Sunday, 29 September 2013

of Justice, Mercy, Humility and Dinosaurs

One of my hobbies is to collect cartoons with biblical motifs. One favorite depicts two dinosaurs sitting on a mountaintop as they watch Noah and the ark sail away. The one dinosaur says to the other, “Oh crap! Was that today?” I couldn’t help but think that maybe that’s why there are no dinosaurs today; they missed the boat (There's probably a more scientific reason for it, but that thought amused me. LOL).

The “B.C.” comic strip also often has biblical motifs in it, such as the one with the ant church. Service was over at the anthill church (complete with cross on top) and the ants were all walking home. In the next frame Pastor Ant also arrives home where he is greeted by his wife who asks, “How’d your sermon on tithing go, honey?” Pastor Ant replies, “Perfect. 10% of them stayed awake.

And, of course, who could forget Andy Capp? Poor Andy is walking down the street one day when he meets the Vicar who says, “I noticed you rolling out of the pub at midnight, singing your head off. I think the less said about that, the better.” If there ever was a king of the witty come-backs, it would be Andy. He answers the Vicar with, “Say no more, Vicar. No one will hear from me that you were hanging around outside the pub at midnight!

Like many Christians, you could say that another thing I collect is favorite Bible verses that have been particularly meaningful to me at different times of my life. For example, I remember that first morning of my first time in Cancun Mexico, waking up early listening to the waves, and as I went outside to watch those waves crashing against the shore, I randomly opened my Bible and the first thing I saw was this verse:

“Do you not fear and reverence Me? says the Lord. Do you not tremble before Me? I placed the sand for the boundary of the sea, a perpetual barrier beyond which it cannot pass and by an everlasting ordinance beyond which it cannot go? And though the waves of the sea toss and shake themselves, yet they cannot prevail [against the feeble grains of sand which God has ordained by nature to be sufficient for His purpose]; though [the billows] roar, yet they cannot pass over that [barrier]. [Is not such a God to be reverently feared and worshiped?]”

For me, that verse from Jeremiah 5:22 in the Amplified Bible became very meaningful with my first Cancun experience, and all these years later, I’ve never forgotten how God spoke to me early that morning from the balcony of my hotel room.

I remember my Dad sharing of how a certain Bible verse became very meaningful to him and my Mom while they were in Indonesia. Apparently a colleague of theirs used its reference as an email address. Before I share that verse, let me set the context by including the two previous verses as well. In the NIV it reads like this:

“With what shall I come before the Lord and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? “Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? “He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6: 6-8)

As I thought about this, it occurred to me that there are some pretty absurd things that people have done in the name of religion, and even in the name of Christianity, because they seem to feel that God requires some act of service or sacrifice from them. Have you ever noticed that?

In leading up to this favorite verse from my parents, the prophet Micah addressed some of those weird things that people have historically thought God would require of them. Yearling calves were thought to be some of the choicest sacrifices. The “thousands of rams” suggested that maybe God would be impressed with such a large amount of animals that He most certainly would grant the requests of people who offered them. The oil was always considered an important part of certain sacrifices, and so the extravagance of rivers of oil must be really something impressive to God. The early Cananites used to sacrifice their firstborn’s to their deity. As a firstborn myself, I’m sure thankful that is no longer the accepted custom today!

It’s strange how today some people still seem to think the same way. Either by actual verbalization, or simply by implication, they like to highlight for others the excessive things they’re doing for God, as if to say that they are more special than others, or that God must be really impressed with them because of all the religious stuff they’re doing. But can we really do anything to impress God? Is God going to be more impressed by going to church versus not going to church? Is God more impressed by the $1000 check in the offering plate than the Toonie (slang for our Canadian $2 coin)? No. Anyone who would tell us that is ultimately just as confused as the people Micah was talking to.

Having said that, is there something that pleases God? Yes, I believe there is, and thus this favorite verse:  He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Justice. Mercy. Humility. These are not simply suggestions; they are requirements. Yes, that's Old Testament, and some might be tempted to argue that since we live now under New Testament grace, Old Testament principles no longer apply. In many cases that is perhaps true. However, justice and mercy and humility are also well documented New Testament principles too. Though we sometimes seem to have circumvented them, clearly God hasn't changed His mind about those requirements.

One day Jesus was asked about which was the greatest commandment. He said,
Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and the greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22: 37-40; NIV)

What are the Law and the Prophets? I like to paraphrase them as anything and everything that could ever be said about God and who He is and what He expects of us – that is essentially the Law and the Prophets. Everything hangs on that. The love towards God and our fellow man is like the picture hook on the wall, while all other doctrines, church stuff, and any religious activity is the picture we like to show off to the world and impose on each other. But take away the “love” picture hook, and what happens to the picture? It comes crashing down to the ground and breaks up into many pieces. All Christian and religious activity, no matter how righteous it sounds, if it is done without “love” is just noise, says the Apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 13:1).

If we love God and likewise love one another, then we please God. If in it we concern ourselves with the justice due our fellow man, we have met God’s requirement. If in it we are merciful, even to those who maybe don’t deserve it, we have met God’s requirement. If in it we learn to walk in true humility, as opposed to showing the world how great we think we are, we have met God’s requirement. That’s it; there is no plan ‘B’.

Once upon a time there was a prison warden who humbly fell at the feet of two inmates named Paul and Silas and asked: “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30)

What do you supposed they told him? Go sacrifice a bunch of animals like they did in Old Testament times? Regularly attend church and throw a bunch of money into an offering plate? Say a bunch of “Hail Mary’s?” Become a missionary or a pastor? Get a good study Bible and memorize a bunch of verses? Look for your special niche “gifting” and create a ministry around it? I’m not suggesting that you should or shouldn’t do some of those things, but the only thing that Paul and Silas told the warden was, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” It’s that simple. Again, there isn’t a plan ‘B,’ there are no other requirements, there is no other way to be saved.

I so appreciate the faith example that I’ve been given by my parents, and in retrospect, I am not surprised the least bit that Micah 6:8 is counted by them as one of their favorite Bible verses. I have never known them not to be concerned with justice to their fellow man. I have never known them not to be merciful, even at times when I personally might not have been. I have never known them not to embrace a humble spirit. Lately it has become one of my favorite verses too. Maybe Micah 6:8 is more than only a favorite Bible verse; maybe it’s a sort of mantra, if you will, that accurately describes who we are (or ought to be) in Jesus.

What does it mean to “be good” and what does the Lord require of you and me? The same thing He’s required of all of mankind since the beginning of time: “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Perhaps anything less is to be like the dinosaurs in my cartoon and miss the boat of God’s perfect plan for us.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

The Day the Sidewalk Moved

I saw the most amazing thing the other day right at the end of my driveway.

As I went out for a walk, the sidewalk at the end of my driveway seemed to be moving. Upon closer examination, the movement wasn’t the sidewalk (thankfully), but rather an army of ants in near perfect formation. They measured about 2/3 of the width of the city sidewalk and about as long again. I cannot begin to guess how many there were, perhaps a thousand or more, but they were tightly packed in a near perfect square. I only wish I had a decent camera with me at the time to try and capture the spectacle.

The whole thing reminded me of the old military media films of goose-stepping soldiers marching on parade; there didn’t seem to be an ant out of place. Perhaps that is exactly where the expression “an army of ants” comes from.

Where they originated, I do not know, but when I caught up with them, the ants seemed to be on a determined mission as they passed the front of my property, headed about 30 or 40 feet in front of my neighbour’s property, and then suddenly banked right and headed into my neighbour’s front lawn. Then, as I watched, the whole front lawn at my neighbour’s house seemed to come alive with blades of grass moving in virtually every direction.

As I pondered the event, it occurred to me that they were all side-by-side and did not seem to have a leader out front giving directions; they were all equals, united as if with a common goal or agenda. Suddenly I saw a spiritual application that begged some further thought.

“Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! It has no commander, no overseer or ruler, yet it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest.” (Proverbs 6: 6-8; NIV)

Solomon apparently thought the lesson of the ants important enough to be included in his proverbs. In context it speaks to the lazy bum who chooses to sit back and do nothing, only to find that he has nothing but poverty in the end while everyone else is enjoying the harvest.

However, I see far more in the verse than only that. I also see a lesson against leadership by an individual or smaller sub-group. As a matter of fact, I saw no leadership at all. I only saw a tightly-knit group marching together in unity.

Now imagine if the church body functioned like that? Imagine if the church would be content with no leadership (other than Christ Himself) as it goes marching together, shoulder to shoulder, and arm in arm? For some reason the old hymn “Onward, Christian Soldiers” comes to mind.

Imagine if we as the Body of Christ overwhelmed our communities with the Gospel message, like the ants overwhelmed my neighbour’s front lawn? Imagine if we were really united, and not full of dissensions and factions and other acts of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:20)? Imagine if the church really did “go to the ant” and consider its ways? Imagine if we really did begin to wise up and function as the body that God intended us to be? Imagine a church that actually heeded Jesus’ prayer for unity (John 17: 20ff), instead of just justifying themselves in their disunity.

One final thought: I suspect that if those ants functioned like many in the church today, they still wouldn’t have found their new home in my neighbour’s lawn, and if they did, it would only have been a handful that arrived there. Why? Only a handful would have arrived because if they were like the church they would have chosen leaders for themselves, and found themselves divided under those leaders. Out in front of the masses we would have seen Pastor-ant and Reverend-ant and Bishop-ant and even Priest-ant. Some of the ants would have followed the Paul-ant, and others the Apollos-ant, and still others the Cephas-ant (1 Corinthians 1:12). Who knows where they would have all ended up as they divided themselves across their various divisions and (dare I say it?) anti-Christ denominations.

Imagine if the church operated like the ants. Hmm

Saturday, 7 September 2013

What If The Oil Runs Out?

In this post I have far more questions than I have answers, so if it is answers you’re looking for, I’m afraid that you may not find them from me. What you may find, however, is that some of these questions will leave you squirming in your chair. Having said that, this blog was built on asking questions; tough questions, and in the opinions of some, maybe even heretical questions. So consider yourself warned.

I have always struggled with Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins (Matthew 25: 1-13). How is it that all ten were looking for the coming of the Bridegroom (Jesus), implying that all ten were believers, since I doubt non-believers would be looking for His return, and yet only five of the ten are considered wise and make it into the marriage feast? The other five are considered foolish and end up locked outside only to hear those horrible words from our Lord, “I do not know you.”

If all ten virgins were believers, can believers still find themselves locked out of the Kingdom? Certainly that seems to be one of the lessons in the parable, and yet such a notion flies totally against what many Christians believe today. What are we to make of this? Has modern eschatology somehow become skewed? Has mine?

This morning’s devotional from Watchman Nee addressed the subject as follows:

“It was the bridegroom’s tarrying that brought to light the state of the virgins. How can I be prepared for the Lord’s coming? There are some of us who would have been ready had He come five years ago, but who would not if He came today. It is good to be prepared should He come now, but it is no less important to keep prepared, should He tarry. Can we wait and still be ready? Some people can wait three days, but not three years. Some could hang on for three years at a pinch, but they may be required to watch for thirty. For consider this: if the bridegroom had come before midnight, all the virgins would have been wise! It was His delay which exposed their folly. May God preserve me from becoming foolish with the passing years! One thing only can insure me against the test of time: His Spirit’s fullness. Let me but know His constant filling and there will not lack oil in my lamp when that great midnight cry goes forth.”

Some have suggested that this 'Parable of the Ten Virgins' teaches that it is possible for one lose their salvation. That’s a concept that that many of us would no doubt balk at, and yet the idea does at least seem to be presented in Jesus’ parable. What are we to make of that?

Is the old adage, “once saved, always saved” really true? I’ve heard it said that, “only God can grant salvation and therefore only God can take it away.” Again, what are we to make of that?

Nee speaks of the “test of time.” Often the New Testament refers to a “testing of our faith,” such as in 1 Peter 1:7. Is Jesus referring to one of these tests, and if so, what happens to those who perhaps fail the test? Are they like the five foolish virgins? Do they risk hearing the “I do not know you” from our Lord? Why would Jesus even say such a thing if the possibility of such a situation were not true?

And someone said to him, ‘Lord, will those who are saved be few?’ And he said to them, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank in your presence, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I tell you, I do not know where you come from. Depart from me, all you workers of evil! In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God but you yourselves cast out. And people will come from east and west, and from north and south, and recline at the table in the kingdom of God. And behold, some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” (Luke 13: 23-30; ESV)

It’s been suggested by some that this passage by Luke applies only to the Jewish people and not to the church today. Maybe, and maybe not. What if we’re wrong in our interpretations? Does that mean that we will find ourselves among those “weeping and gnashing of teeth” that Luke quoted Jesus as saying?

So do not become proud and conceited, but rather stand in awe and be reverently afraid. For if God did not spare that natural branches [because of unbelief], neither will He spare you [if you are guilty of the same offense]. Then note and appreciate the gracious kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s gracious kindness to you – provided you continue in His grace and abide in His kindness; otherwise you too will be cut off (pruned away).” (Romans 11: 20b-22; Amplified)

Paul’s “provided you continue” almost sounds conditional. Is that what he’s saying? Maybe that’s why Solomon said, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.” (Proverbs 1:7; ESV)

And so here we are. I know all the arguments and Scriptures that speak to the contrary; I’ve preached many of them myself over the years.  However, what can I say? My many questions remain unanswered. I will close this morning’s musing by echoing Watchman Nee’s prayer, “May God preserve me from becoming foolish with the passing years!” and may I “know His constant filling and there will not lack oil in my lamp when that great midnight cry goes forth.”

Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Give me oil in my lamp, I pray
Give me oil in my lamp, keep me burning
Keep me burning till the break of day

And I will sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna
Sing Hosanna to the King of kings
Sing Hosanna, sing Hosanna
Sing Hosanna to the King

Peace and Blessings.

Watchman Nee quote taken from: A Table in the Wilderness
Give Me Oil In My Lamp Chorus: Authorship attributed to A. Sevison

Friday, 6 September 2013

Do You Belong to the Ornamental Church?

“For flesh and blood [men] have not revealed this to you, but My Father Who is in heaven.” (Matthew 16:17; Amplified)

Do You Belong to the Ornamental Church? It seems that many today do. For them church has become a place to go to and to be seen by others, but little more. It is essentially a social club where they can catch up on the latest gossip. It is a place of teaching, but not always biblical teaching, as in the time I visited a church and was forced to hear a sermon on the attributes of Harry Potter (no, I’m not kidding).

Statistics tell us that today there is actually a higher divorce rate among so-called Christians than there is among non-Christians, and the irony is, we seem not to care. Pornography, fornication, alcoholism and drug abuse – all are found in the church just as they are in the world – and again, we seem not to care by virtue of the fact that the church often remains silent about such things. Members of many churches today are just as worldly as the world that Jesus called us to transform with the love of God. Instead, the world appears to have transformed the church into its ideology. Even the very word “church” has evolved from its original “Body of Christ” meaning into something strangely anti-Christ, as in a building I saw recently with a sign over the door saying “_______ Buddhist Church.”

Has the church today become ornamental? With a few exceptions here and there, I believe it unfortunately has. Anyone who has followed this blog for a while will know that I’m a Watchman Nee fan. Here’s his take on this:

“The church’s foundation is not only Christ but the knowledge of Christ. The tragedy today is that many of us in the churches – indeed many so-called churches – lack such a foundation. We do not know Him. To us He is a theoretical or doctrinal Christ, not a revealed Christ. But theory will not prevail against hell, which is what Jesus declares His church is to do. Have we perhaps forgotten what we are for? Visiting Western homes I have sometimes seen a beautiful porcelain plate, not put to use on the table, but wired and hung up to the wall as a treasured ornament. Many, it seems to me, think of the Church like that, as something to be admired for the perfection of its form. But no, God’s Church is for use, not decoration. An appearance of life may seem to suffice when conditions are favourable, but when the gates of hell come out against us, we know well enough that what we each need above all else is a God-given vision of His Son. It is first-hand knowledge that counts in the hour of testing.”

So where do we go from here? I would suggest that the first step is to recognize that, just because we’ve always done church a certain way, doesn’t necessarily mean that way is God’s way. Several years ago I sensed God calling me to seriously examine my own faith-walk and what I was doing (and not doing) with church. “Test everything. Hold on to the good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) became my mantra.

I came to see that if it isn’t in the Bible, then there’s probably no need to waste any time on it, regardless what other so-called Christian leaders would like us to believe. I came to see that I, and those in the pews that I was supposed to minister to, really could hear God for ourselves, and that there were some within church circles who were actually “trying to lead you astray” (1 John 2: 26-27). Wow! I came to see that, like the Bereans of old who “examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true” (Acts 17:11), it would probably be wise for me to do likewise in my quest to learn what “church” was really supposed to be all about. In the process, I came to see that I could safely discard many previously dearly held religious doctrines, but at the same time, I found myself embracing others all the more.

Many years ago, while still in the pulpit, I used to regularly say to people, “Don’t just blindly take my word for it; look it up for yourself.” Perhaps if more of us were to do that today, there would be less “ornamental churches.” Perhaps if more of us were to do that today, there would be more Spirit-filled Christians, listening more to God than man, and less pseudo-Christians. Perhaps if more of us were to do that today, we would be more comfortable as the church without all the religious and institutional trappings.

Above all, earnestly pray about it. Ask God if there perhaps is something ornamental in your church life, but if you do, be prepared for a revelation that may stretch you out of your comfort zone.

Perhaps ornaments are not what God is interested in after all. Peace.

Watchman Nee quote taken from: A Table in the Wilderness

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Watch Your Mouth, Blasphemer!

As I type these words, I am perched on a deck high on a hill overlooking the Ottawa River and the Gatineau Hills of Quebec. I never get tired of this truly magnificent and million-dollar view!

While enjoying the peace and tranquility of my early morning devotional location, my eyes paused on Romans 2:24 which says, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you” (ESV). Not exactly comforting words, wouldn’t you agree? What are we to make of that?

For some reason, the first thing that came to my mind was of how many of the common swear words in French-Canadian lingo have to do with the church, and specifically, the Roman Catholic Church. I remember how as a teenager attending high school here in eastern Ontario, I was exposed to them all, and then some. Here are a couple examples, but in the interest of decency, I will not share what the words have come to mean, but only their origin.

calisse = chalice (Eucharist cup)
ostie = the flat Eucharistic bread wafers
sacrement = sacrament
tabarnak = slang form of tabernacle

All of these had their genesis in the Roman Catholic Church, but when one hears them today, they have evolved into derogatory and unmentionable swear words. Why are Roman Catholic religious terms used as swear words? A good question, to be sure.

In all fairness to French-Canadian Roman Catholics, the problem goes beyond just their "faction" (see: "dissensions, factions;" Galatians 5:20; NIV) of the church; it has touched all Christendom. Who hasn’t heard people use the Lord’s name in vain in any language, regardless of denomination? Even professing Christians, I would argue, do the same when they use certain words.

Words such as Shoot, Darn, etc., are used my many believers as if to suggest that by slightly twisting the common swear words (as some would call them) you no longer are really swearing. However, does not the spirit in which it’s said remain? I don’t want to be legalistic about this, but again, the question remains, why do they do it?

My Dad used to say that people who regularly swear simply show a lack of proficiency in the English language. I’m sure that’s true in any language. Jesus said, “Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No’ be ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.” (Matthew 5:37)

Unfortunately we often go “beyond this,” don’t we? Anything “beyond this” is perhaps why “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.

Now hold onto your hat; we’re about to pull a Star Trek and boldly go where no Rethinking Faith and Church blog post has gone before.

A while ago I began reading the Quran in an effort to see exactly where our Muslim neighbours were coming from, and especially in an effort to try and see where those labeled as ‘extremists’ were getting their thoughts from. I remember reading of how the English version of the Quran uses the term “People of Faith” to include Jews and Christians. This I found curiously interesting. The problem the Quran appears to have with non-Muslim faiths (and even those within their own faith), is when followers are lethargic and wishy-washy and don’t strictly walk according to the faith they profess to have (as they perceive that all people of faith ought to do). These types of believers the Quran calls, infidels.

“God’s curse be upon the infidels!” (Quran, 2:88)

“Yet they are not all alike. There are among the People of the Book some upright men who all night long recite the revelations of God and worship Him; who believe in God and the Last Day; who enjoin justice and forbid evil and vie with each other in good works. These are righteous men: whatever good they do, its reward shall not be denied them. God well knows the righteous.” (Quran 3:113)

“With those who said they were Christians We made a covenant also, but they too have forgotten much of what they were exhorted to do.” (Quran 5:12)

“Believers, those who follow the Jewish Faith, Sabaeans and Christians – whoever does what is right – shall have nothing to fear or to regret.” (Quran 5:65)

Are you still with me?

Now please understand, I am not suggesting that we ought to all go and read the Quran; I did so simply out of curiosity. But I find it interesting that, though we obviously disagree on many doctrines, the Quran seems (unless I’ve misinterpreted that which I’ve read) to struggle with “People of the Book” (Christians and Jews and Muslims alike) who do not faithfully follow that which, as they understand it, their Scriptures teach them to do. Though it may perhaps sound legalistic, I struggle with that as well. Furthermore, I suspect the unbelieving world also struggles with it.

Having said that, if the unbelieving world does in fact struggle with what they see as hypocrisy in the lives of “People of the Book” (Christians), then is it really any surprise that, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles” (the unbelievers) because of their perceived hypocrisy in the faiths of Christians and other religious groups? Hmm, I wonder sometimes.

  • Do the perceptions of others matter? For more on this, you may want to check out this post.

  • Do you and I give the unbelieving world and an excuse to blaspheme the name of God because of what they perceive as hypocrisy in our professions of faith?

  • If so, what are we going to do about it? Bury our heads in the proverbial sand as we’ve historically done? Justify ourselves, and by default, dismiss their concerns? Or make sure our walk begins to line up with our talk? I don’t know about you, but I choose the latter.

At any rate, may no one ever blaspheme God because of what they see in me. Peace.