Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Reaching The Shallows and Going Deep

I started reading an interesting book recently--The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. The premise is interesting.

One of the features of the human brain is "plasticity"--that means that our brains are capable of adapting, as they respond to constant stimulus. The nature of that stimulus has a huge impact on how our brains develop. And one of the major ways that our brains are stimulated has to do with information technology.

For instance, when the printing press was invented--a major information technology change-- the way that people received information resulted in a change to how brains developed. Rather than listening to information being spoken, the written word became accessible to the common person and then reading became the primary mode of learning. Perhaps the democratic revolutions that followed were inevitable results of the explosion of the printed page.

We are in the middle of a major information technology revolution. First computer technology, but then more importantly, online connectivity and smart phones have changed the way we receive information. We are constantly being bombarded with information in bursts--email, web pages, texts, tweets, Facebook, YouTube--and often a message of very few words are accompanied by compelling graphics and videos.

One of the results of the information technology revolution is a change in the way our brains operate. For instance, rather than reading books the way we used to, many young people are beginning to "scan" the pages of a book, their brains looking for pertinent information, like scanning a web page. The result is a shallower understanding of the topic.

Another implication has to do with how we relate to one another. Intimacy seems to have become public. Facebook pages, constant texting (and sexting) results in a kind of pseudo-intimacy in the public sphere.

All of this has implications for those of us who are seeking to bring the eternal Gospel of the Kingdom to a new generation.

One of the most important parables in Mark's Gospel is that of the Sower and the Seed. The Gospel message is broadcast into the culture and falls on four kinds of "hearers" that are compared to four types of soil. Some sewn along the path are so shallow that the enemy snatches it away before it can sprout. Some sewn in rocky soil begin to seed, but once again, the shallow nature of the soil results in instant withering of the roots. Some sewn among thorns and the cares of the world (could this be likened to the constant "noise" of the technology revolution?) choke out the plant. Only a few are sewn in good soil that takes in the message and it is able to root deeply. (Read Mark 4: 1-20).

The punchline of the parable is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4: 9). Perhaps a paraphrase would be, "Pay attention to how you listen to the Word."

I believe that the Evangelical church in America has a problem with "The Shallows." We have spent so much time learning how to "relate" to people in a shallow culture that we have sometimes made our message shallow. But we are called to be counter-cultural in so many ways. To be a disciple of Jesus is to go deep. You cannot be a follower of the Son of God in a casual, shallow way.

This has incredible implications for how we preach the Gospel and how we make disciples. A disciple must take the time to allow the message to sink deeply into the soil of their lives so that the full implications of the message have their intended transforming affect. This is why solitude, silence, meditation, contemplative prayer and study are necessary for the life of discipleship.

As we seek to communicate our message in a shallow world, we must learn to use the tools of modern technology to reach a new, online, wired generation. But let us also call people to break out of the shallows and go deep--listening attentively and thinking intently and being transformed into true apprentices of Jesus.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who Is Your God?

"When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing--they believe in anything."

This quote has been attributed to G. K. Chesterton, although there is no evidence that he actually wrote these exact words. In a book about Chesterton, The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton, by Ă‰mile Camaerts, he pulls this thought from an analysis of a Father Brown story by Chesterton. Still, I love the quote and I think it captures the whimsical heart of Chesterton's thinking.

Psalm 14: 1 says it this way, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" The Bible uses "fool" as a contrast to "wise" in all wisdom literature. It is not a mocking term, but an instructional term. The person who wants to walk wisely will avoid foolish things.

I recently wrote two blogs about the Divine Name, Yahweh ("What Is In a Name?" and "The One Who Exists"). This blog will be about the word for God in the Old Testament--Elohim.

God is not a name, but a description. It comes from the idea of Great Spirit--the Highest Spiritual power. And thus, Bill W. of Alcoholics Anonymous is not far off in asking people to turn their life over to a Higher Power.

Interestingly, the word is the plural form of Eloah, which itself means God and is only used a few times. Since I'm not an Arabic scholar, I can't be sure, but Allah may be etymologically related to this word. The plural form is most likely used to communicate the majesty of God (pluralis majesticus) rather than any hint at the Trinity.

Another word for God is simply El, which means Mighty One and, even though it looks similar, is from a different root. El was a name for one of the Canaanite deities. When the Old Testament uses it, it is almost always in combination with a modifier, probably to make sure the reader does not confuse the One True God with Baal. For instance, El Olam, which means the Eternal God. Or El Shaddai, which means Almighty God.

One of the key issues in the Bible is not whether or not God exists, but who is YOUR God? It is assumed that every person serves and worships something. Whatever that is, is your God.

The idols that were commonly worshiped in Bible times were derided as false gods.

For great is [Yahweh] and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all [elohim].
For the [elohim] of the nations are idols; but [Yahweh] made the heavens (Ps. 96: 4-5).

The Bible's logic is simple: How can someone think that something shaped by their own hands and their own artistry can actually be the God who created all things?

Who or what is your God? As Bob Dylan famously sang, "You're gonna have to serve somebody..." Is it your own bank account, or your physique, or your shiny car, or a celebrity, or even your religion?

You could say that the Kingdom of God is the condition where the True God is served as God. The promise is repeated throughout the Bible, like a string of pearls, leading us to their fulfillment at the end of the Book of Revelation: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with [humanity], and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be THEIR God'" (Rev. 21: 3).

Jesus showed us a life of completely devoted worship to his God. And through him, he has invited us into that same relationship. So who is YOUR God?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Call To Re-Formation

Recently I have spent a bit of time reading a blog entitled "One None Gets Some." Refer to my blog of January 10, 2013 entitled, "To None Of The Above." The writer, Corinna Nicolaou, says that she belongs to a growing segment of society that checks the "None of the Above" box when asked their religious affiliation.

Her blog documents her quest to visit each of the religious institutions in her yellow pages. As someone who has not grown up attending a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, she has decided to check them all out to find out what the heck is going on in there.

I find her courage, honesty and spirit of adventure to be inspiring and also instructive. As someone who grew up in church, I have forgotten what some of our practices look like from the outside.

It is kind of like my own house. The stack of filing that needs to be done is moved to an out-of-the-way corner and then forgotten until I have time to file. The little bit of chipped paint is relegated to "I'll paint over that this summer." The light that is burned out is ignored "until I can get to it." When I walk into my own home, I mentally edit out the clutter and see only a neat and orderly room. But if I bring a guest into my home, they take it ALL in, messy pile and all. Their impression is raw and unedited. "Wow. Mark is a bit of a slob."

When Corinna recently visited a church, she reacted to a rigid double-predestination Calvinism and an exclusionary communion practice (and a hint that Calvin justified slavery?). Hundreds of years of doctrinal reasoning and theological argumentation have gone into forming so many practices in our churches that we may not see the obstacle they can create for visitors. Dare I say it, even a stumbling block?

Now this has gotten me to thinking about the very nature of Corinna's search. She is checking out the institutions that have grown up as a result of trying to hold on to a vibrant faith. But over time, many of our practices have become so ossified that they are merely a caricature of the vibrant faith-filled realities that were present at their birth. In my blog entitled, "The Cut Flower Syndrome" (Nov. 30, 2012), I attempted to describe this phenomenon using a socio-political metaphor. Flowers that are cut and placed in a vase may retain their beauty for a while, but since they are no longer connected to their roots, they are destined to wither and die. Churches that are not vibrantly connected to Jesus may still retain the semblance of Christian life, but they are destined to wither and die.

And so I get back to Corinna's search. I begin to feel saddened at the prospect that she will visit a number of churches and never really hear the good news that "Jesus is the good news." That is, in Him, God Himself has arrived to bridge the gap and has made a relationship with God totally accessible. And when we turn from going our own way and place our trust and confidence and hope in Him, we enter into a new kind of life, eternal life. Not just in the future, but brought into the now in the person of Jesus.

Even worse, I am afraid she will not experience the Presence of God that can touch hearts and transform lives. She is conducting a consumer-reports exercise--kind of like rating restaurants. Oh, that she would begin to seek for God Himself. Jesus came to reveal the very heart of God to those who were shut out by the religious institutions of their day. May she encounter Him as well.

As a pastor who loves the Church, I speak with affection to my fellow pastors. May we ourselves turn from just trying to keep the veneer of Christian virtue alive and renew a vibrant relationship with the One who gives life and gives meaning to all the rest of our religious activity. Jesus is the root. Let's become so obsessed with knowing Him and experiencing His Presence that all else fades in comparison.

The Reformation is not something that just happened once in history. It is something that must continually happen. Let us be renewing our spiritual lives in Jesus as we allow Him to reform our churches.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The One Who Exists

Prior to reading this blog, you may want to read last week's entry: "What Is In a Name?" This one is a continuation.

The Divine Name, Yahweh, was revealed to Moses at the burning bush:
Moses said to God [Elohim], "...suppose...they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them? God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM [or I will be who I will be]. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM [or I will be] has sent me to you.'" (Ex. 3: 13-14).

Names in the Bible are significant and usually tell you something about the nature and character of the person. In fact, the naming of babies is often prophetic. For instance, Jacob was named for the way he was born. Although his twin brother, Esau, was born first, Jacob's hand was found to be grasping the heel of his older brother (Gen. 25: 24-26). Thus his name means, "he-grasps-the-heel." But his name also means, "the supplanter, or deceiver." And thus Jacob's name is prophetic for his destiny in supplanting his older brother and deceiving his father into giving him the blessing and inheritance of firstborn.

The changing of Jacob's name to Israel occurs after he is stripped of all his possessions and comes face-to-face with God (Gen. 32: 22-32) , the One who holds the real key to his blessing. Thus his new name is given, which means "he wrestles with God." A significant life transformation. No longer will he be known as the one who deceives and manipulates to get ahead. Instead, he is engaged in a struggle with God for his blessing and God promises that he will prevail.

The Name of God is very important in telling us something about who this God is.

First, since the root of the Name is the common verb, "to be," we can say that Yahweh is the God who Really-Is. That is, all other gods are fakes and are not real. Yahweh, as "the God who Really-Is," is a polemic against all other gods who are "Really-Nots".

Second, it says something about one of the key attributes of Yahweh. He is the One who Exists as an essential attribute. That is, He exists and it is impossible for Him not to exist. And since He is the Existent One, then all other things receive their existence from Him. He is the Creator, all else is created. This sets Him apart as Wholly Other than all created things.

Finally, He is the source and end of all else. "I am" or "I will be" means that it is His will that is supreme. Thus, He holds dominion over all else. Thus, the "Kingdom of God" is the ultimate resolution of all rebellion against Him. That is, His will ruling supreme is the inevitable conclusion of all history.

Spend some time meditating on The Name and see where it takes you.

P.S. This is my 100th blog entry! I began writing in October 2010 and I have found it to be helpful in expressing my thoughts. I hope you have benefitted. Please think of posting a comment to give me feedback or passing the link along to others. Also, if there is a topic you are interested in hearing me write on, please let me know. Blessings and here's to the next 100.