Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Project Refocus

Our missionary from Venezuela, Ised, is scheduled to be here inside of a month and a half (given that the US Embassy gives her a visa). After that a phenomenon known to anyone who has ever had a deadline will occur: there is an inverse ratio between the passage of time and the time remaining. In other words, the closer you get to a deadline, the faster time flies. Native southerners like my wife have a modified perspective on this phenomenon. They say, "The hurrieder I go, the behinder I get." In other words, it's time to start getting materials ready for Venezuela.

I've been posting about Hebrews. My goal has always been to make observations of passages not typically found in commentaries while remaining within the boundaries established by apologetically sound hermeneutics. However, I need to put Hebrews on the back burner and generate some core materials for use in Venezuela.

Last year I tailored some discipleship material into a package that could be configured to fit into anywhere from 3 sessions to 11. This year, the church has those same materials to use, so our goal now is to have materials to train Christians ready to take on the task of discipling new Christians. With the effort to reach out to new areas in Cabimas, as more and more people come to Christ, more people will need to be able to disciple them. I have an old outline I came up with last year, but never developed. I'll start with that and see where I get.

We also need music for Venezuela. Lois has already been gathering some simple songs for her to use during the summer. I don't want to reuse all the ones I used from last year - except, maybe Dios de Maravillas (God of Wonders). I love the arrangement I have, and even the English speakers knew the English well enough to worship to it. My daughter loved it enough to learn the background vocals on her own. I may actually break the piggy bank and invest in some real accompaniment tracks. I still have a bilingual songbook I can use for impromptu events.

Among immediate miscellaneous projects, I'm writing a song called "Broken". I don't have the lyrics settled yet, but I think I have a decent melody. I've also agreed to help a young lad at church who wants to play a baritone saxophone solo. Another project has been at the 'Y'. I lost 40 lbs over the course of the latter half of last year. I'm holding steady now, but I've always had relatively weak upper body strength, even in the Marines. Since Christmas, I've been working to improve that. If I end up helping with some construction project in Venezuela, I want to be able to use more than my weight (which I don't have anymore) to get things accomplished. Yet another project is to make a DVD of representative videos of Venezuela for our supporters. One last project is at work. Part of my job is to generate month-end reports for multiple product lines that fall outside the normal functionality of our ERP system. I plan to be in Venezuela over the end of a month and need to train the team leader that helps me to do the paperwork. On top of that, we have a multi-million dollar implementation of a new ERP system that's scheduled to complete by then - so it's all going to change. And I'm going to have to program all new tools for my products that still may not be covered.

The moral of the story is that even short-term missions can take all year to do.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

God’s Rest in Hebrews

By the end of Chapter 3, Paul has brought up the Exodus, wilderness wanderings and inheritance of the promised land as a "rest" that was denied to some because of their disbelief. He continues this in the beginning of chapter 4 and by the end of chapter 4 has specified this rest for us as a spiritual (yet very real) one:

16 Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Paul also stacked this section of Hebrews with several "For"s and "Therefore"s. This is an indication that his point through this section is being made through a progrssive flow of thought that contains sets of quasi-parenthetical statements. It doesn't mean much until one analyzes each comment syllogistically and recognizes it as a premesis for an argument that is either the conclusion of a previous argument or if Paul assumes it is a foregone conclusion with his Hebrew readers. Keeping this in mind, I won't go into every statement, but I have a few select observations.

It would seem that to enter into God's rest is our reward for having been obeidient. In verse 11, Paul indicates that we are to "be diligent to enter that rest". It would seem that we must make some effort. However, entering into God's rest is not the goal. The goal is " so that no one will fall" and they fell "through following the same example of disobedience" as the Hebrews during the exodus. If "diligence" means obedience, then what purpose does the "rest" serve and why write this verse? Paul could have only written "be obedient" and it would have meant the same thing. The "example of disobedience" is "unbelief" (3:19). But it appears as though belief is what causes people to enter the "rest" (4:3). Understand that the premises for the conclusion in 3:11 is a principled link between the keeping of the Sabbath and God's resting on the seventh day after creation (3:10), and the effectiveness of revelation (3:12).

To answer this, observe the pattern in both premises. In verse 10, Paul seems to make a distinction between a child of God "entering His rest" and having "rested from his works, as God did from His." In verse 11, Paul indicates that the living aspect of the revelation of Christ is contingent on its ability to distinguish between soul (psuch) and spirit (pneumato), joints and marrow, and thoughts and intentions. A minor debate exists between dichotomists and trichotomists. The debate is silly. It's like debating whether the Bible is one book, two books, or sixty-six books (as far as Protestants are concerned). Dichotomists claim no distinction between soul and spirit where trichotomists do. Paul clearly makes a distinction here whether that distinction is carried over into other passages that also discuss soul and spirit. This is an open reference to something that Paul’s Hebrew audience would have understood. It’s the same two words used in Jude 19:

“These are the ones who cause divisions, worldly-minded (psucikoi), devoid of the Spirit. (pneuma)

The concept is that people possess a mind like an animal, a “soul”. However, People also possess a capacity to be receptive to God, transcendent, and yet foundational to, mere existence: spirit. In Jude, the “Spirit” is apparently a reference to God’s Spirit. However, other beings can possess a spiritual nature and human beings among them.

As part of the context of Hebrews 4, this reference to the division of soul and spirit indicates that the word (“logos”, a philosophical term used to refer to Christ in John 1, here used to refer to His revelation to us: the scriptures) of God is able to help us judge, or discern, the difference between our animal thoughts and our spiritual intentions. With regard to the difference between “diligence” and “obedience”, “entering rest” and “resting”, I believe the distinction is the same. We enter rest through diligent spiritual intention (justification) so that through our rest, we may bring our animal minds under obedient subjection to God.

This coming Sunday evening, we’re having a special night of music. I’ve been asked to offer a song and God has led me to pull out an old, but little-known favorite of mine that I arranged for my use (I don’t have the music anymore and can’t seem to find the author). The text is a paraphrase of the words of Christ from Matthew 11:28-30

Come to me all who labor and are heavily laden down,
And I’ll give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you and learn from me now
For I’m gentle and low in heart,
Here you’ll find rest
You’ll find rest for your weary soul
For my yoke is easy
And my burden’s light
Come to me

This adds an emotional impact to this teaching. Understanding the condescension of Christ, we know that He has been tempted as we are tempted. Even the strongest Christian recognizes his or her need. As sinners we are broken by the conviction of the Holy Spirit and are quickened. As such our intention becomes inclined toward God and we enter into His rest where obedience becomes a matter of great joy.

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Sunday, February 18, 2007

Investigation of Common Sense by Someone Who Has Very Little

My wife claims I have no common sense… Okay, I just asked her and she clarified that I have “very little” common sense.

I asked her, secondly, if she had common sense and she casually nodded and said, “Yes.”

My final question for her was to ask how she defines common sense. She replied that common sense is “doing normal everyday things without thinking much about it.”

Then she saw me typing these things up and asked, “You’re not going to make fun of me, are you?”

Well, certainly not intentionally. Of course I have “very little” common sense, so who knows? She never reads my blogs, so she’ll never know. She did ask me how I define common sense. My initial formulation was, “An intuitive approach to applying one’s worldview to situational responses.” It’s rough and bears refinement. Perhaps I thought too much about it.

The Houghton Mifflin Dictionary defines common sense as “Sound judgment not based on specialized knowledge; native good judgment.” It looks like my wife was not too far off base. Perhaps the simplest consideration based on this definition is that those who have more specialized knowledge or understanding than is found in relevant populations of people in general would necessarily lack common sense. They would have, rather, “uncommon” sense.

However, what I was trying to say with my definition is more in keeping with Wikipedia’s treatment of the concept:

One meaning of common sense (or, when used attributively as an adjective, commonsense, common-sense or commonsensical), based on a strict deconstruction of the term, is what people in common would agree: that which they "sense" in common as their common natural understanding. Some use the phrase to refer to beliefs or propositions that in their opinion they consider would in most people's experience be prudent and of sound judgment, without dependence upon esoteric knowledge or study or research, but based upon what is believed to be knowledge held by people "in common". The knowledge and experience most people have, or are believed to have by the person using the term.

Whatever definition is considered apt, identifying particular items of knowledge that are "common sense" is more difficult. Philosophers may choose to avoid using the phrase where precise language is required. Common sense is a perennial topic in epistemology and widely used or referred to by many philosophers. Some related concepts include intuitions, pre-theoretic belief, ordinary language, the frame problem, foundational beliefs, endoxa, and axioms.

Common sense ideas tend to relate to events within human experience, and thus commensurate with human scale. Thus there is no commonsense intuition of, for example, the behavior of the universe at subatomic distances or speeds approaching that of light.

The Wikipedia article goes on from there into a discussion of historical philosophical considerations related to “common sense”.

Another term for knowledge “held by people ‘in common’” is knowledge that has been “normalized”. Such knowledge may be fundamentally flawed. For example, it was common sense for centuries in Europe that bathing washed away that healthy layer of grime from the outside of one’s body exposing one to certain ill. Of course, this was perhaps based on the observation that when one bathed in the winter especially, one died of pneumonia. Of course, we know better than this today. Right? Actually, how certain can we be of what we know? If people in Europe could be so commonly deluded then, what common delusions could we be subject to today?

In this respect, common sense could be used to manipulate groups of people through deception. To understand how this works, it helps to understand how principles and worldviews work. Worldviews are made up of sets of principles. As an individual encounters situations, these principles are applied to produce responses that are appropriate according to the worldview.

In truth, there is only one valid worldview. In a fallen world, we tend to possess flawed and conflicted (or conflicting) worldviews manifested as competing inclinations to produce responses to the various situations that we encounter. We are born with a basic worldview of utter dependence and develop a worldview as we mature. This development is learned through three venues: genetic predisposition, experience and observation, and revelation.

Genetic predisposition. We each are predisposed to have certain temperaments and levels of drives. As fallen beings we typically spend our lives trying to overcome the sinful tendency to overindulge these temperaments and drives.

Experience and observation. With only six senses (including balance), this is perhaps the broadest category. On one end of the spectrum, stressful or traumatic events can affect our genetic predispositions. On the other end of the spectrum, vicarious experience through education may modify our worldview with apparent self-intent. Most commonly, our worldview is informed through experience and observation by the normalization of quasi-philosophical sentiments reinforced through repetition in various media and socialization. It’s this aspect that at once contributes to common sense (and common delusion). More on this in a moment.

While some may deny revelation, they cannot deny creativity. Creativity is one aspect of revelation. Visions and dreams are another. Revelation uses what we know and creates new information from it. Revelation also involves evaluation in that information we receive must be assigned a value. For those of us who are Christian, we heard the gospel (experience), saw the effects of the gospel in the lives of others (observation), the Holy Spirit revealed it as truth by causing us to recognize ourselves in the equation. We subsequently assigned great value to the information and we reanalyzed our lives (previous experiences, observations and predispositions) in light of the new worldview created by this revelation. Thus, revelation is the most powerful venue for worldview development. This is why many deny it.

Within this framework, as I stated earlier, common sense can be understood to be a way to “manipulate groups of people through deception.” Who would do such a thing? Power brokers following the lead of the Deceiver himself. Examples abound. Hitler’s propaganda is an obvious one.

As my earlier example of bathing in Europe illustrates, common sense can also be simply wrong. Entire societies have flourished and are flourishing while holding things to be true that aren’t. Sometimes it’s the odd bird that challenges common sense in search of the truth that is otherwise kept at a proverbial arms distance by the rest of society unwilling to test the veracity of commonly held beliefs. Sometimes these odd birds are venerated.

Sometimes these odd birds are sought out for destruction for bearing the truth to a people who are being fed lies intentionally. Such is the danger of bearing the gospel in fulfillment of the Great Commission. So, Christians have thought about it and we are called to challenge the status quo in favor of the gospel. We have particular knowledge. Too often we Christians exhibit too much “common sense” theology and end up with such beliefs as fitting for semi-pelagianism. We are therefore called to think not once, but continually, about whom God is and seek ever to know Him more clearly. We are called to uncommon sense.

Perhaps I don’t have much common sense. But I think I’ll be just fine without it.

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Musings on Love for Valentine's Day

Valentine’s Day is the tame bump in the road between Christmas and Easter that often happens near the not-so-tame Mardi Gras (depending on where you are), dark and dour Ash Wednesday (for you liturgical types) and a fiery St. Patty’s Day (for those whose hearts burn green for Erin) a month later. Arguably, Christmas is more about true love than Valentine’s Day. Nevertheless, it’s nice to have the opportunity to bolster our benevolent inclinations of fondness toward one another, whether romantic or innocent.

My daughter, Hope, just turned 8 a couple of weeks ago. The ‘Y’ held a father-daughter dance. (Don’t tell anyone, but I’ve never seen so many Baptists show up to a dance.) The daughters were all about my daughter’s age,so dancing sometimes involved bouncing a balloon back and forth. We did such dances as the Hokey-Pokey, the chicken dance and the limbo (dad’s and daughters had separate poles) and played some games. We had one slow dance when they played “Butterfly Kisses”. [sniff] How precious can you get? One dad held his little girl up so she could put her head on his shoulder and swayed back and forth with her. Some of the daughters were dancing on their dad’s feet. A couple of dads had more than one daughter there and swayed back and forth with all of them at the same time. My daughter simply put one arm around my waist and laid her head on my belly…

…I’m going to so bawl at her wedding.

I think about my mom, too. She died of cancer when I was 11.I’m now older than she was when she died. She used to sit me on her lap when she played the piano. She taught me how to paint. She would get me to help her grade her English papers. She planted the coolest arboreal garden, and taught me how to build a fire. After that, it was my job to bring in firewood, build and maintain a fire in the fireplace in the den. I remember sleeping in her lap as she drove (the laws regarding the operation of motor vehicles were less stringent then). I don’t look much like her, but my daughter does. Hope has the same fair hair, narrow chin and widely spaced blue eyes of my mom. I have no doubt that I’m the sort of man now she would have hoped to have raised. I wonder if I’m the sort of man shewould have been happy to call a friend had she never known me otherwise.

My dad's mom (we always called her "Ma-Maw") was special to me. She died of emphysema when I was a senior in high school (yes, smoking can kill you). I remember visiting in Kentucky with she and "Pa-Paw". My special time with her was early in the morning when she would rise and go to the kitchen I would get up and follow her. Sitting at the small table in the kitchen, she would make waffles for me and we would sit, just she and I, for breakfast.

As for my wife, Lois, I can say I love her more now than ever. The emotion is not as intense, but the commitment is. Emotion is mere hormones. Commitment is spiritual. Love that comes from God is spiritual. I don’t converse well with people. It’s usually easy to get people to talk about themselves and then I have some common ground on which to converse with them. Most people are so self-obsessed that they don’t return the interest. I’m a bad salesman and don’t sell myself very well.Between odd mannerisms generated by a controlled adult ADD and an all-too-polite sense of restrained self-disclosure, I’m easily interrupted. Consequently, most people ignore me in conversations. I married Lois because she actually shuts her mouth when I open mine and waits until I finish a thought before speaking. She is the rare someone with whom I can converse. And after 11 years of marriage she is even starting to understand me although she yet groans at my puns. Perhaps such is her sacrificial burden of love toward me.

Mine for her is her fibromyalgia. I can't even massage her back anymore. She's always fighting a flare up. The only place it seems to let up lately is when we're in Venezuela. God has provided healthful solace for us to accomplish His purposes there. I pray she has a good summer there, even without me but for a fortnight.

En todo, such reflections incline us toward fondness. God gives us history to build His relationship with us. He also gives us history to build relationships with each other. Let it be in His name that we build our relationships with each other, not just for this season, but always.

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Monday, February 12, 2007

The Condescension of Christ in Hebrews

From Hebrews 3:

1 Therefore, holy brethren, partakers of a heavenly calling, consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession;
2 He was faithful to Him who appointed Him, as Moses also was in all His house.
3 For He has been counted worthy of more glory than Moses, by just so much as the builder of the house has more honor than the house.
4 For every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.
5 Now Moses was faithful in all His house as a servant, for a testimony of those things which were to be spoken later;
6 but Christ was faithful as a Son over His house--whose house we are, if we hold fast our confidence and the boast of our hope firm until the end.

I have small children. They're growing, but for now they have little reason to think that they know better than their mom and I. Nevertheless, they often do. One is capable of discerning to some degree the relative intelligence of someone less intelligent. One cannot discern one's own intelligence relative to someone of greater intelligence without some standard because greater intelligence is, by definition, incomprehensible. My children simply cannot conceive all that I can understand.

While not always overt, the condescension of God is prevalent throughout the scriptures and is the underscore in Hebrews. Theologians and teachers of the Bible often focus on the incarnation while ignoring God's condescension both through Christ Jesus and even the Holy Spirit. It's understandable in that we can hardly fathom our cognitive place relative to an eternal Creator. It's one thing to assent to the truth of it, but another thing to apprehend the truth intuitively. I maintain that temporal minds require bivalent logic to function. However, the eternal Creator is absolute and therefore logically univalent. Such would seem simpler to contemplate, but we need contrasting values.

The bivalence in creation arises from the paradoxical fact that an absolute God creates for coexistence that which is not Himself. This paradox is central to the incarnation. But this paradox also outlines the condescension of God, for it is from univalent eternity to bivalent temporality that He condescends. Therefore, my question at this point is this: How intelligent was Jesus as a man? We know He was wise, but let's not confuse godly wisdom with intelligence. The reason is that our intelligence as fallen human beings must be exceptionally limited. Add to that the mentally deficient God has given us to care for. Does God not save mentally handicapped people? If not, then what about the rest of us? Do we presume that we are intelligent enough to be saved? No. I propose that wisdom and intelligence are mutually exclusive, each with their own scales of maturity. Let's also not confuse either with knowledge, although knowledge can contribute to both.

Christ wrote nothing that we have to read today. Nevertheless, the entire New Testament was written about His actions and teachings and the subsequent writings hinging on Christ's actions and teachings could fill libraries. I suggest that He was exceptionally intelligent and this in conjunction with godly wisdom and a base of knowledge inaccessible to fallen people. But we study the things written of what Christ said because Christ said more than He could have written. The genius of the teaching aspect of his ministry is that He has left it up to others to expound on His teaching. The Sermon on the Mount, for example, is packed with enough material for several books. Christ would have delivered it inside of a couple of hours.

12 Take care, brethren, that there not be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart that falls away from the living God.
13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
14 For we have become partakers of Christ, if we hold fast the beginning of our assurance firm until the end,
15 while it is said,
16 For who provoked Him when they had heard? Indeed, did not all those who came out of Egypt led by Moses?
17 And with whom was He angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness?
18 And to whom did He swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient?
19 So we see that they were not able to enter because of unbelief.

Despite the crowds and disciples that followed Him, I consider that Christ, possessing exceptional intelligence, would have been a lonely man. For the very intelligent, socialization is unrewarding because most others provide very little cognitive stimulation. Christ could not have received anything from people except such wisdom inspired by the Holy Spirit as the tears and perfume of the sinful woman on His feet at the end of Luke 7. His penchant for communicating with the Father was akin to the domestic parent or child care worker desperate for adult interaction after hours of only small children to converse with. And these, as I have mentioned, think they are capable of challenging adult authority. In truth, children find security when they know where the boundaries are. But we also challenge God, and this not to feel secure, but because of unbelief. We must know that there are things we do not understand, but we too often think that we understand all there is to understand. Jesus didn't need to challenge the Father. If anyone could breach the boundaries of the law, Christ could - and did. And He did it alone. Who better to be our high priest than one who has experienced the great loneliness of a fallen world? Those of us who are partakers of the Body of Christ, coming together as Christ met with Father, should likewise go out to proclaim the gospel of grace. And often we may be lonely. Nevertheless, we will have fellowship with God.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

In Honor of Nurses

I mentioned my dad's surgery in the last post. He is yet recovering in the hospital, but is rather uncomfortable in these initial stages. My brother and I were staying with him last night and the bed was adjusted to where he could sit up somewhat. However, he had gradually slid down and needed to be scooted back up.

He grunted from under his neck brace, "Boys, I need one of you on each side. Grab hold and pull me up on three: One... Two... Three..."

We tugged, but were unable to budge him.
He's a big guy.

"Okay, okay, it's not going to work," Dad grunted. "Go get the troops."

My brother went out and came back with three petite nurses. They gathered around and moved him like it was nothing.

A little while later Dad said
, "If I would have known it would be like this, I might have reconsidered having the surgery. I hope there's a lesson in this for you."

My brother nodded and said, "Yeah. If I ever think about having surgery like this, I'll remember what you're going through."

Dad grunted back a slow, "Yeah."

I replied, "I would have thought that the lesson would have been that three little old nurses could best two big fellows like us."

My brother replied, "I know that when I see them coming down the hall, I'm going to step to the side."

God bless nurses.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007

It's Not About the Money

My dad had major surgery on the vertebrae in his neck Monday. They expected the surgery to take seven or eight hours, but he ended up in surgery from 9:20 in the morning until well after midnight. Needless to say, various people were in and out of waiting all that time not to mention those who were in waiting the whole time. Given this, there was plenty of time for conversation.

Someone uttered the all-too-oft-uttered phrase "if I win the lottery..." This brought up mention of reports of churches and ministers that have refused money from people who won the lottery. Someone looked at my wife and I and noted, "Say, doesn't your church have a policy against accepting money that was won in the lottery?" Before I could answer someone else expressed another all-too-oft-uttered argument, "but the money can be used for good."

Can the money be redeemed and turned into use for good? What good could it do? Feed the poor? Arguably, the lottery helps keep people poor. On the other hand, we're not as poor in this country as we like to think we are. It is reported in one church that the pastor refused lottery money donated to fund a building project. The church fired him, took the money and built the building. Because of this, attendance has dwindled from 165 people down to less than 50. How good was that? Perhaps it was a good thing that attendance dwindled in this church. However, in terms of offerings I'm sure more money was lost from lower attendance than gained by taking the lottery money. The problem with this argument is that it is anecdotal. We need a solid theological foundation for good application.

One thing the Bible teaches and that has been argued is that the church should "'COME OUT FROM THEIR MIDST AND BE SEPARATE,' says the Lord. 'AND DO NOT TOUCH WHAT IS UNCLEAN; And I will welcome you.'" (2 Cor. 6:17). This means that the church should be holy. There's no place where the Bible says not to accept money from gambling or the lottery. There's no place where the Bible says not to look at pornography. However, the principles against lust and covetousness are clear. People look at pornography because there is lust in their heart. People gamble and play the lottery because they covet what they do not have. The flaw in this argument is that churches take in money at all. From whence comes the money that churches receive? The same government that allows the killing of millions of pre-born babies prints the money. I'm sure we can find many more evil things from the government. Should we refuse all money? Money also comes from the sinners who are members of the congregation. Can we say that they have all conducted themselves well at work? If they have slacked off at all, have they not stolen decent wages from their employers? Perhaps they work for Wal-Mart or Ford, both of whom support homosexuality. Should we investigate the practices of all the people and businesses from which tithes are gleaned?

It is not out of a spirit of legalism that we should turn away money. It is not out of a spirit of reliance on money that we should accept it either.

A better consideration is Paul's "meat sacrificed to idols". The principle behind Paul's discourse in I Corinthians is that we should not cause our brother to stumble. Playing the lottery is poor stewardship. A couple of bucks for a ticket seems like a drop in the bucket compared to twenty dollars or more for a round of golf. What harm could it do? The problem is we tend to focus on the quantity of money rather than our quality of spirit. The meat is nothing. The money is nothing. Our witness for the sake of Christ is everything. We must take each other's consciences into consideration. Christ told us not to give anything to the church without reconciling ourselves to our brother (Mat 5:23,24) lest we be guilty of murder.

My teaching is this: It's not about the money. God will provide for us to accomplish that which He has determined we are to accomplish in His name. Our part of the equation is to trust Him. By focusing on the quantity of money rather than the quality of our spirit, we are exhibiting a lack of dependence on God. Whether a church can in good conscience or not accept money from dubious sources must be contingent on the question, "are we trusting God?" Even our nation's money says "In God we trust." We might put up a fight if someone lobbies to remove the motto, but do we even follow this as an admonition in conducting the business of our churches?

As one last piece of anecdotal evidence, the church of the individual who said, "but the money can be used for good," each year takes pledges like most churches and regularly doesn't meet the annual budget in tithes. My church, as a principle, doesn't do pledges. Last year we spent nearly a cool million on a renovation of the worship center, sent roughly a tenth of our regular congregants out on missions and took in over 90 grand in tithes beyond our budget. We aren't any better than anyone else and have done nothing to deserve this except that God has used us to demonstrate His faithfulness. God is good. He is faithful to fulfill all that He has promised. He will provide all that is needed to accomplish his purposes. Arguably, there are ministers and churches that are focused on the money and have received much money. However, it will be a testimony against them if their hearts are not reliant on God...

...even still, God will have His way. In Him we can trust.

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Sunday, February 04, 2007

The Holiness of God

In Iraq, the Chaldeans (Assyrian Christians) are heavily persecuted by their Iraqi neighbors and are requesting the U.S. to help them become self-governing much as the Kurds were. My initial observation is that this is what the U.S. did in the American Revolutionary War. My second observation is that this is the opposite of what the U.S. did in the Civil War.

Jump ahead in time to the Superbowl. I’m not much of a sports fan. I don’t understand the whole concept of backing one team over another. It’s one thing to support your school’s athletic teams. It’s even understandable to support one’s local pro teams. However, I know guys who have never been to college who support certain college teams. Why? I know some people who are proud to support teams even during times when they don’t play well. So I can conclude that team fanaticism is something other than supporting a team because of how they actually perform. Despite this, there is a level of familiarity or identification that produces uncertain hope in the success of that team to defeat other teams even against the odds.

I recently purchased a copy of “One Night With The King”, the movie that dramatically portrays the activities of Esther as recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures. I watched it last night for the first time. An aspect of the story that I had never considered, which was well illustrated in the presentation, was the willingness of King Xerxes to allow a breach of protocol in order to save the lives of the woman he loved and her people. Haman’s argument was that the people would not follow him if he allowed a breach in protocol. Xerxes’ thought was that he was king and should be able to do what he pleased.

A favorite of mine is “The Phantom of the Opera”. I’ve had the CD recording of the music by the original cast for years now, but recently obtained the DVD of the motion picture produced by Andrew Lloyd Weber himself. The whole plot pits the Phantom against Raoul as they vie for the heart of Christine. It culminates in a decision Christine must make between sparing the life of Raoul for a life as a captive of the Phantom and being free from the Phantom at the expense of the life of Raoul.

In Hebrews, I’ve been contemplating a passage that appears to make God constrained to protocol in order to defeat the devil who appears to have had a power that Christ did not. The key word is “appears”.

All that I have typed in this post to this point is interrelated to God’s holiness and how His holiness, understood rightly, is harmonious with righteous unity. Theology is a practice that involves much analysis, which takes God’s Truth and breaks it into concepts that are more easily understood. My gift here is to take some pieces and put them back together, much in the same way that all the pieces of a large jigsaw puzzle are scattered and one finds great joy in finding two that fit together.

To be “holy” literally means to be “set aside” or “separated” for a special use or purpose. How, then, can “holy” be associated with “unity”? The answer is that God’s holiness supercedes our understanding of holiness inasmuch as God is not constrained to mere temporal bivalence. That is to say that when I apply my will to a pen lying on a flat surface, it is easy for the pen to consider that I may push it in one direction or another, but not two directions at the same time. It knows, if a pen can know something, that if I push it from one direction, it can know that I intend for it to go in the other. What could I mean, then, if I were to push it from two sides? Under what circumstances would I do such a thing? This I would do if my intention were to pick the pen up. The pen may be confused, if it were so gifted to think at all, as to why I would pinch it and argue in itself as to whether I was pushing from one side or the other and what other force may be opposing me, all the while being astonished as to where the table went. Such is the state of our human minds when confronted with God’s apparent ambivalence. Such is our consideration of God’s holiness.

Inasmuch as God’s holiness is that He is altogether other than His creation, He desires unity with His creation. Inasmuch as the creation is fallen and susceptible to His righteousness, He must remain separate lest all of creation is destroyed. As we discussed in my Sunday School class today, God must remain shrouded from the world. As our minister of education discussed in his sermon this morning, NO ONE comes to the father but by Him and NO ONE can take us away from Him. Christ is God cloaked in creation. He gave us the clear truth we could handle in a messenger who was tempted in every way we are so that his power would be masked and so that we would be saved through the death He willingly submitted Himself to that our sin would be covered.

Therefore, God’s holiness is sacrificial. It’s easy to think that God would simply dominate us and make us do whatever He wants us to do. However, He willingly subjects Himself to our need – but this for His purpose, not ours.

So what does this have to do with the Chaldeans in Iraq and the issue of self-governance? The fact is, we are a fallen people and in sore need of accountability. The way that accountability works out is at the hands of yet more fallen people through protocols and laws devised by fallen people. In the Revolutionary War, the colonies won the right of self-governance, but to what end? Even the system of self-governance our forefathers created for us was abused during the time of the Civil War. Northern States imposed laws on Southern States that sought to bring them under economic subjection to the Northern States. In response, the Southern States turned to such things as slavery (which was the wrong thing to do) and exports. As the North became legislatively and militarily more aggressive toward the South, the South sought to become self-governing. The resulting War was necessary to preserve the Union. While there were some who fought to free the slaves, many in the North treated freed slaves no better than they had seen in the South. As it was the South sought dominance over other people in the act of slavery. The North sought dominance over the South.

In athletic events like the Superbowl, competitors seek to dominate other competitors. Fans desire their favorite teams to dominate over other teams. So great is this compulsion that fights and riots erupt over sporting events. Vicariously, the fans who support winning teams feel likewise victorious.

Xerxes, tempted to dominate over a people falsely accused of plotting against him, uses his power as King to refrain from using his power according to protocol. Instead, he puts Haman to death on the very gallows that Haman had constructed for his biggest Hebrew nemesis, Mordechai.

Christine chooses to sacrifice a life of freedom in order to give Raoul his life. While artsy, Raoul and the Phantom represent two sides of the same heavenly coin. If Christine were my proverbial pen, she would be picked up – that is, quickened by love to recognize the power of sacrifice. Her desire for unity compels her to submit to death to give life. In this movie version, the Phantom recognizes that she doesn’t freely love him and withholds the power that he has gained over her in submission to her need.

The devil had the power of death only temporarily (for the devil is merely a temporal creature) to separate God from creation in order to preserve creation from His righteousness. Christ didn’t dominate even the devil in order to defeat him, but submitted to him to purchase His bride. In so doing, the devil no longer has power.

In the end, then, submission to death for the sake of life is the separation of holiness for the sake of unity. Seek not to dominate, but seek the sacrifice of being set aside or separate for the purpose of giving freedom, unity and life.

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Thursday, February 01, 2007

29 Years Old This Month

It's snowing today in Statesville, NC. The snow is sticking some, but not much. There are patches of slush and it can be just a little messy. I'm fighting a cold. But the precipitation has reminded me of snowier days. The blizzard of '78 in Ohio was great time to be a kid. I remember even the graders were snowed in so that school was canceled. Mom was a school teacher and I remember going with her when the teachers were called back to prepare the school to reopen. Between the drifts and the piles of snow made by the graders, the school had to be accessed initially through second-story windows.

While these memories are nice, it was actually the start of a whirlwind year and a half that marked the beginning of my life in Christ. I already touched on my failures as a young adult earlier, but I recently considered the turmoil my family went through in this short amount of time and was astonished to realize that it had never occurred to me before. It had always been to me a series of unconnected situations that I had always treated simply matter-of-factly.

The winter of the blizzard, Mom and Dad had decided to follow my aunt and her family south to North Carolina. Dad had been back home from medical school a few years, had done internship at the Brethren Home and had been working for an orthopedic surgeon in Versailles. However, he had looked and found an orthopedic surgeon to work for in Statesville, NC. While he was down there, the car came in need of repair and mom took the car to the dealer. The dealership was perhaps a mile east of home and mom walked home in the snow. As she walked, he leg began to hurt. She went to get it checked out and the doctor discovered cancer.

About this same time I had been quickened to accept Christ while listening to a preacher on the radio one evening and had asked my mom about baptism. She took me to speak with our pastor, Rev. Dearing, and I was baptized in February in our church, Cedar Grove Church of the Brethren, in the country near Palestine. That was 29 years ago, hence the title.

My aunt Wilma had come up from North Carolina to stay with mom, my brother and I while she began treatment. However, it was hard for two families to be spread out so in this situation. We had planned to move after the school year, but now needed to move earlier. We moved into Wilma's basement in Lexington, NC and into a new culture. The people in North Carolina were - and are - wonderful. The scope and sequence of school curriculum was a year or two behind that of Ohio. I was already a top student, so school was nothing. I focused on learning the culture instead. We also started attending my Aunt and Uncle's church in Lenoir, the Church of God of Resurrection Hope. At my Aunt's house, I slept in a roll-away next to the sump pump. I still remember looking across the basement at where my mom slept and seeing her remover her wig before she went to bed. She would never grow hair again.

That summer, my Aunt's family and my family bought a house in Statesville big enough for all of us. Some of the members of our church in Ohio built a massive trailer and brought all of our stuff from the house in Ohio. We enrolled in yet another school that fall. Not long after school started, on a Saturday morning, Mom was taken home. We had a viewing here in Statesville and took her back to Ohio to be buried at our church there.

With medical bills piled up and a bad sale of the house in Ohio, we were not well financially. I thought nothing of it because we had been on a shoestring budget before when Dad was in medical school. However, I remember growing out of my clothes and wearing high-waters with patches and holes to school. Mom had made clothes for us before. At school, most of the kids were kind enough, but some were not. I also learned what racism was. I had no idea before. Greenville, Ohio, at the time was racially homogeneous at the time and I had never met anyone who wasn't Caucasian. However, I knew there were people who were not. One of my favorite cartoons was Fat Albert. In Lexington, most of my teachers were of African heritage and all the kids got along well with each other. The only problem I had was with a white bully who picked on me just because I was the new kid. Even in Statesville, I had friends that were white and black both and didn't think anything of it. Some of the kids were wealthier and they ignored me, which didn't really bother me. However, the one instance I learned about racism was when one silly black kid asked where I was from.

"Ohio," I replied.
"Hawaii!?! You ain't from Hawaii! You're Puerto Rican and I'm gonna beat you up!"
"No. I said 'Ohio', not 'Hawaii'."
"I don't care. You're Puerto Rican! Meet me in the cemetery after school so I can beat you up."

Well, I didn't show up. I didn't want to fight him. He called me a coward later, but never pursued it. I'm not Hispanic, but I am a mostly-Caucasian mutt. There's only one race anyway - the human race. I had a crush on one of the rich girls for a time, but ended up good friends with this sweet black girl named Carla who I sat with in math class and sang with in the glee club.

My dad had his own romantic inclinations. Not a few weeks after mom died, he started dating. He would bring his dates to meet us. He ended up dating my future step-mom who was going through a divorce. (She wasn't unkind to her ex-husband and we even took up with him some. He died indigent from health problems a few years ago and my dad and step-mom had an open-door policy with him. He gave my wife and I a coffee maker for our wedding that we still use today.) They didn't marry right away and we moved into her apartment with her and her son, who was only a few months younger than I. After the school year, my Dad's boss bought a house that he rented to us and we moved yet again - and changed schools yet again - and changed churches yet again. We joined my step-mom's church, St. John's Lutheran Church in Statesville.

So, the tally in one and a half years: One birth (my spiritual one), one death (my mom), four moves, four school changes and two denominational changes. A mess. Like the weather. Actually, it's starting to melt - and raining a bit. The forecast is for it to freeze. We'll see. The snow eventually melted from the blizzard and the events of that year and a half stabilized. However, the effects of both have changed who I am today.

"For all things are for your sakes, so that the grace which is spreading to more and more people may cause the giving of thanks to abound to the glory of God." 2 Cor 4:15

"...always giving thanks for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ to God, even the Father" Eph 5:20

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose." Rom 8:28

My wife grew up at St. John's Lutheran Church. I was in youth with her older siblings. She was only 3 when I first saw her. Years later, after I returned from the marines, we fell in love and were married at St. John's. My parents are still members there. My wife's parents are still members there. Had it not been for all the turmoil of 1978-79, I wouldn't have the wonderful family I have today. I tell my kids about the grandma they will never meet on this side of eternity and consider that they wouldn't be here if she hadn't died.

My wife and I have moved on to a church that has a system and practice of theology we agree with and through which we can minister. I still fill in as the minister of music at the early service at St. John's on occasion. However, because of the experiences of that one and a half year period I have not been constrained to allow ecclesiastical distinctions to cloud my theology.

The snow is all but gone. Such is winter weather in the south. God is good. And 29 years later, I can declare that He is faithful to fulfill all that He has promised. He has formed me, melted me and used me in the crucible of this fallen world, and He continues to do so even today.

But I still have a cold. I hope I can sing Sunday.

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