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I Am Thankful

Thursday, June 04, 2020

These are spiritually oppressive days.  The coronavirus is oppressive, the George Floyd killing and its fallout are oppressive, and the online quarrelling between brethren over these issues is oppressive.  All these things combine to paint a grim picture of our spiritual reality. 

However, I don’t think that this picture is accurate.  Nothing about God’s people and His church has been fundamentally altered.  The storm may be raging, but the houses with foundations continue to stand.  We are not a perfect people, but we do diligently seek the Lord, and for those with eyes to see, the search is so, so evident.  I am thankful for everyone who is engaged in it.  In particular:

I am thankful for every Christian and every church that strives for unity in the face of racial and political difference.  We are not all the same, and if that changes in the future, something horrible has happened.  We do not all see things the same way, and that is unlikely ever to change! 

Nonetheless, we work to be one in Christ Jesus.  We carefully, awkwardly reach out to those of different races.  We make allowances for differences in upbringing and experience that lead to different perspectives.  When a brother or sister makes a thoughtless comment, we smile with thin lips instead of exploding in outrage. 

Unity is not an accident.  It is the product of constant, patient effort.  I am thankful for everyone who makes the effort.

I am thankful for my black brothers and sisters.  Though I try to empathize, I know I never will be able to see the world through your eyes.  When I say the wrong thing, it’s because of my imperfect understanding, not evil intent. 

Nonetheless, I don’t have any trouble seeing Christ in you.  I see your anger and your pain, but I know that Christ was angry.  I know that Christ suffered when He saw injustice.  I rejoice when you rise above those who hold you in contempt, when, rather than returning evil for evil, you speak truth in love.  By your godliness and self-control, you put your enemies to shame.

I am thankful for my black brethren who are church leaders.  You are among the best of us, and in many cases, your example is one I honor and strive to imitate.  The work that you do as preachers, elders, and deacons brings glory to God, and your dignified, humble service powerfully rebuts the lies of racism.  May your hands and your hearts always be strengthened for the labor you do for God!

I am thankful for the white brethren who serve as adoptive and foster parents for children who are black and brown.  You know as well as anybody that love isn’t color-blind, that love sees color, because love has to see color.  You also know, though, that color is no barrier to love.  In many cases, you have taken heavy burdens upon yourselves because of love, and though your struggles and suffering often are known to no one but God, they still glorify Him.  White sisters, every time you go out in public with a child of color and somebody sneers at you, remember that fools sneered at Christ too.  As you despise the shame, you walk in His footsteps.

Most of all, I am thankful for the love of the God who has called us and bound us together.  By nature, we are children of wrath, hateful and hating one another, and yet He had compassion on us and showed us mercy through His Son.  As we seek to be transformed into His image, may His compassion and His love be our guiding star, imperfectly seen, even more imperfectly followed, yet always present.  As we despair of ever perfecting ourselves, let us repose our hope in the One who fully is able to perfect us.

George Floyd and the Limits of Law

Monday, June 01, 2020

Just when we thought that racist behavior couldn’t get any more indefensible and awful than the Ahmaud Arbery shooting, along comes the George Floyd suffocation.  The image of a uniformed police officer kneeling on the neck of a compliant Floyd who is pleading for air is among the most horrible I’ve ever seen.  I can’t bring myself to watch the video, even though I can claim no closer kinship to Floyd than being the fellow bearer of an immortal soul.

In the face of such a stark symbol of human hatred, I completely understand why black people all over the country have taken to the streets, crying for justice.  Though I cannot condone it, I even understand the behavior of those whose rage and pain has led them to loot, burn, and destroy.  Surely something must be done in response to such monstrous evil!  If there is anything in this tragedy that I don’t understand, it is how one human being can literally crush the life from another while listening to his pleas for mercy.

However, as comprehensible as the actions of the rioters are, I only can see them as fundamentally misguided.  It may be satisfying to destroy the business of some shopkeeper who had nothing to do with the Floyd killing, may well be committed to racial equality, and might even be black themselves, but doing so does nothing to advance justice for anybody.  In fact, it only makes the world more evil and less just.  People who feel like they have to do something are doing the wrong thing.

I worry too that the feeling that we have to do something is a trap for the rest of us.  In its infinite wisdom, the online mediasphere has concluded that all of us need to take a stand against systemic racism, but the problem is that there don’t seem to be any systemic solutions available.  The state of Minnesota already has laws on the books prohibiting murder.  I’m sure that the handbook for the Minneapolis police department emphasizes that officers must treat all people equally and fairly.  I’m sure they undergo sensitivity training on a regular basis. I’m sure they’ve been told that they must intervene whenever they see a fellow officer abusing someone.

And yet, one police officer killed a man who was no threat to him while three others watched.  Write the laws how you will; until the hearts of people like that change, nothing will change.  After all, if the Pharisees successfully subverted even the law of God, I am confident that those who are so minded will be able to subvert and defeat the intent of any mere human law.

This takes us, then, to Christ.  He has the power to transform the most corrupt and hateful heart if it will submit to Him.  When it comes to racism, meaningful change is possible only through the gospel, one conversion at a time.

Some say that’s not good enough.  We can’t wait for the slow work of the word; we have to take action now!  However, those apparently quick, easy solutions tend to have coercion behind them.  If others do not want to be righteous, we must make them be righteous.

Sadly, the more we use force to fight against racism, the more it will flourish.  Even now, racists across the nation are watching looting videos and nodding self-righteously, confirmed in their belief that black people are little more than animals.  If the government seeks to compel heart change, it will create martyrs for a cause unworthy of them.

The work of persuading others to God is like planting a white-oak sapling in your front yard.  Change is always slow, sometimes imperceptible.  As the years go by, the apparent lack of progress will be frustrating.  However, if we are patient and do not lose heart, it will produce the result that we desire to see.

How Have We Built?

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Warren Buffett is fond of saying, “You only find out who is swimming naked when the tide goes out.”  In other words, any fool can run a business successfully during a financial boom.  However, when the times aren’t so good, foolish risks will be exposed, along with the ones who took them. 

The same is true spiritually.  Indeed, this is the point that Paul is making in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15.  All of us who labor in the Lord’s church are building on the foundation that Paul, along with the other apostles and prophets, laid down.  However, not all builders in the church build with equal wisdom and skill.  Some are building for eternity; others are building without thought for the future. 

When the fires of trial come, though, the quality of each man’s work will be revealed.  Every faithful builder will endure, but the product of their labors might not.  There are preachers and elders who will inherit eternal life but won’t bring any of those they taught and shepherded with them.

I think the present distress is just such a time of trial, and it will reveal how the workers in each congregation have been building.  Most congregations in the United States are either still not assembling or resuming limited assemblies, and it remains unclear how all this will shake out.  I’ve seen brethren speculating either gloomily (“Everybody will just start watching the livestream on Sunday morning and not bother to show up!”) or rosily, (“We’ll come back better and stronger then ever!”).

In reality, I think the answer is a great big, “It depends.”  Some churches will lose many people; others will lose few to none.  A common theme in those disparate results, though, will be the quality of the teaching and leadership the congregation has received before the crisis struck.

It starts with the greatest commandment.  People who went to church pre-coronavirus because they loved the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and strength will be back after the coronavirus has run its course.  Devotion to Christ doesn’t sit on the couch and watch YouTube if it has any other choice.  On the other hand, people who went to church Sunday mornings because they were used to going might well not be back after they’ve gotten used to not going.

So too with the commandment to love one another as Christ has loved us.  Congregations where the relationships between brethren are strong will continue to flourish because those relationships will pull everyone back.  The aftermath of the epidemic will change our society in many ways, but people still will be drawn to warmth and kindness.  On the other hand, congregations where the relationships between brethren are not warm and strong are going to suffer greatly.  If you feel lonely when you go to church, you might as well feel lonely staying home.

How have we built?  Have we taught our people to love God and love one another?  Have we presented every other commandment as depending on those?  Or instead, have we wasted our time on feel-good fluff and trivia?  The stakes for having gotten this right are already high.  The stakes for getting it right in the future are even higher.      

School, Transgender, and Your Kids

Thursday, May 21, 2020

These days, it seems like many Christians are preoccupied with coronavirus conspiracies of various sorts.  I have little to say about all that, except to observe that the conspiracy theorists must have much more faith in the competence of the human race than I do.  I think, though, that we would be better served to pay less attention to the conspiracies and more attention to the daily efforts of those who are opposed to the cause of Christ.

Take, for instance, this report from the Alliance Defending Freedom.  For those of you who aren’t familiar with the ADF, it’s a nonprofit dedicated to the advancement of conservative legal causes.  It is a serious organization with serious deep pockets and serious lawyers.  When the ADF says something, it’s not on the same level as russiatrollbotnews.com.  This really is happening.

Essentially, a number of conservative parents who live in Madison, WI have filed suit against the Madison public-school district.  They learned that the district has been engaged in a stealthy campaign to promote transgender ideology.  From kindergarten on up, students are being taught that gender is a spectrum, rather than being biological and binary.  Parents have not been notified about this.  If a child decides that they are transgender, school employees are to help them transition without parental notice or consent.  In order to make sure that Mom and Dad remain in the dark in such cases, district policy is to refer to transitioned Janey as un-transitioned Johnny in all communications with the home—to deceive parents.

In short, the Madison school district is attempting to substitute school input for parental input in one of the most consequential moral decisions a child can make.  A month ago, I wrote about Harvard professor Elizabeth Bartholet’s desire to outlaw homeschooling.  Among other things, she argued that public schooling was necessary to expose children to “ideas about nondiscrimination and tolerance of other people’s viewpoints.”  Thanks to the Madison Metropolitan School District, we’ve got a concrete example of what such exposure looks like in practice.

Now, I don’t think this is likely to be a problem in rural middle Tennessee, where I live.  There are many other places around the country where school districts also haven’t bought into progressive ideology.  However, there are plenty of places where school districts have.  It’s true that, from what I know of Madison, public policy there is likely to be progressive even by progressive standards.  Nonetheless, even if your local progressive district hasn’t gotten there yet, MMSD gives us a pretty good idea of where it’s headed in future.

It used to be that public schools were (at least seen as) relatively neutral, benign educational establishments.  You could send your kids off every day and trust that the school pretty much would stay in its lane and leave the moral instruction to you.  Sadly, that conviction is becoming increasingly naïve.

As always, I leave decisions about how children should be educated to parents.  You decide in good conscience what method is best for your kids, and I’ll respect that, whether you have chosen public school, private school, or homeschool.

However, I will say that parents who have chosen public school in blue districts need to be wary.  Do not assume that worldview indoctrination is going to be preceded by waving banners and brass bands.  Instead, you need to ask probing questions, both of your children and of their teachers, about what kinds of things are being taught.  If you get answers you don’t like, you don’t necessarily have to yank your kids, but you do have to make sure that the predominant moral narrative in their lives is the Biblical one.

We live in a strange time.  On a fundamental level, I can’t get my head around the idea that people believe that gender is a matter of preference rather than biology.  It flat doesn’t compute for me, and I suspect that many other Christian parents are in the same boat.  However, there are millions of folks out there who believe this with the same fervor with which we believe in the resurrection, and they will not hesitate to use any means available to proselytize.  If we are not vigilant in this and related areas, we may end up regretting our failure for the rest of our lives.

Why I Switched to the CSB

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

English-speaking Christians are blessed with a plethora of good translations of the Bible.  Of course, translation is an art, not a science.  There are no perfect translations, nor will there ever be. 

However, practically every translation that we’re likely to encounter is more faithful to the original Hebrew and Greek texts we have than the Septuagint is to its Hebrew originals.  If the Holy Spirit thought the Septuagint was good enough to incorporate into the New Testament, whatever we’ve got is good enough to get us to heaven!

Because we are so spoiled for choice, though, those of us who care about the Bible are likely to move from translation to translation, looking for one that is maybe a little bit more perfect than the rest.  In my time as a preacher/Bible reviewer, I’ve preached and taught from at least 10 different translations, and at various times, I’ve used three translations (NASB, NKJV, and ESV) for my primary text.

A couple of months ago, though, I decided to try out a fourth translation for my every-day Bible—the Christian Standard Bible, or CSB.  When I switched from NASB to ESV a few years ago, the CSB was a strong second-place finisher, and my occasional use of it ever since gradually swayed me to adopt it.  Several factors played into this decision:

VOLUME QUALITY.  My copy of the CSB is bound in edge-lined goatskin that Holman sent me as a promo copy in 2017 when they rolled the translation out.  It’s true that I love edge-lined Bibles, and once you’ve gotten used to one, it’s tough to go back to paste-down.

However, it’s really the quality of the setting of the CSB that influenced me here.  My CSB was set by 2K, a Danish shop that is world-famous for its Bible designs, and the quality shows.  It’s better designed than the ESV I was using before. My CSB is prettier, easier to read, and has cross-references that are easier to use.  As far as I’m concerned, anything that makes reading and studying the word more pleasant is well worth adopting!

STYLISTIC QUALITY.  I love the English language and rejoice in good writing.  As a result, I struggle to love translations that prioritize faithfulness to the words of the Greek (and sometimes even to Greek grammar) over making clear sense in English.  Brethren often are fond of these translations (I think because they appear to remove human judgment from translation, though in truth they do not), but they often pose obstacles to our understanding.  These obstacles can be surmounted in verse-by-verse study (as when the preacher reads a verse and then pauses to explain what it means in normal English), but they often make Bible reading difficult, especially for new Christians who don’t speak fluent NASB.

By contrast, the style of the CSB is accessible and lively.  Instead of talking like Bible characters, speakers in the CSB sound like real people.  For instance, in Luke 6:46 in the CSB, Jesus says, “Why do you call me “Lord, Lord” and don’t do the things I say?”

The CSB also is full of aptly phrased renderings.  Consider the difference between Ruth 2:12 in the NASB (“May the LORD reward your work, and your wages be full from the LORD, the God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to seek refuge.”) and the CSB (“May the LORD reward you for what you have done, and may you receive a full reward from the LORD God of Israel, under whose wings you have come for refuge.”).  The NASB undeniably sounds more Hebraic, with idioms like “your wages be full”, but it’s the CSB that sounds like good English.  That’s important!

TEXTUAL FAITHFULNESS.  It is, of course, possible for translators to take accessibility too far.  Unlike most brethren, I’ve used the NLT extensively (I read the whole thing cover-to-cover a few years back), and though I like it for reading, I feel like the translators take too many liberties, especially in the New Testament, for the translation to be suitable for close study.  When I’m reading from the NLT, there are a dozen places in the book of Romans alone where I stop and say, “Man; they sure booted that one!”

The translators of the CSB are much more careful.  So far, at least, I feel that the translation sacrifices little in the way of nuance and faithfulness in exchange for great gains in style and clarity.  Of course, there are CSB renderings that I don’t like, but there are renderings in every translation I don’t like.  To this point, they are infelicities I can live with.

I also like the balance that the CSB has struck on gender equality.  The translators generally render the Greek adelphoi as “brothers and sisters” (unless the context makes it clear that only males are under discussion), and they replace “how blessed is the man” in Psalm 1:1 with “how blessed is the one”.  However, the pronoun throughout Psalm 1 is “he”, and the translators preserve the singular “son of man” in Psalm 8:4 (compare “human beings” in the NIV).  It remains to be seen whether the upcoming 2020 revision of the NASB will fare as well.

I certainly don’t insist that every Christian out there needs to switch to the CSB Right This Minute.  It almost certainly is true that the Bible you’re using right now is get-you-to-heaven good (though if you struggle to adhere to a Bible-reading program, consider that your choice of translation and setting may be at fault).  However, for those who are looking for another Bible or simply are curious, the CSB is well worth checking out.

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