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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Isaiah 28:20

“The bed is too short to stretch out, and the shroud is too narrow to cover oneself.”
Isaiah 28:20 (Common English Bible)

     A bed that is too short and a blanket that is too narrow are inadequate for restful, healthy sleep. Both may serve us well as temporary arrangements when nothing else is available. But in the long-term, either we find an adequate bed along with a sufficient blanket or we suffer; we will suffer general discomfort in our rest, experience aches and pains of every sort and possibly move through the day with sleep-deprivation. Adequate rest requires adequate accommodation.

     Just as a short bed fails to provide for a growing body and a narrow blanket leaves people shivering in the cold so does a short and narrow faith leave us morally stunted and shivering with every kind of fear. God desires that we have a bed of faith on which to stretch a full human life and be warmly wrapped in the mantle of confidence in the living power of the risen Christ. When we hear of those who are short on integrity and frightened of every uncertainty it is reasonable to ask the nature of the faith that is sustaining them.

     Many who self-identify as Christians today live in the danger of believing too little. They are very uncomfortable on the beds of their faith. Ignoring the inevitable growing pains of faith, such people do little to nourish personal spiritual growth. They seek to make do with the cradle of faith provided them by others. The untroubled sleep of their early years now demands more – a larger bed of faith and a wider blanket of confidence in God. The faith question presses, will they pursue a faith-growth plan that furnishes them with the largest and broadest and strongest thoughts of God that will sustain them as adults or will they continually seek to squeeze back into the crib in which they were so happy in childhood?

     Perhaps there is nothing more pathetic than to see a Christian, who ought to be flexing an adult’s faith in the challenges of life, content with a mere child’s share of understanding of God. Instead of stretching onto an adult sized faith they tuck themselves into a cradle. Each morning they get up from it lame and aching. Worse, they are chilled by every blast of unbelief and uncertainty that blows.

Joy,         

Thursday, March 20, 2014

God's Intention For Us

“We are called to be an honor to God’s glory because we were the first to hope in Christ.” 
Ephesians 1:12 (Common English Bible)

     Some years ago, there was a delightful Hallmark Card commercial that portrayed two adult sisters in a Hallmark Card store. They caught each other in some gesture and looked at one another in surprise and exclaimed, “We’ve become our mother!” Perhaps more than any of us may want, we do bear the likeness or image of our parents, both physically and in our manner. As someone once said to me when I was quite young, “There is no question whose son you are. I bet you make your daddy proud everyday.” I had never thought of that before; do I, in fact, make my father proud? 

     This one sentence from the Apostle Paul to the church in Ephesus speaks to God’s intention for His people – that they live in a manner that brings honor to God. This can be daunting. Any honest self-evaluation of our lives reveals that a radical transformation is required before anyone sees anything of God’s glory in us. Perhaps the word “daunting” is an understatement. Do any of us have the capacity to live in a manner that brings honor to God’s Name?

     I believe not. The chasm between the glory and holiness of God and the day to day behavior of our lives is simply too great. Our experience is more like that of the prophet Isaiah when, in the sixth chapter of his book, he comes into the presence of God and realizes just how far removed from God his life is, “Mourn for me; I’m ruined!” Now that is honesty! What are we to do?

     Fortunately there is more packed into this one sentence than God’s expectation of us; there is God’s promise of help. Our hope to ever bring honor to God is not in our strength or ability. It is in Christ. The radical reorientation that is required comes from Christ, from fixing our eyes on Christ. Think of it this way. Not one of us has the capacity to transform a seed into anything more. We know from our own experience of nature that a single seed has within it the potential to become more; to become a beautiful flower, a stately shrub or a towering tree. But all we can do is place it deep within rich, moist soil. After that another power takes over. It is the same with our lives. Plant ourselves deep into the person of Jesus Christ and a power not our own works a spiritual change within us. Our transformation into the likeness of God is not our work; it is Christ’s work.

     From my perspective, “in Christ” far outstrips the title “Christian.” The latter allows for ambiguous interpretation; allows for the possibility of little more than a weak affinity or relationship with Christ. But “in Christ” is far more dynamic. It speaks of taking up residence in the person of Christ in such a way that His life becomes ours. It is then that others will notice, without any doubt, that we bear a distinct resemblance to a great and holy God.

Joy,

Friday, March 14, 2014

His Purpose

“His purpose was to equip God’s people for the work of serving and building up the body of Christ until we all reach the unity of faith and knowledge of God’s Son.
 God’s goal is for us to become mature adults – to be fully grown,
 measured by the standard of the fullness of Christ.”
 Ephesians 4:12, 13. (Common English Bible)

     One crisis facing the church today is the crisis of pastoral identity. Congregations frequently have unrealistic expectations of their pastors. When the pastor attempts to meet each expectation, exhaustion and discouragement frequently follows. Yet, the greatest harm to pastors is often self-inflicted. Many pastors – wrestling with pastoral identity – attempt to make themselves essential to every project, activity and committee of the church. The difficulty is not only the inevitable exhaustion of the pastor but the church is harmed as well. The church can never do more than the pastor can stretch herself or himself to do. Christ’s goal, so eloquently stated here in Ephesians, is that pastors would prepare others for ministry by equipping every person to do his or her part. Perhaps the most important work of the pastor is to become nonessential for the work of the church.

     Naturally, this will require the careful management of congregational expectations of the pastor. As a pastor seeks to entrust leadership of the church to wise volunteers and restrict their own personal involvement, some church members will claim that the pastor simply doesn’t care. This arises not only from a poor grasp of scripture and bad theology; it flows from a cultural expectation that the pastor be seen and active in every aspect of the church. This is reflective of our North American way of life – particularly the culture of affluent communities in the United States. Simply, the culture I speak of is one of “being served rather than serving.” Many affluent homes today have lawn service, house cleaning services, professional nannies to care for children and even dog-walking services. If there is something to be done or a responsibility to be carried out, someone is paid to do it. That culture has seeped into the life of the church. Increasingly I hear of churches that have had to “hire” Sunday school teachers for the children of the church. Rather that modeling the ministry of Jesus Christ “in service” to the surrounding culture the church has conformed to the patterns of this world.

     Greg Ogden, a friend and leading voice in the renewal of the church has written that nothing less than a new reformation must take place in the church. The old reformation – what is popularly called the Protestant Reformation -  was one that gave the Bible back to the people of God. The church prior to that reformation did not encourage personal reading of the Bible. The Bible was largely accessible only through it’s reading by the clergy on Sunday morning. The new reformation that Ogden speaks of is giving the ministry of the church back to the people. It is reclaiming this passage from Ephesians and multiple others readings from the Bible that clearly assert that the ministry of the people must be by the people, not just paid church professionals.

     The practical value of shared ministry is that more can be accomplished by the many than by a few church professionals. The impact of the church upon the local community is increased and more lives are touched by Christ and the redemptive good news of the Gospel. But God’s call to each church member to ministry has a deeper, richer goal than accomplishing more ministries. Here in Ephesians we discover that God’s blueprint for our own growth in spiritual maturity is participating in the work of the church. The pastor that does everything may appear to be high-minded. But the trouble is that it denies followers of Jesus Christ the growth that God desires.

Joy,


                

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Grace

“The final work of grace in anyone’s life is to make a person gracious.”
Fred B. Craddock in his sermon, On Being Gracious

     The subject is grace. Not only grace but the subject is God’s call to the church for extravagant expressions of grace. God’s grace is demonstrated in the cross. The response of God’s people must flow from that demonstration. As we have received the undeserving favor of God – the whole notion of grace – so we extend the same favor to others, particularly those who may be undeserving. As Fred Craddock so correctly observes, the final work of grace in anyone’s life is to make a person gracious.

     As members of First Presbyterian Church we are more than a club of people who enjoy the same style of worship and the warmth of fellowship; we are a community of faith. That community is called together by Jesus, held together by Jesus and commanded by Jesus to complete God’s work of grace in the local community and throughout the world. Extending grace to others is a non-negotiable for those who are baptized into God’s community of faith.

     This is not always evident in churches. The church may be called to be an alternative community from the rest of the world but often it isn’t. When the world “points the finger” at someone, so does the church. When the world passes judgment on someone’s behavior, so does the church. When the world becomes critical of someone’s bad judgment or poor life choices, so does the church. As one young person once told me in Pennsylvania, I love the whole idea about what the church is to be in the world. The problem is, most often it’s just like the world. The church loves those who deserve to be loved and can be rather mean to the sinner.

     There is a wonderful story in the eight chapter of John’s Gospel. A woman is caught in adultery. There is no question that she is guilty. She is caught in the very act! Not even Jesus denies that she is guilty. Remember the story? Pay attention to the details. There is no question that she was betraying her marriage vows. There is no question that what she was doing is wrong. Result? Fingers extended on one hand, pointing directly at her, a stone in the other hand to cast at her. Everything was going wrong that day for the woman. But then something went right. The angry, self-righteous crowd decided to get Jesus involved. Remember the story? Jesus didn’t dismiss her sin. Nor did He point His finger at her. Jesus gave generously that day; Jesus gave away God’s grace. And fingers once extended, pointing directly at her were closed and stones dropped to the ground. A mob was transformed into a community of faith; a community of grace.

Joy,