Restraint or Enabling?

Without the integrity of the game, what do you have? A bunch of big, strong, angry men who have reached their breaking point. Jackie MacMullan, ESPN Boston

Last night, the Patriots lost to the Ravens. Make no mistake – the Patriots lost that game. They had a couple crucial errors in pass coverage that allowed the Ravens to be in position to win by a single point.

But the officiating reached a new low, and I hope the replacement referees had body armor and armed guards when they left M&T Bank Stadium last night. At one point, the crowd was actually chanting expletives at the refs. This was not individual fans. It was 70,000 very angry and frustrated (and intoxicated) fans standing from their seats to insult the men in striped shirts.

The players, the coaches and the fans are seething. They have reached a boiling point while the NFL and the real officials continue to try to negotiate a contract. If the NFL does not do something soon, we are going to start seeing players turning on the replacement officials. Remember that these are, as Jackie MacMullan put it, “big, strong, angry men.”

How much is too much? When does restraint in the face of injustice become enabling the injustice? When do we say enough is enough and start turning off our televisions? When we will stop showing up at the games?

I love football. It is a game I have loved to watch for decades. But after last week, I am not sure I will watch it next weekend. Why sacrifice time on a game that is losing its meaning and rhythm because of a contract debate and scab workers who clearly don’t care or understand what they are trying to do?

Who am I kidding? I will continue to watch because I love the game. I will continue to scream at the mess the NFL has become, but I am powerless to change it. My beloved sport is about to slip over a precipice and become a caricature of its former self, and I will probably just take it.

And then, I began to think about the apathy in my own life. What kind of craziness, injustice and abuse do I allow to take place around me while I sit there? How callous have I become that I just take what comes at me without a retort or response?

It is easy to become a mute observer, an enabler to those who would abuse others in the name of restraint.

This is what Jesus accused the Pharisees of in Luke 11:42 –

But woe unto you, Pharisees! for you tithe mint and rue and all manner of herbs, and pass over judgment and the love of God: these you ought to have done, and not to leave the other undone.

In the name of “not judging”, we often allow sin to go on around us. We enable those who are hurting others for fear of being considered a meddler.

Sometimes, I find myself in this position. Do you?

Maybe it is the fear of being stereotyped as a puritanical jerk who everyone has to be careful around. Maybe it is a longing to be a part of a group, even if that group does things that privately you do not think are appropriate. Maybe it is an underlying insecurity or inability to address the issue.

There are many things we should stay silent about, but there are some we need to raise a protest about. It is not enough for us to maintain personal righteousness. Sometimes we need to call others to follow the way of righteousness as well.

This is an unpopular statement, and yet it is at the core of the the New Testament. The apostles Paul, Peter, James, Jude and John wrote a healthy chunk of the New Testament and the bulk of their encouragement is a call to righteous actions – charity, stewardship, responsibility, edifying communication, decency, order, respect, obedience, submission.

There is a time for restraint and patience. There is also a time to do something to effect change.

I hope the NFL fans will rise up and do something for the love of the game.

I pray the church if Jesus Christ will rise up and do something for the love of the Lord and his love for his people.

A Deeply Troubling Moment

The Scriptures contain some very, very strange passages. There are things in the Bible that make even the most committed readers shake their heads in confusion. One of the all-time strangest passages is 1 Kings 22.

Why? Just read it.

Here’s a little context.

Ahab b. Omri became king of Israel in 873 BCE. His predecessor, Omri, was a military commander who had led a coup and then successfully crushed his competition in a brutal civil war. He handed Ahab a successful kingdom, with alliances to a number of strong states around it.

Ahab married Jezebel, the daughter of Ishba’al, the king of Tyre, and together they established a variety of Canaanite cults in their capital city of Samaria. By marrying their daughter, Athaliah, to the heir to the southern kingdom of Judah, Jehoram. Together, Ahab and Jezebel ruled Israel and wieleded incredible influence until Ahab died in battle in 852 BCE.

Jezebel and two of her sons held power for a little over a year, but then a military commander named Jehu wiped out all of their children and killed Jezebel, claiming the throne for himself. Athaliah, in Judah, survived until she was ultimately killed in an uprising around 835 BCE.

A Strange Prophecy

1 Kings 22 takes place right before Ahab was killed. In fact, it deals with the prophecy of his death. Ahab formed an allegiance with Jehoshaphat, the king of Judah, hoping to defeat the rising power to their north, the Arameans.

The plan backfires. Ahab, who has defied YHWH, the Hebrew God, at every turn finds himself at the mercy of a nameless bowman. This could easily be attributed to YHWH no longer protecting Ahab. The problem is that in 1 Kings 22, the prophet Micaiah makes it plain that YHWH intentionally deceived Ahab and Jehoshaphat.

Here’s what Micaiah said:

Now hear therefore the word of YHWH! I saw YHWH sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing by him on his right hand and on his left.

And YHWH said, ‘Who shall persuade Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said on this manner, and another said on that manner. And there came forth a spirit, and stood before YHWH, and said, ‘I will persuade him.’ And YHWH said unto him, ‘Wherewith?’ And he said, ‘I will go forth, and I will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You shalt persuade him, and prevail also: go forth, and do so.’

Now therefore, behold, YHWH hath put a lying spirit in the mouth of all of your prophets, and YHWH hath spoken evil concerning you. (1 Kings 22:19-24)

God sends lying spirits? He makes prophets deceive kings? How do we reconcile this with a God who cannot lie (Titus 1:2)?

No matter how you slice it, this is probably the most difficult passage in Scripture. If we take a hyperliteral view of the text, then we have no choose to admit that YHWH deceived someone indirectly to accomplish what amounts to the murder of a king.

What to do?

Most Christians are more than happy to be ignorant of passages like this. They have a sort of “Don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward these kinds of things.

But now you’re looking at it. You’re seeing this passage for perhaps the first time. What do you do?

1. Context, context, context. Any time we are going to make an interpretation, we have to consider the context. What kind of literature is this? What is happening in the narrative? Who is speaking? Who is the audience?

In this case, we are reading a historical record. Kings is not meant to express doctrine. It records events as they occurred, and that means it includes a lot of things as they happened. As we all know, reality does not always fit into theology. The moment does not always appear to fit into the narrative.

2. Consider rhetoric vs. dogma. Throughout Scripture, the prophets say things that don’t conform to theology. They are momentary revelations that are often rhetorical devices. Nathan manipulated David through a story (2 Samuel 12). Ezekiel was commanded to prophesy while his wife lay dying (Ezekiel 24:18). Elisha made iron float (2 Kings 6:6).

This kind of stuff was not meant to be permanent truth. It was momentary revelation. Rhetorical acts and statements do not present doctrine. In fact, it is a terrible idea to form doctrine from these kinds of situations. If a prophet tells a story about something happening in heaven, he isn’t teaching the doctrine of heaven. He is bringing forth a point.

3. God deals differently with kings and nations. This might be hard to grasp, but the way God works with kings and nations is very different from the way he works with individuals. God forbids murder but at times commands war. David, a man after God’s own hearts, was not allowed to build the Temple because of his bloody past (according to 1 Chronicles). Paul tells us to honor those in authority over us while Jesus defied Caesar when Caesar’s law conflicted with God’s.

Of the three things I am listing here, this is the one I am most uncomfortable with. The Scriptures make it clear that God both controls the hearts of the kings and rulers AND that some kings and rulers are evil. God deals with kings and nations in ways that don’t make sense to individuals. That’s all I can say about the topic, really. If I ever figure out a formula or system for understanding it, I will let you know.

So, back to the question. What to do with 1 Kings 22?

First of all, we are reading things as they happened and that means we have to believe that Micaiah actually said this to Ahab and Jehoshaphat. But we are also reading the rhetoric of a prophet and the point is not the parable of YHWH and his spirits but rather the prophecy that Ahab would die. That was true.

It is easy to dwell in the valley of minutiae and argue about why Micaiah put things this way. Perhaps it is the same reason that John used the image of Caesar’s triumph in describing the throne room of God some three thousand years later in the Revelation (Revelation 4). It is a momentary revelation.

Perhaps it was a reflection of Micaiah’s knowledge of Ahab’s own workings. The way Ahab’s servant Zedekiah responds seems to indicate that Micaiah struck a nerve. Perhaps Ahab had held a counsel earlier to draw Jehoshaphat down to battle, and that the counsel had looked and sounded very much like the one Micaiah described.

Maybe God does mislead the leaders of nations to bring about their downfall? After all, he did harden pharaoh’s heart during the ten plagues.

What this text does not teach is that YHWH sits in heaven trying to figure out how to lie to and manipulate the average person. This narrative is not normative, meaning we don’t form doctrine from it. We accept it as true, but we also accept that it is meant to explain Ahab’s downfall – not to establish principles for our lives.

 

Preach As If the Scriptures Mean Something

James MacDonald recently posted “Five Things We Do Instead of Preach.” I won’t reiterate the points he made, all of which are valid.

I once had a pastor tell me that he was too busy to prepare sermons, which was why he bought and borrowed series from well-known ministries rather than write his own. Sure, he spent a little time customizing the messages for his congregation but the most important thing was that he was sharing Jesus with people, right?

There’s nothing wrong with using canned messages, but call them what they are. That’s not preaching, and it’s not teaching. It is recycling. You heard something that you thought was good and you’re sharing it with your congregation. As my daughter tells me, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.”

Here’s the thing for me. I was trained to preach, not recycle. I went to Bible college and seminary to learn how to proclaim the Scriptures boldly and plainly. My father was one of the best speakers I have ever heard share the Scriptures, and I learned a lot from his old school ways. Call it what you will, but I like to preach.

There is something deep inside of me that rejoices in unpacking a text, mulling over meanings and nuances, and then bringing that text to light on a Sunday morning. There’s no glitz or fancy videos. I don’t even use Powerpoint for bullet points (largely because I usually only have one point anyway).

A message during our worship gatherings is me and my Bible, the congregation and their Bible, and the Holy Spirit speaking through his word.

Styles vary, and maybe you like Powerpoint and moving backgrounds. Maybe you communicate with your videos and dramas. That’s great. God be praised. But that’s not preaching. That’s media. Those things don’t take the place of God’s man before God’s people, opening up the Scriptures and giving understanding (Nehemiah 8:8).

The Church of 2012 doesn’t need more self-help or missional strategies. It needs the Word of God, preached by God’s man through the Scriptures. (In case you missed that nuance, the Word of God is Jesus Christ.)

The Content of Worship

Recently, someone showed me a “new worship song”. They were so excited about the way it made them feel closer to God.

The “new worship song” opened with a pretty, melodic piano piece and was then followed by a single phrase – something like “I want to see you” – repeated five or six times before a big build and then a statement of all the ways the singer feels good when they are worshiping.

This is not worship.

Let me put this in context. Let’s say I wrote a love song for my wife and it went like this:

I love you.
I love you.
I love you.
You do the dishes.
You scratch my back.
You take care of the stuff that I don’t want to do.
You give me sex whenever I want it.
You make me feel good about myself.
I love you.
I love you.
I love you.

Maybe my wife is different than yours, but my wife would haul off and slug me. Then she would not talk to me for at least the rest of the evening except to strongly suggest that I sleep on the couch.

Worship is not about repeating myself and commenting on how great it is that God gets to love me. That is narcissism, not worship.

People might say, “But it comes from the heart!” to which I reply, “Then your heart needs some adjustment because this tells me you are self-centered at heart.”

When we read the Psalms, the greatest book of worship songs ever written, we find a constant theme of God’s glory – very little of which involves the worshiper. Sure, the worshiper speaks a bit about himself from time to time, but then he turns it around and worships God in his divinity, transcendence and power. That bit about the worshiper – that’s not worship, it’s just context. The worship is the part about God.

The content of worship needs to be deeper and truer than our own emotional responses. That’s not to say that worship is not an emotional thing, but when all we can think of is our own emotions and responses, then it is actual self-worship and not God-worship.

Let me encourage you to pursue deeper content in your worship – musical or otherwise. Do not content yourself with putting on a Christian appearance for your sentimental journeys. If you need assistance, just pick up a psalm or two. They will feel unnaturally “deep” but they are after all God’s inspired worship.

Break Away from the Myths

Myths are powerful things. They are stories that might have some grounding in truth but are usually expanded far beyond their original scope. They drive and control the lives of those who accept them as fact without considering whether they align with reality.

Recently, I sent a link to this article from Jon Nicol about worship myths to the musicians in our congregation. Nicol listed three myths that affect small congregations, but there are lots of myths that float around the church – particularly small congregations – that paralyze us.

How do you break away from these controlling myths?

  • Do some research and publicize the results. Don’t be intimidated by statements with no facts to support them. Find out whether these myths have any foundation and whether they even apply to you.
  • Dream big together. As a ministry team, spend time dreaming. Make sure you clarify that dreaming is not planning. Dreaming is not bounded by budgets and limitations. It is exactly what it sounds like – dreaming. Jesus’ vision for you is bigger than your plans, and in dreaming, we often realize His vision.
  • Write your own story. Myths try to write your story for you. Covenant together to write a story with the resources you have, to accomplish something only you can in only that place.
  • Become the vision. Never stop learning. Never stop growing toward the vision God lays before you. Never stop failing forward in your quest to realize what He has set for you.

 

Book Review – Messy Church

Ross Parsley was the worship pastor at New Life Church in Colorado Springs, Colorado. If the congregation’s name sounds familiar, that’s because you probably heard it on the news. In 2007, the senior pastor Ted Haggard resigned because he was outed by a male prostitute he had been paying for sex and crystal meth. The scandal was on national news.

While the scandal was breaking, Ross was in the hospital with his wife Aimee who was giving birth to their fifth child. He drove from the hospital to the church campus where he was named the interim pastor and served in that capacity until the congregation called Brad Boyd to be their new senior pastor.

In 2010, after eleven months of prayer and discussion, Ross left New Life and moved to Austin, Texas, where he and a small group started a new congregation – ONEChapel.

I didn’t know any of this when I requested his book Messy Church for review. I liked the title, and it resonated with a lot of things I have been thinking lately. But the book was far more than I expected, and I mean that in a good way. I actually wound up posting quotes from the book on my Facebook page, and I am thinking about buying copies for all the leaders in our congregation.

Parsley views the church not as a corporation or even as a pool of people but fundamentally as an interconnected, “messy” set of relationships. All these relationships are valuable. Relationships within families are important, of course, but he also emphasizes the need for multigenerational relationships that provide real mentoring, accountability, and encouragement – both for the young and the old.

This is something I have believed in for a long time. I learned how to study the Scriptures from my father and grandfather, who were often less than “kind” to me because they were provoking me to work harder and dig deeper. My dad was always challenging me to go deeper, to think harder. (We used to have “family church” one night a week, and I had to preach. I still remember “preaching” on Jonah at maybe seven or eight years old and being asked, “But what does it mean?”)

So, Parsley’s ideas really resonated with me.

He spends a lot of time talking about the need for the church to be more like a family, focused on relationships and not affinities. He admonishes the young for demanding that their elders be “cool” and then corrects the elder Christians who do not want to engage and involve the young. He also has some choice words for church leaders who abandon the older generations in favor of the “next generation.”

This multigenerational attitude is necessary for the church to succeed and grow. We must have people of all ages, working together. The older I get, the more convinced I am that the excesses of my own generation have deprived us of the beautiful guidance of our elders (not as in church leaders but as in older).

This was a book worth reading, worth discussing. Maybe I will buy it for our leaders. I haven’t decided yet, but if I don’t, I might still encourage them to buy it for themselves.

I read a digital copy of Messy Church as part of the netgalley.com program. I received no compensation from anyone involved with it for this review.

Finding a Good Bible

As a pastor, I am a teacher of the Scriptures. I spent most of my work life studying the Scriptures either alone or with a group.

When someone becomes a follower of Christ, the most important purchase they can make is a Bible of their own. This single book is the revelation of Christ, and without it, there is no Christianity.

I tell people this, so naturally they want to get a Bible. But then they get to a Barnes & Noble or a Christian book store and they discover that there are lots of choices when it comes to Bibles.

Versions

The Bible is really a collection of ancient texts, ranging from 2,000 to 4,000 years old. They are in three different languages: Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek. Since most of us are not too familiar with ancient Greek (and even I’m just barely literate in that language), obviously we have to read the Bible in a translation.

There are a lot of translations of the Scriptures, and the translations are not all created equally. In choosing a Bible translation, you need to consider the difference between a “literal” translation and a “dynamic” one.

To understand that difference, you need to know that translation takes a source language and converts it to a receiver language. Often, these languages are very different. For example, Hebrew is an abstract language with a very limited vocabulary. English on the other hand is a concrete language, with definitive meanings for words. English in 2012 CE is far more rigid than Hebrew was in 1000 BCE.

The difference between “literal” and “dynamic” translations is whether one is more concerned with the source language or the receiver language. Literal translations focus on the source language, which means that they often sound a bit stilted and awkward from time to time in the receiver language but they reflect the source better. Dynamic translations on the other hand focus on the receiver language, so they often read better but there is a certain amount of meaning and form that is lost in translation.

As a teacher, I prefer a literal translation. For literal translations, the King James Version (KJV) is still the gold standard. The KJV was the final version of an English translation that began with the work of a genius named William Tyndale; and continued by the English Protestants while in exile during the reign of Bloody Mary in the forms of the translation of Miles Coverdale and the Geneva Bible.

Although it was published 400 years ago, the KJV literally changed the English language. It is the translation I still remember verses in because I grew up with it. It was also the last time that the translation effort could change English to fit the originals rather than having to make the meaning of the originals fit into English. English has become far more rigid in the past couple of centuries.

The drawback to the KJV is that it is 400 years old and the most recent revision was done in 1769, over 200 years ago. That means some of the language forms are hard to decipher for the modern reader, and a lot of the words have changed meaning over the centuries.

Currently, I use the English Standard Version (ESV) which was completed in 2001 and has seen minor revisions in 2007 and 2011. The ESV is one of a number of translations that are considered the children of the KJV. Without getting into the history, there was a pretty terrible “new” translation done in 1881 that was supposed to replace the KJV, and since then scholars have been trying to get the balance of the KJV back but in modern language, with modern scholarship. The result has been no more than six other translations, all of which share a heritage with the KJV (Revised Version, American Standard Version, Revised Standard Version, New Revised Standard Version, New American Standard Version, New King James Version).

I am not a fan of dynamic translations personally. They are usually easier to read than literal translations but they often fall short of the meaning of the original text. I find myself looking at them and asking, “Why translate it like that?” But they work for some folks. If you’re not too terribly interested in nuance and subtlety, then a dynamic translation like the New International Version (NIV) might be a good choice for you.

Study Bibles

But choosing a translation is only part of choosing a Bible. The Christian publishing houses have pumped out hundreds of different kinds of Bibles, with explanatory commentary and notes included in the margins.

I personally got tired of these things, and I have not used a study Bible in probably fifteen years. I prefer just reading the text of Scripture. But different strokes for different folks.

I won’t recommend a study Bible to people, but I often suggest that they take a few minutes to research the editor or compiler of the notes in a study Bible. For example, the study Bible I used as a teenager was a Scofield Study Bible. The notes in the Scofield were usually excellent, but it had a very definite agenda. The author of the notes held to two relatively recent views – the Gap Theory of Genesis and Dispensationalism – that he enforced throughout his text. I was unaware of this, so I took the notes to be completely reliable, which of course led to adopting his views.

There are also some fairly complicated study Bibles. The Thompson Chain Study Bible uses a huge set of five digit numbers to link to study notes, and from there to other notes. I owned one for several years before I figured out how the numbers worked.

If you choose to purchase a study Bible, select one done by a conservative teacher and which clarifies the text rather than adding all kinds of unnecessary commentary. But my recommendation is to just go with a Bible that has a minimum of notes.

Size and Binding

And then, there are all the different bindings and sizes of Bibles. I carry a thinline Bible when I preach, largely because I use no notes or outlines. As one of our congregants put it, I “freestyle”. A thinline Bible is narrow and contains only the text. It is easy to use and light to carry.

In contrast, there are many ENORMOUS Bibles that look like leatherbound dictionaries. These are often stuffed out with marginal notes, indices and study guides. Many pastors use these enormous Bibles and take great pride in the worn out nature of their Bibles. As they often say, “I worn out Bible indicates a believer who isn’t.”

There are often hardcover and paperback Bibles, which are usually far less expensive than leather bound Bibles.

The choose of these things is really up to you. Just make sure you make your translation and study guide chooses BEFORE you make your choice for looks.