After God’s Own Heart

A sermon delivered to Calvary Community Church in New Berlin, WI

2 Samuel 12:1-9

We fast-forwarded quite a bit through the story of scripture. We moved through the book of Judges, which describes the early life of the Israelites in the land. Rather than a unified nation, at first they were a loose confederation of tribes, and when a crisis occurred, God would raise up these leaders, known as judges. This book is where we meet Deborah and Samson and Gideon.

In the early days, the people did not have a king like the other nations, as God was their king. But the people were not happy with this, and they clamoured for a king, all of the elders came to the Prophet Samuel and asked for a king to govern them, like the other nations have. But God doesn’t like this, as they are rejecting God as their king, and so Samuel warns them of all the things that will happen when they have a king like the nations do. But they are undeterred, and they desire a king. Samuel anoints Saul as king, and that didn’t turn out swimmingly and then Samuel anointed David as king.

Throughout much of 1 Samuel, we see David’s ascent and Saul’s demise. However, although we are told in 1 Samuel that David is “a man after [God’s] own heart,” David was certainly not above reproach, and his actions were far from consistently noble.

***

It was Spring and kings usually go out to war, but David stayed in Jerusalem. So late one afternoon, David was walking on the roof of the palace, and looked into the courtyard of one of the homes, and saw a woman engaging in her ritual bath. David inquires as to her identity, and sends people to go fetch her, to seize her, to carry her away from her home and take her to the palace. So after David had his way, he became pregnant. Something that the great King of Israel needed to cover-up.

So first, David calls Uriah, Bathsheba’s husband, back from the battle lines, to send him down to sleep with Bathsheba so that no one asks any questions, but the problem is that Uriah is so dedicated to his king, that he would not go to his home and his wife. This didn’t work. So David sends Uriah back with a note, a note that would order his death. David sent Uriah to the front lines of the battle, in the hardest fighting, and for the rest of the army to fall back so that Uriah would die.

So in David’s efforts to cover up his transgressions, he has killed one of his loyal soldiers.

But just as David thinks that he has covered all his bases, and have the secret confined to him and Joab, his commander. But God saw what David did and was displeased. God sent the Prophet Nathan to confront David on it.

Now, it was a risky thing to confront the king, often times there are court prophets around which would tell them what they want to hear, to oppose the prophets which speak from God, and are not always saying pleasing things. It could be a risky thing for a prophet to confront a king, after all, they are the king and generally kings don’t like to be confronted.

So Nathan confronts David. But how to help David see what he did? How can he ensure David will listen and get the point?

It is often easier to see the faults in others than it does ourselves, we can pick out others point out the speck in our neighbor’s eye while we still have a plank in our own.

Nathan approaches David with a parable, a story, a fable. Some way that Nathan can remove David from the picture for a bit for illustrative purposes. So Nathan tells this story which is so incredibly and objectively unjust. The injustice of this situation is not an opinion, it is a fact.

Nathan tells this story of a rich man with many flocks and herds, and a poor man with one little ewe lamb who was beloved and part of the family. But the rich man needed to prepare food and not wanting to sacrifice one of his own took the poor man’s lamb, that was almost like a daughter to him. There is no way that this could seem to be just, and David knew it. He knew it was so unjust that he became enraged.

But Nathan took David’s anger and turned it around, “You are the man!” It is only two words in Hebrew, but these words pack a punch. You are the one who had committed this injustice, Nathan tells him. Nathan then speaks for God, and speaks of all the things that God has done for David, and yet he had committed this great evil.

***

But the great King was able to see himself, was able to see what he had done. After God finishes pronouncing judgment on David and his house, David does not argue with him, he does not rationalize it, he does not try to argue why he is different from the rich man in this parable. The blood drains out of David’s face, and his heart sinks into his stomach, and the only words that he utters, “I have sinned against the LORD.”

Tradition, then, holds that David composed a psalm in response to this.

Have mercy on me, O God,
  according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
 blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
  and cleanse me from my sin. 

For I know my transgressions,
  and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned,
   and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you are justified in your sentence
  and blameless when you pass judgement.
Indeed, I was born guilty,
  a sinner when my mother conceived me. 

You desire truth in the inward being;
  therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
  wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
  let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
  and blot out all my iniquities. (Psalm 51:1-9)

***

I wonder, though, if perhaps David being a man after God’s own heart speaks not to his perfection and constant uprightness, but rather to his honesty about reality.

John Calvin, in the beginning of his central theological work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote this: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (I.1.i). After all, we must first grasp the brokenness of our situation, so that we can seek healing in the Triune God. If we spend time rationalizing our faults, if we spend time arguing why we are less bad than the “other” guy or gal, if we spend our energy in showing how our sins are not really all that bad, we have little need for the healing power of God.

A few weeks ago, we read the Ten Commandments, or the Ten Words, and we discussed how this serves, in part, as a mirror for us, so that we can see our sins, see our faults, see our shortcomings. The point of this is not so that we can see ourselves as bad, or as failures, but so that we can seek after God, and pursue the healing power of Christ, who can right our wrongs, who can heal our brokenness, who can cover our blemishes.

David was so caught up in what he was doing that he lost perspective for a bit, he lost the fact that it the issue was not only his public image, but also his life before God. David spent so much time trying to cover up his wrong by committing other wrongs, that he forgot that from God there is no hiding, there is no covering up.

So Nathan came to David to hold up a mirror, and David had enough humility to look clearly into this mirror.

We often think of humility as thinking less of ourselves. When we hear humility, we often think that we have to think the other better than us, or we must think of ourselves as worse than the other. We have to always defer to the other. This, of course, is not true humility.  Humility is not thinking less of ourselves, it is not seeing ourselves as less important or valuable or smart, or anything else than another person.

True humility is understanding the truth of who we are in God’s eyes. On the one hand, then, we ought not be too puffed up with pride, after all, we are creations, not gods. On the other hand we ought not to think too little of ourselves because we remain God’s beloved children, the people for whom Christ came into the world — lived, died, and conquered death.

The humility here that David exhibited is not that of self-flagellation, but rather that he could see the truth of what he did, that he could take a step back, look in the mirror, see his transgressions, and then approach God for forgiveness. Perhaps, then, the fact that David was a man after God’s own heart refers not to his perfection but to his humility, his ability to see the truth of things.

***

And this is to what we are invited as well, we are invited to see the truth of our situations, to look in the mirror and see our own shortcomings, we are invited to see the plank in our own eyes. We are invited into this not because we are unworthy, not because we are bad or evil, we are invited into this because this is the first step toward healing, the first step toward wholeness. Understanding that we are broken and need redemption.

God helps us to see our shortcomings not because God wants us to see ourselves as bad, but rather because it is through this that we can be invited into something better.

I often say that God meets us where we are, but loves us too much to allow us to stay there. Sin is not bad because it violates some sort of law that we agree is wrong. Sin is bad because it disrupts the good order that God had designed, it adds dissonance to the perfect harmony which God originally envisioned, and which will be returned.

God had bigger things planned for David, things which were disrupted when David began this awful sequence of events.

There is a long Christian tradition of the daily examen. This is where one takes time each day to reflect on the day, to take a step back and look at what happened, look at where we saw God at work, look at where we could have followed God but didn’t. This is a way for us to live intentionally with God, this is a way for us to practice true humility. This helps us to gain perspective.


God invites us into something greater, greater for you and for me. God invites us into a peace, into a wholeness, into a harmony. We won’t get there completely on this side of the veil, but in Christ, the world has begun making steps, redemption has come, and it is slowly enveloping the world. This harmony, this wholeness, this peace has arrived, just not yet in its fullness. We as the body of Christ, are called to live into this redemption and restoration that we know is coming so that we can be, for the world, a foretaste.

On Litmust Tests and a Fractured Witness

In my corner of the Bible Belt, nothing is discussed more than human sexuality. One’s views on human sexuality is the way that we have come to judge the sincerity of someone’s faith, the strength of their orthodoxy, and the commitment of their discipleship. This is what search committees ask potential pastors to separate the faithful clergy from the apostate, this is what Christians ask one another to separate the wheat from the chaff. In my experience, the church spends an inordinate amount of time talking about sex: who can do what with whom and when. Somehow one’s view on human sexuality, particularly as it relates to LGBTQ folks, has become the litmus test for orthodoxy.

How did we get here?

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From Beyond the River

Joshua 24:1-28

God comes to Abram with no apparent reason, makes a promise that God will bring forth from Abram a great nation which will be blessed so that they can be a blessing to all the world. So without any recorded hesitation, Abram goes, as God told him, to the land which God will show to him. When he enters into the land of Canaan, he stops at Shechem, It is at this point that God promised to give all of this land to Abram’s descendants. Abram then builds an altar to God, a monument, marking this as a holy place, a place of worship, a sanctuary.

We find ourselves many generations later and at the same place, at the edge of the promised land, at the time known as the land of Canaan. This is a generation after the people had been liberated from Egypt.

When they were enslaved in Egypt, they were mistreated and they cried out and God listened and saw and called Moses to the task of serving as God’s envoy. Many signs were performed and Pharaoh finally released the Hebrew people, but shortly thereafter Pharaoh regretted this decision and he and his army pursued the ancient Israelites, who found themselves trapped between an advancing army and a sea. God reached out God’s hands and held back the waters so that God’s rag-tag group of people could cross to freedom.

Almost immediately, the people began grumbling, after all, they needed food, certainly a legitimate need and complaint. So each morning, God gave them food, enough for each day, but not only this, but God gave meat to them to eat in the evening. But not long after this, the people needed water, which is also a legitimate complaint. God told Moses to strike his staff upon a rock, and then water came forth.

God dwelt amongst them in the tabernacle so that wherever the people went, God journeyed with them.

The people get to the brink of the promised land, and they send a few spies to see the condition of the land, the people who lived there, the conditions of their cities, and anything else they could find. After forty days, the spies return and speak to the beauty and fertility of the land. They also said that the people were strong and the cities were well fortified. The people again began to complain and long for slavery in Egypt, continuing to suffer from the disease of nostalgia.

Throughout their time, thus far, they would often speak of how they wished they were in Egypt, forgetting that the good ol’ days were not all that great. But this time was different. They actually began to make work of returning to Egypt, and the selected captains and organized themselves into companies to go back. While they were packing up, God became angry, after all, God had freed God’s people, led them through the wilderness, fed them, gave them water, brought them to the edge of the land that God had promised to their ancestor Abraham, and after all this they begin to make work of returning to slavery in Egypt. God determines that not a single person that walked out of Egypt, not a single one, except Caleb, would see the promised land. God would not kill them, after all, God is merciful, but God would continue to teach them trust and faith in the classroom of the wilderness.

***

So here we stand, Moses has finally died, and the people have crossed the Jordan River and have taken hold of the land.

After the ancients entered the land, after the tribes have been given their portions of the land, after God had given rest to both the Israelites and the Canaanites, “a long time after” as scripture reads, Joshua is old and near death, and he gathers everyone, all the Israelites at Shechem. The place where Abram was promised the land, the place where Abram built an altar, the sanctuary that Abram built.

The significance of this place would not have been lost on all the ancient people. they did not, as of yet, have a book, but they did have stories, and these stories about God and God’s people were told over and over again. The assembly would have recognized this place, where the aged Joshua called them to gather for his farewell address.

So Joshua speaks to them and begins at the beginning. “Long ago your ancestors—Terah and his sons Abraham and Nahor—lived beyond the Euphrates and served other gods.”

Gods of a place, gods of prosperity, gods of fertility, gods of good health and fortune. These other gods were bound up with their identity and it was understood that to be a good citizen meant serving these other gods. Here the people are reminded that Abram was no different than all the others. Abram wasn’t particularly special in his faith and practice, Abram did not come to faith in this one God on his own, no, Abram lived far off beyond the Euphrates and served other gods. But God took him “from beyond the river.”

The people are reminded again, they are told, again, this “old, old story” of what happened. The people are reminded them of God’s great deeds to them throughout the journey throughout the wilderness. God speaks to them, “I took, I gave, I sent, I plagued, I did, i brought, I brought, I handed, I destroyed, I rescued, I handed, I send, I gave…” Here the people are reminded of the things that God had done for them. In light of all this, the people are called to fidelity to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

The people could not be confused here, because Joshua does not speak of god in general, but rather, the specific God. Anytime you see the word “LORD” in caps or small caps, this is the divine name. God’s specific name. My name is Matthew, God’s name is often referred to as the tetragrammaton, the four letters, four letters which we translate into English as YHWH. It is not printed because of the long tradition that the average person is not fit to pronounce God’s name, we are not on a first name basis with God. So here, it is very clear that when Joshua tells them to serve the LORD, it is not to be confused exactly which god of which he was speaking, it was this particular one.

And so here, at Shechem, we have come full circle, the promise to Abram so long ago has been fulfilled. And so all the people stand, with the Euphrates behind them, the Promised Land ahead of them, standing at Shechem. The people stand, their past behind them, their future ahead of them, standing in the present, at the place, symbolically showing the promise to be fulfilled. Where once a man stood in a foreign land, now a nation stands in a land which is now theirs.

And Joshua says to the people, in the words of Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.” It is important that Joshua invites them to look over their shoulder at their past, look ahead to the future, and to remain in the present. Joshua is calling them to account, right now, they will have to determine whom they will serve, because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.

But, Joshua tells them, if you will not serve the LORD, choose whom you will serve, because you have to serve somebody.

If you will not serve the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then serve the gods of your ancestors behind you, before the LORD took your ancestor from beyond the river. Or, serve the ancestral gods of their new home.

You have you choose who to serve, Joshua told them, the gods whence you came, or the gods here. Because “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” I, I am committed to the LORD.

But yet this is not even the climax of the story, the high point comes when the people proclaimed that they, too, will serve the LORD.

***

This is a riveting story, a story which is in our past, but is also a story in which we find ourselves. The Bible is not just a story, but it is the story in which we find ourselves.

So Joshua not only called the ancients to gather at Shechem, but also calls to us.

We gather and we, too, are told, “you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” We don’t have named gods from across the river or from a place, in the same way. But we have things that serve that function. We, too, have various gods which we sometimes serve. Maybe it will be the nation, or maybe it will be money or ourselves. We have to serve somebody, and we, too, are called to make a commitment to whom we will serve, will we go back across the river? Will we adopt the gods of the place? Will we serve the gods that promise health, wealth, prosperity, safety, security?

We can adopt the gods where we find ourselves, gods which we can see, gods which are supposed to bring us good things, or we can serve the God who called us, chose us, and journeyed with us through the good times and the difficult times.

***

As we stand in the present between the future and the past, Joshua calls to us to choose whom we will serve. This isn’t about in whom to believe, this is not about whom to accept into one’s heart, this is not about some kind of personal savior. Joshua asks them whom they will serve. To whom or what will you dedicate your effort and energy? To whom or what will you make sacrifices? On what hill will you die?

So Joshua comes to us and asks us not to accept Jesus into our heart as our personal savior. This is not a biblical way to understand it. Instead Joshua asks us whom we will serve. Will it be the gods from across the river, or the gods from this place, or the God who has fulfilled God’s promise, the God who has nurtured us and journeyed with us.

“You’re gonna have to serve somebody”, so let us serve the God who brought us from across the river, from our former life. Let us serve the God who brought us from beyond the river.  Let us serve this God not just with our hearts, but with our minds and our actions, and our lives.

You can only serve one master, as Jesus reminded us. and “you’re gonna have to serve somebody,” so we must ask ourselves, whom will we serve? This is not just a question that comes once, but many times. Many situations come to us and we are given this opportunity. We cannot give lip service to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and then serve these other gods with our actions. We cannot simply get carried off in emotion and make inconsiderate promises. Will we choose the nation, or money, or our house or possessions, ourselves or the Packers?

Or will we serve the God who guides us and tabernacles among us?

We may not see the fulfillment of these promises in our incredibly short individual memory, or even with our lifetimes, but this is why, again and again, we tell this story of what God has done in the past, because it is only through the telling of this story we can remember that God had brought us from beyond the river.

 

The Ten Words

Exodus 19:3-7; 20:1-17

 

In the beginning, when God created, there was nothing, and God brought into existence, something.

But creation isn’t something that was, but something that is. Creation didn’t end with the explosion of light and life and existence, that was simply the beginning. In our story this morning, we are seeing another act of creation, the creation of God’s people as a liberated people an identifiable people.

Last week I mentioned that the story of the exodus is a pivotal point in the story of the people of God. This is the moment that God’s people are reminded of time and time again. We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t do big and amazing and significant things like this again, but the exodus is something which only happened once. We don’t all have to witness it, because we tell the story on down the generations. Memory is so significant to our faith, not our own individual memories, but our collective memory. Many times throughout scripture the people are told to remember. Many of those times it was to remember what God did in liberating the people.

But here the people are told to remember, or rather that they do remember, what God did to the Egyptians, and how God had brought God’s people to Godself. God liberated God’s people and here they are gathered at the foot of Mount Sinai, the mountain where God has chosen to assemble God’s people.

The first thing that God does is remind them that they saw what happened back there, and that God had brought the people to Godself. It is after this that God commands obedience. And then they are reminded that the world belongs to God, yet they are special. They are to be a people to reflect God to the world, in this covenant community, the world will see the ways and desires of God.

At this point God creates something new, God creates the nation that God promised to Abram. This was not the fullness of it, but this is the fulfillment of it. God reminds the people of what God had done and then laid the foundation for their life together.

***

The ancient people of Israel have not experienced freedom, they have been enslaved for generations. How are they to begin their new life together? How would they function together?

So often we see the Ten Commandments as simply a set of rules, a collection of don’ts. But in reality, what we have here is so much more than just a list of rules, it is the foundation of a new creation, the people of ancient Israel, the people who strive with God. The commandments that are given here, the ten words as they are sometimes called, enable freedom rather than hindering freedom.

So God speaks these words to Moses to bring to the people. These words are more than just a law as we understand it, they are more than a code of ethics, they are a guide in how God desires for God’s people to live. The are not for pragmatic and utilitarian reasons alone, but for reasons of peace and justice and goodness and wholeness. The commandments are not a series of rituals to be performed in order to gain favor, but they are one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to God and one half that helped them to understand who they were in relation to one another.

This was a people who did not only have responsibilities toward the divine, but also to one another. In fact, God is greatly concerned with how humans treat one another. Thus, these ten words serve as the guide for the building of their new community, a guide to living in freedom.

This is, in some ways, a contrast to our cultural narrative of freedom. We see freedom as freedom from — freedom from tyranny, freedom from oppression, freedom from this or that. At times, we take it to the extreme and understand it to be freedom from norms and guidelines — don’t tread on me and all that.

But this is not the biblical way to understand freedom, this is not the freedom that God envisions for God’s people.

God envisions a freedom for.  A freedom for peace and justice, a freedom for living according to God’s desires, a freedom for witness amongst the world. Freedom from and freedom for, it’s only a preposition, but prepositions often carry so much weight.

***

This is to be a community centered in God, pledging allegiance not to a nation, not to a local deity, but this one particular God. It is a community that is to be dependent upon God as is evident from not putting faith in idols, not using God’s name for their own personal gain, as we so often do in the political realm in our nation, and trusting God enough to rest at least once throughout the week.

 

It is to be a community where families respect and honor one another, not because they agree or even like one another, but because this is how things are to be set up. It is a community that values fidelity in relationships and commitment, a community in which people are not to kill one another, people are to be truthful to one another in speech and action, and people don’t steal from one another or cheat one another, either by commission or omission, and people don’t have a deep set envy for what others have.

It is to be a community based upon faith in God, mutual respect and trust. If it works, it will be a utopia, a perfect society.

But as we know, it never turned out to be a utopia, and the people could not live their lives according to these ten words. Because of this, more words were added, the law grew, and grew. The law became a burden rather than a blessing, it began to restrict rather than liberate.

The law became a way to determine one’s sinfulness, one’s missing the mark. The law does not condemn, but serves as a mirror through which we can see our own sinfulness, our own need for redemption, our complete reliance upon God.

***

But is this the only value of these ten words? to order a society which never succeeded and to show us our own sin.

No, we cannot forget the grace that permeates these ten words. God gave the ancient people these ten words not simply so that they could be shown their sin, but truly that they would strive to fulfill them. This is how God desires for us to live. Indeed Jesus summed up these ten words, indeed all of scripture in two commands. Love God and love others. This is the center of all of it. The first five words help us to love God, the second five help us to love one another.

God was very aware that humans could not keep these ten words perfectly, God knew that this was not a realistic attainment on their own. In fact, if they could do it on their own they wouldn’t need these ten words in the first place. But people are not able to fulfill these perfectly, and people are broken. However, God never left it to people to fulfill these on their own anyway. This is why God instituted rituals of sacrifice and atonement and chose priests and prophets to help call the people to faithfulness and God continued to work, even from the beginning, to turn people toward God.

We always approach the Old Testament as people living in a post-resurrection world. We don’t have to go through the rituals of sacrifice and atonement, because we have one who atoned for us. But this does not make the Old Testament inapplicable. Remember, Jesus said that not one smallest stroke of the smallest letter of the law will pass away?

These ten words are at the heart of the entire law, and loving God and loving others is at the heart of these ten words.

These are not just to restrain evil, although it is that. These are not just to show us our sin, although it is that too. It is also a guide to help us in our living, we ought to strive to actually live these out, because this is what God desires. We are to live them out in the spirit rather than the letter. We get a glimpse into this when Jesus taught, “You heard it said…” that even if we hate someone we are just as guilty of murdering them. Even if we lust with another in our heart, we are guilty of adultery. If we pledge allegiance to anything other than the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, we are guilty of having other gods.

Although we have not had the experience of being an oppressed and enslaved people for generations, we, too, must still listen to how God desired for God’s people to live. Because God still desires for God’s people to live this way.

Sisters and brothers, hear what our gracious God is saying to us. These are not rules to restrict our freedom, they are ten gracious words to help us to have freedom for service to God, for life with God, for life as God’s covenant people. Jesus told his followers that they were the light of the world, a city atop a hill which  cannot be hidden. This is because we are to reflect God’s goodness, God’s grace and mercy, God’s shalom and harmony and wholeness through the whole of creation. God has redeemed our people, God has freed our people from slavery with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, and God has brought us to Godself. If we will hear God, and obey, we will be God’s treasured possession, the pearl of great price.

God calls to you and to me, that we are redeemed, we are now to live into that redemption and to help others do the same.

On the Death of a Church

It was the first time that I had walked into the doors and sat near the back for the duration of the worship service. Being a pastor, I am typically at the front. I usually have tasks to do, responsibilities to which to attend. But today was different. I was not there as their pastor, I was a member of the congregation. I had no particular responsibilities. Nothing to read. Nothing to preach. Nothing to say. I could pray with my own words, not words for the congregation. I could sing without having to think about what is next. I could listen to the sermon instead of delivering it.

“Closing worship service” was written on the front of the bulletin, which was white today, although it is usually ivory colored paper. The images which are usually black and white prints of woodcuts now bears a color image of the church building.

I came in after the service had already started, and I simply pulled myself into a pew in the back, not wishing to make a scene. How would the people reäct to my presence, I wondered to myself. After all, it had only been a month since I delivered my farewell sermon…

 

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Future Glory

My sermon from this past Sunday. Text was Romans 8:12-25.

Henry was a fellow that I knew on the South side of Milwaukee. Henry lived outside, underneath an overpass which went over the Menominee Valley. Henry was a good guy, he had a good heart. He, of course, had demons with which he fought. He drank to excess, he was almost always in a some state of drunkenness.

Henry smelled bad, due in part to the fact that he lived on the street, and due in part to the fact that after a bender, he would sleep where we fell. He had no one to bring him into bed, or to pull him into a bathroom, or to change his clothes. He wanted to give up drinking, he really did. But he didn’t. In the winter it is hard to sleep, and so Henry, like so many other people in a similar situation, finds that drinking helps him get some sleep at night when the mercury drops dangerously low. Additionally, things were so incredibly miserable for him, that drinking is the only way to numb himself to the pain of it all. So in trying to escape his problems, he caused a whole new set. And in doing so, he entered into a cycle of destruction from which he would never escape.

He would spend his days going canning, that is, going around the city collecting cans into big bags, he would have a couple of secret places to hide his stash, and then when he had enough he would turn it in for scrap. Some times it would only be enough to buy a 40, but there were many other times in which he would have some left over and he would usually give it to the church.

Typically we only think of the cold when we know of people who stay outside, but that isn’t even the most dangerous part, the most dangerous part is the continual risk that one is at when they sleep outside. Every night Henry would try to sleep not knowing if he would get mugged or robbed or killed during the night. He would often keep a club next to him while he slept in case he was attacked during the night. Several times this would happen, and he would find that his ID card and his money was gone. We can lock our doors at night, but when you sleep outside, there are no doors to lock.

Henry was also an easy target for people who go out looking for trouble. On days when he gets some money and he drinks, his reactions are slow and he would often get beat up, sometimes to steal from him, other times just for the sick enjoyment out of it. But in spite of all of this, Henry would walk around with his snow shovel in the winter and shovel walks in the neighborhood, and especially of people he knew, and during the fall he would often find a rake and rake leaves for others.

Henry was the last person to leave after lunch after the service. Many times he would fall asleep and sometimes this would be frustrating, but as I reflect on it, it became apparent to me that it would likely happen because in the church he felt safe, he knew that there were people watching over him, and he could rest in relative safety.

But we would have to wake him, and so often I was the one who would be charged with that task, and I would help him up the stairs, not only because he was intoxicated, but also because being in his late fifties and being on the street for the last decade, it took a toll on his body.

As we would walk up the stairs toward the door to send him out into the world, he would express his frustration at the way that he would try to help people and in return they would steal from him (he would carry around all of his worldly possessions in a ripped backpack) or beat him, or some other way take advantage of him.

He would express his sense of utter hopelessness, that he wasn’t sure if there was a future for him, and if there was it likely would not get better. Henry had a lot of demons with which he battled, but the most significant one was this sense of utter hopelessness.

Henry was in bondage to decay, as the apostle phrased it.

There are roses outside of my office window here at church, and I greatly enjoy looking at them. But after too long, they begin to darken, and it seems that they have been ravaged by insects and they can’t keep going. The roses which were once beautiful become wilted and eventually the petals fall off.

Buildings which are vacant for even a short time begin to fall apart, literally decay before our eyes.

We have experienced, in the recent past, very personal examples of how we are in bondage to decay. Our congregation has lost several people recently. We have lost friends and family members in our own lives.

When we are sick or hurt, and family members and friends try to cheer us up by assuring us that things are going to turn out okay, but you still have that ever present realization that you are in bondage to decay.

“For the creation waits with eager longing,” the apostle writes, “for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”

All of creation is in bondage to decay, and in some way, the earth knows this, the animals know this.

Not long ago I was standing by the kitchen window and there was a spider web outside right in front of the window. An insect had the misfortune of finding itself stuck in the web and it struggled to free itself from the sticky web that it cannot even see, to no avail. As it struggled, the spider masterfully walked along this web and approached the insect, and injected it with paralyzing venom, and once the thrashing stopped, the spider grabbed the insect and began the process of wrapping it in the silky fibers of the web.

Studies have shown that plants have a defense mechanism that releases chemicals when they are being chewed on that change the taste of their leaves so that they no longer taste pleasant. Recently a study was released that showed the same response when a recording of a caterpillar chewing on a leaf was played to the plant.

While this may sound strange, I think that the creation knows that it is in bondage to decay and it groans. The earth rips itself open with earthquakes, it hemorrhages lava from volcanoes. Hurricanes and tornadoes and floods and droughts damage and harm all that is, but these pains are not death pains, no they are birth pains. The creation groans.

And it groans because Creation waits with eager longing.  You see, it is not just humanity that suffers from the broken state of the world, but the creation itself suffers as well. In the third chapter of Genesis, which we often refer to as the Fall of Humanity, but it is not just the fall of humanity, but the fall of creation. In the curses that are pronounced on the serpent, the woman, and the man, God says to the man, “cursed is the ground because of you…” Adam and Eve sinned, but all of creation paid the price.

The creation is groaning in great pains, but they are not the pains of death, but the pains of birth.

The creation groans because it waits with eager longing. It may seem odd to think of birds and ants and trees looking forward with longing, but is it so strange?

In scripture trees rejoice (Ps 96:12), floods clap their hands (Ps 98:8), the wilderness can be glad (Is 35:1), mountains and hills can burst out into song (Is 55:12), and stones can shout (Lk 19:40. Why should not birds and trees and roses and insects look forward with longing?

The creation groans, but not only this, but we also groan inwardly while we wait for redemption, for restoration. After all, our bodies are still subject to death.

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time,” the apostle writes, “are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

You see, it is not just the sorry state of our present condition that the apostle so beautifully speaks, if that was all he was trying to get across, he would be preaching to the choir, as the saying goes. You see, Christians live in a world between worlds. Sometimes theologians will refer to this as the “already but not yet” It is the idea that with Christ redemption has already come and restoration has already begun but these have not yet fully arrived. It is a time of tension, it is a time of upheaval, in a true way, it is a time of cosmic revolution.

And it is important that we live in this tension, and neither become too “this worldly” that we forget that there is something more than what we can see or touch or experience, or become too “other worldly” that we forget that this life has meaning, this life is not just a waiting room, but this is the only life that we have. After all, this is not waiting for the main event, this is the main event. The new heaven and new earth is not the goal, it is the rest which comes after a life well lived, a race well run, a journey well trod.

So we must remember the hope that the apostle gives us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

So while it is true that this is the only life that we will live, and this life is in bondage to decay, we must also remember that this is not all that there is from a cosmic view. There will be a point of restoration and redemption when all of creation will be loosed from its bondage and will be granted so great a glory, of which all of the great sufferings in this present world cannot even compare.

***

I wish that I could tell Henry that things would get better. There were times when he would sober up and clean up, and it was wonderful to see him in a better condition, but he couldn’t stay that way for long. I wish that I could tell him that if he sobered up that things would get better, but I didn’t know that. It was very likely that Henry would stay in this destructive cycle and eventually it would be the death of him.

And it was. After years of living on the street, of drinking so much, of being in and out of the emergency room from freeing cold, illnesses, and all the rest, he ended up dying after a short stay in intensive care.

And now, he can live into the hope that I had for him, that beyond the sufferings of this present time there would be immense glory, and there would be a time when he, along with all of creation, would be freed from this bondage to decay and can be restored to the glory for which we were originally intended. And this is what is in store for each of us, and the roses and insects and plants. Thanks be to God.

 

 

Hump Day Hymns: ‘Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus

Hymnal

Tis so sweet to trust in Jesus, 
Just to take Him at His word; 
Just to rest upon His promise, 
Just to know, “Thus saith the Lord.” 

O how sweet to trust in Jesus, 
Just to trust His cleansing blood; 
Just in simple faith to plunge me 
‘Neath the healing cleansing flood! 

Yes, ’tis sweet to trust in Jesus, 
Just from sin and self to cease; 
Just from Jesus simply taking 
Life and rest, and joy and peace. 

I’m so glad I learned to trust Him, 
Precious Jesus, Savior, Friend; 
And I know that He is with me, 
Will be with me to the end. 
-Louisa M. R. Stead (1850-1917)

On a cool Tuesday evening, with the sun glinting off of the rain that had just recently fallen on the grass, I head into my study at church.

My church is a small one which sits atop a hill on the rural outskirts of one of the suburbs west of Milwaukee. While we are located within a major metropolitan area, our church is surrounded by fields and woods on all sides. It has the feel of a small country church not only in setting, but also in atmosphere. We are a church that values simplicity and ordinariness.

Walking past the rosebushes, I step into the building. At the other end, the sanctuary lights are on, and I hear the pianist rehearsing for Sunday morning.

***

Coming out of seminary, I harbored a preference for hymns and songs which plumbed the depths of theology. This was not a result of my education, but rather a result of my own sense of pride and arrogance that led me to think that local churches and everyone in them ought all understand the deep things of faith, the fullness of the sacraments, and the finer points of Reformed doctrine. I shied away from choosing songs and hymns which I deemed to be too simple.

I was amazed by the depth of the things of faith and I could not wait to be a guide, showing others these wonderful things which I assumed would fascinate them because they fascinated me. When I discovered that not everyone enjoyed the intellectual aspect as much as I did and, when it truly came down to it, didn’t care all that much about, for instance, the distinctions between Calvin and Zwingli when it comes to sacramental theology, I decided that my future lie not in the simple and ordinary church, but in the academy. I wasn’t going to be just a parish pastor, I was to be something more, so I thought.

Years later, I found myself not in the academy, but in the parish. I found myself not in a church bursting with artists and writers and academics, but first a poor inner-city parish and now in a rural suburban church, both in America’s Dairyland.

While previously I looked down upon the ordinariness of the church, I have experienced it to be glorious. After all, the church is not solely made up of Theologians with a capital “T”, but also people who grow corn and who raise cows. People who fix cars and who work in breweries. Moms and dads who spend their days trying to reason with their children, and people who spend their days feeling imprisoned in a cubicle under the thumb of a boss who takes out life’s problems on the employees. It is through the process of learning how to live out faith at the factory or the grocery store or while teaching high schoolers to paint that these ordinary people become theologians, even if with a lowercase “t”.

***

So as I stand in the doorway of our little church on the hill, I cannot help but sing along. After all, I know much of the song by heart.

This is the glory of this song. While it may lack theological luster, it is a song that is memorable in its simplicity. It is one that any of us can keep with us while we are cutting grass or chopping wood, or washing dishes, or stuck in traffic. It is a song that can remind us of our faith while knitting or woodturning. It is a song that doesn’t require a particularly astute intellect or any special gnosis.

The wonderful thing about theology is that there are immeasurable depths, but faith is not only for those who can dive and explore those depths. It is also for those who do ordinary and seemingly unremarkable things, who pray heartfelt and often inelegant prayers, who read read devotional booklets after meals, and who continually learn what it means to love God and love others.

I have been trying to overcome the pride and arrogance with which I continually battle. After all, in the end it is not just about what we know but who (and whose) we are. It is not about a destination, but a journey. It is not about competing or showing ourselves to be more learned than the other, but it is about helping one another to grow in our understanding as we are able.

So I have come to love this simple and ordinary song. This simple and ordinary song that I can take with me anytime and anywhere.

Jesus, Jesus, how I trust him! 
How I’ve proved him o’er and o’er! 
Jesus, Jesus, precious Jesus! 
O for grace to trust him more! 

 

Number Worship and Strategic Salvation

“The church is dying!”

In my corner of the the last remnants of Christendom, I hear this or something similar regularly.

There is concern because our denomination, much like most North American mainline denominations, has a numerically declining trend. There is a fear that because the church is losing the privileged position that it has enjoyed since Constantine and thus this grows to fear that the church is dying.

However, when we are afraid that the church is dying, we become obsessed with numbers. We make goals to plant a specific number of congregations and gain a specific number of confessing members. We point to big and/or growing churches as successes and small and/or declining churches as failures. We make the implicit (or explicit) assumption that faithful churches will be large and will grow continually. The shadow side of that assumption, though, is that churches which are small or are not growing at a steady pace are dysfunctional or unfaithful.

The Church is not of our making

***

I’m at That Reformed Blog today, come on over…

Why I Welcome the Demise of Christendom

Christ flanked by emperor Constantine IX Monomachos and empress Zoe: Eleventh Century; Mosaic, Hagia Sophia

In my corner of the Evangelical Bible Belt, a few things take concern above all else. Opposing gay marriage, decrying taking God out of the schools, mourning the loss of the privileged position of the church in the United States. We fear that the church is losing ground and we fight against it in every way possible.

The root of all this, though, is the loss of greater societal privilege for the Church. It is a symptom of the disintegration of Christendom, and I welcome it.

***

The history of the People of God was never that of a great empire which conquered the world, instead, it was a relatively small people, whose ancestors were nomads, who were conquered by foreign powers again and again. The great part of the story, though, is that the People of God have endured, by divine providence, against all odds and against the might of foreign powers.

The early church found themselves pressed by all sides, and yet against all odds, they grew not only in numbers but also in strength and depth.

Things changed, however, with Constantine when Christianity ceased to be a pressed minority and became state-approved. From this point on, the story of the majority of the Western world is centered around the unholy union between Christianity and the principalities and powers.

This signaled a significant reversal of the history of Christianity. Rather than facing the end of the sword, Christians were the ones holding the sword in the name of “God and country”. The Crusades were one example of the fruit of this union as was the Inquisition and the Salem Witch Trials. Rather than being pressed themselves, Christians were the one doing the pressing, rather than facing the powers, the Christianity was in league with the powers.

Rather than denying oneself, taking up one’s cross, and following Jesus (Mt 16:24; Mk 8:34; Lk 9:23), we, in the West, have become accustomed to standing proud with official backing, taking up our sword and following the state.

The problems with a “Christian nation” are myriad. At some point, one has to question, whom do we worship…God or the state? God or the emperor, king, or president? Further, when the Church and state are wed, the rulers of the state carry undue influence in the church and the church simply becomes a pawn in national affairs or for political gain.

We see this in the United States when political candidates at all levels work to appear more religious and pious than one another (usually always in the form of Christianity), speaking of God solely for political gain. In the United States, too, the Church has become a pawn in the game of politics. One has to wonder if this is the spirit of the commandment not to misuse the name of God (Ex 20:7).

We must ask the question, is the role of the church simply to baptize the actions of the state, or is the role of the Church to speak truth to power and call the state to faithfulness and righteousness?

***

While many (especially among the Bible Belts) may see the increasing pluralization of the religious landscape of the United States and the increasing separation between church and state as the church losing ground, I think that this will be a renewal for the church to actually be the church rather than simply playing on the chessboard of the state.

The decline of Christendom brings several distinct benefits.

First, it helps the church speak truth to power in a more faithful way. When the church wed itself to the state it gave up its role to speak to the principalities and powers. Beginning with Constantine, the church became captive to the state and the fall of Christendom actually functions as liberation from an unfaithful relationship which binds the church and its witness. After all, the church must stand outside of the powers in order to honestly and faithfully speak truth to the powers.

Second, the separation of church and state protects the church from the undue influence of the state. I certainly do not want the church to be used in the game of politics. I do not want the president or members of congress to direct church assemblies, the teaching of doctrine, or the further conscription of clergy or other office-bearers of the church into the service of the state.

Third, the decline of Christendom returns the church to the historic narrative of the People of God, and the experience of being “afflicted in every way, but not crushed” (2 Cor 4:8, NRSV). What does it mean to take up one’s cross? How does the church live out its calling “to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners” (Isaiah 61:1b, NRSV) when the Church has bound itself to the powers which created these situations in the first place?

We must ask ourselves, do we require the validation of the state or the greater culture in order to live out our faith? Do we require that our faith be in a privileged position in order to follow it? If we do, the problem is not in the greater social environment, the problem is within us. There is nothing at all in all of Scripture which would lead us to believe that the People of God are supposed to be the ones in power, the ones in high esteem, the ones who do the pressing. The Jews in the first century were largely expecting a messiah who would rebuild the fortunes of the Kingdom of Israel and throw off the Roman Empire, but instead they received an outsider who turned over tables of money changers in the temple, spoke truth to power, and eventually died for it.

So I welcome the fall of Christendom, because this holds the great potential to signal a renaissance in the church. Rather than seeking to control the society, we can begin to discover what it means to live faithfully. Rather than trusting in the providence of the state, we can begin to trust in the providence of God. Rather than wielding a sword, we can learn what it means to carry a cross.

We find ourselves at the end of Christendom. We can either live into our calling to be a foretaste of the Kingdom of God, or we can abandon our calling and fight to regain power and prestige and control and esteem.

We follow a guy who died naked on a cross. Why should we expect social privilege and worldly power and esteem?

Christ as Good Shepherd: Third Century, Fresco, Catacomb of Callixtus

Wounds in the Body of Christ

Oklahoma City Bombing National Memorial

(cc) Tabitha Kaylee Hawk

Eendracht maakt Macht

These words adorn the banner at the bottom of the crest of the Reformed Church in America. Often the translation into English is, “Unity makes strength” but, as I understand it, a better translation is “Concord makes strength” — a pulling together like a team of horses.

***

The Christian church today is fractured, but it has not always been. For nearly a thousand years, the Christian church was essentially unified throughout the world. This changed significantly with the Great Schism of 1054 when the Eastern church (Orthodox) and the Western church (Roman Catholic) excommunicated one another. For another five hundred years these remained the primary divisions within the Body of Christ.

The Western church experienced yet another major fracture when Martin Luther, in his attempt to reform the church, found himself considered to be a heretic and was cast out of the church. From this moment, the Protestant branch of the Christian church was born and continued splitting and fracturing over significant things such as the Doctrine of the Trinity and more trivial things such as the introduction of hymns in worship alongside the Psalms.

I, myself, am also aware of my own history and I, too, am involved in the fracturing the Body of Christ. In the nineteenth century, there was a split in the Reformed church in the Netherlands. As some of the Dutch immigrated to the United States, the Reformed people joined together and several then joined with the established Reformed Church in the United States. For a number of them, however, this union was short lived and they seceded and came together to form a second Reformed denomination on this continent. It is into this latter denomination that I was baptized and raised, and it was here that I learned the essentials of the faith. My ancestors were secessionists and it is through them that I participate in this…

Today I’m at That Reformed Blog. Head over there to finish reading…