Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Context is Everything (Part 2)

There are many things I love about the Yarmouth Wesleyan church. Every one of the pastors has a unique style that injects vitality into what they preach. They also believe in being accountable to the scriptures, which is most important. These aren't just gifts; they're commitments. I've set foot in many churches that preach from the gospel, but there's a point that some of them lose with time and complacency: scripture is God's Word, not a god itself. To be complacent in one's faith is to demotivate a body of believers. The nature of this world is constantly urgent; there will never be a moment when evil relents. Them's the breaks. This is something that hasn't been lost at my church, and it's something that was readily apparent to me when I attended the Thanksgiving service a few months ago, the first time I sat through a sermon there. Not surprisingly, I walked away with a sense of fear. It would be another four days of soul-searching before I finally submitted to God, but after glimpsing His influence through the midst of the Sunday morning crowd, I felt like the guy who was about 27 years making a payment to the mafia don. Scary stuff. [Note to self: Dedicate a blog post to recounting all my near death experiences, all of which could have knocked me into an eternal grave but for God's mercy in keeping me here.]

Mayhaps you've heard someone mention that it would be nice if life came with an instruction manual. Well, it does. However, if you spend too much time with your nose pressed to the groove, you probably won't live much of what you're reading. Always remember that. Since I started reading Genesis, a day hasn't passed that I didn't read at least a few chapters in the Bible. Since I started reading the Bible, a day hasn't passed that I didn't learn something new about God and life. Not only is it just that simple, but I've noticed an increase sense of security and comfort, as well as the blessings I once would have ignored. But that all hinged on me approaching God with an open mind. It required me to understand and respect His timetable. I had to read passages and offer honest consideration to what they said before I really started to reap the benefits of a wholesome life. (And they are many, let me tell you.)

As I noted in yesterday's post, that's a stark contrast to my former attempts. Don't get me wrong; everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. As Pastor Jim would say, it's not important to agree on theology at the end of the day as long as you can say that you've sincerely prayed over the scriptures and are right with God. That understood, let's take a huge step back and remind ourselves that the Bible is a massively complex book expressed in universally relatable terms. That itself is a miracle, innit? Even the most mature and devout believers would tell you that verses only increase in relevence with time, and that they continually learn new things about passages they've read days, weeks, or years ago. (And months, sure!)

But a word of caution to the well-intended but less enlightened among us: when sharing any message from the Book, be utterly careful. A lot of us, myself included, have tried to affirm our beliefs with scripture, when in fact the proper thing to do is work the other way: base your beliefs on those passages. Otherwise, you've got yourself a recipe for corruption, if not disaster. It's widely understood that people hate hypocrisy and that churches can serve as potential dens of hypocrites. Earlier today, I was listening to a recorded Fusion service my friend Matt recently lent me. There's an interview with U2's Bono in which Bono references many instances when churches were very ungentle with regards to the public. He specifically mentioned the African AIDS crisis, that so many churches and churchgoers drove wedges between themselves and the infected. They considered all those who contracted the HIV virus as sexual deviants who were unworthy of their fellowship.

Well, my friends, let me tell you a few things about God: God hates suffering. He will call these ministers to account when they stand before Him. God has a soft spot for the poor. Even King David started his life in poverty (1 Samuel 18: 23). Hehe, I can tell I'm going to use a lot of proverbs to support my ideas, because they can't really be pigeon-holed:

Proverbs 14: 31
He who oppresses the poor shows contempt for their Maker, but whoever is kind to the needy honors God.

Thank you, King Solomon. That's a complete idea, and it's taken in context. There are many parts of the Bible, however, that say one thing but mean another. Some are positive and some negative. I do feel, though, that it's important to consider the real meaning behind what you cite. The thing is, there are many people who misrepresent the Word and the Christian ethic. Unfortunately, not only do they bring harm upon God's children, but they also influence a lot of people who ultimately decide that God is not for them. God will judge them accordingly.

Take the following, for instance:

Job 6: 14
A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty.

You know what? I encourage you to live by that principle. To borrow another line from Pastor Jim, Christians should be concerned with the restoration of friends who stray from God. As he'd say, we want to be careful not to fall into the same snares that snag our friends, but we should certainly prioritize their return to God's path. We should help to build them up, not kick them when their faces are in the dirt. Don't think for one second that this world is a sanctuary; it's a giant battlefield. Left to our own devices, we'd all be doomed to failure (and subsequently to death). On the contrary, God bestows His presence to those who love Him; He is always present when people congregate to worship Him sincerely. What that means is that fellowship is the true nature of churches, not buildings or rituals or doctrines. The reason we convene is to unify our voices into one resounding praise machine, not because God wants an hour of weekly lip service. (If this idea doesn't sit well with you, feel free to send me a line from the canon that suggests otherwise.)

Now, why wouldn't suggest using that line from the book of Job to reinforce these sentiments? Well, for one thing, Job is being ironic. He has, to his own awareness, lived what he calls a blameless life. After he lost all he had in the world and was stricken with a devastating skin disease, three of his friends came to his side. Most verses in Job are conversational and written as couplets. The line above (Job 6: 14) is not meant to serve as a pseudo proverb; it's a lament. Job feels that his entire life was pure and that God has treated him unjustly. He wants to be brought before a neutral judge, one that presumably would rule more fairly than God (were that possible). Job challenges God to bring forth one credible witness against him. Job's friends refuse to support his cause, and that's what inspires him to speak the above line. It has nothing to do with friendship; he's asking in blindness to be led by other blind men. Here's what he really thinks of his friends, which he says after they repeatedly fail to strike fear into him:

Job 6: 21
Now you too have proved to be of no help; you see something dreadful and are afraid.

Let me offer a secular example that seems equally deceptive when considered on a tunnel-visioned level. As a teen, I idolized the rock band R.E.M. In 1987, they had a fairly popular single entitled "The One I Love". Altogether, the lyrics were a four-line stanza that was repeated throughout the song. Here are the first two lines:

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I left behind

Imagine some fairly tense music behind that, and it almost sounds like the protagonist wants to make amends with someone loved and lost. I used to frequent a fan site that had a pretty active messageboard, and I've read dozens of examples of people who've dedicated this song to girlfriends or boyfriends or spouses, and none of them had any appreciation for the bitter irony of this song. Some even had it played at their weddings. Lines three and four, which convey the protagonist's true intent, are thus:

This one goes out to the one I love
This one goes out to the one I left behind
A simple prop to occupy my time
This one goes out to the one I love

You'll note I've rewritten the first two lines for the sake of sheer clarity. Now, this is just a silly song. In the grand scheme, it doesn't really matter whether you love, hate, or misunderstand it. No one preaches from it (I would hope). But how many people try to twist scripture into supporting their views? How many false prophets and false preachers are out there? Believe me, I've met my share. I've heard about some very disturbing rituals that certain sects and churches have practiced, and, without trying to sound too austere, I can assure you they were not endorsed by God.

I'm not saying we shouldn't support our friends. I'm not saying that Job didn't inadvertently speak great (but cautionary) wisdom. But there are hundreds of passages that might better support these ideals. Don't lean on the quotes that can come back to bite you.

I don't know why this is such a touchy subject for me. Having experienced such a drastic transformation, I just feel really compelled to defend the scriptures, as I said in the posts entitled "My New Purpose". The book of Job is very, very ironic. It was kind of refreshing for me to read it, the way it contrasts most other books. It kind of hearkened back to my university days when I would hermit myself in my tiny apartment with an extra large coffee and burn through Tennyson or Milton. There's so much wisdom in the book of Job that I'm hesitant to use outside this post because of the underhanded way it's presented. I mean, look at how eloquent this is:

Job 28: 12-3, 23-4, 27-8
12 "But where can wisdom be found? Where does understanding dwell? 13 Man does not comprehend its worth; it cannot be found in the land of the living. 23 God understands the way to it and he alone knows where it dwells, 24 for he views the ends of the earth and sees everything under the heavens. 27 then he looked at wisdom and appraised it; he confirmed it and tested it. 28 And he said to man, 'The fear of the Lord—that is wisdom, and to shun evil is understanding.' "

And yet all of that was said facetiously. As I said, be careful.

Let's end with another proverb. Solomon reminds me of my situation. I wouldn't say I have very many friends, but the ones I've kept are priceless.

Proverbs 18: 24
A man of many companions may come to ruin,
but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.

(I think he's referring to God, but I'll extend that a little beyond the LORD for the sake of practicality.)


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