Sunday, February 25, 2024

FIVE REASONS WHY I LOVE LEVITICUS - Tristan Curry

 


                                                      (Tiger swallowtail in my back yard.)

On this Sunday morning (2/25/24) I preached on the book of Leviticus. In the process of preparing I found out that Leviticus is one of Tristan Curry's favorite biblical books. I asked her why, and she wrote me this. (Tristan is married to our co-pastor, Tim Curry.)

1. I love Leviticus, because I believe we gain a greater understanding of the holiness of God. He is so much greater than humans, so completely and utterly different. I think it helped formulate my understanding of  "You are God, and I am not." God's holiness, His "otherness" or "separateness" is one of the things that has actually brought me great comfort. His holiness to me, is a picture of his steadfastness, and stability. My life before Christ did not feel stable in many ways.
2. I love Leviticus, because in it, God reveals his love for his people. His expectations for His people are clear. There is no wondering about what it is that he expected of the Israelites. After freeing them from years of captivity, showing them the way to live shows us his love and kindness. This is in opposition to idol worship and the uncertainty that accompanied the worship of false gods - could they ever be appeased? what would they do next? Now, through Jesus and the infilling of the Holy Spirit, we are able to walk in obedience to the will and expectations God has for his people.
3. I love Leviticus because I can see God's mercy in it. He lays the foundation and shows clearly what the people need to do to be restored to a right relationship with God. Our holy God, shows the way for his sacred people to approach his presence in the sacred space.
4. I love Leviticus because it taught me that it is God who makes his people holy. In chapter 20;7-8, 24, 26 God says "I am the Lord, who makes you holy." "I have set you apart from the nations" "Be holy to me... because I am holy. I have set you apart from the nation to be my own." It was my understanding of these verses, many years ago, where my love of Leviticus blossomed.  God makes his people holy. Following rules and laws is not what makes his people holy. Holiness, and righteousness is the work of God in us. Our appropriate response to God making us holy, is to be obedient to him in all the ways he expects. (to be clear, I do not believe God is still expecting us to follow levitical law, because what Jesus has done is infinitely far superior to what was required in the levitical law.)
5. I love Leviticus, because it reveals God's desire to be in the midst of his people. The book is about teaching the ancient Israelites what ritual impurity is, how to cleanse themselves from ritual impurity, teaching them what offerings to bring when they want to approach the presence of God. He delivered them so that they could come into his presence, as much as people can come into the presence of a holy God. Obviously, now because of Jesus we can boldly approach God's throne. That's far superior to what the ancient Israelites could do, but I love and am beyond thankful that God desires to be with his people.

Saturday, February 24, 2024

If God Made the Universe, Who Made God?


I have been asked, "If God made the universe, then who made God?"

My response is: this is a nonsense question. It's like asking, "How much does blue weigh?" 

The Christian God, the theistic Being, is understood to necessarily exist. That is, God cannot not-exist. If God cannot not-exist, then God has eternally existed. God never began to exist. If something never began to exist, it never came into being. Hence, it has no cause. 

This is similar to the question, "If God is all-powerful, then can God make a stone so heavy he cannot lift?" This is another nonsense question. Here's why, in some detail. 

I'm drawing upon former University of Michigan philosopher George Mavrodes's "Some Puzzles Concerning Omnipotence" (in Peterson, Hasker, Reichenbach, and Basinger, Philosophy of Religion). I heard Mavrodes speak years ago at a philosophy conference at Wheaton College (I took two independent studies with Wheaton philosopher Arthur Holmes). And once, while strolling the halls of U-M's superb philosophy department, I walked into Mavrodes's office as his door was open. He was very gracious, and we talked a bit.

If God is "omnipotent," does this mean God can do anything? Can God create a stone too heavy for him to lift?

It's generally understood that the doctrine of omnipotence refers to the ability to do anything that is logically possible. So, e.g., God cannot make a "square circle," simply because such a thing is logically incoherent. 

While "square circle" "seems plainly to involve a contradiction..., [the statement that] "x is able to make a thing too heavy for x to lift" does not." (141-142) I could, e.g., make a boat too heavy for me to lift. Why, then, could not God make a stone too heavy for him to lift? At least, it's not obvious that such a thing is logically incoherent, in the sense of being self-contradictory or even meaningless. 

With this in mind, Mavrodes argues that the stone-idea is self-contradictory in the same way as is "square circle." Here's how this works.

God is either omnipotent or he is not. If he is not omnipotent, then the phrase "stone too heavy for God to lift" may not be self-contradictory. It follows that if God can make such a stone, then he is not omnipotent. But if we assume that God is omnipotent, then the phrase "stone too heavy for God to lift" becomes self-contradictory. "For it becomes 'a stone which cannot be lifted by Him whose power is sufficient for lifting anything'. But the "thing" described by a self-contradictory phrase is absolutely impossible and hence has nothing to do with the doctrine of omnipotence."  (142) "The very omnipotence of God... makes the existence of such a stone absolutely impossible, while it is the fact that I am finite in power... makes it possible for me to make a boat too heavy for me to lift." (142)

But what if someone objects and claims that "stone too heavy for God to lift" is not self-contradictory, and therefore describes an absolutely possible object?" (142) If that is correct, than our answer will be, "Yes, God can create such a stone." The existence of such a stone will then be compatible with the omnipotence of God. "Therefore, from the possibility of God's creating such a stone it cannot be concluded that God is not omnipotent... The conclusion which [the objector] wishes to draw from such an affirmative answer to the original question is itself the required proof that the descriptive phrase which appears there is self-contradictory." (142) 

To the question, "Can God make a stone too heavy for Himself to lift?" the objector wants us to answer, "Yes." But if we answer "Yes," the objector will think our answer to be absurd, since the idea of a stone too heavy for God to lift is logically absurd. This is because, once we grant omnipotence to God, plus non-self-contradictoriness to the "stone too heavy for God to lift," we are involved in a logical absurdity which denies what we have granted to God. Mavrodes says: "It is more appropriate to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them." (Ib.)

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Grief, Remembered and Embraced

























(Door, in Jerusalem)

 
Thirty-nine years ago I became a "man of sorrows, acquainted with grief." A son was born, and survived, for which I will always be grateful. His twin brother, whom Linda and I named David, died. 

David was fully formed, yet stillborn. I held the weight of his dead body in my arms. I never will forget that moment, nor do I want to. I have rarely, if ever, felt such inner pain. "Grief" is the word we use to describe the indescribable. I was "grieving."

I read from four devotional books every morning. One of them contains selections from the writings of C.S. Lewis (A Year With C.S. Lewis). Fifty-two years ago, when I became a Jesus-follower, Lewis was there to greet me. 

I went to a bookstore looking for Christian books, and purchased Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Ethics, and C.S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. I, the new Jesus-follower and philosophy major, had some powerful weapons in my hands. As I read Bonhoeffer I did not understand him. Later in life, I was finally ready to read The Cost of Discipleship, parts of which have never left me. Bonhoeffer's book renders most "discipleship" books written after him unnecessary.

It was Lewis that initially captivated me. Here was a brilliant scholar, a very good thinker, a convert from atheism to Christian theism, who also wrote for children. Lewis combined a sharp intellect with childlike wonder. He was introspective, perhaps too much so. Lewis lets us into his inner life, and I was drawn in to the working out of his salvation.

I read Mere Christianity, then the space trilogy (especially Perelandra), then the brilliant Till We Have Faces (I re-read it this summer), the Narnia books, and his books on miracles and pain and joy and so on.

Then I read A Grief Observed. It's about what's happening to Lewis's insides after his wife Joy died of cancer. Initially he published the book under a pseudonym, N.W. Clerk. (Sometimes I kick myself for not buying the N.W. Clerk edition for $20 I saw in a used bookstore in the early 1970s.) Lewis exposes all of himself in this grief journal; his pain, doubts, anguish, his awkwardness, loneliness, his fears, in an unforgettable architectonic of grief. 

When I first read it, I thought Lewis, at times, was abandoning his Jesus-faith. Then I realized he's still fully a Jesus-follower who sounds like a 20th-century lament-psalmist, and who, in this journal, bears his entire heart and soul before the God he follows and the God he wonders about.

A Grief Observed was hard to read. I could not help but think of Linda, my young and beautiful wife, and what it would do to me should she die before I do. Or, conversely, the thought of her being alone, without me, was hard to entertain.

Lewis writes:

"Meanwhile, where is God? This is one of the most disquieting symptoms. When you are happy, so happy that you have no sense of needing Him, so happy that you are tempted to feel his claims upon you as an interruption, if you remember yourself and turn to Him in gratitude and praise, you will be - or so it feels - welcomed with open arms. But go to Him when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain, and what do you find? A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside. After that, silence... There are no lights in the windows. It might be an empty house. Was it ever inhabited... Why is He so present a commander in our time of prosperity and so very absent a help in time of trouble?... Not that I am (I think) in much danger of ceasing to believe in God. The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him."

If you've never before heard such words come out of a God-believer, you've never read the Psalms. You've not internalized the cry of Jesus from the cross, "My God, why have you forsaken me." You've never understood Paul, who writes in Romans 8:18, "I consider these present sufferings not worthy of being compared to the glory that will be revealed in heaven." 

After reading Lewis on grief, I admired him more than ever. Following Jesus is not about being "happy" all the time. It is about advancing his Kingdom against the kingdom of evil and darkness and sin. As I write these words, in this moment, be assured there is a lot of grief out there. And rest assured that, in Jesus, the promised Messiah of Isaiah 53, we have "a man of sorrows who is acquainted with grief."

If you are grieving today, and are a lover of Jesus, do not be ashamed of your emotional anguish. In Jesus, you have a Redeemer who is well-acquainted with depths of anguish and the turbulent seas of your soul. While following Jesus has brought me the greatest joys in life, I have found him sympathetic to my every weakness, and that I can bring every part of me to him.

(Lewis published A Grief Observed in 1961. After that he wrote things like Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer, and published Christian Reflections.)

In God's Kingdom Character Comes Before Ability

(Gabriel's, in Ypsilanti, Michigan

One great truth to be harvested from the fields of the history of Christian spiritual formation is this: A person's doing must emerge out of their being. Therefore, make your first priority formation into Christlikeness. Everything you do flows from this.

Of primary importance is who I am in Christ, and the shape my heart is being formed into (Christlikeness). This is about a person's character, not their abilities. This involves the character of Jesus, being formed in us. (Galatians 4:19)


What we authentically do is an emergent property of who we are. Our "doing" supervenes on our "being." Our doing is entailed by, or is consequent on, who we are, and what we are becoming. What we authentically do (what we have a "heart" for doing) inexorably flows from the shape of our heart.


If we don't get this order right, two bad things will happen:


1) we will evaluate ourselves by what we do, rather than by who we are in relation to Christ; and 

2) we will view and use others in the church for what they can do, rather than for who they are in relationship with God and us. 

These two bad outcomes provide one reason why pastors and people burn out in churches.

Getting this ontological order of priority correct is crucial in the development of real Jesus-community. 
Eugene Peterson writes:

"If we identify people functionally, they turn into functions. We need to know our people for who they are, not for what they can do. Building community is not an organizational task; it is relational - understanding who people are in relation to one another and to Jesus and working on the virtues and habits that release love and forgiveness and hope and grace. (Eugene Peterson and Marva J. Dawn, The Unnecessary Pastor: Rediscovering the Call, Kindle Locations 2376-2378)


This is where the Entertainment Church and the Program-Driven Church fail. John is viewed as a "guitar player," rather than seen, first, as a person. John's function becomes what is important (because "We need another guitar player!"); thus, John is "used" by the church and, in the process, will get used up.


Peterson writes:


"What I want to point out is that this way of looking at and identifying Christians in community has a way of functionalizing them in our minds, thinking of them not for who they are in community, in relationship, but for what they can do. It is significant that as the Pastorals [the Pastoral Epistles] refer to the members of the community it is as men and women embedded in relationship - Paul was looking for character, not ability." (Ib., Kindle Locations 2371-2373; emphasis mine)


**
My books are:

Leading the Presence-Driven Church

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God



31 Letters to the Church on Discipleship

Encounters with the Holy Spirit (co-edited with Janice Trigg)

After a break I'll continue writing Transformation: How God Changes the Human Heart.

Then, the Lord willing, Linda and I will write our book on Relationships.


Then: Technology and Spiritual Formation.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

My Book - Praying

 


                                                              (Cover art by Gary Wilson)

Every follower of Jesus is called to have a praying life. But many confess that they are “too busy to pray.” This book is a record of observations, experiences, reflections, and biblical and theological conclusions, written by a busy pastor who discovered praying as a conversation with God that has lasted for over forty years.

It is also a challenge to pray, and a call to a praying lifestyle. The conviction of the author is that what the Church most needs today is to recover praying as a relationship with God, and not as a duty to God. This book will inspire you to experience prayer, not as something we have to do, but as something we cannot do without.

Praying: Reflections on 40 Years of Solitary Conversations with God


CHAPTERS

1–What Is Praying? 

2–Praying And The Nature Of God 

3–Praying As Relationship With God 

4–Praying Is Conferencing With God 

5–Praying And Listening 6–Praying And Discernment 

7–Praying For Myself 

8–Praying For Others 

9–Praying And Mono-Tasking 

10–Praying And Community

11–Praying And The Kingdom 

12–Praying And Self-Denial 

13–Praying And Remembering 

14–Why I Pray 

15–The Need For Pray-Ers 

16–A Call To Praying 

17–Questions About Praying 

18–Prayer And Death: A Note To My Dying Friends

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Two Signs of a Grace-filled Church

(Nairobi, Kenya)


My church family is grace-saturated. I see this every week, in small and big ways. I am certain much more grace activity happens behinds the scenes, where only God sees. I constantly view the living out of mercy's triumph over judgment. How thankful I am that we are named "Redeemer." Redemptive, bondage-breaking activity is happening all around me.

I like what Max Lucado says about this in a CT interview. He is asked: What are some signs that a church is really living in grace and not by law?

Max responds:

"The spontaneous worship level of the church. Are people genuinely happy when they're there? I have a friend who says, "You can measure a husband by the face of his wife." And I think you can measure the amount of grace by the face of the church, just by their joy level. There's an energy. There's a simple contagious happiness there.

I think another outgrowth of grace is generosity. Jesus tells the parable of the man who was forgiven much and then demanded that the guy who owed him just a couple hundred bucks pay up. I think that's a picture of when grace did not work. This man thought he had worked the system instead of receiving grace. You counter that with the story of Zacchaeus; Jesus walked in his front door and greed walked out the back door; he wanted to give away half of what he owned. There's a picture of grace. It may be idealistic, but I really think that if we made grace a regular part of the church diet, we'd have happier people who are cheerful givers—and we wouldn't have to have so many campaigns on giving money."

Monday, February 19, 2024

Inward and Outward Forgiveness

 

                                                          (Lake Erie, Sterling State Park)

For Christmas I received a copy of Tim Keller's book Forgive. I am slow-reading through it, using it as a devotional. It's so good!

One of Keller's points is to distinguish inward and outward forgiveness. In our counseling Linda and I mostly aim for both inward and outward. Even when the latter looks impossible.

We see inward forgiveness in Mark 11. There, "forgive them" means being willing to not avenge oneself. In Luke 17 "forgive them" means "reconcile to them." That's outward forgiveness, which is beautiful and amazing. Keller writes, "One could say that the first must always happen, and the second may happen but is not always possible."

"There is, then, a kind of forgiveness that ends up being inward only and another kind that issues outwardly toward a possible restored relationship." Like Matthew 24, where3 Jesus calls us to be reconciled to our sister or brother.

Metaethical Studies and Moral Nihilism

 


Image result for john piippo atheism
(Detroit)
Most atheists I know want to be moral. They make strong moral claims, saying "_______ is wrong," or "We ought to do ________." And, "Putin is a war criminal." Indeed, atheists like Richard Dawkins claim religious beliefs are morally repulsive and ought to be discarded. 

But it is questionable if atheism can take us this far. Probably not. Atheism can support utilitarianism, and emotivist ethics, but atheists overreach when they claim some acts are morally wrong. The atheist cannot, without warrant, call certain acts "good" or "evil."

This is a metaethical issue. Here are three books that help me understand this. 

Atheist Overreach: What Atheism Can't Deliver,  by University of Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. Smith argues that "the naturalistic cosmos that is the standard operating worldview of atheism cannot with rational warrant justify the received humanistic belief in universal benevolence and human rights." (P. 124)

Science and the Good: The Tragic Quest for the Foundations of Morality, by University of Virginia professors James Davison Hunter and Paul Nedelisky. They write:

"When it began, the quest for a moral science sought to discover the good. The new moral science has abandoned that quest and now, at best, tells us how to get what we want. With this turn, the new moral science, for all its recent fanfare, has produced a world picture that simply cannot bear the weight of the wide-ranging moral burdens of our time." (Kindle Location 112)

This, say Hunter and Nedelisky, is "moral nihilism."

Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology, by theistic philosopher J. P. Moreland. Moreland writes: "Given scientism, moral knowledge is impossible. And the loss of moral knowledge has meant a shift from a view in which duty and virtue are central to the moral life, to a minimalist ethical perspective." (Kindle Location 422)

Sunday, February 18, 2024

Obsessed With the Worship of Our Own Moral Ignorance

 


(Cancun)

Thank God for people who do not get their moral values from the majority. Thanks to those who do not infer from The majority believe X is right/wrong, to Therefore, X is right/wrong.

Yet, this is what most people do; viz., infer from the majority. The opinion poll is their shepherd, and that's why in America we are morally wanting.

Writing in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville said, "In America the majority builds an impregnable wall around thinking." (In Os Guinness, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, p. 40)

Novelist James Fennimore Cooper wrote, “It is a besetting vice of democracies to substitute public opinion for law.” (Ib.) The Supreme Court is not my shepherd.

The philosopher John Stuart Mill warned that “the price paid for this sort of intellectual pacification is the sacrifice of the entire moral courage of the human mind.”(Ib.) 

Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard wrote in his journal, “The trend today is in the direction of mathematical equality.” (Ib.) Which means: utilitarianism; Bentham's hedonic calculus; the metricization of morality.

Everyone's moral opinion is not equal, just as everyone's opinion is not equal. Physicist Robert Jastrow was lecturing in support of President Reagan's plan to develop space-based missile systems. An undergraduate student challenged Jastrow. When the student realized a world-class physicist was not going to change his mind after a few minuts arguing with a sophomore, the student said, "Well, your guess is as good as mine." To which Jastrow responded emphatically, "No, no, no, my guesses are much, much better than yours." (In Tom Nichols, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why it Matters, p. 83)

Some people's moral judgments are much, much better than others. Some have moral expertise. Most do not.

"The United States," writes Nichols, "is now a country obsessed with the worship of its own ignorance." This includes a rapidily growing moral ignorance that is as unstudied and unreflective as an emoji. 

If you are a follower of Jesus, listen to the plea of Os Guinness. "For the Hebrew prophets, “Thus says the Lord” was decisive, not the opinions of the people. And in fact, the pursuit of truth, beauty, excellence, whether in art, science or spiritual growth, has rarely taken its cue from John Q. Public or from Mr. and Mrs. Average. It aspires to the standards of the few and the exceptional—the great masters, the inspiring heroes and the extraordinary saints." (Op. cit., p. 41)

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Two-Step Leadership: Some Thoughts

 

Abide in Jesus and be led.
Teach others to abide in Jesus.
Keep this prominent.
Pick the fruit.

Leadership turns into led-ership.


THE LEAP.

Into the arms of God.
It happens at the moment of connection to the Vine. (These agricultural metaphors take us to ontological realities.) 
This is where many stop, since THE LEAP requires relinquishing of control. This is often how it is when TRUST is required.
It requires true BELIEF.
Trust requires true belief. The true believer acts.