Archive for October, 2012

Nevertheless he ought to be slow to believe and to act, nor should he himself show fear, but proceed in a temperate manner with prudence and humanity, so that too much confidence may not make him incautious and too much distrust render him intolerable.

– Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince

For an author who derided the concept that moral virtue was a necessary condition for an enduring government,  Machiavelli does on occasion offer advice that all leaders would do well to remember. Here, he is referring to a prince who has newly come into his power, and is in the early stages of consolidating his base…but temperance, prudence and humanity ought to be the hallmarks of any person who would take on a position of authority, don’t you agree?

Recently I wrote about how well-meaning people sometimes try to use a bible verse to comfort or reassure Karen or me, while she is doing cancer treatments and I am trying not to feel helpless or sorry for myself. These people want to be supportive, and who wouldn’t think that a favorite exhortation or encouragement from the bible would be appreciated? Well, in principle this is a great idea – the Word of God is an awesome place to find support or advice in trying times; but what usually happens is the person will take some verse out of context, or misappropriate a promise or command that was not intended for what they are doing with it. Being who I am (a word geek with an acquired taste for exegesis and hermeneutics – not one to trifle with when bible quotes start flying), I call these “Inigo Montoya moments”, after the character from one of my favorite films, The Princess Bride. Here is a clip of the classic scene:

Evangelism centers on the idea that the whole world needs to hear the Gospel of Jesus, so they may be saved. This is in fact one of our assignments as His followers remaining on earth until He returns, but…my heart is broken for those people in the world who have heard the Word, but they either heard it wrong, or someone interpreted it for them incorrectly, and they just accepted it without checking for themselves. Given that I now have a platform to help combat misinformation, I have decided to periodically take one of these misused Scriptures, look at it in its proper context, and figure out what it really says; if it’s not appropriate to that application, I will try to suggest a better passage instead. I shall call these The Inigo Files, in homage to both the movie, and to my secret passion, The X-Files, because I want to believe…

In this installment we will examine a classically misused verse: Philippians 4:13. Here’s a typical scenario – a friend at church will notice I seem kind of down, and will ask how I’m doing. I will answer that I’m struggling with trying to balance my responsibilities at home against my tendency to compulsively volunteer  over-commit be involved in many activities. (I refuse to confirm or deny whether any of these actual events actually happened or not.) Friend will make sympathetic sounds; tell me about all the commitments she is currently holding up (since nothing soothes more than shame, right?); and then drop this on me:

“Remember, the bible says, ‘I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.’  Just pray for strength, and God will help you accomplish everything you want!”

Really? Anything? To borrow an extreme example from a pastor friend who used it in a great sermon on Philippians 4: Does that mean that I can, through Christ who strengthens me, finally do a 360-degree tomahawk slam dunk like Michael Jordan, even though I’m 5’8″ with bad ankles, if I just pray hard enough? In a word, no…and while that is a pretty specific misuse, it does illustrate my point – this verse gets co-opted to justify almost anything and everything that someone wants to do, by appealing to the idea that being a Christian gives us some mystical access to success in any endeavor; the power of God is on our side, how can we fail?

How, indeed? Well, for starters, we can fail by reading only one verse. As the famous quote says, “A text without a context is a pretext for a proof text.” So our first step to determine the meaning of a verse is to see it in its larger context. Here is the entire relevant passage, Phil 4:10-13 from the NKJV:

But I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at last your care for me has flourished again; though you surely did care, but you lacked opportunity. Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content: I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound. Everywhere and in all things I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.

The Apostle Paul is closing out his letter to the church at Philippi, taking a moment to give thanks to God for the way He has used them to supply his needs while in prison in Rome. Paul makes it a point of instruction to tell them that he was not suffering for the lack of support, because he has learned to trust that God will always provide for his needs…so there is no reason to be worried, or unsatisfied with what we have – whatever we have is what God wants us to have, and His strength is promised to make up for any deficiency. This echoes the words of Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, when He tells us not to worry about the necessities of life, because God preserves and provides for those who seek after Him. Paul, in verse twelve, spells out specifically what things he is able to do, by the strength of Christ living within him, by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, a gift promised to all who follow Jesus. This becomes even more clear if we see this passage in a different translation, the NIV, which renders the Greek more accurately.  Here is verse 13 in that version (emphasis mine):

 I can do all this through Him who gives me strength.

So, what Paul is teaching is that the power of Christ is the means by which he can trust and believe that God will provide enough for his needs; this faith frees him from some of the greatest temptations we face – greed, envy, bitterness, resentment; and what a great gift this is! But a promise that Jesus will help me live like Jesus is not going to dunk that ball…or fix my schedule, either. So what passage (remember, never read just a verse!) should Friend be holding out to me in my time of need? Here’s one from Colossians 3 that really helped me learn how to prioritize my time and commitments. I would love to hear what others have to say, so post yours in the comments below, I promise to respond to every one!

23 Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, 24 since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.

When I weigh the various opportunities and obligations before me in light of how they serve the Kingdom, it gets much easier to say Yes, or No, as required to allow sufficient effort and attention to a few things, rather than a flurry of distracted activity that actually does very little, and costs the heart so much. This is an accurate, effective, and Christ-honoring use of Scripture, which is why we have it in the first place; I am humbled and honored by the calling He has placed on me to help combat false doctrines and errant teachings, that He may be known as He knows us – in Spirit and in truth. I hope you, Dear Reader, find value in what I do here, and if so, please share what you learn with those around you – we all need a little more truth in our lives, and a little more Jesus, too.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

A Wedding in Cana  (2:1-12) – Chapter Two opens with one of the best known – and least understood – stories about Jesus in the bible. Here we have one of the clearest illustrations of the need to read Scripture with a mind toward the times and culture of the original audience; knowledge of certain conventions of Jewish society and religious practices are entirely relevant to understanding the comparisons that the Apostle John is making between traditional interpretations of the Law, and their fulfillment in Christ. As we read through the passage, notice how this entire episode can be seen as a live-action parable, using a significant social event – a wedding feast – to challenge Jewish ideas about purification.

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and His disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to Him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?”  Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”  His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

(v.1-5) – John includes a time reference, “the third day”,  to help build a structural parallel for the later half of his Gospel: when added to the “four days” recounted in Chapter 1, we see a representative “first week” of Jesus’ ministry;  just as Ch.13-21 covers the last week of Jesus’ life before His appointment with the cross. John is not at all picky about “time management” when it comes to getting to the parts of the story that express the divine nature of Jesus.

So why is Mary at a wedding, and why is Jesus there, with His disciples? We need to recall what weddings were like among first century Jews; the ceremony would be the culmination of an extended betrothal, and a highly anticipated social event in the community. Invitations would be issued to extended family and close friends, and in these small villages, that would involve sometimes dozens of guests. It is most likely that Mary was either related to or a very dear friend of the groom’s family; Jesus would be included as family member, and since He was living out the role of rabbi, it would be natural for His followers to be allowed to accompany Him wherever He went. It is likely that His desire to return to Galilee (1:43) was spurred by His wish to attend this very event. The idea that Mary was somehow related to the groom is supported by her reaction to the wine running out. Given the importance of the event, and the underlying cultural responsibilities of hospitality, such a faux pas would be terribly embarrassing to the hosts, and Mary looks to Jesus to do something about it.

Jesus sounds uncharacteristically rude in the way He responds to Mary’s request, but this is not actually the case: the “woman” Jesus uses to address her is the same word He uses in speaking to Mary Magdalene, to the Samaritan woman, and to the woman accused of adultery… a general term of formal respect, but not the term normally used by a son for his mother. Jesus is making a declaration: He is no longer just the good Jewish boy doing as His mother says; He is “on mission”, with a different set of priorities than before. This helps explain His question about becoming involved…He is already starting to draw distinctions between the concerns of this world and the interests of the Kingdom. It is significant to note how he refers to His future role…the NIV’s rendering of “My time has not come,” is somewhat inaccurate, as the Greek word “hora” is better understood as representing a natural season, or a preordained point in time, when a specific event or activity is supposed to occur. With this simple phrase, Jesus is making three distinct claims: 1) there IS a specific purpose for His being here; 2) this moment has not happened yet; 3) we can be sure that it is going to come to pass. (We will in fact see this moment when it occurs – Jesus calls it out as it happens to be sure we don’t miss it.) However, He apparently gives some sign of consent, because Mary turns to the servants and orders them to assist. Here is another hint that Mary has some intimacy with the host family, that she can give orders to them and they obey, as well as an implicit statement of her faith that Jesus is willing and able to do meet this need.

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons. Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water” ; so they filled them to the brim. Then He told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”   They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

(v.6-11) – John wants us to pay special attention here to the purpose of the water jars – they are not the normal clay pots for household use, but stone vessels. Mosaic law was very specific about the containers used for religious purposes – they needed to be ritually clean, free from impurities (stone jars could be burned in a fire and re-purified, if necessary) to hold the water, drawn from a flowing source, that would be used in the required cleansing rituals that would naturally accompany both the marriage ceremony and the many meals that would take place over the course of the festivities. The text makes no mention of what the servants were thinking as they drew water and filled the jars, then drew back out what they took to the emcee…but the reaction of the master to this “new wine” reveals much. His statement about the this being “the best” indicates that the Jews’ water of purification had been replaced with something far superior – the wine represents the blood He has come to shed on our behalf, when His hour finally comes. Notice also the enormous quantity He has provided…not just enough to get by, but an abundance, filled to the brim – reminiscent of both Psalm 23 and Amos 9.

What Jesus did here in Cana of Galilee was the first of the signs through which He revealed His glory; and His disciples believed in Him. After this He went down to Capernaum with His mother and brothers and His disciples. There they stayed for a few days.

(v.11-12) – The Apostle John closes out this account with a brief commentary, asserting that this miracle, this sign as he prefers to name it,  is a revelation of the glory of Jesus, and  is the cause of the belief by the disciples. This is one of John’s recurring themes: when it comes to Jesus, seeing IS believing! (There are a total of seven signs which John will showcase in his effort to display the glory of Christ.) John ends the scene by having Jesus return to Capernaum, which, being on the main north-south trade road from the coast, made a better base of operations than remote Nazareth for His ministry in Galilee. (Matthew’s Gospel reveals another possible reason for Jesus working from another town.) Jesus and His natural and adopted families would travel home for now, but much work remains.

Next week we will see a different side of Jesus – and learn a lesson in righteous anger, and the proper way it should be used.

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

October, specifically the last 10 days or so, has always been my favorite season of the year. I’m  Houston native, so the realities of growing up in a home with no air conditioning made the cooling off of Fall into the stuff of daydreams and visions in the heat shimmer coming off the concrete. Also, there was the eager expectation of the sanctioned gluttony and wantonness of Halloween …we weren’t church people, or even Christians really, so all was fair as long as Dad didn’t have to pay for anything and nobody went to the hospital…pretty good system from a kid’s-eye view.

Later in life, I became enthralled with the spectacle of the natural cycle…spring inspires many, but for me fall is much more mysterious; watching vibrant life transition into restful slumber,  fills me with a breathtaking faith in, and expectation of, a promised rebirth – I cannot explain it any better than that, I have tried but it escapes definition. I actually flirted with paganism briefly in college, looking for some deeper meaning in the forest, rather than the One who made the trees in the first place. (Wow, if you ever want proof that God has a sense of humor, consider that twenty five years later, that same confused, crisp-air-and-candy-addled young man would be writing a blog post instead of finishing the most important sermon he has ever been asked to present…I couldn’t pitch that on public access, let alone network TV.)

There’s a cold front moving in this evening; the wind is dragging the tree branches against the house, and it makes the dogs anxious. Karen is tired, and her irregular sleep schedule makes her anxious and irritable as well, but God bless her, she is working so hard to not take it out on anyone, and she is succeeding enough to earn the “A”, so all is well there. I have a full slate of projects to get focused on, and while I fervently prayed not to find myself in the position I’m in with some areas, we are past that point, and it is what it is. I am faced with a decision, and I do not have all the information I need to make it, nor a definable deadline. That does not absolve me of the responsibility to answer my calling to the best of my ability, where He put me, until such time as He sees fit to move me elsewhere. The prison ministry I serve makes a point of explaining to our participants the difference between the two Greek words used in the New Testament to describe time: chronos – linear time, as measured by humans,  with the expectation of schedules and timetables that we can manipulate and control; and kairos, “God’s time”, the “fullness of time”, the time that God has ordained for this thing to come to be. We have no control over this kind of time; we can neither hurry things along, nor hold them back. Living in this kind of time requires a rock-solid faith, a willingness to go to a country we have not seen yet, but will be shown the way as we go. Jesus reboots that, and shows us how to get to that country – from Mark 8:

34 When He had called the people to Himself, with His disciples also, He said to them, “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. 35 For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it.”

Denying myself does not mean that I don’t use the gifts I have been given…it means that this whole last year has been intensive training in how to use them properly, so that I serve God and not my own ego or interests. I have failed in this area before, but I have learned much since then…and I have had success, too. It came when I began to do the work for God and not for me –  this verse is pinned to the wall beside my monitor:

“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

My heart is wringing out, I see confused, hurting people all around me, and I must minister to them…this is what I am here to do. If there is more to come later, so be it…I’m not all that interested in “later”. If I’m supposed to be following Jesus, how about I believe and do what He said?

“Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about its own things. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.”

OK, I’m gonna go outside, look at the blowing leaves, then finish my sermon and go to bed. Today is nearly over, I’m done with its trouble, and tomorrow isn’t here yet. Good night, good weekend, God bless you all.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

PS: The Friday Forum may become an alternating feature; I would love some comments on which types of posts you most enjoy, as I re-examine the focus of the blog, and decide what to keep, dump, or add.

Life just jumped all over me today, and I do not have a post worth publishing. So, rather than giving you less than an honest effort, or some lame excuses, I will leave you with this thought, and be back tomorrow:

“I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use.”

– Galileo Galilei

I just had this thought rolling around in my head, and needed to share it so it will let me sleep tonight – thanks for reading!

When someone hurts us, it is our natural instinct to cry out for Justice – We have been wronged, and a price must be paid. (This is the essence of God’s case against humanity – He has been wronged, grieved, injured by our sin, and His justice demands propitiation.)

The difference between vengeance and grace is in what we are willing to accept as payment: Vengeance says, “I have suffered,  so you must suffer as I have;”  while Grace says instead, “I have suffered, and I do not wish another to suffer like that. I will therefore give my pain to God, and accept His peace instead.”

– Nick Ortega

You say, “If I had a little more, I should be very satisfied.” You make a mistake. If you are not content with what you have, you would not be satisfied if it were doubled.

– Charles Spurgeon

If you’ve been here before today, or following me on Twitter or Facebook, you already know the last week has been filled with emotion; and in all honesty I am not going discuss the situation in public any further at this time. I have done so to some extent, and I fear the reactions have been unprofitable for anyone. Therefore, while I cannot ignore the 800-pound gorilla camping out in my life, I am not required to attend to it. Moving on…

The 8000-pound gorilla of cancer was here first, anyway…remember that one? The one sitting on the couch, eating gorging itself on all of our money, time, attention and opportunities as fast at it can gobble them up? Yep, it’s still here, still hungry…but getting easier to manage with practice. That is something I didn’t expect…I knew that we would get used to the regimen, but not that it would start being, well, boring. Yes, I am painfully aware that I have the easy end of this fight; she is the one getting poisoned on a schedule…I would give anything to trade places, but that is not how God wants me to be. I need to be content in Him, in any circumstances (including the ones where I “just” watch my loved ones being tortured), and in the bible the Apostle Paul goes to great lengths to remind us of the blessings available to those who love God: grace, peace, joy. I pray for these things; I have even preached about them…so why am I unsatisfied when it happens? The grace of God has been more than sufficient for our needs; the money situation is under control (not great, but stable…good enough, and more than I deserve – I have a long history of trusting money more than God); Karen’s doctors are thrilled at how well she has tolerated chemo; and the long dreary spell at work with short hours but uncertainty aplenty has ended – I now have enough responsibility to occupy myself, and opportunities to demonstrate the claims I have been making to my bosses about how we can improve processes, and why I should be leading that. So what’s the problem?

The problem is…with all that going on, and God firmly in control of all of it, so I can focus and perform my duties effectively… why am I not content? What is it that makes me actively seek out more ways to do, to go, to serve? I think I know,  it’s an old acquaintance of mine named Impatience, and his entourage: Arrogance, Blame, and Contempt – I thought I had seen the last of this motley crew, but it seems they were waiting another chance to get back to work clouding my judgement, whispering in my ear that I don’t need counsel, I have all the information I need to do what needs to be done. This has never been true in the past, when I have listened to the whispers; but by grace God has blessed me with some valuable gifts: a smidgen of discernment,  a wife with much more wisdom than I have, and a score of true Godly men and women to call me on BS, and encourage me when I am on the right track.  I am a rich man indeed!

So, I remind myself to let up on the throttle (not off of it, there is work to do) and allow God’s time to happen, to be the wise servant diligent in my tasks, so as not to be caught unaware when my Lord returns. Contentment does not just happen; it must be an intentional act of my will to accept Jesus’ invitation:

“Come to Me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

-Matthew 11:28-30

I accept, Jesus…I accept.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky

Before we move forward into Chapter Two, I think it would be helpful to “step back” for a moment and re-examine the structure of John’s Gospel, to better comprehend the message he intends to convey. John is writing a theological text, an apologetics primer, and an evangelism training manual all at the same time. He carefully selects incidents and events that illustrate particular aspects of the person of Jesus, as He revealed Himself on earth. In Chapters 2-4, John focuses on Jewish cultural institutions and religious festivals, contrasting the peoples’ habits and expectations with the abundant fulfillment promised in Jesus. Usually, He is misunderstood, giving us some irony, humor, and conviction all at the same time.

In this section we also see the first of John’s Seven Signs, his name for Jesus’ miracles. Five of these seven are unique to this Gospel, but that makes them no less valid. Jesus obviously performed untold numbers of  healings and other miracles which are not explicitly detailed in the bible; John even tells us that. But the ones he does highlight particularly fit the circumstances they occur in, to allow John to develop his themes. Next week we will begin to examine these themes in Chapter Two, verses 1-12, as we attend a wedding with the Lord and His disciples, and see Jesus challenge Jewish ideas and traditions about purification.

On Mondays I present short versions of the Sunday school lessons I teach at my home church. We are studying the Gospel of John, with the focus of seeing Jesus as the Apostle wishes: the holy Son of God; the Messiah prophesied by all of the Old Testament; the fulfillment of God’s plan of redemption. Once we see Him, we will have to believe, and thus be saved.  Scripture references are NIV unless otherwise noted.

This has been a very strange week…one of those “calm before the storm” moments. There is much change in the near future, on so many levels: a nation faces a hotly contested Presidential election, which promises no real resolution regardless of who wins, and often brings out the worst in well-meaning but misguided people; as an employee, I’m working hard to transition my career track in a new direction, creating a job description which currently does not exist (but I think I can demonstrate it should, and that I should do it); my  church faces a pastoral election, no less hotly contested, which absolutely determines the future of the only body of believers I have ever belonged to; which forces me, as a man responding to a very clear calling into vocational ministry (which I imagine is still further down the line, after some training and mentoring by someone with more experience and I pray, more wisdom), into recognizing my doubts and fears for what they are – prideful lies I tell myself, so I don’t have to trust God when things take unexpected turns. I am a sinful man, who forgets sometimes how good and perfect the grace of God is, and tries so hard to mold myself into what I think God wants me to be, instead of allowing Him to mold me into the shape of His pleasure; and I am a husband and best friend, watching my partner struggle through the days of her disease, knowing that God also works in doctors and drugs, but sometimes wishing He had chosen a different way, because this way hurts just to watch – I cannot imagine what she feels, she humbles me by how she responds to it. Her faith, her continued concern for and ministry to others, her joy in life in spite of cancer and cancer treatment (which is almost worse than the illness)…these things also remind me that grace is in effect in the lives of all believers. I believe that as Christians we all need those reminders now and again, and that is why God allows stuff to happen…to deepen our  faith in Him. Other people teach a different interpretation – that grace is what keeps God’s people happy healthy and wealthy, and if you aren’t, you need to be working on your faith and confessing your sin, and maybe not in that order!

This brings me to the topic for this week: What does grace mean to you, in your day-to-day life? I am being vague on purpose, because I don’t want to limit the discussion, so feel free to share an example from your life, or a favorite teaching, or whatever. I’m looking forward to hearing from you.

Following hard (so hard it hurts sometimes) after Him,

Nick