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Friday, July 23, 2010

Thoughts on Jonah Chapter 4

In chapter 3 we saw that God has held his judgment against Niniveh and saved them. Jonah was the unhappy means of communication.  Why was he so reluctant to go on this mission? The answer is found at the beginning of this chapter.  This was exceedingly “evil” (the same word in Hebrew-ra’ah- is used as in chapter 3:10) to Jonah. Why? He knew God’s character.  He knew God is “gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster.” (ESV) Most people would be glad to have a God like this, but at this point in his life, Jonah does not agree. Jonah goes even further. He gets so depressed about it that he asks God to kill him. I have to say that as I read these verses they are a bit comical. Jonah is acting like a child. But I understand him.  You might say you would never do this, but I can assure you that you would do the same thing as him. God does not strike Jonah dead for behaving this way. He just asks, “Is it right for you to be angry?” Notice God doesn’t use psycho babble either. He points to right and wrong. Is it right? Of course it is not right. Jonah new it but he could not admit it.

Jonah decides to go relax somewhere away. There, God “appoints” a plant to cover him from the sun (to take away his discomfort-ra’ah-evil). God takes care of him. But He has a plan as well.  Jonah becomes quite happy. In fact, he goes from “exceedingly” unhappy to “exceedingly happy.” It is interesting that a plant makes him change his state of mind. Oh, how human we are. We care so much about our physical condition but not so much for our spiritual condition and of those around us.  We want to take care of ourselves without taking care of others. 

God not only takes away the plant but adds some heat to Jonah.  Some hot wind and sun made Jonah faint and got him to ask God again to kill him. God asks him again if he does well asking this only because of the plant. And this time he answer yes.  “Jonah, really? You do well? You ask this all because of a plant that has withered and died. A plant that gave you benefits without you doing anything.” God doesn’t tell him it was all His doing. But I get the feeling Jonah knew.
Now comes the lesson for Jonah. “You care about a plant been destroyed but don’t care about 120,000 people been destroyed? Plants and lives are not on equal plain Jonah. You know this.” Jonah’s ethics were wrong.

Did Jonah get the message? We don’t know, but I assume he did. But it has no response so that we can answer it when we find ourselves in similar situations.  And we will.

Here are the lessons from Jonah:
1. Obey God or else be ready to pay the price (God will pursue you!).
2. God uses imperfect, temperamental people like Jonah (and me). He can use you.
3. God is compassionate, graceful, loving and slow to anger and wishes to save everyone. So should we.
4. God cares about us even when we are not obedient to Him. He will teach us what we need to learn.

Jonah was referred to by Jesus in Matthew 12:40. Jesus was the opposite of Jonah.
Jonah was disobedient = Jesus was obedient
Jonah was a reluctant messenger = Jesus was a willing messenger
Jonah was not compassionate = Jesus was compassionate
Jonah was didn’t sacrifice anything to save anyone = Jesus sacrificed everything to save us
Jonah spent three days and three nights in a fish = Jesus spent three days and three nights in the grave 

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

A Review of Mere Churchianity by Michael Spencer

I became familiar with Michael Spencer’s writing over a year ago found in his blog at Internet Monk. I read an article titled The Coming Evangelical Collapse and found similar thoughts I that I myself have been thinking for a while. Unfortunately, Michael became sick with cancer and died before he could see his book released.  I have read his book and now offer some of my thoughts about it.  This isn’t a thorough review, I offer some observations and ask some questions. I find his writing very thoughtful and unique. He does not regurgitate someone else’s thoughts. He writes what he learned as a Christian pilgrim and offers challenging views on the church.
Michael’s topic is what he calls “Mere Churchianity.”  This title of course mirrors the title of C.S. Lewis’s “Mere Christianity.” But for Michael “churchianity” is “the church-dependent religion.” (186) It is the church as an institution in its various forms and Denominations. This type of “churchianity,” according to Michael, is not what is found in Scripture.  This type of church has left Jesus.  He writes for those who have left or are about to leave the church (or churchianity) offering advice and helping them move to the “Jesus-Shaped spirituality”. These people still believe something (17). They are “God seekers” (18).
One of the big presuppositions of the book is that those leaving the church are seeking some sort of spirituality (18, 63) and Michael offers his thoughts as to why they do this. I do agree that many (Christians?) are leaving the organized church. I do think that some are genuinely seeking the path of Jesus or the Jesus-shaped spirituality. But I can’t agree that most of them are doing this for this reason.  I would have liked to see some actual testimonies as appendices in the book of those who Michael knew that had left or were about to leave the church. This would have added more credibility to this assertion.  I won’t deny that Michael knew of these people first-hand, but I am not fully convinced about it even though I understand and agree that this may be the best these people can do. I also have found myself going from church to church and what I have observed has left me wondering if this is the church that Christ had in mind. What I have observed is the church as an institution but not as an organic movement representing Jesus.  Programs, activities, Bible studies, conferences and positions run the church and not Jesus. The script is there and everyone is expected to follow it. It is very hard to find “Jesus-Shaped spirituality.”
According to Michael, the church has little to do with Jesus and more with being successful and relevant (25). It is like a pecan pie but without the pecans.  The church does not resemble the community Jesus intended for his people. What we need to have according to Michael is “a movement of culture-resisting, church suspicious rebels and Jesus followers who have taken the same view of religion that Jesus took in his denouncements of religious phoniness.” (44) I agree.
For Michael, the solution to the church’s incongruities (with what is and what ought to be) is to get back to Jesus.  We need to go back to the Jesus we find in the New Testament. We need to model our life after his. “The genuine Jesus-follower walks a narrow path with a unique and exclusive Jesus,” (78) according to Spencer. The Jesus follower is concerned about the Kingdom of God, those who are excluded, making disciples the way Jesus did, and sharing the message of Jesus as the only Mediator (ch. 8). The church also needs to get back to reading the Bible. Most churches spoon-feed their parishioners by giving them selected verses but do not encourage personal Bible reading. The Holy Spirit will guide believers as they read the Bible (ch. 10). The church also needs to be real and stop using adjectives such as “victorious” and “successful.”  We need to start realizing our own failures and struggles and stop pretending to be “good Christians” (ch. 11). We are all for hearing from those who have been redeemed by Christ but we don’t want to hear about their struggles as they live the Christian life.  We avoid this at all cost. But for Michael, “The fact is, we’re screwed up.” (141)
Michael writes: “The life of faith is warfare.  I fight. Jesus will finish the work. I will groan and do battle, climbing the mountain of holiness bearing wounds and battle scars.  But I will climb it, since Christ is in me.  The gospel assures victory, eventually.” (148)
The Jesus-shaped spirituality calls us to be honest before God and live an “unscripted” life (107). The community Jesus had in mind, is a community that allows for a “sacred spirituality,” that is done in solitude (181) and not dependent upon the church. But we also foster the relationships we have in the community of believers.  For Michael, this community does not necessarily mean “churchianity” or the organized church. This can happen outside the organized church among the body of believers.  I agree with Michael here as well. But I hardly see any sense of community in the church.  In my opinion, the institution has replaced community. There’s more time for solitude but I doubt we are spending time with God.
According to Michael, a mass exodus of people will leave church (189) due to disillusionment for being misled.  They will no longer be willing to follow the church’s script and instead be true to themselves. They will leave consumer Christianity.  They will move on to a more personal faith, a “designer approach to faith.” (190) Michael offers advice for them: a Jesus-shaped spirituality that is both personal and communal, mentored, saturated with Scripture, growing in the context of service and the gospel and found in relationships (ch. 17).
As I read the book, I found that I agreed with most of what Michael writes.  I have had many of the same observations about Christianity and the church.  I foresee a similar fate to what he observed.  But contrary to Michael, I don’t see many of those leaving the church embracing any spirituality. I am more pessimistic.  I believe God will have to intervene to bring us back to himself.  He may have to be drastic. 
Michael’s view on those leaving the church made me a bit uneasy.  I can see and understand why they do it, but I can also see the danger of leaving. I hope no one thinks he is encouraging anyone to leave the church.  It’s not as easy as it seems. Many will not seek any spirituality and will be sucked into the culture. But for those who understand what Jesus intended for the church to be, who have struggled in it, who sought to change it but have failed, it may be the best option. They will still follow Jesus in solitude and in community with those who have taken the same path but never alone and with much humility.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Parallels between The Church and Government

I grew up in a Conservative Baptist church.  I went to a Baptist college and Seminary. I studied Baptist History. I know that as Baptists we are to have a separation between The Church and Government.  They don't mix.  They follow different paths.  Separation between Church and State has also had a long history. Yet, the more I have learned about Government (I use the capital G to refer to our Federal Government) the more parallels I see between it and The Church (I use this term to refer to all those who are Christians or the "call out" by God to be his children as the New Testament describes them).  I could focus on only negative aspects and I could write a lot. I could focus on only the positive aspects and still write a lot. I am going to attempt to be fair-minded.  But why do this? Is it necessary? I do this to put those nagging thoughts away that constantly pop up.  It is not necessary but perhaps is helpful for me.  Maybe it is just catharsis for me. Maybe they will help others. Maybe it is a way to see Government and The Church from a different perspective. Ok. Here it goes.

1. Both Government and The Church have their beginning in God. 
Most of us won't deny that The Church is God's idea and not a human invention.  The Church as defined in the New Testament are those who have been redeemed, saved from their sins and called out of the world to live for God.  This community was established by Jesus himself ("I will build my church").  Government, according to the Bible is "ordained" by God.  Here there are some disagreements I’m sure.  Some would hold that not all governments are established by God. All are established to keep order.  I can live with that.  But I will limit this to our government here in the United States.  Our Government is clearly established in the presupposition that we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights (The Declaration of Independence).  So there! The connection is made whether we believe that our Government is "established" by God in the proper sense of the word or not.
The application here is that both the Government and The Church must understand that they don't have any authority except that which is given by God. They are not intrinsically self-existent or have any power unless it is given to them. Yet we see the abuse of power in Government and The Church.  Yes, I know I said the Church.  If I could sit down with you I can give you my personal narrative of how The Church does abuse its power, I would.  It would take hours.

2. Both Government and The Church have a purpose for its existence.
The Government’s purpose is to protect and establish rule of law so that its citizens can live peacefully.  The Church exists to glorify God by proclaiming the Gospel to all nations and make disciples of them.  The application here is that the Government and the Church are not an end in itself.  They exist for a purpose and when they cease to carry the purpose for which they have been called, they lose the authority for which they have been called. I do believe that both the Government and The Church are losing (if not already) their way as to their purpose of their existence. Is the Government focusing on protecting its members’ freedom and well-being? Read the news.  Is The Church making disciples of all nations? Visit one close to you and see for yourself where their emphasis is.

3. Both Government and The Church have officials that are called to serve the community.
  This cannot be denied. Ministers, pastors, deacons, etc... and Government officials are elected (many churches have "elections" by voting and also have appointments made by boards) and some are appointed to serve (the discussion as to ministers being called by God is not necessary since validation is still required by the Church or by a Board of leaders). Who do both serve? They serve its constituents.  The Government provides protection and resources for the people.  The Church (i.e. the officials) serves its members by caring for them and reaching out to the rest of the community.  Today, we see how Government has forgotten its call to serve. To listen to the people. To help the people.  They are doing their own thing. The Church has forgotten that they are called not only to serve each other's needs but its community needs as well. How many churches are blind to their surroundings and don't acknowledge those that live around them.  Many of them exist in neighbourhoods that have completely changed ethnically but are not been reached by the Church.

4. Both Government and The Church have Sacred Documents that serve as their road map.
Our Government has the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution as its "sacred" documents.  These documents are the road map for the Nation. The Constitution is the document that serves as the foundation of Government. It outlines its powers and responsibilities.  It is to be carefully read and interpreted. Some believe that it needs to be interpreted in its original intent and it is not meant to be a document that can be changed. Christians have the Bible. It is our road map.  The Bible needs to be interpreted properly as well. Some of us believe it is to be interpreted according to its original meaning and intent and applied carefully.  We believe it is inerrant (a whole topic all by itself). We see how both Government and The Church have changed the meaning of their documents.  Proof? Study up the history of the Separation of Church and State in our government and see how far we have gone from the original intent of the Constitution.  The Church? The meaning of what the Bible says about certain issues have totally being altered. But even Conservative churches are making the Bible say things that it doesn't say (especially those that are very legalistic.  They have rules derived from the Bible to avoid its members from becoming "worldly"). I know I haven't given many specific examples, but do I need to?
There's much more I could say. But the point is made and I feel better. Well, not really. But I've shared it.

P.S. I am currently finishing up a book called "Mere Churchianity" and have found that Michael Spencer who recently passed away had some of the same thoughts I have had for quite some time now. I don't agree with everything of course, but I will write a review later.