Saturday, August 30, 2008

Eskimos and Promises

So I had a post all written about my immediate reaction to Barack Obama’s speech outside in Denver. And then John McCain defied all speculation and experts and in a frenzy that made some of the major political journalism stations look like imbeciles, he selects the little known Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, as his running mate. And now I have a hundred other comments I want to make. I am excited and I don’t know why – I don’t know Sarah Palin from Eve. The reason I think I am excited, though, is that the main premise of my initial reaction at the close of the Democratic Convention was confirmed and defended by the selection of Mrs. Palin to run alongside Mr. McCain. Read this article PLEASE. And for the record, the more you read about her the more you discover she might just be a beautiful, virtuous, Alaskan bad ass. And those are not a dime a dozen. Time will tell.

The next several weeks will be very interesting. All the stereotypes about age, race, and gender that have swirled uncontrollably throughout this whole election process are now almost equally confused on both sides, and to me that is an awesome mess. Which ticket is older in total years? Who has more “experience”, Barack Obama or Sarah Palin? Who has the more foreign policy credibility, John McCain or Joe Biden? Which is worse (or better, or more historic), to have a woman or an African-American on the ticket? Who are the two running for President again, and who are the two extremely intriguing Vice President candidates? Wait, who's spouse is an actual Eskimo?

It’s all very exciting. I personally would rather see cage fights than debates. Biden vs. McCain and Obama vs. Palin, instead of the other logical combinations. Would Obama punch Palin square in the face, or fight her like a gentleman? What if she took her glasses off? Would Biden go for McCain’s disabled arm? But even if they settle for debates, what the heck is Biden going to say to Palin? How is that exchange going to look? Biden: "She has no experience and has ridiculously aggressive views on energy policy, but I don't really want to get into to all that because I'm attracted to her and scared to death of her at the same time, and that weirds me out a little." I digress.

Following is my response to the wonder of Barack Obama and those inspired by him, originally written immediately following his speech on August 28, and slightly edited to take away the emotion that fades away after a few nights' sleep:

I just finished listening to Barack Obama’s nomination speech and I am restless. I didn’t take in all of the Democratic Convention, but I did see part of Michelle Obama’s speech on Monday, the entirety of Bill Clinton’s on Wednesday, and then tonight’s finale. What I have to say immediately following is... wow. Agree with him or not, John McCain has his work cut out for him in this election. Time to prove youth (and energy) is a state of mind, and that at 72 you also have a little hope and change to speak of that can rally a base. If not, could be game over.

I could probably dissect the speech (including tell you what I liked about it) and write something that would be beneficial to you and glorifying to God, but I don’t think I have the stomach. I could repeat what Chris Matthews (MSNBC) said right after the speech, and interpret what it means that a political pundit, who rarely lets his personal opinions leak out, was inspired and excited almost to tears by a man who has, by his own admission, the least qualifications for President in this country’s history. I could comment on Oprah Winfrey and her lack of eyelashes after Obama's words and energy. I could try to explain what it means for the country and the world, and even the kingdom of God, that an African-American man is not only in this position, but is excelling in it, and how it is possible for that reason alone that it might be God’s will for him to be the leader of the free world.

Instead I am stuck, by the leading of the Spirit of the Living God, on one issue. I don’t want to be a one issue voter, and think it is an ignorant stance. But the Spirit is pleading with me to stay the course, and lift up His name above all talk, hope, change, and whatever the politicians might be saying. In other words, even if I embraced every promise, every exclamation, even if I agreed on every policy, every anecdote, every criticism of McCain and the Bush Administration, every philosophy about economics or health care or foreign policy, even if I agreed with all of this (which by now I’m sure you could guess I don’t), I still couldn’t vote for Barack Obama. The reason is because he would defend a mother with an unwanted pregnancy without exception, but would chop to pieces a defenseless, innocent, human being created in the image of the God of the universe. That might not matter to some people, and might be a “small” issue in comparison to “big issues” like the economy and the war on terror, but it matters to me. I truly believe that if you harbor the attitude that this type of monstrosity is acceptable, or even an option, then there is no telling the horrors that you are ultimately capable of; in policy domestic, foreign, or otherwise. You may think that is an exaggeration.

Let me put this into perspective a little bit to help my heart be better understood for your benefit and for God’s glory. I wrote a post in June that I titled, It’s the Theology, Stupid, which explained that some issues are about God, and not at the mercy of our political opinions. I know that this will never be the outspoken attitude of a politician running for President, but I don’t really care about politicians. I care about God, and I feel some obligation to use the forum He has given me (this blog) to proclaim His holiness, humbly address our sinfulness, defend the Bible’s preeminence, and boldly declare the cross’s centrality to everything in creation (I’m not going to stop repeating that phrase, by the way.) And the holiness of God is mocked, the sinfulness of man is glorified (when it should be humbly accepted and lead us to repentance), the authority of the Bible is undermined, and the centrality of the Cross is forgotten in the murder of the unborn. Outside of that, nothing else really matters. By the grace of God, I will die on that hill.

Though I would be remiss to not mention at least one other “issue” from my It’s the Theology, Stupid post that I believe to be about God more than politics. The reason I feel strong about mentioning this is many in my camp, so to speak, of political opinion, tend to neglect it to our own destruction: I am talking about care for the poor. It is clear that Mr. Obama desires and intends to center much of his policy and his presidency on caring for those who can’t care for themselves, as most Democrats would. Those who criticize him in general need to be careful that in criticizing his policies, his celebrity, or his campaign, we must never give the impression that caring for the poor is not our priority as well; not just politically but spiritually. That some (including me) disagree with Mr. Obama on the best economical, political, and social way to do this, should take nothing away from our selfless focus on challenging social injustice and racial inequality, and caring for “the least of these.” God is not glorified in people and a political system that “fails to recognize and deal with the historical inequalities that left blacks floating in storage bins after Hurricane Katrina.” (York Moore)

Someday, I pray, we will have politicians who agree on priorities while they may disagree on policy. That, to me, would be the fulfillment of the American promise and the realization of a far greater promise yet. I'll close with the entire context of the Scripture from Hebrews that Mr. Obama borrowed and took out of context at the end of his speech:

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Is Sarcasm a Prophetic Function?

I guess probably, in the fullness of time, I had to link to this blog, so I figured I might as well get it over with. I don’t particularly feel good about it, nor do I “enjoy” it as I read it, like someone enjoys, say, a movie, or a good book, because of the indescribable weirdness and familiarity you get as you become convinced you’re not the only one thinking or wondering about something. But I think maybe God can be and is glorified through it, so I am linking to it. Warning: don’t open it at work, you might get fired. Not because the content is inappropriate but because you won’t stop reading it and forget you have a job and before you know it the job will be gone. I don’t wish that for you.

Examples of posts on this blog:

Subtly finding out if you drink beer too

The Prayer Ninja

Hand Raising Worship – the 10 Styles

Jessica Simpson - Should we take her back?

The Super Hero Guide to Famous Pastors - 1
The Super Hero Guide to Famous Pastors - 2

Missionary family photos

You get the idea. I could go all day.

If God is sovereign, and involved and active in the details of our life, then those strange thoughts or questions we all have about certain aspects of the Christian culture are not unique to us, nor inappropriate and sinful any more than our nature is sinful and deceitful above all things, nor are they altogether pointless, perhaps. I don’t think they can be simply explained by the possibility that God has a sense of humor, though that may be true. It could be more than that – like maybe God works profoundly through humor to save sinners, encourage saints, and bring glory to His name. I believe that, and believe that Christianity is not so boring, traditional, or bland that we Christians can’t have a little fun and perhaps make legitimate observations about church and life that are a little sarcastic while still pointing ourselves and others closer to Jesus.

Mark Driscoll once said, “I think irony and sarcasm is a prophetic function that is greatly overlooked in Scripture.” Though the tone of this statement was itself a bit sarcastic, it is still in many ways well said. But even Driscoll would not discount the importance of humility and cultural sensitivity within the Body of Christ, as our diversity and differences bring glory to God. And I mean to be careful that such humor or sarcasm would not lead others to stumble in the areas of pride, gossip, or unwholesome talk, but that it would bring about a certain level of laughter and understanding that in the end, sometimes the things we do and the ways we interact as Church, is a little silly and representative of us as sinful, imperfect human beings. I think realizing that should actually destroy our pride, rather than puff it up. And God is still more holy and we are still more sinful and the cross is still more necessary and central than we could imagine.

As the author of this blog says, if you worry that such observations about communion, missions, worship, relationships, etc. will ruin, or taint, your experience of them, then you are silly, and your real problem is not the observations but your overall communion with Triune God. In other words, authentic communion with God through prayer, worship, church, and all the rest is not distracted by anything. Get a fresh does of John Owen and you will be fine. The God of the universe transcends and is sovereign over humor, awkwardness, and even sarcasm, yet He is willing and able to use them and be glorified through them. And this is strange and wonderful beyond measure.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

The World is Not Enough

In light of the Olympics, which regrettably I've been mostly unable to watch (what's with the time difference?), and out of general curiosity, I've picked up my reading of the intelligent, yet extremely secular, publication The Economist. Simultaneously, I've been encouraged and convicted through participation in the Global Prayer Challenge, a daily prayer resource put together by Operation World, that I was introduced to by a friend, through, of all things, Facebook. I don't believe its a coincidence that the hardly known country Mauritania was the Pray Today country (which is alphabetical) the same week that a military coup overthrew the established government and caused further instability to a continent plagued with it.

I'd like to invite you to check out any of these things (the Olympics, The Economist, Operation World) if you haven't already and let your world get a little bigger. Our generation is hopelessly secluded and enslaved to things and a culture that in retrospect will be but a fleeting fantasy, and my intention, only by the daily grace of God, is to not be a part of it, save from the influence I can perhaps have to the glory of God. For a balanced Christian perspective on many of the same stories and happenings around the world, I will always recommend the wonders of Christianity Today.

More to come.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Bears and the Glory of God

A friend of mine (who is probably reading this post), and who is an admitted agnostic, and who has the most dry (and refreshing) sense of humor in the history of humor, recently referenced the following passage on his facebook profile:

From there Elisha went up to Bethel. As he was walking along the road, some youths came out of the town and jeered at him. "Go on up, you baldhead!" they said. "Go on up, you baldhead!" He turned around, looked at them and called down a curse on them in the name of the LORD. Then two bears (“she bears” in the King James Version) came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the youths. And he went on to Mount Carmel and from there returned to Samaria.
2 Kings 2:23-25

As you might have guessed, this gives me something to write about. And with the help of God Almighty, I will strive with all of my being to offer words with an appropriate combination of grace and truth.

Truly, this is a passage that would make anyone curious; whether a lifelong devout Christian or an outspoken unbeliever. Two bears jumped out of the woods and mauled 42 children for calling a man a name?? Really? Where was God? What kind of loving God is that? Children?? Not to mention the fact that we feel guilty ourselves because when we first read it, it conjures up a good chuckle. And it shouldn’t be funny – children being mauled, I mean.

To be fair, we should dig into the passage a little, and begin to see that words like “baldhead”, “youths”, “LORD”, and even “bears” does not mean what it would first appear. And, to repeat a phrase I used to summarize the nature of the popular book, The Shack, let me say again, in reference to our culture in general, that God is more holy, we are more sinful, the Bible is more preeminent, and the cross is more central (and shocking and appalling and glorious), than we could ever possibly imagine. I think this passage, among other things, makes us realize this concept in a way that alters our perspective more towards Christ, and helps us understand reality a lot better than if we never had read it. In other words, this passage (like the entire Bible) is true, and helpful – but only if we understand what it really says and what it really means, in the larger context of 2 Kings, the Old Testament, the entire Bible, and the eternal story and history of redemption.

So what in the heck does this passage mean? Well, for starters, nothing by itself. It finds itself though, at the beginning of the Second Book of Kings, tracing the stories of the Prophets Elijah and Elisha and the history of both kingdoms, Israel and Judah, before their final conquest. As was common in the Old Testament, God is speaking through Prophets who urge the people to turn away from idols and repent, much as we need to do even today. For us, not idols in the form of figurines or golden animals or abstract deities, but more likely in the form of materialism, wealth, and the American dream. We are crazy to think this passage, the Old Testament, and the entire Bible is not shockingly relevant to our lives. Anyway, Elijah was a great Prophet at this time, and was widely recognized as having the Spirit of the LORD. Chapter 2 in 2 Kings starts out with the miraculous event where Elijah is taken up to heaven in a whirlwind with the company of chariots and horses of fire, among several witnesses. You may recall that a scene like this does not happen again until the Ascension of Jesus Christ. Elisha, then, becomes the successor to Elijah as a Prophet and spokesperson for God, and he from the beginning of his commission is seen to also possess the Spirit of the LORD. Right before the strange passage in question, Elisha heals, or purifies, the water in the city saving many from death and increasing the productivity of the land.

The passage in question is the second miracle performed by Elisha, this time, as opposed to one of blessing to the needy, it is one of judgment to those who disrespect the one true God.

For the record, when you start to look at passages like this, it is really remarkable how much meaning and significance is packed in such few words of text. It is not boring. If you’re reading this while watching TV or perhaps working on a spreadsheet, I would wager that it is much more fulfilling and exciting than those things. My concern that this is boring and few are reading it is small compared to my confidence that God speaks through His word to the everlasting joy of His people. I’m humbled to think that may be happening right now.

To explain the bears and the mauling, I’ll let commentator Dr. Thomas Constable help me: “Bethel was a center of idolatry in Israel, one of the golden calf sites. Evidently Elisha's approach triggered a mass demonstration against him by many young men. The Hebrew word na'ar translated "lads" in 2:23 describes young men, not boys, in many other places in the Old Testament. "Baldhead" was and is a term of disrespect. The idolaters challenged Elisha to "go up" to heaven as Elijah had done if Elisha could. These youths were typical of a nation that "mocked the messengers of God, despised His words and scoffed at his prophets" (2 Chron. 36:16). Not motivated by personal pride but by a desire for God's glory, Elisha pronounced God's curse on them for their disrespect for His prophet and Himself. As before, God used wild animals to judge the rebels (1 Kings 13:24). Wild bears were common in ancient Israel. These early miracles identified Elisha as God's spokesman who possessed His power to bless or to curse.”

So “baldhead” does not simply mean a man with no hair, “youths” do not simply mean young, innocent children, “LORD” does not mean anything less than the one true God, and “bears” do not mean just animals, but a force of nature used by God for righteous judgment. Does that help?
The miracle of blessing was especially significant because it was not only a physical miracle of healing and restoration to the people and the land, but also it served as spiritual refreshment and fertility to a people who were suffering from apostasy, or the turning away from God (which was common). I’ll let Dr. Thomas Constable help me with the exposition here also: “Elisha was a new vessel in God's hand similar to the new jar he requested. Salt seemed like the worst thing to add to brackish water to make it pure just as return to Yahweh must have appeared to be a backward step to many idolatrous Israelites. Nevertheless since salt is what God ordered it was effective. The use of salt may have symbolized a break with the past since this is what rubbing certain sacrifices with salt to sanctify them indicated. Yahweh, not Baal, could restore blessing and fertility to His people.” Elisha’s first miracle was one of blessing to the needy and humble.

The second miracle of judgment was especially significant not only because it snuffed out rebellious young men, but also because it showed the holiness of God, which the people mocked and undermined repeatedly; it showed the sinfulness of man, who after just witnessing the wonder and amazement of God himself calling Elijah into heaven with the dramatic scene of chariots, horses, and fire, moments later mocked the scene itself and disrespected a man of God, and jeered at him; it showed the necessity of something permanent to solve the endless rebellion of people and daily trading of the glory of God for “images”, and opened the door another crack to reveal the eternal plan of redemption. Elisha’s second miracle was one of judgment to the proud and arrogant people who disrespect and reject God Almighty.

So how does all this Bible talk translate into our world today and how can a story of bears mauling children possibly help me better understand reality? Well, put yourself in the shoes of the people of Israel at that time. Who do you more closely identify with? Perhaps you identify with the men of the city, who humbly strive to be productive in the land for the benefit of the people. You enthusiastically and faithfully carry out your work during the day, perhaps in meetings and at a computer, or with your hands, working hard to feed and provide for your family. And when you notice a need, you don’t automatically assume it will be fulfilled, but humbly ask for help. Maybe it’s a financially tight situation or a loved one who is sick, and you see that people are suffering and the land is unproductive. God is waiting to give you grace in such situations. He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

Or if you are honest with yourself, you might more closely identify with the young men, who after witnessing the glory of God, through nature, or a miracle, or through the person of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Bible and as you learned in Sunday school growing up, you trade that glory away, seek worldly things, suppress the truth, and might even mock those who proclaim it. You may not use the word “baldhead”, but maybe in your mind you jeer at those who speak about and for God. You resist the kind and gentle conversation in the break room at work, or you stubbornly doubt the impact and significance and necessity of God in your life, and turn away from the people He has put right in front of you who just want to heal your water and make you productive. Ready or not, and bears or no bears, God is preparing to incinerate those who deny His Son Jesus Christ, and trade His glory for temporal, selfish, fleeting pleasures. He opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.

So, this passage is relevant for us and it helps us understand reality because we are all either like the men of the city who humbly ask for help and healing from a condition we can not remedy ourselves, or we are like the young men, who scorn and deny and jeer and mock God by our actions or preoccupation with the things of this world, and because of our stubbornness and unrepentant heart we are storing up wrath for ourselves for the day of wrath, when His righteous judgment will be revealed. We approach the one true God of the universe with either humility or pride, and He will respond to us accordingly, and in either case will prove himself good and righteous and His glory will be revealed to the utmost. My reaction to this realization of reality is, to quote John Newton in Amazing Grace, “Although my memory is fading, I remember two things very clear: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.”