It has been a little quiet here on the Futon Reformer Blog for quite some time. Part of that is the business of ministry. The other reason I haven’t written much here lately is that I have been writing for the blog Vintage ’73. Vintage ’73 is collaborative blog that focuses on life the Presbyterian Church in America. I have been privledged to write for the site and I would encourage you to go check out their articles. I wrote the most recent article on the site about what we can learn from James K.A. Smith.
A few days ago, I posted a picture of a demerit from my Bible College days. It got a ton of comments and took a bunch of us on a walk down memory lane. The comments were fascinating in showing the different places and perspectives that my contemporaries have gone since leaving our fundamentalist Bible College. In fact, if the demerits were aimed at helping us stay in the fold of fundamentalism, their track record is spotty, at best.
At the same time, since Thanksgiving I have seen a number of post about the Elf on the Shelf. If you are unfamiliar, the Elf on the Shelf is a recently published book (2005) that takes the whole “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” thing to a whole new level. The idea is that you put a small stuffed elf on a shelf or mantle in your house and tell the kids that he is watching for Santa. The elf reports back to Santa his findings and if you are good you get toys, etc. The idea, at first blush, seems innocent enough. After all, Santa already sees you when you are sleeping, whats a creepy little elf going to hurt.
Actually, maybe a lot.
Many Christian parents may gravitate towards the idea of the Elf on the Shelf because it seems like a good way to keep the kids in line. After all, it is tough to have kids behave. I know that more than anyone I know. If I am home alone with my kids, it usually sounds like this, “Guys, guys stop. Hey GUYS, Let’s not do that. Please don’t, seriously. Boys, what?” But when we use something like the Elf on the Shelf, we may be accidentally instilling the wrong ideas in our kids.
When we aim to fix our kids actions,we will miss their hearts.
That was the problem for me and demerits. I was really good at not doing anything that would get me written up. I could check off boxes with the best of them. The problem was that my heart was cold and angry. So all the nice and helpful things I was doing amounted to nothing more than a stench in the nostrils God. Just because we do the right thing, doesn’t mean that we are obeying God. Isaiah gives us a vivid picture of this:
Bring no more vain offerings;
incense is an abomination to me.
New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—
I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly.
Your new moons and your appointed feasts
my soul hates;
they have become a burden to me;
I am weary of bearing them.
(Isaiah 1:13-14 ESV)
He is after something more. Christ is after our hearts. This is what Christmas is all about. Jesus gave up all the pleasures of heaven. He left the Father’s right hand and was born in the terrible conditions of a barn and trough. Did he do this because he knew we would do the right thing? No, while we were still enemies of God, he died for us. He pursued our hearts.
So perhaps instead of an Elf on the Shelf this year, maybe we can put a nativity there. And we can tell our kids that God is watching us. He knows if we have been bad or good. And even though we have been bad, gave us the gift of His Son anyway. What if we told our kids they would get presents no matter how naughty they were? What if we went after our kids hearts, not just their behavior.
We all know how difficult it is to take time to spend in private worship. It is incredibly hard to set aside a consistent time to read our Bible. And yet at the same time, we all know how beneficial it is to spend time alone with Christ. Hearing Jesus speak to us through His Word is the delight of the Christian. It is the salve to our souls. It is rest for our weary hearts. And so most of us live on a roller coaster. Knowing how badly we need to spend time with Christ, but struggling to carve out that time.
Through out the history of the church, men and women have written guides to help us with this problem. Some of the oldest Christian literature we have are lectionaries, setting out a daily structure for scripture reading. In the early 1900’s, a twist on the lectionary was born, the devotional book. Oswald Chamber’s My Utmost for His Highest has been one of the most beloved christian books of all time. In recent years, books just like it have become legion.
So what sets Heart of the Matter apart from other daily devotionals?
First of all, the writers of Heart of the Matter are fantastic. From Paul David Tripp to David Powlison, all of the folks from CCEF pitch in. If you are not familiar with these authors, this book is a great way to get familiar with them. Each devotional reading includes a text from scripture and is followed by a mediation signed by the author.
Secondly, having multiple authors helps with monotony. It is easy to get into a rut hearing just one voice. Heart of the Matter is great because each of the authors has their own style. Each day brings a fresh perspective and a fresh voice.
Third, Heart of the Matter is a book that deals with real life. With passages drawn from books like Recovering from Child Abuse, Grief, Depression, I’m Exhausted, Freedom from Resentment, and How People Change; each devotion connects to us where we are. Most devotions avoid any specifics so they can relate to a larger audience. The authors at CCEF know the sins that so easily beset us all and root them out, specifically.
Finally, Heart of the Matter is gospel focused. This is not a collection of guilt ridden passages encouraging you to “try harder”. It is a series of devotions that encourage you to run to Jesus and His cross. This devotional takes very seriously the hideous sin that lies hidden in your heart, and beckons you to run in repentance to your loving father.
I can not recommend this devotional highly enough. You can pick it up through New Growth Press for just under $20. This would make a great gift for Christmas and would be a great way to start the New Year. Or you can win one of two copies we are giving away. Just comment on this post, or share the link on twitter and Facebook. That means you can get up to 3 chances to win. The giveaway will end at midnight next Friday!
Next week, I will be featuring a review of the New Growth Press family devotional called, “Old Story New“. Leading up to that, I thought I would share some of my adventures in family devotions.
While I was in seminary, I had to travel between Tampa and Orlando. This trip made it necessary for me to find somewhere to crash on the nights between classes. I was grateful to my friend Adam and his family for putting me up and putting up with me. Adam had a great family who I grew to love. I learned so much from Adam and his wife, Val, about being a parent. As an only child, I was always a little scared of kids.
With all the slobber, mispronunciation, and blind trust, who wouldn't be scared.
So as I would spend time at Adam and Val's house, I had the chance to watch the way they had family devotions. At exactly 8 every night, their kids (at the time, a 7-year old girl, 4-year old boy, and 2-year old girl) would gather around the couch. All electronics would be turned off and they would have their family devotions together.
I can remember the first few times I saw them gather as a family, I was a little weirded out. The intimacy that I was being let into was not something I was accustomed to.
And yet Adam and Val would gather their remarkably well behaved children to the room. They would read the Bible, work on memory verses, sing songs, and pray together. The kids never acted up. Even Grace, the 2-year old, seemed to actively participate. It was like a magic Jesus utopia of family time. They made it look so easy.
After I got over the awkwardness of watching this all from the sidelines, I resolved that when I had a family, I would do things just like Adam and Val.
I am sure that my memory is selective, but I wanted my families devotion times to be just like theirs. Which was the perfect plan…
…until I had kids of my own.
Tune in later this week to hear about all my failures!
So the other day, someone asked about the difference between baptism by immersion and baptism by sprinkling. I responded with all of the typical arguments, but something struck me that I had never thought about before, Pentecost. In Luke's account of Pentecost (in Acts 2) we read of Holy Spirit descending in power on Apostles. From this they go out into the city preaching the Good News of Jesus Christ. Peter stands before the crowds and preaches and incredible, bold sermon and then this happens:
So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41)
What a sermon! What an outpouring of Holy Spirit! But then it struck me. The Apostles baptized 3,000 people in a day! Unfortunately, many of our translations blunt the sense of the Greek text which makes the “baptizing” and “adding” parallel ideas. So that those who received the word were “baptized and added” on that day.
I have seen a number of megachurch baptisms and the logistics of mass immersions are staggering. I have watched on youtube (of course churches with mass baptisms would put them on youtube!) and been impressed at the administrative architecture that it takes to pull of several hundred baptisms in one day.
But several thousand…
And it got me thinking about the math. Let's assume that the selection of Matthias brought the number of Apostles back up to 12 (remember Judas is already dead). And let's assume that there is a pool of water large enough for 12 men to simultaneously be conducting baptisms, perhaps the Pool of Siloam. And let us also assume that surrounding this water is enough room for 3,000 people to cue up for a baptism. Let's assume all of that as a given.
On top of this, we must account for the time factor. Most immersionist also require a profession of faith prior to a baptism. This ends with the minister saying something like this, “Then on the basis of your profession of faith, I baptize you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.” Even if everyone was brief, it isn't unreasonable to think that getting into the water, giving a credible profession of faith, and then proceeding out of the water would take around 5 minutes per person.
So we have 3,000 people being baptized by 12 Apostles, averaging 5 minutes per baptism. That means that each Apostle would have to baptize 250 people. At 5 minutes a piece, that would take 750 minutes if you were incredibly efficient and didn't take snack or potty breaks.
That's 12.5 hours! Can you imagine being at the end of this line?
Now we also know that the early church often had converts give their profession of faith by reciting a baptismal creed. And despite the name, we know that the Apostles didn't write the Apostles Creed. But even if we conjecture that they were able to repeat a formula, not give an off the cuff testimony, we are still looking at 3 minutes a person, which, at best, cuts our time down to 7.5 hours.
The logistics of a mass immersion at Pentecost push the boundaries of reasonableness. Could Holy Spirit have organized the orchestration of such an event? Sure, He absolutely could have. But is there another possible answer from the pages of scripture?
Yes, there is.
At Sinai when the people renewed the Covenant with God, Moses did something strange. He took the blood of the sacrifices and used half of it to baptize the people of Israel. Check it out in Exodus 24:8,
And Moses took the blood and threw it on the people and said, “Behold the blood of the covenant that the LORD has made with you in accordance with all these words.”
It is certainly not a trump card for baptism by sprinkling, but the scriptural way to make sense of the massive baptism movement at Pentecost is to mirror the Old Covenant's mass baptism at Sinai.
Either that or the Apostles, not UPS, coined the phrase, “It's Logistics.”
One of the things I have grown to love about using the lectionary as a Bible reading plan is the daily use of the Psalms. Over the past few years, Christ has spoken to me in such tender ways through the Psalter. The confidence in God’s provision that the authors proclaim bolsters my faith. The round refusal to give in to pressure to serve the idols around Israel, is a constant reminder to keep the faith. The intimate ways that the Psalmist work through their repentance has been a guide to me time and again.
There is however, one thing that I get tripped up on in the Psalms. Whenever David, or any of the other writers, talk about their enemies, I get it twisted. I tend to think of those around me, especially those brothers in church leadership, as the enemies. I take the flaws of others and make them into the evil of the adversaries in the Psalms. So all of the sudden, a misscomunnication between myself and a brother, that I let stew over night, becomes cause for me to desire to be vindicated at his expense. And worse, I read the Psalms and feel justified in my frustration.
The real problem certainly isn’t in the text of the Psalms. The real problem lies squarely inside my ribs. In my heart. Far too often we fall into a pattern that goes something like this: We have a disagreement, sometimes slight other times significant. Then we either act cowardly or over-react in an angry way. This leads to a difficult meeting or conversation. Then after the meeting is over, we allow satan to plant seeds of frustration and anger in our hearts. Our flesh sows discontent and and we water it all with a healthy dose of self justification. Then, we allow the sun to go down on my anger (isn’t there something in Ephesians 4 about this?). We toss and turn in bed playing the event over and over in my mind. Replaying it in ways which make us seem far more clever, and far more spiritually justified.
And then, for me, when I wake up, I read the Psalms. And instead of seeing the sin that I have been wallowing in for the past day, I see those who I have sinned against and I wish these sort of things on them:
Make them bear their guilt, O God;
let them fall by their own counsels;
because of the abundance of their transgressions cast them out,
for they have rebelled against you. (5:10)
Let them be put to shame and disappointed altogether
who rejoice at my calamity!
Let them be clothed with shame and dishonor
who magnify themselves against me! (35:26)
May my accusers be put to shame and consumed;
with scorn and disgrace may they be covered
who seek my hurt. (71:13)
Is this the right thing? Am I really justified in wishing these woes on those who have wronged me?
No. I am not. What I always fail to see when I am praying against those who have different opinions than me is my own sin. To whatever degree I have been wronged, it really doesn’t matter, I am still responsible to love and forgive. Even if my enemies did treat me wrong, my response should not be to pray for their demise. My response should be the same as Christ on the cross. He did not paint his enemies as something they were not. He prayed for their forgiveness, even in the midst of their torture.
Maybe the way of the cross is the way to properly love those who wrong us. Instead of winning arguments with our pillow, we should be repenting of our own sins. Seeing ourselves as the bad guys instead of others. Seeing Christ as the hero and not ourselves.
Your favorite theologian has a favorite theologian. I don't care who you look up to or love to read, if they were born in the 20th century, they stand in the shadow of one man.
Bavinck was a Dutch theologian in the late 1800's and early 1900's. His works have only been translated into English and been made available in recent years. His 4 volume Reformed Dogmatics may be the best systematic theology ever written.
I was looking for something the other day in the fourth volume and came across this passage on the nature, extent, and purpose of Church Discipline. Bavinck's 6 pages on the subject are clearer and more precise than many large books on the topic. You can read the excerpt by clicking here.
As I have watched the intinction debates unfold, both on the floor of General Assembly and in cyberspace since then, it has seemed that often times, both sides are talking past or around each other. So I created this chart that may be helpful in the discussion.
The area marked “1” is the physical stuff of communion. Things like do we use wine or juice. What counts as bread and what doesn’t. Gluten-free? Should we use a common cup or many cups. How should the table be set. The PCA has a huge diversity of practice in this area. Almost every church, for practicality or theology, does this differently.
The area marked “2” could be called sacramental action. How do we distribute and take the elements. Do we come forward or stay seated? Do we pass plates? Do we take the bread and wine separately or use intinction? This is where the debate currently lies in the PCA. The top line in the chart corresponds to a traditional means of taking communion. The bottom represents intinction.
The red lenses on the boundary between “2” and “3” represent the signs themselves as we receive them. In the case of the top line, a separate bread and cup. In the case of the lower line, bread dipped in wine.
The final area, “3” is the thing that the sacrament points to. In the case of the top line, it points directly to the last supper (and by extension the eschatological feast). When we take communion this way we can easily remember the way Jesus dined with His disciples on the night on which he was betrayed. This form of communion then only points to the cross by extension. On the other hand intinction symbolizes the cross, where we are reminded of Christ’ blood soaked body. We are secondarily pointed back to the last supper.
The debate, thus far is all about area “2” and our sacramental action. The difficulty is that a number of folks, myself included when I first realized there was even a question about this, accuse those who stand against intinction of an inconsistently atomistic reading of the text. They argue, it says “drink”; intinction isn’t drinking (an area 2 argument). Others respond, it says “wine”; why do you use juice? (an area 1 argument). This seems to be a well meaning red herring.
It seems to me that area 1 is going to have tons of varied opinions and arguing here is vain. What I am suggesting is that we talk about the things that our sacramental actions symbolize and signify. What are they pointing to. We need to discuss more about “body” and “blood” and that will inform the way we use eat/drink/bread/wine.
What do you think?
A few weeks ago, at the General Assembly an overture was passed that if validated by 2/3 of the presbyteries will outlaw the practice of communion by intinction. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, intinction is when you dip the bread into the wine. I was strongly opposed to this overture. I personally support intinction and if I was planting a church it is highly likely this would be the mode of communion used. While on the floor for debate and since then on “the internets” debate has gone on over the merits (or demerits) of intinction.
For the most part the debate has been civil. There has been little name-calling and motive-judging. There has even been a minimum of “strange fire” references, though Uzzah has come up pretty frequently. Some of the strongest frustration with the intinction crowd have been voiced over at a blog called Green Baggins. Some of the best debate has taken place in the comments section of Vintage '73. I never really knew about V73 until this debate came up.
The debate seems to be shaping up along these lines. Those against the practice are careful to point out that Jesus command was to “eat” and to “drink”. Wanting to be careful observers of Christ words, they insist that dipping fails to meet the test of “drinking”. Those opposed to intinction will often then point to not only Jesus actions recorded in the gospels, but also to the repeated use of the phrase “eating and drinking” in Paul's letter to the Corinthians. This is, I will admit a strong argument. If you want a fuller picture of the argument, I recommend the Ohio Presbytery study committee's report and the response to it.
Those who want to defend intinction have put forth a few arguments thus far, a few of which are good, but probably aren't going to change anyones mind. Often, defenders of intinction will jump to the atomistic reading of the Lord's Supper texts and point out that no one else's practices are perfect either. They point out the substitution of grape juice for wine and the various types of bread used. This is true, but pointing out others inconsistencies isn't, ultimately, going to get anywhere in the long run. The argument's about the “common cup” largely fall into this same category. Some argue the practical nature of intinction, which is nice, but quickly is dismissed as practicality trumping Standards. Some other folks oppose the overture, citing the fact that this should fall under the category of things that the Bible is indifferent to (also called adiaphora). This is often met with loud cries of “are you saying the sacraments don't matter?!?” This often sidetracks the argument.
I would like to suggest a different argument in favor of intinction. I am not suggesting that it is adiaphora or practically beneficial. I would like to suggest that intinction is, in fact, biblically and confessionally a good form of the Lord's Supper. (Just a side note, I am working off of the paradigm the PCA currently uses allowing both pouring and sprinkling as normative means of baptism [BOCO 56]. Each of these different sacramental actions pictures a different nuance of baptism, and yet both are normative) A lot of attention has been paid to the “eat the bread and drink the cup” portions of the words of institution. I would like to suggest that more emphasis needs to be paid to the “Do this in remembrance of Me” part of the sacrament. Whenever we take communion we are proclaiming the Lord's death until His return. A separate bread and cup do a fine job calling to mind the last supper and the future marriage supper of the Lamb. However, when it comes to remembering the death of our Lord, intinction is a superior sign. A bloody sop of bread is a vivid and nearly gruesome reminder of the broken body and poured out blood of our Savior. Remember WLC 163 says that part of the sacrament is a “sensible sign”. See-Smell-Taste-Touch-Hear. Intinction is a strong, if not stronger than traditional “passing plate” communion, sensible sign. Ultimately Jesus was not commanding us to particularly remember the last supper when we take of the Lord's Table, He was commanding us to remember his death, which stands as short hand for his entire ministry on our behalf.
When it comes to trials, most Christians act like sailers and tattooist. One of the classic maritime tattoos is the words “Hold Fast” across the knuckles. The idea goes back to the days where mariners would fight back their urges to abandon ship and give up their mission. In the face of these struggles, their fist cried, “Hold Fast”. When a greenhorn sailor would cower in the face of an impending storm, the weathered vet could flash as strong message with his hands.
Most of the time, our response as believers to trials and hardship in our lives is close to the same. When work gets tough, when our marriage is hard, when our kids won’t behave, when money runs out: Hold fast. Just keep hanging on. Just keep going.
Sometimes, if we are thinking spiritually, we endure our trials by thinking ahead to heaven. We think ahead to a time when our troubles will be gone. Just imagine heaven. Just think of the day when this will all be over. Hold fast.
The deep and abiding trouble with this is that My focus is being, ever so slightly, directed in the wrong way. I am being told to hold fast to hope in heaven. Hold fast to the idea that this will all be over some day.
In reality, this is a form of idolatry. It is clever, religious idolatry. It is evil because it ultimately directs my attention off of Christ and onto a blessing he is giving me. I am worshiping the gift and not the Giver. Ultimately anything, even any good thing, that takes our eyes of of Christ is idolatrous. Any gift, any misplaced hope, any thing that we seek comfit in apart from Jesus is idolatry.
So then our prayers and approach to trials should not be one of “Father get me out of this”. Rather we should pray like Christ, “Now my soul is troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father save me from this hour?’ But for this purpose I have come. Father glorify your name”. I trials are for His glory and He has given us the resources to walk through them.
What we need is not less trials, but more Jesus.