Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Touched by Faith

While Christmas is a time for many of rejoicing and basking in the love of their family, for others it is a very difficult time because of illnesses that cause them or a loved one to suffer. The following is a poem composed by a 17-year-old, Cedric Bond, whose mother is dealing with thyroid cancer this Christmas. He composed it the night before his mother went in for surgery. Although I have not met Cedric, I was touched by the faith he expresses in the face of difficulty and doubt. I decided to share this with all of you, dedicated to those who are facing similar difficulties this holiday season.

How frail is man, so quickly to forget
The mercies shower'd upon us all.
Though danger now approaches ever near,
Won't I, once free, Thy mercy ne'r recall?

Here now just as that fearful day is come,
I kneel and lift my plea up heavenward.
But why should You look favorably here,
When once she's healed, I will deny you heard?

Though fearful now, I fret away the night;
If healed, I'll think, "It never threatened much,"
And make these heartfelt prayers I lift to You
But sincere mock'ries of Thy healing touch.

O Lord, what psalm might make You hear my prayer,
"Protect and keep in you my mother dear"?
And by the temp'ring power of Thy word,
What verse will make my willful heart sincere?

If by my body's strength I could succeed,
Or by a day of fast Thy mercy see,
But these have not the surety I desire.
True answers rest alone with faith in Thee.

I do not ask for any sign, O Lord--
Not in the deep nor in the utmost height.
Just for Your matchless grace to rescue us,
And ever keep us children of your light.

O Holy Father, let Thy will be done,
And let us brace ourselves whate'r the cost,
To know that You possess the pow'r to save,
But still, if not, our faith will ne'r be lost.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

For the love of Murph, what is the "Christmas spirit" anyway?

Isn't it amazing how many "real meanings of Christmas" there are? You could get dozens of Christmas movies that are centered around discovering the true meaning of the season, and hear lots of songs on the radio about what the season is all about. But I would venture to say that we get ourselves pretty off-base on most of them. So why should I put out one more opinion in a blog post? Because I want to get it. The significance of this day that the Roman government set as tradition for western culture centuries ago surely isn't in the consumer-culture emphasis on buying stuff, stuff and more stuff for your family, friends, coworkers and cats. But lots of people recognize that - you don't have to be Christian to aspire to associate something more than covetousness with a holiday that brings us bright decorations, festive music, rich foods and celebrations with people we love. But for many the joy of the season and the festive feelings and happiness seem to be the substance (based on the Christmas music played in most business establishments anyway). But feeling without basis doesn't quite do it for me. Was Dickens right? Is it all about remembering the welfare of your fellow man and bringing joy to the poor? Well, I just saw A Christmas Carol performed live, and while I admire his concern for the plight of the poor and the blind misery of the rich and stingy, I think he's just seeing the shadow of the real meaning.
If this holiday is to commemorate the events of the nativity story, then we must catch the significance of Luke's account of Christ's birth among the humble and the poor, to a (probably) teenage mother who is caught off guard by her pregnancy, and the proclamation to lowly sheep farmers of his birth. His parents can only afford the poor person's sacrifice of two birds when they take him for his circumcision at the temple. But this is the glorious God who created all and possesses all. The glorious God stepped into his creation to express humble love.
The Christmas spirit, then, for believers, ought to be humble love. Isn't Philippians 2 a great Christmas passage, then? We celebrate the birth of Christ, the God-man, as a human baby. He enters into his creation, into a world where he will be surrounded by the corruption of sin which he hates, and voluntary takes human form to express his love.
When we remember the poor and needy at Christmas, as per Dickens' literary exhortation, we are not in the Christmas spirit if we do it for the sake of holiday sentimentality, but only if we do it to imitate the "Christmas spirit" of humble love.
The wonder of the incarnation, of what it means and how exactly it works can only be understood in part. How could he be fully God and fully man, without confusion or separation of the natures? It blows my mind! But he came in a very simple and practical way to incarnate God's love for the world. I really want to catch the Christmas spirit by humbly loving others. I really want to be a physical representation to my world that reflects the physical manifestation of God's love to the world. I really want to come with my metaphorical sheep on my metaphorical shoulders (i.e., out of my humble position with so little to offer people, and nothing to give God unless he gives it to me first) and look with adoration and amazement on the one who brings peace with God and makes possible the ongoing presence of God in our hearts through the Spirit. Let's catch the Christmas spirit by following the Spirit of Jesus, and, if Austin can accept this word, being spiritual.

“Loving humility is marvelously strong, the strongest of all things and there is nothing else like it.”

Father Zosima in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov

Friday, December 12, 2008

Being spiritual...and being postmodern

Sorry for the recent inactivity - finals week kept me kinda busy, but I know a lot of you reading were in the same boat. I want to include a little more on the "spiritual" conversation that Austin started. I was reading some Jonathan Edwards this summer and ran across his definition. The quote is from an updated version of his work (kind of the Message:Remix version of Edwards, or maybe the CEV), so you don't get the fun of wading through complicated sentence structures and archaic language like you normally would with Edwards. Sorry to disappoint. In "Religious Affections" (as edited by James R. Houston) he said:
"In the New Testament, persons or things are termed spiritual in relation to the Spirit of God. 'Spirit' is the word that is used to signify the third person in the Trinity. It is therefore substantive of what the Scriptures mean by spiritual...Thus, it is only in relationship to the Spirit of God and His influences that persons and things are called spiritual."

So I guess that we can look to fruit of the Spirit (in character) and expression of the gifts of the Spirit (in service) as well as the desire for and application of spiritual truth as things involved in growing spiritually. In speaking to those outside the church, this will need to be clearly defined, though. They may just as easily think you're going to Yelm to consult a medium or learning to connect with the environment when you talk about being spiritual.

Concerning postmodernism: I love how just saying this word makes us as evangelicals feel like we're relevant. I keep watching the youth culture of our country to see whether they are going to continue to progress in postmodern thinking or react against it. Probably just when the church learns to speak effectively to postmodernism, we'll realize that it's past and a new trend has taken it's place. But this is job security for Christian thinkers, eh?

But right now we have a culture using this system as a grid for interpreting reality. Or so they claim. In fact, I think the skepticism and subjectivity is applied to morals, religion and literature, but not to decisions of everyday life. If you want to see a postmodern thinker abandon his or her commitment to skepticism, try questioning evolutionary theory or the science that indicates global warming is in danger of wrecking the world and is man-caused. These things, which are based on extrapolations of data from the present into the past or future, don't seem to be questioned much in the secular, postmodern academic climate. To live everyday life requires making a large number of assumptions that show people operate not with a mindset of absolute uncertainty, but have a range of possibilities that they accept as plausible, and others they write off as ridiculous.
We ought to be advocates to the postmodern world of a range of plausible options for reality that allows us to eliminate others as implausible. There must be room for interpretive differences when we approach Scripture and religious matters in general, but within a certain range. There is room for warranted confidence, even if their isn't for objective certainty.
I'm not really responding to Austin's post above, but giving other thoughts on the topic, since he brought it up. If we take the good elements he mentioned in our approach to theology and combine them with an apologetic stance that refuse to deny the possibility of knowing God as revealed, not as we make him up according to our perspectives, and of being able to accept God's authority on moral matters, although we can't be very certain based on our own sin-tainted reasoning, then we are in good stead.
Historic orthodox Christianity is based on historical facts communicated in literary form, however, and we can't allow our theology to be divorced from facts, and thus we must be able to note our interpretive presuppositions so that we will not be ruled by them, but not allow the fact that people have presuppositions take away our right to claim warranted and reasoned belief that cannot be proved beyond a shadow of a doubt, but is certain enough to live our lives by.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Obsessions with obscurity

I think I have a strange obsession with obscure Bible characters. The one I’ve focused on this week is Ebed-Melech. If you don’t remember who he is or where in the Bible to read about him, my point is proven when I say that he’s an Ethiopian in Jeremiah 38. I taught on that passage this weekend, realizing that I couldn’t count on much common knowledge about the story from the audience. Ebed-Melech (literally “servant of the king” for you non-Hebraists) is obviously not his real name, but apparently the author thinks his actions, his office and his ethnicity are more important to note than his real name. As I look through my past lessons and sermons, I see a couple of other characters in those passages who have a similar profile. The widow Elijah stayed with in the land of Sidon in 1 Kings 16. The Canaanite woman who calls out after Jesus in Matthew 15:21-28. All of these have in common that they are not identified by name, but by ethnicity and some other characteristic. And I think these characters, and others I’m sure I will stumble across as minor characters in the metanarrative, teach us some significant things.
They are all part of the overarching story of God’s relationship with the Jewish people, but none of them are Jews. Yet they all show faith and are rewarded by God for their faith. These are reminders, before the book of Romans spells it all out for us, that God’s people are recognized not by ethnicity or circumcision but by faith, no matter what their ancestry. This is something to be very grateful for as gentiles. Our people received revelation later than the privileged Jews, and we ought to remember and give thanks for God’s willingness to extend salvation beyond his chosen nation and graft us into his people. If it’s notable when non-Jews demonstrate faith, then we should view it as notable when we non-Jews receive salvation, and give thanks for it.
These examples are part of a recurring pattern in Scripture of faith appearing in unlikely people and places. When it comes to assurance of salvation, these are a reminder that those who seem to have things going for them because they are associated with religion are not always the ones who show faith in the Lord. I think we ought to be careful in quickly assuring people of salvation based on words they said or on their associations with lots of other believers. When people doubt salvation, it ought to be an impetus to examine their actions and motives to determine whether the fruit of the gospel of grace is in their lives. I doubt anyone would have picked Ebed-Melech over the Jewish officials as most likely to be saved from death before the circumstances played out. I doubt anyone would have picked the Canaanite woman to receive special favor from God incarnate while the Pharisees received criticism instead, but her desperate pleas from sincere faith surprise us. Let us point people to fruits of conversion for assurance, not formulaic prayers and secure social connections with church people.
If these characters play a part and their names are never remembered, I guess they are a lot like most of us. How many people who play roles that are great in the kingdom of God will never be remembered by name in future generations? Yet our acts done in faith and worship will have a lasting effect. If no one can remember my name, will my acts of faith be worth remembering? Do I have the humility to accept being a nameless player in the drama of God’s redemptive action in the world?

The Dialogues of Nato (proving Matt Richey's statement about corniness)

I appreciate Austin Surls' question about spirituality - and I am incredibly annoyed by it at the same time, because it's so hard to clarify its definition. It seems, however, that "spiritual growth" as we use the term means growing in taking the good things God has put into our regenerated spirits and expressing them in very practical physical and emotional ways. There is also a certain tension involved in remembering that our spirits will last forever while our bodies and physical surroundings are destined to end before we receive new bodies and are placed on a new earth. Perhaps being spiritual means acting with our current physical bodies in htis temporary and broken physical world in light of the things that will be remembered, valued and rewarded when our spirits are brought into the newly perfected physical reality that is part of our future hope. Suggestions, postulations and thoughts...am I responding well to the question?
Matt Richey's question about God's love and hell also gives me some confusion. I like the worship song about the depth and breadth of God's love, but is it accurate when it says that God's love reaches to "the lowest hell"? It's easy to see how hell demonstrates God's justice, holiness and glory, but...oh, snap, I'm just repeating Matt's question. I have other questions on how "sheol," "gehenna" and "hades" are related, and how theology developed from the OT focus on the land and military judgment as the consequence of sin to the church's focus on the eternal state and helfire - it seems to be assumed by Jesus' culture, while it's not mentioned much in the OT.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

The Mystery of a God Who Allows Mysteries

The God of the Bible is mysterious, and this is a wonderful thing. I have been both puzzled and awed so many times as I consider the way he works. The problem of evil has been presented by both Christian and non-Christian thinkers in every generation. God knew that people would wonder how such great evil can exist when the world was created by a good God. Why didn't he spell out for us more clearly his reasons for the way He orders things? Surely He is in the right, if only we could understand. But when Job questioned God about the sufferings he endured, God never really spelled out to him why he allowed those things to happen. Instead, the Lord reminded Job of the greatness, majesty and wisdom He possesses that transcends what every other being possesses. Job saw that he, as a mere man, was in no place to question God, and God saw that as a fitting conclusion. In Ecclesiastes similar questions come up about futility, injustice and suffering. Again, there is no clear answer to the questions given, but rather the wise teacher writing the book calls his readers to respond by enjoying the good things God has given in life and recognizing that God is in control of the mysterious things, even if we don't understand what's going on. There are some answers to this question in Scripture that give partial explanations, but no single, great answer that removes all doubt.
We've just finished discussions on election and predestination in Dr. Jacobson's Soteriology class this quarter. I've been struck by how the Bible says explicitly in several places that God has chosen to save the elect and that he is the one who ensures this process happens, but yet I haven't talked to anyone who felt like they were forced to be saved. I know many people who believe in irresistible grace, but none of them feel they have been dragged into salvation against their will, kicking and screaming. Through some inscrutable and delectable method, God causes or persuades those he desires to save to desire salvation. He doesn't explain why he passes by some, and he doesn't tip His hand as to precisely who every person he intends to save is, or exactly how he intends to save them. God doesn't offer any defense or explanation as to why he would pass by some and allow them to face judgment while he saves others who don't deserve it. We are simply told that He has chosen some "to the praise of His glorious grace." (Eph. 1:6)
The thing that amazes me is that our omniscient God leaves these questions hanging and allows foolish and blind human beings to rage against him, calling him cruel and unjust. And for a time, He has endured (and continues to endure) their anger, rebellion and slander against Him. He even graciously overlooks some serious complaining and grumbling from His own children, as I keep rediscovering when I recognize yet again that my attitude has turned sour and ungrateful. It's tremendous to observe that our God is so powerful, so mysterious, and so patient with our limitations and confusion. Why does He leave these questions hanging? Why does He settle for ambiguity, when He could clear things up pretty easily if He wanted to, and silence a lot of criticisms and complaints? I am left scratching my head, a bit confused, and once again I find my jaw beginning to drop as I ponder that He has acted wisely and mysteriously, to the praise of His great glory.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Responses to the blogging community

Another full post is in the works, but here's a little bit of material in the meantime: I appreciated my brother Matt Richey's post on a fuller pro-life position. It's so good to always seek out the areas where our thinking systems are inconsistent. War creates opportunities for human wickedness and cruelty to express itself, and is certainly not desirable. I see again and again just how quick our video-saturated culture is to laugh at violence, or to be intrigued with that which ought to be appalling, and not to feel any remorse because it's "only" a video or movie.

Venti Americano raises a good question about the term religion. Somehow we have to distinguish genuine practice of a relationship with God through faith from the many things that bring shame and scandal to the term "religion." I'm not convinced that we can honestly reject the term, because evangelicalism fits one definition of religion. But we must make a distinction when we explain our faith between true religion, which includes relationship with God and transformed living, and that which is hypocritical and uses the labels and structures of religion for harmful ends.

If you are one of the weirdos like me who has one foot in the Baptist church and one in the world that adores hip-hop, you'll get a good laugh out of the video my good friend Brad posted. Maybe we should get this choir to perform for NBS chapel.

In line with my earlier posts about the purpose of Christians engaging in seeking to help the poor and better the world, I want to share a poem I ran across last week that has encouraged and inspired me. (Please forgive the hints of sacramentalism - there is still much to be learned from it).

A Future Not Our Own

It helps, now and then, to step back
and take the long view
The kingdom is not only beyond our efforts,
It is beyond our vision.

We accomplish in our lifetime only a tiny
fraction of
the magnificent enterprise that is God’s work.
Nothing we do is complete,
which is another way of saying
that the kingdom always lies beyond us.

No statement says all that could be said.
No prayer fully expresses our faith.
No confession brings perfection.
No pastoral visit brings wholeness.
No programme accomplishes the
church’s mission.
No set of goals and objectives
includes everything.

This is what we are about:
We plant seeds that will one day grow.
We water seeds already planted, knowing
that they hold future promise
We lay foundations that will need
further development.
We provide yeast that produces effects beyond
our capabilities.

We cannot do everything
And there is a sense of liberation in
realizing that
This enables us to do something,
and to do it very well.
It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a
step along the way
an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and
do the rest.

We may never see the end results,
But that is the difference between the master
builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders,
ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw
(often attributed to the late Archbishop Oscar Romero)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Reading the news with whoever-the-author-of-Hebrews-was

People killed. Homes burned. Refugees gathering in camps, fearful for their lives and wondering where they’ll be safe, or if they’ll ever be able to return and rebuild their homes. You can find a story like this during any given week coming out of some part of the world. But this particular story has even more interest and concern on our part – the attacks are specifically targeted against Christians. Believer’s homes and church buildings are being burned, and the militants have even made attacks on the refugee camps set up by the Indian government. The numbers as of October 25th showed 38 dead and 30,000 homeless. Who is attacking these believers and why? Hindu hardliners in the Northeast Indian provinces of Orissa, Bihar, Kerala and Uttar Pradesh have unleashed violence on the Christians there, and have continued even after a government force was deployed to attempt to stop the attacks. Tim Sullivan of the Associated Press cites Hindu leaders who claim that there has been a “cultural invasion” by Christian missionaries in the area. Sullivan explains that their primary complaint is with regard to government jobs that are reserved for underprivileged groups, especially the Dalit caste (sometimes referred to as “untouchables”) and tribal peoples. The tribal groups have mostly remained Hindu, but an increasing number of Dalits have become Christian. The Hindus hold that their Christianity should disqualify them for the jobs, but they have gotten positions anyway. Christian groups in the area have been active in providing education and medical care for Dalits, who have been repressed for centuries by the caste system, and this has surely had an impact on the number of converts. The Hindus, however, accuse the Christians of bribing the poor to convert.

The reference to a culture war is sobering. I am reminded of the blessing that the culture war we talk about waging as American Christians does not result in actual violence and deaths. God has been good to us in our country by granting us peace between religious groups. The Indian Christian groups (many of the “missionaries” referenced are from other regions of India, not from the Western world) are fighting a culture of systematic religious, economic and political repression of Dalits with the compassion and desire for justice that characterizes the people of God. And they are facing a physically violent war.

The author of Hebrews exhorts his readers to “Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” We ought to respond by praying sincerely for our brothers and sisters who are being mistreated.

Christian leaders in the region are showing admirable courage and faith in the face of persecution. Juria Bardhan, Gospel for Asia's state leader in Orissa, said about the situation, "We know the Lord is in control. Many of our pastors have said, 'Even if they kill us, no problem. This will cause thousands to come to Christ,' " For others, the situation is not so certain. Sullivan’s AP article concludes with his conversation he had with a Christian who had been threatened and commanded to convert repeatedly by armed Hindus:

"What can we do?" asked Digal, the man dangling his baby. "They are trying to force us to become Hindu."

So will he convert?

"I don't know," he said, staring down at the ground. "I haven't decided yet."

Let’s pray for strength and faithfulness for our brothers and sisters, for peace to come to the region, and for their persecutors to see the love of God in them and come to belief. Let’s also praise God that he is at work in a place like Orissa, which used to be 2% Christian and is now 28%.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Reading the news with Isaiah

"Is this not the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of wickedness
to undo the straps of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
Is it not to share your bread with the hungry
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him,
and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?
Then shall your light break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up speedily;
your righteousness shall go before you;
the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard...

...if you pour yourself out for the hungry
and satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
then shall your light arise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.
~Isaiah 58:6-8, 10

Here is a favorite Biblical theme of my generation: the burden of God that structural injustice be done away with, and personal compassion for the poor and oppressed take its place. When followers of God play a part in making these things happen, we are effective in providing glimpses of the happily-ever-after. As Americans, we are blessed with a political structure concerned with the rights of each person and so are not always exposed directly to structural injustice. We have much freedom to exercise personal compassion in a capitalist system. And believers in Christ have responded and are responding to poverty and oppression in ways that reflect the love and concern of a compassionate God. Among the untouchable castes in India, in the dark world of sex trafficing in the U.S. and abroad, and in the midst of the AIDS crisis that grips whole regions of the world.
An issue that has gotten big press in the past year has been the world food crisis, as people in places like Haiti and Ethiopia have become unable to get basic food staples due to rising food prices worldwide combined with regional crop failures or political turmoil. The oil and food prices that caused Americans the inconveniences of having to take shorter vacations, eat out less, and maybe buy fewer ipods caused men to go down to one meal a day and women and children to even less in many parts of the world. Direct giving to one of the dozens of Christian organizations working on these problems should be an automatic response for believers blessed with affluence. Even if it seems that there's nothing to spare in our own tightened budgets, we could do something as simple as eating rice for a week (like many of our brothers and sisters do on a regular basis) and appropriating the rest of our normally budgeted grocery money to help churches in underdeveloped countries feed their poor.
But what about structures and policies that exacerbate the problem? In an election year, how do we look for policies that help the global poor? There is a strong consensus among international agencies that agricultural subsidies in the Western world hurt farmers and consumers in developing countries. The most prominent example of this recently has been ethanol subsidies. Because the U.S. chose to subsidize corn crops for ethanol, grain prices became linked with fuel prices, and as fuel prices went up, so did food prices. For the sake of U.S. energy independence and dubious claims of environmental benefit, we enacted policies that hurt the poor.
As President Bush pushed for increased levels of food aid in response to the crisis, another little problem arises: U.S. laws require that any food aid sent overseas be U.S.-grown crops. This means the food-aid dollars don't go nearly as far because of transportation costs. Bush asked for a portion of the food aid to be in cash, but congress did not approve this.
Add this to the agricultural subsidies that the U.S. and Western European nations have been giving for years that raise food prices andmake it harder for farmers in developing countries to export cash crops to the Western world, and we have something that requires a thoughtful response on our part. Has our nationalism gotten in the way of our concern for the poor? Are we sacrificing the emaciated bodies of starving children on the altar of fuel independence and "stopping climate change"? Are we tilting the economic playing field in favor of American farmers at the cost of pricing the worldwide poor out of the market for the necessities of daily life? I hesitate to recommend specific policies beause politics and economics are so complicated and interrelated, but this is one that seems pretty clear. Humans, created in God's image, are a higher concern than national security (if you're a political conservative) or the potentialities of global climate change (if you're a political liberal). Nationalistic economic selfishness must give way to structures that do not make life more difficult for the poor. Where do your candidates stand on subsidies?

Friday, October 24, 2008

Reading the news with the Apostle Paul

It's a crisis. The economy of the U.S. and the world is in "crisis," "meltdown," or whatever other term garners the most political attention and sells news media. While government officials and economists debate the best way to "solve the problem," I have a few reflections on how to think Christianly about what is happening. First, the whole situation gives us a grave reminder of the greed and discontentment that drives and controls sinful human beings. As Al Mohler cited in his blog back on October 3rd,the debt of American households in 2006 was 100% of the gross domestic product. We have been one of the wealthiest nations in the world for years, enjoying luxuries far, far above what the majority of the world enjoys. Close to 3 billion people worldwide live on $2 a day or less, but we as a culture have decided that our incredibly lavish standard of living is not enough if we live within our means. No, we deserve much more, and deserve it now. We would do well to remember and to remind each other that "there is great gain in godliness with contentment." (1 Tim. 6:6) While we still have our wealth, let's use it to "be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share (1 Tim. 6:18)," not to rush headlong off the cliff of reckless borrowing to get more and more things with no lasting value. This seems like such a basic and trite idea for those of us who have been in the church for awhile, but is obviously one that is easy to forget. If contentment, discipline and generosity came easy to human beings, there wouldn't be a financial "meltdown" to solve. And as the economy takes a downward turn, possibly for a long time, this is an even more critical time to give generously and sacrificially. As we guard against risks and tighten our belts, let's nonetheless be willing to follow the example of the Macedonian church and allow our "test" to overflow in generosity. (2 Cor. 8:1-2) To be honest and personal, as one living below the poverty line and not owning stock or a home, I'm kind of liking the drop in gasoline prices thanks to the downturn...

Friday, October 10, 2008

Snapshots of the happily ever after

Here’s a thought I’ve found very inspiring as I’ve pondered the significance of seeking to help the poor, to make peace in relationships, and to do one’s dead-level best to help people out of situations that they don’t seem to want to help themselves out of. These thoughts are born out of a very practical desire: the desire to believe that my efforts are worth something in God’s eyes, even though it seems like every time one person is genuinely helped three others take a turn for the worse. Revelation 21:3-4 describes the wonderful situation of the New Jerusalem this way: “‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning or crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’”
I’m afraid that too often the mindset is that this day will be great, but until then “The poor will always be with us,” so why try to tackle problems like poverty and oppression, when we have a much greater work to do in preaching the gospel? Preaching the message of the gospel is indeed the greatest call we have as Christians. And I think the current trends in evangelicalism are making our gospel no longer too small, but too big. Political activism and social programs are no substitute for life-changing spiritual truth. But if we are going to preach the hope of a coming day when the Lord Jesus will make all things perfect, then we as his followers must seek to show the world (and ourselves) glimpses of what this kingdom will be like in our own spheres of influence. In spite of our personal sins, in spite of the collected effects of all the sins in our society that distort our perception of what it means to be human and to live in community, the Holy Spirit indwelling us as believers provides the clearest picture of this future new creation that’s available during our brief chapter in the great metanarrative. Our descriptions of Jesus, the great king, and his perfect kingdom become so much more convincing when our Christian communities, as they are imbedded in their local human communities, provide sweet foretastes of what Christ’s society will be like.
The key element that can quickly be forgotten when we get excited about social engagement is that the glory of Jesus Christ must be at the center of it all. When this happens, the premillenialist has encouragement regardless of whether the effects of his or her ministry are perceived as lasting by the public. If I devote my life to aiding the poor in the slums of a city in a developing nation, the trailer parks of rural America, or a ghetto near you, there will most likely still be poor people there when I die. (If not, it’s because the city did a redevelopment project and pushed the poor people into a different neighborhood or a different city.) No matter how excited an idealistic 25-year-old can get about the money she gave or helped raise to feed the starving children in some region of Africa, the sad reality is that there will still be starving children in some region of Africa when her great-great-grandchildren are idealistic 25-year olds. The key element in these projects is that along the way snapshots of the justice, peace and love that will be evident in the final kingdom appear before the eyes of people living in a world where some days all they see is evil. If we educate, feed, and clothe the masses because we have the same kind of compassion UNICEF has, nothing happens that affects eternity. But if we give sacrificially, lovingly and compassionately and point to the coming blessings of Jesus Christ and his kingdom, then our works are pebbles tossed into a dark and polluted pond that have ripple effects that carry past the edges of that pond and into eternity.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

You will not be in heaven forever and why this matters

Just as way of introduction, I am Matt Richey, a friend, brother, and fellow seminarian of Nate Duriga's. He asked me to contribute a post to his blog and here we are. It is fitting that this follows Nate's first blog as it deals with many of the same subjects and issues. If you wish to read and provide feedback in my blog as well that would make me happy, whether you know me or not: http://faithforgedindoubt.blogspot.com/ I look forward to interacting with you and Nate in our conversations.

When you read my title, depending upon who you are and what is your theological background, you might have immediately branded me a heretic, became panicky, or were instantly bored with old and irrelevant theology. All three reactions are wrong and you ought to be ashamed of yourself.
  • If you reacted by assuming that I was a heretic, mistaken, unbiblical, or confused, you may have misunderstood the teachings of Scripture on the eternal state. The Bible does not teach that we will spend eternity in heaven. Our hope instead is based in our future bodily resurrection, made possible by the bodily resurrection of Jesus (I Corinthians 15). Romans reminds us the we look forward to 'the redemption of our body'. So we are raised bodily- I guess I knew that- but what does that have to do with heaven? Just like we are not headed for an eternity away from the body, neither are we headed for an eternity away from God's physical creation, the earth. We, and the earth, are looking forward to the day when the flawed will again become perfect, as God created it to be. As we look to the day when we will no longer sin, age, or die, so we look forward to the day when the earth will be without the curse, recreated back in line with God's original assessment: good. Romans 8, Isaiah 65, and Revelation 21 make it clear that there will come a day when God's physical creation will be freed from the effects of sin and God will create a new heavens and a new earth. It is here where we will dwell for eternity and rule with Christ, not in the celestial realm lounging on a cloud with our harps and halos.
  • If you began panicking at the thought of not spending eternity in heaven, don't! This is a good thing not a bad thing. This does not mean that we will away from God's presence, God's presence will be more obvious and enjoyable than ever before. Revelation 21:3 declares that, "...the tabernacle of God is among men and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them." This magnificent passage continues with the well known and often quoted verse, "and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away." This is not a description of heaven, as we so often assume, but of life on the new earth! The new earth will be beautiful beyond description and unmatched by any place we have ever experienced. Try and imagine life without death, pain, and evil. Attempt to describe a place without the effects of sin and the curse. We have no idea what this means because we are so used to living with these things. They've become what we think of as normal, yet this was not what God intended to be normative. What will life be like there? Something like life was supposed to be here before Adam and/or Eve (whomever you prefer to blame) messed it all up, only better. No longer will sin rear its ugly head or Satan entice us to rebel against our Maker. We will have pure and unhindered fellowship with the Father, Son, and Spirit.
  • The third reaction is a common reaction to theological truths, but it is perhaps the most wrongheaded of all. We are tempted (myself included) to think that theology doesn't matter or that it has no relevancy to our daily lives. Perhaps this is partly the fault of theologians and pastors whose approach to theology makes it seem so, but if this is you, you're wrong. As a professor of mine says, you always live your theology, whether you are aware of it or not. Here are several reasons I think it is important that we understand our 'earthly eternity':
  1. If we think and speak of our eternity as merely a heavenly one, we may believe, or at least communicate to others, that our destiny is merely spiritual and not physical. We may be tempted to believe that the physical does not matter because 'it's all going to burn anyway'. The physical is important to God. God created us as physical beings in a physical world with physical realities. How we handle our bodies and our world matters.
  2. We should not view or accept sin and death and pain as normal but as a perversion of God's creation. All creation groans because of the effects of sin and death; we ought to groan with it.
  3. All creation eagerly awaits the redemption of the physical, so also we ought to live in anticipation of not only a new earth, but a new us. I Corinthians 15 again: "Behold! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: "Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory?O death, where is your sting?" The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." But doesn't this reinforce the idea that our physical bodies are of no importance in the here and now? Doesn't the belief that there will be a new heavens and earth support the idea that the heavens and earth we have now matters little? No more than the belief in that our justification and the forgiveness of our sins allows us to live however we want. We recognize that the way that God intended life and the way that God created the world is how it should be and what is best. Someone who lives life fleeing God's intended purpose for her will not be satisfied in her pursuits. They will all be vain and empty. A life lived as God intended and designed will come the nearest to true satisfaction in fulfilling one's purpose in this life.
  4. Living with eternity in mind ought to remind us that how God created us and the earth to be originally and how it and we will be in eternity is best also in the present. We ought to take care of this earth because God originally set us as caretakers over it. We ought to take care of our physical bodies because God created us as physical beings and our bodies are good and gifts from our Father. We ought to treat them as such. This does not that we become narcissists who worship ourselves for our own beauty nor pagans who worship the creation of the Creator; but that we are thankful, appreciative, and good stewards of God's gifts and entrusted responsibility.
  5. The last reason is similar to the second: We ought never to forget that we are not fighting a losing battle. As a premillenialist, I may be tempted with or accused of the 'its all going to pot' mentality, but this is wrongheaded thinking. God will redeem the physical. Our efforts on this earth will not end in defeat. Creation will once again be beautiful as God's original design was beautiful. Our primary mission on this earth is to 'make disciples'. This will have lasting value, not only in our temporary holding place (heaven), but upon our eternal dwelling, the new earth. We need not work with a defeatist attitude but with the realization that one day, creation will worship her creator without the effects of sin's intrusion. The work we do in this life on this earth will reverberate in the next life and upon the new earth. We are not fighting a losing battle, only a very long battle with only apparent defeats along the way.
I wish to close this with Paul's exhortation from the last verse of I Corinthians 15:

"Therefore, my brothers (and sisters), be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your toil is not in vain in the Lord."

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Why heavenly minded Christians care about earthly realities (even premillenialists!)

There seems to be a common perception that Christians in my faith community’s confessional stream – those who take a premillenial view of eschatology – only care about getting people saved out of the world, and not taking any action to make their world better. I have seen many, however, who are highly active in helping the poor, seeking to create or transform culture, and even caring for the environment. I think that premillenialists have some good reasons for being involved in these activities. While we do in fact look to heavenly realities as of greatest importance, we ought to work hard to prove false the accusations of being useless on earth. There are some good and coherent reasons why dispensational premillenialists should do this, and I want to discuss some of them in this and forthcoming posts.
We clean our houses even though we know that they will get dirty again. We mow our lawns, even though we know that the grass will grow again. One day that house will become old and dilapidated, and it will be torn down. Perhaps one day that lawn will be overgrown with weeds or seized by the EPA because it is home to a certain kind of potato bug that has become an endangered species. However, we don’t throw up our hands and say, “If that’s how this is going to end, I’m not going to put any effort into making it better now.” But why do we continue to care for it? Because most of us enjoy living in clean, attractive, and somewhat orderly places. Because the condition of our living spaces reflects on our character as individuals and our level of responsibility. And because we want to honor the preferences and expectations of our families and communities.
As believers, our care for society ought to represent the character of Someone much greater than we are. We are members of a community that will last much longer than the few years of our earthly lives. When we stand up against injustice to the poor, give generously to their needs, and invest in their lives to give them the skills and resources to overcome poverty, we do so because we want to reflect the character of Christ. Meeting their temporal needs shows them the reality of love and compassion of Jesus. If, despite our best efforts, those we help never rise out of poverty, our efforts were a success because we demonstrated the love of Christ to the observing world. Our care for society as believers, and especially a compassionate concern for the poor, reflects the character of God to the watching world. If we are never successful in eliminating all poverty (and we never will be in a fallen world), we are still successful if we are consistently showing the character of Christ by concern for the welfare of our communities, culture, and environment. Christian social action should display to the world the character of Christ.

Entering the blogosphere

The title Impoverished Sage reflects the concepts in Proverbs 2-4, where Solomon emphatically exhorts his son to get wisdom and understanding, because they are far more valuable than silver, gold or jewels. As my life story unfolds, I keep moving further away from financial abundance or security, but uncovering wisdom in God’s Word, in my experiences, in history, in the examples of the Godly men and women who are my seniors, and in the words of my brothers and sisters in the Lord who speak openly and sincerely about what God is doing in their lives. Thus far I’ve managed to achieve the Impoverished part of the title, and I hold out hope that one day I’ll have the wisdom of a Sage. Even if it takes great sacrifice to get there, I believe it will be worthwhile.
As learning occurs more effectively in community, much of what is written on this blog will be shaped by the insights gaining from those at my present community of learning, Northwest Baptist Seminary, and many contributions will be written by members of that community as well.