Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Trinity All Around Us

Today’s post is all about pictures (well, except for this wordy intro).

I’ve been kicking around ideas for a replacement for the “Friday Figure” series here on the blog. The Figure of the Month was fun while it lasted, but I’m pretty confident that we covered many of the best turns of phrase. (Are you coming late to the party? No worries—you can still read all about hendiadys and anaphora and isocolon in the archives!)

The new idea: The Friday Picture Post (or Photo Friday, if you want your alliteration to work that way).

And yes, it’s not Friday today—consider this a Tuesday pilot test.

The concept is pretty simple: I’ll start with some faith-related concept—e.g., grace, the theology of the cross—and try to capture it in photos. You can play, too, either by a) sending me topic challenges, b) sending in your own pics, or c) just looking around you to see what strikes YOUR eye when you think of the topic.

Today’s trial topic: vestigia trinitatis, the Augustian idea that there are traces of the Trinity in all of creation. (A related concept: the so-called “rule of 3” that applies to writing and other creative activities. Omne trium perfectum. Everything that comes in threes is perfect.)

Nature’s own handiwork…

Perfect threes in art and architecture (art imitating nature)…

Primary colors!

If God were a vehicle, would He look like this?
And in rhetoric...

The message just wouldn't sound finished without that third point, would it? And a fourth point would be too much.

Omne trium perfectum. Inspired by the only truly perfect three: the Trinity. 

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Reaching Out to Muslims

Last week, delegates to the National Convention of the Lutheran Church−Missouri Synod (LCMS) passed Resolution 14-06A: “To encourage outreach to Muslim neighbors.” The rationale for the resolution: “Islam continues to grow in our country and throughout the world. The church needs to be bold in expressing the love of Christ to Muslims.”

Muslim outreach.

I like the idea, but it’s taking awhile for me to wrap my head around those two words together. Chalk it up to my childhood.

When I was young, we lived in an apartment building near the university. My sister and I had two buddies in the building, Amy and Maha, whose dad was a professor. My sister and I spent countless hours with Amy and Maha, swimming in the pool, running around in the woods with the other “apartment kids,” and collecting salamanders, which we kept in ice cream pails. 

But religion? Church? Jesus? I don’t recall ever talking with them about that, not even when we were older. We probably just assumed that Islam was part of their Egyptian DNA and left it at that. My mom does recall seeing a Quran when she was visiting another Egyptian family in the building. She asked what it was, they answered her question, and that’s as far as the conversation went.

“Islam really wasn’t on our radar then,” she tells me.

These days, things are different. According to a recent PewResearch study, Muslims currently make up about 1% of the U.S. population. By 2050, that percentage is expected to double. In the process, Islam is predicted to surpass the Jewish faith as the second-largest religion in the country. 

In light of those changing demographics—not only here but elsewhere in the world (e.g., Europe)—it’s not surprising to see Christian groups ramping up efforts to reach out to Muslims.

And they can be reached. Just check out the mercy and witness work with refugees in Europe. Or read this month’s book choice, Nabeel Qureshi’s Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, which is an account of one Muslim’s journey from Islam to Christianity. 

If you’re looking to raise your “Muslim Outreach IQ,” you should check out Qureshi’s book. It’s presented as a first-person narrative, so you get to know Qureshi and his family as they discuss Islam—what they believe, why, and what’s important in their faith. Later in the tale, Qureshi goes to college, where he becomes friends with a Christian named David, who challenges him to look at Islam and Christianity more deeply.

Qureshi offers a detailed description of the process—the arguments, evidence, obstacles, and anxieties—involved in leaving one religious belief system behind and embracing another. As you can probably imagine, his journey wasn’t easy. He suffered in myriad ways, but in his words, “All suffering is worth it to follow Jesus. He is that amazing” (p. 297).

Near the end of the book, Qureshi offers two helpful pieces of advice about Muslim outreach. The first is to resist dismissing the idea of God reaching Muslims through visions and dreams. Dreams play a role in Qureshi’s own tale, and he notes that some Christians have been doubtful about this. Qureshi understands concerns about the authority and sufficiency of Scripture, but he adds, “I also believe God is a gracious God who is able to do immeasurably more than we can ask or imagine, and He is reaching Muslims in ways that might surprise those who are not on the mission field” (p. 296).

Point number 2: You don’t need to know everything about Islam before reaching out to Muslims. Qureshi is quick to add, though, that with respect to Christianity, “it is important for people to be able to articulately explain what they believe and why” (p. 296). At the very least, we should be able to make a case that Jesus did die on the cross, that He did rise from the tomb, and that He is God and in fact makes that claim in the Bible. As Qureshi explains, these are key sticking points for Muslims as they consider Christianity.

You can find a short version of Qureshi’s tale on the Christianity Today site. But if you have a little more time, read the entire book. It’s interesting, informative, and will definitely get you thinking. 

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Is the Devil Real?

The devil went down to Georgia. And he runs with Van Halen. And he swooshes his cartoon tail on little red vacuum cleaners.

Should it be a surprise that so many people don’t believe he’s real?

For the record, I do believe he’s real.

Yes, I’m educated. Yes, I’m familiar with the Enlightenment. No, I’m not superstitious. And no, this has nothing to do with that little Ouija board incident when I was a kid. (Not much, anyway.)

It’s this simple: I believe in God. I believe what He says is true. He talks about the devil. Ergo: I believe the devil exists.

But that logic doesn’t hold up for everyone.

In 2009, the Barna Group shared a survey in which 1871 self-described Christians were asked to respond to the statement: “Satan is not a living being but a symbol of evil.” 40% strongly agreed, and 19% agreed somewhat. A minority—26%—disagreed strongly, with and additional 9% disagreeing somewhat. 8% said they didn’t know. 

Despite the skepticism about the devil, 78% of those same respondents described God as the “all-powerful, all-knowing Creator of the universe who rules the world today.”

This pattern showed up, as well, in a 2013 Harris poll, which revealed that 74% of U.S. adults believe in God, but only 58% believe in the existence of the devil. 

Is anyone else puzzled by these results?

If someone believes in an all-powerful God, the creator of the universe, why not the devil, too, who shows up again and again in God’s account of the world?

Or, if someone believes in Jesus—that He’s both God and man, that he was crucified and then rose from the dead, and has the power to save all people on earth (whaaaat?)—why not “the evil one?”

Jesus himself talks about “the evil one” at John 17:15: “I do not ask that you take them out of the world, but keep them from the evil one.”

And he minces no words in John 8:44 as he addresses his listeners: “You are of your father the devil and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies.”

That’s exactly how Satan, the crafty persuader, is presented whenever he opens his mouth—as he sweet-talks Eve in the garden (Gen. 3:1-5), challenges God about his servant Job (Job 1:6-12; Job 2:1-6), and tempts Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-12).
“Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?”  
“Does Job fear God for no reason? Have you not put a hedge around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? . . . But stretch out your hand and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”
“All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.”
Jesus’ answer to that last pitch: “Be gone, Satan! For it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve.’” Then the devil left him, and behold, angels came and were ministering to him.

The evidence here for the devil seems pretty compelling, yet only 58% believe he’s real.

Those angels, on the other hand? 68% believe in them.

Another puzzling inconsistency. And another reason for the devil to smirk.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

To Judge or Not to Judge

One of the most familiar statements of Jesus, judging from how often I see it, has to be “Judge not.”

The line is powerful and pithy, but it often seems misapplied, offered as a Christian equivalent of “live and let live” or “to each his own.”

If I were a clever techie, I might create a proof-texting pop-up box that appears when someone types, “Don’t judge.
Caution! Do not proceed unless you a) thoroughly understand the meaning of Matthew 7:1-6 (i.e., have read beyond the first two words of the passage), and b) are prepared for the possibility of being thought judgmental in saying, Don't judge.
The pop-up might be annoying, but if made people think a little harder about Christ’s words in Matthew 7—or about judging generally—it would be worth it. 

For the record, I count myself among those whose understanding of judging could use fine-tuning.

The Greek word for judge, κρίνω (KREE-no), appears in various forms 115 times in the Bible. The term means “to separate (distinguish), i.e. judge; come to a choice (decision, judgment) by making a judgment – either positive (a verdict in favor of) or negative (which rejects or condemns).” 

The definition seems straightforward enough, but in practice, it can be confusing.

Take this recent social media discussion of one of our many controversial social issues. All of the following views appeared in the same conversation:
Judge not lest ye be judged.
We all judge. And God has called us to judge. NOT to condemn.
We are to recognize sin, but not judge the individual!
Love the sinner but hate the sin!
I don't judge. I simply love. Judging is God's job. Not mine. I deal with sin daily. I have too much in my own house.
We are not the ones who judge. God already judges. There is nothing wrong with stating God's judgment, and mercy, as revealed in Scripture.
God never asks us to judge, he will do that. He wants us to share the word and bring sinners back to God.
We should judge. We shouldn’t judge. I judge. I don’t judge. God has called us to judge. God never asks us to judge.

So which is it?

Here’s a sampling of some of the passages on judging:

Do Judge
Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment. (John 7:24)
For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you. (1 Cor. 5:12-13)
Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life! (1 Cor. 6:2) 
Don’t Judge
Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things. (Romans 2:1)
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Romans 14:10)
If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. (John 12:47).
Based on these passages and others, a couple things seem clear: 1) Judging is inescapable, whether it’s part of our vocation or just life as a layperson. How can we test spirits or beware of false prophets or mark and avoid those who cause divisions and offenses if we don’t judge? 2) Judging is serious business, filled with minefields. For those times when we’re thinking about communicating a judgment, another pop-up box might be useful:
Caution! Do not proceed unless you thoroughly understand a) God’s Word, b) the context, c) your own motivation, and d) the log in your own eye. (And Facebook? You sure about that?)
To Lutheran publishing houses/theologians/authors: How about a book on this? It would be an excellent addition (in my humble judgment).