Thursday, August 25, 2011

A Call To Courage

I love the book of Jeremiah.  My wife calls me the "Weeping Prophet," so I'm probably biased.  Be that as it may, I truly like the book of Jeremiah.  I like the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah is the type of man I can respect.  In chapter 26, Jeremiah has his life threatened again.  Frankly, as a prophet, he's hated.  He's one of the few true prophets in Judah, and the message of the true prophets isn't exactly popular.  I don't care what time period you're in, "God is going to crush you" is never popular.

Anyway, in Jeremiah 26, Jeremiah steps on some toes.  He angers the priests, the prophets, and everyone else present at the temple by saying God is going to destroy Jerusalem, the home of his temple, the same way he had allowed Shiloh to be destroyed, the original home of the tabernacle and the ark.  There is such a commotion over what Jeremiah has said that the king and all the officials leave the house of the king and go to the temple.  The priests' suggestion to the king was to go ahead and kill Jeremiah.  Here's Jeremiah's response.
It is the LORD who sent me to prophesy against this house and this city all the words you have heard.  Now therefore amend your ways and your doings, and obey the voice of the LORD your God, and the LORD will change his mind about the disaster that he has pronounced against you.  But as for me, here I am in your hands.  Do with me as seems good and right to you.  Only know for certain that if you put me to death, you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants, for in truth the LORD sent me to you to speak all these words in your ears. -Jeremiah 26:12-15

Remember, he said this after the priests said, "Kill him."  Now that's some moxie, and he's not saying that to his neighbor.  He's addressing the king, who can very well kill him.  And to prove the point, this exchange is followed by a story of King Jehoiakim doing just that to another prophet, Uriah.  The prophet Uriah also prophesied against Jerusalem and Judah, but unlike Jeremiah, he fled to Egypt when he found out the king was mad at him.  Sadly, it didn't do him any good.  The king sent men to capture him and bring him back to Jerusalem, which they did.  Upon arrival, they killed him and threw his body into a common burial place.

It's very popular in America to market Christianity as a religion of blessing, a self-help religion to get a person healthy, wealthy, and wise.  Nothing could be farther from the truth.  God calls the people who would serve him to hold their ground in difficult situations, to say the unpopular thing when everyone else will nod their heads in disagreement, and that's if they're feeling nice that day.  God's people are called to a life of courage, to look death in the eye, in all its forms and all the people wielding it as a power, and take a stand for God.  The faint of heart need not apply.  The Church is full of priests and monks, but also warriors.  The weapons we carry may be peace and love, but we must hold the line none-the-less.

Stopping point: Jeremiah 29

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

If You Want To Understand The New Testament, Read The Prophets

Well, it's hectic around here as we get ready for our move next week.  I've been rather distracted, and my reading and blogging has suffered because of it.  As it is, I'm about twenty chapters behind in Jeremiah, but I'm really enjoying my reading through the prophets this time.  So much of what the prophets say smacks of what we usually consider "New Testament."  For example:

Circumcise yourselves to the LORD, remove the foreskin of your hearts.... -Jeremiah 4:4a

Sounds a lot like Paul, doesn't it?  Here's just one other example of how the prophets can shed light on the New Testament, in this case, Jesus specifically.  During Jesus' last journey to Jerusalem, he sees a fig tree with no fruit.  He's so upset that he curses the tree, which then withers and dies.  Well...that seems a bit drastic doesn't?  If farmers killed their crops every time the yield wasn't what they wanted, well, we'd all starve.  Why does Jesus do that?  Is it really about the tree?  Not if we know Jeremiah.

When I wanted to gather them, says the LORD, there are no grapes on the vine, nor figs on the fig tree; even the leaves are withered, and what I gave them has passed away from them.  -Jeremiah 8:13

Jeremiah's prophecy is about Jerusalem and Judah, and how they had squandered every gift God had given them.  God had planted them to be a blessing, to bear fruit for others to enjoy.  Instead they were shriveled, useless crops.  So, in Jeremiah, God would send them into exile.  He would bring the way they were to an end and start over.

On his way to Jerusalem, Jesus re-contextualizes this oracle, but instead of pre-exilic Jerusalem, it is Jesus' own Jerusalem that is fruitless.  It is good for nothing.  And Jesus, now playing the part of God returning to his city, pronounces a new oracle of judgment upon a city that has abandoned his ways.  Jerusalem, and the corruption, superficial religion, and selfishness it represented, would end up just like the tree.  Roughly forty years later it does just that when the Roman army flattens it.  God would build a new people in the followers of his son, just like 500 years before he had rebuilt his people in the returned exiles.

Stopping point: Jeremiah 22

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Hard Good-byes

Once a month, my congregation gets together with another congregation in the area and sings for an hour.  It's a rare thing for Churches of Christ to get together regularly with anyone, so I have always thought this was an encouraging tradition here.  Last night was my last Singing Night with Bethel, and before my devotional I briefly told them that I would be leaving at the end of August.  Afterwards, many from Bethel came to say good-bye.  It was during that time of restrained tears and smiles that I received the most touching compliment I think I've ever been given.  A woman came up to me and said that she was horrified to hear that I was leaving.  She said something along the lines of, "Every time I hear you speak, your words are like water for my dry soul."  That really touched me.

As a minister, I'm paid to speak.  Now some would quibble over how I'm paid for much more than that, and I am, but I have to admit that much of what I do is speaking.  Preaching, teaching, comforting, visiting...I'm paid to talk to people.  I hope that when I open my mouth, the Spirit uses me to help those around me.  I hope that God speaks through me, but when your job is to speak, you're never quite sure how effective your efforts are.  I'm not exactly in a business that has immediate results.  I wonder if anything I do or say matters.

Well, I can't speak for everyone, but it mattered to the lady last night.  "Like water for my dry soul," of course I don't take this as a comment on how great I am.  Ask my wife, I'm not all that great much of the time.  However, my job as a minister in the Church is to bring people to Jesus, the living water that quenches all thirst.  It seems that for one woman, at least, I have accomplished that goal.

Then the king will say to those at his right hand, 'Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink....'  Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink?..."  And the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.' -Matthew 25:34-35a, 37, 40

Last night this woman gave me a great gift.  She said something in such a way that made me really feel like I wasn't wasting my life as a minister.  I wanted to write this post so that I wouldn't ever forget.  I doubt she knew that a man who is paid to speak would hear God speak through her.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

A Quick Note

Now that I have announced it to my congregation this last Sunday night, let me make a quick remark.  Our family's trip to Ardmore, OK bore fruit.  Over the following months, Kalyn and I will be moving to Ardmore to begin our ministry there.  We are very excited about the possibilities we'll find down there.  We are also very sad to be saying good-bye to the friends we have gotten to know over the last three years in Farmington.  We are a bundle of emotions.  I'm not sure how this will effect my blogging, but I can pretty much guarantee I won't be doing much blogging in September.  Hopefully the posts will resume in October.  In the mean time, pray that our house sells and that all the other transitions that need to take place will go smoothly.

God's Ways Are Not Our Ways

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD.  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. -Isaiah 55:8-9

This is one of those verses that, if you grew up in the Church like I did, you hear often.  Typically this verse is used to make the point that God, as God, is beyond us.  He is unfathomable.  He is all knowing and all powerful.  As far as I have heard, and probably said myself, this verse is used to make a general statement about the nature of God.  Now, what is being said about the nature of God may very well be true, and I would argue that for the most part, it is, but Isaiah is doing anything but making a general statement about God.  If we are going to understand what Isaiah is doing here, we must keep this passage connected with its surrounding context.  Here is Isaiah 55:6-7.

Seek the LORD while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the LORD, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

I added the italics to help focus our eyes on what Isaiah is focusing on.  Again, Isaiah is not making a general statement about God when he says, "my thoughts are not your thoughts."  He is making a specific statement about a specific aspect of God, namely God's forgiveness.  Isaiah is saying that God abundantly pardons.  He pardons more than we would pardon.  He forgives when we would not forgive.  And why is that?  Because, God's ways are higher than our ways.

To get on a familiar soapbox, when many read the prophetic books in the Old Testament, all they see is a God of judgment.  To be fair, there is judgment in the prophetic books, but that does not mean the over-arching narrative of the prophets is one of judgment.  That narrative is one of forgiveness.  Discipline was necessary for Israel, as it usually is with spoiled children, but the last word is forgiveness and restoration.  It is abundant pardon.  For it was while we were still sinners that Christ died for us.  Paul's thoughts shouldn't be a shocker.  That is how God has always been.  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are his ways higher than our ways, abundantly higher.

Stopping point: Isaiah 66

Thursday, August 4, 2011

A God Who Can Say Enough

"Comfort, O comfort my people," says your God.  Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40 begins a major shift in the book.  Up unto this point, the book of Isaiah has been a book of judgement, a book warning of coming punishment that will not be turned away.  For many, this simply proves that God is a god of wrath.  He is viewed the same way the ancient pagans saw their gods, as a deity possessed by blood rage, a god who must be appeased by the blood of some goat or he'll come after yours.  At best, when reading the prophets, some see God as a legalistic judicator obsessed with balancing the scales, and without Isaiah 40 it would be easy to end our thinking there.

But Isaiah 40 changes everything.  Isaiah 40 lets us see a side of God that is loving parent.  A god who disciplines, yes, but not a god who delights in the pain that discipline brings.  There is no blood lust in what God has done through Assyria.  God is not a god who cannot control himself, who endlessly spirals into repeating patterns of wrath.  God is a god who can say enough.  God is a god who wants his children to live life to its fullest, and sometimes that means teaching them how far off track they have gotten.  God is a god who will let his children explore and make mistakes, hold them accountable to those mistakes and make them face the consequences, but at the end of the day he will say "enough."  When all is said and done, the last word is a word of comfort.  It is a word that says, "Pick yourself up.  Brush yourself off, and come give me a hug.  I love you."

Comfort, O comfort my people.  Your time out is over.  Now let's go play.

Stopping point: Isaiah 41

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Effect Of Righteousness Will Be Peace

"Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field.  The effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever."

As someone noted in our Tuesday morning reading group, the beginning of Isaiah isn't exactly peaches and cream.  The first part of Isaiah is largely judgement oracles, but every once and a while you get a different image, a glimpse of the reality God is trying to create through the tribulation that he is bringing about.  Isaiah 32:16-17 is one of those images.  I love it.

In most churches I'm aware of, discussions about righteousness largely revolve around being good so we can go to heaven.  Not so in Isaiah.  Righteousness matters now, in this life.  Righteousness has a direct impact on what life is meant to be, pre-death life, not just post-death.  True righteousness, true obedience to God makes a way for peace.  Righteousness has results, quietness and trust!

As congregations continue to decline, it is a regular event to hear congregations blame other people.  It is the government's fault, the culture's fault, the Democrat's or Republican's fault, the economy's fault...the list goes on and on.  However, if there is no peace, quiet, or trust in our congregations, maybe we need to look in a mirror.  Are we as righteous as we claim?  If we bear no fruit, could it be that our tree has caught a disease?  As the old saying goes, "When you point a finger, three point back at you."

Righteousness matters, here and now, and God would have it be part of the reality we experience.  Let us do our best to cultivate the type of soil God can sow peace, quiet, and trust into.

Stopping point: Isaiah 35

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

...Learned By Rote

Isaiah 29:13-14 is a powerful message of challenge to the Church.

The LORD said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing.  The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.

Ouch.  "A human commandment learned by rote...," that sums up many worship practices I see.  Now let me caveat that statement by definitively saying I am not against traditions.  Traditions flow out of identity and provide a way for communities to pass on their identity from one generation to the next.  That is a wholly good think.  At the same time, when it comes to life and purpose and value, within the Church those things must only come from our identity in Christ.  In other words, traditions flow out of identity, but identity cannot flow out of traditions.

Let me give you an example.  If you want to look at one thing that will help you get a read on the identity of a congregation, look at the music it sings.  Music tells you a lot about the people singing it, and this can be a very good thing.  However, it is easy for music to stop being something that comes out of identity and start being the thing that provides identity.

My religious background is in Churches of Christ (henceforth C of C), a religious tribe that uses a cappella music in its worship services.  Personally, I love a cappella music.  There is nothing like sitting in a building with good acoustics and listening to the power and beauty of the human voice, and then adding to it with your own.  It can be a wonderful experience to worship a cappella.  However, by the late 1800s, the C of C decided that it was unscriptural, and therefore a sin, to use instrumental music for worship.  This was mostly due to the north/south, C of C/Disciples of Christ divide that was happening in America at the time (but that's a tangent).  Most modern C's of C, but let me stress that it is not all C's of C, still believe instrumental music is unscriptural, and have their proof texts to support their argument.  The suggestion of bringing a piano into a C of C is heretical to most C of C congregations.

For such congregations, a cappella music has stopped flowing out of their identity and become the source of their identity. That is a dangerous, dangerous place to be, and again, I love a cappella music.  "But God made the human voice to praise him," a cappella advocates say.  I wont argue with that, but he also gave us the ability to make music with guitars.  Both come from God, so does God really care which we use to praise him?  Might we, to our shame, be arguing over human commandments learned by rote?

And let me flip the coin for all you instrumental congregations out there.  Kalyn and I once worshiped with an instrumental congregation down in Texas.  They were a welcoming, loving congregation, but their congregation had shrunk and they no longer had any members who knew how to play any instruments.  Their solution was to play recordings of instrumental music and sing along.  Now, I don't think this was "wrong," but why not just go a cappella?  Their song leader had a beautiful voice, and the congregation happily sang along. Why not just use the gifts God gave you in worship and know that God is pleased?  Saying that a congregation must have instrumental worship makes no more sense than the argument that it must not.

What is the purpose of worship, and what is the source?  The purpose is to praise God, and ironically the source of the worship is God himself, who gives individuals and communities the gifts with which to praise him.  We call ourselves Christians, people "Christ like," yet we ignore how much Jesus says about how to structure our worship services, which is a big, fat zilch.  That means two things.  First, we have freedom to praise God as we have been gifted to praise him.  And second, we must be humble in acknowledging that much of what we do is human commandments learned by rote.  Let us be open to God's Spirit working in us in new ways, or else we might find that God makes perish and hides what we thought of as our wisdom and discernment.

Stopping point: Isaiah 30

Back from Oklahoma

Kalyn, Shepherd, and I returned home last evening after a half week in Oklahoma.  The trip down was fruitful, exciting, and encouraging.  We've spent a great deal of time praying about last week's trip, as well as many of our friends and family.  Thank you for all that support and care.  Please keep up the good work.  It was strange returning home last night and thinking about how I might be learning to call a new place "home" in the months to come.  Whatever the case, for now, we're back from Oklahoma.