Friday, April 25, 2014

Facebook theology, part 4

"You make all things work together for my good."

I noticed the quote above floating through my newsfeed.  I think the intent of the author is to give a word of encouragement to people who may be going through a difficult bit of life.  And not just a word of encouragement, but a word of encouragement that has its origin in the Bible.

The quote above seems to be meant for encouragement, and derived from the Bible, but to what end?  The quote would imply that "you" or God, makes things work together for the good of "me."  Stated another way we could say, "God wants things to work together for my benefit."

But is that really true, according to the Bible?  Is that true when we read the stories of various believers in God through history?  Since the quote is derived from a New Testament verse I'm going to qualify "believers in God" more specifically as "believers in God as made known in the person of Jesus."  To use the definition of a believer given by Paul in Romans 10:9, believers would affirm this:

"if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved."

Now let's take a look at the verse that lies behind the quote.  It is Romans 8:28, also written by Paul, and saying this:

"And we know that all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose."

Here are the things I believe we should take note of.  The first is that Paul says that things work together "for good."  I think that "good" truly means "good" but it doesn't necessarily mean that they work together "for my good."  Could these things that I am involved in work together for the good of someone else?  Or maybe I need to take a deeper look at what the meaning of "good" for me truly is?

Secondly, Paul writes this phrase, "for those who are called according to his purposes."  I think that this phrase implies two things.  One is that Paul's words apply specifically to believers, as defined by Romans 10:9, and more importantly, that the end result for which these things work is directly related to "his purpose" or stated more clearly, "God's purpose."

So here is another way we could express Paul's thoughts in Romans 8:28, with my clarifications in brackets:

"And we [who believe in Christ Jesus] know that all things [be they good or bad, easy or hard] work together for [God's] good, for those who are called according to his [God's] purpose."

Reading Romans 8:28 in that way takes the focus off of ourselves, and whatever we may think of as a good outcome for us, and places the focus on God, so that things in our lives, be they good or not, work out according to His purposes.

With that understanding let's turn again to Paul, this time from 2 Corinthians 11:24-27, where he writes of suffering for the Gospel with these words:

"Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure."

As we read of Paul's experience we see something that is quite a bit different from that suggested by the opening quote, and I would say that it is something much richer and more meaningful, for Paul was willing to suffer for the sake of something much greater, which was the glory of God.  Paul endured his suffering so that people could better see how sweet, merciful and glorious his Savior was.

If you want to read a non-biblical account of suffering, to the point of death, for the good of the God of the Gospel you can read of Guido de Bres or Jan Hus, two of many people who staked their very lives on the goodness of God.

So I'll wrap this up with the words of Paul again, this time from 2 Corinthians 4:16-18,

"So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal."

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 23, 2014


Robin and I are currently reading through Leviticus.  Most people would say that Leviticus is one of the least exciting books of the Bible.  None of the dramatic characters of the Bible are found in Leviticus, such as Noah, or David, or John the Baptist, or Paul.  Nor are there any of the dramatic events, like the parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the five thousand, or the raising of Lazarus.  Leviticus doesn't have the powerful or captivating use of language, such as we find in the Psalms or Romans.  And, most importantly of all, it seems that Leviticus doesn't have Jesus. 

Last Sunday, on Easter, I read to the children the resurrection story as written in the Gospel Story Bible.  I mentioned that the resurrection is the central event in the Bible.  Everything written in the Bible either looks forward towards the resurrection, or looks backwards at it.  The Bible shows us the glory of God, and it shows it most powerfully and profoundly in the resurrection of Jesus.  Signposts to the resurrection are found throughout the Bible, even in Leviticus.

Even Leviticus?  Isn't that mostly a book of rules?  What does that have to do with Jesus?  What does that have to do with God's glory?  What does that have to do with the resurrection?

Leviticus does have rules, and lots of them.  As God was leading his people from slavery in Egypt towards their home in the Promised Land he was giving them rules.  He was teaching them about how they should present their offerings to him.  And he was teaching them about what kinds of things made them clean or unclean, from his point of view.  And as they learned about what God considered to be unclean they also learned about the steps they needed to become clean again.  Robin and I have only read through 16 of the 27 chapters of Leviticus and it would seem to me that the grand theme of Leviticus has to do with holiness.  It has to do with being prepared, in ways that are pleasing to God, to be in the presence of God.  And that has everything to do with the resurrection and the glory of God.  It has everything to do with Jesus.

Skipping ahead to Leviticus 19:2, God says this to Moses:

"Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, "You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.""

It is God's desire that his people be like him.  He is holy and for us to be in his presence we need to be holy as well.  We need to be cleansed of all unrighteousness in order to come before a God who is holy and perfect in every way.

As the people of Israel traveled to the Promised Land God gave them directions for being prepared to be in his presence.  He gave them the rules found in Leviticus.  But no one can keep God's rules perfectly, and in that way Leviticus points  us towards Jesus.  He, and he alone, lived a sinless life, so that we could be made holy before God.  As we come to God through faith in Jesus our sin is removed, so that in Jesus we are made holy.  

May you know today that your holiness before God is secure in Jesus.  It is a holiness that, in God's eyes, will never fade and pass away.   

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.

Monday, April 21, 2014

"For He has risen…"

Yesterday was Easter Sunday.  It was my first Easter as a pastor and it was a wonderfully memorable one.

It began with heading over to the church to get coffee started an hour before the community sunrise service.  Then we had worship on the hill behind our church, with folks gathered from the other churches in town.  There were about 40 of us on the hill and people said it was the largest turnout they could remember.  My only responsibility was to offer the closing prayer, a responsibility I learned of when I was invited forward to give it!

Then we all walked down the hill to the gym attached to our church, where the men got to work in the kitchen.  This is a bit of tradition…the men always cook breakfast on Easter.  About 50 people were present for breakfast and there were too many men in the kitchen cooking for me to be much direct help, so I helped with miscellaneous tasks…and offered the prayer before we ate.

Everyone was fed and the clean-up was finished at about the time I am usually heading over to church on a Sunday morning.  This was good news, because I had been concerned ahead of time about the timing of everything that needed to get done on Easter.

Our Sunday worship service went pretty well.  There were more people in church than I've ever seen since we've been here, including a number of people I never met before.  I heard that the sermon was good and I wish that I had taped it, because my wife had an adverse response to lilies in church and had to leave during the service.

We baptized three girls and that was exciting, as they were the first baptisms I had done and two of the girls, sisters, were excited to be baptized.  One the way out of church the parents of the sisters invited us over for lunch.  One thing we have learned about meal invitations on the reservation is that there is always plenty of food!  It was a nice time for us to get to know this one family a bit better.

We went home and rested a bit and then I went for a short run.  After the run I made a phone call and then decided to go make a hospital visit.  The hospital I went to is 90 miles away, so that was a significant activity to tack onto the day, but having a really good lunch changed our dinner plans and we weren't having Bible study on Easter, so there was some flexibility in my schedule that wouldn't be present most Sundays.

It was a good visit, and I had the opportunity to share with the family the same scripture that I preached on in the morning, Matthew28:1-10.  It is Matthew's account of the resurrection of Jesus and in my preparation, and preaching a portion of verse 6 was continually calling to me.  It says:

"He is not here, for he has risen, as he said."

For He has risen.  Matthew doesn't give us any details about Jesus' resurrection except this one.  The fact that it has already happened.  His report is not like the prophecy of Ezekiel in the Valley of Dry Bones, where he gives the various of facts of the scattered bones coming together and being restored to life. 

For Matthew it is simpler than that.  We may want to know the "how" but all he gives us is the "what."  But what a glorious "what"! 

In the Resurrection we know that God's promises to His people are all true.  In the Resurrection there is no reason to doubt that God's promise to hold a people as His own, and to hold them forever, will be fulfilled.  

As a pastor it was my joy to remind the congregation I serve of that promise during worship (in the sermon, the baptism, the music and every other chance I had!), and it was a privilege to bring that same promise to a family gathered in a hospital room.

"He is not here, for he has risen, as he said."

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 13, 2014

"Who is this?"

Today is Palm Sunday, the day that for Christians marks the beginning of the end, in a manner of speaking.  It is the day where we remember Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the unfolding of the last week of his life.  The story is found in each of the Gospels.  It is in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  The four accounts have some points in common and also some points in which they differ.

I have read some things online about the different messages that were preached this morning around the Palm Sunday story.  I chose to preach from Matthew's account, and I was drawn into the question-and-answer of verses 10 and 11 as the key point of Matthews story:

"And when he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up, saying, “Who is this?” And the crowds said, “This is the prophet Jesus, from Nazareth of Galilee.”"

Who is this?  This is Jesus.  That answer, that name, pointed me back to Matthew 1:21, where Joseph, Jesus' father, is visited by an angel, who tells him that his fiancĂ©e will have a baby, a baby conceived not by him but through the Holy Spirit.  And verse 21 says this:

"She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."

Who is this, riding into Jerusalem on a donkey? 

This is Jesus…the one sent by God…to save his people…from their sins. 

He continues to save today, and those He saves He holds forever. 

If you don't know salvation in Christ I invite you to pick up a Bible, or follow this link, and over the course of the next few days to read Matthews account of the last week of Jesus' life. 

Don't just read it though, but ask God to help you understand as you read.  And my prayer is that by next Sunday, Easter morning, that God gives you the gift of salvation in the finished work of His Son, Jesus.  Amen.

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.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

"Its all about me, isn't it?" or Facebook theology, part 3

This is the third of an irregular series, where I reflect on something seen online, usually through a post on Facebook.  Last night I saw this "prayer":

Dear God,
Enlighten what's dark in me…
Strengthen what's weak in me…
Mend what's broken in me…
Bind what's bruised in me…
Heal what's sick in me,
and lastly…
Revive whatever peace and love has died in me…

Type, "Amen" if this is your prayer!

I don't know what you see when you read this prayer, but what I see is a prayer that is all about "me" and has not a thought at all about the god to whom it is being prayed.  It would seem that the one to whom it is being prayed to is a god whose primary task, in the eyes of the one praying, is to make sure that all is well in the world of the one praying. 

I don't know the religious persuasion, if any, of the author of this prayer.  I am a pastor of a Christian church and am going to respond from that perspective.  And in doing so I understand that my perspective will not necessarily be the same as others who identify as Christians. 

I said that this prayer seems to be all about the one praying it and I wonder what the author of it thinks about God.  What characteristics of God come to mind when they think about God?

Is God holy?  Is God good?  Is God always good?  Is God beautiful?  Is God just?  Is God fair?  Is God sovereign?  Is God's knowledge perfect?  Is God perfect in every way?

These are but a few of the questions we could consider in understanding who God is and how God works, particularly how God works in the world and in the lives of people.  As we begin to work out answers to these kinds of questions we begin to see that our approach to God should be somewhat different than what I find in the prayer above, i.e. an approach that is "all about me."

So here is a suggestion for a different way to approach God in prayer.  It is but one way of coming to God, one that recognizes that first and foremost He is God. 

Pray using these letters as guides: A-C-T-S. 

Adoration: Tell God things like how great He is, how beautiful He is, how much you love Him.  Give Him words of praise and worship.

Confession: He is God and we are not.  He is holy and we are not.  Lay before Him those things that come to mind where you have gone your way and not His.  Our offenses against Him are sins and we need to lay them before Him and ask His forgiveness.

Thanksgiving: Thank God for what He has done in your life, for where you have seen Him at work in the world. 

Supplication: Now is the time to ask God for the concerns of your heart.  Lift up what is on your heart, be it about yourself, your friends, or the world.

Something I have found as I work through this model in my own prayer life is that I ask God for much more on behalf of other people than I ask for myself.  This model of prayer is also one that makes me mindful of God, of other people, and of myself, in that order.

We use this model in worship on Sunday in our congregational prayer, although I leave out the section on confession because we do a separate Prayer of Confession earlier in the service.   

And we end our congregational prayer with the words of the Lord's Prayer:

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,
thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

I'm a pastor

I'm a pastor.  I am not exactly sure what that means but I'm learning a bit more about it every day.

As many of you may know, becoming a pastor was a career change, something that happened just seven months ago.  I serve a small congregation on a Native American reservation in New Mexico.  My family and I felt that this was the place and that these were the people that God was preparing us for.  Last summer we pulled up our deep roots in the Midwest and headed for what we, like the people we live among, affectionately call "the rez."  Life is markedly different here and we are gradually developing new friendships.   

So what does a pastor do?  That is a question with a very broad answer.  In some large congregations there may be a number of people carrying that label, each with a different area of responsibility.  In a church at the other end of the spectrum, such as the one I serve, the answer is more comprehensive.  One of the things my predecessor left for me was a long list of tasks that are outside of the traditional role of pastor and which land as my responsibility here.  Building maintenance, secretarial work and so forth.  That is fine with me.  I saw the list before we came here, and knowing it was small congregation it wasn't a big surprise.

When it gets down to the basics I would say that my primary roles as pastor are to be the preacher and teacher of the congregation. 

Preparing to preach is the hardest thing I do each week.  It is my job to dig into God's word and bring back something of substance to my congregation when we gather for worship on Sunday morning.  Parts of sermon preparation I love and parts I struggle with.  I struggle in large part because I feel that the sermon must be driven by the text.  The ideas I am jotting down on paper and the sentences I subsequently type as I write and edit a draft must be connected to the text.

That makes sermon preparation, for me, much more challenging than other kinds of writing, such as writing for my blog.  In my blog I can go here and there.  I want to be coherent in what I write but there is the freedom to shape my thoughts in ways that differ from the structure of writing to preach. 

The other major portion of my role as pastor is to be the primary teacher for the congregation.  Teaching happens in the pulpit.  It happens in our Bible study.  It happens in my blog.  And it happens in conversations I have with members of the congregation and people I meet in the community. 

I enjoy teaching that is composed of dialogue.  I want to listen to the other person and understand their perspective.  I want to be able to share with them things that are grounded in scripture and deepen their faith.  

And there is one other thing that is key to being a pastor, at least for me.  That is prayer.  I lead the congregation in prayer during worship.  During the week I pray for the concerns they share with me.  Some they share publicly and some privately.  I pray for things which I know about but that haven't been shared directly with me.  I pray with them at the hospital and in their homes.  It is a great privilege to pray for, and with, God's people.  And I am grateful that God is guiding them in praying for me, for I couldn't be a pastor on my own strength, nor would I want to.   

Earlier today I wrote a note to someone who had some feedback on a recent blog post.  Here is my concluding sentence to that person, which is perhaps, in my view, the essence of being a pastor: 

"Day-by-day, prayer-by-prayer, I am working by the grace of God to guide God's people the their eternal home, to God's glory."