Archive for living

Wesley’s Questions

If you’re familiar with 12 Step programs, you might remember that Step 4 is the Truth, i.e., “Make a searching and fearless written moral inventory of yourself.”

There’s a reason they say *searching and fearless* — it’s hard to be honest about yourself. (Especially in writing.)

John Wesley and his Holy Club used to do that every day (not in writing). They had a list of questions to help them do it. Here are the first two:

  1. Am I consciously or unconsciously creating the impression that I am better than I really am? In other words, am I a hypocrite?
  2. Am I honest in all my acts and words, or do I exaggerate?

I should mention that I hate those questions and rarely do this.

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Church is Good for You

Not long ago, I blogged the news that it’s better to give than to receive. Now comes the news that going to church is good for you. It’s almost like there was some kind of supernatural agency that wanted us to know how we could have better lives. (I blogged this on the web site at my church, but the original article was in the NY Times.)

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Alaska

We buttoned up our U-Pack trailer on Wednesday, March 7, expecting it to arrive in Anchorage around March 21, or perhaps a little later. Instead it was here a week later, on March 14. It went by road to Seattle, where it was then shipped to Alaska. The world is not only flat, it’s small.

Trailer Spotted (Anchorage)

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Fresh Year!

Happy New Year!

The writers of the New Testament used two different words for “new.” One of them, neos, is more familiar to English speakers. It’s where we get our prefix neo-. Some hospitals, for example, have a special unit to care for neonates, or newborns.

The other word, kainos, is less familiar to us; the only English word related to it is a technical word used by geologists. In the Bible, however, kainos occurs more frequently in the Bible than neos.

What’s the difference between these words? Neos has strictly to do with the age of something. For example, in Luke 15:11-32, the story of the prodigal son, the younger brother is the newer one, the neoteros brother. His brother is presbuteros, is older, than he. (That word for “older”, by the way, is where we get our term Presbyterian, which is used to describe a church governed not by clergy but by elders.)

Kainos has less to do with the actual age of a thing than neos. It refers instead to something’s freshness. When Jesus taught, people marveled not at how young his teaching was, but its revolutionary novelty: “They were all amazed, and kept on asking each other, ‘What is this? A new teaching—with authority!'” (Mark 1:27)

The distinction between new/young and new/fresh is a useful one. Not everything new is fresh. In a world of knock-offs and derivative ideas, the easiest thing of all is to come up with something that’s new but not innovative. Look at Hollywood: there are new movies in the theaters every week, but how many of them are tired retreads of the same old stories?

Even in the Old Testament, we hear God alert us that he is doing a new thing (Isaiah 43:19). In the New Testament, we learn its newness is the kainos type: not young but fresh. Jesus brought a new teaching. Paul tells us that those who are in Christ are new creations, and when he proclaimed Jesus, people were eager to hear his new teaching. Near the end of the book of Revelation, John has a vision of the new heaven and new earth, and he records Jesus’ words: “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'”

Our God is a God makes things new. He does so not by making those things younger, however: how could even God do that? Instead, God makes things new by refreshing them and giving them renewed vitality.

Which brings me back to “Happy New Year!” 2012 is a new neos/young year, but will it be a new kainos/fresh year? Will the year 2012 be filled with novelty and innovation, or with another twelve weary months of the same-old, same-old? The Bible gives us reason to believe God desires to do new things in us and through us. My hope that 2012 is a new year for you in the very best way.

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Rules

Most people think Christianity is all about rules: quit doing that and start doing this other thing. When I meet people who believe that, I tell them, as gently as I can, that they have been misinformed. It’s not always easy, because often the people who told them so were Christians!

But this misconception isn’t new. In fact, people were making the same mistake only a few years after Jesus’ death and resurrection. It was so common in a town called Colossae that Paul, a leader in the early church, wrote them a letter and said this:

So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, “Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!”? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.
  —Colossians 2:20-23 NLT

It’s sad that so many Christians talk about rules and morality with non-Christians, because it can give them a mistaken understanding of Christianity. First, since different Christians may not agree on which rules they’re supposed to obey, it makes us look like we’re either ignorant, or quarrelsome, or both.

Even worse, though, an understanding of Christianity that’s based on obedience and rules can make Christians look like hypocrites, because even when we agree on a particular rule, we don’t always obey it. It is not unheard of for Christians to skip church on Sunday or contribute less than a tithe of their income. They call in sick when they aren’t, they sometimes drink too much, and, sadly, they get divorced about as much as non-Christians.

But rules are beside the point. Some rules are good and others are bad, but Christianity isn’t about them. As you read the stories about Jesus in the Bible, you see he was always getting in trouble with people who thought he should obey their rules.

What Christianity is about is a new way of relating to God. It’s about what Jesus did at the Cross to reconnect us to God, so that God could make us into new people. God’s plan is to make Christians into new people, who don’t need rules any more than Jesus did, because the greatest desire of their heart is to please their Father in heaven.

(This article appeared in the January 26 issue of the Hi-Desert Star.)

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New Years Resolutions: What Should We Work On?

The Bible describes a series of mass deportations after the empire of Babylon conquered Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. Great numbers of Israelites were taken to Babylon from about 600 BC and especially after the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BC. But Babylon had its own problems, and when it was conquered in 538, the Persian Emperor Cyrus allowed Jews in Babylon to return to Israel.

Several books of the Bible describe what happened when they returned. One of those books is Haggai. In chapter two of the book of Haggai, the word of the LORD came to the prophet Haggai telling him to ask the people who returned this question: “Does anyone remember this house – this Temple – in its former splendor? How, in comparison, does it look to you now? It must seem like nothing at all!” (Haggai 2:3).

The decades had not been good to the Temple. Foreign occupiers had profaned what wasn’t destroyed in the initial conquest. Jews who remembered Solomon’s Temple could only shake their heads and weep. Since Israel was still governed by Persians, it wasn’t likely that the Jews would be allowed to rebuild a Temple. But through the prophet, God made them an amazing promise:

The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.—Haggai 2:9

That promise was fulfilled in time. A second Temple was eventually built in Jerusalem. A few centuries later, a foreigner named Herod married his way into the Jewish royal family, and to win favor from the people, and perhaps to create a name for himself, he began a massive project to rebuild the Temple. Authorities disagree how long that project took, but we read in John 2:20 that it was still underway after 46 years.

Herod’s Temple must have been really something. Mark records an incident where the disciples were struck by its magnificence: “As he came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, ‘Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!'” Jesus wasn’t impressed, and replied, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mark 13:1-2)

In 70 AD, the Roman general (and future emperor) Titus destroyed Jerusalem, and razing the Temple. In this way he fulfilled Jesus’ prophecy, just as Herod had fulfilled Haggai’s.

But the promise that God made through Haggai still endures. The Apostle Peter makes an amazing offer to all who put their faith in Christ:

Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.—1 Peter 2:4

By all accounts, Herod’s Temple was truly magnificent, but God is building a new Temple: a spiritual house whose chief cornerstone is Christ. This new Temple far surpasses Herod’s Temple, just as it had surpassed those sad ruins that Haggai looked at.

Our role as Christians isn’t to build a new Temple: God is doing that, far better than we could ever do. But a New Year is a time to pause and reflect on what we’re doing and where we’re going.

What are you doing with your life? Are you like Herod, working on things that will only endure a few years after you’re gone?

How about our church? What are we working on, and will it last? It isn’t our responsibility to build the church. Jesus told his disciples he would do that (Matt 16:18). But he did commission us to make disciples. He wants lots of living stones for the glorious new Temple he’s building.

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What Do You Want From Life?

“What do you want from life?”

Everyone answers that question differently. What I mean is this. Everyone wants to be happy. There are things we want to accomplish. We want financial security. We want to be in relationships with other people. But we’re all unique, so we all want these different things in different proportions.

Proverbs 14:4 goes like this:

“If there are no oxen the crib is clean, /
But a rich harvest comes through the strength of the ox.”

We Americans have to pause a moment to decode it, because so few of us are involved in farming. The point, however, is clear: the things we want most generally can’t be had by themselves. They come when we do other things that move us toward our real goals.

Read the rest of this entry »

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National Day of Prayer – One Opinion

Earlier this month, Federal Judge Barbara Crabb ruled that a national day of prayer is an unconstitutional call to religious action. Since the ruling, atheist and religious groups have been arguing for and against both the ruling and the national day of prayer itself.

Many people of faith, especially Christians, have seen the ruling as a further whittling away of the status of faith in society. “First,” the logic goes, “they came for prayer in schools, then high school baccalaureates, then public nativity scenes at Christmas, and so forth, leading to this latest ruling against the national day of prayer.”

I, too, was disappointed by the ruling, but not because it whittled away Christianity. Christianity doesn’t need help from judges. Christianity doesn’t need an act of congress or a presidential proclamation.

Historically, the Church has flourished most when it had the least help from the state. Remember how the Church grew in its first couple of centuries. It began as a tiny handful of followers of a crucified rabbi in a backwater province, and became the most numerous religion in the world’s greatest empire — and did so despite official neglect, and frequent persecution, at the hands of the state. Or, more recently, consider how the underground Church grew so dramatically in China under Mao.

By contrast, the Church’s lowest moments have occurred when it was most tightly connected with the state. The crusades, the inquisition, the Thirty Years’ War between Protestants and Catholics, even Hitler’s domesticated “German Christian” church in Nazi Germany — all these occurred when the Church sought the power of the state and so became entangled with it.

No, if this ruling will harm anything, it will be our nation. Certainly the Church will not suffer, for there is no power in all creation – Jesus said not even the gates of Hades — that will prevail against the Church (Matthew 16:18).

It isn’t my place to argue the constitutionality of a national day of prayer. I leave that to lawyers. But as a believer, I am called to pray for my country. “Fear God,” Peter writes, and “honor the Emperor.” In Jeremiah 29, the prophet calls Jewish exiles to pray even for Babylon. Regardless how the legal issue plays out, please join me and other people of faith next week in praying to the Lord for our nation.

(Originally published in the Hi-Desert Star, April 28, 2010.)

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Dealing with the Devil

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.
I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”
John 10:10

As a rule, Presbyterians don’t talk much about the devil. But this month, we’re going to begin reading C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters in the pastor’s Bible study. The book imagines a correspondence between a senior demon and a younger apprentice, as they plot the damnation of their “patient.”

Pop culture tells us how people make deals with the devil. It says people sell their souls and obtain worldly success in exchange for eternal damnation. These stories are often accompanied by convincing details: the contract is signed in blood, or is executed at midnight at a crossroads.

Scripture paints a more complicated picture than pop culture. While there are some points of agreement, the picture is certainly nuanced. On the one hand, Psalm 10:5 says the ways of the wicked prosper at all times. On the other hand, the Psalmist recounts in Psalm 32 how his body wasted away before he confessed his sin, but now God has become his hiding place and preserver. He concludes with the observation that “many are the torments of the wicked.”

We may share the Psalmist’s mixed feelings. We, too, can think of successful people who, if not utterly wicked, seem to live lives far from the will of God — and yet they seem happy and fulfilled. This can drive us to discount the present and focus entirely on the afterlife. “They’re living high now,” we think, “but someday they will be brought low.”

True as that may be, it isn’t really helpful. First, Peter reminds us the Lord “is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9). We can hardly desire damnation for those God wants to be saved.

But second, God doesn’t want us to be focused on our eternal reward. Instead, God wants us to change our definition of success. If the wicked seem to prosper, our definition of success is false. “What will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life?” (Matt 16:26)

The danger, though, is that we should turn our backs not on the world but on the present. If we focus all our effort and our obedience on a reward we only be able to enjoy in heaven, we have become like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son, who complains he has “worked like a slave” for the Father, but lived miserably (“you never gave me a goat to celebrate”) (see Luke 15:25-32).

God doesn’t want us to be miserable. Jesus came that “we might have life, and in abundance.” My prayer is that as we read Screwtape together, we can gain a better perspective about that kind of abundant living. I hope to see you there!

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Easter vs. Fear

When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.
In God, whose word I praise, in God I trust;
I am not afraid; what can flesh do to me? Psalm 56:3-4

According to a recent survey (http://bit.ly/czmm53), only 2% of Americans realize Easter is the most important holiday in the Christian faith. Even among Protestant Christians, just 78% recognized Easter as a religious holiday, and only a bare majority (51%) could connect it with the Resurrection of our Lord.

I always encourage people to participate in worship services during Holy Week, like our own Maundy Thursday service at 7:00 p.m. on April 1, or the community Good Friday service at noon on April 2. The reason is that, like Easter, Palm Sunday is a joyous occasion, and we can gloss over what happened in between the two. But without an appreciation of the price Jesus paid, and the impact it had on his first disciples, it’s easy to forget why Easter is so important.

There’s a fascinating example of that in Mark 15:43. Jesus has just died on the cross, and Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Jewish ruling council, requested the body so it could be buried. (Standard Roman practice was to leave the bodies of crucified people hanging, as a warning to others.) Our pew Bible says he “went boldly to Pilate,” the governor, to request Jesus’ body. But that is surely too weak. The word translated boldly means “to be so bold as to challenge or defy possible danger or opposition.” Paul uses the same word when says (Philippians 1:4) that even though he is imprisoned by Caesar’s imperial guard, he “dares to speak the word with greater boldness and without fear.”

The amazing thing about what Joseph of Arimathea did was that it happened before the Resurrection. We know how hard it can be for us to be unafraid-and we know that Jesus rose from the grave; we know that he will return to claim his church, when the dead will rise to meet him (1 Thessalonians 4:16-17) and even those who have not yet died will be changed (1 Corinthians 15:51ff). Joseph didn’t have that assurance. He dared to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body, not knowing if it would cost him his own life-if he would end up hanging on a cross next to Jesus’ body. The reason Joseph could risk so much was that he was “expectantly waiting for the Kingdom of God” Jesus had proclaimed (Mark 1:18).

Is there anything you are afraid of? Easter reminds us that the worst thing that can happen to us-death-has been defeated. If death has lost its sting, how much more the trivial things most of us worry about. What can that reassurance do for you? What freedom does it give you? What things does it enable you to dare, like Joseph of Arimathea did?

I hope to see you during Holy Week!

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