Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Changing Paths


I've recently changed paths. Some of my friends are aware of this, others not so much. It's not really something you'd be able to see from a distance or ascertain from observation. I've had my ups and downs in the process, of which it's only been about a week now. And today, being Easter Sunday has been particularly difficult for some reason.
Perhaps it's because I don't like Easter any more than I like Christmas? Christmas is to me, quite bogus in a lot of ways. Jesus was no more born on December 25th than there is a man in the moon. Reasonable consideration bears this out. Yes, I know – the day of His birth is a day worth celebrating, but why the 25th of December? There are a lot of reasons, but lets' just boil it down to tradition, shall we, and with that be satisfied? And besides, the whole commercialization of the Reason for the Season just turns me off.
So, how does this loathing of Christmas relate to Easter? It is, after all, a much better season and is more accurately based in truth. Well, reason #1: the Bunny Hoppers. And I'm not just talking about the Cadbury Bunny, either. I'm also referring to all of the people who make Easter the second (or only) day they show up at church. Yeah, that's right: I don't like hypocrites any more than the lost man who stays away from church because of the hypocrites that show up every Sunday. Reason #2: the commercialization of the season, which gets back to the same thread I have regarding Christmas. Reason #3, the sermons. I must confess, they're usually well chosen and well presented for the Bunny Hoppers, but I also happen to dislike pageants in church too. Those things have their place, but I'm pretty much over them. And besides, the Easter Sunday sermons are extremely important – for the Bunny Hoppers. But I've heard them before, and since I believe the salvation work of God cannot be undone, I'm a once saved, always saved kind of guy, ergo, salvation sermons don't provide much edification to me.

The Ministry

But I don't think Easter is my problem. It has to do with this whole changing path thing. It has a lot to do with leaving behind those things which keep us in bondage, those things which we so dearly love to treasure and pet. The hurtful process is learning that you've got something in your life that you actually love more than God. And when that thing turns out to be The Ministry, well that when it all really starts to suck rotten eggs. You see, I like a good debate. I like being right, though contrary to the popular belief of some, I am right a lot of the time. It's a pity though, that some only saw an attack where I was only trying to present my side of the argument. But looking back, that pulling away appears to have been what I needed.

Hearing from God

Do you have an iPod? I do. I really like the thing too. It's an older model with only 32GB of space, that's enough to hold a huge amount of songs, the entire spoken KJV and more sermons than you can shake a stick at. I even have an adapter for the car, so I just keep the thing plugged in, unless I'm syncing new music or sermons. The adapter for the iPod plugs into a special purpose auxiliary port on the stereo, and the adapter understands specially named play lists, which the stereo interprets as CD discs. As you might imagine, I have play lists for the Bible, Sermons and various types of music. Although the car stereo recognizes six discs, the interface module to the car only recognizes 5 play lists. That leaves one disc unassigned, or so we thought.

The God Track

My wife and I talk about God and scripture a lot. We talk a lot when driving too, when going here or there on various errands, travels and dates. Surprisingly, those errands and dinner dates are among the sweetest times we have in the Lord. But there is one interesting thing we have discovered about how God chooses to work in our lives, or should I say better, reinforce those things He is teaching us through His word.
We'll be driving along, discussing this or that thing about God or the Bible with the stereo and the iPod both turned off. And then with no inference from us, the car or the road (the roads are pretty good where we live) the stereo and the iPod will turn on, as if an Angel pushed the 'on' button and reset the iPod track. Every single time this has happened it has always started playing some seemingly random Christian worship song or a sermon or a section of Scripture. And without fail, the thing it started playing has always spoken directly to a need we were discussing. We've seen it do this when we were dealing with betrayal, when we were battling cancer and when we felt lost in our walk. Never has it turned on (by itself) when what played next did not meet or reinforce some critical need in our lives. It's done it while we're together and while we're apart. Hopefully, you can understand why we have learned to refer to this happening as the God Track.

Getting to Know Him

So, we went to lunch on this particular Easter Sunday and headed off to the store to buy groceries. The day before we had been listening to Kari Jobes' "Revelation Song," over and over again – we had it on repeat, as a matter of fact. I think we listened to it probably a dozen times that day. We got into the car and went to lunch and the stereo was off. It's a 5 minute trip to the diner, and it was another 15-20 minute trip to the store. On our way back home my wife was especially tuned into my in-the-dumps spirit, and she was trying to encourage me. She was re-enforcing our need to not focus on externals, such as The Ministry, or whatever else it is we like to put before God. She was speaking directly to my new path, I knew this, but I was still feeling somewhat depressed. It's a normal part of the process, I've learned. There are some hurtful things that God will simply take away from you, but there are other things that He allows you the space to work through, a process to learn so that we can comfort others.
As we were pulling into the driveway, we had both reached the conclusion that seeking Him first is the only solution, the only viable lifestyle, the only way to be of any use to Him. And then God track started playing. And we listened to hear what it was. The first verse seemed innocuous, but then came the chorus:
The reason we're here and the reason we sing,
Is to thank you O God and give Praise to the King.
And then my wife reached up and turned off the 'repeat' button, as it had been set from the previous day.
And that's it. That's the path. The rest is just gravy, but don't seek the gravy. We would do good to remember and live His words:
But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:33)
Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and turn away from evil. It will be healing to your body and refreshment to your bones. (Proverbs 3:5-8)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Armor of God


There seems to be no end of devotions, Bibles studies and sermons whose sole purpose is to teach or encourage you to pray on the armor of God. But why? When, exactly, does the Bible exhort us to pray through or pray on the armor of God?

Before we tackle that question, lets take a quick review of the book of Ephesians.

Ephesians begins with a background of who we were and now are in Christ:

In verses 1:1-14, we see the creation of the Body of Christ, how it was planned (1-6), purchased by the Son (7-12) and preserved in the Spirit (13-14). Paul then prays for the Church, that we might grow in His knowledge, understand our wonderful future in Him and the greatness of His power, and the position of Christ in relation to God the Father.

In verses 2:1-3, and 11-12, we are reminded of who we were before salvation (dead, under wrath, without God, etc) and reminded of what God did by saving us (4-6). Paul discusses how God performed salvation through grace and that we have been created in Christ to do good works. 

Paul then goes on to explain the mystery of God (which we know to be Christ in us, 3:1-13). Paul then again prays that we will be strengthened in our inner being by the Spirit of God, that Christ will be at home in our hearts, and that we might be able to grasp the full dimensions of God's love. 

Once we get into chapter 4, Paul begins to explain the Church (the body of Christ) is to be unified. Apparently they had the same problems of religiosity and bigotry that we have today through our walls of denominational boundaries. He says that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one Faith, one baptism of the Holy Spirit and one God and Father. We are then encouraged to avoid an immoral life style and adopt a spiritual lifestyle instead (4:17-32). He continues by outlining how people should treat one another, as directed to children, husbands and wives (5:1-6:9) 

In summary, the entirety of the book of Ephesians (up to this point) explains how one should live, how one should believe about who they are in Christ, and how one should relate one to another. It's about living out our life in Christ, as fully functioning members of the Church (the Body of Christ, not the local club on the corner - you know what I'm talking about, the one with the pulpit, the cross and the steeple on top).

The question I have then, is why do we assume that the armor of God is something we should "pray on" rather than "live out" through our lifestyles and relationships with God and others?

So let's walk through the armor of God:
Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might. 
This isn't about praying, this is about being: just as Jesus said, we "shall be" His witnesses (Acts 1:8), not "you shall do witnessing." The former describes the state of being, whereas the later portrays how scripture is typically and incorrectly taught. The encouragement here is to "be something" not to "do something." However, we cannot ignore what comes next, which is an act of doing. But, the attitude of being comes before the action of doing. In example, consider David fighting Goliath: He was not strong in the Lord because he was victorious, rather he was victorious because he was first strong in the Lord. The state of being comes before the action.  And the action comes next:
Put on the full armor of God, so that you will be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil.
This is one of the places where we incorrectly trade "putting on" for "praying on" the armor of God. This is correctly seen as something we do: we are not to "be the armor" but to "put on the armor." The act of doing, at this juncture does not mention the word "pray" or the phrase "pray on the the armor of God," rather it mentions our struggle, that which we fight against:
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.
Paul now explains the reason for the first 6 ½ chapters of his letter to the Ephesians – we have a struggle, and it's not against each other, rather it's against Satan and his minions. So, while Paul was encouraging us what to believe about our position in Christ and how to treat others, he was really telling us how to defeat Satan's schemes. When we fully understand who we are in Christ, then life really comes about being, rather than doing. Anyone can "do" religion, but only a Christian can bear the fruit of the Spirit, not because of what they do, but because of who they are.  This is the core difference of Christianity and any other religion: Christ changes us from the inside out, while man (religion) attempts to change us from the outside in.
Therefore, take up the full armor of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm.
How do you take up something through prayer? You don't. In example, if one is to "take up" salvation, they must act in faith towards God with repentance of their sin. Contrary wise, the person who confesses all of their sin but one, is in rebellion due to that which they refuse to relinquish. Therefore, to "take up" the armor of God means that we choose to discard the negative things Paul has previously talked about and then put on all of the positive things. And how do we put on? By first being strong in the Lord. Admittedly, being strong in the Lord only comes through our seeking Him in a personal relationship - which of course involves prayer - but not the kind that says "I'm praying on the shield of faith ... etc, etc." Rather the shield of faith is born out of our trust, belief and knowledge of God (of who He is) and our knowledge of who we are in Christ.
Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth,
This statement reflects a result of the previous actions.  Since we have done all that comes before, we can therefore stand firm.   Next consider the phrase "having girded your loins with truth."  What is truth? Jesus said that the He is truth, the Logos of God, the Word of God (John 14:6): Jesus said, "sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth." (John 17:17) We don't gird our loins, or gird our strength through God's truth  or God's word by prayer, rather we gird and strengthen ourselves in truth by reading, memorizing and absorbing God's word. We receive the "word implanted" (James 1:21):
Your word I have treasured in my heart, that I may not sin against You. Blessed are You, O LORD; teach me Your statutes. With my lips I have told of all the ordinances of Your mouth. I have rejoiced in the way of Your testimonies, as much as in all riches. I will meditate on Your precepts And regard Your ways. I shall delight in Your statutes; I shall not forget Your word. (Psalms 119:11-16)
Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls. (James 1:21)
Do you notice how the passage in James fits so nicely with the previous themes of Ephesians?  That's not just a happenstance.
and having put on the breastplate of righteousness
Having put on is past tense, it is a thing we have already done.  Although we are imputed righteousness by God,  there is the commandment that  we are to be Holy, because He is Holy. When we are saved, we have the breastplate of righteousness – it is imputed to us. However, when we live by the Spirit, we put on His righteousness – this breastplate of righteousness - for He says, "walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh." (Galatians 5:16) Living by the spirit is not something you pray into your life, it is something you must choose to do. And in so doing, we put on the the breastplate of righteousness.
How blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered! How blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit! (Psalms 32:1-2)
But now apart from the Law the righteousness of God has been manifested, being witnessed by the Law and the Prophets, even the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all those who believe; for there is no distinction; for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26)
and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace;
What is the preparation of the Gospel of Peace? It is an understanding what the Gospel is and what it is for. Again, this is not something you receive through prayer. You don't ask God to fill your head with verses, the 10 Commandments, a 5 point sermon and the Romans Road. Rather, you study the Bible, you learn how to make friends and lovingly help them understand their guilt in lieu of the law and how the Good News helps them.
in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one.
Faith is your choice to believe and trust: "and without faith it is impossible to please Him, for he who comes to God must believe that He is and that He is a rewarder of those who seek Him." (Hebrews 11:6) While it is certainly permissible to ask God to help your unbelief, faith is still something you must chose to exercise.
And take the helmet of salvation,
Salvation is something you already have, and here it is referred to as a helmet. This means that we must understand that salvation spoken of in the earlier chapters of Ephesians is something that has the power to protect our minds, but only if you're willing to believe the Word of God, and believe that God is God. A lot of times this involves us discarding the "God Box" we have created in which we make God exist for ourselves.
and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
We can't pray the Word of God into our lives. We learn the word of God by reading it, studying it and meditating upon it.
With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints … (Eph 6:10-18)
Finally, we're encouraged to "pray at all times in the Spirit", as a normal course of our life in Christ.

When we view the armor of God in the context of the rest of Ephesians, we see that it is concise restatement of those things which we have been exhorted to believe and act upon.

So, don't pray the armor of God onto yourself, live the armor of God.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Keeping Oneself Unstained by the World


According to the Clark County Democrat, (and others) a bar owner sued a Baptist church who petitioned and prayed against the opening of his newly remodeled bar. Apparently, a thunderstorm dropped a lightning bolt on the establishment about a week before it was to open and it burned to the ground. Based upon the actions of the church the bar owner held the congregation responsible, either "directly or indirectly" and sued. The church responded by denying any and all culpability in the matter. The judge in the case noticed – quite correctly I might add – that the bar owner apparently believed in the power of prayer whereas the church congregation obviously didn't.
Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world. (James 1:27)
What is a stain?
What does it mean to keep oneself unstained (unspotted, unblemished) by the world? In order to answer that question, we first need to review the nature of a stain.

Some of the synonyms for stain are as follows:
discoloration, dirt, filth, grime, soil, grease, grunge, mark, stigma, brand, blot, smear, smirch, spot, appearance, color, coloring material, dirtiness, error, fault, mistake, symbol, uncleanness, visual aspect
While we could go on about how stains are difficult to remove, the real lesson here is that they affect the thing on which they are found. A stain on your shirt affects how the shirt looks and is used. A black and white checkered pattern (or stain) on a flag affects how that flag is used: it is a signal to indicate that a race has finished, whereas a solid black flag indicates punishment or hazard and the driver must return to the pits. In both of these cases the stain on the flags define their purpose.

What is being stained by the World?
As a Christian, stains function in a similar manner, but not identically to the examples I've provided. Simply put, a stain is anything that affects or directs you towards one or more ungodly behaviors.

A Christian, who is stained by the world, carries something of the world - something of the fleshly nature - that affects how the Christian behaves. In example, if such a person does not believe that all of their needs are met in the person of Jesus Christ, then they carry a fleshly behavior pattern, a stain. That stain affects their behavior – they may become co-dependent, or become involved in ungodly pursuits such as lasciviousness. They may become hoarders of things or of money.

The Stains of the World
There are plenty of things that can stain the Christian.  Just a quick look a the internet will uncover all sorts of things that we can use to make ourselves dirty.  But be careful with that concept: it's not just about living among the sin or being exposed to the sin that's the problem (otherwise, Jesus would have been stained, correct?).

For example, an average Christian can visit a restaurant or bar and not leave drunk.  It's a simple choice.  But don't miss this: the stains I'm talking about exist in our motives that drive our choices.  If your motive is to feel better and you believe that getting drunk or smoking will make you feel better, then you'll get drunk or smoke just to feel better.  And therein lies the stain.

The truth is that only God can supply all our needs. and feeling better is a need no matter how you dissect it.  So when we go to things other than God to meet our needs, then we are acting on our stains.

Keeping ourselves unstained by the world will not be achieved through works or by observing how other people live.  Jesus said of the Pharisees,
Then Jesus spoke to the crowds and to His disciples, saying: “The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things and do not do them. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger.  (Matthew 23:1-4)
What was He saying?  Follow the Law of God, not the law of man as observed through their actions and belief systems.  In other words, the Pharisees were stained.  And if you followed after their deeds, you would be stained of the world, just like they were.

The Stains of Tradition
There are other stains which we're not so keen to see, those being the stains of traditions. These stains are found within the confines of the church. Tradition, particularly in the Baptist church (of which I'm most familiar), states that we should not "drink, dance, smoke or chew, or go with those that do." What's the point of this mantra? To keep the impressionable away from danger, to keep the young ones unstained from the world. It's not a bad tradition, it has valid outcome desires. It's a "follow the rules and you'll be a good person" type of tradition.

The problem is that instead of making disciples of the young people, we instead give them rules to follow – as if forcing them to obey rules makes them righteous or turns them into good people. What about their innermost desires? Have those desires changed by virtue of them keeping these rules? If you listen to the doctrine of some people - read the right thing, believe the right thing, do the right thing, be acceptable to God - then in their world, the answer is yes. But as a student of four years at a fundamental Baptist University, I can with assurance tell you that those students who lived under and by the letter of the law (tradition) were the first ones to get into trouble. They were the first to break free from the bondage of hypocrisy in which they had been forced to live and instead pursued that which was in their heart. In these people, the letter of the law and the traditions of the church, made no difference to their innermost man.

God desires truth in the inward parts, not sacrifice or legalistic obedience to His law:
Behold, You desire truth in the innermost being, and in the hidden part You will make me know wisdom. (Psalm 51:6
"For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is what I commanded them, saying, 'Obey My voice, and I will be your God, and you will be My people; and you will walk in all the way which I command you, that it may be well with you.'" (Jeremiah 7:22-23
But the LORD said unto Samuel, "Look not on his countenance, or on the height of his stature; because I have refused him: for the LORD see not as man see; for man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart." (1 Samuel 16:7)
When God says He desires truth in our inward parts, what He is really saying is that He wants His nature inside of us, as opposed to the some other nature, that being the stain of the world.  This other nature is what He was talking about in regards to Saul.

So, what's the point?  The point is that just because we keep the rules doesn't mean we're not stained by the world.  Had those college students not carried the desires of the world, then they would have behaved correctly, as ones who carried God's truth in their inward parts.  But instead, they rebelled against the norms they were coerced into following.  While at home, they were the perfect little Christians who obeyed the rules and precepts laid before them.  But when on their own, those precepts meant nothing and their true colors, their true stains were apparent.

Back to the Bar
So what happened between the church and bar? I don't know what the final outcome of was, but I can certainly comment on what the church did. The followed the letter of the law – they tried to tear down the idols in their land. The prayed about it (good) and they petitioned against this man and his venture (not so good). And when confronted by their enemy on the veracity of their religion and their actions, they denied culpability (wrong).

This whole thing reminds me of the Old Testament: how many times did one King or another tear down the idols in Israel? And it didn't work, did it? Why not? Because the heart of the people were not changed. You can take away a man's idol, but you can't take the idol out of the man's heart.

A very good friend of mine responded to this particular Bar vs. Baptist Church happenstance in this manner:
"If Satan can't get you to do a wrong thing, then he'll get you to do the right thing in the wrong way."
Which is simply another way of saying:
"If God can't get you to do the right thing in the right way, Satan will get you to do the right thing in the wrong way."
Seeing that we all know (according to those who have the corner on proper scriptural interpretation
) that alcohol is of the devil and drinking is a sin, then I'll bite on this bait. I'm going to assume that the "right thing" is that the congregation should have instead confessed their sins and the sins of their community, prayed for their community so that everyone would have come to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ and the need for this bar would have therefore been obviated.  

But I don't think that's what he meant at all.  What he meant was that yes, they did the right thing in trying to dispose of the bar, but they tried to get rid of it in the wrong manner and didn't follow through on their not-so-convicting-convictions when they had the chance.  What the average Christian believes, which was born out in this confrontation, is that bars turn people into things that God hates, so bars are bad and should be disposed of.  Hence, the trick is to dispose of bad things properly.  But what about the people?  And God now hates them when He didn't before?  That's Westboro Baptist Church theology, folks, and it's not of God.

Seriously, I don't know what to think. So, the right thing is that this guy shouldn't have a bar? Really? And how does that help the man? How does that help the community, other than cleaning up a few drunks that would otherwise offend the piety of a few sanctimonious tithers people?  The truth of the matter is you can take the bar and the prostitutes away from the community, but you can't take those things out of the heart of people.  Which gets us right back to the Kings of Israel who tore down the idols and groves of the land only to find that some other King had to do the same thing.

Instead of looking at the symptoms of spiritual death in our society (stains) as an ill to be healed by Jesus, we look at them as oozing cancers which must be eradicated because they're unpleasant to our moral standards. But what does the Bible say our response should be to the ills of society?
But actually, I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler--not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Do you not judge those who are within {the church}? But those who are outside, God judges. Remove the wicked man from among yourselves. (1 Corinthians 5:11-13)
And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Mat 28:18-20)
He that believes and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believes not shall be damned. And these signs shall follow them that believe; In my name shall they cast out devils; they shall speak with new tongues; they shall take up serpents; and if they drink any deadly thing, it shall not hurt them; they shall lay hands on the sick, and they shall recover. (Mar 16:16-18)
He that is unjust, let him be unjust still: and he which is filthy, let him be filthy still: and he that is righteous, let him be righteous still: and he that is holy, let him be holy still. (Rev 22:11)
What people don't get about church is that it's not about evangelism or cleaning up your neighborhood – it's about discipleship - and that, mostly outside the walls of the church. And what church members don't get about society is that there are those who, when presented with the Gospel, will turn away and say "no thank you." So instead of leaving those people alone, letting them "be filthy still," we try to clean them up. But there's a problem with that. It provides a false sense of security to the filthy or unjust man, and a false sense of purity to the self-righteous man.  In other words it provides a false stain of righteousness.

But why do we do this?  Because we're stained by the traditions of our church history.  It's the Crusades all over again, without the murderous bits.  Does God want a righteousness throughout all of our society?  Of course He does.  But we do not make society righteous by forcing obedience to law.  Rather it is done one person at a time, through a change of heart.

It's not enough to clean someone up: you can bathe a pig but that doesn't make the pig into a horse. And it doesn't turn the pig sty into a palace. It just makes the pig think he's special when the truth is that the pig will be slaughtered like the rest of them.

Plucking the T of TULIP.

Within Calvinism, there is the idea of the TULIP, an acronym that describes the fundamental axioms of Calvinism. The TULIP was constructed...