Wednesday, August 29, 2018

On the American Attraction to Novelty

There is a strong and ongoing temptation towards novelty in the American Christian. Indeed, he has for so long and in so many clever ways been taught that “new is better” that he now believes it as a foundational premise. For his entire life he has been surrounded by a persuasive media that has defined him as a consumer and so it is, more than anything, the advertising agency that has determined the way he looks at the world. He has his learned lessons well and is now convinced that everything that is “new” must truly be “improved.”

Running a not too distant second in formulating the believer's attraction to novelty is the school system in which he was taught. There he was instructed carefully and incessantly in evolutionary thought. Whether the classes involved science, humanities, ethics, or Marxist-laced economics, the government school system has instructed him that everything is moving towards that inventible force called (note the capital P) Progress. A key part of his worldview is the maxim, “Every day in every way, things are getting better and better.”

It should be no surprise then that American Christians find themselves ever attracted to novelty…even in theological matters. The latest trend. The fashionable formula. The pragmatism promised by the most recent book. The American Christian, taking his lead from the advertising jingles in his head, believes that even in the search for religious significance, success will be found in the “new and improved” theological tricks – the latest, the hippest, the faith flavor of the month.

But G.K. Chesterton had it right when he declared, “It is the old things that startle and intoxicate.” And indeed, the believer’s strength is always found in the ancient truths, the essentials, the fundamentals of the faith. Ours is a Faith grounded in history and beautifully enacted by real heroes who have given us an extremely rich heritage. And we worship and serve a Messiah Who is “the same yesterday, today, and forever” and Who has revealed himself in the timeless writings of the Holy Bible.

So please, my friends, beware of the siren calls from novelty for they represent an alluring but ultimately misleading force. No, it is much better to stay the course with He Who was, is, and is to come…He Who holds the future in His Hands…He Who is, quite rightfully titled, the Rock of Ages.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Thoughts on Proverbs 19:13 (A Guest Column from Bill Weber)

During a coffee conversation I enjoyed last week with Bill Weber (a former pastor who is currently writing hymns, studying Proverbs, and other intriguing things), I encouraged him to occasionally send over some of the stuff he’s been writing and I might upload them onto the blog. This is the first article he sent over. You'll see it presents a very different kind of perspective on a well-known proverb and with provocative applications too. Check it out.

Thoughts on Proverbs 19:13 

“A foolish son is ruin to his father, and a wife's quarreling is a continual dripping of rain.” (Proverbs 19:13, ESV)

Graeme Goldsworthy says of this proverb, “Those relationships that are closest and most rewarding have the potential for greater destructiveness.”[1]  Goldsworthy gets at the heart of the literal meaning of today's proverb.  But while it is helpful to look at the horizontal relationships that a literal reading focuses on in our verse, my goal is to read the proverbs Christologically, in the light of the New Testament.  Thus, I agree with Andrew Steinmann when he says we need to “read these sayings in the light of the gospel.”[2]  The individual proverbs “find their ultimate meaning only when read with the gospel in view, as indeed is true of all the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24:44-47).”[3]

So we will certainly touch on the literal meaning of Proverbs 19:13, but the question I am more interested in is this: How do we see Christ in this proverb?  For until we can answer that question, we have fallen short of the intended and ultimate meaning for us as our heavenly Father's children and our Lord's bride.

Leland Ryken writes: “The Bible is more than a book of ideas: it is also a book of images and motifs…We will miss a lot of what the Bible contains if we do not see and understand the literal and symbolic meanings of the Bible's images…The Bible is a book that images the truth as well as stating it in abstract propositions.”[4]  This means that in order to be good Bible readers, we must become competent at interpreting symbols.  Ryken goes on to define a symbol this way:  “A symbol is an image that stands for something in addition to its literal meaning.”[5]

But here is where the human race in its sinful state has become quite obtuse!  In our fallen state, we often miss the symbolism, and the spiritual meaning latent in those symbols.  How often in the Gospels we see this inability to see symbolism.  Just in the opening chapters of John's Gospel, Jesus speaks of the temple being raised in three days, but His disciples are thinking of the literal temple.  Jesus says you must be born from above, but Nicodemus wonders how a man can be born from his mother's womb again.  Jesus speaks of living water, but the Samaritan woman is fixated on drawing water from the well in front of her.  Jesus says that He has bread his disciples don't know about, and they wonder if someone gave Him some bread.  And on and on it goes.  We are not the best at seeing spiritual meaning, and seeing Him in symbols.  We are masters at the literal, but bumblers at the spiritual.

Today's proverb presents us with three persons that function as symbols: a son, a father, and a wife.  Earthly fathers are meant to point to the heavenly Father, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Earthly sons are meant to point to the eternally begotten and beloved Son of the Father, Jesus Christ.  A wise wife points to Woman Wisdom, who points to Jesus Christ who is wisdom incarnate (Proverbs 9:1-12).  But foolish wives point to Woman Folly (Proverbs 9:13-18).  The wise wife in Proverbs 31:10-31 is a type (a symbol designed to foreshadow Christ or spiritual things) of Woman Wisdom, who is a type of Christ.  Akin writes, “Proverbs begins with a dad telling his son to make Woman Wisdom his wife, and it ends with a husband praising a wise wife.  Woman Wisdom points to Jesus, who is the embodiment of God's Wisdom.  The wise wife is, therefore, a type of Woman Wisdom, and one can only be that kind of wife if she is in a relationship with the Wisdom of God who is Jesus Christ…She is a saved woman, a godly woman, a Bible woman, a Jesus woman.”[6]

One further point about, not just wives as symbols, but women as symbols.  Women, because of the God-given design of their bodies, are often used as symbols of discipleship throughout the Bible.  The receptivity of their bodies makes them wonderful pictures of what it means to live as disciples, for the key to discipleship is receptivity (Matthew 5:3).  Christopher West writes, “Receptivity is the fundamental posture of every creature before the Creator.  We have nothing that we have not first received, beginning with our very existence.  Love does not originate in us.  It originates in God, who is love.  Hence, if we are to give love, we must first open up to receive it.  We cannot give what we do not have.”[7]

Putting this together, our verse is getting at the heart of our purpose in life.  The goal of our lives as God's born from above sons (I'm using “sons” to include both sexes) is to honor our heavenly Father.  The goal of our lives as our Lord's bride (including both sexes) is to love Him and to be receptive to Him.

But sin has greatly disordered our lives.  Instead of wise sons, our fallen nature sires foolish sons, who do not love the heavenly Father and are filled with an inward enmity toward Him, which only the new birth can change.  Instead of disciples that love Jesus Christ their Husband and seek to do all they can to help and advance His cause on the earth, the earth is filled with unbelievers who have no love for Jesus, though He loved the world and gave Himself for it.

In our couplet we see enmity against earthly fathers and earthly husbands that symbolizes the enmity the human race has toward the heavenly Father and his Son Jesus Christ, our true husband who has betrothed His bride at the cross.  The aim in life is to honor our heavenly Father, and love His Son, our Husband and Lord.  May it be, Lord.

[1] Goldsworthy, Proverbs, 136.
[2] Steinmann, Proverbs, 407.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Dictionary of Biblical Imagery, xiii.
[5] Ibid., xiv.
[6] Akin, Proverbs, 180.
[7] Christopher West, The Love That Satisfies: reflections on eros and agape, 79.

Reflections on Radical Discipleship

[The following is an edited version of a Vital Signs Blog post written a couple of years ago. The exhortations, however, are more relevant than ever.]

Last Saturday Claire and I were blessed to participate in a reunion party involving people who were part of the Christian Brotherhood in the early 1970s. It was a lively reunion party hosted by Bob & Linda Potter with a couple dozen celebrating life, our ongoing friendships, and the grace of God that was poured out upon America during the days of the Jesus Movement of which the Brotherhood was a storied part.  We celebrated too the Lord’s ongoing grace as He has continued to lead, protect, correct, and use the lives of many, many believers who came through that unique ministry.

In reading through the printed testimonies, talking to people at the reunion party, and then reflecting on our common experiences, I couldn’t help but compare what happened to us in those exciting days with what’s happening or, more to the point, what’s not happening with Christian youth today.  As a result of those reflections, I decided to address the topic of radical discipleship in this article. For I continue to hope that the days of “great awakenings” are not all behind us. We are, after all, promised that the mercies of God are new every morning. Therefore, revolutionary change can yet occur in individual lives and even in culture, if we simply unplug ourselves from the world and connect our minds instead to the glorious Creator God Who gave His Son for our salvation.  So, please come with me for a look at 5 themes marking the radical discipleship of the early years of the Christian Brotherhood.

1) A dramatic change of identity.  The converts to Christianity in those heady days of the Jesus Revolution wholeheartedly embraced the chance to be forgiven and to live completely different from the culture in which they had previously walked.  Nowadays, too many Christians boast in being just like everybody else. They downplay, even mock, the idea of Christianity which results in a radical lifestyle change.  In fashion, in entertainment choices, in accepting the aggressive liberalism of the government schools, in chasing the constant lure of advertisers, in language and demeanor, young people in the church tend to copy their non-Christian peers. But the young people involved with the Christian Brotherhood were delighted to be different. We willingly relished the opportunities of counter-culture lifestyles because, after all, we knew all too well that the world had nothing to offer us.  We had been there and done that. So we jumped at the chance to exchange darkness for light, lies for truth, slavery for freedom.

We stopped boozing and doing drugs. We ended our promiscuity and criminal behavior.  We moved away from bad influences. We stopped watching TV, not because it was necessarily evil, but simply because we now had a host of other things to do…things that were interesting and active, things that were pure and beneficial. We need a new sense today of how peculiar (the Bible’s word) a people we are; how set apart and set against the cosmos we are; how revolutionary should be our outlook on life, truth, God, the future, and the world around us.

2) A solid theological foundation. The Christian Brotherhood gave us a strong, unshakeable theological foundation.  This was somewhat unique among other Jesus People ministries as it featured Bible classes that were taught by skilled and experienced Bible scholars, including instructors at Grace Bible Institute who came into the inner city to deliver expositional, exegetical Bible classes to us several nights a week.

And the young people of the Christian Brotherhood couldn’t get enough of it!  We not only listened intently, we filled our spiral notebooks with the notes we took from those lectures. And it wasn’t easy stuff either.  No cream puff Christianity here. Indeed, we learned later that the Grace instructors were giving us the very lectures they gave in their upper level theology courses at the college.  But, unlike many of the Grace students, we new converts would eagerly listen, carefully study our notes, and then compare them with what we were learning in our personal Bible study. We would also discuss them in depth with one another.  We knew we had an awful lot to learn…and a lot to unlearn too. Indeed, we sometimes fell back into patterns from our past and so our sanctification required us to regularly repent and even make restitution when possible. But God’s grace kept moving us forward and we took our duties as disciples very seriously.

Do you see much of that in today’s churches?  Young people who are so eager to learn that they forsake entertainment and sports and social media in order to attend hard-edged Bible studies?  Young people crowding into the front rows at church (as the Brotherhood kids did when we went together to hear Darrell Scott at Pleasantview Berean Church), kids holding well-marked Bibles along with pens and notebooks because they were ready to learn more?  Young people who added to lectures and sermons their own studies in apologetics, church history, evangelism, and comparative religion?  Young people being stretched intellectually, held accountable for their beliefs and lifestyles, and challenged to learn to pray and serve and be ever conformed to the image of Christ?

Or do you see instead church youth of today isolated in their own age groups, being coddled and pampered, given heavy doses of comfort and fun, protected from sacrifice and hard work, promised popularity and prosperity? Such a state is a far cry from the discipleship required of young Christians throughout history. It’s a far cry too from the discipleship undergone by most young believers in Third World churches today. Isn’t it time the Western Church embrace again the biblical ideals of radical discipleship? For our sake as well as God’s?

3) Godly fellowship. The discipleship process at the Christian Brotherhood was very strong on fellowship.  But our fellowship was not about fun and games, even though there was often a fun element to it.  Rather, it concentrated on our common participation in the new adventure we were enjoying in the Lord.  Bible study.  Giving witness to the gospel in the parks and on front porches.  Praying.  Commiserating with one another over our past hurts and failures while taking bold actions to change.  Talking about what we were reading.  Involvement in various ministries. Worshipping together with guitars and choruses and old hymns.

We quickly realized we needed frequent stimulation to love and good deeds, the spur to keep learning and maturing. We also knew we needed an accountability factor to help protect us from the easily-besetting sins of our past.  And, as a bonus, this kind of intimate, energizing fellowship taught us what our spiritual gifts were and how to best use them in ministry.

4) Practice in Christian service.  As was the case with the apostles who walked with Jesus in the 1st Century, the new converts at the Christian Brotherhood learned from precept, from example, and from direct participation.  We were young (most of us) and very inexperienced, yet we welcomed the activity the Lord brought our way in evangelism, prayer, counseling, physical labor, developing study habits, getting involved in church, repairing the damage we had caused in our families. The writer of Hebrews describes mature believers as “those who by practice have had their senses trained to discern good and evil.” We also were being trained as we practiced our faith in the real world.  Oh, yes; there was a lot of uncertain and amateurish action on our part and plenty of learning through our failures.  But learn we did.

5) Reading and reflecting. There’s one more item that was crucial to my early discipleship, one so influential that it deserves special note.  And that is that the Christian Brotherhood “baptized” me into books. I had been an avid reader in my youth and, even in my otherwise wasted years of high school, I found pleasure and value in literature. But in my sad spiral downward after high school, I had stopped reading altogether.  And even when I was converted to Christianity in the early spring of 1970, I was very slow to get serious about books.  That all changed dramatically when I hitchhiked into the strange town of Omaha that summer of 1970.  For within 24 hours of hitting town, I was living at the Christian Brotherhood and directed to start reading Harry Ironside’s commentary on The Book of Acts. That was followed by a dozen more Ironside commentaries and then books by C.S. Lewis, Dwight Pentecost, Howard Hendricks, Donald Grey Barnhouse, and Anthony Hoekma.  I also began to buy my own Bible study books: concordances, commentaries, a Greek/English interlinear New Testament, the 5-volume ISBE, and more.  And towards the end of my time at the Brotherhood, I discovered Francis Schaeffer and others who were part of L’Abri. Those books opened up an adventurous new chapter in my learning…and my life.

Those books provided a strong foundation for me, one that only grew stronger in the decades since as I was introduced to other writers who rocked my world (notably G.K. Chesterton, Randy Alcorn, and Joni Eareckson Tada), as I read more widely (including a return to classic literature), and as I learned the value of re-reading.  Books have contributed greatly to my life and ministry.  They have enriched my relationships. They have given me great personal pleasure.  They have been a key defense against the moral pollution and intellectual debilitation brought on by watching too much television and modern film.  And, again, that all started at the Christian Brotherhood where I was blessed beyond measure to receive a radical discipleship.

A healthy Christianity that yields peace, happiness, and confidence? A holy lifestyle that lights up the darkness instead of being compromised and covered up by the surrounding cosmos? I’m convinced that these things begin with a regimen of radical discipleship highlighted by the five themes I’ve described: 1) A dramatic change of identity.  2) A solid theological foundation.  3) Godly fellowship.  4) Practice in Christian service.  5) Reading and reflecting.    If the Church has any hope of reclaiming its power to influence the world, it must bring these things back into play for our congregations.  And especially for our youth. We must pray to that end. But, in addition to our fervent intercession, you and I must act in whatever ways we can to advocate, and model, and encourage radical discipleship in the cause of Christ.

Friday, August 17, 2018

William Tyndale & the English Bible

Erasmus, the great humanist scholar of the late Middle Ages performed one of the most important projects of his time when he published an entire Greek New Testament in a lucid translation which was true to the original manuscripts. Though himself a quiet and moderate man, a Catholic who had desires for only modest changes in the Church, his new translation would become a key spark for the Reformation throughout Europe.

In particular, a young priest and language scholar in England took Erasmus’ New Testament to his very heart. He was William Tyndale, a man who would later testify that he found Jesus Christ in that Greek New Testament and, depending upon Christ's mercy, Tyndale dedicated his life to producing the Holy Scriptures in the English language.

However, Tyndale’s great vision was opposed by strictly and ruthlessly applied laws prohibiting the translation of the Bible into the language of the people. Indeed, parents had been burned at the stake simply for teaching their children the English version of the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments.

But God honored William Tyndale’s noble desires and the brave, diligent, prayerful work it required to bring them to pass. The Bible was translated into English and disseminated throughout the country. And though Tyndale paid the ultimate price, being martyred by strangulation and burning in October 1536, he considered his life's work a wonderful investment for his eternity.

The Bible in our own language, my oh, my.  We have heroes to thank for this awesome blessing and a heroic heritage to treasure. And, of course, a Bible in our own language that we should be reading (and obeying) much more than we do.

Extra note: The bronze statue shown here was created by J.E. Boehm in 1883. This bronze statue was placed in Whitehall Gardens on May 7th 1884 as part of the 80th anniversary of the British and Foreign Bible Society.

The Inscription on the front of the plinth reads...

William Tyndale 
First translator of the New Testament into English from the Greek. Born A.D. 1484, died a martyr at Vilvorde in Belgium, A.D. 1536. 

“Thy word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path” - “the entrance of thy words giveth light.” Psalm CXIX. 105.130. 
“And this is the record that God hath given to us eternal life, 
and this life is in his son.” I. John V.II. 

The last words of William Tyndale were “Lord! Open the King of England's eyes”. Within a year afterwards, a bible was placed in every parish church by the King's command.

Thursday, August 09, 2018

“If Memories Were All I Played”

Do you remember that phrase from Rick Nelson’s 1972 hit song, “Garden
Party”?  If so, you’ll also remember the full sentence – “If memories were all I played, I’d rather drive a truck!”

Well, I understand Rick’s point.  No one wants to be defined solely by their past nor is one’s life well lived if it only revolves around memories of the good old days.  But it’s important to note that Rick Nelson wasn’t dismissing the value of memories altogether.  Not at all. After all, his “garden party” performance included “all the old songs” which the audiences wanted to hear and which he enjoyed playing. He simply didn’t want to be limited by those old songs.  Yes, he had a rich repertoire from the past – that was terrific – but Rick Nelson also wanted to also be appreciated for who he was in the present moment.

I’ve often thought about this as it relates to our ministry of “When Swing Was King” as we take the music of the past into senior care facilities.  It is natural enough for anyone to love the music of their youth and therefore to relish the memories and moods those songs bring back to them.  Thus it is an absolute delight to Claire and me to be able to bring those things to them.  However, it is also a great thrill and honor for us to develop existential friendships with the fans of our program.  We bring the “old” gifts, gifts they cherish more than we ever dared imagine.  Yet through the “When Swing Was King” outreach, we become present day friends with the members of our audiences…at all ten places we play each month.  We listen to their stories of the past to be sure, but we also talk a great deal about the present.  And, as the Lord opens up opportunities, we talk too about the future as we share our joyful confidence in the heavenly inheritance that Jesus Christ purchased by His sacrifice for our sins.

But there’s another angle to my Rick Nelson reference and that is that even the old music needs an occasional update.  In the case of “When Swing Was King,” it means that Claire and I recognize that our audiences are continually changing as “younger seniors” move into the facilities on our schedule. And because we promise “a sentimental journey back to the days of your youth,” we must continually move our music selections forward in time.

Now, as you know, we already make regular changes in our program. Our basic “catalogue” includes 24 plus shows but every time a series comes round (every two years), I change 2-5 songs, 60-80 of the 200 or so photographs, and several of the stories in my narration.  Therefore, every presentation is, quite literally, unique.  But as we now move into our 9th year of “When Swing Was King,” we are not merely making such changes; we are also advancing our musical era into the 1950s and 1960s.

No, that doesn’t mean we’re going into rock and roll.  We will leave to somebody else a program that stars Elvis, The Beatles, and Abba.  Claire and I are going to stay the course with the mellow, more thoughtful music of the big bands and vocalists of the golden age.  Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw will stay center stage.  As will Bing Crosby, the Dorsey brothers, Sinatra and Como, the Mills Brothers, Chick Webb, Guy Lombardo, The Andrews Sisters, Ella Fitzgerald,  Lawrence Welk, Helen Forrest, Count Basie, Harry James, etc.  Nevertheless, we are increasingly making room for other popular performers who came a bit later: Nat King Cole, Rosemary Clooney, Andy Williams, the McGuire Sisters, Robert Goulet, Eydie Gorme, Dean Martin, the Lennon Sisters, Kay Starr, Jerry Vale, and others.  Indeed, we closed July’s show with Pat Boone’s “Love Letters in the Sand” (1957) and it was a huge hit with our audiences.

So, there you have it – a quick report on the modifications of “When Swing Was King” as we try to keep it as relevant, sweet, and enjoyable a program as possible.  Our fans are certainly worth the effort!

And for an example of the fare we offer, here is the August playlist, terrific songs every one.

1) Glenn Miller Orchestra — “A String of Pearls”
2) The Andrews Sisters — “Begin the Beguine”
3) Artie Shaw Orchestra — “Out of Nowhere”
4) Nat King Cole — “Let’s Face the Music and Dance”
5) Harry James Orchestra — “If I Loved You”
6) Ella Fitzgerald — “Blue Moon”
7) Benny Goodman Orchestra — “Here’s Love In Your Eyes”
8) Guy Lombardo Orchestra — “Getting To Know You”
9) Eydie Gorme — “Hello, Young Lovers”
10) Larry Clinton Orchestra (Bea Wain, vocals) — “Heart and Soul”
11) Lawrence Welk Orchestra — “Hoop-De-Doo”
12) Fred Astaire — “The Way You Look Tonight”