National Grammar Day Resolved (part 2)

This post closes the loop from the previous post, located here.  [Yes, I wrote Grammer in the title, and, no, it wasn’t on purpose. Didn’t catch it till after it went out to the world. Excellent blog on this here by lit agent Rachelle Gardner.]

frazzled-150x150God gave me a love of words and sentences and grammar when I was young. I read every book I could get my hands on. I spent many days riding my five speed bike with banana seat and sissy bars to the Oriole Park library — a small branch library in Chicago — where I scoured the shelves for mysteries and sci-fi. I think I kept that place in business with overdue fines. Something about reading mesmerized me. Continue reading

Lessons from the King Who (Almost) Killed Christmas

Who was he? Herod the Great, as he liked to be called, was the not-so-great king of the Jews about the time when Jesus was born. By today’s standards he was a bad guy’s bad guy — ruthless, cunning, violent, vengeful, opportunistic, political, murderous. Herod ruled by fear. He has been called “the incarnation of brute lust” (ISBE). When the wise men came to visit the newborn King, Herod took offense; who else could be king but himself?

Following political customs, the wise men from the east (Persia) paid King Herod a visit. “We’ve come to see the newborn King of the Jews,” they said.

“Very nice,” he said. “Let me know when you find him, so I may also come and, er… uhh… worship him.” To death, but he didn’t say that part out loud.

To maintain his kingship against this usurper, Herod did the unthinkable: he ordered the slaughter of every baby boy in Bethlehem, ages two and under. No violence is “unthinkable” to a power-monger that denies the sacredness of human life.

Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Lamentation, weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, Refusing to be comforted, Because they are no more.” (Matthew 2:16-18, NKJV).

Because Bethlehem and its suburbs were small, it is estimated between 8 and 50 were killed. Even one makes heaven weep.

What can this ancient mass murderer teach us for today?

1. We are ultimately defined by what we do with Jesus. As the gospels tell the story, a train of characters came face to face with the claims of the newborn king. The SHEPHERD raced to see him. The WISE MEN travelled to worship him. The INN-KEEPER displaced him. MARY pondered him. JOSEPH sheltered him. The ANGELS went wild over him. HEROD envied him and sought to kill him. Each one responded in their own way.

What is your way? What is your response?

The most important thing about you is not your portfolio, not your looks, not your social status, not your grades, not your muscles, not your house or cars, not your human relationships. The most important thing about you is what you have done with Jesus Christ. Who is he to you?

It was infinite love that brought him into the world to save us. It was infinite condescension by which he fully identified with life in this fallen world. It was infinite mystery that he became our sin bearer. It was infinite mercy that he received the just penalty for your sin and mine. It is infinite grace that offers you the gift of eternal life — forgiveness of sins, love everlasting, a new start every day, and all the goodness that Jesus brings.

Have you received him as your own? Have you said yes to his gift of life? His arms are open wide — run to him and pin your hopes on him.

If Jesus is the God-man, then what you do with him is the central issue of your existence. God will only ask, Who was Jesus to you? Did you treat him as just one of many details in your busy life, or did you see in him your all in all? Was he something to your salvation, or was he everything?

God designed heaven as a place to launch the fame of Jesus beyond the stratosphere forevermore.

Either you’re good with that project or not. To Herod, Jesus was an annoyance, an obstacle, a threat to his chosen way of life. Eliminate him! he said. Don’t go down that path. Reach out to him and take his hand — it is the defining choice of your whole existence.

2. We have nobody to blame if we reject him. Why did Herod hate Jesus? Was it because the wise men were hypocrites? Was there a defect in their testimony about him? Maybe the God-followers he knew weren’t loving enough. Maybe they didn’t do enough good deeds for those less fortunate. All true, no doubt, to some degree. But ultimately, Herod was to blame for his own impenetrable heart. He made that choice. When he heard of the Savior, he hardened his heart and set out to kill him. He would have no god but himself — a fatal delusion in any age.

So the Bible says we all are “without excuse” (Romans 1:20).

We must take 100% responsibility for our choices, our faith or lack of it, our character, and our lives. Yes, our parents, society, environment, and genetics play a role in who we become. They give us a collective shove in a certain direction. In fact, the whole Herodian Dynasty were pretty ruthless. But unless we want to define humans as robotic victims of forces beyond their control — and, hence, utterly unaccountable for their evils — we need to respect the volition, i.e., the power of free will. [*there are some with organic mental illness or mental deficiencies that render them incapable of understanding the issues of the gospel, and incapable of choice — these, by grace, are brought to heaven in the end, but that’s for another post.]

Herod had nobody to blame. Ditto for the rest of us.

3. Some will not embrace Jesus no matter what testimony we offer. A miraculous star. An epic quest by his generation’s most venerable scholars. A collection of prophecies that prove his identity beyond doubt. All this evidence, and Herod still rejected the Savior.

Jesus said that not even a man coming back to life from the dead would provide a more persuasive argument than the written Word of God (Luke 16:31).

Once again, the testimony may be powerful, the sacrificial witness peerless, and the gospel presentation flawless, and some will still stiff arm Christ. You can offer the world a Christian life as Christian as Christ, and still get the same result: “For even His brothers did not believe in Him” (John 7:5, NKJV).

The gospel will never be palatable to a heart set on being its own god. And while the people of God must “adorn the doctrine of God” (Titus 2:10) by lives of integrity and goodness, we can do that perfectly and some will still not believe. This is not to excuse Christians behaving badly. Even so, more times than not, when critics blame the church’s shortcomings for their lack of faith in Christ, it’s just a lame excuse. Truth be told, there’s a little rebel lurking in every heart, crying out, “We will not have this man to rule over us.” But who wants to admit that? Much easier to blame the Christians and wash our hands of Christ.

Herod had all the evidence he needed and still pushed aside the Savior.

4. All must be invited and summoned to him. As nasty as Herod was, God sent evangelists in the form of wise men. “Hey, King, the Savior’s born,” they said. “Thanks, I’ll kill him later,” Herod said. Even so, God sent him witnesses. The great mission of the church is to tell the world, through words backed up by deeds, of the Savior, Jesus.

The Savior was born. Everybody needs to know. Bad people, good people, and in-between people. Young, old. Near and far. Everybody who breathes needs to hear the name of Jesus.

How then shall they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how shall they believe in Him of whom they have not heard? And how shall they hear without a preacher? And how shall they preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, Who bring glad tidings of good things!” (Romans 10:14, 15, NKJV).

Christmas is God’s gift to the world of lost sinners. Even society’s Herods must hear. Even society’s worst are not beyond the hope of redemption. God is the great evangelist, and we are called to join with him, spreading across the globe like ant colonies, with the song of the angels: “Fear not, for unto you is born this day a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”

5. You can’t break Jesus or God’s Word. You can only break yourself against Jesus and God’s Word.  Herod died a lonely, bitter, miserable old man. He was such a butcher to his own family, Augustus Caesar said, “I would rather be Herod’s hog than Herod’s son” (ISBE).

What is truth?

Truth is reality. What is truth? Truth is reality as God sees it, God experiences, and God defines it. To build a life on God’s truth is to stand on solid rock. Everything else is sinking sand. You cannot beat yourself against God’s bedrock truth and come away unbloodied. God’s truth is an anvil that has worn out many hammers. You can’t break God’s laws, you can only break yourself against God’s laws.

To fight reality… well, that’s just crazy.

Christmas proves God wasn’t content to sit in heaven and lob truth bombs onto planet earth. He wrapped up the ultimate truth/reality — his own self — into a human nature, and came into our world as a baby. His whole life radiated the reality of heaven and a life set free. Come to him. Align your life to him. Live in reality, not unreality.

Like most things in life, when it comes to TRUTH, there’s an easy way and a hard way. I suppose the only good legacy Herod the Great left this broken world is a moral warning: it’s best not to choose the hard way.

[ISBE = International Standard Bible Encyclopedia]

Three Cheers for Vocabulary!

The surgeon says, “I have to pull out that little hangy thingy in your gut-parts that doesn’t do anything.”

The mechanic says, “I’ll have to brush off those shiny screwy ceramic thingies with the little metal tip.”

The contractor says, “I’ll just yank off those flat bumpy whatch-a-ma-call-its from the top of your house and see where it’s leaking.”

You’d be looking for a new surgeon, a new mechanic, and a new contractor. In each of these fields, we want experts. We want dedicated workers who have studied their craft and mastered it. We want a surgeon who knows the difference between an appendix and a spleen, a mechanic who knows the difference between a spark plug and a coil, and a contractor who knows the difference between a roof shingle and roof vent.

And I want a pastor who knows the difference between justification and sanctification, propitiation and redemption, the Hypostatic Union and the Mystical Union, Omniscience and Omnipotence. I want a pastor who has studied the craft and mastered it (not that you can ever master either God or Scripture, but you can be proficient in it at least). I know that some will immediately read me as saying all I care about is theological vocabulary… No. There is immeasurably more to being a pastor or church leader.

But clarity on theology is an indispensable foundation for everything else. Don’t tell me how to live unless you know deeply from Scripture what divine resources God has offered me, how they work, and how Jesus used them in his life… the soul-stirring vocabulary of the Christian faith.

In the realm of the spirit, I want to train you to become your own mechanic.

In olden days, everyone had the same Bible. We’d all read: Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, (Romans 5:1, NKJV). Immediately the preacher was forced into explaining justification… and we’d all learn it. Over the years, we’d develop a fairly sophisticated picture of justification as distinct from, yet related to, sanctification. We’d understand why Martin Luther attempted to correct his church’s theology on the doctrine, and why it mattered so enormously.

Today, however, we read in a dozen translations, some bland variation on: “having been made right by faith” and nobody needs to explain it. In fact, by obliterating the theological vocabulary, the reader isn’t even alerted to the existence of an entire theological system summed up in one word. When a mechanic says “carburetor” he calls to mind a whole piece of machinery and its interplay with the other machinery. One word conjures a vast, systematic picture.

So it is in Scripture: justified, justification, justify, just, righteous… there is an ocean of wonder to explore in this one great word.

Take the word “gospel.” It has morphed into a thousand things, mostly shallow, and mostly emotional. Yes, the gospel is good news, but it is the title for a precise theological bit of good news: that Christ died for our sins, etc (1 Cor 15:3) and that if we mess with it, then we’re to be damned (Gal 1:8,9). God help us all if “gospel” means so much that it stops meaning anything.

By losing our vocabulary, we’ve lost the riches and the wonder. We’ve lost the clarity. We’ve lost the powerful and beautiful inter-linkages that tie all of Scripture together.

We’ve also lost the subtle distinctions that protect us from heresy. After all, the early church split over a single letter: whether Jesus, in his deity, is homo-ousios (the same substance) or homoi-ousios (similar substance) with the Father. Picky? Yes! Essentially picky. Life-changingly picky. Picky the way you hope and pray your surgeon is picky. Vocabulary matters enormously.

The authors of Scripture never shied away from long sentences and big words. They developed a sophisticated vocabulary and weren’t afraid to use it.

This is not to suggest that our sermons and Bible classes become dry, academic, theological lectures. Not at all — and if you’ve heard me preach, you probably wouldn’t describe my sermons that way [I hope]. The people of God crave the deep things of God — let’s take them there, assuming we’ve taken ourselves there first. Let’s patiently build the concepts in their minds. Let’s lay out a rich feast for hungry souls. Let’s integrate deep truth into real life. Let’s go beyond the surface.

Pick up any collection of sermons from a hundred years ago and notice the dramatic contrast: ours today are painfully dumbed down. Sorry.

Paul validated his ministry saying, “For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27, NKJV). Do we declare the whole counsel of God? Or do we settle for funny stories, thin sentimentality, and relentless exhortations to duty.

Three cheers for the meat of God’s Word and the vocabulary that expresses it!

And three cheers for any preacher brave enough to teach it.

Let the elders who rule well be counted worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in the Word and doctrine. (1 Timothy 5:17, NKJV).

 

A.I. and the Ministry of Deconfirmation

americanidolAmerican Idol has returned and all is weird with the world. I’m hooked. I admit it. Enough drama to fuel a fleet of Kia’s.

“I just want someone to tell me that I’m great,” says a weeping contestant. Fine, then work your way from badness to goodness to greatness. Greatness is not bestowed by a three- four-judge panel; it is earned by years of hard work in obscurity. Or sold by the Governor of Illinois to the highest bidder. Or thrust upon you by the vote-counters of Minnesota.

I am always surprised by the talentless auditioners who display genuine befuddlement when the judges reject them.  In my humble opinion, their friends and family should crawl to them in contrition for half a lifetime of duplicity.

simon-cowellWe’ve been told for decades that the younger generation lacks confidence. Not the young people who audition for AI. They brim with confidence. Misplaced confidence. Too much confidence.

Have we raised a generation of young people who really believe they’re good at everything?  Have we deluded these poor Gen-whatever’s into thinking the world really is their oyster?  It’s not. It’s your sieve, and you’re a lump who’s just been sifted. Welcome to the real world.

Whatever happened to speaking the truth in love?

Friends don’t let tone-deaf friends do American Idol.

By the time I reached high school, I knew I’d never be a rock star. Or a football player, talk show host, financier, engineer, builder, or dancer. See how many options I crossed off my list? Whew! Ka-ching on the college savings. I was good with that then; I still am.

Maybe we need to manifest the ministry of deconfirmation. Maybe our kids are baffled about their careers because no one has helped them rule options out. Deconfirm them: “No, honey, you won’t succeed as a singer; stick with math.” “No, little Jim-Bob. Rudy notwithstanding, you’re too small for football. But you’re great at biology–remember how fast you cut apart that frog?” See how loving that sounds? By the time they’re burning wheelbarrows of dollars at college, they should have crossed a few dozen options off the list.

wingedladyThe sky is not the limit, the bottom branch of the apple tree is. Quite a relief.

Spurgeon’s pastor’s college refused to admit preachers who couldn’t preach. They had to audition. I guess that made Spurgeon preaching’s Simon Cowell. I can only hope to follow in his footsteps.

Is everyone an apostle? Of course not. Is everyone a prophet? No. Are all teachers? Does everyone have the power to do miracles? Does everyone have the gift of healing? Of course not. Does God give all of us the ability to speak in unknown languages? Can everyone interpret unknown languages? No! (1 Corinthians 12:29, 30, NLT).

Can everyone sing?

My mom says I can be anything if I only believe. I hear belly dancing pays well. I’ll start tomorrow. Need entertainment for your next party?

[P.S., Dear Church Veteran, please look up satire, hyperbole, and irony in the dictionary before you take offense.]