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Thursday, November 01, 2012

Christianity, Halloween and 2012 Pumpkins

As happens almost every year around this time, being a bible teacher, I get asked for my opinion about Halloween and whether Christians should partake.  Usually, the underlying reason for asking is to justify their own views on the topic, views almost always against Christians celebrating a day with pagan origins.  I always try to answer their question from a couple of different angles.  First and foremost, the Bible needs to be the primary source for my argumentation, and indeed, the Bible speaks specifically about those things that are not necessarily sins, but viewed as sin by an individual in Romans 14.

Paul writes about those who see certain acts as sinful, and therefore off-limits, whereas others see them as nothing for concern.  In the context of Romans 14, and further in 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses the topic of food.  Should food involved in pagan rituals be consumed by Christians.  Paul’s answer both times is a strong, definitive, maybe.  He hinges his argument, not on the value of the food itself, but rather on the hearts of those around.  At the end of the day, there are no other gods, no spirits, nothing beyond the one true God.  Just because someone slaps a Baal label on a piece of meat does not change the physical cut of meat in any way that makes eating it harmful or dangerous, either to body or soul.  However, if someone sees that Baal label, and ascribes some value to it, for the sake of the one who ascribes that value, Paul urges believers to abstain, not on account of the meat, but on account of the person.  If a person sees the act, in this case eating meat sacrificed to idols, as a sin, then the Christian ought not partake, for it becomes a sin to him on account of the weakness of his faith.  By extension, the same principle can be applied to Halloween, and this is my response to those who ask.

If you think participating in Halloween is a sin, then for you it is, and you ought not participate.  However, I also try to assuage their concerns by pointing out some of the logical inconsistencies in their philosophy.  Anyone who has researched the origins of Halloween knows that it comes from a pagan belief among the Celts concerning evil spirits and the dead come back to haunt the living.  But let us reasonably ask ourselves, does anyone, anywhere, in your community practice this part of Halloween?  I would argue that, aside from a few outliers deeply immersed in the occult, no one in our community even thinks about the pagan origins or meaning of Halloween; much less even knows it.  If that is indeed true, and I believe it is, how strong is the case that Halloween, as practiced today, is a pagan ritual?  As practiced today, Halloween is a time for kids to dress up, get candy, and have a fun night of pretending to be their favorite alter-ego.  I can see no harm in that.  For adults, it is often a time of drunkenness and sexual immorality.  But let’s be honest, what makes this particular night of debauchery any different from any other night when the same people do the same thing, just without costumes?

But what about being so different that people notice something about us?  Doesn't it hurt our message when we look like the world?  Perhaps.  But certainly no more than the rates of fornication, divorce, addiction and abuse that mirror the rest of the world.  At the end of the day, Halloween does not seem to even be in the top-ten list of things the church needs to address to reform her image.

When Paul was thrown in prison, he wrote about those who proclaimed the gospel as a means to cause trouble for him.  I imagine people would ask, "Why is that guy over there in prison," at which point someone would pipe up that, "He thinks that some Jewish vagabond was God incarnate, who died and was raised from the grave for the sins of men," at which point all would have a hardy laugh.  Paul said that their speaking the gospel, even if meant for his harm, was all the better, so that by all means the gospel would be preached.  What if we took the same approach with this supposedly pagan night called Halloween, but in the reverse?  What if, instead of harping on pagan origins of the celebration, we take that which was meant for evil and use it for good.  What if we use it as an opportunity to engage the surrounding community, those who would never even consider attending a Sunday service, and present the gospel to them?  What if we could look past some long-forgotten pagan ritual and see just another night, and with it, another opportunity to offer the hope of the world to them?

When it comes down to it, yes Halloween has pagan origins.  If you want to avoid it, and the potential we have on its account, because of some ancient history, fine.  If you see it as a sin, by all means, do not participate.  But, consider that you live in a pagan society, and that much of what you take for granted is of pagan origin as well.  If you shun Halloween, then I encourage you to also refuse to say the names of the week, all of which are rooted in the worship of pagan Gods.  Sun-day; a day devoted to the sun god.  Mon-day, a day devoted to the moon.  Tues-day; from norse mythology’s Tyr (Mars), the same as Wednes-day, Woden’s day, for Odin, the Norse all-father (Mercury).  Or Thurs-day, Thor’s day (Jupiter).  Fri-day, for Frig (Freya and/or Venus).  Satur-day, a day devoted to Saturn.  To be fair, let us not stop there.  If Halloween and its pagan origins are evil, then let us be consistent and never claim to have made or desire a fortune, or that we have in any way been fortunate, considering that word comes from the root of the pagan goddess Fortuna.  And while this may all seem laughable and absurd, and has put you in a jovial mood, let me caution you against being jovial, whose roots speak of being influenced by the god Jupiter.  Let us certainly not look into the names of things we like, such as Christmas (ye Protestants) or Easter!

The point is that no one disputes the pagan origins of Halloween.  But let us understand that those roots, just like the roots of countless words and traditions in our language and culture, have been lost to the dark depths of time, and are only of academic interest.  Rather than focus on ancient history, let us acknowledge that we live in a pagan, secular society.  We are not going to change anyone’s minds about Jesus by focusing on the minutiae of archaic lore.  Instead, if we realize that there are no evil spirits, and no other gods, we can use times like Halloween to share the gospel with people in a non-confrontational and culturally appropriate way.

I wanted to carve some pumpkins, much like I did in 2008, but this time to tell a story.  As you might imagine, and to my frustration, the internet has an unsurprising dearth of Christian-related pumpkins.  Sure, there are a few sad examples of things people have done, but nothing on the scale and detail I envisioned.  With that in mind, I set about to create four new patterns to tell the story of Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection, return, and reign seated on the throne of David.

To that end, here is my 2012 Halloween contribution for the sake of the gospel.  These pumpkins offered me an outlet to share the gospel with dozens of people, many of whom had never heard the story before.   While I could wish that I did not offend my brothers and sisters in Christ on account of Halloween, I am happy to have been able to use this opportunity to engage my community for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus Christ Crucified

The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and raised up on the third day.

Luke 9:22
But God demonstrates his own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Romans 5:8

The Empty Tomb

But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they came to the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 

While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men suddenly stood near them in dazzling clothing; and as the women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, "Why do you seek the living One among the dead? He is not here, but He has risen. Remember how He spoke to you while He was still in Galilee, saying that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again.
Luke 24:1-7

Son of Man Coming on the Clouds

I kept looking in the night visions, And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; And His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed.
Daniel 7:13-14

Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
Luke 21:27

Worshiping the King

After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, "Salvation to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb." 
Revelation 7:9-10

Friday, April 16, 2010


Our Christianity tends to focus on things that really have nothing to do with Christianity at all. We hear sermons and bible studies that tell us that God is interested in you, that He wants to know you, and that He wants to bless you. In essence, the focus is taken away from the namesake of Christianity (the Christ) and shifted to the most insignificant of objects in the equation: us. God is not the focus, you are. God loves YOU. God wants to know YOU. YOU are important to God. Instead of acknowledging the biblical truth of God's love for humanity and its necessary conclusion that God loves sinful men for his OWN glory, the message is shifted from God's valuing of Himself through His love for us, to simply God's love for us. The message is insidious. And it's everywhere.

One of the ways this plays out, at least as I've seen it, is the belief that God wants us to be happy. Consider that in nearly 2000 years of this religion, no culture has so insisted on the happiness and contentedness of the individual as much as American Christianity. We have seeker-sensitive services geared toward making people feel comfortable. We offer watered-down Bible studies for fear of the "deeper" things of God scaring away potential converts (or, God help us, current converts). But lest you think this is something to charge the Willowcreeks of the world only, I want you to stop and take an honest look at your own conception of God.

If you're anything like me, you were taught (at least implicitly) that because God loves you, He wants to bless you. If you do His will, He will reward you. If you do not do His will, then perhaps the bad things that are happening in your life are a message from God that He wants you to turn from those bad things. For the philosophers out there, this is generally referred to as the Retribution Principle. There are two ways to look at the Retribution Principle. First is that if you do evil, you will suffer. The biblical proof-texts for this abound, never mind that the promises of suffering for disobedience were part of the covenant between God and Israel, a distinct people from you and I (unless you happen to be Jewish). To apply those promises to us is just bad hermeneutics and bad interpretation. If I do evil, will I suffer? Maybe. Or maybe, just maybe, I will rape, pillage and plunder my filthy little heart out, living a life of reprobation and die wealthy and in ease. I question the biblical warrant for assuming that bad action X has any direct correlation to bad consequence Y, such that X -> Y. Just because I do X (the bad action) does not mean that I will reap Y (the bad circumstance). Conversely, just because Y is happening, there is no reason to assume an X (perhaps unknown to me). Ask Job, as this is one of the major themes of the book.

Job does righteous things and is a man set apart. However, when bad things start to happen, he stands firm and asks why bad things are happening. He has done no evil deserving of the fate that has set upon him. His moronic friends continually try to convince him that he has sinned. Surely his sin is the reason that God is punishing him. However, in the end, we see that Job's friends have no leg to stand on, for even God pronounced Job's innocence of covenant transgression early on. Why did bad things happen to Job? Did he do evil in God's eyes? Nope. It was not for Job to demand that answer, nor did God ever really explain why bad things came upon him. From Job's point of view, things just happened that way, and God is under no obligation to tell him anything as to the why.

But God is a God of love you say. He wants to bless his children. He wants them to be happy. After all, are we not supposed to delight ourselves in the Lord? Are we not to be joyful? Are we not supposed to be happy? Do you think the believing remnant cast into Babylonian exile was "happy" about it? Do you think the poor man Lazarus was happy about being poor and destitute and dying like that? Do you think first century Christians were "happy" about the prospect of being fodder for the pagan machine of Rome? What makes you think God has any concern about your happiness? Things aren't going well in your life? Join the club. Wish things were better? Who doesn't? Does God care about your happiness? I don't know...

I once spoke to a woman who was planning to leave her husband. She was no longer happy in the marriage. She knew that divorce was wrong, but surely God wanted her to be happy. After all, He is a God of love; how could he ask her to remain in an unsatisfying marriage? I would like to put forth that God does not care in the slightest about your happiness. You will not find the command of God to be happy as God is happy. No, you see the command to be holy, even as HE is holy. Does God want you to be happy? Maybe. Does God want you to be holy? With infinite, absolute certainty. If you have to pick between the two, which do you pick? If you find yourself in the situation where you can choose to make yourself happy, to be content, versus being holy, if you're anything like me, you hold your head in shame at the number of times you've chosen happy.

"Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness..." Find fulfillment, hope, joy, even happiness! in the surety of the promise of the resurrection of the dead into the new life to which we will be raised, to which we have already been raised in Christ, the firstborn from the dead. In light of that, let us live like we believe it. Let THAT be our happiness.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Desperate Cry of the Sinful Man

Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;
Here's my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

-Come Thou Fount, Robert Robinson. 1757.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

...then there was darkness

Staring up into the darkness he could see the faint glimmer of moonlight as it shimmered along the surface of the waters above, its pale glow distant and obscured by the murky haze that seemed to surround the light, to press in on it from all sides until it was a wonder that the oppressive darkness did not swallow even that last bit of light. His hand outstretched before him seemed something apart from him, as if it did not belong to him, was not his own. It moved back and forth, flowing with the gentle currents around him, briefly casting shadows across his eyes as it blocked the pale, but distant light above. There were no sounds here, no voices, not even his own. Even his thoughts seemed distant and muted. Silence surrounded him even more that the cold water, coldness that he no longer felt, pressing in on him from every side. No sound. No feeling. There was only that eerie light. Something about the light tugged at his memory. There was something familiar about it. He could remember that light, but it was so much brighter before. It was supposed to be warm. That was it. It was supposed to be warm.

It was early in the morning. The sun had not yet risen, but he was already up and about. He had set his alarm for 5 o’clock so he could get a head start on the day. He had been looking forward to this day all week. All week long he sat in an office that felt like a prison as often as not. The sedate walls, painted in soft pastels so as to be pleasing to the eye, were the type of thing that could make a person crazy. But today was different. Today he was leaving that behind, even if only for a few hours. Today he would take his boat out onto the waters and enjoy a day of sailing. Today he would escape the drudgery of his daily life, escape the confines of those nauseating colors and immerse himself in the vibrant colors of nature as only the open waters could paint. That was why he was up so early. There was nothing so wonderful as a sunrise on the horizon, surrounded by nothing but the water in every direction. That was freedom. That was what he looked forward to today.

It did not take long to prepare the boat, a 20 foot day-sailer that he had purchased just a few months back. Though the boat was new, he had been sailing since he was a teenager. His grandfather had taught him everything he knew about sailing. With a wry grin, he remembered when the idea of sailing had seemed old fashioned and boring, along with his grandfather. He had been so engrossed in the world of his video games as a teenager that the thought that anything else might exist beyond the pale glow of the gaming screen seemed ludicrous. He could not help but laugh at the silly child he had been. Luckily, his grandfather had not been the kind of man that you said no to. He had dragged him out onto the water one morning not much unlike this morning, casting off from the dock while the sun was still sleeping beneath the distant horizon. Even the seagulls were not awake yet as he maneuvered the boat past the rows of other boats, each one tied snugly in their slips. The faint sound of the water lapping against the sides of the hull as he motored out into the harbor was like music in his ears.

There was already a decent breeze picking up in the predawn twilight. Once past the other boats and out into the empty harbor, he killed the engine and just sat for a moment looking up into the sky. The stars were still out, though the light pollution from the small port town behind him obscured all but the most brilliant. Still, it was a peaceful view. Just him and the stars. He smiled as he craned his neck to look into the heavens, remembering his grandfather pointing out the constellations used for navigation, used way back when computerized equipment and compasses had not even been imagined. Already the sky was turning a lighter shade of dark, a pale hint of light starting to edge over the horizon in the eastern sky. With a content sigh he set about raising the main sail which rippled in the breeze as he hoisted it up the mast using a hand crank nearby. Adjusting another crank that controlled the boom, the sail caught full of the breeze and went taut as it swelled outward and the boat surged forward toward the open waters.

The gentle swaying motion as the boat rose and fell along the ocean swells made some people seasick. Not him. With his hands on the wheel he closed his eyes, tilting his head back and inhaled deeply. The smell of the ocean was magnificent, fresh and clean, tinged with salt. A faint mist of seawater suffused the air, dampening his face, occasionally splashing as the boat hit the bottom of a swell. The breeze whipped by him carrying with it the scent of the wide open expanse before him. The sound of the wind catching the sail, of the water flowing by, filled his ears. Soft clouds stretched out across the sky, a sky which was quickly growing lighter off to his side, promising a grand display once the sun broke. Looking back he could no longer see the land behind him. Smiling to himself he turned slowly, just taking in the freedom into which he had sailed. There was nothing here, just him and the ocean. Dropping the sail he let the boat glide to a halt, now bobbing with the gentle swells, and dropped the anchor. Seating himself on a cushion he kicked his feet up and waited for the sun to rise.

The sun, much like him, was in no hurry. It would get where it was going when it got there. Stars began to disappear as the dark twilight faded to a light gray. And before long, the gray began to reveal soft blues and pinks that seemed to stretch out from the distant horizon. The soft clouds reflected the predawn light like something out a fairytale or a painting. The blue and pink pastels steadily grew in intensity until the entire sky seemed to come alive under the deft brush of a master painter. The pink became a brilliant red that refused to sleep any longer. The sky was a living thing now, a symphony in blues and reds and pinks, slowly building up to its crescendo. Just then, when it seemed that all the color in the world had been poured out before him, the sun broke the horizon like a conquering hero, entering the praise of the song being played out before him. Golden rays shot forth in triumph, glittering on the surface of the water, rushing forward on the water, washing over him. The clouds above echoed the golden song being played out on the rippling water as golden tendrils spidered across the sky, transforming the once red and pink painting into a blinding thing of golden radiance. The clouds looked like the pebbles at the bottom of a crystal clear stream, only painted in brilliant gold from horizon to horizon. He let the warmth of the rising sun wash over him, taking in every bit of its heat. Tears welled up in his eyes. He had never seen anything so amazing. Each sunrise was unique, special. Each one had the power to evoke this feeling, and never the same one twice. Those were his grandfather’s words, etched in his memory and upon his heart - words that seemed spoken only yesterday, and at the same time, spoken so long ago. Sometimes he could hardly remember the sound of his grandfather’s voice, but not so here. Here his grandfather spoke clearly, as if still sitting next to him. As he sat there watching, the golden chorus faded back to the reds, and soon even the reds faded, revealing a deep blue sky streaked with white clouds.

Raising the anchor and the main sail, he glided on after the sun has finished its morning song. Now overhead, the sun had taken the chill from the air so that the wind rushing by him was pleasant instead of cold. He was not sure where he was going, and honestly, it did not matter. He had the entire day to go as he pleased, and he was happy to let the wind take him where it would. Though he was alone, he could hear the voices of his friends, his family. They enjoyed coming with him on days like this. But today it was just him and his boat. Him and the water. The day was perfect.

By mid-afternoon he noticed that the wind began to pick up. Clouds were moving in, and moving quickly. The warmth that he had enjoyed not so long ago became nothing more than a pleasant memory. In the distance he could see dark clouds forming. They loomed menacingly on the horizon, a gray sheen between them and the water, evidence of heavy rains. The wind, now blowing from that direction, carried the faint smell of rain. Even as he turned the boat around and started heading back to the shore, he knew there was no way he would outrun the storm. The breeze was strong now, and the gale whispered threats in his ear even as the ocean began to swell with anger. The sky grew dark, both with the return of twilight and the clouds rushing in, as ominous thunder pealed overhead while lightning fingered across the sky above. Gone was the perfect day and tranquil breeze, replaced by a rage that had been welling up beneath the surface, now breaking forth in all its fury. The swells, once pleasant, now sent the small boat rushing up and down their steep inclines with reckless abandon. Water splashed up over the bow, more than a gentle spray. Quickly lowering the main sail, he started the engine, hoping that maybe he could outrun the worst of it. The howling wind played tricks on him, as if faint voices could be heard on the raging gales. He was glad he was alone now. Best that no one else was here to face this with him. Best that… Suddenly everything lurched forward and there was a loud snapping sound.

He was lying down. That didn’t make sense. Water was streaming over his face and wiping it away did little to help him see. The light was nearly choked out in the deluge and tumultuous clouds that roiled overhead. Lightning that left streaks of purple in his vision still stabbed across the sky as if to glory in its ability to have destroyed the tranquility of the morning. Sitting up in a daze, one hand to steady himself, one against his head, he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. One moment he had been at the helm, the next sprawled out on the short deck several paces forward. His safety strap must have snapped as he flew forward from the cockpit where it should have held him securely. The small craft still rolled wildly with the swell of the waves, and he had to grab wildly at the railing to keep from being hauled over the side as the water rushed over the top of the deck. Determined, his grip tight on the rail, he began to make his way back to the cockpit. He would be safe if only he could make it back. A noise behind him was the only warning he had, turning just in time to see the now unsecured boom rushing toward his face. Then darkness.

Darkness and a pale light above. He vaguely remembered coming to as he hit the cold water. He remembered losing sight of the boat as it sped away in that darkness, broken only by the brief flashes of lightning. He remembered flailing wildly to keep afloat in the storm, and failing to stay above the water more often than not. The salt water stung his eyes and burned as he tried to swallow more than he inhaled. He had struggled for as long as he could, even as he gasped for each breath, even as he had known it was pointless. His limbs grew numb and felt like jelly from the effort. He could vaguely remember the storm going as quickly as it had come. One moment the skies had dumped their fury on him, the next the clouds had parted, revealing a pale moon in a silent sky. But all that came and went through his mind in a blur now. The moments rushed together and it was hard to make sense of anything. His mind was growing sluggish. He no longer heard the sound of the ocean, even from underwater. His own heartbeat seemed far away, just like his thoughts, just like the pale moon above, still rippling with the surface above, but now even farther away as he continued to sink into the depths. There was no fight left in him. His eyes fixed themselves on the light above. Even the cold of the water was a distant thing now. His eyes stung, briefly, though whether from tears or the salt water, he could not say. It was so quiet here. Alone. But that was alright. There was the darkness. He was sure there was still light, somewhere in the distance. There was still… hope? There was still… What was there still? What was hope? What…

Then there was darkness. The pale light was forgotten, lost in the depths, lost beneath the surface now calm. There was only darkness. Cold, silent darkness.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Paul: from a man to a man of faith

It’s easy to look at the New Testament writers and hold them in a certain high regard. After all, these men actually walked around with Jesus Christ, in the flesh. These men saw his miracles, performed countless times. These men’s words became scripture, being inspired of God to write about this Jesus. And yet, when you get past all the hype, past all of the awe, the reverence that we often have for these men, we realize that they are indeed just that: men. It is hard, at least for me, to think of Peter as being just a man. After all, it’s Peter! This is the guy who walked on water. This is the guy who spoke out on Pentecost and three thousand people believed in Jesus! But this is also the guy who began to sink, for his lack of faith. This is the guy who denied Jesus three times. Peter was just a man; flawed and utterly human. What changed for him? A man, afraid for his life on that fateful night, but a mere fifty days later stands up and proclaims boldly that not only did he believe that Jesus was the Christ, but that the thousands of Jewish men and women around him were guilty of his blood, at great risk to his own life! What changed? How did he get to be that man, willing to forsake all for this simple message? One word. Resurrection.

I think about Paul, too. Certainly, we do not know much about the man, but we see enough. Paul was a man among men in the Jewish society. He was leagues ahead of his contemporaries, without equal in his zeal for his ancestral traditions. He was an ascending student of Gamaliel, a Jew among Jews. His contemporaries looked to him for approval, and received it as they assaulted those blaspheming apostates, those who followed “The Way.” Again, we do not see much about Paul, only brief glimpses of the man; momentary snapshots, before and after pictures, if you will. One day he’s on his way to Damascus to kill him some blasphemers, and the next moment he gets knocked on his backside, seeing a vision of Christ. That one moment changed his life forever. He became the chief voice of the gospel message to the Gentile world, and by extension, you and I. He became a pariah, an exile among his own people, all for the sake of this simple message. How did he get to be that man? One word. Resurrection.

Sometimes I think about what it must have been like for these men, what their transformation from their old life to the new must have been like. Take Paul for example. I am of the persuasion that he was likely married, may have even had children. And yet, there is no mention of them, not once. Certainly, that could be because he remained celibate his entire life. But, assuming he did have a wife, it seems more likely that she disowned him completely. In fact, we never once hear about Paul’s family after conversion; nor that of any of the other apostles. Their message was one of conflict, a wedge driven between husband and wife, father and son, brother and brother. They were as dead men to those who would not believe, cast out and forgotten. Imagine that. Imagine the pain of being abandoned by those you love, who love you, for the sake of this simple message. Imagine having the entire world at your fingertips, as an aspiring young Jew, only to have every last vestige of hope torn away from you. Your family: gone. Your dreams: gone. Your reputation: gone. We do not have much in the way of a record of Paul’s life imediately after conversion. We know that he goes about preaching the gospel shortly after his conversion, for a period of three years. We know that he then returns home for another fourteen (Galatians 1-2). While this is certainly never a topic that the Bible feels the need to address, it is one that consumes my thoughts of late. What must those fourteen years have been like for Paul as he realized that his life as he knew it was over? Old friends would no longer even talk to him, or if they did, it was to insult and call him down. His family, perhaps even a wife and children, disowning him as an outcast. All his education, seemingly for naught. His hope of life, of the very promises of God, shattered; replaced with a person, Jesus Christ.

The next time we see Paul, we see him with Barnabas. There is never any detailed mention of those things that he left behind, only the faint shadows that surely exist from every man’s past; shadows and dust of a life now over. We look at the man he was prior to coming to the knowledge of the resurrected Christ, and we look at the man after. Before, a murderous villain opposing the very Son of God; while after, a man whose only hope rests in the risen Christ. Just consider a few passages that highlight this change. Consider a man who has so fully cast his lot in with this Jesus that he can honestly say:
“20I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have sufficient courage so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. 21For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. 22If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! 23I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; 24but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.” Philippians 1:20-24

Think about that! We read these words and we agree to them like they are some mental proposition with which we should concur, but never actually reading these words, realizing that these are the words of a broken man, a man whose life has been so altered by his belief in the risen Christ that he honestly says that death is gain (and believed it!), for death will see him with Christ! No man comes to that place lightly, without having every last hope, save Christ alone, methodically ripped away from him over the years. But, this is exactly the man we see in Paul, a man who left behind his life, including his very identity, and found another.
“5circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the Law, a Pharisee; 6as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless. 7But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ. 8More than that, I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whom I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them but rubbish so that I may gain Christ, 9and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith, 10that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; 11in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:5-11

Notice he calls his entire life rubbish. I’m not sure that translation carries the correct imagery for that word. We think of rubbish as trash, or refuse. This word can also mean dung. So, without being too vulgar, perhaps it might be fair to say that Paul saw his entire life prior to Christ as a nice, big, steaming pile of crap; of zero value; rank and malodorous; buzzing with the flies in a midden heap. How does one come to a place where they can look at their entire life, all the things in which they once placed their hopes and dreams, their security, their very identity, and say it is nothing more than a pile of crap? It surely does not come easily, or quickly. For Paul, it may have taken those fourteen+ years, during which time he divorced himself from a life now pointless. During that time, he realized that the only thing of true value was Christ, and the hope of his Kingdom. Because of that hope, it did not matter what condition of life he found himself in; he was content (Philippians 4:12, the context for the oft-misquoted 4:13 “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me”).

In the end, God had so thoroughly removed Paul’s hope of life now that he wrote that he was ready to go.
“6For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure has come. 7I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; 8in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.” 2 Timothy 4:6-8

Paul’s was a life transformed by the resurrection of Christ. If Christ be not raised, then “let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (1 Corinthians 15:32) And yet, that last phrase is exactly what we are taught to do in our churches. At least, that is what I was taught. Sure, it was not explicit, but the message was the same. I long for the kind of faith that Paul had, that Peter had; a faith in the resurrection, so sure, so solid, that life itself is singular in purpose. But such a belief does not come easy. A life that you cherish is hard to give up if you do not really believe that what Christ offers is better; that the resurrection and the Kingdom are worth pursuing without hesitation.
“26If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple. 27whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30saying, 'This man began to build and was not able to finish.' 31Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. 33So then, none of you can be My disciple who does not give up all his own possessions. ” Luke 14:26-33

Maybe these words of Jesus are more than a kind admonition to make sure Jesus is number one in your life; a life filled with the pursuit of money, family, activities, church programs, Bible studies; oh, and Jesus, too. Maybe these words show the absolute nature of that desire required of us, the release of all hope and dreams bound to this world, instead wholly casting our lot with this Jesus, and his gospel message. Oh, but the pain necessary to bring that about, to convince us that our lives and everything we value are nothing more than a pile of **** compared to the unsurpassing value of the Kingdom of God... Only God can accomplish that kind of transformation of heart and mind. But be forewarned. The cost is great.

Do we dare ask?

Dare we not?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Nolan's Cheddar

I stumbled across this fake commercial, made just for the heck of it, through the mighty blogosphere. I love it!

Monday, February 15, 2010

On Being a Theologian of the Cross by Gerhard Forde

Forde, Gerhard O. On Being a Theologian of the Cross: Reflections on Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation, 1518. Kindle Edition. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

It is rare that I come across a book which is so well written and complete that I find it difficult to offer valid criticism. Forde’s book elicited non-stop cheers from cover to cover. Much of this can be attributed to Martin Luther’s argument which is the springboard from which Forde leaps. Herein I will evaluate Forde’s success in relation to his stated goals and purposes for writing this book. As with any book, Forde says that there was a void that his work would fill. Where other works exist that examine the Heidelberg Confession, all are deeply couched in the language and the controversy of Luther’s day such that without a deep knowledge of both, the reader would likely be lost. Forde has certainly fulfilled this primary goal. His work is wonderfully brief and uses language easily understandable to Western laymen while remaining true to the Confession’s content and purpose. He considers this an introduction to Luther’s ideas, though if the reader is so inclined, he offers other, more in-depth works for the reader to pursue (78). Every author certainly believes he fills a certain void, otherwise he would not write in the first place. It is the nature of that void upon which I will spend the rest of this review.

One of Forde’s primary reasons for writing is to solidify the language of Theology (48). The “theologian of glory,” the antagonist throughout, is required to modify language in order to make Christianity more palatable, easier to swallow. He calls what is good bad, and what is bad good. In essence, he refuses to say what a thing is. Forde shows how Luther’s argument, using carefully chosen words, destroys the sentimental language of victimization and sentimentalization (44). The heart of the language debate centers on this idea of calling a thing what it is, which is Thesis 21 of the Confession. The clarification in language becomes apparent quickly. In speaking of the works of men, Forde rightly points out that a dead work is much worse than a deadly work (555). Though a subtle point, this concept is important for teachers to consider. Offering men a road to God paved with works implies that works are good, whereas the Bible makes clear that men are saved from their dead works (Titus 3:5). The theologian of glory tells men that their works are deadly, but not dead. Luther destroys this idea by calling all works by mortal men evil, and thus mortal. Their works are not merely deadly, but fully dead. Coming to the cross as the means by which to accomplish works merely continues the false idea that works can be good and meritorious. This is a very helpful reminder for us to not turn the cross into a means to an end, that is, the means by which we are enabled to keep the Law unto salvation (830). However, there are times when Luther’s language seems to get confusing, which goes counter to Forde’s goal; but he is not remiss to address the problem.

Forde explains what Luther means when he speaks of “despair” negatively in Thesis 17, but as positive, indeed necessary, in Thesis 18. His distinction is helpful wherein the former “despair” speaks of that which a person feels when he constantly tries to measure up, making himself acceptable in God’s eyes by his actions. This leads to ultimate despair, for the sinner is never able, even after regeneration, to uphold the perfect Law of God (786). However, the believer must come to utter despair of his own ability to merit the favor of God, which then points him to the grace of Christ (788). Forde acknowledges this is a very subtle distinction, but one that highlights the great divide between the theology of glory versus that of the cross. Ultimate despair, which leads to death, is firmly rooted in the theologian of glory insisting that evil is in fact good.

Forde believes that the “problem of evil” as discussed in modern philosophical debates is firmly rooted in the language of the theology of glory (951). By equating suffering with evil they inevitably group all suffering together. Again, the point is subtle, but Forde rightly argues that not all suffering is evil. The chief example of which is the work of Jesus on the cross; however, he is quick to offer other sources of suffering which are not evil, including love, beauty, children, and everyday life (957-970). Thus, the theologian of glory in his attempt to absolve God as the cause of any suffering denies the very act by which men can be saved, namely the God-wrought suffering of the Christ. Such an observation is quite damning and reminds us to keep a careful reign on our language when discussing God, man, and the cross. In addition to Christ’s suffering, it is through suffering that men are able to know and speak the truth (994). Not all suffering is evil. However, even Forde is not above reproach in his own use of language.

This slight infraction is the only inconsistency in language I noted, but given his explicit goal of being a guardian of language, it is necessary that it be highlighted. Early on Forde calls the “Fall” an unbiblical notion, wherein he defines the “Fall” as the myth of the exiled soul, trapped in the decaying world of physicality, seeking its return to glory (148-153). However, later in reflection on the bondage of the will he says that such reflection allows us to “see into the depths of fallenness,” (626). It seems that Forde rejects the “Fall” as being one of the “holy,” spiritual soul trapped in the “wicked” flesh (seemingly a form of Gnosticism), but rightly affirms the bondage of the will of men in their natural state. He could certainly be more consistent with his stated goal by offering an explicit definition of fallenness, rather than leaving the reader to infer his meaning. Regardless of this singular omission, Forde makes an excellent point that the careful usage of language is key to a right understanding of the Gospel and conveyance of that understanding to others.

Forde is quite insistent, as Luther certainly was in the Confession, that one’s language is of utmost importance. That language allows the theologian of the cross to speak correctly concerning the work of God in salvation. This brings to light the most important of Forde’s goals, that of conveying the truths of the Confession to modern Christians. Forde uses the illustration of two great pillars: on the left the Law of God, and on the right, the love of God (307). For the theologian of glory, such a separation is unthinkable, for he surely thinks that the Law was given to man as a means by which to attain the favor of God by his faithful obedience thereto. However, as Luther moves through the disputation, it becomes exceedingly clear that the two are as far from one another as can possibly be, and that only God can move men from one side to the other. This is of paramount consequence for modern Christians. There are countless churches where pastors preach this demonic doctrine of grace plus works. If accused and pressed, they surely deny it, for they deny the theology of glory. However, Forde astutely observes that by shifting the focus onto abstract concepts like “theology,” those who hold to grace plus works are able to shift blame from themselves, away from their own hearts of death, and accuse an ephemeral enemy (921). However, it is the man, the teacher, the theologian that is ultimately the problem. Thus, Forde provides a sober reminder to his readers, teachers and preachers many of them, that they must always be on alert against becoming theologians of glory. It is a plague, a cancer that originates within the dead hearts of men that seeks to justify oneself by his own works. It has always been the case, though, when man is confronted with his sin. Adam, when confronted by God justified himself in his own eyes, diverting blame to woman, and worse, to God himself. That is one place this book is relentless. It does not allow us to look away from our sin. Instead of the cross being a means by which we attain to perfection, and thereby becoming a mere means to an end; rather, we are forced to look at the very best we have to offer, all our works of supposed goodness, and confess before the broken body of the Christ, broken by God for us, that it was our works that brought Him there. And that work on the cross, though terrible, gut-wrenching, and awful to behold, was a good and gracious act of God. The cross was not evil, but rather it is the mirror by which we see the evil that dwells within. There is no coming to the cross in pride that I have done a mighty thing, even in my belief in its ability to save me, but rather I am rightly broken, cut down and destroyed before the blatant fact that I am death; or rather, that Christ took on my death that I might live, and even that life that I now live, it is entirely by faith in Him who gave himself up for me (Gal. 2:20).

Luther’s disputation seems flawless in its exacting and brutal destruction of the last vestiges of self justification within a heart suffused with sin. Forde does an excellent job bringing to light a great and much needed message for the modern believer. It is very easy for me to look at my works and stand with chest puffed out, head held high, proclaiming that, even by the power of God, I have run the race and proved myself true. Forde, and indeed all theologians of the cross, utterly reject such claims of hubris and instead, with grips of iron logic and the conviction of God, drag us before the cross and force us to gaze upon that which our hubris has ultimately wrought. If only we as teachers and preachers of God’s Word could ever keep before us the horror of our sin, the theology of glory might once and for all be put to death, that Christ might be glorified all in all.
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