Thursday, July 16, 2009

God's Discipline

I am preaching this week on “How to be Wise With God’s Discipline.” Proverbs 3:11-12 teaches us not to “despise the Lord’s discipline or resent his rebuke, because the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, as a father the child in whom he delights.” Any parent can relate to the importance of disciplining their child. Some of the angriest children I have met are children whose parents do not discipline them. They are too young to be “in charge,” but their parents let them be in charge and consequently the children are overwhelmed and angry. God disciplines us because he loves us.

One of the challenges of being wise with God’s discipline is knowing when discipline or correction is from God. If I lose my job, is God trying to tell me something, am I just experiencing the consequences of poor work performance, or am I simply the victim of a depressed economy? It is hard to say. One thing we can do in the face of this uncertainty is to submit our circumstance to God and pray to him, “Lord, if this is your discipline then help me learn from it and be more faithful and obedient to you because of it. And if this is not something you orchestrated, then help me learn from it and grow stronger in my faith through it.” The fact is that we can consecrate all of our life to God and seek his teaching and wisdom even as we are uncertain of God’s direct role in the cause of our predicament.

I knew a man who, in the midst of an intense battle in Vietnam, made a vow to serve God wholeheartedly if God would spare his life. He survived the battle and promptly forgot the vow. Over twenty years later, as he drove along a road near his home, he heard an audible voice say to him, “I am not going to call you again.” He drove home trembling and called me at the church where he had visited on a few occasions. He said he was ready to give his life to Christ and indeed I baptized him a few days later.

I often yearn for this kind of direct, unequivocal discipline or counsel from God. I love the clarity of it, however painful it may be. My experience has been, though, that far more often God’s discipline comes in more subtle forms, sometimes in the counsel and correction of others, and especially in the painful lessons I learn through life’s hardships.

The writer of Hebrews tells Christ-followers to “endure hardship as discipline (12:7)” The word here for discipline (paideia) means “instruction or training.” Through eyes of faith, hardship becomes like a special tutor who guides us in growth and learning.

This relates to Romans 8:28 and Paul’s declaration that “in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.” And with Romans 5:3-5, which tells us to “boast” in our afflictions because they produce endurance, character, and hope.

I find all this tremendously inspiring because I want to always keep growing. We tend to yearn for easy times but easy times don’t teach us much or grow us much. It is a fact that we learn and grow most through tough times, some of which God brings on us directly to discipline us and all of which he can use to teach us and grow our faith.

I’m not signing up for hardship’s tutoring, but when he knocks at my door I want to open it with faith.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

The Stoning of Soraya M.

It has only been released in twenty-seven theatres (the artsy, independent kind) and so far has made less box office money than “Transformers” did in its first hour of release, but “The Stoning of Soraya M.” reminds us of the kind of moral good the movie industry can do. Angela and I saw it last weekend and it is the type of film from which you exit the theatre and drive away in silence. It is good, but hard.

Based on the book by French-Iranian journalist Freidoune Sahebjam, the film tells the true story of a young wife and mother of four who is stoned to death by villagers after her husband concocts a flimsy and false charge of adultery against her so he can marry a younger woman. Islamic Sharia law either calls for or permits (the movie was not clear) this cruel and drawn-out form of execution which is still practiced in Iran, the movie’s setting, as well as in countries throughout the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa that follow Sharia law.

There was a certain irony to watching this movie in the immediate aftermath of the rigged Iranian elections, which kept the present tyrannical government in power only after it brutally suppressed the protests of modernists and reformers who yearn for more freedom in their country. To be fair, though, there are concerted efforts to stop the practice of stoning in Iran. The Head of the Iranian Judiciary announced a moratorium on stoning in 2002 and reiterated it in 2008. Many Iranians are eagerly working with human rights organizations like Amnesty nternational to completely eradicate the practice.

The Old Testament recounts several instances in which Israelites stoned transgressors, and apparently stoning was not uncommon in the first century: Stephen was stoned to death (Acts 7:58) and Paul was stoned and left for dead in Lystra (Acts 14:19). Both the Jewish historian Josephus and Eusebius the Church historian record that shortly before the fall of Jerusalem in 70 A.D., Jewish leaders hurled James the Lord’s brother from a pinnacle of the Temple and dropped heavy stones on him. The fact is that throughout history man has fashioned a shockingly brutal array of execution methods. In a stoning, usually the victim is buried up to his waist or neck and pelted with rocks large enough to harm but not so large that they make the death too quick. The community often participates en masse. It is a horrible and humiliating way to die.

I was left with two strong impressions from the movie. The first was how primitive the treatment of women still is in many areas of the world. Under Sharia law, a man accused of adultery must be proven guilty, but a woman has to prove her innocence. I am always stunned by the overt misogyny which pervades in so many fundamentalist religious cultures. From where does this fear and loathing come?

The second strong impression was how important even one person can be in raising a voice of protest. In the story there is a key figure in the village, a (relatively) good man, whose authorization is needed for the stoning but who has a gut feeling the charges are false. He earnestly prays for a sign from God, but upon receiving two signs, does not have the courage to reverse his decision. I was reminded of the old saying, “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing.” Feelings and values may be noble, but they do nothing against evil unless they are acted upon.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Let Us Sing

"Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom, and as you sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs with gratitude in your hearts to God." (Colossians 3:16, NIV)

Those of us in the Churches of Christ have heard this scripture so often in reference to (i.e. in defense of) our practice of acappella worship that often we have missed the simple admonition to sing as a way to let the word of Christ dwell in us richly. In other words, there is something spiritually formative about singing.

In a recent Breakpoint essay (“How Good It is to Thank the Lord,” 7/1/09) Chuck Colson references an article by theologian T.M. Moore entitled “Whatever Happened to Singing?” Moore considers the increasing tendency of worshipers to simply listen to the praise band (or praise team, or other singing worshipers) rather than join in the singing, and concludes that they are missing out not just artistically but spiritually. He notes that “Scripture gives us no specific guidance in how to listen to music. Music, according to the Bible, is not the spectator sport we have made it out to be.” Instead, he says, we find many commands to sing, and indeed, earlier generations of Christians sang on all sorts of occasions. Early Christians sang as they went about their chores. Celtic Christians considered singing an important spiritual discipline for progressing in the life of faith. Christians in the 16th to 19th centuries wrote songs for the various daily tasks they undertook, not just to relieve boredom but to consecrate their work to God and exercise their spiritual “muscles.”

In Acts 16 Paul and Silas have been arrested in Philippi for hindering the spiritual-commercial enterprise of the owners of a slave girl who predicts the future. They have been stripped and beaten and tossed in jail. Around midnight, Luke tells us, they “were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them” (v. 25). An earthquake happens and the jailer guarding them prepares to kill himself. But Paul remonstrates with him, whereupon he asks, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” His subsequent baptism seems sudden, but consider this: He has been listening to Paul and Silas sing hymns to God, possibly for hours! Singing hymns forms us spiritually; it also witnesses to others.

I shared a few weeks ago in our assembly that after 27 years as a Christ-follower, worshiping in the churches of Christ, I still don’t know how to read music and I don’t sing well in four-part harmony -- I tend to sing the part of whoever is standing next to me. I don’t know an alto from an Altoid, and when you say “soprano” I think HBO drama series. My kids tell me that I clap out of rhythm (confirmed by our Worship Minister) and I sway out of rhythm too. But I love to sing. And I am always a little saddened to observe the surprising number of people in any given worship assembly who stay quiet. As one good man put it dryly, “The congregation sounds better when I don’t sing.” I’ve heard him sing and he’s got a point! But he is missing out on a spiritually formative exercise, and God is missing out on hearing his voice.

As Moore puts it, “Singing hymns deepens us theologically and puts us in the company of the great unseen host who have gone before us and surround us as faithful witnesses to the Lord.” Aaaaaamen. Sung in my best tenor voice.