Archive for March, 2011

I’ve been finding my way back recently. It’s not been an easy journey. I have chronicled my journey here and elsewhere. The road has been crooked and confusing. The journey has been filled with missteps and sidesteps. My feet have been tangled in weeds and soaked from stepping in potholes deep enough to hold melted winter water.

Sometimes we grope in the darkness and hope for a helping hand. Sometimes the hand is clenched, fist-like, and lands squarely on our jaw.

Therefore, when I approach Scripture these days it is not without trepidation and fear and trembling. I used to be a ‘pro,’ but the Lord was convinced that I need to be demoted to the minor leagues. He demoted me in dramatic and startling fashion. I have had to find a way to know God when I don’t have to know God. It’s hard to know that water quenches thirst when it’s on tap, much easier to know it does when you are in a desert. Still, as I walk back to the life I was ushered from, I begin to find my way back to the pulpit. That is, I find myself able and wanting to talk about Scripture from a particular point of view: the pulpit.

The view from the pulpit will never be the same for me again in this life. And that is probably a good thing.

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The short letter to the church at Ephesus has, for reasons not entirely unknown to my heart, captured my attention anew in recent days. Last year, it was from reading Eugene Peterson’s Practice Resurrection. It was also due to a sermon series I heard at one of the two churches my family attends—the preacher did a masterful work exegeting Paul’s thoughtful, pastoral and prophetic words, bringing them to life inside the congregation.

I have realized much, lately, that I am hungry again. The letter to the church at Ephesus has startled my taste-buds like a fragrant and aromatic wine. It’s like tasting a sweet cake all over again for the first time. It’s like having an ice cold beer after cutting grass in the hot August sun. It’s like seeing my wife, gorgeous and majestic as she was, on our wedding day. It’s like waking up from a long illness and craving a tasty, sumptuous, and rich dinner. It’s like walking down the Emmaus Road hungry and finding oneself strangely satisfied, without ever having taken a bite, because Jesus was in our midst all along.

Do I have words to describe what water tastes like after walking thirsty across a desert for many, many days? What is a sound night’s sleep like after being awake for many days? What is a dreamless night after a year of nightmares? What is it like to finally beat up a bully who has been humiliating you day after day after day? What is it like to put on fresh socks after walking for miles barefoot on the jagged rocks? It’s like realizing again that our hunger is satisfied only by things we cannot feed ourselves. Taste and see, the Lord said. It’s no wonder he told us to taste and see. I gave up pop for Lent; water is delicious.

Yeah. That’s what Ephesians has been to me as I have awakened from my slumber and realized that Jesus has not been nearly as silent as I had previously thought.  I am hungry. I am thirsty. Ephesians has been good food, good drink, for me.

The other day, I was reading through chapter 1 again and I realized some important things about it. So I offer some tentative thoughts from chapter 1.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment—to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ.

In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will,  in order that we, who were the first to put our hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation. When you believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all God’s people, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength  he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that is invoked, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.

Ephesians, like pretty much all of the Bible, is about Jesus. It is really, truly difficult to avoid that idea. What I noticed is that God is working out a plan in Jesus. Read through these verses slowly and notice how many times he uses simple pronouns: he, him, his. Notice how often he talks of Jesus, writes his name, sings his praise. God has a lot to do through Jesus and he is doing it, has done it. God means to accomplish three main tasks as I see them here in chapter 1.

First, he means to bring us all together into complete unity (v 10). All things in heaven and earth under Christ. All of this is accomplished through the work of Jesus—this is his purpose in Jesus. Complete oneness of all God’s people, and all God’s places, in Jesus.

Second, he means to bring about our final redemption (v 14). And in the meantime, he has given us a promise, a seal, in the form of his Holy Spirit. Our redemption is through his blood (v 7).

Third, he means to once and for all, finally, to place all things under the feet of Jesus (v 21-22). This dominion begins with the church. We are the firstfruits of his rule and authority even though clearly all things are under his authority (Matthew 28)

That is brief and unfinished to be sure, and they should probably be expanded and finished. What is amazing is this: look how much the church is included in this work of God! Look at what he has done for us, how much he has included us in the mystery, how much he has invested in the church, how much authority he has given us already, how much he has promised us, and how he gone out of his way to make sure we are not entirely in the dark. We know what to expect of God, we know what his ambition and goal is: unity, redemption, dominion—all resulting and exalting God’s glory (‘to the praise of his glory’, 3, 6, 12, & 14).

I just finished reading David Platt’s as yet unpublished book Radical Together. He writes of what I believe is of utmost importance that many of our churches have yet to figure out here in this world (that’s not a blanket criticism, just a general observation based upon my own personal experiences in the church–and I’m probably limiting it to the Church of Christ/Christian Church). You see, the letter to Ephesus asks the church to be involved in some rather important and heady stuff—stuff we couldn’t plan, cannot finish, and cannot control. The letter also informs us that we have not been left helpless or powerless. Platt captures exactly my point:

As long as church consists of normal routines, and Christianity consists of nominal devotion with little risk, little sacrifice, and little abandonment, then we can do this on our own. But what happens when we give ourselves to something that is far greater than we can accomplish on our own? What happens when we dare to believe that God desires to use every one of our lives and every one of our churches to bring about kingdom advancement to the ends of the earth? We will find ourselves around every corner and at every moment dependent on his power and desperate for his grace as devote ourselves to his purpose. (129)

This is the God who calls us to abandonment and the freakishly terrifying idea of taking his Gospel to the masses of lost and hopeless people in this world. This is the God who gives us a spirit of wisdom and revelation that we ‘might know him better.’ And when we know him better, we clearly communicate Him to others. He has given us resurrection power to accomplish that very purpose that all things may one day be brought to complete unity, that one day he might finally redeem us, that one day all things might truly be brought under the power and rule and authority of Jesus—to the praise of his glory!

What’s so amazing is that God has included us in that plan. Amazing.

God does not involve us in his grand, global purpose because he needs us. He involves us in his grand, global purpose because he loves us…Let’s rise up together as selfless followers of a self-centered God, and let’s live—and die—like we believe our highest prize is his global praise. (Platt, 135)

To the praise of his glory.

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So, with the recent furor over Love Wins, and with varying degrees of hand-wringing or gnashing of teeth over the certainty in hell’s manifestation, it probably makes some sense to outline what the Bible actually says about hell, some of the different views of hell, and why loosely holding your beliefs about pareschatology – the study of what happens between death and the final state of humanity – is probably the best course.

Hell in the Bible

First off, you won’t find any references to hell in the Old Testament.  The only thing you will find referenced after death is Sheol, which is translated as “the grave”.  All people die and go to Sheol, the righteous and unrighteous.  Their bodies remain there, but they are still viewed as individual souls.  In the Septuagint, this word is translated Hades – a word used a few times by Jesus – where Hades, in Hellenistic mythology was a state of limbo where all souls dwelt, awaiting the final judgment.

In the New Testament, Hades is mentioned five times – Matthew 16:18 (in this case referring to a literal place in Caesarea Philippi called the “Gates of Hades”), Revelation 1:18; 6:8; 20:13; 20:14. This is also translated as “death”, “the grave”, and “the pit”.

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While I realize I may be late to the party, I tend to get lots of questions from friends and family when it comes to issues surrounding theology and/or Rob Bell.  I was apparently in “wave two” of Amazon’s shipments of Bell’s newest book, Love Wins, so I just got my copy on Wednesday.  Having now read it and processed it a bit, let’s answer the questions I suspect I’ll be asked, along with a review of the book.

Additionally, I’m simultaneously posting a separate article about the nature of hell and a number of different viewpoints on the subject (and why there might be room for doubt in the study of pareschatology – the study of what happens between death and the final state).

The Short Review

First off, there is nothing really “new” in this book that you won’t find in some form in the writings of other Christian authors, whether in the early Church fathers or in famous writers like C.S. Lewis, whose The Great Divorce and The Last Battle both communicate many of the themes mentioned in Love Wins.  Additionally, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary (where Bell was trained), after reading the book, notes that Bell’s theology is still within the stream of Orthodox Christianity.

Let’s start with a quick Q&A style review (You can see a transcript of one interview here) for those of you that just want the answers to the most-often asked questions about this book:

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Those of you who read or write here are well aware of the fact that I am a huge, huge disciple of Eugene Peterson. Not in any sycophantic or worshipful way, but in the sense that he has been my pastoral mentor since I first ordained as a preacher nearly twenty years ago. When Eugene Peterson speaks (or mostly writes) I have a tendency to listen well. I trust his judgment because he is wise, learned, and has been a pastor all of his life. He understands people, especially those in Christ, and he listens well to what they say before he opens his own mouth. (One trait of Peterson’s that I have yet to master perfectly.)

When he endorses someone or something, it is not because he made a snap judgment, but because he has prayed through it. Peterson is not afraid to learn and grow (as is evidenced in writing his latest book, a memoir simply called The Pastor.)

So I happened to chance upon a short interview with Peterson here. And if we are willing to listen to what he says in the interview (only two small paragraphs or so), we might find he is saying something rather profound about the church–the church he has been a pastor in all his life. The interviewer, Timothy Dalrymple, asks Peterson: “What are your thoughts regarding Rob Bell’s book and the controversy it ignited?  What inspired you to endorse the book?” Peterson’s response is nothing short of beautiful:

Rob Bell and anyone else who is baptized is my brother or my sister.  We have different ways of looking at things, but we are all a part of the kingdom of God.  And I don’t think that brothers and sisters in the kingdom of God should fight.  I think that’s bad family manners.

I don’t agree with everything Rob Bell says.  But I think they’re worth saying.  I think he puts a voice into the whole evangelical world which, if people will listen to it, will put you on your guard against judging people too quickly, making rapid dogmatic judgments on people.  I don’t like it when people use hell and the wrath of God as weaponry against one another.

I knew that people would jump on me for writing the endorsement.  I wrote the endorsement because I would like people to listen to him.  He may not be right.  But he’s doing something worth doing.  There’s so much polarization in the evangelical church that it’s a true scandal.  We’ve got to learn how to talk to each other and listen to each other in a civil way.

Now I fully realize that this conversation will be ruined because all we will want to talk about is whether Rob Bell is a heretic or not. Or we will find a way to mince Peterson’s words until he is saying something utterly different than what he is saying. But I want to make a larger point that may otherwise go unnoticed: There is something wrong with the church.

That is Peterson’s point. The church is not the place where we arrive. The church is a collection of misfits who do not fit into this world–who have been brought together by love. The church is a people who worship and rejoice and cry and struggle and hurt and suffer and live and love together. The church is a collection of people, ragamuffins, on a journey (which is one reason why I think the Bible constantly portrays God’s people on the move), but too often the church is seen as a place from which kings and queens pontificate. And Peterson is right about how such an attitude affects the church.

We get so caught up in the ‘who is right and who is wrong’ and the ‘who is in and who is out’ that we totally miss the struggle and the beauty of church. Who can scream the loudest? Who are the power-brokers? I laugh at the words ‘Farewell, Rob Bell’ because I don’t know that Bell was ever invited in in the first place. I never cease to be amazed at who believes they are the arbiters of inness and outness in the church. Maybe Rob should have tweeted back, ‘Farewell, John Piper.’ But I suspect, given what little I know of Rob, that he probably would have tweeted something like, ‘Grace and Peace, John Piper.’

Peterson said, “I Don’t think that brothers and sisters should fight.” I agree. That’s the way the world does things, not Jesus; not the church.

There may come a day when the church will become what it was born to be, but I suspect until that time comes, there will be a segment of the church that will continue to guard the doors with AK-47’s and M-16’s. They will welcome some and dismiss others; they will hire some and fire others; they will talk about grace and live by the sword; they will act like they are the head of the church, and not Jesus. They will say as much that they want to hear from God, but when he speaks they will cover their ears.

And those who want a simple church where they can hurt and suffer together, question and dialogue, journey and struggle, will be left out because they simply do not have it all together. And in today’s church, where aesthetic beauty triumphs over filthy catacombs, no one wants the ugly to mess up the pretty.

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From here.

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People everywhere are up in arms… over something somebody said… that one time. People everywhere are in agreement… with something somebody said… at that one event. Despite the cultural milieu of post-modernity and post post-modernity, we have this tremendous knack for seeing (at least some) things in black and white. Lines are drawn. Sides are taken. You’re either for or against something, there is no middle ground. And you must make up your mind, especially about the things I find important.

You Are Wrong Some of the Time
Obviously you wouldn’t state your case, or even hold the position you do about a given subject if you did not believe that you were right. But you can’t be right all of the time. If you were, you’d be omniscient. You are probably right about quite a bit that you speak on, but if you haven’t spent a lot of time with your subject material, don’t be surprised when others tell you that you are off base. I witnessed a group of individuals talking about how stupid an all electric car would be. Why? Because the raw material consumption and pollution output to manufacture and deliver batteries for an electric car is greater than the consumption and pollution from a gas powered car? Because the cost of electricity plus the initial cost of the vehicle provides no financial savings over keeping your gas powered car? Because the network grid is unstable and worn out in many places and won’t be able to viably sustain an extended fleet of electric vehicles? No. Their complaint? Because after driving to the restaurant, who would want to run an extension chord up to the building so that you’d have enough power to get home.

Not only can you be wrong in the views you hold to, you can also be wrong about the other person’s views. Often when we receive a message (audibly or visually), what we take away from that message, and what the person sitting next to us takes away can be very different. It’s one of the funniest and scariest things for preachers when talking with their listeners after a sermon to hear the words, “I like it when you said… .” The reason this can be funny and/or scary is because half of the time, what proceeds from their mouths after that phrase was never said by the preacher. In fact, it may not have even had anything to do with the subject of the sermon.

The Person With Whom You Disagree May Be Right Some of the Time
We’ve talked here in the past about charitable reading. Lately, this has been getting confused with being a “fanboy” for some individual. I remember the first book by John Piper that I read, “Brothers, We Are Not Professionals.” It was for a preaching class in an institution that had some major theological disagreements (as do I) with John Piper. The teacher of the course did not have us read the book because he agreed with everything Piper said. I know for a fact that he did not agree. He had us read the book because Piper had some good things to say, and because it brought up some important issues for preachers to think about.

If you only surround yourself with messages (and the people that communicate them) that you completely agree with, then you are in fact doing what Paul condemns in 2 Timothy 4:3, “For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear.” So that I’m clear, I am not saying that we should only read people we disagree with and surround ourselves with people with think are wrong about the essentials. However, if you regularly read/listen to somebody’s teaching and you find yourself shouting in agreement, but not cut to the heart, there’s a good chance that verse applies to you.

Being Wrong Doesn’t Make A Person Evil
Being evil makes a person evil (and wrong). I wonder if at any time in our lives as we grew old enough to debate with somebody that we made the connections: I like puppies – I disagree with that person – that person must be wrong – that person must hate puppies – that person is evil. We seem to be especially adept at drawing such conclusions when it comes to politics and religion. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart gets much of its material from people arguing (often incessantly and stupidly) their political or religious position by attacking their opponents (instead of the views that their opponents hold).

It isn’t just in politics and religion that we almost instantaneously vilify the people we disagree with. I recently read a post about IE 9 (Internet Explorer version 9) that gave 5 reasons why the blog author still didn’t think it was a good web browser to use. There were some illogical arguments, some irrational points of view, and some inflammatory language. It also brought up some interesting and valid points. I’m not unbiased, but I could still see that there were parts of the article to consider and parts to throw away. And yet the comments in response to the article were just as, if not more emphatic on the other side of the authors point of view, to the point of demonizing the author. The comments seemed angry and spiteful, as if the blogger had attacked them personally.

Should we even talk about these things? Absolutely. When we do, Christ must be the foundation for our relationships with others and our communication with them. Where you live, where you use to live, the jobs you’ve held, your education, tragedies you’ve experienced, life events, family members (your life history) all plays a role in how you perceive and understand what is communicated. I think it’s time we let Christ play the greatest role in how we communicate. May you read and listen with patience, understanding, and charity and may your words, written and spoken, be full of gentleness, self-control, and grace.

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“We have become a culture of cultural critics and a church of church critics. Perhaps more of us need to be quick to convert our concern about the moral failures of others into body pleading for them instead of public words against them.” (Fasting, 42)

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“Until you see the cross as that which is done by you, you will never
appreciate that it is done for you.”–John Stott from here.

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