Thursday, December 29, 2005

The Axe Handle Applied

My last blog (see below) told the story of the missionary Boniface. He cut down the Oak of Thor in the Middle Ages to remove the superstitious idol from among the Germanic people to whom he was ministering. The theme of wood was used to tell the story, most obviously by the towering oak being reduced to a Christian chapel.

Yet the story was given the title “The Axe Handle” because it was also made of wood. This handle was what gave Boniface the leverage he needed to accomplish the task at hand. As the prophets showed (see Isaiah 44:9-20) wood can be used to fashion idols or to glorify the God who gave it to us to use. Boniface, like Elijah who built laid wood on a stone altar to challenge the false prophets of Baal on Mt. Carmel, or like Gideon who had to cut down the wooden idol Asherah in front of his father’s house before he could face the Midianites, had to challenge his generation’s veneration of an idol. By using a wooden-handled axe, he employed the very substance the people worshipped to bring down their idol and glorify the Lord.

Some thirteen hundred years since Boniface, perhaps trees are no longer idolized in the Western world (tree huggers excepted), but nothing is more venerated in our generation than our technology. From palm pilots to i-pods, from DVD’s to DSL, people are awash in the “technology tsunami” that has hit us. Our young people are especially turning to it constantly not only for the entertainment it encourages, but for the knowledge and relationships it gives as well. The problem is that so many lack the wisdom needed to handle the technology, and consequently like the people of Hesse they have worshipped and served the created thing rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). This past year in my ministry one constant theme has emerged in all my counseling situations: in one way or another, the people coming have become ensnared in the sins and the illicit relationships that the “see-what-you-want-whenever-you-want” nature of technology encourages.

The New York Times recently reported the story of Justin Berry. As a thirteen year-old boy, he learned about webcams from a friend at school. Being naturally shy, he purchased one and, without his parents’ knowledge, set it up on his computer in his bedroom and opened up his own website, thinking he could make friends over the Internet. Make friends he did, for it was not long afterwards that he was approached by a new “friend,” i.e. a pedophile, offering him $50 to take his shirt off while the webcam was on. Reasoning that he took his shirt off at the pool and others saw him, and that this would give him some spending money, Justin complied and was paid through an account set up with PayPal.

One thing led to another, and it was not long until Justin was making thousands and thousands of dollars doing all sorts of grotesque things beamed to his payers through the webcam. When his parents started wondering where he was getting all this new spending money, Justin deceived them by saying he had set up a website consulting business. His parents had no idea that the child they thought was extremely talented and entrepreneurial was instead becoming immersed in a life of secret, sexual perversion. Fortunately, Justin became sickened by his lifestyle and, wanting to come clean, at the age of nineteen he turned in his records to the Justice Department. The most sickening aspect of this story is that Justin learned that not only had his friends lied to him about their identity but that many were in child-related work fields, such as teachers, daycare workers and pediatricians.

Perhaps you will not fall to the degree Justin did. But this story highlights what Neil Postman explained in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death. Media is not neutral, for it has the power to shape our souls. The technology quickly goes from being controlled by us to controlling us. Under its powerful allure, we start believing that we need to see and know and experience everything available. Falling to the ancient lie of Satan, that by tasting all these things “we will be like God,” actually accomplishes what it always has. Instead of becoming more like God, we become more carnal, superstitious, lazy, deadened, even animal-like. Entertainment becomes our god, and how this technological tsunami has rushed into the church as well.

Recently an acquaintance of mine was describing their new, sprawling church complex to me, explaining how they had huge screens beaming the church service into the coffee house part of the building so that people could “watch church.” Is the God of heaven, who revealed Himself to us through the written word, really pleased with His people sipping vanilla lattes while watching a Christian drama on a wall-sized screen? Does the church in my town that too has just such a coffee shop, called “Jehovah Java” of all things, really not understand they are blaspheming the name of the Lord? Are we not to be those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, not cappuccinos? And is it not common barn animals who are supposed to be content with their feedbags on? Media has shaped our souls, indeed, and we reflect more the image of the fat cows of Bashan than the glory of the Son of God.

To get a handle on all of this, remember Boniface’s handle. What the world bows before to satisfy its own lusts, we must take and use as leverage to chop down the idolatry. Young people need training in wisdom from the mature on how to guard themselves from the dangers of the Internet while at the same time being shown how to use it for Christ’s glory. Rather than doing Google searches to see the latest shenanigans of a movie star, the church must be searching out the wisdom and knowledge now available at its fingertips like it never has been before. Instead of blogging turning into a display of idleness and empty words for which we’ll be judged come the last day (Matthew 12:36-37), Christians must use it to get someone out there in cyberspace to really think about something important for a minute. Just as the Gutenberg printing press was used to spread the Reformation through literature, we need to cast out the gospel over the Internet to bring in a worldwide catch. So just for inspiration purposes only, take your keyboard, lift it high overhead, cry out, “Glory be to the God of heaven and earth!” then get to work. For much chopping, sawing, fitting and hammering needs to be done.

Friday, December 23, 2005

The Axe Handle

(At a college dinner the other night, I read the following story with the title above.)

With his boots crunching the fallen leaves beneath him, and the early morning mist beginning to fade as the sun rose, the missionary walked determinedly toward the crowd that had gathered in the opening of the woods. The people, having been summoned from the surrounding villages the day before, stepped aside into huddled groups, some hiding behind the forest trees. They grew silent as they looked in horror at the missionary, who with clenched jaw and furrowed brow did not meet their stares. Instead, like a soldier marching into war he peered straight ahead to the object of his concern, his right hand tightening around the thin wooden handle of the axe he carried. Before him like a tower stood the great Oak of Thor, the tree of the god of Thunder, which had been worshipped for decades by the ancestors of the people now standing beneath its huge outstretched branches. As the missionary reached the base of the tree, he kicked aside the offerings of food and the crude, handmade artifacts made by this generation’s worshippers. He turned to face the crowd, the axe lifted high over head for all to see.

With the thunder of Elijah in his own voice, the missionary cried out, “People of Hesse, listen to me! The only true God of heaven and earth has sent His own Son, Jesus Christ, into this world as I have told you many times. Jesus died on a cross to take away your sins as you have heard, and from the grave in which He was laid God raised His Son up on the third day to grant a true power to live rightly for Him. He is not pleased with your veneration of this oak. His prophets mocked gods made out of wood and iron, and today I mock the god Thor. You live in ignorance and in the fear of the power of this false god. Today let it be known to you and all the tribes throughout this land that the true God, who created both trees and thunder, has defeated Thor through a lowly, simple servant. I dare Thor to stop me, and I laugh at my own dare, for like this tree he cannot hear me, and like this tree he will now fall.”

As the missionary turned to apply the blade of the axe to the thick trunk of the oak, the people cowered in fear. One brave soul, thinking he was showing compassion to the wayward missionary, called out, “Stop! Do not bring the lightening of Thor upon you!” Yet the warning only emboldened the missionary. He quickly pulled the axe back over his head, and with Gideon-like tenacity he swung, the sharpened blade of the axe digging deeply into the bark and flesh of the tree. Without pause, swiftly he jerked on the handle and drew the blade out again, and as fast as lightening chop after chop began to rain down on the unresisting tree. Chips from the tree began to form a small pile on the ground below an immerging v-shape cut in the trunk.

The longer the missionary swung the axe, the more tense and fearful the crowd grew. Any minute, they thought, and surely Thor would respond with a bolt of lightening from the sky. Yet the further into the tree the axe hacked, with more strength and fierceness did the missionary swing. Only once did he pause, removing his robe and wiping his perspiring face, then with new resilience he tore back into the work at hand. Where once small chips flew, now larger chunks were spit out by the hungry blade of the axe. As the morning wore on, the rays of sunlight from the strengthening globe above worked their way through the canopy of leaves above and seemed to cast radiance on the scene below. When the hollow space created by the axe passed by the halfway mark, and the tree began to creak its objections, a change came over the crowd. Still drawn back with fear, their curiosity transitioned from waiting to see the missionary struck from heaven to anticipation of the oak falling to the earth.

At last the missionary stopped, drawing great breaths as he leaned momentarily upon his axe. At least three –fourths of the trunk was now gone. With beads of sweat cascading down his face, he wiped his brow with his sleeve and, with a voice hoarse from the strain and emotion, he again spoke to the crowd. “Stand back and witness the fall of Thor! Glory be to the God of heaven and earth!” And with that, he approached the tree from the back side of the cut and again applied the axe with vigor. In a few moments the tree’s protests grew louder, as it groaned like an injured warrior and began to lean. Finally, a swing from the axe found the decisive chink in the tree’s armor, as a wedge flew out and the great tree started slowly its descent from above. Rather than running, the missionary merely took a step back and again rested on his blade’s handle, a growing smile beginning to cross his face. As the mighty oak leaned more and more earthward, it picked up speed. With a crack like thunder, the trunk broke. The tree roared one last time as it came to earth, its tremendous branches like a drowning man’s arms catching other limbs and small trees and bring them to their death with it.

The missionary, seizing the ensuing silence, leaped upon the remaining stump and for the third time lifted his voice. “Thor is dead! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and be saved! Be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins! Join me, for we will take this tree and make a house of worship to the true God! Help me, and here in the sanctuary of God’s forest you will have a chapel in which you can hear the great things of God.”

Over the next months, the missionary, with a growing band of newly baptized disciples, sawed and planed, hammered and fitted, the oaken wood to create a beautiful chapel. And set neatly upon the roof of the chapel was a wooden cross from the oak, a reminder to the gathered worshippers underneath what they heard from the missionary, that the only tree that can give life is the cross of Jesus Christ.


This short story is a historical fiction account of the missionary Boniface (the details of the actual felling of the tree have not been preserved). Formerly Winfrith of southern England, Boniface was born in 675 A.D., raised and disciplined in an Augustine monastery, and ordained (and renamed) as a priest in 705. Boniface went to the Germanic tribes in central Europe, and spread the gospel in places such as Frisia, Hesse, and Bavaria. This story of his cutting down the oak of Thor near Geismar and Fritzlar occurred in 722-723, and marked the beginning of a time when thousands professed Christ and were baptized.

In my next blog, I'll offer a modern application. But for now, answer two questions.
1) How is wood used as imagery in the story?
2) What two Old Testament figures are named, and what do they have in common with Boniface?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

The Fast Lane

"Whenever you fast, do not put on a gloomy face as the hypocrites do, for they neglect their appearance so that they will be noticed by men when they are fasting. Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face so that your fasting will not be noticed by men, but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees what is done in secret will reward you." -Matthew 6:16-18

Though fasting is not widely practiced in affluent American churches, it is a spiritual discipline in which the Christian should regularly be engaged. A quick survey of Scripture will show that such things as times of trouble, urgent desires, and missionary expansion are all perfect opportunities to meet with prayer and fasting. The practice of deliberately withholding from your body normal foods, drinks and pleasures, known as fasting, done correctly, opens up an avenue to the Father's heart.

I emphasize "done correctly." I speak not so much of how often or how long or what type of fast, but the audience you seek. Jesus' words above tells us that if the attitude of our heart when we fast is to be seen by others, then we will get a reward. What is it? Well, simply that we get what we want. Others will see us, i.e., our hunger to be noticed will be satisfied when we seek the attention of men. Men will notice us, but is that really what the godly should yearn for?

No, when we fast let our hunger drive us to seek the attention of the Father. With joy on our faces and anticipation in our hearts, let every hunger pain or unmet desire be redirected toward getting the attention of the Father through prayer. For if our heart's hunger is to be noticed by God, what does Jesus say will be the result? Again, we get what we want. He will notice and will reward us.

So if you are in a trial, have gone too long with an unfilled desire, or want to see others reached for the gospel, give some time to fasting and prayer. Those who take a few trips on "the fast lane" are never disappointed in the end, for they ultimately arrive into the very presence of the Father Himself. And when we are there, even if the answer to our prayers does not come in the manner or timeliness we want, our every desire will be fulfilled in Him.

If you want a wonderful, comprehensive treatment of this subject, read John Piper's Hunger for God.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Silent Night I Understand, but Silent Morning?

Some Megachurches Close for Christmas - How do you like that for a title? I'm not making it up. Look for yourself at the link. How can it be that some of the super-sized churches in the land are closing their doors on the biggest Christian holiday?

To try and understand a confusing turn of events, I've tried to outline the logic for you below:

1) Megachurches have church services for the unchurched. This comes straight from the horse's mouth, as Cally Parkinson, spokeswoman for the megachurch pace-setting congregation of Willow Creek Community Church, said, "If our target and our mission is to reach the unchurched, basically the people who don't go to church, how likely is it that they'll be going to church on Christmas morning?" she said. Did you get that? In case her tongue-twister passed you by, what she is saying is that church services are for the unchurched. If that is still confusing, I'm sorry, but it only gets worse (By the way, notice she is a spokeswoman. Is this a cabinet level position with the Pastor?).

2) The unchurched would not turn out significantly enough on Christmas Sunday to make market resources worth expending. Ms. Parkinson (Blogger's note: I'm really not trying to pick on this lady, as her position as spokeswoman for Willow Creek means she has to be an extremely nice lady. To see that other trendsetters are doing the same, Andy Stanley's North Point Community Church is also closed for Christmas. ) said further that church leaders felt that it would not be an effective use of church resources to hold Sunday services on December 25th. The last time Christmas fell on a Sunday in 1994 "only a small number showed up to pray." See, it's the numbers that help us to start making sense of this. This simply would not be "an effective use of staff and resources" says Cally.

3) Thus, therefore and consequently, management notes that church will be closed for Christmas so families can spend time at home together for the holidays. Another megachurch spokeswoman, Cindy Willison of the evangelical Southland Christian Church, said "at least 500 volunteers are needed, along with staff, to run Sunday services for the estimated 8,000 people who usually attend." Thus, they won't be open for Christmas so they can enjoy the holiday with family. If this sounds much like an announcement from some major corporation like Wal-Mart, now you know where these guys are getting their ideas. Someone else before me has called a megachurch a "Wal-Church."

So there we have it - churches closed on Christmas. So though you still may not understand them, at least now you can understand my blog title. Some other fun titles for this blog would be:

  • I'll be Home for Christmas
  • Since We Have No Place to Go, Let It Snow
  • O Stay Home All Ye Faithful (or should it be Unfaithful?)

Can you add your suggestion to the list?

But I need to get to my real point. To be honest, as a Reformed Presbyterian type, Christmas on Sunday poses a problem for us as well. Believing that the Bible does not teach us to honor Christmas as a special holy day (where we get the word "holiday" from, by the way) and holding that we are only to do that in worship which God's Word commands, we can feel a bit awkward when normally churched, or unchurched people for that matter, show up Christmas morning. People come expecting special sights, but we do not have trumpets, Advent wreaths, manger scenes, etc. They may want to sing Silent Night but instead hear acapella psalm singing. Not following a liturgical calendar we may not even have a particularly Christmas-y homily. Might it be to our advantage, to increase Reformed profit and market share, to close our doors as well?

Well, that's where we must revisit the first assumption the megachurches make as outlined above. The church services are not for the unchurched, nor are they even primarily for the churched. First and foremost, the service is for God! By virtue of His Son being raised from the dead on the first day of the week and God's command to make this the true "holy day," we are invited to gather to honor our risen King each and every Lord's Day or Sunday (for the Biblical rationale, see Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession of Faith). Though many of our Christian brothers view December 25th as a special holiday, and it is not my point here to criticize them for it (Romans 14:1-5), in fact we should see each first day of the week as a holy day. Those truly familiar with the Christmas story should know that the Lord who was born in an obscure carpenter's family, who was lain in the dirtiness of a manger, and whose birth was announced only to lowly shepherds, is not all that interested in pomp and ceremony nor mass marketing. Rather, where He sees the humble of heart seeking Him in word and prayer, that's where He will reveal Himself as Immanuel - God with us. On each Lord's Day we should want to be with God in His assembly, because He desires to meet with us.

So this December 25th (and December 11th, 18th, January 1st, Super Bowl Sunday, etc...) let's go eagerly to the house of the Lord. If other assemblies choose to remain at home, people want to open presents or watch TV with their families, or visitors are not all that impressed with our simplicity in worship, what's that to us? We have an engagement with the King. Let us humbly seek to honor Christ with all our heart, mind, soul and strength.