Backstory

I’d like to do something dangerous.

We understand, as astute Bible students, that bringing an extra-biblical background to the Scriptures is fraught with potential problems. We ought not, we are told, make assumptions about the things we see in the Bible. We should instead approach the Scriptures with an empty mind, free of presuppositions, hewing strictly to what the text gives to us and no more. This technique will enable us to avoid error. It is part of “correctly handling” (or “rightly dividing”) the Word. What we want is “exegesis” (drawing meaning from the text) rather than the dreaded “eisegesis” (using the text to support a meaning we already possess).

But of course, none of us do this. Let’s be honest. We come to the Bible with a whole panoply of presuppositions, of cultural assumptions (wrong or rights), of biases and prejudices. Most often these presuppositions are tacit, unacknowledged by us. This is why it is so vital to understand cultural contexts, and especially to listen to Bible teachers who come from outside our own cultural milieu, so that we can have the benefit of their different insights – that is, their own tacit biases might be a good foil for our own. Rather than deny that we have these unspoken biases, we should admit that we in fact do have them, and then expose our minds to other perspectives.

Today I took up and read Matthew’s account of the Sermon on the Mount:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Matthew 5:17-20

The Mount, and the Famous Sermon thereon.

The Mount, and the Famous Sermon thereon.

As I pondered this familiar passage, something jumped out at me. Notice that Jesus says “Do not think” (or “do not suppose”), as though anticipating the expectations of the crowd. Why would he mention this? Why express it in this way? And if he is perceiving their expectations, where did they develop those expectations? “I have not come to abolish them.” He focuses on what he has not come to do, as though refuting a false notion. “You may have heard X, but X is not true.”

It’s a strange way of speaking. It suggests there must be what Hollywood calls a “backstory” – something happening prior to the scene that sets it up. In fact, it seems as if, in gangster-movie parlance, somebody got to him. Perhaps he is saying this because he was warned about saying otherwise. Here I am venturing into the dangerous territory of inventing a backstory. But I do this with my eyes open, aware that whatever I may bring to the text is mere scaffolding – a temporary, provisional construct to be used for a time while we work on the text.

Cautiously, then, we proceed.

Recall the secret meeting between Jesus and Nicodemus, described for us by the apostle John:

Now there was a Pharisee, a man named Nicodemus who was a member of the Jewish ruling council. He came to Jesus at night and said, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God. For no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”

John 3:1-2

Nicodemus is not speaking for himself alone. Significantly he uses the first person plural (“we know”). He is no mere fan-boy, or an interested semi-follower. He has been sent to Jesus by the ruling council. Ruling councils being what they are, they rarely send a messenger simply to gather information out of curiosity. They dictate. They rule. They have sent a powerful man, under cover of darkness, to speak to this novel Galilean preacher. Flattering words notwithstanding, Nicodemus carries a veiled threat from the council. This is their attempt to get a situation under control. It is a sort of first salvo in what will eventually become full-on opposition.

What was Nicodemus sent to say? The text goes silent on this point. Jesus’ discourse that follows (“Very truly I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again”) seems to come as a rude interruption of Nicodemus’ prefatory remarks. Nicodemus seems to lose his footing a bit, puzzled by Jesus’ unexpected spiritual diatribe (“How can this be?”). John’s account never has Nicodemus returning to his original purpose, if there was one. Jesus pre-empted that purpose.

But I would guess that at some point, then or later, the conversation between Jesus and Nick went something like this:

Nicodemus: “Now, as to the reason I asked to see you: Many of the council members are disturbed by reports of your teaching. It is said that you incite the people against the scribes and Pharisees and teachers of the Law. Some have become zealous against their leaders, and against the Law of Moses. This should not be. Now, Jesus, you must know that there are some of us on the council who want to believe in you. We see you as a teacher who has come from God. We know that you do not teach falsely, but only what is in accordance with the Law, given to our people for all time.”

Jesus: “I speak only the words the Father gives me.” (John 8:28, 12:49)

Nicodemus: “Yes, I understand. But I am concerned for you, Jesus of Nazareth; this kind of teaching could land you in a great deal of trouble. Think about John. Already the council is determined not to protect him, if he continues to preach as he does against Herod and against us. He could be imprisoned any day.”

Jesus: “What would you have me say, then?”

Nicodemus: “Only this: When you speak publicly, make it clear that you have not come to abolish the Law and the Prophets. Say this to the people, so that they will not be carried away by a spirit of rebellion. Then we will know for certain that you are from God and teaching what is right.”

Jesus: “Very well.”

Nicodemus returns to the council, armed with what sounds like a concession from the Galilean. “Excellent,” they reply. “We shall watch the Galilean now, to be sure our message was heard.”

Now, we return to the mount from which Jesus gives his famous sermon. The crowds have gathered. Mostly peasants, they are dressed in ragged, soiled brown and tan fabrics. The women and the children are with them. His disciples sit close by, hanging on his words. Over to one side, dressed in white and blue priestly robes, stand a group of religious leaders. Their beards are long. Their expressions are grim and serious. The people murmur about their presence — are they here to spy on this teacher? Are they here because they see him as the Messiah? Or because they wish to shut him down? The presence of the blue-and-white crew casts an uneasy pall over the gathering.

Their purpose, however, is neither to accept nor challenge the words of the Galilean. They want only the satisfaction of knowing that his words will not be outside the bounds of normal Jewish teaching. They want to be sure that Nicodemus did his job and delivered their message. If not, then more drastic measures will be in order.

So they listen closely to the message. Before too long, Jesus utters the words they are waiting for:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets.”

“See?” says Nicodemus to his colleagues, relieved. “See, this is no rebel. He is a true teacher of Israel.” The other leaders nod gravely. Jesus continues:

“I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. “

“Hear, hear,” offers one of the councilmen, tapping his staff on the ground in tribute. “The Torah is forever!” They exchange glances; they are pleased. Nicodemus’ words have reached their mark.

Then, suddenly, Jesus cracks a bullwhip in their faces:

“For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“What?”

The leaders exchange harsh glares. “Did he just say ‘surpasses’?”

“I think he means ‘equals,’ yes?”

“Perhaps ‘approaches’ would have been a better choice of words.”

The crowds are merely surprised by this teaching, maybe a little startled by its severe moral implications. But the Pharisees and scribes and lawyers in their white robes are scandalized. This cuts like a knife. Jesus implies – no, he directly states – that Pharisees and teachers of the law possess insufficient righteousness to merit the kingdom of heaven. They cannot enter. If you wish to enter, you will have to be more righteous than they are.

“What sort of teaching is this?” they mutter. The councilmen turn to Nicodemus. “What did you say to him?”

“I told him exactly what we agreed to,” he insists. “And truthfully, he said exactly what I asked him to say!”

There are grunts and harumphs. “Maybe so,” they say. “But we will not stand here and be humiliated like this.” And they leave the scene indignantly, as Jesus begins to delineate the difference between living by the law (“you have heard that it was said…”) and living a Kingdom lifestyle (“…but I tell you”). One by one he trots out various teachings of the Jewish leaders and contrasts them with new commands.

The Pharisees and their counterparts in every religious tradition want to defend their turf. They have created a system of rules to be applied to everyone under their leadership. Even the great Law of Moses, given by God Himself with great glory, was co-opted by the Jewish leadership of Jesus’ time as an instrument of pride. Intended to point out the need of Man for redemption, the Law was instead presented as a vehicle of redemption. When Jesus disrupted this false notion of human ability with that shocking word “surpasses,” it blew a fatal hole in the side of the ship. “I have not come to abolish the Law,” he said. True, but the one who looks to mere obedience of the written commandments will certainly not reach the Kingdom. The Law stands; it does not pass away. The Torah is forever. But it exists to point the way, not to BE the way. It cannot save. It cannot impart new life. It cannot produce righteousness. What the Law points to is Christ himself:

[I]f a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:21-25

Other translations render “guardian” as “schoolmaster” – the idea being an adult who takes responsibility for a child’s education and development until he reaches adulthood and can function in the world without supervision. This, brothers and sisters, is where we stand as Christian believers. We can choose to live a life governed by the Law. Doing so, we will become prideful, domineering, moralizing misanthropes. The alternative available to us is to live a life of grace: grateful for God’s forgiveness through Christ, and confident in his righteousness being counted as our own. As one ex-Pharisee poignantly wrote,

But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith.

Philippians 3:7-9

Stand in his righteousness, brothers and sisters, and do not trouble yourselves with false ideas of personal righteousness earned through works.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Galatians 5:1

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence.

Colossians 2:20-23

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The McKinley Worship Protocols

In an endeavor to couch my criticism of modern evangelical worship music in positive terms rather than negative ones, I propose the following Protocols as basic principles for designing a worship service:

ONE. The congregation is the most important entity in the room.

Worship is a democratic endeavor: “What then shall we say, brothers and sisters? When you come together, each of you has a hymn…” (1 Corinthians 14:26). We prefer a worship gathering that is egalitarian, and a congregation that is engaged. Protocol #1 implies that the worship leader or leaders are not elevated above the congregation, neither physically, nor in terms of lighting, nor in volume, except as necessary to coordinate the worship activity of the congregation. The leaders serve the congregation by keeping them together and providing direction and structure. We reject the concert / show paradigm for worship, in which musicians offer a performance to a passive audience.

TWO. Participation, not excellence, is the standard.

Success in leading worship is measured by the level of participation among the people. A misplaced emphasis on ‘excellence’ leads to poor decisions that downplay the importance of the congregation (see #1).

THREE. The congregation can hear itself singing.

Protocol #3 carries a threefold implication: 1) The sound level of the accompaniment is sufficiently low; 2) the acoustics of the room are sufficiently live; 3) participation is maximized.

FOUR. Worship music is singable by non-professionals.

The range of the music is appropriate (no notes higher than D), and avoids technical difficulty; i.e., excessive melisma, melodic leaps, syncopation, and improvisational elements.

FIVE. Worship lyrics are coherent, relatable, and theologically sound.

They are coherent: they express a single theme in a way that is logical and linguistically correct. They are relatable: the average congregant knows and understands the meaning of the words he or she is singing. They are theologically sound: they are Biblical, orthodox, and glorifying to God.

SIX. No solos.

The congregation is active and engaged at all times. Solos, special music, and choir pieces are by definition non-participatory and are eliminated or minimized.

SEVEN. Every sound of worship is produced by people present in the room.

We believe that an important principle of any ministry, including worship ministry, is that we will do only what God provides the people to do. We rely solely on live, human musicians playing in ‘real time’: we permit no pre-recorded music, no accompaniment tapes, no backing tracks.

EIGHT. Worship music engages the mind.

Protocol #8 derives from 1 Corinthians 14:15 – “I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.” We prefer thoughtfully-composed music to that which is formulaic or trite. We avoid music that falls into too-comfortable patterns, or depends upon nonsense syllables or endless repetition of a single phrase.

Worship music is an encounter with truth. We reject emotional manipulation and excessive sentimentality. We reject the performance emphasis that seeks to generate artificial feeling. Worship music evokes a response in the worshiper because of the truth and power of what is sung. An encounter with God’s grace already expressed in Christ (and not a plea for a new outpouring) will engender true worship from a place of thankfulness.

NINE. Worship music has a historical legacy.

Protocol #9 does not mean that we use only old-fashioned hymns, nor do we disdain the use of newer worship music. But it does mean that our preference is for music that has been vetted through a long history of use in the church, an effective filtering system to eliminate what is merely trendy and fashionable and preserve what edifies and sustains.

TEN. Worship music is simple and portable.

We are wary of music that requires certain instrumentation, whether orchestral, or a pipe organ, or a full contemporary band, in its presentation. We prefer music that is readily portable into different formats and styles, to increase freedom and flexibility within the church, and permit sharing among diverse church bodies.


Note: The use of the first-person plural pronoun in the above implies a consensus among a group — but thus far, it’s only me. I would be interested in finding allies.

“McKinley” is a mostly arbitrary title: the name of the street on which my church is located. Pick a different president if you prefer.

These Protocols are a distillation and extension of ideas presented in an earlier post. See https://shuzensoxon.wordpress.com/2014/03/17/a-different-kind-of-worship/

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Terms of Peace

I believe there is an unoccupied space at the intersection of Christian music, creative writing, and biblical theology. I’d like to see more efforts by poets & musicians to create songs that depict biblical truth in new and interesting ways.

As an example, I present my own homemade song “Terms of Peace,” based on an extension of the familiar (but very brief) parable:

“Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace.”

Luke 14:31-32

A demo of the music, and a video, are presented at the link below. I am not a performer. I’d love to hear this song performed with a real vocalist (this is possibly the worst vocal I ever recorded, trying to keep quiet enough not to disturb others in the house at the time), a real lead guitarist, and an actual human drummer. Sadly, I think it’s probably impossible for most songwriters, especially Christian songwriters, to publicize their work if they lack performance skills. There really is no necessary link between compositional ability and performance ability.

The song begins with a “dream” sequence of lush chord changes, depicting the king asleep in the royal chambers. As a churchbell chimes the morning hour, an advisor enters the chambers with some alarming news. He gives his assessment of the situation, recommending surrender instead of a bloody war. A colleague arrives, likewise offering advice, but of the opposite sort: he advises the king to stand and fight to the end.

At this point, the king has heard enough and dismisses them. He must make this decision alone, and he understands the horrible consequences, no matter which choice he makes: “a dead man or a subject I’ll be.” The song ends without a decision, signifying the import of the parable: every human, faced with the impending, unavoidable appointment with God’s judgment, must decide whether to stand and fight like a proud human, or to surrender.


ADVISOR #1

Good morning, king!

How I wish I had some happy news to bring

It’s an army, I’m afraid

And they’re coming to invade our land.

 

I’m sorry, sire!

I’m afraid the situation is rather dire

We have but ten thousand men

They have double that again

Your decision we have come to inquire.

 

It’s doomed to fail;

Against such odds as these we cannot prevail!

We must go, lay down our arms,

And accept whatever terms they give.

 

ADVISOR #2

Not so, my lord!

We shall put their twenty thousand to the sword!

Let us make our final stand

For our people and our land!

Ten thousand brave men wait on your word.

 

KING

Leave me alone!

This decision is my own!

I want no voice in my ear to persuade me!

Steadfast reason must be my guide,

All of you remaining outside

I must decide!

 

And now it’s clear:

Every second brings it more and more near

For it seems I must decide

Between prudence and mere pride, I fear.

 

Oh, pity me!

There are two unhappy futures I see:

Either way I’ll be cast down,

Relinquishing this crown,

A dead man or a subject I’ll be.

 

All alone!

This decision is my own!

I have no one I can trust to advise me!

No one knows the path that I tread

Heavy lies the crown on my head —

Heavy as lead!


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The Fiery Furnace

 

Turning Up the Heat

Furious with rage, Nebuchadnezzar summoned Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego. So these men were brought before the king, and Nebuchadnezzar said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the image of gold I have set up? Now when you hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, if you are ready to fall down and worship the image I made, very good. But if you do not worship it, you will be thrown immediately into a blazing furnace. Then what god will be able to rescue you from my hand?”

Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to him, “King Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.”

Daniel 3:13-18

 

We are all familiar with this story. It reads like juvenile fiction: a group of three teenaged friends who refuse to compromise their principles, even with the means of their death blazing before them.

But let’s try to suspend our preconceived associations and look more closely at the story. The three friends had been trapped, ratted out by some of the other members of the Wise Men Guild (specifically named as “astrologers” in v.8). They were summoned and stood in front of the throne of the king, and issued an ultimatum: Bow down or perish!

At this moment, the hornist, flautist, zitherist, lyrist, harpist, piper, and all the other musicians on the worship team are looking at their drummer, waiting for him to click in a tempo to start their next tune. But before two clicks are completed, the three lads interrupt the service to make an important pronouncement. They will not bow down. They will not serve a false god. They will not worship an image of gold.

This story encourages us to be faithful to what is true, no matter what the cost. But listen to their words. They are not claiming certain victory. There is an element of resignation in their voices. In fact, an alternate reading of the original Aramaic in verse 17 says “If the God we serve is able to deliver us, then he will deliver us from the blazing furnace.”

“Even if he does not”? What sort of faith is that? Obviously these young men had never read The Power of Positive Thinking. These were not charismatic believers. They had not heard of the “word of faith,” the “name-it-and-clam-it” theology of health and wealth and wish-fulfillment. No, they freely acknowledged that they may be broiled to a crisp in the furnace and permanently silenced.

Why were they so blasé about their imminent, horrific, sizzling fate? Did they lack faith? If we interpret the Scriptural narratives as providing examples for us to emulate, what ought we to emulate here?

Let us hear what the three friends are saying. “We may or may not have a miraculous experience here,” they said. “We may not see something spectacular. But we will be true to the revealed Word. We will not willfully violate the First and Second of the Ten Commandments.” Their commitment was to remain true to God because of what He had already revealed to them, and not to a possible future experience.

Nice group, but where’s your zitherist?

In the 21st-century church, when we hear the sound of the horn, flute, zither, lyre, harp, pipe and all kinds of music, we know that worship service is underway. We react in anticipation. Our songs reflect our expectations: “Send your Spirit,” we plead. “Fill this place with your grace.” “Come into this room.” We are a needy people. We express our neediness in our pleading songs. We long for some sort of unique or special experience to transform us now.

I apologize for harping (pun intended) on the same point as the previous post, but this is heavy on my heart right now. I believe our worship music reflects precisely where we have lost a key lesson of the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Instead of declaring our faith in the God who has already redeemed us and blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ (Ephesians 1:3), instead of standing on the promises, instead of singing “How Firm A Foundation,” we ask for more.

I would encourage Christian worshipers to learn the New Testament truths about what Christ has already accomplished on our behalf, and so worship God with gratitude and humility. I would encourage Christian worship leaders to think carefully about the implied messaging of the music used in a service. And I would encourage Christian songwriters to work harder to avoid the easy clichés and patter of contemporary worship music, and to think carefully about lyrical content and its congruence to Biblical theology.

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Ask For More

The Adequacy of the Blessing

“His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness…” 2 Peter 1:3

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.”  Ephesians 1:3

Some time ago, I found myself in an unusual financial dilemma. Things were tight in those days, and the bank account hovered near zero. The next paycheck, thanks to a holiday extending the weekend, was still four days away. A grim weekend loomed, with no disposable capital.

But wait! In the afternoon mail on the last day before the long weekend, a check arrived. The amount was significant enough to transform a dismal soup-and-macaroni weekend into something much more.

But alas, the banks would not open for four more days. I had the money in hand (sort of); it belonged tome fully. But it was in a form that was inaccessible to me. Accordingly, I was forced to live like a pauper through the weekend until I could both deposit the check and receive the regular paycheck. I ate soup and macaroni from the pantry, when (by rights) I could have been dining out at fine restaurants.

Sadly, I view this as an apt metaphor for the lives of many Christian believers, my sisters and brothers in the faith. Lacking adequate teaching about the abundant blessings that already belong to them, they live as paupers, eking out a meager Christian life without joy or contentment. They hold in their hands a check worth thousands of dollars, yet they plead with God to give them something more, something new, something shiny.

Why do I suspect this is true? Two reasons: First, from teaching adult Christian-education classes, I am painfully aware that Christians are not only unaware of the blessings that are theirs in Christ, but (amazingly) actively hostile to teaching about them. They will deny what God has done on their behalf, and insist on a “skin-for-skin” spirituality that sees God as a stingy dispenser of blessings to those who earn them in some manner. They deny grace, and desire a system of law and duty.

Second, I can hear it in the songs that are sung. As a musician, worship leader, and songwriter (shameless plug here) I try to keep abreast of the newest developments in Christian worship music. We seem to have entered a period where the main element in our worship lyrics, the chief concept we wish to express, is not gratitude or praise. We instead come to God to present a petition, a plea to send a new experience our way.

The Song of Pleading

This in itself would not be bad, except that this pleading tone seems to dominate our worship times. By repeatedly leading the the assembled church in expressing their need for new experiences, we as worship leaders are reinforcing the notion that the congregation’s current Christian experience is inadequate. It lacks something. We too rarely sing songs that simply declare New Testament truths about our identity, our redemption, or the blessings we already possess. Our Christian experience may in fact be inadequate — but the answer is not to beg for some new revelation or blessing. The answer is to learn to appreciate the rock-solid truths of the New Testament, and own them. The answer is to marinate in these truths until they affect our thinking, our emotional states, our sense of self.

The first-century heresy of Gnosticism, though not explicitly defined by the New Testament writings, apparently derived some of its appeal from the susceptibility of Christians to this kind of approach: “You need more; they haven’t told you everything; there’s something greater out there if you will reach out for it.” To this kind of thinking the apostle John wrote forcefully that believers should stand on what they a.ready know. “Dear friends, I am not writing you a new command but an old one, which you have had since the beginning. This old command is the message you have heard”  (1 John‬ ‭2:7‬). John is the consummate conservative, urging his flock to stay true to what has already been revealed, and not to seek out new experiences and revelations.

My admonition to you, Christian believer, is to study the truth of the New Testament. Be wary of teachings (sometimes coming in the form of songs) urging you to yearn for a new experience, or implying that you have missed out. You already have “every spiritual blessing in Christ”! Read the rest of Ephesians chapter 1, and take those truths to heart.

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My Lord My Life My All

Watchman Nee (1903-1972).

Watchman Nee (1903-1972).

Here is the finished version of the hymn mentioned in an earlier post. Words are an adaptation of several sentences from Watchman Nee, as collected in the book “Gleanings in the Fields of Boaz.” The melody is limited to the five tones of the pentatonic scale, a subtle tribute to Pastor Nee’s people and their music.
My Lord My Life My All (Nee)_Page_1
My Lord My Life My All (Nee)_Page_2

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The Abolition of the Gospel

A speech to Progressives

We on the port side have enjoyed some victories. Let us raise a glass.

Oh, I know, some of you view these recent regressive legislative actions as a setback. The so-called “religious freedom” laws passed in Indiana and Arkansas can be perceived as a blow to our cause. But these are only temporary battles, small losses on the way to stupendous wins.

Look how quickly our allies have come to our rescue! Look how swiftly the voices and fists of Progress have risen up and embarrassed the backward Christians! All of our forces – the media, academia, labor, politicians – are in full readiness, to be marshaled against the enemy. We are in exciting times.

I urge you, comrades, to keep your eyes on the prize! While it is indeed gratifying to put the squeeze on recalcitrant Christian bakers and florists, and watch them squirm and die, remember the goal – the abolition of the gospel. Imagine a bright future, free of calls to “repent”!

How do we reach this wondrous tomorrow, friends? Remember that the task before us is to clear the public space of this pernicious evil, this awful notion that people can change what they are born to be. We must purge from the public mind the stupid and unbearable phrase “born again” – as if human organisms could actually become new persons through some mere affirmation! We must scour out every last vestige of sexual repression and Victorian modesty, anything that impinges upon our liberty. That is our objective. A bright future of unhindered moral and sexual autonomy awaits us, if we remain steadfast.

As you know, our next target, the big game now coming into the cross-hairs, is these large churches with nice buildings. As a matter of strategy I would recommend we target evangelical churches first, rather than Catholic ones. (Catholics, we find, tend to muster tremendous popular support when directly attacked, due to their deeper roots.) Visit the largest evangelical church in your municipality. Listen to a few messages first, to get a flavor for the odious and obnoxious anti-gay agenda they are relentlessly promoting. Talk to some of the people, to get a sense of the hatred and anger oozing from them. Then, make a few phone calls. Inquire as to the facility’s availability for an upcoming nuptial ceremony. After some time, mention casually that the ceremony is for a same-sex couple. Inevitably, the church representative will offer an awkward silence, then politely decline. This is your moment. End the call. Reach out to your media contacts. It’s “go time.” Arrive at the church with a TV cameraman or reporter along (trust me, they’re down with the struggle, all of them), and get the pastor’s refusal on record. Then, sit back and enjoy the backlash. Politicians will rally to your side. The media will give your cause hours and hours of free PR, and always sympathetic. One of their greatest skills is their ability to make your opponents look foolish. Let them do that. The pastor and his minions will try to rationalize. They will insist on making a distinction between their unwillingness to perform a ceremony and their feelings toward the people requesting it. They will try (pathetically) to separate what they call “the sin” and “the sinner.” You do not need to respond to this. The press (true allies, but largely thickheaded) will be unable to parse such fine distinctions, so you can be confident that none of it will filter through to hoi polloi.

In this battle, often our best allies are the liberal churches. They are the useful idiots in our cause, because they radiate an aura of credibility and friendly compromise. Find a pastor of such a church, a kindly old man or woman who is articulate. There is no better person to put in front of the TV cameras. It is like deadly neurotoxin to an evangelical.

If all goes well (and we fully expect it will), our friends in the government will respond to media pressure (I hesitate to say “popular pressure,” because our numbers are so few, but luckily the media kaleidoscopically increases our apparent numbers and influence). They will do what we ask: revoke tax-exempt status of churches that refuse to submit. Revoke their license to perform marriages under the State. Confiscate their property. Seize their assets.

“Shut them up and shut them down” is our motto.

This will take time. The battle will rage, but the momentum is with us. Stand firm. Use your Phrasebook. “Hate” turns out to be a very useful word. Concede nothing. Victory is certain. Pretty soon, that pastor and his benighted, backward, mouth-breathing followers will be out on the street and you (as a bonus) will have that nice building! And one more pesky, annoying voice screeching “repent” will be thankfully silenced.

So I say, stay the course. Be confident. History is on our side. Together we shall have victory.

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Why I Am Not a ‘Red-Letter Christian’

There is a movement among modern church, a group of people who identify themselves as “Red-Letter Christians,” The name comes from the common practice of Bible publishers to set off the words of Jesus in a red typeface.

WORDS OF CHRIST IN RED

WORDS OF CHRIST IN RED

I do not use a “red-letter” Bible, and I do not recommend it for others. My understanding of the inspiration of Scripture (and I think I am not alone in this) is that it extends to ALL the Biblical authors, not merely those writers who were transcribing the words of Jesus. That is, Romans 8:1 (“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”) is equally inspired as John 3:3 (“You must be born again,” words attributed by John to Jesus himself).

But my objection to the “red-letter” phenomenon is deeper than this. I believe the greatest danger facing the church today is the lack of emphasis on grace, and the attendant legalism and rules-based discipleship that emerges where grace is poorly understood.

The enthusiasm for this “red-letter” style of discipleship exacerbates this problem.

By emphasizing the teaching of Christ above the rest of the New Testament, these believers think they are standing strong for Jesus. But, as Martin Luther reminds us, the chief division in the Bible is not between Old and New Testaments, but between Law and Gospel. There is some Gospel in the Old Testament, but mostly Law. The four “gospels,” despite the name, are a mixture of Law and Gospel (as we shall see shortly). The Epistles are almost entirely free of Law. The Epistles speak to our current situation as Christians more directly than does the Old Testament or the gospels. This is because they are directed at an audience that is a mostly-Gentile body of redeemed believers.

The Law of the Old Testament never applied to Gentiles; it was a set of moral and civil and ceremonial regulations directed at a specific people (the Israelites) for a specific time (up to the coming of their Messiah). Its chief value to us is as a means of understanding something of the holiness and majesty and sovereignty of God. It is a useful instrument in the hands of the apologist and the evangelist, who can show by the Law that human beings fall short of the glory of God and are in desperate need of redemption.

But for those of us who already have placed our faith in Jesus the Messiah, the Law has finished its job. We may “cheerfully ignore it,” as Luther suggests. This is how the two irreconcilable verses are reconciled:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility,  by setting aside [or ‘abolishing’] in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.

Ephesians 2:14-15

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven…”

Matthew 5:17-19

For the New Testament believer, living in the age after the Cross, the Law has been set aside, abolished. It no longer has any claim upon him. Its work is done, as Paul says:

Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Galatians 3:23-25

What about the Matthew passage, you ask? Think of the circumstances prevailing at the time of the Sermon on the Mount:

  1. The crowd was close to 100% Jewish.
  2. The Cross was still in the future.
  3. The listeners were under obligation to the Law.

The Gospels describe a large number of situations where Jesus brought not Gospel, but Law to his hearers. Consider, for example, this very poor evangelism episode:

Just then a man came up to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?”

Matthew 19:16

This is what’s called a Huge Opening. Evangelicals are trained for this very moment, to have a ready answer for the one who asks about eternal things. Surely, if ever, this was the moment to whip out the Four Spiritual Laws, or the Bridge of Life, and escort this willing fellow straight into the Kingdom! Hallelujah, what a Savior! Another soul won for the Lord!

But what does Jesus say to him? This will be disappointing to any Campus Crusader or Navigator:

Why do you ask me about what is good?” Jesus replied. “There is only One who is good. If you want to enter life, keep the commandments.”

Sorry, Jesus. You’ve done it all wrong. That can NOT be the right way to win this man. “Keep the commandments”? Seriously? You give him more Law? More of what he’s already found to be insufficient? Are you trying to drive him away?

It is a strange response, viewed from our perspective as post-Cross Gentile believers. We have to approach this text as it is given to us, and ask honestly why Jesus gave this answer on this particular day.

Remember that in the remainder of the story, the man first claims to have perfectly kept the Commandments (the 613 mitzvahs of the Torah) since he was a boy (according to the Luka account); presumably, since he made his bar mitzvah at about age 13. From that day he became a “bar mitzvah,” a son of the commandment. Surely Jesus knew this answer was coming; his whole ministry he had been dealing with people who claimed moral perfection on the basis of their understanding of the Law (the Sermon on the Mount was a strong slap to such self-righteous thinking). This fellow was not to be dissuaded from his yeshiva training. He was righteous, according to everything he knew, so why did he still feel this lack of something?

Jesus has no reassurance to give him, Instead he loads him up with an extra commandment:

Jesus answered, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.”

The result? The man “went away sad.” Again I ask you, is this any way to do street evangelism?

Now, the point is to come to this realization: The “gospels” – the four books recounting the life and ministry of Jesus, where all the “red letters” are – contain many stories in which the Gospel is absent, episodes that one would have to classify as pure Law. Jesus’ command to this man was made in recognition of his status as a Jewish man under the Law. The Law had not yet completed its work in him; perhaps (due to his own stubbornness, and not any fault in the Word of God; cf Isaiah 55:10-11) it never did. This is not to say that Jesus came to preach the Law to everyone; he clearly did not. But the words that we find in the “red letters” are often words of Law, which have no immediate bearing on our lives as post-Cross believers.

I am not a “red-letter Christian,” not because I reject the words of Jesus (far from it; they are the source of the Gospel!), but because I stand on the grace of God as expressed in the Epistles, especially the letters of the Apostle Paul. Those writings, more than anything else, have changed my life and brought me into a truer understanding of the riches of God’s grace.

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The American Fortress

The American Fortress House.

The American Fortress House.

Modern American architecture reflects our priorities as people:

  • Minimal front porch. Nobody spends time in the front of the house, where they might be seen. The big “porch” is the elaborate multi-level deck, on the back of the house, away from people, overlooking a backyard completely surrounded by fencing and trees.
  • Electric garage door, with no external handle. It’s like a drawbridge. You have to know the secret password to give to the castle guards in order for them to let you in.
  • No sidewalk (typically). Most suburban neighborhoods are designed solely for automobile travel, humans riding in fully-enclosed protective hermetically-sealed  glass carriages.

This American cultural phenomenon, the fortress home, made a strong impression on me after my return from eighteen months in India. In India things are, well, different. (Not always better, just different.) You can’t avoid other people. The whole landscape is other people. I suppose some very rich Indians might build and inhabit fortress-style homes, and maybe in two hundred years that will be the trend there also.

One of my favorite parables speaks to this:

Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.

Luke 14:31-32

We all have our personal fortresses. Americans are probably more prone to this mentality than most other people. Whether it is a physical home arranged so as to repel intruders, or a psyche constructed to keep others at a distance, we all build these fortresses, these little kingdoms of our own devising. But God is coming, invading the life of every human being. We fancy ourselves to be safe in our fortresses, insulated from harm and the elements. We find ourselves to be self-sufficient, content, having laid up goods for ourselves.

The land of a rich man produced plentifully, and he thought to himself, ‘What shall I do, for I have nowhere to store my crops?’ And he said, ‘I will do this: I will tear down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I will say to my soul, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘Fool! This night your soul is required of you, and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ So is the one who lays up treasure for himself and is not rich toward God.

Luke 12:16-21

This is the American fortress-dweller, self-satisfied and fat. But God is coming, invading the life of every human being. The invasion cannot be avoided or postponed or prevented. It can, however, be resisted. Like the king in the first parable, we are all faced with a simple choice when confronted with the  overwhelming invasion force of God:

  1. Resist. Fight to the death. Defend the fortress.
  2. Surrender. Accept His terms.

Jesus coyly says “and if not,” suggesting to his hearers the wisdom of the king who carefully considers the situation and concludes (correctly) that resistance is a foolish strategy that will be the end of him and his kingdom.

God is coming, invading the life of every human being. Our pathetic little kingdoms – our pride and self-centeredness, the miniature decorated universes in which we portray ourselves as kings – are about to be uprooted by a greater force. We can try to preserve our kingdoms by fighting to the death, a strategy which will end with our own destruction and the certain end of our kingdoms.

Much better then, to accept the terms of peace: Reconciliation to God, a full surrender to Him, trusting thereafter in His benevolence. In the end, we survive, and we will enjoy a life of peace and safety and freedom in a far larger and more wondrous kingdom than the one we were once so reluctant to leave behind.

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No Pleasure in Understanding

“A fool finds no pleasure in understanding, but delights in airing his own opinions.”  Proverbs 18:2

For many years I have found the reassurance of conviction in this verse from the Proverbs. At times I know I have been far too quick to express my own thoughts. Hypocrite that I am, I commonly disparage this trait in others as “having a transponder stuck in SEND mode,” because the person who airs his or her own opinions is unable to hear the opinions of others.

And now it strikes me that I have always ignored the first half of the verse. I have viewed this verse (perhaps rightly) as motivation to shut up, but have I used it to inspire a sense of “pleasure in understanding”?

The verse strictly describes a “fool” as one who 1) “finds no pleasure in understanding” and 2) “delights in airing his own opinions.” The description given to us has to do with “pleasure” and “delight” – the things that inspire and titillate a person. So how does one describe the “anti-fool”? Would it no be the exact opposite of these two propositions? Would be be equivalent to say the following:

“A wise person delights in understanding; he takes no pleasure in airing his own opinions.”

Looking at it this way reveals something that was hidden (maybe to me only) before: What is the exact opposite of a person who delights to air his own opinions? Is it someone who simply keeps quiet? No, it is (according to this proverb at least) a person who finds pleasure in understanding. That means that he not only refrains from speaking when he could, but he listens to the opinions of others. He delights in hearing them speak, even if he disagrees, because exposure to a wide range of contrary opinions is the most intellectually healthy environment for personal development. It fosters understanding. And we want to be people who take pleasure, who delight in understanding.

The path of understanding, then, does not lie in isolation from the ideas of those who think differently. It lies in the difficult, thorny, humbling way of listening to the opinions of those with whom we may disagree. The process requires us to consider how their thoughts and values led them to the opinions they express, and causes us to reflect on, and perhaps modify, our own ideas.

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