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.