Thursday, December 22, 2011

The Protestant Mary

As a Protestant believer, I am always a little uncomfortable with how to talk about Mary, the mother of our Lord, who stands at the center of the Christmas story. One of the dividing issues between Catholic/Orthodox Christians and Protestants is how we treat Mary.

I must confess that I love the Ave Maria by Franz Schubert. I consider it one of the most perfectly constructed songs that I know. Yet, I feel a little guilty about listening to it because the words are the "Hail Mary..." prayer that Catholics use when reciting the Rosary--in Latin.

The tendency to venerate Mary began very early in the church with the veneration of martyrs who were said to be "already in God's presence and glorious in His sight" (Early Christian Doctrines, J. N. D. Kelly, p. 490). Mary eventually was compared to Eve, "the mother of all living" (Gen. 3: 20), and was viewed as the proper owner of that title. The problem of how she could bear the sinless Son of God led to the belief that she herself was sinless. Eventually this led to the belief that she was born without sin (immaculate conception). In addition, there was a belief that she remained perpetually a virgin. Jesus' brothers and sisters were said to either be Joseph's children by another marriage or cousins.

An important controversy in the 5th century led to the rejection of Nestorius who claimed that Mary could be called Christotokos (Christ-bearer), but not Theotokos (God-bearer). This was rejected on Christological grounds: Jesus was fully human and divine and to separate the two is to argue for two persons. But inherent in the controversy was the growing tendency towards the worship of Mary as the Mother of God.

Protestantism was marked with the doctrine of sola scriptura by Martin Luther, who wanted to get back to the basic Christianity of the apostles and strip away the unbiblical beliefs and practices that had gathered like barnacles on the hull of the ship. But in doing so, we may have lost the wonder of the miracle of Jesus' birth and the incredible example of Mary, a holy and faithful believer who taught us all what it means to be obedient to God in the face of all opposition.

The angel brings incredible news with the greeting: "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you" (Luke 1: 28).

After struggling with the incredible news, Mary, in perhaps one of the greatest examples of humble submission to the will of God says, "I am the Lord's servant...May it be to me as you have said" (vs. 38).

I believe it is wrong of us to disregard Mary. And we can learn much from her without having to exalt her to demigod status. After all, even Mary herself, in her great hymn of praise (known as The Magnificat) said: "For he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed" (vs. 48).

And indeed we are all blessed by Mary's humble obedience to God over 2000 years ago.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Learning From the Herdmans

Another favorite novella that I try to read every year is The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. I have even read it aloud to a couple of groups. It was a made-for-TV special with Loretta Swit a couple of decades back and is available on DVD. But to get the full impact, read the book. It should take less than an hour to read--but is well worth it.

At the center of the book is another redemption story. The six Herdman children are the unredeemed rat-pack who terrorize any child who has the misfortune of attracting their attention.

Barbara writes the book from a terrorized little girl's perspective. When little brother Charlie is asked at church to share something he is thankful for at the Thanksgiving service, he shares, "There are no Herdmans." Although this is heartfelt, it strikes at the heart of the dilemma of church life. If we build a safe and loving environment where we can escape from the world, does that mean we exclude the Herdmans? Aren't the Herdmans exactly what the church is there for? As Karl Barth, the early 20th century theologian put it, church is "community for the sake of the world."

Of course, the Herdmans show up to church looking for free snacks. And when mom is stuck running the annual Christmas Pageant, put on by the Sunday School, the Herdmans take over all the important roles, including Imogene as Mary. The scandal of it all! A telephone whisper campaign begins, threatening to call off the pageant entirely. But of course, the play is staged with the Herdmans there to do their part.

But the book helps us to look at the Christmas story through the fresh eyes of the uninitiated. And it gives the congregation the same opportunity. And we get to witness the power of the story of God's entrance into our world, like a great tsunami, as it washes over and transforms the Herdman family.

Why not try reading the ancient story from Luke and Matthew as if it was the first time you had ever heard it? A poor young couple, clinging to their belief in God's word to them, in spite of the scorn of a skeptical world, face the desperate journey to Bethlehem. They camp out with the animals as Mary goes through labor and childbirth in very trying circumstances. Yet, God reveals himself via a host of angels to the local shepherds and then brings worshipers from exotic lands with extravagant gifts. The child, who outwardly looks like any other baby, is revealed to be special--in fact the unique Son of God Himself! God's ultimate gift to us.

And hear the shout of little Gladys Herdman, playing the Angel of the Lord, ringing in your head--"Hey! Unto you a child is born!"

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Redemption of Scrooge

I absolutely love Charles Dickens' famous novella, A Christmas Carol. Besides owning several versions on DVD, I've re-read the book on my Kindle the last couple of Christmases. Perhaps my favorite is the TNT version with Patrick Stewart as Scrooge (although Michael Caine with the Muppets and songs by Paul Williams--and the made-for-TV George C. Scott--and the classic Alastair Sim versions are contenders).

Ebenezer Scrooge is ubiquitous at this time of year. And with all the versions out there, including derivations like Scrooged, it is evident that our society is in love with it as well.

What is it about this story that gives it such a pervasive appeal?

I believe that the key lies in the underlying theme of redemption. Most of us know hopelessly antagonistic materialists who seem impervious to the Gospel. For those who are most resistant to the message of God's love, deep in our hearts, we yearn to see them come to repentance.

J. R. R. Tolkein and C. S. Lewis tell us that the power of such fiction comes from the power of the true story it reveals. The truth is that the Gospel has power to save even the most hardened skeptic. That's why Paul says, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes..." (Rom. 1: 16).

At this time of year, our society is especially open to the wonder of God's love, expressed through his incarnation as a tiny baby, destined to die for the sins of the world. As Christians, let us not be ashamed of the Gospel.

And one more thing. If Scrooge can be redeemed, then I have hope for myself as well. Living in this world can begin to harden my naturally materialistic heart. If the Christmas message can melt Ebenezer's heart, then perhaps I am a candidate as well. Why not let yourself melt a little this Christmas?

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

O Come, O Come, Emmanuel

John Mason Neale, in 1850, translated an ancient advent song (in Latin, "Veni Immanuel") into English to give us "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel." Although he took it from a French Franciscan nun's processional, used in Lisbon, Portugal--it
probably dates back to the 8th century as a chant. I still hear the haunting echo of it's ancient roots every time I sing it.

The song throbs with the messianic expectations found in Old Testament prophetic passages. A dark and lost world yearns for the hope of the coming deliverer.

The inspiration for the first verse is Isaiah 7:14, the sign of the son born to a virgin, to be called "Immanuel" which means literally "God is with us." Of course, in Matthew 1:23 we are told that the birth of Jesus is the direct fulfillment of this prophecy.

The second verse refers to the "rod of Jesse" which is the shoot or branch that will grow from Jesse's tribe, mentioned in Isaiah 11:1. The promised Messiah will come from David's house to reign over God's kingdom.

The third verse refers to the "dayspring," which is also part of Zechariah's prophecy in Luke 1:78. The Messiah's coming will be like the rising of the sun of righteousness prophesied in Malachi 4:2. The light of His coming will dispel all darkness and burn away all iniquity.

The fourth verse calls the Messiah, "the Key of David," a reference to Isa. 22:22, "what he opens no one can shut, and what he shuts no one can open." The Messiah will open the gates into God's eternal kingdom.

The final verse directly refers to Jesus as "Adonai" but in most modern versions "Wisdon from on High." The verse indicates that Jesus was the Lawgiver on Sinai. Revealing Him to be God Himself incarnate.

What a blessing that this wonderful Advent chant has been preserved for us to sing the ancient, wonderful and deep truths about the Messiah, whose incarnation we are preparing to celebrate in a few short weeks. Remember to meditate on him as you sing it:

"O come, O come Emmanuel; and ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appears.

"Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel."

"O come, thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan's tyranny; from depths of hell thy people save, and give them vict'ry o'er the grave.

"O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here; disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death's dark shadows put to flight.

"O come, thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.

"O come, O come, Adonai [or-thou Wisdom from on high]; who in thy glorious majesty, from Sinai's mountain clothes in awe, gave thy folk the elder law."

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Jesus Loves People

Jesus loves people. Everything he did points to this fact.

In Philippians 2: 5-8, Paul tells us that Jesus, although equal to God, rather than using his position to acquire more power for himself, poured himself out for us, becoming a human being. And not just any human, a humble and obedient servant. And not just any servant, but one who made the ultimate sacrifice of himself in the most shameful form of execution ever invented--crucifixion. Jesus' work of salvation was motivated by love.

Another way that Jesus demonstrated his love for people was through his healing ministry. The Gospel writers constantly tell us that Jesus was "moved with compassion" and then performed a miraculous healing. The underlying Greek word for compassion is powerful. It literally means "gut-wrenching." In other words, Jesus felt a deep pang of empathy in his bowels. That's why the KJV translates this as "bowels of mercy." Jesus' healing ministry was motivated by love.

Matthew tells us, "When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd" (Matt: 9. 36). Jesus saw the crowds as disoriented, dejected, dispirited--like a flock of sheep without the guiding, protecting and providing presence of their shepherd. Love for people moved him with compassion.

So, what did Jesus' love motivate him to do this time?

Out of compassion, he authorized and empowered his twelve disciples to take on his own kingdom ministry and then sent them out, two-by-two, into the harvest field to extend his ministry (Matt. 10). And Luke tells us that he sent out 72 others as well, in order to extend his kingdom ministry even more.

Love motivated Jesus to send US into the harvest field as well. The book of Acts describes the sending out of the church to "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and the uttermost parts of the earth" (Acts 1: 8).

Jesus says in Matthew "The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the Harvest, therefore, to send out workers out into his harvest field (Matt. 9: 37-38).

Do you love people enough to be sent into the harvest field? Let us pray for the compassionate love of God for people to be poured into our hearts--and for God to send us.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Romance, Disillusionment, Joy

Last year I read an article in Time magazine on the results of a study of different professions in the USA. Surprisingly, the profession of "pastor" turns out to be one of the most stressful. Caring for people can be emotionally draining, especially with all the other hats we must wear (landlord, accountant, public relations, etc.). We want to nurture spiritual growth, but cannot help getting caught up in the drama of peoples' lives.

Pastoring is a difficult business. John Wimber used to say to pastor wanna-be's, "If you can do anything else, do it." Of course, the romantic view of pastoral ministry is hard to erase with a few simple words. A starry eyed romantic hears those words, but then thinks inside, "Yes, but I'm different."

Eugene Peterson, in his wonderful book, Under the Unpredictable Plant, says that so many of us in the pastoral ministry hear the call of God, like Jonah. The call sounds good as long as we are going to exotic Tarshish. Then we find out that ministry actually happens in messy, undesirable Ninevah.

Romance gives way to disillusionment. Or put another way, "reality bites."

The transition from journeying to Tarshish to actually doing ministry in Ninevah is hazardous to a pastor's own spiritual life. We must be wary of becoming cynical. Like Moses when he has gotten fed-up with Israel's complaining. Instead of simply speaking to the rock, he shows his frustration with Israel, "Listen, you rebels! Must we bring you water out of this rock?" (Num. 20: 10). Moses then, in complete disobedience to God's instructions, strikes the rock two times. The miracle happens and Israel's needs are met. But Moses never gets to enter the promised land.

The really difficult step we must make is to embrace ministry where it really is--in Ninevah. When we can actually accept that pastoral ministry is difficult and stressful, but IT IS WORTH IT--then we will begin to experience joy. The joy that comes, not because we have built a big cathedral, or have a big budget, or our attendance numbers are huge. The joy comes from being in the center of God's will.

Romance becomes disillusionment and finally turns to joy.

What's interesting is that, in that same Time article, pastoral ministry was rated highest in job satisfaction. Stressful--yes--but oh, so very worth it.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Christ as the Head of the Church

Several years ago, the senior pastor of the church at which I worked had to step down from his position. The resulting leadership vacuum was not instantly filled. The staff met almost daily, sometimes for half the day, to discuss decisions and what we needed to do to help the church function and go through the process of recovery. It became very clear to me how debilitating it was not to have a clear leader at the helm to steer the ship.

I must confess that during this interim period, I made some decisions and signed some approvals that no one had given me permission to do, but I knew that everything would grind to a halt if someone didn't keep the machinery greased. When the new senior pastor arrived, I gently let go of the power that I had temporarily (and benignly) assumed.

An old Latin proverb has often been quoted through the ages: "Power abhors a vacuum."

And yet, I am aware of several churches that have not only survived, but thrived under a kind of shared leadership. One person is the administrative elder, another the teaching elder, and another the pastoral care elder. By conventional wisdom, they should have crumbled or succumbed to a power-grab by someone. What makes them different?

I believe that, in their case, Jesus is the head of the church and they are all subject to his leadership. They are serving a greater vision that was planted in them when the church was founded and they are simply seeking to implement that vision under Christ's direction.

In Ephesians, Paul says that part of the maturing of the church is to begin to operate with Jesus as the Head. "From him, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4: 16).

A way I have often thought about this is that the church is the perpetual motion machine, defying the second law of thermodynamics (that all things tend towards disorder or decay). It works when two things are in place: 1) Christ is the head, and 2) love is the lubrication.

John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard, used to share his conviction that Jesus wants to be the head of the Church.

To use the picture of vine and branches that Jesus gives us in John 15, "Apart from me, you can do nothing" (John 15: 5). Each of us, when we are vitally connected to the life-giving vine, will not only receive life from him but produce fruit.

Are we willing to get out of the way and let him lead us? Are we willing to let his leadership fill the power vacuum?

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Hanging In There

I've gone through a lot of shaking this year. Five of our members have passed away, plus my own father and two former co-workers at the Anaheim Vineyard. Quite a few people have left our fellowship for various reasons. A few of them were understandably frustrated with me during this time of shaking. But more of them simply moved out of the area.

In Hebrews 12, the writer comments on Haggai's prophecy about God shaking Israel. He says that God shakes everything so that the things that need to be removed are removed and so that the things that are supposed to remain permanently, remain.

Despite all the loss, I am greatly encouraged. I sense that God is indeed on the move. That the losses are a kind of pruning that will result in growth. I have even found myself feeling an unexplainable joy as I pray about all these things.

My wife loves roses. When it comes time to prune her rose bushes, she seemingly hacks them back to nothing. If I didn't know better, I would think they were dead. Just a gnarled stump with a couple of thorny sticks. Yet, when spring comes, the bushes come to life and the resultant display of blooms is spectacular every time.

I think of 1 Cor. 15: 58:
"Therefore, my dear brothers [and sisters], stand firm. Let nothing move you. [Hang in there--sit tight.] Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."

Here, Paul is saying, with all the deaths of believers, don't get discouraged. The resurrection is a real hope that means your work for the Kingdom is not a waste of time.

I began blogging a year ago and have kept it up with some consistency. Perhaps the rhythm of putting my thoughts down in pixels has helped me through the shaky times. I hope you have been blessed, challenged or comforted by something I've written. And I am going to continue to write. If you are touched, please share your thoughts with me or forward the link to someone else who might be blessed as well.

And remember--hang in there, because your work in the Kingdom is not a waste of time.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Lord Is My Shepherd

Perhaps one of the most beloved Psalms is the 23rd. I was reminded of that this morning as I was officiating at a graveside service. And there is probably a good reason that it is so popular.

"The Lord is my Shepherd..." This metaphor captures so succinctly the nature of our relationship with our precious Lord.

Psalm 100 also mentions this idea: "We are His people; the sheep of His pasture."

Probably with this in mind, Jesus says of Himself in John's Gospel: "I am the Good Shepherd...and my sheep hear my voice."

I remember reading a story in a book about pastoral ministry, They Smell Like Sheep, by Lynn Anderson. In the Middle East, unlike cattle in the Old West, sheep are not driven in front of the shepherd. Instead, they follow the shepherd. And, in fact, many herds may graze together, watched over by their shepherds. But when the time comes to leave, each shepherd calls them in a unique voice. The sheep know the voice of their shepherd and follow him out of the other herds.

"...the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice" (John 10: 3-5).

Walking with Jesus is listening to the voice of the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. He calls us by name and, because we belong to Him, we respond and follow--to green pastures, beside quiet waters, and even through the valley of the shadow of death.

As we listen to his comforting voice, we do not fear evil. His guiding and correcting rod and staff are comforting because we learn to trust His lovingkindness.

Perhaps my greatest challenge is to simply follow Him like a sheep, letting go of my incessant need to be in control, and trusting in His love for me.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Trudging the Road of Happy Destiny

In the Big Book of Alcoholic's Anonymous, it says "we shall be with you in the Spirit as you trudge the road of happy destiny."

This phrase has always struck me as entirely insightful and profound. The fellowship of encouragement and support that is the 12-Step community joins with the individual addict on a journey towards a happy and blessed future free from the addictive lifestyle. And what is the nature of that journey? It is described as a "trudge."

Websters says that "to trudge" is "to walk or march steadily and usually laboriously." And "a trudge" is "a long tiring walk."

Of course Bill Wilson, the founder of AA, was a Christian who was influenced by the Oxford Group in formulating the 12-steps. The first three steps are the essential ingredients of conversion. First we have to admit we are sinful. Second, we have to admit that God exists. And third, we must surrender our lives to Him.

But the remaining nine steps are more about the continuing process that we must pursue in order to obtain and maintain freedom from sin and to walk in a deep and life-changing commitment to God. Conversion is the easy part. The difficult part is the "trudge," the long tiring walk that is our daily life.

Of course, this is true of the Christian life in general. Turning over our lives to God so that we are now "born again" is the easy part. But walking out our faith through the painful trials of daily life is the hard part.

Jesus says that those who would follow Him must "pick up their cross daily and follow him." Put another way, we must look at the example of Jesus' trudge and imitate Him.

Jesus laid aside the "self-directed life" and took up the "God-directed life" when he picked up the old rugged cross. True discipleship means picking up the symbolic cross given to us and following His example of obedient submission to the Father. He trudged the entire Via Dolorosa to Calvary. And even beyond Calvary. You could say, to hell and back again. A trudge that brought him to the place of Happy Destiny at the right hand of God.

As the writer of Hebrews says: "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12: 2-3).

Is life hard? Don't lose heart. Join with us in the Spirit as we all trudge the road of happy destiny together.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Simple Instructions

What is the most complicated set of instructions you've ever had to follow in your home? For me it was the assembly instructions for my gas barbecue. Not only were the instructions complex, but it seems that they were written by non-native English speakers. "Take up through slotted down-piece." What?!?! I had several pieces left when I had finished assembly. Oh well, it seems to work.

What is the least complicated set of instructions you've had to follow in your home? For me it is written on the side of my shampoo bottle: "Lather. Rinse. Repeat."

It doesn't get any easier than that.

Growing up in the church, I often felt that Christianity was mysterious and complicated, like my gas barbecue assembly. With all the trappings of religion, how can anyone understand whether God is pleased and you are in the center of His will?

But Jesus, when confronted by the scribes and Pharisees in the Temple courts was given a nagging question that was probably commonly discussed by the scholars, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" (Matt. 22: 36).

The question was meant to trap him by getting him mired in the complex theological debates of the religious leaders. They read the Torah and got caught up in all of the minutiae. To them, religion was like my gas barbecue, a myriad of instructions. The successful holy person could bring all the pieces together into a harmonious whole. The answer is a 5-volume Systematic Theology.

But Jesus' answer was simple. "Jesus replied, 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments" (Matt. 22: 37-40).

Jesus is essentially saying that God's Torah can be boiled down to two simple instructions: Love God and Love People.

When I started to realize that this was indeed the heart of Christianity, I thought the church's mission statement should really be more like my shampoo bottle: "Love God. Love People. Repeat."

It doesn't get much simpler than that. What would happen if we all read these simple set of instructions every morning and then just tried to follow them?

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Swept Away

I often think of God's Kingdom as a kind of powerful river. When we place our faith in the King, He invites us to get swept away by the current. And one of the ways we often experience that current is when He calls us to send out workers into the harvest.

Jesus sent the 12 out two-by-two (Matt. 10 and Luke 9) to extend His own ministry. And in Luke 10, he sent out "72 others" to do the same. At the end of Matthew's Gospel, Jesus delivers the "Great Commission," essentially commanding the church to "go and make disciples of all nations" (Matt. 28: 18-20). And at the beginning of Acts, Jesus tells His disciples to "be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (Acts 1: 8).

The book of Acts is the story of the Gospel being brought "to the ends of the earth" by the Holy Spirit-empowered disciples. A good example is in Acts 13, 1-3:

"In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, 'Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.' So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off."

In two Sundays my church will be laying hands on someone who has been my Youth Pastor for the last four years. He is leaving us to serve a sister congregation as Assistant Pastor. I feel proud and happy for him as he goes, but I am also feeling the pang of loss.

In my years as a member and then a pastor at the Anaheim Vineyard, I got used to building relationships with pastors and leaders, often to see God "send" them somewhere else to serve the Kingdom of God. John Wimber, the founding pastor, often said that God called us to send our best. And when we did, that spirit of generosity would result in increased blessing.

The answer is not to protect myself from the pain of losing relationship, but to embrace it as a part of Kingdom life. Each one of us is called to jump into the stream called the Kingdom. It has a force all its own. And when we jump in, we will be swept away in it's powerful current.

This weekend, a friend of mine who planted a church 16 years ago surprised me when he showed up unannounced at our Sunday service. At lunch, we were able to reminisce about the adventures of Kingdom ministry that have made our lives so exciting. On two sides of the continent, we have impacted the lives of many others.

And we agreed that, as pastors, we can't cling to people as if we own them. They belong to God. He will lead and carry them to their own destinations.

Instead, let us rejoice that the Gospel is being carried "to the ends of the earth." And let us look forward to swapping "Holy Ghost stories" when we meet again.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Step of Faith

I love the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade when Indy must take a step of faith over a chasm. His foot lands on a stone bridge that was there the whole time but, due to an optical illusion, was imperceptible. It could only be discovered by that step of faith.

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is often called the "faith" chapter. In it, the writer gives a string of Old Testament examples of people of faith. He tells us that faith is important because "without faith it is impossible to please God" (Heb. 11: 6).

I am often bothered by a popular model that presents faith as a magical narcissistic state of mind that we must conjure up, like putting on a Superman suit in the phone booth, that makes us invincible. "If I just believe good enough, I will feel powerful and God will act through me."

But when I study each of the examples in chapter 11, I realize that these believers did not really exhibit that kind of state. For example, in verse 8, Abraham had to leave the security of home for an unknown destination. No auto club trip-tik to guide him on the way. No convenient rest areas with well-marked signage. No highway patrol to make the roads safe from marauders.

“By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise” (Heb. 11: 8-9).

Even when Abraham arrived, he lived in tents, like a “stranger in a strange land.” He must have wondered how God was going to fulfill His promises. “Here I am, God. Now what?”

Faith is not the absence of worry, fear, anxiety, difficulty, pain, turmoil—and even doubt. Faith is the element that causes us to obey the God we cannot see when what we can see obscures the way. It is the tiny particle of faith that Peter demonstrated when he stepped out on the water and began to walk to Jesus.

Doubt does not mean we do not have faith. It is simply the human part of us looking for security in the material world around us. Faith is the spiritual dynamic that grasps the unseen reality of God and so, moves forward anyway.

What step of faith is God calling you to take today?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Eucatastrophe

J. R. R. Tolkein, in his famous essay of 1947, On Fairy Stories, makes this statement:

"The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of man's history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many skeptical men have accepted as true on its own merit."

Tolkein coined the term eucatastrophe by adding the Greek prefix, "eu," which means "good," to the word, "catastrophe." It describes the climactic moment in the story when evil seems overwhelmingly likely to conquer, only to suddenly turn around to be utterly defeated. In The Lord of the Rings, the major eucatastrophe happens when Sauron, the Dark Lord, seems about to destroy the armies of the West, only to see the Ring of Power unmade under his nose to the utter destruction and ruination of his kingdom.

In "Letter 89", Tolkein says that the eucatastrophe is "the sudden happy turn in a story which pierces you with a joy that brings tears...It is a sudden glimpse of Truth...the Resurrection was the greatest 'eucatastrophe' possible...and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled..."

In Peter's first epistle, he begins with a discussion of the living hope of the Christian. Our hope is in the living Christ who, through the Resurrection, has turned death itself on its head. And even though we may suffer "grief in all kinds of trials" (1 Pet. 1: 6), yet we "greatly rejoice".

Why? Because we look to the climax of history. The great triumph of God, begun in the Resurrection of Christ; to be completed in His glorious appearing at the end of this evil age.

The sorrows of life are swallowed up in joy as we grasp the reality of what the Resurrection means to us--both in this life and in the glorious age to come.

"In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that your faith--of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire--may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed. Though you have not seen him, you love him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls" (1 Pet. 1: 6-9).

Are you struggling with life? Turn to the realities of what Christ has done. His Incarnation, His Death and Resurrection--and the promise of the consummation of His Kingdom rule and our eternal redemption. Let the Truth meet you so that the sorrow is swallowed up in "an inexpressible and glorious joy."

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Jeremiah and 9/11

Where were you on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001?

I'll never forget my wife, Julianne, running up the stairs, interrupting her exercise regimen to tell me that commercial airliners had flown into the two World Trade Center towers in New York. I sat glued to the television as the towers collapsed in a cloud of dust and ash, watching frightened people running away to escape.

Then another plane crashed into the Pentagon. There was a rumor of a bomb at the State Department that proved untrue. Then, another plane brought down by brave passengers in a field in Pennsylvania. We in America were under attack.

Estimates of potential casualties varied wildly up to the 100,000's. Due largely to the heroic efforts of the first responders who ran towards danger as average people were running away, the total number of deaths were under 3,000. Still, a horrific figure, making it the worst civilian casualty number in American history.

The prophet, Jeremiah, wrote a poem in the form of a lament after the destruction of the city of Jerusalem. It is included in the Old Testament as "Lamentations." and is inserted between Jeremiah and Ezekiel. Jeremiah went through a "9/11" experience of horror and grief as he watched the symbols of the glory of Israel reduced to ashes--the razing of the Temple, the burning of all the major buildings including the Royal Palace, and the complete demolition of the walls of Jerusalem.

Yet, in the very center of Lamentations is one of the most beautiful expressions of hope.

"Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord's great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness" (Lam. 3: 21-23).

A wonderfully rich word stands at the center of this verse--hesed. The NIV here translates it as "great love." It stands in parallel with "compassion or mercy."

God's hesed is his covenant love. That is, his promised devotion to his people that will never fail because it is rooted in his very nature. God's unfailing, faithful devotion to his covenant people transcends our momentary grief, no matter how great nor how intense. God's enduring love is always greater still.

"They are new every morning." In the Jewish worldview, every day is like the beginning of a new creation. God's love is renewed with the rising of every sun. And, as we can depend on the sun rising every morning, so we can rely on God's love.

"Great is your faithfulness." God's love is rock-solid. He is faithful to fulfill what he has promised to us.

As we remember the 10th Anniversary of 9/11, let us call to mind the faithful, covenant love of God. Have you placed your faith in Him today?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Healing and the Kingdom of God

The following entry is a response to a request from a long-time friend who is encountering some "cognitive dissonance" as he and his family attend a Pentecostal/Charismatic church. I make the entry with a lot of humility, but I offer my opinion in hopes it will help people as they seek to "do the stuff" (a John Wimber-ism by which he meant actually doing the works of the Kingdom, rather than simply studying about them). Hopefully this is not so academic that it fails to be practical for you.

My friend's church has taught that "you never ask God for what he has already promised or purposed for you...instead, you are to make 'declarations.'" In other words, asking shows a lack of faith; declaration shows a confidence in God's promises.

This particular issue goes to the heart of what distinguishes the Vineyard movement from Pentecostal/Charismatics (and also what tends to confuse our Conservative Evangelical brethren). You could say that the Vineyard is defined by the dynamic tension that exists between these two streams of Evangelicalism.

The titles of two books summarize the Vineyard position between the two. Rich Nathan and Ken Wilson's book, Empowered Evangelicals, says it all. We are a movement that wants to take the best of Pentecostal experience (empowered), leaving behind what we view as its excesses; while we hold on to a solid Evangelical approach to biblical/theological scholarship (evangelicals), but leaving behind the tendency to minimize the present miraculous work of the Spirit.

The other book is Bill Jackson's Quest for the Radical Middle. Once again, the Vineyard has sought to live in a dynamic tension between the fresh work of the Spirit, and a solid commitment to biblical theology. In other words, holding both the Word and Spirit in balance.

This all flows from the influence of George Eldon Ladd, late Fuller Professor, whose Gospel of the Kingdom, and New Testament Theology are foundational for understanding John Wimber's teaching about healing. In Jesus, the Kingdom of God broke into the present evil age. His words and His works were evidence of the reality of the presence of the Kingdom. Jesus passed on to his disciples his Kingdom ministry. And they have passed it on to their disciples. And on and on...all the way to us.

One of the key aspects of the Kingdom is that it has "now come" and is still "yet to come." This"now-and-not-yet" quality of the Kingdom characterizes everything we experience in this present evil age.

Take, for instance, our salvation. We enter the Kingdom and are saved when we place our faith in the King (2 Tim. 1: 9). Yet, we are "being saved" as we go through a process of transformation in this life called sanctification (Php. 2: 12-13). And we "will be saved" when the future promised Kingdom arrives in its glory (1 Pet. 1: 5,9).

Pentecostal theology has tended to argue that physical healing is included in the atoning work of Christ based on Isaiah 53, Matt. 8: 16-17 and 1 Pet. 2: 24 and therefore, we must just claim what is rightfully ours and exhibit unwavering faith in the work of God. There is not enough time to do a thorough exegesis of these passages. Suffice it to say that you must make several hermeneutical leaps to conclude that healing is guaranteed in the atonement.

If we say that healing is guaranteed in the atonement and that faith is the only way to access that healing, we must conclude that people are not healed solely because they lack faith in some way.

Just a quick survey of the New Testament shows that healing did not always occur for Jesus or the apostles. Jesus could not do many miracles (Mark 6: 5). God refused to heal Paul's "thorn in the flesh" (2 Cor. 12: 7-10). Timothy's ailing stomach condition (1 Tim. 5: 23). The Pentecostal explanation is that they lacked faith. The Kingdom explanation is the now-and-not-yet of the Kingdom.

Yes, faith is necessary for healing. But if you analyze the healings in the New Testament, sometimes it is the faith of the pray-er (like Jesus healing the man at the pool Siloam) and sometimes it is the faith of the receiver (like the woman touching the hem of his garment.)

Does this exclude making declarative pronouncements? Not at all. When we are led by the Spirit to command healing, we do it. When we are led by the Spirit to lay hands on someone and pray for them, we do that. Every time that someone is healed, it is evidence of the inbreaking of the Kingdom of God. Every time that someone is not healed, it is evidence that the Kingdom of God is not yet fully consummated. So...we pray again.

"Lord, may your Kingdom come, may your will be done, here on earth as it is being done in heaven (where your Kingdom is fully consummated)."

I welcome comments on this topic.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Center of It All

Above the town of Jasper in the Canadian Rockies is a gondola that lifts you far above the spectacular scenery of Jasper National Park.

After getting off the ride, you can continue hiking the steep trail above the upper gondola platform through the thin mountain air. If you persevere, you will reach a summit that gives you an even more spectacular vista.

On my recent visit, I continued a few hundred feet beyond that point, crossing a small slushy ice field until I reached the highest point above the gondola. The panorama was a full 360 degrees. Perhaps the most dramatic spot I've ever visited--with stunning peaks, glaciers and river valleys all around.

In fact, I began to have the illusion that I was sitting on the axel of a giant wheel. The rest of the world was mounted on this one point and was spinning around it. I'll never forget that moment.

It reminded me of something Jesus said. "But I, if I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all [people] to myself" (John 12 :32).

The cross was lifted up from the earth on the mount called Calvary, with the Savior of the world upon it. All of the physical world, all of the history of the world, all of humanity--is suspended in some way upon that mountain, like the axle of a wheel, because the cross is the focal point of all history.

Luke's account of the crucifixion brings this into focus. The two thieves who were crucified on Jesus' right and left represent the world, justly condemned but with a chance of redemption because of the Savior between them. One rejected him and the other placed his faith in him.

Jesus says to Nicodemus, in John 3:14-15, that He will be like the bronze snake that Moses lifted up on a pole in the wilderness, described in Num. 21: 8-9. Whoever was bitten by the real snake, would just need to look to the bronze snake to live.

The choice could not be presented more clearly: look to Jesus on the cross and live, or reject Jesus on the cross and remain doomed.

Human history and human destiny are all about Jesus. At the cross, he was lifted up and now stands at the center of it all. So for each of us comes the most important question we must answer: "Do you believe?"

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Problem of Pain

Pain is a reality of life. Scott Peck opens his best-seller, The Road Less Traveled, "Life is difficult." Or, as Eliphaz says to Job, "Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward" (Job 5: 7).

So, if God is good, why does he allow pain, especially for his children? When we come to Christ, shouldn't that end all of the pain and begin a life of blissful happiness?

In his classic book, The Problem of Pain, C. S. Lewis says, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pain; it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world" (pp. 90-91).

Pain is a tool in the hands of our Master, by which he shapes and matures us. But we must cooperate in the process, or we will not enjoy the benefits from it that He intends.

To quote Scott Peck again, "The avoidance of pain is the root of all mental illness." Or to put it in simpler terms, when we try to avoid pain in our lives, we can really screw things up.

Addictions, relational conflicts, procrastination, etc. They all flow from avoidance of pain.

But it is through pain that God gets our attention so that we can learn and grow.

Consider this astonishing scripture:
"During the days of Jesus' life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him" (Heb. 5: 7-9).

How could Jesus learn anything or be made perfect? Made perfect means something more like, was completed or made fully mature. Before the incarnation, the Son had no opportunity to walk in submissive obedience. Although he was potentially obedient, He became and learned obedience by the experience of enduring suffering.

This is why, if we are to truly follow Jesus as His disciples and grow into maturity like He did, we must "pick up our crosses daily and follow him" (see Luke 9: 23).

What are you doing with the pain in your life? Pick it up as the cross God has given to you and follow in Jesus' footsteps of reverent submission so that you can mature into all you are called to be in Him.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

E Pluribus Unum

On every coin minted in the United States is a Latin phrase, "E Pluribus Unum." The motto means "out of many, one."

Originally, this referred to the joining of 13 colonies into one nation. But in our modern democratically minded country, it has come to be associated with the way that many ethnicities, cultures and people-groups have melded into a greater identity--a melting pot.

Paul, describing the church in 1 Corinthians 12, makes a similar observation. "The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body" (1 Cor. 12: 12). In fact, this is perhaps the most pervasive metaphor for the church--we are the body of Christ.

This brings together two realities that seem contradictory, but are held in tension by the metaphor: 1) as individuals, we are all different in gifting and functioning; and 2) as a group, we function together to serve a unified purpose. Unity through diversity. In other words, when we learn to embrace and nurture our individual and unique gifts and callings, then the overall unified body works as one.

In Ephesians, Paul uses the same metaphor to describe the church. But instead of focusing on the individual gifts, he shows how the "joints and ligaments" bring us all together under the direction of "the head" who is Christ. And the cement that brings us all together is love.

So, this is the vision: Jesus is the Head; we are all members; if we all value each other and listen to the Head, we will grow into the unity that He intends for us. "Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him, who is the Head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (Eph. 4: 15-16).

What's keeping you from loving all the parts of the body? What's keeping you from faithfully doing your part?

Thursday, July 28, 2011

True Leadership

Leadership has been a hot topic in the church in the modern era.

And certainly the world needs visionary leadership these days. Case in point: the "debt crisis" that has begun sweeping through Europe and the United States.

There are no easy solutions. And, unfortunately, the first person who puts a proposal out there is the first one to get shot at. Therefore, the safest thing is to lie low and wait for someone else to take a risk.

Jesus was the greatest leader to ever walk the earth. He set a pattern for leadership that Christians are supposed to emulate. "Everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher" (Luke 6:40).

Jesus specifically told us not to learn about leadership from the world whose pattern is to "lord it over them" (Mark 10: 42). "Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all" (Mark 10: 43-44).

And of course, Jesus was the one to talk. He practiced what He preached. "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10: 45).

In Philippians 2, Paul tells us to take on the attitude of Jesus. Although He was God Himself, He did not use His "God-ness" as an opportunity to acquire more, but instead, to pour Himself out for us, actually becoming our servant, doing for us what only He could do--giving Himself up to death on the cross. (see Php. 2: 5-11).

That's someone I can follow. That's true leadership.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Receiving Appreciation

I had the shock of my life this last Saturday night. My church planned a surprise party for me which they were able to keep a complete secret from me. When I walked into the church sanctuary to check out why the doors were wide open, a large group of people shouted "Surprise!" and I nearly jumped out of my skin.

My initial thought was, "But it's not my birthday. What is the surprise for?"

It turns out that, on the weekend of the church's 11th Anniversary, they simply wanted to hold an "Appreciation Service" for me.

Now, if I had known that this idea had been floated, I would have nixed it. My reaction would have been something like: "I don't need to be appreciated, the ministry is reward in and of itself."

And as I sat up front in a place of honor, I felt extremely uncomfortable at first.

But I decided to simply accept the outpouring of affection for me and bask in the warmth of sincere expressions of gratitude and love. Besides, I really didn't have much choice. (Is this what it might feel like to get to listen in on your own funeral?)

As the evening wore on, I kept watching the looping photo-album being projected on the screen. I realized just how many weddings I had performed for people in that room. And how many times I had visited people in hospitals, or did a funeral for a loved one, or listened to their struggles and prayed with them. In fact, the biggest part of my life has been poured into the lives of others.

It is true that pastoral ministry has rewards of its own. So, when people want to thank me, my reaction has been to say, "I am only an unworthy servant; I have only done my duty" (Luke 17: 10).

Yet, Paul also says: "The elders who direct the affairs of the church well are worthy of double honor, especially those whose work is preaching and teaching" (1 Tim. 5: 17).

Rather than feeling puffed up, I actually feel rather humbled. And I feel a renewed understanding of my role as "Pastor Mark" in the lives of my flock.

Have you shown your appreciation to your pastor lately? Gratitude is good for both of you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Deep Cries Out To Deep

I love singing the worship song, "All Who Are Thirsty." It pulls out of me a desire for more of God in my life.

Many worship leaders will repeat the bridge over and over: "As deep cries out to deep; As deep cries out to deep..."

This is a phrase from Psalm 42: 7. I used to think that it meant my deepest heart cries out to God's deepest heart. But what does it really mean?

In the context of the Psalm, the idea is that of being overwhelmed by the circumstances of life, which God allows to come crashing over me from every side. The breaking waves on one side and the crashing waterfall on the other.

Recently I had the opportunity on my vacation to sit still next to several thundering, roaring waterfalls. I could feel the vibrations of the crashing water through the souls of my feet. I imagined how powerless it would feel to be swept away in their relentless and powerful current.

Life can feel that way sometimes. Yet, the Psalm seems to indicate that it is God Himself who is the source of the roaring, crashing waves and breakers.

Despite the roar of life's seemingly overwhelming circumstances, God's still, small voice speaks to our hearts. "Then God promises to love me all day, sing songs all through the night! My life is God's prayer" (Ps. 42: 8, The Message).

And so the repeated chorus in both Psalm 42 and 43: "Why are you downcast, O my soul? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will (still continue) to praise him, my Savior and my God" (Ps. 42: 11).

Thursday, June 30, 2011

Being Good

After 10 years in Afghanistan, the Taliban continues to assert its desire to control areas of the country through intimidation and terrorism.

The Taliban has a habit of beating women who break their strict dress code. I guess I don't understand why anyone would be drawn to an organization that believes in enforcing holy behavior through the use of unholy means. Doesn't that in itself sound oxymoronic?

For the Christian, I believe we need to learn a lesson. Our desire for society to agree with our ethical standards is a good thing. But we cannot give in to fanticism and legalism in order to enforce those desires.

Rather than try to enforce morality through force from without, it is God's plan to first change the heart--making it holy--and then that new nature will exhibit itself in changed behavior.

Virtue cannot be forced from without, it must bubble up from within. In Romans 8, Paul sets the pattern.

"Through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the Law was powerless to do in that it was weakened through the sinful nature [the flesh], God did by sending his own order that the righteous requirements of the Law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature [the flesh] but according to the Spirit" (Rom. 8: 2-4).

Rather than righteousness coming from the Law (which could never make us holy), it comes from the Spirit (a transformation in our inner being). Now, the new nature, empowered by the Spirit, begins to get expressed so that my behavior changes. The righteous requirements of the Law are met in us when we walk in the Spirit.

Someone used to tell a story of an unruly boy. He refused to stay seated. The adult in charge used all kinds of threats of spanking and no dessert until he finally sat down. But still he let his feelings be known: "I may be sitting on the outside, but I'm standing on the inside!"

Do you want to be "good?" Let go of trying to be good in your flesh. Instead, let God invade your heart and take over--filling you with His Spirit. Then, begin to walk according to the new nature that's been born within you.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Kingdom Paradoxes

The Kingdom of God is full of paradoxes. Here's three: 1) by dying, we live; 2) by becoming least, we become greatest, and; 3) it is in giving that we receive.

And notice that each of these three paradoxes must be experienced in order to be fully realized.

1) I must first die in order for life to be released. We do not experience the resurrection until we have first experienced the death. We must be plunged under the waters of baptism before we are raised up from them. "For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it" (Luke 9: 24). "For if you live according to the [flesh], you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live" (Rom. 8: 13).

2) Similarly, I do not try to climb to the top of the ladder of greatness in my own strength. Instead, I must first humble myself in service to others, then God can exalt me. "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted" (Matt. 23: 11-12). Jesus is the model of humble service who we should seek to emulate (see Php. 2). "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10: 45).

3) And finally, generosity is the doorway to prosperity. "Give and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you" (Luke 6: 38). "'Test me in this,' says the LORD Almighty, 'and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it" (Mal. 3: 10).

These last two scriptures have often been hijacked by a wing of charismatic Christianity that focuses on prosperity as the goal of Christian life. Let me reframe the discussion.

I learned a lesson from John Wimber, the founder of the Vineyard Movement, many years ago. Yes, we must learn to give generously, so that God can then give back to us. But not as an end in itself. When I am blessed by God, it now puts me in a place to be MORE generous. As he used to say: "We don't just give to get. We give to get, so that we can give more." And it is experiencing the virtue of generosity that becomes the real blessing in my life, not the accumulation of material possessions.

"You will be made rich in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God" (2 Cor. 9: 11).

Have you experienced the grace of giving in your Christian life? Just like the living/dying and least/greatest paradoxes, it begins with a counter-intuitive act. First we die, and only by that act of faith do we experience life. First we serve, and only by that act do we experience exaltation. First we give, and only by that act do we experience true prosperity.

Finally, don't expect it to be easy. It is hard, and intentionally so. It is the only way that our faith is truly tested. "'Test me in this,' says the LORD Almighty..."

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Father's Day for the Fatherless

Several times this last week, I started to think, "I have to get a Father's Day Card..." and then I remembered that my father is gone. With my wife's father deceased many years and not having any children myself, what do I have to look forward to on Father's Day?

Besides, isn't Father's Day and Mother's Day (and Grandparent's Day, and Valentine's Day, and Left-Handed Golfer's Day, and Adopt-a-Person-to-Send-a-Card-To Day, etc...)--aren't they all just a marketing ploy by the Greeting Card Industry to bilk me out of a few more dollars?

Lord, please save me from such cynicism.

Actually, even if the Greeting Card Industry does benefit, I think it is always a good day to remember people for their own special contribution to our lives. And why not have special days for fathers and mothers who, in their parenting roles, have sacrificed so much for us?

The Fifth Commandment, restated in Deuteronomy, says, "Honor your father and mother, as the LORD your God has commanded you, so that you may live long and that it may go well with you in the land the LORD your God is giving you" (Deut. 5: 16).

Now, I know that some people have experienced varying levels of parenting--from Ozzie & Harriet Nelson to Ozzy & Sharon Osbourne. And some people have a hard time thinking anything good about their parents. I have a lot of grace for people who are processing their childhood "stuff."

The goal of recovery should be to resolve the painful feelings so that we can let go of any negative bonds of attachment that keep us in a state of unresolved anger, fear, resentment, etc. Only when we grieve the loss of the parent we didn't have can we make peace with the parent that exists in reality. This is when we can actually grow. We can be healthier than our parents.

If I can do that, I will actually bring them honor, by being the best me I can be. You see, true Christian discipleship is not for the faint-hearted.

For myself, I am actually looking forward to this coming Sunday. I worked through all my issues long ago and I learned to love the man who was actually my dad. I will take the time to remember my father and thank God for him, warts and all, because I am largely the man I am because of him.

And I will listen to a sermon that will be preached by my Youth Pastor, who is a newly minted father, and celebrate the wonder of God's plan that places our tender, vulnerable lives in the hands of two maturing adults who must learn as they go.

I will "Honor my father and mother" and reap the reward "that I may live long and it may go well with me in the land."

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Processing Loss

I have experienced more than my share of death this year. This Saturday will be my fourth memorial service for someone I knew. Although I have made peace with God in such a way that I am not really afraid of death any more, nor am I surprised by it--yet, I find myself a little worn down by it.

Well-meaning Christians will counsel that "We know they are in a better place" and "Faith sees beyond our current circumstances" and "Death has lost its sting." Yes, I agree with all those statements. Yes, I know in my heart that God has conquered death and Hades through the work of Christ. Yes, I know that death is not the end of life, merely a passage to the next.

Yet, I am human. And loss is a natural phenomenon that we experience as we contemplate the end of a relationship here. As Elizabeth K├╝bler-Ross described in her famous work, On Death and Dying, we go through predictable stages as we face loss: denial, anger, bargaining, sadness/depression, and acceptance.

I do not believe it is wrong to grieve and mourn those who have gone before us. In order to come to acceptance, we need to go through the natural process in order to learn and to grow.

"We grieve, but not like the rest of men who have no hope."

What does that mean? We grieve, which is only natural, like breathing--yet there is a sense of hope that keeps our grief from becoming debilitating. For the Christian, our souls are sustained by the living Spirit of God, who is the "parakletos," that is, "the one who comes alongside" to encourage and strengthen.

So, I will not feel shame for being human and grieving for the many losses I've experienced this year. But, I will go to God and ask for His comforting Presence to encourage and strengthen me as I place my hope in Him.

In one of my favorite movies, Shadowlands, Joy Gresham tells C. S. Lewis that he must stop avoiding loving, because it is really avoiding the inevitable losing that it entails. "The pain now is part of the happiness then. That's the deal," she says to him before she dies.

And at the end of the movie, he has learned to embrace joy and pain. The closing voice-over says it all:
"Why love if losing hurts so much? I have no answers now; only the life I've lived. The boy chose safety; the man chooses suffering. The pain now is part of the happiness then; that's the deal."

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Israel, Palestine and the Kingdom of God

With the recent speeches by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu, Israel has come back into focus in the news.

While we all may have political views on the conflicts in the Middle East and the prospects for peace, as a pastor, I think it is important for us to keep a balanced perspective on what's happening so that we don't throw fuel on the fire.

Last night I got into a heated debate. It was hard for me to hear another point of view. If I, who think I am a good listener, can become so heated, then just imagine how it must be for people who are immersed in the conflict.

I want to comment on the biblical and theological issues, more than the geo-political ones.

First, dispensational theology--by way of the Scofield Reference Bible, Hal Lindsay's "Late Great Planet Earth" and the "Left Behind" series--have dominated the American popular evangelical Christian understanding of the relationship between Israel and the End Times. Applying what is, in my humble opinion, an overly literal hermeneutic, dispensationalists look for a coming age when the Church is removed from the scene and God will literally fulfill the promises for a Kingdom of Israel in the Holy Land.

This was my understanding until I became influenced by the simple teaching of George Eldon Ladd, late professor of New Testament Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. In "The Gospel of the Kingdom," Ladd shows a continuous progression in the flow of biblical eschatology. We are in the "now and not-yet" stage between the first and second coming of Christ. The Kingdom of God is now here, having broken into history by the incarnation of the Messiah. Yet, the Kingdom of God awaits its consummation at the Second Coming of Christ.

Jesus received the punishment for sin, literally taking upon himself the curses that came with breaking the Old Covenant. Yet, in that very act, he forged a New Covenant (Jer. 31). The church is now the people of God, the "New Israel," grafted into the cultivated olive root.

Israel as a nation, largely rejected the Messiah, and was "broken off" (Rom. 11). Yet not all. A remnant remains (like Paul himself). At some point, before the end of this age, the Jewish people will experience a movement towards faith in Jesus as the Messiah that will graft them in again. The result will be a new covenant people of God, composed of Jew and Gentile, together.

I believe that Israel as a nation is a miracle that is indeed a sign of the end times. Yet, I do not believe that God plans to work through Israel for the salvation of the world. Otherwise, the work of Jesus becomes just "one way" that God accomplishes his purposes. No--Paul's discussion in Romans 11 points to a unified purpose of God to save both Jews and Gentiles.

Lastly, we Evangelicals need to remember that there are hurting people in Palestine who need to know Christ and, indeed, that there is a church under persecution in Palestine that is hurt when we become so pro-Israel that they are labeled as enemies of Palestine. Let us constantly support them in our prayers by praying two things: peace for Israel and peace for Palestine.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Just Doing My Job

Jesus tells an interesting parable in Luke 17: 7-10 as he sets his face towards Jerusalem. It is a principle of servanthood that applies to the person who would seek to serve in God's kingdom.

To paraphrase it: "Does the boss see his hardworking crew sweating at their labor, take pity on them, and have them sit down to rest their weary bodies while he cooks and serves them? No. Instead, the servants must continue to serve their boss, even when they're tired. The boss doesn't thank them for doing their job because, well, it's their job. Instead, they merely say to themselves, 'Hey, we're laborers and we're just doing what we were hired to do. No biggie!"

Don't get me wrong. I believe in saying "Thank you" to someone who has done a good job in ministry. Encouragement is, after all, one of the gifts (see Rom. 12: 8).

But for the serious Christian, there is something obligatory about ministry. This is part of what Jesus is getting at here. When I am tired and worn out, and people seem to take my service for granted--so what? I'm just doing what I'm supposed to do.

It is why Paul seemed to love to refer to himself as a "slave of Christ." Normally, a person in Paul's day would not boast about being a slave. He saw himself as not just any slave, but a slave "of Christ!"

Thank you, sons of Korah, for some great lyrics: "I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked" (Ps. 84: 10).

Perhaps we can begin to adopt the same kind of attitude. When ministry seems difficult and people ungrateful, instead of getting upset, we could just say to ourselves, "Oh well. No biggie. I'm just doing my job."

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Prophetic People

I grew up in a very liberal and non-charismatic environment. But when I visited a charismatic group during my time at college, it was the gift of prophecy that impacted me the most.

God spoke to me through various words of prophecy spoken after worship. And it started me on a life of listening for God's voice as a spiritual discipline and a consistent expectation.

But I'm afraid that even those who claim to be pentecostal or charismatic have become jaded to the operation of this gift.

Paul said to the Thessalonians, "Do not put out the Spirit's fire; do not treat prophecies with contempt" (1 Thes. 5: 19-20). I think Paul had to say this--because there is a tendency to treat prophecies with contempt!

My understanding of the theology of the Church (ecclesiology) is that we are called, not just to prophesy, but to be a "prophetic" people. Peter says we are called to "declare the praises" of God. And in the book of Acts, when the Spirit was poured out on the church on the day of Pentecost, Peter points to Joel's prophecy, in essence saying that a sign of the arrival of the kingdom of God is that ALL of the people of God will prophesy.

So what are we supposed to do about it? I think we must actively seek God's voice--individually and in our churches. As you sit in God's presence in your own prayer times and as you worship corporately, ask for God to speak to you. Then listen, patiently. Finally, speak what you hear Him saying to you. Let us become the prophetic people we were called to be.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Journey of Faith

In 1989, while I was on a ministry trip to Australia, God gave me a scripture address to look up. This was rather unusual for me. The address was Heb. 11: 8:

"By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.”

I had always wanted to have all my ducks in a row before I ventured out. Call it hyper-vigilance.

Life can be scary. Like stepping out on a frozen river and wondering if the ice is thick enough to hold my weight. Hearing the cracking of ice under my feet and afraid that it will let go at any moment and I will be plunged into the icy depths.

But when God gave me this scripture, I began to realize that I will never be able to take the risk out of living. In fact, it is the uncertainty of the faith journey that makes it exciting and drives me into a radical dependency on Him.

Proverbs 3: 5-6 says it best: "Trust in the LORD with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight."

My job is to trust, lean on and acknowledge the Lord. His job is the path.

None of us knows what the next 5 minutes will bring. But He does. Why not grab hold of His hand and just walk with Him at His pace? Let Him worry about the path, You worry about sticking as close to Him as possible.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Pass It On

Paul was someone who described himself as an "expert builder" (1 Cor. 3: 10).

How true that is. He entered pagan towns like Corinth and Ephesus throughout the Roman empire and laid a foundation for the church that continues to this day.

Imagine how brief a time Paul had to train the leaders that he raised up and left in charge of the flock. And imagine how difficult it was to communicate in those days. He didn't leave elaborate DVD sets with study guides. He couldn't Skype the Philippians for a coaching session. Yet he was able to impart the faith in such a way that the church began to grow and to thrive.

Paul's instruction to Timothy is key: "And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable [people] who will also be qualified to teach others" (2 Tim. 2: 2).

Paul's model was simple. Impart the faith to faithful leaders, who will impart it to others, who will impart it to others, who will impart it to others, and on and on.

And part of the way Paul imparted the faith was to be a model himself. Of course, Paul got this directly from Jesus Himself. Notice the pattern.

• Jesus: "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13: 15).
• Paul: "Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ" (1 Cor. 11: 1).
• Timothy: "Set an example for the believers in speech, in life, in love, in faith, and in purity" (1 Tim. 4: 12).
• Titus: "Set them an example by doing what is good" (Tit. 2: 7).

Someone has said that the church is always one generation away from extinction. Are you modeling the faith for others who will be passing it on as well? In this way, the church will continue to grow and thrive...til Jesus returns for His bride.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A Matter of Orientation

I am not sure who first said it, but there is a quote floating around: "The church is the only institution that exists for the sake of non-members."

Karl Barth said something similar when he defined church as "community for the sake of the world." I would modify that slightly to "Christ-centered community for the sake of the world."

God's purpose for His people has always included an evangelistic component. Just look at the covenant promise to Abraham, restated many times to him and to Isaac and to Jacob. Loosely paraphrased, there are four parts to the covenant promise: 1) land, 2) offspring, 3) blessing, and 4) to be a blessing to all nations.

The fourth point is often called "the bottom line of the covenant." In other words, God's purpose in selecting Abraham, and through him, the children of Israel, was that the glory of God would be displayed to all nations and that they would be drawn to the worship of the One True God. That is Isaiah's point: "I will keep you and make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles" (Isa. 42:6b).

Unfortunately, Israel liked the first three parts of the covenant, because they were the recipients. But the bottom line did not seem to be such a great deal. That is why Jesus got so upset when a bazaar was set up in the part of the temple called, "the court of the Gentiles." He drove them all out saying, "Is it not written: 'My house will be called a house of prayer FOR ALL NATIONS'? But you have made it a 'den of robbers'" (Mark 11: 17).

Before we start pointing fingers at Israel, however, we in the church should take a long hard look at ourselves. Are we building the institution of the church for the purpose of blessing the world, or do we have a tendency to build it more like a fortress to hide in, hoping that Jesus comes back before the barbarians break through?

Jesus said, "The Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19: 10). What changes should we make to reorient ourselves towards fulfilling our primary mission, reaching a lost world with the good news of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God?

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In His Tracks

So many things happened on the night that Jesus was betrayed. Perhaps the most intense was the prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. Jesus faced the impending task of finishing his mission on earth. His "hour" for which He had been sent into the world.

As I think about the intensity of Jesus' struggles in prayer: "Lord, if it is possible, take this cup from me..." Then eventually, "Lord, if it is NOT possible..."

But always Jesus came back to the realization that this indeed was the Father's will for Him and He was needing the strength to go all the way. "Yet not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26: 39).

He took only three of His closest disciples with Him to "watch" or "stand vigil" with Him. Yet, they could not make it through a single hour.

I suppose many of us feel guilt when we hear Jesus exclaim, "Could you men not keep watch with me for one hour?" (Matt. 26: 40). But I don't think Jesus was angry or intended to shame them. Instead, I hear his sense of amazement, "Things are worse than I thought. Even my best disciples are powerless to join in spiritual warfare with me. Humanity is indeed utterly lost. I am not only alone, but ONLY I can do what needs to be done."

Jesus was our only hope for salvation. And He didn't let us down. He went all the way.

The writer of Hebrews says, "Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from what He suffered and, once made [complete], He became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him" (Heb. 5: 8).

Jesus showed us obedience. He calls anyone who wants to be His disciple to find out what they've been called to do, pick up their own cross daily, and follow Him in His example of complete obedience. Thus we are to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb. 12: 2).

I used to be an avid hiker. And when you hike through snow, someone has to go in front to make the first tracks. But if you are following, it is best to try to walk in their tracks.

Jesus is the pioneer of the faith who made a path for us to follow. Discipleship is simply following Him in such a way that we place our feet in His tracks and follow His example of radical obedience.