Wednesday, February 27, 2013

An Almost Christian

An unusually busy month has precluded me from being able to post regularly to my blog in recent weeks - a trend which I hope will soon subside.  The same is true for today, as I have a mountain of work to get to, and only a few minutes to dabble here.  A few minutes should be more than enough, however.

Today's post comes by way of my inbox, as I receive a Grace Gem in my email each day.  If you don't receive Grace Gems in your email, you should.  They're full of theological depth from Puritans, theologians, and Christian thinkers from days gone by.  And best of all, it's free!  I read today's Grace Gem and thought it worthy to post here.  So without further ado, here is "An Almost Christian":

"Then Agrippa said to Paul: You almost persuade me to become a Christian! (Acts 26.28)

There are many who conclude that they are Christians, because they have been enlightened to see something of their state, danger, and deserved doom.  But many are only lighted to Hell, for light in the mind - is not life in the soul. (Hebrews 6.4, 10.20)

A person may be awakened to feel, to tremble, to desire salvation - as did Felix and Balaam. (Acts 24.25, Numbers. 23.10)

He may be reformed, and turn from open profanity to strict morality - as did some in Peter's day. (2 Peter 2.20)

He may be assisted to do many things which are in themselves good, such as reading the scripture, attending divine ordinances, engaging in prayer, and working miracles. (Matthew 7.21-23, Mark 6.20, 1 Corinthians 13.3)

He may experience God's power put forth restraining him, and keeping him back from sin, as did Abimelech. (Genesis 20.6)

He may humble himself before God, as did Ahab. (1 Kings 21.27-30)

He may possess joy and be exceedingly glad under the word. (Matthew 13.20)

He may believe the word, receive the testimony, and admire the preacher. (Luke 4.22-29, Ezekiel 33.31-32)

He may be filled with zeal for Christ and his cause, like the multitude. (John 6.15-16, Matthew 21.8-11, Luke 23.28-23)

He may be baptized upon a profession of faith, join a Christian church, and imitate the saints in his conduct - as did Simon Magus. (Acts 8.13)

He may fill an office in the church, preach the gospel, and act consistent for a time - as did Judas; and yet Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. (Acts 1.25)

He may be highly esteemed by others, be sound in doctrine, and suffer for the cause of Christ, and yet be destitute of the vital principle of saving faith - like Demas, Alexander, Hymeneus, and Philetus. (2 Timothy 2.16-18, 4.10-11, 1 John 2.15)

He may have many excellent qualities, so that he may be admired and loved by others, like the rich young ruler in Matthew 19.

He may have all that has been named above - but one thing may be lacking, and he be found at last, merely an almost Christian.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Thus & Such, Vol. 19

We'll start this edition of Thus & Such  with a couple bits of humor.

1. First, check out these John Piper gifs.  They're hilarious.  I have a few favorites, like this one, this one, and this one (note: you have to read the captions too).

2. The second humorous bit was sent to me by one of my seminary friends, regarding a divinity school application for theological liberals.  Rather on the nose, I'd say!

OK, now on to some more serious stuff.

3. When I was a kid, one of my family's favorite Christian singers was Carman.  We had all his tapes (yes, tapes), and listened to them regularly.  My sisters and I even did quite a few lip syncing performances to songs like "The Champion" when we were younger.  We also had a couple of his music videos on tape that we probably wore out because we watched them so much.  In recent years it seems as though Carman has all but left the face of the earth, at least in the media and in Christian pop culture.  But it turns out that he's still been recording and touring extensively.  But today I came across this sad news that Carman has been diagnosed with a rare and incurable form of cancer.  He says that his doctors have given him a 3-4 year window of time.  By his own words, he is undismayed at this news, and plans to continue recording, touring, and ministering.  God bless him.

4. China is trying to wipe out the house church movement that is sweeping the country.  Why?  Because they consider members of house churches to be dissenters.  They want all churches to be registered with the government.  Think it could never happen here?  Think again.

5. President's Day was yesterday, so this link is a bit late.  Still, it's interesting to learn more about the faith of some of the most highly revered presidents our nation has had, and still more interesting to consider if we should care about a president's faith in our evaluation of him.  You can do both here.

6. One of the themes I hammer on in my work as Pastor for children and adults at Riverview is that all things influence and impact us spiritually.  That is, everything you see, hear, do, etc. is influencing you spiritually in ways that you aren't even aware of.  Here's someone who tries to think through how movies influence our understanding of gender.  

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

God's Providence Over Circumstances

One of the great things about the Children Desiring God curriculum - at least the 6th grade curriculum I'm using for my class - is that it uses a lot of stories to teach concepts.  Quite frequently I will tell the kids a story about Charles Spurgeon or some other hero of the Christian faith.  Stories are a great way to communicate concepts, ideas, and most importantly, truth.

When I read the story scheduled for this week's Sunday School lesson, I was so blown away that I wanted to share it here.  It's often said that "God moves in mysterious ways."  While this is no doubt true, I would amend the phrase to state: "God moves moves in unfathomably mysterious ways that your puny, little finite mind can't even begin to comprehend," and this story illustrates it.  The purpose of this week's is to show the kids that God works in and through all kinds of circumstances - even things that seem to be totally unrelated, or even things that seem to be accidents.  In reality, God is sovereign over everything, and in his providence, he uses all circumstances to accomplish his plan and for his glory.

The story is below.  But first, a disclaimer: I'm not sure about the copyright status of this story.  As printed in the material, it's a re-telling of a published story, so I don't know what limitations, if any, are imposed on my reproducing it here.  You can purchase a copy of the book the story came from here.  If someone knows if I am in violation, please contact me and I will remove this post.  Now on to the story.

Richard McLellan, an Autralian missionary to Ethiopia, and three Ethiopian evangelists made a trip into the thick forests of Ethiopia to preach in an area where no missionary had ever been.  Near the village of Gifara, their destination, an old crippled man sitting by the side of the trail saw them approaching and yelled to them, "Do you have theword of life?  Do you have the word of life?

Richard McLellan waved his Bible and shouted back, "Yes, I have the word of life!"

The crippled man became excited and bounced up and down while calling to them, "Come!  Come!"  The village of Gifara welcomed them with open arms, the people running toward the evangelists and asking them to tell the good news.

In the five days of preaching in the area, not only the old crippled man, Gwobazi, was saved, but also 29 other people.

Twenty years earlier, Richard McLellan and his wife, Vida, were missionaries in a village called Bako, many miles south of Gifara.  Vida, a nurse, ran a small clinic in Bako.

One day, a very sick young man came to the clinic.  Although Vida cared for him diligently, his condition got worse until the only hope for him was to send him to a hospital in Soddo many days away over the mountains.  He was carried on a stretcher over trails for 50 miles and then placed in the back of an old truck for a two-week trip over the mountains.  The young man, Kebeda, was operated on in the hospital but his condition was so bad, that the doctors were unable to help him.  Because no one spoke Kebeda's language, no one could communicate with him or notify his people many miles away.

But the providence of God was at work and a few weeks later, a trader who only passed through the town of Soddo once a year was on his way to Gifara in the interior to buy coffee beans.  About 20 miles outside of Soddo, God in his providence gave the trader a toohtache - the word he had ever had.  He was in such agony, he thought he was going to die.  He didn't know what to do but God caused someone to suggest that he go to the hospital.  he was treated at the hospital and - providentially placed next to Kebeda.  The trader with the toothache was the only one in the hospital who could talk to Kebeda.

At the same time the two men were in the hospital, a woman from Gospel Recordings, Joy Ridderhoff, "happened" to stop in at the hospital as she was traveling throughout Ethiopia.  Two months earlier, she felt the Lord telling her to go to Ethiopia to produce recordings of the gospel.  She met the trader and persuaded him to act as interpreter to Kebeda.  Through the trader interpreter, she convinced Kebeda to record a simple gospel message in his native language.  A few days later, both the trader and Joy left the hospital.  But Kebeda never left the hospital - he died there.

The recording was made into records, but since no one could understand them, they were shoved into a cupboard where they laid for years.  Eventually, the records were put on cassette, and twenty years after the recording was made Richard McLellan took the cassette with him on his trip to Gifara.  So it was that when Gwobazi yelled, "Do you have the word of life?" Richard McLellan was able to play the tape of Kebeda's gospel recording.

Gwobazi was excited upon seeing the evangelists because years earlier, he had a dream of a man running down the train shouting, "The word of life is coming!  Believe the word of life and live forever!  Ever since he had the dream, Gwobazi would regularly pull his crippled body down to the trail to look for the man with the word of life.

Gwobazi heard the cassette tape and put his trust in Jesus.  The tape touched Gwobazi's heart because the voice ont he tape was that of Kebeda - his son who left home many years before.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Thus & Such, Vol. 18

1. What's the future of the internet?  Forget websites.  Think stream of consciousness.  This guy has some very interesting thoughts, and I think he might be on to something.

2. "We are accustomed to standing within the political and cultural mainstream, comfortable in an America that shared much of our moral worldview.  Those days are over."  Albert Mohler talks about why the evangelical influence in America is waning, and how it won't be long until it is gone altogether.

3. Break the law?  Have a problem with the government?  It won't be long until they send their robots to come and get you.  Actually, it's happening already.  Great!  Who's next?  People who openly and publicly disagree with elected officials?  Hmm, what's that noise?  Sounds like a black helicopter...or the robots.

4. A lot has been said in recent years about the mass exodus of children from the church by the time they reach college.  Depending on the study you read, you'll find that at least 70% of kids who claim to be Christians deny their faith when they leave home.  Just as many solutions have been offered, most of which are bad, focusing on how we need to make church cool and relevant for kids to want to come.  That's a bunch of hogwash.  But this guy gives some good thought to the issue of why these kids leave (because they were never Christians in the first place), and takes a look at some of the specific issues surrounding the problem.  All parents should read this article.

5. The Lenten season starts tomorrow.  Want a free devotional for the season?  Here you go.

6. Finally, if you read my blog at all, you know that I've got an appreciation for church signs - particularly those church signs that are painfully bad.  Here's one that I saw in my neighborhood this morning (click to enlarge).  Makes me want to go to that church and be a Christian!

Monday, February 11, 2013

In Praise of Audio Bibles

As I noted last month, the free time afforded to me as a result of having graduated from seminary last year has led me to set a goal for myself of reading through the Bible twice in 2013.  Why twice?  A lot of people just do it once.  Well, I like reading through large chunks of scripture when I read it, so I decided to make it my goal.  After all, in order to read through the Bible twice in one year, one only needs to read a meager six chapters each day.  That's really not too much when you think about it.

Anyway, I've decided to cheat a bit, although I'm not sure it's really cheating.  Every day for about the past week, when I do my workout (which I've been doing 5 times a week for the last 3 weeks - yes!), I've been listening to an audio version of the ESV New Testament.  I just finished the gospel of Matthew this evening.  I've found it a pleasant experience, especially as I am a captive audience during my workout.

What makes the experience better is that the version that I have is read by one Marquis Laughlin.  You can see and listen to some of his work here and here.  I highly recommend you take some time to listen to this man recite scripture.  He has a gift.  I could listen to him read scripture for hours and not be bored.  You can purchase his reading of the ESV version of the New Testament here for $10.00 here, which, in my opinion, is a super good deal.

Laughlin is a phenomenal reader, usually adding some dramatic flare to his readings.  At times, he will change the tone and pitch of his voice to indicate a certain character or dialogue, but it's not distracting. I can understand how listening to a narrative could be distracting if the reader's voice is always changing to represent certain characters.  This is not the case with Laughlin.  He doesn't overdo it, and the nuances he adds make the text come alive.

Another positive benefit of listening to the Bible being read (at least for me) is that it's easy to memorize, especially when it's being read with a dramatic flare.  One of my favorite gospel stories is the healing of the man born blind.  Laughlin's reading of it amazing, and I'm pretty sure I've got most of John 9 memorized because I've listened to it so many times.

I will say, however, that listening to scripture is not the same as reading scripture.  You lose something, I think, when you listen to the words being read rather than reading them for yourself, in the same way that I think there is value to reading scripture from the Bible instead of from a computer screen, or having the words of scripture printed out on a piece of paper.  But that being said, I think listening to an audio version of the Bible is a great way to ignite an interest in the Bible and a good way to feed a hunger for the word in the lives of busy people such as myself.

Although I really like listening to the Bible, I think I'm only going to listen to the narrative portions of the New Testament, such as the gospels and the book of Acts.  It's very much like listening to a story being told to you by a master storyteller.  The same can't be said of the Epistles, however.  I think those must be read, and read slowly, to really be able to get what the author is saying.

Anywho, if you're looking for a way of expanding your appreciation of the Bible, or looking for a way to feed your hunger for the word with a different flavor, give an audio Bible a shot.  If you listen to Laughlin and aren't a fan, you can also get a copy of the Man in Black reading the New King James version of the New Testament here.  I got this for my dad for Christmas this past year.  I think I might have to borrow it from him.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

"You keep quoting that verse; I do not think it means what you think it means."

Hopefully you read the title of this post in your mind in the voice of Inigo Montoya from "The Princess Bride."  He tells Vicini that his use of the word "inconceivable" demonstrates that he doesn't actually know what it means.  The same could be said in the arena of hermeneutics: people use Bible verses all the time to support ideas and actions that the verse never actually speaks to, demonstrating that those who use verses in such a way have actually no idea how to handle scripture.

The verse I am referring to is Micah 6.8: "He has told you O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?"

The people who are misquoting the verse quite significantly are these folks: the Micah Challenge.  What is the Micah Challenge?  It's a conglomeration of churches and ministries who purport to want to put an end to extreme poverty.  Never mind the fact that I'm starting to think that ending poverty is a biblically untenable idea, nevertheless these folks have set out to do just that, and they're misusing scripture in order to motivate others to do it.

Don't get me wrong: I have no qualms about helping the poor, feeding the hungry, and housing the homeless, and fighting poverty in general.  In fact, I'm all in favor of it, and such actions are definitely part of the mission of the church on earth, and I myself take part in the effort to provide for those in need whenever the opportunity presents itself.  But I don't do it to meet some kind of requirement.  I do it because mercy has been shown to me, and I am therefore motivated to show mercy to others.

According to their website Micah 6.8 is "at the heart" of the movement to wipe out extreme poverty. They go on to say the "Micah Challenge seeks transformational change in society, through the active involvement of the church with the poor and against the injustices of poverty.  It seeks to sensitize and engage Christians into greater political and practical involvement with the issues relating to poverty by highlighting biblical truths which prompt a compassion of heart and quickness of the hands and feet."  Really?  All that out of Micah 6.8?  I don't think so.  And political involvement?  Nope.  That doesn't work, and in fact, it goes against the heart of what God wants.  I can only hope and pray that Christians aren't put under a burden and duped into believing that they must end global poverty in order to be a Christian.  That would be a tragedy.

I find at least three problems with these folks' use of this verse as their motivation for attempting to end global poverty.

1. Nothing in this verse calls Christians to fight to wipe out global poverty.  Nothing.  The idea that this verse calls Christians to fight to wipe out global poverty is what we call eisegesis, or the process of forcing meaning into a text, as opposed to exegesis, which is taking meaning from a text.  In other words, the Micah Challenge folks cram the notion of wiping out global poverty into the text of Micah 6.8, when in actuality the verse does not speak to that subject.  You might be able to argue that a general application of Micah 6.8 is to care for the poor because God cares for the poor, but you can't say that this verse led you to start a campaign to wipe out extreme poverty, because that's not what the verse is talking about.

2. Context, context, context!  Whenever you read scripture, be sure to never read just one verse and attempt to determine its meaning.  In order to know what a verse means, you must know the bigger picture of how that verse contributes to the whole of the author's flow of thought.  A cursory glance at Micah 6 reveals that the Micah Challenge folks didn't bother to look at the rest of the chapter when they chose verse 8 as their motivation for wiping out global poverty.  The first six verses of the chapter talk about how kind and merciful he has been to his people - he has been totally above reproach.  They cannot accuse him of any unfairness or injustice.  Verse 6-8 ask what God wants in return for his mercy.  He doesn't want sacrifices, and he doesn't want vain worship.  Instead he wants his people to sincerely walk before him in humility, love, and fairness.  Verse 9-16 go on to talk about specific sins the people have committed and the consequences they will reap because of them at the hand of God.  Hmm, still nothing in there about God wanting his people to end poverty.  Moreover, if you personally don't fit the exact same circumstances of the people the book of Micah was written to, then these verses don't apply to you in the way they did to them.

3. The requirement of Micah 6.8 was given to a people living under a covenant of law.  In other words, they had to listen to and obey God in order to receive God's blessing.  God does not require me to do anything.  Actually, he does require me to do something, and that is to do nothing.  The website states: "[The] Micah Challenge calls us to ensure justice is done, to embrace mercy in our hearts, to be obedient to our Lord."  Quite honestly this sounds like something that would be in place to ensure that people are strictly following laws so as not to incur the wrath of God - which is what Old Covenant people would have had to do.  I don't live in that covenant.  I live in a covenant of grace, where all of my sins have been forgiven through the death and resurrection of Jesus.  I definitely don't show enough mercy, compassion, humility, and fairness.  That's why I need a Savior!  If I am going to be judged by how well I kept Micah 6.8 to the letter, then I'm in trouble.  Actually, that's right, I was in trouble, but then Jesus took my punishment on the cross, because I don't love mercy, act justly, and walk humbly with my God.  That's the whole point of the gospel.  The phrasing above which I took from their website reminds me of this video.  Todd Friel's response to this woman is brilliant in that it magnifies the glory of the gospel of grace.

To conclude (and sorry, but I have to say this), the use of Micah 6.8 by the Micah Challenge folks is, quite frankly, inconceivable.