Archive for April, 2011

“I am thoroughly convinced that God will let everyone into heaven who, in his considered opinion, can stand it. But standing it may prove to be a more difficult matter than those who take their view of heaven from popular movies or popular preaching may think. The fires in heaven may be hotter than those in the other place.”

Dallas Willard, from The Divine Conspiracy

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In community we are challenged. In community we are encouraged. In community we are served. In community we learn. In community we are corrected. In community we mature. In community we love. In community we are loved. In community we thrive.

There’s a story about a minister who went to see a church member who had missed a few weeks at church. After the customary greetings, the minister comes in and sits down by the fire. The two sit in silence for a few minutes watching the active fire when the minister goes over to the fireplace and, with the fireplace tongs, moves a burning coal away from the rest of the fire onto the hearth. The bright glowing ember soon fades and eventually loses it’s fire. The minister then takes the dead ember and places it back in the fire where it immediately begins to glow again from the heat of the rest of the fire.

In Christ, we find community. But only if we participate in the service of Christ, cooperate with the work of Christ, share in the suffering of Christ, dwell among the body of Christ.

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A few weeks ago, a guy I knew died. He died in a house fire with his 5 month old son. His wife and two other small Children were coming back the next day from Florida.

At the same time, I was fighting bronchitis, a double ear infection and strep throat. I was falling behind on my school work. I was too busy and under-resourced. I was discouraged.

That Saturday I almost skipped church. I had received a few shots and was starting to feel better but I was still so far behind and discouraged and to be honest I was struggling with the “ug” question.  There was the death of a man who had sold his life for Jesus. His wife and children. There was my impending failure at school. There was just the over all “ug” of life catching up with me.

I didn’t skip church.

I went and it was awesome. I vaguely  remember what was preached. What I do remember was singing “It is well with my soul.” One particular line came down and hit me so hard, I almost had to sit down.

These particular words pierced my soul.

Though Satan should buffet, though trials should come,

Let this blest assurance control,
That Christ has regarded my helpless estate,
And hath shed His own blood for my soul.
My sin, oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,

Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul! (Emphasis mine)

I grew up singing this song. It had never hit me like it did at that moment. Perhaps because I have a life time of failures to reflect upon now. I’m not really sure why but it was a time where God reached down and hugged me all at once. In a world of partial forgiveness, God’s love is perfect. It is redeeming. I bear my sin no more.

We can let go of our anger. We can let go of our hurt. It’s OK to struggle with ug questions of life. God is big enough to handle it.

Be blessed today as you realize that God has forgiven you wholly.

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I think it might be more than one line:

“Acts is not a manual with blueprints and a set of instructions on how to be a church. Acts is not a utopian fantasy on what a perfect church would look like. Acts is a detailed story of the ways in which the first church became a church. The story is not a script to be copied.”–Eugene Peterson, The Pastor, 118

This seems reasonable to me. What say you?

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[Here I offer some rather preliminary notes and observations on the book of Hebrews. I hope I can writes some more, but I don't want to make promises. This is part of a project I am working on to get myself back into preaching shape. I also offer it as part of the prophet part of prophets, priests and poets. --jlh]

“The story of Easter is thus a prophetic story of the way in which this God will not keep silent (Luke 24; John 20), will not let the conversation (the argument?) between God and humanity be ended simply because of the sin of humanity, will not be defeated by human intransigence. The Risen Christ comes back to the very ones who betrayed the Crucified Jesus, came back to them and resumed the conversation. This is the hope upon which every church is built, the hope upon which every sermon is preached: Christ comes back to his betrayers and talks to them.”(—William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 145)

I have been stuck in the book of Hebrews. I suppose calling it a book is a bit of a stretch since it’s really a letter. It’s a brilliant letter and every time I open its pages I come across something more that I hadn’t noticed on the previous visit. Every time I read this letter, I fall more in love with it. It is so deep, so massive, and so theologically profound that even a surface reading leaves one overwhelmed and in awe. I wish I had discovered this letter sooner in life, but I confess that its depth was enough to persuade me, when I was younger, to avoid it.

At first glance, yes, Hebrews is complicated stuff. In fact, if you have not spent significant time reading through the Old Testament—especially the books of Leviticus and Exodus—you might as well avoid reading Hebrews for a while. Yet I discovered a long time ago that there’s a simpler way to understand the various books of the Bible. Usually, not always, but usually, the author gives us a hint at his purpose in the opening of the book or letter. I think Hebrews is very much like that. So: “In the past God spoke to our ancestors [in] the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son…” When reading the book of Hebrews, it is imperative we listen to what God is saying to us. It seems to me that the author could have started anywhere, but he begins by exhorting us to hear the voice of God which spoke first in the prophets and lastly in Jesus.

It almost seems too simple to say that the book of Hebrews is about this God who speaks to us, but I think that is a pretty good place to start. And it goes a little further, too, when we see that the author has attached his own prophetic voice as the natural successor of Jesus—not that he adds to anything Jesus said, but that he continues proclaiming the message of Jesus. I note that four times (at least) we are told to pay attention to our leaders, to those who speak to us the Word of God. In fact, this idea forms an inclusion for the entire book: “We must pay careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1) and “See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven” (12:25; cf. 13:7). I suspect, however, that in many cases this idea has been quite lost on us rebels. Many think we don’t need to listen to leaders who expound the Scripture—as if their job is something else. And, to be sure, many leaders take this as a carte-blanche excuse to wield all sorts of ungodly power over the church. We need not look far for examples.

We have to pay attention. But it’s terribly important for us to note who we listen to first. Hebrews is very careful to note that we first listen to God who spoke in Jesus. God spoke in the past in the prophets, in the last days he spoke in Jesus—but regardless of whether it was the first days or the last days, it was God speaking in them and the message was consistent. The continuity between then and now is that it was God speaking. His message was consistent too (see Hebrews 3:5). We have to listen to him who spoke—which is, I think, easy enough to discern: He who spoke is God in Jesus (1:2-3). We are not to refuse Jesus who speaks to us. Why? Because he has spoken to us by Jesus ‘in these last days.’ There is an eschatological element to our listening and to his speaking. We ignore his voice at our own peril: we will drift away, we will not escape, there is no voice left for us if we ignore his voice. God has nothing else to say save for Jesus; that is, Jesus is the last word from God on matters of salvation. Consider the further words of chapter 2:

“For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will” (Hebrews 2:2-4).

What was announced by Jesus was God’s salvation. If we ignore the message proclaimed by Jesus, confirmed by those who heard, and testified to by God through signs and wonders, what other hope do we have? In the context of the letter to the Hebrews what we find is that this final message of Jesus in these last days concerning salvation is far superior to anything it is compared to. It is superior to the message spoken by the prophets (1:1), superior to the message spoken by angels (2:2), superior to the message spoken by Moses (3:5), superior to the message spoken by Joshua (4:8), superior to the message spoken by the sacrifices (10:5), and superior to the message of Abel’s blood (11:4; 12:24). There is nothing that compares with the voice of Jesus: he has spoken, we must listen; we ignore him to our own peril and disaster. (In fact, the word ‘better’ (Gk. kreitton) is a significant word in Hebrews, 1:4; 6:9; 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). Everything about Jesus and his last word is, finally, better than anything that preceded it or anything that might follow it.

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I just finished Love Wins. The first 3/4 bored me. As Bell points out, nothing he’s writing is revolutionary, its re-hashed, and any familiarity with Christian belief outside of modern day American protestantism is likely to render this into yesterday’s news. So why are so many criticizing this work, kicking Bell out of Christianity, and in general having a fit over some warmed over theology? I believe the answer is in the last quarter of the book, where Bell takes aim at some sacred cows (reference to Hinduism intentional, as these holy bovines are wholly outside of anything approaching Christianity).

A quote that cuts to the heart of the matter:

When people use the world “Jesus” it’s important for us to ask who they’re talking about. Are they referring to a token of tribal membership, a tamed domesticated Jesus who waves the flag and promotes whatever values they have decided their nation needs to return to? Are they referring to the supposed source of the imperial impulse of their group, which wants to conquer other groups “in the name of Jesus”? Are they referring to the logo or slogan of their political, economic, or military system through which they santify their greed and lust for power?

Love wins on the eternal timeline. But in the present day, culture is winning.

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The purest man ever born,
Here forsaken and forlorn
Tortured and racked with pain
Divinity enfleshed and slain
Upon a rugged tree
We now call Calvary.

Why, we ask, why
Did He have to die?
Is mankind that evil?
Is sin that primeval,
Are we that fallen and obscene
That God Himself must intervene?

The incarnation affirms,
And my conscience confirms
That only divinity enfleshed
Can break the bond enmeshed
Within this frame of dust,
This body of lies and lust.

And so Immanuel
Unlocked the keys of hell.
As His body expired,
Evil man conspired,
That His last prayer
For their forgiveness
Would be manifest
In His power revealed,
From His grave sealed;
His resurrection,
His insurrection,
Mankind set free,
Mass escapee
From Satan’s arm,
From hell’s alarm,
From sin’s outcome,
Death is undone.

Jesus is alive,
And only He can revive
And bring to life
This sin, this strife
This separation,
This accusation,
And redeem for His glory,
For His eternal story,
Life from death,
This borrowed breath,
Resurrected and redeemed,
Unvalued and unesteemed,
Yet in the eyes of Jesus Christ,
Worth life and death, worth the price.

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I’m currently employed by the Catholic Church.

For those of you who know me, you know this is quite a change. Don’t worry, though. I’ve not swam the Tiber, I’ve only changed professions. I’m not going to go into the details, but I will say that this has been a very good change, though it didn’t feel like it at the time.

In the past year or so I’ve read two books that have opened my eyes to the situation of the poor. The first is Under the Overpass. The author writes from a perspective within the church, and walks a couple of miles in homeless shoes as he lives as a homeless person for months. In this book are many observations that touched my heart, and also many observations that made for easy ways a church could care for people who find themselves homeless. For example, like me when you think homeless you probably think food. The authors observed that basic hygiene such as showers, teeth brushing and deodorant were just as needed and often overlooked. How hard is that to provide?

The second book I read is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America. This book is similar to the first in that an author infiltrated a sub-culture in order to write about it. In this case, the author, who has a PhD in biology took on jobs close to minimum wage in order to see if it were possible to get by on those types of jobs. What she found was a lot of indignity and expense. More expense than if she were well off. And again, though this book was written by someone outside of the church, I found a perspective in which a church could minister if it so chose. The needs are more expensive than the homeless, but would it really be impossible for a church to, in some way, provide day care for working single mothers, or work with local landlords to provide a deposit for poor working families who otherwise are left paying weekly for hotels/motels that ultimately are more expensive than an actual apartment.

Recently, I’ve been conversing with what was once a very close friend, but we’ve grown apart through time and distance. We’ve been discussing Rob Bell. One of the things he’s disturbs by is when Bell says or writes things like the resurrection or the fall or some other piece of theology isn’t just a historical event, but something that happens now, in our lives.

I understand Bell entirely.

At one point, one of my fellow pastors in the town I lived and served had founded a soup kitchen to serve low income and homeless families and people of our community. The thing is, that we had problems recruiting enough people to serve this weekly soup kitchen. We needed around 5 people per week to provide the volunteer help. While they had to do all the work of providing the meal, they didn’t have to pay for it themselves. He served a church of 150, I served a church of 250 (this was attendance on a weekend, not the total number of “members” on the book). That means roughly 60% of our church attendees would have had to volunteer and every single week would be covered. The thing is, we couldn’t come up with enough volunteers from every single church in our city. Not just our two churches, but every church in the city.

So when Bell admonishes the church that the resurrection is something that should be lived now, that the Kingdom of God is something ongoing, I get it.

And so, now the Pope pays me roughly 1/2 of what a Protestant church was paying me. I get to go home at night knowing, instead of hoping, I made a difference in the lives of the poor, and powerless. And through all this change, and difficulty I can state definitively that the American church doesn’t have a belief problem, it has a doing the belief the problem. Because I’ve run into far more people that have a problem with Rob Bell than have no problem with serving in a soup kitchen.

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