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Knowing God, is it practical or not?


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It is still a question Christians debate – “Is knowing God really practical? Shouldn’t doing certain things be more central to the Christian life? Merely ‘knowing God’ can make you feel like you aren’t moving, right? Shouldn’t we be focusing on a list of things we must do?”

As we read and study the Bible this urge to tell (as the teacher) people what they must do or to find (as the student) what we should do still knocks at our door. I am grateful for recent input on this question. As we go through the Gospel of Mark what help can we find on this question of the practical side of the Christian life?

The question of “what to do” is a part of a larger conversation of on how Sanctification should look in the Christian life. I’m thinking of books like Five Views on Sanctification or The Hole in our Holiness or Jesus + Nothing = Everything. Those are recent, but this conversation has a long trace of ink going back to Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and so on.

However, for this short jog I’ll keep the question of “what to do” localized in our current study in Mark. Interestingly, the Gospel of Mark does not give much in the way of commands or much in the way of “you must do this to live the Christian life.” The content of the Gospel of Mark is of the sort that draws you in not so much to a pattern of things to do, but to a Person. The author is drawing us into know Jesus.

That is the beauty of the Gospel of Mark. Mark’s Jesus is not verbose. Mark has very little in the way of Discourses (extended teachings) of Jesus. Mark’s focus is on the action, the movement, the shifts in the life of the Messiah. The key events which reflect the Person that is the Messiah are what Mark is laying out before us. This series of events highlight the Person rather than a way of doing religion. The advantage of spending time in the Gospel of Mark is that due to the sparseness of his content we are forced to focus on the Person that is Jesus. It is paced to make you long for Jesus.

Seeing who Jesus is and why his life mattered then and still matters is the truest way to handle the material Mark is giving us. Why? Because that is just about the only thing you can do with it. Mark’s content pulls you in to who Jesus is. Notice Mark’s first sentence: “The beginning of the Gospel of Jesus Messiah, the Son of God.” That is the barrel from which Mark is shooting his charge. Everything coming out of this barrel is etched by an interest in knowing who Jesus is.

This opening statement is not a very good set-up for telling people a list of things that they should do or shouldn’t do. It is, however, a great introduction to good news, good news that Jesus Messiah has arrived. “I’d like to introduce you to him.”

Of course, each gospel writer has a unique approach to the life of Jesus. It is helpful to compare the four Gospels to each other, but we can rob Mark of his unique perspective on Jesus when we end up reading Mark through the lens of Matthew, Luke or John.

Another faux pas is to reshape our idea of Jesus thru the lens of our sub-culture. I have a couple of books on my shelf that talk about this. Even though they are outdated with regard to current trends, they’ve almost become reference books for me as I keep coming back to them. Jesus in America is Richard Fox’s survey of how we have reshaped our ideas of Jesus through the 19th and 20th centuries. He notes that “the overall national infatuation with Jesus has been deepened by an array of sub-cultural traditions of allegiance to him” (p13). Conservative Christians, even self-described Evangelicals or Fundamentalists, are not immune to this slide.

So, back to the question of whether “knowing God” is practical to the Christian life or not. I am sure all Christians would agree that “knowing God” is essential to becoming a Christian, but it might surprise you to find there are various theological views which don’t see the effort of “knowing God” as at the center or at the core of Christian living. Frankly, there are ideas of Jesus that trend in certain groups which have re-shaped him into the appearance of a schoolmarm. Maybe that’s not as deleterious as denying he rose from the grave, but it’s still not Jesus.

What Mark’s Gospel helps us to see is that there isn’t a list of do’s and don’ts at the core of Jesus’ own life. Thus, we shouldn’t be afraid when the same suggestion comes to mind about our own life with him. Knowing Jesus fills the Christian with life. Spending time in Mark’s Gospel is the deceptively simply, yet supernatural way that the Holy Spirit feeds that life. It is what he has provided for us to spend time with Jesus. A twist on a popular phrase comes to mind – ‘Know the Bible. Know Jesus. Know God. No Bible. No Jesus. No God.’

Yes, there are things to do in the Gospel of Mark, but notice that the deeds or commands in Mark ultimately lead you into a relationship. “Where is Jesus? Can you bring me to him that I may believe him, that I may know him?” In fact, that is the hub of the entire New Testament, yea, dare I say, the entire Bible: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor 4:6).

This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t take time as a class or in conversation with other Christians to talk specifics on the nitty gritty of life. There are the dating questions, the courtship questions, the marriage questions, the career questions, the financial questions, the lust questions, the self-control questions and so forth. Yet, every particular question is in the end going to lead us back to the Good News of who Jesus is.

I am reading again J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. It’s is a good book. I like how his book flows out of his Scripture saturated brain. It doesn’t read like a list of “do this or don’t that” and then you will know God. Packer’s thoughts spill onto the pages as though someone who knows God is talking about God. That is the same impression I get when reading what Mark has to say about my Messiah, your Messiah.

Packer writes in his chapter entitled, ‘Knowing and Being Known’ that “Once you become aware that the main business that you are here for is to know God, most of life’s problems fall into place of their own accord” (p.29). This doesn’t mean that by studying the Gospel of Mark all the perplexities of my life will melt away.

Actually, the perplexity like a strong under current lies deeper. I recall my Father, Peter Olivero, saying many times as we were growing up: “The most difficult part of God’s Will is not finding it, but doing it.” It is my experience that the more I am knowing the Person of Jesus the less perplexing life is. Instead of re-shaping Jesus to our sub-culture, Jesus is more interested in re-shaping our motivations. The more I see the beauty of his Person the more attentive I will be when he calls to obey. When the time comes for him to speak directly into my situation my eyes and ears will already be turned in his direction.

It occurs to me that this soul movement toward Jesus resembles the same cognitive function of playing “Where’s Waldo?” It’s direct. It’s simple. It’s inducive. In recent years, I’ve grown to crave voices that rehearse the Christian grace in simply finding Jesus.

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taking the war out of ‘worship wars’


I heard Matt Olson’s gracious resignation talk after the NIU board asked him to step down. So blessed to see a man who has been under fire from harsh critics respond in a gentle way and then to put the focus off himself and on God.

There were several things he said that are worth remembering. Here is one that sticks with me. I did a word wall of it since it is good for many other difficulties in life beyond his own at the moment.

Matt Olson quote

pic background available through demilked.com

You may have noticed that the word ‘unexpected’ is in a similar color as the words ‘worship’ and ‘praise’ and ‘thank.’ The ‘unexpected’ starts out darker and duller, but as we direct our focus toward God and away from ourselves our actions and attitude shift from remorse or grief to the joys of being in God’s presence.

I am reminded how often I fall short of this. Right, left or middle – wherever we stand on these issues – this response proves that we can navigate our differences with grace.

President Olson’s response to his dismissal shows he sees a higher value in grace over gotcha. And for that matter, the NIU Board shows grace by giving President Olson the chance to freely speak his parting words to their students. Most dismissal situations like this are often well choreographed or restricted to avoid further collateral damage, but this looks quite unusual in its gentle tone and ethos.

The text that serves as President Olson’s anchor is Romans 11:33-36:

Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom

and knowledge of God!    

How unsearchable his judgments,    

and his paths beyond tracing out!

Who has known the mind of the Lord? 

Or who has been his counselor?

Who has ever given to God,

that God should repay them?

For from him and through him and

for him are all things.    

To him be the glory forever!

Amen.

The NIV translation entitled this section as “Doxology.”


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“It was a pleasure to serve you another deep fried and breaded faith-based meal…”


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Blur

an English band scheduled to headline the 2012 Olympic closing ceremony

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Speaking of ‘blur’ might it be possible to blur what the Gospel is meant to do with what we hope/want/crave politics to do? Aren’t Christians just as prone to get caught up in the latest evangelical Zeitgesit as much as people standing in long, long lines for…let’s say…. a Batman movie …or an iPad …or Sheryl Crow tickets? I mean really looooong lines…lines curving around the block.

Mr. Seel said it like this:

* * *

A politicized faith not only blurs our priorities, but weakens our loyalties. Our primary citizenship is not on earth but in heaven. … Though few evangelicals would deny this truth in theory, the language of our spiritual citizenship frequently gets wrapped in the red, white and blue. Rather than acting as resident aliens of a heavenly kingdom, too often we sound [and act] like resident apologists for a Christian America. … Unless we reject the false reliance on the illusion of Christian America, evangelicalism will continue to distort the gospel and thwart a genuine biblical identity…..

American evangelicalism is now covered by layers and layers of historically shaped attitudes that obscure our original biblical core.

(John Seel, The Evangelical Pulpit, 1993, 106-7)

* * *

Or we might savor this cultural moment this way –

A chickenized faith not only blurs our priorities, but it also weakens our loyalty to Jesus.


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Gospel Leftovers – finding God in the crumbs


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“The taste of a good meal lingers…  even in the leftovers.”

{some thots after spending time with Jesus at the corner of St. Mark and 8:16-21}

Joe did a great job. He led our Bible study last time we met. Joe is good for this.

He casually goes to the front of the room. Our Bibles are open. We’ve got coffee. Somehow he puts us at ease without words.

“Let’s talk about this,” Joe says.   {talk about Jesus he means.}

– – – Today Jesus enters our room at chapter 8 of Mark’s Gospel.

While Joe was talking, painting the scene, my brain (and heart) was being beckoned into these Jesus moments in front of us. I want to know Him. “What will we see today, Jesus?”

I love studying the Gospel of Mark. It has been my passion for the last several months as our study group moves paragraph by paragraph through the Story. Why is this so good? Because we are getting to know Jesus better. We are being drawn in to see a breathing, sighing, sweating Jesus… not a Barbie doll Jesus, but a munching, drinking, spiting, walking dusty roads Jesus.

Joe leads us from Jesus feeding 4,000 plus hungry people to Jesus getting exasperated with – guess who? – the Pharisees and to Jesus warning His disciples about the lure of pompous religiosity. Yeast Jesus calls it (or ‘leaven’ as it reads in the runes of kayjayveeish) cause it first comes in quietly and subtly and before you know it the yeast takes over the whole loaf (synagogue, church, small group, whatever). Not good.

Then, bamm!

Jesus the Riddler, a playful Jesus, interrupts this serious sequence of events.

“Did you get it? Did you see what I did?” Jesus asks, as though waiting for his friends to get the punch line. Blank stares. Silence. They’re on a different wave length. Too bad.

Here’s the set up from Mark’s pov (in chapter 8 verses 16-21, the Message).

* * *

Meanwhile, the disciples were finding fault with each other because they had forgotten to bring bread.

Jesus overheard and said, “Why are you fussing because you forgot bread?

Don’t you see the point of all this? Don’t you get it at all? Remember the five loaves I broke for the five thousand?  How many baskets of leftovers did you pick up?”

They said, “Twelve.”

“And the seven loaves for the four thousand—how many bags full of leftovers did you get?”

“Seven.”

He said, “Do you still not get it?”

* * *

What do you do with your leftovers? Do you just toss ‘em or do you get professional help? Who is your leftovers guru? Emeril? Julia? The Barefoot Contessa? Rachael Ray has a recipe for using leftover brewed coffee in your chili. “It brings out the flavor of the beans,” she says. Really?

What does Jesus do with leftovers?

Does it matter? I think it does. It occurs to me that I have flattened the meal (food for crowds of thousands) and the leftovers (remainders for the disciples) into telling much the same thing – like this, Jesus provides a meal for hungry people (that’s Jesus being kind to strangers) and Jesus makes enough food for leftovers (that’s Jesus being kind to His friends).

Or maybe these miracles are another proof that Jesus is God because He can plant, grow, harvest, mix the dough, raise it, bake it and deliver the bread with a flick of the wrist…on the spot?

“So, Christian, learn from this. Trust Jesus and be kind. Follow Messiah and help the poor.”

True that, but again, what is Jesus saying with His leftovers? He is not only helping people in great need. Jesus is also having a little fun. Yes, that Jesus…the one juggling all those loaves of bread…over there with the smirk on his face…lining up the baskets. Everybody has had enough to eat now so where should we put the leftovers? Here are some empty baskets. How many?

…12 baskets over there {and later} …7 right here.

“Are you serious? Twelve and seven? Not eleven or thirteen, but twelve – not six or eight, but seven? Twelve and seven. That’s amazing! That’s hilarious! Just like a kid. He’s playing with His food…again.”

playfulness of Jesus

John Eldredge riffs on this theme – the playfulness of Jesus – in his book Beautiful Outlaw (good read btw). John makes me long to know this side of Jesus when he writes, “So, if you do not know Jesus as a person, know his remarkable personality – playful, cunning, fierce, impatient with all that is religious, kind, creative, irreverent, funny – you have been cheated…you have been robbed” (p. 12, emphasis original).

You may be still be wondering what is so playful about 12 baskets and 7 baskets. Think of this way. Suppose you are going to have a hundred people over for the 4th of July at your place (or a nearby park if your place is too small). Now it’s the night before. The place is ready. You’ve invited the guests. You’ve planned the food. You’ve got everything else ready to go and – get this – then you say to your spouse, “I know exactly how much we are going to have in leftovers tomorrow after the event.”

“Uh?”

“Yeah, we are going to have precisely – after everyone has gone home – precisely 13 one quart containers.”

“Thirteen?”

“You don’t get it? Thirteen as in 13 original American colonies?”

{thy spouse giveth thee a blank stare}

Jesus is not just making a whole a lot of food in which there just happens to be – by serendipity – 12 baskets and later 7 baskets. This was no random act. Jesus made exactly enough food to feed 5,000 people, 4,000 people and exactly enough so there would be 12 baskets and 7 baskets leftover, no more, no less, precisely 12 and precisely 7.

Why did He do this? He was trying to send a message to His disciples. In a playful way. Jesus was using two numbers with obvious symbolic importance to any Jewish guy – twelve and seven – to say something about their future and His future and their future together.

“Ah, now I get it. 12 tribes and 7 days of Creation. But is that all?”

No, there’s more. If we think of a symbol or a metaphor as a pointer, like road signs that point which way to go, then let’s ask how these two numbers, 12 and 7, point to something important about Jesus…and us.

12 – a sign of God’s presence in a people He calls His own (first seen in the 12 tribes of Israel)

7 – a sign of God’s perfect goodness on mankind (first seen in the 7 days of Creation)

In symbols Jesus is telling His disciples I am going to revive Israel (the 12 tribes) in you, the 12 disciples. In the number 7 Jesus is telling His disciples that “you all, my disciples and I, are going to bring in My divine goodness and spread it across the world…like I tried to do at the very beginning.”

{btw – this is not gematria. that’s different.}

Yes, 12 and 7 have Jewish significance, of course. I am reminded of the Passover riddleechad mi yodea, that uses numbers to teach important truths about the ways of God.

It’s a playful riddle Jesus was folding inside these miracles. Yes, Jesus is interested in helping us with our short term problems and needs. But, this riddle tells us that Jesus is doing something much bigger. He is building a people for Himself and He wants His redeeming goodness to keep spreading across the world.

The bread Jesus made has been eaten and is gone, but…

His redeeming goodnesses – Gospel leftovers – are still piling up.


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who is the ‘weak’ brother? not


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the ‘weak brother’ is…

–         incoming freshman

–         singles in a church who want to push the envelope

–         families in a church who just don’t get conservatism

–         kids in church who tend to put everything in two categories, black and white (or right and wrong)

–         the guy or gal who may try _________ (insert some Matter of Conscience) when I clearly know it is wrong. I see him as ‘weak’ because he can’t resist saying “No!” to _________ (insert same as above), but I can. Therefore, he is weak.

–         A Christian who leaves an authenic conservative church or org to join another church or group which actually enjoys doing things ‘weak brothers’ do. You know the ole problem – “Birds of a feather…”

–         People in a church, org or group who may have their guard down and end up talking to, texting or friending one of the above. This would be a classic case of ‘the blind leading the blind” only we might call this ‘the weaker strengthening the weaker.”

not!

stay tuned: an answer that may surprise you


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what is a Group Conscience?


File:Westtown.jpga group conscience

– just as individuals (“each…own mind” Rom 14:5) reach conclusions on Matters of Conscience so also a group (“you [plural]…same mind…one accord…one voice” Rom 15:5-7) can and should have conclusions on Matters of Conscience.

– these conclusions are simply what they have agreed is their
unique common ground on M of C. It is their consensus (their
chosen unity in application) and thus their group conscience.

note: Don’t we need to be very careful to NOT let another church, outside experts or institution control our group situation? Instead, we should encourage Christ-centered culture and community that is well fitted to the spiritual needs of our own people.

– a group conscience does not mean every individual in it must think exactly the same way on all Matters of Conscience (Rom 14:19). 

Obviously “mutual upbuilding” does not refer to robotic thinking in all M of C. That would contradict the priesthood of the believer (Rom 14:12).
btw – some people in our own chosen group, young or old, at some point may do in M of C whatever their conscience can bear – so…?
We should learn from the past. The stricter a group tries to be on M of C the less convincing they will sound on matters of Clear Biblical Command.

– In M of C we should let Gospel grace keep us from elevating our preferred applications to the same level as Divine Revelation. A sentimental or defensive attachment to traditionalism is idolatry as much as putting cultural relevance on a high pedestal.

(“don’t canonize your applications…don’t dogmatize your applications”)  Matt Olson sermon

– In M of C one Christian group’s common ground is not superior to a different group’s common ground (Rom 15:7, “accept one another”). God welcomes us into His Divine Community.