Can God Order My Chaos?

“The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours out speech, and night to night reveals knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words, whose voice is not heard. Their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In them he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom leaving his chamber, and, like a strong man, runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them, and there is nothing hidden from its heat.”     Psalm 19:1-6

I recently performed a funeral for a church member who, as far as I understood him, was neither an artist nor a romantic. He was a physicist. An analytic. He observed nature from the perspective of the scientist, not the poet.

But when he observed the world from that perspective—when he studied the intricate mysteries of how the world works—what he saw there was not accident, but design. He saw order rather than chaos. The physical laws codified by such men as Sir Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein made sense to him because they are descriptions of how the world actually works. And he recognized—even as the verses of this Psalm attest—that the physical world works so wonderfully and perfectly because it was designed.

FAITH VS. REASON?

Sadly, a gap has appeared in our culture between Christianity and science—a seemingly unbridgeable divide between faith and reason. However, many men and women of science—biologists, doctors, physicists, etc.—recognize the design in the universe. And they willingly and reverently ascribe it to the hand of a powerful creator. In fact, the very foundations of science that spurred men like Kepler, Galileo, Newton, and Einstein to their discoveries are anchored in the assumption that the universe is orderly precisely because it has been designed.

In her book, The Soul of Science, Nancy Pearcey makes the case that modern scientific inquiry and discovery would never have materialized without the basis of the Christian worldview that dominated Europe for nearly two thousand years. “Today,” she writes, “a wide range of scholars recognize that Christianity provided both intellectual presuppositions and moral sanction for the development of modern science” (p. 18). She goes on to point out that “modern science arose within a culture saturated with Christian faith. That historical fact alone is suggestive. It was Christianized Europe that became the birthplace of modern science—there and nowhere else.” The recognition of the natural world as a good creation rather than evil, accidental, or divine created a basis for what she calls “‘faith in the possibility of science’” (p. 21). The cultural mandate given to humanity at creation (Genesis 1:28) is truly the driving force behind all scientific enterprise.

For so many thinking people–including my late friend–the design, rationality, order, and predictability of the natural world affirm and solidify faith in God. Because if the world was carefully and wisely designed, the logical inference is the existence of a Designer. As the Psalmist wrote: “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (v. 1). The very creation, in its design and its beauty, is speaking—singing, talking, even shouting—to us about its Maker.

The question is, are we paying attention?

WHAT ABOUT THE CHAOS?

It’s easy to analyze objective data and discern evidence of a Designer. We might recognize his design when we contemplate the stars or the beautiful mathematical simplicity of the theory of relativity. However, life is short and full of difficulty. It’s consuming, and oftentimes, hard. It brings with it joy, but also pain and suffering and death. It’s difficult to discern a Designer when chaos rather than order is what defines our days. At times like these, God’s fingerprints are not so easily evident in the mess.

The scientific method itself requires an assumption that verifiable results can be reproduced. That the machine of the physical universe, as understood through a scientific lens, will always be consistent. That there is order. But when we look at our lives, it often seems like someone threw a monkey wrench into the middle of the machine, and the result is chaos.

However, if there is a divine Designer, we can be certain of at least two things. First, we can know that he not only designed the universe, but he also designed each of us perfectly, in his image. Secondly, we can have certainty that he is in control of everything, including the minutes and moments of our lives.

SO WHERE DO I FIT?

In another Psalm, King David echoes the opening verses of Psalm 19:

“O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. Out of the mouth of babes and infants, you have established strength because of your foes, to still the enemy and the avenger. When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”     Psalm 8:1-4

David is asking the question that we all ask: “In this great, well-designed, and orderly universe—a universe you have obviously created, oh God—where do I fit?”

Let’s listen in as David answers his own question by affirming the dignity and worth of our lives: “Yet you [God] have made him [that is, all of mankind] a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor…” (v. 5). God has made us according to design, with a certain glory and honor that reflects his own. He has given us a privileged place in his created universe.

More than this, he has fashioned even the daily details of our lives: “in your book were written, every one of them,” David again writes, “the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them” (Psalm 139:16). The same order that we can see when we look at the stars in the sky, the design of a strand of DNA, or the symmetry of a butterfly can also be found in our bodies, our minds, and the seconds and minutes of our days.

TAKE HEART

And this is Good News, because it reminds us that God has not forgotten us! He has not left us alone. He does not look down on our misery and turn his back, like the absent god of the Deists. Instead, he walks with us when nothing makes sense. He journeys with us when we are lonely. He comforts us in our grieving. He gives us strength when we are fatigued. And he “works all things together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose” (Rom. 8:28).

“The LORD is my shepherd”—again, the words of the Shepherd-King David —“I shall not want.” In other words, I go without nothing that I need. Why? Because my Shepherd cares for me in every detail of my life–even the difficult ones. The Psalm continues: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:1,4).

The chaos of life, though very real as a result of the sin in the world, cannot ultimately touch me. Even when it presses in on all sides, casting shadows on every moment of our lives, we can be assured it is not the last word. Why? Because God has promised not only to walk with us through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, but he has walked that same road himself. He has done so in the Person of Jesus Christ, who became human and walked a very human, very lonely, road to death. Our Savior knows exactly what we are going through in our darkest and most chaotic moments. So take heart.

Take heart in this as well: that the God who made you, who designed you, who governs your days, and who loves you, cares for you, and comforts you—has also made you for a purpose. He desires both your love and your praise. What a privilege and opportunity we have to add to the praise of the created world—the world that in its simple design “declares the glory of God.” We have the privilege to sing in praise of this good and gracious creator. We have opportunity to love him and praise him, even when it’s difficult. Even when the tears come easier than the songs.

And he will give you the strength, even for that.

 

Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Gleanings – May 10, 2019

Gleanings are some items I’ve found lying around the web that I’ve found helpful this week.

The Joy of the Father

This is so good–especially the video of Prince Harry.

5 Reasons Spouses Shouldn’t Sit Together in Church

Such a good article on welcome in the church: “Every week, people wander into our churches for the first time.  Some have recently moved and are actively seeking a gospel-centered community.  We should be ready to welcome them to the team.  But many others haven’t been to church in a while – or ever.  Today could determine whether they ever come back.  For many, it has taken great courage to come.  For some, walking into a church feels as alien as placing a bet at the dog track would for you or me.  They don’t know where to sit, or what to say, or the tunes to our songs.  If we neglect the people who walk through our doors on a Sunday, we are failing on the bunny slopes of mission.”

What Ever Happened to Funerals?

“Now, many families are replacing funerals (where the body is present) with memorial services (where the body is not). Religious burial requirements are less a consideration in a country where only 36 percent of Americans say they regularly attend religious services, nearly a third never or rarely attend, and almost a quarter identify as agnostic or atheist, according to the Pew Research Center.” 

As a pastor of an aging congregation, I conduct many more funerals–now often called “memorial services”–than I do weddings. I’ve noticed a change over the years, and this WaPo article hits on it as a broader phenomenon on how our culture deals with death. Are the changes good, or do they simply reflect the entertainment-driven, consumeristic, self-centered posture of our culture? And what part does the church play in speaking rightly of death while offering hope of the resurrection?

Pray for Muslims during Ramadan

I’m signing up for this 30-day journey of prayer for Muslims during the month of Ramadan. Will you join me?

Rest from Connecting…in Order to Connect

Sabbath rest should reach even to our ever-connectedness. Maybe try shutting off your device for 24 hours and see what happens: “So many of us are running on empty and simply need a break. It’s ok to do nothing sometimes. You don’t have to read every article, listen to every podcast, or watch every show. It is not just ok to disconnect, it’s required. We weren’t meant to be this connected.”

Prophetic over Relevant

Guess what: Relevance isn’t everything. “Virtually every moment in which Christians blazed to God’s glory came as they accepted a prophetic role over mere relevance.”

 

Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

On the Public Reading of Scripture

A HOLY WEEK EXPERIMENT

During Holy Week–the week leading up to Easter each year–our church generally devotes a fair amount of energy to different events and programs. We often put on a Messianic Seder Meal and a Good Friday service. Sometimes we’ve hosted prayer vigils, Maundy Thursday services, or prayer labyrinths. A week historically set aside for reverent remembrance tends to get filled with busy-ness and programs.

This year, we did something different, putting into practice and idea I  borrowed from a pastor friend of mine who had done something very similar at his church for several years. And ironically, though this “program” took up a lot of time during the week—a total of 14 hours over 5 days—it was simple and life-giving.

Here’s what we did: we invited people to gather 3 times every day for one hour at a time, at 6:00 in the morning, at noon, and at 6:00 in the evening. The only two things we did during that time was to read Scripture aloud and pray. As an experiment, I was not sure how it would go. I didn’t know if people would show up, nor did I have an idea of how they would take it.

On Monday morning, I showed up dutifully to the church at about 5:40 AM, turned on the lights, unlocked a few doors, and waited. As I stood in the lobby and sipped my coffee, I wondered what I would do when (not if) no one else showed up. “Well,” I told myself, “I’ll do exactly what I would do if 100 people showed up: begin at Matthew 1 and read aloud for 45 minutes, then respond to the reading in prayer.”

At about 5:58, I heard a car pull up. Two friends—fairly new believers—got out, carrying their Bibles, their own cups of coffee, and a distinctly sleepy look in their eyes. “Good morning!” I greeted them with a smile, as they slipped in the door from the darkness of the morning.

“Where is everybody?” John asked.

“I think we’re it,” I replied, “and that’s about triple what I was thinking would be here about 5 minutes ago!”

We walked down to the front of the sanctuary, I sat on a stool with a music stand in front of me. On it sat a large print ESV Bible, already opened to Matthew 1. John & Jennifer sat down in one of the pews facing me, and opened to the same place.

“Well,” I said, “Thanks for being here. The plan is to simply read through the Gospels a chapter at a time, out loud. I’ll start, and if you’d like to read, one of you can pick up in chapter 2. We’ll just keep reading until about 6:45, then spend the rest of the time in prayer.”

The hour went by amazingly quickly. And over the week, more and more people showed up. Our largest gathering wasn’t huge—just over 20 people were present. John & Jennifer showed up every morning at 6:00 (along with a number of others as the week went on), and they were present any other time their schedules allowed. They were sad when they had to miss one of our times.

As we read together, and aloud, people began to experience the powerful and life-giving impact of the Word of God. We intentionally spent time in the Gospels because we wanted to look at Jesus. We wanted to walk with him. We wanted to hear his words—spoken aloud, as they were to those who originally heard them—and be shaped by them. And we were.

As awkward and weird and maybe even boring as this time may sound, it was anything but. For those who participated, it was surprisingly powerful. And the word I heard more than anything from participants was “life-giving.” It was a truly life-giving time of swimming in the word.

On a personal level, I spent 14 hours that week, with brothers and sisters in Christ, reading and listening to the Word of God read—from Matthew 1 all the way through Acts 28. When Saturday morning came, I missed it. As did others.

DEVOTE YOURSELF TO THE PUBLIC READING OF SCRIPTURE

“Until I come,” Paul commanded his protege, Timothy, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13). Many churches don’t even devote themselves to the public teaching of Scripture, much less the public reading of Scripture. We think it too much—especially in a highly visualized, digitized, and distracted world—to ask people to “listen” to something read aloud for more than 30 seconds.

And yet we believe, as the author to the Hebrews wrote:

“the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”    (Hebrews 4:12-13)

And as God declared in Isaiah:

“my word…shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which i purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”    (Isaiah 55:11)

I’m not sure exactly what God’s purposes were for his people during the week that we corporately read, listened, and prayed his Word. I know that he intended to impart life. And he did. I know that he intended to encourage us. And he did. I know that he intended to bless us. And he did. And I know that 14 hours of the public reading of Scripture and the prayers offered during those times has and will bear fruit that we may never know about until all things are made perfect on that Day.

Until then, we will continue to “devote ourselves to the public reading of Scripture.” In fact, we plan to incorporate more of the public reading of Scripture in each of our weekly services. There is little doubt next Holy Week will follow much of the same pattern as this year. We discovered, if nothing else, that we desperately need God’s Word–it is life. it is food. As Jesus himself, quoting Deuteronomy, asserted:

“man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”    (Matthew 4:4)

God has invited us to come to his feast–not alone, but together. What better diet for a church to have than the very words of God, spoken to and over them as much as possible.

Photo by Stephen Radford on Unsplash

Gleanings – May 3, 2019

Gleanings are some items I’ve found lying around the web that I’ve found helpful this week.

Gospel-Driven Prayer

One of my greatest burdens as a pastor is leading a church to be a praying church. I honestly don’t think we can fully honor God as we should if we are not depending on him in prayer. This article is helpful as I continue to think (and pray) about our lack of prayer:  “So, do you want to become an advanced pray-er? Then you don’t need a stopwatch. You don’t need to learn new contemplative methods. You don’t need to do knee exercises. But you do need to become an expert ask-er. This is gospel-driven prayer.”

Impractical Beauty

This is a great meditation on the burning of Notre Dame, the necessity of beauty, and the call to faithful work even when you don’t see the great “end”: “Beauty, as such, is not useful; yet without it, we would not be what we are. This is why a religion indifferent to beauty is a religion indifferent to the real end for which we are made.”

KJV Only?

“Why does my Bible say something different than yours?” is a question I hear in pastoral ministry. I enjoy answering questions like this based on my understanding of text criticism, source documents, and the transmission and divine preservation of Scripture. This is an interesting article for Bible nerds and other interested people that gives a balanced-position (and a helpful tool) for seeing the similarities and differences in our biblical texts:  “After two years of work on KJVParallelBible.org, I have come to believe that a firm grounding in the differences and the similarities, inductively gathered, is the best defense against the unhealthy skepticisms of both Ehrman on the left and Ruckman on the right.”

Privileged or Persecuted?

Ross Douthat over at the New York Times, in light of the Easter Day bombings in Sri Lanka: “…if the equation of traditional Christianity with privilege has some relevance to the actual Euro-American situation, when applied globally it’s a gross category error…One of the basic facts of contemporary religious history is that Christians around the world are persecuted on an extraordinary scale.” This is news to most Westerners who equate Christianity with conservatism and right-wing politics.

Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

 

The Surprise of Resurrection

Note: This article was first featured at Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

The children, in their forgetful playfulness, left the farm gate open again, giving free rein to the wandering instincts of our old Bassett Hound. Equipped with her overactive sniffer, instigated by the Earth-shaking peals from the sky, she disappeared into the stormy night.

It might have been hours later when we discovered her absence, and began to comb our rural neighborhood, searching in vain. We looked in some of her favorite haunts, but when these turned up as dead-ends, we widened the search. Emotions rose. Darkness descended. Rain soaked. Hope slipped.

We began knocking on doors. “Have you seen our hound?” we inquired, only to be answered with the shaking heads of sympathetic neighbors. No one had seen her. Rising to the surface, the fear that a faithful and beloved hound was missing, possibly for good.

Hours and days of fruitless searching passed. Local telephone poles displayed our homemade appeals: “Missing dog. Please call.” Animal shelters took our report, joining in the search. More days passed. No luck. No word. She had gone off to die, we figured, and would be gone forever.

We sat the kids down to have the serious, life-and-death talk. Coming and going. Breathing and burying. Living on a small hobby farm had not insulated our kids from the births and deaths of dozens, but this was something different. The family dog was no chicken or rabbit or cow or bee. Tears came, accompanied by questions, hugs, and comfort.

The days turned into weeks, the weeks into months, and we carried on with our lives.

THE SURPRISE OF RESURRECTION

About two months after the fateful storm and the events of that night receded into memory, the miraculous happened. My wife was driving home when all of a sudden, there she was—our hound, back from the dead! She was alive again!

Pulling the car to the side of the road, a mass of emotions rose up in Keri. Shock and awe at a healthy, living, breathing pet we once thought deceased.

Though never really dead, she went missing from our lives only to be found in the care of some kind neighbors. Wires, but not paths, had crossed. The finders couldn’t find the owners. The owners missed the finders by hours, maybe even by a few feet. Our dog lived for a time in another home, under another name (Lazarus would have been fitting). Now a second caring family had to say goodbye, experiencing grief and loss in a different way, on a different day.

My middle daughter shed tears on that day, too, her body wracked with the uncontrollable convulsions of a healthy sob. I held her, dry shirt sacrificed to receive tears, asking her why these tears were flowing, even now. Her response: “I’m just so happy that she’s alive!”

Resurrection always surprises.

Jesus’ resurrection was no different. Even though he had prepared his disciples for its inevitability (Mark 8:31; 9:31; 10:34, et al), they were still shocked. They responded in fear, joy, and worship (Matt. 28:8, 9; Mark 16:8; Luke 24:12, 31), while some even doubted it altogether (Matt. 28:17; Luke 24:11, 38, 41; John 20:24-29). These strong, mixed emotions mirrored the intensity of my wife’s and daughter’s responses, suggesting that witnessing resurrection may send our entire being into shock.

RESURRECTION IS CENTRAL TO THE GOSPEL

We can understand, then, how Jesus’ resurrection quickly became the central theme of the Apostles’ message. We see this in both Peter’s (Acts 2:24-32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 10:40-41) and Paul’s preaching (Acts 13:30-37; 17:3, 31-32; 23:6; 24:15, 21; 26:6-8, 23), as well as throughout their Epistles (Rom. 6:4-11; 1 Cor. 15; Eph. 1:9-20; Phil. 3:10-11; 1 Pet. 1:3; 3:21).

Jesus’ death is truly the crux (the word itself is Latin for cross) of the gospel. But without the resurrection the cross is devoid of power. The suffering of Christ won’t do anything for us—like free us from our great enemies of sin and death—unless Christ was also raised from the dead. This is why Christ’s resurrection is central to the gospel message. Because if it didn’t happen, “we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).

If resurrection is central to the gospel, then it should be core to our entire lives as disciples. It should affect not just our past justification or future glorification. It should deeply influence our present sanctification. Every part of the gospel should affect every part of our lives, and to “let your manner of life be worthy of the gospel of Christ” (Phil. 1:27), must entail, as Eugene Peterson has put it, “practicing resurrection.”[i]

However, we don’t always practice resurrection. Often, we don’t even expect it. Paul’s question rings true: “Why is it thought incredible by any of you that God raises the dead?” (Acts 26:28).

RECLAIMING RESURRECTION

Here are three reasons why resurrection fails to make a real impact in our lives, along with three corresponding practices to help us live out the power of the resurrection.

Problem #1: We struggle to believe in resurrection. A dead person coming back to life—it just doesn’t seem possible. But look around. Resurrection is built into the world around us. Spring appears without fail after the long, cold winter. Seeds fall into the ground, die, and become plants. New life is a part of God’s created order. However, faith becomes fragile when we bump up against the evil in the world around us and the sin in our own hearts. Death seems more real than the promise of resurrection, and so our view of it becomes obscured by the clouds of evil in our world.

Practice: Expect resurrection power. This is exactly why Paul prayed for the eyes of the Ephesians’ hearts to be opened, so they might know “the immeasurable greatness of [God’s] power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph. 1:19-20). To rekindle faith in resurrection, we can foster hearts that see God’s power working around us. We can cultivate wonder and gratitude at every day miracles: water droplets, children laughing, sunrises, thunderstorms, blooming daffodils, snow-capped mountains, and the intricate beauty of each human face you see. Seeing small miracles trains our eyes to expect the big ones.

Problem #2: We become stuck in the past. As creatures of habit, the normally recurring parts of our lives tend to be most real. However, because they are regular, they also carry with them a sense of the mundane. They are expected but don’t carry a sense of expectancy. We’re not holding our collective breath waiting for the sun to come up tomorrow. We desire this kind of normality. Consistency and stability are important to us. And the regular rhythms of God’s creation—the common graces—provide us with the stability we crave. We might desire the unusual, miraculous in-breaking of resurrection power in the present, but we have come to accept and expect the status quo because it has always worked in the past.

Practice: Look to the future. In order to allow the resurrection to have an impact on our present discipleship, we must surely look to the past, to Christ’s own death and resurrection. But we ought to also look to the future resurrection and meditate on Christ’s coming. This was the practice of the first Christians: “Therefore, preparing your minds for action and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).

Problem #3: Resurrection is out of our control. When we plant a seed in the ground and water it, our work is basically done. We’ve tended and cared for the soil. We’ve done our best to provide the necessary water and sunlight. Our contribution to the life of the seed is minimal. The potential of life inherent in the seed is unlocked through its death. There is not a magical incantation we speak over the seed, or a training program we put it through.

The same is true with conception and birth. Our scientific society has distilled this miracle to a necessary biological act of evolution, emptying child-bearing of its miraculous mystery. In our desire to “control” and to “understand,” we have undercut the possibility of resurrection power. Fittingly, Jesus used both metaphors—a dying seed (John 12:24) and childbirth (John 3:1-8)—to describe the necessities of death and resurrection. Resurrection is the uncontrolled and uncontrollable breaking in of life into the human experience.

Practice: Give up control. In Romans 6-8, Paul paints a compelling picture of the power of resurrection in the life of the believer. Sin no longer has power over Jesus’ followers. As we learn to actively walk in the Spirit, we discover that God’s activity is what defines us, transforms us, and will ultimately save us. God’s action of resurrection is primary and completely out of our control. And this is truly Good News, because of all people, we Christians should be the least surprised and the most transformed by resurrection.

Let’s practice resurrection and help the world continue to experience the surprise of the resurrection as they witness the life and light of Christ in us.


[i] Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010). Peterson borrowed the phrase itself from Wendell Berry.

Photo by Diana Vargas on Unsplash

Gleanings – April 30, 2019

Gleanings are some items I’ve found lying around the web that I’ve found helpful this week.

All (Some) Things Gilead

There are very few times I’ll put a book down, exhale, and simply say, “Wow.” But this is exactly what happened when I read Marilynne Robison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Gilead. While reading it, my wife asked me, “How’s that book?” Uncharacteristically, I answered, “Amazing.” “Really?” she replied in disbelief? Then she read it…and said the same thing. (The other book we’ve both read with the same response in the past few years is Peace Like a River…perhaps I’ll feature that one some other time.) Written in the first person, from an aging father to a young son, Gilead takes place in a small rural Midwestern town in the 1950s. I cannot recommend it enough, and I’ve been reminded of my need to re-read it again this week by these first two resources:

Russell Moore Interview with Marilynn Robinson  The President of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission had the opportunity to interview Robinson on his podcast recently. This is an interesting conversation with her that gives some insight into her take on the world and her emphasis on grace. For those interested, you might also check out Barack Obama’s interview (in two parts) with Marilynn Robinson, from The New York Times Review of Books.

Close Reads: Gilead  One of my favorite podcasts, from the CiRCE Institute. You will be surprised at some of the books they tackle, which is part of the reason it’s such an intriguing Podcast. The three participants (David Kern, Angelina Stanford, and Tim McIntosh) are thoughtful, well-read, insightful classical educators who approach literature from a Christian Classical perspective. They tend to go on a lot of tangents, but it would be worth your time to read Gilead along with them. They give a good example of how to have thoughtful, rich discussions around the Great Books.

A Bit Late on the Resurrection

Practicing Resurrection: In light of Easter, I recently wrote an article, featured over at Gospel-Centered Discipleship, about the surprise of resurrection and reasons why we don’t (but should) live out the resurrection every day.

Dead Men Live: As always, Plough doesn’t disappoint with this article from Daniel Stulac, which will press on some modern “conservative” understandings of Scripture, but it’s worth a critical and thoughtful read:  “The resurrection, more than any other of the church’s claims, has had a way of distinguishing Christians from their cultural surroundings. And so it is not surprising that the church has wrestled with the problem and meaning of the resurrection so profoundly in the modern scientific age, when common sense seems to rule out the idea that dead men live…But once the church consigns its ‘sight’ to anything other than Christ’s risenness, its missional engine stalls.”

And what about Judas? Thought-provoking article, meditating on how the greatest betrayer in history might be a lot more like us than we ever thought. From one of my favorites, Joshua Gibbs over at CiRCE: “Judas simply regarded his sin very lightly. He did not think a minor betrayal of Christ to be of much consequence. When Judas saw that Christ was condemned to die, though, ‘he was seized with remorse’ (Matthew 27:3), which suggests that Judas never thought things would go as far as they did. After all, he agreed to tell the chief priests where Christ was, but he never agreed to kill Christ or to testify against Him.”

Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

Gleanings – April 19, 2019

Gleanings are some items I’ve found lying around the web that I’ve found helpful this week.

Secularism’s Misplaced Confidence

“So perhaps its time to gird our loins and stop such public pouting, especially as Christians who know that the kingdoms of this age already belong to Jesus through the work of the cross, and that the vision of human flourishing espoused by our secular agenda is at odds with that of the one King Jesus is calling us to and, more importantly, bringing us to in fulfilment at the end of the age.”

A couple of articles for pastors and those who (try to) love them:

Thick Skins. Big Hearts.

My wife and I often pray that God would give us thick skins and big hearts as we do our best to serve our local church. This article hit the nail on the head of what our prayers are getting at.

Pastors Are Special

From Jared Wilson: “Now that I’m not a pastor, I have taken seriously one of my ministerial goals in serving pastors and advocating for pastors. To that end, if you’re one of those who thinks pastors whine too much and work too little, I want to share with you some reasons you may not have considered that pastoral work really is different.”

Sanctity of Life Focus

This week, the movie Unplanned comes to our little local theater, and I’m a bit nervous to watch it. Not because of any repercussions, but because I know it’s going to be heart-wrenching. Sometimes looking into the face of evil is the only way to resist it. My wife and I have always been pro-life advocates, and I hope the film bolsters our desire to do even more to support life in all forms: Pregnancy Resource Centers, adoption, foster care, etc. Here are a couple of articles that help pull the curtain back–like this film is purported to do–and give us a new perspective on this worldwide moral crisis.

Why Pro-Choice Movies Are Rare

In light of the recent release of Unplanned, author and film critic Brett McCracken analyzes why pro-choice movies just don’t work well: “…making light of abortion just doesn’t work. There’s no getting around the heaviness and cruelty of it, both for the child who will never get a chance at life and also the mother (and father) who cannot undo and must live with the decision. It simply doesn’t work to make a ‘feel good’ film or TV show about abortion. When attempts are made, it’s just disturbing.”

We Murder Babies

A sensible view of the abortion debate from outside our first-world insanity: “As we chatted about his life and mine, he asked me what’s meant by that little euphemism he has seen in Western media: ‘a woman’s right to choose.’ As I explained it, his face registered first shock, then disgust, then judgment. He made it clear that in his assessment Canada must be a nation that is hopelessly backward and shockingly barbaric.”

When Reason Does Not Suffice

This is a fantastic article that gets to the core of the abortion debate, from one of my favorite authors, Anthony Esolen: “If the child lives, the mother’s life will not be the same, because if we accept the principles that allow the child to live, none of our lives can be the same. There is no way to guarantee, as some pro-life people seem to want us to do, a world safe for the unborn child that is also a world of total sexual and economic autonomy. In any world in which autonomy is the highest ideal, the child—that incarnate sign of our dependence and existential poverty—must go. The serpent says we shall be as gods. That is the argument we must defeat.

Supporting Adoptive Families Through Prayer

We can practice pro-life values by supporting adoptive families in practical ways, and especially in prayer. I found most of the items for prayer in this article applicable to every family, but the prayer item on attachment is particularly important for adoptive and foster families. Perhaps as you read this, you’ll be moved to pray more regularly and fervently for adoptive/foster families.

 

Photo by Paz Arando on Unsplash

Struggling to Fit Church on Your Plate?

This post originally appeared at Gospel-Centered Discipleship.

Many American churches have long reveled in the cultural phenomenon known as the “potluck.” The regular challenge of the potluck is, of course, to maximize limited plate space by trying to fit as much food as possible. Rookies overload with the initial dishes and run out of room by the end of the table; veterans stand out for their expert and creative layering techniques.

The potluck plate is a fitting metaphor for our lives. We all have a limited amount of time and energy, and we are called by God to use these assets wisely. The challenge is deciding how everything will fit. Our plates fill quickly—which isn’t all that surprising in our anxiety-ridden, fast-paced culture—with activities such as work and family and school and church and sports and rest and chores and . . . well, the list goes on.

In case you missed it, there’s a problem. “Well sure,” you might respond, “too much to do and too little time and energy. I need a bigger plate!” But that’s not the real problem. The real problem is the presence of one particular dish in our buffet line of life options: the one labeled “church.”

For followers of Christ, there is something deeply askew in our view of the world when Jesus’ church has become one option among many, one casual activity among a multitude.

AN IDENTITY PROBLEM

Imagine two different scenarios. In the first, you’re dining alone at your favorite all-you-can-eat buffet restaurant. As much food as you can dream of but no one to share it with.

Now, imagine a second scenario. Another meal, but one where you have gathered in celebration with loved ones around a home-cooked holiday feast.

Do you feel how these two experiences are drastically different?

One could certainly enjoy a buffet alone, but there is a profound relational reality that can take place over a meal, especially for believers called into God’s family (Luke 22:14-23; Gal. 6:10; Rev. 19:6-9). Here’s the point: The church is the family you’re eating with, not just another option on your plate.

Seeing the church as just another option among many is a problem of mistaken identity. It’s a problem of who we understand ourselves to be. If I see myself as ultimate, then everything on my plate serves me. Its purpose is to feed me, to satisfy me. I can take it or leave it based on my desires and preferences. As a result, we have become a culture of people dining alone at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

Conversely, if my identity isn’t about me, then I recognize a reality that’s far bigger than me. All of a sudden, the plate of food in my hand takes on a more meaningful, relational significance—having more to do with serving that greater reality than with serving me. Understanding the bigger reality, and my place in the family, helps me to see church not as an option in a self-serving buffet line, but as a deeper reality which reorients how I see the meaning of my own life.

The Apostle Peter brings clarity to our identity as a people in two tightly packed verses:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy (1 Pet. 2:9-10).

OUR IDENTITY IS PLURAL

The first thing to notice from this text is the plural nature of the church. Race, priesthood, nation, and people are all collective nouns. The word choice here defines our identity as a community rather than as individuals.

In the context of 1 Peter 2, this communal reality has already been anchored in an architectural metaphor: the church is a “spiritual house” made up of “spiritual stones” (v. 5), with Jesus himself being the chosen and precious cornerstone (vv. 6-8). Each individual stone—unique in itself—takes on an even greater value as it fits in place and makes up the whole. Furthermore, the term “house” in 2:5 also alludes to the church as a family, living together under one roof with all of the relational beauty and messiness that comes with it.

But Peter isn’t finished helping us recalibrate our identity. He now describes the church using metaphors that beautifully connect our identity to Israel’s.

A CHOSEN RACE AND PRIESTHOOD

God unilaterally elected Israel to be his special people, saying, “[T]he Lord set his heart in love on your fathers and chose their offspring after them, you above all peoples, as you are this day” (Deut. 10:15), calling them “…my chosen people, the people whom I formed for myself that they might declare my praise” (Isa. 43:20b-21).

In the same way, the church’s identity is grounded in the gracious doctrine of election: “But you are a chosen race…” (1 Pet. 2:9). In Jesus the Messiah, God has set his favor upon the church—made up of Jew and Gentile from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation—creating one, new race (see Eph. 2:11-22). His choice is not grounded in anything we have done but in his own sovereign pleasure.

Peter also calls the church “a royal priesthood” (1 Pet. 2:9), echoing God’s words to a newly-liberated Israel at Mt. Sinai: “And you shall be to me a kingdom of priests . . .” (Ex. 19:6).

A priest is one with the right of access to God, a privilege given to all believers through the work of our high priest, King Jesus (Eph. 2:18; 3:12). The church is uniquely positioned to both serve and have the ear of the king. Like the priests of old, our entire existence should be wrapped up in service to the king rather than ourselves. And because of the access he has provided to himself, we have the distinct privilege of serving the world through a ministry of intercession.

A HOLY NATION AND HIS OWN POSSESSION

The church is “a holy nation,” which means we’ve been set apart for something special (Ex. 19:6; 1 Pet. 2:9). We have a different purpose, call, and job than the rest of the world. Our existence should contrast with that of the world, as it is grounded in service to the king. Our “citizenship is in heaven” and our allegiance is not to any earthly nation or ruler (Phil. 3:20). It is to King Jesus alone.

In light of the church’s sole allegiance belonging to Christ, we are rightly referred to as “a people for his own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). This accentuates both God’s ownership of the church and his attitude towards her as “treasured” (Ex. 19:5). “You are not your own, for you were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20). He dearly loves his own.

A PEOPLE WHO HAVE RECEIVED MERCY

When God commanded the prophet Hosea in the Old Testament to marry a woman of questionable moral character, he was directed to give their children names such as “No Mercy” and “Not My People” (Hos. 1:6, 9). Like Hosea’s wife, Gomer, the people of Israel had been unfaithful to their husband, the Lord. Hosea’s children became prophetic arrows[1] aimed at the idolatry and unfaithfulness of Israel. To not be God’s people was to be separated from him. To not receive mercy was to be under judgment. This is the tragic, natural state of fallen humanity apart from Christ.

But separation and judgment are not the last words! God “will have mercy on No Mercy, and I will say to Not My People, ‘You are my people’; and he shall say, ‘You are my God’” (Hos. 2:23). Just as God was merciful in his posture towards rebellious Israel, he is glad to extend mercy to depraved sinners. This gracious promise has become a reality in the church.

ALL BECAUSE OF JESUS

In the very center of these jam-packed verses, we find a surprise purpose statement: “that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). We are called to proclaim the excellence of Jesus, not ourselves. This statement fails to extol the value of the individual or the preferences of the consumer.

The church does not exist to selfishly glorify itself. Rather, the church exists by and for Jesus. Every piece of our identity is anchored in him and, therefore, our purpose is for him. He is everything to and for the church. The church has nothing and receives nothing apart from Jesus. The loftiness of our identity is a gift earned and purchased by another; therefore, all the glory for the worth, identity, and gifts of the church belong to Jesus. The church is what it is by Jesus Christ and for the glory of Jesus Christ!

And so, the church exists “to proclaim the excellencies” of Jesus. We are who we are in order to revel in his beauty, delight in his perfections, be astounded by his attributes, and wonder at his works. We live and breathe and fellowship and sing and preach and listen and pray and witness because we rejoice in the excellencies of Jesus.

When we have been “called . . . out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9), suddenly we are members of a new kingdom (Col. 1:13), a new family. This new identity frees us from the anxious, fast-paced thinking of our culture to recognize the family we eat with—who are more important, real, glorious, beautiful, and messier than our own selfish desires. When we properly see and live out this identity as the family of God, we might just find our plates filling up with all the right things.


[1] See Frederick Buechner, Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1979), 43-44.

Photo by Hannah Busing on Unsplash

 

Enduring Faithfulness in the Mundane

I love this quote by G. K. Chesterton that I ran across again while reading back through Jared C. Wilson’s Gospel Wakefulness (a worthy read, by the way):

Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, ‘Do it again’; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening; ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.

Every one of us longs for the exceptional and exhilarating and carries a disdain for the boring and monotonous. Our affections and attentions jump from one thing to the next, seeking out our next thrill. We are constantly drawn to those things that might excite for a moment, but in the end are mere distractions.

The older I get, and the longer I’m in ministry, the more deeply I understand that success is found in enduring faithfulness in and through the mundane. Taking joy in the everyday disciplines of Word, prayer, shepherding, and care is something I must regularly grow down into.

The glory of God shines through the mundane for those who have eyes to see.

 

Quote from G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: Random House, 1959), 58.

Photo by MI PHAM on Unsplash

The Freedom of Forgiveness

by Mike Phay

Jesus once told a story (Matthew 18:23-35) about a servant who owed his master a ridiculous amount of money—billions of dollars in today’s currency. In order to recoup at least some of this astronomical debt, the master—well within his legal rights at the time—commanded the sale of this servant and his entire family. In desperation, the man fell to his knees and pleaded with his master: “Have patience with me. I will pay you everything.” 

You can imagine the collective eye-roll in the room because in reality, there was absolutely no way this man could repay his debt. It just wasn’t possible. And it was clear that the man simply did not understand the enormity of his debt and his inability to repay. He was clearly asking for the wrong thing. He didn’t need patience so that he could repay; he needed forgiveness because he couldn’t repay.

And that’s exactly what his master granted. Touched by the man’s desperate plea, he felt pity for him and extended mercy. He didn’t offer a payment plan or reduce the man’s debt to a manageable amount. He completely wiped it out, down to the very last penny.

One would expect a response of deep gratitude from this servant, akin to a convict strapped to the electric chair receiving a midnight pardon. However—perhaps still thinking he was on the hook to repay his debt—the servant went out, free now to make collections of his own.

He promptly tracked down a fellow-servant—someone on his own level—who owed him an insignificant fraction of what he had owed his master: the equivalent of about $10,000. In his intense self-interest, the servant greeted his fellow-servant by seizing him, choking him, and demanding immediate repayment. In response, this man’s debtor fell to his knees and pleaded, “Have patience with me and I will pay you!” But instead of pity, this man’s pleas were met with the cold demands of justice: he threw the man in debtor’s prison until he could repay.

Word quickly returned to the master that the recently-forgiven servant had treated his fellow-servant in this way, and the man quickly found himself once again before his master. This time, greeted with fury: “You wicked servant,” the master said, “why didn’t you extend the same kind of mercy you had received?” In anger, the master threw him into prison until he could repay his own debt: which, the story makes clear, was impossible.

Jesus ended the story with these words: “So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart” (Matthew 18:35). 

Jesus’ story makes clear the severity and depth of our obligation to God, due to our sin, and the magnanimity of God’s astounding offer of forgiveness. We are like the death-row inmate, receiving the 11th-hour pardon. And one test of whether or not we’ve truly received that forgiveness is our own willingness to forgive others. Forgiveness is transformative—it allows those who have received and understood it to graciously and freely extend it to others. Those who withhold forgiveness are essentially like the newly pardoned inmate staying in the electric chair, begging for execution regardless of the pardon which has been offered.

It’s true that forgiveness is no easy task. When we’ve been wronged, it feels like the only possible and right avenues of response are bitterness, resentment, and revenge. Unfortunately, without realizing it, these become the self-made prisons we lock ourselves up in. And we know it. Yes, forgiveness will cost us. We will have to take a loss and lay down our right to be repaid. We will have to drop the grudge we are so closely nurturing, releasing our right to dispense justice. We will have to let go of these things, but in the end, we will be free. 

Martin Luther King, Jr. once wrote:

“Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend. We never get rid of an enemy by meeting hate with hate; we get rid of an enemy by getting rid of enmity.”

If you struggle to forgive, the starting place is a recognition of your own desperate need for forgiveness. God pursues us by offering infinite forgiveness and thereby removing the enmity between us and him (Romans 5:1-11). He transforms enemies into friends (John 15:15) and even calls them children (1 John 3:1). To receive and be transformed by this forgiveness provides us with the currency needed to forgive others, as difficult as it might be. We can begin to find the freedom that belongs to those who have not only truly experienced forgiveness themselves but are able to release others from the bondage of their misdeeds, that they too might experience the freedom of forgiveness.

 

Photo by Michael Olsen on Unsplash

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