Saturday, March 31, 2007

The necessity of being unnecessary…

George Washington was our nations first, and perhaps greatest, president. He is many times referred to as the father of the nation. His devotion to virtue and patriotism, as well as his enormous charisma, experience, military bearing, and leadership made him an exemplary figure among early American politicians.

His career was extraordinary. He led America’s Continental Army to victory in the Revolutionary War (1783). Earlier, he victoriously drove the British forces out of Boston in 1776, was nearly captured when his own army lost New York City to the Imperial forces, but later retook lost ground with a daring midnight winter raid. He handled negotiations with the states and their respective militias, dealt with disputing generals, negotiated with French allies, and held together a tenuous army and fragile birthing nation.

After the War, he presided over the Constitutional Convention that drafted our present day Constitution. When elected President, he began the process of creating a strong government capable of surviving in a world torn asunder by war between Britain and France.

But his most celebrated accomplishment is something he didn’t do. Though assured of a landslide victory, he refused to run for another term of office, thus proving to our young nation that he wasn’t needed. He taught America that it wasn’t dependent upon one man.

Do you think that you’re irreplaceable? Our souls lust for recognition, we desperately wish to be needed & to feel valued. Yet, when we live this way, we are actually stealing God’s glory for ourselves. God has a better plan. He desires that we use our influence to point others towards His throne.

If people are going to see God through you,

you’ll need to get out of the way!

"Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel...'I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god'" - Isaiah 44:6 ESV

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Walking the Summit...

I have always dreamed of hiking the Appalachian Trail. The trail begins in Springer Mountain, Georgia and travels 2,160 miles to Katahdin, Maine. It follows the summit line of the Appalachian mountains, running through a total of 14 states. There are two types of hikers on the trail. Section-Hikers are those individuals who plan on hiking the entire trail, but in sections over several years (usually in 1 or 2 week stints). Thru-Hikers are those diehards who hike the complete trail from beginning to end—which takes most hikers 3.5 months to complete! My dream is to thru-hike the trail before I turn 40. According to a long standing tradition, thru-hikers pick up a pebble in Springer Mountain, GA and carry it with them over the 2,160 mile journey. When they reach the end of the trail in Maine, they place the pebble on the summit of Katahdin Mountain (which is over 5,200 ft above sea level).

Can you imagine that moment? After 3.5 months of solitude in the mountains, your journey comes to an end on what seems like the top of the world. All you can see is thousands of miles of terrain, snow-capped mountains, and an endless blue sky. Standing there, you see the magnificence of God’s creation in its entire splendor.

These ‘mountain-top’ experiences are important reminders of the undeniable reality of God. This is His world. He created it and continues to sustain it. He serves as Lord and Judge over all its inhabitants.

This week
…find a spot where you can be alone with God. Take a drive in the car, or take a walk on your favorite trail. Remember that God is the creator and judge over all that you see. His tender Spirit brought everything into existence, His powerful voice ushered forth life, and His watchful eye observes every detail.

“Be still and know that I am God” – Psalm 46:10

Prayer: Merciful Father, quiet my heart that I might hear you. Open my eyes that I might see you. Liven my senses that I might feel your life-giving presence. You are God, and there is no other. Amen.

Giving God our best

Lev.22:20-23 - "You shall not offer anything with a blemish."

When it came to sacrifices, offerings, and the payment of vows, God required that the Israelites bring their best animals and goods to Him. Nothing with a defect was allowed (Lev. 22:20–23). This was because God is a holy, perfect God. He was worthy of the best that His people had to offer. In the end, all that they had belonged to Him anyway (compare Deut. 8:18; 1 Chr. 29:14–15).

Yet so many times we offer God our excess...our leftovers...the portion that we can really do without. In light of this command to bring God the best, believers today do well to consider:

• Do we honor God with the best of what we have—in terms of our time, talent, and treasure—or do we just offer Him the “leftovers”?

• Do we serve God with our best effort at work, utilizing the resources and abilities that He has given us as best we can?

• Do we worship God in an alert, active way, paying attention and entering into His presence with all that we have—our minds, emotions, and will?

• Do we treat others—who are made in God’s image—with the best of intentions, showing honor, respect, and love toward them as we would toward Christ?

God wants your best. Offer your dead cat elsewhere.

Prayer: Merciful Father, we give thanks for your many blessings. You have given us your very best in Jesus Christ. God of very God, Light of very Light, He was the perfect atonement for our sins, and the perfect gift to the world. Father, teach us to give our best to you. Our gift is insignificant to yours, but we offer it still. Amen.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Caring in Community

Pastors are appropriately seen as agents of care and compassion. Of course we are commissioned to boldly teach holy scripture, but equally important is our sacred duty of demonstrating mercy (many times referred to as "soul care" or "pastoral care") to those around us. To a large degree, people will only accept the former if we faithfully provide the latter.

To most people, a visit by the pastor during a time of crisis or great significance is a meaningful thing. God has 'hardwired' me in such a way that I find great joy in visiting people during these times. I am grateful to be a meaningful presence in their lives, and they are appreciative of the time I have invested in them.

But there is a problem. Even in a small church it is impossible for the pastor to be everywhere at once. Nor should he be. Visits by deacons, elders, or church members may be appreciated, yet to many it doesn't count unless the pastor also visits.

Consider the following story. A young woman suffers a horrific miscarriage while attending First Baptist Church. During this time the pastoral staff assemble for prayer--praying over this young lady and her situation. They commission several of the women from the church to offer her comfort and support during this time of grief. For the days and weeks after this tragic event these women pour themselves into this young woman. Yet within 6 months the young woman has left the church completely--telling people that the pastor didn't even care enough to visit her.

The problem is a wrong-headed conception of a pastor, and a wrong-headed conception of the body of Christ. So many of our churches are locked into thinking the pastor is the sole agent of compassion. But the true outpouring of the Spirit is over the local community of the church, not a single individual. What this means is that the local body of Christ is the agent of compassion.

Our challenge is twofold: (1) local churches must recognize that compassion is a shared activity. While the pastor may lead by example, all are responsible for "pastoring" (shepherding) one another. (2) We must begin to unlearn false conceptions of church roles. So many times we do things so long a certain way we think they are "biblical". While there is such a thing as a pastoral "office", more often that not Scripture refers to the gift of pastoring, not the office. While only a few serve in the OFFICE of pastor, many have the GIFT of pastoring, while all are called to engage in the ACTIVITY of pastoring (to some degree at least).

Compassion is only effective when it is a community endeavor. Together, let us care for souls.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Idol _____ Worship: The case of the missing word

Jews have always been a pesky bunch. Pick any period in history and you will find Jewish beliefs and practices as being a source of irritation to many. In the New Testament world, there was a group called the Hellenists. To a large measure they could be compared to what we call 'liberals' today. They were Jews who wanted to throw off this "pesky" image and embrace the beliefs of the larger world.

Chief among these new 'enlightened' beliefs was the readiness to recognize "God" in many different manifestations. To the Hellenists, YHWH was God, but so was Zeus, Apollo, Baal, and all others. Overtime, Hellenistic piety was marked by one's willingness to genuinely respect all religions and cults. Sound familiar?

In contrast to this was the traditional Jewish intolerance towards other religions. For devout Jews, YHWH alone was God; and they refused to have Him share the platform with Zeus or anyone else. In fact, this refusal to recognize other Gods as manifestations of YHWH (or YHWH as a manifestation of Zeus) led to the Jews being charged with atheism (since they denied the existence of other gods).

Likewise, the refusal of the Jews to image the form their God in humanly crafted images was a matter of some bewilderment to most Greeks and Romans. The Roman poet Juvenal, writing in the second century, pokes fun at these Jews "who worship nothing but the clouds".

Paul was distressed to see Athens full of idols (Acts 17:16) and quickly denounced idolatry (17:29). In Thessalonians 1:9 he recalls how the believers there had previously "turned to God from idols". From the very beginning of the Law (Exodus 20), and from the creation of the world (Genesis 1 & 2), God is represented as being invisible (and singular). To the Jews, human-made idols were taboo.

But the Greeks and Romans of that time actually misunderstood Jewish/Christian teachings. Jews and Christians have always believed in idols. We make us of them everyday. In fact, it is impossible to have a truly biblical church worship gathering without the presence of idols.

In Genesis 1:27 God made man and woman in His image. The word 'image' is the same Hebrew word as 'idol'. In other words, God intended that humanity be his "idol" (or better stated, His visible representation in the world). In the New Testament we are taught, since sin destroyed our ability to "idol" properly, we must be remade in the image of Christ (Romans 8:29; Colossians 3:10). Through Christ, we become the idols we were always intended to be. An idol is a symbol of a deity's presence. As Christians, you and I are called to be living idols, who likewise symbolize the presence of God in this world.

Human sin pulls us down into idol worship. God's holiness lifts us up to be idols that worship.

Idol worship.
Idols that worship.

One little word makes all the difference.

Prayer: Lord, make me your idol. Bless me by allowing others to see you through me. May this idol always worship you, and you alone.

Monday, March 19, 2007


I have always wanted to build an underground bunker. I mean, I have ALWAYS REALLY, REALLY wanted to build one. I have several different designs drawn up, have researched building costs, and have planned what items I would stock in my bunker.

The really crazy thing is why I want to build this bunker. I am not some anti-government wacko (though there are enough of those in Northern Michigan). I don't even own a gun. I do not really fear a nuclear war or that the "commies" (or Muslims) are going to invade. The only reason I want one is because I have never outgrown my boyish fort-building mode!

The idea of having my own secret little fort just sounds cool to me. Perhaps the secret door could be behind a bookcase in my library, or even through my closet in my bedroom. This would lead to a hidden staircase (or even a ladder), then through an underground hallway, through a security door (all equipped with cameras), and then finally in the bunker. Of course, there would also be a secret outside exit (perhaps under a lawn gnome or something).

Maybe I have just read too much C.S. Lewis (and maybe watched "Red Dawn" one too many times).

The "psychologist" in me tends to see this fantasy as a desire to escape from the various stressors in my life, or a place to feel 'safe' in the midst of a frightening world. The "pastor" perhaps sees this as an expression of that 'old adam' within me that selfishly desires to hoard things for myself (a 'secret' room filled with 'secret' things that only I could enjoy). Perhaps its a combination of the two (a desire to be safe--emotionally or otherwise--at the expense of everyone else's supposed lack of safety).

Scripture seems to have another approach. The psalmist declares, "The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous run into it and are saved". Human beings desperately try so many silly methods for achieving even a temporary sense of safety. For some, it is large bank accounts and high paying jobs. For others it is a refusal to move out of mom & dad's house, never trying life on their own. For others still, safety is found in codependent relationships. And for some, it is found in an overactive imagination which produces boyish fantasies of escapism. In order to feel safe, we refuse to move, or else rush forward at break neck speed. We refuse to love, or else we love heedlessly and dysfunctionally. We refuse to spend, or else we spend wantonly to prove to ourselves we are doing well financially. We do nothing, or sometimes anything, to simply feel safe.

God has another plan. He says "believe". He asks us to trust Him, to run to Him, to abide in Him no matter what. No matter what! In bad times, we run to His tower. In good times, we stay in sight of His tower. He asks that we allow his tower to be the dominate presence in our lives, for in this tower there is hope.

All in all, God is patiently calling on me to believe that His tower beats my bunker any day!

Prayer: Lord, teach me to run to you. Help me to realize that strength and safety is found only in you. You are God, and there is no other. You are my strong tower, I will run to you to be saved.

Friday, March 16, 2007

What Happens in Vegas...

You've probably heard the expression "What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas". As I was sipping coffee over the early morning news, a Vegas tourist TV ad came on featuring this slogan. It was about a young couple who visited a Tarot card reader. The husband initially refuses to participate, and when he finally sits down he exchanges knowing looks with the fortune teller, while also giving innocent looks to his naive wife. The commercial ends with the slogan What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas.

Imagine that. Imagine a city that builds its entire industry on the ability to commit every act of immorality with no consequences. Gamble away your money and your kid will never know. Have an affair and your wife won't find out. Have a weekend of drunken indulgence without damaging your reputation.

It is easy to blame Vegas. It is an "immoral" city, after all. But its not that simple. Vegas simply paints our own moral beliefs on a very large canvas. In other words, it magnifies our own hearts, showing every naughty little detail.

The Psalmist declares that "the fear of God is not before the eyes of the ungodly" (Ps 36:1). Likewise, because they persuade themselves that God does not see, they proudly applaud their own wrongdoings (Ps 10:11).

Yet it is not just the overtly carnal who live a Vegas lifestyle (i.e. acting holy most of the time but committing secret acts of sin). Christians also live this way. John Calvin, in his venerable Institutes, states that "whoever heedlessly indulges himself, his fear of heavenly judgment extinguished, denies that there is a God". What Calvin is saying is that even professing Christians are many times simply atheists in disguise. While their lips testify to the existence of God, their secret actions deny Him.

Pray today to live victorious over those "secret" sins in your life. Indwelling sin (i.e., secret sins that you have not really dealt with) have no place in the life of a believer. What happens in the "Vegas places" of your life never stay there...the stench of those actions/thoughts also reach the throne of God. is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.

Prayer: Father, you know all and see all. May we never forget that you, and you alone, are judge over the world. You see our hearts, and we lay bare & open before you. Give us victory over indwelling sin, and teach us what it means to follow you in the path of holiness, truth, and love.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Pretenders to the Throne of Editorial Acuity

As e-mail and other forms of electronic communication (blogs, Instant Messenger, etc.) continue to see rapid rise, we struggle to adjust our editorial standards. For years we understood that personal correspondence was judged by different standards than professional documents or published papers. Yet, since personal letters consumed both time and money--a fact that was not lost on the receiver of such correspondence--it was expected to adhere to certain standards. Even though the sender might not be part of the intelligentsia of society, the document was expected to be free of basic grammatical and spelling errors.

But what are the standards for internet writings? Such works are usually hastily produced, with little willingness to conduct spelling or grammatical checks before publishing. Differences of opinion abound as to proper standards. There are those who say no such standards should exists, considering the sheer volume of these mass produced writings. Others argue for a minimalist approach (the 'old school hand-written correspondence standards), while others strongly advocate for highly professional standards.

These latter two camps have militant advocates. In fact, most people know a few self-proclaimed Internet "editors"--whose chief mission in life is to correct the spelling mistakes of those of us too busy to correct our instances of written faux pas. I myself have been the victim of these unsolicited correctors.

Perhaps we should institute something similar to the "Do Not Call" list for telephone solicitors. It could be called a "Do Not Post" list for Blogs. I'm unsure regarding the technical specs for something of this sort, but am convinced the idea is sound.

Oh, I would appreciate it if you could help me find the flaws in the above article. I would hate to post it publicly with mistakes.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A beam in our eye

The gulf that separates Protestant Christianity from the Roman Catholic or Orthodox churches is indeed serious and profound.* Perhaps the most grave difference is our respective understanding of the doctrine of salvation by faith alone. But there are other differences, such as: the purpose of the Lord's supper, devotion to Mary, papal authority, the role of the church fathers in determining the doctrine and practice of the church, and several others.

This last issue (the role of the church fathers) is a double edged sword. The "Church Fathers" is a group of men (and a few women) who lived in the Early Church period. In some cases, they were only 1 or 2 generations removed from the Apostles. Most Protestants, and in particular Baptists, have rightly rejected according the church fathers equal status (in either word or practice) with scripture. The "speck" in the eye of the Catholic church is their insistence that the words of these fathers are endowed with infallible authority.

But I am presently concerned with the beam in our own eyes. Whereas the Catholic church has put an inappropriate degree of authority upon these early Christian leaders, we (Protestants) have treated these faithful men of the past with contempt and scorn. Our insistence that "all we need is the Bible" is nothing more than pride & arrogance. These men have something to teach us, and we must learn from them.

In fact, great Protestant leaders like John Calvin and Martin Luther quoted often from these early Christian leaders. The original Protestants were trying to prove, among other things, that they were the ones who were truly in accord with the teachings of these men & that the Catholic Church had actually departed from their teachings. While Calvin & Luther never viewed these writers as possessing Scriptural authority, they correctly understood that the Church Fathers did possess an uninspired, fallible authority. They were the earliest witnesses and teachers after the apostles, and as such are important voices if we are to correctly understand Scripture.

Yes, the Church Fathers were wrong about many things. But while the Catholics will only view Scripture through the lens of these men, many Protestants refuse to even hold their spectacles to the eye. By doing so, we cut ourselves off from their great wisdom and counsel. As Spurgeon once said, "It seems odd that we think so highly of what the Spirit tells us, but so little of what the Spirit has told others."

I encourage you to buy a book written by a Church Father. Let them teach you - they only wish to draw you further in God's Word. Try one of the following:

Augustine, City of God
Augustine, Confessions ++
Athanasius, On the Incarnation
Athanasius, The Life of St. Anthony ++
Basil the Great, On the Holy Spirit
John Cassian, The Institutes
John Cassian, The Conferences
Clement, The First Letter of Clement to the Corinthians ++
Evagrius Ponticus, Ad Monachos
The Didache (author unknown) ++

++ Highly recommended

Prayer: Lord, open our hearts to your eternal truths. May your holy word be our chief tutor and surest guide. Yet, Lord also instruct us through the teachings of your godly servants. Our goal is you, and you alone. You are the prize we seek. Thank you for such a 'great cloud of witnesses'. Amen.

* A similar statement was made by J. Gresham Machen in his book Christianity & Liberalism, though for different purposes.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The blessedness of knowing God

As I prepare for this Sunday's main sermon, I have been doing much reading from John Calvin's Institutes. I am reading through the Institutes anyway for personal pleasure (as I announced on my other blog, John Calvin is my official 'Dead Theologian of the Year'). But I decided to go back to the beginning of this work since here he discusses the idea of the Knowledge of God.

As the ancient Christian symbol depicting the trinity demonstrates, God is a complex person*. He is difficult to understand. Calvin actually suggest that we stop trying to "understand" him (in the sense of philosophical conjecture) and instead observe his works in the universe and his truth in Scripture. In both we learn (in different degrees) that God is powerful and loving.

In his Institutes Calvin made one statement that has struck a cord with me. He said, "The final goal of the blessed life rests in the knowledge of God".

This means that for me to experience a truly blessed life (the life that God wants me to have), I must know him. God has invited all to be included in this happiness. Tragically, due to sin all have chosen to exclude themselves from true knowledge of God, and therefore from the blessed life only God can offer.

God wants to be seen, he wants to be known. Why? Certainly because he has a right to be worshipped and praised. But also because he desires to share with us the blessedness & happiness of his presence. When we know God, we experience something of the blessed life that he himself lives.

Challenge: Use this week to learn more about God. Meditate on a passage of scripture, and then get out into nature and observe the wonders of his creation.

"The final felicity of man consists only in the contemplation of God"
- Thomas Aquinas

"When I see Thee, I seek a happy life"
- Augustine

"The final goal of the blessed life rests in the knowledge of God"
- John Calvin

Prayer: Father, help me this week to know you more. With your Spirit guiding me, and your Son redeeming me, lead me further into the knowledge of you. I wish to experience the blessed life only you can offer. Thank you, dear Lord, for allowing me a measure of this blessedness already. In you there are always more blessings still, and you will gladly share them with your elect for all of time. Amen.

* Actually, from a philosophical standpoint, God is "simple", since he is eternally unchanging. But I use the term "complex" in a non-technical sense.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Odd Blessings

Several years back I was invited to speak at a week-long family bible conference in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Being knee-deep in seminary studies, and perhaps a bit too eager to demonstrate my newly acquired knowledge, I chose a topic not at all suited to a family conference: Postmodernism. The poor adults and youth had to endure 5 days of heady lectures about Postmodernism's philosophical background, its underlying assumptions, its comparison with other philosophical systems such as Common Sense Realism and Empiricism, as well as its influence on the contemporary church.

They were patient, loving...and yes, extremely bored out of their minds.

Perhaps because the topic was so ill-suited, the only thing the people seemed to remember or respond to was my "rabbit-trail" comments. These are comments or stories the pastor tells that really not directly connected to the sermon. Sometimes we get so lost in rabbit trails that we never return (yes, I still do this from time to time).

One "rabbit-trail" statement I made was an off-handed comment about being "baptized in the name of Jesus". I wasn't even speaking about Baptism, and I don't even remember making this comment-though apparently I had.

It seems that there are some Christian groups out there that have a hang-up on the precise words one is supposed to use while Baptizing people. Some scriptures reference being "baptized in Christ's name", while other scripture use the language "in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit". Some believe the one formula is the only correct formula, other believer the latter is the only scripturally approved one. To me, it is 6 to one and a 1/2 dozen to the other. Both work, and I could have just as easily said the other. But I did say "in Christ's name", and someone in the crowd that night reacted to it.

The next evening, a gentleman approached me and stuffed an envelope in my hand. He indicated that it was a letter and he wanted me to read it once the conference was over. I forgot all about it until I got home several days later and unpacked my suitcase. Upon opening the letter, I discovered 5 pages of front & back handwriting praising me for using the correct baptismal formula, and calling down curses on the "heretics" who use the Trinitarian formula. He thanked me for my bold stand "for the truth of the Bible" and encouraged me to "stay true to this biblical teaching".

Also in the envelope were 3 crisp $100 bills. An odd blessing indeed.

The letter was signed only with a first name. No contact information was given. I called the camp and gave them the first name of the individual. I was hoping to track him down and return the money, since I knew I wasn't in agreement with him. The camp had no idea who he was, and to this day his identity remains a mystery.

Sometimes God uses the strangest circumstances to bring blessings in our life. Though I am sure this man meant well, in reality he was splitting hairs over God's word. By focusing on the meaningless details, he was missing the whole point of baptism (that it represented a soul being saved from the fires of hell and made alive in Christ). Yet God used his obsessions to bless me.

Lord, thank you for blessing us. You are the source of all that it good, and we praise you for providence in our lives. Forgive us, Lord, for our mishandling of your Word & for our preoccupation with meaningless issues.

Friday, March 9, 2007

Hello, My Father Just Died (by John Piper)

The following is Pastor John Piper’s journal entry narrating his father's death on Tuesday, March 6, 2007. This is a wonderful example of how faithful believers cope with death. I pray for faith like this.
- Josh Gelatt


Tuesday, March 6, 2007. 2 a.m.

The big hospital clock in room 4326 of Greenville Memorial Hospital said, with both hands straight up, midnight. Daddy had just taken his last breath. My watch said 12:01, March 6, 2007.

I had slept a little since his last morphine shot at ten. One ear sleeping, one on the breathing. At 11:45, I awoke. The breaths were coming more frequently and were very shallow. I will not sleep again, I thought. For ten minutes, I prayed aloud into his left ear with Bible texts and pleadings to Jesus to come and take him. I had made this case before, and this time felt an unusual sense of partnership with Daddy as I pressed on the Lord to relieve this warrior of his burden.

I finished and lay down. Good. Thank you, Lord. It will not be long. And, grace upon grace, hundreds of prayers are being answered: He is not choking. The gurgling that threatened to spill over and drown him in the afternoon had sunk deep, and now there was simple clear air, shorter and shorter. I listened from where I lay next to him on a foldout chair.

That’s it. I rose and waited. Will he breathe again? Nothing. Fifteen or twenty seconds, and then a gasp. I was told to expect these false endings. But it was not false. The gasp was the first of two. But no more breaths. I waited, watching. No facial expressions. His face had frozen in place hours before. One more jerk. That was all. Perhaps an eyebrow twitch a moment later. Nothing more.

I stroked his forehead and sang,

My gracious Master and My God
Assist me to proclaim
To spread through all the earth abroad
The honors of thy name.

Daddy, how many thousands awaited you because of your proclamation of the great gospel. You were faithful. You kept the faith, finished the race, fought the fight. “Make friends for yourselves with unrighteous mammon that they might receive you into eternal habitations.”

I watched, wondering if there could be other reflexes. I combed his hair. He always wore a tie. The indignities of death are many, but we tried to minimize them. Keep the covers straight. Pull the gown up around his neck so it looks like a sharp turtleneck. Tuck the gappy shoulder slits down behind so they don’t show. Use a wet washcloth to keep the secretions from crusting in the eyelashes. And by all means, keep his hair combed. So now I straightened his bedding and combed his hair and wiped his eyes and put the mouth moisturizer on his lips and tried to close his mouth. His mouth would not stay closed. It had been set in that position from hours and hours of strained breathing. But he was neat. A strong, dignified face.

I called my sister Beverly first, then Noël. Tearfully we gave thanks. Get a good night’s rest. I will take care of things here with the doctor and the nurses and the mortuary arrangements. I will gather all our things and take them back to the motel. “I wish I had been there,” Beverly lamented. Yes. That is good. But don’t let that feeling dominate now. In the days to come, you will look back with enormous gratitude for the hundreds of hours you gave serving Daddy. It is my turn to be blessed.

The nurse came to give him his scheduled morphine shot. As she walked toward me I said, “He won’t need that any more.” “Is he gone?” “Yes. And thank you so much for your ministry to him.” “I will notify the doctor so he can come and verify. I will leave you alone.” “Yes, thank you.”

The doctor in his green frock came at 12:40 and listened with his stethoscope to four different places on Daddy’s chest. Then he pulled back the sheet and said, “I must apply some pain stimuli to his nail base to see if he reacts. Then he used his flashlight to test Daddy’s eyes. “The nurse supervisor will come and get the information we need about the mortuary.” Thank you.

Alone again, I felt his cheeks. Finally cool after the fevered and flushed fight. I felt his nose, as though I were blind. Then I felt mine. I thought, very soon my nose will be like your nose. It is already like your nose.

The nurse came. No thank you, an autopsy will not be necessary. Mackey Mortuary on Century Drive. My name is John, his son. My cell phone is . . . . “You may stay as long as you like.” Thank you. I will be leaving soon.

Now I just look at him. Nothing has changed in his face here in the darkness of this dim light. Just no movement. But I have watched his chest so long—even now, was that a slight rise and fall? No, surely not. It’s like sailing on the sea for days. On the land the waves still roll.

He has four-day’s beard and dark eyes. I lift an eyelid to see him eye to eye. They are dilated.

Thank you, Daddy. Thank you for sixty-one years of faithfulness to me. I am simply looking into his face now. Thank you. You were a good father. You never put me down. Discipline, yes. Spankings, yes. But you never scorned me. You never treated me with contempt. You never spoke of my future with hopelessness in your voice. You believed God’s hand was on me. You approved of my ministry. You prayed for me. Everyday. That may be the biggest change in these new days: Daddy is no longer praying for me.

I look you in the face and promise you with all my heart: Never will I forsake your gospel. O how you believed in hell and heaven and Christ and cross and blood and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Holy Spirit and the life of holiness and love. I rededicate myself, Daddy, to serve your great and glorious Lord Jesus with all my heart and with all my strength. You have not lived in vain. Your life goes on in thousands. I am glad to be one.

I kissed him on his cold cheek and on his forehead. I love you, Daddy. Thank you.

It was 12:55 as I walked out of room 4326. Just before the elevators on the fourth floor in the lounge, a young man in his twenties was sitting alone listening to his iPod with headphones. I paused. Then I walked toward him. He stopped his music. Hello, my father just died. One of the greatest tributes I could pay to him is to ask you, Are you ready to meet God? “Yes, Sir.” That would make my father very happy. You know Jesus is the only way? “Yes, Sir.” Good. Thank you for letting me talk to you.

As I drove out of the parking lot, I stopped. The moon was a day past full. It was cold—for Greenville. I looked at this great hospital. Thank you, Lord, for this hospital. I will probably never lay eyes on it again.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Lessons from Biblical history

In 49 AD, the Roman emperor Claudius expelled the Jews from Rome. Earlier (in 41 AD) he forbade Jews to assemble (for worship). While we are not exactly sure why he brought about the 41 AD action, most believe his reasons were similar to those in 49 AD. In that later year, he ordered the expulsion because of the conflict within the Jewish community regarding Chrestus (so records Seutonius, with virtually all scholars understanding this as a mistaken spelling of Christus - Christ).

Because the conflict involved teachings regarding Jesus, Jewish-Christians would have been at the center of this controversy and would certainly have been specially targeted for expulsion. The book of Acts indicates that Priscilla and Aquilla were expelled during this time.

By expelling Jewish-Christians, the population of Christ-followers in Rome was almost completely Gentile (at least for a time). A few years later (with the rise of Nero to power) the ordered ban was either overturned or the enforcement became lax.

During the "Gentile domination", the Christian church began developing in ways that troubled the newly returned Jewish-Christian population. Most notable, the Gentile believers refused to follow Old Testament laws regarding food and ceremonial celebrations.

The returning Jews were appalled. They witnessed a church that didn't hold certain days (even the Sabbath) as sacred. Rather, these Gentile believers understood that all days were equally holy. They also witnessed the Gentiles willfully eating all kinds of foods, whereas the Jewish-Christians ate only vegetables. Paul records this controversy in Romans 14 & 15.

The Old Testament never mandates the eating of just vegetables (nor does it forbid the use of wine, another item 'forbidden' in the view of the Jewish-believers). However, notable figures in the OT (such as Daniel) nourished themselves with only vegetables and water while in gentile lands. Over time, some deeply religious Jews (and later, Jewish-Christians) developed the notion that Daniel's course of action (which went above and beyond the requirements of the law) was the only legitimate lifestyle while living in the midst of a pagan & immoral gentile nation.

In Romans 14, Paul calls this group "weak", because they lacked faith to believe that all things are acceptable. Furthermore, Paul sides with the "strong" (those that felt they were allowed to engage in these things). The weak did not believe that one must follow their laws to be saved (as did the legalists--a group which Paul refuses to recognize as true believers), but rather believed that a "mature" believer would understand that their narrow course of action was the most righteous. Paul disagrees, and openly declares that their course of action--while sincere--actually results from a weak faith.

But to Paul, the specific behaviors are really not that important. To him, the ultimate issue is about bringing glory to God--and this is only possible if God's people stop judging each other and tolerate diverse opinions within the local & universal body.

Being in the same church with people who "do Christianity" differently from ourselves is not easy. Our natural tendency is to separate from them and cloister ourselves with people of like-minded practice. This is not what Christ wants. First, because it destroys unity. Second, because we can then "do church" in our own power. If everyone agrees on everything, there is no need for the Spirit. But when we accept diverse practices (that are not forbidden in Scripture), we must continually rely on the power of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps that is the point.

Prayer: Lord, help us resist the false belief that we must have a common mind regarding every little issue of disagreement. Teach us to accept diversity, as we also hold firm to the absolute truths of your Word. By our unity, may we bring you glory.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Earliest Church building discovered

Actually, this discovery is not that "new", but it is finally making headlines in archaeological publications (most notable the latest issue of BAR, Biblical Archaeological Review). Back in the late 1990's a prison in Megiddo (Norther Israel) was undergoing expansion when it stumbled across some ancient ruins. Thanks to rather strict governmental rules laid down by the Antiquities Authority in Israel, construction was halted and a full scale archaeological study was conducted.

Long story short...this resulted in the earliest discovered Christian house of worship (dating around 230 A.D.). During the early years of the church, designated buildings for worship were fairly rare. The chief reasons were: (1) the rapid expansion of the Church, (2) the nascent church would have been short of the huge funds needed for elaborate structures, and (3) due to persecution constructing highly visible public buildings was perhaps impossible, and certainly unwise.

For the past few sermons at IRBC we have been looking at the Biblical concept of "church". This article in BAR supports the Biblical usage of the word "church" that I have been arguing for in my Sunday AM sermons. According to Scripture, "Church" refers to people and never to a building. Thus, we cannot "go to" church-because we "are" the church.

Early church buildings were called several names. Many times it was referred to as Domus in qua Christiani conveniebant (or, "houses in which Christians gather"), Domus ecclesai ("House of the church), Domus Dei ("House of God"), and Dominicum. This last word only partly had the physical location in view. Most scholars believe that it actually referred to the assembly on the Lord's Day, and even more precisely was a reference to the Lord's Supper (Mass, Eucharist, Communion). In the New Testament, as in the Early Church period, the Mass was celebrated each Lord's Day (just as my former church did, which was in the Plymouth Brethren tradition). One early church father even called these buildings Sacraria ("shrines"), though most of us would find that term problematic. Origen descriptively calls these houses of worship "permanent places for the public worship of God".

Others early writers, such as Tertullian, did refer to the church buildings as ecclesi ("churches"), as many Christians do today. Two things should be noted, however. (1) This was a departure from the New Testament usage of the word "church", which in the Bible never refers to a place or building but rather the people assembled. (2) Due to the frequent use of other terms, referring to the house of worship as a "church" would have been instantly understood as shorthand for "the meeting place of such-and-such church". Today, however, it is not understood as shorthand. Most Christian have an incorrect (and very pagan) concept of the word "church". Pagans believe that special buildings or locations are sacred ground. To God, as expressed in the New Testament, it is redeemed people who are sacred (i.e. set apart in holiness).

Bluntly stated application for our lives: Stop going to Church. Be it.