Archive for January, 2013

(Originally delivered 1-20-13)

Today this nation observes one of its most significant rituals – Inauguration Day, a time set aside for the administration of a solemn oath to the President-elect for his upcoming term of office. By law, the Inauguration takes place on January 20, so Barack Obama, honoring the precedents set by the six previous occasions this date has occurred on a Sunday, will participate in a private ceremony at the White House this morning, with the public event occurring tomorrow in front of the Capital Building. The oath which he will swear requires the President to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States”. This is not a mandate to serve any specific group of people, or a government, or even a nation; it is instead a calling to preserve a set of ideals: a way of thinking about what our leaders should and should not do to and for those under their authority.

In New Testament times, the religious leaders of that era, the Sanhedrin, were likewise not concerned with serving a people, or protecting a nation – in truth, as a puppet state under Roman occupation, they had very little say in these matters. Instead, they also felt called to preserve a set of ideals: the Torah – the Law of Moses – and the Talmud – a compilation of the remainder of the oral traditions of Judaism (Mishna) and centuries of accumulated commentary (Gemara). One sect, the Pharisees, considered themselves the “experts” on the Law and its many detailed interpretations, and jealously guarded their authority to tell the people what they could and could not do in their service to God.

Whenever Jesus interacted with the Jewish religious leaders, they always brought up the subject of “authority” – usually in the form of demands that Jesus explain or defend His actions, and demonstrate the source of His authority to do and say the things He did and said. When He responded to them (He didn’t always), He often cited the very Scriptures the Pharisees claimed such expertise over, particularly the writings of Moses, such as we see recorded in John 5:39-40, and then in verses 45-47:

 “You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you have eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about Me, yet you refuse to come to Me to have life…But do not think I will accuse you before the Father. Your accuser is Moses, on whom your hopes are set. If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me. But since you do not believe what he wrote, how are you going to believe what I say?”

 Over and over, Jesus stated that His authority was from the Father, and His calling was to do the will of the Father, to make the Kingdom of heaven present on earth, as we see when Jesus teaches His disciples to pray in Matthew 6:10-

 “Your kingdom come,Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

When Jesus had completed His work on earth, having shed His blood on the cross, been buried in the tomb, and risen again; and was about to return to the Father’s right hand, He passed that authority on to His disciples, and to us, the church of Jesus Christ, with an unmistakable mandate, a Great Commission:

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

This appearance of the risen Christ occurs at the very end of Matthew’s Gospel, but it is not the last time Jesus speaks to His followers in Galilee. Scripture shows us another meeting by the shore of the sea, this time at the end of John’s Gospel, Chapter 21:15-22, our anchor text for today. We heard it read earlier, let’s look at it together now:

 When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”  The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow me!” Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray You?”) When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow Me.”

 Today I want to examine in more detail the way Jesus poses His questions, the way Peter responds, and how Jesus in turn commands Him…because we read it today and see the same words used in each instance; but language and cultural differences obscure the fact that there are two different ideas being discussed, and three distinct mandates. And those distinctions are important…perhaps the MOST important things for us today, as we ask ourselves, “How do we love Him?”

We cannot look at this story without thinking of how Peter had previously denied Jesus three times…the parallel is so obvious that I can only believe it is intentional; that we are meant to compare this scene to the other. I am referring, of course, to the events occurring after Jesus is betrayed by Judas and arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Let’s pick up the story in Luke 22:54-62 –

Then seizing [Jesus], they led Him away and took Him into the house of the high priest. Peter followed at a distance. And when some there had kindled a fire in the middle of the courtyard and had sat down together, Peter sat down with them. A servant girl saw him seated there in the firelight. She looked closely at him and said, “This man was with Him.” But he denied it. “Woman, I don’t know Him,” he said. A little later someone else saw him and said, “You also are one of them.” “Man, I am not!” Peter replied. About an hour later another asserted, “Certainly this fellow was with Him, for he is a Galilean.” Peter replied, “Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about!” Just as he was speaking, the rooster crowed. The Lord turned and looked straight at Peter. Then Peter remembered the word the Lord had spoken to him: “Before the rooster crows today, you will disown Me three times.” And he went outside and wept bitterly.

Recall that, only a short while before this, Peter had made some very bold claims about the quality of his faithfulness, saying he would follow Jesus to his death if need be; the bitterness of his tears comes from the realization of his weakness. Indeed, at the beginning of John 21, despite having seen his Lord risen from the grave, Peter has returned to fishing, with several of the others accompanying him on the boat. Scripture is not explicit about Peter’s emotional state, but let me hazard a guess: I have been in the place of having made big promises that I could not live up to;  feeling unworthy because of it; deciding that maybe it would be better if I just went back to doing what I knew I was good at, and leaving the boldness to others…and I would be willing to bet that I’m not the only one. Today, on this side of history, we have the advantage of knowing how this story works out: Peter, along with the other disciples and followers of Jesus, receives the infilling of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, becoming a powerful and persuasive preacher and leader of the church in Jerusalem, and later in the great churches of Antioch and Rome; in fact, the Roman Catholic tradition venerates Peter as the “First Pope”. But Peter doesn’t know that, does he? He certainly believes in Jesus, but I have to wonder how much he believes in himself right at this moment. I believe this is why Jesus speaks to him directly, to restore Peter from “fisherman” to “fisher of men”, to bring home to Peter the truth of forgiveness and redemption – the same truth that applies to each and every one of us here today: the truth that the grace of God overcomes all our weaknesses, and provides the means for us to carry on the work of the Kingdom here on earth.

I said a minute ago that language obscures some important distinctions in this passage, so let me now unpack that, by looking at the text in the original Greek. Let’s begin in v.15, and you’ll see what I mean – (I will address Jesus’ responses in a minute; for now let’s focus on the question and answer portion):

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love Me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My lambs.”

The word for “love” that Jesus uses – agapao – speaks of unconditional love; love with no regard to circumstance, worthiness, emotion, or behavior; love based on intention and commitment; a decision instead of a reaction. His comment “more than these” is a direct reference to Peter’s bragging in the upper room – since that is what it was – when Peter said that, no matter what anyone else did, HE would stand the test…and then he didn’t. Jesus wants Peter to confront his shame and failure, but at first Peter dodges the issue; the word he answers with – phileo – carries the idea of affection for someone, liking a person because you have something in common, or some situation that would build closeness: the “band of brothers” kind of love that develops between teammates; or coworkers; or soldiers; …or disciples of one master. This kind of love depends on the situation; once the bond is broken, the love can fade away. This is all Peter is willing to own up to, at this point….but Jesus know better than that. In v.16, Jesus repeats the question, but more directly –

Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Take care of My sheep.”

This second query follows the pattern of the first: Jesus says agapao, Peter answers phileo – Jesus is asking for total commitment, but Peter can only promise the passion of the moment. He knows that he has failed his Lord: when it came down to it, his fear for his personal safety was greater than his love for the One he followed – the promises of what was to come were overshadowed by the certainty of what he could see right in front of him. (In all fairness, Peter was not alone: all the disciples scattered; most of them were on the boat fishing with Peter at the beginning of Chapter 21; but I believe Peter is singled out because he did the loudest boasting, and thus had the greatest shame.) I can understand the nature if that fear: the Jewish authorities were working hand in hand with the Romans to preserve the “peace” in Jerusalem, as well as their own position; had they allowed the uprising of Jesus and His followers to continue,  Rome would have certainly brought down brutal retribution to squash any dissent – and replaced those in leadership with someone more effective, something that had occurred more than once within the experience of all those present. Peter believed that Jesus was who He said He was, the resurrection was His obvious testimony…but Peter also knew that death by the sword was ever-present, lurking in the background, waiting for any excuse to manifest itself. Being human comes with human fears, and dependence on human sensibilities for survival; and at this point, human ability was all Peter had to go on… Pentecost was still to come, the Holy Spirit had not yet descended upon the church.  Jesus knows this, too, but He wants Peter to see beyond that – to remember the trust developed in the years they have spent together, the bond they had formed while sleeping, eating, walking, talking, teaching, preaching, healing, 24/7/365… so He persists in His questioning – look at v.17:

The third time He said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love Me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love Me?” He said, “Lord, You know all things; You know that I love You.” Jesus said, “Feed My sheep.”

This time, Jesus meets Peter halfway – phileo instead of agapao – saying that He knows this is the best Peter can do, but if he will commit that much, it is enough. This is important, because the pain Peter feels comes from his acknowledgment of his own unworthiness, his confession made in repentance. Jesus has finally brought Peter to the point of surrender, of submission, the place where each of us must come to before we can fully receive what Jesus has to offer us. As long as we are willing to make excuses for ourselves…to say, “It’s too hard to follow Jesus, and live for Him, and love Him like I should…I’m just a fisherman, I quit”…we will never be able to enter the Kingdom of heaven. Jesus looked right at Peter after he had denied Him three times, and Peter ran away in shame. This time, Jesus is looking right at Peter after he has confirmed his love for him three times – the only love he is capable of, but love nonetheless…and Peter does not run away; and because of that, Jesus responds with compassion and forgiveness…and a promise, a prophecy – let’s read v.18-19:

“Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then He said to him, “Follow Me!”

That image of “stretching out your hands” had a very specific connotation to the people in first century Palestine – it meant that person would be crucified, their hands tied or nailed to a cross to be executed. Remember Peter bragging that he would follow Jesus to death if it was required of him? Jesus had answered him that it would not happen as Peter imagined it, but that it would happen – here Jesus repeats that prophesy, and in fact Peter did die by crucifixion at the hands of the Roman emperor Nero, as an older man, some thirty years after Jesus; church tradition states that he was tied to his cross, rather than nailed, and hung upside down by his own request, since he considered himself less worthy than Jesus, and wished his head to point down towards earth, rather than up towards heaven. Jesus last words in v.18, “Follow Me!” should be considered at a renewal of Peter’s calling as an apostle, a command to continue in what he had been doing all along – living out the fulfillment of the Kingdom of heaven on earth.

Now, let me back up and collect the loose ends: the responses Jesus has each time Peter affirms his love. At first glance it might seem that each is a simple repetition, but this is not the case – none of us here today are farmers or shepherds, so we are simply unfamiliar with the care of sheep, and we miss the nuances. I feel, however, that the subtle differences in these three statements actually comprise the job description for a pastor, so I want to quickly go over them. Let’s put all three statements together, and you will see what I mean:

v.15 – “Feed My lambs.” – means to nurture the newborns and get them started

v.16 – “Take care of My sheep.” – means to watch over and guide the flock

v.17 – “Feed My sheep.” – means to ensure the flock is well fed on good pasture

If we compare this to the Great Commission we looked at earlier, we see that each has a correspondence: “lambs” refers to new believers, those to whom we preach the Gospel and baptize into the community of faith; “caring for sheep” can be seen as the work of correction and rebuke that is required on an ongoing basis to make disciples; “feeding sheep” refers to the instruction in God’s Word that we who are more mature are called to do to for and among our brothers and sisters, that they may also grow in spiritual maturity and godliness…a process that all of us should be willing to be a part of, in submission to the Holy Spirit and the ongoing work of sanctification we are expected to participate in, as we await the return of our Lord, on that day when we are lifted up by Him and presented to the Father. I personally believe that we are all under these commands, but especially those of us called into leadership – the preachers, the teachers, the pastors – we have a special gifting that allows us to serve the Kingdom of God in a special way, and this interaction we see between Jesus and Peter is a blessing and a reminder that, even when our human natures cause us to stumble or fail, Jesus will hear our confessions, and receive us back to resume our ministry, to be His hand and feet here on earth. We may not be capable of agape love on our own; in fact I am certain we are not; but Jesus is, and by His Spirit residing in us, we can love Him as He loves us.

Let’s close with the final verses of this passage. I believe this serves us as a reminder that we are to say focused on what God is doing in OUR lives, and how we are only responsible for how WE answer the calling He places upon each of us. Often times, we are distracted, or even discouraged, by the way another brother or sister is being used by God – we look at them and say to ourselves, “Wow, what a great work he is doing! I can’t do anything like that, why should I even bother? The Lord doesn’t need me when He has workers like that!” Peter nearly falls for this same trick of the enemy, when he asks about what Jesus has in mind for “the beloved disciple”, who is probably John himself. Jesus tells Peter straight out, “Mind your own business!” He has His entire plan in mind, and He instructs each of us in our part of it…and frankly, managing that is about as much as any of us is capable of, isn’t it? We must not get confused about this, which can happen when we take our eyes off of Jesus, and start looking at others, or ourselves. His final words are neither a suggestion nor a statement..the verb is an imperative: “You MUST follow Me!”

The ideas I have shared from this passage have been on my heart and on my mind for about a year now – in fact, ever since our pastor announced that he was leaving, and moving his ministry elsewhere. That act made real to me something I knew intellectually, but not internally….that the ways we serve God will change as we mature in Christ…or, at least, they should, if we are doing it right! Thinking that things will never change is in fact a sinful quenching of the Spirit, such as we are warned against by the writer of  Hebrews in 5:12-14 –

In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

All of us should be desiring to respond to our callings, to get up from our seats and move in His grace, to do the work He has set for us to do…so I invite you now, as we prepare to close our worship in singing today, to pray now for God to reveal how you can best serve His kingdom…to confess your fears and failures – He already knows them, after all, so He won’t think less of you for doing it – and allow Jesus to restore you to your rightful place as one of His ministers, one of His shepherds, one of those who tends His flocks. Will you stand? Will you pray with me? Will you love Jesus today?

Our brave, beautiful friend, Danni, has gone on to her eternal reward…The Lord has healed her completely, she will never suffer again.

Please continue her family in your prayers…her husband, two daughters and their husbands, and her grandchildren…they know she is in a better place, but it is still hard, coming to terms with their loss.

We all await the day we are reunited in His presence, Danni – until then, know that we love you.

It has been a very trying and taxing week in the life of a Nicky…death and discouragement have been all around, but praises to God that He is more than all the enemy could ever send against me.

Through the course of her chemo treatments (today was the last one, btw…hurrah!) Karen has made some wonderful friends; adversity is a fantastic incubator for closeness. One particular person, Danni, has really been through it – she had already undergone surgery to remove one lung, and a lemon-sized brain tumor, and met Karen while doing a course of chemo for “insurance”. Well, the chemo caused an episode of kidney failure, and while being treated for that, she suffered a stroke – which led to the discovery of a second brain tumor. At that point, Danni called BS on treatment, and said she could just ride out the rest of her life in peace and dignity. Her family consented, and the next step was moving her into hospice about a week ago. We have been visiting every other day, for as long as she has left, she will know we are here with her. Last night was hard…she kept telling her daughters “Today is the day, they are here for me.” We don’t know who she is seeing, because communication is very difficult for her, but she is convinced “they” are there, and so we wait with her…

Last Monday a dear friend from the church called me, sounding desperate, tired, and depressed – she has been fighting asthma and COPD from years of cigarettes, drugs, and life on the streets of New Orleans; the Lord rescued her from all that, and sent her to Houston in the aftermath of Katrina. She became a member of our church, and an invigorating reminder of the Holy Spirit’s transforming power – I have never in my life met anyone who more understood what it means to be redeemed. But last week, after several rounds of in-and-out at the ER, suffering pneumonia that just wouldn’t quite go away, she called me to pray with her – she said she was so tired, and hurting, and ready for God to heal her any way He wanted to, if she could only find some rest. So Friday morning, He did just that…Patricia went home to her reward, and now she is by His side: no more pain, no more sadness, received into His rest at last…

Yesterday morning, as I was making notes for the morning announcements at the worship service, I learned that the church secretary’s brother Wayne had also passed this week; he had been in the hospital for some time, and was not really expected to get better, but the loss hurts just as deeply, no matter what…

All this just kind of piled up on me, and I went and sat at the back of the church alone, to pray and collect myself to welcome the congregation, when the Lord brought back to mind a couple of passages of Scripture; some of them I had just received the other day from another blogger friend. I threw away my notes, and read these instead, and as I prayed I sensed the Holy Spirit settling over us, bringing the comfort only He can. I would like to share those verses with you…perhaps someone reading this is also in need of His touch –

When someone close to us dies, or is near death, it often helps us to remember the words of the Apostle Paul, who addresses the church at Corinth about these very concerns:

But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair;persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed…So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal…For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens… For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee.  (2 Cor 4:7-5:5, selected)

And then, while we may be comforted about our friends, we may still end up angry at God, or confused and wondering just what He is doing…if nothing happens outside of His will, what exactly is His will? These two passages explain precisely what His will is: Jesus, speaking to the crowd gathered at the seaside says,

“For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that I should lose nothing of all that He has given Me, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in Him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:38-40, emphasis added)

And then, again from Paul, this time in exhortation to the church at Thessalonica,

We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves. And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (1 Thes 5:12-18, emphasis added)

God’s will is very clear – we are to serve one another, in love that is the likeness of Christ’s love for us; and to endure in that love, so we may be lifted up in the last day. Those who have gone on ahead to glory, those already lifted up, are no longer under obligation…we who remain in this world are indeed in debt to Him whose love has redeemed us…and it is that very love, which makes all the rest something we can endure.

Hi everybody! I haven’t done much “free writing” here lately; seems like everything has been purpose-driven: sermon texts, bible studies, reblogs of (really great) work by others, and discussions in apologetics – that’s pretty much the index for the whole last month, isn’t it? Well, today I want to ramble a bit, so thanks for reading along, or you can click away…the wonderful freedom of the Internet, that no one is forced to suffer a bore! (But I really hope you aren’t bored by what I say, and if you are, why are you still reading this sentence?)

One thing on my mind is “perception”. This has been pinging at me from a few different directions lately. I live a life with many facets, like most people do, right? But it always amuses me a little when friends from one area seem stunned to learn that there is more than one side to who I am…as if the part they interact with is all there is to me, when they themselves are many-sided people…we all are, aren’t we? Or has TV corrupted our minds to the point that now we think of each other as characters in tiny little reality shows…you’re either Snooki or Honey-Boo-Boo; a ballroom dancer or a guy who makes duck calls; you bake exotic cakes or build exotic motorcycles or wear and create exotic tattoos, and that’s all I need to know. The only exception I can think of is “The Most Interesting Man in the World”, but even he exists only to hawk mediocre Mexican beer (I don’t always seem condescending, but when I do, there’s money in it!)

That last one highlights the confusing flip-side to this: the lengths fiction goes to in creating back stories for characters…imaginary people can be shallow, because they have a limited purpose and don’t need much more than shadows and suggestions for us to decide how we need to view them. Writers know this (or should know it); lazy writers use stereotypes as  a quick and easy way to get the audience where they need to be to understand the plot…who are the “bad guys”, who are the “good guys”, and what are their motives? For the purpose of entertainment, that’s fine…I really don’t want to invest a lot of time and energy “doing life” with a cartoon. But real people are not entertainment – it is very multitude of interests we have that make us worth knowing – yet we are becoming conditioned to treat everyone outside of ourselves as if they exist merely for our own benefit or amusement…and it’s working. This near-sightedness, or tunnel-vision, has direct impact on how we interact with others, but sometimes I wonder if I’m the only one who notices it. Let me share two examples from experience.

Recently, I was approached by my employer, who wanted to discuss my future with the company, so he asked me into his office and closed the door. (Does anyone ever enjoy that moment, wondering what is coming next?) He expressed his appreciation for my contributions to the company, and the efforts I have made to improve both communication between office and field, as well as efficiency in the execution of our work. Of course, I am sitting there waiting for the other shoe to drop – in the past, these speeches have proceeded an explanation of why my contributions are no longer needed – and he blows me away by telling me that he wants to invest in my future; he feels I can be of greater benefit to the company by training others in the way I approach a project than by doing the work myself. I am humbled, and grateful…with my wife’s illness, the prospect of losing by job and health insurance fills me with cold dread…and so we begin to discuss some concrete details. He was surprised to learn that I have already been through several of the management and leadership courses he had in mind; that I have previous design, engineering, and CAD experience, going back over twenty years; that I have already purchased some of the collared shirts that office employees wear instead of the logo t-shirts of field crews (out of my own pocket, because the company only provides one set of “uniform” shirts); and that I have public-speaking experience from preaching at my home church…I am much “more” than what he thought I was, and it confuses him…why I am content to “plod along”, when I could be leveraging into higher paying jobs? But I have a checkered history, which limited my options long ago; I still believe that faithfulness and loyalty count for something, even in today’s economy; and these people have been patient, understanding, and supportive of my ministry work and the difficulties of Karen’s illness…how could I receive that, and then leave because someone offered me a dollar or two more an hour?

– – –

Many of my partners in the prison ministry attend a United Methodist mega-church in one of the wealthy enclave communities that surround Houston. They have invited me to participate in any number of the “small group” activities they participate in (I guess 300 men in a discussion group is “small” when Sunday worship attendance is 8,000, but I belong to a church of less than 100, so it’s weird) and I have accepted once or twice, but the “character” disconnect seems to make it strange and uncomfortable for them. These are, by and large, good Christian men and women; but also, by and large, they are white-collar professionals, from good families, with college degrees. So when we shake hands, and they are surprised at how strong and rough my grip is from years of physical labor; or they want to meet at 6am on a weekday for coffee and fellowship, but I must decline because I am either already at the jobsite, or commuting to get there for 7am start time; or when someone asks for a donation to a worthy cause, and they reach for checkbooks and write zeros, while I’m counting cash from my billfold and thinking about how much gas I have in the truck…I am somehow “less than” the person they assume I am, and it confuses them…how can I do this ministry, giving so much to these people, when I have so little of my own?  But while we may serve as brothers and sister in Christ on the teams in the prisons, I have a substantial difference in perspective: they serve in obedience to the call of Jesus to reach “the least of these”,  and while that is also true for me, I do it more because I was once one of those “least”. There is a vast distance between “sympathy” and “empathy”, and the former does not guarantee the latter. I love my friends’ giving hearts, and how they serve because they are richly blessed; but I serve how I do precisely because I have nothing else to give except myself…and I also consider myself richly blessed.

– – –

I don’t know that any of this has a point…I said this was a ramble. So I will leave you with the closest thing to an explanation for how and why I act, work, serve and DO the things I do..I have made this a focus of my devotional time for about two years now, and it continues to inspire me; perhaps it can do the same for you: Colossians 3:23-24, NIV

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.

Posted: January 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

A DEVOTED LIFE

“We know that we are from God, and the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.” 1 John 5:19

I am a fan of the Patrick O’Brian nautical series of Captain Jack Aubrey and Dr. Stephen Maturin and the movie Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World.  I had not watched the movie or read one of the books in a while.  So, I was appreciative of an opportunity that arose over the Christmas break.

In a discussion about the actors that we enjoy and appreciate, I discovered that my in-laws had never watched the Master and Commander movie with Russell Crowe.  It was a perfect excuse to introduce them to the Patrick O’Brian story and be transported to another time and world.

When we watched the movie, I was delighted to be reminded of one of my favorite lines.

 Maturin and Aubrey had returned to the

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My friend did indeed respond, but the nature of his answer pointed out some defects with the scope and structure of my arguments; here is his response, followed by my attempt to correct and re-orient the conversation.

Well Nick, I see what you’re saying.
But Where exactly are you getting this information from? The “let there be light” comparison you’ve made..
You’re defining my nature or science as a “god” and I guess if you want to say that maybe I’m observing the nature of god, instead of the god of nature(which I guess can define religion).

But I don’t see the proof of god anywhere. Nor has any scientist. But in all fairness here, nor can we rule it out. Nor can we rule out any other god that ever existed for that matter.
The burden of proof lies on religion. You can’t win any court case without evidence being provided. If I make the claim on something then I must follow the scientific method in proving that. And that’s where religion fails. Its faith based.
And if there was a god that created the heavens, the hell, the universe and everything in between… I don’t see why’d he be so concerned about what I do or who I have sex with.. As if he doesn’t have anything else better to do. What did God do during that eternity before he created everything? If God was all that existed back then, what disturbed the eternal equilibrium and compelled him to create? Was he bored? Was he lonely? God is supposed to be perfect. If something is perfect, it is complete–it needs nothing else. We humans engage in activities because we are pursuing that elusive perfection, because there is disequilibrium caused by a difference between what we are and what we want to be. If God is perfect, there can be no disequilibrium. There is nothing he needs, nothing he desires, and nothing he must or will do. A God who is perfect does nothing except exist. A perfect creator God is impossible.

I cannot say what’s after this life.. But I have been studying this stuff called astral projecting. I’m new at it and I don’t know much- but if you do, feel free to correct me.
Basically it’s a spiritual thing. Astral projection is the separation of your spirit from your body. You’re fully aware and everything is actually happening. As crazy as this may sound, I’ve been reading people’s stories about this and what they say really influences me to want to try it. It has nothin to do with religion or god or any of that. But they say it does indeed answer some of life’s big questions. There’s testimonies where people can visit absolutely anywhere at anytime. France, Germany, ocean floors and even space. But what really gets me is when they say they visit other dimensions… They say there’s a higher state of mind at higher frequencies. A serenity- a tranquility. Most call it the heavens, or whatever you classify it as.. It’s there. And everyone can experience it. They also say higher beings with a higher conscience exist- and most call them angles, guardians or spirit guides. And again, it’s nothing to do with religion. It’s actually a new type of science. Now, I’m not sure how true this is, nor am I saying that this is the answer.. But you have to approach it with an open mind. I am doing some research on it. I watch some of these videos on YouTube where a guy talks about this.. And he breaks it down a lot. He gives resources about what he’s saying and really goes into depth with it. His videos are actually animated so to me, they seem less boring lol. I’ll give you a link to his first video.. He breaks the episodes down into chapters. It’s very interesting and he does point out many religions, including Christianity and the bible. Again, I’m not saying this is the answer.. But I think it should be considered ya know.

Here’s the link:

I have not included the link, because it is not germane, as I point out below; if anyone does want to see it, reply in the comments and I will post it for you. Anyway, here is my reply:

OK, this is a very interesting response. I do believe that I see one common error we are both making, and that is that we are over-generalizing, and this is causing the waters to get a little murky…I first defined “religion” as “the response of humans to the concept of a personal creator God”, and then later tried to apply the same term to atheists – obviously I cannot have it both ways, so let me rather use the term “theistic worldview”, and narrow that down to include only those who believe the universe was created by an intelligent, personal Being; the actual nature of that Being may differ from one school of thought to another, but those are differences of style, not of kind. You seem to be using “religion” to mean collectively, all schools of thought which believe in a personal creator God, and that term would better describe the response of a particular “style group” within the larger “theistic” set; because the way any “religion” answers the questions of life will vary according to their particular interpretation of the nature of the Being. A better term for the opposite view to a “theistic worldview” is obviously “atheistic worldview”, which we can then define as “those who deny the existence of any personal Being as the universal creator”; this leaves an equal amount of room for differences of style within the same kind, and a variety of ways to answer those questions of life, which you rightly point out are universal to all humanity. I have a theistic worldview, and within that I have a series of truth statements I use to further make rational distinctions to answer some of the questions of life. I think that you are claiming an atheistic worldview, and you also have a series of truth statements that you use to make rational distinctions about the questions of life. What I am working towards is trying to understand your worldview, not disprove it…so my questions are directed, first to see if I have an accurate understanding of your general worldview, and then towards the nature of your truth statements. I will be happy to reciprocate, but only if you are asking real questions, not making belittling attacks against what you think I believe, and then only if you are willing to answer my questions…a fair dialogue can enhance both our understandings, anything else is a pointless waste of both our time, wouldn’t you agree? I think we should settle these basic questions, before we go off on tangents (like the “Spirit science” videos you link to, or my particular thoughts on morality, as from the previous thread). Let’s deal with one level of our beliefs at a time, OK?

What follows is a Facebook post I made to a young man who once attended church with us, until roughly around the time he graduated high school. Shortly after, he began proclaiming publicly that he had become an atheist, and how glad he was that he no longer had to suffer under the lies and mythology of Christianity;  in essence, he has taken whole-heartedly to the cause of the New Atheists; often cut-and-pasting large swaths of text directly from some leading atheistic websites to his Facebook feed. We had the conversation I refer to, spanning a couple of days, after he posted some particularly offensive (to me) and inflammatory comments concerning the Immaculate Conception; my intent was to try to get him to think about the logical inconsistencies inherent to a relativistic view of morality. (I did not succeed… he has become quite adept at re-direction, avoiding the question, and setting up straw-man arguments to swat down and proclaim “victory” over, when there was not a battle going on in the first place.)

I posted this to his page, and I’m waiting to see how he responds, indeed if he does. I thought I might post it here as well…can anyone suggest how I could improve my position? Reply in the comments, I can always use some help.

(name withheld), I was re-reading the conversation from the other day, and I realized something…we actually have the same basic belief system…only the nature of the creator is different, and thus the logical conclusions we separately arrive at. Let me explain…

My God is benevolent, personal, and intimately involved with His creation; creation was a deliberate act of His will. Despite our indifference to Him, or reluctance to acknowledge Him, He still loves us enough to hold us accountable for our decisions, because we have the free will to choose to respond to Him or not; this process is what many call “religion”, in all it’s many forms. There is more to the world than the merely physical, but I do not expect to understand all of it; I admit that I am not omniscient, and I must trust in a higher intelligence than my own to administer how it works. There is something waiting for us after this phase of existence is over, which gives me reason to hope.

Your god is random chance: indifferent, irresponsible, and impersonal. The creation was an accident (and how does the “big bang” look or function any differently than “Let there be..and there was”, except in the form of intent?); everything since then is either predictable by chemistry and physics, or random occurrences, which may or may not endure; the “religion” of an atheist appears to be either science, mysticism, or some combination: either nothing exists beyond what can be measured, or things exist which we cannot measure, but must nonetheless admit are there, however irrational that may appear, so we must make up stories to explain them. At the end of life is only entropy and nothingness…a most hopeless and bleak prospect: however “good” or “bad” a life you live, by whatever standard you choose to measure that by, it all comes to naught.

Have I been inaccurate in any of this? Can you point out my logical fallacies without bringing in other irrelevancies? I am very interested in your response, please take the time to think it through, and choose your words well…I did.

Looking forward to the New Year, I present to you the text of the message I delivered this week. I hope and pray that you receive the same encouragement; and, rather than “happiness”, which is fleeting and quickly fades, you find blessings instead, which endure in spite of circumstances.

Well, well, well…we’ve come to the end of another year; and what a year 2012 has been, amen? We have seen the entire range of human experience in twelve months, from the sublime to the ridiculous: around the world we saw Olympic glory and royal weddings; we also saw regime changes, and the infamous “Arab Spring”, fueled and fostered in large part for the first time by the vastly interconnected world of social media. America has seen a President re-elected; one war brought to an end, and a timeline for ending another; while we spent untold billions of dollars landing a robot go-kart on Mars. We’ve seen uncertain economies cause unrest across Europe, Asia, and America alike, while dumbfounded citizens in more nations than I care to list wonder what exactly their elected leaders are doing about it. That is, those that are paying attention at all: Internet sites have set unbelievable records for the most traffic ever – the “Gangham Style” music video has passed one billion views on YouTube, while Facebook is viewed well over 550 billion times per month, more than the next 99 sites on the list combined. Those include Twitter at #15, Amazon at #24, and eBay at #26; even the weather comes in at #63. (Sadly, there is not a Christian website, or any other religion, for that matter, anywhere in the top 1000… and we wonder at the condition of the world today.)

Here closer to home, new babies have been born, while old friends and loved ones have gone on to glory; new brothers and sisters have joined us in serving the Lord, while others have been called to serve in other ways and other places. The end of the year is always a time to reflect, remember the good and the bad, and hope that the future will be better than the past. This hope takes many forms, and expresses itself in many ways – many of us will make or have made our list of resolutions for the New Year. I am no exception…those of you who read my blog already know; for those who don’t, I have decided that this is the time to finally walk away from the ball-and-chain I’ve been dragging behind me for thirty years… and give up cigarettes. (And if you thought I was talking about my wife Karen, shame on you!) I covet your prayers for success and God’s peace during the struggle.

Now, I’m not going into this half-hearted or blindly…I have done some research, and have learned that the people who succeed best are those who find a good substitute for the habits they want to break, something to take the place of what they are giving up – to take their minds off of it, and avoid the sense of being deprived of something. I have chosen to take up running as my substitute, and it’s not as crazy as it might sound…at my job, I work – long days of hard, physical labor that has kept me in fairly decent shape in spite of myself; I can still sprint up four floors of stairs and speak in complete sentences at the top! To help me achieve this resolution, I found a reasonable, safe, well-recommended training plan that can take you from the couch to a 5K race in ten weeks, and I’m starting tomorrow! My long term goal is to enter…and finish…the Chevron Houston Marathon in January 2014, one year from now, so please continue me in prayer for this, and from time to time, ask me how I’m doing! The accountability will be good for me, and I will be happy to do the same for you, to help you with keeping your resolutions, whatever they may be. (Shameless self-promotional note: Follow my other blog for updates on race preparations!)

This idea of giving up bad things and putting something better in their place is an echo of the words that God gave to Jeremiah, which we heard just a few minutes ago. (Jeremiah 31:27-34) The people had turned away from God, and broken His first covenant, the one He made when He brought them out of captivity, gave them the Ten Commandments, and declared Himself to be “the LORD your God”. The people had failed their end of the deal, though, and had fallen away; they had allowed their hearts to become filled with pride, with selfishness and greed, with lust and desire for the habits and practices of the other nations around them, and they were a mess. But God is faithful, even when His people are not, and so He made them a new promise, you could say He made a resolution – He would break their bad habits, and give them new ones in their place. Instead of the law written on stone tablets, He would write it on their hearts; instead of emptiness and despair, He would fill them with His Spirit. Instead of His righteous wrath in judgment, He would substitute forgiveness, and remember their sins no more. He did not expect them to repent in a vacuum… He would provide a means to accomplish all this by His own grace and love. That is the kind of resolution you can believe in: when God says He will do it, take that to the bank! And that assurance is what leads me to title today’s message, “Better Days Are Here”…because we know that what is future for us, God has already seen; we can take is as current fact, even while it’s in the process. God is not waiting for things to happen, He has already done it, the victory is already won, we are just watching the dust settle!

I have shown you the resolution that God has made, and we know that He keeps His word, praise be His name for that. We can know this because He has spoken through other prophets, and shown us that He has a plan that He is using to make it happen. Where do you think I got the inspiration to find a plan to help me keep my resolutions? I know who I am…I remember all the times I have tried to make changes on a whim, and I remember when it got hard, all the reasons excuses I made up for myself to get off the hook, and allow myself to fall back into the very habits I so desperately wanted to give up. No, to succeed I needed a plan, a way to ensure that I could persevere through the difficulty, and find victory on the other side. My anchor text for today is just one of those revelations, one example where the Lord explains how His plan will surely succeed, and what that will look like once it happens. He does this to encourage us, so that when we see it happening, we will be able to endure until the plan comes to its conclusion, and not lose hope before we get there. Today I want to examine how we can use this knowledge of God’s plan to help us realize our own resolutions…what steps can we take to be active participants with Him. Turn with me, if you will, to the book of Isaiah, in chapter 62. To provide some context: Isaiah’s prophesies cover both the period of Assyrian conquest of the Northern kingdom of Israel, and the later exile of both Israel and Judah into Babylon. The last half of Isaiah is known as the “Book of Comfort”, where Isaiah looks beyond the current events and into the coming redemption of God’s people, the second time He brings them out of captivity, using the Persian king Cyrus to defeat the Babylonians and accomplish His purposes; Chapter 62 is subtitled “Zion’s Restoration and Glory”. Let’s read together, as God speaks through Isaiah – we will read the entire chapter, and then go back and look at it more slowly. I’m reading from the English Standard version, so if yours is different, you can follow along on the screen, so you don’t get lost…this translation doesn’t give the Hebrew, only the translated names, so it will seem very different if yours does…it doesn’t change the meaning, this is just easier to read.

(Isaiah 62, ESV)

May we be blessed by the hearing of the Word of God. So, let’s step through the text, and see what we can discern. In verse 1, Isaiah proclaims his commitment to the plan. Look at his words, “I will not keep silent…I will not be quiet.” The words of a true prophet were usually not well received in the Old Testament, were they? Jewish tradition tells us that Isaiah was killed by being sawn in half, because he would not stop proclaiming the Word of God. People generally don’t like to hear what is good for them, even if they are unhappy in their current situation; often because it means they must admit they are in the wrong and need to make a change if they wish to improve. We see both these themes echoed in the New Testament, when the Apostle Paul writes in 2 Timothy 4 –

“I charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom: preach the word; be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, and exhort, with complete patience and teaching.” 

See Paul stressing the dedication that Timothy (or any other Christ-follower) must have; now for the resistance:

“For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”

Isaiah is saying he will stick to the plan – to keep on doing what God has commanded him to do, to keep on proclaiming the truth of the coming Savior, and calling for the people to have faith that God will do all that He has promised. The people probably had a pretty hard time believing him, you must admit – after all, Israel had already been taken over by Assyria, and Judah was only spared that by making a “deal with the devil”…problem is, he eventually collects on the bargain, doesn’t he? Judah later fell to Babylon and suffered greatly, because they were in cahoots with Assyria over their brothers in the North; the “short cut to salvation” they sought after took them the long way around instead. They weren’t committed to the plan, and took off on their own direction, instead of staying the course; and in the end, that lack of commitment was the cause of much greater harm.

Now we are going to jump around in this passage a bit, and look at the next two parts of how we can use God’s truth to make our resolutions into reality – there is a need for community and consistency in the plan. Look with me at verses 6-7:

“On your walls, O Jerusalem, I have set watchmen; all the day and all the night they shall never be silent. You who put the Lord in remembrance, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it a praise in the earth.”

The prophet here demonstrates what we already know – we cannot do it alone. There are no “Lone Ranger” Christians, at last not very good ones, I would say. Humans are created for community, because we are created in God’s image and likeness, and He exists in perfect community among the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In Genesis, after the creation is complete, God declares it all “very good”, until we get to 2:18, where He says, “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Isaiah demonstrates his understanding of this when he announces that he has helpers…he calls them watchmen…who are there to assist him. And look at what they are charged to do – to pray to God day and night, without ceasing, taking no rest and giving God no rest. Now, that’s a bold thing, isn’t it, to give God no rest? Have you ever felt that you had prayed so much about something that were beginning to feel you were annoying God? Like a pestering child tugging at your belt, “Please, please, please,pleasepleasepleeeeeeease…” trying to wear you down until they get what they want? This passage tells us that God wants us to be persistent, He wants us to keep asking, He wants us to stay consistent in our petitions…that is, if we are praying for His plan, not ours; if we are praying for the fulfillment of His promises, not the satisfaction of our own desires. The begging child is not after you what you want for them, they only care for their own satisfaction. Then notice, Isaiah says You who put the Lord in remembrance”…that means all of us, not just the preachers and pastors and Sunday school teachers and TV evangelists. It is our job to keep God in the minds and hearts of the world, it is our job to proclaim His glory and righteous, it is our job to encourage others to believe He will do all that He has said. James 5:16 says, “The effective, fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.” Imagine how that works when multiplied by the number of men and women doing the praying! There’s a whole lot of availing, that’s available to us!

So, we have commitment to the plan, added to community in the plan, with consistency through the plan…what’s left? The best part of having a plan is what’s left – the wonderful consequences of the plan. The rest of this chapter is devoted to describing what will come about, the reward we shall receive once the plan is completed…which, remember, I said God has already seen the end, so He is the absolute best position to tell us what the outcome will be. Look with me at the end of the chapter, verses 11-12, which sums it all up and gives us hope to cling to –

“Behold, the Lord has proclaimed to the end of the earth: ‘Say to the daughter of Zion, “Behold, your Salvation comes; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him.” ‘ And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken.”

Our Salvation has come, and His name is Jesus. Do you want to know how we fit into this? Let me tell you: WE are His reward, brothers and sisters…WE are His recompense, the work that He came to do; the reason God sent Him to the earth. WE are called the Holy People, set apart for God. WE have been redeemed by His blood, shed on the cross. WE have been sought out, WE have not been forsaken. THIS is the outcome of God’s plan, THIS is what God has resolved to do. So I ask you, brothers and sisters, as we stand and worship…how will you respond today? Do you have a resolution you need to make? Do you have a burden you need to be freed from? Have you been living apart from the Lord, and need to return to Him? Have you never made a decision to follow Him, and today you want to change that? If any of that fits you, come on down, let us pray for you and with you; let us stand beside you as we give God no rest, until all that He has planned comes true…come on down, and surrender all to the King of kings, the Lord of lords, to Jesus Christ…won’t you come?