Saturday, December 21, 2013

That Disappointing Gift

While the world and its Christians are clamoring over the controversy du jour*, I've decided to take a break, and a different tack. This will probably come as a disappointment to those who would rather spend their time engaging in culture wars.  But that's okay, because it's almost Christmas, and that feels like the perfect time to talk about disappointment.

Christmas is a time for gifts, for giving and receiving them. This is as it should be. We do this in rememberance of the great gift that God gave to humanity on the night that Jesus Christ was born, or at least that was the original intent. Two thousand years later, the gift-giving has taken on a life of its own as part of our commercial culture and has left its roots in the dust. Which, I think, is a macro-reflection of our disappointment with God's gift to us.

Think of all the effort and resources you have invested this Christmas season into making or purchasing just the right gift for the ones you love most dearly. Your hope is to meet their needs, to see them smile, to let them know how much you care and how precious they are to you, and to bless them.

God, the greatest giver, planned from the beginning of time to give the people he would create the greatest gift imaginable.  He gave them life and relationship with him, and they did not value it.  We know this because God told them there was only one thing they could do to forfeit it. There was just one prohibition, no other rules but this one simple command, this single marker of God's authority over them and the life he'd given them. They had everything, yet they were willing to risk it all for a taste of the one thing in their world they were told they could not have.

Even so, none of this came as a surprise to God.  He knew the limits of the creatures he had made. Life itself was not the greatest gift, but the first step to it. There was something more God wanted give.  He planned from the beginning to do something so astonishing as to be almost unthinkable.  He would give a gift that would demonstrate once and for all the nature and extent of his love, and those who would recognize it and value it would have the greatest treasure of all:  God himself.

What greater gift can anyone give than himself?

And so God sent his own Son to sacrifice his life for the ones who had rejected his original gift of life. His Son died our death so that we can enter into His life. Through His Son God offers peace and reconciliation - and sonship.  Through Christ, the Son of God, we, too, can become God's sons.
"But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God..." John 1:12
Christians, "He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins." (Col. 1:13-14)  Our sins are forgiven!  We have peace with God and a place in the kingdom of his dearly loved Son.  It doesn't get any better than this! What more could we dream of or hope for than this one thing?

So let me ask this question today:  is this the gift you really wanted? Or are you disappointed? Does it bore you? Have you set it down to go look under the tree for something else, something more? I have to admit that there have been times, yes, even as a Christian, when I have grown weary of Jesus and begun moving on to secondary interests and new experiences.

I listened the other day to an old sermon by Dr. Martin Lloyd-Jones.  In it he told the story of an African pastor who had made a previous trip to England to tell the churches there about the revivals going on in his native country. When he came back the second time he decided not to tell the people about Africa.  He decided to preach about Jesus.  He told Lloyd-Jones that the people were not happy about it.  These Christians didn't want to hear about Jesus.  They wanted to hear about African revivals.  They were disappointed.

And so I ask again: are you disappointed in the gift of God? Would you rather fill your mind and heart with the latest "Christian" controversy, the latest doctrinal hubbub, the latest Christian political movement, movie, or fad or whatever it might be than with Christ?

On the November before my mother died, not knowing she wouldn't live until Christmas, she decided to buy me an early Christmas present.  She didn't want to wait to give it to me either.  She wanted me to have it right away, because she knew I really needed it.  It wasn't a beautiful gift, I suppose, or a very sentimental one even.  It was a vacuum cleaner.  She knew I'd had nothing but trouble with vacuum cleaners over the years prior, and that it was an ongoing source of frustration for me, a professional house-cleaner. She was not a wealthy woman, but she bought me a really good one, one that I would not have been able to afford on my own, one that would last.  And now that my mother is gone, that vaccuum means more to me than I know how to express.  It filled a need, a real need, and it also showed how much she cared about my life and its little hardships. Four years later, I still use it, and I still think of her with gratitude every time I do.

Christmas in our country and in our hearts has stopped being about Christ because we have lost interest in God's gift.  But why? I believe it is because we have forgotten, or never realized at all, how much we really need it. The best gifts, whether we recognize it or not, are those that meet the greatest needs.  Sadly, though our greatest needs are so often overshadowed in our minds by our greatest desires.

This is why Jesus was rejected from the very beginning.  He was not the kind of Messiah the Jews hoped he would be.  They had been hoping for a military conquerer.  They were disappointed because they did not understand that their land and the Roman occupation were not their real problem. They had had full reign over Palestine and their temple before, more than once. But each time they had sinned, and God had taken it away. The problem was not the land, it was their sin. The real enemy was not Rome, but themselves.  Sin was the great oppressor that God's Messiah came to conquer.  But, like all of us, they enjoyed their sin. That was not the Messiah they wanted. 

So God's gift seemed to them, as it so often does to us, like a booby prize.

May God grant us this Christmas, and every day after, to recognize the greatness of God's gift, and to experience the joy that it is meant to bring.

*For anyone reading this six weeks or six months or six years from today, I'll remind you that the current controversy is over the statements of the star of a "reality" TV program called Duck Dynasty.  By now you will likely need to Google the reference just to recall what this particular fuss was about.  But there's no need to bother.  By the time you are reading this the broohaha will likely have been replaced by another much like it. (Will we ever learn?)

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Experiencing God Meets Sola Scriptura*

 * "Sola Scriptura (Latin ablative, 'by Scripture alone') is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness." - Wikipedia
“A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” Luke 8:5-8
In my nearly 50 years of life, there has never been a time when I haven't identified in some way as a Christian: first as the nominal Lutheran I was brought up to be, then as a word-of-faith charismatic, then as a "regular" charismatic (during which time I attended an Assemblies of God college), then as a "backslider", then as a Calvary Chapel person, then as a "backslider" again.

It wasn't until around the time of my 40th birthday that I began to question, for the first time ever, whether I really was a Christian at all. I didn't doubt the truth of Christianity or anything like that. But I had seen the difference between myself and the handful of genuine Christians I had encountered over the years. I knew they had something I did not. I didn't know how they got it, but I also wasn't really sure I wanted it.

Later that same year, the life that I had created for myself rose up and stabbed me in the back. Within a month's time I found myself jobless, husbandless, friendless, and physically ill, in that order. I turned with my whole heart and with all of its sin, desperately, to Christ, and He saved me. A few weeks later, as I grieved my losses, I wept, wailing and groaning, begging God to show Himself to me.  I wanted proof that He was with me, that He accepted me, and that He would rebuild my shattered life.  All I got was silence.

Looking back, I'm not surprised.  I was not the only suffering person in the world, though it felt like to me. Why should I be the one to get a visitation? I am also embarrassed, all these years later, at the blindness and deafness of that plea. I was like a fish pleading with Water to reveal itself.  My whole life and every blessing I had ever experienced was from God, yet, at that moment it was all invisible to me.  And then there's the hubris. For two thousand years Christians have followed Christ without having "seen" him, without the benefit of special visitations. And "blessed are they."

It is hubris to expect God to reveal himself, because he already has.  God HAS spoken to men.  He has revealed himself.
"Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son..." Heb. 1:1-2a
The word of his Son was given to his apostles and recorded for all time, in that book we call the Bible. If we do not honor the words we have already been given, if we will not consider them as sufficient for life and godliness, then how on earth do we dare to demand or require special experiences in order to trust him?

I thank God for his patience with me through that time of desperation and ignorance.  I wish I could say my change of heart was easy or instantanious. Though why would I expect it to be? After all, the first disciples saw him face to face, heard his teaching first-hand, witnessed his great miracles, his death, and his resurrection, and yet were slow to believe God's words. I was no different. Like them, I came into it with a lot of misguided ideas about Christ and what it meant to follow him. I had absorbed a lot of bad teaching, and even misunderstood some good teaching, during my decades in and out of church.

On my very first visit to a Word of Faith church I was taught to speak in tongues. (Yes, I said "taught". It didn't happen spontaneously, but with instructions on how to do it. My husband says he was taught to do the same in an acting exercise when he was in college.) The fact that I possessed the ability to do this led me to believe I was "still" a Christian for many years in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Oddly, when I did get saved, I never felt any need or desire to speak in tongues again.

But, my years as a charismatic had also led me to think I was supposed to be hearing from God and getting direct guidance, via still, small voices and the like, on a routine basis. I was supposed to "experience" God in all sorts of goose-bumpy ways. In those days people were always telling me the things God had told them, special messages or prophecies He had given them: "The Lord told me....The Lord led me to...The Lord put it on my heart...The Lord showed me...Thus sayeth the Lord..."  Oh, how they treasured their experiences... and who was I to doubt them? So being a Christian meant hearing voices, picking up on signs, seeing visions, recognizing when "God is doing something". None of this had ever happened to me, so when I really did come to Christ, I had it in my mind that this was what it was like to be a real Christian.

In addition to those hold-over notions, after my conversion I began voraciously reading a variety of Christian literature, some of it good, some of it dreadful. I couldn't always tell the difference as they all claimed to be based upon Scripture. Some suggested that Christians should expect to have highly-charged encounters with God and personal experiences of His presence as a matter of course. Some suggested that if I were only more fully surrendered to God I would achieve a higher Christian life - that ethereal "abiding" with Christ - which seemed in the books like a spiritual bliss from which all sorts of lovely spiritual fruits would effortlessly flow.

My life experience with Christianity reads like the Parable of the Sower.  I have been the hard-beaten path on which the word lands but is not understood, so the birds come and snatch it away. I have been that rocky heart, filled with exuberance at the word of God but withering when the going gets rough. I have also been that weedy ground, overgrown with worries and cares that choke out the word before it can bear fruit. I was, at different times, every bad kind of soil. But there finally came a time when the harsh realities of life had plowed my heart so well that when it met with sound biblical teaching the word could put down deep roots and grow.

"Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God." Luke 8:11

Thankfully, during the early days of my faith, there were also sound teachers who taught me a deep reverence for the written word of God. From them I learned that scripture is the one and only unshifting standard for Christianity. With it you can evaluate everything else. It is the straight stick next to which anything crooked becomes glaring. Over time trusting God's word began to win out over the relentless pressure of trying to drag experiences from God. Thank God for his patience; I am finally convinced that the scriptures contain everything I need to know God and to live a godly life.

The seed is the word of God, and it is the word of God that bears fruit and grows.
"...the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth."  Col. 1: 5b-6
In the scriptures the Spirit gives me understanding of who God is and what his will for me is. His word really does bear "fruit in every good work" and I increase "in the knowledge of God" (Col. 1:10) on a daily basis as I commit myself to letting God lead and guide me through it. At long last, after all these years I really am experiencing God on a daily basis, only not in the way I had once been led to expect. My life and my relationships are being transformed as I meet him in his word. My faith has been shored up to withstand tremendous onsloughts. My hope is in Christ, and through His word I see into his face and am daily being transformed. Understanding Him and trusting Him through His word is how we experience God.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Sola Scriptura or Sola Commentarium?

Sola Scriptura "is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness." - Wikipedia  
All of my life I have identified in one form or another as a Protestant.  During most of the years following my conversion at age 40, I identified myself as "reformed".  It was during those years that I first heard (or first remember hearing) the term Sola Scriptura.  It is one of five "Solas" that the youngish reformed folks are so fond of having tattooed on their wrists and arms and ankles.

I don't need tattoos to identify myself with the Solas.  They are etched into my heart.  But, it was not always so.  Though I was never a fan of body ink, in my days of being Reformed™, the solas became a bit like tattoos to me - a superficial form of branding, a way of identifying with a certain group in distinction from other groups.

For all of my lofty vaunting of Sola Scriptura, I actually spent far, far less time reading and studying the Scriptures than I did reading books about the Scriptures. I devoured a hundreds of very good books about the Good Book.  I read books of theology, commentaries, and everything in between.  I read Calvin and Piper and Edwards and Owen and Luther and Spurgeon and Pink and Sproul. I adored the Puritans! All of these were the experts. They were the pinnacle of spirituality, and they told me how I should interpret what the Bible says.  They (and my fellow "reformed" friends and bloggers)  decided for me, based upon their particular bents, which doctrines were the ones I should be focusing on and which theological camps I should park myself in. I accepted almost anything I was taught, so long as the teacher was popular, intelligent, and Reformed™.

During those years my soul began to wither, and for the longest time I barely noticed - until a series of tragedies struck.  When they did I found that all my second-hand knowledge wasn't enough to steady my faith. I learned that my pet doctrines were not sufficient to sustain my life and heart. I could not survive on even the best of Christian books alone.  I needed to hear from God for myself. I needed the Scripture, and I needed to know it first-hand.

Now, before I over-state my case, let me say that there were certain truths I learned during those "reformed" years that ultimately would sustain me.  In every book I read, there were many quotes from Scripture.  In most of the books I read, there was some good gospel teaching and a lot of solid truth.  As I said, these books were good books, not junk.  But perhaps the most important legacy of these teachers, for me, was the concept of Sola Scriptura.  Through them I learned to respect God's Word (even if I didn't hear them telling me to study it for myself). From them I learned that there is no point in claiming to be a Christian while at the same time disregarding or dishonoring the very book on which my whole religion is founded (even though, practically speaking, that was exactly what I was doing).  If that book is true, if it really is God's word to man, then that is where I need to go to learn about God.  If it is not, if it is unreliable, or inaccurate, or hit-and-miss, then I had better admit I'm just picking and choosing and making stuff up as I go.  I had better drop the whole thing altogether, and forget about calling myself a Christian at all.

And so, when my faith was desperately threatened, and I felt betrayed - for reasons I won't go into here - by  the modern Reformed movement, and when all sorts of teachings were coming at me from every direction, vying for my allegiance (as they always do with people whose faith is being tested), I knew that if there really is a God (which I never doubted) and I really was a Christian, then I had only one place to turn to learn what was really true about Him and about Christianity: the Bible.

This time I went straight to the source.  And I learned something:  I found very quickly that any doctrine ripped from its context loses something. It loses many things.  It loses the way in which it was taught, the tone of voice, if you will.  It loses the setting and purpose and application for which it was taught.  It loses the effects of all the other doctrines which surround and infuse it and underpin it. Even good doctrine, when misused, becomes unbalanced and un-tempered.

The wrath of God, for instance, has its place in God's character. But it is never to be separated from the holiness and love from which it springs.  The doctrine of hell is likewise inescapable in Scripture, but it is not meant to bring sadistic delight or as a bludgeon. It is a doctrine that was never really expounded until the Savior came.  In other words, the doctrine of hell was brought to us most fully by the very one who also brought salvation.  The teaching about hell was brought with love, by the very one who would suffer to rescue us from it.  The doctrine of God's sovereignty, to give another example, is never treated in Scripture as a philosophical talking point, or a topic for debate, or a test of the legitimacy of one's salvation, or a pat answer for the pain and suffering in people's lives.

The Bible's doctrines, removed from their context, can also be biased by the unique circumstances or, sadly, the sinful bents or attitudes of the teachers. Every good pastor and teacher throughout the ages writes from the perspective of his own time and culture, and with a mind to the unique needs of his own audience.  Those circumstances may or may not resemble our own.  Their teaching, thus, may or may not be best suited to the time or circumstances in which we find ourselves.  For this reason, especially if you are reading non-modern works, it is important to understand the circumstances and history surrounding an individual's writings. This will help discern what is and is not meant by his words, and what is and is not transferable straight through the years to us. Jonathan Edwards,  for example, was generally preaching to congregations full of church-going but nominal Christians.  He struggled to wake people up from their presumed faith and to lead them into genuine relationship with Christ.  (As a lifetime nominal Christian, this was a big part of his original appeal to me.)  A problem arises, however, when you take this kind of teaching and apply it, without caveat, to genuine but sensitive Christian souls.  For them this teaching can be devastating, and even dangerous, leading to discouragement and hoplessness.  I speak from experience.

Biblical doctrines, without context, can also become theoretical.  They become talking points, topics for speculation and debate, removed from the realm of life and application. It is possible to spend all one's time in reading about doctrine, in talking about doctrine, in debating the best points of doctrine - to feel very spiritual - and to entirely miss the point. For,
"...if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge...but have not love, I am nothing."  (from 1 Cor. 13:2)
All of our knowledge can amount to nothing.

This is a real danger. I know, because it threatened to swallow me whole, and I didn't even realize it until it was nearly too late.  But God is gracious, and He really is sovereign over my life and my faith. He used some dreadful circumstances to alert me to the trouble I was in. And, yes, he used some good doctrine.

I am thankful that I was taught the value of Scripture, for it was what ultimately sustained me, but only once it became what actually sustained me.  At some point during that time of crisis nearly four years ago, I determined I was going to see what the Bible had to say for itself.  I was going to learn about God from His book directly.  I made up my mind that I was going to spend at least at much time in the Bible as I did in books about the Bible.  Since then I can count on one hand the number of  works of theology I have read (and I have read some that have helped me immensly!).

I have found that the more time I spend in God's word, the more doggedly devoted to the Scriptures I become. I have found that the word of God is sufficient for every spiritual and emotional need. I can know God. I can understand His word. I can trust Him, and I can obey Him. In these years, as my time spent with God the Scriptures has increased, my faith has come alive.  My confidence in Him has turned my most painful circumstances into times of growth and meaning. I have seen him transform my life, and the life of my husband as well, through His word.

I have learned through hard and rich experience that "the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness."  The Word of God really is sufficient for life and godliness.

Thus, Sola Scriptura has tattoed itself on my soul.