Sunday, May 31, 2020

Divine Multi-Tasking

A teacher once told me about a student who couldn’t walk and chew gum at the same time. He didn’t mean it literally, of course; it was a comment on the student’s intelligence. We assume the smarter a person is, the more things they are capable of doing at the same time.

A juggler keeps multiple balls in the air simultaneously. It can be impressive to watch a skilled multi-tasker at work. But human beings have upper limits on our juggling ability. The maximum number of items ever juggled is either 13 or 14, depending on who you believe. The case has been made that the laws of physics make juggling 15 items impossible. At least, nobody alive can do it.

Saturday, May 30, 2020

Time and Chance (38)

Revelation is a glorious thing.

The phrase “through a glass darkly” is often used to describe our current condition: we do not know everything we wish we knew about God’s purposes for us. We would like to know more; of course we would.

But when we apply that biblical phrase to ourselves, I believe we are erroneously putting ourselves back twenty centuries in time and assuming ourselves to be in the same condition as the Christians to whom Paul wrote in the mid-first century AD with respect to the knowledge of God and his purposes.

And yet we are not in their situation. Not at all. We are much, much better off than they were.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: To Debate or Not to Debate

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

Is there such a thing as too much discussion?
Kristin Howerton thinks evangelicals need to rethink our response to the gay marriage issue. “Is the debate over gay marriage what we want to be known for?” she asks:

“Do these squabbles speak love? Does the loud and passionate protestation about same-sex marriage draw others to Christ?”

Tom: Good questions, Immanuel Can. Is there any easy answer? Or is this a debate where both sides may have legitimate concerns?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Stuck in the Middle with You

“Clowns to the left of me,
  Jokers to the right,
  Here I am
  Stuck in the middle with you.”
— Stealers Wheel, 1972

Doesn’t it seem these days like the world has divided right down the middle? We’ve got Conservatives and Liberals, Democrats and Republicans, Brexiters and Europhiles, open borders advocates and controlled immigration people, social justice warriors and free speech advocates, the politically correct and the deliberately controversial, individualists and collectivists … and on, and on, and on.

Iron and clay, maybe.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Anatomy of a Genocide

Serious efforts to exterminate Jews have happened more than once, and the word of God assures us they will happen again. The book of Esther is the story of a relatively early attempt.

The Medo-Persian empire was not Nazi Germany, and it is not Armageddon, but there are still a few interesting things to be observed about genocides, how such things can even come about at all, and what a persecuted (or soon-to-be-persecuted) minority can learn from them about how best to conduct itself in the face of overwhelming numerical opposition.

Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Sound and Unsound

It is difficult to miss the adjective “sound” in the first couple chapters of Titus. In fact, it occurs more times in Titus than anywhere else in the New Testament. In instructing his younger associate, the apostle Paul refers repeatedly to both “sound doctrine” and being “sound in the faith”, the latter being the result of the former. Soundness was the apostle’s desire for the Christians in Crete, and indeed for all believers everywhere.

In Greek, the word “sound” is hygiainō, which means “healthy”. It has the sense of fitness and functionality. In Luke it is contrasted with both sickness and injury.

Monday, May 25, 2020

Anonymous Asks (94)

“Is it possible to go a whole day without sinning?”

No.

Shortest Anonymous Asks ever.

Okay, I suppose I could elaborate a little. It is only possible to imagine you have gone a whole day without “sinning” if your definition of sin is grossly deficient, if you are stupifyingly un-self-aware, or maybe if you happen to be in a coma.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Good Applications and Bad Ones

Billy Graham noted that the character of our loved ones, friends, and acquaintances may change. Jesus does not.

TL Osborn says that because Jesus Christ does not change, you can count on being healed from sickness, just as he healed the sick in the first century.

A commenter at Christian Forums says the fact that Jesus Christ never changes means dispensationalism is false teaching.

We all agree that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” However, it is evident we do not all agree about precisely what that means.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Time and Chance (37)

Last week we encountered the term “vanity” for the umpteenth time in the book of Ecclesiastes, and considered another entry in the Preacher’s list of realities he found frustrating, and which he could not hope to understand without direct revelation from God. In this case, he had observed that there is a species of wicked people who move freely in polite society and who, far from being punished for their crimes, are more often politely indulged ... and sometimes even celebrated.

He continues this thought in the next couple of verses, in the process adding yet another “vain thing” to his list of conundra.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Getting Relevant

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

I heard that most young people drop out of church today, either for a short or indefinite time, around age 18-19. I was concerned: after all, if we lose the next generation, what’s going to happen to the church? But then I found this glossy new resource, and it’s really helping me to understand what today’s young adults are going to find relevant by way of spiritual stuff. I’m sharing it with you, Tom, because I know you’ve got young-adult children of your own.

Just in time, eh?

Tom: Uh, thanks, IC, I think. Why is it that some Christians seem to think that being “relevant” actually means “pandering” or “condescending”?

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Contradictions and Contradistinctions

Yesterday I was listening to a secular scholar again. (Okay, it was JP.)

He was speaking about the Bible, its value as a text and its importance in human history. At the same time, he was expressing disbelief about how it had persisted. It’s a “strange old book”, he said. It’s “contradictory” and “cobbled together”. He puzzled over how it was possible it could ever have “such an unbelievable impact on civilization”. But at the same time, he concluded, “However educated you are, you are not educated enough to discuss the typological significance of the biblical stories.”

And then he went on to try.

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

Everything Louder Than Everything Else

Ian Gillan of the seventies metal band Deep Purple reportedly once asked the sound engineer mixing the band’s live album, “Could we have everything louder than everything else?”

I’ve always loved that line. It just sounds like a title for the perfect rock and roll anthem.

But when you think about it for half a second, the request is absurd. If the bass is louder than the high hat, the high hat cannot simultaneously be louder than the bass. If you mix the snare drum louder than a guitar cranked up to eleven, you cannot make that guitar louder in the sound mix without reducing the volume of the snare. It’s absurd.

“Everything” cannot be louder than “everything else”. It doesn’t work.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Diagnosing the Problem

“Behold, we are slaves this day ... behold, we are slaves.”

“We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone.”

You can’t solve a problem unless you know what it is.

John 8:33 records a very strange statement, the second one I have quoted above. It appears to have been made not specifically by the Pharisees or Sadducees (though there may have been some of these present, of course), but more generally, by men who had just made a public confession of belief in Christ.

The statement was this: “We have never been enslaved to anyone.”

Monday, May 18, 2020

Anonymous Asks (93)

“Is it wrong to wish for something?”

There was a time when the Lord Jesus wished for something with all his heart. Luke says he prayed for it earnestly, in agony, to the point where “his sweat became like great drops of blood falling to the ground”.

Here is what he wished for: “Father ... remove this cup from me.”

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Lost Light

How does the word of God go missing among God’s people? How does the plain teaching of scripture get overlooked for months, years and even centuries, only to be suddenly rediscovered? You would think it impossible if we didn’t have both historical and biblical evidence that it happens, and happens with sad regularity.

For example, in the days of King Josiah, the Book of the Law was found in the house of the Lord and taken to the king and read to him. When Josiah heard the Law read, he tore his clothes, humbled and stricken by the degree to which the people of God had departed from his commandments and the wrath they had incurred because of it.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Time and Chance (36)

As mentioned in earlier studies in Ecclesiastes, the Preacher uses the term “vanity” repeatedly. This is usually read as an expression of disgust, as if Solomon is saying, “Pointless, pointless ... it’s all futile and pointless,” as if the order God has set in place since the fall of man — and it is very much evident he believes God is behind it all — is not worth further investigation.

And yet, on he goes investigating anyway. Can’t be all that pointless, can it?

Friday, May 15, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Stinkin’ Selfish

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

Megachurch pastor Andy Stanley inadvertently opened a can of worms with comments he made in a sermon earlier this month:

“When I hear adults say, ‘Well, I don’t like a big church. I like about two hundred’ or ‘I want to be able to know everybody’, I say, ‘You are so stinkin’ selfish. You care nothing about the next generation. All you care about is you and your five friends. You don’t care about your kids or anybody else’s kids.”

Now of course he quickly and abjectly apologized the moment the predictable blowback started, but Stanley’s not backtracking on his dislike of traditional-sized churches, just the ill-conceived and insulting way he expressed it.

Thursday, May 14, 2020

What’s Behind Faith?

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
— Hebrews 11:1

“I consider rationality (in a nutshell) to be: ‘an accurate apportionment of belief in a statement concerning the objective nature of reality, with respect to the available evidence.’ I can think of no better definition of faith than the exact opposite of this: ‘A grossly inaccurate apportionment of belief in a statement concerning the objective nature of reality, with respect to the available evidence.’

However, I invite those who have faith, and profess it as a virtue, to submit their definition of faith.”
— Joseph Dorrell, Ted Talks, 2012

Okay, Joseph. Let’s play.

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Stating the Obvious

When you make a life-long habit out of reading other people’s mail, strange things tend to become commonplace.

I should probably unpack that a bit.

I’m enjoying the book of Hebrews once again, as I make my way through the New Testament in my morning reading. But the problem with having been acquainted with the scriptures since before I could read them for myself (and it’s not the worst problem in the world to have) is that arguments which should puzzle any modern, thinking, Gentile reader seem perfectly normal to me. My familiarity with the passage makes it difficult for me to be surprised by it, though it should surely surprise me.

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Crossing the Gulf

“... with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

Easily said, isn’t it?

“Between us and you there is a great gulf fixed.” So said Abraham to the rich man suffering the torments of hades. That chasm is not crossable. “They which would pass from hence to you cannot.”

Speaking naturally, there is also a great gulf fixed between you and me. Not all of you, of course, but certainly some of you. Cross it we must. Our first step is to recognize it is there.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Anonymous Asks (92)

“Are soul mates for real?”

When Jonathan watched David slay Goliath, he recognized a kindred spirit.

Like David, Jonathan was a brave man who trusted in God almost to the point of recklessness. Climbing a hill fully exposed to enemy arrows in order to take it to an enemy whose numbers dwarf your own seems like a crazy stunt, but if the Lord has given the enemy into your hands, it’s a cinch. Jonathan and his armor bearer had prevailed against 10:1 odds.

It’s holy conjecture, but I suspect if his father had allowed it, Jonathan might have taken on Goliath himself. But Jonathan knew that would never be permitted. Why would the king of Israel risk his own crown prince in what he believed was an unwinnable duel? It would have been a huge PR win for the Philistines and a political disaster for Saul.

David was comparatively expendable. Saul couldn’t even put a name to him when asked.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Semi-Random Musings (19)

I have always wondered about the purpose of the book of Esther.

Of all the books in the Bible, Esther seems to have the least to do with 21st century Christianity. It is basically a book of Jewish-centric history which tells how the nation of Israel (for the umpteenth time) survived extermination at the hands of its enemies. God is not even mentioned in its pages. The national feast inspired by the events in Esther (Purim) is nothing like the God-ordained celebrations of Leviticus 23. Purim commemorates the “days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies”, and is (or at least originally was) more like today’s secularized Christmas celebrations than any of the seven feasts of Jehovah, all of which were rife with rich spiritual symbolism, speaking to generations about the meaning of the death of Christ and its consequences for mankind.

So why is Esther in our Bibles?

Saturday, May 09, 2020

Time and Chance (35)

Let’s back up and remind ourselves where we were last week in Ecclesiastes 8, because the subject under discussion in the first five verses continues just a little longer.

The Preacher was considering the temptations and opportunities that face people under authority in the performance of their duties; in this case, servants of the king. There are really only two possibilities: either the servant is doing the will of the king, or else he is using the king’s authority as cover to promote his personal agenda, or to advance some ideological position.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Evaluating Virtual Church [Part 2]

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

Yesterday’s post opened with a little chart that appeared to indicate that the longer the COVID-19 lockdowns go on, the fewer Christians are interested in playing virtual church — at least, the way we’re currently doing it. If YouTube views are any sort of legitimate proxy by which we can measure the interest of believers in the preaching of the word of God by members of their local congregations, then we’re in trouble.

Tom: So what are we doing wrong? Well, one possibility we have been speculating about is that with all those Christian YouTube videos up there, one can always find a more interesting subject, a more lucid speaker, or something that tickles our itching ears.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Evaluating Virtual Church [Part 1]

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

If church is a big enough part of your life that you normally go every Sunday, in all probability it will not have escaped your notice that your congregation has started meeting online after some fashion or other. Most churches I have ever been part of are doing it, and because a bunch of them are posting their virtual Sunday morning services on YouTube, it’s given me opportunity to check out the ministry of believers I have not seen personally in years.

Tom: In the process, I noticed something interesting and perhaps worthy of discussion.

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Haunting of the Past

“Fuggedaboutit.”

Ah, that most New York-ese of all New York expressions!

There are things you can sort out, and things you can’t. Go back and fix your mistakes if you can; but if you can’t, there’s only one thing you can do.

Learn how to forget about it.

Tuesday, May 05, 2020

Beyond the River

The book of Ezra is written in Hebrew, but one of its most frequently-used expressions is not Hebrew but Aramaic.

The words `abar nĕhar are translated “beyond the river” or “this side of the river” in most of our Bibles. They occur in the sections of Ezra that contain letters written by the enemies of the returning Jewish exiles in Jerusalem to kings of the Medo-Persian empire, and by the functionaries of these kings in response, since Aramaic was the language in which royal edicts were issued. The expression also occurs, probably for the sake of consistency, in the Hebrew narrative portions of Ezra which have to do with the contents of the letters.

Basically, “beyond the river” means the biblical land of Israel and any of the surrounding nations over which Israel, at the height of its powers, had influence.

Monday, May 04, 2020

Anonymous Asks (91)

“How can I honor an abusive parent?”

Well, they say third time’s the charm. Let’s test that theory.

This is my third attempt at answering a question which is more than loaded: subtext hangs over the post like giant flapping leather bat wings blotting out the sun. It also doesn’t help that I probably misread it first time round. I took it to mean “In what ways should a Christian child honor an abusive parent?” (a relatively easy one), when the author is far more likely asking “How can anyone possibly expect me to give honor to someone who has mistreated me so egregiously?”

Different question, right? And not so quick and easy.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

A Nature Like Mine

James says a remarkable and encouraging thing about one of the greatest prophets of the Old Testament: a man who had conversations with God; a man who stood for God at a time when the nation of Israel had given up the worship of Jehovah for the worship of Baal and was in a state of moral decrepitude, ruled over by a king who was just about as wicked as they come; a man who ascended to heaven in a chariot rather than dying like the rest of us; and a man who would later appear and talk with the Lord Jesus on the mount of transfiguration.

What he says is this: “Elijah was a man with a nature like ours.”

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Time and Chance (34)

When we try to get some practical help for daily living from scriptural reflections 3,000 years old, it is obvious we are going to have to do a little bit of thinking: first, about whether these things can be applied to our own situation at all; and secondly, assuming they can be, what reasonable conclusions we might draw from them about our own situation.

Friday, May 01, 2020

Too Hot to Handle: Get Happy

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

Shocked at the plethora of mental health issues she discovered among her students while eating with them daily, Yale University professor Laurie Santos developed a popular new course about the nature of happiness which Yale now offers free online.

Tom: Santos says it’s not bigger houses or better spouses that make human beings happy. It’s little things like “making a social connection, or taking time for gratitude, or taking time to be in the present moment”. What do you think, IC: might she be on to something there?