Thursday, September 21, 2006

What is Jesus Doing?

How do you know that Jesus is at work? What does it look like? Are there definite markers? Yes! In some senses, spirituality is subjective, but in other ways, it is objective. The Bible gives us objective measures to decide whether or not God is at work. Let's look at those in this paper. A few preliminary comments first, though:

These objective evidences of God's work are not prerequisites for God's work, they are the fruit of God's work. If you see these things, God has been working. We do not cause God to work, we recognize his work. Let us be careful to get the order correct, otherwise we will put ourselves in the place of the Almighty.

If we know that these are the things that happen when God is at work, then if we do not see these things, we should conclude that God is not working. Or, more properly, we can conclude that God is at work to the degree that we see these things happening.

Jesus said, "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." Jesus is known for saying things like this, in fact, the Bible is full of instruction and stories that tell us an inevitable result of God's grace is love. Jesus said this particular statement to his eleven apostles in the upper room (Judas had left). Among other natural rivalries, Matthew was a liberal, terrorist tax-collector and Simon was a right-wing religious nut-job. They were sworn enemies. If two brothers (James and John) love each other, no big deal. If Matthew and Simon love each other, people pay attention. "What the &$#@! What's up with these two guys? How can they support each other?" The answer . . . "Only Jesus. It must be Jesus."

What is Jesus doing? He is turning enemies into friends. He is crucifying hate and resurrecting love in the hearts of men and women. He is bringing family members, long estranged from each other, into unity again. He is reconciling churches split by bitter and ancient battles. When you see Simon and Matthew together, you know that Jesus is at work.

James (Jesus' half-brother) tells us about a hungry homeless person going to the home of a Christian asking for help. The Christian says, "Go in peace, be warmed and filled." Then, James compares this person to the demons. He says, "Show me your faith apart from works and I will show you my faith by my works." The Bible is full of instruction and stories that tell us an inevitable result of God's grace is generosity. It is easy to feel compassion for the poor. In fact, people with no compassion are despised in our society ("Scrooge"). We give to the Red Cross and to other aid organizations. How is this unusual? Everyone does this.

However, followers of Jesus get personally involved with the poor to the point that our lifestyle is cramped and sacrifices must be made. For example, I know a family who has adopted 8 children with severe medical needs. "What the &$#@! What's up with that? How can you do that?" The answer . . . "Only Jesus. It must be Jesus."

Transformed Lives
In a letter to the church at Corinth, the Apostle Paul writes a long list of evil and perverse kinds of people: idolaters, adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, greedy, alcoholics, etc. Then he says, "And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God." The Bible is full of instruction and stories that tell us an inevitable result of God's grace is transformed lives. It is easy to make changes in your life. People do it every day. Life transformation is a different thing.

I know a man who, as a child, was raped repeatedly by his father. When he was 14, he lied about his age to get a job at a lumber mill and began living on his own. He quickly became an alcoholic and didn't get sober until after he was married with two children, beating his wife regularly. He met Jesus. Now he is in his late 40s. He and his wife have a difficult but progressing marriage. They have 4 children, two are adopted orphans. He owns a growing business in a highly competitive market. The business gives ten percent of the profits to various charities. "What the &$#@! What's up with that? What happened to this guy?" The answer . . . "Only Jesus. It must be Jesus."

In a letter to second-generation Christians, the Apostle peter writes, "Though you have not seen [Jesus Christ], you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls." The Bible is full of instruction and stories that tell us an inevitable result of God's grace is joy. When I was young, my pastors talked about joy as a quiet assurance despite circumstances. I cannot fit that understanding into the Bible's use of "joy." Joy is happiness on steroids. Joy is incredible satisfaction. With joy, smiling becomes involuntary . . . you can't stop. Feelings come and go. Joy is not less than a feeling, but it is much more. You experience joy when your thoughts, emotions and volition all scream "This is good! This is so right!"

Most people have had some experience with this kind of inexpressible joy. When Jesus is at work, people experience it more and more. When Jesus is at work, we are moving closer and closer to the kingdom of heaven - closer to the time when everything will be good and right - closer to the time of full joy. Imagine hearing a spiritual testimony that goes something like this, "When I bought my $3 million house, I thought it would make me happy, but it didn't. Then I met Jesus. He made me so happy that I sold my house for a much smaller one. Now I'm even happier. My life is less comfortable, but I'm happier." Some people might respond, "What the &$#@! What's up with that? What happened to this guy?" The answer . . . "Only Jesus. It must be Jesus."

Jesus is a man of many paradoxes, not the least of which is economic. On the one hand, he was homeless and poor. On the other hand, he was known as a great partier. In the gospels, he never turned down an invitation to a party. In his first miracle, he saved a party that was going flat. In fact, he had quite a bad reputation as a partier among the religious establishment. Today, Christians are known for many things . . . great parties is not one of them . . . but it should be. Of all people, Christians have the most to celebrate. The Bible is full of instruction and stories that tell us an inevitable result of God's grace is communal celebration.

Imagine if parties were used to embrace rather than escape. Imagine parties used to celebrate what is good. Imagine a church that spends large amounts of its resources (budget, personnel, time) planning and executing amazing celebrations of God's grace -- exquisite banquets, dynamic concerts, exciting rallies, quality plays, good wine -- all to the praise and glory of God. Let's not settle for the patio potluck. Let's celebrate on earth as it is in heaven. If we do, I think many people would look and say, "What the &$#@! What's up with that? What happened to this church?" The answer . . . "Only Jesus. It must be Jesus."

The Apostle Paul writes to the church at Corinth using a famous word-picture. The church is like a person's body. Each person in the church is a different body part. Some people are good at one thing; others are helpful for another thing. Paul is talking about all sorts of differences but he primarily defines the analogy in two ways: 1) Economic status and 2) Race (or culture). Therefore, the different parts of the body are primarily "poor" and "rich" or "dominant" and "sub-dominant" cultures. As he explains the analogy, he says that no one should look with envy at another person, just as "the foot should not say, 'because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body.'" That is to say, poor Christians should not be intimidated by rich Christians, nor black by white. They should not feel or act like second-class Christians who have nothing to contribute.

Further, "The eye cannot say to the hand, 'I have no need of you.'" In other words, no person should discard another. On the contrary, we all need each other. In fact, Paul says, "the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable." That is to say, rich Christians should not ignore the help of the poor, nor should the white Christians feel or act like they are sufficient without black Christians.

The poor who act like victims and the rich who think they are self-sufficient both have the same problem -- they are both focusing all attention on themselves. The poor are self-conscious, the rich are self-confident. Neither are humble. The humble do not spend time comparing themselves to others, they spend time serving others. It's not that they think little of themselves, but rather that they rarely think of themselves. Humble people are quick to learn from those that are different, different culturally, sexually, geographically, economically, historically, linguistically, and generationally. They are eager to find places where they need to be reformed in their actions, thoughts, beliefs and attitudes. They are not afraid to be wrong, they are not defensive when confronted. At the same time, humble people are not afraid of confrontation, nor do they recoil from suffering. They use their power to protect the weak, and they don't mind stepping in front of a train to do it. The Bible is full of instruction and stories that tell us an inevitable result of God's grace is humility.

Humble people make the best friends. They are full of grace and truth, and they are rare. Usually they are confusing to people. People ask, "How could someone be so confident, and yet not arrogant? So gracious, and yet not wishy-washy! What the &$#@! What's up with that? How does this happen?" The answer . . . "Only Jesus. It must be Jesus."

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

9/11 Memorial Service

President George W. Bush asked Tim Keller to speak at the 5th Anniversary 9/11 Memorial Service. This is what he said.

As a minister, of course, I’ve spent countless hours with people who are struggling and wrestling with the biggest question - the WHY question in the face of relentless tragedies and injustices. And like all ministers or any spiritual guides of any sort, I scramble to try to say something to respond and I always come away feeling inadequate and that’s not going to be any different today. But we can’t shrink from the task of responding to that question. Because the very best way to honor the memories of the ones we’ve lost and love is to live confident, productive lives. And the only way to do that is to actually be able to face that question. We have to have the strength to face a world filled with constant devastation and loss. So where do we get that strength? How do we deal with that question? I would like to propose that, though we won’t get all of what we need, we may get some of what we need 3 ways: by recognizing the problem for what it is, and then by grasping both an empowering hint from the past and an empowering hope from the future.

First, we have to recognize that the problem of tragedy, injustice and suffering is a problem for everyone no matter what their beliefs are. Now, if you believe in God and for the first time experience or see horrendous evil, you rightly believe that that is a problem for your belief in God, and you’re right – and you say, “How could a good and powerful God allow something like this to happen?” But it’s a mistake (though a very understandable mistake) to think that if you abandon your belief in God it somehow is going to make the problem easier to handle. Dr Martin Luther King,
Jr., in his Letter from Birmingham Jail says that if there was no higher divine Law, there would be no way to tell if a particular human law was unjust or not. So think. If there is no God or higher divine Law and the material universe is all there is, then violence is perfectly natural—the strong eating the weak! And yet somehow, we still feel this isn’t the way things ought to be. Why not? Now I’m not going to get philosophical at a time like this. I’m just trying to make the point that the problem of injustice and suffering is a problem for belief in God but it is also a problem for disbelief in God—for any set of beliefs. So abandoning belief in God does not really help in the face of it. OK, then what will?

Second, I believe we need to grasp an empowering hint from the past. Now at this point, I’d like to freely acknowledge that every faith - and we are an interfaith gathering today – every faith has great resources for dealing with suffering and injustice in the world. But as a Christian minister I know my own faith’s resources the best, so let me simply share with you what I’ve got. When people ask the big question, “Why would God allow this or that to happen?” There are almost always two answers. The one answer is: Don’t question God! He has reasons beyond your finite little mind. And therefore, just accept everything. Don’t question. The other answer is: I don’t know what God’s up to – I have no idea at all about why these things are happening. There’s no way to make any sense of it at all. Now I’d like to respectfully suggest the first of these answers is too hard and the second is too weak. The second is too weak because, though of course we don’t have the full answer, we do have an idea, an incredibly powerful idea.

One of the great themes of the Hebrew Scriptures is that God identifies with the suffering. There are all these great texts that say things like this: If you oppress the poor, you oppress to me. I am a husband to the widow. I am father to the fatherless. I think the texts are saying God binds up his heart so closely with suffering people that he interprets any move against them as a move against him. This is powerful stuff! But Christianity says he goes even beyond that. Christians believe that in Jesus, God’s son, divinity became vulnerable to and involved in - suffering and death! He didn’t come as a general or emperor. He came as a carpenter. He was born in a manger, no room in the inn.

But it is on the Cross that we see the ultimate wonder. On the cross we sufferers finally see, to our shock that God now knows too what it is to lose a loved one in an unjust attack. And so you see what this means? John Stott puts it this way. John Stott wrote: “I could never myself believe in God if it were not for the Cross. In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?” Do you see
what this means? Yes, we don’t know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, but we know what the reason isn’t, what it can’t be. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us! It can’t be that he doesn’t care. God so loved us and hates suffering that he was willing to come down and get involved in it. And therefore the Cross is an incredibly empowering hint. Ok, it’s only a hint, but if you grasp it, it can transform you. It can give you strength.

And lastly, we have to grasp an empowering hope for the future. In both the Hebrew Scriptures and even more explicitly in the Christian Scriptures we have the promise of resurrection. In Daniel 12:2-3 we read: Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake….[They]… will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and…like the stars for ever and ever. And in John 11 we hear Jesus say: I am the resurrection and the life! Now this is what the claim is: That God is not preparing for us merely some ethereal, abstract spiritual existence that is just a kind of compensation for the life we lost. Resurrection means the restoration to us of the life we lost. New heavens and new earth means this body, this world! Our bodies, our homes, our loved ones—restored, returned, perfected and beautified! Given back to us!

In the year after 9-11 I was diagnosed with cancer, and I was treated successfully. But during that whole time I read about the future resurrection and that was my real medicine. In the last book of The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee wakes up, thinking everything is lost and discovering instead that all his friends were around him, he cries out: “Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead! Is everything sad going to come untrue?” The answer is YES. And the answer of the Bible is YES. If the resurrection is true, then the answer is yes. Everything sad is going TO COME UNTRUE.

Oh, I know many of you are saying, “I wish I could believe that.” And guess what? This idea is so potent that you can go forward with that. To even want the resurrection, to love the idea of the resurrection, long for the promise of the resurrection even though you are unsure of it, is strengthening. I John 3:2-3. Beloved, now we are children of God and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. All who have this hope purify themselves as he is pure.” Even to have a hope in this is purifying.

Listen to how Dostoevsky puts it in Brothers Karamazov: “I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidean mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, of the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood that they’ve shed; and it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify what has happened.”

That is strong and that last sentence is particularly strong . . . but if the resurrection is true, it’s absolutely right. Amen.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Ocean Cleanup

On Saturday morning, Katherine and I spent the morning picking up trash on the beach of Key Biscayne with our church's members and thousands of people world-wide. When we got to the beach, I thought, Hey, this beach is clean already! But we picked up tons of trash.

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When Katherine was a teenager, her youth group at church would go to the beach for "evangelism." They would approach people working on a tan, reading a book, or just relaxing from their busy life. They would offer the person a small booklet ("tract"), and try to engage the person in conversation about Jesus which they would steer toward a particular "happy" ending. It rarely, if ever, worked, but they felt better about themselves. My youth group did similar things. I can't help but thinking that last Saturday, on the beach, we did more to build the Kingdom of God than Katherine's youth group did on their evangelism trips.

After the trash pick-up, we got a free pizza lunch and free entrance to the Miami Seaquarium and saw the real Flipper . . . well, the real son of the original Flipper. The show was filmed at the Seaquarium, and we had a good time, but it is not worth the entrance fee, but I would go regularly for $5 or less, I think.

Friday, September 15, 2006

WIR -- Confessions of a Reformissional Rev.

WIR -- What I'm Reading

Mark Driscoll. No surprise.

I think Mark wrote this book too fast. Or maybe, he's just a better speaker than writer. The book reads like the transcript to a sermon. It's not organized too well, but it is full of great stories. Not terribly practical, but helpfully encouraging and gives lots of stories as food for thought. He does have a few practical sidebars, here is one, from page 79:

People who come into a churchneed to be assessed so that the church leaders can identify who they are and what they need.

Horses are vibrant leaders who pull a lot of weight and run fast. Horses need to have character, sound doctrine, and agree with the vision of the church.

Colts are emerging leaders who need training, testing, and opportunities to lead. If properly broken in, a colt can be developed into a horse.

Fish are non-Christians who are spiritually lost and often not actively looking for God. Fish need a Christian friend to lovingly introduce them to Jesus and his church.

Eagles are skilled leaders who are being developed within the church with the express kingdom pupose of leaving the proverbial nest and leading a ministry elsewhere, such as missions work and church planting.

Mules are faithful workers who dependably and continually do whatever is asked of them in the church. Mules need to be thanked and protected from burnout.

Cows are selfish people who wander from church to church, chewing up resources without ever giving back to the church until they kill it. A fence needs to be built around the church to keep the cows out.

Squirrels are peopel who are generally liked because they are nice, but they rarely do anything meaningful. Squirrels need to be put to work in the church.

Stray cats are socially peculiar loners who linger around the church. Stray cats need a friend to help bring them into the church and an oportunity to serve other people so that they can be meaningfully connected to the church.

Rats are people who appear to have the potential to have a fruitful ministry, but lack dependability, humility, or maturity. Rats need to be rebuked, and if they do not repent, they must be strategically ignored until they commit to no longer beign a waste of time and effort.

Sheep are people who have legitimate needs that require patient and loving support. Examples of sheep include widows, orphans, and those who are seriously ill or fighting addictions. Sheep need to be loved an served.

Ducks are digruntled people who continually quack about whatever they are unhappy about. Ducks need to stop quacking, or the pastor(s) must go duck hunting before the ducks drown out everyone and everything else in the church.

Wolves are false teachers whom Satan sends into the church to devour Jesus' sheep. Wolves need to be quickly identified, rebuked, and if they are unrepentant, they must be shot before their false teaching destroys people in the church.

Snakes are evil people sent by the Serpent on a misssion to destroy the church through anything from sexual sin to starting rumors. Leaders must stomp on the heads of snakes before they bite people and infect them with deadly venom.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

WIR -- Velvet Elvis

By Rob Bell. Great book. I agree whole-heartedly with his point below, but very few conservative Christians do. I've literally been "boo-ed" at presbytery for making this point. I'm learning to tread more carefully, though.

From page 68.

The ultimate display of our respect for the sacred words of God is that we are willing to wade in and struggle with the text -- the good parts, the hard-to-understand parts, the parts we wish weren't there.

The rabbis even say a specific blessing when they don't understand a portion of the text. When it eludes them, when it makes no sense, they say a word of thanks to God becuase of the blessing that will be theirs someday. "Thank you, God, that at some point in the future, the lights are going to come on for me."

The rabbis have a metaphor for this wrestling with the text: The story of Jacob
wrestling the angel in Gensis 32. He struggles and it is exhausting and tiring, and in the end his hip is injured. It hurts. And he walks away limping.

Because when you wrestle with the text, you walk away limping.

And some people have no limp, because they haven't wrestled. But the ones limping have had an experience with the living God.

I think God does know what he's doing with the Bible. But a better question is, do we know what we're doing with the Bible?

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Stephen Colbert vs Stone Phillips

New-to-me Car

Last night I replaced my old Nissan Sentra. The odometer stopped working a long time ago. I estimate the mileage to be about 250,000 - 300,000 miles. It is missing the front bumper. The gas tank cap doesn't close. The steering wheel flakes bad. The windows don't go down. It has no A/C. It's been in a few fender-benders recently. The engine is making bad noises. The timing chain is about to break, and on the way home from looking at the new car, the alternator died. It is finally time to retire the Sentra.

Last night, I got a 1987 Nissan Altima with 102,000 miles on it. Everything works, running great! Leather interior, amazing custom sound system! It's much bigger, has a sun roof, it's beautiful. But generally, it's the same car. It feels the same, looks the same. Everything is in the same place. It's just bigger and nicer and newer. I like it a lot.

Of course, it is not a new car, and repairs are inevitable. We expect a new timing chain in the next year or so, but overall, it's a huge step up from the old car I was driving, which we're going to "sell" to a junkyard, I think.

I feel compelled (because I am a Christian minister) to write something spiritual about the use of money, resources, etc. But I think I won't.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Pensées 249

249. It is superstition to put one's hope in formalities; but it is pride to be unwilling to submit to them.

--Blaise Pascal

WIR -- Why Men Hate Going to Church

Great book by David Murrow. This quote is from page 15.

Films reflect our fantasies. Men fantasize about saving the world against impossible odds. Women fantasize about having a relationship with a wonderful man.

So what does today's church emphasize? Relationships: a personal relationship with Jesus and healthy relationships with others. by focusing on relationships, the local church partners with women to fulfill their deepest longing.

But few churches model men's values: risk and reward, accomplishment, heroic sacrifice, action and adventure. Any man who tries to live out these values in a typical congregation will find himself in trouble with teh church council in no time.

This is why Greg hates to go to church. He finds it boring and irrelevant because he doesn't see his values modeled there. He find church dull for the same reason he finds chick flicks dull: neither one reflects his masculine heart. Greg has no desire to fall in love with a wonderful man, even one named Jesus.

So who is right, Greg or Judy? Should church be more like a romantic comedy or an action/adventure movie? Put another way, is the purpose of the Christian life to find a happy relationship with a wonderful man, or is it to save the world against impossible odds?

Any thoughts? Reactions? What do you think?

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Miroslav Volf

My Thesis is that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance which will be unpopular with many in the West. Imagine speaking to people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. Your point to them, 'we should not retaliate' -- why not? I say, the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God. Violence thrives today secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword. It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human non-violence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land soaked in the blood of the innocent the idea will invariably die like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind. If God were not angry at injustice and deception and did not make a final end of violence that God would not be worthy of our worship.

Miroslav Volf, as quoted from last Sunday's sermon at Redeemer Presbyterian Church by the Rev. John Lin. Dr. Moroslav is Director of Yale Center for Faith & Culture and Professor of Theology at Yale Divinity School.