Unlocking Christian Growth Through Spiritual Conversation: A Review of “The Lost Discipline of Conversation”

12 Jun

Introduction

Spiritual disciplines such as Bible reading, meditation, fasting, prayer, solitude, and silence are widely known and often practiced in Christian circles. The spiritual discipline of spiritual conference is less well-known and rarely practiced. Joanne J. Jung attempts to revive interest in spiritual conference through this historically rich and immensely practical book. Jung is a professor of biblical and theological studies at Biola University. She has studied Puritan spirituality extensively. In studying the Puritans, Jung saw the emphasis on conference in their memoirs, correspondence, and theological writings. Conference is promoted in these pages as an important part of the answer to what ails us as a Christian culture such as the lack of connection between Sunday and the rest of the week and the growing isolation of life with all its detrimental effects. Jung posits that our isolation and sanctification deficits can be addressed through meaningful dialogue, attentive listening, and intentional engagement with one another. Therefore, she says, we must recapture the lost Puritan discipline of spiritual conference.

Summary

Jung’s book divides into three parts. Part one defines spiritual conference and points to its benefits. Throughout this section, the Puritans are highlighted as a model of a people who practiced effective spiritual conference. The second part of the book discusses how spiritual conference looks in various contexts (such as small groups, family, marriage, and pastoral ministry). The final part of the book is a series of Bible study summaries written with spiritual conference in mind.

As Jung attempts to rediscover spiritual conference in part one, she begins by describing our current cultural situation, which she sees as a longing for community but an increasing difficulty in experiencing community. Isolation leads to unattended souls. Small groups and accountability groups have tried to address isolation but these groups often fail to address the soul with the attentiveness that will lead believers to be more Christlike. Spiritual disciplines cannot make spiritual growth happen but they can be means of grace as the Holy Spirit works through them. Spiritual conference, extended interpersonal spiritual conversations aimed at growth in grace, was an integral spiritual discipline among the Puritans but it has fallen out of favor in our day. Jung contends that conference is a critical means of spiritual growth but warns that it must be grounded in the Bible. As the Bible was central to Puritan spirituality, so should it be for us. Bible reading, meditation, the sermon, and conference were all key Puritan means of progress in faith. Jung urges us to follow the Puritans in emphasizing the importance of the sermon and encourages us to listen attentively, take notes, repeat the sermon to others, and discuss the sermon through conference. Jung notes the Puritan Richard Baxter considered conference done well as more profitable for the souls of those he worked with than years of only sitting under preaching. This leads Jung to the conclusion that while reading, meditation, and hearing sermons are all essential, conference is the missing piece that empowers all these ways of interacting with God’s Word. Conference is helpful for increasing biblical literacy, solidifying the practice of Bible memorization, and providing deep soul care to those who engage in the practice. While extolling the virtues of conference, Jung does not minimize its challenges. She affirms that it is difficult to connect in our world for deep conversation. So she concludes part one by discussing how to work through a spiritual conversation through the use of informational, transitional and transformational questions.

Part two focuses on what spiritual conference looks like in various contexts. Small groups are enriched through the practice of spiritual conversation. Families, with special responsibility falling to the father after the Puritan (and biblical) way, can be shaped incredibly through conference. Jung recommends weekly conference from parents to each child and shows the benefit of this practice in her own family. Husbands and wives can similarly benefit through conference as trust, vulnerability, and listening skills are enhanced. Pastors are dealt with from two perspectives in part two of the book. First, they are encouraged to conference with church members. In this section, Jung indicates a connection between the vitality of a pastor’s ministry and the willingness of members to ask for the pastor’s time for conference. Jung also encourages pastors to conference with other pastors. The value of talking with other pastors is hard to overestimate, but the barriers to such conversations are formidable. Jung provides many probing questions which seek to lower the walls between pastors.

In a book about spiritual conference, one might expect a certain aversion to the use of technology for spiritual conference. Jung surprisingly chooses instead to leverage technology for the good of the church. In the end, though, she insists that while technology might open the door to conference, we must ultimately deal person-to-person, preferably face-to-face, for maximum benefit.

Part three of the book is immensely practical: a series of Bible studies on several well-known passages suitable for use in conference with other believers. Jung’s outline for these studies is quite creative. She uses four memorable phrases: Ground Rules (genre), Background (historical context), Ground Work (biblical truths and applications) and Holy Ground (personal response).  These phrases summarize a simple method for Bible study which can be used in any context but are especially helpful for a setting in which spiritual conference will be taking place.

The book concludes with several brief appendices. Jung focuses in these sections on the believer’s identity in Christ, defining the spiritual disciplines, and providing brief summaries of the Puritans who have been referenced in the book.

Critical Evaluation

The three parts of this book really deserve separate evaluations. In part one, Jung makes an excellent case for the necessity of reclaiming spiritual conference. She is careful to see it as a means of grace rather than a quick fix that will make everything right. Jung does not oversell spiritual conference and she doesn’t underestimate the challenges we face in trying to see conference as a regular part of our lives. The chief weakness of this section was its limited use of Puritan material. Because of the historical snapshots interspersed in the text it can appear that the Puritans are at the heart of this material but I really believe the Puritans are the props for the arguments Jung wants to make. In other words, Jung is not building her case on the Puritans, she is using the Puritans for support for her case. On a side note, the historical snapshots were an annoying feature of part one, being more distracting than helpful. This is especially true in light of appendix in the book which provided brief paragraphs on all the figures featured in the book.

The book shines in its second part. Jung is at her practical best here and seeing conference through the various perspectives of church and family was so useful. The two sections on pastors were also excellent. The use of questions and the progression from informational to transitional to transformational will prove useful to me in ministry. In addition to the information in this section, I also appreciated its tone. Jung’s insistence that we listen to each other, that we empathize, that we take time to really converse, is so welcome in the world of social media snippets and news soundbites.

The final section of the book was least useful to me. I believe it would have been better as a final chapter in the second part focusing on Bible study in spiritual conference. This section provided a memorable four-fold pattern for Bible study but there was no need for so many studies of different passages. One or two passages would be sufficient, but Jung goes through Bible studies on seven passages, with much repetition and similarity between each study. This section could have been greatly shortened without a great loss in terms of its value.

The theological perspective Jung brings to the book is hard to pinpoint, therefore the book should have a broad appeal to earnest believers. The greatest challenge of the book may be dealing with the issue of time in one’s personal priorities. The approach to spirituality Jung advocates is simply not on the radar of most believers, because most believers do not invest the time necessary in personal spiritual disciplines. Even the most earnest believers are limited in the time they give to prayer and Bible reading, much less to fasting or solitude or spiritual conference. We are distracted, busy and not given to the kind of contemplation and conversation Jung advocates. This is not a criticism of her book but an indictment of many of our lives. Busyness is the enemy of depth and depth is a necessity when dealing with the soul, whether our own soul or that of others. Jung recognizes this and points readers toward serious engagement with God and one another. But I fear many readers will agree with the principles of the book but never put them into practice because of the time crunch.

Conclusion

Joanne Jung has written a book worthy of wide and careful reading. The emphasis on thoughtful and unhurried conference between Christian friends is a welcome antidote to our deeply wired but personally disconnected world. The practical thoughts on good questioning, moving in a progression from information to transformation is much needed. The historical background of the Puritans gives support to the idea of conferencing, bringing it forth not as a fad or as the author’s own creation, but as a practice with historical merit. Case studies of conference between parents and children, husbands and wives, pastors and parishioners were enlightening. I was personally challenged to implement the principles of conference in my own life and ministry. What might happen to the health of local churches if pastors conferenced with their members like the Puritan Richard Baxter? How might church health deepen if fathers led their families in spiritual conference? What new vistas of growth and health might emerge in a congregation regularly engaged in spiritual conference?

The last several decades of evangelicalism in America have demonstrated the insufficiency of church growth apart from church health. If evangelicalism is to thrive in the mid-twenty-first century, it will have to be more like the path laid out by Joanne Jung. This is the vine work, the people work, so well referenced in Colin Marshall’s and Tony Payne’s book The Trellis and the Vine. We would do well to heed the wisdom of these authors and make our aim healthy disciples who make disciples, for the glory of God and the blessing of the world.

The Simplest Way I Have Found to Learn Scripture

7 May

Apart from repeated reading, the best way I have found to commit verses to my heart is through what I call the first letter method. Take an index card and write out your verse on one side, with the reference. Then, on the other side, just write out the first letter of each word. So if we did this with our church memory verses for May, the front of your card would look like this . . .

Hosea 6:1-3

Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.

The back of your card would look like this . . .

Hosea 6:1-3

C,  l  u  r  t  t  L; f  h  h  t  u, t  h  m  h  u; h  h  s  u  d, a  h  w  b  u  u. 2 A  t  d  h  w  r  u;
o  t  t  d, h  w  r  u  u, t  w  m  l  b  h. L  u  k; l  u  p  o  t  k  t  L; h  g  o  i  s  a  t  d;  h  w  c  t u  a  t  s, a  t  s  r  t  w  t  e.

Now, to you, the back of the card may look like a secret code. But I would encourage you to carefully read through the verses on your screen four or five times. After reading through the verses, see how much you can remember without looking at anything. Then, try to remember the verses using just the first letters as highlighted above. You should find that you can remember quite a bit by using just the first letter. I hope this method will help some of us who think we can’t learn God’s Word by heart.

2019 Bible Reading Plan — Faith-Builder Verses

6 May

With our 2019 Bible Reading Plan, we are including a memory verse each month which goes along with the reading schedule. These verses will strengthen your faith as you commit them to heart. You can learn them. You need to learn them. There are so many things competing for your attention. Unless you intentionally set your mind on the things of God, you will find your life with God quickly crowded out by other things. As you learn the verses, really think about them. This is not a legalistic endeavor, it is a path to joy for those who pursue it.

May – Hosea 6:1-3

“Come, let us return to the Lord; for he has torn us, that he may heal us; he has struck us down, and he will bind us up. 2 After two days he will revive us;
on the third day, he will raise us up, that we may live before him. Let us know; let us press on to know the Lord; his going out is sure as the dawn;
he will come to us as the showers, as the spring rains that water the earth.”

June – Micah 7:18

18 Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love.

July – Habakkuk 3:17-19

Though the fig tree should not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, 18 yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places.

August – 1 Timothy 4:12-16

12 Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity. 13 Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. 14 Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. 15 Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. 16 Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers.

September – 2 Timothy 2:3-7

Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him. An athlete is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules. It is the hard-working farmer who ought to have the first share of the crops. Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything.

October – Hebrews 12:1-3

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

November – James 1:21-22

21 Therefore put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls. 22 But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.

December – 2 Peter 1:3-4

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

 

A Pagan King Saw It Do We?

5 May

He does as he pleases with the powers of heaven and the peoples of the earth. No one can hold back his hand or say to him: “What have you done?”

Daniel 4:35

We Love a Good Redemption Story

17 Apr

In the last week or so, two great stories of redemption have come to us from the world of sports. On Monday, April 8th, the Virginia Cavaliers outlasted the Texas Tech Red Raiders to take the NCAA Men’s College Basketball Championship. The Cavs played some thrilling games in the tournament. Their game with Purdue in the Elite Eight was one of the best games I have ever seen. But after last year’s embarrassing defeat in the first round at the hands of the UMBC Retrievers, Virginia’s triumph a few days ago was sweet. This team went from being the first #1 seed to lose to a #16 seed to National Champions in one year. Most of the core players on the team who suffered through the loss in 2018 were back in 2019. Coach Tony Bennett, by all accounts a strong Christian, handled both the defeat of last year and this year’s victory with great class.

Then, this past weekend, at the Masters . . . Tiger Woods, consigned to the scrap heap of what might have been, put together a solid tournament and a poised final round to rise to the top of the golf world once again, winning the Green Jacket he had first won twenty-two years ago. Tiger’s problems on a personal level and a health level seemed to have him down and out, never again to win a major. But in the last year or so there have been little inklings. Then, victory.

We love a good redemption story. It is fitting that these two great sports stories happened around Easter. Redemption doesn’t get any better than the cross and the empty tomb. Our hearts long for redemption and our heart’s longings are satisfied in the dying and rising of the perfect Son of God, who paid the price we were not able to pay to purchase our pardon. We are free and forgiven because He was despised and rejected.

Then the third day . . . victory! Redemption has been accomplished. “Thine is the glory, risen, conquering Son, endless is the victory, Thou o’er death hath won.”

 

“If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world.”  C.S. Lewis

On the Timing of Outrageous Statements

9 Jan

When well-known Christian celebrities say something that seems to stretch the boundaries of acceptable doctrine or practice or if they say something unconventional, shocking or offensive it is a near certainty that one thing is at work . . . they are about to release a new book.

I know it sounds cynical to say such a thing, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen an article from some Christian celebrity that stirs the internet pot right before the release of a new soon to be best-seller.

The world would call this marketing. I call it tacky. We can do better. And honestly, one of the ways we can do better (as readers and Christians) is to not give very much attention to the outrageous. I know the grotesque and extreme have a way of drawing our eyes but maybe we can find a way to not give in to the urge to be drawn to flashiness. Maybe, just maybe such an approach would enable us to see if there is really anything there when the latest book is released, or if we’ve just been duped by slick (or sick) salesmanship.

Anyway, beware that stoking the latest controversy in the Christian blogosphere gives the controversialists exactly what they want: attention. And eyeballs mean dollar signs, or notoriety, or a dozen other types of fool’s gold.

In the end, nobody is making you respond to everything and nobody is making you listen to everything. You don’t have to listen to me. You can think every controversy that comes down the line is a life or death struggle of the faith if you want. Just know that sometimes wrestling with a pig just makes you dirty, and the pig enjoys himself.

Sermon — John 1:4,5 “Christ the Light”

8 Jan

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

           As we begin our new year with the theme “you are the light of the world,” we must remember we can only be the light of the world because Jesus is the light of the world. Though we were made in God’s image and are loved by Him, because of humanity’s fall into sin we must acknowledge that in us is darkness. We are born sinful, selfish in inclination and we show in our daily actions our tendency toward living in darkness. We have already this day probably sinned in thought or action or word. Without Jesus, we have no lasting light to give, we tend to spread darkness instead. So as we think about ourselves as the light of the world in 2019, we must remember that being the light of the world is only possible through faith in Jesus Christ. As we turn from sin and trust Him to save us from sin and self, He begins to change us, He begins to shape us, He begins to make us like Himself: holy, loving, faithful, and true. No one can be the light of the world apart from the saving grace of the One who is the light of the world. In creation, when light was given, the formless and void universe began to take shape. So with us, when the light of Christ comes into our life, He begins to change us and shape us and make us His own, so that we then become the light of the world. And if we are to be the light of the world in 2019, we must focus on the light of Christ within us rather than our earthen vessels and our feet of clay. Instead of obsessing over looks or finances or success or politics or comfort or all the other things of this life, let us look unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith. Our scripture text shows us the way of life and light. The alternative is darkness and death. Without Jesus, that’s all we get in the end . . . darkness and death. But light has come into the world. And it shines in the darkness, even today. And by grace through faith, we have life, abundant life that rings out to eternity.

          In Him was life. He who is the way, the truth, and the life has life in Himself, which He gives to all who believe. And how does He give this life? Through giving up His own life. His death brings us life. His facing darkness gives us light.

He is the light. The light of the world, who forgives the darkness of all who believe. Go with me for a moment to the cross. The end and the beginning. The light shines in the darkness. Never did the light shine as it did in this darkness. George Herbert’s words came to me as I meditated on these things, from his poem, The Sacrifice . . .

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;

Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;

The tree of life to all, but only me:  Was ever grief like mine?

 

Lo, here I hang, charged with a world of sin,

The greater world o’ th’ two; for that came in

By words, but this by sorrow I must win:

Was ever grief like mine?

 

Such sorrow as, if sinful man could feel,

Or feel his part, he would not cease to kneel.

Till all were melted, though he were all steel:

Was ever grief like mine?

 

But, O my God, my God! why leav’st thou me,

The Son, in whom thou dost delight to be?

My God, my God ——

Never was grief like mine.

 

Shame tears my soul, my body many a wound;

Sharp nails pierce this, but sharper that confound; Reproches, which are free, while I am bound. Was ever grief like mine?

 

Now heal thy self, Physician; now come down.

Alas! I did so, when I left my crown

And fathers smile for you, to feel his frown:

Was ever grief like mine?

 

In healing not myself, there doth consist

All that salvation, which ye now resist;

Your safety in my sickness doth subsist:

Was ever grief like mine?

 

Betwixt two thieves I spend my utmost breath,

As he that for some robbery suffereth.

Alas! What have I stolen from you?  Death.

Was ever grief like mine?

 

A king my title is, prefixt on high;

Yet by my subjects am condemn’d to die

A servile death in servile company:

Was ever grief like mine?

 

They give me vinegar mingled with gall,

But more with malice: yet, when they did call,

With Manna, Angels food, I fed them all:

Was ever grief like mine?

 

They part my garments, and by lot dispose

My coat, the type of love, which once cur’d those Who sought for help, never malicious foes: Was ever grief like mine?

 

Nay, after death their spite shall further go;

For they will pierce my side, I full well know;

That as sin came, so Sacraments might flow:

Was ever grief like mine?

But now I die; now all is finished.

My wo, mans weal: and now I bow my head.

Only let others say, when I am dead,

Never was grief like mine.

The man of sorrows, the Son of Man, the Son of God at the close of an earthly life of perfection, compassion and spiritual power has been shamelessly betrayed, falsely convicted, ridiculed, insulted, and brutally beaten. He is stretched upon a cross and viciously nailed there. He is hanged between two thieves. He who never so much as had a sinful thought is treated as a common criminal. The light of the world is being horribly mistreated, really beyond our imagining. Yet words of forgiveness and care come from His lips. And as the light of the world sacrifices Himself for our sakes, in the strange symmetry of God’s wise plan, darkness falls over the earth and the God-Man is God-forsaken. But the light shines in the darkness. And the darkness has not overcome it.

The light has come and shines in the darkness, even the darkness of His own death. But if the light that shines in the darkness is finally extinguished on the cross, no matter the magnitude of the sacrifice, we are left without hope and without God in the world. If the cross is the end, death wins. But on the third day, with the breaking of the day, with the dawning of the light, the stone is rolled away, the Son has risen, the One who was dead is raised to life as the light of a new day dawns. Why? Because the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. What all the forces of evil hoped for on the cross came to naught as Jesus was raised in victory. The light could not be extinguished. He rose not as a flickering candle on a stormy night. He rose not as he came, a tiny baby born on a dark night illuminated by a wondrous star. No, He rose on the early morn as the blazing sun on the horizon of history, illuminating the world, bringing a new day. “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” This risen Christ is our hope. And His is a hope that shines. He didn’t have just this moment, just these few years on earth to shine. No, the light shines in the darkness. Present tense. When we look at Jesus in His perfect life, His atoning death, His glorious resurrection, His victorious ascension, and His eagerly-awaited return, how can we say anything about Him other than what He said in John 8:12, “I am the light of the world”?

The good news is that what happened on that first Easter morn is the spiritual experience of all who truly trust in Jesus for the forgiveness of their sins and their reconciliation with God. Light has dawned and life has come. Death has been defeated and darkness flees. Can’t you identify with Charles Wesley’s hymn And Can it Be? “Long my imprisoned spirit lay, fast bound in sin and nature’s night. Thine eye diffused a quickening ray, I woke, the dungeon flamed with light. My chains fell off, my heart was free, I rose, went forth and followed Thee. Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou my God woulds’t die for me?” Our hearts were enlightened through Jesus’ saving grace and the Spirit’s eye-opening work. So often when we talk about our salvation we say, “I saw the light” or “the lightbulb came on.” Suddenly things I have heard for years made sense. And not only in our salvation but now in our daily life, light has come. We have been delivered from the domain of darkness into His marvelous light and are now urged to walk in the light. And even now we shine like lights in the world as we hold out the Word of life. And in the end, when we are glorified, one day, we are going to shine. Matthew 13 – “The righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father.” The Father, the One who loved us so much that He gave His only Son in death to make those living in death and darkness His very own sons and daughters. This is the gospel. God makes His enemies not only His friends but His very children through the sacrifice of His Son. God made us and loves us. But because of sin, we are in darkness. Yet in God is no darkness at all. So He sent His beloved Son Jesus to walk through the darkness of the cross, to pay the penalty for our sins, to take the judgment we deserved. Through faith in Jesus, light enters our hearts.

Light and Life to all He brings, Ris’n with healing in His wings. Mild He lays His glory by, Born that men no more may die, Born to raise the sons of earth, Born to give them second birth.” This is the good news we are called to share with others. Not the light of ourselves or our goodness, but the light of the gospel, the good news that God delivers us from the domain of darkness and transfers us into the kingdom of His beloved Son. Of course, we share more than words, but our acts of love are empowered by and point to Jesus because the adequacy is from God and not from ourselves and the glory belongs to God and not to us. He gets the glory and we get the blessing of walking with Him as His children. And when darkness veils our eyes for the last time and we never wake again in this world, we know as sons and daughters of the King that we enter a new and endless day. We know in the end . . . Revelation 21 . . . And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. 23 And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.24 By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, 25 and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.

This year, we are going to try to do a hymn of the month. Sometimes it may be a familiar hymn and sometimes a new hymn, but we will try to sing it each Sunday of the month. This month, we will be singing a great hymn from Stuart Townend and Keith Getty. This hymn so fits the message this morning that I decided to move Victory in Jesus to another week.

In Christ alone, my hope is found,

He is my light, my strength, my song;
This Cornerstone, this solid Ground,
Firm through the fiercest drought and storm.
What heights of love, what depths of peace,
When fears are stilled, when strivings cease!
My Comforter, my All in All,
Here in the love of Christ I stand.

In Christ alone! – who took on flesh,
Fullness of God in helpless babe.
This gift of love and righteousness,
Scorned by the ones He came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ, I live.

There in the ground, His body lay,
Light of the world by darkness slain:
Then bursting forth in glorious day
Up from the grave, He rose again!
And as He stands in victory
Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me,
For I am His and He is mine –
Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death,
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand:
Till He returns or calls me home,
Here in the power of Christ, I’ll stand.

In Him was life and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Amen. Let’s stand together and sing.

 

 

Death Undone — Mark 16:1-8

7 Jan

Our scripture text is Mark 16:1-8 . . .

When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back—it was very large. And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

 On this last Sunday of the year, as we have remembered those who have passed away in 2018, I thought it appropriate to consider today a theme from Mark’s gospel which will lift our spirits and fill us with hope if we will hear it. It is the theme of resurrection. Christmas is over, so now we enter the period we call winter without much to look forward to except entry into a new year, a new year filled with high aspirations but likely to end with shattered dreams, unforeseen challenges, and unexpected twists. Call me a cynic, but it is the nature of life in a fallen world: nothing ever quite works according to our expectations. Some may counsel us in light of this fact to abandon our expectations, or at least to lower them. But when I look at the scriptures, I am compelled to a new vision, a higher one, a deeper one. It is a vision that rings true to our hearts. But we have an annoying tendency to choose what is false and temporary over what is eternal. In the end, unless we see the deeper and higher reality of resurrection, we’re unlikely to end up anywhere in this life but frustrated and flummoxed and in the life to come we are absolutely certain to find ourselves in an eternity of misery. So I come here this morning to urge you to cast your anchor into the rock of resurrection and not the sands of this life. I come to exhort you to bank of what is to come rather than what is. I come to encourage hope in place of anxiety and holy awe in place of self-obsession.

Resurrection is everywhere but we seldom see. Or if we see we do not consider. We see it in every sunrise if we have eyes to see. The earth’s rotation in relation to the sun gives us a daily glimpse of light from darkness, of life from death. We see it in the seasons, as the tilt of the earth and its revolution around the sun produces those distinctive cycles of decay, death, and rebirth. Resurrection is seen in nature, as in the life cycle of the butterfly, cocooned a plain caterpillar, emerging a splendid beauty, some even called monarchs, another word for those who reign.

          What did those women see, on that first resurrection day? Were they looking for life? Certainly not. They were expecting death and decay. That’s why they went to the tomb with spices, to preserve the body in death. We’re often not looking for resurrection when it is right in front of us, because so often life has beaten us up and torn us down. We live in a world of suffering, and many of you who walked that path of suffering with your loved one in 2018 have the scars to show, scars that will heal in years rather than days. And in that suffering, you may be straining to see resurrection. You, like the women, may be occupied by death rather than life. You are trying to figure out how you will go on from here, what life looks like without your loved one. You believe in resurrection, it’s just not much on your mind right now. You’re not a lot different from those ladies at the tomb on Sunday morning, who would have affirmed the general spiritual principle of resurrection but couldn’t imagine it in the here and now.

The fact is, like these ladies, for many of you not only is resurrection not much on your mind, you’re not particularly well-equipped to deal with the problems of everyday life right in front of you. There’s a big stone in the way for the women, sealed up and heavy. There’s no way they’re moving that thing. They are going to need help. They are talking to each other, expressing their anxiety about the stone, just as we so often in our helplessness share our anxieties with one another. What is around the corner? What fearful thing will face me tomorrow? We have all learned from being in this body of believers that we are not able to control the future. A church member that is one day a vibrant part of the congregation is the next day struck with some disease or faces some other terrible tragedy. We are not very well-equipped to face the present with all its uncertainty. So we fear. And we share our fears with each other if we don’t bottle them up. But whether suppressed or expressed, these worries claw away at us and “what-if’s” rule the day. And so we go out at the dawn of a cold and dark new year, with just enough light to see, maybe feeling that all is lost, just trying to make defeat palatable, wondering how even that will be done.

Who will roll the stone away from the entrance to the tomb? Who will be here for me now that my loved one is gone? What will happen to me if my health declines? How will I cope if my children forsake God? What of the future of our country, the future of our church? All these questions of the present overwhelm us so that we don’t see the rising of the sun. Like an endless stream of cloudy days blocking the light, the storms obscure our view. Are we left here alone? Who will move the stone?

We walk the dusty path with the women, step by step to the tomb. And we find the heavy stone, the insurmountable object, has been rolled away. But when did the women see it? Mark makes it very clear – “and looking up” – they saw the stone rolled away. Hope comes from looking up. What is impossible for men is possible for God. How do we face a world where all seems lost? We come to the empty tomb. And what do we find there? The stone has been rolled away. The stone wasn’t rolled away so Jesus could get out, it was rolled away so we could look in. And as in the case of the veil of the temple, torn from top to bottom, so it is with the empty tomb – the way of access to God has been opened. The stone has been rolled away. Worries and fears of this life are rendered powerless by the power of God, who raised Christ from the dead. Jesus the Nazarene, a real human being in a real time and place, who was crucified, has risen. The One who gave His life to save His people from their sins has won the victory.

“Thine is the glory, risen, conqu’ring Son; endless is the vict’ry Thou o’er death hast won. Angels in bright raiment rolled the stone away, kept the folded grave-clothes where Thy body lay.

Lo, Jesus meets us, risen from the tomb. Lovingly He greets us, scatters fear and gloom; let His church with gladness hymns of triumph sing, for the Lord now liveth; death hath lost its sting.

No more we doubt Thee, glorious Prince of life!! Life is nought without Thee; aid us in our strife; make us more than conqu’rors, through Thy deathless love; bring us safe through Jordan to Thy home above.”

This is the ground of our hope. If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied above all men. I heard this week that the oldest living man in the United States, aged 112, had passed away. And we think, what a long life. Yet it is just a blip on the radar of time. It is just a vapor. Most of us in this room have lived a lot more years than we have left to live. If only for this life we have hope, we are to be pitied above all men. But what if I told you there was life beyond life? And what if I told you that this empty tomb on the first Easter morn was its proof? This is what the Bible has promised all along. This is what nature pictures for us every day of our lives. This is the reality that can carry you through a hundred storms and safely through to the other side. The alternative is a bundle of anxieties, a collection of empty pleasures, and an eternity of deathly anguish apart from the giver of life. Do you have ears to hear? Do you have eyes to see? If your soul is dull to these things, cry out to God right now, ask Him to reveal His risen Son to you. Look up. Look to Jesus.

For those here who are trusting in the risen Savior Jesus today, would you follow the call of the angel? Would you now make it your life’s work to go and tell? As the women were charged to tell the disciples and Peter, will you tell everyone around you, even the ones like Peter who have turned away from the Savior, will you tell everyone this good news?

You see, this is the good news we have to share with the world. Our message is not family values. Our message is not God and country. Our message is not social justice. Our message is not theological knowledge. Our message is not sentimental, warm feelings. Our message is not religious ritual. Our message is not following traditions or chasing after trends. Our message is the EMPTY TOMB! Our message is the RISEN CHRIST! It is the only truth worth living for and it is the only truth worth dying for. This is the good news we have to share with the world. Don’t get sidetracked by questions about Cain’s wife or the ark or sexual morality. Keep this issue of the dying and rising Christ front and center. That’s what the New Testament does and that was part of the secret of the massive success of the early church. They didn’t get sidetracked from the gospel message. The good news gave them life. The good news gave them hope, even in the midst of persecution. And they shared it with others freely and fearlessly because they found life in it. Does your faith in Jesus bring you life and hope? You who closed the eyes of your loved one this year, your hope is found in these words of Jesus, “Because I live, you will live also.” If your loved one trusted Jesus, they are raised to life with Him. They are eternally in His presence, where there is fullness of joy. And you have the assurance of joining them through faith in Christ. This is our message, this is our hope, this is the anchor that will hold. He is risen, just as He said. Amen.

 

 

 

Life in the Father’s House: A Meditation on Luke 15:11-32

28 Oct

Ours is a day of disconnection and uncertainty. We are more connected than ever through technology but also more isolated and lonely than ever. There seems to be no unifying purpose to life and where there is no purpose there is no hope. So it is in view of these realities that we turn to Luke 15 today in search of hope.

Luke 15 (New American Standard Bible) . . . 11 And He said, “A man had two sons. 12 The younger of them said to his father, ‘Father, give me the share of the estate that falls to me.’ So he divided his wealth between them. 13 And not many days later, the younger son gathered everything together and went on a journey into a distant country, and there he squandered his estate with loose living.14 Now when he had spent everything, a severe famine occurred in that country, and he began to be impoverished. 15 So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, and he sent him into his fields to feed swine. 16 And he would have gladly filled his stomach with the pods that the swine were eating, and no one was giving anything to him. 17 But when he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have more than enough bread, but I am dying here with hunger! 18 I will get up and go to my father, and will say to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in your sight; 19 I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired men.”’ 20 So he got up and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion for him, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. 21 And the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and in your sight; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ 22 But the father said to his slaves, ‘Quickly bring out the best robe and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand and sandals on his feet; 23 and bring the fattened calf, kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; 24 for this son of mine was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.’ And they began to celebrate.

25 “Now his older son was in the field, and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26 And he summoned one of the servants and began inquiring what these things could be. 27 And he said to him, ‘Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has received him back safe and sound.’ 28 But he became angry and was not willing to go in; and his father came out and began pleading with him. 29 But he answered and said to his father, ‘Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; 30 but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.’ 31 And he said to him, ‘Son, you have always been with me, and all that is mine is yours.32 But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.’”

May the Lord bless the reading of His Word.

I think in this room today there may be many younger brothers and sisters and many older brothers and sisters which line up with the sons in this story. The younger brother is the one we call the prodigal son, the wasteful one. But the fact is both brothers were lost. The younger brother is just more obvious about it. He’s done with his family. He wants his share of his father’s estate, about 1/3 of his father’s possessions. This is something that wasn’t supposed to come to him until after his father’s death so basically he is telling his father that he wishes the father dead. And his father gave him his inheritance. He went far away and wasted his life, spending all his money on fleeting pleasures and ending up in poverty. He has to go feed pigs on a farm. No one helps him. No one is there for him. He chose the path of independence and now he is living with it. He is longing to eat pig slop he is so hungry. And then the Bible tells us in verse 17 that he came to his senses. He realizes out here on his own he is worse off than even the lowliest hired hand on his father’s estate. So he comes up with a plan. He will go back and apologize to his father and ask to be made a servant.

There is another brother. He asks for nothing. He serves faithfully. He keeps all the rules. He is an achiever. He’s got what it takes to get the job done. He’s the kind of guy you want to work with. But don’t cross him. He’s got a mind like a steel trap and he doesn’t suffer fools. He remembers what his younger brother did, how he dishonored the father, how he went away to live for himself. He’s not going to do that. He’s going to be good. He’s going to make his way with the father by being the exact opposite of his prodigal brother. He’s going to measure everything and make sure he’s doing it right.

These two men illustrate two ways people try to find their way in life. Timothy Keller says some people try to find life by being very bad and some try to find life by being very good. I don’t know which side you lean to. Maybe you are a person who just never quite fits in. You are a little rebellious and you like it that way. You don’t see why everybody is so uptight and you don’t see why we all can’t just have a little fun once in a while. Maybe your pursuit of pleasure has led you into some rocky relationships or put you in some tough spots but at least you lived, you know. Some of you may be trying to find life through pleasure.

Others here may be consummate elder brothers. You are convinced that playing by the rules is the way to go and you’re not real patient with people who don’t play by the rules. You’re convinced that if more people just had the self-discipline and drive that you have that the world would be a better place. In the end, your hard work and determination puts you just a cut above everybody else, especially above those foolish people who spend their money on lottery tickets and beer. Some of you here may be trying to find life through performance.

Everyone who tries to find life through pleasure will be ultimately disappointed, as will those who seek life through performance. Why? Because both are self-centered and both are alienated from the father. The younger brother saw no value in the ways of the father, so he went away and wasted his life. The older brother saw value in the father’s ways, but saw following them as a path of exalting himself, of thinking highly of himself. His place in the father’s house was not rooted in a loving relationship with his father but in how he could build a track record with his father to make him feel good about himself.

Are you trying to find life through the pursuit of pleasure or through performance? Thinking about yourself is important. But thinking about the father in this story is far more important, because the father here is clearly a picture of God.

The perceptions we have of God in our culture are accurately reflected in this picture of the father. We tend in our culture to think of God as a little outdated, a little behind the times. We think of Him as old and not really with it. Both brothers thought they were smarter than the father. But what we find in Luke 15 is a father completely in control of his faculties. We find one who knew the hearts of his sons through and through. More importantly, the father knew his own heart, a heart that beat with love, mercy and compassion.

The father didn’t wait for words of confession from the prodigal son. The father ran for him and embraced him and kissed him before he even said a word. The text even implies that the father was looking for him, as it says that he saw the young man “while he was still a long way off.” The young man’s confession, while nice, is almost ignored by the father, who immediately sets into motion the full restoration of this son to his status in the family. The son gets a robe and ring and shoes and a party not because he is deserving but because the father is gracious. “My son was dead and has come to life, he was lost and has been found.”

The first verse of Luke 15 tells us that many tax collectors and sinners were gathering to hear Him. These words must have been like sweet music to their ears. They had all come out of a Jewish background. We would compare them today to people who had been in church as children. Many of you probably grew up in this church or one like it. But now you only come for funerals because of shame or because you feel judged. These tax collectors and sinners had a connection to the family of God but they turned away. They went their own way. And Jesus is telling them here, the Father welcomes you home. Come home. You’ll be received. You’ll be restored. And we’ll all rejoice. The Father says the same thing to you today if you identify with that prodigal son. It isn’t first and foremost about getting back into church as some sort of religious duty. It is first and foremost about coming home to your heavenly Father through repentance and faith.

The older brother needed salvation too. He was confident he was in the father’s house but he was really just as selfish as the younger brother, but in a different way. When he learns of the father’s acceptance of the younger brother, he is infuriated. He will not go in, he will not have anything to do with the party or with his father. He is deeply wounded because the father reached out a healing hand to his prodigal brother.

But I want you to note what happens. His father goes to him and begins pleading with him. The father doesn’t show compassion only to the miserable sinner, he also shows it to the insufferable “saint.” He shows it to the pleasure-seeker and the performer, to the one who thinks he finds life through being very bad, and to the one who thinks he finds life through being very good. Because both brothers need what the father can give: grace. Both the younger brother and the older brother need to know the same thing: through the father’s love I am accepted, through the father’s love I have a home.

The father won’t let the older brother go without reaching out to him. And when the older brother tries to distance himself from the family, accusing the father of killing the fattened calf for this “prodigal son of yours” the father won’t let him get away with it. No, son. “You have always been with me, and all I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” You are brothers who are both in need of my grace and that is what binds you together, that is what makes you family. It is as if the father tells us, “My love for you, not your lack of love or your dutiful love, is what makes all the difference. You have both blown it, and the only thing that will make it right is if I set it right through an act of my own compassionate will.”

You see, there was another group of people that day there listening to Jesus besides the tax collectors and sinners. It was the Pharisees and teachers of the law. The consummate elder brothers. The dutiful ones. And they weren’t even listening well. Luke 15:2 tells us they were grumbling about Jesus welcoming sinners and eating with them. But I am sure that some of them, when Jesus told his story about God’s outrageous grace, were listening very intently. And I am sure they heard in his words an indictment of their lives. The one who were so busy looking down on everybody else had their own issues. Life is not about being very bad or being very good. It is not about pleasure or performance. Life is about coming home to the Father’s house. Whether you’ve been away for a long time or whether you’ve been around the whole time, you need to come home today. He is waiting for you. He is looking for you. He is pleading with you. He has paid the price for you through the perfect life and atoning death of His Son Jesus. Come home. Drop the need to have it all together. Drop the urge to tear it all apart for the thrill of it. Come home. Tax collectors and sinners are welcome. Pharisees and teachers of the law are invited. Everyone in between is welcome. Let the truth of St. Augustine’s famous quote ring in your hearts today, “Thou hast made us for Thyself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”

John 14 “Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way where I am going.” Thomas *said to Him, “Lord, we do not know where You are going, how do we know the way?” Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.

So let’s celebrate today. Let’s celebrate a God who so loved us that He gave His only begotten Son that we might have eternal life. Let’s celebrate because we were dead and have been made alive, were lost and have been found. Let’s celebrate that God loves Pharisees and sinners, elder brothers and younger brothers and He invites us today to enter into the fullness of life that is found in Him.

Wendell Berry’s “The Peace of Wild Things”

17 Oct

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.”
― Wendell Berry, The Selected Poems of Wendell Berry

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