Monday, April 25, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: Shining Brightly Together

Perhaps your sense of humor is too refined to appreciate "light bulb" jokes.  But I love them!

For example, how many Gorillas does it take to change a light bulb?  Only one, but you better have a truck load of light bulbs!

How many Oregonians (I'm all the way over here on the east coast, so I can talk about them) does it take to change a light bulb?  Nine.  One to change the bulb, and eight to protest the nuclear energy plant that powers it!

Sorry, I can't help myself.

But Paul does prompt a question we should ask when he says in Philippians 2:15 that we should "shine as lights in the world."  How many of us will it take to get that done?  Well, if you are part of a church family, it will take ALL of you to do it the way your Lord and mine wants it done!

We we continue in our "One Body" series at Covenant, we find in Philippians 2:12-18, three postures--actions that are essential for every church to shine brightly in a dark world:

1. Obedience.  Ever cuss around a preacher, and then try to apologize?  As a preacher, I find those experiences to be hilarious, chiefly because I'm a little unsure of why they are so apologetic since they don't ultimately answer to me.  That's the same spirit in which Paul writes verses 12 and 13.  Essentially, he says "behave yourselves whether I am present or not, because the One you answer to is always present!"  We do that, first of all, by seeing the promise we are given here--that God is ALREADY at work inside each one of us.  In other words, we can put on the mind of Christ, we can avoid selfish ambition, act in humility, and put others before ourselves.  And we can "work that out" because God has already "worked it in!"  And obedience is when we work out in our lives the very things God has already worked into our souls through the person and work of Jesus.

When we obey in these ways, in the context of our church family, we help each other grow toward Jesus  In fact, the only way to truly "work out" what God has "worked in" is, according to Paul, doing it within the community of faith that is the church.

2. Holiness.  It is unfortunate that there is so much confusion in our day regarding what holiness is.  Too many people hear this word and think of all sorts of unpleasant things--cold showers, hard beds, no sex, no laughter, little rest, and a generally miserable existence.  C.S. Lewis commented a generation ago; "How little people know who think that holiness is dull.  When one meets the real thing, it is irresistible.  If even 10% of the world's population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before the year's end?"

What was his point?  That we have defined holiness in such a way that its the last thing on earth anybody wants to be!  Thankfully, we get some help from Paul, who uses a different but very similar word--"blameless."  And when he applies this concept to the church corporately, the lesson we learn is that truly holy and blameless people work through their problems much differently than the world does.

Think about how our world tries to solve its problems:  Presidential "debates," Jerry Springer-style drama, polarization, biased media, and the non-stop grasping for power and prestige over others.  Paul's message to the church at Philippi, and to us, is that we are supposed to be better than that.  But are we?  Perhaps the first step in becoming what Paul envisions is to admit that we are far more like the world than we want to admit--and the primary evidence for this is that we try to solve problems and navigate conflict in EXACTLY the same way they do.  But people who seek unity, put on the mind of Christ, and put others before themselves are those who give the strongest evidence that they are truly holy.

3. Joy. Think joy and holiness don't belong in the same message--let alone the same sentence?  Then perhaps you need to re-define what both mean, because they go hand in hand.

We talked a lot yesterday about the Jewish ceremonial background of Paul's comments in verses 17 and 18, but what he is basically saying is "If I am sacrificed--poured out completely for your sake--and the result is that you are unified together in your service to Jesus, I will rejoice in that!"  Another way of putting it is this: "What you are doing in Philippi as one body is more important than what I do from a jail cell 800 miles away."

That is also true for any church.  A truly unified body is so powerful that even if their spiritual father is removed from the equation they continue to shine as a bright light in a dark world.

So what if something terrible happened to me?  What if through death, or chronic illness, or something else beyond my control I am removed from the picture as your lead pastor?  Hear my heart when I say this; the greatest joy I could have would be for Covenant to be so strong, so unified, full of both holiness and joy to the extent that my absence wouldn't matter.  If our church family can find the joy Paul talks about here, we won't just "be fine."  We will thrive, regardless of what transpires.

Conversely, we can have the best communicator in the pulpit, the most talented musicians on stage, the slickest programs, the most well-run system, and the most wealthy donors in the world, but if we don't learn to take joy and delight in each other, we will never get where Jesus intends us to go.

Are we really that different?  Because we should be.  That is who God calls us to be.  And to the degree that we embody these postures, to that same degree the world looks at us and says "there worship the children of God!"

Monday, April 18, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: A People Just Like Jesus

Goals are easy to set, but often much harder to reach.  Think for example about weight loss (yeah I know.  I could have picked a less convicting one, right?  But its pretty relevant I think)  Its easy to look at a particular physique in a magazine, cut it out, paste it on your bathroom mirror, and say "I want to look like that guy/gal!"  But getting there is hard and annoying work!  You have to sacrifice your favorite foods (which for me is ice cream.  I just can't stay away from it!), exercise, and go through those awkward phases on your way from A to B that leave you between belt loops and wardrobes.

The path is MUCH harder than the destination!

For the past several weeks, we have been moving verse by verse through Paul's letter to Philippians, and we have seen a beautiful picture drawn for us--the picture of a church that moves, thinks, and acts as ONE body!  And with that picture now posted metaphorically in our minds, Paul begins describing in depth what its going to take for us to get there.  In this too, the path is much harder than the dream, but the destination is worth it, and the three sequential steps we see in Philippians 2 lay that path out clearly for us.

1. Seek Solidarity by Seeking Unity.  The Gospel is unstoppable.  We have already seen that.  But we can be stopped from sharing in its advance if we don't seek unity.  Paul says to the church; "I will be filled with joy when I see solidarity among you.  And you will achieve that when you are of "one mind."  That's the goal!  Again, its not easy when we have so many varied and strong opinions, perceptions, ways of processing information and handling conflict, but here we are promised that if we want solidarity, the unity we need to have it can be ours!

2. Seek Unity by Seeking Humility.  Let's face it.  Humility is a hard thing to practice.  For one thing, we live in a culture that rewards pride.  But on the other hand, the church as a whole often misunderstands what it means to be humble.  Fortunately, Paul gives us an accurate definition of both pride AND humility.  Pride is when we are focused on ourselves.  Humility is when we are focused on others.

The old saying is true:  Humility isn't thinking less of yourself.  But it is thinking of yourself less.  I can say this from experience: In my 24 years of ministry, nearly every time I've seen relational breakdown in the church its been due to the exchange of godly humility for selfish ambition--"looking out for number one!"  But there is no solidarity without unity, and there is no unity without humility.  The great news is that we have a model for precisely this kind of posture in the person of Jesus!

3. Seek Humility by Seeking Christ.  Verses 5-11 are, I believe, not only the most powerful in the entire letter.  They represent the best of Paul's writing!  These seven verses are so rich with meaning we simply didn't have time to plumb their depths yesterday.  But we did have time to cover the "big idea," which is that the humility we need to "start the engine" toward unity as one body is found in how Jesus humbled Himself.  We are told here that Jesus "emptied Himself" for us all, suffered for the sake of His bride, and in doing so modeled the very kind of humility we need to assume.  True humility as members of the church means we are willing to give of ourselves for the sake of others, and suffer for, and with the other members of the body.

For Jesus, assuming that humility was repaid with His victory over sin and death, and the promise that one day, every knee will bow--every tongue will confess that He is Lord to the glory of God.

Don't confuse humility with weakness!  Jesus' humility will one day result in His triumph over all.  And our Christ-like humility toward each other will likewise produce a unity and solidarity that will be unstoppable!

Someone once told me that to lose weight "you have to be convinced that skinny feels better than chocolate tastes!"  Well, to be the unified church God has called us to be, we have to come to the conclusion that unity feels better the selfishness.  And why shouldn't it?  After all, when we move, think, and act as ONE BODY, we are no less than a people just like Jesus!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Approaching Scripture; Approaching Culture

This week, I'm teaching a doctoral seminar at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary on current issues affecting the church.  Western evangelicalism faces an increasing number of challenges when it comes to engaging its surrounding culture in a way that is both faithful to Jesus, and fruitful within our current environment.  And sometimes, we find ourselves at cross-purposes with one another regarding an issue.

Whether we are dealing with family, sexuality, ecology, technology, or any other issue which has proven to be a "moving target" in our day, our approaches are sometimes divergent.  For example, you may find between two Christian theologians that both talk an awful lot about Jesus and claim a high level of reverence for the written Scriptures, but come to very different conclusions when it comes to particular social issues that currently dominate our national conversation.

Most of the time, our differences in approach are merely that--varied and sometimes contrasting perspectives on how to effectively engage the world Jesus died to save.  But occasionally, the divide is much deeper.  The advent of what has been commonly called "post-evangelicalism" has, on the surface, seemed to be about engagement.  But beneath the surface, it becomes apparent that the issue is far more serious.

Its about how the authority of Scripture is perceived.

As a result, I will be leading our Doctor of Ministry cohort this morning in a discussion of the three prominent approaches to interpreting Scripture that are currently driving a lot of discussion within the western churches.  For pastors and other ministry leaders, this is crucially important to understand, because its not just our belief about Scripture that drives our approach to culture.  Its also how we approach its interpretation.

Currently, there are three predominant schools of thought in regard to how Scripture should be approached and interpreted.  While each approach brings perspectives that can be helpful to those who follow Jesus, some contain inherent dangers that can lead to failure rather than fruitfulness.  What follows is a very brief, and therefore admittedly somewhat oversimplified, overview of these approaches.

The Historical-Grammatical Approach:  Current approaches to this method emerged in the early 20th century in response to European higher criticism.  Like the higher critical approach, this method seeks to understand and respect the literary aspects of the Scriptural texts, and as a result gives heavy consideration to the literary, linguistic, contextual, historical, and canonical factors when seeking to determine meaning.

What sets this method apart however, is the presumption that authorial intent should govern our approach to interpretation.  And this presumption is informed by a view of Scripture that assumes a plenary verbal understanding of inspiration.  This is to say that advocates of this approach (myself included) come to the Bible presupposing that The Holy Spirit ensured that every word left to us in its pages is the fully inspired Word of God Himself.  And since this inspiration is expressed through the personalities, writing styles,  and employed literary genres of the more than 40 human authors who penned the Scriptures, the best way to arrive at Scripture's meaning is to ask one simple question: "What did the Holy Spirit-inspired author intend to say here?"

Admittedly, this approach results in some degree of circular reasoning, and some of its advocates have occasionally fallen victim to epistemological idealism--the idea that we can know truth absolutely in spite of the fact that our minds are as fallen as our bodies.  Nevertheless, this approach best undergirds a high view of Scripture as God's inspired Word, and is therefore the best starting point for understanding appropriate application to any context in which we might find ourselves.

The Postliberal Approach: This  school of thought emerged out of a view of Scripture known as "Neo-orthodoxy."  George Lindbeck, Hans Willhelm Frei, and Stanley Hauerwas, all of whom were deeply influenced by Karl Barth (the founder of Neo-orthodoxy), developed this approach to understanding Scripture while the three were teaching together at Yale Divinity School.  For this reason, the postliberal hermeneutic is sometimes loosely referred to as the "New Yale school."

Though this approach employs a non-foundationalist approach to the text, there is a very helpful side of it that recognizes--perhaps more clearly than their historical-grammatical counterparts--the noetic effects of the fall and the resulting inevitability of subjective interpretation.  Additionally, postliberal thinkers do affirm a "normative element" in every interpretation informed by the history of the church, and the way the global body of Christ has approached a given text.  Therefore, this school of thought sees a solemn responsibility of the present church as a "sub-community" which seeks to stand on the shoulders of those who read and interpreted in the past, while simultaneously forming active responses to current issues themselves.  As such, they focus on the community of faith as Holy Spirit-filled and thus competent interpreters of Scripture, further emboldened in their attempts by their brothers and sisters who interpret Scripture together with them in the sub-community.

The problem with this approach is the tendency to see the sub-community as the final authority in itself.  In many ways, this approach is an advocacy of Neo-orthodoxy in reverse.  Karl Barth taught that the transcendence of God meant He could not be fully and finally revealed in human language, and therefore Scriptural interpretation becomes an exercise in "listening past the scratches [human error in the text] in order to hear the Master's voice."  In other words, the Bible isn't the Word of God, but becomes the Word of God  as we encounter it and respond to it.  Conversely, postliberal hermeneutics require that the sub-community impart present meaning to the text, thereby placing the final interpretive authority not int he text itself, but in the sub-community.  In Neo-orthodoxy, Scripture isn't the Word of God until it meaningfully encounters us.  In postliberal thought, Scripture has no meaning until meaning is imparted by the sub-community. Current voices like Leonard Sweet have advocated this approach as the preferred approach--especially when seeking to address issues affected by philosophical postmodernism.  The inherent danger, however, is of a presumptuous sub-community that sees itself imparting meaning, and thus authority to the Biblical text.  The authority of Scripture is inherent.  Scripture doesn't need the church to be Scripture, or to have inherent meaning.

The "Redemptive Movement" Approach.  Canadian scholar William J. Webb is currently the most visible advocate of this interpretive approach.  His 2001 book Slaves, Women, and Homosexuals is a thoroughly researched, comprehensive description of this school of thought, which views Scripture as calling believers toward an "ultimate ethic" To do this, redemptive movement advocates seek to locate common "voices" in the text which collectively call believers toward a "progressive trajectory."  As a result, critics of this view will sometimes use the pejorative term "trajectory hermeneutic."

Webb point to three distinct recognitions that must be ascertained in order to properly interpret any Biblical command.  The first is the specific Biblical command itself.  The second is the cultural context in which that command appears.  The third is the "ultimate ethic" that can be determined by understanding how the command and surrounding culture relate to one another when they are placed together on a "trajectory."

This approach assumes an "arc of history" understanding of human progress.  That is, it views human history as a history of moving forward, becoming constantly more enlightened, and progressing forward in more effective ways.Though positive, this is a rather naive and simplistic view of history that sometimes results in what C.S. Lewis called "chronological snobbery."  Thinking that my grandfather probably wasn't as smart and enlightened as me simply because I grew up 6 decades after he did is historically adolescent and full of hubris.  But thinking I have a better view of the "ultimate ethic" of God than Jeremiah or the Apostle Paul is simply spiritually dangerous.

The biggest issue with this approach is that the "ultimate ethic" is never clearly defined within Scripture.  When you leave the end result open like this, the inevitable result is that culture's prevailing views will determine meaning.  Such is precisely the kind of scenario that can end with entire churches who have their feet planted firmly in mid-air, and ultimately irrelevant to their communities and the world.  Though Webb stops short of full cultural capitulation, many who have come behind him have taken those additional steps, and there is nothing in this approach to interpretation to stop them from doing so.  In particular, when you read Justin Lee or Rachel Held Evans on homosexuality, you are reading opinions that are largely informed by this approach.  One does not have to employ this approach to recognize the culturally and covenantally-bound nature of some Biblical texts.

For followers of Jesus, every subject is ultimately a spiritual conversation, and consequently, a conversation that should take us back to our source of authority.  Understanding the proper way to interpret that authority source is perhaps more important today than it has ever been.

Monday, April 04, 2016

Monday Morning Rewind: What We Face Together

When someone says they are "looking forward" to something, we generally take that in a positive way.  But truthfully, not everything we look ahead to is a good thing.  A group of Marines about to deploy have much to "look forward to," but most of it isn't good.

And sometimes, even what seems good is accompanied with less pleasant prospects.  A bride and groom standing at their wedding altar, for example, have much to "look forward to."  Some of it is great.  Some of it is horrible.  The issue isn't so much that what they face is good or bad, but that what they face, they face together.

This is also true for any church family.  Two weeks ago we saw where Paul painted a picture for the church at Philippi--a picture of the power of perspective, courage, and focus that comes to any church that finds its ultimate identity in the person of Jesus.  Yesterday, we saw in the closing verses of Chapter 1 some of the things churches that find this kind of solidarity have to look forward to.

1. Confidence.  Paul was certain that, no matter how circumstances transpired around his imprisonment, the Gospel would go forward.  To be sure, he'd much rather be released and have the freedom of movement that would help him be personally involved in the spread of this message.  But either way, he is confident, not only that his circumstances can't hinder the spread of Jesus' message, but also that his circumstances can't stop his own spiritual growth and progress.

When we stand in the fullness of the faith Jesus provides for us, there is absolutely nothing that can shake our confidence or stunt our spiritual growth.  Even when the water is over our heads, our confidence in our Lord grows.

2. Contentment.  Paul is going to speak a LOT more about contentment later in the letter, but his basis for everything he will say later is expressed clearly in verse 21, which may be the most powerful statement in all of his correspondence to Philippi!

We talk a lot in our culture about "quality of life."  Usually those conversations are related to health care, mental health, maintaining a certain standard of living, and having peace of mind.  But the darker side of those conversations are fueled by fear of economic adversity that takes away our ability to live at a certain standard, or adverse health that limits our mobility, or even to be able to think clearly and be in our right minds.

Paul dispenses with that fear with four words: "To live is Christ."  That is the greatest quality of life statement in all of history, because it enables him to say "its OK if I'm in a prison cell.  Its OK that I don't know my own future.  Its OK that the circumstances surrounding me are completely out of my control, because the essence of life only consists in union with and devotion to Jesus.  He is my whole being!"

What would it look like for an entire church to be filled with people who assume this attitude? What power would exist in the midst of one body of believers saying in unison "Our whole life is Christ!"  That's a powerful picture of a contented people.

3. Blessing.  We in the Christian community talk a lot about "being blessed.  We hashtag the term on social media, emblazzen it on T-shirts and tatoos.  But what does it really mean?

For most of us, our default is to use this word to describe when our lives are going well.  I have a tax-refund coming and don't have to pay, so I"m "blessed."  I got the promotion, so I'm "blessed."

Though its not inaccurate to use the word in that way, using it only in that way is a failure to grasp the depth of what it means.  Paul is describing a life of blessing, which he defines as a statement of contentment that allowed him to see God's work in absolutely everything--including his own hardship, persecution, or even execution.  Verses 22-24 are a picture of the most positive internal struggle that can take place. In the end, Paul expresses a feeling of "blessing" that is completely unconnected to his own personal future.  "Whether I remain with you, or go to be with Christ, my biggest struggle is that I can't do both and I can't decide which I want more!"

4. Self-Denial.  In the midst of all he faced, Paul's mind wasn't primarily on himself.  It was on his church family at Philippi.  This is a guy who is committed to live out his life for the good of others!

This comes because he realizes--as we should--that what transpires around us is always, ALWAYS bigger than us!  We will see with much greater clarity what this kind of self-denial looks like as we move deeper into Philippians.  But for now, Paul's example should prompt a question in each of us:  How willing are we to deny ourselves for the greater benefit of the ONE BODY Christ has called us to be?

5.  Solidarity.  Verses 27-30 aren't just a wish Paul has for one local assembly of believers.  Its a picture of where we all should be headed.

If you don't grasp fully what he is talking about here, find a believer who is a combat veteran and talk to them about what this means.  We have many of them in our church family, and as I'm sure they would tell you, when soldiers are in a foxhole together they don't argue over the wording in their "mission statement" of debate for hours about their "values."  They lock and load, stand shoulder to shoulder, back to back, and do what has to be done--EVEN if what has to be done is to throw myself on a live grenade and die for the benefit of my unit!

That is the solidarity that Paul describes in the spiritual realm--ONE body, with ONE mind, striving TOGETHER.  In other words, moving forward, thinking and acting, not as several hundred people, but as ONE body under the Lordship of Jesus.  And everything I do as part of the body of Christ--every action, thought, and word--is either contributing to that solidarity, or destroying it.  

There is a reason we have euphemisms in our vocabulary like "laser focus."  I have to think if Paul were writing this letter in the 21st century with our knowledge of how to convert light into laser power, he might have expressed his desire for Philippi in this way: "I want all of you to be laser-focused, as I am, on the glory of Christ."

That's our task:  stand together in such confidence, contentment, and blessing that we are, together, able to rise above our own foci and help each other grow toward Jesus in the process.