Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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

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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Toward a Biblical Hermeneutic


“Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy, who say to your husbands, ‘Bring, that we may drink!’ The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks.  And you shall go out through the breaches, each one straight ahead; and you shall be cast out into Harmon,” declares the LORD. 
(Amos 4:1-3 ESV)

Anyone who doesn’t believe God is capable of sarcasm never read Amos. 

I had a discussion the other day with someone who was writing a paper called, “Toward a Biblical Hermeneutic” (or something to that effect).  He asked me the question, “Is there anything in the Old Testament that a person today needs to know in order to be saved?  He wasn’t challenging the idea that the Old Testament is God’s word.  He was trying to figure out how we today may interpret and apply what is contained in it.  In other words, what is the modern Christian’s relationship to the Old Testament Law? 

I would go a step further and ask if the way most of us read the Old Testament is even valid.  There is a whole line of Evangelical teaching that basically says that every warning, every prophetic word in the Old Testament can be applied in some way today.  Listen to this chilling quote from one contemporary commentary:  Amos 4:1-3 paints a rather uncomplimentary picture of women in our time. It predicts captivity and great humiliation to the women who oppress the poor and needy, satiate their desires, and proudly vaunt their power. We need not be terribly observant to recognize that we have reached such a state in our society. It will not be long before God acts to correct it.”

That’s a pretty ominous statement to make.  First of all, the writer singles out women in our day.  All women?  I read another commentary that was concerned, “for any woman in the present day Church who rings their husband up at work and says ‘Darling, how about going to the liquor store and bringing home a Cotes Du Rhone for the meal tonight?’   What’s wrong with a nice Cotes Du Rhone?  Or maybe it is just hard liquor, combined with a lack of compassion for the poor and hungry that will get you zapped.

So I’ll put it out there to anyone who happens to read this: if Christ is the end of the law, as Paul says, and if in Christ, “God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh” (Romans 8:3), should we be so quick to apply the various warning prophecies of the Old Testament, which were clearly directed at corporate Israel in their own time, to our life today? 

There is no question that there are “cows of Bashan” among us in our culture.  The selfishness we in American life exhibit is astounding.  But we know that salvation is not by works and that, whether those of us who lead churches like it or not, God has offered us full and free forgiveness for our selfishness and our lack of love for the things God loves.  He broke the power of sin and with it broke the requirement of the Law as “schoolmaster” over us.  Now it truly is up to us to live in relationship with the God who loved us. 

I’d love to dialog with anyone out there who wants to chime in.  How do I read and apply God’s word – specifically Old Testament prophecy – today?

Jon





Monday, November 28, 2011

One-A-Day


            His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.
(2 Peter 1:3-7 ESV)

The opening of 2 Peter is one of the best places in all of Scripture to see the importance of the old axiom “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing” at work.  It is generally so easy to see the teaching in the Epistles as an end in itself, as if the highest order of God’s self-revelation is found here.  But as Jesus himself observed, “You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have life; and it is they that bear witness about me.” (John 5:39 ESV)  This is Peter bearing witness about Christ; it is not moral or ethical teaching for the church.  In fact, Jesus offered very little of the latter.  He offered a great deal in terms of revelation though.  God has given us, in Jesus, everything that pertains to life and godliness.  We need to be told little else when we have that.   

The way we get life and godliness is by knowing him.  Period.  The more I know him, the more alive I will be.  I will be more alive spiritually – that goes without saying – but I’ll be more alive in all other ways too.  To say that Jesus improves me is an understatement. 

Did you ever wonder what God wanted you to do?  He tells us here: you and I are called to his own glory and excellence.  As my friend Michael Kelly Blanchard once wrote:

The moon is a dark and barren stone flung by an ancient sling
With no soft beauty of its own; no native gift to bring
Its glory comes from the setting sun that moves beyond the hill
And the brokenness of Jesus reflects God’s glory still

We shine because we’re shined upon -- the mirror glint of grace
A loan of light for a dark, dark night, like the Moon’s reflecting face

The glory, of course, is his.  The excellence is his.  But we’re called to be this impossible thing: glorious and excellent.   And yet it isn’t impossible, because we are ingrafted into the vine; we drink the same cup; we have the same blood flowing through us: the atoning blood of Jesus.  That’s what he means when he says we partake of the divine nature.  That’s what so impossible.  And yet, Jesus also said, “with men it is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” 

Be careful not to treat your life in Christ as if it were a water faucet you could turn on to whatever level of flow you like – including “off”.  You can’t.  That’s what makes it so awful when, knowing Christ, we veer off to do things we know don’t please him.  The divine nature is IN us.  It goes with us in full measure wherever we go. 

Having said that we who believe bear his image all the time, no matter what, there is something we can do.  It doesn’t improve us.  All it does is put us in a position where God is free to do in us what he wants.  Think of it like taking vitamins versus having an operation.  The operation will make you better.  The vitamins merely build a favorable environment for when you need the operation.  Here are the supplements you can take: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love. 

My problem, and I’m going to have to spend some time reflecting on this, is that there is just so much vitamins can do for you if you insist on eating all the wrong things.  I’m still alive, but I keep clogging my arteries with jealousy, envy, greed and the like.  I keep taxing my heart because I make myself fat with desire, strife, gossip and slander.   Thank God there is a Good Physician who can do the heart transplant I’m going to need if I keep pursuing those things instead of taking a few simple vitamins and getting some good honest exercise.

Jon

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Lord's Day Message: Beginning at the Very End


Beginning at the Very End
Mark 13:24-37
“But in those days, following that distress, ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 
the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

“At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

“Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near.  Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.  Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.  Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.

“But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.  Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.  It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.

“Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn.  If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping.  What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’”


Introduction
He went to the door and they all followed him.  He raised his head and roared, “Now it is time!” then louder, “Time!”; then so loud that it could have shaken the stars, “TIME.”  The Door flew open.

They all stood beside Aslan, on his right, and looked through the open doorway.  Immediately the sky became full of shooting stars.  Even one shooting start is a fine thing to see, but there were dozens, then scores, and then hundreds, till it was like silver rain: and it went on and on.  And when it had gone on for some while there was [a] dark shape against the sky.  There were no stars there: just blackness.  But all around, the downpour of stars went on.  And then the starless patch began to grow, spreading further and further out from the center of the sky.  And presently a quarter of the whole sky was black, and then a half, and at last the rain of shooting stars was going on only low down near the horizon. 

The last few seconds before the rain of stars had quite ended were very exciting.  Stars began falling all around.  But stars in that world are not the great flaming globes they are in ours.  They are people.  So now there were showers of glittering people all with long hair like burning silver and spears like white-hot metal, rushing down out of the black air, swifter than falling stones.  They made a hissing noise as they landed and burnt the grass.  And all these stars glided and stood somewhere behind, a little to the right.

On the grass lay Aslan’s shadow.  It streamed away to their left, enormous and very terrible.  And all this was under a sky that would now be starless forever.

At last something white – a long, level line of whiteness that gleamed in the light of the standing stars – came moving from the Eastern end of the world.  A widespread noise broke the silence:  first a murmer then a rumble, then a roar.  It was a foaming wall of water.  The sea was rising.  In that tree-less world you could see it very well.  You could see all the rivers getting wider and the lakes getting larger, and separate lakes joining into one, and valleys turning into new lakes, and hills turning into islands, and then those islands vanishing.   And the water came swirling up to the very threshold of the Doorway so that the foam splashed about Aslan’s forefeet.  All now was level water from where they stood to where the waters met the sky.  

And out there it began to grow light.  At last the sun came up.  This sun was dying.  It was three times – twenty times – as big as it ought to be, and very dark red.  Then the Moon came up, quite in her wrong position, very close to the sun, and she also looked red. 

Then Aslan said, “Now make an end.”   And instantly there was total darkness. 

They had seen strange things enough through that Doorway.  But it was stranger than any of them to look round and find themselves in warm daylight, the blue sky above them, flowers at their feet, and laughter in Aslan’s eyes. 

He turned swiftly round, crouched lower lashed himself with his tail and shot away like a golden arrow. 

“Come further in!  Come further up!” he shouted over his shoulder.

And as He spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them.  And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after.  But for them it was only the beginning of the real story.  All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
-- The Last Battle, by C.S. Lewis.  Pages 148 – 184, excerpted.  1956.



Exposition
Some of you C.S. Lewis fans have already recognized these excerpts from the last few pages of the last book in the Chronicles of Narnia series.   I love the end of The Last Battle especially.  One of my great memories of our children’s childhood was the opportunity I had to read the whole series to Tim and Beth around the time they were 7 and 9.  I had read The Chronicles of Narnia when I first became a Christian, but reading them outloud to my children, complete with voices for each of the major characters and a very poor fake of a british accent really brought the series to life.  

Those of you who have never read Narnia before, must be having the experience a new Christian or a person seeking God has when they first read certain parts of Matthew, 1 Corinthians, 1 Peter, 1 Thessalonians, and Revelation.   The words seem strange, the narrative is disjointed, and it talks about events that seem phantasmagorical or even ridiculous. 

Over the next twelve weeks, from today to the beginning of Lent we’re going to be experiencing a renaissance of sorts.  The word renaissance, in French, of course, means “rebirth.”  If you were French, you’d certainly recognize the root word is the same as in John 3:3, where Jesus says to Nicodemus, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.”  And over the next twelve weeks we’re going to be looking at beginnings. 

Today marks the beginning of Advent.  It may seem strange then that the lectionary has taken us to the very end of the story, when ‘the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; 
the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken,’ but to make sense, some stories have to be told from the very end.  For without the very end in view, none of us would want to engage with this story of refugees, of a futile search for shelter, of homelessness, of resources running out, of birth in the filth of a stable, of fear and flight, of ominous prophetic warnings, and of genocide.  And that’s just the first chapter of the book. 

Unless we know the end of the story so well that it will sustain us, we won’t journey on from there to experience the heights of water turned to wine, of crippled limbs restored, of epiphanies of angels, glimpses of God himself.  We won’t go on to hear our own name called out with the twelve, “Follow me!”  We’ll never see sight restored, demons driven out, long-deaf ears hearing for the first time.  Without the end of the story we won’t climb the hill with the multitude to hear that the poor in spirit are blessed, or stand to collect basketful breadcrumbs; we won’t laugh out loud when the sea is stilled or take the first step out of the boat. 

We need the end of the story or else we’ll never weep and wipe oil off beautiful feet, or learn that even the religious can be born again, or fall on our face at the brightness of transfigured glory. 

We won’t stick around for these things because we’ll have auditioned the book by opening it somewhere in the middle, where we read of rejection and beatings, betrayal and denial, bloody suffering, and learned that in order for God’s kingdom to come, innocents often are tortured and mocked, lied about and lied to, abandoned by all but next of kin, and left to die.  We’ll have been so troubled on Friday afternoon, that we won’t be around on Sunday morning to see how that chapter turns out.

It has often been said that we are an Easter People, who live and move on the hope of resurrection.  If the dead are raised, then maybe… just maybe… and our hope catapults us back to an earlier chapter in the book and we read of these things: Yes, God can be raised from the dead, but my daughter has died, my servant is sick, my mother-in-law has a deadly disease, my son has a demon or mental illness, or both, and the stories seem like idle tales because I have prayed and I haven’t seen anyone raised from the dead.  I haven’t seen the healing.  The cancer is still there.  My child is still on drugs.  The heart condition is still terminal.  If the dead are truly raised, where is my resurrection?

That’s why we don’t make it from the hillside on the outskirts of Bethlehem all the way to the hillside on the outskirts of Jerusalem.  We are happy enough to touch tiny perfect hands in a manger, but we recoil when asked to touch hands with the scars of nails.  That’s why we need to read the very end of the story before we read chapter one.  There’s something there that can comfort us in a way the promise of our own salvation, our own resurrection, all by itself, cannot.  We need to know that “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.

The Son of Man has great power.  Focus on that as you peer into the crib and you too will say with Simeon, “Lord, let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel.”  (Luke 2:29-32)  Focus on that, and you’ll walk a little further.

The Son of Man has great power and glory.  Focus on that as you walk through the dark alleyways of your life, when it seems so dark you can only just barely make out his form.  Remember that he has life in himself, and he will bring life and light even where all you see is death and darkness.  Focus on the light, and you’ll walk a little further.

The Son of Man has great power and glory.  And he will send his angels to the cancer ward, the nursing home, the crack house; to your daughter’s bedside, and the deep recesses of your son’s wounded mind.  And do not wonder that the resurrection, the healing, the restoration has not happened yet.  You are living in the middle of the book.  But he will gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.  That is what is at the end of the book.

We were told to learn a lesson from the fig tree.  But Advent comes at a very strange time of the year indeed.  It is still three weeks until the shortest day of the year and three months after that before the trees will even begin to blossom.   (pause)  Oh… but they will begin to blossom.  Yes, it is going to be a long winter.  And there is no guarantee there won’t be another “storm of the century” before the weather turns again.  Heck, there were two just sixty days apart already!  

We’ve been told to learn a lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 29 Even so, when you see these things happening, you know that it is near, right at the door.  But if we did not know that we know that we know that summer is coming, we’d never stick around for winter.  It is just too hard.

But summer is coming and the Son of Man has great power and he said, “Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.”  And he said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.  (John 10:11 ESV)  He also said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” So we can confidently say, “The Lord is my helper; I will not fear.”  (Hebrews 13:5-6 ESV)

The Son of Man has great power and glory.  Summer will come again.  And everything he said will happen. 

But things are not right in my life.   I need help, and no help seems to have come.  It isn’t that I expect instant results, but there has to be something I can do.  Won’t someone please tell me what to do until all this works itself out?  

There’s a children’s tale embedded in the very end of the story because he knows we are all children and he doesn’t want us to ever lose our sense of wonder and amazement.  In the children’s story he told us how to meet life: “Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come.  It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch.”   It is going to feel very like the owner of the house has left and all the responsibility is in your hands.  It is going to feel very like God must be off in some foreign country and that he cannot possibly know or understand your need.  But the things he has promised: restoration, healing, comfort, provision, resurrection, are all his responsibility.  All he has asked you to do is stand at the door and watch for him.   And sometimes the pain or the need or the trouble will be so great all you’ll be able to do is stand at the door and hold onto the doorpost for dear life.  The water of the great flood is lapping at your feet just as it was in The Last Battle.  But if you know The Story, you also know he told his people to put a mezuzah on the door, a little metal or glass capsule, placed just where your hand would go if you were holding the doorpost against some force that threatened to suck you out.  And your hand would be resting on the mezuzah, and you’d remember that part of The Story, because what is in the mezuzah says, “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.” (Deuteronomy 6:4-5 ESV)  That’s all he’s asked you to do.   He knows the rest.

The Son of Man has great power and glory.  Summer will come again.  And everything he said will happen.  And all he wants you to do is hang on.   That’s why it is so important as we begin at the beginning of all the beginnings that we begin at the very end of the Great Story, which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

AMEN

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Impossible


            And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, only with difficulty will a rich person enter the kingdom of heaven. Again I tell you, 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.” When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, “Who then can be saved?” But Jesus looked at them and said, “With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Then Peter said in reply, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, I say to you, in the new world, when the Son of Man will sit on his glorious throne, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first.
(Matthew 19:23-30 ESV)


Jesus doesn’t say, “the rich can’t inherit the kingdom of God.”   He doesn’t ever tell us that wealth, in-and-of itself, is wrong.  What he does tell us is that having great possessions makes grasping the things of God very difficult, and grasping great possessions makes it impossible. 

In the iconic moment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, archeologist Elsa Schneider so badly wants the cup of Christ, the Holy Grail, that she ends up hanging from a cliff over a bottomless abyss, just out of reach of the cup.  Indiana Jones offers her his hand, but she keeps reaching for the cup, and ultimately falls to her death. 

What is clear is this: you can possess things or be possessed by them.  And it isn’t just money.  Who then can be saved? 

A possibly apocryphal story from Martin Luther’s life sheds some light here.  Luther was in the process of translating the Scriptures into German.  A bishop came to him, horrified at the prospect of the Word being in any other language than latin, and said, “Brother Martin, what would happen if the Bible was in the common tongue of the masses?”  Luther replied, “Why bishop!  There’d probably be more Christians!”  The implication was that if the people could read the Bible for themselves, they’d probably find Christ all by themselves.  That doesn’t put bishops out of a job necessarily, but no one likes giving up control.

Who then can be saved?  Without veering into licentiousness, Jesus speaks to the two great political/moral questions of the church these past 40 years.  Can abortionists and gays be saved?  Heh… can Democrats be saved?  Jesus’ answer is unequivocal.  If they can’t be saved, then neither can anyone else.  Man makes it impossible for them to be saved when the church is unwilling to let anyone deal directly with Jesus.  As in Luther’s day, the club is only safe as long as we’re calling the shots on who gets into the club.

Just so, if those the church dubs to be sinners (“unacceptable” sinners, as opposed to those of us with more common sins like anger, gossip, and back-biting) were to be invited into the church to hear the Word preached, to worship, to fellowship, and yes, to participate with us, isn’t it possible that God could bring whatever healing they need, whatever repentance is necessary, to their lives?   As Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.  I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”

So Jesus… if I can’t hold onto my wealth; if I can’t hold onto my control of the church; if I can’t hold onto my self-centered way of relating to people; if I can’t hold onto whatever else is broken in me that I have always defended before you as “just how I am,” what then will I have when you come into your kingdom? 

“You will have whatever you gave – only you’ll have it whole.  Did you give me broken relationships?  You’ll have them 100 times over, whole.  Did you give me wealth?  In the coming age you’ll have more of everything you could possibly want and it will all be Mine, and I will share it with you, and you will be satisfied in a way you never were before.  Did you give me your broken sexuality?  I will teach you what beloved means.” 

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price!  Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.”  (Isaiah 55:1-2 ESV)

Jon