Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Staying Connected to Christ

I read a comment recently that applauded a movement towards the Spirit and away from the "head union." I'm fairly sure that this was not the author's intent when he talked about movement away from the "head union," but if Christ is head of the body (1 Corinthians 12), do we really want to move away from union with the head? Decapitation is always fatal. Seriously, correction of an extreme always runs the risk of moving to an equally dangerous opposite extreme. As I understand 1 Corinthians, the Holy Spirit does not contradict the Head (Christ). Jesus confronts us with paradox; at times he seems quite noncomformist, at other times quite conservative. As the Father (God) told James, John, and Peter on the Mount of Transfiguration concerning Jesus, "This is my Son, listen to him." Just because a worship experience (or any activity, for that matter) creates a pleasant emotion in us does not mean that it pleases God. On the other hand, just because something is coldly logical does not mean that it pleases God. As we strive for reconciliation with God, we must remember that it is the doing of his will, not ours, that is our prayer.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Seeking Peace

In Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, he describes one character as consumed by greed. This religious official, the pardoner, sells forgiveness for a price, and has a side business in selling relics. His favorite song is the offertory, the hymn sung before the money is collected at church. As the pardoner tells his tale to fellow travelers on the pilgrimage to Canterbury, he warns them that "greed is the root of all evil." Chaucer and his fictional characters lived in an age when one-third of the population had been killed in a pandemic. Survivors lived in a state of grief and fear. The pardoner describes the anger of three young men sitting in a bar. They mourn their dead friends and curse a personified Death. In fact, they resolve to kill Death and set out to find him. The young men encounter an old man who also seeks death, not to kill, but to embrace it. The young men badger him until he tells them where they may find death - under a nearby oak tree. When the men arrive at the tree, they discover eight bags of gold. Their plan to kill death flees their minds; claiming this gold consumes their attention. They decide to split it three ways. One of the men goes into town to buy wine and bread, while the other two remain behind to guard the gold. After he leaves, the two agree that they will kill him when he returns and thus increase their respective shares of the gold. Meanwhile, after buying the wine, the other man goes to a druggist and buys poison, which he pours into a bottle of wine. He plans to take all the gold for himself. When he rejoins his comrades, they stab him to death. Then they celebrate by drinking the poisoned wine.
Sometimes people crave wealth, a person's love, land, power, or something else so badly they can think of nothing else. Greed consumes them, and destroys them as surely as it did the young men. Keeping our values balanced is a challenge that most find daunting.
Jesus said, "Seek first the kingdom of God, and all these will be given to you as well." Serve rather than crave. Seek rather than hoard. Pray rather than slay. When we hurt, we lash out in anger; we seek to destroy.
The Pardoner knew Greed's dangers well; they already had consumed him. We too seek God, we thirst for peace, we crave forgiveness. And we hear the words of Jesus (from John 7:36), "If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Who ever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him." An early follower of the Jesus wrote (Romans 14:17f.), "For the kingdom of God is not matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing God and approved to men. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification."

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Who is worthy to speak for God?

Moses knew the feeling. When God told him to lead Israel out of slavery in Egypt, Moses knew one truth: God was picking the wrong man. Isaiah painfully realized that he was not worthy to be anywhere near God. How could he dare to speak for him? Jonah ran and sailed as hard as he could to get away from God's mission for him. Preachers today sometimes dream that they're standing naked before their congregation or that they're speaking a foreign language (which they don't understand well) while they're preaching. Each dream, like the experiences of the biblical heroes mentioned above, shouts, "How dare I speak for God?" Who is worthy to such a task? Only one, and he now sits at God's right hand: Jesus. But God still reaches out to hardened, hurting people and sometimes he uses other hardened, hurting people to say, "I love you." The Bible talks about the "foolishness of preaching" and God's using "broken vessels." Sometimes I wonder how I can talk to others about God. And then I think, "If I don't, who will?" To be sure, there are thousands out there, perhaps millions, who will, but perhaps my voice, shaped by unique experiences and blessed by exposure to gifted teachers of God's word, will be the only one heard by that man or woman who most needs God at this moment. And if he or she can't, or won't hear me, then who? Could it be...you?

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Heroes of Faith

I spent the weekend with a fascinating woman: my mother! Friday was her birthday. An amazing feat for a woman who was a very sickly baby, whose own mother died a few weeks after my mother's birth. The granddaughter, daughter, and mother of preachers, she has spoken herself at college Bible lectureships and women's seminars (In fact, she will speak on one in April). She loves the Lord and his church deeply, still taking Bible courses at a school of biblical studies as well as teaching the Bible.
I also was able to worship with and lead singing at a great congregation: the Ridgedale church of Christ, a very conservative, racially integrated congregation where my father preached for seventeen years. One of the highlights was speaking again with a retired African-American preacher who worships there. William McCleskey preached for over fifty years. In the past, he and I have rotated preaching and leading singing for one another at nursing homes. Despite poor health, he too retains a brave spirit and a deep love for Christ. His grandson is one of the deacons at Ridgedale.
I also spent a few minutes with Clyde Holder, who was an elder there for over sixty-five years. A man of vision and compassion, he is one of a few men who spring to my mind when I hear discussion about biblical qualifications for elders.
I mention these three because they are among my heroes of faith - people who kept their focus on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. They each have directed many others to the Lord and have shown in their own conduct what it means to walk in his steps. May they know health and happiness; it may be selfish, but I still need them.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

When Both Sides Are Wrong

In a Bible discussion last night, my friend Randy observed that sometimes church problems resemble the insurrection attempted by Korah the Levite and his Reubenite friends Dathan and Abiram against Moses in Numbers 16. Korah and friends challenge the authority of Moses and doubt whether God really backs him. Probable motives of the rebellion were Korah's wanting to be high priest of Israel and the Reubenites wanting political power. Moses and his brother Aaron had both. In response to Randy's statement, I suggested that often church squabbles, local or national, might be better described as Dathan versus Abiram - both sides are wrong. Perhaps one side advocates an unorthodox position; the other responds with personal attacks. From there the fracas escalates as each side bombards the other with increasingly vicious accusations, and one (or both) moves into increasingly questionable doctrinal positions as its proponents (subconsciously?) try to distance themselves from their attackers. What really makes it tragic is that all involved may love Jesus and his church dearly. They want nothing so badly as to advance the cause of Christ in the world. Everyone involved may be warm (to those who agree with them), friendly, highly moral, and biblically knowledgeable. But their behavior, to take an expression from 2 Corinthians chapter 2, emits the odor of death. While group members may cheer their champions, the rest of the world chokes on the rancid smell. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples," Jesus said in John 13, "if you love one another."

Monday, February 13, 2006

God's people

Some basic concepts of Christianity boggle my mind. There's the idea of God's becoming man, then dying as a substitute for the rest of humanity as a consequence of everyone else's misconduct. Then there's the resurrection a few days after the death, followed by a witnessed ascension into the skies. And the idea that a reenactment of death, burial, and resurrection occurs in a ritual called baptism which, when united with faith in Jesus being divine and the above being reality, makes us God's children (Read Romans 6:1-4 and Galatians 3:26,27, if you don't believe me). When one steps back and takes a hard look, one can understand why skeptics ridicule such ideas. They just do not fit into our everyday experiences. More seriously, the worldview of many people precludes such events. They have not observed such things themselves, and do not believe anyone else has.
In Hebrews chapter 8, a passage from the prophet Jeremiah is quoted as having been actualized in Christians. "I will be their God and they will be my people," reads one line. "My people," says the creator of the universe. Other biblical passages assert even more, suggesting a noble destiny of service intended by God from the beginning of time. Still, "my people" keeps reverberating within my mind. God cares, and claims these people.
That relationship carries great responsibility on our end. When my brothers and I left the house for a date or to travel, our father would always say, "Remember who you are." What we did or said would reflect on other members of the family. God's people hear similar words: "Be holy, as I am holy." It's tough sometimes just living up to a human family's legacy. How does one live up to being one of God's people? "I will forgive their wickedness," God says, "and will remember their sins no more"(Hebrews 8).
God's not an overly permissive parent. Responsibility and accountability are required. But God possesses, loves, forgives his people. He does not remember what he forgives. That ranks right up there in hard-to-believeability with executing God's son and resurrection. He does not remember what he forgives!
That's good news. No, that's great news!
Let's spread it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Let God's People Hear His Word...In Their Own Language

During the 1530's, a man named William Tyndale was burned at the stake. His last words were, "God, open the King of England's eyes." His crime was translating the Bible into English. Such a charge sounds bizarre now. But after hundred years of the Bible being read at church services exclusively in Latin, translating it into the languages used by people in everyday life struck some as blasphemous. Latin sounded "sacred" and "holy." Ironically, the major Latin translation which had been used was the Vulgate, a term which comes from the Latin word for common. When the Bible had been translated into Latin from Greek and Hebrew in the fourth century, it had been because Latin had become the language of the common people. When the books and letters that comprise the New Testament were originally penned, their authors used a form of Greek now known as Koine, again "common." The New Testament was not written in a sacred-sounding style. It reached out to the common person with good news of God's word. Tragically, and I suspect most people will find this hard to believe, some still try to suppress the use of Bible translations in the common language of the people, clinging to Bible translations that they believe sound more "sacred." Whether it is the King James Version (which itself was originally attacked as too common) or the Catholic Douay version or (even now) the Latin Vulgate, lovers of these translations ascribe to them a holiness that transcends other translations. The King James Version had a profound, positive affect on English language and literature. Phrases from it passed into everyday street usage. But the average person on the street today, despite loud protests by a few to the contrary, does not understand parts of it because the language is not the dialect he speaks. In a high school English class last week, I heard students trying to read from a piece of literature that was contemporary with the King James Version. They frankly stumbled badly in pronunciation and comprehension. If you believe God inspired the Bible, and I do, the fact that his Holy Spirit revealed it in common street Greek has a profound significance. It means that God wants everyone, even the poorly educated, to be able to understand his Word without requiring years of training or acculturation. I'm not talking about thorough appreciation of intricate doctrines here, just being able to recognize and understand the words. A friend of mine, who prefers to use the King James Version, bought a book that identified archaic words and expressions used in that translation because he wanted to be sure he understood it (a noble motive, by the way, and I applaud him). The book was over five hundred pages long. The translators of the King James Version, all members of the church of England and under precise royal instruction to translate certain words in certain ways, in the original preface noted that even the meanest translation of the Bible was God's Word. Most modern translations have teams of translators from various church backgrounds that serve as a system of checks and balances against one group's or one king's priorities damaging the translation. They want the common person to hear God's Word. That, I believe, is what God wants. So sit down, and read a chapter from the King James Version, then read that same passage in the English Standard Version, the New International Version, or some other popular translation. Which is easier to understand? There are other other issues; most translations (even the King James Version) have some glitches at points. Books like How We Got the Bible by Neil Lightfoot, 3rd edition Baker Book House, 2003, and The English Bible from KJV to NIV by Jack P. Lewis give insights by conservative scholars into history and accuracy in the Bible translation process.
My main point is this: The Bible was meant to be read in the common language of the people. God's Word needs to be heard and understood in an age where a network news program asked this week, "What has happened to manners in America?" Don't let poorly informed tradition slow the spread of God's Word. Use, and encourage the use of, the Bible in an accurate contemporary translation.