“I Am A Child of God, Yes I Am”

November 18, 2019

Yesterday I had the opportunity to accompany a few brothers to visit John 3:16 Ministries in North Central Arkansas. This is a ministry to men whose brokenness and addiction has led them to seek the intense and focused six-month program offered there. Currently they have 160 men working to overcome their demons; seeking to restore relationships damaged by what addiction brings; and to anchor it all in the love and presence of Christ. It was quite an amazing experience.

As we gathered in worship I shared in both the celebration of those who have found redemption and the desperation of those just beginning that journey. I witnessed families clinging to one another; husbands and wives with renewed hope; and folks kneeling together with arms wrapped around each other in prayer. It was quite powerful. God was moving in that place to bring healing to broken lives.

Then the song, “I am a Child of God” was led. I always thought this was such an incredible song by Hillsong. The lyrics from the first time I heard them spoke to me, but in this setting–listening to and singing, “Who am I that the Highest King would welcome me?”–It pierced my heart. I understood why the song would resonate with this audience. For these guys to sing, “Who the Son sets free, Oh is free indeed,” there is an additional layer and meaning. But the words were also penetrating my own layers.

One thing on evident display yesterday was transparent humility. It made me look deep within me to expose my own pride and pretense. Who am I? My mind went to Isaiah’s comment about our righteousness just being a “filthy rag” in the presence of God (Isaiah 64:6). I felt a sense of my own desperation as I stood and sang with those around me. Again Isaiah’s words from that text echoing in my thoughts; “all of us have become like the one who is unclean.” It was a moment of clarity for me.

Who am I? That could be answered in numerous ways–spinning the words to portray me in the best possible way. I could shine up my resume; boast of my accomplishments; and seek to impress. I could posture, maneuver and even pander–all to prop myself up so that you would realize just how significantly important I am. But in that moment, surrounded by such honest humility driven by filthy rag realizations, that all was revealed as the empty pretense that it is.

Who am I really? Or who do I need to be completely to make any definite, lasting difference for my family, for my church and for my community?

I am chosen, not forsaken. I am who you say I am. You are for me, not against me. I am who you say I am. In my Father’s house there is a place for me. I am a child of God, yes I am.


Meet The Preacher

November 6, 2019

You may know us, but then again you may not. Preachers have a way of hiding behind the pulpit. We can easily be stereotyped. Through experience we often learn to become very guarded and protective of our hearts and homes. Paradoxically though we often feel obligated to give even more of ourselves into our ministry. We come in all shapes, sizes and giftedness–and you may be surprised to learn:

  • The church is our life. For better or worse it is difficult for this not to be true. We pour all of ourselves into our ministry in the church. Preaching is not simply a vocation–it is essentially our identity. As a result the church becomes our life. We become consumed with its health and growth. Remember that old joke about preachers only working four hours a week? We may force a smile as it is told, but trust me we are not laughing. Actually–honestly most of us would consider it condescending. This is also why we tend to take it personally when someone leaves our church. We process it as a rejection of us and our ministry efforts within the church. No, that is not a healthy approach or necessarily an accurate assessment, but one almost impossible to avoid. This also explains the tortured look on your preacher’s face when he hears that you decided to go to the lake/ball game/whatever rather than attend the big, special, highly promoted Sunday at church. He has spent weeks planning that Sunday. Hours spent in prayer. His hope is that Sunday will spark a spiritual renewal in someone. It is a huge deal to him and for it to be so easily dismissed by others is disappointing. I am not saying it is fair to hold everyone to our expectations–just explaining who we are. The best way I can describe how the church becomes our life is a quote attributed to Cecil May, Jr. (as told by his son Cecil III). Someone once commented to Cecil, Jr., “I wish I had a job that I never had to clock into.” Cecil, Jr. replied, “I wish I had a job I could clock out of.” I do not make this point as either complaint or as some outstanding virtue–only as informative. To understand your preacher, understand that the church is his life (his family certainly knows it).
  • We are an insecure bunch. This is a layered discussion. The first layer is within us. I think God calls some of the most naturally insecure folks to preach. It could be his way of demonstrating his strength within our weak vessels (see 2 Corinthians 12:10). Of course, we have a job in which it is difficult to quantify results. We work with volunteers with varying commitment levels–some of whom occasionally find it necessary to remind us of our insecurities. We wonder regularly if our preaching is connecting and effective. Then there is the church layer. Most churches encourage and support their preachers well, but some don’t. Almost every preacher I know has a horror story or three about mistreatment by good brothers and sisters. Financially, churches as-a-whole do better than previous generations. Yet the overwhelming majority of preachers continue to not have the benefits that those hiring them take for granted–health insurance, retirement, etc. All of this breeds insecurity. I was once told (by someone not a preacher) that this is the way it is supposed to be; that preachers are supposed to live off the gospel. While I do not disagree that we are to walk by faith, I am not sure how an atmosphere of insecurity is helpful or healthy for any preacher or any church.
  • We may resist close friendships. I mentioned that we are good at hiding behind pulpits, which can be challenging in making long-term, close connections. There are reasons behind this, of course. First we fight against stereotyping. Often people have fairly strong preconceptions about preachers–making various assumptions about us because we preach. Once at a church workday, a church member expressed surprise that I could use a hammer. Such stereotyping can prevent folks from ever getting beyond that in order to develop a deeper relationship outside of the church walls. Another factor here is betrayal–having trusted someone with intimate information or personal challenges only to have that information shared and even used against us. It does happen. Preachers can be extremely vulnerable within certain church settings. There is no such thing as tenure (part of the overall insecurities) and especially if a preacher has been burned, it can be a challenge to be open to close friendships within the congregation. This is not always the case, of course, but there is a reason that for many preachers–their best friends are other preachers. So if you have ever wondered why your preacher may resist developing a deeper friendship with you–it likely has nothing to do with you, and everything to do with some past unpleasant experience.
  • We can be our own worst enemies. I like to say that preachers are people too. We deal with the same temptations, tendencies, and trepidations as everyone else. We make mistakes–plenty of them. Ego can get in our way and we can lose perspective along with the ability to listen to sound advice. We can hurt and betray others. We can develop bitterness and cynicism. Our preaching can become imbalanced with agendas other than “Christ and him crucified” creeping in. All of this is on us and we have to be vigilant in protecting ourselves against such. Most of us understand this and strive to not disqualify ourselves (see 1 Corinthians 9:27) or our ministry through harmful behavior and lazy preaching. It is also a matter of maturity. Just like others in their professions, we learn as we grow with sometimes-painful lessons being the best schoolteacher. Looking back in my ministry I have been my own worst enemy on numerous occasions, which makes me even more overwhelmingly grateful for good churches and godly elders who were more than patient with me.

The Bible describes the feet of those who proclaim God’s message as “beautiful” (Isaiah 52:7; Romans 10:15). I am not sure how many of us who preach see ourselves that way. We get the thought, but we also live with ourselves and are more than acquainted with our failures and weaknesses. But we would not have it any other way. Preaching–well that is just who we are.


The Servant of the Lord

February 12, 2018

wonder-servant.jpg

From our reading in Isaiah and Mark, it is all about the Servant of the Lord. Here are some selected points of discussion.

  • Who wrote Isaiah 40-66? There is little doubt that the prophet wrote the first 39 chapters, but questions abound about the latter half of the book. It details events that happened 150 years after Isaiah’s death, that is, the return of the remnant of God’s people from exile in Babylon. The judgment of God to Judah in the form of Babylonian conquest and captivity that Isaiah had earlier foretold was over. Chapters 40-66 seems to speak in present tense about the exiles return along with the complications connected to that. Since Isaiah was long gone—how could he have written it? Three main theories exist. One, as a prophet, he simply saw the future via divine intervention and wrote about as if he were present in it. Two, using Isaiah’s own notations in 8:16; 29:10-12 & 30:8-9—he sealed up some of his prophecies, which were passed along among his disciples during the subsequent years—which were then later unsealed and used by disciples/scholars/prophets contemporary to the remnant return. Three, someone other than Isaiah living after the period of exile wrote it, making it another work altogether and not really tied to Isaiah at all. To add to this discussion, an almost complete scroll of Isaiah containing all 66 chapters was discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran in 1947. This scroll was one thousand years older than any previous Isaiah manuscript, being dated to 125 BCE. It demonstrated at that point at least, Isaiah was considered one book written by one author. Even more significant, the New Testament seems to have few problems attributing the entire book to Isaiah. (Here is but a small sample–Matthew 8:17; 12:18,21; Luke 2:32; Romans 2:34; 10:20; 2 Corinthians 6:7; 1 Peter 2:22.)
  • Who is the Servant of the Lord? Isaiah introduces us to him in chapter 49 and he becomes central to the narrative. God had not forgotten his promise to his people. Throughout captivity and exile a remnant had remained. They were returning (the time period of Ezra and Nehemiah) to their homeland to renew their calling as God’s people—a light to all nations. But stubbornness among them still remained. They claimed God had ignored and given up on them during captivity. Isaiah countered by insisting that he most definitely had not—that the judgment and exile was all a part of God’s plan for something bigger and better to emerge from the Jewish people to bless all nations. This is embodied in the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, Christ Jesus our Lord. He would be the suffering servant (chapter 53) that would finally accomplish God’s will for his kingdom to be a place for all nations and people. The second half of Isaiah is about hope—hope for all people, for a New Jerusalem and it is only possible because of the Servant of the Lord.
  • Is everything really possible for them who believe? So says Jesus in Mark 9:23. Contextually this flows out of a conversation with the father of a young boy possessed by an evil spirit. Jesus is petitioned to help. The father says to Jesus, “But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.” Jesus responds by stating, “If you can?” and then makes the firm affirmation of the place of faith for believers. So, is this a context specific remark only applicable to that situation or does it have a broader scope? Either evil spirits no longer possess us as they did in Christ’s day or we do not recognize them as such. Is this just a statement by Christ in connection to them? If it goes beyond context, then are we limiting the power of God to work within us due to lack of faith? Other texts (Romans 3:20-21 for example) indicate that God is ready to accomplish within us more than we “ask or imagine.” Could it be that we are not asking or imagining enough?
  • Can anyone “not one of us” serve the Lord faithfully? This was the concern of some of Christ’s disciples as recorded in Mark 9:38-41 (this story occurs only in Mark’s gospel). They witnessed someone not from their group exorcising demons in the name of Jesus and “told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” Jesus countered that, explaining that anyone serving in that way was “not against us” but rather “for us.” No other information is provided except in the following discourse Jesus warns about “not causing one of these little ones who believe in me to sin.” This seems to be a direct reference to the man casting out demons and the disciples attempt to stop him. Often we can drift into an exclusive attitude about who can and who cannot effectively and faithfully serve the Lord. If you are one of us—you are in. If you are not among us—you are out. Perhaps this brief story is included in Scripture to cause us to reconsider this kind of thinking and to realize that ultimately God knows who is in and who is not. Obviously, false teachers have existed from the very genesis of the church, but this story reminds us to be careful about making sweeping judgments as to whom God can use in his kingdom.
  • Divorce for “any cause?” Jesus was swept up into a controversial and somewhat convoluted debate over divorce in Mark 10:1-12 (see also Matthew 19:1-12 & Luke 16:18). It centered on different interpretations of Deuteronomy 24:1-4 among the Pharisees. This OT text deals with a man’s right to divorce his wife because of “finding something indecent about her.” Two schools of rabbinical thought had emerged and been codified by the time of Christ around this phrase. One interpretation saw it as pertaining to any woman who had been sexually unfaithful during the time of engagement. If this was proven, the intended husband could divorce her (Joseph with Mary for instance). This was the minority view. The second had morphed this statement to mean basically anything a man found unfavorable about his wife—from bad cooking to a bad hair day. This approach was the widely accepted norm as divorce for “any cause” (Matthew’s account include this language ). To fortify this view the practice of Moses concerning divorce was also mentioned. Interestingly, Jesus does not really answer the question directly. Instead he attributes the action of Moses as a compromise because of stubborn hearts and harkens all the way back to the original concept of marriage from the beginning—one man for one woman for life. By so doing he effectively does answer their question without engaging in their debate over rabbinical teachings. Can a man divorce his wife for any cause? No, he cannot. Instead he needs to honor the original marriage covenant. Later privately he offers a further explanation to his disciples offering marital unfaithfulness as an exemption to the Genesis account. Notable here is that he includes the possibility of a woman being able to divorce a man—something not allowed under Jewish law at that time—and something that unfortunately would be needed as the gospel extended beyond the Jews. Consider Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7 (which predates the book of Mark) concerning the different marriage situations in Corinth. What if an unbelieving spouse leaves the believing spouse? Paul indicates that the believer—be it a man or woman—“is not bound in such circumstances.” No, a divorce cannot be sought for “any cause,” but there are exemptions. Both Jesus and Paul spoke into the complex situations of their context and complex situations continue to exist in our context as well.

 


Judgment and Hope

January 25, 2018

prophetisaiah

The prophet Isaiah lived in quite extraordinary times and penned quite the extraordinary book. It is divided into two main sections. The first is chapters 1-39. The second is the remainder of the book—chapters 40-66 (of which there is much discussion about Isaiah’s authorship). Overall Isaiah addresses two main themes—God’s judgment upon his people Israel and Judah and beyond that judgment, hope in the Immanuel.

The world of Isaiah was one of trouble and transition. The tribes of Israel in the south were in a desperate situation. Mighty Assyria (then the world power) was in the process of sweeping them away. Isaiah spoke to that from his position in Jerusalem. He identified it as God’s judgment upon them for their rejection of him. Assyria was also a threat to the tribes of Judah in the north. Like their sister nation they, too, had rebelled against their God. A godly king, however, rose up within them, begged God for mercy (37:14-20), and saved Judah from Assyrian destruction. But King Hezekiah’s actions would only delay the inevitable. “The Day of the Lord” was coming to Judah as well, Isaiah foretold. Another power would rise up—Babylon—and be used by God as his purifying agent of judgment (39). Only this time (unlike that of the tribes of Israel) there was hope beyond the judgment. A remnant of God’s people would remain; exiles would eventually return to their homeland; from among them Immanuel would be born (7:14). This “little child” (11:6) would lead and restore Zion to its rightful place among the nations. Eventually a “new Jerusalem” (65:17) would replace the old to be what God always intended for it to be.

Judgment and hope—this is the word from the Lord Isaiah speaks to his people, and now to us.

Startling Rebellion

Isaiah does not hold back. He presents a stark image of God’s people in full rebellion. Instead of being a light to other nations—corruption, injustice, idolatry, greed, violence and immorality defined Israel. Their worship was empty, meaningless, and burdensome to God. He could no longer tolerate it.

Instead of fulfilling God’s will among them, they turned to idols, practiced oppression, were corrupted by evil desires, chased after godlessness, became “brawlers and revelers,” confused good and evil, and denied justice. Isaiah phrased it like this:

They have no regard for the deeds of the Lord, no respect for the works of his hand. (5:12)

This was true of both Israel and Judah and God had had enough. Isaiah proclaimed:

Therefore the Lord’s anger burns against his people; his hand is raised and he strikes them down. (5:25).

Judgment was coming. The “Day of the Lord” would take place, first for Israel and then for Judah. Isaiah leaves no doubt about it. God simply could no longer tolerate their startling rebellion. A “fire” would scorch the earth (and not just for Israel and Judah), cleansing it, but also preparing it for something better to follow.

Isaiah’s Call

To illustrate this—Isaiah is called before the presence of the Lord (chapter 6). He quickly realizes just how out of his league he is, standing before the holiness of God. He fears his own doom until being touched on the lips by a burning coal. The coal, however, was not one of judgment but one of cleansing. This represents the purpose of God’s judgment—to cleanse his people in preparation of the Immanuel; the shoot of Jesse that will rise up out of the charred stump of Judah after the Day of the Lord comes.

It was Isaiah’s mission to be sent by God in order to “Go and tell” this news to his people. This is the way, then, the entire book of Isaiah plays out—judgment followed by hope; exile and return; old Jerusalem being swept away replaced by New Jerusalem-God would not forget his people, even though they forgot him.

Isaiah’s Word to Us

The sins of Israel were many, but at their core was a failure to seek and live out the righteousness and justice of God. Without this at their center, it opened them up for the corruption, idolatry, immorality, and greed that followed. Isaiah identified it early:

Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight! Stop doing wrong, learn to do right! Seek justice, encourage the oppressed. Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow. (1:15-17; see also 1:23; 3:14-15)

Even as they worshipped God—their disregard for God’s justice and righteousness made their worship unacceptable to God. What is the word from Isaiah to us on this and from the story of his prophecy?

  • God calls upon his people to see after the oppressed, not to be the oppressors. Nothing about this has changed from Isaiah’s time—James 1:26-27. Unless we do-it will undermine our ability to be God’s people and leave our worship void of meaning and purpose.
  • God guides The Story—using people, nations, events, etc. to accomplish his divine, redemptive will. Sometimes judgment is necessary. If God could use nations/peoples to carry it out then, he can do so now. The key is—to listen! Something those in Isaiah’s day did not do.
  • Judgment is still coming (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10) but hope remains (2 Peter 3:8-9).
  • The “little child” is leading us to that New Jerusalem where the justice, mercy, and righteousness of God will define everything and everyone; where people from every nation, tribe and tongue will flow; where God will be glorified above all (Isaiah 2:1-5; 9:1-7; 11:1-12; 65:17-5; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21)

The purpose of God’s judgment is to cleanse, reset and renew hope among his people. This is the story of Isaiah within The Story.