Friday, December 26, 2008

Rosemary's Questions

The world is changing! Not exactly a news bulletin unless you consider the rate of change and then we might have something to talk about. And yet, as a Christian, I don't believe that is the most important topic of our consideration. Consider instead, the changing face of Christianity.
In preparation for seminary winter session class, I have been reading material specific to Christian missions. Not a subject I was naturally drawn to but it very well may be the most penetrating class of my long (7 year and counting) seminary career. Of particular interest was an article entitled, "Global Missiology for the 21st Century". Perhaps the title doesn't immediately grab your attention, but I assure you, the content would.
The author, Rosemary Dowsett, makes some very intriguing observations about the changing face of Christianity in the Western World. In one section, she comments:

"In some ways we are back where we started. Of course, that is not entirely true. There have been 20 centuries of Christian history, which have indelibly marked much of the world besides shaping the church. In that sense, we cannot go back to where we started. But in other ways, we are perhaps closer to the context of the pre-Constantinian church than we realise.
For the first time in 15 centuries, through most of Europe, the church has neither political nor economic nor educational power...We live in a cauldron of religious pluralism, with institutionalized (as well as popular) opposition to claims to the uniqueness of Christ as the only truth and the only Savior. We live in a culture where Christianity has been so marginalized that most people could not articulate clearly the core beliefs of the Christian faith...
Many Christians from the first three centuries of the church would identify with most if not all of these characteristics."

Now that may not be too startling to most of you, but here is her premise. Fundamentally, "the post-modern church of the West must come to terms with weakness rather than power as the base from which she operates". (Read that is vitally important!)
Now, this would not be considered news to the early church. In fact, it was there daily experience. But for us in the 21st century church, we have come to see weakness as failure and power as achievement.
Just take a look! Churches (even in our own city) are considered "successful" because they are large or popular or wealthy. This is the language of power!
Instead, maybe we should be asking Rosemary's questions:
  • Are we (as a church) being challenged to lay down our lives for Christ?
  • Is this church a community which openly acknowledges its weakness, gives away its wealth, put faithfulness above popularity, demonstrates dynamic love and points to the grace and glory of God?
  • Is this a body of people who live out their daily lives in such a way that everything about them declares the gospel of Christ crucified?

The early Christian church understood these values. Most congregations had a precarious, often hidden, existence. But their power was in their weakness. The church has always been most vibrant where it has not been compromised by official status and political power but instead, has had to concentrate on spiritual integrity alone.

I, for one, believe the Church in America will increasingly follow the trend of weakness in our post-modern world. The political, economic and educational power of the church will become increasingly irrelevant. And personally, I feel this is a good thing. For when we can focus not on how we use our power to change the world and can instead, in our weakness, sacrifice our lives for the sake of the gospel of Christ. Perhaps then we will witness the true power of God to redeem the world. To God be the glory!

As you begin the New Year, take a moment to consider the words of Paul to the Corinthians. Perhaps not all that different than the church in America today, the Corinthian church thought they had all they wanted (4:8). And yet they continued to seek more power and influence which inevitably created an attitude of pride and judgment of one another...including the apostles. Instead of hungering and thirsting for righteousness, they were seeking to quench their insatiable appetite for power and self indulgence. Listen to Paul's condemnation of worldly power (dripping with cynicism) and his call to all of us to live lives of humble weakness so that the power of Christ may be made strong.

"For it seems to me that God has put us apostles on display at the end of the procession, like men condemned to die in the arena. We have been made a spectacle to the whole universe, to angels as well as to men. We are fools for Christ, but you are so wise in Christ! We are weak, but you are strong! You are honored, we are dishonored! To this very hour we go hungry and thirsty, we are in rags, we are brutally treated, we are homeless. We work hard with our own hands. When we are cursed, we bless; when we are persecuted, we endure it; when we are slandered, we answer kindly. Up to this moment we have become the scum of the earth, the refuse of the world. I am not writing this to shame you, but to warn you, as my dear children. Even though you have ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I am sending to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church. Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?" (1 Corinthians 4:9-21, NIV)

The book of Revelation reminds us that Jesus, like Paul, will be coming to "find out how these arrogent people are talking about their power". In this coming year, may we relate more to the example of Paul and the apostles. May our weakness, not our power, becomes our base of operation.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Community - Be the Church

Don't go to church - be the church. Because the church is not a meeting, nor a place, but a family. A community of people with diverse gifts and abilities but a unified purpose and mission. And the gifts God has given are not for me, but for someone else. And that is because, by God's design, each member of the body of Christ functions to serve the body.

"For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another." (Romans 12:4-5, NASB95)

Paul reminds us that each member functions to serve the body, not the body to serve the members. The difference may be subtle but vastly important. Here is an important reason to consider.

In Paul's letter to the Corinthians, he reminds us that the church is "Christ's body and (we) individually members of it." (1Cor 12:27) Therefore, the supreme value of the church is to "image" Christ to the world. Individually, we give a distorted and incomplete view of this image, but corporately, as the church, when each member functions to serve the body, the image of the body, that of Christ, becomes clear. Therefore, the church is not a place for personal opinion and individualism. Instead, the church is the place where unity transcends all differences for the name of Christ to be magnified.

That is the reason why we live in community - in order to "image" Christ to the world. How we do it is a limitless conversation but let me give you 3 ways to consider

  1. Share a Meal: Throughout the New Testament, the early church is often seen gathering for a meal. Many times this meal was the Lord's Supper and was intended to be a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ and the new life, the new community (i.e. church), made possible by His death and resurrection. But what we may not realize is that most often, this meal was at some one's house and it lasted all day. This was not just a simple tradition, it was a family affair. And the Lord's Supper was not the only time a meal was shared and yet the importance of this activity seems to carry great significance. For example, Paul addresses the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols. He does so because sharing a meal within the community of faith is a regular occurrence and of great importance. So important, that Paul took time to teach the church about how to eat with one another. More specifically, how to avoid letting food be a stumbling block to a weaker brother. You remember the story. The conclusion of which is very simple. If eating meat sacrificed to idols causes your brother to stumble, don't do it. Technically, there is nothing wrong with eating this type of meat but the offense it may cause must be avoided at all costs. Why? Because Paul says "when we wound our brother, we sin against Christ". (1Cor 8:12) In other words, since the church is the image of Christ, offending our brother or sister is ultimately an offense to the image of God. So here is the point - sharing a meal is a practical application to living out community within the body of Christ. And when we do, let's be sensitive to consider how to encourage each other to love and good deeds. Let's be careful not to cause anyone to stumble. Let's give the world an image of Christ that draws them to Himself. Are you too busy to have someone over to spend time sharing a meal? If so, you are too busy! It is not an event you plan, it is a privilege you share. Make a point to share a meal with someone in the church very soon.
  2. Share Your Possessions: The early church describes an environment where "the one who gathered much had nothing over and the one who gathered little, had no lack". (2Cor 8:15) In other words, no one had too much and no one had too little. Now this does not mean that everyone had joint ownership of all things in the absence of private property. Yet, at the same time, it does not suggest (nor will you find it any where else in the New Testament) that any person in the body of Christ has any "right" to have such possessions. In fact, the idea of "rights" is a foreign concept in scripture. The gospel is not about claiming a right. It is about accepting a gift. All that we own should be in view of the cross and for the service of others. It is no different than the discussion of spiritual gifts. Similarly, material gifts are not simply for me but more often are for someone else. Paul did not form communes but he was very clear about common attitudes to property. Those who entered into the community of faith could never again look upon what they owned with the same eyes. Nor should we! May we be reminded to "give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver". (2Cor 9:7) Why? Because He is a cheerful giver and when we share our possessions, we image forth the most important attribute of the gospel - an unmerited sacrificial gift.

  3. Sharing Emotions: It is not possible to present a complete image of Christ without community because no one person (outside of Jesus himself) possesses all the attributes of His divinity. Even further, it is not possible to live in community without meaningful relationships. And finally, it is not possible to have a meaningful relationship without authenticity. This seems to be the point of Romans 12:9 when Paul instructs the church to demonstrate love without hypocrisy. (Rom 12:9) The word for hypocrisy literally means "to pretend or act". Therefore, love without hypocrisy, is love without pretending. That means when someone within your church family asks you how you are doing and you are struggling in your marriage, you do not answer by saying, "Fine. Everything is fine." That is pretending and pretending is hypocrisy. As a church, we are called to love without hypocrisy. Make a point to peel back the layers of your life and invite someone in to those places you have previously hidden. Why? So they can fix you? So we can roll in the mud of our sinful lives? No and no! It is all about the image of Christ. We cannot present a complete image of Christ outside of community. Community cannot exists outside of relationships. And relationships are not as God intends when they are not authentic. Don't be an actor, remove your mask and for the sake of Christ, live in the community He purchased with His blood in the depth of relationship He demonstrated and has called us to: "Love one another as I have love you, that you also love one another." (Jn. 13:34)

Don't go to church - be the church!

Monday, November 10, 2008

Living Missional Lives

How easy it is to live our lives isolated from those who hold a different world view. Maybe its a political world view or an environmental world view or a religious world view. The division lines are often clear in our society and if they are not clear enough, we name them. That's right, we go as far as to magnify the difference by categorizing the view. We have democrats and republicans, conservatives and liberals, environmentalists, baptists, catholics, evangelical, reformed, liturgical, seeker friendly and the list goes on.
It seems as if this process of categorizing our differences is an unchangeable pattern of our society. However, as a Christian, we should avoid the inevitable trap of living our lives according to these boundaries. May we be reminded: It is not the goal of the christian church to develop a christian subculture so that we avoid relationships outside of our "category". We are not called to create our own "safe society" where all we do is hang out with other Christians, go to Christian schools, go to church to have our needs met and then meet with other Christians to talk about how bad our world is becoming. Of course it is! And in the absence of a message of life changing hope, the decay of our society will only accelerate.

Jesus made our commission very clear, " the Father sent me, so I also send you." (Jn 20:21) From generation to generation, we must pass the baton of faith as a representative of Jesus Christ. "An ambassador of Christ as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg (others) on behalf of Jesus Christ, to be reconciled to God." (2Cor 5:20) And the message we carry is not relevant in our subculture. The message of salvation is shared at the dinner table with sinners. (Luke 15:1-2)

In consideration of this calling, consider this:

  1. When is the last time you shared a meal with a person in need of the world's most important message of hope? Perhaps it is a co-worker or a neighbor or that guy you always sit next to at the game. Have you taken the time to engage with that person enough to earn the right to be heard? Be honest! Because some of us need to confess that we have become so isolated in our own circle of friends that we do not have this opportunity. In fact, some of us may need to initiate efforts by rebuilding bridges we have previously burned. When we isolate, we send a message of condemnation: "You are not good enough to be in my group." So ask yourself today - Which message am I sending: Hope or condemnation?

  2. For those who are engaging with outsiders, are you living wisely among them? (Col 4:5-6) Remember, we are in the world but not of the world. As someone once said, "Wisdom is the quality that keeps you from getting into situations where you need it." None of us are immune to influence. Therefore, we must march into enemy territory only when our own soul is well fortified. Are your loins guarded with truth? Do you carry the shield of faith? Do you wield the sword of the spirit? The armor of God as described by Paul is a necessity for those "who make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel". (Eph 6:12-20)

  3. Finally, does prayer precede your purpose? John Piper (in his book Let the Nations Be Glad) reminds us that "prayer is the communication with headquarters by which the weapons of warfare are deployed according to the will of God". Yet, all too often, we forget that we are in war. We have no sense of urgency, no watching, no vigilance. No strategic planning. Just easy peace and prosperity. Instead of prayer being a 2 way communication system in the midst of war, we have rigged up an intercom system in heaven so that we can submit our requests for safety, security and luxury - not to call in firepower for conflict but asking for more comforts in the den. Piper reminds us: God has given us prayer because Jesus has given us a mission. So ask yourself, is my prayer life more like a walkie talkie in the midst of battle or an intercom system to call in comforts for the den?

Prepared with prayer, girded with truth, engaging with outsiders. The Great Commission for all who trust in Jesus Christ. "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations..." (Mt 28:19)

Monday, November 3, 2008

Everyone is a Theologian

A prestigious biology professor once told his class during the introduction to his discussion of evolution:

“As we enter this hotly debated topic, it is important to understand that both the theory of evolution as well as that of creationism is based on the same premise – faith. As a biologist, I choose to put my faith in the theory of evolution. Others choose to put their faith in a creator. But both of us are people of faith.”

Although I disagreed with his personal conclusion, I had a tremendous amount of respect for his willingness to establish the fact that we are all people of faith. Even the agnostic must exhibit faith to conclude that there is no God.
In a similar way, we are all theologians. Buddhists, agnostics, Muslims and Christians alike. Each person, in his own way has contemplated the things of God and drawn certain conclusions. So the question is not whether you are a theologian or not - that fact is universal. The more important question is what kind of theologian are you?
The most distinctive characteristic of Christian theology, in comparison to other forms of theology, is the source of our understanding of God. In our case, it is the Bible. I love what Chip Ingram says he writes in his book God: As He Longs for You to See Him:

“He (God) has taken several millennia, inspired hundreds of pages of scripture, and gone through a traumatic incarnation to paint an accurate portrait of Himself. He obviously cares what we think about Him. He wants us to see Him clearly, attribute by amazing attribute.”

How have you developed your image of God? Is it based on what the preacher said? Did you read a good book or an article from a magazine? Maybe you have formed your conclusions on a starlit night or a glorious sunrise in the morning. Perhaps you choose to know Him by experiencing Him through quiet thoughts and meditation. All these can be used by God but none of them should ever substitute for His revelation in scripture. All things are subordinate to His word and only serve to support what He has gone to great lengths to reveal to us in scripture.
This brings us to the other distinction of Christian Theology. Our pursuit if knowing God through the truth of His word is not simply an intellectual exercise. It’s not enough to know about Him. Created within us is an innate desire for deep, meaningful fellowship with God. The truth of His word leads us to this relationship. Thus our theology is not only biblical, it is also relational. What we know about God shapes our relationship with Him and not only that, what we learn about how God sees us determines how close we grow toward Him.
And each of these truths, the biblical and relational foundations of our theology, leads us to stability amidst the chaos. Let’s face it…chances are, the times we face in the future will be more difficult than those we have faced in the past. Philosophy, science, politics and the relativism of our modern society have individually and collectively offered solutions to our current plight. What is one to believe? How do we persevere and stand firm against the devil and his schemes? There are many voices we could listen to but only one voice that is trustworthy, reliable and the same yesterday, today and forever. The voice of God in the revelation of His word.

So let’s back in to this. How is the anxiety in your heart? Do you experience fear and concern? Take time to consider what God says about His protection and provision: Ps. 55:22, Jer. 17:7-8, Mt. 6:26-34, Luke 12:22-32.

Since He created us for a relationship with Him - a closeness, love and friendship – are you experiencing that promise? If not, perhaps you should consider: Job 7:17, Ps. 103:13, Jer. 31:3, Jn. 14;21, Rom 5:8, 2 Thess 2:16.

Finally, when is the last time you spent time in his word. Not in order to know about Him but to know Him and be known by Him. Here are a few to get you started: Prov. 30:5, John, 20:31, Rom 15:4, 1Peter 3:15, 2Tim 3:15-17

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Heart of Worship

Worship: The adoration of that which I honor most. It is a personal pursuit requiring that I individually take time to routinely still...and listen. Tuning my ear to hear the voice of God above all others. It involves the sacrifice of anything that threatens to ascend the steps to the throne of my heart - a place we must reserve for God alone.

We have been made to worship and we must understand that we all worship something. Christian and non-Christian alike...we all worship something. Every man or woman has something or someone in their life that they adore. Something that gives their life purpose and meaning. But God is the only one worthy of our wholehearted devotion. He alone has the power to save. We live to the praise of His glory. Chosen by the Father, Redeemed by the Son, Sealed by the Spirit. (Eph 1:3-14)

Grace upon grace lavished upon us in order to make worshipers out of rebels.

As we consider the how true biblical worship concerns the whole of one's life and has its prime significance in the context of daily living, what are some of the characteristics of a life of worship? Here are just a few:
Random Acts of Kindness: Just this morning, I received a note from a friend telling me I was on his mind and that he prayed for me this morning. A short and simple note with a powerful impact on my life. Have you ever received one of those gestures of kindness? If so, you know what it feels like to be loved in this way. This is one of the attributes of a life of worship. A willing response to the prompting of God to care for others through random acts of kindness. We don't ask why, we don't over evaluate. We just simply take the initiative to tell someone - you were on my mind.

Sharing the Hope within You: When we live a life of worship, we become more and more sensitive to the heart of God. We see what He sees. And not only that, we respond to the prompting to engage with someone in the midst of our day beyond the cursory, "Hi, how are you." Instead, we are willing to sit down and invite a deeper conversation. "You seem down today. Is something on your mind?" When we live a life of worship, very often these are conversations God has prepared well in advance and they are designed for those of us who believe to share the hope that is within us. A life of worship leads us to these conversations.

Disciplines of the Inner Life: Not because we have to, but because we want to. A life of worship creates within us a desire for silence, solitude, prayer and meditation. It's as if we have a fuel gauge on our soul and we know when it is time to stop and allow His Spirit to refresh, restore and renew our passion to follow Christ with all our heart, our soul and or might. Without a heart of worship, in a rush to go to the next task, we drive right by these invitations for renewal and many times we run so fast and so hard, we wake up one morning and we are empty, dry and discouraged. A life of worship keeps us fresh and leads to the disciplines of the inner life - because we want to be there, like Mary, sitting at His feet and listening the words that give life to our soul.

Simplicity: A life of worship gives us clarity in the chaos. It protects us from being conformed by the world. It transforms us by the renewing of our mind so that we have vision to see that which is important and we are undistracted by lesser things. (Rom 12:1-2) We all know how easy it is to get caught in the rat race of the world. We have experienced the prison of living according to the expectations of others. But a life of worship leads us to a simple life and gives us both the clarity and the motivation to live with margin - a space created for the unexpected. A space that allows random acts of kindness, messages of hope and disciplines of the inner life.

Take some time to examine. Do you demonstrate these attributes of a life of true biblical worship? Begin praying today, as will I, that these attributes will be evident in your life because your life is centered on worshiping Him.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Moment of Reflection

I took some time today for silence and solitude. Before you are impressed, you should know that I have been talking about doing this for 2-3 years and, up until now, it was never important enough to make it happen. Some may wonder about the purpose of a day outside the normal routine. For me, it is a decision to put everything aside and tell God, “You are most important and you have my undivided attention.” It’s not all that different than having a meaningful conversation with my wife. If I really want to connect with her and listen to what she is saying (and what she is not saying), I need to eliminate distractions. Some people can focus on multiple things happening at one time but I am not one of those people. If the TV is on in the background, the dog is whimpering and the computer sounds an alert for a new mail message…you’ve lost me. I know, we men are most handicapped in this way. Thus the reason I feel it is important to take time away and I only regret that I don’t do it more often. Even in the midst of the routine. No agenda. No sermon prep or Bible Study. Just prayer, silence and a listening heart.
One reason this discipline is important is because I believe we notice things during times like these that we might otherwise miss. Let me give you an example. I took a walk near a stream. Because we have had quite a bit of rain lately, the water was moving pretty quickly. However, as I sat there, I realized that although the water was moving at the same pace, there were some parts of the river that were noisy and others that were quiet. As I stopped to consider this, I noticed that those areas of the river where the water was boisterous usually had one of 2 things happening. It was either shallow or there was an obstacle in the path of the water. Yet, where the water ran deep, it was almost silent.
This caused me to consider my own life. When I am anxious and the current of my life is disturbed, what I witnessed in nature is often true for me as well. The noise often results from a shallow place in my life or an obstacle in my path. Perhaps I am trapped in busyness and over commitment. Maybe there is a sin issue in my life I refuse to confront. In either case, the shallow place or unyielding obstacle create a disturbance and my heart loses its peaceful tranquility. Believe me…I know when I am in this place. I bet you do to.
Yet, at the same time, if my time in God’s word has been meditative. If I have been submissive to the Spirit so that I walk in response to His leading and avoid the need to run ahead and ask Him to join me. If I have ears to hear and eyes to see what He has prepared beforehand so that I may walk in His ways. Then the river runs deep and my heart has a peaceful flow. I notice, like in the river, the pace of the water can be very quick, circumstance can be difficult and heavy – but a river that runs deep is a river that runs quiet.
I believe it is important for each of us to take the time to stop and worship. That really is what silence and solitude is. We worship that which we recognize as the center and purpose of our existence. And for that person or thing, we sacrifice so that it can be elevated to it’s rightful place of glory. We all know, this person we worship should be God. And yet, we are very familiar with the idols that so easily distract us and how easily our lives become cluttered, shallow and noisy.
Sacrifice some time and agenda items on your task list in order to be silent and listen. And when you see me again, ask me if I continue to do the same.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Acts of God

"Acts of God". This is the term we usually apply to floods, earthquakes and other natural disasters. It brings with it an element of fear, and whether we admit it or not, a subtle sense of judgment from the hand of God. Thus the reason we call them "acts of God".

However, I have recently been considering a particular attribute of God - His goodness. That inherent quality of His character which inclines His heart to take pleasure in blessing His people. And "His people" is not an inclusive term but represents all His creation. "For He causes His sun to shine on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous." (Matt. 5:45)

What an amazing thought to consider that the God of the universe looks upon the earth and His hearts desire is to be generous. Not because we deserve it, but because there is something about who He is that brings infinite joy when He spreads His blessing throughout the earth.

Yet, our view of God is so warped that when we encounter a disaster that causes unimaginable pain and suffering, we call it "an act of God". And when rain falls gently upon the earth, we say, "What a pleasant rain."

And let me be honest. I'll be the first to admit that I struggle to accept His unmerited favor and blessing. I don't often relish in the knowledge that I am the object of His deepest affection.

Do you?

Do you consistently take the time to stop and appreciate the undivided attention that God directs toward you with a desire to embrace you with His goodness?

Is it not a true heart of worship when we recognize the character of God and respond in adoration and acceptance of His redemptive revelation. I for one could find myself doing this more often.

And one more thing...when we stop and consider the sinful decay of our world - to the point that even creation groans and longs for redemption (Rom 8:22) - is it not amazing that there is any semblance of order and blessing upon the earth at all? Is it not possible that the very reason any of us (believer or unbeliever) experiences goodness in a fallen world is evidence that God has invaded our space? Were it not for His goodness, would we not be plagued with the effects of sin including natural disasters of unimaginable magnitude and unstoppable frequency?

Truly then, the act of God is not in the disaster but in the peace preceding, the indwelling within and the restoration to follow.

If anything, disaster occurs because His restraining hand is lifted and the decay of sin takes it natural course as a curse leading to death. To experience a single day, a single moment of peace, is a reflection of His unfathomable goodness and unending grace.

Take time this week to read - to slowly read - Psalm 145. It ia a wonderful Psalm to remind us of the goodness of God. Here is a section to get you started:

"On the glorious splendor of Your majesty And on Your wonderful works, I will meditate. Men shall speak of the power of Your awesome acts, And I will tell of Your greatness. They shall eagerly utter the memory of Your abundant goodness And will shout joyfully of Your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful; Slow to anger and great in lovingkindness. The Lord is good to all, And His mercies are over all His works. All Your works shall give thanks to You, O Lord, And Your godly ones shall bless You. They shall speak of the glory of Your kingdom And talk of Your power; To make known to the sons of men Your mighty acts And the glory of the majesty of Your kingdom. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, And Your dominion endures throughout all generations." (Psalm 145:5-13)

Monday, August 11, 2008

Over Desire

I have been struck recently by Romans 6:12-13 where Paul writes to Christians,

"Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God." (Romans 6:12-13, NASB95)

What is initially startling to me is the fact that Christians, those who have been set free, can once again experience a life of slavery. How can this be? If the Son has set you free, you will be free indeed (Jn 8:36)! Right?
To begin with, let's compare slaveries. This is important in my mind because I believe that the source of the slavery is the determining factor in our ability to experience freedom. Ephesians chapter 2 describes our condition prior to faith in Jesus Christ. To summarize, Paul says we are slaves to Satan, indulging in the desires of the flesh, by nature children of wrath. The slavery is involuntary and imposed upon us by the prince of this world, Satan.
However, what Paul describes in Romans is different. It is voluntary. It is the choice made by a believer to let sin rule and reign in their heart.
We have been set free from the slavery imposed by Satan through faith in Jesus Christ. Once delivered from the hand of the enemy, he loses all authority and power to rule our lives. However, as a Christian, we can decline the power of the Spirit in our lives and do the unimaginable. We can invite the sin that so easily entangles us and allow it to become the master of our life and eventually "dethrone" the only rightful ruler of our heart - Jesus Christ.
Understand that at the moment of faith, our eternal destiny is sealed. Paul (nor I) is suggesting that we can lose our salvation having truly believed in the gospel message. What Paul is talking about is transformation of your heart. Your heart is another way of describing your internal motivation. And Paul is telling us, your motive reveals your master.

"Do you not know that when you present yourselves to someone as slaves for obedience, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin resulting in death, or of obedience resulting in righteousness?" (Romans 6:16, NASB95)

In other words, there is no neutral ground. You and I serve the one whom we obey. We either obey our master Jesus Christ as He prepares good works beforehand so that we may walk in them or we obey our master sin which we invite to become the driving passion of our life.
But here is an important question. "How do we know who is the master of our life? What are the clues to help us determine the driving passion of our heart?"
This is where the original language is helpful. In verse 12, the word Paul uses is epithumia. The NASB translates this as "lusts". The NIV says "evil desires". The NET bible translates the word as "desires".
The root of the word, "thumia", literally means desire. An epithumia is an OVER DESIRE. In my mind, the NET bible has the best translation because it helps us understand that the desire does not have to be inherently vile. It can be a good desire. But any desire that supersedes your desire for Christ is an evil desire. In fact, if it is a driving passion of your life, it is a false god whom you serve as master.
If you are a workaholic, you serve the god of money or status or achievement. Perhaps it is an eating disorder and you serve the god of thinness or gluttony. Perhaps you look to your spouse to fulfill the deepest needs in your life and you serve the affection and acceptance of another person as god of your life. Even the duty of religious routine can be a false idol. ANYTHING that supersedes your obedience to Christ as Lord of your life is your self appointed master.
Although there is not a fool proof litmus test, here are some helpful hints to assist you in determining what is the driving passion of your life. They include the normal emotions of anger, fear and sadness. In and of themselves, these emotions are very normal and ones we all experience.
For example, when something happens in our life that is disappointing, it is a normal response to be sad. If something blocks us getting a good thing, it is OK to be angry. Or if a good thing is being threatened, we might be fearful.
BUT...when something has an inordinate value in our life, when it becomes the "ultimate something" and it doesn't happen, we don't get sad - we get epi sad. We struggle to break free from the disappointment and depression. When the driving passion in our life is blocked, we don't get mad, we get epi mad. And our fear turns into a paralyzing anxiety. We experience bitterness, unforgiveness and any variety of "epi emotions" which reveal the motive and master of our heart.
These emotions of our life can be compared to a dashboard. A series of gauges we monitor. And when they lean to the side of epithumia, or over desire, we might want to look under the hood and see what is truly the driving passion of our life. We are slaves of the one whom we obey.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hind's Feet on High Places

“God is sovereign, and invariably good; we are morally responsible, and frequently evil.”
-D.A. Carson

This was the quote I read in my devotional this morning and I feel like it is the best summary of my study in the prophets this summer. Even more, it is an accurate summary of all scripture. As such, it is the summary of all mankind for all time and within this statement is the beauty of the gospel message.
For there is none righteous, no not one. All, like sheep, have gone astray. We are dead in our sin, slaves of Satan and under the power of the Prince of this world. The wage of our sin is death and we are all without excuse. Frequently evil and morally responsible. (Rom 3:10, Is. 53:6, Eph 2:1, Jn 3:16, Rom 1:20)
But God, while we were yet sinners, because of His mercy and love, made us alive in Christ. There is therefore no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. He works all things for good for those who love God and who are called according to his purpose. He protects, seals and delivers us from the enemy who once controlled us. We serve a sovereign God who is invariably good. (Eph 2:4, Rom 8:1, 28, Ps. 62:2, Eph. 1:14)
So often when we read the Old Testament and we see the repeated failure of the Israelites, their inevitable compromise, their eventually apostasy and syncretistic idolatry – and we shake our heads in disbelief. How can they so consistently do what God has so clearly told them not to do? How many times will God rescue such a stubborn and stiff necked people?
May we have eyes to see – this is the repeating story of all God’s people throughout all history (i.e. we are no exception!). God is sovereign and invariably good; we are morally responsible and frequently evil. God is rich and mercy, slow to anger and not wanting any to perish (2Pet 3:9). We, on the other hand, are easily convinced to follow false idols and the lure of the world often speaks louder than the voice of God (James 1:6, 1Jn 2:15).
What a great and mighty God we serve who is faithful to His promises and one day will stand to judge the earth. In that day, there will be no more compromise as the hearts of man will be laid bare. And those who have trusted in Christ will share in the glory of God beyond all possible comprehension. There will be a new heaven and new earth. A new predisposition for those who have been redeemed - No longer frequently evil, but like God, invariably good.
In our new reality, we will be eternally worshipful having been faithfully redeemed. May we fix our eyes on this hope. May the world and its lure fade by comparison. May we live, not day to day, but with great anticipation for the fulfillment of the promise made by our sovereign and invariably good creator God. May this blessed hope of tomorrow along with God’s faithfulness in the past, give us great strength and boldness of faith to live today with all joy and peace and assurance in Christ Jesus. (Rev 11:18, 20:11, Is. 45:23, Phil 2:10, Rev 22)
My brother, Jay understood this well. In the midst of his cancer he was asked about the source of his strength and faith. He responded with strong conviction, "I know I will be healed."
At first, we were concerned. Could this be a false hope? What if God does not remove his cancer?
Yet, Jay went on to explain, "You need to understand. I don't know if it is on this side of heaven or the other. All I know is that God has promised that I will be healed and I have faith that He will carry this through."
Blessed hope of tomorrow along with God’s faithfulness in the past, give us great strength and boldness of faith to live today with all joy and peace and assurance in Christ Jesus.

"Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation. The Lord God is my strength, And He has made my feet like hinds’ feet, And makes me walk on my high places. (Habakkuk 3:18-19)

Sunday, July 13, 2008

What I Learned from Jeremiah

During my study of the Old Testament Prophets this summer, I have been intrigued by the testimony of Jeremiah. I could not even begin to encapsulate all of what I am learning in this brief entry; however, I would like to reflect on one of the truths that has impacted me recently.
As you know, Jeremiah is commonly known as the "weeping Prophet". Although it is a good memory tool, this description is not entirely accurate. In fact, this attribute of mourning and sensitivity toward an unrepentant people was something that God had to develop in Jeremiah's heart. As he began his ministry, it was not his first thought. When opposed by the people, he responds by saying:
"But you know, O Lord, all their plots to kill me. Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger." (Jeremiah 18:23, NIV)

Not exactly weeping for his enemies, right?! Yet, as his ministry progresses, God works in the heart of Jeremiah. He teaches him to persevere through difficult circumstances and to preach to a people who will not listen. Instead of a callous indifference, Jeremiah learns to look at people through the eyes of God. To the point that he weeps when he learns of their impending judgment.
"Therefore I wail over Moab, for all Moab I cry out, I moan for the men of Kir Hareseth. I weep for you, as Jazer weeps, O vines of Sibmah. Your branches spread as far as the sea; they reached as far as the sea of Jazer. The destroyer has fallen on your ripened fruit and grapes." (Jeremiah 48:31-32, NIV)

Notice that these are not even the people of Israel. The Moabites are the enemies of Israel. And yet, Jeremiah still looks upon them with sadness when God declares their coming judgment. What an amazing transformation.
Here is the thought that struck me this week: In the life of Jeremiah, we find a balance that we should do well to notice. First, he does not avoid sharing truth, as difficult as the news may be. In other words, Jeremiah does not compromise his message.
So often, in a world that is unrepentant where truth is relative, we soften our message and call it grace. We don't speak truth into people's lives because we don't want to offend them or chase them away. All too often, we avoid the conviction of God's word because we don't know it our self.
Yet, Jeremiah teaches us that we are a people called to speak the uncompromising truth of God's word through our mouth and through our lives. At times, the message is difficult. People don't want to hear that God hates divorce or materialism is idolatry or apathy is the same as blasphemy. And yet the consequence of disobedience is far greater than any momentary discomfort we might have in sharing God's truth. Our God is holy. As His people, we are called to live holy lives. May we never shy away from this commitment or apologize for the devotion God requires of his people.
Yet, on the other hand, Jeremiah teaches us not to give up on people. Our tendency (my tendency) is to speak truth to people and if they don't respond to the message, I often give up on them. Their heart is too hard and it does me no good to continue counseling this person. They are not married, they continue to live in sin. Oh, they may show occasional signs of repentance but then they go right back to their old ways. They don't get it and I'm done.
Not Jeremiah! For a lifetime he preaches to a people that will not listen. In fact, God tells Jeremiah that the people will never receive his message - yet, he was to continue preaching. We too should not grow weary of doing good. The change in another person's heart never has been, nor will it ever be a result of our personal persuasion. We sow, we water, but only God can cause change and growth in another person's heart.
May we live the balance seen in the life of Jeremiah. Let us live a life that proclaims the uncompromising truth of God's word in a compromising and relativistic world. And may we do so with great perseverance and sensitive hearts never growing weary of doing good in the eyes of the Lord whom we serve.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me

You would think I would have learned by now, but apparently I continue to be a little slow on the uptake. Or maybe it is because I want it to be different but reality says its really not. Here is my situation:
So often, I encounter someone, particularly in the church (but not always), who I will pursue and attempt to get to know them. As I do this, I will routinely invite them to join in on opportunities of fellowship such as a Men's Group, a Sunday School class, or maybe a worship service one Sunday. Most often I hear the same type of response, "Oh sure. That sounds great. I would really like to do that sometime."
On occasion, when the desire for growing in their faith is genuine, they will follow through and meet other people and begin to form meaningful relationships. However, more often than not, there is verbal ascent to the offer but no true evidence of a desire to experience fellowship with other believers in Jesus Christ. The excuses take a variety of forms
"We're so busy."
"Oh, was that last night?"
"We're not sure we fit in."
"We live so far away."
Up until now, my assumption was that they are just private people who prefer to fly solo. Or maybe they are a couple who has trouble making new friends and so they stay isolated. Or maybe they do live to far away...but not anymore! Here is my new default position:
If people are invited to live in fellowship with other followers of Jesus Christ and give verbal ascent of a desire to do so and yet never follow through and choose instead to maintain lives of isolation - SOMETHING IS WRONG!
Too often now I have chalked it up as the personality trait of a person or a couple who simply does not want to live in the context of community. They are "private people" I would tell myself. But my personal experience is teaching me that it is most often not a personality issue, but a sin issue. And here is my Biblical basis for this new default position:

"If we say we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; but if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin." 1John1:6-7

People who chose to live in isolation usually have something to hide. To live in the light of fellowship with other believers will expose this sin and so they choose to live apart from authentic community. Even if you are not trying to hide something, living in community - by God's design - will expose issues of sin which inhibit your growth and maturity in Christ. That is one of the important purposes of the church: Sanctification of the Saints to the glory of God. Living apart from this fellowship is at worst a deliberate attempt to hide sin and at best a selfish choice to remain in control or self protect ultimately and inevitably resulting in stunted spiritual growth.
"Oh, but I read my Bible or I watch this great preacher on TV or I don't like church because of all the hypocrites."
"If we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another..."
Need another one? How abut this:

"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to encourage one anther to love and good deeds, not forsaking our gathering together , as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as the day draws near." Heb. 10:23-25

As we prepare for Christ's return, may we fight against the influence of the world which continues to isolate our lives from one another as so poignantly made clear in the new Pixar movie Wall-E. Left to itself, and by the design of the enemy, this is the natural course we will take. Yet, God calls us to walk in the light of authentic community with other Christians and even more as the day draws near. Today is nearer than yesterday and tomorrow may be the day!

Thursday, June 19, 2008

I'm Uncomfortable With Grace

Last week I am rushing up to the church for a meeting during lunch. I will need to get back to work for another meeting so it will be a quick in and out. As I pull up I notice that the youth group is doing a car wash and there is goo ol' Len leading the way.
Being the faithful supporter that I am, I thought, "Hey...I'll just pull up in line, let them wash my car while I am at the meeting, and then I'll come back out to pay them for their fund raiser."
Actually, I am feeling pretty proud about my good deed for the day.
But within the first 5 minutes of my meeting it dawns on me! "What if Len is doing one of those outreach projects?" Doah!!!!
Now I am feeling completely guilty. I can't let those kids wash my car for free. But it's too late. They have already come inside to return my keys.
"Here you go Mr. Cepica."
Oh great! They are even going to be kind and humble about their act of service for someone who really didn't deserve it in the first place.
Why am I so uncomfortable with this?!!!
Well, quite frankly, I believe I am uncomfortable because I am uncomfortable with grace. This idea of unmerited favor is unsettling. Something inherent within us says that we must do something to earn blessing.
I believe this even translates into our relationship with Christ. Don't get me wrong. I definitely want His hand of blessing upon my life. However, I often would prefer to do something, even a little something, to convince myself that God's act of kindness is more of a reward for my good behavior. For some reason this is a little more comfortable than accepting a pure act of love that was completely undeserved.
But what if I had insisted that Len and his youth accept my $10 I had planned to donate to the cause. Would they not be insulted by my arrogance to assume that they were not worthy to serve me without receiving some kind of payment. To force payment would turn their act of kindness into a duty of employment. Now I am in charge and they literally work for me.
It is the same with God. To refuse His grace is to assume control and to wrongfully place yourself in a position of authority. But God does not work for us and we should we should not be so arrogant as to assume we can earn His love.
Grace is uncomfortable. But accepting grace is the only way to experience forgiveness. We don't deserve it and we can never do enough to earn it. We must humble ourselves and accept the gift he charge.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Modern Day Prophet

Most often, when people hear the word prophet, they think of a person who can mysteriously predict the future. It is no longer purely a Biblical term since people of all faiths (or non-faith) have come to be known as “prophets” based on their oracles of future events and impending judgment.
This is unfortunate since the role of the prophet was so critical to the Biblical story, and in my opinion, is still very important today. In fact, I suggest we need more prophets in our modern society! Since the term has been redefined over time, some who read this are already assuming that I have started my slide toward religious fanaticism. But hold on…it may not be what you think.
The Biblical prophet had a consistent role with the people of God. Most often, the job of the prophet was to convince the people that the way they lived was not consistent with God’s plan and provision for their life. Yet this was hard for the people to understand since they had adopted a slow and gradual decay in their spiritual lives such that their sin had become very normal and acceptable. It is like the frog in the boiling water story. They had no idea what danger they were in.
It could have been alliances with foreign armies, syncretistic worship of the Hebrew God along with foreign gods, corrupt leadership (both religious and political), or ritual religious practice with no heartfelt devotion. In any case, the drift had been slow enough that most people of God never realized what happened. When the leaders (including the priests) led the way, the people followed their trail of corruption.
Yet it was the prophet who called the people back to the way of the Lord. It was not uncommon to hear the judgment of God within the message of the prophet, but only because the people refused to admit to their sin and repent before the Lord. Their way of life apart from God had become very comfortable and socially acceptable. Oh sure, they still did sacrifices in Jerusalem or Dan or Bethel (whichever was most convenient). In fact, they would even compete at the altar to see who could offer the more extravagant sacrifice. There was often no shortage of religious routine (orthodoxy) but yet it was rare to see faith in action (orthopraxy).
As I look at our world today, I see the Old Testament relived. Subtle compromises over time accepted as the norm. Slight deviations that eventually lead to wide degrees of separation from what God has called His people to live. Plenty or orthodoxy in our world…very little orthopraxy.
We need more prophets. People of God to stand up and remind us what God has called us to. People who faithfully teach God’s Word so that we can judge our life by His standard and not our own false assumption of what seems right in our own eyes. Immorality, injustice, poverty, corruption of leadership…these are all realities of our present day. Leaders, both political and religious, have led our society into acceptable compromise. We often see the syncrestistic alliance of worldy values within our church culture. We turn a blind eye to poverty and stuff ourselves with pious knowledge.
Nothing new under the sun, just a repetition of things gone by and foreshadowing of things yet to come.
Somebody stand up and remind us, “This is not the way it is supposed to be!”
Now, I know that we live in a sin cursed world BUT God’s people have been set free from this curse and should therefore not be enslaved by its chains. Instead, we should do justly, love mercy, walk humbly. We should contrast with the way of the world, not blend in. We should ask ourselves, “Does our community of faith look different than the ways of the world?”
If not, hear the words of a prophet: “It should!”

Monday, May 19, 2008

Fearfully Excited!

Recently, the boys and I were jumping on the trampoline together. We had finished up because the crystals in my inner ear were telling me, "Your too old for this." It's just jumping on the trampoline but for some reason extended time makes me feel like I have been on the Tilt-A-Whirl. Who knew!?!

As we were climbing off, the typical scene took place. One I am sure you are all familiar with. I stood on the ground looking up at my youngest son who was standing on the edge.

"Go ahead Grant, Jump!"

You've seen the look. Simultaneous expressions of complete fear and total excitement. One side of the brain is saying, "No! Don't do it. You might fall." The other side of your brain is saying, "Daddy will catch you. Trust him. Jump!"

It was one of those surreal moments when I witnessed this all too familiar expression in my son's face and I realized...that's me!

I am standing on the edge of the unknown. A place in my life that I view with simultaneous fear and excitement. One side of my brain says, "Don't leave the security of your career. You've worked hard. You have been diligent. Just stay safe."

And yet, my Father is extending open arms and He is calling me to jump. "Trust me He says. I would not call you to do something that I have not prepared beforehand. I am faithful. Jump!"

Like my son, the bigger part of me knows that he will catch me. The excitement of following what He has called me to is greater than anything I could imagine. Yet the fear of failure and the waves crashing around me cause my faith to weaken.

Without a doubt, this is the life lesson God has been teaching me since we started this journey. When I chose to stop pursuing my MBA and instead move toward a (very expensive) seminary degree...Do your trust Me? When I chose to remove the safety net of my physical therapy licensure...Do you trust Me? As we now prepare for the changes in finances...Do you trust Me? As I look ahead to life as a pastor. A life I look at with admitted fear and excitement...Once again, do you trust Me?

And as a Father, I can understand the joy it must bring when His child is willing to defy the fear of death in order to experience the faithful arms of love. I know it makes my heart glad when Grant leaps from the side of the trampoline with eyes wide and fixed upon me. Only to land in the safety of my arms and with great excitement say, "Again, Daddy, Again!"

I pray that I bring my Father that same joy - over and over. "Again, Daddy, Again!"

Monday, April 28, 2008

Men's Retreat 08

Thoughts on the Men’s Retreat 08

Friday Night
* Community exists and is Biblical when lives are being transformed into the image of Christ in ways that glorify God and give witness of the gospel to the world. In other words, community involves sanctification, glorification, and evangelism.
* Community is not small groups. Connectedness is not the same as community. And Bible study does not equal community.
* The Trinity reflects the community God desires for His people and in fact, God has invited us in to the mutual love and servant hood that exists in the Godhead.
* Therefore, tolerating disunity in the body of Christ is to dishonor the nature of God. God exists in community and therefore any believer not in community is an orphan. All this being said, community in a fallen world is a mess as we all battle the influence of the sin nature and expose the sin in our lives.
* The compelling components of community include spending intentional time together, living in the light, Biblical conflict resolution, initiate and respond to crisis, external focus of sharing the good news with those outside of the community.

Saturday Morning 1
* As a man, I am called to reject passivity where I fail not because of what I do but because of what I don’t do. This tendency is reflected as early as the Garden of Eden.
* As a man, I must accept responsibility. God has given me roles to play as a husband, a father, a friend, etc. I must be diligent to steward these well through the power of Christ living in me.
* As a man, I must lead courageously. Not in a domineering or disrespectful manner. But as one who has pursued Christ and is following Him faithfully.
* As a man, I must expect God’s reward. In other words, I should live in light of eternity.
* This question was significant for me: What do I get angry about (particularly in my family)? Is it because God’s best is not happening or because I am not getting what I want?
* Deut 11:18 is the model of what I should do as a Dad in teaching the Word to my children. I should strive to know their hearts and train them to love God in their own unique personality and protect them in their inherent weaknesses. I should be careful of my tendency to be critical and expect my idea of perfection in their life but should gently and intentionally teach them how to be a faithful follower of Christ.
* To be a good husband, father, friend, worker is not the goal. In fact, to do any of these things for personal benefit apart from honoring Christ is idolatry.

Saturday Morning 2
* How I spend my dash (the line between birth and death on my tombstone) is of utmost importance. I want to hit the tape running and finishing well. To do so, I must be faithful to be in God’s Word, practice the presence of God through constant prayer, live in community and consistently serve others.
* Plans fail with lack of counsel, but with many advisors they succeed. Growth takes place better in a circle (with many advisors) than it does in a line (seeking individual input only).
* I desire to be a man of prayer, who after 25 years, is still praying for the salvation of the same people who have not trusted Christ.

Sunday Morning
* Lessons learned from a life well lived
1. Be with Jesus – This is the anchor of my soul and should be the passion of my life (Ps. 73, Ps. 27:4, Luke 10:38-42)
2. Relationships Matter – I must be intentional in my pursuit of knowing and being known. The goal is transformation into the image of Christ, for His glory and for the evangelism of the world.
3. Being is more important than doing – In other words, who you are is more important than what we do.
4. Doing is important – We should seek to make a difference by the power of Christ in submission to the Holy Spirit.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Disappointing Reality

Warning! What you are about to read is the true confession of a sinful man. I personally find it disappointing and slightly nauseating. But it is what it is. Read on at your own risk...
In less than a year, I will transition from a 15 year full time career in health care to a mostly unknown world of full time ministry. As I have faced this reality during recent weeks, I must confess that I have struggled to decide if what I am doing is truly a step of faith or just sheer stupidity. I find that there is a fine and slightly blurred line between these 2 options. Yet, I am compelled to walk in the direction both Teri and I are convinced God is leading us. One step at a time.
During this journey, this crucible of faith as I like to call it, God has revealed a number of disgusting traits that I am ashamed to possess. His gentle and yet firm hand continues to chisel away at the ugly parts in my life and I am convinced that I am a lifetime project. Most recently, the hand of God is chipping away at a particularly painful place. It is disappointing...consider this your second warning.
I have convinced myself that during these final months that I should do things that I want to do that I may not be able to do during full time ministry. This includes things such as triathlons and bike races that often take place on Sundays. Along with this includes the purchase of items that I will not be able to afford in the future. This mentality has bled into so many areas of my life where I have adopted the very simple attitude of: "You better do it now because, very soon, it will no longer be an option."
It's like a man's dieing wish. Do everything you ever wanted to do because very soon it will all end. How depressing! Yet, I must admit, I believed it (maybe I still do). And so I set out to make the most of the time I have left.
At first it was innocent. The lifestyle changes were healthy and the decisions were made in moderation. Yet, as time grew, so did the attraction of the passions. I no longer simply want to experience the moment, I wanted to succeed. Not just succeed by finishing, but succeed by finishing first. I needed more time to train, better equipment, new challenges. Not unlike the rising fuel costs today, the price keeps going up and I keeping pumping the gas into my life in order to fuel the passions.
Here's the problem: I am an addict. It is part of my personality. It is amazingly easy for the innocent things I enjoy to transform themselves into a deadly boa constrictor which slowly but eventually suffocates the life right out of me. This is not a new issue. It just is more exposed lately because of God's revealing touch.
All the while, I am adding more to my plate. I have met with other pastors to gain insight into my future career change, by the wise counsel of friends I am working to plan out my first year of ministry, I am meeting with the church staff to walk through important issues, I continue to lead a Men's Bible Study, I lead efforts to plan our Men's Retreat, I teach a SS class, I take seminary classes, I preach on occasion, I meet with our neighborhood Board, I take care of the honey do list, I build furniture, I serve as an elder, I strive to be a faithful husband and a loving father. Date nights, one on one time with the boys. Lead projects at work. Serve on more committees and boards, soup kitchens, and all the various and asundry things that are right and dutiful.
I have become a victim of pleasing people and fulfilling passions. I have bought the lie of Satan and I am in debt up to my ears. What has promised fulfillment and contentment has slowly drained the lifeblood from my soul. To continue would leave me a shell of a man and what a perfect strategy of the enemy. I have walked right into his trap. It is a setup destined for my personal failure.
God is not tempting me. This is from the Devil. He knows the passion and drive of my heart better than I do and he has lured me with my own lusts. And when lust has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and when sin is accomplished, it brings forth death. (James 1:13-15)
I have gorged myself on the things that bring me satisfaction and pleasure, treating them like a vanishing commodity. It is like a person who learns of an impending famine so he consumes massive amounts of food and dies from overeating. Lust - sin - death. What an ugly picture. And yet, it is the picture I see when I look in the mirror.
Maybe I'm scared. Maybe I'm lonely. Maybe I'm depressed. I think it is all of the above. And instead of finding fulfillment in Christ, I have chased the illusion of the world. The treasure I have stored up is beginning to reek a foul odor. And the stench fills the whole earth.
I looked down at people who so mindlessly fill their lives with fabrications of fulfillment. The empty promises that only leave us longing for more. Careers, houses, cars, travel, style, music. Madonna's new song "4 Minutes" echoes the call of our culture when she says, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions, but if I die tonight at least I can say I did what I wanted to do."
I no longer have the ability to look down with disdain at others because, the truth of the matter is, I would only find myself staring into a mirror. Clearly, I am not immune to following the same siren call of empty promises.
This must have been the lesson intended for God's people in the wilderness when He fed them manna from heaven. I would have joined in the master plan they had to store up the manna for a future day when it might stop raining the bread of sustenance. Yet, when they did, the bread spoiled and was covered in worms. They were forced to daily depend on the provision of God without any effort to store up this treasure on their own.
Such is the lesson I am learning. God will provide and I must relinquish control to store up treasure which serves only to expose my lack of trust in His provision. Daily he provides. Daily.
There will be more to this ongoing story. As for now, let me stop and pray.

Lord, Thank you for continuing to chisel. Thank you for your grace and mercy amidst my selfishness. I abandon my control and ask you to lead me in your everlasting way. A road much less travelled than the one I am on.
Be gentle. For I am a fragile man from my own demise. My actions have demonstrated my lack of trust in you; for if I truly believed you were the satisfaction of my soul, I would not have assumed the role of captain on this ship. If I trust your provision for my life, I would not be attempting to store up my own. You have become the one who takes things away, not he who gives abundantly. Forgive me Father for this sad misconception.
I am empty, but I am kneeling. Please fill me up with things that matter. Set my heart on things above. Help me to consider the depth of my faith in You and my trust in Your provision.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Shack - An Uncomfortable Tension

A few weeks ago, a friend told me about a new and increasingly popular book entitled The Shack, by William P. Young. The book came with strong endorsements such as Eugene Peterson who compares the work to John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. That is no small endorsement!
Yet, on the other hand, there are those who are equally adamant in the opposite direction. This same friend attended a service at Mars Hill where Mark Driscoll openly opposed much of the book's content as heretical. As is the case with many popular works, you see both extremes.
As I consider my personal thoughts on this book, I admit some level of hesitancy. I consider it a slippery subject since the book is admittedly a fiction novel. But clearly, the author has a message behind the made up story and that message is important to evaluate - especially in light of the popularity of the book.
And I will say up front that I found many things in this book that were good and right. I underlined several sections that I plan to use in future sermons. There were some very good illustrations and word pictures which helped me understand some very complicated truths. Yet on the other hand, I was unsettled by the representation of the Godhead by the author. Not the character choice per se, but more the attributes attributed to God that at times seemed to contradict the divine self revelation in scripture. So the question I wrestle with is this: At what point does the material of a book become so far out of bounds that it discredits the whole?


After having written several paragraphs of thoughtful consideration, I realized 2 things.
1. There is not enough space to write everything and
2. I don't want to.

Here's the bottom line of the book in my opinion. This generation is searching for a "relateable" God. It is not just this book but also included in the list are recent best sellers like The Prayer of Jabez, The Purpose Driven Life, You're Best Life Now, The Jesus I Never Knew to name a few. It is, in my opinion, the driving force behind the emerging church. I have no commentary on the individual books or the emerging church in general, just the recognition that they are all calling us to a deeper more intimate experience of God. It is a yearning of this is my yearning as well.
The Shack is the latest effort to present God in such a way that we relate to Him with a deeper sense of intimacy. And in my opinion, this book did that as well as any I have read. But here is the uncomfortable tension: Making God reachable by reducing His holiness or making him so holy He becomes unreachable.
My first response is that we don't make God Holy - He is Holy. The fact of the matter is that He is only reachable by grace through faith. We don't relate to Him better if we see him on more human terms. We relate to Him better because of God's grace to draw us near to Himself. We respond and therefore experience this truth by following Him in obedience. He initiates, we respond.
I think we should all do a better job of responding to the "notes from God". The still, small voice that speaks volumes into our lives. The one we often ignore. Just like the voice I heard last week when going to eat lunch with my son. I knew the principal had been dealing with her father's declining health and as I filled out forms in the office, I overheard her conversation on the phone about issues she was dealing with as her dad was not improving. The small voice said, "Go to her and listen to what is on her heart."
That voice was overruled by a stronger more demanding voice that said I needed to get out of town and people were waiting on me to do so.
I learned today that her father died. I am certain I missed an opportunity to minister in a meaningful way. My selfishness reigns and I am disgusted.
Heaven help us if we need to see Jesus as a black grandmother figure, or the Spirit as an Asian version of Tinkerbell or Jesus as an average middle eastern guy. I am not demeaning these characters of the story and it might be helpful to consider such things so far outside our normal paradigm. Yet, in my opinion, it reveals a much bigger issue - We have lost our experience of practicing the presence of God. We grasp for these images when the one's we have are not working.
And here is my point: no book will ever be written (other than the one inspired by the voice of God) that will ever create the image we need to experience God more fully. No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love Him. For His ways are not (and never will be) as our ways.
I hope this book is helpful to people. I found some things that were of benefit to me. I found some things that I do not agree with. Some of the issues were distracting to me in the story. But more importantly, most of what I found was an echo of a generation searching for an experience of truth.
I believe the book should have an epilogue that says, "I hope you have found this imagery helpful. Now go in peace and ask God, by His grace, to reveal Himself to you. And may you have eyes to see, ears to hear and the faith to believe. All a gift from God."

PS Maybe I'll do a true review of the book at a later date. As for now, I feel my earlier reflections are more important.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

The Curse of the Law

I have been reading through the "Daily Bible" which is organized in chronological order. It has been a rich time in the Word for me as I read through the events of scripture in the order they occurred. I realize how much I miss by reading only excerpts or even single books without following the complete flow of the biblical narrative.

I recently finished the section on "The Law of Moses". Chapter after chapter of law. Religious and ceremonial law that insure allegiance to the one true and living God. Laws which instruct His people to give both the first and the best to God and to priests and Levites who are called to serve the people. Laws regarding Feasts which were designed to worship God, renew devotion and be reminded of His faithful provision for those who obey Him. The Feasts in and of themselves present an incredibly beautiful image of the atonement of Jesus Christ. In addition to the feasts, the sacrifices and offerings from burnt offerings to cereal offerings, peace offerings, sin offerings, and guilt offerings. Laws for purification. Laws for government and civil affairs. Laws for marriage, divorce, and sexual relations. Laws regarding diet. Laws of warfare. A simple comment of blessing for His people who keep the Law. A long warning and list of curses for those who disobey the Law. For 3 weeks now I read about the Law of Moses and its instruction for the people. The most comprehensive, radically different, and morally demanding law that any nation has seen to this time. WHEW!!!!!!

To be honest, as I read chapter after chapter, my first thought was, "This is oppressive!" Not to mention the fact that no one had a copy of this law for future reference so that they could make sure they were doing as it was instructed. In fact, it was read aloud to the people in it's entirety only once a year. As I put myself in their shoes, the only reasonable conclusion I could come to is that the only way I could survive the judgment of God in a system such as this is to constantly be on my knees in repentance and offering sacrifices of my very best in life to cover the guilt of my sin. It would seem to me that this would be a daily mindset. Something that would be routine for me to go before God, recognizing my sinfulness, offering sacrifice and seeking His forgiveness. I could not see anyone being able to set out to do as the Law commanded without regard to a routine posture of repentance before God. That seems to be the point!

The Law was important for it was a picture of the holiness of a people of God. The sacrifices were essential because it covered the inadequacy of any one person's ability to keep the Law without failure. In other words, the Law of Moses was designed to instruct God's people to live with a posture of repentance before a Holy God. The Law came so that transgressions would increase (Rom 5:20). But yet the Law is good (Rom 7:16) because where sin increases, grace increases all the more. Those who live under the Law, live under a curse (Gal 3:10). I believe Paul writes this under the inspiration of God knowing that no one can keep the law so anyone who tries will inevitably live under its prescribed curse for those who fail. The Law is good because it leads of to faith and dependence on Christ.

But now we live under grace. And so the Law no longer we think. But perhaps the Law was never intended to shape our behaviour but was designed instead to change our heart. And if this is true (and I believe it is) the purpose of the Law remains to this day. How comfortable we become in grace and how easy it is to forget the need to assume a posture of repentance and humility before God. How negligent and lax we are about giving God our best. Second or Third best will often suffice. Our worship is obligatory and does not flow out of a thankful heart. We have lost the appreciation of how His love has covered our sin and protected us from His judgment. If this was better understood, the people of God would worry less about the style of worship and would be content to give a shout of praise that would spring from a heart of thankful praise. Whatever that might sound like when it leaves our lips is much less important.

Believe me, I would never wish it on anyone. I personally do not want to live under the Law. Yet I am saddened by my own complacency under the rule of grace. I need to assume the posture of people who lived under the Law while giving praise to God for His indescribable gift of grace. Forgive me Father for not considering this more often.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Good Friday

It is a little puzzling to understand why we would commemorate the day Jesus died as "good" Friday. It seems to be an oxymoron when we consider the brutal beating, ridicule and death of an innocent man and yet call it "good". Where did this originate?
What we can know for sure is that it is not biblical - meaning only that the term did not originate from scripture. Instead, the term appears in the early Catholic church where every Friday was considered a feast day and the Friday in which Jesus died was a most important day - A Holy and Great Friday.
In Latin countries, it is called "Holy Friday." In Germany, it is called "Mourning Friday" or "Friday of Mourning." Norway refers to it as "Long Friday" (a reference to the length of the day's services). The Orthodox Churches call it "Holy Friday" and "Great Friday." In English speaking countries, it is translated as "Good Friday".
As I have reflected on the events of this week and their importance in my life, I have been struck by the single minded vision of Jesus. In a moment of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane, He asks His Father one last time, "Is there any other way this can be done?" Finding His answer in the silence, he submits, "Not my will Father, but may your will be done."
He was human - and like all humanity, we want the redemption without the cross. There is no question redemption is necessary, but to willingly accept pain, suffering, ridicule, and torturous death - that's just not human.
But it seems to me that the agony of the crucifixion was not the burden in the heart of Jesus. Even worse that the pain of crucifixion was the burden of sin and separation from the Father. As Jesus prayer for alternatives, His mind was not on the crown of thorns pressed onto his skin, the whip with embedded glass raked across His back, nor the spikes driven through His hands and feet.
No - the pain which supersedes all this agony is the weight of sin He bore on our behalf. The punishment of every human's sin - past, present and future. A pain He endured because His heart beat with the desire for none to perish but all to come to eternal life (2Pet 3:9).
Yet there may be something more. I think there is...
Knowing the heart of Jesus as revealed in Scripture, the burden of sin He would gladly bear should the people look upon His sacrifice with faith. Perhaps the pain and agony Jesus would feel the most is the understanding that there would be many who would learn of His sacrifice, who would witness His great love, and yet walk away, choosing to reject the gift He so willingly offers. Can there be any pain greater than the pain of sacrifice rejected.
To lay down one's life for someone who looks upon your death and then walks away. Jesus know this would be the case and I believe this was the heaviest burden of all.
I pray, as I reflect on this day, that I avoid seeking redemption without the burden of carrying the cross. I pray I reflect on the crucifixion of my Savior and realize that I was on His mind when he was hanging on the tree. I pray that I live in the freedom from the penalty of sin He purchased with His own blood on my behalf and may I honor Him with love and devotion unmatched by anything else in my life.
The words from a song by kathryn Scott seem to echo my prayer:

At the foot of the cross
Where grace and suffering meet
You have shown me Your love
Through the judgment You received
And You've won my heart
And You've won my heart

Now I can trade these ashes in for beauty
And wear forgiveness like a crown
Coming to kiss the feet of mercy
I lay every burden down
At the foot of the cross

At the foot of the cross
Where I am made complete
You have given me life
Through the death you bore for me
And You've won my heart
And You've won my heart

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Sweet Goodbye

She died as I held her hand and prayed that she might rest in God's loving arms. What a gift to share that moment. Thank you Jesus.

Monday, February 25, 2008

The Hope of Tomorrow

I sit here next to a frail woman I have known for only a few weeks. Yet it is in this short time I have come to respect her courage, her love and undeniable devotion to 2 young grand kids that she has raised as her own. Each of these boys demonstrate a strength of character, respect for others and a courage of their own - a testimony to this woman. She did so despite having most every disadvantage life has to offer. She was alone, she had minimal resources and minimal education. By all accounts, her ability to produce something good would not be likely. Yet, she defied the odds and did in fact demonstrate that she was able to do small things with a great amount of love. And the small things have grown to be big things and 2 young boys have grown into men who emulate the best of what they experienced in their grandmother.
Her time on earth will not be much longer. She labors for breath but I pray she has peace in her mind. Just days earlier, we talked about what it means to have faith in Jesus Christ and hope in His promise of forgiveness. I asked her how this made her feel. She said, "It makes my conscience clear so that I can sleep at night." What a beautiful description of what our heart expresses when we understand - truly understand the peace of God through trust in Him.
It is times like these that I am reminded that life is a vapor. And if our hope in Christ is in this life alone, we are of all men most to be pitied (1Cor 15:19). Our world is broken. Sickness and disease are results of the curse of sin and death we cannot avoid.
It causes me to wonder if we should be living in the moment as is often said during times like this. A reminder that time is short and for that reason it is a true statement. But not entirely true because this moment, no matter how good, pales in comparison to what is to come. Perhaps it is better to live for the hope of tomorrow. That inevitable day when Christ returns or takes us home to be with Him. That is when all that we hope for and dream about will become reality. The moment, however good, is a shadow of what God has prepared for us as His children. The moment is corrupted and will never come close to eternity with Christ our Saviour. The hope of tomorrow is what He died for and for that reason alone, it is what we should live for.

"Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses. I charge you in the presence of God, who gives life to all things, and of Christ Jesus, who testified the good confession before Pontius Pilate, that you keep the commandment without stain or reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which He will bring about at the proper time—He who is the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone possesses immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see. To Him be honor and eternal dominion! Amen. Instruct those who are rich in this present world not to be conceited or to fix their hope on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly supplies us with all things to enjoy. Instruct them to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is life indeed. O Timothy, guard what has been entrusted to you, avoiding worldly and empty chatter and the opposing arguments of what is falsely called "knowledge"— which some have professed and thus gone astray from the faith. Grace be with you." (1 Timothy 6:12-21, NASB95)

Friday, February 8, 2008

“What is the What” is a novel written by Dave Eggers depicting the events surrounding the Sudanese civil war beginning in the mid 1980s. The story is more of an autobiography of one particular young boy named Valentino Achak Deng. Achak was one of the 20,000 so-called Lost Boys who walked thousands of miles seeking safety from every known danger including the merciless Arab militiamen, minefields, wild animals, starvation and disease. The innocent boy, who began his journey at the young age of 7, witnessed more cruelty and death in the following decade than most people will ever experience in a lifetime.
Both the author and the subject of the novel hoped that the story would bring attention and understanding to the continuing conflicts in Africa. Although there is slight variation, the source of most conflict in recent African history revolves around the same tribal politics. The pursuit of power and greed among the ruling parties remains a constant cause of discord among the African people. As is seen in this novel, it is the innocent who often pay the highest price during the struggle for control and domination.
The title of the book is taken from an ancient Dinka creation myth in which God offers mankind a choice between a known quantity (in the myth this choice is a cow) and an unknown possibility, known as the What. The Dinka people chose the cow as a known source of “milk and meat and prosperity of every kind.” But others, such as the Arabs, chose the mysterious and unknowable “What”. Perhaps there is truth in the myth as it exposes the desire of man to have something more than what he has already been given by God.
This tragic story reminds us that, left to itself, society will cannibalize its own. Safety within society is an illusion and despite the promise to serve and protect, the world will eventually betray its promise. Achak often placed his hope in the next promise of freedom or protection. He did not fully understand the hope we have in Jesus Christ which far surpasses anything this world could offer. In fact, as Paul reminds us, "If we have hoped in Christ in this life only, we are of all men most to be pitied." (1 Corinthians 15:19) There has to be something more than what we experience in this world and scripture affirms that there is.
The average American has not experienced anything like what Achak endured. Yet, we are often the first to pity ourselves and blame our leaders, or even God, for our circumstances. Perhaps if we understood the plight of people like Achak, we would understand how truly blessed we are. All too often, we choose the What – the mysterious unknown that falsely promises something more than what we already have. This is, in fact, the American dream – the promise of more than what we already have. Yet, the story of the Lost Boys reminds us that our world is broken. Our hope for full and complete redemption is yet future. Only through faith in Christ will the desire for safety, security and eternal salvation be fully realized.
After all the inhumanity Achak witnessed, he felt his most important response was “to tell these stories because to do anything else would be something less than human.” Perhaps he believed that the biggest impact he could make was to bring awareness and understanding to the plight of so many of the African people. A story that seems like fiction to most readers, but to the subject of the novel, it is all too real.
What an important reminder for Christians. We too have a story to tell. Our story is also a story of great tragedy. Like Achak, it is a story of a broken and sinful world. But our story does not end there. We have a hope that is not betrayed. Our hope is the promise that one day all things will be made new. We hold firm to faith in a redemption where blood has been shed so that sins may be forgiven. With such a promise, we must tell our story. For us to not tell our story would be “something less than human.”

"This mystery has been kept in the dark for a long time, but now it’s out in the open. God wanted everyone, not just Jews, to know this rich and glorious secret inside and out, regardless of their background, regardless of their religious standing. The mystery in a nutshell is just this: Christ is in you, so therefore you can look forward to sharing in God’s glory. It’s that simple. That is the substance of our Message. We preach Christ, warning people not to add to the Message. We teach in a spirit of profound common sense so that we can bring each person to maturity. To be mature is to be basic. Christ! No more, no less. That’s what I’m working so hard at day after day, year after year, doing my best with the energy God so generously gives me." (Colossians 1:26-29, The Message)