Thursday, April 28, 2016

Why Go to Church?

Why should believers go to church? There are a lot of excuses one could give for blowing it off:
  • Church folk are nothing but hypocrites
  • Their idea of worship is not my idea
  • All they do is ask for money
  • It's too irrelevant, too loud, too impersonal, too ________...
  • I am not genuinely needed, wanted and won't be missed
  • I've got better things to do
  • When else can I shop or do my household chores?
There are some reasons, which traditionally have been offered, as to why we should go:
  1. to maintain social cohesion
  2. because of necessary, clerically performed rituals within the context of structured liturgies
  3. to derive a benefit from what is offered there
  4. because it's the "right" thing to do.
I submit that none of the suggested excuses for not going, nor most of the traditional reasons cited for doing so are valid. They are mere rationalizations without any spiritual merit.

The scriptures tell us that together we are the body of Christ, and the dwelling place of the Holy Spirit. So...
We gather as the church because we are connected with unseen bonds.
We gather as the church because we acknowledge the truth of how God sees us (as one in Christ).
We gather as the church because we need the gifts of others and we need to be the vector of gifts for others.
We gather as the church because the Bible tells us to do so.
If someone is so disillusioned with church that he or she doesn't want to go anymore, that one should do some serious soul searching. Has he or she been going for the right reasons in the first place? Has that one given his or herself fully to being a benefit to the church rather than deriving a benefit from it? Does that person believe that God changed his mind about this whole issue?

If someone is not motivated enough, or too occupied or distracted with discretionary things to go to church, he or she needs to change. Church exists because God selflessly loved us enough to do something about our lostness. Christ has called us to himself and to each other for all eternity. If we're not grasping that and are capable of treating church like we treat the choice of which grocer to use, we don't understand Jesus--not his plans for us, not what he calls us to, and not what he's making us to be.

Maybe we don't truly believe in Jesus at all! 

I am a pastor committed to church, but I have also been a lay person going to church reluctantly. I know what it's like to go to church hoping for inspiration only to find frustration. I know what it's like having a bad week and wanting to hibernate, or what it's like to have an option that seems better to the flesh. I even know what it's like to feel as if you've disappeared into the background of an impersonal institution and that it's of no use anyway.

I also know that the trying of our faith brings forth a peaceable fruit. In life on this side of eternity nothing is perfect. Church is not, church people are not, and pastors are anything but. Despite all that brokenness, perseverance in church going is God's will for us. When we faithfully commit to it, despite the drama and flaws, we become a blessing to others and blessing comes back to us.

Wait a minute... blessing in the midst of brokenness... on second thought, that sounds exactly like what something that's of Christ should look like on this side of eternity.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Worship As Fellowship

"...I am like a green olive tree in the house of God; I trust in the lovingkindness of God forever and ever. I will give You thanks forever, because You have done it. And I will wait on your name, for it is good, in the presence of Your godly ones.   Psalm 52:8-9  NASB

Psalm 52 is a study in contrasts. It begins looking at the evil person (as summarized in v. 7) and ends looking at the faithful, godly one. The boasts of the two are contrasted, as is their desire, their faith, and the reaction they get from God. A remarkable feature of the godly one is that he gets to hang out in the presence of God with other godly ones and worship. 
Worship as fellowship, imagine that!

Worship is fellowship with God

The faithful one is cast as a green olive tree in the house of God. That would seem a rather passive symbol, but there's much to recommend it. It is green, which means it is full of vitality. It is a tree, so its place is its place of abiding--trees don't come and go--it dwells in God's presence. It is an olive tree which means its fruitfulness provides oil which produces both sustenance and light.

An olive tree planted in the Temple grounds is in the happy situation of dwelling in the light of God. There it flourishes as a result of hanging out in the presence of God. It has abundant life flowing within and productive life blossoming and ripening without. It is alive as live can be, resting in the lovingkindness of God, but is there any action? 

Yes, there is--praising. "I will give you thanks" (as in the NASB above) would probably be bettered rendered as "I will praise you" (as in the NIV). The Hebrew word underlying the English translation comes from a root which means "casting" or "throwing" and which came to be used figuratively of the act of praising. In worship we cast our thanks, we cast our wonder, and we cast our submission to or upon God. 

When the faithful one is fellowshipping with God, planted like a tree in his presence, that one showers God with love and gratitude. Not a surprising response, given the wonder of who God is, it could hardly be helped. To fellowship with God is to break out in praise. Maybe we could jump to the conclusion and say by extension: to truly worship is to fellowship with God.

Worship is fellowship with God's people

That green tree planted in the temple of God is not alone. Others are present as well, godly people looking to God. Praise can be done alone, but is not something reserved for solitude. As for the individual, so too for the group: faithful people in the presence of God can hardly keep from breaking forth in praise. To truly worship in congress is to fellowship with God and man.

I think our fellowship with one another is missing something without genuine worship being part of our shared experience. Not all of our fellowship has to be centered around worship, but it is a dynamic that is healthy for us as individuals and as a body. Together, we are the temple of God. Worship is our fellowship.

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Worship as a Response to God

Like all things truly spiritual, worship doesn't have its source in the innate goodness or wisdom of the human being. Would mankind even have a notion to worship, let alone worship along the lines God desired, without some impetus from God? I don't think so. True worship, as I see it, is something that results from the Spirit's input into the sons and daughters of Adam's race.

"Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the sons of Israel; and Aaron spoke all the words which the Lord had spoken to Moses. He then performed the signs in the sight of the people. So the people believed; and when they heard that the Lord was concerned about the sons of Israel and that He had seen their affliction, then they bowed low and worshiped."   Exodus 4:29-31 NASB

Worship is inspired by hearing God's word. Faith is inspired along the same lines: it makes sense that worship would be part of the package. When the Holy Spirit attends the Word of God, so that the human can hear it with perception, understanding dawns on that person and response to God's word becomes possible. Faith is the primary, necessary and effective response, worship is the consequential one.

It is not the mere fact or existence of God's word which elicits a response, but the content. A later prophet would seem to rely on the same factor. When the Holy Spirit attends the Word of God which reveals that God has plans for people, plans to prosper them and not harm them, people touched by the message respond. Among other possibilities, they worship.

Followers of Jesus have such words from God. Since they are, by definition, spiritual people capable of spiritual appraisals, Christians would be expected to be people who exude worship in response to such promises. Christians unmoved to worship, Christians unresponsive worshipfully to God's goodness, or Christians unbowed before the mighty and merciful God would seem a contradiction in terms. Christians who don't worship might not be Christians at all.

Worship finds inspiration in the acts of God as well. The crucifixion and resurrection of Christ are perhaps the most notable among the acts of God, but they are not the only ones that inspire worship. Past acts other than those, and present acts serve to inspire worship too. Any act of God that communicates that God is with us, that God is for us, and that he has seen our misery and is concerned for us inspire those that believe to bow down in worship.

When one hears God's words of concern and promise and sees God's acts of deliverance and blessing, and believes, worship in response to God is practically automatic. So, listen to the words of God and see his acts of wonder and let a reaction rise within you and spill out as worship.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Worship as an Expression of Faith

Worship is about homage. It is the respect or regard paid to that which has power over one's life. Not everyone would acknowledge belief in the supernatural, but I think everyone worships something. Everyone give props to that which they see as having the power to affect their lives for good. If one truly believes in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, worshipping him is just part of that package.

"God is spirit, and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth."         John 4:24  NASB

Worship is really an expression of faith.

At its heart, it is a reach, a stretch, wherein a person of conviction dares to seek and see God as he is. God is breath (spirit) and so he is beyond the physicality of this world and all that's in it. His essence is the essence of the soul, of personhood--self-awareness, consciousness, purposefulness. Therefore, that seeking which is worship must engage those same qualities within the seeker. That which is spirit must be worshipped in spirit.

Worship cannot be circumscribed by the merely physical nor the superficial.

Historically, Christian worship has fallen short in both regards. Arrangements of "furniture," postures of bodies, and recitations and intonations done virtually without thought have very little to do with worship. The contemporary fixation with worship as entertainment or a perfunctory preliminary is no better, maybe even worse. The very essence of our spiritual being must be engaged in seeking and revering God, or all we've done is gone through some empty motions.

The very essence of who we are as persons must bow before the very presence of the person of God in order to worship.

Worship is, literally, "kissing towards" the object of reverence, which by use referred to bowing or prostration before the worshipped; that is, doing obeisance or acknowledging superiority. So, at its heart, worship is about surrender. If we have not come to a point of surrender to God, deep in our souls, we have not worshipped. Worship, such as this, is not a duty that can be done from a distance, it can only be accomplished "up close and personal."

Worship must be sincere.

There's no place for illusion in worship. Often the reference to truth in John 4:24 is misinterpreted to refer to fact and logic (i.e., knowledge), as if true worship engages both emotion and intellect. Certainly, heart and mind are part of what makes a human essentially human, but the reference to truth in this case has more to do with integrity than it does to knowledge. Possessing a theologically accomplished mind doesn't qualify one as a worshipper to any degree whatsoever, whereas honestly bowing down does.

Though our publications and practices would seem to suggest it, it has not been left up to us to fashion what worship of God could or should be. Oh, people can do that sort of thing, but they shouldn't expect the result would be considered worship by God. Jesus has told us, clearly, what God is looking for in worship, and what worship of God must be. Worship is an expression of faith, it must come from the essence of what we are as people, it must express surrender to God's authority over us, and it must be unfeigned.

If what you call worship isn't accomplishing this, it's not worship.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Timing of Guilt and Forgiveness

Guilt and forgiveness occur in two different frames of reference and sometimes are out of sync as a result. We feel remorse for our sin and the need for forgiveness in real time, it's felt in the present like a dagger to the chest or a weight upon the shoulders. Guilt is experiential in the moment. Forgiveness, on the other hand, is past perfect--fully established by something Christ finished in the past.

Guilt, when it is our experience, is our experience until another one supersedes it. Our heads may understand the principle of vicarious sacrifice and the mechanism of forgiveness finished in the past, but our hearts feel guilt and remorse in the present and do so until they are alleviated. A battle rages between our minds and our hearts on the subject, because there is a difference between knowing something intellectually and feeling it emotionally. Believers in Christ can end up feeling shameful before God, even ostracized from him, despite knowing about the cross.

When Christians focus on their feelings of guilt they become prey for the enemy, who seeks to drive a wedge between them and God, ultimately to undermine their faith in God's forgiveness. Believers under the weight of guilt are on the edge of doubting their status before God. On the other hand, believers who are presumptuous, and ride roughshod over conscience, can undermine their own faith, sin against the grace of God, and wind up in the same place anyhow. God help us!

Guilt is not a necessarily bad thing for a Christian, but I think it takes an experiential revelation of forgiveness for it not to be so in the long run. That doesn't mean we're not forgiven if we don't feel forgiven, or even that we're not forgiven until we confess our sin and ask. Forgiveness was attained on the cross and sealed by the resurrection. It's a fait accompli. The one who believes in Christ and what he accomplished through his passion is forgiven regardless of confession or feeling.

But given the timing of guilt and forgiveness, there will be occasions when the believer will have to hold on to the facts of forgiveness with an iron grip until the feelings of guilt crumble and give way to those facts. Sometimes guilt must hang on the cross of Christ until it dies.

Friday, March 25, 2016

The Open Door to Heaven

"After these things I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven..."      Rev 4:1 NASB

The Apostle John looked up after his visionary experience as an amanuensis, saw an opened door in the heavens and heard the now familiar voice of his visions calling to him, presumably, through it. We're not told what caught his attention first: the appearance of the opened door, or the voice beckoning him. It really doesn't matter. A new phase in his visionary experience was beginning, and its significance would soon be apparent.

The opened door in the heavens most readily signifies access to what normally would be inaccessible to mankind. In this particular instance that represents access to two things beyond human purview: 1) the throne room, or very presence, of God; and 2) the future. God has to open the door to the experience of either, or the heavens remain closed. So, even though it is not specifically mentioned in the text, that door had to have been opened by Jesus, a key bearer who opens what no one else can open or close.

Doors, opened or closed, serve a variety of roles in the Apocalypse, but the basic concept is the same regardless--doors represent a barrier only authority or power can open. There are doors only God can open (like the one in question), and there are doors that God does not (cannot?) open. That would seem an odd thing, a door barring God, but the Apocalypse represents such a thing existing. Jesus stands knocking, in that case, waiting for the invitee to open the door. The implication for monergism, perseverance, and the whole of Calvinism is troubling, to say the least.

"Come up here," though in the form of a command, was more along the lines of divine commentary and was specific to John (singular). It cannot be related to the Rapture, nor really, to anyone else's access to God or heaven, whether by prayer or other means. Immediately, John was transported beyond the door into the midst of whatever it was opened to reveal. The surroundings were obviously symbolic because God (the Father and the Spirit) were represented tangibly when they are actually incorporeal, and Jesus was represented as a lamb rather than the corporeal form he has taken.

The purpose of John's visionary translation was to find out what things take place after the things he had already been shown. Those things were contained in the opening vision of Christ and the Letters to the Seven Churches. It stands to reason, it seems to me, that this particular sequential characteristic undermines viewing the Letters as representing successive ages of the Church. Instead, the Letters, all of them together, must have had reference to something that could have been existent in the time of John and before the bulk of what is revealed as happening afterward according to the stated purpose of the command.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

When Something Dawns on the Mind of God

There is life outside of this universe. God lives that life. His life existed when the universe did not, and would still exist if the universe dissolved into nothingness tomorrow. God is, everything else is made by him and exists at his pleasure. Therefore, there is something in and about God which has nothing whatsoever to do with creation, and which creation does not affect nor which creation orders.

God is perfect. He is entire within himself and in need of nothing. His perfections were as they were without creation, they are what they are upon creating, and they are what they would be if creation ceased to be. Therefore, God's perfections are not reliant in any respect upon creation. It could come and go but God would be the same.

When God created the universe and established something other than himself, of necessity, changes occurred within him due to his relation to that reality. That reality could have nothing to do with his perfections or else he wouldn't have been perfect apart from creation. The changes that reality caused upon its coming into existence, likewise, could have nothing to do with his perfections. So even though God does not change in regard to perfection, change is still part of his experience.

Before or apart from the decision to create, God had no relation to creation. If that reality was in his mind eternally (as would be the case on Essential Omniscience, Determinism, or Molinism) but undone, he would have been less than perfect apart from creating. He would have needed to create in order to fulfill that unfulfilled ambition, or to instantiate that knowledge in his mind which had no source in existence. Therefore, when creation did not exist God had no knowledge of it--there was nothing to know.

In his eternal perfections apart from creation, he did not know creation, created beings, nor the things that created beings did. Once he decided to create, he knew creation entirely. He knew created beings and all the things created beings did, completely, utterly, exhaustively. He did not and does not know them because he pre-conceived them in distant ages of eternity, but that in instantiating what he did conceive he knew them entirely through his omnitemporal omniscience. He knows them from the the foundations of the world.

God can change in regard to thought or notion and still remain eternally perfect, as odd as that might sound. It is not at all necessary that God would have to know everything about creation before he conceived it and said, "Be." Theological conceptions which deny the first and insist upon the second lead to bizarre conclusions. The picture of God gets painted with inappropriate colors (as in Calvinism) and/or self-descriptions the Holy Spirit inspired in the Word of God get denied (as in Impassibility) as a result.

That something dawned on the mind of God (like creating), and represented a change for him, which affected him, should not be too difficult a concept to grasp given the testimony of scripture.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

What Is and Isn't In the Mind of God

God is omniscient which means he is all-knowing and all-seeing. He doesn't have to discover a thing, or even think through a thing, he "already" knows it. That being the case, can God be surprised to any degree? Surely, there is nothing of which God is not completely aware of and thoroughly comprehending from all eternity--or is there?

If God was thoroughly acquainted with evil before or apart from creation, then I submit that evil did not find its genesis in creation but in God. In that case, God did not "discover" it in creation, for evil was part of his thoughts quite apart from the existence of creation. It would have found it's way into creation reflectively rather than formatively. That seems an impossibility to me because evil is intrinsically at odds with God.

By Christ's argument, a house divided against itself cannot stand, so neither could God stand if he was for himself (good) and against himself (evil) within his own thoughts.

Therefore, evil could not have been in God's conceptions apart from those which instantiated creation. Even then, it could only have been so in general terms; i.e. "if we make creatures in our image they will do as they will rather than as we will." If evil was a subject thoroughly plumbed in God's mind apart from creation, then God's thoughts would be of evil to some extent and he would not be good, and he would not be pure. The evil that ended up being produced in the minds of mankind would exist as a reflection of the mind of God who made them rather than as an negative consequence of freewill.

Evil is a consequence of freewill, but it cannot be intrinsic in the created, pristine possessor of that freewill without it indicting the creator for it. Adam and Eve were created good and upright. Evil came their way afterwards, when they opted for their own wills instead of God's will (evil=anything against the will of God). Evil is only possible if there is a freewill apart from God's, but evil does not actually exist until (and unless) freewill is exerted in opposition to God.

A mind endued with such freewill would be transparent to God in all its evil, once it existed, because he is omnitemporally omniscient in regard to creation. Furthermore, all the minds that would ever come into existence would be transparent to God in all their evil, once creation was in place. However, if God omnisciently knew the evil thoughts of mankind from all eternity, that is, apart from creation being put in place, it would mean that something which could not come from God's own thoughts (they're not evil) and which only came into being temporally, informed God's knowledge eternally.

If God is pure and holy as the Word avows, and he actually regretted making mankind and was astonished at the depths of Israel's sin as presented in his Word, it is impossible that evil (whether his or ours) was part of his personal, eternal knowledge. The knowledge of evil, by necessity, is confined to and informed by the decision to create man in his image. If God had not created, he would not have any knowledge of evil. The existence of evil demands that God be aware of it by observation rather than by cogitation.

We may live in a universe that is quantumly frothy, but it seems to me that we must be careful in our explications of God's omniscience to accurately describe what is and isn't in the mind of God, lest we suggest something that would, by necessity, annihilate itself.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

A Moment In the Mind of God

We experience, act and think sequentially, in a time-bound fashion, which seems to demand that the entire concept of change be placed squarely within the domain of time. God is not time-bound and sees omnitemporally, and yet presents himself to us within creation as one experiencing change. The paradox is confusing to say the least. Nonetheless, unless we are willing to discount God's self-revelation in scripture, it's a paradox we should accept as true.

I've written previously concerning God's experience of the moment within creation. His timeless experience of the moment in creation means that he's not only always here now, but that what was then is now and what is to be is now for him. We wait on time to unfold--past opening up to present, present becoming future. God sees the beginning from the end and the end from the beginning. He sees all things in motion through time, at once, and he interjects throughout time to affect and influence where things go, at once, and leaves no scar on time to trace that he ever did so.

It is not necessary that he dreamt all this up in the misty ages of eternity, as if he always, forever had a plan to create, and then decided to instantiate it in the moment of creation. He need only to have had a thought and said "be," and in that instant all was what it is in all its time at once before him. From his perspective, all stuff, all time, all the us there will ever be came about with one all-wise, all-seeing, all-knowing decision (or perhaps six day-long decision). The thought that precipitated that decision has not passed: this, right now, is that thought, not the echo of it as it would be if he had to perceive it through the long ages of eternity before he acted.

Really, that precipitating thought was the only one necessary for God to have undertaken regarding all creation throughout its time. Extended pre-planning, meticulous preparation, experimentation, and trial and error were not necessary to bring creation into being. God is wise enough, knows enough, is powerful enough, and is unaffected by time enough to put all this into play, and to still allow creatures free will within time. We are in that moment, the very same moment, and the only moment within the mind of God that produced all creation and in which creation is sustained.