Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Deadly Sins -- Living Life

At Christ Community UMC, where I am Senior Pastor, I have been preaching a series of sermons this Summer on the Seven Deadly Sins and the Christian Cure. It is kind of a light hearted Summer series (grin). The 7 Deadly Sins: Pride, Anger, Envy, Gluttony, Lust, Avarice and Sloth were identified in the early days of Christianity as attitudes and foci that keep us from enjoying healthy fellowship with God. Pride was the first sin and is rebellion against God -- Milton's Paradise Lost attributes to Lucifer the quote "better to reign in hell than serve in heaven" -- and is the best description of the sin of Pride.

Anger is often at the root of rage and violence and since human beings appear to be incurably violent creatures getting at the root cause might be a good idea. Envy is what the 10th commandment (thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's anything) is about but seems to be a driving force in American culture (be unhappy with what you have and spend money on something you don't really need because it might just make you happy). Keeping up with the Jones -- envy. Gluttony is conspicuous consumption. Mae West said "too much of a good thing is wonderful" and and another writer wrote "anything worth doing is worth doing to excess!" As a society we seem to be really good at Gluttony.

Lust permeates our society. Sex sells and it drives our lust filled behaviors and attitudes. Avarice or Greed is summed up in the famous quote from the movie Wall Street "Greed is Good!" and Sloth -- curiously sloth is not about laziness in the sense of choosing not to do anything. Sloth (the Latin is acedia) is closer to inaction because of despair.

The Christian cure for any and all? Walk humbly with God.

More later,

Dr. BJ

Monday, July 28, 2008

Despised and Rejected

Today, as I read from Isaiah 53 I have a Robin Mark song floating in my head. From his East of the River CD, the song is titled "Highly Exalted". Robin, the poet and song writer, takes his text from Isaiah 53 "You were despised, You were rejected Lord" and from the crucifixion "those who passed by even averted their gaze from the sight" and from the theological conclusion "such was the suffering you bore for us." In Verse two the pattern continues from Isaiah 53 "led like a lamb, a lamb to the slaughter you spoke not a word, but chose to be silent" and the theological conclusion "though you did not wrong nor was deceitfulness found in you."

Isaiah's image of the suffering servant is such an extraordinary parallel to the pictures we have from the gospels of Jesus death by crucifixion. Jesus did not defend himself (he remained silent) he was beaten, wounded, killed. Isaiah tells us that on him (the servant) was laid the transgressions of us all. That is, the Sin of the entire world was laid on Jesus as he went to the cross.

Despised by those who would not hear his word of hope and healing. Rejected by the very people he came to redeem. Curiously, this seems to be how Jesus is viewed by most in the world today. He is despised (or at least his church and followers appear to be) he is rejected (generally out of hand). Yet, for those who choose to embrace his suffering and follow in his footsteps, there is life and hope and joy unspeakable.

Someone once wrote (and for the life of me I cannot remember who) that Jesus only promised three things to his followers. 1. That they would be in constant trouble. 2. That they would be absolutely fearless. and, 3. That they would be ridiculously happy. I suppose I can handle a little despite and rejection if it is the price to live in unspeakable joy.



Sunday, July 27, 2008

Everything we need

I remember a local bank advertising that they were "all the bank you'll ever need." It sounds kind of catchy and it seems like a useful thing to have -- all the anything I'll ever need. 2 Peter 1: 3 tells us that "His (Christ's) divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, . . ." I like the sound of that as well, everything I need to have life and to live a godly life has already been provided for me (us) through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I love the Bible because it says what it means -- if it meant most or some it would have said so, instead it says EVERYTHING needed for life and godliness has been provided by Jesus.

How often do we behave as if everything depended on our effort and our effort alone? We translate our responsibilities in the work place and other environments into our spiritual lives and believe that we have to "save ourselves" or transform ourselves. I am coming to realize that the truth is much more interesting and much more bizarre. What I need to become a better Christian is not more straining and effort, what I need is more Jesus. What I need to become more like Jesus (the goal of the Christian life) is not more rules, regulations and rituals, what I need is to make sure I am keeping myself in the full exposure of the Son.

Many years ago I read a theologian who said that we were to be like apples. An apple does not ripen through effort, it doesn't hold its breath, grit its teeth and force itself to grow and ripen. Instead what it does is stay attached to the source of its life (the tree) and it hangs out in the glow of the sun. What a terrific image. I do not become a better Christian by forcing myself to grow and mature, I become a better image of Jesus by "abiding in Christ" (staying attached) and by hanging out in the glow of the Son.

He is all the life you'll ever need.

Dr. Bj.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

The Sin of Hezekiah

In 2 Kings 20 and Isaiah 39 we read the curious story of Hezekiah's illness and recovery and then his receiving the envoys from Babylon. When the envoys arrive Hezekiah decides to show off and reveals to the envoys all of the treasures of the kingdom. This boasting prompts the Lord to speak through the prophet Isaiah "that the kingdom will be taken from your ancestors, your descendants will be taken in captivity and will serve as eunuchs in the court of the king of Babylon." What follows is the most human and astonishing thing I have read in some time. Isaiah and 2 Kings record Hezekiah's response: "The word of the LORD that you have spoken is good." (GOOD? The nation is going down! How can this be good?) For he thought "There will be peace and security in my days." (Isaiah 39:8) In other words, Hezekiah rejoices because the bad stuff won't happen until after he dies.

In declining churches and declining "Old Line" denominations I have long suspected that there a lot of people who have fallen into the sin of Hezekiah. They can see that the demise of their church is inevitable (or at least likely without significant change) but rather than make the drastic changes and refocus necessary to reclaim our vision and purpose they choose to just hang on hoping that the doors will be open long enough to give them a good funeral and to take care of them before they die. Thus, denominations effect mergers which prolong the institution but do little if anything to reclaim the mission. Thus, congregational leaders hold tightly to the reigns of control, slowly spend down capital resources, and rejoice that the church was around long enough to take care of them.

The Christian Church in the west is going out with a whimper rather than a bang. Much like the church in Europe we have stayed in our enclaves and our bless me clubs until we have reached a time where the church is an anachronism, or has become so marginalized as to be irrelevant in the thoughts and hearts of people or has moved to the place of nostalgia where the church is remembered (if at all) for its place in the halcyon days of yore -- much like holly and ivy and mistletoe.

When Hezekiah was ill he repented and God healed him. When he is told of the demise of his kingdom he rejoices because he will die before it happens. What if Hezekiah, when he heard this word from the Lord, responded as he did when he was ill and plead with the Lord while repenting in sack cloth and ashes? I believe the merciful Lord would have worked out a different future.

I believe the merciful Lord has a very different future in mind for churches in decline. But we need to repent of our indifference, or lack of vision, our boasting in what we have, and our pride. We need to put on the sack cloth and ashes and seek the face of God and ask: how do we become what you called us to be.

What say you?

Dr. BJ

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What if . . .

In reading Hebrews 13 this morning, that excellent passage about being "surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run the race that is set before us", I was struck by the uncomfortable idea that I might be running the wrong race. Lily Tomlin was once quoted as saying that "the problem with the rat race is that if you win you are still a rat." What race am I running? The race Hebrews 13 tells me I am supposed to be running is a race to perfection -- that is a race to becoming as much like Jesus Christ as possible. This race requires that I walk as close to God as is possible.

John Eldridge's book "Walking with God" tells about this journey. His assumption is that what our progenitors, Adam and Eve, had -- walking with God in the coolness of the evening breeze -- is what we are supposed to have. Learning to walk with God (let alone run the race) is the goal and meaning of life. Learning is the key, like anything else worth having and doing we have to practice (practice the presence of God, Brother Lawrence used to call it) and we need to be coached, encouraged and we need to persevere.

Which brings me back to "what race am I running?" Well, I want to succeed. But whose definition of success will I follow? Will I take the US corporate model -- bigger is better and its all about the numbers? In the case of the church this would be buildings, dollars and people in the pews. Will I take the typical human prideful competitive model which says that so long as I am ahead of you I am being successful? Will I take the therapeutic model that says that so long as I am comfortable and adjusted to where I am I will succeed? Whose model? What would a biblical model of success look like? What would a successful church look like?

I am becoming increasing convinced that success for the church cannot be measured by normal human measurements. Yes, growth will be a normal byproduct of a healthy church -- but it needs to be healthy -- cancer also grows. But the church was not created to count noses it was created to make disciples. The church did not begin with the mission of making everyone feel better, the church began with the mission of transforming the world. I believe that mission of transformation happens one person at a time.

So, the bigger question for me is how do I run this race with faithfulness? How do I live my life walking with God and in integrity? How do I lose the trappings of corporate America and lead a church into being an authentic community of Christ followers?

pray, grow, and walk with God


Monday, July 14, 2008

Walking in Faith

I've just returned from two weeks of vacation. My wife and I spent 12 lovely days in Northern California. We walked among the giant red woods, we walked along the beautiful coastline, we walked all over the city of San Francisco and I spent quite a bit of time considering my walk with God.

As a professional religious person (Christian Pastor) it is easy to treat my walk with God as part of my "job". It is easy to read the Bible not for a fresh word from God but for "preaching fodder". It is difficult to separate the day to day struggles and the things that have to be done from the fundamental truth that my primary purpose is not different than anyone else's. My purpose is to learn to walk with God. Pastoring is what I do, child of God is who I am.

So, we did a lot of walking. I did a lot of unfocused thinking, just letting my mind gather the flotsam and jetsam of my life. I realize that there are a lot of things I am engaged in, a lot of attention for my time, a lot of good stuff I could (should, must?) be doing. But what matters most is that I keep my heart pure and focused on God.

I read this morning in Hebrews 11 -- the "Faith Hall of Fame". Most of us like to hear about Moses and Abraham and David and the heroes of the past. I am really touched when the author of Hebrews reminds us that those who suffered, died and struggled in the faith were faithful and also were counted as members of the Faith HOF.

more later