Wednesday, February 24, 2016

There Seems To Be A Lot Of Shouting These Days

There seems to be a lot of shouting these days.  I am not speaking of the arena of politics, nor am I speaking of the cultural clashes or the roar of thousands gathered to see a sporting contest.  Sadly, I am speaking of conflict within the church.

Throughout our land, churches are best with turmoil and division.  Factions of Christians have lined up against one another.  You have heard the labels, they sound as if they are names for sports teams or political parties: Liberal, Conservative, Progressive, Legalistic.  Voices are raised, tempers flare, feelings are hurts, and brothers are divided.

“You’re violating my conscience,” shouts one.  “You are weak in your understanding,” responds another.  “You’re seeking to destroy the church,” one levels.  “You’re just holding us back with your stubbornness,” chastises another.  “It’s my way or no way,” argues yet another.

The fighting seems to make a mockery of Jesus’ words, “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13.35).  The shouting seems to dismiss the prayer of our Lord: “I ask . . . That they may be one” (Jn. 17.20-21).

It is human nature to defend what seems to be right and to promote that which is personally beneficial or comfortable.  However, our identity as Christians and as joint heirs of the eternal blessings of God demands that we defer to one another in love.  Paul’s words are clear: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. . . . Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.  And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which you were called in the one body” (Col. 3.12-15).

In this spirit, may each of us defer to one another in love.  May our shouts be reduced to civility.  May our separate agendas be replaced with the unified agenda of proclaiming God’s eternal love to a lost and dying world.  We can get along, we can be one, and we can impact our world with the Gospel of Christ, but we must begin by humbling ourselves.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Staying the Course

taying the course is not always easy.

The Gospel writer describes the resoluteness of Jesus as he set out for Jerusalem, despite knowing the tragedy that would occur there.  In Luke 9.51, the description is given, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  A rather matter-of-fact statement.  A statement that subtly underscores the determination with which Christ set out on the path that would lead to his death.

The statement should remind one of the words Isaiah spoke about the one called the “Lord’s Servant.”  This servant is the Messiah, the one God would send as deliverer and redeemer.

The Lord’s Servant speaks of the difficult and trying times he would face, of the opposition that would be pitted against him, and he concludes in Isaiah 50.7, “The Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near.”

The Lord’s Servant affirms that God will be with him during his time of trial and that he will overcome, with God’s help, the opposition he will face.  The Servant is able to declare, “I have set my face like flint,” a statement declaring his resolve to be faithful to the task given him by God.

Jesus, writes Luke, “set his face to go to Jerusalem.”  He would go to the place of the cross with the same spirit of resolve exhibited by God’s Servant.

Do we share in Jesus’ resolve as we follow in his steps and obey the will of our Father?  So many distractions vie for our gaze; it is so difficult, at times, to concentrate on the task at hand . . . faithful service to God.

Let us refocus and become more resolute as we follow the steps of our Savior and Lord.  Our God will surely provide us with the strength we need.

Friday, February 12, 2016

Trouble Was, He Never One a Battle

General George S. McClellan was a smart general. Trouble was, he never won a battle.

McClellan graduated first in his class at West Point. His intellect was better than most. As the Civil War erupted, President Abraham Lincoln called on McClellan to be commander of the Union Army of Northern Virginia, the main fighting force arrayed against the armies of the Confederacy.

In every respect, McClellan's force was superior to that of his Confederate counterpart. He had General Robert E. Lee out-manned, out-gunned, out-resourced, and out-trained. Unfortunately, McClellan lacked the initiative and daring of Lee and the Confederate Army.

McClellan was timid. Before he sent his troops into battle he wanted every "i" dotted and every "t" crossed. He spent hour after hour drilling his troops and scouting out the enemy, waiting for the perfect momen to strike. As noble as his efforts were, they were all for naught. McClellan's army never won a battle against its adversary.

Timidiy can cripple the strongest man in the world and make him susceptible to the smallest of foes. Timidity on the part of churches has resulted in an attitude of complacency (if not downright satisfaction) expressed toward dwindling numbers. Timidity on the part of churches has resulted in a desire to focus on the home-front while the mission field is neglected. Timidity on the part of churches has resulted in the abandonment of the number one rule of church growth: "Plant the seed, and God will provide the growth." Timidity on the part of churches has resulted on congregations that have little or no standing in the community and that have virtually no reputation for doing good. Timidity on the part of churches finds fulfillment in the status quo.

Boldness (notice, I did not say brashness) . . . boldness is a product of faith. It is confidence in God's eternal presence and provision of his people. Let us boldly be the people of God in this world. Let us not be intimidated by any task. Let us not doubt any outcome. Let us boldly put to use our abilities, resources, and opportunities. Let us not give the initiative to our Enemy, for timidity has never led one to victory, but is all-to-often the path to defeat.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

The Naming of God in the Story of Noah

An intriguing feature of the story of Noah and the Great Flood, one that almost goes unnoticed, is the naming of God in the story.  God has two names in the story of the Flood.  These two names give added meaning to the story; indeed I don’t know if the story can be fully appreciated without the knowledge that in it God is given two names.

For much of the story, God is referred to by the name Elohim.  The name, in English, is simply, “God.”  Elohim is a rather generic name for God.  It is the most common name for God in the Hebrew Bible.  Elohim emphasizes the majesty and transcendence of God above all creation and over all other gods.  The name can even be translated “God of gods” or “All gods in One,” for that is the concept inherent in the name.

In certain scenes of the Flood narrative, though, God is called by the name YahwehYahweh (or, Jehovah), in English, is “Lord,” or “Lord God”  (The term “Lord God” is Yahweh Elohim).  Yahweh is the most personal name for God in the Old Testament.  Yahweh was the name given by God to Moses at the sigh of the burning bush in Exodus 3, on the occasion of God calling Moses to return to Egypt and free his people from bondage.  Yahweh is God’s covenant name, the name of God that stresses his great love for and interest in the well-being of man.  Yahweh is a very intimate name; it is the name God cautioned the Jews to not misuse in the third commandment, “Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain.”  (Although, the Jews misapplied the meaning of this command; they went as far as condemning the public usage of the name and even its mere utterance and writing.)

In the Flood narrative, the name Yahweh is used strategically and purposefully.  It is used in three specific scenes, along with an isolated fourth reference.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 6.5-8, the scene where God’s sorrow over the sinfulness of the world is expressed.  It is here, in this paragraph, where God’s intent to judge the world is made known and where Noah’s finding favor in the sight of the Lord is reported.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 7.1-5, the scene where God commands Noah to enter the ark, taking with him seven pairs of every clean animal and one pair of every unclean animal.  God tells him (in more detail than before) of what is going to transpire; namely, the world will be destroyed by flood and only those onboard the ark will survive.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 7.16, in the statement, “And the Lord shut them in,” describing God’s action of closing the door on the ark.

Yahweh is used in Genesis 8.20-22, the scene where Noah, having just left the ark, offers sacrifices to God.  God’s favorable response to the sacrifices is noted.

In each of these scene, God is shown acting in a personal manner; in other words, he is shown having human qualities and behaviors.  In Gen. 6.5-8 and 7.1-5, God sees.  What he sees, causes him sorrow (he has emotions).  In 7.16, he shuts the door of the ark (an action).  In 8.20-22, he smells the offering made by Noah, and he is pleased (again, and action and emotion).  In these passages, God is shown acting in a personal manner: he senses, he has emotions, and he acts.

What is the effect of this composite portrayal of God?  He is real.  God is a participant in the story—an active participant.  He is not a distant deity destroying the world on a whim.  He is an involved God fully conscious of what he is doing.

In his alternating between Elohim and Yahweh, the inspired author is teaching us that God takes an active interest in the affairs of man.

Remember, Elohim is a name for God that emphasizes his greatness, his transcendence above all else.  It is an important name, a name we should know and respect, but it is a name, when used by itself, which gives us an incomplete picture of God.

It is easy to see God as aloof, distant, above everything.  Many see God as all-consumed in himself, we cannot rise to his level, he cannot stoop to ours, so there is this wide gulf between God and man.
In the Flood story, it is easy to see God in this light.  A perfect God destroying a far-less-than-perfect world.  The act could be seen as being doing by a God who could care less.  He can always start over and make a more perfect world.

But, no, God has a vested interest in his creation.  He has an infatuation (wholesome, mind you) with his creation, namely mankind.  This vested interest is made manifest in the name, Yahweh.

The story of the Flood is not merely about a transcendent God doing what he has the power to do—that is, to destroy what stands opposed to him.  The story of the Flood is a about a transcendent God who cares deeply and eternally for his creation, no matter to what extreme they have gone to hurt him and from whom they have distanced themselves.

In the story of the Flood, God is not looking to destroy man, but to have fellowship with him.  Punishment is due (and deserved), but restoration is offered.  God delivers humanity by taking Noah and his family and delivering them from the Flood.  Indeed it really is more a story about Noah (man) than a story about a Great Flood.

Believe it or not, I received a lot of spankings as a child.  My dad could give a good spanking.  He wore a wide heavy belt; it stung; it got the message across (I was just a slow learner).  But, I remember that every spanking was followed by a hug.  Why a hug?  It was my fathers’ way of reaffirming his love for me.  My behavior demanded punishment, but that did not mean he had stopped loving me.  I remained his son, he remained my father, and the hug reinforced these truths.
Just as a father hugs his son after disciplining him, the alternating names used in the story of Noah affirm God’s eternal love for mankind.  He is Elohim, and his greatness demands our respect and reverence—he remains King and Judge.  He is Yahweh, and his love for us is everlasting—he wants to be our Father.
Jeff Foster

Churches Must Be Places of Healing

Each time I read the Gospel of Luke, I am impressed with the responsiveness of “sinners” to Jesus.  This responsiveness and the ease and care with which Jesus reacts provides insight into how churches can and must grow.

One scene from the Third Gospel stands out more than any other.  The story is told in Luke 7.36-50 of Jesus being entertained in the home of Simon, a Pharisee.  During the meal a woman enters the house and comes to Jesus.  “She stood behind him at his feet, weeping, and began to bathe his feet with her tears and to dry them with her hair” (v. 38).  The action of this woman repulses the host, because this woman was “a sinner” (32), a woman of the streets, a prostitute.

The exchange that follows between Simon and Jesus is instructive.  Jesus condemns the man’s prejudice, and commends the woman’s contriteness.  He concludes, “Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love.  But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little” (47).

This episode illustrates an important truth about the Gospel and provides insight into how church growth should be viewed.  This woman, convicted of her sins (at the very least, moved to find healing and wholeness) comes to Jesus.  She views Jesus as one who could help her, one who would be compassionate, one who would not drive her out into the streets again, one who would not condemn and exclude.  Perhaps she had witnesses his interaction with others.  Perhaps she had heard of his gentleness from those he had met.  And, as she came, she found the one she sought: the Lord, who, with gentleness not scorn, responded mercifully and decisively.

What is the challenge for the church?  What is the pattern given for church growth?  Are we viewed by the broader society and community as an “institution” (I do not like the word, but it fits) where the “sinner” can come and find the answers for which they are searching?  In other words, does the person on the street view the church as a people where he could and should be a part?  Does he see us as a gentle and merciful people and not as scornful and harsh?

Yet another way to ask the question: are we “pricking people’s hearts” with the Gospel (see Acts 2.37), or are we shaming them with our self-righteous smugness?

Zacchaeus sought out Jesus.  Jesus did not reject Peter when the fisherman said, “Lord, I am a sinner.”  He touched the leper.  He ate in the home of Levi.  He told the story of the Samaritan.  He condemned the old brother of the prodigal.  He blessed the centurion with the healing of his servant.  He restored Legion to renewed health and mind.
I am afraid that most churches today are viewed by the broader society and culture as peoples and places of exclusion and condemnation.  We are not seeker-friendly.  A poverty of spirit (Lk. 6.20) is needed in our churches.  We should look and feel more like hospitals than country clubs.

The mission of Christ needs to serve as our inspiration.  At Nazareth, he declared, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Lk. 4.18-19).  To those who criticized his fraternizing with Levi, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (5.31-32).  To Zacchaeus, he said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham.  For the Son of Man came to seek and save the lost” (19.10).  And, in the context of his lost but found parables, he explains, “Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (15.7)

When churches are viewed as a people of acceptance and as places of healing, phenomenal growth can and will take place.  It is an evaluation, however, that is not produced passively.  In other words, merely leaving the door open does not answer the challenge.  We must be present and visible in the broader community.  Our lack of conformity does not demand isolation.  (After all, salt must be tasted and light must shine.)  We must be present in the world, upholding what is good, opposing what is not (see Ephesians 5.11), and aiming to draw people to us and not driving them away.

A humility of spirit, all-encompassing faith, and a deep, genuine compassion for all persons are the fundamental building blocks needed in the construction of churches.  The eyes of Jesus were cast on the hurting and those in need; our gaze must be directed in the same way.  We must understand that we are all digging our way out of the same pit (rather, we are all being rescued out of the same pit!).

This is why our buildings need windows!  What message do we send when our gaze cannot be cast beyond bricks and mortar?  What message do we send when we cannot present ourselves transparently before the world?