Friday, December 07, 2012

Reclaiming the Gift

Have you ever stopped to seriously consider the question: "What is a gift?" The New Oxford American Dictionary defines "gift" this way: a thing given willingly to someone without payment. I think that's a pretty good definition, but probably not for the reasons employed by the editors of the The New Oxford American Dictionary.

How should gifts be viewed by Christians? Have you ever thought much about that? I think we need to reform our understanding of what a gift is, because our culture's definition of "gift" is, in actuality, nothing like the dictionary definition and undermines the very thing Christmas is about - the stunning incarnational wonder of the gospel.

In our society, gift giving at Christmas is generally viewed through the lens of social obligation. We each have a carefully crafted list of recipients. Then we create sublists of gift ideas for each recipient. These sublists contain things we hope our recipients will enjoy. Alongside each entry on the sublist, in invisible ink, is our anxiety estimate. We rate each idea not only in terms of how much we think the recipient will enjoy the gift, but we also take note of how much anxiety each idea gives us, should that particular gift idea be received poorly by the recipient. Ultimately, what we choose as a gift for a particular recipient will hopefully maximize the enjoyment of the recipient, while minimizing our perceived anxiety should the gift, for whatever reason, be rejected.

We are, of course, able to judge whether a gift recipient has enjoyed our selection almost instantly based on verbal and nonverbal cues which are, frankly, impossible to conceal. How we formulate our gracious, socially acceptable gift rejection cues will have to wait for another blog post.

In my view, we have largely lost the meaning of the word "gift" in our culture. We actually kill off the wonder of giving gifts because we have become a people consumed with meeting all of the social norms and requirements for a proper "gift exchange." Note that "gift exchange" is a contradiction in terms, at least if you accept the dictionary definition of gift that I cited earlier.

As a result, Christmas can become an insufferable pot of anxiety. We spend weeks worrying about making others happy (which are really worries about making ourselves happy). In fact, gift giving has become, as everything has in contemporary culture, ultimately about “me.” The exchange of gifts has taken on attributes of the contract - both parties must benefit. And that's the opposite of what it means to actually give a gift, because a gift is given without regard to mutual beneficence.

This point was made apparent to me in a recent Wall Street Journal article "The Science Behind Gifting." That word "science" in the headline is a giveaway. The premise of the article is that gift giving can be reduced into measurable categories regarding our perception of the recipient's satisfaction with our gift, as well as our own feelings of warmth and closeness with the recipient. In short, "gifting" as science makes it about the giver rather than the receiver!

This explains why we are always at a loss, and feel guilty, whenever we receive an actual gift. Real gifts give us the heebie jeebies because we are stuck in the only model too many people know - the gift exchange. When we receive an actual gift, what is our response? Part of it is usually spot on: Heck, I didn't deserve this! You shouldn't have! Amen! That's why it's a gift! But then what happens right after that? Guilt drives us back to the model we know ("But, I didn't get you anything"), which gets us plotting a quick response that will somehow get us square with the one who so audaciously broke the social conventions of the gift exchange.

Isn't this an exhausting way to live? How can we ever recover the wonder and joy associated with gifts that are given the way the dictionary, and the Bible, describes?

There is only one way to reclaim our understanding of a gift, and it is cruciform. Christian, you have received the perfect gift (the Father), by the perfect purchaser (the crucifixion of the Son), by means of the perfect giver (the Holy Spirit). We are the utterly undeserving recipients who can in no way reciprocate. The wonder of the incarnational gift of God is that we are cornered and left with only one possible response - joyous praise and worship.

Gospel means good news, and here it is: The utterly unworthy and undeserving have received the perfect gift, God, from God, for the glory of God. Once you understand and believe that, then your own giving will be freed from slavery to social duty and pride, and your receiving will be freed from guilt and inadequacy. Doesn't that sound like more fun than the treadmill of the exchange?
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. (Romans 3:23-25 ESV)

Friday, September 07, 2012

"Houses Are for Occupancy"

From: The Unhappy Hipster
At First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Minnesota, I've been preaching through the gospel of Matthew. The sermon text this week is Matthew 12:38-50. Here are verses 43:45 (Jesus is speaking):
“When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’ And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first. So also will it be with this evil generation.”
About these verses, scholar and commentator Dale Bruner writes:
Empty, neutral, externally Christianized people sooner or later find their little passions - from civic clubs to sports, from politics to parlor games - insufficiently fulfilling. For our own good, therefore, Jesus summons us to 'Fill the house!' to join the church and to take her worship services seriously, to appropriate our filling by the Holy Spirit given to us in Christian baptism, and to become Jesus' disciples in the world of our work. For our empty, swept, tidy houses will be filled sooner or later by something, because houses are for occupancy.*
Emphasis added.

The question for the week: With what will you be fulfilled?

[Bruner, Matthew: A Commentary. Volume 1: The Christbook, 579.]

Monday, July 02, 2012

"All Concepts of Reality that Ignore Jesus Christ Are Abstractions"

In his terrific biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Eric Metaxas quotes from Bonhoeffer's Ethics:
In Jesus Christ the reality of God has entered into the reality of this world. The place where the questions about the reality of God and about the reality of the world are answered at the same time is characterized solely by the name: Jesus Christ. God and the world are enclosed in this name ... we cannot speak rightly of either God or the world without speaking of Jesus Christ. All concepts of reality that ignore Jesus Christ are abstractions.
Jesus is Lord over all.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Jesus in the Infrequented Text

And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. - Luke 24:25-27 ESV

The church I serve has a Sunday morning class called "Bible 101." I launched the class soon after my arrival with the initial objective of reading through and discussing the first five books of the bible, called the Pentateuch. So far, this intrepid group has studied the entirety of Genesis, Exodus, and Leviticus. Three years into the class, we have now made it almost all the way through Numbers.

One of the things I try to do in the class is to demonstrate how these texts fit into the overall flow of salvation history. A paraphrased St. Augustine put it this way, "The New Testament is in the Old Testament contained, while the Old Testament is in the New Testament explained." I've taken this approach because of Jesus' critical teaching in Luke 24, where he explains to his disciples how the entire Old Testament is about him.

Every now and then, however, I need to be reminded of this truth, especially when examining infrequently studied texts.

Last Sunday was a case in point. The group studied Numbers 30, a chapter containing the law regarding oaths made to God. Remember the last time you heard a sermon on Numbers 30? Me neither.

Basically, the structure of the chapter is like this: Men are prohibited from making vows and then backing out of them when the underlying circumstances behind the vow change. The rules for women differ because they are understood to be under the authority of a head-of-household. For example, in the case of a never-married woman, her father has the right to cancel her vow if he so chooses. If a woman marries, this ability to cancel her vow becomes her husband's responsibility. Numbers 30 also gives instructions about vows to folks in other situations. An example would be cases where a woman is divorced or widowed and no longer attached to a head-of-household.

I walked the class through the text, and the biblical structure of the household. One of the things I pointed out is that women get the better deal in this chapter because, unlike the men, it is possible for them to get out of unwise, rash oaths made to God.  Having made this observation, which I thought was very astute, I asked if there were any questions. One of the participants then raised her hand and asked, "So what does this text tell us about Jesus?"

My immediate response was two-fold. First, I was thrilled that she asked the question, because it showed me that she had thoroughly learned that Jesus was serious in Luke 24 about everything in the OT pointing to him. My second response was one of dismay. How come I hadn't asked myself that question before showing up to teach that morning?

After giving it some thought I gave what I hope is an answer faithful to the story of salvation.  I remembered that the church is the bride of Christ and Jesus has the authority to loose and bind all things related to His Bride. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus not only fulfilled all of God's vows to His people, but also that he bore the full iniquity of every rash vow we have made with God and have broken due to our sinful forgetfulness and neglect. Jesus perfectly fulfilled Numbers 30 on Calvary.

Remember that Jesus is in every text. In some cases, we may not see Him, especially in those infrequently considered texts that we gloss over because we erroneously believe them to be superfluous or unimportant. But He's in those texts, too. We should not be fooled into thinking otherwise because of our inability to see properly.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Prayer Is the Mother of Mission

Praying for divine appointments by Chris Yarzab
Praying for Divine Appointments, by Chris Yarzab
Dale Bruner gives some convicting words on prayer as mission:
A creeping death sweeps over the mission of many churches in our time because, quite simply, prayer meetings have ceased.And beneath the death of prayer, at a deeper level, lies the death of a real belief that only Jesus literally saves people. Faith in Christ as sole savior has precipitously declined in mainline churches. But such faith is the mother of prayer, and prayer is the mother of mission.
From volume one of Bruner's Matthew: A Commentary, commenting on Matthew 9:35-10:4. Emphasis in the original.

Monday, June 11, 2012

The Faculty Speech - You Are Not Special

David McCullough, Jr. (son of historian and author David McCullough) recently gave a facinating faculty commencement address at Wellesley High School, where Dr. McCullough serves as an English Teacher.

The video of the address is just over 12 minutes in length and it's worth watching in its entirety:

One of the most compelling parts of the speech is where Dr. McCullough said, "[We] have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement." He continued:
We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.  It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.
As I read that poignant phrase, "building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin that the well-being of Guatemalans," my mind went to the church. We need to be careful that the church not succumb to the unhealthy desire for accolades rather than the faithful obedience to Christ's commanded mission to make disciples. We cannot be satisfied to simply be seen as helpers, or to be "missional" (whatever that means) in order to be "relavant." Relevance isn't the point. Faithfulness to the gospel of Christ is. If any pastor, church member, congregation, denomination, or other group seeks to be "missional" for the sake of gaining eyeballs, or penetrating that hard-to-reach "youth demographic," it runs the risk of compromising the truth - that Jesus Christ is Lord.

Indeed, "faith apart works is dead," (James 2:26). But so are works without faith.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Gospel Way - A Prayer for the Day

Blessed Lord Jesus,

No human mind could conceive or invent the gospel. Acting in eternal grace, thou art both its messenger and its message, lived out on earth through infinite compassion, applying thy life to insult, injury, death, that I might be redeemed, ransomed, freed.

Blessed be thou, O Father, for contriving this way. Eternal thanks be to thee, O Lamb of God, for opening this way. Praise everlasting to thee, O Holy Spirit, for applying this way to my heart. Glorious Trinity, impress the gospel on my soul, until its virtue diffuses every faculty; Let it be heard, acknowledged, professed, felt.

Teach me to secure this mighty blessing; help me to give up every darling lust, to submit heart and life to its command, to have it in my will, controlling my affections, moulding my understanding; to adhere strictly to the rules of true religion, not departing from them in any instance, nor for any advantage in order to escape evil, inconvenience or danger.

Take me to the cross to seek glory from its infamy; strip me of every pleasing pretense of righteousness by my own doings.

O gracious Redeemer, I have neglected thee too long, often crucified thee, crucified thee afresh by my impenitence, put thee to open shame. I thank thee for the patience that has borne with me so long, and for the grace that now makes me willing to be thine.

O unite me to thyself with inseparable bonds, that nothing may ever draw me back from thee, my Lord, my Savior.

(From a collection of puritan prayers entitled The Valley of Vision published by Banner of Truth.)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

QOTD - Reading the Fine Print

From Kyle Idleman's book Not a Fan:
For many Christians the concept of denying themselves was not part of the deal. They grew up with the message that such a radical decision really isn't necessary. So they signed up to follow Jesus, but if denying themselves was part of the explanation, it was definitely the fine print. That's especially true of American Christians. In part, this ids due to the collision of Christianity with American capitalism. It has created a culture of consumers in our churches. Instead of approaching their faith with a spirit of denial that says, "What can I do for Jesus?" they have a consumer mentality that says, "What can Jesus do for me?"
Emphasis added.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Book Giveaway!

Behold, I am giving away a new copy of a great book entitled A Passionate Plea for Preaching, published by Reformation Trust. The book features essays by Eric J. Alexander, Joel R. Beeke, James Montgomery Boice, Sinclair B. Ferguson, Don Kistler, John MacArthur, R. Albert Mohler, Jr., John Piper, R.C. Sproul, R.C. Sproul Jr., and Derek W.H. Thomas. I have read the Kindle edition and can highly recommend the book.

The Rules: You may only enter the drawing once. To enter, simply fill out your name and email address in the form below. The winner will be notified by email. As soon as the winner has been chosen, all names and e-mail addresses will be permanently deleted. You will not be spammed as a result of entering the drawing. This giveaway closes Monday, March 19 at noon central time, so enter right away!

Monday, March 12, 2012

QOTD - We Are Drifters in Need of Grace

D.A. Carson, from his book For the Love of God, page 23:
People do not drift toward Holiness. Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord. We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.

Thursday, March 01, 2012

Without Scripture We Fall Into Error

John Calvin in the Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1.6.3
Suppose we ponder how slippery is the fall of the human mind into forgetfulness of God, how great the tendency to every kind of error, how great the lust to fashion constantly new and artificial religions. Then we may perceive how necessary was such written proof of heavenly doctrine, that it should neither perish through forgetfulness nor vanish through error nor be corrupted by the audacity of men. It is therefore clear that God has provided the assistance of his Word for the sake of all those to whom he has been pleased to give useful instruction because he foresaw that his likeness imprinted upon the most beautiful form of the universe would be insufficiently effective. 
 God always knew that would would need the Word.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Our Desperate Need for the Father

The New York Times recently ran an astonishing story with the headline "For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage."

As it happens, this week I'm called upon to preach Matthew 6:9-15, Jesus' gift of prayer to the church. During my preparation, I ran into this quote from Dale Bruner in his terrific commentary where he says this about Matthew 6:9b and the words "Our Father"
The modern "Our Parent" or the politically correct "Our Father and Mother God" will not do. The first reason for keeping "Our Father" is simply Jesus' command, "Pray like this: Our Father." But another reason is the desperate need in modern culture for the return of the father. In a book that stirred Europe, A. Mitscherlich's Auf dem Weg zur vaterlosen Gesellschaft (1982) ("On the Way to the Fatherless Society"), a world is described in which fathers appear in children's life only late at night as ghost figures or in "progressive" American entertainment as mainly parodies (Gnilka, 1:231). And for those who have even more lamentably experienced their fathers as unspeakable horrors, it can be argued that the remedy for a bad father is not the still greater removal of any father figure at all; it is the gift of a finally good Father. The Lord's Prayer gives this gift.
...the desperate need in modern culture for the return of the father. Indeed. The epidemic of producing fatherless children will prove to be a disaster, unless the Holy Spirit grants to us a true revival that, in turn, produces a renewed love for God and His precious and holy Word.
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. (Matthew 6:9b-13).

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

"And when pride hath made the sermon..."

Richard Baxter, in his amazing book The Reformed Pastor, gives this piercing diagnosis of what happens when pride makes the sermon:
And when pride hath made the sermon, it goes with us into the pulpit, it formeth our tone, it animateth us in the delivery, it takes us off from that which may be displeasing, how necessary soever, and setteth us in pursuit of vain applause. In short, the sum of all is this, it maketh men, both in studying and preaching, to seek themselves, and deny God, when they should seek God’s glory, and deny themselves. When they should inquire, What shall I say, and how shall I say it, to please God best, and do most good it makes them ask, What shall I say, and how shall I deliver it, to be thought a learned able preacher, and to be applauded by all that hear me? When the sermon is done, pride goeth home with them, and maketh them more eager to know whether they were applauded, than whether they did prevail for the saving of souls. Were it not for shame, they could find in their hearts to ask people how they liked them, and to draw out their commendations. If they perceive that they are highly thought of, they rejoice, as having attained their end; but if they see that they are considered but weak or common men, they are displeased, as having missed the prize they had in view.
Lord, please kill all pride in your chosen heralds. Amen.