Friday, December 21, 2012

Finding Words for Worship

Worship is the most profound form of prayer. Worship is not asking, it's giving to God, enjoying God, and acknowledging the magnitude of God's goodness. If worship doesn't come as easy, you may need some words to use. Here are some from Revelation 5:12, directed to Jesus.

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

There are actually seven words I have in mind particularly here: power, wealth, wisdom, might, honor, glory, and blessing. These are each ascribed to Jesus, "the lamb who was slain." 

I think we could use one of these words each day of the week. For example, spend time in prayer recognizing that God, in and through Jesus, is the one who holds all power: he is over all nations, his will overrides all others, he uses his power for our good and salvation. 

Wealth: now there's a good one. Spend time cataloguing everything you own and giving it back to Jesus. Commit everything to him. Instead of asking for stuff, we are thankful for all God has given; more than that, we recognize that everything we have is not for our own pleasure but to be used for his glory.

At Christmas, it's also great to remember that Jesus is the eternal, divine Son of God. He was not merely a great guy or inspired teacher, he was God in the flesh. That is actually asserted in this text because the words are actually borrowed from the Old Testament, 1 Chronicles 29:11-13. We are told there that all these praises, given to Jesus, are due to God alone: 

"Yours, O Lord, is the greatness and the power and the glory and the victory and the majesty, for all that is in the heavens and in the earth is yours. Yours is the kingdom, O Lord, and you are exalted as head above all. Both riches and honor come from you, and you rule over all. In your hand are power and might, and in your hand it is to make great and to give strength to all. And now we thank you, our God, and praise your glorious name."

Okay, now we have words for worship. Let's use them.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tragedy of Newtown and the Hope of Heaven

“Do infants and little children go to heaven when they die?”

This is an emotionally charged question, and it should be. We ask it out of desperation or a sense of great injustice. Or both.

As funeral services are held this week with tragically tiny caskets, hope will be offered concerning heaven. And while the words of hope from religious professionals will be appreciated, many thoughtful parents may ask, “Does this guy really know for sure my child is in a so-called ‘better place’?”

Truly, no human being has the resources within himself to answer this or any question about eternity. Any answer that is to carry any weight needs to come from God himself. He’s the one who is in heaven, after all.

So as a pastor, I turn to the Bible: God’s “public” record. It’s a story of salvation, hope, and redemption: thus the Christmas story we hear, or used to hear, at this time of year. The Bible is a story but it also contains instruction and answers to tough questions: not all questions, but lots of them. And even though it’s far more than a manual attaining a pleasant afterlife, it certainly addresses eternal issues; in fact, it specializes in them.

Based on the Bible, the answer to this question is not a blanket statement about all children. As I study it (and have for some time), the answer I see runs something like this:

A parent may find hope for a child’s eternal salvation, but only if he or she first gains that hope. 

A Christian parent may baptize their child, based on the hope of the gospel. They may formally or informally dedicate that child to the Lord. They may take great comfort in Jesus’s surprising blessing of little children brought to him in Matthew 19:13-15. Or they may hold to the promise in 1 Corinthians 7:13 that children of believers are set apart to the God. They may look at the big picture, and see that throughout the Bible God promises blessing to believers and their children (see Genesis 17:17, Acts 2:39).

Additionally, in the face of tragedy, a believer may pray to God for assurance of a lost child’s salvation, and God may very well comfort them with such assurance. He knows how to get through to each of us, and can reach us with the answer we seek. He will not contradict Scripture (since he gave it) but may bring it home more personally.

“Personally” is a key word here. I don’t see any hope for children in Scripture being disconnected from the parent’s relationship to God through Jesus Christ. There is no verse that says, “All children under this age will be brought to heaven.” It would be fantastic, wouldn’t it?  I hope we see every kid from Newtown in heaven, and the same for every child lost through other widespread injustices – historical and contemporary. But the Bible says “the secret things belong to God” and this is one of them.

And I think God left this somewhat of a mystery because he wants parents to look to him in faith, not only in tragedy but at all times. Parents who do not believe the good news of Jesus and eternal salvation are simply going to be hard pressed to find hope – for themselves or their children. How could they find hope in something they don’t believe anyway? Or trust God with their little children when they don’t trust him with their own lives?

The great news is that we can have hope! We just can’t have hope in God apart from really knowing God. But you can know him. Again, that’s what Christmas is all about, God making himself known.

If you do not have a relationship to God that gives such hope, I would encourage you to consider this: The Bible is a story of salvation, in which God himself takes on human flesh (Christmas) and dies for our sins (Good Friday) and rises from the grave (Easter). He promises us eternal life for all who believe. But not only eternal life “some day,” but eternal life now: a relationship with the living, all powerful, holy, yet gracious God.

In the context of that relationship, we can find hope.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Blessed are the Poor

Jesus said, "Blessed are the poor."

The other day I was speaking to children about things that hinder our faith. I mentioned wealth as one such hindrance (since Jesus does, in Matthew 13:22). It was quickly noted by one little child, a cute little kid whose age is still in the single digits, that it's not wrong to have money. The comment was made as if correcting a teacher who said that the sky is green: "No, the sky is blue." I think this child spoke for many Western Christians, like myself, who are a little edgy about any kind of "less is more" theology. After all, the American way is to acknowledge that even having "more" is rarely enough. We have a "more is less" theology!

Anyway, it hit me today that riches of all sorts are a hindrance to faith:
- Too much money often leads us to unwisely trust in those riches.
- Too much education often leads us to unwisely trust our own intellect.
- Too much theology often leads us to unwisely trust our sophisticated belief system.
- Too much activity, religious or otherwise, often leads us to unwisely trust our own works.

I see this as a priority problem. When we have a lot of anything, it becomes hard to prioritize. So even though it's not wrong to have a lot of education, it becomes challenging to remember those several things that are the most important things to know. Or when we have an expansive theology, which should be a beautiful thing, it can quickly become unfocused and an end in itself.

Think of how often Jesus spoke about priorities. To name just one example, he reminded people of the greatest commandment in all the Law: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength." And its flipside, "Love your neighbor as yourself." He did this because he was speaking to people who were "rich" in terms of laws; they had a big theology worked out around the law. They needed to learn priorities and live these priorities.

I think this is also why Jesus, and the New Testament as a whole, expects more from the poor than from the rich. The idea is that those who are poor will see their need more clearly, go to God more quickly, receive and express faith more simply.

As Americans, we are rich in so many ways that we keep really, really busy keeping all the plates spinning. As American Christians, we are likewise rich: whether in money, education, theology, activity, or all of the above. The spinning plates are not "wrong" - but if the entire New Testament is to be trusted, we are unlikely to have such wealth without losing sight of priorities. The spinning plates distract, and managing them keeps us from focusing our energies on the most basic biblical priorities.

"Blessed are the poor." We worship the one who said it. But we don't want to be poor, do we?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Steps of Faith

Joshua 3 tells the story of Israel, under Joshua's leadership, crossing the Jordan River. The way was not made for them until the first feet were placed into the water: a memorable picture of trusting God literally one step at a time.

An earlier generation had experienced the dramatic parting of the Red Sea, the most famous redemptive miracle of the Old Testament. But now there was a new generation, and they were under new leadership as the mantle had passed from Moses to Joshua. Crossing the Jordan gave this young generation their own story, and fresh courage. The Red Sea would remain, until the cross of Jesus Christ, the representative portrait of redemption. But the new generation had their own mini-portrait.

Some application:

God gives each of us stories of redemption - as individuals, families, and churches. Stories of God providing for us, guiding us, and delivering us - from ourselves, our sin, our past, our false gods. These deliverances should serve as a thread, leading us back to the cross where we see the greatest and ultimate redemption. Apart from the cross, where Jesus secured our forgiveness and reconciliation to the Father, there could be no "Wow, God is really with us!" moments today.

Also, we should keep moving forward in our faith. God did not call us to a salvation that sits in history and in our memories. The great realities of the cross should fuel us today (meaning, in the next few minutes and hours). The living and true God is with us and for us! In Paul's words, "He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not with him graciously give us all things?" (Romans 8:32)

So if God is with us in such as way... we have nothing to fear, and much territory still to claim.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Swirls and Stories

Life can be a swirl. Especially as you get older, as life gets more complex, as the household expands, as responsibilities increase, and as time seems to get shorter. Or, if you are a Shomo (like I am), there is something we call “the Shomo swirl” which traps young and old alike—it’s quite treacherous.

So I find it interesting that as God leads the Israelites out of Egypt, and prepares them for life in the promised land, he gives them the Ten Commandments, tells them to love him with all their heart-mind-soul-strength, and also tells them this:

When your son asks you in time to come, “What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?” then you shall say to your son, “We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give our fathers. ...” (Deuteronomy 6:20-23)

God is preparing them for the swirl. He is preparing them for the days to come when things are kind of mundane, yet awfully distracting. For when it would be easy to lose sight of their great privileges and unique purpose, because there are bills to pay and kids to raise.

So he gives them a (true) story to anchor themselves in. He would not be showing signs and wonders every day of the week, because human beings weren’t designed to live in such continual upheaval. Yet they need to remember the tremendous things he has done so that they do not lose their sense of identity and destiny.

We should likewise have ourselves anchored in a story. We should keep track of the great things God has done in our life, what previous generations of Christians called a testimony—a story of God’s goodness. We should remind ourselves of the privilege of knowing and serving God, and pass this on to our kids.


We should also connect our personal story (what a previous generation of Christians called our “personal testimony”) to the Greatest Story. After all, our salvation and identity, if we are believers, traces back to those Israelites in Egypt. And the story runs all the way through the Old and New Testament, and includes especially the saving death and resurrection of Jesus the Son of God.

I’m aware that I’m not saying much here that’s new. But practically, I wonder if we really do this. Or, if you are like a Shomo, does life seem more like a swirl than a meaningful, rich story?

Speaking of Shomos, I’m glad that my story contains a lot of interesting characters. In the Bible, and in my family. But most of all that it contains Jesus.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

The Cross Happens

In a message entitled "The Power of Total Freedom," Terry Virgo said something I found quite arresting:

"Paul doesn't talk about the cross so much as a memory of what happened to Jesus but as something that...happened to him. In fact, if you count the number of times Paul talks about the cross in the New Testament you'll find he talks more about what the cross did to him than the actual event of Jesus dying on the cross."

For example...

Galatians 6:14, he boasts "in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

2 Corinthians 5:15, "He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised."

Back to Galatians, in 2:20, "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."

So, right now you are reading a blog. It's only barely interactive. You will probably navigate away right about now and think about something else. But it seems to me, this deserves a great deal of mediation: do I view the cross the way Paul did?

The cross didn't just happen, it happens. Has it happened to you?

Monday, May 21, 2012

Crushing Waves and Sinking Faith

The story of Jesus walking on water, and then Peter temporarily doing the same, is a great story recorded in each of the gospels. It reveals to us the deity of Christ, the nature of faith and doubt, and speaks to us when we are in our own storms. In case you forget the details, it will take you about 30 seconds to read it here or in the comments section.

The disciples were pretty fearful when they were caught in this tremendous storm. Some think it may have been a squall. Yikes. But Jesus, who had been back on land, comes out to the boat walking on water as if he’s God Incarnate, and everyone and everything calms down.

The fact that this event follows immediately after Jesus miraculously feeds the 5,000+ makes it easy, from a great distance, to wonder why the disciples didn’t have a little more faith. The story as recorded in the gospel of Mark even says, basically, “The disciples just didn’t get it.” Even Jesus marvels at their little faith.

Personally, when I put myself in the disciples’ place, there is no way I’m feeling anything but complete terror and abandonment in that storm.

Here’s why:

Because as I think about it, the crux of the story is the fact that Jesus is not physically present with them. All the miracles they’ve seen up to this point, including the feeding of the 5000+, took place when they were with him. But in this case, he wasn’t within eyeshot. They were on their own, or so it seemed. The miracle worker was up in the mountain praying, and it was just them and their oars against the ferocious power of crushing waves.

Apparently at this point in their discipleship, Jesus was calling them to trust that his presence in their lives was not limited to his physical presence. They needed to learn that he was “with them” even when it didn’t seem he was with them. Without the New Testament available yet (it would eventually be their job to write it!), without the resurrection, without the mystery of the Holy Spirit being revealed, no wonder they thought they were toast! Yes, toast mixes the metaphor: they thought they were abandoned, alone, doomed.

I definitely would have felt this way too.

The story moves on, and as it reaches its climax after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he says to the disciples before his ascension: “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

Now do we believe it?

After the resurrection… do we believe it? Based on what God has done in world history, and in our own history, do we believe it? Are we no better than the disciples? Are we worse?

The great news is that Jesus came to them as their ship and as their faith was sinking…

Saturday, May 12, 2012


Jesus said, "Do not be anxious."

Paul said, "Do not be anxious." (He obviously stole this line.)

So, don't be anxious. But how?

I have always found Philippians 4:6-7 to be among the most practical verses in Scripture. Paul tells us exactly what to do in the face of anxiety: pray a lot, and give thanks a lot. It's a powerful one-two punch that puts you in touch with divine power and divine contentment.

I haven't given enough credit, however, to the verses that precede and follow this.

In v.4 we read: "Rejoice in the Lord always; and again I will say, Rejoice." This is the goal: joy. Yes, I would definitely like to trade in my anxiety for joy. While anxiety is a popular little vehicle, the engine is always running so it uses a lot of gas, and it doesn't idle very well. Joy just runs so much more smoothly and gets me where I actually need to go.

Then in v.5 we read: "The Lord is at hand." This is akin to the many times in the Bible that God says, "Fear not, for I am with you." And it's tremendously practical, because he is there in such a way that he can be accessed by us: thus, the following verse about prayer and thanksgiving. "Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God." It's interesting that it says "let your requests be made known," as if God wouldn't know them... but the problem is not God's knowing, it's that we have a faithless tendency to worry rather than request. We don't direct our energies toward formulating a request, so anxiety breeds with all its disturbance and distraction. JUST ASK.

And after speaking about the peace that results from formulating our requests, and acknowledging all we have to be thankful for... there is more. I always viewed this next part as an entirely new set of instructions, but I should have known better. Paul goes on to speak about setting our mind on that which is true...honorable...lovely...commendable...excellent...praiseworthy. In other words, harness your thought life. You are prone to worry, which is basically letting our thoughts run wild. Lasso your thoughts, tackle them, stick out your foot and trip them, whatever it takes. Get the upper hand over your thoughts.

And finally, he says, "What you have learned and received and heard and seen in me--practice these things, and the God of peace will be with you" (v.9). So the final instruction here is to DO SOMETHING. Specifically, get busy about God's will. Praying and praising and thanking and thinking are all foundational, but now point yourself in a direction and do something. Perhaps this is why Jesus said, when he told us not to be anxious, to direct our energies on "seeking first the kingdom of God and his righteousness."

If you are like me, you need to be reminded of these basics even after (wow) 24 years of following Jesus. Or kind of following. It's like Jesus has to keep turning around to say to me, his erratic follower, "This way. This way. Hey Ken, this way." I then envision him rolling his eyes as I momentarily get back on track, but maybe he just lets out a laugh.