Category Archives: Learning

Helping Us See

As part of a talk I gave on Arts and Faith last weekend I talked about how the arts help us to see and right on the wall was this amazing collection of onions.  When do you really stop and look at an onion, noticing how it contrasts with the background or how the green shoots jump off at different angels?  The individual paintings in different light create this stunning whole.  Or, in another painting as a woman puts on make up we look into her face, which is tinged with anticipation and fear.  We see the insecurity of uncertain beauty and the desire to be accepted.

As I was thinking about this theme of seeing a few examples of how the bible uses art to help us see, came to mind:
“God is my rock…” – in what sense?  We are meant to look at a rock and in light of what we know about God and about rocks to see them both in a new light.  A more extended example comes from Proverbs 7, which paints this incredible picture of attraction to the wrong kind of person then the devastating effects:

My son, keep my words
and treasure up my commandments with you;
keep my commandments and live;
keep my teaching as the apple of your eye;
bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and call insight your intimate friend,
to keep you from the forbidden woman,
from the adulteress with her smooth words.
For at the window of my house
I have looked out through my lattice,
and I have seen among the simple,
I have perceived among the youths,
a young man lacking sense,
passing along the street near her corner,
taking the road to her house
in the twilight, in the evening,
at the time of night and darkness.
And behold, the woman meets him,
dressed as a prostitute, wily of heart.
She is loud and wayward;
her feet do not stay at home;
now in the street, now in the market,
and at every corner she lies in wait.
She seizes him and kisses him,
and with bold face she says to him,
“I had to offer sacrifices,
and today I have paid my vows;
so now I have come out to meet you,
to seek you eagerly, and I have found you.
I have spread my couch with coverings,
colored linens from Egyptian linen;
I have perfumed my bed with myrrh,
aloes, and cinnamon.
Come, let us take our fill of love till morning;
let us delight ourselves with love.
For my husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey;
he took a bag of money with him;
at full moon he will come home.”
With much seductive speech she persuades him;
with her smooth talk she compels him.
All at once he follows her,
as an ox goes to the slaughter,
or as a stag is caught fast
till an arrow pierces its liver;
as a bird rushes into a snare;
he does not know that it will cost him his life.

And this brings me to another piece of art :

My mamma done told me
When I was in pigtails
My mamma done told me
“Hon, a man is a two-face
He’ll give you the big eye
And when the sweet talking’s done
A man is a two-face
A worrisome thing who’ll leave you to sing
The blues in the night”

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The Arts and Faith – Resembling God in Creativity and Development

In mid-march it looks like I’ll be giving a talk on faith and the arts and I’m teasing out some of the ideas in the next few posts.

pottery

When you look at the muddy side of a riverbank, do unformed vases and bowls call to your hands.  In a cherry tree I see pies and pastries and a desk that will last beyond my grandchildren.  In the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli there is pigment for blue skies and the Murex snail turns plain cloth into shades belonging to royalty.

In Genesis 1  God creates humanity

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”
So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

And two features that apply to the discussion of art and faith, are “development” and “creativity.”  In defining “subdue” let me quote from the ESV study bible,

The term “subdue” (Hb. kabash) elsewhere means to bring a people or a land into subjection so that it will yield service to the one subduing it (Num. 32:22, 29). Here the idea is that the man and woman are to make the earth’s resources beneficial for themselves, which implies that they would investigate and develop the earth’s resources to make them useful for human beings generally

chairTo “subdue” this beautiful and bountiful world in which God has placed humanity, does not suggest exploitation or misuse but points creative development for mutual betterment.  I try to imagine all the things which our first parents would need to develop and how this process may take shape.  Think even of a chair, no, a stool and all that is required to make one.  It is not only the raw materials of wood, but all the tools for cutting, shaping, smoothing, and joining the pieces together.  I imagine Adam thinking about something to sit on, other than the ground or a rock, and how the wheels began to turn.  At what point did chairs enter the imagination of mankind?  At what point were they made, not simply for utility but also carved and decorated?  When did the lines become graceful?  From the very origins of humanity, God commands creative development of the natural world and the arts is a natural extension of this command.  Moreover, it is in our role of imaging, reflecting and representing, God that we exercise creativity and develop this world.  God is the one who first creates, shapes, rules, and names and we follow after him.  Thus, there is great significance in the creative process, whether it is in a traditionally defined artistic field (sculpture or painting), or a different realm (coding for software, making omelets).   This also helps us consider the goal of “the arts” and simply based on Genesis 1, we would have to say that it is to reflect the creativity of God and to benefit people.  These are both generic but provide foundations for further thinking.  How does this challenge and affirm the phrase, “art for art’s sake”?  How about “art as self-expression”?  Does this concept of making and developing, broaden our understanding of art to include more people or diminish it so that “art” can be mean anything or nothing?

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The Arts and Faith – Beauty and the Presence of God

light

In mid-march it looks like I’ll be giving a talk on faith and the arts and today I started talking through the content with a friend.  I’m going to tease out some of the ideas from this conversation in the next few posts.

It wasn’t until I went to seminary that I knew much about how the Bible ends.  In Revelation 21 and 22 (the last chapters of the last book of the bible), heaven comes to earth.  God is present and from his throne makes all things new.  The scene shifts to the new Jerusalem – a city where God and a restored humanity will live in joy, worship, and peace forever. The city is described as

having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal….     The wall was built of jasper, while the city was pure gold, like clear glass. The foundations of the wall of the city were adorned with every kind of jewel. The first was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. And the twelve gates were twelve pearls, each of the gates made of a single pearl, and the street of the city was pure gold, like transparent glass.

There is a lot happening here, but what we see about the heavenly city is that it is a place of beauty and wealth.  If you look back to the worship of the old testament with the tabernacle and then temple (along with all the furnishings and garments) you see incredible attention to aesthetics, the use of precious materials, and the operation of human skill and creativity in construction.  If God’s presence in this world and the next is tied, not only to goodness or to truth, but also to beauty it must be significant.

I think about this wall, which in an ancient city would have denoted protection and security.  It likely has such a symbolic meaning here, but if it is only about safety, why is it decorated in such a fashion?  In a similar vein, many of the decorations of the tabernacle (moveable Israelite sanctuary) and the Israelite temple, have no function or utility.

I also think of a section from 1 Chronicles 16 (not at the top of most reading lists), when the temple is dedicated and David says, “Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; bring an offering and come before him! Worship the LORD in the splendor of holiness…”

One of the starting points for talking about art and faith, is the existence and significance of beauty.


Christmas Times Two

A 321555760_1f1aa8dedaguest post from Chris who is part of Grace and helps out in all sorts of ways.

I have been thinking about the so-called “war on Christmas”. Many well intentioned Christians get up in arms about stores that sell “holiday trees” and they call on the culture to “keep Christ in Christmas”. But is Christ in Christmas in the first place? I believe that depends. It seems to me that there are two different Christmases: A sacred one in which Christians celebrate the Incarnation (along with all that entails, not just a sweet, baby Jesus in a manger) and a secular one that is about Santa Claus and sleigh bells and perhaps a sweet, baby Jesus in a manger( as long as He doesn’t go beyond that).

The secular Christmas is what our culture at large celebrates. I know of many Jews, Hindus, Atheists, not to mention nominal Christians, who celebrate Christmas. As far as I know, they don’t call their trees “holiday trees”. They celebrate the secular Christmas because it is part of our culture and history to do so. And because it is fun. I believe that if the “war on Christmas” is a war to change Christmas, as it is celebrated in our society, from a sacred holiday to a secular one, than that battle has already been decided.

And so what? Should we as Christians be concerned by this. Can we not celebrate the Incarnation on December 25 (and every day for that matter) and still join with others who celebrate the secular Christmas? For that matter, if it bothers us so much that Christmas is a secular holiday, then why do we get so offended when people don’t want to call it Christmas. A friend of mine made a good point. He said that if we are so concerned with the true meaning of Christmas, then why do we get so bothered if a chain store, who could care less about the true meaning of Christmas, is referring to it as a generic holiday instead? I find it odd that we would expect an unbelieving, fallen world, to celebrate the very thing they reject. After all, John tells us that Jesus ” came into the world and the world knew him not”. Perhaps those few who actually do get offended by the word “Christmas” are the ones who are keeping Christ in Christmas.

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Entering Advent

Adven Bookmark

Some Christians will focus much more on the season of advent and the celebration of Christmas, while others intentionally keep it in the background.  I’ve jumped into the dialogue already, and simply want to pass along a few resources which I’ve found helpful.  One of which is to the left.  I put this together a few years ago from some different resources.

Come Thou Long Expected Jesus by Nancy Guthrie is a selection of teachings on the birth of Christ from Christians both contemporary and ancient.

Good News of Great Joy by John Piper is a free e-book with meditations on various scriptures which unpack the birth of Christ.


Presence – the beginning

letter

A friend and mentor from my time in seminary would often say that the most basic Christian ministry is the ministry of presence.  In this statement he was beginning with God coming to earth in Jesus, then following the pattern in which Jesus calls his disciples to be with him, and finally, before leaving the earth, promises that he will be with them to the end of the age.

I continue to think about the ministry of presence as we develop our nascent church in Worcester.  Here are the starting points:

1.  Presence and salvation:  We assume that God is generally accessible.  If we want him, he’s there and we can find him.  I see this playing out when people with varying beliefs, or even uncertainty about God’s existence, talk about praying. The bible rather begins with God’s otherness and distance from us, so that the great promise of salvation – “Emmanuel,” which means God with us.  It is easy to get used to the idea of God’s nearness, but in fact this should fill us with wonder.  The fact that the bible describes paradise as the fullness of God’s presence, should alert us to the stunning reality of being near God.

2.  Presence and transformation:  What is the source of Christian growth?  How do we become more like the God who made us and has called us to himself?  By his presence.

 I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh.  And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.  Ezekiel 36:26-27

The solution to our misplaced priorities and worship of things other than God (v.25 of Ezek 36) is the presence of the Spirit of God.   Theologians will talk about the “communicable attributes” of God, meaning those aspects of God’s being which we take on (i.e. his goodness, truthfulness, love).  These stand in contrast to his “incommunicable attributes” (i.e. transcendence, omniscience, omnipresence).  Like living with someone who has a cold, which we eventually catch, so we catch God’s goodness and love through the presence of the Spirit.  There is a sense in which transformation is inevitable.  A Christian has had God come into her life and there is no turning back.  Thus growing in godliness is not so much an avoidance of certain practices or thoughts but an increased nearness to God, who has the power to cast out sin.  James, the brother of Jesus, holds together these tensions when he says “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” Then a life of virtue grows which is first rooted in the presence of God, rather than our own efforts, so that our transformation is not corrupted by pride.

3.  Presence and ministry: It is easy to think that serving God is a gigantic list of things to do when in fact, our service to others reflects God’s service to us.  Presence is the beginning from which everything else flows.  Love, the greatest command is never distant or abstract, but close and personal.  One pastor has people scroll through the contact list of their cell phones as a quick way to consider the various people in our lives with whom we have some degree of connection and opportunities to be the presence of God as God is with us.  A great way to think about growing in service to others is asking God to see those with whom God has brought into your life. How can my presence in their lives reflect God’s presence in mine?  How can the things I catch from God be somehow conveyed to them?

4.  Even as I reflect on the various letters making up the New Testament, I see these as an extension of the ministry of presence.  The knowledge of the distinct situations, the personal greetings that either open or close the letters, and the affection that runs through these point to an incredible connection and love.   The letters themselves are a way in which someone who is far away can be present to encourage, warn, and teach.

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Giving Our Money – Promises and Problems

Giving Our Money – Promises and Problems

5338013478_90877c1abdWe’re on the home stretch in our series on giving, having looked at the Practice, the Perspective, and the Big picture.

We’ll wrap it up by looking at some of the promises that God makes in regards to giving and then consider some problems that come up when we talk about giving.

Promises:

As the bible makes clear and as Christians throughout the ages have known, God blesses our obedience.  Sometimes it is in direct correlation and other times the relationship between cause and effect is hidden.  Sometimes the blessing of obeying God in your finances is not reflected in your finances just as obeying God in your job is not always reflected in career progress.  When it comes to giving money (or really anything), the adage “you cannot out give God” points us to his incredible generosity and his desire to encourage us in obedience.  There is all sorts of teaching out there that distorts this basic principle of God blessing our obedience, but misuse does not negate the truth.  In the following passage I see such a balanced picture of God blessing our obedience without promising ease or exact returns.

Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life.  But many who are first will be last, and the last first.” Mark 10:29-31

The great and final goal of eternal life, found in God himself, is weighed against our own preoccupation with somehow coming out on top.  Even when God says he is going to bless our efforts in obeying him, he knows how quickly we can distort it helps us maintain a right perspective.

Another passage that comes to mind is from 2 Cor 9, which I often cite when I write thank you notes to those who have supported our ministry financially.  Reflecting on this passage leads me to pray that those who give will be supplied with even more resources to wisely use and that ultimately God will receive all the credit.  Below is this amazing section where the promise of God’s blessing on generosity fit right alongside a heartfelt and purposeful commitment to giving.

The point is this: whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows bountifully will also reap bountifully.  Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.  And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work.  As it is written, “He has distributed freely, he has given to the poor; his righteousness endures forever.”  He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way to be generous in every way, which through us will produce thanksgiving to God. 2 Corinthians 9:6-12.

It is possible to go on and on, looking both in the bible and through the history of the church to see how God rewards us as we follow his ways.  Again, it is not simply for the reward that we obey, but I know that I can use every encouragement that God gives as I strive to love him.

Problems: (These are twenty reasons people do not give.  I came across this list in some materials from MNA, our denominational office that oversees church planting and similar works in North America.)

1. They do not grasp the vision.
2. They don’t know what is going on with the leadership.
3. They don’t understand the connection between money and faith.
4. They see other needs that are more compelling.
5. No one asks them.
6. No one says “Thank You” when they do.
7. No one explains what happened to the money they gave before.
8. No one asks their opinion about how their money should be used.
9. They aren’t sure the church is “worthy”.
10. They have too much debt.
11. They don’t understand the tax implications.
12. They don’t know who to call for advice.
13. Too many requests are made for specific projects.
14. Too many appeals come in the mail.
15. They only give when they attend.
16. They pay all their bills online.
17. They lack the spiritual commitment.
18. They don’t believe their gift will make a difference.
19. They don’t hear stories from others who have given.
20. The pastor didn’t ask.

I think this is a great list and covers so much.  As I look at these different reasons why people don’t give three are some things which I cannot change (i.e. how many appeals come in the mail) but for most of these three central solutions come to mind.

1.  Communication:
It is the responsibility of leaders ask people to give, to tell people where they are headed, specific and general plans, the difference that contributions make, and describe in some ways the effectiveness of the ministry that is being supported.  On the other hand, people who are reluctant to give because of unanswered questions should ask.
Money is an excellent motivator to do the things we should already be doing.  Leaders should lead regardless of the financial consequences.  People should ask questions about direction and use of resources because they want to see God’s kingdom come.  If someone is concerned about the church’s use of resources they should not “vote with their pocketbook” or “vote with their feet” but see themselves as part of God’s solution to the problem.  Again, the more exacerbated a problem becomes the more significant the response is required, but these are the minority of the cases.

2.  Teaching:
So many of the above problems can be addressed by straightforward teaching on money in general and giving in particular.  This is different than the ongoing communication of vision or maybe a semi-annual review of how money is being spent and how this fulfills the church’s mission.  In my mind at least numbers #3, 4, 6, 9, 11, 15, 17 will be significantly helped by straightforward teaching from the bible on giving.

3.  Time and Maturity
Some of the issues listed above will only change in the course of months, years, or even decades.  Nonetheless, it is a worthwhile and necessary process.  Christian leaders and individuals must do all that they can to move towards honoring God in every area of life.  This means repeated communication, repeated teaching, and the patience to wait on God for the maturation of others and to seek God for our own growth and renewal.

Photo Credit: becca.peterson26 via Compfight cc


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