Monday, October 31, 2016

In Clods and Clots He Found Me

Our history isn’t pretty.  Our human history.  It’s not beautiful and appealing.  It is glorious, but not alluring.  It’s dirt and blood, clodding and clotting.  It’s fear and anxiety and longing.  Adam’s expulsion from the Beautiful lanced the souls of all men to bleed.  We long for such Edenic beauty again, when God walked in the cool of the day with man, when the earth worked with us instead of raging against us, and when there was no shame lurking behind wetted eyes, and when blood was never spilled into the grains of the earth to harden black in the endless heat.  Man became murderer.  God became merciful.  The only pretty one in our story is God.  The only beauty is the curse-speaking Majesty whose curse exuded mercy, another day to behold and wait for a hero to pull us out of the blood and the mud.
The story of humanity isn’t pretty.  From Adam’s murderous family we haven’t prevailed to a better condition.  Nor was there ever a time when humanity was said to be great.  The patriarchs in the Bible are not spoken of as great men and women of beauty, but of depravity, weakness, violence, deception, and fear.  Yes, there is faith there, and it is good, but it is the faith of sinners, not supermen.  Lamech’s violence bred hope in Noah as the curse-breaker.  Yet, the promise of mercy in that mosaic of watery color brought hope of a future deliverance, but it did not bring relief from the sticky reality of blood swallowing dirt.  Sin, death, and misery sailed its mutinous voyage stowed away in the hearts of that “blameless” man.  The first words of God outside that floating sin-incubator, back on the cursed soil, is about blood.  The clinging clods of earth and stone covered in blood.  Through this bloody earth the promise of redemption was bent towards the sky, like a loaded bow ready to fire the violent arrow against its Maker.  That is our story.  Noah, the typified hope of Mankind, stumbled and passed out in the shame of nakedness, which preceded a curse – a crushing déjà vu of despair. Yet, God redeemed Noah through that blood-stained soil.  God, while cursing the earth, at the same time and in the same event brought the dove through the waters to live.  God is the only hero in this land.
Abraham’s cowardice bred the jealousy of siblings rivaling to power, Isaac’s failures blossoming into slavery in the brick-making mud of the delta.  The abortive violence of the Pharaoh’s fears crushing the heads of the infant sons of Jacob.  Mud and blood.  It didn’t end in Goshen, and Abram broke no curse.  The seeds of Adam’s weeds grew thick over the whole hearts of men.  And the cry of the patriarchs shakes and chokes their souls as they long for the garden of God.  But God…God flew down to rescue His chosen ones, to pluck them from the mud and the blood through the gash in the sea.  Grasping them in talons of mercy and with the heart of a Father, he set them down in the wilderness to show them His glory.  He hemmed them in cloud and fire, the smoldering fog of holy terror protecting and guiding them while they feared and faltered grimacing at the flashing power on the holy mountain.  And he revealed Himself as holy, approachable only by blood.  Adam’s sons, formed of the clod, would only be brought near through the terrible gore of the spilling life-blood.  Israel was bloody mess.  Daily sacrifices, the expense of sin and conscience and guilt and reconciliation always and ever filling their ears with silenced bleating and filling their noses with acrid accruing of their holy debts parlayed…for that day.  Every sunrise the whetted blade traversed the boundary between life and death contained from ear to ear because of that damned and damning curse of their sin.  The constant blood flowing in pulsing streams down the altar to pool in the dirt as the endless dirge of humanity’s perversity and the desperate need for a Hero to kill the dragon.
Why do we recall at this table the wine and the bread?  Why do we speak of blood, sacrifice, and the terror of the holy?  We retell the true story, always and often, of the One whose divine majesty transcended the bloody clods of our curse, who is clean and pure and untouched by our hideous hate.  We tell His story, for He is the hero who voluntarily, according to the riches of His own grace, sent His Son to bear up the bloody justice for our wanton violence, to bear the shame of our hidden delights in the filth, to take it upon Himself to submit His holy blood to the cursed ground.  Why?  For Father’s fame…and for me!  For me!  “How can it be that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood?  Died He for me who caused Him pain?  For me, who Him to death pursued?  Amazing love!  How can it be, that thou, my God, should die for me?” 

The steel which pressed against my flesh, pierced His holy heart instead; 
of me who being Adam’s seed deserved the wrath, the rod, to bleed.
But it was love, divine, unique which brought the timeless Son to seek; 
to bear my curse through opened veins, torn apart to cleanse my stains

The table set, it tells the story, terrifying, grievous, gory; 
that through His bleeding death my pardon, purchased to dance in Heaven’s garden

My name is not “Beauty” this story has shown, He set His love on the vicious with hearts made of stone; 
in clot and in clod He endured my disgrace, to name me, "Beloved", what wonderful grace!

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Gospel Proclaimed is at the Center of Church Life

Therefore, one who speaks in a tongue should pray that he may interpret.  For if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.  What am I to do? I will pray with my spirit, but I will pray with my mind also; I will sing praise with my spirit, but I will sing with my mind also.  Otherwise, if you give thanks with your spirit, how can anyone in the position of an outsider say "Amen" to your thanksgiving when he does not know what you are saying?  For you may be giving thanks well enough, but the other person is not being built up.  I thank God that I speak in tongues more than all of you.  Nevertheless, in church I would rather speak five words with my mind in order to instruct others, than ten thousand words in a tongue.
(Paul's first letter to the Corinthians, 14:13-19, ESV)

How is it that we edify one another?  We edify one another through the mind by speaking the gospel to one another in a language that is propositional, engaging, and understandable!

Paul does not diminish one’s personal spiritual time of prayer, gratitude, and praise of the Lord, whether in communicable language or not.  However, he also notes that the Church is not edified through such experiences, but is only edified through the work of understanding, intellect, reasonable thought communicated so that others can hear and understand.

Thus, this passage is about speaking, communicating, announcing the particulars of the message of God’s great reconciliation through Christ Jesus and all its glorious motifs, so that others hear, understand, and are exhorted to act and persuaded to hope in Christ, for this is what humanity was created for and in what they flourish in eternal life.  This type of proclaiming/hearing theme is the common methodology of Church life together.  It is the means of prophecy, instruction, praise, teaching, and growth in the Scriptures.  This was particularly true in cultures where many people did not read (thus needed to hear the Word proclaimed) or in languages where the written Scriptures did not yet exist.  In fact, the potency of the Word proclaimed, rooted in the Word written or as the (at that time) yet-to-be Canon, is evidenced by the commands to proclaim, witness, testify, announce, herald, and praise.  These are all verbal terms dependent upon the speaker, not experiential terms dependent upon the hearer.
Yet, along with the verbal terms (but never apart from them) we must not diminish God’s revealed symbols of meaning, words pictured by enactment, dramatized through festivals, rituals, dramas in blood and odors of fire, waters sprinkled and beautiful stones set in breastplates of a mediator.  In the preaching and hearing of the gospel the imagination is engaged and enlivened, making the contextual artistry of proclamation in the preacher's targeting of the imagination all the more emphatic.  All of these biblical images and symbols have meanings which supersede and fulfill their telling.  

The blood of the lamb pre-images the story of the Son of God whose blood reconciles God and Man.  The beautiful stones set in the High Priest's ephod display the treasure of God whose heart delights in His chosen people, whom He redeems through the Mediator, Jesus, the same Son whose blood was spilled.  The Passover preaches through drama narrated by the haggadah and played upon the senses by the elements upon its actors, finalizing its fullness in the bread as the Christ's body broken for His people and the wine as his blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins.  The smoke of the altar proclaims the prayers of the saints and the sufficiency of Christ.  Every element chosen by God to display and exhibit the message which the prophets spoke, the priests players in the preaching.  In like manner, the celebration of the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, graces us with the constant retelling of the climax of the story, the Cross, through the tactile script of taste, touch, smell, and sight as our ears hear the message of God reconciling sinners to Himself at His own precious expense.  Through the Word preached and enacted we understand more and more the glory of God’s insurmountable grace towards those who believe in Jesus.
This relationship between understanding of the mind and the hearing of the Word is a constant in the Scriptures.  Romans 10:12-17 clearly reveals that people believe in their hearts what they have heard with their ears and understood with their minds (v19).  It is the word of Christ preached, heard, and believed upon by those whom are sent to proclaim a message, a collocation of historical facts of what God has done through Jesus Christ.
Thus, the work of the Church is not to be manipulative of emotions, as if the experience of emotional conditions were the goal.  There are methodologies which appeal to the emotional experience of men, which seek to move emotions by worldly means to attain some kind of experience.  I denounce that as not only unbiblical, but harmful to the Church.  It does not edify.  In fact, I would argue that it harms the Church by teaching as the confirmation of God the means, methods, and manipulations of man.  Gaining a “decision” for God by means of self-centered affections and worldly promises is not the regeneration of heart and God-delighting humble faith which is revealed to be of God in the Scriptures.  By manipulating emotions and experience to seize the will of the heart, we have strayed from the mind of truth, the proclamation of God’s works and worth, avoided the offensive revelation of God’s Word like original sin, eternal judgment, the universal inability of man breached by the sovereign grace of God, and the hope of justification through faith alone, in Christ Jesus alone, by God’s grace alone.  These glorious truths engage the mind and convict the hearts of men, not by their emotional consequence but by their claims of truth and submission to God as the final Truth-revealer.

Now, this does not mean that the Christian’s walk and experience is to be without emotion, a stoic display of disconnected, dispassionate headiness.  That has more aligned with Buddhism and its destruction of personality by attempting to loose oneself from all attachments.  No!  We are profoundly attached to God, to one another, and to Creation in an ever dependent way.  Christianity engages the emotions of these attachments because God has engaged Himself, by sheer grace, to attach Himself to us.  God experiences joy, sorrow, wrath, and delight; affections which are rooted in His very character and expressed as He relates to others.  Our emotions, however, are not always rooted in what is true, but merely in what we believe to be true.  God’s emotions never rule Him like ours do us.  His are never because He has believed a lie, as ours often are.  Yet, a Christianity where believers are detached from one another, not patient and kind, a Christianity where believers are characteristically proud and boastful, rude, and keep a record of wrongs is no Christianity at all.
I must serve the Law of God with my mind, even as my desires are prone to unbelief.  I must, by the Spirit of God applying it, hear the Word of God reasonably so that its Truth may correct the lie which my heart is believing.  For example, if Tom stole my lunch and wrath is flowing up from within me, I am not feeling merciful.  How can I love like 1 Corinthians 13, with kindness, loving mercy, not keeping a record of wrongs?  I must identify why I am angry in terms of what I am believing to be true.  What do I feel that I have to have right now to be OK?  Maybe I believe that I need lemon yogurt and a bologna sandwich to be OK?   More likely, my heart believes that I must have respect to be OK.  I am angry, not because I am not receiving bologna, but because I am not receiving respect, honor, and power.  Thus, I am believing that without Tom’s respect, I will be nobody, a withering worthless nothing.  Yet, what does the gospel teach (catechize) to me?  What honor do I have in Christ?  What respect do I possess in Him?  God has “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness towards us in Christ Jesus.” (Eph 2:6-7)  What must I receive from Tom?  Can I show him mercy when I believe that my seat is in the heavens with Christ?  What more honor do I need now?  What respect?  What position?
So, you see, the gospel proclaims to our minds the great truths of God’s work, the historical (both past, present, and future history) facts of God’s “great and glorious works” so that we might eulogize (speak good words about) and eucharist (give good thanks to) Him as we hear and believe such precious truths (v16) and lay aside the unbelief of them which so easily entangles our feet and trips us up as we attempt to walk in line with the gospel.  In this manner, with the gospel holding the center, we behold the urgent need to create a Christian community that is profoundly counter-cultural and dependent upon God's grace towards us in Christ Jesus.  What does this love say about inter-generational relationships?  About race?  About forgiveness and reconciliation in our personal relationships?  About how we think of our brothers and sisters in our highly diverse corners of our heavenly Father’s world?
This truth, that God transforms our hearts and affections by the renewing of our minds through the proclamation of Christ, the eternal Word of God, is the guiding principle of the philosophy of ministry at EBF.  Every endeavor, from the cradles of the nursery to the caskets of the funerals, is rooted in the ministry of the Word of God proclaimed and exhibited.  Sometimes it’s one-on-one, the commands, exhortations, encouragements, promises of the gospel spoken and applied to the personal situations of a life stretched thin in a world of broken shalom.  Other times it’s the broader applications of the gospel truth to small groups, whether Bible studies together or home groups.  Finally, it is the Word of God preached to whole Church on Sunday mornings, in the celebrations of Maundy Thursday or Christmas Eve, etc.  In each of these ways, our goal is to minister the Word of God in a way that is heard, understood, and believed, so that the Body of Christ is built up into the knowledge of the eternal Son of God, thus unified in the incorruptible faith, to the maturity befitting the always and ever sons and daughters of the holy God.
We do not believe that one can persuade people to the truth by means of attracting them with the attempt to meet the world's felt needs according to the world’s values, the Flesh’s desires, or the Enemy’s tactics.  D.A. Carson relates a story from an Ivy League colleague about what drivers most of the young women whom she disciples every week:  

“She mentioned three things.  First, from parents, never get less than an A.  Of course, this is an Ivy League campus!  Still, even on an Ivy League campus, grades are distributed on a bell curve, so this expectation introduces competition among the students.  Second, partly from parents, partly from the ambient culture, be yourself, enjoy yourself, live a rich and full life, and include in this some altruism such as helping victims of natural disasters.  Third, from peers, from Madison Avenue, from the media, be hot – and this, too, is competitive, and affects dress, relationships, what you look for in the opposite sex, what you want them to look for in you.  These demands drum away incessantly.  There is no margin, no room for letting up; there is only room for failure.  The result is that about 80 percent of women during their undergraduate years will suffer eating disorders; close to the same percentage will at some point be clinically depressed.  The world keeps telling them that they can do anything, and soon this is transmuted into the demand that they must do everything, or be a failure in their own eyes and in the eyes of others.  Even when they become Christians, it is not long before they feel the pressure to become the best Christians, as measured by the measurable like attendance at Bible studies, leading prayer meetings, faithfully recording their daily devotions.  But where is the human flourishing that springs from the gospel of grace, God’s image-bearers happily justified before God on the ground of what Christ has done, powerfully regenerated so that they respond in faith, obedience, joy, and gratitude?  The conventions and expectations of the world are pervasive and enslaving.  The gospel must be worked out or these women, and demonstrated in the life of the church, so that its issues in liberation from the wretched chains of idolatry too subtle to be named and too intoxicating to escape, apart from the powerful word of the cross.” (Prophetic from the Center)
We believe, with our 1st generation brothers and sisters, that “the gospel is the power of God for salvation, for the Jew first and then for the Gentile.” (Rom 1:16).  We believe it is the gospel, proclaimed and applied by the Holy Spirit, which produces fruit in believers, as Paul teaches the Colossian believers in very similar emphasis as the Corinthians:
We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, 4 since we heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints, 5 because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, 6 which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and increasing-- as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth, 7 just as you learned it from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant. He is a faithful minister of Christ on your behalf…” (to the Colossians 1:3-7)

We must labor earnestly, not to derive relational values from the gospel, as if the gospel laid a foundation upon which we must build, and still less by focusing on the vanity of sounding spiritual with unintelligible groaning or the mystical murkiness of inner experience, but by precisely and prophetically preaching and teaching and living out in our churches the glorious good news of our precious Rescuer.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Warfare of Christmas (2013)

Christmas is cosmic D-Day, that violent hopeful moment when the war turned in God’s redemption of Man; that moment when the light surged upon the pages of our hopes and forced the shadows of our fears into full retreat.  What we remember as in the past, was not always in the past already written into the pages of Man’s experience, but for much of time was still a mysterious promise, a hope hidden, an unknown undoing of Eden’s curse.  It was the promise of the Dragon-Slayer, the Seed of the woman whom, in the ancient promise, was foretold to crush the Serpent’s head; of the Promise-Keeper, the son of Abraham whom would receive and give the blessings of God to those from every nation; the King of Light, the son of David whom would rule victorious over evil on an eternal throne to protect and provide for His people in absolute security; the Divine Joy-Bringer, the Son of God, who would draw His people into the very glorious ring of fellowship, love, righteousness, and joy within the eternal God by His grace.  We are blessed to see His advent already written upon the pages of history, the story of God’s doings with Man.
But, what if you were born before the arrival of the Dragon-Slayer?  What if all you heard were whispers of His coming and of a time of blessing once believed, but now thought lost?  What if D-Day had never happened and the Dragon still roamed the countryside, full of fire and fearsome bellows of taunting terror?  What if the Hero had not arrived on these bloodied shores, but rather chose to remain on the far shores of the Fair Havens? 
Sometimes I don’t appreciate the marvelous blessings of God because I am too familiar with them.  Or, at least, I perceive them to be familiar, so near and present that I do not see them, really see their beauty, and thus don’t marvel at their awesome weightiness and glorious eternal significance.  In reality, I’m probably not familiar enough with them to feel such substantive presence.  Recently, I was engaged, in the arena of my mind, upon a battle so ferocious within my soul that I despaired of life, seared by the fiery darts from the Dragon’s lying bow-string, overcome by the terrible possibility of losing the ones whom I hold most dearly in this world.  In the tumult of his tremors, my faith failed.  I ceased to see.  It was a fearsome anxiety of overwhelming force of which I had never experienced nor foreseen; a blitzkrieg of panic washed over me and completely dominated my soul but for the Holy Spirit’s sure grip upon me when my grip of Him was shaken by the Enemy’s blow.  It was a dreadful day of austere loneliness that, though fantastical, haunted my thoughts in the burned out battlefield of my mind with this singular darkness:  What if you were rejected and alone?  In that moment, through the blurred vision of fear and anger, I was deceived and fell prey to the Lie, and I felt alone.  I knew the cold darkness and the expulsion of desire that lapped up the last of my hope and left my soul naked and shattered.  Fear deceives to ruin when unrestrained.  Now, I would hope that our Lord does not see such battles fit for you, but I will tell you this:  I wouldn’t trade this sparring for the world, for it brought me back to reality, to an acknowledgment of the depths of darkness which spring forth within me and the greatness of His glorious grace towards me in spite of my own powerlessness and capacity to hate all that is good.  It revealed to me the beauty of the blessings of God, for in the darkest of nights the glories of the heavens shine brighter and more beautiful to our vision.  It’s not that the stars had changed, but my vision has changed!  When the Lord’s light broke through my dark travails, I beheld His light in renewed wonder and awe.  When the battle is won, one appreciates the joys of rest, of bread and wine, of peace.  He led me through the valley to show me His glorious heights are much higher and glorious than I had previously thought.  So, I rejoiced!  And my expressions of joy, gratitude, and songs of love are growing again, fertilized by darkness and the light of Christ.
So, what does this have to do with Christmas?  Have you pondered what your life would be like if the Triune God had not sent the Dragon-Slayer?  What if the Promise-Keeper had never promised, the Son of Abraham silenced in Ur?  What if David’s rule was the last chapter, a family and realm divided in dysfunction?  What if God had said throughout the Story, “Well, you’re on your own.”?  What loneliness would compare to this?  What hell hath swallowed up the one who knows not the presence of God?  We shall never know the “good news of great joy which will be for all the people” if we fail to comprehend or forget the frailties of our front lines in this cosmic battle for the hearts of men.  When forgotten, we take the glory of Bethlehem for granted and profane the providence of the promised Dragon-Slayer who shines into the deep darkness of our hearts and our experiences to give us hope as the dawn breaks upon us.
Christmas is a war story; the chapter where the Hero greets the pages with fulfillment’s filial hope.  The hearts of men had waned and wandered, and left to ourselves, we were overcome, but for the Hero sent from the ages, determined by God and determined for God to rescue the girl from her delighting ruin and slay the Dragon who held her in his sway.  The Lion who reigns with fearsome power has been born, but He enters the story not with the roar of expectant war, but with the cry of an infant’s abrupt expulsion into the dust.  Glorious eternity birthed between a humble girl’s knees. The Lion, so powerful in His splendor, is also the Lamb slain before the foundations of the earth.  Hell furiously took up arms at the advent of Christ Jesus, born into the dust which He created, and Jesus delivered death over to destruction by becoming destroyed for us.  The Dragon raged and tries to swallow Him up, but in the swallowing was pierced from within. 
Remember this on Christmas Day, when the kitschy collections of our joyful décor threaten to hide the glorious grandeur of the begetting-begotten-God.  He is the Hero of His own story, the Slayer of the Dragon and the Savior of the working girl that He might love her forever and that she might savor Him for all eternity.  He loves her.  He adores her.  He cherishes her to such an extent that the Son of God was born where He knew He would find us:  with the animals, outside the home, rejected and alone.  God did not reject her, but came her to die like a Man that he might destroy the Dragon’s greatest weapon, death, and bring us into His house.  So this advent we recall the darkness into which Christ Jesus was born and we rejoice with even greater joy at His advent at which point the war turned to hope and to victory.  For D-Day was brought forth from the virgin’s womb, and V-Day burst forth from the darkness of the tomb, and the Wedding party will break out with the Hero’s return.  This Hero of the War of the Ages, the Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Father of Eternity, the Prince of Peace, has brought the darkness of our warfare to the radiant expectancy of a banquet fit for a King and His beloved in white who had mourned in lonely exile here until the Son of God appeared.  We rejoice with Isaiah, for the Hero has arrived!

Isaiah 40:1-5 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken." (Isa 40:1-5 ESV)