On Rising Early

December 19th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Dawn breaks, light trickles through tiny fissures in our carefully arranged curtains, and most of us hide our faces lest the day overtake us. Because of our hectic schedules, being overworked and overtired, our sinful pace of life and idolatry of achievement, we fear the morning.


How different the approach of the psalmists, who longed for the coming of the new day—that they might meet anew with God. To him they offered the first thought and the first word: a subtle adjustment in time management, but symptomatic of a radical reorientation in priorities.


Listen to the testimony of scattered saints throughout Israel’s history:


“I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word.” (Psalm 119:147, anonymous)


“But I cry to you for help, LORD; in the morning my prayer comes before you.” (Psalm 88:13, Heman the Ezrahite)


“In the morning, LORD, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait expectantly.” (Psalm 5:3, David)


And perhaps more evocatively, David elsewhere describes himself as waking the dawn—having risen so early to offer God prayer and praise:


“Awake, my soul! Awake, harp and lyre! I will awaken the dawn.” (Psalm 57:8)


The psalmists are not alone in their auroral devotion. Even Jesus the Christ rose early to meet with his Father for strength and guidance:


“Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, Jesus got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” (Mark 1:35)


It would be hubris indeed to think ourselves less in need of daily grace than our Master, in whose footsteps we but follow.

Remember, his mercies never fail: “They are new every morning” (Lamentations 3:23).

Meditations (4 of 4)

December 1st, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This past weekend I had the privilege of spending some time with a group of high school students on our annual retreat. As a community we devoted a good portion of our time to silent meditation on four verses from the Holy Scriptures. Here are some reflections springing from that time of meditation.


Fourth Meditation: 1 John 4:7

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.”


In the light of all we have seen of God’s goodness in the past few days, the command to love one another takes on profound significance. This is not a matter of mere altruism or social niceties; this is a call to die absolutely to oneself and live wholly for others—as Christ did.


Perhaps grasping all that is meant by this command makes sense of the enigmatic second sentence. How is it that everyone who loves has been born of God? If everyone who loves has been born of God, then it follows that only those who do not love have not been brought to new life by a gracious God. Most people love to some extent or another. Does this imply some sort of squishy universalism? Has John slipped from lofty heights of orthodoxy to cheap sentimentalism?


But then we return to gospel love. Love is more than warm fuzzies for those who have won our good favor. Love is death. For all real love is self-sacrificial.


Only those who love self-sacrificially have been born of God. This is the love of Christ: pleading with God to forgive the very men and women who stand huddled beneath the cross on which they have crucified him, even as they shout abuse and cheerful damnation against the spotless Substitute. And in his death this crowd receives life.


If that is the standard of love . . . well, then we can affirm John’s superficially heretical statement. For only those who have looked on the Crucified with full contrition and perfect adoration could ever love so dearly.

Meditations (3 of 4)

November 30th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This past weekend I had the privilege of spending some time with a group of high school students on our annual retreat. As a community we devoted a good portion of our time to silent meditation on four verses from the Holy Scriptures. Here are some reflections springing from that time of meditation.


Third Meditation: Colossians 1:22

“But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”


What could be more remarkable than this? What love could be more unconscionable? what grace more amazing? “He has reconciled you.”


He has reconciled us.


The Holy One of Israel, perfection personified, against whom we have rebelled, sinned, transgressed—he has reconciled us.


We broke fellowship with him, defied his authority, refused him worship, embraced his enemy, earned his wrath. We all, like sheep, have gone astray; we have turned to our own way. There is no one righteous, no one who seeks him. We have sinned and fall short of his glory. Had we been there at Calvary two millennia ago, we would have struck, spat upon, hurled insults at him.


We have driven nails of iniquitous steel through wrists of unfailing love, stretched wide to embrace a world that gleefully damned him.


But he reconciled us.


We did not seek him. He sought us, pursues us as the hound of heaven, showers his love and blessings upon us. “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”


(And this Advent season have we considered that he reconciled us by Christ’s physical body through death? The glory of the incarnation is the horror of the crucifixion.)

Meditations (2 of 4)

November 29th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This past weekend I had the privilege of spending some time with a group of high school students on our annual retreat. As a community we devoted a good portion of our time to silent meditation on four verses from the Holy Scriptures. Here are some reflections springing from that time of meditation.


Second Meditation: James 5:16

“Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.”


This is the only place where believers are specifically commanded to confess their sins to one another. In context, of course, this has much to do with physical healing. Some sicknesses are caused by sin, and so the practice of regular confession is an important part of the community’s prayers for healing. But the implications seem to be much broader in this verse; that is, confession and intercessory prayer constitute an essential part of Christian fellowship.


What proves so perplexing in this verse, though, is the last part. After being enjoined to confess our sins to one another, we are told that “the prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.” Since we so obviously have need of confession, who among us can be counted among the righteous, those whose prayers are powerful and effective?


But here, once more, we see the wonder of God’s grace. The righteous person is not the one who has no sin—some “super-saint,” as if such a man existed!—but the one who has recognized his sin, confessed it, and experienced God’s forgiveness. The righteousness we possess is not our own but an “alien” righteousness (to borrow Luther’s phrase). It is Christ’s, and we lay hold of it by grace through faith.


We are forgiven. In God’s eyes, we have the very righteousness of Christ. So he hears us when we pray—humbly confessing our sin to him and one another. And by his grace those prayers prove powerful and effective.

Meditations (1 of 4)

November 28th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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This past weekend I had the privilege of spending some time with a group of high school students on our annual retreat. As a community we devoted a good portion of our time to silent meditation on four verses from the Holy Scriptures. Here are some reflections springing from that time of meditation.


First Meditation: Isaiah 48:17

“This is what the LORD says—your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘I am the LORD your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.’”


What struck me immediately was the powerful juxtaposition of the two divine titles, Redeemer and Holy One. If he is indeed the Holy One of Israel, his wrath against the Israelites (and us) is just. We have sinned and fully deserve whatever punishment he metes out. When compared to his holiness, all our righteous acts are as filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6). What then is our sin?


And yet—the Lord is our Redeemer too. How can it be that the Holy One would redeem those who are depraved completely, dead in our sins, by nature objects of his wrath? Blessed juxtaposition! Amazing grace, indeed.


The wonder of his mercy, grace, and unfailing love continues. Not only does the Holy One reveal himself as our Redeemer, he then condescends to teach us what is best for us, to direct us in the way we should go.


Pause and reflect on this for a moment.


God is what is best for us. When his creatures, fashioned in his image and for his glory, rebel against him, what does he do? Is it not enough that he has made a way for us to return to him? that he would allow us to know and be known by him—and the rest is up to us?


No, his grace is too limitless for that. Like a loving Father, he gently instructs and guides us back to himself: God, who redeems us despite our unconscionable sinfulness, then teaches us what is best for us, directs us in the way we should go. Surely this is love like no other. To him be glory forever and ever.

Waiting on Congregational Tables

November 21st, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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In Acts 6:1-7, we read of a strange moment in church history. Some in the church have begun to complain (this is nothing new under the sun) because a certain group, it seems, has been privileged over another. They bring their complaints to the Twelve. And here is where it gets interesting.


Rather than mediate the dispute, offer counseling, throw a pot-luck dinner, the apostles send the complainers away—because they have more important matters to attend to. “It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the Word,” they say, “in order to wait on tables” (6:2, NIV). This strikes me as being a blissfully odd response: aren’t pastors supposed to be, well, pastoral? Then what happened here? But these men of God have wisdom enough, and the decision they make is right. Charging others with the task of ministering to the widows, they devote themselves to “prayer and the ministry of the Word” (6:4).


Two implications follow.


First, prayer is a necessary part of the pastor’s daily task. While this seems obvious enough, how many churches function as if this is the truth? Both the pastor and the church face the unceasing temptation to “get busy” rather than waiting on and pleading with God in prayer. But Scripture assures us that prayer accomplishes far more than our human ingenuity and effort ever will: we may plant and water, but God alone causes the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). Does our approach to ministry reflect our belief in this truth? Suppose for a moment that the pastor were unable to visit all of the sick members of the congregation in a week because he has devoted himself to prayer and the ministry of the Word. How many would cry foul, remind the pastor of his duties (for which he receives fair remuneration), call for a congregational meeting? But it is not right for him to neglect the two ministries to which he has been called primarily. Another can wait on tables; another can visit the sick.


Second, then, is the crucial reminder that the pastor—called by God to equip the saints for works of service (Ephesians 4:12)—must not perform all of the ministries of the church. In Acts 6, the apostles did not dismiss the complaints of the Grecian widows as unfounded and unimportant; they simply recognized that this was not their task. And so they suggest gathering some godly men together to carry out this necessary ministry. Could we not likewise expect that other godly members of the congregation could visit the sick (etc.)—so that the pastor remains devoted to the most pressing tasks in his ministry?


Find a church where the pastor does not spend extensive, regular time in prayer and the ministry of the Word, and you will discover a church laboring in its own strength to accomplish its own priorities. Find a church where the pastor works diligently to divide the word of truth rightly, prays regularly for the Lord’s grace and provision, and you will surely discover God’s blessing and abundant fruit. “So the word of God spread. The number of disciples in Jerusalem increased rapidly, and a large number of priests became obedient to the faith” (6:7).

Teaching Itching Ears

November 10th, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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Youth ministry can be a frustrating activity. Not the youths themselves, mind you; they bring curiosity, energy, vitality to the disciple-making enterprise. No, the trouble is the warnings shouted at those of us who have the privilege of ministering to youth.


You mustn’t talk of theology, we are told, for they will grow bored quickly. Our children need games, activities, to keep them interested and involved. No wonder many youth leaders seem better equipped to lead games than rightly divide the Word of truth—useful though it is for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness. (And if youth ministry isn’t about those things, then what is it?)


In a bit of perverse irony, some in the church have now turned Paul’s teaching on its head: Don’t preach the Word; instead, to suit the “desires” of your audience, say what their itching ears want to hear (2 Timothy 4:2-3).


Give them biblical meat and they will choke on it, we are told. They are just children. Keep giving them milk. But considering that a majority of teens who attend youth group abandon the church after they graduate, perhaps it is time for a different tack. Cut the spiritual umbilical cord. Teach them to chew and swallow the most rigorous truths of Scripture.


In trying to make our youth groups “relevant” and “applicable,” have we lost our way?


As Bonhoeffer reminds us, “Do not try to make the Bible relevant. Its relevance is axiomatic. . . . Trust to the Word. It is a ship loaded to the very limits of its capacity!”


The Scriptures are difficult but powerful, God’s word does not return to him void, Christ alone has the words of life. Let us live and minister like we believe this. Even when it comes to our youth.

On Theological Reflection

October 31st, 2011 | Posted in Blog | No Comments
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There has emerged the growing feeling that theological reflection is at best academic and at worst harmful to Christian community. What is needed is a return to the simple faith of children, we are told, devoid of intellectual pride and pedantry. Can’t we all simply love Jesus and leave it at that? That intellectual pursuits have inherent danger is clear enough—of the making of many books there is no end—but does this danger prohibit all such reflection? Surely not. After all, sex has danger enough attached to it, and few among us are clamoring for an absolute abstinence. Likewise rigorous theological reflection.


Indeed, even a cursory reading of Scripture would suggest that a certain intellectual rigor is required of us: are we not to love God with all our minds? And Peter’s point about Paul’s letters—difficult to understand, but surely worthy of close examination (2 Peter 3:16)—would seem to be true of much of the sacred writings. Who among us would count Ezekiel or Ecclesiastes as light, easy reading? But these, as all Scripture, are God-breathed and useful for edification (2 Timothy 3:16), and therefore must be studied with care and precision. To the rubbish heap we may quickly consign any approach to Scripture that minimizes the challenge of reading works culled from millennia and widely divergent cultures, or suggests that the attempt to do so somehow involves arrogance or incipient humanism.


Perhaps we see this most clearly in the letter to the Hebrews. Our anonymous author sets about his task of demonstrating the superiority of the new covenant to the old, in an effort to strengthen wavering believers to remain in the faith—and not return to Judaism—despite intense persecution. His third argument, beginning in chapter five, highlights the superiority of our High Priest to the priests of old. Jesus does not belong to the transient—and now obsolete—Aaronic priesthood, but rather to the eternal priesthood of Melchizedek (5:10).


And as quickly as he introduces the topic, our writer abandons it, knowing he will lose his intellectually lazy readers: “We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand” (5:11, NIV). Though by this time his readers should be teachers—theologically astute, capable of handling the word of truth correctly—in fact they are still infants, in need of theological breast milk. Solid food, on the other hand, is for the mature, “who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil” (5:14). Paul makes a similar point to the Corinthian congregation: “I could not address you as people who live by the Spirit but as people who are still worldly—mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it. Indeed, you are still not ready. You are still worldly” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3a). That we are called to maturity and not perpetual infancy, to be spiritual and not worldly, is axiomatic. So perhaps we should move beyond the mindset of these intellectual toddlers—childish, not childlike—and strengthen our digestive abilities by mature reflection on the Word of God.


Impressively, this is precisely what our writer offers his wayward flock. Rather than re-teaching the elementary truths of the faith—“repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about cleansing rites, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (all easy themes we’ve long since mastered, I’m sure)—he presses on to his original topic. After challenging his congregants to examine themselves to see if they are even in Christ (6:4-8), he spends a considerable amount of time detailing the typological relationship between Christ and Melchizedek (7:1-28).


More than a few of us probably have little understanding of typology or Melchizedek—and are as lost as he feared his readers would be. And perhaps that is the point. What our writer—and God himself, who inspired him—considered indispensable to the faith, we have neglected to the point of ignorance. And here is just one example among hundreds in God’s Word. To our peril, have we cut ourselves off from teaching we desperately need to grow in Christ? Have we compounded our sin by ridiculing or dismissing those who seek to remedy this error? May it not be so: “Even though we speak like this, dear friends, we are convinced of better things in your case” (6:9).