Scripture: Handle with Care – by Amy Chase Ashley

Update (April 2017): I’ve gone back to update/clean-up the formatting in this wonderful June 2013 guest post from my friend Amy Elizabeth Chase Ashley, one of the most gifted students of Scripture with whom I’ve been privileged to study. She blogs at https://amyechase.wordpress.com/

Scripture: Handle with Care

Jeremiah 29:11

When I accepted the invitation to speak at my parents’ church, I immediately started thinking about what message I would deliver.  I decided to give a message on something that is very important to me after my four years at Cedarville and something I am very passionate about.  I hope it will be engaging; I hope it will make you think; and I hope it will bring glory to God.  If I can accomplish those three things, I will be satisfied.

The Scripture I chose is Jeremiah 29:11 and I’m guessing that most Christians could recite the verse from memory.  If not, once you read it, you’ll probably remember or recognize it.

“’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future.’”

This is a familiar verse for a lot of Christians.  My question today is whether it should be.

This might seem like a strange question, but I think you’ll understand what I mean soon.

So why is this verse so familiar to us?  Well, it’s used a lot.  Are you nervous about future uncertainties?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Are you starting a new job?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Graduating from high school or college?  Jeremiah 29:11.  That teenage girl had her boyfriend break up with her?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Car trouble that makes you late to work?  Jeremiah 29:11.  Lost your lucky pencil?  Jeremiah 29:11.

I hope you’re catching my sarcasm.

And maybe you think I’m exaggerating.  But I did a Google search for Jeremiah 29:11 and you can buy folders, clocks, plaques, keychains, mugs, pictures, bumper stickers, aprons, tote bags, iPhone cases, tshirts, pillows, bracelets, and even playing cards that have this verse on them.  It might be rivaling the 23rd Psalm after all that.   And I know for a fact that it can be found on countless greeting cards whether they be sympathy, graduation, engagement, or congratulatory cards.

- this is not a bag of trail mix you cant just pick out the p

I saw a meme on the internet the other day.  It was an image of the Bible, and the text said: “This is not a bag of trail mix.  You can’t just pick out the pieces you like and ignore the rest.”  I’m afraid that the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 demonstrates a bigger problem: we really are guilty of treating the Bible like a bag of trail mix.  Jeremiah 29:11 is an M&M that we pull out time and time again while we ignore all the peanuts and raisins and cashews and granola all around it.

Christians claim to have a high view of Scripture—that is, we say that the Bible is the authoritative, divinely inspired Word of God.  We are quick to use it to tell the world what they’re doing wrong whether that be gay marriage or murder or how to raise children.  We say that we live by what the Bible says, but I’m afraid that we’re often guilty of not even knowing what the Bible says.  For me, the widespread use of Jeremiah 29:11 proves this.

To demonstrate, does anyone know what Jeremiah 29:10 says?  No, because it’s a peanut.  Jeremiah 29:12?  Sorry, I don’t like raisins.  But I am feeling uncertain about this new job/relationship/house/baby/friend/responsibility/accomplishment/etc., so I like to be told that God has good plans for me.  I like to imagine him saying, “I know the plans I have for you…”

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(Un)Righteous Anger? – Yoda, Jonah, Nahum, and Us

(TEXTS: Jonah 3:5-10; 4:1-11; Nahum 1:1-8)

INTRODUCTION

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A great green theologian of old claimed that anger is based on fear, that it leads to hatred, and results in suffering. And while I do not wish to disregard the wisdom of a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I would like to take a closer look at anger as discussed in Scripture, and to consider what makes certain instances of anger righteous or unrighteous, legitimate or illegitimate.

This is a question that has been on my mind throughout my final year at Cedarville University. After hearing of a few rumblings at the end of my Junior year, I left for the summer and got myself married. When my feet finally touched the ground at the beginning of term, my university felt like a battlefield. I heard that Michael Pahl had been “reviewed” and then fired over the summer months. Others were being reviewed to see if they really did toe the doctrinal line, or if they were guilty of mind crimes against the thought police. And things didn’t get any better from there.

I saw the havoc that the Cedarville environment was wreaking on my mentors, friends, and their families. My leaders got rid of and harassed beloved members of my community, and then deceptively refused to own up to their nefarious actions.

I got angry. I spoke up. And I was convinced that my anger was righteous. Others were less convinced.

Some stayed poignantly and painfully silent throughout the chaos. Others repeatedly gave platitudes that everything was OK, that we were obligated to trust our leaders, that to question their actions was inherently disrespectful. And some from this latter group met my kind of anger with their own frustration and anger that I dared to criticize their beloved Cedarville.

I’d love to say that I met this opposition with nothing but grace and equanimity, but that wouldn’t be true. I frequently lashed out against these types of people – when they sent me long messages to accuse me of causing unnecessary dissentious strife, or when they parodied us student activists as complete morons with nothing better to do than cook up conspiracy theories.

My university’s behavior was sickening, but these people’s behavior was infuriating. I couldn’t comprehend how they could overlook the suffering I was witnessing and try to protect people who were clearly hiding the truth. So, at times, I lashed out in frustration. And I am convinced that my anger was unrighteous. But what’s the difference between these two types of anger?

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Unity?

The more I study the New Testament, I become more convinced that the unity of the Church is of utmost importance to God.

What bothers me is that this has never been taught to me before. All of the things I’ve learned (specifically in my studies on Philippians, Galatians, and now Romans) about the importance of unity for the sake of the Gospel mission and the Kingdom of God have come as somewhat of a shock.

It’s not that I’ve never heard about the importance of unity before. But when the topic has been addressed in the past, it’s amounted to little more than being nice to my friends…people who are already likely to be remarkably similar to me, people already within  the little camp of Christianity in which I have grown-up.

But it’s never been encouraged to spread to other Christian “camps.” Forget the Pentecostals, Anglicans, Methodists, Catholics, Presbyterians, etc. If the pastor’s feeling a bit edgy, we can partner with them on service projects, but unless the “others” get their act together, they are to be tolerated at best, and at worst ridiculed.

Instead, in my particular stream of Christianity, the focus has been placed on two things: doctrinal orthodoxy and moral purity.

Please don’t hear me wrongly, I am not denying the importance of either of these two things. God is meant to be known well, and to do that we must think, talk, teach, and speak about him well. Theology is not to be a shoddy enterprise, and we must constantly examine ourselves, aware of the shortcomings of our humanness, in the pursuit of understanding of Yahweh. Furthermore, Yahweh is a holy God. He hates Sin and Death, and if we are serious about following him, we must hate Sin and Death as well.

Christ calls us to live Genesis 1-2 lives in a Genesis 3 world.

But, wait a second. Go back and read that again. “Christ calls us to live Genesis 1-2 lives in a Genesis 3 world.” What popped into your head as you read that sentence? What should characterize that Genesis 1-2 kind of life?

I fear that, if you’ve inherited the same stream of Christianity that I have, unity and interpersonal relationships were not the first things to color your vision of what Genesis 1-2 would look like today. Instead, we (conservative evangelical North American Christians) are much more likely to think of living a morally spotless life driven by a flawless theology. With no sin to fetter us and lead us toward doctrinal laxity, we would be free to enjoy God forever.

We have flattened Christianity by focusing on these things at the expense of focusing on the rich vision of community and unity that we find in the pages of Scripture. Read Genesis 1-2. We were created to enjoy God, yes. We were created to live without sin, yes. But we were created to enjoy and be enjoyed by each other. We were made to know and be known. God’s perfect shalom included much more than moral purity and doctrinal orthodoxy. It included perfect relationships: with God, with each other, with our own “self”s, and with all of creation.

And likewise, the Fall of Genesis 3 broke relationships. It separated us from God, estranged us from each other, introduced discord within our own psyches, and infected the creation in which we dwell. Sin and Death were unleashed into the cosmos, and they have polluted and twisted every layer.

The call back to Genesis 1-2 therefore involves much more than right doctrine and moral purity. God is in the process of redeeming everything. And every time we cut his redemptive mission in half (or sometimes smaller), we do so at our own peril.

…toward the administration of the fullness of the times, to head up all things in Christ – the things in heaven and the things on earth. (Ephesians 1:10 NET)

I believe that God’s heart breaks over the lack of unity in his Church today. Is he pleased with the individual moral sins we love to emphasize? By no means. Is he pleased with bad theology? No way. But something is seriously amiss if we do not think that God’s heart breaks over the fragmentation within the Body of Christ.

What do you think about this issue? Why does this not bother us like it should? And most importantly, what can we do to address this problem?

Grace and peace,

~Josh

The Good News of Christmas

After reading The King Jesus Gospel: The Original Good News Revisited by Scot McKnight, who makes the claim that the gospel is the saving story of Jesus as Messiah, King, and Lord as the completion to the story of Israel, I started to notice some profound gospel messages in the Christmas carols we often sing during this season.

I have found that several of these carols go much deeper (much more biblical) than the personal salvation “gospel” of sin-management that we often preach and sing about. What’s tragic is that, even though these carols are quite possibly the best-known Christian songs, their familiarity (and the fact that we only break them out for 1/12th of the year), makes it quite easy to ignore their substance.

Christians, my brothers and sisters,

instead of allowing Fox News to persuade us that the “War on Christmas” is being fought in the stores when people say “Happy Holidays,”

instead of thinking that our Messiah’s main “sorrow” in December is that more people are not saying “Merry Christmas” more often…

…let us examine ourselves. How guilty are we of reducing our “King,” “everlasting Lord,” “Prince of Peace,” “Sun of Righteousness,” and our Messiah into an individual savior whose birth, life, death, and resurrection accomplishes nothing more than getting us into heaven when we die and helping us to manage our personal sins in the meantime?

Perhaps we should be more concerned with our emaciated versions of the gospel than with how we are greeted when entering and exiting our society’s temples to consumerism and greed. 

Please join me in attempting to look through the unfortunately and undeservedly trite familiarity of this song to see its portrayal of the gospel:

Hark! The herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King;
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise,
Join the triumph of the skies;
With th’angelic host proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Hail the heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings,
Ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die.
Born to raise the sons of earth,
Born to give them second birth.

Come, Desire of nations, come,
Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s conqu’ring Seed,
Bruise in us the serpent’s head.
Now display Thy saving power,
Ruined nature now restore;
Now in mystic union join
Thine to ours, and ours to Thine.

Adam’s likeness, Lord, efface,
Stamp Thine image in its place:
Second Adam from above,
Reinstate us in Thy love.
Let us Thee, though lost, regain,
Thee, the Life, the inner man:
O, to all Thyself impart,
Formed in each believing heart.

May your hearts and minds be set upon Jesus the Messiah, King, Lord, Savior, and Prince of Peace.

And may you all, in doing so, have a very Merry Christmas.

~Josh

Church and State

 

(Note: for a more recent piece on the relationship between Church and State, see my essay: “Improvising Church and State.”)

I just read an article by Kevin DeYoung at The Gospel Coalition: “Thinking Theologically About Memorial Day”. Listen to his intro:

This post probably has something to make everyone unhappy. But here goes.

With Memorial Day on Monday (in the U.S.) and, no doubt, a number of patriotic services scheduled for this Sunday, I want to offer a few theses on patriotism and the church. Each of these points could be substantially expanded and beg more detailed defense and explanation, but since this is a blog and not a term paper, I’ll try to keep this under 1500 words.

DeYoung goes on to cover five main points:

  1. Being a Christian does not remove national and ethnic identities.
  2. Patriotism, like other earthly “prides,” can be a virtue or vice.
  3. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country are not inherently incompatible.
  4. God’s people are not tied to any one nation.
  5. All this leads to one final point: while patriotism can be good, the church is not a good place for patriotism.

Overall, I really appreciate this attempt to arrive at a balance between those who simply baptize their American patriotism and call it Christianity and those who view every instance of patriotism as damnable idolatry. I loved DeYoung’s last paragraph:

In some parts of the church, every hint of patriotism makes you a jingoistic idolater. You are allowed to love every country except your own. But in other parts of the church, true religion blends too comfortably into civil religion. You are allowed to worship in our services as long as you love America as much as we do. I don’t claim to have arrived at the golden mean, but I imagine many churches could stand to think more carefully about their theology of God and country. Churches should be glad to have their members celebrate Memorial Day with gusto this Monday. We should be less sanguine about celebrating it with pomp and circumstance on Sunday.

In the end, while I want to avoid the extreme position of viewing every form of patriotism as idolatry, I think that American Christians too often give unthinking allegiance and support to the country in which we live. Without demonizing the country in which we live, the amazing freedoms which we are able to enjoy, and the men and women who have sacrificed to secure and preserve those freedoms for us, we need to always remember that we, if we belong to Christ, are ultimately citizens of a greater Kingdom than the United States of America. DeYoung has this to say about the compatibility of allegiance to God and allegiance to one’s country:

If you read all that the New Testament says about governing authorities in places like Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2, you see that the normal situation is one of compatible loyalties. The church is not the state and the state is not God, but this does not mean the church must always be against the state. In general, then, it’s possible to be a good Christian and a good American, or a good Ghanaian or a good Korean. Patriotism is not bad. Singing your national anthem and getting choked up is not bad. Allegiance to God and allegiance to your country do not have to be at odds.

Correct, allegiance to God and allegiance to country do not have to be diametrically opposed. Christians should live as respectful citizens of their respective nations. However, do we really believe that Ghanaian and Korean Christians are every bit as good as American ones? I know everyone’s going to say “yes,” but do we really believe this? What if those Ghanaian and/or Korean Christians don’t like the United States of America? Are they still as pleasing to God in our eyes, or does their righteousness depend on their support of the Red, White, and Blue? Because a lot of what I have seen/heard/experienced in the American church seems to subtly teach that our country is the best and most deserving of God’s favor. I retweeted the following recently:

I’m waiting for the Iranian and N. Korean editions of the Patriot’s Bible. http://www.americanpatriotsbible.com.

Why does something like this have the potential to upset so many American Christians? “Iran and North Korea are clearly more morally evil than the United States,” some will say. Maybe so, but since when does our country get to claim the right of being God-approved? Can Christians in Ghana sing “God bless Ghana”? Perhaps our reactions to tweets/messages/statements like the one above only prove the problem.

Before someone calls me a heretic or an anti-American, please know that simply questioning the American church’s commitment to the USA does NOT immediately make me into someone who burns flags and pickets soldiers funerals. That would be swinging to the other end of the spectrum, and I do not believe that such a dichotomy exists. If someone does not give unquestioning allegiance to the USA, it does not mean that they automatically align themselves with the crazies over at Westboro Baptist Church.

I am a Christian.

I am also an American citizen. I obey the law, salute the flag, am respectful of the men and women in the armed forces, grateful for their sacrifices, and thankful for the fact that I live in a country where I can enjoy unparalleled freedoms (such as writing blog posts like this without having to fear for my life).

…but I do not give my ultimate allegiance to the American flag, or any other national standard for that matter. I pledge my ultimate allegiance to Jesus the Messiah. And while most Christians in the United States of America would nod their heads and agree with that previous statement, I think that we all need to consider whether we are living it out or not. Will our church services on Memorial Day reflect this?

May our eternal and infinite God bless his global bride, his global people, his global Church as Christians from every tribe, tongue, nation, and language follow their true King, Jesus the Messiah.

~Josh.