Sunday, April 30, 2006

April 30th--A Turning Point

It is not a significant date for everyone, but it is for me. It was the beginning of a new journey in my walk with God.

Prior to April 30, 1980, I thought I had God basically "figured out." Oh, I don't mean that I arrogantly thought I had fully comprehended God or knew everything there was to know about God. By no means! Twenty-two year old ministers can be quite arrogant, but I was not that arrogant.

Nevertheless, I was working on the quid pro quo plan. I thought that if I did my part--did the best I could, sought the will of God, dreamed big for God's church and my ministry--then God would do his part. That is, he would bless my plans, dreams and goals. God would be "good" to me because I was "good" to him.

I may not have thought of it that crassly and memory does play tricks on you, but I am certain that my understanding of God was rather mechanistic. I did my part--I worked the plan, and God did his part--he would bless. It was an impersonal understanding of God; non-relational at its heart. It was as if God had worked out a deal with humanity, and me in particular. It was a pactum, to borrow a term from medieval nominalism. God and I had a contract.

But God did not keep his end of the bargin.

I planned to do big things for God--missionary to Germany, doctoral work under Pannenberg in Munich, and then return to the States to teach theology and missions in one of our Universities. I was going to do my part--I had goals, dreams and hopes. And I had expectations. I expected God to do his part.

But God did not keep his end of the bargin.

On April 30, 1980, at about 3:00am in the morning I was awoken with the news that Sheila, my wife since May 22, 1977, was dead. She died when a blood clot went through her heart as she slept. She was recovering from back surgery that would have permitted her to carry our children full term.

God did not keep his end of the bargin!

My mechanical understanding of God went kaput! It took me many years to work through what exactly shifted in my thinking as a result of that experience. It involved months and years of lament, some rebellion, frustration with God, shifting theologial thoughts, and even silence (refusing to speak to God). But ultimately somewhere along the way--almost unidentifiable in my experience--I shifted from a mechanical to a relational understanding of God.

This shift was primarily a shift in my understanding of prayer, providence and God's work in the world. But the shift had implications for my understanding of the Holy Spirit, worship, grace, etc. In other words, my whole theology made a slow turn toward the relational. My "doctrine of God" shifted and as a result my whole theological orientation shifted.

As I think back on that slow shift that began on April 30, 1980, I am awed by how I was changed through that experience. I can even confess with the Psalmist that "it was good for me to be afflicted" (Psalm 119:71).

God was not seeking a pactum with me, but engaging me in a relationship. While journey language has become almost cliche, it is nevertheless the reality of my walk with God. And the journey took a radical turn on April 30, 1980....twenty six years ago today.

The Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Saturday, April 29, 2006

Will We Join God's Party?

Text: Luke 15

Who would not want to party with God? Can we even imagine a scenario in which we would turn down a party invitation from God?

One of my favorite expressions in Scripture describes how God delights in his people and rejoices over his people (e.g., Zephaniah 3:17). This unveils the heart of God who yearns to share life with his people and enjoy them forever. God wants us more than we want him, and to love him creates such joy in his heart that God sings over his people. God enjoys a party.

Surely one of his favorite moments is when a sinner repents and returns home, and yet this is the moment that often creates tension within the church, especially if they are not one of us—one of our kind, one of our people, one of the respectable types.

It is in the face of this tension that Jesus tells three parables—the lost sheep, the lost coin and the lost son. But his point is not so much about lostness as it is an invitation to rejoice in their being found. It is an invitation to rejoice with Jesus, to rejoice with the Father, over the retrieval of one of God’s people.

Jesus felt the tension between his ministry and those contemporary religious leaders. They mocked his proactive seeking and fellowship with tax collectors and “sinners” (read “prostitutes”). “This man welcomes sinners,” they complained, “and eats with them”! They were scandalized by Jesus’ welcoming relationship with sinners.

I’m reminded of a church whose leaders suggested that a converted prostitute attend another church in town. I’m reminded of a church where a leader asked an impoverished couple who attended with me one Sunday morning whether they had any better clothing to wear to the sacred assembly. I’m reminded of an elder’s wife who remarked to me that though she would support the new evangelistic effort among African-Americans in her south Alabama town she would not have “them” over to her house to eat at her table.

So, Jesus tells three parables….three parables the church needs to hear over and over again because we still miss the point and fail to practice the kingdom of God.

In the first two, the owners proactively seek what is lost. He finds the lost sheep and she lost coin, and they are estatic. They rejoice over their finds (“joyfully puts it on his shoulders”), and invites others to share the joy. “Rejoice with me” is the invitation…what has been lost is found! The invitations in Luke 15:6, 9 are followed by similar sayings that describe the joy of heaven (Luke 15:7, 10). The invitation to rejoice over partying with sinners is an invitation to join the party in heaven.

The lost son, as we all know, returns home. He finds a father who welcomes him and throws a party. He welcomes the sinner and eats with him. The father invites everyone to rejoice with him. His rationale is simple and jubilant: “this son of mine was dead and is alive; he was lost and is found.”

The parable could have ended there with a recounting of the joy of heaven. The previous parables did. But Jesus is focused—he wants to bring the point home. Indeed, he wants to specify the invitation. Just as Jesus welcomes sinners like the lost son, so he also invites the religious leaders to the party—the father invites the elder brother.

The older brother is angry; he will not attend the party. It does not matter if he hurts the father whom he loves, he is too angry with his brother and more so with his father. Indeed, he is angry because the father is fundamentally unfair. He coddles his younger son and undermines faithfulness. He, the elder brother, is the standard of faithfulness and the younger brother does not measure up.

But, the father pleads, “this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.” The rationale is repeated again from the father’s earlier invitation to his household (just as the joy of heaven was repeated in the earlier parables). The rationale should be sufficient—we should rejoice over the return of one who was lost more than we value our own faithfulness. We should party with the prodigal rather than sulk over our—perhaps more pointedly, take pride in—our own faithfulness.

The father invites his elder son and humbles himself as he pleads with his elder son: we have to celebrate and rejoice. (And here Luke combines two words he has used previously but separately in the narrative.) We must party—there is something to celebrate. The joy of heaven is awakened and we must join the party. We must celebrate with God—and we will if we have the heart of God and his mission is our mission.

We too easily dismiss this application of this parable. We prefer to see ourselves as the prodigal—there is a happy ending to that story. But we fail to see that we “religious people” are more probably the elder brother.

And more remarkably we are actually called to imitate the father in this parable. We are called to compassionately receive the prodigal—to welcome the sinner, and we are called to invite the elder brothers in our midst to the celebration. We seek the lost and invite the saved to rejoice with us. In this way, we party with God and share the joy of heaven.

The mission of God is to welcome sinners and eat with them. And so the church eats every Sunday and invites sinners to the party.

Friday, April 14, 2006

When Darkness Reigns

Text: Luke 22:39-23:56

One of the dimensions that I love about Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of Christ” (though there are several aspects I don’t like at all) is the sense of darkness that pervades the first quarter of the movie. He captures the mood, but not only the mood—he captures the reign of darkness on that Friday.

Darkness begins and ends Luke’s account of “Good Friday.” As the temple guards, elders and chief priests arrest Jesus in the garden, Jesus announces, “this is your hour—when darkness reigns” (Luke 22:52). Darkness reigned till Jesus breathed his last, and Jesus died in darkness as God blocked the sun (Luke 22:44). Good Friday was a dark day epitomizing the darkness that enveloped the world; symbolizing the darkness that has choked the world since the Fall. Good Friday, however, was the hour of evil’s triumph. On that day Satan’s reign tyrannized the Son of God.

Luke’s narrative draws out that dark reign through the events that transpire. His story tells us what happens when darkness reigns.

When darkness reigns….

• Good people fail to pray
• Friends betray friends
• Swords are drawn
• Disciples deny their teacher
• The innocent are convicted
• The guilty are released
• The law is subverted for interests of power and control
• The righteous are mocked
• Women weep over the loss of their children
• Soldiers demean and torture others
• The condemned insult each other
• The blameless are executed

Luke paints a dark scene from the garden to the cross. But his canvass has rays of light. The dawning sun breaks into the darkness, just as he announced at the beginning of his gospel (Luke 1:78-79).

The kingdom of God is dawning and breaking into the darkness. Even when darkness reigns, the kingdom of God cannot be smothered and snuffed out. Light appears even within the darkness.

Even though darkness reigns….

• Kingdom people refuse to use the sword even when threatened; Jesus said “No more of this!”
• Kingdom people pursue the will of God despite the consequences; Jesus said, “yet not my will, but yours be done.”
• Kingdom people confidently anticipate the fulfillment of kingdom in hope; Jesus says, “the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the mighty God.”
• Kingdom people weep for the brokenness of the world rather than over their own suffering for the sake of the kingdom; Jesus said, “do no weep for me; weep for yourselves and for your children.”
• Kingdom people forgive their persecutors; Jesus said, “Father, forgive them.”
• Kingdom people invite others into the kingdom; Jesus said, “today you will be with me in paradise.”
• Kingdom people trust in God’s work despite the reign of darkness; Jesus said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Kingdom people follow Jesus. They, like Simon from Cyrene, pick up the cross and follow Jesus. Kingdom people assault the powers of darkness by submitting to the will of God and trusting in the promise of the coming kingdom. Kingdom people follow Jesus.

Darkness reigned on Good Friday, but the kingdom of God also broke into that darkness. Even as darkness reigns in our day—in whatever way it reigns, as kingdom people we are called to follow Jesus….and it may take us to a cross.

“Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.”

Thursday, April 06, 2006

New Book Announcement

Kingdom Come: Embracing the Spiritual Legacy of David Lipscomb and James A. Harding is the title of a new release by Leafwood Press, a division of ACU Press. It is due out in May 2006.

Bobby Valentine and John Mark Hicks are the authors.

"Many assume that Churches of Christ views 1930-1960 were those of the major forefathers such as James A. Harding and David Lipscomb. We must therefore read this book, for as the result of the authors' detailed scrutiny of the writings of Lipscomb and Harding, we are soon disabused of our unwarranted illusions. These two forefathers were not simply polemicists. They were spiritual giants who heralded living in the face of the coming again of the Lord, trusting him for all of life's needs, walking in the Spirit, prayer, Scripture reading, peace keeping and more. The authors do an excellent job of elaborating on how Scripture and contemporary scholarship sustain the commitments of Lipscomb and Harding and challenge our own life before God and in his church."

Thomas H. Olbricht
Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Religion, Pepperdine University.

Can we say anything good about 1906?

This book recovers a piece of forgotten history from 1906. Some of the finest examples of kingdom living to be found among Churches of Christ are found in the midst of that heartbreaking year of division. The “best” of Churches of Christ in 1906 is represented by the life, thought and practice of David Lipscomb (1831-1917) and James A. Harding (1848-1922), despite the fact that Lipscomb and Harding participated in the conditions which resulted in division.

Their kingdom theology and spirituality, we believe, provides the contemporary church with a way forward into the future. If Churches of Christ—and other parts of the Stone-Campbell Movement as well—would re-appropriate their kingdom themes and practices, we believe the church would more fully participate in the emerging kingdom of God which will one day fill the earth with divine righteousness.

Below is the Table of Contents.


1. Introducing a Spiritual Legacy: Foreigners at Home

Part A. Kingdom Dynamics: Divine Action

2. Shadows of the Second Coming: “Thy Kingdom Come”

3. God Still Works: Trusting God’s Providence

4. Holy Spirit: God’s Redemptive Presence in the World

Part B. Kingdom Spirituality: Four Means of Grace

5. Listening to God: Reading Scripture

6. Releasing the Oppressed: Fellowship as a Means of Grace

7. Communing with God: The Lord’s Day and the Lord’s Table

8. Crying for the Kingdom: The Privilege of Prayer

Part C. Kingdom Life: Free to Serve

9. The Prince of Peace: Pledging Allegiance to the Kingdom

10. No Creed But Christ: Freedom to Think and Speak

11. No More Shadows: Towards Cosmic Liberation


12. The Road Not Traveled: Where Do We Go From Here?

My apologies for posting this a second time, but I'm testing some problems with blogdigger.