Archive for January, 2020

Cheap Peace

January 14, 2020

A great little read here on a critic of how the mindfulness movement has been co-opted by corporate interests.  I find it interesting how mindfulness is always introduced as an alternative.  But an alternative for what?  I’m sure drugs and other chemical therapies are here meant, but I’d also argue prayer and Christian faith being displaced as other means for dealing with difficult things in life.

This article also helps highlight a confusion many  Christians (and non-Christians) likely have – which is that meditation and mindfulness are essentially Christian ideals and practices as well.  I maintain they aren’t.  There are similarities  of course, but the practice of meditation and mindfulness comes from Buddhism, which has a very different understanding of the individual in the context of larger reality than Christianity.

Christians pray.  Meditation in the Christian faith is not understood (historically) as an emptying of the self but rather as focused on some specific thing – Scripture, for instance.  And of course Buddhism centers around a non-personal ultimate power or force as opposed to Christianity’s very, very personal Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Mindfulness and meditation is not neutral, as the article makes clear.  In order to try and present it as such it was necessary to try and blur, obscure, or remove these connections, but at that point it begins to become something very different, something which can be manipulated by large interests.

The article points to mindfulness’ entry into therapeutic treatment at the end of the 70’s and early 80’s, but it entered our cultural awareness almost 20 years earlier through the missionary work of celebrities and artists like the Beatles.  It took time to erase or hide those explicit, religious, Eastern connections for adoption by doctors and therapists and educators, but that was always the goal.

The reality is that what we believe about ourselves and reality matters.  After 30+ years of therapeutic mindfulness, studies as a whole continue to show us ever more increasingly woefully unable to deal with reality.  Moments of silence in schools are not a sense of one’s place in the cosmos as the creation of a loving God with not just a past and a present but a very long and bright future.

As a therapy, mindfulness seems to be failing.  And until our culture is able to see this and accept it and look further back for a reason why things are so different today than they were 70 years ago, we aren’t going to start healing.  If we are indeed creatures – creations rather than accidents of chance – we need a proper grounding in a relationship with our Creator, and nothing short of this can provide the healing our culture is so desperately crying out for.

Jesus & Me – or Me & Jesus?

January 13, 2020

Here’s a short article referring to a new book by a French photographer chronicling unusual expressions of Christianity in America  (Be warned, if you scroll through the photos associated with this article #7 contains nudity).  The premise is these are all examples of niche-marketing the Christian faith to the increasing number of  self-described unaffiliated Christians – those without attachment to any particular Christian denomination, group or sect but who still describe themselves as Christian.

I’d argue that including the Ark Encounter seems misplaced here, but perhaps from someone outside of our culture the distinction is harder to recognize (or perhaps it’s a distinction less pronounced than I think it is or should be?).  The other examples seem to be another demonstration of personal lifestyle preferences driving theology, rather than the other way around.  Rather than being conformed to Christ, we are instead encouraged to conform to nobody other than ourselves, and Christ, we are assured, will be happy to conform to us.

Problematic, to say the least.  But hardly surprising.  Traditional denominations and Christian groups have fostered this for some time, emphasizing services or programs for various different population segments or demographics rather than teaching that we are all together the body of Christ and warning against narrow association with only people like yourself.  With attendance levels falling across the country (and world) and across the Christian spectrum, an aura of desperation begins to settle in some places.  Why not try clever advertising gimmicks?  After all, the important thing is people hear the Gospel, right?

Yes, as long as they’re hearing the Gospel in the proper context, which is first hearing the Law and receiving a proper assessment of their current condition.  If that condition is happy in their nudity or comfortable in their cars, there’s a distinct possibility they won’t hear the Gospel fully, or the Law at all.  If you aren’t willing to leave your car, chances are you probably aren’t really all that worried about the problem of sin and evil in your heart.

I’m all for taking the Gospel to people, but skeptical of these sorts of gimmicks that easily  confuse the Gospel with other things.

 

Reading Ramblings – January 19, 2020

January 12, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: Second Sunday after the Epiphany – January 19, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; 1 Corinthians 1:1-9; John 1:29-42a

Context: Although designated as the Sundays after Epiphany, we begin Ordinary Time this week, similarly to how we are in Ordinary Time during those Sundays also designated as being after Pentecost. As such, today the Epistle lesson departs thematically from the Old Testament and Gospel readings. Those readings (along with the psalm) continue to highlight to divine nature of Jesus, as is fitting to the season of Epiphany, drawing on various witnesses to this divine nature. The Epistle lesson continues the lectio selecta route by starting with 1 Corinthians. Unfortunately, we aren’t going to get very far into this book this year, which is tragic considering how crucial Paul’s words to the church in Corinth are for the church in America today.

Isaiah 49:1-7 – Who is this anointed Messiah, this servant of God, and what will this person do? Isaiah’s words (inspired by the Holy Spirit) are beautifully descriptive, making it clear this is no ordinary leader or prophet. The relationship of this servant to God begins before his birth (v.1) with particular intent to his purpose. Everything about him – including the details of his entry to this world – are coordinated by God according to his perfect plan, concealing him until the perfect moment. Yet he remains human, not above emotions and feelings of failure. Yet these won’t consume or derail him, rather he will continue to trust in God (v.4). In response to these struggles, God the Father affirms his purpose in his servant, a purpose that far exceeds human expectations, extending to the salvation of all peoples rather than just God’s chosen people Israel. All of creation, including those most powerful, will eventually bow in acknowledgment that the servant of God is the expression of God the Father’s willl and plan.

Psalm 40:1-11 – We can read this as a psalm of David, who authored it. We can think back on his turbulent life and how God indeed was his rock and salvation through many difficult and trying times. But it’s also interesting to imagine the opening verses of this psalm ultimately not just being about David or you and I, but something Jesus himself would say. God delivers his suffering servant and Son from the very grip of death, raising him to life so that many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord (v.3). Jesus himself knows full well the blessedness of obedience. Not the ease of obedience, but the blessedness of it. He knows full well that obedience to God is always best because He lives this perfect obedience himself and can speak from firsthand knowledge. Jesus is the fullest expression of human obedience to God, and He calls us to participate in this through him. While our obedience will be imperfect, we are still blessed as we follow God’s will and Word in our lives because it leads us ultimately to eternal life and freedom not just from sin but from the death that sin brings.

1 Corinthians 1:1-9 – What strikes me first about these opening verses is what I know about the rest of 1 Corinthians. Paul is writing to a congregation he founded, but a congregation with some serious problems. Most of this letter to them will be spent in trying to correct errors in doctrine and practice. Yet Paul asserts here that despite their many and major problems, they are still the church, they are still the sanctified, and they are still saints. Their sins are many, but the grace of God in Jesus Christ is greater still. We can be recalled from our sins to repentance, and so our sins themselves are never adequate evidence we are not saints in Christ! Despite their sins, Paul can assert they still have received enrichment by God in every way regarding speech and knowledge. Those are strong things to affirm, knowing what he’s going to have to chastise them for shortly!

Sosthenes is mentioned in Acts 18, which has to do with Paul’s time in Corinth. When Paul first comes to Corinth the leader of the synagogue, Crispus, converts to Christianity along with his entire family. Paul stayed for 18 months there teaching and preaching. After his departure, Crispus is replaced with Sosthenes as the ruler of the synagogue. Whether this was a political move by the Jews because of Crispus’ conversion isn’t stated in the text, but Sosthenes apparently also becomes a believer and a fellow-traveler with Paul as he is named here. He is held by some to be an early Christian Bishop, though others are uncertain whether these traditions can be trusted.

John 1:29-42a – I’m not sure why John’s gospel is brought in at this point, though it follows on the theme of last Sunday (the Baptism of our Lord). And it certainly fits the Epiphany theme of the revelation of the divinity of Jesus, with John the Baptist as the last of the Old Testament-style prophets pointing directly at Jesus and proclaiming him the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. John is apparently the first prophet or other person to use this term. But of course the first time a sacrificial lamb is mentioned is in Genesis 22 and the account of Abraham being commanded to sacrifice Isaac to God as a test. Abraham assures Isaac that God will provide the necessary lamb for the sacrifice. God does in that case, and God does through Jesus as well. Likewise, the passover lamb is the next type of lamb specifically described for sacrifice in Exodus 12, and it has to be a young lamb but perfect and without blemish. This sacrificial lamb saves the household from the angel of death, but Jesus offers his life on behalf of the ends of the earth (Isiaah 49:6).

John the Baptist thus begins his ministry as the last Old Testament-style prophet, telling people about the coming Messiah (John 1:26-27), and ends his ministry as the first evangelist, the first one to point others to Jesus as the source of salvation.

Book Review: The Price of Neglect

January 11, 2020

The Price of Neglect by A.W. Tozer

I was lent this book by a friend the other day.  It’s a quick and easy read, a compilation of various editorials written by A.W. Tozer as editor of Alliance Life.  Each editorial is almost uniformly between 2-4 pages in length.  His style is easy and straightforward, and his flow of thought is easy to track with.

I’m familiar with Tozer by name but have never read anything of his.  In reading this anthology, it’s important to remember they were editorials for a magazine and as such, short, to the point, and light on detailed support or explanation.  I would hope that the themes laid out briefly in these editorials were delved into in more depth in the publication as a whole, saving Tozer the time and space of elaborating and fleshing out his ideas more fully in these short pieces.

Overall, I appreciate his general view.  He was skeptical of modern theological trends and movements.  Skeptical of the revival associated with post-World War II America, viewing it as shallow and commercial in nature, something which definitely seems to have played itself out as true in the subsequent decades.

My biggest criticism – and this in light of  the strong characterizations of Tozer as a modern prophet on the back of the book  – is that he is light on specifics.  Again, I trust this is  in part due to the fact that these are editorials rather than full-fledged theological writings.  But he offers criticisms without supporting examples most of the time.  He is critical of American Christianity, exhorts American Christians to a truer Christianity, but provides few examples of what he means.

This is very un-prophetlike.

Read through Isaiah, and you’ll see he offers very specific criticisms and examples to demonstrate what he’s talking about.  Rather than just criticizing shallow faith and a greater concentration on worldly riches, he calls out vanity in specific terms, like tinkling jewelry (3:16).  In criticizing reliance on foreign policy and alliances rather trust in God, Isaiah  points to specific issues, like alliances with Egypt (31:1).

Tozer provides few specifics in his laments of American  Christianity,  but is always exhorting people to something better and truer and more authentic.  As such, his words will indeed be timeless, as there’s never a time or situation when the faithful could not be better – more faithful, more trusting, more fervent.  But therein lies the problem as well.  Tozer clearly has ideas in mind about how the modern Christian should look and act, but doesn’t specify what he means.  As such, his criticisms can never be vetted, and his criticisms will always stand valid.  And under his criticisms it’s pretty clear he doesn’t consider many people who call themselves Christian to actually be Christian.  And this is where it gets tricky.

You can call out specific sins, but to question the faith of someone who doesn’t meet your undefined standard of what a Christian ought to be is unfair.  I’m struck in contrast by Paul’s first letter to the congregation in Corinth.  As he greets them at the start of his letter, he unhesitatingly calls them sanctified and saints, giving thanks for the outpouring of God’s blessings on them.  This despite the fact he’s going to have to criticize them for some very specific things in this letter.  Sexual misconduct and an acceptance or resignation to this reality.  Uncharitableness and false faith and understanding concerning the Lord’s Supper.  Some pretty major issues that would undoubtedly lead Tozer to claim the Corinthians are not true Christians – but St. Paul doesn’t make that move!

In other places Tozer’s theology is questionable.  Fair enough, as all of us fall short in that department in one place or another!  For example  he claims that Satan was not able to stir Jesus to  sin during his temptation in the wilderness because there was no evil in Jesus to respond to the temptation.  Tozer’s overall point is that when people react poorly in situations it is because their true character is being revealed.  The problem is that God the Father declared Adam and Eve to be good – free from evil – and yet they succumbed to temptation.   Is this because there was evil in them before the Fall?  I’m pretty sure most traditional theologians would not take this stance.  Further, if Jesus was not capable of sinning, then his temptations were not really temptations at all.  He was just going through the motions, as it were, which is a problem with Christology in making it sound as though Jesus wasn’t truly and fully human as well as divine, as though his human will didn’t exist, that it was replaced with the divine will of the Second Person of the Trinity.  Problematic on multiple levels.

Finally, for all his talk about the primacy of the Gospel, he spends an awful lot  of his time and effort talking about the Law, asserting that Christians are not living up to their name and therefore are not really Christians.  Rarely does he spend any appreciable time elaborating grace and forgiveness and mercy.  This might be part of the nature of the publication he edited and the purpose he saw for it, but as a conglomeration his editorials are decidedly Law-oriented while criticizing Christians for not living up to their potential in accepting the grace of God in Jesus Christ!

Again, I agree with much of what Tozer asserts, I just wish  he was more specific.  Again, I try to  remember what these writings represent, and assume they are only one part of a larger publication that could better elaborate on his themes.  God uses many different voices to communicate his Word, each voice at times focusing more on one issue than another.  But it’s a good reminder to me to be more specific and to make sure I’m not just critical but also acknowledge the grace of God at work in even the worst of repentant sinners.

Including myself.

 

 

Apocrypha: 1 Maccabees

January 9, 2020

This is perhaps one of the  most  useful apocryphal writings I’ve read thus far.  It provides practical, detailed historical information for changes in the Holy Land in the centuries between the prophet Malachi and the birth of Jesus.  It is not considered canonical for several reasons, the most  obvious one being the Jewish people did not consider it canonical.  It was authored sometime after 134 BC and written in Greek rather than Hebrew, which many consider reason to rule it out of canonical status as an Old Testament book.  The apostles and Jesus do not refer to this book either.  St. Jerome and others assert Flavius Josephus as the author but there is considerable skepticism of this claim.

As a historian, the overall  arch of these events has been known to me for years, but it was wonderful to finally read the actual material itself.  It goes into great detail, outlining multiple battles with multiple different powers and personalities.  It is bound together by the figure of Mattathias and his sons – John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar (to a lesser extent) and Jonathan.  We are witness to the initial interactions between God’s people and the Roman Empire – a relationship that would prove fateful for the next several hundred years.  We hear about the institution of what we know today as Hanukkah as well as several other festivals that don’t appear to be observed any longer.

This is definitely a worthwhile read as a historical document.  Certainly it has value as such whether or not it is considered canonical, and I have no difficulty seeing how this could be a valued part of Hebrew history without being given canonical status in the Old Testament.  Theologically it demonstrates powerful faith in God against overwhelming odds, and details in very straightforward, non-theological terms how God miraculously enabled his people  to triumph against far more numerous and powerful enemies.

Grateful

January 8, 2020

I’m often critical of the pervasiveness of technology in our culture today.  I’ll likely remain critical.  But I would be dishonest and remiss if I weren’t to also say that I’m grateful.

I’ve been tinkering with computers to one degree or another for close to 40  years now, and I can only say I’m so very, very, very,  very, very grateful for how easy it is to get a system setup and running these days compared to way back when.  I just set up a brand new PC in about 20 minutes.  That includes opening the box and unpacking it.  Granted, with this ease comes a lesser degree of control, but frankly, 99% of people using computers don’t need or even want the level of control we used to have to have in terms of installing drivers and this and that and the other.  In 20 minutes my system  is configured (mostly on its own) and connected to the Internet.  I’m already downloading and installing the additional freeware I want to use.

It’s amazing, and I’m grateful.

But still, get off your smartphones people!

 

Audiophora

January 6, 2020

What sort of new challenges for the new year?  That’s the question I try to ask myself.  What can I contribute to my own growth as well as reaching others with the Gospel in some respect?  For a long time I’ve resisted the trend of jumping online in terms of uploading worship services or sermons to YouTube or other social media.  I’ve long maintained that for an Internet audience, content needs to be created specifically for such an audience.  What I preach on Sunday morning is to my congregation.  It won’t necessarily translate universally (nor should it, I argue).

But it’s also obvious that online resources are a logical thing to do.  What I lack is both technical assistance towards this end or partners in any other sense of the word.  I’d like to do something with people, but that’s not necessarily something I can dictate.

So I’m putting together a light-weight recording studio upstairs at church, and will begin doing short audio recordings suitable for an online audience.  As I’ve considered this, I’ve come up with an idea to go along with it – audiophora.org.  I’ve registered the domain name but haven’t started setting up the site yet, so don’t bother trying to find it  :-)

The idea is that it would be an indexed collection of short (3-minutes or less is what I have in mind) audio files.  Some of it would be definitional in nature  – theological terms and concepts with concise definitions.  Each entry would in turn be cross-indexed with other terms, verses, etc. that come up as part of that definition.  So if I do an entry on salvation, say, then it would be cross referenced to other concepts brought up in the definition of salvation but not themselves defined there (like savior, sin, etc.).

All of this should be searchable as well as hyperlinked, so people can either find something precise or follow the rabbit-hole of hyperlinks as long as their heart desires.

Perhaps there will be full-scale studies here as well, but also broken down into bite size pieces.  Maybe one verse at a time, with a larger file entry for an entire chapter as well, or even an entire book.  I’m open to suggestions, and it would be fun to collaborate with other folks who would like to contribute, either in terms of words, concepts, etc. they would like defined, or who might even want to contribute their own audio  explanations of certain things.

Ah, but that name, tho – audiophora.com.

It’s a combination of audio and adiaphora.  Audio because, well, duh, they’re sound recordings.  Adiaphora is a philosophical and theological term which has come to mean something that isn’t either explictly commanded or forbidden.  So what color carpet should a church have?  That’s adiaphora – there’s wiggle room to make decisions.  It doesn’t mean there aren’t good things to consider, but it means the  answer isn’t a forgone conclusion via Scripture.

I’ll start setting things up in the next week or so and then do some trial recordings.  I’ll be eager for feedback and input if you’re so inclined.

Reading Ramblings – January 12, 2020

January 5, 2020

Reading Ramblings

Date: First Sunday after the Epiphany/Baptism of Our Lord – January 12, 2020

Texts: Isaiah 42:1-9; Psalm 29; Romans 6:1-11; Matthew 3:13-17

Context: If the season of Christmas calls us to contemplate the divine becoming human, the season of Epiphany calls us to affirm the divinity of the man Jesus of Nazareth. Properly distinguishing and maintaining the divinity and humanity of Jesus has traditionally been one of the central doctrinal battlegrounds. What does it mean that Jesus was both true man and true God? As soon as we attempt to say much more than this, we are likely to stray off the Biblical path into one heresy or another. We struggle to affirm the reality that Jesus is a true person in the fullest sense of the word – not just physically but in terms of his mind and will. Thus, He can be tempted, and if tempted, then it is possible for him to sin, just as Adam did. But we also maintain that in Jesus is also the full divinity of God the Son – He truly is the Word made flesh to dwell among us. Most properly, we bow in praise and adoration of God the Father who could envision such a means of victory for us, God the Son who in obedience came to be the Son of God made flesh, and God the Holy Spirit who directed and guided not just Jesus but you and I still today.

Isaiah 42:1-9 – John the Baptist likely had this passage in mind when he inquired of Jesus if He was the Messiah or not, one of our Gospel readings for Advent last year. Certainly this passage points to a special servant with a special relationship to God the Father as well as God the Holy Spirit (v.1), through which this servant will be divinely enabled to bring justice to the nations. Moreover, God the Father promises that this special servant will be a covenant (v.6) to the nations, evoking Exodus language when God created a covenant specifically with the Hebrew people. This new covenantal relationship brings about a fundamental change in the created order – bringing light, sight and freedom (vs.6-7). God communicates his intentions through Isaiah nearly 700 years before the birth of Jesus. The Word by which creation came into being will itself enter into creation as the Word made flesh, promised by God the Father himself.

Psalm 29 – A call to praise the God of creation, acknowledging him as the source of all strength and power, and therefore accorded highest glory and praise in his holiness. God’s power is described in a series of comparisons. God is more powerful than the great waters that thunder. God’s voice is greater and therefore can exert control over even this least controllable aspect of the natural world. God’s voice is also stronger than mighty trees as well as strong animals. Kadesh is a wilderness area in the north-central area of the Sinai Peninsula, yet even here God’s voice is supreme. All created order is dependent upon the voice of God that continues to create and sustain all things, so that the most appropriate response is to glorify and praise him. Because this powerful creator God is not anonymous or distant, but rather rules over his people, providing them with strength and blessing and peace in his protection. This all-powerful creator God need not be feared because He has expressed his love in relationship to his creation and particularly to his people who trust in him and praise him.

Romans 6:1-11 – What does the victory achieved by the servant of God bring to us? For Paul’s critics, his repudiation of the Law as a means to salvation must have meant Paul advocated for a libertine freedom from the Law, so that sin would be embraced because of the grace of God which alone provided forgiveness. Paul makes it clear this is not what he advocates, and any such effort to abandon the Law as a guide and protector in life is not just dangerous but foolish. Jesus has died for us and we through faith participate in that death. That death frees us from sin, not for sin! Because it isn’t simply Jesus’ death we participate in, but his resurrected life. Our life in eternity is one guided and governed by the Law, because the Law is not an arbitrary addition to creation but is woven into it and by extension, into us. It is an expression of what holiness means and looks like, and as we are now holy in the death and resurrection of Christ, we should cling to the Law not as a hope for salvation but as our future, holy reality. We are dead to the mastery sin once exercised over us as we failed to keep the Law perfectly. Jesus extends to us through faith his perfection, so that we have fulfilled the requirements of the Law and our sin is forgiven us until it is finally and eternally removed from us!

Matthew 3:13-17 – Jesus comes to be one with us, one of us, and specifically to save us from our sin, our condemnation under the Law that Paul claims we are free from in Christ. Thus Jesus arrives where John the Baptist is calling people to repentance, and where people are confessing their sins (v.6). John as the last of the Old Testament prophets well knows that Jesus alone of all people has nothing to confess, and John rightly protests Jesus’ intentions to receive his baptism of repentance. Jesus simply tells John to allow it now, in order to fulfill all righteousness. Jesus’ response acknowledges that what is about to happen is not necessary because of any sin of Jesus, but because Jesus has come to bear our sin. The one who is without sin will become the perfect, sacrificial lamb upon which the sins of all humanity will hang and die. Together, John and Jesus play their parts in this reality, and it is not necessary that John fully understand the why of it all. Isaiah conveyed the word of God that prophesied his special servant would be called in righteousness (Isaiah 42:6), and Jesus and John participate in that righteousness as they stand in the Jordan River together.

Further, Matthew asserts through his account of the Holy Spirit’s descent that Jesus is indeed the prophesied special servant. Jesus is the one who will accomplish all the prophesied renewals in the created order. God the Father picks up again the language He expressed to Moses (Exodus 4:22) and through the prophet Hosea (Hosea 11:1), as Jesus becomes all of Israel, all of God’s people in one person. One person, no less, called out of Egypt as Matthew earlier pointed out. Jesus comes to take the sins of the world upon him and offers in exchange his own holy righteousness and perfection. Through the one perfect sacrifice, atonement is made for all, and those who respond in faith to this promise receive that atonement in full.

God’s people could not be perfectly obedient, but Jesus can and will be perfectly obedient on their behalf, ultimately delivering them not just from political and economic slavery, but from sin and Satan and death. God the Father here is likely making less of a statement about Jesus’ Davidic ancestry (Psalm 2:7), and not a random statement of Trinitarian mystery and reality, but rather an assertion that Jesus now assumes all of humanity upon his shoulders. His obedience becomes the obedience of all, and Jesus stands in as the perfect son Adam was created to be but failed to be.

Jesus’ baptism then, ultimately, is for us, not for him. It marks the start of his public ministry and denotes the particular type of ministry Jesus will perform – that of saving the people of God from their sin by being the faithful son no other person in all of creation can be. John the Baptist calls people to repent of their sins and receive baptism as a sign of their sincerity and the reality of their forgiveness. Jesus enters the waters as the means through which that forgiveness will be granted. Jesus is the One with us and the One for us.