Sunday, April 28, 2013

Do you have Your Best Life Now?

     You know you want it... there's something basic about humanity that, like water, desires and follows the path of least resistance.  I'm talking about a life filled with peace and abundance, ease and happiness, a glee in disdaining hardship and mocking rejection of the possibility of disaster.  Greek philosophers pondered the methods to achieve this utopian existence, and one branch in particular, the Epicureans, theorized that all men should seek and order their lives to minimize pain and maximize pleasure.
     I've been studying in the Psalms for some time now, and I do want to return for more posts in 2 Cor, but
Not on my Top 10 list...
this topic was too timely to ignore.  You probably have heard of "Your Best Life Now" by Joel Osteen, so I want to intrigue you with a new perspective, a "certain point of view" in which the book genuinely and biblically reflects this earthly life for a select group.  That's exactly what I thought as I read these verses:
"For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek.  They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.  Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment.  Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies.  They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression.  They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth.  Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them.  And they say, "How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High?" (Ps 73:4-11)
     Sounds great, huh?  These folks have everything one could want, "more than heart could wish" (vs.7 KJV).  We can easily bring this into a modern context:  big houses, nice cars, beautiful spouses, exotic vacations, unrivalled success in their professions... nothing seems to be lacking in this idyllic picture of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" (or maybe the show "Cribs" for my MTV generation!).  They have no worries, no concerns, and certainly no stress regarding a divine judgment... they don't even think there is such a Judge (vs. 11).  So it's at this point I have to come clean...  I pulled the passage above out of context to make a point:  the people that Asaph (the author of the psalm) is describing, the only people who have their best life now are the "arrogant" and the "wicked" (vs. 3, 12)
     I guess the best way to sum it up is the proverb "Ignorance is bliss";  in many instances, ungodly people can and do enjoy a period of divine mercy;  this is in addition to what theologians call it "common grace", describing earthly blessings that all sorts of people are given.  Also, the patience of God is showered upon unbelievers as evidence of God's mercy and willingness to pardon sin (Rom 2:4). When He has every right to obliterate all of us in the womb at our first moment of selfishness, instead He graciously grants the wicked decades of life, and many (if not most) are given glimpses of the gospel, given opportunities to hear of the saving power of the blood of Christ.  But to no avail:  the material bounty they enjoy is enough to drown out the appeal of God in Christ (like the "cares of the world";  Mt 13:22).  
Not the place you want to see an old church friend...
     I ran into an old friend a couple of days ago, a sad story of failed discipleship:  at a previous church, I had started meeting with this young man.  He was excited to meet and usually showed up, but I couldn't help but notice he made no real effort in investigating the text of the Bible for himself.  He was full of excuses and had no shortage of free time, but always managed to avoid actually reading the Scripture (like a kid getting out of cleaning his room!).  So I was shocked to see him this week twice in one day:  the first time he was walking into a casino (one of our bus routes runs right in front of one) with another man, and was just finishing a cigarette.  Then about 4 hours later, I was grabbing a snack right in a grocery store before the last run of the night;  I turned the corner and there he was!  I chatted him up for almost 5 minutes... he had a WIC voucher in his cart (Washington's low-income assistance for mothers and young children) and told me that he was working for minimum wage with a wife and baby to provide for.  He was living in a small apartment in the rundown part of town.  I asked him where he was attending church, and surprise, surprise, he told me it had been a while since he darkened the door of a church.  In retrospect, the best thing I could think was "Well, at least he's not rich!".  The worst thing, the most damning thing you could wish for someone in rebellion against God is prosperity. 

Photos courtesy of Amazon, Michael Kappel

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

American Polytheism

King Kamehameha the I
     If I saw that title, I'd probably expect a post on Mormonism... but no, my wife and I are not vacationing in Utah, but Hawaii (or "Hawai'i" if you show off your local flair)  We got in last night, so after almost 24 hrs. here, I can honestly say this is the most religious spot in America I've seen lately (this is likely due to my residence in the region with the lowest church attendance and religious affiliation in the nation!).  I'm sure if I lived in the Bible Belt, I might have a different perception;  so in most places in Hawaii, you see statues, monuments and plaques to historic figures, royalty from the monarchy that ruled the islands until 1893 and continued as important personages into the 20th century. 
     The religiosity of Hawaii is subtle, yet pervasive;  unlike most other states, the native population of the islands continues to influence the culture.  Most of the lower 48 contained tribal peoples, but through the governmental policies of the 1800's (which I am not supporting or condoning), the indigenous culture was largely abolished.  Yet in Hawaii, you have virtually all the hallmarks of a distinct worldview, complete with language and religious beliefs.  So in case any of you have the plans or the privilege of visiting these picturesque green dots in the Pacific, you might benefit from some disjointed spiritual insights gleaned from the museums and historic sites.
     As I started with, Hawaii's native culture is polytheistic ("...for as many as your cities are your gods, O Judah!" Jer 2:28).  It seems to me that there is a great similarity between the animism of Asia and Africa and Hawaiian belief:  most elemental forces (wind, water, thunder, etc.) have a deity, and there are many other hybrids... half-human, half-animal, humans transformed into animals then deified, you name it!  I learned later in our trip that tribal chiefs were considered the descendants of deity, and there was an intricate system of showing reverence called kupu, which was in force until the mid 19th century.  When a chief walked by, everyone fell to their faces;  when entering the home of a chief, one removed their clothing;  even the possessions of the chief were believed to have sacred significance, and must be revered;  violations of kupu were punishable by strangulation, immolation and other unpleasantries you don't see on tourism commercials.
     Everyone has encountered the word "aloha", the Hawaiian equivalent of hello and/or goodbye, and I
Deceiving beauty...
discovered that it also has a connotation of love and affection.  I was educated that this is due to the perception of all humanity as one o'hana ("family").  In conversations with a couple locals, this taint of universalism came up repeatedly, and I suspect that even the climate of the islands works against a true grasp of biblical truth in this area... in a place of stunning beauty, where the people are friendly and taught overt hospitality with their own language, it's awful hard to admit that all humanity is desperately corrupt, and that God is rescuing His elect through the gospel, separating them from Satan's progeny (including all adherents of this welcoming, tolerant religion) into His household.
      After my stay in the 50th state (I'm finishing this on the plane back), and especially after a most educational trip to the Bishop Museum, I am disturbed to admit that my first response to the original beliefs of Hawaii (and it continues to nag me) was conceited arrogance:
"Sure, those kooky islanders had some strange ideas, but America came in and took over.  So now that we're in charge, all those backward natives will and have seen the obvious superiority of American culture and Christianity, they'll convert!"
The "takeover" of Hawaii is a particularly dishonorable bit of history:  a group of American businessmen arranged a military coup and deposed the last queen to further their financial assets;  she showed serene restraint and didn't resist physically for the sake of her people, but instead petitioned and put her trust in the United States to do the right thing, only to be disappointed... the islands were annexed about 5 years later.   
     So such shallow reasoning might've been harder to shake 50 or 60 years ago, but the further we "progress" into a postmodern world that is enamored with any mystical replacement for Biblical truth, the more we must prepare and expect to respond apologetically (instead of egotistically!) with a clear presentation of the distinctiveness of the gospel.  It is interesting that Satan seems to have only a few basic systems of deceit with which he works to obscure/replace the truth (but who can blame him... if it ain't broke...).  The similarities common to most religions occur in Hawaii too, making it simpler for us to hammer home the revealed truth of God's Word, the Creator of all the world.  I can tell you from experience the societal ills in the mainland are present in Hawaii (again, the "entertainment" of 2 prostitutes having a screaming match is hard to find in the brochures!), so the remedy of Jesus offered in Scripture is just as relevant and necessary as everywhere else.

Photos courtesy of my ancient, but trusty camera

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

God's Social Security

     It's been an interesting couple of days... a dear brother from out of state had just come back into the area with very little in terms of material resources, and his needs were simple and urgent: a place to stay and employment.  But the responses I encountered when sharing this man's situation showed me how great a disparity still exists between the truly biblical worldview we are called to and the prevailing view, secularism with a Bibley facade. 
     Maybe a good way to start is from the outside in:  Voddie Baucham has a great sermon series on Daniel, and my favorite is on Dan 4;  he explores the possibility that if Nebuchadnezzar lived today, he would be diagnosed as "mentally ill".  At one point in his piercing critique of our inadequate modern perception of mental illness, he put it this way (in a rough paraphrase): 
"If you need help with your marriage, or you're feeling blue, or your kid is
"Electroshock therapy does tingle a little..."
acting up, then go talk to the pastor... he can help.  But if you're dealing with serious depression, or anything we would think of as a psychosis, you need real help... you need a professional."
    The dominant attitude of our society is that religion is a nice thing to have in your life (if you so desire), something to make you feel good and to use as a Band-aid for minor stress.  But in the realm of mental health, to solve real problems, we need someone trained in a pseudo-scientific, materialist field whose formative figures hated religion (Christianity in particular) and consciously strove to exclude any trace of the spiritual from their work. 
      Here's the kicker:  the same principle and dogma rules our approach to helping for the poor and needy.  Go to the church if you need help moving or looking for someone to housesit for you while you're on vacation, but if you're really down and out, if you've lost your job or you're addicted to drugs or you're sleeping on the street with nowhere to go, you need real help... you need the government.  Now for those folks without Christ, we can't be surprised when they look to the only hope they know, the only source of relief:  a series of broken programs that enable indolence and create enslavement to the system for what amounts to table scraps.  But Christians?  What/where should Christians first look to when they are in need?
     THE CHURCH!!!  However well meaning the "mental health" professionals of our day may be, they are not indwelt and empowered by God Himself to help His people.  They are not informed by the truth of God's Word as to the spiritual needs of both the elect and the lost (in fact, their basic presuppositions contradict Scripture,
I'm disabled... check, please!
making a "Christian psychologist" an impossibility).  And as to financial help, the default solution of the government to every problem is to throw money at it, rather than to treat the causes of poverty, ranging from injury or other inability, a lack of education, and to what must be the most prevalent problem in a culture that is 70% overweight... sheer laziness.  So the elders of a Bible-believing, preaching and teaching church are supremely qualified to intervene to help needy Christians.
     My friend was provided a place to stay for a month and the opportunity to find a job (which was more help than he wanted!).  He nailed down steady employment in less than a week... all in all, a success story in the church caring for its own.  I'm sure there are exceptions to the communal care lined out for us in Scripture, but exceptions prove the rule.  A person who looks to the government to solve every temporal problems is likely to accept their spiritual answers as well.

Photos courtesy of AJremix, stefs sick pics


     FNA (Friendly Neighborhood Atheist) had an interesting question a few days ago:  "You always hear about people being demon-possessed... how come you never hear about a person being 'God-possessed'?"  We were with one other driver, who started to ponder the question, but I quietly raised my hand to FNA's amazement and scorn:  "You?  You're possessed by God?"  I started to explain the doctrine of the Holy Spirit's indwelling of every partaker of the New Covenant (Ezk 36:26, 1 Cor 6:19-20).  His face remained incredulous... "So why aren't the important people like Bill Gates, or Warren Buffet, you know, people who could really make a difference, why doesn't God pick them to be Christians?"  I had discussed this with him before in a different context, but it was my pleasure to open my Bible to 1 Cor 1 and explain to him that "the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness, but to them who are being saved, it is the power of God". (vs. 18)  Paul had apparently run into this objection as well:
"For you see brethren your calling, how not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble are called;  but God has chosen the foolish things to confound the things that are wise, and the weak things to confound the things that are mighty, and the base things and the things that are despised, and the things that are nothing to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh (no person) should glory in God's presence..." (1 Cor 1:26-29).
    It is mind boggling that the God of the Universe, transcendent in splendor and majesty, would send housewives and tentmakers, bus drivers and fast food employees to be His emissaries and prophets to all humanity.  It's almost as ludicrous as Him choosing a shepherd boy to be king over a nation (David), or a coward to mediate His law (Moses), or a racist to preach repentance to his enemies (Jonah).  But craziest of all is God's sending a backwater Carpenter to be the satisfaction His justice demanded for the crimes of His people, and to then sit at His right hand to rule over everything. I guess it's comforting in an odd way:  God is so humble that He doesn't need to impress anyone with His dignity and worth.  And He's so wise and mighty that He can accomplish all He intends with the weakest and most incompetent of servants.
    Don't get me wrong:  incompetence is not something we should strive for or proud of (as seen in the anti-intellectualism prevalent in many churches), but neither should we feel constrained to prove ourselves according to the world's wisdom;  this is the default perception of every human culture... that big things come from big people and impressive messages must come in HD and Dolby Surround Sound (with explosions).  A brother just returned from visiting family in California, and was treated to just such a spectacle:  a church service punctuated with bass and drums and concluded with confetti!  God often speaks with a still, small voice, and we must wait upon the subtle (but no less powerful) "possession" of His Spirit through the gospel to silence those who mock us.
"May my accusers be put to shame and consumed;  with scorn and disgrace may they be covered, who seek my hurt.  But I will hope continually and will praise You yet more and more.  My mouth will tell of Your righteous acts, of Your deeds of salvation all the day, for their number is past knowledge.  With the mighty deeds of the Lord God I will come;  I will remind them of Your righteousness, Yours alone." (Ps 71:13-15)

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Do-it-Yourself Faith...

     I was chatting up a new coworker, and I worked in a reference to my church and the attached Christian
If you could, wouldn't that make you God?
school;  there was that regrettably familiar awkward silence in response, so I took a deep breath and asked if she attended anywhere.  She mentioned she had frequented a local Unitarian fellowship, but had trouble fitting their service times into her schedule.  She then jokingly realised how that sounded, but freely admitted that religion didn't place very high in her priorities.  But there was one attraction at the U.U. gathering that still appealed, a class that she said is pretty standard across other gatherings and one she hoped to attend with her boyfriend (who has a Baptist background!):  "Build your own Theology".  Of course, the irony of this title didn't sink in until later;  I instead closed the conversation with the importance of religion in our nation's history.
     So think about it for a second:  like most compound words, theology is not difficult to understand.  "Theo" means God, and "logy" is taken from the Greek logos, literally meaning "a word on" but also to be understood as "study/science of".  We use words with the "logy" ending every day, so my question is:
"Can you build your own science?"
     Now obviously in some sense, the answer is "yes";  in a new field or in an age of infant scholarship, an individual and their work can be so groundbreaking and formative that they are dubbed "the father of history" (Herotodus) or "the father of geometry" (Ptolemy).  But neither of these conditions apply to theology;  I would likely challenge someone to think of a new field (outside of computers or technical science) that humanity hasn't explored.  So it didn't didn't take long to mentally work through the implications if we did presume to create our own "logy"...
    Scientific studies show this guy's really quite friendly!
  • We could build our own zoology, and decide that black widows aren't poisonous or that Bengal tigers aren't carnivorous.

  • We could build our own astronomy and discover that the moon really is made of green cheese, or reinforce the belief that the position of the stars determines whether or not you're going to win the lottery today.

  • We could build our own geology and declare that the gravel in my driveway is gold, then drag a sack of it down to the local jeweler and try and sell if for $300 an ounce.

   Now any of these attempts would be shot down immediately... they're ridiculous!  Why?  Because there's an established body of knowledge in those fields that contradicts these ideas.  It's exactly the same in theology:  if you treat the Bible as the foundation for our knowledge of God, you will quickly find yourself coming to the conclusions of orthodox, historic Christianity.  The only way you can build your own theology is to jettison the Bible completely as source material, or even worse, treat it as one of many sources to be selectively chosen from or consulted.
     The whole point of true science is that it doesn't determine truth... it uncovers truth by observation, inquiry and examination.  Theology is no different;  God has declared what is true in His Word... we discover it through patient study, consideration of context and acknowledgement of the consistent unity of Scripture.  To do otherwise is like building your own nuclear physics and throwing out that crazy idea about radiation.

Photos courtesy of Doug88888, GARNET

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

A few questions...

      As I write, a relative of mine might be dying;  she has been Roman Catholic as long as I've known her.  In all honesty, she was the one I was thinking of in our recent series on sola fide, as the closest person to me that most desperately needed to hear the Scripture's truth on how we as death-row convicts can be made right with a holy God.  She is unconscious, and her immediate family has made the decision to take her off life support.  She has been ill for some time with various ailments, and my parents (who spend a third of the year in her state) have ministered to her often over the last couple years.  If I had the chance to speak to my relative one last time, I would probably like to ask her these questions, in a last ditch effort to reach her for Christ...

"What level of justification do you think you've achieved?"  In the Roman view, justification, and therefore salvation, is progressive:  you start down the road with baptism, and then by faith you begin storing up merit by partaking of the mass, prayers, helping little old ladies across the street, and the like.  But just as it is possible to make a deposit in your heavenly bank account, it is also possible (and easier!) to make a withdrawal by say, skipping mass to watch football, neglecting to pray and running down those little old ladies in the street.  So the constant concern of the faithful Catholic is "What's my balance?"  If they die with an overdrawn account, they can expect millions of years suffering in purgatory to work it off (and you thought it was bad to bounce a check here!).  If anyone's eyes are opened by the Holy Spirit, they can see that our good deeds (works that we consider good) can never outweigh our crimes and apathy in obeying God... quite the opposite.  Every person in history ends their lives several million "merit dollars" in God's debt.  And the currency our suffering is thought to earn by Rome has no lasting worth in God's sight... it must be continually offered (Heb 10:1-2).

This guy's been dead a long time!
"Who is your priest, to intercede for you before God's throne?"  It is true in Israel under the the Old Covenant, there were thousands of priests, a whole tribe to minister to and intercede for the people before God.  They administered the holy days, they offered votive and incense offerings, but most importantly, they killed animals to atone for the sins of themselves and the people.  The central importance of the shedding of blood points to and climaxes in the work of Jesus... this is exactly what the book of Hebrews explains in detail.  Also, Hebrews outlines the picture that the Levitical priesthood was meant to convey in keeping with the weakness of the flesh and the Old Covenant:  not only are human priests riddled with sin, which hinders their intercessory work, they die, and they can no longer intercede (Heb 7:18ff).  There is one final qualification of priests:  "And no one takes this honor for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was" (Heb 5:4)  There is only one Man under the New Covenant who has been appointed by God, who "holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever" (Heb 7:25), who can offer a sacrifice that has enduring, perfect potency (7:27):  Jesus Christ.  All other priests, especially those installed and authorized by a old guy in a funny hat, are disqualified.

"What do you trust the most?"  As I hinted when dealing with sola fide, all the departures of Rome from
The Word of God is living and active...
the Scriptures can be traced to the issue of authority.  If your trust resides in a hierarchical, worldwide church headed by a man who appropriates a position given to Christ, if you believe that he alone has the ability and right to tell you what the Bible means, you will swim the Tiber river and cling to the church of Rome.  But if you trust the Scripture supremely, if you believe that God has spoken in them in such a way that His people can know and understand, you will trust God the Holy Spirit to use them to "bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you" (Jn 14:26).  You will know that Christ's words alone can give life and truth:  "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life" (Jn 6:68). 

Photos courtesy of Thomas Hawk, Ryk Neethling