Friday, October 21, 2016

City Notes 28: Yawning at Tigers Part 2 of 3

City Notes 28: Books in 30 minutes or less

City Notes are more than a book review. They are meant to provide you with direct quotes from some books I've read in the last year, so you can get a taste of the overall theme of the book and then begin to chew on what your life might look like if you applied what you read.

Here are links to the previous City Notes books:

City Notes 28: Yawning at Tigers Part 2 of 3

| 1 | Tiger Territory Cont.

A Vision of Holiness: The writer of Hebrews told us that while Jesus was on earth, he was "tempted in every way, just as we are  yet he did not sin" (4:15). In other words, Jesus lived a sinless or completely holy life. We see this dimension of holiness in Isaiah 6. After his vision of God, Isaiah realizes he has a problem. There's a dangerous discontinuity between himself and God. It's not merely about God's power and grandeur. Isaiah is concerned with the ethical divide. He fears he's doomed because he has "unclean lips" (v. 5). It seems that a revelation of God is accompanied by an overpowering sense of God's purity ... 

One nationwide study found that "the concept of holiness baffles most Americans." When asked to describe what it means to be holy, the most common reply was "I don't know." Of those identified by the study as "born again," only 46 percent believed "God has called them to holiness." The study's conclusion was candid: "The results portray a body of Christians who attend church and read the Bible, but do not understand the concept or significance of holiness, do not personally desire to be holy, and therefore do little, if anything to pursue it."

... Scripture repeatedly commands us to strive for godliness (Acts 24:16; 1 Thess. 5:15). The Greek word translated "strive" is agonizomai, and it implies an agonizing, intense, purposeful struggle. Each time it appears in the New Testament, it's used in a positive way, as a means to attain true holiness. + pgs. 43-44

A Vision of Holiness: Missionary Lesslie Newbigin saw a clear link between God's holiness and ours: "We need to see this God of Israel both in his wrath and his infinite mercy. We need to learn a holiness that rejects all compromise with evil and a generosity that seeks and saves the lost. We need to learn to know God as he is. The Bible repeatedly makes explicit the connection between God's holiness and ours. "Be holy," God says, "because I ... am holy" (Leviticus 19:2). The New Testament echoes this theme. "Just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do" (1 Peter 1:15). We will never be perfect. Not on this side of eternity. But when we gain a fuller vision of God, our lives will begin to reflect his holiness. As Braun concluded, "We are holy because of His holiness being worked out within us." + pgs. 45-46

A Vision of Holiness: Have you ever sensed God in a room? ... In those services in which I have sensed his presence, it wasn't because the music was particularly good or the prayers especially profound. It was because there was a collective sense of God's power and glory, of his holiness. ... When we glimpse God's holiness, it produces wonder. We begin approaching God with "reverence and awe" because we see him as "a consuming fire" (Hebrews 12:28-29). Worship is the natural reflex of mortals to the presence of a holy God. + pgs. 47-48

A Vision of Holiness: A friend of mine shared how an understanding of God's holiness impacted her. "I had accepted Christ as a teenager," she said, "but it was a sort of casual thing, like 'Okay, I believe.'" Then her relationship with Christ deepened when she read A.W. Tozer's spiritual classic, The Knowledge of the Holy. "I had started a relationship with God. But until I read that book, I didn't really understand who God was. After understanding a little about God's holiness, things changed. Suddenly I began to understand who I had a relationship with." ... 
Theologian Rudolf Otto described the experience of the holy as ... the mysterium tremendum et fascinates  "the overwhelming mystery that fascinates or attracts." These Latin words capture a paradoxical truth about God's holiness. It overwhelms, but it also draws. It terrifies and captivates. It bows our heads even as it lifts our hearts. Ultimately, it results in joyful and reverent worship. + pgs. 48-49

A Vision of Holiness: John Eldredge acknowledged that relief isn't the first thing that comes to mind when people hear the word holiness. As he pointed out, holiness is more often associated with austerity, suffering, and self-denial. So why call it a "relief"? He explained: "Look at it this way: Ask the anorexic young girl how she would feel if she simply no longer struggled with food, diet, exercise  if she simply never even gave it another thought. Ask the man consumed with jealousy how he would feel if he woke one day to discover that all he once felt jealous over was simply gone. Ask the raging person what it would be like to be free of rage or the alcoholic what it would be like to be completely free from addiction. Take the things you struggle with and ask yourself, 'What would life be like if I never even struggled with this again?' It would be an utter relief. An absolute utter relief." ... Yes, holiness requires effort, but we tend to forget what Eldredge observed: that holiness is actually an utter relief. + pg. 50

A Vision of Holiness: It's important to note how Isaiah responded to his vision of God. At first he was overwhelmed and cried out, "Woe to me! I am ruined" (6:5). But the passage didn't end in despair. After the majestic experience, the Lord spoke: "Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?" (v. 8). At this point Isaiah moved beyond fear. Dismay became determination. After beholding the glory of God, Isaiah did not need a pep rally or motivational speech. He was eager to accept the mission God had for him. "Here am I. Send me!" he says (v. 8). The vision of God resulted in a willingness, even eagerness, to serve God. ... When we get a vision of who God truly is, suddenly we're energized. Often we serve God out of obligation. We drag ourselves to church, force ourselves to serve others  but our hearts aren't in it. We're trying to live holy lives because we know we should, but it's burdensome, joyless. What can change this? Seeing God. When we get a vision of who God truly is, suddenly we're energized to do his mission. Once we gaze upon his grandeur and glory, obedience becomes easy. It's not a duty  it's a joy. We want to live for him. Our voices join Isaiah's willing reply, "Here I am! Send me." + pgs. 53-54

Dangerous Living: Daniel Walker visits brothels. But not for the reason you think. He's an undercover detective... "I was afraid of the bad guys with guns  and there were bad guys with guns  and I was afraid of evil. This was a place where evil reigned." To keep his cover intact, Walker danced with a girl he guessed was no more than sixteen. As he danced, he prayed silently. Then he had an epiphany that dispelled his fear. He told me, "The tables turned when suddenly I saw this prostitute not as a threat to my purity or professionalism, but as a child of God whom he greatly loved. I was filled with this all-consuming, holy hatred for the way evil had ensnared her small life, a holy anger in a world that allows its children to be sold as playthings for the lusts of men. I captured on my covert camera enough evidence to put the bad guys in jail. If anyone was dangerous in that place, it was me." As he told me the story, a smile crept across his face. "How much different would it be if Christians saw themselves as the dangerous ones?" he said. "We are bearers of the most wild, dangerous, untamed force for good in the world!" + pg. 56

Dangerous Living: The Bible repeatedly commands "the fear of the Lord" for anyone who hopes to know him. This fear is not something to overcome or counsel away. It is something to be sought. Scripture maintains that the fear of the Lord brings wisdom, long life, righteousness, and other blessings. This isn't merely a shaking-in-your-boots kind of fear, though we certainly see examples of that in Scripture. Rather "the fear of the Lord" suggests a sense of sobriety toward God, a down-in-your-gut reverence. To fear the Lord is to be grounded in reality, to have an accurate view of God's holy nature and his awesome power. ... To fear the Lord is not to suggest God is callous or cruel. Just the opposite, in fact. It is God's consuming love that makes him so dangerous. Because he cares deeply for his creation, he will not tolerate evil and injustice forever. Sin corrupts and destroys what he has created. So when he sees that happening, he is incensed and becomes very dangerous indeed. Like theologian Miroslav Volf, I find this truth comforting. What kind of God would look indifferently on Auschwitz? Or remain unmoved by child abuse? Or, as Volf wondered, be apathetic about the loss of life in a brutal civil war? Not the God of the Bible. Not the God revealed in Jesus. ... Seeing God as dangerous is essential to how we live. As children of our Father in heaven, we, too, are called to be dangerous. I'm not talking about being violent or destructive. But like God, we should be dangerous to evil and injustice, a holy threat to anything that preys on the innocent, crushes the powerless, and enslaves people to sin. + pgs. 59-60

Dangerous Living: As Daniel Walker told me his story, I felt energized. That's what the Christian life is about, I thought. It's not about insulating yourself in a religious bubble to avoid being tarnished by the world. It's not about hiding from evil. It means working against injustice, confident that light is more powerful than darkness. 

At the same time, I felt a twinge of sadness. Why wasn't I living that kind of dangerous life? I realize not everyone is called to infiltrate brothels. But why did I, and so many of my Christian friends, seem stuck playing spiritual defense? What prevents us from becoming a threat to the kingdom of darkness? Why are so few North American Christians truly dangerous? Well, for one, I think we are too concerned with our own safety. We are obsessed with it and spare no expense pursuing it. We drive crash-tested cars with side-impact air bags. We vaccinate ourselves against diseases and stock our cabinets with hand sanitizer and medications. We insure our lives, our health, our homes, our cars, our possessions, and even our pets. We purify water that is already safe to drink. We download software to protect our computers and back up our files. We buy security systems for our houses and automobiles. And those are just some of our individual efforts. Every year the United States government spends more than forty-three billion dollars on domestic security, not including military spending.

Christians are not immune to this safety obsession. I shake my head when I hear the local Christian radio station promise "safe, easy listening with no offensive lyrics." Safe? Our Founder was murdered. No offensive lyrics? Every time Jesus spoke in public, he seemed to incite rage.

Perhaps our preoccupation with safety is seen most clearly by looking at our prayers. I've been in the church all my life. After attending hundreds of church services, prayer meetings, and small group gatherings. I'd have to say the most popular prayer is the prayer for safety. I find it interesting that the Gospels record not one instance of Jesus or the disciples praying for physical safety. Yes, Jesus prayed that the disciples would be kept safe "from the evil one" (John 17:15). But given that Jesus also warned his followers that they would be hated, arrested, beaten, and even murdered, I'm guessing the safety he prayed for was of the spiritual, not physical, variety. So while the Gospels barely mention safety, we can't shut up about it. 

Don't get me wrong. Guarding you and your loved ones against harm is wise. Asking God for protection is too. But when a desire for safety paralyzes us with fear and prevents us from carrying out God's mission, something is wrong. When petitions for safety dominate our prayer lives, it's a sign our spiritual house is not in order. + pgs. 61-62

Dangerous Living: The early Christians were forced to their knees when threatened, but their prayers were strikingly different. In Acts 4 Peter and John were arrested for preaching Jesus' resurrection from the dead. They were released but threatened and ordered "not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus" (v. 18). These were no idle threats. They knew that to disobey these orders would likely mean further imprisonment, whippings, even death. Peter and John were understandably shaken by the ordeal; when they joined the other believers, they shifted their voices together in fervent prayer. But they didn't pray for safety. They prayed for boldness. "Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness" (v. 29). Think about how strange this prayer is for a moment. In response to being threatened, they prayed for the courage to keep doing the very thing that got them in trouble in the first place. + pgs. 62-63

Dangerous Living: I recently stumbled across an interesting set of questions used by Asian Access, a Christian missions agency in South Asia. Church leaders in the organization use the following questions to determine a new convert's readiness to follow Christ. In the West, we might ask newcomers if they prefer contemporary or traditional worship. As you can see, the questions they ask in other parts of the world are quite different.

+ Are you willing to leave home and lose the blessing of your father?
+ Are you willing to lose your job?
+ Are you willing to go to the village and those who persecute you, forgive them, and share the love of Christ with them?
+ Are you willing to give an offering to the Lord?

+ Are you willing to be beaten rather than deny your faith?
+ Are you willing to go to prison?
+ Are you willing to die for Jesus? ... 

I heard an echo from Jesus' words from Luke 14. You know the passage. Jesus spun around to the people following him and asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?" That's my paraphrase, of course. What Jesus actually said was much worse. If you want to be my disciple, you have to hate your family, take up your cross, give up everything  the kind of demands as unwelcome in our day as they were in his. + pgs. 63-64

Dangerous Living: Jim Elliot, who was killed bringing the gospel to the Waodani people of Ecuador, observed the safe faith practiced by most Christians of his time and wrote these words: "We are so utterly ordinary, so commonplace, while we profess to know a Power the twentieth century does not reckon with. But we are "harmless," and therefore unharmed. We are spiritual pacifists, non-militants, conscientious objectors in this battle-to-the-death with principalities and powers in high places. Meekness must be had for contact with men, but brass, outspoken boldness is required to take part in the comradeship of the Cross. We are "sideliners"  coaching and criticizing the real wrestlers while content to sit by and leave the enemies of God unchallenged. The world cannot hate us, we are too much like its own. Oh that God would make us dangerous!" "That God would make us dangerous." That's a good prayer. ... 
How much better would it be if we were known by the strange things we are willing to do? Things like loving the unlovely, standing up for the oppressed, returning good for evil or, like the disciples, sharing the good news of Jesus in the teeth of opposition. ... (Holiness) is full engagement with humanity. It means getting dirty up to your armpits. Holiness is about what you're willing to risk to love others and to see God glorified. + pg. 65  

Dangerous Living: One of history's riddles is the explosive growth of the early church. Scholars still puzzle over how an obscure Jewish sect grew to compromise more than half the Roman Empire within a relatively short time. Part of the answer lies in the fact that while fearlessly sharing the gospel, even under persecution, the early Christians also demonstrated radical compassion for their neighbors.

The most dramatic example of this behavior came when a plague broke out in Caesarea early in the fourth century. While pagans who were still well rushed out of the city, Christians stayed behind to care for the sick and dying often at the expense of their own lives. The early church father Eusebius left this account: "The evidence of the Christians' zeal and piety was made clear to all the pagans. For example, they alone in such a catastrophic state of affairs gave practical evidence of their sympathy and philanthropy by works. All day long some of them would diligently persevere in performing the the last offices for the dying and burying them (for there were countless numbers, and no one to look after them). While others (Christians) gathered together in a single assemblage all who were afflicted by famine throughout the whole city, and would distribute bread to them all. When this became known, people glorified the God of the Christians, and, convinced by the deeds themselves, confessed the Christians alone were truly pious and God-fearing." This kind of behavior caused the pagan emperor Julian to rail against "the hated Galileans" who "not only feed their own poor, but also ours, welcoming them into their agape." Why was Julian so angry? Because he recognized that the sacrificial compassion of the "Galileans" was dangerous to his dreams of a pagan empire. The willingness of the Christians to set aside their own safety for the sake of their neighbors was the best recruiting tool imaginable. As Romans witness the stark difference between Christians and pagans in the midst of the plague, many turned to Christ. + pgs. 66-67

Dangerous Living: When the Bible warns against drunkenness, it includes a corresponding command: "Do not get drunk on wine. ... Instead, be filled with the Spirit" (Eph. 5:18). Why is drunkenness wrong? Because there's a better experience awaiting us  being filled with the Spirit! Our desire for transcendence isn't the problem; satisfying it in destructive ways is. Sin is the result of desires that have been sublimated and sent sideways. Sin hurts people and ruins relationships. But perhaps the greatest tragedy is what sin keeps us from  the grand adventure of a life lived with and for God. + pgs. 69-71

God Incognito: If Jesus, the "express image" of the Father (Heb. 1:3 NKJV), God in the flesh, didn't feel the need to defend himself, why should I? If Jesus was comfortable as a stranger in this world, shouldn't I be too? The way Jesus communicated his identity holds an important lesson for how we should think about ours. The Bible says our true identities are "hidden with Christ in God" (Col. 3:3). We are citizens of a kingdom that Jesus said is "not of this world" (John 18:36). When we grasp this reality, everything changes. When people reject us, we're hurt, but not devastated. Our emotions are not tethered to our latest successes or failures. We don't clamor for accolades. We are known by God, so we're willing to embrace obscurity. We trust the Lord to vindicate us, so we're free to turn the other cheek. We're willing to be misunderstood and even mocked because we are loved by our Father in heaven. If the world doesn't recognize us, we are not fazed. After all, we are followers of the Great Stranger. + pg. 88

| 2 Divine Embrace

Loving a Lion: Most religions tend to emphasize either God's transcendence or his immanence. In Islam, for instance, Allah is utterly transcendent. And this transcendence is guarded zealously. Representations of the divine are strictly forbidden, as are human comparisons. The only unpardonable sin mentioned in the Qur'an is to attribute divinity to a created entity. Muslims believe God has revealed himself through the prophets, but in Islamic thought, God is ultimately unknowable. In the medieval era, some Islamic scholars developed a theology that proposed speaking of Allah only in double negatives. Rather than saying, "Allah is merciful," they would say, "Allah is not unmerciful." They felt using such negations was necessary to describe an inscrutable God. Making positive affirmations about Allah was going too far, they decided. Mere mortals could only hope to say what isn't true of him.

Most Eastern belief systems, on the other hand, stress divine immanence. In Hinduism, there is no significant distinction between god and the material world. Hindus worship many gods, yet all are seen as manifestations of Brahman and the universe. As the Upanishads, the Hindu scriptures, say, "This whole universe is Brahman, from Brahman to a clod of earth." The divine is utterly immanent.

Christianity is unique. It maintains that God is both transcendent and immanent. We believe God is above and beyond the physical world, and present within it. Mysterious but knowable. The Bible is the story of how the transcendent God has been revealed. Jesus tells his disciples they have been "given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God" (Luke 8:10 NKJV). Paul uses the Greek word mystarion  from which we get our word mystery  twenty times in the New Testament. But the word is always used to point to the joyous fact that God has made his mysteries known in Jesus Christ. That's the good news  God hasn't left us in the dark but has revealed his mystarion in the person of his Son. Scholars Steven Boyer and Christopher Hall explained that the most common usage of the word mystery in the Bible is not to denote "a puzzle to solve or a question to answer." Rather, the word speaks of "a marvelous plan or purpose that God has revealed for creation." ... 
When Paul spoke with the Greek philosophers in Athens, he underscored God's transcendence: "The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands." In the same speech he spoke of God's immanence: " ... though he is not far from any one of us. 'For in him we live and move and have our being'" (Acts 17:24-28). + pgs. 96-98

Loving a Lion: If we have even a passing familiarity with Scripture, we're likely to acknowledge that God is both holy and loving. But there's a strong tendency to shortchange either his holiness or his love, downplaying one attribute for the sake of the other. We say, "Yes, God is holy, but ... " or "Yes, God is loving, but ... " We may concede that God is love, yet still feel he's out to get us, waiting for us to mess up so he can drop the divine hammer. Or we might pay lip service to God's justice but inwardly feel that he's so filled with love that he's not all that concerned with holiness. ... 
Fearing the Lord is essential, but we must also internalize the reality of his love. An all-powerful but unloving god can only inspire fear. A deity devoid of love may elicit awe, but never affection. ... 
God's holiness and power make his love significant. ... 
The affection of a familiar, buddy deity is one thing; the love of the Lord of heaven and earth, the one who dwells in unapproachable light, is something else entirely. As Francis Chan wrote, "The fact that a holy, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful, merciful, fair, and just God loves you is nothing short of astonishing." + pgs. 100-102 

Next post: City Notes 28: Yawning at Tigers Part 3 of 3


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