When We Miss the Forest of the Scripture for the Trees of Expository One-Upmanship

Longer Than Normal Blog Alert!

I can remember my trek through seminary many, many moons ago, when in my homiletics class, I was told in a Jeremiad-like tone from my professor to preach topically once a year and then afterwards, I should quickly repent! Needless to say, I have sense abandoned that directive for reasons that will hopefully be obvious to you as you both read this blog, and then more importantly; go and search the scriptures mentioned here for your own self-understanding.

Now though I do preach in an expository manner still, I endeavor to do so with the whole of scripture in mind, while simultaneously seeking to prove my point from the text in question from other scripture.  Nonetheless, I am also attempting to proportionately allow other scriptures (not always fitting neatly into the narrative I’m projecting to my audience) to also be given honorable mention and consideration.  I find many in the church at large have trouble with this however, simply because; as this blog hopes to shine a little light on, it doesn’t wrap up everything nice and pretty with a bow for them within their preferred systematic theological framework.  Nonetheless, my purpose through any exposition I attempt is to allow other “students of the book” in the audience to both receive some manna they can fill their hungry souls with, but that also gives them more work to do when the preaching party is over.  This of course requires thinking, which most evangelicals would rather die than do (Mark Knoll) I’m afraid.  Having said that, as a result of these observations over the years, I’ve wanted to at least write briefly about this topic.

Tools for the Expedition

 In fact, I often thought about calling my talk in this direction something akin to Biblioidolatry, which I believe aptly fits.  However, I then also realized that this is a term more liberal-leaning theologians seem to use for a diatribe against those who take everything in the Bible literally; even though they might use affectionate terms like “Bible thumpers” as they do so.  But in their defense, that indictment in itself is a problem on steroids, admittedly.  Yet as I see it, though there are many times we “in fact” are to take the bible literally, the important thing to understand is the different genres of the biblical writing employed throughout the forest of scripture (historical narrative, poetry, wisdom, apocalyptic, prophecy, gospels, letters, etc.), which many in the Christian community simply fail or refuse to do.  I would also add that a proper hermeneutical understanding would be a breath of fresh air, especially at this hour as lone-wolf voices are in no short supply mass-produced into the electromagnetic waves of our living rooms and not so smart phones!  And also, quite contrary to popular “Churchianity” thinking, this hermeneutical thoughtfulness does not require a seminary education, nor a secular one for that matter.  Instead, it simply must have the consistent application of the West’s gift of logic and reason (now fallen on hard times), and perhaps more Berean-like individual study of the scriptures periodically divorced from our favorite teacher’s tutelage.  And then if we add to that a thing called “The Spirit of the Living God”, we can then mix it all together like the “Candyman”, and it is then that the word of the Lord starts to taste very, very good and almost ready for prime time!  But wait.  Not so fast.  We haven’t solved the riddle yet.  And here’s a newsflash: until the eschaton, it will still be seen through a glass I’m told is often murky and dark (I Cor. 13:12).

Jesus Drops the Mic!

And so to introduce the perplexity of arriving at biblical and theological certainty, the most learned “people of the book” in the world’s history introduce our “elephant in the room” point for us.  In fact, in verse 39 of the 5th chapter of John, Jesus says this, “You study the scriptures thoroughly because you think in them you possess eternal life, and it is these same scriptures that testify about me, but you are not willing to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:29 NET).  So in other words, the ones who should have known better missed the forest for trees of legalistic minutiae unable to save anyone, including themselves.

Moment of silence please!

But wait.  There’s more to the story.  Jesus will later explain to these scribes and pharisees that besides missing the real life He offers, while an insignificant “woman at the well” drank deeply of a chapter previously, in Matthew 23:15 He explains the result of their lifetime of foregone conclusions when He writes, “Woe to you, experts in the law and you Pharisees, hypocrites!  You cross land and see to make one convert, and when you get one, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.  In other words, not only do you have it wrong continually, but you have the audacity to procreate for goodness sakes!

And there it is: the mic-drop front and center!

Paul Expands on Jesus’ Narrative

You know I’ve oft thought that Paul and the other apostles explain what Jesus said, and I think that will preach.  And so, for our next text for consideration, Paul reminds a young Timothy of how this wrongful thought process can creep in and catch hold of the sincerest of hearts and minds, and so he writes, “Remind people of these things and solemnly charge them before the Lord not to wrangle over words. This is of no benefit; it just brings ruin on those who listen. Make every effort to present yourself before God as a proven worker who does not need to be ashamed, teaching the message of truth accurately.  But avoid profane chatter, because those occupied with it will stray further into ungodliness, and their message will spread its infection like gangrene” (II Tim. 2:14-17a NET).  And then to conclude at least for now with other Pauline guidance on this vastly important issue, he addresses the Corinthian church; who being the most gifted (at least in their mind’s eye), still says to them, “I have applied these things to myself and Apollos because of you, brothers and sisters, so that through us you may learn “not to go beyond what is written, so that none of you will be puffed up in favor of the one against the other” (I Cor. 4:6 NET).

And though it won’t be my purpose to do a proper “deep-dive” into these passages (which is also virtually impossible to do in a blog), I want to at least give some cursory points for our further contemplation before the Lord.  But the first thing I find that leaps off the page here, without it actually being said at all, is that the church closest to the events of the resurrection are already experiencing these problems we still all face.  So with all the chatter about being a “New Testament Church” as the preferred archetype, perhaps we should have some new nomenclature.  Point being: They were human like us; and so outside of the apostle’s influence, they had the ability to botch the whole thing up quite well before we ever showed up on the scene!  So perhaps we can give ourselves a pass here.

The next thing that actually does jump off the literal page at me is this issue of “wrangling over words”, which at surface level is having wars over words.  And to me that can be the meaningless wrangling over word tenses and “more correct” translations to the debates over our systems of theology that we have apparently been more baptized into rather than our actual faith in Christ that will share no other allegiances.  And Paul’s point seems quite clear: Arguing over any doctrinal point other than the essentials (Apostle’s Creed/Nicene Creed/historic church non-negotiables), and how we are to be more like Jesus, is nothing more than “profane chatter” that ruins everyone participating.  In addition, this practice is akin to “ungodliness” and actually; you guessed it, also procreates!  The result is of course the destruction of people’s faith in the end, having no roots of protection against it; and also destroys the church in the process.  This is not to mention the numerous scriptures that tell us that this bad behavior causes the world to both yawn, as well as continue to search for other options on the god superhighway.  And they are legion!

But the point from these two passages is summed up when Paul says in our Corinthian passage, that we should not go “beyond what is written”.  I take this to mean that when we spend so much time digesting a vast array of teaching that is not centered on some ecumenical focal point for all followers of Christ (the essentials I mentioned earlier), it only causes argumentation and debates over peripheral issues that simply do not matter in the overarching narrative of scripture.  Add to this what results in a good dose of spiritual-theological pride, and you’ve got a recipe for rampant division, and yet one more reason why the lost decide we are more a part of the problem than any solution that would cause them any more than a passing glance other than for sheer entertainment purposes, as they then rightfully exit stage-left.

Peter Chimes In

And then if that brief dialogue were not enough to get our interpretive juices flowing in the right direction, we get equally enlightening guidance from another pillar of the faith (Peter) speaking coincidentally (or maybe not) about his brother Paul’s writings when he says, “Some things in these letters are hard to understand, things the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they also do to the rest of the scriptures.  Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard that you do not get led astray by the error of these unprincipled men and fall from your grasp on the truth.  But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  To him be the honor both now and on that eternal day” (2 Pet. 3:16b-18 NET).  So then, let’s break it down, hammer-time!

The first thing I notice from the pen of Peter is that Paul’s letters, and Peter’s for that matter, can be both “misunderstood”, and “hard to understand” without painstaking study.  That of course begs the question that “the rest of the scriptures” as a whole require meticulous mining to find its glorious pearls often purposefully hidden until we can better comprehend it or have been kicked in the teeth enough to finally allow its timely message to not return void in us.  For if not, it is so easy to “lose our grasp on the truth”.  And as an equally substantial icing on the cake, these treasures are often best kept in our prayer closet until a later broken and humble follower can graciously communicate its revelatory message to others with a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down (Julie Andrews).  For as our text opines, “grace” and helpful “knowledge” bestowed to others is something we “grow into”.  Subliminal Alert!  It’s just that some of us are trying to do a rush job on what the Lord has committed to a much longer tenure for us at His cruciform potter’s wheel.  And I for one get it.  I have no stones in my pocket, and neither does our Master.

Battle-Weary Lessons

But in conclusion, the point that Jesus, Paul and Peter are outlining for us; and that the rest of scriptures teach as well, is that God’s ways and purposes in this life are sometimes “past finding out” (Job 9:10; Rom. 11:33; Psalms 139:6; 145:3; Isa. 40:28; 55:8,9), and the mysterious things that are not revealed belong to the Lord until we both know in finality, and then and only then, are fully known (Deut. 29:9; 1 Cor. 13:12).  We have to hold this dichotomy between true revelation and ambiguity until such a time that obscurity is either lifted, or, until we see Him face to face!  And, I might add, we need to be able to live “faithfully” with God’s help in that ongoing contrast.  For it is that “center of biblical tension” (Robertson McQuilkin) that lives equally faithful when God is saying “Both/and” and not always “either/or”.  This is why the task of the preacher is indeed a hard one, juxtaposing between being a true spiritual director to hungry souls, and likewise as one making sure that what we dish out comes back to sit on our plate as well.  Or better yet, we are so much the wiser when it has already been worked out in us so we can give a little glimpse of what it looks like currently beyond some of our brothers and sisters reach; all the while reminding ourselves that “there by the grace of God go I’.  This is to be our address.  This is where we live.  Somewhere indeed between the forest and trees!

Selah

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing Through a Glass Darkly Among the Facebook Aristocracy

It will of course be no surprise to many of you that we have become a nation of experts on just about everything under the sun it would seem, especially amidst our favorite social media and information highway platforms. Many in fact spout off about things they know; things they think they know; things they don’t really know; and things that are perhaps better off left unsaid altogether. Of particular interest to me is the fact that most of these would be prophets have their particular freak flag that they fly, and that once you look behind the veneer of, always seem to gravitate towards their particular identity politic; victimhood; geography; ethnicity; or particular bandwagon that the cultural elite have been branding to these gullible masses. And in this milieu of a smorgasbord of so-called answers “blowing in the wind”, the quest for some real truth to sink one’s teeth into has been about like trying to nail Jell-O to a freakin wall! This is particularly the case for those who are truly seeking after it, yet which also makes those attempting to speak into the cultural wind with some sort of truthful acumen tantamount to begging for a fistfight of expletives in your social media face in seconds flat.

This new phenomenon seems to be the case among the average Joe who gets his daily diet of information in mere sound bites and video vignettes from their favorite news channel; or even worse, their favorite TV show.   But I’ve found even among those who may have a specialization in a certain area, or having read the latest book on a topic at hand (a real rare phenomenon); and even those who claim allegiance to a particular brand of Christianity or clerical robe, often times speak out of that frame of reference, as opposed to speaking from the overarching motif of grace and that of expressed wisdom sifted through a self-admitted opaque glass. To be sure, I believe there are things we can truly know, and know matter-of-factly, both in the seen and unseen realm, even though the latter regards a metaphysical truth of which modern man has now discounted as mere codswallop. However, that modicum of knowledge that we can come down on, is most often found at the apex of one stalwart platform of certainty: The fact that Jesus took our place. In the words of Bono, it is indeed the “thought that changed the world”.

I say all this to say that it is through the lens of a beneficiary with absolutely nothing to give in return, and also found with no bargaining chips on the table with which to broker a deal with the divine that we then view the world; and that we then humbly attempt to speak into with the unassuming invitation, “Be reconciled to God”. And in spite of what should be obvious to those of us who have walked with a limp on the narrow path for any length of time, I have noticed that the aforementioned groups of people sound off more out of their particular brand of “high-horse” or “groupthink” rather than through both an objective and subjective stance (since the truth we uphold comprises both). Of particular interest and bewilderment for me are those who claim to be harbingers of the ancient path of truth, yet ostensibly do so driven from cultural dictates of current chicness like everyone else, or from a particular “family tradition”, rather than as one speaking from the posture of a prayerful and biblical watchman and discerner of both the truth, as well as the distant mysteries held in equal tension this side of heaven.

In fact, I have found that the quest for truth requires a “both/and” and not an “either/or” approach to arrive at a truth that is substantial enough to both weather the storms of life over the long term, and that also is capable of navigating through both plausible and implausible truth claims vying for attention and allegiance. All in all, we have an awful lot of so-called knowledge that we are sure is “the gospel according to us”, but very little wisdom tempering the claim to such from those who both “know” Him, and equally recognize His ways are past finding out. Though that might sound like the voice of a relativist, it is actually more the story of a weak man’s walk with Christ with his ears and eyes wide open in the midst of both the temporal and the eternal; the secret and also revealed; and equally as part of the kingdom that is both here and still not yet. And it is my personal belief as a wayward traveler on the narrow path, that perhaps once we attempt to get beyond “Jesus took my place”, most of us are found a “day late and a dollar short” of the truth we proclaim, and with big mouths that are better off being shut to a world trying to find it’s way to our path still sadly less traveled.

I must say that it has taken me many years of dangers, toils and snares to come to this very delicate dichotomy between that which I know and that which I am still seeking, and thus I now refrain from too many “soapbox” temptations. I used to preach to my parishioners (unknowingly at the time) from a vantage point of one who had the truth they should listen to, yet quickly conceded amidst my own daily mirror check hoping to see the reflection of a victor of the Christian life, and found instead a mere beggar searching for crumbs staring back at me. From that point onward, I came down from the “holy man chairs” and sat on the pews with the rest of the sinners, and only approached the sacred desk with fear and trembling before speaking “thus saith the Lord” to those in my humble care. It was then that I realized that my theologies and dogmata were of interest to me perhaps, yet not so much to those who were simply trying to get through another night without pulling the trigger, and who desperately needed to see the gospel come in shoe leather of real tangible hope, rather than homilies filled with moral prescriptions no one can keep past Monday morning. Instead, I became a mutual traveler on the narrow path, albeit as one appointed to guide others to where the water truly flowed, and to the one who promised that those who drank deeply of His reservoir would never thirst again. In essence, I also stopped inviting people to church by putting the cart before the horse, and instead directed them to the one who alone had the power to calm and likewise walk through the storms of their lives, footprints and all.

And yet what seems self-evident to those of us who hobble along on the narrow path, is in fact a forest by and large missed by a conglomeration of deviational or comfortable trees by a myriad of other voices in the market square, as well as by so-called friends and family members alike who are praying for our salvation to their way of thinking, and who are “praying for us ” that we finally get it right. They are those who are surer than the word of God itself it seems, and who are relentless in their adamancy that if we’d just fall in line, we could once and for all be just like them, and the(ir) world would then be a happier place.

Though to be sure the “seeing through a glass darkly” Christian life can be a lonely trek on the narrow path, and can be equally comprised of a much shorter “friends” list. And yet at this very acute cost, the opposite tendency of joining in with dogmatic assertion and argumentation while holding too many theological lines drawn in the sand, rather than a more cautious dark glass theology, is much more costly still I’m afraid. And in the aftermath, the former is ripe with casualties that thwart the very mission to bring the “good news” to those who actually want to hear it. Yet to be sure, many take the “glass-darkly” side as synonymous to entrance into the slippery slope of compromise and unorthodoxy, yet walking in the center of biblical tension is a tightrope worth the vulnerability it inevitably brings for those who in the end find the Master there with his outstretched hand guiding us to our final destination.

All in all, as found in the greatest words perhaps ever penned on the topic of love, and words of which are far too easily scurried through on countless wedding days, the apostle Paul himself (the self-recognized “chief of sinners”) reminds us that in this life, “we see through a glass darkly”, and only in the Lord’s eschaton will we “fully know”, and thus will be “fully known” by the only one who truly has the keys to the kingdom. His conclusion holds out before us three things that when all is said and done we can hold on to with a firm and constant surety: it is that of faith, hope and love. The very things we cannot see, but when experienced, are felt far beyond any sermon or moral admonition we could ever remember; and that of which the greatest of those is LOVE. And thus as those of us of whom it is incumbent upon to speak of that which we do know, it must always be through the bestowal of a more loving mirror theology if it is ever to reach the hearts of those that desperately need to hear less from a f—ing know it all, and more from a mutual beggar who has found crumbs to share.

“We are all beggars, this is true”.

the dying words of Martin Luther

 

Selah