Friday, January 25, 2013

Honesty With God

Every now and then I make some rather audacious statements concerning Christianity. I suppose making these types of statements, for me, is a natural out flowing of seeking to be faithful to God.

I made one such audacious statement in a sermon the last Sunday of 2012. I sought to brace the people of New Life so it would not catch them completely off guard. I warned them that some would not like what I was about to say…but I was OK with that. However, I did relay my hope that they would ponder and pray about the statement and hopefully come to a point of agreeing with it in the near future. I went on to say that God knows what He is doing.

I kept going for a bit, but it seemed my point was missed, so I let them know I had made my audacious statement – God knows what He is doing. This promptly drew a few chuckles and not a few puzzled looks. So I added that we ought to give the Creator of everything the benefit of the doubt – He knows what He is doing.

I was serious when I said it then, and am serious while writing about it now. We, the finite creation, need to give the Infinite Creator of EVERYTHING the benefit of the doubt and trust He knows what He is doing. 

Well, this may sound nice, but what difference does it actually make? Is there any impact for my life you may ask. Yes, there is. The benefits that come from being honest with God are immense.

Think back to when you were a kid. Did you ever get in trouble? If you did not please feel free to stop reading right now. Better yet, call your parents and ask them (if you still have contact with them that is).

Anyway, did you ever try and deny what you did, while not knowing your parents knew what you did, and therefore receive a more harsh punishment? Conversely, did you ever confess what you did and get a bit lighter punishment?  Some may be able to relate to this analogy, others may not. Regardless, it is a way to understand something about God. Namely, honesty with God is a good thing. When we are honest with Him there is forgiveness and empowerment. Yet when we are dishonest with Him there is bondage and misery. 

A lot of God’s people need to be honest with Him and confess a variety of things. Think of all the problems in The Church right now. A lack of forgiveness leads to people leaving churches, and worse yet, splitting churches. Materialism is out of control, which leads to next-to-nothing giving (on the overall scale) and needs being unnecessarily unmet all around us – and the world.  A lack of prayer leads to people not seeking God’s guidance and will for their lives; simultaneously they go about living their lives as if they have no need for God. This is further shown by a lack of reading in God’s Word while making time for newspapers, magazines, TV shows, recreation, etc.

I realize all of those can have their justifications. For lack of time I will not mention any, only to provide what I hope to be a future link. Yet justifications are not confession…and they will keep people in bondage to the habits, and whatever else, is influencing them. 

So, what is one to do? Well, in light the audacious thought of “God knows what He is doing,” how about doing the following. Find Scripture that addresses a certain issue with which you struggle, read it, be honest with God, and ask for help. It would look something like this…

If you struggle with forgiveness read Matthew 5:43-48 (where Jesus tell us to love our enemies), you might also read Matthew 18:21-35 (a parable about unforgiveness). Then say something like, “God, I am not there right now…I can’t forgive this person…what is more, I don’t really even want to forgive this person…yet I know Your word tells me I must forgive them…God, please help me…please give me a desire to forgive because right now I do not even have it…and honestly, I don’t even want that desire…BUT I trust You more than I trust me.”

That may sound foolish, but I assure you, it is not. It is not because of a few things: 1) you are in God’s word, 2) you are praying to (communicating with) God, 3) you are being honest with God, and 4) it opens the door for God to do what only He can do. Seriously, do you think He is unaware of your lack of a desire to forgive someone? Do you really want to continue to feel bad for not reading or praying? Do you really want to live in disobedience while being deceived by the evil one?

I did not think so.

I challenge you to try this method with whatever issue you are facing in your life. For some, it may need to start by reading 2 Corinthians 4:4 (Satan blinding eyes), 2 Corinthians 10:4-6 (taking thoughts captive), and Matthew 4:9 (showing Satan’s ownership of this world). Satan (though defeated and bound) is alive and well enough to cause havoc in the lives of anyone – including those seeking to follow God. Maybe we all need to beg God to be merciful and reveal where we are being deceived by the evil one.

None of us are above that…and after all, honesty with God is a good thing. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Is Your Gospel Too Small?

Disclaimer 1) this is a post rife with difficulties.
Disclaimer 2) this is a post with much left unwritten.
Disclaimer 3) this is a post with which some in The Church may struggle.
Disclaimer 4) this is a post with which some in the world may struggle.
Disclaimer 5) the struggles of #3 and #4 are not the same struggles.
Disclaimer 6) this is a post I am humbly undertaking...I am open to dialog.
Disclaimer 7) the implications of this post, and all the above disclaimers, point to the beauty of God’s Story (albeit incompletely).

There is, perhaps, nothing more central to the Christian message than the gospel. I suppose an accurate equation could be “Gospel = Christian Message.” And here is where our list of disclaimers becomes a factor.

The above disclaimers now engage us because I am using human language in an attempt to describe that which is, ultimately, indescribable – God and the things of God. Now this is not to say our human language is useless in talking about God. Yet it is to say human language continually falls short when talking about God. There is too much left unsaid, unknown, incomplete, and quite honestly open to wrong interpretation.

For example; to talk of God as Father is a Biblical truth (e.g., Deut1:30-31; Ps68:4-6; Mt5:45; 6:9; Rom1:7; Rev1:6, and Mk14:36; Rom8:15; Gal4:6). Yet for many, to think of God as “Father,” is quite unpleasant (even repulsive) because their earthly father was abusive, distant, sexually exploitative, or perhaps even unknown. This illustrates a struggle/tension concerning cataphatic and apophatic statements about God. What those strange terms mean is this: cataphatic statements are positive statements about God and apophatic statements are negative statements about God. So in relation to “God is Father” we need to understand He is indeed “Father” (apophatic), but He is unlike any earthly father you have ever known (apophatic). Unfortunately, all of our earthly fathers fell short of giving us, their children, God’s best. Equally unfortunately, as a father now, I know I fall short of giving my children God’s best. There is a real (and often ignored) danger which must be worked through by everyone seeking to follow Jesus. The danger is that of seeing God – the Heavenly Father – through the lens of their earthly father. God is indeed “Father,” but not like any father you have known.

Wow, I think I now need to add Disclaimer 8) “at some point I am bound to ramble and get a bit off topic,” and Disclaimer 9) “by God’s grace He will bring me back around to making something resembling coherent sense – and the ramble will be helpful in some way...I hope,” and for good measure, Disclaimer 10) “thank you for continuing to read this post.” OK, that is not really a disclaimer; I just wanted another to end on one of the numbers used for completion in the Bible (Bible study insider joke).

All of that said, what is the gospel? A rather standard answer in Christian circles is Paul’s description in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8 (or so) - "Now I would remind you, brothers, of the gospel I preached to you, which you received, in which you stand, and by which you are being saved, if you hold fast to the word I preached to you—unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me."

We will talk about this very important text in due time. Yet for now I simply want to make two observations about the word “gospel.”

Observation 1) the Greek word underlying gospel [εὐαγγέλιον] means “good news.” This can be seen with the prefix “eu” – good; cf. eulogy – a “good word” about someone in a funeral service, and the word root “angelos” – messenger; cf. “angel” – a messenger, who may in fact be preternatural. So at its core the gospel is “good news.” However, this leads us to…

Observation 2) the word “gospel” is a completely relative term. In other words, what is “good news” for one may well be “bad news” for someone else. In fact, this is how the nouns and verbs related to “gospel” are used in the Old Testament.

For example, the death of King Saul was spread as “good news” (verb form) for the Philistines (1Sam31:9). Yet while lamenting this news David does not want it “published” (verb form) lest more Philistines rejoice (2Sam1:20). In other words, the “good news” of Saul’s death was not so good for the people of Israel – even if some thought it could be leveraged to their advantage (cf. 2Sam4:10 – both noun and verb forms).

So where does all of this leave us? It leaves us with a few more disclaimers: Disclaimer 11) “this will not be the only post on this topic,” and Disclaimer 12) “I pray these words and thoughts will continue to shape me and all who read them.” 

It also leaves us, I hope, with the door at least open to the possibility that “the gospel” is larger – and I will add more beautiful – than we ever realized. Perhaps even more beautiful than we ever dared to dream or imagine. But yet…isn't that so like God?  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Bigger Than "Pay It Forward"

If I were a better historian of our culture, with more time, I would further develop the forthcoming statement for you. Yet given my limitations I will simply state it; there are identifiable movements and ways of doing things that can be traced back to a point of origin. Similarly the popularization of, basically about anything, can be traced back to a point of origin(s).  

This can be viewed as cause and effect. Yet at the same time there is an aspect of it that is so much bigger than “a” led to “b” which led to “c”. It seems to be more of an Event and response.

A relatively modern example is how the idea of “paying it forward” is somewhat common in our culture – both in the vernacular and practice. While I will not deny the reality of people using the phrase and implementing the principle before the year 2000, at least my awareness of its frequency can be traced back to the popularity of a movie by the same phrase ("Pay It Forward") starring Kevin Spacey, Helen Hunt, and Haley Joel Osment. If you are unfamiliar with the movie you can click here for a synopsis (by the way, there is another strand of thinking here [i.e., "my awareness"] I will hopefully pick up in another post). 

Now why state all of that? 

I state all of that because at times I am blessed to be able to help people in a monetary way. A way this happens is through the generosity of people where I serve (New Life Christian Church in Emporia, KS). When helping whomever, I make sure to let them know how it is even possible for me to be helping them. In other words, I make it clear I am helping them on behalf of a community of people who give just a bit more each week to make this help possible.  

There have been times when the one(s) being helped talk about paying us back. I ultimately leave the ball in their court, but I make it clear that they are under no such obligation. I reemphasize how our motivation for doing this is simple; we are seeking to respond to God, and in doing so want others to know there is a God who loves them and is concerned about their situation. Often they reply with a thought of “paying it forward” to someone else (i.e., "payback" the deed, but not to the one who helped them, rather to someone else in need). I understand this is a bit of a natural response. I agree it is better than simply receiving and receiving and receiving. Yet what I want those who have been helped to understand, or at least consider, is that they ought to take a second look at God if they are not following Him.  

At its core, it seems the thought of "pay it forward" is to help make the world a better place. This is commendable. Yet is also a recipe for failure. This is why I mention the "Event and response" above in the second paragraph. 

I say "pay it forward" is a recipe for failure because, sadly, everyone is prone to think - sooner or later - that they are giving too much, that others can help themselves, that this person was not truly grateful, etc. In light of that, what I want people to realize is that when God’s people respond and give, it is not like paying it forward. It is people responding to an Event that has impacted and forever altered their lives. The cause of this Event is God - He deserves a second look if someone is not following Him.  

Yet I want to be clear that the God who is deserving of a second look is quite possibly "not the same" god they heard about in the past. This is a God who desires His Church to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a broken and hurting world. A God who has such a beautiful and compelling story that when it is understood it does not ignore evil, the faults of His own people, or anything like that. Rather, His Story says those things will not have the last word and that God's purpose of redemption for the world will come to fruition.

I realize some reading this may not be open to that right now. I can appreciate that. In light of this possible reality, I want to simply add that honesty with God is a good thing. And given the implications of God’s Story, there is good reason to be honest with Him. Yet that is another post for another day…

Friday, January 4, 2013

Christmas Season [5]

Merry Christmas everyone! Yes, it still is X-mas...for a few more days that is. Here is a post from last year, just before the end of the Christmas Season. I hope to have a follow-up post in a few days with further reflections, clarifications, and possibly retractions.

A Post from last Christmas...
For the last time until next December, Merry Christmas!!  Oh I know it seems like Christmas was like a year ago now [hahaha ;) ].  Yet it truly is still Christmas!!! 

Again, I say this because Christmas is a season, not merely a day.  The Christmas Season, of which there are 12 days, ends today with Epiphany.  Therefore many churches will celebrate Epiphany this coming Sunday.  The distinction between the Christmas Season and the cultural way of celebrating Christmas is significant – even if someone in our culture seeks to keep a focus on Jesus.  The reality is a day can be quickly forgotten once it is gone, no matter how good it was.  Granted, a focus on a day can produce many great memories.  Yet a season – a celebration – can make more than great memories.  Indeed, it can lay a foundation for a longer lasting impact while setting the stage for godly memories to be made for generations to come. 

So what if we really worked at celebrating the Christmas Season?  Now I suppose a way many would be thrilled to do this is if we took 12 days off as opposed to one (well, all but the self-employed that is).  Yet I am not talking about 11 more days of vacation.  I am talking about continually pondering, and seeking to implement, implications of the Incarnation.  The truth that nearly 2,000 years ago Jesus came to earth and lived among us is life-altering.  The Anointed One of God, the savior, the Christ – the King, living among us…showing us how to live…bringing people into community…showing us how to love…showing us how to confront religious distortions and apathy…indeed showing us what it means to be truly human.  

Epiphany is the climax of the Christmas Season.  It recalls the coming of the Wisemen, or Magi, to see Jesus the toddler.  Ah yes, the King of the world…quite unassuming with skinned knees and more than a few bruises on his little body no doubt.  While we do not know for certain, it is believed these Magi came from the area of Babylon.  The significance of this blossoms when we begin to see what Matthew is showing us in his gospel in conjunction with some things in the book of Daniel.  Succinctly, Matthew is showing Jesus as King.  These Magi show up and worship the toddling Jesus as a King.  These Magi were Gentiles – i.e., not of Jewish ethnicity.  This foreshadows the inclusive nature of God’s Kingdom which Jesus came to establish.  Now let us turn to Daniel.

Daniel clearly shows the sovereignty of God despite current circumstances.  On the surface it seems the gods of Babylon have proven to be more powerful than the God of Israel, YHWH.  After all, Israel is now in exile.  Yet in chapter one verse two we read, “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand…”  The “his hand” is Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon from verse one.  In other words, while it may appear “old Nebby-K” is ruling and calling the shots, YHWH is truly in charge.  The reason why Israel/Judah was in exile was their lack of worship, and all it entails, of YHWH.  This makes certain scenes in Daniel beautifully ironic as God works in such ways that pagan people praise His greatness when His own covenant people did not.  One example of this is toward the end of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego’s encounter with a blazing hot fire (or Rack, Shack and Benny if you are a Veggie Tales fan).  After God saves these three, Nebuchadnezzar blesses their God (Dan3:28) and then says, “Therefore I make a decree: Any people, nation, or language that speaks anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego shall be torn limb from limb, and their houses laid in ruins, for there is no other god who is able to rescue (save) in this way.” – High praise indeed for the one true God. 

Now consider this.  Daniel and his three friends (Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) had other encounters with the people of Babylon.  These encounters included the magicians, enchanters, sorcerers, and Chaldeans (cf. Dan2:2) – all of whom were confronted with a God more powerful than anything they could imagine.  More than likely some of these people began to worship this “God of gods and Lord of kings” (cf. Dan2:47).  Daniel tells of one like a Son of Man in chapter seven coming to the earth to receive a kingdom.  This “one like a Son of Man” is also the rock of chapter two which breaks the grand statue (representing kingdoms of the earth – including Babylon) in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream to pieces.  And in Matthew’s gospel (written primarily for a Jewish audience) he shows Magi (from the area of Babylon) showing up to worship this foretold King.  This is beyond cool – this is revolutionary. 

Epiphany celebrates the “revealing” of the Christ to the Gentiles (i.e., all not ethnically Jewish).  As such it looks ahead to the reason why The Church exists – to advance the Kingdom of God everywhere for everyone.  What a fitting climax to the significance of the Christmas Season!!! 

I am certain you have heard there were three Wisemen (Magi) – e.g., “We Three Kings of Orient Are”.  Yet you will not find that number in the second chapter of Matthew.  You will find three gifts, but more than likely Matthew highlighted those three because of their significance.  At any rate, let us go along with this tradition and say the “three kings” were Caspar, Balthasar and Melchior.  A symbol for Epiphany, which is often painted above the entry door to a house in some cultures, is +C+B+M+  
The symbols are as followsthe cross (+) represents Christ, the letters (C,B,M) represent the supposed names of the (supposed) three Magi.  Added to this symbol is the year – so for us it would be 20+C+B+M+12.  Since in this symbol the letters represent the three Magi (Gentiles) who came to worship the true King let us add an accurate twist to the symbol.  [Also, I am not saying to put this over the entry door to your house – a piece of paper you carry with you, display somewhere visible to you, perhaps put in your Bible (i.e., multiple copies) will suffice.]  
Try this: write out the symbol but put in the first letter of the names of three people you know who need to submit themselves to Jesus and truly worship the King (e.g., 20+__+__+__+12).  Pray for these people regularly; ask God to continue to work in their lives, to open their eyes to His love and majesty, to work in you to speak when the time is right and show the love of Jesus at all times to them.  After all, all who are Gentiles now are those who are not a part of the people of God.  I.e., it is no longer ethnicity that makes one a child of God (thank you Jesus). 

This is an accurate focus on the implications of the Incarnation.  There are people, we all know, who need to come and truly worship the King.  Oh what a way to live out the Lordship of Jesus in this New Year. 

Merry Christmas and Holy Epiphany to you!!  May God grant us the strength to follow through with the things to which He will call us.