Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Good Death

Death is a strange and morbid topic. At least, many consider it to be so. Myself, I think about dying almost every day. It comes with my vocation. I know many people, and because of this, I go to many funerals. Everyone dies. You will die. I am going to die. I think about this every time I speak at a funeral or simply attend the funeral of an acquaintance or a loved one.

I have never been to a funeral where the actual death of the person is not discussed. It would be absurd if it weren't. Sometimes, it is quietly discussed when the means of death is dishonorable. Yet, hushed or open, the means of death is discussed. It does not matter if it is suicide or cancer, accident or old age, sudden or foreseen. The manner of death is always discussed. Quite often, this is followed by a judgment on whether or not this is a good way to go, and personal preferences on the method of death are discussed. The general consensus seems to be that most people want to die suddenly with as little foresight as possible. Dropping dead instantly of a heart attack or dying in one's sleep is the means of choice.

I do not want to go out like that, though I confess I have no choice in the matter. I hope that I have a window of time that I might see the approach of the inevitable. I would like, if at all possible, a time of reflection before I die. After all, I am spending every day of my life preparing for my demise. Dying will be a big day for me. I do not look at death as a dread, though I admit I do not look forward to the pain involved, I do not dread the actual being dead part.

You may find me hopelessly morbid, but I do daydream about dying from time to time. There are several constants in my daydream. My wife is always there, because I hope that she will outlive me. This is very important to me because when I die, I want to die faithful to her. I want her to be there without regret, and I want the vows that bound us so many years before to be more meaningful and beautiful on that day than on the day we made them. I want for her to feel and know that she has been loved. I want her to know that each day I had with her has been to me the highest of all of my privileges here in this life.

My children are also there. Every day, I pray that my heavenly Father will make me a good father to my children, that they will know that I love them, and that they will feel treasured by me. I want them to know that being their father has been the highest privilege I have had in this life.

This may cause the reader a bit of confusion since I just wrote that I want my wife to know that being her husband has been my greatest privilege. Reflection upon death and life and love has led me to realize many things that confuse others but do not bother me in the slightest. I believe in a Triune God who is One Being in Three Persons. I adore each person of the Trinity as the only True God. It is no great stretch for me to suppose then that I have more than one greatest privilege in life. I love more than one person "the most". I cannot divide the substance of the love I have for my wife and my children and my friends, it is the same and yet different. Perhaps I cannot explain this to anyone else in a way that will satisfy, but in my heart I know the truth of it.

This brings me to another constant: my friends. I have some friends that I have known and loved for most of my life. May they all outlive me and exceed me! In my dreams, they are there as well. They are there in my deathly daydream because they will know that I have loved them and they have loved me for it. They will be there because they will know that I have counted their friendship as the highest privilege in my life here.

My daydream ends with me surrounded by those who I have loved so much that they cannot deny that they have been loved by me. This is what it means for me to live each day as if it would be my last. If I could only die this way, then I could fly to my Savior unashamed. He is the one who bound me to all of these by the cords of love, and this is the only and greatest burden that He ever put on me as his servant. He has commanded me to love, and he is teaching me to do it. I hope that I will be found faithful until that day comes, and I pray that I will live each day with dying in mind so that I might live well until I do.

Friday, June 17, 2011


Jeremiah sat in the dust of a city in its death throes. The streets, once packed with people and activity, were now mostly silent. The stillness only being broken by the occasional wail of grief or agony, the garbled cries of the dying for the dead. The smell of the market place, once rich with the smell of fruits, spices, and bread, now bore only the stench of rot.

"Young and old lie on the ground in the streets; my young women and my young men have fallen by the sword; You have slain them in the day of your anger, you have slaughtered and not pitied." The corpses of his people littered the streets like refuse. Jeremiah had to cover his face for the smell of them and gather his robes to step over them. He saw them, like skin and bones, dead by the sword, by hunger, and by disease. He said the Yahweh had done this. His God whom he served had slain his own people. God had given their bodies to the birds.

"You summoned as if to a festival day my terrors on every side, and on the day of the anger of the LORD no one escaped or survived; those whom I held and raised my enemy destroyed." Jeremiah saw his friends die. He saw them perish by the sword in the streets; he saw them die desperately in their homes of hunger; he watched them waste of disease and die in their own filth with no one to help. God invited him to survey the slaughter, and his God moved his pen to write of the horror he beheld.

"See, O LORD, and consider! To whom have You done this? Should the women eat their offspring, the children they have cuddled?...the hands of compassionate women have boiled their own children; they became their food during the destruction of the daughter of my people." They ate their own children. They boiled them for food. Jeremiah bore witness. "I am the man who has seen affliction by the rod of His wrath. He has led me and made me walk in darkness and not in light." God thrust him into the horrors. His God, whom he loved, compelled him into the darkness, into the nightmare of Jerusalem, to see the gaping mouths of the dead. The disfigured forms of the starved and maimed, eyes transfixed in horror. The Lord made him look, see, and write.

Such sights might drive a man insane, but this man Jeremiah recorded what he saw in a poem. It is called the Lamentations. He wrote it under the inspiration of the God who brought the slaughter. God did this for at least two reasons. One is for you and me. That we may see the just recompense for wickedness, and the hellish consequences of a life lived in abandonment of God. Secondly, he writes that we may read this, "The LORD is good to those who wait for Him, to the soul who seeks Him. It is good that one should hope and wait quietly for the salvation of the LORD...Let him sit alone and keep silent, because God has laid it on him; let him put his mouth in the dust---there may yet be hope. Let him give his cheek to the one who strikes him, and be full of reproach."

Christian, have you read the Lamentations and pondered upon the terror that God brought upon Israel? For what? It is very important that you ask yourself this question, lest you get swept up into the hysteria of this age and forget what is important. God did not judge Israel for running up a national deficit. God crushed his beloved, his own garden, because the men were not faithful to the wives of their youth, because they were swindlers and cheats, because they exploited the poor, because they perverted justice for a bribe, and because they pursued their own lusts with abandon. And why did they do these things? They did them because they did not love God with all their heart, he who is lovely above all things, and because they chose a lesser glory, they became objects of contempt.

Behold the end of a people who claimed a form of godliness and denied the power thereof. Behold the end of a people who pay lip service to God, but are inwardly ravenous wolves. Read the Lamentations, and then pray that God would drive the idols that you pursue far from you.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Where There is no Sin, There is no Forgiveness

I wonder, when was the last time you saw the word 'sin' in the newspaper. I think that it is exceedingly rare to see that word in print. Have you noticed that? Think of the most recent scandals in the political world. Has anyone said that the former governor of California sinned? The recent texting/twitter scandal in Congress has moved many to call for the offending politician's resignation. But has anyone said that he sinned against his wife or the American people?

This is not a rant about the media not knowing about the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. The actions of these particular men have been fairly well condemned by all, or at least they have been ridiculed. I'm not trying to make the point that their behavior has been deemed acceptable by the lack of the use of the word "sin". I want, instead, to point out something else.

The reason, I suppose, that we are loathe to use the word 'sin' is because sin is a religious word. Perhaps it is too closely tied in with the idea of an offended deity, and as such, it is unpalatable to the mainstream. Besides, if we can simply use "wrong" or "irresponsible" or "moral failure" to communicate the same idea with the heavy religious baggage, isn't that sufficient?

I confess that the word sin is a loaded word. It does conjure up the idea of an offended deity or an objective moral standard. This type of standard is, seemingly, more and more passe in our society. But with the death of the concept of sin, it seems to me that the ideas of repentance and forgiveness are also falling by the wayside.

Part of this, I admit, comes from the fact that most folks seem hardly repentant. Further, public apologies seem contrived in order to save face or maintain political position. I get that. But still, I have this nagging feeling that as we lose our ability to call things 'sin', we may be, by accident, losing our ability to forgive sin as well.

If we have a society that does not believe in sin, that does not believe in an objective moral standard, then we may also come to live in a society that cannot find a place for absolution. Think for a moment about that governor and that congressman. What can they do to find absolution? Public apology? That certainly will be received with much seriousness. And what of their wives? If they decide to forgive their spouse, how can they do such a thing and not look like a weakling?

If there is no God, then there is no sin. There is simply stupid behavior that gets you fired and kills your marriage. But if there is a God, and there is sin, then there is also the chance for absolution for the sinner and the sinned against. If God is real, then He knows about everyone's sin. He knows what you've done in your house, in your bedroom, and in your mind. He knows where you've gone on your computer, and He knows what has motivated your actions. And God has offered to every sinner absolution through Christ. Someone who believes this knows what it means to be forgiven of sin and what it means to be genuinely changed by forgiveness. It can make them strong enough even to forgive. Strong like Christ Jesus, who stooped to wear a thorny crown in order to win our absolution.

I fear that a society that loses its grip on what sin is will ultimately lose its grip on compassion and forgiveness. Where there is no sin, there is no forgiveness. I fear that such a society will spiral into a sort of cynicism that will cause it to be unable to trust any public figure. Is this what we are coming to? Are we already there?

I'm not saying that the former governor or the current congressman is truly repentant. I am saying that they have both sinned. They sinned against their wives, their families, and Almighty God. Therapy cannot fix this, and neither can resignation. But I also want them to know that there is a place for the sinner to find forgiveness, and I want their spouses to know that real forgiveness is borne out of might, not weakness. It takes courage to forgive, and it takes faith. This courage and faith can only come from one who has himself or herself already experienced the power of the forgiveness of sin.

The former governor and the congressman and their families have already experienced the power of sin, whether they would call it that or not. I pray, and I truly hope, that they may also find out about the power of grace and forgiveness through Christ.

Monday, June 13, 2011

What is Our Major Malfunction?

One of the major aspects of pastoral ministry is the ministry of counseling. Unfortunately, for many the idea of counseling conjures up a sort of session where one fellow is on a couch talking about his problems and another fellow listening, nodding at the appropriate times, and jotting down notes that, undoubtedly, will lead to a cure for the patient's problems.

This brings us to the second problem of the view of counseling, that is the idea that someone who seeks out help is a 'patient'. By that, I mean the idea that because someone perceives that someone is wrong with them, or wrong in their life, and that this problem is perhaps beyond their fixing without help, makes them weak, a patient, or someone who needs special treatment.

Both of these things are at least partially true. A good deal of pastoral counseling is one on one, it does involve careful listening, and it does include taking note of what is being said. Secondly, it is true that someone being counseled needs help. The problem is that we fail to recognize that everyone needs help, including the counselor. No one is above human weakness, and by weakness I mean the effects of sin. We are all sinning and being sinned against, we live in a world that is contaminated by the fall of man, and so everyone needs counseling. Every single person needs help. Including me. Perhaps especially me!

This is precisely why Christ instituted the church. We are not meant to go it alone. We are, by nature, covenant creatures meant to live in community with one another. It is through community that real change can take place, and by change I do not mean simple shift in behavior. I mean real sanctification, or progress in godliness. Change takes place by conviction from the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit works through the fellowship of the church, teaching from the Scripture, and the accountability that friendship brings within in the Christian community.

Where do our major malfunctions come from? Are they mainly biological? That is, are some people melancholy by nature because of their genes? Are some people predisposed to certain behaviors because of DNA? Or, are we a product of our environment? That is, do we behave in certain ways because of how our parents raised us? Or because they abandoned us? Over-protected us? Under-protected us? If the answer is yes, then how can the church help with these things?

I believe that the answer is yes. We are a product of our DNA, and we are products of our environment. I think that we also have a host of issues that are our own making that cannot be linked to DNA or parenting. However, none of these things give us an "out". That is, we are still responsible for our actions. Because of the fall, we have inherited spiritual, mental, and physical infirmities. The ultimate cure for these things is found in Jesus Christ who has come to restore all things; he himself is the wonderful counselor.

So what is our major malfunction? We are sinners, surrounded by sinners, in a world where sin permeates everything. How are we able to overcome this? By the applied counsel of God's Word and by following Jesus as the center of the universe. When we do this, in the context of a healthy church community, God re-orients the desires of our heart, unmasks our selfishness, convicts us of our need for change, enables us to change, and teaches us about patience and forgiveness.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

What is the Final End? His Glory

I confess that, once upon a time, I read a bunch of Jonathan Edwards. What is even cooler is that, on occasion, I understood what Jonathan wrote. When I did, it was totally worth the hours of effort I had to put into it. One such work that I understood, mostly, was The End for which God Created the World.

In this work, Edwards observes that every action we take is a means to a calculated end. That is, we always have some goal in mind when we act, some larger purpose. Somehow, each action we take fits into our larger plan that we are attempting to achieve. If we understand the "end goal", be it our own or someone else's, then we will be in a better position to determine who that person really is and what motivates them to act as they do.

For example, let's take something simple act like helping an old lady across the street. Is this a good action? Is it a good deed? What if the boy is helping the lady across the street because he wants to earn a Boy Scout badge for community service? But that badge isn't really his end. He wants to earn the badge because he wants to become an Eagle Scout, and he wants to become an Eagle Scout because it will garner him praise. Also, being an Eagle Scout might help him get into the college he desires, a prestigious college, and a degree there will get him praise as well. This boy, then, has helped the lady across the street because he desires praise.

My intention here is not judge this particular boy, it is only to make a point. That point is that everything we do is motivated by a goal, whether we are directly conscious of that goal or not. God, too, has a goal. That is what Edward's book is about. He is exploring the end for which God created the world. His conclusion is very, very important for us if he is correct. Here is Edwards' conclusion: God created the world, and everything in it, in order to glorify Himself.

God, then, created the world, we might say the universe, for Himself. God wanted to display his glory. That means that we are only a means to an end, not the end itself. The universe, if Edwards is correct, is not about you and me. It is about God. Salvation is also not about us, our salvation is also a means to God's end. That is, salvation is about glorifying God. We are not the center of God's universe. God is the center of God's universe. We are a means to an end, and that end is to display the awesomeness of God. That is God's end. To put it jarringly, God's plan is to show off.

I believe that Edwards' thesis is solidly confirmed in Scripture. We know that the Father's plan is to unite all things under His Son, Jesus Christ. As Paul puts it, in Christ God is "making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth" (Eph. 1:9-10). God the Father's end is to unite all things in Christ, to the praise of His glory.

For his part, the Son seeks to glorify the Father. That is his chief end. The Son seeks to glorify the Father through the very act that the Father brings glory to the Son. Nowhere are their "ends" clearer than in Philippians 2:9-11, "Therefore God (the Father) has highly exalted him (the Son) and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father." See that? God the Father exalts God the Son who turns the glory to God the Father who continually turns every eye to His Son. And what does the Holy Spirit do? He joins the Father and the Son in their pursuit. Does this mean that the Holy Spirit is not glorified? Certainly not, for as the Father and Son are glorified, so is the Holy Spirit because, in the end, they are all One.

That means that salvation, evangelism, the church, our children, and everything else in all of creation is moving towards one all-encompassing end: the exaltation of God Almighty. Our privilege lies, not in that we are indispensable as the chief end, but in the fact that we are privileged to get to see God's glory. This is the essence of eternal life. Jesus said it like this, "And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent" (John 17:3). This is what eternal life is: to know the glory of God.

The good news is, as many have said before, that God's self-revelation of His own awesomeness is a very, very good thing. It is something that will keep us eternally satisfied and happy, and it is so wonderful that it will blow to smithereens any idols we have crafted and coveted here on earth.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Find...and Fulfill your Destiny

This is a short regarding the foreknowledge of God. In general, I do not think that Christians have thought very deeply about the implications of God's exhaustive foreknowledge of all future events and how that might relate to their own personal freedom and autonomy. Sometimes, it's fun to think about something that has the potential to blow your mind, so put your thinking cap on and let's think about the omniscience of God.

Most of the time, when I talk to people about God's foreknowledge, they generally conceive of it in terms of God's knowledge of events in the future. I get the feeling that people conceive of foreknowledge as a more robust sort of prophecy, that is, God when they think of foreknowledge, they have the idea of God passively watching the future from His armchair in the past. God, from his seat in the past, watches future history unfold as determined by the free will choices of the subjects he has created.

There are several interesting conundrums that arise from this view of foreknowledge. First, it doesn't deal adequately with God's omnipresence. Specifically, that means if God could comfortably watch the future unfold from the past, he would always see himself working in the future because he himself is already in the future. God cannot "passively" watch the future because God is always active in the future. In other words, because God already perfectly knows Himself and how he will "react", and because he already knows where he wants the future to wind up, God cannot simply "look ahead" to see what will happen. The future cannot exist without God, and because God knows God and God exhaustively knows his creation, he must necessarily know the end from the beginning, just as he said he does. This seems to exclude the idea that God is anxiously sitting in his armchair waiting to see what his "free" creatures will do: he already knows.

This puts the idea of human free will in a precarious position. That is, if God is influencing every moment of every day, and if he already exhaustively knows the outcome of every event, and if he is actively guiding the universe to a predetermined outcome, then are we really free at all? In other words, if God wants person A to marry person B, and the outcome of his plan for history hinges on person A to marry person B, and God already foreknows that person A and B will marry, do these people really have a choice in the matter?

This is where the idea of the "two wills of God" comes into play. It is clear that God does not desire men to murder one another. Yet, men murder. So, does God abdicate his will in the matter and allow men to freely murder each other, or does God, though forbidding murder actual plan for men to murder one another. The easiest example of this sort of destiny is the murder of Jesus. Did God will the murder of Jesus or not? On the one hand, He certainly willed the murder of Jesus. He planned the murder of Jesus in order to save men. On the other hand, God found the murder of Jesus repulsive, and He will hold men responsible for this crime.

How is it, then, that God can plan an event, ordain an event, foreknow an event, and actively make certain that an event comes to pass, and then blame men when they execute His plans and call their actions sinful? The apostle Paul felt this tension, which is why he wrote this in Romans 9:19-20, "'Why does (God) still find fault? For who can resist his will?' But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, 'Why have you made me like this?'"

Some have decided that this is simply absurd. Something has to go. Some have ditched the idea that God can know the free will actions of creatures. That is, free actions are by nature unknowable, therefore God does not know what men will choose in the future. This gets rid of the problem, but it eviscerates the teaching of the Bible. How? Because the Bible demonstrates that God does know the future actions of his creatures, one of those being the betrayal of Jesus by Judas Iscariot.

Another place some will go is to embrace destiny to the point that all of our actions are basically meaningless. They believe that since God has already orchestrated every event, then there is no reason for them to try to preach the gospel, or really do anything other than what they fill like doing. Because if they do anything, it must be because God meant them to do it. This is partially true, but partial truths are terribly dangerous. This type of thinking destroys the Bible's teaching on human responsibility. God planned for Joseph to be sold into slavery in order to save his family, but God still condemns the act of his brothers in the selling of Joseph. In other words, they should not have done it, and it is no excuse that they did it because the event was ordained.

Alas, this post is already too long. Maybe tomorrow or the next day I will write a continuation on this thought experiment...if the Lord wills. Feel free to ask questions or pontificate in the comment section.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

Your Kung Fu is Weak

My wife and I have jumped on the latest exercise fad/bandwagon. We just started working out using the P90X videos. These videos promise that in 90 days, if we keep up the work, we will go from an expanding waistline to completely ripped abs and awesomeness. All it takes is dedication on our part, and a lot of rolling about in the floor trying to do one more push-up/sit-up/crunchy frog. Should be fun.

As I was looking at the upcoming exercise videos, I noticed that one of the routines is called "Kempo". I imagine that this is a sort of kick-boxing type of training akin to the now out-dated Billy Blanks Tae Bo videos. That is, we'll be jumping around acting like we are doing martial arts, but instead of actually training to fight people, we'll only be fighting the battle of the bulge.

The thought of my wife and I jumping around in the living room doing karate kicks after we put the kids in the bed is a rather funny thought for me. It also makes me laugh to think that karate, which was invented to help people defend themselves, has now been re-invented to help us keep from getting fat. As I was musing upon our upcoming karate exercise night, I thought about how ridiculous it would be for me to start thinking that because I had done a bunch of Billy Blanks Tae Bo and now P90X Kempo, I was now a deadly martial artist. Can you imagine how silly that is?

Reality would soon settle in if I ever tried to test out my battle prowess I've learned on exercise videos in a ring against a real opponent. The wise words of Mike Tyson come to mind, "Everyone has a plan 'till they get punched in the mouth." As humorous as these thoughts are, it suddenly occurred to me that this is exactly how many Christians treat their study of the Bible.

What I mean is that many Christians spend all of their time with other Christians. They have never really been around non-Christians,and they have never had any of their views challenged philosophically or theologically. The extent of their arguing has been when they are talking about other religions with other Christians. It's easy to prove how silly atheistic beliefs are when you are talking to another Christian. If a Christian is never really challenged, they wind up like the guy exercising to a Tae Bo video. They start to feel like they are strong, like they have pretty good kicks and punches, and therefore they must be a fairly deadly fighter. And then, an atheist or agnostic or Muslim or Jehovah's Witness or college professor punches them, theologically of course, right in the mouth.

It's not just heresy that will catch such a Christian off-guard, but also life in general. Tae Bo Christianity is unprepared for death, tragedy, tornadoes, infidelity, and grief. Life punches you in the mouth, and all the comfortable cliches in the world can't stop the bleeding. Some lose their faith completely because they are so devastated by the onslaught that they imagined they were prepared for.

So how do we keep ourselves from becoming Tae Bo Christians? We must actually challenge one another. If we are all a bunch of Daniel LaRusso's, then we need some Mr. Miyagi's to help us see the light. That is, wax on/wax off might really help us, but we are going to need Mr. Miyagi to throw a few punches our way so we can realize we are able to defend ourselves.

The lesson is that we, as Christians, need to challenge one another, no holds barred. We have to ask questions like these: How do you know that God is Sovereign? What does it mean for man to be depraved? How can you know that there is a God? What makes you so sure that Jesus rose from the dead? How do you reconcile the theory of evolution to the Bible's teaching of creation? What happens to babies when they die? And once we have asked these questions, we must not be satisfied until they are Biblically, rationally, and soundly answered. If not, somebody out there is going to punch us in the face, and the result is not going to be very pretty. If our Kung Fu is weak, we want to know about it before we meet the crazy guy with the knife, right?