Thursday, December 27, 2012

Learning from Christmas for the Whole Year

I had a different kind of Christmas this year. I went through a lot of my normal rituals: putting up the decorations; making my special Almond Butter Toffee; buying and wrapping gifts; reading Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and then watching several of my favorite movies, etc. But a few things were also different.

First, our former church closed at the end of March and we are currently working on gathering leaders for our new church. However, this means we did not do our usual free gift-wrapping outreach. Nor did we have a Christmas Eve candlelight service. Nor did we put on a special service on the Sunday before Christmas. So, my church routine has been disrupted. (Now, we did have a couple of new Christmas experiences with our new and growing church family. So, the promise of new traditions is awakened.)

Second, we did not have any celebration with either my family or my wife's family. I realized that this was the first time in my life that I did not spend time with some part of our extended family, ever.

Third, I opened only one gift on Christmas day--and I had both purchased it and wrapped it myself (although the label said it was from my wife).

Now, please don't get me wrong. I am not complaining--just observing. I am not sure if this means something, but it does feel like a kind of life-passage.

As I thought about it on the day after Christmas, I realized that it was one of the nicest Christmases I've had in awhile. My wife and I read the Christmas story to one another on Christmas Eve and we were  both overcome with a lot of emotion. Tears flowed. The wonder of what God has done for us washed over us.

Then we had friends join us to watch The Nativity Story and--more tears.

I had gotten gifts for friends and their children who seemed to really enjoy them. I played Scrabble with three young'ns for whom it was a first time. I had a blast.

In Acts 20: 35, Paul quotes Jesus (from an unknown source), "It is more blessed to give than to receive."

Perhaps this is really the "true meaning of Christmas". God gave the greatest gift of all time. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 9: 15: "Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!"

In The Nativity Story, Mary says to the old shepherd, "We have all been given a gift." God's generosity overflowed to all mankind. And we have all been given the greatest of all gifts.

And at the same time, we have been shown what a blessing true generosity can be. In the end, it is not about what we get, but about what we give. Our generosity is a reflection of the very heart of God:
"For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor. 8: 9).

Don't let such godliness wait only for the Christmas season. Let us determine to grow in the coming year so that we "excel in this grace of giving" (2 Cor. 8: 7) all the time.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Newtown, Longfellow and Christmas

On Friday, a young man in Newtown, Connecticut, shot his mother, leaving her dead. Then he took his mother's guns and proceeded to Sandy Hook Elementary School where she had worked and shot and killed 20 young students and 6 adults. Finally, he turned the gun on himself.

A shocked nation reacted with increasing anguish over a weekend of non-stop news coverage. And this week, each day, there are multiple funeral services with undersized coffins and grieving parents who will never get to see their precious innocent children bloom into firemen and teachers and business owners and pastors and parents themselves.

Perhaps making the grief more severe is the fact that we are so close to Christmas. The holiday that promises to lift our spirits and to help us bond to our extended families. Most of us feel compassion and empathy for the families for whom the season will probably just be a reminder of what they are missing.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, one of the greatest American poets, experienced incredible pain in his life. His first wife died when he was young, leaving him to grieve for the next seven years. His next wife bore him five children. But in 1861, she was tragically burned to death. Longfellow hated the Civil War that followed shortly thereafter. His oldest son enlisted and was seriously wounded in battle and sent home to recover.

Tending to his son's injuries and seeing so many other wounded soldiers, he began to anguish over the tragedy of the war. It was on Christmas Day, 1863, that he listened to the church bells of Cambridge ringing. He asked the question, "Where is the promise of 'Peace on earth' that was announced by the angels on the first Christmas?"

And so he wrote a wonderful poem that explored that very question. In the midst of National grief, violence and tragedy, where is the peace that God promised? When it was set to music almost ten years later, it was hugely popular in both America and Europe (omitting the 4th and 5th verses specific to the Civil War--but included here):

I heard the bells on Christmas day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

I thought how, as the day had come,
The belfries of all Christendom
Had rolled along th'unbroken song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

And in despair I bowed my head:
"There is no peace on earth," I said,
"For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men."

Then from each black, accursed mouth
The cannon thundered in the South,
And with the sound the carols drowned
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn, the households born
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men.

Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
"God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, goodwill to men."

Till ringing, singing on its way
The world revolved from night to day--
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime
Of peace on earth, goodwill to men!

No matter what you encounter during this season, "God is not dead, nor doth he sleep; The wrong shall fail, the right prevail, so--Peace on Earth; Goodwill to Men!"

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Jeremiah and Christmas Trees

When I was a student at UCLA (many moons ago), I took a very literal approach to the reading of scripture. We might today describe this as a "fundamentalist" way of reading the Bible. Such an approach says that, if I can read the words and they mean something in my current life situation, then there is no further reason to study. The choice is simply to obey it.

That is how I used to read Jeremiah 10: 3-5:
"For the customs of the peoples are worthless; they cut a tree out of the forest, and a craftsman shapes it with his chisel. They adorn it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so it will not totter. Like a scarecrow in a melon patch, their idols cannot speak; they must be carried because they cannot walk. Do not fear them; they can do no harm nor can they do any good.'"

I read this and, since it sounded somewhat like the description of a Christmas Tree, I knew that I must simply obey. I stopped participating in this tradition. And the feeling of spiritual superiority that came from taking such a stand was self-authenticating. I didn't have a Christmas Tree for about seven years.

The problem was that my understanding of Jeremiah was based on bad exegesis. (Exegesis is the science of interpreting what the writer meant when he wrote so that we can draw proper conclusions.)

George Eldon Ladd, former professor of New Testament Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena describes the Bible as "the Word of God written in the words of men (people) in history."

The Word of God...
We know that the scriptures are "God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3:16), and therefore, the Bible is God's authoritative and unique Word to us and is His faithful guide for all faith and practice. We do not look to tradition or church hierarchy or new words of prophecy in the same way that we look to the Word of God. This is perhaps the key distinguishing feature of the Protestant Reformation--sola scripture--meaning that we depend solely on the Bible for our authority.

...written in the words of people...
Yet, God did not write the words in the Bible directly (except the Ten Commandments and the words on the walls of Babylon). He used people--apostles and prophets--to write the 66 books. Therefore, we talk about the five books "of Moses." Jesus talks about Moses and David writing material. That is why we can tell the difference between Luke and Paul's writing styles--because God used human vessels to write the actual words, even though they reflect His Word to us. history.
Finally, those words were written at a time in history. Moses wrote his books to a nation delivered from slavery, needing to understand their own history and national identity and unique calling to be the People of God. Paul wrote letters to specific churches who were going through struggles. For instance, 1st Corinthians is obviously written in response to oral reports and a letter describing specific ethical and theological problems in Corinth--lawsuits, incest, eating meat offered to idols, etc.

So, let's look at Jeremiah. The tradition of the Christmas Tree came out of Germany in the 15th or 16th century. And Christ was not born for hundreds of years after Jeremiah. So, what was he thinking about when he wrote this verse?

Idols were figures that were carved out of wood and then covered in gold or silver leaf. Then, they were nailed in place on a family altar or temple altar. Sometimes they would be paraded through the streets. They represented gods that were worshiped by the pagans or even the spirits of departed relatives.

So, Jeremiah was obviously mocking the ludicrous practice of worshiping something made by human hands. I don't know about you, but I have never worshiped a Christmas Tree. It might be more likely that people are worshiping their new car than their tree. Instead, our tree has a decorative purpose for the holidays. And, topped with a star, it becomes a reminder of the Christmas story and the blessing of the incarnation of the Son of God over 2000 years ago.

So--enjoy your Christmas Tree this year. But always use it as a way to remember the glorious and blessed arrival of Immanuel, God-With-Us.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Manger and Cross

"While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in [swaddling] cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn" (Luke 2: 6-7).

My Italian grandmother came to America when she was 20 years old, so her English was very broken. At Christmastime, we would sit down to a great dinner and she would say, "Mangia! Mangia! Y'eat! Y'eat!"

The English word for a feeding trough is "manger" which comes from the French manger, which means "to eat."

On the surface, the story seems to simply tell us the humble facts of the incarnation of the Son of God. The poor and desperate couple, traveling under great duress, must make do with whatever is at hand to accommodate the new baby. I have heard modern stories of parents using shoe-boxes or dresser drawers in a pinch for the same purpose. Whether the manger was a crude wooden crib, or a stone trough carved into a cave wall, the point is that the parents needed to improvise with what was at hand.

But every time I gaze on the nativity scene that I set up every year in my living room, I think of the profound truth that is conveyed to us in this simple word "manger." And I am sure that our loving God was painting a living picture that conveys so much more than Mary and Joseph could have intended or even known at the time.

Jesus, in John's gospel, tells us: "I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world" (John 6: 51). This important passage is John's commentary on the Eucharist. Jesus' body is the manna from heaven which is given to sustain the life of the world, a truth that is re-enacted every time that Christians eat the communion bread.

And it is no coincidence that the city of David, where the Holy Child was born, is called Beth-lechem, which literally means "house of bread."

Paul, in the earliest "words of institution" for commemorating "the Lord's Supper," says, "'This is my body, which is for you...'" (1 Cor. 11: 24). So often we mentally insert the word "broken" or, as in Luke's gospel, "given." But these are notably absent here.

Jesus' body IS for us. That is, the incarnation itself, the en-flesh-ment of God the Son, was accomplished for our sakes. The manna from God that we needed to give us real life was totally for our sakes. And God showed us this reality by placing the Bread of Life in a manger, the place of eating.

Of course, the bread is only half of the Eucharist. There are two elements: bread AND wine. This baby, laid in a feeding trough, is destined to spill His blood in order to reconcile the world to God. And so, Christmas is the first part of the frame. The picture will not be complete until the second frame is completed, the pouring out of the blood of the new covenant on the cross.

"Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink...This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever" (John 6: 54-55, 58).

And that is the picture of our salvation. Bread and wine. Body and blood. Manger and cross.

Friday, November 30, 2012

The Cut-Flower Syndrome

Will Herberg was an American Jewish sociologist and theologian who turned from his Communist roots to join the Conservative movement during the days of William F. Buckley, Jr.

In Judaism and Modern Man he wrote:
"The attempt made in recent decades by secularist thinkers to disengage the moral principles of western civilization from their scripturally based religious context, in the assurance that they could live a life of their own as "humanistic" ethics, has resulted in our "cut flower culture." Cut flowers retain their original beauty and fragrance, but only so long as they retain the vitality that they have drawn from their now-severed roots; after that is exhausted, they wither and die. So with freedom, brotherhood, justice, and personal dignity — the values that form the moral foundation of our civilization. Without the life-giving power of the faith out of which they have sprung, they possess neither meaning nor vitality."

In other words, flowers still look like flowers when they are cut and put in a vase. But they are doomed to wither and die. So it is with Western ethics. Germinated from a Judeo-Christian foundation, the flower is beautiful. But now, severed from the roots of faith, it is destined to wither and die.

In my opinion, we are in the withering phase of "cut flower culture" in the USA and following hard after the almost completely dead phase being experienced in much of Western Europe. There is a thinning veneer of Christian ethics being replaced by an ethics based on relativism and humanistic philosophy devoid of God.

But my purpose with this blog is not to whine and complain about the post-Christian culture emerging in the West. Instead, I want to look at the danger of the "cut-flower syndrome" in the church.

The church is always one generation away from extinction. Vital Christian faith is not passed genetically like hair color. We cannot simply assume that our children will "catch" it because they are our kids or because they go to church with us. We must introduce them to Jesus and call them to a vital and life-long discipleship to Him.

In the same way, we cannot assume that building a wonderful worship-center and Christian education building in a great location will ensure the passing on of the baton to the next generation. Buildings and endowments keep the flower going, but are not necessarily connecting it to the roots.

Israel demonstrated the same cut-flower syndrome throughout its history. David and Solomon raised the country to world-prominence and glory with the building of palace and temple and the conquering of foes. The Queen of Sheba made the long trip to marvel at the glory of it all.

"She said to the king, 'The report I heard in my own country about your achievements and your wisdom is true. But I did not believe these things until I came and saw with my own eyes. Indeed, not even half was told me; in wisdom and wealth you have far exceeded the report I heard. How happy your men must be! How happy your officials, who continually stand before you and hear your wisdom! Praise be to the LORD your God, who has delighted in you and placed you on the throne of Israel. Because of the LORD's eternal love for Israel, he has made you king, to maintain justice and righteousness'" (1 Kings 10: 6-9).

The external glory of palace, temple, priesthood, army, precious articles of worship, etc.--these can be mistaken for the important elements of national identity. But it was the Presence of God that descended on the Temple at its dedication that made it holy. Just as the dusty old Tabernacle in the wilderness, as crude and unimpressive as it must have looked from the outside, had been filled with the cloud of God's Presence in the desert. 

And so, when Ezekiel observes the departure of the Presence of God from the Temple, it is the cut-flower principle from then on. The Temple remains, but the Presence is gone.

That is why Jesus responds to his disciples' expressions of awe over the impressive Temple of Herod: "'Do you see all these things?,' he asked. 'I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down'" (Matt. 24: 2). 

The People of God had fallen in love with the buildings, and the rituals, and the external forms--but had been cut-off from the roots--the very Presence of God. And as somebody who has toured many churches and cathedrals in Europe, I can say that many of them stand like withering flowers--still beautiful but devoid of life.

Let us learn a lesson from Israel. It's okay to enjoy prosperity and to build impressive church facilities. But let us never become so enamored with those externals that we get disconnected from the roots of a vibrant and life-giving faith in Jesus Himself--and let us not settle for anything that substitutes for His Presence among us. Even if you're meeting Him in a tent in the desert, His Presence makes all the difference.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

The Examined Life

"The unexamined life is not worth living." Thus Plato quotes his teacher, Socrates.

Of course Socrates is talking about the need for the moral person to examine his life in light of "virtue" so that he or she can live a good life. The life that seeks to live ethically pure results in the greatest good.

Certainly for the Christian, the concept is also true. Only by looking into our own hearts and examining our own behaviors can we hope to change. Not only is it important that our behavior come under scrutiny, but the motives behind our behavior must also be judged. Thus Jesus says, it is not just sinful to commit adultery, but it is sinful to give in to lustful thoughts. It is not just sinful to murder my brother, it is sinful to live with hatred towards my brother.

But the examination of our hearts is not left solely to our own conscience. In other words, just because I am not feeling convicted, it does not justify my behavior.

For example, a disturbing trend in our digital age is that many young people do not think that sharing pirated copies of music with their friends is wrong. It doesn't feel wrong to share with my friends. And besides, the music industry is rich and can afford it. The idea of piracy being wrong does not intrude on my personal behavior.

And so, we need external and objective standards by which to evaluate our own hearts. That is why the Bible is so important.

"For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart" (Heb. 4:12).

Paul says that the Word is "useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2Tim. 3:16).

But if it was just a matter of changing my mind, Christian transformation would be easy. But as soon as our minds are convinced of God's ethical way and we want to change from walking according to the "flesh," we find that a "war" is going on between the "law of sin in my members" and the "law of my mind." (Read Rom. 7). We need a power greater than ourselves in order to truly change.

It is the Holy Spirit who takes the Word of God and empowers us to apply it so that it has a transformative affect in our lives. The scriptures are "God-breathed." You could say that the Breath-of-God, who is the Holy Spirit, wrote them. And so the Holy Spirit resonates within us when we read His own words in a way that applies to us personally. "You have an anointing from the Holy One, and you know the truth...His anointing teaches you about all things..." (1John 2:20, 27).

The Holy Spirit is the one who empowers us to be "renewed in the Spirit of our minds" (Eph. 4:23) so that we are "transformed by the renewing of our minds" (Rom. 12:2).

The point of all this? In order to truly change into the people that God intends us to be, we need not only to be students of the Word, but we also must be filled with the Spirit who makes us holy. And so the formula goes: one part Bible + one part self-examination + one part Holy Spirit = transformed life.

How's your journey of transformation going?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Living in Exile

Dave Kinnaman, in his excellent book, You Lost Me, explains three categories of Young Adults (18-29 year-olds) who are leaving the church in higher numbers than previous generations. One of the categories he describes is "exiles." And his description resonates with a lot of my experience, not just with young people, but with people of all ages.

Kinnaman defines exiles as "those who grew up in the church and are now physically or emotionally disconnected in some way, but who also remain energized to pursue God-honoring lives...They feel lost, yet hopeful" (p. 75).

There are many examples of exiles in the scriptures. Daniel stands out.

"The king...brought in young be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king's service" (Dan. 1: 3-5)

Here was a pious Jewish boy, plucked out of his sheltered religious world and plopped down in Babylon. In fact, he is selected for an upwardly-mobile career in the courts of King Nebuchadnezzar. Sounds like so many sheltered Christian kids, home-schooled, or raised in Christian schools, or living in families whose lives revolve around the weekly church calendar (Sunday School, Youth Group, outreaches, missions trips, etc).  Then they are sent off to college, never to darken the door of the church again, perhaps visiting only when they are on holiday with their family--but somehow emotionally distant from church.

Yet, Daniel remains devoted to the worship of Yahweh even in his new pagan surroundings.

"But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine...To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning" (Dan. 1: 8, 17).

Not only that, but Daniel is highly talented and full of favor. So much so that he and his friends rise to the top of their new profession.

"Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds...The king talked with them, and he found none equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so they entered the king's service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom" (Dan. 1: 17, 19-20).

But I wonder what the Jewish separatists thought of them working alongside magicians and enchanters? What message does the church send to artists, academics, scientists and musicians as they seek to live out their giftedness in the world? Do we encourage them or cast aspersions on their profession? At least we know that Daniel had three other friends who shared his calling and they could encourage one another.

I remember how important it was to have the support of my fellow Christian students as I attended UCLA (many years ago). How was I to integrate the professional but secular teaching I was receiving with my growing faith? The problem for many young people is that they may be given the subtle message that only a Christianized profession is acceptable. Anything else is suspect.

With that in mind, it is interesting to watch Daniel walk the line of maintaining the integrity of his faith while living out his calling as a "magus" in the Babylonian court.

In John 17, Jesus prayed for his disciples who were being sent into the world, just like He had been sent by the Father. But not so that they would come out of the world or hunker down in a Christian ghetto trying to survive this life, waiting for the rapture. Instead, Jesus prayed that they would be "sanctified" or set apart as holy while they walked out their call IN the world.

Young people need our encouragement as they seek to live as a Christian IN but not OF the world. Rather than hiding their talent in the ground of Christian culture, they want to invest it in the world so that it bears the kind of interest that God intends.

In the world but not of the world. That is the line we all must walk. Daniel did it. Jesus did it. And we are called to do the same.

Is the church helping young people to live out their calling in the world like good disciples of Jesus Christ?

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Worship Like a Dog

My dog loves me unconditionally.

How do I know that? No matter what mood I'm in, she comes to me for affection. No matter whether I'm good to her, or mad at her, or even indifferent to her, she wants to be near me. Even when I express anger towards her, rather than running away from me she presses in to me for affection.

In his conversation with the Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus says, "Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kinds of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and truth" (John 4: 23-24).

Worship is the central activity of the child of God. Not only are we called upon to worship now in this life, but notice that this is the preoccupation of the 24 elders in the book of Revelation. Every time something happens, they fall on their faces in worship before the Lamb.

The primary word in the New Testament that is translated "worship" is proskuneo. By the time of the writing of the New Testament, it had the primary idea of a supplicant approaching their superior and making obeisance. That is, kneeling and then prostrating with forehead touching the ground. Think of devout Muslims on their prayer rugs bowing in reverence.

But the roots of the word convey something more intimate. The word means literally "draw near to kiss." So, the vassal would kneel, take the hand of the superior and kiss it. Imagine the supplicant kissing the Pope's ring.

But if we go even farther back than this, the word is derived from kuon which literally means to kiss the hand like when a dog licks the hand of his master. You see my dog worships me.

From this I derive three ideas:

First, true worship involves our whole being including our bodies. It is not enough to think worshipful thoughts in our heads, we must express it through our bodies. We in the West, often forget that faith is not just lived out in our beliefs divorced from our actions. "Faith without works (deeds, actions) is dead (lifeless, frozen)" (James 2: 26). So, if the song you are singing says, "I lift up my hands...", why not lift up your hands? If you sing, "I bow before you...", why not bow before Him? If you sing, "I kneel down...", why not kneel down?

Second, God loves it when we worship Him. He is actively seeking for those who will give themselves to spiritual and truthful worship. We can expect to experience God's loving Presence in our midst when we give ourselves to real worship.

Third, worship is an expression of our unconditional love for God. Just like a dog licking her master's hand--we are called to eagerly love God through worship. Not because we always "feel loving" towards God (see my last blog entry titled, "Love God") but because He is our Master and we are His people and that is what the relationship is all about.

Worship in many ways is simply bringing all things into proper alignment. He's the Creator and I'm the creature--and worship reflects that reality. He's God and I'm not--and worship reflects that reality. He's the source of all grace and I'm the recipient of all heavenly blessings--and worship reflects that reality.

So, why not learn to worship like a dog?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Love God

In the second episode of the last (seventh) season of the TV series, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Captain Picard is rescued after crash-landing on a planet by a beautiful woman who presents herself to be the 7-year survivor of a cargo ship crash. There seems to be a real possibility for romance, except that Picard starts to get suspicious. So, when he does not seem to be taking the bait, she screams at him, "Love me! Oh, why won't you love me?!"

It turns out that she is actually the transformed male ambassador, Voval, who is trying to experience the human concept of "love" firsthand. What he doesn't understand is that love does not happen "on command."

When Jesus was asked in Matthew 22: 36, "What is the greatest commandment in the Law?", without hesitation he says, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind" (vs. 35). Of course he is quoting from the "Shema" of Deuteronomy 6.

When I read that, it is hard not to hear an insistent God saying: "LOVE ME!" Can we choose to love someone as an act of our will--especially when it is accompanied by the commandment to do so?

The answer is an emphatic "YES!"

God is not commanding us to "fall in love" with Him. Falling in love is a very modern preoccupation, beginning with the "strum und drang" movement of the nineteenth century. Romanticism places passions, intuition and feelings above rationalism. Romanticism led to pervasive Nationalism in the West that, in turn, led to the rise of Fascism and other totalitarian "isms". The effects of Romanticism are still widely felt today in a pervasive relativism. "If it feels good, do it."

But that is not really a biblical concept. The Bible posits that the truth is an objective reality rooted in God. Thus Jesus says that He Himself is the Truth. He is the Word of God, spoken in a way that cannot be mistaken. Therefore, our faith rests upon something that is eternally true. It does not rest upon  the shifting sands of emotion.

To love God in the way that the Bible teaches is more of an action of the whole being than merely the fleeting surge of dopamines that accompany the feeling of love or infatuation.

To love God as the Bible commands is to reverence and serve Him as the true Lord and Savior. Loving God is primarily an act of our will, based upon our submission to His Lordship. All of this flows from the truth that "He's God--and I'm not" (a John Wimber-ism).

Since our emotions are a part of our own internal reality, we should feel loving towards God as we choose to love Him. But, just as in our other relationships, our feelings may shift. Even when we are not feeling "in love", yet we choose "to love".

My wife and I have owned German Shepherds throughout our marriage. One of them, I'll call "Shep", was a lovable galoot. But if he heard a loud noise like thunder, he would panic and do things like jump the fence. I would feel intensely angry with him because I was afraid of losing him like I lost his mother who disappeared from our yard a few years earlier. But just because I felt angry did not mean I did not love him. In fact, we tend to feel more intensely for those who are closest to us.

We may feel apathetic towards God. We may feel guilty. We may even feel angry. It does not necessarily mean we do not love God.

Whether or not we feel loving towards God at the moment, God is calling us to love Him with all of our heart, soul and mind. If we do, we will also probably feel loving towards God more and more frequently.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Day of Atonement

Yom Kippur is the highest holy day in the Jewish calendar--the Day of Atonement.

"Kippur" is from the same root word for the "mercy seat" or "atonement cover." That is, the solid gold lid that was placed on the top of the Ark of the Testimony. The Ark was a box made of acacia wood covered in hammered gold. In the box were placed the stone tablets upon which were the Ten Commandments written by the very finger of God. Also, a jar of manna and the rod of Aaron that budded (testifying to his selection as the High Priest--see Heb. 9: 4).

The Mercy Seat was made of gold with images of two cherubs looking downwards towards the box. In Isaiah chapter six, it is the cherubim who seem to protect the holiness of God. Thus, the symbolism here is that man's sinfulness contrasted with God's faithfulness is represented by the items in the box. The cherubim form a barrier to God's holiness.

And since their wings formed the back and armrest, the ark formed a throne where God, the Eternal King, would meet with Israel. But this could not happen unless God's holiness was satisfied.

On the Day of Atonement every year, the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies behind the curtain and sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice on the Mercy Seat. Thus, God's holiness was guarded as the sins of Israel were expiated (covered) and God's wrath was propitiated (satisfied or appeased). This allowed God Himself to meet with Israel at the place of atonement.

Even the word "atonement" is a theological word introduced from the adverb "atonen" which meant "in accord" or "at one" and probably first used in Tyndale's translation in the early 16th century.

In Romans 3: 25, Paul tells us that Jesus was the "sacrifice of atonement" for us. The word is so difficult to translate that the KJV renders it "propitiation" and the NASB "expiation." Propitiation looks God-ward in relation to our sins (God is satisfied). Expiation looks sin-ward (sins are covered). Atonement actually has both aspects in mind. Our sins are covered, God is satisfied and we are now reconciled, or made "at one" with God.

But the underlying reality is that Paul has the Septuagint word-group that the Greek translators used for kofer in mind. Perhaps we should read it more like this:
"God presented Jesus Christ as the Mercy Seat--the place where our sins are now covered and His righteous wrath is satisfied--the place where we are now made at-one with God."

The same Greek word-group is used infrequently in the New Testament, but when it is used, to incredibly powerful effect. Four of these occurrences:

"God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18: 13).

He is "the atoning sacrifice for our sins" (1 John 2: 2; 4: 10).

"For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he may be made a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people" (Heb. 2: 17).

The good news for us is that the Day of Atonement happened when "he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption" (Heb. 9: 12). And now we ourselves can "have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way..." (Heb. 10: 19-20a).

Although the Day of Atonement has now happened, for each person, God is calling us to place our faith in Jesus so that we can experience at-one-ment with Him. In this sense, every day can be the Day of Atonement. Have you placed your faith in Jesus, the one who, in Himself, is "the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only ours, but the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2: 2)?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

"Was Jesus Married?" and Other Red Herrings

Every few years someone "discovers" some amazing new archeological scrap of evidence that threatens to overturn a major assumption of our faith.

Today, news is breaking that some fragment of a 4th century document, supposedly quoting from a 2nd century source, hints that Jesus had a wife. Of course, this will provide further "proof" to people who swallowed the fiction novel, The DaVinci Code, by Dan Brown, as if it were uncovering a 2,000 year-old conspiracy to hide this same thing. It made for a fun read, as long as you did not spend years studying the actual ancient documents, or if you already hated the Catholic Church or Christianity and just wanted another reason to hate them.

The only problem is that you would have to ignore the vast preponderance of the evidence to believe that this proves anything more than that there was a movement in the 2nd century, dominated by the Gnostics, to re-invent Jesus for their own purposes. Young Christians are often duped into thinking that something like "The Gospel of Thomas" is another suppressed writing.

There is a reason that these writings were not included in the New Testament canon (the recognized authoritative writings). They were rejected because:
1.  They were not accepted as reflecting the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles;
2.  They could not be credited to an Apostle or someone with close proximity to an Apostle.

Early writings like "The Didache" and "Shepherd of Hermas" and the epistles of Ignatius and the writings of Clement were rejected, not as heretical, but not authoritatively inspired. The early church debated canonicity for centuries. Some rediscovered Gnostic writing, was consistently rejected by contemporaneous Christian leaders centuries ago.

Thus, the four Gospels were accepted as the direct teaching of an Apostle (Matthew and John) or were the work of the disciple of an Apostle (Mark from Peter, Luke from Paul). The Gospel of Thomas was written by someone in the 2nd century using the name of an Apostle to add credibility so that a heretical Gnostic slant on Jesus would be accepted. It was soundly rejected.

The rest of the New Testament is similar. Luke, who traveled with Paul, wrote Acts. Paul wrote many epistles (although scholars dispute some authorship). James and Jude, brothers of Jesus each wrote one epistle. Peter and John wrote epistles. John wrote Revelation. The book of Hebrews was attributed to Paul, but does not match his writing style. As Origen said, "Only God knows who wrote the epistle of Hebrews." But we do know that the early church accepted the Apostolic authority that resonates in the book of Hebrews. In my opinion, if it was written by someone we know, Apollos fits the bill. It is the best Greek in the New Testament and makes many arguments using neo-platonic logic. Apollos was from Alexandria, the center of Philo's school which utilized neo-platonism. And we know that Apollos was a strong teacher, compatible with Paul's teaching and accepted as an early apostle.

So why am I spending a blog column on seemingly esoteric textual issues?

I don't want you to be shaken up by titillating news stories and History-channel sensationalism that lacks real substance. God has given us His Word and the Church throughout history has affirmed the teaching of Jesus and the Apostles. Don't get fooled by flashy news stories that actually lack real substance.

In Peace with God, Billy Graham tells the story from the bombing of Warsaw by the Germans in World War II. "Warsaw was flattened, but on Jerusalem Street one wall of the Old British and Foreign Bible Society remained standing. On it were these words painted in large letters: 'HEAVEN AND EARTH WILL PASS AWAY, BUT MY WORDS WILL NOT PASS AWAY.'" (p. 24).

Jesus' words were recorded exactly the same in the three synoptic Gospels (Matt: 24: 35: Mark 13: 31; Luke 21: 33).

And after 2,000 years, the New Testament continues to stand as the authoritative Word of God to us today.

So, rather than try to find some scrap of evidence that might bring down that wall--perhaps we should begin to take it seriously. If it is indeed God's Word to us, maybe it is time that we actually studied it and obeyed it.

As G. K. Chesterton said: "The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried."

Friday, September 14, 2012

Redigging Wells

I live in a semi-arid region of the country--Southern California. With no big river or lake nearby to supply fresh water, and with historically rapid population growth, water rights have had to be acquired in far-reaching places like the Owens Valley and the Colorado River, hundreds of miles away, and the water has had to be moved from there to SoCal in great aqueducts, often through pumping stations over mountains. (For movie buffs, this is the underlying reality that fuels the plot of Chinatown).

But a lot of people, even in SoCal, are not aware that the northern area of Orange County, California, is served by one of the largest managed aquifer systems in the U.S.. That means that there are a series of ponds that capture rain and river runoff into "percolation" ponds that feed into deep underground aquifers. Then there are roughly 400 wells throughout the area to draw water from those underground lakes.

Wells were a very important source of water in the semi-arid herding region of southern Canaan during the time of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And we are told that Abraham dug significant wells to water his flocks. Perhaps the most famous is Beer Sheba (which means "the well of seven" or "the well of the oath").

When his son, Isaac, returned to the same areas to graze his flocks, he found that the wells that had been dug by his father had been blocked up by Abimelech and his men.

"So all the wells that his father's servants had dug during the time of his father Abraham, the Philistines stopped up, filling them with earth" (Gen. 26: 15).

Have you ever spent time growing in your prayer life and your spiritual life, only to go through a transformation and find later that those wells of spiritual discipline have been stopped up?

And so, Isaac started to dig the wells again for himself. At first he encountered a lot of opposition from his enemies, the Philistines. Thus he names the early wells Esek (dispute) and Sitnah (quarrel). But after a while, his efforts went uncontested. The next well is named "Rehoboth" meaning "wide places." You can almost hear Isaac sigh loudly, "Ahh, at last, elbow room!"

One of the things that we must do is to revisit the significant connections with God that have been dug in the past and rediscover what we may have forgotten. Perhaps you have kept a journal. (If not, I encourage you to start now.) How often do you go back and read what you've written?

Finally Isaac swears an oath of peace with Abimelech and his commander, Phicol;
"That day, Isaac's servants came and told him, 'We've found water!' He called it Shibah (the oath), and to this day the name of the town has been Beersheba (well of the oath)" (Gen. 26: 32-33).

The goal of digging the wells of spiritual connection with God is that we would be able to occupy the land that God is giving us. Figuratively, that means, that we grasp hold of the victories and the promises that God has given us and hold onto it. Rather than wandering away and allowing the enemy to steal that from us.

It does not mean that we have to live in the past. But it means that, as we move forward, we don't lose the richness of what God has already done in us.

Do you have an old well that has been stopped up in your life? Is it time to dig it up again?

Friday, September 7, 2012

Character Matters

In the midst of discussing how the Christian should endure suffering, Peter says, "But in your hearts revere (set apart) Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander" (1 Pet. 3: 15-16).

For the last two blogs I've discussed the importance of God's manifest Presence as central to our identity as the People of God. God's Spirit, poured out upon the church, makes us who we are.

But the Spirit of God is not just poured out to empower us in ministry or to enliven our worship--the Spirit is also poured out to make us holy, that is, to transform us into godly people whose very nature is Christ-like. That's why it is called the fruit of the SPIRIT.

Character matters. When we, as a people, are transformed in our character so that we begin to behave like our Lord Jesus, it will mark us as the People of God.

Notice in this text from Peter's letter how important our character as the suffering servant is in helping us to share the message.

First, our hearts must be consecrated and dedicated to the Lordship of Christ. Campus Crusade for Christ's classic tract, "The Four Spiritual Laws" got this right. Becoming a Christian means stepping down from the throne of my own life (heart) and bowing to Christ as Lord--kneeling to Him as He takes the throne of my heart.

And this bowing to Christ's lordship is not just a one-time event that brings me to salvation. It is a life-long, daily process of laying down my will to serve the will of my Master. This is Paul's exhortation in Romans 12--to offer our bodies as living sacrifices. I think this is a great thing to do daily.

Second, we must spend time allowing our minds to be transformed. That means we learn the true story of God and how every other story is subsumed into His Story. As we grow in our understanding of the truth, we will be prepared to "give an answer to everyone who asks [us] to give the reason for the hope that [we] have."

This means we not only read the Bible, but study it. And it means submitting ourselves to good teachers. Too many people get stuck in a mind-set that is unteachable. A true disciple of Jesus is a life-long learner.

Third, we must change in our character, taking on the very nature of Christ. Becoming gentle and respectful. So much so that we are known for our good behavior. The real disciple of Jesus is going to be "yoked" to Him and learn from Him--gentleness and humility. (Matt. 11: 29-30).

And it is impossible to grow in character without being committed to gathering regularly with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Like rocks in a tumbler, the slow friction between one another wears our imperfections and sharp edges away until we are shiny and the beauty of what was hidden is now exposed for all to see.

Is Christ truly "enthroned" in your heart? Why not bow before Him again today?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Presence of God: Part 2

In my last blog entry, I talked about the importance of the Presence of God to His people. I can't seem to stop thinking about this topic. So, here's more...

Exodus is one of my favorite books in the Old Testament. It describes how God called an enslaved nation out of bondage and into a journey of faith. In doing this, He transformed them from a crowd into The People of God.

To do this, He raised up a prophetic leader: Moses. He intervened miraculously, crushing the pagan deities and powers of darkness and leading the people into a kind of baptism through the Red Sea. He guided and provided for His people. He brought them to the mountain where He formed His covenant with them.

He gave them the ceremonial, political and ethical laws that enabled them to walk in that covenant relationship with Him. Included in this were even the blue prints for the Tabernacle, the ceremonial tools, the priestly garments and the instructions in how to consecrate themselves for service.

The people were flawed. They grumbled, they were strong-willed and resisted God's instructions and God's prophet. But God still remained faithful.

If the creation of the People of God is the plot of Exodus, the Presence of God is the theme.

God's Presence is first revealed to Moses through the bush that seemed to be in flames, yet was not consumed. Then, God's Presence appears as a pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night to protect His People from the pursuing armies of Pharaoh as they seem to be trapped by the Red Sea. God's Presence is with them continually to lead them from site to site. And even before the Tabernacle was constructed, God's Presence appeared to Moses at the Tent of Meeting (Ex. 33: 7-11). Moses brings the elders with him onto the mountain where they all experience God's Presence. And of course, when Moses ascends up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, God's fearsome Presence seems to consume the whole top of the mountain.

And, as I highlighted in my last post, the climax of the entire book is the coming of the Presence of God as a thick cloud on the newly-built Tabernacle, finally consecrated for service in the wilderness.

With this in mind, one little verse has always stuck with me. The first part says, "Yahweh would speak to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend..." (Ex. 33: 11a). This verse awakens a deep yearning in my heart to have this kind of friendship with God. Oh, that I could say, "God would speak to Mark face to face, as a man speaks to his friend."

And the rest of the verse also speaks to me: "Then, even when Moses had to return to the camp, his young aide Joshua son of Nun did not leave the tent" (Ex. 33: 11b). And even when others walk away, Lord, can I just hang around in your Presence as long as possible?

Let us recapture the true theme of our identity as the People of God--the very Presence of God in our midst.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Presence of God

At our Sunday evening gathering this last week, when the last notes of "Breathe" by Marie Barnett still lingered in the air, everyone sat silently, most of them with eyes closed. There was a palpable sense of God's presence there and no one wanted to break the atmosphere by speaking.

This is what drew me to the Vineyard over 25 years ago. And it is what, I believe, people everywhere are yearning to experience as well--the manifest Presence of God in our midst.

In Exodus 33: 15-16, Moses says to God, "If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?"

Of course, God promises to go with Moses and the people. In fact, His Presence is first manifested through the cloud during the day and the pillar of fire at night. In the climax of the book of Exodus, with the completion of the Tabernacle and all of the articles of worship and the consecration of Aaron and his sons--then the Presence of God filled the Tabernacle.

And with the completion and dedication of the first Temple of Solomon, we have a similar phenomenon: "When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of Yahweh (the LORD). And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of Yahweh (the LORD) filled his temple" (1 Kings 8: 10-11).

But by the time Jesus arrived, the third temple (of Herod) was being built and sacrifices were continuing, yet the Presence had left. As Ezekiel described in his 10th chapter, the glory of Yahweh had departed the Temple.

And Jesus expressed his anger at the market that had been set up in the Court of the Gentiles, effectively pushing, not just people, but God Himself out of the way. Driving the merchants out and turning over their tables, he said, "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).

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left a new People, who themselves are the new Temple. "Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you (all)?" (1 Cor. 3:16).

The point is this: God's Presence is the hope and the promise and should be the legacy of the People of God. Do we hunger and thirst for Him enough to set aside our agendas so that we make room for him? Let us have the same zeal for our Father's house (that's us) so that we settle for nothing less than His very Presence manifest in our midst.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Living Water

There's nothing like chocolate to soothe me when I'm feeling down--and that's the problem.

Gerald May, in his fabulous book, Addiction and Grace, says in effect, that humans are created with an ache to be filled in our hearts in a way that, ultimately, only God Himself can fill. Saint Augustine said something similar, that is, that each of us has a kind of God-shaped vacuum.

"Thou hast made us for thyself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in thee" (Augustine).

The problem for us humans is that we tend to look to sensual things to scratch that itch when the answer is really spiritual.

Jeremiah says it to Israel: "My people have committed two sins: they have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water" (Jer. 2: 10).

A cistern was a huge sunken vessel, like a water-well, that provided water in arid places. Obviously, a broken cistern would leak and become useless. Going to a broken cistern for water is futile.

For Israel, the "broken cisterns" were the idols of the nations whom they had begun to worship instead of Yahweh, the One True God, who had actually redeemed them from Egypt and given them the Promised Land. How could those who had been so miraculously delivered turn away from God?

"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" (Jer. 17: 9).

The answer lies in the deceptive nature of our own hearts. And who does our heart deceive more than ourselves? When I yearn to be filled with God's comforting love and presence, I convince myself that something other-than-God will satisfy me. For me it is chocolate. For others it is alcohol or work or spending. You name it, you can go to it for water and find that it does not really satisfy.

God is the source of living water. And we know that Jesus claimed this moniker for himself.

"If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink," Jesus said in John 7: 37. And when we learn to bring our deepest thirsts to Him, when we draw from the well of living water, there will be an overflow from within us. "Whoever believes in me, as the scriptures have said, streams of living water will flow from within him" (John 7: 38).

Let's learn to go to the True Well of Living Water when we're thirsty.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Why Mobs Are Not the Answer

The horrific story from Aurora, Colorado in recent days about the slaughter of innocents in a movie theater kept me somewhat glued to live cable news this week.

One of the fascinating things about our modern telecom-connected world is that we can get people's instantaneous reactions telecast, YouTubed, FaceBooked and tweeted as they happen. No waiting for any investigation or careful reflection. We are bombarded with raw emotions and knee-jerk judgments. But I am afraid that it is just such instant overload that threatens to bury us in reactionism and mob rule. Fortunately, none of the rhetoric over this event has led to any rioting.

But take the other recent tragedy, the shooting death of young Trayvon Martin. There was reaction to the partial news that an African-American youth had been shot by a "white man", George Zimmerman, and he had not been taken into custody. Much of the information that began to come out turned out to be either incomplete or just plain false. The resulting emotional frenzy could have led to a lot of further violence and even now, the actual facts are somewhat shrouded. A jury is going to have to decide.

I mention these news events, not to take a position on them, but to lament the loss of the spiritual disciplines in the Christian community. So often, we are just as guilty as the general public in taking a stand based on emotionalism and reactionism, rather than on careful meditative reflection.

We, of all people, should understand how the mob mentality can result in the crucifixion of an innocent victim. Jesus' accusers used just such manipulation to whip the crowds into a frenzied chorus of "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

And we know that the Apostle Paul also experienced mob frenzy more than once. In Philippi, he and Silas were flogged and thrown in prison after the idol-making guild whipped the crowds into a frenzy and accused them of sedition (see Acts 16: 19-24). In Thessalonica, because Paul was somewhat successful in persuading some of the Jews, others whipped up a mob and started a riot to expel them (Acts 17: 5-9). These same agitators followed them to Berea and tried to repeat the experience (17: 13). Another such event occurred in Ephesus in 19: 23-41 when the silversmiths felt threatened by Paul. Finally, Paul needed to be rescued from the crowd that was stirred up at the Temple in 21:27-22:22.

The mob is seldom right in its judgement. It latches on to "factoids" that may or may not be true. And most of the time, even if the fact is true, it is incomplete. Founding father, John Adams, felt it his duty to provide an adequate defense to the British soldiers accused of the Boston Massacre. He was able to obtain acquittals for six soldiers and reduced sentences for the two convicted of manslaughter. He counted this as one of the highest services he ever gave to his countrymen, even though it would potentially appear that he was siding with the British against the colonialists. "Judgment of death against those soldiers would have been as foul a stain upon this country as the execution of the Quakers and witches anciently. As the evidence was, the verdict of the jury was exactly right" (John Adams, on the anniversary of the massacre).

Let us determine to be part of the solution, not the problem. Allow the legal system to do its job. After all, God has given the authority to judge to governments (Rom. 13: 1-7). It is not wrong of us to ask our representative democracy to serve us properly. But let us not become like the mob who cried, "Crucify him! Crucify him!"

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Taking an Eye Exam

Have you ever had one of those weeks where it seems that everything that can break or wear out, does? I had one of those weeks last week. And of course when things wear out or break down, it costs money. And when that happens, I begin to obsess over my finances and my peace goes out the window.

"In the beginning you laid the foundations of the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands.
They will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like a garment. Like clothing you will change them and they will be discarded.
But you remain the same, and your years will never end" (Psalm 102: 25-27).

Those of us who are Christians should know better than to place our confidence in material things. We need to develop a perspective on life that sees beyond the physical and takes into account the spiritual. And that should mean that we live life with one eye on what is in the here-and-now, but always with one on the yet-to-come.

Jesus encouraged this in the Sermon on the Mount:
"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven..." (Matt. 6: 19-20a).

The material "stuff" of this life can be deceptive. It promises to make us feel secure; it promises to make us happy; it promises to raise our self-esteem. "If I can just save up enough for my retirement, then I'll feel secure." "If I can only get that new car, I will be happy." "If I can make enough money, I'll be successful."

Now don't get me wrong. I am not advocating taking a vow of poverty. In fact, I believe in receiving material blessings from God with thanksgiving and enjoying them like a child receiving a birthday present.

But we must be aware that our "stuff" comes with a warning label.

Jesus says: "Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also" (Matt. 6: 21). He links our affection to our eyes. If we are preoccupied with material things, then our eyes are not clear. Why? Because we "cannot serve both God and Money [Mammon]" (vs. 24b). In other words, affection for "stuff" blocks our vision of the things of God.

Paul says to Timothy: "For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs" (1 Tim. 6: 10).

And the writer of Hebrews adds: "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because he has said, 'Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you'" (Heb. 13: 5).

And it is at those times that our possessions begin to wear out and break down that our hearts are tested. Are we placing our trust in God or in things? Are we so preoccupied with our "stuff" that our vision is clouded?

So the next time something breaks, think of it as a divine eye exam. How's your vision doing?

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Leadership and Pain

M. Scott Peck begins his classic book, The Road Less Traveled, with these words, "Life is difficult."

The writer of Job puts it another way, "Yet man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward" (Job 5: 7).

Pain is one of the common experiences of humanity. And so Peck goes on to explain that it is the avoidance of pain that is at the root of all psychological dysfunction. And I would add that it stands at the root of all relational dysfunction as well.

The classic example is the man who is frustrated at work. But since it is too scary to confront his boss, he comes home and yells at his wife, who then scolds her son, who kicks the dog.

All sorts of dysfunctional behavior can be explained using this paradigm. Addictions are often attempts at self-medicating: a way of numbing pain, rather than dealing with it. Codependency--focusing my mental and emotional energy on taking care of someone else's needs so that somehow they will take care of me and take away the pain of feeling unloved. Excessive anger--an attempt to push away the source of something that I perceive is making me feel weak or powerless--perhaps an attempt to feel in control when I feel out of control.

If this is true, then leaders have an especially hard time. Let me say that if "Life is difficult" then "Leadership is very difficult."

In 2 Timothy 2: 3-6, Paul gives three metaphors with four applications for leaders.

First, Paul tells Timothy to "join with me in suffering hardship" like a good soldier of Jesus Christ. Soldiers must endure all kinds of hardship in order to accomplish their mission. So, a leader must learn to bear up under pain and do his job.

Second, rather than get distracted by other pursuits, a soldier must be dedicated 100% to his job. Why? His focus is on pleasing his superior officer. He can't decide to go to a movie or sleep in when he is on duty. So a leader must learn to be dedicated and not get distracted.

Third, like an athlete competing in the games, he must undergo a strict regimen of training and diet. This is what Paul means by competing according to the rules. Thus a leader must learn to be disciplined (and especially must practice spiritual discipline). A leader who is performing the tasks of leadership without the underlying disciplines is headed for a big crash. It is like a flower that has been cut from the stem and placed in a vase with no more connection to the root--it may look fresh now, but it is destined to wither and die.

Fourth, the farmer only gets to share in a crop if he is hard-working. You cannot expect a crop to simply show up because you want it to. You must work the soil. Thus, leaders must learn to put their shoulder to the plow and work hard in order to produce fruit for the Kingdom.

For this reason, leadership is not just about natural talent. It is also about maturity. Only those who have applied themselves to the disciplines that produce spiritual growth will be in a place to sustain leadership over the long haul--because that involves experiencing the pain of life, not avoiding it, but enduring it so that it produces fruit.

"Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up" (Gal. 6: 9).

"Consider him (Jesus) who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12: 3).

"You have persevered and have endured hardship for my name, and have not grown weary" (Rev. 2: 3).

Friday, June 15, 2012

The Church and Politics

The political season is well under way here in the good ole U. S. of A.

And I must admit that I am kind of a political junkie. I majored in Poli-Sci as an undergraduate at UCLA and I try to stay current on political issues.

But when it comes to my role as Pastor, I try to keep my political leanings out of the pulpit. I am concerned that I might abuse my authority. I'm also concerned with communicating to anyone that they must share my political philosophy in order to be saved. My job is to teach the Word and to preach the Gospel, not politics.

And one of the distressing "branding" problems for Christians and especially Evangelicals in the US today is related to politics. In the 80's, Evangelicals discovered that they could grab the levers of political power and exert their influence through such groups as Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Pastors are frequently lured by their relationships to political leaders into becoming political advocates. And the message that the world gets is that Christians are just interested in power and that they are just too political.

Yet I can't tell you how many hours I've spent in pastors' prayer meetings praying for governmental agencies to approve some facility for a church. The same politicians who are courting the friendship of churches become the biggest enemies of churches when their tax-base is threatened.

In Romans 13, Paul gives instructions to the Roman church about their relationship to the governing authorities. What is amazing is that Paul probably wrote this during the reign of one of the most despotic emperors in history, Nero. He tells the Roman churches to "submit" to the authorities, to "do what is right" (be law abiding citizens) and pay whatever taxes are due.

But the church of Paul's time was a small and obscure sect of Judaism in the eyes of Rome. They were not in a place to influence government policies. They were simply trying to live as an exemplary community, maintaining a positive reputation so that the testimony of Christ was enhanced. They wanted to be an aroma, not a stench (to quote Rich Buhler).

It was only after Constantine that Christianity assumed a new relationship to the state in the West. The church was no longer being persecuted, but was now tempted to rely on political power rather than the power of God to grow. And so it has been in the West ever since.

In Europe, church power and state power became inseparable. Thus, the motivation for the framers of the U.S. constitution to put into the first amendment the ban on the establishment of a state religion and a ban on any limitations to the free exercise of religion (commonly called the wall of separation, although that language is from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danville Baptists).

So how then are we to live? I believe we can learn a lesson from Paul. Let us seek to be good citizens whose presence is an enriching and positive one that can be felt and seen by those around us. As a group, let us resist the temptation to grab the levers of power and try to implement a social agenda through politics. But let us take our citizenship seriously by becoming informed on issues and contributing our part, whether that is by voting, serving jury duty or simply attending local council and PTA meetings.

And yes, we can expect and, indeed, should pray for those Christians whose calling is to politics. May they be the moralizing influence in society that gifted and called vocations in all other fields should be.

But let us resist the temptation to try to implement our moralizing influence through politics. When we do that, we become just another competing power and we lose our fragrance in society.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

A Daily Routine

In many ways, I am a creature of habit.

I get up in the morning about the same time every day, make a half pot of coffee, eat the same breakfast, read the paper and do the crossword. And it is very difficult for me to interrupt my habits. For instance, I have found it very difficult to get a regular exercise regimen added to my daily routine.

More than a year ago, I began to use The Divine Hours by Phyllis Tickle to work a rhythm of prayer into my day. I observe the "Morning Office" regularly and I am attempting to add "Compline" to my evening practices. Such daily prayer cycles were part of Israel's pattern and carried over to the early church. It is a way of habituating my prayer life.

Paul exhorts us to develop a ritual in our lives:
"Therefore, I urge you, brethren, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God--this is your spiritual act of worship" (Rom. 12: 1).

First, Paul points to the incredible mercy of God that he has taken 11 chapters to describe, ending in his wonderful doxology at the end of chapter 11. So, our ritual sacrifices are a response to God's goodness.

Second, he uses the metaphor of the temple sacrifices to paint a picture. Our sacrifice is very much like those performed at regular intervals for the community--daily, weekly and on Holy Days. Paul seems to have a particular sacrifice in mind--the whole burnt offering in which the entire animal was placed on the fire and consumed.

Third, the offering of our bodies is called a "spiritual act of worship." But the underlying Greek is unusual, not at all the wording you would expect. Why? Because Paul is reinforcing his metaphor.

The Greek word translated "spiritual" is logikos (based in the inner will or reason), not pneumatikos (based in the spirit). That is, Paul is contrasting the new Christian kind of worship to that of the Jewish priesthood. Theirs is physical, but ours is an act of the mind, will, emotions, reason, spirit--in other words, we are not physically laying our bodies on an altar. Instead, it is an act of our heart.

The Greek word translated "worship" is latreia (service of worship), not the usual proskuneo (worship). This word comes from the same root that we get the word "liturgy" from. The Jewish priests performed a service of worship--sacrificial rituals. We also have a priestly calling to perform regular sacrificial service to our God--daily, weekly and on special occasions.

My expanded paraphrase: "Therefore, in light of God's incredible display of mercy, I am exhorting all of you believers to offer yourselves entirely to God, just like the whole burnt offering that is holy and pleasing, a kind of heartfelt priestly service of worship."

How about adding that to your daily ritual?

Friday, June 1, 2012

Run the Race

I was not really an athlete during my childhood. I could barely make it once around the track (that was only a quarter of a mile). I was way too short for basketball and way too small for American football. The only "sport" I could compete in was bowling.

As an adult, I am still trying to convince my wife that golf is a sport. It doesn't really help my case when she sees golfers who are over-weight, smoking cigars, drinking beer, driving around in a cart and still beating me.

But even though I may not be a jock, I still enjoy watching a good sporting event, especially when the time comes for the Olympic games. There is something noble about watching people pour their hearts and souls into becoming the best in the world at some event. And there is inherent drama in every competition. Characters, conflict, tension, success and defeat.

The apostle Paul would probably have been stuck on ESPN. He uses sports analogies all the time throughout his letters.

The writer of Hebrews gives a full chapter of examples of faith from the Old Testament and then compares our own test of faith to a race. Those who have gone before us are now gathered in the arena seats and they are cheering us on.

Of course the real point is that the call of faith is like running in a race. It takes the kind of commitment that athletes must have to compete--plus a lot of sweat--to compete well. The writer of Hebrews exhorts us to do three things in order to compete in the "Faith Games."

1.  Lay aside sin and and other entanglements.

2.  Run with "endurance", that is, push through the pain.

3.  Fix your eyes on Jesus.

Jesus is called the "author and perfector" of our faith. That is, he is the pioneer and supreme example who has gone before us and demonstrated a mature or complete faith. Therefore our eyes are to be focused on Him.

"Consider him..." That is, meditate on the example of Jesus as you run the race.

My paraphrase:
"With the knowledge that so many great examples of persevering faith have completed the race before us and are now seated in the arena to cheer us on, let us get rid of all the sinful patterns and distracting entanglements that might wrap around our legs and trip us up. Then, let us run this race in a way that bears up with determination under the pain and distress that surely comes up as we exert ourselves. Finally, let us stay focused on Jesus Himself, the supreme trailblazer and example of maturity in the faith. Meditate constantly on how He endured persecution and hostility--going all the way for us--so that you can also complete the race that has been laid out for you" (Heb. 12: 1-3 paraphrase).

Let's go for the gold!

Friday, May 25, 2012

Rejoice in Suffering

Sometimes I think that the apostle Paul was just plain nuts!

At the beginning of the fifth chapter of Romans, Paul writes this: "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings..." (Rom. 5: 3a). Does Paul mean that, when he is going through the tribulations that come with this life that he skips around all giddy and happy?

Kind of reminds me of Kevin Bacon in "Animal House" getting paddled in his undies, "Thank you sir, may I have another."

What is interesting is that Paul used the same word in the previous verse: "And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God" (vs. 2b). He obviously is tying these two things together. We rejoice in hope and in tribulations.

Other versions translate "kauchaomai" (rejoice) with the word "glory" or "exult" or "boast".  The underlying idea is that the experiences of hope-in-God's-glory and suffering-under-tribulations releases an uplifting sense of God's good work and a pride in that good work.

Let me paraphrase: "When we grasp the reality of our new standing in Christ, that we have a sure hope in our eternal place in Him and the glory of His good work of redemption--then we will be uplifted and place our sure and abiding confidence in that hope. In the same way, when we go through the tribulations that are sure to accompany anyone who has placed their hope in Christ, then we will have the same sense of uplifting and confidence because we will see it through the perspective of our new standing in Him."

In other words, the suffering does not invalidate our faith, instead it can be experienced as just a further example of our joyous confidence in God. All tribulation is now experienced as redemptive. "...we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (vv. 3b-4).

James says something similar: "Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (Jas. 1: 2-4).

Jesus, as our supreme example, pushed through the pain of his trial in order to attain the greater goal of eternal glory with the Father and redemption for us. "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 (meditate on) him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart" (Heb. 12: 2-3).

It takes an effort to take the most severe trials and tribulations and "reframe" them as things to "boast" in. Yet, one of the incredible realities of our faith is that it helps us to see even our most painful trials as part of the bigger journey we are on--the journey that leads to our eternal place in His Kingdom.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Prayer Power

I would love to claim that I have mastered the art of prayer. But, alas, I must confess that I suffer from a somewhat erratic prayer life.

Don't get me wrong. I am a pray-er and I am constantly working on becoming a better pray-er. But I often fall short of the kind of prayer life that I desire. Can you relate?

That is why Matt. 26: 41 has been a difficult one for me to read without feeling a twinge of guilt. "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."

If you take a step back and look at the entire flow of the chapter, Matthew 26, you will see three major characters dominating the storyline: Jesus, Judas and Peter. In one way, each represents a kind of pray-er.

Jesus is the obedient Son who watches and prays. He is honest about his struggles with his Father. He asks if the trial can be removed. But he ends up accepting God's will , even if it means suffering. In other words, Jesus is not satisfied until he has prayed to a conclusion--understanding God's will and finding the strength to obey.

Judas is the person of the flesh. He sees the priceless ointment wasted and it triggers his greed. He decides to cut his losses. He has always been in it for himself: "God's will be damned! I'll at least make some money off the whole sorry mess." There's no sign that he cares what God thinks about his course of action. Only afterwards does he feel remorse. But there's a big difference between remorse and repentance.

Peter is the well-intentioned but undisciplined believer. He wants to follow Jesus, but he is powerless to do it. Maybe because of his prayer-less-ness. But also because of his lack of the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the truly empowered one of the three. And he has to finish his work in order to make the Holy Spirit available to all believers.  The proof? The massive change in Peter after Pentecost.

I can relate to Peter. Can you? The call to all of us is clear: "Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak."

I don't believe that this should be a discouraging word. Instead, it is a word of instruction. Don't be surprised when your human nature, motivated by our fallen fleshly appetites, is actively resisting your best of intentions in the spirit.

Paul confessed a similar struggle in Romans 7.

The answer lies in what happened at Pentecost. The Holy Spirit has been given so that we have a source of power to draw on. Because the flesh is weak and because Jesus knows that our flesh is weak, he has given us a power that can surpass the weakness of our fallen nature.

So, if you want to grow in prayer, begin by asking to be filled with the Spirit.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Honoring Rich Buhler

Rich Buhler went to be with the Lord on Monday night, May 7, 2012. He was best known as a Christian talk-radio show host and author. But he was also a wonderful disciple of Jesus whose life should be remembered and honored.

"Welcome him in the Lord with great joy, and honor men like him" (Php. 2: 29).

My knowledge of Rich goes back probably to about 1982 when I first started listening to him on the radio. I remember him interviewing a certain John Wimber. I turned to my wife and said, "Listen, this pastor believes the same stuff we do!" This led, eventually, to us becoming members of the Anaheim Vineyard and subsequently to a life-long love affair with the Vineyard movement.

It was in the summer of 1993 that I first became friends with Rich Buhler. We were participating in a small group and, for 30 days, I called him daily as my sponsor. That group was life-changing for all of us.

So many of the conversations Rich broadcast in those days opened new ways of thinking for me. Perhaps most significantly was when he would have Jan Frank, author of Door of Hope, or any number of other Christian counselors. You could feel the attitude towards personal recovery and the benefits of sound psychological counseling change throughout the Evangelical Christian community.

And it was like that for so many other topics as well. Rich was not only a seasoned reporter, always intent on getting to the truth, but he was a life-long learner. If you listened to him, you heard him learn and grow, and it helped you to learn and grow right along with him.

And I am not sure if I know of anyone else who possessed such a unique blend of verbal dexterity, deep pastoral wisdom, a keen mind and such an obvious love of people. Perhaps that's why, for anyone who listened to him, you felt like you knew him. And, indeed, you did. Because here was "an Israelite in whom was no guile."

Last year, I was privileged to be honored at a special appreciation service. Rich sent something to me, since he could not be there. A shepherd's staff. I knew that he was in the habit of honoring people who he believed were true pastors with this sign of recognition. It meant--and it means--all the world to me, and especially because it came from someone I consider to have been a true shepherd as well.

Our loss is heaven's gain. Thank you, Rich, for being a faithful and true witness.