Monday, October 16, 2017

A devotional on Jeremiah 1: Don't be paralyzed

God appointed Jeremiah to a vocation to go to Jerusalem and to preach a message of coming disaster, repentance and salvation. Jeremiah had very good reasons to resist this vocation.

(1) He was from the town of Anathoth (Jeremiah 1:1). Anathoth was a little town near Jerusalem. It was one of the Levite towns where Levites who were not of the family of high priests lived. Many of them were priests' assistants. Many had their own non-priestly vocations. The people of Anathoth were "of the priests" but they did not have titles to go with their names. They did not have "office." So Jeremiah the priest's go-for was being told to go to the official priests in Jerusalem and tell them that the ruin of Judah is their fault. "Yeah," they would probably say. "Where did you say you got your education? Are you ordained?"

(2) He was too young (Jeremiah 1:6). It is the duty of the young to prepare for leadership. It is their place. It is not their place to actually lead. Right? No. They must pretend-lead while under the wise oversight of older, more experienced leaders.

(3) The message he was to preach would put young Jeremiah in mortal peril. Jeremiah was afraid. God agreed that Jeremiah would face violent resistance from kings, princes, priests and a lot of regular people (Jeremiah 1:18). God said that he would provide divine protection and boldness for Jeremiah.

Functional ministry, for some reason, is very rarely convenient. It might never be convenient.

God rarely, if ever, tells us verbally what to do. However, he has gifted each of us with something useful. We quite often have experiences similar to Jeremiah's.

(1) I notice a situation that needs ministerial attention.

(2) Nobody is addressing the situation.

(3) I realize that I am gifted in some important way to address the situation.

(4) I am reluctant to act on it because I am not properly "titled" to do that ministry (I am not a church officer). I lack a credential. I lack permission. I fear backlash.

The message from Jeremiah is that the above indicators signal that I am the one who must move forward with ministry. Yes, there will be backlash. There will be sabotage. I must not be paralyzed.

Too often we wait for God to show us open doors. What if God shows us a closed door and notifies us that it needs to be opened? He may be saying, "I have appointed you to get that door open."

To say it in Pogo language, "I has met the minister and the minister is me."

Sunday, October 15, 2017

My journey to open theism

I am going to document here my personal experience with a theological view contemporarily called "open theism."

My main motivation for writing this article is that a lot of people who know me make assumptions about how I came to be an open theist.

The usual assumption is that I read a pamphlet or a book promoting the theology and I swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

I was recently told that I should not be an open theist.

Why?

Because it is heresy.

Really?

Yes, really.

Being told that I believe something that is heresy, with no further explanation is pretty weak, to say the least. Telling me to go read some particular "systematic theology" does not fly either. I have read numerous systematic theologies; but I have not read all of the systematic theologies. I don't have time in my life for such a silly task. There are more systematic theologies out there than you can shake a stick at.

So, no. I did not become an open theist by reading a book or a pamphlet. Actually, I got there by reading the Bible. I will explain what I mean. After all, there are also more people than you can shake a stick at who came to extremely divergent theologies by, as they say (and I question), reading the Bible.

My journey began way back in 1982 or 1983. I was having a theological conversation with my brother. I mentioned some event. I cannot remember what it was. I commented on it using standard non-Calvinist language. "God knew that particular thing would happen but he did not cause it to happen."

Said my brother, "You know that does not make logical sense, don't you?"

"It makes perfect sense," I said. "God can know with certainty that something is going to happen but not cause it." That little exchange was the beginning of an hours-long conversation. He had come to the conclusion that divine providence and absolute foreknowledge were mutually exclusive. We did not agree; but we were not properly debating either. I am the one that brought up John 7:6 which I had considered interesting in light of my theological assumptions (that God foreknows but doesn't cause).
So Jesus said to them, "My time is not yet here, but your time is always opportune." (NASB)
I will not report the details of the conversation. I don't have room. Suffice it to say, it is true that it is true that God cannot be actively involved in the world, especially with respect to answering prayer, if everything is already foreknown. It really is a logical contradiction.

My conversation with my brother was not enough to change my mind at the time; but over the course of several months I did change my mind. As I read the Bible, it began to make more sense to me in light of God's actions in the world.

The Bible demonstrates that prayer changes the future because prayer motivates God to act in ways that he otherwise would not act.
1 Then Jesus told them a parable about their need to pray always and not to lose heart. 2 He said, "In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. 3 In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, "Grant me justice against my opponent.' 4 For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, "Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, 5 yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.' " 6 And the Lord said, "Listen to what the unjust judge says. 7 And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? 8 I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them. And yet, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?" (Luke 18:1-8)
Absolute divine foreknowledge also contradicts the biblical view that it is possible for people to lose their salvation (something Calvinists have noticed and therefore hold to the view that it is not possible to loose one's salvation).

Now, I have to confess that I did not know what to make of this kind of thinking. It turns out that, at the time, such thinking was quite unusual. I never had a need to defend it. Maybe I interpreted some scriptures in ways that some people thought strange but they didn't tell me they thought it was strange.

I want to draw a circle around a historical fact. Right now is a great time to make note of it.

I came to the view that divine providence is true and personal responsibility is also true; but those truths contradict absolute divine foreknowledge. I came to that view all by myself with a little push from my brother. I came to that theological understanding no later than 1983. Now the term "open theism" was coined sometime after 1980 when Richard Rice's book The Openness of God was published. I had never heard of Rice's book nor had I heard of the term "open theism."

One day in 2007, a colleague at work challenged me on my theology. He was going to try to convince me to be a Calvinist. I decided to go ahead and debate him on the subject. He was a cool person and quite likable. I figured we may both grow spiritually from the exercise. Now, this colleague assumed I was an Arminian (which is the usual form of non-Calvinism). I also figured I must be an Arminian. I went out an read some books that promoted the usual approaches against Calvinism. I found them to be extremely frustrating because I found myself strongly disagreeing with them. I know I was not a Calvinist; but apparently I was not an Arminian either. What was I?

I also read F. LaGard Smith's Troubling Questions for Calvinists ...And All the Rest of Us. In LaGard Smith's interesting book, he took to task the theology that I actually believed. I did not find his arguments persuasive; but that's not my point. I discovered the name for my theology: open theism. I also learned the names of some of the proponents of open theism. I tracked down some of their books and read them. I did find may of their arguments persuasive and valid.

So really, I did not hear about open theism and then decide to be one. The story is, I drew theological conclusions from the Bible. Decades later learned that what I believed had a name: open theism.

That's my story.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

A thought on Genesis 16

An observation of the features of Genesis 16 reveal an interesting lesson for all of us with respect to the way each of us approaches God.

In the chapter, Sarai gave to her husband Abram her Egyptian slave girl Hagar as a wife. Evidentially, Sarai considered that God might have plans to fulfil his promise provide a child to Abram through a human agency. It is not unusual in the Bible for God to work through human agency. Sarai's action ought not to be judged harshly; for children were often born to men through their wives' slaves when the wives were suspected to be barren. Rachael and Leah took the same action with their handmaidens and apparently with God's approval (Genesis 30:3-18).

When Hagar conceived, a new chilly friction developed between Sarai and Hagar. Sarai approached Abram and informed him that it was his responsibility to handle the problem.
Genesis 16:5 (NRSV)
5 Then Sarai said to Abram, “May the wrong done to me be on you! I gave my slave-girl to your embrace, and when she saw that she had conceived, she looked on me with contempt. May the Lord judge between you and me!”
Thus, Sarai looks to Abram to do his duty to handle this little family squabble. Terrance Fretheim has this to say:
It was within his power to stop this kind of treatment of Sarai and his to settle now, and God will be the judge of how he handles the issue. By so appealing to God, Sarai gives evidence of her own relationship with God. (New Interpreter's Bible Commentary on Genesis)
Sarai eventually handled the problem by mistreating Hagar to such an extent that Hagar ran away. In the wilderness, God appears to Hagar.

After an encouraging and challenging conversation, the Angel of Yahweh leaves; but Hagar does something that should not escape our notice.
Genesis 16:13 (WEB)
She called the name of Yahweh who spoke to her, "You are a God who sees," for she said, "Have I even stayed alive after seeing him?"
Again, Fretheim observes:
Hagar’s response in v. 13 shows her not only as a trusting spirit but a person of faith. In this naming of God, Hagar (like Sarai) shows that she has an independent relationship with God.
These two women had personal relationships with God. They were able to approach God personally without going through a human go-between like Abram.

We should admire these women for their trust in God and for the independence they had in approaching him. We, ourselves, ought to follow their examples. They were a part of a faith community in which they participated religiously; but they were also very personally engaged with God.
posted from Bloggeroid

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Max Lucado: Christians should never feel guilt?

I am reading a book right now. I am going to finish it because (1) it was given to me and (2) I said I would read it. On the surface, it is an easy read. The author writes with a lot of flair. In practice, it is very difficult because it is all so much religious junk-food. It teaches 100% feel-good Christianity and 0% covenantal Christian responsibility. Below is a typical excerpt along with my comments which are presented with dreadfully inferior flair compared with that of the original author.

Excerpt from Max Lucado, Grace: More than we Deserve, Greater than we Imagine, 2012, 85-87.

What would an X-ray [on our souls] reveal? Regrets over a teenage relationship? Remorse over a poor choice? Shame about the marriage that didn't work, the habit your couldn't quit, the temptation you didn't resist, or the courage you couldn't find? Guilt lies hidden beneath the surface, festering, irritating. Sometimes so deeply embedded you don't know the cause.

It is a good thing to have a conscience. Feelings of guilt drive people to work to undo damage they have caused to other people. Yes, they reach out with apologies and offer to help. I want to do more than say I am sorry and then expect you to heal thyself. I want to do something to help you recover. Sometimes there is nothing I can do. I have caused damage that cannot be repaired. Then, all I can do is offer an expression of regret and request forgiveness. It makes me sick that others expect the offended party to suddenly act like he/she has not been wounded after receiving an apology! If you have a healthy conscience, you will at least be motivated to never cause that kind of damage again to anybody else! The real problem is when people have no conscience. They have damaged other people and they don't seem to care. They don't lose sleep over it. They just brush it off. Matthew 3:8.

You become moody, cranky. You're prone to overreact. You're angry, irritable. You can be touchy, you know. Understandable, since you have a [a foreign object] lodged in your soul.

I have not seen feelings of guilt work on people this way. Anxiety? Yes. Embarrassment? Definitely. Being a victim of slander? Absolutely. Guilt? No. Maybe I am unusual that way. If you know you should apologize but you don't want to, that can make a person feel anxious. Lucado may be offering a way you can get rid of your guilt without apologizing.

Interested in an extraction? Confess. Request a spiritual MRI. "Search me, O God, and know my heart; try me, and know my anxieties; and see if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting" (Ps. 139:23-24). As God brings misbehavior to mind, agree with him and apologize. Let him apply grace to the wounds.

Don't make thin inward journey without God. Many voices urge you to look deep within and find an invisible strength or hidden power. A dangerous exercise. Self-assessment without God's guidance leads to denial or shame. We can either justify our misbehavior with a thousand and one excuses or design and indwell a torture chamber. Justification or humiliation? We need neither.

We need a prayer of grace-based confession, like David's. After a year of denial and cover-up, he finally prayed, "God, be merciful to me because you are loving. Because you are always ready to be merciful, wipe out all my wrongs. Wash away all my guilt and make me clean again. I know about my wrongs, and I can't forget my sin. You are the only one I have sinned against; I have done what you say is wrong. You are right when you speak and fair when you judge" (Ps. 51:1-4 NCV).

David waved the white flag. No more combat. No more arguing with heaven. He came clean with God. And you? Your moment might look something like this.

So the confession I make is to God, not to the people damaged by my behavior. Sometimes, that's all you can do. There is only old wreckage in my wake and there is nothing I can do to show my repentance. In the example of the bad encounter with a coworker (below), the wake of damage is pretty fresh; but Lucado suggests retreating into prayer and confession with God, accepting God's grace and exonerating one's self of any feelings of guilt.

Late evening. Bedtime. The pillow beckons. But so does your guilty conscience. An encounter with a coworker turned nasty earlier in the day. Words were exchanged. Accusations made. Lines drawn in the sand. Names called. Tacky, tacky, tacky behavior. You bear some, if not most, of the blame.

The old version of you would have suppressed the argument. Crammed it into an already-crowded cellar of unresolved conflicts. Slapped putty on rotten wood. The quarrel would have festered into bitterness and poisoned another relationship. But you aren't the old version of you. Grace is happening, rising like a morning sun over a wintry meadow, scattering shadows, melting frost. Warmth. God doesn't scowl at the sight of you. You once thought he did. Arms crossed and angry, perpetually ticked off. Now you know better. You've been Boazed and bought [like Ruth], foot washed [like the apostles] and indwelled [sic] by Christ. You can risk honesty with God.

I think this "honesty" prayer is being offered as a substitute for reconciliation with another person.

You tell the pillow to wait, and you step into the presence of Jesus. "Can we talk about today's argument? I am sorry that I reacted in the way I did. I was harsh, judgmental, and impatient. You have given me so much grace. I gave so little. Please forgive me."

There, doesn't that feel better? No special location required. No chant or candle needed. Just prayer. The prayer will likely prompt an apology, and the apology will quite possibly preserve a friendship and protect a heart. You might even hang a sign on your office wall: "Grace happens here."

In my experience with conflicts between people, the one who has caused all the damage has a pretty clear conscience about it. They probably use the easy practice of rationalization to clear themselves of guilt. For reconciliation to take place, the damaged party or some third party has to point it out. Then, it is the duty of the offender to try to make amends. It is not biblical to ask God for forgiveness and leave in your wake a row of damaged people whose duty it is to forgive you whether you think it necessary to make amends or not. If somebody comes to you and tells you that you have caused personal damage, that person has done an extremely difficult thing. You must accommodate and make the process as easy as possible on the person who believes he/she has been damaged. You want people to find you approachable, not dangerous.
Matthew 18:15-20.
Consider this passage from Matthew 3:7-8:
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance.
Imagine John's reaction of a Pharisees said, "If I have done or said anything to offend, I repent." It is a meaningless repentance. A better answer is for me to say, "Please tell me what I have done or said to offend. [Then, actively listen. Only then must I say,] I repent." Then, don't expect instant forgiveness. Give the poor hurt person a little time to process my sincere repentance. Also, don't expect your relationship to be completely repaired. That will never happen. The chill can be warmed up; but reconciled brothers will be more cautious from now on.

How do you suppose John would have reacted if a Sadducee said, "I know what I did to my brother; but I have made my peace with God about it." It is the equivalent of bumping the reconciliation volleyball back over the net. It's your problem now. My conscience is clean before God. Here is a Bandaid for that bullet hole (to cite Taylor Swift's song, Bad Blood).

Lucado's book seeks to refute the notion of salvation by works. In doing so, Lucado presses the point, intentionally or not, that you don't have to do anything as a Christian. There is no difference between a Christian and a nonChristian except for the Christian's feelings of guilt. Those feelings can be assuaged by a quick prayer of confession to God. If that prayer does not help, there is something wrong with you. The way I read the Bible, if that prayer does not help, there is something abundantly right with you that you should water and cultivate to strengthen!

I am not near the writer that Max Lucado is. I can see why books like this sell. I wonder if big sales is the point.


Footnote: By the way, I find Lucado's use of Psalm 51:4 troubling.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
    and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
    and blameless when you pass judgment.
Locado implies that feelings of guilt are completely handled in prayer. Maybe, prayer will motivate a person to apologize.

This Psalm is David's expression of repentance over the Bathsheba-Uriah affair. David is not clearing himself of responsibility for the pain he caused to Bathsheba, her husband Uriah, Uriah's family and possibly many other people. David does not mean to say that he owes those people nothing. He is saying that his actions are seen in God's eyes as sin and have adversely affected his relationship with God. He should still feel guilt for all the hurt, the dead soldiers and dead babies.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Devotional on Genesis 15

Genesis 15 features a ceremonial action that the ancients used to ratify a covenant. The smoking fire pot and flaming flaming torch that passed between the cut up animals was God's way of participating in the covenantal act of touching blood. The participant who passes between the halves of the sacrificed animal(s) in the ceremony is puting his own life on the line as a guarantee that he will abide by the terms of the covenant. There is a biblical parallel of this ritual in Jeremiah 34:18-20 in which God says certain people of Judah had violated their covenant with God. In Genesis 15, God is puting the divine life on the line (how ever it can make sense). God is swearing by himself (cf, Genesis 22:16; 24:7; 26:3; 50:24; Hebrews 6:13).

There are several strong prophetic features of this section that in some ways obscure the main point of the writer/editor. The verbage in verse 1, "the word of he LORD came to Abram," and verse 4, "the word of the LORD came to him," signal a prophetic experience. The reward that God has in mind for Abram in verse 1 is the reward of war spoils (chapter 14) rather than of God himself (contra NIV).

We see an editorial hand in the current state of this account. The narrator interprets Abram's faith when he writes, famously, "And he believed the LORD; and the LORD reckoned it to him as righteousness." (Genesis 15:6; cf, Romans 4:3; 4:20-24; Galatians 3:6; James 2:23) There are several ways this verse can be understood in it's Hebrew setting; but it obviously (to me) contrasts with the distrust and unrighteousness evident in the lifestyles of the Amorites (Genesis 15:16).

It explains why it was okay for Israel to eventually settle in the land and to violently displace the Canaanites. However, justifying Israel's war against the Canaanites is not the main point of this particular "word of the LORD."

There is evident editorial reworking of this account in terms that provide direct theological lessons for Israel as they existed at a much later period in history. The most obvious artifact of a later editorial hand is the mention of "Ur of the Chaldeans" in verse 7. The Chaldeans did not exist as a named people until Babylon rose to world power in the first millennium B.C.E. There was no such thing as a Chaldean in the mid-second millennium B.C.E. when Moses lived and, only traditionally, wrote this account. There were certainly no Chaldeans in existence in the days of Abram. The account of Abram's meeting with God in Genesis 15 has gone through a bit (and maybe a lot) of telling and retelling by the time it reached us in its current format. So what is the editor preaching to his readers as he recalls Abram's vision?

The editor recalls a period of 400 years, in round numbers, of slavery Abram's descendants experienced in Egypt. He recalls that the Amorites were displaced by the Israelites because of Amorite iniquity. He recalls these events in terms of a prophetic word given to Abram but these events are history for the reader of Genesis. The details of this prediction are here in this form because they are a warning to Israel that they will be driven out of the land in the same way if they ever imitate the Amorites in their iniquity. In all likelihood, this account explains why Israel and Judah were, as historical fact to the final editor, driven out of their land and made slaves in Assyria and Babylon! This account is written as exiled Judah's answer to the question, "What must we do to be saved?" (Acts 16:30) The answer is to return to the LORD. (Isaiah 31:6; Jeremiah 3:12-14; Ezekiel 33:11; Zechariah 1:3; Malachi 3:7)

Salvation is by covenant. It is not a contract like people write up when they are buying and selling stuff. Rather, it is a relational agreement, like a marriage. Covenant benefits both parties, as does a marriage. If the terms of covenant are not maintained by both parties involved, the covenant is in violation. Terms of covenant can be repaired when the party in violation returns to covenant relationship.

We are saved from condemnation today by covenant. If the terms of covenant are broken... if we behave as if we are not in covenant relationship with Christ (Romans 6:2, 16-19), the terms of covenant that we enjoy (Romans 6:8) are in jeopardy. The damage can be repaired by returning to Christ in faithfulness. (James 4:8-10)
posted from Bloggeroid

Friday, September 8, 2017

You shall not make any... tattoo... upon you

I had an interesting experience today. I got a tattoo at a local shop called Dead to Sin (no website; but they have a Facebook page). I was impressed that the shop had so much of a Christian tone to it. Christian with a bit of a gothic flavor; but nevertheless Christian.

As I was receiving my very small tattoo, the entrepreneur asked if he could expect me to come in for more work. I said it was very unlikely. He said maybe I could have a favorite Bible verse printed somewhere. I said it is very unlikely that I would be getting further tattoos; but if I had a tattoo of a Bible verse, I would probably commission the one from Leviticus about not marking your body (Leviticus 19:28). I was joking around, as, by my very presence, I do not believe that verse to be applicable in a contemporary context. But these guys had apparently heard about that verse repeatedly in the past. They had a little sermon prepared complete with quotes of verses from other parts of the Bible!

"That's a mark for the dead," said my artist Jesse. "It is something the ancients did when they were mourning for the dead. They may have actually used the ashes of a funeral pyre to make the marks permanent." This man was on a roll. I couldn't get a word in edgewise. "When you get to Isaiah, there is a certain mark on the hand that is a good thing!" (Isaiah 44:5?)

I do not know if he applied those verses properly; but it was interesting that he approached the question from a Biblical and Christian perspective; and this time was not the first time he had been challenged with the morality of getting a tattoo. My view is that any Bible verse that is invoked to address the morality of getting a tattoo is being misused. Two can play that game.

I think the lesson here is that this thing Jesus built called "church" is populated by a lot of different kinds of folks.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

Devotional on Genesis 13:1-14:24

Genesis 13:1-14:24

It is not always a bad thing to achieve peace by separation. I am not talking about divorce; but I am talking about communities. Abram and Lot were all good; but their people were not. The text does not fault either Abram or Lot. Community growth often comes with trouble. Peace can sometimes be established by some degree of separation.

An important point can be made as we observe that Abram did not accept tribute from the king of Sodom (14:24). God’s salvation in the Old Testament often comes by God’s hand in military victory, deliverance or recovery from near-fatal illness. The people of Sodom experienced God’s salvation (14:20). For them to pay for it would undermine the salvation experience. God’s salvation is freely given; but to have it, it must be accepted as a gift.