Tuesday, March 30, 2010

How Do You Get From Herman to Heather?

Reading theology can be one of most fruitful activities I do with my time. I am grateful for how the Word of God is put together by world-class theologians who are able to see the strands in the text I most likely could not see even after 40 years of reading the Bible. When these strands pop out at me I am led to worship God because it exposes a faith so tiny, a sight so short.

Such has been the case while reading Herman Ridderbos' Paul: An Outline of His Theology. A few weeks ago I read of what actually occurs with salvation, how Christ's Cross-work justifies us and reconciles us to God. The depth in which he explains these truths is amazing. What I found particularly beautiful was how he explains Paul's theology in light of a redemptive-historical context. This is why Ridderbos is known so well as one of the great biblical theologians of the 20th centuries.

Yet even as I am edified by his words I also notice what I typed above. I notice that the average Christian has no idea what justification means with its forensic perspective or even reconciliation with its familial perspective. Nor would I really expect any of them to know about the term "redemptive-historical," even though it is so vital for how we put our bibles together. Maybe we should be expecting more for the so-called "average" Christian...

But what I am troubled by more is that the non-Christian has absolutely no idea what I am talking about when I use those terms. Yes, justification and reconciliation are used in our language today, but this is not the case for the average person. Moreover, the terms theologians use carry unique biblical and theological weight, even creating more terms that are helpful to the scholar or pastor, but confusing to nearly everyone else.

I am never more aware of this than when I finish reading a text like Ridderbos and then move to do every day normal person stuff, like going to Panera or getting a haircut. I had just finished reading his section on reconciliation, deeply edified by his explanation of Jesus' gracious work, when I went to the barber shop to chop off the locks. My barber was a woman by the name of Heather (yes, it was a barber shop and not a salon). On top of doing a wonderful job with the hair, Heather and I had a pretty solid conversation. I learned a little of her home life and she learned a little of my life in the city planting a church. There was something inside of me that truly wanted to share with her all God had taught me that morning through my reading of Ridderbos, but I kept wondering how I would actually communicate it. For me, it wasn't merely the terms, but the themes, the Scripture passages, the overall theology of Paul, the storyline of the Bible--all of these were running through my head! I was able to fumble over a little of the theological foundation of our church's vision, but I left most of what was going on through my head out.

Sadly, this is often the case when I have conversations with people who do not think in the same categories I do. This is both the blessing and the curse of seminary. On the one hand, I am learning new categories that provide such a robust view of Scripture. But on the other hand these categories create a specialized language that is kept between a very few. Yes, the lunch conversations at seminary can be insightful, but this is not the type of talk in a barber shop.

I believe the great task of any Christian--from early believer to seasoned theologian or pastor--is to take the unique language of Scripture and theology and make it accessible to those who have not be exposed to any of it without losing the essence of what God is communicating in His Word. I am constantly learning how difficult of a task it really is, especially because I also believe we must retain the clear language of the Bible. This lesson I am learning was reinforced that day. Walking home clean cut I realized that my conversation with Heather provided me a clear question that I will continue to ask myself for the rest of my life whenever I preach, teach or share Scripture at any time:

"How do you get from Herman to Heather?"

By His Grace.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Save Yourself!

And the people stood by, watching, but the rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; let him save himself, if he is the Christ of God, his Chosen One!” The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” -Luke 23:35-39
Three distinct movements. Three different sets of people. Three different mocking accusations. One angry command. One gracious response.

He was who they said he was
The rulers "scoffed."
The soldiers "mocked."
The criminal "railed."

The venom poured out in every word that was spoken. They hissed as they accused him, challenging all that was said about him and all that he had done. They threw the titles out there, wholeheartedly believing that he was not who they said he was.

"If he is the Christ of God, His Chosen One..."
"If you are the King of the Jews..."
"Are you not the Christ?"

Come on, Jesus, if you are who we say you are, then prove it!

"He saved others
let him save himself.
Save yourself!
save yourself
and us."

They knew he wouldn't do it. They knew he couldn't do it. They thought they knew why. They thought it was because he wasn't who they said he was. But their "why" was wrong. He was exactly who they said he was. And more.

We try to save ourselves, but can't
How much are we like the rulers, the soldiers, the criminals? Probably a lot more than we are willing to admit. How often do we hurl up thoughts and prayers that are based on our notion of who Jesus is, a notion that is mixed with both truth and lie. We might get the phrases right, some of the theological foundation may be correct, but as we shout our words to God, they come off as accusations. We cry out "prove yourself to me!" I have had countless conversations with non-believers about this very thing. It boils down to God not doing what they want him to do. They then conclude that he does not exist. The doubting, unbelieving heart wants Jesus to come down off the Cross. And if he did, however miraculous an event it would have been, he would not have been who they said he was. The Christ had to suffer and die (Lk 24:26, 46; Acts 3:8; 17:3).

In our doubts and unbelief we do not want Jesus to be God. We want to be gods. We want to be like him. We want the power to save ourselves. We want to prove that we are worthy of the greatest titles of the world--even if it's our own little world.

"Best dad ever."
"World's greatest preacher."
"Entertainer of the century."
"Most humble person on the face of the earth."
"Savior of the world."

We desperately try to save ourselves, but can't.

He could have saved himself, but didn't try
He was exactly who they said he was. He had the power to save others and he did. He had the power to save himself and he didn't. I am blown away by this. The thought is not profound, but Jesus' action, or rather inaction, is. By his unwillingness to save himself, I am saved. To put it positively, by his willingness to die, I am alive. The criminal's words echo through my head: "Save yourself and us." Little did he know that if Jesus had, all would be destroyed. Jesus proved himself to be exactly who they said he was not by succumbing to their spiteful commands, but by remaining silent, fulfilling the will of His Father.

He could have saved himself, but didn't try. Now, by his grace, I don't have to either.

By His Grace.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Slaughtered With Machetes

Please check out this post from Mike Pohlman of The Gospel Coalition. He begins sharing about the winner of last night's live documentary Oscar, The Cove and moves to point out the tragic events that occurred this weekend in Nigeria.

By His Grace.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Semester in the Seminary of Suffering

Your suffering will show you that the timing of teaching and touching is crucial...When you walk through your own valley of darkness you learn these things. This is your lifelong seminary. If you are called to counsel others, I entreat you, do not begrudge the seminary of suffering. -John Piper
Many factors over the course of the past two months play into the unmistakable truth that I am in a semester in the seminary of suffering. Academically, I just finished an extensive study of 1 Peter in my Greek Exegesis class, where one major theme is suffering. I also recently took an intro to counseling course that exposed me, albeit briefly, to the reality of the vast suffering experienced throughout local churches all over the world. For work, I am helping to prepare a sermon series on suffering. Personally, I have heard several sermons as of late on the theme of suffering and I have begun to explore my life and the painful losses that occurred in my past. Finally, my time in the Word has opened up my eyes to the consistent message of suffering presented after Genesis 3.

However, I’m also learning that we balk at that word in America--suffering. We want to avoid it at all cost. We medicate ourselves with all society offers as means for comfort, security, and safety. Even when we know it is okay to suffer-—whether it be the loss of a loved one, experiencing rejection, being abused or neglected—-we don’t want to embrace the pain and the hurt. Instead I know so many people who just suppress it all, burying it deep within their hearts. But it never actually goes away; it never heals. And if it never gets dealt with it destroys them. They either become violent and angry, bitter at everyone or, and maybe even more frightening, they become numb to life and to God. He or she is a shell of a human being, an illusion of who they once were.

As I journey through this semester in the seminary of suffering, I am realizing that I have sought too long to avoid suffering in my life. Furthermore, my eyes are opening to the plain truth that I know too many people--Christians--like me. We do not have a proper theology of suffering. We do not get trained in a proper theology of suffering that incorporates both the mind and the heart. As a result, we do not know how to minister to others in their suffering, providing trite, cliché, theologically and emotionally hollow answers to questions we're unwilling to wrestle with before the Living, Triune God.

My journey has brought me to several conclusions I wish to develop over the coming weeks and months. The two major ones that constantly come to the surface are here, but I believe there are many more.

1. Suffering in Light of Eternity
"But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed" (1 Pet 4:13). This verse sums up the tone of the entire letter (1:7, 11, 21; 4:11, 13, 14; 5:1; 5:10). Peter is writing specifically about suffering because of persecution, but the principle of rejoicing in the midst of suffering as we look to Jesus' return can be extended to all areas of life. Moreover, we must realize that each and every person in this world has experienced some level of suffering. Their experience is unique and valuable because they are created in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). C.S. Lewis states it poignantly:
There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations--these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But is is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit--immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. -C.S. Lewis
In light of eternity, how are we approaching suffering in our lives and the lives of others, both believer and unbeliever?

2. The Language of Lament
We do not need to be taught how to lament. What we need is simply the assurance that we can lament. -Michael Card
Put simply, our theology does not allow for the category of lamenting in our suffering. Somewhere we lost it and I for one grew up in a generation that knew little to nothing about it's place in the Christian's life. Yet we can look to Scripture--more specifically the lives of Job, David, Jeremiah and Jesus--not only to see that lament is possible for us, but that it even produces a stronger dependence on God than ever before.

Have you ever been taught about lamenting? If so, what did you learn? Have you ever seriously lamented? Is this a foreign concept to you?

I plan on expanding each of these a bit further because we have to ask why the necessity for eternity and lamenting is important for a proper theology of suffering and practice of it as we and others in our lives will undoubtedly suffer.

For now I must ask, are you too walking through a semester in the seminary of suffering?

By His Grace.