Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Pastor: A Memoir - The Priority of Place

I'm thinking about adding another item to my "Bucket List" - things I want to do before I "kick the bucket." I want to meet Eugene Peterson - shake his hand - maybe even give him a hug - if he appears to be the hugging type, and thank him for the gentle and wise guidance his writings have offered this young pastor. This is why I was thrilled to learn Harper One has published his The Pastor: A Memoir.

I have always loved places. For a very long time I have loved the Church. And I have come to understand the Church needs to love the place in which God has situated her. The doctrines of Creation and the Incarnation compel us to love and serve the places we are in the way God loves and serves the places where his presence is made manifest. The writings of Eugene Peterson have confirmed in me that these complementary loves for the Church and her place are close to the heart of God. Listen to his wise words.
Place. But not just any place, not just a location marked on a road map, but on a topo, a topographic map - with named mountains and rivers, identified wildflowers and forests, elevation above sea level and annual rainfall. I do all my [pastoral] work on this ground. I do not levitate. "Surely the LORD is in this place, and I did not know it." Get to know this place.
I don't want to end up a bureaucrat in the time-management business for God or a librarian cataloguing timeless truths. Salvation is kicking in the womb of creation right now, any time now. Pay attention. Be ready: "The time is fulfilled ..." Repent. Believe.  

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Thinking About Conversion Narratives

Conversion has been on my mind lately, specifically narratives of conversion. My conversion narrative used to go something like this. When I was seven years of age (I’m not really sure if I was six or seven, but I always chose the certain age of seven because it wasn’t too young or too old and I had to be certain of my age to give my story legitimacy.), I attended a Sunday evening service in which the Pastor preached on sin. At the age of seven, or possibly six, or maybe even a young eight, I came “personally aware of my own sin” and how my sin had made God angry. So righteous was his anger that he was planning on sending me to hell - forever. But God’s angry plans were changed forever that night because after we returned home that evening I told my earthly father as we watered the backyard strawberry garden that I wanted to be "saved." So we went into my bedroom, knelt on the red carpet next to bunk beds with red bedspreads and I repeated the sinner’s prayer. After my dad gave me a bear hug we came out of the bedroom and walked into the kitchen where my mother was pulling pizza muffins out of the oven and shared with her the good news that “Jesus was now in my heart.” Details like the strawberry garden, the colors in the bedroom and the pizza muffins are crucial because they lend credibility to my story. The conversion story needs as much integrity as possible because this conversion story is all about me. It’s about me as an individual. It’s about my knowledge, my sincerity, my ability to understand and most important, my capacity to tell a convincing story.

As I recall this story, for which I am thankful, it’s not about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. It’s not about God’s love for me a rebellious sinner. It’s not about a present life with God that begins changing me right away. It's not about grace. It is only about this. I am bad. God has to send me to hell. I can force him to let me into heaven if I pray these specific words with sincerity.

Elements of this narrative are true, but they are not as true as they could be. Some elements are downright false. The Gospel is not about me. The Gospel is the good news about what God did through Jesus to reverse the fall. And God is now calling us to repent and believe in what He did and will do through Jesus. The Gospel is about what God did for us, not what we have to do for God. Obviously, my own conversion narrative has been deconstructed and is still in the process of reconstruction. Previously my story was about one and only one event. Nowadays I like to think about that event as the first in a series of equally important events. God is saving me daily. Moment by moment his grace leads me to daily death and daily re-birth. By his Spirit God is shaping me into the image of His Son.

I am now convinced there is more diversity to “conversion narratives,” but I still believe there are some essential elements that all Christians should find in their stories. Also, these elements will take on a variety of forms. 1) New Birth to Sonship – A time where God awakens you with his Spirit to the new identity he is bestowing upon you in Jesus as a Son or Daughter of Jesus’ Father. Included in this “event” are repentance and faith in Jesus as Savior and Lord, leading to a life of following Jesus. 2) Community of Discipleship – In the New Testament conversion to Christ always leads to participation in his Body, the Church (1 Peter 1.22-23). Involvement in the Church affords us with more saving moments as the grace of God is made available to us through other members and through the sacraments of baptism and communion. 3) Kingdom of Citizenship – As we are graciously transformed through following Jesus, we will seek to live, proclaim, advance and embody his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Thinking about our own conversion narratives and going through the processes of deconstruction and reconstruction are crucial tasks. The Church needs to have one unifying narrative. That narrative is the life, death, resurrection, ascension and future return of Jesus to make all things new. Salvation is about that narrative becoming our narrative. And as we tell our unique stories of way the Jesus Story became our story we are collectively unified. 

Once again, I bless God for each element of my own story. I am thankful for the sermon on sin and for that saving moment of praying with my dad. But I equally bless God for my present family of fellow-disciples at Somonauk Baptist Church, for the Kingdom in which we are privileged to participate and for his kindness in revealing to me that my salvation was not my own doing. God did it. God is doing it. God will complete it. The freedom is sweet and saving.

What are some of your thoughts on your own conversion narrative? 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Shut Up - Shut Up for Jesus!!

The third aspect of the fruit of the Spirit is peace, followed by patience and kindness. And the second to last is gentleness, followed by self-control. According to this apostolic description of the Spiritual life, there seems to be a certain serenity – a specific composure – an assured calmness that characterizes life lived in the Spirit. Jesus manifested the fruit of the Spirit more fully than any other human being. To be sure there were times when Jesus raised his voice. One thinks of the table-turning incident where our Lord raised his voice and a whip in judgment upon the Temple that had become a place where widows lose their life-savings. We should find it significant that Jesus reserved his harshest words for the religious leaders of the day who were failing to act with compassion. We should also find it significant that Jesus expressed these harsh words with relative infrequency. For most of his interactions Jesus remained calm. Even when someone in his presence was found to be in wrong, he dialogued with him or her in a reasoned and merciful way. He was rarely quick to make his point without first investing time with that person to gain the fullest understanding possible. If we are choosing to adopt a Jesus-shaped Spiritual life, his way of dealing with people will become ours.

I wonder sometimes if some other model, other than Jesus shapes our understanding of the Spiritual life. Maybe it’s because of their public status, but I rarely witness a Christian in the media exhibiting the composure and peace exemplified by Jesus and described in Galatians 5. Much of the time, we Christians come across as hasty and out of control. Some of us just need to calm down. Ironically, Christians most often turn up the volume when it comes to self-defense. Whether we understand orthodoxy as being attacked or our personal freedoms, we often “Stand Up – Stand Up for Jesus” in ways that do not resemble Jesus at all. According to an MSNBC report, secular companies even plan to upset us because angry American Christians are uniquely excellent at promoting the products they despise by telling every one about them! In fact, at E3, an Electronics Expo, Electronic Arts hired a group to stage a fake Christian protest to their soon-to-be-released game, Dante’s Inferno in order to create consumer momentum for the product. Furthermore, several publishing executives have confessed that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code would have recorded mediocre sales numbers had Christians not promoted the book through their protests.

If we allow Jesus to define faithfulness in the world we may understand there are times we should “Shut Up – Shut Up for Jesus!”
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly (1 Peter 2.21-23).              

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Just throw the lemons away!

Has anyone ever said these words to you? "When life gives you lemons make lemonade!" These words are usually said with a smile as if the speaker has answered every one of your questions and solved all the problems related to a very intricate and difficult situation. By the way, it is normal to want to punch the throat of this "one who spouts unhelpful clich├ęs!” One-size-fits-all remarks rarely do justice to the complexity of the problems that arise within this broken world. To go even a step further, quoting one-size-fits-all verses rarely bring peace to the pain some humans are enduring.

I had something happen this afternoon that was not extremely painful but was frustrating and difficult to endure. And as I drove away from the place where this “something” occurred I pondered, “Why did that have to happen?” Keep in mind what took place was not that big of a deal. But the disappointment was deep enough to cause that Lament-Psalm question, “Why, O Lord?” After I meditated for a few brief moments, the lemonade formula came to mind. And then I thought, “These lemons are rotten and probably would make disgusting lemonade!”

There are times we should simply dispose of the produce we receive from the fruit trees of this fallen world. Stop trying to find meaning in the pain or figure out what God is trying to teach us. Often there is no answer this side of resurrection as to why God has allowed certain “thorns” to steal our blood. But we do have the confident hope that he will one day overcome all our suffering and purge this world of all “lemons.”

So sometimes life will give us lemons and the only appropriate response is to use them to sharpen the blades on the garbage disposal.                

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Love is our priority because love is our future.

"And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love" (1 Cor 13.13, NIV). 
Today I listened to a sermon delivered by one of my favorite professors during my time at Dallas Seminary, Dr. John D. Hannah. Dr. Hannah isn't flashy. He is not the best communicator. He is not even that easy to listen to. But he helps his students love God better and that is why I chose the major I did and why I took as many of Dr. Hannah's classes as possible. One of my favorite classes was The Works of Jonathan Edwards. The main requirement of this class was to read and understand nearly 2,000 pages of Edwards' writings and sermons - an overwhelming task to say the least! As I listened to Dr. Hannah explain 1 Corinthians 13, I was reminded of my favorite book from that semester, Charity and Its Fruits. This book is a publication of a series of expositions he delivered to his congregation in Northhampton, Mass. in 1738. The final sermon in the series is worth the price of the book: It's title - "Heaven, a World of Love." Edwards explains that because God dwells most fully in heaven, heaven is rendered
a world of love; for God is the fountain of love, as the sun is the fountain of light. And therefore the glorious presence of God in heaven, fills heaven with love, as the sun, placed in the midst of the visible heavens in a clear day, fills the world with light. The apostle tells us that "God is love;" and therefore, seeing he is an infinite being, it follows that he is an infinite fountain of love. Seeing he is an all-sufficient being, it follows that he is a full and overflowing, and inexhaustible fountain of love. And in that he is an unchangeable and eternal being, he is an unchangeable and eternal fountain of love (326-327).
These are the words from a sermon preached by Jonathan Edwards! This Reformed Puritan who is best known for his sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, also had an extraordinary appreciation for God as an infinitely loving being and we must not forget this distinctive feature of his theology. According to Edwards, the God who is angry at sin is also the God who is the fountainhead of all love. And because God is love, eternity will be a world filled with "oceans and oceans of love and love again." This is why 1 Corinthians 13.8 declares "Love never fails." Faith and hope will pass away, but love is greatest because it will never pass away. There is coming a day when there will be no more faith and no more hope because we will see Christ, the object of both our faith and hope. The permanence of love is why Edwards encourages us to think of eternity as a renewed heavens and earth filled with only love. So the famous "love chapter" can be understood as describing the God who is love and the world we will inhabit with him for eternity.

So imagine a world filled with patience and kindness. Think about a world that does not know envy, boasting or pride. Picture a human family in which no one is rude, self-seeking or angry and there is never any score-keeping or grudge-holding. Visualize a world in which everyone is protected and trustworthy. We must dream about these things now because one day our dreams will be reality!!

We must also dream about these things now because of what Paul commands us in 1 Corinthians 14.1. Paul says, "Follow the way of love." Through the power of the Spirit we who are promised a future of love, must make love our priority now.

Because in the end love will be the last thing standing we must make love our priority now.