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Passover, basketball, Rob Bell, and church…

Yesterday was an interesting day. My first destination was interesting: the Jewish Federation of Northwest Indiana. A Jewish man who is a follower of Jesus and a member of our church invited me to a luncheon with an introduction to the Passover Seder meal. I felt extremely welcome as perhaps the only Gentile in the place. They were all interested in my ministry and family. It was a very meaningful presentation on the events of Passover and a sacred meal which remembers God’s mighty acts in delivering His people from slavery. Then we shared a lunch together loosely based on the elements of a full Seder meal. Nice. God’s theme of redemption did not begin in the New Testament and I gained a richer appreciation of God’s early redemptive work as recorded in the Old Testament. Everything in the New Testament builds on this foundation.
I got up from my chair and drove 4 hours to watch Iowa defeat Indiana State in the first round of the NIT. All the while, I was sitting next to one of my best friends. Lon is a Christian Counselor with ministry training who has a keen interest in theology and happens to be married to a girl my wife and I grew up with. It’s endless what we have to talk about. Our discussion turned to Rob Bell and the controversy surrounding his new book. If you know theology, my opinion is that Rob Bell is trying to be like Paul Tillich, a theologian from the 1950’s. He wore big plastic glasses and started writing a series of popular theology books. The most famous was The Courage to Be, which, in my opinion was very similar in topic and impact to the new What We Talk About When We Talk About God by Bell. Tillich’s book was not really aimed at academics. It wasn’t full of long footnotes because it was trying to have a conversation with the thinking public. He went on tours, gave lectures and became a pop culture icon. When he visited the campus of the University of Chicago it was pretty big news. TCtB focused on the sense of God that all of us have in common. It became part of a larger conversation. Frustrated many, encouraged others. So I think Tillich is Bell’s template. He’s talking past the academics, trying to speak to a different audience. Now that would be fine, but here’s the problem.
Since Bell left the pastorate he never mentions being part of a community of faith.  A lot of Bell’s recent public comments seem to be based on how the church needs to keep up with the world “just because.” In talking about gay marriage he said “that ship has sailed” and the church needs to affirm people where they are. No biblical justification offered. So, while I’m not one of these alarmist people who freaks out every time Bell does something new, I am a bit more concerned about the foundation of his ideas lately. I would like to hear some public comments about how he’s attending a church and serving others and in conversation about the stuff in his books somewhere besides book signings. I’m not actually going to purchase and read this book until I know more about Bell’s context. But the man does know how to come up with fresh language for talking about what he believes. Preachers should take note of that.
This brought me to reaffirm a couple things I’ve always believed. First, what Christians believe has to be grounded in what we understand the Bible to be saying. We need to give the Bible authority to speak into our lives no matter what year it is, or we’re just making up our own religion. Second, what we believe has to be continually lived out with others in the church. We are called by Jesus to be a community. I’m naturally held a accountable knowing I’ll have to see my friends there who may ask me how it’s going. If I fail to attend, someone will notice and check on me. We all need that encouragement to be faithful. By being present and caring, I do the same for others. And when we have disagreements we can talk about it based on the Bible until we get it right.
You can’t really get Jesus in a package that doesn’t include the church. That’s what I’m talking about when I talk about God with my faith community.

Engage the Word: Do We Believe?

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Connect with Engage the Word at NewHope Community Church Click on the Bible logo and get signed up for daily readings sent to your inbox. Join us on this 40 Day journey through the Bible! Pray. Read. Reflect. Respond.
Exodus 13:17-31
When God delivered the Israelites from the hand of Pharaoh, it was a mighty act. Pharaoh did not believe it was possible. That’s how it worked. After the plagues, he let the people go, even giving them valuables to support the journey. But then he had a change of mind. He pursued God’s people to the edge of the sea. As they were essentially trapped, panic set-in. “Why did you bring us out here to die in the desert? It was better back in Egypt!,” the people cried. But Moses wasn’t buying it.
“Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the LORD will bring you today…the LORD will fight for you; you need only be still.”
Moses was a true leader. On this day his faith was at the forefront of his mind and heart, where it could actually function. He knew that the LORD alone had gotten them this far. He also trusted that God didn’t bring them this far to abandon them now. So, he declared the simple truth that could save all of us considerable stress in life. “Do not be afraid.” Well, fear is a pretty normal response when the army of an empire is about the crush you. “Do not be afraid. Stand firm…” But they saw Pharaoh’s army! “Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you WILL see the deliverance the LORD WILL bring to you today…” But they wondered why Moses or God allowed them to be in this spot. Surely it was poor planning or recklessness! And this is the same mistake we make today.
We think that being in God’s will means no problems. As soon as trouble hits, we’re ready to try something else! When circumstances surprise us, we who testify to being believers can become atheists. We act as if God doesn’t exist or at least doesn’t matter. Our first response is often to try to “figure out” how to fix our problems. But as believers, perhaps our first move should be to look to God. How often do we truly pray first? In a very real way our battle is always the LORD’s. We should never assume that God is surprised just because we are. In the New Testament, Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart, I have overcome the world!”
At that moment, Moses realized why they couldn’t have faith. Because their eyes were fixed on circumstances. But if they would stop fearing and stand firm (both implying trust in God’s power) they would then “see the deliverance the LORD WILL bring. He hasn’t brought it yet. He allowed this to happen, but He has a plan to deliver us. “The LORD will fight for you; you need only be still.” This is a challenge to step up my faith. How about you? In times of challenge our frantic actions cannot deliver us. Freaking out never helps. God understands how tight things are. God has a plan. God WILL deliver us if we stop actively fearing and stand firm, watching Him work. And what wonders they saw…
So the question falls to us. Do we believe? If you’re up against it today, can you make the choice to stop fearing and allow God to help you stand firm? Can you get your eyes off circumstances and keep them fixed on God? Can you look with expectant eyes for His deliverance? Take heart. If you’re a fully devoted follower of Jesus, you’ve got one incredible captain! I’m going to Engage the Word today and let it guide my steps, trusting in God’s plan. I’ll stay on His mission, not getting distracted. I fully intend to see the salvation of my God today! Let’s believe God and experience his deliverance together!

John Wesley, Prayer, and Holiness—Part 3

I’ve been posting about the surprising guidelines John Wesley gave to his North American ordained elders in 1784. At the ripe old age of 81 Wesley was harvesting a lifetime of prayer, ministry, and theological reflection.
For Sunday worship he prescribed an only slightly adapted Book of Common Prayer service for Sunday morning and evening. When I discovered this, I was shocked and then assumed he would encourage people to pray the Daily Office at home during the week. But no! Again, surprisingly his guideline was: “…reading the litany only on Wednesdays and Fridays, and praying extempore on all other days.”
By “the litany” he must mean The Great Litany, a nearly comprehensive call and response prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. This is no “now I lay me down to sleep.” It is an all-encompassing prayer, covering a very complete list of needs personal, congregational, even national and international. It can take 15 minutes or more to pray through if you do it with feeling.
I was barely even aware of the litany, so he got me again! Evidently we can gather that the guided prayers twice on the Lord’s Day would provide a template for extempore prayer in the week. But to make sure they weren’t just praying for Aunt Susie’s stubbed toe and a sickly donkey, The Great Litany gave scope and perspective on what Kingdom Praying can be. Yet, church folk and preachers would not just rely on prescribed prayers (a valuable discipline in themselves), but would develop the discipline of forming prayers from the heart. Like a personal trainer of the Spirit, Wesley was providing a balanced discipline, leaving room for the Spirit’s leading, but grounding people in the prayer life of the Psalms. Hmmmmmm…
There’s a lot to reflect on here, especially in light of holiness. You guessed it, that will have to wait for my next post!

John Wesley, Prayer, and Holiness—Part 2

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I ended my last post with a question: what kind of worship model would you expect John Wesley to have prescribed for his itinerant preachers in North America?  I guess I assumed that a revivalist format would be his choice.  All prayers extemporaneous, offering, special music, sermon and altar call. But only offering and sermon made the list.  I was sort of given the image that Wesley couldn’t wait to get out from under the Church of England and it’s stifling formal worship.  It seems that he did feel constrained by the decision-making hierarchy of said church (and it could fairly be said that his passion was hard for them to enfold into church order).  But of the forms of worship Wesley says, “I love the old wine…” meaning that he valued the traditions.  That said, he did update the language at several points and trim the service down considerably.  But for the most part, what he insisted would guide worship was the Book of Common Prayer Morning and Evening Prayer services. That’s right. That Sunday night service your church used to have (and maybe still has…)? Did you know it was originally, Evening Prayer?  It takes about 30 min to pray through the list of litanies and collects, scripture lections, and thanksgivings.  Sunday morning was Morning Prayer with Order for the Administration of the Lord’s Supper every week!  Even though the Church of England only served the lay people communion a few times a year, Wesley advised a weekly Lord’s Supper! It even included the Great Thanksgiving with call and response. Kind of a mid-church Anglicanism on the wide frontier!
So now, what do you think his recommendation for daily devotion was?  Again, you might be surprised and that will have to wait for my next post!

Grace and Peace

John Wesley, Prayer, and Holiness—Part 1

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The other day a package arrived in the mail. I was excited! It wasn’t a gadget, although i can be a geek for those. It wasn’t a bike part, although managing an aging family fleet of iron steeds occasionally calls for parts. No, it was a rather plain looking book with a white cover: John Wesley’s Prayer Book, The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America. I know, you’re drooling already, right? (Maybe groaning is closer…) But as a good Nazarene, I’m a geek for anything by John Wesley. Oh I own his sermons, notes on the Bible, some of his journals, and his theological articles. But this was one of his final publications, just seven years before his death. It was written at the ripe old age of eighty-one. Over 2,000 copies were printed back in c1784. Only 39 survive today. And it’s not easy to get a look at one of those. When I finally found it had been reprinted I was elated. But then it was hard to find it for sale… I wish I had known of it 19 years ago, but it was just off the radar as I was graduating seminary… Yet, sometimes these things happen for a reason. It’s good timing for me just now…
It has been very interesting reading through Wesley’s guide to Sunday services and prayer. It’s both easy to see how almost all holiness theology was fed by his tradition and hard to imagine why his bishop couldn’t see it. Clearly, Wesley saw the U.S. as the place where the message of holiness, separated from certain political forces/hierarchy, could be freely spread. How ironic. At first he came here, as a missionary, to convert Native Americans. He was terrible at it. Then he was very suspicious of the American motives for seeking independence. But after Church of England bishops refused to ordain his trained preachers, America became, for Wesley, the great land of opportunity once again. In the preface to this work he wrote of the Methodist ministers who would be ordained here, “They are now at full liberty, simply to follow the Scriptures and the primitive church. And we judge it best that they should stand fast in that liberty, wherewith God has so strangely made them free.”
It brings to mind both Aldersgate, where Wesley’s heart had been “strangely” warmed, and the spiritual freedom afforded by the work of the Holy Spirit in a fully surrendered life. And now political realities, which had distressed and hindered, became a fresh breeze for this movement.
So how did this fiery, charismatic, oftentimes outdoor evangelist want his preachers and congregations to worship and pray? You might be surprised…but that will have to wait until my next post…

Easter Eggs Benedict…

Jesus of Nazareth Part Two, Holy Week: From the Entrance Into Jerusalem To The Resurrection [Kindle Edition]
Pope Benedict XVI (Author)

Just started reading this book. I haven’t read any works by the sitting Pope, so it’s a first. I hope it’s not a last. The first few pages jump around quite a bit. He says he’s writing from a faith hermeneutic (doing interpretation unapologetically as a person of faith) but with due attention to historical exegesis, within its limits. He says his goal is to reveal Jesus in a fresh way, making him accessible to 21st century people. I like what he’s setting out to do. I hope I start enjoying what he’s actually done a little more…and soon!
Yeah, he’s, like ,Catholic and I’m, like, not. I’m Nazarene (an Evangelical Wesleyan-Holiness Protestant Christian denomination-similar to Methodist). But I share his desire to connect with the most essential aspects of Jesus. I’ll need to remember how different our concepts of authority are and hold onto my tradition. But it’s less of a stretch for us Wesleyans than say, Reformed people. We’ve always reached back to the early Church Fathers in interpretation. (Not that Reformed people don’t) Most of the time we’ve been pretty ecumenical.
He and I agree that what Jesus did in the last week of his life changed the world forever. Nothing is the same. There is now hope for this world. I hope this book avoids sectarian doctrinal detours and simply helps the reader follow Jesus all the way to the cross & resurrection!
I’ll let you know what I learn!

Grace and Peace

Hello, Rob Bell…

If you’re a Christian leader you probably heard about Rob Bell before 2 weeks ago. But if you don’t live under a rock you’ve heard of him since then! His new book—Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived created a firestorm when a promotional video was released. It questioned traditional views on hell.
If I had to choose a Facebook category for my relationship with Rob Bell’s ideas, “it’s complicated” would win. I’ve really enjoyed some of his sermons and Nooma videos. He definitely has a pastor’s heart. He’s studied the Bible in the original languages. He gets our culture. He’s not afraid to offend. He’s a gifted communicator. All things I respect. But he’s a whipping boy for conservatives (and some of my friends.) He’s a hero to others (and some of my friends). So if I really liked or disliked something he said or did, I had to think twice to avoid offending someone. He’s a guilty pleasure one day (like brownies at 11:30pm) and big bother the next (like a zit on your chin!)
But he made his boldest move yet with Love Wins. The video was brilliant to create buzz. Last night he frustrated me with a live web event. At midnight I downloaded the book and finished by mid-morning.
Let me begin by saying Rob Bell is not a heretic. His personal views are not totally revealed, but the options presented are consistent with some ancient Christian teachers. Let me also say I can’t embrace all he presents about salvation and the afterlife. But who else could have gotten us all talking about such important issues? The book is clearly not written to debate with people like me. It’s written to engage with people outside of church life. I think it can do this well. It attempts to explain how heaven and hell fit into the good news of Jesus. He starts with the deep reservations many outside the church have with a God who eternally punishes most of humanity. This point can be offensive to Christians, but not to his audience.
He’s as controversial as he can be in the first couple chapters. He messes with our tidy notions of the gospel by showing vastly different metaphors Jesus (and Paul) used. He says a woman wrote Hebrews (not sure this is an actual conviction of his) and that traditional views of the afterlife have been used to oppress the masses through the ages. He calls his gramma’s cross-bridge painting creepy! But eventually he settles into examining the relevant Scriptures. He creatively (somewhat ambiguously) lets his views come through over time. More than ever it’s hard to pin him down at times. As usual, no footnotes. He supports his views only with Scripture references and stories.
Heaven is the fullness of God’s Kingdom on a renewed earth. In an important sense for Bell’s Jesus, heaven is wherever God rules. The goal of salvation is to reunite earth and heaven. Heaven ultimately won’t be another “place” we go, it’s another reality that comes here. This part can be strongly supported by Scripture.
One genius of the book is in the case he makes that salvation, heaven and hell have a lot more to do with this life than we may realize. We should listen to Bell on this. We’ve all known people who’ve made a hell on earth by rejecting God’s vision for life. Many Christians have experienced eternal life as peace on earth now. Often Jesus’ talk of hell is a warning to religious people to change their behavior. It’s surprising that he often says sinners may be in the Kingdom and religious people may not. He spends a lot of time explaining the behaviors and attitudes of people who experience heaven. Rather than implying a magical character change for Christians at death, Jesus implies the importance of letting grace change you now. (a view Nazarenes have always embraced.)
Bell says this change is what would allow us to enjoy heaven (the fullness of the Kingdom). But, bravely for a man in Grand Rapids, he emphasizes free will. It’s our choice. God’s love let’s us choose. Hell is essentially refusing to accept/trust God’s version of our story. We bring destruction on ourselves whenever we reject God’s love & forgiveness. 2 images dominate.
1. Luke 15’s parable of the father with 2 sons shows our options. Finally give up living a faulty story and come home to the party (prodigal son) or stubbornly refuse to enjoy it (elder brother).
2. Revelation 21:25 (describing the heavenly city coming down for God to finally make his dwelling among humanity.) “On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there.”
Bell says “And then there are others who ask, if you get another chance after you die, why limit that chance to one-off immediately after death? And so they expand the possibilities, trusting that there will be endless opportunities in an endless amount of time for people to say yes to God.
As long as it takes, in other words.” (p.55)
This is a form of universalism, but Bell doesn’t exactly say it’s his view. He rightfully demonstrates that a minority of Christians in every age have believed this way. His motive is evangelism. He spends the rest of the book attempting to make a compelling case for accepting/trusting in God’s story now. Why miss a moment of eternal life? His goal is to reach those for whom one and done eternal punishment is the one barrier to accepting the Christian story. “You don’t have to believe this to be a Christian,” Bell says.
He hasn’t convinced me that this “eventually view” is the most biblical view. But neither would I be upset if this turned out to be true. I don’t want anyone to suffer the torment of hell. I want everyone to experience eternal life. (In the tradition of Wesley, Inclusivism is closer to my view, as in Wesley’s “On Heaven” sermon.) I have concerns that some could put this choice off, not feeling motivated to choose now. But Bell makes clear the destructive consequences of delay.
I reread portions of the book this afternoon and gained a less defensive perspective. I can’t embrace the book fully. But because he rooted this presentation in the Scriptures, demonstrated the centrality of Christ, and has a clearly evangelistic motive I’m glad he wrote this book.
I hope it creates an opportunity for more people to accept/trust God’s version of the story. Even if this “eventually” view is mistaken, once people are walking with Christ in the reality of the Kingdom, he can correct any errors. (Not that we should offer bait and switch if we don’t believe something has validity.)
Doctrine matters. Truth has boundaries. I’m more traditional than Bell. But at least we’re talking about heaven/hell. I hope more people find peace with God. I plan to engage people in conversation about the book. I pray this conversation gets us all in touch with eternal realities (saving/sanctifying grace) surrounding us every moment, offering to transform us in preparation for enjoying heaven forever. The Gospel really is good news and I can’t wait to experience it in fullness! It’s time we celebrated it. Easter’s right around the bend!

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