Thursday, March 1, 2012

Making an ass of u and me

The following is a message I sent to a friend in an email. I've re-read it and found it incredibly encouraging so I thought I'd share it with the whole world wide web (sans the more personal bits). May you find it as encouraging as I....

Woe is me, right? I am a man of unclean lips. My lips are unclean because my heart is desperately wicked and out of the overflow of my heart, my mouth speaks. How much hurt have I caused because I am too quick to assume? But, but, but...there's encouragement mixed in with the conviction, isn't there? We shouldn't judge all because we don't know all which should logically extend even to our own sin. Wicked and offensive as it may seem, we understand neither it's full depth nor it's full effect. Well, maybe there was a little more conviction, too. But there is encouragement because only God knows the depth and full effect of our sin.

Let's start with depth...filled with godly grief and repentance, we get a small glimpse of our true poverty and emptiness before God. Poverty leads to mourning over our sin, mourning to a selflessness and ultimately to a hunger and a thirst that only true righteousness can satisfy. Oh, blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness for they will be filled; filled not for our own benefit but for the benefit of others that we may show mercy to those in trouble, live with integrity among a twisted generation, and act as peacemakers for those who are enemies of God and enemies of God's people. How's that for encouragement? Not only is there forgiveness but there is restitution. Wounded, we are dragged from the battle and healed so that we may again re-enter the fray.

But what about our flaming darts? Didn't they hit their mark? Yes and we should rightly mourn that fact but not as those who have no hope. As is always the case, what we clearly meant for evil, God always means for good. Surely there are better ways to plant and water, but the fact remains that it is God who gives growth so that neither the planter nor the one who waters may boast. It is not up to the branches to produce the fruit, but the vine to which the branches are attached and even fruit that is poorly conceived will be good fruit because it came from a good tree. Oh what good news to know that the burden of growth is not our's but God's. Oh what good news to know that God uses our best efforts and our worst to bring glory to himself and goodness to his people.

Thank you for bearing with my sermonette. This ended up being a lot longer than expected but I was about to send it and I thought "I'm kinda discouraged, this is kinda discouraging. There must be encouragement in there somewhere." This process has perhaps been the single most important bit of advice I've ever received. When I'm tempted to be discouraged, I talk to myself and say "Self, God is still on His throne and the Gospel is still good news. Here's how it applies to your funk." It's not magic and it's not a snake oil but like all good balms it will eventually work it's healing power.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Tangents and Overlaps

In our most recent discussions, my Bible Study group talked about the relative value of consumable art and how to weigh its redemptive value. There was some disagreement on the subject of satire, which is understandable, because the primary purpose of the genre is to ruffle feathers. Now, I am still not quite sure the matter is settled in my mind, so I will try to explore and explain as best as I can to get a better understanding. Bear in mind that the goal is to get closer to God and live a life pleasing to Him, not to justify the way I already live so I don't have to change.

The question stems mostly from the relative difficulty in distinguishing the difference between a piece of art whose purpose is to expose for rebuke aspects of something (in this case, a method of worship) and one whose purpose is to put down for derision. (Or its negative, one that raises up something preposterous for the sake of looking silly and the ignorance of those who think they are doing right.) I submit two topics whose sources we can only speculate their motive.

On the Genesis album We Can't Dance, there is a track named Jesus He Knows Me. It's a fun tune that is rather irreverent towards televangelists. I don't think that the members of Genesis are Christians, even though their band is named after a book of the Bible. It came in an era of where televangelists, despite whatever good they might have done, earned some irreverent tweaking. Preachers, whether on television or not, definitely depend on requesting money in pursuit of divinely inspired goals, and sometimes they explicitly ask for it. Giving, especially to the church, is a form of worship, so this song is a satire of a fundamental Christian behavior.

Now, looking at something quite different, consider this weekend's Big Game. It seems spiritually innocuous enough; there is nothing sinful about football (thank goodness). Players even pray on field and point towards heaven when they score sometimes. The Super Bowl also represents an unifying American television event that we all share in, even more so than the State of the Union which just occurred last week, so there's a shared experience aspect of this too, sort of leading to an endorsement by societal acceptance. So this event is a rather mainstream and benign happening.

Here's my question -- is there a reason to reject the song? Or sanction the Super Bowl? I think that exposing hypocrisies, failures and inefficiencies in the way we worship, whether done by believers or not, is healthy and necessary for spiritual and societal growth as Christian people. And I think there is no shortage of reasons that the Super Bowl doesn't deserve some sort of derision that is frequently heaped on things that are critical towards Christianity -- the television event itself is an orgy of consumerism, celebration of ego and elevation of storylines that is artificial and self-reinforced: we all accept that this event (and the NFL Season at large) is important because other people thing it is important, and one team will invariably say that nobody respected them. Those complaints, by the way, are not terribly off the mark for outsiders criticizing what we do, either.

On the other hand, you could spin both of those arguments the other way. There are a number of positive messages ingrained in the Super Bowl, from the payoff of hard work, the value of working together, and opportunity to share something exciting with people you care about. Is that sufficient? Does the positive value of the satirical song make up for the clear irreverence intended for people whom, at some level deep down, do have nominally pure motives?

Romans 14:2 is relevant here: "One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on the man who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him." This implies there is some individuality and discretion involved.

It is also important that the valuable message be extracted. Hypocrisy is indeed a problem we face, and Jesus He Knows Me speaks to that. Hearing that song (and by extension, that argument) ought not try to convince us that hope is lost because our leaders are hypocrites. We are all hypocrites. If edification can be seen through the Super Bowl, who am I to say you shouldn't find it?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

If you believe in forever, then life is just a one night stand

We are talking about a book called Thoughts for Young Men by J.C. Ryle in our men's study group right now (yes, that's right, young men). It's a pretty compelling book, and it serves as a reminder (along with the Bible itself, of course) that people don't change that much over time, even though the surroundings might. It also makes him sound a little bit like a very smart stick in the mud, which at least help battle one stereo-type of Christians while reinforcing another: Christianity is not necessarily anti-intellectual, as it is often portrayed, but sometimes we get painted as anti-fun. One of the reasons for that second one is explained in the section we discussed last night had the heading "Never forget that nothing is as important as your soul."

I got into a [losing] argument with my peers over this, because I felt like it wasn't a terribly effective evangelism tool to approach somebody who is agnostic on the subject and say, "By the way, your eternal soul hangs in the balance." My colleagues' basic reply was, "Of course eternity is important, and how can you avoid it?" While they are right, there is still something bugging me about it. I feel like a few other arguments need to be made first (and to be fair, this is a section in a book; this headline does not appear in a vacuum) and if you appear as a stick in the mud, what's so compelling about spending eternity with lots of other sticks in the mud? Like Billy Joel said, "I'd rather laugh with the sinners and cry with the saints; the sinners are much more fun."

The things that I think need to be articulated first is that Christianity, the faith Ryle is defending, is not simply a list of rules to follow. Other religions look like this (I think -- I might be just as guilty of ignorance as the people who look at Christianity like this), and knowing the Ten Commandments and all, it makes this an easy way to appear. "Don't do sinful things because it harms your eternal soul" can ring empty if a convincing reason as to why waiting until for sex is worthwhile or it is important not to spread gossip, for instance. Those things are satisfying now, and if the whole message of Christ is forgiveness, what's the big deal?

The big deal is that what separates Christianity from those other religions (as I understand it) is approachability. Our sacred text tells a story of an almighty God trying to reach out to us, to interact with us, and how we spurn those advances. In addition to being almighty, he is also good, and is the only thing that is so; Christ even explains that He is not, only the Father is.

The "list of rules" aspect becomes easier to follow when you begin to learn who Christ and God are, and realize that they know you, too, and want things for you. Disappointing them takes away from the satisfaction of sin as you grow closer, even though sinning is still inescapable. The consequences of sin are not, thankfully, do to the efforts of Christ Himself.

If there's no reason to care about eternity, no positive outlook for what happens, then looking at life is not especially different from looking at your 401K. Retirement is as much an abstraction for me as the afterlife right now. Could I save an extra 1% a month? Yes. I don't, because I don't know what difference it'll make. I know in principle I should save more, because saving more is better. If I engage someone who does not have relationship with Christ about how he should go to church or read the Bible, he or she typically knows in principle it's a good thing to do, but doesn't know specifically what that good is.

What do you think? How does the eternity part fit into this understanding? I was just looking back over this to see if I could add a joke because I was starting to sound like a stick in the mud. Sorry, I'll try better next time.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Truth, Justice, and the American Way

Over the weekend, I found myself in an unusual setting: a mock courtroom listening to a lecture about the contrasts between our systems on Torts and Contracts being delivered by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court -- of Canada. I went to visit my little brother in Tampa and he's in Law School, and he warned me of his guest lecturer, but I felt like this was an opportunity I of which I ought to avail myself. I mean, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Canada. It's too crazy to make up.

The experience itself was what you'd expect -- I felt like I understood only about 70% of what was going on (she was a very concise communicator -- it's a priority of her legal career), and since I'm not in law school, I was only interested in so much of it. The atmosphere, though, carried in it something I did not expect: there were about 15 students, beginning their law careers, listening to a woman who had reached the absolute pinnacle of hers, yet all of the people in the room were talking about justice. People coming together to work out complex solutions to the rules we have set as a society in the theoretical, academic, purest sense. Just sitting down in the room kind of made me think of that, how the purpose of this place is to find the truth, and to acknowledge that the truth is not always as clear for professions outside of the sciences, and it can get dicey even with our measurements.

What this means, though, is that the American and Canadian justice systems are constructed in an effort to ensure that the most good is done by the state to its citizens. It only demands actions from its citizens when they do wrong; punishments are meted out for committed crimes or judgments assessed when your fence is too far on your neighbors' property. This, of course, is a noble endeavor, but it's incomplete.

I think that incompleteness really impacts the way we view God's sense of justice. If I don't break the law, then He won't punish me. Sounds fair, right? Sure, except we always think of ourselves as being more in the clear about the law than we really are. "Oh, officer, I was only going 7 over..." Sin doesn't really work like that.

God promises to punish sin, Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. We have a sense of what this means when people do us wrong, we demand justice, right? Think about the last guy to cut you off on the road. It's infuriating, right? And that wrong costs us essentially nothing. Punishment for evil is a natural and God created concept, imprinted on all of us. We also know that we cannot escape sin, that is also a trait of humanity, unfortunately. If it was not, there would be no need for that mock court room in which I sat on Friday afternoon.

This institution is an effort to try to bring Godly principles down to earth, whether we realize it or not. The nature of our courts -- especially those descended from English Common Law -- is an evolutionary sort, where decisions have impact downstream and their results influence legislation. We are ever seeking perfection, which of course, we will never achieve. There is good news, though: the second half of Romans 6:23 is but the gift of God is eternal life in Jesus Christ our Lord. This is a clemency offered that our courts cannot match, as their authority does not extend that far.

When we see a court give a criminal a light sentence, do we praise it for being merciful? Only on the rare occasion when circumstances are particularly unusual; we typically delight in criminals receiving their just desserts because bad behavior is dangerous. Bad behavior is dangerous, and that is why the wages of sin is death. God does offer mercy through Christ, even though that does not match our perception of how the institution should operate. He also has a rehabilitation plan, to help us improve our behavior: relationship.

It's not so simple a thing as to say, "Stop sinning," because we can't. Relationship with Christ, however, helps to stem some of the qualities of our nature in ways that improve them, in order to make us more receptive to that idea of mercy and the pursuit of truth and the elevation of justice, just as those young people embarking on their careers are looking to do the same.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Where is the busy bee

You probably noticed (or didn't notice, which really, in this case is the same thing) that I haven't written a lot of these lately. I've been busy, it slipped my mind, blah blah blah, it's the same reason that you haven't heard from your college roommate in two years or haven't seen your best friend from high school since two Christmases ago. Life got in the way.

Today's sermon (not up yet but should be soon) kind of talked about the things that get in our way and how we should try to add one thing to our ministry lives, and in my mind, I immediately started making excuses as to why I didn't need to try to do that. "I already do X, Y, and Z with the church, surely that's enough!" Then I immediately felt ridiculous.

It's still so easy to want to compartmentalize -- these are my church friends and those are my work friends, this is my God time and this is my me time -- but that's not really what we're after here. Deuteronomy 6:5 tells us to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength, not just the fraction of it that is convenient for us. This is especially prescient because the explanation surrounding this verse and the previous chapter (which includes the Ten Commandments) explains that it's for our own good; in other words, we compartmentalize at our own peril.

So let's look at the New Year as an opportunity to concentrate a little better and do a better job filling in the gaps in our lives. Evangelism has always been a weak point in my spiritual life, and this is really the only regular opportunity I have, so I'm going to try to commit to do a better job with it. I hope that there are still people out there interested...

Sunday, August 8, 2010


There have been a couple of high profile cases concerning homosexual lifestyle in the news recently, one of which was of national importance, and the other was more locally centered. Of course, the one concerning the State's role in determining marriage will go before the Supreme Court, while the local one, where a graduate student at Augusta State University sued the school over the ability to enforce a professional code of conduct as a condition of graduation – nominally about her vocalized opinions over homosexuality.

There are a variety of questions these raised, and I will do my best to stay focused. The things with which I am concerned are the issues about Christians presenting themselves to the world and the targeted importance of homosexuality.

I will go in reverse order, as I frequently do. I think that I must acknowledge that there is rather explicit Scripture to describe homosexuality as less than ideal (Mark 10:5-9, Rom 1:24-27, 1 Cor 6:9), to put it charitably. However, there is no shortage of other behaviors, much more socially acceptable, that are fall into similarly explicit categories. That Mark passage is pretty specific about divorce as well; but that is a touchy subject – I myself am a product of divorce: my mom is my dad's second wife. Being irresponsible with your resources is also very clearly considered sinful (Matt 25). Not taking care of “the least of these” is also a direct command from Christ in that chapter.

I could make this list of issues that come up that are not addressed with the same fervor as homosexuality gets in the media and is also explicitly dealt with in the New Testament. That is not to imply that homosexuality is some sort of lesser sin, rather it is to say that there is no distinction between severities of sin. We are all failures to meet God's expectations; that is why Christ came in the first place. I do not think that we should give homosexuals a pass because of this, but abject condemnation does not help – there is no doubt in the public consciousness that there is a disapproval of homosexual behavior by the church at large. If the church speaks out in an effort to help people – not necessarily to 'reform' them, but to really meet their needs on a personal level, whatever they are – then that is different. Telling someone that they are going to Hell is rarely constructive.

Our messages, at least, those to whom the media pay attention, frequently portray negative messages – Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Jerry Fallwell. At least, those are the messages that get to the public. The totality of their message is almost irrelevant if it does not get out, sadly. (There is, after all, a Biblical Mandate to spread the good news. If the dialogue gets hung up on all the kinds of things that Christians disapprove of, then we sound like stodgy grandparents with arms crossed and brows furrowed looking down our horn-rimmed glasses rather than messengers of an Almighty and loving God with the path to salvation out of a dying world, and our message is ultimately discredited.)

I cannot say that I have a great answer to how we should look at some of these behaviors that are considered sinful. The very nature of the Law was that it pointed out that satisfying it was unachievable, demonstrating our need for God in our lives. We all fall short of it. That does not mean we should not try to pursue a life concordant with God's Will, I do think it means we need to use some perspective on the matter, though.

We also need to be aware of the fact that our actions matter. People are watching us, and if our words say “God is love,” but our actions say, “but not for them,” then we fail. We fail each other, we fail the people who need help, and we fail Christ. As it stands, homosexuals are a marginalized segment of society, and those are the very people to whom we are called to reach out, do not forget.

I did not talk specifically about the issues surrounding the two cases I mentioned at the beginning because I do not want this space to be used for political discussion. I do not believe there is Scriptural support for Christians creating a government that enforces rules making it illegal not to be Christian, and is important not to forget that, too.

Monday, July 19, 2010

I can hear music

About a year ago, I participated in The Truth Project. This is a sort of video based class sponsored by Focus on the Family to discuss a Christian worldview with respect to a variety of disciplines. Its intent is to serve as a guide, of sorts, and appeals to a reasonably intellectual audience -- high school/early college or so. In an early episode, Del Tackett, the "Tour Guide" said in a sort of offhand apologetics concern, "If there is no God, then why is there music?"

I am not in a position to offer an theological history of music, but I feel comfortable in claiming that music almost certainly was developed as a form of worship. Regardless, music is something that is important and pleasing to God, and there is no shortage of Scripture to back that up. This can be a problem for me, because I sometimes have picky musical preferences. A lot of times, praise music which ought to be encouraged in principle, just does not make the cut in my estimation.

This is not a new struggle for me. I was reminded of it most recently at a contemporary service on Sunday. I do not mean to sound like a snob, but the lazy repetition of lines like "All your ways are just/ You are just in all your ways" does not measure up to "Teach me some melodious sonnet/ Sung by flaming tongues above." It just doesn't. However, praise songs like this one are very real and very emotional ways to worship and vehicles to reach closer to Christ for a lot of people, not the least of whom were those leading the service.

So, when I find myself in a situation like tat, surrounded by people who are singing and getting into it, I have to wonder if his is simply a matter of taste between two people, like when Mandy gave me a hard time for choosing a plain chocolate shake at the Clemson creamery when a whole host of flavors were available around us, or something more egregious, by missing a whole range of ways of worshiping God, ore akin to not eating anything at all. By not feeling the excitement of a Christian praise song that others do, am I not filled with enthusiasm the same way they are? Are all forms of worship made equal?

Both of those questions are complicated. The latter has a few layers, but I think the answer is "sort of." I think that when someone like Brian Moore, an acquaintance, who performed an impressive trumpet solo in church does that, it is a special public worship in part because it took preparation (in order to be taken seriously) and it is not done every Sunday (as to not be simply done by rote). That, in my mind, is better than saying the Lord's Prayer every Sunday to the point of becoming mechanical and meaningless. However, compared to other methods of worship, or even other trumpet solos, I cannot say. If a technically inferior performance followed but represented a higher proportion of the performer's effort, then it might be better, because the second gave more of him or herself, and we would no really know. But compare either of those to the organist who plays every week or to me writing this or even you reading it -- who can say? All I know is that I cannot perform like the do, so I admire it, and I can write like this, so I don't think much of it. The only reason to ask, though, is to judge how well we are using our time. If writing for others was inferior to music, should I take guitar lessons?

The answer to this question is related to the other one I asked first. If you were given one of those talents with the purpose of service and you are not serving, then there is a clear delineation of one being better than another. If Brian chose to shirk his musical talent in pursuit of something else, say acting, and his kills did not help inspire like his trumpet did, then his time is probably better spent with the trumpet. If I find myself in a service with music that is more of a hindrance than help to worship, hen I ought to go somewhere that is not true. However, if I sit with my arms crossed wearing a grinchy face, saying, "This music is dumb," and concentrate on that, not only am I getting in my own way, I can set a bad example for others, too. I think it is important to go where I can do the most good.

The other side of that, though, is a reminder that we should not judge. While I was sitting in that church with a grinchy face, the kernels of this, my own personal form of public worship, were being sewn before I even knew it. This serves both as my public adoration and my public confession; while sitting there, I could not help but thinking "My God deserves better than this lazily written song." The performer could just as easily think, "My God deserves better than to have that sourpuss stand in silence." Of course, we would both be right, but that is what we had, who we were, and what we gave. Worship, sincere worship, is the best we can offer, whatever form it takes.