Ending the Worship Wars Forever

Our goal this week as a part of the series “Why Church?” is to answer the question “why worship?”  I don’t suppose many believers would honestly say that worship is not a constituent element of what our Christian lives are to be about, and perhaps the bigger controversy is about what worship genuinely looks like. And there is latitude on that question, but again, it really should not be the divisive item it has too often become. Pick the style you like, and even within that, be gracious when it does not come right up the center of Main Street in terms of your preferences. Look around and be glad that others are blessed, even if you are not deeply moved. But in any event, let’s end the worship wars forever.

So, why worship?  Let’s make a list of reasons as we close out this week …

Because God said so — This is my first answer to most questions about why we do what we do as God’s people. We’ll list more reasons, but this one is sufficient. In Psalm 96:7-10 it says…

Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts.

Worship the Lord in the splendor of his holiness; tremble before him, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”

But you may balk a bit and say, “But I’m not musical and can’t carry a tune in a bucket, so I just watch others worship.”   Well, the category of what constitutes worship is bigger than singing and music, as Paul wrote in Romans 12 …

Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.

Because of who He is — God is kind of a big deal. Amen? He is the creator and sustainer, not just of our lives but of everything. When we think about that, we first have the same amazement of David who said of such a thought, “What is man that you are mindful of him?”  It is amazing that God has a personal interest in each of us, but it is true, and that is worthy of our worship.

Nehemiah 9:6 – You alone are the Lord. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you.

Because of what He has done — God would have been fully just in simply wiping out the human race upon their rebellion against him. Instead, he has made a way for us to know him and have an eternal inheritance through faith in Christ. The cost was great, God’s grace was huge. That is worthy of worship.

Psalm 16:11 — You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

Because, while doing it alone is cool, we can’t do it that way as great as we can do it with others — Majestic scenes of creation often cause us to have a sense of awe and personal worship. A quiet moment in the Scriptures where we ponder God’s greatness or his goodness to us may lead us to express to him our gratitude and praise. But as great as that is, and I do cherish personalized memories of specific experiences of this nature, there is nothing as great as worshipping in the larger setting of the community of faith. There is nothing quite like being caught up in a grand anthem of praise or worship song with hundreds of people participating. Throughout the Psalms we see the writers extoling such times, spoken of as being in “the great assembly.”

Psalm 35:18 – I will give you thanks in the great assembly; among the throngs I will praise you.

Psalm 109:30 – With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lord; in the great throng of worshipers I will praise him.

Because it is our future — As we often say, worship in the one thing we can do on earth that we will do in heaven. This is rehearsal for eternity. This is not a spectator sport; we need to be partipants.

I’ll close with this text from Revelation 5:11-13. If it does not move you, I don’t know how to help you.

Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying:

“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!”

Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!”

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Years of Psalms and Hymns and Songs (Colossians 3, Ephesians 5)

I am pretty sure I am 100% accurate and truthful in telling you that there is nothing in this earthly world that I have become more weary of dealing with than are the church conflicts that have gone on my whole life surrounding music and worship. I remember it from my first days in the home of a church organist, and it continues in various forms to this day about what styles and functions are appropriate.

Being a fool and glutton for punishment, what did I do with my life coming out of high school? Yep, having been involved in church music ministries I went to a biblical university to be a music major and pursue a career in that slough of pain. Even there, posturing for position and lead parts for oratorios went on with great fanfare and controversy.

Surviving the academy, I went into local church music ministry while also studying in seminary for the “higher role” of theologian and pastor. During the midst of some long-forgotten music controversy there in my Dallas church, I put a hand-written note on my office door that covered the “Randy Buchman – Minister of Music” sign with another that said, “Office of the Department of Ecclesiastical War.”

But in reflection, those days were relatively simple. Everyone did the same thing: three or four hymns from a hymnal, a choir song and one special music selection, with a doxology after the sermon to give the pastor walking time to get to the back door and greet everyone. Just draw up a chart of music selections, rehearse, done. But then the contemporary music movement broke out and the standard paradigm was broken. My opera background had to give way to learning to play an electric bass and lead a contemporary church program. I’m still trying to figure out how to do that.

Truthfully, TSF has been a relatively peaceful place compared to most churches and music programs. Though there have always been varieties of tastes and opinions about worship music and production, our musicians have worked well together over the years to lead in a God-honoring and compelling way. Yet over the years I have seen scores of people decide to move from TSF to other churches, some citing our worship program as too loud and radical, others saying that we are stuck in the past compared to the truly “anointed” contemporary way that church XYZ does their worship.

I wonder if the elders in the earliest, original churches of Antioch, Philippi, Colossae, Ephesus, etc. had congregants complaining to them about the worship music choices. Imagine the complaint about the songs from the Judaic past of the Psalter, “Do we have to sing these Psalms over and over? It’s 7-11 music … the same seven words sung 11 times!”  (If you infer from this that I’m not sympathetic to the complaint that our contemporary worship is “7-11” music, you might be correct. Yes, words repeat. But they repeat more in the Psalms and even more in the repeating choruses of most hymns … and there’s nothing wrong with repetition in any genre.)

Again, as with the pattern of worship, the early church surely borrowed from their Jewish past in the singing of Psalms as well-known in the temple and synagogues. Many of the Psalms were antiphonal choruses, with one group leading while another followed and answered.

Paul twice speaks of the varieties of musical worship expressions in the early church, using similar words in both Ephesians and Colossians …

Col. 3:15-16 — Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful. Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

Eph. 5:18-20 — Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Consider some of the elements of these passages from Paul: joyful expression / coming from the heart / the horizontal “one another” aspect of encouraging, etc. / vertical expressions of thanks and gratitude.

Though we cannot be certain of the exact nature of this musical worship, the “Psalms” refer to music from their Jewish heritage and texts from the playlist of the Scriptures. “Hymns” likely refer to teaching and content-oriented songs. And “songs from the Spirit” might well be less formal, but more emotive expressions of praise and the joy of the Christian experience. In any event, Paul certainly encouraged a diversity of worship music expressions; and we may find more than a wee bit of instruction in that.

There are a handful of occasions where the New Testament is likely quoting a hymn common to the early church. An example is 1 Timothy 3:16 …

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: (and then here comes the hymn) …

He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.

There are other such passages, as also in Philippians chapter two.

In summary, the musical worship in the church is not to be the department of war. Rather, it is to be a blessing, with elements of expression that are vertical toward God and horizontal in teaching, encouragement and admonishment. It is simply not something that is worth fighting about. I’ve been involved with it from pipe organs and choirs, to electric guitars and crashing symbols; and I can say that I have been enriched by it all.

Early Church Worship (Acts 2)

It is difficult to accurately know exactly how much the earliest followers of Jesus Christ understood about what was happening around them. Surely they knew something very unique had happened on the Day of Pentecost. There were the phenomenal displays of the Holy Spirit, the powerful preaching of Peter, and the confessions of faith and baptism of 3,000 people.

But did they understand they were beginning a distinctly new age and work of God that would be called the church?  It was some time later that the terms Christians and church were applied to them as a distinct work. And likely most of these Jewish folks simply perceived these happenings were actually a new branch of the old faith of the nation.

In Acts chapter two we read immediately after the account of 3,000 being saved at Pentecost that they began to right away spend time together in both formal and informal settings. It says …

42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.

Along with the fellowship of togetherness, the teaching of the apostles and their witness to a watching world, they were continuously praising God. This was done both in the temple courts and in their gatherings with one another.

What brought them together in worship and dependence upon God? Looking into surrounding chapters we see …

  1. Prayers for guidance – Even before the day of Pentecost, these early Christ followers looked to the Lord for wisdom in selecting a replacement for Judas. Much later, as they began to understand the need to spread the message more widely, the believers in Antioch sought the Lord as to who should be separated out as missionaries. The directive came to them in a time of worship …

Acts 13:1 Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. 2 While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” 3 So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

  1. Perspective in the midst of persecution and hostility – The message of the gospel was no more appreciated by the religious leadership now than it was from the mouth of Jesus previously. And after performing a miracle and creating a scene with their ministry and preaching, Peter and John ended up having a free night in jail.

Acts 4:23 On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and the elders had said to them. 24 When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. “Sovereign Lord,” they said, “you made the heavens and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. 25 You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David:

“‘Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? 26 The kings of the earth rise up     and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed one. [quote from Psalm 2]

27 Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. 28 They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. 29 Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. 30 Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”

31 After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

While understanding it was a privilege to be persecuted for the gospel message of Christ, it remained a fearsome endeavor in light of the threats of those in power. Therefore in the midst of their worship and prayer, they sought the Lord for the necessary boldness to be his witnesses in speech and ministry.

  1. Earnest prayer in the midst of crisis – Before long, Peter was back in jail and awaiting a trial before Herod. The situation looked grim, but the church set out to praying in earnest — a word that literally means “in a stretched-out manner.”

Acts 12: 4-5 … After arresting him, he put him in prison, handing him over to be guarded by four squads of four soldiers each. Herod intended to bring him out for public trial after the Passover. So Peter was kept in prison, but the church was earnestly praying to God for him.

The situation was so grave and serious that they likely had minimal hope it would turn out well, let alone that he might miraculously be delivered and show up at the door while they were praying…

Acts 12:12-17 … [Peter] went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying. 13 Peter knocked at the outer entrance, and a servant named Rhoda came to answer the door. 14 When she recognized Peter’s voice, she was so overjoyed she ran back without opening it and exclaimed, “Peter is at the door!”

15 “You’re out of your mind,” they told her. When she kept insisting that it was so, they said, “It must be his angel.”

16 But Peter kept on knocking, and when they opened the door and saw him, they were astonished. 17 Peter motioned with his hand for them to be quiet and described how the Lord had brought him out of prison. “Tell James and the other brothers and sisters about this,” he said, and then he left for another place.

A summary of the life of the early church is that they did not do anything without praising God and expressing their dependence upon him in prayer for everything.

So let’s think through Acts and the Epistles and ask, what is different eventually as compared to these early days? When did the teaching change that members of the church did not have to be people of worship and prayer, commitment and dependence? Of course, it did not change; we continue to need the same and to be the same.

Worship is not an optional thing. It is not something that is simply about songs. It is not something that you sit and watch other people do. It is about active engagement as a central feature of what the church is all about.

The Origins and History of Worship

So where does this idea of worshiping God come from? Of course in the very beginning, there was a perfect relationship between God and man. This was broken by sin, and though the first promise of a restoration is seen even as God was cursing the serpent, the fully restored state of connection with God yet awaits an eternal future.

But man can still be connected to God. Directions were given to the first family, soon ignored by Cain who fell out of favor with the Lord. More directions were given over time, including specifics about sacrifices that pictured the principle of the innocent taking the place of the guilty.

The first mention of the word worship occurs with Abraham and Isaac. In Genesis 24:4-6 we read …

24:4 – On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, “Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you.”

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife.

There are so many qualifiers of this compelling scene: faith, obedience, sacrifice, and the foreshadowing of the true and better Issac who would carry the wood for the ultimate sacrifice to the same location 2,000 years later … in the form of a cross.

In the time of Moses, direction was given for the construction of a Tabernacle, a sort of portable Temple as the meeting place between man and God. The Temple, the first of several being built by David, was a permanent meeting place with the same elements. Here the priests served and temple musicians were a part of the worship experience.

In both cases it was a bloody, bloody place … the sacrifices screaming of the mess that sin had made and the broken relationship with a holy God. The most holy place was the actual presence of God in the camp or in the nation. Only the high priest could enter, and that only once a year. The ark contained the broken law over which the blood was sprinkled to make atonement.

Everything about the holy place cried out with a warning that man should stay away from entrance into God’s presence. But a great difference was realized after the cross and the curtain being opened to God’s very presence … literally ripping in the Temple at the moment of the death of Christ. This opened access to God’s presence through the Spirit, as the book of Hebrews says we are welcome to come boldly into his presence in Christ.

The Jewish world at the time of Christ was filled with synagogues. These were localized places of Jewish worship and gathering (the meaning of the word). This was the weekly experience of the vast majority of Jewish people, including Jesus himself. It was a place of praise, prayer and instruction … in that order. Songs (Psalms) were sung, a variety of prayers were offered, Scriptures were read in an orderly and inclusive structure to systematically cover the Old Testament texts, and a person was selected to give an explanatory talk upon the passage heard.

A synagogue service is what we read about in Luke 4 …

16 He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17 and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:

18 “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, 19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”[from Isaiah 61]

20 Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him. 21 He began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.”

All of the above would be the heritage and history of the earliest Christians, and when it came to meeting to worship Christ as savior, they put all of this together with the new truths they had come to experience in what we know as the gospel.

A summary statement would be to say that Christian worship arose as the fusion of the synagogue service with the truths of the Upper Room experience.

And a summary statement would also be to say that in every era of worship, it anticipated an active engagement by the worshipper himself. There is no place ever where people came to be a spectator about what was happening, just watching it take place and measuring its success by how enjoyable was the experience. Worship is not ever a spectator sport.

The Words of Worship (Psalm 96)

Is there anything much more elusive than worship? We sort of know it when we experience it at times, be it in the corporate setting of the church gathering, or perhaps alone beneath the celestial majesty of the evening sky.

I am literally typing these words at 39,000 feet while flying over the Mississippi River valley. The sights of the evidence of God’s creation are abundant.

But how do we define worship? Our English word comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term weorthscipe, that later evolved into worthship and then worship. It means to attribute or assign worth and value to something. We even use the word in this way when we say that someone “worships his sports car” or “worships the Dallas Cowboys” (which makes sense, of course).

A variety of Old Testament passages connote this idea, notably these from Psalm 96 …

1 Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.

2 Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day.

3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.

4 For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.

5 For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.

6 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and glory are in his sanctuary.

7 Ascribe to the Lord, all you families of nations, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering and come into his courts.

Looking at original language words in the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Scriptures is far more than an academic exercise and can really help us get a good mental picture of meanings and concepts. And there are two primary Hebrew words that speak of worship.

The first is hishasawah which has the meaning of “bowing down.” Throughout many cultures of antiquity right though our modern era, bowing has the meaning of honoring another above oneself. It seems strange to us as Americans, but we’re in the minority on this one.

If you have ever watched a broadcast of the Little League World Series, the finals often involve a team from the Far East, often Japan. And as each batter approaches the plate, he bows to the umpire, giving him honor as the authority on the field. That might be a good idea for Jose Bautista or David Ortiz or one of a list of arrogant professional baseball players to emulate! And it is not a bad idea to probably see God as the umpire on the baseball field of life, calling the balls and strikes, etc.

Oh boy, now I’m getting myself convicted (as I have a long history of umpire skirmishes). Let’s go to another term…

The second Hebrew word is ‘abodah, which carries the idea of “service.”  It comes from the same root word as does the term for “servant” or “slave.”  In the Greek culture and usage, this concept takes on a more negative tone as being servile or in confinement (though even there, not as severe as we would see in slavery as with American history). But the Hebrew usage is a rather positive term, carrying the idea of the privilege and honor of serving in association with a kindly master. And it is with this background in mind that Paul spoke of being a bondservant of Jesus Christ. The idea of a person in this servitude is something like this: “I’m not just some ordinary person out on the streets, I’m a servant in the household of the great master, inside the walls, welcomed into his presence in his great mansion. It doesn’t get any better than that!”

And so, our question of the week is “Why Worship?”  Let’s start with this: because of who God is and what God has done.

First – who He is. When we come into the presence of an important person, the entire crowd has a focus upon him. We would understand this more if we lived in a monarchy. I am yet to meet a king or queen, but I’ve been around presidential candidates (though not the Donald yesterday, and all you should take from that is that he showed up at the same time the Orioles were playing. I do have a values system, you know!).  Before you even get close to the candidate, you have to go through security systems and lines. And when the moment of his arrival comes, everyone jockeys for position to see the public personage. I think God is worthy of our attention and worship simply for who He is, above and beyond anything we could imagine on earth.

Second – for what He has done.  Imagine someone saved your life in the midst of some calamity. It you could not thank them at the moment because you were immediately incapable by some circumstance, you would certainly seek out that person later to thank them and would be forever grateful.

It would not be like this story: A boy was playing with a coin, tossing it in the air and catching it between his teeth. But on one throw, another child bumped him and the coin went past his teeth and lodged in his throat. Various people tried maneuvers to dislodge the coin, all unsuccessfully. A nearby gentleman was calmly reading his newspaper, and only when all others were frantic as the young fellow was turning blue did he set down his paper. He calmly walked over to the boy, gently squeezed him once — popping out the coin — and then returned to his seat and newspaper. The grateful father, after seeing the boy was recovering and going to be fine, went to the man to thank him and asked how he knew exactly what to do. The man said, “It was simple. I’m an IRS agent and have been squeezing money out of people my whole life!”

No, that is not what worship is like. It is not obligatory and ritualistic performance. It is rather the expression of sincere gratitude for what God has done in Christ to redeem us from our lost condition, adopting us into His family, and guaranteeing for us an eternal inheritance with Him. The reality is that we were on death row, spiritually speaking … totally doomed with no way out. But our ransom was paid and our circumstances completely reversed in every way imaginable.

Now don’t you want to be a worshipper?

No “safe spaces:” The role of doubt in the life of the learner

If you’re familiar with the life of C.S. Lewis, you know this man of great faith was also a man of doubt.  Lewis was, of course, a hardened skeptic before coming to know the Lord.  But even after his mind and heart were captured by that great “hound of heaven,” Lewis admitted to experiencing moments of doubt:

“I think the trouble with me is lack of faith.  I have no rational ground for going back on the arguments that convinced me of God’s existence: but the irrational deadweight of my old skeptical habits, and the spirit of this age, and the cares of the day, steal away my lively feeling of the truth, and often when I pray I wonder if I am not posting letters to a non-existent address.  Mind you I don’t think so—the whole of my reasonable mind is convinced: but I often feel so.”[1]

One of the consequences of living in a world of so much moral and religious diversity is that no one belief system is paramount.  What we’ve lost is a common consensus on what is true, what is beautiful, and what is good.

What’s that mean for us?  It means that more than ever, you and I are exposed to a world that challenges the claims of Christianity at every turn.  Add this social pressure to the kinds of heartaches and painful experiences we endure as human beings, and we have a recipe for doubt.

These days we often joke about colleges having “safe spaces” where students can go to avoid offensive language and ideas.  But sometimes I worry that—on an intellectual level—the modern Church has sought to be a “safe space” where we don’t ask the harder questions of our faith.  When faith goes unexamined, when doubts go unaddressed, then God’s grace lies in danger of going unappreciated.  Doubt has a place in the life of the learner, and therefore doubt has its place in the community of faith.

In his recent book In Praise of Doubt, Peter Berger talks about authentic Christian faith as standing opposed to two broad trends: (1) relativism and (2) fundamentalism.  In many ways, we are like the desperate father who cried out to Jesus: “Lord I believe! Help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24).  Faith and doubt aren’t mutually exclusive.  So how should we understand their relationship?

 

AVOIDING RELATIVISM BY EMBRACING COMMUNITY

First, we live in a world of cultural and moral relativism.  What’s right and wrong, what’s true and false—these things can no longer be answered with absolute certainty.  They depend entirely on a culture’s definition of right and wrong and what each person decides for themselves.

Many young people—particularly in their late teens and early 20’s—tend to find themselves swept away by the wide variety of competing ideas they encounter as they get older.  More and more they leave the familiarity of the “nest,” along with it the security of their youth groups and their private schools and find themselves in university environments where the faith convictions of their upbringing are not shared by their classmates or new girlfriends.  In such environments, many young people end up re-shuffling their beliefs and values to accommodate their new social environments.

There’s a reason why Paul said that the Church is a “pillar and buttress for the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). He used a word picture of a building, but Paul, of course, meant that Christian community—the relationships we share with one another—help form a web of relationships that help hold Christian belief together.

While the example I used above was of young people, all people are vulnerable to their faith crumbling (or at least changing) when we are not active in Christian community. By sharing in each other’s lives, we learn to see Christianity as having an enduring relevance for the way we engage the world.  This also means that even if you struggle to share Christianity’s values and beliefs, you are invited to observe the way that others embody God’s truth in their daily lives.

 

AVOIDING FUNDAMENTALISM BY EMBRACING UNCERTAINTY

Secondly, within the walls of the traditional church, there is the lingering danger of “fundamentalism.”  Mind you, fundamentalism started out as a very positive movement (more specifically, a series of books called The Fundamentals) aimed at guarding Christian tradition against the competing views and values of the modern world.  But as time wore on, “fundamentalism” became a much more legalistic, narrow form of Christian faith that still shows up in portions of the church today.

How might fundamentalism feed doubt?  You might think it would do the opposite.  Two of my professors in grad school—Drs. Darrell Bock and Daniel Wallace—were fond of the phrase “brittle fundamentalism.”  They meant that sometimes it’s easy for conservatives to learn things about Christianity without ever really learning why they’re true.  If we return to our college classroom, we might see this in the face of a college student who’d been taught that God made the earth in six 24-hour periods, but that same student has no way of dialoguing with his biology professor who counters this story with the theory of evolution. And so the student’s “brittle” faith cracks, it shatters on the rocks of modern complexity.  Or what about issues of same-sex marriage, or sexual ethics in the broader sense?  If all students learn  is that “it’s bad,” then we have failed to provide them with a thoughtful faith that aims to engage the world.

The solution, I would suggest, is to embrace a certain measure of uncertainty.  I know that makes us nervous.  I don’t meant that we should abandon all certainty, only that we be willing to step back, ask the hard questions, and really evaluate not only what we believe, but why we believe it.  In the end, this can often make us more confident about our faith than when we left our beliefs unexamined.  And this is why Church community must become a place in which we explore our faith and our doubts not merely by grumpily rehearsing answers from the past, but by inviting one another to explore God’s timeless truth as it intersects with the timely issues of the day.

 

TRUSTING THOMAS

When the resurrection happened, Jesus’ followers didn’t know what to make of it, even thought they’d been following this man for three years.  One of the strangest two verses appears in John 20, where faith and understanding aren’t as close together as we’d like to assume:

Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. (John 20:8-9)

Later we find the famous story of “doubting Thomas” (though in fairness, we should point out that he’s never given that title in John’s gospel):

24 Now Thomas, one of the Twelve, called the Twin, was not with them when Jesus came. 25 So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord.” But he said to them, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.”

26 Eight days later, his disciples were inside again, and Thomas was with them. Although the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” 28 Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” 29 Jesus said to him, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Here in John we don’t find the kind of “brittle fundamentalism” that some of us grew up with. According to John, faith is something organic and evolving.  What starts in a faint mist crescendos into tidal waves of vivid comprehension—but only after a life of being scraped raw by the rough edges of time and experience.

We don’t need a “faith seeking a safe place;” we need a “faith seeking understanding.”  Sometimes that kind of faith makes us uncomfortable, but it’s there that we’ll find Jesus.  For his followers, doubt isn’t something that we pursue, but when it confronts us we do not flee from it.  Even such a season might be used to sharpen us, shape us, and conform us ever more closely into Christ’s image.

[1] The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves, from The Quotable Lewis, p. 164.

Why everyone’s a teacher

When you were growing up, did you have a favorite teacher?  Maybe a coach?  I’d be willing to bet that even if you didn’t like school, you still found one or two teachers that you could look up to or relate to more than others.

I’ve had several, but one of them is a woman by the name of Mrs. Lemkhul, my art teacher while a student at Boonsboro High.  I suspect not many know this about me, but my original background—even before chemistry—was in studio art.  And it was in Mrs. Lemkhul’s classes that she emphasized “learning to see,” meaning that rather than draw what we thought we saw we drew what we actually saw.

I suspect that if we pause and think about the teachers that we’ve loved the most, this would be their common thread.  Through their instruction we learned more than just sets of information or more than just how to play the game better.  The greatest of our teachers changed the way we see the world.  They broadened our horizons, if you’ll pardon the cliché, and pushed us to walk towards them.

Every one of us is a learner.  And every one of us is a teacher.  Granted, not all of us is a teacher in a vocational sense.  And the Bible even cautions that “not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1).  But as we emphasized on Tuesday, the life of a learner is about seeing, doing, and teaching.  Yesterday we focused on the powerful role that “doing” occupies in the Christian life—that is, the way that our habits influence our character.

What about teaching?  You might shudder at the thought.  Maybe you’re worried you just don’t know enough.  Maybe even interacting with your own kids makes you sweat bullets. But teaching others is a Biblical practice and actually a rich blessing.

TEACHING AND DISCIPLESHIP

First, let’s be clear.  You’re a teacher.  You influence people around you.  If you’re a parent—especially a father—you of all people have a role in training your children to understand God and his world.  And, not to belabor the point, you’re going to do that in ways that are positive or ways that are negative. There’s no middle ground.

As a negative example,  in the book of Proverbs we read:

Make no friendship with a man given to anger,
nor go with a wrathful man,
25 lest you learn his ways
and entangle yourself in a snare. (Proverbs 22:24-25)

So here we learn (1) that we should avoid angry people because (2) anger is contagious and destructive.  Ok.  So what about the people around you?  What about your kids?  Do they see anger in you?  Do they see you yelling at the TV during political debates?  Do they hear you muttering when you get cut off in traffic?  Is your temper really your greatest legacy?

If we can return to Deuteronomy, we find that God’s people are commanded to be teachers by inviting God’s word into every aspect of their lives and their homes:

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:4-9)

Remember what we learned a while ago?  The human brain doesn’t learn information like a sponge soaking up water; it’s more like pouring something into a blender with the lid off.  Information splatters everywhere.  The learning process is about learning to make connections between those chopped-up pieces of information so that we learn to see the whole picture.

Something is at work here, only it’s related to the task of teachers particularly in the family.  Teaching isn’t always adding new information to the blender of a child’s head.  It’s often about helping them put the pieces together, to show them how what they learned in Church on Sunday impacts their life on the playground.

TEACHING AND MISSION

Christ’s followers are also called to be teachers as they serve on mission.  Consider Jesus’ last words to his disciples in Matthew’s gospel:

19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in[a] the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

The message of God cannot be divorced from the mission of God.  To share the gospel is to be a teacher, because sharing the gospel means that we pass on the facts of the “good news” to those who have never heard it (or at least not believed it) and share how it’s impacted our lives.

IT’S EASIER THAN YOU THINK

I get it. It’s hard to call yourself a “teacher.”  The whole thing seems overwhelming.  Only, the thing is, it’s not.

I mean, all of you have passions.  All of you have interests.  What can you do to “write God’s word on your doorposts,” so to speak?  That is, what can you do to bring God’s truth into the everyday?  If you’re a dad, maybe it means spending time with your kids in the garage, or the woodshop, or the tree-stand while you’re hunting deer.  Don’t you think it would be easy to lean over and tell your kid, “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it” (Psalm 24:1, NIV)?  You don’t need a seminary background to at least start making connections between the world you inhabit and the world of God’s story.

Even grownups can be taught in a similar manner, when we begin learning how to apply God’s principles to our everyday life.  When our workplace ceases to be a paycheck but a mission field, our attitude and work ethic can be opportunities to talk about how our faith motivates us more than money.

So be a teacher.  Share how God has been a significant part of your life’s journey.  Help those around you see God not just as a character in a book we read on Sundays, but a vital part of each and every day.

Accents and abiding: Which way is your heart slanted?

So here’s  a bit of a pop quiz for you.  You’re in a restaurant.  You’re looking at the menu.  Toward the bottom corner you see a list of beverages including Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, root beer.  What’s the generic name for this type of beverage?  And don’t say “soft drink” because no one says that any more than anyone refers to “Kleenex” as “facial tissue.”

How many of you say “soda?”  How many of you say “pop?”  If you’re from Texas, you might call all of them “coke,” which means if you order a “coke” in a restaurant, don’t be surprised when the wait staff asks you “what kind?”

This isn’t the only example, of course.  We can name several other examples of words that get pronounced differently depending on where you’re from:

  • Is “aunt” pronounced like “ant” or like “ahnt?”
  • Is “caramel” two syllables (“CAR-mel”) or three (“CARE-ah-mel”)?
  • Is “coupon” pronounced more like “coop” or more like the word “cute?”
  • Is “route” pronounced like “root” or should it rhyme with “out?”
  • Do you call the symbol (*) as “asterisk” or an “asteriks”?

And of course there’s more.  In 1999 Harvard surveyed folks from across the country to catalog the many ways we pronounce things differently depending on our region of origin.  More recently, The New York Times used the same data to create a quiz that claims it can determine where you’re from based on your pronunciation and regional vocabulary (I’ve actually given this to you before, but if you’re bored you can click here to take the quiz).

Here’s the point: if our environment shapes our speech and our accent, what else might our environment be shaping?

LEARNING AND ABIDING

Christian learning, as we’ve said, is about the formation of our character.  None of us are immune to this process.  I think of the repeated theme from Wendell Berry’s novel Jayber Crow about how we sink into a place, and how that place sinks into us.  We cannot reduce ourselves to mere products of our environment, but we can hardly deny the incredible power our environment has on our learning and our character.

Perhaps that’s why Jesus so often used the metaphor of “abiding” or “remaining.”  The word most literally has the idea of “dwelling,” the way we might “abide” in a house or region.  But used by Jesus, the word refers to the way that discipleship is an immersion process, and that our “fruitfulness” depends on the way that we unite with Christ and his teachings by “sinking into” them, and allowing them to sink into us:

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full. (John 15:1-11)

The thing is, everybody “abides” in something.  We “sink into” something.  And we will learn from what we abide in—it will shape us and mold us so that we speak the “regional dialect” of whoever’s kingdom we choose to “abide” in.

If you sink into social media, social media will sink into you.  If you sink into your smart phone, your smart phone will sink into you.  That is, if you sink into convenience, then it is convenience—and not vibrant relationship—that will sink into you.  So if you sink into career, sex, money, you name it—these things will sink into you.  No one “dabbles” in these things like they were some sort of hobby.  They will shape you, mold you until you may not like the outcome.

THIS IS YOUR BRAIN ON WORSHIP

We’re talking, then, about the radical unity between worship and learning.  Worship is about the formation and expression of our loves.  And what we love, we look at, and what we look at, we become.  Paul had something of this in mind when he turned his focus to Christ’s followers in the final portion of his letter to the Romans.  In the previous sections of his letter (what we know as chapters 1-11), Paul address topics ranging from sin (Romans 1-3), salvation (Romans 4-6), sanctification (Romans 7-8) and God’s sovereignty (Romans 9-11).  Now Paul starts his address on service by saying:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

In a recent song by the band Mumford and Sons, the singer intones that “in these bodies we live, in these bodies we will die.  Where you invest your love, you invest your life.”  For years I never quite understood the connection between the two verses above—they seemed so disconnected to my mind.  But I think Paul was trying to tell us that our lives are about worship—about our loves—and only through total surrender to God can we be expect to be molded and shaped into someone that resembles God’s Son (Romans 8:29).

So in verse 2 Paul contrasts these two ideas of being “conformed to this world” and being “transformed by the renewal of your mind.”  Make no mistake: Paul was way ahead of his time.  It’s only been recently that research has begun to challenge the former assumptions that the human brain doesn’t change.  It does—sometimes drastically.  The learning process is about forming new connections between parts of the brain to improve communication and literally change the way you think.  Positively, this helps explain why it’s better for children to learn new languages when they’re young—because then this new vocabulary becomes better integrated into the developing network of brain cells.  Negatively, this explains why pornography can be so devastating—because it literally alters the wiring of the user’s brains until genuine intimacy becomes impossible.

scaleWe are either transformed or conformed.  Sometimes I think we tend to get wrapped up in the question of whether certain behaviors or certain media choices are sinful or not.  Because the answer isn’t always immediately obvious.  But maybe we can ask a better question.  Maybe we should be asking: Which way is my heart slanted?  In other words, will this behavior “slant” my heart more toward God and my neighbor, or will this behavior “slant” my heart more toward myself?

So, for instance:

  • When I use my smart phone as the sole means of communicating with others, does this slant my heart toward genuine love for them, or does it slant my heart toward relating to people only when it is convenient?
  • Do my choices of music and media slant my heart toward loving God’s kingdom and its values, or slant my heart toward loving values that only serve the self?
  • Does my attitude toward my job—my work ethic, my treatment of my co-workers, etc.—slant my heart toward living out God’s mission in the everyday, or does it slant my heart toward using my career to make myself feel good or look good in the eyes of others?
  • Do the quick meals we have with our kids slant them toward finding God’s presence even in the mundane lulls before soccer practice, or do they slant their hearts toward seeing life as an endless rush to “the next thing?”

All of these things activities (and others) are part of a larger learning process.  Just as our environment can shape our speech, so too can our surroundings and our habits shape our hearts.

The gospel isn’t about earning God’s approval through righteous behavior.  God’s approval comes only through the righteousness of Jesus applied to your account through his finished work on the cross.  But God is determined to engage us in an ongoing work of personal transformation.  This transformation comes about not merely by conforming to a set of moral standards, but by re-aligning our loves—the things we “abide” in—such that they reflect Christ and his kingdom more than our worldly empires.

So what about you?  What are you doing today?  What will it teach you?  How will it shape you?  Which way is your heart slanted?

“Up, up, and away!” A gracious call for playful thinkers

When I was a little kid my favorite movie was 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.  I was mildly obsessed.  I watched—and re-watched—the movie countless times, rewinding the VHS tape (yes; I grew up in the era of VHS) at least a thousand times.

But of course I was never content to simply watch the movie.  I wanted to live the movie.  I imagined that the entire house was a submarine, and I was its captain.  I’m pretty sure I decided that my mother was the ship’s cook, so I don’t know that I was the most progressive captain in the world, but I guess when you’re four you gotta start somewhere.

Now that I’m older I’ve come to recognize just how important it is for children to participate in the things they love, the way that my nephew loves to emulate the action heroes from Big Hero Six or the rescuers from Paw Patrol or whatever.  Children don costumes and capes, clamoring “up, up, and away!” as they rush off in search of adventure, to say nothing of the diverse ways that girls emulate their own heroines ranging from Disney princesses to  the bold Rey from Star Wars. 

Imagination, then, isn’t just about creating fanciful worlds and mental pictures.  Imagination has to do with giving life to these stories and crafting ways that we inhabit these stories, allow them to become us, and to give ourselves to these stories that we might find meaning.

SEE, DO, TEACH

Our focus this week has been on learning, which we defined yesterday as the process of allowing God’s story to shape our character.  We need to challenge the deeply-held assumption that learning is about the assimilation of information rather than the formation of character.

In David Brooks’ bestselling The Social Animal, the journalist explores the ways that contemporary brain research helps us understand the learning process.  He points out that we often assume that the learning process is like pouring liquid into a container.  In reality, he says, quoting from one psychologist, “the process is ‘like a blender left running with the lid off.  The information is literally sliced into discrete pieces as it enters the brain and splattered all over the insides of the mind.’”[1]  The learning process is about connecting those “splattered” pieces into something meaningful.  Brooks points out that this means that you don’t have a part of your brain devoted to remembering things like the distinction between the letter “P” and the letter “B.”  In fact, this simple distinction involves something like 22 different sections of the human brain.

That’s interesting enough, I guess, but what does this have to do with children playing?  When children use their imaginations, they are forming connections between various pieces of information.  Play helps children develop social skills and moral centers—it’s the way that children first learn to make sense of the world around them.

But this also means something for adults as well.  The learning process, as we just said, isn’t about getting more information into our heads.  It’s about learning to take that information and make it a part of our character and skill set.

Medical schools already know this.  In an article for Spin.com, Brian Ledsworth tells us that medical schools emphasize three crucial steps to learning:[2]

  • Seeing
  • Doing
  • Teaching

In Christianity, we often stop at the first step.  We do a lot of “seeing” or passive listening—to sermons, to books, to podcasts, even to Bible study—but we rarely move on from there and incorporate what we’re learning into our daily practices, let alone passing it on to others.

HEART, SOUL, STRENGTH: CONNECTIVE LEARNING

The people of the Bible would have probably found this threefold approach (see, do, teach) really weird.  Or at least unnecessary.  When we read the pages of Scripture, we don’t find a division between these three categories.  Rather, we can point out that seeing, doing, teaching are all part of a learning process that engaged the whole person—not just his or her mind.

In the pages of Deuteronomy, we find a celebration between God and his people, a celebration that resembled the proceedings of many ancient treaties, but would today be most similar to the “big tent revival” services of Christianity’s recent past. Here we find God issuing a paradigm of learning that would define much of Israelite community for generations to come:

“Now this is the commandment—the statutes and the rules—that the Lord your God commanded me to teach you, that you may do them in the land to which you are going over, to possess it, that you may fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s son, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life, and that your days may be long. Hear therefore, O Israel, and be careful to do them, that it may go well with you, and that you may multiply greatly, as the Lord, the God of your fathers, has promised you, in a land flowing with milk and honey.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (Deuteronomy 6:1-9)

It may be helpful to unpack verse 5 a bit, because the terms “heart,” “soul,” and “might” mean something a bit different to us than the people for whom this passage was written:

  • “Heart” (from the Hebrew lebab): Our understanding of “heart” has unfortunately been shaped by things ranging from Greek philosophy to Hallmark commercials. But the Hebrews would have understood lebab as meaning something a bit more like “mind” or “intellect,” the center of thought, not emotion.
  • “Soul” (from the Hebrew nephesh): The term nephesh literally means “life,” and refers to the innermost part of a person—his will, his motivations, his identity.
  • “Might/strength” (from the Hebrew me’od): This term relates to “obedience” and practices—it’s the active, physical dimension of things, the way we embody God’s story in our world.

We’ll unpack some of this further in the days ahead, but what I want us all to really be aware of is that God’s plan for “Christian education” engages the whole person.  I know it doesn’t quite overlap with the “see, do, teach” of today’s medical school, but surely we can see some parallels.

Here’s the larger point: we too easily fall into the trap of assuming that Christian teaching—its theology, its doctrines—is something you absorb by listening to a sermon or participating in a Bible study.  It’s not.  Sure, it may start there.  After all, there’s value in hearing God’s word taught to you on a regular basis.  But Christianity isn’t about learning a story as much as living a story.  It’s less about the intellect but the imagination—that is, the part of our brains that leads us to inhabit God’s story and see it unfold in all its gracious possibilities.  Theology should challenge us, but it should also excite us, it should move us and animate us like children at play.  We will never flourish until we see the ways that God’s story intersects with all of life, and learn our own place in the webbing together of truth and practice.  Christianity needs thinkers, yes, but more than that it needs playful thinkers, men and women who participate in God’s story in every moment of their lives.  We need poets, we need artists, we need mothers, we need fathers, we need sportsmen, we need hunters, we need mechanics and scientists and musicians and most of all we need men and women whose hearts and homes and jobs overflow with the goodness of God in the everyday, and see God’s story as not confined to a book (as precious as that book is!) but taking shape in the everyday moments that make up our lives.

So grab your cape.  Let your imagination run wild.

 

[1] John Medina, quoted in David Brooks, The Social Animal, p. 81.

[2] Brian Ledsworth, “See one, do one, teach one: Not just for the medical profession,” April 29, 2011 http://spin.atomicobject.com/2011/04/29/see-one-do-one-teach-one-not-just-for-the-medical-profession/

Of Chatbots and Wisdom: Why we are all learners

In the age of information, the creation of an “artificial intelligence” has been something of a holy grail for computer programmers.  I don’t know why, exactly—frankly I think we already have a deficit of “natural intelligence.”  But I digress.

In the past year, the Microsoft corporation released a program known as a “chatbot” on the world.  What is a chatbot?  A chatbot, apparently, is a computer program designed to simulate a human being.  You can send a message to this chatbot, and get a reply.  And because the communication is all digital, you have no way of distinguishing the messages from the chatbot from any of the other messages we exchange in the age of digital networks.

So Microsoft designed a program named “Tay,” designed to emulate the communication patterns of a 19-year-old girl, and released her into Twitter—the popular social networking site.

The results were disastrous.  According to The Guardian:

“The bot, known as Tay, was designed to become “smarter” as more users interacted with it. Instead, it quickly learned to parrot a slew of anti-Semitic and other hateful invective that human Twitter users fed the program, forcing Microsoft Corp to shut it down on Thursday.”[1]

Microsoft had to pull Tay from the internet within only 16 hours, saying that they are “deeply sorry” for releasing her on the world.

I’m not a computer programmer, but I’d guess that the human mind works quite differently from that of a machine or a program.  But I think Tay reveals a valuable lesson, namely that our environment shapes us in more ways that we realize.  Our character is influenced—perhaps strongly—by the sum of our relationships and our habits.

WHY LEARN?

This week we’re looking at the question: “Why learn?”  The answer, revealed in part by Tay, is that we are all learners.  From cradle to grave, all of us learn without necessarily being conscious of it.  Learning, in the Christian sense, is less about information and more about formation.  “Men are made, not born Christians,”[2] wrote one of the writers of the ancient church, and because of the effects of sin we need a gracious re-shaping of our character that we might fulfill our destiny of being “conformed to the image of [the] Son” (Romans 8:29).

Here at Tri-State we do many things with that aim:

  • Sermons (including those on our Youtube channel)
  • Online devotionals
  • Classes (such as those during “second hour,” though also our children’s ministry)
  • Small groups (including our community groups and youth groups)

And of course we could add to this list some of the various projects and ministry events that arise in the course of a year.  These activities serve to help us learn, help us grow, help shape us into men and women who serve as active members of God’s kingdom.

But how?

WHERE IS WISDOM FOUND?

Biblical scholars usually lump together the poetic books under the heading of “wisdom literature,” referring to Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon.  But if one book stands out as being about “wisdom” more than others, it is the book of Proverbs.  The book is a collection of poetic phrases and sayings (kind of like King Solomon’s Twitter account), and while the form of the book resembles the poetry of other ancient people (notably Egypt), Solomon anchors his teaching in the character of Israel’s one true God:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction.  (Proverbs 1:7)

The Church exists to worship God—to place him at the center of our lives and to reveal him as the exulted King of all Creation.  In doing so, our character is shaped and molded that we might grow in wisdom.

What is “wisdom?”  The word in Hebrew is hokma, meaning something more like “skill.”  It had more to do with actions than intellectual knowledge, though as we see above our English Bibles often translate hokma as “knowledge” or “wisdom” and use the terms interchangeably.  We might define wisdom as the “right use of knowledge,” emphasizing that wisdom has more to do with character than it does to mere information.

After all, it’s a distinctively modern, Western trend to separate knowledge from wisdom.  As we mentioned earlier, ours is an information age.  We are surrounded by—nay, bombarded by—information and data.  In such a world, one of the greatest social “sins” is to appear uninformed.  The “smart phone” is the closest thing to omniscience we’ll ever get to experience.  But we might join T.S. Eliot in his lament for the modern age: “Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”[3]

In his book The Divine Conspiracy, Christian author Dallas Willard writes of how the world is operating completely upside-down:

“Robert Coles, professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard and a well-known researcher and commentator on matters social and moral, published a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on ‘The Disparity Between Intellect and Character.’ The piece is about ‘the task of connecting intellect to character.’ This task, he adds, ‘is daunting.’”[4]

He goes on to say that in a world devoid of true wisdom, our souls will cling to the kinds of cheap nonsense we find on bumper stickers and t-shirt slogans, things that “somehow seem deep but in fact make no sense: ‘Stand up for your rights’ … ‘All I ever needed to know I learned in kindergarten’…’Practice random kindnesses and senseless acts of beauty’…And so forth.”[5]

“But try instead ‘Stand up for your responsibilities’ or ‘I don’t know what I need to know and must now devote my full attention and strength to finding out’…or ‘Practice routinely purposeful kindnesses and intelligent acts of beauty.’ Putting these into practice immediately begins to bring truth, goodness, strength, and beauty into our lives. But you will never find them on a greeting card, plaque, or bumper. They aren’t thought to be smart. What is truly profound is thought to be stupid and trivial, or worse, boring, while what is actually stupid and trivial is thought to be profound.”[6]

I know many people who are knowledgeable.  I know many people who are clever.  I know far fewer who are deep and who are wise.

Solomon implores his readers—which would have included his own sons—that wisdom provides great benefit:

Get wisdom; get insight;
do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth.
6 Do not forsake her, and she will keep you;
love her, and she will guard you.

(Proverbs 4:5-6)

We are all learners.  We need to press ourselves beyond the shallow places that occupy our modern landscape and press ourselves deeply into the truths of Christ.  We need to be men and women who possess a wisdom beyond our years while never shedding the laughter of youth.  Most of all, we need the gracious gift of Godly wisdom, that others might see less of us and more of Him.

 

[1] “Microsoft ‘deeply sorry’ for racist and sexist tweets by AI chatbot,” in The Guardian, March 26, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2016/mar/26/microsoft-deeply-sorry-for-offensive-tweets-by-ai-chatbot

[2] Tertullian, The Apology, XVIII.

[3] T. S. Eliot, Collected Poems 1909-1962, p. 147.

[4] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, p. 3-4.

[5] Ibid., 9-10.

[6] Ibid., 10.