A few weeks ago I preached a sermon and used the somewhat classic metaphor of a chair to explain what saving faith looks like. In case you missed that sermon or have never heard the metaphor, here’s my summary version:

If I’m trying to bring someone who’s never seen or heard of a chair before into the fullest possible understanding of what a chair is and does, how do I go about doing it?

1) I would begin by verbally sharing a definition/description of a chair.

2) I would find a chair as an example so this person could see that the description I’ve given makes sense with what they see. For them to ‘know’ and understand a chair, it’s important for them to agree and believe that the information I’ve given them is true.

3) They’ve got to sit in the chair. Unless they take this final step, can they ever really gain the fullest possible understanding of what a chair is and does? No. Unless they sit, their understanding of a chair remains a matter of detached theory, nothing more.

HEAR: For a person to be saved, they must hear the definition of the “Good News—“ They must hear the story of what God did through Christ to save them. Often this happens—and the process stops. Many people simply reject this message outright, so… many times— end of story. BELIEVE: But often, that person will hear the gospel message and it will resonate with them, it will make sense to them. They’ll know it’s true. We all know people like this; maybe they’ve read the Bible, perhaps even know it pretty well, they believe there is a God and it’s even possible they can regurgitate coherent Christian theology back at you. They understand the message. They understand that it’s true. But again, many stop there. What step remains for that person to be saved? CHOOSE: What remains is a choice of the will. Theory is safe. It is agreement at a distance. Saving faith is always risky, because it’s up close and personal. For a person to take a step beyond the ranks of fallen angels (James 2:19), he/she must risk claiming the Truth of that gospel message as their own truth, putting all their eggs in one basket and then banking their life on it. There are some things that can only be proved from the inside; my pastor uses BBQ ribs to make this point. Until you take a bite, how will you ever really know whether or not they’re the best ribs in the world? “Taste and see that the LORD is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8).

All metaphors have a limit to their usefulness. That’s why, as my wife was preparing to talk with some of her Jehovah’s Witness friends this week, she wanted to know if the chair metaphor had reached it’s useful limit? “What’s making you wonder?” I asked. Apparently, Her and her friends were planning to talk about the content of John 3:16. Now, I know, you wouldn’t think there was much guesswork left in that verse anymore… but that’s where you’d be wrong. You see, the version we’re familiar with says—16"For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.This is not how the verse is worded in the JW Bible. Here is that same verse, from their “New World Translation”: 6 “For God loved the world so much that he gave his only-begotten Son, in order that everyone exercising faith in him might not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”

Now, granted, this may not seem like a huge difference. You could argue that they’ve simply tried to make the same point I made above, that believing something is true isn’t enough to save—that you’ve got to make a choice to believe in a way that commits you personally. You’ve got to exercise the limp muscles of detached theory by doing something. The problem is that we believe what you “do” to “not perish but have eternal life” is make a once and for all-time choice to follow Jesus. The way they’ve worded the verse, however, implies an ongoing discipline of work in order to remain saved. Keep learning more information about God. Keep serving God. Keep the commandments and rules of God, etc. Keep doing these things and then, if you’ve done it enough—“you will not be destroyed but have everlasting life.”

My wife wanted to point out, using the chair as an example of something we’re exercising faith in, that-- even using this translation-- what is the best way to “exercise faith” in a chair? What is the best way to learn about a chair, the best way to serve the purpose of a chair, the best way to get to know a chair? You can agree on the definition of the chair, you can look at one and study it and chart it and diagram it and theorize about it and agree on it’s potential capabilities, etc, but unless you SIT ON IT, you don’t really know that chair. Until you sit on it yourself, you don’t really know its sturdiness, its trustworthiness, its functionality. You’re not “exercising” full faith in that chair until and unless you sit on it, putting all your eggs in one basket and banking your hope for dignity and rest on the strength of its legs rather than your own.

“What would make you wonder if the metaphor had reached its useful limit?” I had asked, and my wife said, “Well… what if they agree with all that and then say—‘Sure, but you gotta stay sitting on the chair or else you’re lost?’” This is a good point. Here’s my thought—Do you remember that prank you always heard about but never had the guts to pull as a kid—the one where you spread super glue all over your teacher’s chair? What happens when she (I always imagine a ‘she’) tries to stand up off the chair…? Exactly. The teacher is laminated to the chair.

In my “spare time,” I’m an aspiring knife maker. There’s a process during the assembly of a certain type of knife handle that requires the application of a two-part epoxy. The chemicals for this rock-solid connecting glue are held separately in two distinct containers. Individually, they are not sticky. But when the two are mixed together—watch out! You’ve got about 5 minutes before liquid becomes a solid. Here’s the point— the moment you say “yes” to what the love of God did for you, you’re sitting in the chair; by resting in the work of Jesus, you’re exercising your faith in the only way that matters (Hebrews 10:10-12). And, more importantly, if the love of God is one part of an indestructible spiritual epoxy, that part that created the chair and made it available to you (Matt. 11:28), then the volitional choice you make to sit on the chair, that choice of the will to transfer trust of support from yourself to it (Him), is the other half of an unbreakable bonding action. You become laminated to Christ.

So that we read in Romans 8:38-39—

38”For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39nor height, nor depth, nor any other created thing, will be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

When you say, “yes” to Jesus, nothing, not even yourself (are you a ‘created thing?’) can separate you from the love and favor of God; you’re laminated to Him. When you say “yes” to Jesus, when you accept Him as your savior, it sticks.

Surrounded By Grace,

A CRITICAL THOUGHT, Part 2 ~ 4/23/10

Do you know the difference between music and noise? Arrangement. Noise is random sound. Music is created when sound is arranged into a coherent structure, when sound is arranged in a meaningful way. There is design in music because there is a designer, a composer. And the design is achieved by purposely arranging specific notes into a specific order.

I remember a music class where we watched a video about a man who recorded the sound of a grand piano hitting the concrete after he dropped it from a 5-story building. Because he was apparently brilliant and well known, he called this “music” and a few, undiscriminating people agreed. I don’t believe that was music.

What does all this have to do with story? What concerns me about the undiscriminating way people are experiencing movies and books today are the implications for how they will ‘experience’ the greatest Story ever told, the one found in the Bible. Will they just read the Bible the way they read the morning paper, scanning for headlines and excitement? Will they read the Bible for the sake of mindless ritual and, after turning away, immediately forget what they read? Or will they read with a critical and engaged mind, working through the way the stories are arranged in order to uncover the design and intent of the Author?

Now, granted, I agree with my pastor who rightly says that ‘the best version of the Bible is the one you read (!)’ – reading God’s word is ALWAYS better than not reading God’s word. But just like there’s a way to get the most out of any story, there are also ways to get the MOST out of God’s story. What happens if we treat the Bible like a disjointed pile of random anecdotes? If we think it’s just a bunch of unarranged sounds stitched together over a couple thousand years? What happens if we take the low view that assumes it has been tampered with? ‘Some original ideas are still there,’ goes the popular idea, ‘but a lot has been changed or added.’ What happens when we read with these assumptions? When the trustworthiness of the Bible is doubted, everything it says about God and everything it says about you suddenly becomes uncertain. I appreciate what John MacArthur says on this point—

“God didn’t just give them (the prophets) thoughts that they then expressed in their own words. God gave them the words. This is why pronouns, prepositions, and conjunctions, those parts of speech that seem insignificant, are important in the Bible” (MacArthur, 9 Unleashing God’s Word in Your Life)

If even one part of the Bible is somehow false, accidental or inconsequential, how can any of it be trusted? Reading the Bible in this way for the sake of spiritual benefit becomes as pointless as destroying a perfectly good grand piano in the name of musical advancement.

So, approaching the Bible as trustworthy is the first way to get the MOST out of its Story. But you can’t stop there. Sometimes you can just pick diamonds off the ground. But most of the time, you have to dig. Just like you have to engage the mind to get the most out of a movie or a book, you have to engage your brain to get the MOST out of God’s word.

A friend and fellow blogger, Bobby Grow, recounted this exchange with a student a few years back.

I was in the process of teaching "Bible Study Methods," and one of my students raised her hand (this was at the very beginning of the semester ---- we were just getting started); she asked (my paraphrase): "If the bible is God's love-letter to us, then why do we need to learn all of these 'rules' and 'principles' of interpretation? Doesn't this just make bible study an academic exercise, and not the relational thing that it should be?" That was and is an excellent question. But I think it starts off with some 'mythical' assumptions. It assumes a kind of competition between the 'mind' and the 'heart'; the former correlating to the 'academic' (intellectual) side of things, and the latter with the 'heart-felt' (spiritual) side of things. This though is to create a 'false-competition', I think. What if the Holy Spirit provided us with these 'principles' of interpretation in order to better love and understand Him and His values? What if learning 'academic things' is just as much a part of "relating to God" as is engaging God 'spiritually' (whatever that might entail)? You see, I think if we are going to have a vibrant 'spiritual life' and 'walk' with Jesus, we are going to need to engage all that we do from an holistic approach (cf. I Cor. 10:31). This includes, and especially so, bible study.”

The Bible is a trustworthy account of God’s story, and its design is achieved by purposely arranging specific people, places, and words into a specific order to create a unified message that does not change and is not an 'equal opportunity employer' when it comes to interpretation. It is not just random noise, it's a masterful composition- and the Master Composer is God. It is not just a shattered piano, it's a song of salvation- and its maestro is the Hope of the world. Enjoy the story; but whenever possible, read deeply. Every word is noteworthy.

Surrounded By Grace,

A CRITICAL THOUGHT, Part 1 ~ 4/16/10

I love movies. Pretty much for the same reason I love books: they tell stories—and boy, can I get lost in a story. I’m the kind of guy who could be on my way to a wedding, let’s say someone else’s, and as I walk by one of those store windows full of TVs, I’d get stuck if I heard even one sentence that was even vaguely close to the lip of captivating. I’m the kind of guy who eavesdrops, and I’m willing to bet money I don’t actually have that most people who find themselves frequently accused of eavesdropping are people exactly like me: story lovers. So what if it’s none of our business… it’s interesting, dad-blastit. And that’s excuse enough to listen in.

I’m the guy who will shush you during the movie, the guy who’ll request that someone turn up the commercials so I don’t miss the punch-line, the kind of guy who will watch every preview, every minute of pointless news commentary, the guy who sits in the theatre after everyone else has left just in case there is some hidden snippet of story-line waiting like loose change in the couch cushions to reward the patiently faithful.

Yes… I’m that guy. And yes, that’s why we cancelled our cable.

I say all this to preempt the accusation that inevitably gets lobbed my direction like a heat-seeking hand grenade whenever I bring up the subject I’m tentatively touching on today. The accusation is that I’m a killjoy and that I should just “enjoy the story.” The subject that draws the hand grenades like Obama draws crowds is my crusade for critically thinking when it comes to stories. So allow me to preemptively spell it out one more time: TRUST ME, I ENJOY THE STORY. I just like to think about the story too.

Here’s how this usually goes.

Someone brings up a movie I’ve seen. I respond, laughing and retelling key scenes in the appropriate and socially expected fashion. Then I cross that line drawn with invisible ink and submit an observation about the message of the movie. This is a tough habit to break for me; when we were kids, my siblings and I were routinely subjected to cross-examination after every movie we watched together as a family. We may have rolled our eyes then and you may be rolling your eyes now, but looking back I see the origin of a healthy habit- the discipline of critical thinking.

The first step to critical thinking when it comes to stories is identifying the theme or message buried in the story. Every story, every movie, has a message- there is always a lesson or moral or point of view being taught, even if the message is that there are no morals or that teaching life lessons is stupid because truth is subjective. Whatever. Critical thinking demands that, even though good stories can be enjoyed and loved, they cannot go unexamined. So the first step of the critical thinking process with story is to identify the point of the story. Now, I don’t claim to get this right every time, but, for instance, the message I see in the Harry Potter movies is that we have the power (magic) to change ourselves and determine or fulfill our destinies. That to me is the bottom-line message in those movies.

The second step of critical thinking when it comes to stories is picking out what you can agree with in the story, because it is good, or memorable, or true. Now, it’s important to note here that ‘true things’ can be found almost anywhere- within the covers of the Qur’an, in the lives of ‘devout’ Atheists, in the literature of pagan poets (Acts 17:28). And the only reason truths can be found almost anywhere is because all that is true belongs to God. ‘All Truth is God's truth,’ because He is the origin of all Truth and in fact the very personification of Truth— In Isaiah 65:16 the Lord calls Himself “God of truth.” In John 14:6 Jesus said of himself, “I am the way and the truth and the life…” So—let’s continue with the Harry Potter example— it is true that courage is good, true that bravery is good, true that loyalty and friendship is good— these are qualities/values that I can agree with in the story. Hooray for courage, bravery, loyalty and friendship! But you can’t stop there—because the third step of critically thinking through stories is picking out the untruths, or what you can’t agree with.

Back to the Harry Potter movies. Okay, I know, I already hear the whistling sound of approaching ordinance. But listen—I LOVE the story! I love the characters! I love the dazzling scenery and the strange rules of engagement, I love the imagination and the adventure and the drama of it all, I love the story! I can watch those movies or read those books and get lost in another world, escape to another life, identify with the characters, all while craving more, like the rest of its pre-pubescent fan base. BUT- when I’m done enjoying myself, I engage in the discipline of critical thinking. And, as is the case with Harry Potter, although I can enjoy a movie thoroughly, I often find much I disagree with.

In case you are wondering— yes, this is both possible and allowed! I hereby grant you permission to fully enjoy a movie that you also happen to have major problems with. After a thorough enjoyment of the Harry Potter movies, my major problem with them is the portrayal of supernatural power (magic) as a morally neutral and impersonal force. This causes the definition of what is ‘good’ and ‘bad’ to hang/hinge on the whim of the individuals wielding the powers rather than on the source of the power being wielded. The quality or morality of the power becomes defined by the human wielding it. Whenever the author of a supernatural power is ignored or denied, the subtle implication is that we are the only personalities that exist to define what is good and bad.

This is how I watch movies. This is how I read books. And this is how I will teach my children to take in stories as well; with curiosity, fascination and joy—and with a mind engaged in critical thought. Because an unexamined story is not worth reading/watching.

Surrounded By Grace,

THE CHAIR; Where Do You Stand? ~ 4/14/10

This was my sermon on Easter. I apologize for the video quality and EXTREMELY quiet volume, we'll get our technical problems worked out eventually!

Easter 2010: The Chair - Where Do You Stand? from Neighborhood Church of Redding on Vimeo.

T.G.I.F. ~ 4/2/10

As I sit here writing, it’s a cold, dark start to what we Christians now call “Good Friday.” I say we call it “good” now because, for anyone with a heart on that original Friday long ago, the day felt anything but ‘good.’

For the followers of Jesus and those in Jerusalem, who had welcomed Him as conquering King and salvation-bringer a few short days earlier, it was a bewildering, confusing Friday. For the 11 still-faithful who had lived and listened at His feet, the broken bread of the previous night had turned into broken hearts—and it was a Friday full of sadness and shame, a day full of fear. For the mother of Jesus, who had birthed Him and bathed Him and dressed Him and held Him, for this mother who had watched her infant grow into “…a man appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel,”—that Friday was a day long dreaded. She must have instinctively known, the moment word first reached her of His arrest, that this was the day “…a sword will pierce through your own soul also” (Luke 2:34,35)…

For those living through that dark morning so many years ago, it was a day marked by bewilderment and confusion, sadness and shame, fear and dread. Not one of these people were thanking God it was Friday. But what was ‘Good Friday’ like for Jesus?

Jesus didn’t wake up to that Friday. He hadn’t slept all night. John 18:28 tells us that as the darkness began to recede into dawn, Jesus was being dragged in chains from the presence of the Jewish High Priest to the palace of Pilate. As we wake up this Good Friday for just another day at the office, Jesus was entering the ring for the final fight of His life.

Catching a glimpse of His attitude that morning is difficult, but I think these words found in the book of Philippians help…

5”Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: 

6Who, being in very nature God, 

did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, 

7but made himself nothing, 

taking the very nature of a servant, 

being made in human likeness. 

8And being found in appearance as a man, 

he humbled himself 

and became obedient to death— 

even death on a cross!”

After a night in the garden where comfort could be coaxed from none but angels, after a betrayal sealed with a kiss and a denial crowed harshly by a rooster, after all of this, Jesus stumbled into Friday a man full of sorrows, saturated with humility.

I used to ask people the question: “Who took Jesus’ life?” Some have answered that it was Judas, since his betrayal is what set everything in motion. Some have said it was the Pharisees. Others say it was Pilate, or the Roman soldiers who actually beat the nails through the flesh of His hands later that afternoon. But if any one of those answers were true, Good Friday would not be good. The reason it’s good at all is because no one took Jesus’ life from Him. He gave it freely, in humble obedience to His Father. ‘Good Friday’ is “good” for us because it was a bad day for Jesus. It is “good” for us because Jesus freely sacrificed what would have been good for Him, and instead—

21God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Thank God it’s Friday.

Surrounded By Grace,
*Grace induces faith & Grace is obligated to faith ~