Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Rhetoric and Dialectic

Cry of the Prophet Jeremiah, Ilya Repin, 1870
If we were to read only the King James Version of the Bible, we might be forgiven for imagining that there is some sort of distinctive manner in which its characters converse or write on God’s behalf; some sort of major communication hurdle which either repels us or needs to be laboriously surmounted over time.

Of course a moment’s reflection would tell us this idea is nonsensical. When accurately rendered in a current iteration of English or any other language, the Bible is much easier to read and understand than is often thought. Its translators do their job more efficiently and with increasing frequency as years go by, which is very much to our benefit.

In fact, we often make understanding the Bible far more difficult for ourselves by failing to recognize in it the same features of language that we employ day after day in our own conversations.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Your Church Building is NOT the House of God

I’m hearing it all the time now in public prayer: “We thank you, Father that we are able to freely gather in the house of God” and other similar thoughts, where the words “house of God” are unquestionably being used to describe the building in which we are sitting.

A similar misconception is given voice by people who insist upon referring to the auditorium in which a church meets as a “sanctuary”. As in (from mother to child), “Don’t run in the sanctuary! Don’t make noise in the sanctuary!”

These are not new Christians. It makes me wonder if they really know what the house of God is or what the term sanctuary means. I think in many cases they do, but have through inattention lapsed into language that is potentially misleading.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Church Discipline and Membership

Let’s imagine a (hopefully semi-plausible) business scenario that may, if all goes well, turn into something of a parable.

We’ll say that I am a night supervisor working on a single floor of one of those corporate telephone solicitation colossi. I have under me perhaps a hundred employees coming and going on a regular basis. Some work on my floor only briefly before moving on to other departments. Others stay for years. I do not hire them, and I do not fire them. My role is simply to confirm that they have what they need to do their jobs and to work with them to make them better telephone salespeople.

Under these circumstances, I find myself writing an email to my department manager.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Thank You for the Failures

Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895
by Studio Levy & fils
God wants to save “all people”, or so we are told.

Some readers understand that concept very broadly. They see that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth”, and conclude from it that God would prefer it if every single human being on the planet were to turn from sin and self to Christ, who is God’s only way of salvation.

This may very well be true, though I don’t think it’s exactly what Paul was telling Timothy.

Another Interpretation

Other readers — and I am among them — understand the phrase “all people” in 1 Timothy 2 to mean “all kinds of people” or “people from all stations in life”. The meaning of the word “all” in scripture, as in language generally, is not invariably global in scope; it is limited by the context in which it is used. Context here suggests that Paul’s intended meaning is that believers should not restrict or limit our prayers for the salvation of others to only those of our own kind or those in our own strata of society, because God wants to save people of every type: rich and poor, slave and free, rulers and ruled.

The gospel is offered to all, and who are we to be more delimited in our prayers than God is in his grace?

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Where “Judeo-” and “Christian” Part Ways

Apart from a saving knowledge of Christ, even the best of men quite rationally fear death.

We hear a great deal about our “Judeo-Christian heritage” in this country, as if Judaism and Christianity have so much in common that they can be lumped into a hyphenated modifier without further ado. And while Christianity has its roots in the sacred scriptures of Judaism, the specific conclusions Christianity draws from the Hebrew texts and the certainty with which it does so put it in a class all by itself.

Friday, December 26, 2014

Too Hot to Handle: Does Your Building Matter?

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Tom: I’m prowling the Internet, as is my wont, and encountering discussion on the subject of whether a church building can impede one’s efforts to grow a local church. Take for example this meditation, from Abby Stocker at Christianity Today:

“Our worship spaces matter. The music, preaching, and community obviously influence our church experience, but building styles also communicate something to the congregation about what is proper in worship. A central stage outfitted with a drumset probably means the music will be emotional and modern. Feel free to wave your hands, dance, however the Spirit leads you. Kneelers will probably be dedicated to congregational, possibly liturgical, prayer. Space for a mosh pit signifies ... you’re probably not at, say, a small intimate gathering based primarily on discussion of a text. How often do you walk into a space that feels like a cross between a trendy concert hall and a mall expecting to experience organ-led hymns? Cathedrals, on the other hand, aren’t considered prime ground for a rousing chorus of Chris Tomlin’s ‘Our God.’ ”

So here we are, left to consider how the apostle Paul might have felt about a mosh pit. Immanuel Can, please help me out here.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Inbox: Someone Greater than Lawrence Is Here

Bernie passes on a quote from Winston Churchill about T.E. Lawrence that seems more than a little appropriate today:

“The world looks with some awe upon a man who appears unconcernedly indifferent to home, money, comfort, rank, or even power and fame. The world feels not without a certain apprehension, that here is someone outside its jurisdiction; someone before whom its allurements may be spread in vain; someone strangely enfranchised, untamed, untrammelled by convention, moving independent of the ordinary currents of human action.”

Merry Christmas!

Bernie
Immanuel Can
Tom

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Joining the Choir

Is waving our arms absolutely necessary?
I make no claim to being world’s best listener.

When I advise someone to be patient, it’s most often because the thing they’re bothered about would not bother me in similar circumstances. So I consider that either they are worrying about something they have no control over (and therefore worrying pointlessly), or they are worrying about something over which they DO have control, but for reasons known only to themselves are unprepared to take the action required to deal with it.

Both types of unnecessary agitation are irritants to anyone of a pragmatic disposition.

Thus “be patient” from my lips often has the force of “please go away and flap your jaws elsewhere; I’m doing something more interesting”.

What does a choir have to do with patience? Give me a sec.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

How Do You Love the Gospel?

A more current version of this post is available here.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Resetting our Defaults

If only it were as simple as pushing three keys ...
What does your church do on Sunday mornings?

I’ve been thinking about platform ministry. Each church has its own default set of practices observed week after week (with the exception of churches that meet in living rooms and basements and don’t have platforms) and, other than in the case of brand new churches, the choices that go into how teaching and preaching get presented are rarely conscious ones. They are more often the result of time, tradition and imitation of formats perceived to be successful in other churches.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Recommend-a-blog (2)

It’s only been a year and change, so I guess it’s about time I did another one of these.

Eddy Plett is a brave man. Talking candidly about mental illness (particularly one’s own struggles) is not universally greeted with enthusiasm in certain conservative evangelical circles.

Especially when you do it on the Internet.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Are We Teaching or Just Speeching?

A more current version of this post is available here.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Too Hot to Handle: A Lack of Leadership

Is a good man always hard to find?
In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Immanuel Can: Tom, we need a new generation of spiritual leaders in our congregations. But they don’t seem to be appearing in most places, and not nearly fast enough for the rising need.

What can we do?

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Joy and Strength

The joy of the Lord is not just a fireworks display
I have on occasion been accused of pessimism. Unreasonably, I assure you.

But when, for example, I see a room full of grade school kids shouting out “The joy of the Lord is my strength,” at the prompting of a smiling Sunday School superintendent, unlike the cheery folk who enthuse over the fact that their children are (albeit unintentionally) memorizing scripture that will someday be of use to them, my first and far-too-natural instinct is to wonder if they have any idea what they’re singing and how many of them mean it.

The second and even less upbeat thing that often crosses my mind is to wonder how many of them really know the Lord, and how badly those who don’t (and even some of those who do) will seriously mess up their lives by the time they’re my age.

Bleak thoughts, no?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Rethinking the Platform

Okay, this one may be a little elaborate ...
It dawns on me that this blog is a pretty good opportunity to raise crazy notions about the church that might not get aired elsewhere.

Don’t panic, I’m not talking about heresy or even radicalism.

But beyond what the scripture itself says, in this venue we’ve never tried to promote a particular agenda or denominational affiliation. Obviously we have preferences, but we’re not trying to sell people on ‘this brand’ or ‘that brand’ of Christianity, just Christ.

In this space we are trying to talk to a broad spectrum of evangelical Christians about the faith we have in common and to examine how that faith intersects with popular culture, the 21st century mindset and the modern church, among other things.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

“In case I don’t make it back …”

Heading out to the airport last Saturday, a friend stopped by my desk, put her arms around me and said, “I’d better give you a hug in case I don’t make it back.”

She said it lightly but not frivolously. We’ve both watched a number of people slip into eternity in the last 12 months: her health-conscious forty-something dentist from a sudden stroke; a small businessman I used to say hello to every week unexpectedly diagnosed with a brain tumor; a friend’s mother whose passing was medically predictable but still jarred family and friends; and a fellow employee with some kind of wasting disease that remained undiagnosed until it was too late. There are probably more; those are just the recent ones.

Monday, December 15, 2014

David’s Covenant and the Resurrection

I’m fairly sure David didn’t look exactly like this.
Yesterday we looked at the first six public messages in the book of Acts to examine how one’s audience determines the content of a gospel message, a pattern well established by the apostles in their preaching.

It’s clear that the apostles did not simply memorize a few key points to preach about in every situation. They did not utilize a predictable series of Old Testament proof texts. They were not merely checking boxes, but responded to the needs of the particular audience to whom they were preaching.

So now here we are in Acts 13.

The Seventh Message: Paul in Pisidian Antioch

After their time in Cyprus where they surely preached similar messages to the one we are about to examine (though the Holy Spirit has seen fit to record none of them), Paul and Barnabas continue to the city of Antioch in Pisidia, about 100 miles north of Perga, where they landed. Today Antioch would be located in southern Turkey. It is there that Paul gives a message that is very much a departure from those of Peter and Stephen that are recorded for us by Luke in the first twelve chapters of Acts.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Gospel In Context

Ever preached from one of these?
Anybody who has browsed my Bible Study series is familiar with the conviction (not uniquely mine) that context may well be the single most significant tool for determining meaning available to English students of scripture. It has certainly been the most useful to me.

This is not about that. It’s about the importance of a different sort of context: situation and audience.

A few weeks ago Immanuel Can and I had occasion to discuss the subject of the gospel and what it actually is. The four Gospels themselves (of course) record the beginnings of the “good news”, but necessarily cannot fully elaborate on all its implications. It requires the rest of the New Testament to do that, but a very good starting point is a study of how the apostles actually preached it from the very beginning (up to and including Acts 13, at any rate, which is as far as I’ve currently gone in my study).

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Christmas Dreams, White or Otherwise

The most current version of this post is available here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Too Hot to Handle: The Social Gospel and Social Justice

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Was Christ Made Sin?

The latest version of Bernie's post is available here.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Making Straight Paths

We are coming up on a year of posting daily, so I thought it might be time to revisit our very first post ever, courtesy of the enigmatic and seldom-seen Bernie, who really started the ball rolling  Tom

We are likely all familiar with the preparations involved for a visiting dignitary: the airport at which he will arrive is closed off to other traffic, the roads his motorcade must travel are cleared, a security perimeter is established and so forth. This has been society’s behavior for time immemorial — when someone important arrives, everything else is managed to ensure that the VIP can keep to their schedule in a way that is most comfortable and safe for them.

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

Do We Need Revival?

The most recent version of this post is available here.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Rabbit Language

“Hmm. How to proceed ...”
A Thanksgiving blog post (American, that is — I’m not running that far behind) has me thinking about freedom of speech, the Christian and the giving and taking of offence with respect to how we speak about those in authority.

Christians definitely disagree on this issue. I was in the U.S. last summer and heard them doing it. Naturally they were all doing it politely.

Sunday, December 07, 2014

“It’s All Under Control …”

“Nothing happening here. You can move along any time now ...”
How many times have you heard that line?

If someone doesn’t come right out and say it (or something quite like it), a distraction is served up in the timeliest possible fashion. Remember Bill Clinton’s famous four-day bombing of Iraq just as the House of Representatives commenced his own impeachment hearing?

Or the problem may magically just go away, as in the disappearance from the news for the last month or so of anything whatsoever to do with the Ebola virus, when well over 1,000 Americans are now potentially infected.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Bad Ideas That Refuse To Die

What is it about bad ideas?

I’m not thinking of anything as egregious as false teaching making its way into the church, though that tends to happen on a regular basis too. No, I’m thinking more of the natural preferences and tendencies we have and assumptions we make that can hinder the work of God and drive a wedge in between believers.

The worst part about bad ideas is that, unlike many varieties of false or heretical teaching, they often come from good people, which makes them that much more sensitive to deal with. They are also not demonstrably sinful in most cases, making it more difficult to mount a case against them and disinclining those who harbor them to easily abandon them.

Friday, December 05, 2014

Thursday, December 04, 2014

Inbox: Richard Carrier’s Moral Philosophy

A more current version of this post is available here.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

Redistributionism and Jubilee

The Great Isaiah Scroll. Wrong chapter,
but you get the general idea ...
Howard Bess is a retired Baptist minister from Alaska whose novel application of the Bible’s teaching about the Jewish Year of Jubilee to issues of social justice in twenty-first century America has attracted a lot of positive attention.

“Thank you — what a beautiful interpretation of that passage,” gushed one reader. “I love the sense of Judaism and Christianity out of which Bess operates. It immediately recommends itself to me as wholesome and authentic,” enthuses another.

But despite the alleged aura of wholesomeness and authenticity, it seems to me that Bess doesn’t so much reinterpret Luke 4 as miss its real meaning as completely as did the Jews in his hometown of Nazareth, the Lord’s original audience.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Get a Cat, Richard

Not my cat, but close enough
I’m feeling inadequate today, for a number of reasons.

One is age. Okay, fine, relatively speaking I’m not all THAT old. Still, when you get out of bed in the morning and creak all the way to the bathroom and don’t feel like yourself until you’ve had your morning coffee (assuming you are still allowed by your doctor to drink coffee and of course always assuming that alcohol is not involved), you start to think about how much worse it may get.

Someone at the midweek prayer meeting I attend recently offered up thanks for the life of a fellow believer who just reached 110, more than twice my age. That is, to me, a daunting prospect.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Hand of the Lord

Raphael: St Paul Before the Proconsul, 1515
I’ve been asked to open a Bible study on Acts 13:4-12 and decided to take the opportunity to share some of the thoughts that arise.

These nine verses mark the beginning of what is often called Paul’s first missionary journey, which began in Syrian Antioch. They relate the story of Elymas the magician.

It is unclear whether “magician” in this context means that Elymas gave wise counsel, knew a few parlour tricks or actually possessed genuine demonic power. The word magos, which the KJV translates “sorcerer”, is also translated “wise men” when Matthew employs it to describe those who came to worship the Lord Jesus as a baby (I suspect Matthew uses magos to mean “astronomers” or “scientists” rather than those who trafficked in witchcraft). In Acts 8, however, when used to describe Simon the magician who “amazed people with his magic”, it clearly speaks of gimmickry or something much worse.

In any case, Elymas had an encounter with the hand of the Lord that did not go as expected.