Monday, March 30, 2009

How then should we pray?

In order to have a truly satisfying prayer life, I believe it is necessary to put into practice 1 Cor. 14:15, “I will pray with the spirit, and I will pray with the understanding also.” “With the spirit,” yielding to His leading in pouring out to God my praises, my requests and my thanks. And “with the understanding also,” with a clear grasp of what the Bible says about God’s will and His provisions for my prayer life.

And for those of us living in this age of grace, God has never promised that He would give us everything that we asked. Instead we read that “we do not know how to pray as we should,” but “the Spirit also helps our weakness;” and “intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Rom. 8:26)." God has promised to “work all things together for good (Rom. 8:28)" in our lives; however, He hasn’t revealed how He is going to do that. He has promised it, and we must take Him at His word, believing that He is working everything---even the “tragedies” of our lives---together for our ultimate good. We don’t often see this, but as Paul wrote, “We walk by faith, not by sight (2 Cor. 5:7)."

The way I see it, since we don’t know how God is going to work everything out for His glory, we don’t know exactly how we should pray. So how could God ever promise us that He will answer all our prayers when He tells us plainly that we don’t even know what to pray for?

We must remember that prayer is not merely a means of “getting things from God” but a means of fellowship with Him. And it seems to me that it is not God’s will to take away all our problems, but it is God’s will to give us all the grace (2 Cor. 9:8) and strength we need to live through the circumstances and problems of our lives (Heb. 4:16), and even rejoice in them.

So then how should we pray today?

We should pray “always,” “in everything,” and “without ceasing!”

"Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you (1 Thes. 5:16-18)."

Cast all our worries on Him.

"…casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you (1 Pet. 5:7)."

Because we know that He is working out all things for our ultimate good.

"And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28)."

And we are also instructed to pray instead of worrying.

"Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God, and the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things (Phil 4:6-8)."

Here is more than ample proof that God has not turned a deaf ear to the cries of His children in this age of grace. He urges us to pour out our whole hearts to Him. “Tell Me everything,” He says, “and then don’t worry about anything, because I will work out everything for good.”

He has even told us what to replace our worries with---"...dwell on these things." Now really, how cool is that?!!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Book assignments

One of my New Year's resolutions this year was to make my way through the large pile of books that friends have "assigned" to me. Right now I'm in the middle of reading "The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind" by Mark A. Noll, Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. The reason he gives for writing this book in the first place is his belief that it is simply impossible to be, with integrity, both evangelical and least in the United States.

Noll traces the history of evangelicalism in the US from the Puritans until now and concludes that "evangelical thinking in America has just as often resulted from a way of pursuing knowledge that does not accord with Christianity as it has been an 'anti-intellectual' desire to play the fool for Christ." He quotes J. Gresham Machen, a Presbyterian Bible scholar in 1912, to point out the problem with this way of thinking:

"We may preach with all the fervor of a reformer, and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the resistless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion... What is to-day a matter of academic speculation, begins to-morrow to move armies and pull down empires."

Noll maintains that the American evangelical ethos is activistic, populist, pragmatic, and utilitarian. For example, he says that any "...spokesperson who could step forth confidently on the basis of the Scriptures was welcomed as a convincing authority." This is so often true---a speaker need only be persuasive and claim Scripture as his source, and we herald him as brilliant. Never mind that the guy we heard speak the night before preached the exact opposite from the same portion of Scripture---we don't notice, instead we believe it all.

He also discusses the influence that fundamentalism and pentecostalism has had on the way American evangelicals think. He does bring up some good points here as well, particularly how the mingled influence of fundamentalism and pentecostalism has manifested a kind of ardent supernaturalism today---that, in order to be spiritual, one must no longer pay attention to or think long and hard about the world around them. One example he gives of this is the propensity to attach biblical prophesy to world events, and the rash of best-selling books that inevitably follows any war or cataclysmic event. But of course, this has been happening to one extent or other in all parts of the world since Christ's ascension.

I do agree with Noll---in many areas we have taken the wrong road. However, by and large he builds a straw dog in order to present his own conclusion---that because the Bible isn't always as easy to interpret as it might seem, where science diverges from what the Bible literally says, we must read that particular verse or passage symbolically rather than literally so that science and the Bible are in agreement. For example, Noll proposes that the six days of creation weren't necessarily six 24-hour days but merely periods of time, therefore allowing for Evolution. So, in order to close the gap between what philosophy and the sciences say (at this particular time) and what the Bible says, Noll has decided not to interpret the Bible in a literal, natural, or common-sensical way:

"A biblical literalism, gaining strength since the 1870's, has fueled both the intense concern for human origins and the end times."

"The problem is compounded by the powerful (though usually unobserved) force that an appeal to "normal" or "plain" or "literal" interpretation gained in a Baconian, democratic America over the course of the nineteenth century. Was it not simply self-evident that, if the Bible was God's supreme revelation, the best way to understand the Bible was by using the methods of ordinary common sense open to men, women, and children in all ages? The answer to that nineteenth-century way of framing the question is that, while such common-sense interpretations of Scripture may have seemed self-evident, they were in fact the product of particular circumstances in North American evangelical history."

Granted, interpreting the the Bible isn't always easy, but once you abandon common-sensical interpretation, you throw out all chances of understanding it because who's to say what it really means, then? Who's the final authority? I believe the problem isn't that we're not paying enough attention to the world around us, but rather we're not thoughtful students of the Word. Consequently, we're being "tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine."

As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ (Eph 4:14-15).

"See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ (Col 2:8)."

Another "assigned" book I've finished reading is Joel Rosenberg's, "Epicenter" (New York Times best-selling that takes readers through prophecy and current events into the future of Iraq after Saddam, Russia after Communism, Israel after Arafat, and Christianity after radical Islam.) Talk about a complete opposite from Mark Noll's book. But I was wondering, since I read the one book right after the other, does that mean they cancel each other out? I vote, yes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Music in style

I love music. And really most any kind, although I'm afraid I'm not a big fan of country music. One of my favorite styles of music is classical, particularly from the Baroque era (the mid-1600s to the mid-1700s) and Classical style period (the mid-1700s through the early 1800s). The Baroque era was a time of flowery, extravagant, and emotional music, whereas the Classical style, in some ways, was a reaction to the excesses of the Baroque. The Classical style was sparer, more reserved, and more controlled. It's been described as "music with a corset on."

I should probably point out the difference between the Classical style and classical music. The term classical music is used to refer to music composed in the Western Hemisphere over the past few hundred years (not including recent pop or folk music). It's music that's generally composed for an orchestra or a combination of orchestral instruments, keyboards, guitar, or voice. But the Classical period is only one of the musical eras that make up classical music, and music from that era is in the Classical style.

My favorite composer of all time is Bach, who is from the Baroque era. Haydn and Mozart are two of my favorites from the Classical style period (although Mozart's music all starts to sound the same to me after awhile). I find the histories of these composers very interesting. For instance, did you know that Bach, with the help of two wives, had 20 children; Haydn, a most pleasant and cheerful guy, constantly played little jokes on people, and made fun of things and himself; and Mozart drove his rivals nuts because composing came so easily to him. Musical ideas sprang into his mind, fully formed, almost as if he were taking dictation---all he had to do was write them down.

And here's a story about Haydn that may really surprise you. Music writers refer to him as "Papa Haydn" because he practically single-handedly standardized the structures of the symphony and the string quartet. But when he was very young, he was a prized boy soprano at St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna. As he grew older, his teacher told him that he would be able to keep his beautiful high voice forever if he were to have a "simple little operation." Because his teacher kept the details from him, Haydn was eager for this miracle. He was all set to go in for this operation when his father found out (only a matter of hours before the surgery) and prevented it. Imagine what would have happened if Haydn had had the operation. Sure, he would have kept his beautiful high voice, but he may never have developed the string quartet and the symphony. And nobody would ever have called him "Papa."

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Supernatural Activity

"It's a God-thing."  You hear it everywhere!  Anytime something works out particularly well for us, it's "a God thing." Why must everything have to be about us and our comfort?  And what if things aren't going particularly well for us — like maybe we're battling cancer? or have lost a loved one? etc...  Does this mean God isn't for us, that He's abandoned us for some reason?

Recently I came across this passage by Harriet A Harris, Lecturer in Theological Studied, University of Exeter, in her book, “Fundamentalism and Evangelicals.”  She presents a rather interesting perspective on God's supernatural activity, doesn't she?

“Charismatics challenge traditional fundamentalist thinking about God’s supernatural activity. Traditionally fundamentalists confine miracles to the Bible and regard them as violent divine interventions (Barr 1984: 86). In John Wimber’s words: ‘Christians unconsciously consign the supernatural to an impenetrable upper tier (except for the resurrection, early church miracles, and transcendent moral standards), excluding God’s power from their theology and practice’ (1985: 88). However, increasingly in fundamentalist circles God is regarded as ever-present and active, providing such mundane services as finding parking spaces in the centre of town on a Saturday morning. As Nancy Ammerman (1987: 48-9) found, having spent a year studying a fundamentalist church in New England,

‘Almost anything good or bad can be explained as God’s doing. God keeps the dishes from breaking, locates things that are lost. He supplies friends and offspring. He makes sure cars get fixed at affordable prices. He arranges convenient overtime work schedules and makes hiring and firing more pleasant. He provides clothes and food when they are needed, as well as less essential items like tickets for a rodeo or a pet dog for the children.’”

So does God really work like this today? Some may say yes.  But when we look in the Bible, we see that when miracles were performed, they were proclaimed (Matt. 4:24; Mark 3:9, 10; 6:56) — they were not performed by stealth. There was no guessing or wondering if they were miracles or not. They were always straight-forward. And regarding the healing miracles, there were no doctors, drugs and gradually being healed.  Miracles were instantaneous — the dead immediately got up and walked, blind men from birth suddenly could see, the sick were instantly healed, etc...

In an article for Christianity Today, Dr. Paul Brand, a well recognized authority on orthopedic surgery for leprosy patients and a well respected Christian, said:

“From my own experience as a physician I must truthfully admit that, among the thousands of patients I have treated, I have never observed an unequivocal instance of intervention in the physical realm. Many were prayer for, many found healing, but not in ways that counteracted the laws governing anatomy. No case have I treated personally would meet the rigorous criteria for a supernatural miracle.”

However, many Christians today point to John 14:11-14 and claim if they pray with enough faith, God will give them what they request. But can every word addressed to the apostles be intended to apply to all believers at all times? For instance, go to John 14:12. Is every believer to be endowed with miraculous powers equal to or greater than those performed by Jesus Christ Himself? Most are quick to say, “Of course not.” So should we then suppose that the verses that immediately follow are for universal application?

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves. I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it (John 14:11-14)."

And who can fail to notice the difference between the earlier and later chapters of the book of Acts? In the beginning of Acts, we see the apostles performing extraordinary miracles in His name, and no one who is preaching Christ dies. But as Israel's opposition increases, Stephen is killed (Acts 7:54-59), and a little later James dies by the sword of Herod (Acts 12:1-2).  Notice, too, that in Acts 5 all of the sick who were brought from various cities to Jerusalem were healed by the apostles. But twenty-five years later we find Paul himself denied healing (2 Cor 12:7-9).  And near the end, we see him advising Timothy to take a little wine for his frequent ailments (1 Tim 5:23).  Still later we learn that Paul has left another worker sick at Miletum (2 Tim 4:20). So although in the early chapters of Acts Jerusalem, the seat of Israel's government, is filled with miracles, after the stoning of Stephen there is never again any record of a public miracle in that city called the city of the great King (Matt 5:34-35).

Moreover, “to the Jew first” is stamped on every page of the book of Acts. The twelve apostles went to the Jews. And when Paul comes on the scene half way through the book, it was by divine appointment that he too went first to “the chief of the Jews” in every place he visited. It is because of this that I believe the purpose of miracles in the NT was to accredit the Messiah to Israel (or the messenger bringing a message), and not, as generally supposed, to accredit Christianity to the world (Luke 19:36-38; Jn. 2:11; 10:25, 32, 38; 14:11; 15:24; 2 Cor. 12:12).

Though no one may dare limit what God will do for the believer, I believe we need to realize that in this time of grace, we live by faith, not by sight; and that ours is a higher privilege as those “who have not seen and yet have believed (John 20:29).” If “signs and wonders” were given to us, as in times past, faith would sink to a lower level, and the whole standard and character of the Christian walk would be altered. Paul’s sufferings toward the end of his life show a higher faith than the miracles of his earlier ministry.

In fact, Paul’s letters contain many accounts of unanswered prayers. Three times he pleaded with the Lord to fix his “thorn in the flesh” (2 Cor. 12:7-8). But did the Lord say to him, “Whatever you ask you’ll receive, if you have faith?” Not at all. The Lord told him that His grace would be enough for him (His grace meaning His power working in Paul’s life). And, “…My strength is made perfect in weakness...” (2 Cor. 12:9) We always want the Lord to fix our problems, but He wants to show us the sufficiency of His grace and power working in our lives.

It appears that Paul’s whole attitude about suffering changed as a result of this prayer experience because He says that he learned to “take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong (2 Cor. 9:10)."

And in Philippians 4:11-13 he says, “Not that I speak from want, for I have learned to be content in whatever circumstances I am. I know how to get along with humble means, and I also know how to live in prosperity; in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need. I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

Here is a glimpse of the life Paul led:

“Five times I received from the Jews thirty-nine lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, a night and a day I have spent in the deep. I have been on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my countrymen, dangers from the Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers on the sea, dangers among false brethren; I have been in labor and hardship, through many sleepless nights, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure (2 Cor. 11:24-27)."

And what was his response? Instead of grumbling at his infirmities, he boasted in them. Not vainly or morbidly, but “for Christ’s sake he had suffered the loss of all things.” In fact, he described them as “light affliction which is for the moment, working for us more and more exceedingly an eternal weight of glory,” and continues, “while we look, not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen; for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:17, 18)." And, “…I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us (Rom. 8:18)."

So then, should we expect miracles when we pray today?

Sir Robert Anderson in “The Silence of God” puts it this way:

“…it is plain matter of fact that before this, the great characteristic truth of Christianity, was revealed there was immediate Divine intervention upon earth: in a word, there were miracles; whereas, after this truth was revealed, they ceased. The era of the reign of grace is precisely the era of the silence of God. To grace, therefore, we look to explain the silence. Christianity is the supreme and final revelation of the Divine “kindness and love-toward-man.” Therefore when God again declares Himself it can only be in wrath, and wrath must await “the day of wrath (Rom 2:5)."

“…From the throne of the Divine Majesty there has gone forth the proclamation of pardon and peace, and this without condition or reserve. And now a silent Heaven gives continuing proof that this great amnesty is still in force, and that the guiltiest of men may turn to God and find forgiveness of sins and eternal life.”

God has said all He needs to say (the canon is now complete) and done everything that needs to be done —through His Son’s death on the cross on our behalf. In Christ, we are complete and have been blessed with all spiritual blessings. What greater gifts could He possibly give? Now he is lovingly drawing all who will come to Him in faith, patiently waiting with outstretched arms.

"And I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to Myself (Jn. 12:32)."

“Now all these things are from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation, namely, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and He has committed to us the word of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:18-20)."

“For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fullness to dwell in Him, and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven (Col. 1:19-20)."

May we, like Paul, look past the events and circumstances of this life, see our home beyond, and rejoice in the glory to which He calls us.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Spring is here...I think

Today is the first day of Spring. It certainly didn't feel like it this morning---it was a mere 22 degrees. But I guess I'll just have to take the word of the experts on this.

Do you know why the first day of spring arrives on varying dates (from March 19-21) in different years? This happens for two reasons: One - our year is not an even number of days; and two - the Earth's slightly non-circular orbit, plus the gravitational pull of the other planets, changes our planet's alignment to the sun from year to year.

In addition to this, according to a study last month, the Earth's seasons have shifted in the past 150 years or so. The hottest and coldest days of the years are now occurring approximately two days earlier. So why, then, was it so cold this morning?

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Effective Questioning

Well, do I start with something controversial right off the bat or slowly ease into this whole blogging thing. I think I'll slowly ease by telling you I have a tendency to question things. I think this partly stems from the church I attended while growing up. The pastor there always encouraged the congregation to check to see if what he was saying was true. But he didn't want just our opinions, mind you, he wanted chapter and verse, too. I don't think many pastors have the guts to do that, but he did, and I've always appreciated that upbringing.

Because of this, whenever I listen to a sermon or read a book, etc..., I always double-check the Bible passages and cross-references being used. Some may say I'm being overly critical, but I hope anybody reading my blog will do the very same for me.

Iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another (Prov 27:17).

I believe we also need to be careful not to automatically impose the traditional interpretations we've received from others into Scripture. Then it becomes all too easy to transfer the authority of Scripture to our traditional interpretations. And because traditions are reshaped as they are passed on, after a while we may drift far from God's Word while still insisting our theological opinions are "biblical" and true.

All of this is Scripturally supported as well. For example, look at the Bereans in Act 17:10-12:

The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea, and when they arrived, they went into the synagogue of the Jews. Now these were more noble-minded than those in Thessalonica, for they received the word with great eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see whether these things were so. Therefore many of them believed, along with a number of prominent Greek women and men.

...and then there's I Thes 5:21:

But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.

...and 2 Tim 2:15:

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

I really don't mean to be, but I'm probably every pastor's worst nightmare.

To blog or not to blog

I've been contemplating whether or not to actually blog in my blog for quite some time but until now have lacked sufficient motivation to do so. My excuses have always been, I don't have the time, and what do I really have to say anyway. Additionally, I'm never fully convinced that what I do say, I say very well. That may be due to the fact that I'm basically a quiet person---not as much practice at communicating as some, I guess. But I'm usually quite content to just listen. In fact, several years ago a good friend informed me that I was the quietest person she knew. So there's my motivation---by blogging semi-regularly I hope to improve my writing skills. My blog topics will be about theology, music, books, recipes...or anything else I come across that interests me.