For it is by grace you have been saved...

Friday, November 29, 2013

When Prayers Have No Words

Well, Thanksgiving is over.  For many, it was over before it started.  Some bypass a time of giving thanks in favor of plotting strategies for "Black Friday" so they can get more, more, more of what they couldn't even take a moment to give thanks for.  But, I digress.  That's not what this post is about. 

When we do take time to give thanks, most of us can find the words.  There may be times in life where God's blessings are so overwhelming that we are a bit speechless, but for the most part giving thanks is relatively easy.  But what about times when our prayers are not so easy?

Sometimes we come to a place where life is so difficult, some tragedy is so overwhelming, some grief is so life altering, that when we do reach out in prayer, there just seems to be no words.  I hate to admit that such a great quote comes from a novel (the bane of the scholarly life in some folks' minds) but I love this line from Steven James' latest novel Singularity:

"I'm no expert on how to talk to God, but I suppose sometimes the most eloquent prayers are those that aren't spoken at all but that rise to heaven directly from the fractures in our hearts, the places where words become superfluous."

Wow.  I love that.  It's so true, both from a practical and a theological standpoint.  Practically speaking, again, we know those times when the words just won't come.  Grief is too strong.  Shock is too fresh.  Pain is too great.  Words won't come.  But we reach out anyway in hopes that God hears the grief and shock and pain. 

And from a theological standpoint, we know that He does.  In fact, He more than hears, He intercedes.  The context isn't just about suffering, but in Romans 8:26 Paul says, "Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness.  For we do no know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words." (ESV)

Again, the context of Paul's comment isn't limited to suffering.  He knows that in our frail, human condition none of us know how to pray properly.  The Spirit aids all true prayer to turn it into something God certainly will hear and answer.  That's a comfort at all times.  But it is especially a comfort in those times when words just won't seem to come. 

Now, you may wonder why this rather melancholy post on the day after Thanksgiving.  Well, partly just because I tend to be a bit moody now and then.  But also because many folks reminded me lately of the fact that there are lots and lots of folks who don't get that happy Thanksgiving.  They can't be with family.  Their family member is overseas, or in the hospital, or maybe even just died.  Suffering doesn't take a holiday.  Death doesn't say "Oh, it's Thanksgiving, I'll take the day off."  Many will have a less than jolly holiday for a variety of reasons, and in their struggles I just want to offer these words of hope. 

Prayers don't always have to have words.  In fact, John Bunyan, author of Pilgrim's Progress, once wrote that "In prayer it is better to have a heart without words than words without a heart."  Sometimes, the words don't really mean anything.  And sometimes, the heart cries with meaning greater than words.  Sometimes prayers that rise to heaven right out of the fractures of the heart are the most eloquent.  And know that the Spirit will intercede on our behalf.  Our prayers are not as weak as we think. 

So if you are hurting, wondering, wandering, or just in need of a little encouragement today, I hope you find it in this:  our God never abandons His children.  He helps us in our weakness.  He even helps us to pray.  What a grand, glorious, gracious, God.  And that is indeed something to be thankful for. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Do We Expect Biblical Accuracy From Hollywood?

What a stupid question, right?  I mean, of course we don't.  I mentioned in my last post about the tendency for us to "romanticize" historical events because of what we've seen from Hollywood.  The movies always make things look so much better, or in some cases worse, than the actually were. And we're used to that.  We know it.  No big deal.

But what about when the historical event is a biblical event?  Should we support, encourage, go see movies about biblical events, even though we know those events are not going to be portrayed accurately?  The question comes up because of the hype over the upcoming movie about Noah and the Flood.  Check out the official trailer. 

Now, apart from the fact that this looks like a very exciting movie, it should be fairly obvious that some liberties are being taken with the story line.  Again, we know this happens, and we're used to it.  We've seen the same liberties taken with such well known stories as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien fans everywhere are divided about some of the overwhelming commitments to the true story, but also some of the glaring departures.  But it's storytelling, so we let it go. 

But is that ok when it comes to a biblical "story?"  Ken Ham has written a nice blog post about some of the dangers with the new Noah movie.  Some folks who were privileged to see a "rough cut" of the whole film mention some really bizarre plot lines.  

For example, Noah doesn't see this whole Flood thing as God's redemption/salvation plan for man.  He seems convinced that God doesn't intend for the man to repopulate after the flood.  The purpose of the ark is simply to preserve the "innocent animals" and star over with Edenic perfection, minus man.  In fact, he's so convinced of this fact, that when his son tells him that he and his wife are expecting, Noah supposedly says that if it's a boy he can live, but if it's a girl they'll kill her because God doesn't want man to reproduce.  Wow!  Noah seems a bit confused. 

In fact, he's so confused that he apparently alienates himself from the family after the flood and lives as the crazy old drunk guy in the cave.  Now, we all know of that little drunken episode in Noah's life, but this seems to carry it a bit far. Read Ken Ham's blog for more of the strange elements introduced into the story.

Again, we expect Hollywood to take some "artistic license" when telling a story.  But where do draw the line when it comes to biblical themes that are dumped, destroyed or degenerated?  Can we still enjoy the film as entertainment?  I for one have always loved Cecil B. DeMille's Ten Commandments.  I mean come on.  When you think of Moses, admit it, you think of Charelton Heston!  But there are some obvious departures from the biblical storyline there as well, right?  And yet, even with those changes I don't think the overall purpose of the Exodus is changed by the movie.  The biblical themes are still accurate.  Where do we draw the line?

Obviously the Ten Commandments was a completely different treatment of the biblical text compared to, say, The Last Temptation of Christ.  I won't even go there! But again, where do we draw the line in what we view ourselves and what we promote to others?

Ken Ham's concern is that so many Jewish and Christian leaders are already on board with the new Noah film, promoting it. He fears that we are being "conned" by Hollywood, with the trailer seeming to be fairly accurate (apart from the number and types of animals), only to be bombarded with unbiblical themes and images when we get to the theater.  And if the content he reports makes it to the final cut, he would be right.  But it's just a movie, right?

We've always struggled with these issues.  What movies are ok?  When is it ok to let our kids view material that is unbiblical, or at least seems to be in opposition to biblical truth?  We're big sci-fi fans.  But face it, most sci-fi is decidedly humanistic/evolutionary at its core.  Should we avoid that?  I love fantasy as well.  But by definition, fantasy isn't real, so I overlook some of the stuff there because, well, it's fantasy.  For the record, Tolkien's stuff, while based on some biblical themes, is fantasy and includes many questionable elements, but I not only gave the books to my kids to read, but couldn't wait to see the movies with them.  But isn't that different than a movie that purports outright to be telling a biblical story? 

I guess you can see by now that I have a lot of questions about all this.  I just glanced back and found that this post already has more than a dozen question marks.  So I guess I'm just asking for a little help here?  When is it ok to take liberties with a biblical storyline?  How far should we let folks go? Is it wrong to support and encourage movies like this, or should we shun and run?  When is art, art; and when is it dangerously messing with biblical doctrine?  

Well, maybe you all have some answers for me.  Or maybe I've just encouraged you to start asking a few questions of your own.  Either way, I hope our time together has been profitable. 

(Addendum:  I wrote this on Tuesday morning, scheduling it for Thursday since I had already posted another article that morning.  About two hours later, I found this article by Trevin Wax dealing with the very same issue.  My first reaction was to say "Shoot" and delete this post.  My second reaction was to say "Wow, great minds think alike."  My third reaction was to realize I had nothing else to say, nothing else to post about, and so I decided to leave this post intact even if it seems late now thanks to Mr. Wax.  Thanks!)

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Memorable Words

As you no doubt are aware, today marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.  I know as President, Lincoln realized the power of words, especially from him at the time.  And I know the times were exceedingly tense, a truly pivotal time in our nation's history, which would have made him even more sensitive to the power his words might have.  But still I wonder.  Did the president have any idea the impact these words would have?

We have a tendency to "romanticize" historical events.  Looking back on them, we do so with a Hollywood eye, seeing it all through the lens of movies and special effects and dashing leading men and so on.  For those living those events, it was simply life.  You work, you eat, you sleep, and then you do it all over again.  Life went by a second at a time, with all it's "pleasures." Mosquitoes still bit.  Bathroom breaks were necessary.  All the stuff of life Hollywood leaves out.

For Lincoln, it was another day on the job, another horrible day in a horrible war.  Another speech in a life of campaign and policy speeches.  Did he ever realize that these words would be the words that defined him, that defined his presidency, his legacy?  Considering that the speech ironically includes the words, "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here", I don't think he really did.  But I guess we'll never know.

Yet here's the thought that follows for me.  I'm no president (I was once told that if God had called you into ministry, don't lower yourself to become President of the United States).  I have no momentous occasion to speak upon, such as the battle at Gettysburg; no nation-defining moment to address.  And in spite of the fact that technology and the internet have allowed me to throw thousands of words out into the world, both written words through this blog and spoken words through our church's online sermons, I know that those words will never reach as many as Lincoln's even in his own day.  And yet, I wonder if I have anything to say that is memorable?

It's been 150 years since that speech.  Do I have anything to say that is worth remembering more than 150 minutes?  On the one hand I would say yes, because God in His strange wisdom has chosen to call me to the ministry of proclamation.  And I know that the Word He has given me to proclaim has eternal value and lasting power.  But what about the words I use to proclaim it? 

Because on the other hand, I would say the answer to the question is "no."  I'm not sure I've ever said anything of true lasting value.  I may want to chalk it up to life and circumstances.  We've established the fact that I'm not a political figure, a key speaker at a key time.  But that shouldn't be an excuse.  My goal should still be to communicate the truth of God's Word in a way that it will have a lasting impact, make a difference in people's lives.

I know that in ministry we often never see the result of our labors.  It isn't until years later that we might hear from someone that this or that message, this or that word of counsel had any impact.  And I'm good with that.  It's not about the "recognition" anyway.  But still, it would be nice to know that our efforts are having some influence.

For me, even more important than the words I offer our congregation, are the words I've given my children.  What impact will they have, for good or for ill?  Have I said anything of value that will be remembered in years to come?  Other than the jokes of t"he silly things dad always said."  I hope that I've offered them something of value.  It may not rate a celebration in 150 years, but hopefully it will at least rate a mention to the grandkids.

I guess the point here is that we all ought to realize that our words have the potential to make a mark.  Regardless of our position, regardless of the size of our "audience," we all have the potential to leave some memorable words to our families, to those God has placed in our path.  What will our legacy be?  What will we be remembered by? 

Well, as you reflect, why not take time to read Lincoln's words, or listen to one of the many recitations such as the one below.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Happy Birthday, Augustine!

On November 13, 354 A.D., in what is now called Algeria, a young pagan named Patricius and his Christian wife, Monica, welcomed a baby boy into this world.  Little could they have suspected the impact he would have on history.

As a boy, Augustine would study rhetoric and even teach it. But it wasn’t his academic life as a youth that is well known.  It was his after-hours lifestyle.  Augustine embraced a life of hedonistic pleasure, much to the dismay of his Christian mother.  Monica faithfully prayed for her son, and those prayers would be answered a thousand fold.

According to Augustine’s own well known testimony, he was wandering in an Italian garden when he heard a childlike voice almost singing “tolle, lege; tolle, lege.” The Latin phrase means “take up and read” which Augustine interpreted as a divine command to open a nearby copy of the New Testament and begin reading.  He opened to the latter half of Romans, and the rest is history.

Augustine rose through the ranks of the church to become the Bishop of Hippo, back near his home in Northern Africa.  He became a leading scholar in the church, most notably defending the true faith against heresies like those of Pelagius.  And the impact of his theology and writing has been felt for over 1,600 years.

There are some who are hesitant to embrace Augustine, since after all he is known by many as “Saint Augustine,” a stalwart figure in Catholic history.  But a reading of his works shows that Augustine had a firm grasp of the Gospel of Grace. 

The great Baptist preacher, Charles Spurgeon, in defending his own theology said this:  “I preach the doctrines of grace because I believe them to be true; because I see them in the Scriptures…Those truths which have enlightened so many ages appear to me to be ordained to remain throughout eternity. The doctrine which I preach to you is that of the Puritans: it is the doctrine of Calvin, the doctrine of Augustine, the doctrine of Paul, the doctrine of the Holy Ghost. The Author and Finisher of our faith himself taught most blessed truth which well agreed with our text. The doctrine of grace is the substance of the testimony of Jesus.  (Sermon in 1887, “All of Grace”, from Unusual Occasions)

So Spurgeon sees a divine chain of doctrine coming from Christ, through Paul, to Augustine and down to the Reformers, then to us.  Not that we embrace everything he ever taught.  But as Spurgeon also points out in recommending on of Augustine’s commentaries:  “To the wise a mine of treasure. Augustine is often fanciful; but even his fancies show a master-mind. Much that passes for new is stolen from this prince of theologians.” (From Treasury of David on Psalm 92:1)

Augustine is indeed a heroic figure in the history and theology of the Christian Church.  For more I would suggest reading this wonderful article from Dr. Timothy Paul Jones of Southern Seminary, which includes several other good links. (You’ll love the second video at the end!)

So happy birthday to Augustine of Hippo.  How do we celebrate?  Well, Dr. Jones has suggested running around a park somewhere singing “tolle, lege; tolle, lege.”  And maybe singing isn’t a bad idea.   Augustine reports of himself, “that when he came to Milan and heard the people sing, he wept for joy in the church to hear that pleasing melody.”

Dennis Gunderson of Grace and Truth Books suggested maybe going to the zoo and kissing a hippo.  Augustine of Hippo, get it?

Maybe just go pick up a copy of Augustine’s Confessions, or the City of God, or something.

Well, however you celebrate, it’s good for the church to remember those men whom God has used in such powerful ways to teach and preserve the truth of His Word.  May we all be as faithful to the truth. 

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Hope for Introverts

I don't think anyone would deny that we live in an extroverted society.  The "outgoing" are seen as better than the "quiet and shy" types.  Jobs go to the gregarious because we seem to think that louder equals confidence, and quiet suggests weakness.  Introverts are often seen as unfriendly, etc. 

Obviously, much of this is simply due to misunderstanding.  Introverts and extroverts aren't good or bad, better or worse, just different.  And indeed, the world needs both. 

Awhile back, Susan Cain wrote what has become a best-selling book called Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking. If you haven't read it (and unless you're an introvert like me looking for a little validation, you quite possibly haven't), Cain simply gives the evidence showing what an extrovert-loving society we've become, and then begins to outline some of the reasons this is not a positive development.  

Here's a wonderful little animated video which summarizes the basic premise of the book and gives one wonderful illustration. 

I know this has been out there for awhile.  I'm nearly always late to the party.  But I just recently found the video summary, and thought it was wonderful. Anyway...
So there is hope for introverts.  We are necessary.  It's not a sickness to be cured, a weakness to be overcome, it's a God-given personality trait with it's own pros and cons, but one that is beneficial to the world at large.  Obviously, the same can be said for extroverts.  We're both necessary. 

Now, some might question a pastor defending and claiming to be an introvert.  After all, doesn't getting up in front of crowds to preach and doing visits, etc. make you an extrovert.  Not at all.  That's the problem with all this, the misunderstandings.

Being a introvert simply means you get your "energy" from quiet, alone time vs. being energized by social situations.  I do, and even enjoy the social things.  It's just that they drain me.

Here are some helpful links to understanding introverts: 

Four Lies About Introverts by Amie Patrick 

And here's a great article about the "science" of what makes us introverts or extroverts.

Lists of some of the most famous introverts in history include folks like Einstein, Lincoln, Edison, Gandhi, and Isaac Newton.  And while it's nearly impossible to fully "peg" Bible characters in this regard, personality experts often point to none other than Moses and Paul as being introverts.  Imagine that!

Anyway, just thought I'd try to offer a little encouragement to my fellow introverts out there. You aren't alone.  You have valuable things to offer.  Don't let the "loud" world overshadow the importance of a little "quiet" now and then.  Now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go crawl back into my hole and try to not speak to anyone today.  (That'd be a joke, folks)

Monday, November 4, 2013

Why Baptists Don't Sing Psalms

I guess I should clarify, since I'm sure there are plenty of Baptistic Psalm Singers out there.  But it seems that many on the "conservative" side of things, those who don't care much for "contemporary" music, those who much prefer "tradition," etc.; these folks don't seem to be those who regularly practice Psalm singing. 

Maybe they think singing Psalms seems to Presbyterian-ish, or Cathoic-ish, or something.  Maybe it's because we just don't remember our history.  Baptists actually have a history of Psalm singing, dating back to the days of our English Baptist forefathers, heavily influenced by Scottish Reformers.  Charles Spurgeon, perhaps one of the most famous Baptists of all time, put together a hymn book just for his folks at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, which opened with a collection of hymn-songs called "The Spirit of the Psalms."  Many of Isaac Watts' Psalm songs play prominently here.  

Anyway, so many of our American churches dropped the practice for one reason or another that now it seems "foreign", and "strange."  And since "that's not what we sang when I was growing up" then I guess it doesn't have a place today, right?  Well, apart from that solid "we've never done it that way before" argument, I think there's more going on here in the reluctance of many to sing the Psalms.  It has to do with the words themselves.  

I thought about this as we read a Psalm to open our services yesterday.  While we're slowly trying to help folks understand that Psalm singing is acceptable, we've been using the Psalms as our "call to worship" for some time.  Don Whitney, now of Southern Seminary, introduced me to the idea of "Psalms of the Day" during a doctoral seminar some years ago.  It's simply the idea of taking the day's date, adding 30 to it four times, ending up with the numbers for 5 Psalms to read that day.  Since I'm writing this on the 4th of November, today's Psalms would be 4, 34, 64, 94, and 124.  This gets you through the Psalms completely each month. (sorry for the rabbit trail here, but it seemed appropriate to fill in the details)

So, we take one of the Psalms of the day and read part of it as a "responsive reading" to begin our worship services.  Yesterday, we read from Psalm 33.  These phrases jumped out at me:  "Shout for joy", "Sing to him a new song", "play skillfully on the strings", "with loud shouts."   What's a nice, conservative, traditional Baptist to do with those things??

Surely we know singing those "new songs" is bad.  "Strings" implies guitars and stuff; that can't be good.  And for heaven's sake, "shout"????  We ain't doin' none of that Pentecostal shoutin' stuff.  Now, I hope my Baptist friends know I'm being a bit sarcastic, poking a little fun at the stereotype of the overly-traditional position.  And I admit that I'm a bit odd.  (as if I have to point that out)

For the most part, I'm pretty conservative/traditional about my worship as well.  I'm not a big fan of the entertainment oriented worship stuff going on in a lot of places.  And yet at the same time, my personal musical tastes run a bit on the loud side.  I even confess that as I read that verse about playing skillfully on the strings with a loud shout, I almost chuckled because the thought entered my head about how much I'm looking forward to the new Stryper CD coming out tomorrow.  Skillful strings and lots of loud shouts.  Oh yeah!  

But seriously, while I like that music for my own "entertainment",  I don't think it belongs in my church on Sunday morning.  Yet, not wanting to bring rock n roll to church is a far cry from not wanting to have impassioned worship.  And for some reason, we seem to think that the answer for the feel-good entertainment approach is to be stifled and border-line bored. 

I love Spurgeon's comments on the "loud shouts" of Psalm 33:  "Heartiness should be conspicuous in divine worship. Well bred whispers are disreputable here. It is not that the Lord cannot hear us, but that it is natural for great exultation to express itself in the loudest manner. Men shout at the sight of their kings: shall we offer no loud hosannahs to the Son of David?"

Wow!  A Baptist said that!  Seriously, I think we do struggle with what to do with the loud shouts and clanging cymbals and trumpets and new songs we read so much about in the Psalms.  That might be part of why we don't want to see them more prominently in our worship.  Maybe not.  Maybe it really is the "we've never done it before" idea.  But whatever it is, we need to get over it.

The Psalms are the only God-breathed songs we have.  While God has gifted hymn writers in every generation of the church, and while they have given us wonderful songs to sing, we need to be sure we don't neglect these divine songs along the way.  

I know this has been even more of a ramble than usual.  Probably need more coffee.  But I hope that the church of God, Baptist and others together, will find great joy in the Psalms; reading, meditating and singing them.  And may we truly find "heartiness" in our worship.  

Now, for the really adventurous, you can check out this new single from the aforementioned Stryper CD out tomorrow.