Archive for May, 2009

May 28, 2009

Vacation

This last weekend we, as a family, went on vacation. This got me to thinking. What exactly constitutes a vacation? Here I am fighting to achieve vacationism in all its glory and I’m not even sure what it is! It wasn’t until I was driving back to work Tuesday that I determined that a vacation is only accomplished when it becomes such a break from reality that you have to make a mental, emotional and physical effort to reconnect when you return. Then you too will experience the joys of a vacation.

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May 26, 2009

Tomato Praise vs. Redwood Praise

Psalm 56:4 “In God, I will praise in His word, in God I trust. I am not afraid. What can flesh do to me?” [my translation]

We have lofty aspirations in our praises to the Lord. We desire for our praise to be like the branches of a tall redwood which reaches heights close to 380 feet. Oh, to exult in the glory of God! Can there be a greater honor?

Yet, praise that is not entrenched in Scripture and saturated with a love of God’s Word is more like a tomato plant, which seems impressive in its growth and has fruit. Grab a tomato plant by its stem and pull and you will find a lackluster root system that cannot support the weight of the plant for which it endeavors to grow. We gird it with poles and strings for support; it cannot hold its own weight.

When we praise God absent of a passion for His revelation of Himself we find our praise shallow – and though it will produce fruit – it will be of a sort that is derived as much from our conceptions and manipulations of heart and mind as it is representative of the sovereign God of the universe.

Turn to God’s Word and find the proper root system to support the esteemed praise that God is worthy of both producing in our hearts and receiving from our mouths. Then your praise will indeed sing with the redwoods in the wonder and grandeur of the Creator.

May 18, 2009

Wrong Again

It is not hard to find articles on Barack Obama’s visit to Notre Dame on Sunday, May 17, 2009. But there was an article by the Associated Press that caught my attention. Julie Pace noted that President Obama sought some common ground between the two sides on abortion.

What common ground do these two sides have? “We can still agree that this is a heart-wrenching decision for any woman to make, with both moral and spiritual dimensions.” Obama said.

Really? This is the common ground that both sides share. I am in utter disbelief that anyone can come to the conclusion that a human embryo, zygote, or fetus can be killed primarily for the convenience of a mother and simultaneously call it a heart-wrenching decision. This statement tells us two things, at least.

First, it tells us that the pro-choice view is utterly intellectually bankrupt if it finds moral qualms with its stance and yet seeks to further its cause. We have laws that protect animals to varying degrees that are not granted to a human child still in her mother’s uterus. Laws that address, funny enough, humane treatment.[1]So inhumane is the way abortion is actually carried out that the FDA has a higher code of requirements when it inspects slaughter houses then government does on abortion clinics.[2]

Second, the very fact that President Obama admits this is a heart-wrenching decision admits to the reality that it is wrong. Why else would it be heart wrenching? Why else is there moral and spiritual implications? If it is merely a matter of choice then why fret? If you are pro-choice then giving up this ground means admitting that abortion is wrong. If this issue is one of relative perspective then it can only be a situation of position, power and perspective.

The mother is in a position with the support of her government to carry out the abortion. They give her means through access to abortion clinics, funds, engage in laws splitting the home in half so that now neither father of child or grandparents (if the mother is young ) have access, input or knowledge.

The mother has power of life and death in her hand. Think of those words – “life and death.” She does not have “convenience and happiness” within the grasp of her hands. What a lie that has been propagated to believe what you are deciding over is anything other than life and death. Since a primary concern that gives rise to abortion is one of provision why is it that we don’t have stiffer sentences for murders committed against the wealthy? If money is such a clear answer, and someone’s happiness is intrinsic to having means then why does it not surface in other areas of justice when we are making grandiose statements on the value (or lack thereof) of human life. However, Nietzsche would be proud. Give me a better example of a human rising above the herd and doing as she wishes than abortion.

The mother has perspective. Our culture has been fixated on giving multiple reasons for why abortion is the right choice. From the overused example of rape resulting in pregnancy with inflated statistics to the pursuit of happiness someone needs to remind the media that the right to life comes before either liberty or the pursuit of happiness. To take life away is to undermine the foundation of the guiding principles of this country.

Congratulations on your honorary doctorate from Notre Dame Mr. President – now please give us the intellectual integrity that should come with it.
[1] John Piper gives a short discussion on this logic here.
[2] http://www.fsis.usda.gov/Fact_Sheets/Key_Facts_Humane_Slaughter/index.asp

May 17, 2009

Elvis & John

I am four years past due. When Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell first burst on the scene in 2005 I was preoccupied with other things. Since then I’ve heard passing statements of the book, either of praise or disappointment. However, in preparation for a summer series on pop culture I read it in anticipation that it would have some relevance concerning some of the more recent developments within the ranks of American Christianity.

My summary of the book in a single word is “WOW!” I’m not sure that I have ever read a work that is such an extreme combination of polarizing ideas propagated by one person. From one sentence to the next you don’t know what you are going to get. Some of Rob’s statements are absolutely right, but just as much as one statement is right the next swings entirely in the other direction and is full of error. Now for those in the blogosphere who think I have a responsibility to first try to email Rob with these issues before blogging about them, to you I say “garbage.” The guy wrote a book with the intentions of publication. During the writing and editing process he had multiple people and opportunities to review and revise. As a reader, you – as well as I – have a responsibility to critically read what we are presented. This is a fact Rob acknowledges himself in his book. Now, if I had taken a private letter and made it public that is a different matter, but please do not confuse public fare as a private dispute.

My intention never was to blog on Velvet Elvis and if it weren’t for chapter six, entitled “Movement Six: New” I would have succeeded. Velvet Elvis does have its strengths. As noted before, some of the things Rob writes are absolutely correct. Chapter five is a good chapter and it is worth reading as it edifies. Rob’s vulnerable critique of the church and tradition is poignant – and is useful in it causes us to pause. We always need to be evaluating the motivations that drive us in whatever it is we are doing as God’s people. Without works like Velvet Elvis we (Christians) would be the lazy, apathetic, dumb people we are so often presented to be. So thanks needs to be given to Rob for forcing us to be honest and diligent in our own thinking, study, and ministry as we continue this leg of our journey. Rob’s writing style is terse and poetic. This is in large part the book’s strength and weakness. I can’t help but think that if he wasn’t trying to be witty and “relevant” than there wouldn’t be the confusion, ambiguity and misrepresentation of God’s Word that occurs at times in the book. The need to be relevant saturates the book.

This of course leads me to my biggest concern in the book in chapter six. It is worth touching on because it dances dangerously on the edge of two errors. The first is universalism – and I don’t think Rob is preaching universalism, but how someone won’t get to universalism based on his statement is remarkable. Secondly, and I think this the more likely result, is that Rob gives a back-door endorsement to works-related salvation. The New Perspective of Paul is a theological viewpoint gaining in popularity that accomplishes the same thing. Much of what Rob writes in chapter six matches the empathy endorsed by proponents of The New Perspective. If all people are forgiven, both in Heaven and Hell, then what separates them? Rob’s answer: “Jesus measures their eternal standings in terms of not what they said or believed but how they lived, specifically in regard to the hell around them.”[1] Simply – it’s not based on belief but on works. Maybe Rob means something other than he wrote, after all it is terse – and with some of the other areas he gets right – I wouldn’t be surprised. But I can’t address what I hoped he meant; I can only address what he wrote. My hope is that he means something other than what is implied in his writings. Please note before we get into it that I’ve read the whole book and no where does he write something that counters what I would contend is the obvious reading of the text. What has me in a tizzy?

Rob writes:

“Heaven is full of forgiven people.

Hell is full of forgiven people.

Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.”[2]

The issue that Rob is raising here is the issue of Atonement. “What did Jesus’ death on the cross accomplish?” It is as simple – and complicated as that. If your answer is that Jesus died for every human in the same way then your definition of atonement is very different than those who believe that Christ only died for those who actually believe. Rob’s statement would suggest that he falls in the first group – I fall in the second. I will attempt to give some reasons why I think his statement is dangerous and a couple of implications to it.

First, Jesus did die for all humans in some way. Without Jesus’ atoning work every second of every day for every person is an atrocity to the nostrils of God. Romans 3:25 points to this aspect when Paul writes that Christ Jesus “whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.” God’s justice needs to be satisfied even in the midst of his patience. This is why we are told in 1 Timothy 4:10 that Christ is “the Savior of all men, especially of those who believe.” These verses together tell us that God does have a distinction in what Jesus’ death accomplishes for those who are regenerate and those who are unregenerate. A key here is the word “propitiation.” Despite Rob’s writing, another way God describes the difference is those who are forgiven and those who are not forgiven. Hell simply is not full of forgiven people. You have to obliterate the meaning of “propitiate” in order to get there, but more on that later.

This brings us back to atonement. The atonement, as initially stated, would mean that the death of Christ did not actually save anybody. It means that that the idea of salvation is no longer theoretical, but possible. Even more scary is the idea that Jesus’ payment is limited in that it does not actually accomplish that which we purport. It does not remove God’s wrath from anyone – it simply creates an environment so that we can find forgiveness and mercy. Rob goes a little further than this general stance by saying that all are forgiven. A problematic implication is that then you, as a human, have to do the accomplishing of your new birth. A proposition that is exceedingly difficult since you are dead in your sins (Romans 3, Ephesians 2).

Thankfully, this is not a correct view. There simply is not one forgiven person in Hell. Christ did purchase, through his death, the regenerative grace required for us to be saved. If Rob holds to this reality then he must admit that you cannot be forgiven and in Hell. If that were the case then there would be sin that was mightier than Jesus’ atoning work. There would be sin that was so high Jesus’ suffering, shedding of blood and death could not satisfy its cost. This implication is staggering since Jesus’ value is infinite as he is God and is holy and full of glory. There is nothing or no one who is more valuable than God. This includes sin. No sin is worth more than God. This means that no sin is mightier then the worth generated by the sacrifice of God the Son. The very fact that his one payment is overwhelmingly satisfactory for everyone’s sin represents his worth and magnitude of our atrocities.

The biblical view affirms that God had the actual redemption of his children, those Rob distinguishes as “the forgiven people in Heaven,” in view. Outside of obvious text like Romans 9, Ephesians 1 and John 6 we find this stream of thought throughout the Bible. It is no accident that God uses words chosen, elected, adopted when referring to his children. We are the recipients and he the enactor. One of the best places to see this is Jesus explanation in John 3 to explain to Nicodemus why he is not born again. In this text concerning salvation Jesus points out some very important things leading up to the most quoted verse in the Bible. He starts by pointing out that the Spirit does his work how he wants and though we may be recipients of it we cannot explain it or wrestle it into being. This is Jesus introduction as to how some are born again and some are not. Then he goes into a brief narrative with the children of Israel to prove his point. Simply, only a small group of people within the nation of Israel were recipients to the healing from looking on the staff with the serpent on it. There was a whole nation, but only some bitten and then only some of those healed. It is a small group that is the beneficiaries. So the way that God shows his love to us is by saving (which includes forgiving) those who believe. The rest of John supports this interpretation. In John 10:15 Jesus tells us “I lay down my life for the sheep.” And then explains in verse 26 “but you do not believe because you are not part of my flock.” And in John 17 Jesus is speaking with the purpose of his death in view. He says in verse 6 “I have manifested your name to the people whom you gave me out of the world. Yours they were, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word.” Verse 9, “ I am praying for them. I am not praying for the world but for those whom you have given me, for they are yours.” And verse 19, “ And for their sake [my emphasis] I consecrate myself, that they also may be sanctified in truth.” All these texts make clear that there are two groups when it comes to the recipients – those who are sanctified and those who are not, those who are part of Jesus’ flock and those who are not, those who believe and those who don’t, those who are forgiven and those who are not. The idea of forgiveness in the Bible is not flippant – it means something. If you are forgiven then you have experienced these things, not forgiven despite these things.

These leads to where I’m guessing Rob may be confused and that is there is more than just one aspect to God’s love. There are is a type of general love that God grants to his entire creation and invites us, as believers, to engage in as well. This is the call that includes us to feed the poor, defend the helpless, and tend to the sick. God shows this love by letting creation stay in existence, and by acts such as rain, the rising of the sun, sunshine, food and shelter. God loves his entire creation this way and we have an honor and mandate to do the same.

However, God’s salvific love is not something he invites us to do. Indeed we cannot do it. God simply tells us to care and pray and proclaim his gospel message. The proclamation of his gospel message is part of this general love we are called to fulfill. However, the distinction is that we do not actually save anyone. God does the saving. He is the judge. He separates the wheat from the tares.

This brings us to 1 John 2:2 “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” This verse does not mean that Jesus death pays for the sins of every person in the world in a salvific sense. The reason is behind what propitiation means. Propitiation is the appeasement of wrath. In this text, God is looking for appeasement for our sins and Jesus becomes that appeasement so that we can be forgiven. If then propitiation here happens to every human who ever has, is or will live then all people must be saved and we have lapsed into universalism. Appeasement means that punishment will not occur. God does not double dip. He does not have Jesus pay for your sins and then have you pay too. You cannot be forgiven and in Hell. IT JUST IS NOT POSSIBLE.

We’ve already seen that John doesn’t buy into the lie that everyone is saved. So, does John give us a hint with what he means here? Actually there is another place that John writes something similar that when brought parallel to this verse help clarify both texts. That is John 11:51-52 “He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.” Knowing that John and God both don’t teach universalism and having an understanding of propitiation helps us ensure that we interpret this text correctly instead of building doctrine off a lazy reading of one text. Within the context of God’s Word then “whole world” fits in the context of Revelation 5:9 “And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.’”

[1] Page 148.
[2] Page 146.

May 15, 2009

Saturdays are for Stories

A Love Story

This is a typical love story. It begins as most love stories begin. A boy, Guy, catching a glimpse of a girl. It was love at first sight. Not some existential overstatement of the situation, but real love that blossomed as soon as the seed rooted itself in the fertile soil of his heart. She was one of the prettiest jewels his eyes beheld. He had no choice but to love her.

As the situation had it, her life was entwined with his. Guy counted himself lucky. He found himself changing his routine to have more time with her. He would come up with silly games to try to catch her attention. At first he had little success, but as time wore on he fine-tuned the skill set etched within the very being of his soul – skills he never knew existed – and he had success. He created situations to have contact with her, whether it be a smile, a laugh or a brushing of her hand against his arm. It eventually led to kisses, her gently caressing his cheeks with clear wonder and awe, hugs of immense magnitude and a sharing of the wonder of the world around them as they discovered anew all that they encountered. He found a piece of heaven – truly, as he began to grasp the importance of their relationship.

It was a new drug – one that conquers petty competitors like alcohol, drugs, books, television and money. Guy’s days were days of elation filled with utter happiness. Sadly, little by little things began to change. Guy discovered that strife was arising at every corner. He would say “hot” and she would say “cold.” At every point of life together, he discovered her constant needling of him as she bucked against his very fiber. Modern foolishness would wonder at the fact that his love for her still grew. He could not help himself for she was incomparably more valuable to him than his life. He would instantly give it up for her if need be – no question, no hesitation. The result was many restless nights filled with fits of tears and frustration in the dark closet of his heart.

There were many things about her that exhausted him, but his desire was not so much to change these things as it was to get past them. Clarity was given to him and he started another leg of this love affair. A precious gift was given to him and he realized what was at stake. “God help me!” he cried.

There is silliness and humor in the midst of this progressing tragedy. Everyone other than Guy knew the situation. Had he availed himself to others’ wisdom and insight maybe the lesson would have been less painful. As it is Guy found himself with a little more silver in his crown. Guy’s intentions and persistence grew each day as he found himself convinced a life of consequences would follow them both if he did not discover the cancer at the core of their relational fissure.

So he began to notice, little by little, that her antagonistic tendencies matched his perfectly. So blind was he! How could he have missed it all this time. Part of her magnetic appeal to him was how much like him was she. In truth, not a closer match could be found. What bothered him, bothered her. When he felt the need to defend, she too defended. When he found joy in aggravating, she too found joy in aggravating. When he was ambiguous, so was she. The reasons for this exact match are many and to laborious to go over in the midst of a love story.

Guy had known this all along, but did not want to account for it – for it was his accounting, his due, his wage and his penalty. To see those things in yourself that frustrate you to no end and bring you to the brink of breakage is a special place. Guy would say it is part of the pavement that leads to paradise. With this newfound knowledge Guy engaged in a different strategy with his love.

He begun to engage her in an intentional way to encourage the better parts of herself while he downplayed his sour side. He realized, of course, that at this point years of damage had been done. No matter how hard he tried how could he possibly undue all that he had done? Still, he owed it to her to try. Funny thing is that as he forced himself to reflect and respond in a more mature manner the more he found himself truly changing. Now, you may be asking how could she even stay committed to the relationship this long, much less long enough for his hopes to be fulfilled? Anyone who has fought for the sake of another through the agency of love knows the answer to this question. But the answer to this question is something you must discover for yourself.

Back to our true story…I did mention it was true didn’t I? Don’t worry the names have been changed to protect the innocent. Guy was thrilled with the changes occurring within the very fiber of his soul. It was as if he were a guitar out of tune and someone was finally tuning up the strings. Giving them a pluck here and a turn there. It was a precious and gentle time of one string being tuned before the next was fiddled. Of course, if Guy bought into the lie of self-esteem he would have counted the entire experience a success since he had forever been changed, but this story is about love and the inescapable value of another and no other outcome would do than the saving of a relationship that even in its infancy had microscopic tears that had begun to tear at a cataclysmic rate.

Guy’s wonderings about how or when he would know if there was hope in salvaging this relationship did not go unanswered. Did I mention that his love had no idea all this time there was an issue? Its true. How it happened I cannot say, but it was majestic and beautiful. It was a night that reminds the soul of hope and beauty and the value in striving through the hard times. It was a night that began with dinner and a time of talking and laughing with all around. Then, as he lay her down for sleep, he found her for the first time caressing his cheeks and looking in his eyes in a way that had never happened before. She wrapped her arms around his neck and gently pulled his cheek to her lips and kissed him so gently and willingly. It was a time of true vulnerability and preciousness. The immensity of the situation could not be denied and Guy knew instantly its significance. Then she pulled herself to his ear and whispered in his ear so as only he could hear – so only they would share – and gently sighed the words “I love you too Daddy.”

I love you too Naomi.

May 11, 2009

Back in the Saddle Again

I am going back to seminary…pending acceptance. I have received a higher than anticipated interest in this decision the last few days and decided the best mode of announcement at this point was to blog. Granted that one person with invested interested is higher than anticipated, but to be sure I’m a little surprised by the attention. It is a healthy confirmation that I do appreciate.

Shortly after Katrina, one of the most grace-saturated persons I’ve ever met told me that God’s education takes place outside of the classroom. His caveat was that seminary does have its uses, but often we find ourselves vetted outside its doors. Despite my initial reluctance to accept this truth I have engaged in four years of a different type of education. While I don’t hold that this education is far from over I think I may have, at last, earned this specialized degree. What degree did I earn? The MAE or The Masters of Arts in Exultation. It does not come with a marker such as a diploma hanging on the wall. Its Majesty is not demonstrated in the silver lining around the clouds, but rather the beams of sunlight that burst through the darkest storm clouds. Its Mystery is not discovered behind emotional scars and spiritual plights, but rather is found in the fact that there are no scars and the plights are exchanged for journeys. Its motto is not “God helps those who help themselves” but “Come to me, all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” I have begun to learn the lesson I wanted to know in my head but not my heart. Romans 5:2-4 “Also through Him, we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. And not only that, but we also rejoice in our afflictions, because we know that affliction produces endurance, endurance produces proven character, and proven character produces hope.”

So here we stand, as a family, looking over the next hill into the next valley wondering what God has in store for us as we seek to be obedient. Today, walking on the campus of Covenant Seminary, I recognized God’s good timing and His sweet and gentle touch over the last four years. I admit to many questions still. The logistics don’t make sense and they need His hand to be accomplished. Here we go – Seminary Part Deux. So for those asking – Yes I have FINALLY applied to seminary to finish a degree that took a hiatus in August 2005 with the coming of Katrina. I am looking to do a double major in Exegetical Work (languages) and Counseling. Pray, specifically that Covenant sees fit to grant me a scholarship although I am not applying for an MDIV and will not be a full-time student, which both count against me. However, the good news is that they will, at least, consider it.

Soli Deo Gloria