Thursday, October 31, 2013

October's Hallowed Things

Happy Halloween!

Here are some of the scary and (mostly) not so scary posts that were popular both last month and over the life of this blog. Enjoy! And try your best not to scream out in fear.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Words About Words

The Semantics of it All

I have run into several semantic issues when writing, reading, and otherwise engaging with Christian writers, socialites, and other opinionated people. A lot of times we are imprecise with our language. This imprecision leads to misunderstanding. The misunderstanding leads to very strong opinions both for and against one another that need not exist.

Merriam-Webster defines semantics as simply "the study of meanings." It studies signs and the meanings affixed to those signs. Language is man's most common sign, it is a set of arbitrary sounds to which man has ascribed meaning. Semiotics goes further into the philosophy behind semantics. Steve Morris (featured in Is Genesis Mythopoetic and Does it Matter Part 2) has the following statement on Linguistic Semiotics on his page:
Linguistic analyses of meaning lead, in many ways, to an approach shared (or appropriated) by anthropology. Basically, the questions are posed, "What is meaning?" and "How does a word (or image) convey meaning?" (Indeed, some linguistics experts have asked, "How does a sound have significance?") Signs and Symbols - Section 10

What do we mean when we talk about Theology or Ecclesiology or Hymnody? Are all or most of our disagreements attributable to semantic misunderstanding? I have a couple examples of potential semantic misunderstanding.

Example #1: Religion or Relationship

I read an excellent article the other day which revisited the poet Jeff Bethke who wrote and performed the poem Why I Hate Religion and Love Jesus. In the comments section, a user was adamant that anyone who argued against the poem was obviously having a semantic misunderstanding that could be resolved by replacing the word Religion with the phrase Organized Religion.

One problem with that argument is the fact that the phrase Organized Religion is redundant. Religion is, by definition, organized. In other words, questions of Ecclesiology do not revolve around whether there should be one, the questions have more to do with the form of one's Ecclesiology.

Jeff Bethke touches on semantics as they relate to his poem in a blog post. He states that when he uses the term Religion in his poem, he means Legalism. However, he chose to keep the term religion undefined in the poem so that the listener/reader can define it for themselves. While that is his prerogative as an artist, he should not be surprised that it sparked a discussion. The level of imprecision absolutely begged for it. It could not be a misunderstanding if the definition was open for interpretation.

Further, if everyone is free to define Religion as they chose, why react as though someone's definition was wrong? Every Christian holds to a religion whether in the Highest of Churches or in the privacy of one's own mind. Our worship is organized in one way or another.

Example #2: By and Through

The other day I received a text message. One of those texts intended to share a simple little heavenly thought to help you focus on the Lord. I enjoy receiving these text messages very much. However, I had a small issue with semantics, particularly given the medium that allows for zero nuance.

The text message emphatically proclaimed that "Faith alone saves." This statement, if taken with no nuance, leads us back to a meritocracy based on our faith. If we're not careful, we start thinking that our salvation is BY faith, when scripture tells us it is BY grace, THROUGH faith. It is a cooperative effort, but the real skill lies with the giver of grace and not the receiver.

It's kind of like winning a home makeover. There's this show where an internal designer hangs out at the hardware store and offers to re-do someone's kitchen (or whatever). He offers to come in and do the work. The homeowner has to give him permission. Once the homeowner gives the OK and opens the doors, the designer brings his crew, sends the homeowner on vacation and gets to work.

This is what I mean (semantically) by "cooperative effort." You are the homeowner, God is the skilled interior designer. He asks if He can use his skill to makeover your heart (by His grace) and you cooperate by giving him the OK (through faith). I know this is not a perfect illustration, there hardly ever is a "perfect illustration," but that is what I mean by cooperation. It's not exactly a 50/50 scenario.

More Discussion

I have already discussed the issue of semantics when I discussed the difference between infallibility and inerrancy. I plan to consider a few more topics that deserve some clarification for the sake of precision and write blog posts on them as well. A few of my initial thoughts include the following:
  • Merit
  • Myth
  • Ecumenism
  • Veneration
  • New Testament Principles
  • Evangelical
  • Indulgence
How would a Roman Catholic define these terms? A Lutheran? A Methodist? A Baptist? When we actually listen to one another can we come to some kind of agreement on the validity of each faith tradition's understanding of these terms and their place in scripture?

Unfortunately, language is ambiguous. There is an inherent lack of precision as we partake in discussions. We use words to define other words, and could potentially keep refining our definition by defining the words that define our main words. Perhaps a lot of our issues amount to semantic misunderstandings. Maybe we think we know what our brothers are talking about when they say something, but actually have no clue. Perhaps that is why our speech is to be graceful, as if it were seasoned with salt (Col. 4:6).

Your thoughts? Let me know what semantic issues you have seen. What do you think of my list? Are there any terms you would add?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Thy Rod. Thy Staff. Thy Facebook.

Always watching

You knew it would happen. Start sharing your thoughts on Facebook and Twitter and before long, the Human Resource Department would find a way to use your social media to their advantage. Be careful what you post, they'll be sure to hear about what you did last weekend. Everyone's heard of this by now, so you shouldn't be surprised to find that Church officials do the same thing.

I've spoken with many elders and other church leaders. They mostly admit to the practice of following/subscribing to their flock's social media channels in order to keep their fingers on the pulse of their lives. For some, Facebook and Twitter opens a whole new world of issues—they see their congregation in their natural element, away from the Church pews.

This realization brings up a host of challenges. Should the clergy take such an aggressive role in the flock's lives? Is the activity they see on social media genuine, or just wish fulfillment? Should they meet online problems with an offline solution? These are issues for Christian Ethics.

Will the real user please stand up?

Here is the problem: The person you see on social media is not the person who lives out a life on planet earth. It has been documented that the lives lived on Facebook and Twitter are edited beyond recognition. We compare and contrast ourselves with our friends and end up depressed that we aren't as cool or smart or funny as others. So we fake a life online, a life we realize is fake and so we send ourselves into even deeper depression.

Chances are, the lives that our Pastor, Elder, Deacon, Priest, Clergyman sees online is not a real life. What they will see is an Instagram filter called "Holiness" or "Righteousness," they won't see the midnight of the soul. Like Petra said, we look through rose-colored, stained-glass windows. Just think, how many times have you posted something, thought better of it, and then edited or deleted it altogether?

Then again, we have seen those pictures that undeniably links a person with strictly un-Sunday-Morning-like behavior. We know the choice words that automatically trigger some kind of alert within the mind of an honestly upright Christian. Certainly your clergyman knows those signs as well. What should he do in that case?


Honestly, mercifully, I am not in that position. I don't have to approach brothers and sisters who appear to be heading in the wrong direction. I am not posed with the dilemma of having to hold an offline discussion of someone's online behavior. I have rarely had to confront someone about an online post that was in obvious, clear error. I have played The Devil's Advocate on posts before, but never a confrontation. (Besides, public confrontation is not really best practice for correction.)

But a shepherd (Pastor) of God's flock is mandated with the charge to care for the Lambs. In fact, their level of commitment is directly correlated with their love for Christ. A clergyman who loves Christ will do whatever they can to protect and feed the people of God. Even on Facebook and Twitter. I feel that whether or not a pastor seeks information on their congregation on social media, if they happen to see something that needs attention they are obligated to confront the problem. If they neglect to fulfill their responsibilities, they open themselves to judgement for that neglect.

The ability to balance these issues is (rightfully) called wisdom. That's an important quality for a leader. It's a quality that does not just appear at old age (notwithstanding James' prayer for wisdom), it must be cultivated. May we as Christians develop some wisdom where we are and be careful of the person we present ourselves to be on social media. We are sending a message about ourselves. People are watching what we say. What does your Facebook or Twitter feed say about you? If your Facebook condemns you, don't be surprised when your Pastor, Elder, Deacon, Priest, Clergyman sits you down for a little chat.

If you were part of the clergy, would you use Facebook/Twitter to monitor the flock? What ethical problems do you see in doing so?

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When Your Skeletons Are Exposed

Sunday Night's Message

I spoke last Sunday night from 2 Samuel 21. My message was entitled "When Your Skeletons Are Exposed." I proceeded to talk about both the figurative and literal skeletons present in the text. I spent more time discussing the figurative sense (guilt). This lead to a discussion of the following theoretical differences.

Consequences vs Punishments

Sometimes we throw these terms around as synonyms. It is true that they are related, but they have very different implications. After consulting dictionaries and polling a few people's opinions, I came up with these functional definitions:
Consequence: The natural outcome of an action. The subsequent effect of a cause.

Punishment: An outcome of an action as prescribed and enforced by an authority or one with power over another.
Therefore, even though they are similar, there is one key difference: the enforcer. Judgement. The first is a natural outcome which could be positive or negative. The second is a deliberate judgement that is always negative. This analysis leaves us to two specific corollaries:
1. A consequence is not necessarily a punishment.
2. A punishment is always a consequence.
Perhaps an example is warranted in this situation:

Boy meets Girl - Boy and Girl grow closer - Boy and Girl do boy-girl things - Girl gets pregnant. Conception and the subsequent responsibilities of parenthood are the consequence (natural outcome) of their actions. Is the baby also a punishment? No. From a Christian perspective, a baby is always a gift from God. It is a blessing. It may remind the parents of their sin, but it is not a punishment for their sin.

Boy meets - Boy and Girl grow closer - Boy and Girl do boy-girl things - Girl does pregnant, but Daddy finds out about their activities - Daddy pursues Boy with Shotgun. In this instance, we have a man (Daddy) with power (shotgun) inflicting a punishment after judging that an individual (Boy) has done wrong. The difference between these two scenarios is clear. Judgement.

The Matter of Guilt

The point here is a matter of guilt. In the text (2 Samuel 21), we find that punishment (famine) is being levied because Saul tried to exterminate the Gibeonites. The fact that the Israelites had to live with the Gibeonites was a consequence of their actions in Joshua 9. God never curses them for forging this alliance. In fact, he blesses them in battle in Chapter 10. A Gibeonite (much like Rahab from Jericho and Ruth from Moab) is blessed by being associated with David as one of his Mighty Men.

The difference, however subtle, between consequences and punishments is a matter of guilt. When we conflate the two, we are in danger of thinking that we are under the continual wrath of God when 1 John 1:9 assures us that confessed sin is forgiven. Still, there is no provision made for the consequence since consequence is a simple chain reaction not associated with judgement. Any consequence of sin becomes "corollary 1" after God has forgiven you. You are no longer under his wrath.

Psalm 32:5 promises that the guilt of our sin can be taken care of, but we still carry the burden of guilt long after confession. That guilt can weigh us down. I leave you with more reading on this subject from Princeton University. They have found that guilt increases one's feeling of being weighted down, literally. It is an interesting read on the topic.

Have you ever considered the difference between consequence and punishment? I'd love to hear your thoughts below!

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Monday, October 7, 2013

100 Year Old Wisdom

One Hundred

I went to my great grandmother's birthday party yesterday. Yes, she is a centennial (by our best estimation). It was a lot of fun hanging out with family and she is batty as hell.

One thing I remember her telling me when she was coherent really hits home given my current situation. She told me once how beautiful it is to see children born, grow, have their own children who—in turn—grow and perpetuate the cycle of growth and birth. For her, it is a privilege to have a front-row seat to the greatest show on earth—life; to be the first in line to hold the next generation of Mora, Danesa, Jimenez (etc.) children.

That is why—no matter how doggedly tired I am from work, study, worship or home life—whenever my wife wakes me in the middle of the night saying, "Our daughter is kicking the crap out of my bladder, do you want to feel her?" I will always say, "Yes!" I will say yes 10 out of 10 times. My mind will explode, my heart will race and my love will redouble. I feel there is nothing that can separate my love for my wife and daughter. I may appear upset or haggard or grumpy, but I will never pass up a chance to connect.

I will not reject a set table. 
I will not pour a full glass down the drain. 
God, help me follow through on this oath.

Abuela: gracias, usted es una inspiracion.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Hope Goes Deep

Hope is not about running away from reality. It's about going deeper than a purely surface reading of things. It's a hope that is deeply grounded in the way things really are!

Alister McGrath
The Twilight of Atheism

Thursday, October 3, 2013

The Sign of Jonah

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees said to Him, “Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.” But He answered and said to them, “An evil and adulterous generation craves for a sign; and yet no sign will be given to it but the sign of Jonah the prophet; for just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the sea monster, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth. The men of Nineveh will stand up with this generation at the judgment, and will condemn it because they repented at the preaching of Jonah; and behold, something greater than Jonah is here. The Queen of the South will rise up with this generation at the judgment and will condemn it, because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon; and behold, something greater than Solomon is here."

Matthew 12:38—42

After reading this passage, one must ask themselves, What is this sign of Jonah anyways?And, Why does Jesus keep going on and on about this thing? I suggest that there is more to this sign than meets the eye. In fact, the very definition of a sign is that there is more to it than face value. Consider a simple stop sign. While at face value, it means the driver should stop, that is not all that it implies. Here are some of the implications:

  1. The driver has a knowledge of the rules of the road. Without that knowledge, a stop sign would either mean nothing, or cause the driver to immediately stop. With the proper background knowledge, the driver will know to continue driving until they get to the intersection, come to a complete stop, look around for hazards and then proceed through the intersection. Notice, the driver is not given these explicit instructions in the stop sign (it doesn't change to a GO sign!).
  2. The sign has an over-arching purpose. In the case of a stop sign, the purpose is to maintain order on the roadways. Theoretically, when drivers observe the road rules, accidents are kept to a minimum and traffic flows nicely.
  3. Finally, a sign usually is placed in an area of importance. If it were not important, it would not merit a sign. Again, in our simple illustration of the stop sign, these signs are placed in areas of either high congestion or high pedestrian traffic. Therefore, it is safe to assume that there may be other hazards present when approaching a stop sign. (Though perhaps a traffic light would be a better indicator of this point, but we will not get into the limitations of this illustration here.)
Hence, it is apparent that there are more factors behind a sign than meets the eye. This is not to say that signs are not organic; the knowledge, purpose and importance factors may process simultaneously upon first glance of the sign. However, it may be beneficial to deconstruct these unconscious processes and see what can be learned.

After cross referencing Matthew 12 with the book of Jonah, I was able to isolate five (5) factors that play roles in the knowledge, purpose and importance of the Sign of Jonah as they relate to Christ's mission. These factors include 1) The Belly of the Whale, 2) The Persistence of Grace, 3) The Usefulness of Man, 4) The Global Love of God and 5) The Importance of Faith. These, of course, are in no particular order except for the first one.

The Belly of the Whale

Or the Big Fish, whichever floats your boat. The point is, just like Jonah was sea monster's belly for three days and then barfed up, so Jesus would be in the tomb for three days before rising again. This is the most obvious of the signs and explicitly stated in the Matthew 12 passage. Everyone gets this one because it kinda smacks you upside the head. (If the sign says stop, then STOP!)

It always bothered me that Jesus would associate his ministry with that of Jonah. They seemed like polar opposites. As if Jonah was the foil to Jesus' mission. Perhaps that is precisely what Christ was saying. Perhaps Jonah, who had no power to control his destiny, was intended as a foil to Christ, who even claimed the power to lay down his life on his own accord. 

It is with this in mind that we explore the rest of the story of Jonah and how it serves as a contrast to Jesus' ministry.

The Persistence of Grace

One of the major themes of the book of Jonah is the persistence of God's grace. Jonah even confesses that he knew God would forgive the people of Nineveh if they received the message. Jonah clearly does not want to share God's goodness with those people, which is why he refuses to obey in the first place. However, God's grace pursues him.

God is intent on sharing the message of redemption to the Ninevites. He goes to great lengths in order to bring a prophet to their city limits. In that same way, God went to great lengths to send a savior in human flesh. Jesus sums up his ministry with the following phrase: To seek and save the lost. He was not concerned about reputation or appearances, he was concerned about relationships and reconciliation. His grace is persistent. He is willing that none should perish and does all he can to facilitate eternal life.

The Usefulness of Man

This persistence of grace extends more to Jonah than to anyone in this story. Jonah deserved the fiery wrath of God for his disobedience and insolence. However, he receives nothing but grace. God does not dump his prophet in search of a man who is more worthy to bear his message. God seeks to redeem both the masses and the individual.

A personal God is a valuable God. Jesus dealt with individuals, not only a faceless multitude. Consider the conversion of Saul to Paul. Jesus came to repair a relationship with God and make mankind useful to him again. We may not see the value in our own lives, but he certainly does. 

Even the final episode of the book of Jonah is meant to show the tenderness of God. He tries to help Jonah see things from his own perspective. Christ did not come to condemn, but to offer life; to offer a chance to see things from his perspective. That is what is meant by the phrase: to have fellowship with God again. He restores the natural order of things with man in proper relation with him. Useful.

The Global Love of God

Nineveh (to the North), Solomon (the hometown hero) and Sheba (to the South) expands the concept of God's global love as illustrated in the book of Jonah. Jonah was uncomfortable sharing God's love to the Ninevites. He held on to it as a right of his people only. But that is not God's will.

The sign of God's global love is expressed in Jesus. John 3:16 explicitly states that God's love is shared to all mankind, not just one nationality. Every person has a chance to respond to this love, and there is only one way to do it.

The Importance of Faith

The response to God's message of love is faith. The Ninevites responded in faith and repented when they heard God's word. They believed that if they repented, God's judgement would be withheld. The importance of this response is clear in Christ's description of the sign. Had the people of Nineveh not repented in faith, they would never have received the grace and love of God. Without repentance, they are only left with judgement.

Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but whoever rejects him has already sealed their fate. This part of the sign was probably the most inflammatory, since the scribes and Pharisees were the ones who were rejecting Jesus. "This generation" was going to be judged by the Ninevites because of their lack of repentance.


There is more to the Sign of Jonah than what meets the eye. Clearly, the most important part of the sign is the most obvious one: Jesus' death, burial and resurrection. Without that, the Christian faith is of no use whatsoever. However, there is a lot of background knowledge that goes into this particular passage of scripture and allows us to have an enriched understanding of Jesus' ongoing ministry.

Do you have any more thoughts about the Sign of Jonah? Let me know what they are in the comments section. I'd love to hear them!

Christopher M. Jimenez. Powered by Blogger.

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