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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Thursday, July 31, 2008

James 3:2

"For we all stumble in many ways, and if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. "

I find it interesting what the Scriptures define as "perfect". Or maybe I should say I find it interesting how ready WE are to accept our own preconceived notions of what words mean. It doesn't take much digging to really understand the Scriptures. To reference 3:1, I think the way we who teach will be strictly judged is when we fail to really dig. And there is a greater responsibility in this technological age because we have so much more good scholarship available to us than even one generation ago.

When I was just starting out as a Christian I remember sitting in the living room of the leader of a Bible study I was attending. They pulled out several books they were using to do research. What they produced proved to be a huge breakthrough for me in Biblical understanding. That day I took the brochure for Christian Book Distributors (CBD) and DROVE from Connecticut to Delaware in order to get to a Christian book warehouse where I could purchase Strong's Exhaustive Concordance, Bauer/Arndt/Gingrich's Lexicon of Greek Words, a greek New Testament, and a newly published book that was a New Testament keyed to 4 or 5 of these study texts. I was set. It all cost me probably $200 in 1977 money. Today, if you purchase a $20 copy of the ESV Bible you get a free link to Bible software that does everything I just shared and about five times more. So we have no excuse for not understanding biblical language. I STILL don't read or understand much Greek or Hebrew. And I'm a pastor.

Okay, back to the text. The word being used here for "perfect" is teleios, which is often referenced as the root word for what Jesus said as he hung on the cross: "It is finished" -- teleo. The word bears the connotation of fullness or completeness, not so much the idea of perfection the way you and I might think of it. Here in James it is probably more accurate to say that if someone doesn't stumble in what he says he is "mature" (think of corn when it is ready to pick).

For years I had a problem. It was tied to personal insecurity and immaturity. In personal discussion or when meeting new people I would become so inwardly nervous about how I was to be viewed that I would end up saying outrageous things. I once told a bartender he was ugly because I was nervous about how to impress the girl was with. What a geek, you say. Perhaps, but the real problem was that I hadn't learned how to bridle my tongue. That was never a problem in my teaching of Scripture. THERE I was confident. THERE I knew who I was. You know... the only place I still revert to that kind of unbridled talk is when I'm on AIM chatting with people. What a great leveler of people IM is! We ALL become jerks on instant message.

Paul says to Timothy "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth. But avoid irreverent babble, for it will lead people into more and more ungodliness." What is maturity if not knowing what to say and when to say it? Tim Keller has a whole audio series out on Wisdom, mostly using materials from Proverbs. I recommend it highly. You can find it at www.redeemer.com. Keller defines wisdom as "competence with respect to the 80% of life where the rules don't apply." It isn't in the exegesis of Scripture that we falter first. It is in the exegesis of our LIFE that we get it wrong. We don't rightly interpret the mysteries of God as displayed in our own being and so we misread the signals. We know we want food, so we become gluttons. We enjoy a drink with our friends and so become drunkards in the name of "fun". Our body is telling us we want sex and so we elevate that impulse to the highest place in our life and become addicted to our impulses in all sorts of ways. And we let our tongue have free reign in our life because we think we're simply being "direct". And I'm not talking about unbelievers here. I'm talking about what whores we are as Christians with respect to Him who is the lover of our souls.

When will we become mature? The world is dying for a church filled with people whose first love really IS Jesus.

Jon

Monday, July 21, 2008

James 3:1

"Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness."

Aw maaaaaaan. I'm just not feelin' this verse. That's like a real bummer, man. The dude is like messin' with my head. 'Cause like, maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan... dudes don't want The Rev. to be all starchy and hung up and all. They want the boss-man to be chill and cool and into the groove like everyone else.

Okay. Well... maybe not.

Actually, the word "teacher" here is didaskalos. I've heard this passage used to suggest that pastors are held to a higher standard by God than the people of the congregation. Using the test we have been working with (remember the five solas) we know this can't be the case. There is no hierarchy in heaven. ALL will be judged solely on the merits of Christ. But that doesn't save them from being greater targets in the courts of the human tongue!

Jesus railed against the Pharisees, calling them "blind guides" and saying that once they found a convert they made them "twice as fit for hell" as they themselves were. Again, with a nod to Lewis' Screwtape, there is no lowerarchy in hell. You don't actually receive a more severe punishment for being really bad. The reward is the same: the wages of sin (any, all, one, several) is death. But ah! When Jesus publicly called out the Pharisees for their error it was a great example of the particularly potent form of judgment that only He whose counsel is in the heavens with God could offer. For Jesus was in a position to offer that legal decision and find them wanting. And all who presume to teach the doctrine of the faith to others need to understand that their work will be scrutinized and guard their tongues carefully to be sure they are properly representing God.

Jon

Friday, July 18, 2008

James 2:26

"For as the body apart from the spirit is dead, so also faith apart from works is dead. "

One of the saddest things to see or experience is when a person intentionally disconnects from the One who gives them life. This shows up first in a denial of gifting. I have known several young worshipers -- people for whom worship is more than just an activity -- who have placed other loves above their first love. The first "tell" that they're not where they were designed to be is that they stop singing. They (or I, and I'll get to this in a second) start off by saying something that sounds intellectual and oh-so-mature like, "I've moved beyond that."

What? You moved beyond breathing?

A quick look at the Greek of this sentence reveals it. Another way of wording the first clause is, "As the slave apart from the breath is dead..." This is a different word for "slave" than we're used to. A household servant was a "doulos." This is a person whose position in society made them subservient to those over them. They were alive completely apart from their master, they simply had no rights to do what they liked or go where they wanted. But a "soma" was nothing more than a machine. The car without an engine is just a body (soma); the computer without a hard drive is just a body (soma); a clock case without works is just a body (soma), and I can direct my doulos (slave) to install an engine, a hard drive, a clock works into the bodies of these slave devices. See?

I enjoy conducting choirs, but that's not my breath, it is not my spirit. I can walk away from conducting anytime I want and not feel much of a loss. But when I walked away from pastoring on a regular basis it had the effect of silencing my spirit. I didn't notice it at first. I could get something of the same feeling from going to worship and singing. Jama noticed long ago that when I was just "in" the congregation I always sang louder than everyone else -- like I was showing off. Compensating is more like it.

I was gifted to be a pastor and within that gifting God uses me in a few very specific ways: to lead others into worship, to preach the Word, to disciple and mentor others. When we Christians talk about "gifting" we might as well say "breathing". I intentionally shut Musicon down in May, 2006 because I saw that God was bringing that ministry to an end. But I was also mad at God (didn't know it) because he had brought it to an end. I breathed that ministry. It was natural to me. Doing it used all of my spiritual breath (gifts). The mistake I made was that I couldn't see beyond that one expression. So I repeatedly said "no" to other forms of ministry. I continued to mentor. But I was cynical toward the organized church. THEY weren't doing it like we did. But in the absence of the framework of worship and preaching my mentoring has been pretty wobbly. In retrospect I'd have to say it was because I just didn't want to move on. I couldn't conceive of life after Musicon. And it has taken me two years to come back in sync with where my breath lies. You can say that "works" don't save us, and academically and theologically you'd be right. But God has wired us to breathe. He has hard-wired our bodies (soma) for spirit (pneuma)! Without that breath our body is only a shell.

Have you ever been thrown into a pond or pool and didn't have time to take a proper breath? I once voluntarily got onto a "water slide" (diabolus machinae, if you ask me). It was basically a drain pipe the evil masterminds at "Action Park" had put up on a hill about half a mile away from where it was going to dump you out. It looked innocent enough to me. The thing I wasn't prepared for was that it "dumped" you about 20 feet above the water. Not being a swimmer of much skill, when I hit the water it totally took my breath away. I became disoriented and tried to breathe under water. Not a great idea. On instinct I shot straight up for what seemed like an eternity. When my head finally cleared waterline I was gasping, choking, sputtering... but I was breathing. Glorious, sweet, clear, AIR.

These past months I've been more and more aware of a suffocating feeling gathering around me. I've been under water trying to breathe. God has been building in me a desire -- no! A desperation for the sweet air of his spirit. I'm coming to believe that he has been saving this little church in New Hampshire for me. And I expect that the sign from God that this is the next move in ministry for Jama and me will be that I won't just go willingly or obediently. For God has cleared out all the cynicism and pride that twenty-five years in "para-church" ministry had left me. And while I know that no place is perfect and there will be challenges galore leading this new church, I expect the sign of His call to me will be the feeling of breathing glorious, sweet, clear, AIR.

Jon

Thursday, July 17, 2008

James 2:24

"You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone."

I want to suggest a dangerous thought about biblical interpretation and see how it plays. For years (and I don't really know how many... could be all the way back to the Reformation) we have been taught to accept that everything in the Bible is "true." When we say it that way most of us assume that means that everything found in the Scriptures is somehow the way God wanted it. But let's examine that for a second.

Assuming that all of the events recorded in the Bible actually happened as reported, and I have no reason to assume otherwise, with the possible exception that Job may be allegorical and not historical, that takes care of one meaning of the word "true." It is therefore true that Jacob had two wives and two other lovers who bore him a total of 12 sons (and probably as many daughters, we'll never know). But does/did God approve that kind of behavior? It is also true that there was a very strict code in Old Testament law about not eating shrimp or pork. Am I disobeying God when I enjoy those foods? This level of "true" is things that are placed, as the writer of Hebrews says, "for our instruction," though not for our obedience.

There's a third batch of things that are "true," and the present verse is, I believe, an example of just such a thing. If we miss the understanding of how to read these things it will seriously mess up our faith. It is true that James wrote "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone." But that doesn't make the doctrine of justification by faith alone hogwash. Ask the question: Is the statement something to itself build a doctrine on? Do we Christians generally accept sola fide as a tenant of our faith? Yes. But we also generally act as if the exact opposite was true. Why? Because somewhere deep inside we know that it would be as great a sham for us to declare faith in Christ and not live it out as if two people "married" and never ever had sex, or if someone bought a car but just left it in the driveway and walked even though they had the car right there. Though I'll admit that with gasoline prices where they are that is tempting, but isn't all that practical.

I am compelled to say that, while true, I can't build a sound doctrine off of either this verse OR a verse like Titus 3:5 "he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit." I have to balance the two -- even search the Scriptures for other verses that add depth to the doctrine. Only then will I be on firm ground.

Jon

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

James 2:23

"and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness—and he was called a friend of God."

Abraham took a proposition about God and acted upon it.

Isaiah 41:8-10
But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
you whom I took from the ends of the earth,
and called from its farthest corners,
saying to you, You are my servant,
I have chosen you and not cast you off;
fear not, for I am with you;
be not dismayed, for I am your God;
I will strengthen you, I will help you,
I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.

At the beginning of Isaiah 41:8 God addresses his Israel and then, half a sentence later, addresses them as Jacob. He is reminding his people of the name-change from "One who supplants" to "Wrestles with God." It was IN Jacob's wrestling -- in finally engaging with God in a physical way -- that Jacob's future is formed. Then he addresses them as offspring of Abraham. The play on the change from Abram (exalted father) to Abraham (father of many nations) is evident. And God's sovereign choice of us to be his people is shown in the passage; and we are told not to fear; and we are promised strength, help, and support (an allusion to the Trinity, I think: strength=father, help=holy spirit, support=son). James is saying that "Abraham believed God"="Abraham moved when God told him."

What do I do? I so often sit, frozen in fear because I can't quite make the leap from Jacob to Israel, from Abram to Abraham. And so I find it is safer to sit on my couch and let everything fall apart (or not) around me than to act decisively because I am sure that God is my father and I am beloved. Will I ever come to the place where he calls me his friend?

Jon

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

James 2:22

"You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works;"

Sometimes I think theologians "overthink" passages like this. I've been sitting here staring at this for the longest time trying to make it say something profound. Really all it says is that faith requires an action in order for it to be anything more than theoretical. By implication it is also saying that you wouldn't be tempted to call something you do to a "work" unless you were a believer.

The first statement is easy: you wouldn't even bother to own a TV unless you believed in radio waves. But just believing in radio waves and owning a TV won't get you any closer to receiving the information that's available on the tube. What gets you the information is a "work" -- getting out of your chair and turning the darned thing on! Well... actually... these days you can use the remote. But it is still a "work" motivated by faith in radio waves. In fact, I've seen people who know perfectly well that the power is off or there's a problem with the cable actually sit in their chair and periodically push the button, so strong is their faith in the power of radio waves to bring information and entertainment into their homes.

I had a friend once who, when he was a teen, you'd walk into his home after school and the TV would be on in the den... and in the kitchen... and in his parent's room. That wouldn't be all that strange, except that no one was home. You might say, "Wow. What an exercise of faith! They believe so much in the power of TV that even when they're not there they leave it on in the hope that someone may come along, see the TV and become a believer themselves!" Personally, I'd say, "Wow... what a waste of electricity." You can be the biggest believer in the power of TV and yet still totally waste the effect of it.

Now, the converse is a little harder to see. What is the value of "works" apart from faith? This is the whole question of where we derive what our modern age calls "meaning in life." These days there's a terrible contradiction going on in our culture. Everyone is searching for the meaning, so they join the Peace Corps, become environmentalists, give away large sums of money to social causes (ie: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation), start colleges, go to museums, have families, love people. But many of those same people believe deep in their heart that when you die, you're dead and that's the end. They believe life as we know it is just the random product of the most colossal stroke of dumb luck and well... here we are. But if there is no God -- in fact, if there is not YHWH, the one God who is personal and created the universe into nothing and sustains it by the word of his power -- if THAT God is not there, then what is the meaning?

"For the betterment of humankind." Screw humankind. I'm not that virtuous. If God hasn't spoken truly in His word and through his Son... "To become one with the universe?" Thanks, I'll pass. It isn't that impressive anyway. And so I have to agree with Pastor Tim Keller (Redeemer Presbyterian Church, NYC) when he says, "If your origin is insignificant and your destiny is insignificant, have the guts to admit that your life is insignificant."

The moment we seriously work our way through these thoughts, we are led to the conclusion that works without faith is meaningless. It just can't be an either/or. It MUST be a both/and; faith and works walking hand-in-hand, or neither makes any sense at all in this world.

Jon

Friday, July 4, 2008

James 2:21

"Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar?"

I told you it was going to be a bumpy night.

But here is the reason I reminded us of the Reformation principle of sola scriptura. Scripture is its own interpreter. That means that we must test every Scripture by and with Scripture. Any verse taken in isolation can be made to say nearly anything. So I can immediately come up with a verse that says the complete opposite: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Romans 3:20) And Jesus himself said, "The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners! Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds. "

Certainly, if anyone could be justified by his works, it would be Jesus. What are we to do with Jesus' teaching (it isn't really a parable because he's being pretty plain about his meaning) on the sheep and the goats, "Then he will answer them, saying, Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." Keith Green's chilling ending to his interpretation of Matthew 25 haunts us: "And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to this scripture, is what they did, and didn't do!"

The church, just like culture itself, goes through "swings". Over the past 60 years or so words like "evangelical" and "fundamentalist" came to be associated with people steeped in biblical teaching but really short on social action. Meanwhile the word "liberal" meant people who rolled up their sleeves and got involved in social causes but whose theology was so general as to make many churches indistinguishable from chapters of The Lions' Club. Over the past 10 years or so that has begun to seriously change. A new generation of the church has grown up that is quietly reminding us that it isn't an either/or proposition. It has always been a both/and.

We must not do "works" in an effort to please God. That is what is clear from Paul's argument about Justification by Faith in Romans. But we must not presume that works are irrelevant or unnecessary to salvation any more than baptism is unnecessary or regular attendance at the Table of the Lord is unnecessary. At the very least, having the Spirit of Christ in us ought to so annoy us into "doing the right thing" for our neighbor that we can't walk away when need is before us.

Young Christians today are wearing the badge of "radical" proudly. This survey of the Scriptures on faith and works confirms that we do need to be radicals. We need to be radically balanced.

Jon

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

James 2:20

"Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless?"

Before we can go any further in this text I want to do a bit of review about, as the liturgy says, "those things which we most surely believe". Most of the Reformation traditions agree on five latin phrases as central expressions of the bedrock of our common faith. They are usually called the five "solas":

Sola Scriptura
The understanding that the 66 books of the Old and New Testaments are "the only rule for life and faith" -- and that Scripture is its own interpreter and needs no external explanation from sources such as church councils, bishops, or the Pope.

Sola Fide
That salvation is by faith alone and that no work done in the flesh by us can add to or help us merit the declaration by God that we are righteous.

Sola Gratia
Salvation is by grace alone and through no merit on the part of the believer. We are all worthless before God because of our sin. It is totally by his gift that any of us is saved and there is no requirement in the nature of man or of God that he choose to save any particular one of us.

Solus Christus
Salvation is through (or by) Christ alone. There is no other mediator, either priest, Pope, or saint who has anything to do with our salvation (this doctrine was especially important in establishing the protestant teaching that rejects as heresy any cult of the worship of Mary).

Soli Deo gloria
The teaching that all glory is to be due to God alone, since salvation is accomplished solely through his will and action.

Okay. Everyone take a deep breath. As Lauren Bacall said in All About Eve (1950), "Fasten your seatbelts. It's going to be a bumpy night" for the five solas as we look at the core of James' teaching on faith and works.

Jon

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

James 2:19

"You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe—and shudder!"

There are two verses referenced by this one verse. The first is the Shema Israel in Deuteronomy 6, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart." And the second is Philippians 2:10-11 "that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

It think that at least in part James is addressing a divisionist view of the Trinity. "You show me your works and I'll show you my faith" is sort of like saying "I have the Father (faith in what is unseen) and you have the Son (the works of God through Christ)." And he is quick to put the lie to that sort of talk. God IS ONE. Any Jew of the first century knew his meaning immediately. And isn't there more than just a touch of sarcasm in his next phrase, "even the demons believe and tremble." It is like telling his audience just how stupid their assertion is that God can be divided. "You're all Jews. You believe that 'God is One' (and recite it daily, by the way). That's pretty smart. But then you talk about faith apart from works? Dur. Even a demon in hell knows you can't take God apart that way. At least THEY aren't trying to be philosopical about it."

The statement in James 2:18 really does sound like William F. Buckley might have said it with his best mummy-and-daddy-sent-me-to-Yale accent. "There is faith, and you can have your faith in the Father. And there are works, and I'll have my faith in the Son. You see? There are many ways to God." James just blasts that kind of intellectualism right out of the water.

We need to apprehend the whole of the Trinity in our faith. We need to know the God who is unseen and yet made visible in the works of Creation, who is untouched and yet known in the lives of his people, who is unfelt and yet experienced daily as his Spirit moves people from the heart.

Jon