Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Best Neighbor . . . Ever!

Having neighbors can be an interesting affair. Sometimes they can be great, other times—not so much. Fortunately, Camille and I have never had bad neighbors since we have been married (living in our respective dorms before that is another story, of course!). But no one wants to live next to a person who has an obnoxious dog that is always yapping or a loud stereo that always seems to be blaring.

But what about having God as a neighbor? What would you think of that? Some of us would, perhaps, be paranoid a little bit—always worrying that He is going to walk by our windows and notice what we’re watching on TV, or overhear us yelling at our spouse or children. The irony, of course, is that even if He does not live in close proximity physically, He can still see all this stuff we do in the “privacy” of our own homes!

And yet, there is good news in God’s neighborliness. In fact, He is our neighbor. At least that’s what David claims! In Psalm 34:18 David has this beautiful promise for us: “They Lord is near to those who have a broken heart, and saves such as have a contrite spirit.”

What a beautiful promise! When our hearts are broken, we are overwhelmed with the cares of the world, and we just need someone to talk with or “vent,” the Lord is “near.” But the word for “near” is an interesting one because it is also the same word that is used for someone who is a literal “neighbor” (see Exodus 32:27). At the same time, the word also seems to connote the idea of a “relative” or a “close kin.” This is the case with Ruth and Boaz. He was described by Naomi as being a “relative,” and one who was, therefore, able to “redeem” her (see Ruth 2:20).

So this is a wonderful picture of God’s nearness to us. He is a close Relative who is also our Neighbor. And in our time of need, we can surely go to Him and knock on His door and He will open to us. No, more than that, He comes to us and knocks on our doors and promises us that “if any man hear My voice, and open the door, I will come in to him, and will sup with him, and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).

The only “prerequisite” for such an enjoyable experience is for us to have a “broken heart.” So let us have our hearts broken at the foot of the Cross and allow Christ to be the most loving and neighborly Neighbor in the Universe. And, make no mistake about it: there will be music coming from this Neighbor. But it won’t be the blaring kind that comes from our other neighbors. It will be the quiet and melodious singing of the Universe’s greatest tenor! Thus, this promise in Zephaniah will be fulfilled: “The Lord your God in your midst, The Mighty One, will save: He will rejoice over you with gladness, He will quiet you with His love, He will rejoice over you with singing” (Zephaniah 3:17).

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Christ's Baptism of Repentance

Here’s an interesting thought: when Christ was baptized by John the Baptist, was He merely setting an example for us to do the same, or was He actually entering into a baptism of repentance? Perhaps you have never thought about it before. Or perhaps you don’t really care to think about it because you don’t see the relevance to the question.

Either way, let’s be clear: both Luke and Mark tell us that John was “preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Mark 1:4; Luke 3:3). All those who came to him were to repent of their sins. They couldn’t simply come and say they wanted to be baptized and not repent for the wrong they had done in their lives. It wasn’t a careless or casual exercise that people engaged in because it was the “cool” thing to do. John required that he see actual evidence of actual repentance. This is, after all, why he took exception to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to be baptized and forcefully said to them that they needed to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Matthew 3:8).

Thus, when Jesus came to be baptized, I doubt that John and Jesus got together on the sidelines before taking the plunge so Jesus could say to him, “I am not really going to repent of anything, but baptize me anyway. I want to set a good example for others.” No such “deal” was struck between the two of them.

And yet, there is an obvious dilemma: John required people to repent of their sins and yet Jesus had never sinned. So how could Jesus repent and thus be baptized?

Could it be that He did, in fact, repent but that He repented on our behalf? Fortunately for us, the fog is cleared a little bit by some clarification from a wise woman:

“Many had come to him [John] to receive the baptism of repentance, confessing their sins,” Ellen White writes, “Christ came not confessing His own sins; but guilt was imputed to Him as the sinner’s substitute. He came not to repent on His own account; but in behalf of the sinner.” She goes on to write that “Christ honored the ordinance of baptism by submitting to this rite. In this act He identified Himself with His people as their representative and head. As their substitute, He takes upon Him their sins, numbering Himself with the transgressors, taking the steps the sinner is required to take, and doing the work the sinner must do” (Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 2, p. 60).

What a beautiful picture! Christ was baptized on our behalf. He confessed sins on our behalf. Even at His own baptism, He was bearing the sins of the world—sins that you and I had not even committed yet.

Of course, not only is this a beautiful picture of what Christ has done on our behalf, but perhaps it has implications for what we are to do on others behalf as well. Not that we have any merit that can be substituted for others, but we can repent for others—plead for their forgiveness and salvation. And, by so doing, perhaps our attitudes will be winsome to them and they will, indeed, come to repentance on their own.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

"Make Me a Servant"

There seems to be a few interesting tensions in the Bible between God’s perspective of us and our own perspective about us. And, in some senses, we are both right—if our attitude is couched within the framework of God’s attitude. Let me explain!

One example of this is the concept of servanthood. On the one hand, Jesus is clear that He does not view us as His servants. “No longer do I call you servants,” He says in John 15:15, “for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends.”

Yet, on the other hand, Paul comes along and, over and over again in his epistles, he introduces himself as a “slave” or “servant” of Jesus Christ (see Rom 1:1; Phil 1:1; Titus 1:1). And he wrote these introductions 20-30 years after Christ made it clear that we are not His “servants” but His “friends.”

What’s going on here? Who’s right?

The truth is, they are both right. What many of us need to recognize is that God does not have a Master-slave attitude towards us. He has freed us from bondage. He does not look down upon us with a condescending, “They better obey Me—or else!” attitude. But many seem to be plagued with this picture of God. And so, like Paul, they vow to “serve” God—but with the wrong motivation. The prodigal son’s older brother seemed to have had this attitude when, while putting up a pity party for himself in the field when he found out his brother was being given a grand banquet, said to his gracious father, “Lo, these many years I have been serving you” (Luke 15:29).

And yet this young man’s attitude of service and Paul’s attitude of service were worlds apart. Because, Paul did not view God as a Taskmaster, as someone who was exacting and arbitrary. Paul’s heart of service came from a sense of gratitude. He served God, not out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, but from a grateful heart that was overwhelmed by the love and attitude of friendship that His Savior had towards Him.

So, yes, on the one hand, God does not look upon us as His servants, but, on the other hand, you and I can look to God’s tremendous sacrifice and heart of friendship and say, “Lord, make me a servant!”

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

From Good to Great

If you could be “great” in one area of your life, what area would that be? Would you like to be a great spouse? A great parent? Cook? Artist? Student of the Bible? You get the idea . . . . God is, of course, great in everything He does, but there is one thing that, perhaps, stands above the rest. And Psalm 145—which is a wonderful treasure trove of truth from beginning to end—tells us what that is: “The Lord is gracious and full of compassion,” David writes (v. 8). This, in and of itself, is a beautiful reality. We often accuse others, especially when we’re younger, that they are “full of it.” Very rarely do we mean that such a person is “full of compassion” when we say this. Yet this is so with God.

But David continues from there, saying that God is “slow to anger.” This immediately sets Him apart from the rest of us! How often are we quick to get angry, quick to lose our tempers, quick to get impatient and feel like we have been personally wronged? If anyone has the “right” to be quick to anger, it would be God. And yet this is not His posture.

But then David comes to the part where He informs us what God is “great” at. He says that God is “great in mercy.” This is where He excels. He is not mediocre or even merely good in mercy. He is great “in mercy.” We might say He has earned His PhD in mercy with distinct honors!

The word for mercy here is one of the most beautiful Hebrew words. It is the word chesed and it not only implies mercy, but an everlasting and eternal love. And, precisely because of this advanced degree in mercy that God has, the next verse tells us that the “Lord is good to all.” He makes no distinctions. He plays no favorites. He has no “teacher’s pets.” He simply extends this grace, mercy, compassion, and love to “all.”

So what does all this tell us about His attitude and posture towards us? Are we not all a part of the “all”? Must we walk around each day with guilt-laden hearts? Or how about this: do we need to fill our days craving acceptance from others when, all along, the only Person that really matters is good to us, He loves us, and He keeps on doing us good?

Just think about it today. Ponder it a little bit as you work, as you play, as you interact with others, as you try to be “great” in whatever you do.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Repealing the New Hampshire Death Penalty

I try not to dabble in politics very much, but when it comes to matters of life and death, I feel a little more impetus to offer my thoughts and, where possible, support. So it is with great conviction that I took the opportunity to sign a letter to the "New Hampshire Death Penalty Study Commission" today as a religious leader in New Hampshire.

I am not claiming to know everything about this issue, but from what I have read about it, and from what I understand about the importance of preserving human life (both at its beginning and end), I felt it necessary to lend my support to this cause. Below is the letter that was sent to me, as well as other clergy in New Hampshire. So if you're a religious leader in New Hampshire, I would encourage you to lend your support to this measure as well.
Dear Members of HB 520 Study Commission:

We, the undersigned faith leaders, reflecting the rich diversity of faith traditions and spiritual practices observed in New Hampshire, stand together in expressing our opposition to New Hampshire's death penalty. As faith leaders, the public often seeks our guidance and direction on both spiritual and practical issues. As representatives of our respective faiths, we write to you today to ask you to support repeal of New Hampshire's death penalty.

As people of faith, we take this opportunity to reaffirm our opposition to the death penalty and to express our belief in the sacredness of human life. The use of the death penalty is a gravely unjust method of protecting society, given the capacity of our modern penal system to incarcerate offenders for life. The death penalty has no demonstrated deterrent effect that protects society, law enforcement or corrections officers within prisons. Moreover, the death penalty is applied disproportionately to the poor and people of color and the ever increasing numbers of exonerations shows that it is also applied inaccurately. This direct use of lethal means to protect society from unjust aggressors is unnecessary and unwarranted.

We have concerns about the way the death penalty fails murder victims' family members. As religious leaders, victims' family members often look to us as resources in the aftermath of murder. As such, we have a special interest in advocating for policies that serve their needs and promote healing and well-being. We believe that the death penalty does not help these families, instead, it prolongs their pain and delays their healing.

We write to voice our unease about the way our state's death penalty diverts funds from other needs. In light of the serious economic challenges that face our state and the nation, the valuable resources that are expended in pursuing death sentences would be better spent on programs that have been proven to prevent crime, such as improving education, providing mental health services, funding community corrections programs and putting more law enforcement officers on our streets. The funds would also be better spent supporting programs that assist victims of crime and their families.

It is our respect for human life and our opposition to violence in our society that prompts us to join with other death penalty opponents in New Hampshire to advocate for repeal of New Hampshire's death penalty. We urge you to recommend that capital punishment be repealed in New Hampshire and that state resources be devoted to prevention of crime and achieving healing and restorative justice for victims.

A Privileged Prophet

It must have been a lonely existence to be a prophet. It wasn’t necessarily a job that people applied for or coveted. Often times, in fact, they would run the other way and try to resist the call of the Lord (it’s a wonder why there seems to be people today who appear to be all-too-eager to proclaim prophetic utterances against others). Jonah comes to mind, of course, as does Isaiah, who said to God, “Woe is me, for I am unclean!” (Isaiah 6:5).

One particular prophet who seemed to have a challenging go of it was Jeremiah. He is known as the “crying prophet,” and with good reason. He lived during the last few years of Judah’s existence, at a time when great wickedness was taking place. He had the unfortunate “privilege” of informing God’s people that they had despised His covenant and were, therefore, going to be the beneficiaries of the covenant curses that were proscribed in Deuteronomy 29.

And what was the “thank you” that Jeremiah received for his long ministry? God forewarned him, right at the beginning of his ministry, that His people “will attack you” (Jeremiah 1:19). Sounds inviting, doesn’t it? “But,” God promised, “they shall not overcome you.” Such was, perhaps, little consolation to the constant onslaught that he would encounter from the hands and lips of those who were supposed to be God’s people.

And yet, through all this, Jeremiah was also blessed with some of the most beautiful utterances and reminders. He had words of comfort and encouragement for God’s people which, no doubt, brought cheer to his heart also. One of the most beautiful passages in scripture comes from his pen. It is in Jeremiah 31:3 where we read, “The Lord has appeared of old to me saying, ‘Yes, I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore with lovingkindness I have drawn you.”

What greater reminder can there be, in the midst of all the rubble and pain and suffering, than to know that God has this “everlasting love” for us? No ifs, ands, or buts about it. God does love us with an “everlasting love” and, even through the storm, He is trying to draw us to Himself. In fact, maybe it is precisely through the storm that He is trying to draw us.

So we, too, can saddle ourselves up next to Jeremiah and take comfort that, in spite of the tears, God has an “everlasting love” for us—an everlasting love that compels Him to draw us to Himself.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

"Grace for Grace"

It’s funny how you can read something a thousand times and never pause beside its beauty. Such is the case in the Gospel of John, where there is a three-word phrase that I had never noticed before. What is that phrase? “Grace for grace.”

This phrase has, no doubt, been overshadowed by a more well-known thought in the passage that comes two verses before it: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), but it has incredible beauty and insight in its own right. The truth that it betrays must not be lost on us. “For of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace,” John writes (John 1:16).

Don’t miss it, friends: we have all received from Christ’s fullness. Every single one of us have benefited from all of God’s fullness that dwells in Christ (see Colossians 1:19; 2:9). It doesn’t matter if we are a believer or a non-believer; all of us have received of Christ. And what is included in this fullness that John speaks of? Grace for grace.

In other words, when we have exhausted grace there is more grace. Each day is testament to this fact. None of us are alive but for the grace of God. None of us draw a breath except for His grace. When we “use” up all of God’s grace at any given moment, He comes in with more grace. It’s just grace upon grace upon grace upon grace; love upon love upon love upon . . . you get the idea.

I like what Ellen White says about this concept. Notice what she says, “The gifts of Jesus are ever fresh and new. The feast that He provides for the soul never fails to give satisfaction and joy. Each new gift increases the capacity of the receiver to appreciate and enjoy the blessings of the Lord. He gives grace for grace. There can be no failure of supply” (A Call to Stand Apart, p. 11).

What a beautiful reality! There “can be no failure of supply” with Christ. He longs to give us more and more grace—full, unadulterated grace. And what is our “job” in all this? We are called to “appreciate” and “enjoy the blessings of the Lord.”

So why not do just that? Our lives are sustained by God’s grace every day, yes, but let us not take it for granted. Let us thank the Lord, down on our knees, every day for His grace and mercy and sustaining power.

Monday, March 1, 2010

The Heresy of Personal Devotions

As some people may be aware, one of my personal "hobby horses" is to speak out against the "salvation by personal devotions" paradigm that seems to be prevalent within Christianity. This mentality may also be expressed as being "saved" by a "personal relationship" with Jesus.

Now, there are a number of reasons why I am troubled by this type of paradigm, but in talking with someone recently, he brought up another point that I had not really clearly thought about before in relation to this topic. That is, the idea of having "devotions" is a very watered-down approach to how the Christian should approach the Bible.

Think about it for a second: how many times have you heard someone give a talk or sermon in which they admonished the audience with something along the lines of, "Folks, if we are Christians, we should make it a priority to spend time with Jesus each day. And it doesn't need to be three hours. Start your day off with 15 or 20 minutes, reading your Bible or praying"? They may even encourage a whole 30 minutes to this exercise.

Now, don't get me wrong: 15 or 20 minutes is probably 15 or 20 minutes longer than most Christians spend a day reading their Bibles or praying. It is more than I spend some days. But such an admonishment falls infinitely short on many levels:

1. It presents "personal devotions" as if they were some "pill" you can pop where, by adding water, abracadabra, you all of a sudden have this thriving experience with the Lord.

2. It very dangerously makes each individual the initiator of his or her walk with the Lord. And, all through out scripture, God is always the one who does the seeking, pursuing, and wooing (see Isaiah 50:4ff, Luke 15, etc).

3. It distorts the meaning of the term "devotion." And this is completely ironic: we encourage "devotions" so much but we have watered-down the meaning of the word entirely. The dictionary defines the word devotion as "profound dedication" or "consecration." Twenty minutes in the morning is hardly a reflection of being "devoted" to anything, much less the Lord.

4. It inherently encourages minimalistic thinking. The truth of the matter is, so many of us are minimalists. We will always try to do the minimum of whatever is required of us. And when we hear so much that we should spend 15 minutes a day in our devotions, we often flatter ourselves into thinking that if we can simply read a quick devotional thought in the morning (usually not even from the Bible, but rather from something like Chicken Soup for the Soul), then we are doing enough in our walk with God. We are some how "saved" because we have at least spent a few minutes with God.

Now, I'm not saying that the answer is to all of a sudden change the "requirement" to 45 or 60 minutes. This is not the point at all. We shouldn't put a time expectation on this. Nor am I saying that we should even tell people to have devotions at all (it inherently sets up "Old Covenant" thinking if not done in the right way, I do believe). But, maybe we should some how lift up the beauty of deep and consecrated and enjoyable study and prayer time with God.

Let me share something with you that I have shared before: I remember I had professors in the seminary tell me that my devotional time in the morning was not a time to worry about reading from Greek or Hebrew or figuring out the nuances of a passage. That time is to be simply "devotional" or "inspirational."

Now, besides the fact that I do not know how you can be inspired by something unless you know what it is actually and truly saying, do you see what type of mentality pastors are being trained to promote?? Hey, I'm not saying everyone needs to know Greek or Hebrew or syntax or whatever. What I am saying is that we should be able to encourage people in such a way that they will want to dig deeper. They won't be satisfied with an "inspirational" thought or two in the morning, and then move on to their morning coffee or newspaper.

I don't mean to be so negative in this post, and in many ways I am preaching to myself first of all. But there are a few passages in the Bible that uplift the intimacy that Christ longs to have with us. And if we're not interested - we'd rather watch the Super Bowl or Grey's Anatomy - God is not going to force us into a relationship with Himself. He will continue to seek, pursue, woo, and knock, yes. But, again, if we insist on turning down His overtures, He will have no choice but to say, in the end, "I never knew you" (Matthew 7:23). And, in so doing, He will simply be giving us what we want.

One of those instances is the parable of the wise and foolish virgins. The wise virgins had plenty of oil - the Holy Spirit - in their lamps, while the foolish ones didn't. And when the foolish virgins came back from getting more oil, only to discover that the party had moved on without them, and the door had been shut, they cried out to the bridegroom, "Lord, Lord, open for us!" Sadly, the bridegroom's response was, "Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you" (Matthew 25:12).

Heretofore the virgins had refused to open the door when the bridegroom had knocked (see Luke 12:36 and Revelation 3:20), so He was able to read their hearts when they came knocking on His door. And he truly didn't know them because they had never taken the time to get to know Him.

And such is a sobering account for us to keep in mind: there will come a day when Christ no longer knocks on our doors because we have passed the point of no return.

The second passage is found in 2 Thessalonians 2:10 where Paul says that there will be many "who perish because they did not receive the love of the truth, that they might be saved." Saved by having a "love of the truth"? Is Paul serious? Apparently. Yet, sadly, many of us do not have that agape love for the truth. We may have a foggy idea of what that truth is, but very few of us would sell everything to study, understand, and dissect that truth.

The truth of the matter is, we have come far too short of uplifting what true intimacy with the Lord is all about. So let's raise the standard. Let's lift up Jesus so high that people won't be able to help but spend hours upon hours a day reading His word, digesting it, pondering it, tracing themes through out scripture, studying passages that appear confusing at first but bring about incredible satisfaction once understood - and then applying all these discoveries to their every-day lives.

Yes, this is true devotion. And this is what the Lord is lovingly trying to draw from our hearts.