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Christian Living

August 31, 2011

Last week I spent a long time studying the fourth chapter of Ruth, the climax to an amazing story. The bulk of chapter 4 is a description of a legal transaction between Boaz and one of his relatives as the two men decide which one of them will take upon himself the role of kinsman-redeemer. This strange transaction, which is eventually completed not with a signature but with the exchange of a sandal, offered me a glimpse into the heart of these 2 men and, from there, a glimpse into my own heart. Let me explain.

You remember the context, I’m sure. Naomi has been left without a husband and without an heir and, Ruth, her daughter-in-law, has asked their relative Boaz if he will become a kinsman-redeemer. If he accepts, he will take all that belongs to Naomi and he will marry Ruth; the first child born to them will not be considered his child, but the child of Naomi and her now-dead husband, Elimelech. This child will not carry on Boaz’s name and family line, but Elimelech’s. Though it is a significant commitment and a significant sacrifice, Boaz is willing. Before he can do this, though, he must see if this other relative, who is more closely related to Naomi, will accept the role. 

For that reason Boaz calls this man into a formal legal proceeding. He is a little bit crafty, first telling this man only that Naomi is seeking to sell all the land that belonged to Elimelech. He asks if this man will be willing to buy the land. At least for now he doesn’t mention anything about Ruth.

From a social perspective it makes a lot of sense to act as a kinsman-redeemer. There is great honor in being a redeemer and carrying out that kind of familial duty. It is probably be like being labeled a philanthropist today—not a bad title to carry around.

August 22, 2011

It was A.W. Tozer who wrote (in The Knowledge of the Holy), “what comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us.” That is a broad statement, a grand one, but one that merits some thought, for as Tozer says, “the history of mankind will probably show that no people has ever risen above its religion, and man’s spiritual history will positively demonstrate that no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God.” If no religion has ever been greater than its idea of God, the same must true of individuals. We can never rise above our idea of God.

Tozer says, “We tend by a secret law of the soul to move toward our mental image of God. …Always the most revealing thing about the Church is her idea of God, just as her most significant message is what she says about Him or leaves unsaid, for her silence is often more eloquent than her speech. She can never escape the self-disclosure of her witness concerning God.” I think he is right. Once we have decided who God is, we chase after that image. The application becomes obvious: It is critically important that we gain an accurate understand of who God is through the Bible, God’s own self-disclosure. Otherwise, we will inevitably move towards a fabricated and false image of him. We will put aside the real thing and chase after a mere shadow.

Here are words that have long gripped me and are worthy of lengthy reflection: “Were we able to extract from any man a complete answer to the question, ‘What comes into your mind when you think about God?’ we might predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man. Were we able to know exactly what our most influential religious leaders think of God today, we might be able with some precision to foretell where the church will stand tomorrow.” This is a sobering thought and not only for those who pastor megachurches and enjoy a national platform. If Tozer is right, then what he says applies to the smallest local church, it applies to the family and wherever else there is spiritual leadership. What comes into the pastor’s mind will predict where his church stands tomorrow. What comes into dad’s mind will predict where his family stands tomorrow.

August 11, 2011

Yesterday evening I went to the mid-week Bible study at Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Chattanooga. Pastor Wayne Layton has been leading a series examining the church’s statement of faith and last night he came to what Christians know as the hypostatic union. 

Hypostatic union is bit of an intimidating term that describes the union of Jesus’ two natures. Jesus has a human nature and a divine nature and these two natures are united in the one person of Jesus Christ. Christ is not two persons—one human and one divine—rather, he is one person with two distinct natures. These natures do not mix or intermingle. Each is completely distinct.

This intimidating term describes a glorious and eternal reality. We can ponder and treasure this reality for all of our lives and never get to the end of it. It occurred to me last night that when it comes to pondering such tough and glorious doctrines, there are at least two ways we can err—two ways in which pride can rear its ugly head.

August 09, 2011

Canada’s Bank of Nova Scotia has to be one of the few banks in the world that allows you to order gold bullion online. Visit their web site, punch in your order along with your credit card information, and a couple days later FedEx will deliver your gold to the door, all sealed up in a plain and boring little envelope.

The gold comes in tiny little bars. For somewhere around $1700 (and rising fast!) you can purchase a 1 ounce gold bar and have it delivered to your home. It will be 22mm wide, 38mm high and 2.3mm thick. What you do with it once you buy it is a bit trickier—maybe you will want to put it in a safe deposit box or bury it out in the backyard.

That 1 ounce gold bar is 24 karat gold, 99.99% pure. Think about that for a moment. If it is 99.99% pure, it means that in order to divide out the impurities, you would need to divide it into 10,000 equal pieces before you found the one that was not gold. If the total surface area of that gold bar is 836mm, the impure part would come to less than one tenth of one millimeter. That would be smaller than the period at the end of this sentence. Do the calculation by weight and you’d find that it comes out to less than 3 milligrams.

A little while ago my son was asking me about holiness, about what it means to be a sinner. He was having trouble distinguishing between what it means to do bad things to other people and what it means to be a sinner. He is only a young kid, not old enough to have experienced any significant trouble. He has never murdered, he has never stolen, he has never cursed the name of God. He may have done some bad things in his life, but honestly, he’s a pretty good kid. Isn’t that good enough? If we were to divide his life into 10,000 little thoughts and actions, would we find that only one in 10,000 was impure?

August 04, 2011

There was a time in my life when I worried about money. These were not just occasional thoughts about how little money we had, but the kind of worry that would wake me up in the night, bathed in sweat, my mind racing, trying to figure out how on earth I was going to scrape together a few hundred dollars to pay another bill. I was being eaten up by worry and I came to believe that the solution was to worry some more. Every few days I’d make up a list of all the money we had, all the money we owed, all the money that was coming to me, and would try to make the pieces fit. They didn’t. That night I’d wake up again, lying in the dark, trying to figure it all out.

I thought of those days last week when I was studying the book of Ruth. There was one little thing there that caught my attention and got me thinking about this. At the beginning of chapter 2, Ruth and Naomi have returned from Moab and Ruth declares that she is going to head out to the fields to work; she will take on the role of breadwinner. But here’s the question I had: Why doesn’t Naomi go out as well? It seems that at this point she is not yet an old lady; she is older but not old. At least it is unlikely that she is so old that she can’t go along with Ruth and put in a day’s work. And since gleaning was dangerous work—a woman out in a field alone was always vulnerable—2 would be better than 1. But we are not told why Naomi remained home.

And this led me to wonder if she was experiencing the kind of paralysis that can come when we are overwhelmed with worry. Naomi is convinced that God is sovereign, but she is not at all convinced that he is good. Perhaps she is in a funk and in such a dark place that she can’t even bring herself to get up and get going. Maybe she believes that her job is to stay home and worry. Have you ever been there before? We all worry at times—we all have problems that weigh on our minds, problems related to health or love or money. I think there are times when we feel like we need to worry, like if we don’t worry, God won’t pay attention. We can feel that our worrying is effectual, like it is effective, like it gains the ear of God.

August 02, 2011

The first chapter of Ruth sets the stage for a dramatic reversal. It’s the opening of a story and it immediately draws us into the despair of Naomi. At the end of the book’s opening chapter we are left with a very honest but not-so-pretty portrayal of her. She is a woman who has fallen on hard times—her husband has died and her sons have died, leaving her without any grandchildren, without any future.

Through all of the devastation she has become convinced that the Lord is out to get her. She believes—rightly of course—that God is in control, that God is sovereign, but she no longer believes that God is good. She looks at all that has happened to her and she decides that God is opposed to her; he must be. God is strong, but God is not loving. What other explanation could there be? How could a loving God allow all of this to happen to me?

Is there a darker place to be? Could you love or trust a God who is sovereign, who is all-powerful in this world, but who is not good? What kind of a God would that be? Who could worship such a God, a God who controls all things but who is evil or ambivalent, who just doesn’t care? That would be a mean and savage God, the kind of God we would all want to flee from. 

No wonder, then, that Naomi is in despair. No wonder that she is so low. To believe that God is all-powerful, to believe that he demands our allegiance, but that he is opposed to us—that is terrifying. No one can trust a God like that. No one can truly love a God like that. Naomi has created a false image of God. Instead of allowing God to speak into her circumstances, she has interpreted God through those circumstances. When her life was good, God was good; now that her life has gone bad, she believes that God is bad.

July 27, 2011

Endlesss Choice
Simplicity is a trending topic in our culture and our day; there is good reason for this. We are drowning in stuff and drowning in options. Somewhere along the way, many of us find it all overwhelming and overbearing. Somewhere along the way, all of these choices are making us miserable.

In the past couple of weeks I have been in the market for a new car. Having just accepted a full-time position as Associate Pastor at Grace Fellowship Church, I found that in order for me to do ministry well, and in order for Aileen to be able to keep things running around the home, a second car would be very, very useful. I went out shopping and within hours my head was spinning. My main requirements were reliability and fuel efficiency while also keeping a close eye on price. This led me to the compact market—cars like the Honda Civic, Ford Fiesta (or Focus), Hyundai Elantra, Volkswagen Jetta and on and on and on. Within a fifteen minute radius of my home there are probably 30 or 40 different cars that would fit the bill. But not only that, there are 5 or 6 models of each of those cars—DX, LX, EX, entry model, mid-range, high-end. The choices were bewildering. Oh, but there’s more. Even once you choose your model there are colors to go through, typically 6 or 8 per car. And then there are the accessories to choose from—from better tires to rear spoilers to $50 cup holders and upgraded stereos. And those $2000 navigation systems that don’t do anything a $100 TomTom can’t do.

I eventually settled on a Honda Civic, pretty much ending where I had begun. But even then the choices were not finished. No sooner had I said, “Sold!” than they started telling me what a horrible decision I had made and how badly I was going to need 1 of the 8 extended warranty plans they make available. Suddenly my Honda Civic, historically the most reliable compact car on the market, had become a Lada. In what may not have been my finest moment, I reached over and closed the brochure the guy was leading me through and said, “You sold me this car on its reliability. There is no way I’m going to sit here and listen to you tell me what a piece of junk I’ve bought. So we’re just going to put this away and I don’t want to hear another word about the extended warranty unless you’re going to give it to me for free.”

July 18, 2011

Jason DunhamJason Dunham of Scio, New York, joined the U.S. Marines in the year 2000. Just 18 years old when he enlisted, he quickly showed leadership ability and was chosen as a squad leader in Kilo Company, Third Battalion, Seventh Marine Regiment. Dunham’s unit took part in the invasion of Iraq and it was here that he would perform an act of outstanding gallantry.

On April 14, 2004, Corporal Dunham was in the town of Karabilah, leading a patrol to scout potential locations for a new base. Over the radio they heard that a nearby group of Marines had been ambushed by insurgents; at least 2 had received severe injuries. 

Cpl. Dunham’s patrol jumped aboard some Humvees and raced toward the convoy. Near the double-arched gateway of the town of Husaybah, they heard the distinctive whizzing sound of a rocket-propelled grenade overhead. They left their vehicles and split into two teams to hunt for the shooters, according to interviews with two men who were there and written reports from two others. Around 12:15 p.m., Cpl. Dunham’s team came to an intersection and saw a line of seven Iraqi vehicles along a dirt alleyway, according to Staff Sgt. Ferguson and others there. At Staff Sgt. Ferguson’s instruction, they started checking the vehicles for weapons.

Cpl. Dunham approached a run-down white Toyota Land Cruiser. The driver, an Iraqi in a black track suit and loafers, immediately lunged out and grabbed the corporal by the throat, according to men at the scene. Cpl. Dunham kneed the man in the chest, and the two tumbled to the ground. 1

Two other Marines rushed to help, trying to subdue the driver. From a few yards away another Marine heard Dunham yell, “No, no, no—watch his hand!” The Iraqi man dropped a grenade, armed and ready to explode. Dunham immediately threw himself upon that grenade, covering it with his helmet and his body, to contain the explosion and protect his squadmates.

The resulting explosion left Corporal Dunham unconscious, face down in his own blood. He would never regain consciousness, dying several days later as a result of the horrific injuries he had sustained.

July 14, 2011

This is not a book review. I will be discussing a book—a rather popular book, at that—but I will not actually review it. Gary Chapman’s The Five Love Languages is a perpetual bestseller, one that is a near-constant presence on theNew York Times list as well as the Christian lists. And, like so many bestselling Christian books, it is one in which I see some genuine strengths combined with some appalling weaknesses. It is a book that demands that we heed the old cliche to chew the meat while spitting out the bones. What I want to do today is offer a critique of the whole idea of love languages and then show how I have found them to be useful.

The Basics

The heart of the book is a description of 5 ways in which people tend to be wired or ways in which they tend to want to have love expressed to them: affirming words, gift-giving, physical touch, quality time and acts of service. Chapman believes that each of us has tendencies toward some of these and away from others. Each of us can probably take a look at the list and order them from 1 to 5. Some of us love being served while others of us love receiving gifts. But for others acts of service and receiving gifts are nearly meaningless. In his wisdom and kindness, God has made us to be very different even in the ways we give love and receive love.

There is no doubt that Chapman touches upon something real here. I need only look to my own marriage to see that Aileen and I both have our own “language.” The ways I can best express love to her are through quality time and acts of service while the way I love to receive love from her is through physical affection and quality time. Chapman’s idea, of course, is that I find out from Aileen how she likes to be loved and then begin to love her just like that. If quality time is at the top of her list, I will be sure to give her a lot of quality time. Implicit in this is that she will return the favor—she will learn my love language and love me that way in return. When we follow the model, a happy marriage will ensue. In this way, then, Chapman gives us a helpful way to describe the different ways we are wired and gives a realistic way of putting these love languages into action.

July 11, 2011

There was a time when Christians used militaristic language without shame. Only one or two generations ago, Christians often spoke of being part of an army fighting against the forces of darkness. Hymns like “Onward Christian Soldiers” were sung often and were sung proudly. But in recent years, this type of language has fallen out of favor in the church. Many feel that this language serves to deter the unchurched from responding to the gospel. Unbelievers, it seems, do not respond well to the idea that they are to be conquered by an army.

Brian McLaren discusses this metaphor in his book A Generous Orthodoxy: “The human race has been conquered by an alien power or powers (Sin, the Devil, and Death are the most common antagonists, although Paul’s more ambiguous ‘principalities and powers’ could also be included). Jesus goes to battle with the alien power(s), and appears to be defeated in death, but his death turns out to be the undoing of the antagonist. In this metaphor, military terms such as battle, defeat, and conquering are predominant.” McLaren advocates rejecting this type of language and replacing it with something more appropriate for our culture. Such language, he argues, is contextual, which means that Christians are under no obligation to use it.

But other people believe that we need to rediscover this kind of military language. Stanley Gale, author of Warfare Witness: Contending with Spiritual Opposition in Everyday Evangelism, is one of these. Warfare Witness is a book dealing with spiritual warfare, a topic that has received surprisingly little attention in Reformed circles. Gale seeks to remedy this.

He believes that it is beneficial for Christians to have a militaristic understanding of the spiritual battle that rages around us. He bases his argument on the fact that this is exactly the kind of language God chose to use in the Bible. He writes, “Some might not feel comfortable with the military concept and terminology. Yet…this is exactly the way our King and Commander would have us understand the nature of evangelism and approach to the work of witness…All of us enfolded into the king of God, as children of God and heirs of life, are servants of the Most High and soldiers of the cross.”

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