Monday, December 17, 2012

How long? Prayers for Peace

How long? How long? How long, O LORD?

Father, in the midst of tragedies like what befell Newtown, CT, we are thankful for your word that expresses the flood of emotions we are feeling.

How long, O LORD, until you bring peace in our violence?

How long, O LORD, until you bring justice into our injustice?

How long, O LORD, until you bring healing into our brokenness?

How long, O LORD, until you bring generosity in our greed?

How long, O LORD, until you bring love to overwhelm our hatred?

How long, O LORD, until your people refuse to use their freedom as an excuse to condone evil.

How long, O LORD, until Jesus returns and all is made new?

How long, O LORD? How long? How long?

At this moment we remember before you the 28 victims of tragic violence in Newtown, CT. Have mercy on all who grieve. Give peace to the family of the gunman. Show kindness to Sandy Hook Elementary School - to teachers, parents, administrators and staff.

Enable the church of Jesus Christ to mediate the peacemaking presence of Jesus to a world bent on violence.

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord mercy.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Overcoming of Evil


Miroslav Volf was born in 1956 in Osijek, Croatia, which was then part of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. In 1957 he and his five-year-old brother, Daniel were being watch by their Nanny, Aunt Milica, when Daniel “slipped away” from the courtyard to go play with some soldier friends a mere two blocks away. The soldiers enjoyed Daniel because of the diversion he provided from their normal, not-so-exciting duties and had become quite fond of him. On this day one of the soldiers innocently placed Daniel on a horse-drawn bread wagon and then the unthinkable happened. A tragic accident robbed Daniel of his life and the Volf family was left devastated. Miroslav has also experienced brutal interrogations at the hands of then Communist Yugoslavian Officials. These horrific events have uniquely equipped him to interpret well texts such as these in his book, The End of Memory: Remembering Rightly in a Violent World

You have heard that it was said, “Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matt 5.43-44, NIV).

But to you who are listening I say: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you (Luke 6.27-28, NIV).

Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good (Rom 12.21, NIV).

I am especially interested in this final text from Romans 12, because it seems that Paul is motivated by a desire for the reader to not be overcome by evil. Paul doesn’t want evil to win. He wants evil to end and he provides us with a sure way for evil to be overcome. The verb translated overcome is from the word nikao which means to vanquish or defeat. Jesus uses the word in John 16.33 where he says, “Take heart! I have overcome the world.” Furthermore, John says the same is true of us who have been born of God. “… for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only the one who believes that Jesus is the Son of God" (1 John 5.4-5). Do you want evil to be defeated – vanquished – overcome? God offers one way to his people. Love those who do evil. Pray for our persecutors. Do good to those who hate you. Overcome evil with good. This gospel truth is why I have been so moved over the past two days by these words from Miroslav Volf, one who has endured the dark intensity of evil.

To triumph fully, evil needs two victories, not one. The first victory happens when an evil deed is perpetrated; the second victory, when evil is returned. After the first victory, evil would die if the second victory did not infuse it with new life.

Among the many reasons God could offer his people to respond to evil with good, one is particularly powerful I think – the desire to see evil defeated. Do you desire the overcoming of evil? The gospel promise is that it will be overcome, ultimately by goodness.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Come and See


One of the most effective ways to make a significant point in a sermon, a story or a book is to emphasize your point at the beginning and the conclusion. Consequently and interestingly, the tree of life makes an appearance in both the opening and final scene of the Bible (see Gen 2.9; Rev 22.1-2). This tree radiated with the very life of God and it is of this tree that all humanity is invited to partake. Nonetheless, we prefer fruit from the tree that appears in Genesis 2, but is absent in Revelation 22, the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. So instead of gladly receiving the life God offers, we have chosen that which leads to death. However, the God who offers life, loves the ones who have chosen death, and offered his own life to the forces of death that we might know life. Through Jesus Christ God is offering the very life of God to the world.

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life (John 3.16, NASB).

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly (John 10.10, NASB).

While the life we receive from God through Christ will last forever, the life described here is more about essence than it is about time. It’s more about quality than quantity. Here’s what I mean. God is above time. And the life he offers to the world is the life that he has enjoyed within himself for eternity. This is the life that he has offered and is offering to the world. Through the death and resurrection of his Son – through the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost – through the continuing ministry of Jesus through his Body, the Church – God is offering his very life to the world.

My friends, I cannot imagine better news than this. The God of the universe is offering his very being – his very essence – his very life to the world. Moreover, his Son has commanded his Church to proclaim this good news to the world. Are we heeding his charge? It is my prayer that the Spirit of God will nurture within our Church family what I like to call a culture of invitation. We worship a God who freely gives himself to those who will accept him. Furthermore, every time we gather God is offering his life to those gathered. I would like to encourage each of you to contribute to this culture of invitation by prayerfully selecting someone within your network of relationships and saying to that person what Philip said to Nathanael, “Come and see” (John 1.46).

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Therefore...


“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations,
baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit … “
~ Jesus the Christ

“Therefore” – One of the most important words in the New Testament. In the original language it’s a simple conjunction comprised of three letters. Within this simple conjunction, however, the key to discipleship is found – within the simple little word the key to God’s plan for the nations is found. The word translated therefore, points us back to the bold assertion Jesus exclaims in verse 18: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth.” Jesus’ words recall a significant prophetic vision recorded in Daniel 7.14.

And to Him was given dominion.
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.

This prophecy tells the story of the world from God’s perspective and at the center of God’s story is a King. Any King “worth his salt” must have a kingdom and the King at the center of God’s story receives His kingdom from God Himself. Aside from the fact this kingdom is God’s, two other elements of this kingdom are worthy of our attention. 1) This kingdom will not pass away. Kingdoms rise and kingdoms fall but not this kingdom. It is everlasting. It will not pass away. It will not be destroyed. This kingdom is worthy of our life’s devotion 2) This kingdom is for all peoples. Daniel’s vision announces the reason the Ancient of Days will give dominion to the Son of Man; that all the peoples and nations of every language might serve Him. And it is this King that we encounter in Matthew 28:16-20. Jesus declares I am the Son of Man. He asserts that all authority in the cosmos is being given to Him. What is the appropriate response? Jesus says, “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations.” In other words, the process of gathering men, women, girls and boys to serve the Son of Man has begun. If you are a Christian – if you believe that Jesus Christ is the risen and ascended Lord, there is only one acceptable response. “Go therefore and make disciples.” It is to the obedience of Jesus’ command that we have dedicated the month of October at SBC. Especially during our Make Disciples! conference with Tim Catchim, we are offering relevant resources that will equip us to obey the One who commands us, “Make disciples!" Linked below is a talk given by Tim which should whet your appetite for how God will use him among us. 

http://vimeo.com/35944513
          

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Manna from Monday: When I am weak...


What makes you weak? Overwhelming grief? Chronic physical pain? Emotional turmoil? Anxiety? Consistent disappointment? The weighty memory of tragedy? I have been thinking quite a bit about weakness lately, because frankly I have not been feeling as strong as I’d like. This got me to thinking about how the Bible addresses weakness. The Apostle Paul wrestled with what Marva Dawn calls, “A Theology of Weakness.” Here are a few things I’ve learned from Paul in 2 Corinthians 11-12 and especially from Marva Dawn who has helped me read him well.

1) Be bold in confessing your weakness.

“The work of restoration cannot begin until a problem is fully faced.”

“Too often we think sharing our weaknesses will cause us to lose respect. We think making our weaknesses known will cause us to lose the honor to be able to proclaim the Word of God in our congregations or our businesses. I no longer believe that is true … The more you tell of your own failure of character, the more God will use that for His purposes.”
Dan B. Allender

These words from a writer I greatly admire square well with the inspired words of the Apostle in 2 Corinthians 11-12. Paul understood the value of declaring boldly what is wrong with you.  False teachers had derided Paul to the Corinthians as foolish and weak and whose speaking ability left a lot to be desired. Guess how Paul responded to their criticism.

“I wish that you would bear with me in a little foolishness but indeed you are bearing with me” (2 Cor 11.1, NASB).

“To my shame I must say that we have been weak by comparison. But in whatever respect anyone else is bold – I speak in foolishness – I am just as bold myself” (2 Cor 11.21, NASB).

Paul responded to the contempt of his opponents with a hearty – Amen! He boldly declared a certain measure of worldly foolishness and he boasted in his weakness. As Dan Allender reminds us, the initial step toward healing is to face completely the real problem. Sadly, religious leaders often only encourage what Ed Friedman calls “skin deep healing.” When a physical wound occurs two kinds of healing must take place, the connective tissue below the skin and the protective tissue, the skin itself. If, however, the protective tissue heals before the connective tissue, the healing of the latter will not be complete causing more serious issues to arise later. The wound, in its entirety must be “faced fully” for healing to occur. Just because the wound is no longer visible, does not mean it is no longer there. For reasons I am still seeking to understand Pastors sometimes facilitate skin-deep healing by working to only make symptoms disappear. What we are doing is just “kicking the ball downfield” so someone else will have to pick up the pieces at a later date. This often results in further and unnecessary pain for the “wounded.” Jeremiah confronted this poor leadership more than 2,500 years ago.

“They have healed the brokenness of my people superficially, saying, “Peace, peace,” but there is no peace” (Jer 6.14, NASB).

As those in need of healing and as those who are dressing others’ wounds, may we have the wisdom to face all problems in their fullness.

2) Be eager to receive power through weakness.

            Why does Paul encourage such a positive posture toward weakness? He offers at least two reasons. 1) Weakness pushes us toward true power. Paul says this. 

“And He has said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for [your] power is [brought to its end] in weakness, so that the power of Christ may tabernacle in me (2 Cor 12.9).

Paul has just described three times God denied his request to end Satanic torment in his life. The reason God said no is because God’s power is most vividly displayed when our power is exhausted. This tells us that one of the reasons God allows us to be weakened is so that he can display his power. God’s power shows up when our power runs out. This is why Paul can boast about his weaknesses, because weakness can become a catalyst for the “tabernacling” of the power of Christ within him (12.9). Don’t run from weakness. Absorb it as a way to receive Christ’s power. 

            Furthermore, Paul has a positive attitude toward weakness because 2) the Cross redefines weakness. Paul is explaining to the Corinthians why Christ has proved powerful within their midst and the reason is because of Paul’s weakness. Did you catch that? There’s a connection between the power of Christ within a local church and the weakness of its leader.

“For indeed [Christ] was crucified because of weakness, yet He lives because of the power of God. For we also are weak in Him, yet we will live with Him because of the power of God directed toward you (2 Cor 13.4, NASB).

Paul endeavored to know nothing among the Corinthians except Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2.2). The cross of Christ shaped how Paul understood his own suffering and weakness. He understood all of life through a cross-shaped lens. The suffering of Christ revealed the power and glory of God. Moreover the suffering of Jesus’ followers will necessarily reveal the power and glory of God. This reality is what made Paul comfortable with his own weakness and suffering. Paul was not eager to pursue comfort. He was eager to make much of Christ among the Gentiles and this would be accomplished the same way Christ accomplished his mission, through weakness and suffering.

The world most of us inhabit teaches us to flee suffering and chase comfort. This world leads us to believe that the comfortable have all the power and the weak can accomplish nothing. The world in which Jesus and Paul dwell, however, proclaims that the greatest power of all is demonstrated when our power comes to its end and then the power of Christ dwells within us. When we have been emptied through weakness, the gospel promises to fill us with the power of Christ. When I am weak, God’s Word teaches me to be bold in confessing my weakness. When I am weak, I can be eager to receive God’s power through the very weakness this world teaches me to fear. What is making you weak? Don’t be too hasty in running away from it. Face it. Press on toward it. And may the power of Christ rest on and within you through weakness.

               


Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Welcomed Sinners Welcome Sinners


What do Zaccheus, the Woman at the Well and Mary Magdalene have in common? I can think of at least two things. 
  1. Each is a person for whom Jesus broke a rule in order to love. 
  2. Each is a person Jesus loved enough to set them free from their sin. 


The world is full of sinners. Our church is full of sinners. Jesus loves the sinners that populate the world and our churches and desires that his love would transform them.

We can sometimes create sad rules that prevent people from encountering the transforming love of Jesus that is found within our church. When we create silly rules that block “sinners” and welcome the “righteous,” we have ceased to follow Jesus, the Head of the Church, and the transforming love of our Savior is on its way out.

Paul teaches us the problem with us sinners is not our sin (see Romans 1.19-21). Sin is rather a symptom of our greater problem of not knowing God accurately. The greater problem of not knowing God is what needs to be emphasized. Furthermore, the God who is one loving community of persons within himself longs to be known within the community of persons called the church (see John 17.20-21). Jesus made room within his community for sinners like Zaccheus, the Woman at the Well and Mary Magdalene.  If Jesus welcomed sinners, and it is Jesus whom we profess to be following – If Jesus, who welcomed sinners, is the Head of the Body then we as individuals and as a church family should endeavor to welcome sinners in Jesus’ name, because we are sinners and he welcomed us. Sinner, you have been welcomed. Sinner, will you welcome other sinners? 

Jesus expressed a loving welcome to all he encountered. Will you do the same? Will our church family do the same?


Monday, August 20, 2012

God Behaving Badly: Part One


On Thursday of this week I will begin my third year teaching Senior High Bible at Somonauk Christian School. Our Bible curriculum indicates that this year I will teach Old Testament Survey. I love the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments. I especially love the consistency of the narrative that begins with Genesis and “concludes” with The Revelation. It has become common amongst our church family for me to lift up my copy of the Scriptures and ask, “How many books am I holding?” And the answer, “One!” will resonate through the pews. I love the Bible, both the Old and New Testaments, because within its pages I encounter the one God, my heavenly Father as I understand the Bible through the Spirit to testify of Christ, the only Begotten Son of the Father.

An Ancient Struggle

Nonetheless, I also understand the unity of the Bible is not easy to grasp. Certain aspects of God’s Word are indeed difficult to interpret in a way that leads to Christ and his unique and full revelation of the one God. From as early as the Second Century, the Church has struggled to read the Bible without describing the God of the Old Testament and the God and Father of Jesus as “other than one.” Marcion infamously professed the existence of two “gods” – One god is Yahweh, the creator and god of the Old Testament, while the other god is the Father of Jesus, the god of the New Testament. The good Bishop from Lyons, Irenaeus, came to Marcion and said something like this, “You’re free to believe that Marcion, but don’t call yourself, Christian.” More specifically, Irenaeus wrote this.

Marcion divides God into two, and calls one God good, the other just; and in so doing he destroys the divinity of both. For he who is just is not God if he is not also good; for if he lacks goodness he is not God; while he who is good without being just is similarly deprived of divinity (Against Heresies, III. xxv. 3).

Marcion fell in the all too common trap of understanding the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament as somehow different. Some folks may believe that, but they may not call themselves “Christian.” As Christians we believe in “one God, the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth and of all things visible and invisible.” The God who made heaven and earth and who is the eternal Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is one.

Within this ancient struggle to understand the Old and New Testaments as testifying to the reality of one God, David Lamb offers the Church his helpful book, God Behaving Badly: Is the God of the Old Testament Angry, Sexist and Racist?  David loves the Bible and is committed to the orthodox confession of the oneness of God revealed through the words of Scripture within both the Old and New Testaments. At the same time, however, he is honest with the struggle many of us have to understand the Bible to support such a confession. Because Lamb’s book will be required reading for the Juniors and Seniors in my Old Testament Survey Course, I thought it would be helpful to blog/email my way through it.   

But also …         

It doesn’t take long for Lamb to subvert the false assumption that God is nice in the New Testament and not so much in the Old Testament. In fact, he likes to begin the class he teaches by posing this question to his students.

How does one reconcile the loving God of the Old Testament with the harsh God of the New Testament?

You see there are many false assumptions behind the all too common perception that the God of the Old Testament is full of wrath and the God of the New Testament is full of love. The plain truth is there are many places in the Old Testament that describe God as overflowing with love and there are many places in the New Testament that describe God as acting out of wrath. For example the word, “hell” does not occur in our English translations of the Old Testament. In the ESV, “hell” occurs 14 times in the New Testament and 12 of them are from the lips of Jesus. Furthermore, when the apostle Paul begins to articulate his gospel message for the Roman Christians, he begins in this way:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth (Romans 1.18, ESV).

Furthermore, it is often asserted the God of the Old Testament is judgmental and unforgiving and the God of Jesus is quicker to forgive. This is plainly not the case. Just this morning, I read these words.

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?
But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared (Psalm 130,3-4, ESV).

Also notice these words from the Psalmist.

The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, not repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him (Psalm 103.8-11, ESV).     

Obviously a few Scripture citations will not resolve a struggle the Church has endured for more than 1,800 years. These references should remind us, however, to get in the habit of saying, “BUT ALSO.” You see almost anyone can find a proof text for anything. Stringing together proof texts does not good theology make. We arrive at “good theology” by interpreting the biblical text. Do difficult texts exist? Yes! But difficult texts must be interpreted like all texts. And I hope that David Lamb’s book can help the Church interpret both the Old and New Testaments in a way that is good and true and faithful and edifying and above all, Christian.

So I want us to get into the habit of saying, “BUT ALSO.” In other words, the God of the Bible can become really angry, BUT can ALSO be extraordinarily patient. In the Old Testament, God seemed to view women and wives as property, BUT he ALSO selected women as spiritual and political leaders over Israel. God commanded the Jews to “utterly destroy” the Canaanites, BUT ALSO commanded them to care for the poor, the widows, the orphans and the Canaanites.

Bottom Line: A Hermeneutic of Humility

In one of his final concerts Rich Mullins talked about the peril of proof texting, and then he said this: “When God gave us the Bible it was to prove that God is right and the rest of us are just guessing.” I appreciate those words from the late singer/songwriter because they are a humble acknowledgment that understanding God’s Word can only take place within the humble confession that God is God and we are not. This is what I call a hermeneutic of humility. In other words the Bible will not be understood by those who seek to master it but by those who seek to be mastered by the God who gave us the Bible. I believe that God wants to be known and one of the ways he wants to be known is through the Bible. We need to be motivated by a humble desire to know God as we open the sacred text and that text will be over abundantly full of complexities – kind of like the God who gave it to us. Amen.      

Monday, August 13, 2012

Grace Takes the Blame ...


According to former Miami Dolphin Receiver, Chad Johnson, his wife head-butted him. According to Mr. Johnson’s wife, he head-butted her. Following these most recent troubles, the Dolphins terminated the controversial NFL wide receiver’s contract. And the narrative of passing the blame that started in the Garden of Eden goes on and on.

This morning I looked out the front window and thanked God for last evening’s rain. A few moments later I looked out the kitchen window into our backyard and noticed the toys and games my kids had left out in the rain. In this moment, I felt less than thankful for the evening rain. Next I noticed two books I have been reading that had also been left out in the rain. Please believe me when I tell you, this is the thought I had!! “Why didn’t those kids bring my books inside?” Immediately, I thought to myself my kids shouldn’t be responsible to pick up after their daddy. As I retrieved my treasured books, now saturated, I had this thought, “Why didn’t Yulinda bring in the books?” And the narrative of passing the blame that started in the Garden goes on and on.

There is something within our fallen nature, when confronted with our sin, that “naturally” elicits a response that passes the blame to someone or something else. It wasn’t me Lord, is was “the woman you put here with me – she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.” Don’t blame me, God. It was “the serpent [who] deceived me, and I ate.” It wasn’t my negligence, Lord. It was those kids you gave me – they distracted me! It wasn’t my forgetfulness. It was the wife you gave me – I thought she was collecting my books! And the narrative of passing the blame that started in the Garden goes on and on.

As we begin another week, I would like us to contemplate another narrative about blame in another Garden. The narrative goes something like this. Jesus, the Second Adam, is in the garden of Gethsemane. He is undergoing unimaginable temptation to not trust his Abba and work for his own will on earth. He doesn’t want to obey, but in this moment, instead of trusting his own resources, he asks for help from some trusted friends.

My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me (Matthew 26.38, NIV).

He doesn’t like the direction obedience is taking him, but in this moment, instead of trusting his own feelings, he prays.

My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will (Matthew 26.39, NIV).

Jesus went away yet another time and proclaimed to his Father that no matter what he would always utter these words, “may your will be done.”

When the first Adam was tempted in a similar Garden, he said to God, “my will be done.” And when he was confronted with his sin, he passed the blame. When the second Adam underwent a Garden temptation, he said to God, “your will be done” and full of grace and truth, he took the blame that the first Adam and all his sons and daughters deserve.

Thanks be to God for the Lord Jesus, our second Adam, who instead of passing the blame, took the blame for our sin, that we might enjoy union with him as sons and daughters of God. Often times we are encouraged to “own what’s ours.” That is all well and good. When we hear those words, however, we should be reminded that Christ owned what was yours and mine, so we could be free from the burden of sin’s consequence. When someone tells you to own what’s yours, say thanks to Jesus for owning it for you! 

Furthermore, the narrative of the Second Adam in the Second Garden must give us our identity. We identify with the First Adam when we pass the blame. We were meant to live for so much more. The Grace of the Second Adam takes the blame, because I don’t have to be burdened by it anymore. Jesus took it for me. Thanks be to God!!  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Fasting for Guidance



“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3, NIV).

We are often faced with a decision for which there is no clear answer. So we follow the wisdom of Proverbs and seek advice from a few trusted counselors. How do we proceed, however, when the wisdom of our counselors proves contradictory? It is in these moments I believe our kind Father is pleased to allow the conceptual fog to remain that we main learn at least two lessons. 1) God is God and we are not. When I fail to come to grips with how exactly to proceed in a complicated situation I must learn to trust my heavenly Father as I tentatively advance down the path I think I believe he is opening for me. It is during these times our trust muscles get their greatest workout. The discomfort of the disorientation created by the fog of uncertainty can sometimes cause us to hastily choose the path of surety when God has really provided no indication of the direction we should take. Sometimes the fog is a gift from which we must not flee.

The second lesson these complicated decisions can teach us is 2) Life is ambiguous and God never intended otherwise. I went through a period in my Christian and pastoral life when I thought there was a verse for everything. Every decision … every conviction … every practice must have clear biblical precedent and if we couldn’t find it we simply had not searched hard or long enough. This led to a quasi-form of Bible Deism. In other words, God had given the Bible to us as the definitive word for all time and now there really was no need for him to communicate with or be involved in the lives of his people. Aside from the many Biblical reasons (!) this perspective is wrong-headed, my first six months in ministry were enough to teach me that the Bible does not address every possible scenario. In other words, there will be many times when we are faced with a decision for which there is not clear Biblical direction. The Bible may offer applicable principles – the Bible may establish a trajectory that we must follow together in order to learn what is the wise choice to make. However, this reality requires us to live our lives in community, in active dependence upon the wisdom Christ has granted to the Church.

Scot McKnight reminded me this morning that God’s people have traditionally fasted during times when they yearned to know God’s will. I believe God desires to communicate with his people. He does not want us waver helplessly – wondering what to do. He exhorts us to live in active dependence upon the Spirit of God by engaging in disciplines that open us up to the Spirit’s movement. In Ezra 8, the people of God were on the verge of returning to the Promised Land after staying in Babylon far too long. They knew it was God’s will for them to return home. Under the leadership of Ezra, they paused, however, at the river Ahava and fasted in order to seek guidance and protection from Yahweh. The word, “paused,” is chosen intentionally. Don’t you think they would have been in a hurry to get home after spending so much time exiled? The wisdom of God’s prophet led them to wait – to wait in order to deny themselves of comfort and pleasure in order to seek what they desired more –  the presence and guidance of Almighty God. The early Church followed this same tradition. In Acts 13 prophets and teachers had gathered with the Church at Antioch shortly after Herod had died.

While they were worshipping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off (Acts 13.2-3, ESV).

We are provided here, with an excellent example of the ministry the Holy Spirit longs to accomplish within the worship life of the local church. Based upon this example in Acts, I believe the Holy Spirit intends to work and speak and move within our midst when we worship together and when we engage in the sacred discipline of fasting together.

Do our Spiritual desires have a bodily response? How desperately do we long to know God’s will? How much do I desire greater union with God? Is my enjoyment of fellowship with God greater than the satisfaction provided by Subway’s Spicy Italian sandwich?

Father, awaken with us a greater yearning for communion with you.  Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God of the Living God, have mercy on me a glutton.  

               

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Fasting as Body Training

“Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments.” Our exploration together of the mysterious discipline of fasting has been unpacking this definition by Scot McKnight. Personally I have been struck by the truth that fasting is a whole-body act. In other words there are times when we feel out of sync – times when our “soul” desires one thing, but our body desires another. Our soul desires to have the sin of lust defeated. Our body longs to surrender to lust. All too often, the body wins. This is related to fasting in that fasting is not only a turning of the body toward the soul, but it is also a training of the body by the soul. The Apostle Paul says something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians.

24 Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. 25 Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. 26 So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. 27 But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified (1 Cor 7.24-27, ESV, emphasis added).

Self-control, this last aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, is one that our culture does not value. Sadly, the church has followed the values of the culture. When was the last time you heard a sermon on self-control? Gluttony? Fasting? Moreover, notice some of the aspects of the fruit of the Flesh that the Apostle records in Galatians 5.19-21 – sexual immorality, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, envy, drunkenness and orgies. Each of these is in direct opposition to self-control. Aspects of the fruit of the flesh and the fruit of Spirit both involve bodily actions. Thus, the transforming work of the Spirit will involve the syncing of the body and the Spirit – the training of the body to keep in step with the Spirit (Gal 5.25). 

God’s Word encourages us to engage in practices of faith (i.e. spiritual disciplines) that will enable us to live by the Spirit and to keep in step with him (Gal 5.25). It is within this context that we should understand all the spiritual disciplines and especially fasting. Because we desire to inherit the kingdom of God (Gal 5.21), we must engage in practices that will open our souls and bodies to the transforming presence and power of the Spirit. Because the Apostle Paul did not want to be disqualified (1 Cor 9.27), he disciplined his body to keep in under control.

I have come to learn that fasting is a gift to God’s people to train the body to listen and obey what the Holy Spirit is saying to the soul. We are embodied persons.  Therefore, God desires his saving work of transformation to not only include the soul but also the body. The “Spiritual” life includes “bodily” actions. Have you ever considered fasting in this light?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Fasting as Body Turning: Part Two


In chapter 3 of his book, Fasting, Scot McKnight takes us on a simple journey through the ways the Bible describes the sacred discipline of fasting. Last week we explored how the Bible exhorts us to fast for corporate confession, namely, during events like Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, or seasons such as Lent or Good Friday. Now Scot describes the biblical example of fasting when God seems absent.

Let’s be honest, each of us has experienced times and even seasons during which God’s presence is nowhere to be found. “Most of us know the dryness of prayer or the low ceiling off which some of our prayers seem to bounce.” It’s during these times that Holy Scripture exhorts us to sensitively communicate with God through fasting.

In 1 Samuel 4, God’s Word records for us a time in which God’s presence was actually stolen from God’s people by their enemies, the Philistines. Specifically, the Ark of the Covenant, which represents God’s presence, was captured from God’s people by the enemies of God’s people. Eli, who had guided the Jews for forty years, heard of the Ark’s demise, fell over backward, broke his neck and died. His tragic death punctuates the severe trauma God’s people were enduring at the hand of the Philistines. This was a grievous moment for the Israelites and this grief created a dark momentum that Samuel responds to in chapter seven, with these words to the people.

“If you are returning to the Lord with all your heart, then put away the foreign gods and the Ashtaroth from among you and direct your heart to the Lord and serve him only, and he will deliver you out of the hand of the Philistines.” So the people of Israel put away the Baals and the Ashtaroth, and they served the Lord only. Then Samuel said, “Gather all Israel at Mizpah, and I will pray to the Lord for you” (1 Sam 7.3-5, ESV).
So the people gathered at Mizpah and fasted together as a way of responding to the horror of the departure of God’s presence, the tragedy of Eli’s death and to confess their sins to God.
When tragedy strikes us, when God’s presence seems to depart from us, when our life of prayer has stalled, the example God’s Word sets forth is to turn our bodies toward the direction our souls are feeling as a way of seeking the presence and victory of God. Although this must not motivate our fast (remember fasting is responsive), this way of seeking God’s presence and victory often ushers in the presence and victory of God (cf. 1 Sam 7.6-12).

Has God’s presence been stolen away from you by an enemy? Has tragedy made it difficult to enter into communion with God in ways you have known before? Has to busyness of life relegated the life of faith to near absence? I exhort you to read and meditate on 1 Samuel 4-7 and ask the Lord to guide your response to the grievous absence of God’s presence in your life.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Fasting as Body Turning: Part One


According to Scot McKnight, “Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments.” In Chapter three he unpacks what he means by “fasting as body turning.” In chapters one and two, Scot described a biblical view of self that unifies the body and soul. There is an undeniable link in the Bible between the material and immaterial. The Bible does not divide body and spirit, as we are often tempted. Instead, the Bible exhorts us to participate in practices that highlight and strengthen the unity between body and spirit. Hence, the sacred practice of fasting. 

The most frequent form of fasting in the Bible is intimately related to an organic unity between body and spirit. The Bible often describes fasting as turning of the body toward the spirit during sacred moments when God’s people are called to a corporate confession of sin. In the contemporary church “very serious moments” like confession of sin rarely lead to fasting. Scot asks us: “Is there a need for a place in our church calendar – not just universal but also local – for repentance as a group by fasting?” We seem very accustomed to calling people together in order to feast (potlucks, barbecues and banquets), but how anxious are we to come together in order to fast. The Bible seems to assume the importance of a corporate bringing together of the body and the spirit by calling God’s people to fast together. Once again the Bible confronts our American sense of self. We are familiar with individual repentance and keeping the idea of sin as something between God and me. God’s Word, on the other hand, calls the people of God to confess our sins together. For many of us, fasting is a private matter. Not so much – in the Bible.

The most common corporate confession of sin in the Bible that led to fasting was Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement.

Now on the tenth day of this seventh month is the Day of Atonement. It shall be for you a time of holy convocation, and you shall afflict yourselves and present a food offering to the Lord (Leviticus 23.27, ESV).

The Hebrews were not allowed to do any work during Yom Kippur (23.28). This was such a serious requirement that anyone who did not comply with the requirement by working or not fasting was to be cut off from God’s people and would be destroyed (23.29-30). The people were not only instructed to refrain from food and work. The self-denial extended to such an extreme that they were not allowed to wash or anoint themselves. They slept on the floor. They refused friendship. They also abstained from sexual intercourse. The reason for such severe requirements for an entire day was “to bring their entire person into harmony with the gravity of sin and the need to turn from sin toward God.”

What relevance does this have for us living as Christians in 2012? I do believe we should awaken the discipline of corporate confession of sin that leads to fasting. Scot recommends something like communities of faith entering into a Good Friday fast because that is the day we remember the ultimate Day of Atonement. What are your thoughts?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Always Bad


Here’s a brief proposition.

Death is always bad.

Our church family is in a bit of a fragile state because one of us is no longer with us. Vera Cook’s funeral service was today. It was an amazing service in which I was able to participate. However, even the best funeral services are always enveloped in darkness, because it is a funeral service. Whether it is the Wake/Visitation or the funeral service itself, we all struggle with what we should say to the grieving. “I’m sorry” is usually the safest and most helpful thing to say. Often times a well-intentioned desire to comfort the grieving results in statements that downplay how bad death is. It is these well-intentioned statements that I would like to address briefly. Death is bad and when we downplay its badness we can impose guilt and be very unhelpful to the grieving.

Some clarifying remarks. Please notice my proposition states that death is bad. I’m not asserting that the end of suffering is bad. I would never want to say that “going to heaven” is bad. I am simply stating that the means by which most of us will arrive in heaven, namely death, is bad.

Why is death bad? I would like to offer at least two reasons.  

1) Death is bad because it destroys the design of God’s good creation. The creation narrative describes what God in his goodness originally intended.

then the Lord God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Gen 2.7, ESV).

 These words from the creation narrative should shape how we think about life and death. God shapes the form of man from the dust of the earth, places him on top of the soil and breathes into him the breath of God’s life and man becomes what God designs. Death is bad because it is the undoing of what our good God created and intended. Death reverses the creation of God. Death steals the breath of life from a human God created. Death forces that human back under the soil that God had overcome through his act of creation. Death destroys what God formed returning his creation back to dust. Because it destroys the design of God’s good creation, death is always bad.

2) Death is bad because resurrection is so good. What we often read in the Bible as referring to life after death is what should really be called “life after life after death.” In other words we do have a few phrases here and there like, “My desire is to depart and be with Christ” (Philippians 1.23) and “being away from the body and at home with the Lord” (2 Corinthians 5.8). The majority of times, however, when God’s Word is plainly discussing our future hope, we are being promised, not something after we die, we are rather being promised a world without death because the world will one day be overcome by resurrection. My favorite description of that plain hope is found in 2 Cor 5.1-5

For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed (i.e. death), we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens (resurrection body).  For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life.  He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee (ESV).

From this passage the hope of New Testament comes into focus. Paul’s hope is not that one day he will die and get to heaven. Now it is true that when Paul died, he did go to heaven and for that he was thankful (Phil 1.23; 2 Cor 5.8). Still the true hope of the Apostle is that one day he will receive his resurrection body that God is protecting for him in heaven. In fact, Paul longs to put on that body without being found naked. He desires to be clothed from above without having to go through the process of earthly death, because death, even if it leads to something good, is always a bad thing. Thanks be to God, a generation of believers will receive their resurrection bodies without having to endure the undoing of God’s creative design. This is why the Bible refers to death as our last enemy that is not yet subjected to the Lordship of Christ (1 Cor 15.25-28). I suppose another reason we could say death is bad is because it continues to rebel against Jesus as Lord. Death claimed another victim today. But thanks be to God, one day death will become a victim, itself.

With the hope of the New Testament in mind, we are now able to respond appropriately to Vera’s death. Death is not a blessing. Death is not a good thing? Are we glad she is no longer suffering? Yes. Are we glad she has been reunited with Lowell, her husband? Absolutely. Are we thrilled to know that she is in the presence of Jesus? Certainly. We grieve, however, because a bad thing happened to Vera. We are sad because death has taken someone we love from us. We groan because we have once again been reminded that all things have not been made new, that the world is not as God intended. We grieve and mourn however as those who have hope, because one day God will damn death to hell, forever. And on that day, those whom death has taken will rise and God will transform their bodies to incorruptibility, breathe into them the breath of life and Vera will exclaim will countless others “Thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15.57, ESV).

Monday, June 25, 2012

On Misunderstanding Fasting Part 2



“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3, NIV).

According to Scot McKnight, “Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments.” In his book, Fasting, Scot introduces the topic by referring to some biblical texts that do not match up with our contemporary notions of fasting. Scot is correct (at least for this American Evangelical) when he asserts that most of focus on results when it comes to fasting. Generally speaking we determine (on our own) the desired result and then go to God with the big gun of fasting in order to convince him to do what we want. Scot first drew our attention to Psalm 35.13-14 where King David prays for the healing of his enemies to demonstrate that the Bible speaks about fasting as a Whole-Body Act.

Furthermore, the Bible declares that fasting must “lead to compassion of others” and if it doesn’t God would prefer we not fast.

Is not this the fast that I choose:
            to loose the bonds of injustice,
            to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
            and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
            and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
            and not to hide yourself from your own kin? (Isa. 58.6-7)

Scot instructs us that these words from Isaiah should stay at the center of our thinking about fasting. In other words, fasting should never become a private religious practice that is designed for my own “personal spiritual growth.” Along with all the “spiritual disciplines,” fasting must lead to compassionate love for your neighbor otherwise it will easily drift into “self-righteousness and self-absorption.”

Does your Bible reading and prayer time lead to care for others or is it simply an act of piety where you “hide yourself from your own kin” and then go about you day feeling righteous because you “had a quiet time.” That is not the kind of spiritual life God would choose for us.

Monday, June 18, 2012

On Misunderstanding Fasting


18 June 2012

“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3, NIV).

After our worship gathering yesterday, I enjoyed a fantastic conversation about fasting. This got me to thinking about one of the many books on the “need to read” pile, Fasting, by Scot McKnight. While sitting in my new Adirondack Chair (a Father’s Day gift) I began reading this morning. Before I could even make it through the Introduction, I exclaimed (inwardly of course – it was before 6am), I have to share stuff with my Church family!!

Scot begins with a brief definition, upon which he promises to expand. “Fasting is a person’s whole-body, natural response to life’s sacred moments.” Right away we should notice that fasting is responsive. It seems to me that when most of think about fasting we first consider, “How will God respond to my fasting?” In other words, fasting can become a tool to get God to respond to us instead of whole body response of ours to a sacred moment. More later on how fasting can digress into divine manipulation.

It is at this point we must ask Christ to take our thoughts about fasting captive to the witness of Scripture. For example how many of us would consider fasting on behalf of a sick enemy? King David did that exactly! 

Ruthless witnesses come forward;
            they question me on things I know nothing about.
They repay me evil for good
and leave me like one bereaved.
Yet when they were ill, I put on
            sackcloth
and humbled myself with
            fasting.
When my prayers returned to me
            unanswered,
I went about mourning
            as though for my friend or brother.
I bowed my head in grief
            as though weeping for my mother (Psalm 35.11-14, NIV).

We are now faced with an example of where modern conceptions of fasting have gone awry. Before this morning, I had no category in my brain for fasting on behalf of my enemy who was sick. Did you? I could imagine fasting so that my enemy would become sick, but not because of grief over his sickness. But when we think the way the Bible speaks about fasting, we understand that fasting is not about getting something we desire. Rather, fasting is about responding to life’s sacred moments. 

At his point I have more questions than answers when it comes to fasting. But I look forward to chewing on this wisdom from Scot (pun intended!). I also look forward to any interaction we might have over the often-misunderstood topic of fasting.


Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jesus' Expectation for Prayer Gatherings


For your own sake and for the sake of the world, Jesus wants you to prayer regularly with other believers. Jesus doesn't have some narcissistic need to be included in your daily routine, but he and the other persons of the Godhead have so shaped the world that God's people are invited to approach The Control Room of Creation, Heaven, in prayer. Listen to the words of Jesus. 

Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you that if two of you on earth agree about anything they ask for, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For there two or three gather in my name, there I am with them (Matthew 18.18-20, NIV).

More than once I have heard N.T. Wright assert that "according to Jesus, heaven is earth's control room." What's more, Jesus tells us in Matthew 18 that heaven and earth come together in him and heaven responds to the requests of those who have gathered. 

Jesus is with us when we gather on Wednesdays to ask things of Jesus' Father in heaven. He is with us in a way he is not with you in your "prayer closet." So please, for your own sake and for the good of the world, gather with other believers to agree on earth together and "it will be done for you by Jesus' Father in heaven."



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

O how I love the reality of the Trinity!! 


BLEST COMMUNITY

O Most Holy Trinity
Undivided Unity,
teach us the gentle deference
of your dance of surrendered love
how with infinite tenderness
and utmost esteem
you so gently
adoringly
are present
to one another.

Teach us your perichoresis,
your grand circle dance,
where you eternally birth joy
from the womb of reverence.

Teach us your unending,
enfolding regard
for the pure holiness
you hold and behold.

You,
sweet breath and the lungs of creation,
eternally giving,
empty
and eternally receiving
are filled.

You release and bind,
but never push nor pull.
You hold accountable,
but never blame.

You incline yourselves to one another
as a grove of green willows
bending in the breeze
bowing to each other’s grace
known and cherished
on the broad plain of mutuality.

Deepen our trust, O Blest Community,
that we may enter such intimacy.

Loretta F. Ross

Monday, June 11, 2012

Manna from Monday


“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3, NIV).

I am doing my best to “get into” biographies. When I consider those who have influenced me most and whose ministries have blessed me significantly – they are folks who are always reading biographies. Hebrews 11 and 12 exhorts us to consider the lives of the faithful saints as one way of “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.” So take up and read Christian biography!!

At present, I am reading Eric Metaxas’ critically acclaimed biography on Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer was a brilliant scholar who felt called of God to minister on behalf of all kinds of people, even children, within the context of ministry in a local church. Early in his ministry he spent two years in Grunewald ministering to the children of a small parish. Listen to his love for these kids as he describes his farewell to them. 

I spoke about the man with palsy and especially about the assertion that your sins are forgiven, and tried once more to disclose to the children the core of our gospel; they were attentive and perhaps a bit moved, for I spoke, I think, with some emotion. Then came the farewell…. The congregational prayer has long sent shivers down my spine, and it did so incomparably more when the group of children, with whom I have spent two years, prayed for me. Where a people prays, there is the church; and where the church is; there is never loneliness.

After leaving Grunewald, Bonhoeffer found himself in Paris, on his way to BarcelonaSpain with a friend. It was in Paris that he had this formative experience while attending a church service in Sacre’ Coeur.

The people in the church were almost exclusively from Montmartre; prostitutes and their men went to [church], submitted to all the ceremonies; it was an enormously impressive picture, and once again one could see quite clearly how close, precisely through their fate and guilt, these most heavily burdened people are to the heart of the gospel. I have long thought that the Tauentzienstrasse [Berlin’s red-light district] would be an extremely fruitful field for church work. It’s much easier for me to imagine a praying murderer, a praying prostitute, than a vain person praying. Nothing is so at odds with prayer as vanity.

Please notice how crucial prayer was to Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Later on in his life, he was faced with unimaginable stress and the threat of torture. He credits his daily discipline of prayer and Bible meditation with the ability to not fall apart under extreme circumstances. Please consider joining us for our weekly prayer gathering this Wednesday at 6pm.  Blessings.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Manna from Monday


“He humbled you, causing you to hunger and then feeding you with manna, which neither you nor your ancestors had known, to teach you that man does not live on bread alone but on every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 8.3, NIV).

In December of 2007 I learned the sad news that one of my theological heroes had died – Thomas F. Torrance. I recently received a theological biography of sorts that describes how Thomas Torrance did theology and more specifically how he approached the Scriptures. Jesus’ words in Matthew 11.27 formed much of Torrance’s work

All things have been committed to me by my Father. No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal to him (NIV).

What Jesus is saying here is that we do not know God unless Jesus has revealed God to us. A.W. Tozer famously said, “What we think about God is the most important thing about us.” What Jesus is telling us and what Thomas Torrance reminds us of is that if our thoughts about God don’t begin with Jesus, then it is not the true God who is occupying our thoughts. The Son is the image of invisible God (Col 1.15) because God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him (Col 1.19). The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb 1.3).

What are your first thoughts about God? Does Jesus shape your God-thoughts? God has willed that we know him through his Son, Jesus. May God’s Spirit move each of us to take every thought about God captive to Jesus Christ.  

"What Jesus was on earth God is forever ... What God is toward us in Jesus Christ, he is eternally forever." ~ Thomas F. Torrance

When you see in the face Jesus Christ the face of God, you know that you have not seen that face elsewhere and could not see it elsehow. ~ Thomas F. Torrance