Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.

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Wednesday, March 26, 2008

James 2:7

"Are they (the rich) not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?"

I am sitting, as I often do, in a diner. On days when I'm not at the office in Boston I like to do my work as much as possible in a diner because I don't like to be alone. So, even when I don't have a mentoring appointment you can often find me in a diner.

One table away there are some women discussing how best to give their now-three-year-old girls the best leg-up on college grants and government handouts. One has identified her daughter as "hispanic" on all the forms, even though she is only one quarter of that ethnic group. Another woman chimes in, "How can I pass off my son?"

I begin reading in James. HOW do the rich blaspheme the name of Christ?

I'm drawn back to the women's conversation.

"We wanted to go to Boston the second weekend, but it is Patriot's Day and the opening of the baseball season, so rooms at the Long Wharf Marriott were going for $499. So we'll go the first weekend when they'll be half that." "We go all the time," said another. And all agreed that Boston is a great place to go for a weekend.

I find myself judging the contradiction I've just heard and thinking they wouldn't NEED to look for government handouts for the kids' college if they weren't spending so much on hotels and trips and such.

Like I'm one to talk! I find the same contradiction in me: I want the world's goods... I crave the best of everything... I love a beautiful hotel, a good steak, a night at the symphony or the ballpark, a great Italian meal in the North End. What then is it that bothers me about these women? Ah! I see myself in them, and my tendency to forget the Lord so quickly and follow after other gods when my impulses softly caress my heart.

Dickens' Scrooge has a moment that might have provided the same sort of self-revelation. The Ghost of Christmas Past has taken him to see the end of a courtship. His betrothed speaks kindly and lovingly to him. Her rebuke is just:

"It matters little," she said, softly. "To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve."

"What Idol has displaced you?" he rejoined.

"A golden one."

"This is the even-handed dealing of the world!" he said. "There is nothing on which it is so hard as poverty; and there is nothing it professes to condemn with such severity as the pursuit of wealth!"

"You fear the world too much," she answered, gently. "All your other hopes have merged into the hope of being beyond the chance of its sordid reproach. I have seen your nobler aspirations fall off one by one, until the master-passion, Gain, engrosses you. Have I not?"

"What then?" he retorted. "Even if I have grown so much wiser, what then? I am not changed towards you."

She shook her head.

"Am I?"

"Our contract is an old one. It was made when we were both poor and content to be so, until, in good season, we could improve our worldly fortune by our patient industry. You are changed. When it was made, you were another man."

"I was a boy," he said impatiently.

"Your own feeling tells you that you were not what you are," she returned. "I am. That which promised happiness when we were one in heart, is fraught with misery now that we are two. How often and how keenly I have thought of this, I will not say. It is enough that I have thought of it, and can release you."

"Have I ever sought release?"

"In words? No. Never."

"In what, then?"

"In a changed nature; in an altered spirit; in another atmosphere of life; another Hope as its great end. In everything that made my love of any worth or value in your sight. If this had never been between us," said the girl, looking mildly, but with steadiness, upon him; "tell me, would you seek me out and try to win me now? Ah, no!"

He seemed to yield to the justice of this supposition, in spite of himself. But he said with a struggle," You think not?"

"I would gladly think otherwise if I could," she answered, "Heaven knows. When I have learned a Truth like this, I know how strong and irresistible it must be. But if you were free to-day, to-morrow, yesterday, can even I believe that you would choose a dowerless girl -- you who, in your very confidence with her, weigh everything by Gain: or, choosing her, if for a moment you were false enough to your one guiding principle to do so, do I not know that your repentance and regret would surely follow? I do; and I release you. With a full heart, for the love of him you once were."

Oh! I would become a confirmed Arminian! For in my heart when I cast God as the fiancee and myself as Scrooge I tearfully realize my own lust for "other things". I 'blaspheme' the good name of Christ in the same way Scrooge blasphemed his girlfriend's good name by calling her betrothed and beloved when his heart was far from the passion of those words. And I thank God he has more patience with us than we have with each other! Thank God he refuses to release US with a full heart for love of what we once were when our passion burned for love of Him alone!

What sadness... to be rich in the things of this world: money, friends, sex, beauty, food, wine, and be so poor toward Christ! Wasn't Lewis right when he said we turn to Him, finally, when "there is 'nothing better' now to be had?"

Jon

Monday, March 17, 2008

James 2:6

"But you have dishonored the poor man. Are not the rich the ones who oppress you, and the ones who drag you into court? Are they not the ones who blaspheme the honorable name by which you were called?"

When I came into the office this morning... wow, it feels good to say "I came into the office", since I spent 25 years of my career with a home office... I sat down at my desk and had a brief conversation with my co-worker Jack. We're both in the same boat, really. Jack and I both "work for" Vision New England. But VNE is a missions organization. To work for VNE is to raise your own funds to support your part of the ministry. Like I said, Jack and I started to talk about our efforts in fund-raising and we agreed first that asking for money is one of the harder parts of what we do. The second thing we agreed on is that we simply can't concern ourselves with who is giving or how much when it comes to the outworking of our ministry.

There is a great temptation when you are at the mercy of people with money to lean a little in their direction when it comes to offering your time, attention, and affection. This doesn't happen just in the church. In politics they have a word for it: Influence peddling. That's why political campaigns that accept money from lobbyists are automatically seen as suspect when it comes to their objectivity about the thing the lobbyist supports. If politicians need to be careful about this kind of thing, so much more do we who give ourselves to the ministry of Jesus need to take care to offer Christ not just free of charge, but free of personal strings attached.

I know that James was talking specifically about those who are poor and wealthy in financial terms when he wrote this passage, but Jesus spoke about another kind of poor person: those who are poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3). I have so often shown preference to those who are wealthy in social -- what I perceive wrongly as spiritual -- terms. Here is a person who quite simply attracts. They are the social equivalent of Warren Buffett. Money just seems to come to him. People just seem to flock to certain types of people. This kind of rich person is talented or witty or good looking or just fun at parties. They are usually a bit narcissistic, but no matter, we like them. The problem is that generally they are not the ones who suffer a need of God. They can't be bothered.

I had a young man who wanted to be part of my ministry group years ago who, when I asked him if he was a Christian said, "Yea. God is cool with me." As a teen he was always surrounded by a bevy of girls vying for his attention. What wasn't to like? He had long, well groomed hair, a nice personality, an engaging smile, AND he was an awesome guitarist. The road for him to really give his life to Christ was long and winding. It was years before he finally really gave himself to the Lord. He was just too engaged with being rich to be bothered by how poor he was.

This kind of young person is a burden for a discipler like myself. I will confess freely: I'm a bad judge of character when it comes to someone like this. The reason is that I find myself drawn to this kind of person just like everyone else. I find myself needing to be needed by them. I guess I figure that if I can reach the star of the show, everyone else will follow. But this is such a lie. It isn't their fault. They're just saddled with the wealth of who they are. And their wealth ends up oppressing me. Meanwhile there are so many "poor" people -- really rather rich in the things of God -- who are so grateful to be included. I'm thinking here of one of the guys I share a Bible study with weekly right now. There is, for sure, a great deal of affirmation I receive every time we meet for study. I believe he gets that same thing from me. But the overpoweringly deep work that God is doing in his heart as he receives the Word? THAT is the thing that makes me want to go out of my way to make sure I don't miss our appointments. He isn't a star. In fact he's someone that goes unnoticed by most of his friends. That's because he is sincere, faithful, kind, generous, and other-minded. He doesn't play the star game. And so, in his poorness in the world he is becoming rich in faith.

God, forgive me for focusing on the wrong people. I know ALL need your love and forgiveness. But forgive me for thinking and spending more time on the ones who seem the most put-together, the most beautiful, the wealthiest in the things of this world. I pray for them that you will break into their lives and use someone who is oh-so-not-impressed with them to reach them with the gospel. Send me instead, God, to those who are poor. Through those relationships I pray you would end my poverty toward you and draw me near to what your heart values.

Jon

Thursday, March 13, 2008

James 2:5

"Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?"

I think this verse falls under the category of what Tim Keller calls God's "best practices". It is a general principle that this is so. It is not always so. There are plenty of financially successful people who are quite rich in faith. There are also lots of poor people out there who never really grow in faith. I'm also not comfortable here with the idea of self-denial being equal to intentionally shunning the world's goods. We live in a real world and there are realities we need to be aware of.

Those of us in the West live in one cultural/economic reality. People in rural Russia, for instance, live an a completely different reality. That having been said, I think it takes a whole lot more work for me in my reality to become rich in the things of God because I am encumbered by so much of the world's distractions. Even writing this blog I find myself distracted by all the other 'stuff' on my screen and the IMs from people wanting my attention. do you know how hard it is for a computer addict to turn off their IM?

A subsistence farmer may have to work hard through all the daylight hours, yes. But they often have a very rich home life that we in modern America somehow lack. I'm reminded of the Welsh coal miners who, in an effort to deal with the boredom of their task, sang hymns in the mines. Their devotion to God caused a major revival in the late 1800s and the Welsh hymn
-singing societies, the Cymanfa Ganu (pronounced: Ga-man-va Gan-ee) are a 150 year old outgrowth of that time. These were some of the most financially strapped people in western culture in their day. They did some of the most physically demanding and dangerous work on earth. Yet they were people with a rich faith, folk, and family life.

I am not here calling for some sort of new monasticism. Nor do I think we should all 'sell all and give to the poor'. But honestly... if your SUV is costing you too much to maintain -- and I don't mean because of the price of gas -- if your 60 inch plazma TV costs you too much of the things of God, get rid of it.

Jon

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

James 2:2-4

"For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, You sit here in a good place, while you say to the poor man, You stand over there, or, Sit down at my feet, have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?"

I submit for your consideration the story of the Lost Son from Luke 15:

"11And he said, There was a man who had two sons.
12 And the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me. And he divided his property between them.
13 Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living.
14 And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need.
15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs.
16 And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.
17 “But when he came to himself, he said, How many of my father's hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!
18 I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you.
19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants.
20 And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him.
21 And the son said to him, Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.
22 But the father said to his servants, Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet.
23 And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate.
24 For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to celebrate.
25 “Now his older son was in the field, and as he came and drew near to the house, he heard music and dancing.
26 And he called one of the servants and asked what these things meant.
27 And he said to him, Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf, because he has received him back safe and sound.
28 But he was angry and refused to go in. His father came out and entreated him,
29 but he answered his father, Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.
30 But when this son of yours came, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him!
31 And he said to him, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours.
32 It was fitting to celebrate and be glad, for this your brother was dead, and is alive; he was lost, and is found."

Now clearly the father in the story was a wealthy man. He had robes and rings and everything this world can offer. When the Lost Son comes home he is no doubt wearing rags. The Faithful Son has remained at home dressed as he always was: in the garb of a wealthy heir. How does the Father pull these two ends together? He treats the two identically. The son wearing rags is no less a son to him than the one wearing finery. The son who had squandered his Dad's money; who had consorted with prostitutes; who had become a drunk and a rake is considered no less of a son than the other. And take note of how the press and most of the public are treating Gov. Spitzer of New York. I have yet to hear one voice suggest coming alongside this man to offer grace, counsel, and love as an alternative to political execution. If I had any power over the process he's now going through, I think I might try that route first.

Our sonship is not dependent on our behavior. It is creational. it is incarnational. The agape love God has for us does not "come upon us". It is eternal. It is created in us before the foundation of the world. This is designed to prevent exactly the situation James highlights in vs 2-4. If we would offer agape love to one another we would see that the situation I happen to be in in life has nothing to do with you receiving me into the fellowship because God has already declared his profound love and acceptance of me.

Wait a second. I hear a knock at the door.

Never mind. It was just one of those horrible beggars.

Jon

Monday, March 3, 2008

James 2:1

"My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory."

There's a truth about the gospel that always makes it hard to know what to do. Pretty much everything in Christ turns the world's model upside-down. Someone once said that the effect of the Fall was to reverse the plan of God for man and that in Christ God reversed the reversal. And so, having said that, I ask the question: doesn't God show partiality? Didn't Jesus show partiality when he selected his disciples? Hasn't God showed partiality all down through the ages? You know... what's with the idea of Israel being the "chosen people" if that's not partiality?

Ah yes! But look at WHO God seems to choose:

"For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God."

Some of the most effective pastors I know shepherd churches under 100 in membership. Who is to say what a great work of God is? Can it be that there may be more value in the eyes of God to someone who is basically a "street person" -- "down on their luck" -- than the CEO of Exxon? This isn't to say that there aren't some wonderful people of faith with great sums of money at their command. Rather it is a general principle that in the gospel God shows no partiality and that often his way of leveling the field is by giving to the poor, the humble, the lowly the greater part of his Spirit to offer to others.

God, help me to be that person today! As the hymn says,

Take my life, and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee.
Take my moments and my days; let them flow in ceaseless praise.
Take my hands, and let them move at the impulse of Thy love.
Take my feet, and let them be swift and beautiful for Thee.

Take my voice, and let me sing always, only, for my King.
Take my lips, and let them be filled with messages from Thee.
Take my silver and my gold; not a mite would I withhold.
Take my intellect, and use every power as Thou shalt choose.

Take my will, and make it Thine; it shall be no longer mine.
Take my heart, it is Thine own; it shall be Thy royal throne.
Take my love, my Lord, I pour at Thy feet its treasure store.
Take myself, and I will be ever, only, all for Thee.

Jon