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Sunday, February 22, 2015

The Kingdom of God has Come Near - First Sunday of Lent 2015

Sunday, February 22, 2015
1st Sunday of Lent

          When John baptized Jesus and he was coming out of the water, verse 10 says, Jesus saw heaven “torn apart.”  The Greek word is ‘schizo.’  Note the English that’s derived from this – schism.  A split. 
          I wrote an Ash Wednesday sermon that I won’t get to preach this year.  Joel chapter 2 was my text.  The prophet Joel says, “Rend your heart.”  That is when we come before God in repentance, we are called to rip ourselves wide open so that all is exposed and we are shredded.  In the Gospel of John, chapter 15, Jesus uses the imagery of pruning to describe how God works in us when are doing the right thing, bearing fruit for the Kingdom.  God snips away the unproductive parts. 
          Cutting.  Ripping open.  Why are such violent images so fitting for our description of the Kingdom of God? 
          In Matthew and Luke, the Gospel writers provide background information about how Jesus came to be born.  The Gospel of John reaches all the way back, before creation, to establish Jesus’ divine identity.  Mark gives us neither the miraculous birth nor the assertion of Jesus’ divinity, at least not explicitly.  Mark dives right into his life on earth. 
          And yet, Mark does not necessarily ignore who Jesus is either.  John baptized hundreds.  Only when Jesus was baptized did God rip through the Heavens to witness the event.   Only here, at Jesus’ baptism, does God add His “Amen.” 
          Some English versions understate the drama.  The New King James Version says the Heavens parted.  That’s not strong enough.  Today’s English Version says Jesus saw Heaven opening.  The Living Bible is very similar.  It is not an acceptable translation.  In other ways, The New King James, The Today’s English Version, and The Living Bible are excellent.  I only raise the point here because if you read these or another version in which Mark 1:10 says the Heavens opened, something important is missing. 
An open door can be shut.  An open jar can have the lid put back on it.  At Jesus’ baptism, he knew who he was and why he had come.  We can debate about what Jesus knew prior to this.  Did he always realize he was God in the flesh?  We can have that conversation, but the Bible does not tell us any answer.  Our arguments would stand on theological reasoning and speculation but nothing more.  We know he was fully human. 
And we know at his baptism, a significant change occurred.  After this, he was on a mission to announce the Kingdom, demonstrate life in the Kingdom, and then die so people would not have to die in their sin, but rather in his resurrection could with him enter the Kingdom.  This baptism is the turning point for Jesus and the Heavens ripping open are a key.
Something ripped cannot easily be put back together.  That’s why God had his prophet Joel tell people to rip open their hearts.  All inside us is exposed before God.  Nothing is hidden.  We are our true selves before God, every bit of beauty and strength in us, every mistake we’ve made, and every sin committed against people, against ourselves, and against God – it is all there. We are ripped open and God makes us new.  God remakes us, forgiving where it is needed, healing, comforting, and raising us so that we are who God made us to be, his children.
Before that can happen, the ripping of the heavens had to happen at Jesus’ baptism.  Whatever wall stood to block us off from access to God, a wall built out of the raw material of human sin, it had to be torn away to never again stand.  The coming of Jesus, a completely human man and at the same the true Son of God, the Holy One, is the event that draws heaven in all its holiness and earth stained by sin together.
God confirms it.  When the heavens tear open and the division between God and man is in the process of being eliminated, God comes in the form of the Holy Spirit, gently falling on God in the form of a man.  With the grace of a dove, heavenly power comes over Jesus as the Father declares, “You are my son, the Beloved.  With you I am well pleased” (v.11).
That same Holy Spirit immediately drives Jesus to a place of unknown death – the wilderness.  Do not be deceived by the concept of wilderness.  Some of us love getting outside, out in the woods, away from it all.  Going to the wilderness for us is an escape in which we take in God’s beauty, breathe fresh air, and unplug.  In the first century, in a desert country, the wilderness was where one went to die.  It is true the wilderness is where Moses heard his call.  And Jesus did go to remote places for prayer and alone time with his Heavenly Father.  But this desert sojourn in Mark 1 was fraught with danger. 
Mark does not give the details we get from Matthew and Luke.  He simply tells us Jesus contended with Satan and with wild animals and he immerged victorious.  When the Kingdom of God breaks loose, Satan more than people of earth realizes the threat.  Satan desires control.  More than anything he wants to be Lord.  If he can’t be the Lord, then he will draw people away from the Lord.  Satan and his demons recognize who Jesus is and what his coming means for them.  His coming opens the way for people to bask in joy and glory and freedom as we, washed in divine love, worship God. 
This is the precursor to Satan’s last defeat, his final death.  The encounter ends with angels meeting Jesus’ needs.  He comes back to Galilee and begins preaching that the Kingdom of God has come near.  However, his victory is with a cost.  John the Baptist was arrested.
In signaling the beginning of the demise of John the Baptist, the New Revised Standard Version, which I read most Sundays, translated the word by saying he was ‘arrested.’  The actual word would better be translated ‘handed over.’  Mark will use this word again in introducing the disciples.  In chapter 3, as he goes through the 12, when Mark comes to Judas Iscariot, he tells us this is the “one who betrayed him.”  That verb “betrayed” is the same as the one translated “arrested” here in 1:14.  Mark’s original readers, knowing the story, quickly caught the foreshadowing.  John was handed over.  Jesus also was handed over.  John came to a tragic end, so too would Jesus. 
This is the tension in the announcement that the Kingdom has come near.  Jesus’ declaration, “the time is fulfilled,” signals an event.  I don’t know what comes to your mind when you hear “Kingdom of God.”  Mark was not talking about a theological concept.  He did not mean something that would come in an unknown future.  When he said, “Kingdom of God,” he meant an event that had happened.  In Jesus – his life, death, and resurrection – the Kingdom has come near.
One of my favorite commentaries for any book of the Bible is on Mark and is written by David Garland of Truett Theological Seminary.  When Jesus said, “Kingdom of God,” his listeners would have had something in mind.  Mark’s readers, reading his gospel 30 years after the resurrection would also have a specific idea about the Kingdom.  Garland writes,
Many understood the arrival of the Kingdom of God to mean that God was visiting the people to bring grace and judgment, to put things right in the world, to vanquish evil and the malevolent powers, to oust the rulers of this world, to establish the kingdom of Israel, to conquer sin and eradicate sickness, and to vindicate the righteous.[i]

In fact, Jesus did come to make things right and to judge and extend grace.  But a lot would have to occur that people did not anticipate or want whether it was his day or Mark’s day or ours.   The Kingdom would grow within a world overrun by sin.  Jesus’ peers thought that Kingdom meant the rule of Israel.  Mark’s readers thought Kingdom meant the rule of the church.  Today, the prevalent thought is of a disembodied Heaven.  We imagine a faraway place where we get whatever we want.  None of these images is the Kingdom Jesus was announcing. 
If we want a sense of what Jesus meant when he said that the Kingdom has come near, we need to read the Gospels and pay close attention to his interactions with people.  He welcomed the humble, knocked the proud off the pedestals on which they stood, and he healed wounded hearts.  Yes, he performed miracle healings, but the lasting affect came when he turned people to God.  The Kingdom is not the rule of Israel or the rule of the church or a faraway Heaven where our wildest dreams come true.  The Kingdom is much better than that.  It is the rule of God.
In Jesus, that Kingdom is near to us right now.  The heavens that ripped open have not been repaired or replaced.  Humans are invited to access to God because Jesus has come.  The divide that separated God’s realm from ours is now gone because Jesus has come.  Sin has lost its power, death has been defeated, and Satan has been shrunk, reduced to slinking around in the shadows because Jesus has come.
Yet, there is still tension even now.  John the Baptist was handed over.  Jesus was handed over.  And we who have been filled with His Holy Spirit and thus seen the approaching eternal Kingdom know that the final fulfillment has not yet come.  We live between the then and the not yet, between the Holy Spirit’s arrival at Pentecost and the final fulfillment.  In this in between time, the Kingdom of God overlaps with the world utterly corrupted in sin.
Mark’s purpose in his gospel is to show his readers all the implications in the reality of Jesus.  Jesus says, “Repent.”  That means turn.  Turn from the world of sin.  Turn from a world in which terrorists kidnap journalists and make a public showing of their execution.  Turn from a world in which dental students are murdered in parking disputes.  Turn from a world in which adultery is so common many just kind of accept it.  Turn from a world in which sex, a beautiful expression of love between a husband and wife, is used as a marketing tool that plays on viewers’ lusts and lack of meaningful relationships.  Repent of letting this world define us.
Repentance does not mean we pretend the problems of the world have magically disappeared.  It means we are not defined by those problems.  We are defined by who we are in Christ.  We confront evil as it is manifest in violence, death, greed, and sexual sin and in a thousand other ways.  We confront evil with the grace and love of Jesus.  We turn from it and to Him.  We are defined by who are in Him.
The message can be summed up this way.  Jesus’ coming was so dramatic, Heaven was ripped apart, evil recoiled and tried to fire back (the desert temptations, the death of John the Baptist, and manifestations of evil today), but God wins and to be in on God’s victory, we need to be pointed toward Him as we know Him in Jesus Christ.  This Lenten season, find specific changes in your life that you can make to reorient yourself so you are turned away from sin and corruption and turned toward Jesus. 
One excellent way of doing this is participation in communion.  The broken bread and the cup, Jesus broken body and shed blood, remind us of our own sins and what it cost him to take those sins away.  As we makes ourselves ready for receiving the elements, consider your life. What needs to be confessed for your repentance to be complete?  What changes need to happen so that you are fully directed toward Jesus and he defines your life, your work, your relationships, everything?
We will pray in silence for a few moments.  In this time ponder what turning will look like in your life.  God has come.  He has come for you.  Will you turn to Him?  This question bears out for people who have been lifelong Christians and for those who have never given themselves to Jesus.  Will you turn to Him this morning?
We will pray in silence.  Then sing.  Then have communion.  If you would like someone to pray with you during the silence and singing, we will have folks at the back and at the front.  You can come.

[i] D. Garland (1996), Zondervan Publishing House (Grand Rapids), p.60

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Heart Set on God

The Heart Set on God (Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; Matthew 6)
Rob Tennant, HillSong Church, Chapel Hill, NC
February 18, 2015 - Ash Wednesday

            God is quite clear.  “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with all you heart”.  The prophet gives us God’s appeal in Joel chapter 2.  Return to God with all of our heart.  God wants the deepest parts of us.  God wants every part of every one of us. 
            Ancient Israelites recognized that sin grieves God and so their repentance, their turning from sin back to god, was emotional and demonstrative.  They did not simply close their eyes and bow their heads and say, “Oh God, I am so sorry I sinned.  Please forgive me.”  They went beyond a simple spoken prayer. 
            They would fast.  We see King David do this after he has an affair with Bathsheba.  The prophet Nathan tells him God is going to punish him for his adultery and the murder of Bathsheba’s husband Uriah.  So David goes through the grief and repentance rituals.  Second Samuel 12:16 says he laid awake all night praying.  He fasted and even when his attendants urged him to eat he would not. For an entire week, he maintained his vigil before God. 
            Other passages tell of the ancients rustling their hair and beard so that they are disheveled.  They tear their garments and throw ashes on their heads.  They go many days without bathing, without eating, and in a state of disarray.  This is a lot more than the eye closed, head bowed, O God, I am so sorry, and then the prayer and repentance is over.  The ritual was involved.  In ancient Israel, turning to God away from sin demanded a lot from the one doing the confessing and repenting. 
            Unfortunately, by the time Joel was inspired to speak as God’s prophet, the people had become quite skilled in the grief and repentance rituals.  They were practiced at putting on the whole show of sorrow for their sins.  But when the show was over, they went right back to their sins. 
            The original intent of the ritual was not a case of God making people jump through hoops to earn God’s favor.  The fasting, the tearing of one’s garments, the tussling of one’ hair, the shower of ash, the marathon sessions of prayer, confession, and lament – all of it was supposed to be an outward sign of one’s inner sorrow.  All this demonstrative ritual was meant to show that the people understood how badly their own sins wounded them.  Our sin stands between us and right relationship with God. 
            I know sin is a trite word in popular culture.  Popular music groups sing about sin as if it is fun.  People will giggle at pastors who rail against the damage sin does.  Rarely do I hear people, when they talk about wanting to make changes in their lives, grieve how their sins injure their relationship with God.  Most people identify themselves as “good people.”  I am good a person.  It’s not like I have killed anyone or stolen anything.  Few people accept that they are sinners and those who do shrug it off.  Everyone is a sinner so even admitting it we actually tell ourselves we’re not that bad
            God hates sin because every sin, big and small, is a choice to do things in a way other than God’s way.  Sin is the decision that God’s way is not the best.  Other ways are better.  But that is not true.
Outside of God, all ways of living lead to eternal death.  In the cross of Christ, God has made a way for sin to be covered and removed.  It is no longer an obstacle between us and Him.  But just as God did not want the empty ritual Joel rejected, God does not want us to disobey him and then confess with no intention of ever stopping ungodly thoughts, words, and deeds. 
            Yes, we should specifically name our sins and confess them to the Lord.  Yes, we should receive the forgiveness God gives.  And our confession should be more than words we speak.  Our confession, when it is real, is an expression of something happening in our hearts.  Joel 2:12, “Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.”
            The changed heart leads to a new life.  Can we hear Joel’s call to “rend our hearts”?  We look inside, see that sin has corrupted us, and we rip ourselves open so we are completely exposed before God, broken and sorry.  God receives us with love, patience, and grace.  Joel’s very next line shows where repentance leads. “Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.”
            The rooting out of sin and the replacing of it with gentleness, patience, self-control, joy, unity, peace, and love is something God does, not us.  We cannot accomplish the change of heart.  What can do is position ourselves before God, humble and open to whatever God has in store.  We set ourselves so that we are available for God to go to work in us.  When we rend our hearts, confess our sin, rip ourselves open, and break ourselves down and lay ourselves out before the Lord, we discover how truly gracious God is.  We become new creations. 
            Jesus identifies steps his disciples take in setting their hearts on God.  Matthew chapter 6 is the middle portion of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.  The entirety of chapters 5, 6, & 7 is him speaking.  In chapter 6, Jesus says what he assumes his followers will do.  “Whenever you give alms” (a charitable gift), Jesus says, “do not let your left your hand know what your right hand is doing” (6:3).  He does not say “if you give,” but rather, “when you give.”  Jesus assumes his disciples will give what they can to help people in need, and he wants them to do this in secret as an act done toward God, for God’s pleasure. 
The same pattern persists for the other disciplines Jesus mentions.  He says, “When you pray,” and “when you fast.”  In both cases, Jesus rejects those who carry out these practices to call attention to their own righteousness.  ‘Hypocrites’ Matthew writes (6:2), practice the disciplines in full view of everyone because they gain some kind of religious ‘street cred.’  Jesus expects his followers to fast, pray, and give, and he expects us to do these things in private as acts of humility before God.  These are not to be burdens, loads that make our lives difficult.
It is just the opposite.  Just as Joel tells us to rip open our heart not so we will be punished but so we will experience God’s grace, Jesus says that when we give, fast, and pray we are in fact storing up treasures (6:19-20).  In these practices, we become malleable in God’s hands, available to be shaped by His love and truth.  The prayer of confession shows that we know we need forgiveness.  The fast of going without food or limiting our diets to simple foods shows that we know how weak we are before our appetites.  Our cravings drive us to selfish overindulgence and fasting combats that. Giving generously shows that money is just a tool and tools are to convey God’s blessing on all people, not just one. 
If we live in these spiritual disciplines, we have to submit ourselves to Jesus as Lord.  If we practice the disciplines without turning to Him, we will either be miserable, or we will be proud of our own self-control and the pride will lead us into other sins, or else we cheat and not keep the commitment and then justify our actions.  In that way, we close our hearts off and lock God out. 
Take fasting as an easy example.  Nothing spiritual is gained by not eating meat for 40 days.  It could potentially make the person doing it crabby and he might justify grabbing a chicken wing by saying, it will make him more pleasant.  He’ll claim the practice or spiritual discipline isn’t working and in order to be a better person, he needs to cheat or to quit.  Or, he’ll say, “I’m only human,” and he gives up. I know this is all true because I have failed in the disciplines in just the way I am describing here.  Either by force of will we maintain the fast but bitterness grows in us or we caves in and feeds our appetites.  What really needs feeding is our spirit.
When we fast, say go without lunch for 40 days, no eating between 8AM and 6PM, and in weak moments we are tempted, it is then that we turn in absolute dependence to Jesus.  That’s why we fast.  We see that our lives cannot go on, not if we are “in Christ,” except by relying on God through prayer.  We could live apart from Christ, but that would be life apart from God, life on our own strength.  The practice of disciplines reveals how little strength we have.  So we lift up desperate deep heart prayers.  If the fast is leading us to dark thoughts or anger, we get away from people and take our struggle right to God in private.  There, open and exposed, we wait and God begins healing and renewing.  When we get back around others, after God has done his work, we are cheerful and joy-filled.
I know Lent is about spiritual renewal – people giving up some sort of of pleasure in order to focus on faith.  That’s the way we say it.  I think the real heart of this season is God doing what God does.  God achieves God’s purposes in the lives of those of his followers who set themselves before him and open themselves to him. That is why we pray, give, and fast.
I won’t get to preach this Ash Wednesday sermon this year.  Our service has been snowed out.  If I had been able to do it, I would have designated the final portion of the message to presenting a challenge to the church.  I hope everyone who reads this will consider what it means to give one’s life completely to Jesus and to live every moment under Jesus’ reign, and will take up the challenged offered here.
First, we give God what God really wants.  As Joel says, we do not rip our clothes in a show of repentance.  We rip our hearts so that we are truly ready to be changed.  How?  One way (certainly not the only way) is an intense, 40-day commitment to spiritual disciplines.
So, second, we pray, give, and fast.  And we do so as a way of recognizing our need and allowing that need to force us to turn to God as we experience God in the Holy Spirit.  I am going to do all three and I am not going to announce how I do any of the three.  In the spirit of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 9, I am going practice my disciplines ‘in secret.’  My wife knows what I am doing.  She is my most trusted prayer partner and also the person who prepares many of my meals.  (As an aside, I would gladly cook for her but she has no interest in my culinary skills).  Other than her, it is God an me in this together.
This is the invitation to you.  Take up the disciplines as a way of turning your heart to God.  The rending of the heart: this is the work of Jesus followers year-round, but with a unique seriousness and at the same time a heightened joy in the weeks and days leading up to Easter. 
If guidance in spiritually disciplined living is a help, I offer this.  Write the following sentence down:
I need my heart to be __________ by God.
Maybe you need your heart broken by God.  Maybe you need your heart healed.  Here are some other options.
-         Inspired.
-         Enlightened.
-         Provoked or prodded.

Of course you may think up your own need.  Or, you may first need to ask God to show you how you need Him to be at work in your life.  I promise this.  If you commit to prayer, fasting, and giving from now until Easter and you keep the commitment, you will meet God.  This is not because these disciplines have any control over what does.  Notice I did not say doing these things will determine how we meet God.  We cannot influence God’s actions.  The disciplines affect us and change us and set us.  We are set to see God – the God who is always present.  The disciplines break open our eyes and ears so we can see and the one who loves us. 
So, write the sentence down, stick the paper in your Bible and go to it every day.  Renew your commitment daily.  I need my heart to be formed by God.  I need my heart to be resurrected by God.  I need my heart to be softened by God.  Every day from now until Easter Sunday make this prayer a part of your daily Bible reading and moment-by-moment practice of spiritual disciplines.

God is pretty straightforward.  He wants our hearts.  In Lent 2015, why don’t we give Him what he wants?

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Best Answer to Stephen Fry? Eyewitness Testimony

            One of my favorite movies is Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows.  The action is intense and the portrayals of the characters are brilliant.  I normally don’t consider myself discerning enough to assess good acting or bad acting.  I just know I loved that film and much of my love for it involves the way the characters interacted.  This includes the way Stephen Fry played the part of Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock’s brother.
            I am pretty sure that is all I knew of Stephen Fry until recently when he was interviewed and the interviewer, knowing Fry is an atheist, asked him what he would say to God if there was a God.  “Suppose it’s all true,” interviewer Gay Byrne asks, “And you walk up to the pearly gates, and you are confronted by God.”  What would the atheist say?
            “Bone cancer in children?” Fry responds, “What’s that about?  How dare you!  How dare you create a world in which there is such misery which is not our fault.”[i]  He goes on to deal with theodicy, the problem of evil and suffering.  If there is a God, Fry would want no part of him or his heaven because God demands adoration and worship from humans while at the same time imposing unspeakable pain on us. 
            At one point the camera pans to Byrne whose looks taken aback, but why would he?  Why would anyone be surprised?  He knew before he asked the question that Fry is an outspoken atheist.  His statement is consistent with his worldview.  Atheists don’t think there is a God.  Outspoken atheism advocates not only don’t believe, but also are hostile toward Christian expressions of God.  They also reject theologies in other faiths, but I will stick to my field of familiarity, the evangelical stream in Christianity. 
            After the video was aired, there was the expected backlash which puzzles me as much as Byrne’s surprise.  Why would Christian leaders speak out in opposition to an atheist saying what atheists say?  One clergyman called him “spiritually blind.”[ii]  Well, no kidding.  We Christians believe Jesus is the Light (John 8:12).  If someone has not put their faith in him and given their life to him, then they are blind.  We could say that about anyone who does not profess faith in Jesus, so billions of people. 
            But, we must say this with humility.  We think the Bible is true.  We think the message of the Bible is wrapped up in a simple declaration: Jesus is Lord.  So, anyone who does not affirm that assertion and live under Jesus’ Lordship is lost.  That’s what we think.  That is a base level evangelical confession.  Nothing Mr. Fry said enlightens that.  Harangues from red-faces pastors may give him a chuckle, but it won’t change his worldview.  The only way Stephen Fry would overcome theodicy would be revelation.  The Holy Spirit would need to get a hold of him in a way that he would see and then choose to respond. 
            I believe the Holy Spirit comes to all people throughout their lives.  I do not believe in irresistible grace.  People can choose.  Judas Iscariot walked with Jesus, saw the miracles, and was himself filled with the power of God (Mark 6:13).  Still, he chose to betray Jesus.  He was that close and still chose another path, one that leads away from God and to death.  Just as Judas has choices, so too does Mr. Fry.  And I do not assume he will always profess atheism.  He may one day turn and follow Jesus.
            He won’t do it because pastors hammer him with scripture verses.  That is the wrong tack.  It always is.  And it won’t work with him because several things he said are absolutely true.  First, he said there is awful misery and suffering in the world.   He’s correct.  It makes one’s heart sick to see starvation, racism, disease, and so many other things that hurt people.  This should be grieved and not shrugged off.  Agony over pain should be brought right to God.
            Second, Stephen Fry is absolutely right in his statement that God expects us to spend our lives worshiping God.  Fry presents this as a burdensome duty that is distasteful because of God’s complicity in human misery.  I think he has no sense of how wonderful worship is but that is not my point here.  I want to affirm that yes, there is pain; and yes, the Christian view is that the proper way humans relate to God is in worship. 
            So, if he is right then what could a Christian possibly say in response?  I’ve seen Fry’s words described as a rant, but I found him to be quite eloquent.  He’s the type of speaker who is so interesting and beautiful in his speech that I think I could listen to him read the ingredients on a canned soup label.  What can I or any Christian say?
            I don’t think we attempt to prove God’s goodness or God’s existence.  If God could be reduced to proofs, God wouldn’t be God.  No, what I think we do is bear witness.  We say that we believe where there is suffering that is where God is.  And we undergird this belief by going to where there is suffering, helping where can, comforting where it is needed, praying constantly, and standing with those who suffer.  We can say God is with those who hurt the most because we have been with those who hurt the most and thus we saw God there.
            I think of the words of the brilliant song by Matthew West.  So, I shook my fist at Heaven, Said 'God why don't You do something?'  He said, ‘I did, I created you.’”[iii]  West beautifully captures what Christ followers know.  The miracles of God come in the context of real human lives.  Do you want to see a miracle?  Go where God is at work.  If Christians are the leading voices advocating for peace, the leading minds in cancer research, and the leading volunteers on projects to feed and educated the poorest of the poor, and if we do it all in the name of and to the glory of Jesus Christ, we will make our statement about God.  It won’t convince Stephen Fry of anything, not without the Holy Spirit grabbing his mind and heart.  But it will dramatically punctuate our insistence that Jesus is Lord. 
            I recoiled when I first heard what Fry said to Byrne.  It is sharp.  But I hope the Holy Spirit will whisper this message to all believers who aren’t sure how to best give a different view of God.  I hope the Holy Spirit will tell us evangelicals, “Don’t worry about Stephen Fry.  Pray for him.  And then come volunteer your time to care for kids with bone cancer.  Lay hands on them and pray for them.  Volunteer your time to be on teams that travel to third world communities plagued by blindness, illiteracy, and hunger.”  If we go and serve, both locally and globally, we will see what God is doing.  We will live in that story.  And we won’t need clever comebacks to the articulate atheist.  We just say what we have seen.


Thursday, February 12, 2015

I do not Need to Say It …

            Acceptance of same sex marriage is trending in the United States.  “There’s nothing wrong with it.”  I hear this over and over, in conversation, on the radio, on the twitter feed.  Of course, people only say “there’s nothing wrong with it” because so many others are shouting that there is a lot wrong with it.  Many of those condemning homosexuality and doing so with vigor and vitriol are Christian pastors.  Their damning messages come in the form of sermons.  As the drumbeat of acceptance and normalizing of homosexuality gets louder, the sermons from the conservative quarter are more forceful, clear-cut, and accusatory. 
            Thus a situation exists.  Either you are for same-sex marriages and you celebrate that this form of human sexuality is becoming accepted in society; or, you condemn homosexuality as an abomination, the worst of sins, and a harbinger of the end times.  Either you’re for same-sex marriages all the way or you hate them and everyone associated with them.  These, it seems, are the only options. 
            Recently I was talking with a close friend of mine.  He and I are pastors. We discovered we have the same problem.  We do not align ourselves with the angry, red-faced pastors who seem to be more intent on condemning homosexuality than proclaiming the love of Christ.  My friend and I, we do not use words like ‘abomination’ when we think about gay and lesbian people.  We’re more inclined to describe our gay friends the same way we describe ourselves.  They are humans, people made in the image of God, loved by God.  However, my friend and I have reached the same hermeneutic conclusion (‘hermeneutics’ is the practice of interpreting the meaning of a text). 
We have both searched the scriptures.  We have found that heterosexuality is affirmed when intercourse happens in marriage.  There is no scripture that sanctions any form of homosexuality.   There are passages that are eternal, applicable today, not bound by 1st century social customs, and these passages do identify homosexuality as sinful behavior.  This is where our careful reading of scripture has led us. 
So, we sat together bemoaning our frustration that we don’t fit in the conversation anywhere.  Those condemning all things gay would accuse us of being “too soft sin.”  Those celebrating gay marriage would call us intolerant homophobes.  We sat there together being frustrated, but today, I felt moved in my spirit to take a different stance. 
I do not mean my theology has changed.  I would not officiate as the pastor in a same-sex wedding because I don’t think God wants me to do that.  I believe in my heart I would be going against what God asks of me if I did that.  However, I don’t think it is necessary for me to trumpet this bit of my theology in every conversation on this topic.  And this is where I am feeling myself moved.  I don’t need to shout my position.  I don’t need to whisper it.  I don’t need to talk at all.  I need to take up the posture of a compassionate listener. 
I have had friends come out of the closet.  I have had people share the pain and distress of trying to follow what they had been taught in church and at the same time feeling same-sex attractions.  I have read books, sat in phone conversations that went for hours, and had in-person meetings.  I hope I have been a sympathetic listener.  But even if I succeeded, in the back of my mind I was disinterested.  I did not hate gays.  But I was not full of love – the compassionate love of Christ.  He calls me to love my neighbor and neighbor love as he defines is inconvenient and uncomfortable (Luke 10:25-37).  I was patient and kind, but I failed to show the neighbor love Jesus demands of his followers. 
What began to shift my thinking was a conversation a few years ago.  A friend listened to one my sermons on our church website.  The next time he was in our state and nearby, we met as we would anyway, but this time, he had something to share.  He came out of the closet.  And I genuinely felt his pain and it hurt me.  Then and there, I decided, if he ever got married and I was invited, I would go.  I couldn’t be the pastor to officiate, but as his friend, I could attend out of love for him.
That started moving my needle on how to communicate my own views in conversations related to homosexuality.  Then today, I watched a video of Vicky Beeching addressing a large crowd of LGBT Christ followers (  Yes, I believe one can be gay and can follow Christ.  My theology is not perfect nor is any Christian’s.  I think people who hold to reformed theology are not correct, but I don’t doubt their salvation.  Why would I reject the faith of a gay Christian just because we disagree on this issue? 
I first became aware of Vicky Beeching a while ago when the lead singer of Jars of Clay proposed that gay marriage is not necessarily wrong.  His entire thought process and the reaction to it happened on twitter.  At that time, I was just beginning to use twitter.  Following Dan Haseltine’s saga was one of the first twitter threads I read.  In the process, I came across Vicky Beeching’s feed.  I really did not know who she was and I did not know her music.  But I paid enough attention to her work to be interested in hearing more from her.  Then my interest in her as a writer and public Christian personality faded as other issues crept into my brain.
I do not know what made her pop into my brain today.  But, I decided to check out her twitter feed and saw that she is a musician.  I went to YouTube to hear her music and ended up on the video of her telling her own story.  And I was deeply moved.  She is someone who wants to follow Jesus and is following Jesus with her talents, her personality, and her time.  She is a disciple.  If someone wants to accuse her of being a flawed disciple, well, I am too.  I think, say, and do things my Master does not condone.  He chides and forgives me and loves me.  Jesus did not say I was acceptable after I conquered temptation.  Jesus loves me when I am at my worst.
And I understand that Vickie Beeching or my gay friends would insist that their same-sex attractions and in some cases gay partnerships are not sins Jesus has to put up with.  These Christians do not believe homosexuality is a sin at all.  But even if we disagree, we can agree that no one is a perfect Christ follower.  I, with my views on this topic, must approach someone else who has different views with my arms open offering an embrace, and my mouth shut, keeping my views to myself.
Why?  Listen to Ms. Beeching’s story.  Living under condemnation was so torturous for her; she filled her time including holidays with work so she wouldn’t have to face the tension.  If she stayed busy enough, she did not have to deal with being lesbian and loving Jesus.  The ache in her last from age 12 into adult and was so intense it led to serious physical sickness.  Her story reflects the stories of thousands of believers who want to love Jesus and at the same time feel sexually attracted to people of their own gender. 
Part of the reason this is such a painful thing is the way Christians have picked out this particular topic and pounded it into the ground.  Does anyone ever say gluttony is an abomination, the embodiment of evil, and a sign that Satan has come?  Gluttony is clearly considered a sin in the New Testament worldview (Matthew 11:19) and is the opposite of what the Spirit produces, self-control (Galatians 5:23).  Why is gluttony no condemned?  It is a much more prominent in the United States, a nation of obese, out-of-shape people.  Gluttony is epidemic, but we have fat preachers condemning homosexuality.
Again, I recognize that there is a movement that denies that homosexuality should be mentioned here at all because this movement believes homosexuality is not a sin.  I appreciate that view even if I don’t hold it.  All I am getting at is that we preachers get choosy.  We pick one category (often one we do not struggle with).  Then we stay mum on another category (one of which we are guilty).
Listening to Ms. Beeching, my heart broke for her and for friends I have known.  I thought back to my conversation with my close friend, the pastor who thinks like me.  It is OK if we aren’t heard right now.  Our gay friends have been hammered so many times by pastors; it is OK if they don’t want to hear us tell them we love them even though we think homosexuality is not quite right.  It is OK for us to just be quiet.  And I am completely aware that by writing this blog about being quiet, I am not being quiet.  But how else do you let everyone know you’re being quiet?  The irony abounds.
The passage I referenced, Galatians 5:23 is the famous “fruit of the Spirit” passage.  One of the things produced, the fruit, by the Holy Spirit is self-control.  Another is gentleness.  And another is kindness.  Listening to Vicky Beeching and recalling as friends have poured their hearts out, I am struck that I need to be intentional about working on kindness and gentleness.  This is true in all human encounters, and the conversation on homosexuality is a good place to start.  One way to practice kindness and gentleness is compassionate, empathetic listening.  I think I’ll add that to the spiritual disciplines I practice. 

I am grateful I don’t have to preach this week and that break has afforded me time to heart a great Christian orator, Vicky Beeching, and recall conversations with Christians trying to follow Jesus.  As you have read my thoughts, I pray God has been at work in you.  In my honest talk with God, I believe God is telling me listen and love the one who is generous enough to invite you into her story.  I think that is what I am hearing from God so that is what I am going to try to do.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

My Prayer for Muslims Murdered in Chapel Hill

When I originally wrote this I had just seen the CNN report.  As more information comes out, it seems maybe this wasn't a hate crime, but rather a dispute over parking (  I can't decide what's worse, killing for hate or killing for a parking space. Either way, my prayers at the end remain.
  I begin with Isaiah 42.  I can’t think of where else to begin. 

42 Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
    my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
    he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
    or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
    he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
    until he has established justice in the earth;
    and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
            This morning, CNN reported[i] that Craig Stephen Hicks murdered a student at the school of dentistry at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.  Hicks murdered Deah Shoddy Barakat, already in the dental school, his wife Yusor Mohammad who was about to enter the program, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, Yusor’s sister and a N.C. State student.  Three victims, each under the age of 25.  This is an awful tragedy.
            CNN reports that Hicks was an atheist and that he murdered these three because of their Muslim faith.  Christian pastors need to be the loudest voices decrying this tragedy.  We must stand with our Muslim friends against evil of this sort.  I have many Christian friends who love to rant about the evils of Islam.  In these exhortations, my friends mix critique of a religion with xenophobia and a hatred of all things Arab (even though millions of Muslims are not Arabs). 
            We Christians need to speak up and stand with our Muslim friends in the name of Jesus and for the sake of peace and love.  Yes, just an hour ago, I posted a blog that is a book review of Jenny Nordberg’s The Underground Girls of Kabul.  Yes, my blog post is critical of aspects of Muslim culture, most notably the lack of rights for women.  However, I do not hate Muslims.
            I cannot hate Muslims.  I look to the story in Isaiah’s poetry.  God has called a servant who brings justice.  God’s servant is most gentle with those in society who are most vulnerable.  “A bruised reed he will not break.”  He is for those who are weak, exposed, and in the minority.  God’s will is that those trodden under foot, those stomped under heel be raised to health and shalom (peace with the possibility of prosperity). 
Obviously dental school students are undergoing training that will lead to affluent professions.  So in that sense these murdered are not vulnerable in the way the poor and under resourced are vulnerable.  But Muslims in America are a minority at a time in history when many of our soldiers are fighting wars in predominantly Muslim cultures where the enemy combatants are Muslim extremists.  Clearly some Americans like the evil idiot, Mr. Hicks, cannot discern between an upstanding, peace loving citizen (of any nation) and a misguided terrorist.  Muslims in America have to face prejudice that aligns them with terrorists when in fact they just American dental students (or NBA players or school teachers or cab drivers).  Sometimes the prejudice comes out in ignorant Facebook posts.  Sometimes it becomes extreme, like in the case of the murderer Craig Stephen Hicks.
            I believe Jesus perfectly fulfills the role of the servant described in Isaiah.  So in this story, he is on the side of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.  He stands with the victim.  Jesus loves Muslims more than I do.  I know my Muslim friends see him as a prophet while I see him as the Son of God and the Savior of the world.  Christian views of Jesus and Muslim views of Jesus are completely incompatible.  There is no middle ground.
            However, Christians can affirm that Jesus loves all people.  And today, we Christians can and must declare solidarity with Muslims.  We must say it and mean it, #MuslimLivesMatter.  I don’t want Muslims killed or harmed or marginalized.  I want them to have the same opportunities for a good American life that I enjoy. 
            A particularly chilling aspect of this story for me is Hicks’ age.  He’s 46.  In a week, I turn 45.  A guy just about exactly my age killed three young people full of life and potential.  Why?  Somehow his life led him to be an atheist and a person full of hatred.  Somehow in the same number of years, my life led me to this point.  I am shocked by what happened.  All I can think to do is pray.
            Oh God, whose servant will not be crushed until he has established justice on the earth, give justice to the families of Deah, Yusor, and Razan.  Give mercy and healing to their parents and to those who loved them and weep for them.  Raise up in our community people of peace, pastors and Muslim leaders who will stand together for peace.  Bring healing to our blood-stained world. 
            And Father in Heaven, convict the heart of Craig Stephen Hicks.  I have in this writing, accused him and berated him, and Lord, I am not sorry.  His sins have ended three lives.  I pray he will spend the rest of his life behind bars.  And I pray in that time that he will meet you and his heart will be turned. 
            Lord, only you possess knowledge of the eternal destiny for Deah, Yusor, and Razan.  Some of my conservative Christian peers would confidently declare them hell-bound because they failed to verbalize a faith in Christ.  I cannot do this.  Lord of the cross and resurrection, I pray for these young people.  I look at their photos on CNN and see beauty and life.  I pray you would receive them with your Holy love. 


Review of the Underground Girls of Kabul

            I know that the situation in Afghanistan is not the norm for all women in the Muslim faith.  I know that there are situations in some Christian communities where women lack equality with men, access to education, and opportunities to reach their potential.  I say this because I don’t want to overstate the case.  However, I find Jenny Nordberg’s book about women in Kabul and throughout Afghanistan to be credible.

            Because it is believable, it is hard to accept.  Women in Afghanistan have no rights.  Even the individual Nordberg gives the most attention to, the politician is under heel in her own home.  Jenny Nordberg has opened a world that most Americans and westerners never see or understand.  Now that she has revealed it, I still don’t understand it.

            I come away from my reading of “The Underground Girls of Kabul” thinking there is no way in traditional Islam that women can ever be fully human.  Combined with the experiences shared in Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s “Infidel,” I am left to conclude that a main thread of Islam involves the violent subjugation of women. 

            I am a Baptist pastor who tries to afford women every opportunity men have within the church.  My more conservative Baptist peers do not feel women should be allowed to be ordained as pastors.  I do.  However, even the conservative Baptists in the United States have no objection to women becoming doctors, lawyers, politicians, or university professors.  The rights denied women in conservative American Christianity while wrong pale in comparison to the way women are subjugated in normative Islamic life in Afghanistan.

            I think Jenny Nordberg went through real hardship to research this book and her final product is a gift to any thinking person who wants to understand the situation in conservative Islamic communities.  Writers who go the extent she did to accomplish her work help make humankind smarter.

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Praying Life

Sunday, February 8, 2015

            My grandmother is 92.  No one in our family has lived to that age.  When she was 86, she got really sick.  I began preparing for her death.  Most people don’t live into their 90’s.  It is happening more and more, but it is not a tragedy when someone over 85 dies.  I want to be careful with this.  I am not casual about anyone’s death.  We read in 1st Corinthians 15 that death is the enemy.  It is serious and whenever my grandmother does die whether is this year or when she is 100, we will grieve.  But it is not a tragedy.  It is a full life, lived well. 
            And that would have been true had she died a few years ago when she was sick at 86.  Even so, we prayed for her recovery.  Relative in 8 different states were praying.  In our family, Meme is a revered, saintly figure.  And she recovered. 
            Did she get well because we prayed so hard.  Maybe.  My grandmother was on the wrong medication and once it was changed, her depression was gone.  Her zeal for life, even at 86, returned and is still there now at 92. 
            So what do we see?  Meme recovered because of everyone’s prayers or Meme recovered because they finally got the medication right?  I don’t even try to know the answer.  I believe prayer helped.  I know my praying helped draw me to God.  God walked with me in a tense, uncertain time.  Life is full of tension and uncertainty.  If Meme had died, God would have helped me cope.  Someday she will die.  When it comes prayer will help us because prayer is conversation with God and God loves us.
            Christ followers live in prayer.  When we are right in our walk with God, our lives are prayer-filled lives.  If you think, Uh oh, my life is not prayer-filled, I may not be where I need to be, spiritually speaking, don’t worry.  God is not staring with arms angrily folded, glaring at us and thinking, you better get this right.  God loves us with mercy and grace.  God’s desire is to walk with us.  We are more aware of God when our lives are built on prayer and immersed in prayer.
            In the book Streams of Living Water, Richard Foster writes that the prayer-filled-life is defined the “steady gaze [or a person’s] soul [is] upon the God who loves us” (p.49).  The stead gaze of her soul is upon the God who loves her.  The steady gaze of your soul is upon the God who loves you.
            I don’t know about you, but that is kind of different from the way I normally think and talk.  We would suppose Christians – we – are praying people.  But when we say that, what exactly are we saying?  Again, consider Foster’s quote, “the steady gaze of the soul upon the God who loves us.”  Do you picture an esoteric aesthetic who retreats to the mountains and sits in silent mediation?  Or the monk, cloistered in a cell, chanting for hours on end?  We can imagine the guy steadily gazing upon the soul of the God who loves him.  I can’t see myself being that guy.
            I imagine myself and it is a week before Christmas.  Christmas shopping needs to be done.  There is a Christmas event at church.  My older son is singing in school choir’s performance at Barnes and Noble.  My younger son has a basketball game.  I need to finish my sermon.  We have out-of-town company.  And both Candy and I are sick.   If someone is tempted to chalk that up to “Christmas stress,” there are numerous other times in the year that the schedule is that full.  And we know a lot of people, devoted Christian people, who are as busy as we are.  How are supposed to “maintain a steady gaze upon the God who loves us?”  We are so caught up jumping from one event to the next, we don’t have a steady gaze on anything. 
            But it is not just stress that interrupts us and gets in the way of living the praying life.  The problem of evil crops up. I read an interview just this week touching on this. A British actor, one I thoroughly enjoy in films, was asked about his atheism.  The interviewer said, ‘what if you died and found there is a God?  What would say to him?’  The actor replied, ‘I’d say to God, bone cancer in children.  What’s that about?’  He went on to name other dreadfully awful tragedies.  He blamed God for all of it.[i]  If there is God, that God is to blame for all the evil and suffering in the world.  The theological term for this is theodicy; the problem of evil. 
            It is a reasonable thing to consider when we talk about prayer.  Pondering evil, how do we pray at all?  We think about the suffering that is in the world and it gets heavy?  If we have a heart, we are wearied by the plight so many people face.

            Each of the four gospels offers examples of Jesus at prayer.  In Mark’s account we see Jesus, right in the midst of a very full life, making space to gaze upon God.  And, Jesus does surrounded by examples of the pain and suffering that the actor and many atheists cannot stomach.  No one hates the evil and the hurt humans endure more than Jesus.  This is why he came. 
In a Sabbath day service with Jesus preaching in the synagogue, a man interrupts everything.  His maniacal rants make it clear that he is possessed by a demon.  Today we see such a thing and chalk it up to severe mental illness.  I believe demons are real.  I believe demons are real.  I believe mental illness is real.  There is no way to determine what was up with this guy.  He came off as insane as he interrupted Jesus’ sermon with his crazed rants. 
            Then, the unexpected; the demons recognize Jesus.  “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth?  Have you come to destroy us?  I know who you are, Holy One of God.”  What was this demon saying?  Jesus was the son of Joseph and Mary, not God.
            Jesus sternly called out the demons and they obeyed.  The affair rocked that little Capernaum synagogue.  They had seen possessions, but never had they witness demons meekly submit to a man’s authority.  This was the carpenter’s son.  Jesus became the talk of the town.  Simon Peter’s mother-in-law had a debilitating fever.  Jesus touched her and she was back to full health. 
            Word spread.  There’s a miracle man at Simon Peter’s house.  Mobs of people descended on this out-of-the hamlet, and Jesus responded to every need.  He and his disciples walked from village to village, teaching the Kingdom and casting demons out of people. 
            Once, a leper came to him.  Lepers were supposed to stand at a distance and shout “unclean” so other would stay away.  One was so desperate, he violated convention and ran right up to kneel before Jesus.  Jesus was “moved with pity.”  He healed the man. 
            In Mark Jesus was always hurried and rushed by crowds.  The word that characterizes Mark’s gospel is “immediately.”  Every need was right now.  On one occasion, Jesus was so exhausted, he fell fast asleep in the bow of the boat.  Waves lifted the small craft high in the air and then slapped it down hard on the water again and again.  The 12 disciples held on for dear life.  I wonder if the tax collector got seasick.  I doubt he was an experienced sailor.
Jesus, also not a boatman, lay in bow and snoozed away.  The only time people gave him any space was when he was in the middle of the sea in weather not fit for man nor beast.  If ever someone did not have time to pause and cast a steady gaze of the soul upon the God who love us, it was Jesus.
Jesus knew busyness, yet he prayed.  His relationship with his Father-God deepened as he prayed in trying times.  Jesus could not be who he was without prayer.  Mark 1:35: “In the morning, while it was still dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  He prayed at meals.  He prayed with large crowds in the country side.  While he hung dying the cross, he talked to God.  Mark’s gospel shows how normal it was to see Jesus praying. 
As a guest in Simon’s home, he sacrificed sleep, rising pre-dawn so he could focus on God.  Everyone else was still in bed.  He was fully human and needed sleep as much as anyone.  Something he needed more than sleep was time with his Heavenly Father.
Other times, he went far into the wilderness, leaving crowds behind.  I know I sacrifice prayer time for tasks, sometimes very necessary things; sometimes not-so-necessary.  Jesus sacrificed tasks, and appointments because prayer took priority.  He built his life around it.  He did not fit prayer into the life he was building.  Everything else came after he had his time with God.
How does this look in your life or mine?  In 2015, with all the ways life gets filled, how do we live the praying life as Jesus lived it?
It begins with the development of our relationship with God.  No one can do this for you or for me.  We go to God together as a community.  Together, we sing.  Together we serve.  Together we pray.  We all have to be in it.  There is no surrogate faith.  Your mom, my friend, an elder – no one else can develop your life with God.  It is you and God.  It is God and me; we have to step toward the Father in prayer. 
God has stepped toward us.  Jesus came – God in flesh.  Jesus took the penalty of sin upon himself.  With death on the cross and his resurrection, sin no longer comes between us and God.  We repent, he forgives, and the relationship is right there to be lived.
We are made ready for stressful days through our prayers during the calm times.  We make daily prayer a top priority.   What I offer here are a few possible ways one might enter the praying life.
It could be every morning.  With that first cup of coffee, you read a few verses, write your thoughts and prayers in a daily notebook, and then spend at least five minutes in quiet, talking in your spirit to God and listening in your heart as God speaks to you. 
It could be a quiet meditation.  You make sure every day to arrive at work 5 minutes early, but you don’t go in right away.  You sit in your car for 5 minutes.  Read a passage in the Bible. Spend quiet moments asking God to prepare you for the day ahead. 
Perhaps you have young children.  As the school bus pulls away, you pull out your Bible and set it on your kitchen table.  The next 20 minutes will be you, God, the word, and your prayer notebook.  And nothing else gets that time.
Peter woke up.  No Jesus.  Where was he?  Peter, Mark says, “Hunted” for Jesus.  I don’t know if Jesus was done praying when Peter found him, but Jesus was ready to go. 
When shape our lives so that we get to those desert places alone God and daily, we linger there.  When those quiet moments become fixed in our lives and prayer is normal for us, then everything else falls in place.  It does not mean everything is easy or perfect.  It means we are in touch with God.  We sense God’s presence and hear when God speaks.  Like Jesus, from our times of prayer, living the prayer-filled life, we are ready to live the purposes and works God has for us. 
So, copy the master.  Carve out space so that life is filled up with prayer and thus filled up with God.