop-in” visits, the average preacher gets to spend maybe an hour or so on his Bible class lesson (the rest of his non-existent preparation time is devoted to his sermon or sermons). With our demands on his time, we are in effect telling the minister – “Hey, we really do not want in-depth Bible lessons – just give us the warmed-over re-runs from some lesson you prepared in the past. We are not going to remember what you say 15 minutes after class anyway, so why spend so much time preparing your lesson?”
And that leads me to my final point – and the bookend to my last post. Many preachers and teachers can get by with teaching pabulum simply because the audience does not care. In their mind they can check the box that says “Attended Bible Study” and that is all that matters. The actual content is inconsequential, and actually if the teacher makes demands of time and mental acuity, the response is emphatically negative. How dare the teacher demand that the students actually buy a study book? How dare the teacher demand that the student perform homework? How dare the teacher expect that the text for the lesson be read and studied before the class period begins? How dare the teacher expect that the student actually does something with the lesson (like put it into concrete, identifiable, practices)?
I stated yesterday, and I firmly believe, that teachers bear a tremendous burden. That burden is to nurture and support the love of learning that a student brings to a Bible class. It may be ugly, it may be messy, it may not fit the “technique” that a teacher has in mind, but the goal of education is the transformation of a life, and if a student comes wanting to learn, the teacher must find a way to help that student learn.
But there are some things a teacher cannot do – and chief among them is to create that love of learning. I have stood, Sunday after Sunday, in front of a class of uninterested, uncaring, and unmotivated church members whose only purpose in being present is to fulfill a legal requirement. They do not want to to be challenged in any way – mentally or physically. They verbally say “We are here for Bible study” but their hearts are far from God. (See Isaiah 29:13-14; Proverbs 17:16) They sit with glazed-over eyes, or they trim their finger nails, or they fumble absentmindedly with some object they happened to have discovered on the pew or in their pocket.
Bad teachers are responsible for a number of sins. But when we as God’s children do not demand high-quality, serious Bible study, we should not be critical when we get the kind of lessons that put us to sleep and kill whatever interest there might have been in any kind of profitable Bible study.
I mentioned yesterday that the Bible is accessible – it can be mastered, though not in the sense that we can know everything about it or can answer every question that can be posed to us. But every part of the Bible can be taught, and can be understood, if the heart to learn and the heart to teach are both there.
God, give us a heart to learn! And, God, give us teachers who will not quit until our thirst for learning exceeds their thirst for teaching!
There has been an incredible uproar (pardon the pun) over the killing of a beloved black-maned lion, Cecil. Actually, Cecil was not just killed – he was lured to his death from a safe game preserve, then shot with a bow and arrow. He suffered for 40 hours before the poachers managed to find him and finish the kill with a rifle. The supposed “hunter” was a rich American who paid $50,000 for the privilege to “hunt” a lion. This was not a hunt. This was an act of barbarism.
What has upset many others is that there appears to be more people upset over the killing of Cecil than the revelation that Planned Parenthood sells the harvested parts of aborted babies to medical labs and transplant clinics. The logic is that an unborn child is of far greater value than an African lion, so why are people not more upset over abortion? I am not sure that question is valid. I do strongly believe a human life is more valuable than that of a wild animal. But I also have a somewhat different take on the difference between the reaction to the killing of Cecil and the Planned Parenthood fiasco.
I think the two are actually related, and the furor over the killing of Cecil points to a fundamental crisis of the human spirit that is also demonstrated through abortion.
The killing of Cecil is so raw – so blatant, and the greed of the killers is so easy to spot. The greed of the abortionists is more obscure (indeed, to listen to their defenders, it does not even exist!). But there is another commonality between the lion poachers and the abortionists: arrogance.
What is it about a man who would pay $50,000 to kill an animal? Conservationism? Give me a break. If you want to preserve wild animals, you could donate the $50,000 to an animal preserve and take a picture. No – these people (and there are more than you might think, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, and because the have the right equipment, and because they have the “right” to kill an animal, that those things justify these supposed “hunts.” What is it about those who believe it is perfectly acceptable to kill an unborn child? These people (once again, of both sexes) believe that because they have the money, the technology, and because the Supreme Court has discovered the “right” for them to take the lives of these unborn children, that they are justified in their murderous actions.
In both situations the commonality is arrogance – the same arrogance that was on display in the Garden of Eden and is on display every time we as humans decide that we are smarter than God. It is rebellion against God’s will. In the words of the Word of God – it is sin. And sin, whether the poaching of a majestic lion or the murder of an unborn child, has its root in the heart of the human being. We wantonly destroy because we believe we are gods, or perhaps that we are better than gods.
There was, and is, no excuse for the poaching of Cecil. I was sickened as I read the story. I hope the individual responsible for this travesty is held accountable in some form or fashion, and that the process of these “trophy hunts” is ended. I am equally sickened by the actions of Planned Parenthood. I would like to see all abortionists punished for the murders they commit. I do not have to choose between outrage over one or the other. Both reveal the depths of the emptiness of the human soul. When we decide that our ability to destroy God’s creation (for no other reason than to magnify our own importance) is more important than our responsibility to protect and maintain that creation, it does not matter whether the life is human or not. Once again, I am not saying the life of a lion is equal to the life of a human being. That would certainly not be biblical or moral. What I am saying is the disregard for God’s creation is equal in both situations.
As I know many hunters, and have hunted big game myself, I feel I must draw a distinction between fairly hunting for food and what these “trophy” hunts project. Many thousands of honest hunters harvest what God has given to man in order to eat what they harvest, and also to manage game herds and bird populations. This is what I refer to as “husbanding” or nurturing God’s creation. Paying $50,000 to kill an animal that is lured to you is not a hunt, it is not husbanding God’s creation – it is killing for the sake of seeing an animal die. There is no justification for such action. That people even attempt to defend this shooter disappoints me.
Just a thought for those who think that we can give the poacher a pass while focusing entirely on the abortionists – until we come to the realization that ALL of God’s creation is our responsibility to protect, we will NEVER be able to effectively end the scourge of abortion. In other words, we are going to have to come to grips with what God told Adam in Genesis 1:26-31 – God’s very first command to humankind. If we are to have dominion over God’s creation, we must humble ourselves and recognize that it is God’s creation, he created it to be good, and we are not permitted to destroy it for our own selfish, arrogant, desires.
I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.
First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.
Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.
Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.
This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.
As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.
And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human. The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.