Thursday, December 27, 2007
The book is broken out into two-page mini-chapters. Each one starts with one of Thomas Cranmer's collects on the top of the left page, followed by a short historical blurb on the bottom of the left page. Then there is a one-page meditation on the right page.
So for background, a collect is a short, corporate prayer: the word "collect" implies this corporate character. Collects are generally short, centre on a petition, and always have a single theme.
The collects in this book are Thomas Cranmer's: many of "his" collects were revisions of earlier prayers, from the medieval Roman Catholic church and earlier. Cranmer revised and edited prayers from existing prayer books in light of the Reformation in addition to composing original prayers. The history section of each chapter explains where Cranmer got the collect: if it's not an original, it lays out where he got it, and what he changed in his revision.
The historical sections are well worth the weight of the book alone. While a character sketch of Thomas Cranmer is understandably of limited appeal and relevance, this book does a masterful job. But the real value of the book is in the meditations: this guy gets it. The Gospel of God---man is lost and hopeless, but the Son of God came here as a Man to die for us---is presented clearly and concisely. He understands that we have nothing to offer God, but He has given everything freely to us.
So if you get a chance, I highly recommend it.
Monday, December 24, 2007
Lo! he comes, with clouds descending,
once for our salvation slain;
thousand thousand saints attending
swell the triumph of his train:
Alleluia! alleluia! alleluia!
Christ the Lord returns to reign.
Well, Advent draws to a close today: time to remember the Lord is coming. Now it's time to remember that the Lord has come.
This [is] a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.
-- 1 Timothy 1:15 (KJV)
Of course, Scripturally speaking, the Lord told us to "remember Me." That includes His coming the first time and the next time. And so we really ought to be expecting His imminent return at any time, just like we ought never to forget that the Son of God came here and died for us.
For thou art our salvation, Lord,
our refuge and our great reward;
without thy grace we waste away
like flowers that wither and decay.
So if you're into that sort of thing: Merry Christmas! If not, keep looking up! remember He's coming back quickly.
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
Christians, awake, salute the happy morn
Whereon the Saviour of the world was born
Rise to adore the mystery of love
Which hosts of angels chanted from above
With them the joyful tidings first begun
Of God incarnate and the virgin's Son
I have taken every imaginable position on the question of whether Christians should celebrate things like Christmas and Easter. I've read The Two Babylons (more than once, in fact): I understand why John Calvin, Oliver Cromwell, Arthur Pink, and J. N. Darby all condemned celebrating these holidays. On the other hand, I understand why Martin Luther and Thomas Cranmer encouraged them.
But in the end, I've come to the conclusion that whether you condemn Christmas or revel in it; there are deep and amazing mysteries that are ostensibly "the reason for the season." If you don't celebrate Christmas, I can accept that. But I will tell you with absolute certainty: if you allow yourself to forget that the Son of God came down here--if you let the wonder of it fade---then you're falling down as a Christian.
Lo, within a manger lies
He who built the starry skies;
He who throned in height sublime
Sits amid the cherubim
I enjoy traditional Christmas carols: partly for the wonderful music, partly because I grew up with them. But I really, really value the sense of wonder they have for the mystery of Incarnation: the Son of God became a Man. You and I can't fathom that: only God can understand what happened there.
Christ by highest heaven adored
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come
Offspring of a Virgin's womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Of course, the story doesn't stop with Christ coming here. As amazing as that is, a pagan might be able to appreciate that. The real wonder is, He came to die for sinners.
Sacred Infant, all divine, What a tender love was thine
Thus to come from highest bliss , Down to such a world as this
I came to the conclusion long ago that this is a principle difference between Christianity and the majority of religions: many if not all religions try and teach men how to become God; Christianity tells how One who is God became Man. Not with the intention of making us gods with Him, but to make us consciously objects of His love.
Good Christian men, rejoice
With heart and soul and voice
Now ye need not fear the grave:
Jesus Christ was born to save
So if you see me driving by, obviously singing (terribly out-of-key and with not talent at all) at the top of my lungs; feel free to join in. If you don't celebrate Christmas, that's fine---but even then, you ought to be able to appreciate why I'm so obviously enjoying the song.
Then may we hope, the angelic thrones among
To sing, redeemed, a glad triumphal song
He that was born upon this joyful day
Around us all His glory shall display
Saved by His love, incessant we shall sing
Of angels and of angel-men the King
So blessed forever dear Jesus our King
Who brought us Salvation, his praises we'll sing
Thursday, December 6, 2007
One recurring theme is, there is no shortcut to spirituality. I've had to realize this time and again over the last couple years: time and again, I find myself trying to figure the angles, trying to find the fast-track to maturity and godliness. It doesn't exist.
I was reflecting on that recently: I was sitting on my bed, reading my Bible. My wife was writing email on the computer in the corner. I suddenly realized that of all the spiritual exercises---including many that seem so glamourous and boast-worthy---my silent and unremarkable Bible reading was probably the one worth doing.
And that got me to thinking that one hindrance I've had in my Christian life is the vague expectation that godliness and maturity would somehow be a very visible---perhaps even public---thing. I never really articulated it to myself that way, but I think it's been that way in the back of my mind for years.
I've started to see that godliness and maturity are more likely to look like the Italian grandmother kneeling quietly in a Catholic church than the brilliant speaker delivering a thought-provoking sermon. No, I'm not espousing Roman Catholicism, but I've more and more come to the conclusion that the stereotype of quiet piety is probably what spiritual maturity really looks like.
I suppose a fundamental part of that is the idea that one's spiritual life is a deeply personal thing, perhaps even a private thing. I'm not saying there is no corporate dimension to Christianity---there certainly is---nor am I trying to suggest that there is nothing public about faith. But unless there is the deeply personal relationship one cultivates with the Lord, everything else is smoke and mirrors: show without substance. This is perhaps one of the things the Lord Jesus was warning against when He spoke of praying in the closet, of annointing our heads when fasting.
Obviously there is an appropriate place for ministry, even public ministry. But it seems we rush into these things... and the end result is, we have people saying a lot, but not saying much.
Several years ago, my xingyi teacher told me the secret to flawless kung-fu. It's simple, it's not glamourous; but it takes time, patience, and perseverance. Why isn't my kung-fu flawless? mainly because I'd rather "work on" the more exciting, glamourous bits than take the slow, boring path my teacher outlined several years ago. See, I just have trouble believing---really believing---that the silent, boring, unglamourous "practice" is the key to success.
I've started to see I've made the same mistake in my Christian life: the slow, gradual path seems so boring, fruitless, and lifeless compared to all the cool stuff I could be doing. But just like in kung-fu, I need to realize that I am the least qualified to judge: as Ahab told Benhadad, "let not him who puts on his armor boast as him who takes it off." To know Him, and the power of His resurrection, and the fellowship of His sufferings---that's the goal. And the more I examine, the more I see that the path to that goal is a path of surprising quietness, privacy, and anonymity.
So as I've been contemplating, praying, reading, and examining, I've finally gotten a glimpse of the path I want to take: it's not an exciting path, not glamourous, and probably pretty lonely. But I am becoming certain it's the one I need to be walking.
Tuesday, November 27, 2007
It seems when we try to approach God as "man in the flesh," we fall into one of two opposite errors. Either we are so aware of our own unworthiness to come into God's presence that we come in hesitatingly, groveling and bemoaning our worthlessness (like many or most traditional Protestant churches); or we come in self-confident and swaggering, sure that we're good enough to be there (like more modern "seeker-friendly" groups). Those who fall in the first group seem to be constantly looking for improvement in themselves, those in the second are characterized by an irreverent familiarity with God.
It's so very hard to learn the lesson that God has no intention of improving the flesh. God's purpose in Christ is to bring sinners to Himself: but it's not to leave them sinners. We are stuck in sinful bodies, it is true; but we are new creations trapped in an old creation's body. Eventually the body will be changed into incorruptibility, but that's still future. But until we get there, we carry around this thing called "the flesh."
The change from being an old creation to being a new one is significant, because it means we're starting something very new. God isn't looking to improve sinners, He's starting in a new place. It's true we all sin, it's true we all fall short of the glory of God, it's true we all carry the flesh around with us. But it's just as true that God's not looking on His children as sinners and setting out to make them better. And so we ought not to consider ourselves in that light either.
We who approach God are "purged worshippers," who, "once cleansed, have no more conscience of sins." We are to go confidently (not self-confidently!) into God's presence, because we are confident in our Great High Priest, who invites us in. We don't hang around the door nervously, waiting for God to make us worthy before we approach. I get the impression that a lot of pious Christians are hesitant to go in: maybe next Sunday they'll be worthy, but this Sunday they'd better hang back a bit. This behaviour is nothing else than trying to get to God on my own, rather than on the basis of His Son's blood: it's exactly the same thing as trying to swagger into God's presence, sure He couldn't possibly turn me back. While I'm sure the one who hesitates has a more Scriptural concept of God's holiness and man's worthlessness than the lout who presumes on his own worth; neither one of them is trying to approach God in the only way we have: the blood of Christ.
God is gracious, and will tolerate a lot from His children. I don't want to in any way cast aspersion on God's goodness. On the other hand, we need to take God at His word.
Monday, November 19, 2007
This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.
--Hebrews 6:19--20 (NASB)
Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
--Hebrews 10:19--22 (NASB)
I can't see that the apprehension of having the Son of God as our High Priest would be anything other than confidence. I admit that we often come cringing into God's presence, but that's not the affect the truth ought to have on us. If we really grasp the idea that the Son of God has come here to seek and save the lost, has died for us, and has gone back to Heaven to represent us there; then the logical outcome would be for us to approach God confidently.
Not that we approach Him flippantly---confidence and flippancy are not the same thing at all. But if we believe the Word of God, we must conclude that God wants us there.
Protestants seem to err in one direction or the other. More formal churches are so intent to emphasize our worthlessness, that they deprive the believer of confidence in God. Far from being the One who sent His own Son to die for us, God becomes an aloof and cold judge. The operational word in "Woe is me!" is pretty much "me." In the other direction, you have modern "evangelicals" who seem to think God is some sort of supernatural buddy in the sky.
The main idea we need to get is, we are not confident in what we are to God. That is, we do not approach in the confidence that we are precious to God. We are, but that's not the confidence we need to approach Him. We approach God, confident that the Son of God has made a way for us to go in: His flesh has been torn, His blood poured out; and we approach confident that God is pleased with what Christ has done for us.
We're not confident in our ability to get there, or even in our right to be there. We're confident that the Son who invites us is over the house of God. He has taken care of everything, and is welcoming us in.
It's not remarkable that the Son of God would go back to Heaven. He has every right to be there. What's remarkable is that He went back there to represent us. He went back for us, which ought to give us pause.
It's tempting to try and approach God as an equal: or at least to try and approach Him based on what we are. When we have a good day, we are much more confident to approach God than after we've just fallen into sin for the umpteenth time. But that's because we're looking in the wrong place. We're looking at ourselves, and measuring ourselves against what we see God to be.
God's not looking at us, He's looking at the One who died for us, The One inviting us to come in.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time.
-- 1 Timothy 2: 5--6 (NSAB)
I've been contemplating the concept of priesthood recently. Part of that is because I've no longer been gathering with "brethren," but have been attending services in a liturgical church. I don't bring that up to rub salt into any wounds or anything, but to be open about it. I wanted to share some scattered thoughts about priesthood.
Like all protestants, I believe (or claim to believe) the "priesthood of all believers." That is, all Christians function as priests. This is honestly interpreted differently by different people: Baptists take "priesthood of all believers" to mean every Christian is responsible for the Scriptures: you need to read and understand the Bible for yourself. "Brethren" take that to mean there ought to be no clergy in the assembly: every Christian is (at least officially) on the same level, anyone in the assembly can preach or pray. Lutherans take it to mean anyone can pray, and you can confess sins directly to God. I suppose all those interpretations are correct, although whether they sum up the concept is debatable. I think there is more involved than that.
As far as I've been able to find, believers are only called priests in 1 Peter (chapter 2) and the Revelation (chapters 1, 5, and 20). Darby groups Hebrews 13:15 as another "priesthood" verse, but the word "priest" is not explicitly used in that passage (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 10, pp.209--212, "Who is a Priest and What is a Priest?"). I am convinced from 1 Peter that all believers are priests: there is no exception clause in 1 Peter that I can find. Hebrews, while not explicitly naming all believers as priests, certainly makes the point rather clearly that we are to function that way: we're called to worship in the Holiest, which is strictly a priestly function.
The first priest mentioned in Scripture is Melchisidec. He appears for just a few verses of Genesis 14, then disappears until Psalm 110. After that, the Scripture is once more silent about him until Hebrews, which he becomes central to the explanation of Christ's present ministry as our High Priest in Heaven. But the narrative of Melchisidec is instructive:
18 And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; now he was a priest of God Most High.So Melchisidec, the proto-priest, does four things.
19He blessed him and said,
"Blessed be Abram of God Most High,
Possessor of heaven and earth;
20And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies into your hand."
He gave him a tenth of all.
-- Genesis 14:18--20 (NSAB)
- he provides Abram with physical food (bread and wine),
- he blesses Abram,
- he blesses God Most High, and
- he receives a tithe from Abram.
It is significant, as Darby points out (see "The Melchisedec Priesthood of Christ", Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 2), that Melchisidec never makes an offering for sin. That is, where we tend to see priesthood as primarily one who offers sacrifice for sin, the original priest did not. He was a priest who stood between God and man and blessed them both. Aaron's priesthood consisted largely of sacrificing for sin: Melchisidec's apparently did not.
Christ, according to Hebrews, has acted in fulfilment of Aaron's priesthood, but His priesthood is "after the order of Melchisidec" (see Psalm 110, Hebrews 5:6). That is, His priesthood is of a greater, higher, and more permanent nature than Aaron's. Christ's offering for sin has happened once according to Scripture, "And He is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high," (Hebrews 1:3, NASB), "but He, having offered one sacrifice for sins for all time, SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD" (Hebrews 10:12, NASB). There can never be another offering for sin. The very best that can possibly be offered has already been offered: there is nothing else to do, no other offering to make. But Christ's having offered Himself for us does not imply His priestly ministry is over: on the contrary, Hebrews makes a great deal of His acting as our High Priest to bring us to God.
Now, our having a Great High Priest means that we have constant, irrevocable access to God. We are certainly all priests, but that priesthood is practiced under the auspices of the Son of God, who is sitting at God's right hand. He welcomes us to come into Heaven, worshipping God there. We can come in as worshippers because He is there: His sacrifice has dealt with our sins permanently "By this will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all" (Hebrews 10:10, NASB). His body was offered for us, His blood is our "new and living way" to come into God's presence. He represents us in Heaven, but the urging of Hebrews is not to be satisfied with that (as it were), but to actually go in there and worship ourselves.
Since we are priests of God, and since our Great High Priest is sitting at God's right hand, we have no need of another priest to stand between us and God. No one else can do a better job than the Son of God who became Man, we don't need anyone else's help to come into God's presence.
If I am brought to God, I do not want a priest: to go to Him for me. If the veil is rent, and I am told by God to enter into the holiest through that new and living way, I do not want another to go there because I cannot — another who could not go either if I cannot.That is, there is no need of a priest to stand between me and God. Or more accurately, there is already a perfect Priest who stands between me and God, and I don't need anyone else.
--J. N. Darby (Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Vol. 10, pp.209--212, "Who is a Priest and What is a Priest?")
But having said all that, there is a sense where we act as priests for someone else. That is, we intercede for others. When we ask another Christian to pray for us, we are asking that person to be our priest. Priesthood is not (or ought not to be) limited to what happens in the gathering. It includes what we do throughout the week: in our daily lives, we are to stand before God for one another.
When someone in a "brethren" assembly stands and prays, he is acting as a priest for everyone sitting there. But if that is the sum of his priesthood, he is falling far short. He ought also to be bringing others to the Lord throughout the week, interceding on their behalf. Similarly, when a Baptist prays for her pastor, she is effectively acting as his priest, representing his interests to God. When the Anglican priest asks the congregation to pray for the bishop, he is asking them to be the priests for the bishop: representing the bishop's interests to God.
Again, this priesthood is practiced under the auspices of the Great High Priest in Heaven, but it is priesthood nonetheless.
There is another function of the priest under Levitical law: the priest is to eat the sacrifice on the altar.
Then the LORD spoke to Aaron, "Now behold, I Myself have given you charge of My offerings, even all the holy gifts of the sons of Israel I have given them to you as a portion and to your sons as a perpetual allotment.It is certainly true that we participate in the sacrifice of Christ by eating the Lord's Supper (1 Corinthians 10:15--18). But there is a sense where eat the sin offering for one another too. That is, when there is sin that has crept into the assembly (not formally, but in the sense that another believer has fallen into sin); part of our acting as priest for that believer is to eat the sin offering. We stand in place of that believer and intercede for him or her with God, but we also eat of the sin offering. That means, we are affected by their sin: we can be dirtied by it, but we can also come into a sense of fellowship with their forgiveness.
"This shall be yours from the most holy gifts reserved from the fire; every offering of theirs, even every grain offering and every sin offering and every guilt offering, which they shall render to Me, shall be most holy for you and for your sons.
"As the most holy gifts you shall eat it; every male shall eat it. It shall be holy to you.
"This also is yours, the offering of their gift, even all the wave offerings of the sons of Israel; I have given them to you and to your sons and daughters with you as a perpetual allotment. Everyone of your household who is clean may eat it.
-- Numbers 18:8--11 (NASB)
We can't offer sacrifices for sins: there is no more sacrifice since Christ has offered "once for all time." But there is still eating from the altar: this is partly to feed us (John 6), but it's also an expression of fellowship, of communion. And that's not only fellowship in a "good" sense, but in a "bad" sense too. There is the common responsibility and care for one another: the responsibility we have to one another as fellow-members of the household of faith.
As I've been contemplating the role of believers as priests, I've been struck that all the priesthood I need comes from the Great High Priest in Heaven: the Son of God is there to represent me and my interests to God. But there is any number of other priests, functioning as His under-priests, who are my priests too. Every Christian who prays for me, who takes my name to God, is acting as my priest. My wife and children pray for me, my family and friends, even people I've never met act as my priests when they get on their knees and pray to God for me after reading my blog. They can't act independently of the High Priest: Eleazar and Ithamar were priests under Aaron. All my priests are priests under Christ. But priests they are, and they take my interests to God.
Friday, November 9, 2007
We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy. Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.
-- The Book of Common Prayer
"Grace" is essentially God acting toward us as He wants, regardless of what we deserve. It's God acting according to His own goodness, not our merits.
As I was driving in this morning, I was thinking about a hymn in Spiritual Songs:
And in past and distant ages, in those courts so bright and fair,
'Ere we were was He rejoicing, all He won with us to share.
That is the grace of God: that in eternity past, the Son of God was excited to share glory with us.
I remember several years ago, in the middle of a rather messy assembly controversy, I made the remark to someone, "A little grace goes a long way." The other brother responded, "Is it really grace to ignore it when someone is wrong?" Over the years I've contemplated that question, and have decided the answer is "Yes!"
Of course, no sooner do I say something like that, than people decide I'm advocating continuing with known sin. That's not really what I'm trying to say. The scripture is very clear that we are to separate from sin that has come to light (I mean, we can't possibly separate from sin we don't know about, right?): 1 Corinthians 5 is explicit. But what about in cases where someone is repentant. Or maybe someone is unknowingly involved in some sin, or perhaps it's not exactly clear what the "correct" thing is: maybe it's in a grey area. In those cases, we are very quick to draw a line and demand people choose a side. At any rate, forming parties around a controversy is always wrong: always the opposite of grace.
The fact is, we show very little grace to one another. Showing grace to one another would start with accepting one another as accepted by God: God accepts us because of Christ; we ought to accept one another the same way.
But in the end, the example of Grace is Christ: the Son of God came down to a wicked world specifically to die so that reprobate sinners could be forgiven. Nasty, dirty, vile sinners were the reason the Son of God came here. And He didn't come with an agenda to reform them; He came with an agenda to die for them.
That is God acting toward us according to His own heart, rather than our merit.
Sunday, November 4, 2007
At this point, I question whether we can fit into the continuing anglican church, and I am genuinely sorry for it. Of course the Lord is the one whose will we're seeking: if this is where He wants us, it's where we need to be; but there are a few things I can see getting in the way.
But rather than come at this with a critical spirit, I'd like to list out some things I have really enjoyed the last two weeks; things I'd miss if we never return:
- They have a strange mixture of formality and casualness. That is, the services are steeped in ritual and ceremony; but there is a genuine love and sincerity that drips from them. One gets the impression that they genuinely care about how one is doing, rather than just caring how the attendance is looking.
- Both times I've heard a short homily/sermon in the service, it was very pointedly an acknowledgment of the Gospel: the Son of God has come here to die for worthless sinners; there is nothing we can do to earn salvation. There is love in God's heart even for the likes of me, and they revel in it. Last Sunday's homily included the lines: "The Son of God came here to die for us, and all our worth is in that. There's no room for pride when all your worth is in Another." This morning, the homily ended with "He came here to save sinners, not to be glorified." That my friends, is more to the heart of the Gospel than so much I have heard in many evangelical churches.
- There is a level of outward piety that I take as sincere expressions of genuine love for the Lord. One example is, every time the name "Jesus Christ" is mentioned in the liturgy, everyone bows. Another example, while reciting the apostle's creed, everyone kneels when the Incarnation is mentioned, and stays kneeling until the Crucifixion. Sure, some of that can be superstition. But on the other hand, there is a certain familiarity in evangelical christendom that I find repugnant. These people have some sense of the majesty of the Son of God that is all but forgotten in the church today.
- One of the priests seems genuinely concerned that we haven't asked him any questions yet. I assured him that it's really just my work schedule, and we'll have a conversation once things calm down a little. Another priest reproached me for not coming up for a blessing today. The personal interest is intense, and I really value it.
- They are determined to include the kids. Where so many churches pack the kids off into a "junior church" to get them out of the meetings, this bunch is determined to include the kids too. Today one priest reproached me for not going forward for a blessing (they practice a closed table, so they don't offer me communion) and then he berated me about not hauling the kids up there too.
- They practice a closed table. You can read my blog to understand my views on reception: I think these guys might actually have it right.
Now, all is not sunshine and roses in our two weeks' experience with this bunch. This particular gathering leans fairly heavily to anglo-catholicism; I'm okay with that in principle, but there is sometimes a bit much "catholicism" and not enough "anglo" for my "brethren" blood. And frankly, I'm not into stained glass windows.
About the closed table: they explicitly ask that people not in their group receive communion up front. But they also offer: anyone who wishes may go up front, kneel with everyone else, cross their arms in front of their chest, and receive a blessing. That is, the priest puts his hand on your forehead and blesses you. While this may freak out many of my "brethren" friends, I find it intriguing and frankly refreshing. It's a good balance between being careful about reception on the hand, and demonstrating the love of God to "outsiders" on the other.
In the end, I have serious misgivings about being able to continue with anglicans, so to speak. But if nothing else, the last two Sundays' services have been time very well spent.
Monday, October 29, 2007
I've come to the conclusion that if we're genuinely trying to walk with the Lord, making a mistake is not the end of the world. There is a difference between willfully walking contrary to what we see in Scripture, and making an honest effort only to get it wrong. So anyone who reads this blog and prays for us based on it, please pray for our hearts and attitudes in this. Finding the right place the wrong way is no better than finding the wrong place the right way...
I can see three possible outcomes from where I am right now. The eventual outcome may be nothing like any of these, but from where I sit, there seem to be three possibilities:
1. We could end up back where we started. This might be the best outcome, although right now it seems unlikely.
2. We could end up in another assembly/gathering/church in the area.
3. We could end up part of a new gathering.
Of those, #3 seems the least likely; but I won't say it won't happen. I've been part of a new gathering a couple times: it's a lot of work, but can be wonderful. The biggest problem I've seen in a "new work" is people discontent with being small, new, and unknown. Full parking lots are a strong attraction, and the lack thereof can overshadow everything, until the gathering collapses on itself and dissolves.
#2 is the default answer, but I'm strongly concerned about it. What I don't want to see happen is, fading into an existing gathering because it's easy. That is, if gathering with an existing group is what the Lord wants, that's fine; but I don't want to do something like that out of laziness. That's a path I've seen some take, and it's wrong. And I guess that same concern can apply to #1 as well.
But the alternative to gathering with an existing group is, further fragmenting the church in this area. That's a pretty serious thing to do, something we need to be sure the Lord is leading into, before we start.
I suppose the last option is just sitting at home. I don't see that as viable for me for a couple reasons. Please don't misunderstand: I know several people who sit at home, many or most of whom I highly respect. I'm not trying to kick against them. But I have three daughters who are still of a very impressionable age: I can't let them grow up as virtual heathens. Yeah, we love the Lord, yes Christianity is much more about the individual walk than the corporate gathering; all that is true. But my kids need to see the church, even in Ruin and Apostasy. They need to understand that even though we are in the middle of the post-Apostolic, apostate Church; there is the need for Daniels and Ezekiels and Jeremiahs. We can't let the failure around us become an excuse for our neglect. If nothing else, we need to live out Daniel 9. And I can't teach them that if I deliberately keep them from gatherings.
Now, I can see us sitting at home now and then: that's not evil. But already one daughter has told her grandmother "We're not doing a lot of memory verses these days, because we're between meetings right now."
Right at the moment, my honest conviction is, my family needs to be gathering with other Christians.
So yesterday we tried something completely different, and attended a meeting at a local Continuing Anglican church. What's "continuing anglican?" It's basically the Episcopal/Anglicans who have denounced the mainstream Anglican/Episcopalian church as apostate.
It was an interesting experience, and frankly rather positive. I won't go into a lot of detail: I'm still digesting it myself. But I was struck by the short homily/sermon at the start of the meeting, where the speaker said (and I can't quote exactly): "There's no place for pride in the Christian life: our value is entirely based in the fact that the Son of God came here and died for us. We can't be proud when all our value is in another. But on the other hand, the Son of God came here and died for us, that ought to make us feel so good!"
That man gets it.
Saturday, October 27, 2007
Apparently my blog has caused some furror. I've been going back and forth on whether I ought to blog this stuff for months now. On the one hand, I think there is value to having some open discussion on church issues. On the other, throwing stuff out into cyberspace might seem a little imprudent: it can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. And I don't want to fall into publicly maligning my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
So I may end up pulling the plug on this blog: I'm still wondering about that one.
But I do want to say it was wonderful to get a call from a concerned Christian that was based on love for the Lord and for us. It meant a lot.
Monday, October 15, 2007
I have an objection to the music I see and hear in most churches these days. I've commented on it before, but to quickly re-iterate: I consider the whole "worship team" phenomenon a travesty, because it takes something Scripture contemplates as interactive and replaces it with a performance. But even in churches where the singing is largely interactive, I've noticed a trend away from actual hymns written for congregational singing and towards songs written to be performed. I'm not saying they're bad songs, just that the vast majority of people can't sing them. So making me try to follow some (possibly wonderful) song made famous by some professional singer or another doesn't really move me to worship: I don't hear a wonderful song, I hear many people (like me) slaughtering it.
But I didn't actually set out to regale you with my curmudgeonly views.
I remember several years ago a friend told me a professor of his in Bible School had encouraged his students to keep a hymnbook to use in their devotions. I had already stumbled across that through experience, but I find it's excellent advice. Singing is part of worship, and no less a part of individual worship.
So I have a few hymnbooks. Most (all?) of my hymnbooks are of a "brethren" persuasion, which ought not to surprise anyone. Here's the list of my hymnbooks I can remember off the top of my head:
- Spiritual Songs: I have several of these: some in leather, the rest in hardcover. This is probably my favourite hymnbook: it's the 1978 hymnbook from the "reunification" of "grant", "kelly", "booth", "stuart", and "nhh brethren," to name a few. So it's basically a convergence of several versions of Little Flock, but with some jewels from people like CAC thrown in.
- Little Flock: my copy is old and battered, but I still love it. It was a gift from my wife before we got married.
- Believer's Hymn Book: this is what I grew up with---the classic "open brethren" hymnbook. My copy is leather-bound, and has music in it. Those two features cost me a pretty penny back in '92 or so. I sometimes wish I was in an assembly that uses BHB, just so I could use this book once in a while. I think I've taken it to fewer than two dozen meetings since I bought it.
- Hymns of Worship and Remembrance: this is the black, hard-bound hymnbook so popular among "chapels." It was supposed to be an improvement on the Believer's Hymn Book, and it is in some ways. I had them engrave my name in the front cover when I bought it, just in case I ever take it to a meeting. I don't want it misappropriated.
- Redemption Songs: old-school "chapel" gospel hymns. Good stuff.
- Choice Hymns: gospel hymns. It's all right, but nothing brilliant.
So why do I have some many hymnbooks? Part of it's culture: in many "brethren" circles, you're expected to bring your own hymbook to the meetings. But part of it is devotional: singing quietly by myself is actually part of worship and devotion.
I frequently find myself remembering a line from a hymn I sang at one meeting or another: having a hymnbook there helps me remember exactly what it was we were singing. And perusing a hymnbook can be a good way to start out worshipping. A few idle moments can turn into a private little worship service.
Wednesday, October 10, 2007
I am not saying "brethren" teach what is wrong. I am saying they have developed a system that is collapsing under its own weight. I am in complete agreement with "exclusive brethren" as far as things like church order and inter-assembly relationships. That is, I think what they say about those topics is correct. If they would only do what they say, I would have no problems with them. If they really would allow the Holy Spirit to lead in the meetings, if they really did act in unity instead of descending into schism at every crisis, then I'd be onboard.
I'm not looking for "open reception." I completely buy the whole "guarded fellowship" idea. I'm not in any way suggesting we ought to allow strangers to break bread, nor am I advocating a freelance model of fellowship wherein people just sort of drift from assembly to assembly as they feel inclined that day. What I am saying is, our tests of fellowship are all wrong: we receive based solely on whether someone's a member of the group.
I'm not saying we ought to have clergy, elders, or anything of the sort. I'm saying we're hypocrites when we condemn others for their "pastor" then have a roster of men whose word cannot be questioned. I'm saying that when a man or group of men can effectively overturn an assembly decision, we have clergy in fact, if not in name.
I'm not saying we are wrong to have books, commentaries, and various publications. I am saying that we are in fact committing idolatry when we consider them to be the authority, rather than Scripture.
I'm not saying we ought to jettison things like church order, I'm not even saying things like headcoverings or "open ministry" are unimportant. I am saying that getting externals right is not an excuse to be backbiting, self-righteous, or complacent. The scripture warns very strongly about "having a form of godliness" and denying it's power.
My desire for "occasional fellowship" is not because I intend to visit a whole slew of other assemblies and break bread there. It's based on the conviction that there is no membership other than that in the Body of Christ, and (one-line disclaimers in assembly phone lists notwithstanding) what we practice is sectarian membership.
I'm not saying the assembly where I have been fellowshipping is in sin. I'm saying that I have been compromising on certain things in order to get others. For example, I've been compromising on the issue of reception in order to be in an assembly where the meetings are largely unscheduled so the the Holy Spirit can lead. But I've started to realize that I've made compromises on "intangibles" for "tangibles." That is, I've compromised on issues like pride and complacency so I can see a certain level of correct church order. I no longer feel free to make those compromises. I am not condemning anyone, but I no longer feel free to continue on this course.
That probably won't clear things up to any significant degree, but I felt it worthwhile to lay it all out like that.
Sunday, October 7, 2007
Well, I've finally decided to withdraw from "brethren". If you've read my blog at all, you know why. You also know this hasn't been a hasty decision.
The final clincher was, the knowledge that the Scriptural admonishment to "flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart" (2 Timothy 2:22, NASB) is impossible when the test of fellowship is whether someone is a member of a certain group. In other words, so long as I am a member of a group that demands exclusive fellowship, I cannot possibly be said to be "pursu[ing]... with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart," because I am knowingly refusing to fellowship with any number of them.
I know, it's impossible to be in fellowship with all such Christians: there are any number of pure hearts in any number of places, and not all will be willing to pursue with me. But there is a tremendous moral difference between being in limbo fellowship-wise so that others don't even know I exist; and being in a place that knowingly and deliberately excludes godly Christians. If I can honestly say that I am willing to walk with any true believers who are genuinely seeking the Lord, then I'm at least not in violation of any Scripture I've seen.
I'm terrified. I have no idea what's next. I'm sure there will be some guilt-trips from well-meaning people; but the conversations I've had so far have been highly sympathetic. People seem to "get it" on some level at least. That's good enough for now.
It's possible we'll end up in a meeting in someone's home, but that's not something I'm planning at the moment. It's possible we'll end up in one of the "open" assemblies in town, but that doesn't seem too likely right at the moment either. I've visited both "open" assemblies I know about in town in the last six months: one was appalling, the other was more or less what I expected. I'm not saying I won't end up in one of them, but I'm certainly not rushing into them. In the end, going from "exclusive" to "open" just means trading one set of problems for another. They're no less a sect than "we" are, they're just more subtle in their approach to it.
And I've come too far in the Christian life thing to settle back into an evangelic church. I know they mean well, but I've done that, and I don't think I can do it again.
So please pray for us if you think about it. I am woefully inadequate to deal with this, but I honestly think it's something we had to do.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
Christians are an embarrassment in public.
A non-Christian friend recently told me she used to work as a waitress in college. She said on Sundays there were always people there after church who would not leave a tip, because she shouldn't be working on Sunday. Of course, they always left gospel tracts...
So here are a few ethics I would consider minimal if you're a Christian and go to a restaurant:
- If you can't afford to leave a tip, you can't afford to eat out. Go to McDonald's or get take-out from KFC. Or even get one of those rotisserie chickens from the grocery store. But don't cheat the waiter.
- If you actually pray visibly and audibly in a restaurant (and I encourage that), you better tip heavily. I would suggest you tip 20% as a baseline. Terrible service is worth 15% if the waiter sees you praying, hears you talking about church or the Bible, or sees you in a tie at Sunday lunch.
- If you leave a gospel tract, tip a few dollars more. I knew a guy once who tipped at least $20 if he left a tract: that's not a percentage, and we weren't eating big---that's being more concerned about the Lord's reputation than his own wallet.
- You had better make sure you treat the waiter with respect: say "thank you" when he brings you your drink; say "please" when you ask her for a refill. And don't---whatever you do---don't ever make sarcastic quips. It's entiely possible the waiter is useless. It's possible it's the worst restaurant experience anyone ever had. But if you are publicly claiming to be Christian, you need to uphold a much higher standard. Complain to a manager if you like; better yet, complain to the waiter himself, but do so politely and calmly.
- Keep your kids under control.
It's in the little things that our Christianity is evaluated.
Wednesday, September 5, 2007
I've been thinking about that, because I think there is a key principle involved. That is, I am convinced we don't trust God because we don't know Him. And we have trouble obeying Him, because we have trouble trusting Him. But if we were really convinced of His goodness, that would certainly affect our obedience.
I know, there is sin in the flesh; there is that in us that rails against God. But there is still the principle that knowing God leads us to trust Him.
So Christ, the One who really knew God, is also the One who completely trusted Him.
I'm thinking about that today.
Tuesday, August 28, 2007
Tuesday, August 21, 2007
How great Thy grace! No mind of man can grasp
The love told out in suffering on the tree;
Love that has gathered now within its clasp
Those once far off, but now brought home to Thee.
Today I got the words right, because I have a hymn-book I can look at. But I was pretty close yesterday. And I'm a terrible singer, so it's a good thing you weren't there to hear it.
And it got me thinking: perspective is important. It's far too easy to reduce Jesus Christ to a religious figure. I suppose He is that in some sense. But I notice a trend (and I was recently reminded of it on Facebook) where people refer to themselves as "Christ followers". I think the title is good, it replaces the much-abused "Christian" with something a little more meaningful in pseudo-Anglo-Saxon words.
But it's so little of the real story. Jesus came and said "follow Me". But He also said "Where I am going, you cannot come." Any number of people are willing to say "follow me". Some of them even lead, rather than throwing their "followers" into the front lines to absorb the cannon-fire (if I haven't mixed too many metaphors there). But I know of none who are willing to say "where I go, you cannot come."
And the wonder of it is, He said "where I go, you cannot come" only to elucidate "that where I am, there you may also be." There are depths no one else will ever experience: horror, pain, anguish that no one else can ever feel. And He went through that not because He was a martyr, but because He was determined not to go back to the Father without taking us along (eventually).
Like so many, I'm full of criticisms and complaints. I have an infinitely long list of criteria with everything I read or hear: I'm very stereotypically "brethren" that way. I frequently think more highly of myself than I ought.
But the perspective that the Scripture gives is, the Son of God came here to die for worthless sinners. That's the perspective that makes Christianity meaningful in any way at all.
I just need to be reminded of it a lot.
Thursday, August 16, 2007
Good question. Rather than just griping about what is, I'm going to talk briefly about what should be. But before I do, let me make a note: as much as possible, I'm going to try and keep these non-sectarian. It's very hard for me (or apparently for anyone else) to separate principle from form. In concrete terms, I frequently have trouble imagining how to practice a principle I see without seeing it in terms of how we practice it. So where I see "the Priesthood of all Believers" as a biblical principle, I have trouble seeing how that might look other than the "brethren" form I've been exposed to. I just want that out in the open. A disclaimer, if you will.
So without further ado, here is a point-form list of some things I'm looking for, in no particular order. There is no way this is complete, but it is a reasonable sketch:
- Worship is central. This is the biggest requirement I have. This is the one reason I would consider an Episcopal church over say a Baptist church. I have no interest at all in a gathering where the central activity is a lecture or (let's be honest) a guilt-trip.
- Worship isn't entertainment. I can tolerate a lot, but I have little use for a choir and less for a "worship team". Worship is a participative thing, not a spectator sport. I wouldn't necessarily reject a gathering because of a choir, but it is definitely a negative, in my book. And I would frankly take a choir over a "worship team" every time. At least choirs tend to sing participative hymns: that is, they tend to sing songs that are (in principle) designed for congregational singing. But performance-based music is worse than worthless for me. I can buy a CD of better musicians performing the same music; why would I go to church to hear a second-rate rendition? If your worship team is good enough to cut a record, I'll buy it and listen to it in my car; if not, I'll buy the one from the group that is. Either way, entertainment is for the commute to work, not for the gathering's limited time to worship.
- Small is good. I wouldn't necessarily reject a gathering because it's too big, but I prefer small. Smaller lets me interact with more people more meaningfully. Big is fine, but I like small better.
- Informal is good. By "informal" I don't mean "casual" (although I like casual too), but I mean "not ritualistic". I mentioned Episcopal churches above: I've been to a couple, and I frankly enjoyed them. But the whole "stand up, sit down, bow, genuflect, repeat" routine gets in the way of heartfelt worship far too often. Some people claim it helps them worship... I'm not going to call them liars; but ritual is a good hiding place for hypocrisy. And before I go further, the pseudo-ritual all too often where I fellowship is just as bad. Don't take this as an attack on anyone else, ritual comes in many forms.
- Buildings are irrelevant. I don't mind being in a gathering that owns a building, but I'm just as happy in a home. In fact, I'm willing to host a gathering in my own home.
- Sectarian titles are bad. I'm not interested in having a name other than "Christian". If there's one thing that makes me grit my teeth in meetings, it's when a group meeting in a school gym is referred to as "such-and-such Hall" or "such-and-such Chapel". They're not a hall or a chapel: those words refer to buildings. If a gathering owns a building, they have every right to name the building however they like: but the name refers to the building, not the gathering in it. To refer to a gathering like that is a sectarian title and nothing more. And don't get me started on the pseudo-title "the assemblies"...
- Leadership is not authoritarian rule. I see nothing in Scripture indicating church leadership is to be a "cram it down their throats" sort of thing. I am personally an "elders are not for today" kind of guy, but I would happily fellowship in a place where elders/overseers are doing the job Scripture lays out for them: not lecturing, not guilting, but leading and shepherding. Teaching is good too (they ought to be "apt to teach"), but there's nothing wrong with having someone else do the teaching. Not all good teachers are good elders.
- The Bible is the authority. This one is a lot harder to practice than it might sound, but a reasonable attempt it really what I'm looking for. If someone demonstrates a willingness to change based on Scripture, I think that's all we can ask. No one understands Scripture perfectly; but when we treat it like it judges us, rather than us judging it (to quote someone else); then we're on the right path.
So that's it: an incomplete list, but a good starting-place.
Tuesday, August 14, 2007
For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
-- 1 Corinthians 12:3 (NASB)
A discussion on a message board has gotten me thinking. And the more I think, the more I see something I ought to have figured out earlier.
When I was growing up, my parents were constantly having Bible studies in our home. Sometimes it was Thursday night, but typically it was Tuesdays. They'd start at (I think) 7:30 PM, and go until quite late (which was probably 10:00 or thereabouts). That meant we kids were just getting ready for bed as the people were arriving. We'd say "goodnight" to everyone, then go off to bed.
My bedroom was on the other side of a wall from the "rec room" in our house. Sometimes the Bible Studies were in the living room, but more often they were in the rec room. That was probably because the woodstove that heated our house was in the rec room: it was the warm, comfortable room. I was an insomniac then as now, so I would lay awake until after everyone left, listening to the Bible Studies. I had to be quiet and not disturb the people out there; but there was a lot for a young boy to learn by eavesdropping on a Bible Study every Tuesday night.
One of the features of the Tuesday Night Bible Study was, it was totally oblivious to sectarian or denominational boundaries. It was full of Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Pentacostals, Foursquares, and even "brethren". My parents let anyone in. My parents, you see, believed in One Body (1 Corinthians 12:13).
As I think back over my personal experience, there is a common thread I can't help but notice: when there is a free giving of what we have to other Christians because they are other Christians, with no attention to whether they are with our group or not (whatever "our group" might be); there are inevitable positive outcomes. And I've seen it many times: the more open-handed we are with all members of the Body, the more the Lord gives us to pass on to them.
If you spend any time at all in any but the most liberal of "brethren" groups, you hear loud wailings, bemoaning the fact that we are in unmistakable decline: assemblies are closing, whole generations are leaving to go to some mainline church or another, parking lots are empty. These are all accurate observations, but I can't help but wonder whether we are so sparse precisely because we have been self-centered. Perhaps people are leaving because we've been worried about keeping them. It might sound corny, but I am more and more convinced that the key to building up an assembly is precisely offering whatever we have to offer (I'm thinking primarily spiritually here, but I'm sure there is a physical application too) freely to any in the Body who need it, regardless of whether they intend to "join us" or not.
Notice right now I am limiting this generosity to members of the One Body. I am not thereby saying we ought not to be generous to lost sinners. But there is a very real difference between those inside and those outside. General benevolence is a good thing: but there is a much more pressing need for Christians to help one another. While we ought to do good for all men, there is the "especially those of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10).
But I want to also caution about giving to get. Regardless of what televangelists say, you can't manipulate God. The key is not to offer a "loss leader" that lures people in. The key is to understand that the One Body transcends any sectarian or denominational ideas we might have. I am responsible for any child of God He has put in my acquaintance. If a child of God has a need, then I am to do what I can to help. If that child of God attends a Baptist church (shudder), that is not to influence my willingness to help. It might affect how I help, but it is not to affect whether I do so. If I can encourage and help a Christian who is walking with the Lord---regardless of what sort of Church she attends---then I have done work for the Lord.
We need to learn to see ourselves as part of One Body. Gifts are given in the Body (Ephesians 4:11--12), not in a gathering or a denomination. To the extent that God has given us something, we need to share it in the Body, not only in our little group. We need to develop this sense of washing each other's feet; and we need to expand it to the whole household of faith. I need to learn to be genuinely concerned how other Christians are doing: how they are growing, how they are walking. Yes, physical needs are part of it, but there needs to be a concern for the spiritual too. We need to learn to be genuinely caring for one another. And we need to learn it in the context of the One Body.
Now to get a little sectarian on you... the "early brethren" were successful, I think, precisely because of this attitude. It is true that we can't be "in fellowship" with everything out there labeled "Christian." There is heresy, blasphemy, and immorality all over; much of it is marketed inside the Church. We ought certainly to turn away from such things. But we ought to see how far we can go to help other Christians, rather than how far we can get away from them. We ought to be genuinely sorrowful when we realize there is a limit to how far we can fellowship with another Christian, rather than smug. Darby, Grant, Kelly; all these guys had precisely this attitude. They weren't forming a party, they were expressing the One Body.
One point of concern with me is the constant refrain I hear in ministry from "open brethren", a repeated call for formalizing the meetings, for having a hard and fast list of "who's in fellowship". Guys, we already tried that, it's called "denominationalism". It hasn't worked terribly well for anyone else, although it seems te be a default state towards which all Christians tend. It fundamentally denies "One Body," and certainly casts aspersion on everything you claim to believe.
I can't help but think that our attitude of hoarding is a large reason why the Lord has seen fit to ensure we have so little.
Friday, August 10, 2007
What can we say? Does He not know us? Does He not remember our frame? We often think He does not. The time of weaning is often one of great suffering to the soul, but a necessary time. No soul learns truly to be independent of infant helps until it is weaned. It is. surprising how many nurses we have, and it is just in proportion as we attain strength to get on without any of them, that our age, or advance in life, is determined. --J. B. Stoney
As usual, I'm pretty thick-witted and slow to clue in to what's going on. I've been doing this "Christian Life" thing a long time (not as long as some of y'all); and I find myself constantly realizing I haven't made nearly so much progress as I once thought. Once again, I find myself learning a lesson I already thought I knew.
I hate that.
I mentioned once before that the Lord loves me too much to let me cheat in His school. That is, He loves me too much to circumvent the painful lessons He has for me. Sometimes I think I could handle Him loving me a little less... but of course that's nonsense. If I knew everything like He knows everything, I'd choose for myself exactly what He's chosen for me.
The most recent disappointment is with "open brethren". Thought I'd gotten over that, didn't you? Well, since I'm so thick, I just finally realized something I should have figured out months or years ago. I just finally realized that I've been (in the back of my mind) holding "open brethren" as sort of an escape plan: a "Plan B" in case what I'm doing now falls through. I guess my thinking went something like this: "If all else fails, I can always head back over to the open meeting. They're sure to let me in, they let anyone in!" Eleven years is a long time to hang onto a Plan B.
I have begun to realize that the Lord doesn't like me to have escape plans. He certainly has an exit strategy for me (and it might well involve people lowering my body into the ground); but that's His right. He doesn't give me the right to develop exit strategies and contingency plans.
See, the whole problem with contingency plans is, they are a matter of trusting in my own ability to plot and scheme my way out of a problem. But we as Christians are not called to scheme our way out of trouble. We're actually called to live in the middle of it.
So my exit plan for a while has had a contingency that if things get "that bad" (whatever that means), then I can always just leave the assembly where I am and head over to the Bible Chapel across town. That's not an unreasonable plan: I got here by leaving there. I mean, I could eat a little crow and they'd more or less welcome me back in. Well, that's a slight exaggeration---I wouldn't have to eat any crow, as they have doubtless forgotten my very existence.
But I can't. He won't let me.
Don't get me wrong: He might well lead me right back over there, and might ensure they have a healthy portion of crow, steaming and ready for me. It's the sort of thing He might do. Or He might put me somewhere else. Or (as Gordon Korman might say) He might even have a city bus with my name on it, hurtling toward me now. It's His right to arrange everything and anything as He sees fit; and frankly, it's better that way.
But the point is, it's His right, not mine. I can't plan things out, I need to just let Him do that.
I guess I ought to have figured that out a long time ago.
I actually went to that Chapel a few weeks ago. I was going to tell you about it, but I don't think it matters now. I think the lesson was a lot more about my not letting God be God than about the state of the folks over there.
Thursday, August 9, 2007
If I might venture to say one word about the prayer meeting it would be this: I do not believe any brother should take part unless he has some definite petition to present. I have been in prayer meetings where I have felt as if brothers began without knowing a single thing they were going to ask for, and discoursed about every subject that happened to come into their minds. This may be profitable religious exercise, but it is certainly not prayer.
- C. A. Coates, The Believer Established, p. 58
You know, I tend to come off a little negatively sometimes. OK, most of the time. But today I have some very positive things to say.
Yesterday was Wednesday, which means it was Prayer Meeting last night at the assembly where we fellowship. I'm frequently reluctant to attend Prayer Meeting, since it often feels more like a waste of time than anything else. Nevertheless, I've been endeavouring to be "good" in my attendance for the last month or so. I've been out the last two weeks with some minor health problems, but yesterday we were all hale and hearty.
Let's review that last point a minute: I've skipped two Sunday evening meetings in the last month, both for rather spurious reasons. Wednesday nights has seen good attendance, except for the last two weeks.
Well, yesterday I was thinking about going to the meeting. I was planning on attending, but I almost refused to go when we got a guilt-trip email about Prayer Meeting yesterday: that sort of thing just makes me want not to go. Why not? Think Pavlov: if I get a guilt-trip email and then I go, the would-be guilt-trippers might get the idea they succeeded. But I prayed about it, and suddenly had the thought that even though there has been little to make me want to attend for the last few months, I could certainly go as an act of sacrificial worship. Does that sound corny? It does to me, but I sincerely felt that I could lay a Wednesday night on the altar, so to speak, and go "as unto the Lord".
So we went.
In case you've never been to a Prayer Meeting in an assembly like the one where we fellowship, let me give you a brief sketch. Prayer Meeting lasts about 1 1/2 hour. It's typically opened with a hymn, then the person who handles correspondence on behalf of the assembly reads whatever letters have come in the last week. Those letters are from other assemblies, missionaries, traveling preachers, etc. They're frequently thank-you notes for money we sent them, or sometimes updates about what they're doing, etc. Frequently there are letters or emails containing prayer requests. Those are all read. Then anyone with an announcement or prayer request not in the letters will give those out verbally. After all that, everyone quiets down and people take turns standing and praying. That's the first hour. Then there's a half-hour Bible Reading.
Well, last night there was the typical spate of letters, then we got into the prayer part. It was great! Rather than the typical muttering out everything that comes to mind and throwing in an "O Lord" every sentence or two, people prayed like they meant it. They prayed for what they were concerned with rather than presenting an omnibus to the Lord; and they prayed with obvious care and compassion. There was prayer for all the sick and needy people in the letters (which is very right and good), but there was prayer for our attitudes with one another, our obvious lack of love for one another, etc. There was meaningful prayer. The prayers were shorter, but they were obviously more earnest, honest, and heartfelt. And all but a few stood and prayed.
The Bible Reading afterwards was good too. Rather than the typical long silences punctuated by either pointing out the obvious or inventing some sort of mystical interpretations; there was real insight. Lots of people chimed in, and everyone seemed to have something to say.
In other words, it was a meeting that made me want to go back next week.
Monday, August 6, 2007
More 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, and 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, that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death; in order that I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. Philippians 3:8--11, NASB
In his excellent devotional commentary on Philippians, Sacrifices of Joy, G. C. Willis renders Philippians 3:14 as "Down to the goal I press." I've frequently had that phrase run through my head over the last decade or so, ever since I first read it in Willis' book. And one question that must arise from such a statement is this: what is the goal?
Right at the start of this blog, I wrote a post titled It's About Him. I want to revisit the ideas in there a little bit: especially in light of the recent discussions of dispensationalism.
Study of God's Word is necessary for the believer. I want to make that absolutely clear; I've been accused of anti-intellectualism far too many times. But I must insist that study is only a means to an end. Theology can be a very good thing, but as my good friend Chuck says, it becomes a black hole very quickly. Theology is a worthless end in itself; the only value in it is as it drives us to know God.
Paul, an Apostle, called by the ascended Christ, through whom so much of the New Testament was written, who received his doctrine by direct revelation; said "I count all things to be loss in view of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord". Doctrine and theology are among the "all things": they have value if they drive you to Christ; but they are worthless in an of themselves.
Christianity is a revealed religion. That is, we base our faith on what God has said. If we're too lazy to figure out what that is, we have an empty faith. I am frankly appalled by the number of Christians who are thoroughly ignorant of their Bibles. Regardless of the excuses they give (and I've heard them all), you can't have a strong Christian life if you neglect the Word of God.
But on the other hand, a Christian life characterized by the academic study of the Bible is empty. A collection of facts is a poor substitute for a relationship.
So I want to try and keep perspective here. I didn't set out to write a theological blog (and I'm far too casual and informal to seriously be accused of that anyhow), but I wanted to put up a couple things about dispensationalism because people specifically asked.
Interestingly, the Dawg just made a similar statement on his blog. As much as I'm not trying to just imitate the Dawg, it seems he's been a step ahead of me for the last week or so. I suppose that's natural: I've looked up to him as a sort of "big brother" figure for the last ten years. Still, it's a little awkward...
Sunday, August 5, 2007
I think the term "Pauline Dispensationalism" is used almost exclusively by MJS et al. There is a book by MJS on the subject; according to it,
The glorified Lord delivered His sanctifying and glorifying message exclusively to His Bride through Paul—a life-giving Word infinitely higher than His earthly message to the nation of Israel. The Pauline Gospel, governed by Pauline Dispensationalism, belongs to the Church.
I've known people who claim to be "Pauline Dispensationalist" who were pretty close to Scofield ("Classical Dispensationalist"), and I've known some who were pretty close the Stam ("Hyper-Dispensationalist"). The fundamental concept is that our faith should center on Paul's epistles. Some hold Peter's and John's Epistles aren't "to us"; others hold they are, but we are to understand the rest of the Epistles in light of Paul's. My reading of MJS has given me the impression he had trouble figuring out his own position: he seemed to span the whole range.
Doctrinally, I haven't got a problem with 95% of what Paulines say. My problem with "Pauline Dispensationalism" is not with the propositions, but with the paradigm: there is no Biblical reason to prefer Paul's Epistles to John's or Peter's. I am convinced the Epistles teach the Old Testament is not "to us": Romans, for example, declares the believer is "dead to the Law". But to say that John's Epistles are somehow inferior to Paul's is to set one's self up as judge over the Word of God. The Whole Counsel of God includes both Paul's teachings and John's (or Peter's, Jude's, James', etc.).
It is true that Paul was the instrument God used to declare the truth of the Church. But it is equally true that John is the instrument God used to declare the truth of Eternal Life. And, Peter's teaching focuses on the life we are to walk in the world now. I have examined the question for a long time, and come to the conclusion that choosing to adhere to either one at the expense of the other is to disregard the Whole Counsel of God.
Please bear in mind that one of my closest friends is self-proclaimed "Pauline". I am not accusing them of any blasphemy or heresy. I am saying the position is fundamentally built on the flawed paradigm of letting theology dictate to Scripture, rather than the other way around.
Where Pauline's get it right is, they have a real understanding of what they term "Identification Truth": Romans 6--8, Colossians 3, etc. They have an appreciation of the believer's death, burial, resurrection, and ascension with Christ. This is nothing short of utterly Scriptural, and sadly lacking amongst the vast majority of believers. Although I have real problems with the underlying assumptions of "Pauline Dispensationalism", I highly value their emphasis on "Spiritual Growth".
"Classical Dispensationalism" is the system of Scofield, Larkin, and (hitherto) Dallas Theological Seminary. Incidentally, this is what I grew up with. It's the "mainline" seven-dispensation (Larkin is an exception here) breakdown from Creation to Eternity. If you've seen the "Eternity to Eternity" charts by A. E. Booth or the various other "History of the Ages" diagrams, you've seen "Classical Dispensationalism".
I think it's correct in principle, but I find the divisions are somewhat more marked in their system than what I see in Scripture. For example, the events of Acts 2--9 are not quite so smooth as Larkin's charts would indicate. To quote Darby, Stephen's stoning was a major turning point in God's dealing with Israel. "Classical Dispensationalism" doesn't really recognize much between the major dispensational breaks: there are "minor" events that are extremely important in biblical history, but "Classical Dispensationalism" tends to obscure some of them.
I suspect in Scofield's mind, one dispensation ended Tuesday at 2:00 PM, and from 2:01 PM on that Tuesday, they were in a new dispensation with different rules. I think the "Classical" dispensationalist view is a bit of an over-simplification.
One feature of Scofield's dispensationalism is his view that dispensations start with a covenant and end with a jugment. This has the tendency to over-simplify Scriptural history. For example, the year at Sinai when Moses got the Law was a lot more complex than just "a covenant was given". In fact, Deuteronomy 29:1 alone makes the "Classical Dispensationalist" view suspect: "These are the words of the covenant which the LORD commanded Moses to make with the sons of Israel in the land of Moab, besides the covenant which He had made with them at Horeb." (NASB). This almost indicates two Mosaic covenants; and that is a bit of a problem for the "Classical" dispensationalist.
Having said that, I think "Classical Dispensationalism" is an honest attempt to understand Scripture. And I think it gets a lot more right than it gets wrong. I prefer it to the "Pauline" version, because it is built on a better paradigm, although there is a tendency among those who hold "Classical Dispensationalism" to miss out on some of the very Scriptural teachings more common amongst the "Pauline" crowd.
And as an aside, I really hate the title "Age of Grace". Grace is God's character, not some sort of covenant. God has always been gracious. I prefer the term "Church Age", although I think it's misleading. I lean to the Darby/Kelly/Booth idea that the Church is really more of a gap between dispensations than a dispensation in and of itself.
So I find the "Pauline" view is built on very shaky hermeneutical ground, but tends to bring out a lot of the New Testament in
a very powerful way. The "Classical" view is more hermeneutically sound, but tends to over-simplify things, which has the effect of taking the edge off some vital truth.
Darby's dispensationalism is probably the least well-formulated, but possibly more consistent than the others.
If you haven't read Darby, I highly recommend it. He's not very easy to read, incredibly smart, and more than a little obtuse. But of everyone I've ever read, he is the most eager and consistent in respecting the Word of God as the Word of God. He is extremely consistent at not trying to "explain away" problem passages. I think this is one reason I like reading him so much.
As far as I know, Darby never came up with a well-formulated dispensationalism. You need to piece it together from his writings, which span more than 50 years. But here are some characteristics I've seen:
- Darby fervently argued that prophecy is only for the earth: events in Heaven are outside the scope of prophecy unless they directly relate to events on earth.
- Darby held that dispensations started after the Flood. The ante-deluvian world was a different world, and can't properly be part of any dispensation
- Darby held that all dispensations end in failure, and almost at the start. He held that the Church had fallen irredeemably into corruption by the end of the first century.
- Darby emphasized God's grace in salvation through faith spanning all the dispensations. While all dispensationalists say this, it was a very real focus to him.
- Darby takes special note of covenants within dispensations.
I like the Darbyist view, precisely because it is not a well-formulated theology. Darby never set out to develop a systematic theology. But the strength in that is, it emphasizes the need to let Scripture speak.
Darby himself endeavoured to acknowledge the Whole Counsel of God, which I think is the most important thing for us to do. The accusation against dispensationalists is frequently that we do exactly the opposite: we only acknowledge the parts of the Word of God that we like, and ignore the rest. And I have seen time and time again where we do exactly that. The fact is, Romans is a much more comfortable book for me than 1 Peter. But I can't let that entice me to declare Romans is "to us" and 1 Peter isn't.
So that's a somewhat informal comparison of how I see those three. I'm certainly up for discussion or contradictions, but I think that's accurate, as far as it goes.
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
A few weeks ago, Anne commented 'I am unfamiliar with “Dispensationalism” and plan to learn more about it if possible.' Well, I am not really qualified to give a definitive dissertation on dispensationalism, but I thought I'd give a quick description. And then The Dawg posted about it today, so I finally wrote down some thoughts.
Before going too far, I want to recap the two major points of an earlier article I wrote:
- No theology is perfect. Theology is an attempt to "connect the dots", to come up with a model for reality that is in agreement with what Scripture says. Our models end up missing a few dots. "All models are wrong, but some are useful," George E. P. Box. Dispensationalism is almost certainly wrong in at least some areas, but I think it is terribly useful.
- We must not confuse reality with our models of it. This the first step on the road to heresy: if we start to treat our understanding of truth as infallible, we sooner or later end up drawing conclusions that fly in the face of Scripture. The Word of God is infallible, but our understanding of it is not.
Wikipedia starts its article on Dispensationalism with:
As a current theology among many Protestant and other Conservative Christian groups, Dispensationalism is a form of premillennialism which teaches biblical history as a number of successive "economies" or "administrations", called "dispensations", each of which emphasizes the discontinuity of the Old Testament covenants God made with His various peoples.I suppose this is fairly accurate, albeit somewhat vague. I wouldn't necessarily suggest one look to Wikipedia for insight on topics like this, but it might bring a different perspective.
Dispensationalism is a theology built on three premises:
- Israel and the Church are distinct
- the Church started after the Lord Jesus' ascension
- God works differently with respect to His people on earth in different time frames
The most hotly debated premise of dispensationalism is undoubtedly the first. Basically, there are three views you can have on the Church/Israel question: (a) the Church replaces Israel ("replacement theology"), (b) the Church partially replaces Israel, or (c) Israel and the Church are distinct. There are godly people who take each of those positions.
I suppose the vast majority of dispensationalists hold the "Acts 2" position, which is that the Church began in Acts 2, when the Holy Spirit descended. There are various other positions that are "Post-Acts-2" (PA2), including "Acts 9", "Acts 13", "Acts 19", and "Acts 28". There are even some who hold a "Pre-Acts-2" position, but those are much more rare in my experience. I am personally of the "Acts 2" persuasion.
The last premiss is the most often misunderstood. Dispensationalists are frequently accused of teaching that there are many ways of salvation: for example, that Jewish believers were saved by keeping the Law, while New Testament Christians are saved by faith in Christ alone. This is a false accusation, plain and simple. It is a gross misrepresentation of what every dispensationalist I have ever met holds. The idea is not that God saves different ways in different dispensations (or "economies"), but that God deals differently with His people. It is a question of God's earthly government, not of eternal salvation.
This raises an interesting point: dispensationalism has a dual focus. On the one hand, God saves individuals. On the other, God rules over the earth. Both statements are true, and dispensationalism is an endeavour to recognize both are part of the Whole Counsel of God.
Dispensationalists typically break up Biblical history into dispensations, or periods of time where God deals with people in a certain way. A typical breakdown would be the one popularized by Scofield in his reference Bible. Scofield had seven dispensations:
- Innocence: begins at Creation and ends when Adam and Eve are expelled from the Garden
- Conscience: begins at the promise of the Messiah to Adam and Eve, and ends at the Flood
- Human Government: begins when Noah and his sons are given the commandment of capital punishment and ends at the destruction of the Tower of Babel
- Promise: begins when Abram is called and ends in the plagues on Egypt
- Law: begins with the giving in the Law at Sinai and ends at the Crucifixion
- Grace: begins at Pentecost and ends at the Great Tribulation
- Millenium: begins with the battle of Armegeddon and ends with the battle of Gog and Magog
Scofield's is not the only dispensationalist breakdown. Clarence Larkin (who wrote several books on the subject) has eight dispensations: he adds one after Scofield's, "the heading up of all things in Christ". Darby, often credited as "the father of dispensationalism" only had about three (he doesn't specifically list them, that I remember). Darby specifically taught that dispensations only began after the Flood, because they are only God's dealing with people in this world: the world before the Flood was an entirely different world, and outside the scope of prophecy.
Modern dispensationalists range from "Progressive Dispensationlists" (who are arguably not dispensationalist at all) like Chuck Swindol to "Hyper-Dispensationlists" like Cornelius Stam. Somewhere in the middle (but leaning more the hyper side) are the "Pauline Dispensationlists", including Miles Stanford.
I personally lean towards Darby's dispensationlism, which is not nearly so regimented as the Scofield "classic" version. I am not a fan of the "Pauline" views; although a very close friend is avowedly "Pauline". It's not blasphemous heresy, but there are some ideas I can't accept. It is true, however, that the "Pauline" people seem to have a handle on the necessity of Romans 6--8 in the Christian life, which others have lost. I have little or no use for the extremes: progressive dispensationalism and hyper-dispensationalism. Again, godly believers live in both camps, but I find them flawed.
Dispensationalism has some interesting consequences. Here are just a few:
- dispensationalists believe believers are not to keep the Law, not even the Ten Commandments
- dispensationalists don't vote
- dispensationalists believe in a literal millenial reign of Christ on the earth
- dispensationalists believe strongly in types and shadows of Christ in the Old Testament, and frequently have Bible studies on those topics
- dispensationalists frequently hold that most or all prophecies in Scripture have two fulfillments: a "greater" and "lesser" fulfillment
- dispensationalists are extremely literal in their exegesis and tend to know their Bibles fairly well (this, alas, is changing with time)
- dispensationalists are frequently Zionist, as they believe Israel is still God's chosen people; but this is by no means a hard and fast rule
So that's a very broad overview of dispensationalism. Not the most enlightening, but hopefully somewhat helpful.
I'm sure The Dawg could say a lot more, good and bad. (Not to put you on the spot, bro)
Wednesday, July 25, 2007
Do not love the world nor the things in the world If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.
For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.
The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever. 1 John 2:15--17, NASB
See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ. Colossians 2:8, NASB
The assumption that underlies most discussions of relevance is, that the Church is on earth primarily as an evangelism vehicle. I do not believe this is accurate, although evangelism is certainly important. But if we assume this is true for the moment; I am convinced that relevance is not achieved by imitating the culture around us, but by being fundamentally different. The Church has something to offer that the world cannot have: the love of God. And we have nothing else. Relevance that is attempted through cultural imitation is deceptively pointless: if we look and act and dress and talk like the world around us, we might well find that we have nothing more to offer them than they already have. In my experience, this is generally the case.
Please don't misunderstand me: I am not advocating gratuitous culture fracture between the Church and the people around us. I am not suggesting we ought to dress gratuitously differently (e.g. Christian women only wear skirts, men all have beards); I am not suggesting the answer is to imitate the Amish.
What I am saying is, imitating the world almost invariably leads to having nothing to offer them. If we become thoroughly submersed in the world, we find that we have no real answers and no credibility if we should find some. Further, we find that we are just as useless to the Lord as we are to the world. We can't sit on the fence on this one: it's impossible to love the Father and the world.
I think there are two basic facts that ought to guide our thoughts in the question of relevance: (1) worldliness is fundamentally anti-Scriptural, and (2) monasticism doesn't work.
The Scripture warns us repeatedly against worldliness: the oft-quoted verses from 1 John 2 above ought to be sufficient to make that point. We need to be conscious and vigilant: we are in enemy territory. The world rejected Jesus Christ, and God took their rejection seriously. We're not here to enjoy ourselves, we're here as His representatives. I was explaining this to my daughter once, and she summed it up like this: "You mean, we're here on a business trip, not a vacation?" Exactly! As long as we remember this is supposed to be a business trip, we're all right. But when we forget that, and act like it's vacation, then we have trouble. This isn't home. The constant message the world conveys is, you can be happy without God. It's in all the movies, TV, books, and magazines. And there's very little more tempting and easy than just settling down here and acting like this is home.
Chuck quoted J. N. Darby a few weeks back: "A Christian is one who is waiting for God's Son from Heaven". We need to keep that in mind.
But there is a ditch on the other side of the road too: retreating into monasticism is not our calling either. We as Christians have our Head in Heaven, but our feet are still on the ground. The Lord didn't leave us here because He forgot us; He went to Heaven and sent the Comforter because He has something here for us. (Evangelism is not the only part of that, by the way.) For us to disengage and cloister ourselves away from the world, is simply to fail in our calling here.
The occurance of an unsaved person in a church is something Scripture contemplates (see 1 Corinthians 14); but it's not something that's ever encouraged. Inviting unsaved friends to church is by no means wrong, but it's not why the Church is here. We don't gather so unbelievers can come hear the Gospel; we gather to worship the Lord and edify one another. I think this distinction helps focus some decisions.
One immediate consequence of this observation is, we can't neglect personal evangelism and just let the Church do it. We need to be engaged personally, individually.