Thursday, April 15, 2010

What if...?

Our Life Groups are discussing selected Gospel stories of Jesus and his disciples. The discussions are uniquely designed so that together the group draws out what the selected story teaches about Jesus, and what it teaches us about ourselves as we identify with the various characters or elements in the story. It always amazes me how I learn more from these studies then I have from reading numerous commentaries, studying the Greek, and examining the passages in minute detail. Not to deny the importance of scholarly study, but I am constantly amazed at the deep and varied insights each group collectively draws out from the passages by simply asking a few questions and letting people share their insights. I’d like to begin sharing some of those insights with you each week. Our goal in our Life Groups is to come to know Jesus more, then share that adventure with others. So let me begin to share it with you.

We are about eight weeks into our Life Groups, and this week our passage was Mark 5.21-43, the story of Jesus raising Jairus’ daughter from the dead and healing the woman who had a hemorrhage for twelve years. While the groups drew out many cool things the passage teach about Jesus in these healings, let me simply share two. First, there’s the desperate desire of each of these two people to get to Jesus. As a Jewish synagogue official, Jairus had much to lose by going to Jesus, yet he did not let that stop him. Similarly, the woman with the hemorrhage, who would have been ceremonially unclean according to the Law of Moses, risked embarrassment, humiliation, and condemnation from the Jewish religious leaders because she risked making others unclean should they accidentally touch her. None of this would keep her from Jesus. They both were keenly aware of their urgent need, and the power of Jesus’ touch to fulfill that need. Jairus asked Jesus to lay his hands on his daughter. The sick woman wanted only to touch Jesus’ garment. Do we have that same desire, that unstoppable compulsion to be touched by Jesus? To be in his presence? To experience his power? Are we desperate enough to seek it out no matter the cost?

Second, what about the strange statement of Jesus at the end of the story, where he gave strict orders to Jairus and his wife to tell no one about how he raised their daughter (Mk 5.43)? Each of our groups talked at length about this. We noted that the Gospels, especially Mark’s, actually record Jesus giving such orders on many occasions of his healings, and it seems that people seldom complied with Jesus’ orders (cf. Mt 9.26). As we discussed several possible explanations for Jesus commanding them to be silent and the people’s refusal to do so, a troubling question arose: While people who were healed or delivered by Jesus during his earthly ministry refused to keep quiet about it even when Jesus ordered them to tell no one, why do we remain strangely quiet about Jesus when we’ve been ordered by him to “shout it from the rooftops”? They were healed and not even Jesus could stop them from telling everyone. We are saved and commanded to tell everyone (Mt 28.18-20), yet most of us tell almost no one. Why is that? Why don’t we have that same unstoppable compulsion to tell the world what Jesus has done for us?

Maybe it goes back to the first thing we noticed about their keen awareness of need and unstoppable compulsion to touch Jesus and be healed. What if we lived with as keen an awareness about our need as Jairus and the poor bleeding woman did in regard to theirs? And what if we were equally as aware of the power of Jesus to fulfill our every need? Would anything stop us from accessing Jesus? And once experiencing his power, would anything stop us from telling the whole world about him? What if…?

Friday, February 5, 2010

Why A Believer Might Reject the Faith

This week’s online issue of Christianity Today Magazine published an interview with former Christian artist David Bazan (“I Never Wanted a Hard Heart,” by Drew Dyck, 2-2-2010). Bazan is a “former Christian artist.” He is “former” because he no longer is Christian. He has turned away from the his faith and has become an atheist. What is unusual is that Bazan is 35 years old and has written and sung about his faith for at least a decade. His was not a case of a young person rejecting his parents’ faith once he began to think for himself. Rather, it was a case of rejecting his own faith, a faith hammered out by personally wrestling with the claims of Christ, a faith arrived at as his own conviction, and a faith expressed from his heart in his music. Not that he is the first Christian to turn away from a long and dearly held faith. It happens. But it would seem to take something dramatic for someone like Bazan to turn away from their faith. What would cause such a dramatic turn-about? Perhaps by answering that question, we will better understand our own doubts and vulnerability.

Like many others who turn away from their faith, Bazan offers intellectual reasons for his gradual deconversion. He began to wrestle with big questions, and felt that to be honest he had to pursue those questions. I believe he is right to do so. We all face doubts and questions. We would be dishonest with ourselves and with God if we simply brushed those questions aside or buried them under a fa├žade of unquestioning conviction. The truth is, faith in Christ raises tough questions. There are questions in regard to Jesus’ claims and of the witnesses’ claims to his being raised from the dead, questions of the historical truth of the Bible, and moral questions about a God who allows so much evil and suffering to occur in the world. Perhaps most difficult are when those moral questions become personal through our own suffering and disappointment. Where is God when we suffer tragic loss?

There is no need to fear such questions, whether intellectual or emotional. Perhaps the intellectual questions are the easiest to settle. The Bible and the Christian faith has withstood the test of skeptical examination for 2000 years. Honesty may demand that we pursue such questions when they arise, but it also demands that we pursue and examine all the possible and proposed answers. Too often, however, we use intellectual arguments to cover what is really a problem of the heart. It is not “Can I intellectually and honestly believe this?” so much as it is “Am I willing to surrender my life to this?” That’s more of a heart issue than a head issue. I don’t know if Bazan’s doubt arose out of some deeper heart issue, but I suspect so.

To understand why a believer would give up his or her faith, it might help to ask why an unbeliever would come to faith to begin with. Is it purely an intellectual decision? I’d like to think that we all came to faith after having pursued all the possible questions and all the possible answers, and have concluded intellectually, based on the evidence, that Jesus is the Son of God. But who of us can say we did? Hopefully we at least considered the evidence and concluded it was reasonable enough to give our lives to. But even then, we still had to make an emotional decision. We had to wrestle with questions like, “Do I need Jesus? Am I willing to surrender everything for Jesus? Is it worth the cost?” If coming to the faith involved a combination of intellectual and emotional considerations, leaving the faith would seem to as well. When intellectual doubts arise, don’t be afraid to examine those doubts. But we may need to examine our heart even closer.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Reaching those who do not seek God

Looking forward to the time when the Messiah would come and usher in a new age and a worldwide kingdom, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah records the lament of Israel because Jerusalem is a desolation and God seems to be silent and unresponsive to Israel (Isa 64.8-12). Isaiah follows with an interesting response from God that perhaps has some things to say to our situation today as well:

“I permitted Myself to be sought by those who did not ask for Me,
I permitted myself to be found by those who did not seek Me.
I said, ‘Here am I, here am I,’
To a nation which did not call on My name.” (Isa 65.1).

The apostle Paul quotes this verse in Romans 10, applying it to how the Gentiles came to Christ in large numbers while God’s historical people rejected him. Those who historically were furthest away from God (the Gentiles) came to him when they were presented with the message of Christ and the cross, while those who were historically God’s kingdom people (Israel) rejected him.

I wonder if this might have some relevance for us in the church today. For example, surveys and statistics show that churches of Christ (and most or all other churches as well) in America are either declining or simply maintaining, and we are not having a radical impact on the growing masses of unchurched people in our culture (those who “did not seek me”?). Many churches are in maintenance mode, which means that most of their efforts are directed inward toward the body, with at best only a small element of their work focused outwardly. What does that have to do with the prophecy in Isaiah. Maybe nothing. But I wonder if God isn’t about to do a great work among “those who did not seek” him, even as we see the church as we know it become desolate. That’s probably too strong a word, as I am not suggesting we aren’t doing anything at all to reach out to our culture. But if we are going to be used by God so that he might be found by those who did not seek him (the unchurched) we need to do some radically different things. We need to change our methods, and perhaps our model, without changing the message. But perhaps more than anything, we need to change our focus and our priorities. Are willing to make those changes so that we might reach a “nation which did not call on My name”? Only time will tell.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Challenges of Fasting

Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting must certainly be the most difficult and challenging. The other disciplines face their challenges, for sure. Bible reading faces the challenge of our busyness and distraction, prayer the challenge of our self-sufficiency. In my desire to add to my life fasting as a spiritual discipline, I knew it would be difficult. Being hungry is no fun. This particular desire (need) of the flesh is powerful. Controlling the craving for food when it is right there in the refrigerator or cupboard places high demands on your self-control. It does remind you to ask God for help, however. It also reminds you to pray about other things.

I was surprised, however, to find that experiencing hunger was actually the easiest part of fasting (at least at the level I’ve so far practiced). I found a much greater challenge to fasting than hunger. In fact, two challenges. The first is similar to the challenge to the other spiritual disciplines: our busy lifestyle. It is hard to fast when you are busy with so many other things. It takes energy to maintain a busy life. Besides, if we are so busy that we have little time to pray, read and meditate on Scripture, or worship God fasting kind of loses some of its purpose. I’m not suggesting you cannot fast while you are busy serving God and living life. On the contrary, Jesus suggested that when you fast you should go about your daily business as if everything was normal, so that no one would know you are fasting (Mt 6.16-18). Nonetheless, biblical references to fasting are most often connected with prayer, suggesting that there ought to be some quiet time associated with fasting.

The greatest challenge I found to fasting, however, was neither the hunger nor the busyness, but simply being around other people who are not fasting. I’m not referring to the torment of watching them eat while you abstain. That might be difficult. But rather, it is the desire to be sociable that sometimes makes fasting difficult. Eating with others is a way of showing love, building bonds of friendship, sharing intimacy, or simply being courteous. If my wife is having a meal, I want to have it with her. Perhaps this is a good reason for husbands and wives to fast together. But if you spend much time with people, fasting can be hard. Perhaps this is one reason Jesus and his disciples did not practice fasting during Jesus’ earthly ministry. He was always with people—eating with the tax-gatherers and sinners, eating with his disciples, going to banquets—so much so that they called him a glutton and drunkard (Mt 11.19). These were false charges, of course. But they were based on the fact that Jesus was always sharing meals with people. To be alone he had to go up on a mountain and spend the night. Perhaps this explains why fasting is often associated with monasteries and the lifestyle of a monk. It is inconvenient and perhaps even rude to fast when you are around others.

This latter challenge is not necessarily bad. On the contrary, Jesus came to seek and save the lost (Lk 19.10), and that’s how he spent his time. We are to be about the same business. But the two are not mutually exclusive. In fact, it was in the midst of fasting that the Holy Spirit revealed to the Christians in Antioch to send some of them out to seek the lost (Acts 13.1-3). Perhaps we would seek and save more lost souls if we spent a little time in fasting and praying about it.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Is Faith Rational?

While most people have faith in at least something (whether in God and the Bible or Allah and the Koran or Darwin and Science), how many people could give an accurate definition of what faith is? Is faith an irrational belief is something you can never prove? Do you have to park your brains to have faith? I guess it depends on how you define faith. To many, faith starts where knowledge leaves off. Mark Twain said, “Faith is believing in something you know is not true.” I'll admit, that might accurately describe some people's faith. People believe all kinds of irrational things, and sometimes even give their lives for it. But is that the nature of Biblical faith? That is, is faith as it is described in the Bible an irrational belief in something you can never prove?

The Bible itself gives us a definition of faith. In the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 11, we have an entire treatise on faith, beginning with a definition and then illustrated in the lives of men and women of faith from throughout Biblical history. Verse 1 says, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11.1).

At its most basic level, faith has to do with that which we cannot see or have not yet obtained, and yet it is both an assurance and a conviction of the reality of those unseen things. Faith is not simply a weak wish or a leap in the dark. Though many people believe in things for no other reason than that is what they have been taught or raised with, true Biblical faith is a conviction based on sound evidence. This is seen throughout the Bible, especially in the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) and the book of Acts, the latter of which gives us the record of the early Christians as they sought to testify to their belief in Jesus and his resurrection from the dead.

The Gospels are records based on eye-witness accounts (cf. Luke 1.1-4; John 20.26-31), as is Acts (Acts 1.1-4). In Acts we see the apostles constantly reasoning from the evidence in order to persuade skeptics (Acts 2.21-36; 17.2,4,17; 18.4,19; 19.8,9,26). Their faith was based on firsthand experience, historical and eyewitness testimony, Old Testament predictions, nature, and other forms of evidence. Their faith was not unreasonable, but highly reasonable.

Nonetheless, faith by its very nature relates to “things hoped for” and “things unseen.” Thus, it relates to the unseen realities of the past, present, and future. We may have never seen the Roman Caesars, but we do not doubt they existed. We may have never seen the atomic components that hold matter together, but we do not hesitate to sit down in a chair. And we know all too well what happens when you split those components apart in an explosion. And though we have never seen Jesus in person, we can have a sure conviction that he lived and died and rose again. Enough evidence has been provided. And while we cannot see the present reality of Jesus living and ruling in heaven at the right hand of the Father, we need not doubt it because we have enough evidence. Likewise our hope (confident expectation) of eternal life beyond the grave is an unseen future lived as if it in were the present. These are all unseen, but no less real.

And yet, faith can only exist in the realm of doubt. It is not the same as absolute knowledge in terms of first hand experience. Whenever we board an airplane, we must place our complete confidence (faith) in the pilot who will fly it, the mechanics who worked on it, the engineers who designed it, and the Air Traffic Controllers who will guide it (not to mention the airport security services who protect it). Yet though we do not really know with absolute certainty that they have all done or will do their jobs correctly, we get on the plane. That is faith. But if there was no room for doubt, there would be no need for faith. As Paul said, “we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5.7). Faith does not mean we never have doubts. It only means that we do not let doubts prevent us from acting on our faith.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Why Should We Fast?

Last week’s article on fasting seems to have resonated with many of you (this article is also sent out on an email list, from which I received many responses). Evidently I am not alone in my experience (or rather, lack of) with fasting. Many of those who responded suggested that they do not fast and have seldom or never heard any teaching on fasting. There were some notable exceptions, however. Nonetheless, it does seem that fasting is rare among Christians today (I can't say that my "sample size" is anywhere close to representative of course).

Before coming back to my personal experience and thoughts about fasting, however, let me briefly consider a few examples from the Bible. The first Biblical mention of fasting might be Gen 24.33, where Abraham’s servant, who was sent by Abraham to find a wife for Isaac, refused to eat food that was set before him until he told his business. Even if it was just one meal, this would qualify as a fast, which simply means to “abstain from food.” Later, fasting began to be commonly practiced among the Israelites. The Law of Moses evidently required only one fast, which was on the Day of Atonement (Lev 16.29-31 – “humble your souls” has traditionally been interpreted as fasting). Yet we see many references to fasting among the Israelites. Moses twice fasted for 40 days while receiving the Law (Ex 34.28; Dt 9.18). Throughout the Old and New Testaments fasting was done to seek God’s guidance and gain understanding and wisdom (Jud 20.26; Dan 9.3; 10.3 Acts 13.1-3), to beg God’s forgiveness (1 Sam 7.6), to mourn the loss of leaders (1 Sam 31.13), to entreat God’s healing (2 Sam 12.22), to express national or personal repentance (Jonah 3.5 – these were not even Israelites), to call on God for protection (2 Chro 20.3; Ezra 8.21) , to call upon God’s power (Mt 17.21), and for many other reasons. There are just too many instances to list here.

Fasting not only has many purposes, but many benefits as well. In her book, The Roots and Fruits of Fasting, Mary Ruth Swope lists such “fruits” as drawing closer to God, bringing about spiritual brokenness, building self-control, concentration on prayer, greater sensitivity to God’s will, fortification against Satan, greater focus on Jesus, and many others, including benefits to physical health. Other good books include Richard Foster’s classic Celebration of Discipline, and Marjorie Thompson’s Soul Feast.

Fasting, like the other spiritual disciplines, is not an end in itself, but a means to an end. The intention is to draw closer to God by making us more dependent on him. Fasting puts us in a place of weakness, where true strength lies (cf. 2 Cor 12.9). Not only are we physically weakened, but we are weak against the desires of the flesh. In fasting we come to battle against the flesh at one of our most basic levels: hunger and the desire and need for food (though fasting can include abstaining from sex or other desires as well -– 1 Cor 7.5). Here is where we truly learn that “man does not live on bread alone….” I cannot say that I’ve fully experienced this, as I haven’t fasted beyond 24 hours. I cannot fathom what it must be like to fast for seven or ten days as some of you have done, let alone 40! I have a long way to go, but perhaps I’ve begun the journey. Next week I want to share some personal challenges to fasting.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Should Christians Fast?

Should Christians Fast?

I’ve been reading about fasting lately and trying to develop this spiritual discipline in my life. In fact, one of my goals for 2010 is to make this more of a regular practice. I hesitated in writing about it this morning, simply because I have not yet practiced it regular and consistent enough to speak about it from the standpoint of personal knowledge. But perhaps by writing about it and making my “resolution” public, I’ll be more apt to follow through. Besides, in my personal reading this morning I’m in Mt 4, where Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness and had fasted for 40 days. So this is what I’m thinking about right now. Well, I’m not thinking about fasting for 40 days. I’d be happy to do 40 hours. So far I’m only up to 24 (hours, that is), which is pretty easy.

But why fast at all? Perhaps a better question is, “Why haven’t we fasted at all?” I’ll admit that in my 30 years as a Christian, I’ve never practiced it, except on one occasion many years ago. That occasion was such a difficult experience for me that I never tried it again (I have a high metabolism, and it didn’t help that I was working manual labor and burning lots of calories that day). But I am finding that I am not alone in not having practiced fasting. Many Christians have not, and they do not understand why we would even want to. Fasting is seen as an ancient practice that is mostly irrelevant to our day, except perhaps during extreme or special circumstances. I have only once heard a sermon on it, and seldom have I seen brethren write about it.

Part of the problem, perhaps, is that fasting is never popular in a self-indulgent society. We live in a culture that denies itself very little. And while we might see the need to deny ourselves illegitimate things (e.g., illicit sex, drugs, etc.), or perhaps to enjoy legitimate things in moderation, most Christians see neither the need nor the purpose of going without food, even for a single meal (except when they are trying to lose weight, of course).

I’ve even used Scripture to support my lack of fasting. After all, Jesus’ disciples (and I assume Jesus himself) did not seem to fast as a regular practice, unlike John and his disciples (Mt 9.14-17). When John’s disciples asked Jesus why his disciples did not fast, Jesus answered that the attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them (vs.15). And while there would be a day when the bridegroom (Jesus) would be taken away and his attendants (the disciples) would fast, such a solemn and “mournful” practice is not normal when Jesus is with you. To fast when Jesus is with you is like putting new wine into old wineskins—something you just don’t do. I believe the “days when the bridegroom is taken away” refers to the days that Jesus was in the tomb. But since his resurrection, Jesus has been with us (Mt 28.20). So why then should Christians fast? Isn’t celebration more appropriate? This is the question I want to pursue with you in the weeks to come.