November 30, 2007

Advent Blogging 2007 - Synchroblog event

I will be participating on Fridays in this synchroblog event imagined and engineered by Brother Maynard over at Subversive Influence. Feel free to click on the title line of any of my posts and you will be linked back to the latest synchroblog posting at Bro. Maynard's place. In addition, you may find various links to the others who are synchroblogging as I run across those that ring the jingle bells in my head and heart.

Here's a list of the participants:

I encourage you to stop by their places of blog and enjoy the journey.

A starting place for me today is to begin at the ending. Revelation 22:20 reads, "He who testifies to these things says, 'Surely I am coming soon.' Amen! Come, Lord Jesus!" As I come to this season of celebration I find myself in a Janusian quandary; wishing I had two faces. One to look back through history to the blessed first coming of Immanuel and one to look forward to the imminent blessing of His return. Alas, I have but one face and but one set of eyes with which to look upon this event that was and is to be. Is it possible that by gazing upon one I will be able to see the other? This is my hope and prayer.

"And because of His visitation, we may no longer desire God as if He were lacking: our redemption is no longer a question of pursuit but of surrender to Him who is always and everywhere present. Therefore at every moment we pray that, following Him, we may depart from our anxiety into His peace." (From The Meditation of Simeon in For the Time Being by W. H. Auden)

November 28, 2007

A Cartoon for the Blogging Community

Carol at Watch Me Paint emailed this to me and it was just too good not to share. You will need to open the image in its own window in order to read the complete text of the cartoon (blogger cuts off the last frame). I think it's a fair description of most of the blogs I've read (including my own!). I find it particularly entertaining in light of the fact that two blogs I read are in the process of publishing a book and a third is participating in the National Novel Writers Month Challenge! (Insert laugh track here.) Keep blogging my friends!

November 26, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Mission

"The church exists by mission, just as fire exists by burning. Where there is no mission there is no church; where there is neither church nor mission, there is no faith." Emil Bruner, The Word and the World.

Missions defines us as a body of believers. In 1707 a group of baptist churches came together in Philadelphia for the purpose of working together. Admittedly missions was not their first thought, but their association became the vehicle through which the task of missions found broad support. Baptist have always been a people on mission. Dr. Rick Lance, the Executive Secretary for the Alabama Baptist State Convention, has become well known for his statement, "We have one mission, the Great Commission." He's right on the mark. Missions defines us.

Missions also directs us as a church. All we do must be passed through the filter of missions. I was recently listening to NPR and a church had sponsored a segment of the broadcast. What caught my ear was the tag line the church used, "A church committed to social justice." Now I am in no way opposed to social justice, I am glad to see social injustice righted. However I take strong biblical issue with it being the primary purpose directing the activity of any church. The church is entrusted with the message of reconciliation by God? (See 2 Corinthians 5:14-6:1) If the church pursues tangential matters, it's resources and energies are drained from its primary purpose and objective. I believe as the church fulfills its mission the issues of social justice will also be addressed. As the hearts of men and women are transformed so to will the heart of a society be transformed. The axiom, "Keep the main thing the main thing" is readily applicable here.

Missions drives us as a church. Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:14 states, "The love of Christ compels us..." Because we are loved by Christ we also love others. Especially those who are not reconciled to God in Christ Jesus. This is what drives our lives, to see all kinds of people from all kinds of places come to know the wonder of salvation; to help them experience the grace of God for themselves.

Unfortunately the statistics say that our walk does not match our talk. A recent study conducted by LifeWay Christian Resources states, "A majority of the unchurched (57%) wonder why their Christian friends and neighbors never talk with them about spiritual matters. 82% say they would be open to attending church if a friend invited them. Unfortunately, only 21% of active church going Christians invited someone to church last year." (LifeWay Research, emphasis added). Beloved, we have work to do.

November 20, 2007

Of Saints, Angels, and Politicians: A consideration of Jean Bastien-Lepage's Joan of Arc

Joan of Arc, 1879
Jules Bastien-Lepage (French, 1848–1884)
Oil on canvas; 100 x 110 in. (254 x 279.4 cm)
Gift of Erwin Davis, 1889 (89.21.1)
Metropolitan Museum of Art
New York City, New York

My friend Carol has given me an arduous task. The first part I volunteered for by suggesting that we collaborate on this project from our unique points of view. The second part was more than I bargained for! After refreshing my memory concerning Joan of Arc's story I had to introduce myself to Saints Catherine and Margret and upon completing that I was then engaged in revisiting the theology of saints and angels. I feel as if I am preparing for an undergraduate paper! (Here's hoping that what follows is not too sophomoric.)

Allow me to begin by offering my philistine observations of this painting. I would love to see this marvelous work personally. I somehow believe seeing it on a computer monitor does it a severe disservice. One thing that immediately catches my eye is the distinct difference in the figure of Joan and everything else in the painting. Joan is painted with an almost photographic clarity while everything else is impressionistic and ethereal. It would seem the message Bastien-Lepage is communicating through this is the clarity of purpose in Joan's life. There is also a note of urgency about her as the stool she was apparently sitting upon has been overturned in her pursuit of the path being laid before her by the voices of Michael, Margret and Catherine. I note that the path also stands out with unusual clarity (a clear path to follow?) even though it may wind with unexpected turns. The images of Michael, Margret and Catherine very nearly blend into the background. It is as if they are a part of the scenery until you look more closely and discover them "hiding" there. This is, I think, a clever representation of the influences upon Joan's upbringing as well as a commentary upon the forces that shape all of our lives; they tend to blend into the background yet exert great influence on the trajectory of our lives. A beautiful and meaning-filled message in paint.

Now to the theological and pastoral considerations of this subject. Let's talk first about Saints. Do I believe in them? Unequivocally yes. Hebrews 11 and 12 speak of our being "surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses". (On this note, Carol, you must find your way to Birmingham, AL and tour the Chapel of Beeson Divinity School for a marvelous rendering of this scripture). However, my protestant heritage and Zwinglian penchant for iconoclastic thinking prevents me from embracing the notion of long departed saints speaking any word to me other than through their example. I cannot imagine pursuing a course of action because Adoniram Judson instructed me to do so, but I can easily imagine following his courageous example because, like him, I too am called to be a follower of Christ. So, imagining Joan acting on the direction of these voices borders on the absurd for me. After all, people that hear voices of the long departed are either in the looney bin, taking serious medications, or giving psychic readings at Lilly Dale.

The only recollection I have from the Bible of the dead speaking with the living is that of Samuel being called upon by the witch of Endor at the request of King Saul (See 1 Samuel 28). It was not a happy reunion. So, can it happen? Yes. Is it a course of action recommended to us by Scripture? No.

I am aware, if dimly, that in the Catholic church and tradition there is the belief and practice of praying to the saints for help and direction. This is certainly reflected in Bastien-Lepage's painting and, apparently, in the experience of Joan of Arc. Candidly, I find this to be incredible on two fronts. First, as I have already mentioned, the notion of someone who is dead communicating with me in the here and now is not beyond possibility but it is beyond the norm. Secondly, my protestant background questions the efficacy of such an exercise. My theology informs me that through the sacrifice made by Jesus upon the cross there is no longer any wall of separation between me and my Creator. If I can go directly to the source why would I rely on or request the help of some lesser intermediary? As a follower of Jesus I am promised the presence of the Holy Spirit in my life, "But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, He will teach you all thing and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you."(John 14:26). Having the very presence of God with me to guide and sustain me causes me to question why anyone would rely on something less.

As for angels, they have enjoyed a resurgence of interest over the last couple of decades. Our increasingly secular culture seems to be feeling that "God shaped void" of which Augustine speaks and is seeking to fill it with a variety of spiritual substitutes. Angels are a more palatable commodity than many things found in the modern spiritual marketplace. Typically imagined in feminine tenderness as a caregiver or rendered powerfully masculine as a defender and protector, the notion of "angel" brings to mind benevolent faces, gentle wings, and able defenders. This is so far afield from the Hebrew concept of angel that it is difficult to bridge the gap. Certainly there are Cherubim and Seraphim with wings, but most times angels appeared to individuals, in both the Old and New Testaments, as humans. What caused them to stand apart was the message they brought. In fact, the word "angel" means messenger.

Karl Barth has given the most extensive treatment of the subject of angels in any recent theology textbook and describes the topic as "the most remarkable and difficult of all." There are numerous references to angels in Scripture, however, the nature of those references is not very helpful in developing an understanding of angels. "Every reference to angels is incidental to some other topic. They are not treated in themselves. God's revelation never aims at informing us regarding the nature of angels. When they are mentioned, it is always in order to inform us further about God, what He does, and how He does it." (Millard J. Erikson, Christian Theology, p. 434).

But what about Joan? She was apparently examined by the theologians in residence and was passed as sanely sincere in her pursuit of a path defined for her by long dead saints and a warrior angel. Is it possible that she had an encounter with the divine that shaped her destiny or is it possible that she became an unwitting, if powerful, pawn in a game of thrones that consumed her brief and bright life? In truth, both possibilities exist here. It is even within the realm of reason that both possibilities came together in Joan's life.

Carol, in communicating with me about this particular painting, mentioned "the conflation of religion and politics", a nice turn of phrase for an historically bad arrangement. It seems to be a particularly cogent point for the right understanding of this painting as well as the right understanding of many bad chapters in human history, both ancient and modern.

In Joan's life the vision of the warrior angel Michael holding forth a sword for her to take up combined with the martyred saints, Catherine and Margret, seem to play into her psyche. Michael clearly points toward a military role most unusual for a woman. Catherine, martyred for out thinking the political heads of her day, and Margret, martyred for maintaining her virginity against the advances of a powerful magistrate, both point toward her too young death. It is entirely possible that those in power saw in Joan an opportunity to play upon the naive faith of a desperate people to move them to action in accordance with their plans for power. It is not the first time this has been done, nor will it be the last time.

In our own day there are concerns about just this sort of thing happening within American Christianity. There are those who seem bent on imposing their view of the Christian faith, not only on other Christians, but also, upon all who fall under the reach of their influence. Are there truths we should uphold? Absolutely! Some of the truths which find their source in the understanding of the existence of God are firmly planted in the founding documents of our nation. Truths like, "all men are created equal", and "the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" are "endowed by our creator" upon all men everywhere. However, these very truths uphold the right of others to disbelieve. It is a perilous balancing act but one which must be maintained at all costs. "Baptists know from experience that when the interests of the church are no broader than the interests of the state, the church loses its leverage to reconcile those divisions that condemn the world to perpetual strife. The distinctive Baptist understanding of religious liberty is not some denominational oddity, a mere hiccup on the side of history. Rather it offers an essential contribution to the development of a post-9/11 geopolitic by enshrining the insight that the awesome spiritual power of religion may not be linked to the equally awesome temporal power of the state if any semblance of freedom is to survive." (Bill Hull, The Meaning of the Baptist Experience, p. 21, emphasis added)

Abraham Lincoln famously said, "Sir, my concern is not whether God is on our side; my greatest concern is to be on God's side, for God is always right" This is indeed the great challenge of our present day and it will be the great challenge of every coming day, to be on God's side. May He grant us grace to follow so closely as to always be found on His side.

We Treat Our Spiritual Treasures Cheaply

"O Lord God, how comfortable we are.
How exquisitely complacent.
How deliciously at ease.
We, you church, loll drowsily amid our privileges.
We treat our spiritual treasures cheaply,
as if possessing them in abundance
were a natural state of affairs,
always to be expected."

-Ray Ortland, Jr.

November 19, 2007

Monday Morning Message - Giving

The Bible has more to say about money and possessions than ANY other topic. That comes as a surprise to many people. Most think the Bible is all about praying, or heaven, or hell. The Bible is about God's relationship to man and God certainly knows the single greatest hindrance to that relationship is "stuff". All too often our goods become our gods. How are we to keep our possessions from possessing us? I believe we need to practice the discipline of giving.

We need to give graciously, not greedily. 2 Corinthians 9:6-15 recounts Paul's encouragement to the Corinthian church to give. The chief reason he offers them for giving is that they are recipients of God's grace. "And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things you may abound in every good work" (v. 8 ESV) . Those who have entered into a saving relationship with Jesus understand and know from firsthand experience that God is able to supply every need. We can give from a position of confidence because of the confidence we have in God's ability and willingness to supply all of our needs.

There is a popular brand of "Christian" teaching out there which leads many to give out of greed. The teaching goes something like this, you give a little and God will give you a lot. Greed motivates the gift. It is selfish rather than selfless. It is a pattern of giving that is focused on getting rather than giving. Unfortunately, it seems that the only ones benefiting from this teaching are the ones doing the teaching.

We not only need to give graciously, we also need to give intentionally rather than incidentally. Giving should be planned and systematic. Paul encouraged the Corinthian church to "put something aside" on the first day of each week. (1 Corinthians 16:1-2) The weekly practice of "setting something aside" serves to remind us of God's grace and provision. We can easily become wrapped up in our own importance and forget God is the one who gives us strength for the work. There will be opportunities for incidental giving, the friend in need, the unexpected windfall that allows us to bless others, however, incidental giving should not be our plan for giving.

As believers we can also give victoriously! Trusting God's continuing provision allows us to give victoriously as an act of worship. It is incredible to drive through some neighborhoods and see the incredible homes being built. I often wonder how people can afford to build such lavish places of habitation. I also find myself wondering to what end are they being built. The terrible reality is that the day will come when another will come and live in that place. Death will visit all and then what good is all our wealth? (For more on this visit the book of Ecclesiastes). But, for the Christian death is no threat!

Finally we need to give with excitement. There are three kinds of giving: 1. Grudge giving says, "I have to give.", 2. Duty giving says, "I ought to give.", 3. Thanks giving says, "I want to give!". I can honestly say, "I want to give!" because I see where the gifts I give are making a difference close to home and far away! Through our church we are able to help support over 5300 international missionaries, 5000 North American missionaries, 3 colleges, and a myriad of other ministries. Every time I give a dollar, I know a portion of it is going to support these wide ranging ministries. I am excited about giving!


November 9, 2007

Some Project Updates and NEW Project for Christmas

Project #1. Carol, over at Watch Me Paint, has posted her end of the conversation about the painting she chose for us to engage. It is a marvelous painting (and apparently huge! 100 x 110 inches. Would love to see it up close and personal...) with some equally marvelous things to say to us. I'm still working on my end of the conversation and will likely post sometime over the weekend.

Project #2. Peggy, over at The Virtual Abbess, shamed me into reviewing the Reader's Digest Condensed Version of the Bible. I have posted once and should post again late next week by which time I should be well into the prophets. It has been a remarkable adventure racing through Scripture like this. I feel like I'm taking in all the wonders of God's Word on an interstate doing about 80 m.p.h. Quite a different view than the scenic by-way I am accustomed to driving. I know I'm missing some wonderful stops along the way but I have somewhere to be in a hurry so, I'll keep zipping along.

Project #3. Back before shepherd work went crazy busy I started a pilgrimage called "A Shepherd's Tale". But as wanderings and journeys are apt to do, this one was interrupted. Well, perhaps a resumption of the pilgrimage is in order. There is surely some spiritual insight to be gained from this experience on pilgrimage...I'll have to work on that one. A fresh installment is on the drafting table now and will be ready for daylight soon.

NEW project!

I'm officially creating a meme (what the heck does that stand for anyway?!). Here's the drill...

Whatever you view of the war in Iraq may be, the reality is there are men and women who, in the faithful dispensation of their duties, have been seriously wounded and are recovering at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Here's an opportunity to let some of them know they are not forgotten.

1. Send a Christmas card to...
A Recovering American Soldier
c/o Walter Reed Army Medical Center
690 Georgia Ave. NW
Washington D.C. 20307-5001

2. Tag 5 others with these instructions.

3. Post this info, along with your tags, to your blog.

4. Send the card!

I hereby tag Idaho Paul, "Idaho, By Way Of New Mexico" John Martinez, Lucy, Kuya Kevin, and Four Eyes. Enjoy the blessing of blessing someone else!

November 7, 2007

Remembering those Who Can't Remember

There are now more than 5 million people in the U.S. living with Alzheimer's and unless a cure is found that number will increase to 14 million by 2050. Every 72 seconds, someone develops Alzheimer's. Almost 10 million people are caring for someone with Alzheimer's and approximately one out three of these caregivers is over the age of 60. (Statistics from The Alzheimer's Association)

I have not been in the position of dealing intensively with someone with Alzheimer's but I have been alongside some of those caregivers from time to time. My friend, Netherlands Paul participated in a wonderful discussion on Alzheimer's disease and how we, as the body of Christ, can engage and minister to those with the disease and those caring for the sick. This is a discussion worth 10 minutes of your time. Read it at Postings from Prairie Hill.

November 6, 2007

Hilarity Near My Home

This sign ALWAYS makes me laugh. You may need to open it full screen to be able to read the smaller sign below. Why, oh why did My Beloved and I not get married here!

November 5, 2007

Monday Morning Message - The Call to Worship

There are some things you just can't do by yourself. Exhibit A, have a good argument. I know, I know, some of you argue with yourself all the time. However, to engage in a robust disagreement you need another party involved. Exhibit B, be in a relationship. As the old wag states, "It takes two to Tango." I could go on here but you get the idea. (Feel free to submit your own exhibits in the comments section.)

Worship is something that we need to do together. Gathering with others in times of worship is a necessary spiritual discipline. There is certainly a place for worship in the daily life of the believer. In fact, all that we say and do, every circumstance we encounter, and every relationship in which we engage is an opportunity for individual and personal worship (See Colossians 3:17). It is my firmly held belief that if our personal, daily worship is not lively then our times of corporate worship will not be lively. That said, there is a call for God's people to gather in worship on a regular basis.

Throughout Scripture there is the repeated call for God's people to gather together. Psalm 95 is one such instance. "Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD our Maker! For He is our God, and we are the people of His pasture, and the sheep of His hand. Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts." (Ps. 95:6-7) Why do we need these reminders to worship God together?

One reason is that we are a forgetful people. I don't know about you, but the memory thing is getting worse for me. Those who are older than I tell me it's going to get still worse in the years to come. I'm in trouble. I'm the kind of guy that can go to the grocery store with a list in hand and still manage to forget something on the list! If I can be forgetful about simple things in my life I'm fairly certain that I am prone to forgetfulness about the truly important things in my life. I can even forget to worship God. Deuteronomy 6:10-12 stands as one of the most relevant warnings in all of Scripture for the church in America. "Take care lest you forget the LORD" Prosperity, comfort, and ease can easily cause us to forget the only one worthy of our worship.

Another reason we need the reminder to worship God together is that we tend to wander. Even after we experience all the marvelous benefits of knowing and following God we can wander away from Him. Following their miraculous deliverance from Egypt the people of Israel began to wander away from the One who had delivered them. God, speaking to Moses, asks, "How long will this people despise me? And how long will they not believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them?" Remember these are the people who saw the Red Sea parted. These are the people that picked up manna every morning. These are the people who saw water flow from a rock. These same people saw a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. They saw all kinds of evidence for the presence and provision of God in their lives and they STILL turned their backs on Him. Incredible, I know, but it's still happening. We need to be called to worship on a regular basis because we tend to wander away from Him.

Finally, we need the reminder to worship because we need to worship. We are created to worship. It is an anthropological note of interest that in every culture there is a system of worship. There is within mankind a need, a hunger, an understanding that worship is necessary to our existence. St. Augustine famously and eloquently stated, "Our souls are restless until they find their rest in thee, O God." Alan Reynolds writes, "Worship is essential to our humanity because it gives us insight into who we are and why we are here. But gives be what we are not yet but yet may be, that which we become by God's grace."

We need to worship. We need to get together with others to worship. It is a vital spiritual discipline that will shape our life of faith. Don't miss the opportunity to get together with others and encounter God among His people this week.

November 3, 2007

Involved in a bit of a tiff

From time to time I get involved in conversations over at Josiah Road. Currently involved in one that has ignited some pretty strong reaction. I'm wrestling with this one. I feel pretty strongly that the evangelical Christian community is largely going about "the culture war" in a way that simply doesn't square with scripture. However, I see my brother's POV. Below is a summary post I placed in the midst of the discussion (read the entire thread here). Would love some feedback here, and yes my rhino skin is firmly in place so fire away.

I in no way dispute that there is an enormous battle being waged for the hearts and minds of our children. I am simply raising the unpopular question of whether or not we are engaged in this battle in the right way.

The easy way is to beat the war drum, get the troops mobilized, create yet another stir that gets some results (albeit temporary) and pat each other on the back for “standing up to the evil empire” and all the while losing more ground. (Do you hear anybody talking about how much better it’s getting because of all these efforts? I don’t - just the opposite in fact.) The hard, but in my estimation, more effective way is to teach our children and our brethren to critically and biblically examine the culture in which they live and to respond to it in a biblical fashion. (See 1 Peter 3:15-16 for guidance).

It simply causes me to grind my teeth when we run around shouting about all we are “losing” when the understanding I have of our position in Christ is that we’ve already won.

There seems to be some expectation that a fallen culture is going to reflect and embrace God-honoring principles. I just don’t see it happening, no matter how many companies or movies we boycott. Without changing the hearts of the people we have little hope of changing the heart of the culture. “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” (John Adams, 2nd President of the United States)

Saying no to “The Golden Compass” may be a right decision to make. I’m just not sure creating another cultural firestorm is really productive

November 2, 2007

My Art Teacher Told Me I Needed To Write

Carol, over at Watch Me Paint, and I are attempting to collaborate on a blog project. Utilizing her expertise and my willingness to give my opinion about any and everything, even (especially?) things I know next to nothing about, we are going to attempt to bring some culture to this corner of the blogosphere.

I suggested that we choose (more she than me) some biblically inspired artwork and comment upon it. Carol from the artist's viewpoint and I from a pastoral point of view. Carol readily accepted and immediately suggested a couple of works with which to grapple. I've got to tell you, she's throwing me into the deep end of the pool immediately! (Like I indicated, I'm into stuff WAY above my pay grade here.) You will find the relevant posts linked to each other to make it easy to follow both conversation threads.

All that aside, I am excited about the opportunity to learn and discuss some wonderful pieces of art and the attendant issues they bring to our attention. If a picture is truly worth a thousand words I think it well worth a bit of our time to discover what these men and women are trying to say to us.