Monday, July 28, 2008

God's Faithfulness to Israel

In Romans 9, Paul returns to the question which really drives the argument of Romans; what about Israel? Paul has just concluded chapter 8 with a magnificent, even poetic, description of the amazing love of God in Christ Jesus. Paul says that it is a love so strong and so deep that there is nothing in this world which can separate us from it. But there is a problem with that, a deep seated problem that runs to the very core of Paul's identity. Despite Paul's belief in the power of God's love, he also knows that there is a very important group of people who have become separated from God's will for them, namely, God's chosen people, Israel.

Paul knows simply by vitrue of observing the many churches that he founded that gentiles were coming to proclaim Jesus as Lord and Messiah in significant numbers while most Jews still rejected him. How could this be? Paul was, of course, thrilled that so many gentiles had been lead into the kingdom but he wondered how this could happen while God's own chosen people, those of the covenant, those who worshipped in the temple, those from whom Christ descended with regard to the flesh were unable to see the new way in which God was moving. Did this mean that God had failed to keep his promise to Israel? Since there was now a new covenant people, did that mean that the old covenant people had been completely abandoned? Had God simply given up on Israel and started over? Paul refuses to accept that as a possibility. He says specifically in v.6 "it is not as though the word of God had failed". So then, if God's promises to Israel have not failed, why is it that Israel is not responding to the fulfillment of those promises in Jesus?

Paul will take all of Romans 9-11 to attempt to answer that question and even at the end of chapter 11 he will say that the wisdom of God is unseachable and his ways unfathomable (11:33). However, Paul begins to answer it here in verses 1-13 by reminding his audience of what it actually means to be Israel. It does not mean simply being a fleshly descendant of Abraham. If being Israel were just about blood line then Ishmael would have been considered just as much a son of the covenant as Isaac but he was not. If being Israel were just about physical heritage then Esau would have been the one through whom Israel's story ran and through whom God's promises were fulfilled since he was the firstborn but it did not and they were not. Instead, God said before Jacob and Esau were born that the older would serve the younger, the exact opposite of the traditional rules of inheritance.

Paul argues in the rest of the chapter that all of this means that being Israel is a matter of God's choice rather than a matter of physical descendency from Abraham. The story of Israel itself shows that God was never limited by ethnicity. God has always had the ability to choose how he would fulfill his promises to Abraham. This does not render Israel obselete or unimportant in God's plan (as Paul's passion in 9:1-3 should make clear) but it does mean that Israel must recognize that the fulfillment of God's promises is not dependent on their ethnicity. Instead, God has chosen to fulfill his promises to Israel through Jesus Christ. God continues to be faithful to Israel although it is not in the way that Israel might have expected.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

District Assembly

Last week was an interesting week in my life and the life of the Illinois District of the Church of the Nazarene. We had our District Assembly last week and there was one matter of business which was a particularly important decision for our district - the sale of Nazarene Acres, our district campground. The financial insolvency of the campgroud led to the same vote being raised a few years ago. Of course, there are many strong ties to a church campground which has been a part of the life of a district for so long. Many people first began to follow Jesus at that campground and then watched their children and grandchildren do the same. That would be enough to keep any faithful Christian from wanting to severe connections with such a place. So when the vote came before the assembly several years ago, it was decided that the motion would be tabled for a few years to see if a certain number of volunteer hours and a certain amount of money could be raised in order to save the campground. Those years passed and the volunteers hours were raised but the monetary goal was not even close to being fulfilled. As a result, this momentous decision came before the assembly once again this year.

We spent much of Thursday afternoon hearing questions of clarification and then arguments for or against selling the campground. The original motion also underwent two amendments; the second of which was my own. The first amendment called for 25% of the proceeds from the sale of the camp be used as an irrevocable and perpetual trust to provide scholarship money to help kids go to camp. I found this to be a well intentioned amendment since the sale of the campground will probably result in kids having to pay higher fees for camp in the future. However, I found the idea of an irrevocable trust into perpetuity to be an objectionable idea (as did a few others it seemed) since perpetuity is a very long time. Certainly, setting aside money for camp scholarships is an excellent idea now but will camping still be a viable ministry in 50 or 100 years? It very well could be but if at some point it is not then the district would be left with a sizable sum of money which was designated to a specific ministry when that money could be better used elsewhere. So I found myself, much to my own surprise, speaking to the assembly about just that matter. With some help from some others better versed in legal and financial matters than myself, we had a written amendment to the amended motion which called for the District Advisory Board to place 25% of the proceeds in an endowment for camp scholarships while still giving the DAB the power to use that money for other things in the future if they saw fit.

(This point in the process was actually somewhat humurous. As another gentlemen and I were trying to get the amendment into writing, the entire assembly was waiting for us to finish since the presiding General Superintended wanted to have the amendment in hand before the assembly could actually vote on it. After several moments, I hurried to the front with the amendment leading the GS to say something along the lines of "here comes our man now, riding on a white horse to help us". This was not exactly the level of involvement I expected to have in just my second District Assembly. Nonetheless, I was happy to have been able to contribute in, at least what I felt, was a meaningful way to the business of the assembly. I also had the privilege of sharing my report earlier on Thursday as well as offering the benediction after Dr. Spruce's report on Wednesday night. )

Ultimately, the motion to give the District Advisory Board the authority to sell the campground was passed by a substantial majority, though not without significant dissent. There were actually several people sitting near me who were brought to tears by the sale of the campgrounds. Although I recognize the deeps connections that many have to this campground, I consider this decision on the part of the assembly to be an important step in the right direction for our district. In my opinion, it is not just a financial issue. It is a matter of keeping our mission and identity as the Church clearly before us. It is a matter of making something that was once good into a sacred relic of glory days gone by at best and an all out idol at worst. In making this decision, I think that the Illinois District has made a small declaration that it values faithfulness to God over anything else, even if there is sometimes a question as to what that faithfulness might look like as new challenges and opportunities continually arise within the ministry of the Church.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Over the last few years of my life, it has become more and more apparent to me that so much of our lives are ruled by fear. So many of our actions and practices stem from trying to avoid something we fear. We gather as much wealth for ourselves as we can, far more than we need, because we fear the possibility of not having enough. We multiply our defense budgets, build more destructive weapons, and elect certain officials because we fear that we are not secure enough as a nation. We have sex with anyone who shows us affection because we fear being alone. We buy certain cars because we are told we should be afraid of what might happen to our children if we don't drive the safest vehicle on the road. We schedule every aspect of our lives and try to plan and prepare for every possible occurence because we fear the unknown. It seems that we fear many things but most of these fears are driven by the one big fear, the shadow that hangs over all of us; the fear of pain and death. We do everything we can to avoid it. I imagine that if most of us took an honest look at the way we live, the way we spend our time and money, we would find that an enormous part of our lives is an attempt to control, sanitize, and organize this messy, dirty, chaotic world in which we live.
The Church is not immune to this neurosis either. Often we share the same fears as our non-Christian neighbors but we also have our own specific Christian brand of fears. Some churches fear that if they aren't a part of the latest trend or church growth technique, then their numbers will decrease. Other churches fear that if they do anything other than what they have always done, then some how they will have lost their way. We fear finding new ways of speaking and living the Gospel message. We fear being in conversation with people who do not share our faith. We fear asking hard questions of our own faith. Our fears, like those of the world, are ultimately driven by a fear of death but not physical death. Instead, we fear that our church may die or that our faith might die if we are not constantly diligent. As a result of this fear, we become defensive, approaching every new idea or new person or new challenge as if they could be the one that might strip us of our eternal reward if we are not careful. In my opinion, this defensive attitude has probably done more damage to the Church itself than any heresy or false teaching which the defense itself was designed to protect against.

Romans 8:26-39 is a bold assertion against the control which fear exerts over our lives. Paul reveals to us in these verses a God who is in control of the world and knows the ends to which He is drawing it. Paul brushes aside these fears with a single question; "If God is for us, who is against us?". He then goes on to argue that God is indeed for us. We know that God is for us because he gave up his own son for our salvation and because God's Holy Spirit is actively transforming us. (Here, Paul's argument bears a strong resemblance to Romans 5:1-11.) With this kind of God at work among us, "who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will tribulation or distress of persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword?" Of course not because our God and our God's love for us are both much greater than any of those things. We have nothing to fear because nothing can separate us from God's love.

In fact, Paul says that "in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer" (the same root word from which the atheletic apparel giant Nike and the Greek goddess of victory derive their names). Paul does not portray the Church as a huddled and defensive people whose lives and whose life together are crippled and controlled by the many things that they could fear. Instead, he declares that the Church is a community of courageous conquerors who boldly witness to the victory that has already been won for them in the person of Jesus Christ.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Heirs of the New Creation

Have you ever lived in an apartment or house where you knew you wouldn't be living for very long? Jess and I have. In fact, that describes pretty much every place we have ever lived since we left our homes to go to college. (The view above is from one of those many residences; this one in Kansas City where we enjoyed many memories with other seminary students who lived on this street. As you can see, our cats enjoyed the view.) In the five years that Jess and I have been married, we have had five different addresses. Every place we have lived in, we have moved in knowing that we wouldn't be there for very long. This knowledge has a substantial impact on the way you live. It makes you hesitant to make any substantial investment in that space since you know that you won't be around very long to enjoy the fruits of your labor. Of course, you make the space livable. You make minor adjustments here and there, just enough to make things comfortable while you are there but any major projects would be unreasonable in light of the impermanence of your stay in that space.

It seems that many Christians take precisely this same attitude toward the world that God has entrusted to us. The thinking often goes like this: "We are all going to be taken up to heaven with Jesus and this world is going to be destroyed anyway, so why bother trying to change it?" It is the mentality of "this world is not my home, I'm just passin' through". Therefore, the only point of any action in this world is to make sure that people have a relationship with Jesus so that their soul can go to heaven when they die. However, there is no sense in having any concern for the environment or social justice or making any kind of real investment in this earth since it is only a temporary residence. Unfortunately, this way of thinking seems to vastly misunderstand Jesus' words about being "in the world but not of the world" which has much more to do with not operating by the world's rules, ways of life, and power structures than it has to do with the physical earth.

In the sermon text for this week (Romans 8:12-25), Paul presents life in Christ quite in contrast to the above notion. He begins by continuing the theme from last week; that we are now able to live a different kind of life because the Holy Spirit is empowering us and leading us to abandon the ways of the flesh (which, similar to Jesus' use of the term "world", does not refer to the material itself as being evil but to the corrupted nature represented in that material). Paul then goes on to assure his audience that they have indeed received this new way of life by telling them that they are heirs of God's new creation. Paul reassures them that their sufferings are not a sign of God's absence from them; it is just a reality of the fallen, corrupted existence in which we live. However, Paul says, this will not always be the case. In v.19, he writes "For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God." Paul makes clear in this passage that salvation is not just about humanity. In fact, all of creation is anxiously awating the culmination of God's salvation. All of creation has been subjected to a kind of slavery, the kind of slavery that Paul has been articulating to describe the human predicament apart from Christ. But one day all of creation will be redeemed and made new, set free to bring glory to God as it was intended to do.

This is significant for us as Christians. If God is about the work of renewing and restoring our world, then certainly we should be as well. We are not about this work of renewal because we believe we can ever actually accomplish it ourselves but because it witnesses to the work that God has done, is doing, and will do. When we as Christians take care of our world and the people in it, we communicate to others that the God that we serve also cares about the world in which we live. Surely, as stewards of God's good creation, as a people awaiting the day when all things are made new, that is a message we should be communicating.

So a word of thanks...thanks to all those out there who are investing in this world. Thank you to the social workers, those in the environmental sciences, the teachers, the health care workers, those in law enforcement, and those who make the laws and many others whose compassion and mercy in this world witnesses to the Christian hope of what this world will one day be. Often, my career is referred to as "the ministry" but really I am just one of the ones fortunate enough to be a pastor for a living. There are so many who do very real and very important ministry in jobs that are in no way connected to the Church. Your tireless efforts, when done not for your own benefit but in service to others, are a ministry and a form of Christ-likeness all its own.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

From VBS to District Assembly

Vacation Bible School has come to an end. This morning the kids performed some of their songs and recited the memory verses they learned this week as a part of our worship service. We opened service this morning with this video that Jess created consisting of clips from the entire week of VBS (as opposed to the last video I posted which was only scenes from Monday night).

This week will be another busy week with our District Assembly. I'll have the privilege of offering the benediction (for some reason I get asked to do benedictions a lot around here) after Dr. Spruce's report on Wednesday night and giving my report sometime on Thursday.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Vacation Bible School

This week our church has been filled with the enthusiasm and excitement of many children enjoying our week of Vacation Bible School. Here is a video that Jess put together of the opening night of VBS on Monday.

Upon exiting the church last night after VBS, we were treated to a remarkable mix of colors in the sky as the sun set. Jess tells me that I am obsessed with taking pictures of the sky. I have always been fascinated by sunsets and the vast expanse of sky over the farms of central Illinois serve well to further foster this fascination. Here are a few pictures from last night.

Tonight will be the last night of regular programming for Vacation Bible School since Friday night is the night for the parents to come and enjoy a cookout with their children and the VBS workers. As a result, we will have some type of invitation for the children in closing service tonight. I am still thinking through what exactly that invitation will look like (which is part of the reason I am writing about it now; I tend to think more clearly when I write out what I am thinking). There are a couple of challenges for me in a time of invitation like this one. The first is just trying to speak to children in a way that they will understand. This is a real challenge for me since I have so little experience speaking to kids, especially in large groups, and I really don't have much of a clue about how to communicate in a way that will make sense to them.

The second challenge will be the nature of the invitation itself and connecting it to the worshipping life of our church community (or at least some church community here in town, if the child's family already attends somewhere else). In other words, it would be all to easy to have an altar call where the kids who want to come to the altar, pray a prayer and that is the end of it. Instead, I hope to emphasize to the children that any decision that they make tonight is only the beginning of a very long journey. I want them to understand (again, without making things too complicated) that this decision that they make is not just a one time thing. If they really want to journey with Jesus and love God and serve others as they have been learning about over the past week, then it means becoming a part of the community that lives and teaches those things. Of course, this is not really a decision these children can make on their own and so it will mean speaking to their parents about the experience that their child has had and encouraging them to come to church or at least allowing our vans to pick them up. I truly hope that the time of invitation tonight can be more than a prayer soon forgotten. I hope that it can be a prayer that becomes a way of life for these children.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Life in Christ

After presenting a terrible dilemma in Romans 7, Paul provides the solution to that dilemma in Romans 8. Paul had painted a terrible picture of the power of sin in the previous chapter. Paul portrayed sin as a force so far reaching in its influence that the human will and God's perfect Law were both powerless to defend against it. Sin, albeit unwilled sin, was the only mode of existence for humanity.

In Romans 8, Paul tells us that there is now another possibility for humanity in Jesus Christ. The law of the Spirit of life in Jesus Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death. This is because God sent his Son in human flesh in order to condemn sin in the flesh. Paul does not elaborate extensively on exactly how this works. He does not explain for us exactly how Christ's death condemns sin. However, it is noteworthy that Paul does not say that God condemns Jesus in the flesh. Paul is not here conveying a picture of an angry God who must punish someone and so punishes his own Son instead of the true sinners, namely ourselves. Rather, Paul says it is sin which is condemned in the flesh. Somehow, sin has met its match in the death of Jesus Christ.

More importantly, Paul says that sin was condemned in the flesh so that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. So in the end, God's good Law is finally upheld (although in a somewhat different way than in the typical Jewish sense since Paul will elsewhere speak against Gentiles keeping the parts of the Law like circumcision, food laws, and Sabbath observance) despite sin's power because the power of the Spirit is greater than the power of sin. Furthermore, just as keeping Israel's Law was supposed to do, the law of Christ leads to peace, righteousness, and ultimately life. This life that is granted by Christ is life here and now in the sense of freedom from sin as well as the hope of future life in the final resurrection.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Independence Day

Last night, we enjoyed the town fireworks which are set off in the field right across the highway from the church in celebration of the 4th of July. Perhaps more than the fireworks themselves , we enjoyed watching Hannah's reaction to her first experience with fireworks. We wondered if the loud noises would scare her but she did very well. She was thoroughly mezmorized by the bright lights... for about five minutes. However, she eventually became so unimpressed that she even let out a yawn at one point. The grand finale seemed to recapture her attention for its brief duration shortly after which we fought through the most traffic you'll ever seen in Clinton and made our way home.

Of course, watching fireworks to celebrate our nation's independence from the lawn of our church leads a theological type like myself to ponder the ever difficult and challenging relationship of church and state. The relationship is often discussed ad naseum by the cable news networks in the middle of an election year like we find ourselves in currently. However, these discussions are almost exclusively given from the perspective of the state side of the equation. In other words, Americans ask again and again how much religion should be allowed in the public square. How much should faith be allowed to guide policy in a democracy where the majority of citizens are Christian (at least in title, although even this title means very different things to different people who give themselves this title) but there are other significant minorities whose rights must be defended under the Constitution?

In contrast to this, it seems that more Christians should be considering the other side of this question. How much of the state should be allowed in the Church? This is a difficult question for us since the United States has been influenced by Christianity more than any other religion throughout it existence. As a result, the United States has generally served Christianity well, carving out the political space for a freedom of worship without threat of political interference. Certainly, that is something worth celebrating and for which we should be thankful. American democracy is truly a thing to be valued and admired.

However, as I will talk about to some extent in my sermon this Sunday, often some of God's greatest gifts carry the most potential for idolatry. This is the case precisely because they are such good things and therefore, we are tempted to regard them as greater than they really are, greater even than the God who gave them to us. Rarely, if ever, are people drawn to things that are just entirely bad or purely destructive. We are drawn to things because of their good qualities and they then become destructive because we give them an inordinate amount of space and importance in our lives.

The same is true of our patriotism. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with valuing the great political progress represented by our government. However, we must not make the mistake of imagining that our government is perfect or that anything and everything the United States does is "Christian" just because the majority of its citizens go by that name. The United States is not and will never be the kingdom of God. We, as Christians, must seriously reconsider the amount of allegiance we are willing to pledge to our nation and we must be certain that this level of allegiance is always subservient to our allegiance to Christ and his kingdom. The United States of America engages in and encourages all kinds of practices that are by no means Christian and it is part of our duty as the Church to continually bear witness to the ways our world fails to conform to God's kingdom. We must be certain that we are Christian long before we are American.

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Some Perspective On My Education After One Year of Ministry

This week marks one full year that I have been the pastor at Clinton First Church of the Nazarene. Jess and I arrived at our apartment during the last week of June a year ago and our first Sunday here was July 1, 2007. Of course, it is somewhat cliche to comment on how quickly this year has gone by and how much I have learned but both things are true. It is hard to believe that we have been here a year already and of course, I have learned many, many things about pastoral ministry over the course of this past year.

Some of these things were obvious learning experiences like how to run a board meeting or an annual election and I am thankful that I am the pastor of a church that has been gracious towards me as I have stumbled through learning how to lead in these administrative tasks. A large portion of what I have learned, as would be expected in a profession like the ministry, has been interpersonal and relational in nature. I continue to learn how to relate to others, how to share in their joy and their pain. I have even learned quite a bit about myself. I have experienced what a struggle it can be to comprehend your own pastoral identity when you have become a part of an entirely new community.

As I have reflected on this past year of ministry, I think the area of learning and growth that I have found most interesting has been at the intersection of my theological education and the practical life of a congregation. Of couse, in many ways this is not at all unexpected since that intersection represents one of the major transitions in my life over the past year. The whole point of my education is to enable me to better serve Christ and his Church by providing a theologically coherent vision of God and the Church for this local congregation. Most of the learning experiences that I mentioned in the paragraph above are really just subsets of this one larger learning project of coming to understand how the things I learned in the classroom apply to the lived reality of church life.

What is somewhat unexpected is exactly how I have come to regard my time at NTS and ENC in relation to my experience here. Over the past year, I have come to regard my education less and less as an academic endeavor or even as training for the ministry and more as an extended period of intense spiritual formation. I have come to realize recently that more than anything else, my time in school was about shaping me to be a certain kind of person. It was not just about increasing a certain body of knowledge which would then enable me to provide more theologically consistent leadership as a pastor, as important as that might be. It was not just about learning how to preach, how to teach, how to counsel, and how to console although it includes those things. It was not about better understanding what the Bible says so that I might pass that knowledge on to others or learning what others have said about God in the past so that we might speak more truthfully about God in the present, though that is certainly something the Church needs. No, it must run even deeper than all of that, although those things already run pretty deep. My education had to do more than just inform me, it had to change me, shape me, mold me, transform me and fortuntely, I believe it did just that.

What experience as a pastor has led me to this understanding of my educational experience? Primarily, that when you speak as a pastor you must, (in fact, most of the time you will inevitably, whether you want to or not) speak from your heart, from your inner most being, from what you really believe. When you speak as a pastor, whether it be in a sermon or to someone who is grieving or to your church board as you attempt to make a difficult decision most of the time you will not have the time to carefully sort through the issues and address them as thoroughly as you would like to. Of course, you are as thorough as you possibly can be in the time that you have but most often you have to think on your feet and address issues on the fly. Most of the time you have to trust that the way the Spirit has already prepared you up to this point will be sufficient to guide you through this crises for which you feel completely unprepared. So many times I have thought to myself "If only I had known she was going to show up unannounced at my office with that question, I would have been better prepared" or "If only I had a little more time to research this biblical theme..." But most of the time you do not get to consult Wesley or Augustine, Paul or Matthew. Instead, you have to rely on the way that the Holy Spirit has already used Wesley, Augustine, Paul, or Matthew to shape you in the past long before you ever knew you would need their wisdom at this particular moment in this peculiar situation.

This in no way lessens the importance of the academic nature of seminary or our liberal arts schools. Often, we act as if anything truly spiritual must be uncritical and unthinking. However, seeing this time of study as a matter of spiritual formation does not take away from the rigorous academic nature of it all. Just because it is a kind of spiritual discipline does not mean that we simply pray over Barth and Irenaeus and sing Amazing Grace instead of engaging these theologians in critical dialogue. In fact, viewing the academic life as a time of spiritual formation actually places greater importance on this critical interaction. This is the case because the interaction with these theologians and the biblical authors will not cease once one is familiar enough with them to get the desired grade in a course. Instead, it will continue well beyond the requirements of the course because you know that you are studying for more than a certain grade.

You are studying to be better prepared for a certain situation that you can not yet see. You are studying because you never know how Barth and Irenaeus might help you speak God's words of life when they need to be heard the most. You are studying so that you might become a more powerful tool in God's hands. You are studying, not so much to learn how to be a minister as you are to be transformed into the kind of person whom God can use most meaningfully as a minister. Even as you study something that causes you to wonder what practical value it could ever have for the life of the Chuch, you persevere trusting that God's Spirit is shaping you for your calling even in that moment. Even in thoroughly academic institutions like seminary and college, the life of the disciple is not so much about what we learn as it is about who we become.