Thursday, April 30, 2009

Scripture We Like To Ignore: Mark 10:17-30, Giving to the Poor

Did Jesus really say, “Sell all you have and give to the poor?” Yes, he did – to a rich man who, claiming to have kept all the other commands, asked Jesus how to get into heaven. When the man left, feeling sad at the thought of giving away all he had, Jesus commented to the disciples that it was impossible for rich men to enter the kingdom of heaven on their own – it would be more likely for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye.

The rich man who came to Jesus was challenged to love God more than his own stuff. That’s a challenge most of us in the West are not willing to take. God might not call all of us to sell everything we have – in fact, other passages of Scripture suggest we should manage our money wisely so that we can provide for our families – but we are all called to give generously, to “share with God’s people who are in need” (Romans 12:13, NIV).

Greed is one of our culture’s most prominent sins. It has been twisted to become a virtue in the secular world and even within the church, where money is sometimes viewed as a mark of God’s favor on a person of faith. But Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor” (Luke 6:20, NIV). Philip Yancey, in The Jesus I Never Knew, points out several reasons why the poor are blessed, including their ability to recognize their dependence on God. Dependence on wealth will not get us to heaven, as Jesus told the rich man in Mark 10.

One way the rich are blessed, however, is in their ability to give – and being able to give is indeed a blessing (Proverbs 22:9, et. al.). One writer says that extraordinary gifts of God come for the purpose of filling extraordinary needs, and the Western world today has been given the extraordinary gift of wealth specifically so that we can help those who are living in extreme poverty. (I apologize for not attributing the idea – I have forgotten exactly where I read it.) We certainly have been wasting that gift!

If you are reading this post on a computer, you already have more than the rich man in Jesus’ story, even if you are considered middle class or poor in your own country. The current issue of A Common Place, the Mennonite Central Committee’s magazine, features the organization’s Food for All program. According to MCC, $38 can feed a seven-person family in Kenya for a month, while $20 can provide a school year’s lunches for a student in Zimbabwe. My family can spend that much on one dinner out!

Have you been using your financial gifts from God to help those in need? I know I could afford to be more generous.

Thanks to Diana at damascusmoments for suggesting this passage for my series on Scripture we like to ignore. If you have any suggestions for other verses Christians tend to overlook or underemphasize, please let me know.

Monday, April 27, 2009

A Review of The Noticer by Andy Andrews

Jones, the title character in The Noticer by Andy Andrews, must read a lot of Christian nonfiction. His plentiful advice, which radically changes the lives of the other characters in the book, seems to come from the pages of books like The Five Love Languages (but only after being stripped of elements that make the advice distinctly Christian).

It’s not clear which parts of this “based-on-a-true-story” book are fiction and which are not, especially with Andrews himself appearing as a character. In the end, it doesn’t matter much, as the numerous characters are there mainly to create situations and conversations that allow the mysterious Jones to offer platitudes (he calls it “perspective”) that would, in real life, be unlikely to have the revolutionary effects they have in the book.

The Noticer can serve as a sort of Cliffs Notes for readers who want the basics of Christian pop psychology for every occasion but can’t quite digest a book without some hint of a plot. It offers a feel-good quote or two for everyone, but not enough substance to really help anyone.

This review is written as part of Thomas Nelson’s Book Review Bloggers program: If you have a blog and love to read, check it out.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

A Child's Best Friends: The Wonderpets?

The children’s cable channel Noggin has an ad campaign stating, “They just learn best when they’re with their best friends.” (I looked for the ad online but can’t find it – if anyone else can, please post the link here or send it to me!) The adults delivering the lines are thrilled to talk about what their children are learning, but I can’t get past the fact that a channel is touting its fictional characters as children’s “best friends.” It makes me sad for those children – can’t they make any real friends?

Then I realize that I sometimes feel like I know television characters better than real people. Watching them interact is less messy than making real friends– they are always doing something interesting, no one has hurt feelings when someone else makes a funny but hurtful remark, and I never have to worry about finding the right thing to say or do in awkward or difficult circumstances. Plus my television friends are never too busy to hang out with me. It’s easier to have pretend friends than to make real ones.

I can’t say whether having television friends is the cause or effect of having fewer or shallower real friendships, but hearing fictional people called “best friends” is a great reminder that I need to get my kids and myself out more. We need to get to know real people with real joys and real hurts.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Scripture We Like To Ignore: I Timothy 2:9-15, Women in Church Leadership

Christians don’t ignore I Timothy 2:9-15 in the same way that we ignore the others I’ve been writing about. Quite the opposite – most Christians know about these verses and have strong feelings about them. Instead, this passage is the elephant in the room – we ignore it because no one wants to cause dissention by talking about their views on the issue.

People on both sides of the debate over women in church leadership tend to dismiss the other side’s beliefs and write them off as less Christian – either because they are “suppressing the work of the Holy Spirit” and “oppressing women” or are “not taking the Word seriously” and are sinning by “being too worldly” and “refusing to submit.” Few people are willing to have an open discussion about whether the Bible does, indeed, prohibit women from being leaders in the church.

When discussing this topic in a religion class at my Christian college, my favorite professor gave us a general guideline for interpreting Scripture. If the passage in question is still an issue in our culture, we should interpret it literally. If it is not an issue, the principles can be applied to similar situations. So, for example, the passages that tell us not to lie or murder are literal and timeless, while those about eating meat sacrificed to idols were meant for first-century Christians and can be applied to things like drinking alcohol today.

The question is, into which category does I Timothy 2:9-15 fall? Many contemporary Christians say the passage, particularly verse 13 (“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.”[ NIV]) was meant for a specific time, but the appeal to Adam and Eve in verses 14-15 makes me think that this particular command is a timeless one. By contrast, verses 9-10, which prohibit gold jewelry and braided hair, are examples to illustrate the original command of verse 9 to dress modestly. Gold jewelry and braided hair are no longer considered immodest, so I could apply the overall command to today’s standards and avoid wearing tight micro-minis and low-cut crop tops.

Supporters of women in leadership often point to the deaconesses mentioned in the Bible. What about them? For one, the term “deaconess” does not appear in any of the most common Bible translations. I have little to support this argument, but I believe that the women mentioned in Scripture whom some call “deaconesses” were not necessarily church leaders but played other vital roles in the church’s ministry.

So, if I am correct that women still should not “teach or have authority over a man,” how does that play out? I would understand it to mean that women should not be in any positions where they might be able to make decisions by which men must abide and should not be preaching from the pulpit or teaching adult Sunday school classes. Following this idea logically, I still have some uncertainty about the application of the verses in other circumstances:

What about women in charge of a church’s children’s program, where their main purpose would be leading and teaching children but they may be required to hold authority over male teachers?

What about small group leaders? In our current small group, it is a woman who “leads” by asking questions from a book. But is she really teaching , or is she enabling a discussion? Should the book itself be considered the teacher? If so, does that limit what kinds of books Christian women can write?

What does it mean for a woman to “be silent” in church? Can she sing? Can she pray out loud? Can she offer her opinion in group discussions?

What about parachurch organizations? Can a woman be the director of a pregnancy care center? I believe that women could hold some of those positions, but only if the rest of the staff members are women. So does that require reverse discrimination, in which men are not hired for lower positions because they would be working under a woman?

What about secular roles of leadership and authority in business or education? I personally struggled with this issue when I taught at two local post-secondary schools and had men as students. Should Christian women avoid taking jobs that put them in charge of men, and should Christian men refuse to work under women in secular businesses? If so, should men quit existing jobs if women are hired as their bosses and women quit if men are hired to work under them?

Maybe I am splitting hairs, but I believe that it is important to understand how we should apply Scripture to our lives on a practical level. I would love to hear your opinions. If you believe women should lead alongside men, how do you interpret the referral to Adam and Eve? If you believe that it is not biblical for women to be in church leadership, how would you answer some of the questions above?

I am writing a series of posts about Bible passages Christians tend to overlook or underemphasize. If you have any suggestions for any ignored Scriptures to include, please let me know!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Making Other People Work on Sundays

Christians are notorious for flooding restaurants after church services. I have even heard pastors joke about keeping sermons short so that listeners can beat members of another congregation to a popular restaurant. Eating out after church provides an opportunity for extended fellowship and helps Christians avoid the work of preparing and cleaning up after a meal on a day that is usually set aside for rest.

But what about the restaurant employees? Are we forcing them to work on Sundays by going out to eat? Should we be?

My family occasionally eats out on Sundays, and we often walk around the mall, go bargain hunting at local drugstores, or go grocery shopping on Sunday afternoons. I bothers me that I’m making others work on Sundays, even those who wouldn’t go to church anyway, but I hate to miss out on the free-after-rebate deals that are sold out by Monday, and walking around the mall is one of my husband’s favorite forms of relaxation.

As for grocery shopping, sometimes finding time to shop on another day is more stressful than actually going on a Sunday. We tend to schedule any full-day family activities for Saturdays (our normal grocery shopping days) because church takes a half-day of our time. Our pantries are nearly empty by the weekend, and when we do have a busy Saturday, we have to find some time to go shopping – Sunday afternoon tends to be the most convenient.

I’ve heard some arguments that partially relieve my guilty conscience about making others work Sundays. I wonder if I’m rationalizing, though, when I remind myself that the store would be open even I didn’t come. So far, the best argument I have heard for patronizing businesses on Sundays is the impossibility of going to the logical extreme – if I don’t want anyone else to work on Sunday, I couldn’t go to the emergency room, call the fire department, or even turn on a light one day a week.

I wouldn’t advocate reinstating the blue laws that required stores to remain closed on Sundays – after all, not everyone worships on a Sunday – but I would like to do something to honor those that prioritize worship over commerce by staying closed one day a week. I would also like to see Christians doing something more to promote a slower pace of life one day a week.

Any ideas?

Thursday, April 16, 2009

How Can Parents of Young Children Observe a Day of Rest?

One biblical command I still haven’t quite figured out how to follow is the Sabbath, or day of rest. I know some believe the Sabbath is an Old Testament ideal abolished by Christ, but it seems to me that we still do need a day of rest – if God rested at Creation and Jesus regularly withdrew for long periods of rest, why shouldn’t we? Plus, Christ told us that the Sabbath was made for us (Mark 2:27), so it must benefit us somehow.

But some jobs just don’t allow for time off – farming, for instance. And parenting young children. Really, how can I go an entire day without feeding my children, changing diapers, preventing them from hurting each other or burning down the house, cleaning up major messes, making sure the kids get adequate sleep, teaching them, and helping them keep busy? It’s just not possible to avoid working when parenting is your work.

I asked this question once during a class at church when we were discussing observation of the Sabbath, and the teacher’s response was that these actions are not my work but my “daily responsibilities.” I don’t buy it – how can the most difficult job I’ve ever had not be work?

So, I’d love to know: how do you observe a day of rest, especially if your job is one that doesn’t allow for time off?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Scripture We Like To Ignore: I Corinthians 6:1-8, Lawsuits Among Believers

“Know your rights!”

“Get what you deserve!”

“Injured? Call…”

With a major biblical emphasis on denying ourselves and serving others, you might think that Christians would have a lot to say about our culture’s hyper-concern about personal rights and a court system flooded with people demanding compensation for times they were even slightly wronged. But the church is remarkably silent on these issues.

Using secular courts to defend the helpless certainly has its place, and our freedom to speak and worship freely should also be defended in the courts, but Christians shouldn’t be as concerned with being wronged as most people are. In Deuteronomy 32:35, a verse quoted twice in the New Testament, God tells us to let vengeance up to Him.

As a whole, believers are no different from the rest of the world when it comes to taking others to court, often over relatively minor issues. Even worse is when Christians sue each other. We Christians don’t agree on everything; we shouldn’t expect to. However, I Corinthians 6:1-8 specifically tells us to settle our differences within the church. Making our internal battles public makes the church look bad in front of non-Christians. Who would want to be a part of a group with so much infighting?

This passage reinforces my belief that we really have a need for Christian arbitration services, something that may not even exist. (If you know of any, I’d love to hear about them!) Why aren’t we taking advantage of the wisdom of Christians who are willing and able to help others make peace with each other? Arbitration promotes reconciliation, keeps private matters private, and lessens the burden on our nation’s courts. It makes a lot of sense.

I am writing a series of posts about Bible passages Christians tend to overlook or underemphasize. If you have any suggestions for any ignored Scriptures to include, please let me know!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Christian Conversion in The Associate

I just finished The Associate, the first John Grisham book I’d read in several years. I mentioned earlier that I would consider The Testament an example of Christian fiction, and now I’m wondering whether more of his books should fall into that genre, too.

The Associate isn’t a particularly notable book overall, but it does include one of the best treatments of a conversion to Christianity I’ve seen in any novel. The characters speak and act naturally, the conversion is a vital part of the plot (not just something tacked on to make the book acceptable to the Christian crowd), and the resulting life change makes a realistic difference in the outcome of the book. The conversion matters, but it doesn’t solve everyone’s problems (quite the contrary!) or cause all the characters to come flocking to Christ. Grisham has managed to accomplish what few Christian writers have been able to: making faith an integral part of the story, just as it should be in real life.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Scripture We Like To Ignore: Matthew 28:20, The Rest of the Great Commission

It’s been said that the verses after famous verses are often the most overlooked. How many people can quote John 3:17, anyway? Matthew 28:20 is a great example. After receiving such a big assignment as making disciples of the whole world (not to mention baptizing them) in Matthew 28:19, no one wants to get more work! But the sentence in Matthew 28:19 isn’t even complete. Matthew 28:20 finishes the command: “…teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (NIV).

We all know that the Bible has a lot of commands. No new convert could possibly be aware of them all, unless he had grown up under the teaching of a good church but had avoided making a decision about following Christ for many years. That’s why it’s important not only to tell others that Jesus loves them and wants to offer them forgiveness but also to teach new believers how to live in such a way that honors Christ.

Some definitions of the word “disciple,” particularly those that look back to the Greek, focus on the learning aspect of discipleship. Because a disciple is someone who learns, making disciples absolutely requires teaching. After all, can someone truly be committed to a belief when they don’t even know what all that belief entails? (I think Seth Green is a very funny actor, and his presence in certain movies has given them a place on my list of favorites. But can I call myself a fan when I’ve only ever seen him in about a dozen of his 100+ credited appearances and have never watched Buffy the Vampire Slayer or Family Guy, two of his biggest hits?)

Teaching takes time. It’s not easy. But it’s commanded. Evangelism as we have come to understand it is only a small part of the Great Commission.

I am writing a series of posts about Bible passages Christians tend to overlook or underemphasize. If you have any suggestions for any ignored Scriptures to include, please let me know. Many thanks to Amy C. for suggesting this one – I’m sure the church you are planting will include much sound teaching and make many disciples!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Understanding God

I have heard some agnostics say that they don’t believe in God or Christianity because they simply can’t believe in something they don’t understand. This argument makes little sense to me because there are so many things in life that even the smartest people in the world can’t completely understand and yet believe in:

How can air support the weight of a jumbo jet and water support the weight of a cruise ship?

How did ancient people build the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Great Wall of China without modern tools?

What causes a person to be sexually attracted to specific people but not to others who are attractive to someone else?

How can a baby develop from only sperm and an egg?

How can an imaginary number be necessary for many real calculations?

Why do we park on a driveway and drive on a parkway?

Put another way, even intelligent children are too young to understand much of what their parents do. Yet children are much more like grown-ups than humans of any age are like God. God is, well, God. He is not human; He is immeasurably more. How could we possibly understand Him? We should be amazed that we can understand even as much as we do.

"’For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,’ declares the LORD. ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts’” (Isaiah 55:8-9, NIV).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Scripture We Like To Ignore: I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9, Qualifications for Church Leadership

When choosing lay leaders and pastors, most churches consider the potential leaders’ beliefs, spiritual gifts, and evidence of spiritual fruit in their lives. These characteristics are important, but many churches overlook the additional qualifications laid out in I Timothy 3:1-13 and Titus 1:6-9, which include a few things we like to ignore:

  • A husband of only one wife (which, read together with Mark 10:11-12, seems to rule out not just polygamists but also men who married their current wives after divorcing others) – the wife must be temperate, trustworthy, and respectable but not be a gossiper
  • Not quarrelsome or overbearing, but self-controlled, gentle, and temperate
  • Not a lover of money, not a pursuer of dishonest gain
  • Having children who are believers, who are not considered wild, and who obey and respect their parents
  • Not a recent convert
  • Able to teach
  • Respectable and having a good reputation among outsiders
  • Hospitable

How many of your church’s leaders fit all of the qualifications in these passages? Many churches today choose leaders who do not fit the qualifications stated in Scripture because it seems impossible to find someone who does. Some churches simply ignore the more divisive issues (such as divorce/remarriage and love of money) in order to preserve unity and avoid offending members of the congregation who don’t meet these elevated standards.

Could it be that such church policies demonstrate a lack of faith? If God gave us these guidelines by which to choose human leaders, He is certainly able to provide us with enough people who meet His qualifications.

I am planning to write a few posts about Bible passages Christians tend to overlook or underemphasize. If you have any suggestions for any ignored Scriptures to include, please let me know!

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Family Guy and Pepsi: Shooting at the Wrong Targets!

The American Family Association recently called for a boycott of Pepsi because the company advertised during an episode of Family Guy: “On March 8, PepsiCo helped sponsor Family Guy, a perverted and sickening television program on FOX network. PepsiCo helped sponsor the program which pushed the homosexual agenda and denigrated Christ. At a ‘straight’ meeting, the speaker talks to gays about Jesus and tells them, ‘Jesus Christ, who hates many people, but none more than homosexuals.’”

I am not a fan of Family Guy, but I do believe it is meant to be satire, which means that the show is portraying an exaggerated version of Christians as many people see us. The problem isn't the show or the sponsors but the church itself, which is somehow communicating the message that God hates specific people – not that He loves each of us so much that He sent His son to die for us, as John 3:16 teaches.

The tone of the AFA’s email adds to this message – its loaded language suggests that Christians (and by association, Christ) are against everyone and everything. I cringe whenever I read statements from Christian organizations that portray homosexuals or other groups of people as enemies. Yes, I believe homosexuality is a sin, but it is no worse than heterosexual sex outside of marriage – or lying, pride, or greed, for that matter (James 2:10-11). Everyone would be my enemy if I hated anyone who ever practiced those sins! (Not to mention that Ephesians 6:12 teaches that people are not our enemies.)

Instead of worrying about the sins of unbelievers, we Christians should be taking care of the sins in our own lives. When we see Christian characters portrayed as spewing hateful anti-gay messages, we should look at ourselves rather than television producers and sponsors. Sadly, the church as a whole has failed spectacularly in showing the gay community the love of Christ. Rather than taking care of the physical and spiritual needs of the gays and lesbians we know, we sever friendships and hold up signs declaring “God hates gays.” (What a lie!) Could it be that our sin is worse than theirs?

As far as it depends on us, we are to live at peace with everybody (Romans 12:18). By treating homosexual people with respect and not acting as though their sins were worse than hers, Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner managed to live at peace with them – she was probably better loved in the gay community than in the church. Yet, several of her obituaries (including this one) point out that she always believed homosexuality was a sin.

It is possible that some of your gay and lesbian friends and family members will not forgive you for simply believing that what they are doing is a sin. But it is more likely that if you have broken relationships with the homosexual people in your life, you have somehow expressed that you believe their sins are unforgiveable.

Needless to say, I will not be boycotting Pepsi. Instead, I will be praying that God will remind me of any time that my actions have suggested to anyone – especially the gay men and lesbian women I know – that God hates them, and I will be asking forgiveness for that sin.