Holy Orders

timothyLots of people today believe Christianity is of no practical good. Bill Gates, the billionaire founder of Microsoft, quipped, “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.” With a jaundiced eye, it might appear the only folks profiting from religion are the ones drawing a paycheck from it. But what if the uninterested and unimpressed saw something different: professing Christians, even whole church communities, obeying holy orders that actually transform all of life (beliefs, ethics, and spirituality)? Perhaps they would see a gospel-integrated model of what the world really needs. Christians need such vision too because our spiritual lives are often fragmented, inconsistent, contradictory, hypocritical—sometimes just one crisis away from falling apart.

The Apostle Paul’s charge to a young pastor (1 Tim 6:11-16) speaks volumes on these things. In this passage we learn that God, the supreme life-giver and all-powerful one, commands his people to obey their holy orders without fault or failure: that we run from moral evil and toward godliness, stand for the truth of the gospel until Christ’s appearing, and lay hold of the eternal life that we confess.

Holy Orders: Who Are They For?

For all elders (vv. 11-12)

Remember the apostle Paul is giving advice to Timothy on pastoring well. Timothy is a young elder (not a contradiction!) who needs authoritative instruction on how to faithfully fulfill his calling to shepherd the church under his care. Paul reminds him of the holy orders God calls elders to obey. We call this collection of letters written to Timothy and Titus the Pastoral Epistles because they are primarily addressed to men who pastor the church. Notice that Paul names Timothy a “man of God” in contrast to the false teachers of the previous passage. “Man of God” is a highly honorable OT title referring to a leader of God’s people (Moses, Samuel, David, and Elijah among others). Its usage across the whole Bible refers to a man speaking on behalf of God, bringing God’s message to God’s people. In this sense elders who preach and teach God’s Word are “men of God” exercising some of the same duties as the OT prophets, declaring, explaining, and applying God’s Word to others.

For all Christians

But holy orders are not merely for elders. Countless Bible passages exhort all Christians to live the same way (cf. Rom 12; Eph 6:10-18; 1 Pet 1:13-25). Think about it this way. Men who are called to be pastors and elders are ordained from the pool of believers in the church. They show themselves good examples of how all Christians are called to believe, live, and feel. Timothy and other elders must live according to their holy orders not to be a substitute for other Christians (for Jesus alone is our substitute), but to be an example for other Christians. So non-elders are not off the hook! Any Christian who is thoroughly equipped by Scripture for every good work is a “man of God” (2 Tim 3:17).  Holy orders are for all Christians—men and women, old and young. Continue reading

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Blue Like Jazz (Book Review)

blue-like-jazzSo I finally got around to reading Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality (BLJ).  I wouldn’t say it’s a contemporary classic, but a lot of people have read it and liked it.  It was a book that sort of went viral with the young and “connected” crowd when “going viral” was still a bad disease.  Not too often does a book, particularly a Christian memoir, get a movie deal.  But that was BLJ.  Sort of a cultural moment for Millennials.

Since the book has been praised and critiqued ad nauseum, I think it best now to reflect on the positives and negatives of the book and its effect on culture.  So here goes.

BLJ is a beautiful example of pop art.  It’s not high art, but it doesn’t try to be.  The author, Donald Miller, just wants to tell his story as a single guy: coming of age and coming to a tested Christian faith through the struggles of college life and beyond.  The way he tells it, his upbringing was formative but unsatisfying in terms of the political and cultural conservatism of his evangelical (fundamentalist?) faith.  When Miller grew up he was considered weird simply because he questioned his subculture’s unwritten rules.  And then he went to college and his world expanded with all the wonderful people he met who happened to be different from him.  Different values, different speech, different beliefs, different habits.  This is not interesting in itself because it’s thoroughly common.  But one reason Miller’s story is a great read is because of which school he chose to attend.  Reed College is famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) for unrestrained radical liberalism.  There is something oddly hilarious about an evangelical finding his way in the den of iniquity!  Miller gets this, and his narrative wrings so many laughs out of several bizarre yet lovely experiences.  With Miller’s perspective sufficiently changed, the rest of the book weaves together seemingly disparate stories with introspection, transparency, and insight into the human soul.  This is probably the best thing about the book.  Miller is adept and refreshingly honest about discerning what God teaches him through the episodes of his life—both victories and defeats.  The “moral of the story” at the end of each episode is always clear and served up with words that make Jesus attractive to both believer and unbeliever.

It’s been about a month since I finished the book, and it turns out the things I remember best are the stories and the poignant impressions they left on my heart.  Not the content of those lessons, mind you, just the way they made me feel.  In this sense BLJ is an affirming and cathartic read, which is an odd combination for any book.  This might explain its curious level of success.

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Our Time Has Come

dont-make-excuses

I pity the foo!

We’re at the end of our series from the OT called Encounters With God. This message is a bit different because it points toward the kind of encounter with God you and I can actually expect to have. The paradigm for encountering God in the NT era is in this passage, so Haggai 1 serves as a fitting end to this series. In the OT God led his people in a relationship of growing maturity. And I pray he has led us along the same path as we encounter him in his fullness through the Holy Spirit uniting us to God in the Lord Jesus Christ. I’ve discovered that Haggai is incredibly relevant to Christians. It shows us one reason why our desire to encounter God is so often frustrated.

It’s so easy to build our private little kingdoms and to justify our neglect of God’s big kingdom. Why do we do this, especially when our little kingdoms prove dissatisfying? How can you escape this terrible rut when we are all more or less at fault? How can you stand if we tend to fall together?  God knows our hearts and the situations we collectively inhabit, so he is able to properly challenge us to consider our ways when we fall out of his favor and then feel life’s frustrations. God calls us and stirs us through his powerful word to return to him in reverent obedience. No more excuses. Our time has come.

The short book of Haggai is near the end of the OT. It narrates the prophet’s ministry to the remnant of Jews who returned to their homeland after being exiled in Babylon for 70 years. The civic and religious leaders, and all the people, have been rebuilding their nation’s infrastructure and neighborhoods, but the temple still lies in ruins after an aborted effort to repair it 20 years prior.

The Excuse Uncovered

God knows your situations (v. 1)

On 8/29/520 BC God spoke. It was the first of the month in the Jewish calendar—the day of the new moon festival in Jerusalem and thus a day of public worship. Trumpets blared. The priests offered the people’s sacrifices. The crops were mostly harvested. Godly leaders presided over the people. It was a time for all to rest from their labors and celebrate. But the time was not as happy as it appeared, and God knew it. So the Lord spoke through his prophet Haggai to governor Zerubbabel and high priest Joshua in order to confront the big problem that no one was seriously discussing anymore.

God knows your excuses (v. 2)

The source of the problem was the broken-down temple. But the big problem was that no one wanted to do anything about it. Everyone wanted in theory a rebuilt and functioning temple, but no one considered this a serious problem anymore. They had accepted their situation as normal, and they made excuses for their apathy. They told themselves the time was not yet right to start working. And they had probably convinced themselves this was true for a number of reasons. (1) The last time they tried rebuilding, opponents killed the project. (2) Wasn’t the coming Davidic king supposed to rebuild the temple? It was really God’s project—that’s what Ezekiel said (Ezek 37:24-28). (3) It had only been 66 years since the Babylonians tore down the temple. Didn’t Jeremiah say their exile would be 70 years (Jer 25:11)? God knew all their excuses, and he wasn’t buying any of them.

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Fahrenheit 451 (Book Review)

Fahrenheit-451My oldest kid is in high school now.  (Sometimes I can’t believe it!)  She is excited about growing up, and I’m excited (and to be honest a little fearful) of the ride she taking us on.  Since I like to read, one of the cool things about this “parenting teenagers ride” is following her in the assigned English literature.  You see, I was not particularly interested in English class when I was in school.  It’s one of my big regrets.  But now I can right that wrong.

Over the summer her teacher assigned Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, one of the few books I actually remember reading in school.  It’s a story of a fireman named Guy Montag who is a respectable 9 to 5 working stiff in a very strange world—a world where firemen start fires instead of fighting them.  The kinds of fires he’s called to start are emergencies to incinerate books whenever a call comes in.  The job doesn’t bother him in the least until he meets a young lady who is different than anyone he has ever met.  She is striking to the reader as abnormally normal.  Her life and family are typical for what the reader experiences in today’s world, but Guy doesn’t know what to think of her.  When she mysteriously disappears, it rocks his concept of normal reality that sets him on a personal journey of discovery, resistance, and even resurrection.

I’ve read enough good fiction as an adult to realize that, at least for me, reading a book as an adult is a completely different experience than reading it as a kid.  My younger self just could not soak up all a book has to offer.  I suppose some of that can be chalked up to a more leisurely pensive pace a non-student can afford to take.  But I know that’s not the only reason I get more out of literature nowadays.  So with anticipation I recently plowed through F451 for the second time in my life, this go-around as a grown-up.  Let’s just say I was not disappointed.  Here’s why.

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But If Not

faith-under-fireCompromise can be a very good thing. Happily married couples know “a compromise is an agreement whereby both parties get what neither of them wanted.” And that’s OK because loyalty to the other preserves the “I love yous.” Compromise is a kind of social game we play to preserve relationships, to keep the peace, and to prevent everyone from suspecting they got shortchanged. Clearly compromise pays…sometimes.

Does it ever pay to compromise your core religious and moral beliefs? If life is just a series of games to win (or avoid losing)—like office politics, investing for retirement, or playing King of the Hill—then the answer must be Yes: “you have to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.” But if life is about glorifying God and enjoying him forever (WSC 1), then it never pays to compromise the most important things. Consider the first two commandments (Don’t worship other gods, don’t bow down to idols). Can they ever be compromised? Can you win a victory for God while playing according to the world’s rules? Or are these commandments not to be toyed with and instead worth dying for?

Daniel 3 shows us the pressure to bow before false gods can be enormous, especially when faced with threats and the prospect that God will not miraculously deliver. God may choose to save, vindicate, and exalt in this life those who entrust their lives to him, but if not he will certainly walk with them through every trial.

Abounding Idolatry

Bad news for God’s people (vv. 1-6)

Here is the setting: exile in Babylon, the city that became the biblical paradigm of wickedness. King Nebuchadnezzar’s empire is impressively vast and glorious. God says he and his kingdom are “gold” compared to lesser kingdoms that would come later (Dan 2). Now it seems the king let it go to his head. So he made a giant gold statue (probably representing his god), set it up on a plain outside the city, and called for all the governing officials to prove their loyalty to his majesty. The test? Fall down before the golden image and pay homage. Translation: worship the idol. The price of noncompliance? Execution by cremation. If you’re a pagan, then no problem. Just add one more idol to the list, pay your dues to the king, and off you go. But if you’re a faithful Jew, then this is a life-or-death crisis. How can you even consider bowing to an idol? You’d cease being you! You’d betray your God with one decisive action. Maybe some people will be able to opt out as conscientious objectors?

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The Stories We Tell (Book Review)

stories-we-tellPeople love stories.  Radio shows and podcasts that feature original storytelling remain popular year after year.  The industries of television and movies have tremendously evolved over decades.  We don’t ever seem to get bored of them.  Well, maybe.  But not enough to tune out completely.  We just change the channel or surf a little deeper into the Netflix catalog foraging for a good story to entertain us.  Did you ever wonder why people love stories?  I used to think a good sermon was a theological exposition that distilled doctrinal truth from the less important story form in which the Bible passage was originally packaged.  But then I noticed that people remembered the sermon illustrations—the stories—best.  I found this even true of me.  Story is a way to make sense and remember truth.  It just might be the best way.  That just seems to be the way God made us.

In his book, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (SWT), Mike Cosper contends that all our TV and movie watching is not just a waste of time.  And it doesn’t have to be an escape from real life.  If we contemplate the themes and underlying assumptions of what we’re watching, we may discover that many of those well-written, well-acted, and well-produced shows that draw us in are giving us glimpses of foundational truths woven into the fabric of creation.  Even Honey Boo Boo has something to offer!  (At least that’s what Cosper says.)

SWT is simply a great book, and quite fun to read.  There is something for everyone here—I dare say even for the cultural elitist who shuns the popular storytelling of the boob tube and the silver screen.  Cosper begins by explaining why we tell stories.  He makes the case that, from a Christian perspective, because we are created in the image of God, we can’t help but see life as a story because God is weaving a Grand Narrative in history of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-creation.  Since we live in his world, it is only natural for us to see our lives as reflecting (in whole or part) certain aspects of history’s big story.  We long to see how the individual stories of our lives fit into the larger narrative.  For this reason the stories we tell are pregnant with meaning as they compare, contrast, and image the big story.

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Fool’s Talk (Book Review)

fools-talkI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems to be harder to talk to our friends and neighbors about the Bible, Christianity, and the gospel.  In one sense it has always been hard to talk about spiritual things because it’s uncomfortable and risks the relationship to some degree.  But that’s not what I mean.  Nowadays, in our late modern and even post-modern society, it’s harder to have such conversations because Christians can no longer assume we share common assumptions with unbelievers.  The world is a big place, and there are lots of ways to look at things.  Many of those viewpoints (worldviews) have made their way into our culture and have been absorbed by all kinds of people.  No one, even Christians, are immune to being unwittingly shaped and influenced by the world and other viewpoints.  But at least Christians have in the Bible a book that does not change.  It is our standard, our story, our guide, our authority that gives us a common language, worldview, and religion.

Much of the world doesn’t have much of a clue what the Bible says, what Christians believe in common, or even what is the basic message of the gospel.  The people who know they are ignorant of these things are at an advantage.  At least they are in a position that allows them to be humble and teachable regarding things of which they can learn.  (That’s not to say most Christians are no longer ignorant of these things.  We read and explore because we know we don’t know everything and we want to learn from people and resources that can teach us.)  However, religion in general and Christianity in particular (at least in my American context) are topics for which it appears everyone considers himself an expert or is firmly settled on his opinion.  I’m startled at how much misinformation so many believe about Christianity.  For example, my daughter’s public high school World History textbook doesn’t include much about Christianity—just a few paragraphs.  But its description of important beliefs lacks central truths summarized in the Apostles’ Creed.  No mention of the doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus Christ!  And the textbook explains that all four gospels were written by one of the 12 disciples.  This is simply a factual error.  No branch of Christianity, from the most conservative Bible believers to the most skeptical Bible scholars, claims the books of Mark and Luke were written by one of the Twelve.  What “experts” are proofreading this stuff?

Here’s the big problem: ignorant people, who think they know enough or even everything important there is to know about God, are getting harder and harder to dialogue with.  Why?  The Bible’s answer is that such a one is a “fool”.  Sound harsh and judgmental?  Perhaps, but then again, maybe the Bible is wiser than we think.  Maybe the Bible is the splash of cold water in the face that we all need (including teachers who think they’ve “arrived”).  Here are ten truisms the book of Proverbs says about the fool and knowledge.

Proverbs 1:7  The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.

Proverbs 10:14  The wise lay up knowledge, but the mouth of a fool brings ruin near.

Proverbs 12:16  The vexation of a fool is known at once, but the prudent ignores an insult.

Proverbs 12:23  A prudent man conceals knowledge, but the heart of fools proclaims folly.

Proverbs 13:16   In everything the prudent acts with knowledge, but a fool flaunts his folly.

Proverbs 14:7   Leave the presence of a fool, for there you do not meet words of knowledge.

Proverbs 14:33  Wisdom rests in the heart of a man of understanding, but it makes itself known even in the midst of fools.

Proverbs 15:2  The tongue of the wise commends knowledge, but the mouths of fools pour out folly.

Proverbs 15:7  The lips of the wise spread knowledge; not so the hearts of fools.

Proverbs 15:14  The heart of him who has understanding seeks knowledge, but the mouths of fools feed on folly.

The situation can feel pretty bleak for Christians wanting to talk intelligently and honestly about their faith with others.  What to do in a foolish world?  I’m glad you asked. :-)

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