Friday, April 28, 2006

Personalized Outreach or The Da Vinci Code Again

Usually evangelical outreachs make me want to puke--alright that might be an overstatement but you know the type of thing I'm referring to. The big events where there is a magic show for twenty minutes and then the magician pulls a Gospel tract out of hat and shares the message of salvation as quickly as possible. I mean I am all for people preaching Jesus but lots of times this bait and switch evangelism just ends in confusion.

I was talking to a friend the other day about that movie The Da Vinci Code (I know you're probably tired of hearing about it) but we agreed that it would actually serve as a great opportunity to share about Jesus, and to answer previously unfielded questions regarding other 'faith' topics. So, I am going to enlist, this May 22nd I plan on taking some friends (I am guessing it will be an assortment: Christians and otherwise) to the movie. After the movie I hope to take them out and for a beer.

So this is my personal 'outreach event' and because it's personalized (me with some close friends) and the movie isn't 'Christian' I am all the more interested to see what happens. Try it out with me, I'll blog about the results and you can send some comments.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Deuteronomy Chapter Twelve: Where Does the Help Come From?

If Gallup were to take a poll on places in nature people think are 'spiritual' I am sure that mountains would rank high on the results. They are awe-inspiring in their shear immensity, they even point upward, to heaven, reason tells us. This reasoning is exactly what we find in the Promised Land, before the Israelites settle there. "You must demolish completely all the places where the nations whom you are about to dispossess served their gods, on the mountain heights, on the hills, and under every spreading tree," we read in ch.12 v.2--the message is that while man thinks that spiritual connectedness happens on a mountain God says worship happens where people gather in his name, "God [will choose the place] and put his name there" (ch.12 v.5).

The positions are dichotomous, man uses his reason to find a place(s) to be spiritually in tune while God creates a location where his name will be the focus (again v.5) rather than a place. While seeking out God in this way our journey has resonations with the psalmist, "I lift my eyes up to the hills--where does my help come from? / My help comes from the Lord, maker of heaven and earth (Psalm 121). What the Psalmist knew was that the pagan worship that happened on the hills and mountains was marbles and bubble gum to the Lord who made those hills.

God's call is for his people to "seek the place that the Lord your God will choose out of all your tribes as his habitation to put his name there. You shall go there, bringing your [sacrifices]" (v.5-6). The idea is that this one place, where God's name will be stamped, will signify--more than a place to get good spiritual-antenna reception--but a space that offers Israel an opportunity to be unified, together, face to face, and under the name YHWH. Also, I like that God calls Israel to "seek the place"; this maintains his sovereignty as the judge while leading Israel, and us, into participation with him who was, is, and is to come.

Finally, the end of chapter 12 describes the depravity which some pagan worship practices had sunk to. We read, "do not inquire: 'How did these nations worship their gods? I also want to do the same.' You must not do the same for the Lord your God, because every abhorrent thing that the Lord hates they have done for their gods. They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods" (v.31). This chilling passage bares witness to what happens when "reason" is let loose to do the business of faith. The human faculty of reason is good, surely it is God gave it to us, but the spiritual gift of faith must renew it before it attends to the spiritual things. Yet, these drastic spiritual perversions we see in Deuteronomy twelve will continue since man cannot escape the void in him that screams for God, thus "reason" will scramble, attempting anything to get a 'right' spiritual connection--as Deuteronomy ch.12 tells us: spiritualizing creation (v.2) and destroying it (v. 31) are signs of the fatal turn.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

The Da Vinci Code: Escaping Authority?

There is lots of uproar, in blogs and sermons, about the Da Vinci Code movie--coming out May 22nd. Here are a few links to different evangelical perspectives: Christian History Mag, Christianity Today, Culture Watch, Brian Godawa (screen writer for To End All Wars)--also here is a link to a post by Dick Staub (Culture Watch) regarding the thoughts of Rowan Williams', the Archbishop of Canterbury.

All this fascination with 'religious secrets' and whatnot seems to be man's ongoing and infamous attempt to escape authority. But by doing this they merely exchange one authority for another, that of the God for a skeptic and highly individualistic culture. I think the words of Lewis are helpful, "A man who jibbed at authority in other things as some people do in religion would have to be content to know nothing all his life" (64 Lewis). Lewis' idea is that authority is inescapable, it's the truth. Christians shouldn't be surprised by the success of The Da Vinci Code; the cross is a stumbling block and it's easier to have faith in godless myths and wives' tales ( 1 Tim. ch.4 v.7) then to bow to reality, that of the crucified and risen Lord.

However, our call is to humble--knowing how much grace we've been given. Being vocally upset with people who don't know Christ, is like punching a blind man for not using a cross walk--better to walk with them.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Deuteronomy Chapter Eleven: If and Then

In the first section of ch.11 we read a long, but still summarized list, of God's sovereign action on Israel's behalf, now usually when people remind us of something, or multiple things, that they have done on our behalf we only have to wait a few seconds before they ask something they want of us; this isn't the case with God--since he is complete in and of himself--so in Deuteronomy (ch.11 v.3-7) something else must be going on. And that is in fact the case, the reason Moses shares these memories of God's sovereign action is so that Israel will reminded that God's sovereign action is not a memory, that they are covenant people. So, it makes sense that we hear the familiar plea (v. 1, 8) that Israel follow the law of the covenant. This charge is a call for Israel to be covenant people and part of being covenant people is faithfulness, both on the part of the Israelites and also on God's. It is because the Israelites are covenant people that they will continue to see God's sovereign action among them. And that is expressed well in the second section of v.8 and on into v.9, "so that you may have the strength to go in and take over the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, and so that you may live long in the land that the LORD swore to your forefathers to give to them and their descendants, a land flowing with milk and honey." We have heard that Israel's covenant faithfulness is part and parcel with them living "long in the land [...] flowing with milk and honey," but we haven't heard the first part before, "so that you may have strength to go in and take over the land." What we can learn from this new statement is that Israel will have the "strength" to conquer, in part because of their covenant faithfulness--Israel having a deep understanding of it's identity as the sovereign God's people--but more so Israel's strength will come from the knowledge that it is the Lord that has already gone before them.

This presents Israel's covenant relationship with God as an "if, then" relationship. If Israel heeds God's commands then they will receive blessing. I must admit this offends my theological sensibilities (a good thing for the Bible to do); I tend to think of God's inevitable overarching plan and this "if, then" thing just seems to complicate matters. But a fuller view shows that this "if, then" element is fundamental to covenant relationship. God desires, and of course by his grace, that we choose him by putting aside the often immediate pleasures of sin for the full pleasure of himself and his blessings. Further, this "if, then" bit isn't my own theological creation; the "if, then" relationship is described in v.13, faithfulness yields good crops (v.13-14). And in v.22 where out of covenant faithfulness sprouts more land. While the blessings are grand the curse is described in v.16-17: "Be careful, or you will be enticed to turn away and worship other gods and bow down to them. Then the LORD's anger will burn against you, and he will shut the heavens so that it will not rain and the ground will yield no produce, and you will soon perish from the good land the LORD is giving you."

The chapter ends acknowledging the full reality of covenant, that is both blessing and curse. Moses tells Israel, and us, that both blessings and the curses be read from two different mountains (v.29) vividly showing the high stakes of covenant. We, as Christians, have been, "blessed [...] in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ" (Eph 1:3). That is, our role in covenant relationship is not to be mercenaries*, expecting blessings because of our great service; no we are called to serve Christ out of love for the grace he has lavished on us by separating us from our sins and unifying himself with our hearts.

*The Mercenary and Servant distinction is due to John Piper, click this link for the sermon that it comes from.

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Deuteronomy Ten: Fear the Lord

I have written a section concentrating on Deuteronomy Ten's meditation on fearing God. In doing this I didn't intend to belittle the rest of the text, I merely felt there would be plenty of writing material while just writing about the fear of the Lord.

The fear of the Lord, is an odd phrase for us twentieth century westerners. We are used to fearing people, dogs, maybe high heights, but certainly not God! The richest theological section of Deuteronomy ten is a meditation on that very thing: the fear of the Lord. But, for the sake of understanding the movements in the narrative we will enter just before. Moses tells the Israelites, "It was not his will to destroy you," recalling the positive end to God's initial frustration with his "stiff-necked people" (Exodus ch.33 v.1-6). The message is of hope not of judgment, still Moses charges the Israelites to "fear the Lord" (v.12). This, as we see when we read on, is a call to devoted acknowledgment, "fear the Lord your God, to walk in his ways, to love him, to serve the Lord your God with all your heart and your soul" (v.12). Here we see a description of what fearing the Lord looks like in practice, "walk in his ways, to love him, to serve [God]." If we don't "walk in his ways," we end up the hostage of lesser destructive fears: death, other people, snakes, the list goes on. Better to take hold of what Jesus says in Luke, "I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him" (Luke 12:4-5).

"To the Lord God belongs the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it" (v.14), Here Moses gives us a portrait of God's sovereignty, an image like this is given to us so that we can be drawn into a deeper understanding of God's complete awesomeness; this wisdom inspires the fear of the Lord. But the very next verse is a declaration of God's specific love and grace, "Yet the LORD set his affection on your forefathers and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations, as it is today" (v.15). Here, in the last two verses we see a summarized picture of God; he is simultaneously sovereign, and intimately involved in every intricacy of life here on earth, he is "mighty and awesome" and "He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the alien, giving him food and clothing" (v.17,18). It is because of this dual nature of God that he charges Israel, and us, to "circumcise [our] hearts" (v.16). Circumcision was a sign of the covenant God made with the Israelites; God's true desire is that the sign of covenant faithfulness be written on their hearts.

Throughout Deuteronomy Israel is on the verge of crossing the Jordan, they could nearly see into the promised land, but instead of focusing on the great and wild joys that they will have, Moses continually leads them to God. "Fear the Lord" he tells them--don't focus on yourself we hear, follow him. This is what fearing God is about--it is to look both joy and sorrow dead in the eye and remember that God's sovereignty is ineffable and his love is most intimate.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Augustine Hears an Apologist and I Change My Mind

I can remember thinking, even recently, that Christian apologists were bunch of tighty-whitey wearing grown up home-school kids. I know it's a caricature but that was the brand I sizzled on the realm of Apologetics. I thought that we as Christians should be more interested in sharing the love of Jesus with the world, if you go around arguing with people you sure aren't loving them, are you? Now I understand the false dichotomy I had set up. Sharing the love of Jesus can often take the form of sharing well-thought out reasons to why I believe in Christ in the first place. Surely there are some 'apologists' that seem to have forgotten that Jesus didn't die win a logical argument but there are just as many Christians who are bashful about sharing Jesus, under the guise of compassion.

I think all this crystallized while reading St. Augustine's Confessions. A third of the way through the book Augustine still isn't Christian and he reflecting on how he ended up where he did. He writes,
Even before I left Carthage I had listened to the speeches of a man named Elipidus, who used to join in open controversy with the Manichees, and I had been impressed when he put forward arguments from scripture which were not easy to demolish (105 Penguin).

Elipidus might not control a large part of Augustine's narrative but Augustine was affected by the great gravity of Elipidus' apologetic. After reading that section in the Confessions I saw that apologetics weren't just some invention of 'modernism', nor an expression of Christian hubris, but rather a cogent voice of faithfulness to our Lord in a culture that often runs counter to the cross.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Flannery O'Connor and Holy Week

I was at the Salvation Army yesterday; after flipping through the old denims and weird collared shirts (you know what I'm talking about) I made my way to the book shelf and lo and behold I found a gem. It was Flannery O'Connor's collected works and it was a $1.49--leave it to some New Englander to give away such a collection. For those who don't know her well, well you should, she has been heralded by everyone from the likes of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus to your average American Lit. Professor. What I've been drawn to now, even more than her short stories, are her insightful essays where, among other things, she examines the role of the Christian writer in relation to various groups (the south, the Church, and other writers). Her voice, though initially shocking, gives a loud prophetic witness to state of man apart from Christ.

Here's a quote from her famous essay "The Grotesque in Southern Fiction":
There is something in us, as story-tellers and as listeners to stories, that demands the redemtive act, that demands that what falls at least a chance to be restored. The reader of today looks for this motion, and rightly so, but what he has forgotten is the cost of it. His sense of evil is diluted or lacking altogether and so he has forgotten the price of restoration. When he reads a novel, he wants either his senses tormented or his spirits raised. He wants to be transported, instantly either to a mock damnation or a mock innocence.

Flannery hits the nail on the head; this holy week let's let our hearts re-learn the "cost" of "the redemptive act" after all, the "cost" of redemption is the crux of our faith.

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Warning Satire: Build a Virtual Church

Do you have what it takes to be a Christian leader? Now you can skip the process of seeking out God's call; just buy this Megachurch game and you'll find out for sure if you have what it takes!!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Deuteronomy Chapter Nine: Preserving Promise

You've heard it said; until recently in Baseball it was, "Who can beat the Yankees;" in the realm of Computers it might be, "Who can stand up to Microsoft," and in international politics it is (sigh),"Who can compare with the United States." Apparently, a popular phrase of the ancient near-east was, "You have heard it said of them, 'Who can stand up the Anakim?'" (v.3). We might tremble with awe in contemplating the power of sports teams and nations but what we learn is that, if our attitude is "Who can stand up to..." we are forgetting the sovereign authority of God (Deut ch. 7 v.17). Thus the response to the ancient cultural maxim "who can stand up to the Anakim" is that God can, and will (v.3).

To go on, God's defeat of the inhabitants of Canaan will not be an arbitrary act, nor will it serve merely as God's announcement that his power is greater than theirs. No, while the Israelites conquest will definitely announce God's power, more importantly it will serve as the simultaneous sounding of judgment and promise. In verses four through six there is a repetition of two statements, the two are summed up well in verse five: "It is not because of your righteousness that the Lord has brought me into occupy this land; it is rather because of the wickedness of these nations that the Lord is dispossessing them before you." What we hear, quite clearly in this passage, is that Israel is not the Lord's worker therefore receiving due wages (Rom. 4:4). Israel receives the promised land because of grace, not because of their righteousness. In fact, in verse six we stop hearing about the wickedness of Canaan and instead hear only about Israel's faithlessness--so they have no reason to boast.

Then from verse six to twenty-four we hear vivid descriptions of how Israel has been "rebellious against the Lord" (v.7). The height of their rebelliousness takes place, ironically, while Moses is hearing from the Lord and receiving the Ten Commandments. Moses walks down the mountains and finds all of Israel involved in worshipping a golden calf. Moses then destroys the sinful object by burning it with fire, crushing it, and then "grinding it thoroughly , until it was reduced to dust," (v.21)*. Needless to say, Israel is guilty just as all other nations and people are.

So if we are all guilty, people and nations alike, why was Israel preserved while the Canaanites suffered judgment? Before that question is answered it's important to understand that oftentimes God will bring judgment against even his chosen people because of their sinfulness (the exile is one major example). But back to the original question: why not Israel here, if they are in fact rebellious? The answer is given to us in the last section of chapter nine. Here we read that Moses lies "prostrate" for forty days and forty nights interceding for Israel, so that God would not destroy Israel. He even reasons with God, saying that to destroy Israel would be to forget the "Abraham, Isaac and Jacob" (v. 27); secondly Moses reasons that God's name would be trampled by the pagans if he doesn't see the Israelites into the Promised Land. So Moses gives God two reasons to preserve Israel: (1) because of covenant, (2) and because of God's own name and reputation. Here many people would question God as truly sovereign because how can Moses 'reason' with an all-knowing sovereign God? I personally believe that God's plan was always to preserve them, and not to destroy them, therefore keeping the covenant and bringing glory to his name. The reason, I feel, God put the question to Moses: "should I destroy them?" was to challenge Moses to step up as God's appointed leader of the Israelites. If we understand this section of Deuteronomy in this light we see a sovereign God desiring that Israel's appointed leader develop a leader's heart by crying out for those he has been given to lead, here God's sovereign authority is never put into doubt.

*As an aside Moses here foreshadows Christ by: (1) serving as an intercessor between God and man, (2) and by ridding Israel of the manifestation of their sinfulness (the difference between Moses and Christ being that while Moses destroyed the manifestation of their sin Christ destroys the root of our sin by offering a sacrifice once for all time (Heb. ch. 9 v.23-28)

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Deuteronomy Chapter Eight: From Decadence to Decay

First, thanks to Matt for giving a solid post, articulate and well-crafted. Thanks. If anyone out there in the blogosphere thinks Matt should continue with me on this Exegetical journey through Deuteronomy give him some encouragement, by way of a comment on his last post.

If anyone knows a good picture for this post, let me know.

Now on to Chapter Nine & From Decadence to Decay.

At the height of a fruit's ripening process the last thing we might think would be that soon it will decay and be worthless. We might have this knowledge after seeing the process repeat many times but for someone who hasn't seen fruit go bad, it would seem that there would be no way to posit the completely 'other' end--that it's decay would follow it's decadence. Israel, never having seen affluence, does not stand at a vantage point where it can understand decadence and self-exaltation as the seeds of demise, however, God--via Moses--warns them, "Do not say about yourself, 'My power and my might have gotten me this wealth.' But remember the Lord your God, for it is he who gives you power to get wealth [...]" ( v.17-18), and then, "if you forget the Lord your God and follow other gods to serve and worship them, I solemnly warn you today you shall surely perish" (v.19). To continue with the horticultural metaphor, if Israel "forgets" that all things come from God they are akin to a fruit falling from the vine; they will ripen quicker but they will perish quicker too. The lesson that Israel needs to learn is what Jesus tells his disciples in the book of John, "apart from me you can do nothing" (ch. 15 v.5).

Moses tells Israel that they should, "Remember the long way that the Lord your God has led you these forty years [...]" (v. 2). We learn that God brought them the "long way" through the desert to "humble" and "test" them (v.2). The method God used to humble them was "by feeding [them] manna, with which you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord" (v.3). If Israel remembers this upon reaching the Promised Land they will never "exalt themselves" when they are at rest (v. 12-14). So Israel is called to a holy remembrance which is two-fold: (1) they must remember their God, (2) they must remember their humble beginnings so that they may see come to grips with the timeless truth that says, 'success, as the Bible sees it, is not a product of human ingenuity or force but humble faithfulness'. Both take root in the corporate acknowledgment that the Lord is sovereign and that he provides, or that he is the vine and we are the branches.