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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

2nd Sunday of Lent

The View from the Cross (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)
2nd Sunday of Lent

            A few years ago I heard a preacher say in a sermon, “I know only Jesus Christ and him crucified.  That’s all I preach.”  I heard that and I thought, “Gosh, that’s pretty limited.  There is a lot more to say than that, important as that is.”  Then, in recent weeks, Heather and I were going through the Bible passages for Lent.  She said with enthusiasm, “You should preach 1 Corinthians 2, ‘I know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’” 
            Here it was again.  Why was she was she so jazzed up about this verse?  For that matter, why did Paul write this?  He certainly knows a lot more than just the story of the cross.  In 1st Corinthians, he talks about marriage and celibacy.  He writes the most expressive New Testament passage on spiritual gifts.  He writes the brilliantly eloquent “love chapter.”  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  He writes one of the most definitive descriptions of resurrection.
            “I know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified.”  Why throw out this statement when it appears not accurate?
            To understand, I pose a personal question.  What does the cross mean to you and to me?  My sense is that when most Christians think about and talk about the cross of Jesus Christ, they think in terms of what they get out of it. 
            It goes like this.  I know I am a sinner.  I know my sin cuts me off from God.  I want to be with God in relationship.  I want to be assured I won’t be eternally punished by God for my sins.  Jesus died on the cross as a covering for sins.  So, in my mind and heart, I give my worship and my allegiance to Jesus.  I receive the forgiveness he offers and I acknowledge him as my Lord and Savior.  Now I know my sins are forgiven.  Now I am not cut off from God but rather am adopted as God’s child. 
            I hear Christianity summarized in various ways but the key components are always what I have laid out briefly here.  The cross means I am defined as a Christian and more importantly, it means I go to Heaven when I die. 
            What I have said is very reassuring.  It gives Christians hope.  It comforts us as we think about people we dearly love who have already died.  “Cross = blessed afterlife;” it is true and it is good.  We should not let go of this.  But I think we totally misunderstand Paul’s writing if we think this is all there is regarding the cross and what Jesus accomplished on it.
            We think about the effects of the cross, the results.  More specifically, we focus on what we think are the results for us.  But, in actuality, what I have talked about thus far involves results at some unknown time.  I just turned 43.  If I live to be 80, I have 37 more years before the death of Jesus on the cross has any real impact on my existence.  Between now and then I can live in hope.  But, does Jesus Christ crucified mean anything to me today, right now?  Or to you?
            I encourage us to shift in our understanding of what the cross means.  Yes, Jesus made a way for us and part of how he did this involves his sacrificial death on the cross. However, his action there is more than just a path-creating mechanism.  When we “know Jesus and him crucified” then the crucifixion becomes a transforming event.  We enter Christ and he enters us and that joining makes us entirely new creations.  We are transformed from the inside out.  So, everything that is true in our lives changes because we are not who we were before we knew Jesus. 
            Kenneth Keathley writes “union with Christ is the core truth of salvation” (A Theology for the Church, p.687).  United with Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection become ours.  In citing the gospels, the book of Hebrews, and 1st Peter, all New Testament writings from other authors, not Paul, theologian James McClendon writes, “the resurrection and the cross constitute” the essential New Testament proclamation (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.198).  Everything we say about Christian faith stands on the truth that Jesus was crucified, his death accomplished our salvation, and he rose from death.  Everything we think and do in terms of living the Christian life is dependent on the truth of the crucifixion and resurrection.  To be Christian is to be in union with Jesus and to be in union with him is to share his cross.
            “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.”  Paul doesn’t mean other topics won’t come up in his speech.   Other topics must arise.  The Corinthian church had numerous problems and he had to address them specifically.  He did so, from the cross.  We have 1000 questions.  How do I as a Christ-follower spend my money?  Whom should I marry?  Should I get married?  What’s the best way to raise my kids?  What career should I pursue?  How do I handle conflict?  All these questions are relevant and Christianity should help us with them.  We answer them all from the cross.
The crucifixion of Jesus determines how Paul will see all other things.  The cross shows us how to see the world and act in the world.  It is in this sense that religion professor Alexandra Brown says that Paul’s “Word of the cross is an active agent of God” (“Apocalyptic Transformation in Paul’s discourse” in Word and World, Fall 1996, p.432).
Simply put, Jesus was fully God, and at the same time fully human.  As a man, he did what no humans did.  He lived a sinless life.  In his life, he claimed to be Israel’s true king and Messiah, and he claimed that his kingdom was the supreme authority for all people everywhere.  Political leaders in Jerusalem reacted to the claims of Jesus.  He was arrested, questioned, flogged, questioned some more, and then sent to the Roman cross. 
The cross was meant to humiliate those who were nailed to it.  They would be crucified naked, hung high for all to see.  They were taunted by soldiers and by people passing by.  They died slowly.  Sun-burn, wind-burn, exhaustion, and ultimately suffocation (when their legs were broken) were all the things piled on top of the pain of hanging by your hands and ankles being nailed.  The cross was intended to dehumanize the victim and magnify the power of Rome.
Jesus could have summoned 12,000 angels to wipe out Rome in an instant.  He did not do that.  He looked to Heaven and embraced the cross, awful as it was, so that your sins and my sins and the sins of all people would be washed away forever.  He went willingly and God used the shame of the cross the show the world the power of His love for us. 
To know the cross as Paul writes in 1st Corinthians 2 is to commit ourselves to sacrificial living.  George Whitefield, one the Great Awakening revival preachers of the 18th century, described Paul as swallowed up in his knowledge of the crucifixion.  Seeing the world from the viewpoint of the cross became for Paul the governing principle for his life.  This requires an intentional effort.  According to Whitefield our whole lives become “one continuous sacrifice; … whether we eat or drink, whether we pray to God, to do anything [with other people], it must all be done out of a love for, and knowledge of him who died and rose again, to render all, even our most ordinary deeds, acceptable in the sight of God” (selected sermons of George Whitefield – Christian Classics Ethereal Library).  When I know the cross, I give of myself as Jesus gave of himself.
To know Jesus Christ crucified is to be aligned with the downtrodden and unimpressive people around us.  From 1st Corinthians 1: “Consider your own call, brothers.  Not many of you were wise by human standards, not many powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (v.26-29). 
Jesus, and we along with him, see the poorest of the poor, the downtrodden of the world, and identify ourselves with them.  Paul is at pains to point out that no one is great before God no matter how great he or she may appear in comparison to other people.  Thus from the cross we see life with humble eyes and we are driven to live humbly.  When I see with the eyes of Jesus and him crucified, I place myself among the people the world would see as nothing.
To know Jesus and know the cross is to live by the Spirit.  “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom,” the apostle says, “but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (vs. 4-5).  As we have seen the cross leads to living with a bent toward self-sacrifice and identifying ourselves with the needy and living in solidarity with the poor.  This takes us out of the mainstream of thought.  The cross is an unconventional approach to life.  “Foolishness,” the Bible says.  Alexandra Brown writes that the Holy Spirit helps us live as we find ourselves out of the mainstream of human thought.  We don’t hold the popularly held attitudes of our day.  To be in Christ is to be different.  But, the Spirit now functions to “re-orient the destabilized hearer.  It is as if the Spirit rushes in like a wind to fill the void left by the destruction of the old world” (Brown, p.434).  When I see from the cross, then, I find myself living in complete dependence on the Holy Spirit.
It is not always easy.  The Holy Spirit is not some force controlled by a Jedi Knight or Binny Hinn.  The Holy Spirit is personal manifestation of the living God like the Father and the Son.  The Spirit works on the Spirit’s agenda.  To know Christ crucified is to submit ourselves completely to the Spirit’s agenda.
So then, because of the cross, we give of ourselves; we live sacrificially.  Because of the cross, we align ourselves with the poor and we reject what the world considers great.  Because of the cross, we live in dependence on the Spirit and at the pleasure of the Spirit.  To know only this – Jesus Christ and him crucified – is to see everything in life from the view of the cross.
Our Lenten spiritual practice is to know.  Thus far in Lent we have listed the following practices or disciplines: (1) We acknowledge the impact of sin on the world.  (2) We confess our individual sins.  (3) We receive the grace of God.
Today, a fourth discipline or practice I commend to the church is knowing what Paul knew when he wrote 1st Corinthians.  A first step is to know the story.  Read one of the four gospels a couple of times to get the story into your mind.
Next, meditate why Jesus accepted crucifixion.  “For God so loved the world,” it says in John 3:16.  Prayerfully contemplate the love of God that expresses itself in the cross.
Having gotten into the stories so that we know the facts and having prayerfully meditated upon the love that drove Jesus to the cross, then comes the third and most involved part of our “knowing Christ and him crucified,” as Paul did. We know imaginatively. 
To fully see the view from the cross is to love the world even as the world rejects you.  Where are the places that God is inviting you to live in this deep, sacrificial love?  It is not a matter of trying to become Christ.  Only Jesus can die for the sins of others.  We appreciate what Jesus has done and to the point that we are so dramatically shaken that our lives are irreversibly altered and we cannot go back.  Where does the sacrificial love of Jesus come to life in your life? 
A Lenten challenge that can only be met when we see from the cross of Christ is for each of us to identify someone who needs us to show God’s love.  It could be a Christian or a nonbeliever.  It could be someone familiar or a stranger; rich or poor.  The key is once we’ve identified the person we then, in the power of the Spirit go beyond whatever limits we thought we’d never exceed in extending Jesus’ love.  Essentially, we say, “I’ll go this far and no farther.”  Then, we are moved to look from the cross and in doing that, we find ourselves going beyond the limit because Jesus is leading us.
In that moment and in that relationship, we know more fully what it is to see all things from the cross.  Then it is obvious that we know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

Monday, February 25, 2013

From An Adoptive Father of a Russian Boy

I am completely aware of my own bias.  I am a father of three children whom I love deeply.  I do not play golf because it would mean time away from my kids.  My wife and I have decided not to have cable TV because we want to engage our children, not park them in front of the TV.  Sometimes my little lovelies get on my last nerve.  When my favorite football team is on and I can't see it because we don't have ESPN, I get pretty cranky.  But, we have happily chosen this life because we love, love, love our children.

All our children are adopted.  The oldest, a Russian boy, is now 10 and will be 11 soon.  The middle, a 6-year-old Ethiopian boy and the youngest a 3-year-old Ethiopian girl.  My wife and I are white Americans.  We are a pretty colorful family.  

When we got into adoption, I am sure there was some "savior-complex," if not for my wife, then definitely in me (just a little bit).  We read Matthew 25:40, and we are ready to do for "the least of these."  We're going to "rescue" an orphan and give him a good life.  I am sure those thoughts exist in the mind of many adoptive parents.  But, those thoughts dissipate quickly as it becomes the work of parenting.  Take away the lack of genetic connection, and parenting adopted kids is not different than parenting children that are yours naturally.  And parenting is one of the hardest jobs there is.

What cannot be taken away is the experiences adopted children had before they came into the families that adopt them.  In the case of my son from Russia, something happened that put in him anger - raging anger.  I won't go into details for several reasons.  He's made great strides.  We have had all kinds of professional help and he has overcome a lot.  I'd rather focus on his successes.  More importantly, it is his story to tell.  He is now at an age where he should have the right to determine what others know about him.

One indicator of his progress is that life is now easier with him and two other kids than it was when in the first two years he was with us.  I don't think that is because he's Russian.  I think in Russia there are people who are some of the best parents in the world.  I think that is true in most countries.  I think there are also some people who are awful to their children.  That also is true in most countries.  What I do think happens in situations where poverty is wide spread, like in Russia, is the social systems in place to take care of orphans are overworked.

The reason Russia allows affluent foreigners to come and adopt their children is they have more orphans than they can handle.  In the case of my son, he had 4 workers in the orphanage in his age group.  Those 4 worked in shifts, not all there at the same time.  And there were 16 children.  The workers did not have time to cuddle and coo and hold the babies and take the time needed to teach walking and talking.  What's even sadder is those workers did not have the time to teach the children how to be held.

When we adopted our son at 3 1/2, his body was as ridged as a board when he was picked up.  A child used to being held wraps his arms around you and his legs too.  The position of being held is natural because he's experienced it from birth.  Our boy had to learn that at 42 months of age.  He spent three years learning that when you cry in bed at night, no one comes, and you get punished if you get out of your bed before it is permitted.  He was perfectly comfortable sleeping in urine-soaked sheets.  He was scared to death to leave his bed once placed in it at night.  

This is but a sampling of what was in him: pain, confusion, rage.  And the people who were trying to love him out of this (my wife and me) were strangers who spoke a language he had never heard and took him to a place he did not know.  His case is pretty typical of kids adopted from Russia, Moldova, Romania, and Kazakhstan.  These kids come with a lot of baggage and it adds to the challenge of parenting them.  Again, without going into too much detail, the first two years with our boy were the hardest two years of my life.  And it has not been a cakewalk since then either.     

Please don't misinterpret what I am saying.  I do not condone the awful things that have happened to some of the Russian children who have been adopted.  When I read about that woman a few years ago who put her adopted child on a plane and sent him back to Russia, I was furious.  I am sure life was impossibly hard for her.  It was probably 10 times harder than what we experienced with our son.  But that's parenting.  If she had given birth to a child with a bipolar disorder or a child with schizophrenia, she couldn't send him back!  Parenting is hard and much harder for some parents than others.  When she sent that kid back, I was furious because she made it that much harder for others who want to adopt from Russia.  

Stories like ours don't make the paper.  Our son has graduated out of speech therapy and out of occupational therapy.  He no longer qualifies for an I.E.P. in school.  His reading and math skills are too good to qualify for special help.  He's right in the mainstream.  And that's true on his soccer team.  And it is true in his dance class.  When it comes to art (sketching) and construction (Legos) he is way beyond his peers.  Other kids in the neighborhood call him over when they have Lego emergencies and he gets them through it, finishing the construction for them if need be.  

Recently in Gardendale, Texas, an boy died, a boy adopted from Russia by an American family.  Konstantin Dolgov, the Russian foreign ministry's special representative for human rights said, "I would like to call your attention to another case of inhuman abuse of a Russian child by U.S. adoptive parents" (  If the investigation proves that this child died because of abuse from his adoptive parents, then they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.  That's murder and they should spend the rest of their lives in prison.  

But please, Mr. Dolgov, if you are going to speak to the press about this and other abuse stories, could you grant this adoptive father a small request.  Could you spend the next 10 years of your life telling the stories of American families who have loved their Russian children?  Would you please come to my house and take a long look at the huge picture of St. Basil's cathedral we have over our son's bed.  Maybe as you visit you could enjoy some Russian tea which my wife occasionally makes.  You and I could sit and discuss Russian authors - Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn are my favorites.  My wife and just tonight began reading Father Sergius together.  Maybe, Mr. Dolgov, you prefer Turgenev or Asimov or Chekov.  While you are here, ask my son how we portray Russia to him.  He will tell you, I hope, that we encourage him to be proud of his heritage.  We want him to love the fact that he is Russian.  

Is that not a good thing, Mr. Dolgov?  Mr. Putin?  The Duma's action in late 2012 of cutting off adoptions of Russian children by American families is pathetically political.  What could be more hideous than using children as fodder in a propaganda war?  Most families I know that have adopted Russian children are like us.  They dearly love their children and they teach their children to love being Russian.  So, if 1000's of families take that approach, then, you have 1000's of young kids growing up in America who have pride about being Russian and love for that country.  

Cut that off as was done and is the current state of things, and what do you have?  First, you, Russia, have an orphan problem that is not getting solved.  Your homeless population will rise once this generation of orphans age out of the system and end up on the streets, addicted to drugs, and victims of the sex-slave industry.  Second, you have a nation, America, which instead of developing a deep love for Russia instead sees the Russian government as petty.  Where there was the potential for deepening of positive relationships, there is now growing distrust and childish rivalries.  O, you criticized us for human rights violations.  We'll show you!  You can't adopt our kids any more.  Are the people elected to the Duma a bunch of 10-year-olds?  Can't they see that the ones being hurt are the children in the orphanages?  

Of course they know that.  They just don't care at all.  If those kids can be used to strike a humiliating blow at America, then they'll be used in that way.  The value of those children is in what they can do for Russian national pride.  The lives of children already forsaken by their birth parents are now devalued even more.  The leaders in the Duma will without conscience use the children to save face.  

You know who does care?  The orphanage workers in Russia care.  Their hearts and backs are broken.  Some of those workers, mostly women, deeply love the children.  I know one did when we brought out boy home.  We showed him the pictures of the ladies we took before we left.  He always looked at one and touched it slowly.  "Vaya."  This was back when he was barely talking at all.  He didn't know many words in English or Russian, but he knew her name.  "Vaya."  It was obvious in how he said and how he looked at her.  Vaya loved my son before I did.  Vaya cares about these children and she knows they need homes.  And she knows her own country just cut off an enormous source of potential parents.

And those American parents who want to adopt, what about them?  They'll be fine.  The ones who can afford it will go to Kazakhstan or Ukraine.  The ones who can take off from work will go to Kenya or Malawi or Uganda.  The ones willing to risk the process will go to Honduras or Guatemala.  The ones willing to wait will go to China.  And the rest, the (now) majority will go to Ethiopia.  If now, there are plenty of children right here in America who need to be adopted.  One of my best friends in the U.S. has three adopted children from America.  My brother is in the process of adopting two from right here.

Of all the political actions I know of, the decision by the Russians to cut off Americans from adopting Russian orphans is the stupidest.  I love Russia.  I love the art.  I love the literature.  I love the pride and strength of that great nation.  I love the food.  The best fish dish I have ever had in my life I had at the hotel in Pskov on our two trips there.  I am sad for a country so great to be ruled by leaders who are so selfish and short-sighted.  

The evil ones are the Americans who adopt and then hurt the children they've adopted.  The victims are the children who will not be adopted.  What comes next?  I don't know.  But I wish I could get Mr. Dolgov and Mr. Putin to meet me at a hotel in Pskov.  I'd arrange for Vaya to be there.  And I would bring my boy.  Maybe the five could hash this out over a meal of the best fish you'll ever eat.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

First Sunday of Lent, 2013

Letting God Work (Romans 3:21-26)

Igor, what are you working on there?  Bring that up here.

(Preplanned: my son Igor brings up on the platform a Lego house he has built.  He hands it to me and I look at it. And then I begin the Sermon.)

            This is a good Lego house.  For at least three years now, Igor’s abilities in Lego-construction have far surpassed my own. 

Imagine this house represents a human being, maybe you.   Imagine a human created in the image of God – not perfect, but good, very, very good.  You and I are God’s image-bearers. 

            This week in our Ash Wednesday service, we were invited to take up the Spiritual practices of confession and acknowledgement.  We confess that we, God’s image-bearers, have sinned.  We are sinners.  And we acknowledge that sin has a destructive impact on us and on humanity.  Sin pollutes God’s good creation and there is nothing you or I can do to overcome it.  Sin is more powerful than we are.

            Romans 3:23 says, “All have sinned” (throw Igor’s Lego house into the air), “and fall short of the glory of God.”  All we who are God’s image bearers are nothing more than smashed Lego houses, pathetically small pieces of plastic scattered about without purpose.

            (It is important at this point that Igor shows no emotional reaction.  He simply begins putting the house back together.  His only focus is reconstructing the house.  It is as if no one else is present.)

            All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.  This belief about sin is fundamental to the entire Jesus story.  God became human because humans, in their sins, were and are cut-off from God.  God detests evil.  God wipes out that which rebels against Him.  Our sins put us in rebellion against God.  We are thus in the direct path of God’s fierce wrath.  In Genesis the story of Sodom and Gomorrah depicts how God feels about sin.  Those cities were full of perverted people and corrupt practices.  God annihilated both cities in avalanche of consuming flames.  That picture of God’s wrath is also a predictor of the fate of anyone who sins.  We all sin.

            On Ash Wednesday we heard two things. First our grand spiritual goal is to live in relationship with God.  Second, Sin makes the achievement of our goal impossible. 

            The good news is Jesus came to take care of sin.  So, we were invited and I invited every one this morning to spend time in prayer contemplating sin.  Think about your own specific sins.  And think about the way sin, in the big picture of your life and the even bigger picture of human history, has distorted the beautiful relationship God wants with each one of us. 

            How you specifically enter this spiritual practice of confession & acknowledgement will surely differ from how your neighbor does it.  Maybe you write down mistakes you’ve made, thing you’ve done that fill you with shame.  Then, you remember your forgiveness and you light the piece paper and burn it up, knowing you are forgiven. 

            Maybe, thinking big picture, you read a book about the holocaust.  That could be a Lenten discipline.  You read and you pray as your read.  The reading is informative, filling your mind with knowledge of a very dark chapter of human history, but it also is a call to prayer.  You ask the Holy Spirit of God to be at work in the world, healing and redeeming. 

            The spiritual practice of confession of sin and acknowledgement of the sin problem can take many forms.   My prayer is this work of confession and acknowledgement will enter our minds and our hearts and our daily thinking throughout Lent.  In raising our consciousness of sin, we become intensely aware of our need for Jesus. 

            Our spiritual goal is to be in relationship with Jesus – a relationship that is present and real and felt and even tangible in every part of our lives.  A new understanding of relationship with God: that’s the Lenten program at HillSong in 2013. 

            A goal within that goal is to shed the sin.  We talked about confessing and acknowledging on Wednesday and I hope you find in the rhythms of your life an intentional process of prayer in which you confess and acknowledge.  I strongly encourage you to do this throughout Lent.  But it can’t stop there.  That would not be good news – ending the story saying, “Yep, we’re sinners, cut off from God.”

            We want to be cleared.  The problem is we can’t.  We cannot on our own power erase our sins or the damages of sin.  We cannot make up for sin.  We cannot do away with it.  We cannot make amends that will make it all better.  And worst of all, we cannot stop sinning.  We want to, but we don’t have the power.  Paul says, “I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.  I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:14b-15).  Sin gets in the way.  We long to walk with God, but we look at our lives and see pain and mistakes repeated and hurt.  It is not good.

            For the goal of relationship with God to be realized, sin has to be removed.  Thus innocence is a spiritual goal.  Every one of us needs to be able to stand before God and be declared innocent of sin and cleared of all sin’s damages.

            This is where Jesus goes to work.  In re-creating us so that we become new creations, sons and daughters of God, Jesus has clean-up work to do.  In Romans 3, Paul illustrates this through three metaphors.  His writing here, thanks to the influence of people like Martin Luther and John Calvin, is at the very core of what we believe as Christ-followers.  For the most part, we aren’t even aware of how much Luther’s thought was shaped by Augustine and Augustine’s thought was formed in his reading of Paul and specifically Romans.

            I say that just to point out that the metaphors in Romans 3 are extremely helpful in showing what Jesus has done.  But the story is not the terminology.  The story is Jesus at work making a way for us sinners to be declared innocent of sin and free of sin.  The real spiritual work is accomplished by Jesus.  Paul’s metaphors illustrate something Jesus is getting done.  McClendon, a theologian I referred to on Ash Wednesday describes Paul’s use of metaphor.  “Metaphors are not the furniture of some fairyland of unreal or pretended existence; metaphor is not an alternative to true utterance or a way of avoiding the (literal) truth.  [Metaphor is] a native device for speaking the truth in as plain and helpful as way as can be” (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.216).

            Thus Paul offers a legal metaphor.  “Since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24).  Thousands of pages of ink have been spilled by some of the greatest thinkers in Christian history debating what ‘justification’ means.  I find value in the conversation, but for our purposes, striving after relationship with God, the key truth is that justification renders us innocent even though we are sinners.  In this courtroom metaphor, we stand trial, accused of sin.  God sees what Jesus has done on the cross for us, God looks at us, and declares, “Innocent.”  Remember all the awful things said about sin?  They’re all true.   But we are innocent because of Jesus.

            Paul also offers a crass economic metaphor.  We are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”  Redemption refers to slavery.  A slave is freed when his freedom, his manumission, is purchased.  We’ve already referred to Romans 7.  Slavery is the master and we are in chains forever.  But Jesus has crushed the cruel taskmaster.  Jesus has redeemed us.  We are slaves no more because what he has done. 

            We are innocent.  We are free.  The third metaphor is a worship metaphor.  We are “justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith” (3:24-25b).  I am severely limited in explaining this third metaphor.  For me personally, this sacrifice metaphor – the blood atonement – does not unveil truth in native speech in a “plain and helpful way,” to use McClendon’s terms.

            But it was very much in common vernacular when Paul wrote it.  In first century Rome, pagan worship involved shedding of animal blood to cover human sins.  In Jewish worship in the temple, the same thing happened.  There is a scene in the movie the Nativity, about the birth of Jesus.  Herod is in the temple and the priest says, “Transfer your sins to the animal.”  Herod leans over and touches his forehead to the cow’s head.  Then the cow is slaughtered.  Paul is saying that when Jesus’ blood was shed, that was the last blood sacrifice ever needed for the sins of all people of all time.  And his first century readers might be surprised by such an audacious claim.  They certainly understood it.

            Is there literally a courtroom where we stand accused and God sits at the judge’s bench?  Are we literally in chains on the auction block and Jesus comes along and buys our freedom?  Is Jesus literally the perfect blood sacrifice?  I am not even trying to answer these question and I am not Paul was either.  Paul was saying, we humans have this serious sin problem.  Jesus’ death on the cross eliminates it completely, forever.  We believe in him and what he did become effective for us.  Paul uses the legal, economic, and worship metaphors to point to Jesus, his death on the cross, and our status before God.  That which would prevent us from being sons and daughters of God is gone.  The path is clear.

            In the debates about what exactly justification means, one things is agreed upon.  Jesus is the one who accomplishes it, not us.  So what then do we do?  If the spiritual goal is innocence and the means of achieving that goal are entirely in Jesus’ hands and he’s already done it, where does that leave us? 

            A spiritual practice for us in Lent in 2013 is to receive.  Receive the grace God gives.  He’s working. We need to receive what he’s doing for us and giving to us.

            What I mentioned Wednesday related to sin, confess and acknowledge, sounded a bit less than specific.  It’s not a guided discipline like fasting every Wednesday throughout Lent.  Maybe fasting helps us acknowledge and confess, but I wasn’t suggesting fasting.  I was prescribing the work of acknowledging and confessing.  Now I am prescribing even more strongly the work of receiving, paradoxical as they may sound.  I had a brief conversation with someone this week.  She said she needed something more concrete.  I understand, but this is where each of us has to take responsibility in our personal Lenten practice. 

            To receive the grace God is giving in Jesus Christ sounds vague.  It is not vague.  It is abstract to an extent, and it might be general, but not vague.  Receiving demands that we slow down.  We take in less input, less stimuli.  We spend time in quiet and solitude joyfully contemplating that no matter what has happened or what will happen, we are innocent, free, and sin is covered forever.  Jesus has done this and is doing this for us and in us constantly. 

I find it helpful to walk and pray.  Prayer walking is a way to set ourselves to receive God’s grace.  Perhaps praying in the early morning, before the world is awake when all else is quiet will help us be quiet and hear from and receive from God.  Maybe in the middle of Lent a silent retreat is in order.  These are a few suggestions.  The key is recognizing that Jesus is the one working.  And God is at work.  As Paul says, “He justifies the one who has faith in Jesus” (3:26).  This is hard for highly successful, determined people to grasp.  It you have accomplished a lot in your life, you surely hear the faith story at church and think, ‘what do I have to do.’  What you and I have to do is quiet down and slow down and let God be at work in us, cleansing us, remaking us. 

(Call Igor up and hold up the repaired house).  In his hands, with Him working on us, we become the new creations God wants us to.  So, we are in Lent.  Find a way that works in your life that is affective for you, to slow down and quiet down.  Set yourself to receive what God is giving.  When it comes to sin, don’t strive to overcome it.  Rather we turn to God and in faith, let Him be about His work in our lives.


Mark Batterson's "Wild Goose Chase"

A Chase Worth Pursuing

Pastor Mark Batterson uses the imagery of the wilderness, the unpredictable, unsafe nature of nature to depict what it is like to follow God’s Holy Spirit.  Batterson writes both pastorally and ambitiously.  He has lived in great blessing, being filled with joy, when in his own life he has followed God’s lead and done so at cost to himself and his family.  When he has shown willingness to risk, he’s been blessed by God tremendously.  He wants that joy and richness of life for his readers.
The strength of his book is his call for people of the church to abandon their comfort zones and safety zones.  Christianity in America can be quite comfortable.  In some places, the church can be the location of social, political, and personal power.  It can be as much social gathering as it is body of Christ.  Batterson wants to see Christianity be dynamic – the unpredictable journey on which God knows the way but we do not. 

The high point along this line of thinking comes when Batterson writes, “When did we start believing that God wants to send us to safe places to do easy things?  God wants to send us to different places to do difficult things.  And if you chase the Wild Goose, he will lead you into the shadowlands where light and darkness clash” (p. 106).  Batterson continues, quoting a man who reaches out with the gospel to porn-addicts in Las Vegas, “I want to run a rescue shop within a yard of Hell.” 

Such a faith is daring, uncomfortable, and scary.  It only works if Batterson’s “Wild Goose” points us to the true Spirit of God.  Jesus laid out a future as unsettling as this for Peter when he re-commissioned the disciple after Peter had denied him.  Upon their reunion on the beach, Jesus re-established the fisherman and told him he would one day be led where he did not want to go (John 21:18).  In Batterson’s terminology, Jesus was setting Peter on a wild goose chase.

In this very good book, an extended sermon really, I find a few points to critique.  First, his imaginative depiction of Adam naming the animals (from Genesis) to me sounded kind of corny.  He supposes a literal first human who has the task of setting out over the entire earth to discover (without aid of microscope or scuba gear or mountain climbing equipment) all the animals on the earth and name them.  If he is going to read Genesis that literally, he has a problem because there are so many species, one man could not observe them all in 10 lifetimes.  I assume Batterson was striving for the “awe” factor, but I don’t think it worked. 

Second, he did that bit of creative writing in the midst of his description of time spent in the Galapagos Islands.  To me that seems like a trip many of his readers could never take.  Who has the time or money to go spend 10 days in the Galapagos?  Maybe it is cheaper than I imagine.  But I can’t believe that for the majority of his readers such a trip is even possible.

Third, he refers to his college preaching in a very small church.  Today he pastors a church of thousands.  His view of that experience is that it was to prepare him for “bigger” things (p.30).  He recommends giving your all in small things, which is excellent teaching.  But, those 12 people who received his preaching in that small church aren’t small to God.  Batterson is excited that now he gets to preach to 1000’s most of whom are young (it’s always sexier to preach to young people than to senior citizens), professional (it’s always more impressive to preach to “power-players”), and to do it in a power city like Washington DC.  But in God’s eyes, as Biblical stories attest over and over and over, the big church of sexy, young political staffer is no “bigger” than the church of 12 people.  His work now is not more important than it was when he was unknown and not yet an author. 

Pastors of small churches made up of people with blue-collar jobs who don’t take trips to the Galapagos are not less important than pastors of big-city mega churches.  They aren’t doing smaller work.  They are chasing the “Wild Goose.”  Batterson talks about the Wild Goose showing up in unexpected, wild places.  But most people live most of their lives in normal, everyday places.  Real faith is seen when we earnestly seek and see the Holy Spirit in normal places, in the mundane comings and goings of our lives.  The “Wild Goose” shows up there and those seemingly innocuous places become “thin places” and the normal becomes the transcendent. 
The instances from Wild Goose Chase I have critiqued and a few I have not lessen the force of an otherwise very good book.  That said, it is worth reading.  Batterson preaches well through his writing and more often than not I found myself saying “Amen,” as I read.  I appreciate his inspiring story-telling and even more, I appreciate his ambitious attempts to rile believers out of spiritual slumber.  Mark Batterson’s style is inviting and his intent is grounded in scripture. 
For an interesting analogy, for very optimistic, positive writing, and for an honest attempt at being true to the Spirit of the New Testament, I recommend Mark Batterson’s Wild Goose Chase.

Ash Wednesday, 2013

The Sin Problem (2 Corinthians 5:20-21)

             “Sin.”  What comes to mind?  Sin sounds dirty, filthy, unsavory; it is just bad. 

At the same time, darker parts of ourselves think of something enticing, alluring.  “Naughty,” comes to mind; naughty in a way that is immoral, but at the same time feel sensually pleasurable.  The forbidden fruit always looks good, even when it is known to be harmful.  Erotica; drugs; money acquired dishonestly; how many rationalizations can we come up with to make it sound like what we are doing or what we are thinking isn’t really sinful. 

Sin can be reactionary, a sharp word thrown like a poisonous dart.  We know the damage our words do, but still, we rationalize. 

I was forced.  He had it coming.  I am not normally like that.  If we ever doubt humanity’s ability to think creatively, all we need to do is ask someone to explain his clearly sinful behavior.  We don’t want darkness in us.  But it is in us.  Underneath the impatience, the foul language, the judgmental heart, lurking below the prejudice, the grudge-holding, the sloth, down deep, there is darkness in all of us.  We have a sin problem. 

The worst effect of sin, and there are many ways sins injure and destroy us, but the worst is that sin cuts us off from God.  Justification is us – humanity and individual humans – declared innocent of sin before God because of what Jesus did on the cross.  We are justified because of Jesus and justification takes effect for each one of us when we put our faith in Him.  Before God we are innocent.  Jesus has accomplished this. 

Still, sin weakens our relationship with God and with one another.  Even after we are saved, sin continues to vie for mastery in our lives.  The more we fall under sin’s control, the less developed our relationship with God is, the farther it is from what it could be.  We slip away into waste places.  Relationship with God is not rich, not a daily present reality, not a source of abundant joy, not as full, not as deep as it could be; as it should be; as God wants it to be; as we need it to be. 

We name our sins.  But then what?

We sin.  We confess.  We are forgiven.  Repeat the cycle.  No!  Life in Christ is exciting, full of purpose and growth.  It is the life of joy God desires for us.  He longs for the fellowship he had with Adam and Eve before they brought sin into the world.  He wants that fellowship with us.  The issue is how do we get past our sins so that we have life in Christ growing in holiness and relationship with God instead of life under sin? 

Theologian James McClendon wrote, “Authentic knowledge of my sin, clear awareness that I am a sinner, comes only when and as I am saved from it” (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.122).  McClendon offers two categories which help us see sin beyond simply misdeeds, disobedience, and bad behavior.  He describes sin as refusal and as rupture.

“God is making all things new,” he writes.  And then he refers to 2nd Corinthians 5:17 which says that in Christ, there is a new creation.  Thus for McClendon, sin is whatever “opposes entry” into the new world Jesus creates (130).  We refuse to receive the new life he offers, drink the new wine he produces.  We willfully resist becoming the new creations he desires to make of us. 

It’s not always that we intend to refuse God’s good.  We simply don’t seek it.  The implication is when we turn to things – relationships, possessions, professional success – for the satisfaction that only God can give, we are actually sinning.  This sounds extreme, but the reality of God is extreme.  We either live with God or we live under the evil of sin.  Even people who have confessed sin and expressed full belief in Jesus, his crucifixion and resurrection, in daily life settle for the world’s pleasures while neglecting God’s blessings.  We marginalize the place God has in our lives and thus reduce His impact while at the same maximizing our own vulnerability to sin’s devastating consequences for us. 

Sin as rupture is McClendon’s second category.  This is essentially social sin, a direct violation of Jesus’ second great command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Divorce; bigotry; verbal abuse; deceit; gossip; do we honestly need a list?  Again, this is not headline-making type stuff like terrorism or school shootings.  Here we are talking about everyday relationship failures that 21st century American culture considers normal in the course of human life. 

God is not happy with the state of affairs.  Disciples – and all who follow Jesus are disciples just as Peter, John and the rest were disciples – disciples are called into a body.  In his great prayer in the Gospel of John, chapter 17, Jesus asks that the same unity that exists in the trinity would exist in his followers (v.22-23).  The Apostle Paul says all Christ-followers are baptized into one-body (1 Corinthians 12:13).  To be Christian is to be unified with other Christians.  Yet, as Ron Sider points out in Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience the social ills that make the world a broken place exist in the lives of people in the church almost as frequently as they do in the lives of the unchurched.  Based on divorce rates, spousal abuse statistics, and a number of other categories, it would be hard to tell between two groups of people which was the church and which was a gathering of strangers in a restaurant.  How can the body of Christ show the world the way to the Kingdom of God when our own relationships are so broken?

Sin as refusal is a rejection of God’s blessings.  It is an unwillingness to trust God with our desires, our quest for happiness.  This lack of trust is a lack of love.  Sin as refusal is violation of what Jesus called the greatest command – to love the Lord our God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind. 

Sin as rupture is a clear violation of the second great command, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We treat people with contempt, not grace, and the world is marked by hatred and death.  We have a sin problem.

I propose, as a spiritual discipline or spiritual practice and I use the terms ‘discipline’ and ‘practice’ interchangeably, each one of us this Lent acknowledge our sin problem.  This will include individuals making confession.  That is very important.  Write down specific sins.  Confess them and receive God’s forgiveness. 

Also meditate on the way sin rejects the vision Jesus has for the Kingdom of God.  Think prayerfully about Biblical characters: David; Peter; the Pharisees; Judas Iscariot.  In each case, how does sin invade the story God is writing?  In a big picture way of seeing things, how does sin distort the picture God wants to pain of your life?  This in and of itself is a discipline for each of us to practice over the next week.  Commit time for prayer and in your prayer, consider your life and all the ways your life is darkened by sin.  Sit before God, hands and heart toward Heaven, and acknowledge the sin problem.  Ask God to shine His light on the darkness that has invaded your soul.  This is important work for all of us.

Throughout Lent this year, we will set spiritual goals.  We will cite things God has done to make it possible for us to attain those goals.  And we will name spiritual practices we can do to positions our hearts so that we are ready to receive what God wants to give, which is blessing and hope and peace and life. 

Our overarching spiritual goal is a relationship of intimacy and love and communication with God in Jesus through the Holy Spirit.  This relationship can be at the heart of life – all arenas of life; every nook and cranny of your life and mine.  But sin refuses it and ruptures it. 

God though, is bigger than sin.  Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake, God made to be sin him who knew no sin” – Jesus – “so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus’ action on the cross deals with sin completely.  It as if as when he died, sin died.  Yet, sin dies slowly.  It holds on in our sinful choices.  That’s why Paul so urgently says, “We entreat you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (5:20).  He has made the way.  Jesus came so that believing in Him we can be adopted as sons and daughters of God. 

  He’s even taken care of the stumbling block – sin.  But we have a part to play.  Jesus has done it all in the sense that sin is rendered powerless.  Yet, we have to acknowledge that He is the one who conquers sin. We are slaves to sin.

That’s why I think the best place for us to start this Lent, our first spiritual practice, is confession.  Ask God to meet you where you are an utter failure.  Each one of us has that place.  This is not a time for you to hate yourself and envy the person next to you because you’re sure he has it all together.  He doesn’t.  This is a time to meet with the God who loves you in the place you least want to go; the place in our own hearts where we are powerless before sin.  God will meet us there with love we cannot imagine. 

That meeting is the starting point of us walking in the light and living in the relationship God wants with us.  There is some urgency.  Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 6, “Now is the favorable time.  Now is the day of salvation” (v.2). 

I don’t know if you normally practice disciplines; if you give something up for Lent.  This year, I am going to suggest some spiritual practices that if done in earnest will take us face to face with God.  We begin with sin problem because we can’t get past it until we acknowledge it.  Naming it with honesty that is undecorated and is invasively bold frees us to receive forgiveness and to invite God in to begin making us wholly new.  Now is the day of salvation because now is the day to begin living the Kingdom reality Jesus introduced.

Each week, we will continue suggesting spiritual practices designed to draw us closer and closer to God.  In Christ, your life and mine is made the righteousness of God.  The sin problem is covered.  We walk in light as God shines the light in us. 



Saturday, February 16, 2013

Stepping in the Messes I Make

I challenged our church to contemplate sin throughout this season of Lent, 2013.  This is a two-part effort. 

First, we ought to be aware of our own specific sins.  I was impatient with my wife.  I yelled at my kids.  I failed to love my neighbor when he needed it.  I harbored thoughts of revenge and violence.  I spent way too much time contemplating in detail impure thoughts that lingered in my mind.  I gave into greed and gluttony.  I neglected someone who needed help.  

All these sins committed in word and deed, and committed in thought and in the heart - I must name them, confess them, and turn from them.  And my confessing must include receiving - receiving God's forgiveness.

Second, after confession, my contemplation of sin goes to a bigger picture perspective.  Because of the fall, children starve to death in Addis Ababa and in Appalachia.  

Because of the fall, men live in emotionally-void marriages.  To seek comfort, they go and pay for sex with women they don't know.  These women are often 16 or 17 and completely enslaved by their pimps and their addictions.

The women married to the men who pay for sex with the teens who are enslaved to the pimps who are themselves addicts are also empty in the heart.  They find solace in on-line affairs in which they pour all their emotions.  Sometimes those on-line affairs turn into the physical affairs.  

Eventually the men and the women in this empty marriages turn to divorce lawyers who get rich and spend the big dollars on the women half their age they see when they are cheating on their wives.

All because of the fall.

Because of the fall, mentally deranged people shoot up schools, frustrated ex-cops hunt their former brothers-in-arms, and 15-year-old kids in America's toughest inner cities drop out of high school and kill each other with knives in gang wars.

All because of the fall.

The second part of "contemplation of sin," after confessing my own sins is what I have written here.  It is an honest coming to grips with what sin has wrought in the world.  It is thinking about sin and sin's devastating wake at a level much deeper than we normally do.

In this second part, I, Rob Tennant, acknowledge that I had my chance.  God invited me to the tree of knowledge of good and evil.  I could have passed the test Adam and Eve failed.  I am not sure lasted more than a minute.  I didn't even know what happened.  I was staring at the most incredible tree you've ever seen.  I was steeling myself to resist temptation.  I was determined to outdo even Elijah in righteousness.  I could see the chariot of fire waiting to take me.  And before I could blink, my mouth was full and fruity juice was dribbling down my chin.

There was sheer ecstasy for a moment.  Then I looked into God's eyes and saw pain you can't describe to someone unless they've seen.  Peter heard a cock crow and saw that same look in Jesus' eyes.  Then God was gone and I was in a pile reeking refuse, the smell of which would make you faint.  How did I come to stand knee-deep in filth?  I realized, I had spilled the garbage cart onto my self.  

If this sounds like a weak attempt to reproduce the brilliant image-laden writing of the greatest authors in Christian history, well, that's exactly what this is.  I admit I can't conjure up an image with the evocative voice of J. Edwards.  I can't lay it out in such a way that you are in it the way F. Craddock can.  But, the feeling underneath my feeble description is every bit as real.

I have been tired recently.  Why?  My kids wake before 5AM nearly every morning.  They are especially likely to be up 4-something AM if there is delayed opening at school or if it is a Saturday morning.  In addition to getting up that early, they always come in our room in the middle of the night.  

So, I am tired and cranky.  People suggest getting a clock and telling the kids to stay in bed until it says 6:30.  Or get a programmable clock that changes color - it goes from green to orange at 6:45.  And they can only get up when it is orange.  None of that stuff works with my guys.  I know there are superior parents who can easily get their children to go quietly to sleep at 8PM and stay in the bed until 7AM.  I know there are parents whose kids are potty-trained six months earlier than normal and reading on a 2nd grade level by age 5.  I know there are parents whose kids eat all their vegetables.  And those parents are so disciplined that if the kids don't eat what is served, they just don't eat.  And with TV drama-type precision the kids respond to this textbook discipline with obedience.  

I am not one of those parents and my kids don't respond that way.  My kids are all adopted.  Each one has a story prior coming into our lives.  Each story is full of pain, heartbreak, loss, and neglect.  When they wake up at 2AM or 4AM and they want to be with me, that's a gift!  They are giving me a gift.  They are saying, it is the middle of the night and it is dark and I am scared.  I have stuff in mind and I don't even know why it scares me.  I have memories of memories, a mom somewhere.  Something happened, and I ended up alone.  And all of it swims together through neural pathways in the grey lump in my skull.  And I wake up and I just want to be with someone safe.  And you, DAD, are who I want to be with.  

It's a gift.  And many times, I am so tried and cranky, I resent the gift and I reject the gift.

Because of the fall.  

As a I pastor, I work Sundays, so I take Fridays off.  This past Friday (two days after my own Ash-Wednesday preaching), I was home.  I thought it would be nice to sit and read a theology book comparing theories on justification.  I know that's a yawn-fest for many of you, but that's what I wanted to do.  

My (wake-up at 4AM) kids had other ideas.  They wanted Dad's attention. We shot baskets and went for walks and played video games and pushed swings and tickled.  Whew!  I could read my book.  Nope.  It wasn't enough.  If I gave two piggy-back rides they wanted three.  If I gave three hours, they wanted four.  

I got cranky.  I yelled.  I ignored them.

Because of the fall.  

I finally said, I'll just lay here (on the couch) and you two do what you want.  They slapped my head.  They climbed up and sat on my head.  They jumped over my stretched out legs (I swear my 6-year-old, the "Bam Bam Kid," is going to hyper-extend my knee one day).  If I tried to read, they would take my face in their hands, move it away from my book and to their eyes.  

I am so tired.  But, this is a gift - a gift from God.  My "tired" is a reminder that I am a Dad.  Nothing is a greater privilege than being a dad.  My "tired" is a reminder that I am a Dad with kids who want to be with me.  My "tired" is a reminder that the kids I have are not poor little orphans wasting away on the streets of a 3rd world country.  They were that.  But now, as Audio Adrenalin sings, my kids are "Kings and Queens."  My "tired," tiring as it is, is a gift from God and a reminder of how blessed I am.

The crankiness that comes when I am tired is sin trying to pour the contents of an overused, unflushed toilet all over the party-food.  The meanness that spills out of my crankiness that leads me to use words to make my little girl cry is evidence that sin is around.  

I really, really need Jesus.  Life is only good when He's in the center of everything.  I only invite Him to the center of my life when I realize how much I need him.  Too often, I don't remember I need him until I am standing in the middle of a mess of my own making.