Monday, October 19, 2015

How to Be Happy

This article first appeared on The High Calling
A simple summary of Psalm 1 might read, “Happy are those who delight and meditate on the law of the Lord … The wicked will not withstand the coming judgement and will eventually perish.” This dualism permeates the Psalms and is a perfect introduction to the Psalter as a whole.
The righteous followers of the law are introduced as happy, or blessed. And, in Psalm 1, their actions directly impact their happiness. The simile of the fruit tree is the proof: A tree far from water or adequate rain will grow only so large and produce only so much fruit. However, a tree planted by a stream will naturally produce more fruit and grow healthier. This is a direct result of its environment. Likewise, people who truly meditate on the law will naturally flourish and gain blessings—not as a reward, but as a natural result of their focus upon the law.
For us, the law could mean the actual Torah (first five books of the Old Testament). It could be the entire Old Testament. Or it might be a combination of all the written scripture and biblical teachings.
The life of the righteous is affected by what they do, but equally so by what they abstain from. A righteous person meditates upon the law and avoids the advice and lifestyle of the wicked. The wicked are compared to chaff—the useless, lightweight portion of a crop that is easily blown away with the wind. This is a powerful image.
The fruit produced by the righteous can withstand the judgment of God, while the wicked will be blown away.
FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How can meditation upon scripture lead to happiness? What activities in our lives are like chaff that cannot withstand the judgment of God?
PRAYER: Father in Heaven, thank you for your word. Teach me your ways and your statutes and help me to observe them all the days of my life. My soul yearns for your salvation; I hope in your word. Let your mercy come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. Amen.
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.

Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.

For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.

Psalm 1

Friday, October 16, 2015

Proverbs 31 Not for Women only

This article first appeared on The High Calling
Honor her for all that her hands have done, and let her works bring her praise at the city gate.
Proverbs 31:10-31
The words in Proverbs 31:10-31 form an acrostic hymn. The passage summarizes—from A to Z—the attributes of a woman of wisdom.
This great woman applies wisdom to every aspect of life. She is an entrepreneur who buys fields, plants vineyards, and decides what merchandise is profitable. She is a household leader who directs the servants. She makes and provides clothes for the poor and her household. She is not caught off guard by challenges such as weather, for she is prepared for all situations. She is not easily distracted, working late into the night.
Unlike other proverbs, these thoughts are not Solomon’s. Instead they come from King Lemuel’s mother who advised her son, “Speak for those who cannot speak … Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy” (31:8-9). A righteous king with such honorable marching orders might then become a suitable partner for an equally upright woman. A woman like the one King Lemuel’s mother describes in Proverbs 31:10-31.
She is indeed wise.
She is also strong.
Her strength is the Hebrew word chayil and is a reference to military might and power. The same word is used in verse three when Lemuel is warned not to give his strength (chayil) away. This wise woman is clearly his equal, using strength to lead righteously and care for the poor, just as her husband is advised.
Wisdom is more than knowledge. It is knowledge put into positive action. Proverbs is a book of wise sayings, and this passage is a call to action for all who read it.
What common aspects of your life need more wisdom? Do you have a partner of equal strength who stands with you?
Lord Jesus, help me become more like this woman of wisdom. Help me be the partner of equal strength others need me to be. May I become the type of person who willingly and lovingly lives a life of righteousness and wisdom through my actions. Amen.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Wright Brothers

This article first appeared at The High Calling
David McCullough is an American author and historian. He is a two-time Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award winner for his historical works 1776John Adams, and Truman. His most recent work, The Wright Brothers, is an engaging study of the birth of aviation from the viewpoint of its two most famous contributors, Orville and Wilbur Wright, and their family. Of their amazing accomplishments and focused dedication to powered manned flight, their nephew stated years later, “History was happening in those moments, there in their shop and in their home, but I didn’t realize it at the time because it seemed so commonplace.”
I like this quote because it says something to me about the way God works in our world and our purpose. Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost wrote in The Shaping of Things to Come, “The fact that God became flesh and blood and lived in the neighborhood for thirty years, and nobody noticed, say’s a lot about how God works.” This is a powerful image of the purpose, pace, and intentionality of God. Jesus worked within the everyday context of his setting. He engaged in the commonplace. He invited the working class and the religious elite to his table to break bread with him. He walked from town to town with his followers, talking about the fields he saw along the way. He observed and gave advice to fisherman. He invited himself to dinner. He went to synagogues and read scripture and taught.
Yet, in the midst of the ordinary, something very extraordinary was taking place. Something similar to the Wright brothers’ nephew’s realization dawned on those around Jesus. “History was happening in those moments … [but] it seemed so commonplace.” Jesus took bread and transformed our understanding of community and sacrifice. Jesus used the dinner table to demonstrate hospitality, forgiveness, and community. Jesus pointed to the ordinary field and revealed how it was like the kingdom of heaven. Jesus took the common job of fishing and turned it into a powerful reality of God’s presence on earth. Jesus took the reading of scripture and made it a reading about himself.
God has a purpose for the world around us. But this purpose is not revealed in dramatic ways. Instead, God reveals himself in the slow and ordinarily commonplace avenues of reality. If we are not careful we will be like the Wright brothers’ nephew, only realizing it after it is all over and done.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: How is God moving in the commonplace all around you? Do you overlook the simple, everyday elements of life where God is moving?
PRAYER: Lord, open our eyes that we may see you in the commonplace. Help us to see you in the breaking of bread around our dinner tables, in the voice of good council from friends, in the laughter of children, in the vocations we pursue, and in scriptures that shape our lives. Help us not to miss your extraordinary presence in the commonplace. Amen.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Walking With God

This article first appeared at The High Calling
A quick internet or dictionary search for a definition of the word purpose yields this result: “The reason for which something is done or created or for which something exists.” Purpose provides motive, cause, reason, and justification for our actions. Purpose gives us the answer to the great question, “Why?” Why do we do the things we do? Why do we believe what we believe?
The biggest event in the life of Israel is the Passover/Exodus experience. This experience helped clarify purpose for the people of Israel. Every year when Jewish people celebrate Passover, a child asks, “Why is this night different from every other night?” In other words, “What is the purpose of this celebration?”
The Passover experience tells the story of God’s people being freed from bondage so they can walk unencumbered with him. Micah 6:8 famously states, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Walking humbly with God fulfills our very purpose for being.
Later, in the New Testament, Jesus teaches in Matthew 22:34-38 that the greatest commandments are to love God radically and love others radically. A Christian child might ask, “How is this love different from every other love?”
What is our purpose, motivation, and reason as Christians to walk in love? 1 John 3:16 states, “We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for another.” Our purpose, our motive, cause, reason, and justification for everything we do is rooted in God’s first action. God first created us to walk with him. Jesus first loved us by laying down his life in love for us. This is our purpose, our reason, for loving others. Our purpose is rooted in God’s action; our response is to love God and others because he first loved us.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What does this idea of walking with God look like in your context? How does God’s first action demonstrate how we are to love? Does our purpose change in different seasons of life or only our application of love?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, teach us to trust and understand your purpose for our lives. Help us to walk humbly with you by loving you and others. Teach us to love you and others as you first loved us. Show us the difficult ways of love so that we might truly reflect your purpose for our lives to the world you created. Amen.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The first steps in Speaking Against Evil

This article first appeared on The High Calling
Too often Christians are guilty of standing up and shouting against the evils of this world with such anger and bitterness that we become the very thing we are speaking against.
The task for James, and all Christians, is to speak the truth without grumbling, bitterness, selfishness, and behavior like the “unspiritual wisdom” being called on the carpet in today’s passage. As Christians called to live in community with all kinds of people, we are challenged first to live lives marked by the fruit of the spirit. But we are also called to exercise humble wisdom by being peaceable and gentle. Only after we are actively living with humble wisdom like James can we call out the wickedness in the world around us with credibility and humility.
Bitterness, selfishness, and other unspiritual maladies create pain in individuals and those around them. These people believe themselves to be wise, but James calls such wisdom “earthly, unspiritual, devilish.” This kind of wisdom divides, speaks harshly, and creates disorder. Chapter four of James demonstrates how this type of broken-hearted wisdom leads to cravings for war, murder, adultery, and covetousness
So then, it is helpful to remember Christ’s encouragement to us to seek the kingdom of God first and then everything else will come into its proper order (Matt. 6:33).
There are many wicked things in our world, but speaking out against them must be second to our pursuit of the kingdom of God. True wisdom comes from seeking the kingdom first. When we exhibit the qualities of the kingdom, we demonstrate the difference between the “wisdom from above” and the “earthly, unspiritual, devilish” wisdom of the world.
Whenever we place an agenda over the kingdom, we have lost our focus. “Who is wise and understanding among you?” The one who knows truth and knows how to apply it to life.
What sort of wickedness do you seek to sometimes attack before first seeking the kingdom of God? How might you actively or passively work against God?
Lord Jesus, give us the courage, the wisdom, the strength to always hold the kingdom of God as the number one priority in our lives. Help us live in response to the good wisdom from above and resist the wisdom of this world. Amen.
Who is wise and understanding among you? Let them show it by their good life, by deeds done in the humility that comes from wisdom. But if you harbor bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast about it or deny the truth. Such “wisdom” does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where you have envy and selfish ambition, there you find disorder and every evil practice.
But the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness.
James 3:13-18

Less is More

This article first appeared on The High Calling.
“The Lord is with you, you mighty warrior.” Gideon answered him, “But sir, if the Lord is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds our ancestors recounted to us … ”
Judges 6:12-13
Like many denominations, the churches in our fellowship are experiencing decline in all the areas that used to matter. Smaller budgets, fewer regular attendees, older members, smaller staffs (if they even have a single full-time staff member), and the albatrosses of buildings they cannot afford.
I see many congregations acting like Gideon in Judges 6. They are paralyzed with desperation and unable to move forward, despite God’s hopeful call for them to join him in mission. The band, Colony House, has a song titled “Waiting for My Time to Come.” The second verse puts into words the agony many feel:
I’ve tried, I’ve failed. I thought I gave it my all, now it’s hard to tell. Is this the end of a dream I’ve lost or just an introduction to how much this may cost?
I like the way the final question puts trials into perspective. What if ministry actually costs us something? This is not something we like to hear. It cost Gideon 31,700 troops before he faced a vast army with only 300.
When we first meet him in Judges 6, Gideon is hiding in a wine press (essentially a hole in the ground), savoring what little grain he has, when an angel of the Lord arrives and calls him a mighty warrior. God can see the potential in us even we cannot see it in ourselves. Gideon responds like many of us would, “Who? Me? Surely, not. In case you haven’t noticed I’m nobody special.”
This is the attitude many in our congregations feel. They are at the end of their abilities. They have sacrificed their entire lives for the sake of their congregations and now … well, now it seems there is only a small, sad remnant of what should be. They have tried everything they know to do; they have called in experts, read books, and downloaded the latest program but to no avail.
The greatest moment for Gideon comes in Judges 7 when he assembles a great army to fight the Midianites. But God has Gideon reduce his army from 32,000 to a mere 300 before going into battle. That night God caused great confusion amongst the Midianites, and the small band of commandos won the day. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes it takes a reduction in our own abilities for us to begin to really trust God. Sometimes a small group is capable of more effective ministry than a large one. It takes courage for a small church or small association of churches to work together in order to accomplish great ministry.
Gideon’s commandos used torches, horns, and clay pots to defeat their enemies. That’s like going into battle with a flashlight, paper bag, and kazoos! The church that answers the call of God will have to act just as irrationally in our modern world.
I am encouraged when I see congregations take the courageous leap forward out of the winepress. Despite their small number, they invite God to use them in the most surprising ways. These congregations share space in their buildings, exchange volunteer services for goods, partner with non-religious non-profits, use volunteer leaders instead of paid staff, sell buildings or repurpose them, and many other examples. From the uncomfortable safety of a winepress onto the vulnerable hillside with a torch, this is the risky business God calls us to join him in.
QUESTIONS FOR FURTHER REFLECTION: What areas do we need to reduce in order to be more flexible and ready to move with the Spirit of God? What individualistic dream needs to die in your life so you can follow the leadings of Christ? What will following Christ deeply cost you and your congregation?
PRAYER: Lord Jesus, we fear the unknown. Give us the courage necessary to journey with you into the hard and difficult places of ministry. Help us understand that ministry might cost us more than we ever imagined but that the victory is always yours. Thank you for our many struggling congregations. Guide them, give them wisdom, and the courage to be the mighty warriors you know them to be. Amen.

Monday, May 18, 2015

God Moved into the Nieghborhood

Every so often the community at "The High Calling" ask me to write for them. Recently they asked me to share about "risk aversion." I am not an inherently risky person. I am not a huge fan of change. I like familiarity, comfort, and predictability. I have a small but intimate group of friends rather than a large network of acquaintances. I shop at the same handful of stores and eat at the same handful of restaurants. I am fiercely loyal to my family, friends, co-workers, and ministry.

But in the midst of this passion for the familiar, I have been challenged lately. Challenged might not even be the best word. I have been stretched in my personal and spiritual life in ways that are affecting my pursuit of the commonplace. 

God has been dealing with my family, my concept of ministry, and my ability to cope with new. As I share in my recent reflection on the High Calling, "Moving into the Neighborhood"  God has challenged and moved my family from one neighborhood to another. 
"Like many in our culture, our family became involved in a church far from our home. Based on God’s incarnate presence, we believe God desires our faith community and our place of residence to be in the same geographical area. As John 1:14 (message) states, "The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood..." If God moved into the neighborhood for ministry, so should we."
This has forced us to rethink our lives and our ministry presence. As a direct result of this type of thinking we had to make a choice. For we were living with a holy disconnect by living in one place and worshiping in another.
"The way we see it, there are three options to bring a Christ-centered resolution to our problem. We can plant a neighborhood church, but that is unnecessary because there are several churches already in the area. We can join an existing church in our neighborhood, but what about the church family we already have? We could move to the neighborhood where our current church is located, but what of the neighborhood ministry and relationships we developed? Each option is filled with risk and pain."
So after several months of prayer we decided to relocate to a neighborhood closer to the church. It has been a whirlwind of activity for the past two months. We listed and sold our house in a single day. We then bought a house in a neighborhood about a mile from the church. It is not in the neighborhood of the church but it as close as we could get.

While this is all exciting and adventurous it has not been without issue. The new house has not been lived in for about a year and before that had been poorly maintained. We have had to make several new repairs to our new home that include plumbing, retaining wall, gutters, water issues, dishwasher, a new furnace, and a leaking toilet. All after these passed an inspection! This much change, all the repairs, and new everything has pushed me into new places of trust in God. I tend to want to believe this has been a mistake somehow. That we missed or miss heard Gods voice in it all. Why would God allow us to sell our house in 12 hours and buy a house two days later only to have to fix the new place and use what limited financial resources we have? I want to lean into the attitude of frustration and being overwhelmed. I want things to be fixed immediately because I don't like things being out of balance. But my wife (the positive voice in the midst of leaking pipes and muddy retaining walls) keeps reminding me this is exactly where God wants us and he will provide.

And provide he has. We had a small army of people from the church help us move. We had a friend allow us to stay with them for five days in between homes. We have had people share tools and expertise on how to make the repairs. We have a home warranty that is covering large portions of the repairs (you know after a generous service fee). We have already met four of our neighbors who have each offered help with tools and even a truck if we need to haul old debris away. We had dinner with our covenant group in our new home.

We are moving into the neighborhood. Our church, our home, our friends, our shopping, our schools, our neighborhood are all in the same place now. It is not easy. God's call on Abram was not easy. It was not easy when Israel traveled through the wilderness. Even the Son of Man had no place to lay his head. Paul often experienced traveling hardships. I am sure if their stories were told today with first world problems they would include broken cars, leaking toilets, and run arounds with warranties. But this is part of being in the neighborhood. You take on the issues of the neighborhood. My new issues are not unique to my house alone. They are common in our neighborhood. It just makes more able to relate to those around us and forces us to engage them to see how they have faced similar challenges. This way we are in this thing together.

So as we continue this journey pray for us to engage our neighbors and faith community in meaningful ways. Help us to love God and love others as he did, by becoming flesh and blood and moving into the neighborhood.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Denomination vs Confederation

Denomination vs. Confederation

I am writing a series of blogs called "Verses" where I am pondering through a few ideas that have impacted me recently. The first post was called, "Covenant vs. Contract" and looked into the important difference between the two and what impact it has upon our relationship with God, his Church, and others.

Today I want to examine another idea, "Denomination vs. Confederation." I am an ordained American Baptist minister. I work with the ABC churches in Nebraska as a region staff member. As such I am part of the American Baptist Churches USA. I am a Christian who exercises my faith through the lense of Baptist tradition and history. There was a funny flow chart online last week about how Baptist view history. It is true some Baptists have as self-righteous attitude with poor grasps on history, however, I have found most of my fellow American Baptists to have a better understanding of their place in the Christian story than the tongue in cheek graphic would suggest. Many of my fellow American Baptists are well informed on their own tradition and the larger Christian story.

It is also true Baptists are about as diverse as they come. Our theology allows us to be conservative or progressive; Calvinist or Arminian;  mega church or small rural church; King James only or all translations welcome; pro women in ministry or not; social activists or total non-conformists; and the list goes on. Most Baptist's don't actually fall into any one category and in many ways defy the ability to define. I personally have an opinion on each item here and more besides, but that would not keep me from fellowship from someone who has a different stance.

There are a few things most would agree upon, but then so would most Christians, the authority of scripture, the separation of church and state, the priesthood of the believer, baptism by immersion (hence our name), and the primacy of the local church. The one thing that keeps all this together is the most important word of all: AUTONOMY.

I believe that autonomy is our greatest strength and our greatest weakness. Since we put so much emphasis on autonomy it allows churches to choose their own pastors, theological emphasis, scripture translation, curriculum, community involvement, and every other thing, without any undo outside influence from a larger denominational body (I think I just heard my Southern Baptists friends snicker a little). It also creates a beautiful cornucopia of ethnicities, musical styles, preaching styles, and other local church cultural norms. When all these groups come together for large gatherings, in my opinion there is nothing closer to what the new heaven and new earth will look like. This is great.

Autonomy can also our great weakness. It can be maddeningly difficult for Baptists to reach agreement on anything. It makes for difficulty getting them all on board and focused on social issues, cultural issues, and theological issues. Baptists are so fiercely autonomous that when a church is struggling they don't always know how to ask for help, despite having their covenant relationships with other churches, regions, and national bodies immediately available. Baptists choose to freely associate with one another through covenant relationship. They are never more focused than when they are rallied for foreign and domestic mission efforts, and never more divided that when someone tries to limit their freedoms.

This brings me to the difference between a denomination and a confederation. A denomination can and should be a unified, cohesive, monolithic institution. A true denomination should have the same beliefs practices and rituals in every church every week. They should follow the same calendar, believe the same theological tenants, and have an overseer to make sure everyone is acting accordingly. Many Baptists have attempted this type of control and oversight only to be reminded of the autonomous nature Baptists possess by immediately having churches pull away from such a fellowship.

A true Baptist fellowship can never be a denomination. This was pointed out to me recently by a good friend. He said Baptists are more like a federation. But upon further reflection federation still has a strong central governing power over individual entities.And this would make most local Baptist churches cringe. It think we should go even further than federation. Instead Baptists should choose to covenant together for the sake of mission and ministry in the form of a CONFEDERATION. In a confederation each church continues to remain themselves, while uniting together for common purposes. At any point one of the churches can leave the confederation. The larger body is reliant upon the individual churches. All action at a larger level must be approved by the churches. This is a more Baptist confederation than a true denomination.

Denominations have their place. They just do not work in a Baptist setting. I am constantly reminded of this since my primary ministry is through the confederation rather than the local church. Our regions are ministers to individual churches. Each region is just as autonomous as our churches in relation to our larger body. Our ABC USA structure is more a confederation than a denomination yet we call ourselves a denomination because for a while we wanted to be like other mainline groups. Also to use the term confederation brings to mind the Civil War, of which ABC USA was strongly opposed to slavery (which caused a Baptist split in 1845 creating Northern and Southern Baptists) and don't want to be confused for a pro-slavery confederate state issues. Today we use the term "societies" in reference to our various autonomous groups. It has caused some confusion and difficulties over the years.  I don't know what to call ourselves if we are uncomfortable with the term confederation. What I do know is that as we continue to transition our leadership in the next couple years our future will rely on our ability to continue to navigate the difference between these two concepts, whatever terms we may use.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Covenant vs. Contract

I am going to call this series of blog posts "Verses" because I am going to compare two concepts with one another in each post. I have long been a sports fan and a very amature athlete. Every great competition has a "verses" smashed in between the two competing elements, such as Red Sox vs. Yankees. So I would like to examine a few things that I feel could use some conversation. Feel free to use the comment section below to add to the conversation.

A few weeks ago I helped lead our annual region board retreat. Part of this years retreat included reviewing our region of churches mission, how our region structure fits that mission, and how our context effects the application of our mission. When it came time for me to share, I was tasked with explaining our structure. I know what you're thinking, "super cool topic" and "I wish I hadn't missed that meeting." Well I am sorry you missed it too. Perhaps someday I can bore you with the same 15 minute lecture. However something fascinating did happen as a result of this lecture. As part of my conversation I mentioned how our churches are held together by a "covenant" relationship rather than a "contract." I had several people come up and tell me they had never thought about our structure as covenant before. 

And this brings me to my first "Verses" topic, covenant vs. contract.

As part of my talk I shared how God entered into covenants in the Old Testament with individuals and the entirety of Israel. A covenant is very different from a contract and the difference matters. We live in a world really built on contracts, yet God is calling us to live in covenant. We are most familiar with contract mentality. In a contract two people enter into an agreement that has binding rules that dictate the terms of the contract. If one party of the contract violates any portion of the contract rules the other party is free to remove themselves from the agreement and in some cases enforce some sort of penalty upon the first party for breaking the contract. This is how many of us view our relationships with one another and with God. That is why we are so easily angered and hold grudges against former friends, spouses, and family members. We view relationships like contracts and we get mad when, in our opinion, someone else doesn't hold up their end of the bargain. 

The fact we view relationships as contracts is also why many of us fear God in an unhealthy way. We fear that if we don't hold up our end of the bargain, (being sinless like God) then God is going to smash us into nothingness. But is this actually how God works, how relationships should work, how churches should function?

I think not. 

God models covenant in scripture. A covenant is a special type of agreement. The difference between a covenant and a contract is important. When two or more people enter into a covenant, they are agreeing to hold up their end of the bargain, despite what any of the other parties do. If I am in a covenant relationship, then I will remain faithful to that relationship, regardless of how well the other person is able or willing to keep their end of the relationship. This is how God works. For instance he promises to Israel to be their God and they will be his people if they keep his laws and follow him. Inevitably Israel fails, yet God remains faithful.

This is how our churches relate to one another in our region. Sixty churches have decided to partner together for mission and ministry. Our official mission statement reads, "American Baptist churches in Nebraska are joined together as a region in covenant partnership to: Encourage, challenge, and empower one another to be transforming Christian communities in the world." As any Baptist will tell you autonomy of the local congregation is significant. However, many forget about their covenant to be in relationship with other churches. Here is the covenant part, as a local church, pastor, and individual I choose to remain faithful to that covenant even when some churches, pastors, and individuals choose not to be faithful.

God models covenant in scripture. He is ever faithful despite Abrahams risking his promise, Moses complaints, Israels stiff necked ways, the death of the prophets, Peter's denials, the Zebedees boys pride, and my various faults. God remains faithful. We are to model covenant in all of our dealings as well. I am to forgive my friends when they hurt me, I am to remain present in my congregation when I don't like a decision the group made, I am to give my best at work even when the policies don't make sense, I am to support my childrens teachers even if I don't agree with all of the schools decisions, etc. 

We are called as Christians into covenant relationships not contracts.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Ancient Sexualty

So far in this 5 part series series we have discussed:
Jesus, Torah, and Ethics
-Was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or other?
-A Little Chat about Hell

In this final post of the series we will discuss one of the most polarizing topics in our culture. Hell of course is a very polarizing topic, just ask Rob Bell. But outside of your beliefs on hell nothing will get you put into hot water and pegged as a narrow minded bigot or a liberal universalist with no morals than the topic of sexuality. So on this day before valentines, let's have that awkward conversation you should have had with your parents in junior high. 
The issue of sexuality was as complex and nuanced in the ancient world as it is today. What is clear is that the practice of homosexuality in its various forms existed and its acceptance or ridicule varied from time to time and place to place.
How one understands where humanity comes from and their role seem to have large impact on how one viewed sexuality as a whole and homosexuality specifically in the ancient world. For the ancient Greek, Plato tells a story of Aristophanes in his Symposium that humans once existed in three forms: male with two male genitalia, female with two female genitalia, and mixed with one of each. Zeus in a fit of rage split them down the middle and people are now in search of their other half, creating homosexual and heterosexual pursuits. This was more satire than actual creation mythology but it does speak to trying to explain sexual passions. In the ancient Greek culture teachers sometimes participated in pederasty (male with young male) until the youth became an adult. In the Roman culture this was less common but not unheard of. In both cultures raucous parties involved various forms of sex. Men with female prostitutes, men with boys, men with other men in both active and passive roles. In Greece a youth could enter into higher levels of society by being the youthful patron of an older male for a period of time. In Roman culture it was considered shameful for a male citizen to be a passive, therefore it became outlawed. However, male citizens often engage with slaves of non-citizenry as well as prostitutes while remaining married to one woman. This was in contrast with the Hebrew culture of multiple wives but forbidden sex outside of those multiple marriages.
For the Jew God created humanity male and female and called it very good. By the time of the New Testament many had combined Genesis 1 and 2 into a single understanding of creation. Genesis 1 tells that people were made and Genesis 2 tells how they were made. The overarching conclusion was that God made people good and sex was part of that goodness. However, there were boundaries to be set for sexuality. In the Jewish understanding of God there is great order, God set the order in place and it is the goal of humanity to live into that order. Order is connected with holiness and cleanliness. To be out of order is to be unclean or sinful. Sex was part of the established order and there are ways to participate in the activity that live into the order. Therefore, there are many codes regarding when one should participate and when one should abstain. There are rules regarding incest, intercourse during menstruation, times of war, times of entering the Temple, and others. The goal of these prohibitions was to remain in right order and holiness with God. Any intentional sexual activity outside these boundaries is considered a deviation.
There is little or no room in the Jewish mind, the Old Testament or the New Testament for homosexual activity. God created humanity male and female. They are to be united together for procreation and pleasure. Homosexuality is part of longer lists in both New and Old Testaments regarding sexual deviance. The various reasons argued against homosexuality in the first century include: the feminization of men, the perversion of the act, and producing sperm that is not fulfilling its purpose for procreation. Jesus and Paul connect ideas of sexuality to Genesis 1 and 2 in that sex brings together people into a complete union. To have any form of sex outside of marriage is to create a new union and destroy the former.
Jesus alludes to pederasty when he condemns those who would lead children astray. Paul, Josephus, and Philo speak against pederasty and homosexuality on the grounds of unnaturalness, divine law, and a giving into the passions of sex rather than self-control. Paul is also a product of his culture and place since many of his comments on gender roles, sexuality, and homosexuality would have been a mixture of Greco-Roman culture and his Jewish worldview. His comments on homosexuality would not have been controversial in Roman culture who were moving against homosexuality as a whole in this period. Homosexuality becomes a common image for when things go wrong and for going against the divine order God created.
Paul’s understanding of gender roles and sexuality/homosexuality is rooted in his reading the LXX. Loader makes a case that since his theology is rooted in the LXX it shaped his understanding of gender roles being hierarchical. It would also shape his understanding of homosexual relationships and the concept that to be male was the ideal of God’s created order. His understanding of eschatology and belief in it immanent reality allowed him to encourage optional celibacy as a way of staying focused on the kingdom. He would include homosexuality alongside drunkenness, idolatry, lack of self-control (giving into the passions), and lying as things that keep one outside the Kingdom of God.
1 Peter takes similar views to Paul when it comes to roles and societal interaction. The goal here is to share that there are cultural norms that fit into the Christian lifestyle that should not be challenged. Therefore, modesty among women is of importance as an adopted cultural value that finds its way into scripture. 

     The issue of homosexuality in particular and sexuality in general is more complex than this space allows. The general conclusion of the New Testament would be that sex, when understood as part of divine order and goodness, is a good thing. This would specifically mean within marriage, for procreation and pleasure. People were to remain faithful to that relationship. All other forms of sexuality would be deemed deviance, not only homosexuality but intercourse with prostitutes, unconverted gentiles, slaves, times of uncleanliness, or times of intentional abstinence. Cultural values of gender roles, femininity and masculinity, sexual passions, and societal niceties find their way in the NT teachings. The place for conversation on NT understandings of sexuality and homosexuality come in the separation of cultural values from their and our eras and from a more lasting divine order. There are many who could draw similar conclusions based on the research of history and biblical writings but would counter argue that times have changed and as such we should do away with these old values much like we have done with many of Pauls gender role values.

Thursday, February 12, 2015


So far in this 5 part series series we have discussed:
- Jesus, Torah, and Ethics
-Was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or other?
-A Little Chat about Hell

Today I would like to talk about atonement. The idea of atonement is rooted in the concept that one’s sinful actions make one unclean and outside proper relationship with YHWH God. For the Levites and the Temple cult there was a specific process for going about atoning for both known/acknowledged sin and for unknown/unacknowledged sin. The practice of sacrificing an animal was seen as a way of bringing about cleanliness. This need for using a sacrificial animal begins with the Passover story in Exodus, where Israel sacrifices unblemished lambs, pours the blood on their doorways, and consumes the animal by eating and burning what is not eaten. When the Spirit of God descended upon Egypt, those inside the homes marked with the lamb’s blood were spared the wrath of God, those who did not experienced the death of the first born. This judgment was total in that it included both people and animals, so essentially a judgment upon all creation.  Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus demonstrate how this central event was to be remembered and celebrated in perpetuity. However, the process of reenacting the Passover also became a time of reestablishing proper relationship with God. One would bring their best animal or grain to be offered as an atoning sacrifice for sin to the Temple, lay hands upon the animal or grain confess sin, and allow the Levitical priests to go about the process of ritualistically sacrificing it on the alter. One would also eat a portion of the sacrifice. By confessing the sin(s) while laying ones hands upon the animal it was a way of placing those sins upon the animal. When the animal was destroyed through sacrifice, so was the sin itself, putting one back in a proper relationship with God. Other small infractions could be “atoned” for by washing, tithing, and the passage of time.  This process was individualistic for the most. However, the priesthood could offer atoning sacrifice on behalf of the entire nation such as in the Day of Atonement and the daily morning/evening sacrifices.
Later, such as in the case of Isaiah 53-54 and 4 Maccabees there is a clear understanding that Israel has sinned as a whole and somehow an individual human will go about the process of absorbing that sin on their behalf. In Isaiah there is a “Suffering Servant” who as a righteous one will be crushed (atone) for iniquities and infirmities and by doing so will bring healing to the people, allowing them to be restored into right relationship with YHWH and thus end their literal exile.  For the image of the Maccabees the seven sons suffer on behalf of the people (atone) for their idolatry by being faithful (non idolatrous) toward God and dying for that purpose. In doing so the people will be made right and have God join their cause to overthrow their literal oppressors, at least for a season. These atonement ideas seemed limited in scope and effect.
So the question becomes, did Jesus see his death as atoning. Scot McKnight first asked this question in Jesus and His Death where he took on this question from the historical Jesus point of view where his basic conclusion is that based on purely historical models it is hard to determine if Jesus saw his death as atoning. However, in the conclusion he does say Jesus' death and resurrection was atoning. He sets out to better explain his understandings in A Community Called Atonement, where he makes a comparison to the various forms of atonement to using the proper club for a golf course. Each one is good and right in their proper setting but no one club is appropriate for all needs of atonement.
What separated Jesus from previous prophets would be that his death would usher in the “Final Ordeal,” and that his death would be vindicated by God. This vindication would begin the process establishing the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven, which was imminent. His death would also be representative death for others to follow. By reinterpreting the Pesah-like meal in light of his own calling from God, he becomes the Passover lamb, making Jesus’s death the decisive act of redemption for salvation.  Those who partake in his body and blood are protected from the in a literal sense from the Temple destruction and secondly from the wrath of God in the eschatological sense. This is much like the how the Israelites were protected in their homes by the blood of their lambs in the first Passover.

Ultimately, atonement is about moving people from one state to another. A state of sin and captivity to a state of freedom and holiness. The death of Christ might not in itself alone been the atoning moment. The whole life, death, resurrection, ascension, and Pentecost however do speak to atonement. The death of Jesus protects his followers from Gods condemnation for sin and ushers them into right relationship with God in the Kingdom of God.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A little chat about hell

Part 3 of 5 Blog post on the Dmin topics of this semester.
I have never been one to dwell upon the deeper concepts of heaven or hell.  I remember as a college student looking at the Pauline letters and how he mentioned, “keeping your mind on heavenly things” and feeling like I was not a good Christian because I found this unhelpful.  The basic idea of knowing that through Christ I can experience resurrection was promise enough for many years. I have wanted to focus on the present reality and the hope that Christ brings into that. For the past handful of years I broadened my study to include concepts of the importance of resurrection, what exactly the New Heaven and New Earth mean for those who are in Christ and for those who are not.

For our class we read Edward Fudge’s The Fire That Consumes and it revealed some new ideas.  Fudge believes in "annihlationism" This basic belief is that that there is no "eternal conscious torment" of hell. Rather at some point victims of hell are consumed into nothingness and cease to exist. Fudge sets up his argument in the Old Testament stating that the death of the wicked will ultimately lead to destruction.  He points to images such as the flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh and others as the foundation for such a view.  In these stories the wicked were destroyed, they ceased to exist, while the righteous were rescued. Whenever the image of fire, worms, ash, etc. is used he argues that a consuming fire is not one that is of eternal conscious torment but instead images that devour completely and are irresistible.  The purpose is to remove the wicked completely from the earth so that the righteous may inherit it.  If the wicked are not punished in this life they will be in the next.  So there is an assumption of an afterlife of some sort.

When he comes to the New Testament he makes a good case for understanding that there are two deaths.  The physical death that sends all people into “gravedom” commonly called Sheol in the Old Testament.  NT Wrights, Surprised by Hope he makes a similar claim with a waiting room metaphor.  A second death awaits those who did not place their hope in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, while those who did place their hope in the saving work of Christ will experience eternal everlasting life. They will experience resurrection but not an eternal one only enough to be experience final judgment then be ultimately destroyed. Therefore, eternal life is reserved only for those who are in Christ not for all people.  This is a free will choice for each person to make. The result is that the righteous resurrected ones will experience the New Heaven and New Earth with Christ. 

Jesus’ use of fire and the place Gehenna in the New Testament was explained by Fudge as total destruction.  Gehenna serves as a physical place of representation from the time of the Second Temple.  Just as fire completely consumes what is present in this place, so too will the fire of the future that will consume the wicked until they are completely removed.  In Matthew 5 and 18 Jesus encourages people to avoid hell anyway possible because there is no escape, the second death is final.  It is better to be lame in this life than to lose your life completely with no hope.  Jesus’ use of metaphors, for Fudge, also lean into this concept of complete destruction.  Matthew 3 is about cutting off and burning trees that do not produce fruit.  Images of pruning grapevines, burning left over chaff after harvest, and separating weeds from wheat speak to this idea.  Once a thing is burned, it is gone, not eternally tormented.  For Jesus the options are eternal life or complete destruction (Matt 7, 10, and John 3)
For the sake of historicity, the Jewish world hoped for a new world where the righteous dwell with God and the wicked are punished. Christians adopted this view and hell became the place of punishment. Our eternal conscious torment ideas are based on the platonic notion that each of us are by our very nature "immortal" since we have an "immortal soul." therefore if we have an immortal soul it will either dwell in heavenly bliss or hells fury. However, annihilationists would argue that our humanity is by its very nature not immortal but mortal since Genesis three people no longer had access to the tree of life, their former source for eternal life. Now eternal life is only possible through the resurrected Jesus. Those without that hope do not have an immortal eternal existence and as such will experience a judgment but not suffer eternally but instead suffer like a piece of wood in a fire at at some point cease to be.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, or Essene?

Yesterday in part 1 of 5 Blog posts on Jesus in the New Testament I discussed Jesus, Torah, and Ethics. Part of that conversation included asking if Jesus fit into any one of the main sects of Judaism in the first century.  So for part 2 I want to further the dialogue and ask was Jesus a Pharisee, Sadducee, Essene, or something all together different?

Remembering from my previous post on Jesus, Torah, and Ethics, the Torah was the universal foundation for all Jewish life and thought. The written scripture become increasingly foundational for second Temple Judaism (time between return from exile and Jesus). The scriptures however needed interpretation. Scripture needed clarification on confusing or seemingly contradictory matters regarding feast days, cleanliness requirements, and daily application. Not much has changed in 2,500 years. The interpretations became what is called Halakhah. Different groups began to emphasize one Halakhah over another creating sects or as Josephus labeled them for his Roman audience philosophies.

The Sadducees comprised mostly of the aristocracy of Israel. They were connected to the priestly ranks and thus were part of the temple life in Jerusalem. They were well educated in the law and temple practice. For this period the High Priest was usually of Sadducee pedigree. The High Priest served as the leader of the temple as well as the political figurehead of Israel and the people respected the role even when they did not like some individual leaders. Theologically, they are best known for denying the afterlife for the claim of only accepting biblical text with no further limited Halakhah.

Jesus would not be considered part of the Sadducean sect. First, he was not an aristocrat or a temple priest. This is probably the most noticeable difference between Jesus and the Sadducees. Jesus did have a problem with the way Temple leadership was conducted, but this puts him in the majority with many in Israel, and does not make him unique. Jesus did speak about the afterlife in the future Kingdom of God language and resurrection. Jesus also did not keep the same cleanliness codes the priests would have kept. Jesus did honor the temple and participate in festivals that would have been priestly led like feast of unleavened bread.

The Essenes were a complex group and best known for their connection to the Qumran community and the Dead Sea Scrolls. However, not all Essenes were isolationists who lived monastic lives in Qumran. Some lived in cities around Israel but still kept strict laws and habits. The most extreme were celibate and single, but marriage was allowed as was sex for procreation. They followed a hierarchy of leadership who seemed to oppose temple Sadducee leadership specifically. They were exceedingly righteous and respected to the point Herod didn’t require a verbal oath of loyalty from them. It took many years to gain full acceptance into the Essene lifestyle and one could be removed from fellowship for life for sinful infractions. Finally, they believed in an afterlife and in a mixture of fate/predestination and freewill.

Comparing Jesus to the Essenes is interesting. He believed in a close knit community as evidenced by his twelve disciples and broader followers. He opened up his following to others as well as seen in the gospels with his many followers but he did have an intimate group of twelve. Like Qumran he encouraged his followers to travel without supplies relying on the Holy Spirit and others for support. For Qumran this meant having needs met from other Essenes, for Jesus it meant anyone who was a person of peace (Luke 10, Matthew 10). Unlike Qumran entrance into Jesus’ fellowship did not require prerequisite knowledge or pure lifestyle separating him from them in this regard. As far as we know he was single but encourage marital fidelity. He was righteous and encouraged others to be so. This separates him from all groups who limited or extended the law based on Halakhah. Jesus was forgiving, welcoming back those gone astray such as Peter, another point in conflict with Qumran and the Essenes. As a whole Jesus was an Essene though they have some things in common, there is not enough here to classify him among them alone. However, there are some who argue that some of the earliest Christian converts has Essene backgrounds given their desire to live communal lives as seen in places like Acts 4:31ff.

The Pharisees developed as an opposition group to Hyrcanus. Despite their seeming popularity in the Gospels they were small in number compared to the Sadducees. They were a group who sought to live pure lives in the "real world." As such many of their specific codes of conduct have to do with agriculture, eating, purity of wounds and women, when and how to tithe, and other everyday things. Where the Sadducees focused on the holy days and temple cult, the Pharisees focused on the average Jews daily life. They tried to apply the biblical teachings to all things though never achieving the cleanliness of the priests because of practical reasons. Like Essenes believed in freewill and fate. That Israel was chosen but obedience is optional is core to their understanding of Jewish life. They also held to the idea of resurrection of the righteous and punishment of the wicked. Despite it being a common belief they ran the Sanhedrin and synagogues Sanders argues against this. However, they were still respected.

Was Jesus a Pharisee? This argument has been made several times over. It is probably the group he had the most in common with. Since Judaism was a faith of the written word it is easy to see how Jesus would study the scriptures, see himself in it, and interpret those laws and narrative for himself and teach others to follow his ways. This is what each sect did. The Pharisees sought to apply law to everyday life for the common Jew. They rooted their interpretations to past Halakhah. Jesus, however, reinterpreted the law in light of himself alone as being the fulfillment, something the Pharisees would have taken offense at since they looked for a logical train of thought from any rabbi back to Moses. Jesus knew and understood the law, he studied it, and his first “profession” was likely carpentry. He summoned followers who were day laborers and taught them the law. In many respects this is the way of a Pharisee.

Does Jesus fit into any one of these groups neatly? I do not think so. Jesus is unique in many ways. He replaced the image of the Temple with his body, an affront to all Jews but especially Sadducees. He had an open table and fluid community of followers, unlike the Essenes. He reinterpreted the law through himself, unlike the Pharisees who looked to other ancestors for support. Does Jesus have things in common with them? Certainly, but he does not fit any one group exclusively, but he does fits with the Essenes and Pharisees more than the Sadducees.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jesus, Torah, and Ethics

The Jewish world in which Jesus lived was shaped by the Torah. Jewish life was unique in the ancient Mediterranean world because Torah observance and the Levitical and Deuteronomic laws were to govern all of life, not just the cultic practices of Temple worship.  Here is a key point that many in miss in the Jewish understanding of the law. They practiced the law not because they felt it earned them salvation. They believed they were chosen and unique already because of God's covenant with Abraham that was reemphasized with Isaac, Jacob, the exodus, and ratified in the law of Moses. Rather, observance of the law is a way of maintaining identity and marking them as different from Gentiles. 
Here is another caveat, there was both a universal Judaism and a variety of sects. Much the same with modern Christianity where universal Christianity would adhere to elements of things like the Apostles Creed and the canonical Bible but there are also a variety of denominations. For Judaism the universal beliefs included their being chosen by God, the Torah as foundational for life, and the Temple, and feast days. We know about three main sects, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The question is did Jesus fit into any one of them? And if not how was his understanding of scripture and ethics different.
The Qumran community took obedience of the Law to an extreme by removing themselves from the rest of society as best they could.  Instead of priests declaring clean and unclean and instead of community dialogue regarding application in everyday situations, one person or the council of twelve became the filters through which all application was made.  To become part of this community required a multi-year multi-step process which, involved turning over all possessions and withdrawing from a “normal” everyday existence.  Those who are not in right relationship with community are forced into processes of repentance.
With this background Jesus is similar in many ways and yet clearly different.  Jesus’ use of Mishnah type phrases is seen in his Sermon on the Mount.  So in some ways his teaching style does not differ all that much from his contemporaries.  He cares about the law and states he didn’t come to change it but rather fulfill it.  Like the Mishnah, Qumran, and OT demonstrate Jesus also believed that application, i.e. action, was required to demonstrate obedience.  “Everyone who hears words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man…”  Matt. 7:24.  He also clearly still finds use in the Temple and priests for when he heals the lepers he instructs them to present themselves to the priests.
Jesus’ call to radical discipleship is rooted in the basic principles of the Jewish teachings to love God.  The law, temple activities, festivals, and diets is centered on the idea of loving God in every aspect of life.  What make the Jewish people unique is they desire God to shape every element of their existence. And yet there was constant separation of who did and didn’t have access to God either because of Temple cleanliness or Torah interpretation.  Uncleanliness prevented people from Temple practices and community.  Most people were unclean most of the time for one reason or another.  This basically puts a majority of the population out of relationship with God and the ability to engage freely in community and household life.  The interpretation of the law essentially required actions and time to become clean again.  Jesus is different because he heals people removing the need for further action required for purification and eliminates the time needed to be made clean.  He also calls people out to follow him without any test or previous ability unlike Qumran which requires demonstration of being an expert in the law.
Jesus also emphasizes the love of neighbor, where chapters 19-20 of Leviticus that is quite specific.  These laws governing right relationship with others was to be expressed through specific actions of not lying, stealing, oppressing, murdering, etc.  Priests and Levites spent much energy defining what constituted lying, stealing, oppressing, etc.  This is where Jesus goes beyond his contemporaries.  His teachings sometimes begin with “you've heard it said…but I say…”  He goes beyond physical action into motivation.  You cannot just not murder someone, but you cannot harbor hatred either.  You cannot just not steal, you cannot covet.  You shouldn't just give charitably, but do so without pretense.  Jesus’ love of neighbor goes beyond mere definitions of what is or is not permissible to do to others but rather gets into the “heart” of the matter by rooting every action in love. 
Jesus’ call of radical discipleship is most different because it is rooted in following him, rather than Torah alone.  He separates himself from Moses, the Levites, Priests, and subgroups like Pharisees/Sadducees/Essenes because he does not consider himself an expositor of the Law, a teacher of application, or part of the Temple system.  Instead he is the very presence of God, he is the fulfilment of the law (Matt. 5:17-20) and he alone is the source of his love ethic.  He is the kingdom come near. Through Jesus the chosenness of Israel is expanded to include all people. 

Where the law created isolation by removing people from community for purity issues, Jesus heals and restores into community.  Where the priestly temple system is big and cumbersome, Jesus is simpler.  Where the unclean have not access to the Temple, Jesus gives immediate access to himself.  Where the Qumran community requires a three year process for acceptance, Jesus calls out sinners to be in his inner circle immediately.  Where the law is interpreted and fences built around laws to further define their meaning to follow God, Jesus instead is claiming to be the very core of what it means to follow God. 

These are some of the ways Jesus has a more radical summons to a more difficult discipleship.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Blog series introduction: 5 DMin Topics

I spent last week participating in my second Doctor of Ministry class at Northern Seminary. The emphasis of this D.Min is the Jewish Context of the New Testament and is taught by Dr. Scot McKnight. We spent each day looking at a specific topic that is important to the conversation of the local church in relationship to the scriptures.  We discussed: 
  1. Homosexuality and Sexuality in the first century
  2. Torah observance and ethics of Jesus
  3. Eschatology, Judgement and Hell
  4. Atonement
  5. Jesus and Judaism (was Jesus a Sadducee, Pharisee, or Essene)
I am going to use this space to write about each of the five topics we discussed in class over the course of the next couple weeks. So check back often the next couple weeks to see if a new post has been made on a topic you're interested in.

In the meantime here are a couple articles worth checking out:
  • Some of my friends lean towards universalism (we'll discuss this next week under atonement) because they don't like the idea of predestination that Calvinism favors. But what if in reality universalism is a form of Calvinistic predestination? Roger Olson shares why this is the case in "Universalism is in the air.."
  • Aaron Rogers doesn't think God cares that much about football scores. I think most Seahawks fans think God might.