24 June 2013

Frustrating Kindness

“One who loves instruction is one who loves knowledge,
but one who hates correction is an ignoramus” (Prov 12:1).

It's nothing new: those who dare embrace the label Christian must be known by their love—indiscriminately to all, and especially to each other in the household of faith. They must practice, in a word, friendship. They must risk shame; they must wash feet. They must exclaim, at least in actions if not in words, “Hosanna!”

So, in the proverb quoted above, we see that they must “love instruction”; otherwise, they’re just ignoramuses—brutish, senseless creatures—indeed, less human than God desires. Enter the amazing grace of our triune Lord, without which our destiny, declared by the Creator to be a life centered around him, devolves into savage narcissism.

By his grace, those of us who confess that Jesus is Lord and that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10:9), no matter what his or her heritage, are ingrafted branches, stemming from the true vine (John 15:1–11). And yes, by his loving grace, those confessors who bear fruit are pruned, so that they bear more fruit (v. 2). Grace is being given the passion to love this, to love the instruction, the correction, that directs us toward knowledge, which knowledge paves the way toward the God-centered life. Hating this, in short, bears nothing, no fruit, and is thus heading toward being broken off (v. 2).

With the above proverb in mind, another way of saying all this is that being a branch stemming from the real vine involves embodying what it means to be human in Christ Jesus (see 2 Cor 5:17). Meeting reproof with hatred (often disguised as incredulity), exposes the pride that goes before destruction (Prov 16:18). Even more, it betrays the place where such a person has made his stand—“outside the divine realm of sensible discourse [and in] the animal kingdom” (Waltke, Proverbs, vol. 1, p. 520). Following this trajectory leads only to one place—the broken-branch realm of stupidity, irrationality, and animal-like brutishness. In other words, the devolution of the image of God in man to the point of no return. Think of Nebuchadnezzar: driven out of human society, eating grass like an ox, sleeping outside with hair as long as eagle feathers and nails as long as bird claws (Dan 4:33).

But then, the unexpected: Grace. His sanity returned and he praised the supreme God (v. 34). Our Lord has a maddening tendency, doesn’t he? To bring back people (we’ve often written off) from the point of no return (see Rom 10:23–24). May we learn to love this frustrating kindness of Almighty God.

18 June 2013

You Don't Love Me Like I Love You

This past Lord's Day, I visited Mosaic Cincinnati as my wife sang in the band during the service. The pastor, as is typical in churches of this sort, preached topically (though exegetically at times) on a theme especially pertinent to fathers: discipline. It was a good word, and timely for a culture that not only belittles fatherhood, but in which fathers themselves eschew their fatherly responsibilities. At one point, the issue of unity among parents, husband and wife, was unpacked. It got me thinking about unity in marriages in general, about first loves, about long marriages, and about the church (because, unlike many evangelical churches, I am a "churchy" guy. Or, put differently, "He can no longer have God for his Father, who has not the church for his mother.").

If your spouse were to confess to you that he/she feels as though you're competing for his or her love with . . . [fill in the blank], how would you respond? "That's just in your imagination"? Or, seeing some truth in it, would you then scroll through in your mind all the various ways that your spouse deserves such treatment? Perhaps you'd step back and think critically and deeply about your actions and strive to make sure that your spouse knew that he or she were first in line for your love?

That last response would make the most sense in a relationship of mutual love and respect. In this, I'm reminded of the letter Christ Jesus had John the Elder send to the church of Ephesus (Rev. 2:1–7).
To the angel of the church in Ephesus write:

This is the message from the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and who walks among the seven gold lampstands. I know what you have done; I know how hard you have worked and how patient you have been. I know that you cannot tolerate evil people and that you have tested those who say they are apostles but are not, and have found out that they are liars. You are patient, you have suffered for my sake, and you have not given up. But this is what I have against you: you do not love me now as you did at first. Think how far you have fallen! Turn from your sins and do what you did at first. If you don't turn from your sins, I will come to you and take your lampstand from its place. But this is what you have in your favor: you hate what the Nicolaitans do, as much as I do.

If you have ears, then, listen to what the Spirit says to the churches!

To those who win the victory I will give the right to eat the fruit of the tree of life that grows in the Garden of God.
On the one hand, it's unfortunate that we don't know how these letters were received in those various churches back then. It'd be interesting to know—and it would satiate some serious historical curiosity. On the other hand, it's probably better that we don't know how they responded: each church had before them a call to action. And each church's call was free, contingent, and integral to their destiny (blessing or judgment, as described in the letter itself).

Like many commentators note, the entire book of Revelation was a circular letter, to make its rounds to the seven churches listed in chapters 2–3. Each of these letters serve as introductions to Revelation, and "in a sense the whole book is about the way the Christians of the seven churches may, by being victorious within the specific situations of their own churches, enter the new Jerusalem" (Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 14). The same holds true for us.

So, then, the call to respond with repentance—undivided love to Christ—faces us all, just as poignantly and jarring as it would be if expressed to our face by the one whom we chose to devote our lives with a wedding vow.

05 June 2013

A Sacred Place

A long time ago, as Genesis 1 recounts, God began naming, separating, and assigning functions and roles to his creation. In other words, he spoke purpose for his creation into existence (often when God speaks, reality changes). The garden that resulted—Eden, by name—was pervaded with the presence of God, not in the general sense of omnipresence but in a special, intimate way—a perpetual, ongoing presence. The garden was the temple of God Almighty.

Fast forward a good amount of time (but not too much, say, between 2,500 years and 2.2 million years), and we come to the building of God’s dwelling place among his people, Israel (see Exod 25:10–40:33). Clearly, the look and materials employed throughout are meant to symbolize the original creation described in Genesis 1, and thus further represent, to use what has become the old cliché, “heaven on earth.”

Just as the Creator didn’t seek council with his creatures when preparing the garden, so too did he initiate and dictate to Israel the building of his new dwelling place, the tabernacle (Exod 25:9). In fact, we see that God doesn't leave it to his people to define the parameters of worship they will offer him.

The same holds true today—God provides the grand playground in which we’ve been called to play. Yet he has also graciously provided a fence for our protection. We (the church) are not to invent alternative ways to worship the living God—ways that are outside the fence and thus leave behind the essentials God has instituted; nevertheless, we are free to express our God-given creativity when worshiping him in each passing age.

In our time and place, riddled as it is with hyper-individualism and the temptation to live as if God doesn’t exist, we need now more than ever to recapture the biblically defined idea of sacred place, not as a building so much as that which presupposes and points to a personal God. “For where two or three come together in my name,” Jesus said, “I am there with them” (Matt 18:20). Not one, but two or three. And then the Christ comes. What this assumes is that our growth as persons (that is, our development into more fully image-bearing humans) happens only in relation to others—first with God in Christ by the power of his Spirit, and second with the temple of the Most High, his people. Only through this do we have a ready-made resistance against “the wicked spiritual forces in the heavenly world, the rulers, authorities, and cosmic powers of this dark age” (Eph 6:12).

03 June 2013

The Stuff That Sticks: Ron Nash

Oftentimes, the best we can hope for (besides dying in our sleep) is that some of the good stuff we experience throughout life sticks. I know that those of us who mentor, teach, counsel, parent, and so on, hope the same for those in whom we invest.

First in my journal-like series about the stuff that sticks centers around a professor I had in graduate school at RTS-Orlando. He's not first in the series because he has priority of place or anything like that. He's just the first stuff that stuck I thought of when thinking through what this series would contain. His name is Ron Nash (1936-2006).

To get a glimpse of his life and work, follow that link attached to his name above. Professor Nash gets a spot here not because I'm a devotee—that I came to agree with his many views on Christianity and its relationship to culture or on philosophy in general (e.g., that almost the entire field can be boiled down to the fight between rationalism vs. empiricism—in other words, epistemology, as if that were the necessary starting point when doing philosophy). Nevertheless, a few moments during the time our paths crossed in the early 2000s have stuck with me:

  1. At an orientation dinner my first year, RTS staff and faculty were introducing themselves in no particular order. Nash happened to follow on the heels of the school's facility services staffer, who quipped, "I turn the lights off." He then immediately stood up and provided his title (professor of philosophy) with the pun, "And I turn the lights on." Nash clearly believed this to be his calling, and he took it very seriously, if not a little superciliously at times.
  2. His introduction to philosophy book, Life's Ultimate Questions, while by nature guilty of a little oversimplification, nevertheless serves as a great overview through a blatantly Christian lens, particularly at the college level, if not first-year graduate level.
  3. For my research paper in his "History of Philosophy and Christian Thought" class (first semester, first year), in which I attempted to give some credit to certain bits of "postmodern" thought then in vogue only to show how the so-called early church "logos doctrine" completed them, Professor Nash wrote on the back of page 5, "I believe you have no idea what you're talking about." (By the last page, however, he noted a couple positive remarks and so I managed a B grade.)
  4. Finally, during class one time, I began to raise a few concerns about this or that epistemological point he was promoting (apparent propositionalist that he was). Whatever the actual argument, I'm sure I was nudging the envelope toward something akin to skepticism (surprise, surprise), and after briefly berating me as relativist, he then held jazz hands up to either side of face, swished his hips from side to side, and at the same time asked, "What, are you a democrat?" Laughter.
So much for the stuff that sticks. I could go into further detail about how his apologetical method helped prepare me for future work on the manuscript of R.C. Sproul's Defending Your Faith, but that's best left for another sticky-stuff post. Suffice to say that despite his attitude in class, which endeared so many of us to him, he was the warmest man in his office. Truly caring. Truly hoping he had "turned on the lights." And he did, I think—or at least he played a significant role in my own quest to continue seeking the light.

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