Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Christian Disciplines, Part III: Submission

This is Part 3 of a five-part series on the Christian Disciplines. It is a "how-to" manual, or "what mature Christianity looks like." It borrows heavily from Richard Foster's, "Celebration of Discipline" and I highly recommend it. A new post will be made each Wednesday. To view them all together, click on the "Series: Christian Disciplines" link on the right.

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Shalom

In the past two posts, we learned how to study Scripture and how to pray. Those are hopefully by now your daily rhythms of your life, and please do not abandon those. Today we will talk about the discipline of Submission, but before we do, let's stop for a moment and learn about a particularly important Biblical concept.

One of the key ideas in Scripture is the idea of shalom. Shalom is a Hebrew word which appears in the Old Testament over 200 times, and it is usually translated as “peace.” Shalom, however, has a much more deep meaning than this.

Shalom has the idea of wholeness or complete health. Medically, the term shalom implies that someone is of sound mind and body—there are no diseases or pains affecting him, he is “whole.” To be in shalom means to be in harmony with our design by God.

Ancient Jewish commentators on the Bible point out that the entire purpose of the Old Testament is to show the brokenness of peace and return us back to it: “All that is written in the Torah was written for the sake of shalom[1].” It is even part of the name Jerusalem (which literally means, “peace is found”). Proverbs 3:17 says that wisdom always leads to shalom.

The lack of shalom shows up in our marriages as divorce, in our families as abandoned children, in our politics as war, in our society as injustice toward the poor or other races, in our bodies as sickness and suffering, in our sexual relationships as adultery or homosexuality, in our relationships as hatred or mean-spirited talk, in nature as deadly disasters. All the suffering and sin we experience are the results of a world whose shalom is broken.

When God designed the world, all was in harmony with His will—until Genesis 3. At the Fall, we find that God’s shalom is broken. All our suffering, all our rebellion, only increases its brokenness. And we know that all of God’s creation is groaning, eagerly anticipating the day that Messiah will return and bring lasting shalom (Rom 8:19).


Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.       (Matt 5:9)

Jesus called being a peace-maker a “beatitude” or supreme blessing, and said that these are the people who would be called the children of God. And Romans 8:19 tells us that “creation waits in eager anticipation for the children of God to be revealed.

So when Jesus blesses His followers who are peace-makers, or shalom-makers, He is speaking of us actively seeking to create shalom in the world: to actively seek to restore the earth to the position it was supposed to be.

You see then that peacemaking includes everything as widespread as healing broken marriages and restoring addicts and protecting the environment and preventing fighting and war. By using the word “peacemakers” in this passage, Jesus is directly stating that peace is something to be made—He is saying that those who have this worldview actively seek out opportunities to make peace, to bring reconciliation.

In fact, what is fascinating about Scripture is that if wronged someone, it is your responsibility to make things right…and if you were wronged, it is your responsibility to make it right. It is always your responsibility!  No matter what, a peacemaker always sees it is his or her responsibility to bring unit, no matter who “started it.” (Matt 5:23, Matt 18:22).

So if we are to learn to serve others and be Shalom-makers in our communities, how are we to accomplish this? All true service begins with a particular attitude—an attitude taught to us by Jesus Himself. It is called submission.

Submission is among the most powerful, and most abused, spiritual disciplines. The discipline of submission is the willing release of your power, your rights, and your interests and instead to focus on the power, rights, and interests of others.

It is perhaps most easily understood by those who have recently had a baby. From the moment that the baby is born, the parents make willing choices to change their entire lives—they put their own desires, schedules, needs, and rights on hold and instead serve willingly and passionately this small child who can do nothing to return the love. This is a great picture of submission, and it is this which we are supposed to exhibit to the rest of the world.

Christian submission is to hold others above ourselves, and to give away our interests. Jesus implies that this is the most noticeable outward trait of a Christian, saying that the very life of a believer is to give his own life away (Mark 8:35).

Do not underestimate the radical nature of Jesus’ teaching on submission; it is almost beyond question the most amazing and shocking thing He said, and He said it often. Jesus completely flips the power structure of the world upside down. He says that a believer understands that true power comes by giving away your power; true status is reserved for those who give away their status and privilege; Scripture says that you are at your best when you consider everyone else better than yourself (Phil 2:3)! And He applies this posture equally to all Christians: men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free.

Jesus lived a life of submission and therein defeated even death; if we wish truly to exhibit God’s power, we must submit and give away all the power and privilege that we have.  Unlike other religions, with their powerful priesthood, the elders and pastors were, according to Christianity, mere shepherds—servants doing the ‘dirty work’ to make the sheep’s lives better.

Submission is not popular in our society—it is the opposite of our society, in fact. Submission requires true humility: thinking of others before yourself, being willing to allow others to prosper even if it costs you everything. Submission means caring more about shalom than about your own personal rights and privileges.

Here are seven areas to focus on submission in your lives. Read and discuss each as a group.

1.       Submission to God. The first and key area of submission comes in submission to God. The very act of salvation, at its heart, is this step—the willingness to say that I am no longer going to seek to be my own god, but instead will follow the one True God. “Thy will be done,” is the basic foundation that is at the base of every believer’s heart.

2.       Submission to Scripture. The ordinary way that God speaks to us is through His written word. By submitting to Scripture we are willing to not only hear the word of God but also to do what He tells us to do. As we discussed in weeks 5-6, it is important that we are properly interpreting Scripture so that we are actually submitting to what it says and not what we wish it said.

3.       Submission to Family. Ephesians 5:21-33 and Colossians 3:18-22 both discuss how to submit to each other in the household—and yes, it is submit to each other (Eph 5:21). To the readers of these texts, women, children, and slaves were required to submit by force of law; however, the Gospel freed them from these positions (Gal 3:28). The Gospel frees them from their earthly chains. Now, however, the Scriptures say—freely submit to one another, not because the law demands it, but because you love each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Freely and graciously the family is to make allowance for each other and give each other love, respect, and everything that you have.

4.       Submission to Neighbors.  Human nature wants to stereotype and look down on those who are not part of our ‘in-group’; a Jesus-shaped spirituality sees everyone we meet as a neighbor and, like the Good Samaritan, we are willing to give everything and share everything to love them.

5.       Submission to the Church. We all are also part of a new family, a universal church, and we are to submit to each other. This might come in large ways such as serving as a missionary or giving sacrificially to support missionaries; or it may come in small trivial spontaneous acts of service like cutting the lawn at the church or emptying a trash can or giving a youth kid a ride home each week.

6.       Submission to the Despised. One of the best ways to judge your submissiveness is to ask yourself this question honestly—“What am I doing to help those who are invisible to society?” Our society makes the elderly, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor, and the prisoner (among others) invisible to “polite society.” People want to be able to ignore them by giving a bit more in taxes and letting the government handle them quietly, out of the way. This was not Jesus’ way. We are to seek them, submit our lives to them, and better them.

Submission to the World. We are not only to concern ourselves with those in our sphere of influence. All of humanity bears the image Deo, and is worthy of being a recipient of our love and submission. We are submit ourselves to all, even those who would kill us or harm us. This was Jesus’ way, and the foundation of all service and, therefore, the foundation of rebuilding shalom.




[1] Tanhuma Shofetim 18

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Transgenderism from a Theological Perspective

Transgenderism is widely spread among news stories today and--being a relatively salacious topic--is one of those things which is widely discussed.

But what I find most valuable to discuss, and what I find rarely to be discussed, is this: how should Christians think about transgenderism from a theological/philosophical perspective?

The Christians I have spoken with on the topic give extremely predictable responses:  those who voted for a Democrat in the last election would talk about protecting the rights of the transgender as a social justice role; those who voted for a Republican in the last election would talk about it as unnatural and a further slide down an increasingly-slippery slope.

In other words--at least in my experience, Christians are viewing this issue primarily through their political prisms, rather than through a theological one.

Due to confirmation bias, this is exceptionally easy to fall into--but this doesn't make it right.

So I want to spend today talking about transgenderism from a theological basis.


Starting Place:  The Redemptive Hermeneutic

To begin with, I highly suggest reading my post on "De-Confusing the Bible," as it provides a great aid in viewing the issue.


As discussed in that article, it is valuable to view the following picture to describe the history of humanity from a Christian perspective.











God created the world pure and good, so whenever we want to know the "Paradise" state we look at Gen 1-2.

Due to sin, we had "Paradise Lost" and live in a fallen world (Gen 3).

In the end, Jesus will return and give us "Paradise Regained" (Rev 20-21).

Right now, we live in the period of Redemption--a period that sees the "seed" of redemption in the Old Testament law, redemption which bloomed in the first-fruits of Jesus, and which we as the Church are now spreading throughout the world.

So, this is our starting place.



Where Transgenderism Fits


Gender at the time of Creation

Our starting place always must be -- what is the original state of creation? In that, we see God's plan for our lives.

The original state of creation from a gender standpoint is that gender is a part of Creation:  "So God created mankind in His own image; in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them."

So this gives us our first data point:  genders are a "good thing"--that is, they are not a result of the Fall. Those who report feeling genderfluid--that their gender changes and then changes back later--cannot be defended on a Scriptural basis.

So we start with one clear statement--God creates us with a particular gender, and that particular gender is a good thing, it is not a part of the Fall, but a part of Creation.



Gender at the time of Restoration

We know therefore that at the Restoration, when Jesus comes back and the Kingdom of God is established, all issues with gender confusion will be defeated.

Hearing this should be a tremendous relief to  those who have lived in a state of paralyzing identity crisis over their gender; there is a gender that God created for each of us, and the identity crisis will not be the case for eternity. When we receive our resurrected bodies, we will all find that we are comfortable in our own skin!


Gender during the Fall

The question becomes--what impact does the Fall have on us? The Fall, by matter of breaking the very nature of reality, can affect gender in three ways that I can think of (no particular order):


  1. Spiritual:  as a result of the Fall, sin and spiritual deadness can make us seek identity in things other than God, which could result in a conscious or subconscious rebellion against the gender roles assigned to us by God;
  2. Physical:  as a result of the Fall, birth defects happen and it is certainly feasible that one might be born with the wrong set of genitalia (or both sets, as in the case of hermaphrodites); and
  3. Psychological:  as a result of the Fall, we are all psychologically broken and the environments (nurture) in which we are raised are also psychologically and spiritually broken, so it is entirely feasible that the manner in which one is raised, and their experiences in life, could cause confusion in gender identity.

Thus, from the Fall we have three potential causes of gender confusion.




Gender during the Redemption Period

All of this leads us to today--what can we, as the Church, do to assist in redeeming the situations to the greatest of our ability?

If we look at the three potential causes, we see that the actions required to bring redemption or healing are radically different.


  1. If the cause of the gender identity confusion is predominantly spiritual in nature, then the only way to "fix" the identity crisis will be a firmer rooting of the individual's identity in Christ. Gender reassignment surgery and/or hormonal efforts will do nothing to ease the identity problem. In this case, they have the appropriate body parts and the appropriate psychological consistency to live a fulfilled and happy life, they simply need spiritual healing in order to move from a state of "fallen" toward a state of "restoration."
  2. If the cause of the gender identity confusion is due to a birth defect, such as being born with the wrong genitalia, then gender sex change operations and/or hormonal therapy will be the only way to heal the issue. This is the only option in that case for moving one from fallen to restoration in this area.
  3. If the cause of the issue is primarily psychological, then sex change operations or spiritual focusing will have little impact unless the underlying psychological issues are dealt with. It has been suggested in the past that this is why post-op transgenders have such a radically high rate of depression and suicide.

The Crux of the Issue

What makes this particular issue so difficult is two-fold:  first, there is (with very rare exceptions) no scientific method of determining the root cause of the gender confusion from among the three options; and second, to perform the wrong action is devastating.

This cannot be overlooked. If the primary cause of gender dysphoria for an individual is spiritual or psychological in nature, then a sex change operation is the last thing they need--it will not solve the problem, and yet will cause massive impact to their lives financially, physically, socially, and emotionally. Post-operation, suicide attempts spike to an astonishing 41%, compared to only 10% pre-operation and only 2% in the general population. That is, roughly half of all people after undergoing sex change operations decide the only next step is to end their lives.

However, if the issue is physical due to a birth defect, then no amount of praying or psychological evaluation is going to fix the concern. They will be forced to live in that scenario for their lives--and you can just imagine what it would be like to live with both sets of genitalia, or to lose yours in an accident; it would be a major impact on your mental health.


Managing Risk

What often happens is that you end up having to manage risk.

Since there is no way to be certain of the root cause, you must choose to manage each of these as "false alarm" (alpha) risks or "false positive" (beta) risks.

Assuming it is Spiritual:
  • Alpha risk:  if we assume it is spiritual and it isn't, then the person lives in a state of identity crisis. Furthermore they may become turned off of Christianity after "praying it away" fails to work.
  • Beta risk:  if we assume it is NOT spiritual and it is, then you will never address the root cause so you still end up living in the state of identity crisis--plus you have spent time and money in either psychological or physical cures which may not be reversible.

Assuming it is Physical:
  • Alpha risk:  if we assume it is physical/biological birth defect and it isn't, then you undergo a massive elective surgery which is physically brutal, and financially and emotionally expensive, and your risk of suicidal-level depression rises 400%.
  • Beta risk:  if we assume it is NOT physical and it is, then you will continue to live in a state of identity crisis/discomfort.
Assuming it is Psychological:
  • Alpha risk:  if we assume it is psychological and it isn't, then you end up wasting time and money in psychological treatments which will likely be ineffective, as well as staying in the same state of identity crisis.
  • Beta risk:  if we assume it is NOT psychological and it is, then you will fail to address the root cause of the issue, maintain the identity crisis, and possibly undergo massive sex change operations as well.

Viewed through this prism, we can provide wise advice to those in our lives who feel this way.


Conclusions to Draw

  1. Surgery is the last possible option. 

    The worst-case risk above is the alpha error of assuming it is physical/biological, if it turns out to be spiritual or psychological. As such, discussion of a sex change operation should be either (a) not even considered or (b) an absolutely desperate last-case scenario only after all other attempts have failed. In no other situation would we allow such a risky surgery for something that cannot be proved; this would be akin to addressing ADD with a partial lobotomy: it is an extremely high-risk surgery for something that we cannot be certain fixes the issue. Permanent solutions to uncertain problems are never a wise approach, so before we start encouraging people on such a path we must be absolutely certain that there is no other option.
  2. We must all begin by admitting that there is no blanket answer.It is not okay for the conservative Christian to simply assume that all transgender people simply "need Jesus or a shrink", nor for all liberal Christians to simply assume that they need sex change operations. Both are SERIOUS errors.

    We are called, above all else to LOVE one another. That means giving wise advice. Which means understanding their individual scenario. Which means--in a case like this, where there is no scientific way to know precisely what the root cause is--that we should not jump to conclusions.

    However, it also means that we cannot simply "trust their feelings," for if the problem is either spiritual or psychological, then their feelings are in fact broken as well!

  3. The goal is to lovingly restore each individual person.


    Love must be our overriding issue. And love wants what is best for a person--no matter if that is uncomfortable for me, or uncomfortable for them.

    There is nothing loving about enabling someone with psychological problems to lop off body parts. There is ALSO nothing loving about going up to someone with a physical birth defect and denying them surgery because you don't believe that it really is an issue.

    Loving is hard, because it requires us to ask questions we wouldn't normally ask, and see things from their perspectives.
  4. We all must break out of our politics and see them as people.

    We all have too much tendency to think of this issue politically. What is written above is--I believe--simply clear logic and falls out naturally from what we know about the issue and the Bible.

    However, many of you will disagree with portions above. The reason isn't Biblical, or scientific. The reason is emotional--because you want to defend your particular position, because it via confirmation bias, confirms your existing beliefs about your party and the other party.

    We don't like to see ourselves this way, but it's true. Democrats are using the transgender community to further one agenda; conservatives, to further a different agenda. Christians who view the issue through those prisms will simply be puppets to the same.

    Loving a person means wanting to see them moved from broken to restoration. Gender dysphoria must be devastating to a person, and they deserve every bit of compassion and love we have. But also, that doesn't mean teaching them that gender reassignment is the right approach--necessarily. It depends on the individual situation.
  5. Which leaves me with my final, and most key point:  Do not make statements about generalities, only speak about individuals whom YOU KNOW.

    If you go around saying, "Sex change operations help so many people," or saying, "Trans people are just spiritually lost," I am going to ask a simple question.

    "Tell me of one of your close friends who has been through this. Tell me their story. How long have you known them? When did you first begin discussing it? What was trialed before you reached your conclusion?"

    If the answer is--as it usually is--that you actually don't know anyone in this scenario, then may I respectfully ask that you (and I!) keep our mouths shut here?

    As we've shown above, the situation of moving fallen people from gender confusion to gender restoration differs greatly by situation, and therefore we cannot make blanket statements.

    We are neither loving people nor helping them in their times of crisis, by making generic statements or assumptions which can then be repeated to everyone else who might be in different situations.

    Rather, in discussing the issue, we should all admit that there are three potential causes; that it is impossible to prove which is the case; it is impossible to even make an educated guess unless we are extremely close friends with the person; that some actions are extremely dangerous if wrong; and that we need to treat each one on a case-by-case basis with the primary goal being to restore them to the way God made them.

Christian Disciplines, Part II: Prayer

This is Part 2 of a five-part series on the Christian Disciplines. It is a "how-to" manual, or "what mature Christianity looks like." It borrows heavily from Richard Foster's, "Celebration of Discipline" and I highly recommend it. A new post will be made each Wednesday. To view them all together, click on the "Series: Christian Disciplines" link on the right.

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Prayer is the life-blood of successful Christian living, and something with which we all (myself included!) struggle.

As we consider prayer, let's start by discussing how to prepare, and then the actual activity of prayer itself.


Mentally Preparing to Pray:  The Two H's--Humility and Hope

Jesus’ longest sermon on prayer focused greatly on the concept of humility (Matt 5:5-15), and in Luke 18:9-14, Jesus told a parable in which humility seems to be the primary decider on whether a prayer is heard or not. So it is important that we understand exactly what this foundation is, so that our work on prayer might be successful.

What does it mean to be humble? We must avoid the way that our society has twisted this perfectly good word; now for some reason, “humility” means having low self-esteem, as though confidence and humility are opposites. That is not at all true—humility is not that you think badly about yourself, it is that you do not think much about yourself at all. The opposite of humility is pride, not confidence. According to every great theologian in history—from Augustine to Aquinas to Calvin to Luther—pride is the central sin from which all other sins flow.

In perhaps no other way are Christians more different than the world than this: that we value humility rather than pride. Humility is honestly knowing who the center of the universe REALLY is, who the Creator really is, and what our task here really is. Humility is not valuing yourself based on how the world views you, but how God views you. I believe CS Lewis has the perfect description of a humble life:

“[Learning who God is makes you] delightfully humble, feeling the infinite relief of having for once got rid of all the silly nonsense about your own dignity which has made you restless and unhappy all your life. He is trying to make you humble in order to make this moment possible: trying to take off a lot of silly, ugly, fancy-dress in which we have all got ourselves up and are strutting about like the little idiots that we are.”

So the first foundation of prayer is an attitude of humility. The second, shown in such passages as Mark 11:24, James 1:6-7, and Matthew 21:22, is that you must believe God will come through—hopefulness.

So what does this mean? Is this, as some televangelists would twist it, meaning that your positive attitude determines whether God gives you what you want? Does God determine the future based on our positive thinking? If our prayers are not answered, is this because we are not really believers?

No, the Bible says hope (elpis in Greek) is a joyful and confident expectation that God will follow through on His promises. We see this well demonstrated by Paul, who often found himself on trial for his faith and exhibited the virtue of hope in those situations. In Acts 23, Paul is on trial and tells the Sanhedrin of his hope in the resurrection of the dead; in Acts 24 before the governor Felix, he refers to his hope of the afterlife; in Acts 26 before King Agrippa he refers to his hope that God will deliver on His promises; and in Acts 28 in Rome he says that he has hope for Israel’s salvation. In each case, “hope” refers to an expectation that God fulfills promises. 

Hope is the unwavering belief that God will Restore creation, and that if it is His will and good for us, He will answer our prayers now and let a bit of that future Restoration seep in to our daily life and our prayer request.


So as we enter into prayer, we are to be humble (not focused on ourselves, but on God), and hopeful (believing that God will restore things the right way, and if it is good to do so, will answer our prayer).



Physically Preparing to Pray:  Meditation and Fasting

Prior to the actual praying, many Christians throughout history have found physical actions also helpful to preparing for prayer. I personally use meditation on a daily basis for my prayer life.


Meditation

Christian meditation, very simply, is purposefully creating a space of quietness to listen to God’s voice. It is not about hidden mysteries or secret chants or strange visions; it is about quieting everything around us so that, like Elijah, we can hear from God’s “still, small voice.”

It is such an important part of Christian practice that when martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer was asked why he took meditation seriously he replied, “Because I am a Christian.”

As believers, we all have the Holy Spirit inside us to guide us and shape us. Meditation is the process by which we create emotional and spiritual space to listen to His words.

What Christian meditation is not, however, is the same as the trances and practices of Eastern mystics, such as you might see in Buddhism or Hinduism. In those religions the meditation is focused on detaching from reality, clearing your thoughts of anything. But it is clear from Scripture that this is the opposite of Christian meditation. Christian meditation is not about detaching but attaching one’s thoughts—you shut out everything else except for one particular passage of Scripture or your relationship with God. 

You focus entirely upon that until the distractions of the world fade away. So to us, meditation is not about “zoning out” and relaxing; it is about “tuning in” to God’s channel and ignoring all of the other static. The idea is not to empty your mind, but to fill it—with God. Some people call this “quiet time” to distinguish from Eastern mysticism, but Scripturally the proper word is “meditation.”

The goal of meditation, then, is to create a space of calm and quiet, so that we have the opportunity to hear God’s voice. You are very unlikely to have a healthy prayer life without a regular time of blocking out what the world has to say. This is what Jesus has in mind when He suggests going to an inner room and closing the door in Matthew 6:6—to purposefully and intentionally block out the distractions of the world.

You cannot learn to meditate from words, you must learn it by meditating. There is no proper time nor even one proper method. If your focus is on Christ, you cannot “get it wrong.” It is simply to create a physical environment which makes it easier to focus on God. One Elder at  our church has a cup of coffee and a lazy boy first thing in the morning, before looking at his schedule; the smell of coffee and routine of fixing it all creates a physical process of getting ready for prayer.  Another Elder wakes up and devotionally studies his Scripture and then is quiet and meditates on that. I usually do meditation at night, with my children, before bedtime prayer. Some use candles, some use imaginations, some use just a dark room, some use music. Whatever fills your mind only with God and allows you to remove yourself from this world, is valuable as meditation.


Fasting

For much of Jewish and Christian history, fasting was considered one of the key, cornerstone and regular disciplines of a spiritual life. The Bible is filled with examples of people fasting, and in Matthew 6 when Jesus is giving the Sermon on the Mount, He speaks of prayer, fasting, and giving as all natural outpourings of a spiritual life:  He does not say if you fast, but when you fast: fasting was just assumed to be part of a healthy spiritual life. In Matthew 9:15, Jesus again assumes that fasting will be a regular part of our daily lives to keep us focused on Him.

Fasting is the denial of food and drink in order to focus one’s attention on God and matters of spiritual importance.  If meditation creates the space for God, and prayer is our way of communicating with God, then the hunger we feel during fasting is like a lens of a telescope, focusing our thoughts toward Him and reminding us dozens of times throughout the day to seek His presence.

In most cases, fasting is a private matter between a person and God; however on occasion group fasts have been held for serious, corporate issues and can be very powerful. For example, the Didache (an ancient Christian ‘how-to’ manual) encouraged the entire church to fast together for several days prior to a new convert’s baptism.

When it comes to fasting, there are many different methods. This week we are going to present a few common methods of fasting.

Types:  First you must decide which type of fast you are going to perform. An absolute fast is where you eat no food and drink no water; however, this is dangerous if done for more than a short period of time and extremely rare. A partial fast is where you give up a certain type of food, or certain meals each day; for example, Daniel abstained from certain types of food but not a typical fast.

Neither of these was the typical Biblical fast, however. A typical fast is where you eat nothing after the sun raises, and drink only water. Typically only a very small amount of food was eaten before dawn (“breaking your fast” is where the term ‘breakfast’ originates). Therefore one goes 24 hours (dawn to dawn) with no food and only water to drink.

Frequency and Duration:  Next, one must decide for how long he or she will fast. While Moses, Jesus, and others at times did typical fasts for 40 days or more, this was the exception. It seems from some early texts common that the first Christians fasted two days a week. However it is strongly recommended that, like all disciplines, Christians build up to this practice. If fasting is not a normal part of your spiritual practice, it should be undertaken wisely…don’t go from five meals a day to a 40 day fast all in one jump! And depending on your medical situation, a typical fast might not be appropriate for you at all; in such a case perhaps fasting from something you crave (like coffee) is a better option. As long as it will frequently remind you that you are missing it during the day, it will work.

Motivation: When Jesus teaches about fasting in Matt 6:16-18, the most important consideration is the motive. Fasting is not a diet plan. Fasting is not a hunger strike to point out injustice. Jesus says that if you fast for those reasons, those are your only reward…there is no spiritual payoff. A fast is only a Biblical fast if its intention is purely spiritual in nature, to focus your eyes on God. If you find yourself saying (as I have myself, frequently), “Hey I’ll fast during Lent and hopefully lose some weight too!”, and then every day I’m weighing in and looking at the scales…then be honest: this is a diet, not a fast. Dieting is fine; but fasting is a spiritual discipline. Dieting is not. Be sure your motives are pure—this is actually the point about fasting that Jesus made most firmly. 




Praying



This post has been leading us up to this point:  prayer is where we are ushered into communion with God. Scripture study told us God’s story and helped us see our place in it; humility and hope made us ready to accept what God would say; meditation created a space to listen; fasting focused our minds. It all led to this: through prayer we hear from, and speak with, the Father who created us.

As we begin to practice prayer, you may be surprised, as it may not be what you had in mind. For most Americans, we think “prayer” and what we really mean is “asking”—but that is not the Biblical sense of prayer. Prayer is about communing with your Father. If you have children, think of all the ways that you communicate. Yes it is true that sometimes they ask things of you; but more often, when my kids come up to me it is to hug me or tell me they missed me or to cuddle or tell me stories or ask my advice (and of course, sometimes I seek them out to correct or discipline them for things which are harmful to them). So asking for things is only one tiny part of prayer.

No, the Bible has many words it can use for “ask” or “beseech” or “beg.” The phrase “to pray” (lehitpallel) means “to judge yourself.” In other words, it is when we speak to God in prayer that we reflect on our burdens and share them with Him. Sometimes it is to seek forgiveness, sometimes to thank Him for caring for us, sometimes (yes) to ask for His provision or advice, and sometimes simply to spend time with Him. Prayer then is the central avenue God uses to transform us and give us the ultimate joy which only He can offer.

James 4:3 says that “you ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly”—which some misunderstand, thinking that it means you must adhere to a particular formula to get God’s response. That is not the case at all; notice the second half of the verse:  “you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions.” James says that when your prayers go unanswered it is because you were viewing prayer as a chance to simply get things from Daddy that you can spend on your passions, instead of to commune with Him and bask in His relationship.

One thing is certain:  just as our children benefit from engaged parents, so too does our future maturity as believers require that we spend a lot of time with our heavenly Father. David did it (Ps 63:1); Jesus did it (Mk 1:35); the apostles did it (Acts 6:4). Martin Luther once said that he was so busy in his life that he found no possible way to get all his work done unless he spent at least three hours a day praying. 

Let us be frank. If your prayer life is anemic or non-existent today, nothing we discuss this week will magically fix it. Prayer is a skill and a discipline and a relationship. It takes time to develop, and we are all still growing in this area.

We’ve all felt the awkwardness of meeting someone for the first time and trying to carry on a conversation. We also all realize that just because you have jogged a couple times in your life doesn’t mean you should go run the marathon. Whether you are building a relationship or a skillset, it takes time and patience. Prayer is no different. Real prayer is something we learn—in fact, the disciples who had watched Jesus and walked with Jesus for years still had to ask Him to teach them how to pray (Lk 11:1).

I hope that is a liberating fact to read. It is okay to try, to experiment, and to fail at prayer…because you each time are learning how best to communicate to the Father. My kids learned long ago that running up to me and screaming was not a good method of communicating with me; in the same way, we must learn the ways that help us commune with the Father in the most effective manner. If you turn on the TV and get a bad signal, you don’t assume that TV doesn’t exist; you assume that it needs to be tuned better—such it is with prayer.

It is easy to make prayer too complicated, and we don’t want to do that here. Furthermore, what works best in prayer will always be slightly different for all of us.  But below are five methods of praying that have been useful for many Christians, for you to try and consider.

  • Read a Psalm or Proverb each day, as a devotional study. Pray about whatever you find in it.
  • Pray by using the acrostic ACTS:  ACTS: A-adore God for who He is; C-confess today's sins; T-thank God for the great things He has done today; and S-supplicate/ask God for your needs today. (This is what I do with my kids each night.)
  • From Martin Luther:  Say the Lord's Prayer but after each line, pray it in your words and apply it to today's routine. For example:  "thy kingdom come, thy will be done...Lord, today I have five meetings, may I help your kingdom be present in my actions and decisions, and may I represent you well in them." (I find this personally quite powerful.)
  • Do prayer walks or flash prayers, saying a quick prayer in your mind any time you see a person.
  • Use the Book of Common Prayer or a similar prayer-book, sharing in stating the same prayer as millions of other believers.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

My arch-nemesis...two common history myths

Regular people have nemeses who are, you know, other people. My nemeses are certain bad arguments or stories which pop up over and over.

Yesterday I was particularly annoyed when I heard two of the most common myths from history three times in one day--the worst offender being in a Disney show where one was shared by an alleged history teacher! For the other, I found myself yelling, "NOOOOOOOOOOO!!" like Luke when he found out Vader was his father (spoiler alert), because these myths ruined what was otherwise one of the most interesting radio interviews I've ever heard.

Please, please...take a few moments to read the following and educate yourselves. Maybe we can stop the spread of Bad History.



Myth 1:  "Everyone thought the earth was flat, only Columbus proved them wrong."

So, so bad.

  • People have known the Earth was round since at least 500 years before Jesus, with Pythagorus in ancient Greece.
  • Early Christians widely held to a spherical earth, although there were some exceptions (most notably Augustine)
  • The idea that Columbus had difficulty because people thought the earth was flat is not from history, but from Washington Irving, the author of the Legend of Sleepy Hollow.
  • The reason Columbus had difficulty with support for his mission is because he was very stupid and very wrong!! Everyone agreed the Earth was round...however, he made a unit conversion error. When calculating the size of the Earth, Columbus wrongly thought the arabic mile and the Roman mile were the same distance. Because of this math error, Columbus thought the earth was 25% smaller than it was!
  • So when Columbus tried to get backers for his trip to India by sailing West, everyone said...you're crazy. You'll never make it that far. They were right. Columbus just got lucky and there happened to be an unknown continent in the way! (This is why Native Americans are called "Indians," because he happened to think he was in India!)

Columbus was no visionary. He was arrogant, bad at math, a slaver, a rapist, and only famous because he was lucky.  If Columbus had not accidentally stumbled onto an unknown continent, he would be remembered--if at all--as a foolish man who got his entire crew drowned because he did math poorly.







Myth 2:  "Galileo was imprisoned for teaching the the sun was the center of the universe."


This one I heard twice yesterday. It shows up in pop culture all the time, as an example of the establishment hating new ideas. It even if often repeated by scientists, including Neil DeGrasse Tyson.

Galileo Galilei was a Catholic who believed the Bible was true when properly interpreted, that God created and ordained everything in the heavens and on earth, and wrote at the end of his life, "To the Lord, whom I worship and thank, that governs the heavens with His eyelid, to Him I return tired, but full of living."

There are many things that are often wrong about this myth. Let's denote them one at a time.


  • It was Copernicus--not Galileo--who put the sun in the center of the solar system. This was done in his book On the Revolutions of Heavenly Spheres, which was published in 1543...21 years before Galileo was even born.


  • Copernicus' work was not controversial because of Science vs. Bible. Copernicus' work was very controversial at the time of Galileo, though Scripture was only thrown in as an argument on the back end. The two main arguments against it were:  (a) it undermined the teachings of Aristotle, whose philosophy was very popular at the time; and (b) it predicted stellar parallax, which no telescope at the time could detect. (It would be 1837 before the first parallax could be detected.)  (In fact, the main religious argument was not Scriptural, but Reformational: according to the complaint made against him to the Roman Inquisition, was that Galileo's work seemed "too Protestant", willing to reinterpret the Bible with new information and fresh eyes rather than accept what the Catholic Church had already told them.)
  • Galileo was not on trial because of his support of Copernicus. The Inquisition never formally banned Copernicus' work (though they ceased publication), and the Church's stance was that the book was a possibility not a fact. Most astronomers saw it as false but useful--like a good fable. Galileo was just fine until 1632 (almost a hundred years after Copernicus published!). He then wrote a pro-Copernicus book in which he took the Pope's publicly-stated views and put them in the mouth of the village idiot of his tale. This is why Galileo was in hot water! Not only did he make the Pope look bad, but he also fed into the Pope's paranoia that his position was at risk (as convincingly shown by Dava Sobel).
  • Galileo never went to prison.  Galileo was not in a dungeon (despite the works of the artist Murillo); at age 69, he was placed under house arrest, and lived at his villa for the remaining 9 years of his life. His 'harsh punishment' was being ordered to read a Psalm each day. He was allowed to continue writing, and published one of his most important works at this time. 


So it is absurd to say that Galileo was imprisoned for teaching that the sun was the center of the universe. It is partly factually wrong, and partly a slanted truth.

This is not a tale of "Science vs. Bible" or "People Hating Change"--there were extremely good scientists (like the best astronomer in the world, Tycho Brahe) who pointed out that the theory was useful but lacked scientific evidence--evidence which wouldn't come for 200 years.

No, this is a tale of the corruption of power--that the Pope would stop publication of a book, and put a former friend under house arrest, because they dared to embarrass him publicly.




Christian Disciplines, Part I: Studying Scripture

This is Part 1 of a five-part series on the Christian Disciplines. It is a "how-to" manual, or "what mature Christianity looks like." It borrows heavily from Richard Foster's, "Celebration of Discipline" and I highly recommend it. A new post will be made each Wednesday. To view them all together, click on the "Series: Christian Disciplines" link on the right.

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People view the Bible in many different ways. Some see it as a series of fables and fairy tales, like Jesus’ version of Aesop’s Fables. Some see it as a complete history textbook of the Jews. Some see it as a guidebook for how to live your life.

The truth is that Scripture is far more than any of that. To begin with, we must first understand the author. The Bible has two levels of authorship: the ultimate author is God Himself, and the person putting pen to paper is a human prophet or apostle. This is called special revelation, when God sent His Spirit to inspire a prophet or apostle with divine ideas; the apostle or prophet then recorded those divine inspirations in human words, human phrases, to a human audience.  The primary purpose of this is to equip us to achieve God’s will in our lives:

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim 3:16-17)


So the picture is that the words come from a human author, but the breath those words is spread upon is from God—and it is not without purpose, but to equip you and I to do good works. Notice that sometimes this comes through teaching us something new, sometimes through rebuking (scolding) us for sin, sometimes by correcting our false ideas, and sometimes through training.

In addition, above all it is a Story. The story of how the One True God all things, how sin broke all things, and how Jesus redeems and restores all things.

Studying Scripture regularly is a core part of being a disciplined, maturing Christian.

But how does one study Scripture?

Today we will learn two major methods of Scripture study.


(1) Devotional Study.

I firmly believe that many Christians remain in bondage to fear, anxiety, and lack of direction for no reason other than a lack of routine study of the Word. Being faithful in church attendance and serving others is of course great, but if your mind is not renewed into a new way of thinking, then you will never fully experience what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

On this topic I feel that I have a lot to share—much more than I will bore you with!—because Scripture study has made such a huge impact on my life (more than any other aspect of Christianity). When your mind is renewed through Study, what you find is an entirely new perspective: you go through your day-to-day and you begin to see Jesus at work all around you. The mundane become miraculous, and you see God’s fingerprints everywhere. CS Lewis put it this way:  “I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” A renewed mind which regularly meditates on God’s word is much more sensitive to His workings around you, and therefore more likely to be walking the right path and living in His peace as well.

Also, it is necessary to study regularly so that we avoid false teachers. One of Jesus’ biggest concerns was false teachers—He discussed it all the time (Matt 23:15 as an example). It is when we as His sheep understand His voice that we are able to avoid being led astray.

Devotional Study is daily focus on short Scriptures and how to apply them to your lives. This isn’t a deep and long-term study. This is a daily immersion in the Word of God. Reading and reflecting about one passage and how it is applicable to your lives that day is the idea with devotional study.

There two primary steps of a devotional study:

(A)  Regular immersion in the Word

The first step of devotional study is to have a daily time of study. Now this is not a long and intensive study—it can be very short. But it is all about the Scripture filling your day so that you can constantly be looking at how to apply it. The idea is that as you sit at home and walk down the road, there is Scripture present (Deut 6:7).

A few good ideas:
·         Scripture written around the house:  The ancient Jews used to hang Scripture on the doorposts and wore armbands that had Scriptures written on them. This is the case today, too—any Christian bookstore has beautiful paintings or wall hangings or iron-on vinyl verses that you can put around your house, so that when you see it, you remember to pray. I’ve also seen people have a “verse of the week” on a chalkboard or refrigerator whiteboard in their house. Others keep devotional studies in their car CD players so that they can listen to them as they drive.
·         Reading a devotional book: There are many books available which take you through and give you passages to consider and questions to ask each day.
·         Journaling: Many people like journals, which can often be bought with daily Scriptures on them and where you can record what God reveals to you about the passage.
·         A Psalm /Proverb/Passage A Day:  My pastor Josh likes reading a Psalm each day and summarizing it; another mentor of mine likes reading a Proverb each day; at times I've used the BCP app to get a variety of passages sent each day. By having a routine way of getting a new reading each day, you are always freshly immersed.
·         Bible in a Year/Three Years:  Online are dozens of reading programs (we can provide them as well if you are interested) which will take you through the Bible in a year or three years.
·         The Gospels in Three Months:  If you just read one chapter a day—usually less than 10 minutes—you can go through the Gospels very quickly. Matthew takes 28 days; Mark takes 16; Luke takes 24; John takes 21. That is 89 days—less than 3 months. Then you could repeat. Each time you will discover something new.


(B)  Ask the Four Questions about the Scripture

Whatever passage you study each day, ask these three questions and ponder them:
  • What does this teach me about God?
  • What does this teach me about Jesus and His ministry on earth?
  • What does this teach me about mankind/myself?
  • What does this compel me to do today?




(2) Interpretive (Exegetical) Study.

Devotional study was the daily rhythm of hearing from God's word--it is like standing on the beach with your feet being gently lapped, every day, by the water. Interpretive study is choosing a particular spot in the water and diving in deep to fully experience it.

I also sometimes say it this way:  devotional study is the key to daily living, and can answer pretty much any childlike questions about Scripture. But if you start thinking of grown-up questions about Scripture, then to find the answers we of course must also give the Scripture grown-up thoughts.

You don't need a seminary degree to do interpretive study (though of course, it helps!). But below is a good approach to doing a detailed, interpretive study of a passage--and it is very similar to the process Tim Keller uses (and I stole) for sermon research.

(A).  Create time and space to think.

I would say that a detailed, interpretive study of a relatively small passage--such as we might preach for a sermon (say, 1 chapter or less) will consume 30-50 hours at least, even if you have a familiarity with the text. To do a really deep dive on an entire book might require months or years!

Needless to say, you will need a space in your calendar to allow detailed study with no distraction. Maybe the hour before bed each night, or the first hour of each day, or a weekend away in a hotel are good ideas.

(B).  Initial study/journal/commentary.
  1. Open an empty Microsoft Word file, or start a blank page in your journal. 
  2. Start with a phrase/idea translation (I use NIV, but NLT or The Message will work).
  3. Verse-by-verse, read what it says and summarize the verse in your own words. Ask the verse Who/What/When/Where/Why/How, and if you can't answer one, highlight this--you will come back to it.
  4. Now pick a word-for-word translation (I use HCSB, but ESV or NET are also good).
  5. Verse-by-verse, read it in the new translation, adding additional comments, questions, or answers to the commentary you already began.
  6. Now pick a completely different type of translation that comes at the text at an odd angle (I use Complete Jewish Bible, but the Voice or Amplified are interesting choices as well).
  7. Again, repeat the verse-by-verse commentary update.
  8. Finally, read the passage on blueletterbible.org, clicking on "Tools" beside each verse and using the link to the Strong's Concordance to understand the meaning of each word in the passage. 
  9. Add these notes to your commentary.


(C).  Research.

At this point, you have a really good understanding of the text, and (even more importantly) a really good understanding of what you don't get about the text. All the highlighted questions which confused you are key areas to dive into deeply.

This deep research is best done through commentaries. We are lucky to live in a great time where the Internet provides instant access to the greatest thinkers of all time. 

I almost always use these three sources:
  • Bible.org has detailed exegetical modern commentaries from great sources. 
  • Ryerson's Dictionary of Biblical Imagery; expensive but fantastic. I look up in the Scriptural cross-references and then read each article that is covered there.
  • CCEL.org has historical commentaries and I will search for the chapter/passage and see what comes up, reading things from Luther, Calvin, etc.

In addition, if you have specific questions you might have to research specific answers--how much was a denari worth, etc.; which, again, the Internet makes quite easy.


(D).  Outline.

Now that you have your own commentary of a passage,  you are ready to outline it in detail. This is where, I think, the key learnings finally come together.

Just like back in high school English, write a sentence or short paragraph describing the main idea of the passage. 

Then provide a one-paragraph description of its context. How does it fit within the Bible's meta-narrative of Creation-Fall-Redemption-Restoration? What does it have to do with Jesus? How would people from that time have viewed the passage?

Then provide a detailed outline of the entire passage.



It's a long process, I know....but if you do the above, then you truly understand a passage in great detail.