Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why Is God Silent? Reflection on Ps. 50

"These things you have done and I kept silent; you thought I was altogether like you. But I will rebuke you and accuse you to your face." -- Ps. 50:21

People often wonder, "Where's God? Why isn't He intervening in this situation?" This question usually arises from a painful situation for which there is never an easy answer, and so I want to preface my remarks below with a disclaimer: I am not addressing every situation in which God seems silent in the face of pain. (A very helpful book to read is Philip Yancey's Disappointment With God.)

God's silence in Psalm 50:21 is based on His Self-restraint in response to human wickedness. Earlier He confronts the hypocrites among His people: "You hate my instruction and cast my words behind you. When you see a thief, you join with him; you throw in your lot with adulterers. You use your mouth for evil and harness your tongue to deceit. You speak continually against your brother and slander your own mother's son" (vv. 17-20). Unlike the case of Aaron's sons Nadab and Abihu, whom God struck dead for their sacrilege (cf. Ex. 10:1-4), or Ananias and Sapphira (cf. Acts 5:1-11), God rarely strikes people dead today. Why is this? Doesn't He know that people don't fear Him when He restrains Himself? That He loses their respect? And it's not like He expects us in the Church to be His executioners (a responsibility entrusts to the "state" according to Rom. 15:4).

No, like it or not, God's silence is based on His patience. "The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance" (2 Pet. 3:9). His "silence" is the calm before the storm, the opportunity we have to repent. We must not waste it; it will not last forever.

Monday, October 26, 2009

The Real Voldemort

Evangelical Christians love to debate Harry Potter. Many decry him and his Hogwarts gang as the insidious heralds of a new witchcraft that will destroy the remnants of American Christendom. Perhaps he (and they) will, perhaps not.

But one thing that is far more likely is that we will fall victim to forces worse than Voldemort and his Dark Arts cohort. These aren't sinister fiends wearing black capes with dementors at their beck and call. Rather, they are the scientists and marketeers who equate knowledge with power unrestrained by wisdom or morality. Our modern life is filled with "advances" that have become necessities, and we unthinkingly accept the claims of "You need this!" and "Lose weight with this (magic) pill!"

I'm not a Luddite. I am typing, after all, a blog entry on a computer that I happen to enjoy using. But I do worry about what will happen to a community when its members cease to worship God and refuse to acknowledge His authority. Professor David Bentley Hart, in his incredible Atheist Delusions, shares a dire prophecy about what will happen to us:

"When the aspiring ape ceases to think himself a fallen angel, perhaps he will inevitably resign himself to being an ape, and then become contented with his lot, and ultimately even rejoice that the universe demands little more from him than an ape's contentment."

Worse than such "banality" and dissolution, Hart foresees greater horrors produced by a society that replaces Christian humanism with dangerous "advances" in science:

"The mass manufacture of nerve toxins and nuclear weaponry, court-mandated sterilizations, lobotomies, the miscegenation of human and porcine genetic materials, experimentation on prison populations, clinical studies of untreated syphilis in poor black men, and so on: all of this required the scientific mind to move outside or 'beyond' Christian superstitions regarding the soul and the image of God within it."

Lord Voldemort, you've met your match in the blood-lust of the modern and post-modern age. You have slaughtered your thousands; scientism has slaughtered its millions.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

The New Song

I enjoy reading the Church Fathers (although I must confess the archaic online translations are ponderous) and I came across this gem by St. Clement of Alexandria in his "Exhortation to the Heathen":
  • "Behold the might of the new song! It has made men out of stones, men out of beasts. Those, moreover, that were as dead, not being partakers of the true life, have come to life again, simply by becoming listeners to this song. It also composed the universe into melodious order, and tuned the discord of the elements to harmonious arrangement, so that the whole world might become harmony. It let loose the fluid ocean, and yet has prevented it from encroaching on the land. The earth, again, which had been in a state of commotion, it has established, and fixed the sea as its boundary. The violence of fire it has softened by the atmosphere, as the Dorian is blended with the Lydian strain; and the harsh cold of the air it has moderated by the embrace of fire, harmoniously arranging these the extreme tones of the universe. And this deathless strain,—the support of the whole and the harmony of all,—reaching from the centre to the circumference, and from the extremities to the central part, has harmonized this universal frame of things, not according to the Thracian music, which is like that invented by Jubal, but according to the paternal counsel of God, which fired the zeal of David. And He who is of David, and yet before him, the Word of God, despising the lyre and harp, which are but lifeless instruments, and having tuned by the Holy Spirit the universe, and especially man,—who, composed of body and soul, is a universe in miniature,—makes melody to God on this instrument of many tones; and to this instrument—I mean man—he sings accordant: “For thou art my harp, and pipe, and temple.”—a harp for harmony—a pipe by reason of the Spirit—a temple by reason of the word; so that the first may sound, the second breathe, the third contain the Lord..."
Clement began this work with a scathing criticism of the popular music of his day, music that celebrates evil and sensuality (sound familiar?). The "new song" he mentions here is the song that was sung at Creation and renewed by the Son of Man, and is now sung by redeemed Man -- homo adorans -- whom Clement calls the "instrument of many tones": a harp, pipe, and temple for God, so that we might "sound, breathe, and contain the Lord." God has "made men out of stones, men out of beasts" simply by our having become listeners to the new song.


Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The GOOD Old Days

Allow me to wallow in nostalgia for a moment. My Dad likes to say that the "good old days" frequently weren't good -- just old. I suppose that's true, especially since he was talking about an incredibly difficult childhood and adolescence growing up on a rented farm, raised by his aunt and uncle. But when I manage to pry stories of the "old days" out of him, I hear a mixture of American Gothic gloom and rural Indiana joy. During my childhood trips to his roots and our extended family who stayed in Indiana, I saw Dad step back to those difficult years and remember what life as a young man was like. Before college, marriage, children, and 40 years of full-time pastoral ministry in the far-away places of Oklahoma, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

In those early years Dad learned to drive a tractor before a car, and he witnessed the lives of three uncles interspersed with a few glimpses of his own father. Dad was forced to grow up fast: his uncle Frank (with whom he lived) died when Dad was 17, and Dad ran the farm on his own for a few years before heading off to college and destiny.

The 50's were a time of exuberant teenage happiness, and this wasn't entirely lost on my Dad, in spite of the hardships of running a farm and living with his Aunt Margaret. Occasionally my siblings and I heard stories from Dad's sister Lois about how he had lots of girlfriends, danced, and went to movies. Our Dad did those things? we responded in shock. He was a real teenager? Dad has always defined sincere kindness to me, but he never displayed the joie de vivre I associate with post-war America.

I continue to look to Dad to see how life is managed. Unwittingly, he taught and I learned how to be a husband, father, and pastor, and someday I'll pull out the lessons I'm learning about how to live with an empty nest, and then never to retire. My prayer has always been that I will walk -- however haltingly-- in his footsteps.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Teach Your Children Well

"Pastor, we'd like to have our baby dedicated. What Sunday would work out best for you?" I love hearing this. One of my favorite pastoral "duties" is to commit a child's life to serving God and formally welcome him or her into the church community. In our church, we don't baptize babies, we dedicate them. (We reserve baptism for those old enough to make a confession of personal faith in Jesus Christ.) Baby dedication is primarily about parents publicly affirming their commitment to raise their children in the church and teach them to be faithful followers of Christ. It's also about the congregation pledging its support of the family in recognition that we are a community and God uses our fellowship with each other to strengthen us.

But too often the process stops with dedication. I make sure to sit down with parents and I encourage them to seriously think about the vows they make in dedicating their children. But, just as in wedding counseling, I'm afraid my admonishments are too quickly and easily forgotten.
Like weddings, dedications seem to be more about a photo op than a vow to be taken seriously. A baby's dedication should be the first of many steps that child will take on the path with Christ. The next ones should be consistent, weekly attendance at worship and Sunday School. But that depends on the parents taking their vows seriously, something too many parents don't do. What really upsets me is how parents let their kids make their own decisions about church and spirituality ... namely, that if the kid says "I don't want to go to church" or "I don't want to go to Sunday School," parents say "OK." WHY??

I've heard parents use these excuses:

#1 -- "I don't want to shove church down my kid's throat. He might end up resenting it and leaving the church altogether." It's funny how that doesn't apply when it comes to safety and health issues. After all, we don't care if we're "imposing" when we tell our children to use hygiene, eat their vegetables, and don't play on the street. We're certainly willing to impose on them the things we know they need, so why don't we include our faith in that category? It could be that parents themselves are unconvinced about the necessity for church involvement and spirituality. Kids aren't stupid; they're quick to see hypocrisy when their parents force them to do things they themselves don't want to do. So parents, where is your commitment?

#2 -- "Sunday is our only day to sleep in." I sympathize with those who have to work on Saturday evenings or even 1st shift on Sunday morning, but those are the minority. Most of us can get up early if we want to. If we would see worship and Christian education as necessary spiritual disciplines -- as important as eating -- then we won't put sleep ahead of them. Parents, your children will not suffer if you make them get out of bed for church. YOU might suffer a little -- especially at first -- but typically everyone's OK once they get to church. I'm convinced Satan loves to attack us on Sunday mornings to keep us away from church. Don't let him get away with it.

The Church is here to help parents spiritually train their children (schools certainly won't do that), but we can't do that if parents don't bring them.

"What we have heard and known, what our fathers have told us, we will not hide them from their children; we will tell the next generation the praiseworthy deeds of the Lord, His power, and the wonders He has done. ... Then they would put their trust in God and would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands." -- Ps. 78:3-4,7

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The Wedding Grinch

I'm becoming a wedding grinch. It's not because I'm against weddings per se; I could never declare unclean what Jesus blessed in His first miracle (cf. John 2:1-11). No, my problem is what weddings in western civilization have become. Instead of celebrations of holy Christian matrimony, today's weddings have morphed into an obscure ritual intended solely for fancy pictures and a prelude to a drunken bacchanalia. (For more of my rant, read my post "The Problem with Weddings" on my church's website under "Pastor Ben.")

Interestingly, we're exporting overseas our self-centered materialism and its affect on marriage. A recent Reuters story ("China's 'me' Generation") tells us how the one-child policy in China is one of the factors behind their now-rampant divorce rate. One Beijing marriage counselor/psychiatrist says this about young adults in China: "They are weak in horizontal bonding, communicating with the same generation. They tend to apply a vertical approach to horizontal relationships." In other words, they're spoiled, selfish brats who have been raised badly.

Why on earth are young couples so foolish to think that a fancy, expensive wedding is preferable to a healthy, lifelong marriage? I'm weary of pregnant brides and couples who bring their children to premarital counseling. I don't condemn them; after all, most of them haven't been raised to know any better. What grieves me most is their fairy-tale picture of a wedding: no expense is spared in order to meet everyone's expectations. So what if the marriage falls apart? At least the wedding was nice!

Repent, Church. Stop surrendering the meaning of matrimony to the wedding planners and cardboard wedding cakes. Speak out against cohabitation and materialism. Teach abstinence, self-control, and commitment. Throw away the trashy "How to Have Great Sex" magazines and read scriptures like Ephesians 5:21-33 and 1 Corinthians 13 to learn what marriage is really like. Trust and obey God rather than dumb luck.

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Walk in the Fog

This morning I took my dog Leila on a much-needed walk, one both of us need. It was cold, damp and foggy as we made our way out of town and down a country road. It was a long hike, around five miles round-trip, but it provided me a much-needed opportunity to reflect on life, dogs, and what to do about my lack of physical exercise.

I was amazed at the number of realizations and insights that popped into my head as Leila and I walked. Here they are in order of profundity (stop reading when you feel like I'm being pompous):

#1 -- People are litterbugs. It was shocking to see how many beer bottles, cans and empty cigarette cartons were on both sides of the road. I don't want to accuse all smokers and drinkers of being essentially pollutive -- that would be an erroneous stereotype -- but it raises an interesting question: Why don't we see more trash from, say, Dasani drinkers? I suppose the exorbitant prices smokers have to pay give them a license to litter. Beer-drinkers are probably too focused on driving than to worry about proper disposal of empty bottles and cans.

But this brings out a deeper issue. We have a tendency to go through life and heedlessly leave trash -- literal and figurative -- in our wake. I have a closet full of clothing I hardly ever wear and a garage full of old "stuff" I can't even identify. Worse, I vividly recall the many hurts I've caused others by my thoughtlessness and rebelliousness. Beer drinkers and smokers have nothing on me when it comes to moral litter.

The frightening thing is that I don't usually see how much litter is on the side of the road. When I zip by at 55 m.p.h. I don't see much of anything. But it's still there, only for the pedestrians to notice. In my busy distraction I don't see the litter in my life, either. It's still there, and I see it only when I slow down and allow God to point it out.

If I'd had a bag and didn't have a dog, I would have been doing some clean-up. That leads me to my next point ...

#2 -- Dogs are tempted by the nastiest things. Leila, for all her cuteness, can be annoying to the extreme. Every smell, piece of trash, and even floating leaves would distract her away from her real job: accompanying me on a brisk autumn walk. I wasn't trudging along because I wanted to smell the roses (of which there were none); I wanted exercise! Leila had other ideas. Now I understand God gave dogs a powerful sense of smell, but why can't they control it? What is so attractive about half-decayed roadkill? The piece de resistance was a half-gallon of mint chocolate chip ice cream! Anyway, I probably had more exercise for my arm pulling her along than I did for my legs.

I realize I'm a lot like Leila, however. I walk this path of life beside my Master, Who too often has to shorten the leash to keep me by His side. I veer away chasing things that aren't good for me, even though I want them now. I have a nose for temptation and an obstinacy to resist God's clear commands. If only I followed Him so faithfully that a leash weren't required!

#3 -- We see very little. Leila and I walked in the fog a long time, and even when the fog lifted it wasn't very clear. And yet we saw many beautiful sights: a country road with partly bare tree branches hanging overhead, a beautiful home decorated for autumn, a wooden fence running along perfectly spaced trees. I kept reminding myself that it would all look different on a sunny, warm day in the summer, when the overcast gray would give way to brilliant blue, and the barren branches would be replaced with a mass of living green.

The community we walked through is relatively wealthy, although poverty isn't very far away. I wonder how people feel when they see their neighbors on the "other side"? Whether rich or poor, most of our perspectives are based on what we see with our eyes. We are subject to the fog of this world, frequently forgetting that -- someday -- the Dawn of God's Day will be upon us, and then in His light we shall see all things, ourselves included, as they are.

All in all, Leila and I had a very productive walk. I pray I have the self-discipline to do it again soon.