Archive for December, 2008

Part 2: The Cry of the Oppressed

“What are we waiting for? And what are we going to do about it in the meantime? Those two questions shape this book. First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second” (NT Wright, Surprised By Hope, xi)

“God is looking for a body” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 34)

“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son.'” (Matthew 2:14-15)

It is easy to miss that verse. The prophet Hosea first said it (11:1-11). When he said it, he was talking about the people of Israel, the Israelites, the Chosen People. He was reflecting on the story of their national identity: The Exodus from slavery in Egypt; ruminating on the prospects of future enslavement in Assyria or Babylon. “The NT writers insist that the OT can be rightly interpreted only if the entire revelation is kept in perspective as it is historically unfolded (e.g., Gal 3:6-14)” (DA Carson, Matthew, 92-93). So Matthew does just that by showing how Jesus, the Son of God, succeeded where Israel, the son of God, failed (see Matthew 4:1-11). The entire narrative is thus kept in perspective.

Matthew’s interpretation of Hosea, guided along as he no doubt was by the Holy Spirit, states, quite unequivocally that Hosea was talking about Jesus. Such a hermeneutic is spoken against in better homiletics and hermeneutics classes. If I were to stand up and preach such an allegorical interpretation of, say, the Exodus I would likely be branded a heretic or a liberal ‘liberation theologian.’ Yet Matthew looks back, finds a rather obscure passage of Scripture, in a prophet decidedly dwarfed by his contemporary Isaiah, and states boldly, loudly, formulaically: This verse is about Jesus and this before Jesus had ever even gone into Egypt let alone come out of it. “Not surprisingly the infant Christ, who summed up in his person all that Israel was called to be, was likewise threatened and delivered; and although the details differed, the early pattern was re-enacted in its essentials, ending with God’s Son restored to God’s land to fulfil (sic.) the task marked out for Him” (Derek Kidner, Hosea, 101-102; my emphasis).

The Son of God

I bring up Matthew and Hosea because this is the point of chapter 1 in the book. Consider:

” ‘Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation'” (30) “So when God invites the people to be priests, it’s an invitation to show the world who this God is and what this God is like” (31) “God is telling Moses that Pharaoh will see him as God, or at least ‘like God’? And this is not Moses’ idea; it’s God’s idea. What’s going on here? The answer leads us to a universal truth: God needs a body. God needs flesh and blood. God needs bones and skin so that Pharaoh will know just who this God is he’s dealing with and how this God acts in the world. Not just so Pharaoh will know but so that all of humanity will know” (31) “This God is looking for a body” (34) “God is inviting. God is looking. God is searching for a body, a group of people to be the body of God in the world” (34) “God was looking for a body, a nation to show the world just who God is and what God is like” (36) “Remember, God is looking for a body, flesh and blood to show the world a proper marriage of the divine and human. What happens when your body looks nothing like you?” (43) “God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44)

The authors keep coming back to this theme, this most important idea: Israel failed. They failed time and time again. They became slaves of the wrong masters: “Exile isn’t just about location; exile is about the state of your soul…Exile is when you find yourself a stranger to the purposes of God” (44, 45). Rob Bell and Don Golden are making a serious charge: The Church has failed (and likely will continue to unless some things change) to ‘look like God’ even as Israel failed, even as Solomon-the one held up as the prime example of said failure-failed. This is why the one who succeeded is called the ‘son of David’ and not, for example, the son of Solomon. Their exegesis and interpretation of Solomon’s lifestyle, his rule, his failure is dead-on the mark with the best scholars. Solomon, they note rightly, had become the new Pharaoh; Jerusalem, the new Egypt. Failure.

Their contention is that we have enslaved ourselves all over again. Commenting on the prophet Amos they ask: “God calls their church services ‘evil assemblies’? God hates their religious gatherings? When God is on a mission, what is God to do with a religion that legitimizes indifference and worship that inspires indulgence. What is God to do when the time, money, and energy of his people are spent on ceremonies and institutions that neglect the needy?” (46) The church, the son of God, the body of Christ, in other words, has become slaves of the wrong master. If Israel was the son of God (see Exodus 4:22-23) that failed, Jesus was the Son of God who did not (Matthew 4:1-11). Bell and Golden are asking: Which son of God are we, the Church, like? Their conclusion seems to be that we most effectively emulate the former not the latter. Can we properly worship a God when we don’t have in our hearts the same things that God has in His? (That’s what Amos was asking.)

God came down and set us free. He released us from slavery, ended our exile, concluded our captivity. As the Body of Christ, the ‘Son of God’, God expects us to be about the business of doing the same in the lives of those still in captivity: “At the height of their power, Israel misconstrued God’s blessings as favoritism and entitlement. They became indifferent to God and to their priestly calling to bring liberation to others” (44). This is what the title of the book means: Jesus Wants to Save Christians. Why? Because we are slaves to the wrong master; because we have forgotten our story of liberation; because we have neglected the weightier things of the law. In a real sense, we don’t love. The church is so internally focused that we forget the suffering that is going on all around us. We sometimes so forget our redemption from slavery by God that we fail to remember those who are still there. We are so comfortable in our comfort that we forget to comfort the afflicted with that same comfort (2 Cor 1) we ourselves have received. Paul said it too: “All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along” (Galatians 2:10).

William Willimon wrote, “Christians go to church in order never to forget that we were strangers and aliens out on the margins (Eph 2:19)” (Who is Saved?, 54) I agree. Once we forget, we are lost. This is why we read so much in the Old Testament about the Exodus and why God told them to remember it: why the Psalmists sung about it, why the Prophets preached about it, why Moses wrote about it. They were never to forget who they were, where they had come from. In the New Testament, Jesus continues this very thing except that ‘remember it’ became ‘remember me.’ I wonder if we have forgotten? Bell and Golden are reminding the church, God’s son, of who we are: We are the liberated, the freed, the unleashed, the undone. We are the ones who were in a ditch, needing rescued and there are many others still there, still needing lifted up.

Sermons on Idolatry

This chapter is a long sermon, and a well done sermon at that. In it you will find an exposition of Genesis, Exodus, 2 Kings (Solomon), the 10 Words, Amos and 2 Chronicles. The authors brilliantly tie all these books together, as they should (see Carson above) and demonstrate the seamless narrative of God’s grace and love for all of his creatures, for all his created peoples. We are to learn from Israel (1 Corinthians 10; Hebrews) so that we do not fall into the same error as they did. I think the authors did a fine job of demonstrating that if we don’t pay attention to the history of God’s redemptive work, we will be doomed to perpetuate the same mistakes and sins that others have before us.

One of the better aspects of this chapter is the authors’ intent to deal with idolatry and do this well especially so in their handling of the Solomon narratives. They spare nothing when it comes to Solomon’s failures. They point out just exactly how far he fell: “Seven hundred wives? Three hundred concubines? But the point for the storyteller is not the numbers; it’s how his wives affected Solomon. They turned him away from God, and ‘his heart was not fully devoted” (41-42). I think we are meant to ask ourselves: Are our hearts fully devoted? In doing so, they warn us of the great and subtle dangers of idolatry. After reading their exposition of the Solomon story, I wondered: Do we talk enough about idolatry in the church? (1 John 5:21!)

The Messed Up World of the Oppressed

An important question to ask ourselves is this: Are we willing to be the body of Christ, the son of God, on this earth? Are we prepared to be his people, on his terms? Peter told us: “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy” (1 Peter 1:9-10). Peter then goes on to point out the distinctive way a people of God is supposed to live.

Bell and Golden are asking us: Are we prepared to live according the standard that God himself has raised? “The Hebrew Scriptures have a very simple and direct message: God always hears the cry of the oppressed; God cares about human suffering and the conditions that cause it. God is searching for a body, a community of people to care for the things God cares about” (44).

Will we be that people? Will we care about the things that God cares about or will we continue to live in exile, slaves to our own passions, our own desires, and our own sins? Are we willing to do an evaluation and see if we are slaves of the right master? Didn’t Jesus say: You cannot serve two masters? That’s the gist of this chapter: If God has liberated us, what are we doing to liberate others? What are we doing about being God’s people?

You see, those of us who ‘are a people’, who ‘have received mercy’ know exactly what it is like to be on the other side: not a people, not receiving mercy. We know. We’ve been there. We understand. We can relate. But life is not just about understanding or relating or having been some place. It’s about more than just ‘learning to listen’, although that is surely a place to start. This brings us back to NT Wright: “First, it is about the ultimate future hope held out in the Christian gospel: the hope, that is, for salvation, resurrection, eternal life, and the cluster of other things that go with them. Second, it is about the discovery of hope within the present world: about the practical ways in which hope can come alive for communities and individuals who for whatever reason may lack it. And it is about the ways in which embracing the first can and should generate and sustain the second.” Are we doing that? Does the first, our narrative, our redemptive history in Christ, do anything to generate and sustain the second of those two points in our lives?

I’ll close this portion of my review with a short story. In our community, we have an ecumenical food center. What started as a small project, with volunteers from all different congregations, has grown into a major ministry that, in November 2008, fed over 1,000 hungry people in our community. This is a ministry blessed by the Lord.

The food center directors recently learned that the rent-free space they have used for 2 years will no longer be available by May of 2009. They need a new home. When I heard about this, I immediately called and said: We have space. We really do. The entire bottom half of our ‘education’ wing is empty space being used to educate young bats on how to locate rogue mice. We don’t even heat it. What needs to happen is that space, sitting empty now, needs to be turned into a living, breathing, place where people can find hope in this present world; and a good meal. It needs to be converted into a space where 1000+ people every month can get food, find friendship, discover a body of Christ that love and cares for them when they are at the end of their ropes.

“Think about your life,” Bell writes. “What are the moments that have shaped you the most? If you were to pick just a couple, what would they be? Periods of transformation, times when your eyes were opened, decisions you made that affected the rest of your life. How many of them came when you reached the end of your rope? When everything fell apart? When you were confronted with your powerlessness? When you were ready to admit your life was unmanageable? When there was nothing left to do but cry out? For many people, it was their cry, their desperation, their acknowledgment of their oppression, that was the beginning of their liberation” (24). (See also Willimon, Who Will Be Saved?, p 53-54)

What I hear is: “How is this going to inconvenience me?” All I hear is: “God is not big enough to accomplish this here.” All I hear is: “I’m more concerned about holding on to space I don’t use, that we might need, than I am about hungry people in my hometown, who need something to eat and someplace to get it.”

I think that is kind of what Bell and Golden are ‘complaining’ about in chapter 1 of this book. And they are right to do so. If the church won’t be the son of God, the body of Christ now, who will? If we won’t be agents of mercy, ministers of compassion, voices in the wilderness calling out for justice, who will? The government? The politicians? The strong? The powerful? Bah! The church has already surrendered too much of its priestly role the powerful, the rich, the influential, the arms dealers, the generals, and the Caesars, the presidents of this world. I agree with Bell: God is looking for a Body. He has prepared a body, but when we are more concerned about holding on to that which isn’t ours, or spending on ourselves what should be spent on others, then we have failed.

That’s what God has created us for: Whatever it takes! Your will be done! Here I am, send me! That’s what he has liberated us for. Christianity, salvation, is not just about a place we go. It’s about who we are, what we do. “Salvation isn’t just a destination; it is our vocation…We have been shown something that much of the world is waiting to see, even when the world doesn’t yet know for whom it awaits” (William Willimon, Who Will be Saved?, 3, 29)

The question is: What sort of God will we show them?

Next: Part 3, Get Down Your Harps

rob-bell“My concern is provoked by the observation that so many who understand themselves to be followers of Jesus, without hesitation, and apparently without thinking, embrace the ways and means of the culture as they go about their daily living ‘in Jesus’ name.’ But the ways that dominate our culture have been developed either in ignorance or in defiance of the ways that Jesus uses to lead us as we walk the streets and alleys, hike the trails, and drive the roads of this God-created, God-saved, God-blessed, God-ruled world in which we find ourselves. They seem to suppose that ‘getting on in the world’ means getting on in the world on the world’s terms, and that the ways of Jesus are useful only in a compartmentalized area of life labeled ‘religious.'” (Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way, 1)

When Eugene Peterson writes, I read. There is scarcely a word he has written in book form that I have not read. He is a respected preacher and pastor whose understanding of Scripture is profound and whose theological perspective holds Jesus in the highest possible position. He has a high view of the Word of God and interprets it within a tangibly orthodox hermeneutic. So when I heard echoes of Peterson in Rob Bell’s book Jesus Wants to Save Christians, I started paying closer attention to both writers.

I will state at the outset that I have not read any of Rob Bell’s other books. Nor have I ever watched a Nooma video. I have listened to exactly 23 minutes of one of his sermons  My point in noting these things is to say that I am coming at this series of posts unbiased. I am neither for nor against Rob Bell. I am interested only in what he has written, along with Don Golden, in this book. The book is only recently published, but I don’t think it is too soon to offer a critique of the work.

That said, my wife bought me Jesus Wants to Save Christians for Christmas. I have desired to read this book since I saw this blurb in a flier for Family Christian Stores, “There is a church in our area that recently added an addition to their building which cost more than $20 million. Our local newspaper ran a front-page story not too long ago revealing that one in five people in our city lives in poverty. This is a book about those two numbers.” (This also appears on the back of the book.) I was intrigued and decided that I should read this book and make it my first introduction to the work of Rob Bell. Now I am reading it, and I cannot tell you how thoroughly surprised I am by what I have read.

I was fully prepared to hate this book. I had browsed it at the book store. The silly green pages bothered me. The unorthodox writing style annoyed me: Sentence fragments; sentences that are chopped up and drawn down the page in a column-like structure in an effort to fill the two covers with more and more pages than are necessary. The book is certainly not a DA Carson or David F Wells type of theology. However, if it is true that we should not judge a book by its cover, neither should we judge a book by its particular stylistic format.

I should say a couple of other things about this book before I go too much further. First, there are a scant 218 pages in this book. I think that is probably more than there actually are given the format of the book. Still, I think Bell has said a lot in those 218 pages. This book serves as a fine introduction to the New Exodus perspective.

Second, there are 34 pages of endnotes written in a very traditional, single spaced (double between) format. That’s a total of 326 endnotes. 256 of those 326 notes are direct references to Scripture. If my son did his math correctly, that means 79% of the notes are Scripture references, more detailed explanations of Scripture, Scripture quotes, or more commentary on Scripture. Sometimes, a note contains more than one reference to a passage of Scripture.

What this indicates to me is simple. It means that Rob Bell (and co-author Don Golden) has not written a book that is based on his own idea or his own imagination. This is a book that relies far more on Scripture than it does on anything else. Here is a man who has written a book and allowed that book, and I believe his theology, to be shaped by the Word of God. And when one reads through the book, one discovers that much of what is written is merely (I say that not at all meaning minimally) a retelling of the story of Scripture-from Genesis to Revelation.

In fact, this is what is stated at the outset of the book, “In the Scriptures, ultimate truths about the universe are revealed through the stories of particular people living in particular places…We join you in this tension, believing that the story is ultimately about healing, hope, and reconciliation” (8) He goes on, “This is a book of theology…This book is our attempt to articulate a specific theology, a particular way to read the Bible, referred to by some as a New Exodus perspective” (8) Make no mistake about the intent of this book and the authors: It is designed to make you think about God and about what God’s Word says to its readers about what God is doing in the world. They do this, again, by constantly referring the reader to Scripture.

This further indicates to me that Bell and Golden have a very high view of Scripture. They could tell these things their own way, but they deliberately chose not to. Instead, they quote from Moses, the Psalms, the Prophets, and the New Testament (I thoroughly enjoyed their interpretation of the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch). They don’t challenge the Scripture. Scripture speaks. (I regret that I couldn’t find the page number, but as it is said, “God has spoken; everything else is commentary.”) These are not men who are picking and choosing what ‘fits’ their idea. Their idea is driven along by their high view of Scripture. For someone who has been accused of doing exactly the opposite, this is a great risk for Bell. He might actually be accused of being too orthodox for some readers.

This is my first introduction to Rob Bell’s theological point of view and I have to confess that, intrigued as I was by that blurb in a flier, I was skeptical. Sadly, Rob Bell is held up as a poster child for all that is wrong with the church, with Christianity, with this generation of believers. Yet, as I read the introduction I was struck by this statement: “For a growing number of people in our world, it appears that many Christians support some of the very things Jesus came to set people free from” (18). I was struck by it because I had heard it before: Eugene Peterson wrote a statement very similar to this in his book The Jesus Way. It seems that on the horizon there is more than one person saying that there is something seriously wrong with the way ‘we’ are doing ‘Christianity.’

What does he (Bell) analyze that problem as? Simple: Too many in the church have associated a certain brand of political persuasion and nationalism with the ‘right sort of Christianity.’ “A Christian should get very nervous when the flag and the Bible start holding hands. This is not a romance we want to encourage” (18). This is a real problem, as I see it too, because it makes the Scripture ‘mine’ instead of God’s. It makes the Bible no longer God’s Word to us and instead it becomes more a weapon we use to determine who is and is not in the club. This is decidedly the wrong approach for us to have towards Scripture. It slants everything in our favor and becomes a tool for oppression instead of a declaration of emancipation for those held in captivity by the ‘very things Jesus came to set us free from.’ Scripture becomes a handbook for winning elections instead of a declaration of war on the things that keep people prisoners, enslaved to a system that hates them.

Bell and Golden are right: We are east of Eden, but remember, the book is written to Christians. It seems to me that Bell and Golden are saying there is something seriously wrong with the church, with Christians. What they are thus proposing is a solution to our problem. It should be interesting to see what they propose is the solution to our problem.

Next: Part 2, The Cry of the Oppressed

Friends, here is the final installment of my series 90 Days with Scripture. In this sermon, I examine, however surfacely, Revelation 21. The conclusion of all things is that humanity has messed things up terribly and that God has solved those problems in a way we did not, and still do not, expect. His solution is Jesus. As always, the print version is below and can be downloaded from Box.net. Thanks for stopping by. I hope these sermons have been a blessing to you.

You can download here: The Future, Revelation 21

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Part 1: Genesis 3, Where it All Went Wrong
Part 2: Genesis 12:1-9, A Blessing for All People
Part 3: Exodus 7-12 (a), Freedom For God’s People
Part 4: Exodus 7-12 (b), Freedom For God’s People, b
Part 5: 2 Samuel 5-7, The King
Part 6: Isaiah 60-66, The New Heavens and New Earth
Part 7: Jeremiah 31, The New Covenant
Part 8: Matthew 1, Jesus pt 1
Part 9: Luke 1-2, Jesus pt 2
Part 10: Mark 15, Jesus, pt 3
Part 11: John 20, Jesus, pt 4
Part 12: Acts 2, The Church
Part 13: Romans 1-5, Grace
Part 14: Revelation 21, The Future

Always for His glory!

Friends,

This is part 13 of the series. In this sermon, I look at grace by studying Romans 1-5. The print version is available in the links below from Box.net.

You can download here, Grace, Romans 1-5

Or use the inline player below:

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Part 1: Genesis 3, Where it All Went Wrong
Part 2: Genesis 12:1-9, A Blessing for All People
Part 3: Exodus 7-12 (a), Freedom For God’s People
Part 4: Exodus 7-12 (b), Freedom For God’s People, b
Part 5: 2 Samuel 5-7, The King
Part 6: Isaiah 60-66, The New Heavens and New Earth
Part 7: Jeremiah 31, The New Covenant
Part 8: Matthew 1, Jesus pt 1
Part 9: Luke 1-2, Jesus pt 2
Part 10: Mark 15, Jesus, pt 3
Part 11: John 20, Jesus, pt 4
Part 12: Acts 2, The Church
Part 13: Romans 1-5, Grace

Other download options are available through feedburner and archive.org.

Always for His glory!

Over at CRN.info, another blog where I write, the other writers and I wrote a Christmas post where each of us explored, in a paragraph or two, the sentence “God with us,” or in Jesus, “Emmanuel.” Below is my contribution to the post. I encourage you to stop by CRN.info and read the entire post.

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In the beginning. It all begins there for me, for us. Too many debates about Genesis miss what is likely the most important part of Genesis: God created us to be with Him. Rob Bell correctly notes: “The writer, or writers, of Genesis keeps returning to this eastward metaphor, insisting that something has gone terribly wrong with humanity, and that from the very beginning humans are moving in the wrong direction…We are east of Eden. Something is not right” (Jesus Wants to Save Christians, 14, 17) I’m not far along enough to know if Bell correctly notes that what is wrong is that we humans decided, early on, that it was far more important for us to be like God than it was for us to be with God. East. That’s the problem, humanity is not with God; God is not our God.

This is where ‘God with us’, as truth, takes on a whole new dimension. God with us. This is the name of Jesus, Emmanuel. NT Wright correctly notes that no one else was given this name (Matthew for Everyone, 8). If that is true, and it is, then what does that say about what God thinks ‘God with us’ means? Wow; just wow. God took the steps; radical steps; risky steps. He took the initiative. He made the first move; God with us. We see it all throughout Scripture: God walking in the Garden; the tabernacle among the camp; the ark of the covenant among the army; the temple in the center of the city; the bread of the presence; Jesus ‘tabernacling’ among us; the pillar of fire and smoke; the Shekinah; the Son of Man walking among the lampstands; the Holy Spirit. All these images, and more, point to the overwhelming passion of God’s heart: He wants to be our God; he wants us to be his people.

Jesus, the Emmanuel, is the means whereby ‘God with us’ becomes more than prophetic rhetoric. Jesus puts flesh on the phrase; gives form to the formula; gives power to the prophecy; gives strength to the story. Jesus makes the impossible possible; the unthinkable a reality; the unimaginable a delightful joy. Truly if God had told us, none of us would have believed it. God with us. He has always wanted to be with us. This is amazing to me: The God of the universe, the Creator, the Provider, the Redeemer wants to be among us humans. “How can I keep from singing?” (Tomlin) So the Bible ends right where it begins: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God” (Revelation 21:3). This is our promise, and in Jesus it has already become a reality even as we continue to hope for it.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Friends, this post was originally published at CRN.info. I eventually turned a good portion of this into a sermon from Romans 1-5 which is published under the 90 Days with Scripture series. Thanks for stopping by. jerry

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I’ve been thinking about grace all week. I think I started thinking about it, intently, because the men at my church, last week, stood up and offered their unqualified support of my ministry. That’s the first time since I began full time ministry that has ever happened. It was moving, overwhelming; a powerful effluence of God’s grace. I had expected them to do so. What I had not expected was the pure grace that I understood and felt as a very quiet, humble man who was terrified to speak ‘in public’ spoke humbly and gently into the microphone in public and said, “We unanimously support Jerry.” Not ‘the preacher;’ not ‘the pastor;’ not ‘our employee.’ Jerry.

My year, 2008, began in a seminary class in Cincinnati. Doctrine of Grace with Dr Cottrell who happens to be one of my theological heroes. The class was rather boring as far as the lectures were concerned. And the format, 2.2.2, didn’t make it any easier. Long days. A lot of reading. Long drives to and from. But grace…ah, grace! A spring sun in the middle of Northeast Ohio winter! Sex after a bad fight. Peanut Butter cookies after a long walk on a tread-mill. Grace. How shall I describe thee? Let me count the ways. I’ve been thinking about grace all year.

How can we not? We are a strange lot of folk. I recently received a questionnaire from a church I had mailed a resume to. They asked all sorts of questions about baptism, church membership, The Restoration Movement. Not one question about grace. I don’t care about the Restoration Movement. I’m not interested in directing people to the ‘right church.’ I’m interested in God’s grace. This is what so many of us, I think, miss so often.

Wonderful grace of Jesus,
Greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it,
Where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden,
Setting my spirit free;
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me.

I can’t help but think about it, but I’m the naïve type who enjoys seeing grace any place I can find it. Grace is a treasure in a field and I love searching for it and buying the field. I heard it on the radio too, on my way to the Middle School today. A commercial featuring a Dr Martin Luther King, jr. speech or sermon:

And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, (Everybody) because everybody can serve. (Amen) You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. (All right) You don’t have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don’t have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don’t have to know Einstein’s theory of relativity to serve. You don’t have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. (Amen) You only need a heart full of grace, (Yes, sir, Amen) a soul generated by love. (Yes) And you can be that servant. Martin Luther King, Jr, The Drum Major Instinct, and Here.

It’s like grace is everywhere just waiting to be heard, waiting to be found, waiting to be seen. I’m surprised so many miss it. I’m more surprised more Christians fail to be captured by it. I am horrified that we Christians who have been undone by this grace keep it to ourselves.

I would like to draw a line between two stories that, for all intents and purposes, have nothing to do with one another. I doubt William Willimon knows Alexandra Stevenson; I am certain Alexandra Stevenson doesn’t know Willimon. And yet somehow I found in these two stories a connection. It’s grace.  Willimon’s story is about David, the great Israelite King, who committed adultery with another man’s wife and then, when she became pregnant, had the man killed. Willimon writes: (William Willimon, A Peculiarly Christian Account of Sin, Theology Today, July 1993)

In short, David’s sin is revealed, by the prophet’s story, to be that of living as if he had no story, as if he were not already spoken for by Yahweh.

Yet, thank God, Yahweh’s story has the power to evoke that which it demands. David is able to name his sin, having been given the narrative means rightly to discern what is going on in his life. David’s response is not evoked principally by Nathan’s “you are the man” but, rather, by Yahweh’s “I gave.” Having been seduced by a false story of royal power, David courageously resubmits to Yahweh’s truthful account of the way things stand between us and a God who manages to be both truthful and gracious, a God whose truthfulness is grace.

There is still a high price to pay; there remain consequences. David’s family shall pay. Much death, much grief come after David’s repentance. Yahweh’s graciousness does not mean that our actions are without consequences. There is a high cost to doing business with stories other than truthful ones. And yet, despite the seriousness of David’s sin, the story continues, the story told because a gracious God is willing to intrude, to assert, and, ultimately, to forgive. David’s continued story is there, not as some “impossible ideal” to be heroically lived despite a renewed awareness of his finitude (Niebuhr). David goes on as a man who knows his sin because he knows his forgiveness. Although the child dies, David is spared, the family is continued in the birth of Solomon. So, this story of sin and forgiveness

Willimon notes that two stories collided here: David’s royal story in which he was seduced and tricked and Yahweh’s story spoken by the prophet Nathan. Willimon writes that David’s ” ‘I have sinned’ here arises out of a clash of narratives, a narratively induced awareness of a horrible disjuncture between David’s personal account of his life as king and the prophet’s account of David’s life as gift.” That is, everything in David’s life had been a gift. It had been grace.

What happened in the life of David, after the sin, was a collision of narratives. David had involved himself in another story, another narrative that was not God’s narrative. Willimon goes on to make this powerful statement, “Only by getting the story straight, God’s story of redemption, are we able to understand our sin with appropriate seriousness and without despair because only then will we know of a God who manages to be both gracious and truthful.”

So, grace.
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There is another story I read this week too. It’s the story of someone famous, and someone trying desperately to be her own. It’s a very moving story told by Tom Friend at ESPN.com and it is the story of a man named Julius Erving and his estranged daughter, Alexandra Stevenson. (You’ll have to read the entire essay yourself. I cut and pasted it to MS Word and it still printed 19 pages. It was worth every last tiny bit of copier toner though. Tom Friend, ESPN.com, Outside the Lines, Hello Alexandra…This is Your Father

The gist of the story is that a long time ago, Julius ‘Dr J’ Erving had an extra-marital affair with a woman named Samantha Stevenson. She is white. He is black. She conceived and gave birth to a baby girl, Alexandra. In order to protect his image as a superstar NBA basketball superstar, a bunch of legal documents were drawn up and Samantha had to keep the affair and the father of the child a secret and Dr J provided monthly checks. Here’s what the relationship was like for the better part of a quarter-century:

She put her dad on a shelf and left him there for a quarter-century. Just because the rest of the world is preoccupied with Julius Erving doesn’t mean she’s had to be. She says she has never Googled him, that she has never even heard of “The Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.” Instead, everything she’s learned about the man has come second- or eighth-hand. She first found out he was her father when she was 4, and she first started denying it when she was 5. She’d say her father died in the war or that he was a sheik in Kuwait or that his name was “Ken.” She didn’t celebrate Father’s Day, she celebrated Grandfather’s Day. On dad-daughter nights at school, she’d show up with an uncle or a neighbor. On registration forms that required a father’s name, she’d write “N/A” or “None Of Your Business!” Through the years, Dr. J wasn’t so much a secret as he was a figment of her imagination.

She had spent the better part of her life denying she had a father or concocting stories about alleged fathers. It didn’t mean Julius didn’t care, it meant there was a problem:

He empathized with Alexandra’s plight; she just didn’t know it. She couldn’t understand why, on her birthdays, there was never a card or a present. “Presents are big to me,” she says. “I can’t lie.” She had no idea he felt his hands were tied by his wife and the agreement, no idea he was an attentive dad to four other children: Julius III, Jazmin, Cory and an adopted son, Cheo. It was a shame, because both lawyers knew exactly how paternal Erving was and how maternal Samantha was. When Erving would visit Samantha’s lawyer, he’d sometimes bring little Jazmin along to play. And when Samantha would negotiate with Erving’s attorney, she’d always bring Alexandra, in a Snugli. Erving’s lawyer even held baby Alexandra in his arms. They weren’t one big happy family, but they weren’t coldhearted, either. They were simply separated by legalese.

Law stood in the way. Law kept them apart. Law separated them. It was an obstacle that cut a deep trench and prevented any sort of relationship at all. Doesn’t law always stand in the way of a relationship with our father? Eventually, she quit caring at all. Then she became famous herself and when she made a run at Wimbledon in 1999 the whole thing went nuclear. Someone, an outside agent, did some research, found the birth certificate, and set two narratives on a collision course. His name was Charles Bricker. He was the ‘prophet’ who blew the cover off the story. She had been living her story of denial, ‘none of your business,’ and prodigal. She had been doing everything she could, with her mother’s help, to deny and escape her true identity.

Sometimes, often times, always, we need someone to come along and blow our cover. We need a Nathan, a Bricker, a Jesus who will shred the mystery, shatter the glass shell we have cocooned ourselves inside, undo our safe narratives in which we are kings, in control; masters. We need someone to come along and tell the narrative, the alternative narrative, Yahweh’s narrative, that will set us on a collision course with grace. “At this verse occurs a collision of two narratives: the story of how power is gained, used, and inevitably abused in the ‘real world’ and a second narrative about Yahweh’s counter plans for the world” (Willimon). And that collision course inevitably has its own promontory point. “When our depravity meets his divinity it is a beautiful collision” (David Crowder Band).

Well, I don’t want to ruin all the good points, but I do want to say that the story has an ending (SPOILER) and it involves Alexandra and Julius coming together as father and daughter. “Part of me always missed her, missed not having her around,” said Julius. Friend notes, “…he’d preferred she make the first move, and now that she had, he wasn’t letting go.”
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There are two lines in the story that I would like to conclude with as they are pertinent to this post. There’s a lot in the story that is truly illustration worthy, but I’d like to conclude by thinking about grace again.

The first line is at the very end. At one point during her young life, Alexandra had met her father at a basketball clinic. He had given her an autographed basketball, but he had acted as if he didn’t really know her. It turns out she had saved the ball and written on it. After the reconciliation, she found the ball and the words she had written on it had revealed another secret: She had always missed him. (Friend’s words.)

It seems to me that there are a lot of people in the world who are in the same boat. I think that is about grace. It’s like the prodigal son who couldn’t figure out a way to go back to his father until he was living with pigs. I wonder how many people in the world miss their father, but simply have no idea how to approach him? In Alexandra’s case, what ultimately drove her to her father was money (much like the prodigal son). And in both stories, grace prevails. I think people miss their father and they just have no idea how to get in touch with him. This is where grace comes in to the picture.

We have, not in the sense of being in possession of but in the sense of we have already been derailed by, the alternative narrative. We at least know the story that will set people on a collision course with the grace of God. We know the alternative narrative because we have already had our collision. We have already been undone. We have already been destroyed. The prophet has already come to us and showed us how we were living a royal life as opposed to the gift life. This is the story we share, the Jesus story, the grace narrative of what God is doing in the world and what he is doing to set it right. Willimon notes well:

Yet, the collision of narratives is not closed. These stories are meant to continue. Having been caught red-handed, trapped, one might think this is the end for David. Two things impress us about the continuing story: David’s swift, outright confession, “I have sinned,” and the prophet’s swift, outright pronouncement, “Now the Lord has put away your sin.” The collision of stories is meant to evoke this twofold, covenant response. David’s response is evidence of his submission, not just to the Decalogue but to the narrative, the covenant narrative. Just as we were prepared to write off David as a moral failure, the prophet’s counter narrative has evoked a new David (or is it the old David, in the best sense of the designation?) who is yet able to submit, to admit to the coherence and dominance of Yahweh’s account of things. Our story reads “autonomy.” Yahweh’s story says covenant.”

That’s grace.

The second line is found just before that. It’s a simple line about the new relationship Alexandra had been thrust into with Julius. They began communicating, but for her it was difficult. She was broke, without sponsors, “We know who your father is-pay up!” creditors would say. Julius said, “I trust you, and I need you to try to trust me.” Her response is nothing short of precisely the point of grace:

“Help me find a way to call you dad.”

Isn’t that the point of grace? Isn’t that what we do? When we open up the hearts full of grace and the souls full of love we are opening up the story of collision. This is what Nathan did. David had struck out on his own, tried to create his own narrative. Nathan came along and reminded him of the narrative to which he belonged. The role of the Gospel is to help people find a way to call God dad again.

I think we have that much to offer to people who are wandering around the earth right now missing their father. And until those of us who already call him dad understand this…well, they will likely continue wandering about without a dad. I believe that our role is less about creating so much despair in people, Lord knows they have enough of that already, and more about giving people words and courage and ways to call Him Dad all over again. What better can we do? What is more delightful to the ears of our Father than that not so subtle word, ‘Dad…’?

That’s grace.
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Grace is something we cannot control. We cannot contain it. Grace cannot be directed or corralled. Grace cannot be stopped. The role of the church is to expand the scope of God’s grace not to contract it. If the role of the Gospel is to help lost sons and daughters find a way to call God dad all over again, do we think the Gospel is any less about God being able to call us sons and daughters all over again too?

As a preacher of the Gospel, the Good news, I want people to know about my Dad. I want to help them see their place in His story, in His working out the story of redemption. I want to help them not just have an academic definition of charis or a theological position on salvation or a membership in a particular denomination, but to have an experience of grace that demonstrates itself in their lives undone and redone. Those who are undone, those who have collided, can say Dad. I believe it is our job, our role, our calling to help people in this world find a way to call Him Dad much in the way someone helped us.

Alexandra,
I enjoyed your special message today. It means a lot to know you’ve committed to being in my life. I will be in yours, as well. … You have captured my imagination with Alexandra moments, and I want to at least offer you father’s hugs, daddy’s kisses and parent support forever. I hope you are OK today and always.
Love, Dad

Friends, Here is #3 in my series “Being Dad”. This one reflects on the love that God has for his children. My conclusion is that God’s love for his children cannot be anything less than my love for my children. jery

Little Boys’ Socks

God loves His children even more than they can possibly imagine.

Key Scripture

1 John 3:1

Romans 5:8

John 3:16

Romans 8:35-39

I was at my very first church when Jerry was born. I was a weekend youth minister in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was at my first full-time pulpit ministry when Samuel was born in Petersburg, West Virginia. I was in Chester, West Virginia when Jacob was born.

Jerry was born in a hospital that had all of the latest electronic amenities and medical technology and since Renee was a high-risk pregnancy, we had all the best doctors that Medicaid could buy. Sparrow Hospital, Michigan State University Doctors, and a relatively easy first birth. Well, it was easy for me…there was a ball game on at the time and when it hurt I simply told Renee, being the good coach that I was, to just sleep. Surely that would make the pain subside.

Samuel was a little more difficult, but definitely quicker.  (I will have more to say about this later in another post.) He was born in a small rinky-dink hospital that reminded Renee and I both of the stable where Jesus was born. There was no doctor on duty that could give Renee an epidural. In fact, her doctor was out of town. Samuel was delivered naturally. And since I got Renee to the hospital rather late, I felt every single one of her pains…twice.

Jacob was probably the most fun. With Jacob, like Jerry, Renee drove herself to the hospital (again, more on why this is important in another post). The hospital was your everyday run of the mill hospital that boasted of the lowest C-section rate in the state of Ohio. Being close to home was important because my mom and my mother-in-law were both present. It was a special occasion for all of us.

All three of those days are magical days in the limited expanse of gray matter that clutters up my mind. I hold very few precious memories, but of the ones that I do hold, these three rank first, first, and first. Now my little baby boys are 9, 6, and 4 (and as I update this, 15, 12, and 10!) and I sit around at times wondering where in heaven those years went. Did I miss them? Did I do enough? Was I a beneficial example? Did I in anyway inhibit their growth? Did I do everything in my power to make certain my sons were loved, safe, warm, fed and protected? Have I shown them Jesus each day?

My mom is probably about 45, which is odd because I am nearing 32. But that is what she keeps on saying, and I was always taught never to call my mamma a liar. Nevertheless, she is, and I am. She made me a book a year ago for Christmas. In the book are all sorts of things about her life and mine. I was her firstborn. She talks about how I was her ‘experiment’ and things like that. (I still wonder what project I was and what experiment I was in.) I wonder what sort of emotions and feelings ran through my mother’s eyes and heart when she was assembling the various pages in the book? Did she laugh at this picture? Did she cry at that one? Did she remember life with fond affection when she saw another one? Recall how the Bible records that when Jesus was young Mary “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart?” I think that is what parents do in every generation. These little things that aggravate or perplex us now are the things that later on are so tender, so precious that we cannot possibly let them go. These treasures literally become our lifeblood, our sanity. They are the reason why we keep living: we are afraid the memories might die if we do. (Yes, someday I will laugh that Jerry thought he was an electrician when he was 2. And yes, I will laugh someday that Samuel ‘ran away’ from home when he was 2. And yes, I will laugh someday that Jacob was riding a two-wheeler when he was barely 3.)

Every now and again Renee and I will get ambitious and sort through some old boxes. Usually we end up throwing stuff away that no longer charges the batteries of these memories. This sort of stuff has become useless clutter that no longer begs our attention. Anyhow…every now and again Renee and I get ambitious. When we do, we usually find something that will remind us of those days when our boys were tiny. A lock of hair. A toy. A blanket. Things of that nature. You know what I mean because you probably have your own little box of stuff that serves the same purpose. It serves no real purpose except to cause us to remember days gone by when life was simpler.

Laundry is always exciting, but it is also sad. I notice that the socks are getting bigger and bigger with each passing month.

Being Dad has taught me how much God really loves his children. Especially me.

I have another precious memory. It is the memory of going through one of Jerry’s boxes of stuff and coming across a tiny, itty-bitty, baby sock, a sock so small they could be a glove for my thumb. So tiny they barely would cover my big toes. Every time I see one of those tiny, baby-boy socks I am carried back to Sparrow, back to Petersburg, back to East Liverpool. I am carried back to those times when my boys were so small I could carry them in one hand. Renee and I typically just look at one another and say something corny like, “Awww.”

God feels the same exact way when He looks at us because just as Jerry, Samuel and Jacob will always be my baby boys, so too are we always God’s children. I want to believe that when God looks down upon His Children He has every reason to look down with the same tenderness, affection and love with which I look upon my own Children. And I am certain He does because how can a father feel any other way about his children?

“How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure” (1 John 3:1-3).

I imagine that when my children are my age and I am my mother’s age the roles will be reversed a little. I will be sharing my memories of their lives in books, and they will be tending to their own children and laughing or crying with their wives over tiny little socks that they have saved.

Being a dad has taught me just exactly how much God really loves me. If I love my three sons as much as I do, and if I protect them as much as I possibly can, and if I cherish them as much as I do, can I expect or even think that God does anything less? No. I hope you cherish precious memories, but even if you cannot, I hope you know that you are cherished as God’s own Child. He has a whole host of memories from the time you took your first step in a tiny pair of socks.

Friends,

This post attempts to dismiss the angst many have over so-called ‘feminine’ theology. Much of the angst comes from those who are simply afraid that God might not fit into their pre-conceived ideas. Of special concern is the angst many have over The Shack’s presentation of God as a fat, African-American woman. (I suspect much of it comes, too, because people haven’t actually read The Shack.)–jerry

I read this:

“O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.” (Matthew 23:37)

Then I read this:

After looking at an increasingly androgynous Rob Bell in this video, I’d say Bell doesn’t seem limited to a gender either. Any time the feminine side of God is touted by religious leaders, support for homosexuality is never far behind. After all, the thinking goes, if man is made in God’s image, why would he/she be limited to a gender either, right? The goddess, feminine theology, introduced here by Bell and also by the recent Shack novel, will go a long way to push this thinking forward.

Then I thought, “Hmm….I’m an educated man (did very well in college thank you very much). I read a lot. I read The Shack. Strange that when I finished reading it I didn’t come away with even the foggiest notion of goddess worship. Strange that when I finished reading the book I came away with a profound sense that perhaps, yes, God is still very real even when stories don’t have happy endings. Strange that while I was reading the book I had a profound sense of humility that more often than not I have tried to create God in my image instead of allowing the Scripture to control my imagination and, thus, allowing God to be God in his own image. Strange that when I finished reading The Shack, I didn’t feel inclined to worship Aphrodite or Diana or even my wife. However, it was equally strange that I didn’t feel like worshiping an old man with a long white beard, or Zeus, or even myself.

“Strange that I, an educated man who reads, writes, and preaches for a living was not at all uncomfortable with idea that God might look more like Aunt Jemima than Arnold S, more like The Oracle (from the Matrix) than Charlton Heston. Strange that someone might think God purposely goes further out of his way to avoid our stereotypes and pigeonholes than we give him credit for. Strange that when I finished reading The Shack I suddenly believed that God was more powerful, more compassionate, more wise than even I had imagined. Strange, this God who delights in ambiguity and mystery.”

Then I remembered:

“I guess here is my real question in all this…why couldn’t you have made things clear? People go to the Bible and find all these ways to disagree with each other, even or especially theologians. Everybody seems to want to acquire their little piece of doctrinal territory and put fences around it so only those with the secret handshake can get in. Some find support for Universal Reconciliation; some find proofs for eternal torment in hell, and some find it just easier to annihilate everyone who doesn’t make it.” Now I am ranting, but can’t seem to help myself. “The Calvinists find all their verses to debate the Armenians, who find their list. Then there are the ones who believe in eternal security fighting with the ones that don’t.  Every silly idea of eschatology finds its own proof texts and in the middle of all these debates it seems that love is all that gets left behind. We even find ways to fight about grace and love. Couldn’t you have just made it simple and clear; unambiguous?”

I look up and Papa has a big grin on her face, but I don’t return the smile. Without really understanding why, this question is suddenly important to me and I can sense that it has threads connecting many of my internal conflicts.

Papa simply let me tread water in my rant for a while, until some of the emotional residue subsides. “Do you think that all this has surprised me?” she asks gently? “Do you think that I thought, ‘There, they now have the scriptures; they will totally get this’?   Human beings are very creative. They have an incredible facility to take some of the simplest and most obvious truths and make them ambiguous. If I didn’t know better, it would surprise even me.”

“But,” I am struggling to keep my question from becoming an accusation, “Why couldn’t you have made it clearer? How hard would it have been to just have one of the writers put truth down in such a way that there would be no confusion?”

I look up and she is still grinning, obviously enjoying the conversation more than I am. “Like a FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) at the back of the Bible?” I roll my eyes, even though part of me thinks that might have been a good idea. Papa pauses to take another sip of her steaming whatever. “Have you ever thought that ambiguity, that mystery, might have purpose?” she posed.

The question actually surprises me and I begin to feel the uneasiness that usually precedes my paradigms being challenged. “Nope. I’ve never thought about that at all. I’ve spent most of my life so focused on certainty, that ambiguity and mystery have always been, sort of…the enemy. Are you telling me that ambiguity is a good thing?”

I think the reason some are afraid of a ‘feminine’ [and there’s a big difference between saying ‘feminine God’ and ‘female God’] God is because we haven’t been properly instructed in Scripture. Truth be told, those who think God looks (or acts or is shaped) like a man have a woefully inadequate understanding of God who is Spirit. Truth be told, those who think God looks (or acts or is shaped) like a woman have a woefully inadequate understanding of God who is Spirit. Truth be told, those who cannot imagine God as either, both, and neither have a woefully inadequate picture of the Holy God who will not be limited by the imagination that he built within us in the beginning. Why is this so hard to understand?

I suppose those who think God is one or the other are perfectly satisfied with their understanding of God and, thus, have nothing more to search for, nothing more to seek, no more reason to open their bibles, no more reason to pray, no more reason to even hope. Those who reject ‘feminine’ metaphors have no need for a mother; those who reject ‘masculine’ metaphors have no need for a father. But is aren’t we incomplete without both? Can we even exist if one is absent? I don’t want a god who is limited by my ideas of ‘male’ and ‘female’. I don’t even want a god who is limited by my ideas of mere ‘god’ and ‘goddess.’ I want a God who is strong and sensitive, masculine and feminine, burly and beautiful, willing and wonderful, purposeful and passionate. I want a God who is perfectly masculine and perfectly feminine and creates both to His own glory. I want the God of the Scripture who is perfectly shown us in Jesus.

Ambiguity is a good thing because it keeps us from becoming content in our misconceptions. Ambiguity is good because it keeps us from becoming careless with our caricatures. Ambiguity is a good thing because it keeps us from becoming conceited about our wisdom. Ambiguity is good because it chops us down to size, turns us all around, and makes us rely on grace all over again. I reject out of hand the idea that we will be saved because we have all the right answers to all the wrong questions. Ambiguity is good because it strips us of pride and causes us to cry out all over again, “God have mercy on me, a sinner!” Ahh, grace.

Then it all came together:

So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Now I understand why God gave me a mother and a father. There is a subtle ambiguity in this verse if both man and woman can be created in the image of the same God. Thus, this sentence is just wrong: “Any time the feminine side of God is touted by religious leaders, support for homosexuality is never far behind.” Wrong! That sentence is so wrong it could not be more wrong. It is beyond wrong. It is abysmally wrong. When both sides of the coin are presented, when they are held in tension, when the ambiguity is unresolved, we have a complete picture of God in whose image man and woman were created. I reject the idea that because both ’sides’ of God are present that a teaching about homosexuality is, and must necessarily be, close behind. Rather it seems to me that when one side is neglected, and only one side is presented, then will homosexuality follow behind closely. I wonder how many male homosexuals didn’t have a father? I wonder how many female homosexuals didn’t have a mother? Not all, mind you; but I wonder how many. In other words it is the absence of correct theology of the ‘feminine’ side of God that creates the problems for the church, not its presence.

I’m troubled by all this talk not because I feel a personal need to defend The Shack (although I do) or because I think there is a glaring omission of ‘feminine’ theology in the church (although there is). I’m troubled because in all our talk about God we are missing the greater point: The only real image of God we have is Jesus. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father,” Jesus said (John14:9).

And Jesus wasn’t afraid of feminine metaphors or masculine metaphors as images of God. Jesus was perfectly content, it seems to me, to allow that God would be the perfect standard of righteousness for both men and women. If God’s image is the image in which men and women are created, and God’s righteousness is the perfect standard for masculinity and femininity in the church (unless there is more than one God!), then it seems to me that exploring both ’sides’ should not only be encouraged, but it is also quite necessary for our understanding of ourselves and God. He gave us one image by which to explore ‘both sides’: Jesus.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Originally posted at CRN.info

Friends, here is installment 2 of my “Being Dad” series of posts. This one deals with the things that we find in pockets. My sons, when they were younger, had an uncanny knack for cramming things into their pockets. That’s where this devotional is from. jerry

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God likes to show off his people to others.. It is His way of showing what he can do with willing hearts.

Key Scriptur

2 Corinthians 4:7-12

Romans 8:19-23

2 Corinthians 1:21-22

2 Corinthians 6:3-10

You know what is great about children? It is their unbridled enthusiasm for all things small enough to fit into a pocket. I was reminded of this just the other day when I was doing the laundry (it may have been that Renee was doing laundry, and I was watching). If I recall correctly, it was Jacob’s pants that I was getting ready to wash. One of us was emptying the pockets of the pants. First came a marble. Then a Hot Wheels miniature car. Next came a rock. Then some string. Then something else. Then a quarter. When it was all said and done we could not figure out how the little guy was actually walking around with those pants on his body.

Little boys have this uncanny knack for knowing the amount of square inches that make up the typical pocket. It is almost as if they have taken the pocket out, measured it, and drawn up a schematic of what they will put in, how much they will put in, and where they will put it at inside the pocket itself. It’s like Tetris for blue jeans. There is no telling what one will find inside of a pocket and it is for this very reason that pockets must be checked before the entire pant is placed in the washing machine. In our family failure to do so has resulted in one too many shirts going into the dryer wet and clean and coming out looking like a box of 64 different, brilliant colors (if you get my drift).

For kids it just does not matter what it is that they find: if it is important to them, it is pocket worthy. I doubt that I will ever find a stick of celery or a carrot in a pocket, but I will find candy, marbles, a cookie (or the remnants of a cookie), a toy car, a plastic soldier, a stick, a rock, a nail, a screw, a string and other stuff in there. Why will I find those things? Because those things are valuable and when kids value things they want to keep those things near to them so they can have access to them at any time they deem it necessary. After all, one never knows when that oddly shaped stick will come in handy or when that string might save a life or when that marble will be worth a million in a trade.

Our very lives are pockets for treasures and every now and again God reaches into our lives and reveals some great treasure.

It is not just their pockets, as you know. Kids will load up a small box with all of their treasures and carry it around from room to room for days on end. They may hide several treasures under their mattress or in their pillowcase. Jerry never plays with his treasures but rather displays them on a shelf in his room where only he can adjust their appearance and only he can touch them. His collection includes several bottle caps, some cars, some Cub Scouts stuff he and I made together, several books and other assorted, essential items. Still, it is the pocket that amazes me the most.

The things we love the most we tend to keep the nearest to us. I rarely go out without my pen and notebook. Renee rarely goes out without her purse. I keep a wallet in my pocket. Boys carry treasure in their pockets. Little boys love things in their pockets because it gives them a strong sense of security. “I have something really cool in my pocket, what about you?” Plus, when you find something really cool it is always best to put it in your pocket so that later on you will not have to look for it again. I hate when I find something cool and lose it. The pocket is a place where the cool item can be safely stored until the need to take it out and stare at it occurs later in the day.

What does this all have to do with faith? Actually it has two different applications. For example, the Psalmist says that he has hidden God’s Word in his heart so that he might not sin against God. The heart becomes a pocket for the Word of God and we stow it away until such a time as we need it (which is most of the time). Also, inside such a pocket the Word is safe, near, and a part of us. It is not something that is contained with binding, glue and string, but rather, it is our very lives.

There is another, perhaps even a greater, application that has to do with the Gospel of salvation in our lives. Our very lives are pockets for treasures and every now and again God reaches into our lives and reveals some great treasure to someone he desires to show it to. In this way the treasure is always close at hand so that anytime he desires to reach in and show off the treasure he can. He hides his treasure inside of us so that the treasure is even more appealing to those who see it.

“But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. So then, death is at work in us, but life is at work in you. (2 Corinthians 4:7-12)

Pockets are safe places for treasure to be stored. Does it surprise you that God has chosen your life to be the storage place for such a great treasure? Do you have any idea how important you are to God? You are as important to God as the tiny treasures crammed into a little boy’s pocket.

Being a dad has taught me that the most valuable part of this story, for the little boy, is not the treasure, but the pocket in which it is stored. As long as the pocket has no holes and is deep enough, the treasure will always be accessible. How many of us have, at some point in time, grown frustrated or upset because, not knowing about the hole in our pockets, we lost a treasure we adored? We were not happy.

So it is with the death of Jesus in our lives. Make certain there are no holes in your life where Jesus might slip out and get lost. God may be reaching into your life today to show off His treasure to someone who desperately needs to see it.

The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name. (Acts 5:41. NIV)

Friends,

This sermon is part 12 in the 14 part series tracing the grand story of God’s redemptive work through Christ. In this sermon, I look at the phenomenon called the church. In a very broad survey of Acts 2 I sketch three ideas about the church: the Church as God’s gift to us, the Church as Spirit driven and inhabited, and the Church as focused on Jesus alone. I emphasize the multi-cultural aspect of the church and conclude with an invitation.

Download here: The Church, Acts 2

Or listen online using the inline player below

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Part 1: Genesis 3, Where it All Went Wrong
Part 2: Genesis 12:1-9, A Blessing for All People
Part 3: Exodus 7-12 (a), Freedom For God’s People
Part 4: Exodus 7-12 (b), Freedom For God’s People, b
Part 5: 2 Samuel 5-7, The King
Part 6: Isaiah 60-66, The New Heavens and New Earth
Part 7: Jeremiah 31, The New Covenant
Part 8: Matthew 1, Jesus pt 1
Part 9: Luke 1-2, Jesus pt 2
Part 10: Mark 15, Jesus, pt 3
Part 11: John 20, Jesus, pt 4
Part 12: Acts 2, The Church

Other download options are available through feedburner and archive.org.

Always for His glory!

Friends,

This is part 11 in the 14 part series that traces the meta-narrative of what God is doing from Genesis through Revelation. In this part, Jesus part 4, I am dealing with the Resurrection narrative in John’s Gospel. I began with SM Lockridge’s ‘it’s Friday but Sunday’s coming…’ sermon and ended with a video clip of Lockdridge’s ‘That’s My King’ (also available at this blog). The main theme is the resurrection of Jesus. Quotes from Lockridge, NT Wright’s Surprised by Hope. The resurrection was God’s declaration of victory. When the world had forgotten Jesus and ignored him by placing him in a tomb, God raised him up and set the world on a new course.

Download here: Jesus pt 4, John 20

Or listen online using the inline player below:

Subscribe in a reader

Part 1: Genesis 3, Where it All Went Wrong
Part 2: Genesis 12:1-9, A Blessing for All People
Part 3: Exodus 7-12 (a), Freedom For God’s People
Part 4: Exodus 7-12 (b), Freedom For God’s People, b
Part 5: 2 Samuel 5-7, The King
Part 6: Isaiah 60-66, The New Heavens and New Earth
Part 7: Jeremiah 31, The New Covenant
Part 8: Matthew 1, Jesus pt 1
Part 9: Luke 1-2, Jesus pt 2
Part 10: Mark 15, Jesus, pt 3
Part 11: John 20, Jesus, pt 4

Other download options are available through feedburner and archive.org.

Always for His glory!

Friends,

This is a re-post of a short essay I published at CRN.info. What concerns me in this post is the idea that every single differing point of view concerning Scripture seems to be, to some in the church, as an assault on orthodoxy. I believe it is fair to say that this is simply not the case and it is certainly not true. Even some of those teachers I was ‘warned’ about in Bible College have turned out to be not quite as bad as the image that was painted of them. There is something to be said about discernment, but that something is more along the lines of: Read, think, and pray.Use the skills God has given you and understand that there is plenty of room for interpretation within the realm of what we call orthodoxy. jerry

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I accidentally picked up an old issue of Books and Culture yesterday. It was the March/April 2008 issue. It wasn’t a particularly compelling issue and since I had already read most of it, I only perused through a couple of articles. Near the back, I found an essay I hadn’t read. It was a review of a book by Mark Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis by Robert Tracy McKenzie. A preview can be found here.

The review is titled ‘Both Read the Same Bible’ which is a quote from the second inaugural address of Abraham Lincoln. The context reads this way:

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. {…}

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations. [my emphasis]

I have often wondered about Christians in this regard. How is it that I can read my Bible and be perfectly at ease in God’s grace that His sovereignty makes much room for my freedom of contrary choice and another can read the same Bible and be perfectly at ease in God’s grace that He has doomed some to hell simply because he decided it to be that way?  How is it I can read my Bible and be perfectly at ease with my understanding that immersion is the last step in conversion and others read the same Bible and come to the conclusion that baptism is the first step of obedience? How can we read the same Bible and some come to a pre-mill idea of the ‘end times’ and others read it and come to a ‘a-mill’ or ‘pan-mill’ or ‘post-mill’ point of view?

Certainly we are not all heretics because we differ on points of view? Have we not all prayed to the same God? Have we not all ‘read the same bible’? Have we not all ‘been baptized into Christ’ (Galatians 3:27), drunk from the same Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13), called upon the One Lord (Romans 10:13)? Certainly the church is bigger than what our puny minds seem to think, right?

I mentioned in another post that God takes a great risk when he permits local church autonomy. Well, doesn’t he also take a great risk when he gives us Scripture and says: “Discover meaning?” ( “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” Proverbs 25:2). It’s not like Scripture is a bullet-point or power-point or even that it can be nicely bundled into formal creeds (even if those creeds are useful and perfectly orthodox.) The Bible is a majestic book, grand, varied, multi-faceted. And that’s how God intended it to be. He gave us stories, poems, proverbs, parables, riddles, letters, apocalypses, narratives, novellas, prophecy, and preaching.Then he said: Search. Discover. Interpret. Ultimately, he said: Find Jesus, not an orthodox theological system (e.g., John 5:39; Luke 24:25-27, 44; 1 Peter 1:10-12)

He didn’t hand us a rule book (even if there are rules to be followed). He handed us a story, to an extent, an idea. Some folks clearly cross over the line of what is the boundary marker, but the bottom line is this: Not every single interpretation or idea is an assault on orthodoxy. Strange, isn’t it, that many who held to the pro-slavery position “came to equate the antislavery crusade with an assault on orthodoxy”? (B & C, McKenzie, 45) And yet, were those who held slaves any-less Christian than those who did not? After all, their interpretation of the Scripture, our ‘only rule of faith and practice’, didn’t condemn the idea. Was God’s grace any less efficacious to them? (Please don’t misinterpret me. I am not saying slavery in the American South (or the American North!) was justified. I’m only pointing out that as far as we know, Robert E Lee was just as much an orthodox Christian as Abraham Lincoln if Scripture has anything to say about it.)

One wonders why many folks in the church today are not given such freedom and consideration. One wonders why every time an interpretation of a parable doesn’t match someones preconceived idea of the meaning we must automatically conclude that person is assaulting orthodoxy?

McKenzie, the author of the review I read concludes by noting this:

Of greater significance to the lay reader should be the implications of Noll’s analysis for contemporary Christians. Although Noll never moralizes, there is a sense in which the entire book is a cautionary tale. The Civil War as a Theological Crisis reminds us of how easily cultural conventions can shape definitions of ‘orthodoxy.’ It warns us that an aversion to complexity is not the same thing as a commitment to scriptural authority. And it demonstrates, powerfully and pertinently to the present moment, the consequences that follow when Christians in a society given to the ‘voluntary and democratic appropriation of Scripture’ come to disagree passionately about what Scripture actually teaches. (46)

Do our disagreements about Scripture now, in our present day, present the same sort of problems as they faced then? Do these incessant arguments portend a greater problem in the church that will not be resolved apart from violence? Is it possible that another civil war could result from our anger towards those who, because the Bible tells me so, disagree with ‘me’? Or is it possible that we are already engaged in a theological civil war? Isn’t this really a matter of ‘how much must I know or how right must I be in order to be saved?’ Isn’t that an assault on God’s grace?

Is there room, and how much, for interpretation? Am I still your brother if we are on opposite sides of the millenial debate? Baptism debate? Atonement debate? Communion debate? Musical instruments debate? (Etc.) Is not He that is in us greater than our interpretations? Or will we continue believing that every contrary idea is necessarily an assault on orthodoxy?

Doesn’t the very nature of Scripture compel us to search and delight and not search and destroy?

Friends,

Several years ago I wrote a book-length series of devotions that, at the time, I sent around to everyone in my email address book. All of the devotionals were based on my experiences as a dad to three boys (the oldest of which, at the time, was 10; he is now 15.) I never did anything with those devotionals except send them around to my friends. I had ambitions at one time to try and have them published, but never did anything about it. So I have decided to share them here at my blog. All told, there are 28 of these devotionals and I will publish them all here. I have also decided that I will be leaving them for the most part ‘at the time’. That is, I won’t be updating them to reflect the five years of so that have passed since their original writing. I will update some thoughts and grammar, but other than that, they are unchanged. I hope you enjoy. jerry

__________________

In many ways I am fortunate to be who I am. There are days when I think I would be better off to be someone else, but most days I am content and have no regrets whatsoever. Undoubtedly the best part about being me is that God has blessed me with three sons.  What more could a man ask for?  “Sons are a heritage from the Lord, children a reward from him. Like arrows in the hands of a warrior are sons born in one’s youth. Blessed is the man whose quiver is full of them. They will not be put to shame when they contend with their enemies in the gate” (Psalm 127:3-5).

Being a dad has taught me more about faith, Christianity and God than all of my college courses combined. I earned a degree from college by completing many courses of study, but for the last 10 [now 15!] years I have been earning my degree in manhood by being dad to three boys. This is no small task, as you will read about in the upcoming pages.

So why is it that being a dad is so much fun? As I said I have three boys. Could life be any more challenging, rewarding or full of adventure? I think not. Being a dad is teaching me a great deal about how God must feel most of the time. Sometimes when I am disciplining my children I can hear God talking to me. (My sons sometimes listen to me!)  God’s family is magnificent and grand. It is a motley group of children from every tribe and tongue under the sun. What a joy it must be for God to be Father to so many children, but also what a burden!

I say this because God also has to deal with those parts of being a dad that are not especially wonderful. After all, we are children, and more often than not we act childish and not childlike. There is a difference you know. We play childish games with one another and treat each other poorly. We deliberately disobey. We cry when we are hurt. As a dad, I have to be ready at all times for whatever shenanigans might happen upon our path for the day. In a sense, God, as Dad, is no different.

Sometimes as God’s children we break things.

Recently, my eldest son Jerry had one of his friends over to play. While the friend was here they were in the upper portion of our house [at the time we were living in the church parsonage] playing, when all of the sudden, the brainstorm came over them. They decided it would be the right thing to do to bounce on the beds.

Great Idea.

What is great is that they did not decide to bounce on Jerry’s bigger, sturdier bed. No, instead they went into Jacob and Samuel’s room and bounced on the smaller, older, repaired-several-times-over-the-past-five-years-beds. These beds are literally held together with a prayer and some sort of drywall screws, putty, and duct tape. They serve their purpose with great dignity when there is only one 20-35 pound baby boy sleeping snug under the covers for eight or nine hours a day. But let just one 40-50 pound child start jumping on those beds and the stress is too much for those bored out, gnarly old boards. The screws literally snap in half. Now, add another 40-50 pound child to the fun and you can see the dilemma faced by those gallant old bed frames.

All that we heard was a loud crashing sound accompanied by a sickening thud. Jacob’s bed had fallen into many pieces: A headboard, foot-board, and two side rails, a mattress, a mattress board, several screws, etc., etc. The beds were designed for sleeping, not Olympic caliber athletic competitions but what did the kids care?

When I got around to repairing the bed about 3 weeks after the incident, (go-ahead laugh) I made certain that Jerry was with me so he could help with the repairs. Have you ever had to find a solid place to put a screw where the wood has been screwed into 40 or 50 times prior? To be sure, it is not easy.  It’s like asking a sponge to hold a nail or Swiss cheese to hold mustard.

You might have guessed that this is not the first bouncing on the bed incident. The room was in tatters and I said to Jerry, “Son, I want you to look around the room. See the bed, broken apart? See the hard work we are doing to fix the bed that was broken by your violation of my rules? Do you see how much work I had to do to fix what you broke?” He did, and acknowledged his newfound wisdom.

Bouncing on beds is fun. We have probably all done it with the exception of that portion of you who never broke any of your parents’ rules. So when it comes to our faith does God ever think the same thing about us? “My child, look how much work I had to do to fix what you broke. Do you not think it would have been better if you had simply obeyed the first time around?” And the story goes on and on and God is still going around fixing all of the messes we manage to make, and cleaning up all of the milk we have managed to spill, and repairing the relationships we have managed to destroy, and chasing down all the pagans we have driven away in our zeal to keep our churches clean. “And behold, the Lord saw all the he had made and said, ‘It is very good.'” Then comes chapter 3.

What is really strange about the whole story though is this: Just as I required Jerry to help me fix the broken bed, so also does God require us to help him fix the things we have broken. So he tells us that when we sin against our brother we are to go and ask for forgiveness, and when someone comes to us in repentance we are to forgive. Or when we are estranged from a sister we must go and be reconciled to them. Or when we run away from home we must return in humility to the father who does his part by waiting for, watching for, and, finally, welcoming us. Those things we break he expects us to fix.

I can tell you from first hand experience and because I am a preacher that fixing those things we break is hard. It is complicated. It is time consuming. It is humiliating. And it’s all in a days walk.

“Therefore, this is what the LORD says: ‘I will return to Jerusalem with mercy, and there my house will be rebuilt. And the measuring line will be stretched out over Jerusalem,’ declares the LORD Almighty. “Proclaim further: This is what the LORD Almighty says: ‘My towns will again overflow with prosperity, and the LORD will again comfort Zion and choose Jerusalem.’ ” (Zechariah 1:16-17)

What we ruin God repairs. Jerusalem was destroyed because of sin; it was rebuilt because of love. God certainly returned to Jerusalem, but he made the people do the back breaking labor or rebuilding it stone for stone. He provided a way for it to be rebuilt they provided the labor. There is always work that must be done. God will provide the means, we provide the sweat.

Being a dad has taught me that perhaps it is better if we obey the rules the first time around. Then we will not have to do the back breaking work of God’s reconstruction projects. (Understand that even the work of forgiveness is difficult.  Bouncing on beds is fun; broken beds are not fun to repair. We may enjoy breaking things; we may not enjoy the work God requires when He decides to get around to fixing them. I am not convinced that our Father cares for us to take three weeks to get around to it either.

If one of my followers sins against you, go and point out what was wrong. But do it in private, just between the two of you. If that person listens, you have won back a follower. But if that one refuses to listen, take along one or two others. The Scriptures teach that every complaint must be proven true by two or more witnesses. If the follower refuses to listen to them, report the matter to the church. Anyone who refuses to listen to the church must be treated like an unbeliever or a tax collector. I promise you that God in heaven will allow whatever you allow on earth, but he will not allow anything you don’t allow. I promise that when any two of you on earth agree about something you are praying for, my Father in heaven will do it for you. Whenever two or three of you come together in my name, I am there with you.

Peter came up to the Lord and asked, “How many times should I forgive someone who does something wrong to me? Is seven times enough?” Jesus answered: Not just seven times, but seventy-seven times!

This story will show you what the kingdom of heaven is like: One day a king decided to call in his officials and ask them to give an account of what they owed him. As he was doing this, one official was brought in who owed him fifty million silver coins. But he didn’t have any money to pay what he owed. The king ordered him to be sold, along with his wife and children and all he owned, in order to pay the debt. The official got down on his knees and began begging, “Have pity on me, and I will pay you every cent I owe!” The king felt sorry for him and let him go free. He even told the official that he did not have to pay back the money.

As the official was leaving, he happened to meet another official, who owed him a hundred silver coins. So he grabbed the man by the throat. He started choking him and said, “Pay me what you owe!” The man got down on his knees and began begging, “Have pity on me, and I will pay you back.” But the first official refused to have pity. Instead, he went and had the other official put in jail until he could pay what he owed.

When some other officials found out what had happened, they felt sorry for the man who had been put in jail. Then they told the king what had happened. The king called the first official back in and said, “You’re an evil man! When you begged for mercy, I said you did not have to pay back a cent. Don’t you think you should show pity to someone else, as I did to you?” The king was so angry that he ordered the official to be tortured until he could pay back everything he owed.

That is how my Father in heaven will treat you, if you don’t forgive each of my followers with all your heart. (Mat 18:15-35  Contemporary English Version)

Soli Deo Gloria!

Friends,

I have been preaching a sermon series I called 90 Days with Scripture.  I have traced the ‘big picture’ from Genesis through Luke and this week I will be in the book of John talking about the resurrection of Jesus.

So I was studying and petitioning and preparing when I suddenly remembered that I had heard a phrase one time about ‘it’s Friday but Sunday’s coming.’ I did a quick search, found the greater context, but I also came across something else that really stirred my soul and mind and body. This youtube video is kind of gnarly, and there is a better, cleaner version here. Still, this is amazing and powerful. This is from a sermon by a preacher named SM Lockridge.

Found this at a blog I read. The blogger is giving a brief review of Tim Keller’s book The Reason for God:

Keller responds to the ubiquitous atheist chorus: “If a good and powerful God exists, he would not allow pointless evil, but because there is much unjustifiable, pointless evil in the world, the traditional good and powerful God could not exist.”

Keller: “This reasoning is, of course, fallacious.  Just because you can’t see or imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one.  Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties.  If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any!  This is blind faith of a high order.”  “Many assume that if there were good reasons for the existence of evil, they would be accessible to our minds…but why should that be the case?”  Keller says, essentially, just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean it is not there!

HT: Reformed Reader