Saturday, November 29, 2014

No Fear of Judgment: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (Advent Week 1)

Do you remember the feeling of breaking something—or doing something wrong—and the anxiety of waiting for your parents to get home? There was a time in my life as a teenager where in quick succession I left the freezer door open all night, put kerosene in our gasoline-powered lawn mower, and (somehow accidentally) turned on an aquarium heater in an empty aquarium, thus shattering all the glass. That was a lot of days of waiting—with more than a hint of panic—for Mom and Dad to come home so I could receive my judgment.

Too many times I’ve ran across a train of thought in Christian circles that shares much of this anxiety with death and the return of Jesus. I’ve been warned many times to watch what I say and do because, “You’ll have to give an account to Jesus one day.” There is a fear of “judgment day” because I will have to stand up in front of Jesus and all of creation and tell them all of my dirty secrets and then cross my fingers and see what happens.

Now let’s be honest. There are some verses that—plucked out from their various locations in Scripture—would lend people to this kind of fear.

  • “Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (Romans 14:12).
  • “God...will judge the secret thoughts of all” (Romans 2:16).
  • "The Lord...will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart” (1 Corinthians 4:5).
And I don’t want to lie to you: judgment will come. Christ will return and put the world to rights. If justice is to come,  that means that injustice, sin, and the causes (cause-ers) of pain will have to go. 

But for those who are in Christ this judgment is not a thing we need to be afraid of. We wait for it with hopeful expectation because—in Christ—we know the verdict. 1 Corinthians 1:3-9 (the second reading of the first week of Advent) makes this abundantly clear. Check out the bolded text:
4 I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus, 5 for in every way you have been enriched in him, in speech and knowledge of every kind— 6 just as the testimony of Christ has been strengthened among you— 7 so that you are not lacking in any spiritual gift as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ. 8 He will also strengthen you to the end, so that you may be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. 9 God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
We are waiting for the “revealing” of our Lord, the “day of the Lord.” Is this something to be afraid of? By no means! Because of God’s grace:
  • we have been enriched
  • we have been strengthened
  • we don’t lack any spiritual gift
  • we will be strengthened to the end
  • we will be blameless 
Notice that this is all God’s doing. God is the one who makes us blameless through Christ. God is the one who strengthens us. God is the one who is faithful (even when we are not! 2 Timothy 2:13). 

So whenever we run across “judgment” language in the Bible, be sure to place it within the understanding that God has already declared us righteous (Romans 3:24); has already declared you free of condemnation (Romans 8:1). This Advent is a season of hopeful expectation, not only of the wonder of the Incarnation, but also of Jesus’ return, when He comes again and declares us righteous, a faithful servant, heirs of His Kingdom. 

This Advent season, may we treat others in the same way that Christ treats us, recognizing that through God’s love there is no more room for condemnation or rejection, but rather open-armed forgiveness, acceptance, and unconditional love. 

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Lord, Teach Us To Pray

The Good Samaritan by He Qi
In light of recent events, it is good to remember that we should be "slow to speak and slow to become angry" (James 1:19) and quick to lift up our voices in prayer. Here are a few prayers to guide our words and meditations.

"For Social Justice" Book of Common Prayer
Grant, O God,
that your holy and life-giving Spirit
may so move every human heart
and especially the hearts of the people of this land,
that barriers which divide us may crumble,
suspicions disappear, and hatreds cease;
that our divisions be healed,
we may live in justice and peace;
through Jesus Christ our Lord.

"For A Death in the Neighborhood"
Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.

For the unbearable toil of our sinful world,
We plead for remission.
For the terror of absence from our beloved,
We plead for your comfort.
For the scandalous presence of death in your Creation,
We pleased for the resurrection.

Lamb of God
You take away the sins of the world
Have mercy on us.
Grant us peace.

"Prayer for Renewal" The Worship Sourcebook
Father, as we remember how our Lord Jesus was identified by baptism 
with John’s message of repentance and renewal, 
we pray for the renewal of humanity today
and for the church as a means of renewal.

We pray for the welfare of nations and the wisdom of governments, 
for social justice and for racial harmony.
May laws and policies dignify, not degrade,
and may the arrival of your kingdom in Jesus
be attested by the witness of Christians in every walk of life.

We pray for all who suffer loss and who are diminished by illness, 
by disappointment, or by the attitude of others.
Support and strengthen these and all who are in the wilderness 
facing the testing of what they believe in.

We pray also for all who must die soon—
both those who know it and those who do not.
Confirm in every one of us that it is not for this life only
that we have hope in Christ,
and in the communion of all your baptized people
may we find bonds forged between us that endure to all eternity. 
Through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Isaiah 64: Lost in the Clothes Racks

Do you remember getting separated from your mom or dad in a department store? I remember being pretty little—under 7—and going to K-Mart with my mom. She was doing some shopping for herself, which of course did not include spending copious amounts of time in the toy aisle like I had specifically requested. Instead we meandered through the women’s section, a complete bore-fest to any semi-normal child. To entertain my semi-normal self I was ducking in and out of the circular clothes racks, attempting to see how long it would take before Mom would forget about me. For a while Mom tried to pay attention to me, asking me to stop, to stay close by. But eventually I hid in a clothes rack for a little too long, she got a little too distracted by some article of clothing, and we were separated.

What’s funny about that experience is that I remember being the angry one. I had refused to stick close to my parent, I had literally hid myself from her, and yet I was angry that she would just leave me, abandon me to my fate in K-Mart of all God-forsaken places. I did the things that a lost child does—look around frantically, cry, look around some more, and eventually get asked by some employee if I was lost. In a moment lived-out by hundreds of families, we were joyfully reunited at the customer service desk after a call for “the mother of Anthony” rang out over the PA system.

Isaiah 64, the first Scripture of the first week of Advent, has Israel in much the same position as a lost child—but with the stakes much higher. Israel’s countryside has been burnt, it’s cities torn down, it’s civilization in ruins. And despite recognizing that they have sinned, that they have transgressed, that they have ran away from God, they still want to blame God for what has happened to them: “You have hidden your face from us” (64:7).

But the most forceful message of Isaiah 64 is the recognition that things are completely messed up, the world is totally screwed—but if God would “tear open the heavens and come down,” if God would make the earth shake in His presence, if God would baptize the world with fire and release His flames upon Israel’s adversaries, then all would be made right once more.

But we should pause before we join in too eagerly with these cries for vengeance. Because God did answer Israel’s prayer. God did come down, He did act decisively in Israel’s favor…but in a way totally unexpected, in a way absent of flame and earthquake and fear. God and His people were indeed reunited, brought into each other’s presence again, by way of God-in-the-flesh, the Divine-Made-Incarnate, Son of God and Son of Man: Jesus.

This Advent, we are right to cry out to God for Him to make things right in the world. We are right to recognize how lost we are without Him and how desperate things are without His presence. But let’s be slow to blame God for humanity’s mistakes. And let’s be slow to ask for God’s vengeance and anger and punishment. Rather let us anticipate together the presence of God made real in the unexpected: not in the earthquake or fire or storm, but in the still and in the quiet and in the recognition that God is with us, even when we’re hiding in the clothes racks.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Three Cues That An Invitation to Church Would Be Welcome

CC Image courtesy of Rodney Campbell on Flickr
When's the last time you've invited someone to one of your church's services? I know it's been a while for myself. And for a socially awkward introvert like me, it can be hard to know when it's appropriate or not to bring it up with someone.

I recently heard* three cues of when to invite someone to come to a church service with you. These cues are something that you may hear in a conversation that serve as a clue that it might be appropriate to bring up going to church:

  1. "Things are not going well..." When you hear someone say this - perhaps in the context of a job, a relationship, a life-transition - that's a great opportunity to say, "Why don't you come to church with me this Sunday?"
  2. "I'm not from here..." When people move to town, it can be hard to find a system of relationships and friends to rely on. Hopefully your church is a place where people can find relationships of trust and loving acceptance.
  3. "I'm not prepared for..." Sometimes things in folks' lives are going fine - new job, kids getting married, new opportunities - but they just weren't prepared for the newness of it all. A place where you can hear teaching or receive mentoring could be exactly what a person is needing in their life. 
The ultimate goal of the church is not to make friends or just get help for tricky life-situations. The goal is to become more like Jesus. But when we invite someone to a church service, we may be helping someone in their next step in knowing God transformationally. 

* From the "Keystone Habits" episode of the very excellent Andy Stanley Leadership Podcast

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

The One Who Can Destroy Your Soul and Body In Hell (Part 1)

Culture deeply impacts the way that we read Scripture. Some of these impacts are very subtle, requiring someone from outside our culture to point them out. And some of these ways are much more obvious, causing us to shake our head in regret once we see where we went wrong.

Leonard Sweet once explained the ways that different cultures understand the parable of the prodigal son. If you were to ask people from a variety of cultures the simple question, "What is the primary sin of this story?" you would get a multitude of answers. The U.S.'s sexually obsessed culture tends to narrow in on the phrase, "And squandered his wealth in wild living," filling in the details on what that means. Honor-based societies in Asia focus on the phrase, "Father, give me my share," angry that a son could dishonor his father in such a way. Community-based societies in Africa are outraged that when there was a famine the community sent the prodigal out into fields with the pigs. 

Sometimes the cultural issue can be merely that of translation. The ancient Hebrews used to use the phrase “cleanness of teeth” as an idiom. Can you guess for what? It sounds like a good thing, but it was generally a thing that God would curse people with.

Cleanness of teeth meant famine. No food. No cavities.

A way that I recently woke up to some cultural conditional in my reading of Scripture was in Matthew 10. Here Jesus is sending His disciples out into the world on mission. Unsurprisingly—considering the religious and political implications of what they were to proclaim—Jesus is warning them about near-certain persecution. But He offers this advice to them:

“Do not fear those who kill the body 
but cannot kill the soul; 
rather fear him who can destroy 
both soul and body in hell.” 

So the question I found myself asking in this verse is, “Who is the one who can destroy me in hell?”

This is where my cultural conditioning sprung to action. According to the culture I grew up in, the one in charge of hell, throwing big parties for all the big baddies down there—it’s Satan is of course. He’s the one down there, large and in charge, envisioning new and wonderful ways to torment people just for the fun of it. These cultural memes have found their way into my imagination, changing the way that I read Scripture. Thanks to Dante’s Inferno, medieval art, and probably too many cartoons as a kid, I imagine hell as Satan’s playground, and him as it’s CEO.

But the Bible never says anything like this. Not even close. Our Adversary, the Devil we are never told to fear. In fact we are told to resist him, stand fast against him, to—in the power of God—fight opposed to him (1 Peter 5:8-9; Ephesians 6:12). Hell is not where Satan goes to enjoy his own twisted version of bliss. No, “the lake of fire” in Revelation is the final resting place of Satan; and he’s definitely not in charge of it and he definitely does not enjoy it.

This idea though—to fear Satan—has ingrained itself into the Christian culture I come into contact with. I know those who won’t even say his name because he might perk up, pay attention to us, and come get us.

While, of course, I’m not suggesting that we don’t take the devil or the demonic seriously (we should) or that we ought to pretend they don't exist (we shouldn’t), what I am saying is that Satan is not the one who can destroy our soul and body in hell. He can’t.

So who is? Well, God is. And that fact can make us very uncomfortable, can’t it? How on earth is that comfort for the disciples that Jesus is sending out to the world? We’ll address that in Part 2.

What do you think? How were you taught to think about Satan? Was he the one in charge of hell? Was his name taboo for fear of him coming to get you? Let me know in the comments below.

Monday, April 21, 2014

4 Ways to Keep the Resurrection Alive After Easter

Most of us just got done with this 40-day season called Lent. It concluded gloriously with Easter  - Resurrection Day - itself. Big church services with big attendance and -  typically - shorter, to-the-point sermons. Many of us had big meals with families, enjoyed some spring sunshine, and perhaps even spent some extra time thanking God today for Jesus, His sacrifice, and His resurrection.

But now what? Now that the big lead-up to Easter is over, what are we supposed to do as a church and as Christians? Certainly the truths that we heard about resurrection and new life should have some continuing resonance. And certainly the fasting we did over Lent doesn't suddenly lose all its significance until next February or something. Right?

Right. But how do we keep these concepts going? Well, here are 4 ideas on how to keep the concepts of Easter alive as we move forward into the year.

ONE: Add a spiritual discipline.
Lent was an opportunity to recognize our sin and depravity, and to - in small ways - join Jesus in His 40-day fast in the wilderness. People give up all sorts of things - sweets, social media, negative comments, you name it. 

Now that Lent has come and gone, this season of Eastertide (that it's official name) can be a great opportunity to add a discipline. Now for many of us, that "adding" should be something like silence, solitude, meditation, a continued fast...something that actually helps de-clutter your life. For others, it could be more action-oriented, such as prayer, hospitality, or giving. 

If you need a list of possible spiritual disciplines, head here. You could also...

TWO: Read the book of Acts.
The literal, historical resurrection of Jesus makes the most sense out of what happened afterward: the birth and unprecedented expansion of the early church. People tend not to give up their lives for made-up stories about the dead coming back to life or failed messiahs being crucified. It makes the most sense that Jesus really, truly came back to life and empowered His disciples to make disciples of the world.

For a glimpse of just how convinced, dedicated and empowered the early church was by Jesus' resurrection and His call to make disciples, read the book of Acts. You will be amazed by the faith, courage, and audacity that these early church-planters had. Look specifically for the word "resurrection" and the effect it had on people (hint: it's used 11 times).

THREE: Bring something to life.
Easter has to do with new life and new creation. Jesus, as the "firstfruits of the resurrection" (1 Cor. 15:20), is the start of the world being re-made and re-created, without the fall, reconciled with God. And, nearly just as excitingly, God has made us agents of that reconciliation! We get to help put the world back to order; we get to be agents of God's resurrection power!

There are all sorts of simple ways to do that. But one of the most simple is by getting our hands dirty and planting some flowers, a tree, even some vegetables and herbs (which Emily and I hope to do this spring...we love basil!). When we help something grow and live, we are joining with God in His sustaining of creation, obeying our original commandment to "work the the ground, and take care of it" (Genesis 2:15).

FOUR: Remember that every Sunday is a mini-Easter.
Christian worship moved from Saturday to Sunday because it was "the Lord's Day" (Revelation 1:10); that is, it was the day when Jesus was resurrected from the dead. This was the pivotal point on which Christianity stood. Without Christ's resurrection, Christianity was worthless (1 Cor. 15:17). Because of the magnitude of this event, we see evidence from the earliest records of the first-century church that they worshiped on "the first day of the week," i.e. Sunday (1 Cor 16:2; Acts 20:7; Didache 14:1 [mid-late 1st cent.]).

So, when the church gathers together each Sunday, think of not just as a nice way to end the weekend; think of it as a weekly celebration that Christ is alive and is making us alive in Him! Every Sunday is Resurrection Sunday, a day to remember this glorious truth: 
Romans 6:4-11. We were...buried with [Christ] through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. 
5 For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his. 6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body ruled by sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin— 7 because anyone who has died has been set free from sin. 
8 Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. 9 For we know that since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him. 10 The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God. 
11 In the same way, count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus.