Friday, November 17, 2017

Power of One


A funeral is one of those times when you think about life and legacy. Today as Christ Church celebrates the life of one of its own, we take time to personally reflect: What story is my life telling? What story will my death tell? In seeking answers to these questions, my thoughts turn to Samson, a man whose death told the story of his life.

We meet young Samson in a variety of compromising positions. He is a man who follows his lusts. Like the Philippians his God is his belly (Phil 3:19), his appetites lead him. (cf. Jdgs 13-15 ) These appetites ultimately lead him to deny his Nazarite vow (Jdg. 16). Granted, he has played fast and loose with this vow over the course of his life, dead bodies, alcohol … but in the cutting of his hair, he completely turns his back on his identity and the Spirit of God leaves him for a time. He is captured, blinded and bound. Truly Samson is a picture of Israel, blinded to grace and bound to sin. Truly Samson is a warning tale for each of us.

But one thing about Samson, he is a fighter! And Samson said, “Let me die with the Philistines.” Then he bowed with all his strength, and the house fell upon the lords and upon all the people who were in it. So the dead whom he killed at his death were more than those whom he had killed during his life. Judges 16:30

Throughout the story of the judges God has been working with less and less people. Finally the nation is down to one man who will fight even to the point of his death. While much of the story of Samson tells the story of Israel, here, in Samson’s death, the story is told of one true Israelite. Jesus Christ, is the one true Israelite, and like Samson, would not stop fighting even to his death. And like Samson, Jesus killed more in his death than by his life, and as the second Adam, accomplished the redemption of the human race.

I have been thinking about Samson because it illustrates the truth that our comfort is ultimately not in our own obedience, but rather the perseverance of God to hang on to us until the bitter end. Because of Christ’s victory, God will even use our weakness and lives filled with bad choices to bring glory to him. In the end Samson was left with these truths and it was enough; enough for him and enough to strike a blow for the Kingdom. My prayer is that these “reflecting moments” in life help us to see clearly the great hope of our salvation!

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Mark of a Christian

Reading through 1 John it is hard to overstate the importance of actively loving others. Again this week in chapter 4 John reiterates what we have called the “social test” of Gospel reality. Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God…. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. ...If anyone says, “I love God”, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. (1 John 4:7,11,12,20–21)

John learned from his master well. Jesus said in John 13:34, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Notice Jesus calls this a new command, not a new suggestion. So what do you think when you read this? Does your heart condemn you? As we discussed last week, of course our heart condemns us because we all fail. But, as we also noted, reception of the Gospel promises is not dependent on our obedience. The gospel does not equal moralism. But that does not mean our obedience is not crucial.

Many years ago theologian and apologist Francis Schaeffer (who incidentally was hugely instrumental for the early pioneers of Christ Church) called the tangible manifestations of love the “final apologetic” for a watching world. He goes on to state that while our failure to love others may not be a reason for us to doubt our salvation, it is legitimate for a watching world to doubt our Christianity. Here are his words:

Jesus is not here saying that our failure to love all Christians proves that we are not Christians. What Jesus is saying, however, is that, if I do not have the love I should have toward all other Christians, the world has the right to make the judgment that I am not a Christian. This distinction is a vital one. If we fail in our love toward all Christians, we must not tear our heart out as though it were proof that we are lost. No one except Christ Himself has ever lived and not failed. If success in love toward our brothers in Christ were to be the standard of whether or not a man is a Christian, then there would be no Christians, because all men have failed. But Jesus gives the world a piece of litmus paper, a reasonable thermometer. There is a mark which, if the world does not see, allows them to conclude, “This person is not a Christian.” (Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of a Christian)

Praise God for his Spirit that abides in us and is the power source for such love. May it shine forth in our midst - that the world may know!

Friday, November 3, 2017

The Journey Is Not Always Easy

Now Paul and his companions set sail from Paphos and came to Perga in Pamphylia. And John left them and returned to Jerusalem. Acts 13:13 

Now Barnabas wanted to take with them John called Mark. But Paul thought best not to take with them one who had withdrawn from them in Pamphylia and had not gone with them to the work. Acts 15:37-38

I have often wondered about the curious case of John called Mark. Tradition has it that this is the same guy who fled naked from the garden of Gethsemane during Jesus’ arrest. It was quite possible that his family owned the home with the upper room that Jesus and his disciples borrowed. Later tradition has him spending time with Peter from whom he got most of his material for writing what would be his Gospel. But in Acts 13, he is accompanying Paul and Barnabas on their first foray in “pure” gentile territory.

It is not clear why Paul and Barnabas brought him along, 13:5 says he was there “to assist” them. Exactly what the nature of that assistance was we don’t know. Some have suggested he was brought along to add credibility to the message that they were preaching, as Mark was an actual eyewitness of the events. In any case he is there … and in any case he leaves them.

Yes, you heard me correct, he left; right in the middle of the journey, just as things were starting to get interesting. No one knows exactly why he left. The text doesn’t say specifically, though we are told in Acts 15 that Paul wasn’t happy about it. Some have suggested he was unhappy with Paul seemingly taking the lead in the mission as language here shifts from Barnabas and Saul (v. 2) to Paul and his companions (v.13). Others have suggested that he wasn’t too keen on crossing the Taurus mountain range that needed to be crossed to get from Perga to Antioch and was reputedly infested with brigands. Still others have suggested he, as a member of the conservative Jewish church at Jerusalem, wasn’t wild about the Roman Proconsul, Sergius Paulus, being welcomed into the family of God on their last stop. Some have even suggested that perhaps it was Mark who stirred things up for Paul on his return to Jerusalem (ch. 15). It could be one of these; it could be something completely other. We simply don’t know. Whatever it was though, it was so overwhelming that continuing on the mission of God did not seem possible to Mark.

I highlight this because I suspect that most of us, at some point or another, are much like Mark. Specifically in that going forward does not always seem possible, especially as we come to challenges. And the truth is we do face challenges, both in our everyday lives, as well as in the church. This past Wednesday we prayed about church planting and the challenges that we face there. It can be work to keep pushing through, both for those planting and for those praying. We also prayed about the changes that come with growth. We have been welcoming new and different people into our family. This takes work. Old familiar patterns need to be adapted to incorporate new people. There are challenges before us as we look to establish new outposts of ministry. Can we cross the mountains necessary to get established in North GR? Sometimes I feel a little bit like Mark, ready to step off the boat and head back to Jerusalem.

So where do we go from here? First, if you are feeling this way, relax, you are in good company. When I talk to folks it can seem like these “want to quit” feelings have surprised them in such a way that the only thing they can do is submit to them. Let me say again, relax, it is normal to feel this way. The worst thing that you could do is to do something rash that you may regret later. Remember, later on Mark asked to be reinstated as a member of the team (ch. 15). It didn’t go exactly smoothly. There were consequences to his actions.

Second, if you do take yourself out of the game for a time, get back in! Again, we are not told exactly all that transpired, but Mark did ask to be reinstated. It seems that whatever changes or challenges caused him to pull out originally receded as he thought about the overall adventure that God invited him to be a part of. And so he was ready to go back to Cyprus, go to Antioch, Lystra, and Derbe.

Third, in the end Mark enjoys full restoration. As I said earlier, this is the same guy who witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection and wrote the Gospel. Now he reconciles with Paul, who at the end of his life in 2 Timothy 4 says, “bring Mark because he is useful to me”. Friends this is the gospel at work; restoring broken things. God’s Spirit reinvigorating people who step back because the work is hard. This is good news for people with damaged relationships. And for all of us a great reminder that God meets us in our weakness and uses us for his glory. In the end this is why I love the Scriptures, because even as they expose my own faltering weaknesses, they show God’s restoring grace even more clearly.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Bearing Burdens. Sharing Burdens

During our recent Burden Bearing adult institute class it was noted that fixing a problem is not always possible. Sometimes the best that we can do is sit with our friends in the middle of their challenge. As we sit, we identify with them in the difficulties of the moment, and to use scriptural language “weep with those who weep” (Rm. 12:15). This Sunday evening we have our Service of Lament, a service that we have invited the community to join us in through distribution of a mailer. It is a service that has touched deeply the lives of some in our Christ Church community over the last couple of years. In keeping with the idea of weeping with those who weep, it occurred to me that maybe a way to bear one another burdens is to share our own.

During the service we will have three distinct prayer times. A time when we will lament the brokenness of the world; wars, hate, refugees, mass killings, terrorist bombings, corporate greed, environmental disregard, etc… A second movement will lament the brokenness in our personal relationships; divorce, wandering children, work relationships, cancer, death of a loved one, etc… A third prayer time will lament our own personal struggles; doubt, frustration w/ life, anger, sadness, depression, etc… Each of these is an opportunity to join with the Savior who wept over the world (Lk. 19:41), wept over a lost friend (Jn. 11:35), and cried out in his own dereliction (Mt. 22:46). We realize that there is an element of vulnerability here, but we trust that as together we open these wounds to the balm of the Gospel and the care of the community, there is healing to be found or at least begun.

Our prayer is that this service would be a time of hope in the darkness for those feeling the weight of brokenness. There are certainly burdens to be bourn, sometimes they need to be surfaced. Will you join us in prayers for this evening?

Friday, October 20, 2017

Foundational

This week, as I navigated the days and came to the point of writing, so many things are swirling in my head. For instance, I am always thinking about our broken political landscape and the polarization of our country along with the struggle of churches (Christ Church included) to respond well. I was thinking of the #metoo campaign and the pain many of my sisters in Christ who have experienced degradation at the hands of men. I was thinking of the racial issues that smolder in our country and in our churches. I was thinking about shootings in Las Vegas that are sensationalized, but quickly forgotten. I was thinking about bombings in Mogadishu that are equally deadly, but barely make a blip in our comfortable Western lives. As I think about these events (and many others) maybe my most honest response is with the Psalmist “How long O Lord?” “Will you forget us forever?” (cf. Psalm 13).

The truth is I don’t know how to respond to (or comment on) each of these issues, at least not wholly. Yes, I can identify Scriptural principles and prisms to examine them by. I can pray, which is no small thing. I can turn off Netflix, discontinue Facebook, go out and love my neighbor, get involved in my community, listen, share, serve. But really, in order to do any of it well, I need a heart that is humbled in the truths of the Gospel.

Peter puts it this way, "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 so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you." (1 Peter 5:5-7) It is interesting how Peter groups anxiety with humility. Part of our struggle when we face the complexities of the world is the feeling that we need to have THE answer, when what God invites us to in the Gospel is to clothe ourselves with humility. What is humility? It is a posture that listens, walks alongside, doesn’t have all the answers (or feel the need to post them on social media), lies prone, prays. It is the belief that though I am more broken than I ever could have imagined, I am more loved in Christ than I ever could dare hope. It is the freedom to confesses shortcomings and wrongdoings, to believe the best about people, to forgive. Humility is not just one in a pantheon of virtues, but as Augustine once said, “If you plan to build a tall house of virtues, you must first lay deep foundations of humility.”

However, humility is not something we achieve by deciding to be humble. Humility is achieved by looking at Christ; immersing ourselves in the Gospel; practicing repentance and engaging faith. Humility is born in the prayer closet, but practiced in community. Humility is a worthy endeavor.

Friday, October 13, 2017

In the Grip of Weariness

In his book, The World Beyond Your Head, author Matthew Crawford muses that “Once upon a time, our problem was guilt: the feeling that you have made a mistake, with reference to something forbidden. This was felt as a stain on one’s character. [More recently it has been suggested that] the dichotomy of the forbidden and the allowed has been replaced with an axis of the possible and the impossible. The question that hovers over your character is no longer that of how good you are, but of how capable you are … With this shift comes a new pathology. The affliction of guilt has given way to weariness—weariness with the vague and unending project of having to become one’s fullest self. We call this depression.”

Crawford is not arguing against clinical depression, nor does one need to be clinically depressed to know something of the reality ​he identifies. It can seem, for the old, the young and those of us who fall somewhere in between, that we are trapped on a treadmill of accomplishing with little relief in sight. Fellow PCA pastor Todd Gwennap gets at this feeling with what he calls the Anti-Psalm 23:
The approbation of others is my shepherd;
I shall always be in want.
There is no nourishment, never enough.
Anxiety and performance are my lot.
My soul is exhausted.
I must constantly be my best self for my name’s sake.
When I walk through difficulty, I must be better.
There is only fear of being found out, for I am utterly alone;
your approval and applause last as long as our eye contact.
The need for approval prepares me as a feast for my enemies;
I have no security, no abundance.
I am left to chase a moving target all the days of my life,
and I shall seek to justify my existence until I die and am forgotten.
While penetrating, these haunting words help us to see that we cannot find rest in our accomplishments. Ultimately it is only the Gospel truths of who God is, our adoption as daughters and sons, the forgiveness and freedom we have in Christ ​which ​are truly the answer to our fatigue!

Here are the words of Psalm 23. May they be balm to your soul as we navigate these weary days ...
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil, for you are with me;
your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Men, Women, and God

As Christians, we’re adopted sons and daughters of the living God—that’s the gospel, given to us freely, and always our primary identity!

But this world is fast-changing and complex, and when we attempt to live our lives faithfully in response to the gospel, things can get… messy. Some of the most basic questions have to do with how we see ourselves as men and women. What does that exactly mean in today’s contemporary society? How can men and women relate to each other at home? In the church? How can we address modern misconceptions? How can we respond to past abuse and hurt? How can men and women use their unique gifts to respond to God’s call?

Our church cares about these issues and has a history of equipping and listening to both men and women, even as we wrestle with faithful application. Our denomination, the PCA, is also thinking deeply and critically about men’s and women’s roles as they pertain to the church. This past summer at our General Assembly a report was received that digs into these issues. (The report is long. Of course you are welcome to read the whole thing, but you might also start at pg. 58 and read through the pastoral letter and the recommendations.)

In order that we might be informed and equipped to lean into these issues we have planned a two day event for Friday Evening, October 20 and Saturday Morning, October 21, to share Biblical observations on women, men, and God, as well as dialogue about the application of these principles in our homes, world and church. We have invited Mary Beth McGreevey to join us. Mary Beth is a teacher, scholar and contributor to the PCA report. She will share some of her own story, talk about the formation of the report and what it means for the PCA, and be the featured speaker for a Women’s Fall Brunch on Saturday. Our prayer is that it is a good time of coming together for Christ Church as we seek to be faithful and winsome in engaging these issues.