Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Homesick to the Glory of God

Last week my wife and I visited our hometown (Albuquerque, NM). We moved away only 4 months ago, but for me it feels a lot longer. Over the past month or so I have been struggling periodically with some pretty strong homesickness and nostalgia, particularly missing the amazing sense of community I had grown into with other believers here.
Before we moved, my wife and I had what I would describe as an ideal community situation. We had many close friends who were strong believers. We attended church with them, participated in Bible studies, shared our resources and our homes with one another, and pushed each other towards Jesus. Of course no community is perfect, but when I think of what healthy Christian community should look like, what we had was definitely on target.
Since we've moved, I've been missing that quite a bit. We have definitely met some amazing people in our new home church, but strong relationships take time and, as you would expect, we haven't just automatically replicated what we had in Albuquerque. It has been hard for me to adjust to this.
Most people would look at my homesickness as something negative. Some might view it as me being too sensitive or impatient, while others might say it's a sign that our current situation is bad, but regardless most people would say that it is a bad thing, something I need to get rid of as fast as possible.
As I've prayed and attempted to rely on God through this however, I've come to a slightly different conclusion. Homesickness can be bad, it can even be an idol, but it can also push us closer to Christ; it depends on how I use it.
The truth is that no matter how good your situation in life is, you will almost certainly go through phases of homesickness or nostalgia: longing for a different time or place that feels more truly like home. Why is this? Why are we always longing for "home", even when we are as at home as we've ever been? The answer is simple.
No community or home that we have in this present life is truly our home in the ultimate sense. Good community, like what my wife and I have experienced, is merely a reflection of the ultimate reality of our relationship with and rest in God. Community is good, helpful, and important, but in our sinful state it is also always flawed, a blurred image of the original. We know as Christians that someday when this present life is gone, we will be eternally at home with our Savior. While having a solid home in this life is great, it is never perfect; it only signifies the reality of our true home in eternity with Christ, a perfection yet to be attained.
So homesickness then, is not ultimately about missing something on earth. As Paul says in 2 Cor. 5:2, right now we "groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling." Our entire being longs to be truly at home with God, because that is the home for which we were made. The manifestations of home that we have experienced on earth come to mind when we are homesick, because they are all we know right now.
At this point we reach the fork in the road, where homesickness becomes either good or bad.
If I allow my homesickness to consume me, and spend all of my time longing for an earthly community that I once had, I have created an idol, and my homesickness is very destructive. I am putting earthly community, something that can be good, in the place of God, who is the only source of all good.
However, if I recognize that my longing for the best community I have experienced is really a longing for God, homesickness can actually turn into beautiful worship. When the feeling hits, I can let it drive me into the arms of Christ, instead of driving me to utter despair. When we remember what the feeling of homesickness points to, it can be a catalyst for seeking God in prayer and worship like never before.
So when you feel isolated, nostalgic and homesick, remember why that really is. Let your emotions drive you into the arms of Christ, because one day we will have a perfect home with him.

Friday, February 10, 2017

The Prodigal Son

Over the past couple weeks I’ve been teaching on the parable of the prodigal son. Through the research process in preparing for these teachings I’ve learned so much and been re-awakened to how beautiful this story is, so I thought I would share some thoughts about it with you. I can’t include everything I would like in this relatively short post, but hopefully I can at least get you thinking!
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the most well-known parables told by Jesus. It can be found in Luke 15:11-34. While the story is very well-known, the main point that is being made is often easily missed. Many people tend to focus on unconditional forgiveness as the most important point, and while that is a piece of the parable, it is not the primary one.
Before I dive in, I would like to say that the book The Prodigal God by Tim Keller is a great resource on this parable, and just on the gospel in general, and I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone.
The Younger Son
The younger son in this story almost certainly represents the tax collectors and sinners, who had upset the Pharisees at the beginning of Luke 15 by flocking to Jesus. The point Jesus is making here is pretty clear; those who are considered sinners and abject failures by religious people are just as available for salvation as anyone else. God freely welcomes those who come to Him, and he embraces them enthusiastically, regardless of their past mistakes.
This point is the one which is often given the most attention when people talk about this parable. Ironically, it is probably the least critical of the three points I am covering. This is certainly a beautiful truth of the gospel, but in this context more than anything it seems to serve as preparation for the second point made with the elder son.
The Elder Son
When Jesus tells this parable in Luke his target audience is primarily Pharisees and Scribes, who had been complaining about the “sinners” flocking to Jesus (Luke 15:1-2). Thus, we would expect teaching directed at them, and that is what the illustration of the elder brother brings.
Many people see the problem of the elder brother as simply not being accepting of his sinful younger brother, and so they say the point is that we should just be less judgmental. However, if we understand the elder brother in context as a critique of the Pharisees and Scribes to whom Jesus was speaking, the meaning gets much more intense.
The elder brother in the story is actually no better than the younger brother. Though he seems to have been obedient and good all his life, when he refuses to go into the giant party his father is throwing, we should see that as an extremely embarrassing and blatant act of disrespect. This was no small dinner his father was hosting; he had killed the fattened calf (v. 23)! The older brother showed just as much disrespect here as the younger brother did at the beginning of the story.
The message to draw from the elder son is not simply that we should judge less, it is that even obedience can be sinful when it is for the purpose of extorting something from God. Just as the younger son only wanted the father’s material goods, so the elder son ultimately only truly cared about what he got from his father. His obedience wasn’t out of true love, but it was out of a desire to obtain blessings and goods. He felt his father owed him something. This is made evident by his reaction to the return of his younger brother.
If our obedience to God is driven, even subconsciously, by the thought that it gives us leverage, or earns us certain rights from God, we are in a dangerous place. Perhaps even more dangerous than abandoning God, because our lost-ness is so much harder to recognize. Through the elder brother, Christ presents a scathing indictment of the religious people of the day, warning them that obedience for the sake of obtaining blessings is just as bad as outright rebellion.
The Larger Context
The story of the prodigal son in Luke 15 is preceded by two other parables; the story of the lost sheep and the story of the lost coin. In all three stories, the finding of what was lost ultimately results in celebration and rejoicing on the part of the finder. Thus, based on the context we can see that the celebration in the story of the prodigal son must be the main point. Through all three stories Christ is illustrating that any sinner, even the tax collectors and sinners who were despised by the Pharisees, is precious to God (and that indeed the “morally upright” are still sinners).  This parable is a call for all to recognize their lost-ness, including those who who are “good” or “religious”, and their equal standing before a loving God who will rejoice at that realization.
This parable is at the same time a beautiful tale of redemption and a strong rebuke to the religious elite. Each one of us probably has traits of both sons in the story, ultimately boiling down to our desire for God’s blessings over God Himself. As we see it in ourselves may we lean on God’s grace to increase our love for Him.

Like what you read? Check out my personal blog here

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Being Part of the Family

Family can be hard to deal with. Parents embarrass their children, children disrespect their parents, and people can expect way too much of each other. All sorts of issues ranging from funny to very serious exist in families, and yet, we only abandon our families in extreme cases. Most of the time, we work through those issues because, well, it’s family.
The question I want to pose today is this; why is it so different with our spiritual family?
I’m talking here about the local church. Of course in a sense all believers are family, but it is clear in Scripture that God calls us to community, to special bonds as a  family of believers with whom we worship, grow in Christ, and live our lives. In 1 Timothy chapter 5 Paul exhorts Timothy to treat older men as fathers, younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters. Indeed, one of Paul’s great concerns in the New Testament is the unity of the local church (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10, Tit. 3:10).
If this is true, and God calls us into strong, devoted community with other believers, why today do we see such a lack of commitment to local churches? Today more than ever, people leave churches for any reason they can conceive of. People leave because the worship style isn’t exactly what they prefer, or because the pastor isn’t as funny as they’d like, or because the church just doesn’t have the programs they want.
Whatever the reason may be, so many Americans feel comfortable taking off any time the church down the road seems a little nicer, and this is a MAJOR problem.
The root of this issue is that we’ve come to think of church as a product being dispensed for consumers, rather than a community growing in Christ. We believe, perhaps subconsciously but still wholeheartedly, that when we go to church its about worship that makes us feel good, and a message that is funny and not too hard to sit through, and comfortable chairs, and making every next step of involvement very easy. And if the church we are at can’t offer it to us, then we just go to one that is “better”. Church becomes all about MY experience, and not about Christ’s work in and through a community seeking him together.
In the long run, this mindset destroys the church. When we have a consumer mindset, we lose depth, because churches cater to what people want, and we want easy. We wan’t fun music with lyrics that don’t make us think. We want funny sermons that only barely prompt us to be slightly better people so we can feel better about ourselves. We don’t want the messy, hard work that goes along with truly getting involved in a community of imperfect people. We want polished and shiny.
And so we get what we want. We get shallow, topical sermons. We get fun, poppy music that all too often lacks any real depth. We get easy programs for getting “plugged in”. but at the end of the day, it doesn’t satisfy, and it creates a very surface-level Christianity.
This is because the hardships of the local church are one of God’s greatest ways of growing us. True, strong community is what can hold us up when we are hurting, it can correct us when we stray, and it can teach us patience and humility like nothing else can. God calls us to be part of a community of believers, not only until it gets hard, but especially when it gets hard. We are called to bear one another’s burdens, to love each other, to take care of the poor and hurting among us, and to strive for unity.
The point of church isn’t to simply go to the service that you like on Sundays, and then maybe join a small group if you really feel it. It is to be totally invested in a community. To love a group of imperfect, annoying people with all that you have, and to be loved by those people even though you’re imperfect and annoying too. And when things that you don’t like come your way, which they will, you are called to love that community, and at times deal with things you don’t like all that much, because family is hard.
There are certainly reasons to leave a church, such as departure from scriptural beliefs, but don’t let personal preference on ultimately insignificant things keep you from being part of the family that God has called you to.

This post is taken from my personal blog. See more here

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Two Resolutions About Not Knowing

"The majesty of God in itself goes beyond the capacity of human understanding and cannot be comprehended by it... We must adore its loftiness rather than investigate it, so that we do not remain overwhelmed by so great a splendor" -John Calvin
One of the areas of reformed theology that is most constantly questioned is the reformed understanding of God's sovereignty. This idea is summarized well in what Job said to God in Job 42:2; "“I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted." We struggle to understand the implications of this idea of a sovereign God. We struggle to harmonize this idea with God's love when we see suffering, or to understand how our own agency as beings relates. Even the most dedicated reformed Christian, when thinking logically about these ideas, comes to a point where he doesn't understand how it works.
However, this article isn't primarily about the doctrine of sovereignty. What I would like to address is how we handle mystery in God. In many areas, sovereignty being only one, we encounter things about God in Scripture that confuse us, and even upset us. How is Christ fully God and fully man? How are there three persons in the Trinity, but only one God? The list goes on and on. There are so many things we don't understand, that nonetheless seem to be clear in Scripture.
Often, when we encounter these things we don't understand, we simply seek to reason them away. After all, we are a modern society, reason is king. The problem is, when we start doing this we end up with teachings that make perfect logical sense, but are very obviously unscriptural. The Arian controversy was a clear example of this, when an attempt to preserve the oneness of God and the logic of the Incarnation, Arius claimed Jesus was a created being. Open theism is another, in which to preserve free will and (supposedly) God's love, theologians turn God into a desperate chess player seeking to lose as few pieces as He can.
For the new year, I have two resolutions when it comes to the mystery I find in God, and I hope you will consider taking them on yourself;

Enjoy the Mystery

The truth is, we will never fully understand God. His ways are not our ways and his thoughts are not our thoughts (cf. Isa. 55:8). If we could fully understand God and wrap Him in our tight little logical box, He wouldn't be God. Our rationalist heritage has embedded in us the belief that there is no intellectual mountain that the human mind cannot climb, but God tells us something different.
So when you come to see something in Scripture that is hard to fully understand, don't run away or immediately seek to explain it away. Instead, enjoy it.
The majestic mysteriousness of God is an amazing thing, and when we approach it with a proper perspective it can be a source of great joy to us. Paul illustrates this perfectly in 1 Cor. 1, when he talks about how the gospel itself is foolishness to the world. Paul knew that to the religious minds of the time, God humbling himself, suffering, and dying for sinful man made absolutely no sense, yet despite the apparent lack of logic Paul said it was for Christians the very "power of God" (v 18). Just because we don't fully understand how something works in every logical detail, doesn't mean we can't appreciate God's glory in it. This year let us revel in the glory of a God who is so incredible that we can't fully grasp Him, and appreciate what He has revealed.

Seek to Understand

Maybe up to this point you are tracking with me, and so you are ready to say something like, "Great! I don't care about trying to understand the details! In fact, let's just throw out the study of theology altogether, because it's just a stupid attempt to fit God in a logical box!" While I appreciate the enthusiasm, this is what I would call some major over-correction. Deut. 29:29 sums it up perfectly;  “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law."
It is definitely important to accept mystery in God, but once we have a healthy grasp on that idea we are also called to continue to seek to know Him more. While some things about God we will never know, He has revealed Himself in His word for a reason. Make no mistake, that is not just a call to a personal experience, but also a call to grow in knowledge of God. Take these examples;
Psalm 1:1-2;
Blessed is the man
    who walks not in the counsel of the wicked,
nor stands in the way of sinners,
    nor sits in the seat of scoffers;
but his delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and on his law he meditates day and night.
Proverbs 1:5;
Let the wise hear and increase in learning,
    and the one who understands obtain guidance
Psalm 119:34
Give me understanding, that I may keep your law
    and observe it with my whole heart.
Rom. 12:2;
Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
If we are to love God and grow nearer to Him, we will desire to understand Him and know more about Him, and as you seek Him you will continue to grow in understanding. It is wrong for us to refuse to attempt to understand what Scripture teaches; this attitude will only lead to ignorance. Instead, if we wish to follow God we must attempt to continue to grow in understanding.
The amazing thing is that even here there is a mystery! We are called to seek to understand and at the same time acknowledge that our understanding is limited.
So for 2017, I hope that you will join me in these two resolutions. Let's seek to understand as much as we can about God, and enjoy the beauty of a God who can never be fully understood.
This post is taken from my personal blog; see more here

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Debts or Trespasses? The Great Debate

In our household, there is a theological debate raging.

The question at hand: When saying the Lord's Prayer, should we say "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," as Daddy's church does it...or should we say "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," like they say at the Lutheran preschool? 

This is actually a question that many people wonder about.  And the Catechism offers some help in answering.  Q&A 14 defines sin as "any want of comformity unto, or transgression of, the law of God."

Transgression is what we typically think of when we sin--actively doing something you should not do.  Trespassing a boundary.  Violating a command.  These are easy to notice (particularly in the lives of others, perhaps easy to overlook in our own lives.)

But what about this phrase "want of conformity?"  It means anytime we fail to do something we ought to do, that too is sin.  As James puts it, "whoever knows the right thing to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin." (James 4:17)  This is something the languages of "debts/debtors" captures that the language of "trespasses" doesn't: we need to confess not only the things we have done, but all the things we have failed to do.  "Debts" is a more expansive term that encompasses more: Every good act we owe to our Creator and Redeemer that we overlooked.  Every neighbor in need that we turn from.  Every trespass we should have confessed.  Every encouraging word we didn't say. 

This gets me thinking: if you were to put all your transgressions on one side of a scale, and all your "want of conformity" on the other side, which side would be heavier?  I'm pretty sure that for all the innumerable trespasses I do each day--all the ways I actively do wrongly, I probably miss just as many opportunities to do rightly, to please my Father, to glorify the Son, to heed the Spirit.  In fact, my hunch is that my debt to God is even greater than my trespasses, since each trespass also increases the debt!

All this to say, sin is a bigger deal than just the naughty things we do.  It also includes all the good things we don't do.  And for that reason, I'll keep asking God to forgive my debts, not just my trespasses.  (Take that, Lutherans!)

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

5 Things Prescientific Theologians Can Teach Us About Creation

You might think that Westminster's teaching on creation is something for the dustbin.  After all, in 1642, when the Westminster Assembly was being convened, Galileo died and Isaac Newton was born.  The great revolution of scientific knowledge that would soon emerge had not taken hold.  So what could these prescientific rubes know about creation?  Wouldn't their thoughts on this subject be hopelessly out of date since they didn't have any access to the great scientific discoveries of later centuries?

It turns out that precisely because this document was written in a context in which the science/religion (false) dichotomy had not yet taken hold, they had access to insights that we could completely miss.  Surely we have great scientific knowledge that is beyond the wildest imaginations of the Westminster Divines.  But they have insight that is easily to overlook in our day of overblown rhetoric about "science versus religion." 

Here are five things that  can profitably learn from the Westminster Shorter Catechism about creation:

1. Creation is not only about what happened there and then, but about what happens here and now.   Our impoverished imaginations can only think of this as a debate between science and religion, Genesis vs. Darwin.  But the Catechism reminds us in Question 8 that creation and providence are intimately linked in the decrees of God.  In other words, creation isn't just an academic debate about the past, but a vital reality in which we live and move and work.  It's not just about God's activity there and then (creation) but about his activity here and now (providence).

2.Creation calls us to value gender differences.  Following Genesis 1:27, the catechism affirms that God created both male and female "after his own image."  The implication here is that all those gender-specific, Mars and Venus characteristics that make up the stand-up routines of comedians and make spouses crazy, those are part of God's good design and intention.  Men and women aren't just different--they are supposed to be different, because men and women more fully reflect the image of God together than they do apart.  This means that a proper understanding of creation helps us to be understand, value, and seek God's wisdom in the different ways men and women operate.  Gender difference is a feature of the software, not a bug.
3. Creation calls us to ecological stewardship.  Sticking close to Genesis again, question 10 reminds us that human beings are given "dominion over the creatures."  Rightly understood, this is connected to Adam's charge to cultivate the garden--to help God's world flourish and thrive.  True, we have done a terrible job of this, but it's not because we have believed too much that this world is fashioned by God.  It's probably because we've forgotten that it's not ours to do with as we like.  The most robust environmentalism is that which embraces the divine affirmation of the created order.

4. Creation speaks to our daily jobs.  "Dominion" isn't just an ecological work, and it's not just related to animals.  It speaks also to whatever it is we do in the created world in which God has placed us.  What would it mean for an urban planner to remember that God created the world?  What would it mean for a lawyer or politician to operate from the conviction that men and women are image-bearers of God?  What would it mean for a parent to remember that God pursue not only the "knowledge" but also the "righteousness and holiness" of their children?  If God made the world and all that is in it, every day when we get to the office we are involved in dominion, in excercising the image of God in our lives.  Imago dei is not a static "thing" in us, we bear God's image in our work in work we do in the world as well.

5. Creation secures human rights.  If human beings bear the image of God, then each person you come in contact with is of inestimable value.  As CS Lewis has put it, "the dullest and most uninteresting person you can talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship."  And so the immigrant, the developmentally disabled, the elderly, the poor, the unborn, the victimized, the abused...justice and human rights are due to them simply because they have been created in the image of God.  Period.

All of this flows naturally from the doctrine of creation.  It's about a lot more than a debate between Genesis and Charles Darwin.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Who Needs the Trinity? You do! Here's why...

Understanding the Trinity is really pretty simple, it only takes a few minutes:
Get it?

Of course the Trinity is one of the great mysteries of faith, but there are several reasons why it's important to understand, and we discussed several of them in class on Sunday.  Here's a rundown:

The Trinity explains who God is in himself:
Because God is Triune, he doesn't need to create a world in order to be loving.  Because he is Triune, he is love--the love expressed from all eternity between the Father, Son and Spirit. 

The doctrine of the Trinity is a way of making sense of the statement "God is love."  If you want to say this coherently, you need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity is a Jesus issue.  It was the claims of Jesus that got these theological wheels spinning.  After all, what do you do when a child of the only monotheistic faith in the world says "I and the Father are one" (John 10:30)?

The doctrine of the Trinity explains how both Jesus and his Father can be the same God, or to put another way, it is a way of making sense of the statement "Jesus is God."  If you want to say this coherently, you need to understand the doctrine of the Trinity.

Understanding the Trinity also helps us understand who God is in relation to us:

We all know that "Jesus Saves."  This is true and good, but it's truer and gooder to say that" the Trinity Saves."  Because after all, the Father chose to save and so sent the Son to accomplish salvation, which the Spirit the applies to us.  So think of it this way:

The only way we can be in relationship with the Father (who is transcendent beyond the universe) is through the  Son.  But the only way we can be in relationship with the Son, who lived on the other side of the world 2,000 years ago is by the Spirit.  So the Spirit brings us into fellowship with the Son who bring us into fellowship with the Father, who sent the Son who sent the Spirit.  The Father and Spirit are as active and essential to our salvation as Jesus is.  The Trinity saves!  (I'm gonna make me a neon sign!)

If you'd like to dig more into this topic, I highly recommend this book to you: The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything by Fred Sanders (who also has a great blog here.)