Monday, November 6, 2017

Tipping point or turning point

I believe we have reached a new norm in our country. It is driven from the top down and is fueled by individual imposition of rights by force of will. It is rooted in the conviction that my opinion is the correct opinion simply because it is mine and features perpetual anger, the dehumanization of any and all opponents, resolute refusal to listen and devotion to ideology over humanity and the common good. 

Jesus, on the other hand, taught a way of life that stands diametrically opposed to the norms of His day and ours as well. His way must be recovered if we are to move forward. Speaking out from the pulpit is not enough; simply knowing about Jesus changes little. A renewed focus on discipleship is required-a new way of living and interacting with one another based following Jesus as Lord, undertaken to produce the personal transformation (or sanctification, if you prefer) seen in the Christian Scriptures. The stakes are high but the reward is great. It is time to put politics aside and come together. The ancient way can and must be recovered. 

“To whom will he teach knowledge,
and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from the milk,
those taken from the breast?
For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
line upon line, line upon line,
here a little, there a little.” (Isa 28:9-10, ESV)

Isaiah repeats this refrain two times. Many commentators believe the words in the original Hebrew may be gibberish; the point being since Isaiah’s hearers believed his warnings nonsense they would hear true nonsense-in a foreign tongue as they are being led away into captivity. Isaiah’s words also have a modern day application-line upon line, precept upon precept may be understood as the way of discipleship, or the way foolishness (cf. 1 Co1:18-31). 

I suggest we (and especially me) might begin with an extended meditation on Phi 2:1-11. If we are ever to eliminate our incessant desire to have everything our way all the time, this is the place to start. Several days minimum would be good; a week or more is not out of the question. Remember, we are not accumulating knowledge here but learning a new way of being. I would even be so bold as to suggest reading Ps 130 before and Ps 131 after your meditation. I would love to hear how this works for you. 


Tuesday, October 10, 2017

 10 Oct 2017

As a veteran I choose to stand for our national anthem. If you, for whatever reason, choose to sit or kneel that is your choice and it is fine with me. Whether we stand or sit or kneel has no eternal significance; how we disagree with one other does. This is classic divide and conquer strategy and the constant bickering-retreating into our tribal trenches and lobbing artillery shells at one another-has led to a disconnectedness that is the antithesis of everything Jesus said and taught. It is the great moral crisis of our time, a collective dark night of the soul.

We are lights-the light of the world. Connected we will shine with a brilliance that will dispel this present darkness. We are light. You are light. Be the light. Be the Kingdom. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

October 2 2017

The other day a friend told me a story about a woman he knows who seemed unusually depressed. When my friend pressed her for a reason, it turned out she was upset because the world did not end on September 23. Biblical prophecy has always been a popular subject; human  nature consistently seeks to alleviate the uncertainty of not knowing the future and there will always be those eager to profit by leading the faithful astray. Scripture, however, is very clear-no one, not even our Lord Himself, knows when the the end will come (Mt.24:36)-which might cause some of you to rethink your understanding of the relationship between Father and Son.

Scripture is also clear that the Lord is not slow in coming but patient, not desiring that any should be lost (2 Pe.3:9); it is this second point that I would briefly address. I am afraid many today are not patient, who do not care if any are lost. In fact, it seems many today are more concerned with judgement than mercy; many who claim salvation by grace through faith for themselves but would deny that same grace to anyone with whom they disagree. Those among us who want to hasten the Lord's coming may want to spend less time chasing after false prophets (Mt.24:11) and more time leading lives of holiness and Godliness, hastening the Lord's coming (2 Pe.3:11-12).

I believe this desire to prematurely end the world is one of many indications that there is a lot of questionable theology out there today. While I am certainly not saying theology has no value, I am saying any attempt to wrap God up into a nice tight package in order to better understand Him is going to fall short. God is simply too big, to mysterious. Any attempt to figure Him out runs the risk of making Him in our image, no matter how well educated we are. We can, however, know God-we can know Him by knowing Him the same way we know our spouse or our children or anyone else with whom we have any kind of loving relationship. We can know God by simply spending time in His presence sharing our thoughts, our concerns, our joys, our frustrations. God is just as interested in our failed dinner attempts as He is in our most noble intercessory prayers; I do not believe He hides His eyes when we dance around the kitchen to some old rock and roll song any more than He does when we teach a Bible class or lead a small group.

We exclude God in the little, day to day stuff of our lives to our great peril; I am convinced there are times-lots of times-when God is perfectly content just to be with us; just to hang out together. Don't get me wrong; prayer and Bible study and worship and the other disciplines are important but only to the extent that they allow us to know God on a personal level. And make no mistake-knowing God on a personal level is both possible and highly desirable. I don't understand how this works but I don't need to either. I do know this- if you bring God into the little things in your life you will be better for it.

Peace. JRG

Saturday, July 29, 2017

New Stuff

29 July 2017

My mom has a unique way of reading books. She begins at the end-she reads the ending first. If she likes the ending she'll read the rest of the book; if not she won't. I used to tease her about it but these days I'm just pleased she's still reading so I don't say anything. I'm pretty sure she never read the bible that way, but I she may have. She certainly could. Might not be a bad idea for us once in a while either. 

The Bible is bookended with creation stories. The first two chapters speak of God's original creation; the last two God's re-creation. The first two describe the original, perfect environment for humankind; the last two God's perfect recreation for restored humankind. As believers we know how the story ends. It's a good ending, a perfect ending, an eternal ending and we would all do well to spend some time meditating on what God has prepared for those who love Him. Let's take a look. 

The first thing is a new heaven and a new earth. Everything is new, fully restored. Most commentators focus on the New Jerusalem but my sense is, with a new earth (and no more sea) there will be plenty of room for billions of us to live and work and grow stuff and still have space. When the New Jerusalem comes down from heaven the first thing we hear is “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people" (Revelation 21:3). This is important. God fully intends to live among us here and be our God. This was the plan from the beginning and it will be fulfilled. God, who already loves us to death (pun intended) longs to spend eternity hanging out with us, being our God, doing God stuff with us and for us. And giving us life, all the life we can handle. Life inexhaustible supplied by God Himself. The best part about all this is its already started. God is our God right now. He lives with us right now. He gives us His life right now. 

He says "I am making all things new" and "It is done". There is no doubt. Take it to the bank. All things. Not just earth, the planet, the physical environment. The whole system. No more death. No pain. No crying. The old order of things has passed away. Authority will no longer come from the imposition of will. Humanity will no longer be divided into the haves and have nots. No more exploitation, no more marginalization. All you guys out there that rail against socialism are gonna be in trouble. And disappointed. Think about this for a minute. Let it sink in because this is how things were meant to be. It's what Jesus Himself taught and what Paul, Peter, James and John reinforced. Both Testaments are saturated with this teaching. My point here is not so much what you have ( or don't have) but what you're attached to-where your heart lies. What we do in this life matters. The slate may be wiped clean but there will be consequences-God is not mocked. We are sowing now and the reaping will come. 

While we're on the subject vs.8 gives us a list of those who 'don't make it in' and why. We like to turn that into a hit list or a punishment list or an 'I'm holier than you because I don't do that stuff' list-a judging, Bible-thumping, guilt producing list but that's not what it is. These people are not kept out and sent to the second death because of what they do. They are already dead, because they have judged and rejected God. This is an important point and worth spending some time thinking about. Christians today love to make the unpardonable sin some behavioral thing but it is not. It is, judging and rejecting God to the point that one is simply not capable of accepting Him even while standing in His presence. It is not just refusing to acknowledge Him as God but refusing even to allow Him to love you and then hating Him more because He lets you do it. 
So, here's  what we have so far. All things will be made new, heaven and earth. The old socio-economic structures will be replaced. We will be fully restored by God; He will continually give us life and will Himself live here with us. Those who are miserable without Him now will be allowed to remain miserable without Him for eternity. Stay tuned. There's more. 


Thursday, July 27, 2017

Revelation: A Cautionary Tale
24 July 2017
            I read revelation for the first time in July 1969. A high school friend and I spent the better part of that summer on the west coast. My friend’s grandmother lived in a small town outside Portland, Oregon; we stayed with her and worked on his uncle’s blueberry farm/chicken ranch. She had a copy of Good News for Modern Man and that’s where I read revelation. My friend’s family were Baptists, and I am convinced I am a Christian today because of his grandmother’s faithful prayers on my behalf.
            Now, at 18 the only thing I got from revelation was scared. My (miss)understanding of the book has morphed several times over the decades, going from the extreme confidence of my Dispensational days to pretty much total surrendered to unknowing today. I’ve a few books on Revelation over the years; The Late Great planet Earth being the first. There was a scholarly commentary by Dr. John Walvoord I struggled through. Dr. Walvoord was once asked what he would do if his theory on revelation was shown to be incorrected; he replied, ‘write another book’. Then there was a book around, I think, 2003 or 2004 whose author did a detailed study of all the prophetic works in both testaments. I don’t remember much about that one, except he was convinced every household would be required to own some sort of religious statue. These statues would be inhabited by demons who would report the goings on in the household to the beast or false prophet or somebody and there would be hell to pay for misbehavior. This was a serious work complete with a fold-out, poster-sized chart. My favorite is Breaking the Code by Dr. Bruce Metzger, mainly because I can understand it. And let’s not forget the Left Behind series, which I haven’t read but remains extremely popular. The one thing these books have in common is none of them are the Bible; they are interpretations or commentaries or fictional works and, as such, require caution, discernment and critical thinking in the reading.
             I’ve never been much of a conspiracy theory person but there are lots of them out there and Revelation is a favorite, in part, I think, because it is so difficult to properly exegete. Back in the early to mid-90’s I had a friend who was, among many other things, a survivalist. He was determined that, if the apocalypse came, he and his family would survive. Whenever we would talk about apocalyptic survival Revelation 13:9-10 invariably came to mind. Which leads me to my main point.
            My thinking on Revelation today is that the most important chapters, apart from 13:9-10, are 1-3 and 21-22. One to three, because they address our situation today; 20-21 because they confirm God’s plan for total restoration-the new heaven and new earth. Particularly important to me are 1:5-6-He (Christ) has washed us and freed us from our sins so that we would be a kingdom, priests serving His (and our) God and Father, to Him be the glory. I believe this to be one of the best Gospel summaries in the Bible-what Jesus did and why. We have a job to do in the here and now, and it does not involve worrying about who will die and who will be taken captive and who will escape. That is up to God and no one else.
            Regarding our situation today, to be sure there will be problems. They are described in Chs.2 & 3. Issues are addressed, solutions are given. Every church in those two chapters is today’s church; every church issue is our personal issue to some extent or other. This is a clear picture of how Jesus sees His church; this is, in my opinion, where our focus should be. But wait; there’s more. Let’s not forget we know how the story ends.
            God promises total restoration; all things made new. God Himself will dwell with us. Take some time to meditate on this promise. The new creation is described in terms of gold and precious gems-the only things John had to describe an indescribable glory. Chapters 1-3 may be read as instruction; chapters 21-22 need to be read devotionally, with what Dr. Metzger calls a disciplined imagination. I cannot emphasize this point enough-all things new, God with us, creation as it was meant to be. Christ allowed Himself to be judged, rejected and executed for this-this is who our God is, this is what He does. To paraphrase Patton, compared to this all conspiracy theories, all interpretations, pale to insignificance.         
            One more point. If God intends to dwell with us in the future-if that is why Jesus came-why would He not want to dwell with us now? I submit, with the utmost respect and humility, if our theology does not lead us into an ever-deeper relationship with our God working its way out in our relationships with one another, perhaps we need a new theology. If we don’t want Him around now-and it is possible to be a believer and not want God interfering in our lives-why would we ever want to spend eternity with Him? Let us seek His presence now, in this life, and get good and comfortable with Him. It will only get better,

Friday, July 21, 2017

Belief vs. [In]action

Belief vs. (In) Action
20 July 2017
            The following partial quote is taken from a Facebook post which referenced an article in “Faced with evidence that only massive government action — a financial rescue coupled with fiscal stimulus — could have prevented a complete economic meltdown, one conservative made a startling confession: “Maybe it was a good thing we weren’t in power then — because our principles don’t allow us to respond to a crisis like this.” The quote immediately called to mind Jesus’ statement in Mt.9:13 and 12:7- “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy and not sacrifice’”, which itself is a quote from Hosea 6:6:For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice,
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea goes on to say, “But like Adam they transgressed the covenant; there they dealt faithlessly with me” (6:7). The sentiment is echoed in Ps.40:6-8, Micah 6:8, and Isiah Ch.1. My intention here is not to take up political sides but to consider the relationship between belief (doctrine, or theology, or principles) and relationship (individual and corporate) within the framework of the visible presence of God on earth; a role which was once Israel’s but now belongs to the (worldwide) church.
            First, a little background. Coming off the flood, God puts His redemptive plan in motion by calling one man and one woman (sound familiar?)-Abraham and Sarah-the recipients of His promises and His covenant. In the course of time Abraham’s relatively small family ends up in Egypt, where eventually they become a huge family. Moses leads them out of bondage in Egypt and they are well on their way to becoming a great nation. Except they are not a nation, great or otherwise, at least not yet. But God has plans for them; His presence guides them and His intermediary (Moses) instructs them (as Moses himself is instructed by God). God’s mission for His new nation is to move into the promised land, demonstrate God’s presence and execute God’s judgement as directed by God Himself. Oh, and by the way, while judgement is being executed a pagan or two will become a believer and figure in the line of God’s own Son.
            God equips Israel for this mission by giving them His laws. These laws covered three main areas. Ritual Law (or Ceremonial Law) governed Israel’s worship; that is, how Israel was to relate to God. Civil Law was for the ordering of Israelite society-how individuals related to one another. Moral Law was and is based on God’s nature and character. Civil Law was specific to Israel as a nation and is replaced in this country by our constitution. Ritual Law was fulfilled (as opposed to replaced) by Jesus. Moral Law remains and is the basis for the command “be holy because I am holy”-repeated in Leviticus and 1 Peter. The civil Laws themselves had two categories-those which lay out a principle (apodictic) and those which were case-specific (casuistic). Once the full body of the Law was presented to and agreed upon by Israel it became a covenant (cf. Dt.26:16-19). The covenant brought with it blessings for obedience-accurately demonstrating God’s holiness (presence, nature and character) and curses for disobedience-causing God’s name to be blasphemed among the nations. This last is an important point and not to be missed-it goes to the heart of our discussion.
            As an aside here, this whole Exodus procedure is a word-picture of what happens to believers. We are led out of our bondage and placed into the ‘New Israel’-the Church, Christ’s body-although we have no idea what that means. And, of course, Moses was a type of Jesus-taught by God, empowered by the Holy Spirit-God with us (cf. John’s Gospel). The mission remains the same-to be the presence of God in the here and now-except now we have the actual life of God within us; mediated by Jesus Himself and made real by the Holy Spirit. God’s presence, made possible by God’s Son, taught and enabled by God’s Spirit-all three in perfect harmony and agreement (four, counting the individual believer-billions, counting all believers). This relationship-what Richard Foster calls the ‘with-God life’-was and remains the original plan. At least, that’s how I see it.
            Now, by the time of Hosea, the covenant had been broken and the promised curses were well under way. One of the many roles of the Hebrew prophets was to remind Israel of the ancient covenant and in some cases, bring God’s charges against her (cf. Isaiah, for example). In fact, Hosea’s very life was an illustration for Israel; Hosea representing God and his unfaithful wife representing Israel. The point here, however, for this discussion, is that Israel may have abandoned the moral laws, and some of the civil laws, but they kept the ritual law, and in the keeping that law they thought they were ok (or at least they pretended to be ok). This is the message of the prophets-you are not ok. You are not accurately demonstrating my [God’s] presence. You are nowhere near the holiness I require. What you believe is not enough. It is wrong and you are wrong. My intent here is not to get into the specifics of Israel’s disobedience-Isaiah 1, for example, gives a pretty clear picture of that. Get a good reference Bible and check it out for yourself. Follow the references. My aim is simply to point out what was happening, and what God’s response was.
            By the time Jesus comes this whole business was extremely refined (or totally out of control, depending on your point of view). Remember apodictic law vs. casuistic law? The religious leaders of Jesus’ time seemed to have eschewed apodictic law in favor of casuistic law and they invented lots and lots of cases-building walls of their laws around God’s laws-do’s and don’ts to prove themselves holy. Jesus, for His part, was (being God) interested in the welfare of His creatures-moral law-and if that meant eating with sinners and plucking grain on the Sabbath, well, that’s what He did. He was, after all, God present (as opposed to God’s presence) and was intent upon changing people’s minds about God (and God’s holiness). John 19:7 sums it up nicely: “We have a law, and according to that law he must die, because he [is] claimed to be the Son of God”. Do you see it yet? We have a belief, and according to that belief many must (unnecessarily) suffer. Our law (belief) does not allow for relationship (the greater good).
            One more point here. It is no accident Jesus uses the command ‘Thou shalt not kill’ kill as the first illustration of the deeper (moral) meaning of God’s Law (Mt. 5:21-26). This commandment more than any other sets up the conflict between our pride-who we think we are-and the humility we should have before God-who knows who we really are. Compared to God, none of us can justify pride of any sort (cf. 1Cor.4:7). Which makes the great value He places on us even more remarkable (cf. Ps.8) and the cruel disdain with which we treat each other even more heinous. Responding to the crisis was Jesus’ belief; we are the crisis and the cross was His response. Today we must be the response, to the extent that we allow Jesus to respond through us.
            So, here’s the question-do your principles prevent you from responding to the crisis, or does Christ in you enable and equip you to respond to the crisis?
He hath shewed thee, O man, what is good;
and what doth the Lord require of thee,
but to do justly, and to love mercy,
and to walk humbly with thy God? (Micah 6:8)


Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Enoch walked with God

18 July 2017
            I’ve never been a big fan of personality tests. Over the years I have taken several; the results have been dubious at best (for example, I once took a theology test that pegged me as an Evangelical Quaker, whatever that is). My main concern with these tests is that my answers reflect more of what I would like to be-or see myself as-than who I am. One result that consistently appears, however, is a tendency to know things intuitively and be content with the knowing. In other words, logic and application have never been my strong suits.
            I mention all this because it speaks to the nature of and reason for these blogs-I write them because I enjoy doing it. They are not intended to be theological commentaries or life application guides (although both may appear from time to time). These blogs are pretty much just reflections-musings, if you will-of what I see as I think about what I’m reading.
            It is in this spirit of reflection that we approach Enoch. Genesis itself doesn’t tell us much about him. He was seventh in the line beginning with Seth and the first whom God took in an unnatural manner; the other two being Moses (cf. Deut.34:1-8) and Elijah (2Ki.9:12); he walked with God and then he was no more, because God took him. Cain and his line, driven from God’s presence, founded a city but remained plagued by violence, culminating with Lamech’s boast (Ge. 4:23-24). Seth’s line calls on the name of the LORD-implying personal relationship, culminating in Enoch walking with God.
            Now, there is a difference between calling on the name of the LORD (the NRSV has invoke, the NLT reads ‘worship the LORD by name’) and walking with God. The Hebrew word for call can mean to name, to invoke, to proclaim out loud, to cry out for help. Since the word could mean any of those things the writer/editor may have had all of them in mind. Humankind, recognizing the LORD for who He is, proclaimed His name, invoked His presence, cried out for help. The other side of that is humankind may have been summoning God merely to have Him bless their plans rather than seeking His guidance, a tendency which remains to this day (for some interesting remarks on how this relates to human pride, check out Rick Warren’s Daily Hope for today). I have said many times here and elsewhere, way too much time is spent today seeking God’s blessing for our will and not nearly enough time learning to discern God’s will and hear His voice.
            Which, evidently, Enoch did learn to do. The Hebrew word for walk implies habitual conduct. Enoch must have lived in close personal relationship with God. Relationships require talking and listening, time in each other’s presence (without talking at all), some type of commitment and, on Enoch’s part, a level of trust in God’s ability to define right and wrong. And to act according to God’s definitions. Walking with God goes beyond simply invoking His presence; we are now moving into the realm of discipleship, of abide in me and you will bear much fruit, of I in them and you in me (Jn.15:4; 17:20-24).
            So, the question becomes, are we invoking God’s name for our own benefit? Or will we embark on a deliberate course of action to produce the change of character God offers? Enoch walked with God and was no more, a little word-picture of what discipleship means. He must increase and I must decrease until the new creation comes, no longer I but Christ in me (Jn.3:30; 2 Cor.5:17, gal. 2:20). Take some time to be still and know He is God; see if He will not guide you in the way you should go (Ps.46:10; 32:8-9).


Thursday, July 13, 2017

13 July 2017

A Call to Arms
             After Cain killed Abel he had sons and daughters, one of whom was Lemech. Lemech is responsible for the first recorded episode of blood revenge. Genesis 4, however, ends on a positive note. Adam knew his wife again and she bore another son-Seth. Seth had a son-Enosh. Ge.4:26 ends with “At that time men began to call upon the name of the LORD”. Genesis 5, tracing the lineage of Seth up to Noah, begins with this interesting statement: when God created man, He created him in His image; Adam became the father of a son in his own likeness, after his image-Seth. The Bible does not say this about Cain (or Abel, for that matter). In whose likeness and image were they created?
            My guess is they were also created in God’s image; Cain, for whatever reason, chose to reject God. God’s image was there, it was just tarnished beyond recognition. That trend continues to this day. It isn’t just those who willfully reject God’s rule in their lives (or, for that matter, those who accept God’s rule but do not understand what His rule means) who bear a tarnished image. Consider those born with congenital defects, those with chronic disease or disabilities, the aged-particularly the aged with dementia, no longer able to care for themselves. Who among us sees the imago dei in someone sitting or lying in a soiled diaper, unable to ask for the help they do not even realize they need?
            While all this is going on, the sons of God took wives from among the daughters of men. Keep in mind, these early chapters are not necessarily meant to be read along a straight timeline. There is some parallel movement here; whoever put this together is not focused on when things happened but what happened. This is a historical narrative; a story is being told. At some point (most, but not all, of the commentators I read seem to agree on this) there was a divine intrusion into the affairs of men and women. Interesting to note this did not make humanity more divine; rather wickedness increased to the point that God was sorry He created the whole thing.
            We don’t get a lot of detail here about what specific wickedness is going on. Here again we see that how you interpret the story says more about you than it does about God. In today’s sex-obsessed culture many will try to make a case for all manner of sexual immorality but the text does not say that. What the text does reference, with Cain and Lemech, is violence, arrogance and authority by imposition of will. That, at least, is what I see. What do you see?
            We also encounter the Nephilim for the first time. I have heard and read many interesting theories over the years concerning who these people were. A half-human, half-angelic race would go a long way towards explaining the violence and corruption God sees in genesis 6:11-13 and would be impossible for God to redeem. He could be fully human and fully God, but fully angelic? Redeeming Adam and Eve is one thing; this group is ‘beyond the pale of orthodoxy’, so to speak. What to do?
            We have come to the peak of the fall. Satan, who seems to have been opposed to God from the very beginning, who can only destroy, never create, appears to have won total victory. The earth is full of violence and corruption. Most importantly, God Himself is grieved in His heart, sorry that he made man. Humankind, the crown jewel of God’s creative activity, created to be loved by their creator, has come to the point where God determines to blot them out. It boggles the mind to think that God Himself could be so heartbroken.
            Yet there are Christian brothers and sisters today who would like to think-indeed, seem eager to think-humanity is going down that same road. Invariably the reason they give is sexual immorality, as if that is the only sin God cares about, the only behavior capable of warranting God’s judgement. Violence is ok if God is on our side. Corruption may be tolerated if it gets God back in the public schools (as if He ever left). Millions of the most vulnerable among us are on the verge of being discarded because caring for them will cost too much. To be sure, these things grieve God’s heart, but not as much as the callous indifference we see all too often among those who should know better. I do not believe this is the time to call upon God’s judgement. This is then time to demonstrate His unconditional love and acceptance, to care for one another, to hold ourselves accountable-judgement must begin within the house of God. We must come to understand what Spirit we are about.
            These Genesis chapters will, if we are honest, pierce us to the division of soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and discern the thoughts and intentions of our hearts. What say you?
Peace. JRG


Tuesday, July 11, 2017

11 July 2017
The Mark of Cain
            Today we look at the exchange between Cain and God found in Genesis 4:9-16. Adam and Eve, with the help of the LORD, create a son whom they name Cain, and another son named Abel. Cain and Able offer sacrifices to God. The LORD regards Abel and his sacrifice but has no regard for Cain and his sacrifice. Cain becomes depressed-the first hint something is not quite right. God speaks a warning to Cain-sin is waiting for you; you must master it. Don’t let this get out of control. Do well-in my eyes, not yours-and you will be accepted. Cain lures Abel into the field and kills him. God questions Cain and pronounces judgement-Cain is cursed from the ground, banished from God’s presence yet promised God’s protection.
             In the first exchange God asks ‘Where is your brother? What have you done?’  Cain replies ‘I don’t know. Am I my brother’s keeper?’ Cain’s response can be taken as an accusation against God- ‘I am not my brother’s keeper-you are, and you haven’t kept him very well, have you?’ Abel’s death may have been unexpected-up to this point, as far as we know, nobody had died-in which case Cain’s accusation echoes Adam- ‘the woman whom you gave me…’; this is your fault, God, not mine. On the other hand, this may be the response of a psychopath who truly cannot tell right from wrong nor feel remorse. Cain could simply be saying ‘What do I care? He wasn’t my responsibility.’ Perhaps Cain is the first in a long line of those who refuse to acknowledge God’s authority. Surely Cain had some knowledge of God. Was someone else whispering in his ear ‘you will not surely die…’
            What happens next can be both satisfying and troublesome. Cain is banished from God’s presence. While Cain’s parents were banished from the garden with the promise of creating life, Cain is banished with a curse. The ground, stained with Abel’s blood, will no longer yield its life for Cain. As a fugitive and wanderer apart from God, Cain will have no rest. This would satisfy the reader’s sense of justice were it not for what happens next. Cain responds by crying out ‘My punishment is more than I can bear’, which may also be translated ‘My sin is too great to be forgiven’; or ‘Is my sin too great to be forgiven?’  Once again, this could be the cry of one who feels unjustly accused, being punished for what he believes to be failure on God’s part. It could the cry of one who, incapable of feeling remorse, cannot understand why he needs punished at all. It could be the response of one who, finally realizing the gravity of what has taken place, truly believes he is beyond any hope of forgiveness.
            In response to Cain’s protest God puts a protective mark on Cain, guaranteeing him a lifetime to reflect on what he did. Cain may have been banished from God’s presence but not from God’s protection. Is this the act of a gracious God who refuses to give up on His fallen creatures, or justice meted out by a holy God determined to punish all wrongdoing? Or both?
            These questions, while intended to be thought provoking, are not merely another thought exercise. The issues involved here are timeless, just as relevant today as they were to the original readers. The positions we take, the way we interpret this story, reveal more about ourselves than they do about God. Are we our brother’s keepers? Does any sin against another human being constitute a sin against God? Is it possible to separate ourselves from God to such an extent that return becomes impossible? At what point does God simply give up?  Our answers demonstrate our willingness to accept God and to be accepted, our desire to know the One who cannot be fully known; to understand the One who cannot be fully understood, to love the One who first loved us.          
I close with a conversation I had with my wife about God putting His protective mark on Cain.
Me: Why would God do that?
Her: To teach him a lesson.
Me: You mean like give him a second chance?
Her: Yes. That’s what parents do.


Friday, July 7, 2017

7 July 2017
            I believe God’s intention all along was to live with us in the garden: “They heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze…” (Ge. 3:8). Once God purposed to create humankind, He made a perfect environment to put us in, and pronounced it good. Why would it be any less perfect than the one He already inhabited with His heavenly court? Different to be sure, but no less perfect. This is, after all, His stated intent in Revelation 21:2: “See, the tabernacle of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them…”. Remember too God brings “every living creature” before the man; “whatever the man called [it] that was its name” (Ge 2:19). I am sure God took great delight in this adventure- “I can’t wait to see what he calls that one”.
            Now consider God’s response to Adam and Eve’s disobedience. “Where are you?” We can almost feel the sting of rejection in His voice (cf.1 Sa.8:7; Jn. 1:11; 19:15). God interrogates the first couple: “What is this that you have done?” (Ge.3:13). The couple explains; God pronounces judgement. But note-this is important-the serpent is cursed, and the ground is cursed. Adam and Eve are not. There will be consequences-Adam no longer tends the garden. Work becomes toil. “Eat freely of every tree” becomes “in the sweat of your face you shall eat bread”. They do not die immediately, but the promise of death- “till you return to the ground”-is now inescapable.
            But note carefully what God says to Eve- “I will greatly multiply your pain in childbearing” (Ge.3:16, italics mine). There is hope here, and a very great promise. Adam sees it; he calls his wife “Eve, because she was the mother of all living” (3:20; italics mine). Focusing on the curse, we miss the promise-life will continue. God does not give up on His creatures, He does not curse them-He promises life and redemption (3:15; note this promise is to the serpent). Life will go on, but not in the garden. The tree of life is now off limits-at least for the time being.
            Note also the subtle change in the relationship between man and woman. What began as “a fit helper” now becomes “he shall rule over you”. The point here is not male dominance, or an excuse for male dominance or feminism or sexism or anything like that. The point is much subtler, much more profound-the relationship between man and woman is no longer modeled on the Trinity. A new model has come; one where self-interest and self-preservation will become the norm (cf. Ge.12:10-13; 20:2; 26:6-11). This is not what God intended for us; later He will take matters into His own hands, live with us again and show us how He intends for us to live.
            The point I am making here is, this seems to me to be the first indication of God’s nature and character; His holiness if you will. He does not give up on His creatures, He does not curse them. There were consequences which remain to this day, yet He promises life will continue and redemption will come. Later the promise of renewal will be added; for now life and redemption are enough. Don’t miss this. God’s nature, His character, His plan for us is revealed from the very beginning. God is for us, even and especially when we are not for ourselves. Or for Him, for that matter. To do anything else would be, for Him, impossible- “if we are faithless, He remains faithful-for He cannot deny Himself” (2 Ti 2:13). I do not believe He does this so He can observe us from a distance, or because He delights in judgement (although judgement will come), looking for any excuse to zap us into submission. I believe this kind of love demands hands-on involvement; we have only to ‘draw near” (Ps.73-28; Zech.1:3; Mal.3-7; He.4:16, 7:25; 10:22; Ja.4:8). Once we begin to get this ‘first relationship’ right, all other relationships should fall into place. That’s the theory, anyway. As Paul says, I’m not there yet. But, as Gibbs says, ‘I’m workin’ on it’.


Thursday, July 6, 2017

 6 July 2017
            I do not believe there are nearly as many atheists out there as some folks’ claim. We were, after all, created by God in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:26-27) which, it seems to me, would include some sort of hard-wired belief in and desire for God on a very deep, subconscious level. Paul says as much in Acts 14:17; 17:27-28, and Romans1:19-20. No, the problem, as I see it, is not that people do not believe. People believe-they simply do not want God telling them what to do.
            This is precisely what happened in the garden. We were created for relationships-with God and with one another-this is what “image and likeness” means. God Himself is the model for all human relationships-three distinct persons so perfectly united in will and purpose and love for one another they act as one in all things, at all times. This is, as Paul says, a mystery, but the point here is this: as creator God had the authority to set the terms of our relationship with Him, which He did with one simple command-do not try to decide for yourselves what is right and what is wrong. If you do the relationship will be broken (Genesis 2:16-17). This, of course, is exactly what happened. Our first parents believed the lie that they could be like God and determine right and wrong for themselves, betraying their creator’s trust and friendship. The result-when God came calling they hid because they were afraid (Genesis 3:10).
            This is our great inheritance from our first parents, the original sin: the desire to ‘be like God’ and decide for ourselves what is right and what is wrong (Genesis 3:5). The relationship that was meant to be the foundation upon which all human relationships were to be built is broken. We are, or perceive ourselves to be, on our own. We blame God, shake our fist at God, reject every hint of His authority in our lives and the resulting loneliness frightens us to our core. Failing to understand God (Romans 1:21; Ephesians 4:18) we do as our first parents did-hide, creating a void we attempt to fill with all manner of things (Romans 1:28-31). All the while the fear grows. This is, I believe, why it is so difficult to treat addiction-any addiction-on a behavioral level alone without attacking the root (read lack of relationship) cause.
            Sadly, this “exchanging the truth of God for a lie” Paul discusses in Romans 1 is not limited to those who reject God. There are plenty in the church today who misunderstand God’s nature and character; who try to manipulate God into blessing their every whim and fancy; who base their lives on a legalistic understanding of God (Colossians 2:20-23) and are all too quick to condemn anyone who disagrees with their worldview. We trade the knowing-and being known-of relationship for the safer, neater ‘knowing about’-the accumulation of knowledge which is ‘good for food, a delight to the eyes, and desired to make one wise’ (Genesis 3:6) but are of no value, serving only to indulge the flesh” (Colossians 2:23). This is simply another example of deciding for ourselves what is right and what is wrong.
            Relationship is the key. God desires our friendship-it’s what we were created for. “Christ in you, your hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27) may be difficult to understand but friendship is not. Friendship is spending time together, talking and listening and arguing and forgiving and starting over as often as necessary until we begin to ‘get it right’. We all understand this stuff. Gradually we come to see how wrong we were about God-we become transformed into His image and likeness (2 Corinthians 3:18). Now, we all know relationships are messy and failures are certain to occur. That’s ok. God can handle all that; it’s not like He doesn’t know us. My personal belief is relationship is so important to God He is even willing to accept our reluctance to allow Him to tell us what to do. At least, in the beginning. The closer we get the more we realize ‘how happy those who delight in the law of the Lord’ really are (see Psalm 1).
            My point here is simply this-don’t be afraid to come to God. Even (and perhaps especially) if you don’t want Him telling you what to do. Just admit it up front-He already knows, anyway. Stop hiding, stop being afraid, stop being consumed by your anger and simply come. No magic incantation needed; no special formula required. God is Himself good and He desires your ‘best good’ (Romans 8:28). So, come. Bring a friend. Let me know how it all turns out.  

Monday, January 2, 2017


2 January 2017

For I am the Lord who brought you up from the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall be holy, for I am holy. (Leviticus 11:45; NRSV)

Instead, as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; for it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1:15-16; NRSV)

Good evening, welcome. A week or so ago, one of my friends posted a reference to the atonement and holiness on Facebook. The post had to do with holiness and the atonement being more or less fundamental doctrines for Christians; in it he mentioned holiness as being set apart for God. My friend’s post got me thinking about what it means to be holy from a ‘big picture’ point of view-the entire Biblical story from Genesis to Revelation-seen within the framework of creation/fall/redemption/restoration theology and defined with the already-present-but-not-yet view of the Kingdom of God. Now that I have put it all together-more or less-I thought, being the beginning of a New Year promising change (or upheaval, depending on your point of view) this might be a good time to post my thoughts. So, here goes.

In order to properly understand holiness (or any Biblical theology, for that matter), the Bible must be seen as one unified whole, as opposed to a collection of separate books. The story has a Protagonist (hero)-God; an antagonist (villain)-Satan; and a bunch of agonists (other characters)-us. It has a plot, which goes something like this. God (or The Godhead, if you prefer) decides to make humankind to bear His image (Genesis 1:26-27). First, though, He made a perfect environment for His image-bearers, over which God made them stewards-caretakers. This, obviously, would be creation. At some point Satan comes along and persuades God’s creations to bear his (Satan’s) image instead. As a result God’s once good and perfect creation is cursed (this would be the fall). All this happens in the first three chapters of Genesis. God, however, does not give up on His creations; instead He promises them a redeemer-one who would “buy them back” from their new owner (Satan). Keep this thought in mind; we will be coming back to it. The next five chapters of Genesis describe the effects of the fall, culminating with the Great Flood. Chapter nine begins the story of God’s plan to buy His creatures back (more or less; some may argue the story starts with Abraham in Chapter 12. Either works, in my opinion). This would be redemption. The rest of the Bible describes our hero’s (God) redemptive plan, culminating in our ultimate restoration.

Fast forward now to Exodus. At this point God has raised up a people and called them out of Egypt-where they had been held captive-forms them into a nation-Israel-and gives them a specific and very important mission-to be His presence among the nations to whom He is sending them. Keep in mind, these were pagan nations, evil nations, whose idea of worshipping their gods sometimes included human sacrifice (if I give you my son, will you please let me live). Israel’s God did not need to be bribed or placated in order to be worshipped. He did, however, require holiness from His people.
How were the Israelites to know and understand holiness? Well, God gave Moses the Ten Commandments-and a whole bunch of other laws and statutes and ordinances covering their relationship with Him and with each other. He also made provision for their sin by instituting a sacrificial system (animal, not human, although still very bloody) which included observing a national Day of Atonement every year. On this day, one goat was sacrificed to atone for the nation’s sin; another was sent away into the wilderness after the priest has laid his hands on it, transferring Israel’s sin to the goat. Sin was atoned for and removed from Israel’s presence by a couple innocent goats (redemption, again).

God made a very specific promise to His Israelites-if they would observe all the laws He gave them-thereby demonstrating His presence, showing the nations what He was like (or who He really was), they would be blessed beyond belief. Their families would be fruitful and multiply (the original charge given to Adam and Eve). Their crops would be fruitful and multiply. They would be blessed coming and going. The blessings would be huge. The nations would see all this and say “whoa, that is one awesome God indeed. He needs to be our God; we need to worship Him”. On the other hand, if they did not obey God’s commands and follow His laws and ordinances, God promised curses. No fruit. Cursed coming and cursed going. If they wanted to behave like the other nations and forget God, they would get the other nations. Up to their eyeballs. The Israelites agreed to God’s terms and it became a binding contract. All this is recorded in Exodus through Deuteronomy.
Unfortunately, the Israelites did not live up to their end of the bargain. They-as a nation-failed to honor the holiness code God had given them; failed to be God’s presence. God sent prophet after prophet to remind them of the ancient covenant; to act as His prosecuting attorneys bringing charges against His wayward people; to explain what they were experiencing and to remind them why. For the most part God’s prophets were ignored; finally God fell silent.

Fast-forward to the birth of Jesus, the Christ-God’s Redeemer. Remember the ancient promise to Eve? Here He is. God’s final redemptive act. Jesus fulfills every mission given to the Israelites. He explains and fulfills the Law (you have heard it said…but I tell you). He demonstrates what God is really like. He doesn’t just demonstrate God’s presence, He is God’s presence. Being God’s presence He ushers in God’s Kingdom. He teaches His listeners (especially His twelve disciples-another thought to keep in mind) how God intends His children to live. Finally, on the cross, He provides atonement for our sins. They are removed completely. Redemption is accomplished. God has purchased back His creation “What I did not steal must I now restore?” (Psalms 69:4, NRSV). Restoration can begin.

Which brings us, finally, to 21st century holiness. As the Body of Christ, the Church-the New Israel-is today tasked with the same mission as the Old Israel-to demonstrate God’s presence by being God’s presence. Not just in the United States but in the entire world. Remember the great commission-“Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20; NRSV; italics mine). Redemption-the Atonement-is finished. Holiness, however, making disciples (remember them?) is a daily task, a continuing process.

Holiness is the process of considering ourselves dead to sin but alive to God (Romans 6:11), of putting off the old self and putting on the new (Colossians 3:9-10), of being made new (Ephesians 2:22-24). Peter, who should know, puts it this way “For this very reason, you must make every effort to support your faith with goodness, and goodness with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with endurance, and endurance with godliness, and godliness with mutual affection, and mutual affection with love. For if these things are yours and are increasing among you, they keep you from being ineffective and unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 1:5-8; NRSV). Note the wording here. Increasing. Ineffective. Unfruitful. Make every effort. Jesus Himself gives us a very clear picture of what holiness looks like in His Sermon on the Mount (and the rest of the Gospels, for that matter).

But how do we do all this, you might ask? Well, let me tell you. We do it by putting ourselves in a place where God’s transforming power-His grace, administered by the Holy Spirit-can renew us from the inside out. We need new hearts and God is just the person for the job-this is restoration and it is a daily process. Every day, as long as we are on this earth. We do not achieve holiness by our own effort-obeying all God’s laws, as if we could. I am making a case here for the Spiritual Disciplines-activities we (and millions of saints before us) can do which get us to the place where God can transform us. Things like prayer, study, meditation, confession, fasting, worship, solitude, service, submission, simplicity. I am not talking about obeying a set of laws here-or forcing them on anyone else-however, as our hearts change, as the image of God is restored in us, we may very well find that we desire to know God’s laws because keeping them makes God very happy. And demonstrates His presence.

So, yes, holiness is being set apart for God. It is also becoming like God, bearing His image. It is God putting His character in us so we can show it to the world and it does not come automatically. We have work to do if we expect to demonstrate Jesus-to be Jesus-to whomever we meet. So, here’s the assignment for a new year. Let this be the year of the Spiritual Disciplines. Do some research. Pick up a book or two, or three. No need to reinvent the wheel. We have as our ultimate teacher and example Jesus Himself. The Holy Spirit will, as Jesus says, explain everything. At least, everything we need to know.

Finally, let me leave you with this. The Westminster Shorter Catechism asks the question “What is the chief end of man?” The answer-Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Jesus told His disciples He brought Glory to the Father by completing the work The Father gave Him to do. We glorify God in the same way. The disciplines will enable us both to do our work and to enjoy God (after all, He created us for a relationship with Him). Besides, if we don’t learn to enjoy Him now, how will we ever enjoy Him for eternity?

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you throughout the coming year. JRG