Monday, December 31, 2018

Anonymous Asks (20)

“Does God have a specific career or school for you to go to?”

I suspect the answer to this is “maybe”.

If that sounds a little fuzzy, it’s because life is like that. If God has a specific, personal will for you about things like which university you should attend or whether plumbing would be a better career choice than medicine, he has not revealed it in his word, the Bible, which is where you and I would normally look for guidance.

Further, the era in which we find ourselves has a notable shortage of legitimate prophets, and experience shows that people who talk a lot about “feeling led” to do this or that often end up making questionable decisions. I can understand if that leaves followers of Christ looking around for clear direction about what to do.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Inbox: Thoughts in Progress (1)

The process of coming to grips with some of the great ideas in scripture and how best to understand them is far from easy or instant. More than a high IQ or a great memory, it takes desire, persistence and most of all ... time.

“Read, pay attention, pray, think and wait … and while you’re waiting, read some more” is sound advice for the young Christian who wants to learn, but it’s a difficult thing to sell to early 21st century Westerners who can ask Google a trivia question on their phones and get what passes for an answer in nanoseconds.

If you want to know where the nearest pizza place is and how late it’s open, that’s fine. But Google can’t tell you how to find oblique references to the Church in the Minor Prophets when you’re doing your morning reading, or even if you should expect to.

I mean, sometimes you’re not even at a stage where you’d know the right question to ask it.

Saturday, December 29, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (39)

I’m going to work my way through all thirty of these longer “sayings” in chapters 22-24 of Proverbs, not least because I’ve skipped so lightly over the last ten chapters, but also because, well, they’re just that good.

There’s much more in each of these sayings than I can possibly bring out in a few lines, and every one of them is worthy of serious meditation.

Friday, December 28, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: All Greek If You Want It to Be

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

In an article appropriately entitled “Premarital Sex: Is It A Sin Or Not?” Charles Toy of TheChristianLeft.org contends it’s … not:

“There is no passage of the Bible that references premarital sex as a sin against God. The association between sin and premarital sex is a new Christian idea. The only possible reference to premarital sex being a sin in the Bible is in the New Testament. This premise although, is generally dismissed by theologians because the Greek word πορνεία, or sexual immorality is commonly incorrectly translated into the English word fornication.”

Tom: In our earlier discussion, we discovered we agree that Mr. Toy is wrong about the association between sin and premarital sex being a “new Christian idea”. It actually goes back to Genesis. So his first point is inaccurate.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Self-Controlled or Self-Condemned

A few years ago, I had several Facebook exchanges followed by a long phone call with an old friend I hadn’t seen since my mid-twenties. Now in his late forties, he had suddenly become passionate about the Christian faith. It was all he could talk about. Initially, I found his new enthusiasm infectious. I was delighted to hear he was reading the Bible for himself.

After an hour or two back and forth, however, it became apparent that his newfound interest in the word of God had a very specific, narrow focus bordering on obsession: mining Bible numerology for clues to understanding the past and the future. The moment I tried to get practical with my old friend, our conversation hit a brick wall.

Why was that, I wondered?

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Semi-Random Musings (11)

“Have mercy on those who doubt; save others by snatching them out of the fire; to others show mercy with fear, hating even the garment stained by the flesh.”

To treat a medical condition helpfully, a doctor must first be an accurate diagnostician. If a physician fails to correctly discern the root cause of the problem, nothing he prescribes is likely to solve it. If he fails to correctly assess the current progress of an affliction, he may offer a solution that would have been helpful two weeks ago but will do nothing useful now. And if he fails to note the attendant risks associated with the problem, he may contract a communicable disease himself and spread it instead of restraining it.

A single approach to sin in the lives of others will not do. Some sins are infectious; others are merely repulsive. Some sinners need a sharp rebuke, others gentleness.

Tuesday, December 25, 2018

To One and All, A Mary Christmas

“… the power of the Most High will overshadow you.”

“So this is Christmas, and what have you done?”

So sing the children in John Lennon’s wretched ditty. I really don’t know why he bothered himself about Christmas when he also wanted to “imagine there’s no heaven”. But each to his own. I’m sure he’s thought better of that since.

At Christmas time, I can’t imagine a more dismal question. Another year over, Lennon accuses, and you haven’t done anything. The poor are still starving, the world is still at war. When are you going to get off your haunches and be worth something?

Ah, there’s nothing like Christmas pudding and the sounds of self-flagellation to improve the seasonal mood.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Anonymous Asks (19)

“I keep praying the sinner’s prayer. I’m so anxious. Am I saved or not?”

I have some bad news: I’m probably the worst person to answer the question of whether or not you are really saved. In fact, I suspect nobody else can tell you that either, since salvation is a byproduct of faith. Faith is not something we human beings are particularly good at measuring, either in ourselves or in others, since we cannot see into the heart, very often even our own.

As for me, I actually had to look up the “sinner’s prayer” to see what it is. I’m pretty sure there’s no such thing to be found in the Bible, at least not under that name.

Sunday, December 23, 2018

Resting and Standing

“But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”

The very last verse of the book of Daniel is a personal promise from a mighty angel to an Old Testament saint three times called “greatly loved”. It assumes something the Old Testament refers to rarely and about which Judaism today says next to nothing: a future for godly men and women beyond this present life.

The angel doesn’t formally teach this so much as he simply takes it for granted: “You will lie in your grave for a bit, then God has something specific in mind for you after all that.”

I wonder what Daniel thought about it, but not even the greatest Bible expositor or translator can tell me that. The book of Daniel ends there. As usual, God gets the last word.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (38)

If you were here with us back in the second installment of this series on Proverbs, you may recall that for ease of reference I divided the book into seven sections and an introduction. We have now reached section 3.

With perhaps one exception I can currently recall, section 2, the longest in the book, is filled with two-line proverbs. The advantage of two-liners is that they are tremendously memorable. The disadvantage we discovered is that in the absence of context — and proverbs are by their nature decontextualized — the briefer a sentence in Hebrew, the more difficult it is to discern its meaning.

That’s a pretty significant disadvantage.

Thirty Sayings

The following is my own breakdown of the divisions between the Thirty Sayings found in Proverbs 22:17-24:22. It differs from some others in that it seems to me Solomon occasionally adds editorial comments to his sons that are unrelated to any specific “saying”. I believe these to be more general in nature and simply reiterate the desire he expresses in his introduction that they take seriously what he has written to them.

Alternatively, they may introduce specific sayings and add force to them.

I have noted these asides in brown.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: Virtual Fellowship

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

A few days ago, I watched a popular YouTube video one of our readers passed on. It was intended as a spoof of lazy, millennial, hipster Christians who have figured out how to avoid the inevitable complications and commitments of church life by going to “virtual church”. By themselves. From bed. Provided they can work up the energy.

Tom: It’s actually quite entertaining, and if you can watch it without cracking up, you have more self-control than I do. In fact, to really get the picture, you should probably watch it first, if you’re that sort of reader.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over

The Lord is king forever and ever.”

The 2014 NCAA football championship final was an amazing game. The Florida State Seminoles and their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback, high on a record-breaking season, were pitted against the upstart Auburn Tigers, recent defeaters of last year’s national champions. Florida State was touted as the prohibitive favorite — but as they say, it ain’t over ’til it’s over.

Auburn stormed out onto the field and took the Seminoles off guard. Their crafty game plan, superior aggression at the line and some stellar execution by their offense rapidly staked them to an overwhelming 21-3 lead. Meanwhile, nothing the Seminoles tried seemed to work, and Auburn’s every touch of the ball was golden.

But as they say, the game weren’t over yet.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Reverse Engineering the Faith

“I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints.”

Conservative scholars generally date the book of Jude to between A.D. 66 and 90. In his book The Untold Story of the New Testament Church, Frank Viola opts for a likely date of A.D. 68. William MacDonald uses internal evidence to place authorship between A.D. 67 and 70. I have not come across much that would incline me to argue with either man.

All these estimates place Jude as one of the very last books of the New Testament to be written and distributed to the first century churches.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Responsibility and Blame

I do a lot of intercessory praying, and probably so do you.

You know the sort of prayer I mean. Say, for instance, you are friends with a Christian couple experiencing marriage difficulties. You did not introduce them. You did not choose the one for the other or recommend one to the other. You did not officiate at their wedding ceremony and you certainly have nothing to do with the issues that make their marriage dysfunctional. The ultimate outcome of their current domestic turbulence, good or bad, will not affect your life in any significant way beyond the occasional moment of empathy or concern.

You have no dog in the hunt, so to speak.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Anonymous Asks (18)

“How do you know when you’ve found ‘the one’?”

There is a relatively modern disease out there in the world called oneitis. It’s as visible as dermatitis, at least as distracting as tinnitus, and it can probably do a great deal more damage than either in the long run.

The idea is that there is one person on the planet who is a perfect match for you; one who completes you, and only one, in the absence of whom you will never quite be completely fulfilled. Ergo, oneitis. It’s a common Hollywood trope and the subject of romance novels, but it does not come from the Bible, I can assure you.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

Real Paul and Fake Paul

Marcus Antonius Felix was the procurator of the Roman province of Iudaea between A.D. 52 and 58. Secular history tells us he was a Greek, known for his cruelty and fond of bribes. His rule was characterized by political unrest, which he put down ruthlessly. He married three times, his middle wife being a Jewish divorcee named Drusilla who died two decades later in the famous first century eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

It would not be wildly out of line to suggest Felix’s “rather accurate knowledge” of The Way was likely a direct consequence of this second marriage.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (37)

The rich and the poor, the faithful and the faithless. There’s something for everybody in Proverbs.

Assorted Proverbs (Proverbs 22:1-16)

Where Rich and Poor Meet

“The rich and the poor meet together;
  the Lord is the Maker of them all.”

Many translations read “The rich and poor have this in common”. I think this is the correct sense. The wealthy and the impoverished certainly pass one another by in society (it would be hard for the rich to enjoy their riches without servants, for instance), but you can hardly call what they are doing “meeting together”. There are few points of agreement or association between them, and the poor have a scarcity of remedies available to do anything about it. There is no negotiation to be had, and the occasional revolution provides the only possible relief. Ask the French.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: A Zipper-Lipped Life

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

Evolutionary biologist Colin Wright, who believes sex-associated personality differences are at least partly genetic, is deeply unhappy anyone would dare to challenge his worldview, set limits on his contribution to the public discourse, and disrupt his ongoing pursuit of intellectual fulfillment.

Who is doing such a thing, you ask? Why, it’s not the “moral majority” or the Christian Right; Wright dismisses Creationists as irrelevant. No, it’s the social justice Left.

Tom: It turns out the current state of evolutionary psychology has finally collided with the “blank slate” ideology of progressives, IC, and the sparks are making both sides unhappy. How unfortunate for “science”!

Thursday, December 13, 2018

Louder Than Words

“Words, words, words,” says Hamlet.

He’s not enthused. And rightly so. Sometimes there are just too many words.

The Bible says, “God is in heaven, and you are on earth. Therefore, let your words be few.” It’s talking about prayer, of course, but the point carries more generally: even the smartest of us is pretty limited in knowledge. The Lord can use as many words as he wants, and every one of them will be right; but when we human beings talk too much, we make mistakes. Sometimes, we even roll right into sin.

So we’re encouraged to be careful, talk only about what we know, use our words precisely, and not to multiply them without due attention to what we’re really doing. After all, teachers receive a more serious condemnation if they do a bad job.

Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Inadvertent Agents of Blessing

A little over 600 years prior to sending his Son into the world, God began to make obvious preparations for his next step in reconciling a fallen world to himself through Jesus Christ.

These weren’t God’s first steps in his program of salvation, of course, and for the most part they were not seen as movements forward at all by those who played a part in them, but they are obvious to us in hindsight, looking back over the centuries.

After all, how would the gospel have spread so effectively throughout Europe and Asia in the first century if there had been no Judean Captivity?

Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Now We Are Five

For the record, I tried pawning this one off on both Bernie and IC. No luck with that, so here goes ...

Five years and 1,837 posts ago, December 11, 2013, Bernie published a little online meditation entitled “Making Straight Paths” under the unlikely sobriquet of “Statweasel”.

Whatever he had in mind at the time, I’m fairly sure it wasn’t this — or at least it wasn’t exactly this.

That’s one of the beauties of collaborations: they have the potential to be more than the sum of their parts; the results often surprise everyone involved. Another is that when you throw your back out, somebody else is usually on hand to step up and shoulder the load. A third is that when you are accused of speaking out of turn, there is always another potential scapegoat available at whom you can point the finger if you need to: “IC made me do it!”

Monday, December 10, 2018

Anonymous Asks (17)

“Why memorize scripture?”

I don’t know about you, but more than once I have found myself wishing I had committed more of the Bible to memory when I was young. It’s much, much easier to memorize things in your youth than in middle age. As you get older, new information, names, places and details become harder to retain. Over-40s can still memorize new things, but it takes 20-30% more time for us to do it.

Hey, we’re old. Time is one thing we don’t have enough of.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Does God Judge Nations?

A question from a list of what Andy Stanley refers to as “old covenant leftovers”, various ways he believes the modern church mixes what he calls “obsolete” theology with the New Testament teaching of Christ and his apostles:
  • “Why would a Christian believe God judges nations at all?”
Stanley intends this as a zinger, but I’m not at all sure it zings. It may be a bullet point in a bulleted list, but it has the pinpoint accuracy of a wet snowball lobbed by a lethargic six-year-old in a too-tight snowsuit.

Saturday, December 08, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (36)

Some situations are not in our control. For the average man or woman, this is often the case. We may take comfort in the knowledge that our heavenly Father is able to do for us far more abundantly than all that we ask or think.

More often, though, we might observe that the course of our lives is a product of choices we have made day after day when we got out of bed in the morning, or when we found ourselves with our backs against the wall.

Three more-or-less random proverbs speak to these situations.

Friday, December 07, 2018

Too Hot to Handle: A Hot Mess

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

Young pastors in American churches are a dying breed. So says Eric Conn, and he’s got a major 2017 study in hand from the Barna Group to prove it. The number of U.S. pastors under forty is currently half what it was in 1992, while the number over sixty-five has tripled. The Barna report concludes, “It is urgent that denominations, networks and independent churches determine how to best motivate, mobilize, resource and deploy more younger pastors.”

Tom: That’s a highly debatable conclusion, but not a surprising one. What’s interesting to me, IC, is not so much Barna’s “Aging of America’s Pastors” article, but Conn’s analysis of it. As someone who’s been there, he described vocational ministry as “a hot mess”.

Thursday, December 06, 2018

Is Your Faith Boring You?

The great mathematician Blaise Pascal claimed, “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

Modern people don’t sit in rooms alone very well. They find it boring. And, in fact, being bored is one thing almost all of us instinctively hate. Particularly in our present day of social media, cell phones, portable games and constant mental stimulation, it seems to us that solitude and silence are indicators of something being terribly wrong. On those occasions when we find ourselves momentarily bored we immediately fumble for our phones or look around for some new distraction.

I suspect we are probably less adept than any previous generation at just sitting still and thinking.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018

What Kind of Disciples Are You Making?

God tests men’s faith. Women’s too. It’s what he does.

Why? Because faith is hugely important to him. It might be the most important thing of all. As scripture tells us, “without faith it is impossible to please him.”

Impossible. Not difficult, very difficult or in the 99th percentile of difficulty. Completely impossible. It cannot be done. Faith is critical to any relationship with God.

Tuesday, December 04, 2018

Unhitched and Unhinged

It is important to grasp that Andy Stanley’s desire for believers to “unhitch” our Christianity from the Old Testament, a plea he articulates in his new book Irresistible, is not limited to how we preach the gospel. Stanley is calling for the comprehensive abandonment of the Hebrew roots of our faith.

This is what makes his idea such a poison pill. Those who swallow it will come to regret it.

Monday, December 03, 2018

Anonymous Asks (16)

“I have a friend at my public high school and she isn’t really walking with God anymore and the clothes she is wearing are not God-honoring at all. She says she is close to Him but she’s really not. What do I do?”

Of the twenty to thirty kids who came and went more-or-less regularly from our 1980s youth group, I’m guessing perhaps 30-40% are still walking with the Lord today. Of the remainder, some are living morally decent but secular lives. Some would still call themselves Christians but don’t really fellowship with other believers anymore. Some are in a major mess, or in the process of trying to climb out of it.

Almost every serious Christian goes through this with a close friend at one point or another. It is very discouraging to witness someone else’s spiritual decline, especially when your own heart and life are deeply invested in their welfare.

Sunday, December 02, 2018

Getting Unhitched

Andy Stanley wants us to “unhitch the old from the new”.

By “old”, he means our Old Testament. By “new”, he means ... okay, you get that.

By “unhitch”, he means declaring the Old Testament so obsolete, incorrect and potentially faith-destroying that we distance ourselves from it rather than try to explain, defend or rationalize it to others.

To say the least, Stanley’s new book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, is a bit of a grenade in the baptistery. It also sounds to me like a sustained argument for intellectual cowardice, but I’ll leave that to Stanley’s readers to decide.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

How Not to Crash and Burn (35)

I’m writing at the office today, so it’s time for an office-themed post.

Our Bible’s Solomonic proverbs are roughly 3,000 years old. The ones the king of Israel preserved from other sources are even older. Still, many remain surprisingly useful and informative — even when we attempt to apply them to the goings-on in a modern commercial office building.

Here are three that still work. Mostly.