Monday, May 18, 2015

Jesus in a Tent

Imagine if you will your entire being, soul, mind, and body, is really an elaborate house created for Jesus to dwell. To continue this product of our imagination, imagine walking through the halls of your psyche side-by-side with Jesus. The whole way He is pointing out places to hang beautiful art, spots where luxurious furniture should go, and whole sections designed with beauty and opulence in mind. Imagine a grand staircase winding from the ground floor all the way to the top and at every landing beauty abounds.

Somewhere along the way, in this imaginative scenario, Jesus proposes a slight change in the architecture. Maybe a vaulted ceiling, or larger dining room, possibly a bigger fireplace in the den, regardless is not much of the change. You start to get frustrated. Later He proposes another change, also something minor but needed as a goes with the previous change. The frustration grows a little more.

At some point, the little changes start to press against your own personal design aesthetic. Eventually you turn to Jesus and ask for space. He looks at the entirety of the mansion that He has created inside your being and you know he is wondering how far He has to be from you to give you the space you need. You look at the same mansion and you feel that it is too restrictive and confining for both of you. Jesus turns to you with a look and you lead Him out the back door.

Somewhere in the backyard, you have erected a tent. The tent is not pretty or special, there is no potbellied stove to keep Him warm, there is not even a decent sleeping bag. You figure that He is the creator of the universe and if He wants, He can create whatever He needs for His tent. As you turn to go back into your house, He stands waiting for you to say something. You turn back for a moment and tell Jesus that if He needs a shower or would like to use the kitchen He is welcome. You also say that you would like to schedule some more design sessions for the house but not this week.

You then reenter your house while Jesus, the creator of the universe, supposedly the lover of your soul, is left to live like a hobo in your backyard.

This seems like a silly scenario and none of us would ever admit to doing this. Did you catch what I said, none of us would admit to doing this. The truth is that all of us at some point or another in our walk with Christ have done this. We like some of the initial changes that Jesus makes in our life. We enjoy the freedom that He gives us; we even enjoy some of His suggestions. When push comes to shove though, we want to be in charge so slowly we encourage him to live in our backyard visiting occasionally to make approved changes.

When this image came to me, I have to admit I was ashamed and embarrassed. The idea that I would push Jesus out of my home to live as a hobo in my backyard made my skin crawl. Tears sprang to my eyes and I asked Jesus if I had done this to him. He did not give me a direct answer, the clouds did not part, a booming voice from heaven did not echo down to me. Nevertheless, I knew the answer to my question; I knew where I had placed my Jesus.

Jesus wants all. He does not want partial ownership or visitation rights. He wants it all!
Looking at the statement, I have just written I must confess that it frightens me. I sing songs, write papers, and preach sermons about getting my all to Jesus. I know the church answer that I am supposed to give nevertheless the concept terrifies me. The reason for the fear is that I know me. I look in the mirror (when I can muster the courage) and I see me for who I am all the flaws and failures. I look at myself and when I am honest, I do not like what I see.

My greatest fear is that when I open myself completely to Jesus, He will not want me. This is a great lie from the enemy. The enemy is the accuser, the manipulator, the bringer of confusion and destruction. The enemy tells us we are worthless and unlovable. Jesus tells us when we were at our most unlovable state He loved us. The enemy says if we allow Jesus into our house, He will see how truly unworthy we are. Jesus handcrafted us. He knows where all the flaws are before we show him.
The great lie from the enemy begins when he tries to convince us that there are parts of our existence that Jesus does not know about. Do we really believe that we worship a God that is so weak that we can actually hide things from Him?

While my fears of openness persist, my desire for oneness with Christ grows in strength every day. Every Christian has pockets of darkness within their soul. At times, those pockets expand and threaten to overtake us. When this happens, we should turn to Jesus who is the light to push back the darkness. All He wants us to love us eternally with a tenderness and intimacy that mere words cannot describe. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Leaning on Jesus

As a young boy growing up as an Episcopalian I never had the opportunity to sing some of the great evangelical hymns like The Old Rugged Cross, The Solid Rock, or Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. These are classic evangelical songs and they taught solid theology. One of my favorite songs that I learned after I joined a Baptist church and found Jesus was Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. I like the song because of the chorus. I enjoyed hearing the deep male singers chanting, “leaning on Jesus, leaning on Jesus, safe and secure from all alarms.” At the same time, the women were just singing, “leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all.” It was the first time that I ever heard in church the men and the women singing to different parts of blending to form one harmonious song.

From that time in the early 80’s till now I find that song playing over and over again in my mind when confronted by troubling times. There is no doubt that we are currently experiencing very difficult and dangerous times in this world. While in most of the world being a Christian has been dangerous but for those of us living in the Western world we have enjoy a measure of peace and freedom. That peace and freedom is rapidly diminishing as Christians attacked openly and killed on camera our leaders and politicians say nothing.

There has been a shift in the public consciousness in our great nation that is slowly beginning to turn away from traditional biblical Christianity. Christian morality and theology is marginalized while other religions are lifted up. While the United States once founded on Judeo-Christian ethics and morality, we may be seeing the end of that in our generation.

While it turns my stomach to see brothers and sisters in Christ killed in such horrific ways, I cannot say that I am surprised. One of the biggest reasons for this decline is that evangelical church has replaced church membership with discipleship. We are no longer requiring that the members of our church be actual disciples of Christ.

We have cheapened grace and salvation to the point we offer a watered-down easy believe-ism theology built around feeling good, receiving blessings from God, and in essence, a “me” centered faith. This message is heard loud and clear by the world around us and honestly, it sickens them as much as it should sicken us.

Gone are the days were preachers exhort their congregants to pick up His cross daily and follow Him. The idea of suffering and being uncomfortable seems to be an anathema to current Christian teaching. The truth is that suffering and persecution magnifies the true message of Christ.

World is hurting and seeking answers, unfortunately when they turn to the church they get the Joel Osteen response that God is just waiting to meet all of your material wants and desires. Jesus himself says that following him is hard and that if we try to go alone it is impossible. He wants us to cry out to him when the burdens get heavy so he can help shoulder the load. He never promises us easy path just that he will be with us step for step side-by-side.

So how does this play out when we watch things on television like Christians being? What should our response be? What do we tell our children? How do we prepare to live in this ever-changing culture is rapidly turning against traditional Christianity?

The easy answer is to fall the words that old song Leaning on the Everlasting Arms. This may sound like an oversimplification but it is not. The song tells us to lean on Him. Most important thing we can do is to rest behind the nail-scarred hands of Jesus Christ and let him be our defender. He is our rock, our fortress, and our best defense against the dangers of this world.

This does not mean that he will keep us from harm all the time. There will be times when we will suffer, lose loved ones, chased from our homes, and even lose our lives. However, through it all Jesus will be magnified and we will draw ever closer to Him.

This also does not mean we should not stay involved in our nation and the politics of it. Until laws are passed that prevent us from speaking our minds we should do so. This is not a time to disengage but just the opposite. We first need to find our center, seek to be a true disciple of Jesus and then speak from out of the loving embrace of our master.

My heart goes out to the families of the Christians who lost their lives to Islamic extremists. The only comfort that I can find is that while the enemy thinks they have won a victory the truth is just the opposite. The worst they can do is destroy the body but we know that their souls live for all eternity in heaven. Scripture also says that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God. I would not want to be one of those unrepentant and unsaved Islamic terrorists as they stand before the judgment seat of God.

Paul encourages us from the book of Ephesians to pray for our fellow believers and this we should do constantly. For ourselves we should lean on Jesus and rest in his capable arms!

Psalm 4:4 Tremble, and do not sin; Meditate in your heart upon your bed and be still. (NASB)

Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Persecution Pathway

     I feel I can no longer be silent on the subject to persecution. I’ve often been asked why such evil can exist in the world. I have written extensively on that in my book The Humiliation of Job and in my book Musings of an Armchair Theologian. I do not wish to revisit those complete arguments as the idea of evil in the world and why God allows it to happen is a question that could dominate this blog along with thousands of others and we would still not come to a complete consensus. I think it’s important that we differentiate between persecution and evil. And that’s what I intend to do in this blog.

     Recently members of ISIS (a radical Islamic terrorist organization) kidnapped 21 Coptic Christians in Libya and then beheaded them on camera. And as if that act could not be made worse now the news is saying that there is over 100 maybe even as many as 400 Christians that have been rounded up by the same organization. If they are true to the character they have displayed in the past they will more than likely use these Christians to further their atrocities.
     One of the questions the springs to mind when I hear this (one of many questions) is what should be the Christian response to this news? Another question is what is God’s response to this? One last question that I think needs to be answered is; is persecution part of God’s plan for the Christian church today? I hope to address all three of these questions in the remainder of this blog.
     What should be the Christian response to this news? I think that the answers to this question should be at least twofold. The first part of the answer to this question should be that we as the Christian world should condemn this as an act of extreme terrorism. In condemning this we ought to as a complete body offer a prayer’s for those that have died in those that are about to die. We should pray for the families, and we should pray for the captors. This should be a single universal response from the Christian world.
     The reason I say that is we are taught by the apostle Paul in several of his epistles that the church is the body of Christ. As such when one part of the body is injured the rest of the body should respond and feel it. It should bring about pain and remind us that this is not our home, and no matter how comfortable it feels at the moment we should never forget where our true allegiance lies. When Jesus was questioned by Pontius Pilate as to the nature of his kingdom Jesus responded that “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” (John 18:36)
     Now we all know and believe that Jesus was and is God. As such he is the creator of all that is therefore he could say that his kingdom and domain was the entire universe including the subtle ball of mud that we currently ride around the sun on. But Jesus was not being tongue-in-cheek or sarcastic in his response ultimately we also know that His kingdom will fully be realized only at the end of days. Our home, our true home, is with Jesus.
     While we walk this earth though we do so with others as part of the body of Christ. When one part of the body hurts there should be a mechanism or a network of “nerves” that transmit that pain to the rest of the body. We should grieve when one of our own dies. This should be our first and public response.
     There is another component to this and that brings us to our second question: what is God’s response? The apostle Paul in the book of Romans chapter 5 says that we should exalt in our tribulations. We should understand that the tribulation brings about endurance or perseverance. And that endurance provides the fertile ground from which grows character and not just any character brick character that is steadfast and proven. And from that plant we call character the flower of hope blossoms. His hope is amazing it’s what we are all about while we walked this earth waiting for the day that we step into glory and embrace our master, Savior, Redeemer, the lover of our soul Jesus Christ!

     God poured out his love on us through his son Jesus Christ. And after Jesus left he gave us the down payment, with a foretaste of what true heaven will be like by allowing us to have the Holy Spirit dwell within us. The problem that many of us face in first world nations like the United States is that we have not really had to suffer persecution in a long time. This does not mean that we will be free from persecution until Jesus comes back but at this present time we don’t face that kind of persecution.

     But even a cursory reading of the New Testament anyone can tell that the concept of persecution in the lives of believers is part of our DNA. Many of the first and second century writers, who themselves were the subject of much persecution, wrote about the fact that persecution is how their faith deepens in the church expands. I believe it was Tertullian that wrote that quote that the blood of martyrs is the foundation of the church.

     God did not spare even His own son. If we call ourselves a Christian we should not be surprised when persecution comes. In China when a member of the house church movement is arrested and sent to prison for their faith they have a completely different view of that act from us. According to the book the Insanity of God by Nik Ripken the Chinese believers look at prison as their seminary. Often times in order to be a true leader in that movement one has to be in prison much like our pastors today should attend seminary. They come out of prison on fire ready to share their experience of the persecution and this might explain why the church in China has had explosive growth in the last 50 years.

     This leads into the last question that I posed (I do not pretend to believe that these are the only questions that need to be asked just the ones I felt I needed to ask). Is persecution part of God’s plan for His church today? The short answer is yes and no. To deal with the no first I can only say this but nothing evil comes from God. God does not wish that any should perish but that everyone should come to know the saving knowledge of his son Jesus Christ.

     Now to tackle the yes. I do believe that for those that are truly called to serve God (I’m not talking about pastors only but everyone that feels the urging of the Holy Spirit to follow him) that persecution is part of the discipleship process that draws us closer to the heart of God. For those that have undergone persecution whether it’s a form of mild marginalization that we see here in the US or whether it is having your head removed from your body it all works to deepen our relationship with God.

     I’m not encouraging anyone to seek out persecution, but when it comes we should not run from it either. There is a pathway through persecution they can only be taken with in the arms of our Savior Jesus Christ. He says his burden is not heavy but for anyone who is truly followed God that statement grates on her nerves. Because it is not easy following Christ, to quote the newswoman Megyn Kelly, “Christianity is not for wimps.” That statement is never more true than today. So how do we reconcile the words of Megyn Kelly in Jesus Christ? It’s simple, it’s all about how we have trained our mind and body for God.

     If I were to ask you to pick up an instrument you have never touched before and handed you a piece of music that you had never heard or seen and asked you to start playing that would be hard. In fact calling it hard would be an understatement for most of us. That you take that same piece of music and you sit down every day in practice on that same instrument when you are asked to play it at short notice it then becomes very easy. The same can be applied in our walk with Christ the closer that we walk with him now in times of relative peace will allow us to easily follow him in times of trials, tribulations, and persecution.

     I’m a Little League baseball coach and one of the things that I taught all of my players was that we practice how we play we play how we practice. This the same principle we find in our walk with Christ. The deeper our relationship with Christ the more be able to endure the darker times that will come in our life. Whether it is the death of a loved one with a loss of our freedom due to our faith we can stand on the promise that Jesus gave us in the statement that his burden is not heavy.

     I know there are a ton of other questions that we could ask but I will close simply with this. As the body of Christ we should pray daily and urgently for those that are held captive by the evil that is ISIS! But we should also pray for the captors because they don’t know that they are playing with fire. They think that they have captured 100 or more Christians and that they had the opportunity to do what they will with those men and women. The truth is God has sent 100 or more missionaries into their camps to proclaim his excellent message of grace, mercy, and forgiveness.

     Truth is no weapon formed by man or Angels can harm any Christian without the express permission of the creator of the universe. Those ISIS terrorists are literally holding lightning in a bottle and it is my prayer that salvation will break out in a wildfire revival fashion where those Christians are being held and that those terrorists will come to know Christ, repent of their sins and seek to follow the true God of the universe the rest of their lives!

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

To Live or let Die...?

                “Pastor I have a question, I’m 86 years old and my husband is also 86 and he is not doing so well. I love him very much and when he goes home to be with Jesus I’m not sure that I want to stay here without him. Is it all right if I go to the hospital and have the doctors and my life?”
                “Pastor I have a question, I’m not sure how to say this but I have been diagnosed with end-stage pancreatic cancer and the doctors have told me that there is nothing they can do to save my life. The only thing they can do is give me an extra few months but in doing so it’s going to be very painful. Is it okay if I tell the doctors no and just try to make myself comfortable before I pass into the next life?”
                “Pastor I have a question, I have a fast-moving brain cancer that will require the doctors to do a complicated and risky surgery and even then they can’t guarantee they’ll get it all. If they attempted no matter what I will be left without a significant portion of my memories and my mental acuity. Should I go for the surgery knowing that I will forget everyone that I love, or should I simply allow the cancer to kill me with my memories intact?”
                “Pastor I have a question, my wife and I have just returned from the doctor and they have told us that the baby that my wife is carrying will most likely have Down syndrome. They want us to do an abortion, is it right for us to do that?”
                These questions I have actually been asked in the course of my ministry. This morning the idea of writing this blog started to percolate in my brain. I put off thinking that I just didn’t have time and this is an area that is so controversial that I wasn’t sure I really wanted to take up this fight. Once I arrived in my office and sat down to go through my emails I saw a brochure from an organization here in Alaska dealing with an upcoming vote for physician-assisted suicide. I felt that this email and brochure was a confirmation from the Holy Spirit that I needed to weigh in on this topic.
                I spent the last several years living overseas in a very liberal and dark country. The country was Belgium and they were one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage and euthanasia. The very first question that I wrote in this blog was from a dear Christian lady who was a member of my church there in Belgium. She knew Jesus and she had spent her life helping to raise the children that passed through the doors of that church. She’d become one of my children’s surrogate grandparent. I was taken aback when she asked if it was okay for her to die after her husband left this world. I was even more shocked that the government would allow that. The Belgium is a socialist country and for people that are old or infirm they don’t really contribute to society as a whole they are only a drain so I guess it makes some kind of weird sense that they would make a way and encourage people to just die.
                After I left Belgium I heard that they had passed a law making it legal for parents of children who are mentally handicapped, specifically with Down syndrome and other types of mental illnesses that keep children from living normal lives, to have their children “put to sleep.” When I heard this I went livid.
                For the last several months I have been part of a ministry action group made up of chaplains that serve the sick and dying. Several of the chaplains that would meet via a teleconference worked in hospice. The question came up very similar to the second question that I wrote down in this blog. And I was shocked that my colleagues would be so blasé about the question and even in their response. The overwhelming response from these chaplains was to say it was okay to die.
                For me that makes me angry. I challenged my colleagues about this issue and their response was to quote from the apostle Paul where he says to live is Christ but to die is gain; that was their justification to say that it was okay to die because death would be gain. This of course does not now nor did then sit well with me. When I think of all that Christ did for us and the fact that he went to the cross to die in our place for our sins that we might have life and life more abundantly I cannot accept death in any form that is initiated by us and in our timeline as being good.
                I made it a point to say to my colleague then that Paul was not teaching that it is better to die but rather that was his personal wish was to pass away into heaven and spend eternity with Jesus. That’s what he wanted to do but that’s not what Christ wanted for him to do. It wasn’t up to Paul when Paul was going to leave this earth, it was up to Jesus. Paul was content not to have his deepest wish to see and hold his Savior for eternity at that moment because he knew it was better for God, the growing infant church and for all of humanity for him to stay there alive.
                The book of first Corinthians chapter 15 near the end Paul talks extensively about what Christ did on the cross and how the sting of death is sin. And how sin is what Christ came to destroy if that’s the case that he also came to destroy death as well. Jesus speaks in a few places in the New Testament about the topic of death and what he came to do about it. To Mary and Martha in reference to Lazarus he said he was the way the truth and the life and that even though people may die here if they follow him they will live forever. But with that said Jesus still turned to the two that was sealed and called forth Lazarus that he may live a little bit longer and thereby give glory to God with every breath he took.          
                I’m not saying that death isn’t a part of our life, it is. If Jesus does not return then at some point all of us will taste of death. But until death comes for us I believe deep down in my soul that we are to fight against death! Death is the enemy that Christ destroyed on the cross. Death came into this world by the sin of one man death was destroyed from this earth by the sinlessness of Jesus Christ the second Adam. When death finally takes me I will step out of this body and into eternity gladly and with no regrets. But until that day I pray every breath I take, every action I do, every word that I write or say will bring glory to God!
                The final thing I have to say about the topic of physician-assisted suicide is this: is a rebellious and sinful act to take anything that is solely in the province of God out of his hands and ours. I say this rebellious and sinful because it is up to God to choose how many days we have not us. When we choose the day of our death we take from God what is his and his alone. We are not the captains of our own fate, we are not the rulers of our own destiny we are servants and slaves of the Most High God! Servants and slaves do not do their own will but the will of their master. Paul talks extensively of this both with his writing and actions.

                This may be a hard thing to hear if you are going through painful procedures that may or may not prolong your life. I think the ultimate question that we should be asking ourselves is: how is this suffering bringing glory to God? In our society were so use to always seeking our own pleasure, our own happiness, or the very least a comfortable state in which to exist that we often don’t realize that there is a sweetness in suffering that allows us to identify more fully with Christ. I’m not an advocate for modern medicine or any alternative naturopathy. And I’m also not saying that we should take every advice that every doctor gives us but I am saying the longer that we are breathing the more opportunities we have to glorify God.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Pharisees, Sadducees, and Heresies…

From the dawn of time Man is incurably religious.  It is as if man were addicted to the concept of “God” and no matter how hard he tries he cannot shake it.  Reading of the history of the Jews there is never a finer example of this concept.  The religion of Judaism permeates everything that they are.  The majority of the world at the time that the Pharisees and Sadducees lived was stuck in a class system based around royalty, citizenship, slavery and freedmen.  It is interesting that in the midst of all that the Jews had developed a class system that at its center was God.  With the Scribes, Rabbis, remnants of the Hasidim, and the religious priestly aristocracy that loosely claimed a connection to Zadok the High Priest in David’s time.  It is also interesting that at this time the major political parties were inexorably linked to their faith.  There was no real separation of church and state in the mind of the first century Jew.  There were three primary political/religious parties of the day; they were the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes.  There were others, such as the scribes and the Zealots, but they were not necessarily a recognized part of the ruling class.

One of the largest political parties of the day was the Pharisees.  The Pharisees have their root in the Hasidim.  The Hasidim might have been the ‘descendants’ Ezra and Nehemiah, not biologically but rather spiritually.[1]  Wherever they get their roots they were highly religious and desired to protect the Law against all threats, this included but was not limited to the Seleucid incursion, Hellenistic invasion of thought, and Roman hedonistic lifestyle.  The Pharisees literally means “the separate ones” and in many ways this was how they viewed the world.  Their guiding principles can be found in the Aboth, a collection of sayings from at least sixty-five Rabbis, and can be boiled down to three sayings: Be Deliberate in judgment, raise up many disciples, and make a fence around the Law.[2]  It is interesting how these principles in many ways had been brought out more fully in the teachings of Jesus.  

The idea of building a fence around the law was taken to an extreme when the Pharisees added more laws to the Law in order to ‘protect’ the Law.  One can see the fruit of this in the some current conservative lines of thought on many subjects like, dancing, the drinking of alcohol, and being in debt.  The Pharisees would often set the ‘fence’ further out from the Law in order not to even come close to transgressing the Law.  In the book New Testament: Its background and Message the authors, Lea and Black, make a subjective statement about the Pharisees.  They say “Although many of the Pharisees deserved Jesus’ strong denunciations (see Matt. 23), many others were virtuous, as seen in the example of Nicodemus.”[3]  I do not think this is an accurate example.  If you look at the facts of the narrative, Nicodemus came to Jesus under the cover of darkness.  Jesus rebuked Nicodemus personally when he asked him “Are you the teacher of Israel and do not understand these things? Truly, truly, I say to you, we speak of what we know and testify of what we have seen, and you do not accept our testimony. If I told you earthly things and you do not believe, how will you believe if I tell you heavenly things?” (John 3:10b-12 NASB)  As seen in that passage not only was Jesus calling into question Nicodemus’ knowledge but he is questioning his ability to accurately teach the Law and he was commenting on Nicodemus’ very belief in the person of Jesus.  

Later in Nicodemus’ life he still seems to still struggle with his belief in that he did not speak up at the trial of Jesus.  In the end he did step forward to claim the body of Christ and announce by his actions that he was a follower.  I have to say that Nicodemus may be similar to many of us but I would not use his example to base the “righteousness” of any of the other Pharisees.  I would say, rather, that he was the exception not the rule.  The Pharisees, as a body, did acknowledge a belief in the afterlife, angles, and a spiritual realm.

The Essenes were a splinter of the Hasidim as well.  They were Monastics that practiced extreme separation as a matter of course.  They all made vows of chastity and they order grew by converts alone.  Some have linked this group to the one in Qumran.  The Essenes were very closely aligned to the Pharisees in their core doctrine of protecting the Law.  They did not accept the temple worship and felt that the current High Priests were not valid.  Although they were not mentioned by name in the New Testament their mind set toward the temple was mirrored by many of the day including Jesus and His disciples.[4] 

The Sadducees where the ruling religious aristocracy, they had the backing of Rome and held to the ideals of Hellenistic thought more so then the other two groups.  They did not have a belief in the eternality of the soul and anything in the spirit realm.  There is no doubt why they feared Jesus’ teaching on the Temple, as their main seat of power was completely wrapped up in the Temple itself.  For all their political machinations and stumbling blocks they put in the way of the early church it is interesting to note that in 70 A.D. when the Temple was destroyed they ceased to exist because their whole reason to be ended.

[1] Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament Kindle edition(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 2667-94 (paragraph location)
[2] Ibid, 2611-14 (paragraph location)
[3] Thomas Lea and David Black, The New Testament: Its Background and Message, 2ed. (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2003), 58
[4] Julius Scott, Jr., Jewish Backgrounds of the New Testament Kindle edition(Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1995), 2387-2391 (paragraph location)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Essential Christian: A Critique on the Essential Activity of Christian Ministry

            What is the essential activity of the Christian?  By extension what is the essential activity of Christian Ministry?  It is important in the beginning of any discussion to define the terms that will be used.  It is not possible to divorce the activity of an individual from the corporate, therefore any look at any corporate endeavor one must look at those members that make up that group.  Here we are looking at Christian ministry so we must look at the Christian.  The Westminster Catechism says that the chief aim of a Christian is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.  This is a rather broad statement that can be interpreted in a number of ways in any given context, but at its core it is a valid assertion of what a Christian should be doing if he or she is to call themselves a follower of Christ.  
            The focus of this discussion is to look into the idea that we as Christians are to develop disciples that will follow and worship Jesus Christ.  The question is whether or not this is to be the essential activity of a Christian or a ministry.  I think that the answer lies in the above statement.  We are to glorify God in all that we do and by doing that we are to enjoy Him here and then later in Glory.  The problem with this statement is that it can be perceived as a very selfish statement if not taken in context of the Bible as a whole.  We are not called to live on an island devoid of contact with the larger world.  We have the answers to the greatest questions that have plagued mankind since the dawn of time: chiefly, who am I and where do I fit into the grand scheme of life?  Hiding those answers boarders on the criminal.  So how do we do this and fulfill our chief aim?
            To find this answer we need to look no further then nature.  Every living thing on the earth is created with the ability to create life after its own kind.[1]  Furthermore all life on the earth seeks to reproduce itself. Only mankind has instituted the concept of birth control.  The reason for this God given imperative is that a species that does not reproduce itself will only live for a single generation.  All through the New Testament the church is represented as a living body, and the Bride of Christ.  As a living organism the church should seek to reproduce naturally, if it does not then there is something wrong. 
            In light of all that the answer to the question of should the church make discipleship its main focus I would have to say yes.  In saying yes it must be qualified with the understanding that one needs to fulfill the main objective of glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.  Jesus commands the newly commissioned leaders of the first church to make disciples as they are going about their lives.  Jesus told them to baptize them and by doing so Jesus seems to be saying by inference that they will be replicating themselves. 
The call to follow Christ is not something to take lightly.  It was not taken lightly then, when the apostles walked the earth, nor should it be now.  To be a true follower we are called to forsake everything that we call our own; our pride, our reputation, our money, our time, and our talent.  This paradigm runs counter to most schools of thought.  Barna alludes to this in his book when he talks about creating zealots for Christ.[2]  Having the kind of zeal that would allow us to forsake even our own family for the cause of Christ is not an easy pill to swallow, never the less it is what we are called to do. 
In following Jesus we are to do His commandments and one of those is to make disciples.  I would hazard to guess that the reason that more churches are not engaging in this process fully is that making disciples is messy and time consuming.  Messy and time consuming, in the sense that people are strange and getting into another person’s life long enough to truly disciple them means that we have to engage them on a personal and intimate level that we are not comfortable with.  We live in a plastic and disposable age.  Nothing is real or permanent and everything should be disposable, including friends and acquaintances.  Making disciples just does not fit neatly into our prepackaged lives. 
After looking into the question of whether or not we as the church of Jesus Christ should be engaging in discipleship there still remains the question of why we should do it.  Every person at some point in his or her life has a God given desire to leave a lasting imprint of themselves on the world after they are gone.  Some never really are able to articulate this desire but the effects are still the same.  People have kids, write papers or books, build businesses, and carve out niches for themselves in their spheres of influence.  We want to feel like we are a part of something larger than ourselves.  John C. Maxwell points to John Wooden, longtime coach of the UCLA bruins and a quote that he said often; “The guy who puts the ball through the hoop has ten hands”.[3]  If we really want to change the world, or at least the world that we know then who are the other four pairs of hands? 

[1] McManus, Erwin, Unstoppable force, page 17
[2] George Barna Growing True Disciples chapter 2
[3] John C. Maxwell, Developing the Leaders Around You, page 1

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Simple Prayer

Ephesians 6:18-20, With all prayer and petition pray at all times in the Spirit, and with this in view, be on the alert with all perseverance and petition for all the saints, and pray on my behalf, that utterance may be given to me in the opening of my mouth, to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains; that in proclaiming it I may speak boldly, as I ought to speak.

Matthew 21:22 And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you will receive.
1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 Rejoice always; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

James 1:5-8 But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.  For that man ought not to expect that he will receive anything from the Lord, being a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways.

                Prayer is our life line to God.  I remember as a new father when my son started to learn to walk he chaffed at being in the stroller when we went to the mall or somewhere else that had a lot of neat things to see.  It soon became clear that I would lose track of him if I allowed him to wander as he wished.  So being a new dad and not having a clue how to deal with this I went to Walmart and looked for a solution.  I soon found a leash contraption that I could strap to my child and hold the other end.  This allowed him to have some freedom and for me to still have some control.  Even now I shudder a little bit when I think that I “leashed” my child; but for whatever reason it worked for us for that time.  It did not work well with my next three children. 

                Say what you want to about the “leashing” of children it has clear and obvious analogies to our own Christian lives.  That leash or tether that we have trough the Holy Spirit is the ability to be in constant contact with the creator of the universe.  That is a powerful concept!  Just a cursory reading in the New Testament on the subject of prayer brings this out in a clear and crazy way.  Most Christians have a poor and in some cases a distorted view of prayer.  Some think that there is some heavenly switchboard that is constantly receiving calls and that there is a hierarchy or a priority system.  For instance a little girl praying for ice cream after a dinner out with family is somehow a lower priority then the boy in Haiti that is starving and is praying that today will be the day that he eats.  We can easily prioritize these two prayers but the crazy part is that God does not.  He listens to both prayers and answers both in His way and according to His will.  Both prayers are important to Him and He takes both requests seriously.

                Now I may have used a simplistic example but you can see that when Jesus says; “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” (Mathew 16:19)  He means it!  He even repeated this later in the same gospel Matthew 18:18.  Prayer changes things because He has called us to be His image bearers here on earth.  We are chosen to be His agents of change in this dark and dying world.  We bear the words of life from His lips and when we pray for anything He listens.

                In light of this I began to look for examples of prayer in the Old and New Testaments and there are a lot of examples.  The funny thing is that aside from the prayers of Jesus, nearly every other prayer is short simple and to the point.  Look at some of them; (Some I have taken poetic license with)
  • ·         Adam – We were hiding because we were naked…
  • ·         Cain – I don’t know where my brother is…
  • ·         Noah – You want me to build what…
  • ·         Abraham – You want me to go where…
  • ·         Isaac – You want me to marry some woman I have never met…
  • ·         Jacob – How many kids…
  • ·         Moses – What name shall I use when I go to the people…
  • ·         Joshua – How do I take down the city of Jericho? – No really I need a battle plan…
  • ·         Elijah – Lord, deal this my enemies… (and the fire fell)
  • ·         Elisha – (to his servant in a moment of crisis) Lord, open this man’s eyes…
  • ·         Isaiah – Here am I send me…
  • ·         Jerimiah – I am too young they will not listen to me…
  • ·         Mary – How can this be since I am a virgin…
  • ·         Joseph – O.K. Lord I will Marry Mary no questions asked the child is yours…
  • ·         John the Baptist – Behold the Lamb of God…
  • ·         Peter – You are the Christ the son of the Living God…
  • ·         A desperate father with a son afflicted with a strange disease – Lord I believe, please help my unbelief…
  • ·         James and John – We want to be your right hand men in the coming kingdom…

And on and on the list can go.  Some of the names and “prayers” are paraphrased or comedic but the point is that God loves when we talk to Him and He loves short simple prayers.  Sometimes just a simple recognition that He is God and in control like what Thomas said when confronted with the risen Jesus: “My Lord and my God!” 

Paul teaches in Romans 8: 26-27; “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; and He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”  In short even when we don’t know what to say He still hears our heart cry and is there for us.  So when thinking on prayer…KEEP IT SIMPLE!

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Problem of Evil Part 3

            Defining good is not as easy as it first seems.  We want to define good as anything that happens to me that is pleasing and brings me joy or happiness.  In that sense a cold soft drink on a hot day could be defined as good.  A warm puppy snuggling down into your arms can be thought of as good.  Now while these things are interesting and may be pleasant but to ascribe the title of good to it might be a bit of a stretch.  When we look at the life of Jesus, who as the Son of the Living God, the very incarnation of God Himself when He was confronted with a young man who called him good he replied, “Why do you call Me good? No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18b NASB)  Even Jesus was hesitant to label Himself good (of course we know that He was making a point and at the same time exhibiting humility).  This points the fact that our definition of good is skewed.  We cannot help but explain things in an anthropomorphic sense.  We have to constantly put our own thoughts, ideas, commentaries and wants into the words and actions of God.  As Job found out when he went through his ordeal, God is God and He does what He pleases to His creation. 
            As His creation we have no right to complain when the creator chooses, for whatever reason, to cause a vessel He has created to die or become broken.  We cannot throw around the idea of good and evil like we understand them.  These titles have eternal and divine meaning that we have yet to comprehend.  Good is not nice things that happen to me.  Good is God.  Another theologian says, “God is by definition beyond moral evaluation.”[1]  We, like Job, have not the right to question the fundamental nature of God. 
            A theologian had this to say;
“Christian orthodoxy has always dealt with this problem by trying to explain evil and suffering in a way that resolves the inconsistency without eliminating any of the divine attributes.  Some have argued that evil is only apparent and not ultimately real. Things may appear evil to us but that is to perceive things from our limited perspective; it is to view things in light of what we like or do not like. If we could see things from God's eternal perspective, we would see them very differently.”[2]
Another theologian says, “God is by definition beyond moral evaluation.”[3] 
These two men seem to have the best combined answer to how we are to look at the question.  There are problems with both of these approaches. 
The first one suggests that there is really no evil that all things will eventually work out into some future hidden good.  The problem with this is that if we go down this road then it is likely that we will become rather callus or immune to the evils that do happen in the world.  Evils like famine, plague, murder, rape, war, and others.  It seems clear that these things are hated by God.  Jesus taught that we are to love and show love to all men regardless of whether or not they are our enemies.  We are to give cold water in His name and to help the widows and orphans in their distress.  An Anglican Preacher by the name of Eric Delve delivered a sermon in the International Baptist Church of Jurbise, Belgium in the winter of 2010 and in that sermon he told of an encounter that he had.  He shared that after he finished a service an older woman came up to him and told him that God had sent her to him to have him pray over her dying son.  The preacher was tired and did not really feel like doing it but he reluctantly agreed to follow the woman home.  When he got there he met the young man dying of a rare form of cancer that had affected the bones of his back, neck and legs.  It was spreading into his brain and the doctors only gave the boy days to live.  The moment that Eric Delve walked into the room he was overcome with an intense and righteous fury that did not come from him.  He claims that it came from God.  The anger was at the cancer that had hurt this poor boy so badly.  He prayed long, loud and hard for the boy and after he said good-bye and left.  He did not see the boy or the mother again for a long time, so long in-fact that he was certain that the boy was dead.  He received a call from the mother a few years later thanking him for his prayers.  The child recovered and the doctors did not know why, the child was alive and well.  In the mind of Eric Delve God hates evil and has commanded us to hate it as well. 
Looking at this story and the quotes from the two theologians from the beginning of these sections this makes the argument that we can become immune to evil as a very real possibility.  I would have to say that yes we have become immune to a degree to the evil that exists in the world.  While God may not be judged by our moral standards we still will be by His.  How do we deal with the apparent evil that is rampant in our world?  We hate it just as God does.  We struggle against it, just as Jesus did while He walked the earth.  We seek to have our heart break for the things that breaks God’s heart.  We are His hands and feet, we are His free-agents of change in this wicked, rebellious, and evil world.  There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that believes in the revealed Sovereign God that He hates evil.  The problem that we are confronted with every day is what are we individually doing about the evil that we face?  To take a step back away from evil that we face is to tacitly allow it to go on.  It is easy to do nothing when we see bad things happen, and as God’s free-agents we can choose to do nothing, but for whatever reason He has chosen us to fight these battles.  We are called to confront evil to face the consequences of that conrontation. 
All that being said the answer to the problem of evil is that we need to adjust our perspective and look at it from the perspective of a Holy all-powerful, all-knowing God.  The same God who looked at the totality of creation from the garden through the cross to the end of time and said it is very good.  God as we have described Him is not trapped in time with us.  He is outside of time.  It is though He is looking at a finished painting that is our time line hanging in His gallery.  The macroscopic point of all creation is to glorify God the microscopic point of creation is to create a bride that loves and chooses Him. He is glorified in the bad that happens and the good.  Even though we may not see it now we can be assured that even in the evil that is so pervasive in the world God is able to be glorified.  There will come a day when we will look back on this and see the truth to the verse, “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28 NASB)  Paul confirms this in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.” (NASB) 
It is sure that this answer will not sit well with many theologians but the truth is, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4 NASB)  “Have you ever in your life commanded the morning, and caused the dawn to know its place?” (Job 38:12 NASB)  “The ostriches’ wings flap joyously with the pinion and plumage of love, for she abandons her eggs to the earth and warms them in the dust, and she forgets that a foot may crush them, or that a wild beast may trample them. She treats her young cruelly, as if they were not hers; though her labor be in vain, she is unconcerned; because God has made her forget wisdom, and has not given her a share of understanding.”  (Job 39:13-18 NASB)  We are no better than the ostrich in reality.  We flap our wings to try to make ourselves feel important and we walk through this world unaware of what the creator God gives us.  We are totally without a clue.  God is the definition of Good and He is opposed to Evil.  We are to live like Him in that we are to attempt to be good and eschew evil.  We are to live for him and him alone.

[1] Bruce Ballard, The Problem of Evil: A Review Essay (McMaster Journal of Theology & Ministry; 2007, Vol. 9) pg. 40
[2] James Danaher, The Problem of Evil from a Gospel Perspective (Evangelical Review of Theology, April 2012 Volume 36 Issue 2) p 137
[3] Bruce Ballard, The Problem of Evil: A Review Essay (McMaster Journal of Theology & Ministry; 2007, Vol. 9) pg. 40

Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Problem of Evil Part 2

Sovereignty of God
            The concept of a sovereign God is one that has been challenged over the intervening years from the days of creation till now.  All it takes is for one innocent child to die early in a horrible fashion for us to begin to question the goodness and all-powerful and all-knowing nature of God.  There are a number of permutations of the question of why God would allow this bad thing to happen to this person at this time.  The sovereignty of God though a separate concept from the problem of evil is intrinsic to the discussion.  If we accept that God is all the things that we say that He is then we have to follow the line of reasoning that as the creator of all things at some point in creation He created a creature that was capable of rebellion and evil thus God created evil.  This as you can imagine has never sat well with any theologian.  Of course we can take the Zoroastrinistic approach and say that there were two creators one good and one evil and they have been at war every day since the day they co-created the earth.  But then we would no longer be talking about Christianity.[1]
            Many people try at this point to limit in some way the power of God.  The problem in that approach is that any limiting of the God that we have revealed to us in the pages of scripture is to nullify the concept of God all together.  The arguments for and against the limiting the scope and ability of God are vast and in some ways far beyond the limited understanding of this writer.  The one thing that most of the problem solvers try to do is define God, Evil, and Good without using the Bible.  There needs to be a base line established for us to move on.  There needs to be somewhere a reference that we can turn to that contains truth that is not relative to our understanding.  If we do not have such a document then we cannot ever resolve this issue.  If we are a creature and He is the creator and He has not revealed Himself to us then we cannot begin to comprehend Him.  This is where we have to turn to the only document that has ever made the claim of being the Revelation of God to men, the bible. 
            “The Lord of hosts has sworn saying, “Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand.” (Isaiah 14:24 NASB)
            “Also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory.” (Ephesians 1:11-12 NASB)
            “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being.” (John 1”1-3 NASB)
            “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities— all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17 NASB)
            There are more verses then can be fit into this blog, suffice it to say that the bible teaches that God not only created everything but He also sustains everything.  This pretty much tears apart every argument that begins with the premise that God is not all-powerful or all-knowing.  If we attempt still to argue the prospect that God has limited Himself or is somehow constrained this ultimately undermines the concept of God.  Either He is sovereign or He is not.  If He is then He either He allowed Evil to exist and at the very least tacitly allowed it to come into being or He did not.  If God did  not allow evil to come into existence then there is a power out there that is at the very least equal to God or greater as it would have been able to “sneak one past” the big guy Himself. 
            What is left is that He is either an absent creator in the lives of His creation, or he is just evil.   Either He loves us or He is playing a cruel joke on all of humanity.  Either He is trustworthy or He is not.  That last statement speaks to heart of the sovereignty of God.  If we cannot trust His word even in a small part how can we trust Him or His word in the big parts?  The fact is the only document on earth that purports to be the very word of the living God is the bible and the bible says that He is all-knowing and all-powerful. 

[1] Zoroastrianism claims to be the world's oldest supposed monotheistic religion. It was founded by the Prophet Zoroaster in ancient Iran about 3500 years ago and as its main tenet there is a duality of good and evil deities.  While there is a supreme god that is all good there seems to be warring lesser deities that represent good and evil.  There are some that claim that Zoroastrianism influenced Judaism and all other Monotheistic religions but a closer look at the actual tenets of that faith will reveal that it is in fact a polytheistic faith.  

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Problem of Evil and the Sovereignty of God, Part 1

The problem of evil in light of the sovereignty of God is one that has plagued the mind of sinful man for thousands of years.  Theologians have been debating this very question for a long time.  It is very likely that Adam had the very same thoughts as he and Eve were leaving the Garden of Eden.  If a question could be asked of God it would be; “Was He setting Adam up for failure?”  The idea that preachers of old have been teaching that when God said “it is very good” in reference to creation on the sixth day that meant that there was no sin and everything was great.  This raises the natural question; if God is sovereign and is omniscient and all powerful then why did He allow Satan in the garden knowing what he was going to do?  Did He not know that Satan was going to fall?  Did He hope that Adam would choose differently?  These questions speak to the heart of the human experience.  We need answer that makes sense, not pleasant platitudes that whitewash the problem but real answers. 
            James Danaher has this to say, “What theologians refer to as 'the problem of evil results from the fact that if God is all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful, and the sole creator of the universe, how should we explain the existence of evil? This creates what logicians call inconsistency. We can resolve the inconsistency by removing any one of the above-mentioned attributes of God.  If God were not all-good there would obviously be evil in the world because of the evil in the creator. Likewise, if God were not all-knowing he could have created a world, which he thought would be free of evil without knowing that evil would result from his creation. Equally, we could understand God to be less than all-powerful.”[1]
            Ron Highfield has this to say, “In theology old problems never die, and, unlike old soldiers, they rarely fade away for long. Instead, they return in fresh formulations accompanied by ingenious solutions written by a new-sprung generation of young theologians. The perennial problem of evil—between wars, episodes of genocide, plagues, battles with cancer, and that periodic migraine headache—recedes into the back of our consciousness. But when trouble crashes through the gates, we ask, "Why?" "Why me?" "Why anyone?" Suddenly, the old problem has become my problem, present, vivid, urgent, and anything but faded.”[2]
The voluminous amounts of answers that people have tried to give still have never really dealt with the problem of the existence of evil in the world today.  There are two issues with this problem of evil that needs to be defined.  The first one is the understanding of the term “Sovereignty of God.”  The second is the definition of good and evil.  To attempt to get a hold of this problem we need to break down the parts and look at it the right way.  When the word sovereignty is used in this blog it is will always be in the context and understanding of an all-powerful, all-knowing, all-loving creator that not only created all things but also sustains all things. 
In relation the understanding of the definition of evil, there needs to be a clear line drawn.  Evil is the things that God hates.  There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19 NASB)  What this passage is saying is that what God hates is the very definition of evil.  From the beginning of evil in mankind it was a selfish rebellion from the law of God and a desire to be a god ourselves.  This character flaw has remained with mankind to this day.  John puts it this way, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.” (1 John 2:16 NASB)  He is intimating that all sin has a root in one or more of these things.  We, mankind, have for too long looked at the problem of evil from a man centered creaturely perspective and not from a divine perspective, when you shift the focus from man to God then you can see it the right way.  In the need to really define what evil is we can look at what it is not.  Evil is not bad things that happen to me.  Evil is not people that do things that we think is not right.  Evil can only be defined from the perspective of the divine.  Evil is the opposite of good and good is defined as a characteristic of God, “Give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” (Psalm 137:1 NASB) 

[1] James Danaher, The Problem of Evil from a Gospel Perspective (Evangelical Review of Theology, April 2012 Volume 36 Issue 2) p 137
[2] Ron Highfield, The Problem with “The Problem of Evil”: A Response to Gregory Boyd’s Open Theist Solution (Restoration Quarterly 45 no 3 2003) p. 165