Monday, May 30, 2016
Sunday, May 29, 2016
The Waters of Baptism
In the past two years my church has baptized seven children. In each case, before the Sunday they were to be baptized, I tried to impress upon them two important points to remember about the act. First, when they offer themselves to be baptized, they are making a commitment: They are saying, “I want to walk through my life as a Christian.” People will expect their behavior to change. Somehow they should be different from what they were before, and different from other children—not that anyone will expect them to be perfect, but, as Paul says often, they should be a “new creature” in Christ Jesus.
Second, they should not expect anything magic to happen when they come up out of the water. It may. They may feel like a new creature, with new attitudes, new behaviors, new ways of looking at life. But they may not. There’s no way of predicting how someone will react. If they feel new—great! We must help them build on that newness to make a permanent change. If they don’t feel changed, we have to help them understand that they are at least partly responsible for making themselves new creatures. God expects each of us to do our part in walking the Christian journey.
Martha Grace Reese says the first group of people we should evangelize is our youth. If we lose them, if they don’t see the value of being Christians, we’ve lost the generation that will carry the church forward. I’ve seen churches like that, churches that are dying because a generation was lost. It’s always sad, but once the process has begun, it’s difficult—if not impossible—to stop it.
Sooner or later, however, we have to look outwards. Even if we baptize every young person in our churches we’ll at best only maintain the status quo. We won’t grow. More importantly, we won’t fulfill the Great Commission Jesus gave his followers before his ascension. “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations,” Jesus says (Matthew 28:19-20), “baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
This is a commandment we cannot escape. There is no equivocating here. If we call ourselves Christians we must spread the gospel and bring people to the knowledge of Jesus Christ, eventually helping them reach the point where they will want to be baptized—to become new creatures in Christ Jesus.
We might not want to use John the Baptist’s approach, however. It has been my experience that if you begin your sales pitch for any product by insulting your listeners they won’t stay around very long. John had a rather different audience than we have today, one that, to a great extent, knew they had gone wrong and needed correction.
Today we need to remember that many out there have either not heard the gospel, or have heard a version so distorted that no thinking person would want to adopt it. Instead we must remember that actions speak louder than words. If we live the gospel more people will be willing to listen to the gospel.
Like the young people I counsel before baptism, adult Christians must remember that only as we demonstrate by our actions that we are new creatures in Christ Jesus will we be able to get people to listen to the message that has made a difference in our lives.
Have you felt the difference Jesus Christ can make in your life? If so, how are you living out that difference?
Sunday, May 22, 2016
The Devil Made Me Do It
In the 1970’s one of the hottest stars on television was Flip Wilson. Originally a stand-up comic, Wilson developed characters and routines that resonated with people. In 1972, Time magazine called Wilson “TV’s first black superstar,” in an issue that featured him on the cover.
One of his most endearing characters was a sassy young black woman named Geraldine. She spoke often of her boyfriend, “Killer,” and was fond of saying, when caught doing something she shouldn’t, “The devil made me do it!” It was a good routine, and a good line, one you would think should get anyone off the hook in a pinch. After all, Satan is a powerful persona. Shouldn’t we be able to claim satanic influence when we go astray? Was Flip Wilson/Geraldine on to something?
Unfortunately, no! It’s not a good defense, either in a court of law or in God’s court. The devil may be powerful, but we must understand where his power comes from.
Everything was going along fine in the Garden of Eden. God had created the perfect setting for two people. There were beautiful flowers. There were peaceful animals to watch as they played. Everything had been thought of for the comfort and pleasure of Adam and Eve. What could go wrong?
According to John Milton (Paradise Lost), Satan was still smarting from his demotion. Until he led an angelic rebellion against the Almighty (sounds like a fool’s errand, doesn’t it?) he had been Lucifer, chief of all angels. Now he languished in hell, surrounded by those who had rebelled with him, living in the gloom of the netherworld cut off from God’s presence, and changed from the angel of light to the prince of darkness. With the creation of the cosmos and humanity Satan saw his chance to get even.
God had given one instruction to the first couple: Do not eat the fruit of the tree in the center of the garden. Catching Eve unawares one day, Satan played on her ego, convincing her that, rather than death, the fruit would bring wisdom. He didn’t make her eat the fruit. He couldn’t force it down her throat. He could only suggest the possibility that the consequence of eating that fruit would not be negative, but positive. She made the decision to pluck the fruit and take a bite.
This is Satan’s power: the power of suggestion. That’s the only weapon he has, and he wields it well. No one makes suggestions that sound as convincing as the ones he makes. He’s a master. But Satan can’t make us do anything!
In his first epistle, Peter (5:8) tells his readers: “Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” Sounds pretty terrible—but Satan can’t devour anyone without that person’s permission. If we spend time in lion country we’re likely to get eaten. Of course, Satan is a lion impossible to stay away from. He doesn’t stay in his territory; he’s constantly invading ours. Still, he has no power over us except that which we give him.
Had Eve remembered God’s command rather than yielding to her ego, humanity might still be living in paradise; but it wasn’t to be. We have a chance to rectify the situation, and perhaps to move a little closer to paradise in our own lives. When temptation comes, first remember that God’s power outstrips Satan’s power—always and all ways! God can give us the strength to resist temptation. All we have to do is:
Step 1—remember the devil can’t make us do it.
Step 2—rely on God’s strength to resist and not our own.
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Don’t Do the Math!
As I write this, it is the closing hours of Trinity Sunday, the Sunday after Pentecost. Trinity Sunday is celebrated by those churches that follow the liturgical calendar of the Christian year. It is the Sunday set aside for remembering the Trinity and what it means for the Christian church.
The question many of us ask is, “How do you explain, and how do you understand the Trinity?” It is important to remember that the Trinity is an attempt to explain the unexplainable. The Trinity is a doctrine of the Christian Church—that is, it is one of the tenets of our faith on which the church stands. In fact, Philip W. Butin, in his book The Trinity (Geneva Press, 2001), states that it is the tenet on which our faith stands or falls.
The Trinity is a theoretical model intended to help Christians understand several expressions in the Bible.
There is only one God.
Each of the three divine persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) is recognized to be God.
God’s self-revelation recognizes distinctions among the three.
There are interactions among them
All are eternally present in the Godhead.
Having said that, are we any closer to understanding the Trinity? Probably not, and John helps us understand why. Chapters 14-17 of the Gospel of John are Jesus’ farewell address to His disciples at the Last Supper. In the 16th chapter, verse 12, Jesus says, “I still have many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now.” In other words he is saying, “I’ve told you all you can handle for now.” It reminds me of one of my favorite Far Side cartoons. There is a class full of students, and one boy says to the teacher, “Mr. Jones, may I be excused? My brain is full.”
The spiritual immaturity of the disciples prevented Jesus from saying more. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus faced this problem. We often sense his frustration and share it, wondering how the disciples could be so stupid. What we fail to realize is that spiritual immaturity is our problem, too. It will always be humankind’s problem, because it is so easy for our brains to be full.
We’re still left with the problem of understanding how the Trinity works. How can three persons be one entity? The simple answer is, don’t do the math! This is a distraction from the real question.
To understand the Trinity, or anything about God, we need metaphors. One metaphor that may help us understand the Trinity is the dance. We have all seen Snoopy in the Peanuts comic strip dancing with unrestrained joy. I suspect that many of us wish we could share his freedom to “dance as if no one was looking.”
The dance I’m talking about is not for one person, and not for a couple, but for a larger group. Henri Matisse, the French artist painted a picture of five dancers moving in a circle while holding hands. The figures are nude—and that’s important, because it signifies the complete freedom and complete openness of the dancers to each other and to the dance.
Square dancing comes close to the kind of dancing I’m talking about, but it’s not exactly right because there is a caller. The kind of dance I mean is closer to what we see in movies about life in the 17th and 18th Centuries, where the dancers perform intricate patterns. These dances are executed without commands because everyone knows the steps.
One of the words that theologians use frequently to describe the relationship within the Trinity is perichoresis. It’s a Greek word. It’s also a compound word. The first part, peri, means “around” (think perimeter). The second part, choreia gives us our word “choreography.” Perichoresis, therefore, means “to dance around.”
This is the way God dances: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in complete freedom, complete understanding, with unrestrained joy, knowing the patterns and steps so well that they need no commands. They understand the dance perfectly because they made up the steps.
The wonderful part about this is that we are called to be part of this dance. This is, in part, I believe, what Paul means when he says we are “heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17). We dance clumsily, of course, because we don’t understand the steps; but that’s all right with God, just as long as we dance.
Sunday, May 15, 2016
On the Cutting Edge
The quote I remember most clearly from my church history professor is, “The seed of the church is the blood of the martyrs.” The church tends to grow stronger when it’s under pressure. When its members are co-opted by society they grow fat, comfortable, and lazy. I think even those who are fighting in defense of a false version of Christianity understand this principle. This is why they keep setting up straw opponents and see devils at work in cultural changes that are making society more human—and therefore more Christian. If they can feel like martyrs they can pretend they are on the cutting edge of Christianity when they are really fighting backwater battles in a war that has moved ahead of them.
Ralph Bukiewicz must have had this principle in mind when he said: “If you are not facing risk, could it be that you are not close enough to where God wants you to be? Because where God is, there is always risk.”
That’s a different take on Christianity! We sing about being “happy in Jesus.” We pray for the “peace that passes all understanding.” We talk about being “at rest in God.” We’d rather avoid the risk of being on the front lines. After all, that’s where people get hurt. When we begin our spiritual journey I don’t think many of us consider the dangerous aspects of the road. This is especially true in our society, where to be a Christian is to be a part of the majority. No matter how vocal our opponents may be, we know there are fewer of them than there are of us. The physical perils associated with being a Christian are for other times and other places. No need to worry about that kind of danger.
When we read the words of today’s Scripture passage the first thing we notice is that it’s about physical danger. According to the writer of Hebrews, many conquer in the name of God, but many are tortured, beaten, imprisoned, stoned, sawn in two, killed with the sword. Those things don’t happen in our society.
But there are other punishments, and there are other forms of torture than to the body. Some of them can be even more devastating than physical abuse. What other types of risk might a Christian have to endure on the cutting edge?
There is the risk of ostracism. Sometimes that ostracism comes from other Christians. If you live where God wants you to live, those culturally comfortable Christians aren’t going to like it. You’ll make them look bad because they aren’t as committed as you. The worst part is that it might not be you that suffers. When people become vindictive they often take their anger out on our family members because they know they can hurt us more that way.
There is the risk of retaliation. When Christians stand up to the powers that rule this world they unleash the dark forces behind those powers. Businesses can respond by making your life financially difficult. Government agencies can target you for retribution. Employers can not only terminate you but make it difficult for you to find future employment. Again, the targets may be not just you but those you love.
There is the risk of religious reprisal. If the powers you stand against involve a church, be prepared for some of the worst possible abuse. No one can be quite as ugly as religious people when challenged. Look at Martin Luther. Look at Paul. Look at Jesus.
But Bukiewicz is right. To be where God is means to encounter risk. To be where God is means to serve the disenfranchised, the dispossessed, the “least of these.” God risked God’s Son for our salvation. Can we avoid risk and still call ourselves Christians?
Sunday, May 8, 2016
If we are faithfully walking the Christian way, what we believe today will be different from what we believe a year—or five, or ten years—from now. I don’t mean the basics will change. My church’s confession of faith states: “I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, and I accept him as my Lord and Savior.” That has been the essence of Christian belief from the beginning, and must continue to be.
What should change is our understanding of the application of that belief. As our experience and knowledge of Jesus Christ grows, we will understand more deeply how we should apply his teachings to our lives. Part of this change will happen through prayer. Conversation with God brings us into ever closer contact with God, and helps us understand God’s will more completely. As someone far wiser than I has said, prayer doesn’t change God, prayer changes us.
Part of the change will come from scripture. The more broadly we read in God’s Word, the more completely we will understand the fullness of God’s interaction with humankind. The more deeply we read (that is, the more often we study the same passages) the more insights we will have into the meaning of God’s Word in our lives.
It’s that depth of understanding that is on my mind today. Many years ago my aunt encouraged me to begin journaling. I will always be grateful for her guidance in this matter. Because of her influence I make it a daily habit to read a portion of scripture and record my thoughts about what I read. I admit that many times my thinking goes far afield. I find that some of my most interesting and rewarding learning happens when I’m off on a tangent. Rabbit holes, as Alice discovered, make excellent educational environments.
For the past few weeks I’ve been re-reading Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Every time I return to his letters I find it takes longer to get through them than before. I think this is good.
A few days ago I began looking at today’s reading. I usually find myself concentrating on the second half of the passage, the part where Paul encourages his readers to “Have this mind among yourselves, which is also in Christ Jesus.” He goes on to describe how Jesus Christ put aside his heavenly privileges to die on the cross, and was then exalted by God and given the “name above all other names.” I’m sure you know these verses as well as I do.
I always treated the first half of this passage as sort of an introduction to the main idea, a way to get the reader’s attention before Paul launched into the more important thought he wanted to communicate. This time it was the early verses that intrigued me.
In the first five verses he uses the word mind three times. The word love appears twice. While the word humility appears only once, careful inspection makes it clear that humility is the point Paul wants to get across. He makes it clear that we are to be humble, but not merely for humility’s sake. We are to be humble as a result of our love for each other and for God—and humility is a condition of the mind just as much as—if not more than—a condition of the heart.
And why are we to cultivate a spirit of humility? Because that’s what Jesus Christ did. He humbled himself by becoming human and submitting to the most ignominious death anyone at the time could imagine. And why did he do that? Out of love for humankind. God loved us so much that Jesus was sent to show us how to live, and to die to reconcile us to God.
I think Paul’s point is this: If Jesus Christ loved enough to humble himself that much, how can I do any less? Having the mind of Christ begins with me loving others enough to place their interests and well-being above my own. That’s the mind I must cultivate.
Sunday, May 1, 2016
Finding the Right Pastor
1 Timothy 4:6-16
Two quotes I read recently made me think about pastors and churches. Since I am a pastor I have more than a passing interest in the subject. I love my church—couldn’t love them more, although I expect that, over time my love for them will continue to grow, just as the love of a husband and wife continues to grow and deepen over the years. I’ve told my congregation that I’ve never been in a church that hugs more, or that had so many smart alecks in it—two of my most obvious characteristics.
The first quote has to do with the church’s obligation in finding the right pastor. “If a church needs a better pastor, it only needs to pray for the one it has.” (The source is unknown.)
The only thing I would change about this statement is to add the word “perhaps” before the word “it.” We all know there are some pastors who need to find another line of work. For whatever reason, they’re not suited for this calling. We also know that a church and a pastor may be traveling on parallel tracks. There’s nothing wrong with the pastor or the church, they’re just not a match made in heaven.
Putting aside these two possibilities, the statement has a lot of merit. Pastors need prayer as much—perhaps even more than—anyone else. If you’re not praying daily for your pastor, start now! She/he needs that support. Words of encouragement are wonderful—don’t neglect them! I know how good I feel when members of my congregation give me a verbal or physical pat on the back. Raises are nice—when the church can afford them. Don’t neglect the human side of the relationship, but the best thing you can do for your spiritual leader is pray!
The second quote is also anonymous. It appeared on a church bulletin board. It says: “No church can afford to be a ‘non-prophet’ organization.” (I also love puns.)
Among the worst things a pastor can do in the pulpit is tell church members what they want to hear. If the pastor isn’t challenging the congregation to greater faith, higher hope, deeper love, and more enthusiastic service he/she is failing to fulfill the prophetic aspect of ministry. The pastor is both prophet and priest. The priestly function is to represent the people before God—to be, if you will, an intermediary between the people and God. This is usually associated with liturgical acts of worship: the Lord’s Supper, the pastoral prayer for example. The pastor must also be a pastor—that is, be always shepherding the flock. The Lord is our Shepherd, but God needs human representatives—and people need the comfort of knowing they will be cared for. But the pastor cannot neglect his/her responsibility to be a prophet
Paul understood the need for pastors. He understood the need for pastors who were themselves in a committed relationship with God, a relationship that was constantly growing and deepening. His advice to Timothy is to train himself for godliness. If a pastor isn’t godly, how can she/he lead the church to godliness?
But training is only the beginning—although it must continue throughout the pastor’s life. Paul also tells Timothy to teach, to set an example, to read Scripture, and to exhort. “Practice these things, devote yourself to them, so that all may see your progress.”
He doesn’t stop there, but adds: “Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching [note the importance of teaching; Paul mentions it twice]. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.”
Pray for your pastor. Pray for your pastor to be a prophet. Pray for your pastor to be a teacher, a shepherd. Pray for your pastor while your pastor prays for you.