February 21, 2006

Liturgical Change

Category: Theology - Liturgical :: Permalink

Wise words from James Jordan about changes in liturgy:

Truth does not take hold unless people see that the teacher lives sacrificially and lovingly with them. Just so, returning to powerful Scriptural worship is not going to happen as a result of reading essayletters or preaching alone. People will have confidence in making changes when they see that their leaders love them, and that their leaders live sacrificially among them (Theses on Worship, p. 46).

That’s the kind of thing pastors (like me) need to hear often and, all too often, learn slowly and usually by sad experience.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:38 pm | Discuss (0)
February 9, 2006

Secrets

Category: Miscellaneous :: Permalink

Wise advice from Patera Silk to his student Horn:

There are more important things to learn than swordfighting, Horn. Whom to fight, for example. One of them is to keep secrets. Someone who holds in confidence only those secrets he has been told not to reveal can never be trusted. Surely you understand that. — Gene Wolfe, Litany of the Long Sun, p. 282. 

Posted by John Barach @ 5:12 pm | Discuss (0)
February 8, 2006

Velvet Elvis

Category: Theology - Ecclesiology :: Permalink

Last week, I read Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith. Bell is the founding pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, which is one of the fastest growing churches in North America (as the blurb on the back of the book tells me). Bell himself, however, cautions against regarding himself as a superpastor. Indeed, he used to be and it nearly did him in (see chapter four).

Several aspects of the book are helpful. Bell compares doctrines to the springs on the trampoline and insists that, while it’s not wrong to talk about the springs, the point of the springs is to enable us to jump. For those of us who tend to identify being well-versed theologically with being mature as a Christian, that image may be disturbing but it may also be a good corrective.

Early in my pastorate, I probably tended to think that a desire to do in-depth Bible study and to read books on theology was a mark of spiritual maturity, and I had to learn that there are people who are very mature as Christians, very committed to following Jesus, who just don’t know a lot of theology and aren’t gifted in that way, but who can put many theologians to shame in terms of showing Christ-like love. To use Bell’s metaphor, they didn’t know a lot about springs, but they knew how to jump and they jumped well and joyfully.

Furthermore, Bell asserts, “I can jump and still have questions and doubts.” You don’t have to have everything figured out in order to jump, in order to follow Christ. It’s possible for the church to make it seem as if questions are out of place, but questions generally flow out of humility:

A question by its very nature acknowledges that the person asking the question does not have all of the answers. And because the person does not have all of the answers, they are looking outside of themselves for guidance (p. 30). 

And when we read the Bible — the Psalms, in particular — we find people asking God all kinds of questions. On the cross, Jesus Himself asks God a question (“Why have you forsaken me?”), all the while trusting Him. As Bell says,

Central to the Christian experience is the art of questioning God. Not belligerent, arrogant questions that have no respect for our maker, but naked, honest, vulnerable, raw questions, arising out of the awe that comes from engaging the living God (p. 31). 

And so, in order to make room for people to ask questions, Bell’s church held a Doubt Night, in which people wrote down the questions or doubts they had about God and Jesus and the Bible and the church and so forth, and collected them in a large box, leaving Bell in the end with pages and pages of questions that the people who attended that event were troubled by. That may sound strange, but wouldn’t it also be helpful for pastors to know, not just that their members show up on Sunday morning looking nice, but that their members struggle — and what they struggle with?

Other helpful moments in this book include Bell’s comments on art and the liturgy:

Somebody asked me the other day why our church doesn’t support the arts because we don’t have dramas and short-act plays in the services. I realized the question, as with almost every question, goes back to creation. I don’t believe something has to be in a church service to be “for God.” As if the only acting that is “for God” is acting in a church service…. If you are an actor, the goal isn’t for you to do your work in a church building in a church service. Please go wherever it is the world that people act and do it well. Really well. Throw yourself into it and give it everything you have (pp. 85-86). 

I also appreciated Bell’s insistence that we should not define ourselves as sinners when the Bible tells us that the old man has died and identifies us now as saints, sons of God, new creatures in Christ (pp. 138ff.). We need to let God define us and let what He “says about us shape what we believe about ourselves” (p. 142). I’m puzzled, though, as to why Bell would say, in the midst of this discussion, “This is why shame has no place whatsoever in the Christian experience” (p. 142). Why not? True, we who are in Christ and who confess our sins are forgiven. But when we fall into sin, shouldn’t we be ashamed of it and therefore repent of it, not least because our sin doesn’t accurately reflect who we are in Christ?

I am also appreciative of Bell’s openness to a Christological and typological reading of Scripture. For instance, he rightly sees the significance of Mary’s mistaking Jesus for “the gardener” in John 20: Jesus is a new Adam in the Garden, reversing the curse of death (pp. 156-157).

Mixed in with the good stuff, however, was a lot of stuff that wasn’t so good, stuff that struck me as strange or iffy or just plain wrong. I said above that there may be some value to Bell’s description of doctrine as the springs on the trampoline, not the point of the whole trampoline. But at times, I wasn’t clear which springs Bell thinks are non-negotiables (certainly not six-day creation and perhaps not the virgin birth either, p. 26).

Bell’s description of the origins of the doctrine of the Trinity (p. 22) is particularly weak (“God is one, but God has also revealed himself to us as Spirit and then as Jesus”). In one passage, it sounds as if he’s saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection has accomplished forgiveness and reconciliation for everyone:

Heaven is full of forgiven people. 

Hell is full of forgiven people.

Heaven is full of people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

Hell is full of forgiven people God loves, whom Jesus died for.

The difference is how we choose to live, which story we choose to live in, which version of reality we trust.

Ours or God’s (p. 146).

What does it mean to say that the people in hell are forgiven, especially given that forgiveness (as Bell has been insisting) implies reconciliation? Suppose my daughter sins and I tell her that I forgive her, but then I tell her she has to leave the house, can’t sit at my dinner table, won’t ever be hugged by me again, and so forth. Would you believe that I had really forgiven her? Would you still say that our relationship has been restored? Bell’s statements here are equally puzzling to me.

I also have lots of questions about Bell’s use of rabbinical and other extra-textual sources in interpreting the Bible. First, let me say that deciding to start your church plant with a series of sermons on Leviticus, as Bell did (p. 102), is a bold move, and one that I quite appreciate. And I do appreciate Bell’s desire to preach the Word. But several times, he makes questionable assertions about the meaning of passages of the Bible.

For instance, Bell asserts that “the end of the book of Mark is arranged according to the coronation ceremonies of the Roman emperor” (p. 64). Maybe that’s true, and it would be cool if it is, but Bell doesn’t cite any source for this assertion. Likewise, he asserts that

The first three miracles in the book of John are directly related to the three major gods of Asia Minor, the region John writes his gospel to. Dionysus was the god who turned water into wine, Asclepius was the god of healing, and Demeter was the goddess of bread. So how does John begin his story? With Jesus turning water into wine, healing, and then feeding thousands of people. John has an agenda. He wants these people in this place and this time to know that Jesus is better than their gods (p. 64). 

“Hmm….,” says I. “Maybe.” But Bell doesn’t provide any source for this assertion, including the claim that John is writing to Asia Minor.

On the same page and the next, Bell claims that “saved in childbirth” in Timothy relates to the goddess Artemis who had a temple in Ephesus, where Timothy was, and who kept women from dying in childbirth, though one out of two women in that city died in childbirth. (Here, at least, Bell does cite a source.) Then he claims that the “first chapters of the book of Revelation follow the sequence of events of the Domitian games, held in honor of the caesar who was in power at the time Revelation was written” (p. 65). I don’t, in fact, believe Revelation was written in the time of Domitian, and I wonder whether it’s really true that “Domitian would address the leaders of the various provinces, then his choir of twenty-four would sing worship songs to him, and then there would be a horse race” (p. 65). And I’m not sure what the horse race would correspond to in Revelation, anyway.

Later, Bell claims that when Jesus, at Caesarea Philippi, said that the gates of hell wouldn’t prevail against his church, he was referring to a feature of the geography of that region:

Caesarea Philippi was the world center of the goat god, Pan. People came from all over the world to worship this god. There is a cliff with a giant crack in it that the followers of Pan believed was the place where the spirits from hell would come and go from the earth. The crack was called the Gates of Hell. They built a temple for Pan there and then a court next to it where people would engage in sexual acts with goats during the Pan worship festivals (p. 132). 

It’s on this rock, Bell claims, following (I believe) Ray VanderLaan, that Christ would build his church and the people who are now serving the goat god won’t be able to stop the church but will actually join it. To which I say, “Oh, really?”

Now maybe that stuff is true and maybe knowing it can add something to our understanding of the significance of a passage of Scripture. But I question whether the main point of a passage of Scripture ever depends on extrascriptural information.

More than that, I do wonder whether some of these claims are true or whether they’re as spurious as the other allegedly historical claims that I’ve heard (e.g., that “the Eye of the Needle” was a gate in Jerusalem’s wall and that a camel could actually get through it if it didn’t have any baggage on it, and so a rich man can get into heaven if he gets rid of his baggage, which is all a pack of non-historical hogwash and not all the point that Jesus was making or that the disciples got from what Jesus said).

Similarly, I have concerns with Bell’s use of the rabbis. Perhaps it’s true that the rabbis spoke of their teachings as a “yoke” which their disciples took upon themselves (p. 47) or spoke of their interpretations of Scripture as “binding and loosing” (p. 49), but I’d have to see more evidence that this is really the source of Jesus’ call to take His yoke upon ourselves and His statements about binding and loosing, which (in context) appear to have more to do with community boundaries than with interpretations of Scripture. Similarly, I question whether the fact that Peter and his friends were fishermen means that they weren’t good enough students to become rabbis (p. 131).

I grant that there are things that Christians can learn from the rabbis and from Jewish scholars, but I’m afraid that Bell values these sources too highly. It isn’t clear, for instance, if the things in the Talmud are early enough that Jesus would have known about them (let alone the readers of the Gospels, some of whom need to have extrabiblical Jewish traditions explained to them [cf. Mark 7:4]) or if they are later inventions of the rabbis. Furthermore, we have to recognize that Jesus Himself thought that the oral law code was often in opposition to God’s Word (Mark 7:8ff.) and falls into the category of “evil thoughts” that proceed out of man’s heart (Mark 7:21). Did the rabbis correctly understand the Scriptures? Not according to Jesus! Can we learn from the rabbis? Sometimes, yes. Do we need them in order to understand Scripture? No.

On the whole, then, while I did learn some things from Bell and was sometimes challenged by what he said, his use of Scripture and the questionable things Bell said, sometimes in the midst of a good discussion, diminished my appreciation of this book. (I must also admit that Bell’s writing style drove me nuts. Full of sentence fragments. Like these.

Sometimes. 

Spread.

Over paragraph breaks.

Very annoying.)

In the end, it wasn’t a particularly profitable read, I’m afraid.

Posted by John Barach @ 7:08 pm | Discuss (0)
February 6, 2006

Raising Priests, Kings, & Prophets

Category: Bible :: Permalink

RAISING PRIESTS, KINGS, AND PROPHETS
Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Proverbs 2:1-22; Ephesians 6:1-4
(January 8, 2006, Sermon Notes)

[For much of this sermon, I'm indebted to James Jordan's From Bread to Wine and to Peter Leithart's sermons in April and May 2004.]

In Advent, we considered what it means that Jesus is the Christ. “Christ” means “anointed one,” and in the Bible priests, kings, and (in one case) a prophet are anointed when they are ordained to office. We traced the history of these three offices in Scripture, noticing that history moves from an emphasis on priests to an emphasis on kings to an emphasis on prophets.

That historical development by which God grew Israel to maturity until Jesus, the first full-grown adult, teaches us about Jesus. But it also teaches us about ourselves and how God grows us to maturity. For that reason, it also instructs us about how to raise our children to be faithful servants, wise rulers, and then mature adults who shape the world by wise words.

INFANTS

Before we talk about our children as junior priests, kings, and prophets, we should first say something about them as infants. The Bible doesn’t provide us a handbook on raising infants. We do learn something about that task by watching how God treats infants.

From the beginning, God establishes a relationship, a bond of love, with them. David sings about how God made him trust while on his mother’s breasts (Ps. 22:9). Babies learn to trust God by experiencing His trustworthiness through their mother’s love and their mother’s milk.

Furthermore, God welcomes babies. Jesus’ disciples wanted to turn them away, but Jesus got angry and called the children to Himself, took them in His arms, and blessed them. Jesus welcomes and blesses His people’s children. He wants His church to do so, too. And He wants us, as parents, to follow that same pattern.

How do you care for infants? You take them in your arms and welcome them. North American dads sometimes have trouble showing affection in this way, but we ought to get over it. Our babies need to be held and cuddled, nursed and nourished, welcomed and loved.

JUNIOR PRIESTS

Infants ought to receive a lot of love and attention and milk, but not a lot of rules. You cuddle newborns and talk to them; you don’t give them detailed schedules and household chores and expect them to obey. But as babies grow up, they become more response-able. They enter a phase roughly equivalent to Israel’s priestly phase.

In the Bible, a priest is God’s household servant. The calling of a priest wasn’t hard. His duties were straightforward, spelled out in detail. He simply had to hear and obey. And that’s how it was for all Israel during this early phase of her history. Even if an Israelite didn’t understand the meaning of a commandment, he still had to obey.

And when Israelites disobeyed, judgment was swift (e.g., Lev. 10; Num. 11, 13, etc.). That was also the case in the early church (cf. Ananias and Sapphira). But that isn’t always the case today. Many times today, there’s a long wait between sin and judgment. But in the early stages of history, judgment comes swiftly. That’s how it is in the beginning: clear, detailed rules and swift judgment for disobedience.

That pattern teaches us something about raising little children. When our children are very little, we don’t leave them to figure out for themselves what they ought to do. We tell them. Little children need clear rules.

The basic one is this: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord” (Eph. 6:1). That’s a simple rule, and the other rules which we give to unpack that one ought also to be relatively simple, tailored to the abilities of your child (so that you don’t provoke your child to wrath, Eph. 6:4).

More than that, little children need oversight and they need immediate consequences for their actions — praise when they do well and punishment when they disobey — all within the context of love and trust established already when they were infants, so that they learn to love obeying and to hate disobeying.

Little children are like junior priests, learning to be obedient servants, servants who hear their parents and obey them and who hear God and obey Him. For that reason, parents need to make sure their instruction and discipline are grounded in Scripture, so that they bring up their children in the “training and admonition of the Lord” (Eph. 6:4). Children need to hear the stories of Scripture. They need clear rules. They need training in the regular patterns of life: liturgy in church, the rituals of teeth-brushing, and so forth. They need a foundation on which they can build for the rest of their lives.

JUNIOR KINGS

Our goal must not be to keep our children in the early stage forever. That’s a temptation some parents succumb to, and it leads to immature teenagers who don’t take responsibility because Mom and Dad didn’t give it to them or to rebellious teenagers who are exasperated because their parents don’t give them responsibility. Parents ought to desire their children to mature.

Israel’s history starts with a focus on priests but moves to a focus on kings. Kings have greater authority and responsibility than priests. While a priest’s duties are spelled out in Scripture, a king’s aren’t. Kings don’t simply apply laws; they must exercise wisdom.

Our goal, too, is to raise children who have internalized the commands, stories, warnings, and so forth we’ve given them in their early years so that they act with wisdom. We want our children to rule well when they leave the home. We don’t want to raise children who are goofballs, who joke when they should be serious, whose insensitivity hurts other people, who have no sense of what’s appropriate in this situation.

The emphasis on wisdom as our children reach their preteen and early teen years doesn’t mean they no longer need commandments or discipline. But they should not need the same kind of oversight little children need. They ought to learn to make decisions for themselves. And just as God doesn’t always judge the kings with immediate judgments but sometimes allows them to face consequences, we also will sometimes allow our children to face the consequences of their bad and even sinful decisions.

The path to wisdom is found in Scripture (Deut. 6; Prov. 2). If our children are going to rule well, they need a hunger for wisdom and understanding, and that starts with them receiving their father’s words and treasuring his commands. Fathers need to train children so that they crave wisdom and rule thereby.

JUNIOR PROPHETS

The third stage of Israel’s history focuses on prophets. Prophets are God’s council members, God’s advisors and spokesmen, who build up and tear down with their words.

Our goal is not only that our children be obedient servants and wise rulers, but also that they be junior prophets who communicate wisdom to others and shape the world by their words. As they grow older, they provide examples for their younger brothers and sisters and can help train them to be obedient and wise. In this later stage, the later teen years, children ought to know what they believe so that they can communicate it effectively to others.

This stage isn’t the time to clamp down or impose restrictions, which will provoke your children to wrath (Eph. 6:4). The time for that is when the children are little. When they’re older, you should be able to lighten restrictions and move from laying down the law to offering advice and coaching your children through the challenges they face, preparing them to leave your home and set up their own.

FATHERS

What kind of father can effectively train his children to be obedient to him and, more importantly, to the Lord? Only ones who have themselves learned (and are learning) to be obedient servants, following the pattern of Jesus our High Priest.

What kind of father can give his children a love of wisdom so that they search for it and find it and rule well by it? Only fathers who mediate on God’s law day and night and hunt for wisdom themselves so that they rule their families wisely, following the pattern of Jesus our shepherd-king who gave Himself for the sheep.

What kind of father can raise children who will transform the world by their wise words, speaking effectively to God and man? Only fathers who have learned by experience to listen to God and speak to Him, following the pattern of Jesus our great prophet, who speaks God’s Word and intercedes for us.

As parents, you will fail in many ways. You will sin, but because Jesus is the priest, king, and prophet there is forgiveness for your sins. And though you will make mistakes, your Father in heaven is faithful and will care for your children in ways you can’t. But as a parent, you have a calling. You also are a priest, a king, and a prophet, called to obey, to rule wisely, to speak well. And your calling is to raise children who carry out those same callings after the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Posted by John Barach @ 6:55 pm | Discuss (0)