August 28, 2008

"While we were still helpless"

Several folks were particularly helped by the word "helpless" in Romans 5.6 this past Sunday. While we were still helpless, Christ died for us. Below is a modern parable ... a father and son running the Ironman Triathlon together (a 2.4 mile ocean swim, a 112 mile bike ride across the desert, and marathon run to top it all off).

August 25, 2008

Unmasking China

The Olympics have passed us by for another four years. And, if you are like me, the impression left by Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt, Nastia Liukin, and those 15,000 absolutely amazing Chinese Chinese Opening Ceremony performers have already begun to fade.

But there were other stories; stories I hope you do not allow to fade; stories that had to do, not so much with athletic achievements or entertainment, but about the realities of life in China. A few reporters actually dared to take the watching world behind the Chinese scenes, reminding us that not everything in Beijing was exactly as it seemed. The city – for better or for worse – put on its best Chinese New Year’s mask, as it were. Phony (but beautiful) buildings were erected. Computer generated streetscapes were beamed in for the televised marathon, hiding slums and poverty. A little girl was pulled from the stage at the eleventh hour for having crooked teeth. Everything had to be (or at least look) perfect.

I suppose we could have a debate about what one should think about these various facades. Was it a political move, making China appear to be far more progressive and open than it really is? Or should we simply smile at the pretend buildings and the straight teeth and say ‘that’s entertainment’? I’ll let you be the judge.

But one thing cannot be ignored by those of us who are followers of Jesus. Despite how things looked in Beijing, China is not as open and free as the IOC, the Chinese organizers, and the vast majority of American news outlets would have us believe. There are still great injustices, particularly toward our brothers and sisters in Jesus. Here is just one excerpt, from the Canadian newspaper, The Globe and Mail:

It's been a brutal Olympics for China's non-registered church. Just a snapshot of the crackdown happened in Beijing, where all major house churches were forced to stop meeting during the Games and most of their leaders were arrested or put in seclusion. That excludes the names on nearly a dozen pages of documented Chinese church arrests and assaults publicized by Canada's Religious Liberty Commission just before the Olympics.

That’s the reality we must never forget. For all the talk about the world coming together at the Olympics (no matter where they are held); and for all that there is to admire, learn from, and rightly enjoy about an event like the Olympics – we must remember that the world that we see on television is often very different from the reality … especially for the persecuted church. Pray for them.

August 18, 2008

Church Architecture

Every now and then I get a strange look. Okay, actually I get a lot of strange looks. But the kind I am specifically thinking of right now is a look of confusion when I insist that we do not worship in a church, but in a church building. Maybe I sound like the English teacher that was always correcting you when you said ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’ … or ‘brung’ instead of ‘brought’. But she served a good purpose, and I hope my linguistic pet peeves might do the same. Let me mention a few of them, by way of definition…

church (church) - Translated from the Greek word for ‘assembly.’ Not to be confused with a church building, a church, then is a gathering or assembly of people – in this case, believers in the Lord Jesus Christ. They may meet in a cathedral, a little white chapel, a multi-building campus, a store front, a school gymnasium, a home, or under a mango tree and still be said to have ‘gone to church.’ That is, they have gone to be with God’s local assembly of Christian believers.

sanctuary (sangk’ ∙ choo ∙ er ∙ i ∙) - Another name for the Old Testament’s Holy of Holies – the place of God’s dwelling among his people. Not to be confused with a church auditorium which merely houses God’s people. In the New Testament, the sanctuary is not a particular room in a building, but the human heart of the believer in Jesus, where the Spirit dwells.

altar (awl’ ∙ ter) - The Old Testament place of animal sacrifices … where atonement was made for the sins of the people. In the New Testament since “Christ died for sins once for all”, “there no longer remains any sacrifice for sins”. Therefore, there is no longer any need for an altar. Thus, Christian church buildings do not actually have altars at the front of the auditorium, but platforms.

Now, which terminology we use is not the be-all and end-all of Christianity – not by a long shot. But the distinction, for instance, between altar and platform is significant enough, I think, to be intentional in the way we speak. If we replace the word altar with platform, we will, every time we say it, be reminding ourselves that we don’t need to bring anything to God in order to be saved. That no amount of tears or prayers said at an ‘altar’ are of any avail. Nor are they necessary. “Christ died for sins once for all.” Similar theological reminders would come if we replaced church with church building and sanctuary with auditorium or chapel.

Again, not the most important things in the world. But words do have meanings. And we should, for the gospel’s sake, squeeze the most and the best out of them that we can.

August 4, 2008

China and the Olympics

Here is one story that fits the moment.

Solzhenitsyn, 1918-2008

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn died yesterday. Our loss. Here was a man who, more than most others, challenged the intellectual classes to think about reality. Would that he were even more well known. I find myself thinking I ought to, perhaps, take the time to read through his classic work, The Gulag Archipelago.

At any rate, here is a quote from his bombshell 1978 commencement address at Harvard. Sounds like it could have been written yesterday. Maybe the times they aren't a changin' as much as we think:

If humanism were right in declaring that man is born to be happy, he would not be born to die. Since his body is doomed to die, his task on earth evidently must be of a more spiritual nature. It cannot unrestrained enjoyment of everyday life. It cannot be the search for the best ways to obtain material goods and then cheerfully get the most out of them. It has to be the fulfillment of a permanent, earnest duty so that one's life journey may become an experience of moral growth, so that one may leave life a better human being than one started it. It is imperative to review the table of widespread human values. Its present incorrectness is astounding. It is not possible that assessment of the President's performance be reduced to the question of how much money one makes or of unlimited availability of gasoline. Only voluntary, inspired self-restraint can raise man above the world stream of materialism.

Read the whole address here (thanks JT).

August 2, 2008

Leftover Cloth

They say the test of a good tailor is how much material is lying on the floor when he's finished making a suit. Honestly, I am not sure whether their is supposed to be a little or a lot! Nevertheless, as I was crafting a suit out of the topic "Mankind" in our Theology 101 series, I had some material left-over ... a section on the distinction between male and female that I had not room for. I hated to just leave it on the floor, or throw it in the trash can, so I figured I'd hang it here in the window and see if anyone could use it.

So, if the suit fits, you can wear it ...

There is a distinction within the human race. Now we could, perhaps, draw up a list of numerous supposed distinctions between humans. But Genesis 1 says nothing about race, or tribe, or nationality, or educational background, or economic status. And therefore we should not be overly concerned to draw distinctions along any of those lines either. Genesis 1 only draws one line of distinction within the human race. There is only one difference among us that warrants mention in the definitive chapter on the origins and value of mankind. We find it stated clearly in verse 27: “In the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.”

Now, seventh grade biology class made it embarrassingly clear that there is, at least, an anatomical distinction between the sexes. And, despite the massive amount of money and political energy that is currently being poured into convincing the American public that this distinction is really not that significant; that it is not abnormal for two people of the same sex to overlook what seventh grade anatomy made so clear … I do not think I need to spend much time arguing this point. We do not even need the special teaching of Scripture to understand that there is a difference between male and female … and not only physically so, but emotionally as well … and that there are obvious practical principles that flow from that.

However, I think we may need some reminding of the distinctions between men and women in some less obvious areas. While the Bible makes it clear that God created us all in His image (“male and female”), and therefore urges us not to discriminate, not to look down upon one another, and not to see one sex as more valuable than the other … the Bible also makes it clear that men and women – equally created in the image of God – do sometimes have distinct roles. We see this especially emphasized as it relates both to the home and the church.

Now we do not have to like it, but the Bible makes it patently clear that men and women play equally valuable, but obviously different, roles in the home. The man, and not his wife, is uniquely handed both the authority and the responsibility and potential repercussions that come with being the head of the household (see Ephesians 5.22 and following). And wives, more so than their husbands, are charged with the privilege and difficulty of submitting to their husbands (Ephesians 5.22) and being “workers at home” (Titus 2.5) – caring for the house, nurturing the children, showing hospitality, and so on. Sometimes there will be some overlap, obviously. Men can nurture children, and women can make decisions. But overall, the distinction is clear. Husbands are to lead and to bear the brunt of responsibility for how well they do so. Wives are to nurture, and make sure that the home is a home. We mustn’t be wiser than God. Even if we do not feel particularly suited to or desirous of our God-given role, the fact that it is God-given ends the discussion for us. Husbands and wives are equal in value, but distinct in role.

The same principle carries over into the church. Men, women, and children are all on equal footing beneath the cross of Jesus. But there are decisions to be made; lessons to be taught; leaders to be ordained. And, in those situations, God has made it clear that, though they are no better (and not necessarily always more capable) than their female counterparts, men are to play these roles. “I do not allow a woman to teach or be in authority over a man” (1 Timothy 2.12).

Now last week Julia mentioned the possibility that she might like to someday follow in her daddy’s footsteps and become a preacher. So I kindly walked her through the verse I just read to you – 1 Timothy 2.12. And then she asked: ‘Why?’ Why what? ‘Why are only boys supposed to be preachers?’ Well, because only boys are supposed to be heads of their households and it would be confusing if daddy were in charge at home and mommy were the leader at church. ‘But why are only boys supposed to be in charge at home?’ she asked. And at that point I had to admit that the Bible doesn’t give an extremely clear and decisive answer. It just says that’s the way it is. We know it is not because men are more “in the image of God” than women. Genesis 1 won’t allow that line of thinking. So I just had to tell Julia: ‘because that’s the way God wants it.’ And, at the end of the day, that has to be good enough for us.

Since we know that God loves us and has our best interest in mind, we should be content to accept the fact that God has made men and women equal in terms of value and dignity, but distinct in terms of their personalities and roles. So I ask you: Are you content with God’s plan? Or is there some way, in your heart or home, that this biblical truth needs to be more faithfully embraced and applied?