Monday, September 16, 2013

Being Transformed

"Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God's mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God--this is your [heartfelt priestly service of worship].  Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is--his good, pleasing and perfect will" (Rom. 12: 1-2).

In a former post (A Daily Routine, June 9, 2012) I analyzed the underlying metaphor that Paul gives us in Romans 12: 1. Just like the physical daily ritual that the priests went through when they offered up the whole burnt offering (Lev. 1), we are now called to offer up a sacrificial offering, our own bodies, but not through a physical act. Instead, our sacrifice is from our hearts by an act of submission. This is our "heartfelt priestly service of worship."

The animal being offered in the Old Testament system had to be without blemish or defect. That is, it was to be "holy." Paul tells us that we are also to be "holy and pleasing to God."

Holiness means to be separated--separated from the world and separated to God in such a way that we are morally pure. Verse two expands on this idea of holiness. Rather than being conformed to the pattern that the world wants to imprint on us, we are to be "transformed" by the renewing of our minds.

The signet ring of the king had a pattern worked into it. When he wanted to send a special letter, hot wax would be poured over the flap and the ring would be pressed into the hot wax to seal the letter. The wax "conformed" to the imprint of the ring. All who are born into this world are being imprinted with the pattern of this world. In Ephesians 2: 1-3, Paul says we are all subject to the prince of the power of the air. "All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts..." (Eph. 2: 3).

In Eph. 4: 22 and 24, Paul also calls us to a holy transformation. Our old self, that was conformed to the pattern of the world, is like an old set of clothing that needs to be taken off. The new self is like a new set of clothing to be put on. But between these two verses is an interesting statement: "be renewed in the spirit of your mind" (Eph. 4: 23). Once again, Paul says that the power of our transformation--from the old, worldly self to the new, godly self--is the renewal of our minds.

Notice that the renewal of the mind is not a "healing of the brain." When we come to Christ, our gray matter remains unchanged. But the patterns imprinted on that gray matter, the software that runs on that hardware, begins a process of change.

So just how do we change?

First, we change our allegiance. No longer are we living life as if we are the sovereign. The very act of salvation is a submission of my will to Him. He is now the Lord of my life. Like the sacrificial bull, I lay down my life on His altar. I take up my cross daily to follow His will for my life. I no longer am living to gratify "the cravings of my flesh and following its desires and thoughts" (Eph. 2:3). Instead, I am seeking to live a life of complete submission to Him. I leave my own kingdom behind and enter His Kingdom.

Second, I begin to fill myself with His Word. Our Lord has given us special revelation that communicates His heart to us. "The Word of God is living and powerful, 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). But just head knowledge will not change us. We must seek to actually DO what it says. "Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says..."(Jas. 1: 22).

Third, we must live out the Christian life in community with other believers. "Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encourage one another..." (Heb. 10: 23-25). The greatest commandment Jesus gave was that we should "love one another" (John 13: 34). It is impossible to fulfill this command alone. The only way to love one another is to gather together in community.

Finally, we have been given the "Holy" Spirit. God's Spirit indwells us at the moment we are born again and marks us with a "seal" that sets us apart from the world and identifies us as belonging to God. We must continually ask Him to fill us with His Spirit. "Do not be drunk with wine (that is, don't be controlled by the spirit of alcohol), but be filled with the Spirit (that is, be controlled by the Spirit that makes you holy)" (Eph. 5: 18).

Submission. Being filled with and doing the Word. Gathering together as the Body of Christ. Being filled with the Holy Spirit. Through this we will be renewed in our minds so that we can truly be transformed into the holy and pleasing people who demonstrate God's will, lived out through us.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Gardening in the Kingdom

When I was a kid growing up in Santa Clara, California, I would plant a vegetable garden every year. It was a habit I probably picked up from my Italian immigrant extended family. I still have memories of my grandmother picking squash in her own backyard garden in San Jose.

The first step was to turn the soil and break up the clods, maybe adding in some old grass clippings as mulch. Then I would make rows and mounds with furrows and moats for planting and watering. Then I would plant the seeds (no seedlings from the nursery back then). Zucchini squash, Italian cucumbers, Indian corn, string beans, tomatoes, carrots and maybe a watermelon. I would always plant radishes because they were the fastest growing and gave me a sense of hope early on.

All through the summer, I would water, weed, thin and pick off the amazingly plump tomato worms.

And of course, the most amazing of all experiences came at harvest--the reward for all the hard work.

"This is what the kingdom of God is like. A person scatters seed on the ground..." (Mark 4: 26).

Jesus ministered in an agrarian culture. So it is not odd at all that he so often uses farming to illustrate kingdom principles. The Sower and the Seed, The Wheat and the Tares, and here, the Patient Farmer.

This parable, however, makes it seem like the farmer hardly works at all. "Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, although he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain--first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head" (Mark 4: 27-28).

The kingdom principle is this: the life of the kingdom is in the seed itself. The farmer's job is merely to sow the seed. God's job is to then cause the life inherent in the seed to do its thing. In Jesus' time, there was no irrigation or fertilization. The farmer could not make the seed grow any faster by brooding over it, or holding his breath, or gritting his teeth.

Then, when the proper time came, and the life of the kingdom inherent in the seed produced what it was designed to produce--harvest time had come. And now the farmer goes to work again.

"As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come" (Mark 4: 29).

Kinda makes me want to become a farmer. Except that we all know that farming is not that easy.

The kingdom principle that Jesus is teaching is this: the Gospel that we are sowing has the life of the kingdom within itself and will produce fruit if we will trust it. As Paul says in Romans, "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes" (Rom. 1: 16a).

God has called us all to become farmers in His field. Our job is to sow, water, weed, fertilize and tend in that garden. His job is to cause the life of the kingdom to work as a result.

And when that life begins to produce fruit, we get the joyous chance to put in the sickle and feel the joy of the harvest.

How's your crop doing?

Sunday, July 7, 2013

How Guidance Works

I'm going through big changes in my life. And with that comes a real desire for hearing God's guiding voice. Which way should I go from here?

It's not the first time I've gone through this kind of change. In 1993, I made the transition from a successful career in IT management into full-time pastoral ministry. And looking back, I can very clearly see God's sovereign guidance.

But back then, before I knew how God was going to do it, I was almost completely in the dark. And now I understand that this is exactly how God usually does it.

Why do we have to go through such uncertainty when it comes to God's guidance? In our modern era, God has so many more options to communicate with us. Email, text, fax, Skype, FaceTime, IM, Facebook, fax, snail-mail and even the telephone. (I would have said Telex, but the last Telex was just sent recently.) And if the divine instructions are too big, there's always DropBox.

I have found a simple verse from Proverbs to be very helpful in understanding how God's guidance works.
"Trust in the LORD with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding,
In all your ways acknowledge him,
And he'll make your paths straight" (Proverbs 3: 4-5).

The first three lines of this verse describe my part in guidance and the fourth line describes God's part. So, just on the surface, one could say that guidance is three parts me and one part God. Therefore, it is probably appropriate that I focus more on my part and let God then do his part.

Just what is my part? To Trust in Him, not in my self, and acknowledge His God-ness all the time. What is His part? To stretch out the path in front of me. Sounds pretty simple, doesn't it? So why is it so hard in practice?

There are a couple of things that seem to keep me from really relying on, or leaning on God. First, I am blind (spiritually). I can't see God. I can't see the spiritual realm. I can't see the future. But I can see the material world and so, I assume that it is the only thing I can rely on.

But if we are really going to rely on God, we will have to admit to our "blindness." God CAN see all those things. So, why not grab hold of His hand and let Him lead?
"I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you and watch over you" (Ps. 32: 8).

Second, I am an emotional being. Don't get me wrong, I think we should pay attention to our emotions. God gave them to us for a reason--to know what is going on inside of us and to pay attention. But often, when I am full of worry, or fear, or shame, or anger--I can't hear God's voice over the noise.

I went to a 4th of July fireworks show at a stadium this week. While the show was on, it was impossible to have a conversation with my wife. The noise of the fireworks and music overpowered our voices. This is what tends to happen with our feelings. That's why it's probably not a good idea to make major life decisions in the middle of a crisis. We need to calm down, get some perspective so that we can hear God's voice without our feelings drowning Him out.

Third, I am very used to relying on my own cleverness and abilities to get by. So, it feels unnatural to let go of my machinations and to give myself to God's agenda. But if I really believe that His wisdom is superior to mine, then I will let go of my need to control and allow Him to lead.

It's like training my German Shepherd at obedience school. Learning to "heel" means that she learns to stay by my left side and walk at my pace. When I stop, she sits and waits. When I run, she quickens her pace. She learns this with a choke collar. She is jerked back if she runs ahead. She is jerked forward if she strays behind, She is jerked to the right if she doesn't make the turn with me. She is pushed to the left if she doesn't make that turn with me. She learns to pay very close attention to me and follow my lead. Once trained, she can do everything "off-leash."

"Do not be like the horse or mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you" (Ps. 32:9).

God wants us to follow Him without a leash. That's why we learn to trust in Him, not in ourselves. If we do, He will guide us to the right destination.

For me, God has used various methods to coax me onto a new path. As I continue to work on developing The Journey: a vineyard community, I feel him calling me back into the secular work world. Please be praying for me on this new phase of my journey with Him.

Update (3/21/19): In case you don't read forward from here, I'm currently serving as an Associate Pastor at the Vineyard Community Church Pomona/Claremont. And God has been there to guide me the whole way.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Beyond Fear

For many years, I thought that I was not a very fearful person.

But as I got in touch with my codependency, I realized that I was really afraid of what people thought of me. Did they think I was a good person? I was afraid of being judged inadequate, irresponsible and insensitive. A lot of my emotional energy was spent trying to please people. In fact, I came to realize that fear was probably the biggest debilitating issue in my life.

One of my early spiritual fathers, Dr. Albert Grimes, once said to me, "You must get healed from 'fear of people' because it will ruin your ministry."

Even now, after years of working on the underlying issues, I find that my own fears and anxieties, when left unchecked, are often at the root of some of my worst decisions.

That's one of the reasons I love Timothy so much. Evidently he struggled with fear in his ministry.

Timothy was Paul's young protege, the lead elder over the church in Ephesus. No minor assignment. And Paul wrote two of his most personally moving letters at the end of his ministry to his "son in the faith." Timothy had traveled with Paul and experienced his bold preaching and power ministry first-hand. But evidently, Timothy exhibited a kind of timidity when it came to preaching the gospel.

"For God did not give us the spirit of timidity (fear, cowardice), but a spirit of power, of love, and of self-discipline. So do not be ashamed to testify about our Lord, or ashamed of me his prisoner. But join with me in suffering for the gospel, by the power of God..." (2 Tim. 1: 7-8).

One of the key issues underlying fear is shame. Shame is the painful feeling that is evoked when my vulnerable and imperfect self is exposed for others to see. Shame can be one of the most intense and riveting emotions. Shyness and fear of public speaking are both
primarily about shame.

So, how did Paul encourage Timothy to get beyond his shame-based fear. Essentially, he encouraged him to turn from focusing on himself and what he might suffer--to God, his Spirit, and how He can empower us. From God's Spirit, we receive power, love and self-discipline.

Paul, himself, had found the freedom to serve God without giving in to fear.

"I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes..." (Rom. 1: 16).

"I am convinced that [nothing in all creation]...will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8: 38-39).

What are your fears? In what ways have you been timid about sharing the gospel?

How about asking God to fill you with his power, his love and his self-discipline?

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Beatitudes

Jesus began his longest discourse in Matthew's Gospel with what we call, "The Beatitudes."

"Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven..." (Matt. 5: 3).

This list of kingdom proverbs is unusual for Jesus, who normally taught using parables. Each of the eight (some say nine, counting vv. 11-12 as separate from vs. 10) begins with the pronouncement of kingdom blessing.

"Blessed" means "joyfully favored by God." Those who are blessed now stand in the joyous shalom enjoyed by all the people of God who are under God's kingdom rule. Thus, for some reason, Jesus is saying that those who are "poor in spirit" actually stand in a state of blessedness.

The conventional Jewish wisdom was that it was those who felt powerful, together and confident who stood under God's blessing. Poverty was a sign of being cursed, not blessed. Spiritual pride was a sign of blessing.

Not all riches were seen as bringing blessing. The tax collectors may have been materially rich, but they were also "poor in spirit." They might be rich, but they could not feel pride before God.

Thus the story that Jesus tells in Luke 18: 9-14 about "The Pharisee and The Tax Collector." The Pharisee has done his religious duty and is able to confidently thank God for the holiness he has achieved. The Tax Collector cannot even look up towards God because of the shame he feels. Between the two, he is the one who is indeed "poor in spirit." And the punchline of this parable is that it is the Tax Collector, the one who is poor-in-spirit, who goes home justified before God.

Simon and Garfunkel wrote the song, "Blessed," inspired by the Beatitudes. "Blessed are the sat upon, spat upon, ratted on..."

Read through the list to understand the attitude of the one who is truly blessed in God's kingdom:
•  The poor in spirit--
(those who realize that they have nothing in themselves and need God's salvation);
•  The mourners--
(those who let go of their own agenda to take up their cross);
•  The meek--
(those who don't act out of ambition and lust for power, but learn to serve humbly);
•  The hungry/thirsty for righteousness--
(those in touch with their desire for godliness);
•  The merciful--
(those who care for others who are needy, rather than simply look out for self);
•  The pure in heart--
(those with a single mind focused on God with no hidden agendas);
•  The peacemakers--
(those who sew peace in relationships rather than stirring up strife);
•  The persecuted--
(those who accept the scorn of the world out of love for Christ).

The Beatitudes were revolutionary for Jesus' time. It was not the prideful and arrogant leaders of temples and palaces and commerce who were entering into the kingdom. It was "the sat upon, the spat upon, the ratted on." They heard with joy the promise of blessedness and came streaming into the kingdom.

How about you? Are you in touch with your own poverty of spirit? Reach out in humble dependence on him. If you do, you will be blessed and the kingdom of heaven will be yours.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Heart of Ministry

This past week, I had the privilege of volunteering at a local outreach to the homeless. Various churches volunteer on a regular basis to hand out clothing and provide a free meal to people who obviously appreciate it.

I got to help out at the coffee station. And this gave me the freedom to engage several people in conversation.

One conversation was interesting. A rather intimidating figure came to our area, obviously angry with some interaction he had just experienced. The leaders have the guests sit at tables and wait to be invited to get in line for the food table. He had arrived and gone straight into the food line. Someone asked him to find a seat first and then get in line when his table was released. A reasonable request.

But he was someone who was filtering everything through "victim" lenses. You see, when you are living on the edge, it is common to encounter a pattern of authority figures saying, "No" or just pushing their weight around. Add to that, a childhood marked by abusive authority and abandonment, and you have a recipe for disaster. The food line worker was trying to help everyone get served. But this guest thought, "Here's one more power-hungry authority figure who thinks they can just push me around." And he got triggered.

The leader working with me decided to help him get served. She personally helped him through the line. And having received TLC, this brought him out of his foul mood.

I have heard pastors say, "I love the ministry--it's people I can't stand."

I can't begin to tell you how wrong-headed this attitude is. You see, ministry IS people. That is, Jesus did not die for fame or glory, He died for people. God loves people and the proof of that is Jesus.

"Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. This is how God shows his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another" (1 John 4: 7, 9-11).

If we are going to pick up the ministry of Jesus, we will love people. How do we know that? Jesus loved people. And He demonstrated that by going to the cross. "Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends" (John 15: 13).

As the evening was wrapping up, the guest came back to the coffee station to talk. I could see that he was grateful for being treated with respect by my co-worker. As I engaged him in conversation, I began to see in him a hurting person who needed someone to listen and talk to him with dignity and respect. Perhaps he also needed a male authority figure to do that. So, I engaged him in conversation.

As we went deeper, I realized that there were a lot of painful childhood memories that were coming up. So I invited him to sit with me and talk. I merely asked questions and gave him the gift of listening and affirming. What had been a kind of power-defense position was now melted. He had been resistant to acknowledging God at all earlier in the evening. Now he allowed me to pray for God to bless him. I knew that this was a holy moment for him and perhaps a breakthrough. Only time will tell.

As we were preparing to leave, one of the leaders asked me with a sense of wonder, "What did you do?"

"What do you mean? I just listened to him and prayed for him."

"He has never been open to that kind of ministry. In fact, he has always come with an angry attitude and brought others who caused trouble."

I don't think there is anything special about me. The answer is simple: I had the opportunity to simply love someone in a way that they could feel it and God got his message of love through.

The challenge to all of us is to remember that the ministry is about people. God loves people and He calls us to love them too. Let us not get so caught up in external and material activity that we lose touch with the heart of ministry.

Friday, May 24, 2013

The Re-education of Mark Maki

I told the team of leaders who have joined me in The Journey Vineyard that the theme of this last year has been "The Re-education of Mark Maki."

It was on Monday, February 20, 2012 that God spoke clearly to me to shut down the church that I had planted in 2000 and plant a new church in Brea, California.

Looking back at the series of messages that I preached in those final weeks of the old church, all of the basic issues were there in my words. But I realize now that I didn't really understand the implications of my words. Somehow, deep in my gut, I needed to let go of my old ways and begin to embrace the new DNA that God was trying to impart to me.

God has been dragging me kicking and screaming into "missional" church planting. But I have constantly tried to grab onto the old, familiar "attractional" model--only natural, since that has been the history of my pastoring experience. When I let my own fears take hold, I tend to gravitate to the familiar. But when I let God calm my fears, I get back on track.

The only way that I could actually change was through one trial after another--accompanied by gut-wrenching pain.

Paul says in Romans: "Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope" (Rom. 5: 3-4).

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 develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything" (James 1: 2-4).

If we are going to mature, we will experience growing pains. Pain is necessary for growth. But I don't know if any of us feel anything like the "rejoicing" that Paul and James write about. In fact, sometimes I think they are just plain nuts. How can I actually rejoice in my suffering or consider my trials pure joy?

And yet, as I look back at the last year of difficulties, I begin to feel so thankful to God. And as I look forward to the new adventures that lie ahead, I feel a sense of hopeful expectation.

One of the things that God has shown me recently is that I must find a secular job in the community so that I can actually live out incarnational ministry in the same way I am teaching others. The problem for someone like me is that: 1. I have been in vocational ministry for so long, that I don't have a lot of marketable skills; 2. I have a resume that looks over-qualified (in terms of education and experience) for most entry level jobs; 3. I have a resume that looks under-qualified (because all my technical skills are so old). And I'm no spring chicken, so I am not particularly age-appropriate for entry-level work.

Yet, I feel a sense of hopeful expectation as I re-enter the work force.

God is good and God is faithful. No matter what you're going through, rejoice, for God is at work and He will ultimately produce maturity. Can you feel that sense of hopeful expectation yet?

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Prayer is Communion

"True, whole prayer is nothing but love" (St. Augustine).

My definition for "Prayer" used to be "communication with God." But I have found this definition to be shallow and a bit misleading.

Yes, when we pray, we are engaged in a kind of communication. Yes, we often use words and we are addressing God. Yes, we are also listening to what God is saying to us.

But communication makes us think about an activity that we do that competes with all the other activities that we do. If we successfully carve out time for this activity, we may feel spiritual pride, like the Pharisee in Luke 18. If we are unsuccessful and fail to carve out time for prayer, we may feel shame. Neither of these are good results.

Don't get me wrong. I believe in carving out time for prayer. I believe in making lists and praying for specific things. I believe in practicing spiritual disciplines in order to "exercise myself unto godliness" (1 Tim. 4: 7).

But prayer is so much more than that. Prayer is communion with God. Communion comes from the Greek word, koinonia, which means "shared life." Rather than thinking of prayer as a religious activity that competes with all other activities, we should think about it as the expression of our relationship with God. Prayer happens as we live our lives in relationship with our Father.

Prayer requires us to make the long 18-inch journey from our heads to our hearts. Prayer is not just thinking thoughts about God, but living in a relational link with God. "The crisis of our prayer life is that our minds may be filled with ideas of God while our hearts remain far from him. Real prayer comes from the heart" (Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, p. 71).

When the disciples watched Jesus' prayer life, they wanted to know more. "Lord, teach us to pray..." (Luke 11: 1). The disciples saw in Jesus' prayer life something significant. It was different than the religious prayers they were used to--memorized prayers, proper body postures, ritual times. Jesus' prayer was vibrant and alive; it was about relationship with the Father; it was effective and powerful.

Prayer is primarily an exercise of love: my love for God and His love for me.

Because prayer is communion and heart-focused, it is mystical. I don't believe we should ever feel that we've mastered it, like it is just one more task. It is mysterious, alive and, to a degree, dangerous.

In The Last Battle, C. S. Lewis' conclusion to the Narnia series, the characters finally enter Aslan's country (heaven). They find themselves bounding forward on a journey towards Aslan. Always going "further up and further in." Prayer is a call to always go "further up and further in" our relationship with God.

And as we do this, God is allowed to go deeper into our own hearts.

"In the beginning we are indeed the subject and the center of our prayers. But in God's time and in God's way a Copernican revolution takes place in our heart. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, there is a shift in our center of gravity. We pass from thinking of God as part of our life to the realization that we are part of his life. Wondrously and mysteriously, God moves from the periphery of our prayer experience to the center. A conversion of the heart takes place, a transformation of the spirit" (Richard Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart's True Home, p. 15).

What would it look like to move from your head to your heart as the center of your prayer life?

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Love Edifies

In my college years, I was part of a small group of students who were intense in our devotion to God and our desire to grow in our faith. At one point, I was attending five Bible studies a week. I just couldn't get enough.

Even now, I look back on that period of my Christian journey with such warmth and gratitude. The relationships I formed have a kind of "eternal" quality. Even when I haven't seen someone from that group for many years, if we happen to see each other, we share an instant bond.

But there was one aspect of my attitude from that time that I am glad to leave in the past. It was a kind of "holier-than-thou" attitude, a sectarianism that gave me a sense of spiritual superiority and that kept me from being able to enjoy fellowship with the rest of the big "C" Church. I was sure I knew the "truth" and that nobody else had it quite the way I did.

If I happened to visit a church, I would definitely not enjoy myself. Nor would I experience God's presence. I was too busy criticizing everything that went on. To quote Doc Holliday from the movie, Tombstone, "My hypocrisy [knew] no bounds." I was busy pointing out all the specks in the eyes of everyone else, while I sat there with a plank sticking out of mine. It became impossible for me to last very long at one church without collapsing under the weight of my own lumberyard headgear.

Eventually, after living away from church life in general, we found our way to the Anaheim Vineyard. I am grateful to my former pastor, architect of the Vineyard movement, John Wimber. In one of the first messages I remember, he helped me to understand something very simple: God loves all believers and he simply calls us to love everyone whom He loves.

This is the meaning of Paul's statement: "Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up" (1 Cor. 8: 1b). In discussing the controversial and divisive subject of eating meat offered to idols, Paul frames the basis for all of his ethics. If you are simply motivated by a sense of superior knowledge, you will feel good about yourself, but the church will not be benefited. Instead, ethical action should be primarily based on love, which builds up the church. This is why Paul has decided to refrain from any activity that might cause a weaker brother to stumble. (vs. 13)

Jesus prays for the church that we would experience just such love: "May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me" (John 17: 23).

Put simply: We are called to love everyone God loves. If God loves them, it's good enough for me.

Thus, Jesus' new commandment given to the disciples in the Upper Room at the Last Supper. "A new command I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this will all [people] know that you are my disciples, if you love one another" (John 13: 34-35).

I am grateful to be planting a church in a city with a wonderfully united group of churches. Eleven of us, all pastors, were recently able to get away for a 24-hour retreat. We shared our lives and prayed for one another. That was followed recently by a united worship event near Easter. Thirteen churches were represented. Each pastor introduced and led prayer for another pastor. The love for one another was evident.

The picture of heaven that we are given in Revelation is dominated by an incredible unity. People from "every nation, tribe, people and language" (Rev. 7: 9) are gathered around the throne to worship God together. Unity is a sign of the Kingdom of God.

Why not try something yourself? Think about someone you might disagree with or you might be very different from or who rattles your sensibilities. Then ask yourself this question: "Does God love them?" And if the answer is "Yes," and it is hard to think of a time when it would be otherwise, then make the decision to love them too. Don't you think that would go a long way to sowing peace among us?

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Good and Evil

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was hanged on April 9, 1945, at the age of 39, for conspiring to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Hitler committed suicide on April 30 and seven days later, Germany surrendered.

Bonhoeffer, one of the brightest pastoral theologians of 20th century Germany, was a committed pacifist. But he reasoned: "If I see a madman driving a car into a crowd of innocent bystanders, then I can't, as a Christian, simply wait for the catastrophe and then comfort the wounded and bury the dead. I must try to wrestle the steering wheel out of the hands of the driver."

In so many ways, the kind of moral clarity demonstrated by Bonhoeffer has been driven from our post-modern culture. It takes horrendous acts, like 9/11, or the Boston Marathon bombings, to remind us that there really is such a thing as good and evil.

Isaiah says: "Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter" (Isa. 5: 20).

Prior to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, you would be hard-pressed to find the word "evil" in the New York Times or on ABC World News Tonight. But there was a marked increase in the use of this word following those tragedies. There seemed to be no other way to discuss such horrific devastation that was intentionally inflicted on innocents.

Yet our post-modern worldview seems intent on finding meaning in relativism. "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." "You can't really judge someone else without understanding their motivation." "They must have been abused as a child." We cannot comprehend that something might be evil, even if there are also causal factors.

And so, there seems to be a rush to find a motivation that would explain how someone could justify such abhorrent behavior. "Maybe they are part of an oppressed group."

But in order to be a moral people, we must accept the reality of good and evil. This only happens if we believe in an ultimate source of what is good: God Himself. Without understanding that there is a God and that He is Good, we will continue to devolve into moral relativism. In that world, we will stop using the word "evil." But at what cost?

"For, 'Whoever would love life and see good days must keep his tongue from evil and his lips from deceitful speech. He must turn from evil and do good; he must seek peace and pursue it. For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous and his ears are attentive to their prayer, but the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.'" (1 Pet. 3: 10-12).

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Trinity

One of the most difficult points of Christian doctrine to wrap one's head around is the Trinity. Growing up as a good Presbyterian kid, I accepted that there was one God, and three persons. Yet, how that could possibly be seemed impossible to explain.

Sunday school teachers would use various "analogies": an egg has a shell, white and yolk, yet is one egg; water can exist as solid, liquid and gas, yet is all water; a person can be a father, a son and a husband, yet be one man.

Such analogies all have weaknesses. They either emphasize the one-ness so much that the three-ness is lost. Or they emphasize the three-ness so much that the one-ness is lost. This was the problem that the early church theologians encountered as they grappled with the problem.

But you might ask, why is it even a problem? Why even posit such a theological Gordian's knot? The word "trinity" does not appear in the Bible, but was first coined by Tertullian in the early third century. Isn't this an example of the corruption of early church beliefs?

We can blame the Bible for this controversy. The New Testament begins with an incredible scene: Jesus is being baptized and, coming up out of the water, the Holy Spirit descends on him like a dove and the Father speaks from heaven, "This is my Son, whom I love: with him I am well pleased" ( Matt: 3: 16-17). Matthew's Gospel ends with Jesus commanding believers to baptize "in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit" (Matt. 28: 19).

Actually, if you study the early development of church theology, the two issues that occupied a lot of intense debate were somewhat interrelated: The Christological and the Trinitarian debates. Both of these debates were attempts to understand the biblical witness. Scripture treated Jesus as a man, yet he was worshiped as God. And God was presented as One, yet the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are all presented as God, equal to one another, while retaining their distinctiveness.

The first debate issue can be stated thus: "What was the nature of Jesus' relationship to God?" The early counsels ended up giving us the boundaries of orthodoxy, called the "hypostatic union," but not necessarily how it works. "When you teach about Jesus' humanity, you cannot forget his full divinity. When you teach about his divinity, you cannot lose his full humanity. Jesus Christ is one substance with two natures."

The Trinitarian issue can be stated thus: "What is the relationship between Father/Son/Spirit and God?" The early counsels ended up giving the boundaries of orthodoxy in a similar way. "When you talk about the three-ness of God, you cannot lose the one-ness. When you teach about the one-ness of God, you can't lose the distinction of the three-ness. God is one substance, yet has three natures (which we translate "persons")."

I recently heard a great YouTube explanation of the Trinity by Ravi Zacharias to a Mormon audience (see below). He quotes C. S. Lewis (who was probably inspired by Augustine) in using the analogy of love as a strong philosophical argument for the NECESSITY of the doctrine of the Trinity. Let me summarize the argument:

1. Humanity demonstrates love for others as part of our nature. How else to explain why people would give up their own safety to reach out to others in need?

2. Love itself demonstrates an inherent relational element in the created. There must be a relationship between the one who loves and the one who is loved. And you could also posit that the love itself is a necessary third element.

3. "God is love" (1 John 4: 8 & 16). For God, in his eternal existence, to be love, all the necessary elements for love must be inherent in his very nature. Thus relationship is inherent in the "Godhead." And love is triadic by nature. A radical monism cannot explain how "God is love" can be true apart from Creation. A radical monism cannot explain how loving creatures, created in His image, must live in loving community to fully reflect the imago dei.

Take a moment to watch this video. It will be worth the time.

Ravi Zacharias on The Trinity

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Reviewing "The Bible" Mini-Series

I am a total fan of Middle Earth--a kind of Lord of the Rings nerd. I first read the books in 6th grade and have read them many times since. I lost count at 25 times many years ago. I just read them again this last year.

So, when Peter Jackson's version of The Fellowship of the Ring came out about 12 years ago, I rushed to see it. My wife asked if I liked it. "I think it was a good movie, but I'm not sure if I like it yet," I answered. You see, I knew the books so well that I could not yet enjoy the movie. The medium of film imposes certain limitations, but also certain creative possibilities, that are different than the written word. So, it was not until the 4th viewing that I began to really enjoy the movie as well.

Still, I would like to know how Jackson would do "Tom Bombadil."

This is kind of where I'm at with The Bible, the five-part mini-series that aired on consecutive Sundays on the History Channel and culminating last weekend, on Easter Sunday.

I have read the Holy Bible many times. And I have a daily reading program that gets me through the entire Bible pretty much every year. So, I am immersed in God's Word. And since I am a pastor, I am also weekly writing messages (and this blog) in a way that tries to communicate God's message.

So, I have mixed feelings about the film that I viewed the last 5 weeks. Overall, I really enjoyed getting the grand sweep of God's story in a way that lifted me above the minutia of the "begets" and "thou shalt nots." God created this world and humankind with a purpose. We have an enemy who has tried to pull us away from God. But there is story after story of God's faithful love being expressed through people like Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samson, Samuel, David, Daniel, Jesus, Mary, Peter, Paul and John. And his plan culminated in the resurrection of Jesus so that He is now being proclaimed through his disciples.

I cried like a baby several times as the reality of certain Bible stories just washed over me. Abraham relieved that God's test was satisfied and he did not have to sacrifice Isaac. Jesus telling the story of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector to Matthew and then calling him to follow. Jesus on the cross. Paul being healed by Ananias. John on the isle of Patmos.

And I was very happy to note that 10 million people watched the first episode, and that it had the potential to start conversations all over about what the Bible actually teaches. And perhaps the commercials for free Bible apps would result in actual Bible reading.

My complaints are really just a kind of knowing sadness. That some people will watch the movies and think that they now understand the Book. Angels are like ninja-assassins. The Ark of the Covenant just sat under a wispy pop-up tent in a way that Joshua could walk up to. That Jesus said "We're going to change the world." (That one is right next to "God helps those that help themselves" in 1st Hezekiah.)

I recently wrote a blog about "Reaching the Shallows and Going Deep" (2/27/13). There is a growing tendency to "scan" a topic in a way that gives us a shallow understanding of an issue. But if you really want to understand God and His ways, do you think He can be grasped in a shallow way? If He really is the God of the Universe, how can anyone be satisfied with the Cliff Notes?

Let us accept films for what they can do: capture a theme, convey a plot, touch us emotionally by helping us humanize the characters. But let us progress from there to a deeper understanding, which begins with a plan to read, study and meditate on the Word of God for ourselves. It is the Bible that was "God-breathed" (2 Tim. 3: 16), not the script for a movie version. If we really want to hear from God, we must spend time reading His Word.

"I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you" (Ps. 119: 11).

"Your word is a lamp to my feet, and a light to my path" (Ps. 119: 105).

"The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul;
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple;
The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart;
The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes;
The fear of the LORD is pure, enduring forever;
The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
They are sweeter than honey; than honey from the comb.
By them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward" (Psalm 19: 7-11).

Friday, March 29, 2013

Can I Lose My Salvation?

In my last entry, I discussed the theological tension between the concept of God's Sovereignty and man's Free Will. You might find it helpful to read that entry before this one ("The Sovereignty vs. Free Will Debate", March 27, 2013).

Once we have concluded that, "Yes, God is sovereign and mankind has the freedom to accept or reject Him," we are left with a dilemma: "Once saved, can I become 'unsaved'? And can I really know if I am saved?" This is actually a question for pastoral theology. That is, how can we help people to find a sense of assurance in their salvation so that they are not continually in a state of anxiety? Does God really intend our faith-walk to be more like a pogo-stick ride?

There are several issues connected to this anxiety. First, just because we are saved does not mean that we are sinless. The Greek word for "sin" comes from archery and means "to miss the mark." That is, no human being has been made perfect (except for Jesus) and thus, unable to miss the mark of God's holiness. Therefore, since we all fall short of perfect holiness, God has provided a way to deal with it so that it does not derail our walk with God.

"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1: 8-9).

"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if any of you does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense--Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but for the sins of the whole world" (1 John 2: 1-2).

Second is a question: "Does my salvation rest in my ability to keep myself saved or in God's ability to save me?" Here is where most of our anxiety comes from. If keeping myself saved is a case of trying to maintain the right attitude, then there is very little hope for me. I am incapable of saving myself. Only God can save me. Therefore, only God can keep me saved.

Paul's struggle with sin helps us understand this dynamic in Romans 7: 7-25. He describes the internal struggle between the flesh and his desire to live a holy life. In his own strength, this is impossible.

"Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God, through Jesus Christ my Lord!" Rom. 7: 24-25).

Related to this is the problem of doubts. If I experience doubts about my faith, does that mean I am no longer saved?

I like to say that doubts actually are indications that you DO have faith. Only someone who believes in God and His goodness will experience the cognitive dissonance that occurs when reality bites. Job is perhaps the best example. Most of the book is the story of his struggle with how to reconcile his suffering with the idea that God is good and just. But just because he struggled did not invalidate his righteous standing before God, who commends him at the end of the book.

Hebrews chapter eleven is called the "roll-call of faith." But notice how scary and doubt-filled each person's walk was. Abraham did not feel like Superman as he left his home, but he was going in response to faith, "even though he did not know where he was going" (Heb. 11: 8)

Third, there are some passages, most notably Hebrews 6: 4-6, that seem to indicate that we might backslide and become apostate to such a degree that we can't ever be saved again. For that reason, I will give a little time to unpacking this text.

Hebrews is a book that is like a series of sermonettes, each of them including a warning for those who might not take heed. In chapter six, the writer wants to expound on the teaching about the priesthood of Melchizedek, but he is afraid that his readers are not grounded enough in the basics of the faith. Thus, he warns them not to get so lax that they backslide into their pre-Christian faith (which may have been Judaism or Paganism). Doing so would be a rejection of Christ and would ruin what they had seemed to attain to such a degree that they might as well join in with those who were responsible for crucifying Jesus in the first place.

The writer is presenting a "straw-man" argument. Hypothetically, someone could seem to be a Christian, to the degree that they actually participate fully in the community of faith, but then turn away in a way that is beyond repair.

But would such a person have really been saved in the first place? I think the answer is "no." Listen to John as he writes about apostates in Asia Minor who turned away from the faith and became persecutors of the church during his time:

"They went out from us, but they really did not belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us" (1 John 2: 19).

Thus, true believers will persevere in the faith over the long haul.

Going back to Hebrews, the writer turns from the hypothetical to the practical. "It is impossible for [those who become apostate] to be brought back to repentance..." (Heb. 6: 4-6). He compares these apostates to those who are like seeds planted among thorns and thistles (recalling the Parable of the Sower). But then he says, "Even though we speak like this [giving a hypothetical warning], dear friends, we are confident of better things in your case--things that accompany salvation" (vs. 9).

You see, apostasy is proof that the person never was saved in the first place. That is, they had never really completed the transaction of faith that resulted in them being born again. Once the new birth occurs, the individual has something called "eternal life." It is called "eternal" because it is a new quality of life that lasts forever, and thus, cannot end.

So why did the writer give such a harsh warning if he doesn't think they are apostates? "We want each of you to show this same diligence to the very end, in order to make your hope sure. We do not want you to become lazy, but to imitate those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (vv. 11-12).

Thus, there is little evidence that Hebrews is describing anything that actually was happening. It is more a warning to be diligent in pursuing one's growth in the faith. To read this passage and then obsess over the security of my own salvation is to get out of it something that it did not intend. I believe God wants us to feel an assurance that, if we have given our lives to Him, then we belong to Him and our standing rests on His finished work, and not in our imperfect ability to save ourselves.

"I give [my sheep] eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand" (John 10: 28). Perhaps its time to enjoy the assurance that you belong to Him and that you have received "eternal life." That means, it will never end.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Sovereignty vs. Free Will Debate

John Calvin
For the last 500 years, the Protestant movement has debated an issue that defined a major theological divide: "Once someone is saved, can they lose their salvation?"

Underlying this issue is the deeper debate: "To what degree does God's sovereign will determine our fate compared to our own free will?" Or really, "In light of the fact that God is sovereign, can we really have freedom when it comes to our salvation?"

This blog will begin the discussion, focusing on God's sovereignty vs. humanity's free will.

Before I plunge in to this question, let me say that this issue is becoming less and less important and divisive. People who land on either side of the divide are becoming less polarized and more able to listen to the other side and still maintain fellowship. This is a very good thing. It is important for us to realize that believers can thoughtfully and prayerfully end up disagreeing and still be friends. So, let us remember the old adage: "On the essentials--unity; on the non-essentials--liberty."

Of course the earliest debates were between followers of Arminius and Calvin. The Remonstrants (who were Arminians) outlined their objection to Calvin by defining 5 points that they debated. These became the Five Points of Calvinism, which we now remember using the mnemonic, TULIP. Total Depravity, Unconditional Election, Limited Atonement, Irresistible Grace and Perseverance of the Saints.

To summarize the debate: Calvin stressed the Sovereignty of God: "Since God is omnipotent, omniscient, etc., His will rules in everything so that salvation is determined by Him and the individual cannot override it. Human freedom is an illusion. You do not have the power to lose your salvation since God's will determines whether or not you are saved. I might as well relax and let God do what God is going to do."

Jacob Arminius
Arminians stressed the Free Will of humans: "God has gifted mankind with free will and so, He makes Himself a powerless observer of human choices. God is anxiously thinking: 'Will Mark choose me? Will Mark reject me?' God's will has been self-neutralized in such a way that I can now choose to believe and subsequently choose not to believe. I am left with a nagging sense of insecurity about my salvation: have I really repented adequately? Do I need to get saved again?"

The preponderance of New Testament passages seem to support the Calvinist position. For instance: "You do not believe me because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life [not probationary], and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father's hand" (John 10: 26-29).

And: "For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8: 38-39).

I could go on and on with similar passages. The person who would argue against Calvin must adequately deal with the Biblical use of the terms of "election," "foreknowledge," "predestination," "eternal life," "salvation," etc. Personally, I lean towards a modified Calvinism.

But there are a couple of passages that seem to teach the possibility of one being saved and then losing one's salvation. Most important of these passages is in Hebrews: "It is impossible for those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, who have shared in the Holy Spirit, who have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the coming age, if they fall away, to be brought back to repentance, because to their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace" (Heb. 6: 4-6).

Let me offer a brief approach to this "antinomy." (An antinomy is not the same as a paradox. It is the condition where there are two reasonable statements that seem impossible to both be true at one time.)

First, God, by definition, is sovereign over His creation. Second, in the Garden of Eden, when God spoke to Adam for the first time in Gen. 2: 16, He seemed to limit His own sovereignty and allowed Adam to make a choice to eat or not eat the fruit. The giving of a choice to Adam was a giving of free will. Third, Adam chose to disobey God and God allowed it, resulting in sin infecting all of humanity, and death along with it. Adam's free will allowed him to "lose" his salvation. Fourth, God initiated a plan to redeem mankind in a way that maintained His own sovereignty, and yet allowed men to maintain their free will.

My conclusion is that, yes, both are true: God is indeed sovereign and His will cannot be thwarted. And yes, mankind has been given Free Will to repent and believe.

Our difficulty is one of perspective. It is like being stuck at ground level and being asked to describe the color of a house's roof that is painted white on the front slope and blue on the back slope. No matter how fast I can run from the front yard to back yard, I can't see both sides at the same time. But God views the two facets of the roof from above and can see how they fit together. We need to begin with a basic humility that perhaps this is one of those big issues that contains an element of mystery.

Next week I'll address more the issue of Eternal Security:Once I've been saved, can I lose my salvation?

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Seeing Zacchaeus

I have been "vertically challenged" for my whole life. I was 4-foot-10 when I started High School and never really had that hoped-for growth spurt. I was 5-foot-5-and-a-half when I graduated and I've been there ever since.

And I've heard a lot of "short people" jokes in my life. "Just how short is he?" "He's so short, he can do chin-ups on the chalk tray." "He's so short, he can play hand ball against the curb."

Perhaps that's why I love the story of Zacchaeus so much. "He wanted to get a look at Jesus, but he couldn't see over the crowds because he was a pip-squeak, so he ran up ahead, anticipating the route, and climbed a sycamore-fig tree so he could get a look at Jesus when he passed by" (Luke 19: 3-4: my paraphrase). (If someone is casting another Jesus movie, how about Danny DeVito in this role?)

And of course, we know that Zacchaeus was a "chief tax collector." That is, he was not just a lowly tax collector, but someone at the top of the tax collector pyramid scheme. He bought tax lots from the Romans and then brokered them to other tax collectors. Kind of like a mob boss controlling territories. The tax lots imparted the right to collect taxes on a commercial route or a region. The position was rife with corruption. It was common practice to extort more money from tax payers to make even more money. Kind of like paying a gang "protection money." And Zaccaeus was at the top of the pyramid.

The Jewish tax collectors were completely ostracized from Jewish society since they were collaborating with the enemy, the hated Romans who were occupying their homeland. Since they had to interact with these unclean Gentiles, the tax collectors were labeled as "unclean sinners." Perhaps more hated than the Romans themselves.

So, Zaccaeus, although wealthy through his profession, was cut off from any access to salvation because of the Pharisees and scribes. The Pharisees had a fixation on holiness, due in part to the reforms instituted by Ezra after the exile, and then formalized after the Maccabean revolt. In their world, salvation was obtained through rigid adherence to the holiness codes taught by the Torah and interpreted in the Oral Torah and later resulting in Mishnah and Talmudic writings.

And the common person agreed with their leaders. The tax collectors were unredeemable sinners.

But Jesus had a "kingdom" focus. And everyone was a potential citizen of the Kingdom of God if they had faith. So, while the Pharisees were erecting more and more barriers to people, represented to the extreme by Zacchaeus, Jesus refused to treat anyone as exempt from the Good News that the Kingdom of God was now available.

And that is why Jesus "saw" something when he looked at Zacchaeus: faith. Maybe just a mustard seed, but faith nonetheless. He saw that the Father was at work and that this man was close to the Kingdom of God.

No one else in that very religious society had the eyes to see Zacchaeus in the same way. If Jesus had not arrived on the scene, Zacchaeus would remain lost.

But Zacchaeus' transformation can be seen as the fruit of the faith that Jesus called forth. And he compares that faith to the Father of faith, Abraham.

This brings us to us. A religious spirit, maybe also described as pharisaism or legalism, tends to think of people as in or out of our holy club. But Jesus calls us to let go of the glasses of religious sectarianism and see the world through Kingdom lenses.

"My Father is always at his work to this very day; and I, too, am working" (John 5: 17).

Is the Father working in the heart of the pot-smoker, the atheist, the porn-star, the militant gay activist, the [you fill in the blank] that sits in the cubicle next to you at work, or occupies the desk next to you in class, or is on the treadmill machine next to you at the gym? Are you willing to open your eyes to what the Father is doing in their lives? Are you willing to eat dinner at their house or invite them over to yours? This is where the rubber of the Gospel meets the road.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Gospel of Paul

In my last entry, I wrote about the Good News of the Kingdom announced by Jesus and passed on to his disciples. The question in this blog-entry is, "What is the content of the Good News that was preached by the disciples? Did the message change from the one that Jesus announced?"

Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthian church about 30 years after the resurrection of Christ. In it, as  he defends the importance of the resurrection in the preaching of the Gospel, he makes this statement:

"Now brothers [and sisters], I want to remind you of the gospel that I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures..." (1 Cor. 15: 1-4).

If you go through the book of Acts and analyze the preaching of Peter and Paul, you will realize that they indeed still announce the Good News of the Kingdom of God, but their emphasis is on the person of Jesus Himself. It is the essential ingredients of Jesus' life that proves that He is indeed the Son of God, the Messiah, the Lord, and the Savior. He walked a sinless life full of miracles, signs and wonders. He voluntarily suffered as the Servant of God. He truly died and was buried. He rose again from the dead on the third day. He ascended into heaven, took his position at the right hand of God, the Father, and will stage a glorious return to reign on earth in the future. Thus, in His very person God is brought present to us and thus, the Kingdom of God has come near and has been made available.

The Good News requires a response: repent (turn the direction of your life from being self-directed like the rest of the world, to being Jesus-directed), and believe (place your trust and confidence in Jesus; or in another sense, make Him the Master of your life as you assume the apprentice/follower/disciple role).

The earliest confession of the church was "Jesus is Lord" (see 1 Cor. 12: 3).

A subtle change in emphasis has led to a kind of watered-down understanding of the Gospel in much of the West. The typical appeal goes something like this: "Is your life a mess? Accept Jesus into your heart and he will forgive you of your sins and make a way for you to live an abundant life and you will go to heaven when you die." This message appeals to a kind of consumer mindset. "What is in it for me?" Jesus as Savior is the main emphasis, rather than Jesus as Lord. Although it is true that a benefit of believing in Jesus is that your sins are forgiven and that you now have a destiny with God in heaven, it is not the emphasis of the Good News that we read in the New Testament, especially in Acts.

The Jesus People Movement of the 60's and 70's in Southern California introduced an interesting twist on this Gospel. "Look at the headlines! The end-times are around the corner. You better accept Jesus so you can be raptured (taken into heaven directly) and you don't have to go through the 7-year period of distress that is coming on the earth called "The Tribulation." Thus, the motivation here was even more self-centered. "I'm afraid of the consequences of not becoming a Christian, or, I don't want to miss out on the benefits."

A sign that we are soft-selling the Gospel message is the way we try to soften the decision itself. "With all heads bowed and all eyes closed..." We wouldn't want to embarrass anyone by having them respond publicly. When I got married, I did it publicly. I don't think my wife would have been thrilled if I just quietly bowed my head in the audience and then caught the eye of the minister to let him know I had said 'I do' in my heart. Perhaps it should be a little difficult to say "I do" to Jesus as well.

I think all of this has implications for those of us who think we have Good News to share with the world. Jesus Himself is the Good News. He lived, He died, He rose again. Thus He is the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Our call is to turn away from a worldly life and turn to Him, making Him our Lord. He is the Master who demands our allegiance. Oh yeah, and the benefits are incredible as well.

Pretty Good News, huh?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

What Is the Gospel?

The word "gospel" comes from the Greek word euangelion which literally means "good news."

We call the first four books of the New Testament "The Gospels." That is, they are the Good News that  Jesus announced and that his followers have sought to continue to announce to the rest of the world ever since he passed the baton to his disciples.

Just what is the content of the Good News?

In Mark's account, Jesus begins his public ministry this way:
"After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 'The time has come,' he said. 'The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!'" (Mark 1: 14-15).

Many theologians agree that the crux of Jesus' message is that something he called "The Kingdom of God" (or "Kingdom of Heaven" in Matthew's Gospel) had somehow arrived and was now present and available to anyone who would respond to it. 

Jesus communicated the in-breaking of the Kingdom through both his words and his actions. When he performed miracles like healing the sick, raising the dead, cleansing lepers and casting out demons, he was demonstrating and illustrating the reality of his message.

"But if I drive out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come to you" (Luke 11:20).

The term "Kingdom of God" needs to be understood in order to grasp just what Jesus was saying. We tend to think of a kingdom as a geographical location. But the New Testament uses the term to describe a condition more than a location. The Kingdom of God is the condition where God's rulership is acknowledged, where His dominion holds sway. Thus, when we pray in the Lord's Prayer, "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven..." we are asking God's dominion to come and be made manifest on earth where we live in the same way and to the same degree that it is manifested in heaven, the place where God's Kingdom rule is fully manifested.

Jesus Himself is the One who brought the Kingdom to earth. His favorite term for himself was "Son of Man." This is probably an allusion to Daniel's prophecy:
"In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed" (Dan. 7: 13-14).

So, Jesus is the One who brings the Kingdom to us, the One who is to receive our worship. His message ends with, "Repent and believe the Good News!"

To repent literally means "turn around." That is, the only response to the Good News is to turn away from whatever direction you are going and turn towards the Son of Man himself. Jesus brings the very presence of God and God's rulership to us. In order to enter into the Kingdom of God, we turn to Jesus and place our trust in him. 

Jesus, himself, is the content of the Good News. In him the Kingdom of God has arrived. Have you turned the direction of your life towards him and placed your trust in him? 

I'll write more on the Good News in my next blog.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Reaching The Shallows and Going Deep

I started reading an interesting book recently--The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, by Nicholas Carr. The premise is interesting.

One of the features of the human brain is "plasticity"--that means that our brains are capable of adapting, as they respond to constant stimulus. The nature of that stimulus has a huge impact on how our brains develop. And one of the major ways that our brains are stimulated has to do with information technology.

For instance, when the printing press was invented--a major information technology change-- the way that people received information resulted in a change to how brains developed. Rather than listening to information being spoken, the written word became accessible to the common person and then reading became the primary mode of learning. Perhaps the democratic revolutions that followed were inevitable results of the explosion of the printed page.

We are in the middle of a major information technology revolution. First computer technology, but then more importantly, online connectivity and smart phones have changed the way we receive information. We are constantly being bombarded with information in bursts--email, web pages, texts, tweets, Facebook, YouTube--and often a message of very few words are accompanied by compelling graphics and videos.

One of the results of the information technology revolution is a change in the way our brains operate. For instance, rather than reading books the way we used to, many young people are beginning to "scan" the pages of a book, their brains looking for pertinent information, like scanning a web page. The result is a shallower understanding of the topic.

Another implication has to do with how we relate to one another. Intimacy seems to have become public. Facebook pages, constant texting (and sexting) results in a kind of pseudo-intimacy in the public sphere.

All of this has implications for those of us who are seeking to bring the eternal Gospel of the Kingdom to a new generation.

One of the most important parables in Mark's Gospel is that of the Sower and the Seed. The Gospel message is broadcast into the culture and falls on four kinds of "hearers" that are compared to four types of soil. Some sewn along the path are so shallow that the enemy snatches it away before it can sprout. Some sewn in rocky soil begin to seed, but once again, the shallow nature of the soil results in instant withering of the roots. Some sewn among thorns and the cares of the world (could this be likened to the constant "noise" of the technology revolution?) choke out the plant. Only a few are sewn in good soil that takes in the message and it is able to root deeply. (Read Mark 4: 1-20).

The punchline of the parable is: "He who has ears to hear, let him hear" (Mark 4: 9). Perhaps a paraphrase would be, "Pay attention to how you listen to the Word."

I believe that the Evangelical church in America has a problem with "The Shallows." We have spent so much time learning how to "relate" to people in a shallow culture that we have sometimes made our message shallow. But we are called to be counter-cultural in so many ways. To be a disciple of Jesus is to go deep. You cannot be a follower of the Son of God in a casual, shallow way.

This has incredible implications for how we preach the Gospel and how we make disciples. A disciple must take the time to allow the message to sink deeply into the soil of their lives so that the full implications of the message have their intended transforming affect. This is why solitude, silence, meditation, contemplative prayer and study are necessary for the life of discipleship.

As we seek to communicate our message in a shallow world, we must learn to use the tools of modern technology to reach a new, online, wired generation. But let us also call people to break out of the shallows and go deep--listening attentively and thinking intently and being transformed into true apprentices of Jesus.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Who Is Your God?

"When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing--they believe in anything."

This quote has been attributed to G. K. Chesterton, although there is no evidence that he actually wrote these exact words. In a book about Chesterton, The Laughing Prophet: The Seven Virtues and G. K. Chesterton, by Ă‰mile Camaerts, he pulls this thought from an analysis of a Father Brown story by Chesterton. Still, I love the quote and I think it captures the whimsical heart of Chesterton's thinking.

Psalm 14: 1 says it this way, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" The Bible uses "fool" as a contrast to "wise" in all wisdom literature. It is not a mocking term, but an instructional term. The person who wants to walk wisely will avoid foolish things.

I recently wrote two blogs about the Divine Name, Yahweh ("What Is In a Name?" and "The One Who Exists"). This blog will be about the word for God in the Old Testament--Elohim.

God is not a name, but a description. It comes from the idea of Great Spirit--the Highest Spiritual power. And thus, Bill W. of Alcoholics Anonymous is not far off in asking people to turn their life over to a Higher Power.

Interestingly, the word is the plural form of Eloah, which itself means God and is only used a few times. Since I'm not an Arabic scholar, I can't be sure, but Allah may be etymologically related to this word. The plural form is most likely used to communicate the majesty of God (pluralis majesticus) rather than any hint at the Trinity.

Another word for God is simply El, which means Mighty One and, even though it looks similar, is from a different root. El was a name for one of the Canaanite deities. When the Old Testament uses it, it is almost always in combination with a modifier, probably to make sure the reader does not confuse the One True God with Baal. For instance, El Olam, which means the Eternal God. Or El Shaddai, which means Almighty God.

One of the key issues in the Bible is not whether or not God exists, but who is YOUR God? It is assumed that every person serves and worships something. Whatever that is, is your God.

The idols that were commonly worshiped in Bible times were derided as false gods.

For great is [Yahweh] and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all [elohim].
For the [elohim] of the nations are idols; but [Yahweh] made the heavens (Ps. 96: 4-5).

The Bible's logic is simple: How can someone think that something shaped by their own hands and their own artistry can actually be the God who created all things?

Who or what is your God? As Bob Dylan famously sang, "You're gonna have to serve somebody..." Is it your own bank account, or your physique, or your shiny car, or a celebrity, or even your religion?

You could say that the Kingdom of God is the condition where the True God is served as God. The promise is repeated throughout the Bible, like a string of pearls, leading us to their fulfillment at the end of the Book of Revelation: "And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Now the dwelling of God is with [humanity], and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be THEIR God'" (Rev. 21: 3).

Jesus showed us a life of completely devoted worship to his God. And through him, he has invited us into that same relationship. So who is YOUR God?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

A Call To Re-Formation

Recently I have spent a bit of time reading a blog entitled "One None Gets Some." Refer to my blog of January 10, 2013 entitled, "To None Of The Above." The writer, Corinna Nicolaou, says that she belongs to a growing segment of society that checks the "None of the Above" box when asked their religious affiliation.

Her blog documents her quest to visit each of the religious institutions in her yellow pages. As someone who has not grown up attending a church, synagogue, temple or mosque, she has decided to check them all out to find out what the heck is going on in there.

I find her courage, honesty and spirit of adventure to be inspiring and also instructive. As someone who grew up in church, I have forgotten what some of our practices look like from the outside.

It is kind of like my own house. The stack of filing that needs to be done is moved to an out-of-the-way corner and then forgotten until I have time to file. The little bit of chipped paint is relegated to "I'll paint over that this summer." The light that is burned out is ignored "until I can get to it." When I walk into my own home, I mentally edit out the clutter and see only a neat and orderly room. But if I bring a guest into my home, they take it ALL in, messy pile and all. Their impression is raw and unedited. "Wow. Mark is a bit of a slob."

When Corinna recently visited a church, she reacted to a rigid double-predestination Calvinism and an exclusionary communion practice (and a hint that Calvin justified slavery?). Hundreds of years of doctrinal reasoning and theological argumentation have gone into forming so many practices in our churches that we may not see the obstacle they can create for visitors. Dare I say it, even a stumbling block?

Now this has gotten me to thinking about the very nature of Corinna's search. She is checking out the institutions that have grown up as a result of trying to hold on to a vibrant faith. But over time, many of our practices have become so ossified that they are merely a caricature of the vibrant faith-filled realities that were present at their birth. In my blog entitled, "The Cut Flower Syndrome" (Nov. 30, 2012), I attempted to describe this phenomenon using a socio-political metaphor. Flowers that are cut and placed in a vase may retain their beauty for a while, but since they are no longer connected to their roots, they are destined to wither and die. Churches that are not vibrantly connected to Jesus may still retain the semblance of Christian life, but they are destined to wither and die.

And so I get back to Corinna's search. I begin to feel saddened at the prospect that she will visit a number of churches and never really hear the good news that "Jesus is the good news." That is, in Him, God Himself has arrived to bridge the gap and has made a relationship with God totally accessible. And when we turn from going our own way and place our trust and confidence and hope in Him, we enter into a new kind of life, eternal life. Not just in the future, but brought into the now in the person of Jesus.

Even worse, I am afraid she will not experience the Presence of God that can touch hearts and transform lives. She is conducting a consumer-reports exercise--kind of like rating restaurants. Oh, that she would begin to seek for God Himself. Jesus came to reveal the very heart of God to those who were shut out by the religious institutions of their day. May she encounter Him as well.

As a pastor who loves the Church, I speak with affection to my fellow pastors. May we ourselves turn from just trying to keep the veneer of Christian virtue alive and renew a vibrant relationship with the One who gives life and gives meaning to all the rest of our religious activity. Jesus is the root. Let's become so obsessed with knowing Him and experiencing His Presence that all else fades in comparison.

The Reformation is not something that just happened once in history. It is something that must continually happen. Let us be renewing our spiritual lives in Jesus as we allow Him to reform our churches.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The One Who Exists

Prior to reading this blog, you may want to read last week's entry: "What Is In a Name?" This one is a continuation.

The Divine Name, Yahweh, was revealed to Moses at the burning bush:
Moses said to God [Elohim], "...suppose...they ask me, 'What is his name?' Then what shall I tell them? God said to Moses, "I AM WHO I AM [or I will be who I will be]. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: 'I AM [or I will be] has sent me to you.'" (Ex. 3: 13-14).

Names in the Bible are significant and usually tell you something about the nature and character of the person. In fact, the naming of babies is often prophetic. For instance, Jacob was named for the way he was born. Although his twin brother, Esau, was born first, Jacob's hand was found to be grasping the heel of his older brother (Gen. 25: 24-26). Thus his name means, "he-grasps-the-heel." But his name also means, "the supplanter, or deceiver." And thus Jacob's name is prophetic for his destiny in supplanting his older brother and deceiving his father into giving him the blessing and inheritance of firstborn.

The changing of Jacob's name to Israel occurs after he is stripped of all his possessions and comes face-to-face with God (Gen. 32: 22-32) , the One who holds the real key to his blessing. Thus his new name is given, which means "he wrestles with God." A significant life transformation. No longer will he be known as the one who deceives and manipulates to get ahead. Instead, he is engaged in a struggle with God for his blessing and God promises that he will prevail.

The Name of God is very important in telling us something about who this God is.

First, since the root of the Name is the common verb, "to be," we can say that Yahweh is the God who Really-Is. That is, all other gods are fakes and are not real. Yahweh, as "the God who Really-Is," is a polemic against all other gods who are "Really-Nots".

Second, it says something about one of the key attributes of Yahweh. He is the One who Exists as an essential attribute. That is, He exists and it is impossible for Him not to exist. And since He is the Existent One, then all other things receive their existence from Him. He is the Creator, all else is created. This sets Him apart as Wholly Other than all created things.

Finally, He is the source and end of all else. "I am" or "I will be" means that it is His will that is supreme. Thus, He holds dominion over all else. Thus, the "Kingdom of God" is the ultimate resolution of all rebellion against Him. That is, His will ruling supreme is the inevitable conclusion of all history.

Spend some time meditating on The Name and see where it takes you.

P.S. This is my 100th blog entry! I began writing in October 2010 and I have found it to be helpful in expressing my thoughts. I hope you have benefitted. Please think of posting a comment to give me feedback or passing the link along to others. Also, if there is a topic you are interested in hearing me write on, please let me know. Blessings and here's to the next 100.