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Friday, March 28, 2014

Review of Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther

Girl at the End of the World by Elizabeth Esther is a must read.  I read the book in one day.  The story is so compelling I could not put it down.

The author was raised in a legalistic, fundamentalist cult in which the role of women was to have babies and obey their husbands.  Because she kept a journal all through her growing up, Esther is able to piece together the pain of living in such an oppressive home.  She describes the absurd practices of people who seriously believed the actions of the United States government were directly tied to references in the book of Revelation and who thought the world would end within their lifetimes.  The Bible clearly declares we will not know when the end will be (Mark 13:32); no matter.  The cult acted as if the future were irrelevant and all that mattered was preparation for eternity.  They made predictions about when it would happen (1988) and when those predictions proved foolish, they simply recalculated.

This indifference to the love Christians are called to share with all people along with an extraordinarily selective reading of the scriptures and a horribly unjust male dominance resulted in the cult thoroughly breaking the will of its members while turning a blind eye to systemic abuse. The author not only survived, but lived to describe it.  Yet her depiction is not without pain.  She is exposing her family – the family from which she came. 

Every follower of Jesus Christ should read this simply to see where the Christian faith can go horribly wrong when it is separated from humility and love.  As I read, I took breaks to spend time with my daughter.  I wanted to heap love her to somehow make up for what the author missed.  I wanted to make sure my daughter’s life is the opposite of what Elizabeth Esther experienced.  That’s how much this book affected me.

As I said to begin this review, Girl at the End of the World is a must read.  Enjoyable would be the wrong word.  It is compelling, powerful, heartbreaking, and inspiring.  And the author’s excellent writing of a story that needed to be told will lead readers to be more humble and loving in their own practice of Christian living.

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

Monday, March 24, 2014

My Son, Artist, Dancer

                Convincing my 11-year-old it’s time for bed is not always easy.  But I had a moment, just a moment this evening.
            I was sitting at the top of the stairs looking down the hallway.  I could see in the bathroom just a little bit.  The door was cracked.  I wasn’t exactly watching my son brush his teeth and do the bathroom necessities.  I mean, really, how weird would that be, a dad watching his son in the bathroom.  Creepy!   I was just sitting there on the top step, waiting.  He would finish and then we’d pray together before he went to bed.  My wife was convincing our younger two kids that sleep would be a good idea.  Incidentally, why must children be convinced every single night that sleep is beneficial?  It is as if they forget how much they need it, how good it feels to be rested. 
Every night, I say every night we have … but I digress.  Where was I?  Oh, yes.  I was sitting at the top of the stairs waiting.
I could hear singing; my 11-year-old had a beat in his head.  I looked up.  The toothbrush was in his mouth, but it was not scrubbing a molar.  Both arms were thrust high in the air as he danced.  This was not a particular move, I don’t think.  There was no technique and no music, except what he heard in his head.  But he did hear.  And he delighted to watch himself in the mirror, dancing. 
I too was delighted.  At the moment I thought, thank you.  Thank you God for giving me this boy as my son.
I am into sports big time.  I love sports.  My 11-year-old waffles between mildly interested and completely disinterested.  He likes that fact that the NCAA tournament is on and he watches a little, but he does not care about the teams.  He and I are so different. 
He is an artist.  He sketches and paints and draws.  A small part of me always wanted to do that.  But I didn’t love it so I never developed any skills.  My boy loves it.  No one has to tell him to draw.  He picks up a pencil and creates a world on what was a blank paper.  He has taught himself to sketch complicated pictures.  Sometimes he uses books that tell the steps for a particular drawing.  Sometimes he just copies a picture.  Sometimes he draws from memory; sometimes from imagination.  I could never do that, not the way he does.
He is a dancer.  We force him to go to dance class and he always complains because it involves structure and being under the authority of instructor.  He loathes structure.  He disdains any authority except his own.  He craves free play.  Give him an hour with his friends, he’ll want two.  Give him two, he wants four.  But then, after months of forced dance classes, he absolutely kills it on the stage at the recital and he is so proud.  And we are so proud.  Sometimes he just dances in front the mirror, delighted at the song in his head.  He and I, we are so different.  I am so grateful to be his dad.

After we prayed and the lights went off and I pried away the toys and flashlights he had squirreled under the covers (why must I convince him sleep is good … I digress), he had a rap beat in his head and it started coming out of his mouth.  “Today is my day-ay-ay.  Gonna get my way-ay-ay.”  I shut off the light (except the Christmas lights which he keeps on year round).  And I smiled.  My son is color and rhythm, and tonight as he drifts off to sleep, he’s feeling the beat.  Thank you God for simple pleasures.

"Famous" Christian Authors

The Christian Celebrity

          I am reading a book about “ordinary radicals.”[i]  Though just a bit dated, it is well written, engaging, and still quite relevant.  The author Shane Claiborne advocates for Christians living ‘in community.’  Most of us live in some kind of community.  It may be a community where we don’t really know our neighbors at all.  It may be void of meaningful relationships.  But, most people who read this do not live on farms or in the wilderness, out of eyesight of other humans.  We live in communities however tight knit or internally disconnected those communities may be.
          However Claiborne insists on communal living; couples, families, and singles all in the same house (or sharing row houses or in the same apartment building).  He would say community is not just living in proximity, but sharing life.  I think he’s basically right.  But, implicit in his passionately shared story is the insistence that true Christianity is in the city, where people are gathered densely together.
          I heard another “famous” Christian, Erwin McManus (author of The Barbarian Way), say in an interview that truly radical, ‘barbarian’ Christianity will not be lived out by pastors or people who live in middle class suburbs or small town.  His implication was that those pastors retreated to the safety of the ‘burbs because they did not possess the fiber or robust Christianity rugged city living requires.  They (we) weren’t up to it.  I say ‘we’ acknowledging I am a pastor in an affluent small town/suburban community. 
According McManus, pastors like me are too soft for the tough (read more Jesus-like) faith he writes about and lives.  According to Claiborne, pastors like me are too isolated for the shared (read more Jesus-like) faith he lives.  My backside hurts from being kicked by these fine authors.
And they are indeed, fine authors.  I don’t say that with any irony or sarcasm.  Erwin McManus, Shane Claiborne, Rick Warren, David Platt, Andy Stanley – these famous Christians could not pick me out of a lineup.  They don’t know me and have not criticized me.  When they write, they take to task a straw man: the middle-class small town pastor; the inert, affluent, insulated Christian; the suburban, safe, churchgoer whose faith involves zero risks and zero sacrifice.   The works of these authors are helpful.  I think every American Christian would benefit from reading Barbarian Way, The Irresistible Revolution, and Radical (Platt), to name a few.  It is important to read these and other works prayerfully and personally, but it is equally important not to take them personally.
This is a mistake I tend to make.  I was reading Irresistible Revolution and I was thinking “O gosh, he’s right.  My faith is too safe, too suburban, and not communal enough.”  By the way, where was I read this book?  I was in a bus – a joining together of 21 Christians in intense community, together for 10 days in Ethiopia.  I had to step out of the book and remind myself that I could be blessed by Claiborne’s good observations and at the same time I did not need to defend myself. 
I had traveled across the world to extend community (from North Carolina to Kombolcha, Ethiopia).  I had entered into community with people I had previously known.  I had given myself to the work of God as I thought God wanted me to do so.  My middle class life and how I and my wife choose to live it makes trips like that possible.  We believe we are doing our best to live in obedience to God.  We know we make mistakes and are not perfect.  But God is our standard.  Not Shane Claiborne.
He would agree.  He might want me to sell my house and discover the wonders of community he has found, but not for the sake of conforming to him.  Shane Claiborne is not attacking me.  Neither was McManus in the interview.  He stated his view and did it in a very cocky fashion.  But that’s Erwin McManus.  These authors may arrogantly see their discoveries as the way Americans are supposed to follow Jesus.  I know that’s not right.  I know there are many manifestations of the Jesus-life.  The arrogance some authors project is something God will confront.  God has not appointed me to do this.
Books by good Christian authors are a gift, especially critical books.  They must be read critically and prayerfully and, as I said, personally.  It is OK for me (or you) as a reader to be confronted.  God may have put that book in my hand so God could confront me through it.  The important thing is I am being confronted by God (not McManus or Stanley or Claiborne).  Those authors are as I am – humans in the service of Jesus.  Jesus is supposed to get the glory and honor. 
My conclusion?  I will continue to read and read a lot.  I will thank God for books and pray that my heart and mind will be open to learning and growing every time I read.  I will (try) not to get defensive or frustrated with an author.  If I disagree with what I read, I will try to think critically and with sophistication so that my dissenting views make sense Biblically and logically. 
And as a pastor, I urge you, my readers, to read good Christian writing, but always read critically.  There is no Gospel according to Rick Warren or according to Billy Graham.  Famous Christians are people through whom God speaks, but it is God that we worship.  Anyone else can be questioned and argued against.  Anyone else can be someone God uses to teach us.  Appreciate good writing.  Save the adoration for God.

[i] Shane Claiborne (2006).  The Irresistible Revolution, Zondervan, Grand Rapids.

Jesus Pauses for the Woman at the Well

Jesus Pauses (John 4:3-30, 39-42)

            “Jesus pauses.”  It is not as commonly quoted as “Jesus wept.”  In fact, it is not actually a Bible verse at all.  But it is something Jesus does.  He pauses.  Jesus moves with intention.  His actions have purpose and, it appears, he always has a plan.  Sometimes though, he steps off book, out of the plan.  Sometimes, he delays his movement.  He pauses because we need him to pause.  Whenever we see Jesus do something to help people, something seemingly spontaneous, we ought to know he is in the act of showing what God does.  God pauses to help.
            I thought about saying “Jesus stops.”  It certainly wouldn’t be wrong to say it that way.  Jesus and the disciples were headed North on the road and in fact they did stop.  “Jesus stops” is not radically different than “Jesus pauses.”  However, this is such a brief rest stop and even more than brief, unexpected, that I thought ‘pauses’ gets more to the heart of what we see of God in this story.
            Note verse 3 and the beginning of 4.  “Jesus left Judea and started for Galilee again.  This time he had to go through Samaria, and on his way he came to the town of Sychar.”  From later in the story and also from other accounts in this Gospel and also in Luke’s Gospel, we know there was tremendous animosity between Jews and Samaritans.  Samaritans were descendants of the intermarrying of Jews and the ancient Assyrians.  Thus, the Jews hated them for making the race impure.  This all sounds awful to us but we are far removed from that time in history.  It made sense to the people back then.  “You are a Jew,” she said to Jesus.  “And I am a Samaritan woman.  How can you ask me for a drink of water when Jews and Samaritans won’t have anything to do with each other” (v.9)?
            She did not question the reality of racism.  She accepted it.  She did not blame the Jews nor accept any blame on Samaria’s behalf.  Jews and Samaritans hated each other.  That was reality.  She knew it.  Jesus knew it.  There were Jew in Northern communities and the capital and center of Jewish life was Jerusalem, in the south.  For Northern Jews like Jesus to come from their homes in Galilee to festivals at the temple in Jerusalem, they had to pass through Samaria.  And to get back home, they had to pass through Samaria again.  This was all normal.  Jesus, the disciples, the woman – each knew this was life in their time.  To hate, that was life.  To walk in the region of the people we hate, that was life.  To be thirsty from hours of walking in the hot sun, that too was life.
            What did verse 3 say?  Jesus was on the moved, headed for the work God prepared for him in Galilee.  Samaria was not on the agenda.  He had come to Israel.  This was such an unimportant stop; it seems there was no reason for John to write about it. 
            Then Jesus stepped out of character.  He, a Jewish man, made the most normal of activities, drinking water while thirsty, an extraordinary thing when he asked for that drink from a Samaritan woman.  She pointed out the absurdity of his request.  Men don’t talk to unaccompanied women in the public square.  Jewish men don’t address Samaritan women in any circumstance.
            Jesus responded by pointing out the absurdity of the existence of hate among people.  He dared to announce that the emperor had no clothes.  “You don’t the gift God wants to give you.”  He replied.  “If you did, you would ask and I would give you living water.  Life-giving water.  Water that would quench your thirst forever” (paraphrasing v. 10, 13).  This was exactly when Jesus paused.
            She did not know that.  She could only see him as some kind of loopy prophets.  Prophets and doomsayers were forever coming along from the Jews.  She was bored enough to enter the fray.  She turned from nonsense talk of living water to theology.  She, rightfully, claimed the great Patriarch Jacob, as her ancestor.  She, like the Pharisees, would nail Jesus with deft theological reasoning.  “Are you greater than Jacob,” she asked with a raised eyebrow.
            Theology can be really safe when it is not personal.  When it is removed from my life and serves as an intellectual abstraction, theology never has to matter.  I love theology.  I read heavy doses of theological writing.  It informs my preaching and my living.  But it becomes irrelevant if it goes silent when I close the book.  The theology Jesus lived could not be contained in a book.  He would not let this woman escape his gaze by retreating to theological strongholds. 
            “No who drinks the water I give will ever be thirsty again.” He responded.  “The water I give is like a flowing fountain that gives eternal life” (v.14).
            Cue her eye roll.  She was sure he was a prophet.  A clamoring, impotent false prophet.  He wouldn’t be swayed by her attempts that theology, so she would play along.  If he wanted to be ridiculous, she’d join this odd, out of place Jew and have a little fun.  “Sir, please give me a drink of this water.  Then I won’t have to get thirsty and keep coming back to this well, day after day” (paraphrased, v.15).
            Jesus was done playing games.  He told her to call her husband.  And she had had it.  She was done with the games too.  “I don’t have a husband.”  Who cares if this crazy Jew ridiculed her?  The women in town came to the well in community, but she, a woman discarded by too many men, was no longer welcome in that community.  Her Samaritan sisters disregarded her as much as they disregarded the Jews.  This coo-coo Jewish man was showing her more kindness than anyone had in a long time.  What the heck?  Just tell the truth.  “I don’t have a husband.”
            Prophecy is only from God when it matters, when it is true, and when it is personal.  Jesus delivered blunt, prophetic truth.  “You don’t have a husband.  Five have cast you out.  Now, the man with whom you live doesn’t even bother recognizing you as a wife.  He satisfies himself with your company.  He gives you no regard, no respect.”
            She was completely bare before Jesus.  Oh, her clothes were still on.  But he sees everything.  He saw right to her heart.  He saw her deepest pain. That’s what Jesus does.  He is always, always on his way somewhere.  And he always, always, pauses to look us right in the eye and pierce our souls with truth and love.  Jesus did that with this woman, and we see what God does with us. 
            For her part, the woman was not laughing anymore.  She again raised issues of theology, but this time, she was quite serious and ready to listen.  Then she moved from theology to faith.  “I know the Messiah will come,” she said, “and he will explain everything” (v.26). 
            Jesus responded, “I am he.”
            To review, Jesus paused along the way to Galilee and asked a Samaritan woman for water.  As he did he told her God wanted to give a gift, a gift of living water that would give eternal life.  They carried on a conversation that was times amusing and at times quite serious, personal, and even invasive.  But in the end, she said, she believed in God’s Messiah.  Jesus responded he was that Messiah and he already told her two things.  First, he told her God wanted worshipers to worshiper in spirit and in truth.  It did not matter where worship happened as long as it happened in spirit and in truth.  Second, Jesus told her he could give things only God could give.  And she believed, at least partly.  She believed as much as she could and that bit of faith was enough.  Jesus met her where she was.  He paused on his predestined journey for someone who was in deep pain and who was open to the truth.
            Does that describe us?  Is there pain in me?  Oh yeah.  You?  Definitely.  We live in the legacy of sin.  To be human is to be created “very good.”  To be human is to bear the image of God.  We are the pinnacle of God’s creation.  But, the fall has damaged what God has made.  In our own lives, we re-create Eve’s moment of choice in the garden.  In our own lives, we stare at the forbidden fruit.  And we choose to bite it.  Not every time.  Sometimes we heroically win the victories Jesus won when he resisted Satan’s temptations in the desert.  Sometimes, we choose not to sin.  Too often it goes the other way.  We are sinners.
            Sin hurts.  We are hurt by our mistakes.  We suffer pain from the sins of people who have come before us.  We are injured by sins of people around us.  And our friends and neighbors and the people who we pass daily are wounded by our sins.  This is the legacy of the fall.  Jesus Paused for someone in pain.  Are we individuals and collectively a people in pain?  There is no doubt.
            The woman at the well, though, was not only one in pain.  She was also open to seeing God.  She made not have known just how ready she was to receive salvation.  She wasn’t intentionally seeking.  She was just about the drudgery of a toilsome daily task – hauling heavy buckets of water from the well to her cottage.  That’s where God shows up.  People want “mountain top experiences.”  People want to come to church and to be lifted out of their seats by the majesty of the music.  People want to be carried to the heavens by the fury and brilliance of the preaching.  Maybe that happens in some places.  But what preacher in history could top Jesus?  And what was his genius opening line with this woman?  “Can I have a drink of water?”
            God meets us in our plain, everyday, mundane places.  God meets us where we live.  There God acknowledges the pains and disappointments we live with.  God does not deny or minimize the harder parts of life.  God brings living water to our thirsty lives.  God pauses so that we can see Him if we are willing to believe there is something more than what our eyes see. 
            Remember the beginning of this passage.  Jesus left Judea and started for Galilee.  He had to pass through Samaria.  But that region was not a scheduled stop.  His mission was to announce the Kingdom of God among the Jews.  That mission did not include a side trip in Samaria.  However, he met a woman who listened and received the gift God wanted to give.
            In the epilogue of this amazingly simple yet deeply profound story, the woman ran to the town who shunned her for circumstances she most certainly could not control.  In such a tight-knit community, a woman 5 times divorced would be known and scorned.  Everyone knew who she was and avoided her.  But here she was shouting in the center of town.  She was so excited to be that close to God, she told the very people who had been cruel to her.
            For their part, they investigated and Jesus was so compelling and inviting, they asked him to stay with them and he did.  Remember, he was on his way somewhere and just paused to get a drink and share the good news of God’s coming with a woman who was in deep pain and was willing to hear him.  From that pause, John tells us, “he stayed on for two days” (v.40). 
            The people said to the woman, “We no longer have faith in Jesus just because of what you have told us.  We have heard him ourselves, and we are certain he is the Savior of the world” (v.41).  It does not matter how many husbands she has had.  It does not matter if Jesus is Jewish and they are Samaritan.  This is bigger than all that.  Upon hearing, they realized the gift God wanted to give.
            God still wants to give that gift.  The story of Jesus – cross and resurrection – is the story of God coming because God wants to give people life.  God wants to give you and me eternal life as adopted sons and daughters of God.  God pauses and comes beside us because he loves.  That’s what God does.  When God pauses, be ready for the unexpected.  Be ready to receive love and grace.  When God pauses, we also pause to listen to Him that we might receive the abundant life he offers.


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Bible Journaling

In January and February, I blogged about different pathways into reading scripture.  Here is another, one I preached about 6 years ago.

 Application of Two Spiritual Disciplines, study and meditation, to the reading of Scripture
Rob Tennant, Sunday, April 13, 2008

          I want to pick up right where we left off last week.  We read 1 Peter 1:16, where God says, “Be holy, for I am holy.”  I spent 20 minutes describing a process in which those who are born again, saved from sin by putting faith in the crucifixion of Jesus, are then commanded to live holy lives.  That was the bulk of the message.  If a person received Jesus, then that person is called to be holy.
          At the end of the message, I cited 5 spiritual disciplines that all Christians should submit to in order to be conditioned for holiness.  The Holy Spirit is who will truly enable us to lead holy lives.  The Holy Spirit comes at His own initiative, not ours.  We don’t control Him.  But, I do believe, He comes more often than we know.  We miss Him, because we aren’t ready to receive Him when he comes. 
          Submitting our lives to these disciplines increases our readiness.  There are many disciplines that can prepare a person to walk in the way of Christ and have a heart that is ready to receive the Spirit.  Dallas Willard writes, “A discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort”.[i] Slide 1 He’s speaking specifically of exercising the disciplines to condition oneself so that one is able to live as a disciple of Jesus.  I fast or I worship or I undergo the discipline of silence to refocus my mind and heart so that I can live as Jesus would have me live.
          Willard’s description is helpful, but there is more to it.  Richard Foster writes that the disciplines “invite us to explore the inner caverns of the spiritual realms”.[ii] Slide 2 He says the “purpose of spiritual discipline is spiritual growth.”[iii]  I think a better way of putting it is growth in the spirit, and the spirit awakening in meSlide 3 The Holy Spirit is in all places and in all people.  But not all people are full of Spirit, because most of us are not attentive.  We don’t listen and we don’t ask God to come in.  If we did, He would.  He would fill us with the baptism of the Spirit and we would walk in holiness. 
No Slides
This is the next step after salvation.  One is saved from the bondage of sin by confessing faith in Jesus.  And thus being born again, one is called into holiness, living set apart from the world and to God.  Willard says the 4 essential disciplines for discipleship are solitude and silence, and study and worship.  Last week, when we talked about holiness, I suggested that there are 5 disciplines every Christian should apply on a regular basis. Slide 4
-         Prayer
-         Witness (by this I meant lifestyle witness; our actions, words, thoughts and treatment of people, especially nonbelievers, emits the very fragrance of Christ)
-         Worship
-         Study
-         Meditation
Worship is a corporate discipline.  A person can worship alone and that is encouraged.  But here, I am specifically thinking of worshipping with the body of believers.  This should be done weekly, without fail, save for illness.  Witness is a discipline in the world, in our engagement with people who have no connection with Jesus.  We live in the Heavenly Kingdom even as we live in our daily surroundings.  In this morning’s reading, 1 Peter 1:17, we are reminded that we are exiles in this place.  Heaven is our home, but we are here for God’s purpose.  Worship is corporate, a disciple practiced with our brothers and sisters in Christ.  Witness is evangelical, a discipline practiced among the unsaved. 
The other three disciplines I mentioned are solitary – prayer, study, and meditation.  These a person does alone and in fact it would be hard to do these in crowds and where there is commotion.  Quiet and solitude are needed for focus.  We talked frequently about prayer in the weeks leading up to Easter.  Those messages included mention of Jesus removing himself from the crowds and going away so he could be alone for prayer.  This morning, we’re going to deal with two other disciplines also done alone - study and meditation.
No Slide
Because we are taking the journey through 1st and 2nd Peter, we’ll treat these disciplines as they relate to specific passages of scripture.  You could study a topic, like resurrection.  You’d go through the Gospels and the letters of Paul and Peter and John and James, and you’d write down all the texts related to resurrection.  Maybe read several of them side by side and draw conclusions and apply those conclusions to your life.  That’s a topical study.  Or, there are book studies.  Maybe you’re part of a group that is reading Warren’s The Purpose Drive Life, or Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace.  Your study would certainly engage the Bible at some level, but you’d be under the guidance of the author. 
Those are fine ways to study, but what we will deal with this morning is study of a particular passage.  Likewise, we will deal with meditation upon a particular passage.  There are numerous forms of meditation.  Our focus is meditation upon scripture.
I felt it was necessary to discuss these things, and my thoughts were confirmed after the worship time last week.  Someone approached and joyfully, enthusiastically said she was going to commit to all five disciplines I mentioned.  I believe her.  I believe she has spent this week doing just what she said she would.  It’s a joy to know that our people are engaged in developing their spiritual sensitivity and in listening to the Lord.  However, her comment reminded me of my own enthusiasm when I attend conferences. 
I sit in a conference or a workshop and I am fired up.  I write down a million ideas that I am determined to apply so that I will know God better, see more of Jesus, and represent Him well in the world.  But then I get home from the conference, and toss the packet and the books I bought on the shelf.  I get caught up in the cares of daily life.  And those commitments I was so excited to make are quickly forgotten.
When I got home last week, I imagined someone from HillSong at his home on a Monday morning.  “OK, Pastor Rob says we’re supposed to study the Bible.  So, I am going to study the Bible.”  And the good hearted Christian gets up early, while the house is still quiet.  He sits in a living room chair.  The only light is the lamp.  The steam rises from his coffee.  He stares at his Bible.  And boy does it look thick!  Where should he begin?  “Well, the sermons are on 1st Peter.  Maybe I’ll study 1st Peter.”  So, he opens and begins reading.  At the end of chapter 1, he stops.  Now what?  He’s read the Bible.  But, there’s more to study than that, isn’t there?
The process I am recommending to you is one you can apply in about 45 minutes.  You can do this early in the morning, which is a great way to start the day.  And, then, you can review for about 5-10 minutes before bed at night.  If your time for study and meditation will be more profitable at night or during a lunch hour, do it then.  Parents of young children will probably have to do this while the kids are in bed.  Folks with roommates might have to do this in a quiet place away from the dorm room or apartment.  Find the time when your energy can be focused.  Find the space where you will not be interrupted by outside sounds.
What materials do you need? 

(Slide 5)
What Materials?
1) Bible
2) Colored Pens or Pencils
3) Notebook
4) 1 bland note card (3 x 5 or 4 x 6)

(slide 6)
Bible Versions
Not to Use (For Study)
1) Not a Paraphrase (The Message, The Living Bible)
2) Not the King James Version
** These are wonderful for meditation

(Slide 7)
Some Good Translations
New International Version (NIV)
English Standard Version (ESV)
Holman Standard Christian Bible (HSBC)
New King James Version (NKJV)
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
New Living Translation (NLT)
Good News Bible: Today’s English Version (TEV)

          OK.  Now, you’ve got the quiet time in a secluded space.  You’re comfortable.  You have your Bible in a good translation.  You have notebook and a couple of pens.  What do you do first?  Set the notebook, Bible, and writing implements on the floor.  Close your eyes.  Set your hands comfortably on your knees.  You are sitting in a comfortable posture, but also an alert posture.  Do the best you can to quiet your mind.  Invite the presence of God.  “Holy Spirit, please come into this place.  Fill my heart, and speak to my mind, and enable me to hear what you are saying.”  Imagine the spirit slowly filling you from your feet, up your legs, up your torso and arms, all the way to your head.  You are covered in the spirit. 
          I know this feels meditative.  We aren’t to meditation yet.  But, we begin study meditatively because our study isn’t for the purpose of expanding our knowledge.  That will happen.  But the purpose of our study is to meet God in His word, to know His word, and to be affected by His word.  I asked a friend who is someone committed to Biblical scholarship why study is so important.  He said, “God has spoken.  We need to know what he has said.”[iv]   We need to know so we can obey.  Obedience is the reason we do this.  We want to conform our lives to God’s word.
          So, after a minute of quiet time, open to your text and read the passage all the way through.  Our text for today is 1 Peter 1:17-23.
Slides 8-9
17If you invoke as Father the one who judges all people impartially according to their deeds, live in reverent fear during the time of your exile.

18You know that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors, not with perishable things like silver or gold,

19but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without defect or blemish.

20He was destined before the foundation of the world, but was revealed at the end of the ages for your sake.

21Through him you have come to trust in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are set on God.

22Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.

23You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word
of God.

          Slide 10
As you read, be attentive to ideas that pop into your mind.  Write them down in the notebook.  Be aware of questions and write them also. If something in the passage evokes a memory or an image; write it in the notebook.  If another scripture comes to mind, write that down.  If you think of relationships or encounters you have in your life lately, write it.  This is kind of a brain dump, a free flow of ideas.  The scripture is interacting with everything else that’s in here.  You’ve spent a minute at the beginning quietly emptying yourself.  That doesn’t mean your experiences and memories are dormant.  It just means now, they are informed by God’s word and we see our lives in light of God’s word.
Slide 11
Taking our example, I read in verse 17, “Live in reverent fear during your time in exile.”  I write “reverent fear?”  “Exile?”  I might wonder, what does it mean to live in reverent fear?  What does the Biblical author mean to say believers are in exile?  I don’t know what exile is like.  I am an American.  I live with freedom and democracy.  I can drive from here to San Diego and back without any complicated border crossings.  I don’t know exile.
If you have read about people in other parts of the world who have been sent into exile, or if you have had experience with refugees, you may want to pause and write extensively about this in your notebook.  It could be that in your study today, you don’t get past 1 verse, 1 Peter 1:17.  That’s Ok.  Verse 18 will be there tomorrow morning.  Today, the ideas flow and your write about it.  Or, verse 17 doesn’t catch your attention at all.
No Slides
You’re captivated by verse 18 & 19.  “You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your ancestors … with the precious blood of Christ.”  Maybe you underline in your bible in blue or red, “Ransomed from the futile ways” because it evokes in you strong emotion about some things that feel like useless baggage that is dragging you down.  As you think about it, you are overwhelmed by your sense of the grip of sin.  And you stop right there and confess.  Write your confession and your feelings in your notebook.  Write the thoughts that rise up as your read that you are ransomed by the blood of Christ. 
You see, you go through verse by verse listening to the scripture.  Perhaps your questions are analytical.  How does this compare with what the Apostle Paul wrote about salvation from sins?  How is what I find here influenced by the sayings and life of Jesus?  As you compile questions, you might note some that you will ask of the pastor or some friend whom you know is well versed in the Bible.  Or, you may work on your own, coming back later and reading commentaries or Bible dictionaries.  That’s all later.  This is a 45-minute time of engagement with the Bible. 
After you have been at it for about 30 minutes or so, stop writing and reading.  As I said, you may not get all the way through the text, but that’s OK.  You’re trying to come face to face with the word of God, and you may spend a day or several days on just a few verses.  When I kept a notebook of my reading of Genesis, it took me almost a week to get through chapter 1.  When I did Philippians in this way, it took nearly 3 weeks, and that letter only has 4 chapters.  Take your time and allow the words to fix themselves on your mind.
This is not academic study.  That involves engaging the text in its original language and that takes much more than 45 minutes.  What I have prescribed here is flexible depending on your knowledge of and experience with scripture.  You can do this if you are novice or if you have read the Bible all your life.  I had already read the Bible through twice when I began this practice. 
When you’ve completed 30 minutes of engagement and initial response, then take about 5 minutes to write some conclusions.    Perhaps from this passage you are led to rest on verse 22. “22Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.”  You read that and conclude that life in the community of people ransomed by the blood of Jesus, in other words, life in the church, is defined by love.  God loved us enough to send Jesus to shed his own blood on our behalf.  And our response to Him is to live in holiness.  And one of the marks of holiness is love among each other in the community.  So today, in order for me to live in holiness, I have to express the love of Jesus to people.  And as it says in verse 22, this is a deep love, a love that is from the heart.  Slide 12
Now, you have a page full of notes and you’ve done some real thinking on these words of scripture.  Again, it’s not the study you’d do in a seminary course, but we aren’t in a seminary course.  You still have to shower, and go to work as a teacher or as a pharmacist, or when the kids wake up, you are full-time mom!  This is study of God’s word you do as a spiritual discipline so that God’s word will speak in your life.  That’s why it is so necessary to add another discipline – meditation.
No Slide
Meditation is different than study.  It only occupies the last 5 or 10 minutes of our 45-minute set aside time.  But, meditation speaks throughout the day.  Richard Foster says that meditation is where we move from “theological dogma [or from our conclusions about scripture] to the radiant reality” of God speaking to us.[v]  As my friend said of why we study, because God has spoken and we need to know what he said, I would of meditation, the reason we do it is God is still speaking.  We need to hear Him
The open Bible is there, as is the page of notes you’ve worked on.  Now, for a moment, close your eyes, relax your body, and take a deep breath.  Then pray,
Slide 13
“O Lord, by your abundant grace, put in me the desire to hear you, know you, obey you, and follow you.  Put in me the deep desire to see Jesus.  Give me the gifts of grace and the full revelation of the Holy Spirit.” 

We won’t have this desire naturally, but it’s OK to ask for it.
So we once more look at our passage in 1 Peter because the bridge from study to meditation is a Vacation Bible School exercise that is as powerful for adults as it is kids – scripture memorization.  Look at your notes and your reading and choose a verse to memorize.  Write it out on the index card.  Based on what we’ve said about 1st Peter this morning, I’d try to memorize the last part of verse 22.
“Love one another deeply from the heart.”
Slide 14
With eyes closed, speaking in your heart, repeat this phrase.  “Love one another deeply from the heart.” “Love one another deeply from the heart.”  As you softly repeat this phrase so that it dances through your consciousness to the rhythm of your heartbeat, allow the people you will see in the day to come across your mind.  You children who will be getting up soon; “love one another deeply from the heart.”  The boss who is unfairly hard on you at work; “love one another deeply from the heart.”  The girlfriend who has threatened to break up with you; “love one another deeply from the heart.”  The friend at church who is going through such pain as he watches his father die of heart failure; “love one another deeply from the heart.”
Stay with this meditation upon this simple phrase from God’s word in 1st Peter for a few moments.  Then, when you know it is time, say, AMEN.  No Slide Put your pen, your Bible, and your notebook away.  Put your index card with your memory verse with your wallet and your keys.  This goes with you through out the day.  Pull it out while waiting at a red light.  Let it speak in your heart at stressful moments, in periods of boredom, and in celebrations.  And when the day is done, look at the verse one last time before the lights go out and you’re off to sleep.  “Love one another deeply, from the heart.”
This is one way of committing to the disciplines of study and meditation.  There are many others and there are other equally valuable disciplines.  Do what you need to do to structure life and condition the heart to be ready to meet Jesus and receive the Spirit.  And we will continue to encounter the truth next week in 1st Peter, chapter 2.

[i] Willard (1997), Diving Conspiracy, p.353.
[ii] Foster (1978), Celebration of Discipline, p.1
[iii] Foster, p.8.
[iv] John Charles, in a conversation at HillSong Church, 4-7-2008.
[v] Foster, p.19.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Free In Christ (Philemon 1:21, 25)

Ash Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Several years ago, I visited a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. Some of the people there were in their 40's or older, some barely in their 20’s. There were black and white people, men and women. Everyone there needed help staying off drugs. Some attended 5 or 6 meetings each week. I thought it was excessive. I was wrong.  Heroin, cocaine, crystal meth:  under that spell, you can't will yourself free. You're a slave to the substance. Only by the grace of God and the help of others can you claim victory over the addiction. Every person there admitted he or she was an addict and would be an addict the rest of his or her life. But, being an addict does not mean you have to stay under the influence of the drug. Going to 5 or 6 meetings, spending time with others who are also fighting the addiction, praying, and appealing to the Lord can bring freedom.
I was a total outsider at that meeting. I am not an addict. When these people, who had bodies broken down from years of drug use, gave their testimonies, I felt distant. I lacked knowledge, and I was glad that I didn't know how they felt. But, I am not any cleaner or any more innocent or virtuous than those regulars at NA meetings.
I may not sin by getting high, but I sin in a 1000 other ways. I am guilty of sins. We all are. Even the faithful parent, the devout Christian, the good citizen falls short of God's glory. We're all in the same boat. We may not go to Narcotics Anonymous, but we have our own group.  It is called church.  It is where are reminded of how much we need Jesus.  We are also reminded that because Christ is in us, we have joy.  He gives abundant life.  In Jesus Christ, we are redeemed, born again.
Confession is an ongoing part of our lives as followers of Jesus.  In Romans, Paul sets the course.  We are in Christ, free from sin’s clutches.  He writes in chapter 6,
As surely as we died with Christ, we believe we will also live with him. We know that death no longer has any power over Christ. He died and was raised to life, never again to die. 10 When Christ died, he died for sin once and for all. But now he is alive, and he lives only for God. 11 In the same way, you must think of yourselves as dead to the power of sin. But Christ Jesus has given life to you, and you live for God.
12 Don’t let sin rule your body. After all, your body is bound to die, so don’t obey its desires 13 or let any part of it become a slave of evil. Give yourselves to God, as people who have been raised from death to life. Make every part of your body a slave that pleases God. 14 Don’t let sin keep ruling your lives. You are ruled by God’s kindness and not by the Law.
22 Now you have been set free from sin, and you are God’s slaves. This will make you holy and will lead you to eternal life. 23 Sin pays off with death. But God’s gift is eternal life given by Jesus Christ our Lord.

Yet, though we are free from sin, still we make mistakes, let God down, and do things to hurt ourselves and others.  We sin.  We are being made perfect, but the work of God in us is not finished.  God’s work is complete in that Jesus has accomplished all that is needed for salvation with his death on the cross.  Yet, we still stand astride two worlds – the fallen world where sin roams, Satan rules, and death threatens, and the Kingdom of God were our hope is resurrection.  Too often we live oriented toward the fallen.  We don’t realize who we are in Christ and who we are becoming in Christ. 
One of the ways to face the reality, the truth about ourselves, is to make confession a regular practice.  Lent, the 40 days leading up to Easter is a special time of acknowledging sin, turning away from it and turning to God.  Confession is painful but it is also a time of renewal.  Who we are and who are becoming in Christ becomes clearer. 
At HillSong, our theme through Lent, then Easter and then into the rest of the year 2014 is identity.  Who am I when I see myself as one who is “in Christ?”  I am free.  I am free to be completely honest with God – honest about all that is in me, my hopes, my failures, my uncertainties.  I am free to love and free from embarrassment.  I am free to invite people to turn to Jesus; How they respond is between them and Him.  I am free to worship, to pray, to laugh, to cry; and to confess.  The Father of beckons us to come to Him.
One of the speakers at the Narcotics Anonymous meeting I attended was celebrating her 16th year of being clean and sober. She gave the glory and the credit to Jesus Christ. That's what Jesus does. He frees us from the shackles of sin and when he does, life changes for us and people who know us. 
This freedom and the changes that are part of it are themes in Paul's letter to Philemon. The last of Paul’s letters in the New Testament, situated between Titus and Hebrews, Philemon is a story about three men.  Paul is an evangelist and church starter.  Onesimus is a runaway slave who becomes a Christian when he meets Paul in prison.  Philemon is the slave's owner and also someone led to Christ by Paul. In the relationship of these three men, oppressive social structures of a sinful class system fade to the background.  The light of Christ and who we are in Christ shines.
            Paul begins the letter like this.
From Paul, who is in jail for serving Christ Jesus, and from Timothy, who is like a brother because of our faith.
Philemon, you work with us and are very dear to us. This letter is to you and to the church that meets in your home. It is also to our dear friend Apphia and to Archippus, who serves the Lord as we do.

               Pauls’ words inspired by the Spirit and containing truth for all Christians, have specific ramifications for Philemon’s life. He owns Onesimus.  This man is his property.  He can punish Onesimus for running away. He would be expected to, at the least, issue a severe flogging.  He might even be justified in killing Onesimus. Paul has something else in mind.  Paul never offers social commentary on the institution of slavery, much though we wish he had.  Instead, he speaks to his brother in Christ, Philemon.
“Philemon, you're a Christian now,” He says. “So too is Onesimus. The world may treat sin with anger and punishment. But, Jesus doesn't do that. Jesus forgives all who humbly seek forgiveness. You Philemon must treat your slave's transgression with love and forgiveness.” Because of the freedom we have in Christ, the relationship changes.  The world will not recognize such a change as something good.  Philemon gains nothing if he loves Onesimus as a brother.  His peers won’t be impressed.  His social status will not improve and might actually decline a bit. 
But, we are in Christ.  Impressing people is no longer important.  We love people; people who have wronged us, stolen from us, hurt us.  We are free from guilt and free from grudges.  We are free because of Jesus’ forgiveness.   We are free to give forgiveness. 
At the end of the letter, Paul speaks of hope. He hopes that Philemon will exceed the minimum requirements in his Christ-love for the former slave, Onesimus (v.21). He hopes he can come and visit Philemon (v.22). 
Paul writes,
Epaphras is also here in jail for being a follower of Christ Jesus. He sends his greetings, 24 and so do Mark, Aristarchus, Demas, and Luke, who work together with me.
25 I pray that the Lord Jesus Christ will be kind to you!

All this is written by Paul, from prison.  Because of Christ he is free not to wallow is in squalor.  He is free from self-pity. Forgiven he is free from his own sin; born again with the promise of resurrection, he is free from fear of death.  He doesn't know if he'll get out of prison. He doesn't know if he will ever see Philemon again. All he knows is that God is in control. What the prison officials and Roman authorities say is inconsequential to Paul. He will hope in Christ and live in Christ. He wants Philemon to do the same.
Can Philemon do that?  He is being challenged to change the way he sees the world. Love Onesimus, a slave?  Can he do that?  He can if sees that he himself is one who has been freed from slavery to sin. 
You and I can change the way we see the world if we first understand the lesson from those who battle addiction.  We are all enslaved and our only hope is Jesus.  Once we have that hope, once we live in the freedom he gives, we become new people.  Yes, Philemon can love the one who was his slave and is now his brother because he is in Christ.  Yes, the addict can have joy, freedom, meaningful life, life that contributes to the greater good of God’s world.  That happens for the addict who is in Christ.  Yes, you and I are in Christ when we receive forgiveness, die to self, and recognize that He is Lord – Savior and Lord.  We absolutely need Him.  He comes to all who recognize their need for him.
Confession is a spiritual discipline that enables us to see who we are in Christ.  Already this evening, you have written down sins in your life.  No one knows what you wrote.  Those cards have been burned up.  We will now take the ashes and form the cross on our foreheads.  We are reminded that our sins have gone up flames, flames of love, the love of God.  Jesus has taken our sins and the punishment for them on himself.  We take Him into us. 
After tonight, I encourage you to explore ways that confession can be your Lenten discipline.  Maybe it involves specific reconciliation.  You go to someone to attempt forgiveness and the restoration of the relationship.  Maybe you will read Psalms of confession throughout Lent.  Maybe fasting will be a way of drawing to the surface buried guilt that needs to be given to God.  Maybe you’ll continue keeping a God notebook where you read scripture, learn about God, write the insights, and to it add what you learn about yourself as you seek God and walk with the Spirit. 
This season, these 40 days leading to Easter, is a call.  God invites us to give our hearts to Him.  May this be a season of confession and discovery.  We don’t just list the mistakes we’ve made.  We receive the grace of God.
As I think about confession and the occasion of Ash Wednesday, I close with the comments of Professor Debra Dean Murphy of West Virginia Wesleyan College.
Ashes are the residue of death. They are the ruins, the remains of something no longer alive, no longer with us. Ashes are all that’s left when a house burns down or when a body is cremated. And so it is fitting that we wear this sooty tattoo as we identify with Jesus and his journey toward death. A journey into, not around, suffering.

We don’t receive this sign of the cross as a symbol of our own righteousness. We receive the ashes because we’ve been asked to confront death—and the death-dealing ways of the world.
The black sooty cross that we wear on Ash Wednesday is ultimately a sign of love, for it is love alone that conquers death. Among the rubble and ruin of Wednesday’s ashes is a black, organic substance that marks us as God’s own beloved.[i]

We stand as people forgiven, free to live joyfully in Christ. 

Pastor Heather will now lead us in the service of receiving ashes.