Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Thank You Martin Luther

I'm in the middle of reading Eric Metaxas' new biography of Martin Luther. Like all of Metaxas' books, it is a great read. I highly recommend it. Reading it during the 500th anniversary year of the Reformation reminded me to be grateful to Martin Luther. Here are three things that I think are key.

1.     Sola Fides
Martin Luther was a very devout monk who, during his early years, struggled with the burden of guilt over his sinfulness. In fact, his superior and confessor, Staupitz, became worn out with his interminable confession of the most picayune sins. Evidently Luther could never get to a place where he felt forgiven.

Luther had an incredible breakthrough of rediscovery that salvation is through the grace of God, that is, through the free gift of forgiveness that we must receive solely through faith, and not through works. "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God--not by works, so that no one can boast" (Eph. 2:8-10).

What is the best Christmas gift you ever received? For me it was a bicycle from my parents. Did I have to pay them for it afterwards? No, because it was a GIFT. Salvation is also a gift. And the way we receive it is through faith in Jesus Christ, and what He has already done for me.

2.     Sola Scriptura
The church of the 1500's was not the church of the Apostles. A huge organization of rules and rituals and traditions and hierarchy and budget had grown up around the original teaching of the apostles. The authority for faith and practice had moved its center from the teaching of the apostles revealed in the Bible to the church hierarchy itself. In Luther's time, people no longer knew the Bible, but instead, studied Aristotle and Aquinas.

But Martin Luther read the Bible as the Word of God and realized the authority it contained. Whereas the papacy had become a corrupt political seat, the Bible remained a constant--the Word of God from which all authority for faith and practice emanated. "For all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work" (1 Tim. 3:16-17).

This led to a process of "deconstructing" church practice in light of a fresh reading of the Bible. Thus, the reformation did not just happen 500 years ago, it is a process of reforming that must continually be happening. We must constantly look at our faith and practice while shining the light of the Bible on it with fresh insights.

3.     The Priesthood of All Believers
Finally, Martin Luther realized that the New Testament did not set apart certain people to mediate a relationship with God. Instead, every individual was responsible and empowered to go directly to God. The difference between a Pastor and a Plumber is simply a matter of calling, not holiness. Both professions are holy if they are fulfilling the calling of God.

"I will pour out my Spirit on all people...sons and daughters...young men...old men...servants, both men and women" (Acts 2:16-18). "Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms" (1 Pet. 4:10).

Of course, this introduced a radical democratization of not just the church, but all of society. Each one of us is responsible for our choices. We can't blame it on someone else. We must study and wrestle with the issues and make informed choices. But the great thing is that God's grace is always there to lift us up if we just place our trust in Him.

Happy 500th Anniversary.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Gifted to be a Gift

"Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms" (1 Pet. 4:10).

I've been studying about Spiritual Gifts ever since I was in college and started attending the Bible studies of Julianne Easton some 42 years ago. She not only taught material from Dr. Albert Grimes of Christian Training Center, but I learned very practically how to prophesy and pray for the sick. The Charismatic Movement was in full swing. And I received a dose of teaching about Spiritual Gifts that has stuck with me ever since.

When I arrived at the Anaheim Vineyard in 1985, I was persuaded to change some of my more Pentecostal paradigms for the Kingdom Theology of G. E. Ladd. Pastor John Wimber presented a compelling model for ministry that began to answer some of the problems I had encountered as I wrestled with what I had been taught.

Don't get me wrong, I still believed then and, indeed, still do believe now, in the present ministry of the Holy Spirit in and through the church today. But the Third Wave perspective that I began to embrace made so much more sense to me. (First wave was Pentecostalism, Second Wave was Charismatic Renewal, and the Third Wave was Vineyard and other Evangelical moves of the Spirit).

This verse from First Peter encapsulates so much that is important for us to understand about how God gifts believers in order for us to bless others. We are "gifted to be a gift."

The word for gift here is charisma which is the singular of charismata. It is based on the word for "grace, favor" which is charis with a neuter ending attached. Literally "gracious things" or what Russ Spittler, former Fuller Theological Seminary professor, called "gracelets." God's favor or blessing is given to us or imparted to us in a discreet and identifiable way.

But charismata is not used in the Bible with the kind of technical precision that we have tried to give it today. It is a very general term that is used for the grace to be married or single (1 Cor. 7); God's grace that delivers Paul from peril (2 Cor. 1:11); as well as the nine manifestation gifts of the Spirit (1 Cor. 12-14), etc. Any unmerited favor of God--including natural talents or abilities, life experiences, training, social status, as well as supernatural endowments--can be seen as a charisma.

Any time God's unmerited favor is expressed to us, we become recipients of His grace. You see, it takes "various forms." Certainly we include in this the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:7-11 and the Ministry Gifts mentioned in 1 Cor. 12:28, Rom. 12:6-8; and Eph. 4:11. One of the things we need to do is to "boil over with desire for Spiritual Things" (1 Cor. 14:1).

But Peter tells us that we have been appointed stewards of the gracelets that He has deposited in our lives. Like any good steward, we don't hoard these blessings as if they are our own stash, but we are simply entrusted with a resource to use on behalf of God Himself. We are supposed to be "Faithful stewards of God's grace in its various forms."

I remember so well the teaching that "You have been given a gift. You need to find it and learn how to use it." But this sounds like I am the intended recipient of the gift. This actually results in a lot of wrong-headed thinking. The gift of God is not for me, but for others through me. I am Gifted, not for myself. I am Gifted to be a Gift.

How are you doing investing God's resources? Remember the parable of the Talents? Are you investing the resources of the Kingdom so that it produces more? That is what it means to be a "faithful steward of God's grace in its various forms."

(Oh. BTW: I ended up marrying my teacher, Julianne, over 39 years ago. Thanks God!)

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Emulating Jesus the Servant

In Philippians 2, Paul uses Jesus' obedience as an example for all who would call Him their Lord. "Let this mind be in you that was also in Christ Jesus" ( Php. 2:5). He then chronicles Jesus' journey from the Godhead, through humble service unto death, and back to the throne-room of God. It is His example of humble obedience and patient endurance that we are to emulate.

But in verse 6, Paul uses a word that is very hard to translate. Thus we have the following variations:

"thought it not robbery to be equal with God" (KJV).
"did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped or asserted [as if He did not already possess it, or was afraid of losing it]" (Amplified).
"did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped" (NASB & ESV).
"did not think that being God was something he should hold on to" (NIVR).
"he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to" (NLT).

but the newest version of the NIV (2011) says:
"did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage" (NIV).

I think this last translation hits closer to home. The underlying Greek word is a participle which makes a verb into a noun. Kind of like taking the verb "to play" and making it a noun "player," or maybe even "plaything."

The Greek verb here is "to seize, grasp, rob, acquire." That is, using my advantage to amass more for myself. Hence the idea of grasping at something. When I go to school, I acquire knowledge. When I invest my money, I acquire more wealth. When I go on vacation, I acquire more experiences.

When Paul changes this to a substantive participle, it becomes more literally, "an acquisitive thing." That is, "a state of grasping or seizing or acquiring more for myself."

When people are powerful, they generally use their power to amass more power and wealth for themselves. They use their position of power to their own advantage.

So what did Jesus do with his position of equality with God? Did He act like the power-elites of this world and use it to amass greater wealth and power for Himself? No. In fact, He did the exact opposite. "Rather, he made himself nothing" (Php. 2:7). And here Paul means that, in comparison to His position as equal with God, He went the opposite direction. Rather than amassing for Himself, He poured Himself out for us.

So, let me paraphrase: "In your relationships, have the same attitude as Christ Jesus, who, although he was equal with God, did not use his position to acquire more for himself, but instead, poured himself out, essentially emptying himself of all of his advantage, privilege and power. Thus, although He could have amassed more and more for Himself, He gave all of Himself for us in the very act of incarnation, humble servitude and death on the cross."

As Jesus said in Mark's Gospel: "You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (Mark 10:42-45).

If we are to emulate Jesus, we will put to death our own ambition in order to become the humble servants of God and of His people.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Bear One Another's Burdens

In Galatians Chapter 6, Paul says two seemingly contradictory things within a few verses:

"Bear one another's burdens and, in this way, fulfill the law of Christ" (Gal. 6:2).

"...for each one should carry their own load" (Gal. 6:5).

So which is it Paul? Are we supposed to bear one another's burden or are we each to carry our own load?

Of course both statements are true. Paul is teaching us something about life together in the body of Christ. And by understanding each statement and how they fit together we should do a better job of fulfilling the law of Christ, which is of course, to love one another.

In verse 2, the underlying Greek word means "weight." That is, we are to help one another with the oppressive burdens of life. In context, it might expressly mean the temptations and the results of sin.
Thus, when "someone is caught in a sin, you who are 'spiritual' should restore them gently" (vs. 1). That is, rather than shunning those who are struggling, we are to gather around them with love and support. Notice that we are to do it "gently" (which is a fruit of the Spirit mentioned in 5:23).

Paul adds a warning that when we are providing this kind of loving support to one another, those who may be in a spiritually strong place are not to become puffed up, prideful, or develop a "better-than" attitude. Such an attitude would not fulfill the "Law of Christ".

Instead, we should constantly "test our own actions" (vs. 4). Why? Because we are subject to temptation and to sin just as much as anyone. When we compare ourselves to another Christian, we are using the wrong measuring stick. Such comparison leads only to our self-deception. "Each one should test their own actions. Then they can take pride in themselves alone, without comparing themselves to someone else" (vv. 4-5). The Greek word "take pride" means something more like, "be contented" in themselves alone. As Paul says in Romans 12: 3, "Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment..." In other words, rather than becoming puffed up, develop a truthful and healthy self-image, based on God's standards, not based on unhealthy comparison to other people.

So we come to the second word for "load." The Greek word has the idea of an assigned task or a specific cargo. Some have used it for a "soldier's pack." No one else can take the jobs that have been assigned to me away from me. Only I can fulfill my ministry calling. Only I can be responsible for my relationship with God. Only I can repent, confess my sins and ask God for forgiveness. Only I can truly know the status of my own heart.

I should never do for someone what they are capable of and responsible for doing for themselves.

If I try to do for others what God has assigned to them, I am playing God in their life. And guess what? I make a pretty pathetic god. When I try to do His job, I will not only fail, but I will surely bring hurt and pain to everyone else involved. A soldier must carry their own pack with their own supplies into battle. Otherwise, what happens when they are cut off in a firefight?

Every ship must bear its own cargo. If I try to take your cargo plus my own, my ship will sink and all the cargo will be lost.

So, let's truly bear one another's excessive burdens. But remember, each person must also bear their assigned load.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The Wisdom of Job

The Book of Job is one of the most unique in the Old Testament. Although some have placed it as ancient, I believe it is contemporaneous with the other Wisdom books--Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and Song of Songs. Why? Because the themes are tied up with those of the other books (especially Proverbs).

"God's word to mankind is this: 'Behold, the fear of God is wisdom; and turning from evil is understanding'" (Job 28:28--my paraphrase). Although the book seems obsessed with the search for wisdom, this summary of the first half of the book states the moral, that "the fear of God" which really means, "deep reverence and piety," and the rejection of evil, are wisdom for mankind. This agrees with Proverbs (i.e. Pr. 1:7) and Ecclesiastes (Ecc. 12:13-14).

Even though the book may have been written later, the story of Job goes back to the Patriarchal period. He was a tribal chief and wealthy sheik long before the national identity of Israel was formed. In fact, the most common OT name for God, Yahweh, only appears in the beginning and ending chapters and one time in the body of the dialogues, in chapter twelve. Instead, Job and his associates use other Semitic names for God. Elohim (God-plural), El (Mighty God or just God), Elah (singular of Elohim--God), Shaddai (Almighty) and even Qadosh (the Holy One).

Perhaps Job was a story either retold in Hebrew or translated from another language, edited to fit the writer's purposes and fitted with an introduction (chapters 1-2), a bridge ( the "Hymn to Wisdom" in chapter 28), and a conclusion (chapter 38-42). Or else, the writer had such skill that he presented his exotic characters speaking with a foreign speech pattern and vocabulary. If you ever read a Louis L'Amour western, you will be familiar with such dialogue. ("They're fixin' breakfast for the boss right now," the bartender said, "and I'll just have them put on something extry" The Rider of Lost Creek, L. L'Amour). 

The language is so different than the rest of the OT that even the Greek translators working on the Septuagint left many passages untranslated. Modern commentators, due to the unusual language, have all kinds of explanations. But I think the final writer/editor produced a work of such depth and enduring quality that it may be simply that he/she did an exceptional job.

The Dead Sea scrolls have helped in improving the Hebrew text. Discoveries of Semitic writings at Ras-Shamra in the early 20th century have expanded our understanding of various languages and dialects so that scholars are better equipped today than ever before to translate Job.

Still, the wonder of this book comes from its exotic setting. God is worshipped in the patriarchal period, even by a desert sheik who is careful in his worship of the Almighty. Yet, unbeknownst to him, a cosmic battle for his soul is being waged in the courts of heaven. This results in the enemy of God being allowed to pillage Job's lands, take the lives of his children and even afflict him with a painful illness. Yet, despite all of his sufferings, Job refuses to "curse God and die."

"'Shall we accept good (tov) from God and not misfortune (ra-evil)?' In all this Job did not sin with his lips" (Job 2:10).

Job exhausts himself looking for the answer to his question: "If I didn't do anything wrong, why am I experiencing such misfortune?" Human philosophy, argued by his friends, does not give him the wisdom he seeks. He even begins to prepare a lawsuit against God. But he is interrupted by Elihu, who clumsily argues for the greatness of God. 

Finally, God Himself speaks from the storm-clouds. But He doesn't really answer Job's questions. Instead, He simply says, "I'm God and you're not. You need to accept that I am Wisdom itself. Just because you can't figure out the answer is not important. It is better that you know Me. I am the Answer." 

You see, Job never really is given the little "a" answer to his question. Instead, he meets the big "A" Answer to every question. Job's response says he "gets it." "I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you. Therefore I abase myself and repent (recant my lawsuit) in dust and ashes" (Isa. 42:5-6).

So, before you start to blame God for all of your woes, remember Job. It's okay to pour out your heart and your questions to Him. But always remember, that He's God and you're not. As long as you keep that perspective, you will have all of the wisdom that is available to mankind.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Getting an Alignment

Have you ever checked your tires only to discover a kind of wear pattern that looks like big scoops taken out of the sides? Or maybe one side looks new but the other side looks bald?

You need to remember to have an alignment done.

You see, if your tires are out of alignment, they start to fight against the direction of the car. They start to stutter and shimmy, or they are turned in or out and, thus, they end up ruining your nice new steel-belted radials.

Think of your relationship with God a little bit like a new set of tires. If you stay properly aligned, your relationship will hum along as it was intended. But get a little bit out of alignment and you will begin to show signs of wear and tear.

What do I mean by alignment? The most basic truth we should understand is that He's God and I'm not. That is, He is the Creator of all things. I am one of his created things. When I fail to remember that in any way, I start to go out of alignment.

This is what happened to Satan. He was the highest being who was created to worship God and to lead all of God's creation in worship. He is called helel (shining one) in Isa. 14:12, from which the Latin translation, Lucifer (morning star) comes. In Eze. 28:14, God said that he was ordained as a "guardian cherub." But at some point, he got "out of alignment." Isaiah prophesies about his downfall. He begins to think of himself more highly than he ought to think. "You said in your heart, 'I will ascend to the heavens; I will raise my throne above the stars of God; I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly, on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon. I will ascend above the tops of the clouds; I will make myself LIKE THE MOST HIGH'" (Isa. 14:13-14).

This is the original sin. Satan became conceited and deceived in a desire to be worshipped like God was worshipped. He was out of alignment because he forgot that "He's God and I'm not."

And so Isaiah tragically records: "But [instead], you are brought down to the realm of the dead, to the depths of the pit" (Isa. 14:15).

Mankind's fall was similar. The temptation in the Garden of Eden was for Adam and Eve to take over God's job. "Sure God, you said that we were not to eat the fruit of this tree. But we aren't sure you have our best interests in mind. Therefore, we think we know better than You what is best for us. We will take the steering wheel from here on out and begin to run our own lives." (Perhaps I should have said, "ruin our own lives?")

Christian conversion in many ways is merely the re-aligment of our lives to match God's intention for all of His creation. When I become a Christian, as the old "Four Spiritual Laws" tract said, I am getting off of the throne of my own life and putting Jesus on the throne. It is getting the ultimate cosmic alignment job.

Worship is also alignment. It is the spiritual discipline that makes me place myself in proper alignment relative to my Lord. He's God and I'm not. Therefore, I worship Him.

This is what the Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian life are all about. They are the regular rhythms of spiritual discipline that keep our lives in proper alignment. Daily devotion and prayer time with God. A plan for regular reading through the Bible. Other regular activities like prayer, silence, solitude, journaling, and faith gatherings: small groups and the larger church celebrations.

But most of all: worship. You see worship is proper alignment with the Creator of the Universe.

How's your alignment? Need an adjustment? Just begin to worship and see what happens.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Wine Mixed With Gall

"There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it" (Matt. 27:34).

In the middle of the story of the Crucifixion, as Jesus arrives at Golgotha, someone offers him a drink which he refuses. Why? The answer to that question has implications for our salvation.

The first thing to note is that what he was being offered was not just the regular wine that everyone drank. In fact, while Jesus hung upon the cross, he later accepts a drink of "wine vinegar" (Matt. 27:48; Mark 15:36; Luke 23:36; John 19:28-30). This occurs at the end of his ordeal.

The one offered before he was crucified was refused. The one offered at the end of the crucifixion was received.
The difference between these two drinks is important to note.

Mark tells us that the first drink was "wine mixed with myrrh" (Mark 15:23). Mark's Gospel is generally accepted to be the earliest one and Matthew drew upon it for his work. So, Matthew changes the specific word "myrrh" for a more generic word that really means "something bitter." You see, Matthew, throughout his Gospel, wants to emphasize that Jesus, in all He did, was fulfilling the scriptures. And here, he changes the word to
reflect the fulfillment of Psalm 69:21, "They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst."

For both Matthew and Mark, the point is that Jesus was being offered a pain-killing drink, a kind of narcotic that would help him through the experience in a drugged state. It was  like offering Him a shot of morphine to put him into a stupor.

Jesus refused to deaden the pain of His ordeal. Why? Because He needed to bear the entire weight of mankind's sin and our offense against God. To numb the pain would be to lessen the efficacy of His substitutionary act of atonement. Jesus was not willing that anyone should perish and so He needed to be fully present to the task at hand.

For those of us who struggle with any kind of addiction (and that is probably all of us), we can find comfort that Jesus died for us, fully present to our pain, rather than opt for self-medication. Avoidance of pain is the essence of addiction. I am grateful that Jesus did not avoid the pain, but fully embraced the cross so that I can be fully free.

So, if Jesus refused the first drink, why did He accept the second one?

As John's Gospel makes clear in 19:28-30, Jesus was thirsty after completing the work of atonement. He had one more thing to do, and that was to fulfill the scripture quoted above, "and gave me vinegar for my drink." This drink was entirely different.

You see, people didn't really drink plain water very much. That is because the quality of the water was generally poor. Often they would mix it with wine vinegar to kill germs (although they would not know there were such things as germs). This drink would have refreshed Jesus and woken Him to the moment. Instead of avoiding the painful trial, it would have sharpened His senses.

In other words, Jesus wanted to stay alert until the very end. No swooning. No passing out. Even with the blood loss and probable dehydration, He stayed fully alert until the end. That is why He could cry out in a loud voice His final word from the cross, "Tetelestai" which means "It is finished!" Our obedient Savior had pushed through the pain and humiliation and temptation to quit and had completed the task that the Father had sent Him to accomplish, the atonement for ALL sin for ALL people for ALL time.

"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--YET HE DID NOT SIN. Let us then approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Heb. 4:14-16).

"But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands...He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (Her. 9:11-12).

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Pebble In My Pocket

I carry a little pebble in my pocket to remind me just how much God has done for me in the last three years.

Little did I know when I wrote my last post on "Romance and the Journey of Faith" (Feb. 12, 2016) that I would end up arriving home again, myself. Here it is a year later and I have pretty much made the entire trek, "There and Back Again."

Here's a little bit about my recent journey: In March of 2012, in obedience to God, I closed the church I had planted in July 2000, the Walnut Valley Vineyard Church, and gifted most of the equipment to the Can2 Vineyard, a new Cantonese-speaking congregation that was planted out of the Vineyard of Harvest (a Mandarin congregation) by my friend, Pastor Kenneth Kwan. I began working on planting a new Vineyard Church in Brea, California called "The Journey." It was exciting to begin a new adventure. We gathered a small group of great leaders, all of us anticipating what God was about to do. Little did we know that we would wander in the wilderness for a couple of years.

During that time, leaders came and then had to leave for a variety of reasons until, in October of 2014, we decided that it would be best to suspend everything. As you can imagine, it is a bit of a shock to realize that "God is just not that into your church plant." And even though I was disappointed at the end of The Journey (pun intended), it was not really the end of my journey.

Although I had gotten used to sleeping in on Sunday mornings (The Journey met Sunday evenings), we continued to attend a really great home group. I knew we needed to find a church home. It is never good to "give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing" (Heb. 10:25). The painful process that follows any loss, called the grieving process, can be difficult enough without also withdrawing from the loving support of the community of faith.

In January of 2015, we started to attend the Vineyard Community Church of Pomona/Claremont. My friend, Alan Strzemieczny, aka Stretch, became my pastor as I sought to find work in the secular world. I was selling doors and windows for another good friend, Kelvin Chin. Then I was hired by a Property Development and Construction company close to my home.

By the end of 2015 I was feeling pretty miserable in my new job (all of which was my own stuff--it was not a good fit). And I began to pray for God to open the door back into full-time ministry. By April of 2016, He partially answered my prayer by cutting back my hours at the Construction company. In order to make ends meet, I began driving for Uber (which I am still able to do when I have time). With all of this, I was not really making enough to live on.

Besides that, I yearned for the privilege of, once again, fulfilling my purpose in life. God made me a pastor and I don't think I'll ever be able to be happy doing anything else again.

In August of 2016, God answered the second part of my prayer, when the Pomona Vineyard hired me as an Associate Pastor. There and back again.

On Good Friday 2016, I picked up a small stone to remind myself to pray this prayer every day, "Lord, please open the door back into pastoral ministry." And even though the prayer was answered in August, I continue to carry that pebble in my pocket as a reminder to be thankful for all that God has done. Even when ministry gets hard, which it inevitably does, I want to remember how thankful I am to be doing what I'm doing.

What does your journey look like? Are you asking God to lead you to a preferred destination? Remember that  He is "the Shepherd and Overseer of your soul" (1 Pet. 2:25). You are never wandering alone when you stay connected to Him.