Tuesday, April 24, 2012


Last week I was on a short trip to Holland, Michigan, where last year I graduated from seminary.  I was at a program for people who have graduated within the past five years, as they make the transition from seminary and into…well there has been a great variety of vocational destinations among the graduates who came back.  Many would have been expected but there were a few surprises.   

One of the talks I was privileged to hear was titled “The Biblical Vision of Leading the Church.”  As part of his talk, Kyle Small introduced us to what was for me a new way to read, and more importantly, to listen, to Scripture.  I’m not going to describe the method, at least not here right now.  I haven’t taken the opportunity to go back and review my notes or the information we were provided with.  What I do want to discuss is what I heard in particular at that time, as the text spoke to me.  Or perhaps more accurately, as God spoke to me through the text

As a group we heard and read John 15:1-17.  This was, for me, familiar territory.  We recently explored it at my Bible study and it contains many phrases and thoughts that I believe are fairly widely known among Christians.  Themes of “abiding,” “bearing fruit” and “laying down one’s life” are just several of the treasures of this passage.

As I read and pondered this section of Scripture, my eyes, and my heart, lingered on the first half of verse 16, where Jesus says,

 “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide,…”      

I suppose that the first part, where Jesus says, “You did not choose me but I chose you” could be held up as a proof-text for the Biblical foundation of the doctrine of election.  It could be used to “prove” that God is in the business of choosing those who follow him, perhaps even against their will.  And maybe sometimes it has been heard and used that way, but it wasn’t to me that morning.

I heard something much more personal.  I heard that I, Brad, did not choose God, but that God chose me.  Personally. 

The God of all time and space, the God who transcends all time and space, the God who spoke creation into existence, the God who gave his own Son for my sin, chose me. 

He didn’t have to choose me, because he’s God and can do whatever he wants to. He didn’t have to choose me so he must have wanted to choose me.  But for what purpose?

The easy answer, the one that is almost a reflex, is described in John 3:16,

“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”

So maybe God chose me so that I could hang out in heaven with God, eternally.  And I believe that the easy answer is certainly true, but John 15:16 points to something richer.  I have not just been chosen by God for salvation to eternal life, but as a result of his choosing I am also “appointed” for the task of “bearing fruit.” 

Now this is starting to sound to me a bit like it may be John’s version of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20.   And while I know those verses from Matthew well, the way that John has described the task of sharing the Good News feels a bit richer as I contemplate the phrase “that your fruit should abide.” 

God has chosen me, and given me, the task of “bearing fruit,” fruit that will “abide” in him.  He doesn’t tell me who and he doesn’t tell me how.  He appears to leave those details up to me.

And maybe that is why lately, over the past two weeks or so, I have found myself thinking more about some particular people that I know and what the eternal state of their souls may be.  I have never heard them say what they think or believe about Jesus and God’s Good News, but the evidence of their lives that I do know of suggests that knowing and loving God are not things they value highly. 

So maybe one of the things that God has chosen and appointed me to do is to pray for these people and to prepare for a moment when I may share in some way with them what I believe about Jesus, so that they, like I, may abide in him, now and forever.

These are some of my thoughts on how “being chosen” looks at this time in my life.  To what task has God chosen and appointed you for?

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Friday, April 13, 2012


“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”  Matthew 6:25

We (my family and I) are in a transition.  Some major things have been changing and we are expecting them to continue to change for a while.  We have some ideas of how they may change but since several of the things we thought were imminent last summer haven’t happened we are less certain now about where we are headed and how we will “get there.”

Looking back it could be said that I’ve been in transition for the past ten years but this transition for our family began in earnest about one year ago.   I graduated from seminary and Robin took a leave of absence from her teaching job.  We had some feelers out to several churches but nothing was happening.  We believed that God was leading us, somewhere, and we prayed that we would be able to listen well and be obedient when his call became clear.  We sincerely wanted, and continue to want, to know and follow God’s lead rather than just going off in the direction that we may think is best.

Last fall we took what seemed to be a larger “leap of faith,” by putting our house up for sale.  It made logical sense, as we did need to sell our house should God call us away from Rochester, and in this market we had no idea how long it would take to sell. 

After four weeks on the market and an unexpected turn of events we took our house off the market.  That turned out to be a good decision, although at the risk, in our minds, of having our house for sale for a longer time when we did attempt to sell it again.    

And while selling our house would be a major step, we had the blessing of knowing a friend with a vacant house we could rent in the interim.  That seemed to fit well with the whole notion of being “in transition.” 

So this past February we put our house back on the market, and it sold in less than one week! The quickness of the sale caused us to wonder if God was up to something that would soon become clearer to us. 

And last week we moved into our “back-up plan,” the vacant house belonging to a good friend.  We knew when the rental plan was first made that the house needed a bit of work, work that is still underway as I write this.  But it is working out okay.  We are all settling in. We are unpacking boxes and placing furniture, some of which will be moved again soon, as the work is completed inside the house.  And perhaps moved yet again, as God makes his plans for us clearer.

I’ll be honest and admit that while we believe that God is up to something and that we are in transition, we have had moments of anxiety, moments when we wish that he would just make things clear for us, and make them clear now.  Robin and I have each, in our own way, had moments of being tired of waiting for God to act and to clear up the particular unknowns about our life at this point in time.  I was reminded of this again yesterday, as I was reading from the Sermon on the Mount and came to the verse at the start of this post. 

In that verse Jesus invites us not to be anxious, for we are always in his hands.  He knows everything about our current situation.  He knows every need that we have.  He is able to meet every one of our needs, and we can trust that he will meet them, in the timing that he knows is right. 

Later on, in verse 33, Jesus points us to the place where our attention should be in anxious times, saying,

“But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things shall be yours as well.”

I experience anxiety when my focus is on my own needs and concerns, rather than on my Lord and Savior.   One year while I was in Community Bible Study we did a study of the Psalms and I memorized a verse that stays with me to this day.  Psalm 143:8 says,

“Let the morning bring me word of your unfailing love, for I have put my trust in you.
Show me the way I should go, for to you I lift up my soul.”  (NIV)

In all the seasons of life, both those of transition and those of stability, our rest and peace, our purpose and the means to do it, will always be found in God.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

“…to take away sins…”

Last night my wife and I were reading 1 John 3:1-10 and verse 5 just jumped off the page at me.  It reads,

“You know that he appeared in order to take away sins, and in him there is no sin.”

This is Holy Week and Good Friday is the day after tomorrow, with Easter two days later.  John, in his way, has captured the essence of Jesus’ earthly life, in one verse.

There are number of reasons that one could list as to why Jesus came to earth but the one that John tells us is the only one that truly matters.  Jesus came “to take away sins.”  Without this particular reason there is no reason for the Incarnation.  No reason for the Crucifixion.  No reason for the Resurrection.  No reason for the Ascension. 

It is the only reason that requires Jesus to be both fully human and fully divine and it is the only reason that has eternal implications for every person who has ever lived.

Because Jesus came, or “appeared,” as John phrases it, the sins of all who call on him in faith are forgiven.  Sin creates a barrier between a human and God but in the work of Jesus, the work that finished on the cross and was declared worthy in the empty tomb, that barrier is “taken away,” so that the Christian can live in freedom and peace with God, now and forever.

We are human and will never know perfection in this life.  The finished work of Christ covers the sins we have committed in days past, the ones we commit today, and the ones we will commit during each tomorrow.  It is a perfect act of forgiveness, completely taking away our sin. 

In the perfection of God’s forgiveness we can rest in the assurance of God’s promise to hold us forever.  Here is a link to a song by Chris Tomlin that speaks powerfully to the enduring love of God, a love we can only know because Jesus has taken away our sin. 

I am thankful that Jesus has taken away my sin.  That is an easy thing to say without pondering what it really means.   Over the remainder of Holy Week I’m planning to prayerfully consider both what the real cost of that choice to Jesus was in human terms, and also the glory that God receives as a result. 

And in the season of Easter may you also know the deep and abiding love of God in the finished work of Christ.

Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Tell it Like it is: a book review

How is a congregation shaped as its members share their stories in worship?  And how does telling one’s story shape that person’s faith?  These are the questions that lie at the heart of Tell it Like it is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony, by Lillian Daniels. Daniels tells the story of the practice of testimony within the congregation she was leading, a practice which became an important aspect of their worship and, like a stone thrown into still water, its effects rippled through the congregation.

Daniels led a congregation within the United Church of Christ (UCC), a faith tradition that she describes as being less-acquainted with having its members share their personal stories of faith than other traditions.  As her congregation began its experiment with testimony they believed that they were recapturing a practice described in a number of places in the Bible.  While there are varied accounts of testimony in the Bible they are consistent in this: “People of faith are called to testify to God’s power and presence in their lives, and in the New Testament this is a call to proclaim Christ.” (xvii)  This explicit understanding of testimony led them to define it simply as “a spoken word in the context of worship, and it could not omit God.” (xiv)  

Daniel’s congregation began their use of testimony during the season of Lent, with leaders of the congregation taking turns sharing a moment when God was present in their life.  The person sharing didn’t have any firm guidelines beyond the definition above, which provided a wonderful variety to the types of things that people chose to share.  As time went on a people from all parts of the congregation took part in the practice.  They were young and old, long-time members, new members and even some non-members who had been in the habit of worshipping there.   

Reflecting on the experience after she left the congregation whose testimony the book is drawn from, Daniels writes, “It is my thesis that the practice of testimony strengthened the bonds among us as a community and drew us closer to God as individuals and as a community.” (13)  I would say that she successfully demonstrates that there is much for a congregation to gain from the practice of testimony. 

There are times when we may have powerful experiences of God, but we may only share them with our closest friends.  And at the other end of the scale are those moments of group fellowship after worship when we may only share the most superficial of things, omitting God completely from the conversation.  Testimony can be an intermediate place of relationship building, both for members of the congregation among themselves and as individuals with God. 

Testimony involves risk.  The risk is that seemingly universal concern over what people may think about us after hearing what we have to say.  But perhaps there is a greater risk, the risk that the very words we are being led to speak go unsaid, and in that silence the possibility of God using us as his instrument is passed by. 

Daniels has written a book that encourages congregations to use testimony as a part of their witness in the world.  In reading it I am also reminded that God has called me, and all who follow Christ, to be his witnesses, both in church and in the interpersonal relationships we have every day.