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!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Leadership From Below

Yesterday’s post generated a thoughtful comment, and that comment spurred another thought in my mind. “Iron sharpens iron . . . ” so the wise preacher said. So, indeed, it does.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was born into what could arguably be called one of the most aristocratic families in Germany. His father was a leading psychiatrist,  both of his parents came from aristocratic, if not regal, blood lines. Growing up Bonhoeffer was keenly aware of the primacy of position this placed him, and there are clear statements where he admits this was troublesome to him.

In the church struggle that Bonhoeffer was so deeply involved, he quickly realized that it was not the ecclesiastical aristocracy that was going to stand up against Hitler and defend Christ and the church. It was going to be the masses, the people in the pews, the “commoners.” Time and again he begged the leaders of the German churches to take a stand against the Nazis, but they were concerned about their position, they were concerned about the legal structures that existed in Germany,  they were concerned about finances, they were concerned about everything but what they should have been concerned about – the purity of the church. The support Bonhoeffer (and his compatriots) received came from below – the members of the church that, according to church laws then current, really had no official voice. When the pastors lost their income (the pastors of the Lutheran and United churches were supported by the government, who paid their salaries out of taxes levied against all citizens), the church members stepped up. When the Gestapo closed seminaries and threatened churches, the members opened other doors of education and worship. Bonhoeffer learned what it was to lead “from below.” It confirmed for him what he had  always been uneasy about – aristocracy comes from blood lines, but genuine Christian obedience comes from the heart.

In congregations all across the religious spectrum today, and certainly within the Churches of Christ, there is the “aristocracy” that is concerned about everything except what they should be concerned about. Politics, money, power, even social issues such as abortion and gun rights can co-opt a congregation and leave its members floundering. I do not want to be some “Pollyanna” or “Dorothy” and think that we can click our heels together three time and return back to Kansas. But, hopeless romantic that I am, I do believe that there are Bonhoeffers and Bethges and Niemoellers* out there who are willing to risk their reputations and even lives for the sake of the church (Martin Niemoeller was a U-Boat captain in WWI, he received an Iron Cross for his service. He spent WWII in Dachau, a Nazi concentration camp.)

Let us learn how to lead from below.

*I apologize to the historians and Niemoeller legacy, I know that his name is spelled with an unlaut over the “o,” but I cannot figure out how to put one there. Actually, Bonhoeffer’s family name was originally spelled with an umlaut over the second “o,” but the spelling had changed by the time he was born. Seeing as how my family name was in all probability spelled “Smyth” or even “Smythe” at one time, I can relate to the vagaries of generational name shifts.

Guitars, the Social Sciences, and Christianity

Pardon me while I take a little stroll down the stream of my consciousness …

I love guitar music – mostly anything that comes from an acoustic guitar. I am not so much enamored with electrics, but that is personal preference. So, I have been playing around with my guitars recently and doing a lot of thinking about theology and life in general. Guitars have that magic with me – kind of transport me into another world altogether.

I say that I “play around” with my guitars because I really do not have the ability to play them – at least not to my satisfaction. In my mind there is a real difference between playing at an instrument and making music on that instrument. To use a slightly different image, anyone can open a can of soup and slap some ham on a couple of pieces of bread and make themselves a lunch. But, it takes real culinary skill to create a feast. I’m a can of soup and ham sandwich kind of player. To paraphrase Rowlf the Dog, I’m no Segovia, but I get by.

So, I’ve been pondering what it is that separates a musician from a soup and sandwich hack. It occurred to me that musicians have the ability to do two things that S&S hacks never quite seem to put together. First, musicians understand music. They just get it – all the modes and scales and circle of fifths and all that. Whether they have been taught, or whether it is simply intuitive (which is my guess), they simply know music.

I don’t.

My daughter knows color. She has a rare gift from her maternal grandmother and paternal grandfather – but she is just a natural talent at putting colors together. If I have a question about my wardrobe, I can go to her and she can set me straight in the blink of an eye. I’m lucky to have her around. She has that “gift” for visual art that I am talking about with auditory art. Some people have it. Soup and sandwich hacks don’t.

The other thing true musicians have that I don’t is the knowledge of their instrument. In the hands of a true musician, a guitar or a piano or a flute or a violin simply becomes an extension of their body. In my hands a guitar becomes a weapon of auditory destruction. There is more than just a passing difference.

If you put those two things together you get a true musician. If one or both of those things is missing, well, pull out the can opener and reach for the mustard. I know that if I put my finger on the third fret of the first string I get a certain sound. A musician knows that the next sound he or she needs to hear is a G. He or she also knows there are a whole bunch of other frets on the fretboard that will give them that sound. They make music. I can string together some notes that vaguely resemble music.

If you haven’t  guessed by now, I am in awe of musicians. Especially guitarists who can create pure music. I’m talking Segovia and Kottke and Huttlinger and Atkins and Chapdelaine and Romero and the Pimentels and Denver and Hansen and Parkening and Clark and Campbell and from the ladies – Vidovic and Isbin – and probably a dozen others that have slipped my mind. They are my guitar heroes.

Did I say there was a connection here with theology . . . I think I started out that way. It seems to me that there is one way to be a true human being, and another way that closely resembles the soup and sandwich musical hack. You can study philosophy and psychology and sociology and all the related social sciences, and if you work hard enough and long enough you might come up with something that resembles human life. That is like knowing that if you put your finger on the third fret of the first string you get a boink that sounds sort of what you wanted it to sound like.

On the other hand, you can know Christ, and you can know the human instrument. In that case you know that the next sound you want to hear is a G, and you also know there are virtually limitless methods you can use to arrive at that note. It is the difference between knowing how to open a can of soup and creating a feast. When we come to learn Christ, and come to understand what it is that makes us truly human, we are in the realm of making music, as opposed to just hitting some random notes in the proper succession.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that Jesus did not come in order to make humans divine. He came in order to enable humans to become fully human – to regain that which we lost in the garden. That has always had a profound impact on me, and, to be honest, I think Bonhoeffer was on to something.

I think it worth mentioning that Bonhoeffer was also a musician – so talented in fact that his family and friends thought that he had a legitimate chance to become a professional musician in Germany. He also knew how to play the guitar. Music, guitars, and theology – now that is a spiritual feast!

Why settle for just plinking around with some notes in the social sciences when you can play genuine music? The best thing about Christianity is that you do not have to have some inherent skill – all you need to do is learn to trust the master conductor. He will lead you into mastering both the music, and your instrument.

But you have to learn how to submit – and to trust – this conductor. Otherwise, all you will get is a can of soup and a flimsy sandwich.

Top Authors – Who Rocks Your World?

Just a random thought today – seeing as how it is Friday and no one is paying attention anyway —

I got to thinking about the authors that have really influenced me – maybe not convinced me of the truth of every one of their thoughts, but the authors that invariably make me think deeply about their subject. I came up with 7 (a good biblical number) based on the number of books in my library, and by the significance of the author’s ability to cause me to reflect on my own beliefs and to think holistically.

Here are my seven: (well, I will actually throw in an eighth, but with a caveat)

  1. Dietrich Bonhoeffer (if you know me, this was a no-brainer)
  2. C.S. Lewis (I am continually blown away by Lewis’ logic and penetrating insights)
  3. Thomas Merton (a contemplative’s contemplative; profound insights into human nature and Christian theology)
  4. Henri Nouwen (a poetic theologian, or a theological poet)
  5. N.T. Wright (a scholar who can write so I can understand him – a rare trait; has just exploded my understanding of many points theological)
  6. Os Guinness (just learning more about Guinness – but right up there with Bonhoeffer for penetrating intellect and Merton and Nouwen for powerful prose)
  7. John Stott (had to put a preacher/commentator on the list)

(And for my wild card – Glen Stassen, although with Dr. Stassen his influence has been primarily in the field of ethics, specifically in relation to the Sermon on the Mount and Christian ethics)

By the way, I have to explain why no authors from my own heritage are on this list – primarily it is because I already approach the subjects with which they interact in a posture of basic agreement. But, for sheer brilliance and depth of intellect, no one can even hold a candle to Everett Ferguson. I would be hopelessly lost in my journey in the Restoration Movement without such guides as Richard Hughes and C. Leonard Allen. In terms of historical knowledge and critical analysis, the peak of Mt. Olympus belongs to David Edwin Harrell, Jr. There, I think I have covered all of my bases.

So, who makes your list? Why? Any thoughts about new voices on the horizon? (Six out of my top eight are deceased, hmmm. Why is there such a dearth of theologians who can write anything more than vapid pablum today?)

Looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

When Your Sacred Cow is Gored

I believe that one of the real “acid” tests for our profession of faith in Christ comes when one of our “Sacred Cows” is gored. By that I mean a cherished belief is questioned, a matter of absolute life and death is declared to be nothing more than mere opinion. Let me illustrate with three examples, one from Scripture, and two from Christian history.

The first is the well-known conversion of the Pharisee Saul to the disciple Paul. Saul was convinced with every fiber of his body that the sect of the Nazarenes had to be extinguished. So convinced, in fact, that he devoted his life (or at least a major part of it) to the persecution of that sect. Then, on the road to Damascus, Saul learned that this mission was, in fact, directly opposite of what he thought it was. In fact, he learned that his prior life as a Pharisee was the false religion that he believed the Christian Way to be. His “sacred cow” was gored to death. He spent the remainder of his life proclaiming this Jesus of Nazareth to be the Son of God, and called all men to accept that Jesus as both their savior from sin and Lord of their life.

The first example from history would be the combined efforts of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W. Stone, and their many co-workers. Both of the Campbells and Stone were raised in and promoted the Presbyterian (Calvinist) interpretation of Scripture. At varying points in their lives, the Campbells, Stone, and others had this “sacred cow” gored. To their everlasting credit they made the decision to follow Scripture where Scripture led them, and they allowed that “cow” of denominational creedalism to pass away.

The second of my historical examples is Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a young German theologian educated in the most liberal of theological universities, and the heir of the other major church reformer, Martin Luther. In the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, Bonhoeffer had his theological “sacred cow” gored, and he would eventually suffer death as a result of his passionate efforts to reform and renew the German church.

What did Saul turned Paul, Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer all share in common? Not a theological background – Saul was a Jew, the Campbells and Stone were Calvinist Presbyterians, Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran. Not a historical epoch – Saul died in the mid first century AD, the Campbells and Stone in the mid 19th century, and Bonhoeffer in the mid 20th century. Not geography – Saul in Palestine, the Campbells and Stone in America and Bonhoeffer in Nazi Germany. What united these pioneers of faith?

Perhaps many things could be listed, but the one thing that stands out to me is their willingness to be open to the Word of God as it was revealed to them. Saul (Paul) had a miraculous revelation of Christ, the Campbells and Stone were caught up in the fires of the Second Great Awakening, Bonhoeffer was caught up in an entirely different kind of fire. The biblical Saul, the ante-bellum Restorers and the Nazi resister Bonhoeffer were faced with unique and world-changing situations, and each responded to the call of Scripture in almost the exact same manner: they listened to the Word of God and rejected their former beliefs, even up to and (in the case of Saul and Bonhoeffer) including the sacrifice of their own lives.

These all ascended by climbing lower.

I don’t think our Christian mettle is proved when we sit in an auditorium and hear a sermon, the content of which we have heard hundreds of times before, and with with we agree completely. We are not proven to be disciples of Christ when we demand that every word that we hear, or read, comes from a “sound” gospel preacher (whatever in the world that means). We do not “study to show ourselves approved” when we never allow ourselves to be challenged or have any of our “sacred cows” gored.

I am thankful for all the faithful preachers and teachers who have been influential in my life. I am especially thankful for those who have demonstrated to me the ability, and in fact the necessity, of the strength of character to have my own “sacred cows” gored, so that I can decide if the voice I am following is that of the Good Shepherd, or that of the accuser of mankind.

May we all be blessed with that strength of character!

 

The Fractured State of America

Some rueful thoughts after several weeks of silence.

This is probably just an anecdotal observation, but to these eyes it seems that the “United” States of America are more fractured now than at any point in our history except immediately before, during, and after the War between the States. (Just an aside, but I was going to type “Civil” War, which is perhaps the most moronic of oxymorons. How can you have a “civil” war??) I do not foresee any states seceding from the union, but philosophically the landscape does appear to have a massive gulf that separates the “progressives” from the “conservatives.” Not only is that gulf wide and deep, but the voices which identify with each side appear to be more shrill and vitriolic with each passing day. Neither side can claim very much of a moral high ground – too much of their ground is being thrown at the other side in the form of mud.

I think of Mordecai’s message to young queen Esther, “Who knows whether you have not come to the kingdom for such a time as this?” We cannot choose the epoch in which we were born, but we can certainly choose whether we are going to allow that epoch to rule our life, or whether we make every effort possible to influence the world around us.

One thing I feel very passionately about – disciples of the crucified Christ cannot afford to lower themselves to wallow in the muck and mire of the current political morass. Yes, we are to hold our convictions. Yes, we are to be “in the world.” But we cannot afford to be “of the world,” and we most certainly cannot afford to allow that world to be “in” us. Sometimes I wonder if God is not allowing this political firestorm to fester simply to test the hearts of those who claim to be his followers. The acid test would be for us to declare – by words or actions – whether we are more Democrat, Republican, Independent, or Libertarian or whether we are willing to be lifted up on the cross of Christ because we refuse to follow the ways of the world.

The apostles of Christ addressed virtually every issue that is causing so much hatred in the “cultural wars” of today – sexual perversion, marriage and divorce issues, just plain old progressivism vs. conservatism – you name it. But, and mark this, every discussion was framed by the question of obedience to Christ or the lord of the world. Obedience was commanded, not to some political party or philosophical orientation, but to the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus himself said it – you cannot serve God and the world at the same time. At some point you have to make your “pledge of allegiance” clear and loud.

As a preacher and amateur philosopher, I am tempted to passionately address each and every issue currently on the “critical” discussion list. Occasionally, I give in to that siren call. But increasingly I am coming to the conclusion that what is needed is not my opinion (which, despite my most fervent desire, does not matter much anyway), but my obedience to the call of Christ, “. . . he who would be my disciple must take up his cross, and follow me.” In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. Maybe not physical death (although, for Bonhoeffer, it did), but a death to this world, to worldly passions, to participation in a system that is spiritually corrupt, and corrupting, at its very core.

Maybe it’s just me, but I see the right moving further to the right, and the left moving further to the left. What I want to see, and what I think I should be able to see, is the disciple of Christ moving more to the foot of the cross. It is simply impossible to hate your enemy when you look into the eyes of the one who died for you – and for them too!

Yes, dear Christian, Jesus’s blood was shed for your sinful enemy every bit as much as for your (un)righteous self.

Let us remember that as we begin to climb Mt. Moral Superiority.

Let us ascend by climbing lower, and serving those with whom we disagree.

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).