Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Musings from the Month

I have blogged a good deal less this month than the previous few. The transition into fall is always interesting. I have on the one hand been working on another web design project (which, to my annoyance, has stagnated through creative blocks, but hopefully will continue to come along soon), and on the other spending a great deal of time enjoying Halo: Reach. Most of my remaining writing-oriented time has been taken up with Pillar, whether actually writing or editing others' articles.

A few things I've been chewing on recently:

  • The necessity of the Holy Spirit in Bible study. I was reading Psalm 119 on Sunday (I'm working through it with a younger guy I'm meeting with) and a number of features caught my attention. Foremost, however, was that the author of the psalm repeatedly asks God for understanding and to be taught. This plea for instruction is the most topic with which the psalmist most frequently addresses God, at least so far in the psalm!

    So, here in a psalm which is filled with references to the author's delight in and love for God's commands, law, word, and way, are constant pleas for help in understand those very things. Striking, and convicting. I need to rely more thoroughly on God for wisdom as I approach his word. While I know that to be true, it's a good reminder.

  • The appropriateness of "personal relationship with Jesus" language, especially in the context of evangelism. [This one is still very much in the early phase of thinking about it, and so subject to immense revision.] While Scripture clearly speaks of our interactions with God in relational ways, and even goes so far as to affirm that eternal life consists of knowing Him (John 17:3), I find it interesting that none of the evangelism (or any other discussion, for that matter) in the New Testament comes anywhere close to using this phrase.

    While restored fellowship with God is occasionally in view, the primary ways that the New Testament writers speak of the good news is in reference to the Messiah who has come and given himself in payment for our sins. The call the apostles offered was not, "Come have a personal relationship with Jesus," but rather "Repent and believe; call on the name of the Lord and be saved!" Even in the discussions of sanctification, the relational aspects of the restoration are rarely the focus—whereas faith and the Spirit's active work are.

    I am not suggesting that we drop this language entirely. I think it is biblical in much the same way that the word "Trinity" is: that is, it depicts something that is true in Scripture in an accurate way, despite being external to Scripture itself. However, I am pondering whether it is the most helpful way of describing conversion and all it entails to nonbelievers, and whether it should remain our primary means of characterizing the Christian walk.

    What do you think?

  • One can learn a lot of things from a book that have nothing to do with the point of the book. This has come at me from two very different angles: one, the massive and incredibly important The Resurrection of the Son of God, by N. T. Wright, and Joyce Meyer's The Confident Woman. The two books could not possibly be more different, on any level. The first is a massive, scholarly treatment of its topic, while the second is a brief, popular treatment of its. Wright is (at least in this area) thoroughly orthodox, while Meyer is heterodox throughout.

    What have I learned from each, then? From The Confident Woman, I learned a great deal about communicating the faults of a book and a writer graciously. No doubt I still have much more to learn, but I spent hours wrestling through my review of the book, striving to be gentle, courteous, and kind while being sufficiently firm with her myriad errors. From The Resurrection of the Son of God, I have learned a great deal about exegesis and exposition of Scripture. Wright does a masterful job of situating passages in the context of their author, and authors in the context of their cultures. (I am aware he sometimes argues for positions outside historic Protestant orthodoxy in other books; here he is on so foundational a point that his arguments are profitable to everyone.) In turn I have been able to start doing the same in my own study of Scripture—most notably in my final treatment of alcohol in the series I wrote at Pillar.

    From both, I learned perseverance: from Wright's book because it is simply long; from Meyer's book because it is simply bad.

I have of course also continued to learn a great deal simply from being married to my beautiful wife—not least that I still tend toward arrogance and unteachability. God graciously points out our folly and our sin consistently; where I would be without His sanctifying work I can only imagine.

Grace and peace be with anyone reading! If you are reading, do me a favor and leave a comment to say hello. Sometimes it's nice to know that people are actually reading.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Real Worship Songs: You Alone Can Rescue

My favorite worship songs are those that focus on God. There are plenty of good, worshipful songs that include many references to us and our love of God, and indeed many of the Psalms are structured just that way. Nonetheless, my favorites are those that are wholly devoted to proclaiming God's greatness. The best of these are those that are directed toward God himself. While many songs declare God's goodness, most of those are statements about God rather than statements to God.

Songs that combine theological depth, a Godward orientation, and are directed in praise directly to God, are rare enough that I delight to find them. Add in musical excellence, and the result is a recipe for giddiness in me.

In the past few years, Matt Redman has had a penchant for penning these songs—more than perhaps any other modern songwriter. His consistent attention to theological details and his persistent work at improving his musicality has brought him a long way from "The Happy Song" or "Better is One Day." (I'm not bashing on either—but he's come a long way since then, especially musically. Obviously it's hard to beat Better is One Day for lyrical content, since it's pulled from one of the Psalms!)

One of his newest is "You Alone Can Rescue." Many of you may have already heard it, as it was featured on this year's Passion album. It's worth listening to again. The song is a simple, sweet meditation on God's salvation in our lives in the face of all our futility. Enjoy.


Verse 1
Who, oh Lord, could save themselves,
Their own soul could heal?
Our shame was deeper than the sea
Your grace is deeper still

repeat Verse 1

Chorus 1
You alone can rescue, You alone can save
You alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us, led us out of death
To You alone belongs the highest praise

Verse 2
You, oh Lord, have made a way
The great divide You heal
For when our hearts were far away
Your love went further still
Yes, your love goes further still

Chorus 2
You alone can rescue, You alone can save
You alone can lift us from the grave
You came down to find us, led us out of death
To You alone belongs the highest praise
To You alone belongs the highest praise
To You alone belongs the highest praise
You alone

We lift up our eyes, lift up our eyes
You’re the Giver of Life

repeat 8x

repeat Chorus 2

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Getting Real with Bible Study

An important principle has jumped out at me time and again in recent months: context is air in studying Scripture. People need more than air to breathe to stay alive, but without air, life is impossible. You need context to understand Scripture—and other things as well, but without context, you don't understand the passages at all.

This point has been made often, but perhaps not as thoroughly as it needs to be. People have a bad (however natural) tendency to think that examining the context means reading the verses immediately preceding and following the verse studied. That's a good start, and far better than reading the verse without those surrounding it. It simply doesn't go far enough.

A recent post on Evangel helped crystallize this thought for me. Sarah Flashing was spending a little time and thought critiquing some of Beth Moore's approach to Scripture, and noted, "Beth does not explain the meaning of the passage as derived from the context, she reads the passage in isolation, an elementary Bible study error" (emphasis in the original). That's precisely the issue I've observed in the little of Moore's writing I've read, and more importantly, it's also one of the biggest blunders I see Christians (and Christian teachers!) making.

Around the same time, I was writing the last article in my series on alcohol at Pillar. The first two articles were relatively straightforward: one was a quick summary of Scripture's teaching on alcohol, and one was a rebuttal of a common but very flawed argument against consuming alcohol. The last article, Tripping People With Beer, took me hours longer than the first two. I had to work my way carefully through four chapters of dense, Pauline reasoning on general Christian liberty mingled with his own apostolic actions. I had to get his argument as a whole before I could begin to tackle just a few short verses.

The answer to the questions raised by 1 Corinthians 8:9-13 (should we always abstain from anything that might make our brother stumble?) don't get totally answered until 1 Corinthians 10:25-31. The two chapters in between are a mix of Paul's exhortation to the Corinthian church to serve one another and his own example of sacrificing to serve others. Without following the argument all the way through, you might be inclined to think that Paul was urging the Corinthians to permanently forsake meat and many other freedoms. Without considering that Paul's statement at the end of chapter 8 that he will never eat meat is a transition into his lengthier discussion throughout chapter 9 of the way he forsook his own prerogatives to serve them, one would think he was suggesting it sinful for others not to follow his example.

But in tracing through his thoughts, it becomes clear that Paul was defending his own apostolic work without condemning the other apostles or the Corinthians. His final, resounding conclusion is that whether people eat or drink or whatever they do, to glorify God—proclaiming their freedom loudly immediately after he has spent two chapters tempering it with the need to serve others. In other words, the context—the whole, broad context, not simply the few immediately surrounding verses—informs our understanding of a few specific words. We cannot understand the part without having at least some grasp on the whole.

This has fairly radical implications for how we ought to expect preachers to handle Scripture. It has equally important ramifications for our Scripture study. We cannot simply approach the text, grab a verse and maybe the verses immediately above and below it, and assume we understand the point fully. We need to look at the entirety of the context.

Obviously, that's a lot of work. I am not suggesting that every time we sit down to read the Bible, we read an entire book. In some cases, that would be frustrating—in others (I'm looking at you, Jeremiah) it would be entirely impossible. However, I think it is important that as we study the Scriptures over time, we make a point to read as much as possible. Plans that take us through the whole Bible in a year are a great tool for helping grasp the greater flow of the Bible. (I know of a few that take you through even faster; Tim Challies recently referenced one that covers the whole Bible multiple times in a year, for example.) Then, when we do sit down to study particular chunks of Scripture, it is helpful to familiarize ourselves with the full context. That has two applications.

First, whenever I sit down to study, it's usually a book. Instead of just grabbing random places to read at any given time, I pick a book and go. I'll start by reading the whole book, front to back, to get as good a handle on the flow as I can. Then I start taking it in smaller chunks. The size of the chunk depends on the book in question. Narratives, for example, beg to be read large chunks at a time, while Paul's letters might demands that I slow down and tackle a sentence at a time. Doing this allows me to slowly pull apart the connections in a book. (Look at the various ways that "appearing" happens in Titus, for example. It's pretty interesting.)

Second, if I'm only planning to study a particular passage, I will read as much of the book around it as possible to familiarize myself. For example, when I was tackling 1 Corinthians for my alcohol posts, I actually skimmed the whole book, which is part of what took so long. Then, I try to ignore verse and chapter breaks. One handy way to accomplish that is to use a tool like esv.org, where you can disable verse and chapter markings. I read sentences, then the surrounding paragraphs, then the surrounding arguments, and finally the whole book (except for the Psalms, where the flow caps at the top of the psalm, at least for me). If possible, I try to understand the passage in the broad flow of all of Scripture. (To be honest, that's often beyond me, but I try when I'm on my game.) This is what II d in dealing with the Pauline passages on surrendering one's freedom for others.

So that's the practical. Returning again to the reason for writing the post: why does this matter? First, it matters because if we don't take the time to work at Scripture, we miss much of what it has to say. God certainly can and does speak to us even as we simply skim along the surface. But there is a great deal more to be had. Second, it matters because if we don't study carefully, we'll flat out misinterpret even more than we missed—or be led astray by those who have misinterpreted it themselves. We can hardly be faithful listeners if we cannot hold our teachers accountable to teach the word correctly. (That's also an argument for clarity of teaching—anyone who intentionally obfuscates Scripture is dangerous, as is anyone who acts like Scripture is generally too difficult for anyone but trained theologians to understand. It isn't.)

I challenge you, even as I challenge myself, to step it up in this area. Wherever you're at, go a little bit farther along. If you're still in the grab-one-verse-and-apply-it-to-my-life-immediately phase, that's okay. Try stepping out in your perspective a bit and see how the sentences around that one help explain it. If you're already doing that, start trying to grasp paragraphs at a time. If you're there, start trying to wrap your head around whole arguments, and maybe even whole books. Wherever you're at, seek to be more faithful with the text. In so doing, you'll see God more clearly. Since eternal life is knowing God (John 17:3), you couldn't have a better goal.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Letter to a Homeless Man

Dear sir,

I apologize: I do not know your name, or almost anything else about you. I know you were walking. I know you were tired, hot, and alone. I know you were hungry, that you wanted money for food, not beer. I know you were homeless.

I got you a meal, tried to point your thanks to where they belong, to the one who gave everything for me, gave everything I have to me. I am glad I fed you lunch today. But I wanted to do more. I wanted then and I wish now that there was more I could have done—that somehow I could have been more a debit card swipe, more than some well-made rice and shrimp. (I hope that plate was as good as it looked.)

I wish I could have helped you more.

Jesus told us that if anyone asked something of us, we should give it. I have wondered, over the last few years, what that looks like—whether I should keep cash with me to give to people who ask, or whether I should buy them what they claim they need, or whether I should stop at all. You made it easy: you just wanted some food. I could give you that.

But I wondered as I sat down to eat my own meal with family a few minutes later: will you have food to eat tonight? Or will you be trying to use your two dollars—those meager two dollars, too little for a meal—to buy some more sustenance on your trek to somewhere unknown? Do you know where you are going? Do you have any hope at all, or are you just trying to survive another day?

I wish I could have helped you more.

But I don't know you, I don't have your name, you don't have my number, and even as I sat with those unshed tears in my eyes, you walked out of the restaurant and out of my reach. I moved on, ate my meal, laughed at my father-in-law's jokes, and could not forget the sorrow in your eyes or the depths of your gratitude for a meal that cost $7.05. Less than an hour at minimum wage. But I spoke with you, and I think I understand. What jobs can you get? Where will take you, and more than that: where will keep you?

We have left you alone, wandering through this life like you are wandering through Fort Worth, on your own.

Do you know that there is hope beyond the prison bars of this life? Do you know that there is one who can help you more than I ever could, who loves you, who died to take your sins and give you life? Do you know him?

Should I have somehow told you more? Should I have sat with you as you ate? Should I have found you a way to where you were going? Should I have done more?

I don't have the answers. But I know yours is the face I will remember as I keep chewing on this thorny problem in front of all of us. Yours is the face I will see when I hear politicians use the homeless as a talking point, when people talk about poverty in America, when discussion flares about starvation. You are a person, not a statistic, talking point, or problem. Yours is the face of the downtrodden and lonely ones that Jesus came to save.

However poorly I showed it, I saw for just a moment His love for you (and even, a little, his love for me: as poor compared to Him as you are). The feeling will fade, but I will remember.

I hope you get where you were going, and I pray that someone feeds you more along the way.

I wish I could have helped you more.