Saturday, July 25, 2015

Exposing Sin

            Sin is a reality.  It exists.  We all do it.  Everyone invokes the displeasure of God at various times or events in life.  The bald reality of church ministry is that it must deal with the presence of sin in both its members and its systems.  Even David, described as a man who was like God in the way he operated toward others, sinned egregiously at points in his life.  Undeniably, the biggest example of a fall in David’s life came in his adultery with Bathsheba, and the events that came afterward (2 Samuel 11).

            At the time of year when David should have been doing the work of a king, which was to protect and serve the nation of Israel as the military leader, he stayed in Jerusalem.  He was not doing his kingly duty (2 Samuel 11:1).  David was at the pinnacle of success.  There was relative peace.  There were no major threats to the nation.  The kingdom was generally happy and prosperous.  David had fought all his major military wars with great success and was securely in power.  At this point, he was a middle-aged man, not as vigorous as he once was with perhaps a bit of a paunch that comes with age.  And this is what set David up for a major fall:  he was content and resting on his laurels, walking around on the roof of his palace instead of in the trenches with his men.

            The word “sent” is used five times in the first six verses.  This is significant.  David sent people to do his bidding.  The portrayal here is not of the gracious king who is seeking to use his power for loving purposes in the kingdom; it is the picture of an earthly king doing what typical earthly kings did by ordering others around and using his authority to get what he wants.  We are meant to see the reversal in David’s disposition from outwardly gracious to inwardly selfish.  He set himself up for a big hairy audacious fall.  None of us are immune from falling into sin.

            This is not just how individuals fall; this is how institutions as well as churches plummet.  When any church begins to be concerned only for itself and what it can inwardly accomplish for its own and does not outwardly seek to be gracious to those not in the church, that church has set itself up for a collapse which will end in the displeasure of God.

            Stories of people who topple into sin are all pretty much the same.  Having some power, people use it to assert control over another person or group to get what they want.  We must call it what it is:  sin.  It is evil.  It is a violation of God.  There cannot be any turning away from sin if we do not call it sin to start with.  If we deny there is a problem, the problem will never be solved.  David committed adultery.  He lied.  He manipulated.  He covered-up.  David murdered not only Uriah, but other men in the regiment to ensure that he would be dead.  This was not a mistake.  It wasn’t a lapse in judgment.  It was sin in all its foulness and degradation.  And the way to deal with it would not be to say something like “I did it, but it wasn’t really me; I’m not really like that!”  Well, apparently, you are.  Maybe David thought he was above all this and believed it wasn’t really something he could ever do.  But he did.

            What is more:  sin causes us to sell-out our principles.  Sin only begets more sin until we deal with it.  Sin will always distort the truth so that we minimize the impact of our words and actions.  The opposite of repentance is cover-up.  Truth celebrates openness and honesty; sin seeks the shadows and prizes secrecy.  Many people have fallen into awful sin.  The first step is not to minimize it, ignore it, or pretend it isn’t that big of a deal.  The first step is to agree with God that this is sin and to admit that it displeases him.  If we do not go down this path of truth, then we will be forever encrusting our lives with ways of ensuring that no one ever knows.  In fact, much of religious legalism is nothing more than a person piling on the rules in order for others to not see the sin that hides deep within.  Turning from the sin and receiving the grace of forgiveness of Jesus Christ is the only true and real path to spiritual wholeness and happiness in life.

            Results that satisfy us do not necessarily satisfy God.  David accomplished what he wanted:  he covered up his sin and got the woman he wanted.  But God saw the whole thing and was not okay with any of it.  We cannot simply assume that because we do something and there was no immediate lightning strike that it was okay.  It does not matter if it happened yesterday, last month, or twenty years ago.  If we did not deal with the sin, God is not satisfied because he wants to dispense grace and he cannot give love and see a flourishing of the soul if we keep putting things out-of-sight out-of-mind.  To only satisfy ourselves is being a spiritual cannibal who eats other people alive.

            Outward success means little to God if the inward state of the church leadership and its members is a vacuous soul, bereft of the authentic spiritual connection of determining God’s intentions for a particular course of action.  Sin is not something to simply be managed; it is to be put to death through the cross of Christ and applied to life through intentional spiritual practices meant to genuinely connect with God.  To do less is to wander into a morass of consequences that damage people.  So, let us do the work of soul care so that the church will thrive in the grace of God in Christ.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

We Belong to God

We belong to God.  Let that statement sink in and saturate your soul with grace.  The Bible is a “covenant” document giving us the stipulations of how we can have a belonging with God.  Covenant is how God has chosen to communicate to us, to redeem us, and to guarantee us eternal life in Jesus.  These truths, revealed in the Bible, are the basis of Christianity.   The Old and New Testaments are really Old and New Covenants.  The word "testament" is Latin for “covenant”.  When God makes a covenant with his people, it means that he gives them promises of what he will do, and, in turn, has moral expectations or ethical responsibilities for the people to follow. 

The ancient world operated on a covenant system.  A nation or empire would conquer a city or territory and set up a covenant in which the conqueror would promise protection, certain provisions, and leave a military presence among them.  In turn, the conquered people would be required to offer things like allegiance and tribute.  In the Bible, God made a covenant with Abraham and promised that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him.  The only stipulation that God gave to Abraham was to leave his home and begin a new life in the land he would show him.  God continued to work through Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites, and made them a people for his own Name who would be a kingdom of priests, testifying to the nations through a lifestyle of having God the center of all they do in embodying the Ten Commandments – being a holy people, reflecting the holiness of God.

The difference between earthly covenants and God’s covenant is that God steeps his covenant in love and grace.  God cares about his covenant because in his dealings with his people, he is concerned to reveal who he is to them so that they can relate to him and flourish as human beings.

            God never forgets nor reneges on his covenant promises.  For example, God clarified his covenant by giving King David a dynasty, a never-ending kingdom, a temple, and a father/son relationship with his progeny.  Furthermore, he promised that his love (Hebrew “chesed”) would never be taken away (2 Samuel 7:1-17).  This is my favorite word in the entire Bible.  It is translated in various ways as love, grace, kindness, and compassion.  It refers to God’s steadfast covenant loyalty to his people – that he will not fail to show continuous love to his people, even when they might go astray.  Unlike the nations of the earth, unlike the fickle nature of people, unlike the inconsistent commitment of others, God stands alone as a Being who in his very nature is love and continues to be gracious.

            All the good promises given to Abraham, to the Israelites through Moses, and to David are all fulfilled in the person of Jesus Christ.  In the New Testament, the New Covenant, the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are soaked in the language and explanation that Jesus is the Son of David.  He is the Promised One, the Savior, Lord, Teacher, and Healer that will save the people from their sins and bring them to a spacious kingdom full of the grace and love that characterizes God.  Through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ we are brought into union with God and participate fully in all the promises of the New Covenant – a Covenant that has its main stipulation of love.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself.  All this talk of love is because God himself is a God that is love personified in Christ.

            The way the world is going to know that there is a God in heaven is through chesed, grace.  God has not called us to yell louder than the culture; he has not told that we are to work to get our way in everything within society.  Instead, he calls us to be gracious.  Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful….  Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity.  Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone (Colossians 4:2-6).

            The most gracious truth we can ever know and bank our lives upon is that we belong to God.  Our primary identity is not in a club, church membership, or even our biological family; our most fundamental identity is as a child of God, created in his image and belonging to him in Christ.  God’s covenant with us has become the mechanism that assures us of that belonging.  One can never be reminded too often of God’s covenant loyalty that is by sheer grace.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Taking Sides?

            I have purposely avoided writing about the SCOTUS decision concerning same-sex marriage.  One reason is that it seems everybody and their brother has already written about it.  There are already many good, as well as just plain crazy blog posts and articles about it.  But the biggest reason I have steered clear of joining in the chorus of voices is that I have not wanted to have a label put on me of either pro or against, being pressed and mobilized for war against “the other.”

            We live in such a polarized political and religious climate that it seems all people want to know is what side you are on, as if reducing a group of people to a position is even healthy or reasonable, not to mention biblical. There is a lot of information and even more misinformation floating around concerning the implications for church ministry about political and judicial decisions that I am not even going to begin tackling it.  Instead, I am going to mention a different angle:  this incessant and constant need for war.  No, I am not talking about physical wars between nations.  I am talking about this continual impulse among churches and Christians to always be fighting about something.

            We have a culture war, worship wars, battles for the Bible, us versus them, taking sides.  It is as if the aisle down the middle of the church building was meant to perpetually divide Christians over issues.  Here in the United States, the fundamentalist/modernist controversy of one-hundred years ago solidified a strain of Christians who think it their duty and responsibility to always be fighting.  It is as if the Scopes Monkey Trial were still in session, with Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan still alive and contending for the hearts and minds of American Christians.  It is no wonder that hymns like Onward Christian Soldiers were written and composed in an era that was defined by churches demonizing one another as either liberal or conservative.

            Not much has changed.  We might live at the speed of light when it comes to innovations in technology and changes in philosophy, but we are still fighting the same old battles, believing that we must take sides.  But if we are going to stand up for something, let us contend for the faith and uphold the inherent image of God in all people in the way of mercy, purity, and peace-making (Matthew 5:7-9).  The manner and disposition of how churches and Christians address issues is not to be a war with winners and losers, with people who get their way and those who do not.

            When Timothy had to engage the culture and the church, the Apostle Paul gave him this advice: “Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth.  Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly” (2 Timothy 2:15-16).  Timothy did not have a right to be obnoxious, spew angry vitriol, or develop a persecution complex; he had a responsibility to carefully, patiently, and graciously teach the Word of God and live the way of life he learned from his mentor Paul.

            War only detracts from what God wants to do in the way he wants it done.  There is an entire culture, society, and world in desperate need of the good news of forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and not the bad news that they are the wrong side of the culture war and need to adopt a set of either conservative principles or liberal agendas.  Instead, let us as churches and Christians proclaim the gospel of Jesus with tender-hearted compassion and with wise words and loving actions that are consistent with being people redeemed from the need to war over everything we don’t like.  God is Sovereign, and he is perfectly capable of asserting his own lordship over creation, the nations, and the church.  It is not our job to do it for him. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

God Cares About Worship

            The presence of God is both comforting and dangerous.  His holiness is like a fire, giving us light and warmth; but get too close to the flame and you will get burned, even destroyed.  The following statement should perhaps be obvious, but nevertheless needs to be said explicitly:  We as the church of Jesus Christ do not get to tell God what we are to be doing and how to go about it.  We have collective promises and blessings given to us as God’s people; but at the same time we have individual responsibilities to know the will of God and do it in the way he prescribes to do it (see 2 Samuel 6).

            God cares about his worship.  If we worship any old way we want without consideration of how God wants it done, or if we just critically watch worship without engaging in it, then the only thing we have to anticipate is the displeasure, even the judgment of God.  But if we will pay attention to God and his Word and are careful to do what God wants in the way he wants it done, then we will enjoy his divine stamp of approval.

            The church is first and foremost a worshiping community of redeemed persons through the blood of Christ, which are given to the world in order to glorify God before them.  1 Chronicles 16 gives an account of David’s worship service in bringing the ark to Jerusalem, which included a psalm of thanksgiving to God that he wrote himself to be sung by Asaph and his associates, the worship leaders.  Here is part of that psalm:

Sing to the LORD, all the earth; proclaim his salvation day after day.  Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.  For great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods.  For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the LORD made the heavens.  Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and joy in his dwelling place.  Ascribe to the LORD, O families of nations, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength, ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name.  Bring an offering and come before him; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness (1 Chronicles 16:23-29).

After the worship service, after the psalm had been sung by Asaph and the singers, the text says that all the people said ‘Amen’ and ‘Praise the LORD. But this was not the end.

            It goes on to say: David left Asaph and his associates before the ark of the covenant of the LORD to minister there regularly, according to each day’s requirements.  He also left Obed-Edom and his sixty-eight associates to minister with them….  David left Zakok the priest and his fellow priests before the tabernacle of the LORD to present burnt offerings to the LORD regularly, morning and evening.  And the text goes on to name the people who would be in charge of the musical instruments.

            Here’s the deal:  David instituted that in Israel the worship of God was to take place every day – not just one day a week.  What is more, David hired hundreds of musicians, singers, and worship leaders to minister before the Lord every single day, twice a day.  Most American Christians today do not even worship every Sunday, let alone every day.  While almost 40% attend church, on any given Sunday, only 17% of Americans are actually in church on Sunday.  That means that not only are fewer people worshiping together, the ones that do are doing it more infrequently.  American Christians might bemoan the morality and lack of spirituality in our nation, but when we as God’s people have no intention of being a worshiping community, then, we have nowhere else to look but our own individual lives and our own local church.  What is more, every conceivable instrument and voice was used to praise God in worship.  New songs were written continually by David, and arranged by Asaph, the lead worship person. 

While we have our plans and conceive of our ideas for our lives, God is waiting for us to worship him each and every day.  We might think of spending some time each morning when we arise, and each evening at bedtime, in worship doing the following spiritual practices, even if in brief:  remembering God, and who we are; singing to him; confessing sin; claiming forgiveness; reading the Word of God; and, prayer.  If we all devoted ourselves to worship in such a way, then we might begin to imagine God opening to us blessing upon blessing.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Need for Lament, Part 2

We all accumulate a host of losses over the course of a lifetime.  Many of them are small losses; some of them are devastating losses.  The death of children, disability, rape, abuse, cancer, infertility, suicide, and betrayal are all examples of crushing loss – losses that need to experience lament.  All these losses are irreversible; we cannot return to how things once were.  We must push forward by grieving each loss.  And as we lurch ahead we cling to these words from Holy Scripture:  Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail.  They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness (Lamentations 3:22-23).

            So, how do we lament our losses in a healthy way?  Here is what the prophet Jeremiah did in the book of Lamentations:
  1. Jeremiah remembered his afflictions and his losses.  We need to avoid superficial repentance and forgiveness.  We must own and feel the pain of the loss before we can begin to offer a mature forgiveness.
  2. Jeremiah paid attention to faith, hope, and love.  This can only be done if we are alert to the process of grieving.  Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was the person who identified the famous five stages of grief:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and resolution/acceptance.  We rarely move neatly through each stage.  The important thing is that we get to the place of seeing God’s committed love to us not just in spite of the suffering but because of it.
  3. Jeremiah did not minimize his pain and suffering.  We must sit with our pain.  Do not sluff off a loss by saying others have it worse, or that it is nothing.  Year after year many Christians do not confront the losses of life, minimizing their failures and disappointments.  The result is a profound inability to face pain, and has led to shallow spirituality and an acute lack of compassion.
  4. Jeremiah prophesied about how Jesus grieved.  His message predicted what Jesus faced in his passion.  The prophet Isaiah described the Messiah as a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).  Peter Scazzero, in his book The Emotionally Healthy Church, points out what Jesus did not say, and what he did say at particular events in his ministry.  At the tomb of Lazarus, Jesus did not say “Come on everyone, stop all this crying” but wept with the people.  When entering Jerusalem, Jesus did not say “too bad guys, I’m moving on without you” but lamented over the city desiring to gather them as a hen does her chicks.  On the cross, Jesus did not say “Lighten up everyone; God is good; he will be victorious!”  But instead said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Hebrews 5:8 tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered.”
Grieving is an indispensable part of a full-orbed spirituality and emotional health.  Life does not always make sense.  There is deep mystery to the ways of God.  The Lord is doing patient and careful work inside of each one of us.  While he is busy within our souls, we will likely feel lost and disconnected, not seeing the full tapestry of what he is creating.  Weariness, loneliness, a sense that prayers are not being heard, and a feeling of helplessness are all common experiences of God’s reconstruction of a broken spirit.

People who have truly lamented their losses are not hard to spot.  They have a greater capacity to wait on God and be patient toward others.  They are kinder and more compassionate.  They lack pretense and are liberated from trying to impress others.  They are comfortable with mystery, not having to be certain about every theological minutiae.  They are humble, gentle, and meek.  They are able to see God not only in the glorious and victorious, but in the mundane, banal, and lowly.  They are more at home with themselves and with God.  People transformed through the power of lament are equipped to live and love others as Jesus did.

            So, then, the church really ought to be the best place on planet earth for people to be open in their grief, find openness in love, and effectively move through a process of lament so that they become mature disciples able to help others with the comfort they have received.  Let us pray toward that end.