Monday, May 26, 2008

Fish in a Bowl

Goldie and Boldie were goldfish who lived in a fishbowl. They were happy there - for a while anyway - as their bowl was a nice little place for them to dwell. The blue, white and purple gravel at the bottom was kept bright and clean. They loved darting in and out of the sunken ship that lay on its side in the colored gravel, spending their days pretending they were hiding from sharks in the gaping hole on its side or discovering treasures that lay long hidden. The constant stream of bubbles rising from the boat to the surface above tickled their tummies as they swam through them. Chasing one another round the bowl, gobbling up the regular feedings of the rainbow-colored food that appeared on the surface each day, and floating quietly side-by-side when darkness fell on their world filled their fishbowl days with gladness.

As time went on, as time will do, Goldie began to notice something different about Boldie. Where once he had been eager to have swim races or play fish games all day long, Boldie spent more and more time staring out of the bowl. Though Goldie would occasionally look out of the bowl, such as watching for the owner to drop their food, she was far more content with her fishbowl world. But not Boldie.

Every person who walked through the room or child that ran by Boldie would follow with his goldfish eyes. Where before he would have spent the better part of his day swimming around with Goldie, now he had his little fish lips pressed close to the glass of the fishbowl looking at the other world that existed outside. If the TV was on in the room, he became motionless, hanging in the water gazing at the constantly changing colors on the screen. He began to miss meals, leaving his share of the speckled food floating up above. No matter how hard she tried, Goldie could not get him to play games or to come back into their ship hideout anymore.

Perhaps all of this could have been overlooked if it had not been for the cat.

Boldie's greatest fascination was with the grey-striped cat that visited their bowl each day. Its larger than life face filled the side of the bowl like a close-up of a monster in a horror film. In their younger days whenever they saw the hungry green eyes staring in at them, Goldie and Boldie would flash away behind their ship and wait for it to leave. Goldie still reacted this way, but not Boldie. Indeed, Boldie's response now was utterly strange to her. The listlessness he normally had left when the cat appeared. He would dart excitedly around flashing his tail, seeming to delight as the cat's eyes grew wide with excitement. When the cat would slap a paw against the glass, Goldie, peeking out from behind the ship, would close her eyes in dread. But Boldie's animation only grew, as this caused him to swim in quick circles and blow bubbles.

Yet the cat visits always ended as quickly as they began. When the cat turned and slinked away, Boldie grew still and returned to staring out the glass. No amount of urging or nudging by Goldie could get him to play with her.

One day, during a cat visit, as she spied from behind the ship Goldie saw the unimaginable. As Boldie raced around in front of the cat's huge face, suddenly a giant paw flew into the water, scooped up Boldie, and sent him hurtling out of the bowl. As Goldie raced to the glass of the fishbowl to see what would happen, the next minutes were awful. Boldie flopping on the floor gasping. The cat swatting him around mercilessly. The owner running in yelling loudly. When at one point she even saw Boldie in the mouth of the cat, she raced into the hole of the ship.

A few moments later she heard a plop. Looking up, she saw Boldie had been dropped back into the bowl. As he floated downward, he struggled to swim. Goldie saw the reason why. Running along his left side, from his mouth, across his gill, and back toward his tail, was an ugly, red scratch.

Boldie lived, but was never able to swim straight again. The scratch, though healed, made a scar across his scales that pulled his head on the left side back slightly toward his tail. Yet that scar served a greater purpose. It also pulled his eyes away from the world outside the glass and back to the real one he shared with Goldie.

Right now, as you finish reading this little story, your nose is only inches away from a piece of glass called a computer screen. Think of it as the glass of a fishbowl for a moment. How much has your heart been taken away from the loved ones in your own world because of undue devotion to a world in cyberspace you cannot truly experience? Have you even become excited by devotion to "a monster?" A secret, illicit relationship? Viewing pornography? Playing endless video games? The problem with virtual reality is it actually seems so virtually unreal. So other worldly that it will not harm us. Beware becoming a fish in a bowl.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Biblical Education

On Friday, May 16th, Sycamore Covenant Academy (SCA) held its annual Silent Auction & Fundraising Banquet. Over eighty students, parents, grandparents and friends gathered for a delicious dinner prepared by mothers and served by the students. The evening was punctuated with the fun of making bids on products and services donated by local businesses and even some of the students. We enjoyed the beautiful harmonized singing throughout the night of those who had trained in Mrs. Swinehart's Vocal Skills Class. To remind each other of our vision in our children's education, I gave the following address.

As I speak for a few minutes tonight on the subject I was asked to address, that of Biblical Education, please understand what I mean. By Biblical Education we are not referring to studying the Bible, such as taking classes about the Bible like Bill VanDoodwaard’s New Testament class has done. Rather, we mean pursing the education of our children as God would encourage us to do so in His Word.

In that light, I want to show you a cover picture of home school catalog that will both highlight a precious truth and illustrate a dilemma I face as I speak on this topic. It will highlight a precious truth. Note the title explains the message of the picture: “Education in the Shadow of the Cross.” What’s being communicated by this picture is something with which I wholeheartedly agree. In an age when public schools have banned the teaching of Christianity from them, home schooling families can show how the redemption of the cross, the kingdom of God, is to touch on all aspects of our children’s education. Home schooling helps fulfill the command of Deuteronomy to teach the Word of God diligently to our sons throughout the day.

With our freedoms ever threatened, we do need not only to highlight but declare and defend the right of home education. I defend vigorously from the Scriptures the parents’ God-given right to oversee their child’s education throughout his or her life. I believe families who choose to educate their children at home all the way though high school should be free to do so. I love the heritage that homeschoolers have, embodied on such things as the T-shirts with the faces of Mt. Rushmore that ask the question “What do these presidents all have in common?” followed by the answer “They were all homeschooled.” As one who has overseen the home education of my own children for the past 15 years, who would be counted among the estimated 1.3 million children home educated last year, I am a homeschooling advocate and proponent. As a ministry of the Sycamore RP Church founded six years ago, SCA’s purpose is to supplement and complement the education taking place in home school families.

Yet let me further qualify these statements as I continue to speak to the subject of Biblical Education, for it will lead to the dilemma also illustrated by this picture. In the Reformed Faith, we talk about our core beliefs by using the word Sola. Sola is a Latin word meaning “alone” or “only.” So we believe in Sola Scriptura, or the Scriptures Alone, meaning the Bible alone is the only infallible authority for our faith and life. We believe in Solus Christus, or Christ Alone, for He is the only way of salvation. Or we speak of Sola Fide, “by faith alone,” which means it is by belief in Christ and not by our works that we are justified. Note that the Solas have to be explained carefully to be understood properly. Sola Fide does not mean good works are not present in salvation; rather, good works are a result or product of our salvation instead of the grounds of it.

In light of the purpose for being here tonight, and the topic of “Biblical Education” given me to address, I am going to declare a sola that I do not believe in. This non-sola may be a bit provocative though that is not my purpose, and will have to be explained. I do not believe in what would be called in the Latin Sola Domi Academia, or to use a form of "Pig Latin" so we can all understand Sola Homeschoola. I do not believe that Biblical education is achieved by homeschool alone.

There are those voices in the movement who view home schooling as an exclusive social club. Some would openly advocate Sola Homeschoola, that the only Biblical way to educate is for the parents alone to do it, or would at least speak condescendingly about families who choose to send their children into other venues of education. To be honest, we have had more criticisms about SCA within the home schooling community than from the public school one. Some have indicated that by offering SCA we have abandoned the purity of home schooling.

I believe that this criticism comes because of a failure to see an important element in Biblical education - my topic tonight - by many home educators. This missing belief is the dilemma illustrated by this picture. It seems that something is missing in the picture’s interpretation given by the title, and if I am overreaching at least I am right in saying that something is often missing in the home schooling community’s thinking about education. It can cause even the best home schoolers to fall short of a truly Biblical Education. For let me ask you a question: Where is the shadow of the cross coming from?

You can see that it is from a steeple. The shadow of the cross comes from the church.

You see, the education of our children that the Bible promotes is a parent-controlled and church-nurtured education. For the Biblical support I would offer for this statement, we need go no further than the one story preserved in Scripture from our Savior’s childhood.

Recall at the age of 12 Jesus was taken by His parents Joseph and Mary to Jerusalem at the time of the Passover. This was a common practice among the Jewish youth to prepare them for participating in the Passover the following year. They would be brought before the elders and teachers of Israel and questioned about their faith. Alfred Edersheim tells us in his book The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah that if the priests and elders determined the child showed sufficient maturity and understanding of the faith, he would become a “bar mitzvah,” which means “a son of the commandment.” Bar Mitzvah was not originally just a birthday party for a Jewish adolescent, but a rite in which the youth took upon himself a greater responsibility for his life before God.

Recall from the story that on their way home, Jesus' earthly parents realized He was not with them. After they found him, what question did He raise? “Did you not know I had to be in My Father’s house?” Jesus was coming of age and was maturing into one who had to obey and participate in the life of the synagogue. Not only because his parents had taught Him to do so, but because He believed from the heart that this was now His responsibility. Jesus' soul grew into this sense of responsibility, for He was "increasing in wisdom and knowledge, and in favor with God and men." Incredibly, the Son of God so humbled Himself in the incarnation that He even grew into the sense of His spiritual position and responsibility.

Afterwards, Jesus returned home with them and continued to submit himself to them. His teenage and young adult years were not ones of independency from parents, but an even greater willing submission to them as His responsibilities to the community of faith were expanded. Both His parents and He could no longer see Jesus as one chiefly identified as a member of his carpenter father Joseph’s house. His chief identity was now one who was fully engaged in the work of his heavenly Father’s house. "Did you now know I had to be about My (heavenly) Father's business?"

This occurrence at the age of 12-13 in Jesus’ life matches the timing of the maturing process we see physically in our own children. You parents understand that feeling. One day they are little kids always wanting to sit on your laps and do everything with you; it seems you turn around once and now sitting on your lap no longer has the appeal it once did. I have seen it at SCA. Some of these young people started this year as kids. Then, overnight the boy’s voices seem to be going down an octave (and occasionally up two!), and those giggling girls, suffice to say, have become young women - who still giggle. The physical changes you are seeing in your children is a God-given sign of the work He desires to do in their hearts. In the classical system of education defined by the Trivium, it signaled the movement from the grammar stage to the logic and then quickly on to the rhetorical stage. In other words, the movement from the rote learning of a younger child, to the place where they start using their learning and asking questions, then on to learning how to articulate and defend their knowledge and faith. Parents and friends, this physical change is a God-given sign to you about their spiritual development as well. Your child is to be moving from his or her sole identity being a son or daughter of your house to being known as a son or daughter of the King. “Did you not know I had to be in My Father’s house?”

That is what SCA is designed to help you help them to do. We exist to encourage the important balance of parent-controlled and church-supported (rather than government-mandated) education. Our goal is yours - that your children will be well-grounded disciples of Christ, able to walk in faith in all areas of life. As a father, I know it is difficult to learn to let them go, not into the teenage rebellion so common around us, but even into a life of learning from others, working with others, going on mission trips, etc., where their lives start saying to us, "Mom, Dad, did you not know I had to be about my Father's business?" So whether it is the youth of our congregation or the congregation to which you belong, please know we are working and praying with you that they will be equipped as servants who show the power of that cross symbolized in this picture.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Choosing Our Etymology?

Etymology is the study of a word's development over time. More technically it is defined by Merriam-Webster to be "the history of a linguistic form (as a word) shown by tracing its development since its earliest recorded occurrence in the language where it is found, by tracing its transmission from one language to another." Knowing the influences on a word help us understand its meaning.

Now words can have nuances and in the case of words with multiple meanings must always be defined in their context. For example, our word "bank" has merging etymologies in English, one from Scandinavia meaning the edge of a river and another from French meaning where we place our money. Thus saying "I sat by the bank" can be ambiguous and needs to be interpreted by the context. However, most words have a fairly universal consistency in meaning.

For instance, during this campaign year consider the word "elect." Where did we get that word? Well, it comes to us out of the Middle English from the Latin word electus, a past participle of the verb eligere which means "to select from, to choose." Based on the root of this word, we can all agree, can we not, that someone who has been elected to office has been selected from among all the candidates by the voters? With the word "elect" and "election" used so commonly in our modern democratic state, we should have little argument over what it means, should we? We might disagree over whom should be elected, and may have arguments over the results or procedure of an election, but understanding the meaning or idea of an election we have down pretty well.

Yet there is one context when the meaning of this word seems to change. It's when it is used in the Bible.

Now, most of the time when the words "election" or "choose" are used in the Bible that's not the case. Bible readers will generally agree with its use in examples such as these:
  • When Lot "chose for himself all the valley of the Jordan" (Geneis 13:11), no one argues much over the fact that of all the land around him presented to him by Abraham, he selected the best land, that which was like "the garden of the Lord."
  • When Jesus said to His disciples in John 15:16 “You did not choose Me but I chose you,” we can agree that He clearly chose the Twelve to follow Him (Luke 6:13).
  • From my readings, most Christians have no problem saying that God chose the Jews to be his special people, as Paul says in Acts 13:17, “The God of this people Israel chose our fathers" (see also Deuteronomy 7:6).
You see, we will allow that men choose their leaders, lands, and even their gods, and will argue they have that inalienable right. And when it comes to thinking about God having the right to choose, the Arminians and dispensationalists will agree with Reformed folks and say that God chose Israel from all the nations in the Old Testament. Then why is it that when we come to verses such as Ephesians 1:4, which says about the church that God "chose us in Him (Christ) before the foundation of the world," all of a sudden the meaning of the word "chose" changes?

Rather than believing that God elected those who would be saved before the world was even created, the word "chose" has to be redefined. The common explanation is that God looked down through the passage of time, saw what people would believe in Christ, then chose them based on their decision. Do you get that? They take a passage that clearly states that God chose His people and say that, in effect, it means His people chose God.

This not only undermines the meaning of a word we all should readily understand as seen above, but as theologian John Gerstner once raised it also in essence insults the intelligence of God. In what way? It presents God as decreeing that those who are Christians should be considered Christians.

Be careful of choosing your own etymology. Why not instead marvel over what God is so clearly saying?

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

And One Came Back!

Like the ever-changing weather of Indiana, these past few weeks surrounding Hope for Eternity have been filled with sun and storm, stillness and strong winds. How so?
  • The intense days of getting ready for Hope for Eternity were filled with vigorous inviting, detailed organizing, and passionate praying.
  • During April 23-27, we sat spellbound by the faithful preaching of the word as we viewed the thunderstorm and tornado that is God's fiery wrath and the sun and rainbow of heaven.
  • We quietly thanked the Lord and welcomed the more than 100 visitors we had during the outreach, then spent time before and afterwards praying and also engaging some in intense follow-up discussions.
  • In the days that have followed further discussions and invitations to a new Bible class and church have ensued.
The question that I have been asked often this week, and indeed drove all the way from Michigan on Saturday night so I could see myself, was "How many visitors who attended Hope for Eternity came back the following week to church?"

The answer is the title of this blog. One began our new Bible class on the main message of the Bible.

You may think this attempt to be brutally honest, especially before those who have prayed and been interested in this outreach, is to announce our disappointment and to invoke sympathy. Certainly if the title could have been "And a Dozen Came Back" or any other higher number we might imagine, we would obviously be thrilled. But one? The question "You went to all that effort and only one came back?" can be seen on the faces that I have told or can almost be heard in your thinking. You may think we are greatly discouraged and, again to be completely forthright, there have been moments of disappointment. Yet the title of this blog is not an embarrassed whisper, but a joyous shout. Hence the exclamation mark.

Why? Three brief reasons.

Well, first of all our true goal was and has been to be faithful. We want to serve both our Lord and the people who came. No peddling of the gospel or manipulative techniques were used. Only the clear and urgent call of the gospel was employed. People who attended were free to decide whether they wanted to return. To have a hope that people will want to receive more is righteous and valid, and it fuels our prayers. But to have an expectation that a guaranteed number would return to any other activities would be to play the part of a salesman rather than a servant.

Secondly, before this event in a children's address I had given each of them a Styrofoam cup with dirt and wildflower seeds already planted in it. They could not readily see the seeds, and as I instructed them to take it home and to water it slightly before putting it in the window sill I asked them, "How do you know the seeds will grow? For that matter, how do you know I did not just give you a cup of dirt?" Of course, the children trusted my word (and the seeds have since sprouted). In the same way, we maintained the Scriptural truth during our preparations beforehand that we would sow seed and water it, but would have to trust the Lord for growth (I Corinthians 3:6-7). We can say we believe this, but does not the true test come when circumstances force us to put our faith into practice? Just as time is necessary for flowers to grow, one week is not enough time to measure the true impact.

Finally, one did come back! Though we are not yet claiming conversion, are not people who lose one coin and find it, shepherds who lose one sheep and recover it, and angels in heaven who observe just one sinner repenting supposed to rejoice (Luke 15)? One came back, so we must rejoice! Our God will not let His word return void. Our God delights to save sinners. Our God brings forth life out of sown seeds. Whether it is the one who came back, someone into whose life we sowed and later another will reap, or any number in any number of ways that come to know Christ as Lord, He will save. The one who came back reminds us of this hope.

Besides, we are taught to rejoice simply because Christ is being preached (Philippians 1:18). And preached He was! We hope soon to make these messages available to a wider audience.