Thursday, January 28, 2010

Does God's "Blessing" = Material things?

I've been reading Christopher Wright's short biblical theology on salvation titled "Salvation Belongs to Our God". In chapter 3 he elaborates on the "blessings of salvation". "What does it mean to be blessed by God?" There are all kinds of answers out there. Some see God's blessing exclusively in a material sense (prosperity theology). Some see God's blessing exclusively in the spiritual sense (those angry with prosperity theology).

But as Wright explores "blessing", what he notices in the OT (particularly Gen. 1) is that it is constituted by "fruitfulness, abundance, and fullness on the one hand and by enjoying rest within creation in holy and harmonious relationship with our Creator God on the other." In fact when God blesses someone in the 88 times this word is used, it normally includes increase of family or flocks or wealth or all three.

Wright goes on to state: "God's blessing is manifested most obviously in human prosperity and well-being; long life, wealth, peace, good harvests and children are the items that figure most frequently in lists of blessing (such as in Gen. 24; Lev. 26; Deut. 28)."

For a split-second, as I read this I am uncomfortable. But he continues by critiquing the perversion of this: prosperity theology.

"It is one thing to affirm gladly that God can and does bless people in a material way, with fulfillment of life, fruitfulness in their families and enjoyment of the good things of creation. But it is another thing altogether to insist that we have an entitlement to all such things or that if we do not receive them in abundance, then either God has not blessed us or we are lacking faith."


"Such teaching is a distortion of God's blessing in relation to material things, in the same way that corrupt sexual lust is a distortion of God's blessing in relation to our sexuality. The proper response to this kind of distortion is not to deny the good thing itself while condemning the abuse of it."

I found this to be VERY helpful correction. I get extremely wary when people claim that material blessings are from God. But then when you think about it, if God owns EVERYTHING, as I believe He does, then of course everything we receive is a gift and a blessing. I have tended to fall into this very trap (due to cynicism no doubt which Conan rebuked in me last week). Unfortunately because of the ridiculous greed and selfishness surrounding prosperity theology (or any other greedy life philosophy like "The Secret"), I have tended to reject the goodness of a material blessing at all which is just as out of balance!

There is a big difference between living out of gratitude; receiving everything with thanksgiving as a gift from God, AND selfishly and continually seeking the material blessings of God and not God Himself.

But the most detrimental thing that prosperity theology (or other worldviews) does to us is panders to the worst tendencies in us: greed, selfishness, love of money, covetousness, theft, exploitation, injustice, excessive affluence. Granted, it does so as Wright say "under a veneer of religious and spurious biblical quotation."

"If I can get rich quick by some religious activity and by just "claiming my miracle," why waste time and effort in working for it? Or even more demanding, by working for the alleviation of other people's poverty? But the answer to such false teaching is not to fall into the opposite error and regard the material world and its natural goods and pleasures as something wicked and sinful."

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Is suffering God's design?

Still reading through "Don't Waste Your Life" now and again when I can take it. This is where I start to remember why I rarely read a John Piper book. One of the places we part ways is when he speaks of suffering. But that's just a result of his larger system. Or what some (ironically) call the "doctrines of grace."

He says this of suffering:
"Suffering is God's design in this sin-soaked world. It portrays sin's horror for the world to see. It punishes sin's guilt for those who do not believe in Christ. It breaks sin's power for those who take up their cross and follow Jesus. And because sin is the belittling of the all-satisfying glory of God, the suffering that breaks its power is a severe mercy."

Suffering is God's design? Really? You sure it's not a result of our rebellion and part of the curse that we experience as a result of our sin as Genesis tells us? God's design? I'll let him be the one to tell that to the people of Haiti right now.
Good advice for all people, great advice for pastors! Been coming back to this all week!

"Stop being angry!
Turn from your rage!
Do not lose your temper-
it only leads to harm."

-Ps. 37:8

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Responding to Critics: the Contrast of Brian Mclaren and Perry Noble

Two men with so much in common. Both pastors who have a heart for people to know God and experience the new life that Jesus brings. In doing the work of ministry their own unique way, both have had to listen to incredible criticism and even endure name-calling from a variety of directions. The obvious difference between the two is how they have chosen to respond to the pressure of criticism.

As I was re-reading Brian Mclaren’s illuminating chapter on the subject of fasting in Finding Our Way Again, he was explaining the impact that the spiritual practice of fasting had made in his life. Mainly, he found that as he intentionally said “no” to some of his desires and impulses for a time, it has had a cumulative effect that has enabled him to say “no” to the larger temptations in life. One of those temptations he found himself facing was in desiring to respond harshly to critics of his writings and theology.

Here’s what he wrote:

“I think back to last week, when someone sent me a link to a website where a critic of my work indulged in some high-flying religious character assassination. My reaction to being misrepresented, insulted, and mocked was quite literally visceral. I felt something tighten in my gut, strangely similar in some ways to the craving for a chocolate-covered glazed doughnut. I started thinking about ways I could get back at this fellow, things I could write that would prove to him and to all virtual reality who the better man is. It was a kind of hunger…for revenge, I’m ashamed to say, and for self-justification, and to win and to hurt rather than lose and be hurt. And sitting here not, I wonder if my ability to let that feeling go last week didn’t have something to do with letting five hundred calories drop behind the Thank You sign on a trash can door one day. A little practice at impulse control, a little practice at facing my weakness, a little practice at laughing at my pretensions to maturity and spirituality, and a new possibility was actualized…thanks to a tradition carried by a community, embodied in some mentors who shared “elbow knowledge” with me. They say that practice makes perfect, but I wouldn’t know about that. What I do know is that practice makes possible some things that would otherwise have been impossible.”

Reading through the wisdom that Brian has gained through fasting gives me hope that over the next 20 or 30 years in ministry, I will be able to make the same wise decision to respond graciously and not satisfy my carnal urges for revenge. As I thought through this I realized that thanks to Out of Ur and a whole host of other bloggers, Perry Noble has come to serve as a contrast to the kind of graciousness of which Mclaren wrote.

I write this not to indict Perry Noble, for I do not know him, nor do I fully understand the stress that he is under as a leader in a large church. It's hard enough to sleep at night as a pastor of a smaller community. But it seems from the videos that he has not been able to say no to the temptation to respond to critics in a way that could be described as “less than generous”. As I read Brian’s description about what he initially desired to do but refrained from; namely, “getting back” at his critic, “proving to him who the better man is”, “seeking revenge”, “self-justification”, “having a desire to win”, I couldn’t stop thinking of those words describing adequately what Perry Noble has been seeking by videotaping his responses to critics and then posting them on You Tube the following week.

And sadly, while there are plenty of other venues available when you fall into the trap of feeling the need to justify yourself, he has chosen to use the stage from which God has given him the responsibility of preaching His Word on Sundays. Once you start using the “pulpit” to respond to public critics and bloggers, the church ceases to be about a gathered community of Christ-followers worshiping together, and more about a pastor dealing with the hurt that comes from critics taking shots. Sunday morning is far from the ideal platform to respond to critics and unfortunately it is on those mornings where his videos have gone from ironic and embarrassing (talking bad about pastors who talk bad about pastors from the stage), to straight up self-justification (scoreboard).

As pastors, there is no doubt that we all need to process the hurt and anxiety that comes from critics as well as ask questions like, "why does this bother me so much?" After all, some criticisms are more justified than others and should in fact be taken into account, even if the critic is not a close friend. But the place for that to happen doesn’t come on Sunday mornings in a sermon. It comes in the context of trusted mentors and spiritual friends who help us process why the critics’ voice feels so destructive to our soul.

In processing the contrast of Mclaren and Noble this week, my prayer is that I will have the ability to say no to those urges that rise up within me as a pastor to seek recognition, attention, justification, and self-worth from the ministry that Jesus has commissioned me with. But instead look to the person of Jesus himself who tells me that my worth and value come from what he has done through his death and resurrection and are ultimately found in God alone.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Does John Piper know about the resurrection?

While continuing to read and enjoy the challenge of "Don't Waste Your Life" by John Piper, I've noticed something that I would have guessed without reading the book. John Piper is OBSESSED with the cross of Jesus Christ. And why not? Paul was too. He made statements like, "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world." Gal. 6:14

Piper takes this and runs with it, making it the central focus of all of life and ministry. Piper interprets Paul to be saying, "Only rejoice in the cross of Christ. Paul says, Let this be your single passion, your single boast and joy and exultation."

It's not that this is all-in-all a bad thing. The cross is of crucial importance for us and our salvation! I even agree with Piper that one of the facets of Jesus' work on the cross is that he was a substitute; that he took the punishment that we deserved for our sins. He stood in our place. That is one of the easiest facets of the cross to see from Scripture. Not the only one, but an important one.

But I'm left wondering, where is the resurrection in all of this? If the resurrection didn't happen, what Jesus did on the cross is worthless! (1 Cor. 15) It still didn't achieve harmony between God and humanity. There is still not conquering of death or sin. So what's the point? You can't focus on the cross at the expense of the resurrection.

Piper states: "...for redeemed sinners, every good thing-indeed every bad thing that God turns for good-was obtained for us by the cross of Christ. Apart from the death of Christ, sinners get nothing but judgment. Apart from the cross of Christ, there is only condemnation. Therefore, everything that you enjoy in Christ-as a Christian, as a person who trusts Christ-is owing to the death of Christ. And all your rejoicing in all things should therefore be a rejoicing in the cross where all your blessings were purchased for you at the cost of the death of the Son of God, Jesus Christ."

Again, I wonder, where is the resurrection? Does it even matter in Piper's scheme? Why not make all of these statements as "the death (cross) and resurrection of Christ?" Why ONLY the cross? This seems to be a serious omission theologically.

I hope I'm wrong and Piper focuses on the significance of the resurrection somewhere in the book. I hope I can come back and apologize for jumping on his too quickly. But I've got a sneaking suspicion that the lack of resurrection will continue!

To be fair Piper mentions this: “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God,” as the old Nicene Creed says, and since his death and resurrection are the central act of God in history..."

He acknowledges it is central but so far has only addressed the cross at the expense of resurrection.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

"How well he reasoned! Lunatics always do within their own scope. I wonder at how many lives he values a man, or if at only one. He has closed the account most accurately, and today begun a new record. How many of us begin a new record with each day of our lives?”

Excerpt from Dracula by Bram Stoker

John Piper and Minimal Morality

John Piper is a pastor and author who I have typically not enjoyed reading, nor am I on the same page with his (strong) Calvinism. I don't have an opinion on the justification debate between he, N.T. Wright and a host of others because I don't really understand the fuss (although some want to make this discussion sound as if it is THE only discussion that matters right now). Maybe I will understand it more after I read N.T. Wright's book Justification and then Piper's response.

But in any case, one of the practices that I've committed to is in continuing to read authors that I know going in will have a different perspective than I do. It seems to me that if you exclusively read those books or authors of which you already agree, you're not really learning or changing per se, but rather reinforcing what you already believe (which can be helpful in it's own right).

But then of course you've got to recognize that you will never agree 100% with anyone, or any book! If you do, something may in fact be wrong! There will always be nuances, ideas, or directions in which you will not head. But learning doesn't come through simply agreeing or disagreeing, but through understanding. In fact, when reading someone's differing perspective, ideally at the end, I would love to be able to explain their opinion and even make a compelling case for it, even if I don't believe it. If I can do that, I know that I understand where they are coming from.

All that to say, I've started reading "Don't Waste Your Life" by John Piper in the mornings (it's convenient that I can read it on my iPhone for free). Sure, I don't agree with Piper on many issues, but despite that, there are a plethora of things that I can learn from him and appreciate about his ministry. Here is one such nugget. Wish I would have had this quote back when we were in 1 Corinthians.

"Somehow there had been wakened in me a passion for the essence and the main point of life. The ethical question "whether something is permissible: faded in relation to the question, "what is the main thing, the essential thing?" The thought of building a life around minimal morality or minimal significance-a life defined by the question, "what is permissible?"-felt almost disgusting to me. I didn't want a minimal life. I didn't want to live on the outskirts of reality. I wanted to understand the main thing about life and pursue it."

Monday, January 18, 2010

God, Parenting, and Pain

One of the more profound realizations of being a father thus far is how much I hurt when I see Gram in pain. I mean, genuine pain. It's fairly easy to see when Gram is crying out in pain and when he's just being whiny. In fact, a fake cry is instantly recognizable by pitch, tone, and volume. And it has a distinct effect on me: I laugh. Every single time. His fake cry has a giggle inducing effect on me. I appreciate the acting effort, but when he's faking I don't tense up as in the real times.

This past week Gram was experiencing real pain. Unfortunately one of the difficult parts of infancy is not being able to determine what is provoking the painful screams. But when pain is real, it cannot be mistaken. I tense up, I instantly start flipping through the catalog in my brain trying desperately to figure out what could be wrong and how I can fix it as soon as possible. My heart breaks for Gram when he experiences pain. I'd love to be able to fix it, and if not, then at least help comfort him through it.

This has led me (as so many things in parenting inevitably does) into thinking of our relationship with God and pain. So often when we are experiencing real pain, we have a tendency to blame God for it, even if the pain was caused by the consequences of our own rebellious actions. God must be stunned at our assertion. As a loving Father who has expressed himself through the ultimate empathy with the human condition, including the most extreme suffering and pain by becoming one of us and dying on a cross, he must be dumbfounded; to not only be mistaken for not caring, but also for causing the pain that we experience.

Seeing Gram in pain has changed my understanding of God and suffering. God doesn't look at us suffer with indifference or neglect. But he also doesn't instantly fix everything instantly either. This leads me to two conclusions: God's heart must break tremendously when He sees his children suffer (Haiti) and there must be some meaning to be found in the process of experiencing pain. It must do something in us, to us, for us for God to allow it.

Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Favorite Albums of the 2000's

Once again, this list in no way is trying to be a "critic's list" of the past decade, but these are simply albums that I loved and listened to more than others. Many of them has some kind of sentimental value and remind me of specific places in my life, hence why they are on this list. Enjoy!

30. Nada Surf - The Weight is a Gift

29. Grandaddy - Sumday

28. The Weakerthans - Left and Leaving

27. The Jayhawks - Rainy Day Music

26. The Album Leaf - In a Safe Place

25. The Wrens - The Meadowlands

24. The Postal Service - Give Up

23. Rogue Wave - Descended Like Vultures

22. The Killers - Hot Fuss

21. The National - Boxer

20. The Shins - Chutes Too Narrow

19. Midlake - The Trials of Van Occupanther

18. The Decemberists - Castaway and Cutouts

17. The Strokes – Is This It

16. Band of Horses – Everything All of the Time

15. The Stills - Logic Will Break Your Heart

14. Sun Kil Moon - Ghosts of the Great Highway

13. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club - Howl

12. Beck - Sea Change

11. Fleet Foxes - S/T

10. Sufjan Stevens - Illinois

9. Death Cab for Cutie - Transatlanticism

8. Elvis Perkins - In Dearland

7. Iron & Wine - Our Endless Numbered Days

6. Radiohead – Kid A

5. Josh Ritter - The Animal Years

4. The Arcade Fire – Funeral

3. My Morning Jacket – At Dawn

2. Wilco - Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

1. Ryan Adams - Heartbreaker