Friday, September 10, 2010


As some of you may have gathered, I've had a rather bad last few days due to a certain happening in the music world. Last Thursday, Mike Portnoy, drummer, songwriter, lyricist, public face, and creative driving force of my favorite metal band Dream Theater, abruptly left the band he's led for the past 25 years. Let me make this perfectly clear: Dream Theater is not Dream Theater without Mike Portnoy. And by leaving one of the best bands out there at the height of its career, he has lost whatever respect I had for him. I won't say any more on how heartbroken and angry I am on the subject. Maybe I'll post a rant on my music blog sometime.

Anyway, off on a reflective tangent. I was basically in grief after I heard the news. In fact, I went into denial for a day or so, thinking there was no possible way that he could leave--I couldn't even imagine Dream Theater without Portnoy. I thought it was some kind of bad joke. Once it became real to me, I became quite angry. No idea if I'll start bargaining next or how that would work here. Putting this into perspective, I was shocked by how broken up I was (and am) about it; it was like I'd lost a loved one. All this for a lousy band? For something that doesn't personally affect me at all? What's wrong with me? Maybe the sad news was a much-needed wakeup call.

This led me to thinking about how much trust I put into temporary things. Even the things we feel most secure in could be gone tomorrow. The impossible can happen without any warning. I'm sure you all have your own experiences proving this. Does it really make sense to look for happiness in things when we might not live to see tomorrow?

Jesus told a parable about this in Luke 12, which I think speaks to Christians and non-Christians alike.
 And he told them this parable: “The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ “Then he said, ‘This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods. And I'll say to myself, “You have plenty of good things laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” ’ “But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ “This is how it will be with anyone who stores up things for himself but is not rich toward God.”
The parable is a sober warning for anyone who focuses on temporary, worldly things instead of eternal things (which we find by knowing God). So instead of storing up treasures you can't take with you, seek to become "rich toward God"--rich in eternal treasures like love, joy, wisdom, and a relationship with God.

And while you're still on earth, stick it to Dream Theater--listen to Queensrÿche!

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Law

This post relates to my previous one in addressing the modern state of 'religion', specifically its perceived legalism. But I'm coming from a more dangerous perspective: one I have never had, that of the non-Christian, the outsider to the church. I'm talking about people who think being a 'good' Christian means you have to follow all of the (at times crazy) laws in the Old Testament. (Let's call them legalists) This is a common method of making fun of Christianity; I'm sure you're familiar with satirical websites on whom to stone or what kind of animals to sacrifice to God and such. More innocuously, maybe you've heard of the guy who attempted to follow all the Old Testament laws with rather humorous results.

The basic line of reasoning behind these occurrences, I think, goes something like this: the Bible is supposedly the inspired, always-true word of God, and it has all these incredibly specific instructions and laws in the first five books, so of course we have to follow all these rules if we claim to be Christians who hold the Bible in such high esteem.

Well lucky me, the previously-cited chapter, Ephesians 5, happens to be all about Christians who think they have to follow Old Testament law! Some context: in chapter 1, Paul says the Galatian church is "deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and [is] turning to a different gospel--which is really no gospel at all." As my pastor told it, what happened was that after Paul planted the Galatian church, some Pharisees came along and told them they had to follow Jewish law (i.e. Leviticus and Deuteronomy) to be Christians. Specifically, they told the church they had to be circumcised, an outward symbol of God's old covenant with the Jews. (v. 2-6) In the beginning of chapter 3 Paul contrasts their efforts to observe the [Jewish] law with simply believing.

Indeed, the main point of the whole letter is to address the Galatians' reliance on following the law to be saved instead of simply believing. And he is at his harshest in reprimanding them; he had nice things to say to greet even the Corinthians, who were a seriously messed-up church (taking each other to court over disputes, cheering on a guy who sleeps with his stepmom, obsessing over the gift of tongues), but not here. Paul is pretty clear that the Galatians (and, by logical extension, believers in general) are not expected to follow the laws of the Jews; just read 5:2-6. (Or just about anywhere in the book except chapter 2)

Back to the modern misconception that Christians are supposed to follow all those rules just as the Galatians thought they had to. How do we answer that train of logic? Paul does it for us in chapter 3, verses 15-25, where he discusses the purpose of the law. Specifically, he says it was given "because of transgressions until the Seed [Christ] referred had come." The law was only a temporary measure given to keep the Jews from completely turning from God until Jesus came.

But that doesn't seem to be the main purpose of the law. In v. 23, Paul says "we [the Jews] were held prisoners of the law"--apparently he found it just as constraining as we do. Part of this is because no one can fully observe the law--"Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin." (v. 22) What's the point of a law that no one can follow? To direct people to the alternative to the law, the real way to be declared righteous and saved from the penalty of sin: faith in Jesus. (v. 24) Attempting to completely follow the law is not God's intended response to it; instead, we should see how impossibly high God's standard of holiness is (for all we know, it might even be above and beyond the Old Testament law) and that we have no chance at all of meeting it on our own; we need to be saved by faith in Jesus. Finally, in verse 25, Paul pretty much summarizes the whole book: "Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law."

And that's a fine take-home, if you remember nothing else. By sending His son to take the penalty of our sins for us, God gave us an alternative to the futility of trying to be righteous by following the law. To use an extremely bad modern analogy, a Christian striving to be 'good' and obey the law is like a Monopoly player trying to roll his way out of jail instead of using the get-out-of-jail-free card he already has. Through Jesus, God gave us all a free ticket out of the penalty of our sins; who would turn down such a deal?

If I ended my post after that last paragraph, I might leave readers with the notion that since Jesus forgave our sins, we can just do whatever we want; after all, His grace is unlimited, right? Paul addresses this opposite idea to legalism in a different letter, Romans. "What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer?" (6:1-2) Going back to my Monopoly analogy, this would be like immediately returning to jail after getting out for free. You don't want to go back to jail.

Another example more applicable to my peers: say you've made it through college but have racked up enough debt to keep you busy for several lifetimes, when suddenly your parents step in and pay it all off. (Maybe they used their RV fund or something) You have a clean slate, a fresh start to life, financially speaking. There are two extreme ways to respond to this stupendous act of generosity:

1. "Sweet, my parents will bail me out! Let's buy that Lamborghini I always wanted and hit the casino! PARTY TIME!!!"
2. "Wow, I can't believe they paid it all. I'm going to be careful with my money and try to avoid getting into debt from now on!"

Which way do you think makes more sense? Hopefully #2. And so it is with the much greater gift of salvation. Responding by simply taking license and doing whatever you want with the assurance that you will be forgiven makes no sense; it shows that you don't appreciate the gift at all, only freedom from the penalty of sin. Instead, Paul says, we should consider ourselves "dead to sin" and live consistently. Not in order to be saved, but because we already are.

A Farewell to "Religion"

Today at Hope Community Church was "rally day"--the first day that everyone is back at the U, creating a huge boost in attendance for Hope. Naturally Pastor Steve would want the preaching to be top-notch for such a momentous event; last year we had just reached 1 Corinthians 11:2-16 (the part about head coverings for women!). So this year we're in the middle of a quick series about Hope's core values; this week we covered Galatians 5 on living filled with the Spirit. I could write many posts on what this entails, but for now I'm going to focus on something from the sermon (and that I'm increasingly seeing) that hit me.

The sermon was basically about how the Christian life is a constant struggle to avoid slipping into two extremes--trying to earn your salvation by being legalistically righteous on one hand, and abusing God's grace by living however you want on the other. He mainly focused on avoiding the first extreme; instead of having our righteous work from the outside in, making ourselves "good people" by acting holy, we're to live from the inside out, letting the Spirit make us righteous via relationship with God.

I couldn't agree with any of that more, and overall I really enjoyed the sermon. I just wanted to focus quickly on Pastor Steve's universal name for this kind of legalistic, outside-in living: 'religion'. The way I grew up, when someone asked me my religion, I would have said I was a Christian (even if I wasn't necessarily living it out yet, but it was the descriptor). As I grew up and learned about the importance of a relationship with God and how we're supposed to live that, religion was the word I used to tie it all together.

Thanks to this redefinition, Christian writers and preachers actively shun religion and look for other words to use: 'faith' 'relationship', fill in the blank; you may have heard more than me. Nowadays, religion has become a very bad word in the evangelical community--a thing to be avoided, to dissociate yourself and your church from. It's associated with dogma, divisiveness, petty doctrinal disputes, empty rituals, and the imposing of morality on others. Perhaps because of these associations, it's become of the two things you never talk about in American culture--a shame!

And the saddest part is, I can't really disagree with them. It's easier for Christians and churches to distance themselves from the term than to try and redeem it in the juggernaut of American culture. I sigh when I see student groups promising "Jesus, not religion", but if 'religion' is such a huge stumbling block to so many people, maybe it's time to move on, with 1 Corinthians 10:22 flexibility.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Spiritual Gift of Celibacy

To the world, singleness is at best a problem easily remedied by personal ads and online dating sites, and at worst a time to party, sleep around, and avoid commitment. Even the church can sometimes adopt this kind of attitude, exerting subconscious pressure on singles to "settle down" and get married. The worst that can happen (which, thankfully, I haven't seen anything of in churches I've attended) is the church treating singles as second-class citizens. Is this a biblical attitude? Paul has this to say in 1 Corinthians 7:8: "Now to the unmarried and the widows I say: It is good for them to stay unmarried, as I am." This verse (and really, the entire chapter) is a bucket of cold water on the head for anyone who thinks marriage is the ultimate earthly goal for the Christian life. It's one of the few times the New Testament goes into much depth on the subject of marriage, and a subject of frequent study for me.

In the chapter, Paul is addressing those in the Corinthian church who held an opposite view to the pro-marriage one seen today. Influenced by the Greek philosophy of asceticism, which shunned all worldly pleasures, including marriage and sex, some in the Corinthian church were forbidding others to marry as part of "Christian holiness". Paul speaks out against this additional restriction on the church and qualifies it. Paul looks favorably upon the state of singleness, but advises the Corinthians to marry "because these is so much immorality." he says this "as a concession, not a command" (v. 6)--a concession to the sexual drive God has given most people, which would lead to sexual immorality if not given the Godly outlet of sex within marriage. He expresses a personal preference for staying single, but stresses that it isn't a sin to get married.

But Paul emphasizes that whether you're married or unmarried isn't the point--"keeping God's commands is what counts." (v. 19) His basic point in verses 17-31 is that we shouldn't let concerns about our position in the world--like being a slave, or free, or married, or single--become more important than our commitment to God, which is the same for all situations. We should be faithful to the place in life where God has called us. If making some change in our life doesn't interfere with our service to God, we are free as believers to do something about it. As Paul writes in Philippians 3:8, he considers all things rubbish--including his singleness--compared to knowing Jesus. Likewise, we are to put out relatioship with Jesus first and let that being the overriding influence on life decisions like marriage.

Statistically speaking, God will call most of us to a marriage that will hopefully be another way to glorify Him--a sermon series I listened to said that about 90% of us can expect to get married at some point, though I wonder if this might be an underestimate. But Paul clearly says that not everyone has this calling. In verse 7 he says "I wish all men were as I am [single]. But each man has his own gift from God; one has this gift, another has that." What he is getting at here is that being able to glorify God through a marriage is itself a (likely spiritual) gift from God. And, on the flipside, being able to abstain from marriage and not "burn with passion" and fall into sexual immorality is another. This is the spiritual gift of celibacy (or singleness).

What good is this gift? Why not get married? Paul explains in verses 32-35.
I would like you to be free from concern. An unmarried man is concerned about the Lord's affairs--how he can please the Lord. But a married man is concerned about the affairs of this world--how he can please his wife--and his interests are divided.
When you think about it, the value of the gift of celibacy is obvious: it gives a person undivided time, resources, and thoughts for God. Though marriage can be a very good thing, it occupies a huge chunk of one's life, which a single person can give unreservedly to God. For examples of what this can look like, the Bible has three shining examples: Paul, John the Baptist, and Jesus Himself. I can only speculate as to how their ministries would have been different had they been married, but they would have had to devote time and effort to providing for and protecting a family. Paul seemed to be happier being able to devote himself completely to serving God and thought that others could be as well.

It's important to distinguish between the spiritual gift of celibacy and the temporary state of singleness that God gives as a gift to everyone before they get married. Everyone is called to see their singleness as more than just a waiting period before marriage and make the most of it to the glory of God. Some people only learn they have the spiritual gift in hindsight as they realize all the kingdom work they did wouldn't have been feasible if they'd been married. What a shame it would have been if they'd spent their time looking for a spouse instead of serving God right where He put them?

But though Paul says that being single is better than being married, the spiritual gift of celibacy has some downsides he doesn't touch on. The biggest one for me is the loss of perspective I would have gained from marriage. The church-as-Christ's-bride metaphor doesn't come alive for me like it does for a married couple, and I imagine that being a dad would help in understanding God's role as our heavenly Father. Additionally, without the unknown variables of who I'll marry and how many kids I'll have to worry about, I sometimes find myself planning out my entire life in broad swaths, even though I still have no idea whatGod's plans might be. But despite these, I agree with Paul in thinking that the gift of celibacy is pure awesome. I'm excited to see the exciting things God has in store for me!

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

The Spiritual Gift of Service

First, one addendum to my post on wisdom and knowledge: I think one of the applications of the spiritual gift of knowledge is the study and pursuit of theology and apologetics. Expanding peoples' knowledge of the nature of the Trinity won't directly change how they live their lives, but it might improve their view of God and inspire them to pursue a deeper relationship with Him. Similarly, apologetics certainly promotes the "common good" by removing intellectual obstacles people have to knowing God and allowing them to come to Him.

Anyway, on to the spiritual gift of service. The Bible doesn't have quite as much to say about service in a Christian context; the gift is only mentioned in Romans 12:7 as part of one of Paul's lists of spiritual gifts. But service itself is frequently mentioned as an important virtue. Jesus said "the greatest among you will be your servant" (Matthew 23:11). Humble service is a key trait for any Christian.

So what does it mean to have the spiritual gift of service? Most forms of service are things anyone can do--it doesn't take a college degree to help build a house or work at a charity event. the gift probably doesn't take the form of being exceptionally gifted or being "good" at serving in the sense that I'm "good" (skilled) at theater tech. I think the gift more takes the form of especially enjoying acts of service, and therefore being more eager to serve and able to serve more often. We're all called to serve, but someone with this gift is able to enjoy serving and do it in a greater capacity.

So, I don't have much more to say about the gift of service; it's pretty simple. For gifts like this that aren't clearly supernatural/obvious, like tongues or prophecy, it might be hard to tell if you have them, even with a questionnaire. I think that using your spiritual gifts in the body of Christ is important in recognizing them; sometimes the only way to find out is for someone else to approach you and say "you have a real gift for ____".