Thinking Out Loud

October 11, 2016

Remembering

Filed under: Christianity, Faith, family — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:10 am

spiritual-legacy-2Yesterday my mom passed away just before noon after a long, gradual decline in health. It was a day for processing many different emotions

  • the mixed feelings you get when you know it’s someone’s time to go and you’re even praying for that, when in earlier days you would have prayed for strength and healing
  • the myriad of things which must be done at a time you would rather just relax and deal with the loss itself but now you’re too busy
  • the reactions from other people who knew her albeit in a completely different relationship than your own and finding yourself envious of those relationship dynamics
  • the tremendous amount of support from people who are for you and in your corner, who you didn’t realize would react so strongly to your loss
  • the people who tell you that they were praying for you; that they have been praying for you for a much longer time than you would have otherwise known

I will write something about my mom’s life here on another day. There is so much to tell. For now I am so grateful to be surrounded by a faith community that impacted me so powerfully in the past several hours.


Related: Four Ways to Pass Down a Spiritual Legacy

September 23, 2016

What’s Up With the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

Filed under: apologetics, Christianity, Faith, guest writer — Tags: , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:06 am

clarke-dixon-picClarke Dixon is a Canadian Baptist pastor whose posts at Sunday’s Shrunk Sermon end up at Christianity 201 on Wednesdays or Thursdays. The one this week was a little bit different, though; and I thought it would be a good fit here as well…

Guest post by Clarke Dixon

You may be wondering “what’s up with a sermon called ‘What’s Up With the Flying Spaghetti Monster?’” You can blame this one on one of my sons who over the summer said “hey Dad, you should preach a sermon on the Flying Spaghetti Monster.” If you have never heard of such a thing, be assured many others have, including, of course, my sons.

So what even is it? The Flying Spaghetti Monster is the god of a new religion called “Pastafarianism.” Now to be clear, most “Pastafarians” do not actually believe this religion per se, rather it is practiced as a parody of religion. When you hear that some Pastafarians get their ID pictures taken with colanders on their heads, you may think that it is a big joke. It kind of is, but at the heart of it are some important issues that the atheist community want people to think about. “Belief” in the Flying Spaghetti Monster all began in the United States with one man challenging a school board to reconsider whether Creationism should be taught alongside Evolution. He was reasoning that if time was given to the story of God creating the universe as found in Genesis, then equal time should be given to his god, “The Flying Spaghetti Monster.” His letter was put on the Internet and it has since become “a thing.”

There are two questions that the The Flying Spaghetti Monster should cause a Christian to grapple with:

  1. Should Creationism be taught alongside Evolution in schools?
  2. Is Christianity just a made-up fable like the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

1. Should Creationism be taught alongside Evolution in schools?

My answer to this may be tainted by the fact that I am Canadian. If a school system is publicly funded, and is made available to all the public, then one particular religious viewpoint should not be privileged over the rest. Many a good Christian will be very disappointed with me right now, but if we Christians were in the minority, and Muslims in the majority, would we want Islamic precepts being taught in our public schools?

However, are we too quick to roll over and play dead? I fear we Canadian Christians often are. There is a field of study that looks at the origins of the universe from no particular religious viewpoint. It is commonly referred to as Intelligent Design (ID for short) and begins not with a religious text, like “In the beginning, God . . . ,” but with the study of our world and the universe. It looks at the apparent elements of design in the universe and infers that behind the design is a Designer. The illustration is sometimes used of flying an airplane over an island and finding the letters “SOS” written in sand. You know someone is, or has been, there based on three letters. Then go on to consider the amazing amount of information stored in DNA. Or how amazing it is that so many things have to be “just so” for life to be possible. Such evidence of design begs for a Designer.

Some think that the more we learn about the universe from science, the less we need any notion of a god to explain things. God has been moved to the margins it has been said. However, this would be like someone taking apart an iPhone and in figuring out how the parts and software work together, saying “there is and never has been a Steve Jobs or Johnny Ive. We don’t see them present with us making this thing work.” You see the misstep. As John Lennox has pointed out, God is not a “God-of-the-gaps” God, that is, the explanation of the things we cannot understand, but rather is the “God of the whole show.” If an iPhone is an incredible achievement in design and engineering, the universe is infinitely more so. As the Psalmist writes:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. (Psalm 19:1)

Should ID be taught in schools alongside Evolution? After all, some would point out, perhaps correctly, that it is not science strictly speaking. It wanders into the realm of philosophy. Whatever it is, it is good, clear thinking. Schools should be places of good, clear thinking.

But does ID get you to Jesus? Or to the Flying Spaghetti Monster for that matter? This brings us to our second question.

fsm2. Is Christianity just a made-up fable like the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

This is an insinuation of those who practice Pastafarianism, namely that belief in Jesus, or in any god for that matter, is as ridiculous as believing in something like the Flying Spaghetti Monster. So is it?

Here we look to the where the evidence leads, particularly with respect to the origins of each religion. For example, if you were to investigate the origins of “belief” in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the evidence would lead to knowing exactly when, where, and even why the whole thing started. You can easily account for the birth and development of Pastafarianism without needing the actual existence of the Flying Spaghetti Monster to account for it. It is clearly a people made religion. You can go on to apply this same inquiry of all religions, asking “how did they begin and develop, and can you account for such things without the existence of the god they point to?” This all works very well until you come to Christianity. I am only scratching the surface here, but birth and development of Christianity falls nicely into place if Jesus rose from the dead. If Jesus did not rise from the dead, then it is hard to account for why the first Christians believed what they believed, did what they did, and wrote what they wrote. N.T. Wright is one of the best scholars to look up to learn more about this.

If you are looking for a more accessible read you could look up the writings of an expert in evidence by the name of J. Warner Wallace. He was a cold-case detective and an atheist, who upon reading the Gospels came to realize that what he was reading bore the marks of genuine eyewitness testimony. I am only scratching the surface, but he gives us pointers on handling the evidence, some of which are paraphrased poorly by me below, but told in better detail himself. Consider:

  • The variations between the Gospels are evidence of genuine witnesses being behind them. Detectives get suspicious of collusion when witnesses all end up saying the exact same things in the exact same way.
  • The case for the reality of Jesus and the truth for Christianity is a cumulative case, built upon many bits of evidence.
  • While there is no direct evidence for Jesus available to us today, circumstantial evidence is enough to establish truth. All convictions of cold cases are built on circumstantial evidence.
  • Evidence does not need to get you beyond every possible doubt for a conviction, but beyond every reasonable doubt. Some people hold the bar far too high when it comes to Jesus so that no amount of evidence would ever be enough.
  • Not every question that is raised in a case needs to be answered. Belief in Jesus as Lord is reasonable, even when questions linger.
  • Unbiased jurors make the best jurors. That is why there is a process of jury selection, to weed out those who would begin with prejudice and bias. Some people will never believe Jesus rose from the dead because they start with a bias against the possibility of any miracle.

The evidence points to the unreality of the Flying Spaghetti Monster and the reality of Jesus. Evidence is spoken of in the Bible:

3 This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, 4 who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.
5 For there is one God;
there is also one mediator between God and humankind,
Christ Jesus, himself human,
6 who gave himself a ransom for all
this was attested at the right time. 1 Timothy 2:3-6 (emphasis mine)

The word for “attested” is a word meaning “evidence, proof, testimony.” That there is one God, and that Jesus is how we can know God has been “attested to,” or “evidenced.” Jesus is the greatest proof of Who the Designer is, and the greatest evidence of His love for us. Which brings us to our conclusion.

The evidence points to what seems too good to be true. If the evidence pointed to atheism being true, that would be a depressing thing. If the evidence pointed to Islam being true, that could be a scary thing. If the evidence pointed to Eastern religions being true with their focus on karma, that would be an unfortunate thing. But the evidence points to the resurrection of Jesus, the reality of God, and the reality of God’s grace and love for the sinner. That is the best possible place for the evidence to lead. It seems too good to be true! Yet that is where the evidence points. So instead of asking “what’s up with the Flying Spaghetti Monster,” we should instead be asking “what’s up with God loving us so much?”

All scripture references are taken from the NRSV

 

August 14, 2016

Becoming a Christian by the Numbers

…or in this case, The Book of Numbers

I’m breaking our 12-month rule here, only because I used this approach with a young woman on Friday and realized that I wanted to share this again on the blog and didn’t want to wait until October.


Moses and the Bronze Snake← ← Could you retell this Bible story?

That was the question we asked yesterday, noting that most adults would have difficulty presenting this off the top of their heads, to either another adult or a child, which is unfortunate because it is many ways key to telling the gospel story. Because I think it’s so important, we’re devoting this weekend to looking at this from different perspectives using a mix of fresh commentary and some things that were originally posted at Christianity 201.


…and the transaction so quickly was made, when at the cross I believed…

~lyrics, “Heaven Came Down”

Yesterday we kicked off with the old hymn “At Calvary” and today it’s “Heaven Came Down.” I’ve noticed that when people get older they mind starts to recall classic pieces that are no longer sung in the modern church.

The moment of salvation is an invisible transaction. For some people there is an inward witness that verifies that step of faith.

John 9:24-25

(NIV)

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

But for some people, there is a desire to understand the underpinning of how that invisible transaction takes place. An entire branch of theology is devoted to this:

so·te·ri·ol·o·gy
[suh-teer-ee-ol-uh-jee]

~noun Theology.
— the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ.

So while the healing of the blind man provides its own satisfactory proof if you are, in fact, the blind man or his parents; for everyone else we have the books of Romans and Hebrews to understand the depth of salvation doctrine.

But we often miss a basic fact of how salvation works:

John 3:14

(NIV) Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up

The verse recalls the story from the book of Numbers we looked at yesterday, often overlooked in times of increasing Biblical illiteracy:

Numbers 21:7-9

(NIV) 7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

The concept of the invisible transaction was once entrenched through yet another hymn written by William Ogden in 1887 that was popular in some circles, the chorus inviting you to...

“Look and live,” my brother, live,
Look to Jesus now, and live;
’Tis recorded in His word, hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”

It’s interesting how the Numbers 21 story is so prominent in the lines of that chorus, but do we have anything in modern worship to replace that? Does our vertical worship allow room to take these Bible narratives and recite them in song?

Youth ministries in the late 1960’s borrowed a phrase from a popular Clairol commercial and suggested that the invisibility of the transaction was such that “only your hairdresser knows for sure.” In other words, there isn’t necessarily a physical manifestation of salvation.

But as with so many things in God’s kingdom, there is a balance to be found on that issue, since the visible manifestation of salvation ought to be the presence of the fruit of the spirit.

I also recognize that many are uncomfortable with a transactional view of the regeneration of the Spirit at salvation. I think sometimes we can suffer from what is called the paralysis of analysis. Perhaps a more modern — albeit still about 40 years old — scripture chorus can help us:

He paid a debt he didn’t owe
I owed a debt I couldn’t pay
I needed someone to wash my sins away
And now I sing a brand new song
Amazing grace!
Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.

Ultimately, the invisibility of the salvation transaction ought to be central if putting our trust in Jesus Christ to both redeem us and then from that point guide us is to be considered part of the realm of faith. You don’t get a certificate, or a wallet card — though sadly, some churches do just that — when you decide to become a Christ follower.

We cross the line of faith to become Christ followers at some point, but the line itself remains seen only in the spiritual world. That moment of salvation can happen in an instant, what is sometimes termed the crisis view of salvation, or it can take place over a time, what C.S. Lewis and others might call the process view of salvation.

I don’t know that it’s necessary for everyone to have an exact date that they can point to (or have written in the front cover of their Bibles) when they crossed that line of faith, but I think you know in your heart when you’ve arrived at that point.

To repeat what we said yesterday, the people in the Numbers 21 story didn’t have to do anything beyond simply looking to the cross for their deliverance. That’s the part of the story you need to be able to impart to people who want to determine their next step on their journey to the cross, even if you don’t spell out the whole story itself.


Today’s music:

For complete original lyrics to Heaven Came down, click here.

For an abridged version of the original redone in a modern style by David Crowder, click here.

Go Deeper:

To see an index of the main subjects that form a study on soteriology, note the ten sessions covered on this page.

To go extra deep on this topic, check out this teaching page.

Finally, here are links to dozens of other resources on the doctrine of salvation.

August 13, 2016

Ambulance Chasing and Evangelism

Yes, There’s a Connection

I’m breaking our 12-month rule here, only because I used this approach with a young woman yesterday and realized that I wanted to share this again on the blog and didn’t want to have to wait until October.


Moses and the Bronze Snake← ← Do you recognize this Bible story?

This is the cover of a children’s Bible story book, available for only $2.49 US at most Christian bookstores. Yet most adults would have difficulty presenting this off the top of their heads, to either another adult or a child, which is unfortunate because it is many ways key to telling the gospel story. I’ve covered this about five times at Christianity 201, but realized it’s never been looked at here. Over the weekend, I want to spend some time on this theme.


Although I don’t use eBooks, I’m always intrigued by the concept that publishers now routinely offer books completely free of charge. There are Christian bloggers who regularly advise their readers where to find the daily and weekly bargain downloads, but sometimes I’m reading an old blog post, so even though I don’t have an eReader, I’ll click through to learn more, only to find the offer is no longer in effect and there is now a price to be paid.

Fortunately, when it comes to salvation, there is currently no closing date on God’s offer. True, a day will come when that will change. Also true, you don’t know long you have to take advantage. But it’s a free offer. An old hymn stated:

Mercy there was great and grace was free
Pardon there was multiplied to me
There my burdened soul found liberty
At Calvary

For some, this is simply too good to be true. “Surely there is a cost;” they say, and truthfully they are correct. While Salvation itself is a free gift, God offers so much for us for this life, and that is going to involve taking up your cross daily. It might mean sacrifice or it might mean being ostracized by your family, friends and co-workers.

But in our original coming to Jesus, we find the offer to “taste and see” is both easy and simple. The problem we have is putting this idea across to those outside the church, and I believe part of the challenge is that we are living in a culture that is not Biblically literate, and therefore are not, as music and literary people say, “familiar with the literature.”

The story that needs to be kept told for me is the story in Numbers:

Numbers 21:7-9

(NIV)

7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

(If you’re not familiar with this, click here to read all 5 verses.)

This Old Testament story foreshadows, as do so many OT stories, what Christ is going to do. As God’s people sojourn, they are given pictures which are somewhat for our benefit. Sometimes we impute this into the text from a New Testament perspective, but sometimes Jesus spells out for us in words unmistakable:

John 3:14

(NIV)

Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up…

ambulance symbolI believe it’s not only important to know this story in a “conversationally familiar with” sense, but also important to teach people how to teach people this story. By the way, when I teach this to people I often point out that this story is the basis for the symbol seen on many ambulances and other emergency vehicles. I would say that most of the people I talk to are astounded to learn the connection.

While a testimony of “what God has done for us,” and a rudimentary knowledge of basic salvation scriptures are both helpful, it’s often needful to be able to construct the offer of “God’s gift” in terms unrelated to the deeper, doctrinal considerations of Romans or Hebrews which the novice believer can’t fully process; and this story provides a simple way of explaining that there’s nothing the person has to do to obtain salvation beyond simply looking to the cross.

Tomorrow, we’ll look at this again in a different way. Stay tuned. Meanwhile here’s a great graphic from Adam4D:

The Great Exchange from Adam4d

Here’s some other material for your consideration:

Graphic: Adam4D (click graphic to source)

February 20, 2016

Is Donald Trump a Christian? Is the Pope Catholic?

Much ink has been spilled and much energy has been spent trying to flesh out the subject of “who’s in and who’s out” in matters of the Christian faith. Only God knows. The religion news story of the week was Pope Francis weighing in on Donald Trump’s faith and Trump’s inevitable response. The Pope asserted that Christians work to build bridges not walls, and on the basis of a statement reflecting this particular fruit of Trump’s character, implied that Trump’s Mexico/USA border wall concept is not consistent with identity as a Christian.

But on what do you base an assessment of someone? Within my own sphere of acquaintances there are people who disagree on a wide variety of subjects; some of which are part of Biblical interpretation, some of which are ethical, and others of which are reflective of the living out of their faith in everyday life. Is any one of these a significant marker of one’s spiritual sincerity or authenticity? Is there a single litmus test of orthodoxy? And is the in-versus-out question based on what I do today or tomorrow or on faith commitments I made at an earlier stage of life? Can I be in one day and out the next?

One of the best articles I’ve seen on this topic is in the book A is for Abductive by Leonard Sweet, Brian McLaren and Jerry Haselmayer in which they speak of bounded sets, centered sets, and dynamic sets; along with helpful diagrams. It’s a book I keep handy, but the lateness of the hour on Friday prevents me from scanning in those pages, so you’ll have to settle for someone else’s work. On the previous page there is a circle with no center point; one is defined as either in or out. X, Y and Z below are all in, but B and C are certainly close. Then they introduce centered-set thinking:

Bounded Set, Centered Set, Dynamic Set

For most of you, this either simplifies things or makes it more complicated. (There’s a logical statement.) But it illustrates the degrees to which people go to try to think through the issue of who’s in and who’s out.

In searching for the graphic I came across this quote from C.S. Lewis along with another diagram:

Christians as centered set vs bounded set_thumb[5]

[The] situation in the actual world is much more complicated than that. The world does not consist of 100% Christians and 100% non-Christians. There are people (a great many of them) who are slowly ceasing to be Christians but who still call themselves by that name: some of them are clergymen. There are other people who are slowly becoming Christians though they do not yet call themselves so. There are people who do not accept the full Christian doctrine about Christ but who are so strongly attracted by Him that they are His in a much deeper sense than they themselves understand…. And always, of course, there are a great many people who are just confused in mind and have a lot of inconsistent beliefs all jumbled up together.

Consequently, it is not much use trying to make judgments about Christians and non-Christians in the mass. It is some use comparing cats and dogs, or even men and women, in the mass, because there one knows definitely which is which. Also, an animal does not turn (either slowly or suddenly) from a dog into a cat. But when we are comparing Christians in general with non-Christians in general, we are usually not thinking about real people whom we know at all, but only about two vague ideas which we have got from novels and newspapers. If you want to compare the bad Christian and the good Atheist, you must think about two real specimens whom you have actually met. Unless we come down to brass tacks in that way, we shall only be wasting time.

 ~ C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (1952; Harper Collins: 2001) 208-209.

So while the media has fun with the friendly banter between the Pope and the Presidential wannabe, know for sure that deciding on either the present devotion or the eternal destiny of anyone in particular is way above our pay grade. We can’t do it when speaking of individual people because we’re not God; but Lewis argues that dealing with it theoretically has no value.

 

 

January 11, 2016

Do We Even Worship the Same God?

Filed under: Faith, God, Religion — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 6:41 am

Note: In some respects this is a part two to Saturday’s post, Can People of Other Faiths Be Worshiping the Same God?

Google-GodOn Saturday morning, my wife and I set out for the big city to help our oldest pick out what will be his first automotive purchase. The day resulted in completed frustration and failure, and ended up with our own car breaking down on the freeway and requiring towing back to our home.

But earlier on, when the mood was lighter, we were discussing Saturday’s blog post regarding the shared history of the Abrahamic faiths (Christianity, Judaism and Islam) and the question as to whether or not we worship the same God or simply seek the same God; and all of this in light of the Larycia Hawkins/Wheaton College situation in the U.S.

We wondered if perhaps there is not a more common, pedestrian use of the phrase “Are we even worshiping the same God” which comes up more often.

It comes up when you encounter people whose drive for success and wealth and material prosperity overshadows their understanding of scripture.

Are we even worshiping the same God?

Or people whose devotion to a particular Bible translation seems to overshadow their love for God.

Are we even worshiping the same God?

Or those Americans who somehow manage to equate the gospel with a particular particular party or view on a touchy political subject, such as gun control.

Are we even worshiping the same God?

Or church members whose busy-ness about the programs of their local congregation mean that you can’t see Jesus for the church activitees (think forest, trees)

Are we even worshiping the same God?

Or those friends whose conversation reflects constant references to their love and admiration for a particular author or televangelist but little in the way of references to Christ.

Are we even worshiping the same God?

…We have enough struggles in the church sometimes with clarity of identification; we often don’t adequately define our terms. I also think we also completely obscure our message when we put other things in the place of Christ, or God, or the Holy Spirit, or all three.

I have acquaintances with whom I disagree on a doctrinal point here and there. But I also have acquaintances whose faith is comprised of so many things that are so very different from my own understanding of the character and nature and ways of the God I serve that I do in fact find myself asking sometimes,

Are we even worshiping the same God?

 

 

November 14, 2015

The Pastor and the Worship Leader Need to Be Best Friends

Note to readers: Because we were away all day Friday, this post was scheduled before we learned of the tragic events in Paris, France yesterday. For that, we have no words.

I came across the article in the spring of 2007 in Worship Leader magazine, never realizing how it was about to change my life. They interviewed a number of worship leaders in the U.S. — magazines like WL are usually unaware that anything exists outside the U.S. — on the subject of their relationship with their senior pastor.

worship-leaderMany mentioned the need for friendship, the need to be doing things together outside the office. As someone who was involved in a weekly worship activity that resulted in a senior pastor relationship which was entirely “task related,” I suddenly figured out why I had the nagging feeling that something was missing. The WL magazine article very clearly articulated the disconnect I was feeling, and realizing that was not about to change, I quit doing that job at that particular church. 

Basically, I realized that I was a utility, an implement; and while he was willing to listen to my opinions about a variety of subjects, I was really there because I knew how to play the piano. Nothing more. But what to do with the extra time and creative juices?

I knew that I made the right decision each morning when I would log in to the internet. Both the readers of this blog and the writers at the vast number of other blogs I monitor each week have gave me a new ministry life that far exceeded the boundaries of anything I was doing previously. And it wasn’t a cold turkey ending to my music life: I occasionally still got to do a few things musically, but also reached an age where I was actually consulting with other worship leaders and getting to give all kinds of advice, some of which was actually respected.

But I often consider the question of the relationship between pastor and worship-person, and here is what I have concluded:

(1) It’s not enough to know where the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding you and your congregation in the worship element of the service; you need to also have a sense of where the Holy Spirit is leading and guiding the senior pastor in the teaching element of the service, and the other participants leading the service, too. You need to work, no make that minister well together.

(2) While the Holy Spirit is able to impart all kinds of information like this to you supernaturally, and while the Holy Spirit is hopefully leading both pastor and worship leader in the same direction, this aspect of ministry can only work well if the pastor and worship person know each other well as humans, as people, as friends. It’s only when I know the natural impulses and responses that a person manifests on a human level that I can truly appreciate when God is doing something unique on a given day on a supernatural level. You need to know each other well.

Worship leaders and pastors should be good, good friends. Maybe not BFF friends, but they should have both a good working relationship, and a good off-task relationship.

November 13, 2015

Before the Kids are Born, Decide Which December Story You’re Going With

Filed under: Christianity, Faith, parenting — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:38 am

jesus_asks_santa

Had an interesting discussion yesterday with the grandmother of a young girl who, although she has grown up in a Christian home, has been saturated with the Santa Claus story as well. And now that she is getting older, the reindeer are coming home to roost, so to speak.

The grandmother, caught between a North Pole and a hard place, is trying to ease the pain by — wait for it — buying the girl some extra gifts for Christmas this year. I hope she signs the cards as being from Grandma and not Santa.

This girl knows that Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ. But the jolly fat man with the red coat and white beard seems to be an equal part of the story. And if Santa isn’t real, what about the thing about the baby, the manger; and shepherds and wise men and sheep, oh my? In her brain, she is probably wondering when that ‘myth’ gets deconstructed.

So why do we do this to our kids? What do we introduce a narrative as if it’s true, knowing that at some point we are going to have to tell them it is false. Did you grow up with Santa? What are you telling your kids?

October 25, 2015

It’s Not What You Do, It’s Who You Know

Moses and the Bronze Snake← ← Why Isn’t This Story in Every Bible Story Collection?

That’s the question we’re looking at this weekend. Perhaps the story just has credibility issues with adults. A snake on a pole? You only have to look at it; not touch it, or do something else with it?  Perhaps the story simply gets bumped in Bible storybooks by stories involving a giant, or a whale, or a den of lions. But seriously, the way the Numbers 21 story prefigures the crucifixion, while we may not include it in our gospel presentations, we should at least be conversationally familiar with it. If you’ve missed what we’ve said so far, read the articles posted Friday and Saturday.


The Evangelism Explosion Question

Evangelism Explosion was a door-to-door evangelism campaign launched at Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Florida when James Kennedy was pastor, and then made available for churches to train volunteers and use the program in their city or town.

Wikipedia records this about the program:

Evangelism Explosion is best known for its two “diagnostic questions” that users can ask non-Christians as a means of determining a “person’s spiritual health”, and of stimulating an evangelistic conversation:

  1. Have you come to the place in your spiritual life where you can say you know for certain that if you were to die today you would go to heaven?
  2. Suppose that you were to die today and stand before God and he were to say to you, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” what would you say?

After the diagnostic questions, the evangelist is encouraged to explain the gospel in terms of grace, man, God, Christ, and faith.

What the article doesn’t say is that most people would reply to the second question in terms like,

  • I’ve been a good person
  • I lived a good life
  • I prayed to God regularly
  • I kept the Ten Commandments
  • I went to church
  • I always gave money when people needed it
  • I didn’t smoke/drink/take drugs/sleep around

…and so on.

But none of these is the right answer. It is only through the blood of Jesus Christ that any of us obtains the righteousness that is needed before a just God; something I assume the EE people would then go on to explain. (In what’s sometimes called a “law and gospel” approach, the point is additionally made that none of those actions or omissions could be considered good enough when standing before a God who is all-holy.) 

DO versus DONE

So how does one do that? How do we move from people whose religion is all D-O (do this, do that, do the other thing) to one who simply accepts what’s all been D-O-N-E (freely given, and able to be taken irrespective of one’s spiritual balance sheet)?

Growing up in what was then Canada’s only megachurch, The Peoples Church in Toronto, Dr. Paul B. Smith (who also baptized me) would give an invitation almost every Sunday night and ask people to raise their hands if the wanted him “to include them in the closing prayer.”

While being prayed for to receive salvation or praying a prayer are both models that are subject to intense scrutiny and criticism these days, I think his approach is good at least insofar as one must want to placed under the covering that the cross provides.

I often compare this to the cards we get from the postal service telling us that they are holding a parcel for pickup. We can show all our friends the parcel card and even wave it around, but until we actually go to the post office and exchange the card for the benefit it represents, then all we have is piece of thin cardboard. And think about, the analogy really fits because the parcel is yours; it has your name on it.

How else do we describe this invisible transaction? Most people want to do something in order to gain right standing with God. That’s why religion is so popular. People at least can quantify their acts of piety, devotion or righteousness.

But Christianity, in this sense at least, is not religion. You don’t do anything.

And that’s where the transaction model really breaks down for some people. See, when I do a transaction at the ATM, I get a receipt. At least I can hold that in my hand (or affix it to the inside cover of my Bible). But as much as people so desperately want the equivalent to a proof of purchase, such is not the case when it’s something that happens invisibly. You simply, in a way so similar to the story of Moses and the Bronze Snake need to look to the cross.

Truly this is faith.  


 

As stated, there is no magic prayer to pray, but in your own words, you can simply tell God that you recognize that in his higher plans and purposes, the death of Jesus fulfills the requirements of a system that was set in place long before the world was created; and that you realize that as someone who misses the mark of his standard of holiness and righteousness, what you really need is grace. Tell him you want to be included in all that Christ’s death and God’s infinite grace and love have to offer; and in return, you want to begin living a new life in a new way.

 

October 24, 2015

Story in Numbers Foreshadows the Crucifixion

Moses and the Bronze Snake← ← Could you retell this Bible story?

That was the question we asked yesterday, noting that most adults would have difficulty presenting this off the top of their heads, to either another adult or a child, which is unfortunate because it is many ways key to telling the gospel story. Because I think it’s so important, we’re devoting this weekend to looking at this from different perspectives using a mix of fresh commentary and some things that were originally posted at Christianity 201.


…and the transaction so quickly was made, when at the cross I believed…

~lyrics, “Heaven Came Down”

Yesterday we kicked off with the old hymn “At Calvary” and today it’s “Heaven Came Down.” I’ve noticed that when people get older they mind starts to recall classic pieces that are no longer sung in the modern church.

The moment of salvation is an invisible transaction. For some people there is an inward witness that verifies that step of faith.

John 9:24-25

(NIV)

24 A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God by telling the truth,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25 He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

But for some people, there is a desire to understand the underpinning of how that invisible transaction takes place. An entire branch of theology is devoted to this:

so·te·ri·ol·o·gy
[suh-teer-ee-ol-uh-jee]

~noun Theology.
— the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ.

So while the healing of the blind man provides its own satisfactory proof if you are, in fact, the blind man or his parents; for everyone else we have the books of Romans and Hebrews to understand the depth of salvation doctrine.

But we often miss a basic fact of how salvation works:

John 3:14

(NIV)
Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up

The verse recalls the story from the book of Numbers we looked at yesterday, often overlooked in times of increasing Biblical illiteracy:

Numbers 21:7-9

(NIV)

7 The people came to Moses and said, “We sinned when we spoke against the Lord and against you. Pray that the Lord will take the snakes away from us.” So Moses prayed for the people.

8 The Lord said to Moses, “Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.” 9 So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, they lived.

The concept of the invisible transaction was once entrenched through yet another hymn written by William Ogden in 1887 that was popular in some circles, the chorus inviting you to...

“Look and live,” my brother, live,
Look to Jesus now, and live;
’Tis recorded in His word, hallelujah!
It is only that you “look and live.”

It’s interesting how the Numbers 21 story is so prominent in the lines of that chorus, but do we have anything in modern worship to replace that? Does our vertical worship allow room to take these Bible narratives and recite them in song?

Youth ministries in the late 1960’s borrowed a phrase from a popular Clairol commercial and suggested that the invisibility of the transaction was such that “only your hairdresser knows for sure.” In other words, there isn’t necessarily a physical manifestation of salvation.

But as with so many things in God’s kingdom, there is a balance to be found on that issue, since the visible manifestation of salvation ought to be the presence of the fruit of the spirit.

I also recognize that many are uncomfortable with a transactional view of the regeneration of the Spirit at salvation. I think sometimes we can suffer from what is called the paralysis of analysis. Perhaps a more modern — albeit still about 40 years old — scripture chorus can help us:

He paid a debt he didn’t owe
I owed a debt I couldn’t pay
I needed someone to wash my sins away
And now I sing a brand new song
Amazing grace!
Christ Jesus paid the debt that I could never pay.

Ultimately, the invisibility of the salvation transaction ought to be central if putting our trust in Jesus Christ to both redeem us and then from that point guide us is to be considered part of the realm of faith. You don’t get a certificate, or a wallet card — though sadly, some churches do just that — when you decide to become a Christ follower.

We cross the line of faith to become Christ followers at some point, but the line itself remains seen only in the spiritual world. That moment of salvation can happen in an instant, what is sometimes termed the crisis view of salvation, or it can take place over a time, what C.S. Lewis and others might call the process view of salvation.

I don’t know that it’s necessary for everyone to have an exact date that they can point to (or have written in the front cover of their Bibles) when they crossed that line of faith, but I think you know in your heart when you’ve arrived at that point.

To repeat what we said yesterday, the people in the Numbers 21 story didn’t have to do anything beyond simply looking to the cross for their deliverance. That’s the part of the story you need to be able to impart to people who want to determine their next step on their journey to the cross, even if you don’t spell out the whole story itself.


Today’s music:
For complete original lyrics to Heaven Came down, click here.
For an abridged version of the original redone in a modern style by David Crowder, click here.
Go Deeper:
To see an index of the main subjects that form a study on soteriology, note the ten sessions covered on this page.
To go extra deep on this topic, check out this teaching page.
Finally, here are links to dozens of other resources on the doctrine of salvation.
~PW
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