Sunday, November 23, 2008

Never Have Your Faithful Dog Stuffed

I finally found a new metaphor for understanding Jesus' instruction not to pour his new wine into our old wineskins. I could understand Jesus' metaphor; he explains it well, but it's just that we don't use wineskins anymore. Jesus said, "Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out, and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved" (Matthew 9:17, TNIV). Jesus is doing something new and we shouldn't expect to contain him in the old wineskins of our limited expectations.dog Alan Alda's biography titled Never Have Your Dog Stuffed introduces a new metaphor for understanding this wineskin concept.

When Alan Alda was eight years old he experienced a great trauma. "My father was trying to stop me from sobbing because we were burying out pet dog," so as Alan explains, "my father said maybe we should have him stuffed." It turned out to be a bad idea. When the dog came back from the taxidermist, he didn't look right. Alda continues, "We kept our stuffed pet on the porch and deliverymen were afraid to make deliveries. There are a lot of ways we stuff the dog, trying to avoid change, hanging on to a moment that's passed. There's a lot of my life that was learning that lesson over and over again."

Well, I loved Alan Alda's biography and I am so thankful that he gave me a new metaphor for what happens when we try to put Jesus' new wine into old wineskins. Sometimes we think we've finally got this "faith in Jesus" thing figured out. That's when we try to preserve it. We try to stuff the dog with our expectations of how things work with God. We want him to be predictable. We want to know that we understand how faith works. Alan Alda is right: that's just stuffing the dog and try to hold on to what we already know. Jesus is telling us that our faith is alive and will grow and change and expand and we better have new wineskins! Immediately, Matthew details two events to illustrate what Jesus meant. I want to quickly comment on the second one.

Just then a woman who had been subject to bleeding for twelve years came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak. She said to herself, "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed."

the_touch_zoom_777Jesus turned and saw her. "Take heart, daughter," he said, "your faith has healed you." And the woman was healed from that moment. (Matthew 9:20–22, TNIV)

This event presents a challenge for us to understand since the cultural differences are enormous. The quick version: this woman had NO life. She was more desperate than we can imagine. When the text says that she "had been subject to bleeding for twelve years," it likely means that since entering puberty this woman in her mid-twenties had been enduring menstrual bleeding and hemorrhaging in between her monthly cycles. In a pre-tampon, pre-bathroom kind of culture where these kind of bodily matters were talked about more crudely and publicly than in our culture, this young woman would not only be publicly shamed, she would be a total outcast. No one would accept her or try to help her because this kind of bleeding makes one unclean and therefore untouchable according to the Jewish law. I don't think we can imagine this woman's pain and humiliation. How can we relate to the fact that due to her bleeding she has been overlooked in the expected practice of having your marriage arranged by your father?

Even if we can begin to appreciate her desperation for healing, we find her approach unsettling. It's like she believes that Jesus is magical. "If I only touch his cloak, I will be healed." (Mark's gospel really emphasizes this notion of magic.) There's something not right about that. We would've gone about it differently because we know it's about personal faith in Jesus, not about touching his clothing and experiencing the magic. We expect that we have to get our theology right first, before we ask, before we pray, before Jesus could answer us. And that is stuffing the dog! We want to put his new wine in our old wineskins.

Commending this woman's faith, such as it is, Jesus encourages her, "Take heart!" Jesus sees in her approach a "new wineskin" kind of faith. In total desperation she reached out to Jesus, believing that after twelve years of horrible suffering, she'd found the way out of it. And she was right! Jesus had compassion on her, "Your faith has healed you." Matthew wants us to understand that this is the "new wineskin" kind of faith that Jesus had been talking about. Plus, I suspect the TNIV (and other English translations) are weak in translating the Greek verb as "healed" when Jesus likely intended the more common meaning, "saved." "Your faith has saved you." She was saved, rescued from a horribly outcast life and brought into new life by the grace of Jesus through faith, "new wineskin" faith.

We expect that we have to get our beliefs right before God will act, but Jesus surprises us by having compassion on people who don't have it all figured out. He seems to race ahead when people show the slightest inkling of new wineskin kind of faith. A young preacher preparing for a huge stadium event in New York ran into a big problem the night before it was to begin. He was training a team of counseling volunteers who were to assist him but he could not be heard over the roar of airplane engines coming out of La Guardia Airport at the rate of dozens per hour. So the young preacher paused, glanced up and quietly said, "We'll have to do something about this noise. This just won't do." He bowed his head and said a simple prayer to the effect, "Lord we ask you to shift the wind and send these planes in another direction. Thank you. Amen."

Personally, I'm shocked that a preacher would pray that way. One of the volunteers that day wrote, "Well we were believers but this was a tall order. We weren't sure what, if anything, to expect. But God did it; he answered our prayers in a wondrous way! The morning newspaper reported that the winds had changed during the night, and the airplanes over the Stadium had to be routed another way. For several days thereafter, thousands of people came to Christ under Billy Graham's preaching. At the conclusion of the crusade, the winds reverted to their normal flow, and the airplanes returned to their normal flight patterns."

God works powerfully through those who like Billy Graham and the bleeding young woman have "new wineskin" kind of faith. Most of the time I still expect that I have to get my theology right first. I'm pretty good at stuffing my faithful dog. Alan Alda actually helped me to see that I've been doing that with my all of my life, not just my faith. Having new wineskins is all about giving God the space and the room to do something new, to actually change my life in ways I may not expect. My faith is to grow and change and expand, so I better be willing to contain it in a new wineskin, flexible and ready for what Christ will do. I am one of too many Christians who has been settling for a lesser faith, stuffing it with my own thinking about God and then putting this faithful dog out on the porch where it scares away any who might want to know more about faith in Jesus.

Note: The above picture of Jesus is a great painting called "The Touch" by Ron DiCianni.

Related Sermons

Expectations

The above blog posting is quite a "snip-it" from my sermon based on Matthew 9:17-26. We worship a Saviour who exceeds our expectations. This passage of Scripture has a pretty amazing approach to challenging our expectations and re-shaping our faith.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

The Bridge to Nowhere

Yesterday morning at a men's group I attend, we were discussing 1 Thessalonians 1 which gives a great description of conversion—the response to the Gospel/Good News by which one becomes a Christian.

... our gospel came to you not simply with words but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and deep conviction.... You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you welcomed the message in the midst of severe suffering with the joy given by the Holy Spirit. And so you became a model to all the believers in Macedonia and Achaia. The Lord's message rang out from you not only in Macedonia and Achaia—your faith in God has become known everywhere. Therefore we do not need to say anything about it, for they themselves report what happened when we visited you. They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God...

Is that message ringing out from our churches today? How are we doing at evangelism? Could I say enough to be able to invite a friend to trust in Jesus and to experience the life change I have experienced? John Bowen wrote a great book which aims "to show that evangelism is, or at least can be, normal for all those who consider themselves followers of Jesus" (p.16, Evangelism for "Normal" People). In contrast to those Thessaloniansimage and their ringing message, many of us may resonate more with Rebecca Manley Pippert who confessed, "There was part of me that secretly felt evangelism was something you shouldn't do to your dog, let alone your friend" (p.16, Out of the Saltshaker).

Recently, on a church website, I came across a new way of presenting the gospel called "The Big Story." The author, James Choung, believes we need to go beyond The Bridge illustration which we've used so much in the last few decades (think: Four Spiritual Laws, Steps to Peace with God, or "The Bridge"). Maybe you'll recognize it...

image

It seems to me, that for many Christians today, this Bridge illustration has become "the bridge to nowhere." We know the plan, we can talk about this bridge if we had to, but we're not actually sharing our faith with others, so it remains just a bridge we could draw if we needed to, not one that people have actually crossed. And a bridge that exists only in our minds, my friends, really is "a bridge to nowhere."

Evangelism is one of the many activities we no longer have time for in our busy, fast-paced world. Ironically, it is in this busy fast-paced world where I've heard more about evangelism in the last couple years than in the church! Evangelism is the sharing of good news, so Tim Sanders believes we should diligently read the latest greatest business books so that we can "evangelize" the best ideas from these books to everyone we know. Sarah Palin and John McCain are showing what mavericks they are by evangelizing Alaska's infamous Bridge to Nowhere which was never built because Palin said "no" to the pork barrel spending of Congress. This "evangelism" that has nothing to do with the Good News of Jesus started with Guy Kawasaki who pioneered the concept of evangelizing a product to promote its sales. Thanks to Kawasaki's plan of evangelism, from the early years of Macintosh computers to today, Apple owners never stop talking about the superiority of their computers! I've been wondering if the church could learn a point or two from a book I've been reviewing titled Creating Customer Evangelists. Everyone seems to be out there evangelizing something! Hopefully, the problem is just me and there really are many, many Christians out there evangelizing the good news of Jesus because we really do have a life-changing message to share. Maybe it's high time to reclaim evangelism for the true gospel of Jesus Christ.

I know one Christian who is doing something—my wife. She told me that her new carpool friend from work is visiting our church this Sunday. I think that's great since they've only just met a short while ago. And, actually, it's really great since this friend is also bringing her boyfriend who hasn't been to church for over five years since leaving a narrow-minded, ultra-conservative church (and I might be tempted to say cult-like group). Last year, my wife invited a friend that she had taken a class with to come to our church's Alpha Course, and she did come because she had been meaning to get around to looking into Christianity! So I do know from my wife's example that some evangelism is taking place. (And as a footnote about myself, I guess I do want to clarify that I am trying to share my faith, but I've had some friends in the last couple years that I just haven't been able to make much progress with.)

I'm hoping to get some feedback on what you think about this new way of presenting our good news. I like that James Choung is trying to stress not just a "decision" but transformation. He talks not just about the "individual" but about the Christian community. And he is less focused on the "after-life" and more focused on our life together on a mission. I really would like to hear what you think about this presentation. (After playing "The Big Story", you'll see a link to play "The Big Story, Part 2" which I recommend as well.) After viewing it, think about, and make a post. Maybe we can talk about it together. Just maybe we should be ready to draw four circles rather than our plan for a bridge which doesn't seem to be leading us anywhere. Let me know what you think.

Related Sermons

Forfeiting Life

God's grace is amazing and even overwhelming at times. But forfeiting the grace that could be ours is not a winning strategy. The book of Jonah offers several "prophetable" insights about the lengths God will go to so that no one forfeits the grace that could be theirs (Jonah 2:8).

Not Ready

This message from John 4:27-42 explores the top reasons why so many of us in the church today believe that we are "not ready" to share our Christian faith. The Samaritan woman from the well instantly becomes an evangelist and her town is changed! What could we learn from this scene in the life of Jesus?

The Gospel according to Canada

There is a rather Canadian way of being a Christian. We value the privatization of religious beliefs. What Jesus says in Mark 4:21-25 challenges our Canadian practice, urging us to make public what is now private.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Codex Sinaiticus: It's Greek to Me!

image Codex Sinaiticus, one of the oldest and most famous Bibles in existence, is indeed written in Greek. Friends of mine were alarmed by a BBC article which claimed that Codex Sinaiticus was "The Rival to the Bible." I too was quite alarmed by this article and its apparent aim to pose "some very uncomfortable questions" to "those who believe the Bible is the inerrant, unaltered word of God." I've chosen to use this blog entry to respond to some of these very uncomfortable questions which are nothing more than an attempt to sensationalize and distort the simple truth.

What's this about? Well, this is actually old news that the BBC is reporting. This summer a new website was launched which by next July will give full access to the full text of the Codex Sinaiticus, a fourth century Christian "bible", written in Greek, containing the New Testament, much of the Old Testament and a couple post-apostolic writings. Back in July they launched the site, giving access to high tech images of the Gospel of Mark and the book of Psalms. At that time CNN published the article, "World's oldest Bible goes online"; it's a better article than the BBC one as it is more factual, less distorting and less sensationalized.

There's quite a story behind the discovery of Codex Sinaiticus; it could almost be a script for Indiana Jones and the Keepers of An Amazing Bible. The discoverer, Constantine Tischendorf, somehow persuaded/extorted/tricked some Egyptians monks into giving him pieces of this Bible and they ended up in Russia, Germany & Britain. (You can read more about this exciting story in the Connected Photographer.) The website project will bring together high tech photos of all the pages and reunite the parts of this book, plus they are also transcribing and translating it, as well as giving us photos enabling us to see alterations and amendments made to the text. I think this is great news! I'm thrilled by the website and consider it to be quite a privilege to be able to actually view the pages of this very elegant, very important New Testament manuscript. Eight years ago I remember being in a Grand Rapids Bible bookstore with a colleague. We happened to find a book which was a transcribed copy of Codex Vaticanus, a manuscript equally as famous and important as Sinaiticus. My friend bought it for $120. I was quite jealous, but I knew there was no way my budget at that time would ever allow me to make such a purchase. Now, I'll have full access to Sinaiticus and not have to go broke buying a copied version. In preparing this article I discovered that The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts already has photographs of Sinaiticus and many others online (just not at the high tech quality being offered by the new Codex Sinaiticus website).

So what about this BBC article was so alarming? They claimed that Codex Sinaiticus contains "anti-semitic writings" and many "discrepancies" with the Bible as we know it. Does the Codex contain "two extra books in the New Testament"? Well, the Codex includes two post-apostolic writings, The Shepherd of Hermas and The Epistle of Barnabas. I think the BBC artcle is stretching the evidence to say that the Codex includes these writings in the New Testament; no comment on the canonicity of these writings is being made. The Old Testament also "includes" the Apocryphal writings, as this was common in Greek versions of the Hebrew Old Testament. Books were hard to make in the fourth century, they wrote on every page, even if that meant adding writings!

I wouldn't agree with the BBC article that the Epistle of Barnabas is "full of anti-Semitic kindling ready to be lit." It is certainly opposed to any sort of Judaizing of the Christian faith, but you can check out the Wikipedia article for another perspective. The BBC supports their claim by quoting Barnabas, "His blood be upon us." I guess they didn't realize that the Gospel of Matthew actually has the Jews say, "His blood be on us and on our children!" (Matthew 27:25)

"The Codex - and other early manuscripts - do not mention the ascension of Jesus into heaven, and omit key references to the Resurrection..." This is the most incredible claim in the BBC article and it is false. Sinaiticus does not include the "longer ending" of Mark's Gospel, but ends at Mark 16:8, at which point you will find the NIV and most modern Bible translations noting that this is the end of Mark according to the earliest manuscripts. This means that Mark's gospel lacks an account of the ascension or any resurrection appearances, but it would still be incorrect to say that Mark "omits key references to the Resurrection." The Codex Sinaiticus records Mark 16:6 including the words, "ηγερθη ουκ εϲτιν ωδε" translated, "He has risen! He is not here,"; you can see for yourself at the website! The Codex Sinaiticus also includes Matthew, Luke and John's accounts of the resurrection, and Matthew & Luke's accounts of the ascension, as well as numerous other verses in the NT testifying the the resurrection of Jesus!

I find it hard to believe that Roger Bolton of the BBC actually interviewed Bart Ehrman or David Parker. The errors in this article are beyond unacceptable. Even a Greek NT hack like me devoting a couple hours to research can show how mistaken the claims in this article are. I was surprised when Bolton claimed that "other differences concern how Jesus behaved." Really? "In one passage of the Codex, Jesus is said to be 'angry' as he healed a leper, whereas the modern text records him as healing with 'compassion.'" It's not only our modern English text, but almost all of the Greek manuscripts we have of Mark 1:41 which refer to Jesus' compassion, not anger. But here's the kicker: it is NOT Codex Sinaiticus which refers to Jesus being angry, it's actually Codex Bezae of the 5th/6th century!!! Sinaiticus clearly says και ϲπλαγχνιϲθειϲ, translated "Filled with compassion...," but you don't have to take my word for it, check it out: the photo of Sinaiticus' Mark 1:41 is online.

What about "the story of the woman taken in adultery"? It is missing from the Codex as is claimed by the BBC article, but I would emphasize that John 7:53 - 8:11 is not in our earliest NT manuscripts and this is well noted in the NIV and other modern translations. The story is best understood as a Christian tradition appended to John's Gospel in later manuscripts.

Jesus does not say, "Father forgive them for they know not what they do" in the Codex according to the BBC article. This is not exactly correct. These words of Luke 23:34a were originally in the Sinaiticus manuscript. Then someone editing the manuscript erased them, but then another editor put them back in! One of the amazing things being done by the Codex Sinaiticus Project is to take photos which will help reveal these layers of editing with greater clarity.

I've just shown that the Codex Sinaiticus does not make any of the changes or omissions as claimed by the BBC article. Now, I'd like to comment on the article's claim that Codex Sinaiticus is "the rival to the Bible." Not true. I would be quite willing to say that Codex Sinaiticus IS the Bible, an early 4th century Bible, copied by hand, and therefore subject to normal human copying mistakes. I could mention some of them, but rest assured, none of them are nearly as BIG as the ones falsely presented in the article! In my second year of Greek studies, I remember being taught that the pioneers of NT textual criticism, Westcott and Hort said that, 'When Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus agree (they have the same words exactly), you have the original text.' We have found many more NT manuscripts since then, but their observation still holds some weight today.

The publication of Codex Sinaiticus on the web should not give any Christian today any reason to be fearful or concerned that their faith is going to be undermined. If the Bible you read is the NIV or NLT or TNIV or or NET or NASB or NRSV, you've already been reading from Codex Sinaiticus! It has had an influence on basically every English translation of the Bible to come after the King James Version. Sure, "when the different parts" of the Codex Sinaiticus "are digitally united next year in a £1m project, anyone will be able to compare and contrast the Codex and the modern Bible," but don't expect to find anything earth shattering. We've been comparing and contrasting Sinaiticus and another 5000+ Greek NT manuscripts for quite a long time now! Textual criticism is "the study of the manuscript evidence for a written work for which the original is no longer extant, with the intent to discern the original text" (Matthew DeMoss). I agree with other NT scholars who claim that we have the NT today to be 99.5% pure original. Not to shock you, but that's actually better than many of the works of Shakespeare!

BBC 0, CNN 1. In closing, few explain it as well as Josh McDowell. Here's part of a recent interview he gave:

Do we have any of the original New Testament documents?

McDowell: If we did they would be beyond priceless. What we have is early manuscript copies of the originals.

Then how do we know for sure what was in the original documents?

McDowell: To discover the accuracy of copying for the New Testament material and see whether or not it has been “changed,” you have to look at two factors: One, the number of manuscripts existing today; and two, the time period between the original document and the earliest manuscripts still in existence today. The more manuscripts we have and the closer the manuscripts are to the original, the more we are able to determine where copyist errors happened and which copies reflect the original.

For example, the book Natural History, written by Pliny Secundus, has 7 manuscript copies with a 750-year gap between the earliest copy and the original text. The number two book in all of history in manuscript authority is The Iliad, written by Homer, which has 643 copies with a 400-year gap.

Now this is a little startling: the New Testament has currently 24,970 manuscript copies, completely towering over all other works of antiquity. In addition, we have one fragment of the New Testament (NT) with only a 50-year gap from the original, whole books with only a 100-year gap, and the whole NT with only a 225-250-year gap. I don’t think there is any question from all of these early copies that we know exactly what the original documents said.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Update (The Blog Entry Title everyone uses when they want to admit they've failed to make an entry in far too long.)

So sad... almost two months since my last blog entry. If anyone is still bothering to check my blog like my good friend Aaron, please don't give up, yet! It's not that I don't have more to write, it's just that I haven't found the time to do it. I am working on many blog entries and biblical studies in my mind, and I will find the time to write them down and publish them on my blog, if no where else. I guess I'm playing off a quote I've heard attributed to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, "I have more music in my head than I'll ever be able to write down." For my birthday, back in March, I got Karl Barth's book on Mozart as well as a book titled Confessions of a Pastor by Craig Groeschel. I haven't read either of them yet!
I've made the big change to becoming a stay-at-home dad to better care for our boys and see to it that they get to school and always have a parent at home. Before this change, I worked a lot of hours at my transitional job to prepare for the loss of income. Since the change, well, I'm still learning the new rhythm of spending the days with my boys. Now maybe I'll find the time to read, to write and to blog.
The good news is that now I do have more time to preach, especially Sundays for pulpit supply or interim assignments. And, I'm very interested in speaking at Men's Retreats and other men's or pastors' events. I can speak frankly and biblically about the challenges men face today, sexual temptation, cybersex & pornography addiction and restoration/recovery for those who commit sexual sins. It is this part of my speaking ministry which I would really like to develop. I believe very strongly in God's astounding redemptive power and it's through speaking and preaching that I believe he will work redemptively toward bringing good from my fall from pastoral ministry. By God's mercy and grace, I am a different man today and I want to help any man I can from falling into moral failure as I did.
image We are always surprised when prominent men fall deep into sexual sin, but I know it's not just politicians ruining their lives with secret sexual habits. So many men do not know how to escape the mess they find themselves in, even though many of them try so hard to find the way. John Edwards, who made the quality of his marriage a central part of his overall message during the 2008 Democratic primaries surprised us all last Friday when he admitted to having an extramarital affair, something he had denied until then. It's shame which keeps us from being honest about our sexual sins and keeps us from finding the help we need. So because of shame we keep it secret. The damned ironic thing about shame is that secrecy is actually what gives it its power over us. It seems to me that John Edwards may be coming out publicly now on this matter so that the secrecy of his wrongdoing and his denials about it don't ruin the life he's been able to rebuild for himself since coming clean with his wife in 2006 about this affair. I hope he's able to do it, because I believe that by God's grace, there can be life, good life, even after sexual sin.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

The Surprising Father

While this parable is commonly named for "The Prodigal Son" who is presumed to be the star of the story, what really stands out in Jesus' telling of the story is the surprising Father. As I understand the Prodigal represents you and me, running off and trying to live without God. Sometimes preachers have focused on how repentant the Prodigal becomes and how clear the confession he makes when he has returned to his father. The problem with this interpretation is that it completely ignores Jesus' Middle Eastern culture and how his first hearers would have understood the parable.

Sons rebel and run off. That's a terrible thing, but it happens. We all know that. In the culture of Jesus' day, such a prodigal son as in this parable would be cut off from the family. The father would never speak to such a son again. It would be as if he was no longer part of the family. This helps us to understand the reaction of the older brother; he lives within the cultural norms. But the father acts in a totally surprising way. No self-respecting father in Jesus' day would do what this father does.

When he was still a long way off, his father saw him. His heart pounding, he ran out, embraced him, and kissed him. The son started his speech.... (Luke 15:20, 21; The Message)

The focus should not be on the son's speech or even on his repentance, for the Father runs out to him, filled with compassion, his heart pounding, and embraces the son before he can even speak a word. God's grace, mercy, love and compassion precede our acts of repentance. The prodigal is forgiven and restored to the family. And to everyone who has tried to forge a life without God, this is what Jesus offers: a place in his family.

P.S. I was actually studying a different passage of Scripture and was in the midst of doing a word study on the verb splagchnizomai (to have compassion for) when I wrote this blog entry. I find the typical translation of this verb ("he was filled with compassion," NIV & most) to be a bit bland, the Greek is quite dramatic, like being overcome with emotion ("his heart pounding," The Message which often translates the verb along the lines of a person's heart being broken). I'm really interested in any comments on this verb and how it was translated above, "his heart pounding," versus the more common "he was filled with compassion." More to come on this....

Related Sermon

The Surprising Father
You've heard the story of the Prodigal Son. You may have even lived it: been there, done that and got the t-shirt. In this fresh look at Luke 15:11-32, I will guide the congregation into Jesus' story to experience anew the amazing love of God for all people with wayward hearts.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Beyond Physical Pain

When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. At three o’clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eloi, eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “Listen, he is calling for Elijah.” (Mark 15:33-35, NRSV)

imageApparently they understand Jesus’ words in Aramaic about as well as we do! But talk about adding insult to injury—in such a desperate cry as this, even then Jesus is alone, completely misunderstood. There is a pain beyond physical pain. Jesus’ passion, his suffering on the cross, is not just the intense physical pain and torture, but it’s also this pain beyond physical pain—it’s wrenching pain of the soul, deep suffering from within; pain which we describe with words like anguish, despair and dread.

In reflecting on Jesus’ words, I remember this pain, I carry it with me, it has changed who I am. It is the time in my life which I dread to recall, it was at the point of darkest despair, when hope was gone and anguish settled in my soul. I feared that I would die, alone. I was isolated, untouchable, unforgiven. And God was silent. My prayers felt like they were unplugged. Ancient Christians call this experience the dark night of the soul; I suspect they too were reflecting on Jesus’ words from the cross. Desolation—where is God when it hurts so bad?

It took significant time for me to realize that God had not abandoned me and that he was unmistakably present with me through this dark night of my soul. I did not perceive it that way in the experience. This is what is profound about Jesus’ experience on the cross. What we perceive, this desolation, the silence of God, the pain of anguish, despair and dread—in the dark night of the soul, what we perceive, Jesus experienced it, beyond our pain. For the first time ever, Jesus, the Son of God, felt the distance, the darkness, the disconnection from the Father. “Eloi, eloi, lema sabacthani?” Can’t you feel the anguish, the despair and the dread? “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me?”

I remember singing in an Easter cantata, “The Father turned his face away.” The Son was left alone in agony feeling the anguish in his human soul beyond the pain we’ve suffered. Because he knows this depth of human pain and suffering, I know that I am never alone. So great is his love for me that he suffered and died.

Related Sermon

The Palms & The Passion
I have found there is great power in just hearing the Word of God on that Sunday before Easter rather than hearing a sermon. Each of the four gospels record various events and teachings from the triumphant entry into Jerusalem to the Last Supper and through to the crucifixion. I have prepared dramatic readings of the Biblical text (Matt, Mark, Luke or John) and would happily make them available to your congregation if you would like to try this on Palm Sunday or during a special worship service during Holy Week. I also have a short seminar, "Reading Scripture in Worship," for readers who like to make the Word more clear to their hearers.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

What Still Can Be

Wow! What an extraordinary week in U.S. politics! In my previous post, I described the challenge of moving past "what might have been," suggesting that Hilary Clinton might soon need to do this. It is taking me a long time myself to learn this vital life lesson. Sometimes I still catch myself daydreaming about what might have been had my life not taken the turns it did. Hilary Clinton seems to have learned this life lesson much quicker than I have; she said this in her suspension/endorsement speech on Saturday:

So I want to say to my supporters: When you hear people saying or think to yourself "if only" or "what if," I say, please, don't go there. Every moment wasted looking back keeps us from moving forward.hilary

Life is too short, time is too precious, and the stakes are too high to dwell on what might have been. We have to work together for what still can be. And that is why I will work my heart out to make sure that Sen. Obama is our next president.

And I hope and pray that all of you will join me in that effort.

Related Sermon

The Transforming Power of Grace
John & Bobby Kennedy made famous the George Bernard Shaw quote: "Most people look at things as they are and say 'Why?" But I dream of things that never were and say 'Why not?'" It is hard for me to accept that Christians can be so lacking in vision when God's grace is such a powerful dynamic producing a vision for the future for each one of us. "Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory..." (Ephesians 3:20-21a). Because of God's grace, we cannot give up hope! It's not over and there's so much more God can and will do in our lives.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Indiana Jones & The Raiders of Another Lost Ark

It was really fun to watch the latest Indiana Jones movie. I enjoyed it and the sense of being transported back to a younger age when I first watched Indiana Jones. Anyhow, it was a great break from research and reading. Lately I've been inundated by a flood of material on Noah's Ark and the Flood:

  • the Ryan-Pitman Black Sea hypothesis
  • geological surveys of Mesopotamia and evidence of flooding
  • Robert Ballard's (the Titanic guy) exploration of the Black Sea
  • theoretical considerations of what event(s) would be necessary to cause a global flood and more
  • ongoing reflection on how a little koala bear could make it all the way from southern Australia to the Ark even with 100 years to travel given the absence of eucalyptus trees along the way

Then a tidal wave hit me! What if Genesis 6-8 (the account of Noah and the Flood) is not primarily a polemic against 21st century science and geology in particular?

Just as Genesis 1-3 is not primarily an apologetic defense against evolutionism, so perhaps Genesis 6-8 is not primarily an apologetic defense against geology and the scientific dating of the age of the earth. (Making no assumptions here, I say this because in much of my reading the Flood is used to explain why the earth appears to be older than 6000 years as is claimed by those holding to a particular view of creation and a young earth.)

At the risk of being branded a heretic, I better explain what I'm getting at. After all, I am a conservative Bible scholar who believes that Scripture interpreted well can have a tremendous impact on our lives, the force of which most Christians today have barely felt. All too often we are content with splashes in a swimming pool rather than being radically showered by the full force of the Tsunami of Scripture. That said, why would I say that Genesis 1-3 is not really an apologetic defense against evolution and modern cosmology?

To interpret Genesis 1-3 well, it's vital to consider original intent. What was the inspired author of Genesis (Moses) trying to communicate in the telling of the creation account? What did it mean to the original audience who read and listened and believed Genesis? What was God telling his people? Though it is certainly common to view the early chapters of Genesis as a polemic against Darwinian evolution, we can be certain that this is not the main point. Genesis 1-3 had meaning for the people of God long before Darwin posited his theory of evolution. And while these verses may offer some corrective to some evolutionary ideas, that was not the author's original intent. I suspect the points Genesis 1 makes are more like:

  • ONE God created, not many gods involved in cosmic battles (like many pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God created out of nothing , not out of some failed world of the gods (like many pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God said his creation was GOOD, not evil or locked in battle between good and evil (like the pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God created humanity in his own image, not as some kind of mistaken transmutation of deity to the animal kingdom (again like many pagans of Moses' day believed)
  • God made this world to operate in an orderly way, not in hopeless chaos unless the gods are appeased (as many believed in Moses' day)

This list is probably not exhaustive. What's important is that we begin with good interpretation, taking into account authorial intent and the original hearers of this Scripture. We must never forget that we are not the first to read any given passage of Scripture. Plus, it seems to me that this list of points has a lot more to say to people today than an argument as to why six literal days of creation is a powerful argument against evolution.

It seems to me that forcing Genesis 1-3 to be a biblical argument against evolution is just monkeying around with the Scriptural text. Forcing Genesis 6-8 to be an extensive argument as to why the earth really is younger than it appears contrary to the geological evidence is just constructing for the church a leaky boat doomed to sink in the floodwaters of science. Not only that, but it is also completely missing the point! "God remembered Noah" (Genesis 8:1). The rainbow is an affirmation of the covenant established with Noah by which God will find a way to work within humanity to redeem as many as possible. There is hope for humanity. Just as God "protected Noah" so "the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials" (2 Peter 2:4,9; see also 2 Peter 2:4-9, 1 Peter 3:20-22). Imagine that! The Apostle Peter did not consider the account of Noah's flood to be primarily about an obscure theory as to why the earth really is young contra the apparent geological evidence, but rather an affirmation of the hope of redemption when all the circumstances around us lead us to despair. The Bible has much to say to us and it says it best when we allow it to speak out of its own cultural situations rather than imposing our alien ideas on the text.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Will Florida Change the Election Outcome (Again)?

image Hilary Clinton hopes that the DNC Rules Committee meeting on May 31st will decide to let Florida's primary vote count after all so that she will have a chance to become the Democratic Nominee for President.

Hilary should know that this is not the first time a Democrat candidate hoped that counting votes in Florida would make a difference to an election outcome. In 2000, Al Gore would've become the 43rd President of the United States of America IF Florida had actually recounted their ballots as required by state law (and actually hand-counted the ballots which their counting machines failed to process). We just watched HBO's weekend movie Recount which was all about the Florida Recount which was not completed. Near the end of the movie, Kevin Spacey playing Ron Klain says, "We should have asked for statewide [recounting] from the get-go; that was our biggest mistake." And his friend replies, "And Ralph Nader should've [realized how he was preventing the only viable Left Wing candidate from being elected]. Elian Gonzalez should've never left Miami. And Gore should've campaigned with Clinton.... Katherine Harris should've thought twice from purging 20,000 voters from the rolls. And George Bush Jr. should've never quite drinking. But HE DID. It is what it is, pal."

I've often wondered what goes through Al Gore's mind. He not only could've been the President, the reality is that a media-run recount of Florida ballots in 2001 showed that he should've been the President. Even though he's moved on and has campaigned for the environment and produced An Inconvenient Truth, I'm sure he must have had and probably still has moments of wondering what might have been.

I have found myself having moments like that a lot lately. I think about what might have been had I not fallen from grace and lost my ministry as a pastor. Sure I'm rebuilding my life and there are many very good things in my life, but still, I miss what could've been. It makes me sad. This is not really productive. These thoughts when they become obsessive are actually quite destructive. When we get stuck on what might have been rather than what actually is we are impairing our ability to make the best of the circumstances in which we now find ourselves. After all, it is what it is and wishing for what might have been will change nothing.

It turns out that there's great truth to the Little Texas song "What Might Have Been."

We can sit and talk about this all night long
And wonder why we didn't last
Yes, they might be the best days we will ever know
But we'll have to leave them in the past...
So try not to think about what might have been
Cause that was then
And we have taken different roads
We can't go back again
There's no use givin' in
And there's no way to know
What might have been

Good advice for me, for Al Gore, and perhaps one day soon for Hilary Clinton, but for now I do hope she defies the odds and wins! This time, let Florida's votes count!

Perhaps "The Way I See It" from my last cup (actually my last two cups) of coffee from Starbucks explain why in the last couple weeks I have been switching from my own sadness of what might have been 050215_EX_TheWayISeeItto Hilary Clinton's election drama:

Politics is about getting outside of yourself and your own problems for a little while and fully immersing yourself in the lies and deceit of others.
—Stephen Elliot (author)

Thursday, May 8, 2008

"Hero" Redefined

imageVulnerable. Unsure. Lonely. Insecure. Hurting. Hoping. Only a man.

And we had thought he was almost a god, invincible and invulnerable, a superhuman alien, the last son of Krypton. It turns out that the postmodern Superman is only a man is a silly red sheet, dreaming about the man he could be. It's not easy being a hero. I'm alluding to the song "Superman (It's Not Easy)" by Five for Fighting.

Behind the legend and the cape, there is suffering. Tom Welling in the TV series Smallville and Brandon Routh in the movie Superman Returns reveal this side of Superman to us (even more so than did Christopher Reeve in the classic Superman movies). This revisioning of Superman really does make sense. My childhood dream of being Superman and being able to defeat every foe and solve every problem and never be hurt and no nothing of this world's pain—well, it could just never be real. For a real hero could not be untouched and uninvolved in this world's suffering.

This new postmodern Superman sacrifices himself, experiences pain, pushes himself and goes through constant trials to be a hero. This is the Superman who struggles and must use every ounce of his ingenuity and strength to save a jet spinning out of control (Superman Returns). What a contrast to the Christopher Reeve - Superman who effortlessly rescued Air Force One by taking the place of its lost engine on the left wing (see my video contrast). All things considered, wouldn't you agree that the struggling and suffering Superman is more true to reality?

video

Heroes sacrifice themselves, suffer and sometimes die. Didn't we learn this from 9/11? So why does Christian triumphialism still prevail in the church today? Why do we think it odd when we are touched by and involved in this world's suffering? Why do we as Christians believe we should feel no pain and be healed from all disease? Why are we so prone to believe that God should intervene at every turn and save us from harm? Why do we protest when the way is hard and the path uncertain?

Could it be that the kind of heroes God calls us to be are the kind that are vulnerable, unsure, lonely, insecure, hurting and hoping? Could it be that we are to follow the example of our ultimate hero, Jesus?

Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one's life for one's friends. (John 15:13)

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (Philippians 3:10-11)

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption, the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8:22-23)

They triumphed over him [the Dragon]
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death. (Revelation 12:11)

Related Sermons

How Does God Rescue Us?
This sermon, drawn from the experiences of David in 1 Samuel 19, explores the many different ways, both extraordinary and ordinary, in which God works to rescue David from danger. What can we learn about how God rescues us today?

Hope Endures
When life comes crashing down around us, we need more than a cliché quoting of Romans 8:28. How is it that Christian hope can endure even when life hurts? A deeper understanding of Romans 8:28 as understood by examining Romans 8:18-30 should be of immense help to those of us who are hurting, more than a cliché comfort.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Fresh Strawberries

strawberryfreshIt is good that the New Testament has been translated into so many languages.... But there is so much that cannot be translated. It is not possible to reproduce the delicate turns of thought, the nuances of language, in translation. The freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract. This is inevitable.

—A.T. Robertson

This morning while eating my strawberry yogurt, I remembered this insight from A.T. Robertson, a great New Testament Greek scholar from a generation or two ago. I have the quote written in the front of my first Greek NT. He was comparing the fresh sweet taste of reading the New Testament in Greek with the preservative-rich strawberry jam tasted when reading English translations. While that inspires me to study my Greek and Hebrew more diligently, Robertson's vivid contrast can also be applied to Christians today who spend more time reading about the Bible than reading the Bible.

Yesterday as he left, a friend mentioned he was off to read some book by some author for his devotional time before going to bed. Certainly The Prayer of Jabez and The Purpose-Driven Life were for a while used by many Christians for their devotional times, in place of the Bible. I am currently reading:

  • The Challenge of Jesus by N.T. Wright (wow!)
  • Love is the Killer App (while not explicitly Christians, I feel that Tim Sanders has something significant to say about how we live out Jesus' love command in our day)
  • Timothy Findley's Not Wanted on the Voyage (very strange re-telling of the Noah's Ark story, but it won a CBC Canada Reads award)
  • a Macleans' cover article about Jesus having an identity crisis

Next to that list it now seems like a footnote to say that I'm also reading the Bible (Jeremiah, Matthew and 1 Peter). Re-applying his insight,strawberrypreserve I suspect A.T. Robertson would say to us, Do you spend more time reading about God's Word than you do in reading God's Word? Don't you understand that the freshness of the strawberry cannot be preserved in any extract? Taste the freshness of the strawberry again for the first time...

If I only eat strawberry yogurt, I'm missing the freshness, sweetness and wholeness of strawberries. An Australian pastor trying to do for his church what Eugene Peterson did for his American church, has translated Psalm 119:103 like this,

Your words taste so sweet on my tongue,
they are like strawberries and cream!

Recommended Bible Translations

for personal study: NET Bible (New English Translation, online!)

The extensive translators' notes make this an amazing study Bible. Even without knowledge of Greek & Hebrew, you'll be alerted to the issues that the translators dealt with. Pay attention, especially, to the extensive "syntax notes" as these give you good insight into the arguments of the Biblical authors. This is a far better choice than the NASB as you get actual commentary on the Greek (or Hebrew) text, rather than reading a wooden, so-called “literal” English translation.strawberry2

for personal and public reading: Today's New International Version (TNIV)

This is my choice for best all-around use Bible as it is clearly contemporary and yet very faithful to the Greek and Hebrew texts. Since so many carry the NIV, the TNIV is a great choice for public reading as it is close in text but makes many important corrections and good improvements, including the use of gender-inclusive language for people, when appropriate. Coming in 2011, there will be a new revised and updated NIV which I highly recommend.

for personal reading: New Living Translation (NLT)

The freshness of this translation is rewarding and the quality of scholarship behind this work is impressive. Read the Bible as if for the first time all over again.

and for that Australian version I mentioned above see: laughingbird.net

Here, for example, is Mark 9:33–35

They arrived home in Capernaum and after settling back into the house, Jesus hit them with a question: “You blokes sounded like you were having a bit of a barney back there on the road. What was it all about?”
........The silence was deafening! None of them were willing to own up, because they had been arguing over superiority — which of them was the greatest. Jesus sat down and called the twelve to gather round. He said to them, “Whoever wants to be number one must take a place at the bottom as the servant of everyone else.”

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Easter... The Rest of the Story (Mark 16:1-8)

easter celtic cross Easter was not over last Sunday. According to church liturgy, there are seven Sundays in the Easter season, not just one. So what's the rest of the Easter story? Mark's Gospel gives the shortest account of that first Easter Sunday morning, but it gives an important clue to the rest of the story, and it's not what one might expect!

Mark 16:1 When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus' body. 2 Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb 3 and they asked each other, "Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?"
4 But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away. 5 As they entered the tomb, they saw a young man dressed in a white robe sitting on the right side, and they were alarmed.
6 "Don't be alarmed," he said. "You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter, 'He is going ahead of you into Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.' "
8 Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.

That's it! That is actually how the Gospel of Mark ends! In fear and failure. No triumphant resurrection story here. No restoration of the eleven and multitude of disciples who abandoned Jesus in his darkest hours. Nothing like that, just a few fearful women hearing the resurrection announcement, but failing to tell anyone.

But you say, wait, my Bible has more verses; it doesn't end there! It’s true, most Bibles, for example the NIV, have another 12 verses which definitely give the gospel a smoother ending, more like we find in Matthew and Luke. However, just as the NIV points out, “The earliest manuscripts and some other ancient witnesses do not have Mark 16:9-20,” so it is that we know conclusively that Mark did not pen this ending. His writing so far as we know today ends at verse 8, as quoted above. Verses 9-20 represent an early attempt to finish the story, to give Mark an ending just like Matthew and Luke. And we know these verses are truthful, but still we also know they are not authentically written by Mark. What can we make of the authentic ending of Mark's Gospel (16:1-8)?

Isn't it ironic? Don't you think? “They said nothing to anyone.” All through Mark's gospel, people are told by Jesus not to tell anyone about what he has just done, but they immediately disobey and go tell everyone! For example, Jesus heals a man: Immediately the leprosy left him and he was cleansed. Jesus sent him away at once with a strong warning: "See that you don't tell this to anyone." .... Instead he went out and began to talk freely, spreading the news. (Mark 1:43b, 44a, 45a)

We may question why Jesus frequently gave this command, why he didn't want too many people discovering who he was, why he didn't want a frenzied mob constantly pursuing him. We do know that in chapter 9, Jesus tells his disciples not to tell anyone until he had been raised from the dead. It is the death and resurrection of Jesus which makes sense of everything else Jesus did. And now, in chapter 16, that time has come! Jesus has been resurrected, but the women are silent. Jesus' repeated command “Say nothing to anyone” is almost exactly what Mark says of the women, “they said nothing to anyone.” It's Mark's final irony.

Yes, we know that they did get over their fear, and they did tell the other disciples, and they were so effective at telling the disciples that over 500 of them gathered together 40 days later and saw Jesus ascend into heaven just after giving his final words to go and tell everyone. Why didn’t Mark tell the rest of the story like Matthew and Luke?

Why end the story unresolved as Mark does? In what I think is an incredibly great book on reading this gospel, Mark As Story, the authors say this about the ending:

It cries out for a resolution, cries out for the hope that someone will proclaim the good news. And who is left at the end of the story to do this? Not Jesus. Not the disciples. Not the women who fled the grave. Only the readers are left to complete the story! (pg. 143)

The rest of the story depends on us, not them. Mark 1:1 claimed that this gospel was the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah. The rest of the story is up to you and me. Just as it did not end with the fear and failure of the women, so it does not end even with our fear and failure. Jesus does not give up on us when we fail him. That’s just the beginning of the gospel, there’s more to be told! He's not finished with any of us. This great news of life in Christ will continue to change people’s lives forever as we share it with them, in spite of our fears and failures.

I was reminded of this unending Easter story the other day in 050215_EX_TheWayISeeItStarbucks when I read my cup’s “The Way I See It”:

There is no end to a story—it goes on indefinitely into eternity. Every time a story is read, it’s alive and it’s different because the reader is different.
—Alice Hoffman

Related Sermon

The Rest of the Story
The ironic ending of Mark's Gospel (16:1-9) invites us to continue the story where Jesus’ first disciples left off. The gospel of Jesus Christ continues to transform lives as it is told.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

"Kristen": Another Young Girl Losing Her Soul in Pursuit of Celebrity

One amazing thing about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer’s stunning fall from grace is how the prostitute he hired for $4000 is so quickly becoming a celebrity! "Kristen" was identified by the NY Times as Ashley Alexandra Dupre and interviewed just three or four days after the story broke, the same day the Governor resigned from office.

Why be interviewed? Why acknowledge being on hire with Governor Spitzer? Why not remain the anonymous "Kristen" from the Emperor's VIP Club?

The answer? Why miss this extraordinary chance to become a celebrity! What reason did she give the NY Times for doing the interview? “I just don't want to be thought of as a monster.” And her proud mother chimed in too, “She is a very bright girl who can handle someone like the governor.” Already Penthouse and Hustler are making competing offers to photograph her. Her ten seconds of fame have begun!

Let's have a reality check. "Kristen" was/is a prostitute. She's made some pretty desperate choices to end up where she is now. She aspires to be a singer, but that takes money. She left “a broken family” at age 17, having been abused, and has used drugs, “been broke and homeless.” She says she's “learned what it was like to have everything and lose it, again and again.” These quotes are taken from "Kristen's" interview and her webpage. A little odd how she doesn't mention how she became a high-priced hooker to pay for the life she was trying to live and the career as a singer she was trying to launch.

Sorry, but I just don't buy the Pretty Woman glamorized version of prostitution. It's a desperate life. Last night, Good Friday, 20/20 aired a two-hour special on “Prostitution in America.” Only one girl out of the hundreds of interviews even remotely claimed to be happy with what she was doing. One of the working girls interviewed actually suggested that she was "jealous" of "Kristen" because now she's found a way out. I doubt it. It's only liable to make her life worse, especially if she sells herself to the porn industry. Anyhow, after two years of research and interviewing working girls, Diane Sawyer concludes: “Be it glamorized prostitution with high-end escorts, poverty stricken street hookers or legal working women in the sex trade, these women all share some things in common. Sexual abuse at a young age, broken homes and addictions to drugs and alcohol all lead women to pursue lives that aid them in getting money any way they can.” They desperately try to find some way to make it in the world, but end up losing their souls.

It was very sad to hear all these girls from all walks of life being interviewed. They had been damaged and in desperation were trying to make money to make a better life for themselves. Jesus said, “And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? Is anything worth more than your soul?” (Matthew 16:26) Almost 100% of those interviewed agreed that the personal toll of becoming a prostitute was too high a cost. Likewise, I say to "Kristen," the cost of celebrity, if it involves losing your own soul, is too high.

And the men who hire these women, are they not also forfeiting their souls for a little pleasure? I don't know, but to me it seems like you would have to be pretty obsessed with the prostitute to pay $4000! "Kristen" represents a fatal attraction for Eliot Spitzer. Do you remember who shot J.R.? Yep, Kristin (Shepherd), his wife's scheming sister and his mistress. Why'd she shoot him? Because she was mad at J.R., being pregnant with his child but tossed aside. She was a near-fatal attraction for J.R. What's gone wrong when men so obsess over a woman to the point of committing acts which jeopardize their lives? Acts which are costing them their souls? Why run the risk of being publicly exposed and ruined? Personally, I suspect it's sexual addiction as marked by the incredible inability to stop. Surely Governor Spitzer would've stopped, if he could have, since he himself was the motivating force behind the investigation of prostitution rings in New York state. Anyhow, I digress—see my earlier post "Stunning Fall From Grace."

To conclude, a fitting thought for Good Friday or Dark Saturday: pleasures and pursuits in this life which cost you your soul cannot be worth it. You not only have to live with the choices you make but you must live with the person you become. Then there's the consequence in the life to come.... Celebrity isn't worth it. I've been too close to becoming a "soul-less" man myself, so it is in sympathy and understanding that I say how sad it is to see "Kristen" on the front page of the NY Times (and Toronto Star!), another young girl losing her soul in pursuit of fame.

Related Sermons

Fatal Attraction
2 Samuel 13 is a very telling account of sexuality gone wrong. King David's son Amnon can not stop obsessing over his own sister, Tamar, not until he crosses the line. What can we learn from this passage of Scripture to help us face a world in which perversion is no longer something not talked about, but rather one of the biggest, fastest growing markets on the Internet? What's gone wrong with sexuality? Why can't some men stop, even when the attraction is fatal?

Monday, March 17, 2008

A New (Testament) Perspective on Giving

Have you seen these new TV ads and billboards for Shreddies, the new Diamond Shreddies? The billboards have really caught my attention; I drive past four of them every morning. This is a brilliant ad campaign which is all about changing perspective.

video

A change in perspective is what is needed in many of our evangelical churches especially the perspective on giving. I can remember growing up and hearing sermons on tithing. In my teens I really thought the main idea of Malachi's prophetic writing was the blessing God promises to those who tithe (but since then I've discovered Malachi really does have so much more to say to us. I even remember Pastor Jack giving people a money-back guarantee: trying tithing for six months and if you find that you are not being blessed, we'll give you your money back. I know that many churches do many desperate things when revenue is running low and staff members and bills are not going to be paid. Here's where I really do think we need a new perspective, and maybe a little change, but mostly perspective.


The old approach to improve giving in the church involved preaching about tithing, obligation, threat of losing pastoral staff, and guilt for disobedience. It was a heavy approach and usually reactive to the church's financial situation. It produced results, but in a diminishing way each time it was repeated.

The new (exciting!) approach to increase congregational giving involves preaching the principles of giving and generosity, sharing an opportunity to grow in grace, casting a vision for what God can do and an encouragement to discover how good it is to be generous. This approach is best done proactively. The results will tend to be both immediate and more long term. We all need to be encouraged to become more generous people for our Lord is always more generous than we are. His grace and love have been poured on us with extravagance.

So is it just a change in perspective? Mostly. It's still an appeal for people to give and it's still about meeting the financial demands of running a local church. But it is more than a 45-degree turn too! For it also involves moving from a misunderstood Malachi to embracing a generous Jesus who gives above and beyond what can be expected.

Related Sermon

The Refreshing Power of Generosity
The Proverbs have a lot to say about money, wealth and generosity. This message looks at several Proverbs aiming to get at the wisdom they have for us. After examing Proverbs 11:24-25, 3:9-10, 11:28 and 21:27, we'll examine how the teaching on giving found in 1 Corinthians is built on the wisdom of these Proverbs.

Related Seminar (for Church Leadership Teams, Financial/Stewardship Committees)

10 to 15 Ways to Increase Congregational Giving by
10 to 15%

World Vision is doing great things around our globe. Their presentations are done with quality. And they never hesitate to ask for financial support. We can learn from them. When your cause is just, there's no reason to hesitate from asking people to give. But how do we do this effectively and biblically?

Quite often churches do one or two things very well in the area of offerings, financial communication and teaching on giving, but why stop at one or two? There are great ideas out there which can be utilized in your church to help, sometimes drastically, improve your congregation's giving. Communication is key, but how many different ways can we communicate important truths? Why do we just keep doing it the same way when it fails to produce the same results?

In this afternoon or evening seminar, I'll map out 10 to 15 ways you can immediately begin to work on in order to realize a 10 to 15% increase in giving at your church. I'll be happy to tailor this presentation to your church's current situation.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Stunning Fall From Grace

"A moment comes for every addict when the consequences are so great or the pain is so bad that the addict admits life is out of control because of his or her sexual behavior. Some are news-making moments...." Dr. Patrick Carnes goes on to say: "Millions read the steamy news accounts and, despite their own prurience, make severe judgments about people who... visit prostitutes, who commit homosexual acts in public toilets, or even who have affairs." Dr. Carnes then shares this insight: "A small audience - but larger than most imagine - read each line fearing that the same public exposure could happen to them...." (Out of the Shadows: Understanding Sexual Addiction, page 1)

Having experienced my own fall from grace, I know the moment Dr. Carnes is describing, a moment which I re-live today upon reading the newspaper and NY Governor Eliot Spitzer's statement of remorse and resignation:

In the past few days I've begun to atone for my private failing with my wife, Silda, my children and my entire family. The remorse I feel will always be with me. Words cannot describe how grateful I am for the love and compassion they have shown me.
From those to whom much is given, much is expected.... I am deeply sorry I did not live up to what was expected of me.
To every New Yorker, and to all those who believed in what I tried to stand for, I sincerely apologize. I look at my time as governor with a sense of what might have been....

His words express so much of what I felt and what I wish I could have said when my moment came and my life crashed around me. Years have gone by, but to any who haven't heard me say it, I am sincerely and deeply sorry. The changes I've made in my life now, I wish I could have made them so much sooner.

I sincerely hope that Eliot Spitzer is able to begin the journey of recovery from sexual addiction. What? Is Spitzer a sexual addict? Does it really sound sane to spend over $4000 to fly in a hooker on the eve before Valentine's Day? They're estimating he's spent over $80,000 in the last 8 months for encounters with prostitutes in Dallas, Florida and Washington. I see a life spinning out of control - an addiction being fully acted out as shown by the incredible inability to stop which is the sine qua non of sexual addiction. When a person violates their own personal standards and can no longer direct themselves out of harm's way, it is usually safe to conclude that some sort of addiction is in play.

King David, of Old Testament Israel, was exposed for his sins of adultery with Bathsheba, trying to cover it up and then having her husband killed. In describing the consequences of his sins and what he would do, the LORD said to David, “Although you have acted in secret, I will do this thing before all Israel, and in broad daylight” (2 Samuel 12:12). It is no small thing when political and spiritual leaders fall from grace. And yet we don't seem to be able to protect ourselves from politicians and pastors whose sexual behaviour ultimately destroys their public service. We've focused our attention on trying to prevent such disasters from happening, and yet they continue to happen. Perhaps, we must also begin to better consider how the fallen can be restored. After all, history still described David as "a man after God's own heart." Does Christianity today offer a message of hope, forgiveness and restoration to those who fall from grace into sexual sins?

Related Sermons

David, Jim Baker & Jimmy Swaggart
Looking to 1 Samuel 11 & 12, this message critically examines how Jim Baker, Jimmy Swaggart and I as a pastor each responded to the kind of temptation which led David to seduce Bathsheba, get her pregnant, try to cover it all up, arrange to have her husband killed and then marry her. Why does sexual sin so quickly turn into such a devastating spiral of destruction? Why do pastors today not learn from David's experience? How can Christians today including "desperate housewives" and porn-addicted men find a way of stopping the devastating spiral?

Twisted
2 Samuel 13 is a very telling account of sexuality gone wrong. What can we learn from the Scriptures to help us face a world in which perversion is no longer something not talked about, but rather one of the biggest, fastest growing markets on the Internet? What's gone wrong?

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