Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Weakest Link?

A situation that came up last week related to a local church "prayer chain" got me to thinking about this whole phenomena. I'm not going to go into the details of the specific event, but suffice it to say that due to poor communication between links in the chain, assumptions made that should not have been, lack of checking facts with someone who would know, etc - a rumor was started regarding a serious health issue affecting one of our pastors, from the prayer chain in another church. Now, the concept of a prayer chain or something like it has probably been around since there have been telephones or likely even before. There are always people in a local church that volunteer to pray for needs that arise within the body, usually emergencies or health situations or similar things. And various means have been set up to quickly communicate these prayer requests through a chain of said prayer volunteers. This is a relatively effective way to get a bunch of people praying in a short period of time when Aunt Betsy's gout flares up or cousin Jed loses his job or the Smith's baby gets the flu. You know what I mean. The usual stuff that prayer groups and the like have been praying about since the apostle John's mother-in-law came down with the croup. It's become just a part of the life of most churches. But I had to ask myself - is it Biblical?

No one would argue that praying for each other as brothers and sisters in Christ is not Biblical. We are commanded over and over to pray for one another. This is a key one-another command given to the church, that we all need to take seriously. And we see the early church in the book of Acts doing just that - gathering together continually to pray together for each other and for the gospel to be advanced and God to be glorified. So praying for one another, regardless of the specific need, is indeed Biblical and good and healthy for a local church to engage in. In fact, I would consider the quantity and quality of prayer among and for fellow Christians to be a major indicator of the health of a church.

But how does the "prayer chain" concept match with Biblical models of prayer for one another? Is this a legitimate Biblical model for prayer in the local church? At the risk of sounding anti-traditional, or even of offending some, I have to say that I am not sure it is. The model of praying for one another seen in the early accounts of the church in the NT seem to indicate a gathering together for prayer and sharing of life in Christ, not a dissemination of prayer needs to many people so they can pray on their own. And yes, modern advances in communications like the telephone or email can quickly get a large number of people praying about a given topic quickly. But is that the real objective – to get as many people praying about something as possible, so as to overwhelm God with the sheer volume of prayer? Again, this view is simply not Biblical. Prayer by its nature is not focused on changing God’s will, but instead on transforming our hearts and minds and attitudes to His. It also does not seem to be in the Biblical model of praying for one another to ask another person to pray for someone they don’t even know or have relationship with, as is often the case. And along those lines, it seems that the “prayer chain” often results in poorly communicated prayer needs at best, and mis-communicated needs at worst (as in the situation last week.) Frankly, in many cases the prayer chain is not much more than a formalized grapevine within the church that does more to spread gossip than meet the Lord’s command to pray for one another.

If you are a member of a prayer chain, please do not take offense at my comments here. I do believe that there are instances where it is right and proper to communicate specific needs in the body to a network of committed brothers and sisters to bring them before the Lord, and to facilitate engaging God’s people in the overall life of the body. If you are part of a prayer chain that does this, that’s great. My experience, however, tends to indicate that this is the exception and not the rule. We all should be developing close spiritual relationships with fellow believers that we can share our needs and prayer concerns with and pray together Biblically about, so that we don’t need to broadcast those needs to a broad group of loosely-connected people that can’t know enough specifics to pray appropriately. If we do that, we will be links in a truly Biblical and Christ-honoring prayer chain. For our good and His glory.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Misguided Compassion

I try to avoid commenting on the cultural confusion that seems to go on in our modern, I mean post-modern world, but today I can't help it. Read a news story about a hospital in Japan that set up a drop box for unwanted children. There had been a rash lately of abandoned infants in Japan, and so this hospital decided to do the compassionate thing and installed a trap door on the side of the building that allows parents of unwanted babies to drop them off into an incubator. No, I am not making this up. So it seems that someone dropped off a child - but not an infant, a toddler estimated to be about 3 years old. And now everyone is all upset about this, and concerned about the trauma that the toddler has sustained.

This strikes me as yet another example of so-called compassion run off the tracks. Yes, it is a travesty that some biological fathers and mothers (I will not call them parents) would abandon their unwanted children. We all should be struck with compassion for the children, who indeed are traumatized by such an act, be they infants or toddlers or even teenagers. But so many today want to act on this compassion by seeking to only mitigate the effects of the act and not deal with the real issue. So they implement ways that in reality make it easier for someone to avoid personal responsibility. In this case, a drop box for unwanted children, making it easy for anyone wanting to get rid of a kid to do so. So rather than serving as a safety net for the children, instead this creates an easy and relatively guilt-free means of abandoning a child. Put yourself in the shoes of a young unwed teenage mom who has just given birth. Struggling with the impacts of being a mother, all the life changes that come with it, wondering how to adapt and deal with the situation. And along comes a simple, easy, no-strings-attached way to dump the child and get on with life. So rather than having to take personal responsibility and make the hard choices to either raise the child, put it up for adoption, etc. - she can just drop him or her off and walk away. And the safety net for the children actually becomes an encouragement to abandon children. The very thing the hospital wants to protect from happening is actually promoted by the ease with which it can be done. Subsidized child abandonment.

This is where our definition of compassion, and how we act on that compassion, has to be informed by our Biblical world view. Jesus Christ had compassion for sinners of all kinds, including you and me. But rather than seeking to help us engage in our sinful behaviors and mitigating the effects, He instead became the solution to our root problem - our innate depravity - and voluntarily sacrificed Himself to deliver us from the bondage we were in. He didn't seek to make it easier for us to sin, He instead sought to make us holy so that we would be free from sin. He didn't remove our personal responsibility, He instead called us to repentance and faith in Him and His sufficient sacrifice. Unless we take this same kind of approach to helping our world and our society deal with the cultural ills brought on by man's depravity, we will continue to see misdirected compassion enable all kinds of wrong behaviors. Giving out clean needles to heroin addicts, handing out condoms to teenagers, drop boxes for unwanted infants - where will we go next?

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Words: Empty or Full, You Decide

Our exegetical team was working today on word studies in 2 Timothy 2:14-19. Wow, what a bunch of rich and powerful words the apostle Paul uses in this passage, many of which are not found anywhere else in the NT. And words are exactly the subject of much of what is stated in this section. In v. 16 Paul says to "avoid worldly and empty chatter". I love the Greek word used here for "empty chatter". It is κενοφωνία, alliterated kenophonia. It's a compound word - keno, meaning empty or vain, and phonia, meaning sound. Literally the term means empty sound, vain noise. What a powerful word to describe so much of the so-called conversation that goes on around us every day. Or more importantly and relevantly, that comes from our own mouths every day. I think I have discovered a term that I will use when people are babbling and talking and saying many words but communicating nothing. "Gee, Bob, that seems to be quite a case of kenophonia you have there. Might want to get that checked out." I wonder if anyone would ask what I meant. Probably think I was referring to some kind of skin rash or medical disorder. Sorry, this one is a character disorder. And I have to say that I am subject to acute attacks of kenophonia from time to time. Like the old Indian (read: Native American) that went to church for the first time and heard a blustery preacher speak, when asked what he thought of the sermon stated: "Much thunder, much wind, no rain." Do people feel the same way after talking to me or hearing me speak? I'm sure at times they do. What about you?

Another of my favorite words is also in this same verse, when Paul warns Timothy not to "wrangle about words" which lead to no use or profit. The Greek word here is another compound, λογομαχέω, or logomacheo. Comprised of logos, meaning word, and macheo, meaning war. Literally, a word war, or war about words. Now, to be sure, words are very important. Words are the way that God has given us to communicate ideas, truth, relationship, everything that is important. Words are a means that God has revealed Himself to us, through His breathing out of the Scriptures. Indeed, Christ is referred to byJohn as The Word, Logos, the communication of God Himself. Words contain and communicate truth, and especially in this age we must defend and fight for the truthful meaning of these truthful words when they are threatened. But Paul here is warning against not this kind of word war, but rather the kind of fighting about words that lead to no profit or value. We are told not to put our energy into fighting a war about words that are not valuable, profitable, essential. In other words (no pun intended), we are not to fight about words that are kenophonia, empty and vain. But isn't this what we do so often? How much time and energy in our society is consumed in examining the empty words that someone says and then deconstructing those words into something to start a war about. In a post-modern world like ours, where the very idea of truth claims is considered arrogant, this is the stock and trade of the cultural talking heads. So more empty words are spoken in a war about other empty words, until we lose all sense of what words are truly important and become deafened by the constant droning of kenophonia and logomacheo.

For the follower of Christ, we need to reclaim the supremacy of words that are not empty but full, those eternal words spoken by God Himself which are true and powerful and contain life and health and peace. We must filter out the empty chatter and the warring about vain words, while being prepared to engage in battle for those words that are weighty and worth fighting for. So how are you doing in this? How's your kenophonia filter? And how's your battle readiness for the truth war? Like it or not, ready or not, we're in it.

And here's hoping that this entire post has not been an exercise in kenophonia. And if you think so, well, I got my logomacheo-gun loaded and ready to fire!