Saturday, September 10, 2011

The former things have passed away.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, who by God's power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. - 1 Peter 1.3-5

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. - Philippians 3.20-21

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” - Revelation 21.4

Last night I was driving in the car and listening to a Christian radio station. The DJ came on talking about all the things people have lost in recent floods and hurricane damage. She talked about how the losses hurt - some people losing irreplaceable pictures, heirlooms, and their homes. Then she went on to remind her listeners that these things were "just stuff" and wanted to remind us of what would truly last. According to her, our memories that we had built would last, providing lasting comfort in the face of our suffering of loss.

Here's what I wish she would have said:
All the painful loss we suffer in this life should point us to what truly lasts - God's promise of eternal life with him free of pain, loss, disease, and sadness because we are in his loving, powerful, holy presence! We absolutely should mourn the losses we experience, and that mourning should only be both eased an deepened by the reality of the glorious eternity kept secure from all harm in heaven for us. Our mourning can be eased because we know we have a great promise that will, in the end, prove true and more glorious than we can imagine. But our mourning should also be deepened by our longing to see this world give way at last to the fulfillment of all God promises to his people.

Father, help me and all your people to be comforted not by the comfort we bring ourselves, but by the comfort you give and the promises secured by Jesus' finished and complete work on Earth!

If the only comfort we offer ourselves and others when we suffer loss in this life is comfort in this life, we're missing the whole point of the Christian's citizenship in heaven

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A soft answer turns away wrath

Proverbs 15.1 says,
A soft answer turns away wrath,
but a harsh word stirs up anger.

And then I remember Acts, in which the apostles often seem to be intentionally aggravating the religious leadership, telling them, as Steven did before he was dragged outside the city and killed, "Which of the prophets did your fathers not persecute? And they killed those who announced beforehand the coming of the Righteous One, whom you have now betrayed and murdered." (Acts 7.52)

Didn't they read Proverbs? These guys are not softening their message one bit, and seem to be seeking out harsh words to say to the political leaders. They are getting beaten and killed as a result! The next verse in Proverbs may hold the key:
The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,
but the mouths of fools pour out folly.

As Paul would later write in his letter to Corinth (I Corinthians 1, 2), the ultimate revelation of the wisdom of God is the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, because in it God's depth of power, justice, mercy and love are all on display! So the apostles had to speak plainly the wisdom of God, or else foolishly soften it to make it palatable for the religious leaders.

I need to be more willing to tell the story about Jesus' death and resurrection plainly. It can be too easily misunderstood if softened, especially in the atmosphere of undefined spirituality today. Jesus makes clear that some will hate his plain message, but no one has a chance to love it or hate it unless they understand it.

God, help me to speak plainly of your wisdom displayed in the cross of Jesus Christ, and leave others' perceptions and reactions to you.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Rehabilitation and the Gospel

Ephesians 2.1-9 (ESV)
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurableriches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.

This is the kind of passage that echoes in my mind when I hear stories like the Supreme Court taking up the issue of life without parole for minors. The argument is that young people are less culpable for their crimes and so should not face a lifetime in prison because of crimes they committed while young (especially if no one was killed). Their crimes are terrible. What role can and should the courts and prisons play in changing these young mens' lives and in protecting the rest of society? (Here's the link to an article about this case.)

The question also comes up when I hear other news stories about the death penalty or adults being committed to life without parole. Then I hear about sex offenders who, because of "no-go" zones around schools, etc. live in a shantytown under a Miami Bridge. Where is the line at which we get to decide who is beyond the capacity for real change? How should we treat people who have committed what we call "unthinkable" crimes?

Paul's letter to the Ephesians, among many other Bible passages, make it quite clear that apart from God's grace, there is nothing to keep me from being worse than the most frightening of these criminals, impossible to restrain apart from putting me to death! Paul even uses this imagery when he says, "You were dead in your transgressions and sins." In my previous state, I might as well have been dead. Except that, by granting to me life, God preserved me for the day he would penetrate my pride with the Good News of his Son dying and rising from the dead to pay for my sins and bring me to close relationship with him.

So, I can never accept saying that any person (call him a criminal, monster, or worse) is beyond the possibility of changing into a Saint in the Biblical or common senses of the word. The miracle of God's re-creation in a new Christian's heart is no less amazing applied to me than to any one else.

Do I think, then, that rehabilitation should be the primary goal of the prison system? I'd love to say so. What brings about real change? Is it a good prison administrator who, through careful programming and humane treatment, softens a hardened criminal's heart so he sees the error of his ways and tearfully commits to a new way of life?

God is the one who is "rich in mercy" and who also has the ability to make us alive, to raise us up, to save us through faith that is even a gift itself. Of the many actions described in this passage, all the actions making us "bad" our ours. But the actions making us "good" are God's! Nowhere in the Bible does one person just decide to start acting better, nor does anyone influence another person to change his life through inspirational acts of kindness. Rather, it is God who takes us who are so dead as to be like dry bones and makes us come alive! (Ezekiel 37.1-14)

So where does that leave our prison system? Are we capable of the "rehabilitation" that is often the stated goal of the correctional system? Or can we only hope for using imprisonment punitively, as a deterrent to former or potential criminals? The answer is critical, because it determines what we think should be done about teens being locked away forever, homeless sex offenders, and the death penalty. And there's no clear answer from Scripture, that I can see, though various passages can be selected out to defend either position.

It seems what is clear is that Christians need to pay more attention to prisons and prisoners. We celebrate that Jesus has released us from the prison of our sins by paying the legally demanded penalty for our sins on the cross. The reality of our sin and God's pardoning work for us should surely humble us. There is no room for proud fear of prisons and prisoners in light of where we came from. But it also seems to me that helping prisoners as Jesus says is right (Matthew 25.31-46) is harder for us than helping the widows and orphans.

Most importantly, how can those in prison be changed truly, beyond a superficial "rehabilitation," unless someone preaches the Good News of God's saving and transforming grace to them? (Romans 10.14) This is an area of ministry it seems the church is weak in today. I know it's a category I shrink from. I must be changed!

God, kill the pride and fear that keep me from helping those who need to be helped. Your people are to show your love that did not allow our sins to remain as a barrier between us and you, but sacrificed your only Son, Jesus, to bring us into your household. Turn me from conforming to the world in what it considers scary and off limits, and transform me to show your love without fear.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Future That Changes Everything

Romans 8.35, 37 (ESV)
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? ... No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

What could possibly cause someone to make a statement like that? We Christians love this passage for its (to us, at least) hyperbolic dismissal of the problems we face.

But try reading the first part of chapter 8. Four times during the chapter, the writer (Paul) builds his argument to point at Heaven. God, knowing how hard the human heart and mind are, inspired Paul to build a series of ramps. As I read, my attention is turned from Earthly, present realities to the Heavenly, eternal realities that reinterpret them. First, coming from a very human lament about sin in chapter 7, the relief of verse 11 is surprising.

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

But the life promised didn't get my gaze fixed on Heaven just yet, so God began again.
From direction to live "by the Spirit," which I embrace but don't fully understand, my eyes are again pointed upward.

We are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.

Now I'm starting to get the picture. I'm easily directed Heavenward again when I read, we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. And I read that when I pray, God's Spirit is helping me. Not only that, but God makes sure that all things are working together for my good! But, rather than let me think that his help is only for the life I see around me, God places one last step at the end of the progression of what he's done for me.

...and those whom he justified he also glorified.

Glorified! the word calls to mind the account of the transfiguration, when Jesus' closest disciples got a glimpse of Heavenly bodies. But to eternally live this way, in intimate fellowship with the God who chose me, gave his life to save me, and now preserves and prepares me for that day.

What then shall we say to these things?

When taken together, even this short section of the Bible gives me such a view of my barely visible but glorious eternal future that the best and worst I can imagine for today or tomorrow is just a silhouette against the incomparable light.

God, keep me focused on the eternal reward you have prepared for the people you chose, called, and made your own. Don't let me be blinded by the trouble and seduction of the world my eyes can see, but let my view of eternity with you change the way I perceive the world.

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Humility and Racism

Romans 3.27 (ESV)
Then what becomes of our boasting? It is excluded. By what kind of law? By a law of works? No, but by the law of faith.

As part of the requirements to maintain my teaching certification, I am taking a course called "Ethnic Groups in American Society." One of the most heartbreaking things about the class is realizing that it is built on the premise that learning about one another will do away with racism and exclusion of the "other." Instead, it is the Gosepel itself that most decisively destroys the insidious pride that drives humans to exclude and oppress one another. Here's how I expressed it in a reflection on a reading for the class:

People are proud (in the sense of self-promotion) and fearful that others will cause them harm. Our pride and fear will always lead us to form alliances with some people, rejecting the rest. It is especially sad for me to see how often in this country it's been Christians (from certain parts of Europe) who have positioned themselves as the “best.” That kind of boasting in genetic heritage (or anything else) is attacked in so many places throughout the Bible. It starts in Genesis 1 when all people were created in God's image and continues in Genesis 3 when all people are shown to be sinful and imperfect. The point is driven home in the Gospel, in which all people, equally unable to save themselves, have equal access to God through Jesus' death and resurrection. Does this mean that I believe Christianity is true and other religions are false? Well, yes. Otherwise, I wouldn't be able to say I really believed it was true. But does it make me or other Christians better than people of other beliefs? Never. I want to apply the principle in 1 Peter 5.5-6, “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God…” When I see the extreme humility of my position compared to God, there is no longer any reason for me to think I am better than anyone else.

God's complete destruction of my pride that would set me above any other person is built in stages:

All people are alike in dignity as God's image-bearers.
Genesis 1.27 "So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."

All people fail to keep God's standards and are deserving of God's righteous and severe judgement.
Genesis 6.5 "The LORD saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."
Romans 3.10-12 "as it is written: 'None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.' "
Ephesians 2.1-3 "And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience— among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. "

All people have equal access to an amazing escape from God's judgement on our sin through Jesus!
Romans 3.22-25 "For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith."
Ephesians 2.4-9 "But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast."

So what does all this mean day to day for me? It means that I am of no higher value than any other human being who I meet or don't meet. My genetic and cultural heritage gives me no better standing than anyone else, since the common heritage of God's image and condemned sinfulness overrides all differences. My faith in Jesus Christ gives me no more personal value than others because my faith requires the work of God to initiate and maintain. Similarly, the righteousness I strive for in my living makes me no better than anyone else, because without the supernatural work of God I could do nothing good!

God, thank you for the humility you give to me after destroying my pride. Help me to never look down on others who bear your image as having less worth or even being beyond your reach. All the good we do is from you, and all the evil we do is shared with all of humanity. Make me always humble under your mighty hand!

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Purpose and Progress

Genesis 1.1-4 (ESV)
In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light. And God saw that the light was good.

Pastor Henry G. Brinton, as quoted by Al Mohler on his blog, "sees no contradiction in accepting that humans are the product of evolution and believing that God decided evolution would be the method by which humans would be created." This sounds perfectly reasonable in many ways, and is a common way that Christians (including me) have reconciled the creation story of Genesis and evolutionary theory. Dr. Mohler brings up a very important point, though. He writes, "the mainstream doctrine of evolution denies that evolution can have any fixed goal at all. Nothing had to happen... We can eliminate the conflict between evolution and Christianity if we redefine God to be something far less than the Creator he reveals himself to be in Genesis."

Many Christians (again, including myself) have said that the Bible reveals why all things were created, and that science has discovered that evolution is how this was accomplished. But the issue of purpose that Dr. Mohler brings up points at a problem with that dichotomy. Is the universe a blind assortment of collisions whose "purpose" only appears when certain patterns of collisions become imperfectly self-perpetuating? The point is that if we say that naturalistic evolution explains the "how" of our existence, is there any point in looking to any religion for a "why"? Naturalistic evolution tells us that we are here by random chance or, worse, by an exceptionally complex but unyielding mechanical process. Scientific observation, models, theories, and predictions can be very useful and are a way that God has enabled us to "fill the earth and subdue it," (Genesis 1.28) making it a better place to live in many ways. But how can we speak of any purpose, any right or wrong, if we are just lucky to be here in the form we are in? There is a conflict between two "truths," so one of them must not be true.

G.K Chesterton speaks of the necessity of a fixed ideal or goal to guide progress in the chapter "The Eternal Revolution" in Orthodoxy. He says that naturally evolving systems have no goal in mind, but only immediate perpetuation or aimless drift in current conditions. (Keep reading in Genesis to find out about the perfection Chesterton speaks of Adam seeing.)

"At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam. No unchanging custom, no changing evolution can make the original good any thing but good. Man may have had concubines as long as cows have had horns: still they are not a part of him if they are sinful. Men may have been under oppression ever since fish were under water;still they ought not to be, if oppression is sinful. The chain may seem as natural to the slave, or the paint to the harlot, as does the plume to the bird or the burrow to the fox; still they are not, if they are sinful."

How can we "strike a blow," how can we take a stand that something must change because it is wrong, if our only measure of right and wrong is the consensus of most people this moment? Even worse is the view that some people are somehow more "ethically advanced" and that their ethics should guide the rest of us. How do you evaluate advancement if there is no standard for comparison? And if there is a standard, why would I want to conform to a more or less advanced example of the standard when I should strive to bring myself to the ideal standard itself?

I have no grand summary statement about evolution as a result of this thinking. All I know for sure is that ultimately, nature (God's general revelation about himself, as described in Romans 1.19-20) and the Bible (God's specific and progressive revelation about himself through history) must agree. If one thing is clear in the Bible, it is that God has a purpose for this universe he created. We are here to show how great, loving, powerful, holy, forgiving, etc., he is. We are here to respond to God because of who he is. Clearly random chance is eliminated as a method of our creation, but so is mechanical predetermination, because no response would then be genuine but only preprogrammed. How will this truth be ultimately shown by science in its study of nature? I don't know. There have been attempts recently, but there is more study to be done before the two can be fully reconciled.

God, open the eyes of the human race to see how nature points us to your eternal power and divine nature. Please don't let us be distracted by our study of your vast creation to think that the physical world is the ultimate reality. Thank you that as vast as the universe is, your love and holiness are so amazing that an eternity will be required to explore them. Thank you, Jesus, for taking the form of a finite man to usher me in to your loving purpose for me!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Good to be judged?

Luke 22.67-69 (ESV)
"If you are the Christ, tell us." But he said to them, "If I tell you, you will not believe, and if I ask you, you will not answer. But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God."

Psalm 110.1 (ESV)
The LORD says to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool."

This Sunday, my senior pastor taught from the story of Jesus' trial and condemnation to death from the Gospel of Luke (spanning parts of chapters 22 and 23). It is heavy material, as we consider how the guiltless perfect God-man approached his death which was to pay the penalty for our individual and corporate wrongdoing. The joy of the Gospel, even in this somber remembrance, is that I am now able to enjoy restored relationship with God because of Jesus' perfect obedience.

But that happy ending was not on display in the passage we read Sunday. Instead, I saw again the ways in which Jesus was unjustly judged. As the rulers of the people questioned and judged Jesus, his response was simply, "from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God." He called their attention to the words of Psalm 110, in which the Lord executes judgement on the whole world for failing in innumerable ways to live up to his holy standard. Jesus had asserted that he would be the one with final judgement of them, not the other way around. His assertion did not quell their anger, however. It only fueled their determination to see him dead.

The concluding remarks of the message so impacted me that I have listened to them many times (via my church's sermon blog) since then.

Was there any justice in Jerusalem the day Christ was tried? Was there any justice? Is there any justice in America, where wealth can acquit and the color of your skin can condemn? Is there any justice? This chapter reveals a horrific corruption of justice. The most serious. For the innocent one, the Son of God, Christ, God's King was not convicted but sent to death; declared innocent yet given the worst possible execution. Sometimes human courts work. Never perfectly. We need Christ. We need the King. We should be saying, "Jesus, come. Come, Lord Jesus. Come to us. Come bring your judgements."

Up until this point, I thought I was right with him. We do not have perfect justice on the earth, but Jesus can bring it. I was enthusiastic to see the innocent go free and to see those evildoers get what they deserve. But his next statement stopped my vague self-righteous reverie...

See, we need his judgements. Because when he tries you, he finds out what's right and true. He sees it all. He never gets the evidence wrong. He establishes a perfect law. He it applies it flawlessly. And so, we need to submit to this judge.

Wait! No! I want Jesus to come and release me, not judge me! I want him to bring low those I see as haughty so that I, his humble disciple, can live joyously with him! The last question he asked only made me squirm more...

Do you put Jesus on trial? Do you judge him? ... Or do you let him judge you and out of worship submit to him as the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords?

Again, my heart dropped. Do I invite God, the perfect holy one, to judge me? Do I look stupid to you? But he is right to call us to let Jesus judge us.

I do wrong and I sin in small and large ways. There are sins in my past of which I am and in some ways should be ashamed. I cannot expect to enjoy God's good gifts while I carry and continue to sin that earns his wrath. But I and my sins have already been judged and punished, and I must continue to invite Christ's judgement on me. Jesus Christ was deemed innocent by human courts and by God the Father, but he accepted the humanly incomprehensible sentence for my guilt. Only when I accept what God says about my sin in the Bible (that all my wrongdoing, even the most "trivial" rebellion against his desire for me, adds up to a mountain of evidence demanding my condemnation to eternal punishment) can I also receive the good things he promises to those who live rightly.

So, I pray that God will give me the courage to invite his judgement of me, so that I will be able to stand with joy that only increases the more I see how much of me he has judged and how much wrath Jesus prepared to take from me as he dragged himself up the hill where his cross stood waiting.