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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Monday, June 30, 2008

James 2:18

"But someone will say, You have faith and I have works. Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."

Embedded in this verse is the seed of a doctrine of universal salvation, if you want to look at it a certain way. James is quick to dismiss that possibility because he clearly tells us that faith without works is ineffectual, but just for a moment let's entertain the thought.

He writes, "someone will say...you have 'faith' and I have 'works'." While I have emphasized the way this verse reads to highlight the point I'm about to make, I don't think this emphasis is beyond the text. This text, in fact, seems tailor-made for the culture in which we live today. I can't tell you the number of people I know who would say Jesus is my savior, but that doesn't mean he has to be everyone's savior. The argument is then broadened from salvation being by works or by grace to salvation being via wholly other means. I don't think there are very many buddhists out there who believe Buddha saves them. And there shouldn't be ANY Islamists out there who believe Mohammad is savior. These men were prophets and/or expositors of a religious or philosophical system. There are, they say, many paths to God. Jesus is just one of them.

But there are so many things Jesus said and did that make this argument so improbable.

"I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father but by me."
"I and the Father are one."
"All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me."
"Where 2 or 3 are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them." (spoken before the crucifixion and resurrection)

I just don't think these are the words of someone who intended us to believe there are many paths to God.

But now I'm starting to create an argument. And you can't argue someone into the Kingdom. I can, however, let my works speak for themselves and lead a person to faith! And my faith in Christ certainly can inspire others to good works. And so the principle of faith WITH works comes forward. Both are necessary for salvation.

Jon

Friday, June 27, 2008

James 2:15-17

"If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, Go in peace, be warmed and filled, without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead."

Back in 1981 one of the prophetic voices speaking to the church was a man named Keith Green. Those of you who were born after he died in 1982 in a plane crash may not know his music, but it had that classic ability to speak deeply across the generations. I'm drawn to his interpretation of Matthew 24:31-46 still.

If you want to hear something powerful, call it up on you tube and listen along with the lyrics. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g5wUDgDEOmg). It is called simply,

"The Sheep and the Goats"

And when the Son Man comes, and all the Holy Angels with him,
Then shall he sit on His Glorious throne,
And he will divide the nations before Him,
As a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
And she shall put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left,
And He shall say to the sheep; come ye, blessed of My Father,
inherit the Kingdom I have prepared for you from the foundation of the world,
For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat,
I was thirsty, and you gave me something to drink
I was naked, and you clothed me,
I was a stranger, and you invited me in,
I was sick, and I was in prison, and you came to me.
Thank you! Enter into your rest.

And they shall answer Him, yes, they shall answer Him,
And they'll say, Lord, when?
When were you hungry Lord, and we gave you something to eat?
Lord, when were you thirsty? I can't remember. And we gave you drink?
Huh, when were you naked Lord, and we clothed you?
And Lord, when were you a stranger and we invited you in?
I mean, we invited lots of people in Lord. I could never forget that face.
And Lord, when were you sick and we visited you?
Or in prison, and we came to you? Lord, tell us?
In as much as you did it to the least of my brethren, you've done it unto me.
Oh yes, as much as you've done it to the very least of my brethren,
you've done it, you've done it unto me. Enter into your rest.

Then He shall turn to those on His left, the goats.
Depart from me, you cursed ones, into everlasting fire,
prepared for the devil and his angels.
For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat,
I was thirsty, and you gave me nothing to drink,
I was naked, out in the cold, in exposure, and you sent me away,
I was a stranger, and I knocked at your door,
But you didn't open, you told me to go away,
I was sick, racked in pain upon my bed,
And I begged, and prayed, and pleaded that you'd come, but you didn't,
I was in prison, and I rotted there,
I'd prayed that you'd come.
I heard your programs on the radio, I read your magazines, but you never came.
Depart from me!!!

Lord, there must be some mistake, when?
Lord, I mean, when were you hungry Lord and we didn't give you something to eat?
And Lord, when were you thirsty, and we didn't give you drink?
I mean, that's not fair, well, would you like something now?
Would one of the Angels like to go out and get the Lord a hamburger and a coke?
Oh, you're not hungry, yeah, I lost my appetite too.
Uh Lord uh, Lord, when were you naked,
I mean Lord, that's not fair either Lord,
We didn't know what size you wear.
Oh Lord, when were you a stranger Lord,
You weren't one of those creepy people who used to come to the door, were you?
Oh Lord, that wasn't our ministry Lord. We just didn't feel led, you know?
Lord, when were you sick? What did you have, anyway?
Well, at least it wasn't fatal; oh, it was?
I'm sorry Lord, I would have sent you a card.
Lord, just on last thing we want to know,
When were you in prison Lord? What were you in for anyway?
I had a friend in Leavenworth..

ENOUGH!

In as much as you've not done it unto the least of my brethren,
You've not done it unto me.
In as much as you've not done it unto the least of my brethren,
You've not done it unto me. Depart from Me.
And these shall go away into everlasting fire.
But the righteous into eternal life!

And my friends, the only difference between the sheep
and the goats, according to this scripture,
is what they did, and didn't do!

Jon

Thursday, June 26, 2008

James 2:14

"What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him?"

For years as I was growing up I passed the small chest of drawers in our livingroom. Above it there was a curio cabinet hung on the wall. I never really thought about those two pieces until one day when I was about 20 I sat down on the couch and looked up. There they were. The same two pieces, yet totally different for the moment, revealed in the light of whatever thought I was having as something different -- though not finer -- than they ever had been before.

The juxtaposition of faith and works in James 2:14 is just like that cabinet and chest. I've grown up as a believer casually walking past these words and not giving them much thought beyond what I knew them to be. Faith without works is dead. Standard and understood as part of evangelical thought.

But wait! What is the context of these words? James hasn't been talking about doing good deeds. He hasn't been urging us on to philanthropy or service projects or missions. He's been talking about the most pedestrian thing in the world and yet one of the highest callings of the believer or the lowest sin: favoritism and judgment. If I favor one believer because he is well-dressed, I'm in sin. And if I judge a brother and don't feed him or clothe him or offer him the gospel for his soul I'm in sin. What are the profound works of faith that are necessary for faith to live at all? It isn't your missions trip (or missionary life, for that matter). It isn't your giving away millions of dollars (I Corinthians 13). It isn't the church you built (meaning a building project) or the size of your congregation (if you're a pastor). What is this work that makes faith alive? The little things of daily life.

My faith is most fully alive when I listen to my children and when I take time with the waitress at the coffee shop or the kid who is checking out my groceries whom it has always seemed to me is trying very hard to look and sound gay and "alternative". Do I engage with him as much as with the sweet woman who is the mother of one of my daughter's friends from high school? If I have the chance do I go to her check-out line or his?

As Peter says, "God opposes the proud and gives grace to the humble." God, give me humility to so I don't even have to THINK about the choice. The word "unselfconscious" comes to mind, God. Oh God... help me not to think about the choice but simply to do what you would have me do.

Jon

Monday, June 23, 2008

James 2:13

"For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment."

Here's a chilling verse. Maybe you'd like it better in the King James version (1605... just for the record, but a great piece of scholarship for the time)...
"For he shall have judgment without mercy, that hath shewed no mercy; and mercy rejoiceth against judgment."

Or the New American Standard Bible (1960)
"For judgment will be merciless to one who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment."

Why am I doing this? Because I'm not totally sure what the passage means. Since I'm not a Greek scholar the best way I've got of 'getting it right' is to read the passage is several translations. Once I do that I sometimes take a crack at the literal Greek using Strong's Concordance and a good lexicon. Here's what came out when I tried a literal translation:

"For justice (judicial decision) will be swift and inexorable where there was no swift mercy; (and) mercy exalts itself over judicial decision."

We live in a culture that absolutely hates the idea of "judgment". If there is a biblical montra for this age it is "Don't judge and you won't be judged." But what does the post-modernist mean in saying "don't judge?" I think it ranges from "don't have an opinion about anything I believe" to "don't tell me what you think I should do or how I should behave." But that's not at all what the concept of judgment in the Scriptures is about. The word we're translating as judgment is really "decision" in the sense of a court of law handing down a decision against a plaintiff. The other, namby-pamby-mealy-let's-just-be-nice-to-everyone kind of 'judgment' has no teeth. The reason is that the judgmental person has no power of judgment, in a judicial way, over the person he/she is judging. And I don't care how "nice" of a person you are. We ALL do judge in this way. Even if it is just commenting on the driving habits of the person in the next car, we're 'judging'.

The kind of judgment James is talking about is a judgment-with-bite. In order for someone to hand down a judicial decision one must have authority to execute judgment against the plaintiff. The example James uses of this kind of judgment is the juxtaposition of rich and poor that happens all the time in the church. Those of you who go to churches where folks still "dress up?" What would happen if someone came to church in jeans and a tee shirt? Don't tell me you and your friends would fall all over yourselves to get that person a Bible, a hymnal, and rush to displace Miss Nickerson who always sits in the second row, first seat on the left. And if you did all that for this stranger-than-we'd-like person, how many weeks would THAT go on before you assigned a deacon to tell them in-no-uncertain-terms what the dress-code is here at First Presbaptigationpalian Church. And for you more casual folks who think you've got the dress-code thing conquered, what would you do if someone came in with tattoos or lots of metal? Or what if a gay couple joined you for worship? How long before you offered words of correction? Because the church building is "yours", you are in a position to execute judicial judgment. And you know what? Most of us DO.

Most of us never get the profound honor of entering into a serious discussion with someone whose manner of dress or way of life is far from ours. Why? Because we don't let those people get under our skin. We don't let them become, in the most real sense, our neighbor. So most of us "Christians" don't ever engage with the world because our xenophobic jailhouse keeps us "safe" from all that. We never get to speak the truth with our neighbor (note I didn't say "to") because we don't want to risk being changed or finding ours was the ungodly way. You don't need to stop speaking the whole counsel of God in order to love well. You just have to learn to LISTEN first and SPEAK second.

Now I'M going to shut up and listen...

Jon

PS... here's a challenging link for you from a young voice speaking to the church: www.speaklisten.com

Friday, June 20, 2008

James 2:12

"So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty."

This is a tough passage for us Western-20th/21st century-evangelical-post-modernist Christians to get right. The minute we hear "liberty" we think of Thomas Jefferson's words "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Or we think of civil libertarians, and hear "keep your laws off my body!" "Live and let live," "Do whatever you want as long as it doesn't hurt anyone." But that is not at all what this passage is saying, and it should never be construed to even vaguely take us in that direction.

The "law the brings freedom", quite simply, is what Jesus said in John 8:32, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." The greek word here for free or freedom and for liberty is the same exact word and is used to mean both english equivalents. So it comes to mind that we now need to know what "the truth" is that sets us free. Back to post-modernism, "my truth is not your truth"... "what's true for you"... stuff like that. But what did Jesus say? "I AM the way and the truth and the life" Him. Jesus himself.

But wait. I just said "Jesus". Back to postmodernism. Because today you can make Jesus be anyone you want him to be. I'll cut to the chase here: I'm talking about the second person of the eternal Trinity. Everyone LOVES JEEEEsus. What's not to love? He's a blonde surfer-dude with a real laid-back personality who goes around just loving and accepting everyone and heals and raises the dead and neat crap like that. And other than asking him to be your "savior" (and we're really not sure if there's anything we've done that we need to be saved from, since sin is a non-word in Newspeak), there's nothing he requires of us at all.

Everyone loves Jesus. Not everyone loves the Christ of God. Because, you see, the eternal Christ is the one with whom my soul must deal. And it is not MY definition of sin that counts. It is HIS definition. It is not my definition of truth that is important. It is the Truth that is eternally IN him and by which I will be judged. And it is the law (truth) that brings liberty. How can I say that? Because it is HE who saved me from my sin and who offers me back my freedom in relationship with him. If I will BE in relationship with him he promises me that I will be free.


Jon

Thursday, June 19, 2008

James 2:11

"For he who said, Do not commit adultery, also said, Do not murder. If you do not commit adultery but do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law."

Let's review the 10 suggestions...er... commandments, shall we? There are two ways to view an exercise like this. There's the traditional "western" way of doing it:
1) Thou (notice the 17th c. language)... shalt have no other gods before me
2) Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image
3) Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain
4) Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy
5) Honor thy father and thy mother
6) Thou shalt not kill
7) Thou shalt not commit adultery
8) Thou shalt not steal
9) Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor
10) Thou shalt not covet

I have a friend who recently said, "Don't give me a list. When I see a list I think I have to pick one and let all the others go. So for that friend I have a different way of looking at these:

"Don't ever let anything become so important in your life that it comes before knowing me or causes you to think of my presence (name) lightly or casually. I'm so jealous for time with you I want you to set one whole day of every week aside just so we can be together. In practical matters always do right by your parents, don't take a life unnecessarily, stay faithful in your marriage, and don't take anything that isn't yours or say something about a friend that isn't true or spend any time wishing you had something that isn't yours."

This way it sounds like advice a wise parent might give. The other way it sounds like a list of laws. This way it sounds like the heart's desire of someone who loves you. The other way it sounds like cold statements generated by a legislature. This way I am in relationship and have the opportunity to show love in return. The other way a system is being laid upon me like my dog's invisible fence and a collar is digging into my neck that I'd really love to be rid of if I can.

I think that James' point is that if I insist on turning it into a list this is what I'm asking for: to be judged coldly by cold laws. He also uses logic against me. It really doesn't matter where my dog breaks the electric fence. He can shoot out into the street in broad daylight in front of the house or he can sneak out into the woods behind the house where no one will see him. The effect is the same: he's going to catch it from me when I finally find him. If you really want to be judged by a list it doesn't matter if you had sex out of marriage (a backyard sin, for sure), coveted something that belongs to a friend (sideyard sin), or murdered someone (definitely a frontyard break!), it is all the same. You've broken the whole law.

But when I live in relationship with someone grace is looking them eye-to-eye and being able to say you know that in this one area you're doing something that really hurts me AND I love you. Because I love you, you don't become a zero. The depth of our love keeps us together. See? It doesn't cheapen the offense. It acknowledges sin for what it is and does it unflinchingly and without fear. As John says, "for fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love."

God, grant me the grace to know and to live your commands in the love of our relationship and not in the law of indifference.

Jon

Monday, June 16, 2008

James 2:10

"For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it."

As George Bailey's uncle Billy once said, "This is a pickle George. This IS a pickle."

There are two ways people commonly meet this verse when they encounter it. The first is to claim a blanket absolution of grace: they needed to get a 100% on the test in order to pass it at all. "Mea culpa", they shrug. I'm guilty of transgressing the whole law. But because of the "wonderful grace of Jesus" I don't have to try. I've been given a "pass" because Jesus covered my sins and now I don't have to do a thing differently. And like the character Juan in the old joke about the man who runs for a series of municipal, state, and national offices, they say "I don't got to be good no more" when they finally rise to be president.

The other way people deal with this problematic verse is to become legalists in a desperate attempt to make sure there is nothing, or at least very little God can hold against them in the end. When they sin they are shocked at their own behavior; devastated because somehow this wasn't supposed to happen and they wring their hands like Rex the dinosaur in Toy Story: "Now I've got guilt!" It isn't so much that they really CARE about the law. They care about what's going to happen to them in the end.

I would submit that both ways of meeting this verse are wrong and both are right. The wonderful grace of Jesus DOES cover all my sins and I SHOULD strive with all the might that is in me to live a godly life. But when a deep love for Christ is absent our selfishness takes over and we end in license or law. As James just said, "The royal law -- the law that brings liberty (or freedom) -- is a law of love. And John again reminds us in his first letter that if we don't love our brother whom we have seen we cannot love God whom we have not seen. The very thing that got me into this mess in the first place is my own self-centered heart. I don't WANT to love my brother. I want everyone to love and do for ME. And so I find that I don't want to love God with my whole heart or any other part of my being either.

So I strive and struggle like a small child trying to learn to walk. I don't give up because Daddy is just paces in front of me saying, "That's awesome! Keep trying! Come to Daddy!" And I feel the love and approval of my Father. No guilt. No shame. Do I fail at times? Do I run off course and break things? Sure. But my wise Father keeps picking me back up and standing me in front of him on my wobbly legs.

"Come to Daddy!" And I do.

Jon

Thursday, June 12, 2008

James 2:9

"For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it."

I used to read this passage and feel all sorts of condemnation (which, by the way, Romans 8:1 expressly tells us isn't coming from God). The logic runs like this:

A) The goal of the Christian is to "live the Christian Life"
B) The Christian Life consists of me gaining The Victory (caps intentional) over sin
C) If I live the Christian Life long enough, I should be able to "get it right".

Now, when it comes to point C, most of us (except those extreme Arminians who believe in a doctrine of total sanctification [big word, Glory Hallelujah, can I get an Amen-ah]) would at least give lip service to the idea that we will never get it ALL right. But we really have been trained to "grade" ourselves -- and others -- when it comes to sin and righteousness. The worst of it all is that we play this little evangelical game with ourselves. The truly sanctified among us give ourselves a B+ and think that's good enough. Others of us smite our breasts, give ourselves a C-, and continue to do whatever is making us feel mildly guilty. Still others of us never really can seem to deal with the whole standard of performance thing, don't even try, shrug our shoulders and claim God's grace as the way we're going to "graduate" even though we got an F.

I am a self-conscious lover. In all realms of love from platonic to sexual I am acutely aware of what I'm doing at every turn and grade myself on every interaction. I have spent more time discussing love (with myself and others) in all its aspects and whether I did it right than I ever have actually loving anyone. I'm also very hard on those who profess to love ME. I first noticed this with my father. For years I used to say we didn't have a very good relationship because he didn't know how to love me the way I needed to be loved. The truth is I simply wouldn't LET him love me the way he knew how. I kept giving him a D- in the love department.

Are there things that are right and things that are wrong? Yep. Has God told us most of them or given us the ability to discern what they are? Yep. Then if that standard exists, why isn't it wisdom to apply it? Because of this verse. I might, just possibly, be a "pharisee of pharisees" and DO the whole law in every point. But the minute I become a self-conscious lover and start my critique of how well I and everyone around me performed, I stand condemned.

How about a better way? What would happen if I really, wholistically apply the Shema Israel and just love God with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and let him tell me in His wisdom when I've sinned, not so I can get a better grade but so I can love him more fully? I suppose I'd have to stop grading everyone else too (not much fun in that), but I'd be at peace with God and probably at a greater peace with my neighbor and all my other loves than I've ever been.

Jon

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

James 2:9

"But if you show partiality, you are committing sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors."

Grace is an awful finicky thing.  The real meaning of it eludes us so easily.  It is right to offer someone grace who is in need of it.  But the minute you verbalize that you are offering grace, you're in sin because it is almost impossible to say, "I'm going to offer you grace" and not come off as superior.  When you offer grace to a poor person you're often in sin because you're showing "reverse partiality."  In order to help out the poor so many shun the wealthy (even though they may be wealthy too).    Some have a tendency to show partiality to people they  "like"... people who are the picture of  those deserving of the gospel.  But in doing that they often end up turning a deaf ear to those Jesus is really leading them to.  

I also don't like sinners and have plenty of judgement stored up in my heart for those who disturb my peace and well-being with their sin.   I, of course, attained perfection some time ago and am, therefore, exempt from the mirror of judgement (**lightning bolt fries Jon**).

So I find that the only way I can offer grace without coming under condemnation myself is to simply DO it, and not talk about it.  If I'm really going to love someone it is no good for me to tell them how I love them and then sit in Panera Bread telling a third person how annoying the first person is to me.  The worst thing, of course, is keeping self-righteousness at bay.  Since I am a more evolved being than all the rest of the population, I've gotten pretty good at offering grace and not talking about it (**rumbles of thunder**), but the final evolution would be if I could do the whole thing (offering grace and not talking about it) unselfconsciously.   Oh... and I would actually BE like Jesus if I could add to that some unselfconscious ACTION, like taking that annoying person out to lunch or really paying attention to a friend who is rattling on with some IM thing they're writing.  But maybe because I'm so fully evolved, just philosophizing about it is enough (**ground opens up and swallows Jon and the Prophets of Baal**)

We're sorry, but Jon is no longer available to write The Morning Watch.  In his own words, he has... evolved... to another... form.  

The Editors

"By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?  And they made his rave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth."  Isaiah 53:8-9

Monday, June 9, 2008

James 2:8 Update

For those of you who read my blog and think I've abandoned you... I'm continuing my study in James. I posted James 2:8 this morning, but it somehow showed up as an earlier posting, so look down beyond "Paradigm Shift" and you'll find the continuation of James. More will surely follow.

JC