Friday, September 10, 2010

Compassion, Peace, Tolerance

That's what, on this morning's news, a pastor in Florida said Jesus was about.  This was in reaction to Pastor Terry Jones and his apparently "intolerant" plan to burn the Quran Saturday.

Now, I am not a fan of Jones.  I think he is way over the edge and that burning the Quran is a unbiblical idea. But what about Jesus?  Was he all about peace? He did say that he came not to bring peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34).  Was he about tolerance?  It doesn't sound like it when he spoke of those who do not believe in the Son standing condemned (John 3:18).

This popular conception of Jesus expressed by the Florida pastor, which a brief search on the Internet will reveal to be widespread, is simply inaccurate if not fatal.  Compassion, yes, Jesus was compassionate. But peace? Peace with God for those who would come in humility and repentance, yes. But peace in the world or with the world. No.

From the beginning, the world hated Jesus. And Jesus told his disciples the world would hate them too. Why? Because Jesus reveals in the cold light of his holy character as well as his words that we all are sinners.  As he said in John 3, "men loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil."

Peace? No.  Not the kind of peace the world means, peace at the cost of truth.

So what about the Quran? Pastor Jones is right.  That book and religion has not brought men closer to God. It has replaced the God of the Bible with a false god.  That's the plain and simple of it. Mohamed created an alternate way.  And it is a way that leads to hell.

That does not mean our response should be to burn the book.  Our response ought to be to proclaim God's mercy and forgiveness in Christ Jesus. Our response ought to be to pray for those who are bound in darkness.  Our response ought to be to love them, to love them to Jesus.

As for tolerance, that is the PC watchword of the day.  It implies that there is no truth that matters.  It leads just as surely to hell as preaching a false peace. It is the exact opposite of compassion. Compassion reaches out to the lost because they are desperately lost and hell bound.  Tolerance says let them be.  Jesus was not tolerant. If he had been he would not have come to us and died to save us.

Can you imagine Jesus saying of us,  "They're okay.  They're doing the best they can.  God will overlook their sin." I can not.  

There is only one way to God. It is Jesus. It might sound intolerant, but it is the most compassion thing we can say because it is every man's only hope.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Grand Design

Stephen Hawking's latest book in which he argues for an eternal universe (or universes) and against the need for God as Creator has received the usual notice from press and theologians.  Albert Mohler, the President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, is one who has weighed in. (Don't you like that metaphor, like two fighters weighing in before the fight.) Link

Mohler's critique of Hawking's deficient understanding of God - a sort of God of the gaps" deity who only has a role when more rational and scientific based explanations fail - is well taken. His caution for Christians to avoid the "God of the gaps" trap in doing apologetics is also wise.  But Mohler does not go far enough. He fails to suggest a positive response.

So what is the response?  One logical response is that an eternal universe is logically illogical. I think it is fairly well agreed that an infinite series of real things (things that are matter or energy, such as are the physical stuff of the universe) is not possible. And that is what there must be for the universe to be eternal. It does not make any difference how many other prior universes might exist or have existed, as Hawking speculates, there still must be an infinite progression of real things if his hypothesis is to be correct. 

The other response is simply this. Who cares what Hawking speculates.  He has limited himself to matter and energy, to the merely physical. He  denies what is the universal apprehension of the human heart, that there is more to this existence than mere matter.  (Ironically, it is this very universal quest to find out what is really real that seems to energize him. But it leads him to a dead end because he fails to consider all the evidence.)  As most neo-atheists, he relegates everything spiritual to the pre-rational stone-age  or explains it away by evolutionary sleight of hand. All such is whistling in the dark. It is making believe that what is intuitively so is not.

St. Augustine had the answer: "Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee." Though I enjoy the repartee of a good apologetic debate, the fact is that God reveals himself to the human heart that is receptive to Him, and no argument to the contrary can speak more powerfully or persuasively than the still small voice of God. No argument can bring the satisfaction or peace that God speaks to us in His presence. So Hawking can hide in his self-created darkness and embrace his nihilistic speculations, but he does not persuade the one who has sat in the presence of God.  

 But God is gracious.  Hawking may yet see his need for more than his speculations provide. May God help him.

Monday, September 6, 2010

What's Up with the Church?

I guess everybody has noticed the new churches with intriguing names showing up in coffee shops (Praise at the Ike in Salem, Oregon) and meeting in idle theaters on Sunday morning (Mars Hill in Olympia, Washington). My own home church, Neighborhood Alliance Church, is changing our name to Sojourn Community Church. Top those observations off with the many books on missional, post-modern, or emergent churches, and the church scene does seem to be in revolution - or confusion.

Now in a new book, Why We Love the Church, Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck login with a celebration of the traditional church.  After all the excitement of of the new revolution in churches this book may sound like lukewarm oat meal. It isn't.  It is a good read, though not without its faults.

Kluck's anecdotal writing in alternate chapters is honest and humorous.  DeYoung is the pastor theologian. He analyzes the current scene and follows up with a good readable theology of the church.  His point is that the traditional church is healthy and fulfilling the mandates given in the scriptures.

In general, I like the book.  It is a good defense of the organized church in America.  Its weakness is that the varied colors of the emergent church are painted in black and white.  That means the book, and DeYoung in particular, exaggerates or chooses extreme examples of the "revolution" for the sake of making his case for the traditional church.

My suggestion is to get out of the United States and visit some churches in other parts of the world. The fact is, the church is healthy and biblical in many different forms, from small house churches to huge congregations.

So with that one reservation, I recommend the book.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Complete in Him

Colossians 2:10. "You are complete in Him."

Paul declares that one who, as a Christian, is in Christ is also COMPLETE in him.  In the context of Colossians Paul was telling those believers that they did not need to seek a deeper experience of God or a greater separation from the world by abstaining from certain foods, by outward religious observances,  or by self-discipline or self-abasement to some intermediary.  No. Everything they sought was found in Christ.

That seems simple enough.  But wait.  Why do we run after the latest spiritual experience?  Why do we look to the means of "techniques" and 12 step recovery and support programs to overcome our sin and additions?  Is Jesus not enough?

I know that sounds almost like heresy in our self-absorbed, self-help age. Research and experience have proved they work, haven't they?

Or have they?

"Religious experiences", self-discipline and techniques do have, as Paul says, "an appearance of wisdom." They sound good. There is some apparent benefit. You might actually have a spiritual experience - like some whirling dervishes. Maybe having someone help you speak in tongues by moving your jaw while you make sounds does result in the ability to make unintelligible sounds on your own. Maybe self-discipline does help you achieve some measure of control over your addictions.  But there is a disconnect with God, no real power.

These things so popular today among Christians are really a denial of our completeness in Christ. If  you desire a deeper experience of God, seek it in Christ. Get to know him better and better.

If you desire greater separation from sin, rest in faith upon your position as dead in Christ to sin and simply say no. Yes. That is possible.  Remember you are truly dead. Simply "put off," those things that belong to the old life.

If you desire greater holiness, rest again upon your position in Christ as alive with new life, and "put on" the virtues of mercy, kindness, humility, meekness and patience. Yes. That is possible. You do not need to train yourself to it. They belong to you in Christ. Put them on by faith.

Don't be distracted by the promises of deeper experiences and greater holiness found any place else but in a simple life of faith in Christ and who we now are in Him.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bullets and Blood

If you are unclear about the difference between Jesus and Mohammed there is no starker picture than the massacre that played out in the Kuran Ma Munjan valley of Afghanistan last week. Ten unarmed medical aid workers on their way back from a humanitarian mission to remote villages in the Puran valley north of Kabul were stopped by Taliban murderers and summarily executed beside their vehicles. So much for the "peaceful religion" image Muslims have been trying to sell to the world since 911.

Tom Little was among the ten who died. He had spent thirty years of his life in Afghanistan providing medical aid. He was living out his convictions as a follower of Jesus. The Taliban killed him because of his faith. It is that simple.

Let's see. How often have Muslims in the United States, and there are many, been executed on the street by Christians (distinguish, please, between Americans and Christians) because they were Muslim?

Or compare the cultures that have arisen from the two religions. In America thousands of Muslims gather in their mosques each week. How many Christians worship openly and freely in Afghanistan?

Muslims are free to proselytize on the streets of any of our cities. They have that right by law. How about Christians in Afghanistan?

But these are contrasts carefully selected to show Islam in a bad light; there have been atrocities committed by Christians as well, some might say. So go to the holy books. Mohammed promoted his religion by the sword; Jesus told Peter to put up his sword. And Jesus paid for his choice of the path of peace with his own blood.

And there you are: bullets and blood. Muslims from the beginning have conquered by sword and gun. (No wonder that they find themselves pariahs in the world today.) Christians have won the hearts of people by their willingness to give themselves as Dr. Little did in Afghanistan even to the point of shedding his own blood.

The difference is clear.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Failed Vision: "City upon a Hill"

It is unlikely that John Winthrop intended his now famous reference to Jesus' parable of a city set on a hill link to be understood as it now is. It was not an expression of what we now call American exceptionalism. It was a call to a small band of Christian men and women who had traversed the sea from England to America to fulfill God's call upon them, to walk the walk and not merely talk the talk of Christian faith. I do not criticize Winthrop. But I do find the permutation of this idea in later Christian circles - and often in political circles - to be a failed vision and for those of us who, being Christians, should know better, a failure to understand deeply the message of Scripture.

Shall we - by which I now mean the United States of America - be the embodiment of the Christian principles and culture of 1630 Massachusetts Bay Colony? Some Christians think so. And knowing that America in 2010 is culturally far from the Puritan colony of 1630, they attempt by means that are more the means of the world than the means of God to repaint America in the colors of that long ago ideal.

It cannot and will not be done.

In fact, that ideal to which many Christians aspire was a very brief moment in our history. And even at its zenith in that first generation there was a dark side that became evident in the colonists' relationships with the Indians and then with other Christians who just did not fit in. Roger Williams was one example.

Finally, the Puritan dream faded when the next generation did not personally hold the faith of their fathers. Faded? No. More like morphed into a political rather than a spiritual dream.

It is that ideal, now politically driven, that we see promoted by the conservative right today. (The liberal left has spun its own version of the city-set-on-a-hill ideal through the rhetoric of John Kennedy, John Kerry, and Bill Clinton. It is equally misguided.)

Whether conservative or liberal, they are both a distortion of Winthrop's hope. His hope was that through people whose hearts have been changed by God and whose lives reflect the character of God now alive in them the culture of Massachusetts Bay Colony would be a living demonstration of God's goodness ATTRACTING PEOPLE TO HIM.

Note that the genius was God dwelling among us. In Winthrop's words: "the Lord will be our God and delight to dwell among us, as his owne people and will commaund a blessing upon us in all our wayes, soe that wee shall see much more of his wisdome power goodnes and truthe then formerly wee have beene acquainted with."

We have sought today to enjoy the community of which Winthrop spoke apart from the unity of the Spirit that was its foundation. We have sought to legislate it or to wrest our culture from decline by good deeds, hoping that good-will will become contagious or that we would create an social environment in which goodness naturally finds root and grows. Those are all false hopes.

Let's be biblical. God promises no reign of goodness apart from repentance, reconciliation with him, and transformation from within as his Spirit dwells within us. Anything other than that is the whitewashing of sepulchers.

As for our nation or any other in history, it is at best a momentary thing. No earthly kingdom or nation is God's nation - except Israel, and they await the revival of the last days. No nation shall endure but God's eternal kingdom.

So church, we must repent, turn from the ways of the world, no matter how wise they sound, and pray that God will so transform us that we individually and collectively as believers would be the "city set on a hill" of which Jesus spoke, a light in a dark world and the salt that preserves it until Jesus returns to set up his eternal kingdom.

In the words of a wise old country western gospel song, "This world is not my home, I'm just a passing through," only eternity really matters. Let's not think that we can transform our world or that this is our mandate. Let's stay with our calling of introducing people to the transforming God.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Revealed or Evolved

Did God reveal himself to Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and others imparting the faith that is now the core of the Bible? Or did Hebrew monotheism evolved gradually from Canaanite polytheism? Recent finds of an ostracon (shard of pottery with an inscription) in the Sinai desert bearing the inscription "Yahweh of Samaria and his asherah" and the Ras Shamra tablets discovered in the ruins of the ancient Phoenician city of Ugarit some eighty years ago are giving skeptics opportunity to press their case for a purely human origin for biblical faith. What is the truth?

The truth is that Israel from the exodus forward was plagued by a besetting polytheism. The polemic of Moses and the prophets who followed him against the worship of the calves of the exodus and later Baal and Asherah and a pantheon of others is on every page of the Old Testament. There was nothing added to our knowledge of the religious condition of Israel by these finds. In fact, they confirm what the Bible has declared always. So what's the big deal?

The big deal is the attempt now to find an affirmation of polytheism in the words of the prophets. The most often quoted text is Deuteronomy 32:8 It reads in the RSV: "When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he separated the sons of men, he fixed the bounds of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God." The argument is that these "sons of God" ("ben Elohim" in the Dead Sea Scrolls text of Deuteronomy) are the 70 sons of El referred to in the Ugaritic tablets. Therefore, the Deuteronomy passage agrees with the polytheism of the Phoenician Canaanites. That would be a big deal - if it were not for the context of the Deuteronomy passage.

The context is the entire poem from 32:1 through verse 43, in particular verses 5 and 6. There it is the people of Israel who are called the children (ben) of God. That provides the insight we need to understand verse 8 - God fixed the bounds of peoples of the earth according to, or in consideration of, the sons of Israel. Interestingly, that is how the Masoretic text of the Old Testament reads. Apparently the scribes who copied down what we now call the Masoretic text wished to make it clear that it was the people of Israel who were the sons of God.

A simple reading of the poem in its entirety, rather than picking out individual verses, would have cleared up the controversy. But skeptics are inclined to isolate the verses in which they believe there is an inconsistency and ignore the context. Fortunately, almost any careful reader of the scriptures can recognize that error. That is an admonishment to us, however, to read the scriptures for ourselves and to read carefully.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Common Ground. . . Or Not

The last several weeks I have surfed YouTube videos interacting with some of the guys on skeptic and atheist sites. It has been a learning experience in how strongly worldview affects our ability to connect with others.

I come from a biblical worldview, or try to, though it is probably not possible to divest myself fully of the worldview that dominates the culture of America. Most of those with whom I've interacted have held worldviews that are philosophically materialistic.

In one instance, with the creator of a video claiming to disprove the existence of God in three minutes or less (I am not making this up), I found a young man who believed that there was not nor could there be anything beyond the present universe. He found it impossible to entertain any idea other idea. In order to prove the non-existence of God he created a deductive argument that went somewhat like this:

Premise. There is nothing beyond or before the universe.

Premise. God must exist before and outside the universe.

Conclusion. Therefore, God can not exist.

I think he actually was convinced of the validity of his argument. And, of course, it was perfect deduction though irrational at the same time. A deductive argument rests on the truth of the premise. The first premise is obviously unprovable and seriously debated even among those who do not believe in God, and that made the conclusion inconclusive at best. It cannot follow from the flawed premise.

But try to explain that to this young man. His worldview did not allow the possibility of anything beyond the universe. Finding common ground to be able to talk intelligibly was impossible. It was like what the early navigators of the seas must have experienced talking with an entrenched flat worlder. No amount of reason, personal experience or observation could change their worldview. It is easy to understand their terror of sailing out "to the edge of the world." Would they not fall off into nothingness?

This worldview was, of course, extreme. But it illustrates the difficulties of engaging in reasonable conversation with those of different worldviews. Reason fails at this point. We must depend on the Holy Spirit to bridge the gap and bring understanding to the heart - this man's and everyone's with whom we engage in apologetics.