Thursday, April 12, 2018

Is this a Christian way to pray? Yes!

Below are reflections from my quiet time with God today. I met God at Psalm 58 in His Word. To see how I approach quiet time, see here.

Look: “Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; Lord, tear out the fangs of those lions! Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short...The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked.” (Psalm 58:6-7, 10)

Psalm 58 is an example of what the scholars call an “imprecatory psalm.” To imprecate is “to invoke or call down (evil or curses) as upon a person."

Those outside the faith or casual Christians who read imprecatory psalms can be horrified, even offended. They see these psalms as arguments against the transforming love of God that Christians claim is at work in believers or even as arguments against God Himself. “How could a person filled with the love of Jesus pray such things?” they wonder.

In fact, these psalms demonstrate how important it is for believers in the God revealed now to all people in Jesus to be utterly honest with God about what we’re thinking and feeling. He knows all about us and our “moods.” In Psalm 139:4, we confess to God, “Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely.” It’s futile to think that we can conceal from an omniscient God the kinds of sentiments to which imprecatory psalms give expression. God wants us to be completely honest with Him, as is appropriate for someone who is your best friend.

I like the suggestion made by Eugene Peterson, famed as the Bible translator who gave us The Message, and his friend Bono, lead singer of U2, in a short video from their conversation on the Psalms: The imprecatory psalms give Christians a faithful way to cuss. When we lay our anger before God in ways modeled by these psalms, we lay ourselves open to God’s correction and transformation. When we pray in this way, we may sense God telling us, “I understand your feelings…” And then, “I will take care of it. Remember that vengeance is mine.”

Or, “Are you being entirely fair?”

Or, “Does your own life measure up to the same standards by which you’re condemning so-and-so?”

Or, “Let me orchestrate events to bring about a positive resolution.”

Or, “Here are the words I want you to speak publicly to this situation.”

The third thing to be said in favor of imprecatory psalms is that their perspective can sometimes reflect God’s perspective. When we see injustices perpetrated against others, our anger toward the doers of injustice matches God’s anger toward them.

There is such a thing as righteous anger, anger born of God. Those who misuse or abuse earthly power of any kind to perpetrate injustices against others, who take refuge in the laws of this world rather than in God and His gospel will, at the final judgment, stand naked in their misdeeds rather than be covered by God’s grace given to all who trust in Christ.

The apostle Paul writes, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows” (Galatians 6:7). In the imprecatory psalms, we find a model for acknowledging injustices and asking God to bring justice about, whether that justice comes in this world or in the one to come. Imprecation in our conversations with God is one aspect of a healthy faith.

Listen: In Psalm 58, David is specifically railing against the injustices of rulers. He cries out to God to defang these rulers, to cause them to vanish. When that happens, he says, the righteous, those who depend on God for life and holiness, not themselves, will be glad, dipping their feet in the blood of the evildoers.

Tough talk. Not the kind of talk believers might express when they’re talking to their unbelieving barista at Starbucks. But if we bring such sentiments before God, God will understand. God will hear it as prayer and respond.

Think of the bloodthirsty tyrants in the world today. Take Vladimir Putin, who has murdered, jailed, and confiscated the property of his political opponents at home, invaded Ukraine, ordered the bombing of innocent civilians and medical convoys in Syria and Chechnya, poisoned opponents granted asylum in democratic nations, stolen his country blind, tampered with democratic nations’ elections, and been an enabler for Bashar al-Assad’s murderous regime in Syria. If anyone deserves to be defanged and to vanish from the earth, it’s Vladimir Putin, this evil man. That’s why I go to God each day and ask for his peaceful removal from power. I also pray that his henchman will be removed from power.

I pray similar prayers regarding other bloodthirsty rulers.

I pray that those who abet the bloodthirsty will be given God’s wisdom and an openness to that wisdom or, barring that, that they too will be removed from office.

I pray, as Scripture teaches Christians to do, for all leaders, that God will help them to rule not with their own wisdom, but with the wisdom of God Himself.

Political activity has its place. Personally, I try to be an informed citizen, I vote, I send emails to government leaders, I make political contributions. As a pastor, I feel it would, except in the most extreme of circumstances, be inappropriate to be politically active: I don’t want people to confuse my political preferences for the Gospel I am called to proclaim.  

But I also am part of a Christian tradition, Lutheranism, that encourages believers in Christ to be involved in the world for the sake of others.

And this is a key point: for the sake of others. When the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazia, his cause wasn’t Dietrich Bonhoeffer, or Bonhoeffer’s social class, or even Christians. Bonhoeffer acted against Hitler’s despotism because he was appalled by the treatment of Jews and others in his country and elsewhere. Christians know that we have eternal life with God; no worries. This gives us freedom to act and vote to protect others, not ourselves. God is always protecting us. “...whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Romans 14:8)

Whether it’s in our prayers or in our voting, Christians should never be about their own interests, but
about what is in the best interests of their neighbors, Christian and non-Christian alike, those living today and generations yet unborn.

I follow a Savior Who calls me to take up my cross and follow the same path He took through this world. He underscored the Old Testament law that we love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

If my anger at unjust rulers or my quiet act of voting is ever in response to my self-interest, I’m in the wrong. Always.

If my anger at unjust rulers or my voting is in behalf of the lowly, the poor, the powerless, the overlooked, the despised, the abused, the underappreciated, the endangered, the held-down, my anger is righteous.

But the very first thing we need to do with our righteous anger is take it to God. When we do that, He can lead us in discerning how best to express and live out indignation born of holy love.

Respond: Lord, today, do not forget the victims of violence, discrimination, and harm meted out against them by the abusers of earthly power. And don't let me forget them, or to pray for them, or to act and speak for them. Bring all tyrants into submission to You. Help me to live, not self-righteously, but in utter submission to You, the Lord, Who saves me not by my merit, but by Your charitable grace given to all who repent and surrender to Jesus. I surrender again now. Grant that all that I do and say will reflect Your imprint on the deepest parts of my soul and life. And let me share the saving good news of Jesus, the gospel of new life for all who believe in Jesus, with someone today. In Jesus’ name I pray. Amen

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Monday, April 09, 2018

Set Free to Take Care of Each Other (AUDIO) (Church Lessons, Part 1)


[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]

Set Free to Take Care of Each Other (Church Lessons, Part 1)

[This was shared with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday, the Second Sunday of Easter, April 8, 2018]

Acts 4:32-35

As is true every Easter season, the appointed Scripture lessons for Sundays include passages from Acts. So today, we begin a new series of Sunday messages based on Acts that we’re calling Church Lessons.

We start today with Acts 4:32-35.

To dip into this amazing book four chapters in, it’s necessary for us to set the scene. 

Acts begins with the risen Jesus reiterating the great commission to the eleven apostles and His whole Church. “ will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you,” Jesus tells them, “and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8) 

In Acts 2, as 120 disciples were gathered in Jerusalem for prayer, the Holy Spirit descended on them and the Church was empowered to fulfill Jesus’ commission. By the power of the Spirit, they told the crowds from all over the Mediterranean who were gathered in Jerusalem for the Pentecost festival, in the diverse languages of those crowds, about God’s mighty works. Especially the mightiest act of all: God becoming human in Jesus, living a sinless life, dying on a cross for our sins, and rising from the dead to give forgiveness and new life to all who believe in Him

On that day, Peter then preached a sermon that brought 3000 people to faith in Christ. We’ll be celebrating Pentecost Sunday six weeks from now. 

After Pentecost, the Church continued to pursue its mission and ran into opposition for it. But instead of collapsing or falling to the temptation of returning violence or hatred to its persecutors, the Church, as well portrayed in the fantastic new movie, Paul: Apostle of Christ, prayed for boldness in lovingly sharing the good news, the gospel, of the crucified and risen Jesus with the world. 

It’s soon after this that we come to our passage for today.

Verse 32: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” 

We need to spend some time talking about what these words mean and what they don’t mean. 

As we talked about a few Wednesday nights ago during Lent, the disciples in Christ’s Church did have conflicts and disagreement. They seem to have known the wisdom of the modern wag who said, “If two people agree on everything, at least one of them is irrelevant. 

To be of “one heart and mind” doesn’t mean that the first Christians always agreed with each other. They didn’t.

Among the many disagreements and conflicts, the one most consequential to you and me, maybe, is the one that raged for some time over the ministry to Gentiles, non-Jews, by Paul. 

There were Jewish Christians who insisted that Gentiles couldn’t be grafted into the Church or the Kingdom of God. They were sure that only Jews could be Christians and that Paul was blaspheming God by welcoming non-Jews, Gentiles, into the fellowship of Christ’s Church.

In Acts 15, we’re told about what’s now called the Council of Jerusalem. There, all points of view were aired and those gathered finally agreed to let Paul reach out to the Gentiles. As long as Gentile believers would respect Jewish Christians, Gentiles would be welcomed into the fellowship of Christ’s Church as fellow heirs of God’s grace given in Christ. That was a good decision for you and me, making it possible for us to know Jesus and the free gift of new life He gives to all who repent and believe in Him!

There are some non-negotiables for people to be part of Christ’s Church, of course. The Church expects believers to accept the deity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, the belief that we are saved by God’s grace through our faith in Christ, the witness of God’s Word in the Bible. 

But the first Christian disciples, led by the witness of the apostles and the Holy Spirit, concluded agreement about unimportant matters like times of meeting, the kinds of songs, the color of the carpet, or whether people wear jeans or suits and ties to worship, to put it all in modern terms, was unnecessary.

Scholars tell us that the phrase “one in heart and mind” refers to the Old Testament vision of God’s Kingdom. Deuteronomy 15 described something of what life in covenant with God would be like. Believers were to be part of a community in which, every seven years, all debts were to be forgiven and possessions lost restored. Deuteronomy 15:4, says to the Israelites who were about to enter the promised land (this is from the English Standard Version, which gives a better translation of the verse): “...there will be no poor among you; for the Lord will bless you in the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess…” 

In other words, when you were part of God’s community, no one who is part of it should be in need. But Jesus has expanded the meaning of Jubilee. Through His once-and-for-all sacrifice of Himself on the cross, He has forgiven all of our debts and told His people that as we have been forgiven of our eternal debt to God, so we are to go about relieving our sisters and brothers in Christ of their debts to God, to us, to the world. "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us," Jesus teaches us to pray.

This is really what Luke, the author of Acts, means when he says at the outset of our lesson: “All the believers were one in heart and mind.” 

The proof that he’s talking about the first Christian disciples taking care of each other’s needs here and not about always agreeing with each other comes in the very next thing he writes: “No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had…” 

This doesn’t mean that the first Christians sold off all of their homes and properties and lived off the land or on the streets. (Practically speaking, they would have had nowhere to meet for worship if they'd done that.) 

It means that all recognized that everything they had was from God. As James writes in his New Testament letter: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” (James 1:17) 

So, the first Christians did something far harder than agreeing with each other: They took care of each other

When their widows or other destitutes among them, who had no Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid to rely on, no 401k's or 403b's, were in need, their fellow Christians met those needs. 

To be the Church means, among other things, that we take care of each other

Many congregations have the attitude that the pastor is the hired caregiver. 

But that’s not the Bible’s vision of the Church. Acts tells us that the whole Church took care of the whole Church: in prayer, in ministering love, in shared burdens, and in money given in support.

Years ago, I wanted to take a group of young people on a weekend during which they would worship with hundreds of other Christian young people, meet to study, pray, and reflect in small groups, hear great speakers with inspiring messages geared to them, and do service projects in Jesus’ name. 

One of the boys in our group wanted to go, but his mom, a single parent struggling to make ends meet, couldn’t afford the modest registration fee or the additional expenses for things like meals during the trip. 

I went to the Church Council and laid out the need. The council spent the better part of a half-hour going over the pros and cons. Money was not an issue; the congregation had the money. Council members were afraid of the precedent that might be set if they authorized the expenditure of a few hundred bucks for one kid to experience something that might change his life. 

They decided against paying for the young man’s registration. I was shaken. This was a truly great congregation, but its leaders couldn’t see their way clear to helping a fellow disciple in need. 

The meeting ended and I wondered what I was going to tell the mom. "I'm sorry, but the congregation doesn't care about your kid?" "I'm sorry. We can't afford to invest in your child's discipleship?" Things were lean for Ann and me: I was willing to help, but I didn’t have all the money needed. Besides, I felt that this was a responsibility of the whole community, to help grow the disciples in our fellowship.

In this state, I was walking out of the building, when a member of the council approached me. “Pastor,” he asked. “How much is the registration and expenses?” I told him what I thought it would all add up to. He said, “I think that I can find a source.” I looked at him to be sure of what he was telling me. “I think I can find someone who can give what’s needed.” 

I knew that the man’s “source” would be his own bank account, though it was clear he wanted no credit for it. All I could do was thank him again and again.

That man, still a friend of ours, was, in that small way, living out the Biblical vision for the Church: He saw the needs of another disciple in Christ’s Church as something he was called and enabled by God to take care of.

Disciples in Christ’s Church live in the absolute certainty that as God has blessed them, they are set free to bless their fellow believers--and the world, strengthening our witness for Jesus. 

The rest of our lesson from Acts underscores this truth. Verse 33: “With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.”

Notice that it was God’s grace at work among them powerfully that enabled the first Christians to take care of each other. Anyone who tries to do God’s will without an utter reliance on the grace--the charity--of God will fail. 

But when we let the gracious God we know in Jesus lead us, we can do anything that God is calling us to do, including taking care of one another in this community of faith, Living Water Lutheran Church, whether we agree on things like the color of the carpeting or whether men show up to worship in ties.

A not-very-good nineteenth century hymn was called, God Will Take Care of You. It has an atrocious sing-song melody. It's awful; I love it! It's message is right on point:
The God we follow through Jesus Christ is committed to providing us with our daily bread. He will and He does take care of us. But sometimes a Christian sister's or brother’s bread will be sent to them from God through those of us who, at the time, have more bread than we need

Jesus says that the world will know that we belong to Him when we love each other (John 13:35). Acts shows us that loving one another isn’t about an attitude of friendliness. If, in response to God's grace, we set out to love others as Christ has loved us, there will always be a price tag attached, whether it’s in the sacrifice of convenience, time, status, money, sometimes our very lives. 

When we make sacrifices to take care of each other, we give witness that we can live in utter reliance on Him because Christ is alive and the gospel is true. The risen Christ assures that no matter how much we give of ourselves, He gives us eternity and more. Christ gives Himself to those who give themselves to Him

So, we are called to take care of each other. 
Church lesson #1: In all ways, we are to seek and are set free to seek to take care of the needs of our fellow believers so that together, we can be authentic witnesses for the new life God is establishing in all who confess that Jesus Christ is Lord

[I'm the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio.]