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Monday, March 27, 2017

A Song for the Road (Psalm 23)

Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 22, 2017

            The 23rd Psalm is commonly read at the funerals.  It might be the passage I have read more than any other in funeral and memorial services.  This makes sense.  It is an incredibly comforting poem and when people are grieving, they need comfort. 
            Psalm 23 is such a favorite that artists have used it as a part of their photos and paintings.  There is a serene nature scene; maybe a field of wildflowers; or the waves at twilight, when all the colors are soft, relaxing.  The words of the Psalm are gently superimposed over the idyllic picture, which is then framed and carefully arranged on the mantel.  An aura of calm falls over the room.
            There’s something quite beautiful about this.  Every time a guest in your homes pauses to take in that picture, they are reading scripture. 
            However, I think Psalm 23 has more power than as a comfort or as a decoration.  Those uses are fine, but it might time to get Psalm 23 off the mantel piece.  It has something to say to people when they are away from home; when they are on the move in the world.  It is time to turn to Psalm 23 in places other than the funeral parlor because it really speaks to people who are alive and facing life as it is in the world in which we live. 
            To say, “Life is a journey,” sounds cliché, but for followers of Jesus the journey is much more than a saying that goes on coffee mugs.  We have a mandate to spread out over the earth.  This mission is from God and dates back to the time of Noah.  Right after the flood and Noah and his family came off the ark onto dry ground, God promised to never again destroy the world in this way.  The next thing God says after this promise is “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (Genesis 9:1).  In order to fill the earth, we have to travel to every part of it and make our mark there.
            This mandate to spread over the earth is repeated by Jesus when he meets with his disciples after the resurrection.  The command to Noah was an act of re-creation.  Jesus inaugurates new creation.  He tells the disciples and this message is conveyed from them through the centuries of the church to us.  This is from Jesus to us.  “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
            Following Christ, we have a sense that we are headed somewhere and our movement has purpose.  This is true for people who spend their entire lives in the same small town as well as for people who live many different places in their lifetime.  Jesus declares we will be his witnesses.  We will give our testimony about who we know Jesus to be – Savior, Lord, Comforter, Guide, Leader.  We will share this testimony “as we go,” as we move through life.  This is for all Christians. 
            Psalm 23 is a word of encouragement for us as we go.  Note the promises and declarations and what these word imply.
            Because the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.  Who says, “I shall not want?”  Or, “all my needs will be met;” who takes the creative initiative to put that phrase in a song about God?  That singer has a fear that his needs might not be met.  He has to look to God and declare his confidence in God’s provision.  Maybe you are in a life situation where your job provides the paycheck that provides the food, the shelter and clothing, the insurance – all of life’s needs.  But you also have needs only God can meet.  This is as true for the affluent as it is for those who struggle.  Do you believe will those specific needs?  Can God be trusted?  That’s the song’s declaration.  Because God guides me, all my needs will be met.[i] 
            The Lord is my shepherd.  I am terrified that I will be filled with emptiness, an unsatisfied hunger, but no, I rebuke that terror.  The Lord is my Shepherd.  I shall not want.
            He makes me lie down in green pastures.  I look around me, at my life, at the world.  I see dead places.  Aleppo, Syria; a humanitarian hunger crisis in South Sudan; reduction of help for the poor as policies change in our own government.  We see barrenness.  No!  God sees all God’s children.  He sees us and gives us rest in lush, green pastures. 
He leads me beside still waters and restores my soul.  Why do I need my soul restored?  Because I get so weary.  My own failures weigh on me.  My worries settle heavy on my shoulders and I stoop.  No.  God is with me and leads me to refreshing waters, lifting my burden off me.  God leads me on right paths.
Who sings this song people know so well, these words we hang on the wall in picture frames?  People who fear the looming darkness; people who feel the shadow of death as it swallows the light of life. 
We – followers of Jesus – encounter all these things: uncertainty, worry, threats, failures.  Following Jesus does not remove us from the life’s toughest obstacles and grayest days and longest nights.  We experience these depths, but when we are in Christ, we do not go through these trials alone.  The declaration of this Psalm is that the promise of God’s presence can be believed and will help us.  God can be trusted.  God is, as Jesus says in the Great Commission, with us always, everywhere, for our good.
            In the middle of the Psalm, the singer switches from praise about God, to praise to God.  “The Lord is my shepherd.  He leads me beside still waters.”  And then in verse 5, it is “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.”  No longer does the singer talk about God, but rather to God.
            What’s more, notice what else is present in the midst of this Psalm of comfort.  The enemy!  If I didn’t talk about the Psalm, if I wasn’t setting this up, but just mentioned Psalm 23 among a group of seasoned church goers; and then, after mentioning it, asked what feelings the mention of the Psalm evoked, what might these lifelong Christians say?  “Psalm 23.”  What comes to mind?  Peaceful.  Comfort.  Well-being.  Rest. 
            Now, picture your enemy.  Who is in your mind’s eye?  A neighbor with whom you’ve had a property dispute?  It’s sad when that’s who comes to mind when we think of enemies, but it is true.  Some of our most consistently negative interactions are with neighbors; or family members; maybe an overbearing boss.  Maybe, your opponent is someone prejudiced against you.  It could be that “enemy” represents someone who tries to bully you.  I have even seen situtions where members of a church were opposed to each other.  When I say, ‘enemy,’ do you see someone related to you?
            Some people might say, ‘extremists,’ or ‘terrorists.’  I don’t think that’s realistic.  Do you realize how slim is the likelihood you’ll ever encounter a violent terrorist?  It’s highly, highly unlikely.  If I say, “picture your enemy,” and you have in mind a terrorist you saw on the news last night, then you’re dodging the question.  With whom do you have direct conflict?  Who do you believe has intentionally made your life hard?  When you picture that person, you don’t think, ‘peaceful.’  Comfort.  Well-being.  Rest.  You think, ‘I need to be on my guard.  My adversary is near.  It is not safe.’
            The Psalmist sings of a table, a meal, a banquet.  The feast can only come in a place and time of safety and yet in this song, our cherished 23rd Psalm, the festive dinner is in the presence of our enemies.  You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. How can this be?  When God is present, the situation changes! 
            The light of our savior spills over erasing the shadows that threaten.  We are in want?  No, our shepherd provides.  The storm clouds rumble?  No, our Lord leads us beside calm waters and green pastures.  The darkness opens its bottomless chasm?  No, our God gives light and walks with us and we are on safe ground.  Our enemy is here!  To arms!  No.  Our Savior sets the table.  Not, ‘to arms,’ but rather, to supper!  And when we know our God through His coming – through Jesus, crucified and resurrected – then we see our enemy transformed.  We see ourselves transformed.  He who was the enemy has a new heart as do we.  That relationship, which was a battleground, now, in Christ, is part of the new creation.
            We can only enter life hoping for radical transformation when we live by faith and live in complete trust in God and dependence on God.  We commit to a life in which we are dependent and we trust that God will provide what we need.  God will make sure our bodily needs are met.  God will be the one who gives our lives meaning.  God, and not some other thing, will be our source of joy.  We believe we will have happiness because we trust that God is here and God is good and that is enough.
            Walter Brueggemann hits this point forcefully.  He’s writing about the relationship ancient Israel had with her land.  Israel only came into the land when God performed wonders to force Egypt to free the Israelite slaves.  Then God opened the Red Sea.  Then God gave the wandering Israelites the ability to take the land.
            Centuries later, Israel had forgotten God and God allowed the people to fall into exile in Babylon.  However, that would not last.  God would bring His people back to the land.  This time it happened when God touched the heart of the Persian monarch and he permitted the people to return. 
In both Egyptian slavery and Babylonian exile, the people desperately wanted to return to the land, but that could only happen by an act of God.  We can only hope God will act if we trust God.  Many of the people then and now stopped doing that.  Brueggemann writes, “God’s people always want to settle for something short of promises, because promises being fulfilled remind Israel how vulnerable it is, how exposed it is, and how precarious it all is.  Promiseless existence is safer.  The Bible knows promises are always kept in the midst of threats.”[ii]
When we take Psalm 23 off the mantel and out of the frame and see it as a song of promise then we find ourselves in the exact position of ancient Israel.  We are vulnerable to heartbreak.  We can lose our faith if life gets too hard.  We are exposed to evil because sin has run amuck in the world.  Our lives are precarious and it seems awfully risky to bank on the idea that 2000 years ago a Jewish peasant really was God in the flesh, defeated death by dying, and brings hope because he rose from death and promised we will too.  Furthermore, he promised that he would be with us in the form of an ever-present Spirit that opens the way for each one of us to have a personal relationship with God. 
That’s all crazy.  That’s what ungirds our life, gives us hope, inspires our songs, and fills us with happiness and joy?  Seriously?  Yes, because it is true.  Israel was on a pilgrimage to the land and we are on a pilgrimage too.  In this season of Lent, in worship we journey toward the cross.  This is a journey of worship.  We walk with Jesus to his destiny and our salvation.
In our life beyond Lent, we are sent out to bear witness, and we’re sent everywhere.  Every place we go, every grocery story, friend’s kitchen table, bar stool, plane ride, unfamiliar hotel, and distant shore is for us the “ends of the earth.”  In these places we tell the story of the ages.  Jesus is Lord.  His coming is the coming of the Kingdom of God. And, people have life in his name, abundant life.  But even in this scattering to Jerusalem, to all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth where we give our testimony, even in this “going out” we have a destination. 
We are headed to dwell in the house of the Lord our whole life long.  In resurrection, our lives have no end. 
As we move toward this destination, we hit bumps in the road.  Our feet get snagged.  We lose our way.  But when it gets hard, when we think we can’t go on, when we lose confidence in our own stories, and when we are ready to completely give up, God is with us.  This song, Psalm 23 is a reminder that God goes before us, God walks with us, and God holds us in His hands.  When things on the journey get tough, Psalm 23 is our song for the road. 

[i] The observations in these paragraphs come from Craig Broyles (1999), New International Bible Commentary: Psalms, vol. 11 Hendrikson Publishers (Peabody, MA), p.123.
[ii] Walter Brueggemann (1977), The Land, Fortress Press (Philadelphia), p.68.

Monday, March 20, 2017

A New Way of Being Human (Romans 4:23-5:5), 3rd Sunday of Lent

Someone messes up and he’s really hard on himself.  “I can’t believe I did that!”  I’ve experienced this and you probably have too.  I fumble or say something I shouldn’t, something hurtful.  Or, I forget something, and it’s the 4th time.  My forgetting disrupts things for other people.  My mistakes hurt not only me, but others. 
            “I’m such dope,” I say, being hard on myself.  But then a friend comforts me.  “Don’t worry about it,” he says trying to smooth things over, “You’re only human.”
            Only human.  Is that the mark of humanity?  Do we understand our humanness by the blunders we commit?  You’ve heard that old saying.  “To err is human, but to forgive is divine.” 
            God had something else in mind when humans were created.  “Let us make humankind in our image,” God said (Genesis 1:26).  To err is human?  Not according to God.  From God’s standpoint, to be human is to be the zenith of creation, the high point.  To be human is to be that created being that is most like God and related to God in a way no other created thing is. 
            I make a mistake and shrug it off, “Well, I am only human.”  No says God.  When we sin, we’re something other than what God intended for humans.  But we all sin and history has shown we don’t have the will power to stop.  We give in to temptation.  We say hurtful things.  We turn away from God’s path.  We lie, cheat, steal, and hoard.  Some even kill.  We disrespect, disregard, withhold help, withhold forgiveness, and withhold love. 
            That’s why Jesus came.  The only way to conquer sin was to allow it to reach its ultimate consequences – death.  When Jesus went to the cross, he carried sin with him.  When he died on the cross, he killed the eternal effect of sin.  When he rose, he conquered death.  In 2nd Corinthians 5:17, the Apostle Paul writes that in Christ, there is new creation.  Commenting on this and on Paul’s concept of what happens when we turn to Jesus, the scholar N.T. Wright says, “Paul points to a new way of being human.”[i]  
            However, when we think back to God’s original creation intent, this ‘new way of being human,’ which is, I think the correct way of seeing Paul’s vision, this new way is actually a reclaiming of God’s original idea.  It’s not that we go back to Eden and live the way Adam and Eve did there.  But, we have the life with God that God always wanted humans to have with Him.  To be human is to be in relationship with God, free from sin and with no fear of death.
            Let’s follow Romans 5 to see how Paul presents a new kind of humanity that we experience and live when we give our lives to Jesus and decide to follow him as our master and Lord. 
            First we must refer back to Romans 4.  There Paul talks about Abraham the great man of faith in the Old Testament.  Paul’s point about Abraham is that he was considered righteous by God, but not because he did anything great.  Abraham did not earn the righteousness credited to him.  God gave Abraham favor because Abraham believed God (4:3).  Abraham trusted God and changed his entire life because God told him to.  Abraham moved his household to a new place because God told him to. 
At the end of Romans chapter 4, Paul writes this was true not only of Abraham, but also of us.  When we believe in God who raised Jesus from the dead, when we follow Him, and when we give our lives to Him, we are counted as righteous. Everything Paul writes about Abraham and about faith applies now to people who follow Jesus.
What does this mean?
To be counted as right with God because we believe in Jesus and live in his grace means we have peace with God.  Sin makes peace with God impossible.  When we benefit from lies and deception and get ahead in life by pushing others back, we can’t have peace with God.  When we participate in racist systems and fail to fight the evils of our day, our relationship with God is injured.  When we speak harshly to one another and do not show love, we’re cut off from our Heavenly Father.  But in Christ, all sins are forgiven and we have peace with God. 
Because of this peace, it says in verse 2 that we have access to God.  God may be a mystery we will never fully understand, but we are invited to step into that mystery.  We become a part of it. Within that mystery, because of Jesus, we are sons and daughters of God.  We stand in grace, and though we have made mistakes in life, those sins no longer cling to us or color us.  We are seen differently.  At the end of Romans 5:2 it even says we share the glory of God.  I don’t honestly know what that means.  I only have glimpses.  But I joyfully hold on to the promise that I will know more and more of the glory of God as I grow in Christ and even more when I enter the promised resurrection.  The blessings are here and then more so in the future. 
Yet this is not just feel-good, pie-in-the-sky, babble divorced from reality.  Paul knew better than most the hardships of life.  In 2nd Corinthians 11 he recites his own resume of pain, suffering that came precisely because he was Jesus’s disciple.  Shipwrecked, flogged, beaten with rods; it all came about in the course of following Jesus.  In our reading, Romans 5, Paul declares the benefits of even these painful experiences. 
He sees God in the suffering and the suffering produces endurance.  He finds out who he is as a man in the most trying of times.  I have sat with people in hospital waiting rooms, visited people incarcerated, had conversations at the funeral home; people often have their most profound moments with God in these hard places.  From righteousness affixed to us by God when we believe, to an invitation into the mystery of God, to the audacious promise of sharing in God’s glory, to the sense that we even meet God in times of suffering, we grow into a knowledge of how life is different when we follow Jesus.
Without Christ, we think money, or the things money can buy, or the security money and power can provide will give us peace.  We are told fantastic experiences like a trip to Hawaii or sky diving or a golf vacation, or even simpler things like a “gold-level” credit card or a certain kind of look or body image will bring happiness.  I am not railing against vacations or material prosperity.  I am not railing against anything.  I am suggesting that the things we can buy are not the things that will give our lives meaning.  Nor are materialistic delights the source of transcendent joy. 
When we talk about the different kind of human, the people we will be in the Kingdom of God, maybe the distinction is most easily seen in how individuals orient their lives.  The woman or man who is of the world has happiness as his or her ultimate life pursuit.  The new kind of human, the one living as God intends his image bearers to be has love as the determining force in his or her life.
Why love?  We’ve talked about sin being nailed to the cross and death defeated in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus.  We’ve talked about the ways our life shifts when we are in Christ. We have peace with God, we have access to God, and in our sufferings and in hard times we grow closer to God.  Why we would claim that love is the ultimate value for the new kind of human?
Romans 5:5 says, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”  Note the direct connection between love and the Holy Spirit.  With the Holy Spirit in us, love is in us.  Imagine you are a coffee mug, one full of fresh, glorious, hot coffee; full to the brim.  Now imagine someone pouring a brand new pot into you after you’re already full.  It flows out everywhere.  That’s the Holy Spirit pouring into us.  That love of God keeps coming and coming until it spills out, and those around us are drenched with God’s love. 
Some Bible readers rightly point out that the term ‘trinity’ is never mentioned in the Bible.  So, they ask, why do we insist that we know God as three – one God existing in three distinct person, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?  I think the answer is love.  Jesus – God the Son, God in human flesh – was asked, what is the greatest commandment?  He answered, “Love.”  “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.”  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  Jesus gave these as the ultimate commands for how human beings should live under God, but Jesus also knew that it would be impossible us to keep this command on our own power.  He never meant for us to live on our own power.  To be the kind of people wants us to be, we live in constant contact with God, depending on God for help in all things.  When Jesus gave these commands, he add this: we are to follow Him.
When Paul writes Romans, Jesus has already risen, ascended, and is seated in Heaven at the right hand of the Father.  But thought he has gone there, that does not mean we are without help.  At the end of John’s Gospel, Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit onto his followers (20:22).  In Acts chapter 2, the Holy Spirit spread like a wild fire to the hearts of people and they became followers of Jesus.  And here in Romans 5:5, it says God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.
Jesus came, died, and rose, why?  Because God so loved the world.  Jesus in the flesh is God’s expression of love for us.  When asked how we should live life under God and into eternal life, Jesus said, “Love.  Love God and love people.”  Paul writes that love is poured into us by way of the Holy Spirit.  What holds the Trinity together?  Love.  How do the persons of the Trinity, Father, Son, and Spirit, work together to redeem humanity?  God shows love, exercises love, and gives love to the point of overflowing.
This brings us back to the quote from N.T. Wright I shared at the beginning.  Romans 5:5 is but one of many places where Paul hints at this new way of being human.  Filled with God’s love, love then pours from us in hundreds of ways.
·         A mom is forced to travel to another country and so has to leave her oldest child in charge of the younger ones while she’s gone; another mom brings that family food while she is away.
·         A husband takes a week of paid vacation so he can sit by his wife’s side as she recovers from a difficult surgery.
·         A small church offers financial help to a woman who cannot pay her medical bills.
·         A community of believers comforts a grieving family when the mother/grandmother dies.
·         A small group rejoices when one of the members gets a new job and throws a celebration/goodbye party.  At the party there is laughter and congratulations along with tears because they are happy for him and at the same time sad because he is moving.
·         A young professional who is just starting to make money in his first job, sets aside part of his paycheck to sponsor an impoverished child in another country because he wants that child to have a chance in life and to know Jesus.

These things are not exceptions and they are not few and far between examples.  These are normal occurrences for followers of Jesus because that Holy Spirit love has filled the church’s heart and now is pouring over.  When love floods out of the church, all in its path are blessed. 
N.T. Wright recalls the famous quote from Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.”  Paul’s teaching about God topples over this old axiom.  My existence is not affirmed by the fact that I have self-awareness.  That I think is not proof of my existence, and more importantly it is not why I exist.  Per Romans 5:5, we say, “We are loved, therefore we are.”  Love is why God does what God does, and when we are in Christ, love is why we are who we are and why we act as we do.
As we sing our final song, think about how you have experienced God’s love and how the experience has changed your life so that you live differently now because of it.  If you’d like to, go to the witness wall, as we are singing.  Go write a little note about how you’ve been changed as a result of experiencing God’s love. 
If you don’t know what I mean, come and pray with me or with one of the others waiting to pray with you.  Come and ask God to pour His love into you today.  Come and do that as we sing.

[i] N.T. Wright (2005), Paul: In Fresh Perspective, Fortress Press (Minneapolis), p.173.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Langston Hughes - American Heartbreak

I am the American heartbreak -

The rock on which Freedom

Stumped its toe -

The great mistake

That Jamestown made

Long ago.

Monday, March 13, 2017

With God - 2nd Sunday of Lent (John 3:1-21)

Second Sunday of Lent, March 12, 2017

            In any story, there is an antagonist.  This is the person or the force that is against the main character, the protagonist.  Whenever we watch a movie, my kids ask, “OK, who’s the bad guy?”  They need to know, who am I for, and who I am against?
            Sometimes, it is not that simple.  When dealing with history, every side casts themselves as the “good guys.”  From November 4, 1979 to January 20, 1981, 52 American citizens and diplomats were held hostage in Iran.  We Americans would have called the Iranians the antagonists, “the bad guys” in that story.  But at that time, Iranian families were led to believe America is the ‘Great Satan.’  In their telling of the same story, we, America, would be the “bad guys.”  It is not always simple. 
            Also, in some stories, bad guys turn out to be good guys.  In the Star Wars movies, Anakin Skywalker is the Jedi prodigy, the one who will bring balance to The Force. But then, Anakin becomes Darth Vader, one of the iconic villains of all-time.  He kills everyone, include his teacher, Obi-Wan Kenobi.  But then, we learn Darth Vader is the father of the new hero, Luke Skywalker.  And in the end, Anakin/Darth, saves Luke by killing evil Emperor Palpatine.  Bad guy or good guy?
            This same confusion over protagonist and antagonist is seen throughout the Bible and especially in Jesus’ life.  In many stories, those antagonistic to Jesus are religious leaders, the sect known as the Pharisees.  Yet, we must remember, they weren’t really the bad guys.  In the New Testament, the true antagonists are our three enemies – sin, death, and Satan, with death being the greatest of our enemies.
            What we see in John 3 is one of these supposed antagonists, the Pharisee Nicodemus, coming to Jesus.  In the conversation between the two, Nicodemus doesn’t come off looking very good.  He’s baffled by what Jesus says, and Jesus seems exasperated that a “legal expert” and a “teacher of Israel” is so confused.  However, this morning, I encourage us to notice something.  Nicodemus came to Jesus.  He calls Jesus ‘Rabbi.’  ‘We know you come from God,’ Nicodemus says.  He did not try to trap Jesus with tricky questions.  He came because he wanted to be closer to God.  Nicodemus took the initiative to seek Jesus out because he wanted to be with God and he was sure Jesus could show him the way.  And throughout John’s gospel, Nicodemus will pop back into the story as one on Jesus’ side.
            Speaking of initiative, we see God’s motives in one of the most quoted verses of scripture following the Jesus-Nicodemus conversation.  John 3:16 – “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”  Our hope for rescue from our great enemy, death, is in what God has done.  God took the initiative, sent Jesus for us, and God did it because God loves us.
            So in John chapter 3 we have two instances of initiative.  The Pharisee Nicodemus came to Jesus because he wanted to be with God.  God sent Jesus to rescue all of us from death, because God loves us and wants us with Him in eternal life.
            This is all great, but when we look back at the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus, we see a bit of a problem.  Jesus encourages Nicodemus’ action of coming, but then gives him a word that neither Nicodemus nor you nor I could possibly follow.  “You must be born from above,” Jesus tells Nicodemus (3:7).  We cannot see the Kingdom of God without being born from above (3:3).  At some point toward the end of the 20th century the phrase ‘born-again’ came to describe a movement in American Christianity.  Certain believers were called ‘born-agains.’  And other Christians thought they were kind of weird.  But, according to the words of Jesus here, the only way to see the Kingdom and be with God in the Kingdom is to be born again.
            The problem is we cannot obey the command to be born again.  If a woman has been pregnant for 5 months and she cannot wait any longer, can she just stare at her belly and firmly order the baby inside “Be born?”  Of course not!  Even if the baby could understand and wanted to obey, she would not be able.  It doesn’t work that way.
            Similarly, when Jesus says to Nicodemus and to us, “You must be born again,” well, we can’t.  We can’t control that.  Even if we think understand the concept in a way poor Nicodemus did not, we still cannot force the outcome.  We cannot cause ourselves to be born again. 
            We’re left to wonder if Jesus lured Nicodemus and us into a trap.  Being born again means being born of the Spirit.  Jesus says this in verse 6.  We cannot see the kingdom unless we are born in this way – verse 3.  But then in verse 8 he says, the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes.  So it is with everyone who is born of the spirit.”  In other words, to be with God in the Kingdom, we need to be born in the Spirit, and we can control that about as easily as we can control the wind. 
            Remember, in the Bible, wind, breath, and spirit, are all related concepts.  In Genesis chapter 2 it says God formed the first human from the dirt.  The man was made, but only after God breathed the breath of life into him, God’s spirit, does Genesis say he became a living being (2:7).  In John 20:22, the resurrected Jesus appears to the terrified and amazed disciples, and it says he breathes on them and they are filled with the Holy Spirit. 
            OK, so we need to be born again to be with God in the Kingdom and live eternally.  We want that because death is our last and greatest enemy.  But, we have no control over that.  To be born again, we are completely dependent on God’s action and the Holy Spirit is uncontrollable and unpredictable.  No amount of initiative on our part will get us born again.  Where does that leave us?
            Remember that verse that everyone remembers – verse 16.  God loves the world.  We want to be saved from sin and death.  God wants to save us.  This story ends in victory when we participate in cooperative initiative.  God’s part is to save us from sin and God did that in the incarnation.
            Incarnation is a very theological term, and maybe a churchy term.  Normally, I try to use other words – words that make sense outside of church.  But this one is so important, we all need to understand.  Jesus is the incarnation: God in human flesh.  God the Son, the cosmic Christ, is the second person of the trinity, the divine logos.  I just unloaded a suitcase full of theological terms, I know.  But this is what we need to see.  Jesus is fully God and fully man, and in him, in his death on the cross, sin is covered and we are saved from death.  Our sins are nailed to his cross.
            It is in Jesus that God does God’s part.  He dies for sin and because of sin.  He forgives us.  He rises from death defeating all our enemies in the process: sin, death, and Satan.  Jesus is God’s initiative.
            There is more.  The phrase I used was cooperative initiative.  God has the hard part: the abandonment; the betrayal; and, the taking on himself the death that sin brings.  But we have a part in this too.  In verse 12, 15, 16, and 18, Jesus mentions believe.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”  In John’s Gospel, belief means follow.  To say we believe in Jesus is to say He is absolute Lord over our lives, master of every area of life.  We live every moment under His leadership.  Christianity and church are not just small part of our lives.  When we say we believe, we are saying our lives are not our own. We belong to Jesus. 
            Many of Nicodemus’ colleagues among the Pharisees were ready to challenge Jesus and to oppose him.  For Nicodemus to call Jesus ‘Rabbi,’ and to believe in him, would be costly.  He’d be at odds with his peers and he’d become an outcast in the circles where he had spent his entire life.  We see it in John chapter 7.  There, people are calling Jesus the Messiah, the Christ, and a group of chief priests and Pharisees call for his arrest on charges of blasphemy – a capital crime.  Nicodemus challenges this action and declares them to be in the wrong for trying to detain Jesus.  And his friends among the Pharisees turn on him immediately.
            That can happen when we do our part.  In our own lives, when we believe Jesus is Lord, the forces around us that want to be in charge feel threatened.  Then we have to choose to whom will we listen?  On whose behalf will we speak up?  Nicodemus chose Jesus even when it cost him.  The late Walter Wink of Auburn Theological Seminary wrote a chapter in a volume on the writings John.  In his explanation of belief, he captures what it means when we say, “I believe in Jesus.”  He writes, “To believe is not just to weigh, consider, think about, ponder, reflect on, or entertain the idea of following Jesus.  It is to throw one’s whole life on the side of Jesus.”[i]
            In this idea of cooperative initiative, God has to act first.  Jesus says in verse 13, “No one has ascended into Heaven except the one who has descended from Heaven.”  This point was made a moment ago.  We can’t force this.  We can’t make ourselves be born again.  But God has acted.  Jesus did come.
            Thus in verse 15 he says, “Whoever believes in Him has eternal life.”  We are dependent, yet we must also act.  Our action is fully invested, life-committed belief.  There is no half-way.  We are either all-in with Jesus or we are not with God at all.  And if we choose to not believe, God honors that choice.  Verse 19 says, “This is judgment, that the light came into the world, and people loved darkness rather than the light.”  God will confront us in our sin.  God will not force us to believe.  If we meet Jesus and choose to reject him, God lets us have that option.
            Then we face a godless eternity.  Our sins lead to death.  This is true for all people.  When we die in sin instead of dying in Christ, we face our old enemy, death, without God’s help.  Instead of eternal life, before us is the prospect of eternal death.  It is not a restful sleep.  It is not the end of existence.  It is the process of dying experienced forever.
            As grim as that sounds, there is hope – the greatest of hopes.  In the Gospel of John, before we learn that the second person of the trinity is a man named Jesus, we are told, in chapter, that it is the ‘Logos.’  This Greek term is usually described as “the word.”  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  Logos is actually a deeper concept.  From Logos we get the idea of logic. 
The Baptist theologian James McClendon thinks of Logos as the idea of story.  Each one of us lives a story.  The Logos is the story of a “Divine One who loves and lives to save, who suffers and dies but overcomes; … this is the eternal character of God.”[ii] It is inherent in who God is that God wants to save us from sin and death, that God can save us from sin and death, and that God has acted to save us from sin and death.  That’s the Jesus story.
The hero is Jesus Christ – crucified and resurrected.  The enemy is death.  Death’s tool is sin and death’s ally is Satan.  The plot is our rescue and death’s defeat, both are achieved by God acting on our behalf in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 
God has acted and in the Holy Spirit continues to act.
We have heard the story.  Do we continue to hear?  Are we attentive, watching, ready to respond in faith when the Spirit moves in our lives?  I believe God appeals to people throughout their lives.  The Spirit speaks in worship, the Spirit speaks through scripture, the Spirit speaks in the world, in nature, in other people.  My own belief is that we each have numerous opportunities to respond and continue living in God’s grace. 
In the spirit of cooperative initiative, will we, today, do what Nicodemus did?  God has acted.  Will we step to God, throwing our entire lives on the side of Jesus?  Each one of us is invited to step into belief and to step into God’s Love and into life with God.

[i] W. Wink (2001).  “’The Son of the Man’ in the Gospel of John,” chapter 10 in Jesus in the Johannine Tradition, Robert Fortna, Tom Thatcher, editors, Westminster John Knox Press (Louisville), p.123.
[ii] J. McClendon (1994).  Systematic Theology: Doctrine, Abingdon Press (Nashville), p.289.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Review of "Super Forecasting" (Philip Tetlock, Dan Gardner)

In ‘Super Forecasting,’ the attentive reader is required to look at how he or she thinks, and this a credit to the authors.  I might have appreciated the book much more if I had a better understanding of probability.  Even with my limited knowledge, I could see the wisdom as well as the intriguing possibilities of how the teams of forecasters worked.
            I also developed a new appreciation for probability.  Previously, I would scoff at someone who said something was 70% likely to happen.  Either it, whatever “it” refers to, happens or it doesn’t happen.  The authors call this the “wrong-side-of-maybe” thinking and they lay out the dangerous implications of falling for such a binary worldview as this. 
            For this lesson and many others, I highly recommend this book.  It forces me to examine how I think.  Along with “Leaders Always Eat Last” (Sinek), “The Whole Brained Child” (Siegel), and “Finding God in the Waves” (McArgue), this books forces me to reconsider my approach to problems and my overall worldview.  I am going to follow up by registering with the good judgment project website and see if I can learn how to be a good forecaster.

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

First Sunday of Lent - Forgiveness (Psalm 32)

            This Psalm begins, “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven.”  Doesn’t that assume that the transgressor feels guilt and shame because of his misdeeds?  If he didn’t, he would not need the forgiveness to feel happy.  Maybe the sin itself gives him a thrill, a guilty pleasure, if you will. 
            Have you had that experience with sin?  You know a particular word is offensive, an abhorrent word, but you giggle when you hear it or say it.  Gossip; does it really even count sin?  And systemic sins – sinful systems; who ever heard of such a thing?  Am guilty for benefitting in a sinful system?  Seriously, who feels guilt over sin whether it’s individual or systemic?  You know the phrase.  I’m only human.  Why even make a big deal about disobeying God? 
            But this singer, in Psalm 32:3, says, “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.”  Kept silence; he, or she, the singer, kept it inside.  Whatever the sin was, he buried it deep in his heart.   This Psalm is attributed to David and his most public of sins was to have an adulterous affair, try to cover it up, and then have the wronged husband, Uriah, murdered in a way that would protect him from guilt.  David committed both individual and systemic-power related sins in the Bathsheba episode.  You can read about it in 2 Samuel 11-12.  Psalm 32 is one of David’s confession songs. 
            However, the Psalms are portable.  What David sang, you or me or anyone could sing in reference to our own sins.  We could sing, if we feel guilty.   David had help feeling guilty.  He says in Psalm 32:4, “Day and night your hand, [O Lord], was heavy upon me; my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer.”  The way God’s hand fell on heavy David was through the confrontation provoked by the prophet Nathan. 
            God’s heavy hand sets upon us until we have to face our sin, the damage it does, and the guilt it throws on us.  Two of history’s most acclaimed authors have captured this guilt sin has wrought.
            We’ve already mentioned that a parable from the prophet Nathan provoked King David’s guilt.  In 1843 Edgar Allen Poe published “the Tell Tale Heart.” In the poem, the narrator is driven by his own madness to the kill the old man.  He thinks the murder and brilliant cover-up has relieved his gnawing insanity, but it only drives it all the more. 
            A couple of police officers come to the door because a neighbor heard a midnight cry.  The narrator has successfully hidden the body and the police officers are about to leave the house when his screaming madness awakens with a vengeance. 
Why would they not be gone? I paced the floor to and fro with heavy strides, as if excited to fury by the observations of the men --but the noise steadily increased. Oh God! what could I do? I foamed --I raved --I swore! I swung the chair upon which I had been sitting, and grated it upon the boards, but the noise arose over all and continually increased. It grew louder --louder --louder! And still the men chatted pleasantly, and smiled. Was it possible they heard not? Almighty God! --no, no! They heard! --they suspected! --they knew! --they were making a mockery of my horror!-this I thought, and this I think. But anything was better than this agony! Anything was more tolerable than this derision! I could bear those hypocritical smiles no longer! I felt that I must scream or die! and now --again! --hark! louder! louder! louder! louder!
"Villains!" I shrieked, "dissemble no more! I admit the deed! --tear up the planks! here, here! --It is the beating of his hideous heart!"

            Day and Night, God’s hand is heavy upon us in our sin.
            Twenty years or so Poe published his account of agonizing guilt in ‘The Telltale Heart,’ Fyodor Dostoevsky’s presents a similar theme in his novel Crime and Punishment where the gifted but starving writer and student Raskolnikov bludgeons the old woman Alena Ivanova.  She is stingy with her money and has no pity on this able, but poor young man.  The police suspect someone else in the crime, and that man commits suicide.  Raskolnikov is in the clear.  But, we are never in the clear. 
            Leaving Lieutenant Elia Petrovitch, Raskolnikov knows he is free, but when he steps from the police station, there she is waiting, his beloved Sonia.  She knows what he has done.
Her countenance expressed the utmost despair.  At the sight, Raskolnikov smiled, but such a smile!  A moment afterwards he had gone back to the police-office.  Elia Petrovitch was in the act of ransacking some papers.  “Ah!  There you are again!  Have you forgotten something?  But what is the matter with you?”  With pale lips and fixed gaze, Raskolnikov slowly advanced toward Elia Petrovitch.  [He] allowed himself to sink into a chair that was offered, but could not take his eyes off of Elia Petrovitch.  For a moment, both men looked at one another in silence.  “It was I – “said Raskolnikov.  “It was I who killed, with a hatchet, the old moneylender and her sister, Elizabeth, and robbery was my motive.”  Elia Petrovitch called for assistance.  People rushed in from various directions (p.421).

In the Psalm, David sings, day and Night, God’s hand is heavy upon us in our sin.  We are not murders like Raskolnikov or Poe’s narrator, or David for that matter, but sin rests just as heavy on us.  Our sense of guilt is enough to crush us and when it does not, God’s Holy Spirit convicts our soul.  When our conscience is dull and we seem content in spite of our words and deeds that hurt others, not bothered that we are agents of pain and deception, then God steps in and pricks the conscience and convicts the soul.  As long as we deny our need for forgiveness, we waste away, groaning all day.
However, there is hope – the best of hopes.  That’s the point of Psalm 32 and the simple message of this day.  There is a way out of this fog of sin, a fog so thick it is only cleared after God the son is murdered by us all when he’s nailed to the cross.  There’s a light that shows the path from crippling guilt and shame to unfettered freedom, a freedom that enables us to soar to the heavens. 
Again, the Psalm: “Happy are those whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered.  Happy are those whose record the Lord has cleared of guilt, in whose spirit there is no deceit” (32:1-2).  David knew that happiness because he confessed, received forgiveness, and rose to stand as a new man.  He says as much in the Psalm.  “I acknowledged my sin to you … and you forgave” (32:5).  It is a basic, central Christian belief.  When we confess our sins by name, repent of those sins by turning away from them, and turn to Jesus, we are forgiven and we are made new.
In this Psalm, God is not an angry judge waiting to crush us in our guilt.  It is our guilt itself that crushes us.  In the Psalm, God’s heavy hand is meant to lead us to confession that we might be forgiven and rescued from the weight of our sins.  Verse 6 says, “Let all who are faithful offer prayer to you.”  And in the next verse, the singer sings to God, “You are a hiding place for me; you preserve me from trouble; you surround me with glad cries of deliverance” (32:7).
Confession is freeing.  We fear it because walking through our guilt is painful, but God walks with us.  And the church must walk with people so they don’t have to face their own shame alone.  We cannot be a judging community that compounds the pain and shame of the guilty by rejecting them.  We have to imitate our Lord by forgiving as God forgives. We have to be a community of grace, a community in which grace is extended to all.
In this way, and only in this way, does confession bring freedom.  And, O, what freedom it is!  Dostoevsky captures it well at the end of Crime and Punishment.  Sonia goes with Raskolnikov to Siberia.  She will wait for him to serve out his 7-year prison sentence.  She has been his conscience, by her purity forcing him to confess, and staying with him when he did.  She did not preach at him, but she lived her faith.  She gave him a New Testament, but never forced him to read it.
On the last page, he sits in his sell, holding the closed Bible, contemplating all that has happened: his crime, his confession, Sonia’s love for him.  He notes that as hard as things have been for her, “nothing could take her joy!”  And thinks to himself, “Her faith, her feelings, may not mine become like them” (p.434).  The books ends, “Now a new history begins: a story of the gradual renewing of a man, of his slow, progressive regeneration, and change from one world to another – an introduction to the previously unknown realities of life.”  Those are the realities of the happiness and freedom we have when we turn to God in Christ and receive forgiveness. 
A final note from the Psalm reiterates the necessity of grace from God to us and from us to one another.  Verse 10 says, “Many are the torments of the wicked.”  And we might expect the next stanza to say, “But great are the delights of the righteous.”  However, it does not say that.  It says, “Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.” 
The contrast is not between the wicked and the obedient, the sinful and the righteous.  David, the singer of this Psalm, knows we all sin.  The contrast is between those who are miserable because they are stuck in sin and don’t see the way and just suffer the pain of it all, and those who, in the midst of the messes of their own making, turn to God and trusted God.  God can be trusted with our junk, with our messes.  “Steadfast love surrounds those who trust in the Lord.”
Enter that freedom today.  Fully confess your sin today and look to the cross and know that you are forgiven.  One of the ways God makes things right in the world is the gift of freedom.  God frees us from our own sins by forgiving and making us clean and new.  Confess today, and receive the new life God offers.
When we do that, then the final verse, Psalm 32:11 is ours.
“Be glad in the Lord and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart” (32:11). 


Sunday, March 5, 2017

Ash Wednesday, 2017

God’s Up to Something (2 Corinthians 5:20-21)
Ash Wednesday, March 1, 2017

When you’re around the house or hanging with friends by the coffee pot, what’s usually the topic of conversation?  The latest zombie apocalypse movie?  Downton Abby?  Or is that so 2016?  In this town, at this time of year, some people expend energy talking college basketball?  In your circles, what’s the rumpus?  Has anyone approached you lately and asked, ‘Have you heard what God is doing right now?’
That’s what we’re going to get to tonight.  What is God doing?  I’ll tell you one thing God is up to.  God is making things right in the world.  There is enough going wrong that this is not always easy to see. But, there are signs, and tonight we’ll look to those signs.  First, though, we have to acknowledge sin.  Sin is at the heart of what makes it so difficult to see God’s activity. 
If you doubt humanity’s ability to think creatively, just ask someone to explain his sins and then listen to the endless litany of rationalizations.  We don’t want darkness in us.  But, underneath the impatience, the foul language, the judgmental heart, lurking below the prejudice, the grudge-holding, the sloth, down deep, it is there.  We have a sin problem. 
The worst effect of sin is it cuts us off from God.  The solution to this separation is what Jesus accomplishes on our behalf.  The theological term is ‘justification:’ humanity declared innocent of sin before God because of what Jesus did on the cross.  We are justified because of Jesus and justification takes effect for each one of us when we put our faith in Him.  We still sin, but before God we are found innocent because of what Jesus has done.    
Still, even after we are saved, sin continues to vie for mastery in our lives.  The more we give in to temptation, the less developed our relationship with God is and the farther it is from what it could be.  We slip away into waste places.  Relationship with God is not rich, not a daily present reality, not a source of abundant joy, not as full, not as deep as it could be; as it should be; as God wants it to be; as we need it to be. 
How do we get past our sins so that we have a rich life in Christ, a life that is growing in holiness and relationship with God instead of life under sin? 
Theologian James McClendon wrote, “Authentic knowledge of my sin, clear awareness that I am a sinner, comes only when and as I am saved from it” (Systematic Theology: Doctrine, p.122).  McClendon offers two categories which help us see sin beyond simply misdeeds, disobedience, and bad behavior.  He describes sin as refusal and as rupture.
“God is making all things new,” he writes.  And then he refers to 2nd Corinthians 5:17 which says that in Christ, there is a new creation.  Thus for McClendon, sin is whatever “opposes entry” into the new world Jesus creates (130).  We refuse to receive the new life he offers, drink the new wine he produces.  We willfully resist becoming the new creations he desires to make of us. 
We don’t mean to refuse God’s good.  It is just that we turn to other things – relationships, possessions, professional success – for the satisfaction that only God can give.  In this, we sin.  Even people who have confessed and believe in Jesus, in daily life settle for the world’s pleasures while neglecting God’s blessings.  We marginalize the place God has in our lives and thus reduce His influence on our character while at the same maximizing our own vulnerability to sin’s devastating consequences for us. 
Sin as rupture is McClendon’s second category.  This is the refusal to live by Jesus’ second great command to love our neighbors as ourselves.  Divorce; bigotry; verbal abuse; deceit; gossip; refusal to welcome those different from us; dividing people into ‘us’ and ‘them;’ this is not headline-making stuff like terrorism or school shootings.  Here we are talking about everyday relationship failures that 21st century American culture considers normal in the course of human life. 
God is not happy with the state of affairs.  We are called by our Heavenly Father and prompted by the Holy Spirit to be a part of the body of Christ, the church.  To be Christian is to be unified with other Christians.  Yet, as Ron Sider points out in Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience the social ills that make the world a broken place exist in the lives of people in the church almost as frequently as they do in the lives of the unchurched.  Based on divorce rates, spousal abuse statistics, and a number of other categories, it would be hard to tell between two groups of people which was the church and which was a gathering of strangers in a restaurant.  How can the body of Christ show the world the way to the Kingdom of God when our own relationships are so broken?
Sin as refusal is a rejection of God’s blessings, an unwillingness to trust God with our desires and our happiness.  Sin as refusal is violation of the greatest command – to love the Lord our God with all the heart, soul, strength, and mind. 
Sin as rupture is a violation of the second great command, the command to love our neighbor as ourselves.  We treat people with contempt, not grace, and the world is marked by hatred and death.  We have a sin problem.
Of course, when we look to the cross, we know Jesus has conquered God and humanity’s enemies – sin, death, and Satan.  The question we face daily is do we live in God’s victory or in the old life, the life of sin, the life that has been nailed to the cross.  Which life do we live?
The first steps to move from death to life are confession and forgiveness.  We come before God in complete honesty.  We do not hide anything from our heavenly Father.  We stand before God exposed in our mistakes.  Doing that, we discover how much God loves us.  We receive the complete forgiveness God offers in Christ.  We know we sin, but we also know what God sees when God looks at us: the innocence of Jesus.  We come to trust that we have been made new in Christ.
After that, how do we live in the new life we’ve been given and are being given daily?  Here is the spiritual practice I propose for Lent 2017 for the HillSong Church family.  First, participate in worship.  Don’t miss it.  If you can be with us, be here.  Note the worship songs that lead to confession and the pronouncement of forgiveness.  Take communion – the body and bread of Christ.  As you participate in the story of the Gospel in this act of worship see that Jesus on the cross means God loves you and you are made new – one who is forgiven and pure.  Participate in the church’s worship of God.
Second, focus on the good things God is doing in the world. Second Corinthians 5:21 is a curious verse.  The first half of the verse says, “for our sake, [God] made him (Jesus) to be sin.”  Jesus is sin and on the cross, sin died.  That makes our confession and full forgiveness possible.  Sin cannot cling to us and cannot kill us, not when we have been born again in Christ.
The latter half of the verse says, “In Christ we become the righteousness of God.”  In other words, we are made right.  I hear that phrase – so and so needs to ‘get right with God.’  Well guess what?  Jesus has done it.  You and I, the church, as a forgiven people, are signs of God making things right in the world.
The spiritual practice I propose for us this season of Lent is to list specific examples of ways God is making the world right.  We’re going to put poster board up in the sanctuary and keep a running list.  Starting tonight and then every Sunday during the mission moment, we will invite the church to come and write down things you see that are indicators that God is at work, making things right in the world.  
There is plenty wrong too.  Jesus won the final victory on the cross, but though the outcome is certain, it won’t be complete until He returns.  As the world waits for the fulfillment of His salvation, sin and death clamor to claim us all.  The culture wars that are dividing America are but one example of the ways the world is fallen.  Another example is how our news media feeds on bad news, selling destruction. 
The spiritual discipline I propose is that we as a church body name the good that is happening in the world so that our focus is on God and what God is doing.  The first example I write down is something I see every time our church gathers – the little children who run the halls of our church.  Four-year-olds, 3-year-olds, toddlers; these children are little active witnesses to the goodness and presence of God at work among us.
What are other examples?  Do you know of someone who’s been forgiven and is experiencing new life in Christ?  That’s worth writing down and celebrating.  Has one of your prayers been answered?  That’s worth writing down and celebrating.  Did you see all the food our church collected for the Yates Association food drive?  That’s worth writing down and celebrating.  Did you have a great discussion in your small group this week?
You get the idea.
This Lent, if fasting is a spiritual discipline that will help you grow close to the Lord?  Do it!  Confession in worship is something we all need to do.  So do it.  And along with these and other disciplines, participate with us in the discipline of noting the work of God, making us his righteousness.  See God at work, write down what you see, and join the church as we celebrate together. 
I know Ash Wednesday is not traditionally a celebration service.  We do mourn sin and tonight we have some contemplative worship activities like the prayer labyrinth and the imposition of ashes.  We are reminded of how much we need God.  We are reminded that in sin, we die, we return to dust, and we are cut off from the Lord.  But along with our mourning and our acknowledgment, we are also called to tell God’s story.  God is making things right in the world.  That includes God’s work in our hearts, making each one of us a sign of his righteousness.