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Snakes and Scripture

“And these signs will follow those who believe: In My name they will cast out demons; they will speak with new tongues; they will take up serpents; and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.” — Mark 16:17-18

Mark Randall “Mack” Wolford, 44, died this week after being bitten by a rattlesnake. Wolford, a West Virginia preacher, staked his life on the belief that the verses quoted above are both authentic and applicable to him. In an interview with The Washington Post Magazine last year, he said, “I know it’s real [everything stated in those verses]; it is the power of God.”

So, there it is. A Christian stood up publicly and staked his life on the veracity of the Scriptures. Pretty admirable, right?

But did he really stake his life on the veracity of the Scriptures? And were his actions admirable?

My answer to both questions is “no.”

Before giving the reasons for that answer, let me say that I am not slamming Wolford’s testimony as a Christian, per se. I have no knowledge about his personal walk with the Lord. All I know is what I’ve read in news reports, that, as a public statement of his faith in the verses quoted above, he sat down next to a rattlesnake and offered it the chance to bite him – an offer the snake accepted. And, I am also not denying Wolford’s zeal. He obviously was willing to risk his life for his faith.

But let’s look at questions:

Did Wolford stake his life on the veracity of the Scriptures? I said my answer was “no.” The problem isn’t with the veracity and authority of the Scriptures. They are both true and authoritative. The problem is whether Mark 16:17-18 truly is a part of those Scriptures. If they aren’t, then the issue is moot.

I know, I know. These verses are included in the Authorized Version (the King James Bible); but, unfortunately, the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 is still heavily debated, and their inclusion or exclusion from a modern (or semi-modern) English translation does not resolve the issue.

To suggest that “Mark 16:9-20” is not part of God’s Word may sound like heresy. How could anyone think that sentences and paragraphs accepted by the King James translators and marked by chapter and verse are not authentic? But such incredulity can be addressed by simply observing that chapter and verse markings were not indicated by Mark, the King James Version was not translated from Mark’s original manuscript, and that it is possible and certain that words and phrases have been added and removed from copies of the original manuscript.

But why is the validity of these particular verses so heavily debated? Let me list just a few of the issues that have been raised. These bullet points are taken Bruce Metzger’s A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament and are not comprehensive. They are only meant to be illustrate the depth and complexity of the controversy:

  • Four endings of the Gospel according to Mark are current in the manuscripts.
  • The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts, from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written A.D. 897 and A.D. 913).
  • Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them.
  • The original form of the Eusebian sections (drawn up by Ammonius) makes no provision for numbering sections of the text after 16:8.
  • Many manuscripts containing the passage have scribal notes stating that older Greek copies lack it, and in other witnesses the passage is marked with asterisks or obeli, the conventional signs used by copyists to indicate a spurious addition to a document.
  • The expanded form of the long ending [according to Metzger] has no claim to be original. Not only is the external evidence extremely limited, but the expansion contains several non-Markan words and expressions. The whole expansion has about it an unmistakable apocryphal flavor.

Do these bullet points prove conclusively that the passage is not original? No, not conclusively, but for me, along with other similar considerations, they prove that it is probably not original.

To put that another way, I would place this passage in a secondary position beside Scripture. It is valuable, but I do not trust it as Scripture. As valuable, even revered, but not included in the Canon of Scripture, it reminds me of the books in the Apocrypha. I can gain, for example, from reading 1 and 2 Maccabees. There are principles in them that are true, reliable and spiritually edifying, but those principles are only authoritative over me inasmuch as they are identical to the ones proclaimed in the Scriptures.

So, returning to Wolford, I would suggest that he should have relied on other passages in the Scriptures. It was unwise to entrust his life to a text that was highly questionable at best, unsupported by other Scriptures. This is particularly true as it encouraged (or seemed to encourage – which raises a question about his hermeneutical approach) an unusual ritualistic activity – the handling of snakes.

And, now, for just a moment, let’s look at that second question: were Wolford’s actions admirable?

My answer, again, is “no.” I believe God has created us to be intelligent, thinking beings. This ability was and is marred by man’s fall into sin – granted. No one is perfectly logical. But, still, if anyone should be able to exercise genuine discernment, it should be Christians. We should be able to demonstrate Spirit-led and Spirit-enlightened reason. And Wolford didn’t do this. He demonstrated foolishness.

Well, maybe someone will say I’m being too hard on this West Virginia preacher. Maybe he was just ignorant. Maybe he just didn’t know any better. But does his ignorance really excuse his actions? If a guy really believes he can fly and then jumps off a skyscraper to prove it, am I really supposed to admire the strength of the conviction that compelled him to leap?

And, really, isn’t there a bigger danger here too? Wolford wasn’t merely the metaphorical jumper; he was the jumper who was encouraging others to jump and fly with him. And if so, are we wise to ignore and minimize the potential harm he has caused?

Now, if you’ve read this far, you’ve probably guessed that the issue I’m addressing is bigger than snake-handling, and you are right. As Christians, we must be careful that our doctrine is truly built on the Scriptures, and we must remain aware that we too may have dogmatic blind spots. Let’s think through our positions. God has given us a brain. Let’s use it. (Oh, and don’t get into that ‘King James only’ stuff.)

And by the way, if you thought I was too hard on Wolford, maybe this will change your opinion: his father died of a rattlesnake bite at age 38 in 1983.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • Apologizing to the LGBT Community. Read this article and see how you would respond to the author. I think this perspective is one we will be confronted with more and more, and I believe we need to be able to offered a living, but firm, response. Incidentally, be warned. This article may frustrate you. Read it at: http://thinkchristian.net/apologizing-to-the-lgbt-community.
  • Take Back Your Life in Seven Simple Steps. This short article from the Harvard Business Review summarizes some basic, simple, and effective steps to getting a busy life back under control. It was written for a business audience, but I think most people can profit from the suggestions. Read it at: http://blogs.hbr.org/schwartz/2012/05/take-back-your-life-in-seven-s.html

Gay Marriage and the Christian

President Obama made headlines recently when he declared his personal support for gay marriage. He even referenced the Bible as supporting his position, citing the Golden Rule as being applicable in this case. His endorsement of gay marriage and the coverage it has garnered (including a Newsweek cover that declares Obama ‘the first gay president’ – with a rainbow colored halo over his head, no less), forces American Christians, again, to consider the issue. Must we be public and vocal in our opposition to gay marriage?

Before addressing the issue ‘head-on,’ I would like to discuss briefly courage and justice. I recently interacted with some of Cicero’s writings, and though he wrote thousands of years ago, I found in them interesting thoughts on these two themes. For him, courage and justice were linked. Courage seems to be, primarily, for him, the determination to do what is just. And justice is affirming and doing what is morally right. Particularly interesting in his discussion was a distinction between active injustice and passive injustice. Passive injustice, he argued, occurs when one knows what is morally right and does not act to affirm it. In other words, the person who knows something is the right thing to do and refuses (or fails) to do it, engages in injustice.

For Christians, these ideas are nothing new. We do not need to listen to a pagan philosopher to learn them. Christians have long spoken of such things as the wrong (or injustice) of inaction. The writers of Scripture remind us that someone who sees his neighbor in need (or danger) and does nothing, is guilty of sin. This is why confessions are made for both the sins of commission and omission. Similarly, Scripture also speaks of courage, elevating it to a virtue that Christians will display. Indeed, the book of Revelation records the reality that the cowardly “shall have their part in the lake which burns with fire and brimstone.” (Rev. 21:8)

But as we consider such things, a pragmatism often settles down upon us. We scan the societal landscape, and, recognizing the extent and enormity of the needs, cast our hands into the air and retreat into a “thank You, Lord, for Your grace” response. It is as if the challenges of living the godly life have so overwhelmed us that we abandon hope of accomplishing anything at all. And we allow our urge to respond to the wrongs of our times to be filtered and determined by the question, “Is this the molehill I want to die on?”

The issues of omission and injustice, of constant vigilance and activism, are too big to address here, but I do think it is safe to say, from either standpoint – justice or pragmatism – this matter of gay marriage must be addressed publicly. We, the average, American, work-a-day Christians cannot afford to remain silent. Gay marriage is immoral and threatens to become a notable milestone on the road to America’s moral decline.

As we turn specifically to gay marriage, let me share a few beliefs I hold. These are not given in any particular order.

  • There is an absolute standard of right and wrong, and it is found in the Person of Holy God.
  • Homosexual activity is utterly sinful. It is the manifestation of a depraved mind.
  • All legislation involves the legislation of morality. This is an important truth that is often overlooked. Any time a society creates and enforces a law, it has determined, on the basis of someone’s morality, what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong.’ Additionally, it is not the law’s place to offer mercy. That is the role of the judiciary, if it chooses. – The natural outgrowth of this presupposition, for me, is to disregard any statement (by either side of an argument) that amounts to “you shouldn’t be legislating your morality.”
  • Christians should prayerfully, publicly, and actively encourage their governments to enact and enforce laws in agreement with God’s moral character. This may seem to non-Christians an insensitive and biased advocacy, but I would argue that all advocacy (even of legal indifference) is biased, and Christians who truly believe in God’s existence and holiness must live accordingly.
  • Marriage refers to a covenant between two complementary individuals, and it has been sanctified (deemed honorable and unique) by God.
  • Marriage is more than mere sexual union and/or cohabitation. This matter occasionally arises as believers interact with Paul’s comments about the union that occurs between a man and a harlot. There is no denying that a spiritual union of some sort does occur between those two, but it is not necessarily the same as marriage. (And, I would argue, does not constitute marriage.) This reality is recognized by society as a whole. No court would argue that a prostitute who sleeps with a man once is then one of his wives (and entitled to any privileges or responsibilities associated with being his wife).
  • Marriage is an act of God. And, it is work of God even between unbelievers. God joins a man and a woman in marriage – not the minister or the judge. The minister or judge can only declare the work that God has done. This raises the interesting question of whether a true marriage can even occur between two men or between two women. I would suggest it cannot, as God never says He will join them together and make them one.
  • Marriage was given, ultimately, by God, to serve as a picture of Christ and the Church. (Ephesians 5)

It is this last belief that most forcefully leads me to protest gay marriage publicly. Marriage is meant to be an object lesson, given by God to the world as a whole. It is intended to serve as a spiritual analogy that can and should be used to educate both believers and non-believers toward God. And if we allow our government to legalize gay marriage, we will then be allowing the government to pervert part of God’s witness to the world.

Will our protests prevent the legalization of gay marriage? Probably not. The winds of the present societal storm seem to be driving greater and greater depravity. But that does not excuse inaction, and it certainly does not excuse an increasingly ‘tolerant’ stand on our part. We must publicly express our hatred of sin and our grief over the public’s disregard of God’s holy standards.

Well, this was not an exhaustive treatment of the subject, but I did want to raise some thoughts and challenge you to remain engaged in society’s debate over this topic. We are called to be salt and light, and we should neither store the salt shaker in the cupboard or hide the flashlight under the bed. Let’s shake and shine!

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • John MacArthur on Divorce: We Can’t Edit God. This article contains some of an interview with John MacArthur recently broadcasted on Focus on the Family Daily. It addresses two important issues for our day, the sanctity of marriage and the authority of God’s Word. MacArthur reminds believers that the truths of God’s Word must always reign supreme over one’s values. Find it at: http://www.christianpost.com/news/john-macarthur-on-divorce-we-cant-edit-god-75083/.
  • Editorial: Pull the Switch on the Death Penalty. This editorial is from the Baptist Standard, and it offers an interesting and informed perspective on America’s current use of the death penalty. Part of his argument against the death penalty is that the application of it is unjust. Is that an argument for eliminating the death penalty or simply an argument for reforming its application? Is it possible to apply it absolutely justly, and, if not, in a sufficiently just way? Do you support the Death Penalty as a Christian? Read the editorial at: http://www.baptiststandard.com/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=13800&Itemid=9.

The Christian and the Mosaic Law

What is the relationship between today’s Christian and the Mosaic Law? This question arises often, and, it seems to me, is rarely answered clearly. So, I thought I would challenge myself to address the question briefly and clearly here.

There are 613 laws contained in the Mosaic Law, and these laws cover matters ranging from the appropriate reverence one should show for God to the sort of clothing one should wear. The sheer number of these commandments can become bewildering for Christians reading and studying the Old Testament, and we struggle with our responsibility or non-responsibility to keep them. This seems particularly true as we read and pray the words of the Psalms (i.e. “Oh, that my ways were directed To keep Your statutes! Then I would not be ashamed, When I look into all Your commandments.” Psalm 119:5-6). And what of the Ten Commandments? Isn’t it obvious that we Christians are required, at least, to obey these commandments?

To address this topic, I would like to make five assertions that I believe are foundational to understanding the Mosaic Law and its place in the life of the Christian:

  • First, the Mosaic Law is, ultimately, a covenantal treaty between a king and his subjects. It was an agreement made between Almighty God, as King, and Israel, an ethnic people group, as the vassal people. The stipulations of the Law were the ‘rules’ by which the subjects (the citizens of Israel) agreed to conduct themselves. In addition, the people accepted the ‘blessings of obedience’ and the ‘cursings of disobedience’ outlined within that covenant.
  • Second, the Church is not ethnic Israel.
  • Third, acceptance of the universal truth or principle underlying a specific law does not necessarily mean that a person is ‘under’ that particular law. Let me explain that idea. Suppose a law was written and proclaimed by the French government that said, “It is illegal to kill your neighbor in a fit of rage.” I, as an American citizen can look at such a law, and I can affirm the essential moral justice of it. I recognize that it expresses a universal and timeless truth, and this is a truth that, I too, affirm and uphold. Still, living here in the United States as an American citizen, I am not ‘under’ that law. If I kill my neighbor in a fit of rage, I am not tried under French law and prosecuted by French courts. I am tried and judged under the laws of that nation of my citizenship, the United States of America.
  • Fourth, the division of the Mosaic Law into ‘moral’ and ‘legal’ or ‘ritual’ stipulations is arbitrary. I can find no justification, in my reading of the Mosaic Law, to pick and choose parts that Christians are ‘under’ and others they are not. Either we’re under it, or we are not.
  • Fifth, Christ Jesus is the fulfillment, the completion of the Mosaic Law. Only in Him and from Him is true righteousness found. He is the righteousness to which all the Mosaic Law points. In other words, the Mosaic Law was a pedagogue designed to reveal to ethnic Israel (and all humanity) the impossibility of achieving righteousness through works, an object lesson designed to demonstrate the need for a righteousness from God, and a model depicting a picture of what truly righteous lives lived by faith would look like.

So, with those assertions stated, here are my conclusions, in brief:

  • Christians are not ‘under’ the Mosaic Law, in part or in whole. (So, no, I do not believe Christians are ‘under’ the Ten Commandments.)
  • Christians should study the Mosaic Law to discern the underlying truths it teaches (i.e. the character of Holy God, the need for Righteousness, and God’s provision for Righteousness in the coming Messiah).
  • Christians should look to the “Law of Love,” the Person and Words of Christ, as their ultimate standard. We live and act within the principle of Grace, not Law. And the standards of Grace always exceed the standards of Law. The standards of Grace ask, “How much can I do?”, while the standards of Law ask, “What is the least I must do?”

There are many practical implications from the position stated above, but we don’t have time or space to investigate them here. But I would like to add that I am not arguing for lawlessness or licentiousness. Our freedom in Christ from the Law does not free us to sin. Rather, it frees us to serve Him with wholehearted devotion and utter liberty.

[Incidentally, did you notice I repeatedly referred to the “Mosaic Law,” rather than “the Law”? We must be careful to distinguish between the Law, that is, the Torah (the first five books of the Bible), and the “Mosaic Law” (recorded primarily in Exodus and Deuteronomy). They are not the same. And that may be part of the answer, raised in the second paragraph above, to the Christian’s use of the Psalms.]

Let me know your thoughts on this subject. I’d love to hear them.


NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • Archaeologists prove Hebrew Bible. This is a short, encouraging article, even if the title overstates its case. The reporter summarizes the discovery of ancient objects that reveal how religion was organized in Judah before the reign of King Solomon. This discovery offers one more evidence to be offered to those who argue against the existence of King David, the nature of his reign, and (ultimately) the veracity of the Old Testament. Read the article at: http://www.worthynews.com/11467-archaeologists-prove-hebrew-bible.
  • What Maurice Sendak Can Teach the Church. I, like most folks, have greatly enjoyed Maurcie Sendak’s books, and I was saddened to hear of his death this week. I was even sadder when I learned that he was an atheist with a cynical outlook and a foul mouth. Still, as the author of this article observes, Sendak articulated some basic spiritual truths that we Christians affirm, truths that can serve as tutors to bring others to Christ. Find the article at: http://www.christianpost.com/news/what-maurice-sendak-can-teach-the-church-74631/.
  • 10 Ways ‘The Avengers’ Are an Example for the Church. Yes, finally, after a long (and multi-episode) buildup, “The Avengers” has arrived on the silver screen! And the author of this article sees several ways that ‘the Avengers’ can serve as examples to the Church. This is a clever article and includes a scripture reference for each point. Read it at:  http://www.christianpost.com/news/10-ways-the-avengers-are-an-example-for-the-church-74543/.

Discerning God’s Will

In our Old Testament Survey course yesterday, we talked a little about discerning God’s will. We observed God’s specific commands to David, and we enviously said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if we got such specific directions?” It’s a common desire.

This conversation reminded me of something my college teacher mentioned. He said that, every year, some freshman would decide that it was ‘God’s will’ that a particular girl (of the boy’s choosing) should date and marry him. Unfortunately (and predictably), the girl disagreed most of the time. (Can you say uncomfortable and a little sketchy?)

Yes, discerning God’s will accurately is an important topic, and one with which many Christians struggle, so I thought it might be worth investigating for a few minutes here.

We’ll start with a quote from a commentary on Galatians by Scot McKnight. He sums up the issue (and the perplexities):

“How do we discern God’s will in our lives? …I am of the view that God’s will encompasses a broad range of options for a Christian, but I think that for some people God’s will may involve a specific vocation. I recently met a man who thought God’s will for his life was working with teen-age drug addicts through an ocean entertainment sailing business. That seemed quite specific to me – in fact, I was quite surprised that he could know so much about God’s will! Others do not find God’s will for them so specifically. We dare not impose any one model on all Christians. For some, God’s will is not so specifically defined: living obediently as a spouse, serving in various capacities in the local church, and striving for justice in the local community through various opportunities. For others it may simply be being a Christian in a large corporation while enveloping such a vocation with an obedient, God-fearing life at home and church. For still others, it may be something specific, like teaching health to Haitian refugees”

Well, that introduces the issue, sort of, but it doesn’t tell us how to discern God’s will.

Concerning that, McKnight writes, “I believe there are three dimensions to discerning God’s will. (1) We need an inner conviction that such a pursuit is what God wants for us. (2) We need the wisdom of our church leaders and elders. (3) We need the feedback and evaluation of experts who observe us in the ministries to which we think we have been called.”

Also, John Stott, in his book The Contemporary Christian, suggests that Christians seeking to know God’s will should “yield, pray, talk (to others in the Christian community), think and wait.” (And, of course, he explains those ideas more fully in his book.)

And, Gary Friesen, in his book Decision Making and the Will of God, argues against a specific will of God for each person for all aspects of life. The Christian, in his estimation, is granted a range of choices within God’s will and (as I understand his position) is only able to discern God’s specific will for that choice in hindsight.

But let’s take a look at a passage in the Bible that addresses this topic, Romans 12:1-2, and see what it says.

There, Paul writes: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that you present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.”

I believe this is a helpful text, as it both underscores some presuppositions that the Christian should share and prescribes a methodology by which the believer can discern God’s perfect will.

Let’s look at the presuppositions first. Here are the three that leap out to me:

  • There is a good, acceptable, and perfect will of God for the believers.
  • That perfect will of God can be discerned and proven.
  • The discernment of God’s perfect will is desirable and necessary.

Now let’s look at the methodology:

  • First, believers must ‘present their bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable to God.’ Holy lives, lives marked by the confession and renunciation of sin, by an active, wholehearted love for God, and by acts of loving service for God and man, are a prerequisite necessity for the discernment of His perfect will. Holy living must be an ongoing pursuit and reality in the believers’ lives. This can only be realized in the life of a regenerate person who is walking in fellowship with the Lord.
  • Second, believers must refuse to be conformed to the lusts and desires of this world. This requires both an awareness and a determination to eschew those enticements to sin (in commission and omission) with which the ungodly world schema and its ruler bombard believers.
  • Third, believers must be transformed by the renewing of their minds. This is accomplished as believers learn God’s Word and hide it in their hearts. As they do this, the Holy Spirit washes and renews their minds, causing them to exchange the ungodly world and life view from which they were delivered for the godly world and life view that conforms with the Creator’s.
  • Fourth, then, they must test and prove what is His perfect will. The logic of this text reveals that it is only at this point, after the first three steps have been enacted, will be believers be able to test and prove His perfect will. And yet, still, the step of testing and proving remains. This step involves thoughtful, prayerful consideration of His character and ways and then a godly evaluation of all the data. Then, and only then, can the believers be certain of their ability to know His perfect, complete will.

But how would this look in the everyday ‘real-world’ life of the believer? Hmmm… maybe like this…

Trevor (yep, just a made-up name) is a second year college student, and he is trying to discern God’s will concerning his major. Should he be a history major? A business major? A Bible major?

Let’s apply the methodology. Trevor takes stock of his spiritual life and realizes there are areas of significant weakness. He has been indulging in some ‘minor’ sins and hasn’t really been walking consistently with the Lord. He repents and determines to stop doing the naughty things, and he re-establishes his oft-neglected Quiet Time (daily Bible reading, Scripture memory, and prayer). After more thought, he realizes he also has been neglecting the needs of others, so he begins investing some time doing outreach ministries through the campus fellowship at his college. This includes some evangelism and some service projects. As he does all this, he realizes that his thinking, overall, has become a little materialistic, and he decides to memorize some passages from the Bible that address the topic. As he does, he finds that the things that seemed important to him only a few months ago (i.e. that fancy new laptop and car) seem less important.

Then, a funny thing happens, while Trevor is doing a service project with his campus fellowship, he helps out at a local hospice. He finds that the work he is doing there really feels good. He is helping to meet the needs of others (as he performs some basic nursing) and he even has some exciting chances to share the Gospel. And he starts to wonder, what about becoming a nurse?

He wonders where that idea came from. He hadn’t ever considered nursing as a career option. But as he gives it more thought, he starts to wonder whether it might be a leading from the Lord. As he mulls this over, he begins to pray about it, discussing it with other believers and talking over the idea with his parents. His folks and friends all confirm that, yep, they can really see how nursing is a perfect ‘fit’ for Trevor. It brings out the very best in Trevor.

Gradually, Trevor becomes certain that pursuing a degree in nursing is God’s perfect will for him.

Okay, so I think that’s how it would look in ‘real-life.’ But as I look back over this process, I ask myself, is this method infallible? The answer is clearly no. There is a certain degree of fallibility introduced by the deceitfulness of the believer’s heart. We still battle the sin nature, and a believer can inadvertently manipulate the process to get the answer he or she wants. Still, the process itself permits the believer to zero in on God’s perfect will, with greater and greater specificity and confidence.

And, here is two more final observations…

First, did you notice that Paul’s words are addressed to the believers as a whole? This text can and should certainly be applied individually, but might there not be an equally important corporate application? We believers do not live in isolation. We are called to live in community, and we are all part of the Body of Christ. Perhaps we are to recognize that, as we seek, together, to lives godly, separated lives, we can discern His perfect will.

Second, did it strike you that, if you were truly renouncing sin, loving and serving God wholeheartedly, and absorbing God’s Word faithfully, you wouldn’t really need to wonder what His perfect will was? It seems to me that, if I am truly doing all of those things faithfully, I’ll be so busy pursuing His purposes, I won’t need to wonder what His will. I’ll already be doing it. Do you agree?

Well, I guess I’ll leave it there. Let’s discern and do!

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • 8 Things Kids Should Know About Hell. Scriptural teachings about hell are sometimes neglected, but they shouldn’t be. Christ spoke a great deal about the reality of hell and its horrors. This article suggests eight starting points for discussions with kids (and adults) concerning hell. What are your thoughts concerning the duration of hell? Do you agree with the author that the duration of hell’s punishment is not Scripturally clear? Read the article at: http://christianmomthoughts.com/8-things-kids-should-know-about-hell/.
  • John Piper Longs for Stott’s Ambition. In this article, Piper pays homage to the late John Stott, expressing admiration for his determination to remain engaged and relevant in his later years. Piper’s comments are a good reminder that we must sometimes say ‘no’ to the good things in order to say ‘yes’ to the best. Read it at: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/john.piper.longs.for.stotts.ambition/29778.htm.

 

  • U.S. Ranked 5th Most Religious Country. This short article summarizes a new survey conducted by the University of Chicago. The survey is interesting in its content, but the findings may be a bit misleading in that respondents in only 30 countries were interviewed. My favorite part of this article was the tongue-in-cheek conclusion: “If you’re looking for fertile soil to plan a church, target senior citizens in Israel.” Read the article at: http://www.outofur.com/archives/2012/04/us_ranked_5th_m.html.

The Yoga Lesson

I enjoy a good stretch as much as the next guy, and I do realize that better posture and deeper breathing habits are beneficial, but I am not a fan of yoga.

My distaste for yoga has nothing to do with the physical postures, stretches and exercises it prescribes; it lies in yoga’s Hindu philosophical/theological foundation and the Hindu world and life view it promotes. So, when Jonan (our eighteen-year-old) told us his college course required him to take a one-hour introductory yoga class (outside of the college), I was bothered. I debated whether I should encourage him to make a stink about the requirement, but then I realized this probably wasn’t the molehill to ask him to die on. So, instead, I decided I would help him choose the particular class and go with him.

We went to the yoga class on Tuesday evening, and it proved a fascinating experience. Here’s why…

Whether or not the instructor knows this or not, yoga serves as an introduction to Hinduism. (I know, I know. Some Christians are going to argue with me about that statement, but, as one who has travelled twice to India, has visited many Hindu temples and talked with many Hindus, I think I can offer that as a reasonable assessment.) In this particular case, I think the instructor must realize that. She had incense burning, new age Indian music playing, and gave the perfunctory ‘namaste’ at the end of the lesson. Also, I asked her after the lesson whether she had ever been to India. She answered, “No, but I have been throwing out my positive energy into the universe asking it to return to me with the funds to travel there.” Hmm, okay.

But I said it was a fascinating experience. Why? Because it offered me the opportunity to watch an adherent of another religion engage in an ‘outreach’ event, and I was able to observe firsthand which elements of an outreach event are attractive and repulsive to the visitor. And this was even more true as I would probably be classified, in terms of fishing for converts, as a skeptic.

Let’s look at the elements that were effective. I’ll just list them with a brief explanation:

  • The introductory class was a required event. Wow, let’s not rush past this observation. Somehow, this religious activity has become mainstream enough that a state college can make it a required element of a general-ed physical education course. Wouldn’t it be great if we could get the public schools to mandate attendance at an Introduction to Bible Reading class?
  • The instructor met us at the door and was friendly.
  • The instructor took down our contact information. Her method of soliciting our information was reasonable (“I need you to fill this out, stating that you are able to engage in this physical activity.”)
  • The instructor was not wearing a freaky/fruity costume. I was nervous going in that I was about to meet a woman who was part Mrs. Roper from Three’s Company and part Trelawney from the Harry Potter series. She wasn’t any of that. She was a normal, friendly middle-aged lady.
  • The instruction focused primarily on the physical activities and encouraged us to participate as we were able. There was no long discussion of the philosophical/theological presuppositions underlying the exercises.
  • The instructor spoke with us after the lessons about ‘normal,’ ‘common’ things (i.e. about her daughters who attended Geneva High School, about local community happenings, etc.). This helped us to see her as a ‘normal’ member of our society and not simply as the representative of a foreign discipline.
  • The atmosphere of the room was genuinely relaxing, and we enjoyed the hour of quiet. It was a nice break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

But there were also some elements that I found less effective. Those were:

  • The Indian artwork, incense, and music infused a foreign sense to the environment. I felt, very much, on entering, that I had come into a place that was very different from me, my family, and my culture. In other words, the message I received on entering was that, if I were interested in becoming a regular yoga practitioner, I must leave my culture and join another (at least partially).
  • The instructor occasionally used words and phrases that struck me as strange. They were undefined and vaguely uncomfortable. For instance, she said several times something like, “Before I became a practitioner of the way, I…,” and, if I remember correctly, she sometimes referred to yoga as “the Practice.”
  • The instructor led a weird finishing meditation that reminded me of those self-hynosis tapes, and before she started it, she brought Jonan and me blankets, laid them on us, and offered ‘fairy bags’ (beanbags) for our eyes. Weird and a little fruity. As a guy, very uncomfortable. And that leads me to this final observation,
  • The atmosphere seemed slightly effeminate. We were the only guys in the group, and our overall reaction as we departed was, “Let’s go do something manly. Yeah.”

Okay, so what lessons or suggestions for improvement can we take away from these observations and apply to our Christian outreaches? (And, yes, I know that the biggest and most important difference between this Hindu outreach and genuine Christian outreach is the leading and movement of the Holy Spirit. These suggestions are not meant to diminish that reality.) Well, for better or worse, here they are:

  • Find ways to make our outreach events ‘required’ activities. A great argument can be made that the Bible is the foundation of most Western literature. Shouldn’t an introductory course on the Bible be required at the high school?
  • Be friendly and greet visitors.
  • Get contact info, and use legitimate reasons to get it.
  • Dress in an average, normal way, appropriate to the community
  • Interact with visitors in a normal way, emphasizing points of commonality.
  • Provide a relaxing, normal environment.
  • Minimize the ‘foreign’ elements. Visitors to a Christian outreach do not need to feel that they have, somehow, been transported to the Israel of Jesus’ day or to a monastic community in a medieval kingdom.
  • Avoid using insider lingo that will not be understandable to the visitor. Another way of saying that is, avoid ‘Christianize.’ (i.e. “I felt so blessed when I felt led by the Spirit to lay hands on … and beseech God for healing.”
  • Keep the activity appropriate for the age and gender of the anticipated visitors.

So, there it is, some lessons learned at a yoga lesson. I hope we’ll be flexible enough to incorporate them.

NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • Leaving a Legacy of Joy – Erma Bombeck. The author of this short article pays tribute to a great writer, columnist, and humorist. Bombeck’s wisdom and wit is well worth remembering (ah, now that’s alliteration! I wonder what she would have thought?). This article quotes many of her memorable lines, such as: “In two decades I’ve lost a total of 789 pounds. I should be hanging from a charm bracelet.”  Read more at: http://www.healthyspirituality.org/2012/04/leaving-legacy-of-joy-erma-bombeck.html.
  • The Top Five Guiding Principles for Ministries. The author of this short blog post wrote this (he admits) off the top of his head, but he really nailed the important things. I really liked his one-paragraph statement about the need for radical generosity. See his list of top five principles and see if they are the same ones you would have chosen: http://www.whatsbestnext.com/2012/04/the-top-five-guiding-principles-for-ministries/.
  • Seven Common Traits of Breakout Churches. The author of this article identifies the common factors that permit churches with a record of five years of decline to reverse that trend and experience five years of growth. His observations are based on data collected from 50,000 churches. He identifies seven traits. One of those involves a realization that most of the ministries of that church are currently designed for the comfort and desires of the members. Accordingly, leadership team begins to focus more ministries outwardly. (Does that need to happen at Living Hope?) Read more at: http://www.thomrainer.com/2012/04/seven-common-traits-of-breakout-churches.php.

Hot or Not?

“Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”  1 Samuel 16:7

Have you heard about the “Hot or Not?” website? This website allows viewers to scan pictures of men or women and then decide whether they are “hot” (meaning, physically attractive) or “not” (meaning, physically unattractive). The viewers vote on these photos, and those votes are tabulated by the company that runs the site, and a number (1 to 10) is assigned. This number moves around a bit, of course, as more people vote. In addition, viewers are invited – for a fee? – to upload their own pictures and have them rated. Then, members of the site (and I am assuming these are paying customers) can choose whether they wish to meet other viewers. In short, it is virtual form of the collegiate ‘meat market.’ And, yes, I am amazed anyone is willing to subject himself or herself to this sort of appraisal.

I read about this website in a book entitled The Upside of Irrationality. In that book, the author explores the psychological principles operating on this website and then makes some practical observations concerning humans and their habits. It is a sad fact, as he observes, that we humans are not always attractive. Some of us, indeed, most of us, are average in our appearance, and some of us are decidedly unattractive. Only a select few can be objectively called ‘hot.’ But that is simply the obvious observation. But are those appraisals subjective or objective? And if somewhere in the middle, are they more one or the other?

This line of thinking turns particularly engrossing as it raises this question: “Do the ‘not’s’ change their perceptions of what is ‘hot,’ (so they can find a mate), or do they merely accept that the ‘not’s’ they find are the best they can do?” Let me put that another way… if someone is ugly, does he or she gradually start to believe ugly is beautiful? Or does he or she continue to hold to an external standard of beauty, recognize that he or she does not have it, and then accept that a comparatively ugly mate is the best he or she can do?

It is a fascinating question, and an uncomfortable one. We know there are ugly people, but no one wants to admit it, lest we discover that we ourselves are part of that group.

The author cites some studies concerning this topic and then states his conclusion: no, one’s objective standard of beauty does not change. Even after recognizing and coming to grips with one’s physical failings, one still recognizes beauty in others. (That seemed obvious to me. Just notice the lecherous old guys who ogle the young ladies at the mall.) But something does change, and that something is the appreciation of other attributes that may have been previously unnoticed. This, the author, suggests, is a human adaptation to a less than ideal circumstance.

It makes sense. The guy who realizes – over time – that the prettiest girls won’t give him the time of day begins to notice the less obvious but equally important qualities of a good sense of humor or a keen intellect. As he notices those matters more and more, he comes to observe that physical appearance is only one part of the equation, and the overall attractiveness of a potential mate is composed of many factors. His sense of what things matters most broadens – some might say it matures, and he explores a broader range of romantic avenues.

(Incidentally, the author discourages readers from jumping to the conclusion that the ‘hot’ people are necessarily shallow. The mere fact that they are blessed with certain physical attributes does not mean they are less broad in their appreciation of others. And that is certainly true. Beautiful people can be thoughtful, sensitive, people; and ugly people can be selfish, insensitive jerks.)

Now, I must admit, I enjoyed reading about these things, and I laughed with disbelief as I heard about the “Hot or Not” website. Still, none of it really matters to me, at least in this season of my life. I’m pretty comfortable with my personal ‘hot-ness’ or ‘not-ness.’ My wife thinks I’m hot, so that’s good enough for me. Beyond that, I don’t really care about my ‘hotness’ factor.

But my interest in this matter is piqued as I consider the local church. Is it possible that we American Christians sometimes think of local churches with a ‘hot or not’ mentality?

I will freely confess that, as the pastor of a small church, I am insecure about our church’s ‘hotness.’ Living Hope is not a large church, and we don’t have the facilities or offer the programs of larger churches. We do not have a large staff that specializes in ministering to special focus groups. Good grief, we don’t even have a youth pastor!

So, when I think about all that, I imagine someone visiting a “Finger Lakes Churches Hot or Not” website. The visitor is shown a picture of a building and a parking lot, and maybe some pictures of people worshiping in the auditorium, babies in the nursery, and a senior citizens’ luncheon. And then the visitor is asked that question: “Hot or Not?” The stats are compiled, and the website chooses a likely prospect and asks, “Would you like to visit this church?”

This line of thought exposes everything that is wrong with the “Hot or Not” mentality. We all know that a beautiful facility doesn’t make the group of people who worship there beautiful, and pictures of worshippers, babies, and seniors can be staged. The pictures tell us nothing of what matters most, whether the people who meet there love the Lord passionately and serve Him wholeheartedly.

That said, can we entirely dismiss the importance of outer appearance? Of course not. How one takes care of his body tells a great deal about his attitude concerning his body. Likewise, if we, as a local church, value stewardship over the physical properties God has entrusted to us, we will maintain them well and present them to the world in a nicely-groomed manner.

Well, these thoughts have been quick and a bit rambling, and what can I say to conclude them? I’ll just offer these few observations:

  • First, appraisal by physical attributes (in dating and in the choosing of a local church) is a reality, and looks do matter. It is unrealistic to argue that people who see should live and think as those who are blind. It is equally unreasonable to expect those looking for a local church to not notice that one church offers programs for every age-group and the other does not, or that one has a fully-developed and functioning youth group and the other does not.
  • Second, physical attributes are only one part of a person’s, and a church’s, totality. Many other attributes are present and worth considering, the most important being the relationship that individual or that worshipping body has with Almighty God. And,
  • Third, we must strive to maintain a godly attitude in our assessments of ourselves and others.

Bottom line, this topic was summed up years ago when Samuel was commissioned by God to appoint Israel’s next king. He thought he had found the Lord’s man, and the Lord corrected him, saying, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have refused him. For the Lord does not see as man sees; for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7)

 

NEWS YOU CAN USE

  • My “Most Influential” Books. The  author of this short article asked himself this question: “Which books, apart from the Bible, have proved most influential upon me?” Then, in the article, he lists the top five he chose and explained briefly why he had chosen each. It might be interesting to ask yourself the same question before turning to this article. What do you think the odds are that one or more of your top five will coincide with his? Apart from that, asking this question of oneself and others is a great way to find out what really matters most to a person. Here’s the link: http://www.internetmonk.com/archive/my-most-influential-books-1. And, incidentally, if you do jot down a list of five, send it to me. I would love to hear your top five!
  • Faith and Mental Health. This blog post is not an in-depth look at the interaction between faith and mental health, but I include it here because I appreciate the author’s willingness to discuss the topic, and because I think it is an important issue that impacts the faith (or lack of faith) of many. Read the blog post at: http://therisingmuse.com/2012/04/16/faith-and-mental-health/.
  • After Death, Is There a Final Chance to Be Saved? This article is an edited transcript of the audio, and it features the thoughts of John Piper, acting as a Christian Post Guest Columnist. This article is interesting in that it raises the issue of the salvation of infants who die. If you have the time, look through the 350 comments. What do you believe? Find it at: http://www.christianpost.com/news/after-death-is-there-a-final-chance-to-be-saved-73242/.

We All Do Stupid Things

We all do stupid things. Mine involves asphalt.

I was twenty-one and immortal. Spring had morphed into summer, and the lingering sunlight stretched warm shadows late into the evening.

My friend Jim had driven his Mustang convertible to the quiet neighborhood where I lived with my parents. He backed his car to our garage, and then I crawled under the car’s rear and knotted the end of a rope to the bumper. I jumped up and dusted myself off, and then stepped back and gave the rope a yank. It would hold. I placed a foot on my skateboard, and then gave a nod to Jim.

“I’m set,” I said. “Take off when you’re ready.”

Jim made a thumbs-up sign and then put the car in gear, letting it roll slowly down the driveway. There was a slight jerk as the slack in the rope vanished, and then we were off, ‘skate-skiing’ through the backstreets of Dayton, Ohio.

I had thought that, if there were ever a problem with this ‘skate-skiing,’ I would simply ‘tuck and roll’ as I aimed for the grass on the curb. But I had not accounted for centrifugal force and a pothole.

We were doing about 25 miles per hour when we came to the curve. I crouched, bending at my knees, pretending I was a professional. (Are there such professional idiots?) I swung out to the left of the car in a sudden burst of speed. And then my skateboard found the pothole… …and stopped. I, however, did not.

Suddenly, I found myself doing a headfirst dive at the asphalt with my arms stretched above my head. I have a vivid mental snapshot tucked into my brain of the road rushing to meet my face. I see the cracks and the pebbles and the tiny bits of glass. It’s just a picture; it’s not a movie; so I don’t see myself hitting the pavement. But I still feel a shudder of horror every time I allow that picture to enter my thoughts.

My next memory is of slowly coming to consciousness in a hospital’s intensive care unit. It’s a vague memory, as my skull fracture had created both a short-term memory problem and a strange temporal displacement placing me about a year back in terms of longterm memory.

As if recalling a dream, I can remember only snatches of my stay in the hospital — trying to call an old girlfriend I had forgotten I had broken up with, getting lost on the way to the bathroom, and chatting haphazardly at my semi-comatose roommate. But I do remember vividly one discussion I had with the neurosurgeon.

He was an odd-looking little man, balding, with large ears and a poorly tied bowtie. He stepped briskly to my bed, glanced at the chart, and then reached down and pulled the bandage from my forehead. He peered at my forehead for a few seconds, and then he said, “You’re going to have quite a scar, young man.”

In the vanity of youth, I considered this the worst possible news I could hear. “A scar,” I cried, “A scar! No, no, I can’t have a scar.”

And despite the lecture from the doctor on how lucky I was to be alive, I couldn’t let it go. “Isn’t there something you can do?” I begged. “Isn’t there any way to avoid a scar?”

He hesitated. I could tell he was annoyed. But then he said, “Well, if, somehow, you were able to keep a saline-soaked piece of gauze on the wound until it healed, you probably wouldn’t have a scar. The new skin would form without forming a scab first.” He turned to go. “But that won’t be easy,” he added. “You’ll have to keep it wet 24-hours a day.” And he left.

As you can guess, with a skull fracture and a three-minute short-term memory span, remembering to soak a piece of gauze every hour around the clock wasn’t going to happen. Enter, my mother

She had also heard what the neurosurgeon had said, and she took it upon herself to soak that gauze 24/7 until my forehead healed. At the time, I did not appreciate what she did. I only have vague memories of her changing that dressing, and it was months before I fully grasped how close to death and permanent disfigurement I had come. Today, I have no scar.

This year, as Mother’s Day approaches, I remembered this episode in my life. To me, my mother’s actions expressed, in many ways and at many levels, what the ‘ideal’ mother does for her children. There is no doubt that the reason for my accident was my own stupidity. My parents had taught me better, but I chose to ignore their advice. But I never remember my mother castigating me at the time for my ‘skateskiing.’ What I do remember is that my mother accepted me as I was, and sought then to prevent my injuries from becoming permanent scars.

Children do stupid things, and no mother is able to foresee every circumstance that will injure her child. What I want to applaud today is that spirit of motherhood that embraces an injured child where he or she is, whether that injury is physical, emotional, or spiritual, and that provides the nurturing care that then seeks to prevent those injuries from becoming permanent disabilities. In other words, today, I want to applaud those mothers who seek the wellbeing of their children. I want to applaud their love. So, let’s hear it for the moms!