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Happy Thanksgiving

I’m thankful for

  • The love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
  • A loving, longsuffering wife
  • A brilliant, happy, healthy ten-year-old daughter
  • Freedom to practice my faith without anybody looking over my shoulder
  • The King James Version of the Bible
  • The Screwtape Letters
  • A warm house with a full refrigerator
  • Parents who care, help, and advise without being pushy
  • A job where I’m appreciated
  • Ray Charles
  • A church where I’m both challenged and comforted
  • The Proto-Sinaitic alphabet
  • Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili
  • The unforgettable experience of celebrating a Baptist Eucharist that involved vestments, chant, and real wine in a golden chalice
  • Writers who help me see Scripture in different ways
  • Interstate 75 (except around Atlanta)
  • The Charlie Brown Christmas Special
  • The Mercer University Children’s Choir
  • Two arms, two legs, and all five senses
  • The Internet
  • Students who indulge me by laughing at my jokes
  • Bedtime stories
  • Socks

What are you thankful for?

Random Thought

Jesus’ enemies denounced him as a friend of sinners. He never denied the charge. In fact he augmented it: “I’ve come for people who are sick, not those who are healthy.”

It seems to me we do a disservice to Jesus and diminish the amazingness of grace when we take sin out of this equation. Yes, Jesus was a friend of folks who couldn’t keep up with all the religious rules, people who were mistreated and scorned by the hyper-scrupulous majority, people who were deemed “sick” because of factors beyond their control.

But Jesus was also a friend of adulterers, prostitutes, tax cheats, insurrectionists, and pagan idolators (like the centurion). At least once, after pouring out his unmerited, compassionate grace upon one such person, he said, “Go, and sin no more.”

It’s relatively easy to befriend misunderstood minorities or oppressed people, especially if you’ve been a victim of oppression, too. But to acknowledge that someone is destroying his or her soul through immoral behavior, to see the brokenness of their lives (whether we prefer to call it addiction, compulsive behavior, or simple depravity) and then turn around and love them unconditionally anyway? I’m not sure we have the courage or the creativity to do that. At least, I’m not entirely sure that I do.

Kyrie eleison.

Columbus Day Reading: The People and the Black Book

Whatever else you do this Columbus Day, please read this column by Mark Buchanan. Please.

“It must be hard for you,” I said to the First Nations people, “to believe that salvation has come to my house when I refuse to repent of behavior that’s harmed you deeply. It must be hard to believe the Bible and its Good News when white people have had it for so long but don’t seem any better for it.”

Thought for the Day (if not the Millennium)

I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants  and—brace yourself—painfully amateur “special music” now and then.

Why?

Well, for one thing, when the Gospel story is accompanied by a fog machine and light show, I always get this creeped-out feeling like someone’s trying to sell me something. It’s as though we’re all compensating for the fact that Christianity’s not good enough to stand on its own so we’re adding snacks.

But more importantly, I want to be part of an uncool church because I want to be part of a community that shares the reputation of Jesus. Like it or not, Jesus’ favorite people in the world were not cool. They were mostly sinners, misfits, outcasts, weirdos, poor people, sick people and crazy people.

Think on these things.

The Scandal of the Evangelical Imagination

From Brandon O’Brien at Out of Ur:

I don’t mean that evangelicals produce bad art (although we do), and I’m not issuing a call for more sophisticated creative engagement with culture (though we need one). Imagination is broader than that. The dictionary defines imagination as “the faculty or action of forming new ideas,” or “images or concepts of external objects not present to the senses.” This has to do with faith at its core. We are accustomed to trusting our senses to tell us what is true. But imagination offers a broader perspective on truth. If imagination is the capacity to visualize, and be confident in a reality, even if it contradicts our experience, then it refuses to let our senses determine the limits of what is possible. Faith requires us to envision and inhabit a world that we cannot perceive with our senses–a world where an invisible God lovingly maintains his creation, where the Son of God can become a human child, can die on a cross to save sinners, and be seated at the right hand of God in glory.

I’m Going to Give Johnny Cash the Last Word on Harold Camping

As much as I usually resist it, I find there’s still a lot of Bell County, Kentucky in my spiritual pilgrimage. So here’s to Southern gospel music, heart-felt religion, the hope of heaven, and good old fashioned meat-and-potatoes spirituality.

Now, off to church. The faithful gathered in Jesus’ name, the word of God proclaimed, the bread and the cup: Rapture!

To Disillusioned Followers of Harold Camping

Dear Fellow Believers in Jesus Christ,

I had intended to hold back this post until tomorrow morning, but since Family Radio agreed to concede defeat if nothing happened by midnight Jerusalem time (about half an hour ago, if I’m not mistaken), I thought it was worth it to go ahead and click “Publish.”

Since I do not share your particular theology, it may not surprise you that I was still here to post this the morning after the rapture was supposed to take place. Many of you, however, may be surprised that you are here to read it. In fact, you may be experiencing a great number of emotions right now:

You may be surprised or confused that the rapture did not take place.

You may be panicked by the thought that there really was a rapture, but you’ve missed it. (Don’t worry; you haven’t.)

You may feel silly or embarrassed because of all the people you told that yesterday was going to be the day.

You may be fearful or anxious because you have quit your jobs or maxed out your credit cards, assuming that you would not be here to deal with the consequences.

You may be heartbroken and remorseful over what all of this has done to your family or your church.

You may be relieved because, deep down, you hoped for a little more time to pursue earthly goals related to education, travel, romance, rearing children, or whatever.

You may feel angry that you have been duped by a religious leader who turns out not to have known what he was talking about. Perhaps you are even angry with yourself for being so gullible.

You may feel God has lied to you or even doubt that God exits.

I’m not going to tell you what to feel any more than I would tell mourners at a funeral home what to feel. It’s okay to be angry. It’s okay to be afraid. It’s okay to doubt.

If you’ll let me, however, there are a few things I would like to tell you. I would consider it an honor if I were to have some small part in helping you sort out what you are feeling today and how you can move forward.

I’d like to tell you that you can trust God.

Maybe you got caught up in the rapture hysteria because you craved certainty in life. That is a powerful motivator! Lots of religious movements have begun because people have wanted to have things pinned down and settled. I understand the desire to know accurately what God has said. I desire it, too.

There is nothing in the world wrong with wanting clear answers. But my sense is that if we dig deep enough we would see that often this desire is the product of questions related to trust. Can I trust God? Can I trust what God has said in Scripture? Even a little bit of insecurity on those questions can create great anxiety for some believers. The next thing you know, we’ve built up whole systems of theology to ensure we’ve nailed everything down. More often than not, what we’ve built is a house of cards. Disturb one piece and the whole thing falls apart.

I also wonder if there might be other things in your life over which you feel you have no control. Might the quest for certainty in this area be a way of coping with great uncertainties in other areas?

It’s not realistic to expect that God will answer all our questions. If he did, how would we ever learn to exercise faith? If God settled everything for us, how long would it be before our “faith” looked more like a math problem we had to solve and less like an organic relationship of love and community?

God wants us to know him. And God wants us to be certain—absolutely certain—of his love, grace, holiness, justice, compassion, and forgiveness. I’m not too sure God wants us to have all the details worked out too finely, however. So it’s not God’s fault when our systems crash. God didn’t let you down yesterday; Harold Camping did. I’m sure you know how to tell the difference!

In a different context, Jesus spoke about the priority of seeking first God’s kingdom and righteousness, and all the other things we are prone to worry about will take care of themselves. Let me encourage you to take that lesson to heart. Make it your priority to seek God and love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And if lesser things remain fuzzy, so be it.

Please don’t give up on God. God can be trusted, even when he is silent.

I’d like to tell you that you can trust God’s church.

I know, I know. The church has fallen into apostasy. It is wallowing in its own sin and has lost its moral and spiritual authority. The church is a mess—except when it isn’t.

If I may be so blunt, it wasn’t the mainstream of institutional Christianity that jumped on the false teaching of a May 21 rapture. You did that. The rest of us weren’t taken in. Would you like to know why? At least in part it was because we were connected to an interpretive community that was bigger than one man with a Bible and a calculator.

Eventually, you are going to have to own up to the fact that you have harmed the cause of Christ and made him a laughingstock. All those unbelievers who’ve been mocking you, whose sneers you’ve welcomed as proof that you were right? You’ve given them another reason to doubt that God even exists. You’ve made the job harder for the rest of us.

I know it will be hard after all you’ve said about us—and what some of us have said about you—but for the sake of your spiritual well being, you need to find your way to a church that is grounded in historic Christian teachings. No church is perfect, but it’s not that hard to find a congregation where Jesus is preached,  God’s people worship in Spirit and in truth, and  folks put the gospel into action by caring for their neighbors and practicing grace and forgiveness with one another. In churches like that, I find that discerning truth from error is much easier than when I try to seek God’s guidance by myself.

Since you have been taught that all contemporary churches were spiritually compromised, I assume you haven’t been going. You need to start back. I’m fully aware you may well be too too embarrassed to go back, but please do. You need a body of believers to keep you grounded and, whether either of you fully understand it right now, they need you. Most immediately, they need you so they can put into practice all that Jesus has taught about restoring an erring brother or sister.

By whatever path, I pray you eventually find yourself at home in a church full of Christ-loving people who help each other think clearly about the issues of life and eternity.

I’d like to tell you that you can grow in grace

As painful as the last few hours have probably been, those hours are now a part of your spiritual pilgrimage. They are part of who you are, both as a human being and as a Christian. It is possible to embrace those hours as you reflect on how you got to this point.

I expect you have already grown spiritually through this experience. You have learned some gut-level lessons about spiritual discernment that you might have never mastered in a Bible class. Hopefully, you’ll go forward in your Christian life with greater sensitivity to other believers who struggle with questions of certainty and doubt, or who long to have God’s truth spelled out for them in greater detail than God seems willing to provide, who are quick to find fault with this or that church or biblical interpretation, or who, frankly, have majored on minor points of theology and left undone the “weightier matters of the law.”

It is possible to accept these lessons as evidence of God’s continuing grace. In 1 Corinthians 1:4, Paul praises God for comforting us so that we may be able to comfort others with the same comfort God has given us. The Greek word translated “comfort” might also be translated “exhort” or “encourage.” I interpret this verse to mean that, as far as Paul is concerned, the church needs you. We need you to share your experience. We need you to exhort, encourage, and comfort those who are in danger of falling prey to the next false teacher who comes down the block. By God’s grace your experience, though painful now, will bestow a blessing on many.

So let me encourage you to be honest with yourself and your fellow believers in Christ. There’s no need to pretend you didn’t get swept up in the rapture hysteria. Find a small group of Christians whom you can trust, and live out your faith authentically among them, both the joys and the struggles. You’ll be surprised how many people you’ll be able to touch with your story.

Thank you for stopping by. God bless you.

Further Reading:

“Coming Out” as Christian

Here’s a thought worth pondering:

“It’s often harder for young people to come out as Christians than it would be for them to come out as gay,” she says. “Because of the vocal atheists – Dawkins and so on – people think your judgement is impaired if you say you’re Christian at work. The problem of serving two masters is at the heart of it. There’s a worry that Christians are up to something, that they’re loyal to something other than the firm.”

Two questions:

(1) For those who would know, is this a fair representation of what it’s like these days in London?

(2) When unbelievers figure out Christians should be “loyal to something other than the firm,” isn’t it perhaps time for Christians to follow suit?

A Case for Catechesis

The New Testament, particularly the book of Acts, indicates that the usual procedure in the first century was for recent converts to Christianity to be baptized first and then instructed in the Christian faith. By the second century (i.e., the Didache), the procedure was largely reversed. Teaching came first, and then one was baptized.

Why the change? Alan Kreider suggests four possible reasons. The words are his; the headers are mine:

1. Because Old Habits Die Hard

Contemporaries did not discuss it, at least in writing, but one scholar, Joseph Lynch, has proposed several reasons. Lynch has observed that Christianity’s earliest converts were primarily Jews or god-fearers who already shared in the Jewish heritage of story, morality and world-view; the second-century converts, in contrast, were ex-pagans who needed a far-reaching programme of instruction and resocialisation.

2. Because Bad Theology Must Be Addressed

Lynch has also hypothesised that a longer catechetical process as a precondition for baptism was a result of the theological disputes which were present in the second century.

3. Because the Church Has Enemies

A third reason, which Lynch did not mention, had to do with the need, in an age of persecution, of screening out possible spies and informers.

4. Because Discipleship Costs

A final possible reason is that pastoral experience indicated that the teachings of Jesus, which the movement was committed to incarnating and practising, were sufficiently strenuous as to require a process of resocialisation on the part of all would-be converts, Jew or Gentile.

(Alan Kreider, “Baptism, Catechism, and the Eclipse of Jesus’ Teaching in Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 47/2 [Nov 1996] 318).

What reasons for diligence in instructing new converts seem most convincing to you? Does it make more sense to give these instructions before or after baptism? In what should this instruction consist?

I’m thinking of this schema in light of a couple of things. First, I’m teaching my Sunday school’s Lenten series this year. We’re looking at some of the early catechetical texts Kreider mentions in his paper and how they lay out some of the building blocks of discipleship. I expect that for most members of my class, reason #4 is the most personally relevant. We are mainly folks who have been in church a good long time, and still feeling the need to hear again Jesus’ call to follow him—and to hear some encouragement and guidance on the journey.

Second, somebody told my wife the other day that a young person, formerly a member of my church, had since joined a different Baptist church in town. This second church apparently required their new member to be rebaptized. I can’t think of an interpretation of this requirement that doesn’t sound like a grave insult to the spiritual validity of the church of which I am a member. I can only assume this church’s thinking process included healthy doses of reason #2. (Not that it’s never appropriate to give folks a heads-up about some of the more off-the-wall interpretations of Christianity that are going around—a certain faith community in Kansas springs violently to mind.)

I expect reason #1 may eventually encroach on the post-Christian American church as mainstream cultural mores and the values of Christ drift further away from each other. To be sure, even in my grandparents’ day the church (on its better days) had its hands full confronting racism, materialism, pride, greed, envy, and other besetting sins. Unless I’m mistaken, however, they didn’t have too much trouble with society itself applauding the sexualization of children, drug abuse, or the crippling inability to admit that there ought to be community standards of any kind.

As for reason #3, I expect this is on the minds of many Christians in countries and regions where Christianity is actively opposed. I won’t comment other than to suggest that—perhaps with a few particular and highly localized exceptions—any Christian in the USA who laments that they are being persecuted does a disservice to millions of their fellow believers around the world who know what real persecution looks like.

Points to make? Rocks to throw?

Of Prostitutes and the Kingdom of God

“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.” (Mt 21:31-32)

A priest goes into a brothel…

Elder Pophyrios spoke of the following experience:

In the old days, during the feast of the Theophany, we used to sanctify homes. One year I also went to sanctify. I would knock on the doors of the apartments, they would open for me, and I walked in singing “In Jordan, You were baptized O Lord….”

As I went along the road called Maizonos, I saw an iron door. I opened it, walked into the courtyard which was full of tangerine, orange and lemon trees, and proceeded to the stairs. It was an outdoor staircase that went up, and down was the basement. I climbed the stairs, knocked on the door, and a lady appeared. Since she opened I began my common practice singing, “In Jordan, You were baptized O Lord….” She stopped me abruptly. Meanwhile, girls began to emerge from their rooms after hearing me from the left and right of the hallway. “I see that I fell into a brothel,” I said to myself. The woman walked in front of me to stop.

“Leave”, she told me. “It is not right for them to kiss the Cross. I will kiss the Cross and then you should leave, please.”

I took seriously her disapproving attitude and said: “I cannot leave! I am a priest, I cannot go! I came here to sanctify.”

“Yes, but it is not right for them to kiss the Cross.”

“But we don’t know if it is right for them or you to kiss the Cross. Because if God asks me for whom it is more right to kiss the Cross, the girls or you, I probably would say: ‘It is right for the girls to kiss and not you. Their souls are much better than yours.'”

With that she became a bit red in the face, so I said: “Leave the girls to come kiss the Cross.” I signalled for them to come forward. I began to chant more melodically than before: “In Jordan, You were baptized O Lord…” because I had such joy within me, that God had ordained things so that I may also come to these souls.

They all kissed the Cross. They were all made-up, with colorful skirts, etc. I told them: “My children, many years! God loves us all. He is very good and ‘allows the rain to fall on the righteous and the unrighteous’ (Matt. 5:45). He is the Father of everyone and God cares for everyone. Let us make sure to come to know Him and for us to also love Him and to become good. May you love Him, and then you will see how happy you will be.”

They looked at me, wondering. Something took a hold of their tired souls.

Lastly I told them: “I rejoice that God has made me worthy to come here today to sanctify you. Many years!”

“Many years!” they also said, and I left.

This story reminds me of Tony Campolo’s story about throwing a birthday party for Agnes the prostitute (listen starting at 7:52).

(H/T: Pseudo-Polymath)