Book Review – A Free People’s Suicide (Os Guinness)

Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2012), 205 pages plus substantial endnotes.

Os Guinness is becoming one of my favorite authors. He personifies what I consider to be the best attributes in an author: first, he is aware of and interacts with authors who have dealt with the same subject – going back to the classics of Greek and Latin. Second, he does not shy away from calling a turkey a turkey, if that is what he genuinely believes. And third, his prose is beautiful to read. In other words, he is not a contemporary American author.

In A Free People’s Suicide, Guinness asks the question of the sustainability of American freedom. He points out that the founders of America both won and ordered our freedom, but the issue of its sustainability is open to debate. In point of fact, Guinness is rather melancholy about the prospect, although in the concluding chapter he expresses a measured optimism, but only if there are some (rather significant) changes in our current leadership and citizenry.

The book is organized into seven chapters, and I believe the key chapter is the middle chapter (4) where he provides what he calls the “golden triangle” of sustainable freedom. That triangle consists of the conviction that freedom requires virtue, and that virtue requires faith. The exercise of faith then requires freedom, which must must be built on virtue, which then returns to faith, and on and on. Guinness is forceful in his rejection that America will remain free (or great, for that matter) if all its citizens do is rely on the Constitution or our ever-expanding quagmire of laws. His point, which he returns to repeatedly, is that unless the super-structure of the Constitution and our laws is built on a stronger foundation than what he calls “parchment freedom,” all freedom will eventually disappear and America will fall, just as every major empire in the world has ultimately fallen.

It should be noted, and Guinness does make this point, that there is a big difference between what most modern Americans call “freedom” and the much more poisonous concept of “license.” What we see in so much of our domestic debate today is not a discussion of freedom at all – it is an infantile demand for license to do whatever we want, the consequences be damned. Freedom, as Guinness expounds beautifully, demands self-control and the virtue of a people that is rooted deeply in faith. (Spoiler alert – while Guinness does refer to the Judeo-Christian features of so much of our founding documents, he is painstaking in not asserting that our nation is a “Christian” nation. He is far too educated not to know that many of our founding father were deists at best, and some were outright humanists.)

The publication date for the book is 2012 (I thought is was much later), so I would really be curious to know what Guinness thinks of the petulant little toddler that currently resides at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. in Washington D.C. Whatever that opinion might be, Guinness’s observations and warnings are even more critical in 2019 than they were in 2012. The tendencies that Guinness criticized through the G.W. Bush years have only been magnified in the Obama and Trump presidencies, and the “slippery slope” (Guinness never uses the term) that he warns about is on the verge of becoming a national catastrophe. He question is chilling – will a leader stand up who has the courage to put a stop to our self-chosen suicide?

I cannot end without providing Guinness’s three tasks if America is to save itself from a certain demise. First, “… America must strongly and determinedly restore civic education, and education that is truly ‘liberal education,’ or an education for liberty. Conservatives must get over their shortsighted aversion to the ‘L word,’ and liberals must reexplore what liberal  education really means and why it matters.” (p. 192) Basically, what Guinness is calling for is an education in citizenship – and everything that entails. Guinness illustrates this beautifully, but painfully, “With civic education, for example, the clash between backward-looking teachers’ unions  and forward-looking foundations concerned only for educational ‘skills’ leaves the United States industriously turning out students who are deficient not only in global competitiveness but in American citizenship and in Socrates’ examined life.” (p. 196)

Second, “… America must strongly and determinedly rebuild its civil public square, leading to a profound resolution of the current culture warring and a re-opening of public life to people of all faiths and none, so that all citizens are able to play their part in a thriving civil society and a robust democracy.” (p. 194)

Third, “… America must strongly and determinedly reorder the grand spheres that make up American society and its powerful cultural influence in the world.” (p. 194) By this Guinness means reordering the “spheres” of business, law, education, entertainment (and others) to serve the “wider public good,” a system of “checks and balances” that is frequently quoted in terms of our federal government, but rarely (if ever) applied to other aspects of our culture.

There is a fourth task, that Guinness demurs from expanding, that requires a “… restoration of the integrity and credibility of the faiths and ethics of the citizenry, which in many cases in America today are as faithless, flaccid and fickle as the health of ordered liberty itself.” (p. 196). This, he believes, is outside the responsibility of the government to address, and I would agree. If the church is “faithless, flaccid and fickle,” it is the church’s responsibility to address those issues.

A final word to my fellow members of the Churches of Christ. We are heirs of a heritage that is commonly referred to as the “American Restoration Movement.” All too frequently, however, the concept of restoration has fallen into disrepute among our congregations. From the extreme conservatives we hear that the restoration is complete, that there remains nothing to restore. From the extreme left we here that restoration is a folly, that the very idea itself is unchristian. “We cannot look back, we have to look to the future” is the mantra of far too many preachers today. I was dumbfounded to read in Guinness’s closing comments one of the best defenses of restoration I have ever heard – not in the sense of restoring some kind of pristine past (which was never pristine to begin with, and which can never be done in the second place), but a return to the very foundational concepts and practices of our faith. Two quotes must suffice: “But history shows that when it comes to ideas, it is in fact possible to turn back the clock. Two of the most progressive movements in Western history – the Renaissance and the Reformation – were both the result of a return to the past, though in very different ways and with very different outcomes.” (p. 197, bold emphasis mine PAS) And this, “In other words, all three movements – Jewish, Christian and American – share a striking feature that sets them apart from much modern thinking: A return to the past can be progressive, not reactionary. Each movement in its own way best goes forward by first going back.” (p. 198, italics by Os Guinness, bold emphasis mine, PAS). As I have said, and perhaps written elsewhere, the American Restoration Movement must continually remain a restoration movement, or it becomes a statuary monument – an idol.

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a painful read – but Guinness’s words must be heard if health is going to be restored to our republic. I for one believe Guinness’s medicine to be too strong for us to stomach. I tend to be much more apocalypticist in outlook – I just do not think we have the political will to do what Guinness recommends. But, be that the case or not, this book needs to be read and digested by everyone who is concerned about the direction our country is headed.

How Big is Your Church? (Pt. 2 of 2)

If you have not read part one of this thrilling series, I suggest that you do – because I don’t want to repeat myself too much here. Suffice it to say that I recognize that the church is NOT your church, it is Christ’s church – God’s church. But like it or not, and right or wrong, we do sometimes refer to “my church” and though it grates on my ears, I will use the term in its most colloquial (albeit incorrect) sense.

In my previous post I challenged a view that makes the church much smaller than it really is. We do it when we start shaving off all of the folks who don’t think like us, act like us, believe like us. Some say “to-mah-to” and we say “to-may-to” – so obviously one of us has to go. We divide over issues as weighty as the divinity of Christ or as trivial as a coffee pot in the classroom. We draw our circles ever smaller and smaller.

However, those who draw their circles too small are not the only sinners in this matter. There are those who go way too far in the other direction as well – and within the Churches of Christ this segment is growing exponentially. If those on the right demand adherence to every “jot and tittle” of their creeds (either written or unwritten), then the folks on the left don’t even recognize that there might be a “jot or tittle” that needs to be adhered to.

Let’s be perfectly blunt here – those who demand strict obedience to every thought and interpretation of a select group of gate keepers are best described as Pharisees. On the other end of the spectrum are universalists – those who welcome all regardless of beliefs or behavior. Universalists are so nervous about the appearance of Phariseeism that they bend over backwards to repudiate any level of boundary keeping. Is baptism too legalistic? Just welcome anyone who “accepts Jesus into their heart.” Is congregational acapella singing too restrictive of those gifted with musical talent? Hey, let’s start a worship band! Is limiting public leadership to one gender too oppressive? Well, let’s just let anyone lead in worship regardless of gender. And, while we are at it, let’s do away with the “gender binary” concept altogether and welcome anyone into the church regardless of what they believe about gender or sexual relationships.

If there is a “slippery slope” regarding drawing one’s circle too small, there is an equal but opposite “slippery slope” when one starts destroying every form of boundaries. For example, some who advocate for gender inclusiveness become apoplectic when it is pointed out that the same arguments they use for gender equality are used by the LGBTQ+ crowd for inclusiveness for any and all sexual behaviors. Righteous indignation or not, the fact is the exact same arguments are used by both groups, and unless you are willing to accept the argumentation of the LGBTQ+ groups, you had better be very careful about using those arguments for gender inclusion.

There is an “inconvenient truth” (to use a popular expression) concerning those on the extreme far right and the extreme far left. They disagree with each other so vehemently that they meet in the middle. What I mean by that is that both the extreme right and the extreme left are, at their core, humanistic manifestations of church polity. This infuriates those on the right, and embarrasses those on the left, but it is true. Let me explain.

Classic Liberalism (capital “L”) can best be described as a human effort to solve whatever problem is being discussed. That is to say, classic Liberalism admits of no supernatural solution to any problem. We humans are smart enough to fix anything, be it sin or a sanitation issue. Classic Fundamentalism was, and is, the direct response to classic Liberalism. Fundamentalism states that there are divine, fixed, immutable rules for everything, and we as humans must submit to those laws or our efforts are doomed to failure.

What both of these movements share is the core element of humanism. This is what ultra-conservatives refuse to see, and ultra-liberals are embarrassed to think that they might share something with the fundies. Both camps, however, exist through the power of the human being to determine what God does or does not approve, or will or will not accept. Within the Churches of Christ that means that on the one hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you worship in a building that has a fellowship room; and on the other hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you deny a woman the privilege of preaching on Sunday morning.

So, is there a middle ground? Is there a way to navigate between the Scylla of rabid fundamentalism and the Charybdis of vacuous liberalism?

In my first post I used the phrase, “tendentious interpretations of disputed texts” (or something like that). In my own little thought world, that is the crux of the problem. Fundamentalists reject the idea that there are any disputed texts in the Bible. For them everything is black and white, cut and dried. The liberals see everything as disputed (or at least disputable), and since nothing can be firm, there can be no boundaries of either doctrine or behavior.

The problem, as I see it, is there are disputed interpretations of texts (as the apostle Paul freely admits), and at the same time Paul clearly and unabashedly declares there to be matters of undisputed truth. Romans 14 is the clearest example where Paul concludes that there are just some issues that where there are going to be disagreements, and the way to handle those disagreements is to be generous and loving with each other, each Christian willing to forego their “rights” so as not to offend their Christian brother or sister. On the other hand, Paul handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan because of their blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20). Paul unequivocally stated that there are matters of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). If there were matters of “first importance,” then there were certainly matters that did not matter as much (i.e., Romans 14).

Simply stated, we recognize and defend the boundaries that God has put into place, and we work as diligently as possible to tear down the boundaries that we humans have put into place.

Now for the personal confession – I too have boundaries that are important to me. I cannot worship with some who, biblically speaking, might be my brothers and sisters in the faith because they have chosen to practice certain elements that I believe violate Scripture, or at the very least, are divisive in nature. I cannot worship with others because I do not view certain practices as sinful, and they do. What this means to me is that I am a sinful human being, and there are brothers and sisters to the right of me and to the left of me who are sinful human beings. No one on this earth has a perfect, incorrupt understanding of Scripture. We all, despite our best efforts, sometimes fall either too far to the right, or sometimes too far to the left.

What I want to do is to defend and to protect the boundaries that God has created for his church. Boundaries matter. Doctrine matters. Ethics and moral behavior matters. If there were no boundaries, there could be no church. But I want to make certain that I am defending God’s boundaries, and not my own.

It is entirely too easy for me to draw my circle so tightly that only I am secure.

Let us remember that it is not our church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of God. How big is that church?

God, and only God, can be the judge of that.

How Big is Your Church? (Part 1 of 2)

Okay, okay – its NOT your church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of Christ, the church of God, the church of the firstborn ones. It is described in a number of ways – but I’m asking a question that is designed to prick in a certain spot. And so, I ask, how big is your church?

I have been thinking about this question for a number of weeks. In writing these two posts I do not think that I will solve any major issues, but maybe in putting some things in “print” I can work through those issues in my own mind. In this first post I want to discuss the mistake (sin) of making your church too small. Then, in terms of fairness, I want to discuss the opposite mistake (sin) of making your church too big.

The other day I re-discovered a story that I first heard years ago. It states, far better than I can, the ultimate end of trying to make one’s church perfect, and therefore to remove anyone who does not “fit.”

When I first became a member of the church my circle was very big . . . for it included all who, like myself, had believed and had been baptized. I was happy in the thought that my brethren were many . . . but — having a keen and observant mind– I soon learned that many of my brethren were erring. I could not tolerate any people within my circle but those who, like myself, were right on all points of doctrine and practice. Too, some made mistakes and sinned. What could I do? I had to do something! I drew my circle, placed myself and a few as righteous as I within, and the others without. I soon observed that some within my circle were self-righteous, unforgiving, jealous, and proud, so in righteous indignation, my circle I drew again, leaving the publicans and sinner outside, excluding the Pharisees in all their pride, with myself and the righteous and humble within. I heard ugly rumors about some brethren. I saw then that some of them were worldly minded; their thoughts were constantly on things of a worldly nature, they drank coffee, when, like me, they should drink tea. So, duty bound to save my reputation, I drew my circle again, leaving those reputable, spiritually-minded within. I soon realized in time that only my family and I remained in that circle. I had a good family, but to my surprise, my family finally disagreed with me. I was always right. A man must be steadfast. I have never been a factious man! So in strong determination I drew my circle again, leaving me quite alone. (Author unknown – I attempted to discover the author but was unable to with full certainty).

The sad thing is, I KNOW individuals who fit this little story exactly!

The problem is, when we start shaving off pieces of the church because those people do not fit our concept of the “righteous remnant,” the shaving never stops. Eventually it gets down to just me and you, and to be quite honest, I’m not too sure about you, either.

TRUE STORY – Within the Churches of Christ we have a number of congregations that would consider themselves to comprise the “righteous remnant.” One of their well known preacher/authors was a man by the name of Homer Hailey. Brother Hailey was a well known evangelist and scholar who came to believe and to promote what is pejoratively referred to as the “anti” view within the Churches of Christ. These Christians do not believe, for example, that it is proper for the Lord’s church to support physical institutions such as orphan children’s homes, or schools of higher learning (thus, they are “anti-institutional”). Most will refuse to have any part of their building associated with a kitchen or fellowship room, and a great many of them will refuse to have separate classes for children and adults, some will refuse to pay a full-time, located preacher. Some insist on using only one cup for the Lord’s Supper (the “one-cuppers”). There are many varieties, however; for example, some will pay a preacher, but not have separate classes.

As I mentioned, Homer Hailey was one of the better known preacher/prophets of this wing of the Churches of Christ. Then, almost unknowingly and certainly unwillingly, Bro. Hailey was “excommunicated” from this faction of the church because he taught that an individual who had been married, divorced for a reason other than adultery, and then remarried prior to becoming a Christian did NOT have to then subsequently separate from their second (or later) spouse in order to demonstrate full repentance. To many in the “anti-institutional” group of the church this was just pure heresy – if one divorced for any reason other than adultery and then remarried they were living in an adulterous relationship and HAD to separate in order to be a faithful Christian.

Homer Hailey, hero and preacher extraordinaire, had to go. The circle got smaller.

(For the full story, see David Edwin Harrell, Jr., The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century: Homer Hailey’s Personal Journey of Faith, (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2000), especially chapter 7.

The question is, how small is your church? On what basis do you exclude those with whom you cannot fellowship? I will freely admit that I have my circle too (see next post!). But – on what basis do we make those decisions?

I know of no one who “draws their circle” smaller and smaller who would admit to doing so for purely personal reasons. Everyone has a reason exterior to their own admitted whims and fancies. Roman Catholics use the “magisterium” of the Roman Church – allegiance to the Pope and to the church councils. Lutherans have their confessions of faith, as do the Presbyterians, the Episcopalians and the Baptists. As previously mentioned, within the Churches of Christ there are a bewildering number of unwritten creeds and confessions that must be adhered to in order for one to be considered a “faithful” member of the church.

And in Matthew 16:18, Jesus said he would build ONE church – His church. In Acts 2 those who believed and were baptized were added to ONE church. As dysfunctional as they were, there was only ONE church that one could be a member of in Corinth, Ephesus, or Rome. There were divisions, to be sure, and Paul wept over them and worked to heal them. But, there was only ONE church.

As I said way up above, I have no firm, rock solid, undeniable answer to this question. I do, however, have some serious issues with those who attempt to make the Lord’s church much smaller than he would make it.

My main issue is this – when we “draw our circle” smaller and smaller we are acting in the role of God – whether we want to admit to that or not. When we say that someone is “saved” or “lost,” “faithful” or “erring,” based upon tendentious interpretations of disputed texts, we are making ourselves to be divine arbiters of heaven and hell, and that is a VERY dangerous place to be. As one of my favorite professors once said regarding his own journey of faith, “I came to realize that being God was above my pay grade.”

This post, as well as the next, is designed not so much to provide an answer, but to get us to probe one of the most critical questions we can ask ourselves – how big is our church and upon what criteria are we going to make that determination?

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope my meandering thoughts somehow point you closer to the heart of the One who died for us.

Book Review – Christianity at the Crossroads (Michael J. Kruger)

Michael J. Kruger, Christianity at the Crossroads, (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2018), 231 pages.

I have been reading a lot of philosophical works lately (or, rather, philosophical/theological) and in order to maintain my sanity I try to keep a variety of subjects in my reading list. So, this month I turned to Michael Kruger’s work in church history. What a delightful read! I know history, and in particular church history, is an anathema to many people, but I freely admit that I am a nut and I joyfully choose to participate in all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.

First, I guess I should say that I love the structure of this book. Kruger does not work through the second century decade by decade, but rather examines seven topics that he believes are significant, not only to the church in the second century, but for the future development of the church. These topics are: the sociological makeup of the second century church (ch. 1), the response of the political and intellectual world of the second century to the church (ch. 2), second century church worship (ch. 3), diversity in the second century church (ch. 4), unity in the second century church (ch. 5) the literature produced by the second century church (ch. 6), and finally the New Testament canon in the second century (ch. 7). While a specialist might quibble with this choice of subjects, as an amateur church history buff I thought this structure was more than adequate, and while the theologian in me would love to dive into some of the questions of later church history, that is not the purpose of this book and to do so would have detracted from the flow of Kruger’s work.

That leads me to the second of the reasons I love this book – it is a survey, not an in-depth examination of these seven topics. Each of these chapters could be expanded into a full book. Kruger repeatedly makes this point. From the “teacher” in me I would say that this is a great introductory text for an undergraduate class, (to be supplemented, of course) and it should be used to whet the appetite for future study. Actually – this would be a valuable book for an adult class in a church setting, as long as the teacher used the material alongside the study of pertinent Scriptures. It is clearly not written for the specialist, and I think it would open up a world of discussion for those who have never been taught anything about church history or who only have the vaguest idea of what occurred at the conclusion of the first century.

Third, I love Kruger’s self-awareness. He writes as a historian, and as a fully aware historian. Every chapter acknowledges that there are opposing viewpoints, and he responds to those viewpoints charitably. However, he has the courage of his conclusions, and he moves on to provide the supporting evidence for what he believes. He is honest (almost to a fault) that our primary sources for the second century are thin in certain areas, and so a great many questions cannot be answered with a huge degree of certainty. He does, however, provide enough primary, and sometimes secondary, evidence to support his conclusions. He certainly gave me some significant fodder to chew on – and provided me some insights into some subjects that I had never considered.

On the geeky side – Kruger provides 16 1/2 pages of “select bibliography.” You cannot accuse him of not knowing and not making available other sources of information.

Now for the only quibble I have of the book, and I really only discovered it as I read his conclusion – and it is an awesome conclusion. My quibble is that he makes three “observations” that really deserve a chapter for each. But, once again, in Kruger’s mind that would probably have detracted from the point of the book. However, his concluding observations are so spot-on, so perfect, that I will quote them here:

First, modern Christians need to learn again how to be a prophetic voice in the midst of a hostile world where the Church lacks substantial cultural influence or power. (p. 230)

Second, as we look to the second century we are reminded again that Christianity, at its core, is a ‘bookish’ religion. (p. 230)

Third, and finally, when we look to the second century, we are reminded afresh that early Christians, regardless of the exterior pressures and challenges, were always keep to keep the focus on one simple thing: worshipping Jesus. (p. 231)

As I said, each of those points deserved a whole chapter, but at 231 pages the book is really at a perfect size, and as a historian Kruger might not have felt comfortable stepping into the “prophetic” role he called for.

Kruger ends by calling for a greater understanding and exploration of the second century – once again stressing that his volume is an introductory survey. I agree wholeheartedly. Especially in light of his concluding observations, I think the 21st century church is far more like the 2nd century than we are probably aware, and we need to have our eyes opened and our minds focused on the “crossroads” where we stand today.

P.S. – I cannot end this little review without adding another personal note – anytime I see one of my professors quoted in a scholarly work it makes my skin get goose-bumps. Kruger makes reference to Everett Ferguson in a number of places – and Dr. Ferguson was (and remains) one of my heroes. I took every course I possibly could from Dr. Ferguson, and I am simply in awe of his knowledge and his love for the church. When I think of scholarship, the one name I think of most often is Everett Ferguson. That does not make or break this book – but it sure made me smile to see another scholar recognize Dr. Ferguson’s importance in early church historiography.

The Value of Systematically Marking Your Bible

Last year I started doing something that many, many people already do, and almost immediately I started seeing things in Scripture that had earlier eluded me. The practice is inexpensive, and totally flexible – there are no set rules and each reader can adjust the process to fit his/her needs. What is this magic elixir of Bible reading?

I started marking my text with different colored markers. (Duh.)

I purchased a set of 8 markers, marketed as the “Inductive Bible Study Kit” packaged by G.T. Luscombe, and I bought mine through Christian Book Distributors. This particular set has a .01 fine line black and red markers, and .05 fine line markers in yellow, pink, green, blue, orange and purple. If you so desire they have a rather complicated (and in my opinion, far too busy) system of marking the text, so, being as simple-minded as I am, I came up with my own system.

Not that it matters, but I use the black marker for simple emphasis kind of texts, and for making notes in the margin. The red I use for translation kind of notes, and to underline words where translation issues can affect the meaning of a verse or verses. I use the yellow to highlight words that seem to be central or key themes in a book or chapter (fer instance – the words “believe” “live” and “sent” in the gospel of John, the word “righteousness” in the gospel of Matthew). I use green to underline references to God’s people, the church, or God’s kingdom (more on that later). I use blue to underline references to God’s Spirit or the Holy Spirit. I have not really found a use yet for pink (too close to red), orange, or purple, but their use may come later.

A couple of really interesting things have occurred as I do this (and I try to keep all of my physical texts marked identically, which is taking some time). First, specifically in regard to marking all the texts that refer to God’s people, the church, the kingdom of God, or God’s kingdom, or His kingdom, etc., I came to a rather profound conclusion (at least for me, profundity is measured in small containers). The prevailing attitude among the teachers and preachers of my youth was that the New Testament church is the kingdom of God. Ergo and therefore, good Christians cannot pray for the “kingdom of God to come” as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:10, because it already came on the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. To pray for the kingdom to come (as in some future sense) was to be either a closet premillennialist, or worse, a flaming premillennialist. (A brief historical aside here – in the days of my youth, to be a premillennialist was somewhat to the left of being a Baptist, and being either one endangered your soul. To be a Baptist and a premillennialist was especially dangerous. Times have changed, and I don’t think many members of the Churches of Christ even understand what a “premillennialist” is; and we have even started having conversations with the Baptists, so long as they are not premillennialists, or Dallas Cowboy fans. Well, maybe that last one only applies to me.)

So, as I worked through the New Testament, merrily marking passage after passage in green, something occurred to me. In the overwhelming number of passages where the kingdom is specifically mentioned, there was no way I could substitute the word “church” and have the context remain intelligible. In plain English, in the overwhelming number of passages, the kingdom and the church are not equal, they are not interchangeable, they are not the same. Now, in a few passages it is possible to interchange the words kingdom and church, but they are indeed few.

I am not a closet, and certainly not a flaming, premillennialist, but thems are the facts.

Something else I noticed – there are a LOT more passages that have blue under them in the Old Testament than I ever expected there would be. Now, I am not suggesting that the Holy Spirit as is specifically discussed in the New Testament can be read back into the Old Testament, but there is a much higher number of references to “God’s Spirit” or “my Spirit” when God is the speaker, than I had otherwise caught on to. So, it just got me to thinking . . . a commonly held belief is that the “Holy Spirit” (especially as Luke describes him) is a New Testament being – not really present in the Old Testament. However, the number of references to the Spirit of God or, as I indicated, “my Spirit” would seem to contradict that. If we read the Bible in a “New Testament Centric” model, I think our reading is therefore distorted. Perhaps if we read Luke after considering these texts in the Old Testament, we could arrive at a more well rounded view of the Holy Spirit. Something to think about, anyway.

So, anyway, if your Bible reading and study has  reached a stale plateau, try this very simple and inexpensive experiment. Buy a new copy of the Bible (if you do not want to mark up your “old faithful” copy), and create your own system of marking the text. The markers I have purchased do not bleed through the pages, and I have used them on several different copies. I think creating your own system has a far greater value than using some pre-packaged system, but to each his own, I guess.

Blessings on your study, and may you find a precious nugget in your daily Bible reading!

Middle Isaiah (II)

Yesterday I started a series of thoughts taken from the middle section of Isaiah. Today I want to continue those thoughts with what I have come to see as a staggering series of statements made by God, conveyed by Isaiah, that convince me that the Israelites had forgotten who God was. It seems unthinkable – until you stop and consider the current state of Christianity today. Who is God? Is he some puppet that can be controlled by magic-like incantations? Is he the tribal god of some nation, or nations, who in warrior like temperament goes about destroying other nations? Is he some mythological creation of man’s imagination who simply serves as a foil for all of our weaknesses and failures?

This is not a complete list – I am certainly not going to claim infallibility here – but stop and read these passages from middle Isaiah and see if you do not catch on to a common theme:

  • 41:9-10, 13
  • 42:6, 8-9
  • 43:3, 11, 13, 15, 18-19, 25
  • 44:6, 8, 24
  • 45:3, 5-8, 18-19, 21-22
  • 46:4, 9, 11
  • 47:4
  • 48:9, 11-12, 17
  • 49:26
  • 51:12, 15
  • 52:6

As I said yesterday, I am not technically nor linguistically gifted enough to make any definitive statements about the book of Isaiah – but it is striking to me how these statements are clustered together in this middle section of the book. I am convinced it is not accidental – the book is far too carefully constructed for this kind of emphasis to be accidental.

What I can (at least reservedly) say is that this emphasis on the being and nature of God is a critical one for the church to learn again today. Yesterday I wrote of the insanity (in my opinion) of us as Americans to repeatedly put our faith and trust into failed and failing human beings, and then to complain bitterly that our Christian principles are being rejected.

What should we expect? That somehow once a person is elected to congress that they will suddenly become a Christian? Or even more preposterous – that a person who identifies as a Christian is somehow going to change the cess pool that currently describes the situation in Washington D.C.? A whole barrel full of rotten apples does not change just because you put a good apple in the barrel. The good apple sours – it is the nature of apples . . . and of human nature.

Isaiah was speaking to and writing to a nation who had forgotten who and what their God was. They knew of him as a talisman – a good luck charm that was good to have around if things got kind of sticky. But, their real faith, their real trust, was in the strength of men – and in the specific situation that was identified yesterday – the strength of the Egyptian army. God told the Israelites, “Go ahead, trust in Pharaoh, see how far that gets you!”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing in the mid 20th century, said the same thing had happened to his German nation and church. God was just a “God of the gaps” for them. Trust in the army, trust in your genetic heritage, trust in blood and soil – and if things get too far out of hand, trust in God.

Sound familiar?

Many preachers are worried about the “new atheism” and the attacks on Christianity from the outside. I really do not fear that much from atheists – atheists have been attacking the church for 2,000 years and have not succeeded in harming it to any great extent. No, the greatest threat to the Lord’s church today comes from within. It comes from people who do not know, and who do not care to know, who and what God truly is. That is an attack that is truly serious.

And that is why it is so critical for the Lord’s church today to read and study the prophets, not just middle Isaiah. But, if you do need a place to start, middle Isaiah is a really, really good place!

May God bless his church with a rekindling of a desire to know Him, and to put our hope and faith in Him and in Him alone!

The New Normal

We human beings function the best when we have at least a relatively certain belief that we can understand our past and anticipate our future. That belief is called “normal,” and without it our lives would be chaotic. No sentient being can exist in chaos for long – that is why soldiers and other individuals who face catastrophe and disorder for long periods of time are permanently scarred. Our psyches were just not made to endure severe turmoil or even mild disorder for long periods of time.

When something radical happens in our life we typically adjust – the “old” normal is replaced by the “new” normal. Most of this happens without much thought, and typically it is either benign or even positive. I don’t think anyone really wants to give up their cell phone or tablet.

Sometimes, however, the new “normal” is anything but healthy or even benign. New normals can be insidious, malignant, destructive. I believe that as a society we have reached a new “normal” in societal relationships, and it is anything other than healthy.

  • Item: a police officer mistakenly shoots a young man. Within days – seemingly within hours, people declare her to be guilty of MURDER and demand that she face the most violent of repercussions possible.
  • Item: an appellate judge is nominated for the Supreme Court, and AFTER THE LEGAL INQUIRY INTO HIS PAST IS CONCLUDED a letter is produced in which a woman accused him of sexual assault OVER THIRTY YEARS AGO. Immediately he is condemned in the court of popular opinion, and many demand his professional career be terminated.
  • Item: a professional tennis player is admonished by an official for actions that are contrary to the rules of her sport, and over the course of the next few hours she repeated berates the official, throws a temper tantrum in which she destroys her racket, and then screams obscenities at the official. She is steadfastly defended by many for the apparent reason that she is (a) a female and should not have to abide by the rulings of the court official and also because she is (b) a minority and therefore has had to overcome more difficulties in life than a racial majority would have had to overcome. Never mind that her opponent (who was defeating her at the time) was also a racial minority, and a female who WAS abiding by the rulings of the same court official.

These are all examples of the “new normal” by which we get to condemn (and metaphorically execute) individuals on the basis of some bizarre Facebook or Twitter revelation, or that a lifetime of hard work and dedication can be destroyed by an unsubstantiated and unverifiable claim of wrongdoing that took place over three decades in the past, or that deviant, miscreant behavior can be tolerated and even celebrated so long as the perpetrator can claim some minority status or some real or perceived handicap.

I have a name for the new normal. It’s called anarchy, chaos, mob rule. If there is no straight line by which we can measure truth and falsehood, proper and improper behavior, then everyone will eventually become a savage. Societies, no more than individuals persons, can long exist in the face of a moral vacuum. We are living today in the reality of that moral vacuum.

Ours is not the first culture to experience this vacuum. Moral degeneracy has been a common feature of the human race. It’s just that for the past couple of hundred years the deviancy away from a universal moral plumb-line has been easy to detect – the American slavery experience, the Nazi regime, the Rwanda genocide. Today the plumb-line has been so bent and twisted that we (as a culture) no longer can recognize truth, integrity, honesty – or even beauty for that matter.

It is precisely at this moment that the truth of the gospel needs to shine the most brilliantly. Christians MUST accept that if we are to bear the cross and wear the name of disciple of Christ we are going to be labeled as counter-cultural, bizarre, weird. If the basic understanding of morality and truth is a lie, then those who hold up the truth of the gospel will be considered deviant. This is why Jesus – the very prince of peace – was executed for being a treasonous malefactor. There is no escaping this reality. We as disciples of Christ can no longer fool ourselves into thinking that the world will love us just because we use the adjective “Christian” in our name. If Jesus the messiah was killed because his world hated him, how can we even attempt to justify having our world love us?

If  the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. (John 15:18-19)

I have grown weary, and have now even openly rejected, what I consider to be “weather vane” Christianity. These so-called “Christians” and the churches they populate function like a wind-sock at an airport. They point to the direction where society is headed, and then work furiously to make sure they are out in front so that they can appear to be “leaders” in the movement. They are loved by the culture they identify with, and they receive the commendation of those who have created that culture. As Jesus said, they have received their reward.

The new normal is not going to end up looking like anything most of us are familiar with. I’m not even sure what the eventual “normal” will look like. But I can see that as our culture continues to eviscerate itself, there will not be much left in it that will even be worth keeping. If there is no universal truth, if there is no common decency, if there is no consideration of authority, if there is no fundamental acceptance of a person’s dignity, if mere innuendo and accusation can take the place of verifiable facts – then where will we as a culture end up?

There is a place where the light of God’s kingdom can shine. There is a place where decency and honor can be practiced – and where forgiveness and grace abound. There is a place where sin is frankly and openly dealt with and repentance, confession, and restoration is the standard. It can be found in the church – the assembly, the gathering – of God’s redeemed people. It will increasingly be viewed with distrust and suspicion – and even hatred – and for that very reason its members must never, never, never surrender to the scandalous attacks of its opponents.

Our savior ascended by descending to the death on a cross. May we, like him, climb higher by descending lower.