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Monday, October 17, 2016

Comments on Richard Lisher's "End of Words"

Interaction with The End of Words (by Richard Lischer)
            The End of Words is the best book on preaching I have read in years.  I put it right up there with the works of Fred Craddock and Tom Long.  I have learned about preaching because of reading Lischer’s book.
            I will be interacting with this book for the foreseeable future as I plan to re-read it in 2017.  For me, 2017 will be a year of re-reading books on theology, homiletics, and race relations.  The re-reading, I hope, will drive me to deeper engagement with these fine works.  In The End of Words there is much I could write about here, but for now I opt to comment on one idea from his essay ‘One Last Story,’ (p.89-128).
            Lischer says, “The Stories of Jesus haunt our world not because they correspond perfectly to history but because they correspond perfectly to his real presence among us” (p.125).  The distinction he draws is important.  People don’t come to faith because we Christians convince them, in their skepticism, of the historicity of events in the Christian story.  Some Christian apologists are so determined to win the argument and then proclaim their victory, they lose sight of the real goal: helping people meet and come to know Jesus.
            People are not won to faith by convincing arguments.  They come to faith in God when they meet God in Jesus Christ.  Hence Lischer’s use of the verb ‘haunt.’  Skeptics and believers alike are haunted by a ghost – the Holy Ghost.  Apologetics has its place.  Our preaching can be defeated if it fails to hold up to scientific and historic scrutiny.  However, strong proofs do not win any victory for the preacher.  We don’t help people find their way to Jesus unless we have the Holy Spirit with us.
            Our sermons will successfully tell those stories that haunt the world, when the Holy Spirit haunts our sermons and our souls.  Near the conclusions of the section, Lischer says, “We have the high and dangerous calling of telling one last story in a world filled with lies: the story must be true” (emphasis mine) (p. 127).  That we can show the historicity of the resurrection of the scientific veracity of the world as something created does not make our story true.  Those types of proofs make the message verifiable to some degree.  What makes it true is if Jesus is in it and in us as we preach it.  When people hear the message and find themselves staring into the eyes of Jesus, we have told the true story, the one the world desperately needs.
            Thank you, Dr. Lischer, for this amazing book.  Five stars!

Sunday, October 16, 2016

God of the New - Jeremiah 31:31-34

            “The days are coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of a Jacob!” 
God is a God of covenants.  There was a covenant with Noah after the flood.  Never again will I curse the ground because of humankind (Gen. 8:21).  Remember the covenant with Abraham. God tells him, I will make my covenant between me and you, and will make you exceedingly numerous.  … You shall be the ancestor of [many] nations (Gen. 17:2, 4).   Of course, there’s the covenant with Moses.  I hereby make a covenant.  Before all your people I will perform marvels, such as have not been performed in all the earth or in any nation (Exodus 34:10).  And let’s not forget the covenant with King David.  Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). 
The covenant is deeper than just some agreement and requires more of each party.  The covenant is more personal than a contract and more binding.  And when the covenant is with God, it can be trusted without reservation. 
Herein lies the problem when we turn to Jeremiah 31.  For starters, The Lord says the new covenant will be with the house of Israel and the house of Jacob.  Ancient Israel was comprised of 12 tribes – descendants of the 12 sons of Jacob.  The 10 northern tribes were taken into exile by the Assyrians in the 8th century BC.  They intermarried with other nations the Assyrians had conquered and were essentially lost to history.  The only remnant in the land was a mixed race people – Jewish and other.  They lived in Samaria.  In the New Testament, Jesus has encounters with these Samaritans and even features a Samaritan in one of his most popular parables. 
How can God say he will make a new covenant with the house of Israel?  There is no more house of Israel.  Sure, God is God.  But, exile is exile.  Some problems are too big.  Aren’t they?
The remaining two tribes, the southern tribes make up the house of Judah and are the location of the city of Zion, Jerusalem.  In Jeremiah 31, these tribes have gone the way of their northern cousins.  They have been taken in exile and anticipate being lost. 
The walls of the city fell and Solomon’s amazing temple was completely destroyed in 587BC.  Walter Brueggemann writes, “Landed folks [Israel – even if it is just Judah, two of what was originally 12 tribes] – Landed folks want to cling to continuity and believe that old forms will continue.  But the wrenching of 587 and the discernment of the prophets [Jeremiah, 2nd Isaiah, Ezekiel] are about discontinuity.  The land is really lost and history is really ended.”[i]
God told Noah he would never again curse the land.  The Babylonians have ravaged the land.  God told Abraham he would be the ancestor of many nations.  The one nation begun in Abraham’s name has been lost.  God told Moses he would do marvels unlike any ever seen, but that was 1500 years prior to this event, the crushing of the people.  When Babylon came and the walls fell, where were the marvels of God?  God told David, your kingdom shall be forever.  David’s descendant, Zedekiah was forced to watch as Babylonian soldiers executed his sons.  Then, after seeing that, they gouged out his eyes, so that the last thing he ever saw would be the death of his own children.  Then, the king was chained and dragged off to Babylon. 
See how each covenant ended?  What do those Jews in exile hear when they hear Jeremiah speak God’s word?  “The days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant.”  A covenant with a people – the house of Israel – that are no more.  What kind of covenant is that?  A covenant with the house of Judah in exile.  Can they still be the people of God while living in Babylon?  What do those exiles hear in this promise?  Do they dare believe it?  Do they dare hope?  Can they trust this covenant God?
Jeremiah does.  This exile has happened and the former covenants appear lost because God’s people have turned away from God.  This is not happening because Babylon or Assyria is stronger than God.  This is not happening because God is flippant.  God is not fickle.  What God promised to Noah and Moses and Abraham and David is as true as it ever was.  Jeremiah said it and I claim those promises today, October 16, 2016.  Under the midnight shadow of exile, Jeremiah trusts God and calls the people to see God at work even in this time of death.
I wonder if the discontent in America right now makes it hard to see God at work.  I wonder if our land is a long way on the path of entry into a time of death.  I couldn’t identify the number of different ways people in our country are divided, but I’ll discuss just one.  Keep in mind, this is one description among many; one example of how culture in America is shifting dramatically.
Until this century, America was led by white men.  At the end of the 20th century, a few women, like Sandra Day O’Conner and a few African Americans, like Colin Powell and Andrew Young and Barbara Jordan broke into the leadership dominion of white men.  Still, white men owned the companies, got elected, and hammered the judges’ gavels. 
The hegemony, the domination of white men is ending.  Some people in our country are perfectly comfortable with this.  I am.  I am comfortable with women in positions of leadership and power – if they are qualified to be there.  And many are.  I am happy to yield authority to people of color if they merit having that authority. And many do.  Qualified leaders are found in both genders and in all races.  I welcome a culture shift that makes space for qualified leaders to have opportunities.
Some are terrified of it.  They feel like they are losing the America they thought was theirs.  In a sense, they are.  By the middle of this century, white people will not have a numerical majority in the United States.  By the time we are 2/3 of the way through this century, the largest group of American citizens will be Hispanic.  It is ludicrous to think we could reach back to the halcyon days of the 1950’s.  Those days were only idyllic for a segment of our population.  In the 2050’s, that segment will lack the power to enforce their will.  In 2016, our nation feels this shift happening.  Those who fear the shift will fight it.    
Crisis is defined as a turning point of a disease when an important change takes place, indicating either recovery or death.[ii]  In this crisis, can God be trusted?  For the people of Judah, when the crisis of 587 BC ended in exile, it felt like death.  But Jeremiah stood up and said, yes death, but after death, covenant.  Can the covenant God still be trusted?
We know this covenant God through Jesus, the crucified, resurrected one.  Jesus is where we meet this God, but Jesus ascended after the resurrection and left things in the hands of his church. The church is supposed to be the body of Christ on earth giving witness to God’s goodness and love and salvation.  We point a dying world to the God who saves.  But, we are full of broken, sinful people who snipe at one another.  The forces that divide American culture are as much inside the church, inside the body of Christ as they are outside it. 
God left things in the mouths of prophets and in the workings of imperfect churches?  Really God?  Can the covenant God be trusted?  Jeremiah says yes. 
I will make a new covenant says the Lord.  The next God says is it will not be like the old covenant, the one made in the wilderness.  Exile bore similarities to Egypt.  The people were slaves under Pharaoh, far from the land God promised to Abraham.  Now they’ve sinned and they are in a forced exile in Babylon, far from the land God promised to Abraham.  God gave Moses the power to lead the people east to Canaan.  Couldn’t God give Jeremiah or more likely Ezekiel the same power to lead the people west, back to the Promised Land?  No, Jeremiah says.  This is not going to be like the old covenant, the one they broke repeatedly.  There is no going back.  The Red Sea will not be parted for us again. 
The promises made in the covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses and David – those promises will be kept.  But it won’t look like what we may have thought it would look like.  Read through the New Testament and then go through history from the days of the New Testament up to now. 
Many point to Revelation, the last book of the Bible, as an outline for God’s future plans.  At the end of Revelation, the faithful, those who are saved, are not gathered unto God in a new Garden of Eden.  We don’t go back to Eden. 
Church leadership literature sometimes calls the church to revert back to the way the church functioned in the 1st century, in the decades immediately after the resurrection.  But, the New Testament reveals that the early church was full of conflict – conflict we don’t want.  Just as Revelation does not promise a return to Eden, it does not offer vision anything like the early church.
What we find in Revelation is something new because God is a God of the new.  This is why going forward with God is an act of faith.  Noah, got on that ark not knowing if he’d ever get off.  Abraham trusted God before he ever saw evidence of the covenant.  Moses led a nation into the desert and their best moments in the desert came when they had nothing and had to live in total dependence on God.  David’s best moments with God came when he was hiding in a cave from people who had armies bigger than his and who sought his life.  None of these great people in the history of the faith tried to retreat back to an earlier, greater time.  In the valley of the shadow of death, they trusted God with everything.  They were all in with God.
Jeremiah looks at exiled Judah – a people who feel completely lost and feel that they have lost everything and he invokes one of the matriarchs, Rachel, the favored wife of Jacob.  Jeremiah’s 31:15 says, “Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.”  In Jeremiah, this poetry means that exile is the end of God’s people. The Gospel writer Matthew quotes this verse when he describes King Herod’s evil act of murdering all the toddlers in Bethlehem in an attempt to destroy Jesus.  Rachel is weeping for her children
Nothing should lessen the weight of the tragedy either in Matthew or Jeremiah.  King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon destroyed nations and enslaved people in 587BC.  King Herod murdered children to keep hold of his fragile, fleeting power in the days of Jesus’ infancy.  God did not bring about either evil, but acted in both.  Our rebellion always leads to evil, and as our evil brings about death, God always brings about a new thing.
Jeremiah quotes God who says, the days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant.  This will even include the house of Israel who you thought was lost because God can bring new life even where there are only dead, dry bones.
A new covenant; and, says God, this will not be like the old covenant.  Promises to Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David will be kept, but it won’t look as we thought it would.  It will be new.  The new promises of God will look unlike anything we have ever imagined just as growing divisions will make our country look different than it looked previously.  But we are unafraid.  We know that who is in the white house or in the congress or on the Supreme Court does not determine who we are.  The resurrected Christ determines who we are. 
It’s a new covenant.  It’s not like the old.  We remember the past, but don’t long for it.  Yes remember, but no, don’t reach back.  Our God is a God of the new.  So then, what is the new, promised covenant?
I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.  They shall know me, from the least of them to the greatest.  For I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more (31:33-34).
Included in the observation from Walter Brueggemann I shared at the beginning is that the prophetic message is about discontinuity.  Things won’t be as they were.  The world is changing and the prophet is the one who sees it ahead of everyone else and speaks it sometimes before people are ready to hear it.  One reality though never changes.  From Noah to Abraham to Moses to David to Jeremiah to the days of Jesus’ birth to the days of the early church to the experiences of God’s church throughout history up to our day and time as we strive to be God’s people in a time of dramatic and scary change, God delivers.  God saves.  God is present.  God heals.  God brings life out of death.
Rachel is weeping for her children.  God responds in Jeremiah 31:16, keep your voice from weeping and your eyes from tears for there is a reward for your work, says the Lord, [and] there is a hope for your future.  With knowledge of God planted in their hearts, they can point the world to Him whether they are in Babylon or in Egypt or in Jerusalem. 
With the Holy Spirit of God in us, planting God’s word in our hearts and making us new creations, we can count on God’s salvation today.  It’s not a future promise.  Salvation is a present reality that calls us to share Christ with the world however the world is, and draws us forward into the future, anticipating the day when the Kingdom comes in full. 
Can we trust the covenant God?  There is nothing else we can do for although we were born of this earth, born in sin, we have been born again, made new, called into a new covenant with the God of the new.  Amid the disorienting journey into death our culture is on, we followers of the Covenant God, proclaim life.  Jesus Christ is Lord and all who repent and turn to him can have salvation, life in his name.  No government, power, or temptation is able to threaten that promise.  We stand on it and from that we stand join Jeremiah as hope-announcers, proclaimers of good news.

[i] W. Brueggemann (1977), The Land, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.131.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Review of Barry Harvey's 'Taking Hold of the Real'

A Look at Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Theology

Harvey writes "Bonhoeffer is seeking to find a way to indicate that the life and language of the church do not operate at the margins of life ... but impinge upon the practices, habits, and relationships that occur 'in the center of the village'" (p.261, Kindle Fire version).

Harvey uses a variety of metaphors and categories to demonstrate that Dietrich Bonhoeffer rejected a two-story version of history that separates the Godly sphere and the earthly.  Rather, Bonhoeffer sees all of history and every aspect of life under God's sovereign rule.  And Christianity must function within the world, not separate from it.

I think that's Harvey's final point and if I am right, then I am greatly enthused because in my work as a pastor, I strive to locate faith "in the center of the village."

I say, "I think," because I had real trouble following the flow of Harvey's writing.  He's an academic as far I can tell, and so his book is a challenging.  But, the challenge is worth it.  We have so much to learn about God from Bonhoeffer, and Harvey is a good teacher even if his method is couched in academic terminology.  

Messiah in the OT - Psalm 22, 16

Messiah in the Old Testament (W. Kaiser) – Psalm 22, 16
            Walter Kaiser cites several Psalms in his effort to draw the line from the Old Testament idea of Messiah to identification of Jesus as the fulfillment of messianic prophecy.  Included in his work are comments on Psalms 40, 45, 68 & 72.  The reader can refer to his book The Messiah in the Old Testament ( for his comments on those Psalms.  Here, I will summarize Kaiser’s writing on Psalm 22 & Psalm 16 as each one points to Jesus as messiah.
            Kaiser cites five scholars dating back to Calvin who, in different ways, believe that the sufferer in Psalm 22 is King David, but also that the experience described in the Psalm transcends the experiences of David.  So, the Psalm definitely ties to David, but also must be fulfilled by someone (a) who comes after David, and (b) whose experiences are expressed in the Psalm in a way that goes beyond David’s experiences of suffering.  One of the scholars cited by Kaiser, Charles Briggs, writing in 1889, says, “The sufferings [described in Psalm 22] transcend those any historical sufferer with the single exception of Jesus Christ.”[i] In other words, only Jesus could fulfill what’s said in the Psalm. 
            Kaiser agrees, with his pointing to New Testament quotations of the Psalm as being among the strongest of the points in his argument.  Two of the supposed 7 last words of Christ, the 4th & 6th, come from this Psalm.  The fourth word is “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Psalm 22:1; Matthew 27:45-49; Mark 15:33-37).  Kaiser observes that the Psalms were titled by the first line of the Psalm when the New Testament was written.  Matthew and Mark present Jesus as having the entire Psalm on his mind in those moments on the cross.  Also, the point of emphasis is on the word “my,” emphasizing the relationship of the speaker to God as his father.[ii]
            The 6th word, “it is finished,” signifies the completion of God’s redeeming work (Psalm 22:31; John 19:30).  That Jesus’ final cry of accomplishment is a quote of the final words of the Psalm further demonstrates his identification with the one singing the lament.  From these observations as well as the other points he raises, it is clear that Walter Kaiser sees the Messiah Jesus in the words of Psalm 22.
            Psalm 16 points to the resurrection.  “My body lies secure; for you do not give me up to Sheol” (16:9b-10a).  Peter quoted this Psalm in his Pentecost sermon in Acts 2:27 as he discussed the resurrection.   Kaiser feels the hinge that keys the messianic interpretation is in the middle verse 9.  The NRSV translates the subject there “my body,” but the actual Hebrew word is plural and means “Holy ones.”  Kaiser’s reputation believes this must be translated in the singular, that it refers to Messiah, and that the Messiah is the one who will not be given up to Sheol.
            How does one avoid eternal death?  Resurrection.  Kaiser believes David, the author/singer of Psalm 16, knew one of his descendants would surpass him and would overcome death.  He thinks this is all David knew.  He didn’t know it would be Jesus, a carpenter’s son from Nazareth.  But, he knew one of his descendants would be the one and he conveys that in Psalm 16:9-11.  Kaiser also speculates that Psalm 16 could have been one of the passages the resurrected Christ shared with the Emmaus Road disciples (Luke 24).
            Kaiser offers much more material demonstrating the presence of the messiah in the Psalms.  He says more about the two I’ve discussed as well the ones I mentioned earlier and in the previous post on this topic.  In the next post I will review his identification of the messiah in passages from some of the Minor Prophets.

[i] Kaiser, p.112.
[ii] Kaiser, p.114.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Stay Salty (Matthew 5:13; Mark 9:49-50; Luke 14:34-35)

Sunday, October 9, 2016

            Several of our youth are into sports – ultimate Frisbee, soccer, basketball, gymnastics, parkour, and cross country.  This past Thursday Igor Tennant and John Baker competed in a middle school cross country meet.  The Bakers and Candy and I are very grateful that youth leaders from our church came out to see the event.  Kelly and Jared Heinly came and so did Enam and Carlin Jordan.
            On this course, the runners started on the football field, headed into the woods, ran a loop, and then came of the woods for a final 100 yard sprint across the football field to the finish line.  We gathered around field, watched them begin and disappear into the woods, and then 10-15 minutes emerged for the final sprint to the finish.  The first 5 or 6 came through – the top runners, and we cheered them to the finish.
            Then came the next group.  These are fast kids but not quite at the top.  A couple of theme came out of the woods, one from Culbreth Middle School, one from Smith Middle School.  As they sped up field, the Culbreth runner tried to get to a line where he’d have a straight shot to the finish.  In doing this, he shoulder checked the runner from Smith and sent him sprawling.  The body check would make a hockey coach smile.  I thought it might have been intentional until I saw what came next. 
            He took three steps and abruptly stopped.  He whirled around to check on the Smith runner and helped him to his feet.  The Smith runner quickly shrugged off the fall.  And a second later the two of them were furiously racing toward the finish. 
            How do you feel about what happened?  As I watched it, a voice inside me shouted, “No, don’t help him up.  This is competition and you’re losing time.”  It is good that in high school I played football, where knocking people down is sanctioned.  But, as a 46-year-old pastor who believes that while competition is valuable in sports but cooperation is more helpful in life, I have great admiration for what this kid did. 
Imagine the cross country meet as a metaphor for life. Two attitudes are in play.  One attitude is I must win at the expense of others.  If knocking someone down and even hurting them helps me, I’ll knock them down and hurt them.  Winning is the top value.  This attitude defines winning in terms of accumulation, accolades, accomplishment.  How many awards do I have?  How much do I own?  My winning stands on comparison.  In order for me to win, you must lose.  That’s the attitude of the runner who knocks the other over and never looks back.
            A second attitude is I must do my best while helping others do their best so that together we can create beautiful things.   And all can share in this beauty.  In this attitude, I will give up things – possessions, time, money; I will give of myself in order to help others flourish.  This is what I saw in the cross country meet.  The boy stopped, sacrificing his own time, in order to help his competition.  Then together, they created something magnificent: a photo finish as they raced hard down the final 100 yards.  It’s the highlight of any race, and it happened when a kid made a choice, the kind of choice a disciple makes.
            Following Jesus is awareness of and openness to the Holy Spirit.  And it is a series of daily choices; daily choosing to walk the path Jesus sets before us.  I mention the Holy Spirit before getting into us making choices based on who we are in Christ because we have to keep in mind that we are not generators of good.  God is the giver of good things and our daily contact with God is the ever present Holy Spirit.  Choosing the right actions and words is impossible without the Spirit’s help.  We have to keep our mind on God and listen to the Spirit constantly.  When we do, we are empowered to live in Christ.  The choices we make, like the choice to help a fallen runner, reveal that we are in Christ.
            One of the images of a disciple in the New Testament is salt.  Jesus told his followers, “You are the salt of the earth.”  The Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote 30-60 years after the resurrection.  Each one had sources: people they talked to who had been with Jesus; traditions that had become established in the early church; their own memories and experiences; and the Holy Spirit.  Each wrote his gospel with a particular audience in mind and with a specific narrative slant.  They weren’t just telling the story of Jesus.  They were telling it in a way intended to shape the church as the nascent body of Christ matured moving from the first into the second century. 
            Matthew, Mark, and Luke, all remembered Jesus’ statement about disciples being salt.  You are the salt of the earth.  They each remembered it differently. 
            In Matthew, Jesus is in the opening of his great Sermon on the Mount.  He has given the beatitudes.  “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted; blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled;” and so on.  And then Jesus says, “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?” 
            Candy will be making something – she’s wonderful cook – and she calls me in the kitchen, shoves a spoon in my mouth, and asks, “Does it need more salt?”  I am the kind of eater that really doesn’t know the answer.  I just shovel food in.  Igor has a much more refined palette.  I answer her with a shrug of the shoulders.  He answers with great confidence.  Yes, more salt!
            Matthew takes Jesus’ use of salt to mean taste.  Does salt make the soup taste better?  Does a disciple make the world better?  With God speaking through our lives, how do we exert a beneficial influence in the world around us? 
            How do we add the flavor of heaven to situations of our lives? It could be a simple matter of doing something with honesty when everyone in the crowd cheats or takes shortcuts and calls you childish for not joining them.  You’re not behaving with integrity because you want to broadcast your own righteousness.  You just do the right thing because you are a Christ follower.  You don’t call attention to yourself.  But your choice indicates that something is going on inside you.  That “something” is God at work in you.  Whether the choice is integrity when others cheat, generosity when others hoard, the choice to turn the other cheek metaphorically or literally, or the choice to not do something like view a raunchy movie or laugh at a crude joke, the choice will season that entire situation with the flavor of heaven. 
            People around you might not appreciate such divine seasoning.  They may want to bask in being ungodly.  Jesus did not say, “You are the salt of the earth and will become rich and popular when you do the right thing.”  Being the salt might be hard sometimes but the flavor we add, the flavor of heaven, is sorely needed even by people who think they don’t want it.  Put plainly, people who don’t know Christ and those who do need to see how a Christ-follower thinks and acts in daily situations of life.  Know the Gospels.  Stay in tune with the Holy Spirit.  And sprinkle the flavoring of heaven all around.  Stay salty.
            Mark also includes Jesus’ teaching about salt in his gospel, but frames it differently.  Jesus says in Mark 9, “Everyone will be salted with fire.  … Have salt in yourselves and be at peace with one another.”  Salted with fire sounds odd.  Jesus is shamelessly mixing metaphors.  He has in mind preservation and perseverance.
            Salt is a preservative and Jesus wants the faith he’s planting in his disciples to last.  He wants them, as leaders in the church that will be born after his ascension, to preserve the community of his followers.  He has just finished saying “If your foot causes you to stumble [meaning sin] cut it off; it is better for you to enter life lame than to have two feet and to be cast into hell” (9:46).  Mark’s Jesus does not say “Be the salt or stay salty,” he says, “Everyone is salted.”  Everyone goes through temptation and persecution.  Do we come out of it stronger in our faith or do we abandon faith?
            I recommend adding the Voice of the Martyrs email updates to your own prayer life.  Voice of the Martyrs tracks Christianity around the world and especially in places where other religions are dominant, like Hinduism or Islam.  VOM sends accounts of the ways Christians suffer – job loss, imprisonment, physical attack, and even death.  VOM urges the church worldwide to persevere in prayer so that the church in areas of persecution may be preserved. 
A regular discipline of praying for persecuted Christians can do two things.  First it connects us to believers around the world and gives us a voice on their behalf as we go to our God for them.  Second, as we enter the stories of real, present day persecution, we are heartened to strengthen our witness when it feels like it is hard to be a Christian in our own lives.  Jesus says in Mark 9, “Have salt within yourselves.”  We’ve been salted.  We receive in order to build up the church’s witness in the world.
Stay salty and spread the flavor of Heaven.
Be salted and persevere when following Jesus is a hard thing to do.
What does Luke remember of Jesus when he remembers the teaching about salt as a metaphor for discipleship?
In Luke 14, Jesus says, “Salt is good; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored?  It is fit for neither the soil, nor the manure pile.”  Luke initially sounds like Matthew, talking about lost taste.  But then he says ineffective salt is unfit for the manure pile.  What does that mean?
Religion Professor Anthony Bradley sites studies of agricultural uses of salt.[i]  This is not flavoring, nor is it a preservative.  The salt is needed for the fertilizer to stimulate growth.  The context in which Luke cites Jesus is a teaching about hard discipleship.  Jesus has just said, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brother and sister, yes, even life itself, cannot be my disciple.  Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (14:26-27).  Jesus doesn’t want us to literally hate our families or our own lives.  He uses extreme language to make the point that being true to Him has to be a top priority above else. In a world that will either ignore us, mock us, or harm us, remaining faithful is the mark of a real disciple. 
Moreover, by making the decision to follow Jesus no matter the circumstances, no matter the cost, we encourage other disciples and our perseverance stimulates growth in them.  In America, we won’t deal with physical harm because of our faith.  We mentioned this when we discuss Mark’s uses of Jesus’ salt image as a marker of perseverance.  There we join with our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world, areas where faith may literally lead to risking one’s life or willingly losing one’s life.  In America, we are more likely to see Christian witness marginalized.  When that happens, we stand as disciples and speak out as disciples. 
We raise our voice so that the truth about Jesus – the truth that Jesus is Lord and Salvation can be had in Him – is told.  In this effort – the work of verbal witness and commitment in spite of marginalization – in this, we encourage the faith of others.  We become stimulants in the soil of fellow believers’ lives. 
I had a friend in the National Guard who was salt in my own life in the manners Jesus mentions in Luke 14.  Enlisted infantrymen in the National Guard use down time to tall crude joke and raunchy misogynistic stories, most of which aren’t true.  Or, in the down time, soldiers debate politics, argue about movies, and talk about religion.  Preston Willifred and I discovered each other, two committed Christians in the guard.  He never laughed at the dirty jokes.  If I did, he called me on it, harshly, in front of everybody.  Preston was younger than me, but his faith had a boldness that mine lacked in those days.  I admired the strength of his testimony, I tried to duplicate it in my own life.  He was the salt, I was the soil, and a more mature faith was the crop.  Many people in this church family have acted in this for me and for each other. 
Stay salty.  Add the flavor of Heaven to the world around you.
Be salted.  Persevere and preserve the faith of those who are persecuted.
We are salt.  We can stimulate growth in each other and other disciples we meet.
I talked with the young man after the cross country race, just to compliment him on his admirable act of helping a fallen opponent.  His mother told me a story.  In previous race, his legs tangled with another runner and he was the one to fall.  No one stopped to help him.  His legs were cut up pretty badly in the gravel and he was upset, but he finished the meet.  Afterward, talking to his parents, he was mad.  But they encouraged him.  Together, he and his parents decided if it happened in another race and if he had the opportunity, he would help his opponents.  He would do what no one did for him.
Here at church, we are like that conversation he had with his parents.  We are the community that encourages each other to go out into the world and be salt.  The opportunities are going to come.  We will be discouraged in life of following Jesus and we will meet other people who are discouraged.  Here, as we worship together, pray together, and encounter the word together, we build one another up.  Then when we go out we are ready for opportunities we know will come.  We are ready to add the flavor of Heaven, to preserve the faith of those under fire, and to stimulate growth in Christ in those who are discouraged. 
You’ve heard the silly beer ad which says, “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
In Christ, we are brothers and sisters.  “Stay salty.”

[i] A. Bradley (October, 2016), Christianity Today, p.72-76.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Science Lover Accounts for Faith

            ‘Finding God in the Waves’ is a moving tale of love of God, love of science, and the two loves finding space in one person.  I recommend this book to anyone who loves science but doesn’t want to abandon faith because of that love of science.  It is a well-told story full of feeling and twists and turns.  And depending on how you come out on the faith-atheist question, it definitely has a happy or disappointing ending.  The title makes that much clear.
            As much as I enjoyed the book, I have some specific critiques.  I will go into those in more detail in future blog posts, but will summarize them here.  My first critique is the entire notion that a true scientist will have trouble with many aspects of the Christian faith.  The author makes this assumption throughout the book.  I know plenty of scientists, MIT and UNC PhD’s, who have no trouble following Jesus and committing to excellence in their fields (chemistry, medicine, biology).  To assert that knowledge of science automatically leads to dismissal of certain tenets of the faith is a leap the author made that was unnecessary and is not the case for many scientists.
            Second, I was mostly disappointed that the author made no reference to the best resources that deal with the intersection of faith and science.  He said the internet is full of instances where atheists overwhelm Christians in debates.  He has apparently never watched the debates Oxford mathematician and devoted Christian John Lennox has had with atheist scientists; or, those of Oxford church historian and biologist Alister McGrath.  It is unfortunate that he never referred to McGrath’s work at all.  McGrath deals with questions of faith and science in depth in several of his books and is uniquely qualified to do so.  The same is true of John Polkinghorne whom McHargue also never cites.  He also make no mention of the ongoing work of the Biologos foundation.  He refers to one of the science authors who works with Biologos, but beyond that he does not seem to be aware of the best site out there for conversations about science and faith.
            A third critique comes in his clear prioritizing for scientific knowledge over faith knowledge.  He doesn’t claim that God must live within the laws of nature.  But he does believe all acts of God in this universe must be observable within the laws of nature.  Every faith axiom he proposes begins with a doubt and then the doubt is assuaged when he can account for it with brain science.  I don’t believe God is beholden to the limitations of the human brain and no matter how amazing the human brain is, it is limited.  God acts outside of the workings of the brain.  Every of God humans experience and describe is not confined to some part of our brain and how it stores information.  But, this author cannot accept anything as real unless scientific observation (mostly brain science) accounts for it.
            This leads to a fourth major critique: his treatment of the resurrection.  The author compares Oxford Bible scholar and historian N.T. Wright to Stephen Hawking in expanse of knowledge.  Wright is the ‘Stephen Hawking’ of faith, he says.  He also says the Gospels were written too late to be treated as reliable sources for events in Jesus’ life.  N.T. Wright disagrees.  In his exhaustive treatment of the resurrection he cites the gospels as reliable sources.  Wright, whom McHargue praises for his scholarship, believes the gospels and the other New Testament books can be shown to be reliant upon oral traditions that date back to the days of Jesus and thus used in a complex historical argument.  McHargue seems completely unaware of this and thus dismisses the possibility of the resurrection as an event in history.  If history is treated as a science, then history shows that the best conclusion is that the resurrection happened.  It was an event in history.  Wright shows this as does Gary Habermas and Mike Licona, each in their own lengthy scholarly studies of the topic.  McHargue has either not read this material, or disregards it.  Of course if he understood that history shows it had to have happened, it might throw him for a loop because it shows something in history happened that science cannot reckon.  He treats the resurrection as something that is not necessary for faith.  I agree that it is not.  But if one’s faith is Christian in nature, the resurrection has be a nonnegotiable.  McHargue does not deny the resurrection and he sees signs of it in creation, but there is evidence of it that he either doesn’t know or doesn’t accept.

            These are each meaty critiques that bear their own treatment, and I hope to get to each in future blog posts.  For now, I am very glad to have read ‘Finding God’ and I recommend to anyone who in interested in science and in faith.  In spite of my critiques, I rejoice at McHargue’s journey as I find his search for God moving and true.  Read this book and allow it to challenge your own thought about God.  It won’t be easy, but it is worthwhile.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Grace & Gratitude; Competition, NOT Comparison

            I’ll be taking a 4-month sabbatical from my daily and weekly ministry activities in 2017.  I am excited and a bit apprehensive.  It’s like I am just taking a break and releasing control of my church (as if I have control now).  My associate pastor has repeatedly told me this sabbatical is part of my vocation.  While I am not preaching sermons, leading meetings, counseling members, and casting a vision for our church, I am still within my calling while on sabbatical.  And the church is what it has always been: God’s not mine.
            In order to prepare to adjust my daily rhythms from work to rest, I have begun seeing a spiritual adviser and she has me praying the prayer of examen.  In this approach to daily prayer, the one praying begins in silence building awareness of and attentiveness to the presence of God.  I do the best I can to silence all other outside noise (actual audible noise and the noise in my head).  I just get quiet and focus on the present God.  This is usually 2-5 minutes, though I would like to work up to longer periods.
I have done this before, but the examen has been particularly beautiful for me with what comes next.  The second step is to express gratitude.   I usually do the examen when I first arrive at my office, about 7:30AM.  In my mind, I go back through the previous 24 hours and note all the moments of thankfulness, all the things of life for which I am thankful.  This has been amazing! 
Before this discipline, I rarely paused to reflect on the past (in this case the most immediate past – just 24 hours).  I was not aware at how much my life is just charge ahead. I live directionally – forward!  My life question seems to be “What’s next?”  It has been a refreshing blessing to stop, look back, and thank God.  I have always known how important it is to live in gratitude.  Prior to examen I had a thanksgiving practice, one done with my wife.  Before going to sleep each night, she and I list three things each that we’re thankful for.  This exercise centers us, forces us to go to bed in gratitude and not some other emotion (anger, bitterness, etc.).  Sometimes we have to force it, but it is worth it to keep up the habit. 
The examen prayer of gratitude has taken my discipline of living thankfully to another dimension.  My wife and I still do our thanks, but now, I am starting the day aware that I have much to thank God for.  I am a blessed guy.  I am a graced guy.  When I miss the examen on busy, rushed mornings, I feel like I have missed something very important.  I have skipped a part of my morning that normally pours life into me. 
Another effect examen has had on me is a tendency to recall why I am thankful throughout the day.  When I want to get frustrated, a voice in my head (the Holy Spirit?) reminds me to be thankful because so much grace has been poured on me and into me.  Because of the examen and my nightly ritual of gratitude (with my wife), saying thanks to God is slowly becoming a default response for me. 
A couple of ways of seeing life emerge from living with an eye toward gratitude.  First, I know my life is a result of grace.  I am because of God’s grace.  I have blessings because of God’s grace.  I serve as pastor in a wonderful church because of God’s grace.  Saying this does not negate my own hard work and accomplishment.  I put forth a lot of effort and stretching outside my comfort zone to earn a doctorate of ministry.  That degree (with a focus in counseling) equipped me as a pastor and made my resume more attractive.  I have labored for over 2o years in 4 different churches in pastoral work.  It has been a joy and at times an arduous journey. 
But, I can’t fall into a trap of taking credit for anything.  I work hard and commit myself fully to ministry because that is an appropriate response to the grace God has given.  Also, let me not exaggerate my own work ethic.  I have lazy days.  I mess up.  Whether by my good or in spite of my failure, I acknowledge that I appreciate where I am and I thank God for my life.  I pray that if extremely hard times hit, I will have the spiritual wherewithal to continue giving God glory.  I don’t know that I could do that in the face of unspeakable personal loss.  I pray that I could.
Acknowledging that my life is graced and basking in God’s grace is a first way of seeing life that comes out of living in gratitude.  A second way of seeing might seem more surprising.  My gratitude compels me to be competitive.  That’s right!  I think Christians and pastors should compete hard, the way a Michigan running back leans toward the end zone or the way my beloved Detroit Lions race to be the first to clean out their lockers after yet another season without the playoffs.
Here’s what I mean by competition.  When I attend a conference and hear about what other pastors are doing, or I talk with pastors in our area and find out churches and ministries that doing great works of compassion or Kingdom pronouncement, it should inspire me to strive for greatness in our ministry at HillSong.  We should try to help people with such effectiveness that people in our community say, “Oh, you know that HillSong, they help people.”  Our ministry should equip believers in such a way that when people in the community meet our folks out and about and marvel at how loving they are and how grace-filled and compassionate they are and then discover they are HillSong people, they say, “Of course!  That’s the type of person that comes out of HillSong.  That’s what we expect from HillSong.”
We should compete to be outstanding ministers of the gospels, disciples of the Master, and proclaimers of the word.  We live missionally and as disciples for the sake of dying to self and rising in Christ.  We become so filled with grace and with the Spirit that the Gospel pours out of us in a torrent.
However, competition should not breed comparison.  If the church up the road preaches a robust gospel and doubles its membership and begins ministries that actually reduce hunger in our community, we must not compare ourselves to that church.  We should rejoice in what’s happening there.  I must not compare myself to that pastor.  The comparison will eat me up.  In the parable of the talents (Matthew 25:14-30), Jesus did not critique the one who had 4 talents (v.22-23).  Jesus praised that one.  He did not say, “Why didn’t you reproduce as much as the one who had 10?”  Jesus commended him for growing from the grace he had been given.  And Jesus said to him, “Enter the joy of your master.” 
We must not become jealous if the church up the road outpaces us in membership.  I cannot be down on myself because I don’t lead a ministry that is as “big” as the one led by the pastor on the magazine cover.  There are many ways a ministry can be big, and God can do big things while working through small groups.  God has lead me to my role as disciple, husband, father, pastor, and friend.  I appreciate the grace God has given me and I compete to make my 2 talents become 4, and then the 4 to become 8.  When I think of myself, it is not a downplaying of what I have done.  Come on Rob!  Why aren’t you as “successful” as that pastor 10 years younger than you who leads a 1000-member church?  No, it cannot be that.  Such a posture of jealousy would mock the grace God has blessed me to receive. 

I want to live in constant gratitude, aware that my life is full of grace.  And aware of that, I want to compete hard in all the roles I fill, so that my 1 talent becomes 2, and then 2 becomes 4, and so on.  For me this approach to discipleship is challenging, satisfying, and joy-producing.  Moreover, it lands me in the middle of God’s work in the world.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Messiah in the Old Testament (W. Kaiser) – Psalm 110, 2, 118

            Kaiser quotes J. Barton Payne as writing that the Psalms are “The greatest single block of predictive matter concerning the Savior to be found anywhere in the OT.”[i]  In The Messiah in the Old Testament, Kaiser devotes two chapters to review the so called messianic Psalms.  I prefer anticipatory to Payne’s predictive.  I think the writers, singers, and preservers of the Psalms were people with dynamic relationships with God.  They expected God to act and reacted when they believed God was not acting quickly enough or in the way they thought God should act.  But I don’t think they were predicting in the sense that I predict the Lions will beat the Packers this weekend (a guy can dream). 
            Jesus directly quotes Psalm 110:1 in Matthew 22:44.  The legal experts had been trying to trap him with rhetorical games and he turns the tables on them.  If Psalm 110 is of David and is about the Messiah, and if David calls the Messiah ‘My Lord,’ then how can they say the Messiah came from David?  A father does not call his son “My Lord.”  The Pharisees knew this and knew Jesus had exposed a hole in their messianism – a hole that had been there all along.  Matthew writes, “No one was able to answer” (22:46). 
            So Matthew took Psalm 110 to be Messianic, but what about the original Psalmist, presumably David?  Kaiser points out 4 characteristics of Messiah that come from the Psalm.[ii] 
(1)   The messiah is a priest.
(2)  The messiah is anointed by God.
(3)  The messiah is an eternal officer holder (“priest forever” – 110:4).
(4) The messiah is pre-Aaron, and is in the order of Melchizedek.

Psalm 2 serves to warn the kings of the earth that nothing can thwart the success of God’s anointed.  God laughs at the schemes of the kings (v.4) and tells them their best course of action is to fear the Lord (v. 11) and reverse his anointed one (Messiah) (v.12).  Verse 12 literally says they are to “kiss his feet.”  Could we imagine today’s world leaders, a Vladimir Putin or a Kim Jong Un willingly kissing Messiah’s feet?  This Psalm clearly establishes God’s might and God’s favor given to the Messiah. 

Psalm 118 does not initially strike a messianic tone, but it is probably a Psalm of David[iii] and it clearly sets out the singer’s confidence in the face of his foes.  He believes that in spite of his struggles and sufferings, the Lord is his salvation (118:14). 
The key verse of this Psalm is 22 in terms of a messianic link.  The three synoptic Gospel writers have Jesus quote this specific verse in making the case that he is God’s anointed.[iv]  David is the “rejected stone” that became the capstone, as his own father Jesse did not find him suitable.[v]  In quoting the verse and relating himself to both the Psalm and to David’s experience, Jesus saw himself as stepping into that role.  Jesus, in the crucifixion, would be the rejected one that became the cornerstone.  At the heart of the Christian faith is the idea that Jesus is the foundation of our lives and the cornerstone for each of us.  All that we do is dependent upon who we are in Christ.
Thus in these three Psalms, we grow in our understanding of Jesus.  As I said, I am not convinced the Psalmists knew they were singing about Jesus.  They were singing about God and what God was doing and would do in the future.  Jesus came and supremely filled the roles the Psalmists described.  They knew God would act.  Jesus showed in specific terms what God did.  In the way Jesus became the Melchizedekian priest (Psalm 110), the king before whom all kings must bow (Psalm 2), and the cornerstone (Psalm 118), those roles would never again be filled by anyone else.  Indeed, they never could be as Jesus’ fulfillment is the ultimate fulfillment.
While I will not review every Psalm Kaiser analyzes, what I have shared here and what I will I share in the next post will suffice to show that there is a messianic thread that runs throughout the Psalms.  The Psalm are for worship, the Psalms reveal a dynamic relationship with God, and the Psalms have an eschatological thread that ties together the Messiah with an end-times judgment. 

[i] Kaiser, p.92.
[ii] Kaiser, p.95.
[iii] Kaiser, p.100.
[iv] Matthew 21:42-45; 23:39; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17.
[v] Kaiser, p. 101, 1 Samuel 16:11.