Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Prodigal God

I'm currently a little over half-way through the book by Timothy Keller called "The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith" in which Keller gives an eye-opening exegesis of the popular parable of the Prodigal Son. As with any Biblical text that we consider "familiar," we can fall into the trap of believing we already understand the meaning. But Keller challenges the most mature Christian and student of Scripture to look at this text anew.

In the popular "Sunday-school" reading of the parable, the focus falls on the father's love even in the face of the younger son's rebellion. The obvious implications fall on God's freely given grace to sinners as wretched as we are. Personally, this is a text and an application that I can identify very easily with. My laundry list of active rebellion and sin piled high during my teenage years, and when I finally came to sense the depth and riches of God's grace I was truly overwhelmed.

But, for many have spent their entire lives in the church, never acting out in rebellion, the story has more of a distant, philosophical meaning. There's little-to-no personal realization of weighty sin and "total depravity" because those traits have never been evident in the morally strict and righteous members of the church. "Oh, that's so nice of God to save all those really nasty people," they may think.

Keller, however, draws the reader's attention to the elder brother. Having obeyed perfectly and slaved all his life for the father, doesn't he, too, deserve a feast and a fatted calf? The reflections that Keller brings out in the book I won't spoil too much here, but I particularly enjoyed his charge to the morally strict in the Church: why do you do what you do? Is it out of love and adoration for God, or a deep-rooted sense that by following His commands you can in fact control your own life? Jesus' original audience, of course, was the Pharisees gathered around Him, angrily watching as Jesus dared to teach sinners about God.

If you've spent a life of chastity and purity out of devotion to God, I applaud you. But, be warned that there are two kinds of lost people for whom Jesus seeks. The first is obvious, the younger son who rebels. The second, less obvious, is the morally upright who do not fully understand why they obey as they do.

I'll leave you with this story from Elizabeth Elliot: for whom do you carry the stone?

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Prayer Requests, Anybody?

"Ok, before we close, does anybody have any prayer requests?" Everyone looks at one another blankly. Finally, the silence is broken, "My uncle's cousin's neighbor's dog was hit by a car two weeks ago... so, ummm... yeah, that kinda makes me sad."

As I have led various Bible studies and small groups over the years, it's been difficult for me to discern whether certain requests are genuine needs, simply an escape from unbearable silence, or offered as a cover up for what a person is really feeling deep down. Consequently, I've stopped asking for prayer requests in large classes of recent. What I've found shouldn't be a shock: nobody missed it.

This leads me to wonder, what concept of prayer and of prayer requests does the Church proliferate these days? Is it the humbling experience of going before our adoptive Father casting all our anxiety on Him and asking, gratefully yet expectantly, for the things we deeply need? Or, is it the grown-up evolution of a childish Sunday-school exercise? If that statement sounds a bit harsh, maybe it is. Maybe we should be rebuked for showing irreverence and contempt for the privilege of prayer which we have been given by our Lord and Father.

Equally as disconcerting is the reflection that this makes on our interpersonal bonds within the Church. How often do we resist sharing "real" prayer needs within a group because of the impact it may have on our facade of self-sufficiency. We are a people of independence, strength, and personal triumph. What need do we have to share our deepest weaknesses with those around us?

It is clear that there are appropriate times and places for sharing our deepest struggles. Certain levels of trust and confidence must be established. Nonetheless, whose responsibility is it to seek out such genuine relationships in the church? To find for oneself spiritual accountability? It is our own, and we should not only seek it, we should crave it.

My charge is twofold: if a situation does not allow for genuine prayer concerns to be shared--concerns that will edify you and result in praise and honor of God--then do not act out of compulsion to share something for prayer. Why not? Because my second charge is this: consider what you bring before the throne of God. He does not--like some friends might--need for you to bring Him problems in order that he can feel wanted, needed, and loved. We need not invent items about which to pray so that God will feel honored that we are praying to Him. He wants us to come before Him genuinely so that He can love us genuinely by meeting our genuine needs.


Sunday, April 19, 2009

Contextualization of Scriptural Teaching

Much has been written and argued over the contextualization of "the Gospel" in the past century of global missions. The issue, not to oversimplify, really hinges on how malleable God's word is to fit our cultural backgrounds. But, aside from the Gospel contextualization is the often-overlooked issue of contextualizing other, non-salvific teachings in Scripture. What does the metaphor "salt of the earth" really mean? I hardly think it meant anything related to ice, snow, or ice cream to any of Jesus' original listeners in the arid countryside of Judea.

While that certainly is a comical example, there are far more serious instances where a failure to interpret the Biblical texts within a right understanding of the original context--including time, culture, setting, and audience--can bring a grossly varied application of scripture. If I dare attempt to cite all examples of this common in the Church today, I very well may go on forever. And, unfortunately, I still will probably not find every one.

Instead, I'm writing today namely out of retrospect on the lesson that I prepared over the past week and delivered this morning: James 3:1-18. The NIV's rendering of the text has helped to propagate the common misunderstanding that "not many of you should presume to be teachers" (James 3:1). Fearful of the judgment that may befall a teacher, especially one who presumes to be a teacher when in fact they are not called by God, can lead to the most riduculous paranoia of teaching a children's Sunday School class or, God-forbid, even pursuing a career in public education.

But, what did James have in mind when he penned this text? Was their a signup sheet for Vacation Bible School teachers with too many names on it? In 50 ad, I hardly think so. So what does the text tell us? The KJV, I'm afraid, does a far better job rendering the literal meaning than the NIV. "Be not many masters." In essence, James writes to the congregations, "Don't be a bunch of teachers."

If you study and understand the setting in which this letter from James was written, we can more accurately understand the meaning before applying it directly to our own culture without proper exegesis. Churches in James' day were small, intimate gatherings. By Paul's instructions for orderly worhsip in 1 Corinthians 14, we get a picture of free-form instruction. Many people were allowed to stand and address the congregation. So what is James saying? You're not all teachers. Some of you should sit and listen.

Listen and learn. It's become easy for me, as I deepen in my own personal study, to critique a sermon as I listen rather than learn from it. As more and more Americans intellectualize scripture and become sure of their own understandings, we can shift from the mindset of an active participant in Bible study to an all-out indomitable expert their to offer our unsolicited feedback and waiting eagerly for our next turn to talk. James says, "don't be a big bunch of teachers." Fear the tongue, and allow that fear to keep it in check.

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Friday, April 10, 2009

Good Friday Reflections

When I was growing up, Easter (and Christmas) was always a big holiday for our family, but Good Friday tended to be less of a concern. I suppose it stemmed from the fact that we saved religion for Sundays, or perhaps it was because we were Quaker and Good Friday is what those "other" sacrament-based religions did. For whatever reason, it wasn't until recently that Good Friday became a serious occasion for me.

Now, I'm not hear to discuss the deviations from the Jewish calendar and the Roman calendar, the variants on the day passover was observed according to the synoptics vs. John, or any other discussion on whether or not today, Good Friday, is exactly the day of the year Christ was crucified. It's not really about that. It's about setting aside a minimum of one day out of the year on which to commemorate what Christ did for us on the cross. We celebrate this occasion publicly so that others may see, and perhaps learn about this strange tradition, and hopefully ask us, "what's so special about today?"

God intends for us to use such commemorated events as a witness to His glory. "In the future, when your son asks you, 'What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?' tell him: 'We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand'" (Deut. 6:20-21). The practices that seemed odd to foreigners in Israel opened the door for God's people to tell about His mighty deliverance, His mercy, and His love.

Likewise, I pray that someone asks me today, "What's so 'good' about Good Friday?" There's quite a story to tell. It's a story of God's deliverance from slavery we didn't even know we were in. His mercy to withdraw wrath we still can't even comprehend. And His love to do so while we were far from deserving it, or even desiring it.

So, as Christians, I urge you to not dismiss the significance and the holiness of a holiday such as this. There is a growing sentiment that the holiday itself is unimportant, and we should instead commemorate Christ's death every day, not just one. Well, there is honest intentions, I believe, in this teaching. Yet, it does defy what God decreed should be an effective and honoring method for sharing His truth with those who might not know Him yet.

Have a blessed Good Friday.

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Friday, April 3, 2009

Faith That Works

People call me a "free gracer," or even a "cheap gracer," because I have (and still do) intellectually agree that the prospect of a once-believing Christian could die apostate and, to our surprise, be welcomed into the Kingdom of Heaven. Is it the standard? No. Is it to be pursued? No. Yet, I'm convinced that to deny that possibility on a theoretical level would contradict scripture. However, despite whatever theoretical possibilities exist, I am also convinced and convicted that Scripture has no teaching for the encouragement, comfort, or even the invitation to live a life characterized as a "carnal Christian." Faith is not faith which has no works.

Wait wait wait! You JUST said that it's possible.... stop. I am interested in expositing what Scripture has to tell us. To agree with a theory is quite a different thing than to discharge my duty faithfully to teach the Word of God to believers called into His grace for the singular purpose of glorifying His name. We see in each morning paper that it's possible to win the lottery, and yet most of us still head off for work just the same. The person who learns of the lottery and decides to quit the work to which he is called will suffer great loss and live with zero confidence in his future. So it is with the followers of Christ.

Few passages state this truth more poignantly than the text we'll be studying this Sunday, James 2:14-26. Beginning with the challenge to anyone who "claims to have faith but has no deeds... Can such faith save him" (James 2:14)? It cuts to the heart of our theological values in evangelical protestantism: how dare you assess my deeds and ask if I am really saved! (see previous article on Faith & Deeds) But James does dare. And, he does so for the benefit and edification of his readers. Moreover, he does it for the glorification of the name his readers bear: Christ.

James describes faith without deeds as lifeless, "as the body without the spirit is dead" (James 2:26). A body without breath or spirit is lifeless, useless, limp and inanimate. It will bear no offspring, no labor, no worth of any kind. While Luther and the rest of the protestant movement emphasize faith alone, Peter addresses this topic telling his readers to "add to your faith" (2 Peter 1:5). After describing a laundry list of works that result from and add to faith, Peter concludes "they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive" (2 Peter 1:8).

But probably the most debated point that comes from the faith and deeds topic is that of eternal security. In James 2:18 we read a charge that few of us dare to place on any brother or disciple in the faith: "show me." While his readers were presuming upon the grace of God, so confident in it that they thought their actions were irrelevant, James saw fit to sweep that blanket of security right out from under them. "You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder" (James 2:19).

If we continue reading in Peter's exhortation to "add" to your faith, we are told to "make your calling and election sure. For if you do these things, you will never fall" (2 Peter 1:10). Who needs to be sure? The one who called and elected us? Certainly not. But if you know a tree by it's fruit, you will know you are His child by your fruit. If you are marked by the Spirit, a seal guaranteeing your inheritance, then you will see the mark in the Spirit's work. If you were buried with Christ in order to be raised again with Him, then you can eagerly await that assured resurrection when you indeed die to yourself for the sake of Christ. But if you presume upon His grace, as a worker would presume upon the lottery, you will forsake the blessing of confidence before God for a blind hope of salvation without any credible evidence.

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