Archive for November, 2012

Yes, it has been some time (feels like way too long) since I’ve posted anything. There’s no one singular reason, just a feeling that I needed to get some other things lined up in their proper priority, before I returned to my work here.

Last we met, I was just returning from the Kairos weekend at Eastham Prison. As always, God is glorified during these events, and hope in a life with Christ becomes something our Participants can grab onto with both hands, and make into a reality for themselves. I am honored and humbled to share in such rewarding and meaningful service to the Kingdom of God.

I am also honored and humbled to serve Him at my home church, stretching beyond what I thought I could do, and more importantly, what I thought I should do, and into the newly discovered country of continuing in faith what I was already doing, and no more than that. I have found myself flat upon my face a great many times the last couple of weeks, oscillating between thankfulness at His grace and mercy, and disgust at my own sinful heart; He is revealing things about myself I would rather not have known, but it is His infinite wisdom that prevails…thus may I be healed when I ask forgiveness for my pride, for my lack of trust, for my refusal to follow Him and only Him.

I am also honored and humbled by the level of trust displayed by my employer, who has helped me create the perfect working environment for my needs at this time, while still maintaining productivity and profitability on multiple jobs for multiple clients…I could not imagine a better training scenario, and I am getting paid for it – who writes this stuff?

Beyond all this, Karen is tolerating chemo far better than either of us ever dared to hope. It is wearing on her – the blood counts are dropping, the energy level is dropping, and we are both just a touch paranoid about cold and flu season this year – but she is still willing to make plans and do things, and we are grateful to God more than we can express in mere words.

So I am working out what my actual schedule is, and how much time it leaves me for writing. I am still trying to live my life according to this bible verse; I am learning that it often means doing less things, with more quality. This is a valuable lesson, but I must fight against the reflexive response to abandon everything in frustration, or else I have learned nothing of balance. This is the hardest part for me, but the most important.

What that means for you, O Constant Reader, is that you will have to settle for a few less posts a week. but hopefully those that do appear will be worthy of this blog’s title. The bible lessons will resume next week…I hate to leave a great story when it’s just getting started, even when I’ve seen it before! Beyond that, we will see what each day brings. I seem to be a in a transitional interval – some things have changed, more are going to change, and this is the breath in between; the trick is to remember that life does not stand still, and there is work to do while we are waiting. I will be sending out the occasional update as I navigate this strange country, and deal with the low-level anxiety of not knowing exactly where I am going. Please keep me in your prayers.

Following hard after Him,

and some days are harder than others,

Nicky

Tune in tomorrow…

Posted: November 13, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Folks, real life has once again reared its ugly head…nothing urgent or evil, just a whole lot of normal stuff that piled up while I was away serving at the prison, plus a lot to do at the church.

Regular programming will resume as soon as I catch up, a day or so I think. Keep watching…it only gets better!

Following hard after Him, (and this week I am sore),

Nicky

Just so you know…

Posted: November 11, 2012 in Uncategorized
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I apologize for not posting last night, but a series of unfortunate incidents did some injury to my to- do list. Let me explain… it’s a good quick story.

Karen has not yet been called to serve on the Outside team for a Kairos weekend, but she always attends the Closing. This year’s sudden drop in attendees from my church created a logistics problem – I had no driver from Houston to the prison for Karen. Three consecutive contingencies fell through, and I was left with only one option. I left the base camp at 10:30, drove home, packed up Karen and drove back. We got to bed at 2:30, up at 5:30, in the gate at seven; by worked the day with the Outside team and came in with them for Closing. We got home two hours ago, and here we are.

I need a day or so to process, so look for that post on Tuesday. Short version: God’s grace is greater than the darkest prison cell, and tonight forty-two men shouted out in joy, celebrating that truth for themselves. He is mighty to save!

Tomorrow will be the regular lesson in John’s Gospel. Now it’s off to bed, due at the office at seven am. Good night, and may God grant you that same measure of joy.

Following hard,

Who is the church? WE ARE!

Posted: November 9, 2012 in Uncategorized
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That declaration sums up the theme of the first full day in the prison. The program is a short course in the Gospel, with a series of ten talks and related activities, where we try to express the wonderful gifts of love and forgiveness that Jesus offers to all who will accept Him. Today’s focus is on ourselves; we talk about personal responsibility, and how the choices we make have costs and consequences. We talk about how God wants a relationship with us, and about how He provides a community to help us maintain that relationship. Tomorrow the discussion will center on forgiveness – both receiving it and giving it, as a means of overcoming negative choices in the past, and empowering better decisions in the future.

I delivered my talk this morning, and as usual, the Lord replaced many of many words with His own; sometimes I wish we could record this stuff, because I don’t really hear what I’m saying… I’m too busy listening to the Spirit in my ear informing my speech as I give it! I know I was used today,I could see the lights coming on in their eyes as I spoke.

Giving that talk was the hardest thing I have ever done. God required me to share a part of my testimony I never talk about, things I am truly ashamed of… but apparently they needed to hear it- half a dozen men came up after to tell me I was giving their story. That’s how this works… He uses what He has done in our lives to demonstrate what He can do in their lives, that they may have hope, which is in very short supply in that place. (Many of these men will likely die in there, it is a maximum security unit.) It’s that opportunity that draws me here, the chance to relay the message that it’s never too late to come to the cross, lay our burdens down, and find rest.

I am excited by what tomorrow will bring, and exhausted from today, so it’s off to bed and up early again in the morning. I will break normal scheduling and post through the weekend to finish the story for you. Next week when I’m back home I’ll share some links to the ministry, in case you ever feel moved to learn more about prison work, and how you can get involved. See you tomorrow!

Following hard after Him,

Introductions and introspections

Posted: November 8, 2012 in Uncategorized
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Today was meet and greet at the prison: we bring our participants in, sit 75 people in a circle, and speak a minute or so each on who we are, where we’re from, etc. In a group this size that takes some time, and I found myself listening to their answers and remembering what my time behind bars was like. That’s one reason I do this work – I can relate to the hopelessness in here, and I think Jesus is a better answer.

All that remembering makes me that much more grateful to God for saving Me from myself… in the morning I get to deliver the opening talk, my topic is Choices. We want these men to understand that they got where they are in life because they made choices that had consequences. All choices do; no matter how badly we want to escape it, we must all eventually pay. (Prison makes that message easier to receive) We aren’t trying to make them feel bad, but until men realize they are responsible for what they so, how can repentance even seem reasonable?

But, man, writing that talk sure does me no gentle kindness. God doesn’t waste anything…He gives me this assignment, and gets two rounds of soul searching for His money! There are still many things I must repent of, many choices I have made from selfish or unkind motives, that Jesus is not gonna let me make it on – I have to choose to change. He is Lord, and I must submit, lest He say, “I never knew you.”

That’s all for tonight, got some other work to do before bed, and we go in at seven am. Look for another update tomorrow.

Following hard after Him,

Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you are also in the body.

This weekend I am serving with the Kairos prison ministry at Eastham Unit in Lovelady, TX. Please be in prayer for the men, the volunteers, the staff, and for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus Clears the Temple (2:13-25) – John now shifts the scene and the focus (remember, this Gospel jump-cuts). In Cana we saw Jesus replacing in Himself the Jewish ideas of purification; here, in Jerusalem, He is being held up against the traditional heart of Jewish worship and identity…the Temple. Jesus’ famous righteous anger is on display, but also famously misinterpreted…used to justify all manner of things not intended by the Lord. Let’s go to the text:

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts He found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to Him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple He had spoken of was His body. 22 After He was raised from the dead, His disciples recalled what He had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

23 Now while He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs He was performing and believed in His name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for He knew what was in each person.

(v.16-17) – Jesus tells us as much about the nature of His anger by what He doesn’t do, as by what He says and does. Notice that He does not open the cages and release the doves (contrary to every movie director’s dramatic vision) – that would deprive the vendors of their livelihood, adding injustice, not relieving it. No, Jesus tells them to get the merchandise out of the Temple, and return it to its original purpose: a holy place, set aside to the Lord. Jesus also again identifies Himself explicitly as the Son of God by calling it “My Father’s house”; the text quotes Psalm 69:9 as the thought that comes to their minds (a direct Messianic claim), but other passages surely resonated in their memories: the prophets Jeremiah, Zechariah (read “Caananite” as “merchant”), and Malachi all spoke against the manner in which the people regarded the house of the Lord, and the consequences of it. So the injustice that outrages Jesus and inspires His anger is the injustice of the people disregarding the house of the Lord – turning a holy place into a market place, and in the process making themselves the true objects of worship.

(v.18-22) – I find it interesting that the Temple authorities (“the Jews” to John) do nothing to stop Jesus during His rampage, or even to restrain or dispose of Him once He is finished; instead, they ask Him for His credentials! Remember how they questioned John the Baptist about the source of his authority to baptize? For these Jews, it’s all about authority, and they are quick to confront anything or anyone that challenges them. They demand a sign to prove that Jesus has the right to do such things and make such statements – but in all truth they do not expect one. This is a legal formality which allows them to bring a charge of heresy and blasphemy, citing the lack of a sign as proof of falseness.  In His response, Jesus makes the ultimate claim, foreshadowing His death on the cross (“My hour”, as He called it in verse four above) and resurrection on the third day. “This temple” obviously (to us and to John) refers to Jesus’ own body; to the Jews this was nothing short of a declaration of war on their status quo. By naming His own body as “the temple”, Jesus asserts that He will replace it as the economic/cultural/religious center of the Kingdom of heaven. This is so radical an idea that the Jews miss it entirely, pointing at the brick-and-mortar building instead of what it represented – another of the classical misunderstandings that John employs again and again, to illustrate the darkness of the world and how Jesus comes as the true Light. Note that we see the seeds of faith being planted; as the disciples “recalled” these words and events after the resurrection, their fulfillment was biblical-grade proof of the truthfulness of the prophet speaking them, and inspired belief. It is this kind of reasonable faith that Jesus seeks to inspire – we can believe in God, because we have seen proof of Him in Jesus Christ.

(v.23-25) – This closing passage is another evidence that John is not trying to give an exhaustive account of Jesus’ life and ministry; he chooses to highlight specific examples that make the case for him. However, we also see one common thread: whenever Jesus acts, people are drawn to it, and in the heat of that moment they can believe anything, and make sincere professions of faithfulness. But, in a display of His divine nature, He knows that many, if not most, of these shallow commitments will wither away, and so “Jesus would not entrust Himself to them.” This passage, to me, is another evidence that not all those who profess His name are actually His – clearly the text says He can and does withhold Himself, and this would explain how He could say to them, “I never knew you.”

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.

A Reasonable Faith: Well, OK…, You Wanted it, You Got It.

Jesus Clears the Temple (2:13-25) – John now shifts the scene and the focus (remember, this Gospel jump-cuts). In Cana we saw Jesus replacing in Himself the Jewish ideas of purification; here, in Jerusalem, He is being held up against the traditional heart of Jewish worship and identity…the Temple. Jesus’ famous righteous anger is on display, but also famously misinterpreted…used to justify all manner of things not intended by the Lord. Let’s go to the text:

13 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, Jesus went up to Jerusalem. 14 In the temple courts He found people selling cattle, sheep and doves, and others sitting at tables exchanging money. 15 So He made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple courts, both sheep and cattle; He scattered the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. 16 To those who sold doves He said, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” 17 His disciples remembered that it is written: “Zeal for your house will consume me.” 18 The Jews then responded to Him, “What sign can you show us to prove your authority to do all this?” 19 Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.” 20 They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and You are going to raise it in three days?” 21 But the temple He had spoken of was His body. 22 After He was raised from the dead, His disciples recalled what He had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken.

23 Now while He was in Jerusalem at the Passover Festival, many people saw the signs He was performing and believed in His name. 24 But Jesus would not entrust Himself to them, for He knew all people. 25 He did not need any testimony about mankind, for He knew what was in each person.

(v.13) – Passover (Unleavened Bread) was one of three mandatory annual festivals (Pentecost Firstfruits and Tabernacles Ingathering being the other two) prescribed by Mosaic law. Jesus’ attendance is another demonstration of how He came to live in righteous fulfillment of the Law on our behalf. As a side note, this is the first of three distinct references to a Passover in John’s Gospel, which is internal evidence that Jesus had an earthly ministry lasting 2 1/2 -3 years.

(v.14-15) – Both the sale of animals and the exchange of currency were not uncommon practices in Jewish history: as Judaism spread, proselytes remained in their native lands and cultures, rather than relocating; yet, with laws stipulating attendance at the Temple, offerings of ritually clean animals, and payments of the temple tax due only in shekels, it should not be a surprise that vendors would exist to supply these needs. In ordinary circumstances, one would find these sellers and traders in the street marketplace, convenient to the Temple, the travelers, and to food/water/stalls for the animals. So why are they inside the Temple courtyards? Once again, we need to turn to cultural context for our answers. Think about what is was like for the Jews living in Roman-occupied Palestine: the Empire financed its operations on the taxes, tariffs, fees, and permits levied against subject populations; one rare exception was a general exemption on activities related to and occurring within the local “holy temples”; Rome had adopted a policy allowing indigenous religious practices to remain in place, as long as at least token worship of Caesar was included, and sedition was not preached.  This had a calming effect on the people, making keeping the peace much simpler. The Temple officials faced a dilemma: allow the Romans to tax and regulate the sale of sacrificial animals and currency exchange (which would happen if they remained out in the streets), or move it all inside the compound, into the Outer Courts, also known as the Courts of the Gentiles…as far inside as any non-Jew could go.  They chose the latter. Sure, there were some trade-offs – the noise, the smells, the crowds – but they consoled themselves with the facts that 1. They could go further inside to get away from the distasteful stuff; and 2. They kept all the money collected in fees from the “preferred vendors” allowed inside, and largely avoided Roman oversight. Of course they would not allow blatant cheating or gouging (in fact, they did), but buyers lose most or all of  their haggling position when faced with a single source and an unavoidable demand. Given the realities of the times, why would Jesus have such a violent and dramatic reaction? Where is the love, man?

Unfortunately, the mental picture many readers have of Christ brandishing a bullwhip and wreaking havoc are more products of Hollywood than a clear reading of the original language of Scripture. John does not linger on the details, he is assuming a great deal of prior knowledge, but the “cords” Jesus fashions into His whip are better thought of as long slender grass stalks, much like hay, which would naturally be found anywhere animals were; braiding these is a slow, tedious, deliberate process, and yields something more akin to a drover’s brush than Indy’s leather lash. Jesus is going to empty the room, yes, but He has no desire or reason to injure anyone. He moves the people and animals out with an unmistakable demonstration of authority, and nobody gets hurt in the process. (Besides, weapons were not allowed within the Temple complex, so what observant Jew would sit down in the Courts and make one?) Jesus is not reacting emotionally to the scene, He is responding to something which offends Him – but what? Many teachers focus on economic injustice and racial bigotry as justifications for Jesus’ anger, and these are indeed themes that the Lord addresses several times, but  He is about to make it abundantly clear where His priorities lie.

(Check back tomorrow for the conclusion…the depth of background info needed to receive the message in context requires a lot of words, so I will break here for now.)

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.

There are a couple of guys I met through the prison ministry I serve with; they have become very good friends and Christian brothers (my wife jokes and calls them ” Bert and Ernie” ) We try to meet up once a week for a couple of hours, to share advice, prayers, and accountability, and generally just to discuss how God is working on us. So we met up tonight, and we got to talking about different purposes that “church” is supposed to serve. Bert has recently left the Methodist mega-church he attended for several years, looking for something more “authentic”. (Ernie is still a member at that church, and he feels fulfilled there; and my readers know about the little Southern Baptist church I belong to.) Bert now attends a non-denominational, “coffee-shop” church, which he likes, but he is missing the structural stuff that large bodies tend to do well, you know: small groups, bible studies, discipleship…it’s there, he feels, he just hasn’t connected to it yet. Ernie commented that the mega-Methodists have those programs down to a science; everywhere you go, there is something to get involved in, and most of it is “plug-and-play” as he put it. Meanwhile, my fellowship is in limbo – we need to start almost literally from nothing; we have two elders; one deacon (me); three teachers (I’m one of them); one “pulpit filler” (me again); two people who can run the lights and sound (me and one other) and no permanent pastor to help guide the re-building as of yet (probably not me, but who knows?)

All this talk of activities and programs and “doing” has me thinking again about the purposes of church. The bible speaks much in the book of Acts about what the first-century church was doing; Paul teaches at length regarding attitudes and practices within the body of believers, but I still have questions for those who sit beside me or in front of me every Sunday: What are we gathering together for? I get different answers – we gather to exhort and encourage each other; or we gather to receive instruction and training for our work for the Kingdom; or we meet to hear the Word of God proclaimed; or we meet to see to it that the needs of the body are being met; or we meet for corporate praise and worship. The more honest ones will say it’s all about us – “celebrating life together in oneness in Him”; the more contrite ones will say that we meet only to be empowered to go out – that we are to be looking outward, not inward. Problem is, I think they are all right; or they are all wrong; or I don’t know what I think, is the best answer I have right now. That’s OK, because, to paraphrase a character in a Heinlein sci-fi novel, true knowledge only begins when we can honestly say, “I don’t know.” (Why, I may be on the brink of genius!)

I’ve read the proverbial s**tload o’ books, and I follow a lot of bloggers who have opted out of “traditional churches”, and they seem fulfilled and connected to what God has for them where they are…but I’m not feeling a pull to leave this place…I’m feeling the call to help it realize it’s full potential. With all the changes we have going on, everything is on the table; I may never see an opportunity like this again –  to plant an idea that could have an impact that extends beyond my own personal reach…and I don’t want to waste it. So I’m gonna go bold, and go public, and ask YOU, Dear Readers, for some input.

If you could re-build a church, what would you HAVE to have, and what would you HAVE to keep out? I am only one voice in this conversation, but I will have my turn to speak…what should I say? Let me hear from you in the comments, I will leave this one open for dialogue if it gets lively.

Following hard after Him,

Nicky