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Our Changing Church

Every church is changing. Even though the gospel is unchanging, every church is an expression of the gospel through their language, culture and time. But as the culture, language and time outside of the church continues to change, and each church’s cultural expression will fall behind if it does not change. No church that prevails in this culture can measure itself by other normal, or even “successful,” churches. Even growing churches tend to grow because they are “better” when compared with other churches, which means that often these churches grow because people transfer from other churches. There is some growth by conversion, but very little even in most growing churches. Continue reading Our Changing Church

Staff or no staff: the worst Bible “contradiction”

For 2000 years Christians have believed in the authority of the Bible as an inspired document. Christians have believed that God’s inspiration of the Scriptures has left us with a written word that is both infallible and inerrant. That is, that the original manuscripts of the original authors are inspired by God while simultaneously being the product of the intellect and personality of the human biblical author. This means that the Scripture is both the product of the writing of men and the inspiration of God. Yet, because Scriptures are inspired by God, they are fully trustworthy and without error in the original manuscripts.

To confirm or deny this belief, we can look and see if there is anything in Scripture that can be proven false or that is self-contradictory. Because of this, those who have resisted believing in the authority of the Bible have often pointed out passages that they believe are in contradiction to each other—what we might call “apparent contradictions.”

I have been considering dozens of these apparent contradictions for more than 20 years. In general, I find that they are very easily resolved and are not contradictions at all. However, the solutions to some are easier than others. The most difficult I have ever come across is the apparent contradiction of Mark 6:8 compared to Luke 9:3 and Matthew 10:10.

Mark 6:8-9 These were his instructions: “Take nothing for the journey except a staff—no bread, no bag, no money in your belts. Wear sandals but not an extra tunic.

Matthew 10:10 Take no bag for the journey, or extra tunic, or sandals or a staff; for the worker is worth his keep.

Luke 9:3 He told them: “Take nothing for the journey—no staff, no bag, no bread, no money, no extra tunic.

The apparent contradiction is that in Mark the disciples are instructed to take a staff, and in Matthew and Luke they are instructed not to take a staff. This appears to be as obvious and direct a contradiction as could be possible. Perhaps the best analysis of solutions to this problem is still the article “Staff or No Staff?” in the Catholic Biblical Quarterly by Barnabas Ahern from July 1943. Continue reading Staff or no staff: the worst Bible “contradiction”

Embracing your lot and toil

In the sermon on Sunday, February 4, I attempted to explain that as humans we crave meaning, and that Ecclesiastes teaches we must learn meaning from the bottom up like creatures, rather than from the top down like gods. Hopefully the reason for this is self-evident: we are creatures, not gods. Recognizing and embracing this reality is essential in our pursuit of virtuous freedom, which is a key element in our fight for joy.

One of the main themes of Ecclesiastes is that human life is “meaningless.” Yet it doesn’t mean meaningless in the way we normally use that word. When we say meaningless, we usually mean “without any meaning,” but that is not what Solomon means. The Hebrew word translated “meaninglessness” is a word that literally means “vapor.” If everything is vaporous, that means that it is insubstantial and temporary.  Consequently, if life is insubstantial and temporary, then pursuing it as though it was ultimate and eternal is foolishness. It is to pretend life is something that it isn’t. The word we used to use for this was “vanity.” And if you look at an older translation of the Bible, that is precisely how the word is translated.

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Think about it. What is the opposite of spiritual substance? Vanity. To treat what is insubstantial and temporary in life as though it is ultimate and eternal. You might reasonably think that the solution for this is to trust in God, and that is Solomon’s solutionbut not in the way we might think. He argues that the ultimate meaning of many of the things in our lives are not revealed by God, nor discernible by science, philosophy, or human reflection. He even goes so far as to say that we long for these ultimate meanings, yet we can’t reach them. He calls this the “burden God has laid on men” (Ecclesiastes 3:10) and he tells us that this frustration is for our healing and maturity. He says that “God does this so that men will revere him” (Ecclesiastes 3:14).

I think that means something like this: if we understood the meaning of everything from beginning to end, we would think that we were part of eternitythat we are ourselves the ultimate meaning. He says at one point when discussing wisdom that “God made man upright, but we have gone after many schemes” (Ecclesiastes 7:29). That is, we are not good enough for ultimate wisdom. We are idolaters who seek to ourselves be gods. Therefore, if we were able to figure out all of ultimate meaning it would destroy and damn us.

So God withholds it. He frustrates our idolatrous desire to understand all things in order to feel good about our lives. He allows us to believe in himself as a person, and then forces us to grapple with our creature-hood by embracing the ordinary. The vocabulary he chooses for this is our “lot” and “toil”: the real situation of our daily lives (lot) and the work of our daily purpose (toil).

We start with faith by believing in the God who holds in himself ultimate meaning. Life may be full of vaporous vanity, but God is substantial and completely worthwhile. Still, our faith in him does not give us access to all of his knowledge and therefore all of the meaning we desire. God calls us to discover our meaning from the bottom up, trusting him to reveal himself in the midst of our lot and toil. This requires enormous faith,  because he is demanding that we find meaning in precisely the thing we wish meaning would allow us to escape.

It is only in embracing our lot and toil that we will find satisfaction and happiness in the things that actually make up our lives as creatures. God claims that it is in this experience that we not only find joyful satisfaction; it is also where we find knowledge and wisdom. The pursuit of anything else is the pursuit of vapor. And the pursuit of vaporous vanity will never produce substance.

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Can I do this work any faster?

You might wonder if that means we can’t study, reflect and learn our way into satisfaction, wisdom and meaning. I think we can, so long as we do it while embracing the toil and lot of our real lives. In fact, this is precisely what the rest of the book of Ecclesiastes is. It is a series of reflections on what makes up our real lives and how we should engage with those things as creatures rather than as gods or idolaters.

There are a number of examples of how to embrace our lot and toil in the book of Ecclesiastes, and in this sermon, I talk about nine of them. I am not saying that there are only nine parts of our lot and toil discussed in the book of Ecclesiastes. These are just nine examples I have pulled out to demonstrate how we can combine study and reflection with the practice of daily embracing our lot and toil with joyful satisfaction.

I encourage you to listen to the sermon for these nine examples. Then, read the passages and reflect on them by journaling about how they specifically relate to you embracing the realities of your own real life. Don’t just think theological and philosophical thoughts. Think intensely personal thoughts focused on daily repetitive application. Some of those thoughts should be hurtful and humiliating. They should reveal how unsophisticated our sin often is. Some will also be a beautiful as we realize how much we have overlooked all that we have to be thankful for. Yet you must also trust that God is with you in every step of finding satisfaction in the lot and toil of your vaporous life under the sun. It is not only he who gives you this life, but is also he who “lengthens your days like a shadow” into eternity (see Ecclesiastes 8:13).


Edited June 1, 2018: Originally, I had promised to write nine blog posts about each of the nine examples of embracing our lot and toil throughout Ecclesiastes, but have yet to be able to get to writing these. Since I cover each of these examples in a sermon and haven’t followed up with the blog posts, I suggest listening to the sermon and reading them in the Bible for yourself.

Tiny, repetitive deposits of conviction

Vision is a good thing. Everyone needs a preferred picture of the future. It’s good to know the problem, the solution, and why we are the ones who should attack that problem now with the prescribed solution.

We all want our lives to be better, and vision gives us the encouragement that at least we know where to look. Without some kind of vision, the difficulties of our lives can feel like when you’re looking for your keys or phone and you have already looked everywhere. It’s easy to have hope that you will find what you’re looking for if you know you have some more places to look. But once you have looked everywhere, discouragement or panic sets in. Vision, at the very least, allows us to hope that there is still something that we can do to find the life we want.

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However, we need more than vision to accomplish something real and worthwhile. I heard Tim Keller use the example of a cavalry. Back in the day, someone would blow a trumpet and then the horses with their soldiers would charge. Vision is like the trumpet. If you don’t have something directing your strength, it won’t go anywhere. But to accomplish the vision, you have to have the strength of horses. It turns out, accomplishment comes from many disciplined, convictional, ordinary, faithful actions. Without these five components, we don’t accomplish even the smallest vision. Continue reading Tiny, repetitive deposits of conviction

Escaping Worldliness through the Pursuit of Joy

Throughout Substance as whole, starting in the very first chapter, I wrote that much of the confusion in our thinking comes from the structures of our thought and life and not from the ideas themselves. This is true when we talk about worldliness; it may be even more true when we talk about joy. We don’t really talk about joy, do we? We talk about happiness. Even when we say the word “fulfillment,” we don’t mean the fulfillment of some grand philosophical purpose for our being, we just mean that we feel full inside. We just mean “I’m happy.”

However, happiness is notoriously unpredictable in the human heart. It’s a little like seeing birds in the winter. It is extraordinarily difficult to capture a bunch of songbirds so that you can see them during the winter. But it’s not that hard to put seed in a bird feeder and watch them come. Happiness is the birds. Virtue is the feeder. This is one of the differences between “joy” in its comprehensive definition, and “happiness” as we commonly mean it.

Continue reading Escaping Worldliness through the Pursuit of Joy

The Virtue of Humility

Over the summer, we looked at the lives of the first kings of Israel: Saul and David. There were many differences between them. Saul was large and looked like a massive warrior. David was smaller, younger, and taught himself to fight as a shepherd in the country. Ultimately, they were both warriors and both kings. And in one way or another, they both believed in the God of Israel. But though they both believed in God, it would be wrong to say that they both put their faith in him.

In fact, the most fundamental difference between the two was a difference of the heart. This is what God explicitly says to Saul in 1 Samuel 13:14:

But now your kingdom will not endure; the LORD has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him leader of his people, because you have not kept the LORD’s command.

 

God made clear that David would be different in two ways. First, his heart would be for God rather than for himself, his own power, and his own survival. Second, David would obey the Lord, and if he ever failed, his repentance would be real.

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Continue reading The Virtue of Humility