About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Bah Humbug…One of a Christian’s Most Dangerous Attitudes – Cynicism

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Galatians 6:9, ESV)

As a child, Ebenezer Scrooge always puzzled me. Why was he so angry? How could he not see the opportunities for joy and fun around him? What does Bah Humbug even mean and where on earth did the expression come from?

As I have grown older I have come to see the answers to many of these questions. Life experience and personal interactions have a tendency to harden the heart. People aren’t true to their word; a giving spirit is more often taken advantage of than appreciated; every man seems to be out for themselves. In short, experience has a tendency to rob one of a sense of wonder and trust. Given enough time, most people will become a cynic.

Such an outcome is understandable on many levels and in many circumstances, but for the believer, it is the very antithesis of who we are called to be. Instead of giving to the poor and needy , we cynically proclaim that “they wouldn’t be in this circumstance if they just worked harder;” or that they are “just takers.” Instead of showing forgiveness or asking for forgiveness, we distance ourselves, lest we get burned again or people sue us (either literally or emotionally) for our wrong actions. Instead of sharing our faith with the lost, we keep it to ourselves because deep down we don’t believe people really change. Cynicism robs us of our capacity to truly give and to be the salt and light God called us to be.

How do we battle letting cynicism take root?

- Develop a Proper view of God – The root of our cynicism is not found in a lack of faith in humanity, but a lack of faith in God. Instead of claiming we are being good stewards with God’s money, we need to recognize that it indeed is God’s money and that He who provided it in the first place is fully capable of taking care of it in the future. Instead of fearing being taken advantage of or sued, we need to trust God to take care of us. Instead of doubting the sincerity of people’s decisions, we need to trust God’s ability to change them.

- Nurture a proper view of what God has done for us – The Parable of the Unforgiving Servant (Matt 18:23-35) demonstrates the true nature of the balance of debt we owe God in comparison to the amount of debt any individual could ever incur toward us. Knowing of such an imbalance is not enough however, we need to nurture and feed that knowledge through developing a healthy theology of sin and Grace.

- Renew our view of the Now and Not Yet – Paul’s encouragement in Galatians 6:9 is built upon an expectation of blessing. The Psalmist’s resolution of his concerns over the apparent injustice of evil being awarded came when he entered into worship and caught a glimpse of God’s justice (Psalm 73, esp verse 17). Jesus’ call to die to ourselves includes the hope of what happens ultimately to those who value eternity over the temporal (Matthew 16.24- 27). It seems to me, then, that part of what we are missing in our thought-life that lends itself to remaining tenderhearted in the now, is a fervent belief in what will happen in the future!

I struggle with cynicism. But when I reflect upon the gift of the Father during this Christmas season and the complete expression of Hope that is found in the Savior lying in a manger, I can’t help but be convicted that I am called to move beyond such a perspective. Paul’s words in Galatians 6:9 suggest that doing the right thing can be wearying, but they also proclaim that God has given us multiple resources to draw on to find refreshment – not the least of which being Himself.

Hopefully as I grow even older I will move beyond my knowledge of the reasons for cynicism into an expressive understanding of how to overcome it. Living it out will take work, but knowing I serve a God who gave His all to me, even while I was in rebellion against Him, is a start.

Now if I could just figure out where Scrooge got, “Bah Humbug” from!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Big Question...even Bigger Answer!

And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”

But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denari and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” (Luke 10:25-37, ESV)

Who is my neighbor? It is a question full of import and weight. And if most of us are honest with ourselves , we probably ask it with much the same mindset as the Pharisee in Luke 10. After all, if there is someone who can be excluded from the list, then our disrespect, our low opinions, or even our relative apathy toward others has a loophole. Love is big call – it is an act of the will, a commitment, not simply to tolerate someone, but to seek the best for them; to give our best to them; and to relate to them with forgiveness, compassion, and benevolence. Indeed, “who is my neighbor” is one of the biggest questions we will ever ask.

It shouldn’t surprise us, therefore, that the answer should be just as big. And the answer comes in the form of a story. The story Jesus tells in response to the Pharisee's question is probably the story Christianity has done the most damage to in terms of where we have taken it versus what Christ intended by it. Commonly known as the story of the Good Samaritan, the early Church Fathers typically allegorized the parable of the Good Samaritan – ingeniously piecing the elements together to make it the story of man’s fall and redemption, but in doing so, ripping it out of its context and causing it to offer no real answer to the question. Modern interpreters have too often made the story into an almost vacuous reflection on the importance of helping people – suggesting that the point of the story is that we should be like the Samaritan in the story and help those who are different then us. While this approach does generally offer a response to the question and is instructive in the example given, I believe it fails to hit us as directly and completely as Jesus intended and, in fact, works more to confirm our prideful heart than to correct it.

As Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart point out, the most important aspect of interpreting a parable of Jesus is asking who is the audience He is telling the story to* – what are their prejudices, what is their theological baggage, and what is the response Jesus is trying to elicit from them because of their perceptions? In other words, their response to the story is as important to understanding its meaning as the content itself. In this particular case, as the Pharisee is hearing the story, he would have assumed that the neighbor was the wounded man. Hearing of the priest and Levite’s failure to love their neighbor, he would have thought to himself, “I would expect as much from them,” since although they were fellow Jews, they would have been from rival parties within Judaism. Certainly, he thought, as the climax of the story approached, Jesus would use a Pharisee (since Jesus’ himself would have been categorized as someone of the pharisaic tradition) to help the man out and he could walk away having been given a good example to live by and having a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around him. But Jesus is not interested in confirming the Pharisees prejudices and making him feel good about his commitment – Jesus is trying to break through a prideful and calloused heart. So, the hero is a Samaritan! In the eyes of the Pharisee, a sinner in every possible description of the word – he didn’t worship correctly, he questioned the truthfulness of the Torah, and he lived in state of thorough uncleanness! God couldn’t love him and so therefore I certainly don’t have to! And therein is the meaning of the parable – those feelings of anger, hatred, disbelief that such a person would be used as a positive example experienced at that moment laid bare the fact that this Pharisee did not love his neighbor, because in the eyes of the Pharisee, his neighbor wasn’t worthy of love. And so Jesus asked him, “Which of these three proved to be a neighbor?” Forcing the Pharisee to consider the possibility that someone so unclean could be his neighbor too. The Pharisees response is telling…he can’t even name him! All he can say is, “The one who showed mercy.” Jesus’ point had been made and so all that was left was the challenge – you go love that Samaritan!

When we read this story some of the power of it has been lost because most of us relate more closely to the Samaritan than we do to the Jew. We hear the story much as the Pharisee first thought he was going to hear it – someone like me (a Gentile) is going to be the hero, so we can walk away having been given a good example to live by and with a renewed commitment to try harder to help those around us. But, rephrase the hero into someone we consider unclean and unworthy and we will hear it as it was intended. As verse 33 begins, input “But an activist homosexual, as he journeyed to where he was…” or “a radical Muslim” or “a leftist democrat,” or for my left leaning friends “a Tea Party activist” and you begin to feel the weight of the call to love our neighbors. If they bleed, they are not our enemy – they are our neighbor!

I’ll admit, I struggle with this mandate. It’s hard to see the value in others who voice opposition to my core beliefs and priorities, sometimes in expressing that opposition in a desire to kill me or those who believe as I do. But that is what I have been called to. That is what it means to take up my cross and to die to myself! That is what it means to be a disciple of the One who prayed on the cross for those who were crucifying Him, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”

One final note, because I feel it is necessary and because I know someone may assume certain things because of their omission. I am not saying we cannot challenge people with their false beliefs or call them to repentance for their sin. Disagreeing with someone is not the same as not loving them. To know someone is on the path of destruction and to say nothing about it is not love. But my goal and challenge is to model my approach after my Saviors when He met a Samaritan who was by every definition of the word “unclean.” He pointed her to the truth, He identified her sin, He corrected her misconceptions, He challenged her to holiness, and He offered her hope – simply by listening; recognizing her as a person, not a sin; and by revealing that He is the answer to every need she had. May I learn to do the same!

*Fee and Stuart, How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, Most of the interpretative directions of the comments that follow grow out of their observations and exegetical methodology…in fact, they themselves use this parable for their methodological example.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Part 2 – The Sacred Task of Interpretation… is for Everyone

Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. You therefore, beloved, knowing this beforehand, take care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity. Amen. (2 Peter 3:14-18, ESV)

A question (or challenge) that often comes up when I raise the issue of proper biblical interpretation is, “What about those who don’t have knowledge about the historical background, knowledge of Greek and Hebrew, and knowledge of the genres and idioms present in Scripture?” Such a question usually comes from those who desire to know God’s word, but are worried that somehow they fall short; whereas, the challenge usually comes from those who want to undermine the premise that there is a correct interpretation of the text or that their approach is somehow inadequate.

To the first group I would simply say that God’s word is a powerful tool that even in simply reading it, we experience things He wants us to – it will not return empty. The reality that we should all grow in our faith and understanding in no way undermines where we are at the moment and how God can use us, even in our limitations, to His greater purpose. To the second group I would simply say that, “Yes, the Bible is something all can understand.” But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be using the best means available to us and it also doesn’t mean that everyone understands all of it. Some of Scripture is easy to understand because it is a living word and God is a God of understanding, not confusion. But the gaps in time and experience between our world and theirs do render other parts difficult. Even in their day, some of it involves depth that strained even the trained in understanding. Didn’t Peter himself observe that some of the things Paul wrote were difficult to understand even as he challenged his readers to grow in wisdom and understanding (2 Peter 3:16)?

I stand by my assertion that not all interpretations are equal and those who are able to use such skills, in many cases, have a leg up on those who can’t. But I also do believe the Bible is accessible and capable of being interpreted by anyone who has a solid translation in their language. I believe previous generations, faithful servants all over the globe, and “average” Christians who simply want to study God’s word and glean truth from it can do so, even without the knowledge into historical backgrounds and the ancient languages? But this still comes through proper methodology.  All one need do is look at where the church sometimes went during the Middle Ages and where cults and sects still go today to see that my argument is valid.

I would suggest the following steps belong to every believer as they pursue understanding the Bible better and that all of them can happen, wherever a person is in their knowledge or physical location:

- Dependence on the Holy Spirit – For me, the issue is two-fold. First, bathing any reading in prayer for understanding and clarity and listening to the prodding of the Holy Spirit is fundamental to interpretation. Second, the Spiritual Gifts of knowledge and teaching play a fundamental role in whom we listen to. We do damage to the body of Christ if we fail to take note of the place of such gifts in the well ordered church and in our own learning experience (1 Corinthians 12, esp. 4-10).  I would trust an "untrained" believer who begins with the conviction that the Holy Spirit is necessary for interpretation over any brilliant scholar who didn't!

- Logical consistency – Understanding that the Bible will be consistent in what it communicates about God and our life before Him helps us avoid all sorts of interpretative mistakes. If there is an apparent inconsistency, the problem is in the interpretation of one, or both, of the texts involved. What is more, make this easy on yourself - let clear, repeated truths interpret hard to understand passages. I might not be able to tell you exactly what a particular difficult passage definitely means, but I can often tell you what it cannot mean based upon a multitude of texts elsewhere that say something else.

- Literary Context – Even if you cannot pinpoint all the rules connected to a specific genre, or even identify what genre every passage is connected to, common sense and general reading knowledge helps with conclusions. Proverbs are not the same as narratives, psalms/poems are not the same as letters. The biblical books, more often than not, will communicate what type of literature they are. Use your own general knowledge of that type of writing to help you know what you are looking for. Also, NEVER, EVER pick one verse out and run with it in interpretation without reading what precedes and follows it to understand where the entire argument is going.

- Multiple Translations – For someone who doesn’t know Greek or Hebrew, take the time to read the passage in multiple translations in your native language. If possible, find translations with different philosophies or ways of dealing with the original text. Use a translation that is a formal equivalent (word for word) and one that is a dynamic equivalent (thought for thought) in order to see both the specific words being used and how those words work together. I would strongly recommend not using Greek or Hebrew helps unless you have had training in Greek and Hebrew. More often than not, these helps and the observations they make can lead to faulty conclusions because languages are more nuanced than any help of this nature can provide.

Whatever we do, we need to remember that the text we are dealing with is Sacred. It is God’s revealed word, not a tool to be manipulated (even on a personal level) to our own ends. Take time with it, pray over it, and maintain a teachable spirit. God did not give us all the Spiritual Gift of knowledge and/or teaching, but He has given us all the Spirit that brings knowledge through His word. Submission to the teachings of the word and taking that responsibility seriously is an expectation for every believer – especially if we are sincerely pursuing our role as disciple makers.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Sacred Task of Interpretation

Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. (2 Timothy 2:14-15, ESV)

Right now on facebook there is a game going around in which you are given a riddle and challenged to answer it via private message to the person giving it. If you answer correctly, nothing happens. If you answer incorrectly you are asked to place a giraffe in your profile picture. (Spoiler Warning: the answer is below). The riddle is:

3:00 am, the doorbell rings and you wake up. Unexpected visitors. It's your parents and they are there for breakfast. You have strawberry jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese. What is the first thing you open?
Now, assuming you understand that the jam, honey, wine, bread and cheese are elements meant to misdirect you, you realize that there are two possible answers, and which one you arrive at is determined on how you interpret the sentence, “What is the first thing you open?”

If you read the paragraph in a linear fashion assuming that the question finds you at the moment of decision upon discovering unexpected visitors (where the question actually falls in the paragraph - The doorbell rings and you wake up…It’s your parents and they are there for breakfast, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “the door.” If, on the other hand, you read the sentence as a summary observation of the whole and the “first” refers to what you open first at 3:00 am when the process begins (“The doorbell rings and you wake up, What is the first thing you open?), the answer is “your eyes.” Both are a correct interpretation of the sentence, though they are very different conclusions.

And herein resides the problem of interpretation. Words mean something, but when put in relationship to other words, those possible meanings expand. In our example above, the issue is an innocuous bit of fun mind-gamesmanship. But when we are dealing the Bible; something that is at the heart of what we as believers base our whole life on, the decisions we make can have a big impact.

In writing to Timothy in 2nd Timothy, Paul challenges him to confront his people about the message they are proclaiming in their words and actions. He instructs them to be careful not to “quarrel about words;” a problem that had a long history in the church in Ephesus apparently (1 Tim 6:4). The people were committed to getting it right, but had trouble maintaining perspective in what they were debating because they forgot the centrality of love for God and love for each other that should guide all of our discussions (this would apparently continue for several decades in Ephesus…Revelation 2:1-7, esp 2:4). Paul says in order for Timothy to combat this he needs to model three things: (1) A desire to please God above all others. (2) A work ethic that was so expressive of integrity on every level that Timothy didn’t have to worry about it being a distraction. (3) An ability to interpret the Word of God without distorting or abusing it. Paul’s words, however, are not just for the pastor, they express wisdom for all believers.

We need to avoid quarreling over words – fighting over things that really don’t advance the aims of Christianity. We need to be driven more by a desire to honor and please God than by man’s approval, or by winning an argument – this manifests itself in humility, not one-upmanship. We need to be living our lives in such a way that when we draw conclusions from Scripture, our own lives don’t become an avenue of undercutting the point we are making. And we need to be interpreting the Word of God without distorting or abusing it.

I won’t go into the steps of interpretation here; they are appropriately outlined in a number of places – Holy Spirit, usage, context (both literary and historical), genre identification, and logical consistency. But I do want to emphasize the importance of the work behind it and the need for compassion in disagreement.

Not all interpretations are equal. Just because a person, even a believer, interprets a text that does not mean their interpretation is valid. There are boundaries to proper interpretation found in the steps listed above and the person who refuses to follow those steps, should not be granted the same hearing as someone who does. In 2 Peter, Peter warns, “knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. (2 Peter 1:20, ESV)” Now, there is a lot in this passage, but first and foremost is the idea that we cannot simply do with a text whatever we want or feel led to – we are constrained by other Scripture and by the authoritative interpretation of the Apostles (which is expressed in Scripture). I don’t believe this text means that we have to wait for the Church to interpret a passage for us, but I do believe that Peter is outlining the high standard by which we must interpret Scripture. Spirituality is NEVER expressed through laziness!

No one has the sole corner on interpretation. The Bible is an ancient book; and although it is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), that antiquity creates gaps that must be overcome in order to interpret a passage correctly. The open riddle example I started with illustrated how sentences might be properly put together to come to two very different conclusions. When you add in centuries old idioms, written in a different language, to a very different culture, the barriers to proper interpretation grow exponentially. It is on our shoulders therefore to work through those barriers, but also to be understanding if that journey takes us to a different location than someone else. This is not to say there are no correct or authoritative interpretations – consistency and a preponderance of biblical revelation on any subject builds (or takes away from) any conclusion one draws from the text.  But it is a call to humility in our conclusions and compassion in our differences.

In the end, as Paul tells Timothy, it is about diligence in what we are responsible for and wisdom in what we do or do not argue about…because ultimately it is truth of the Word that we want front and center, not ourselves.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Burden and Blessing of Prayer

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2, ESV)

A few years ago, while working on my worship book, God laid on my heart the place of sorrow in worship. While working through the Psalms, I discovered that of all the forms of worship represented in the songs of Israel, the most common was the lament. When I considered this reality, as well as numerous New Testament passages that talked about the grief of the worshipper, and I compared it to what passes for worship in a lot of churches today, I had to ask, “Where is there room for sorrow?”* While more liturgical traditions have times for expressions of grief and sorrow, Free Church traditions rarely, if ever, do. Of course, a lot of this may take place in the Bible Study hour, and there is certainly nothing wrong with that. But I believe that we send the wrong messages to people if we never make room for such expressions in corporate worship. So, what I began to do was to set aside time during our morning services, every once and a while, simply for prayer. I ask all members to pray silently where they are and I invite anybody present to come forward and share what is on their heart with me and then we pray together. This past Sunday was one of those days.

As we entered into the time, people came forward to pray. As we prayed, I was struck by the heavy burden that so many are carrying… sickness, financial problems, family struggles, spiritual issues, and so much more….living in a fallen world brings with it a lot of pain…even for (or perhaps especially for) Christians. After the time together, I returned to my seat. I was weeping. I was weeping for three reasons. I wept over the weight of what I had just experienced and I wept over the reality of how lightly I had often taken prayer. I regularly pray for members, for my own family, and for friends all over the world. But there are times when I just go through the motions; there are times when I forget promises to pray for someone; there are moments when I forget that what I am doing is bearing a brother or sister’s real burdens and taking to the throne of a mighty God, who alone can deal with the hurt.

But I was also weeping because of the awesome privilege that the time of prayer granted me. It is a privilege because of whom we are praying for. To count any person (sometimes otherwise strangers) as brothers and sisters is an amazing honor. It is a privilege because of what we are praying for. That someone else, anyone else, would entrust us with some of their deepest hurts and greatest needs communicates a closeness and a trust that should inspire and encourage. It is a privilege because of whom we are praying to. To be able to call the Creator of everything, “Abba; Father” and to enter into a conversation with Him with boldness is beyond description (Rom 8:15). The privilege of prayer allows us as limited, frail individuals to access the unlimited, robust God who invites us to lay our unbearable burdens upon Him and to let Him bear them for us (Matt 11:28).

Given prayer’s role as both responsibility and privilege, what can we do to more effectively pray for those around us?

~ Learn not to take any request lightly: Corrie Ten Boom once wrote, “Any concern too small to be turned into a prayer is too small to be made into a burden.” I want to turn that around – any concern that is big enough to be a burden, is big enough to turn into a prayer. We need to remember this for ourselves and for those who bring us their concerns.

~ Pray at the moment of request: I learned a while back that unless I am absolutely pressed for time at that moment or if circumstances otherwise prevent it, to no longer simply say I will pray for someone when they give me a request. It is too easy to forget to pray and, even if you remember, the opportunity to express real concern and connection is lost.

~ Remember to have designated times of prayer on a regular basis: I wonder if part of our problem in remembering to pray for someone else is that we don’t have a regular time of prayer to begin with. Not only does making prayer a regular part of our lives strengthen our overall prayer life, it provides the trigger we need to remember those requests that have been given to us.

~Remember that praying is always tied to thanksgiving: Most laments in the OT move toward a resolution of thanksgiving – not necessarily because God has moved in the circumstance the way the person praying hoped He would, but because God is good and it is this recognition that moves us through any circumstance. When accompanied with thanksgiving, bearing the burden of another in prayer, becomes a restorative movement towards the greatness of God instead of a wearying exercise that leads us farther away from Him.

May God help us all to grow more passionate in prayer as we “Continue steadfastly in prayer, being watchful in it with thanksgiving.” (Colossians 4:2, ESV)

*I have addressed this situation somewhat previously in this blog.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

But What About You?

For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. (Galatians 6:3-4, ESV)

Last week I wrote on the inter-relationships of my immediate family and how each of us had an important role to play in the health of our family. I used this as a jumping off point of observation concerning my church family and the same phenomenon being present within it – something God Himself ordained and designed to be true. Many people noticed that in my description of my siblings and their personality, gifts, and contributions, that I omitted myself. My response to that observation has been that I don’t know if it was humility or pride that kept me from such inclusion. Truth be told, I believe it was certainly the latter, rather than the former.

Personal evaluation can be quite difficult for anyone. This is especially true for believers. By nature, we struggle with the call to self-denial and humility that is at the heart of so much of our walk with God. Pride, being the very essence and origin of our estrangement from God, weighs heavy on our mind. So, when we come to the matter of self-evaluation we battle with knowing if the lens we view ourselves through is even remotely appropriate. Self-denial is not the same as self-denigration, and humility is not the same as self-loathing…yet those are the extremes we sometimes want to take our evaluations.

In Galatians 6, Paul talks about the mutual reliance of believers on each other. He states that in order to achieve this we have to not think too highly of ourselves. But he also emphasizes in verse 4 that we can find satisfaction (reason to boast) in who we are and what we have done in, through, and because of Christ. That is, we are able to live with clear conscience before God because of how His presence has been manifested in our lives (cf. "For our boast is this, the testimony of our conscience, that we behaved in the world with simplicity and godly sincerity, not by earthly wisdom but by the grace of God, and supremely so toward you" (2 Corinthians 1:12, ESV)). This truth suggests that there is a sense in which we can carry out proper self-evaluation...but how?

I believe there are several steps we can take in this process:
- Refusing to compare ourselves to others - Let’s start with Paul’s own instructions in Galatians 6 “in himself alone and not in his neighbor.” Paul instructs his listeners to find the worth and value of their deeds in their own relationship with Christ, without comparing themselves to others. The logic of this advice is obvious – comparing ourselves to others will inevitably lead to a faulty evaluation – either because we see ourselves as better than we are because we “not like them” or because we see ourselves as unusable because we don’t have the talents/gifts another person has. God has gifted us all to His own purpose and design…seeing ourselves through that lens is a portion of what it takes to understand our value and our limits.

- See our strengths and gifts as something God has given. The Bible constantly points to the fact that every good gift comes from the Father…our life comes from the Creator, our salvation comes from our Savior, our provision comes from the Provider. We cannot grow too arrogant about any gifts we may possess, if we first understand they are GIFTS.

- See even our “quirks” as something God can use. We all have those traits that we identify as less than ideal. More often than not, these are the parts of us that most cause us to devalue ourselves. But I believe that they are traits that when placed in God’s hand, can help us to see our value in/to His work. Moses was stubborn – God turned this man who would argue with a burning bush into a man who would stand before the most powerful man in the world at the time and say, “Let my people go!” Saul/Paul was obsessive about getting the job done. God turned this pursuer of His people for death into a pursuer of others for Him, creating the greatest church planter the world has ever seen. Whatever trait you are troubled by, see it through the lens of the One who can accomplish great things through those who are His and surrender it all to Him.

- See our value not in how we view ourselves, but how the One who made us and knows us best views us. True self worth is not found in our own esteem, but in the esteem God holds for us.  C.S. Lewis wrote, “The child who is patted on the back for doing a lesson well, the woman whose beauty is praised by her lover, the saved soul to whom Christ says ‘Well done,’ are pleased and ought to be. For here the pleasure lies not in what you are but in the fact that you have pleased someone you wanted (and rightly wanted) to please. The trouble begins when you pass from thinking, ‘I have pleased him; all is well,’ to thinking, ‘What a fine person I must be to have done it.’”(Mere Christianity)

A sinner saved by grace is no longer characterized by the doubt, fear, shame, and guilt that marked His sinfulness; but instead is known by the freedom, humility, value, and boldness that emanates from the grace that covers him. He is finally truly able to love and be loved and in that knowledge and from that perspective, we can begin to truly evaluate ourselves.

So what about me in my family? Well, to be honest, I am not really certain. My siblings were out of the house before my formative teenage years and I moved away from home at 17 to go to college and have yet to reintegrate in a meaningful way into the family dynamic. I am only physically present with them about once a year, so it is hard to say exactly where I fit into the greater tapestry of who we are together (yes, I recognize the blog post that could be made based on this truth about being unable to know who you are and what your gifts are if you are never present at church!). In most of my life (and at church) I am the teacher, explainer. Whether we are talking about conflict resolution, bringing understanding about others and about concepts, or plotting a course toward the future, I function by teaching. This trait has come out at times among my siblings in a variety ways, but there simply isn’t enough of a sample to say that is my niche. So basically, among them, I would say I am the follower (it may be the only time in my life that I am). It’s a necessary role – everyone has someone they can push around :-). I have worked hard to get where I am in life and I take satisfaction in the results of that hard work, but when I go home, I am just “baby brother” – and I enjoy that status. In my family, I am able to love and be loved - and at the end of the day I would say that is who I am!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The One Time Sibling Rivalry is Good!

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. (Romans 12:9-10, ESV)

My dad grew up with nine other siblings in his house; my mom had six. Growing up, I often wondered what that must have been like to have to navigate life being responsible to and for so many other people. I was blessed with two brothers and a sister, but there is such a large age difference between me and them (they are 11, 10 and 8 years older than me) that, at least growing up, I felt like an outsider. Oh, there were still moments where I experienced sibling rivalry, sibling protection, and sibling provision, but it really wasn’t until I got older that I really began to see the how uniquely and wonderfully we all fit together.

Each of my siblings has a distinct personality and role in the family. One is the protector of each of us. If any of the others is not exactly “friendly” to another, they are the first to call them out for it. Another is the level headed one. There is not much that flusters or upsets them. Then there is the button pusher. They know just what to say to get to the other (even occasionally, the level-headed one). Now, such a mix could indeed be caustic and volatile. It is not too hard to imagine how those traits could lead to an unending stream of fights and anger. But what binds us together is that our parents instilled in each of us a sense of personal responsibility, familial responsibility, and above all else love. And so, traits that might lead to resentment and division serve only to strengthen and unify. The protector functions to make certain that each of us feels appreciated and a part of the family. Because the level headed one is so even-keeled, they help us as a group be that way too. And because of our love for another (and their clear love for the rest of us), the button pusher is really more about keeping us all humble and helping us not take ourselves too seriously than about making us angry.

When you consider who the Church is supposed to be, the picture should not be all that different. We are a mix of different backgrounds, personalities, traits, and perspectives. This mix can often be caustic and volatile, and if we are not careful can (and has) lead to division and damage. But it can also be beautiful and transformative when we remember we have a Father who binds us together; who has called us to familial responsibility, personal responsibility, and above all else genuine love! I think it is significant that the only competition between believers outlined in Scripture is the competition to “outdo one another in showing honor.” That is when sibling rivalry is a good thing!

The Church ought to portray the best part of what it means to be brothers and sisters and we do that by genuinely competing to see which of us can better pur others before ourselves. The world will tell us that an individual cannot survive if he or she is not looking out for themselves. But the Word of God tells us that until we die to ourselves, we will never experience life. And there is no more readily apparent expression of dying to ourselves than to be able to relate to the differences present in the body of believers by showing love and putting others first. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35).

I guess in reality I don’t have to wonder what it is like to navigate life being responsible to and for so many other people – I experience it every day as a part of the Family of God.

A picture of the four of us...from a few years ago...

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

What would you do to win an argument? The Nephilim in Numbers 13

So they brought to the people of Israel a bad report of the land that they had spied out, saying, “The land, through which we have gone to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants, and all the people that we saw in it are of great height. And there we saw the Nephilim (the sons of Anak, who come from the Nephilim), and we seemed to ourselves like grasshoppers, and so we seemed to them.” (Numbers 13:32-33, ESV)

What would you do to win an argument? I don’t like to be wrong…I don’t imagine most people do. And so, at times, when I have realized that I was losing an argument, I have entered into what I like to call “creative discourse.” That is, if I can’t win, perhaps I can at least “limit the damage” by taking the discussion in an entirely different direction or introduce something that clouds the waters enough that I can back out gracefully. I am not proud of this and I believe God is really helping me to mature out of this practice…but more on that below.

Last week I introduced the subject of the sons of God and the daughters of man in Genesis 6:1-4. I mentioned that the Nephilim’s purpose in that particular passage seemed to me to be to accentuate the dark times in which the events preceding the Flood took place. I also noted that I believed the phrase “in those days, and also afterward” all refers to eras before the Flood…that is, that there is no indication in Genesis 6 that the Nephilim as an actual creature survived the Flood. Now, I intend to revisit these Nephilim to discuss their possible identity and to better understand their use in Genesis 6 and in their other mention – Numbers 13.

First, what/who are the Nephilim? The term probably means “fallen ones,” but that really doesn’t help us much – fallen from what; into what? The KJV translators translated the word nephilim as “giants.” This is primarily because the Septuagint (LXX), a Greek translation of the Old Testament dating to just before the time of Christ, chose the Greek word gigantes as the translation for nephilim. But the problem here is that there is no linguistic reason to interpret the word as meaning “giants.” The word itself doesn’t break down to mean that (etymology). It is not related to, or similar to, words in other languages that mean “giant” (cognates). The only reason the LXX translators made this connection was because they understood Numbers 13:33 to be equating nephilim with the people who were of great height and their apparent link with the sons of Anak. I would argue, however, that there are several problems with such a connection:

1) The sons of Anak, for all their size, were still human. To understand them as the physical descendents of the Nephilim (in this theory also humans) is to suggest that a race of men survived the Flood besides Noah and his family.

2) The Nephilim are not listed in any genealogical context in the Bible as a people group or nation.

3) The reference to the sons of Anak seems to be a later gloss by copyists as it is not present in the earliest or the best manuscripts.

4) Even if we accept the reference to the sons of Anak as original, the phrase translated “who come from” in the ESV is not a necessary translation. There is just one word behind the phrase in the Hebrew, and it is a preposition (notoriously difficult to translate in ANY language). This word can mean “from”, but can also just as properly mean “are a part of.”

Therefore, the translation “giant” is not something we can have much confidence in as there is no linguistic argument in its favor and the one contextual argument in that direction has many holes in it. Also, it may be possible to link them to the mention of other similar creatures/persons in Ancient Near Eastern Texts, such as the Sumerian Annunaki, but there is simply too little evidence to be able to do so.

What we can unequivocally say about the nephilim is that though we are not given any specifics about their appearance, we can tell from both contexts in which they are mentioned that they are clearly frightful and evil.

Who exactly were the nephilim? I don’t know. And that is a part of the problem. Scholars want to be able to speak with authority, so they will buy into a theory sometimes simply to avoid saying they don’t know. Believers want clear answers about the Bible because we for some reason feel insecure if we don’t have ALL of them. The situation is further complicated by the reality that people of all stripes are attracted to the unknown and the possibility of possessing special hidden knowledge that others have missed (there are no shortages of conspiracy theories and urban legends in all walks of life). All of this, I believe, has led to a lot of conclusions not supported by the Scriptures and to a lot of confusion about the nephilim and their role in the two places they appear (and even to some bizarre theories trying to link them to extra-terrestrials).

What I believe I can say about them is they were actual creatures (or persons) of some sort who developed a terrifying reputation prior to the Flood. I don’t believe the biblical evidence anywhere demands that they survived the Flood. I believe both these realities led to the term nephilim being used in two distinct ways in ancient Israel – both of which appear in Numbers 13:33.

The first way of using the term is in the symbolic or representative sense. In this usage, the memory of the nephilim carried on in the post-flood era so that the term became synonymous with any type of terrifying creature or persons (quite similar to how Hitler has become a term we apply to any type of evil tyrant). I believe this is expressed in the parenthetical explanation given by the biblical writer concerning the relationship of the sons of Anak to the nephilim. I would translate that phrase something like “the sons of Anak are a part of the Nephilim.” In other words, the writer is telling us the sons of Anak (who were giants) are of a class of creature or person who in their day would have been understood as a modern day Nephilim (all giants [int this case, the sons of Anak] are Nephilim, but not all Nephilim are giants).

The second way of using the term is in the superstitious or popular sense. In this usage, the term refers to frightening hidden or unseen creatures or persons that the culture as a whole assumed the continued existence of (something similar to how we would use “the bogeyman”). To simply mention the presence of the nephilim was to instill an irrational fear in people – especially if one is talking about an unknown realm. This is what I believe is happening in the spies' speech of Numbers 13. If you look at the discourse preceding the mention of the nephilim, you notice that there is an argument going on. The twelve spies have returned and are giving their report. On one side, ten spies say Israel won’t be able to take the land. On the other side, Joshua and Caleb say that Israel can take the land. They both agree the land is overflowing with good things and that the opposition present is significant (Numbers 13:27-29). But Caleb (and Joshua) argues the land can be taken, while the other spies say it cannot (Numbers 13:30-31). As the argument continues, the other spies’ report changes: the presence of the giant sons of Anak switches to ALL the people being large and the good land suddenly becomes a land that devours its inhabitants (Numbers 13:32). Then to seal the deal, the spies say, “And oh yeah, the nephilim are there too!" Not surprisingly, the passage reports that on hearing this all the people cried and wept and would not go up (Numbers 13:32-14:1).

It’s a classic arguing position; the “ace in the hole” so to speak…that concept or argument that when used correctly, wins every time. I believe it was dishonest… maybe not technically, since the sons of Anak were considered a type of nephilim. But in every way that really matters it was. The spies knew, given the people's fear of the nephilim, that using the term would sway the people and all they cared about was winning the argument.

So back to the original question…what would you do to win an argument? We like to play semantics and to operate under technicalities when it suits us…especially if it means winning an argument. But such an approach to arguments dishonors God and undermines our credibility and integrity.

As I said, God has been really dealing with me in this area of my life and has shown me that my commitment to winning arguments is really a result of insecurity in who I am and a lack of faith in who He is. I have learned that I need to grow in my trust of Him so that the outcomes are not something I need to worry myself with. I understand that I need to humble myself so that the threat of losing is seen for the inconsequential outcome that it really is. And I have seen that I need to control myself so that my integrity and God’s reputation is not undermined in the eyes of others by my careless excess.

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. (Galatians 5:19-24, ESV)

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Genesis 6:1-4...A call to Holy lives!

When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, “My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for he is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.” The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown. (Genesis 6:1-4, ESV)

Invariably when people find out I have a doctorate in Old Testament studies, they have one question for me: “What on earth is going on in Genesis 6?” Therefore, because I want my blog to be not only devotionally helpful, but also to deal with theological questions that people have, I thought I would spend some time dealing with this matter this week.

Genesis 6 is the story immediately preceding the Flood narrative (or more appropriately, beginning the Flood narrative) in which the sons of God became attracted to the daughters of man and took them for their wives. The passage is indeed one that raises many questions. Bruce Metzger, noted conservative scholar, is said to have once observed that the passage is the closest thing to traditional mythology found anywhere in Scripture.

The primary difficulties in the passage are centered on the terms “sons of God” and “Nephilim.” I will deal with the Nephilim and their identity next week, but I want to point out at this point that the text does not state that the Nephilim are in any way related to these events other than that they were present in those days and also afterward. They are not the offspring of the union between the sons of God and the daughters of men (in fact the basic flow of the Hebrew suggests that the Nephilim were already around when the sons of God decided to pursue the daughters of men). They are not the antecedent to the “these” of verse 4 who were the mighty men of old/men of renown. Their role here simply serves to suggest that an evil class of being (lit. Nephilim means “fallen ones”) existed in the period well before and immediately leading up to the Flood (“in those days, and also afterward”). In other words, they serve to accentuate vividly the dark days in which all of this took place.

The term “sons of God” is somewhat more difficult and much more significant to understanding the passage and how it might be applied. In Hebrew, when two nouns are side by side they are in what is called a genitive relationship. Using the two nouns here “sons” and “God,” three of the ways this can be understood are: (1) possessive - “sons who belong to God;” (2) attributive - “sons who have the attributes of the divine” (3) quality - “sons who are godly.” If one of the first two is intended here, then the individuals in question are some sort of divine or other-worldly beings (viz. heavenly beings). If the third option is intended, then the individuals here are humans who had the qualities of godliness.

The arguments in favor of seeing the individuals as heavenly beings include: (1) potential cross references with 1 Peter 3:19-20; 2 Peter 2:4; and Jude 6, 14-15, largely based upon applying the understanding of 1 Enoch (a Jewish pseudepigraphal [has the name of a famous person, but was not really written by them] book from the inter-testamental period) to Genesis 6 and then suggesting Peter and Jude viewed it this way as well; (2) the most common usage of two nouns together in the Bible is either possessive or attributive; and (3) a potential cross reference with Job 1 where “sons of God” seem almost certainly to be heavenly creatures.

The arguments in favor of seeing the individuals as earthly godly men include: (1) chapters 4 and 5 of Genesis have just put alongside each other the godly line of Seth (Genesis 5) and the sinful line of Cain (Genesis 4). It makes sense that as one approaches the destruction of humanity, that one of the causes of there being only one righteous family (Noah) was that godly line of Seth (godly sons) had intermarried with the ungodly line of Cain (daughters of men), so that on the whole, humanity was now corrupted. (2) There is no biblical evidence of heavenly beings possessing the ability to procreate. In fact, there are verses that imply otherwise (Matthew 22:30). Furthermore, the notion of a spirit-being having physical relations with a human, resulting in a child, seems to go against the very definition of what it means to be spirit.* (3) Finally, the judgment expressed by God is explicitly against mankind and there is absolutely no mention of guilt and punishment of anyone except humanity.

Just judging from a contextual standpoint, there doesn’t seem to me to be any demand to go the more confusing and hard to fathom route of arguing that this story relates a union between the angelic and humanity. This is true because the New Testament passages have too many alternative options for understanding their purpose and intent for us to be able to syncretize them with this passage – especially since they don’t directly refer to the events related in Genesis 6. Also, this understanding is consistent with the grammar present and doesn’t in any way twist any Hebraic rules. Finally, a phrase is always understood firstly by its literary context, not by its usage elsewhere – that Job uses “sons of God” to refer to heavenly beings in no way demands that Genesis 6 is doing the same. Subsequently, the passage to me seems to simply be the recounting of how all of humanity had become so depraved that they were completely unconcerned with the things of God – thus giving justification for the Flood.

Since this is where I come out on this passage, what would I say are some important lessons to be taken away from Genesis 6:1-4?

- It amazes me how much we gravitate toward the fantastical and odd, especially when it supports some theme or understanding of God and our world we would like to believe. Christianity is indeed built of faith and there are some amazing realities that we are called on to accept as part of that faith (miracles and resurrection to name just two). We do ourselves and our witness no good by taking that which were never intended to express the miraculous and trying to turn them that direction.

- We need to be careful in actually arguing from what the Bible says, not what we assume it does. One common point that is made in arguing for the angelic understanding is, “How could the union of just men and women result in the birth of giants or creatures such as the Nephilim?” As I have already pointed out though, the text nowhere says that the Nephilim were the offspring. The interpreters in this case started with a presupposition then went back and bent the text to meet it. This is by no means an isolated case (see my arguments on systems such as Calvinism elsewhere in this blog). I am not arguing that those who take an angelic interpretation of this passage are irresponsible interpreters (some men and women I hold in the highest regard take that view). But what I am saying is that on the road to the conclusions we draw, let’s make certain we are actually arguing the evidence.

- We need to take personal responsibility for the choices we make. It is far too easy for us to attempt to push the blame of our sin off in some other direction (“Satan made me do it.”) This passage illustrates how devastating our decisions to not guard our hearts and to not maintain holiness can be to our future and to the future of our children.

I certainly don’t believe I have solved the issue satisfactorily for everyone involved…the debate on Genesis 6 will continue. But I hope I have answered some questions that some may have and that I have reminded us all (myself most of all) how important the decisions we make about the lives we live are.

Jesus prayed, “I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but that you keep them from the evil one. They are not of the world, just as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth. (John 17:14-19, ESV)”

* Alluding to Mary in the New Testament will not help in this case: God’s interaction with Mary is in no way described as intercourse (Mary is still a virgin according to the text), and God, unlike Angels, has creative power.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Letting Go...In Parenting and Discipleship

Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it. (Proverbs 22:6, ESV)

In my opinion, I had a pretty extraordinary dad. He certainly wasn’t perfect – he could lose his temper fairly easily and he wasn’t what I would call “warm” in the area of emotions – but he taught me a lot about the importance of common sense, working hard, and taking personal responsibility for your actions. He also taught me something through the liberty he allowed me to have as a teenager – something that I believe has real implications for believers we lead to Christ and mentor.

Recently, one of my church members posted some pictures on facebook of their seventh grade daughter having a “date” to a school social/dance. Even though I was familiar with these type of activities around here and how well chaperoned and almost restrictive they are in what they let the kids do, my initial mental response was, “Are you kidding me…she is too young for that!” But as I thought about that response, the first thing that came to mind was the realization that I had attended dances at that age (dances that were not as well chaperoned I might add) and in fact had already had my first kiss and girlfriend. This realized hypocrisy, then led to the second thing that came to mind; a conversation I had with my dad somewhere in my teen years (I don’t remember exactly when, but I am pretty certain I was approaching driving age). I asked him how he decided what I could be a part of and what I couldn’t. He said he took into account my track record of behavior, the inherent potential for danger in the activity (how likely was I to get into serious trouble at an event is how he put it), and the need for me to start growing up. What I took away from that exchange is that a big part of the skill of parenting is found in the ability of remembering to let go and knowing when to do that.

The passage quoted above is probably one of the key passages of Scripture related to child-rearing. I believe the basic lesson I learned from dad is implicit in its message. The passage makes clear that there is a point in which the child makes the choice to depart from the path or not. No, I don’t believe the verse to be a promise. Like all proverbs it is an observation about how life generally works. There are all sorts of influences on a child that the parent has no control over, not the least of which being the child’s own choices. But because it is a biblical proverb, it is not an optional step to take for the faithful parent. The first part of the passage is a non-negotiable instruction for all believing parents – train up your child in the way they should go! Such training requires oversight, punishment and reward, guidance, making them do things they don’t want to do but need to do, and letting go and letting them become adults at appropriate intervals.

As believers we are not called to make converts, we are charged with the responsibility of making disciples. Like parenting, this involves taking a level of responsibility for that person’s spiritual well-being, feeding them, instructing them, and even holding them responsible for their actions. But it also includes letting them go, letting them experience the “risk” of sharing their faith; letting them take the lead when possible; letting them discover their Spiritual gifts (sometimes through trial and error); letting them learn how to trust in God (in good times and in bad). It means helping them to understand that we are all responsible to carry our own burden, even as we carry each other’s (Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load. [Galatians 6:1-5, ESV])

I wish I practiced this particular part of parenting as well as I remember my dad doing so. I pray that I learn how to challenge those in my spiritual care to “grow up” effectively in the days ahead.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

That Looks Nothing Like Where I Started

But each person is tempted when he is lured and enticed by his own desire. Then desire when it has conceived gives birth to sin, and sin when it is fully grown brings forth death. (James 1:14-15, ESV)

Each week I place in the worship folder at my church a note highlighting the subject for that week's sermon and giving an overall illustration/application in order to get people thinking about the message before it even begins. Sometimes, however, in making the insert, my own views are challenged or changed. That was the case this week.

I usually introduce the note with a quote at the top of the page that I jump off from (similar to how I use the verse at the top of each blog post). While doing some research for this week's note, I learned some things about the quote I was going to use that spoke to me quite vividly and that took the note in a different direction than I had originally intended.

Here is the note:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing! 

For many people the above quote first came into their consciousness when John F. Kennedy spoke it in 1961, citing Irish statesman Edmund Burke as its originator. The quote is indeed a powerful statement of the ability of evil to infiltrate any part of our reality if we fail to respond when it first makes its appearance. That, in and of itself, illustrates much of what the message today focuses on. But there is another aspect of this quote that I find interesting and relevant to our discussion – that there is no evidence that Edmund Burke wrote it as it appears today.

The only quote of Burke’s that comes close to this statement is from a book he wrote calling for the organization of good men together to battle the presence of organizations who have more nefarious designs on the culture (1777). This quote reads, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Over the years this statement was shortened, restated, and combined with another by John Stuart Mill to become the better known quote found above. By the early twentieth century the quote had taken its present form, attributed solely to Burke. By the middle of the twentieth century, even the respected reference work Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations said the saying originated with Burke.

What I find interesting and relevant about the citation is how different the end result is from the beginning and how the journey it went on to get there was virtually unnoticed because it was so gradual. Too many lives in shambles have taken a very similar path. I have encountered believers and unbelievers who find themselves in a really bad place and when asked how they got there, their response is, “I don’t know. I woke up one day and I was here.” Small poor choices, feelings of invulnerability, and not taking care of their own spiritual health all came together to gradually bring them to their present sorry state.

I find the whole process fascinating...I was writing a note about how ignoring sin can lead to bigger sin. My research revealed that the quote I was using had undergone a shift in appearance and even purpose through various slow changes in its content. This added knowledge then led to a shift in the direction my note was going and it ended up appearing very different than what I had in mind when I started. The pile-up of different examples in this journey of how little decisions and bits of information can lead to a big change caught my attention.  I came to be reminded that few things happen suddenly, most change is a gradual transformation - for good or for bad.

It is my prayer that we guard our hearts to avoid the slow path and little decisions that lead only to real damage taking place. Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life...Proverbs 4:23, ESV.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

The Best Known Verse in All the Bible

“Judge not, that you be not judged. For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Matthew 7:1-2 ESV

Matthew 7:1 may be the best-known verse in all the Bible. On any given day, in any number of different conversations, you will encounter people who haven’t opened a Bible in years quote its basic message: “Do not Judge.” Christians will usually, in turn, respond with “You’re taking that statement out of context,” or “that is not what that means.” But are they always?

Certainly, the context of Jesus’ command is much more nuanced than the blanket application used by those who simply throw it out to stop any sort of correction. Jesus Himself goes on in the passages that immediately follow to suggest that when you have dealt honestly with your own sin, you can then see clearly to deal with someone else’s (7:5) and that one can know the authenticity of others by the fruit they produce (7:16). Neither of those is even remotely possible if we are not exercising judgment between what is right and wrong. Add to these passages Jesus’ calls to us to confront those who have wronged us (Matt 18:15-20); Paul’s guidance regarding how to treat one who refuses to repent of sin (1 Cor 5:5); and John’s advice to evaluate the source of received words in order to evaluate their authenticity and you have clear biblical commands instructing us to identify and speak when sin is present. Indeed, the very nature of the Good News (Gospel) is first dependent upon the realization of the bad news of our lostness (Romans 1-3).

But I also believe that Christians, perhaps more often than not, find ourselves on the wrong side of the matter of judgment when we are interacting with people. Why? Because we ignore the heart of where Jesus is going with His command in Matthew 7:1.

Jesus has just expressed what authentic discipleship looks like in terms of our own personal relationship to God – give, pray, fast, and live with thoughts solely on our relationship to the Father (Matt 6). Now He begins to express what discipleship looks like when practically lived out in a world full of darkness, culminating with “The Golden Rule” in Matt 7:12. His instructions in Matt 7:1-12 can be characterized as call to avoid judgmentalism, avoid hypocrisy, remember that apart from redemption people won’t hear what you are saying properly and so practice wisdom in what you say and when/where you say it, and remember that all you have is the result God’s gracious gift. In other words, treat others as you would have them treat you, remembering that the only good in any of us is present because of God’s grace.

And that is where I think we as believers too often miss the mark. The goal of every judgment rendered in the instructions from Paul, John, and Jesus is redemption and restoration. Too often our motivations are merely condemnation or an attempt to communicate our own holiness (often our judgment involves things that we have attached to Scripture, rather than the Scripture itself). In truth, although we are not as blatant in our self-appreciation as he is recorded as being, we are more like the Pharisee of Luke 18:9-14 in our attitude than we care to admit.

But we can’t just remain totally silent. We are called to speak the truth in love and to shine light into the darkness. So, what can we do to help avoid the type of judging Jesus prohibited while still addressing sin? We can:

- Evaluate our mentality: it all starts with the recognition that apart from God’s grace, we are all sinners. Grace then should guide our words.

- Evaluate our motive: Are we seeking to restore and redeem, or simply make certain everyone “knows the truth?” “Truth without love is brutality!” (Wiersbe)

- Evaluate our message: Are we communicating truths that are clearly outlined in Scripture or are we more about our own way of doing things?

- Evaluate our method: Are we speaking to someone the way we would want to be spoken to?

It is not love to ignore sin, but neither is it love to point out sin without mentioning the possibility of forgiveness. And we can only mention the possibility of another’s forgiveness properly when we do it with a spirit that acknowledges the high cost that was paid for our own forgiveness by God.

God’s grace is not just transformative of our past mistakes; it is transformative of our present interactions.

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Greatest Accomplishments Surrounding My Life, I Can’t Take Any Credit For!

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Galatians 6:14, ESV.

Some lessons are not fun to learn and often have to be learned over and over again. For me, humility is one of those lessons. You see, recently I have been going through what can be best described as a pity-party. Although some really wonderful things were happening around me, I wasn't able to get excited about them because the attention I thought I deserved wasn't coming at the level or in the ways I thought it should.

The thoughts that kept coming to mind during this period centered on all the things that I had accomplished and why the people I longed to notice them didn't seem to be able to. Why wasn't I good enough for them? After all, I had an earned doctorate, I am a published author, I have great kids who are respectful and accomplished (so I must be a great father), I am good at what I do…people should see me for what I am!

And that is the issue right there, isn't it? People do so often see us for what we are, or what we aren't; we just don’t like to admit what that is. For me, that is a somewhat self-centered, arrogant man who wanted credit for things that either really don’t matter or for which I deserved no credit.

What is interesting about this lesson is that it happened during a time of great things in both my personal and professional life occurring. Things that were tempting to try to take credit for. When I coupled those great things, however, with my own perceptions of unnoticed greatness, I allowed it to lead me down the path of questioning God, expressing self-doubt, and even distrusting people who I knew deep down really loved and cared for me.

Now, my tentative conclusion about the lack of attention is that it is a result of a need to learn a lesson in humility. Last night my youngest accepted Jesus as his Savior! As I reflected on his decision both last night and today I began to think about how glorious and wonderful the fact is that all of my children had given their life to Christ. I also began to think about how it is not just our own salvation that we can’t boast in (Ephesians 2:8-9), but also those where we were the instruments God chose to use to draw someone to Himself. Finally, I came to realize that all the things in life that really matter, that are the greatest accomplishments surrounding my life, are things for which I really can’t take any credit.

Many things we accomplish in life are the result of hard work. These things do in fact add to life’s enjoyment and to being able to do other wonderful things. So understand, I am not talking about taking a fatalistic tact on life or being lazy. Nor am I talking about being self-loathing or even self-depreciating. I am talking about having the healthy understanding that comes from the recognition that the greatest gifts in life - faith, hope and love (1 Corinthians 13:13) are not things we create, but things we are given by God. I am talking about being able to keep the temporal things of this world in the proper perspective next to the eternal things of God. I am talking about knowing what the greatest things in life are and knowing that those things are not ours to claim credit for. Then, when we don’t receive the attention we think we deserve. When we don’t get the rewards that we think are ours. Then we can respond with graciousness and by pointing others to the One who has accomplished those great things and we can find joy in the wonderful things, both temporal and eternal, that are happening around us. To God alone be the Glory!

My new brother in Christ and me (from a few years ago) - it's one of my favorite pictures of all time:

and here he is last Easter

Monday, August 19, 2013

When Did the Church Become a Business? Members are Guilty Too!

As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.”(1 Peter 1:14-16, ESV)

Believers are supposed to be different (one of the basic meanings of the word holy is “different” or “other than”). We are supposed to be different in our worldview, our actions, and our responses. We are not this because we work harder at it or because of our own efforts, but because the God who lives within us is different, He makes us different, and He empowers us to walk differently. This simple truth is at the heart of what it means to be a disciple and, by extension, to be the Church.

Why then has it become so “normal” for churches to view their work and method through the business model? This happens when Pastors usurp or undermine the God given plan of every member a minister or when they design their church structures around a business model (something that has been discussed thoroughly in other blogs). But it also happens when church members seek to dismiss Pastors and leaders without following a biblical model for such actions.

Recently a friend of mine and a fellow minister was dismissed from his position. As is often the case, the dismissal was not the decision of the church body as a whole, but was the result of a Personnel Committee’s vote (more often than not, such actions are either taken by Personnel Committees or Deacon Boards). The committee worked up a conditional severance package which was given on the condition of a signed non-disclosure agreement and then proceeded to inform the church that he had been dismissed for reasons that, “If we told you, you wouldn’t believe it.” Of course, such statements leave the impression that my friend had done something immoral, depraved, or beyond redemption, when nothing remotely close to such actions was behind his dismissal.

This sort of maneuvering is not restricted to the church (I have seen it repeatedly at SWBTS where I taught), and truth be told, believers in any walk of life ought to avoid this type of dishonesty. But it is an especially egregious act coming from an institution that is supposed to be different and driven by godly principles of integrity rather than human motivations of self-preservation.

Not only do such actions violate clear instructions of how to deal with leadership, should problems be present (Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear. (1 Timothy 5:19-20, ESV)), but they also ultimately will undermine that church’s ability to function appropriately and to trust each other.

I have been in the unenviable position of having to dismiss staff before; once because of moral failure and once because the budget could no longer support the position that the person held. In both cases I was careful to fully inform the congregation of why the action was being proposed, to allow for full questions and in the case of the latter example to allow the full church to vote on the decision and to do everything we could to provide a generous, public severance package for the minister in question. I am not saying there is never a cause for dismissal – even on grounds that are more “administrative” than “spiritual” in nature. But what I am saying is that we have a mandate as a holy people to do things differently: to be open and transparent in all our decisions and dealings and to be honest in all our reasons and explanations…especially when Scripture gives us specific instructions of how to deal with a given situation.

Our calling is holiness. Our method is love. Our authority is Scripture. Our impetus is the Gospel. Our empowerment is God Himself. Let’s not sell our God or ourselves short in how we do things!

BTW – My knowledge of the actions surrounding the dismissal do not come from the minister himself, who has to my knowledge been faithful to his non-disclosure agreement, but from relationships I have with other people in the church connected to both the Personnel Committee and the greater church body.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What the Children in Africa Re-Taught Me - Worth versus Entitlement

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.(Philippians 4:12) 

For a lot of people, Philippians 4:13 is their favorite verse, "I can do all things through Him who strengthens me." Indeed, it is a powerful statement of God's power manifested through us as we live our lives.  But more recently the verse immediately preceding it has drawn my attention. 

I recently had the privilege of being able to serve on a short term mission trip to Zimbabwe. The primary focus of the trip was to work with orphanages in Harare, spending time with the kids and letting them know that Jesus loves them. As is often the case with short term trips like this, I likely received more from the trip than I was able to deliver. 

As I went from orphanage to orphanage during the week, I was struck by how content the children were in so many ways. They certainly wanted things (candy, toys, attention) when it was made available, but I noticed that even when they didn't receive it, they went about their activities with a happy attitude.  In reflecting on this, I think there are at least two probable causes behind this reality...the fact that they are children and the fact that they have come through deprivation, not to expect anything as their own.

The first is certainly heartwarming and perhaps a part of the child-likeness we are called to as believers (Luke 18:17). Children live life very much in the now. This has the negative impact in their failure to express patience, but it has the positive implication of being generally content. I have seen children spend hours with little more than a couple blocks of wood or in my youngest's case a long piece of yarn, simply content with what they have and with no complaining. It's only the introduction of some expectation that generally moves a child from contentment to anxiety. A sense of entitlement creeps in and contentment is lost.

Which brings me to the second part of the orphan's reality. It is indeed heartbreaking that the children have to do without so much...especially a mom and dad to love them! I don't believe the loss of a sense of being worth something is part of God's plan for anyone. God created us in His Image. He sent His Son to Die for Us. He loved us while we were still in rebellion to Him. He is LOVE! But I do believe that there is something to learn from their lack of a sense of entitlement and their appreciation for even the smallest gestures of time and love.

Too often we think we are entitled to things that we really aren't entitled to. That is, we confuse "worth" with "entitlement." The former is an outside value placed on us by God, the latter is an inner sense that grows out of pride and self-centeredness. In reality, we aren't entitled to anything - whether it's a bigger house, more comfort, a full stomach, or even salvation itself. Until we realize that, contentment will evade us and the full joy of the salvation we have experienced will allude us.

The children in the orphanages in Zimbabwe hopefully saw the love of Christ and the worth He places on them through our visit and that of others.  He places a great worth on all of humanity. For myself, I hope in the days ahead I continue to learn the lessons of contentment by remembering that while I am worth much in the mind of my Creator, He doesn't owe me anything.

Thanks Tyler Downing for the pictures below!

Friday, April 5, 2013

What are our Idols?

I have discovered that if you wait too long to continue a post, you lose the passion for the subject and end up not completing it.  In the interest of closing the discussion I previously opened, I will simply reflect a little on the subject of the gods we make for ourselves.

I think the matter that first caught my attention in this area was the response of so many Christians to the Presidential election. People on both sides were expressing hopes and dreams for the government and what it might be able to accomplish that really only resides in the purview of God Himself.  What's more, we had a lot of Christians acting as if the election of President Obama meant the end of all life on the planet earth.  The type of fear being expressed went well beyond just sadness or even being let down...it was almost an overwhelming sense of doom.  Such fear demonstrates too clearly that our trust more often than not is in our government or other worldly institutions, rather than truly in God. I am not arguing we shouldn't be involved in the political process...I think Scripture demands that we are (Romans 13); however, the notion that the future of the Church, society, or even individual well being rests in the hands of our government is a thought that at the end of the day grants power to an entity it was never meant to possess.

I could outline other areas that take on a similar feel in so many lives...sports, family, church, even reason and prayer.  But I think at the end of the day, the issue boils down to keeping our trust squarely in the One who made all and is over all...the true source of our Hope....God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.