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Deserts yearn to bloom

Isaiah 35:1-10
For Sunday, December 11, 2016
Third Sunday of Advent, Year A

Deserts are dry, desolate, and parched.  Yet just a little water changes everything.  So it is with the gospel.

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Photo by Jordan Whitt via Unsplash.

My wife Heather and I were in Scottsdale Arizona this past April for the Pinnacle Forum National Conference.  The desert flowers were at their peak.  To see life spring forth from such apparent desolation is breathtaking.

How often is it that we live in quiet desolation not realizing that with just a little water everything could be transformed?  This is what the gospel does.

The desert and the parched land will be glad; the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.   Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom; it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy (Isaiah 35:1).  I’ve seen this in Scottsdale, I’ve seen it in Palm Springs, and I’ve seen it in Siberia.  That last one was a different kind of desert: a spiritual desert.  In our ten years serving leaders there, we learned quickly that we didn’t have the answers, but that Jesus and the gospel did.  We started something called the Wellspring Pastors’ Network (Источник).  We got the idea from John 4:14:

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again,but whoever drinks the water I give him will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

The pastors I worked with were parched.  I was often parched.  The cities we lived in were parched.  But as we came together around the wellspring of the gospel everything began to change.  This doesn’t just apply to Siberian pastors.  It applies to personal addictions, to marriages, to families, to organizations, to communities, to countries, and yes, even to local churches.

Are you parched?  Have you thought about a glass of water?  That feeling we  get when we slake that thirst?  That’s a pointer to the gospel’s ability to slake our spiritual thirst.  Ultimately, all of our problems are spiritual at the core.  That’s why the gospel always works.

How have you seen the gospel pour into your life and bring a desert to life?  If you haven’t, what would it look like if it did?  Sometimes even starting to envision it, with prayer, can start the wellspring.

 

God and vengeance?

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“Desolation” by Thomas Cole

For Sunday, September 11, 2016
Year C, Proper 19
Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

(Re-posted from Sept. 9, 2013)

What place could vengeance possibly have in the heart of a good and loving God? This week’s first reading, Jer. 4:11-12, 22-28, raises the question.

This is not a passage to which one turns for spiritual solace. “A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights …. not to winnow or cleanse – a wind too strong for that … For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children … They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good. The whole land shall be a desolation … I have not relented nor will I turn back.” This reminds me of the time I was so mad at my oldest son that I told him he could no longer live under my roof and was consigned to the garage until his conduct changed. I was an angry parent, and righteously so (for the most part). But can a truly good God really act in vengeance? Logically, we might want to argue know, but scripturally, the answer is clearly “yes”.

The fortunate thing is that the gospel story doesn’t end with judgment. As mad as God was in Jeremiah, he found a way to redeem the situation through the death of his own son Jesus. Fools continue to say in their hearts, “There is no God” (Psalm 14) but God is nevertheless intent on recovering his wandering sheep (Luke 15). While just vengeance indeed awaits those who refuse God’s purpose there is grace awaiting those who come to the realization that they formerly acted in ignorance (1 Tim 1).

It’s a mistake to think that God never gets angry or even vengeful. His love and righteousness demand as much in the face of rebellion, corruption, and oppression. Yet may each of us find grace for our time of need.

Who shapes the clay?

Jeremiah 18:1-11
For Sunday, September 4, 2016
Proper 18, Year C

Am I really a boy or a girl?  Amidst the massive transformation our culture is undergoing as regards gender, Jeremiah 18 provides both insight and hope.

Else Berg, "Potter"

Else Berg, “Potter”

One of my former co-workers underwent a gender change.  I met with him over coffee to seek understanding and offer friendship.  He appreciated this.  As I reflected back on that conversation I realized that a crying need in today’s culture is to find identity.  This may help explain the current interest in tattoos and the Burning Man Festival.

So is identity something we each have to choose for ourselves?  Jeremiah 18 provides a very different answer: our identity is shaped by God.   This applies not only to individuals but also to nations.  God says, “At one moment I may declare concerning a nation or a kingdom, that I will pluck up and break down and destroy it, but if that nation, concerning which I have spoken, turns from its evil, I will change my mind about the disaster that I intended to bring on it.

As clay, rather than trying to shape ourselves, the Bible invites us to pursue a relationship with our Potter.  The hard truth is that God is going to shape us whether we like it or not.  “Now, therefore,  therefore, say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem: Thus says the LORD: Look, I am a potter shaping evil against you and devising a plan against you. Turn now, all of you from your evil way, and amend your ways and your doings.”

The good news is that God offers us the chance to turn back to him before he reshapes us.  Jesus did not come to condemn anyone.  He came “that they might have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).

What do you think about the current gender controversy swirling in our culture?  What insights would you point to from this passage or other parts of the Bible?

 

God’s incredulity

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Jeremiah 2:4-13
For Sunday, August 28th
Proper 17

I think to understand Jeremiah 2 you have to be the parents of teenage boys.  One time a teenage boy I know well was trying to get into his home.  The doors were all locked and he didn’t have a key.  He decided to solve the problem by kicking in the back door to the garage.  Mind you, this was the very same door the boy’s father had just repaired a day earlier.  Arriving home from work, the father saw the broken door frame, and was incredulous.  “What in the world were you thinking?!”

This is how God is feeling about us in Jeremiah 2.  “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?!” (Jer. 2:5).  Reading through the rest of the passage there are a number of other statements underscoring God’s incredulity at his people’s rebellion:

  • “When you went your own way you didn’t even ask where I was!” (v. 6)
  • “You enter this amazing Promised Land and proceed to defile it!” (v. 7)
  • “Your leaders didn’t even ask for me!” (v. 8)
  • “Has there ever been another people who changed their god despite those gods being false?!” (v. 11)

God is so incredulous, and so alone in his incredulity, that he’s reduced to talking to the heavens.  “Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the Lord” (v. 12).  The two things God was most incredulous about were these:

  • “You have forsaken me, the fountain of living water” (v. 13a)
  • “You have dug cisterns for yourselves rather than relying on me (and they leak!)” (v. 13b)

Why are we so often so spiritually stupid?  It is because the spiritual synapses of our frontal lobes just haven’t connected.  They need to connect, NOW.  Let’s not waste another day, shall we?   Let’s stop kicking in the doors of God’s inheritance and start asking for his help!

 

 

 

 

enjoying our freedom?

Galatians 5:1, 13-25
For Sunday, June 26, 2016
Proper 8

Never have we been so free as we are in the Secular West.  So then why aren’t we enjoying it?  Galatians 5 provides an explanation.

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Head VI, Francis Bacon, 1949, Hayward Gallery, London

I just returned from an amazing week at Acton University with 1,100 other adult learners from 51 countries to learn about faith, liberty and economics.  The most moving part of the week for me was hearing Father Sirico during the final plenary session share about how as a five year old growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950’s, he noticed numbers on his Jewish neighbor’s arm and asked his Mom what they meant.  His Mom explained that just as cowboys brand cattle so some people thought they could brand other people to designate those others their property.  This experience became among Father Sirocco’s first inklings that we as human beings are  profoundly different than animals.

Lord Acton, the Acton Institute’s namesake, said this about freedom: “True freedom is not the ability to do whatever we want, but rather having the power to do what we ought” (paraphrased).”    This is precisely what the Apostle Paul addresses with the Galatians in chapter 5 of his letter to them.

“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another” (v. 13).  “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, …” (v. 19).  “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control” (vv. 22-23)”.  “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (v. 1).

As Francis Bacon understood so well in “Head VI”, the painting above, we in the West are free to do whatever we want (including now even choosing our own gender).  Yet we’ve lost our minds in the process.  Only in turning back to God will we start to identify with what we ought to do as well as find the power to do it.

Think about the people in your sphere of influence.  Are they enjoying their freedom?  Really?   How about you yourself?  It’s a revealing question, but it can be one of the most liberating ones you could ever ask yourself.  May the Spirit of liberty lead us forward in both grace and truth.

Preparing for a Lenten Adventure

Lent starts next week with Ash Wednesday.  Of course it doesn’t appear on my computer calendar.  How is it that as a nation we’ve come to the point where Earth Day is on the calendar but Lent is not?  At least Easter is still on there.

I’m 51 now, old enough to know that without a vibrant relationship with the Lord life so quickly crumbles into the formless sand of vacuity.  So I want this Lenten season to be one that grounds me and forms me more firmly in my Father’s grace and peace.

I went back to see what I had written previously on Lent and found this post entitled “The Rhythm of Epiphany to Lent”.  I actually liked it.  That’s rare for me as a reader of my own writing.  It needed some editing (of course!) but may it encourage you as it did me this morning.  I actually wrote it way back in 2010.

Preview for Sunday, November 29, 2015

What a momentous week.  We move from Pentecost of Year B to Advent of Year C.  The lectionary has years A,B, and C so as to take us through the entire Bible every three years.  It also contains an annual cycle of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Holy Week, Easter, and Season after Pentecost.  By following these triennial and annual rhythms we enjoy Christian culture even as we create more of it.  In a world trying to press us into it’s secular mold this is both crucial and transformative.

Jeremiah 33:14-16
This passage looks forward to a time when a righteous Branch will spring up from the line of David to execute justice and righteousness in the land.  This began to be fulfilled with Jesus’ first coming.  The fulfillment will be complete when Jesus comes again.  

Psalm 25:1-10
What does it really mean to walk with God?  How do we deal with the guilt we feel for past transgressions?  How do we grow spiritually?  Here there are some answers.

Luke 21:25-36
When will the end of the world come?  Will we be able to anticipate it?  What will be the signs?

1 Thes. 3:9-13
When we invest ourselves in the lives of others and in God’s mission a profound love for and bond with our fellow brothers and sisters develops.  Here is also some great guidance on how to intercede powerfully for others.   Prayer is the primary lever of ministry.

Preview of readings for Sunday, November 15, 2015

My normal posting rhythm is to read and pray through the passages for the given week and then post a key concluding reflection.  I want to keep doing this but also want to start posting a preview.   I’m doing this as an encouragement for my family to read Scripture together.  They’ve told me it’s been hard to get into the lectionary because they don’t have enough orientation.  So this is my attempt to be the intrepid tour guide.  Yet I thought I’d post the previews here in case others want to join in with us.

(Regarding the schedule, I’m always one week ahead of the calendar because I want to post my concluding reflections the Sunday prior, so that they are available for the week leading up to the actual Sunday).

1 Samuel 1 & 2
This is the story Hannah, the mother of the prophet Samuel.  Hannah wasn’t able to conceive for a long time.  That’s painful enough.  But on top of that her husband’s other wife Peninnah would  deride her for it.  What a dysfunctional family!  (The way things are going culturally we may be heading back toward polygamy so it’s nice to know the Bible already has that covered.  The story of Hannah is one of grief turned to joy and providence unfolding into legacy, for Samuel would lead to Saul, Saul to David, David to Jesus, and Jesus to us.

Mark 13
This is a story about Jesus’s core disciples (Peter, James, and John, with Andrew the fourth man) marveling at the Temple in Jerusalem. Jesus predicts its destruction.  The disciples have the same reaction we all would:  “Ooh, when’s that going to happen?”  Jesus response is curious.  He could have simply said, “Within your lifetimes” and he would have been quite correct.  Yet instead he warns them not to be led astray.  Why is this?  In short, because there is much more in play than the mere destruction of some buildings, albeit some marvelously grand ones.

Hebrews 10
Ah, Hebrews again.  Oh how I love this book.  I believe it was written by the great Jewish orator and apologist Apollos as an Apologia to Jewish Christians not to abandon their new-found faith, as well as to Jews to see the fulfillment of God’s promised Messiah in Jesus.  In this chapter he’s explaining the significance of the sacrifice Jesus made, his ongoing ministry as our high priest, and the impact all of this has on both our relationship with God and with each other.  Can you imagine the excitement a Jew would have hearing that the place their priest could only enter once a year, the Holy of Holies, was now a place that God was inviting themselves into on a daily basis?  Wow, wow, wow!!!

The mighty tempest of God’s intention

"Transfiguration" by Raphael, 1518 - 1520.  Vatican City, Direzione generale dei musei.

“Transfiguration” by Raphael, 1518 – 1520. Vatican City, Direzione generale dei musei.

For Sunday, February 15, 2015
Psalm 50:1-6

Sometimes under the cloud of injustice we sometimes experience in the world we ask reflexively, “Where is God?  If he’s there is he asleep at the switch?”  The writer of Psalm 50:1-6 responds, “Where is God?  Look no further than the sun which rises every morning.”  “The mighty one, God the Lord, speaks and summons the earth from the rising of the sun to its setting” (v. 1).

Asaph, the author of this Psalm, gives us a powerful and ever-present metaphor of the presence and righteousness of God.  The blinding beauty of the sun shining the sky, he says, is like God shining forth out of Zion (Zion meaning Israel as all it is intended to become) as the perfection of beauty (v. 2).  The presence of God is a “consuming fire” and a “mighty tempest” (v. 3).  There is no injustice that the consuming fire of a mighty tempest cannot overcome, not even that of a Jordanian fighter pilot being burned alive in a cage.

Over the last two weeks my family has been enduring a painful trial that seems very unjust.  It’s made us angry.  It’s made us weep.  It’s brought our spirits down.  This reading has been a tremendous help in that I’ve realized no matter the specifics there is no injustice the righteousness of God can’t consume.  The sun rising in the morning is a constant reminder of this.  (Of course, in a Wisconsin winter, the sun may not appear for days, but this is where a little moral imagination can be helpful).

What God has called us to do in the face of injustice is raise it up and release it into the presence of his consuming righteousness.  He WILL be the defender of our cause.  “The heavens declare his righteousness, for God Himself is judge” (v. 6).  What a joy to know that we know the Chief Justice of the Heavenly Supreme Court personally and that our world is a mere dot in the universe of his courtroom.

On this Transfiguration Sunday, our readings also take us to the Transfiguration of Jesus (Mark 9:2-9).  In Jesus’ clothes becoming dazzling white we have another picture of the mighty tempest of God’s intention.  God is committed to setting everything right, no matter the cost, as demonstrated in the sacrifice and victory of his one and only Son.

Points to ponder

  • What is the greatest injustice you or your family have ever faced?
  • How did God show you his righteousness and generous love through that trial?
  • The next time someone encroaches unjustly into the lane of your life how could you respond better understanding now the mighty tempest of God’s intention?

2014 in review

WordPress offers bloggers an Annual Report.  Below is mine.  This blog was viewed 18,000 times in 2014 throughout 121 countries.  That’s exciting.

I remember a conversation with Stuart Briscoe, one of my mentors and former Senior Pastor of Elmbrook Church.  My friend Peter Mitskevitch, Dean of Moscow Theological Seminary, asked him, “What’s the secret to your success?”  Stuart responded, “I know a good book and share with people what I find there.”  My purpose with “Church in the World” is to help the church be the church in the world by sharing what I’m finding the good book to say on the topic.

I’m currently writing my 2015 goals and trying to discern what to do with this blog in 2015.  One thing that I’ve concluded is that I want to keep writing for it because I enjoy it.  I would also like to grow my readership to an average of 2000 per If this was your blog what would you do next so that it would serve others more effectively?

Grace and peace.

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 18,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 7 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.