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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

A Gay NBA Player

            I admire Jason Collins for being true to himself and publically acknowledging his orientation as a gay man.  Violent prejudice against homosexuality had led many young people who feel homosexual attraction to self-loathing.  This terribly is sad and unjust.  I add my own voice to chorus cheering Collins.   I hope it will open the way for others to be honest with themselves and with the world. 
            I am heterosexual.  I cannot understand homosexuality at all.  I don’t understand how a man can look at another man and have the physical and emotional attraction that I have felt all my mature life toward women and in the most intense expression toward my wife.  Nothing could be more foreign and inexplicable to me than homosexual attraction.
            And yet, as I write that, I am aware that people who feel same-sex attraction, probably find heterosexuality as foreign and unappealing and I find homosexuality.  A difference is the world affirms the heterosexual worldview and has trouble with the homosexual orientation.  There are people I love, my friends, who are gay.  Because of their sexual attraction, attractions they did not choose, they have to fit into a world not designed by them.  They have to find their place in a world where they are not always welcomed and often are abused because of who they are. 
            If I am truly a follower of Jesus, I am wounded by that.  It hurts to know someone is fired, denied, bullied, beaten, cussed out, relegated, rejected, and demonized.  Every person is made in God’s image – every one!  God sees every human with the love of a parent for a child.  God’s aches when God’s children are injured and homosexual people have been badly injured.
            I hope that Jason Collins’ statement will make the world safer for gay people.  I hope self-loathing becomes a thing of the past.  No one should hate himself.  When a person drips with disgust at herself, she cannot possibly receive the love of another.  She’s defined by hatred that becomes a filter through which she experiences the world.  I hope this man’s honesty and openness allows a generation freedom from self-hate.
            Equally, I hope people can speak their views honestly, without succumbing to pressure that tries to dictate their reaction when someone like Jason Collins shares what he has shared.  Here I am specifically thinking of ESPN writer Chris Broussard.  He writes about the NBA.  I hear him on the radio all the time.  He does fine work.  I was very interested in his response not to Collins, but to the issue in general.  Remember now, Broussard is voicing what he believes to be the right theology regarding an issue.  He is not speaking for or against Jason Collins.  Here is Broussard’s quote which I saw in the online version the Detroit Free Press (4/30/13).
            ““Personally I don’t believe that you can live an openly homosexual lifestyle or an openly premarital sex between heterosexuals,” Broussard said.  “If you’re openly living that type of lifestyle, the Bible says you know them by their fruits, it says that’s a sin. If you’re openly living in unrepentant sin, whatever it may be, not just homosexuality, adultery, fornication, premarital sex between heterosexuals, whatever it may be. I think that’s walking in open rebellion to God and to Jesus Christ. I would not characterize that person as a Christian because I don’t think the Bible would characterize them as a Christian” (
            It is an impressive theological articulation from someone who makes a living writing about basketball.  The strength of this writer’s statement is that he does not single out homosexuality in a prejudicial way.  He attempts to identify a Biblical sexual ethic and I think he does a fine job of it.  The overwhelming reaction to Collins’ announcement has been support.  Writers, players, executives, and voices from outside the NBA – the NFL, tennis and even the White House – have poured forth affirmation for Collins.  I sincerely hope Broussard is not brandished as an out-of-date bigot.  I hope he does not lose his job and is not himself demonized for stating his views, which he did with eloquence.
            He might.  He might be cast as intolerant or unaccepting.  That is unfair but it is reality.  ESPN, in an effort to stay with societal trends which currently flow toward full affirmation of homosexuality as a lifestyle choice, may fire him to avoid any backlash.  That would be as wrong as evil done to a homosexual but in today’s climate it is OK to silence Biblically-coated expressions of faith like the one Broussard made.
In my own assessment of his comments, I find that Broussard takes it farther than I do.  I agree that sexual encounters like adultery and heterosexual intercourse outside of marriage are outside of the Biblical paradigm.  The only models of sexuality the Bible endorses are heterosexual marriage and celibacy.  Anything outside of that is outside of God’s vision for humanity.  However, Broussard goes somewhere with that view that is beyond my own understanding.  He says he “would not characterize that person as a Christian” because the Bible doesn’t. 
I stop short of trying to identify who is and is not a Christian.  Other sin categories (greed, gluttony, and sloth) go mostly ignored.  People live in perpetual guilt of these, are unrepentant, and are defined as Christians.  Can someone be in a life-long, same sex partnership and be a Christ-follower?  I certainly think someone in that situation can earnestly seek Jesus.  In seeking Jesus, the individual must come to terms with his sexuality as he relates to Jesus as a sexual being. 
There is no area of life where Jesus is not Lord.  He is Lord of everything.  It is hard for me to imagine someone submitting fully to Jesus’ lordship and at the same time living in a relationship that is outside of God’s vision for humanity.  I know people who want Jesus and at the same time are openly gay.  I know their hearts.  Can someone live the gay life and be a Christ follower?  I am forced to leave the question open – for God to answer and not me.
My calling in Christ is to love people.  I hope my gay friends will read this and appreciate where I am coming from.  If you are my friend and you are gay, I love you.  You and are I not going to agree with one another’s views about every aspect of life, but let us have a friendship that is so honest and true we can stay in it even when we don’t agree.  As a pastor, reading scripture as I do, I can’t perform your union with your partner.  I believe to do so would put me in open defiance of God.  But I will love your partner because he is a part of you.  Maybe I am wrong about how God sees it.  I don’t think I am wrong, but I know my theology is not perfect, so I state it with humility.
I pray Jason Collins has made the world safer.  I commend him for his honesty and courage.  I also appreciate Chris Broussard.  He stated his faith clearly and without the intention to pass eternal judgment.  I pray for days in the future when these topics can be discussed in peace and love.  Jesus is the Prince of Peace and the giver of perfect love.  In that I try to emulate him though I fail often.  

Monday, April 29, 2013

Faith Discussions

Faith Conversations

            I have recently renewed my interested in questions of origins (origins of the universe, of life, of humanity).  Some Christians believe one can simply read Genesis 1-2 and end the conversation.  It’s there in black and white, and if we tally up the generations going back to day 1 (Genesis 1:5), we can age the earth at about 10,000 years.
            Not so fast, say those who study the universe.  Physics tells us the age of the universe is in the billions of years and so too is the age of the earth.  Biology tells us all life has evolved from simple life-forms to complex.  There was not, in actual history a single Adam and Eve, but what today we call humanity evolved from ancient primates that today would not be deemed humans.  The experts on evolution declare the science to be as solid as there is.  Adherents to this perspective can be quite dogmatic and become defensive if questioned.
            On the other hand, there are scientists including some biologists, just as qualified as the ardent evolution proponents, who gladly acknowledge micro-evolution (change over time within species).  However, studying evidence they’ve gathered and looking at probability, they deny the possibility that life could evolve from nonlife or pre-living cells, and they deny that they differentiate species have common ancestry.  And proponents in this camp are just as dogmatic as those who herald the truth of evolution.
            Some of the evolutionists are also committed Christ followers.  Recently I raised questions about evolution with someone I had just met.  She is a Christian and our introduction to each other was in a church context.  She became agitated and defensive at the thought that I would dare question evolution.  I wasn’t attacking her.  I was not even attacking evolution though I did assert that there are holes in the theory and that it doesn’t prove everything its champions claim. 
I tried to emphasize that not only am I not a scientist; I was actually very bad in science classes as a student.  I tried to reiterate that I was not in a camp.  I was not denying evolution, just asking challenging questions.  But two witnesses to the conversation agreed her reaction to my inquiry was surprisingly confrontational.  In fact, my point in the conversation was that this issue can polarize people needlessly.  Instead of hearing my point, she made it for me by rushing to defend a stance (evolution) instead of discussing an issue (origins) in a harmonious tone. 
Ironically, she and I are brother and sister in Christ.  Several months ago, I had the same conversation with someone who is happily open about his atheism.  He’s my neighbor and friend and is a Geneticist.  He knows I think God created everything (whether by evolution or other means).  He does not get mad if I pose challenging questions.  Our conversation was amicable.  Why is it I could have this talk, just a conversation, with a nonbeliever, but when the same topic came up with a fellow believer, there was uncomfortable tension?
Christians need to be able to show intelligence and Christlike love in dialogues on the topics of the day.  Whether we’re exchanging ideas on homosexuality, Muslim-Christian relations, or the intersection of faith and science, Christians have to be well-spoken on the topic and loving and inviting in tone.  How we conduct ourselves in the public sphere goes a long way to determining the effectiveness of our witness for Christ. 
Today, I pray for the woman who became so aggressive when I question evolution.  I pray God would bless here today and would also give her the grace to state her passionately held views with a voice of love.  I pray that she would be able to represent Jesus at the same time that she makes her stand for science.  And I pray that I would be ever vigilant to increase my own knowledge but more than that increase my own faith.  Finally, I pray that you, the reader, would today engage in impassioned conversations on subjects of great importance.  In those conversations, I pray your conversation partner would look into your eyes and see Jesus.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Revelation 7:9-10

God in New Faces (Revelation 7:9-17)
April 28, 2014

            I remember the moment.  It was my third year of seminary.  Along with friends in my class, I was thinking and praying about life after graduation.  We were training to be pastors, chaplains, missionaries.  Where would we end up?
            A good friend of mine constantly talked about God’s call on him to urban ministry.  When I heard “urban ministry,” I immediately thought, ‘inner city;’ ‘gangs;’ ‘crime;’ ‘crowds;’ ‘traffic jams.’  I couldn’t imagine what my buddy was thinking.  He would say, “Urban Ministry,” and I would incredulously respond, “Why?
I was sheltered, a suburban kid who grew up watching MTV and going to hang out at the Mall. Every movie you’ve seen of the 80’s depicts my era.  For me, going down town meant driving to the Roanoke Civic Center to see Ric Flair in a professional wrestling match.
But in seminary sheltered, play-it-safe me collided with God.  In God’s word I saw my own limitations.  By my third year, I knew God wanted me to preach every week and to lead a church.  I was in my 20’s, with limited experience.  Only a small church would call me as pastor, but that was fine as long as it was not in the backwoods or the inner city. 
I sat in the class room for that morning’s lecture.  I happened to be early, so looked at the open Bible on my desk.  Students were moving to their seats.  It was quiet.  Revelation 7:9: the words burrowed into me.
“There was a great multitude that no one could count from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.  They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” 
Every tribe and people and language; it hit me.  Fall 1995, I don’t have any friends who are not exactly like me – white, American, middle class, suburban.  That’s it.  That is my entire world. 
It blew me away.  Here John saw in heaven people from every language, tribe, and nation – all in Heaven praising Jesus.  I only knew one small subset of one tribe speaking one language in one nation.  My knowledge of the people of God was pathetically small.  That meant my knowledge of God was woefully impoverished.  How could I be a pastor and lead a church, knowing so little?  How could I even follow Jesus?
I had to do something, but what?  In those days, this was my life: (1) pass my classes; (2) give myself fully to the church where I was a youth pastor; and (3) mail my resume around in hopes that a church would consider calling me to be their pastor.  In those things, how would I develop real relationships with people who had different backgrounds than my own?  I could know God as I needed to until I knew more of God’s people.  So what could I do? 
There was just one answer.  I had to go to a church where there were more than just white people.  I needed diversity.  Where are there churches like that?  In the city.  With one reading of Revelation 7:9-10, I knew I had to go to an urban environment.  That is where I had to pastor. 
God knew it all along and I landed at Greenbrier Baptist in Arlington, Virginia, a very urban place.  I lived three miles from the Pentagon, and within a few minutes could ride the metro into downtown DC. 
I had been at that church about 1 month, when the Promise Keepers rally came to the Washington DC mall.  Five hundred thousand gathered to worship Jesus.  From our church we took a couple of guys who were refugees from Sudan.  They had been persecuted and forced from their country because they were Christians.  Like me, they had only been in DC about a month.  And we had about 10 guys from the Spanish congregation.  Two Africans, ten Latinos and two whites guys – my Dad and me. 
I was a pastor in Arlington for 9 years.  A congregation of Christian gypsies met in our building until a bomb threat ended that relationship.  There was no actual bomb, but the threat was enough.  It came by way of a phone call from other Gypsies who opposed the Christians in that community.  It came on the opening night of our Vacation Bible School.  The Gypsies weren’t scared of the threat, but our people were.  So the Gypsies had to go.
Another year, again the night of opening ceremonies for Vacation Bible School, a man addicted to drugs came into the building threatening to end his own life.  I quickly told the VBS leaders to carry on without me and I spent over an hour convincing him to allow me to drive him to the emergency room.
Another year, again the week of VBS, the house across the street from the church parking lot was raided by the police.  They bashed in the front door and tore the place up.  They were looking for the third son in the family, a muscular, high school wrestler.  He had gotten into a gang fight – two rival Hispanic gangs.  I didn’t even know the kid was in a gang.  He was active in our church.  But I learned that when he was not at church, he was with his gang.  Two places never saw him – school and home.  He ended up spending two years in prison before being deported to El Salvador, a place he had last lived at age 4. 
By the way, he is doing well now – has a beautiful daughter and is carving out a good life for himself.  Some of our Greenbrier friends have visited him in El Salvador.
I remember long conversations with a homeless Muslim who was originally from the African nation of Mauritania, and was one of the most delightfully happy men I have met. 
I learned not to judge others from a Pakistani man who led a congregation of Pakistani Christians that began meeting in our building in my final year at Greenbrier.  I received a copy of the Quran from a different Pakistani man who was visiting his children in America.  He spoke no English but would walk with me and wish my God’s blessings.  I do not believe it is the word of God, but I cherish the Quram he gave because it matter so much to him.  He wanted to share with me the very best gift he thought he could give.
In my search for God, by searching for people in different cultures, I met people of deep faith and people who would punch your lights out and sometimes they were the same person.
I was invited to do the ordination prayer at a service of the Charismatic Baptists of Ghana who had a congregation in Alexandria, VA.  They invited all the pastors of our association, more than 100 churches.  I was the only one to show up and was treated as an honored guest.
All those experiences came after I sat in my seminary classroom and happened to have a few minutes before class, and in those few minutes instead of arguing about basketball with a buddy like I normally would, I read Revelation 7:9.   Every tribe and people and language.  God told me to seek out those from tribes different than mine.    
To is April 28, 2013.  My wife’s vision is as wide-open as my own.  God brought into our lives three children who come from other places and we have this colorful family.  God has joined us with an amazing church full of people who deeply desire to take the gospel to the world even as the world comes to our church. 
Just with people her today, we could translate this sermon into Spanish, Portuguese, Karen, Chinese, and maybe French. 
Why does it matter?  From Revelation 7 (and also chapters 1, 5, 14, and 21), we see the expanse of the people of God.  This is the fullness of the image of God.  We need each other because it is through one another that God speaks to us.  We need this body to be multicultural so we can see and hear God.
It means we are all included.  In verse 14 the elder talking to John testifies that all whom he sees are there because they have washed in the blood of the Lamb, which means they have put their faith in Jesus and given their lives to Him.  When you and I acknowledge him as Lord, we are among that countless multitude. 
For that reason, we realize we don’t need to generally fear people.    Maybe because of the Boston Marathon story, one develops a prejudice against and fear of Chechens or against Muslims of central Asia.  The feared people group of the day!  But in Revelation we see Chechens.  There they are dressed in white robes, waving palm branches, singing praise to God. 
The white Southerner of 1800, a slave-owner and church goer, goes to Heaven where he meets the darkest skinned people he’s ever seen.  They are his brothers in Christ.  The slave who was kidnapped from his Central African home, survived the Hellish middle passage, and lived out his days as the property of cruel whites: he sees those who owned him, but they don’t own him anymore.  Once a slave, he is now a child of God.  He doesn’t need to fear.  He can forgive the evil.  The white man, freed of his own hatred, can receive the forgiveness he needs, and can truly live as God intended in brotherhood with all. 
The vision of Revelation 7 frees us to let go of all past prejudices and fears and to see every new person we come across as one Jesus died for.  We are included.  We have no fear.  All people who follow Jesus are with us, part of our family.  Those who do not follow Him are put in our path that we might love them in His name and with love, share the Gospel invite them to consider Him.  
We are included.
No more fear.
All in Christ are a part of us.
A few years ago, a Men’s Bible study group here at HillSong, which no longer meets, had committed to helping a refugee family.  They came with only the clothes on their backs.  We delivered furniture to their apartment.  We drove them for doctor’s appointments and job interviews.  Leonard did a of the work because he had time and God inspired Him to give his free time to help others.
It was challenge.  He did not speak Karen.  But, God finds ways past that challenge. 
Leonard was going to drop something off and trying to think about how he could explain.  He had not called because what good would it do?  So he just showed up and went to knock on the door.  There were more than a dozen people there.  From inside, he could hear a familiar tune which he immediately recognized as the doxology.  Only the words were in Karen.  They worshiped to the same music he knew for worship.  And he knew God was in that place. 
There is no better thing to know.  God is in this place. 
Where and in whom will you see God this week?  He is the one who shares the water of life.  We need more and more of Him and we get more and more of Him as we seek him out in different faces. Seek God this week in someone whom you previously would not have.  Meet God in a person that seems foreign to you.  Your knowledge of Him will grow, your worship songs will become richer, and you will learn love in new ways.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Hungry Teens, a Good Spirit

I think a youth pastor hopes the following things will happen when his or her church hosts an event that involves other churches.

(1) The youth pastor (YP) wants to see a lot churches bring a lot of kids.
- We are hosting 30-Hour Famine and one group who brought a bunch kids last year couldn't come this year; another which also brought a crowd last year dropped out at the last minute; and, two others brought less kids than they thought they would.

(2) The YP wants everything at the church to work.  
- Our video system, which we were counting on for three videos during the Friday night program, went out.  Not only was it not available, but the people who lead worship on Sundays are going to be mad and take it out on the youth leaders.

Not a great beginning and yet, it has been a great weekend thus far.  The kids are fasting to gain an understanding of hunger.  From Noon Friday to supper time on Saturday, the teenagers are going without eating.  Usually at a Friday night youth event there would be pizza and snacks.  Last night we had juice.  And our kids had a great spirit.

Our speakers did a wonderful job of being engaging.  They did not miss a beat when the video system went down.  They were interesting and kept the attention of the middle school and high school students.  One of the speakers, Tamara Baker, works for an important organization that you should check out - No Kid Hungry NC

The other speakers, Randy and Jon, both of First Baptist Hillsboro, were funny and fun and serious all at the same time.  Which is good because this entire weekend is all of that funny and fun (teenagers at church on a Friday night; this should be funny and fun); but we're gathered to pray for the hungry, raise money for the hungry, and appreciate the pain the hungry in the world have to deal with.  Jon shared how researching the experience of hungry people in Haiti changed him.  Randy, a pastor, shared how he was humbled on an experienced preaching in Cuba where his hosts, themselves extremely poor, served him their ration of food for a day.  He didn't realize they were completely giving their meal so he could be treated as a proper guest.  

These stories and others gripped the hearts of the kids from the three churches in attendance.  They were fully into all that was shared.  These teenagers took everything to heart.  They could be out partying, drinking, into self-absorbed, destructive happenings, but no.  They are at church, praying for hungry people.  Today, without having eaten, they will do service projects to help the church and the community.  

One other element that really made the night last night - the band.  Surrounding Jericho is really good  Please check them out and book them.  They have great hearts.  They love Jesus and they are talented.  

The 30-Hour Famine ( is a wonderful event and it thrills me when our church does it and does it with passion.  

We also appreciate Chik-Fil-A ( for helping us break the fast by giving us a great deal on food for the kids that we will enjoy this afternoon.  We pray for kids in Orange County and Chapel Hill, across North Carolina and around the world.  Many are not on a 30-hour fast as a youth event.  For many this hunger is a way of life and it affects all areas of life but especially growth and learning.  I hope you will respond to the still small voice of God that is speaking into your heart right now.  I hope you will get involved in fighting hunger wherever you live.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Revelation 5:6-14

The Worship of Jesus (Revelation 5:6-14)
Sunday, April 21, 2013

            In a vision, John is taken from his prison on Patmos Island into Heaven, into the throne room of God.  He sees a great throne occupied by one he cannot even describe except to say he resembles precious stones.  Jasper and carnelian are gems whose breathtaking beauty come to John’s mind as he looks on this throne and the God who occupies it. 
            The center throne is surrounded by 24 thrones where there are seated elders, in white robes.  Does John think of 12 tribes of Israel, 12 disciples who followed Jesus?  Twenty-four thrones. 
            There are strange things here, heavenly creatures likes those described by the prophet Ezekiel.  These beings are all-seeing.  One resembles an ox, one a lion, one a human, and an eagle.  What sort of place is this with a throne where the indescribable is seated and surrounded by lesser thrones and flying, living, all-seeing creatures? 
            It is place full of sound – songs John has never heard.  The living creatures sing and sing and sing – “Holy, holy, holy: the Lord God, the Almighty who was and is and is to com.”  On and on the song goes and it never grows old.  The music is joined by a choir, the 24 elders.  They cast off their crowns putting them at the feet of the one on the center throne and they sing to Him who lives forever.  “You are worthy our Lord and God to receive glory and honor and power” (4:11a-b).
            John sees all this.  He sees a scroll in the hand of the one on the center throne.  He knows the fate of the world is written on that scroll.  It just needs to be opened.  But no one is worthy to open it.   No one on earth, no one in the history of earth can open it.  Nothing matters more than what is on the scroll.  It must be read.  And no one can open it.  John weeps.  He looks around.  He is in Heaven and no one is able to open that scroll. 
The tears roll down his face.  He has suffered so much for Jesus’ name.  He has seen friends arrested. Families have fallen apart as the son follows Jesus and the father kicks the son out of the house.  Members of John’s church in Ephesus were stoned – bludgeoned to death by boulders because they would not bow to Caesar.  They were killed because they worshiped Jesus.  His story, Jesus’ word for the world is written on this scroll and no one can open it.  How has it come to this?  John falls, broken, shaking. 
One of the elders comes and lays a gentle hand on John’s sagging shoulder.  The man tenderly raises John to his feet.  “Do not weep.  The Lion of the tribe of Judah … can open the scroll” (Revelation 5:5).  Through bleary John looks up and remembers.  Yes, the Messiah, the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, the mighty one, the heavenly warrior; of course he can open it. 
But when John turns, he doesn’t see a mighty one at all.  “I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (v.6). 
We hear the experience of the visionary – the Christian named John, of 96 AD.  He was sent to exile because he refused to offer cult worship to Roman Emperor Domitian.  The emperor did not care if Christians had church and sang about Jesus.  But they were required to acknowledge and proclaim the divinity of the emperor.  Christians knew that Jesus and only Jesus is Lord.  To proclaim Jesus as Lord, they had to deny Domitian as Lord.  Denying Domitian brought on them the wrath of Rome.  In John’s case that meant hard labor in a penal colony.
There, he met the risen Jesus and was taken into Heaven in a vision – the one described in Revelation chapters 4-21.  I have been imagining the beginning, what we see in chapters 4 and 5.  In these chapters, we see that the best Christian response is worship.
Wait, response to what?  Response to tragedy?  The events at the Boston Marathon served as a rude reminder to our nation.  We were reminded of the horrors of the Newtown school shootings and the Aurora, CO theater shootings; and Virginia Tech; and Columbine; and many others.  We were reminded that a quiet Monday can be violated by the worst kind of news; reminded of 9-11.  We were reminded how fragile life is.  The disillusionment and fear casts a more destructive shadow than the precipitating event. 
How is worship an appropriate response to that? 
The man who received the Revelation lived in scarier times than we do.  He saw friends arrested and executed.  He was imprisoned as an enemy of the state.  He was powerless before the power of his day – Rome.  Every terror story we can recite from our times, John can match.  His response was to write about worship because worship reminds us all that there are powers in the universe that are greater than life and death.  There is God who not only overcomes death, but sees us, small as we are.  In the eyes of Rome, John a Jew in Ephesus, was small, insignificant; just one more political prisoner to be silenced.  But God saw him and was with him.  Yes, worship is one of our responses to the Boston Marathon bombings.  The only one who can bring order to the chaos and comfort to the pain is God.  Our response is to worship Him.
Worship is also a response to times of great joy.  A wedding of two Christians is a time of worship.  Graduation includes a baccalaureate and naming of the graduates in the Sunday morning worship service.  Whenever a new baby is born, the pastor visits and touches the baby and prays, and later the new parents bring the baby to church and the child is dedicated to the worship of God. 
Worship is the way to respond in times of spiritual confusion, frustration, or emptiness.  When we are filled with questions we come together and worship God.  When we are not so sure there is a God, we come together with the church and sing praises and pray together and baptize and commune.  Sorrow, horror, joy, confusion, boredom, anger, doubt – worship is the response to all these things.
Worship is not the only response.  We pray individually and with friends and mentors, silently and out loud.  We question, study, and seek.  We get advice and give it.  We work hard.  We wait.  We do many things.  We spend time doing nothing.  But we always worship. 
John shows us in Revelation that worship is constant and surprising.  He turned to see the Lion that was worthy before God and he saw a Lamb.  Jesus is both.  The raging Lion, roaring God’s power from the dawn of creation; this is Jesus. So too is the lamb, the man who would not fight back when ruffians came and beat him up and dragged him off in the night.  He told his disciples to put their swords away.  Willingly, he went to the cross and was slaughtered. 
So John sees a lamb, the meekest, most vulnerable of creatures, but wait!  All in the throne room worship the Great One on the center throne, but they don’t dare approach.  The living creatures, the 24 elders, they sing to God, but they don’t walk right up to Him.  The Lamb does.  This image of weakness walks right up to the throne and takes that scroll that God is holding. 
Now those living creatures, heavenly beings, aren’t flying around anymore.  They’ve fallen to their knees.  The elders are no longer on their thrones.  All twenty four of them are there next to the living creatures and they too are bowed in humble reverence.  To the Lamb they sing, “You are worthy” (v.9). 
We’ve had our attention on the throne and the Lamb, the elders and the living creatures but they are not the only ones in the picture.  There are all about this throne room of God thousands and thousands and thousands of angels.  And they have all stopped doing whatever it is angels do, and now, with music you’ve never heard, they sing.  “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (v.12).
What more could come than this?  Oh, there is more.  We have not even noticed the uniqueness of this throne room.  We think of it as in some faraway place.  But it is actually close enough that we can see the earth – the whole earth.  Where can one go and see the entire earth – see everything up close?  Here.  And on the earth every living being is singing.  We might expect to see every person, but this is more.  The people are joined by the trees and the waters and the birds and the animals.   When he came into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, Jesus told the protesting Pharisees that if his followers did not sing “Hosanna,” the rocks would cry out praise.  Here in the throne room of Revelation, John sees the people and the rocks and the mountains all singing together.  All created things add their voice to this song.  “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever.”  And when all of creation sang that song, the living creatures shouted, AMEN and the elders fell on their faces and worshiped and it all happened because worship is our response and worship is our response because God is God.
Last week we began our time in Revelation receiving.  Revelation is a letter in which we are given grace and peace, gospel truth, and life.  This is to us from God – the eternal God who is over and over seen in the son, the Messiah, Jesus.  God has something for us and it is good.  When we receive from God, we have abundant, eternal life.  This promise is enough to sustain us through harsh, dark times.
Yet, we don’t live only waiting for the fulfillment of it.  We have activity to which we are called.  As we receive from God grace and mercy, forgiveness and peace, love and hope, we have something to give God.  Worship is our primary vocation.  As living creatures, elders, angels, and every created thing attest, our worship is specifically to Jesus.  Our life is lived to worship Him. 
Worship happens when we gather as a church body, in our songs, in our prayers, in baptism and communion. Even in the time of the sermon, there is worship as the remarks and the receiving of them are all centered on the Word of God.
Worship happens at other times in the life of the church: in small groups; in meetings; in one-on-one get togethers.  It happens with music and without.
Worship happens when we are alone or involved in secular activities.  It can come about while driving or hiking or gardening or golfing.  Even at work, as we pray in the lunchroom, as we glance at the scripture verse we keep in a frame on our the desk, as we utter a silent prayer for a troubled colleague; yes even there worship occurs because it first and foremost proclaims in our hearts and in the loving way we see the world that someone else is in command.  God is over all this and God is Jesus and Jesus is God.  So, in Holy Spirit, Jesus is here and our loyalty is to Him.  There is probably a supervisor to whom we give the respect that is due even if he doesn’t live up to it.  There are rules we uphold except when God tells us to do otherwise.  We live within the world but all the while we are turned to the God who sustains the world and will one day redeem and renew and remake the world. 
So worship is an orientation; it is a heart attitude; and it is activity.  It is worship of God as we know God in Jesus Christ and it is what we are all about.  More than all this definition though, worship is relationship.  There are professional clergy men and women, but he has made us all priests and sons and daughters of God. 
Thus we join the song.  Deep within us, whatever our emotions and experiences, in good times and bad, we seek God, see God, and sing.  This is the best response a Christ-follower can make to all things because all is under the lordship of Jesus.  My friends find your voice.  You are sad?  Meet God in your sadness.  He will give comfort, you give worship.  You aren’t sure?  He will give clarity and answers, you give worship.  You are broken?  He will heal and mend and raise you.  You and I – we worship.
He doesn’t always give what we think He should when we think it should be given.   But God’s gifts are the best and the timing is perfect.  We worship.  Along with the Heavenly chorus we sing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and glory and honor and might forever and ever!”

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Boston Marathon Explosions: A Cruel Example of Free Will

I am not a runner, but if I heard the phrase "explosion at the Boston Marathon," I might think a runner caught an unprecedented second wind in the final mile and passed several runners ahead of him to win in record time.  Not being a Marathon fan, I don't even know if those types of photo finishes occur.  But if I do know if I heard the phrase "explosion at the Boston Marathon," I would be inclined to think it was a sports metaphor for what happened in the contest.  I would not think of terrorist bombs exploding at the finish line.

That's not entirely true.  In this Oklahoma City, Columbine, Virginia Tech, Newtown, 9-11 generation, I am not overly surprised.  When I watched the news yesterday and saw what was occurring in Boston, I was sad.  In a very disturbed sense, I was struck with "Oh, this was next.  I wonder what will come after this."  I was thinking about how to talk to my children about this.  I felt many things.  Shock was not among them.  Our days see senseless violence that is as expected as it is unpredictable.

I heard recently that leading textual critique (an expert in ancient texts) and religion professor and author Bart Ehrman is an agnostic.  I had known that but I thought it was because the evangelical faith of his childhood and his mentors in that faith discouraged him from thinking critically about his faith.  Incidentally, as an evangelical myself, I testify that there are evangelicals who practice a blind acceptance of the faith that's been imprinted on them, but there are also evangelicals who think critically about everything, including God.  There are those who can humble themselves before God in worship and at the same time attempt to be very scrutinizing in their thought.  I try to be one of these critical thinkers who is also humbled before a holy God.  I am not saying I succeed, but that is my aim.

My impression of Ehrman was that he abandoned Christianity and embraced an agnosticism about God because he could not reconcile what he learned in the university with the faith in which he was raised.  But recently I heard his abandonment of faith was due to the problem of evil.  He could not worship or believe in a God who allows hurricanes to wipe out villages or  who allows bombs to kill 8-year-old boys who are waiting to greet their dads at the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Evil drove Ehrman to reject God.  

I am not an Ehrman expert and this blog post is not a critique of him.  His story, if what I heard is accurate and if I have accurately summarized it, serves as an opportunity to talk about God and with God especially in terms of why bad things happen; awful things; horrific things.  I have heard similar sentiments from Christopher Hitchens.  Evil is either something to stick on God, which assigns all blame to God and makes God evil, or evil is evidence there is no God.

I cannot accept either option, blaming or renouncing.  I hold that God is good, God is love, and God is sovereign.  In saying that and in insisting God is present, is potent, and is willing to be involved in human affairs, I have to acknowledge that evil exists.  Evil changes faces over the decades, but evil does not go away.  Christians have to be ready to talk about it.  For me the presence of evil is the clearest evidence that God allows human beings to have and to express free will.

Evil drove Ehrman away from faith (if the story I heard on the radio is correct).  Evil drives me to a firm conviction that God allows free will.  I don't want to waste too much space in the Calvinism-Arminianism conversation.  Everything I write will classify me as n Arminian though I have no interest in that term or those in that camp.  Labels aside, I read the scripture and observe human history and read the news of the day and watch how children can be cruel to one another, and I examine my own heart.  It all leads me to the conclusion that evil is real and that we choose it.  When we do, there are consequences.

Sometimes the consequence is individualized.  A particular child is the easy target for bullies all through elementary school.  For numerous reasons sociologists and psychologists can offer, this child is selected as the target and other students mercilessly pick on him.  He grows up loathing his own weakness and awkwardness.  He spends most of his young adulthood in therapy, trying to learn to love himself.  What happened to him, though not newsworthy, is evil.  

Other times, evil creates a larger blast area and there is considerably more collateral damage.  The Boston Marathon terrorist attacks are an example.  So too is the civil war in Sudan of 1990-2011.  And the "Trail of Tears," the terror the United States Government inflicted upon the indigenous peoples of this continent.  Pages and pages could be filled of examples of evil that one person or a few people choose and when the evil is enacted, hundreds and thousands and millions are hurt.  

God allows us choice and sometimes we choose evil.  If God took away that option, then we would not be able to choose good.  I don't know how to present this in a formula philosophers would use.  But I am certain that it is impossible to choose good if evil is not also an option.  In order for humans to choose to walk in the ways of God, we have to have as a choice the option to walk away from the ways of God.  To obey God and not eat from the tree of knowledge, Eve has to be able to choose to eat, an act of disobedience.  Once Adam and Eve eat the fruit, evil is there.

A good theological/philosophical question is this: did evil exist before Adam and Eve disobeyed God?  Was their act of defiance the invention of evil?  Or was the tempting serpent a personification of evil?  If the serpent was the bringer of evil, who invented the serpent?  Was the serpent created, or like God, was the servant pre-existent?  If the serpent was created, who or what created the serpent?  In other words, did God create evil?  If so, why?  

I don't believe God is yin and yang.  I don't believe God has good and bad sides.  God is perfect in all ways, completely good, and the giver and essence of perfect love.  Because of this, whatever God creates will be less than God or at most equal to God.  God is the best there is so nothing can be better.  I believe humans and the divine image are good but not completely good in the way God is completely good.  We are less than God.  Our goodness is unmistakable.  God saw humans as "very good" (Genesis 1:31).  But, our goodness is limited.  

Free choice is made necessary by the fact that we are made in God's image.  To be in the image of God is to have the option to choose as God has the option to choose.  We don't successfully make the choices God makes, but we have that as an option.  Evil is a by-product of free will.  By being able to choose, we have the option to choose what God would not choose.  When we do, evil is born.  Every single time a human chooses the opposite of what God would choose, evil is reborn - a byproduct of free will.

Is God a blind watchmaker who allows the world to run amok in the evil that comes from millions of humans exercising their free will by not choosing what God would choose and choosing was God would not choose every day in words, thoughts, and deeds?  I don't think so.  I believe the world would be pretty much destroyed by now if God did not hold in check our free will choices and subsequent production of evil.  From our side of things, it seems God is absent or watching from a distance either unwilling or unable to intervene.  

But that is a limited viewpoint, one energized by the shock, horror, and pain of tragedies like the one witnessed at the Marathon yesterday.  Humanity has the capability for atomic and nuclear warfare 70 years, but only two weapons of that nature have actually been used in combat.  The United States has liberal gun laws and a lot of people have died in handgun incidents.  But most people go through their lives without ever having a gun drawn on them.  Most people are grimly affected by tragedy as they sit wearing soft pajamas at their kitchen tables with warm coffee watching the news.  God allows evil but God does not allow evil to run so rampant that the world comes apart completely.

God also inspires acts of heroism and altruism.  In the face of evil, humans have the choice to rush to the aide of fellow humans.  Some of the greatest stories of human compassion have come out of the 9-11 tragedies.  Similar reports of heroes throwing themselves in harm's way came out of the Newtown school shooting.  And similar reports of human goodness have already started coming out of Boston, not 24 hours later.  Some people choose evil.  Many more choose good.

I don't believe God brings the evil but I believe God acts in the midst of it.  Sometimes God acts in unexplained, miraculous ways.  Other times God moves through human beings.  People become conduits of God's helping initiative.  Of course not all the heroes are God-worshipers and not all Christians and other people of faith are heroes.  Sometimes, sadly, the bringers of evil are people who claim to be people of faith.  Terry Jones is but one example.  God is not dependent on the church or the synagogue or the mosque.  God will act at God's pleasure and we often don't know why.

To say that God restrains evil by not allowing it to obliterate the world and to say God acts in the midst of evil by inspiring humans to choose to be helpful is no consolation to the family of the 8-year-old who is one of their three who died.  Why must their child have been one of the three (as of this writing three have died)?  The family of that boy must be allowed to ask that question to God.  We, the community of humanity around that grieving family, must join them and through teary eyes shake our fists heavenward and ask the question.  Why this boy?

Over time we come to grips with unanswered questions.  As a pastor, I feel so feeble in admitting this, but there is no answer this side of Heaven to the "why question."  We have to ask it.  We must.  It is frustrating to the nth degree, but we must ask why only to learn there is no answer.  In the frustration, we see a third way God is present and active in the midst of tragedy.  God comforts the distraught family of the dead child.  Again, God works through humans.  

In this, I think Christians have a unique contribution.  We hold fast the belief that all who are in Christ will rise.  We also believe that the Holy Spirit is present even when we don't sense that presence.  Finally, we believe with all that is in us that God can be trusted.  (1) Resurrection is ahead for those who die.  (2) The Holy Spirit is the very real presence of God comforting those who mourn in real time, here and now.  (3) And God can be trusted.  We can trust God even with unanswered why's.  We can trust God with fury and anger and rage.  We entrust the souls of those who have died into God's hands.  

Nothing I have written here lessens the hurt inflicted by evil deeds.  I know evil is real.  To say otherwise would be the worst example of head-in-the-sand ignorance.  I know evil is here.  But I know God is here and is bigger than evil.  God holds evil in check perfectly allowing us free choice without letting our free choices destroy everything.  And God, perfectly loving as God is, remains present to bring healing and comfort to all who turn to Him.  

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Letter From God

From God (Revelation 1:4-8)
Sunday, April 14, 2013

            In the Elders meeting this past week, I said, “The sermon this Sunday is about God.”  Responses went like this.  Um … good topic.  What else would it be about?
            Then, I emailed Starlyn.  “This sermon is about God; … Find songs that talk about how awesome God is.”
            Coming to church, one probably expects the pastor to talk about God.  What could be more obvious?  And yet, try it sometime this week.  Describe God to someone.  No matter what you say, something will be left out.  You could talk for days and barely scratch the surface of all you could say about God.
            No matter what you say, something will be incomplete.  In simply reviewing all God has spoken in the Bible, we realize God has not shown us all of Himself and if God did, we could not handle it.
            No matter what you say when you talk about God, someone will argue that you’re wrong.  Within evangelical Christianity, we see numerous not just different thoughts, but competing ideas about God.  Add the ideas of Protestants.  And Pentecostals.  And Anabaptists.  Now, throw in Catholics.  And Eastern Orthodox Christians.  And Coptic believers and the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.  That’s just Christianity.  What about Muslims and Jews and Mormons and deists?
            How do we even begin to talk about God in a way that is intelligible?  How do we talk about God in a way that’s helpful?
            Imagine you are a part of one of the churches in Asia Minor in 96AD.  Your congregation is one of the first to hear the Revelation read publically.  As a church, you’re torn from three sides.  Most of the Greeks around you think you are some sort of Jewish sect and in reality, Christianity is the faith that worships the Jewish Messiah.  But Jews who do not believe Jesus was the Messiah strenuously reject Christianity.  Because of this, over the centuries Christians have sinfully persecuted Jews.  There is nothing more Satanic in history than the treatment of Jews by Christians.  It is absolute evil and must be named and condemned. 
            However, in 96 AD, in Ephesus and the other Greek-speaking cities, the synagogue was an established institution within the Roman Empire.  The church was not.  The Jews actually had achieved an exemption from Rome.  Rome required all subjects to acknowledge that the emperor was a god.  Emperor worship and allegiance to the Emperor were laws enforced by pain of death.  The Romans knew the Jews to be monotheists and exempted them from emperor worship.  The Jews rejected the Christians – who themselves were mostly Jews and Jewish proselytes who worshiped Jesus.  So the Christians did not get the exemption.
            Unlike their Jewish cousins, Christians were required to practice emperor worship.  Christians were rejected by Jews, mocked by Pagan Greeks, and arrested by Romans insisting on emperor worship.  Romans did not always persecute Christians, but in the 90’s AD, in Asia Minor they did.  Emperor Domitian demanded allegiance the Christians could not give.  What resulted was a persecuted Church and it is to that church that an early believer named John sent the letter we call Revelation. 
Nowhere does John claim to be the Apostle John, so I don’t identify him that way.   I see him as a late first century Christ-follower who received a visit from the risen, glorified Jesus, and wrote down what Jesus told him to write.
One of the reasons modern believers struggle to understand Revelation is we don’t live in the circumstances of the original audience.  “Revelation is speech by and for the oppressed, those suffering under the sword of Rome.”[i] It is not for the successful, affluent, powerful church.  It is also speech from God and so even though the experience of the original hearers is foreign to us, the richness and truth of the message transcends the original environment.  What spoke to those beleaguered Christ-followers still speaks here and now.  And what is said helps us understand God.  It gives definition and substance and depth to our description of God.  Moreover, we are able to see who we are because of God.  Revelation colorfully demonstrates what it means to follow and worship and serve God.
Revelation is clearly a letter – “Grace and Peace to you from him who is …”.  We don’t see anything novel here, but there certainly is something quite new in this if we are reading it in 96 AD. 
At that time no one began a letter by writing “Grace and Peace.”  Greeks would start their letters with another form of Xaris from which we get the word “grace.”  They typical Greek letters began with the form of the word that means “Warmest greetings.”  It is a nice opening to a letter.  But it didn’t mean “Grace.”  Jewish letters would begin “Shalom,” which means, “peace, wholeness, well-being.”  But the Jewish letters did not begin “Grace and peace,” just “peace.”  Only Christian letter began this way.  It was new invention.  Why?  In 96 AD, we’re asking, “Why does this letter begin, ‘Grace and peace?’” 
Well, who is it from.
“From him who was and is and is to come.”  This can only be a god.  Many religions in 96 AD thought of their god as the one who is and was and will be.  So this new form of Judaism, Christianity, wants its god to offer ‘grace,’ whatever that is, and ‘peace.’
Wait.  There’s more!  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne.”  Seven spirits?  What does that mean? 
Listen to the uniquely Christian greeting.  “Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ.”  The first statement unmistakably identifies God.  Only God could fit that preexistent, omnipresent, futuristic depiction.  This wish of grace and peace is from God.  Seven Spirits and Jesus Christ then are elaborations of God.  Thus we can say about God that God extends to all people grace and peace.  And God exists and presents God’s self to us in three persons – The Eternal Father, the Spirit, and Jesus the Son.  In talking about God, we talk about the giver of grace and peace.  And we talk about God who is three and three-in-one.
This greeting reveals something else that is easy to overlook.  It says God is the one who is and who was and who will be.  … No, that is not what it says.  It does not say God is the one who “will be,” it says, God is the one who “will come.”  God is present but is also coming.  In the future something will happen where the present God will appear in a way that God does not appear now.  A new God-event is surely coming.  To our understanding of God as giver of grace and peace and God as three-in-one, we add that God is to be anticipated.  God is one who is to come. 
The giver of grace and peace, the three-in-one, the coming God is most fully revealed in Jesus, God in human flesh.  Revelation 1:5 says that Jesus was the Christ, the Messiah.  Jesus was the faithful witness.  In Revelation the word used for witness is the Greek word ‘martyr.’  One who gave faithful witness held his or her testimony even when threatened with death.  Jesus’ death on the cross showed him to be a faithful witness and after that event many of his followers showed that faithfulness, proclaiming Jesus as Lord even when doing brought suffering and death.
Jesus the Christ, the faithful witness is also called the firstborn of the dead. His death was short lived as the resurrection happened on the third day.  But Revelation does not simply refer to him as resurrected one, but as the firstborn.  There will be more.  His followers will rise from death to eternal life.
The Messiah faithful witness resurrected one is the ruler of the kings of the earth.  This statement was enough to get anyone who made into hot water – or maybe boiling oil.  That would have been one way to deal with someone who declared a king other than Caesar.  John was already exiled on Patmos “because of the word of God and testimony of Jesus" (1:9c).  He knew his writing could get him killed but he wrote on anyway.  Jesus is the ruler of the kings of the earth – including the Roman emperor; including the American president. 
This Faithful Witness and King of Kings can be known through his actions.  John writes to the end of verse 5 and into 6 that Jesus loves and frees.  Specifically he frees us from the bondage of sin.  John’s writing here is a doxology.  “To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom of priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever.  Amen.”  We don’t have time to explore all the implications of God’s actions.  I urge each one here to go back and read carefully word by word Revelation 1:5-6. 
God is known as he we see him in Jesus and what does God do in Jesus?  He loves us.  He sacrifices himself to free us from sin.  He makes us – not just the clergy, not just the seminary-trained but all of us – to be priests who serve God in the world. 
John emphatically ends his doxology with a declaration that his words are without question true.  That is the meaning of the “Amen.”
Verse 7 reiterates what was said earlier about God – he is one who “is to come.”  This sounds like a prophetic oracle.  “Look!  He is coming on the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of earth will wail.”  And this prophecy is punctuated just as the doxology was. With an emphatic “Amen!”
Do we notice that verse 4 described God as the one who “is to come,” and now in verse 7 Jesus is the one who is to come?  Do we notice that in verse the entire earth sees the coming of Jesus and wails due to complicity in his death?  This verse announces Jesus’ divinity and proclaims that his coming is the coming of final judgment.  Judgment is what caused the wailing of the those who pierced him and now see him resurrected and in gloried form.  This is implied here and laid out more fully throughout Revelation. 
One more reiteration of who God is and also an anticipation of who Jesus is comes along in verse 8.  “’I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.  Alpha and omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet.  God is the A-Z.  God is everything.  In verses 17-18, Jesus appears in his glory before John, probably similar to the form he had in the transfiguration before the disciples, Peter, James, and John.  He says, “I am the first and the last, and the living one.  I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and Hades.”  Coupled with the introduction to the letter in the verses we’ve been discussing, Jesus here asserts that he is the eternal God, the everything, a member of the trinity and of God; He was incarnated, took on human form, died, and rose.  He is alive forever – that’s a key part of his resurrection.  And he has all authority to judge.  This is who Jesus is and Jesus is who God is.
The book of Revelation is a letter from God.  Even though we are second-hand recipients and not the persecuted first century church that was intimately aware of John’s imagery and the conditions that sparked John’s writing, we see that Revelation is for us too.  The first thing for us to take hold of and never release is that this message is to us from God.  In this letter, we see our God and in seeing and hearing, we start to come to know God. 
I started out with a challenge.  Describe God!  Revelation has given us good starting material.  God is the giver of grace and peace.  God is eternal and is coming.  God is Father, Spirit, and Son.  God is Jesus, the one who died for sin and rose from death, and the one who loves and frees us from sin and who is king of kings.  He is the one who makes us a nation of priests – each and every one of us.  We are all called into God’s service.  Jesus is also judge, the one who will come and at his coming all who have rejected him will mourn.  God is the first and the last, all-knowing, almighty, and omnipresent. 
If you didn’t get this all down, review Revelation 1:4-8.  And this week, talk about God and think and pray about how each and every word that’s been spoken about God affects your life.  In thinking about God, orient life upon God.  Fix all your attention on God.  And next week, we will again talk about God.