THE Call

When the phone rings in the very early hours of the morning while sleep still holds us firmly in its grip, there is a thrill of fear that runs through every parent’s heart. Is this  THE Call?  Our hands tremble as we reach for the phone. Please, God, let it be a wrong number or some piece of good news that could not wait for a decent hour.  Let it be anything but THE Call.

But for someone it is that particular call that every parent dreads most.  A son or a daughter is lost. Death has taken them, and there is nothing left to do but grieve and go through the motions of a celebration of life. The world has gone surreal. THE Call changes everything.

This morning my heart goes out to the parents who have answered THE Call. May God give them a special grace. In that moment as in no other, we touch the border of godly love – and feel the near edge of the depths of God’s sacrifice for our sakes.  

When  THE Call comes, there are no words that have the power to comfort.  There is, however, the grace of God – and there is peace. Where faith rises to meet our mortal weakness with eternal strength, the peace of God lifts us out of despair and into the realm of hope.

Then you will experience God’s peace, which exceeds anything we can understand. His peace will guard your hearts and minds as you live in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:7 (New Living Translation)
The world has gone surreal.

Bible Class

I love my Tuesday evening Bible Study class. I add the word “class” because it might otherwise be interpreted as a special time for deep personal study. It is not. It is a gathering of adults who want to dive well below the surface of scripture.

Right now we are looking into the stories of Genesis. As we do, we ask ourselves and each other a set of simple questions:

  1. What happened in the story?
  2. Who were the actors, and what did they contribute to the story?
  3. Was God pleased with, or displeased by, each actor’s contribution?
  4. What does this story tell us about God’s nature?
  5. What does this story tell us about God’s expectations of us?

Between questions 4 and 5 is an implied question – “What does this story tell us about human nature?”

I am really enjoying this study that is taking the cartoonish edge off those narratives that get most of their exposure in children’s sermons and primary Sunday School classes. Looking at these stories from an adult perspective changes their tone. We are finding surprising life lessons in them. How did we miss that the first thousand times we read it?

Yesterday we dissected the story of the tower of Babel. We looked backward to the story of the Great Flood and reviewed God’s directive to the human seed spared from the destruction that responded to humankind’s mass insolence toward the holiness of God. The survivors had a mandate – ” And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.'” (Genesis 9:1) A few generations later, the people said to one another “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.” (Genesis 11:4)

We broke that passage out for just over an hour, and it went deep. It was a good, rich lesson. But there was something I wanted to say, and I didn’t. Why? I don’t know. I just didn’t. I think I regret that now, so I am going to say it here.

Our study centered on the fact that the people were scattered because it was God’s will for them was to be scattered. We asked ourselves the question “What does God do when we don’t?” The story gave us our answer.

When the people refused to do as God had directed, God took from them their mutual understanding and the resulting wisdom necessary to stay together in a cooperative community. Had they obeyed the mandate without rebelling, their various communities would have shared a common language and had the opportunity for cooperative efforts that nurture peace.

So, what does this tell us about God’s expectations of us?

Here we stand, a shattered denomination, each faction talking past the others, as if we each spoke entirely distinct languages. What in the world? Could it be that it is time to look back to our first mandate and trace the line to the place we got off course? What is it, exactly, that God sent us out to do?

Yes, I know we were told to go and make disciples of Jesus Christ, but what does that mean? I don’t want our tailored definition. I want to know what Jesus was actually telling us (The Church) to do, so I look to Matthew 28:18b-20:

All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

The Original Sending Forth

We have failed to keep the purity of the call. We have braided into the sharing of the Gospel certain aspects of our human enlightenment-so-called and the superstructure of churchianity. We have sold franchises of the business of doing church. And God said “Enough of that!” and confused our languages as we spoke to each other about our factions’ designs.

What do you suppose would happen if we all gathered at the altar of repentance and re-committed ourselves to our first, best calling? What if we stayed in that altar until the only language we remembered how to speak to the world was Christ’s compassion for the lost and hatred of the chains that bind them? Do you think we would still scatter?

I suppose we would, each to the path of God’s choosing. But we would scatter as friends and compatriots. As it is, we are scattering in deep bitterness, and that is wildly unfaithful.

At one time all the people of the world spoke the same language and used the same words. As the people migrated to the east, they found a plain in the land of Babylonia and settled there.

They began saying to each other, “Let’s make bricks and harden them with fire.” (In this region bricks were used instead of stone, and tar was used for mortar.) Then they said, “Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky. This will make us famous and keep us from being scattered all over the world.”

But the Lord came down to look at the city and the tower the people were building. “Look!” he said. “The people are united, and they all speak the same language. After this, nothing they set out to do will be impossible for them! Come, let’s go down and confuse the people with different languages. Then they won’t be able to understand each other.”

In that way, the Lord scattered them all over the world, and they stopped building the city. That is why the city was called Babel, because that is where the Lord confused the people with different languages. In this way he scattered them all over the world.

Genesis 11:1-9
Come, let’s build a great city for ourselves with a tower that reaches into the sky…

Interesting Times

Okay. Okay! Here is the skeleton of the Sunday Sermon. Remember, I don’t print it if you don’t ask.

The quote, attributed in our experience to Sir Austen Chamberlain in 1936, and later popularized by Robert Kennedy in 1966, is supposed to be an ancient Chinese curse, but that is something I cannot confirm. All I know is that I like it and I can certainly see why it is called a curse, though it sounds like a blessing. It is simply “May you live in interesting times.”

Friends, we live in interesting times.

  • From a natural perspective, we live in times when the world is waking up and stretching – we have an uptick in seismic activity and a shift in the climate.
  • From a political perspective, there is an intensity in the division of political parties that we haven’t seen in decades. This is true here, and around the world.
  • From a judicial perspective, we have an uptick in violence and a resistance to governance that is ripening all over the world.
  • From a religious perspective, we have a falling away from core beliefs and a rise in extremism in world religions.
  • From a distinctly Christian perspective, we have an abandonment of Traditional Orthodoxy and a move toward syncretism – merging with the religions of this world.

Will you join me in prayer? “Lord, walk among us in these interesting times and speak peace to us, and to the world through us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.

When he was writing his second letter to The Church in Thessalonica, Paul spoke about the coming of interesting times. He gave us a set of markers to recognize the coming times of trouble for The Church in the world. Among many others, Paul gave us these markers:

Of the world, Paul says…

  1. …the mystery of lawlessness is already at work

When Jesus spoke to the disciples, He spoke of “wars and rumors of wars.” Paul’s statement is an echo of that word from a slightly different angle. As we build toward the End of Days, we will see a resistance toward governance, especially toward the rule of law. Serious students of the Word understand this conversation to mean that there will be an increase in political and international tension as well as actual aggression and open warfare as the end of the age draws near.  

There was tension in the world in the first century. There is far more tension in the world now – now that the art of war has grown to the extent that its weapons have the capacity to make the entire globe uninhabitable. The stakes are higher than ever, and the tension has risen with the stakes. 

  • …they did not receive the love of the truth

Paul also told us that in the end of days the truth would not be popularly accepted. That is, the love of the truth would be rejected. In the Christian faith, those who reject the truth in favor of error are called heretics. Their belief-sets, called heresies. That leads to our next point:

  • …they will believe what is false

Starting in the First Century and walking forward to the twenty-first, there are fifty-four major categories of heresy that have been active in the world. About a dozen of them arose in the First Century, and the rest have been raised over time.

Most of these heresies were laid to rest within a few decades after they arose, but these days something strange has happened. Many of those old, settled heresies have started breathing the air again. As I stand here before you today, at least 50 of the 54 heresies are active again to some degree.

In my opinion, the most damaging heresy in the world these days is Antinomianism, the belief that Christ’s death freed all human beings from all law – that there is no need to practice moral righteousness, or even to accept the Lord as Savior. When married to Universalism, this concept cripples evangelism.

Friends, the world is actively believing that which is false. But surely The Church is still pure and holy! Yes, The Church is pure and holy, but there is a line of distinction between The Church and all the people who have joined a Christian organization. We need to come to terms with that. But it’s not our job to sort out the true believers. We need to do two things:

  1. Make sure our own souls are sorted out.
  2. Make sure the Gospel we share with others is the real thing.

Why? Because The Church, Paul promises, will be saved by…

  • sanctification by the Holy Spirit and
  • …faith in the truth

We are called, convicted, forgiven, redeemed and empowered to live holy lives. We are not perfect, but we are held and loved. We can do better than we do – would you admit that? But we are doing the work of Christ in the world, by the will of the Father and in the power of the Holy Spirit. By that Holy Spirit we are sanctified – not saved by, but set apart for good works.

And we have the Holy Bible, the true self-revelation of God to humankind. You own several copies, don’t you? But do we have faith in that truth? Have we rested the full weight of our lives on that truth?

If we do and we have then we are The Church.

I am not a veteran. I have never served in the military, but I am the niece, the sister, and the friend of several veterans. I was married to a veteran who is now deceased. I have a son-in-law who served in Desert Storm and a grandson who is currently serving in the military. I have seen my flesh and blood shipped to a warzone, and I have suffered separation from those who were stationed abroad.  

I know a little something about that level of devotion, and I tell you this: we – The Church – are at war with the evil that is bent on the destruction of God’s good creation. We are NOT at war with sinners. We are at war with the powers that are causing them harm and threatening their souls. We lay down our lives to see them set free. That is not hate. That is love. That the world cannot see that is part of the delusion of sin.

We are The Church. We have a calling. And we live in interesting times. Whether that is a blessing or a curse, I don’t know. But this I do know – these are our times, and our mandate is clear. Cherish the truth and share it. The rest is up to the Spirit moving through us and the grace of God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The mystery of lawlessness is already at work; only he who now restrains will do so until he is taken out of the way. Then that lawless one will be revealed… that is, the one whose coming is in accord with the activity of Satan, with all power and signs and false wonders, and with all the deception of wickedness for those who perish, because they did not receive the love of the truth so as to be saved. For this reason, God will send upon them a deluding influence so that they will believe what is false, in order that they all may be judged who did not believe the truth but took pleasure in wickedness.

But we should always give thanks to God for you… because God has chosen you from the beginning for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and faith in the truth. It was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught, whether by word of mouth or by letter from us.

Epistle Lesson – Readings from 2 Thessalonians 2

Doing the Work

It is interesting to try to balance scripture snippets that seem to contradict each other. I say “seem to” rather than “do” because a clear contextual study usually clears up the confusion created by a limited, surface reading. Take, for example, the hint of contradiction between 1 John 2:15-16 and John 3:16-17…

Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world.

1 John 2:15-16

For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

John 3:16-17…

Are we told not to love that which God loves? In what way does that reflect the nature of God created in us? Is that some kind of persistent spiritual disconnect, or is it like the human parent who tells a child to avoid the evils of alcohol while (s)he pours yet another drink?

In the case of these snippets, the answer should be obvious despite the brevity of the material quoted. The epistle passage is talking about the world system and the spiritual climate in the world while the Gospel passage is talking about the people in the world. This is not a contradiction. In fact, it is from the former that the latter are being saved!

We are prone to communicate in memes and emojis, but sacred writings tend to be longer, multi-layered and more complex than that. The twin perils of Bible study are (1) misapplication of passages because they are roughly lifted out of their context and (2) the failure (refusal?) to recognize an application that is genuinely present. The first peril can be avoided by reading passages in context and practicing honest scholarship, but the second requires a teachable spirit. For that transformation, we must seek the work of the Holy Spirit on our hardened human hearts.

There is great depth in the Holy Bible. We could spend our lives mining its wisdom and discovering its spiritual riches. Instead, too often, we give its wealth a cursory reading and braid together bits and pieces to forward our pet arguments. This is more than a waste of a precious resource. It is the seedbed of heresy.

We know that! So why do we persist in the practices that contribute to it? We say we are too busy to do the harder work, but busy with what? Spending our lives meeting the expectations of others is no more righteous than taking the treasure of our years and spending them in debauchery. (Did we learn nothing from the prodigal son and the older brother?) We are not called to be slaves to God, nor are we advised to squander our spiritual inheritance pursuing the poisoned pleasures of the world.

We are called to be the children of God, to sit in the light of His council and learn the wisdom of His precepts. We are asked to grow in His likeness and show our family resemblance to the world. This is no surface connection formed in emotionalism or the paroting of a chain of scripture-snippets. This is a relationship forged in the fires of conviction, the deep waters of focused study and the acceptance of the God-inspired world view that admits the fractures from the fall, and reaches for the ongoing-and-finished work of redemption. This is not accomplished in a fifteen minute devotion. This is a life-work.

Lord, I want to be a Christian. But how badly do I want it, and how easily will that desire be satisfied? I can get my name on the books of every church in town in a matter of six months, now, can’t I? But how long would it take to sink my soul into the center of the heart of God? I have been at it more than half a century. I’ll let you know when I get there.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.

2 Timothy 2:15
This is not accomplished in a fifteen minute devotion. This is a life-work.

Pursuing Excellence

There is a perpetual argument between the proponents of excellence and competence. Basically, we develop competence by working on our weaknesses and excellence by working on our strengths. Somewhere between those two extremes there is a balance that allows us to be passably adept at the majority of important life-skills and distinctly capable in our unique area of giftedness.

I know my strengths and weaknesses pretty well, I think. I am an effective communicator. I am no flowery orator, though. I offer a good, solid [though plain vanilla] sermon. I am plain-spoken. I can direct you to Heaven. But if you want to get from where you are to, say, Minot, North Dakota, I am not the one to ask for directions. I know that about myself.

I could spend a great deal of time and energy trying to cultivate a sense of direction and let my preaching style stew in its own juices, and I might get a little better at getting around. But if I did that, my bare competence in navigating might come at the expense of my excellence in ministry. I serve best by exercising my gifts and splurging on a good GPS.

It is a matter of trust and interconnection. There is someone out there whose gifts shore up my weaknesses. God will call their gifts into action alongside mine, and together we will pursue excellence in the Kingdom.

Jesus does all things well. The rest of us do a few things well, many things passably and some things rather poorly. Let’s admit that and get on with the mission. I will lean my weakness against your strength, and we will walk together. And when you are weak, I am right here. I can bear your weight. Feel free to lean as needed.

We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. In his grace, God has given us different gifts for doing certain things well. So if God has given you the ability to prophesy, speak out with as much faith as God has given you. If your gift is serving others, serve them well. If you are a teacher, teach well. If your gift is to encourage others, be encouraging. If it is giving, give generously. If God has given you leadership ability, take the responsibility seriously. And if you have a gift for showing kindness to others, do it gladly.

Romans 12:5-8
I serve best by exercising my gifts and splurging on a good GPS.

Ambivalence

In the State of California, as of September 1, 2019, an abortion may be performed at or after viability only if the patient’s life or health is endangered. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Hartford Police were issued an arrest warrant on a charge of murder to be served on a woman named Chelsea Becker who had delivered a stillborn child back in September. Ms. Becker was arrested, and her bail was set at $5 million dollars, making her release virtually impossible. Her crime was the intentional and illegal use of methamphetamines during her pregnancy, a practice that resulted in the stillbirth.

Now, a stillbirth is the delivery of a child who has died in the mother’s womb after the child reaches the stage of viability. In other words, the child was fully formed and ready for birth, but died before the delivery occurred. This is a child who never breathed the air or saw the light of day in this world. This child died before being born, and the State of California, from a King’s County office through a Hartford Police action publicly acknowledged their allegation that the child was murdered.

I ask myself why this action was taken, and I come away with many questions and no answers at all. I am inclined to wonder, though, whether the arrest was made to force the recent change in the laws regarding abortion into the public eye. The outcry was easily predictable. The defendant would polarize those who heard of the case, some defending the helpless addict in the throes of meth-madness and others pointing accusing fingers at the abortion process, and, perhaps at its practitioners. “Murder is murder” meets compassion for a woman whose life is already spinning out of control – that is a powerful venue to argue over whether this child’s life would be worth living.

Was this a murder or a mercy? Some will argue that it was neither. Perhaps it was both.

It was surely illegal. Even if the child had been intentionally killed by medical means so that its body could be extracted surgically, the process would have been illegal since the first of that month. The fact that it was accomplished using illegal drugs cannot make it more so, but it might make it more obviously so. The lingering question is whether the passing of the September law made this action murder or simply brought to light the fact that, prior to the change in the law, the murder of these innocents was legally defensible.

No reasonable person doubts that fetal tissue that is in the process of developing is alive. The border between life and death is not that mysterious. Some question is raised as to whether the tissue is human, as if women often gave birth to ostriches or kangaroos. This, too, is a gossamer argument, since the same folk tend to rise in indignation when a turtle’s nest or an eagle’s egg is disturbed. It is true that the human race is not currently an endangered species, but that does not change the fact that naturally occurring and developing fetal tissue inside a human body is both alive and human.

I will be watching this case as best I can to see what motivated its public exposure. I cannot believe that its timing was coincidental. My question is not whether it was raised to focus a spotlight in the law’s changes, but by whom and why. It will be interesting to see whose agenda this case will serve.

Is this to be a faceoff between the worshipers of Christ and Moloch? That is unlikely in this highly secularized society. It is true that we all serve, but in this culture most folk don’t recognize the fact that they serve, much less whom they serve. It is more likely to be a clash between those who value the precision of law and those who clamor for convenience.  

If it is disagreeable in your sight to serve the Lord, choose for yourselves today whom you will serve: whether the gods which your fathers served which were beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites in whose land you are living; but as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

Joshua 24:15

Dissension

In my quest for discipleship, I have wrestled with the second chapter of First Timothy more than most passages. If I had not come to terms with the concepts of submission and authority as I have, I could never have assumed the pulpit. Knowing that I am a servant of servants, moving in the authority of One who is wholly Other, as affirmed by the leadership of my denomination, makes me able to speak the Gospel clearly. I wonder, though, how those who lead protests, vow disobedience to the Discipline they previously vowed to uphold, and demean those of us who acknowledge the authority of Scripture reconcile with the earlier portions of that chapter:

First of all, then, I urge that entreaties and prayers, petitions and thanksgivings, be made on behalf of all men, for kings and all who are in authority, so that we may lead a tranquil and quiet life in all godliness and dignity. This is good and acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and one mediator also between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all, the testimony given at the proper time. For this I was appointed a preacher and an apostle (I am telling the truth, I am not lying) as a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and truth. Therefore I want the men in every place to pray, lifting up holy hands, without wrath and dissension.

1 Timothy 2:1-8

Yes, the Paul who honored women in ministry in other passages disallows them in this chapter and in a few other places. I note that Paul made several situational rulings to keep order in The Church during its formational years. Keeping order was a priority because it was essential to maintaining the purity of the Gospel. That never varied within the canon, and it must never change in the faithful expression of Christianity.

It is a distinctly human trait that some of us cannot part ways – in personal relationships, employment or vocational connections – without getting angry and acting out. We know it is better to maintain decorum, remain civil toward one another and respect each other’s right to believe as we do, but some of us can’t seem to manage it. We spit insults, call each other names and braid vitriol into our public communications. The world takes note and discounts the Gospel, and the devil smiles. We, the Body of Christ on Earth, suffer more self-inflicted wounds. (I say this to our shame.)

Christ did not call us to be strictly human. Christ called us to transcend our lesser natures and embrace the image of God first formed in us. We are not called to do our best, but to do the will of God. There is a difference. If we do the will of God as the Holy Spirit empowers us, we will do far better than our paltry best.

We look at the mandate of Paul that we pray for one another and walk at peace, without dissension, and we say that we cannot manage that. We are right. We can’t. But what we cannot do in our own power, God will do through is if we will let it happen.

Does that mean that I believe we should always walk together, despite our disagreements, and keep peace through, yes, submission to authority? Not at all. Paul didn’t model that pattern for us, did he? Rather, when he and Barnabas could not come to an agreement with regard to the ministry of John Mark, they parted company and went their separate ways. (See Acts 15:36-41)

Parting ways may be necessary, but doing damage in the process is both optional and unfaithful. We are better than that, aren’t we? I hope we are. I pray we are.

The world will clamor and rage. The world will declare war and draw blood. Let The Church rise above that. We are a force of love and grace. Let us be that, and no less than that. The same John Wesley who said “We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others.” also said “Think and let think.” I know that I cannot understand how some can read the same Bible I do and read in it something entirely foreign to the truth that leaps out at me, but I am not their judge and they are not mine. We have One Judge, and when He has come, all of these things will be sorted out.

Until then, let’s pray for each other, work together as long as we can, and part company, when we must, with as much grace as we can. The devil is not our pet. Let’s stop feeding him. Let’s stop sicking him on each other.

Father, give us the grace we need to be civil toward each other. Yes, I know that’s not our hearts’ desire. We’d rather lash out at each other like cats and dogs in the alley behind the meeting-house. But that is not Christ-Like, so help us do better. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.