Friday, September 30, 2011

Race matters

A few weeks ago the film The Help hit American movie theaters. It's the story of a young, intelligent, unprejudiced, Caucasian woman in Jackson, Mississippi in the early 60's who becomes a voice for the many disenfranchised African-American housekeepers in the South by writing an expose of their lives and oppressive culture. One thoughtful, critical review of the film can be found here.

In spite of The Help's valiant attempt to promote positive race relations by bringing us up close and personal with the plight of mid-century, Southern, African-American housekeepers, the film ultimately falls short of its fence-mending aspirations as it seeks to weave in Disneyesque, cutsey moments and humor which detract from the film's serious content. Also, numerous aspects of the film are simply historically implausible, like a book critiquing Southern white culture ever being carried and promoted in Jackson bookstores in 1964 (as the film displays). The Help also comes off as very two-dimensional, portraying the lead character as a freedom fighter who has completely left her racial prejudices behind (or never had any). Yet, as Christians we know too well the baggage, racial and otherwise, we all carry and use to subvert racial harmony. This film lacks the depth, complexity and seriousness which American race relations actually entails. Sadly, the result, I fear, is that many of my Southern, Christian friends who may need to apply the gospel more deeply to their racial prejudice, will see this film as just another attempt of ignorant, Northern, Hollywood-types trying to stick their noses in an issue they know little about. In that way, The Help, may in the long run do more harm than good.
Rather than a superficial, entertainment-driven film about race, what we need is a thoroughly biblical, honest and theologically robust treatment of racism from a Southern born and bred Christian who's been surrounded by bigotry, felt it in his own heart and stood on the other side as the white father of an African-American daughter. That's exactly what John Piper gives us in Bloodlines. In this just released book, Piper tells his own story of growing up in a Christian home in South Carolina in the 50's and 60's. He also takes us into the pages of Scripture to see how God's great story to create for Himself a pan-racial church from every tribe, tongue, people and nation has the gracious power both to expose our hidden (or not so hidden) racism, and redeem our racially prejudiced private stories. Whether you were born in Scandinavian Minot and think you have no racial prejudice or come from the deep South and think you're beyond it, if you're a Christian in America, you need this book. So do I.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

One nation under God?

This week's sermon is going to briefly touch on the danger of Christian syncritism, particularly our dangerous penchant to 'Americanize/patriotize' the church. I'll be giving some examples, but consider the accompanying painting called 'One Nation Under God'. Jesus holds the US Constitution and is supported by the likes of our soldiers, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and JFK. As an American and a Christian, what are your thoughts of this painting in particular and 'Christian art' which paints the church in distinctly red, white and blue colors in general?

Friday, September 16, 2011

A taste of Covenant Theology

Over the centuries, Bible scholars and theologians have recognized various ways of putting together the larger story of the Scriptures. One common way is distinguishing between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Another is distinguishing between the eras of Israel and the church. Back in June we surveyed the entire biblical story-line and broke it down into four 'acts' of the biblical drama: creation, fall, redemption and restoration.

A very similar way to think about the entire biblical story-line is built upon the various covenants found in Scripture. Most of us are familiar with the five most prominent covenants, those God made with Noah, Abraham, Moses, David and the New Covenant made by Christ. Sunday's text in Hosea 6 hints about a sixth foundational covenant which stands in contrast to all which follow it: a 'covenant of works' which God made with Adam in the Garden of Eden. This covenant may be new to some of you, so I'm making available a one page overview of the covenant of works for you to read through in preparation for Sunday's message. You can access it here. Hopefully, it will prove helpful to better understand and appreciate your place in the New Covenant in which we stand today by grace.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Two words for the guys

In the light of last Sunday's strong challenge from Hosea 4-5 for us men to boldly take up the mantle of responsible, spiritual leadership in the church and family, consider two opportunities:

1. 4:6 challenged us to deepen our knowledge of spiritual truth. For some of you guys, that means working hard to become a reader of the best books - books which really challenge your mind and help you fully grasp biblical truth. Let me commend to you the best book I read in preparation for my Hosea series: Love Divine and Unfailing by Michael Barrett. It is not a traditional, text by text commentary. Rather, it is a thematic and theological overview of Hosea which helps explain the covenantal connection between Israel's sin and God's grace. Barrett also helpfully explains how Christ is front and center in Hosea. It is not a long book, but it is rich and beneficial. I think this book could give us men the tools we need to most helpfully explain and apply Hosea to our families and/or small groups.

2. Taking spiritual responsibility for the women and children in our lives also means that when leadership needs are present in the church, it should be us men rising up and taking our places at the front of the line to serve. Among other places of service, that should be true for children's Sunday School. Out of our six classes planned for this fall, we only have teachers for three; and out of the eight teachers or helpers who will be dedicating their time to teaching, only one is a man. I'm thankful for the women leading our children, but where are the men? Guys, it's time to rise up, take responsibility and lead to the glory of God. If you're interested, please contact Wade Talley at or 721-2757.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Wondering about pagan cult prostitution?

No, that's probably not what's been on your mind lately. Nevertheless, this week's sermon in Hosea 4-5 brings it up. Particularly, 4:14 indicts young, Israelite women and men for their participation in that depraved practice. Due to time constraints (and wanting to be sensitive to the younger audience among us on Sunday morning), I thought it best to briefly explain here on the blog what ancient, pagan cult prostitution was to help you better understand it whenever it comes up in Scripture - which, in the Old Testament, is rather frequent.

The pagan nations surrounding Israel were polytheistic, i.e. they worshiped multiple gods. The most prominent gods worshiped were those believed to control fertility (human and agricultural) since their sustenance (via food) and continuance (via children) depended upon it. Two examples of pagan fertility gods with which Israel had contact were Ba'al (male) and Asherah (female).
Ancient, pagan fertility cult prostitution worked like this: A formal shrine/temple or informal 'high place' or 'sacred tree' was set apart as 'holy' by the pagan priesthood. To the place of worship people would bring offerings (food, wine and sometimes children). These gifts were brought in order to compel the fertility god or goddess to bless the land and wombs of the worshipers with fertility. It was believed that the fertility of the earthly land and human womb depended upon the sexual activity of the gods. The more sex Ba'al and Asherah enjoyed in heaven, for instance, the more rain would fall, the more productive the ground would be and the more fertile human wombs would be.
Consequently, pagan, fertility worship became bound up with encouraging the gods to 'get it on'. How to do that? So was born the belief that the gods were encouraged toward heavenly sexual activity by the corresponding earthly, human sexual activity between a worshiper and a priest/priestess/cultic prostitute. By the time of Hosea, pagan shrines were commonly equipped with a selection of young women or men who both received a worshiper's food/drink offering and made their bodies available for 'cultic sex' through which the worshiper could manipulate the gods to sexual activity which turned their fields/animals fertile as well as their wombs.
So, in simple fashion, cult prostitution followed the following process:
1. One's earthly fertility depended upon the gods' heavenly sexual activity.
2. The gods' sexual activity was generated by sexual activity with a cult prostitute.
3. Cult prostitution became a necessary part of creating a rich harvest and a full household.
Of course, such cult prostitution not only exploited young men and women, leaving a wake of emotional, physical and relational trauma, it degraded marital sexuality and mounted a frontal assault against the worship of God alone, which looked positively boring and restrictive in comparison. The devil always has his substitutes. They often taste tantalizing, but once swallowed their poison runs deep and deadly.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Where is your focus?

As Christians, we typically think we're doing well when we're focusing on 'Christianity.' But what we mean by that is our experience of Christianity. Elyse Fitzpatrick states it well when she writes,

"I tend to focus my thoughts on my Christianity - how I'm doing, what I'm learning, how my prayer time was today, how I avoided that pesky sin or fell into it again. I think about what I'm supposed to accomplish for Christ, and I interact with others on that same works-oriented ground. But this day isn't about me at all. It's about Him: His sinless life, death, resurrection, ascension and reign and the sure promise of His return. It's the gravity of His life that should attract me toward Him." - Comforts from the Cross, pp. 16-17
Though we all need times of self-assessment (e.g. 2 Cor. 13:5), often we run into problems when we go through life looking in the mirror - even the mirror of our Christian walk. When we do that, then when we're doing well, we're tempted toward pride; and when we're doing poorly, we're tempted toward self-pity and despair. We need the wisdom of Hebrews 12:2, "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith...."
So, where's your focus today? Make it Christ alone. Then, if you do well today, He'll get all the praise; and if you fall, His grace will be your hope.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Who does God help?

"I need help!" Over the past three months those words have been spoken by people in Minot perhaps more than any other. As one in need of skilled help with the reconstruction of my house, I know that feeling as well as anyone.

The Bible is clear that even more than help from other people, we need God's help. Hebrews 1:2-3 reminds us that Christ is the One through Whom God made the world and upholds the universe by the word of His power. Therefore, our need for Him is ultimate and constant. Without Him we would have no life, no breath, no purpose, no friends, no food, no joy and no hope. For all things we need God's help.

If you're a growing Christian you know that need, and you want God's help. You want Him to help you fight sin and learn to hate it. You want Him to protect you and care for you and your family and church. You want Him to help you live wisely and walk in the Spirit and bring Him glory. You want His help.

Will he help you? According to 2 Chronicles 16:9 we discover how to secure God's help with certainty: "For the eyes of the LORD run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward Him." Who will God help? Those whose hearts are blameless toward Him. But Jeremiah 17:9 says that "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick...." Hmmm. What are we to make of that?

If our hearts are naturally depraved and extensively so, then for whom are God's eyes searching to help, to strengthen and support since none of us qualify? I Corinthians 1:30-31 may give us a clue: "He is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Therefore, as it is written, 'Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.'" The gospel comes to our rescue here since we are unable to fulfill the standard which God set in 2 Chronicles for those He's looking to help. We are not blameless, but Jesus was. Not only that, Jesus was blameless in our place, covering us with the robe of His righteousness.

I arrive at two conclusions from this:

1. God is eager to strengthen and help those who delight in the blamelessness of Christ on their behalf. God helps those who remember, speak, live and feel passionately about the gospel.

2. Since every Christian - even when we're not delighting in the gospel - IS irrevocably covered by the blamelessness of Christ, God the Father blesses us with the fruit of His help (the promise of 2 Chronicles 16:9) based on our faith in His Son.

For a forgiven sinner like me, who needs a lot of help every day, that's very good news.