Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
The sermon topic this morning was Paul’s message to the older women in Titus 2. Now, I can’t tell you for sure exactly what all the points were, because like every good sermon this one prompted thought – and some internal processing. I got to thinking about all the wonderful senior saints who have had an impact on my life. The quirky, the eccentric, lovable each and every one of them.
So much is being said and written these days about how the Church of Christ in particular is being oppressive to women. Yea, verily, you would think we make our females wear burqas and sit on split rail benches behind a screened in wall in an adjacent room while the men sit in upholstered recliners in a gilded auditorium.
And I remember these heroic women of my childhood and wonder – if they were so oppressed, if the men of the congregation looked down on them so much, if they were so 2nd or 3rd class – then why are they so prominent in my memory? How did they come to have such an impact on my spiritual development?
I really feel sorry for a woman who feels like the only way she can gain any respectability is to preach a sermon, pray a prayer or “lead” at the Lord’s table. What a small concept of self-worth. Honestly ladies – once you do it a couple of times you will realize how little “power” you will have. The glory that God has given the female far exceeds the menial task of standing behind a pulpit. To look at a man and say, “I want to be like him” is the worst kind of self-deprecation. If you do not like being a woman, believe me, you will not be worth much as a man.
I realize those may be harsh words in the 21st century and the age of egalitarianism. But as I sat this morning listening to Paul’s words to the older female Christians I could not help but stop and think that I sure am glad I had some older ladies in my life who were sincerely grateful to be God’s daughters. They knew the power that they held in their grasp – and they had no desire to exchange it for the role of a male.
I don’t think that was the main point of the sermon. But, it was a sermon well preached anyway. It has been preached by dozens of women in my life. Godly women who received their giftedness with strength, humility and grace. It was a sermon that is preached every day by God’s servants both male and female who have the ability to say, “may it be to me as you have said.” (Lk. 1:38).
What is going on in the United States?
- A teenage girl is declared brain dead, the hospital begs the family to be able to remove “life” support and the family refuses.
- A pregnant woman is declared brain dead, the family begs the hospital to remove “life” support and the hospital refuses.
- It seems every week some sociopath shoots up a school, mall, or place of business.
- “Transgender” children have won the right to use the bathroom facility of their choice, regardless of their birth gender, and regardless of the objections of parents of children who must share the facility with such “transgendered” but biologically dissimilar classmates.
- A groups of homosexuals who “only want to be treated equally” stage a mass marriage ceremony to the song “Same Love” during the Grammy Award presentations.
- Our Nobel Peace Prize winning President and his administration are guilty of the killing of thousands of innocent civilians in military drone strikes.
Many “conservative” Christians are asking how these things could happen in their “Christian” nation.
I can’t say I know for sure, but as one who is rarely without an opinion, I’ll give you my two-bits worth:
It is because we either allowed it to happen, or actively promoted the environment that allowed it to happen.
“Oh, but we are different” you say, “We are Christians and we honor and worship God!”
- Yea, we worship God by supporting the same educational and governmental bodies that dictate that little girls cannot safely and privately use a “Girls” restroom because it is offensive to a “transgendered” little “boy.”
- And we worship God by supporting and promoting a medical establishment that has so blurred the lines between life and death that our medical professionals and judicial elites cannot even agree as to when a body is “dead” and should be removed from “life” support. And when you throw in the ethically challenged and morally suspect issue of organ and tissue “donation” the question becomes even more murky.
- And we worship God by holding 2nd Amendment rallies and “God Bless America” parties and we pray for this God to fight the battles for the Red, White and Blue regardless of the issues that caused our government to send those troops into battle in the first place.
- In other words, we worship God, not by refusing to participate in this broken down, sin-sick and decaying process we call “culture,” but by actively promoting it, working for it, voting for it, and by making sure it continues by virtue of our monetary contributions and our devotion.
With worshippers like that, why does God need any enemies?
As I study the Scriptures, (especially the New Testament writings but even in the Old Testament) I see a much different picture. I see a people dedicated to God, challenged by that God not to accept or to participate in their decadent culture, but to transform and renew it. I see Abraham being told that by his faith he would bless “all peoples.” I see Moses being given a law that was culturally transformative – beginning with the nature of the God who gave it and ending with a “promised land” that would be a blessing to all people. I see a small but dedicated group of social outcasts, called “Christians,” who loved and cared for the sick and dying people in their towns and cities, and for the sick and dying culture that seemed to be bent on destroying God’s most precious creation – human beings.
I’ve read the “we have to be a part of culture in order to change culture” arguments until I’m cross-eyed, but I still don’t get it. How do you change the sin of drunkenness by participating and promoting the consumption of alcohol? How do you change the sin of pornography by participating and promoting the degradation of human sexuality? How can you change the warping of human sexuality by accepting and promoting the brokenness of those who refuse to acknowledge the difference between male and female? And in the name of the Holy God, how can you change the culture of violence and killing by promoting the militaristic and violence oriented culture of guns, bombs, tanks, and missiles? How can we eliminate racism, greed, and hate by being hateful, greedy racists?
I’ve read the Bible through several times, and I still cannot find that verse that says, “Be a part of culture and do what your culture tells you to do until that culture finally comes around to seeing that it is wrong.” I have, however, found many passages that reveal the world will hate God’s people, that if God’s people are faithful to him they will often find themselves in lion’s dens, prisons, and under the executioner’s blade. I read over and over that God sets the standards for human behavior, not the government of one country or the constitution of that government. I read that God tells his people to “follow me” even if, and especially when, that path leads through the valley of the shadow of death.
If this is a Christian nation, if this place is just one election away from utopia, if we can fix our problems with one more war or one more law or one more talk radio host, then you can have it. It holds no joy or interest for me.
As I read it, I am to pray thus:
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven. (Matthew 6:9-10, ESV, emphasis mine)
I do not see anything about supporting a rabid nationalistic militarism. I do not read anything about excusing or protecting sociopathic miscreants who kill simply for the thrill of killing. I do not read anything about letting those who reject God’s plan for love and reproduction feel that they are welcome to enter into a church that wears the name of God or his Son and promote a lifestyle which has been specifically condemned by a Holy God.
But, here is the kicker – if you are a “conservative” Christian chances are you have no one to blame for the current state of affairs other than yourself.
And until we can come to grips with that truth, we will never be able to address the resulting chaos…
(Author’s and editor’s note: the young lady who was declared dead may have been a pre-teen; my apologies if I “misremembered.” Also, heartfelt condolences to both families. These are heart-wrenching stories and have no easy solutions. Such is the fog of modern ethics).
Last semester I was privileged to teach a course on the book of Revelation, so readers of this blog were treated to several entries either focused on or inspired by the book of Revelation. This semester the assignments take me to the historical books of the Old Testament (Joshua – Esther) and the prison and pastoral letters of Paul. Thus, this semester will probably see quite a few entries related to the Old Testament prophets, Judges and Kings, and also the letters of Ephesians, Colossians, Philippians, Philemon, 1-2 Timothy and Titus.
Hence my thoughts today on the book of Ephesians. Few books, if any, in the New Testament can claim a poetic beauty equal to Ephesians (obviously Philippians 2 comes close, but that is another day). For three extended chapters Paul writes some of the most elevated and theologically profound material to be found anywhere.
Three things stand out to me about the opening chapters of Ephesians. First is the phrase “in Christ” or its cognates (in Him, etc.) Paul wants his readers to know that it is only through our relationship with Jesus that we have the blessings that he discusses in this book. That pretty much destroys the “all roads lead to heaven” argument that I hear so much of these days. No. There is only one “road” that leads to heaven, and that is the path that Jesus opened up for us through his blood, shed on the cross.
Two, the riches of the blessings of Jesus are to be found only in the church. The church is truly the main focus of the first three chapters of the book. All who are “in Christ” are also “in the church” and it is the church that is the final revelation of all the wisdom and goodness of God. I know that sounds so horribly exclusionary. But it is pure Pauline doctrine, and it is found all throughout the New Testament, not just in Ephesians (the other prison letters are replete with the same claim).
Three, nowhere in the New Testament is the love and plan of God more beautifully described than the book of Ephesians. This message must be preached without fear or favor or the “gospel,” the good news of Jesus Christ, is robbed of its power. Without the first three chapters of the book of Ephesians it is possible to turn Christianity into another human religion on a par with Buddhism or Hinduism. It is possible (although, I might add, extremely difficult) to turn Jesus into just another prophet, just another martyr for his beliefs. But, by reading the gospel stories in light of, and in connection with, the letter to the Ephesians the entirety of God’s divine plan becomes clear. And, when we realize that the first readers of the letter to the Ephesians may not have had one of the four gospel accounts, this letter then may be described as Paul’s shorter gospel of Jesus Christ (the “long version” would be Romans, of course).
I encourage you to feast again upon this short little letter. What poetry. What theology. What a masterpiece!
Okay, so I am not going to start out 2014 with a happy, happy, happy post. But this post has been “building” inside of me for some months, and I finally decided to take some time to put it in writing. I hope it is not too depressing.
Let me begin with the word of the LORD, as penned by Jeremiah:
Be appalled, O heavens, at this, be shocked, be utterly desolate, says the LORD,
for my people have committed two evils;
they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters,
and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns, that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12-13, RSV)
I have been studying and teaching over the past 18 months in the field of philosophy. Now, to be sure I am simply a neophyte in this field, my studies have been more along the lines of “tread water as fast as you can to keep from sinking” rather than any esoteric deepening of mankind’s understanding of itself. However, if I may say so myself, my studies have proven to be somewhat fruitful in that my eyes have been opened to the depths of understanding that I have hitherto been blissfully unaware.
As the old saying goes, “ignorance is bliss, when it is folly to be wise.” Or something like that.
The LORD revealed to Jeremiah two substantive sins: the sin of rejecting Him, and the sin of attempting to replace Him with a broken and useless substitute.
I have come to realize that the church is facing two equally critical sins today. Perhaps they are the same as the sins in Jeremiah’s day. They are certainly related.
In the language of philosophy, today’s church is facing a crisis of epistemology and ontology. Put those terms in “Freightdawg” language and what I am talking about is that the church is facing a crisis of knowing what is truth and how to determine truth on the one hand, and on the other hand it has lost its understanding of what it is supposed to be.
First, the church today has lost its confidence in Scripture. While there is much talk about listening to Scripture, and studying Scripture, and hearing the “Word of God,” much of what is being discussed is just a thin veneer of biblical language glued to a plank of particle board made up of human intuitions and interpolations. You only have to enter into a conversation regarding the role of women in the public worship service or the issue of homosexuality to discover how shallow this veneer really is. Passages of Scripture (both Old and New Testament) that have been viewed for centuries as being unambiguous are now discarded like yesterday’s newspaper. There are typically three reasons for excising certain passages of Scripture that are now seen as “controversial”: (1) the author of the passage was writing in a culture that was (according to the modern worldview) ignorant and repressive, therefore the writings of said author cannot be relied upon today; (2) especially in regard to the supposed writings of the apostle Paul, the passages which are viewed to be repressive and “unChristian” are delegated to the sub-apostolic time period, therefore nullifying their “Scriptural” authority, and (3) regardless of their inclusion in the Christian canon, these backward and repressive texts are superseded by the “progressive” nature of the Word of God in which the literal words of Jesus are supposed to take precedence over any previous or later misinterpretations of God’s ultimate will.
You see, we are to look beyond the text to see what Jesus REALLY meant, not look to the text to see what the Holy Spirit lead the New Testament (and, I might add, the Old Testament) authors to understand what the will of God is. But, this is all a mirage, a phantasm. We cannot move “behind” the text to find out what the will of God is. It is doubly dangerous to posit that we can determine what God’s “progressive” will would be, especially if that “progressive will” is seen to be in direct contradiction to his previous “revealed” will.
To bring in a picture from church history, what these neo-liberals are asking the church to swallow is a huge helping of Gnosticism, without the giblet gravy. We are not to trust the real Scripture, we are to seek some ephemeral, non-corporeal, ghostly “essence” of what Scripture should be.
And, amazingly enough, what these Gnostic-come-lately’s discover in their “proto-Scripture” looks exactly like them: postmodern intellectuals who want to be loved by everyone, accept every form of piety no matter how heterodox, and welcome every syncretistic practice and belief into the church no matter how foreign to the revealed Scripture.
This leads me to my second point: the church has lost its purpose. The church was never supposed to be a social club where all who wanted admission were granted membership simply upon the payment of annual dues and the memorization of the secret password. The church is the post-Pentecost identification of the “people of God” that formally dates all the way back to Abraham. This people is not identified by their desire to be a part of some earthly social organization, but rather they are identified by God’s choosing and their submission to HIS standards of belief (orthodoxy) and practice (orthopraxis).
Simply put, if you disagree with God, or you continually act in ways that are contrary to His revealed will, you cannot be a part of this “people of God.”
I have simply grown weary to the point of nausea with individuals who claim to have a high view of Scripture in one breath and then in the next breath (or in the next sentence) begin to explain why we cannot trust Leviticus or Paul’s letter to the Corinthians because these books or portions thereof violate some post-modern sensibility.
Either the author(s) of the Torah and the New Testament apostles were guided by God’s Holy Spirit or they were not. There really can be no middle ground, no “hedging” of our bets. We cannot have the revealed Word of God and at the same time look for another “intended” word of God. It is time the church demand of its leaders a firm commitment: in the words of Jacob Marley to Ebenezer Scrooge, “Do you believe in me or not?!”
The LORD told Jeremiah very succinctly: if you reject Him you must depend upon your own devices, your own strength, your own ability in order to survive. Realistically, all that means is you end up with a mess of broken cisterns. Those cisterns might sustain life on a minimal level, but nowhere close to the abundant life provided by the living streams of God’s Holy Spirit.
The church today is trying to exist by drinking muddy waters from shattered wells.
Let us go back to the pure water of God’s life giving words. Our eternal existence, and the future of the physical church, depends upon it.
Every year one of the more viewed posts on this site is a recommendation for a daily Bible reading schedule. I think most people are looking for a .pdf they can download or print out, and if that is what they are looking for, they will be disappointed when they arrive here. In past years I have discussed one of my favorite schedules of daily Bible reading, and this year I want to discuss another. However, this time it will cost you just a little bit of money.
The method, or schedule, that I want to discuss this year is one that is published by the Moravian Brethren and can be ordered through their website, www.moravian.org. There are several different editions to choose from, from a plain little book with the daily texts and prayer printed out, to my favorite edition, a spiral bound journal that has the texts, the prayer, and a short space at the bottom for reflections or journaling.
I was initially introduced to the Moravian reading schedule through the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He used these readings for his daily Bible study, and frequently published the Scripture readings for his students and seminarians to read and meditate upon. I was curious, and with a little bit of research was able to find the website and ordered my first copy about four years ago. Since that time I have used them, either in part or completely, for my devotional reading and I have found I truly enjoy the Moravian schedule.
A brief word of explanation – the daily Bible readings from Monday through Saturday are divided into three sections: a Psalm, an Old Testament reading and a New Testament reading. (The Sunday readings will be discussed below). The readings are scheduled so that the entire Bible is read through once every two years. This is quite a change for me, as previously the least that I was reading through my Bible was twice in one year (see my reading schedules for 2012 and 2013). The slower pace means that the passages being read are much smaller, and that allows for more time to meditate and absorb the content of the reading. The selection of a Psalm, an O.T. reading and N.T. reading also allows the reader to have some diversity – some familiarity along with some unfamiliarity, as well as forcing the reader to work through the entire text of the Bible, albeit more slowly.
Any and every Bible reading schedule is created by man, and as such is going to have weaknesses and foibles. There is no “perfect” Bible reading schedule – the best one is the one that works the best for you, whether it is to read a verse, a chapter, or an entire book every day. As much as I like the Moravian reading schedule I am just a little disenchanted with some of the breaks in the readings. I feel like some readings need to go another few verses, or perhaps end a few verses earlier. Particularly in the Psalms I note that some are divided in strange places, or a Psalm that could be easily read in one sitting is divided into two parts. However, this can be seen as necessary in terms of dividing the 150 Psalms into two years worth of readings. So I simply read the Psalm more than once (all the way through on successive days) or if I note a problematic division in the reading I simply read ahead a few verses, or stop a few verses short of the printed schedule and make an appropriate note on the next day’s reading schedule. Honestly – if you cannot figure this out on your own maybe you should not be reading the Bible on your own anyway.
Each Sunday the readings come from the Revised Common Lectionary, and for those of you who do not know what the lectionary is, it is a collection of readings that allow for most of the Bible to be read through (although not anywhere close to sequentially) in a three year period. Each Sunday there is a reading from the Psalms, the Old Testament, a gospel, and a reading from a New Testament letter or the books of Acts or Revelation. For most of the year there is a common theme, either obvious or somewhat more disguised, found in each of the four readings. On some occasions there is no related them or connection between the readings at all.
The Moravian reading schedule also contains readings for “high” church days, such as feast and fast days, and for days that have special meaning to the Moravian church. You can read or omit these selections according to your personal preference.
I had originally intended to write this post about a month ago so readers who wanted to could order their copy and have it available by January 1, 2014. Perhaps that is still possible even at this late date, but even if your copy does not arrive until after the new year, you can still benefit greatly from this reading schedule. 2014 begins the reading cycle again, so we will begin reading with Genesis 1, Psalm 1 and Matthew 1.
Blessings on your daily Bible reading in 2014.
A word about surrender. Surrender does not mean that you fight to the last drop of blood of the last man and then call it quits. That is called, “being defeated.” The only way surrender can actually be defined as surrender is when the person, or persons, doing the surrendering actually have the capacity to keep on fighting, and possibly of even overcoming, their enemy. Surrender is taking your entirely healthy team and walking off the field in the third quarter when you are only down by a field goal. Walking off the field when you are down by 7 touchdowns, there is only three seconds left in the game and you are down to 8 players is not surrender. Let’s be honest about our terms.
A word about apocalyptic. An apocalypse is a written account of a special vision given to a messenger of God relating to an explanation of the reality of human events as seen from heaven’s perspective. It also contains a message about future judgment – of reward for the obedient faithful and punishment for the rebellious guilty. Apocalypses were written to encourage the faithful to keep the faith, to look at things from heaven’s perspective and not from the perspective of the world. Apocalypses are ultimately about victory. God is in control, even death cannot change the eventual outcome of the game.
So, why speak of an apocalyptic surrender? Simply this – the only way to achieve victory from the point of view of heaven is to quit playing the game from the world’s point of view.
In other words, surrender whether it looks like you might still win or you are hopelessly overmatched. Because, ultimately, if you win according to the world’s rules you will lose according to God’s rules.
I think the church needs to learn this. I think the church needs to learn how to surrender. We need one huge, global act of apocalyptic surrender.
We need to quit playing the game according to the rules of the world. We need to quit trying to make the church more pleasant, more attractive, more relevant, more beneficial, more consumer friendly. The one who established the church died on a cross, for crying out loud. And we are trying to “attract” people by making that cross – more attractive??
We need to quit playing power games. The world will not be transformed by political machinations. We can legislate until we are blue in the face and all we will accomplish is a deeper shade of blue. Jesus surrendered every form of power except the power of selfless surrender. In other words, Jesus embodied apocalyptic surrender. He looked at victory from God’s point of view, and transformed the concept of power to the idea of submission.
We need to quit playing public relations games. We need to regain the moral capacity to call sin, sin. We need to realize, and confess, that we are sinners – every stinking wretched one of us. We cannot be forgiven until we are condemned, and we cannot be condemned if we have eliminated the concept of guilt. But, when we say that sin exists and that we are guilty of sins as well as every other person is guilty of sins we violate every principle of public relations. Public relations demands that we whitewash over our own sins (to create and maintain a healthy “self-esteem”) and to whitewash over the sins of others (to create and maintain healthy inter-personal relationships.)
Apocalyptic surrender demands that we have a complete reevaluation of our behavior. We, as disciples of Christ, need to change not only the way we act, but even the way we think. In apocalyptic thinking losing is winning and winning is losing. We become victorious through surrender. The Lion of the tribe of Judah is the Lamb who, though slain, stands as conqueror.
I must admit, I’m not exactly sure how to do this. I am far too much a creature of the modern world. I just know that I need to quit. I need to surrender.
And at the end of the journey
We shall bow down on bended knee,
And with the angels up in heaven
We’ll sing the song of victory.
(from the song, “We Shall Assemble”)
Today’s excursion in daily Bible reading brought me to 2 Timothy 2:1. As I am reading in this cycle through the God’s Word Translation, I came across this reading:
My Child, find your source of strength in the kindness of Christ Jesus.
Not remembering ever having heard this verse phrased this way my figurative ears were pricked immediately. The God’s Word Translation is more of a dynamic translation, meaning that the translators focused on translating the thought of each portion of the text rather than slavishly following a word-for-word translation, so I asked the questions, “Are they accurate here?” “Have they taken extreme liberties with the literal text?” “Why is this reading so different from some of the more formal, or word for word translations?”
I am far from a scholar of the Greek New Testament, but a little research brought me to a rather firm conviction: this translation of this verse is very appropriate, and very powerful.
To cut to the chase, the key word here in this verse is transliterated, endunamou. Both my Analytical Lexicon and my Parsing Guide identify this word as a 2nd person singular, imperative middle verb (I don’t truly trust my own parsing skills). So, in layman’s terms, this is an imperative, a command, but it is in a middle construction – that is it is an action that a person does to or for himself or herself. The basic meaning of the verb form from which this verb is derived is to make strong. Therefore, the command Paul gives Timothy is that he (Timothy) is to make himself strong.
But here is the kicker – how is Timothy supposed to make himself strong? The older (and many of the newer) translations translate the next important word as “grace.” So, for example, the RSV translates, “You, then, my son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus.” That is basically how I remember this verse. There is certainly nothing wrong in that translation.
However, the force that the GWT brings out is that the verb is actually something that a person is to do, to engage in, to make oneself stronger. The RSV simply as a form of the English verb “to be.” It is one thing to say, “be strong” and another thing to say, “make yourself strong” or even “make yourself stronger.” And, the GWT adds a flavor to the word “grace” that, in my most humble opinion, really brings out the irony, or the paradox of the command Paul is giving Timothy. Paul is telling Timothy to “make himself strong” or to “strengthen himself” in the kindness of Jesus.
Now, one might quibble that the word kindness is borrowing too much from the concept of grace. But I would counter that “grace” has become such a loaded, and very often twisted, religious concept that sometimes a synonym is valuable, provided it is not too far afield of the word’s basic meaning. I happen to really like this phraseology – “Timothy, make yourself stronger by remembering and patterning your life on the kindness of Jesus” (Paul Smith paraphrase).
Americans have, perhaps to overgeneralize, a John Wayne theory of strength. Get the most people, arm yourself with the biggest guns, build the biggest bunker, obtain the most and the highest educational degrees, write the most books, attend the most conferences. Each of these makes you “stronger” than someone who has fewer people, smaller guns, a tar-paper shack, a high school education, who is illiterate, or who refuses to pay extortionist fees to attend conferences. How many times have you been encouraged to “make yourself stronger” by practicing kindness? Or grace, even?
This is why I love reading from different translations on a regular basis. We become comfortable with phrases that become set in our minds, and very often we skip over very important topics simply because our eyes, and our ears, become numb to the words we read or hear. A new translation causes us to hear the common in uncommon ways. Sometimes these translations are not so good, and sometimes they are very good.
I think we need to do more preaching about making ourselves stronger by lifting the weights of kindness. Not just any humanistic, “do-gooder” kindness, however. We must be limited to the “acts of kindness” or the “grace” that is in Christ Jesus. But that should give us enough to work on while we are on this earth.
I think that is a gym at which we all need to buy a membership.
My thoughts turn today to a conversation between Peter and Jesus. It is a loaded conversation, and deserves far more than this little space can give it. Maybe I will return to this conversation another time.
The conversation is found in Luke 22. I quote it here from the Revised Standard Version (If the RSV was good enough for St. Neil Lightfoot of Abilene, then it is certainly good enough for me.)
Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren. Luke 22:31-32
Have you ever read that passage carefully? Meditatively? Have you ever stopped to consider the time references that Jesus incorporates into that one little sentence? And, of the profound theological implications of what Jesus told Peter?
First, Jesus was telling Peter that there was a great cosmic fight over Peter! Satan and Jesus, fighting it out over some run-of-the-mill fisherman from Galilee. Of what possible use could some salty sea-dog be to Satan? Who knows, but we all know (because we know “the rest of the story” as Paul Harvey would say) how important Peter was to Jesus.
I do not want to make a “one-to-one” comparison here. Not all of us can be a Peter – or a Mary sister of Martha for that matter. That is an hermeneutical shipwreck that destroys a lot of really important passages. We are not all Jeremiah’s in the sense that God does not call each and every one of us from our mother’s womb. We are not all Job’s in the sense that God and Satan duke it out when we have a severe medical crisis. Putting ourselves in the sandals of our biblical heroes is theologically suspect, and psychologically destructive as well. Let us focus on who we are and learn from these characters without trying to duplicate them.
That having been said, I do believe that we can learn something from this passage about our worth, both to God and Jesus and to the great deceiver. Is it possible that Satan wants you, not because that you would be of any particular value to him, but because you could be of so much greater value to Jesus? Just as not everyone has it in themselves to be another Peter of Galilee, very, very few of us have it within us to be another Adolf Hitler. But, Satan does not need us to be another Adolf Hitler. All he needs us to do is to minimize Jesus and his church in our life. His perverted will is thereby accomplished, and to the world around us we can still be “good, moral” people.
Second, Jesus prayed for Peter, but he knew that Peter was going to fail Him, and thus in one sense his prayer was NOT going to be answered. Peter’s faith did fail, at least momentarily, and in a profound way. Not, mind you, to the degree that Judas’ faith failed him. But Peter had three chances to confess Jesus, and despite being specifically warned what was going to happen, Peter denied Jesus anyway.
Now, you may argue that Jesus, knowing Peter would deny him, just prayed that Peter would eventually return. But that is not the way I read that text. Jesus’ prayer was that Peter’s faith would not fail. Pete’s denial could hardly be described as a stellar display of faithfulness. That is why I said, “in one sense” Jesus prayer was not answered. Certainly Peter ultimately returned to Jesus, and so that aspect of Jesus’ prayer was answered. But let us not gloss over the significance of the totality of what Jesus is saying.
Many people have the concept that, “if I pray for it, in full faith, God has to give me what I want.” Did not Jesus tell us the same? Yet, why were some of Jesus’ most fervent prayers not answered? Why did Peter deny him in the courtyard? Why did Pilate not release him? Why did Judas betray him? Why did he have to drink that “bitter cup?” I wish I had the answers to all those questions. But, I would rather live in the reality of the mystery of God than try to create and live in the falseness of a human idol. The fact is that Jesus prayed for his disciples, and they let him down repeatedly. We pray for our children, and they fail us. We pray for our sick parents, and they die. Not every prayer is automatically granted. If we could control God with a few selfish whims He certainly would not be a God worthy of worship.
But, third, Jesus told Peter, “when you have turned again.” Jesus did know the “rest of the story.” More than that, he was instilling within Peter the belief that Peter was ultimately a worthy disciple. I just wonder how much those words would meant to Peter in the first few days following the crucifixion, and in those first few days following Pentecost. They had to be amazing words for Peter to remember and to take comfort in.
I don’t remember much about my football career. Mostly because it was over my freshman year in high school (the Minnesota Vikings never knew what they missed!) But I remember one practice with such crystal clarity that it might as well have happened yesterday.
We were working on a drill we affectionately called “hamburger.” Two players faced each other, then lay down on the ground with about a yard separating their two helmets. On the coach’s whistle the players were to jump to their feet and try to get past the other player in any way they could. Four posts marked a very small “battle zone” so there was no running around a bigger opponent (my preferred method of “winning.”) Well, one day it turned out that I stood against Bubba Baker, who was to be my opponent. Now, Bubba was our first string full-back. The coach placed me as the fourth string full-back simply because we only had four full-backs and he had no other place to put me. So, I mostly stood on the sideline, safe in the knowledge that it was a statistical impossibility for the three guys in front of me to all get hurt in the same game.
So, anyway, back to my story – here we were, our very big and very hard hitting first string full-back was staring at me and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – I really don’t want to hurt the little guy.” I was staring at Bubba and then looking at the coach as if to say, “hey coach – listen to Bubba!!” The coach, having that sixth sense that most coaches have, looked at both of us and said, “what are you two guys waiting for – get down!” And then he uttered the only four words that I can remember from that entire season - “Smith can do it.”
I honestly remember very little of what happened next. I remember the whistle, and I kind of remember jumping to my feet, and then I remember hearing the loudest bang and feeling the most incredible pain I have ever experienced shooting down my neck through my shoulder and all the way down to my finger-tips. I never lost consciousness, but I sure felt weird the rest of the day. I can pretty confidently say that I did not win that battle, but those four words were absolutely etched into my psyche. If coach White said that “Smith can do it” I would have run into a brick wall thinking that I could knock it down. To his great credit, Bubba apologized for knocking me into the middle of the next week, but he was doing his job the best he knew how.
So, in a very small way, I kind of know what Peter must have felt when Jesus spoke to him by the sea when he asked him three times, “do you love me?” And then Peter could remember those five words Jesus spoke to him, “when you have turned again…” Then Peter the denier became Peter the preacher, and eventually, Peter the martyr.
What an amazing couple of verses. What an amazing story. What an amazing Lord and Savior we have.
Every year, or at the very least, every other year, I try to read some of the classics of Christian spirituality – whether ancient or modern. One book that I return to frequently is Richard J. Foster’s Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home. No matter how many times I read it I am encouraged, challenged, and hopefully I grow just a little bit more in my prayer life. I highly recommend the book.
Today, as I was finishing the book for the I don’t know how many times, I came across this little phrase. Foster was talking about “authoritative prayer,” the prayer that occurs when we call upon God’s power to act immediately in this world. He was discussing the possible pitfalls to such prayer, and in particular, his own reticence in even using authoritative prayer. And then he said this, “In my concern over falling off the deep end, I realized that I just might fall off the shallow end.” (Richard J. Foster, Prayer: Finding the Heart’s True Home, p. 235).
I’m a sucker for beautiful phraseology, and Foster is one of the most gifted Christian authors I have read. This book is full of memorable quotes and powerful, life changing lessons. But perhaps none is quite so powerful as the idea of being so afraid of doing something wrong that we fail to do anything at all. That particular fear has been expressed for millennia – but I have never heard of the fear of falling off the shallow end.
Anyone who has gone swimming knows the fear of being in water that is “over our head.” That means we cannot touch the bottom of the pool, lake, ocean, river, etc. We must depend upon our swimming skills, or at the very least, our floating skills. But who is ever afraid of going into the kiddie pool? Who is afraid of knee-deep water? Who is afraid of falling off the shallow end? It is a beautiful metaphor.
But metaphors are useless if we fail to understand the deeper message behind the image. When we fear that which should cause no fear at all we betray our lack of faith in God. If God can and does give us the ability to swim, or at least float, when we have fallen off the deep end, why are we so terrified of the wading pool?
The church has never been defeated, and will never be defeated, by the great cataclysms of life. In fact, in the face of great trials and persecutions the church has not only survived, it has thrived.
The church in the United States has only recently started to experience a major exodus, a major weakening of numbers, and it has occurred at precisely the moment when the church is the most affluent and protected that it has ever been. We have failed to speak with boldness and clarity on social issues and political issues and moral issues that are confronting us every day and from every possible angle. We are being defeated not by the enormity of the opposition, but by the inadequacy of our own faith. Increasingly the church is viewed as irrelevant and archaic. We have feared “falling off the deep end” and we have succeeded in drowning in the wading pool.
Foster’s book is powerful and challenging. No matter how many times I read it I gain new insights and am pricked to deepen my prayer life. I need to pray each of the chapters that Foster discusses. I need more inward, upward and outward prayer. I need to have more faith in the God who not only gave me the avenue of prayer, but commanded me to use it. I do not want to be guilty of thinking that I can do everything by myself. I want to be more thoughtful of others in prayer. And I want to tap into the awesome power that God has promised me through the avenue of prayer.
And, I especially do not want to be guilty of falling off the shallow end of the pool anymore.
Turn to me and be saved, all who live at the ends of the earth, because I am God, and there is no other. (Isaiah 45:22, God’s Word Translation)
I was following along today in my daily Bible reading schedule and this verse caught my attention. A question came to my mind – “Why do we read Scripture?” It is not as easy a question to answer as you may think.
This is a personal confession, but for me the vast majority of my Bible reading is academic, professional, or related to debate and confrontation. That is to say, I read to find out what a passage “means,” I read to find out how to present the message to others, or I read in order to make my point or to refute the arguments of others.
In rather stark terms, I totally misread Scripture. Not always, but far too frequently. And, I might add, with disappointing results.
Scripture, the very word of God, was not written to be used as a billy club, an instrument of terror and abuse. It was not written to be a forensic textbook, a guide to win arguments and destroy enemies.
God spoke to his prophets, servants and apostles in order to win people back to Him. God’s messages were always personal, even if delivered to a large crowd, or even an entire nation. God’s messages were written in first person singular – “I.” The object was almost always “you,” although on occasion it could be “them.” The prophets in the Old Testament and the apostles in the New Testament never spoke about, or taught about, or tried to explain God. They simply spoke for God. Theirs was the message, “Thus says the LORD God…” This is a critical point to grasp, because we (speaking generically) do not read our text this way.
Everything changed when the Greek philosophical mindset overcame the Hebraic worldview. Even before the coming of Jesus the Greeks had a history of trying to figure out the question of deity and how the gods related to man. And so, as Christianity spread from its Judaic cradle the discussion ceased to be, “What did God say?” and became “What is a god?” or “What is a man?” We can document this in the early debates and struggles of the church. In the first few decades following the death and resurrection of Jesus the message was simple – “come back to God through the blood of Christ.” But, that did not last for long. Soon people started to ask questions like, “How could Jesus be God?” and “How could a god become man, anyway?” So, academics replaced evangelism, ontology replaced faith, and we have never really rid ourselves of that Greek desire to figure out the “how” instead of simply answering the “what” question: what are you going to do with the message of Jesus?
The bottom line is that I do not believe Scripture was written so that I can explain God. Quite simply, God does not need to be explained. Either we believe in Him or we do not. We can’t explain him anyway – Plato and Aristotle’s noble attempts notwithstanding.
Scripture was written so God could win us back to Him. The divine “I” still speaks to the human “you.” Sometimes that word is painfully personal. Sometimes it is national, or even universal, in scope. But, it was not written to be an academic treatise, a manual for succeeding in public debate, or as a introductory text in biology and physics.
I still fall back into my old habits, but I am learning. I hope that I will be able to get better as I learn to read deeper. And I hope you will too.