Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Joy of an Imperfect Christmas

Last week, during a conference call, a well-to-do client talked about the stress he and others experienced during the “holidays.” He said that he was just recovering from the 2013 holiday season. Later that day, the not so well-to-do lady who cuts my hair talked to me about how glad she would feel once the holidays are over because of all the stress associated with them. Both my client and my barber talked to me about how people strive for perfect holidays, my barber bemoaned the emphasis on “things” rather than family and friends.

It occurs to me that there is no freedom or rest or contentment or true enjoyment in the idea of a “perfect Christmas.” In fact, the idea of a perfect Christmas, as portrayed by retailers and governments (who want us to spend money) and credit card companies, is contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. You could say that the idea of a perfect Christmas, as portrayed by the aforementioned elements of society, is (whether intentional or not) an attack on the First Christmas for the First Christmas came to be because we are an imperfect people –in fact we are a sinful people.

The irony is that in not striving for a perfect Christmas we can experience a wonderful Christmas. When not striving for a perfect Christmas, but as imperfect people trusting in a perfect Savior, we can experience a Christmas of peace and contentment.

The image of a perfect Christmas as presented by retailers and car companies and governments and financial institutions is cruel as it leads people as lambs to financial and emotional slaughter – it is an image that can only disappoint, can only be fleeting, and can only lead to disillusionment.

But when an imperfect and sinful people rest and trust in a perfect Savior born on that First Christmas, then and only then can we know rest and contentment and peace; then and only then can we focus on people and not on things; then and only then can we escape the bondage of financial slavery; and then and only then can we know the Greatest Gift of All – our Lord Jesus Christ. God gave His Son to us on that First Christmas – are we giving His Son to others on this Christmas?

Let us tell others that we are not striving for a perfect Christmas, but rather that we are rejoicing in a Perfect Savior.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Never-ending Therapeutic

Therapy never ends; once in it, seldom out of it. There is no closure in a therapeutic culture for everything is geared to further self-analysis and the high maintenance of feelings – when good feelings become the measure of life they are like a narcotic – we insist on more and more feel-good experiences in order to maintain the “high” of feelings.

Christians no longer confess their sins to God and to each other, they “share” mistakes they have made and errors in judgment. There is no closure in therapeutic sharing without confession of sin – for only the forgiveness of God bestowed on one who repents brings lasting relief from guilt. Therapeutic cultures can inoculate people from guilt, and without guilt there is no repentance, and without repentance there is no forgiveness, and without forgiveness there is no closure – no redemption – no true “new days,” or second or third opportunities to learn obedience.

Is it any wonder the content of Christian music often lacks a Biblical foundation when its goal is to make people feel good? Should we be surprised when therapeutic and motivational speaking is the norm in many churches as opposed to a clear exposition of God’s Word pointing to Jesus Christ?

A therapeutic culture, whether within the church or in broader society, is a culture as cruel as an opium den – for while it may deaden pain and provide sweet dreams, the dreams will become nightmares and masking the pain hides the disease of sin which only God in Christ can heal through confession of sin, repentance, receiving God’s forgiveness, and following the Christ of the Cross.

Friday, November 28, 2014

The Fruit of Friendship

Over the past year I’ve been spending time in volume one of Frederick Dale Bruner’s commentary on Matthew. I’ve appreciated his blend of scholastic rigor and pastoral application. The following recently excerpt spoke to me:

“It has been one of Protestantism’s temptations to turn faith into a meritorious work, whose quality or quantity God rewards. Justification by faith has sometimes been turned into justification on the basis of faith. Only absolute surrender, we are told, gets absolute help; only total commitment receives total power; only an empty vessel can be filled. But these mystic-gnostic adjectives, all of which focus on us and on the quality of our inner doings (or undoings), are so many salvations by works and are to be rejected, and the focus is to be placed on Jesus.

“We used to criticize old Catholicism for making salvation a matter of exterior works; rosaries, indulgences, novenas, satisfactions, pilgrimages, confessions, and the like. But Protestant works can be even more excruciating because they have to be performed within, where it is harder to tell how we are doing. Complete emptying, yielding, abandoning – and all other “completes,” “fulls,” “totals,” and “absolutes” – can be cruel when imposed by uncompassionate [and I would add ‘well-meaning’ – Withers] teachers on eager candidates. Jesus loves trust in Him, praises it, and helps it. But he does not tyrannically demand it of us in large, not to mention entire measures before he helps. These stories [Matthew Chapter Eight] teach that Jesus helps because he wants to help. Jesus himself coaxes a more entire devotion from us in almost every encounter with him – this is the nature of friendship. But entirely is the fruit of a friendship, not the requirement of it.” [Bold print mine.] (The Christbook, Matthew 1 – 12, Frederick Dale Bruner, 2004, Eerdmans; page 408).

I wish that I had read these words decades ago and understood them. They are words I should probably memorize – for they have the quality of companionship – a reminder that Jesus is who we are to be about and that Jesus loves trust in him and that Jesus loves to help.

I can’t count the number of church services I’ve been in in which the test of success or experience has been a trip to the altar – more commitment, more surrender, more desire – more, more, more and yet more. How much “more” can I produce for God to do His work in me and use me?

And yet, the same temptation exists outside the “come to the altar traditions” – for the message often is that if we will do things a certain way that Jesus will respond, that if we will just get an inner attitude adjustment that Jesus can use us or bless us – God’s reaction is dependent upon our action we are taught.

What children we can be in attempting to manipulate God – will we never learn that He is a Father unlike any father we have ever known…including the best of earthly fathers? Will we never learn that Jesus is a Friend unlike any friend we have ever known…including the best of friends?

Bruner writes, “But entirely is the fruit of a friendship, not the requirement of it.” Oh, for others to know Jesus so that He may draw them into an entire friendship in His own time and in His own way – nothing else will do; and let me flee from any temptation to provide a substitute for friendship with Jesus. May I come to trust Jesus to teach me to be His friend, to know Him in friendship – to deliver me from the idea that I need to achieve some higher state of being or produce more devotion in order to induce Him to love and care for me.

If I provide a substitute for Jesus in the lives of others then I make them dependent upon me or upon my provision of the substitute. I become essential for their spiritual lives – they need me – they do not need Jesus. I may say that I am pointing them to Jesus, but am I? Am I like John the Baptist in saying, “He must increase but I must decrease”? Or are those words lip service?

Jesus calls us friends (John 15); will we allow Him to be our friend – or will we insist on defining our friendship with Him on our own terms and conditions? Make no mistake, friendship with Jesus includes obedience (John 15), but it is an obedience enabled by abiding in Him (the Vine and the branch – John 15), an obedience that is the fruit of friendship. Friendship with Jesus is not predicated on us giving ourselves entirely, completely, totally, fully to Him – friendship with Jesus grows as we recognize that He gave Himself entirely for us. He gave for us what we can never give for Him – everything. 

Thursday, November 20, 2014

A First Thanksgiving Hoax

Robert McKenzie, professor and chair of the Department of History at Wheaton College, has been writing about what you might call revisionist history on his blog - the thing about Dr. McKenzie is that he is an equal opportunity critic and he is rigorous in his insistence that we base our words and thoughts on facts and not engage in sloppy thinking and lazy and convenient history. In his last few blog posts he has pointed out, once again, how political agendas drive popular writing by popular media people and how the masses uncritically consume faulty thinking. 

His most recent post, "A First Thanksgiving Hoax", is worth reading in light of the approaching holiday. Before we naively quote from Governor Bradford's proclamation in church or among family and friends we might consider the fact that the proclamation "just ain't so," as my cousin Clovis likes to say. Here's a link to McKenzie's blog:

Monday, November 10, 2014

The Furnace Mouth

From a Puritan prayer:

“If my life is to be a crucible amid burning heat, so be it, but do thou sit at the furnace mouth to watch the ore that nothing be lost.” [The Valley of Vision, Banner of Truth Trust, edited by Arthur Bennett].

My friend Harry Hanger is leading our small group in an exploration of suffering; this is poignant since Harry has ALS, otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Suffering comes in many forms, but whatever the form, whatever the apparent cause, for the Christian suffering can be formative and preparation for eternity. As Paul writes, “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us,” (Romans 8:18).

I am struck by Harry’s eternal perspective; he is an inspiration to all of us who gather with him on Tuesday mornings and he is a reminder to me to focus on what is important and to live every day in the light of eternity in Jesus Christ. Harry graciously reminds us on Tuesdays that we all encounter suffering, I write “graciously” because few of us have encountered suffering on a par with ALS. Yet, Harry is right, we all know suffering – whether it is physical or emotional or mental…the list is long and deep and wide. One of our group lost a wife when he and his children were young, others have serious physical conditions, another recently lost a grandchild…I could add to the list in our little group…such a little group and yet such suffering.

But that is the human condition; in some people suffering is not as apparent as others; in some it is easily observable, in others it is deep and hidden. But whatever form suffering may take, those in a relationship with Jesus Christ have One at the furnace mouth who watches the ore that nothing be lost. This is the deepest of mysteries, it is deep space in the Divine counsels; it surpasses human reasoning – and when we try to make sense of suffering we fall woefully short, when we attempt to rationalize it we play instruments that are out of tune.

In suffering we experience God in ways not otherwise possible, and in suffering we have the opportunity to touch one another in ways we otherwise couldn’t conceive. There is a sacredness in walking with one another through suffering, a transcendence that allows heart to meet heart, where the only words that carry the weight of glory are, “I love you and I am here with you.” Nothing more can be added, nothing more can be said as we stand in the furnace with our friends, our families, our neighbors, our brothers and sisters in Christ; knowing all the while that One stands at the furnace mouth watching the ore that nothing be lost.  

Friday, October 31, 2014

Everybody Lies – Do I?

I recently watched an interview with Ben Bradlee on Charlie Rose, it was filmed a few years ago. Rose asked Bradlee how the Washington political scene had changed since Bradlee’s early days with Newsweek and the Washington Post. Bradlee’s reply was, “Now everybody lies.”

With mid-term elections upon us we are bombarded with political advertisements – and once again we are reminded that as a rule people will tell us anything for a vote. In the corporate world we see that corporations will tell us anything for a dollar. I am afraid that all too often churches will tell us anything so that we’ll come and stay and give. I am more afraid that I will tell others anything to get my way or to take the easy way out.

Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew, in working with Matthew 5:33 – 36 (oath taking) writes, “At first, we must admit, Jesus’ Command against Oaths seems to be the least weighty and least relevant of all his Commands. How can taking oaths compare with taking life or breaking marriage? And yet the more one studies this Command the more on is impressed with its range. Did Jesus realize that not to swear at all would constantly put disciples in unavoidable and unenviable tension with all governments, all of which have historically required oaths?

“First of all, the Command’s larger purpose should be honored. Quite simply, the Command of Truth seeks to protect speech in the community as the immediately preceding two Commands sought to protect sex. The trustworthiness of what we say is as important to a community’s welfare as the trustworthiness of our temperament or morals. Discipleship applies to speech, too.”

Bruner quotes Paul Minear, “In a culture which depends on oral speech…the intrusion of the intent to deceive pollutes reality at its very source…in such a culture a community becomes deeply dependent upon the ruthless and rugged integrity of its teachers.”

Who is left to tell the truth if not the disciples of Jesus?

Bruner makes much of the fact that truthful speech is simple speech. No oaths, no constant appeals to God, no embellishments.

I find that I have opportunities each day to decide whether to tell the truth or not, whether to take the easy way out (the short term easy way, but the long term destructive way) or to tell the truth.

Sad to say, but I have learned that just because someone tells me to have a “blessed day” that it is no indication whether or not they will tell me the truth or be charitable in their business dealings. In fact, it often seems to me that when folks tell me to have a “blessed day” that it is a license for them to kill the truth and kill charity. I know that isn’t the case for all, but I can write that if my staff at work would encounter a few less “have a blessed day” professing Christians that perhaps a few more of my staff would become followers of Jesus.  

I know I live in a world of lies, a world in which the father of lies propagates lying throughout societies and relationships; the question for me is whether I will go against the grain and tell the truth, will I follow Jesus, who is the Way, and the Truth, and the Life.

Everybody lies. Do I? Do you?

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Do We Play for the University of North Carolina?

The illustrious sports programs of the University of North Carolina are not so illustrious anymore. For the past 18 years students playing for the university’s teams have been taking “paper” courses, courses which required little or no work and for which students received favorable grades. These were courses designed to ensure that players would not lose their academic eligibility to play sports.

For the past few years there have been investigations into the sham courses, but each time the investigations were halted and their findings not revealed. When Carol Folt was hired as the school’s new chancellor she determined to deal with the matter once and for all and hired an outside investigator who found that over 3,000 students took courses which were courses only on paper and were given A’s and B’s for little or no work. While much of the blame has been placed on one university employee, questions abound as to how many others are culpable. Someone was quoted as saying that while the employee in question thought she was doing a good thing for the school and students, she was actually hurting the students and school – consider that many of these students left school reading at an elementary-school level (which makes you wonder why they were enrolled in the first place).

The University of North Carolina looks like the American Church. We don’t require much, members need not be Biblically literate, we want to win (grow bigger and bigger congregations) whatever the cost to Biblical integrity, and we think that if we win championships (if we look good in the eyes of others) that all is well. We don’t want to engage in self-critique using the Bible as our benchmark, we don’t want the Holy Spirit to be our outside investigator, and we want to avoid sanctions (heartfelt repentance) at all cost – because we don’t want to be stripped of our titles (our reputations). Should a member or two of a congregation suggest that perhaps things are not as they should be they are asked to be a good team member and go along to get along – otherwise they can go to a lower-division school (a small congregation) to play.

Of course, people know that big-time college sports, especially the money-making sports such as football and basketball, are rife with questionable academic standards; it is all about money at the gate and money from alumni. Here again, in much of the American Church it is about money, about sustaining physical plants and large staffs and programs which often mirror the bureaucracy  of government – if congregations are held spiritually accountable members might leave, large donors might be offended.

What is the difference between a stadium packed with college football fans and a church of thousands? The crowds are both assembled to witness an event – to have a good time. The football fans don’t have a personal relationship with the coach or the team members – and yet they feel a connection with them. The thousands of church attendees don’t have a personal relationship with the pastor or the staff – and yet they feel a connection with them. It’s amazing what an event will generate, such passion, such feelings, and yet there is no personal relationship. How much pastoral care can there be in a church of thousands? How much accountability? How much is actually there? (Many of these same dynamics are found in smaller churches too – but in this context I’m focused on the success syndrome – bigger at any cost).

Paul writes in 2 Timothy 2:5, “Also if anyone competes as an athlete, he does not win the prize unless he competes according to the rules.” Here is the BIG question, “Am I playing for the University of North Carolina?”

Am I living life according to the measure of God’s Word, following Jesus Christ as Lord of my life, and submitting to the Holy Spirit? Am I laying my life before God, asking Him to reveal sin in me, to cleanse me, and to keep me living in the light as Jesus is in the light? Or is my life filled with popular Christian fluff that is designed to make me feel good?

One day, when we stand before Jesus Christ, the judge of all the earth, we will know the answers to those questions. I’d rather deal with questions and answers now.

What about you? Are you playing for the University of North Carolina?

Friday, October 24, 2014

Screwtape – IV

In his fourth letter Screwtape deals with prayer; two elements of the letter focus on feelings and images of God. Screwtape writes that one tactic in defeating prayer is to, “…turn their gaze away from Him towards themselves. Keep them watching their own minds and trying to produce feelings there by the action of their own wills…Teach them to estimate the value of each prayer by their success in producing the desired feeling…” (Pages 16 – 17).

Feelings can have a place in prayer for feelings are an element of relationship; but feelings are not a measure of prayer’s fruitfulness or efficacy. The issue in prayer isn’t how we feel but rather whether we trust and obey our Father and Lord Jesus. Only God can determine prayer’s fruitfulness and efficacy, only He knows the essence and result and influence of our communion with Him. Only God knows how our prayers affect others, only He knows the trajectory of our intercession. Only God knows how our prayers and communion with Him affect our souls. Even when we think we know some of the foregoing, we know only in part, only in shadows. God is big and we are small, He is ever the adult and we are ever the children. He is the Father and we are sons and daughters.

When feelings are the focus and validation of prayer then we not only are self-focused as opposed to adoring and worshipping God, we have also slipped into a works-oriented religion where we must conjure feelings for validation – and we go away (assuming we are successful) with the approval of God. But which god? Whose god? The God who created us or the god we created?

This leads us a second element of the fourth letter, getting the “patient” (the Christian) to focus on self-created images of God and not on the true and living God. “But whatever the nature of the composite object [the image of God the Christian has created], you must keep him praying to it – to the thing he has made, not to the Person who has made him. You may even encourage him to attach great importance to the correction and improvement of his composite object, and to keeping it steadily before his imagination during the whole prayer. For if he ever comes to make the distinction, if ever he consciously directs his prayers ‘Not to what I think thou art but to what thou knowest thyself to be’, our situation is, for the moment, desperate,” (page 18).

As I like to say, on our best days we are still children before our heavenly Father and Lord Jesus. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be growing and learning and getting to know Him; it is simply that even as we learn to live as spiritual adults we are still children relative to the Almighty and All Knowing True and Living God.

When I was young I thought I knew Him but didn’t know Him; now that I am old I don’t think I know Him but I do know Him…and yet I am still coming to know Him. When I was young I thought I was the master of the Bible; now I realize that I need to be mastered by the Bible.

Feelings do have their place; but God must always have first place. It is not for the instrument to play its own heartstrings, but rather for it to submit to its Maker.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Send the Mayor a Sermon or Equip Christians?

In the wake of the mayor of Houston, Texas demanding copies of sermons from pastors, some high-profile Christians have recommended pastors across the nation send her copies of their sermons; one also made sure that he included the admonition, “do it in love”. How will the mayor will be able to discern a sermon sent in love from one sent in another attitude?

The pastor of the church I visited Sunday morning told the congregation that he would be sending her his sermons this week. I thought the statement problematic.

Firstly, is this action likely to foster understanding and open a door of dialogue and witness with the mayor? I doubt it. It looks more like a, “We’ll show you!” action, hardly one clothed in humility and charity.

Secondly, and I think more important, how does this action model a way of witness for the congregation? Pastors should be thinking about how they can equip their people to live in a hostile world, a world in which overt hostility is becoming more commonplace. How can pastors help their people negotiate treacherous waters in the workplace, in their families, in their neighborhoods, in their schools? Modeling an “in your face” response to challenges is hardly helpful, hardly thoughtful, and hardly likely to bring others to Jesus.

One high-profile Christian leader wants us to rally to the US Constitution; it’s better to refresh ourselves in the Sermon on the Mount. Satan might be amused at how easily we are distracted, and perhaps the angels weep. Nothing should ever divert us from the Christ of the Cross and the Cross of Christ – not the mayor of Houston, not the Constitution, not having our “rights” trampled on…Jesus invites us to be longsuffering witnesses for Him to others…will we accept His invitation? Oh yes, and will pastors start equipping their churches?

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Daniel Chapter Two & “Whatever”

A couple of weeks ago I was talking with my friend Harry Hanger in the parking lot outside the office where our Tuesday morning small group meets. A woman came up to us and said, “I just want to thank you for your encouraging conversation, you must be Christians.”

We exchanged pleasantries with the woman and then asked her how we could pray for her. After she told us what her needs were we prayed with her. After the prayer she started talking about the nation and how everything was falling apart. She told us that Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry would be turning over in their graves if they knew what was happening…and on and on she went. The state of the nation was what was uppermost in this woman’s mind, she was in despair, we needed to put the right people in office.

After listening to this I finally said, “Well, we have the promise of Daniel Chapter Two, a stone cut without hands is going to destroy the kingdoms of this earth and that stone will fill the earth – God’s kingdom will come and we are citizens of that kingdom, not of this earth. We need not live in fear”

She looked at me, extended her hand for me to shake, and said, “Whatever.”

Ah, that in a nutshell is what many professing Christians say when they hear that God’s kingdom is not man’s kingdom, that God’s kingdom is not dependent on a political party, or economic system, or any other system of the earth. Many Christians would rather live in despair than trust in the sovereignty of God, many Christians would rather trust in natural means than in the Holy Spirit, many Christians would rather resort to fleshly manipulations, vitriolic rhetoric, and political power at any cost rather than being broken bread and poured out wine for those with whom they disagree.

It seems that the Biblical text is beside the point for political and economic agendas espoused by many Christians – how easily we forget that we are not to love the world nor the things in the world – this includes political things, economic things, things that look oh so patriotic, things that appear good – our citizenship is simply not to be found in those things, and any citizenship we may hold on earth at present is only temporary and should not be confused with the Kingdom of God. The passport the follower of Jesus carries transcends earthly distinctions, it transcends time and space; and that passport allows us, nay it commands us, to serve and love people without distinction, without prejudice, without preference, and without reserve.

The reality of Daniel Chapter Two is eternal and is being worked out on the earth today – whatever barriers we may put in its way. Better to live in that hope than to grasp at fleeting earthly agendas. Better to align ourselves with the kingdom that cannot be shaken. Better to place our hope in Him whose kingdom has no end…whatever others may think.  

Monday, October 20, 2014

Screwtape – III

Screwtape writes his nephew, “In civilized life domestic hatred usually expresses itself by saying things which would appear quite harmless on paper (the words are not offensive) but in such a voice, or at such a moment, that they are not far short of a blow in the face.” [Page 13, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis.]

In the third letter Screwtape encourages Wormwood to incite domestic strife between Wormwood’s “patient” and his mother. One of the traps of the evil one is to seduce us with the delusion that we can be justifiably insensitive and unforgiving at home while being loving and caring in public and when at church. It is as if we build a wall between our home life and public life – like children we role play; unlike child’s play our games have long-term consequences.

The Kingdom of God begins at home. Reconciliation begins at home. Humility begins at home. Credibility begins at home. The shaping of our souls, of our hearts and minds into the image of Jesus Christ, finds no better place to begin than at home, among those with whom we live when we are out of the public’s eye, out of sight of the congregation. If there is a prayer closet in which we commune with the Father, there is also the secret place of our home and family in which the Father sees us as we really are; He sees how we treat our spouses, our children, our parents, our siblings, He sees our hearts and minds, our attitudes and motives. We are deceived if we think that we can separate our public and private lives in the eyes of God, we fool ourselves if we think that obedience to Jesus Christ is reserved for when those outside our families see us and that we live under another standard, our own standard, when the doors to our homes are shut.

Pastors are infamous for serving everyone but their own families; but how many of their congregants do the same thing? We forgive others but not our own, we encourage others but not our own, we are longsuffering with others but not our own, we invest time in others but not our own, we listen to others but not our own, we overlook the faults of others but not our own.

Peter writes that husbands and wives are “heirs together of the grace of life”. There is a dynamic of communal inheritance of the grace of God in families, especially in marriages. The communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit should be reflected in the communion of the family, most especially in marriage. God is not one way in heaven and another way on earth – neither should we be one way at home and another way in public.  

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Good and Evil and Decision Making

When one knows Good from Evil many decisions are easy to make, at least easy in the sense of knowing what one ought to do - actually doing them may be another matter. It strikes me that much of the confusion we see in leadership is a result of navigational chaos - we no longer know the difference between Good and Evil and so we become like the Bismarck after her steering mechanism was disabled, we travel in circles until the enemy sinks us, Only 114 of the 2,200 man crew of the Bismarck survived. I wonder how many of us will be left? 

Monday, September 8, 2014

Impressing Others?

Frederick Dale Bruner, in his commentary on Matthew writes:

"In the context of Matt 6, where the Lord's Prayer lies embedded, one is strongly inclined to translate the word "kingdom" with "all-importance" - "Your all-importance come." For each of the three surrounding Devotions (charity, prayer, and fasting) teaches that Christians need a sense of God's importance that exceeds their natural sense of other people's  importance. (Only when God is more important than people will the Christian be able to overcome the almost irresistible temptation to impress others). [Matthew A Commentary, Frederick Dale Bruner, Revised and Expanded, 2007, Eerdmans].

It does seem like an almost irresistible temptation when it comes to impressing others, making oneself look good in the eyes of others, playing to the crowd, wanting to please. I have known a few blessed souls who seemed unaffected by the opinions of others, who were what they were because they were focused on Jesus Christ and that was pretty much it - it freed them to be unpretentious with others and to love and give to others - such souls humble me and sometimes, sad to say, exasperate doubt because my own selfishness is in stark contrast to their self-forgetfulness. 

If I am to pray, "Thy kingdom come," I would do well to keep that prayer and desire on my lips and in my heart and mind throughout the day, to meditate on the all-importance of God; is He more important than my circumstances? Is He more important than the people around me? Who am I serving? To whom am I offering my words and deeds? Do I really want God to make Himself all important in my life?

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Screwtape – II

Wormwood’s “patient” has become a Christian, but all is not lost. Uncle Wormwood begins sharing advice on recapturing the patient. In Wormwood’s second letter to Screwtape he focuses on steering the patient into disappointment with Christians.

“When he [the patient] goes inside [the church building], he sees the local grocer with rather an oily expression on his face bustling up to offer him one shiny little book containing a liturgy which neither of them understands, and one shabby little book containing corrupt texts of a number of religious lyrics, mostly bad, and in very small print. When he gets to his pew and looks around him he sees just that selection of his neighbours whom he has hitherto avoided. You want to lean pretty heavily on those neighbours…At his present stage, you see, he has an idea of ‘Christians’ in his mind which he supposes to be spiritual but which, in fact, is largely pictorial,” page 6, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis, 1942, Harper Collins.

What is Lewis saying about forms of worship which are indecipherable to the average person? A “liturgy which neither of them understands” challenges us to think about what we do and why we do it when we gather as Christians. If what we do isn’t readily understandable to the visitor we should ask ourselves whether it can quickly be made understandable, we should ask ourselves if we understand it – understand where it came from, what it means, what place it plays in the life of the church, and whether it need always be the same expression and same form week after week. We ought to be at least asking the questions.

All churches have liturgies, all churches have certain ways of doing things; just because a church does not have a Book of Common Prayer doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a liturgy – if you know what to expect in terms of sequence of events in worship then you have a liturgy. I’ve been in “home groups” that have liturgies. Liturgies can be helpful, they can encourage worship and hearing God, and they can become barriers to communion with God. What we do and how we do it should always be submitted to our Lord Jesus along with mutual submission to one another.

Wormwood writes concerning people in the church, “Provided that any of those neighbours sing out of tune, or have boots that squeak, or double chins, or odd clothes, the patient will quite easily believe that their religion must therefore be somehow ridiculous,” page 6. If Lewis knows what he is talking about then Lewis knows what it is to work through the problem of the superficial – and I think he does. Most of us are cursed with a preoccupation with outward appearance, ever since the “Fall” when our “eyes were opened” we have been oriented to the visible world – a world of shadows, a world of deception, a world where what you see is not always what you get…and yet a world driven by the deception of thinking that what you see is what is real.

 As Yahweh said to the prophet Samuel, “Man looks on the outward, but God looks on the heart.” In much of the Sermon on the Mount Jesus turns our attention from the outward life to the inward life, from the external to the internal; yet the outward pull of life is so strong that it takes a deliberate focus for most of us to flee outward superficial judgments of others and to focus on others as men and women made in the image of God. Perhaps the fact that most of our churches contain people from the same background and social strata should challenge us to seek a more realized expression of the Kingdom of God in which peoples from all ethnic and social groups are found in unity and communion.

As Lewis points out via Wormwood, it is the mundane and trivial which can play havoc with our minds and attitudes; dress, singing off key, double chins, the list goes on and on. But why should we expect anything else than “people” when we gather with the saints? Why do we expect that we should be the only imperfect people in the church? I can excuse my difficulties but I cannot excuse the difficulties of others. I judge others by their actions and myself by my intentions. I look at the outward behavior and appearance of others and make my evaluations, I look at my inner self and make allowances and expect people to make allowances toward me that I will not make toward them.

Why should we expect to find anything other than normal people when we gather with the church? We are all imperfect people in relationship with a perfect God who desires to draw us all closer to Himself and to each other in the perfect love of His Son Jesus Christ.

P.S. It is only once we get over the externalities of relationships that we can get down to the nitty-gritty of koinonia, when we can really know and be known – that’s when the serious struggles we all have arise so that we can bear one another’s burdens – but this can only occur in the safety of committed love and grace in Jesus Christ; it can only occur when it no longer matters to me whether you prefer white sauce or red sauce, or part your hair on the right or left or middle or don’t part it at all. 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Screwtape – I

“Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head. He doesn’t think of doctrines as primarily ‘true’ or ‘false’, but as ‘academic’ or ‘practical’, ‘outworn’ or ‘contemporary’, ‘conventional’ or ‘ruthless’. Jargon, not argument, is your best ally in keeping him from the Church.” C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, page 1; 1942, HarperCollins, San Francisco.

Later in life Lewis will use narrative to communicate Mere Christianity; in this letter from Screwtape to Wormwood, Lewis thinks that engaging others in rational discussion is still possible, though difficult. What would he think today if in 1942, 72 years ago, the people around him were comfortable living with a mere dozen incompatible philosophies? Can we count the number of incompatible philosophies that surround us in 2014?

Today’s thinking often focuses on pleasure, money, and immediate gratification. There is little concern about philosophical or theological consistency; consistency and coherence are quaint ideas of the past – today we are free from the constraint of having to make integrated sense out of our thoughts and actions.  

And yet we can still ask questions. We can ask whether it makes sense for loving parents to save for their children’s future and yet not consider eternal questions. We can ask whether or not, in light of the accepted fact that we are the products of time plus matter plus chance, how anything can be morally wrong. We can ask what the logical outcome of nihilism is. We can ask what a person thinks about life and death and about whether or not there is life beyond this life…and if so…then ask why the person thinks that way. We can probe and ask what the foundation of a person’s life rests upon. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

Secular Work?

A couple of weeks ago a pastor friend said to me, “I’m going to be preaching about prayer as it relates to work and I know you’ve spent a lot of time thinking about work, what would you say to people in secular work regarding prayer?”

I responded, “I’d gently encourage them to talk to their pastor about all work being sacred, that no work is secular, unless of course the work is sinful.” While I went on to share what prayer and work can look like, I wanted to graciously challenge my friend to think about his own approach to the work of his parishioners.

In God’s eyes is a pastor’s work first class and a teacher’s or plumber’s work second class? We are called to be worshippers, wherever we are, whatever we do, we are called to worship – whether we are fixing a pluming leak or teaching third grade, whether we are in Congress or framing a house, whether we are writing computer code or stocking shelves in a grocery store – whatever we do and wherever we are we are to worship God, serve God, and do what we do as unto God in the name of Jesus (see Colossians 3:12 – 4:1).

Alas, the sacred – secular dichotomy is alive and well; most pastors continue to view their work as superior to their parishioners and consequently their sermons have little to no relevancy to Monday – Friday. We wonder why people don’t share the Gospel as a natural fabric of life; little wonder when we’ve disenfranchised them and made them second-class Christians. We talk to them and act toward them as if what they do is less valuable than the work vocational pastors do, and then we expect them to share their faith and invite others to “come to church” – we expect them to turn their Christianity on and off like a light switch. For solutions to a lack of witnessing we turn to programs and seminars instead of looking at the sacred – secular and clergy – laity dichotomies as barriers to the witness of the church and the transformation of Christians into the image of Jesus.

How we think of people influences how we relate to people. As long as pastors think of their people as engaged in second-class work it is difficult to see how they can minister to them as first-class Christians. 

Saturday, August 9, 2014

A Question About Prayer

I received the question below regarding prayer. The writer had been studying Luke 11:5-13. (There is also another passage in Luke that is similar, 18:1-8). Here’s the question:

“I am having trouble with] this word "persistence,” [Luke 11:8] I was taught that when I prayed about something that it was a done deal and if I really believed that it would be answered, it would be wrong to ask again and again.  I don't know whether I've explained that right but in other words if there is no answer from God fairly soon, I've felt that I shouldn't bring it up again.  Sounds kinda crazy but I'm really confused.”

The first thing I want us to look at in the question are the words, “it would be wrong.” Prayer is relational. When we think about relationships and we think about things that would be wrong to introduce into a relationship I think our list can include: lying, deceit, using the other person, manipulation, and selfishness. There are of course other things that it would be wrong to introduce into a relationship, but the items I’ve listed are things that muddy communication, relationship and honesty.

Now if I am to have an honest relationship with God, is holding a request back from Him an action of honesty?

Unlike human relationships, our relationship with God our Father will never be an equal relationship. That is, we will never be God, and no matter how much we grow in Christ, at our theoretical most mature point we will always be infants in relation to God. After a zillion years in heaven He will still be God our Father and we will still be, relative to Him, infants. In light of this, does it make any real sense for us, the infants, to withhold our requests from God our Father?

Pagan religions often have certain prescribed ways to approach their deities. These ways are legalistic and ritualistic[i] and they are not based on intimate relationship. They are often based on fear and they involve manipulation and the pacification of the deity.[ii] The basic idea is, “If I do this then the deity will do that.” Prayer, sacrifices and such must be processed through a ritualistic and manipulative filter, with the worshipper often doing the thinking on behalf of the deity. In other words, “I must pray this precise way if I don’t want to confuse the deity or invoke the deity’s displeasure and judgment.”

This is simply not Christianity, even though many Christians fall into this type of thinking. When we buy into this mode of thinking we treat God not as our Father, but as some big prayer computer in the sky that operates according to the GIGO principle, Garbage In Garbage Out. When we think that we must make sure our prayers don’t confuse God by inadvertently saying something confusing, what does this say about our view of God?

Over the years I’ve heard people say, “Well, I don’t pray for so and so because I don’t know what to pray for, and I don’t want to pray for something that God doesn’t want.”

Isn’t God capable of turning the focus (the people) of our prayers to His glory and the benefit of others? Isn’t God capable of looking into the heart of our prayer and answering the prayer of our heart? Or is God really just a computer and we must be on constant guard not to confuse the prayer computer? Where is relationship in a ritualistic approach to prayer?

What matters to God is that we pray for people; God will sort the details out. Remember, He is the Father and we, relative to Him, will always be infants.

So the idea of “wrong” is an idea that usually is not very helpful when thinking about prayer.

Then there is the implicit thought in the question that “doubt and unbelief are to be avoided and ignored, and doubt and unbelief have no place in a prayer that is going to be answered.”

While the Scriptures encourage us to be not doubting but believing, nowhere am I aware of a place in the Scriptures where answers to our prayers are contingent upon us being free of all doubt.[iii] It isn’t the amount of faith we have that determines answered prayer, it is the object of our faith. If the object of our faith is our ritualistic approach to God, then we can have tons of faith but have little answered prayer. If, on the other hand, Christ is the object of our faith, then we may have large doubts and little faith but we can anticipate a response from God.

When we make our works the means of answered prayer we place our faith and trust in the wrong object; when we trust God and He is the object of our faith then we can be assured that our heavenly Father will respond to us.

Again, while I’m not advocating doubt, faith in the midst of doubt glorifies God and not us; answered prayer in the midst of doubt glorifies God and not us.

The words pray and prayer and associated words probably occur over 300 times in the Bible, and there are likely many more passages where prayer is taking place without the use of these actual words. For example, there are 150 psalms and each of them is a prayer. Many of these prayers have their own unique form and circumstances, and this should not surprise us since they are born out of relationship with the living and true God, the God who desires intimacy with His people, the Father who desires intimacy with His daughters and sons. While there are patterns for prayer in the Bible, the patterns can be quite different, relative to time and place and circumstance.

Romans 8:14 – 17 teaches us that we have received the Spirit of adoption that causes us to cry out, “Abba (Daddy) Father.” We are the children of God, we are not the offspring of a robot, nor of an impersonal deity, nor of a distant deity. We are also taught in Romans Chapter 8 that we are heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ – we have been called into the fellowship of the Trinity. (See also John 17:20-26 where we are taught that the Father loves us just as He loves Jesus). Are we really to approach God ritualistically having been called His daughters and sons?

As to the question of persistent prayer, the teaching of Jesus in Luke Chapters 11 and 18 do teach persistent and inopportune prayer. Therefore we know that we should engage in such prayer. Perhaps a natural question is, “Why is such prayer necessary? Surely God doesn’t need to hear me more than once?”

We know that there is no merit, in and of itself, in repeating a prayer, for Jesus teaches, “But when you pray, do not use vain repetitions as the heathen do. For they think that they will be heard for their many words. Therefore do not be like them. For your Father knows the things the things you have need of before you ask Him.” Matthew 6:8.

So we see that repetition is not the answer and we also see that our Father knows our needs without us verbalizing them. (See also Psalm 139:4).

Perhaps if we consider the nature of prayer it will help us understand some possible reasons for us to engage in persistent prayer.

If prayer is, in its most basic definition, communication with God, then let’s ask what forms that communication can take. Some words that come to mind are: worship, adoration, praise, thanksgiving, supplication, requesting, and intercessions. Prayer can be spoken conversationally, it can be shouted, it can be wept, it can be written, it can be sung, it can be thought (unspoken), it can be dreamed.

Certainly there is no argument against persistent worship, adoration, praise, or thanksgiving. In fact, our problem in these areas is not that we do them too much and repetitively, but that we don’t do them enough, that they are not part of the fabric of our lives and of the life of the church.

Where is the concern then? It is with asking is it not? Need I to ask God for something more than once? Since Jesus’ teaching contains a “Yes,” then we ask again, “Why?”

Let’s expand the question into two questions, “Why must I ask persistently for myself?” “Why must I ask persistently for others?” We are asking two questions because while many of us have little problem with the latter question, since it is intercession for the benefit of others; many of us are legitimately concerned about persistently asking on behalf of ourselves.

I think one of the problems with both questions, though both questions are good and legitimate questions, is the problem with many questions about prayer - we tend to see prayer as a compartmentalized portion of life, as something we “do” when we need to do it, or feel like doing it, or think we have an obligation to do it.

When we talk about prayer we may talk about having (or not having) a “prayer life.” I don’t think Jesus had a prayer life, nor do I think Paul had a prayer life, and I’m not sure that we should have a prayer life – but I do think that Jesus and Paul lived lives of prayer and I do think that we should live lives of prayer. Prayer should be a natural part of our lives, it should be the rhythm of our lives, for if prayer is communication with God, then that is what we were created for, that is what we were redeemed for, that is what our eternal destiny holds for us – for at the heart of communication is communion, or as the Greek New Testament would have it, koinonia – relationship.

In the West we tend to think of communication as the transfer of data and information, and hence we no longer are good communicators in the traditional sense of the word. We think exchanging or sending and receiving data and information is communication – “let my cerebral computer talk to your cerebral computer” is the way we think of communication – little wonder we’re big on data transfers but our relationships are exponentially breaking down.

So rather than having “prayer lives” we should consider having “lives of prayer.” That is, lives in which prayer is woven into the fabric of who we are, embedded into our relationship with God and with others.

In this context, sharing with God our Father our needs and desires begins to take on a new meaning, for it is no more the image of a child you never hear from unless he wants something, or a friend you never see unless she is in crisis; rather our needs and desires are now communicated in the context of relationship, in the context of communion, in the context of koinonia, and in that context our Father God can speak into our hearts His thoughts, His desires, and His will.  And what is the end result of such communion, of such a life of prayer? It is first and foremost not our specific requests being answered, though we don’t want to minimize that, but it is rather our being drawn into ever-increasing intimacy with the Trinity. He becomes our desire rather than our requests, and our requests become not the centerpiece of our prayer life; but a facet of our life of prayer.

Persistent prayer is persistent intimacy.

Luke 11:1-13 begins and ends with an inclusio, that is, it begins and ends with the same thought, thus establishing a context for the teaching of the passage. That thought is that God is our Father. “When you pray, say: Our Father…how much more will your heavenly Father give…” So the teaching of persistent and inopportune prayer is given within the relational context of God being our Father and of we being His children.  

We are encouraged to ask our Father that our prayers and desires may be answered:

“And whatever you ask in my name, that I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” John 14:13-14.

“If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit; so you will be my disciples.” John 15:7-8.

“…Most assuredly, I say to you, whatever you ask the Father in my name He will give it to you. Until now you have asked nothing in my name. Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full.” John 16:23-24.

The above verses are all from the same passage, Jesus speaking to His disciples in the Upper Room. The thrust of Christ’s Upper Room teaching is our communion/fellowship/koinonia in the Trinity. The Upper Room account begins with the Father (John 13:1) and it ends with the Father (John 17:25-26).

There is a heightened degree of intimacy in the Upper Room passage compared with Luke Chapter 11. In Luke we have not yet reached Holy Week, and while the Cross is on the horizon, its shadow is not yet ominous and the time of Christ’s departure is not yet imminent. The setting of Luke is perhaps more of a young child with a Father; the setting of John is that of adult friendship, an adult parent – adult child relationship. Both settings are Trinitarian, for in both settings not only do we see the Father and the Son, but also the Holy Spirit. In fact, Jesus’ teaching in Luke suggests that the end result of our asking, seeking and knocking should be our asking for the Holy Spirit. In John, the Holy Spirit is He who draws us into the Trinity, for He dwells in us and is the life of God.

This leads into our intercessions on behalf of others.

“Therefore He [Jesus] is also able to save completely those who come to God through Him, since He ever lives to make intercession for them.” Hebrews 7:25.

Jesus lived an intercessory life on earth and He has carried that intercessory life into heaven. Sustained, and therefore persistent, intercession for us is one of the things Jesus does as our High Priest.   

“For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Hebrews  4:15–16.

In Christ, our High Priest, we find sympathy, grace and mercy. We can find sympathy, grace and mercy not only for ourselves, but as intercessors who have been incorporated into the communion of the Trinity we can find sympathy, grace and mercy for others.

“Therefore I exhort first of all that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men…” 1Timothy 2:1

Just as Jesus makes intercession for us; we are called to make intercession for others. Since we are made a priesthood in Christ, 1Peter 2:4-10; Rev. 1:6, it follows that we participate in the intercessory prayer ministry of our High Priest.

“Then he said to me, “Do not fear Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and to humble yourself before your God, your words were heard; and I have come because of your words. But the prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days…” Daniel 10:12-13a.

Intercessory persistence was necessary for Daniel. There were dynamics in the unseen realm of which Daniel was unaware, dynamics that required his persistence. The nature of intercessory living and of intercessory prayer is consistent persistence. Inconsistent living and inconsistent praying is not intercession, rather it is engagement and obedience at our own personal convenience. Importunity leads to opportunity to be a blessing to others.

Matthew 7:7 – 12 parallels Luke 11:9-13 with two notable exceptions. While Luke 11:13 points us to asking for the Holy Spirit, Matthew 7:12 points us to, “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” While the “therefore” of Matthew 7:12 is quite likely connected with the entire preceding section of the Sermon on the Mount, its immediate proximity to asking, seeking and knocking and the goodness of our “Father in heaven” suggests that just as our Father gives good things to us that we ought to give good things to others, and that our asking, seeking and knocking should be not only on our own behalf but also on behalf of others.  

So back to our stated question, “Is it wrong to ask more than once? Is it wrong to be persistent?” Absolutely not. Now if God gives you peace about a request and tells you to trust Him for its fulfillment, rest in that assurance from your heavenly Father, in fact, then you can move from requesting to thanksgiving. But the timing of all answers to prayer lies within the hands of our heavenly Father, who desires only good for us and who truly knows what is best.

And to the implicit question that, “If I doubt or display any unbelief won’t that hinder my prayer?” God has called us into relationship with Himself, He will meet us where we are and He will bring us to where He is. He will be glorified in the midst of our doubts, anxieties and unbelief – and then there will be no doubt about who should receive the glory. The issue isn’t the amount of our faith; the issue is the object of our faith. Let us seek to live in relationship with our Father, with our Lord Jesus and with the Holy Spirit, and we can trust them to work their good will in us.

[i] To avoid any possible confusion, I am not talking about liturgies in Christian churches.

[ii] Such approaches are superstitious

[iii] James 1:2-8 might be viewed as an exception, however, I think the context of James has to do with the fabric of life and the fabric of one’s heart and mind, hence the term “double-minded.” The issue in James is whether our lives are consistent in Christ, if they are not, then the instability of doubt will permeate our prayers and that is a different matter.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Illegal Immigrants or Refugees?

The problems at the southern border of the United States are complex. Since they involve life and death we ought to look beyond the economic impact of our policies, actions, motives, and thinking. The fact that much of the rhetoric surrounding the influx of children across our borders revolves around money is an indictment of the United States, and the professing church within the United States. Could it be that Christians who desire God’s mercy when applying the law of God to their own lives forget God’s mercy when insisting on applying immigration law to the lives of others? Which violation of which law deserves the greater punishment?

Frances Robles of the New York Times, in a July 9, 2014 article writes, “ ‘The first thing we can think of is to send our children to the United States,’ said a mother of two in La Pradera [Honduras], who declined to give her name because she feared gang reprisals. ‘That’s the idea, to leave.’

“Honduran children are increasingly on the front lines of gang violence. In June, 32 children were murdered in Honduras, bringing the number of youths under 18 killed since January of last year to 409, according to data compiled by Covenant House, a youth shelter in Tegucigalpa, the capital.”

As the US Conference of Catholic Bishops has pointed out, children from Honduras do not represent a crisis of illegal immigrants, they represent a refugee crisis – and yet the United States Government, state governments and, it appears, much of the professing church, fails to acknowledge that many of these children are, in fact, refugees from war-torn areas – gang wars are just as lethal as other wars, just ask parents in our inner cities, just ask parents in Honduras.