Making the Leap to a Better Place

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I went for a walk in the woods.  Journeying home, I took an alternate route and came to a place where I had to cross a stream. Too wide to jump, I found a spot where others had made a bridge. There were broken branches, pieces of full trees, all now mostly rotted. I put my foot lightly on one log but it quickly submerged. I tested others but they also were too bouncy and unstable to support my weight.

I stood there for a while, contemplating what combination of careful steps and quick jumps might result in a dry crossing. I had a sick feeling that, regardless of whatever I tried, I was going to lose my balance and get wet.  Still, I had no interest in staying in a place of indecision and angst. I needed to pursue home and get to the other side.  And so, I got up the courage to go for it and cross. Sure enough, as I took my first step, I lost my balance and plunged one leg into the stream, soaking shoes, socks, and pants.  I then quickly regrouped, figuring the worst was done, and went across this time successfully, albeit, a little cold and soggy.

This experience is a great metaphor for certain decisions in life.  We need the courage to change our situation, find a better place, and pursue home—that place of authenticity, integrity, joy, and God’s approval. Maybe we’ve lost hope that there is a better place. Or, maybe we’ve experienced more than our share of rejection or failures. And, because of this, we’ve lost all confidence to try new things. We’ve buried our best selves and, at least when it comes to changing our circumstances, we’re full of excuses: it might be unpleasant, we’ll disappoint or discourage others, we might fail. We don’t want our decisions to hurt dear friends potentially left behind or bring any possible harm to those we’re responsible for. And so, we do nothing and settle for a caged existence of fear, anger, and resignation.

Again, we need to take a step, get on, and do something. But instead we stay comfortably numb and distract ourselves from the complication and work of making a change. Yet, trying to simplify our lives is rarely a passive or guilt-free process: You can’t please everyone, nor can you get to a better place without doing something and disappointing someone.

Fear of anything but God (Prov. 1:7) is a poor master.

Of course, impulse is also a bad master and the wise will wait on God’s timing. The late Anglican pastor and theologian, John Stott said this:

“It is a mistake to be in a hurry or to grow impatient with God.  It took him about 2,000 years to fulfill his promise to Abraham in the birth of Christ.  It took him eighty years to prepare Moses for his life’s work.  It takes him about twenty-five years to make a mature human being.  So then, if we have to make a decision by a certain deadline, we must make it.  But if not, and the way forward is still uncertain, it is wiser to wait.  I think God says to us what he said to Joseph and Mary when sending them into Egypt with the child Jesus: ‘Stay there until I tell you’ (Matt. 2:13).  In my experience, more mistakes are made by precipitate action than by procrastination.”[1]

Stott’s counsel is an essential caution and has served me well over the last twenty years. If you’re in a place, however, where you’ve lived in frustration and stagnation for a long time—regularly fighting bitterness and despair—it may be time for action. This is especially the case when we find ourselves bound by a voluntary association (job, church, etc.) that doesn’t represent who we really are. Some contexts are not a fit, nor are they conducive to growth. They stifle creativity, freedom, and movement, or they provide no margin for the same. Some churches and related associations, for example, are cages of control where me and mine are in and you and yours are out. In a desire to “guard the truth”—and often, honestly, to keep the power—litmus tests and straitjacket rules are put in place to make sure members stay in rank.

Straightjackets were designed to control people that can’t be trusted to think for themselves. But for healthy people, straightjackets are not only uncomfortable, they keep us from living.

I gave up mine because I couldn’t move my arms. When you can’t move your arms, you can’t discover what’s in your hands or do what’s in them with all your might (Eccl. 9:10).

Leaving and making the leap to a better place involves saying no to fear and risk. It means you must take a step to live what you truly believe. Yes, we all need accountability (Hebrews 13:17), but we also need freedom to think and love God with our minds. Moreover, we need freedom to pursue God’s voice and God’s purposes with integrity and reckless abandon.

Are there steps you need to take to pursue home; specifically, that place where you best fit, belong, and can serve God and others wholeheartedly and with integrity? Is it time to stop contemplating and commit to action? If your heart has been stirred and unsettled for quite some time, I encourage you to leave fear aside and take your first step. Be assured, leaving one shore to get to the next won’t kill or hurt you. Yes, it may be a little unpleasant and require a change of clothes, but that’s the price of getting home.  And, honestly, the gift is worth the demand. Growth, integrity, and a place where you’re able and encouraged to be all God intended you to be are worth the pursuit.

[1] Authentic Christianity, edited by Timothy Dudley-Smith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1995), 249.

Why the Sea Restores Us

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The ocean, like no other place on the planet, is God’s gift to teach us how to make peace with the two realities we struggle most with: constancy and change. Let me explain.

Two months ago, Pam and I enjoyed the gift of a week of vacation with some friends who have a condo in Bonaire (an island off the coast of Venezuela, that is part of the Netherlands Antilles).

I gaze off their terrace at the Caribbean, listening to the waves crash steadily onto the shore. The sea is a silky, constantly moving aqua blue with light patches of dark that seem to drift in and out of visibility with the breeze.

The sound is constant and the rhythm healing.

Why is the sea so restorative? Certainly, there are many reasons—beauty, an immensity that speaks to the eternity in our hearts (Eccl. 3:11b). But it’s the visual and sound of every breaking wave that quiets our soul. Why is this? Again, because they’re connected to the two things we struggle with most as humans: change and constancy. Or to put it more starkly, at one extreme there is devastating change, and at the other the slow death of constancy.

Either our worlds get shattered (change) or we’re bored out of our minds (constancy).

Our inability to cope with either change or constancy, or to find peaceful co-existence between the two, often leads or contributes to addictions. One of the reasons we drink, shop, eat, and [insert drug of choice] too much—that is, in a way that dishonors God and others—is either to anesthetize our boredom or fight acceptance of new realities. Think of Sherlock Holmes’ use of morphine when he didn’t have a case. Or Dr. Jekyl’s toleration of Mr. Hyde, who made him feel once again young and energetic.

Addictions are false pursuits of exhilaration when only God should be our first love and master (Matt. 22:37). Sexual addictions are particularly powerful and deceptive because they can make us feel alive, even connected to the transcendent and spiritual. Sex with another outside of marriage and/or mixed with pornography are illicit escapes that result from our disordered desires. But addictions are only symptoms; yes, they stem from of idolatry and unbelief, but they also reveal our lack of peace with constancy and change.

How can the sea and ocean help us with our internal war?

Constancy. The waves are always breaking, sometimes crashing, on the shore. The sound is hypnotic. We go into a peaceful trance. Many of us, even those that don’t like to bake in the sun, choose a beach getaway just so we can stare at ocean or close our eyes and listen to its cadence.  Busyness does violence to the inner recesses of our heart. In fact, the Chinese character for busyness means “soul-killing”.  Thankfully, the ocean—God’s gift—can heal our soul in very real ways.

Most of us must go to work every day. We must pay our rent or mortgage. We must get rest. The dishes must get done. Our families must get fed. Exciting things don’t happen all the time. Discipline, routine, and perseverance help us deal with the same-old-same-old but, at times, we despise this.

Change. We see it vividly in the sand: footprints vanish and sand castles disintegrate. But it’s also true with anything the sea touches. Boardwalks must be replaced. Lighthouses moved.

Fishing piers become unsafe and unsustainable. Nothing lasts. Again, we hate this truth about life, but we know it all too well. Like it or not, we must all move our chairs with the change of tides.

We must grow up. We must get a job. We must change jobs. We must deal with a new boss. We must adjust our diet. Private quiet spots get public and crowded. And, whether we do it gracefully or not, we must age. I remember my grandmother saying to me, with deep weariness, while we were waiting—yet again—for the ambulance to pick up my grandfather, “Greg, don’t get old.”

Yes, constancy and change are the primary threads in the fabric of our existence, but there is a gift from the sea for all who will listen. “The Preacher” in Ecclesiastes teaches that constancy and change are part of the rhythm of life (1:5-9; 3:1-8). And the sea and ocean teach us that there is a place of stillness where all things come together. When it comes to “life under the sun,” there is no place on this planet to better see, hear, and feel that rhythm.

For all, the sea and the ocean “pour forth speech” (Psa. 19:2) and offer great lessons about serenity.

For the Christian, those lessons are gifts from a loving and Great Artist who gives hope beyond the circle of life. The Christian is anchored for eternity to the “Rock of Ages.” God gives a gift beyond the sea when it is “no more” (Rev. 21:1), which the first question in the Heidelberg Catechism expresses beautifully:

“What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all of the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; indeed that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore by His Holy Spirit, he also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live unto him.”[1]

 

 

[1] Heidelberg Catechism, Modern English Version, 450th Anniversary Edition (Reformed Church in the United States, 2013), 19.

Seize the Day!

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Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do. (Eccl. 9:7, ESV)

As mentioned previously, the verse above has become a favorite, along with its context (9:7-10a), and the whole book of Ecclesiastes. That’s not because I’m a good follower of “the Preacher’s” advice, but I aspire to be.

The word in bold above, “go,” is closely related to the Latin phrase carpe diem or seize the day. “The Preacher” could have started out saying “eat your bread with joy…” but adds “go” as if to say, “Seize the day! Do it now! This is the day that the Lord has made—rejoice and be glad!”

Carpe diem or seize the day means to “enjoy the present as opposed to placing all hope in the future.”[1]

At first glance the concept of carpe diem and this definition seem to run counter to Paul when he says, “Set your affection on things above, not on things on the earth.” (Col. 3:2, KJV) In fact, for most of my young adulthood, I leaned on Paul’s words and ignored the puzzling message of Ecclesiastes. For me, life was something to be rigidly segmented into two categories: sacred (things above) and secular (things on earth). Further, I judged others who carried their faith with less intensity than I did. I certainly didn’t enjoy wine; in fact, most of the time, I didn’t enjoy anything. I loved God and followed him outwardly like a good Pharisee but internally I lived a caged existence of fear, anger, and resignation.

The wisdom of Ecclesiastes 9:7 remained buried behind the word “meaningless” and I didn’t really understand Paul either.

So, what do Paul’s words mean in light of Eccl. 9:7?

One of the principles of proper biblical interpretation is scripture interprets scripture. In other words, God gave us the sixty-six books (more if you’re Orthodox or Roman Catholic) and they’re all His holy word. Scripture interprets scripture means that Paul must inform “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes, and vice versa.

Paul’s words in Col. 3:2 have to do with where our ultimate affections lie and warn us against idolatry. They tell us that, as we live out Eccl. 9:7 (and, yes, we should!), we need to receive all as a gift from our creator. We should never make food, drink, marriage, or anything a god.

“The Preacher’s” words in Eccl. 9:7 reminds us that God put us here on planet earth and it’s wrong to cheapen the existence He placed us in. They remind us that God’s purposes are alive here and now and permeate “things on the earth”—especially food, drink, community, marriage, and work. They also tell us that God takes pleasure in our joy: “for God has already approved of what you do.”

David Gibson, in his new commentary, adds these excellent observations:

“It’s vital to see that the eating, drinking, and loving in these verses do not form an exhaustive list of God’s gifts. Rather, it’s a representative list of what it means to love life and live it to the full. These things are a way of saying: when God made the world, he made it good, and no amount of being a Christian, being spiritual, ever changes the fact that God put you in a physical world with hands and food and drink and culture and relationships and beauty. Sin fractures everything, distorts everything. It means we cannot understand everything. But sin does not uncreate everything. So, if we tap into the Preacher’s worldview and train or thought, I think an expanded list would look something like this:

Ride a bike, see the Grand Canyon, go to a theater, learn to make music, visit the sick, care for the dying, cook a meal, feed the hungry, watch a film, read a book, laugh with some friends until it makes you cry, play football, run a marathon, snorkel in the ocean, listen to Mozart, ring your parents, write a letter, play with your kids, spend your money, learn a language, plant a church, start a school, speak about Christ, travel to somewhere you’ve never been, adopt a child, give away your fortune and then some, shape someone’s life by laying down your own.”[2]

So, what about you? Is it time to make your expanded list? Consider writing down and personalizing your own. More importantly, is it time to live out your list?

Go!  Seize the day! Do it now! Make the most of this new year and receive it as a gift!

 

[1] Dictionary.com

[2] David Gibson, Living Life Backward (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 114.

Finding More Hope in Prison Than Politics

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“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast [rejoice] in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast [rejoice] in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” (Rom. 5:1-5, NRSV)

This passage tells us how God grows his people: on a foundation of grace (1-2) and through a process of suffering which produces perseverance which produces character which produces hope (3-5). I’ve previously written about the endurance part of this process here.

It’s been seven years since I first began to give serious thought to the process of how God grows his people in the way described above: suffering produces perseverance produces character produces hope. The first three I got immediately but why does it stop with hope? Why is that the end-all?  Why not love or faith? And, what exactly is this “hope” that “does not disappoint?”

In meditating on these questions, I’ve long known that the biblical word for hope is not like our word; that is, expressing a faint-hearted belief we have little reason to believe will be fulfilled.  For example: “I hope our politicians on both sides of the aisle will conduct themselves with the dignity that becomes their offices and work together for the good of the American people.”

Yeah. Right.

No, in Scripture, hope is a “positive expectation of a future event” or simply “confident expectation.” Consider this excellent definition by British theologian, Alister McGrath:

“Hope, in its properly Christian sense, means a sure and confident expectation that what has been promised to us will finally blossom in all its wonderful glory.  It is a strong and positive theme, affirming the reliability of God who makes promises to us.”

My thoughts on why hope is the crème de la crème of Christian growth in the passage above coincided with a trip I made to Angola Prison December 2010, and again in April 2011. Angola State Penitentiary is one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever been and it was the highlight of my eleven-year career at National Fatherhood Initiative. One hour northwest of Baton Rouge, two hours northwest of New Orleans, thirty miles from the nearest town, and bordered on three sides by the Mississippi River sits the 18,000-acre Louisiana Penitentiary, the largest maximum-security prison in the United States.

At the time, of the 5,108 inmates incarcerated there, 86% were violent offenders, 90% were serving life sentences, and most were 60 years to life! Even today, Angola remains one of the most feared prisons in the country, and entering its gates often means little more than a prolonged death sentence. In the 1970s, Angola also had the reputation of being America’s bloodiest prison. In God’s providence, a warden by the name of Burl Cain came in 1995. Warden Cain, who served from 1995 until March 2016, was a savvy businessman, a Southern Baptist, and your typical southern gentleman. In demeanor and appearance, he came across a little bit like a country bumpkin. However, like Peter Falk’s character in the old TV show Colombo, he was a lot smarter than he looked!

Under his leadership, an amazing amount of “moral rehabilitation” took place associated with the inward man and Christianity. In fact, I’ve never seen the gospel so beautifully displayed as I did against the backdrop of Angola. You can get a feel for some of what I experienced by watching this five-minute clip from USA Today.

There I experienced unmistakable evidence of men who had been transformed by Christ, men who had a contagious fire and joy and a hope amidst hopelessness. It’s jarring to learn that 75% of the inmates at Angola will die there. In fact, typically after three years at Angola no one comes to see you except maybe a mom or a sister. Moreover, parole is repeatedly denied, and society regularly disappoints, and will not recognize even genuine transformation. So where does the hope come from that “does not disappoint”? For Christians at Angola, it seemed to come from two places:

  • Seeing the Holy Spirit make changes in them that society—despite its ability to disappoint with rejection—could not take away.
  • Seeing God use them in the lives of others. For example, because other wardens in the state wanted their positive influence to spread, some of Angola’s Christian inmates were sent out like missionaries to other prisons in Louisiana! Additionally, many of the fathers found hope in a commitment to change the legacy of their children, regardless of whether they, as an incarcerated father, ever got out or not.

It’s the same for you and me today. Why can we “rejoice in hope”(2)?

  • Like the believers at Angola, something is happening inside us—in the inward man— “our hearts.”
  • We find that our faith is not surface like the foam on the ocean. Whatever is happening goes deep. Christ is inside us and his love is cleaning house.
  • In that transformation, we see unmistakable evidence of God’s love “poured out in our hearts.” This, then, gives assurance of His love—because of what has been “given to us” (Rom 5:5).
  • What’s s more, we “rejoice in hope” as we experience the good works we were “created in Christ Jesus” for (Eph 2:10), which includes bringing God’s peace to others and polishing His image in them.

 

***You can hear the larger context this post is taken from by listening to a recent sermon I did on Rom. 5:1-5. Just go to this link and type in my name.

Beyond the Table in the Mist

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Go, eat your bread with joy, and drink your wine with a merry heart, for God has already approved what you do.

Let your garments be always white. Let not oil be lacking on your head.

Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain [fleeting] life that he has given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life and in your toil at which you toil under the sun. (Eccl. 9:7-9, ESV)

The passage above is my favorite in this season of life. It reminds me to seize the day (“Go”), treasure my wife, expect to work hard (‘toil”), pursue joy and celebration (“merry heart”), and reject depression and religious man-made rules (e.g. don’t “drink your wine”). It’s also a great summary of Ecclesiastes and the culmination of the common refrain throughout the book (see 2:24, 3:22, 4:9-12, 5:18, 8:15, and 9:7-10a above).

The message is this: get on with life and don’t worry too much about the details which lie with God.

John Lennon is famous for saying, “Life is what happens while you’re busy making plans.” Given the message of Ecclesiastes, we might modify his statement slightly to: “Life’s what happens while you’re busy trying to control what you can’t control and comprehend what you can’t comprehend.”

“The Preacher” (12.9) tells us that joy is possible for those who seek it in the right place. It’s not found in the absence of God, living in illusions, not accepting our creaturely limitations, or in a preoccupation to control. It’s found in gratitude for and appreciation of God’s simple gifts like food, drink, community, love, and work.[1]

And then there’s the white garments to reflect the heat of the sun and the oil to protect and nourish the skin:

“When people were distraught, they wore sackcloth and ashes to show their grief; but white cloths… and oil… were worn to show joy and happiness…. [The idea is] to look after yourself. The world was meant to be a place of color and life and beauty.”[2]

The most magnificent thing about 9:7-9, however, is the deeper redemptive thread beyond the surface meaning. Look at the verses again. They’re filled with wedding imagery: food, drink, white garments, oil, a husband, and a wife. David Gibson notes that this is because “the Bible’s picture of the best that life can offer us is simply a foretaste of a wedding banquet still to come, the beauty and grandeur and glory of which cannot be put into words… Every meal is a foretaste, an appetizer, for the banquet to come.”[3]

Remember the key phrase in Ecclesiastes, vanity, which means breath or vapor? Well, right in the center of all that mist—the elusive, sorrowful, ephemeral, and obscure—is a feast! Jeffrey Meyer’s meditation on Ecclesiastes, A Table in the Mist, captures the idea perfectly.

Think of the greater significance of the table throughout Scripture: the coming great banquet of the kingdom of God in Luke 14, the institution of the Lord’s Supper described in 1 Cor. 11, and the marriage feast of the Lamb in Rev. 19. It’s evident that these themes inspired the 1967 painting, The Feast, above. Although I can’t find out much about the artist, Bud Meyer, these day, the gospel themes in his photographic sketch continue to fascinate me.

The three candles in the center remind us of the Triune God—the relational core at the center of all reality. They also remind us of His redemptive plan:

  • God the Father loved us before the foundation of earth (Eph. 1:4) and gave His only begotten Son to save us.
  • Jesus, God the Son, came to die for those the Father gave him (Jn. 17:9). And although He gave his life “a ransom for many,” the quality of His infinite sacrifice is sufficient to cover the sins of any who might come to Him (Jn. 6:37).
  • At the right time, the Spirit comes to open our hearts (Acts 16:14b), bring what is dead to life (Eph. 2:1), draw us to Christ (Jn. 6:44), and apply Jesus’ blood to our need.

The candles are lit and there’s fire: a reminder that God is the author of all desire, motivation, and drive in life.

In His great love, He has set a table for us.  And not only us, but countless others—so much so that, like in the picture, we can’t see where the table ends.

As Rich Mullins, wrote in his song The Love of God:

There’s a wideness in God’s mercy

I cannot find in my own

And He keeps His fire burning

To melt this heart of stone

Keeps me aching with a yearning

Keeps me glad to have been caught

In the reckless raging fury

That they call the love of God

Finally, the painting, The Feast, comes with an invitation to enjoy the greatest of all banquets—abundant and eternal life that begins here and now. It also points to a time when the heavenly city will come down to earth and all tears will be washed away (Rev. 21-22).

Friend, the eternity God placed in your heart is not a lie. As you peer through this earthly mist that often seems more like a fog, there really is reason to celebrate. The God who created this universe, in His mercy, offers you a place at His table now and forever more. The table is a place of honor, intimacy, friendship, shared mission, and full acceptance.

“Come for all things are now ready.”

 

*Please click here to listen to a sermon preached on the themes above.

[1] I’m indebted to Ian Provan for his rich insights, some reflected in this paragraph, into the various themes of Ecclesiastes.

[2] David Gibson, Living Life Backward (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 113.

[3] Ibid., 116.

How to Please God

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There is no greater arrogance than not to desire to be justified by faith in Christ.[1] -Luther

In keeping with celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I wanted to do two posts on how we are justified before God. In other words, how do we make peace with God? How do we please Him?

All Christians care deeply about these questions and the doctrine of justification.

All, however, are not all are agreed on how justification happens.

Here’s a case in point: When I showed my historian and Anglo-Catholic son, Timothy, the ending of last week’s post on Luther he responded:

“’Why not pick up and read?’ is a great overture to a movement based on increasing literacy of holy documents. In many ways, Luther (an Augustinian who kept wearing his Augustinian habit and saying mass) simply wanted to remind the world of Augustine’s conversion in Confessions, of a man who, when he could not change his own behavior or please God, heard the voice of a child in a garden: “Tolle lege, take up and read.” Looking down, he saw the epistle to the Romans, and read that only by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ can one please God. That, if anything, is what Luther was trying to rehabilitate as the prime fact of Christian experience and worship. That things turned out the way they did is sad, but it gives us at least something to celebrate these 500 years later.”

I especially love what he says in bold above. It’s a wonderful statement which I suspect all three branches of Christianity would gladly rally around. What’s fascinating, however, is that we (just like Luther and the Reformers) are still left with the need to give nuance and definition to the statement “only by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ can one please God.”

Exactly how does one put on the Lord Jesus Christ? Do we do this by faith alone and not works? Or by faith and works? Or by faith alone that will express itself in works? Or, is putting on the Lord Jesus Christ just trying really hard to be like Jesus?

How are we justified before God?

As a minister in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, I subscribe (with 3-4 exceptions) to the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). The WCF defines justification as “the legal and formal acquittal by God as Judge from guilt, the pronouncement of the sinner who believes in Christ as righteous.  This has nothing to do with one’s keeping of the Law (Rom. 3:9-20; Gal. 2:16; 3:10, 22; 5:44); it is solely based on the death of Christ which one accepts by faith (Phil.3:9; Rom. 5:1; 1 Jn. 2:2).”

Understood as such, I believe in justification by faith alone, or sola fide as it’s sometimes called. The doctrine was central for Luther and is core to what it means to be Protestant.

More importantly, justification by faith alone—as defined above—is clearly taught in Scripture:

  • “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Rom. 3:28)
  • “And to the one that does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness.” (Rom. 4:5)
  • Both Abraham and David were justified by faith and not by works (Rom. 4:1-8; Gal. 3:6-9)
  • “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom. 5:1)

As the hymn says, “my Hope is built on nothing less than Jesus blood and righteousness!” For all of us—whatever tradition we’re in—it’s not about the Mass, or the bread and wine, or baptism, or good doctrine, or prayers honoring saints, or confession, or Tim Keller preaching, or Mother Teresa good works. All those things, at their very best, point to or are directed at Christ. When any of them become ends in and of themselves, they are idols that keep us from God. We please God by putting on the Lord Jesus Christ. By standing in the perfect righteousness of His sacrifice on the cross. It’s faith and trust in Christ alone that brings peace with and pleases God. We stand before God naked of our own righteousness and cry, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” (Luke 18:13b) That’s the heart of a true Christian.

These verses say it plainly:

  • “Jesus said to him, I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, ESV)
  • “And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.” (Heb. 11:6, ESV)
  • “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9, NIV)

BUT, and as we shall look at more next week, true faith in Christ expresses itself in works. Thomas R. Schreiner, New Testament Professor at Southern Seminary gives this helpful illustration:

“If I said the room you were in was about to blow up in one minute, and you believed me, desired to live, and were physically able to leave, you would hurry to the exit. True faith would lead to works! Leaving the room would be the result of your faith. So, its right to say as the Reformers did that we are justified by faith alone, but that true faith is never alone.”[2]

 

Next week: The Problems with Justification by Faith Alone

On the painting above: “Shortly after Luther’s death, his friend, the artist Lucas Cranach, Jr., painted one more portrait of the Reformer. Cranach has him in the pulpit of the castle church, Bible opened, congregation looking on. What is most stunning, however, is the center. There Cranach painted Christ on the cross. As Luther preached, he preached Christ and him crucified. And his congregation did not see Luther, but instead saw Christ. Luther pointed the way to Christ” (S. J. Nichols, New Horizons, October 2005, p. 4).

[1] Martin Luther, Romans (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1985), 77.

[2] Southern Seminary Magazine, Fall 2017, Vol. 85, No. 2, 68.

Back to School to Honor a Good Man

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I will extol you, O LORD, for you have drawn me up, and did not let my foes rejoice over me. O LORD my God, I cried to you for help, and you have healed me… so that my soul may praise you and not be silent. O LORD my God, I give thanks to you forever. (Psa. 30:1,2,12, NRSV)

Last night I went to an alumni event at the small, private, Christian high school I graduated from, Fairton Christian Center Academy (FCCA). It was a fortieth anniversary gala and everyone who had ever graduated from FCCA during that forty-year period was invited. My 1983 graduating class had only six (that’s four of us up there)! When your graduating class has only six, it’s easy to be the star of the basketball team, the chess champion, or to graduate Salutatorian.  When I got to college, I had a rude awakening, learning quickly I used to swim in a very small pond!

Of the six I graduated with, I was the only one present at the reunion. Candidly, some of my fellow graduates no longer appreciate their Christian roots or, at least, that brand of Christianity. For others, it may have been shame due to choices made or circumstances that happened since graduation. Still others may view their educational experience at FCCA as “Mickey Mouse”. For all of us, the steps we take after graduation—including those ordered by the LORD (Psa. 37:23)—give us unique perspectives.

Of course, my distinct lens is more like a locket over my heart. I open it and see the love of my life, Pamela C. Austen.  It was at FCCA where we first met and became high school sweethearts. In fact, last night we were honored for being married the longest among the alumni: thirty-one years.

Why did I go to the reunion when the rest of my classmates didn’t? Besides the fact that Pam wanted to go, I desired to honor the man who had been the founder of the school, Pastor Woodson “Woody” Moore. He was recently diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer due to exposure to agent orange while in Vietnam. The alumni reunion was primarily organized to celebrate his legacy and encourage him.  I wanted to be part of that encouragement. Woody, three of my FCCA teachers, and a youth leader associated with this church-school—most attending that evening—had been healing agents in my life.

Driving to the event, I reminisced: In coming to FCCA in September 1982, my family had just left a physically and sexually (although this surfaced later) abusive, shame-based church: Berachah Bible Baptist. It was difficult for my parents to leave as their lives were intertwined with various ministries and leadership roles. When they finally did leave, it was secret and severing: making sure the church was empty, they dropped a letter and a bunch of stuff off, giving no reason for our family’s departure.  Of course, any reason would be used against them; however, giving no reason caused the church to invent reasons. Many of the rumors of why we left were cruel; we were shunned by those I thought were my extended family and friends. At seventeen, this hurt a lot—especially the lie that I had gotten a girl pregnant and that this was the real reason my parents left.

Before our departure, I had been going to Berachah’s school. I had worked hard to graduate a year early and this would be my senior year. After Berachah, my parents enrolled me in FCCA because it used the same Accelerated Christian Education (A.C.E.) curriculum Berachah used. This would allow me finish with continuity and graduate on time. Again, amid major relational transition, I was hurting.  The lies that I had gotten a girl pregnant went deep and I shared this with my new school’s headmaster and pastor, Woody. He listened deeply and with empathy. Later that week, we went for a walk outside the school building.  He opened the book of Psalms and showed me several passages about how, in the face of lies and enemies, God guards our name and reputation. I don’t remember the specific verses, but the effect brought healing.

Coming from a legalistic, no-movie-theater-going, we-are-the-only-REAL-Christians, fundamentalist Baptist setting, I learned a lot from the Pentecostals at this Assemblies of God school.  They loved me.  They respected me. I saw in many of their eyes the love of Christ. They helped me feel God’s love and read the Bible through a more relational and less rule-based lens. Failure was viewed as something you could learn from. Although we didn’t agree on all points of doctrine (no tongues for me, please- I was still a Baptist), they respected the authentic work of the Holy Spirt in me.  Our common ground was found in statements like this from the late Keith Green: “The only true marks of the Baptism of the Holy Spirit in a person’s life are holiness and love.”

The school now soldiers on toward its golden anniversary. Woody and his wife, Shirley, have poured their lives into this setting, leaving an uncommon, steady legacy in a difficult, economically depressed area. I honor them with this post and thank God for the things I learned from them and others at FCCA. They loved me and gave me their best.

Today, amidst prayers for my own growth, I ask God to give you increased love—that you would be an instrument of His healing, and have a lifetime of joy and faithfulness in your various family, vocational, and ministry roles.

 

The Colorful Beauty of Our Time-Traveling God

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For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.

(Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, ESV)

Fall is a season that makes change beautiful. A feast of color, cool breezes, and crisp air.  It’s the time for reflective strolls, bike rides, and quiet walks with those we love. As I begin the day, I allow myself to stop at a pastry shop. My heart swells with joy for all God does; he has created wonderful pleasures for the senses. This year, he also blessed us with a new church in Kennett Square, Pa and an opportunity to teach the book of Ecclesiastes to some wonderful people.

Chapter three, especially, is a cherished treasure. The splendid poetry above summarizes well the circle of life. Each contrasting statement goes beyond sentiment to sober us up—a detox from the illusions that we are immortal or architects of our own fate. The main point of the passage? We can’t control the times.  As David Gibson notes, “When we are dancing, most of us do not realize we are creating memories with people whom we will one day mourn.”[1] As a person of faith, I choose to embrace this reality fully, accepting the existence God has placed me in.

Interestingly, however, the poetry above that inspired the song “Turn, Turn, Turn,” by the Byrds could just as easily be read at the funeral of an atheist as a Christian. But that is only if the poetry of verses 1-8 is severed from the prose of 9-22. Taken in context, this “womb to the tomb” passage is infused with color only God could bring. The faith-saturated insights (9-22) bring peak season beauty to the poetic description of life on planet earth (1-8). The wisdom here is like leaves of deep orange, mixed with the reds and yellows, that stir in me a potpourri of appreciation.

Here are three fresh insights on chapter three from David Gibson’s new book, Living Life Backward:

  1. “He has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to the end.” (3:11b, ESV) “God is not being unkind to us by not sharing… the point is that we are not built to understand the big picture, precisely because we live in time and God does not. If we could see the end from the beginning, and understand how a billion lives and a thousand generations and unspeakable sorrows and untold joys are all woven into a tapestry of perfect beauty, then we would be God.”[2]
  2. “Whatever God does endures forever.” (3:14, ESV) Yes, as Joni Mitchell sings, we have awareness from the eternity in our hearts that we are “captured on a carousel of time,” but it’s not a “Circle Game.” “Because God lives forever and I will not, I can experience the several different times of my life knowing that they are part of a bigger picture that I cannot see but which is visible to a good and wise God who sees the whole as beautiful.”[3]
  3. “He has made everything beautiful in its time.” (3:11a, ESV) This has been a precious truth to me for many years. Gibson, however, pointed out something I’d never seen before. In verse 15b “the Preacher” points out that the God who exists outside of time “seeks what has been driven away.” In other words, he can insert himself in any place. He is not trapped in the cyclical system as we are.  That is why he can make things beautiful. Gibson explains, “Ecclesiastes makes the… astonishing claim that living well here and now in this world depends on time travel being possible—not to us, but to God…God will retrieve every single injustice, every single time, and every single activity…Knowing that God is outside of time and sees it all and will, in the end, bring to judgement both the righteous and the wicked, stops me needing to be in control of everything that happens to me.”[4]

 

[1] David Gibson, Living Life Backward (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 60.

[2] Ibid., 57-58.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 58-60.

Pursuing Knowledge: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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There’s nothing new on this earth. Year after year it’s the same old thing…. Much learning earns you much trouble.  The more you know the more you hurt.  (Ecclesiastes 1:10,18 – The Message)

I love to learn new things and I hate anti-intellectualism—especially in the church. What’s more, I believe passionately that God wants us to love him with our whole being, including our minds (Matt.22:37). So, what’s the passage above getting at?

We’ve all heard the phrase “there’s nothing new under the sun,” the more familiar translation of the first part of the text above. Two thoughts are essential in beginning to understand this saying and its context:

  1. When the author of Ecclesiastes, “the Preacher,” uses the term “under the sun” he is referring to the earthbound life of perplexed humanity. And perplexed is an apt description. Anyone who has ever pursued learning knows the more we know, the more we see what we don’t know. More answers bring more questions.
  2. As David Gibson, minister of Trinity Church in Aberdeen, Scotland, points out, “There’s nothing new under the sun” doesn’t mean “that no ‘new’ things are ever invented in the word, for clearly that is not true… [What he means is] there is nothing new about humanity in the unfolding of all of our progress… there is no gain because the universe is cyclical and everything that is comes and goes.”[1]

Here’s the problem “the Preacher” is addressing: many see education as the primary fix for the world’s problems. After all, “knowledge is power.” Yes, learning can expand our horizons and help us access opportunities, but does getting smarter change our heart or desires? Any person who has ever tried to kick a habit or love an addict knows it doesn’t.

Increased learning also does nothing to change the human plight. We still face death. In fact, thinking about our mortality too deeply, especially if there is no good God in the picture, can become unbearable. Like the passage above says, “the more you know the more you hurt.”

The hurt associated with knowledge is real, but its not all bad. For those in community, it increases empathy.

It’s why I’m moved to compassion when my wife’s mentally-handicapped, 53-year-old cousin, Martha—whose mind is like a seven-year-old—gets cancer. On vacation with us just four weeks ago, she climbed a lighthouse and played tirelessly at the beach everyday, all day. Now, in just one month, she’s gone from building sand castles to facing surgery.

It’s why we reel in shock at the incomprehensibility of the massacre in Las Vegas. Or why, while watching the evening news, we tear up at the devastation in Puerto Rico, or the slaughter in Myanmar that has forced many to flee to Bangladesh.These are perplexing realities of life on planet earth and they hurt.

Given the pain that some learning brings, one might ask: if knowledge isn’t really that powerful, and brings “trouble” and “hurt,” maybe ignorance really is bliss? No, the Preacher says: “there is more gain in light that in darkness” (2:13b). Ignorance is not bliss; it’s a big part of the problem. Rather than checking out with our phones, consumerism, games, binge-watching, novels, and addictions, we need to seek out and disseminate truth without fear. Compassion fatigue is real and it’s healthy to take a break from “the way things are” sometimes, but sticking our head in the sand is no answer.

So, learn away; just remember: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1-2). Few things make us uglier or more incapable of hearing God than pride. And, here’s the conclusion of the matter: Thinking deeply is a gift, a way to love God, and something that should lead to greater empathy and humility.

To date, I’ve found nothing better on pursuing knowledge and having a humble opinion of oneself than this piece by Thomas A Kempis from his early-fifteenth-century classic, The Imitation of Christ:

“Knowledge is a natural desire for all men. But knowledge for its own sake is useless unless you fear God. An unlearned peasant, whose contentment is the service of God, is far better than the learned and the clever, whose pride in his knowledge leads him to neglect his soul while fixing his attention on the stars.

True self-knowledge makes you aware of your own [need for grace][2] and you will take no pleasure in the praises of men. If your knowledge encompasses the universe and the love of God is not in you, what good will it do you in God’s sight? He will judge you according to your actions.

An over-weening desire for knowledge brings many distractions and much delusion. Many like to be considered learned and to be praised for their wisdom; how much knowledge there is that adds nothing to the good of the soul!…

Remember, the more you know, the more severely you will be judged. So, do not be proud of any skill or knowledge you may have, for such is an awesome responsibility. No matter how much you know, realize how much there is that you do not know. Do not be afraid to acknowledge your own ignorance.

Why have an exalted opinion of yourself when you know there are many, even in your own field, whose knowledge surpasses yours?…

Nothing is so beneficial as a true knowledge of ourselves, which produces [humility]… If you see another person commit a grievous sin, or whose faults are flagrant, do not regard yourself as better, for you do not know what you would do if similarly tempted. You are in good disposition now, but you do not know how long you will persevere in it. Always keep in mind that all are frail, but none so frail as yourself.”[3]

 

 

[1] David Gibson, Living Life Backward (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2017), 26.

[2] I have substituted “need for grace” for “worthlessness.” We are not worthless, but that’s a topic for another day.

[3] Thomas A Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co., 198), 16-18.

Stealing Ecclesiastes Back!

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In the opening track, “Helter Skelter,” of U2’s 1988 Rattle & Hum, Bono shouts, “This is a song Charles Manson stole from the Beatles and we’re stealing it back!” In the same way, Ecclesiastes is a book that the New International Version’s (NIV) translation of “vanity” as “meaningless” has stolen from many, and I want to steal it back!

Rather than being an advertisement for depression with a few “eat, drink, and be merry”‘s thrown in, Ecclesiastes is a gift from a loving God about how and where to find meaning and enjoyment on planet earth.

Let me explain.

The interpretive key to the book is the Hebrew word hebel, best translated “vanity” or “vain.” Here is an example from the English Standard Version (ESV):

“Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.” (Eccl. 1:2)

The footnote in the ESV states that “the Hebrew term hebel, [again] translated vanity or vain, refers concretely to a ‘mist,’ ‘vapor,’ or ‘mere breath,’ and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive (with different nuances depending on the context). It appears five times in this verse [the verse above] and in 29 other verses in Ecclesiastes.”[1]

The NIV, which is usually a great translation, here carelessly renders hebel as “meaningless”:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless” (Eccl. 1:2).

Wise translators exercise caution when it comes to words with a wide range of meanings that are notoriously difficult to translate. Here’s an example from the New Testament (NT): The word translated “baptize” has a range of meanings that include dip, immerse, pour, and sprinkle. This is one of the reasons why particular denominations differ on specific modes of baptism.  Methodists and Anglicans might highlight “sprinkling,” Mennonites “pouring,” and Baptist’s “immersion.” Nobody seems to like “dip” unless it’s the Presbyterians making sure any would-be Baptists know that “dipping is not necessary.” 🙂 But I digress—back to the main point: in using the broader term “baptize,” translators wisely avoid over-translation and protect the full sense of the word.

But the NIV—by replacing “vanity” with “meaningless”—doesn’t just over-translate and leave the fuller meaning of hebel unprotected, it picks the wrong word! Again, above we noted that ‘the Hebrew term hebel, translated vanity or vain, refers concretely toa ‘mist,’ ‘vapor,’ or ‘mere breath,’ and metaphorically to something that is fleeting or elusive.”[2] How the heck do you get “meaningless” from “vapor” or “mere breath?!” Obscure, foggy, shadowy, inscrutable, difficult to grasp, temporary—any of these words would have been better choices than meaningless.

Released as a NT in 1973 and as a complete Bible in 1978, the NIV has been one of the most popular translations. Unfortunately, given its influence, the decision to translate hebel as “meaningless” is a big reason, I believe, why many stay away from the book. Who wants to read a book about the meaninglessness of life—especially if we are depressed already?

Like an aggressive yellow-jacket at a fall picnic, translating hebel as “meaningless” becomes a serious deterrent to an otherwise enjoyable experience. So why did the NIV translation team make the decision it did?

I offer two likely reasons:

  1. They were influenced by what British scholar Iain Provan calls “the quotation theory” and made a poor interpretive decision—one influenced by their times (see #2 below). The quotation theory states that “the Preacher” of Ecclesiastes quotes from people he does not agree with so that he can refute them with “traditional wisdom.” The problem with this view is it’s too subjective: who decides which is which? In the end, the quotation theory becomes an attempt to tame the book. Provan suggests that a better approach is to take the book as it is and see the author of Ecclesiastes as “responding to a messy universe. That is why, in the end, his book is somewhat messy, nonlinear, and nonsystematic. Its form mirrors its content… It is difficult to see how any author of intelligence and integrity could approach a complicated universe in a markedly different way.”[3]
  2. We are all influenced by the times we live in and the translators of the NIV were no exception. “Meaningless” seemed an attractive choice against the backdrop of the existentialist mood of the 60’s. If you want to get a feel for how pervasive this mood was, or how it felt, watch the 1967 Oscar-winning film, The Graduate.

The “what were they thinking?!” question aside, why does all this matter? Because Ecclesiastes is part of a genre called wisdom literature and, as stated above, the book is a gift from a loving Creator about how and where to find meaning and enjoyment on planet earth.  Consider this statement by J.I. Packer on the importance of Ecclesiastes:

“The Bible is overflowing with humanity, full of wisdom about the business of living. There is in fact a whole section called the Wisdom Literature: Psalms, Proverbs, Job, Song of Solomon, and Ecclesiastes in the OT, and James in the New.  What seems to me the wisest things ever said about the five Wisdom books of the Old testament is this: the Psalms teach you how to pray, Proverbs how to live, Job how to suffer, the Song of Solomon how to love, and Ecclesiastes how to enjoy.”[4]

Friends, learning how to enjoy is worth the pursuit! As Autumn begins, be assured that there is no sacred writing more suited to this season than Ecclesiastes.  Why? Because both the season and the book display rich colors in the midst of death and decay. Yes, studying Ecclesiastes can feel like trying to find treasure in a chest full of puzzles. The investment, however, is well worth it.

Life is like a mere breath, fragile, and fleeting, but it’s definitely not meaningless. It is a loving gift to you from the “one Shepherd” (12:11) of your soul who has “put eternity into man’s heart” and makes “every beautiful in its time” (3:11).

 

For those interested in further reading, here are two excellent commentaries:

 

[1] The Holy Bible, English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2001).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Iain Provan, The NIV Application Commentary: Ecclesiastes/Song of Songs (Grand Rapids,MI: Zondervan, 2001) 36.

[4] J.I Packer, Knowing and Doing the Will of God, 60.