Saturday, December 17, 2016

Not the Fun House Mirrors

Humility is a greatly misunderstood grace or virtue. Too many Christians think of it as trying to think what you don’t think, see what you don’t see, and know what you don’t actually know. This approach to humility is closer to the eastern and mystical way of emptying yourself than it is to the biblical way of seeking to think that which Christ teaches you to think.

In short, humility is changing your mind not emptying your mind.

C.S. Lewis somewhere said that humility is not thinking less of yourself, but rather thinking of yourself less. It is a matter of what you are thinking about, not whether you are thinking.

A humble man is thinking, meditating, ruminating, all the time. The use of that word ruminating is suggestive. A ruminating animal is one that chews the cud—and there has to be something substantive there to chew.

Christian meditation is content rich. The “grass” we chew is supposed to be everlasting grass, and we meditate on it with eternity in view. This is why we meditate on the Scriptures—which are forever, and on how we may bless our brother or sister, who will live forever. We do not meditate on anything that is transient or fog-like.

When you think about yourself and your own pleasures, trying to edify yourself that way, there is an essential contradiction involved. You are trying to see your own eyeball with your own eyeball. But you were made to look into your neighbor’s eyes, not your own. And the only way it is safe to look even indirectly into your own eyes is when you are using a mirror—and it has to be the mirror of the Word.

If you use the mirrors of the flattering world, you will be combing your hair in accordance with the fun house mirrors at the carnival.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Does God ever actually say No to our Prayers?

Does God ever actually say No to our Prayers? Your immediate response to such a question is probably, “Yes, he often says No!” In which case, I encourage you to reflect on J. I. Packer’s answer.

“God’s yes is regularly a case of ‘your thinking about how I could best meet this need was right’; his no is a case of ‘not that, for this is better’ – and so is really a yes in disguise! – and his wait (which we infer from the fact that though we have asked for action, nothing yet has changed) is a case of ‘wait and see; I will deal with this need at the best time in the best way. Whether or not you will be able to discern my wisdom when I do act, that is what in fact I am going to do. Keep watching, and see what you can see” ("Praying," pgs 173-74).

“We have it on firm scriptural authority that the Father’s response to requests faithfully, humbly, hopefully, expectantly made by his own children, out of a pure heart and an honest desire for God’s glory, is never going to be a flat no. One way or another God’s response will be a positive response, though it may be ‘I am adjusting the terms of your prayer to give you something better than you asked for.’ Or it may be, ‘I know that this isn’t the moment in which answering your prayer would bring you and others most blessing, so I’m asking you to wait.’ Or it may be, ‘I am answering your prayer, but you don’t know the strategy I’m working on, and it doesn’t at the moment feel or look like an answer at all. Nonetheless, it is. Keep praying, keep trusting, and keep looking for what, down the road, I may be able in wisdom to let you see” (pg 177).

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The November 8th Election

This is my last Leading Thoughts before the November 8 election, and so I would like to talk about leading in the era that is about to dawn.

This has been an election like no other in American history. You’ve heard this many times in recent months, I’m sure. Never before have the two leading candidates for president been as disliked and as distrusted by the American people. Never before have Americans been as disillusioned or as disappointed in the nation’s institutions.

We are entering a time in which fear, uncertainty, and despair are going to reign in many an American heart. We will get through this tumultuous season, of course, but only if there are leaders who know how to navigate such times.

Those of you who read Leading Thoughts regularly already know the pillars of the leadership we need now. Here is a brief reminder.

We will have to remind people that times have been worse.
There is nothing as terrifying as believing that you live in the worst of times. This certainly isn’t true of our current era and we should remind people of this. When Thomas Jefferson was elected leading pundits predicted the apocalypse. When Lincoln was elected, the nation split in two. When Truman took office, some members of Congress had to be treated for depression. There have been worse times than now. We survived.

Difficult times are often when great advances happen.
We forget that during the Great Depression, ten thousand people became millionaires. We forget that times of hardship are often our most stunning times of creative and cultural advance. This same progress is possible now if we don’t despair and if we hold to the faith that tomorrow can be better than today.

We were born for this.
Since ninety percent of Americans believe in God, then it isn’t too much of a stretch to say that the vast majority of Americans see themselves as destined to live in the times they do. This means that when we face difficult seasons, we must have the attitude, “I was born for this.” Courage comes from this. Reliance on divine help comes from this. Strength to thrive comes from this.

Politics is not everything.
Our founding fathers wanted limited federal government since they believed that the meaningful things of life are what happens in the human heart, the human family, in communities, and in the common things of life. We are experiencing a tumultuous federal election. This is not the same thing as the earth spinning out of its orbit. We’ll get through it. There will be other elections. We’ll be more on guard as a nation for the corruptions and follies of our leaders. Good days are ahead. Hug your kids. Love your spouse. Do your job. Make your community better. Trust God.

That’s it. Lead and lead well. We need you in these gut-wrenching times.
Have a good weekend.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Real Love

Our world today has a terrible problem with love. They think they know what it means. The standard definition of love is that you never do or say anything that might be upsetting or offensive to another person. You never do or say anything that might get in the way of them expressing their own personal desires in however they choose. To love someone is to affirm and approve whatever it is that they believe about themselves or choose to do with their bodies or their money or their lives as a whole. In our world today it is virtually impossible to say, “You are wrong, but you are loved.” To tell someone they are wrong, they are misguided, they are in danger, they are in the process of destroying their lives both for now and for eternity, is to hate them. To love them is to give them unqualified, unconditional approval and affirmation.
Jesus never did that.

--Sam Storms

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Radically Ordinary

Demythologizing “Radical” Christianity--By Chaplain Mike

I remember meeting with a friend over lunch one day. We had been in Bible college together. I had gone on into the ministry in a small church in the Vermont mountains. He never was able to find his way into “full-time ministry.” And he felt terrible about it. One of the things that was driving him crazy was reading biographies of “great Christians” that others had recommended to help him discover his calling.

He did not feel like he could relate to any of them. These Christian “superstars” all had dynamic personalities. They were pioneers. They seemed to have no trouble stepping into the unknown with courage and reckless abandon. Their charisma drew people to them like a can of soda pop attracts bees at a summer picnic. They not only had “successful” ministries, they started entire movements and organizations, and, at least according to the books, God did magnificent works through their lives. But these hagiographies that had been urged upon my friend did little to encourage him; indeed, just the opposite.

My former college mate simply did not have the kind of personality these Christian “heroes” had. He was quieter, more thoughtful, less visionary and activist in his orientation. He lacked self-confidence and was not driven to achieve lofty goals. My friend admitted to having lots of doubts and questions. If the Christian leaders in the books likewise had them, their biographers certainly didn’t highlight that fact, and it made him wonder.

If this was the model, the template for being a “man of God,” my friend was realizing that he had been formed from a different mold. He felt like a player on the field in a game he’d never practiced, trying to compete against a bunch of pros. He wondered if he lacked commitment, or faith. He questioned whether God had a place for him to serve.

In the second part of his articles at Out of Ur on “Redefining Radical,” Skye Jethani asks us to think about who we set up as examples and models of the Christian faith in our churches.

    Consider who is celebrated in most churches. Typically it is the person who is engaged in “full time Christian work”–the pastor or missionary, or people who pursue social causes that result in a big and measurable impact. (Who isn’t talking about William Wilberforce these days?) Similarly, those who behave like pastors or missionaries periodically in their workplace, neighborhood, or perhaps on a short-term trip overseas are praised for these actions. But a church will rarely, if ever, celebrate a person’s “ordinary” life and work.

Evangelicalism’s definition of “radical” does not seem to include ordinary people living quiet, faithful lives, fulfilling their God-given vocations in the normal course of daily life. I think that’s a big problem.
So does Skye Jethani.

    Here’s the problem–when we call people to radical Christian activism, we tend to define what qualifies as “radical” very narrowly. Radical is moving overseas to rescue orphans. Radical is not being an attorney for the EPA. Radical is leaving your medical practice to vaccinate refugees in Sudan. Radical is not taking care of young children at home in the suburbs. Radical is planting a church in Detroit. Radical is not working on an assembly line.

    What we communicate, either explicitly or implicitly, by this call to radical activism is that experiencing the fullness of the Christian life depends upon one’s circumstances and actions. Sure, the man working on an assembly line for 50 years can be a faithful Christian, but he’s not going to experience the same sense of fulfillment and significance as the one who does something extreme–who cashes in his 401k and relocates to Madagascar to rescue slaves.

The error Jethani points out is pervasive in American evangelicalism, and it is as representative of fallen American culture as the “consumer” mentality or the “entertainment” addiction we often lament and critique. This is the elevation of the successful entrepreneur, the celebration of the “winner,” the admiration of the risk-taker, the worship of the extraordinary achiever. We love the adrenalin rush of hearing about exciting adventures. We love “the thrill of victory” (not so much “the agony of defeat”). We desire to either have the “great experience” ourselves or live it vicariously through someone else. We must have our super-heroes and feel like we are on their team.

Now, there is a place for this. I don’t want to flatten life to the point where we don’t appreciate those who may be specially gifted, recognize outstanding accomplishments, or admire extraordinary sacrifices. Nevertheless, in our celebrity-saturated society, it seems we are on a track of needing more and more of this, while at the same time we understand less and less about the blessing of common everyday grace and faithfulness.

By so doing, we create first and second-class Christians—those who are “radical,” “sold out,” “on fire,” “totally committed,” and those who are not. We also seize control of a process that is the rightful domain of the Holy Spirit. Friends, it is not the pastor or the church that is called to define the path of discipleship. That’s God’s job. Too many church leaders are making up their own definitions and laying burdens on believers that are much too heavy to bear. Their “radical” yoke is not easy.

I was heartened to read that Skye Jethani’s prescription for us is a revival of the Reformation doctrine of vocation. In my view, vocation is one of the most important and delightful teachings for the body of Christ. It is summarized well in the following quote from Gene Edward Veith:

    When I go into a restaurant, the waitress who brings me my meal, the cook in the back who prepared it, the delivery men, the wholesalers, the workers in the food-processing factories, the butchers, the farmers, the ranchers, and everyone else in the economic food chain are all being used by God to “give me this day my daily bread.”

    This is the doctrine of vocation. God works through people, in their ordinary stations of life to which He has called them, to care for His creation. In this way, He cares for everyone—Christian and non-Christian—whom He has given life.

    Luther puts it even more strongly: Vocations are “masks of God.” On the surface, we see an ordinary human face—our mother, the doctor, the teacher, the waitress, our pastor—but, beneath the appearances, God is ministering to us through them. God is hidden in human vocations.

    The other side of the coin is that God is hidden in us. When we live out our callings—as spouses, parents, children, employers, employees, citizens, and the rest—God is working through us. Even when we do not realize it, when we fulfill our callings, we too are masks of God. -- Gene Edward Veith, “The Masks of God”

The essential apostolic perspective on this is found in 1Cor 4:2—“Now it is required that those who have been given a trust must prove faithful.” The quality of our life with Christ is not measured by how “radical” it is. God asks us to be faithful, by his grace, to that which he has entrusted to us.

If you are a plumber, be a faithful and honest plumber. Do your work well. Help people. Provide for your family and bless others through the wages you earn. Be a good neighbor and use your skills to assist folks in need when you can. In so doing, God will work through you to bless the world. You need not think you are doing less than the pastor or missionary or the person who does something out of the ordinary. You may never take a mission trip. You may not be able to serve in the church institution as much as you’d like. You may never give a sermon or lead someone personally to conversion. People won’t think of you as a “radical Christian,” but if you live faithfully in the vocations God has given you, that’s exactly what you’ll be. Salt of the earth. Light of the world.

I like the word Skye Jethani gives to church leaders like himself at the end of his article:

    So I’ve come to embrace the reality that my place as a church leader is not to get people to do more for God. Rather, I believe my responsibility is to give others a ravishing vision, rooted in Scripture and modeled by my own example, of a life lived in communion with God. And there, as they abide in him, calling will happen. The Lord of the harvest will call and send workers. And he will call others to live quietly and work with their hands. Some may be butchers, and others lawyers, and some he will even call to be suburban moms. And all of their work will be holy, good, and, if rooted in communion with God, truly radical.

I don’t know about you, but I am tired of the hype. I’m ready to start a “Remove the Adjectives” campaign to protest the addition of any description to my calling as a follower of Christ. I am a Christian. Period. In life, I am a husband, father, grandfather, neighbor, member of my community, hospice chaplain, Little League baseball coach, blog author, and so on. In and through these “masks” God loves the world through me. I, who have been given these trusts, am called to be faithful.

I can’t think of a higher calling! A more noble stewardship!

Please, don’t start laying words like “radical” on me. That’s your deal, not God’s.

Friday, August 12, 2016

6 Surprising Ideas the KJV Translators Had about Other Bible Translations

About 88% of Americans have a Bible in their home, and when they reach for their Bibles, more than half of them are still reaching for the King James Version (KJV). Although the NIV tops Bible sales each year (KJV and NKJV are number 2 & 3), only 19% of Americans own that modern translation, and other modern translations take much smaller slices of the Bible sales pie.

“KJV only” churches, of course, believe that their translation is the only version that faithfully embodies the Word of God. All other translations are to be rejected out of hand. Such churches hold this faulty position based on a misunderstanding of the ancient manuscripts behind the Bible (we will have to discuss that misunderstanding in a future blog post). 

Yet, it is interesting that the KJV translators themselves had particular ideas about translations other than their own, and they lay out their views clearly and forcefully in the published Preface of the original edition of their eloquent translation. Ironically, their views are very different from those who champion their translation today. So here are 6 ideas the KJV translators had about other translations of the Bible.

1. Other translations are noble, helpful companions in the process of translation.
In addition to the original languages of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, the 3 committees that worked on the KJV used other translations, both those in English that had gone before them, as well as translations in other languages. They used translations of the Bible to consider how best to interpret and render the original languages in the English of the early 17th Century. Thus, the KJV translators expressed thanks to God for other translations as a valuable resource in their work.

2. Other translations are part of a long, celebrated history of Christian mission.
In their Preface, the KJV translators detail the many, many tongues into which the Scriptures had been translated, and they celebrate this crossing of linguistic boundaries as important for the work of God. It seems that from the beginning of the Christian movement, translation work was in the heart of God as a part of his purposes. We may suggest that this work goes on to this day in the ministry of Wycliffe Bible Translators and others, who continue to pair down the over 1,800 languages in the world that lack a translated Bible. Translation work is important for gospel mission worldwide, a fact understood and celebrated by the KJV translators.

3. Other translations past and present should be celebrated rather than condemned, having been raised up by God for “the building and furnishing of [God’s] Church.”
According to the KJV translators, translation work is a work of edification and education for the church. Thus, other translations should be embraced as good, and they should be built upon. The KJV translators, speaking of other translators, write in their Preface, “Therefore blessed be they, and most honoured be their name, that breake the ice, and glueth onset upon that which helpeth forward to the saving of soules. Now what can bee more availeable thereto, then to deliver Gods booke unto Gods people in a tongue which they understand?” They continue later in the Preface, “Truly (good Christian Reader) wee never thought from the beginning, that we should neede to make a new Translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one, . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principall good one, . . . .” In other words, they saw themselves as used by God to build upon the work of others in an ongoing process of providing translations for the people of God.

4. No translation is perfect, and even the poorest English translation, carried out by responsible scholars, not only contains the Word of God but is the Word of God.
The KJV translators give an analogy: “As the Kings Speech which hee uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latine, is still the Kings Speech, though it be not interpreted by every Translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expresly for sense, every where.” They go on to note that even a man considered handsome may have a wart or two! The apostles and their fellow-writers of Scripture were infallible. Translators are not. So in translation, blemishes here and there are normal but do not lessen the Word as the Word of God. They suggest the pre-eminent example of this is the Greek translation of the Old Testament used by the early church. It was not perfect, but it was embraced by the apostles and others as God’s good Word.

5. Translations (including the KJV) should be corrected and improved.
The KJV translators worked to correct places in other translations that needed correcting—even as they did ongoing work of correction on their own translation. They studied to correct the work of others, and they studied to continue to improve their own translation, seeking to grow in their understanding of God’s good Word. Consequently, modern translators who work to correct imperfections in the KJV, are very much working in the Spirit of the KJV translators themselves. 

6. A variety of translations is profitable for discerning the sense of the Scriptures.
The KJV translators at points included in the margins variations on how a passage could be translated (even as is done in some modern translations), and they believed that people having access to various translations is a very good thing. They suggested that the kingdom of God does not hinge on a rigid rendering of individual words and syllables, but that there is freedom in translating the sense of the text. They further say that this freedom follows God’s own pattern of using various words to express the same ideas at different points in Scripture.

In short, the KJV translators wanted to do an excellent translation “to make God’s holy Trueth to be yet more and more knowen unto the people . . .” and they saw translations other than their own as important ministry partners in that process. They thought that the Bible itself should be translated again and again, since it is more worthy of such work than any body of ancient literature. Consequently, the translators of the King James Version would be the first to affirm the importance of modern translations carrying on their legacy for the good of the Church and the advance of the gospel in the world.

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

All the Right Beliefs for All the Wrong Reasons

 –Michael Patton

Sometimes it is frustrating to introduce yourself to theological issues. Most people who get deeply involved in theology quickly realize how much they don’t know. Confident seminary students enter their training thinking that they are going to breeze their way through as they have their prejudices confirmed by their soon to be impressed professors. After the first year, their countenance is soured as their confidence turns into an insecure angel (or devil) on their shoulder who says, “Who did you think you were presuming God called you into ministry?” They begin to realize that they came to seminary to find out how much they did not know! Some get discouraged and leave, others harden in their categories becoming unable to learn. But the best adjust their expectations, knowing that an admission of ignorance is a fundamental foundation to learning.

There is an old dictum to knowledge. It goes something like this:
There are four types of people:
1. The one who doesn’t know, and doesn’t know that he doesn’t know. He is a fool–shun him.
2. The one who doesn’t know, but knows that he doesn’t know. He is a student–help him learn.
3. The one who knows, but doesn’t know that he knows. He is an unenlightened person–enlighten him.
4. The one who knows and knows that he knows. He is a wise man–follow him.
I would like to add a fifth:
5. The one who knows but does not know how he knows. He is naive—deconstruct him.

This fifth category refers to those who have all the right beliefs for all the wrong reasons. This is very common in theological circles. I believe that it is prevalent within Evangelicalism as a basic creedal confession takes the place of doctrinal understanding. I know of many people who confess a belief in the doctrine of the Trinity, but they really don’t know why they believe in this doctrine. I know of many people who believe that Christ rose bodily from the grave, but they could not give you even the most basic defense of their confession. Both the bodily resurrection of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity are good and right beliefs, but if someone cannot justify these beliefs, do they really believe them?

The fidest (one who defines faith as a blind leap into the dark) would answer with an unqualified, “Yes.” The evidentialist (one who believes that evidence plays a vital role in faith) would say, “Maybe, maybe not.” I side with the evidentialist. There is a large chasm between assent to a proposition and being convicted of that proposition. And there is a fine line between emotional conviction and conviction of the Holy Spirit. To answer the question How do you know that Christ rose from the grave? with a “I just know that I know!” answer is both insufficient and, dare I say, sinfully neglectful of our duty to engage our minds. It creates an unjustified dichotomy between the mind and the heart.

“The heart will not accept what the mind rejects.” These words are attributed to Jonathan Edwards (although I have never seen the reference). Nevertheless, I believe this is true. The one who knows but does not know how he knows is in great danger of one day losing what he knew. Why? Because the justification for this knowledge is unqualified and insufficient. Creating a dichotomy between the mind and the heart is a self-defense mechanism for those who are truly insecure about their faith. They don’t have enough confidence in their faith to subject it to the scrutiny that the mind demands. For these people, an introduction of the mind’s interrogation to their beliefs is like playing the lottery. There is a chance—a good chance—that it will not survive, so it is better not to take that chance. They simply “know that they know that they know.”
Or, as some would put it, they know because they have a “burning in their bosom”—that’s enough for them.

The problem with this fidestic approach to faith is that, in the end, everyone can claim this “burning in the bosom.” No one and no belief system is disqualified from its epistemological methodology. Two people with completely different belief systems can both have this subjective confidence with hearts on fire. Both can (and often do) claim that their conviction is from the Holy Spirit. Yet one of them is wrong.

Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that there is a subjective conviction of the Holy Spirit. But I believe that the conviction that the Holy Spirit brings is based upon the objective realities of the truths He represents. These truths are not acquired by a sound method of meditation or a blind adherence to what mom and dad taught you, but by wrestling with the issues and coming to your faith on your own. There has to be a deconstruction process that allows the Holy Spirit to bring about a conviction that we can truly credit to Him. We don’t have to disassociate His conviction with our studies. It is not an either/or but a both/and. God brings about conviction through our studies. This is the medium He uses. Yet unfortunately we often justify our lazy minds by placing the blame on Him for our intellectual disassociation.

Having all the right beliefs for all the wrong reasons. This is not a good thing. The reasons provide the foundation for our beliefs. If we do not construct a method of inquiry that has integrity, our beliefs will lack integrity. If our beliefs lack integrity, do we truly believe them?

We must learn to deconstruct our beliefs. No, not in the postmodern sense of the term. Postmodernism seeks to deconstruct without the intention of reconstructing. They do this because part of their presumed construction says that we cannot reconstruct (which is self-defeating). We deconstruct so that we can truly believe. We deconstruct so that we don’t have a faith of hibernated fear. We deconstruct so that when our fortress is rebuilt, it can weather any trial, internal or external. Ultimately, we deconstruct so that we can glorify God by loving Him with all our mind.

I know that this is difficult for many to hear. I know that the proposition is a fearful one. We are much more comfortable in our naive existence. But we must graduate our faith and encourage others to do the same. We must have the right beliefs for the right reasons.

I believe that a failure to do so, from a human standpoint, sets people up for their journey away from Christianity. This is why you see me singing this same tune so often.