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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

What Lights Your Fire?

            Right now our church has a member on a trip to South Africa and two others in the Dominican Republic.  We go on a lot of overseas trips and trips in the U.S.  The people who participate in and support these trips (usually to care for at-risk kids) are passionate about the call of God to love the ‘least of these’ (Mt. 25:40).  Preparing for trips and going on trips ignites something in their hearts.
            Many others in the church do not go on these trips.  It is entirely possible that a few people might not want to hear about another mission trip.  Enough already!  Are these who are not as fired up about this type of ministry bad Christians?  Not necessarily.  Maybe God has created them in a way that other expressions of faith energize them.
            Some get pumped up by worship.  Some find their faith fueled by silent meditation.  Some are easily excited by an open Bible, stacks of academic commentaries, and hours free for study.  Others are ready to express Jesus’ love to senior adults and those who are disabled.  Others still really want to do ministry to children – the children who are in the church. 
            The point is there are many forms of expression for the Christ-follower.  I do not say this in terms of a ‘menu,’ as in, ‘find what you like best and do that.’  Calling is God’s initiative in our lives and every calling includes difficulties.  Every calling will run up against walls of discouragement.  Not a one is easy. 
            When you discover your calling (and you will have more than just one in your lifetime) you find yourself enthused by the notion of it.  And when you are in the calling God has for you, the challenges, daunting though they may be, are no match for the passionate that burns within you.  Depending on God, you’ll see the challenges as things to overcome as you live in the rhythm and joy God has prepared for you, doing whatever it is God has called you to do. 
            As a high school senior, I felt called to spread the news that following Jesus is more fun, adventurous and rewarding than alcohol and drug-induced partying.  Under the influence of writers like Tony Campolo and Luke (as in The Gospel According to St. Luke), I wanted to scream from the top of my lungs, “The Kingdom of God is a Party.”  For me it was not just a slogan.  It was a calling that drove me to do a lot of things (some regrettable, but mostly good things). 
            As a young pastor, I was called to tell a small, urban, aging church that she mattered and that God had new work and new life for her.  I at that point had never poured my life into anything like I did trying to revive and inspire that church.  I admit as I write this that hubris made me think I could inspire a church.  That is God’s job.  But beneath my youthful and sometime foolish exuberance was genuine love for the people in that church.  God put that love in me and God has put love in you too.
            It may be tempting to say, “Well, Rob, you’re a pastor.  Of course you’re supposed to love the church.”  First, I’d respond with “Baloney!  I have seen dedicated lay people as called to deep passion for the church as any clergy.”  Second, the first call I mentioned – fun and happiness and excitement that comes in a life of following Jesus – is a call that came long before I ever thought about being a pastor.  And since then, I have been called to parenthood (not a clergy-specific call).  I have been called to orphan care (not a clergy-specific call).  I have been called to study the synthesis of Christian faith and rational thought (while this may be ‘academic,’ it is certainly not clergy-specific).
            All who want to follow Jesus are called; every one of us.  You are called and unless you know what sets your heart on fire and live in ways that you burn for the gospel and for the Kingdom of God, your discipleship is asleep.  Christians who mark time and live a sleepy, uninspired faith make Jesus puke (Rev. 3:16).  Don’t make Jesus puke. 

Through prayer, worship, Bible reading and conversations with other Christians, people who know and whom you trust, discover your passions and discover how to live them out.  Find out what kingdom of God activity lights your fire and do it.  Let your faith be a faith of action (or study or contemplation etc.).  Being a Christ follower should be the most thrilling aspect of our lives.  And it is when we live in our passions.  Find your passion and live in it.

Nation of Israel - Guest Post by Pastor Rich Goodier

Rich is my friend and colleague and I appreciate him letting me share his thoughts.

Nation of Israel (August)

As I write this article, the fighting between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza strip rages on, with over 700 Palestinian civilians, many women and children, having lost their lives in the fighting. The very area of the world where Jesus Christ our Lord proclaimed “peace on earth and good will towards men” is once again embroiled in violence. The people of Israel have always held a special place in the hearts of Christians. If one equates the modern state of Israel with the people of Israel of our Scriptures, then we have some serious questions to answer regarding this most recent strife.
Aside from the Jewish people themselves, arguably no one knows their history better than Christians, for we cherish their history in the pages of our Holy Scripture. And we know how often the Jewish people stumbled in their pursuit to walk in God’s ways. God would send prophet after prophet to call them back on the path of righteousness. Today is no different. We must be careful not to support any and all that the nation of Israel does, for they too stumble, and God continues to call them back.
I often hear from brothers and sisters how we are to support the nation of Israel, but I rarely hear that we must call them once again to seek shalom (peace), to be a city on a hill that draws all nations to itself. We cannot give Israel a blank check to do anything it wants, for that is putting Israel ahead of Jesus. There is a danger of forsaking the commands of Jesus for the sake of the nation of Israel, and this is something we should never do. When Israel (or any country for that matter) uses gratuitous violence against innocent civilians, we must be prepared to stand up and say, “No.”
Years ago, there was a group of people who forsook the Savior for the sake of the nation of Israel. They were described as the Pharisees. According to the Gospel of John, the Pharisees were so preoccupied with the safety of Israel, they were willing to go as far as to orchestrate Jesus’ execution.
But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” (John 11:46-50)
The Pharisees made the conscious choice to save their lives and the life of their country by forsaking the Messiah. Ironically, Jesus prophesied that in just a few years Rome would indeed come and take away both the temple and nation. Perhaps this is a sober reminder of Jesus’ warning, “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it (Mat 16:25).”
God has called us to be ambassadors of reconciliation (2 Cor 5). In a very real way, we citizens of God’s Kingdom can serve as ambassadors between Israel and the people in Gaza, seeking reconciliation, condemning violence, whether perpetrated by Hamas or the Israeli government, and being witnesses on behalf of the One who called us to be peacemakers. And in all these things we can hold securely to the promise: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Pastor Rich

Monday, July 28, 2014

Little Robby Tennant

          At a friend’s suggestion, I am reading a truly helpful book, To Be Told, by Dan Allender.  It is quite wonderful.  The book brings to mind many of the lessons I learned as a student in the doctorate of ministry program at Palmer Theological Seminary (  One of those lessons is the insistence that all people fully write, read, and live in acknowledgement of their own stories.  As I read Allender and listen to the friend who recommended the book, I hear voices from the past, the voices of the husband and wife team who were my professors of human sexuality.  If you are in a program studying marriage, you have to study human sexuality.  The program is worthless if you do not.  Reading Allender, I heard my professors voices from 10 years ago.
          ‘Rob, there is some pain in your past that you aren’t naming.  You must name it and face it.’ 
          I have tried.  I have talked about incidents of bullying when I was in grades 4-6.  I really believed you had to be a tough kid and win neighborhood fights.  There were kids I could not beat and they scared me.  I would take a beating and as long as I did not cry while losing the fight, I felt successful.  Even if it hurt to be punched, I would not cry.  I once convinced a kid who had given me a whipping to be sure and tell everyone I did not cry.
          Now, looking at the words I just wrote, I can see a hurt little boy and that boy was me.  An “editor,” as Allender describes someone who reads our stories, could ask probing questions and get into the “gaps” of my storytelling (p.109-115).  And I indeed do find myself affected as I read what I just wrote.  It’s tough.  A boy was afraid to cry; afraid he would not be enough of a man if he did. 
I know where that comes from.  I rarely saw my dad cry.  When I did, well, the moments were profound and beautiful.  But at a young age, I could not translate the beauty of a real man expressing real emotion.  There was always an “out-of-control” element that probably violated an unspoken, unconscious rule in our household about keeping things in check.  Also, crying would not help you in the next fight. But not crying might help you avoid the next fight; bullies eventually realize they’re not getting the desired reaction and move on to a more vulnerable target.
Here is the thing: over the past 10-15 years, I have come clean on my own story.  I have learned to cry again.  I understand that it is ok if little boys and big boys cry.  Forcing one’s self to not cry is unhealthy.  I now am a pastor and I invite people in my church to express their feelings, their emotions, their heart.  I have teared up while preaching.  My dad and I have cried together, and not just at funerals. We have grown together in our walk with Christ.  We know our manhood is defined by Christ in us. 
I am aware that in the last two paragraphs it may be fair to accuse me of having slipped from telling my story to theologizing.  An editor (as Allender uses the term in this context) would call me on that.  I just don’t know what else to say.  I will add that steeling myself to hide my tears and “toughen up,” while not very emotionally healthy did serve me in other ways.  I was toughened enough to survive high school football and army basic and advanced infantry training.  In those cases, not crying benefited me.
I often cite those experiences (basic training and football) as credentials on my machismo resume.  That I need a machismo resume says something about battles I might still be fighting, but I sincerely believe that most of the time when I cite those experiences, it is to gain a hearing.  I am past trying to be a tough guy.  At 30, I realized, I don’t have to be cool.  From 37-45, I have been learning (or trying to learn) I don’t have to be tough.
Here I simply cite my “tough” experiences of sports and military to show what benefit there was to the toughening I experienced growing up in Clawson, Michigan.  Yes, I hated getting beat up by Gary when we were doing our paper routes.  Yes, it had lasting effects on me.  However, I have faced that experience and while it is a part of my story, I have moved on to other parts.  I have looked back, understood how experiences have shaped me, and now I look forward.
There are experiences from which we cannot so easily “move on.”  I do not callously tell victims of deep pain to “get over it.”  I do not do that to people who suffer.  Allender describes an experience of prolonged, ritualistic sexual harassment and abuse (p.110-112).  I was repulsed reading his account.  My heart ached for what he went through at the summer camp.  I don’t know how you heal from that.  I remember the vulnerability of being 11 and being at camp.  But my experience was so incredibly different; it probably explains why it is hard for me to relate to Allender and why it is hard for me to tell of my own pain.  My pain just is not even in the same realm of what others have experienced.
Like Allender, I was 11, a second year camper at the Detroit Baptist Camp (DBC).  Like him, I was right smack in the period of discovering my sexuality.  However, it came about differently.  His sexual awareness came when a scout leader had him touch the scout leader’s erect penis.  I never had an experience like that.  Ever.  No therapist demanding that I get in touch with my past pain will conjure up an experience like that one because I never, ever had such experiences.  I am sorry it happened to Allender.  I am deeply sorry.  I have friends, people I deeply love, who experienced similar abuse – sexual, repeated, prolonged.  I am really, really sorry and hurt that people I know and love had to endure that.  I don’t know why I never went through anything like that, but I didn’t.  Ever. 
At DBC as an 11 year old, I swam in the lake, rode in canoes, played baseball, got candy at the camp store, and even hung out with the cool kids.  And, for the first time ever, I had a crush on a girl.  That’s how I entered sexual awareness and expression and awkwardness.  I told the girl I liked her, probably in as awkward a way as possible. 
Allender’s editor here would point out shame that I am affixing to 11-year-old me, but I assure you that this is not shame.  Every 11-year-old trying to express his romantic affections is awkward.  That’s just a fact.  I am not ashamed of how I acted.  I love 11-year-old Robby Tennant.  I am proud of how he went about things, mistakes and all.  I look at how he handled learning lessons, and my heart fills with love for him.
Back home in Clawson, I guarded my tears.  I fought them.  I controlled them.  But at DBC when I told that 11-year-old girl I liked her and she gave me the awkward 11-year-old girl version of “let’s just be friends,” I ran back to my cabin and balled.  I who fought so hard to control my tears rained tears.  My pillow was soaked.  By the way, I have no idea what I would have done if when I said to her, “I like you,” she would have responded, “I like you too.”  I had not gotten past working up the courage to speak my heart.  I no idea of what came after that.  But it is no matter because she liked me as kids like their friends, but she didn’t like me as boys and girls like each other.  It was my first rejection and I was crushed.  So I cried.
Now, you have read about counselors and priests and scout leaders who sexually abuse young boys.  The stories fill the news.  Allender writes a moving account that I referred to above.  These stories are awful, horrific, terrible and should never be minimized or swept under the rug.  What I want to say is this is not true of all counselors, priests, and scout leaders.  Some are loving men and women who genuinely want to give of themselves to help young people grow up healthy and strong.
Here is what the counselor did in my story.  He walked into the cabin and only one kid was there – little Robby Tennant, face buried in a pillow, crying his little eyes out.  It was just the boy and the counselor.  He could have done anything.  What he did was sit down.  And he said, “It will be OK, Robby.”  And he comforted me and encouraged me.  I felt loved.  I felt like with my pain, the safest place in the world was with this guy.  This gentle man walked me through it. 
And that is it.  That’s the story.  It is the story of a compassionate counselor guiding a confused boy into the murky waters of adolescence.  Thank you God for that counselor!  My life is filled with people like him.  Why I am blessed like that?  It is certainly not for any great thing I have done.  It is a gift of God’s grace and all I can do is be grateful, and I am.
The footnote is that when the week of camp was over, it was time to go back home.  An awareness was awakened deep within me.  I had started down the road which meant leaving childhood behind.  No one told me this.  But deep inside I felt it.  And it was made manifest in a very interesting way. 
The next Sunday back at First Baptist Church, Royal Oak, MI, the pastor did what he did every week.  After the sermon, he invited anyone who felt the Spirit to come and give their lives to Christ.  I did.  I went to camp, was comforted by my counselor when I was hit by new emotions, went home, and accepted Jesus and gave my life to him. 
There is much more of my story to be told and I appreciate Allender’s sharing of his own story and guidance in teasing out mine.  And I really am thankful for my friend D.P. for turning me onto this Allender’s writing.  Even though I have not uncovered any skeletons in my closet, I am revisiting events from the past, rediscovering Little Robby Tennant.  I am grateful for that.  Maybe I needed to say it – to say, I love Robby Tennant.  Maybe it was and continues to be really important that this 44-year-old man be faithful to that little boy.  Maybe now that I am a father of my own 12-year-old who is just exploding into puberty, I need to remember what it is like. 
Thanks D.P.  Thanks for nudging me onto this path.

More to come.

Birthrights, Birth Responsibilities (1 John 2:22-29)

Sunday, July 27, 2014

          God is light and in Him there is no darkness.  Jesus is the light of the world, a light the darkness cannot overcome.  The Gospel of John and First John both offer a binary faith.  It is an either/or seeing.  As a man, a dad, a Christ-follower – in all of life, I can take the this-or-that as I strive to choose and speak as Jesus would have me choose and speak.  The A-or-B, this or that process is one way of seeing for a disciple of Jesus. 
          Firsy John chapter 2:22 says, “Who is the liar, but the one that denies Jesus is the Christ?  This is the anti-Christ.”  A lot of confusion arises in Biblical reading and Christian literature over that term, ‘anti-Christ.’  Christian fiction like the Left Behind series would have us anticipating one specific future person who is the anti-Christ.  Other villains of history were bad, but until he appears, the anti-Christ has not yet come, so the teaching goes.  First John actually teaches that the anti-Christ is anyone who denies that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the Son of God, and God in human flesh.  Verse 18 says there are many anti-Christs.  It is a way of talking about anyone who denies the divinity and necessity of Jesus.  And of course 1st and 2nd John are the only places in the Bible the term ‘anti-Christ’ is used.
          That’s “A” – the liar, the one who denies Jesus is an anti-Christ.
          Then, “B” is seen in verse 29.  “If you know that he is righteous you may be sure that everyone who does right has been born of him.”  Two ideas are asserted.  First, Jesus is just or righteous.  Second, people who work for justice or do the right thing are born of Jesus.  The word for right, as in ‘do the right thing,’ also means ‘justice’ and could just as easily be translated that way.
          So we have “A”, the one who denies Jesus is a liar and is an anti-Christ.  And we have “B”, the one who is righteous, that is who does justice, is born of God through faith in Jesus.  It is this, or it is that.  What a clean way of visualizing Christian thought.
          Unfortunately history shows it is rarely that simple.  In fact, the history of the works associated with John in the New Testament reveal how cluttered theological dialogue can be.  The so called Johanine literature is comprised of the Gospel of John, and 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John.  And many also include the book of Revelation.  It was also written near Ephesus, where all the other works are supposed to have been written.  And, Revelation is the only book in the collection whose author actually give his name - John.  He does not claim to be one of the 12.  He just claims to be John, a Christ-follower in exile on the Island of Patmos. 
          The Gospel, the Epistles, and the Revelation were written in different contexts, as responses to forces that threatened the Christian community.  A major theme in the Gospel is the tension between Jesus and synagogue leaders who reject the idea that He is the one sent by God.  Throughout John, we read that Jesus was opposed by “the Jews.”  This does not mean all Jews, though tragically, it has been used that way in history.  This evil misrepresentation of the Gospel has been a tool of hate filled anti-Semitism, something God vehemently opposes.  When John was written, most Christ-followers were Jewish and were persecuted by Jews who rejected him.  The Gospel was the voice of a persecuted minority.
          In the Epistles, the opponents are not synagogue Jews that oppose Jesus.  The opponents are fellow church members who believe in Christ but offer a different interpretation of him, an interpretation that minimizes his earthly life and ethical example.  And, in the situation of the book of Revelation, the opponents are Roman authorities who persecute Christ-followers because they refuse to worship Caesar. 
          When we read ‘anti-Christ’ in 1st and 2nd John, the only place we’ll find it, we need to realize that those who wrote the term did not anticipate a future evil person who would try to rule the world.  If the writer of the Gospel of John had used the term, he would have applied it to synagogue and temple leaders that reject Jesus as the Messiah.  In Revelation other terms are used, terms like dragon and beast.  IN that work, these terms in refer to the Roman emperor.  And the elder of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John used the term to refer to other Christians whose doctrine he opposed. 
          With the context in mind, do we still find the this-or-that method of thinking theologically helpful in our reading of 1st John?
In our situation, we don’t have another religious group threatening our worship, so whatever our struggles are, they not those faced by the author of the Gospel of John.  We don’t have a powerful government crucifying our preachers or throwing us to the lions.  We aren’t facing the situation in which Revelation was written.  We do understand church splits, but HillSong is not going through that and even if we were, I hope we wouldn’t be calling each other ‘anti-Christs,’ though I have seen that sort of spite in other church splits I have experienced.  What can we make of 1st John?
          I hope recognizing context keeps us humble in our theology and in our practice of Christian life within the community.  We need to be patient with each other because situations change, get muddled.  Because of our sins we can count messes being made.  In the future, messes will come and we will find ourselves waist-deep in them.  This is why 1st John uses such harsh language for the opponents who are causing a church split. 
          God is even more dependable than sin.  We can count on human sin bringing chaos, but we can also count on the love of God restoring order and calling us into God’s embrace.  This is why Jesus came – to save the world from itself.  We can be sure God loves us and wants us to have joy.  This truth –that we can rely on God as we know Him in Jesus – helps the binary thought make sense. 
          It is absolutely so: the one who denies Jesus is a liar.  That one is an anti-Christ where ‘anti’ means against.  In that vein, Muslims who refer to Jesus as a prophet but not as the son of God are against him and against our message that salvation is in him.   I am not saying Muslims are worse sinners than Christians and are bent on destroying the world.  Maybe that is true of a few, but most Muslims are just people like Christians, people who need God.  But, if they deny the lordship of Jesus, then they are against the message we preach.
          Similarly those in Judaism who reject Jesus as the Christ, the Messiah, are against our proclamation that salvation is in Him and Him alone.  In this respect, they are ‘anti,’ against the idea that Jesus is the Lord. 
          The “A”-or-“B” approach helps clarify this.  When a written work is called a polemic, it means that work is an argument against an opposing doctrine.  Works in the New Testament like 1st John, 2nd Peter, and Jude, are polemics, arguments against false statements about Jesus.  These harshly written pieces give us a sense of clarity. We can see why it is absolutely necessary to know the truth about Jesus, speak that truth, and not allow any wiggle room. 
          We cannot accept flaky ideas like the wishful notion that “many paths lead to God,” or “all religions teach the same thing,” or “religious truth is a private thing and we’ll all find out who was right when we get to heaven.”  All religions do not teach the same thing.  We reject pluralism and universalist fluff in matters of theology and expressions of faith.  We insist that Jesus is Lord – the Jesus we meet in the New Testament and in the Holy Spirit.  This is true for all people whether they acknowledge it or not.  Jesus is Lord and must be followed and worshipped. 
          The binary way of seeing gives clarity even when we know our situation is vastly different than the numerous 1st century environments in which Christianity was born.  There was more than one context then and ours is different than all that existed then.  The world in which we live is not like the world in which the Bible was born.  Yet, we are clear about Jesus and what we need to believe about Him because the Bible, inspired by the Spirit, transcends generations and continents and cultures. 
The “this-or-that” viewpoint also tells us what is true about us.  “He has promised us eternal life” (1st John 2:25).”  And we are to abide in him because “everyone who does what is right, [read who does justice as the prophet Micah says], is born of him” (2:29).
          The sign that we are his is our treatment of people.  We do the right thing.  Doing the right thing does not earn us salvation.  God gives it.  Our efforts at right-living are the signs that we have received the salvation God gives.  The A-or-B point of view is only somewhat helpful in fully understanding the New Testament but it is extremely important in our lives as Christ followers.
          Our birthright is eternal life.  Jesus rose and we will rise.  Death of the body is coming because the fall has corrupted God’s world, but Jesus has overcome death.  He rose and all who are in him will rise.  Death has been defeated.  We will enter resurrection in bodies that cannot die and will be with God forever.
          Our birth responsibility is to live as Jesus lived.  We are to do the right thing.  No matter how hard the choice is, no matter much easier other choices appear we are to work for justice, to do right, and to obey God in all things.  When you or I say we are in Christ, we are saying we have committed to live life on his terms.  In matters of how we treat people whether it is daily interactions or larger societal issues, we are guided by the same compassionate love that God showed in sending Jesus for us. 
          Or, as 1st John 4:7 puts it.  “Beloved let us love one another because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God.”  We live with hope and joy because eternal life is our birthright.  We live in love showing compassion to all who hurt as we work for justice because it is the right thing to do.  This is our birth responsibility.


Monday, July 21, 2014

Turning off the Light

        It was 5AM.  I was the only one up and had not turned on any lights.  I appreciated how quiet the house was.  I looked out the kitchen window into the fading darkness of our backyard.         We used to see deer a lot, but lately, not so much.  I wondered if they had moved on, but my wife Candy said, no.  She is a gardener and her half-eaten tomatoes told her the deer are still coming by.   In the dim pre-dawn gray, there he was, a buck happily enjoying an early morning salad. I could hear Candy’s voice in my head.  “Did you scare them out of my garden?”  So I open the back door and they ran.
        What if I had turned on the kitchen light before looking out?  At 5AM, it is starting to get light outside, but it is still pretty hard to see.  Artificial indoor light would reflect off the windows and make it impossible to see.  If I had turned on the kitchen light, the world outside the window would appear as black as the dead of night, a starless night.       The light that made it possible for me to read while sitting at the kitchen table would have blinded me to what was happening outside.  How does a kitchen light bring both sight and blindness?
In our world, how do darkness and light exist alongside each other?  How do these two – darkness and light – both exist in our hearts?
The Gospel of John says that Jesus is “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (1:5).  First John 1:6 says, “If we say that we have fellowship with him while we are walking in darkness, we lie and do not do what is true.”
        Darkness cannot overcome the light of God.  When God is present, darkness must flee and all that was hidden by the darkness is exposed by God’s holy light.  So how can we walk in darkness once we have heard the gospel?  If we have met God in Jesus, is it even possible for us to walk in the darkness after that?  First John says it is. 
        According to Raymond E. Brown, 1st John is first century Christian essay written for members of a church that has gone through a split.  The author, the elder, is on one side in this split.  He accuses the other side of walking in darkness.  They knew Jesus’ story – the cross, the resurrection, the coming of the Holy Spirit.  They knew, still they chose darkness.  They claim follow Jesus, but the elder calls them liars.
        God is the light.  First John stresses the importance of men and women living in the Lord, walking in the light.  Yet, verse 6 holds that some have done the opposite and walked in darkness.  Even after being exposed to God’s purity, holiness, and perfect love, they chose darkness over light.  They were able to choose to turn the light off.
        How can one turn God off?  It is a matter of free will.  Many Christian theologians put it this way.  God gives us choices and honors the choices we make.  What makes us God’s imager bearers – those made in God’s image unlike any other animal – is our free will.  By our free will, we create.  God made the world and empowers us to live in the world He created.  God enables and expects us to make things of the world.  And we do.  We make things like cars, houses, and computers.  We are endowed with creativity by God.
        It is by our free will that we create and it is by free will that we choose to worship God.  Or, we have the option to not worship God.  I do not believe God determines choices.  God creates us with the ability to choose and some among us even after seeing God’s goodness choose to turn away and walk in darkness.
        The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament says light means potentiality while darkness means death.[i]  These terms appear throughout the New Testament.  The Gospel of John and 1st John are unique in the way they present a duality of light and darkness.  The concepts of light and dark carry theological and spiritual meanings in John not found in other works. 
Reality is comprised of both and human beings are in one or the other; we walk in the darkness or the light.  We turn ourselves so that we are oriented toward God (the light) or toward that which is not of God (the darkness). 
The Holy Spirit will help us choose.  If someone you know is in a dark place or has a heart shadowed by heavy, deadly darkness, you can pray for him. We can go to God on behalf of those we love who have turned away from the Lord.  The Holy Spirit will respond to our pleas and reach out to those lost in darkness.  Even before we pray, God pursues the sheep that are lost (Luke 15).  However, a moment of choice always comes and the individual has to decide he wants God more than the darkness that has attracted him. 
        But, why are we attracted by darkness in the first place?  If God is so awesome, why would we ever choose to turn away from Him?  This question is as old as the world.  Eve and Adam walked with God in the Garden of Eden.  Yet, they chose to turn away from God’s gift of life ever since, humans have rejected God. 
        First John 2:15-17 helps me understand how they and anyone, myself included, can do indeed do this.  The elder says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.  The love of the Father is not in those who love the world; for all that is in the world – the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches – comes not from the father but from the world” (v.15-16).  Darkness is not appealing because it is literally dark and foreboding and scary. 
We run away from dark, foreboding, scary things.  The other night I had a dream I was being attacked by a poisonous snake.  I was literally running with my legs in the bed.  I was so shaken when I woke, I could not return to sleep.  The darkness John talks about is much worse than a snake, but it does not appear worse.  It does not appear bad at all.
“Do not love … the things of the world; … the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches.”  But we do.  Several years ago, Richard Foster named the three great categories of temptations that draw us away from God – power, sex, and money.[ii]  Last Christmas I received Andy Crouch’s latest book Playing God.  In it he covers themes very similar to those discussed by Foster.  Counterfeit Gods (2009) by Timothy Keller also deals with this.  These books are written to show followers of Jesus how vulnerable we are.  We love the things of the world.
Jesus was with the disciples in a storm at sea (Mark 4:40).  They panicked.  As long as he was with them, they should have had no reason to fear.  He was bigger than any problem they would face.  They couldn’t trust him though.  They trusted dry land.  They believed the storm.  It sinks boats.  Trusting Jesus was harder.
We are the body of Christ.  We give our tithes and do our mission projects and in different ways announce to the world around us that Jesus is Lord and in him the Kingdom of God has come.  We trust him to meet our needs and carry the message we preach.  Would it be easier if we had more – maybe $500,000 per year?  Oh, Lord, what could we do with $1 million?
I don’t know if our deacons or treasurer ever has these thoughts.  I do.  Why?  One million dollars seems reals.  I take my eyes off of Jesus and set the world in my sights.  John 3:16 says God loved the world enough to send Jesus to provide salvation from the sin and death.  But we are not to love world so that we become like the world.  We are to help the world know of the salvation we have in Jesus. 
The duality of light and dark is a violent tug-of-war in the Gospel and in First John.  Imagine God on one side.  Imagine an undefinable darkness that smells of evil, that puts out an oppressive heat on the other side.  You and I are in the middle.  In this tug of war, God is not pulling us, nor will God allow the darkness to pull us.  Rather, God’s arms are open.  Jesus invites us to come to Him.  It is an invitation of pure love and an invitation to enter into pure, unfailing, unending love.
On the side, darkness puts on the disguise of happiness – happiness that is purchased.  But, if I get that raise, then I’ll be happy.  But, oh, I needed a few thousand more.  If God sent the tither who gave a $1 million gift to the church, we would suddenly discover we really need $5 million to be God’s church.  If the disguise of money fails to attract, darkness puts up another temptation– sex.  A man feels lonely, unsatisfied, unmanly.  Darkness comes in the form of sexual temptation.  We resist greed and sex, then darkness tempts us with power, or something else. 
The temptations keep coming.  Do we turn away from God?  What form is darkness taking in the struggle for your heart? 
Each one of us needs to do some work in interpretation.  We have to examine our own lives and see our vulnerabilities.  First John 2:15 is a general teaching – do not love the things in the world.  Your work and mine is to specify that teaching.  Money is a thing of the world.  It can be managed wisely and used in God’s service.  When acquiring money is a driving force in our lives, it becomes something we love and it drags us away from God.  For one person the temptation is money, for another sex, and so on.  Do not love the things of the world because, says 1st John, “the world and its desire are passing away” (2:17a).  Each one of us needs to figure out what of the things of the world are dragging us away from God’s light.
Maybe it begins with disappointment.  Because the world is a fallen world, the goodness of God’s original creation now corrupted, there is pain.  Pain is a part of life and failure is something everyone faces.  The greatest danger of it is it may be the thing that draws us to the darkness.  In the Gospel and in 1st John, the way of darkness is the way of death: permanent, separated-from-God-for-eternity death. 
But the light is always there. 
I have dealt with disappointments, but God always kept me in His grasp.
I did not get the first big job in ministry for which I applied.  There were weeks between that rejection and graduation from college that I did not know what was coming.  My dad had warned me of how difficult it would be to graduate without employment.[iii]  Before I had a job or knew what I would end up doing, I knew God was with me and I was in His light.  I was disappointed but, I was in the light.
Through the decade of my 20’s I failed in romance.  I was lonely.  Before I knew Candy and knew she would marry me, I knew God was with me and I was in His light.  The loneliness hurt.[iv]  At times I was sad, but always in the light.
I had big dreams for my first pastorate and many never came to fruition.  I thought I knew what the church should be and it did not become that.  There was disappointment and I did not know what God would do in my life as a pastor.  But, I knew God was with me and I was in His light. 
When we were adopting children, there were interruptions in the process, years of waiting, and times when it seemed it would never happen.  In the anxiety, we knew God was with us and we were in His light.  There were agonizing stretches, but the light continued to shine.
Each person has the option of stressing over successes that are really desires of the world. We can fall apart over our temptations that originate in the darkness.
There is another way.
We look to Jesus.  We give ourselves to him.  He rules in everything in our lives.  And that is when we live into an joy-filled God fellowship, the abundant life we are promised by Jesus.  As 1st John says, “Walk in the light as he is in the light.”  We do, and we have “fellowship with one another” and the assurance of eternal life (1:7; 2:17b, 25).

[i] G. Bromiley (1985).  Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: Abridged in One Volume, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, eds.  William B. Eerdmans (Grand Rapids, MI), p.1049.
[ii] Foster (1985). The Challenge of the Disciplined Life.
[iii] I do not mean to be crass and conflate any old job with the calling to ministry.  But, work is important.  A job, whether secular or religious is something all people need for income but also to be a means for the individual’s contribution to the good of society.  If your work has zero cultural or social or human value, is it work you should be doing?
[iv] This season included a realization upon my 30th birthday that I could not accept that “singleness” was a happy condition, not for me anyway.  I was single.  And generally speaking, I was happy.  But not content.  I know many singles who like I did long to find love.  It never comes to them and the sadness becomes a part of their lives.  But, it is only a part.  Even in that state, the unmarried individual can be in light of God and have the joy of God.  

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Big Churches? Small Churches? HEALTHY CHURCH!

I sent the following to the leaders in my church:

Elders, Deacons, Ministers, and Pastors,

I read an article that I thought might inform us as we lead HillSong Church in attempting to be a community of Christ followers who welcome the weary, prod the inert, encourage the melancholy, and cheer and equip the motivated.  

Our work is to announce that Jesus is Lord and King and in him, the Kingdom of God has come.  

Our work is to equip people with knowledge, skills, and a team as they grow as disciples.

As we do our work, are we a "small church," or a "mid-sized church."  We are not large by any measurement.

I have never thought of us as small.  We have many ministries.  We support multiple works locally and internationally.  We are usually busy.  In fact, mid July - late August is our only sleepy time, and even now, our youth group is quite active.  

However on Karl Vaters' webtsite, one of the markers (of big/small) is the "200 barrier." HillSong never has 200 on a Sunday morning so by his definition, we'd be small.

I honestly don't care and don't think of us as small.  We have big ideas and God-sized dreams and our elders and deacons are energetic supporters of the ideas suggested by the vision-minded pastors.  I see us not as big or small but as healthy and purposeful.   I love being part of what we do.  I am grateful and I think God has a lot in store for us.

Would I like us to be bigger?  I don't really think about it that way, not seriously anyway.  I would not resist growth.  I certainly want out people to be more evangelistic and more pro-active in inviting their unchurched friends.  But, I think our biggest evangelism/outreach strategy should be training and encouraging all our members to be more evangelistic and inviting.   If growth happens that way, by our folks inviting people, then I would be all for growth.  If our folks became so inviting we grew to 200, 500, whatever, then I'd be all for it.

But I would oppose program changes designed explicitly to get people in the door.  I want people to come because they are led here by the Spirit.  I want people to come because they are invited by HillSong folks.  I am OK with some advertising (bumper stickers, yard signs, etc).  I am pro-growth.  I want our efforts to be true to who God is creating us to be (a safe place where people are made new and sent out in Jesus' name).

So I send you Vaters' article and invite you to peruse his site.  And I commend and thank you for your part in making HillSong a community of Christ-followers who love each other welcome new folks in.

- Rob

We Wish to See Jesus

Sunday, July 13, 2014

            It is a few days before Jesus will go to the cross.  John 12:21, “[The Greeks] came to Philip who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, ‘Sir, we wish to see Jesus.’
            “Philip went and told Andrew; then Philip and Andrew went and told Jesus.
            And Jesus told them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. 
            Jesus continues speaking about glory.  As he does, note that he never answers or addresses the two disciples when they tell him these Greeks want to meet him.  Probably Jesus sensed that their curiosity was more about seeing something new, something others had not seen.  Jesus would die for the world; but he does not perform for Herod or Pilate or Greeks looking for something different; or for people in the 21st century looking for a wise teacher, or a quick and easy pass to Heaven, or a basis for their politics.
Before he even completed his ministry, people around him came with roles they thought Jesus should fill.  It has happened through history up to this day.  Ideas about who Jesus should be, who we want him to be – these ideas fill the popular consciousness making us think we know who Jesus is; or worse, we think we can define who Jesus is.
Sir, we wish to see Jesus.  What does it mean? 
Indeed, do we who have gathered today, we who live in 21st century technology, we who enjoy countless options in every sphere of life – do we wish to see Jesus?  Yes?  OK, then, when we say, “we wish to see Jesus,” do we know what we are saying? 
This quest to see Jesus, to live our lives in Christ; it is this quest that carries us into our reading of 1st John.  Nearly every scholar who studies the New Testament and specializes in the Gospel of John agrees that the Gospel and the three letters, 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John all come from the same community and that community is rooted in the leadership of the Apostle John.  Recently I had speculated that the one called the “Beloved Disciple,” might be Lazarus, not John of the 12, the Apostle John.  I acknowledged then my thoughts were speculation.  I did not know how strongly the consensus is that the disciple, the Apostle John, is the one at the heart of the community out of which we have these four New Testament writings.  From the most conservative to the most liberal, scholars connect this community to the Christianity that grew up around John.  I have not abandoned Lazarus.  The Gospel tells us he was “the one Jesus loved” (11:3).  I am sure he was part of this church, the church of the Apostle John. 
It was a church with many people who had many ideas.  Raymond Brown, a scholar who has written extensively on the Gospel and the letters, demonstrates in great detail how the Gospel of John and 1st John were written in different contexts.  The Gospel and the Epistle were each written to deal with challenges that threatened early Christianity and the challenges were different in each case.  The  letter we call First John is a response to problems within the church; this response presents a theology that helps readers today understand life in Christ.
A key question for the community of the Beloved Disciple and for Christians today is what is the identity of Jesus?  What does it mean to see and know and walk with Jesus? 
It is a quest and we bring something very important to it – our lifetime of experiences.  In 1st John, real-life memories and real life interactions are always front and center.  Your experiences, the life that is uniquely yours, and my experiences, the story that is only mine, these things are critical parts of the walk to Jesus especially on the path we will walk with 1st John as our leader.  So, as we step into this quest to live life in Jesus, we must prepare.  We must pack.  And what we need in our bag is our own story.  The good, the bad, the boring, the scary – we need it all. 
First John comes from people who knew and walked with Jesus.  The met him in the flesh.  Listen to the opening verses. 
We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have looked at and touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— this life was revealed, and we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that was with the Father and was revealed to us— we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
            “From the beginning …”; 1st John is not a second generation witness even if it ultimately is read by second and third generation believers, and by us.  In fact, the essay is precisely a link between original Christ followers and subsequent generations.  1st John has none of the markers of an epistle or a letter; no greeting, none of the traditional farewells.  All the characteristics in Paul’s writings and in 2nd and 3rd John that tell us these are epistles are absent in 1st John.  It is a persuasive essay making a case for Jesus over against false claims made about him by others. 
            It is from the beginning and it is a testimony.  “We declare what we have seen with our eyes … and touched with our hands.”  The news reports a five-car accident on I40.  You half-way watch the report without thinking about it, but someone in the room with you says, “Hey, I was there.  I remember right after it happened.”  You’ll listen to every detail of what your friend says and you’ll ask as many probing questions as you can think of.  He was there.  We are numb to news reports to the point that it almost seems like fiction.  What happens on the TV screen is in another world.  But to here an eyewitness report from someone we trust is another matter.  1st John is an eyewitness report for us and the testimony is that Jesus could be seen and touched.  God in the flesh really did come – the God of eternity taking on human skin, stepping into the trappings of time and physical limitation that is our daily reality. 
            The witness reports that life was revealed.  Jesus was revealed to be God.  When we see Jesus, we see God and what our relationship with God can be.  So, when we say “We wish to see Jesus,” whether we know it or now, we are seeking God.   First John gives us original, first hand testimony that Jesus is God and in Jesus we meet God. 
            This was important because of the depth of relationships within Christianity.  “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us” (1:3).  I have fellowship with people who do not know Jesus.  I am friends with nonbelievers.  I think, for a lot of reasons, Christ followers should be in meaningful relationships with people who do not follow Jesus.
            However, the fellowship we have with other people who know Jesus as we know Jesus is different.  I offer two stories.  First, someone I know who has signed up to be a foster parent is uncertain about the process.  She fears falling in love with the kids who will be entrusted to her only to have her heart break when those kids are re-united with their birth families.  Foster care is a temporary set-up intended to provide a safe family environment for children until those children can be in a permanent situation.  My friend expressed her fears to a social worker who was involved in approving her to be a foster parent.  My friend did not know the social worker was also a Christ follower.  When both women realized they were sisters in Christ, the entire conversation changed.  They prayed together and joined hearts in their love for children and their love for Jesus.  Precisely because both women were in Christ, their fellowship was changed.
            Shortly into my first pastorate, 1997, I went with some friends to a Fleetwood Mac concert.  Fleetwood Mac is not a Christian band at all.  They do not mention Jesus in their concerts.  I had just completed five years of youth ministry; five years of concerts by Christian performers like Stephen Curtis Chapman, Amy Grant, and Jars of Clay.  All those Christian concerts have a worship element.  I don’t know the performers but I feel like our hearts are connected in Christ. Halfway through, I had to walk out on Fleetwood Mac.  I had paid a lot for the tickets.  The performance was excellent.  But, something was missing.  While I could enjoy the music, and I still do occasionally listen to Fleetwood Mac, I could not stay.  In that concert, Jesus was not at the center of things.  No matter how well Fleetwood Mac played, nothing without Jesus at the center compares to those moments in life when we know how deeply our hearts are connected to Him.  With Fleetwood Mac, I did not have that fellowship that comes when I know the singer on the stage is In Christ just as I am. 
            In giving his witness, the elder tells us his readers, “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you may also have fellowship with us.”  Fellowship means more than sharing time, laughs, and food.  It means in our joy, our hearts are joined.  That is why the elder says “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete” (1:4).  Joy in Christ is complete when it is shared by telling the gospel to unbelievers and sharing life with others who love and worship Jesus. 

            We began with a story from John’s Gospel of Greeks who wanted to know what the buzz was all about.  “We wish to see Jesus,” they said.  We have taken up their quest but with a different motivation.  We’re not looking for a show or something we can write on out Facebook wall or an adrenalin rush.  We want something more – more real and more wonderful.  We want to meet God.  That’s why we come to Jesus. 
            Our guide, the Elder who serves as the narrator in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd John, has told us that all he will share is firsthand, original testimony of one who knew Jesus in person.  His motivation is that when he shares his story of Jesus with us, his joy is made complete.  So we come and we listen, we go where the Elder leads.  For the journey, we’ve packed our own stories – everything we’ve been through.  We bring ourselves and every experience that has made us who we are.
            It is not an easy walk.  The elder makes that clear in chapter 1, verses 8-10.
If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.

            There is no way to see Jesus without walking right through the truth of our sins.  Yes, there is joy in the fellowship with Jesus and with others who like us seek, love, and worship him.  However, that joy cannot be polluted by our greed, our lies, our mistakes, our failures.  All the sins we commit and have committed against us must be named.  If we claim to have no sin, we are liars. 
            However, if we are honest in coming to Jesus, he forgives and cleanses us.  He, says, the elder is the “atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world” (2:2).  If the basic truth about Jesus is he is God in the flesh and in him we meet God, and if the basic question is what does it mean for us to see and know and walk with Jesus, then one conclusions stands out.  Because of him, we are forgiven and the sins we cannot shake are gone.  We stand before God free of sin, free to love and be loved. 

            Do we know what that is like, to experience pure love?  Do we want to know?  As we continue in worship, we are each invited to open our hearts to God.  First, we bring all the messes of life that have not yet been cleaned up. Right now, we bring it to the cross and lay our junk before Jesus.  Second, we turn our hearts to God and ask, “Can we see Jesus?”
            God does not turn away the humble seeker.  As John shows in the gospel and in 1st John, God invites, God welcomes, God forgives and renews, and God loves.  You are beloved and God who is the light and the life invites you to come and receive life in Jesus’ name.