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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

To the Water Under the Waves: A New Year's Post

Today I'm going to talk about waves--waves in science, waves in history, and a Biblical application that can be drawn from all of those things.  You don't have to remember anything about science or the humanities to read this article, so please stick with me and you will be rewarded.

Waves in Science

I'd always thought of waves racing across the ocean, physically moving huge amounts of water from one place to the next.  I'd wondered how fish could ever rest or stay in one place without having to fight the rush of water all the time. (You can tell that I'm land-locked, can't you!)

Then one day in high-school science a diagram told me a different story, showing mathematically how very little water actually moves due to a wave.  In fact, waves only affect the topmost few feet of water in the ocean under normal conditions.  It was a strange revelation, really. (I borrowed a graphic off an oceanography website to illustrate this for those who are interested).

Here's the weirdest part.  A wave may seem like a material thing that moves through the water, but it's actually just a force acting upon water.  Individual water molecules are stirred in a circular motion, not a forward motion.  They don't actually move anywhere, but really just make a circuit and return to approximately their original places.  This is why floating objects bob up and down as the wave passes underneath them, but they don't travel much with the wave (due to friction and other forces, there is always a little bit of drift in the direction the wave is moving).  When the wave approaches a solid object under the water (like a continental shelf or a coral reef), the little concentric circles of water collide with this object and are thrown upward in order to complete the circle (this makes breakers).  What was just a small, peaceful movement on the open water becomes a powerful force that can dash ships to pieces on the rocks or scour a rocky coast into sand.

Do you see where I'm going with this?  No?  Well, stay tuned as I next apply this scientific concept to human beings.

Waves in History

In college, I took a Humanities class called "World Religion and Thought."  I remember that class vividly because it was a tremendous challenge to my faith, like an uphill battle the whole semester.  There was one detail my professor repeatedly pointed out, concerning  the difference between the Eastern and the Western concepts of time and history.  In the West (aka, Europe and European cultures like the U.S.), we see time as linear, always moving forward from point A to point B.  In the East (Asia specifically, but also in many tribal cultures around the world), time is a cyclical thing, where people are either moving forward or backward in the cycle of time and history.  No, not like time travel.  It's more of a description of patterns in human behavior.  Yes, this idea is rooted in beliefs in things like reincarnation, but really it seems to accurately describe human history.

Many have commented on how human beings are always taking a step forward, only to take a few steps back, throughout history.  Take Rome, for instance.  The Roman Empire made massive cultural advancements, but after it fell, all that the greatest Roman scholars had learned was forgotten.  People had to re-learn how to build massive stone structures or how to make classical art, and so forth.  It took centuries to rebuild, and it could just as easily crumble again, in the right conditions.

All that to say that I think the Easterners are somewhat right in thinking that history is cyclical, not linear.  Call me a cynic, but I really see little evidence that mankind is capable of keeping what they have gained.  We are a lot like the waves in the ocean.  The summit of human culture, the people and incidents on the forefront of history, seem to advance, only to lose ground again.  Most people don't even make a major contribution to the so-called advancement of mankind at all in their lifetimes (and that's okay, too, since it takes a lot of water to fill the ocean).

On the other hand, there is still a measurable forward movement of man's history.  Somehow the linear concept also holds true.  What exactly moves us forward, when we can't seem to get it together for long?  This force pushes through people like the invisible wave energy moves water molecules.  Without a doubt, we can see its effects, but we can't see it. 

The Force of the Wave

I am convinced that this "wave" that moves through human affairs is the work of God through many very messed-up human beings. We are not God, and He is not us, but He works through us.

The Bible tells us over and over about how the plans people make on their own will fail, but when God is involved, the plan is always accomplished (Psalm 127:1; Psalm 37: 37, 38).  It is also filled with stories of people who failed to learn from the past, and thus were forced to relive it.  I don't believe that it is possible for any future "forward movement" in human culture to take place unless God wills it and carries it out.  If people are really like the water in a wave, as history seems to communicate, they can never truly move anywhere, without God behind them, helping them on their way.

Human beings can never really see a future to move toward.  Many search for omens, seek out  fortune tellers, or read horoscopes,  trying to catch a glimpse of the distant shore we are all slowly drifting toward.  Why do we put faith in mankind, looking so hopefully toward human feats in the new year, when we know our history?  Why do we complain about feeling "adrift," as so many postmodernists do, when we could let God deal with our present and our future?

If there is any underlying theme throughout all of the Old Testament, it is God's promise that He has always had a plan for the world, which He was slowly revealing to and through Israel.  From the start, God was teaching an obstinate world about His nature and His plan through symbolic acts and commands--which had both immediate significance and a hidden meaning to be understood later (Isaiah 48: 5-11)--so that He could move people forward toward His goal for us all.  What is this goal?  To come to know Him, and to have an intimate, ongoing relationship with Him.
This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. (2 Timothy 1: 9b-10 NIV)

Do you have Jesus?  All of history--mine, yours, the world's--has moved you forward to this moment.  Will you start the new year right, letting God lead you into His good and perfect plan for your life, or will you insist on staying adrift, never really getting anywhere?  If you haven't met Jesus yet, the new year is the perfect time to start a relationship with Him.  God is gentle and kind, and infinitely patient, but like a wave, He always brings the journey to an end, somewhere.  Eventually He must pass judgment and bring each short life to an end.  Would you rather be gently cast onto the shore, or smashed on the rocks?  That will be your own choice, and perhaps this year is the last one to make it.

The whole New Testament points forward to an even more distant plan--the end of the world, when Christ returns to gather up His own, and the whole world is judged for what it has done.  This plan has yet to be accomplished, but recent events in history always point forward to that day, which all who believe in Christ should constantly long for (2 Timothy 4: 1-8).  We are being prepared for it.  Could it come this year?  Are we ready?

For those of you who already know Jesus, have you committed this year to obeying God's commands and trusting Him with your future?  So far, all of His plans, as recorded in the Bible and history, have turned out right.  Can you let Him lead you forward through this year, whether or not it seems like you're getting anywhere?  Will you trust God to lead you, even if you can't see where He's taking you?
The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed.... Your path led through the sea,  your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. (Psalm 77: 16, 19 NIV)
I'm challenging you to dedicate this year to God.  Above all other resolutions, this is the most important.

Have a Happy New Year!  I'll be back with another post in 2010.

Sunday, December 13, 2009


"Do not eat the food of a stingy man, do not crave his delicacies; for he is the kind of man who is always thinking about the cost. 'Eat and drink,' he says to you, but his heart is not with you. You will vomit up the little you have eaten and will have wasted your compliments." (Proverbs 23:6-8 NIV)

I was thinking the other day about how society obsesses over public figures, politics, sports, money, beauty (and the exploitation thereof), popularity, and so forth. Sometimes it seems as if everyone is endlessly running from one crowd to another, chasing after the illusive power and prestige associated with a person or thing, fawning over people shamelessly and gobbling up any attention they can get from them.

I just have to ask--why do we do it all? In the verse above, the stingy man "is always thinking about the cost." The way I read it, the stingy man is viewing his food--his delicacies whatever they may be--as a source of power over others. He is always calculating how much he can give away without losing a scrap of that power. And so his generosity never comes from love or compassion, but rather it stems from a greed for power, and a desire to solidify or consolidate that power. In that way, the stingy man is never satisfied with his power because it is always in jeopardy of being lost. Likewise, the followers who eat out of his hand will never be full (because then food has no power with them!), nor will the food ever leave anything but an empty, bitter taste in their mouth (because few things are more bitter than knowing that you are viewed with contempt).

The world grasps for every crumb that falls from the table of their "masters." In fact, the root meaning of the English expression, to fawn, contains the imagery of a dog licking from his master's hand, or the pecking of a bird. Now, for dogs and birds, this may be satisfying, but for humans I can't see it as anything less than a dehumanizing, disgraceful pattern of behavior. God has made a better way. We weren't made to grovel, or to be made to grovel.

The Little Boy's Snack

We've all heard the story of the time Jesus fed the 5,000 (John 6: 1-13), and I've often heard that passage used as an illustration of God's power to provide for all our needs. But there is another, simpler message in that passage: God's model of generosity.

I used to think about that little boy in the crowd with the five loaves and two fishes. I could just hear his mother saying, "Now don't lose this! I went to all this trouble to pack you a lunch, so don't come back complaining that you're hungry. I'm a good mom, you know!" In fact, she was, since she managed to be the only woman in the place who had thought of everything!

Somehow, totally unexpectedly, that little boy had something everyone else wanted. He had power and popularity, and all because of his little snack. He could have been stingy, dealing out a tiny bit to the growling stomachs all around him, but keeping the lion's-share for himself. Instead, he forked over the entire lunch to Jesus and kept nothing for himself. This is what Jesus meant when He commented that kids understand the kingdom of God better than adults!

Now, suddenly the power had shifted into Jesus' hands. I'm sure He was just as hungry as everyone else, and He could have just said, "Thanks, kid!" and eaten it all Himself. After all, as God of the universe, everything is His due, to do with as He pleases.

But Jesus didn't keep all that power to Himself, either. He gave thanks over the food and distributed it to everyone miraculously, so that everyone got "as much as they wanted" (John 6: 11 NIV). In fact, He gave so much that there was enough left over to feed another good-sized crowd.   Here we see that Jesus' model of generosity demands that we give without consideration of the cost--that is, without considering the loss or gain of power in the choice--and that we give beyond what was expected of us. God doesn't count out breadcrumbs like pennies. Rather, He gives us so much that there is plenty left for the next person, so that no one has any reason to fight over the crumbs.

Another Bread Story

I wonder if the disciples thought about that day with the crowd of 5,000 when Jesus stood up at the last Passover dinner, "And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, 'This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me'" (Luke 22: 19 NIV).

Again, Jesus was modeling generosity. The bread Christ passed out to the crowd had long since vanished, but it had foreshadowed the greater miracle of Christ's resurrection. Just as it seemed impossible that a tiny meal, given freely by the humblest father's son in the crowd, could feed 5,000 people, with leftovers, it seems impossible that God's humble son could give His one life to save us all, with plenty left over for those who didn't come. But Christ did it! What's more, just as the little boy gave his whole meal, not expecting to take it back, Jesus gave His all with no desire to hold it back from anyone who asked for it!

Now, as Christians run from store to store, there is a simpler, more obvious gift we should be thinking about this time of year. We may have many material gifts to give this season, but we have something far more valuable to offer this stingy world: God's son! When we pass the bread rolls, I'm asking that we think about passing the good news to a hopeless, hungry world. When we tell our own stories, we ought to make sure that we tell the good news as well. Is there someone in your life who hasn't heard about Jesus?  Well, Christmas is the best time of year to finally broach the subject.  Why should anyone be left out in the cold when the stable door is open?

Monday, November 30, 2009

The Weight of Knowing

I've missed being able to write on here, and I can see by my Google analytics page that some of you have been missing me. I'm encouraged by that, by the way. As an author, I really need readers, and I don't just mean to boost my own ego. Without you, I'm out of business.

So I'm pouncing on this brief break in my busy holiday schedule (now that I'm not on the road, miles from an internet connection) to share something that has been on my mind for quite some time. But first, an illustration from my own life...

Ignorance Isn't Bliss, It's Just Ignorant

Call it one of the darkest days in the history of my school career, if you like. It wasn't funny at the time, but now, feel free to laugh.

It was Saturday evening, and my final for that class was scheduled for Monday morning. A huge term paper I'd been working on for 4 weeks (about 40% of my total class grade) was due at the final, the library had just closed, I had nothing more than a mostly unread pile of sources and a thesis, and suddenly my pile of sources were spelling out my doom. The paper, my class grade, and even my academic standing and GPA crumbled like dust before my eyes.

Why? I had built it all on a basic ignorance of history. I had proposed to analyze the effects of British colonization on Japanese literature, but suddenly I was confronted with the incontestable fact that Britain had never conquered Japan!

Okay, I heard that snore.

Let me rush on to the point. Either I had to press on with the paper as it was, basically a lie, and try to bamboozle my professor; or I had to invent a new topic, redo 4 weeks of research, and write a paper, all in the following afternoon after the library re-opened at 12 p.m. It didn't seem possible.

I cried, I begged God to prove my sources wrong, I called my mom (poor Mom!), I rued the moment my blissful ignorance had been stripped away, and then God told me to snap out of it and get to work, because feigning ignorance at that point was not a Christian option.

All That to Say...

I realized that night some basic points that scripture and experience bear out to be true:
  1. Ignorance may feel like bliss for the ignorant ones, but for everyone who knows the facts, their ignorance just makes them look like idiots, or worse, liars. You may be fooling some, but you can be sure there is someone out there to tell you that the emperor has no clothes (to reference the fairytale).
  2. It is no excuse at all to claim innocence due to ignorance when you have the capacity and opportunity to find out the real facts. If the truth was in plain sight, there was no ignorance. In that case, there are very few innocently ignorant people in the world, and none who can claim ignorance of God and His nature. The Bible says,
    "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse" (Romans 1: 18-20 NIV).
  3. Every individual is held accountable for what he knows, and for what he has chosen not to know. In society, for instance, a doctor better know his or her medicine, because claiming "I didn't know that" is no protection from a lawsuit. In the same way, it just won't work to claim to God, "I had years to learn, I had friends who tried to tell me better, and yet I still didn't know."
  4. Knowing something is bad, harmful, or wrong and then doing it anyway, hoping that others around you don't share your knowledge, is a grave sin in God's eyes. It's lying. There is no relative morality, only God's standards, so don't waste time proving something right with public consensus.

And so I was confronted that night with the realization that knowledge has weight (don't ask me if it's ounces or pounds!) in that it bears with it a certain amount of accountability and responsibility. I knew I couldn't lie to my professor because I wanted to please God, and also I knew that my grade wouldn't be anything to be proud of if I earned it through lying. I knew that, impossible or not, I had to try to write the paper using honest facts, not fabrications.

Christianity, like my term paper, presents us with incontestable facts that sometimes undermine everything we want and everything we have believed up to that time. If we want to go on calling ourselves Christians, though, we have to get busy realigning our lives to fit the truth. We can't claim ignorance and say that we didn't know that God was displeased with our lives the way we wanted them. We can't pretend that God loves something that we know He hates. In that case, our Christian life is as fake and unsatisfying as a grade gotten under false pretenses.

The Painful Part

Thirty-six hours later, I hadn't had a wink of sleep, but I'd rewritten my thesis to better fit my topic (I hadn't thrown the whole project out!), I had grabbed a couple of new sources from the library that miraculously meshed with many of the ones I already had, and somehow I'd produced one of the best papers I'd ever written. (Seriously. My professor told me later that he'd taken that paper around the department and let all the other professors on the floor read it!).

God blessed me that weekend for facing up and telling the truth, even though it caused me tremendous pain. I had to confess that I was wrong and that I had taken three World History classes but somehow missed this giant detail (major blows to my academic pride). I also had to stay awake and type nonstop for about 18 hours, with only three ten-minute breaks, which meant that I felt awful.

That's my pain. Now for yours. Oh, c'mon, now. You didn't think I wrote all of this out just because I wanted a sympathetic audience, did you?

This is a challenge to grow, even though some of you might hate me for going here. Because I care about you, I'll do it anyway.

Has there ever been a moment in your life when you suddenly learned, or at least suspected, that God didn't approve? Did you go to God to find out for sure what He thought, or did you say to yourself, "Ignorance is bliss. What I don't know can't hurt me."

If you thought the latter, today I'm telling you that God holds you responsible for what you know, and for what you chose not to know. Either way, the whole weight of responsibility is resting on your shoulders. Shouldn't you go to God right now and let Him bless you for facing up to the truth and straightening out this problem?
This is the message we have heard from him and declare to you: God is light; in him there is no darkness at all. If we claim to have fellowship with him yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin. If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1: 5-9 NIV).

Monday, November 16, 2009

How to Read the Bible, Part 3

At this point in the series, we are really getting into parts of the Bible that need a "guided tour," because some passages make a lot more sense when viewed in the context of the original languages and cultural practices. An experienced scholar could point out things that are not obvious in translation, such as the fact that the name "Adam" is very similar in sound to the Hebrew word for "dirt, earth," so his name is really a reference to the fact that God formed him from clay. In fact, most names in the Bible have meanings that comment on the significance of the place or the character of the individual. As for cultural practices that need explaining, there are instances in the Old Testament where men had multiple wives, children fought over their birthright blessings, people's heads were anointed with oil, things are measured in "cubits," and so forth.

Sometimes the Bible doesn't clearly explain the meaning of the symbol or the reason why something was so important, because it was obvious to the people at the time that passage was written. Good for us that we have historians, linguists, and archaeologists who have devoted their lives to rediscovering what these things meant so that we can understand those passages better. I am always thankful for Bibles that are printed with enlightening footnotes, but just in case you don't have one like that, you might want to check out Bible reference books like the ones I discussed in "Studying Your Life Instruction Manual".

God's Perfect Plan, Worked Through Imperfect People

If you've been following along, you have now read the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Acts, Romans, Hebrews, Genesis, and Exodus. Today I'm focusing only on the Old Testament.

You have read about how God made the earth perfect in six days, and on the day of completion (the seventh day), God rested. Then humans messed it up by disobeying Him. When that happened, God didn't give up on His creation, but rather He dealt out punishment mixed with mercy. Even at the moment God was carrying out justice against Adam and Eve, He was promising that He had a plan to fix what they had done and restore His fellowship with mankind, and He was going to carry it out through the course of history. In God's curse on Satan, the serpent, God said,
"And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" (Genesis 3: 15 NIV).
This didn't mean that from then on, all women would be mortally afraid of snakes and teach their sons to kill them. It meant that one day, a son born of a woman (an Eve), but not of a man (a virgin birth), will do battle with Satan. Satan will do harm to the man, but ultimately be destroyed by that man. Who are we talking about? Jesus, of course. So, three chapters into the Bible, Jesus' victory has already been predicted.

Much of the Old Testament is, in one way, a straight historical telling of how certain men or women lived and what these persons did, but on another level, it is a narrative of how God accomplished His plan for redeeming mankind through the lives of imperfect people, culminating in the life of His own perfect son, Jesus. These people demonstrated a right way and a wrong way of living, so they are examples of righteousness and unrighteousness that we can take lessons from. Much of what happened served also as a symbolic prediction of Christ's life and ministry. When Jesus said that He had come to fulfill the law and prophets, He was telling the truth.

So, in this post, I'll say that the next books a new Bible scholar should read are those that follow Old Testament historical figures, because these narratives make the symbolism more accessible to people who are unfamiliar with it. I think that's why my earliest Bible education focused so much on the people in the Bible, adding the more abstract concepts later when I could link them with real individuals. There are many books to choose from, and you don't have to read them in any particular order. The most I can do is try to put them in historical order for you with a brief explanation after each one.

Heralds of Christ

  • Genesis and Exodus--You've already read them. Note the funnel-like pattern of the narrative. We see good people and bad people, but the focus always narrows to the good person, that is, the child of promise or the one person who obeyed God. God selects the people through whom He will carry out His plan, and begins narrowing that down to a specific family line who will eventually include Christ.
  • Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy--Much of these books outline ceremonies, genealogies, and laws which Christ later fulfills. These passages may be baffling. If that happens, skip that section and continue reading the narrative parts about Moses, Joshua, Aaron, and others as you follow the nation of Israel out of slavery in Egypt and into the land where God will carry out His plan for the nation. You can come back later to read the rest.
  • Joshua--Follows the man who was selected after Moses to lead the nation of Israel and puts the nation into the context of all that was happening in the region at that time. Also, note the appearance of Rahab, who is mentioned repeatedly throughout the Bible, since she is in the line (family) of Christ.
  • Judges--Follows multiple leaders of the early nation of Israel, before they had a centralized "royal" government. The nation had been delivered from Egypt as a whole, but here we begin to see, what can I say, a "culling" of the nation, or the elimination of bad people. God's promise to preserve Israel doesn't mean a promise to protect them from the consequences of sin.
  • Ruth--a woman in the line of Christ. The theme of redemption is strong here, paralleling Christ's redemption of anyone who will trust in Him.
  • Job?--Some place this story sometime in Genesis, between Noah and Abraham's times, which makes it the oldest book of the Bible. Job deals with the problem of suffering as a follower of God. Why do bad things happen to good people?
  • First and Second Samuel--Covers the last great Judge of Israel, and the anointing of the first kings of Israel. The symbolic element in these books is the difference between what people want or think is the right thing, versus obedience to God and submission to His will. Samuel's and David's lives are parallels to Christ's life, especially David, who was in the line of Christ.
  • First and Second Kings--Call this the good kings versus the bad kings. There's a spiritual battle going on here for the souls of Abraham's descendants, which is also played out in the historical context of civil war and apostasy. Who will the people choose to follow--God, and His anointed human leaders, or Satan, and the sinful leaders who follow after his rebellious practices?
  • First and Second Chronicles--More kings and their reigns, but here we see the historical context surrounding these kings. Abraham's descendants are delivered into the hands of a foreign power because they refuse to obey God.
  • Daniel--the first half of the book is easy to understand, how God raises up people in bad situations to do His will. The second half, Daniel's visions of the future, should be saved for later.
  • Esther--chosen to marry a foreign King, Esther is used by God through her position as queen to rescue her entire people from certain destruction. Very much a "type" for Christ.
  • Ezra and Nehemiah--Chronicles God's miraculous delivery of his people back to their homeland, and their return to following His direction. As narratives go, Nehemiah is interesting since parts of it are written in first-person, almost like a diary.
  • Jonah?--I'm unsure of the time period, but I think this book comes after Israel returns to their former homeland. His prayer, the length of time in the belly of the whale, his mission, and other things are fulfilled symbolically in Christ's death and His purpose on earth. This is so critical to understanding Jonah that Jesus even mentions him as an example of what He came to do (Matthew 12: 38-40).
As a professor of mine used to say, just put the needle down wherever you want to start. Have fun reading the Bible and discovering God's miraculous plan for mankind!

Have questions, comments, or corrections? Leave a comment. It'll help me and everyone else out a whole lot. Don't forget to subscribe to my feed if you like my content!

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Right Kind of Heroes

Veteran's Day and the 234th "birthday" of the U.S. Marine Corps are this week, following closely at the heels of the Ft. Hood shooting. I think this week we ought to direct our attention to the soldiers in our lives, whether they are the kind who use weapons or those who use words in pulpits.

As the Nation Goes, so Follows the Army...

I've spoken before on the armed forces, and how much our servicemen need our support and moral guidance as they do their jobs every day. I think this week should remind us how important it is to pray for our servicemen and women, counsel them and teach them about the Bible, and even to witness to them (evangelize them) when we get the chance. Every army needs a commander. Above human commanders, our military men and women need God's guidance, protection, and moral direction.

There's something else to consider this week, too.

Who are our heroes? What is gaining our approval? Whole peoples are judged by their armies, because the morality of an army's actions reflects what its individuals have been taught at home. Our service men and women are taking cues from the rest of society on how they can act and what isn't allowed. Are we supporting the people who clamor the loudest, who don't respect boundaries, or who have the biggest clout (physically, monetarily, etc.), or are we celebrating heroes who are kind, fair, moral, and law-abiding? Just turn on your television and you will have your answer.

What kind of people would you like to see in the military? I'd like to see men and women I can trust not to harm me, who will draw respect, not shame, for their nation and their countrymen, and who love God first. The only way I know to achieve this is to pray for a spiritual revival and model the kind of behavior I'd like to see.

Two Kinds of Heroes

Not too long ago, in a land not too far away, two armies gathered on hills opposite each other, with a valley between them. Every morning, the most celebrated hero of one army would walk out into the plain and stand there, mocking the other army, insulting their beliefs, and bragging on how, through his might, he was going to destroy their whole culture and humiliate their God. He seemed fully-capable of backing his words, too. He was over nine feet tall, and his armor weighed over a hundred pounds. He had one challenge: send out your own hero to meet me in battle, and whoever wins will lead his army to crush the other.

This giant man was the world's idea of a hero. He was bigger and stronger than anyone who opposed him. He spoke louder than anyone around him, and through the promise of pain and humiliation, he had thousands of people as his captive audience. People were awed by him, but their respect was really motivated by fear. He didn't respect other people's culture, their values, or their religion, and because he was unchallenged, his people took their cues from him and joined him in his mockery and disrespect. He was in this for personal prestige, and everyone with him were willing to take advantage of the opportunity. They didn't care who got hurt, because they were confident no one would resist them.

On the other side of the valley, all the listeners were inclined to agree with their enemies that might makes a winner, and their strength to resist the enemy drained away because of that fear. Reflecting the culture that had raised them, they had forgotten about their history with God, and how God had helped them to defeat other foes who mocked Him and His ability to save. They were scared to death of this bully, and they trembled in their armor. If it really had been a battle between two physical powers, the enemy had defeated them already.

Then along came this teenage kid, the kind of hero we should follow instead, and he saw through the threats and the size of the other warrior. He judged him, not based on his size, but based on his words, and he saw that they were actually powerless. He still remembered God's power, and he was absolutely convinced that God wasn't going to put up with mockery. God wouldn't allow His good name, and the behavior He desired from His people, to be mocked and trampled upon. So this kid accepted the challenge and with God's help, he miraculously defeated a foe at least twice his size, strength, and experience.

The moral of this story, which is my word for the armed forces and other "spiritual soldiers" out there this week, is that with God on your side, guiding your every move whether on the field or off it, you will prove your enemies to be all bluff and threats, with no power. Don't tremble at public opinion, just do what is right. Don't look for glory, just obey God.
"When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran." (1 Samuel 17: 51 NIV)

Thursday, November 5, 2009

How to Read the Bible for the First Time, Part 3

There are many ways to read the Bible, including a whole library of books out there. I can't claim to be the best person to give advice, as I've said before. My main reason for tackling the subject is my conviction that, of all the advice I can offer Christians for becoming "savvy sheep" in a predatory world, reading the Bible, well and often, is the most crucial. If you don't know your Bible, you might as well put a "Trick Me/Trip Me" sign on your back when you get up in the morning.

I got another anonymous comment on my last post in this series. This time, I know who left it, but since this individual chose to post anonymously, I'll leave it at that.

Anyway, "anonymous" pointed out some gaps in my teaching that I should have noticed, but hadn't :(. Mainly, that I had assumed that someone reading the Bible for the first time would check the index at the front of the Bible if he/she couldn't find the book I was recommending. However, some Bibles might not have a table of the books at the front. If it doesn't, go here and print out the list for reference, since these are listed in order and grouped into Old and New Testaments.

Also, I had been wondering how I was going to link the Old Testament to the New Testament. The simplest way, as pointed out in the comment, is to suggest that every time the New Testament says, "this was in fulfillment of prophecy," or the like, that new readers should stop there and go back to the referenced Old Testament passage (which should be listed in a footnote).

One thing the comment didn't mention is a basic Bible skill I ought to cover--that is, how to read a scripture reference. When you read something like,
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3: 16 NIV).
the part in the parenthesis should be read as "The book of John (New Testament Gospels), Chapter three (that big number three separating the text), verse sixteen (the tiny number sixteen in the text of chapter three), in the New International Version translation." For detractors out there who are rolling their eyes about this paragraph, just remember that there was a first time for learning every skill.

I apologize for throwing people in the pool without even giving them life vests! I needed the teacherly advice, "anonymous." Thanks!

Getting a Sense of History

Okay, so the next step is to really get a grounding in the history contained in Scripture. Since I'm assuming complete unfamiliarity with the Bible, I think you might wonder right about now how the promise of salvation in a Jewish religious book came to be offered to non-Jewish people. If you want to know that, you'll have to get busy reading a whole bunch of books.

The comment suggested reading the book of Acts next, and I think that is a good idea. In the book of Acts, we pick up right where the Gospels left off. In those pages, we read how Peter filled the role Jesus had prophesied, that "On this rock I will build my church," how the group of believers grew beyond the few followers of Christ and spread outside Jerusalem, how they discovered that Jesus wasn't just for Jewish people, and even how they first came to be called "Christians." We also are introduced to the teacher who carried the new Christian movement forward into the doctrine and principles that shape it, even today: the Apostle Paul.

After that, the comment suggested the book of Hebrews, but I'm going to amend that and say that Hebrews ought to be read alongside the Old Testament books of Genesis and Exodus. It's like a companion book, really, generalized and explaining concepts first introduced there, relating the themes in various historical figures' lives to the more general themes of God's plan of salvation for all peoples.

What You Should Know at This Point

Besides learning a lot of church and world history, you should know at this point about the origins of the basic doctrines you hear from pulpits. The basic teachings of the modern church weren't made up recently, by nineteenth-century men in starched shirt collars or twentieth-century men in silk ties, as so many modern teachers would have you believe. When something has been taught so many times that people are getting bored with it or have begun to call it cliche, it is always good to go back to the beginning and remember why the old teaching is still good and powerful.

One other thing I have to interject, since I've been talking about Jewish versus non-Jewish content in this post, is that antisemitism is shameful in a Christian context. For one very obvious thing, Jesus was Jewish! For another, through countless centuries, the Jewish people have recorded everything that Christians can now base their faith upon. They were at times the only people on the face of the earth who actually knew and believed in God and made any attempt at honoring Him. Gentile Christians shouldn't be hateful, they should be grateful! Yet, all too often, this is not the case, and I don't believe that reflects a loving, Christlike attitude for our fellow man.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Reformation Day Reminder

It's good for Christians to look back at history and remember this day back in 1517, when the sound of a hammer hitting a nail changed the world for a second time (really, taking the world back once more to the meaning of Christ's sacrifice). This other event's importance far outweighs the candy and the costumes today.

J. D. Hatfield at Voice of Vision tells the story. Check out his post,
Reformation Day.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

How To Read the Bible for the First Time, Part 2

I got one comment on the last post in this series (before LeAnne's guest post), and I've given it a lot of thought since I got it. In case you missed that comment, here it is:
Once a person has accepted the general truths of Christianity, he will probably need some more specific instructions for daily life. The Apostle Paul's writings are a great resource for that, although they can get a little "deep." Ephesians might be the right next step, followed by a good strong dose of James.
While I agree that new Christians need some guidance for daily living, I was worried that Ephesians wasn't exactly a good place to start (as for James, I think it's important to read early on, but not this early). To check up on myself about my misgivings about Ephesians, I reread the first two chapters of that book, feigning complete ignorance of the Bible. After all, I am talking about reading the Bible for the first time, right?

Unfortunately, Ephesians seems to be pretty far along on the Bible knowledge curve. Chapter one talks about tricky concepts like predestination. Chapter two gets more difficult, beginning with, "As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins," which would need to be explained, since a person who hasn't read about the curse of Adam and Eve or read Paul's explanation of what that meant, would probably think, "Hey, this doesn't apply to me, since as far as I know, I've never died." Later in chapter two, Paul discusses circumcision, which would require a grounding in Old Testament Jewish law and citizenship rules to make sense of it.

So, my anonymous commenter, I respectfully disagree with you on your reading choice.(I sincerely hope that doesn't shut down all comments on this blog, since that's not what I'm going for, here). I'm not throwing out the whole baby with the bathwater, because the basic, underlying point you made is excellent and insightful.

That is, that new Bible readers could begin to believe, if they only focus on the Gospels and never read the rest, that being a Christian is as simple as being nice and believing that Jesus rose from the dead. Too often, Christians (out of either ignorance or malice) tell new converts that Christianity "isn't about rules and guidelines," but that is really a lie. That would mean that Christianity is lawless and anarchist, which is very, very far from it's basic teachings and what even Christ lived. One of the central building blocks of the Christian faith is that there are rules, and that everyone has broken them. Unlike other faiths, Christianity doesn't stop there. It offers grace, which contrary to popular belief, still had to come about by following the rules. Grace without boundaries is lawlessness and injustice (something now one could respect), but grace that doesn't break the rules is merciful while still being fair (which even non-Christians love).

The Law vs. Grace: Why Jesus Came, and What His Death Meant

If you've read only the Gospels, you know who Jesus is, and probably picked up on a whole lot of mysterious mentions about "the Law and Prophets." If you guessed that the Old Testament is all about "the Law and Prophets," you were correct. You also read the part where Jesus said, "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them" (Matthew 5: 17 NIV). So what is the law, and why did it need to be fulfilled?

The law was very important to the Jewish people (it still is), since it was given to them directly from God at an early stage in their history. It's basically a list of rules and symbolic acts that they understood that they had to obey to please God; breaking these rules displeased God.

Jesus was saying that He didn't come to abolish the rules (He wasn't an anarchist or a revolutionary, as He is often cast), but rather that He had come to follow them completely, even by (and especially by) modeling and obeying the spirit and meaning behind them all. At this early point in reading the Bible, it is essential to understand this.

This is why I'm recommending that new Bible readers should direct their attention to the book of Romans. It was written by the Apostle Paul, and just as the anonymous commenter said, it is a little "deep," but that's because Paul was endeavoring to explain some really deep stuff: the meaning of the Law, and how Jesus fulfilled it. Without understanding the law, none of Christianity makes any sense. That is why the book of Romans is so crucial.

Paul wrote extensively about the law and its fulfillment, because he was a scholar of the highest caliber on the Jewish law--a sort of professor emeritus or summa cum laude of Jewish theology. He had studied it his whole life, but until he met Jesus and believed what He'd said about fulfilling the law, Paul had no understanding of the why of all those rules he'd spent so much time memorizing. If you want to know the why behind Christianity (and the real value of Christ's sacrifice), you have to read Romans.

I'll be back soon with another post on this topic. In the meantime, I really want to hear your comments, because they do help direct me. I never brush them off. So I'll ask again, What do you think should come next in a first-time Bible study, and why? Defend your answer.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Reaching for Stars

And now for the guest post we've all been waiting for, coming from LeAnne Miller in Washington State. She's a Pastor's wife, mother of five and a music minister. She writes music and Bible studies in her spare time.

A couple of weeks ago I asked her to give us her unique take on certain issues the world, and the church, is facing today. So, without further ado, this is what she had to say:

I was reading an old English fable to my children recently, called “Touching the Stars.” It was a quaint little story with lovely illustrations. As with most fables and legends, it is a mixture of fairytale and fact; fact being most often figurative as opposed to literal.

As the story goes, a little girl is obsessed with the desire to hold a star in her hands. In the end, her determination drives her to reach her goal through the help of many unlikely new friends.

As I closed the book, I tried to tie in some Biblical truths to this piece of make-believe. I wanted my children to embrace that fact that determination is a good quality, and that having ambition and drive can take you far. But the more I thought about this misguided little star chaser, the more I wanted to teach my children the following things.
  • Sometimes the stars that we chase are not really what we thought them to be. This little angel of a child truly thought that twinkle of a star could be held in her hand. She had no idea that what she was reaching for was an optical illusion. A trick of the eye. A deception that would have her believe she could hold in her hand a thing that does not exist; at least in the manner that she has perceived it.
  • Often the “stars” we reach for are not what we thought they would be. What was attractive and shiny, in actuality ends up to be a flaming ball of gas, waiting to consume us. The heroine of our story had no idea what a star really was. She had no idea that the very thing she craved and desired, had the ability to ultimately destroy her.
  • At times, we spend so much time chasing unattainable stars, we miss out on the real gifts and blessings that are around us. The little dreamer in our story would eventually awake to find that perhaps, she had been dreaming. The author would then have us believe, as the young lass opened her hand, that there is a hint of stardust clinging to her palm; not unlike a carrot dangling in front of rabbit. Leading us farther and farther away from what is really important.
The fact is, that we all have a little stardust clinging to our palms. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to quash the dreams of little girls everywhere, but I think that if we are to teach our daughters to be women of a Proverbs 31 caliber, we need to examine the desires of our heart.
  • Know what it is you want in life. But more importantly, know what God wants from our lives. “Study to show ourselves approved...” (2 Timothy 2:15).
  • Count the cost. What price I will have to pay to reach my goal? Is it worth sacrificing the gifts and eternal treasures that God has provided? “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2 NIV).
  • Finally, wake up! Don’t let the enemy fill your mind with fool’s gold and stardust. All that glitters is not gold. Life is full of enticing opportunities for temporary happiness. But if these things are not a part of God’s ultimate plan for your life, they can lead us astray, and ultimately consume us.
So go ahead, dream! Reach for the stars. With God, nothing is impossible; no goal unattainable. There are many successful dreamers in our history. Our God is not stingy, withholding good things from His children (Romans 8:23, Matthew 7:11). He wants us to have good things. He wants our lives to be full. However, He has given us an important key. Seek Him first (Matthew 6:33). Dreams are wonderful. They give us hope for better things. Just always remember to delight yourself in the Lord, and He will place in you His desires (Psalms 37:4). Godly desires. These desires are the “stars” we need to reach for.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Get a Leg Up on Bible Study: How to Read The Bible for the First Time, Part 1

When I was little, I had to use a footstool to reach the cabinet above my bathroom sink. I can also remember times when I couldn't find the stepstool/didn't want to take the time, so I struggled to lift myself on one arm while reaching for the dental floss with the free hand. It's all a part of having short legs while living in a tall world. But there's another angle to that story. While I still needed help, I didn't want to stay dependent on others my whole life, so I was willing to do almost anything to gain the independence I craved.

So, today I want to share some information that could help new Bible readers "reach it for themselves" without outside help. I've already covered using Bible study tools (see What Does God Require Concerning Bible Study?). This time, I want to answer a question I've been asked often about reading the Bible: Where should I start?

The first time someone asked me that, I panicked, because I realized I had no recollection of where and how my knowledge of the Bible really began. I was in Sunday school before I could read, and I was learning Bible stories, even then. It seems as if the knowledge has always been there. What kind of advice would be best?

I'll do my best to try to suggest the easiest route through the Bible, but I can't promise that my advice is the best. There are tough passages that can throw the most knowledgeable Bible scholar through a loop, and there are a lot of passages that only make perfect sense when the reader has read other passages first.

Start at the Middle: The Gospels of the New Testament

The Bible is divided into two sections: the Old Testament (the history of the world, and specifically of Israel, leading up to the time of Christ), and the New Testament (Christ's life, the start of Christianity, the beliefs of the Christian faith, and the prophesied future of the world and of the church). These are big, general labels. All in all, the entire Bible can be read through, carefully, in about a year.

I've generally heard you should start studying the Bible by reading the first section of the New Testament called the Gospels, which are named after their authors: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. These are all accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. If they seem repetitive, you should note that they were each written from different perspectives, to different audiences. John is the easiest to read, since it doesn't make as many references to the writings and prophecies of the Old Testament. Luke explains the situation from a historian's perspective to a non-Jewish, Greek audience. Matthew and Mark, which had a more Jewish audience, quote prophecies and predictions that were written down in the Old Testament thousands of years before they were fulfilled in Jesus' life.

What New Bible Scholars Should Understand at This Point

The most central part of the Christian faith is the concept that Christ is God, who came to earth in the form of a man, to teach the world that He is the only way to reach Heaven and escape eternal death in Hell. Any other actions or beliefs, other than following Jesus Christ, will not get us into heaven.

The Gospels present us with a key decision to make: either believe that Jesus was a lying maniac and dismiss everything He said, or believe that what He said was true, and live according to that belief. They systematically show how Jesus was not just an ordinary teacher, how the events of His life had been predicted centuries before, and how His life embodied what we understand of God and His requirements for us. These accounts were mostly told by men who were not well-educated. They were written over the course of several years, and yet they line up. Most importantly, though, their message has God-given power and the ring of truth, which can only come from people who are led by God.

There is much more to be said about the order in which to read the books of the Bible, but I've talked a long time, today. I'll be adding more to this discussion next week. In the meantime, after some delays and crossed-wires, we're finally going to read that guest post I talked about last time. Don't forget to come back!

To start a discussion on here, I'll leave you with a question: After the Gospels, what do you think new Bible readers should tackle next, and why?
I'm anxious to hear what you have to say!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Unseen Footprints

Well, due to unforeseen circumstances, I'm late getting this post up, so I'm making it brief. Before I get started, I have some important news updates on this blog. First, I'll be welcoming a guest writer here at Savvy Sheep next time, so be sure to come back this Thursday to read the post she's prepared. Secondly, I'm looking into teaching myself the basics of CSS coding (I know, good luck without a manual or an instructor, right?) so I can make some changes to my blog template and perhaps make it more visually interesting. As always, I welcome your tips and comments!

So, what's on my mind this week? Well, I guess you could say I've been singing the blues lately. I've felt frustrated with the weather around my neck of the woods, but it took a late-night gripe session with God to get me to finally understand where my mopey, bad attitude was really coming from. Virtually every day I've been confronted with examples of human failings, or, more accurately, human transgressions. That goes for news broadcasts and internet news feeds, too. Every time I read about it or heard it, I felt hopeless, surrounded, and defeated. It was like someone had taken all the wind out of my sails. I felt so frustrated that I just wanted to lie down and cry. How had I let it get to me that way? Why?

The Need

I cried out to God for help; I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands and my soul refused to be comforted. I remembered you, O God, and I groaned; I mused, and my spirit grew faint. Selah (Psalm 77: 1-3 NIV)
I felt so down last night that I vowed to stay awake until I found comfort talking to God and reading the Bible. It took a few hours, but I finally found the words I needed in Psalm 77. In the rest of this post, I'll walk through the sections of Psalm 77, interspersing the sections with a little bit of analysis. If this is how you've been feeling lately, maybe this post is for you. Let's read on, shall we?

The Problem

You kept my eyes from closing; I was too troubled to speak. I thought about the former days, the years of long ago; I remembered my songs in the night. My heart mused and my spirit inquired: "Will the Lord reject forever? Will he never show his favor again? Has his unfailing love vanished forever? Has his promise failed for all time? Has God forgotten to be merciful? Has he in anger withheld his compassion?" Selah (Psalm 77: 4-9 NIV)
Basically, David was upset and suffering from insomnia because he felt that God had abandoned him. He couldn't see how the promise God had made to him (that he would one day be King of Israel) was ever going to happen. His life was miserable, and it seemed that God was letting his enemies dog him relentlessly without any sign of judgment in sight. He was feeling hopeless, surrounded, and defeated, just like me, lately. There's even a sense that he felt that God was angry with him and was allowing everything to happen to him because of some wrong he didn't understand he'd committed.

The Analysis

Then I thought, "To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High." I will remember the deeds of the LORD; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds. Your ways, O God, are holy. What god is so great as our God? You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the peoples. With your mighty arm you redeemed your people, the descendants of Jacob and Joseph. Selah (Psalm 77: 10-15 NIV)
David thought back to all the times in his life when God had come through for him, and he realized the same thing that I realized about myself: In this case anyway, this hopeless feeling came from a loss of faith in God's power, both His ability to work miracles and his authority to punish evildoers. In my case, I realized how ridiculous it really was to feel depressed when I saw it all from that perspective. The day the God of the universe can be outsmarted or overcome, that's when I should feel helpless, and not before. Anything else is giving human troublemakers more power than they deserve credit for.

The Resolution: Unseen Footprints

The waters saw you, O God, the waters saw you and writhed; the very depths were convulsed. The clouds poured down water, the skies resounded with thunder; your arrows flashed back and forth. Your thunder was heard in the whirlwind, your lightning lit up the world; the earth trembled and quaked. Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen. You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77: 16-20 NIV)
David paints us a dramatic image of the awesome power of storms in nature, and God calmly walking through the middle of one, with the storm fleeing from Him.

The message is clear: Though our worst enemies may rise up to make our lives miserable, their power is nothing more than wind, noise, and splashing puddles when faced with the power of the living God. Even when we can't see God's presence as He is actively working in our lives, if we persist in following Him, He will clear a path for us through the dark times, and lead us through to the other side.

So, my favorite verse for the week:
Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen" (Psalm 77: 19 NIV).
Keep following God, and He'll get you through anything. I'll see you back in a couple of days!

*Oops! I got ahead of myself announcing the guest post just yet. Sorry about that; my mistake! I'll get that straightened out and see you all back here next time with more news and another post.*

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Next Step's a Doozy

I was talking with my mother yesterday about the process of falling into apostasy (pretty hefty subject, I know). It rarely happens that people wake up one morning and decide to believe the opposite of what they believed the previous day. People don't change their minds that rapidly without a reasoning process, especially on matters that are important to them, such as religious beliefs.

No, in matters of apostasy (abandoning one's principles or beliefs, to paraphrase the dictionary), people have to do it in steps. The slide starts with subtle things the individual may not even recognize as a threat to his/her faith. Eventually, these things penetrate deep into the individual's mentality, so they hardly even enter conscious thought. Once the person has placed very small erroneous beliefs into the category of "givens," he/she is open for less-subtle concepts that build upon these assumptions. And so, in baby steps, a person can be led away into foreign territory, until he/she is faced with the dilemma (the Hobson's choice, really) of choosing between faith and something else. But is this alternative to faith really built on fact, or is it actually assumptions or bald-faced lies?

On The Road to Apostasy

Take, for instance, one of the most powerful basic "assumptions" in U.S. culture (and it may appear in many other cultures, as well): Teachers know more than everyone else. I expect that this might make some readers angry or defensive, but before you jump to conclusions or write me off forever, please read to the end of this post. By that point, you'll at least know why you're angry with me.

As I was saying, people assume that "Teachers know more than everyone else." My objection to this stems from the absolute nature of the statement. Teachers who teach reading definitely know more about their subject than a kid who can't read, but they may not know more than other teachers in their own field, and they may not know anything at all about teaching algebra. It isn't really a true statement, but it is one that many people subconsciously accept without question.

This alone isn't a clear threat to faith. What's the worst that can happen? You ask your kid's reading teacher for some advice on an algebra problem, and she says, "I have no idea"?

The problem starts to arise when you follow up that assumption with another, subtle one: "It is foolish not to take advice from those who know more than you do." This, also, doesn't really sound like a bad assumption, but it can be. If you assume that teachers know more than you do, and then follow that up with this idea, you will probably think that it is foolish not to take a teacher's advice. If a teacher isn't an expert in the area about which you are seeking advice, his advice may be bad. Wouldn't it be foolish to take bad advice?

Okay, but say this teacher gives you advice on a subject in which he is considered an expert. At this point, you should consider the source of his expertise. After all, experts once taught that the earth was flat, that illness was caused by an imbalance of "humors," that the stars and everything else revolved around the earth, and so forth. Yesterday's expert teachers may end up being tomorrow's laughingstocks. The definition of "expert" may itself be built upon a multitude of assumptions, so be careful.

What am I getting at? Well, I see a pattern of belief emerging out of this complex set of assumptions. Don't you? Are teachers to be believed without question? Should we take spiritual advice from people who aren't claiming to be spiritual? Are even spiritual teachers and experts to be believed without careful analysis?

There are a lot of teachers out there who are now teaching us that we should question everything, but that we don't have the right to draw conclusions about what we see. That's not "in," not "trendy," not "modern." We are told to be content with not knowing the answers to questions that have been answered long ago. I honestly have to say that I have questioned quite a lot of things, and it led me to throw out the advice about not drawing conclusions, because it doesn't make any sense. It even undermines itself, because what conclusion led these teachers to preach such things? I do have answers to the last three questions I just posed in the last paragraph: No, no, and no!

So, back to what I said at the start of this post: apostasy is a series of baby steps away from what we know is true, which end up in a denial of faith. I know about this, since I've been led down this road, once, starting in my freshman year of college. Suddenly, late in my sophomore year, I found myself on the verge of denying my faith, and in desperation, I wondered how it had come to that. I looked back and saw the track of very subtle assumptions and lies that had been stepping stones, and I threw them out. Otherwise, I wouldn't be here, arguing for faith and for Christ. This really is a serious issue in a lot of people's lives.

Devil in the Details

I think it started with the assumptions about teachers that I've already dismantled in this post, so far. What followed was a series of bad advice from the teachers I trusted so implicitly. Once I assumed that several of the religious leaders in my life were always experts in spiritual things, I listened to them when they taught how it was wrong, even sinful, to call something someone else is doing, "sin." They based it all on the whole, "do not judge, lest ye be judged," misquote of the Bible, and said that I couldn't call a spade a spade when I didn't take into account the heart and the motivation of a person. Unfortunately, I temporarily was led to overlook the fact that the Bible makes no distinction between disobedience born out of good motivations and disobedience born out of wicked motivations. Machiavellian logic is not supported under God's plan! But, I didn't want to seem mean, or unwilling to take advice, so I accepted this.

The next step was worse. Multiple teachers (adults, slightly older or better-traveled peers, etc.) who did not claim spiritual authority began to teach how it is mean, xenophobic, even unchristian, not to accept other cultures in their entirety. It wasn't long before I was asked to accept the validity of these other religious beliefs, as well. Just to make sure I didn't protest too much, they all systematically compared other belief systems to my own, attempting to get me to accept the validity of these other systems ("You think yours is valid, so why don't you accept these others, which are just the same thing with different names?").

At a crisis moment (I seem to recall this happening late at night, as I was doing my homework), I found myself teetering on the edge of a huge drop-off. If I chose to believe them, I would be willing to accept that Jesus is not the only way to Heaven. I would be denying my faith in Christ, because I would be rejecting the most basic thing He taught. I would be walking away from everything I believed, and everything I had ever based my life decisions upon. The next step would be a doozy, if I chose to take it. But I didn't.

I prayed to God, right then and there, that He would help me see the way out of the tangled mess I'd fallen into, and He answered my prayer. So here's some of what I realized:So, if you find yourself in the murky waters of apostasy or teetering on the edge of the last step away from your faith, please listen to me, and don't go there. God can help you straighten everything out, you just have to be willing to listen to Him. Don't become one of those people Jesus was talking about, when He said, "For false Christs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and miracles to deceive even the elect—if that were possible" (Matthew 24: 24 NIV). If you want help, ask God to make this come true in your life, instead:
If the LORD delights in a man's way, he makes his steps firm; though he stumble, he will not fall, for the LORD upholds him with his hand." (Psalm 37: 23, 24 NIV)
Ask the Lord to guard your steps--your physical steps, your logical steps, the steps you take to reach your goals in life. And when you are finished asking God, be ready to listen to Him and do what He tells you.

Monday, September 28, 2009

One-Year Anniversary Post

I checked today, and as of this week, I've been on blogger for about a year now. (My first post was actually on October 1, 2008, but it took me a few days to get this site up; so, take or leave a few days).

I figured I might use this anniversary opportunity to share more about why I'm blogging and what I hope to accomplish through this site.

This blog started out as an unnamed, unformed idea that I had over a decade ago. I thought it would be great if I had a website where I could talk openly about witnessing, Jesus, and false-doctrines and theologies. Unfortunately, that idea got tabled until just over a year ago.

This project was never about making money (and so far, it hasn't). Honestly, that doesn't bother me. My goal has always been to help other people get to know God, or come to know Him better.

If serving the Lord is making you feel "like a bird alone on a roof" (see Psalm 102) I hope I've been able to encourage you with the knowledge that you are not alone. There are many other, like-minded individuals across the globe who have gone (and are currently going) through the same situations. Better yet, you have the promise that God is always with you, even in places where the rest of us can't go. In Christ, you are never abandoned!

If you've been struggling with confusing teachings and doctrines that have shaken your faith or caused you to doubt, I hope I've been able to arm you with tools you need to fight back. The world is a dangerous place for Christians, where "All day long they twist my words; they are always plotting to harm me," (Psalm 56:5 NIV). If our enemies spend all their time thinking up ways to hurt us, chances are we aren't always going to see it coming. That just means that we need to spend plenty of time in the Word, studying to insulate our faith in preparation for attacks, and arming ourselves with knowledge that can help us fight back. Even our enemies need rescuing.

Many times, especially in recent years, I've come up against people who seemed to spend all their free time plotting ways to trip me up in my faith and convince me to believe in very, very subtle lies. I've spent many hours doing my own plotting, too--that is, plotting out exactly what they're saying, and exactly how it's false. Their arguments seem to always come down to the same statements: God doesn't exist; God doesn't care; God will accept anything; God is make-believe; it's crazy/stupid to believe in God; Christianity is a waste of time; I think you're crazy/stupid/brainwashed; I'll obey God when I get tired of disobeying Him; blah blah blah. Honestly, I believe it's important to analyze everything we are taught to take for granted, because it just might be a trick. I don't know every trick in the book, but what I do know, I want to pass on to others who don't, yet.

To paraphrase all that, I want this blog to give you the tools to disarm the bombs you may encounter in the most innocent of disguises. That's why I named it the way I did.

So, I'm calling on my readers for some input, here. How am I doing? Have I accomplished my goals? Is there something I should consider changing in order to better accomplish them? What was my best post, so far? What was so bad about my worst? I'm anxious to hear what you have to say.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Can't Teach Me Nothin'

Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. --1 Timothy 4:12 NIV

What was Paul telling Timothy when he wrote that? Punish older members of your church if they don't give you proper respect because you are younger than them? Or, perhaps, that young persons in leadership shouldn't take any criticism from older congregants?

How are we to interpret the "don't let" part of that verse? I've heard this verse used to criticize church elders who disapproved of the younger generation's "new way of doing things." I've also heard it used to encourage young people to lead when they were neither equipped nor qualified for the positions they were being encouraged to seek. However, this verse isn't saying either thing.

The main point of the verse was not to address the "problem" older people who were looking down at their young pastor, Timothy. It's really about Timothy's worthiness for their respect, and what he could change about his own behavior that would gain their respect. If Timothy wanted respect from the elders in his church, he had to change himself, not react against them. Youth, in an older person's mind, translates to "wild oats," erratic and often disobedient behavior, even rejection of authority. This is certainly not godly behavior, and no one should be given authority or respect when he or she has no respect for God's standards.

No, if any young person wants to lead, he or she has to act mature, not like a "youth." Young leaders should model the godly behavior they claim to be leading others to have, being exemplary role models "in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity." Otherwise, these young leaders are the worst kind of hypocrites, and deserve to be ignored or replaced by worthier leaders.

Another important thing to glean out of this verse is the disassociation of "mature" and "immature" behavior with the actual age of the person. Timothy was instructed to act older than his physical age, to gain the approval of his elders. Meanwhile, there may have been older people who were acting younger than their age, dismissing genuine, God-given authority with the petulance of stereotypical teenagers, and using Timothy's youthful appearance as a justification for their deeper spiritual rebellion.

The one thing we can certainly see is that God's standards of behavior apply uniformly to both groups, both young and old. Straying from God's moral standards makes a person unworthy of respect, no matter his or her age, five or ninety-five. All Christians, in order to gain respect, must act mature, modeling righteous behavior in every aspect of their lives.

How do we go about measuring maturity, if it has nothing to do with physical age?

Mature, as in the Bible, Not as in Video Games

  • In Speech--Do prospective leaders recognize bad speech habits in their own lives and humbly seek to correct these habits? This includes gossip and dirty jokes and cursing.
  • In Life--Do prospective leaders live their everyday lives for God, making life and career choices to please God and to do His work, or do they go through life without considering other people or even consulting God about their decisions? Is it clear that they know Whom they are working for, and what God's purpose is for their lives? (Philippians 1: 20-26)
  • In Love--Do prospective leaders love others, and not just themselves and their friends? It is easy to love friends, but it is hard, without God in our lives, to love people who hate us or who cause us pain or discomfort. A Christian leader should be capable of godly love, or he or she is not actually a Christian ( 1 John 4:20).
  • In Faith--A leader without faith may know an awful lot about the Bible and even be able to recite passages, but without faith, all that knowledge is meaningless to him, and to those whom he teaches. Knowing all about God is not equal to knowing Him (Hebrews 4:2). Without faith, a leader has no understanding of what Christianity really means, so how could he or she teach it to others?
  • In Purity--This goes farther than just avoiding the many kinds of sexual immorality in this world. A prospective leader should not be engaging in any sort of behavior that is offensive to God or that casts shadows on his/her credibility. This ranges from covering for and sheltering murderers, to consulting with witches and fortune tellers, to having a reputation for cheating and lying. Just as the priests in the old testament were not allowed to enter the temple if they were impure, Christian leaders of any age should not attempt to take leadership if they are blemished by sinful behavior (see Psalm 24: 3-5).

Can't Teach Me Nothin'

From God's perspective, maturity is not defined by age or life experience, but rather a willingness to obey and humble ourselves to His leadership. For the longest time, people have mistakenly believed that experience or even extensive education brings wisdom and leadership potential, but only humility and obedience to God really brings about the proper maturity. In this way, it is possible for a child who reads his Bible and tries to do what it says to be a more qualified leader than the adults who teach his Sunday school class.

If a child wishes to take up this leadership role, he has only to set an example in moral behavior that shames even the adults around him--not to advance himself, but rather to advance Christ's work.

We should never have the "can't teach me nothin'" attitude that I've been picking up from people in the church lately. More specifically, this includes adults who feel that they can learn nothing from younger Christians, because they've already "been there, done that," and young people who dismiss everything older people say because it seems too outdated or old-fashioned. What has been true is still true, or it never was; what has been righteous is still righteous, or it never has been. If what is being taught is in God's Word, it's validity is not in any way affected by the age and experience of the one sharing it. Physical age means nothing if we are spiritual babies. If we haven't learned it yet, we shouldn't shoot the messenger.

The standard by which Timothy was to measure his life was a universal standard, which applies with impunity to all people in the Christian community. We are all leaders in this world, setting forth the moral standard of Christ. If all the world sees is a bunch of immature people, behaving like uncontrolled "youth," they have every right to despise us--and far too often, they do. We claim that we have something better in our walks with Christ; now it's time to prove it. If we want the respect of the world, we have to earn it, not demand it or take offense when we don't receive it.

Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young, but set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith and in purity. --1 Timothy 4:12 NIV

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Creating in Our Own Image

I logged on here today to post the completed draft of this post...but the draft is gone. So, I'm going to try to reconstruct what I said before, but I'm pretty concerned that it's not going to be as good as the first time. I'm sorry, folks. It kinda makes me want to cry, but I think I will survive this. It's not the end of the world, but it is pretty upsetting.

I'm so glad that God didn't have to rely on electronic auto-save features to preserve His Creative work from one creation day to the next, or some things might not be here. He might have even given up on the whole project (as I am feeling inclined to do). That's one way God is not like me, and I'm fine with that.

It's ironic how even catastrophes can tie into the point I am trying to make, because I can see now how it relates to the title I'd previously chosen. Note the term "creative," which we now use to describe human beings who take ink, paint, stone, sound, or whatever, and create a work of art of some merit with the raw materials. The word doesn't have a long history of use in that sense. Before the nineteenth-century Romantic movement (I think Lord Byron led the way), it was used only in the sense of God creating the world. The Romantics started using it to describe their own artistic efforts, in essence comparing their inventive work to God's, and claiming godlike power over the artistic field in which they worked.

While it is true that it seems like we have "creatio ex nihilo" power ("out of nothing, creating something"), there is a certain absurdity in that claim. I heard a joke once that illustrated the point:
A bunch of scientists were celebrating one day, and called a press conference. They claimed that they had finally figured out how to create life, and stated that mankind can now dispense with God. God overheard them, and showed up at the press conference. "Okay. Let's see what you can do," God challenged them.
The scientists smiled, stooped down, picked up big handfuls of dirt, carried it to some test tubes, and before long, they had created a healthy baby boy. "Ta da!" they announced. "See, God?"
"Wait, a minute," God said. "That's really impressive, but you need to try again."
"What's the problem?" the scientists complained, upset that God was still refusing to accept their victory.
After a dramatic pause, God explained, "First, you make your own dirt..."
Human beings can create impressive things from raw materials, but they will never truly be creators, since they can only work from materials someone else made.

The Obsolescence of God?

The impulse in humankind to give ourselves creation power extends far beyond our ability to shape the world around us to meet our ends. And that gets back to the point I was originally trying to make, before it got deleted.

What do schools of thought like postmodernism and relative morality have to do with this impulse to create and shape? Is this just a recent trend in human behavior, or is it much, much older?

Well, let's first look back at those belief systems. Postmodernism is really a blanket term that the other falls under. Postmodernism claims that there is no center, no absolutes, no core values system that pertains equally to all. Christianity is viewed as outdated and too narrowly "Victorian," and God as Christians describe Him is recast as one of the many faces of the "god concept." Yes, you got it. They say that God doesn't really exist, but rather, He's just a cultural concept.

Relative moralists also teach that there aren't absolutes or standards that all people in all situations and cultures have to follow. In other words, you can change your mind about what's right or what's wrong, depending on the situation and without the control of a moral standard, such as Biblical ethics.

None of this makes sense to me. If there is no authority, who can claim enough authority to tell us that there isn't? If there are no absolutes, how can we absolutely posit that there are no absolutes?

Essentially, despite the fancy technical names for everything, postmodernism and all the little schools of thought that fall under it are just replacing God and His authority with other gods and authorities. Most often, the replacement is the human thinkers behind the movements. They don't want to be powerful like God; they want to be God. How long has this been going on?

Greek to Me

Someone once pointed out to me that the Greek pantheon of gods and goddesses were a whole lot like human beings, because they had the same problems with lust, war, tragedy, vanity, and so forth. They weren't really superhumans; they were just big-humans.

What does this tell me about human nature? For one thing, we are more tolerant of a kind of god that never disapproves of what we want to do. We want a buddy, not a law enforcer. We don't mind enforcing laws and rules on other human beings, but we don't like anyone telling us what to do. If God won't go along, we just put a different face on Him, and that face is usually our own. Postmodernism is just one of the latest manifestations of this tendency.

Way Back--To Genesis, To Eden

In the account of the creation of the world, the Bible says,
"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.'
So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them." (Genesis 1: 27-27 NIV)
There are a number of ways to interpret "in the image of God." What exactly does that mean? Do people look like God, because that draws speculation on what race God is, how tall He is, whether He wears designer fashion, and all those other particulars. Humans are so varied in their physical appearance that it seems that someone is going to be left out if we try to interpret it that way.

It seems more likely, and I've heard Bible scholars teach it this way, that "the image of God" is more of a human resemblance to the nature of God. For instance, it is God's nature to make rules which He lives by, and to require others to live by those rules. Human beings, in the above verses, were likewise given the job of governing the earth, as God has the authority to govern us. Our natures and our deeds were supposed to mirror those of our Creator.

When Adam and Eve sinned, they challenged God's authority to rule over them. In essence, they set themselves up as little gods with the power to make God go along with them. They tried to dethrone God, taking the example of Satan (Isaiah 14: 12-15 NIV). The creation doesn't need the Creator anymore? Where have I heard that one before?

God didn't go along with those kinds of demands; therefore, it seems that human beings have been trying to remake God ever since. We don't like how God's rules show our aberrancy, so we try to corrupt the standard to mask the problem, rather than fix the problem to reflect the standard. I think that's why there are so many gods of clay out there that have a few admirable qualities, but are repulsive in other respects.

The fact is, we don't have the power to "fix" God, and pretending He doesn't exist isn't a good fix, either. We call a king a despot when he remakes the laws daily to give himself loopholes, but we demand that God embrace our own despotism. Wouldn't it just be easier to let God be God, and get back to living the way we were made to live?

I've seen a tremendous pull to make God more "hip" for this generation, but it just looks like another attempt to worship a God we've created in our own image. I'm speaking and praying against that, because I don't follow a clay God I've made to look just like me. I'm happy I don't have to set the standard for the whole human race, because they'd all be angry with me for leading them to destroy their own blog posts today ;).

So I invite you to lay it all down today, and let God lead you. Let God set the example for how you should behave and what you should do, instead of relying on your own imperfect self to get you out of trouble. Are you ready?

If you are, wherever you are, why don't you join me in this prayer:
"Dear Lord, I'm ready to follow You. I've been going about my life all wrong, and now it's time to admit that Your way is better than my way. Create in me a new heart, Lord, and give me a new Spirit, because I don't have the power to fix myself. Make me into the kind of person You wanted me to be. I'm willing to obey You. In Jesus' name I pray, Amen."
I'm praying for you!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Orphans Are "In" and Other Trendsetting Movements

I've been reading the Lemony Snicket series, called "A Series of Unfortunate Events." If you're familiar with it, you know that the story is about three kids-- Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire--and their efforts to find a guardian after their parents are killed in a fire. This is complicated by the evil Count Olaf, who wants to steal their family fortune. In their sixth home (book six), which I just started reading, the kids go to live with the trend-savvy Esme and Jerome Squalor. If you've read it, you already know that the reason why the Squalors did not adopt the children before was that, until recently, "orphans were 'out.'" In fact, when something goes "out," as the children learn in the early chapters, the Squalors drop it like a hot potato, which makes the Baudelaires wonder how long they will last.

Okay, so what does this have to do with this blog?

The setup for this book got me thinking about trends: fashion, decorating, reality-TV, fitness and dieting, "green" efforts, politics, et cetera.... It seems that culture is driven constantly from one extreme to the next by different trends. If we're not careful, it can pull us in and toss us around like laundry in the washing machine.

One basic rule of trends is "what goes around, comes around." We're always seeing the same fashions again, for instance. Pack rat frugality really pays off, if you're willing to keep a closet full of old clothes long enough. Solomon was right when he wrote, "What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun" (Ecclesiastes 1:9 NIV).

Frankly, I'm tired of trends and trend-following. It wastes my time and money, and leaves me stressed-out or insecure about myself. Keeping up with the latest trends is exhausting!

The Rudderless Ship

The one thing that bothers me even more is when I see the church as a whole chasing after various cultural trends. To make myself perfectly clear, I get angry hearing the elements of postmodernism, moral relativism, self-affirmation humanism, psychobabble, and the like in church. These things aren't from God! They can only confuse people and destroy their faith. The Apostle Paul wrote,
It was he [God] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. (Ephesians 4: 11-15 NIV)
I have been told that the image of people being "tossed back an forth by the waves" is that of a rudderless ship. The rudder is for steering, and is especially useful during a powerful storm. The image paints a clear picture of one way of life. Without knowledge of the truths of God, we cannot become strong or mature, and our lives spin helplessly out of control.

Note the difference between the two kinds of doctrine and the two kinds of teachers Paul describes. The first teachers are God-appointed, and their teaching gets its authority and fulfillment from God and in the very nature of God. It trains and equips its hearers and leads them into "maturity," "unity in faith," "works of service," and ultimately to attaining everything that God wanted them to have, "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ."

In contrast, these teachings of cunning and crafty men are compared to "waves" and "wind." They are useless and impotent. They can't steer anyone's life or help in any way, because they are not unified, and they have no future purpose in mind. They can't prepare anyone for a future purpose. Rather than strengthening the "boat," they are merely threatening to tear it apart.

I hate human trends in church because I can see how they break the church apart and steal away its direction and purpose. Ultimately, they rob everyone of "the whole measure of the fullness of Christ" and wreck their lives on a darker shore. It is Christ, not man, who should be behind our doctrine, giving it authority. Any other offering is irresponsible, at the least, or "deceitful scheming" at the worst.

I Didn't Forget...Back to "Orphans Are 'in'"

Lemony Snicket's Baudelaire children worried about the day when "orphans go 'out.'" I'm happy to say that with God, they are always "in."
Can a mother forget the baby at her breast and have no compassion on the child she has borne? Though she may forget, I will not forget you! See, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are ever before me. (Isaiah 49: 15-17 NIV).
Follow God! He knows where He's taking you (even if it's not popular), He cares deeply for you (even when no one else remembers!), and He wants to see His purpose fulfilled in your life (to the full measure of blessing!). Don't be deceived--don't choose the shipwreck!