Feb 17

Submit to Authority

Submit to Authority

Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God. So anyone who rebels against authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and they will be punished.                                                      (Rom. 13:1-2 NLT)

 

This passage has created a lot of heartburn over the centuries. First of all, it seems out of place in its setting in Romans. In chapter 12 Paul is talking about how love enables us to overcome evil with good. Then in 13:8 he goes back to love, saying that we fulfill the requirements of the Torah when we love our neighbors.

 

The second thing is that the passage has been used by governments across the centuries to justify oppression. Evil people, like the Nazis, have demanded that Christians do whatever the government says because their God commands them to.

 

But third, it doesn’t seem that Paul himself obeyed it. Reliable tradition tells us that Paul was killed by the Roman authorities because he refused to submit to them when they required him to say that Caesar was God.

 

So what’s going on? Better scholars than I have puzzled over this, but let me make a suggestion. Paul’s emphasis on free forgiveness through faith in Christ that issues in love has an implicit danger. That danger is this: “Oh, I am free to do what I want as long as I can say that it is really the loving thing.” Do you see where this can lead? Who defines what the loving thing is? Me? The problem with that is that our capacity for self-deception in the service of our own ends is almost limitless.

 

So Paul, I believe, pulls in a very practical check on that kind of anarchy. We need to learn submission. Our desires, and our ways, have to be brought under the control of something outside ourselves. Of course, that is first of all to God, and then to his Word. But even there the power of the self to justify what it wants to do is frightening. So Paul brings in something very concrete. I learn submission by submitting to earthly authority, which is a proxy for God’s authority. Christianity does not make me a worse citizen, but a better one. However, there is a caveat that Paul, in the interest of making his point, does not bring up. When government, instead of exercising God-given authority, usurps that authority, then God must be obeyed.

 

Can we criticize the government? Yes. Might there be a time when we must defy the government? Yes. But in the meantime, let’s learn submission by obeying authority, as represented by the government.

Feb 10

On Sacrificing Children

On Sacrificing Children

Children are a gift from the LORD; they are a reward from him. Children born to a young man are like arrows in a warrior’s hands. How joyful is the man whose quiver is full of them! He will not be put to shame when he confronts his accusers at the city gates.                                       Ps. 127:3-5 NLT

They have committed both adultery and murder — adultery by worshiping idols and murder by burning as sacrifices the children they bore to me. Furthermore, they have defiled my Temple and violated my Sabbath day! On the very day that they sacrificed their children to their idols, they boldly came into my Temple to worship! They came in and defiled my house.                                          Ezek. 23:37-39 NLT

 

When we read the Ezekiel passage printed above we are rightly horrified. How could those people do such things? Thank God we have gotten beyond that stage in the development of human culture.

 

Or have we? We have to understand what was going on there. Humans are fragile and needy. If we don’t get what we want and need, life is pretty grim. Beyond the bare necessities for physical life, what do we want? Possessions, pleasure, and position (1 Jn 2:16). How do we get them? Well, life is pretty simple when you get right down to it: you get what you pay for. Those folks personified life forces as gods, and sold their kids to those forces in order to satisfy their desires.

 

Are we different? I am afraid not. How many men, and now women, have sacrificed their children in order to serve the gods of money and position? How many of us have sacrificed our children on the altar of our pleasure? How many of us have dolled our little girls up as though they were prostitutes, or forced our little boys into sports, in order to satisfy our thwarted desires? How many of us have sacrificed our children on the altar of our desire to be great parents and to be appreciated by our children? How many of us have sacrificed our children to the gods of this world because we were unwilling to accept the hard work involved in being trustees of heaven’s gift?

 

Before we are too harsh on those people of long ago and far away, perhaps we need to take a look in the mirror, and fall on our faces.

Feb 03

Perfect Peace

Perfect Peace?

 

You will make that person completely whole whose imagination is anchored in you, because he or she trusts in you. Trust in Yahweh always, because Yah, Yahweh, is an everlasting Rock.

                                                                                                Isaiah 26:3-4 (Author’s translation)

 

On this winter morning, with the feel of snow in the air, I fell to thinking about my grandfather and what he might have been doing on a morning like this 120 years ago. Perhaps he would have been husking corn to feed to the pigs and chickens, the same thing his father and grandfather would have been doing for a century before him. So little change, and now – ?! “Change on every hand I see!” At our institution, expensive electronic equipment that was “state of the art” fifteen years ago is now virtually useless and must be replaced. And what about the replacements – what will their life expectancy be?

 

But we are not the only ones in the history of the world to face upheaval and change. The ancient Judeans were surrounded on every hand by enemies, not least the voracious Assyrians who would take everything the Judeans owned, as “tribute,” and then deport many of them a thousand miles from home. What is Isaiah’s word to them? “Don’t let your imagination run off with you! Focus your attention on that God who has given his personal name – I AM – to you. If you will make him the center around which all your life revolves, he will knit all the disparate threads of your life into a single skein. He is the Rock that will breast the flood, in whose shade you can shelter from the sun, upon which you can climb when the Enemy threatens.”

 

But wait a minute! Where did the KJV’s “perfect peace” go? Well, it’s not bad, but it just doesn’t go far enough. When Yahweh puts us together there is an inner serenity despite outside upheaval. But that serenity is a byproduct of an inner wholeness (which is the base idea of “shalom”), when we have allowed our Friend Yah to focus everything in our lives on him. That oneness is the foundation of the serenity, and it is a continuing reality even when the serenity is not so serene!

 

Here’s the bottom line: we can have so intimate a relationship with the Great Creator that we can call him by his pet name: Yah, and with our wild imaginations all focused on him, we can become whole persons. Saved!

Feb 01

A Moment or a Mile

A Moment or a Mile

 

Then we will no longer be immature like children. We won’t be tossed and blown about by every wind of new teaching. We will not be influenced when people try to trick us with lies so clever they sound like the truth. Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.                                                                      Ephesians 4:14-15 NLT

 

Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.

In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all! As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.                       Colossians 3:9-12 NRS

 

There can be no question that as Christians, we are expected to be Christ-like. Christian faith is not first of all a set of ideas which we accept. It is first of all a relationship in which Jesus Christ  comes, by grace through faith, to inhabit us. So Paul can say, “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Our hope to share the glory of God is as a result of Christ’s life lived in us.

 

But how is that Christlikeness achieved? Is it the work of a moment: “you have stripped off the old self,” or is it only as the end of a long mile of self-denial and the steady putting on of new clothes, “growing in every way more and more like Christ.”? I think the answer to the question is “yes.” That is, both are necessary, and whenever the Church has limited itself to one answer or the other, it has become anemic.

 

Many today find the Christlike life a struggle, a “will-o-the-wisp” which we must continually try to lay hold of, but never quite achieve. The reason for that is that they are trying to put on new clothes without having been stripped of the old clothes. They have not had that moment, when by faith they have allowed Christ to strip them of their self-esteem (otherwise called pride) and their continual self-focus and have been set free from their blindness to follow him (see Mark 10:46-52).

 

Then, and then alone, is real growth into Christlikeness possible. The moment only accomplished the stripping off, but it is a moment without which the reclothing is impossible. On the other hand, to be merely stripped is hardly to have reached the goal. It is now possible to become clothed in the character of Christ and that is the work of a lifetime. A moment or a mile? Yes!

 

The question for us then is: have I ever truly allowed Christ to bring me to that moment, and if I have, how am I allowing him to work it out in my daily walk?

 

Jan 26

The Rationality of Biblical Faith (2)

The Rationality of Biblical Faith 2

 

He will use every kind of evil deception to fool those on their way to destruction, because they refuse to love and accept the truth that would save them. So God will cause them to be greatly deceived, and they will believe these lies. Then they will be condemned for enjoying evil rather than believing the truth.

(2 Thess. 2:10-12 NLT)

 

I have said that, Biblically speaking, “to have faith in” is to believe the truth about something and to act accordingly. It is not wishful thinking, and it is not “a leap into the dark. In his book He is There, and He is Not Silent, Francis Shaeffer has a fine illustration of this point.

 

He imagines a climber in the Alps who has not kept careful track of his time, and is high up on a narrow ledge in the late afternoon when he is suddenly engulfed in clouds. He cannot see forward or back, and knows only that there is a bottomless chasm on his left and a sheer cliff on his right. He cannot stay where he is, for with the falling nighttime temperatures, he will be dead of exposure before morning.

 

But suddenly, a voice comes out of the fog, telling him that if he will lower himself over the side of the ledge, and let go, he will only fall a few feet and will land on a lower ledge where there is a cave in which he can shelter. If he does hang off the edge of that ledge and let go, that is not faith, but foolishness.

 

But suppose the climber calls out to the voice, and learns that the speaker is the foremost guide in that area, that he is just across that gulf, and knows the area perfectly, being able to tell the climber some of the features on that path where he is. Now if the climber does hang off the edge of that cliff, he will still feel nothing but air beneath his feet. But when he lets go, that will be faith in the true Biblical sense; more than rational, but not irrational.

Jan 22

The Rationality of Biblical Faith (1)

The Rationality of Biblical Faith (1)

 

The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.

 Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz, saying,

 Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.

 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.

(Isa. 7:9-12 NRS)

 

In the Hebrew of the first sentence in the passage above, there is a word play whose force is difficult to convey in English. The same word is used in two different forms that give it slightly different connotations. It is something like “If you will not make firm (in trust), you cannot be firm (in the face of your enemies). The Hebrew term used is one that connotes reliability, and nouns formed from it include “truth” and “faithfulness.”

 

The opponents of Christian faith often equate “faith” with mere wishful thinking. Even Christian thinkers have compared it to jumping over the rail of a speeding ocean liner on a dark night in the expectation that we will be caught. That is not faith, but lunacy.

 

No, the Hebrew concept conveys something else. It is to put confidence in the reliability, the “truth” of someone. That is the whole thrust of the Bible: God has made some incredible promises, and then has fulfilled them. In other words, if we believe his promises (which is what Biblical faith is) there are very good reasons for doing so. As F. B. Meyer says, “Although our faith is sometimes more than rational, it is never irrational.”  Jesus told his followers before the fact that he would rise from the dead (). Then he did so, as a matter of fact. To believe in resurrection is more than rational. But the evidence we have been given for our faith is perfectly rational. This is true throughout the Scripture. We are not called to “blind faith,” but to confidently put our trust in God, to risk everything for him, because he has proven himself “true” again and again

Jan 06

Courtesy, Kindness and the Christian Life

Courtesy, Kindness, and the Christian Life

 

Make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.

Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

(Phil. 2:2-5 NRS)

 

I suppose it is a sign of advancing age, but it seems that I remember more often these days some of the things my father said. One of them is, “You gotta think about the other fella.” How simple, and how increasingly absent from our common life these days. We are harried, stressed, anxious, and running late, and other people are just in our way.  “I don’t have time to be kind! Some other day!”

 

We often think of courtesy and kindness as simple, common things that we could pick up and do whenever we wish. But I don’t think that is true at all. Notice the word that is repeated three times in the passage quoted above. It is “mind,” which means attitude, or way of thinking, and in this case, a way of thinking about ourselves.

 

This “mind” is to put the concerns and needs of others before your own. That is the attitude of Jesus. He did not think about his own divine rights; he thought about our desperate need. But let me say that such an attitude is far from normal to us humans, and it is not something that can be packaged up as a nice, neat New Year’s resolution: “I am going to be kind to one person (who doesn’t deserve it!) every day.” Well, that’s not a bad idea, but like most good resolutions it won’t last without something deeper having taken place first. This kind of undeserved grace to others, this kind of incredible self-forgetfulness, is only possible to those who, like Jesus, have died to their rights.  Have you, have I? Have I ever, in a moment of utter submission, died to my way, and come alive to his, and am I daily allowing him to pronounce the death sentence over my “own interests.” That is what it will take for most of us to introduce courtesy and kindness back into the public square. Let it happen.

Dec 23

Rejoice

Rejoice!

 Shout to the Lord, all the earth;

break out in praise and sing for joy!

Sing your praise to the Lord with the harp,

with the harp and melodious song,

 with trumpets and the sound of the ram’s horn.

Make a joyful symphony before the Lord, the King!

                                                                                          Psalm 98:4-6 NLT 

One of my professors once said that you can tell a lot about a people on the basis of their vocabulary. The more important something is to them, the more words they have to express the various connotations. So, it is said, the Eskimos have seven different words for snow.

 

This is an especially important point in the Hebrew language, because it has a very small general vocabulary. That means that for some important words, there will be several different, though-related, English ideas expressed by one single Hebrew word. So, when we find several Hebrew words used for a single idea, it means that idea is really important. So for concepts related to sin there are at least eight different Hebrew words.

 

But the same thing is true with the idea of singing joyfully. In Psalm 99 no fewer than five different words for musical rejoicing appear, four of them in verse 4 alone. Why would this be the case? Why wouldn’t one all-purpose word, like “sing,” for instance, be enough? Clearly it is not enough because the Israelites need more ways than just one of expressing the wonder they have found in Yahweh, their God. He is the creator, the savior, the wonder-worker, the deliverer, the One who made the world in order, and who, praise his name, is coming to set it in order (the meaning of the word often translated “judge”) again. He is Love, he is Truth, he is Power.

 

This is why Christmas is a musical season. He has come! One carol is not enough. We need every one in the repertoire, and we need some new ones. But it is not just about the Baby; it is about the fact that the creator-savior-wonder-worker-deliverer-reoderer has come! Our God is cause for rejoicing. If you are not singing for joy these days, maybe you need to reflect a little more deeply on the wonder of our God.

Dec 20

My Peace I Leave With You

My Peace I Leave With You

But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. 

John 14:26-27  ESV

 

At this Christmas season, one of the recurring themes related to the coming of Christ is that of peace. On the night of his birth the angels sang “Peace on earth.” That seems entirely appropriate since as Isaiah tells us he is the Prince of Peace, and of his kingdom and peace there will be no end (Isaiah 9:7). Yet he himself said he did not come to bring peace to the world, but a sword (Matt 10:34). What are we to make of this, especially in the light of the verses printed above? Is Jesus confused, or what?

 

First of all, he is not confused. But these verses are talking about three different things: the ultimate impact of Christ’s ministry in the world, the short-term impact in the world, and the means by which Christ intends to achieve his goal. Intimately connected with all that is the Biblical concept that we translate with the English word “peace.”

 

The English word primarily connotes the absence of conflict. While the Biblical terms, rooted in the Hebrew words having the consonants sh, l, and m can connote that idea, they go much deeper. They speak of making something whole and complete. One of the words is used for paying a debt. That is, as long as the debt is not paid, the arrangement is incomplete, it is not “at peace”. But when we pay off the debt, we make it whole. So, what is God’s ultimate goal for his cosmos through his Son? All wrongs will have been righted; all sins atoned for; nothing left unsettled or undone: peace. What a day, the day of his Second Coming!

 

But what of the immediate impact of Jesus’ ministry, the day of his First Coming? Did it put things together for the Jews? Far from it! It forced them to make difficult decisions. Was this itinerant preacher from Nazareth the Messiah? And more than that, was he the Son of God? As Jesus said, he brought a sword that would divide families and nations into warring factions. His stupendous claims could do nothing else in a world where sin holds so many in its iron grip.

 

But what about this period between the two comings? Are we simply to resign ourselves to a hopeful anticipation of that last day, all the while echoing Longfellow’s hymned words “there is no peace on earth”? No! That is the beauty of what Jesus said in John 14. He can give a peace about which the world knows nothing. He can make each of us whole, complete. He does not offer absence of conflict; calm, shining days where trouble is far away. No, he told us that in this world, before his Second Coming, we will have trouble. But he offers a “peace” that the world cannot give! He can take our divided hearts, partly his, and partly our own, and make them one for him. That is peace, the peace that Christmas has made possible, here and now. That is my Christmas wish for you, that you have or you will allow the Holy Spirit to take all the strands of your life and make them all his. Merry Christmas indeed!

Nov 04

Flying on Instruments

Flying on Instruments

 

But we are not like those who turn away from God to their own destruction. We are the faithful ones, whose souls will be saved. Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see.                                                  (Hebrews 10:39-11:1 NLT

 

Some years ago a friend of mine was renewing his instrument flying license, and he asked me if I would like to go along. Enjoying flying as I do, I jumped at the chance.

It was a lovely sunny day, and the instructor and I, looking out the windows, could enjoy it. But my friend could see none of that, because he was wearing a large dark visor that completely blocked his vision of anything but the instrument panel of the plane, as would be the case if he were flying at night or in clouds.

As I recall, the instructor flew for the take-off, and then turned the controls over to Bill (not his real name). At this point, I was really hoping that Bill had learned his lessons well, because he and we were completely dependent on his ability to follow the instruments. There are three that are absolutely vital: a compass, a turn and bank indicator, and an altimeter. The first determines what direction you are heading, the second tells you what attitude you are in: straight and level, turning, or climbing or descending, and the third, how high you are. It is absolutely essential that the pilot follow these instruments, because when we humans have no external point of reference, our senses are completely unreliable.

After we had flown awhile, with Bill responding to the instructor’s instructions about compass heading, turning, and climbing or descending, the instructor said we were ready to head back, and called the airport tower for directions. Looking out, I could see the airport far away on our right. But as the flight controller gave Bill his directions about heading, attitude, and altitude, I watched us move around and slowly begin to line up on the runway. If we drifted a little right or left, the controller’s calm voice would guide Bill back again, and by the time we reached 500 feet and Bill could lift the visor and land us visually, we were lined up perfectly.

As I watched this all from the back seat, I thought: this must be how it is for the angels looking on at us. They can see our destination perfectly and see whether we are headed in the right direction with the right attitude and at the right height. We can’t see it at all, and unless we can find some external reference points, some instruments, as it were, we are lost. But thank God, we do have an all-sufficient instrument, the Bible, the Word of God, and we do have the voice of the Flight Controller, the Holy Spirit, sounding in our ear, telling us how to read that instrument. Maybe sometimes the angels hold their breath as we, unseeingly, drift off the flight path. But again and again they must smile at each other, seeing how, not listening to our conflicting senses, but following the instruments, we, still unable to see the runway, are yet lining up perfectly. What a day it will be when the Controller says, “Ok, you can lift the visor and come on in.”