Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Now what?

Christmas 2011 has come…and gone.  For my family we had the waiting and anticipation of Advent, worship on Christmas Eve, dinner and exchanging gifts with family.  Then on Christmas day we had travel, dinner and exchanging gifts with a different branch of the family.  The 26th brought travel back home and birthday cake and gifts for our youngest daughter.  At home the Christmas gifts are being put away and the decorations are beginning to come down.  At work some decorations are down.  And this morning the streets in my neighborhood were lined with trash cans full, and over-filled, of the residue of Christmas gatherings.  I don’t know for sure but it must be the busiest day of the year for those people who haul garbage for a living.

Now that the day of Christmas has come and gone what do we have left of that which we so anxiously waited for?  That was the question in mind yesterday, which God answered as my wife and I began to read from 1 Timothy, which opens with:

“Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope,” 

One thing we have today is hope, the particular kind of hope that is only known in Jesus.  Christmas, as a day on the calendar, has passed and in virtually every way our world, and our daily lives look the same.  We live with the same people, we work and play in the same places, our lives know joy and they know sorrow, they know success and struggle, they know peace and despair. 

But those who know call in faith on Jesus as their Lord and Savior also know a sure and certain hope.  In describing the certainty of God’s promises, the author of Hebrews writes in verses 19-20:

“We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.”

Jesus has come and is with us, and he has also gone on before us as the priest who makes the perfect offering before God the Father on our behalf.  He, alone, is the guarantee that we will receive the blessing that God promised for all who come to him through Jesus.  This is the hope that Paul refers to as he writes to Timothy, and the hope that is ours as well. 

On Christmas our young daughter opened a particular gift.  As she took the contents from the box the primary emotion she showed us was unfettered joy.  In the box were about six costumes, of the variety that fuel the active imaginations of young girls.  Bright colors.  Lace.  Sparkles.  Bouncy skirts.  She put on one, then another, then another, until she had tried them all on.  They were an easy gift to buy for her, on sale as Halloween close-outs.  And they delighted her heart.

Our hope in Christ was not an easy “purchase” for him, coming as it did in death on a cross.  But in his resurrection to eternal life we have gained a sure and certain gift.  And one day we will find out what that gift fully means.  It is something we can only imagine now and I think that on Christmas, as I watched my daughter, I saw a glimpse of the joy we will know in the presence of Jesus, as well as the joy he will display as we are gathered before him.

I’m going to close with a link to a song, by Sara Groves, from her CD Fireflies and Songs, called “Joy is in our Hearts.” (The lyrics are here.)  Christmas has passed but our hope in Christ is ever present, and “for good reason joy is in our hearts.” 

May you know the hope that brings for this deep and abounding joy, and share it in the world around you.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Shamans and Christmas

This morning I had the opportunity for a quick trip to the coffee shop across the street from the hospital where I work.  It is sort of a cross between a national chain and an independent store.  The key factor in common with the local store is that there is a place to post ads for community events.  This morning one of those signs caught my eye.  It advertised an event called “Winter solstice and exploring the shaman within.” 

Now I know what the winter solstice is, being the shortest day of the year and marking the astronomical beginning of winter.  This year it falls on December 22nd.  I also know that in the summer there are a variety of groups that attach spiritual significance to the summer solstice, perhaps the most well-known being the druids[1] that gather at Stonehenge. 

Being the curious sort I looked on-line for more information on this event and found it at the website of a local religious group.  The winter event intends to use a variety of means for the participant to go on a type of journey, a “journey to rediscover – the shaman within.”

Not really being sure of what a shaman is, I looked on-line again and found this basic definition:  Shaman – “a person who acts as intermediary between the natural and supernatural worlds, using magic to cure illness, foretell the future, control spiritual forces, etc.”

Whoa!  Being a Christian, that definition really got my attention, as a person who fits the definition of a shaman stands in direct opposition to what I hold to as being the truth, a truth many Christians are perhaps a bit more mindful right now, as the season of Advent nears it’s end. 

As we move through Advent we are reminded of what God his bringing to his people on Christmas, which tonight I will describe within the confines of the definition of the shaman.

In Advent we await a person, sent by God to serve not as “an” intermediary between the natural and supernatural, but as “the” intermediary.  Jesus came as God’s only begotten, or “fathered by,” son, of whom Paul testifies in these words, “concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  We don’t need to find some sort of “inner presence” and believe that we have a mediator because God has already provided us with the only mediator, a mediator who is also perfect in every way. 

Similarly, we don’t need a presence or person to use magic to bring healing, because in Jesus we already have a direct relationship with the only one who can heal all that ails us.  And while I fully believe that Jesus can heal any physical, emotional and spiritual wound I also know, and see every day in my work at the hospital, that the healing we may so often and ardently long for may never happen.  At least not in the way in which we desire it to be.  And that’s because the healing that Jesus will bring will be on his timetable and according to his purposes.  The Lord’s Prayer reminds us that our prayer is “your will be done.”  As hard as that may be to grapple with it means that we should long for the will of God, knowing that living within his will, and not ours, is what brings him glory.

The shaman’s other purported abilities are also not found within ourselves but are clearly present only in Jesus.  The Christian does not need someone to foretell the future because God has already revealed the future in the words of the Bible.  It may not be enough information for the historian or biographer but it is sufficient for the one who has faith in Jesus.   

While the shaman may believe that he or she can control spiritual forces, the Bible witnesses to Jesus’ power over the supernatural.  One example is in Luke 8:26-39, where a demon confronted by Jesus acknowledges Jesus’ power over him, saying “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me.”

In the end, I find the “shaman within” to be empty, to be a fraud, something dressed in spiritual language but really just a wolf in sheep’s clothing.  People following this, or similar routes, in search of the spiritual will always come up empty. 

We who believe in Jesus have accepted God’s invitation to participate in something that is more wonderful, more amazing, more real, and more glorious than anything that the world or our own selves could ever produce.

If you are reading this and don’t believe in Jesus then I invite you to consider if God is calling to you, to consider if he is stirring within you a curiosity to journey with him.

John 1:9-13 beautifully describes what I, and Christians throughout the world await in Advent:

“The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”

I am thankful that I am not on a journey looking within myself to understand the world and the cosmos and my place within them.  God’s True Light has indeed come into the world and claimed me.  By God’s work, and according to his word, I know that my life is in his hands and that my purpose is to live for his glory, now and forever.

[1] I think that druids are an ancient and extinct group, so what we have today should perhaps more accurately be called neo-druids, or pseudo-druids. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Remember me

One of the things that I’ve been working on recently is reading through the Bible.  Not that I don’t read the Bible, for I do, but it is often in bits and pieces.  There will be something associated with a devotional writing; the scripture used in church on Sunday; the assigned passage for my Bible study; and whichever portion of scripture that my wife and I read during our prayer time together.  And while that is all good, it is also a bit scattered.  A verse here and a chapter there.  The idea of reading through the entire text of the Bible in a year struck me as something that would be spiritually healthy, much as regular exercise is physically healthy.

Reading the Bible in one year is the kind of thing that a person could take on as a New Year’s resolution, which is what I did the last time I attempted it.  This time I figured there was “no time like the present,” so I looked online for a plan that I liked and got started.  The plan I am following suggests passages to read each day, so that in one year’s time I will have read from Genesis 1 through Revelation 22. 

There is a lot of variety to online Bible-reading plans.  Some go cover-to-cover, from “In the beginning…” to “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen.”  Some others go chronologically, although I’m not sure what that means.  Does it mean placing the readings in the order that the events in the text happened?  Or placing the readings in the order that they are believed to have been written?  Suffice to say, I didn’t really consider that option. 

The plan I picked is one that groups the reading by the type of writing that they are made up of.  On Monday I read law, Tuesday is history, Wednesday is Psalms, Thursday is poetry, Friday is prophecy, Saturday is Gospel and Sunday is epistles.  Which means that this week I will read from Deuteronomy, Nehemiah, Psalms, Song of Solomon, Revelation, Acts and 2nd John.  I know that Acts isn’t technically a Gospel, but if you count Luke and Acts as two pieces of a unified work then in a reasonable sense it is. 

So this week I read Nehemiah 10 through 13, which are the last four chapters of the book.  Nehemiah was a Hebrew who served the king of Persia during the time when the Hebrews were in exile.  He received permission to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls.  The first 9 chapters, which I read over the last two weeks, tell the story of the rebuilding and the return from exile, including a period of the Hebrews falling away from God’s ways.  When confronted about this, the people were read to from the law, then they confessed their sin, and lastly they renewed their covenant with God.  Chapters 10, 11 and 12 recount the sealing of the covenant, the obligations of the covenant, a list of the Hebrew leaders, and the story of the service of dedication of the wall.  There is great detail in listing the names and relationships of the people involved in these activities.  As an example there are 83 different signers of the covenant.

Chapter 13 is a bit curious.  The Hebrews have again fallen from God’s ways.  It was during a period when Nehemiah was back in Babylon, and when he returns to Jerusalem he takes a number of actions to correct the people living there, bringing them back to keeping the promises they had made to God.  Nehemiah seems to be careful to note what was done wrong, and by whom, as well as what he did to set things right.  And the final phrase of the book has Nehemiah say, “Remember me, O my God, for good.”

To me, it seems as if Nehemiah wants to make sure that he is remembered by God, and specifically he desires to be remembered for the good that he has done in God’s service.  And in Nehemiah’s desire for God to remember him well I think we can see a near universal desire of those who seek to know and love God for God to remember them.  We want God to remember us positively, and we don’t want him to recall any of the times we acted like the wayward Hebrews.  The times we turned away from God’s ways and went after the darker desires of our hearts. 

As Christmas approaches we journey through Advent and the expectation of Jesus’ birth…the Incarnation…God with us…the opening chapter of Jesus ministry on earth.  Reading Nehemiah 13 reminds me of the closing chapter of Jesus’ earthly life, with his death and resurrection to eternal life.  When we read the fuller account of God’s redemptive plan in the Bible, the writings of the New Testament, we read God’s answer to Nehemiah’s request. 
1 John 1:1-2 says, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”  In these verses God shares with us the nature of his memory for his people, which is that our failings before God are made right in the work done by Christ on the cross. 

We may be like Nehemiah, trying to do good by God’s standards, and longing for God to notice what we have done.  But we are also like the Hebrews that Nehemiah was struggling with, turning away from God.  I am so glad, so thankful, that God doesn’t tally my “right” behavior against my “wrong” behavior to determine my standing before him.  He has chosen me to be his possession, now and for eternity, sealing me with his Spirit.  On the promises of his word one day I will be before him, my sins covered by the work of Christ. 

May you also rest in the sure confidence of God’s promises to you in Christ Jesus. 

Thanks be to God.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Cowboy theology

I was running outside early one recent morning and I had a song stuck in my head.  Many runners wear headphones but I’m not one of them.  When I run I think one, or many, things over, or let my mind wander, or maybe I find some song passing repeatedly through my thoughts, its beat matching with the sound of my feet on the road.  And that is what was happening that morning.  I had a song stuck in my mind.  Sometimes that happens with a particularly silly and/or annoying song but not on this morning.  It was a song with a melody I enjoyed and as it “played,” over and over, I found myself pondering the lyrics and the meaning that might be found in them.

The song was Ghost Riders in the Sky.  I had known it in the past as a duet by Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson.  The other day I stumbled across a version by the Outlaws.  In preparing to write this blog I learned that the first recording was by Burl Ives, in 1949.  Since that time it has been covered numerous times by musicians of widely varying genres.  It has a catchy melody and understandable lyrics.  Below are the lyrics.  Listen to one of the versions and ponder the lyrics before reading on.  (Ives sings the lyrics in order, Cash and Nelson transpose verses three and four, and the Outlaws skip verse four.)

An old cowboy went riding out one dark and windy day
Upon a ridge he rested as he went along his way
When all at once a mighty herd of red eyed cows he saw
A-plowing through the ragged sky and up the cloudy draw

Their brands were still on fire and their hooves were made of steel
Their horns were black and shiny and their hot breath he could feel
A bolt of fear went through him as they thundered through the sky
For he saw the Riders coming hard and he heard their mournful cry

Yippie yi ohhhhh
Yippie yi yaaaaay
Ghost Riders in the sky

Their faces gaunt, their eyes were blurred, their shirts all soaked with sweat
He's riding hard to catch that herd, but he ain't caught 'em yet
'Cause they've got to ride forever on that range up in the sky
On horses snorting fire
As they ride on hear their cry

As the riders loped on by him he heard one call his name
If you want to save your soul from Hell a-riding on our range
Then cowboy change your ways today or with us you will ride
Trying to catch the Devil's herd, across these endless skies

The song, besides telling a story in a captivating way, is a call for repentance.  The Old Cowboy is being warned, from those on the other side of eternity, that he needs to change his ways, soon, or else when he dies he’ll being joining their crew, condemned to chase the Devil’s herd on a hard ride that will never end.  I won’t deny that there is a measure of truth in the message and its call to change, but from a Christian vantage point it is incomplete and slightly misdirected.

The Old Cowboy, or you, or me, can change our ways all we want but we won’t gain even a foothold on eternal life with God through our efforts.  Salvation in Christ Jesus comes by faith alone, and it is the only way in which a person is joined to God in eternity.    It is God who freely offers us this gift of eternal life, which is ours to accept by faith, and no other means.  Repentance and changed ways are of no eternal consequence without a heart that is first changed and calls on Christ in faith.

The Heidelberg Catechism, which has been basic to teaching a Reformed understanding of Christian belief since the 16th century, says this about faith in Question-and-Answer 20 and 21:

Q&A 20
Q. Are all people then saved through Christ just as they were lost through Adam?
A. No. Only those are saved who through true faith are grafted into Christ and accept all his benefits.

Q&A 21
Q. What is true faith?
A. True faith is not only a sure knowledge by which I hold as true all that God has revealed to us in Scripture; it is also a wholehearted trust, which the Holy Spirit creates in me by the gospel, that God has freely granted, not only to others but to me also, forgiveness of sins, eternal righteousness, and salvation. These are gifts of sheer grace, granted solely by Christ's merit.

The Old Cowboy, and you, and I, don’t simply need a change in behavior, we need a change of heart, and we experience that change when we come to God by faith in his gracious offer of forgiveness in Christ.  Ephesians 2:8 says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.  And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.”  In Christ, God gives us something that we could never gain through our own efforts, no matter how well-intentioned they may be.

Having faith in God, through the death and resurrection to eternal life of Christ, gives us a new reference point for our lives.  Having faith, the Old Cowboy, and you, and I, can then change our ways, not to “save ourselves,” but in thankfulness to God for his good gift to us.  And hearts that are changed for God proclaim his presence, his love, and his glory to the world.

Note 1:
The Heidelberg Catechism was written early in the Reformation as an aid to pastors in teaching their congregations the basics of Christian belief.  It uses a question-and-answer format and is shaped along three movements; 1) Our place before God; 2) God’s grace towards us; and 3) our gratitude back to God.  The first Q & A is perhaps its most widely known part.  I find the entire catechism to be a wonderful expression of faith, one that stills speaks today with God’s truth.  All of the answers have scripture references to support them.  If you’ve never read it then please consider looking it over.

Note 2:
In the versions of Ghost Riders in the Sky I linked above I found Ives’ version to be haunting.  This had something to do with the chords in the background.  In that quality there is perhaps another cue to direct us away from sin and towards God.  Cash and Nelson have put together a version that is sparse and haunting in its own way.  And the Outlaws spin has its own power.  They omit the last verse and its direct call for repentance but they pick up the tempo and intensity of the instruments, suggesting, perhaps, the way our sin can spiral completely out of any sense of control, and drive us away from the rest and redemption offered in Christ. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word

Earlier this year I saw an interview that John Piper did of Rick Warren.  During the course of their conversation one thing that came up and stuck in my mind was their admiration for Jonathan Edwards (1702-1758), and their mutual opinion that his was perhaps the greatest mind, in any discipline, to emerge from America in the time since it was colonized by Europe.  My own exposure to Edwards’ work at that time was quite limited, consisting of reading one collection of his sermons.  Edwards was a preacher par excellence and his sermons are as powerful as any preacher of any age, from the apostle Paul onward.  His exposition was firmly grounded in the Bible, his explanation was clear and easily understood, and the application spoke to the concerns of our own time as well as his.

Those thoughts of Edwards’ were in mind as I began reading Jonathan Edwards and the Ministry of the Word by Douglas A. Sweeney, (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2009).  Sweeney is a scholar who has written extensively on Edwards and is very familiar with both the vast body of work written by Edwards as well as the tremendous amount of literature written in the time since Edwards’ death about him and his work.  In this volume Sweeney’s task is not academic but eminently practical, providing “a state-of-the-art discussion of his life in order to use him as a model of Christian faith, thought and ministry.” (17)  Sweeney does this by briefly reviewing each major stage of Edwards’ life, not merely as biography but also with one eye on the Bible, showing its role in shaping all parts of Edwards’ ministry.

Sweeney begins with an introduction to the world in which Edwards grew up, demonstrating similarities and points of difference between his world and our own time.  One main difference was the place that the church had in society and the relative familiarity that the average person may have had with the contents of the Bible.  Another difference was in regard to college education.  Sweeney estimates that in early 18th century New England roughly 1 in 1,000 people, (presumably all men) had a college education and that most of those so educated received education for the purpose of going into the ministry. 

Edwards was born into a preacher’s family and began to prepare for that profession at an early age.  His father was a pastor and so was his maternal grandfather and he began studying Latin at home at age 6.  His parents must have been a bit more open-minded about educating women than my own great-grandfather was, because Edwards’ ten sisters were all taught Latin, while my grandmother and her sisters were forbidden from attending high school.  Edwards entered Yale at age 13 and graduated at 17.  Over the next six years he completed a master’s degree, was a tutor at Yale, and served briefly as pastor of two small congregations.  At the age of 23 he was called to be an associate pastor of the church in Northampton, MA, serving alongside his grandfather for three years, and then as the congregation’s only pastor for 21 years.

Throughout his pastorate Edwards preached three times a week.  He spent much time studying the Bible and was passionate in bringing forth its truth in the lives of his church members.  He believed the Bible was the essential lens for viewing the entire world, writing “all that is visible to the eye is unintelligible and vain, without the Word of God to instruct and guide the mind.” (92)  Sweeney explains that “for Edwards, God’s Word and Spirit illuminate our worldly wisdom, rendering our knowledge more clear, beautiful and real than ever before.” (93)  For the Christian, this knowledge and use of the Bible remains of critical importance, as we live in a world that is both fallen and soaked in sin and yet also under the lordship of the resurrected Christ.  Writing this morning of the human problem with evil, Paul Tripp said “Evil doesn't always look evil, and sin often looks so good---this is part of what makes it so bad. In order for sin to do its evil work, it must present itself as something that is anything but evil.”  Only the Bible exposes evil and reveals our only possible redemption from it.  Speaking of Christ, John 1:4-5 says, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men.  The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.”

One of the central points of Edwards preaching and teaching was that union with Christ is essential to the act of salvation.  Salvation is more than a verbal “yes” to God’s offered redemption.  In saying “yes” to God we are joined to Christ and filled by the Holy Spirit.  Ephesians 1:13-15 says, “In him [Christ] you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.”  As a result of our assent to God’s invitation “the Holy Spirit inhabits our bodies, reorients our souls by uniting them with Christ, lets us share in the Lord’s righteousness and bears fruit in our lives.” (117)  Today there is a renewed emphasis on the idea of union with Christ and its importance in strengthening our faith as we serve Christ in the world.  Just last month J. Todd Billings and Robert Letham each published a book on this topic, both of which were reviewed by The Gospel Coalition. (Disclaimer: I studied systematic theology with Dr. Billings.)

Despite the high view that Piper and Warren hold of Edwards, those feelings were not held by the members of his congregation, which removed him as their pastor in 1750.  What was perhaps his congregation’s loss was of great benefit to the Christian world, both then and now.  Freed from the responsibilities of preaching and congregational care with a large church, both of which he dearly loved, he eventually landed a position as pastor of a mission to the Native Americans in Stockbridge, MA.  Sweeney shares many details of Edwards’ service in Stockbridge that demonstrates that he was truly and deeply involved in ministry there, including extensive advocacy on behalf of his Native American congregation.

Stockbridge was also the place where Edwards could devote sufficient time to a number of writing projects he had sketched out earlier.  These include his major theological works, Freedom of the Will, Original Sin, and Two Dissertations: I. Concerning the End for Which God Created the World. II. The Nature of True Virtue, as well as many other writings. 

One thought that was persistently present in Edwards ministry was the idea of “spiritual affections,” or the idea that those who call themselves Christian should lead lives that are changed and are different in noticeable ways from the non-Christians they may live among.  Conversion to Christ was more than something spoken once and then forgotten but was to be embodied in life.  Sweeney describes Edwards theology on conversion this way: “…God is real and vitally active in our world, that he designed us to cooperate in his kingdom purposes, and that we need his Spirit to do so” adding later “There is such a thing as conversion, Edwards recited ceaselessly, a divine and supernatural light available to us even now. It can show you divine truth.  It can liberate your will from self-destructive inclinations.  It can help you find fulfillment in the things that truly satisfy.  It can put you in touch with God, save your soul and make your daily life exciting and important.” (164)

In early 1758 Edwards was appointed to the position of President of the school that would become Princeton University.  His presidency was short-lived, as he died from complications of a smallpox vaccination two months after taking office. 

In his closing chapter Sweeney presents seven theses that modern readers of Edwards can use to understand and apply his theology in their own settings.  I will touch just briefly on three of these.  Theses 1 and 2 are “Edwards shows us the importance of working to help people gain a vivid sense, an urgent impression, of God’s activity in our world” and Edwards shows us that true religion is primarily a matter of holy affections.”  In my mind these two ideas are closely linked.  God is alive and active today.  He is not some remote, absent being who started the world and left it run until its battery goes dead.  This living God has called, and continues to call, people to himself, and those who are called should manifest his presence in their lives.  Their lives should bring “salt and light” to the world.

And thesis 7 is “Edwards shows us the necessity of remaining in God’s Word.”  While on the one hand it may seem patently obvious that the Christian should do this, nearly every person who walks a Christian life with intentionality can look back and see times in their life when they began to stray from the path, and they know that those were times when they were not continually taking in God’s Word.

Sweeney’s book is short, 200 pages, and does not require advanced theological education to understand.  It is thoroughly footnoted, to guide the interested reader to a deeper understanding of Edwards’ theology.  It has whet my appetite to read more deeply of what has come from Edwards’ pen.  Edwards was a prolific author, writing long-hand a body of work that most of us would find daunting to even consider.  Two excellent places to read his work, without spending any money, are the CCEL and the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale. 

Reading the collection of Edwards’ sermons that I noted earlier has shaped my own preaching, for the better.  I am glad for Sweeney’s overview of Edwards’ life of ministry, as it reminds me of the importance of grounding ministry biblically and theologically on an ongoing basis, and it gives me a taste for a pastor and theologian, who in the words of Hebrews 11:4b, “And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks.”

Friday, December 2, 2011

The Only Antidote

Any person exercising the ability to cast their eyes on God will find that when they turn their vision back to their own life, or onto the world around them, that there is much in our lives that displeases God.  The thoughts in our minds, the desires of our hearts, the words from our mouths and the actions of our hands are very often contrary to God’s will.  And things that we think, desire, speak and do that are in opposition to what would please God are what we know as sin.  The essence of sin is anything that we do that is not aligned with God’s will, what is “good, acceptable and perfect” according to his standards, not ours. 

The other day I was reading some thoughts related to a treatise on original sin written by Jonathan Edwards, the 17th century pastor and theologian.  The central idea of original sin, i.e. that humans are sinful by nature, from birth, runs contrary to the notion common to our time that all people are basically good.  We may make occasional bad choices, but our reference point for our selves, and most of the people we know, is that deep down we are good people. 

When we check our assumptions about the goodness of humanity with the Bible we find something profoundly different.  In both the Old and the New Testaments we find God’s teaching on the true nature of our hearts.  Psalm 51:5 says “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me.”  Isaiah 64:6 says “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” In John 5:42 Jesus says “But I know that you do not have the love of God within you.” And I John 1:8 sums up the notion of original sin with this declaration: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” 

God’s word in the Bible provides the corrective to our well-intentioned but misguided modern ideas about who we are.  We are sinners, and have always been so.  Original sin is not an arcane notion of long-dead theologians but a constant aspect of the human condition.  Herman Bavinck wrote “If anything is certain, it is that sin is not an accidental phenomenon in the life of individuals, but a state and manner of life involving the whole human race, a property of human nature.  The sinful deeds, which occur not just now and then but characterize all persons of all ages and circumstances, point back to a sinful inner disposition, just as bad fruit presupposes a bad tree and muddied water and impure spring.”[1]

The words from the Bible and people such as Edwards and Bavinck could lead us to believe that all is lost, that we are so sin-soaked as to have no hope.  But those words merely tell us the truth plainly, so that we can more clearly see the solution, our only hope.  And the problem of sin in our lives is dealt with by Jesus Christ.  He provides the antidote, the only possible treatment for the sin that has infected us from our very beginning. 

I like the idea of Jesus as the antidote to sin, because an antidote is “a remedy to counteract the effects of poison,” and absent the work of Christ sin is the most deadly of poisons, a poison with eternal effects. 

Paul wrote to the Colossians “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of the cross.”  Paul then adds that being reconciled to God through the finished work of Christ has this effect:  “And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him.”

We who are in Christ are no longer alienated from God.  We are no longer seen as hostile in mind.  No longer seen as doing evil deeds.  No longer slaves to original sin but free in Christ, to be presented by him before the throne of God as holy, as blameless, as above reproach.  That we would be receive such love from God, that we would be reconciled with God through Christ is at the heart of John Newton’s hymn, Amazing Grace. 

The other day, as I was reading of Edwards and Original Sin I was listening to Chris Tomlin and I as I heard his rendition of Newton’s hymn I was struck anew with the power of God’s love as the antidote for our sin.  I invite you to click on the song link and listen.  If you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior, pray as you listen, giving him your thanks and praise for his great gift to you.  And if you are unsure of where you stand before God then listen and ask yourself if this is the time that he is calling to you, offering to you the only antidote for the deepest of ailments.  May you know the grace and peace that is only found in Jesus Christ.

[1] Bavinck, Herman, Reformed Dogmatics (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006) 3:88.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

God’s protection and presence

This weekend is an anniversary of sorts.  Last year, near midnight on the day after Thanksgiving, one of our children was struck by a car while walking across a street.  That is the most abbreviated way of saying what happened.  The fuller account is that someone was driving through downtown Rochester and his car struck two pedestrians, killing one and breaking the leg of the other.  He accelerated away from that accident and then struck two more pedestrians less than one-half mile later, one of whom was our daughter, breaking a leg in each of them.  We did not learn of the accident for about 12 hours.

When we first heard the news I went directly to the hospital, where our daughter was being transferred to intensive care following surgery to repair her leg.  Because of my own background in health care I was able to quickly understand that while she had been seriously injured, she very easily could have been hurt much more severely.  She had a broken leg, a damaged knee and some scrapes.  That was about it.  No head trauma or serious internal injuries.  Similarly, the worst injuries to the other two survivors were their broken legs.  In the next few days we came to learn that our daughter had been struck by a car traveling 50 MPH, and that the mortality for rate for pedestrians hit at 30 MPH is 50%.  We saw God’s hand at work in protecting our daughter and we thanked him, as well as asking that his peace would be known among the family that had lost a son and brother. 

Our daughter is a single mom, and her children were 2 and 4.  They moved in with us for two months.  Along with our own 4 year-old, the demands of two full-time jobs, with one parent also in grad school, suffice to say that it was a very hectic time in our home.  We remain thankful today for the people from our church, our places of employment, and our families and friends who provided meals, supplies, encouragement and prayer during that time. 

One year later the legal case against the driver is still in process.  Our daughter has had a second surgery to repair her knee.  She is living in her own apartment and has returned to work.  It would be easy to continue to give God thanks for his goodness to our daughter and us, and leave it at that.  But the reality is much more complex, at least from my vantage point.  There is a family that is mourning and their wounds, from what little I know of them, appear to remain fresh and deep. 

God is sovereign over all that happens in the world.  He knows all that will happen within our lives, and nothing happens, or can possibly happen, that is outside of his divine authority.  Psalm 139:16 says, “Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.”  These words of the truth of God’s knowledge and authority, words in which I find great comfort, apply to the family of loss as well as to my own. 

Today is the first day of Advent, the season of the church calendar when we wait in anticipation.  As we worship and wait, in anticipation of the Incarnation, the very presence of God among us for our salvation and redemption, let us pray that in this season his presence will not only be known among us, but also among those we know who are carrying their pain on their own.  The psalmist says “He heals the broken-hearted and binds up their wounds.”  God alone can bring perfect healing, of body, mind and soul. 

Right now I can pray for this family, that they would know God’s ability to bear their loss and heal their hurting hearts.  And as I pray and wait, may God also reveal to me other ways in which I can reach out to others with the Good News that is only to be known in Jesus.  And may also God reveal his presence to you anew this Advent, this season of joyful anticipation.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Come of Age

Maybe you became a Christian after hearing the Good News of Jesus and choosing to respond to him.  Perhaps God powerfully grabbed a hold of you and compelled you to believe the Gospel.  Or maybe you are a Christian because you have always been one, neither remembering a time when you weren’t one or being able to imagine the possibility that you could not believe.  Maybe you came to Christ in some other manner.  Or maybe you are still on the fence, unsure what to make of Jesus.  No matter how you may have come by the label of “Christian,” nearly all who claim it would agree with the idea that it is not merely something you are, but it is also an identity that calls you to grow within it.  Growth as a Christian is the subject of Angus Buchan’s Come of Age: The Road to Spiritual Maturity. (2011: Monarch Books; 382 pp).

Buchan is from South Africa, where for over 30 years he has been both a farmer and an evangelist.  I had never heard of him before reading this book but apparently he is very well-known in his home country and he has also traveled widely through Africa, England and Australia.  He has founded a men’s ministry that started small but in 10 year’s time drew about 200,000 men to its rally in 2009.  It is the 2009 rally that serves as the jumping-off point for Come of Age. 

The typical pattern of the rally is to have worship on Friday evening and twice Saturday, with men only, and then to have wives and families join the closing session on Sunday.  In 2009 Buchan fell ill shortly before he was scheduled to preach on Saturday and was airlifted to a hospital.  While he appeared to have one, and possibly two, heart attacks, he was released from the hospital and able to preach for the final event on Sunday, with no medical evidence of any damage to his heart.  He was 61 years old at the time but this event brought to him an acute awareness of the brevity of human life and the need for him to live as a mature Christian and to call other Christians to maturity as well, hence the title, Come of Age.

In the first chapter Buchan writes of the 2009 rally and his heart attack and the way that it caused him to take a new look at his life and his ministry.  After that he writes topically, touching on many aspects in which a believer in Jesus can grow as a person of faith.  Some chapters are brief and some are longer but all are easy to read and not weighed down with sophisticated theology.  Buchan started out as a farmer and in the shift to becoming an evangelist and mentor he has remained eminently practical.  One of his strengths is that he has a deep love for both his Savior and for the Bible, something that is evident on nearly every page.  He longs for people to come to faith, for people to see God at work in their lives, and then to share that knowledge with others.

While I sincerely believe that his heart is in the right place it seems as if his passion occasionally clouds his view and subtly subverts his intended goal of spiritual maturity.  An example is the chapter addressing marriage, where he rightly points out the ways in which at its best Christian marriage points us to the joy Christians will know in heaven.  On a Saturday at one rally five men felt so convicted of the error of their lifestyle, i.e. living with women while not being married to them, that they asked Buchan to marry them at the Sunday morning worship, a request that he complied with.  It struck me that as a mature Christian it may have better to counsel the young men to change their living arrangements, and then guide them to prayerfully seek God’s will about the relationship.  As mature Christians we should learn to wait upon the Lord, rather than to shape our lifestyles to fit what we presume to be the shape that is most pleasing to God.

As I read the book I found that I increasingly liked Buchan and his passion for the Gospel but that the guidance he was offering was fairly superficial.  Spiritual maturity is something that all Christians should strive for when they come to faith and it should be the place where they live until they are called to join the Lord in heaven.  The Bible calls this process discipleship and Jesus commanded it of his followers, saying in Matthew 28:19-20, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” True maturity as a Christian benefits from several things.  One of them is intentionality and another is community, and I mean community not in the sense of those people that one worships with each week but a small group that regularly meets for the purposes of growth and accountability.

Early in my life as a Christian God led me to such a group and we used a number of things to shape our activity together.  One of these was a covenant, which we wrote together to give a meaningful shape to our group time each week.  The covenant kept us “on track,” reminding us of our purpose and reducing the likelihood that our time together would degenerate to wandering, instead of following a path to a destination.

Another thing our group regularly used were books written to guide spiritual formation.  While Buchan correctly points out that to be a Christian means to be intentional in growth, there are many books available that do a better job than his of engaging minds and hearts as they follow the Lord.  Some veteran authors of this genre that I have read and recommend are Beth Moore, Jerry Bridges, Paul Tripp and Eugene Peterson.  A visit to a Christian bookstore will provide a number of others.  One thing Come of Age has done is to whet my appetite to pick up a book by one of the authors listed that I’ve read before and see how it speaks freshly into my life today.  And also to read it with an eye to the clearest source of spiritual wisdom the God has given us, the Bible. 

Sunday, November 20, 2011

What’s in the air?

I live in Minnesota, where for all practical purposes winter begins on November 1st and lasts through March 31st.  That makes for five months, exceeding what the calendar says by two full months, but accepting that winter runs that long makes it easier to tolerate those days, those rare days but present nonetheless, where ice storms come on Halloween and the end of March can bring 18” of snow in one day.

This week has been typical of the abrupt changes we can experience.  It was warm enough to run outside in shorts on Sunday.  Wednesday brought a wake-up temperature of 15 degrees.  Thursday it was close to 30 but the wind speed matched the temperature.  And late Saturday brought wet snow, so that on Sunday morning there was a thin and very slippery layer of ice in our neighborhood while dry pavement was found just a few miles away.  And our forecast is for the temperature to climb back into the 50’s later this week.  It seems like winter and, at the same time, it’s not winter. 

Earlier this week I listened to some comments by Greg Beale regarding his new book.  While the book itself may be primarily of interest to pastors and theology geeks Beale said something that really grabbed my attention.  He spoke about the acute awareness that the authors of the New Testament had that they were living in a world which was fundamentally altered by the resurrection of Jesus.  The apostles were aware that the world in which they lived was forever changed solely because Jesus had been brought back from the dead.  They were living in the knowledge that they were simultaneously both in history and in the “last days,” the time that the Bible points toward that is beyond history, when God’s redemptive plan for all creation will be fulfilled.

On many days our lives do not seem to show evidence that the “future is now,” that God’s new creation has already come into existence with the resurrection of Jesus.  We feel weak and powerless.  We have a hard time seeing the horizon of today, let alone imagining the vision that God gives of our future. The apostle Paul points us back in the right direction, so that we can see hope in our struggles.  In Romans 5:3-5 he writes “More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.”  

The many variations in the weather this week reminded me that no matter what is going on around me there exists a constant in my life, the presence of God’s Spirit.  Life has its up-and-downs, its myriad challenges, but God, through his Spirit, is our constant companion.  Paul told the Ephesians, and he tells us, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14). 

No matter what is in the air, no matter what is in the details of our lives, no matter what the news of the world is, we who call on Jesus in faith have God’s Spirit within us to testify to us that the world to come is also already here.  In the sure knowledge of Jesus’ resurrection let us live by the power of his Spirit, serving him faithfully as the world awaits the fullness of his kingdom 

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


The other day I was working on a small project at home and I grabbed two tools for the job.  One was a framing hammer and the other was a hacksaw.  I was taking something apart and planned to use the hammer first.  If that failed then the hacksaw would get the job done.  As I was working on the project I had some thoughts floating in my head that I thought I could turn into a reflection, something along the lines of the right tools for the job.  My ideas turned out to be half-baked, at best, and nothing came together. 

Yesterday I got going on something else altogether.  I began working on the suggested memorization verse for my Bible study.  I participate in the Community Bible Study (CBS) class in my city and this year we are studying the Gospel of John.  During the course of the study, roughly every other week, we are given a verse to memorize.  My participation in memorization has been sporadic over the 8 years that I’ve been in CBS, but I know that memorizing scripture has always been good for me and my spiritual life, so I was going to get started now on the verse for next week.

And the verse is this: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life.  He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” John 5:24 ESV.

The context of that verse is that Jesus has returned to Jerusalem and done some healing, after which he is doing some teaching.  As I worked on memorizing the verse, breaking it down into small pieces and slowly speaking them aloud, I found that Jesus was not only teaching in the past, in history, but that he is also teaching me in the present. 

In that one verse Jesus brings out nearly all that is essential about the Good News to be found only in Christ.  We who hear the words of Jesus, and by faith believe in God the Father who sent him into the world, have eternal life.  We don’t have a promise of eternal life sometime in the future, but we have it right now, in this very moment. We will not face God’s judgment for our sin but we have already passed over from being dead in sin to new life in Christ. 

This passage in John does not point to salvation as something whose benefit’s the believer will experience in the future but instead clearly states what the believer already possesses – eternal life with God is a reality right now.  And eternal life is in the sense that eternity that isn’t in the far-off future but it is present right now. The life that we know in God today will never end.  Our understanding of it may change, our love for God may grow deeper, but God and this most precious of his gifts, his very presence for eternity, will never change. 

And so a tool did provide me with something for reflection, although it was not a tool made by human hands and for human work, but the tool of God’s Word, provided by him, to strengthen and encourage us to serve him, to love him and to glorify him, now and forever.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Heaven is for Real

Imagine being the parent of a 4 year-old who has survived a medical crisis in which your child was critically ill, to the edge of death, and then survived.  As time unfolds after this emergency the child lets out bits and pieces of information that appear to be a first-hand account of a trip to heaven, a trip that happened as his earthly life appeared to be fading away.  Such a parent is Todd Burpo, who is also a husband, small business owner, community volunteer, and pastor, and whose young son, Colton, is the witness to the story underlying Heaven is for Real. 

Frankly, I was skeptical when I first heard of the book and had the opportunity to read it.  I’m a Protestant Christian, firmly grounded in the theology of the Reformation.  Luther, Calvin and Augustine all believed in heaven.  So did Paul and John the Evangelist.  Jesus believed in heaven too, and if the one I call Lord and Savior believed it, then I will as well.  So of course heaven is for real.  What could I learn from this book that I did not already know from reading The Book? 

On the other hand, I don’t think that my understanding of heaven, which is grounded in my intellect, and its promise of eternal peace in the presence of God, which is firmly embedded in my heart, is the same understanding of heaven that is found in many of our churches or more broadly through American culture.  There seems to be a hunger for knowledge of heaven, or at least a market for that knowledge.  In addition to Heaven is for Real, which I understand to have sold very well, other recent titles are 90 Minutes in Heaven, The Boy Who came Back from Heaven, a refutation titled Heaven is for Real: The Book that Isn’t, as well as a purportedly first-hand account of heaven’s opposite, 23 Minutes in Hell.  So I re-thought my initial position and read this book, for the primary purpose of understanding popular theology and how it may be used as an entry to guiding people to deeper theological truth, the kind of truth that sustains you in the very difficult circumstances that Todd Burpo and his family found themselves in when Colton became ill.

Colton’s story and the knowledge that he learned of heaven unfolds slowly, in small pieces.  First is an incident several months after his illness, where in the firm way in which he expresses his understanding of salvation, albeit in the language of a 4 year-old, (i.e. Jesus has to be in your heart), along with his persistent manner of talking of Jesus in the present tense, that causes Todd, and his wife, Sonja, to suspect that their son may have experienced a supernatural trip to heaven and back.  Over time they tease out details, being very intentional not to ask questions that lead to predictable answers but to let Colton answer in an open-ended manner.  Much of what Colton reports are the kinds of things that the Bible supports directly, or that may be reasonably inferred.  An example of the former is Jesus’ delight in children, while the latter comes in Colton’s description of the vast beauty found in heaven, including the presence of colors that can’t be imagined by those living on earth but could very possibly exist in the dwelling of the divine presence.  One factor that adds credence to Colton’s reports of heaven is that while his information is consistent with the Bible they are not the kinds of things that are taught to 4 year-olds in Sunday school. 
Eventually Colton describes two people he met in heaven, which for his parents is certain evidence that his account is true.  One person is his grandfather, who had been dead for many years.  To verify this Todd shows Colton a number of pictures of the grandfather, but the only one where he recognizes him in is one from his younger adulthood. This also suggests to Todd that the bodies we will have in heaven will be the ones we would consider to be in our physical prime.  Additionally, the news that the grandfather is in heaven eases several minds.  Knowledge of the grandfather’s attendance at a revival meeting shortly before his death, and his confession of faith there, is not widely known and learning that he is in heaven is greeted by his family with great relief.

The other person he meets is his older sister, an unnamed child of Todd and Sonja who was lost in a miscarriage.  Colton appears to have no way of possibly knowing of the existence of this child until he encounters her in heaven.  The experience of losing their baby was a wrenching one, on a level of emotional and spiritual pain that I have never personally known, and quite naturally the Burpo’s find some peace knowing that their grief, and their child, has been held by God all along. 

In the final analysis I find the premise of Colton’s story wanting.  A young boy goes to heaven, comes back, and shares his experience there with his family, and then the world.  But for what purpose?  As Todd tells Colton’s story it seems to me that the story continually points back at us.  We learn of the beauty of heaven.  We are reassured by the people who are present there.  We even get a glimpse of the final battle between the forces of good and evil, learning that all those present in heaven will have a role in it.  Do any of the things that are in Colton’s story really prepare us for heaven?  Do they spark and deepen our desire to be there?

In the Bible there are several first-hand accounts of the experience of heaven.  They are all relatively brief, particularly when compared to the number of books that have been written recently on the subject.  The key texts that come to my mind are from 2 Corinthians 12, Isaiah 6 and the Revelation of John.

In his letter to the church at Corinth Paul writes of knowing of a person who was taken up to heaven, saying in 12:3-4 “And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter.”   Paul does not dwell on the knowledge that might be gleaned from hearing a first-person report of heaven but instead considers this to be knowledge that should be kept private, something that is not intended to be shared.

Isaiah’s experience is a bit different, as he tells of being in the very presence of God, where he heard God’s voice and beheld his glory.  What stands out in Isaiah’s account is not what formerly living persons he may have seen or the beauty that we might expect in heaven, but a very real sense of his own unworthiness as a sinner in the presence of a holy God.  And God’s response to Isaiah’s confession was to provide forgiveness.  In v. 7 Isaiah hears “your guilt is taken away, and your sin atoned for.”  In his vision of heaven Isaiah experiences first-hand God’s grace.

And in his Revelation, John the Evangelist gives perhaps the broadest biblical account of heaven, providing several brief sketches of the people present, the physical splendor, and what I consider to be most important, the activity of heaven.  In John’s telling, heaven is indeed beautiful in ways that are beyond our merely human imaginations.  And there are a great many people there, all of whom “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:14)  But more importantly than the place and the people is what the people are doing.  They are engaged in worship.  They are gathered around the throne of God, praising him as they exclaim “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10)

As the book title proclaims, heaven is indeed for real.  God has given us testimony to that fact in the Bible, with enough detail that we can look forward to the time when God will call us to the very place where we will eternally dwell with him.  Books such as this one, and the many others in a similar vein, may make us feel good but they don’t really seem, to me, to be able to deepen our faith.  Reading such books is not likely to encourage us to love God, to serve God, or to long for God, in a way that proclaims his kingdom and his glory in the world in which we live.  Reading God’s word will do this, and in addition it will remind us of his covenant promise to always hold us, through life’s deepest and most painful moments, until the time of his choosing, when he will bring his children to the only place where they are truly home.  Heaven is for real and it is all in God’s hands.  Thanks be to God.