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Monday, January 27, 2014

Read Commentary on the Bible


            I have been talking about Pathways into the Bible.  I’ve mentioned several including memorizing scriptures and reading the Bible in conjunction with reading the news.  I will provide a full list of Bible pathways on this blog when the preaching series is concluded on February.
            Today, I suggest the Bible reader invite experts into the conversation.  The operating assumption is that the Bible is being read.  Along with it, read commentary.  There is the inspirational type of writing, books that act as extended sermons, by authors like Max Lucado.  There is critical-historical writing by authors like Scot McKnight, Craig Evans, and Luke Timothy Johnson.  Note that works of this type are sometimes technical, for academic reading.  Authors like Walter Brueggemann and N.T. Wright offer theological interpretations of the Bible.  Alister McGrath and Douglas Groothuis are examples of authors who write apologetics, leaning heavily on the scriptures.  Gabe Lyons, Andy Crouch, and other similar writers deal with current topics and refer to the Bible throughout their works. 
            I go on listing authors.  The point is there is a lot of good literature from men and women who unveil the deep truths of scripture.  In the course of reading, the Bible reader will encounter authors with whom he does not agree.  Excellent.  When I disagree with an author, especially concerning the Bible, I have to clarify my thoughts.  I need to try to know the material so I can be confident in my opinion.  Occasionally, I come across poorly written books.  I just close them and move on to better material.

            Read commentary as a regular part of your reading of scripture.  Your views will be enlarged, your understanding deepened, your mind quickened, and your wit sharpened.  

Entering the Story of Life (John 20:30-31)



Sunday, January 26, 2014

John 20:30-31

30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.31 But these are written so that you may come to believe[a] that Jesus is the Messiah,[b] the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

David Lose of Luther Seminary in Minnesota observes “that the primary challenge facing the Christian Church in North America in the 21st century is that for most of our people, God is no longer a primary actor in the story of their lives. … It’s not that people don’t believe in God, it’s just that apart from church they don’t think about God all that much. … The biblical story – the narrative, that is, that teaches us to recognize God’s activity in the world – is relatively and increasingly unfamiliar to them and certainly not a source of the kinds of stories we regularly tell and share as we seek to make sense of our lives.”[i]
I agree with his observation, which is why our church wide emphasis is on understanding the Bible, getting into the Bible and getting the Bible into us.  Church-goers are by and large Biblically illiterate.  This lament fills seminary halls, the pages of Christian literature, and the conversations of pastors when they get together.  A lot of people claim the Bible is important.  Few actually know what it says.  Fewer still understand what a rigorous, lifelong endeavor it is to read and live in the Bible. 
If upon hearing this, your reaction is, oh no!  I don’t know the Bible!  He’s talking about me.  Relax.  There will be no quiz this morning.  When I observe that people generally, even church goers, are unfamiliar with the Bible, I do not say it as an accusation.  I intend it as an invitation.  If someone said to me, I don’t know the Bible; my response is “You can.” 
The Bible is not intended as an inaccessible holy book only the experts and the initiated can understand.  It is not easy.  It is often challenging.  But the challenge is there to be met.  Difficulties that come up in reading, understanding, and applying the Bible to life are invitations from God.  God is challenging because God is holy and sin blocks our view of him.  God reaches to us and invites us to look past whatever is blocking the way.  As we overcome the obstacles sin lays down, we get to where we have a real, dynamic, life-making relationship with God. 
The 20th chapter of John’s Gospel ends with a statement of purpose.  “Jesus did many signs … not written in this book.”  John acknowledges this without hesitation or apology.  John wasn’t trying to write an exhaustive biography.  The Gospel has qualities of a biography, but the goal of the final composition was not to simply tell Jesus’ story.  Was the author of John’s gospel aware of Matthew, Mark, and Luke when he wrote John?  That question inspires much debate.  I tend to think, yes, he knew of the traditions that went into those other gospels.  I doubt he had copies of them in front of him when he wrote John.  I am not fully convinced that John was the last one written.
Nor am I at all convinced that the Apostle John, one of the 12 disciples, is the author of the Gospel of John.  I don’t know if there is any way of being certain of the identity of the original author and compilers.  The Gospel itself only says that the author was the disciple whom Jesus loved (21:20, 24).  In John chapter 11, Lazarus was described as the one Jesus loved (11:3b).  Certainly, there were more disciples than just the 12.  I think a compelling, though not convincing, case can be made that the author of the 4th gospel was Lazarus. 
At any rate, this Gospel was written with a purpose, and that purpose was not to exhaustively catalogue Jesus words and actions.  Much was included that is not in Matthew, Mark, & Luke.  Much in those gospels is not in John.  And the material in all four is arranged and presented uniquely in each. 
The Gospels of John wants to be read.  The Gospel of John wants the reader to see Jesus within the pages.  The Gospel of John wants the reader to meet Jesus and believe in him, that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, God in human flesh.  The Gospel of John wants this because if one believes in Jesus, that person will have life.  There are plenty of people in the world, billions, who eat, grow, procreate, work – they are alive.  They don’t know Jesus at all and yet a biologist would define them as living.  No, says, the Gospel of John.  Life, life as God intends it, can only be had by the one who knows Jesus.
Thus the problem as observed by David Lose.  People in our day, place, and time, don’t think much about God outside of Sunday morning, and they don’t look to God’s word to make sense of their lives.  People are alive but not living.  We immediately see what this means for us, a church family.  Before us sits the fourth gospel saying – read!  Read and believe!  Believe and have life – life as God intends it. 
Have we read?
Are we living the life we’re invited by God to live?
What about people around us who don’t have this?  Either they have not read the Gospel or they have no access to it or they aren’t interested in it.  Whatever the cause, we are surrounded by people who do not have the life God wants people to have.
John is the Gospel that records Jesus saying, “I have come that they might have life and have it abundantly” (10:10).  John is the abundant life Gospel.  John is the Gospel where Jesus says to a Pharisee, Nicodemus, “God so loved the world, he gave his only son so that whoever believes may not perish but have eternal life.”  In John, Jesus tells Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life.  Those who believe in me though they die will live.  And everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (11:25-26).  John is an open book – open for everyone, every person.  We read, meet Jesus, believe, and have eternal life; abundant life. 
Before us sits the fourth Gospel, the word of God.  Are we into the life God wants for us?  Are we inviting the world around us into that life?
I have been recommending pathways into the Bible.  Some readers will be blessed memorizing verses of scripture like John 3:16, or one my favorites, John 14:6.  “Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life and no one comes to the father except through Him.”  Memorization helps us feel the wholeness of God’s word encapsulated in a verse or 2.
Others feel blessing in the walking through the Bible in a deliberate fashion reading a few chapters each day all the way through in a year’s time.
I suggested reading as a way of meeting God; keep a God notebook in which you record your encounters with the Creator of all that is as you meet him in the pages of the book He had given.
I suggested reading the Bible and the newspaper together each talking to the other so that our journey in scripture relates the world around us and we see the world in light of scripture.
A fifth pathway into the Bible involves deep introspection.  Write your own life story.  We heard Matthew share his last week.  Chris and Nelson shared theirs two weeks ago.  Imagine you were to be recruited to share your faith story, your testimony.  Next Sunday you would tell who you are.  Surely the journey would include season, maybe long stretches, in which you felt very far from God.  And maybe stretches felt like you walked hand-in-hand with God.  Everyone has his or her own story.  Imagine yours.  I recommend writing it out if you never have.  Doing so requires you to deal with details you might be tempted to sweep under the rug.  Imagine your life story, including all the hardest of hard places.
Now, take your life story with you every time you step into the Bible.  And as you review your life story, see the story of God in the scriptures alongside it. 
Some people recommend having a life verse.  I think this can be helpful.  In your reading of scripture, find verse that sums up your life as you have walked with God, fallen away, and come back again.  This is the fifth pathway into the word, I propose.  Review your life story with scripture in view and identify a Biblical story or a verse or two that is your life verse.  And by the way, as life changes, your understanding of your life verse does too and you might even find a new life verse when you enter a new season.  That’s OK.
The 4th Gospel testifies that the Bible is intended to draw us to God and to have life in Jesus’ name.  In John 20, Jesus appeared to the disciples.  Judas hung himself after betraying Jesus.  Thomas missed seeing Jesus.  He heard of the resurrection from those who had seen Jesus, but he refused to believe.  The Gospel that invites the reader to faith also recognizes the potential for doubt, unbelief.  Some will hear the stories of resurrection and flat-out refuse to accept that it could be true. 

John 20:21 says,
21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” 22 When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.”

This commission of Jesus, including the forgiving and retaining of sins prompts New Testament professor Susan Hylen to ask, "What is expected of later followers of Jesus?"[ii]  The fourth gospel expects to be read by believers, not just pastors, but everyone in the church.  The fourth gospel expects us to trust the witness offered.  The fourth gospel expects us to, upon hearing the testimony, to believe in Jesus and have life in his name.  Beyond, that, we are to become the inviting voice that draws in others, doubters, skeptics, sinners, you name it.
Jesus grants his followers the authority to forgive or retain sins.  The weight of this commission can only be shouldered by Christ-followers who know their own weakness.  When we realize that we are receiving this commission because at our lowest point we were lifted up by Jesus and He is our only hope, only then, in full view of our weakness, can we receive the commission to forgive or retain sins.  Professor Hylen reminds us that in John’s Gospel, ‘sin,’ means failing to see Jesus as the Son of God and believe in him.  
If we are in Christ, then we are never inclined to want to retain anyone’s sin.  Our bent is to see people outside the faith, or those in the church, who are not walking with Jesus, turn to Him, see Him, believe, and come to life.  That’s what has happened to us and now it is what we want for others.  In Christ, having seen, we do not want to see anyone’s sin retained.  We want for others the abundant life Jesus has given to us.  We become the invitation we have answered.
This week, read the Bible.  And review your life.  Read your own autobiography as you read the Bible.  Remember who you were and who you are, where you have been and where you are today.  Let God’s word prod you to deeper faith and abundant, eternal life.  Along the way, make your life an invitation, inviting a nonbeliever to see Jesus, believe in Him, and have life in His name.   
The Bible is your entry point to life. 
Your invitation is a wake-up letting your friend know that he too is invited to enter the story of the with-God life.

AMEN



[i] David Lose (2013), http://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=2509
[ii] Susan Hylen (2013), http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1585

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Feeling Dr. King

Yesterday, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I felt the need to do something.  What?  I am not sure.  It is the same every year.  I go through the hullabaloo of Thanksgiving-School break for my kids-Christmas-New Year-my anniversary.  And by the time my wife and I have had our one night getaway; it is time to get back in the normal rhythms of life.  At that point, I am not ready for another special event.
            Then MLK day rolls around.  Our school system makes the Tuesday afterward a teacher work day so the kids have a 4-day weekend.  I don’t take either day off, the Monday or the Tuesday.  I’ve been so out of the ordinary with the holidays, I just want to rediscover my work flow.  My saint of a wife is left with the three kids as they climbing up the walls wanting to go outside.
            However, a part of me experiences something else.  There’s an itch in me to do something.  Dr. King’s courageous, visionary leadership focused and drove the civil rights movement that saved our country.  His posture was conciliator.  He dreamed a world in which people are for one another and everyone is seen – seen as a human being of worth regardless of race or another factor. 
            What divides people?  Black v. White; American v. Immigrant; Rich v. Middle Class v. Poor; Healthy v. Disabled; political parties; Old V. Young.  All these divisions and more have polarizing potential.  When the differences are overcome and people help people and join each other in true friendship, Dr. King’ vision becomes reality.  It happens over and over. 
            I witnessed one example.  I know of a woman who receives food stamps.  As an act of her Christian discipleship, she tithes on what she receives.  She buys groceries and donates some of them.  Yesterday, on MLK Day, I got to deliver the groceries she bought.  She doesn’t do it to bring attention to herself.  She is serving Jesus.  If she can find a pastor to actually deliver the food, it is good for both her and the recipient.  No one wants to be on the receiving end of charity.  A pastor is a good intermediary, someone to protect the anonymity of the giver and the dignity of the recipient.
            That was my role on MLK Day.  As a pastor, I got be the go-between as a woman, a black woman, helped a white woman, someone she had never met.  She was giving food, and the gratitude was painted all over the face of the recipient.  After my 11-year-old son and I dropped off the food, we went on with our day. 
I believe Dr. King, walking with Jesus in Paradise, smiled.  In this story, race was never an issue.  It was a case of giving a cup of cold water in Jesus’ name (Mark 9:41).  It is a story of people helping each other because that’s what followers of Jesus do.
Next month is African American history month.  I usually observe that time by reading.  One year I read A Testament of Hope (an anthology of Dr. King’s speeches).  I started reading that book in February and spent the rest of the year finishing (it is over 600 pages).  Last year, in February I began African American Religious Thought.  It is almost 1100 pages and in 2013, I read about 975.  I will finish it in February 2014. 
All this reading and the MLK day service projects and observances only work as symbols of the need and ongoing work of combating our racist heritage.  Society must move beyond ‘African American history’ to recognize all the stories and meaning in American history.  More than MLK Day service projects, America needs to be a culture of service – people helping each other instead of advancing themselves at their neighbor’s expense.  When that becomes the ethos of America, the ethos of service done in love, then we will find ourselves nearer to something more than Dr. King’s vision.  We will taste the Kingdom Dr. King dreamed of, the one envisioned by Jesus, the Kingdom of God.

I think, when MLK Day comes, and I find myself not ready but feeling something, that is it.  Dr. King was a prophet of the Kingdom of God.  Even unaware, I yearn for it.  I long for it.  I pray for it.  In that Kingdom, hungry people won’t need to help each other.  None will go hungry.  All will be blessed.  Thank you, Dr. King, for your voice reminding me to seek that blessing.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Humans are Sinful

Breaking the Cycle (Judges 2:6-23)
Sunday, January 19, 2014

            Every person exists in a story world that is full of meaning and meanings.  Everyone does not live in the same story world as everyone else, but everyone lives in a story world.  You might ever live with different reference points than those identified by someone in your own home. 
A young man receives Jesus into his heart, abandons his wild living, and changes the entire direction of his life.  He’s pointed toward Jesus.  His story is about Jesus and everything else in his life is understood as it relates to his walk with Jesus.  His brother, also a young adult, stays in the party life that involves, drinking, gambling, one-night stands and frequent brush-ups with the law.  When the first brother, the Jesus-follower, says the word ‘redemption,’ he is talking about how Jesus saved him from the death that sin inevitably brings.  He is redeemed for God.  The second brother also loves the word redemption, but when he says it, he means he redeems his winning lottery ticket and gets the cash.  Both brothers have points of reference that define and are defined by the stories in which each lives.
            Early in 2014, we are striving to live within the Bible story so that we are defined by and identified with the God of the Bible.  The Bible becomes the source for our stories as humans created in God’s image and created for relationships of love with God and with each other.
            Last week, we were confronted with the reality that the God we meet in the Bible is complicated.  God loves sinners and forgives us, but also, God punishes sin.  Both are true.  God knows all, yet from our perspective, it certainly appears that God reacts to what we are doing.  Both sovereignty and freedom are God’s and God won’t give up either. 
            God is over all and free and in God’s power and freedom, God chooses to love us.  The supreme expression of God’s love is God coming in human form as Jesus and dying on the cross and rising in resurrection.  The emphatic note of the Bible is that God is love. 
That’s what the Bible tells us about God.  But what does the Bible say about humans?
            It says we are sinners and sin brings pain and death.  From my second semester of Old Testament studies as a first year seminary student, one of the lessons I remember most vividly is the “Judges cycle” found throughout the book of Judges.  We might call it the sin cycle or the sin wheel, one we cannot escape.

Judges 2:16-23 Contemporary English Version (CEV)

16 From time to time, the Lord would choose special leaders known as judges.[a] These judges would lead the Israelites into battle and defeat the enemies that made raids on them. 17 In years gone by, the Israelites had been faithful to the Lord, but now they were quick to be unfaithful and to refuse even to listen to these judges. The Israelites would disobey the Lord, and instead of worshiping him, they would worship other gods.
18 When enemies made life miserable for the Israelites, the Lord would feel sorry for them. He would choose a judge and help that judge rescue Israel from its enemies. The Lord would be kind to Israel as long as that judge lived. 19 But afterwards, the Israelites would become even more sinful than their ancestors had been. The Israelites were stubborn—they simply would not stop worshiping other gods or following the teachings of other religions.

20 The Lord was angry with Israel and said:
The Israelites have broken the agreement I made with their ancestors. They won’t obey me, 21 so I’ll stop helping them defeat their enemies. Israel still had a lot of enemies when Joshua died,22 and I’m going to let those enemies stay. I’ll use them to test Israel, because then I can find out if Israel will worship and obey me as their ancestors did.
23 That’s why the Lord had not let Joshua get rid of all those enemy nations right away.

            I am struck by verse 19.  ‘The Israelites were stubborn – they simply would not stop worshipping other gods.”  Throughout the book of Judges, the cycle repeats endlessly.  Israel turns a back on God and worships idols.  God allows the people to fall into the hands of enemy tribes, who kill and enslave.   In misery, battered, knowing they are in their wretched state due to their own choices, the Israelites cry out in desperation. 
            God’s anger subsides and God raises up a hero – those called ‘judges’ – and the hero delivers the people.  Communal life and opportunity for prosperity are restored.  Deborah, Gideon, Jephthah, Samson and others are the heroes of God in the book of Judges.  The cycle always goes – sin, fall, cry, deliverance.  The cycle repeats throughout the Old Testament and into the New.  We see it in the life of the Apostle Peter.  Paul writes about it.
            Sin – it will not release us from its grasp.  Paul says that the “wage of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). 
His frustration screams from the pages of the Bible, specifically, Romans 7.

“I have been sold as a slave to sin.  In fact, I don’t understand why I act the way I do.  I do the things I hate.  … I am not the one doing these evil things.  The sin that lives in me is what does them” (Romans 7:14, 15, 17).

            Think of sin as behaviors that harm us, harm others, and cut us off from God.  Sometimes the harm is indirect.  If you spend many hours staring at pornography, you might be tempted to claim it is a victimless crime.  But is it?  The girl in the photograph does not know you are lusting after her.  But you do.  And you know God does.  You know this one is not some naked body, a piece meat for your entertainment.  She is a daughter of God, whether she believes it or not.  You staring at her contribute to her degradation and to yours.  And to your spouse’s.  Or, if you are single, you have cheapened yourself for your future wife.
            I came to face-to-face with sin’s long, damaging reach this week.  I was talking to a recovering addict.  She was proud that had gone a couple of decades “clean,” no drug use.  However, she was so afraid of her addiction that when she had to have a tumor removed, she would not take any narcotic pain medication.  She was afraid the Percoset would trigger in her a desire for stronger drugs. 
            Someone, somewhere had to produce the cocaine; a sin.  Someone else would have to sell it to her; a sin.  She had to have been at a place where for the first time, she knowingly took a deadly, illegal drug; sin. 
            OK, people have said to me, I don’t do drugs and never look at porn.  I don’t get drunk and I have not committed murder.  Do you give completely loyalty to God?  If not, then to what?  Do you treat those around you with grace and love?  Always?  Don’t you sometimes come down hard and manipulatively or abusively on others?  Ever lie?  Can we really lump mild deception, a bit of foul language, and mean words in with murder and drug dealing?  Well, the damage each sin does is different, but when live through the Bible, then we realize that God is holy and anything short of his holiness cuts us off from him.  To be cut off from God is to live apart from God. 
            When Cain killed Abel, God banished him.  Cain said to God, “This punishment is too hard. … You’re making me live far from you” (Genesis 4:14).  In the Bible, the worst possible fate for a person was to be cut off from God.  That’s what our sins do – cut us off from God.  The Bible insists that all people are sinners. 
            Our sin nature, though, does not define God.  God responds to us, but in doing so, God remains God – holy, forgiving, loving.  As we cut ourselves off, God chases after us.  We sin.  God pursues.  The Father in the Prodigal Son story is one of many Biblical pictures of God’s stance toward us in our sin.  The son had thrown away everything, but when he turned back, his father ran to embrace him.  That’s God, arms outstretched, running to us.
            Look again at Judges 6.  Note the relational dynamic.  The Lord says in verse 22, “I [will] find out if Israel will worship and obey me.”  God knew evil was in the world.  When Noah’s family came off the ark after God had wiped out evil in the flood, God received the worship Noah offered and observed that “the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth” (Genesis 8:21).  Still, God watched over Israel, appeared to individuals in Israel and reached out to the people.  Time and time again, God called his people back to the lives of holiness he intended for them and for us.  God stuck with this people. 
            When we read the Bible, we accept God as the Bible presents him.  We also come to grips with the reality about ourselves.  We are sinners.  But thank God for Jesus and his sacrifice on the cross!  It means that while our story is marked by sin, those marks have given way to something new – the new creations we become in Christ.  Paul says it well in Romans 3.

Romans 3:22-24
Contemporary English Version (CEV)
22 God treats everyone alike. He accepts people only because they have faith in Jesus Christ. 23 All of us have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. 24 But God treats us much better than we deserve,[a]and because of Christ Jesus, he freely accepts us and sets us free from our sins.


Paul’s matter-0f-fact assertion shows the bottom line: in Christ we are free.  The prophet Hosea, who lived in the sinful century prior to the exile, speaks God’s hear.  This is what drives God to continue with humans after we have turne from him to sin.  After we have walked away from God, violated his commands, hurt each other, after we’ve done it 1, 10, 1000 times, this is God’s way with us.



Hosea 11:8-9 Contemporary English Version (CEV)
Israel, I can’t let you go.
    I can’t give you up.
How could I possibly destroy you
as I did the towns of Admah
    and Zeboiim?[a]
I just can’t do it.
My feelings for you
    are much too strong.
Israel, I won’t lose my temper
    and destroy you again.
I am the Holy God—
not merely some human,
    and I won’t stay angry.

            To get into the Bible and to get the Bible into us, we have to accept what the Bible says about humans, about you and me.  We are made in God’s image.  But, we sin.
            We also accept what is said about God.  He loves us.  In Christ, we are finally free from sin, free to live in holiness and love.


AMEN

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Pray for the Church in Sri Lanka

I invite my readers to pray for the church in Sri Lanka where Christians are persecuted for being Christians.

See this link - http://www.icommittopray.com/request/32/sri-lankan-churches/

Friday, January 17, 2014

The Global War on Christians - book review

Review of The Global War on Christians by John L. Allen Jr.

            Perhaps the greatest affirmation I could offer an author is his or her work has spurred me to the point that I feel the need to act.  John Allen accomplished that with me in this outstanding work.
            Current through the middle of 2013, Allen tracks the way Christians are under fire around the world.  From my reading of the media, of works by other authors, and reports from other watchdog and faith-based organizations, I found Allen’s presentation to be thoroughly credible and accurate as far as I can tell.  I specifically remember reports of many of the incidents he describes.  In one case, a missionary friend of mine described in detail an incident long before it was reported.  Allen’s account matches what someone in the know, my friend, detailed.
            The situation is dire but not hopeless.  Allen communicated both truths.  His detailed chronicling of what’s happening to Christians on every continent was at times exhausting to read. One after another he told of how Christians have been persecuted because they are Christians, or because as Christians they felt the call of God to remain in dangerous contexts.  It was not an enjoyable read, but the author had no desire to entertain.  He wanted to shock the Christ follower who would dare read a book with his ominous title.  Mission accomplished and in a very good way.
            Throughout I was shocked to the point that I felt I would be unfaithful to Christ if I just set the book aside and did not respond in a tangible way.  I found myself thinking, “What do I do?”  Allen knew any sensitive reader would pose this question.  He dedicates chapter 14 to offering numerous thoughts about how his readers could respond.  Leading up to the section on specific suggestions, I thought, “He better mention prayer.”  It was the first suggestion (p. 280).  The ideas that followed are helpful in setting the believer on the path of the solidarity, participation, and brotherhood with Christians suffering around the world.
            Allen’s presentation is also balanced.  He admitted some of the suffering comes from Christians persecuted by Christians.  Some suffering is not necessarily because the victims follow Jesus.  And Christians are sometimes guilty of inflicting harm on others.  Also, Allen did not give too much attention to any one group, but recognized all who would fall under the definition ‘Christian.’  I did not discern his own affiliation until he identified himself as an American Catholic.
            The book is not perfect as no book is.  As previously mentioned, I found it tiresome to read story after story of persecution.  In some cases, what he describes really might not fall under the category of persecution.  In a few incidents, he could be accused of framing the evidence to fit his argument rather than simply assessing the evidence.  And, he might be guilty of a bit of hyperbole.
            However, I strongly assert that these possible critiques are refutable because he case is so strong.  I already was aware of the issue.  Having read his book, I feel more strongly and more knowledgeable.
            The best endorsement I can give is this – READ THIS BOOK.  I give it 5 stars because that’s highest available ranking.  Even more important, I am personally going to recommend that pastors I know read and respond to this book.  And in 2014, I am going to go back to chapter 14 and hold it up to my own life.  Where can I make changes so that I am active in coming alongside my persecuted Christian family around the globe?  How can I reposition my own life so that I feel the sting of persecution and the joy of being aligned with Jesus?


Disclaimer - I received this book for free from WaterBrookMultnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Dream Fulfilled

A Dream Fulfilled

I must begin by acknowledging that in America, as 2014 begins, the nation’s racial tensions are not all sorted out.  Travon Martin/George Zimmerman and Richie Incognito/Jonathan Martin are high profile reminders that there is a long way to go before society is truly free of racial strife.  I don’t believe we will get there on this side of Heaven.

To this acknowledgement, I add that though racism is still alive and well, American society has come a long way since August 28, 1963.  On that day, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, Martin Luther King Jr. declared, “I have a dream.”  I believe in a small way, his dream has been fulfilled, a bit.  And I don’t say this because America has a black president although that is also a sign of how far America has come.

I offer my own testimony, the prophetic, Gospel-based dream fulfilled in my own little nook in the world.

It was about 6:30AM this morning.  I was washing dishes, making hot tea, getting my kids breakfast ready and reading the morning newspaper.  I was standing at the sink, scrubbing plates, listening to the “Mike and Mike” show.  I was half paying attention to my son Henry when I heard, “… and all the little black girls hold hands with all the little white girls.”  And then he giggled and said it again.

It took a minute or two before I realized he had heard the “I have a Dream” speech at school and he was quoting it!  He was finishing his Cheerios and quoting that speech.  He muttered something about “Montgomery, Alabama,” and I knew.  (By the way, Kudos to Northside Elementary School; if the school has my son quoting that speech then major props to the school - http://nes.chccs.k12.nc.us/).

As thrilled as I am that Henry who is in 1st grade was quoting M.L. King, that is not the reason I would have the audacity to suggest Dr. King’s speech is fulfilled.  It is the composition of our family.  Henry and our preschool daughter Merone are black, both adopted from Ethiopia.  Our son Igor is white, adopted from Russia.  Our family represents Dr. King’s dream.

This is no claim of greatness for us.  Candy and I did not set out to be an example.  We wanted the same thing millions of couples want – to be parents.  We thought the best way for us to be parents was through adoption.  We decided upon international adoption.  For reasons beneficial to us, we decided to adopt from Russia and then Ethiopia.  All three of our adoptions are selfish acts in that each time we were seeking blessings for ourselves.  (And we have been blessed more than we could have imagined).

This morning, though, as I heard Henry, thoughts flooded through my mind.  He has no idea why Dr. King’s speech was so important.  He has no sense of being afraid of people because they are white and might hate him for being black.  He could not even conceive of such a notion.  The two people Henry and Merone run to when they are scared are, to them, the safest people in the world; their parents.  Their white parents.  Their only parents. 

I think Dr. King would have loved that.  When he gave that speech, the tensions in cities like Chicago and Memphis and Montgomery boiled over.  To see a white and a black person in an embrace was scandalous.  He would have been thrilled to see a world in which people can love each other because God is love and God calls us to love each other. 

Incidentally, I also think our adoption of Igor would bring joy to Dr. King.  He lived during the worst moments of the Cold War – Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam War.  Dr. King’s thirst for justice and brotherhood transcended issues of black and white.  An American family embracing a Russian boy also brings his dream to life.

I must reiterate; nothing I am writing hear is a reflection on the nobility of Rob and Candy Tennant.  We are two people who wanted to be parents.  Thanks to the world forged by the work of God in the life of Martin Luther King Jr. and so many others who worked with him and came along after him, we were able to become parents to an ethnically, racially diverse family. 


We have enjoyed the harvest of the Dr. King’s planting.  He put the seed in the ground.  Now in 2014, the yield is family – families like ours where parents who need kids are matched with kids who need homes.  And a black 6-year-old delights his white father’s heart by giggling as he recites “… I have a dream.”  The pain and suffering of the civil rights era give way to the laughter of a child, a child free of racial fears.  Thank you, Dr. King, for sharing your dream with the world. 

Monday, January 13, 2014

God - Complicated, Holy, Loving (Exodus 34:6-7)


We are on a mission to “get into the Bible,” and to “get the Bible into us.”   We as HillSong Church recognize that God has given a beautiful gift to humankind, a gift that helps us know God.  From hundreds of people in ancient times, the Bible comes to us.  The Bible is not from one hand but from many – writers, editors, prophets, priests, pastors – all inspired by the Holy Spirit over a span of more than 1000 years,.  It is a very human book.  At the same time it is the living word of God.
            We can only meet the God described in these pages if we fully accept what the Bible says about God even when it is inconvenient and not easily compartmentalized; even when it sounds different than what may have always thought.  God does not always fit the models we know.  Many passages show this.  We will focus on one – Exodus 34:6-7.


            Exodus 34:6-7 (NRSV)

The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children,
to the third and the fourth generation.”


            Do you see the difficulty? The Lord keeps steadfast love for the thousandth generations, forgiving sin.  The Lord by no means clears the guilty but visits iniquity – the painful legacy of sin’s evil and hurtful consequences – on children, grandchildren, great grandchildren.
            God will forgive all your sins and you will be in good relationship with God.
            God will punish you for your sins.  God will punish your children for your sins.  God will punish your grandchildren for your sins. 
            We need God to be consistent.  We need God to conform to descriptive categories.  God is not all that concerned about our categories.  God forgives – we can count on it.  God also takes sin seriously – with extreme seriousness.  We may not forget it.  We have to deal with God – God in God’s entirety. 
            God is not a salad bar.  We do not have the freedom to select the carrots and radishes but leave the tomatoes in their place and off our plate.  Above all, God is holy and we have to meet God in God’s holiness.  We have to realize that when we pray, we are praying to one who is Holy Other.
            Worship in our culture has become casual and comfortable.  Pastors used to wear robes with colors matching the liturgical season.  Some still do.  In other traditions, pastors used to wear suits.  Many still do.  Worshiping church goers used to dress in suits and Sunday dresses.  Many still do.  However, in increasing numbers, churches like ours have become quite comfortable in blue jeans.
            Casual dress and easy informal environments are helpful when they remove obstacles that block the path between people and God.  One of the essential accomplishments of God in the flesh – Jesus – was to clear the way so that people could get to God.  Ethnicity, ritual, corrupt leadership – Jesus came to break through these roadblocks and open the way for all people to come to God.  If in 21st American culture informality in church life helps people get to God, then it is good.  This is why at HillSong worship is informal.
            Informal worship becomes damaging when the form leads us to think of God only as our buddy pal.  Jesus is my homeboy!  Um … No!  Jesus is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the master of my life.  Jesus is friend, yes, but a friend I turn to in desperation.  Jesus is not a friend I call back when I get around to it.  Jesus d0es not conform to my schedule.  He is King.  I am at his service.
            Exodus 34 does not say all of this in so many words.  It does give the Bible reader an early, forceful assertion of who God is.  Some background helps.
            God created the earth. God made human beings as God’s managers, the ones made in God’s image.  We are to run the world according to God’s ways.  That’s Genesis 1-2.  We have dropped this assignment.  We’ve rebelled against God, over and over.  In Genesis 3 Eve and Adam eat forbidden fruit.  In Genesis 4, Cain commits the first murder in human history.  Genesis 6-9 brings worldwide sin, the flood, and God starting over with Noah’s family.  By Genesis 11, worldwide sin has returned as humans have completely discarded God and attempted to climb to Heaven on the tower of Babel.
            God continually has to clean the messes we make.  To enlist humans as partners in the effort to maintain holiness, God selects a nation – Israel – to be his holy people.  But, Israel sins as much as the rest of humanity and by the end of Genesis, Israel is in slavery in Egypt.  In agony, Israel cries out and God brings the deliverer, Moses.
            Moses works the wonders of God and leads the people out of Egypt.  With the power of God, Moses parts the Red Sea so that the people may walk through.  Then then nation camps out at the foot of Mount Sinai while Moses climbs to meet with God.  But the people grow restless waiting.  Remember, you and I are part of the story and we are sinners.  We reject God’s ways.  We do our own thing and often, our own thing includes horrible choices that bring pain down on us and those around us.
            Israel sins as much as you and I do.  Sick of waiting for Moses and this God they can’t see, Israel makes a golden calf – a statue of gold shaped like a juvenile cow.  And they say, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt” (Exodus 32:4).  We are wise to not point out how ludicrous this is, worshiping something of your own making.  God saw Israel’s foolishness.  God sees the idiocy of our sins too. 
            God raged at Moses and threatened to wipe the whole nation out and start over with Moses as the new patriarch of a new people.  Moses wants no part of this and bargains and manipulates and pleads.  He argues with the holy God.  Moses begs God to reconsider.  Exodus 32 tells us that God listens to Moses’ appeal.  It says, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people” (32:14).
            That raises questions.  Does God know everything?  Did God know the future?  Did God know in advance that God would change God’s own mind?  If God knew God would change God’s own mind, then was it really a change of mind?  The Bible makes no effort to resolve this.  It says, “And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.” 
            God is a God who meets with human partners in all our sinfulness.  God reacts and responds to things humans do.  Banishing the first couple from the garden; the flood; the conversation with Moses: these are instances in which God changes course after a dynamic engagement with a person.  God does so all the while remaining who He is – God.  God’s sovereignty – His power and authority – are never compromised.  Yet, God is not predictable.  We cannot fit God into categories of sovereignty.  God is as free as God is sovereign. 
            The Lord changed his mind.  Read Exodus 32-34.  God’s chosen people were harshly punished, but not wiped out.  God met with Moses and re-established what had been given and violated.  God gave the 10 commandments and they were broken.  God gave them again.
            For Moses, a new let of law slabs was not enough.  Promises were not enough.  “Show me your glory,” Moses asked (33:18).  A cloud of smoke was not enough.  The passageway through the Red Sea – not enough.  He wanted to see God with his own eyes.  How would God respond to such audacity?  God had already thundered and threatened and now this tiny thing, a human, makes demands? 
            God said, “I will make my goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name, Yahweh. … But you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live” (33:18-20).  Adam and Eve did.  They walked with God, and enjoyed the intimate love of God.  They saw God’s face regularly.  They walked with God in the cool of the day, every day.  Then they threw it away and just as humans were stained with sin, God’s holiness changed.  It had been illuminating.  After Eden it blinding.  Deadly.  But, even with the degradation of sin it wasn’t over because God is not locked in.  God could speak with Moses in person as a friend.
            And in that meeting God said to his friend, “The Lord keeps steadfast love to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity.”  The Lord also said, “The Lord by no means clears the guilty but visits iniquity upon the children of the sinner to the fourth generation.”  The Lord forgives, the Lord remembers for generations.  It becomes unofficial policy.  We will suffer for what our forbearers did. 
            The Babylonian exile was the ultimate example.  The Israelites in the Southern Kingdom of Judah for several generations turned their back on God.  Finally, in 586BC God had had enough!  God sent the mighty Babylonian empire that destroyed Jerusalem and burned the glorious temple of Solomon to the ground, punishment for generations of rebellion.  The children of the sinners were sent to exile in Babylon. 
            But then, in exile, again, God said, enough!  These people have been punished enough.  And God does a new thing.  The people are not ready for it – we never are.  The prophet of exile, the prophet Ezekiel, tells of God’s new word (Ezekiel 18). 
14 But if this man has a son who sees all the sins that his father has done, considers, and does not do likewise… he shall surely live. 18 As for his father, because he practiced extortion, robbed his brother, and did what is not good among his people, he dies for his iniquity.
19 Yet you say, “Why should not the son suffer for the iniquity of the father?” When the son has done what is lawful and right, and has been careful to observe all my statutes, he shall surely live. 20 The person who sins shall die. A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.

            Is this a violation of Exodus policy?  No, this is God exercising God’s freedom.  Both punishment and forgiveness are expressions of God’s love.  The ultimate new act of God’s love was to come in human form, Jesus.  Jesus is God’s new thing.  Jesus is God’s definitive statement of sovereignty and freedom. 
            Jesus is every bit as complicated as the God who forgives to the 1000th generation and at the same time I punish to the 3rd and 4th generations.  Religious experts could not understand him, yet he was accessible to children.
Jesus certainly is holy.  The New Testament book of Hebrews also testifies to Jesus’ holiness.
Most of all, the God who would not punish his people forever, who forgave after the forbidden fruit was eaten, who protected Cain even though Cain was murderer, who opened the Red Sea to let his people pass through knowing they would sin with the golden calf on the other side – that God is fully seen in the love of Jesus on the cross. 
We have the Bible so we can know that God, worship that God, follow that God, exalt that one, the only God.  Before we attempt to define God, we admit our attempts will inevitably come up short.  We’ll try to define God any way.  But we find life and our joy is fulfilled completely when we enter the Bible and meet God.  We get to know God a bit more with turn of each page.  Like any relationship, some points are hard – even painful.  But we keep going deeper and deeper because we know there is nothing else we want or need than to know God. 
Last I week I recommended memorization as a pathway into God’s word.  Then in my newsletter article I recommended reading the Bible through in a year.  I imagine the memorization piece will work for some people and the read-through pathway will help others.
This week, I recommend that you write out specific knowledge of God.  Whether you read 4 chapters or one verse, keep a “God notebook.”  Write how your reading of the Bible helps you see and know God.  It would be interesting to do this daily for 6 months or so then go back and see who this God is that we meet in scripture.

AMEN