Monday, September 28, 2009


If you are a regular reader of my blog, I'd appreciate a brief "comment" that lets me know a little something of who you are....


And blessings in Jesus.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Ordinary People?

Sermon #9 from First Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 3:1-4


A suggested dynamic-equivalent translation of 1 Corinthians 3:1-4....

Brothers and sisters, I was not able to speak to you as people living in God's Spirit, but to people living as though there is no Spirit –– like babies (yes, in Christ, but not "full grown" [2:6]) who live self-centeredly, responding to their primal urges. I gave you milk to drink instead of solid food, for you were unable to handle anything else. You are still unable, because you are still thinking and acting like people without God's Spirit. How can I say that? Because you exhibit such things as jealousy and quarreling. That is the way non-Christians behave. When some of you say "I'm on Paul's side" and others say "I'm for Apollos," are you not acting like people who know nothing of the new life which comes from God's indwelling Spirit?

There was a movie a number of years ago called Ordinary People. It was about a family with two sons. The mother's favorite had been killed in a boating accident, and it was clear to the other son that it would have been easier on everyone if it had been him who had died. His response to this was an attempted suicide. The movie was about the responses of the father, mother and son in the aftermath of those crises. The point, I think, was that profound things happen in the day to day lives of ordinary people, and it is unusual to find something other than ordinary responses. Favoritism, jealousy, hate, despair and possessiveness are not exceptional traits in the lives of ordinary people.

People in the church have not always been able to freely admit this. The assumption has sometimes been that if a person is a Christian he is automatically able to rise above such negative traits. It is only in the last decade or so, with the science of mental health affecting the church and with such books as Nouwen's Wounded Healer, that some people in the church have felt the freedom to admit that such things as favoritism, jealousy, hate, despair and possessiveness exist within the church. But out of that a doctrine of self-acceptance has begun to take root; we have an excuse for our sins.

The tension in the church between idealism and realism often surfaces in the "Dear Abby" column. Someone will write to Abby, hurt because of having suffered rejection from the church. The standard reply is to question whether the church is a museum for saints or a hospital for sinners, with the tone of the question clearly weighted for the church being a hospital for sinners. The presupposition is that the church should tolerate anyone who wants to be a part of it.

I would argue that those two choices –– a museum for saints or a hospital for sinners –– are not good ones. They force a choice between two partial truths. The church is not either a museum or a hospital (this kind of thing is a good reminder to use biblical symbols); the church is, though, a place for sinners to be made whole (not left in their old patterns), and it is a vehicle for God to display the effects of his grace (Jesus said we were salt and light, and Paul wrote of Christians being God's workmanship, remade to be able to do good works so others can see them and know what God is like). The church is a place where old people are turned into new people so that an alternate community emerges. The church, when it is fulfilling its role, is the true counter culture.

I have mentioned Dr. Gordon Fee, who has written such an excellent commentary on First Corinthians and who was also one of my New Testament professors in seminary. He once told of being in West Africa teaching a series on Jesus and the kingdom. As he lectured on the radical obedience to which Jesus calls us (it happened to be on "no retaliation"), he was challenged.

One of his listeners asked the classic question, "What would you do...?" Dr. Fee reaffirmed his commitment to radical obedience, upon which another listener said it, and said it well: "But that’s not normal!" And Fee's response was, "You've got it! You've got it! Of course it's not normal." This is what it means to be a Christian. Anyone can be normal; it takes Christ in us not to hit back. Anyone can hate. Anyone can argue and insist on his own way. But Christians are people in whom the very Spirit of Jesus has come to live.

Now this has been the long version of making the point that people who are truly part of Christ's church are called to be different. They have a reason to be different, and it is right to expect Christians to act differently than “ordinary people.”

Sadly, the Corinthians were not living up to that. Now if the Corinthian church was a mere historical anomaly, we could take a detached look at their problem and move on. Unfortunately, I do not know of a single church that cannot identify with the Corinthian church in some way (which just goes to show how timeless the inspired Word of God is). Christians sometimes think and act like non-Christians. The Corinthians did it, and you and I do, too. We need words like these from God through Paul to call us back to obedience.

First, there's the one reason to expect Christians not to be ordinary, but to be different: Christians are "spiritual." These verses make the point of application Paul has been building all along. Christians are people who have come into the wisdom of the message of Christ crucified. Christians are people of the cross. Christians are not ordinary people. God's Spirit lives in Christians, turning them from the old ordinary patterns of living and enabling them to live like the Lord in whose name they are now known. Christians have the mind of Christ.

Paul has also been clear as to how Christians are different. Christians are not like natural "soulish" people who cannot understand the things of God. People who think of life only in the here and now cannot help but respond to life in the here and now as if it it the most important thing in all the world. If this life is all I have, then you can expect me to fight for it. If this life is all there is, then my possessions are of utmost importance, for they are my security for pleasure and comfort. If this life is all there is, then what is important to me has a higher priority than what might be important to you. Those are ordinary observations, and ordinary people cannot understand any other approach to such issues.

The horrible thing is that some Christians do not seem to understand this truth that we are different. Sometimes you and I think and respond more like ordinary people than people in whom the Spirit of God has come to dwell. Paul does not call Christians who do that the same thing he calls non-Christians who live that way. For the non-Christian, the word is psychikoi, or "soulish" –– living on the basis of this life only. For the Christian he uses the word sarkinoi, or "fleshly" –– carnal, living like human nature without God. And that is the greatest tragedy: people who have initially partaken of God's Spirit living as though God is not there.

You see, the way we live is the acid test of our faith. Christianity is not just a matter of our sins being forgiven. "Christian" is not one other thing we are; it's not something extra in our life that we do. Being a Christian means Jesus is in us, and if he is in us it's because we are inviting him in and humbly admitting we cannot handle life without him. This means our whole approach to life is based on a new perspective –– the perspective of Jesus in us.... the perspective of the cross. The cross of our Lord comes into every decision, every relationship and every value.

This means, as William Barclay pointed out in his little Daily Study Bible, "you can tell what a man's relations with God are by looking at his relations with his fellow man." Paul looked at the Corinthians and knew they had a spiritual problem –– in spite of having initially believed in Jesus. And how did he know that? He saw them having petty jealousies and quarrels. God help all of us.

I said earlier that all churches can identify with this Corinthian church in some way, but today I am not preaching this passage in all churches; I am declaring the Word in the place where I am called, and this part of God's Word is for us. On the basis of God's words to the Corinthians I call each of us today to respond to one another honoring the Spirit of Jesus which is in us –– the Spirit who lives in us to give us the mind of Christ so we will be people of the cross.

This means our personal opinions and wants are not the first priority. This means we embrace a serving Spirit rather than a demanding spirit. It means that power and influence and control, the things ordinary people ordinarily want, are things to be guarded against rather than sought. It means being humble and careful on issues that would invite us to take sides.

What is your response to negative talk? During the week before and in the weeks after an associate pastor's resignation I heard more than a little about negative talk. It sounded much like Corinth. Back then it was "I am on Paul's side" or "I'm for Apollos," but now it's "I'm for Pastor “Jones” –– why can't he stay?" or it's "I'm glad Pastor “Jones” resigned." And the reasons are mostly opinions. I wish I was hearing more questions like: "What does God want to do in our church?" or "What is best for Pastor “Jones?" or "How can we affirm one another right now?"

I digressed. What is your response to negative talk? Do you challenge it? Do you question the authenticity of what is being said? More importantly, do you question the motivation behind what is being said –– do you try to understand the person's real concern? Do you encourage the person who is obviously at odds with a brother or sister in the church to go to them and get it straightened out? Are you willing to go with them if necessary?

And if you do some or all of those things without a satisfactory result, what do you do then? Do you get irritated at the person, so that you end up with a problem, too? I have been made aware of enough of that to know we have some patterns of handling our opinions and frustrations that are too ordinary –– any group of people could respond that way. But we are Christians.

There will always be a variety of opinions in a church. I am not saying we need to be robots. I am saying, though, there is a power-driven, underhanded and control oriented approach, and there is also an open, honest and straightforward voicing of our concerns.

But even if we are honest and straight-forward, there is no guarantee of everyone's concerns being handled to please them. In fact, I can promise the opposite: there will always be some people whose opinion or idea is not accepted –– when two people disagree, the settlement cannot go 100% in both directions. The test of character comes when our opinion or idea did not carry the day. That is where we have an opportunity to be people of the cross. The power person says, "There is next time," and he goes off to enlist his supporters. The bitter person goes off to spill his bile over all who will listen. And to that I say, anyone can do that. It does not take God in us to act like that.

On the other hand, a person can say, "I take, O Cross, thy shadow as my abiding place," and then say "If my concern is from God, he will take care of it; if it's not, then I'm thankful for the wisdom of the Body in seeing something I could not." But on no account should there be a building of sides; on no account should there be a deviousness that smiles on Sunday mornings and then commits character assassination on the phone on Sunday afternoon and Monday morning.

The question, though, is how to translate all of this into real life. First, and I underscore this again, we must be partakers of the Spirit. There is no way to live the life of the Spirit if the Spirit of Jesus has not come to live in us. But even then, there must be development.

The word Paul wants to use for the Corinthians is pneumatikoi, "spiritual"–– which means that the dominate force in one's life is the Spirit. For the spiritual person, the guidance of the Holy Spirit is sought for every decision, every relationship and every value that person embraces. In the life of a spiritual person, the Spirit affects the way others in the church are treated. The Spirit affects the way we talk and the way we make and respond to decisions.

If you are tempted to say, "I'm not so bad, I'm spiritual; after all, I'm a Christian," then look long and hard at Paul's words to the Corinthian Christians. They were babies, and babies need to grow. C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity that one cannot simply go on being a decent ordinary egg; we must be hatched or go rotten.

More than that, the one way to have assurance that one has, indeed, partaken of God's Spirit is to live according to the Spirit. Claiming to have the Spirit but acting like a non-Christian may mean you are fooling no one but yourself.

This is not the time to be thinking of someone else. I want each one of us today to hold this mirror of God's Word up to our own face. Look straight into your own eyes and answer this question: Am I acting like any “ordinary” human being, or are my actions marked by the indwelling Spirit of God? Think back through the past weeks and listen to your words. Have they been divisive, or have they been marked with the love of the One who chose the cross over his own will? Anyone can belong to the crowd of ordinary people, but it takes the life of the Spirit if we are the people we say we are.

Who are we?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Adore Te Devote

St Thomas Aquinas (ca. 1124-1274) wrote a wonderful hymn that was translated by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1899). A few of my favorite verses are:

I am not like Thomas, wounds I cannot see,
But I plainly call Thee Lord and God as he;
This faith each day deeper be my holding of,
Daily make me harder hope and dearer love.

Seeing, touching tasting are in Thee deceived;
How says trusty hearing? that shall be believed;
What God's Son has told me, take for truth I do;
Truth Himself speaks truly or there's nothing true.

Jesus whom I look at shrouded here below,
I beseech Thee, send me what I thirst for so,
Some day to gaze on Thee face to face in light
And be blest forever with Thy glory's sight.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A First Day Hymn

The following hymn is from Sunday Morning, Week One, The Liturgy of the Hours:

On this day, the first of days,
God the Father's name we praise;
Who, creation's Lord and spring,
Did the world from darkness bring.

On this day the eternal Son
Over death his triumph won;
On this day the Spirit came
With his gifts of living flame.

Father, who didst fashion man
Godlike in thy loving plan,
Fill us with that love divine,
And conform our wills to thine.

Word made flesh, all hail to thee!
Thou from sin hast set us free;
And with thee we die and rise
Unto God in sacrifice.

Holy Spirit, you impart
Gifts of love to every heart;
Give us light and grace, we pray,
Fill our hearts this holy day.

God, the blessed Three in One,
May thy holy will be done;
In thy word our souls are free.
And we rest this day with thee.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Having a Christian Mind

Sermon #8 from First Corinthians. The illustrations are obviously from the time and stage of life when the sermon was originally written....

1 Corinthians 2:16b

I was pushing the channel selector on the car radio this past week and happened to find a program on Christian radio I used to listen to years ago. I tuned in for a few minutes, long enough to hear a story about missionary efforts by some Dutch Christians back when slavery was the scourge of Africa. At a time when many people were saying blacks had no soul, these missionaries were trying to find ways to tell them about Jesus. The one way that was open was for them to renounce their Dutch citizenship, voluntarily sell themselves into slavery, and become one with the black slaves. Some did it, and thousands became Christians.

Then I started thinking of other stories where a Christian did what most people would think to be absurd. There is the story of the Anabaptist man back in the 16th century who was running from the magistrate to escape persecution. He had crossed a frozen river and was gaining his escape when he heard cries of panic; his pursuer had fallen through the ice. This Christian fugitive turned back and pulled the man out of the water, saving his life. The reward was that the magistrate then arrested the Anabaptist, and he was killed for his radical faith.

There are also stories among the Brethren in Christ. A Canadian brother, E.J. Swalm, was jailed back in the days of World War I for his commitment to nonresistance. He was willing to suffer whatever consequences his obedience to Christian conscience demanded (and if you haven't read the account of his experience in his book, Nonresistance Under Test, you are missing out on a notable Brethren in Christ story).

What is it that enables some Christians to take such steps of obedience? What is the difference between nominal Christianity and the kind of vital Christian life that gives testimony to the transforming power of Jesus Christ? One answer would be what Paul told the Corinthians at the end of chapter two: we have the mind of Christ.

This subject of the human mind recurs throughout the Scriptures. It is important to understand it is not limited to the physiological process. The mind is one of the things which characterizes the essence of a person. One of Solomon's observations in the Proverbs was as a man thinks within himself, so he is (23:7, NASB). That is the basis for Jesus' great command, Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength (Mk 12:30).

The spiritual mind is the foundation for all that we are and all that we do –– and all of us have one. Every person on earth has a mind motivated and shaped by one of two spirits: either the spirit of the world which is against God, or the Spirit of God. Notice the clarity with which this is given in both Romans and 1 Corinthians:

Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires, but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace, because the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God's law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God (Rom 8:5-8).

And again:

The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned (1Cor 2:14).

People who think like the world (which is one way the Bible describes it; other terms are "natural," "flesh" and "sinful nature") cannot understand people like E.J. Swalm. And Christians like the Anabaptist man and the Dutch missionaries are fools to a worldly way of thinking –– which is just what the Bible says: The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers....(2Cor 4:4).

But it's not only in the big issues where the distinction shows. Before we could ever lay our lives down we would need to change our minds about any number of much lesser matters. It begins with the realization that the voices we hear every day are not without a spiritual mindset. The opinions in the news and the bias written into the television programs we watch are reflecting a way of thinking that matches the spirit of the age.

Do you think about how you make up your mind about the issues in our world today? What is your mind's understanding of common things like marriage and family and money? In what context do you place values like rights and freedom and peace? What is your thinking on things like abortion and homosexuality? Are you aware that the world has its own way of thinking, and that it cannot help but be antagonistic to God?

Do our children and youth see that Jesus makes a difference in our attitudes and actions? My son Jeremy and I were at the mall last week and he wanted to buy two books ––"graphic novels" I think they are called, thick comic books that cost ten dollars. He likes them because they have pictures he likes to copy to practice his drawing, and, I think, because they are "in" right now. I opened one at random and found one of the characters telling the others, "Let's go kick some a--!" I showed it to Jeremy and he knew that was unacceptable. As a Christian parent I am concerned about the things that voluntarily go into my children's minds. Even childish entertainment can take our kids either in the direction of Jesus or away from him.

Now the hard thing about all of this is the clear teaching in the New Testament that people who have received God's Spirit by believing in Jesus can continue to allow the old ungodly pattern of thought to dominate their thinking and behavior –– Christians acting like non-Christians. That is precisely Paul's criticism of the Corinthians.

You see, salvation is more than having our sins forgiven and waiting for our trip to heaven. God's intention is to change us, and forgiving our sins is just the first step in that. The promise is throughout the Old Testament. One familiar place is Jeremiah's prophecy: I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts (31:33). The goal is for us to be what God first created us to be –– like him –– "in the image of God," and the one way we know what that was is through God's revelation. God first gave his law and then he gave his Son. Jesus Christ is the one model of complete humanity. He lived out God's law. He fully portrayed God's character. As we look to Jesus we see both what God is like and what we are to be “like.”

Jesus showed that some things are more important than this life and our safety and comfort, and so that Anabaptist man and those Dutch missionaries (and others before and since) were only as foolish as Jesus. Jesus showed our world a selflessness that stands in stark contrast to a woman talking about her "right" to control her own body. Jesus showed a purity that offers people with moral twists the only hope for a way out.

The reason people were first called Christians is because they were so like Jesus. A Christian is a person who is always turning from the old way of thinking to be more and more like Jesus. The contrast of the old and the new.... That is what Paul was writing about to the Ephesians, telling of the truth that is in Jesus teaching us to put off your old self and to be made new in the attitude of your minds, and to put on the new self, created to be like God.... (4:21-24).

It is in that context that we read Paul saying let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5, KJV) as he goes on to talk about Jesus not selfishly holding on to his deity, but instead coming into our world as a poor Jewish man to die on a Roman cross. It is in that context that Paul also urged his readers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable –– if anything is excellent or praiseworthy –– think on such things (Phil 4:8). And what other thought could one have after a list like that except Jesus? In fact, in the verse before that he had said, And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus (4:7).

To the Colossians Paul said, Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above.... set your minds on things above, not on earthly things (3:1,2). And to the Romans Paul gave this exhortation: Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God's will is (12:2).

Whenever we are having trouble in our personal lives or in the church, one of the first things we might do is see if our minds are oriented toward Jesus and his ways or if perhaps we have reverted to the mindset of the world around us. On the other hand, if non-Christians and casual church goers often think we are "a full bubble off center," then there is a good chance our minds are indeed in that process of being transformed.

Later in this Corinthian letter we will see Paul ask his readers ten different times, "do you not know...?" The assumption is that we as Christians do know certain things –– things non-Christians cannot know and cannot understand, and because we know we should be acting like it.

I am very much aware of areas in my own life where my mind desperately needs that transforming which can only come from Jesus. It is encouraging to see ways where it has already happened to a degree, but I have a long way to go. My commitment as a Christian is to keep my eyes on Jesus so the process will continue; my hope as a pastor is that each of you will join me in that process, and that I can be a helper and an encourager for you in that process of being like our Lord.

I want to challenge each of us to be one of those people the world cannot understand because our minds are being remolded so that we are like Jesus. Maybe it won't be a case where we literally sell ourselves or pull the one who is out to kill us to safety (we just don't know things like that ahead of time), but if the mind of Jesus is our standard we will be different.

If that is to happen I need to say one thing over and over, and not only say it but model it, and that is to keep Jesus Christ exalted. As individual people, he is our reason for living. As a church, he is the reason we exist. In every issue that confronts us in the world, in every move we make in our personal lives, and in every decision we make as a church let's be people who look to Jesus. Let's be people whose greatest desire is to be like our Lord. And let's be people who, when hard things come, can be encouraged by hearing from one another these words that Paul gave the Corinthians: we have the mind of Christ.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Being Wise

I posted this last year, but as I read the Office today –– a year later –– I was struck once again with the simple wisdom and force of the reading.

Today the Church remembers Saint Robert Bellarmine. In the Office of Readings for today there is an excerpt of his writings from On the Ascent of the Mind to God. The following is so basic that it seems we too easily get distracted from the simple focus so wonderfully expressed by this follower of Jesus from long ago....

If you are wise, then, know that you have been created for the glory of God and your own eternal salvation. This is your goal; this is the center of your life; this is the treasure of your heart. If you reach this goal, you will find happiness. If you fail to reach it, you will find misery.

May you consider truly good whatever leads to your goal and truly evil whatever makes you fall away from it. Prosperity and adversity, wealth and poverty, health and sickness, honors and humiliations, life and death, in the mind of the wise man, are not to be sought for their own sake, nor avoided for their own sake. But if they contribute to the glory of God and your eternal happiness, then they are good and should be sought. If they detract from this, they are evil and must be avoided.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Spiritual Epistemology

The following is sermon #7 from my long-ago First Corinthians series:

1 Corinthians 2:6-16


I think it was Good Friday, 1970. I know it was during the Spring migration that took college students to Florida. My college was only 60 miles or so from Ft. Lauderdale, and I was part of a group of fellows who drove down one night to witness to all the kids whose lives needed to be straightened out. We were ready to do just that.

I remember joining a group sitting on the sand engaged in animated discussion. I discovered my gang of Bible college students was not the only Christian presence there. A girl about my age was arguing that no one could absolutely know anything with another girl from Young Life. I still remember her question, "How can you prove to me that this sand I'm sitting on is really here?"

It was a philosophical question coming out of the study of epistemology. Epistemology asks the question, "How can we know that we know what we think we know?" It's really an important question. What is our foundation for believing anything? Where does knowledge begin? Is anything always true, everywhere and every time? Or is everything relative –– always dependent on the perception of the individual person? Can I decide, based on my experiences, that something is right or wrong or very important, while you decide from your experiences just the opposite? Is truth limited and relative to each person's perspective? Does the question of truth begin with each individual person? Or if the individual approach is too narrow, does the quest for truth begin with common human experience?

In this part of his letter to the Corinthians, Paul identifies and contrasts two types of wisdom.... two approaches to knowing –– in fact, two lines of humanity. One tries to know truth –– to gain wisdom and knowledge –– by starting with and building on the perceptions and abilities of Man. The other recognizes that truth, knowledge and wisdom have their origin in God, and if Man is going to have understanding, it must begin with God.

Now to us in the church, that is not a radical statement. Of course we must begin with God, we would quickly admit. But that general understanding is not enough if we are going to be strong Christians in a world that is no friend to true godliness, and that general understanding is not enough if we are serious about helping non-Christian friends and neighbors know why Jesus Christ is so important.

Another title for this sermon could have been, "Why The Gospel Is Bad News." There is a reason why living our lives unto Christ is not the cool thing to do in the eyes of the world. We might think Paul is overstating the case that Christ and the cross is foolishness to the world, but our understanding and response to that affects so much who we are and what we do.

It affects our pride. Can we make it on our own or do we need someone else? The serpent convinced Eve she could have truth, wisdom and knowledge independently of anyone else, and all of humanity has tried to believe that ever since.

It affects our values. Do I make choices based on my own opinions? Do I start with my own pleasure, comfort and safety, or do I recognize that my Creator and his ways get first consideration?

It affects the way we try to answer those two questions of self-confidence and values. Can I make those decisions that concern me so intimately by myself, or do I need some outside source to come into my private world and tell me what I need to know?

The Christian answer to all of this is not self-affirming. It is bad news. The foundation of all that Jesus Christ is and does is that we cannot know truth, we cannot have wisdom and knowledge by ourselves. Both individually and collectively, Mankind is limited, twisted and helpless. Those are three of Paul's points in these verses.

Now the overall context is still wisdom, or the lack of it, as the case may be. The Corinthians were buying into something that is very much with us today –– the prestige of appearing brilliant. Christians need to understand why that is foolish. The wisdom of the world is not wise at all. Does that mean, then, there is no intelligent basis to what Christians believe? No, we have a wisdom –– a foundation –– for what we believe and live by, but it is a wisdom that natural Man cannot understand. Why? Because natural Man is limited, twisted and helpless.

How are we limited? In v6 there is a phrase which says, "the wisdom of this age." "This age" is the here and now; it is the world of sensory perception and Time. A wisdom based on such a view of reality is limited, and yet that is where natural Man gets his understanding. The girl on the sand was right. By ourselves we can only hope that what we think we know is not illusion. Or in the case of the tragic –– sickness, death and cruelty –– we can try to say it is illusion. That is what "Christian Science" does with illness. That is what some Eastern religions do with all of life. But good or bad, that answer does not satisfy because it is not true. How can we know what is true? How can we answer our spiritual longings?

Most people run from that question. They do not care how they know or even whether they know, as long as they are, for the moment, comfortable and secure. They refuse to see the conclusion of their lifestyle. Paul describes it in three words in v6: coming to nothing.

A few people search for answers. Apart from becoming a Christian, the options are few: get lost in the process of searching, become cynical, live with inconsistency, or commit suicide. Francis Schaeffer, the evangelist/apologist who became famous in the late '60s and throughout the '70s for his writings and his work at L'Abri in Switzerland, understood this as well as anyone I know. He told a story about a man he met on a cruise in the Mediterranean. The man was an atheist, and as Schaeffer talked with him, it was obvious the man was a thinker, one who understood the abandonment of thinking Man is merely a biological machine.

I offer the rest of the story in the words of Schaeffer himself:

I noticed [his wife] was very beautiful and full of life and it was easy to see, by the attention he paid to her, that he really loved her. Just as they were about to go to their cabin, in the romantic setting of the boat sailing across the Mediterranean and a beautiful full moon shining outside, I finally said to him,

"When you take your wife into your arms at night, can you be sure she is there?" I hated to do it to him, but I did it knowing that he was a man who would really understand the implications of the question and not forget. His eyes turned, like a fox caught in a trap, and he shouted at me, "No, I am not always sure she is there," and walked into his cabin.

Whether we want to admit it or not, we humans are very limited.

Not only are we limited, we are helpless to do anything about it. We need to understand the reality in which we live, but it is too much for us. If we were ourselves responsible for our own existence, then perhaps we could furnish some answers. But to get real answers, we are dependent on the One who is behind all reality. How can we know truth and how can we have wisdom? Not by seeking those things on our own initiative, but by seeking to know the One who is behind them.

Here in the church, if you see a brother do something you do not understand or if you hear a sister say something that bothers you, how do you try to understand it? Do you go to someone else and report what you heard or saw and with a third party try to conjecture what is going on? Or do you go to the person and ask for an explanation? That is a real situation that we need to think about, and it is also an illustration of two ways to try to get truth and understanding about our own world and existence. We can pool our ignorance with other people who know little more than we do, or we can go to the One who made us and seek the wisdom that only he can give.

That is Paul's point in v11: For who among men knows the thoughts of a man except the man's spirit within him? In the same way no one knows the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. We are helpless to get wisdom on our own; we are dependent on the source of wisdom.

That seems so simple. Why would everyone not turn to God for that wisdom? The answer is in the distortion of “natural” Man: we are twisted. There is a spiritual condition in humans that causes us to reject help. We want to be free to make up our own minds. We want to be independent. We follow right in the footsteps of Eve, still saying "I want to be able to do it all by myself." That is how we are twisted. It is why we are cut off from God. It is why people do evil things. We do not want to admit our limitations, and we struggle to prove we are not helpless. In doing that we prove the worst thing of all –– we are twisted. We are pessimists when we should be optimists and we are optimists when we should be pessimists. We hurt ourselves and others.

My father-in-law once told a story which illustrates through a common incident a larger spiritual reality. A surgeon was traveling back and forth between two hospitals on a regular basis. One day he stopped at a small barber shop along the way, and as the barber cut his hair and they talked, he noticed a place on the barber's lip. Not wanting to be too intrusive, but also caring, he asked about it and suggested the man go to a specialist the doctor knew. The barber knew the place was there, but had not thought much about it. He would see.

But instead of making a doctor's appointment, the barber went to see the druggist. The druggist suggested some salve which both covered it and provided some antiseptic help. Some time later the surgeon was by the barber shop again, and not seeing the place on the barber's lip as conspicuously, thought it had been taken care of, and he said nothing.

Another span of time passed and again the surgeon stopped to get his hair cut. This time he could see a protrusion under the make-up job. He again asked the barber about the place, whereupon the barber pulled out the tube of salve. The surgeon jumped up and looked more closely and told the man to get to the specialist immediately.

Again another span of time passed and the surgeon one day stopped at the little barber shop. This time it was a new man behind the chair. His old acquaintance had not seen the specialist in time.

There is that in all people which does not want to face hard things. It is no less true spiritually than physically. Some people think their values and opinions and decisions are okay as long as they are getting by. One view on moral and spiritual issues is thought to be just as good as another. In fact, the one wisdom that is most often rejected is the way of Jesus. A "natural" mind will always choose power and position over something that appears weak, despicable and threatening.

That is because a “natural” person is not a complete person. The only way we can understand who we are as people made in the image of God is for God's Spirit to live in us. Without God's Spirit in us, we are without understanding; there is no truth and no hope.

That is part of the meaning of v14–– The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned. There are only two types of people in this world: natural and spiritual. People who are "natural" do natural things. They understand their world and its events in natural ways. All it takes to be natural is to be born into the world.

But to be spiritual, the Holy Spirit has to come inside a person. And the only way that can happen is through Jesus Christ. We are going to find that in itself does not end every problem, but it provides the only foundation on which anything lasting can stand.

At this point though, the one issue is what you and I are looking at to judge the issues of our lives and to make our decisions. Maybe we find it hard sometimes to believe the non-Christian who lives next to us is lost. Maybe we even find it hard to see our own brokenness. I talked with someone recently who was wishing he had a dramatic conversion story. His life before he asked Jesus to come in was basically good. Outwardly, one would hardly notice any difference after his conversion than before. How are people like that supposed to see their own twistedness?

Well, first there is a difference between behavior and and disposition. An evil disposition is there long before evil behavior surfaces. When God's Spirit comes to our heart's door, he helps us see that, regardless of our behavior, our situation without him is truly limited, twisted and helpless. We all are proud and selfish apart from a new disposition that can only come from God's Spirit. That is one way we can know something has changed –– when we become sensitized to our self-orientation.

Everyone who has God's Spirit can sing "He brought me out of the miry clay." All of us who know that the foolishness of Christ crucified is really the most wonderful thing that has ever happened can sing with Charles Wesley:

Long my imprisoned spirit lay

fast bound in sin and nature's night;

Thine eye diffused a quick'ning ray,

I woke, the dungeon flamed with light.

My chains fell off, my heart was free;

I rose, went forth and followed thee.

Amazing love! How can it be,

that thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

Until we can sing that song, we are all too like the girl at the beach, not even able to be sure the sand she's sitting on is real. What things do you “know” today, and how do you know that you know? Is it because God's Spirit has changed you? Is the world's idea of what is "natural" a foreign and dangerous stranger to you? Once the Spirit of Jesus comes in, we know "all other ground is sinking sand."

Thursday, September 10, 2009


In the spirit of my previous post, I was reminded of a quote I wrote in my journal over twenty years ago. Even then I was disturbed about an exaltation of tolerance that was so quickly being crowned the Queen of Virtues. When I read the following I recognized a wisdom that seems to be hidden from popular consciousness:

In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair.... the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die. (Dorothy Sayers)

God save us from "tolerance" and give us the grace to have a passion to live (and die) for what is True.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Comfortable Mediocrity

There is an article worth the effort to find in the June 2009 issue of The New Oxford Review. “To Love the Lovable & Hate the Hateful” speaks powerfully to the malaise that afflicts contemporary society (and which also affects today’s Christian witness). I hope you will try to access the whole article. The following should be incentive to get it (and implant something to think about, even standing on its own):

A witty cynic once said, “Mediocre people are always at their best.” To them it makes no difference what a person’s ideas are, as long as he’s a “nice guy,” feels good about his beliefs, and does not challenge those of others. Why should we oppose people because of their “lifestyle”? People should be left to choose their own paths; this alone would guarantee universal peace. Who can say what truth is anyway? Everyone is entitled to his own opinions.

Popular people “wisely” refrain from engaging in “sensitive” topics, usually ethical or religious –– the genesis of most disagreements. This explains why some of our most mediocre politicians have attained key positions in government.

But are such people loved? The answer is that they are neither loved nor hated, for they are neither hot nor cold. On the day of their death they will be forgotten. They are not to be envied, for he who goes to his tomb without having been loved has had a sad life indeed (Schiller’s “Hymn to Joy”). Dante has severe words for such people, who “lived without blame, and without praise” (Inferno). He refers to them as “These unfortunate who were never alive....”

Look up the whole article!

Friday, September 4, 2009

The Weakness & Power of Preaching

Here is sermon #6 from my First Corinthians series. This one is close to my heart; it is about preaching.

1 Corinthians 2:1-5

Week after week we gather on Sunday mornings. I read a passage of Scripture and then talk for thirty minutes or so. What is this thing called preaching that I do and you listen to? These words from Paul to the Corinthians give a partial answer. I say "partial" because I'm not sure this thing called preaching can ever be understood. In fact, it's another expression of God's foolishness.

So far, Paul has said the message of the cross is foolish in terms of worldly wisdom. And not only the message of the cross, but people of the cross are foolish. Now, to complete the triad, the way it all happens –– preaching –– is foolishness. Preaching is the bridge between the message and the people who would accept it. And if the message is foolish to the world, and if the people who end up accepting it are the world's fools, then it is also true that the way it all happens seems a bit farfetched as well.

John R. W. Stott (with a name like that you can tell right away he is British) has written one of the best books there is on preaching. It is called Between Two Worlds because the preacher needs to be a bridge between the world of the Scriptures and the world of his hearers.... between the world of God's truth and the world of feelings and opinions in which we live. The first sentence in his first chapter straightforwardly says, "Preaching is indispensable to Christianity." What is it about preaching that is so important? Paul's answer is that preaching is a weakness that illustrates the kind of foolishness God has chosen to honor, and preaching is also a way of revealing God's power.

Why is preaching seen as a weakness? Words are among the most powerful things on earth. Think about what Hitler was able to do with words. A good orator can have an audience crying or laughing or angry and ready to go out fighting. Why is such a thing as preaching then seen as a weakness?

John Stott gives some good reasons in his book which are based on issues today. One is the anti-authority mood which permeates our culture. Most people do not want anyone telling them what they can or cannot, or even should or should not, do. A good illustration is the unrest in the Catholic Church, who understands herself to be the Rock Christ invested with the authority of truth that will not budge. When the Pope speaks out on abortion or sexual morality, the secular press (and too many dissidents in the Church) go ballistic. The world-spirit does not like being under authority, and Christian Truth is authoritative. Preaching is meant to declare Christian Truth.

Bold and forthright preaching is a rare thing today. It is much easier to give lectures and opinions. G. Campbell Morgan, the great preacher of Westminster Chapel in the early part of the 20th Century, has been credited with the observation, "Sermonettes breed Christianettes." True preaching declares God's truth with authority. It makes people aware of the chasm between sin and holiness.

During my time as associate pastor at the Grantham Church on the campus of Messiah College, I was under the preaching and modeling of Dr. Robert Ives. He wrote an article for the Evangelical Visitor about preaching (at the time, this was the periodical published by The Brethren in Christ Church) answering a question some had asked of him. It had to do with what was seen as a discrepancy in Bob. They said when he was in the pulpit he was bold and uncompromising, but that when approached personally he was humble and willing to make allowances. Bob's answer was that in the pulpit the minister is the voice of God's Word, but in the counseling office (or wherever) the minister is a brother sharing a common humanity with whomever he is with.

That is not to say that as long as any preacher is in the pulpit he is protected from all error. There is no ex cathedra for a person just because he is ordained for the ministry of the Word. But at the same time, there is an authority inherent in the Word of God as it is preached that must not be quinched, regardless of the culture's distrust of authority.

A second weakness of preaching that Stott identifies is what he calls the "cybernetics revolution." Cybernetics is a study of the mechanics of communication, both human and mechanical. Cybernetics can help a person with things like voice projection, inflection and gestures. It is also a study of how communication can be enhanced by anything from a sound system to the special effects of video.

On the one hand this could be a strength to preaching (although there is a major reason why it is not, and I'll come to that). After all, can preachers not benefit from techniques and technology? Look at the TV and mega-church preachers; they have close-ups, split screens and Bible verses before the viewer. The weakness, though, is that for every technical trick the preacher tries to use to his advantage, other media use it incredibly better. The cybernetics revolution means we have gotten accustomed to movies with special effects and star personalities with every advantage to make them look good on camera. What average preacher, speaking "live," can hope to compete with that? And so conventional wisdom capitulates saying, given the entertainment options of today, trying to communicate through mere preaching is too great a weakness.

The third weakness in preaching that Stott mentions is a loss of confidence in the gospel. Alongside the glitter and flashiness of what we might lump under the word "Hollywood," and alongside the pain and turmoil we are aware of on a world-wide scale (thanks again to technology), it seems as if the gospel is no match for what we are facing. So contemporary Christianity has tried to offer its "suggestions" to the world –– how to be “better” on the world's own turf.

We have Christian movies and contemporary Christian music and Christian exercise videos and who knows what else to try to market our message in a way that is palatable to the world around us. And when even that does not make a dent in the problems.... when our influence seems to be a mere cultural backwater, we retreat to maintain our own bit of identity and acquiesce to the idea that maybe the gospel just won't work any longer in changing the world. If all our enhanced ministries will not do it, certainly preaching is too weak to do anything. Isn't it?

I believe that Stott is right in his analysis of the weakness of preaching, but underneath it all is another weakness that comes from Paul himself. Preaching is weak because God has chosen weak things to show his strength. The biggest weakness there is to preaching is the belief that God really can use such a thing to any kind of advantage given the realities of our world. So, we need to see what biblical preaching is before we accept or reject it.

First of all, biblical preaching has a definite message. It is marked by its unique content. Biblical preaching centers on Jesus Christ and him crucified (v2). Prior to any other task, the ministry is one of proclaiming what God has done through his Son. In the words of the preceding verses, preaching is declaring the truth of righteousness, holiness and redemption in Jesus. If the Scriptures are not true and trustworthy, and if God has not given us salvation from sin in Jesus Christ, then preaching is ridiculous and the church can shut its doors and put up a "CLOSED" sign.

But if it is true that the Scriptures are trustworthy and that God has given us salvation from sin in Jesus Christ, then there is something to proclaim with the loudest voice and the greatest authority. And if a preacher stoops to peddle pop psychology or merely plays with cute little stories and worn out cliches, then there will be no confidence in the gospel, for the gospel will not be heard. True preaching is telling the message of the cross.

Preaching is not limited to its content, though; in biblical preaching, the method must match the message. This is where the conflict really comes with cybernetics. Yes, there are tricks to good communication. Yes, there is technology available to give public speakers all kinds of polish. Preachers can go to school and learn exegesis (biblical interpretation) and homiletics (the art of sermon construction and delivery). But none of that insures good preaching. In fact, it stacks the deck against it apart from the utmost care.

Yes, there are advantages one can use in preaching to make it look and sound better, but look at Paul's response to that: I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom (v1), and again, My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words (v4). In other words, he did not try to distinguish himself. Paul had a message which ran counter to the world's way of thinking; it was the cross. His manner, or method, matched his message. He did not try to "knock 'em over" with his brilliance or with his presence. Paul believed the message so much that he was willing to practice it in his own life and ministry.

Every preacher on earth faces the dilemma of self-sufficiency. I was raised in a church that taught me how to use "spiritual language." I had the privilege of an education that has given me tools for doing academic Bible study. I've had some good models of preaching throughout my life to learn from (and I've also had some bad models that showed me what to avoid!). I say all of that to say this: I have learned enough to give a pretty good performance. But if I ever see that's all my preaching is –– a performance, something I go through the motions of doing –– so that lives are not being changed, I hope I will have the courage to quit.

There is one standard of biblical preaching, and Paul tells us what it is: a demonstration of the Spirit's power. When all is said and done, a good sermon is one in which the Holy Spirit has worked. It can be a sermon which brings us face to face with God in worship. It can encourage us to obedience or drive us to repentance. It can give us fresh resolve to love Jesus with all our hearts. The one thing true preaching cannot do is give our brains an academic stretch or titillate our emotions and then leave us just like we were.

I am very conscious of a call to preach. I am aware time and again of the Holy Spirit taking what I say and do and making it far more effective than it could ever be apart from his working. It is because God has chosen to use the foolishness of preaching to draw people to his Son. The power does not come from me, or any other person. I mentioned in a previous sermon the kind of loser I would be apart from what the Spirit of Jesus has done in me. The primary desire I have is to preach the truth and beauty of Jesus Christ so that every one of us is in the process of becoming everything that God wants us to be. And what God wants us to be is like Jesus. So we preach Jesus. Anything else is playing a game.

There is a certain reason why God takes ordinary people like me and uses them to preach the power of his Word: Paul says, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power (v5). If the success of my preaching is nothing more than my personality or wit or a natural ability to stimulate your natural thinking, then all I have done is win a few people over to maybe following me (until you find out I cannot be all you need). And that kind of thing is always divisive; some people will like the preacher a lot, and others will not. But if my preaching helps you love Jesus Christ as never before, then something is happening which will stand the test of everyday life and time.

There is a sense in which this passage is an examination text for me and other preachers. You have a right to expect me to commit myself to this standard of preaching. I want to say that by God's help I do make that commitment, and there is no other aspect of my ministry I take as seriously as proclaiming the truth of Christ crucified as it's given in the Scriptures. I appreciate the gifts God has given me which help me do that, and I try to use them under his Lordship. Still, the bottom line is this: My ministry stands or falls in the power of the Holy Spirit. I confess to you that I know that.

But the responsibility does not only rest on me, it also falls on you as you hear the Word preached. It is not enough that you hear what I hope is a stimulating sermon. It is not enough to smile and be nice. My part is to be the channel for the Spirit to speak through his Word in power; your part is to allow the power of the Word to work in your lives so that you are always living out of a commitment to Jesus Christ and are desiring to be like him.

On the surface, preaching cannot compete with the world's glamour of entertainment. It seems foolish to think that an average person like me should be able to affect the very core of your being. But as I allow the Holy Spirit to move through my preaching in his power, you can expect that power to be making an effect in your life. The power of preaching is lives changed by the Holy Spirit –– lives who are being changed because the message of Christ crucified turns them into people of the cross. Is that the kind of preacher you desire to hear? I hope it is. It is the kind of preacher I want to be.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Identity Gap

With more time this week to reflect (and trying to read despite the narcotic pain meds), I have been thinking about the gap between Catholicism (the true Catholic Faith) and the various models/voices/expressions which are modeled by Catholics (the broken, human side which is most easily seen).

I think of my dear Protestant and Evangelical brothers and sisters who cannot see past the poor models and confusing semantics.

I think of the many Catholics who seem to have no idea what the Church truly teaches, or if they do, why.

I think of a world who is dying, so needing to see Jesus.

If I am claiming the name of Jesus, something of His beauty needs to be seen in me. That is the fruit of the Spirit.

Lord, have mercy.

Heal the divisions of your people.

Let your life in us be our greatest desire.

Save us from the "gap" of owning your name and not being like you.

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