Category Archives: Religion

Soul check


Psalm 25:1-10
For Sunday, November 29, 2015
Year C, First Sunday of Advent

To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul” (v. 1).  This act is the essence of a transformed life.  How often is it that I forget or fail in this?  So many other things clamor for my soul’s attention, whether it be the football game, a worry at work, or rank selfishness.  What better way to start Advent than to take a Soul Check based on Psalm 25?

The soul check described here involves two steps.  The first step in a soul check is to understand God’s way (vv. 8-10):

  • he is good and upright (v. 8)
  • he leads the humble in his way (v. 9)
  • his way is steadfast love and faithfulness (v. 10)

To be humble means I recognize that I can’t figure things out on my own and that I open my life to the Lord’s guidance to correct my faults and move one step closer toward living well for his glory.

The word translated “steadfast love” is ‘hesed’.  This is one of the great words of the Old Testament and refers to God’s overwhelming kindness, concern, and generosity to us.  For example, ‘hesed’ is the central theme in the Book of Ruth as we read of Boaz’s ‘hesed’ for Ruth as a reflection of God’s ‘hesed’ for his people including us.

The second step in a soul check is to pursue God’s way (vv. 1-7):

  • Express trust (v. 2)
  • Ask for deliverance from shame (v. 3)
  • Ask to be taught his paths (v. 4)
  • Ask to be lead in truth (v. 5)
  • Ask him to remember his mercy (v. 6)
    • not remembering past sins
    • but remembering your steadfast love

Do you ever struggle to know how best to pray.  If so here is a great list.  How about we try it for this next week and then compare notes here in the comments?

As the hymn says how prone I am to wander.  Thank you Father for this soul check to start Advent.  To you I lift up my soul.  Be glorified in me.  Amen.

Representing the Kingdom of Heaven

Nikolai Ge,

Nikolai Ge, “What is Truth?”, Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow, Russia, 1890.

John 18:33-38
For Sunday, November 22, 2015
Reign of Christ (Proper 29)

fr-lgflagToday’s post is dedicated to the citizens of Paris.  Thank you for all you are and give to the world.  We grieve tearfully for the terror inflicted on you yet we insist to you that hope remains.  Life is meant to be so much more than just tending your own garden in an act of despair.  Let God enter the garden and the beauty that is already yours will be transformed and used for his glory.

“Are you the King of the Jews?” the Roman Governor Pontius Pilate asks Jesus.  This is what as known as a close-ended question in which the idea is to elicit a simple “Yes” or “No” response.  Prosecutors like to use these because it let’s them control a line of questioning.

Yet Jesus won’t play along.  He responds, “Did you come up with that on your own or have people been talking to you?”  When being questioned it’s a good idea to get behind the immediate question to the motive driving the question.

Pilate responds, “Am I a Jew?”  He is saying: “Look, I don’t get into the vagaries of Jewish politics.”  Then he asks Jesus, “What did you do?”  The implication is that whatever it was, it must have been bad, because the Jews didn’t like the Romans, yet here they are handing over one of their own to these very Romans.  It reminds me of the time some Russian pastors tried to hand me over to Russia’s federal security service (but that’s a story for another time).

Jesus responds in a way that answers Pilate’s first question (Are you King of the Jews?) as well as his second one (What did you do?): “My kingdom is not of this world.  If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews.  But now my kingdom is from another place.

“Aha!” says Pilate, “So you are a king.”  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.

Jesus point was that whether or not he was a king was actually secondary.  What was primary was his mission which was to testify to the truth.  “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”  This is the key phrase in the entire passage.  Here’s a way to preach this:

“Representing the Kingdom of Heaven”
3 aspects of our identity as Christians of the kingdom

  • we are a kingdom not from here, but for here (v. 36)
  • we belong to the truth (v. 37a)
  • we listen to Jesus voice (v. 37b)

For the sake of brevity, please unpack these for yourselves.  But regarding the first point, oh to be a church that can speak to this culture rather than just mimicking it in some sad parody.  Regarding the second, what power there is in having our feet firmly grounded in the bedrock of truth when the culture around us so evidently has both feet planted firmly in mid-air.  Regarding the last point, doesn’t this sum up what authentic Christians do?  We hear Jesus voice and then actually listen to it!  Remarkable.  Radical.  Profound.

Jesus is speaking to us.  He’s speaking to us about our identity.  He’s speaking to us about our calling.  We are representatives of the kingdom of heaven called to redeem the world to its Creator.  There is no person or place that I would rather be.  How about you?

Inheriting the good life

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Sergey Brin, a rich young man who co-founded Google

Mark 10:17-31
For Sunday, October 11, 2015
Year B, Proper 23

A  rich young man, who by virtue of being rich at a young age may well have been the 1st century equivalent of a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, comes to Jesus and asks, “Good Mentor, what must I do to inherit the good life?”  The interaction which follows gives us three profound insights into the question of inheriting the good life.

Impossible to self-qualify …

The first insight into inheriting the good life is that it’s impossible to self-qualify.  Jesus’ initial response to the rich young man’s question is to respond with a question.  “Why do you call me good?  Only God is good.”  Sergey isn’t expecting this.  It unsettles him.  This is good because now his soul is open to real influence.  When we come prayerfully to the Scriptures, and put their authority over us versus under us, this is what happens.

Now that Jesus has the man’s full attention, he says, “Look, you know the answer to your own question.  You need to keep the commandments.”   The man responds, “Yes, of course, and I’ve kept all of them since my youth.”  And now comes a piercing blow: “You lack one thing.  Go, sell everything you have, and give your money to the poor.”  The man’s face falls, and he goes away crushed, for his wealth is the very foundation of his present identity.

Now, as for us, is the point that we too should sell everything we own?  No, not unless God directly asks us to.  The point is that it’s impossible to self-qualify for inheriting the good life.  None of us are so good at keeping the commandments that we’re up to God’s perfect standard of righteousness.  There will always be something each of us lacks.

… but qualification granted

The second insight into inheriting the good life is that while it’s impossible to self-qualify for it, it is possible to be granted qualification.  Jesus’ disciples were stunned and dismayed at the interaction they had just witnessed.  “So then who can be saved?”  Jesus says this:  “For mortals it’s impossible, but not for God.”  If we want to inherit the good life, we are going to need God to qualify us for it.  He offers this qualification to each of us if we will only believe that Jesus died on the cross to forgive our sins.

The guaranteed bonus

The third and final insight is this: there is a guaranteed 100-fold bonus involved for those who who choose to follow Christ.  I can tell you from personal experience that this is true.  When Heather and I went to Siberia as missionaries 22 years ago we left everything: our home, our extended families, and our jobs.  We went over there with 10 big black duffle bags.  (That was 9 bags too many as we were later to learn).  Yet what a return we received on our investment.  We literally received 100-fold in terms of God providing housing, Russian friends and family, and the profoundly significant work of restoring people be to hope and flourishing life.

So, do we want to inherit the good life?   We can’t qualify ourselves, but God can qualify us, and when he does, it comes with a 100-fold blessing for the sake of His name.  This is the business our God does best.

Your thoughts?

  • What in this did you find particularly encouraging?  Challenging?
  • Where in your own life have you seen God deliver on his 100-fold bonus in response to a decision to follow him?

Commendable faith

Biblical Tyre

Mark 7:24-37
For Sunday, September 6, 2015
Year B, Proper 18

Why did Jesus go to Tyre (modern day Lebanon)?  Mark hints at an answer in saying “He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there” (v. 24).   It may be that Jesus needed some peace and quiet after having to interact with those extra grace required Pharisees and teachers of the law.  Self righteous religious people are just not very appealing, are they?

Despite not wanting anyone to know where he was, Jesus “couldn’t keep his presence secret”.  Authentic Christians don’t have to go out of their way to be seeker friendly: their authenticity is so attractive, that the seekers find them, even when such Christians are just trying to keep a low profile.

In this case, a Syro-Phoenician woman finds Jesus.  Her daughter is possessed by a demon.  She asks Jesus for help, and he responds strangely: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to their dogs” (v. 27).  What in the world does that mean?  What Jesus is saying is this: “My mission is to the Jews, and you are a Gentile.  It’s the Jews who are at my table, and relative to them, you and your daughter are merely the Jewish family dogs.”  Ouch!  Here this nice woman comes to Jesus for help and he insults her.  The woman would have been well within her rights to walk away in disgust.  But she doesn’t, because she’s desperate.  She responds, “But even the dogs eat the children’s crumbs” (v. 28).   Jesus is so impressed with her persistence and faith that he says, “You may go,the demon has left your daughter” (v. 29).

This Syro-Phoenician woman had commendable faith.  If her life was changed by mere crumbs of the gospel falling off the table of Jesus’ mission, how much more will our lives be changed if we will simply trust and obey our Heavenly Father in the name of his glorious and all-powerful Son?

What problem are you facing today?  Maybe it’s a family issue like the Syro-Phoenician woman had.  Maybe it’s a job challenge.  Maybe it’s a financial challenge.  Will you come to Jesus with this challenge and trust and obey that he will carry you through in his love and power?   This is our call to commendable faith.

The problem with cut and paste

Jean II Restout : Pentecôte

Jean II Restout : Pentecôte

Psalm 104:24-34, 35b
For Pentecost Sunday
Sunday, May 24, 2015

I love most things about the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL).  Following the annual church calendar is a wonderful spiritual rhythm that I’ve come to appreciate through fellowship in a mainline Congregational church as well as my Siberian sojourn and exposure to Eastern Orthodoxy.  As an evangelical I wish this was something more of my fellow believers could understand and appreciate. This is particularly true on special Sundays like this Pentecost Sunday.

At the same time, I have a pet peeve with the RCL editors.  Why do you so persistently cut and paste?  This week the verse citation is the give away.  ‘Psalm 104:24-34, 35b.’  Hmmm… so we are supposed to read everything except v. 35a.  What does that say?  ‘May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked vanish!”  Ouch.  What’s the harm in excluding it?

The harm is that we change the message.  We allow our present worldview to hold sway over the text rather than giving the text permission to challenge our worldview.  In this case v. 35a is crucial.  Without it we’re focused on the good of the Lord.  With it the focus shifts to the good of the Lord in a world gone bad.

Sin is real.  Wickedness is real.  The world is not what it should be.  Take where I live, for example, Milwaukee.  60% black unemployment, profound segregation, and profound family dysfunction (and not just in the ‘hood).  What causes this?  God?  No!  What then?  Sinners and wickedness.

God is praying (through his Spirit) and acting for the world to conform to his intention.  He is calling us to pray and act likewise.   So two suggestions.  First, when the RCL cuts and pastes refuse to go along.  Second, with respect to this passage, pray the unredacted prayer of the Psalmist: “May my thoughts be pleasing to him.  I will rejoice in the Lord.  May sinners disappear from the earth, and the wicked vanish.  Praise the Lord, O my soul.  Praise the Lord.

The Exodus: merely a charter myth?

"Departure of the Israelites", by David Roberts, 1829

“Departure of the Israelites”, by David Roberts, 1829

Exodus 14:19-31
For Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014
14th Sunday After Pentecost

The Wikipedia article on the Exodus begins, “The Exodus is the charter myth of Israel.”   That phrase, ‘charter myth’, marks a fault line running through our culture.  Did it happen or didn’t it?  For someone operating out of a secular worldview, it couldn’t possibly have happened.  For someone operating out of a Christian worldview (at least in its classical sense) it had to have happened.  The biblical writers clearly thought that it did.

Is the Exodus account (and the use of ‘account’ seems a better choice to reflect Wikipedia’s value of ‘neutral point of view’ than ‘charter myth’) historical or merely mythology?  It’s worth considering the case presented in the Wikipedia article regarding the historicity of the event.

The first point the article makes concerns numbers and logistics.  The biblical accounts (and note there are multiple sources here, Exodus and Leviticus) claim there were 600,000 men involved.  With women and children included, this would represent a total number of approximately 2 million people.   Wow, that’s twice the size of metro Milwaukee.  Marching 10 abreast this would form a line 150 miles long.  That is supposed to be considered implausible.  I however cannot imagine a group of that size deciding to march 10 abreast.  It would make much more sense to march 100 abreast, in which case the line would be 15 miles long.  That becomes very plausible, like the long line of motorcycles that rumble through our city every five years for the Milwaukee Rally 5-year anniversaries.

The second point the article makes is that 100 years of recent archaeological research hasn’t turned up any archaeological evidence.  This is an argument from silence and therefore unpersuasive. To form a persuasive case contrary evidence would need to be provided.

The third point the article makes concerns alleged anachronisms.  Place names mentioned in an alleged 2nd millennium B.C. account date instead from the 1st millennium B.C.   But how strong is this evidence?   I’m not going to take the time to chase down the source cited but the burden of proof is on the one trying to undermine the historicity of the account in front of us.

The article’s fourth point is that the supposed chronology seems more religious than historical.  The problem here is that the supposed 4,000 year chronology of world history is supposed by the interrogator as against being supposed by the Bible itself.   Taking this supposition away there is no point left to make.

For those that find the above considerations persuasive the most plausible conclusion is that the Exodus account is indeed historical.   The wider biblical story is that God worked to save a particular nation, Israel, not so that he could favor them over other nations, but to set the stage for an Israelite to come who would save every nation on earth.  This is a great story, and it’s true, and in its truth we can rejoice and be confident of both blessing in the present and future glory.

Additional reflection:
It is not my calling to contest the current Wikipedia article but it may well be the calling of some of my readers and I urge them to take up the challenge.  We ought not let the secular bias evident here stand unchallenged.  We too easily and often capitulate to the naturalistic worldview from which this kind of thinking stems without even realizing it.   When we do take a stand  it becomes evident that the secular case is often built upon pillars of sand that will crumble upon first touch with considered reality.

“I am who I am”

Kukel PutinExodus 3:1-15
For Sunday, August 31, 2014
Proper 17 (12th Sunday After Pentecost)

We lived in Russia (Irkutsk, Siberia) during the tumultuous transition from Yeltsin to Putin during Putin’s first presidential incarnation.   At that time a very funny TV show called Kuklee (“Puppets”) parodied the machinations in the Kremlin.  This was a knock-off of a similar show in the U.K.  that some of you may remember.

When Putin came to power he did not find his character amusing.  The Kremlin told the sponsoring Russian television station NTV that Putin would no longer be appearing on the show.  The very next week, a new character, the burning bush, appeared.  The other characters asked the bush, “What is your name?”  The bush said, “I am he whose name shall not be spoken.”  I remember laughing out loud while watching this.  Putin was so enraged that the very next week the tax police descended on NTV and Kuklee ceased to exist.  In writing up this post I searched for the episode on the internet and couldn’t find it.  (If you find it please send me a link!)

Turning then back to the original burning bush event why did God say to Moses, “I am who I am?” (v. 14).  This was a powerful play on words in the Hebrew language of the original text.  To say in Hebrew “I am” sounds almost exactly like God’s proper name, “Yahweh”, which is then used in the very next verse.   God was saying this: “Moses, I know you are anxious, but do not fear, for I will be with you.

We live in a secular culture that wants to deny the existence of the supernatural and even further, to denigrate the very possibility (consider, for example, the title of the movie “Bruce Almighty”).   Our best response might be to reply calmly and confidently with Francis Schaeffer’s famous book title: God is here, and he is not silent.  Trusting in God’s gracious and real presence will bring confidence and peace to us personally, and will open the door for blessing upon everyone within our respective spheres of influence.

God is calling you and I to something today just as he called Moses to free the Israelites from Egypt.   Quiet yourself for a moment.  Listen.  Do you hear him speaking?  What is he saying?  If you actually acted on that, would it be a little scary?  Probably.  But hear what else he’s saying: “I am who I am.  I will be with you.”

Points to ponder:

  • What you you most passionate about with respect to living out your faith?
  • What is God calling you to do with your life?  With your week?  With today?
  • How could God’s commitment to be with you help you deal with the trepidation that might come from moving forward with your calling?