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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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Prophecy


1 Peter 1:16-21 (ESV)
16For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. 17For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, and the voice was borne to him by the Majestic Glory, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased,” 18we ourselves heard this very voice borne from heaven, for we were with him on the holy mountain. 19And we have something more sure, the prophetic word, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, 20knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone's own interpretation. 21For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

In the latter part of the First Century I think there must have been quite a scramble on the part of the leaders of the church as to where authority lay.  Not just who was going to be “in charge” of the church, but the whole question of what voices the church should listen to was up for grabs. 

We look at the Bible as a completed whole.  They did not.  Was Peter conscious when he wrote his two letters that they were going to be part of the canon of Scripture?  I doubt it.  Otherwise he wouldn’t have felt the need to defend his position. 

There is something very important that we can learn about how to think about the Bible when we read this text.  Peter begins by debunking what he calls “cleverly devised myths.”  So one test of Scripture was going to need to be that of the eyewitness account.  That’s why there is no Gospel According to Timothy.  The reason is that he was not an eyewitness to the life and resurrection of Jesus.  We do have letters that attest to Timothy as a co-author with Paul, however. 

One might say that verses 17 and 18 are a fragment of a Gospel of Peter (and yes, there is an apocryphal book by that name), since Peter is attesting as an eyewitness to one of the major events of Jesus’ life, the Transfiguration. 

As certain as Peter is about what he saw on that mountain and what the meaning of it was, he is about to demonstrate that there is something that takes precedent even over an eyewitness account.  Still, don’t miss the point he makes in his “gospel” account.  He has established that Jesus is the Son of God, nothing less.  He has also established the Trinity, though in the first statement only two persons are named. 

Peter now places a huge weight of authority on the action of the Holy Spirit (adding the third person of the Trinity) and establishes a test for one whole area of Scripture: prophecy.  When he says, “we have something more sure, the prophetic word,” he is placing the word of a prophet on par with the voice on the mount of Transfiguration. 

But let us not make the grand mistake of thinking that Peter is opening up the floodgates and saying that anything claiming to be a prophecy should be listened to.  All voices are not equal.  And everything claiming to be from God isn’t.  Many ‘prophetic writings’ were rejected by the early church.  And the Book of Mormon is not from God.  The Bhagavad Gita is not from God.  The Koran is not from God.  Period.  We must not even say they are inspired writings or that they are of any greater value than, say, a Hemmingway novel. 

How do we know this?  Peter has established the test for us.  The prophecies of the Old Testament, many of which predicted the coming, birth, life, torture, execution, and resurrection of Christ is vivid detail, not to mention their complete reliability in terms of future events in Israel, are to be taken as the source.  Any prophecy that does not agree with these prophecies, is what Peter calls a cleverly devised myth.

The early church rejected as heretical the Gospel of Peter, first because it was probably written after Peter’s death but claims to be from his pen.  Second, because it seemed to support Docetism (the idea that Jesus only appeared to be a man, but was in fact a pure spirit, and therefore could not actually die).  They also rejected it because the text did not agree with the authentic gospels in some rather major points.  For years the church only knew such a gospel had existed based on the writings of the Early Fathers who rejected it.  An actual text was only uncovered in the late 1800s, and it is fragmentary – only the Passion narrative survives.

When you, 21st Century reader, approach the New Testament, remember this test.  And remember that the highest-level stuff we have here is the prophecies (ie. 2 Peter 3:10-12; Matthew 24-25; 1 Thessalonians 4:15-17, etc.), not the commentaries on Christian behavior (as in the writings of Paul), not the history (as in The Acts of the Apostles).  This is to say that all Scripture, while “God breathed,” is not prophecy, nor should it be treated as such.  The best description I can think of for the whole of the canon is that it is the revelation of God in his character and his works.  But the prophecies!  These are the very voice of God the Father.

Jon

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Best Advice


Some of the best advice ever given anyone is the opening of Psalm 1.  “Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and on his law he meditates day and night.”

The text is addressed to all people.  The use of the word “man” in the first clause is understood to be generic.  The Hebrew word “ish” means not only a man, it also means a person, or so the text notes in the ESV Bible tell me. 

The writer was a good Baptist.  His outline has three points and a personal application. 

Walk.  He casts his three points in the negative.  The person who is blessed is someone who doesn’t take counsel from wicked people.  Who are the wicked?  Well, he tells us later in the poem.  They are like chaff that blows away in a breeze.  They are also people who will stand condemned when God judges, presumably because their advice was no good. 

This isn’t just Frost’s “two road diverged in a yellow wood,” because the two roads are not about the same.   The advice of the wicked leads to destruction, plain and simple.  This hasn’t changed in our modern world.  There is such a thing as good and godly counsel, and those who follow it will live lives that are pleasing to God.  The end of Isaiah 30 puts it this way, “And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity and the water of affliction, yet your Teacher will not hide himself anymore, but your eyes shall see your Teacher.  And your ears shall hear a word behind you, saying, ‘This is the way, walk in it,’ when you turn to the right or when you turn to the left.  Then you will defile your carved idols overlaid with silver and your gold-plated metal images. You will scatter them as unclean things. You will say to them, ‘Be gone!’” 

Sometimes you just need to get rid of things in your life that aren’t helpful, no matter how “valuable” they seem to be, and listen to the voice of God.  Human life is walking, moving from one place to another.  And getting godly advice along the way will make the walk better, no matter what what is going on.

Stand.  A sin is not a mistake.  It is deliberate and willful disobedience.  So the “way” of sinners is not just a place.  It is a series of choices, made because you wanted to make them. 

Sit.  Have you ever been to a big-league baseball game?  I have.  And I can tell you that the “discussion” that goes on in the bleachers is not always complimentary, even to the home team.  The big targets seem to be umpires and the visiting team’s pitcher.  But really, anyone on the field (including the general manager up in the skybox) is fair game for a scoffing and mocking.  The definition of a mocker is someone who comes to the game but doesn’t have the guts to play. 

This famous quote from Theodore Roosevelt pretty well sums it up.

"It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself for a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows, in the end, the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."
"Citizenship in a Republic,"
Speech at the Sorbonne, Paris, April 23, 1910
Personal Application.  Delight.  That’s an amazing thing to think about.  What delights you?  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis’ Edmund is so delighted by Turkish Delight, a simple sugary candy, that it nearly costs him his life.  But to find delight in God’s Law… that is the thing!  It holds the best counsel anyone could offer for your daily walk; it points the way to life – it is a great place to “stand”; and sitting with it will make you into a dynamically positive person.
Jon

Thursday, November 25, 2010

The Thankful Life



James 5:13-20 ESV
Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed fervently that it might not rain, and for three years and six months it did not rain on the earth. Then he prayed again, and heaven gave rain, and the earth bore its fruit.
            My brothers, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and someone brings him back, let him know that whoever brings back a sinner from his wandering will save his soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.

You will forgive me a little foolishness this morning, but I have great reason to give thanks to the Lord today.  Two days ago I had Jama take me to Elliot Hospital in Manchester, NH because I was having a pain in my abdomen that pointed to gallbladder.  I have truly never had pain as severe as this.  Yesterday they took the gall bladder out, and I’m going home today.  Pretty awesome that medical science can do such things.

This experience gives me a whole new appreciation of James 5:13-20. 

Is anyone among you suffering?  Let him pray.  When I arrived at the hospital, the woman checking me in asked if I wanted the chaplain to visit.   “I AM the chaplain<” I said,  And then I explained that I’m a minister and could easily call the entire spiritual leadership of Rockingham County, and they would come.  Of course, I didn’t want the chaplain to come.  Why?   Because I don’t know the chaplain.  I wouldn’t know what to say.  It would be awkward.  Right?  But passage says, “Let him pray.”  I sure could have used someone to pray with.

Is anyone cheerful?  Let him sing praise.  I certainly was not cheerful through most of Tuesday and Wednesday.  Our Thanksgiving plans had been ruined.  I wasn’t going to get to see my sister-in-law and her family.  I had such a terrible pain in my side that I told the nurse in no uncertain terms that I was going to continue to yell “Ow” until they scheduled the operation.  I was annoying the staff and the patients, she said.  I told her I didn’t care, and they were going to simply have to put up with the noise.  It HURT.  So how was I to sing praise? 

Three things happened that confirmed it is possible in the midst of suffering to sing praise.  The first was that each time I screamed out, “O God!  Help me!”  it seemed that was when the folks came with the drugs.  Pretty awesome.  Then there was the loving care I’ve gotten from Jama.  She had to be at work Wednesday morning at 10, and didn’t leave the hospital until after 3 AM.  Then, yesterday afternoon I got a visit from Bill, Graham, and Jason.  They are three generations of the same family.  Bill is “my Elder” from when we served the same church together.  They came and we chatted for a while.  Then, before they left, I asked Bill to pray for me.  It was role reversal to the max, since I’ve been going to a series of hospitals and hospices to pray with his wife.  She died just three weeks ago today.  Yes, I certainly sang praises as these dear ones just decided to stop by and pray with me.  Then, today I was cleaning up the room in anticipation of heading home at 1 pm.  There on the night table was a message from a dear saint I probably haven’t seen in 5 years.  He was part of my youth ministry back in the 1980s, and now lives in Hampton, NH.  He just stopped by to see how I was doing.  More to praise God for.

 About the only thing I haven’t done is call the Elders to come and anoint me with oil.  But that’s alright.  Through their prayers and yours, and through the help of the Spirit of Jesus Christ, this is turning out for my deliverance.  God is so faithful.  My son and daughter-in-law have come up from Boston to spend thanksgiving with us.  I’ve had many friends enquire after my health on email and IM.  I even commiserated with my 92 year old mother about what it feels like to have a gall bladder attacck.  What a blessed life I lead.

May the Lord lead you to the Thankful Life.  I don’t think there is a better way to live. 

Jon

Monday, November 22, 2010

It is going to be alright


According to Luke’s account, Jesus’ final pilgrimage to Jerusalem began far to the North, up between Samaria and Galilee.  This would probably mean that he passed through Nazareth, not inconsequential, considering that’s where he was raised.  From there they probably made their way to the Jordan River and went by boat (the usual way of traveling from North to South in Israel in that day).  Luke says that when they reached the outskirts of Jericho (moving from the river, headed west toward Jerusalem), Jesus had an encounter with a blind man, whom he healed.   From there they must have continued on toward Bethany and Bethphage, mentioned in the account of Palm Sunday.  These towns are what we would call suburbs of Jerusalem today. 

Jerusalem is built on a hill called Mt. Moriah.  It is a very steep entrance to the city coming from the East, across the Kidron Valley and up through either the Susa Gate, directly into the Temple through Solomon’s Porch or a slightly longer, but less hilly entrance through the Sheep Gate on the north side.  Either way, it is a steep walk that ultimately takes you through gates and right into the Temple. 

I know that if you are reading the Daily Office Lectionary along with us (www.esv.org, under reading plans click on “Daily Office Lectionary”) I’m really getting ahead of myself, but I want you to experience something.  It is the day that Jesus made his Triumphant Entry into Jerusalem.  He has to climb a very steep hill.  No wonder he commandeered a donkey! 

Now, put your reading of the gospel narrative on “pause” (you’ve probably flipped to Luke 19 by now), and read any of the Psalms appointed for today in the Lectionary.  I personally like Psalm 121 to illustrate the point I’m going to make:

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
                        From where does my help come?
             My help comes from the LORD,
                        who made heaven and earth.

            He will not let your foot be moved;
                        he who keeps you will not slumber.
             Behold, he who keeps Israel
                        will neither slumber nor sleep.

            The LORD is your keeper;
                        the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
             The sun shall not strike you by day,
                        nor the moon by night.

            The LORD will keep you from all evil;
                        he will keep your life.
             The LORD will keep
                        your going out and your coming in
                        from this time forth and forevermore.

Now, just for a second, pretend that you are Jesus, and you and your disciples and the crowds have come over Mt. Olivet, a hill just outside Jerusalem, and paraded into the Kidron Valley on the road from Jericho. 

Stop.  Right there.  At the bottom of the hill.  There is a huge crowd around you.  They are throwing their cloaks down on the road and waving palm branches and crying out, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  But you are Jesus, and you’re looking up at the East wall of the Temple, at the Susa Gate and Solomon’s Porch beyond it.  And you are entirely aware that just behind you is a small walled garden you passed where, in just four days you will meet your greatest fear in the world. 

The people are crying, “Hosanna to the Son of David!”  But that’s not what you’re hearing.  You’ve got one of the “Song of Ascent” Psalms in your head.  These are the songs you were taught to sing along with the great throngs you were part of on annual pilgrimages to the great City of David.  These were the songs you were taught to sing as you ascended the hill up Mt. Moriah every year.  These are the songs you were taught to sing on your way up…into the Temple.  You have become completely insensible to the sound of this crowd.  Your eyes and heart are fixed on the Temple Mount and you are hearing:

“I lift up my eyes to the hills.  From where does my help come?”  This is your Father’s house, and you have set your greatest hope on going there one last time before they come for you.   

“My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.”  You are going up to The Temple where the Holy of Holies is.  You’re going up to the place where the presence of the Lord is.  You’re going up to meet with Yahweh.  You’re going up to be mocked and beaten.

“He will not let your foot be moved; he who keeps you will not slumber.  Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.” 

You look down.  Though you’re riding on a small donkey, the road is steep and your goal is above.  Will God let you stumble?  No.  You have perfect confidence in a Father who never sleeps, even when you rest.  He’s got you.  There’s no need to worry.  You are going up to face Pilate and Herod.  You’re going up to be betrayed and denied by your best friends.

There are no trees on this hillside.  It is mid-morning, and the Sun is already high in the sky, just behind you.  But because Jerusalem is 32 degrees north of the Equator, your shadow is just to your right and in front of you, and it reminds you that is going to be alright.  You’re going up to be led through the streets almost naked under the crushing weight of a heavy beam.

“The LORD is your keeper; the LORD is your shade on your right hand.  The sun shall not strike you by day, nor the moon by night.”

You almost smile.  Yes.  God is with you.  You calmly mouth the words you recently taught to your disciples, “and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil…”  You’re going up to hear these same crowds crying for them to crucify you.

“The LORD will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life.”

It is going to be alright.  You are going up to die.  And it is going to be alright. 

Just now you are aware that you and the donkey have finished climbing the hill and the great stone archway of Susa gate is passing over your head.

“The LORD will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forevermore.”

It is going to be alright.  You are going up.

Jon

The Terms of the Contract


Luke 18:18-30 (ESV)
And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone. You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.” Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” But he said, “What is impossible with men is possible with God.” And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

The central question that plagues the human heart is the one a junior executive once asked Jesus.  He's a guy who made out well for himself.  Of course, this was all while the economy was doing really well, before their version of 911 that happened in 70 AD (the destruction of the Temple).   We don’t really know how he fared after that.

“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

There it is.  THE question.  Most of us think we can cheat death because, somewhere deep inside we believe this is all there is.  Or at least that’s what we’re afraid of.  The junior executive in this scene (repeated in Matthew 19 and Mark 10) is totally sold out to acquiring as much as possible and staying alive as long as possible.

What must I do.  This guy really isn’t interested in eternal life in heaven at all.   He’s got it good here and would like his prosperity to continue forever.  The wording of his question takes the whole thing even further, since he says, “…to inherit…” 

This is a fellow who would sell his own grandmother if it would get him where he wants to go.  He’s saying, “You can call me O’Reilly if that means I’ll inherit.”  He doesn’t much care what it is he’ll inherit.  He just likes that word a lot.

Jesus gives him what seems like a non sequitur in response.  “Why do you call me good?  No one is good except God alone.” 

There are whole books out there that try to make the point that Jesus is saying something about how he is sinless and therefore is God.  I don’t think that’s at all what he’s up to here.  The man had asked Jesus what he would have to do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus is saying it isn’t about goodness.  It is about something deeper. 

Again, there have been books written on the obvious fact that Jesus only recites five of the Commandments to the man.   Presumably the point is that the man was so dedicated to his wealth that he had broken these five utterly.

But Jesus doesn’t pick up on this.  He says, “One thing you still lack.”  He seems totally unconcerned about whether the man has kept any of the Commandments, and then amazingly sums up the deeper meaning of all ten while simultaneously answering the man’s original question.

“Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” 

Have no other gods  -- Only by selling all would God ever be the Lord of this man
Make no idols – Only by selling all could this man be free of his idols
Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain – Only by selling all would the name of God finally be holy to him
Remember the Sabbath Day – Only by selling all would he ever be in a position to drop his pursuit of gain for a whole day to spend it with God
Honor Father and Mother – Only by selling all could he ever be concerned about the deeper heritage that was his and not just about what he could gain from his parents if they died
Do not kill – Only by selling all would he be free from the shark-like competition to win at all costs.   To win at business means to kill your opponent
Do not commit adultery – Only by selling all would he rid himself of the mistress (his money) that kept him from true fidelity to his wife
Do not steal – Only by selling all would he see that in business there’s a lot of “steal” in every “deal.”  He would never deal honestly with people as long as gain was his primary objective
Do not bear false witness – Only by selling all would he ever stop bending the truth about the people around him in order to make himself look better so he could gain more
Do not covet – Only by selling all would he ever stop wanting what he did not already have.  This may have been the deepest hole in the man’s heart

Jesus has even thrown in the other Great Commandment, to love your neighbor as yourself. 

The encounter ends with Jesus making the man a very real offer.  When a respected rabbi invited someone to “follow me,” any good Jewish man knew exactly what was being offered: a kind of deep life-on-life training you couldn’t get anywhere else.  Jesus is inviting the man into the inner circle of his disciples and has laid out the terms of the contract for him.  But there is no gain in being Jesus’ disciple.  And yet at some level the man knows Jesus is right about all of it.  So he goes away sad, knowing eternal life, whatever it is, doesn’t pay.

Epilogue.

I love Peter.  He’s such a guy.  Jesus is standing there wistfully watching the young executive walk away out of sight, and Peter comes and stands next to him.  Thinking he’s being sensitive, in a cave-man sort of way he says,  “See, we have left our homes and followed you.”

A slight smile comes across Jesus’ face.  In my version of this scene he never diverts his eye from watching the man, who is now at some distance.  He sums up all Ten Commandments again and the terms of Peter’s discipleship in one sentence.   “Peter, you’re married…right?  You don’t know the half of it yet.”

Jon

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Justification


This one must have gone over big with the local Pharisee group when Jesus told it:

            He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.”
(Luke 18:9-14 ESV)

Before we can comment on the story, we have to know a little bit about the Pharisees and what they believed and who they were.  When I was twelve my favorite TV show was The Wild, Wild West.  Throughout its run there was this one bad guy who came back about every other episode.  He was a dwarf named Dr. Miguelito Loveless.  How simple TV was back then.  His name was synonymous with evil.  Even a casual reader of the Gospels has the Pharisees cast in the role of villain in just the same way in nearly every story.  But who, exactly, were the Pharisees, and how did they become so evil? 

I’m not sure the word “evil” fits.  As is true of most movements, they had their protagonists, mainly another group called the Sadducees.  The Pharisees emerged as a force in Jewish life around 140 BC.  Conflicts between the Pharisees and the Sadducees had to do with class (between the wealthy and the poor, as the Sadducees included mainly the priestly and aristocratic families), culture (between those who favored hellenization and those who resisted it), temple vs. tradition (the Pharisees accepted Mosaic tradition while the Saducees were strict adherents to the form of Temple worship laid out in the Bible), and religious philosophy (how to apply the Torah to Jewish life).  The Pharisees accepted the idea of resurrection (the Saducees didn’t), and became the forerunners of all modern Judaism through the rabbinic tradition beginning after the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. 

It is important to understand that this group was dedicated to reform and was actually a positive force within jewish life and culture and that the whole period of their existence as an identifiable group lasts no more than about 200 years. 

Because the were also a religious group, to paint the United Methodists, or the United Church of Christ, or even the Southern Baptists with a broad brush and say “this is what they stand for” would be really difficult, especially if you are an historian writing in the year 4010, because so much of the really creative discussion never got written down.  So to brand the whole movement as evil because they ended up backing themselves into a corner where Jesus was concerned is really pretty unfair.

Okay, enough with the history lesson.  Now let’s see what all this knowledge does to our understanding of the passage:

 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt

I think there’s something being said here that refers to all that stuff that was said “off line” twenty centuries ago.  There was something embedded in a Pharisees’ thought process that makes Luke’s accusation here valid (remember, this sentence is Luke setting up a story Jesus told).  Paul helps us understand this in Philippians when he gives us his own political pedigree and says, “as to the law (I was) a Pharisee… as to righteousness under the law (I was) blameless.” 

There was a certain “looking down” on the part of those who considered themselves to be Pharisees.  They were kind of like Christians today getting to the place where they think they’ve arrived.  “Hey, I’m a mature believer.  I’ve known Christ for something like thirty years, and I can quote you chapter and verse.  I live an impeccable life, morally speaking, and I have few vices.  You ought to listen to me.”  You know, that kind of thing.

I love the way the KJV puts it when it talks about the Pharisee praying.  It says, “The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself.”  Awesome.  It makes it sound like no one else was listening.  He had gotten to the point where he didn’t care that anyone else was.  He was merely reinforcing in his own mind what he believed was true about him.  It also sounds like not even God was listening because this man’s prayer had become such a caricature. 

Jesus also picks up on the social context of the tax collectors.  These were turn-coat Jews who were working for Rome while lining their own pockets through extortion.  If the Pharisee was standing “alone”, he had probably positioned himself up front by the main altar.  The tax collector is probably way in the back by the exit.  It is unlikely he’d have been welcomed any further in. 

So, in the end, this isn’t a question of good vs. evil.  This isn’t the vile Dr. Loveless vs. the noble James West.   Things are rarely that simple.  These guys are both sinners, and they’re both a mess.  It is just that one of them doesn’t recognize it and the other does. 

Are you a mature Christian?  Do you read your Bible every day?  Do you tithe?  Have you led a moral life?  Great.  I mean that sincerely.  But have you written off certain other people because they’re “not doing so well” with discipleship or because they struggle with sin or because they have perhaps rejected Jesus outright?  Not so great.  As Jesus said, “beware of the leaven of the Pharisees.”  Life isn’t 60s TV simple. 

Justification is knowing you’re sinner and a mess and letting God heal the mess that you are.  It is also loving mercy and justice and walking humbly enough with God not to point out publicly those who haven’t had that realization yet.  A lot of justification is in knowing when to keep your big trap shut.

Our focus must always be on The Cross, and what Jesus did there.  What justifies the tax collector before God is not only that he cries out, “God be merciful to me, a sinner” (recognizing his need of God’s help), it is just as much that he does not raise his eyes while doing it, because he has become unaware that the Pharisee is even in the room.

Jon

Friday, November 19, 2010

Come, Lord Jesus


It is troubling to me how much by rote I read the Bible sometimes.  The lectionary for today contained Malachi 3:1, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.” 

In the course of the past thirty years I have produced G.F. Handel’s Messiah twenty different times, not to mention having sung in productions of it at least another ten times. Something happened when I read the words.  I heard the tune of the wonderful baritone recitative and was wholly unconscious of any meaning in the text.

Fortunately, the lectionary followed Malachi 3 with Luke 18:1-8:
And he told them a parable to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart. He said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor respected man. And there was a widow in that city who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Give me justice against my adversary.’ For a while he refused, but afterward he said to himself, ‘Though I neither fear God nor respect man, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will give her justice, so that she will not beat me down by her continual coming.’” And the Lord said, “Hear what the unrighteous judge says. And will not God give justice to his elect, who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long over them? I tell you, he will give justice to them speedily. Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”

When I think of Jesus’ teaching about prayer, my mind immediately goes to The Lord’s Prayer, another rote item we could spend a month talking to death.  I go from there to what I’ve learned about prayer in my life, starting with bedtime prayers as a child (“Now I lay me down to sleep.  I pray the Lord my soul to keep”) and continuing to 20th century evangelical prayers I learned in college.  (“O Lord, I just really want to thank you, Father, for just really being my God.  Please, praise and thank you Father, give me a better grade on that exam, O Lord Jesus, than I actually deserve, Father.”) 

When Jesus tells us here that we ought always to pray and not lose heart, what is he really saying?  The widow is praying to for justice for herself against her adversary, not for some lame exam she didn’t study for. 
While it is true that Jesus tells us the Father is concerned about every last hair on our head (or lack thereof), it would seem from this parable that the summary verses on prayer in the Scriptures must be Revelation 21:17 and 20: “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
There are three “persons” praying in the text from Revelation.  The Spirit is doing what he always does, exalting the Son.  The Bride – the church – is crying out in passionate longing for her Groom.  And the individual believer is crying out for justice.
We can pray, and every Christian should work actively for justice on the earth, but the truth is that, “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”  The one great adversary against justice is Satan, for he is a usurper who has stolen everything that he has.  Only when he has been ultimately defeated will there ever be justice in the Universe.  That defeat became an accomplished fact when Jesus breathed his last (“it is finished”), because the perfect sacrificial lamb had become our substitute and now death, as C.S. Lewis put it so well, would begin to work backward.   Only, from where we stand it is an accomplished future fact.  Justice does not now reign on the Earth as it does in Heaven.  The reign of Christ is the true “already and not yet.” 
Without allowing your prayers to become in any way rote in themselves, the challenge is to be like the widow and daily annoy the Judge, “Come, Lord Jesus!”  This is where some repeated exercises of daily life can be your advantage.  As you walk to the mailbox, as you make dinner, as you make the bed in the morning, as you shower, let these be the times that you bother the Judge.  At other times you will ask specifically for yourself and those you care for.  But these times of crying that Christ should come again, and swiftly, ought to be our number one priority in prayer, that justice, true justice and peace may reign.
Jon

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Caesar Augustus

Being asked by the Pharisees when the kingdom of God would come, he answered them, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” 


(Luke 17:20-21 ESV)

Jesus' prophecy about when the kingdom of God will come is the kind of statement no one likes to hear and yet all of us secretly fear.  At the root of it, Jesus is saying the same thing to the Pharisees that Isaiah said to the people of his day: ‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;  keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’


We have a great deal of trouble understanding what the Kingdom of God is ourselves.  Part of the reason is that most of us have never lived in the sort of kingdom Jesus is talking about.  In his day the Caesars allowed themselves to be worshipped as gods because their self-understanding and what they communicated to the people was that Caesar was the kingdom.  There was no empire without the emperor.   The people essentially existed to advance the interests, power, and fame of the king.

The Roman Republic lasted from around 509 BC to 27 BC when Octavian proclaimed himself Caesar Augustus, literally "majestic king."  Caesar was not his name.  He had been adopted by Julius Caesar, essentially anointing him as successor to the throne.  Augustus wasn't his name either, but was an honorific title, and he ruled from 27 BC to 14 AD.   Here was a man who had accumulated so much power in himself that he literally was the state for all practical purposes.  The problem with such an arrangement is that there is a great tendency toward megalomania in people like this.  The last major world ruler to adopt such a style was, of course, Adolf Hitler.

So we have to ask a serious question here.  Was Jesus aware as he was speaking to the Pharisees that he was inferring that in just the same way the Caesars were understood to be the "kingdom of Rome", if you were looking for the "kingdom of God" you didn't need to look any further than himself.  The people who are part of the kingdom of God are to be understood as an extension of Jesus being and person, and every place where the people of the kingdom are is kingdom territory -- also an extension of the person and work of Jesus.  Did Jesus really mean to communicate this?

The answer is a troubling "Yes".  Troubling, because the only examples we can seem to find in history of people claiming such a position are fanatical dictators who end up bringing the whole dynasty down upon themselves as they become more and more self-absorbed.  This leads directly to the problem voiced by C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity,

I am trying here to prevent anyone saying the really foolish thing that people often say about Him: "I'm ready to accept Jesus as a great moral teacher, but I don't accept His claim to be God." That is the one thing we must not say. A man who said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on a level with the man who says he is a poached egg--or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God: or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool, you can spit at Him and kill Him as a demon; or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us. He did not intend to.

If you read beyond Luke 17:21, you'll see just how clearly Jesus understands what he is implying:  “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. And they will say to you, ‘Look, there!’ or ‘Look, here!’ Do not go out or follow them. For as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day."

Here then is the question you have to answer personally.  Was Jesus insane when he claimed to be the embodiment of the Kingdom of God?  Was he crazy to assert that all of his subjects (we call them "followers" today) are, in reality, the embodiment of his person in the world?  Was he simply another fanatic whose "kingdom" ultimately came crashing down on him because of his own self-importance?  Or was he really the true Majestic King?  And if so, have you yet literally fallen at his feet and called him Lord and God?  

Jon

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Pornography


In the case of Roth v. United States (decided June 24, 1957), the Supreme Court defined obscenity (pornography) as material, "utterly without redeeming social importance," or in other words, "whether to the average person, applying contemporary community standards, the dominant theme of the material taken as a whole appeals to the prurient interest."
The problem with this ruling, and the definition in general, is that it is an argument from the negative.  A much, much better definition of pornography can be found in Psalm 101.  The psalmist begins with three great positives before ever addressing the negative:
I will sing of steadfast love and justice;
                        to you, O LORD, I will make music.
             I will ponder the way that is blameless.
                        Oh when will you come to me?
            I will walk with integrity of heart
                        within my house;

I will sing.  I will ponder.  I will walk.  The heart.  The mind.  The body. 

Our whole understanding of pornography has to be comprehensive.  “prurient interest” begins in the heart, moves to the mind, and then finally is acted upon in the body.  So the antidote to pornography is not just to stop doing something bad.  We must begin with our heart focused on what is supremely good: love and justice, which the psalm reminds us, leads to the making of music! 

Next our mind must ponder.  Anyone who has ever spent even an hour with pornographic material gets that this is not an activity that leads to deep thought.  If you did engage in deep thought upon viewing a pornograhic image or watching a movie or investing in a pornographic relationship (we’ll get to what that is in a minute), you would immediately turn away from it because of how degrading it is to the individuals involved. 

Finally, we walk.  This is not a walking away from.  It is a walking toward: integrity.  It is a walking toward home as well.  Again, home and pornography stand in such opposition to one another.  If you are walking toward home, you are walking toward what is good.

Now, only when we have done all these positives, are we in a place within where we can begin to say:

             I will not set before my eyes
                        anything that is worthless.
            I hate the work of those who fall away;
                        it shall not cling to me.
             A perverse heart shall be far from me;
                        I will know nothing of evil.

            Whoever slanders his neighbor secretly
                        I will destroy.
            Whoever has a haughty look and an arrogant heart
                        I will not endure.

These things are almost an afterthought!  It simply follows that if you make integrity, home, blamelessness, music, love and justice the stuff of your life, these other things will be of no interest to you!  It is like having the choice between really great dining with intimate conversation and fast food while driving alone.

Jon

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

On The King's Mission


In 1744 Charles Wesley wrote a seventeen stanza hymn to inspire the Methodist groups that were forming throughout England.  They had come under a certain amount of persecution because they were believed to be papists in disguise.  Wesley leaves no doubt as to where his allegiance lies when he writes what most of us know as the first and second stanzas of the hymn:

Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim,

and publish abroad his wonderful name;

the name all-victorious of Jesus extol,

his kingdom is glorious and rules over all.

God ruleth on high, almighty to save,

and still he is nigh, his presence we have;

the great congregation his triumph shall sing,

ascribing salvation to Jesus, our King.

This thinking and imagery have become repugnant to modern Christians. Wesley’s great hymn and texts like it have been removed from many modern hymnals.  Only in triumphalist churches are songs like this very popular.  But even there, are the people really convinced that God is their king?

The psalmists didn’t have any problem with this language though. 

Psalm 95:3  “The Lord is…a great king above all gods.”

Psalm 97:1  “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the coastlands be glad!

Psalm 98:6  “With trumpets and the sound of the horn make a joyful noise before the King, the Lord!

Psalm 99:1  “The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble!

Psalm 100:2  “Serve the Lord with gladness!

The word “king” is used to describe God over forty times in the Psalms, with myriad more allusions to God as the final authority, both on a personal and corporate basis in their lives.  If we really do have a king over us, what does that look like in practical terms?  Jesus tells us in Luke 17:7-10.

“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”

The military illustration I’ve used before fits here, but even more so.  If your king gives you a toothbrush and tells you to use it to make the tile in the bathroom sparkle, your answer must be, “Just happy to be here, sir.”

Do we really believe that?  Is our king a personal king?  By this, I mean, an immanent king on whose estate we live; a protecting king into whose castle we can run in time of crisis or invasion.  Is he a king we recognize on sight when he rides into our village?  Is he a king whose name we own and whose lands we will defend because he has been good to us? 

It seems that most of us really think of God more like we do the federal government.  There are rules, regulations, and red tape associated with getting the help we need.  We can apply for assistance, but there’s no guarantee it will be granted.  After all, the resources can only go just so far.   We can deal with his agents (clergy), and they will make him sound like he’s very involved in our lives.  But the Federal Presence is really in Washington (heaven), and that is a place most of us can’t go to right now.  Even if we get there as senators or congressmen (pastors), that still won’t get us access to what we really wanted in the first place: 15 minutes with the man in the Oval Office. 

A concept of God like this accomplishes one useful thing though.  It puts you and me in the position where, for the most part, we get to decide for ourselves which of the king’s rules we’re going to actually obey and which we’re going to give lip service to or simply flaunt altogether.  Here in New Hampshire we’ve summed it up nicely, “Live Free or Die.”  Even the few of us willing to accept that God is King over us are mostly unwilling to believe the king will ever actually tell us to serve him.  And so we believe we’re pretty much off the hook and can live our lives here the way that best suits us.

Don’t worry.  God probably won’t ever ask you to go to Africa – though if he did ask me to, I’d go in a second because I’m interested in Africa.  It is far more likely, in your case and mine, that God will ask us to love mercy, to do justice, and to walk humbly.  It is far more likely this king will ask us to teach our children to walk in his ways, to write his word in our heart, love our neighbor deeply, and to serve him by serving others. 

It is far more likely that the mission God will send you and me on involves making friends with the scary old man who lives in the next house or apartment and beginning to really see that man as someone for whom Christ died and as someone who needs to hear about Jesus. 

Rather than complaining to God that the toothbrush he gave you is too small to clean this particular toilet, recognize that these things are the mercy and love of a great and immanent king toward you.  As you stand at your neighbor’s door, plate of cookies in hand, while you wait for your neighbor to open the door, whisper, “Just happy to be here, sir.”

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cutting up Dill Weed


There’s an old African proverb that says the way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time.  Apparently, the writer of the proverb never met the Pharisees of Jesus’ day.  He probably never met most of us either.  Surely we have made “the ministry” way too complicated.  Maybe that’s because our culture is so results-oriented.   Are our discipleship programs really what Jesus had in mind?

            “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!”
(Matthew 23:23-24 ESV)

Ouch. 

First of all, don’t let’s try to make this passage about giving, in the traditional sense.  Yes, Jesus mentions tithing.  But before we swallow our own camel, let’s look at the principle here.

Go into your kitchen and pull the bottle of dill weed from your spice rack.  Now, place just one piece of it in front of you on the table.  Tough to do, isn’t it?  Even the “whole” version is terribly tiny.  Now think like a Pharisee for a moment.  I know this will be difficult for any of you ministry professionals out there, but give it a try. 

As a Pharisee, one of the top priorities for you is to make sure you tithe.  By “tithe,” we mean that you give at least 10% of absolutely everything that comes to you that might possibly be construed as the basis for making a living. 

Right now most people who are pastors of local churches are thinking about what life would be like if they could get their people to do this.  Even the smallest churches here in the US would be fantastically well resourced.  I’ve seen so many stewardship programs where this equation was put before the people in an effort to get them to achieve even the “modern tithe” of 10% of disposable income, after tax.  What ever became of “first fruits?”

As a Pharisee, because you’re living in a 1st century, agrarian society, you have to tithe on all the crops you raise.  This includes your stupid little dill plant.  But rather than growing ten dill plants and giving the first mature one to the church, you’ve gotten into the practice of laboriously cutting 1/10 off each and every sprig and tithing THAT! 

Why are you spending hours cutting up dill weed?  It fills your days so you don’t have time to do much else.  After all, if you’re busy cutting up dill you can’t be expected to involve yourself with the poor, with widows, with prisoners, with the oppressed, with your neighbors.  And since there are so many of them in the first place, what difference would your pathetic attempts at doing something about their condition make?  But you are convinced that

one tenth of

one sprig of

one dill weed

matters in making you acceptable to God.  You who are pastors of local churches?  Are you spending your days running around trying to keep the people happy so they’ll give?  If you are, you are cutting off one tenth of one sprig of one dill weed, because that’s about all you’re going to get in return.  Oh shepherds!  What are we burdening our people with?  Our congregational meetings so often take up hours on such small, small matters.  

How many gifts of justice, mercy, and faithfulness have you received from God?  Tithe those.  If you do, I think you will find you probably won’t have the time left over to be cutting up dill weed.

Jon

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

A Covetous Old Sinner

Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him. And the Pharisees and the scribes grumbled, saying, “This man receives sinners and eats with them.”
(Luke 15:1-2 ESV)

The opening words of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol (1843) include this description of the main character: "Scrooge!  A squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner!"  In doing some research on this word I have realized that people in Western Culture today don't often describe anyone this way.   Oh, we have classes, to be sure.  In our less-generous moments we pigeonhole people as easily as we would letters:

"Trailer Trash", "Redneck"

These words seem to transcend designations of race, creed, or sexual orientation (these used to be on the list but aren't anymore in "polite" society).  Words like this are all-encompassing.  They describe the whole being of the person, and there is no hope that someone so labeled will ever change position in society.  A smoker, for instance, can become a non-smoker.  Someone who is fat can become thin.  The poor can gain wealth.  Even a jock can become a couch potato over time.  I'm currently working to reverse that one.  

There's an old anecdote that places Sir Winston Churchill and Lady Astor (the first woman elected a Member of Parliament) in an elevator somewhere.  Lady Astor turns to Sir Winston and says, "Sir Winston, you're drunk!"  Churchill replies, "Lady Astor, you're ugly.  In the morning I shall be sober."

When the Pharisees spoke of someone as "a sinner" what they meant is someone whom they had classified as beyond redemption.  It wasn't so much that you could point to a specific sin that person had committed.  They had somehow almost been born "Trailer Trash," and that wasn't going to change.  A Pharisee could transgress the law at some point.  If they did, there were prescribed penances, prayers, and remedies that would bring them back into favor with God and man.  But in the way the Pharisees used the term here, the adjective cannot be shaken and fully describes the poor wretch in question.

In the Anglican liturgy of the Mass, the prayer of confession most of us learned says (in part), "We have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone.  We have not loved you with our whole heart.  We have not loved our neighbor as ourself."  It is a wonderful wording, and if you want to quickly run through and catalog your sins du jour it will help you  be sure you've confessed them, ala 1 John 1:9.  That way you can dash off the list on your mental communion registry, put the imaginary list in the collection plate along with your tithes and offerings, receive the goods you have just paid for, and walk away ready to face a new week because your life has been put back in balance: the number of sins confessed + fee paid + wafer received = justification for the week.

But what if I actually saw my sin not as a series of nouns to be dealt with but as an adjective that described me in the core of my being?  What if the Pharisees were right, and this word actually sums me up better than any other?  What if the adjective is one that no amount of ritual can even begin to hope to change?  You see, Jesus never disputes the classification the Pharisees have given.  The people they are referring to are what they are being called.  It isn't just bigotry or haughtiness.  

Toward the end of A Christmas Carol, Scrooge comes to the end of himself as he falls on his knees in front of an open grave in the presence of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come and cries, "Why show me this, if I am past all hope?  Assure me that I yet may change these shadows you have shown me, by an altered life!''  He has begun to know that he is utterly and wholly without redemption: a sinner.

The parables of the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin that follow in Luke 15 describe our utter helplessness. A coin or a sheep has absolutely no ability or desire in itself to find the one who lost it:

So he told them this parable: “What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance. 

“Or what woman, having ten silver coins, if she loses one coin, does not light a lamp and sweep the house and seek diligently until she finds it? And when she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” 
(Luke 15:3-10 ESV)

But the wonder, the glory of the statement in Luke 15:1 is that ALL of it is true.  Not only are these people exactly what the Pharisees describe them to be; Jesus is exactly as they describe him also.  This man actually does "receive sinners and eats with them."  

After nearly forty years of knowing Christ I am just beginning to really get that I am what the Pharisees call me.  All these years I have been eating with Jesus, and I never got it.   He knew what I was and he went and found me.  And without changing anything about me, for I am still the same sinner I was before, he sat me at his table and for forty years has offered me the choicest banquet, complete with bread and wine.   And at times when my sins (noun) made me unable or unwilling to eat, he took the spoon in his own hand and fed me.

While it is still six weeks off, you will experience what I have and what Scrooge did, "I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!'' Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed.  "The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven, and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, old Jacob; on my knees!''

It isn't just a fine old parable we can haul out once a year.  Dickens had hit upon a deep understanding of the grace of God in the gospel:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
Amazing Love!  How can it be that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?
-- Charles Wesley (1738)

Jon