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The Gift of Lamentations

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When I look around at the pain and suffering in the world, trite Christian one liners just won’t cut it. “All in God’s timing.” “Pray harder.” “Just have faith.” “God has a plan for your life.” Etc.

These are well meaning statements, and I appreciate them. But there is a time to wail, weep, and mourn to God. In those moments, I turn to Scripture’s gift of Lamentations. And perhaps on the other side of lamenting there is joy and praise, but always a deeper sense of faith and trust in God, and his steadfast love and faithfulness.

May this bless any of you today walking through suffering, grief, pain, sin, or anything that life brings your way. Even in the midst of darkness and God-forsakenness, God is there. Grace and peace, brothers and sisters.

He has made my teeth grind on gravel,
    and made me cower in ashes;
my soul is bereft of peace;
    I have forgotten what happiness is;
so I say, “Gone is my glory,
    and all that I had hoped for from the Lord.”

The thought of my affliction and my homelessness
    is wormwood and gall!
My soul continually thinks of it
    and is bowed down within me.
But this I call to mind,
    and therefore I have hope:

The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,[b]
    his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning;
    great is your faithfulness.

“The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
    “therefore I will hope in him.”

The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
    to the soul that seeks him.
It is good that one should wait quietly
    for the salvation of the Lord.
It is good for one to bear
    the yoke in youth,
to sit alone in silence
    when the Lord has imposed it,
to put one’s mouth to the dust
    (there may yet be hope),
to give one’s cheek to the smiter,
    and be filled with insults.

For the Lord will not
    reject forever.
Although he causes grief, he will have compassion
    according to the abundance of his steadfast love;
for he does not willingly afflict
    or grieve anyone.

-Lamentations 3:16-33

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Beyond Correct Worship & Understanding

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I grew up in a faith tradition that spent a lot of time talking about and participating in Sunday assemblies. In fact, much of how I was taught to read the Bible was in regards to how we structure and order assemblies. How else could we argue with others if we couldn’t quote certain sections from Paul, right? I have great appreciation for my faith tradition because these are the people that passed the faith on to me, and they taught me a love of Scripture. However, it seems that the Christian faith is about so much more than a Sunday worship service and how we conduct those, and about so much more than correct understandings of doctrine.

I’ve been reading a couple of texts from Luke lately in preparation for preaching. It is astounding to me how much Jesus keeps pushing the Pharisees to think beyond being keepers of the law and to become people who are shaped by the implication of the law. For example, in Luke 13 Jesus heals a woman on the sabbath and the leader of the synagogue goes nuts. “You’ve got 6 days for working, come and be healed then”, he says. In other words, they’re more concerned with the legalities of keeping the sabbath than they are with the implications of keeping sabbath. People in need aren’t as important as right practice, they seem to say. However, someone who keeps sabbath hopefully learns to see the world the way God does, where all things are set to right. Where people who have been bound for 18 years like this woman are set free. The sabbath ought to propel us toward those people and their healing, not away from them. What good are they if they keep the sabbath but have not love for their neighbors?

And then I think of my faith tradition that seemed to spend more time and sermons on worship assemblies and how they were conducted than on how the gospel gets inside of us and drives us out into the world proclaiming the reign of God.

Or think about texts like Luke 16 and Matthew 25. In Luke 16, we often preach this text to speak of the realities of judgement and warn people. Yet, do we ever pause and ask what put the rich man on the other side of this chasm from Lazarus? It was because the rich man put a chasm up in his own life against someone who was hurting and broken. Or Matthew 25, another text for arguing judgement. But you know what puts people in with the goats? They didn’t clothe the naked, feed the hungry, visit the sick, etc.

In other words, I’ve yet to read Jesus say “Depart me you evildoers. For I wanted this particular worship style and you didn’t do it. I wanted you to understand this doctrine correctly but you didn’t.” Nor do I see the rich man where he is because he had the wrong worship style, or didn’t have the correct understandings and knowledge about certain doctrine. I think you get the point.

The older I get and the more I learn, the more I understand how little I actually know. I have less and less confidence in my own understandings of faith and God and more and more trust in Christ as a Savior. If Christianity is about what we know and understand, then we’re all in a heap of trouble. I mean think about it, there were faithful communities of Christ followers early on who may have never read a letter from Paul. But wait, how did they know how to order their worship services? How did they know correct doctrine? They didn’t, as far as we’re concerned. They knew the story of Jesus and trusted him, and were propelled to love their neighbors because of it.

Is doctrine good? Absolutely. Should we put some thought and effort into Sunday assemblies? Of course. Does the Bible give some pictures of Sunday assemblies and even some instruction? Yes, but far less than we may realize. Does what we know matter? Sure.

But, let’s not think God is out to get us on some technicalities or things we misunderstood. The story of Jesus seems to say it’s more about how the gospel gets inside of us and shapes our orientation to the world than it is about our correct doctrine.

And let’s not think that being a follower of Jesus is mostly about what we know. I’m mindful that Jesus had 12 guys following him for 3 years who had very little idea what was going on.

And let’s think about Christianity beyond assemblies, and think more about what it means to truly love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. After all, the entire law and prophets hinge upon these 2 commands. Maybe it’s less about how our assemblies are conducted, but more about what they do to us. Like the Luke 13 passage, it’s probably more about the implications of participating in Christian assemblies. As we continually learn, re-learn, and rehearse the story of Jesus each Sunday, it sends us out into the world being people who long to see the world restored the way God does, and do something about that longing.

Maybe Paul would write us today and say, “If I have worship assemblies that look doctrinally sound, but have not love, I am nothing. If I have worship assemblies that are moving and emotional, but have not love for others that propels me to action, I have nothing. If I have what I believe to be sound doctrine but have not love for the broken and hurting, I am nothing.”

“But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” – Jesus Christ

 

2016 Books Worth Reading

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books

Well, I confess I’m a bit late on the “here is my list of books from 2016” blog post that so many people do. Maybe part of that is I don’t like to be too mainstream, or maybe it is just because I haven’t had time. Either way, here is a list of some of the books I read or re-read in 2016 that I think might be worth your time. Let’s share together too. What did you read in 2016 that you think is worth my time? Hope this blesses some of you.

1.) You Are What You Love by James K.A. Smith

This was one of my favorites. Smith is making the claim that we are not first “thinking” beings, but “desiring” beings. We are shaped and formed (for better or worse) by participation in daily and weekly rituals, or what he calls “liturgies”. The world is calling for our desires, and Christian worship is then the place that recalibrate our desires toward God and his vision of the world. Pretty fascinating little book.

2.) Surprise the World: Five Habits of Highly Missional People by Michael Frost

This is a great and simple book on rethinking evangelism. Rather than evangelism simply being about sharing information, Frost is reminding us that the goal is to see the reign of God become a reality in the world. So, he’s proposing five simple missional habits or rhythms that the people of God can live into to proclaim the good news to the world. There is also a free PDF version here.

3.) The Day the Revolution Began by N.T. Wright

You had to know he’d make my list, right? This book was one of my top two, and I’ve probably said enough on this book already. It’s big, and not for the faint of heart, but I think it is a must read. Wright gives us a more Christian view of the cross of Christ than the dumbed down version many of us have inherited.

4.) After You Believe by N.T. Wright

Okay, so he made the list twice. Big deal 🙂 This is a great book on spiritual formation and how we grow into the image of Christ. And being formed into the image of Christ, learning to live his way in the world, this is what being truly human is all about. This book is in line with books like The Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard (another worthwhile read).

5.) Eat this Book by Eugene Peterson

Peterson does a marvelous job here in getting us to think more deeply about Scripture. Rather than it being simply a fount of information, a list of commands, a book of little promises, he is giving us a fuller vision of Scripture as something that gets into our bones, our DNA and reforms us for a gospel shaped life. And it’s Eugene Peterson, who is such a poetic and unique writer.

6.) Saban: The Making of a Head Coach by Monte Burke

Okay, so I know this is not at all fitting with the above, but it was quite fascinating. This somewhat controversial book (Saban hated it I understand) is very interesting in giving you a background and a little history on Coach and what has made him the way that he is. Whether you are an Alabama fan or not, if you like college football you will probably enjoy this little book. And if you hate Alabama (as some astonishingly do), this may help you hate them more 🙂 This also proves I’m capable of reading something besides a theology book!

So that’s my list. What did you read last year?

The Rescued Rescuers

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“The loving purpose of God, working through the sin-forgiving death of Jesus, frees us from the power of the ‘present evil age,’ so that we may be part of God’s new age, his new creation, launched already when Jesus rose from the dead, awaiting its final completion when he returns, but active now through the work of the rescued rescuers, the redeemed human beings called to bring redeeming love into the world – the justified justice-bringers, the reconciled reconcilers, the Passover People.”

– N.T. Wright in The Day the Revolution Began

I’m closing in on the end of Wright’s new book, and this paragraph was just too good not to share. God’s promised future, where all things find their restoration and completion in Christ, is coming. But, we who belong to Jesus – the baptized people, the Passover People- we belong to that future now. Therefore, we live lives now as if that future is already a reality. We live lives now that seek God’s reconciliation, redemption, and restoration. We are the rescued rescuers, the reconciled reconcilers.

You want to know what evangelism looks like in the 21st century? The same thing it did in the first. The redeemed people of God living into their vocation of bearing God’s image to the world. It’s not just about imparting information to people, not just about standing up and preaching, not just about sharing a packaged set of beliefs to get someone to subscribe to them. Rather, it’s about embodying God’s reconciliation in the world.

You want to see God’s kingdom come and his will done on earth as in heaven? Then let’s go seek the things of the kingdom on earth today.

Let us be people who extend mercy where the world seeks revenge.

Let us be people that recognize and extend help to the poor and hurting when the world steps over them.

Let us be people that seek peace when the world seeks violence.

Let us be people that share our resources when the world hoards.

Let us be rescued rescuers, joining the revolution that Christ began on Good Friday when he began to reverse the curse of sin and death. May we be people today who seek to live now as if God’s future world is a reality.

Saved For, Not From

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I’m almost finished reading N.T. Wright’s new book The Day the Revolution Began. I HIGHLY recommend it. It’s a little lengthy (just over 400 pages) and it will take some mental strength, but it’s worth it. And the chapter on Romans is worth the price alone.

Wright does an excellent job explaining the early Christian understanding of the death of Jesus. Our simple formulas that narrow the cross down to a simple sacrifice or legal exchange so we can “go to heaven” fall short of the gospel writer’s and Paul’s understanding of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. It would take me more blogs than I have time or desire to write to get into this book, but let me share with you three quick take aways that might spur you to grab a copy.

  1. The story of the cross cannot be taken out of the story of Israel. Our tendency is to pay very little attention to the ancient Israelite story and jump straight ahead to the gospels. When we do this, we rob the cross of its meaning. We need to hear the overtones of exodus, passover, exile, and God’s work to set his people free. The cross and resurrection come in line of this all to important story. (As a side note, this might also inform how we teach the story of Scripture to our children. That is, first and foremost as a STORY.)
  2. God is not a pagan god who longs to unleash wrath and fury on humanity, but Jesus steps in to take the blow. Sometimes our simple formulas make it sound this way, and God sounds more like an angry pagan deity than a loving and just God who wants to redeem and set right his broken world. The cross is God’s way of dealing with and destroying once and for all the power of sin and evil. God is angry at sin and the brokenness of the world, but he’s not a toddler full of rage destroying everything in his path.
  3. Rather than creating a false dichotomy of God the Father killing God the Son, we need to see the cross as the full revelation of God. It was sin and evil that took Jesus to the cross, so that he could once and for all defeat it. And this act of dying to destroy evil and save his people was the full revelation of his love. The self-emptying Jesus on the cross is the God of Israel fully revealed. As Wright puts it when discussing the hymn from Philippians 2, “this action was not something Jesus did despite the fact that he was ‘in God’s form’ and ‘equal with God,’ but rather something he that he did because he was those things” (257).

So I could go on and on, and certainly these things need some deep explanation, but you will have to read the book yourself to get that. It is worth it!

And to give you something to walk away with, remember today one of the best things that Wright shares in this book, in my opinion. After we move away from a paganized understanding of the cross, we begin to see that we are not saved FROM creation and simply to “go to heaven” when we die (though that is part of it). Rather, we are saved FOR creation. God defeated the power of sin and death on the cross so that we could get back to the very purpose he created us for; reflecting his image into the world.

Today, remember you are saved FOR the world, not from. And that ought to shape how we treat our neighbors, coworkers, children, spouses, and everyone with whom we interact.

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The Blessedness of Unity

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Today was an unexpected surprise. Today is the first Wednesday of the month, and just so happens to be the day that the Prattville Christian Minister’s Association meets. The problem is, I’m pretty busy today. In fact, I’m busy all week, and next week, and the next. So to be honest, I was struggling to get excited to meet today. However, since I was hosting, I thought I should attend the meeting also.

As is tradition, the host also shares a devotional thought, which I did. I just shared a short thought about advent, and then I asked everyone to go around and share something we were stressed about this holiday season, someone we were praying for, etc. I started and one of the ministers asked someone to pray for me. And around and around we went, sharing and praying. At the conclusion of this hour, it dawned on me what a beautiful blessing this time is for me.

I believe one of the things that greatly grieves the heart of God is the brokenness of his church. Churches have been fracturing and splitting over the silliest of things the past 1,000 years or so. Granted, we don’t all have to meet together on Sunday (I get it!), but can’t we work together and fellowship together? And so this gathering is a picture of the unity that can be accomplished when we all proclaim Jesus is Lord.

I know at that table there are ministers I agree with and disagree with on various issues. If we went around the table, you would hear a plethora of views on predestination and election, end times, the gifting of the Holy Spirit, politics and the church, and much more. Yet we can all come together and claim unity because Jesus is Lord, and we all belong to him and his kingdom. We may not sort all of that other stuff out to the point of uniformity, but we can all agree on Christ to the point of unity. This is one of the reasons I stay committed to the Church of Christ. Though we haven’t embodied it throughout our history, our goal was to seek a way to find unity among the Body of Christ.

So, nothing greatly profound here, but a little hope that the church may not be as divided as it always appears. Though we are a part of different churches with some varying beliefs, we all come shoulder to shoulder together to do the kingdom work of washing feet, welcoming sinners, and loving God and our neighbors. And that’s a little bit of good news on a busy Wednesday.

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! It is like the precious oil on the head, running down upon the beard, on the beard of Aaron, running down over the collar of his robes. It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion. For there the Lord ordained his blessing, life forevermore.”

-Psalm 133

Fear of Not Measuring Up

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“When I look from my place in the world into God’s Kingdom, I quickly come to think of God as the keeper of some great celestial scoreboard, and I will always be afraid of not making the grade. But as soon as I look from God’s welcoming home into the world, I discover that God loves with a divine love, a love that cedes to all women and men their uniqueness without ever comparing.” – Nouwwn in The Return of the Prodigal Son

scoreboard

I’ve got to be honest, in the back of my mind, when I’m alone with my thoughts, this is how I see it. Can God really love me? Is he not really put out with me for never measuring up? Can a God who creates the universe, gives and sustains life, judges the righteous and the unrighteous…can that God really love me? My guess is that in our heart of hearts, this is a question with which we all wrestle.

What a great reminder today from Henri Nouwen that God doesn’t keep an eternal scorecard and compare you to others. He loves you as a child. Deeply, compassionately, unwaveringly, eternally. That’s good news worth talking about today.