Monthly Archives: January 2016

I Will Be Their God…

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Lake Langano SunriseI, the LORD, will make a New Covenant, not like the one I made before. I will write my instruction on their hearts; I will be their God and they shall be my people. They will all know me, and I will forgive and forget their sins. (from Jeremiah 31:31-34)

I’ve been reflecting lately on the New Covenant. As a pastor, it has been important to me because each time I have led my church in communion (aka the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist), I’ve read Jesus’ words: “this cup is the new covenant in My blood” (see Luke 22:20). There is something powerful, something significant there, but as a 21st century Gentile, the ancient Jewish history is easily lost on me.

The part of that new covenant that is grabbing me right now are the words in the middle:

I will be their God and they shall be my people.

I’m taking each word in turn and reflecting on its significance in the context and for me personally.

I will be their God — I, the Creator of heaven and earth, life giver and life sustainer. I, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I, Yahweh, the LORD; I AM THAT I AM. I, the I AM who appeared and revealed Myself to Moses in the wilderness. I, gracious and compassionate, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. I, both the Judge and the Forgiver of Sins. I, the Redeemer, the Savior, the Messiah/Christ. I—and no other—will be their God.

I will be their God — I am not yet their God, as much as I want to be; they haven’t let me be their God. But I will be; one day in the future, I will be; they will let me, want me, long for me. Not yet, but one day….

I will be their God — Specifically, I will be the God of the House of Israel and the House of Jacob. In that future day when I will be their God, “they” will include Gentiles grafted into that house like a wild olive shoot grafted into an olive tree (see Romans 11:11-24). I will be the God of all those who believe in me, who worship the Christ Redeemer, who reject all other gods. i will be their God.

And they — those same ones who believe in Me—shall be My people.

And they shall be My people — they’re not yet; remember, they haven’t accepted Me yet. They’ve fought me and left me and rejected me and pretended to be me. But one day, they shall be my people.

And they shall be My people — I will claim them and adopt them and love them as my own. I will nourish them, nurture them, teach them. I will lavish my extravagant love upon them. They shall be mine, my very own, and no one else’s.

And they shall be My people — not my peoples, distinct and numerous different groups; but people…one people, one family, one body, one Church…one. Each one unique and special and a treasured possession, but still one people. My people, my children, my dearly loved ones. They shall be My people.

To one who has never known family, never known the passionate, fault-forgiving, undying love of a mother or father, these words are almost impossible to explain. It is difficult to fully grasp the hope that is laced into the words, “I will be their God and they shall be My people.” It’s a bit like trying to explain to a 20-year-old how they will know when they have met “the right one”: you will just know it.

When Jeremiah wrote God’s words the New Covenant, “I will be their God and they shall be My people,” it was still future; it was not yet.

When Jesus Christ brought the New Covenant into reality, it became now and not yet.

One day—when the time is come and The Day is upon us and Christ comes again—the New Covenant will simply be now.

And the LORD will say, “I am their God, and they are My people.” Welcome home.

We’re Not as Colorblind as We Think

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Martin-Luther-King-1964-leaning-on-a-lecternSeveral months ago I read an article in Christianity Today called “Pastor, Can I Come to Your Church?” The article detailed an experiment intended to gauge the level of implicit racial bias* in churches by studying how they responded to an email asking for information about the church. Emails were sent to 3,000 churches; the only difference between the requests was the name of the signer: each name suggested the writer’s ethnicity as white, black, Hispanic, or Asian. [*Implicit racial bias is made up of the stereotypes and attitudes that affect how we unconsciously think about and act toward something or someone.]

The results of the study, culled from 1,500 responses, were surprising and humbling. If you’re a church leader, you need to read the article; if you’re not, you should still read it.

I have long prided myself for my color-blindness. (That alone should have been a warning.)
After all, I’ve lived in four countries on two continents, including three months in the heart of Watts in South Central Los Angeles—on what police described as “the good end of the street with the highest crime in LA”, an area that was later decimated by riots. I went to high school with kids from more than a dozen nations. I’ve traveled throughout Europe and have spent time in Africa, Mexico, and South Korea. I dated an African-American girl while in the Air Force. I couldn’t be racist, could I?

But that article about implicit racial bias has stuck in my throat. I may not cross the street when approaching a black man on the sidewalk, but do I move my wallet to a front pocket? When I see an Arab-looking man in a public place, do I start thinking about escape routes…just in case? When I read of yet another police shooting, do I automatically assume it was justified?

About ten o’clock last night I went to the store to get Kleenex® for my sick daughter. At the only register open there was an argument between the white cashier and three black women. Though relatively calm, the customers were complaining that the cashier had been rude; she was trying to defend herself, explaining that she was simply following procedures—something about the amount of their purchase, identification, and possible identity theft.

With the argument still going on, the cashier rang up my purchase and I backed out of the line, still blocked by the upset customers. As I was leaving, a supervisor came over and tried, unsuccessfully, to explain the procedures the clerk had followed. I wondered what might have happened if the clerk had simply said, “I’m sorry. Will you please forgive me?”

The situation occupied my mind all the way home. I hoped the race card wouldn’t be pulled. I desperately wanted it not to be about race; it probably wasn’t…and at the same time, it probably was. Even if the cashier truly didn’t consider that the women were black; even if a self-checkout register would have resulted in the same ID check; in the customers’ minds, there is a race component, born out of hundreds of years of black oppression by whites.

Today is Martin Luther King Jr. Day in the U.S., a day set aside to remember the slain leader of the civil rights movement of the 1960s and, by extension, to consider the broader race situation in what politicians love to call “The Greatest Nation on Earth.” Judging by that race situation, the moniker is not well deserved. We have come far, but not too far…and certainly not far enough.

I don’t even know what “far enough” would look like, but I don’t have much hope of seeing it in my lifetime. But if we—if I—can start by becoming more aware of these implicit biases, and then try to change just one of those, maybe that’s a good start.

The apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Sometimes it seems like an impossible dream—and it is, but for those last three words: in Christ Jesus.

Words

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LettersI received one of the most unusual gifts ever for my birthday this year. Wrapped in gold paper and tied with a gold ribbon, the package came with a note: “words—no matter when written—are gold, both to the reader and the composer.” High expectations. Inside were four large envelopes, each half an inch thick, with my name and dates from 1981 to 1991.

As I pulled the contents from the oldest envelope, I discovered a stack of hand-written letters I sent my parents beginning when I was seventeen. 

I’m curious, intrigued, and a bit scared to pore over those letters. I’m not sure if I want my wife and kids to read them. (The note even came with the warning, “Some may be tempted to chuckle—or even laugh aloud—if you share your letters.”) I know some of who I was and what I experienced during that decade, and not all of it was pretty. I struggled with the same things other young people have struggled with throughout history: girls, parents, jobs, the future, God. I didn’t struggle as much as I probably should have with other things: my own arrogance, my well-developed legalism, selfishness.

In spite of my fears, part of me can’t wait to read my own correspondence. What was important in those years? What brought me joy and hope? What light will I find to illuminate dark areas of my life today? Where will I find wisdom…and foolishness? Will there be the predicted gold in my own words?


But another thought came to me this morning, too: what—and how—would I have written if I had known my letters would be saved? 

Every few years I get interested in my family’s history. I have waded into the stories that were a gift from my grandfather twenty years ago, and from my own parents in the past few. I’ve wanted to give a similar gift to my own children, and have already begun to write some of those stories for them; undoubtedly these four envelopes will fill in gaps in my memories, offering both details and insights that have been relegated to the darkest corners of my mind.

The pages in these envelopes will serve as candles in those dark corners, but candles offer scant light; much will lay yet hidden in flickering shadows—the context of my life in which each letter was written. Much happened over the decade represented there: leaving home for the first time, college (twice), an entire military career, dating and engagement; I lived in Seattle, Los Angeles, England, and San Diego; I loved and left God, then came back to him.

Had I tried to tell the story of my life as it happened, I would undoubtedly have written differently; only reading what I did write will give clues to how I might have written. Which makes me think of some other writers: those whose words we read and study and meditate on today as Holy Scripture.

Did Paul know he was writing not only to a few churches in the Roman Empire, but to generations of Christians for more than two thousand years? Did the four gospel writers have any idea that theologians would pick apart their words—and the similarities and differences between them—to see who copied whom? Did they recognize the impact made by the unique writing styles of a tax collector, a physician, a fisherman, and disciple’s assistant?

One of the most amazing things about the Bible—one of the compelling evidences of its authenticity—is that its writers made little apparent effort to present themselves in the best light.

Moses, author of the first five books of the Bible, does not hesitate to write of his own sins: murder, disobedience, anger. Jeremiah records his inadequacy for the role of prophet with the same veracity as the prophecies themselves. Paul at times seems to stress his own weaknesses and spiritual struggles as much as God’s power in and over them.

As I write, America is deep into an election cycle overflowing with both candidates and mud. Debates are as blustery as a New England Nor’easter. Honesty and openness are as wanting as humility—apparently, they don’t get you far in a political campaign. Men and women vying for the chance to fix a desperately broken nation seem to believe that vain promises and political posturing offer that hope. How wrong they are. How empty their words.

Maybe my mom’s note was only partly true. Maybe not all words are gold; maybe some are clay, destined to dry up and crumble with the passing of time.

But words of honesty and openness—words spoken (or written) without pretense or vanity or the illusion of endurance… these are gold.

As I pore over my own words long ago, I expect I’ll find a lot of clay: promises of undying love long since buried; dreams that dispersed with the alarm of a distant clock. But perhaps buried in the midst of the clay will be a few words of gold, too—a treasure to be found only by taking up my pick and shovel and digging into those overstuffed envelopes.

Of Pith Helmets and Snake Skins and Coffee Shops

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Cardboard Record PlayerThe memory couldn’t be much clearer if I had a photo: a large classroom, probably twenty feet wide by thirty long. Tables in the middle and around the edges of the room covered with all sorts of exciting and intriguing things: photos, cardboard record players, blowguns. A twenty-foot snake skin, no less than eighteen inches across.

What else could a ten-year-old boy want in a church basement?

I grew up in church, and my parents have been what I affectionately refer to as “professional Christians” since before I could know anything different. They have never liked being known as missionaries, and I didn’t think of them as that until our fifth move—to the exotic foreign lands of West Germany—when I was fourteen. But from long before my birth, our family was involved with churches that were passionate about global missions, and that sought to instill that passion in their congregations through annual missions conferences.

While missionaries to India, China, and Africa shared their stories and gave their challenges to the grown-ups upstairs, the younger crowd of fidgety boys and girls wandered wide-eyed through the displays that had transformed their Sunday School rooms. In the same rooms where we learned ancient stories about lions licking their lips at Daniel, we now heard about men like Jim Eliot and Nate Saint who had, just twenty years earlier, died at the hands of the Aucas in Ecuador.

Long before Indiana Jones traveled the world in quest of the Holy Grail or the Temple of Doom, that adventure-laden classroom when I was ten grabbed my own heart. 

Long before the Jesus film became the most-translated evangelistic tool in history, that cardboard record player was the first audio New Testament I’d seen and heard.

It seems strange that only this one conference has wedged its way into my conscious memory. My family’s frequent cross-country trips to raise financial support and visit churches often coincided with those churches’ own missions events, but none evokes the memories of that snakeskin and blowgun.

I have been to many other missions conferences over the years, as well. The speakers and their presentations are often (not always!) polished and engaging. High-definition photos and professional-quality videos shown on massive screens bring the missions to life for those of us whose biggest adventure is often a twice-daily freeway commute. But for a ten-year-old boy, nothing could compare with feeling a snakeskin or shooting a blowdart.

Not everyone who sits in church on Sunday morning is called to cross oceans as a missionary. Jesus called some to follow him and others to go back to their homes. But every Christian has a part in the “all peoples” mission of God—a mission that reaches from our homes to our communities to our nation…and to the ends of the earth.

So how will we train our kids, our young people, our churches to reach those ends? How will we grab their hearts for places and people a world away? 

 

Papua New Guinea StarbucksAs I write this, I’m sitting in Starbucks working on a paper about engaging the local church in missions (and, interestingly, listening to Chris Tomlin’s “Good, Good Father” play over the house speakers!). I’m surrounded by a dozen books about the what, why, and how of missions. And on the walls, paintings evoke the many areas of the world where the company gets its beans: Sulawesi, Tanzania, Yergacheffe, Papua New Guinea.

Maybe the heart-grabbing could begin right here as we find those places on a map and start learning about the people behind the coffee.

True Confessions

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Last November I wrote a post called, “Preemptive Forgiveness.” In it I suggested that Jesus’ model on the cross was to offer forgiveness to those who were in the very act of sinning against him—and that we are likewise called to offer forgiveness even before confession takes place.

Throughout Scripture, God reveals Himself as the initiator of grace. Nowhere is this more evident than in Jesus’ crucifixion; Paul states it beautifully in Romans 5:8—”but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (emphasis added). Following Jesus’ example means that we must also be initiators of grace.

But forgiveness is only one side of the equation.

Relationships are two sided, and broken relationships are not restored only by forgiveness. Not even the relationship between a person and God. Those who say that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring reconciliation to all humanity are preaching a universalism that denies Scripture.

Reconciliation—whether between God and persons, or between two individuals—demands not only forgiveness, but also confession.

Without confession, there is no possibility for reconciliation. (Tweet this.)

Confession says, “I was wrong.” It is one of the most humbling statements we can make. But even confession is not one dimensional. “I was wrong” is a start, but not a finish. In many marriage conferences, I’ve been taught that the most important words I can say to my wife are, “I’m sorry. I was wrong. Please forgive me.” According to Gary D. Chapman and Jennifer M. Thomas, though, there is still more!

In their book, When Sorry Isn’t Enough, Chapman and Thomas discuss five aspects of a healthy apology:

  • expressing regret (“I’m sorry”)
  • accepting responsibility (“I was wrong”)
  • making restitution (“how can I make it right?”)
  • genuine repentance (“I want to change”)
  • requesting forgiveness (“Can you find it in your heart…?”; or, in my words, “please forgive me”)

The authors suggest that each of us needs to hear one or two of these statements more than the others. For some, “I’m sorry” is sufficient; others need the hope of change.

In the same way, we probably tend to use one of these statements over the others—even if it’s not what the other person needs to hear. Sometimes that can do more harm than good.

True, full confession, however, demands all five: genuine regret, responsibility, restitution, repentance, and requesting forgiveness.

What do you need to hear when you have been hurt? Does your spouse or other close friend know this? What do they need to hear from you?

Maybe this is a good topic of conversation for this evening.