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Friday, September 30, 2011

Baseball and spiritual disciplines

I was finishing Tim Challies’ excellent book The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment and came across this paragraph:
Roy Halladay is the Toronto Blue Jays' ace pitcher and is one of the top players in baseball. Halladay has a well-established routine that begins as soon as a game is complete and continues until the next game has begun five or six days later. He has another routine that takes him from the end of one season to the beginning of the next. And, like many players, he has a routine that takes him from pitch to pitch. His off-season regimen, which prepares him for a long and grueling season of baseball, is legendary, and it readies more than his arm. To prepare his mind he reads The Mental ABC's of Pitching seven or eight times every season. To hone his concentration he carries with him a series of laminate grids filled with a hundred randomly numbered squares that he crosses off in order, from 00 to 99, with an erasable marker. "Every day that I'm not pitching, I'm doing something that's going to help me when I'm out there, not just vegging on the bench or in the hotel room," he says.[1]
This paragraph deeply challenges me. I have spoken of this matter in sermons and other occasions as I have previously read of and reflected on the example of professional athletes. Many are hugely disciplined individuals that have rigorous practices in their life that lead to their tremendous effectiveness. It always challenges me to think that if they can do that to more effectively play football, basketball or baseball, then why am I not more disciplined in my pursuit to be like Jesus. Why am I not more disciplined in my pursuit to transform this world for Jesus Christ? This provoked my to a great deal of writing and praying about how I might most strategically structure my life to accomplish God’s purposes.

For Roy Halladay, it’s pitching (or was, I don’t follow baseball enough to know if he is still active.) Is there one primary thing that God has created you to do, for which you need to structure your life to achieve your greatest possible effectiveness at this task?

[1] Challies, Tim; John MacArthur (2008-03-31). The Discipline of Spiritual Discernment (p. 153). Good News Publishers/Crossway Books. Kindle Edition.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Feeding a Hunger for Spiritual Progress, Part 2

Richard Foster argues in Celebration of Discipline that many believers do not experience transformation because they will not, don’t know how, or for whatever reason have not taken up the discipline of study. Even a person who honestly seeks to follow Christ may struggle with persistent areas of defeat because they will not take up this primary tool that God uses to transform our minds, which is another way of talking about whole life transformation.

As a young believer, I was often mystified by how I was to make spiritual progress. I attended worship, prayed, read Christian books, went to revival services, led worship, and even served on a church staff. However, I did not seem to make discernible progress toward growing in my love for God or my love for people, nor did I see much progress in the growth of the fruit of the Holy Spirit within my soul. Two primary spiritual disciplines made a substantial difference, both which I began to practice in my late twenties. One of these was the discipline of bible study.

I’m not talking about a small group bible study, or using a bible study guide as important as those things are. Rather, I am speaking of the systematic study, usually of a book of the bible over several weeks, primarily using just my bible and a notebook, or now my bible study software and a word document. I learned a simple verse by verse analysis method of study from a book written by Rick Warren in the mid 80’s.

The method has five steps:
  1. Summary
  2. Observation
  3. Interpretation
  4. Cross-reference
  5. Application

It’s often said that the difference between bible study and bible reading is a pencil, in my case a computer. Writing down observations and thoughts possesses surprising power. So I actually write a brief summary, either a paraphrase or a simple sentence diagram. Then I write observations. At this stage, I am asking, “what does the text say?” It’s not safe to answer what it means until I’ve looked carefully at what it says. Once I’ve done that step, then I can begin to interpret, asking the question, “what does the text mean?” I do this by bombarding the text with questions, which I write down and seek to answer if I can. Even if I can’t answer them immediately, there is value in  writing down the question. Then I look up some cross-references for the verse and paste them into my notes, to seek to allow scripture to interpret scripture. Finally, I ask, “how does this text apply to my situation?” Often when a person reads the bible, they are jumping straight to this step. I believe that God often blesses our bible reading with encouragement, challenge, or insight. However, if we never study at a more deliberate level, we are in danger of only engaging the text at a superficial level or worse, taking a text out of context and applying it to our lives in inaccurate ways.

This process seems to "make a movie of the text in my mind." I don't make the Bible come alive, it is alive, it makes me come alive. This process doesn't make the bible relevant for me now, it is relevant. This process of study more often not, makes the relevance evident to me in a way that transforms my life. For the past 20 plus years, the above steps have been my primary approach to studying a passage, whether for my own personal study or for preparing sermons. I hope to follow this post in two days with a recent example of a brief study I did and its results as I spoke with a group about the value of written bible study. 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Motives and worship

I’m studying the Old Testament book Zechariah. This morning in chapter 7, I encountered an interaction that contains a strong challenge regarding motives and worship. The prophet reports that the people sent men to “entreat the favor of the Lord,”
saying to the priests of the house of the Lord of hosts and the prophets, “Should I weep and abstain in the fifth month, as I have done for so many years?”
Then the word of the Lord of hosts came to (Zechariah): “Say to all the people of the land and the priests, When you fasted and mourned in the fifth month and in the seventh, for these seventy years, was it for me that you fasted?
Through the people’s 70 year exile in Babylon they had fasted regularly in the 5th month. God answers using a style Jesus would use so often, answering their question with a question of his own, “was it for me that you fasted.”

Such a simple string of seven words, all of them one syllable except one, but they cut sharply and convict powerfully.

This text has recalibrated me this morning. I spend quite a bit of time doing “spiritual” things: praying, reading scripture, studying scripture, attending worship, preaching, leading worship, and reading books to name a few. Over those activities this morning, I’ve sensed God saying to me. “Is it really for me that you are pursuing prayer? Is it really for me that you are attending worship? Is it really for me that you are reading the bible, that you are studying my word? I understand that this means, are you doing these things so that you may know me, are you genuinely seeking me, are you longing for me, is that why you are doing these things, or is it for some other reason?

The text goes on to imply that the people had not been fasting to seek God, rather it was an exercise in self-pity. These words from one of my commentaries on this text are tough:
God shifted the focus by questioning the sincerity of the people’s fasting and responding with a series of rhetorical questions. What had begun as a time of genuine contrition for sin and the suffering that ensues had deteriorated into a mere ritual performed legalistically. As commanded in numerous other passages, God enjoined the people to focus again on the heart-felt repentance that should mark any such commemoration. Barker adds, “They had turned it [the fast] into a time of self-pity for their physical condition, devoid of genuine repentance and moral implications.”[1]
Obviously, God is not against these activities, nor was he against fasting in speaking to the returned exiles. But this short incident shows, as do many other passages, that real religion, real Christianity first seeks God, to know him and to honor him. Second, such encounters must result in justice and mercy shown toward others, but that’s a subject for a different day. 

[1] George L. Klein, vol. 21B, Zechariah, New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: B & H Publishing Group, 2008), 215-16.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

My comments in worship on the 10th anniversary of 9/11

Today is Patriot Day, a day set aside for remembering the 9/11 attacks and of course today is the 10th anniversary of that awful day. The day provides a great opportunity for us to honor first responders, those who run into places and situations from which most of us run away. That day changed all of us individually and collectively, I think it’s fair to say, it changed the world. I suspect that over those days, we all felt a little less invincible, a little more wary, but I also remember great determination. It was a horrific day for everyone, but certainly more so for those who lost loved ones. But as God specializes in doing, he takes the absolute worst man has to offer and uses it for good. Perhaps many have forgotten the lessons of 9/11. I don’t claim to know them all and won’t attempt to list them, but I will mention one tipped off to me today in a blog post by John Piper. There he quoted C.S. Lewis who said that a time of war causes all to be more aware of death. That may seem morbid, but its actually very wise to have that awareness. We rarely have greater clarity about what matters in life than when we are at a funeral. It’s then that we remember what matters and what doesn’t. Most of the time we try to pretend that everything will always go on as it is now. But its not wise to live that way, because its not true. What is mature is to live life fully aware that everything we hold dear will one day change. The only way to face such a life with peace and joy is through a rock solid faith in the God who sees the end from the beginning.

John Piper quoted heavily from C.S. Lewis words on this subject in his blog post Saturday. I quote his entire post below. 
C. S. Lewis's words from his classic essay “Learning in War-Time," written during World War II, captured some of the powerful effect 9/11 had on those of us living half a century later. There is no question of death or life for any of us, only a question of this death or of that — of a machine gun bullet now or a cancer forty years later.  What does war do to death? It certainly does not make it more frequent; 100 percent of us die, and the percentage cannot be increased. It puts several deaths earlier, but I hardly suppose that that is what we fear. Certainly when the moment comes, it will make little difference how many years we have behind us.  Does it increase our chances of a painful death? I doubt it. As far as I can find out, what we call natural death is usually preceded by suffering, and a battlefield is one of the very few places where one has a reasonable prospect of dying with no pain at all.  Does it decrease our chances of dying at peace with God? I cannot believe it. If active service does not persuade a man to prepare for death, what conceivable concatenation of circumstances would?  
Yet war does do something to death. It forces us to remember it. 
The only reason why the cancer at sixty or the paralysis at seventy-five do not bother us is that we forget them. War makes death real to us, and that would have been regarded as one of its blessings by most of the great Christians of the past. They thought it good for us to be always aware of our mortality. I am inclined to think they were right. 
All the animal life in us, all schemes of happiness that centred in this world, were always doomed to a final frustration. In ordinary times only a wise man can realize it. Now the stupidest of us knows. 

We see unmistakably the sort of universe in which we have all along been living, and must come to terms with it.

 The Weight of Glory: And Other Addresses  [New York: HarperCollins, 1949], 61-62, paragraphing added.

Powerful encouragement for spiritual growth

A friend noted that my previous post dealt with the past tense aspect of sanctification and alluded to the reality that there are past, present and future aspects to it. I am currently studying Heb. 10 in preparation for a sermon next week. The early parts of that chapter speak to each of these aspects of sanctification. (You can see a detailed definition of the term “sanctification” at the end of this post if you are interested.) The following verse alludes to at least two of the three aspects.

Hebrews 10:14 (ESV) 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.

By a single offering Jesus has perfected for all time, that’s a finished and settled work. He identifies “those perfected for all time” as “those who are being sanctified.” The first action “perfected for all time,” is already completed, the second, “those who are being sanctified,” is clearly ongoing. However, Christ followers can take great comfort in that the outcome of their life is assured because it’s already completed, “he has perfected.” There is tremendous confidence in this. The outcome of the believer’s life is assured. This is the only real ground of hope that we could make any spiritual progress. Believers still have a responsibility to pursue spiritual growth. The promise that the job will be ultimately completed gives us confidence that we can make progress.

This is another place in scripture that cuts away at the thought with which many believers suffer that somehow they need to make themselves better or to perform better so that God will be more pleased with them. That’s not the way it works. Christ’s single sacrifice has perfected “those” for all time through a single act (his suffering on the cross) completed in the past that accomplished this purpose. In the sense of how God sees the believer, this perfecting work is completed already.

However, Jesus’ work does not result in immediate perfection in a believer’s life. A proper appreciation of these truths would never lead to the conclusion that “it doesn’t matter what I do now, sense I’m assured a happy ending.” No, or as Paul would say, “God forbid.” The more a genuine believer presses into these truths, the greater the longing created within him or her to grow in sanctification, to make spiritual progress, to grow in holiness. Perhaps it could even be said here, based on this text, that an evidence of genuineness in the faith is that this “being sanctified” is taking place. Spiritual growth in Christ is evidence that a person is truly in the faith. One way to detect spiritual growth is to see if there is growth in the fruit of the Holy Spirit, since only the Holy Spirit could produce those qualities listed in Gal. 5:22-23 love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

If you want to read more . . .

A key to understanding the above verse is to know what the word “sanctified” means. I’m pasting in two articles below copied from Logos.

A comprehensive definition of sanctification by the New Hampshire Baptist Confession (1833) states: “We believe that Sanctification is the process by which, according to the will of God, we are made partakers of his holiness; that it is a progressive work; that it is begun in regeneration; and that it is carried on in the hearts of believers by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the Sealer and Comforter, in the continual use of the appointed means—especially the Word of God, self-examination, self-denial, watchfulness, and prayer” (Article X).[1]

Here follows the entry for the root word of the word translated “sanctified” in the Complete Word Study Dictionary: New Testament. You may be put off by the Greek words, but I;m copying this in for the sake of those who might want to see the whole article. You don’t have to know Greek to understand what this says here, when you encounter a Greek word just skip over it, knowing that whatever follows it usually defines the term. 

ἁγιάζω hagiázō; fut. hagiásō, from hágios (40), holy. To make holy, sanctify.(I) To make clean, render pure.
(A) Particularly in Heb. 9:13.
(B) Metaphorically, to render clean in a moral sense, to purify, sanctify (Rom. 15:16, “being sanctified by the Holy Ghost,” meaning by the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit on the heart. See 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:26; 1 Thess. 5:23; 1 Tim. 4:5; Heb. 2:11; 10:10, 14, 29; 13:12; Rev. 22:11). Hoi hēgiasménoi, those who are sanctified, is a reference to Christians in general (Acts 20:32; 26:18; 1 Cor. 1:2; Jude 1:1). In 1 Cor. 7:14, the perf. tense hēgíastai, has been sanctified, refers to an unbelieving husband or wife who is sanctified by a believing spouse. The word “sanctification” here should not be construed to mean salvation. The unbelieving partner is set apart on account of the believing partner. The unbeliever comes under a special and direct spiritual influence and benefits from divine favor in the life of the believer. As long as there is contact, there is hope that the unbeliever will turn to faith in Jesus Christ. The point of the passage is that in such a marriage the believer is not defiled by the unbeliever, rather the unbeliever is sanctified by the believer.
(II) To consecrate, devote, set apart from a common to a sacred use since in the Jewish ritual, this was one great object of the purifications.
(A) Spoken of things (Matt. 23:17; 23:19; 2 Tim. 2:21; Sept.: Lev. 8:10f., 30).
(B) Spoken of persons, to consecrate as being set apart of God and sent by Him for the performance of His will (John 10:36, “whom the father hath sanctified, and sent into the world”; John 17:17, “Sanctify them through [or in the promulgation of] thy truth” [cf. John 17:18, 19]).
(III) To regard and venerate as holy, to hallow (Matt. 6:9; Luke 11:2; 1 Pet. 3:15; Sept.: Is. 8:13; 10:17; 29:23). Thus the verb hagiázō, to sanctify, when its object is something that is filthy or common, can only be accomplished by separation (aphorízō [873]) or withdrawal. It also refers to the withdrawal from fellowship with the world and selfishness by gaining fellowship with God.
Deriv.: hagiasmós (38), sanctification.
Ant.: koinóō (2840), to profane, call common or unclean; miaínō (3392), to stain, pollute; molúnō (3435), to besmear, defile; spilóō (4695), to make a stain or spot, defile; phtheírō (5351), to corrupt.[2]

[1] Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1988), 1898.
[2] Spiros Zodhiates, The Complete Word Study Dictionary : New Testament, electronic ed. (Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 2000).

Thursday, September 8, 2011

strong medicine for shallow thinking about God's forgiveness

Hebrews 10:9-10 contains an interpretation of an Old Testament quote the writer of Hebrews assigns to Jesus in describing his work of sacrificing himself. In verse 9 Jesus states that I have come to do your will, then verse 10 says, Hebrews 10:10 (ESV) 10 And by that will we have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.

There is something huge in this text. In our moments of immaturity, or perhaps just in moments of drifting away from God, and when we are tempted to sin, we can toy with this thought: “It’s ok if I go ahead and sin, I know God will forgive me anyway.” Understood properly, this section of Hebrews blocks that incredibly shallow and shortsighted thought. The entire book of Hebrews is the medicine to cure that sort of goofed up thinking, especially chapters 7-10 that are likely read through quickly and not thought about deeply, at least in my experience. These passages highlight the glory and the power and the effectiveness of the death Jesus Christ and greatly magnifies that to our hearts and minds. To simply jump to this wonderful verse that shouts, “we have been sanctified once for all,” may create the danger of drawing the terrible conclusion that it no longer matters what I do because I’ve been sanctified, I’ve been cleansed once for all. However, the deep reflection on the sacrifice of Jesus and the connection to the centuries of repeated sacrifices as prescribed in the Old Testament and the way that that magnifies Jesus act on the cross seems likely to effectively block that thought. It is true, those in right relationship with God have been sanctified, cleansed and set apart for God’s use, once for all with a clean conscience. This is all accomplished through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ. It is a wildly encouraging truth. But without the deep reflection that leads up to this verse, it could lead us to a shallow and disastrous understanding of the verse.