On to the Next One

Don’t get me wrong, I’m focused on Christmas, especially considering I still have shopping to do.  amazon.com completely hooked me up, and I knocked out a strong majority of my shopping on the laptop with Monday Night Football in the background which is unarguably the best way to shop, but there are still some elusive gifts I need to track down. On a more serious note, we have had a great Advent worship season, which will conclude on Friday night. Our theme is “Light in the Darkness,” drawn from the beautiful Scriptural imagery of Christ being the light of the world and challenging us to live out that light. So, Christmas is forefront on my mind, and I cannot wait until Christmas day; however, today I found myself thinking about the New Year.  Don’t forget about the greatness of New Year’s Day. It’s quite the holiday, too.  Why…? I’ll tell you.  1) College Football kicks into overdrive via Bowl Mania. 2) Black Eyed Peas (not Fergie and her friends, but the food). 3) All the optimism and changes found through resolutions.  So my thoughts recently about New Year’s really revolved around #3, and my excitement for NorthPointe in 2011.  We have had tons to celebrate in 2010, and I expect more of the same in this next year. 

In 2010, at NorthPointe, we celebrated 5 baptisms, welcomed 15 new members to join our church, launched 3 new LifeGroups, and named volunteer leaders to step into ministry roles: Nursery Coordinator, Children’s Ministry Coordinator, and Youth Coordinator.  We’ve seen remarkable growth in our Bible Study participation numbers, from an average of 20 people per Sunday in the summer to an average of 34 in November.  We had our most successful VBS this last June, our best Trunk-r-Treat, and our Thanksgiving Thankfulness Fellowship was amazing.  Also, our Girl Scout Families Outreach Banquet was a success.  In September, NorthPointe organized its first mission trip as 4 of our members shared the Gospel and built relationships with West African Muslims in New York City.  We set a NorthPointe record for Operation Christmas Child boxes, and we partnered in support of the Arlington Pregnancy Center.   I’m sure I am leaving out some things, so please forgive me, but we have had a great year with so much to celebrate.

And that is why I am in a state of optimism for the next year.  In 2011, I want to see our LifeGroups continue to grow and launch new groups. I am prayerfully committed to helping our groups be places of community and welcoming environment.  I am looking forward to growing our Leadership Team with people who will help us accomplish our vision. I am excited about finding new ways to support and meet the needs of the community around us. I am excited to communicate clearly the church’s needs and encourage each member to give in a variety of ways to our church, taking a vital role in its growth. I am anticipating new members and visitors, new relationships and friendships, and the continued strengthening of our community at NorthPointe.  Lastly, I am blessed in looking forward to another year of worship with our church family. 

I hope you close out this year well, and move on to the next one with a sense of anticipation that God is alive and well, and working in your church and your life.

Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 3.12-14, ESV)

Hitchens

I love Christopher Hitchens. I know that it might seem very strange for a pastor to be expressing positive emotions towards the world’s most ardent and frank atheist. But I can explain.  My draw towards him doesn’t come from being persuaded by his arguments or liking in any way the cause he is championing.  And it doesn’t merely rest on Jesus’ command to love your enemies; however, that is an inescapable challenge by Jesus and at the very least is a cover against those who would be offended by my first sentence in this blog.  Certainly, in regards to his purposes, I find them quite sad and destructive.  But I am intrigued by his complete and total authenticity. He attacks theories and thoughts full on, and he abruptly challenges the stodgy, complacent place that religion has settled into and the emanations from that it sends out. He shrinks away from no argument, and he boldly challenges the hypocrisy rampant in organized religion.  Ironically, in that regard, he could end up being the wittiest, unwitting champion of a Christian revival.  By that I mean, some of his critiques of organized religion are correct and could act as a healing balm or an intervention. Religion is full of hypocrisy, and it does often wear the clothes of mere socio-cultural inherited behavior.  So as I listened to Mr. Hitchens last week at a debate with William Dembski in Dallas, I listened closely and thought of ways to answer him in forms of agreement.  I imagine creating common ground with his critiques and laying out the true Gospel through that.  Defenders of faith, or apologists, often paint themselves into a corner, appearing defensive and on the run.  Yet, there are points of logical agreement that can yield to the unsurpassing truth that God is good and Christ is Lord.  I am no chiseled apologist, but here are some positive affirmations of faith that could be applied to Mr. Hitchens’ arguments.

First, Mr. Hitchens claims that religion poisons everything. He states that religion is a human construction based upon socio-cultural behavior. These behaviors come from our fears and our need to control and be controlled. In a sense, I agree. Religion does certainly manifest itself as a human construction. Often, religion can be void of any spiritual yearnings or desire for truth. It can fall into the hands of the greedy, selfish, ignorant, perverted, and angry.  But all of this is a human problem not a God problem. Humans can poison anything, be it marriage, business, politics, or the environment.  My response to Mr. Hitchens would be that any system is at the hands of the people, and that he and I agree there is a problem with religion, but I would assert that people are that problem.  Therefore, Jesus was hardest on the Pharisees and religious zealots in Judea during the time of the New Testament.  He recognized the destructive tendencies of those who use religion for power, and Jesus’ purposes were to bring the outsiders in to covenant and offer hope to the lost.  These are characteristics of truth and beauty, while mere religion carries with it the pockmarks of its sick people, who need transformation as much as anyone else. Far too often, we design God in our image.  And his purposes are grander than religious structure.  Thus, the church is expressed in the New Testament as the bride of Christ, not to merely exist as a religious organization but to progress as a community seeking and living out God’s communion.  However, people in their essence are broken, and the brokenness will manifest itself in whatever they get their hands on.  But this in no way devalues God or His goodness. Mr. Hitchens does not believe in God, so his critique of God is merely an indictment on humanity, yet he offers no solution. My position as a person who believes in God is one of indictment on humanity yet with hope in the ultimate sovereignty of God.  So my point is, yes, the brokenness rampant in humanity is the problem, and that has always been the case. The only sure hope I have is the Creator is personally and actively redeeming and renewing.  That is the story of Scripture.

Secondly, Mr. Hitchens struggles with Scripture. He finds it to be at times offensive, strange, and contradictory.  I certainly testify to Scripture’s divine inspiration and its true testimony to God, but I too at times struggle with Scripture, as should anyone who has read it closely and passionately.  It is the story of the Creator God’s work amongst humanity!  How can we not wrestle with it?  Mr. Hitchens’ opponent William Dembski won his best and most persuasive points when he said, “The Bible is not a book of systematic theology.  It is messy.”  I love this.  The Holy Scriptures have been overly sanitized and held with kid-gloves.  The beauty of the Scripture is that we have to wrestle with it. It is challenging and difficult because it is the narrative of God working through broken people.  There has always been war and sin and destruction, and God chooses to reveal himself within that fractured frame.  We are reading a brutally honest account of God working in a fallen world, through fallen people and systems.  In Scripture, at times God works through war and at times God works through disaster.  These things are not pleasing, but they are a result of creation’s fallen nature, which God still decides to accomplish His grand purpose of redemption through.  Also, the people found in Scripture error and fall short.  Yet the account of God’s creative activity, His covenants, His plan for redemption, and His promise for fulfillment are evident throughout.  Scripture is true and trustworthy because we recognize the reality and truthfulness of what it deals with.  Our world can be very ugly, and the redemption of it marches on through history.  Thus, Scripture faithfully tells the story of that, and at times it is messy.  In Genesis, Jacob wrestles the presence of God.[1] Scholars argue about whether that is an angel or God’s personal presence himself, but the point is much larger.  God demands our honest and utmost attention.  And sometimes, we must wrestle with Him and His purposes to truly be in communion with Him.  Faithfulness is sometimes found in authenticity as opposed to mere piety, and in the Scriptures we find a testimony that shakes us up and stretches us from our comfort zones.  Struggling and wrestling with Scripture is not a problem.  The problem arises when religious people ignore Scripture and refuse to authentically encounter God through it. 

I could continue on, but it might be best to wrap it up here and maybe pick it up some more at a later time.  Ultimately, those who believe need to be more honest about faith and religion.  In many ways, the church (broad sense of the word, meaning believers through history) has let the world down by functioning on the superficial road of religiosity.  The call of a Christ follower is to be pure in thought and deed, non-judgmental, authentic, passionate, selfless, and defined by love and justice.  All of those things only come about through courage and honesty. From this debate, I gather that sometimes the harshest critics are the best motivators.  May the truth of God be reflected by imperfect, yet holy people, people passionately pursuing ultimate truth and the welfare of creation in the name of the one who promises to redeem it Himself.             


[1] Genesis 32:22-32

July 19th, 64 AD

On July 19th, AD 64, a terrible fire broke out in Rome. It burned for three days and three nights, slowed down, and then broke out again. The narrow streets and the structure of the buildings made the city burn like a campfire, and massive destruction resulted. Naturally, the Roman people were incensed. They demanded answers. Nero, the emperor, was the prime suspect. His obsession with building made for an obvious motive. Many Romans were arriving at the conclusion that he had purposefully set the fire so he would have an opportunity to rebuild the city in his fashion.  Nero responded predictably. Basic knowledge of human behavior tells you that when someone is feeling the heat of accusation, he or she is often quick to point the finger at someone else. Such was the case with Nero. In quick need of someone to blame, he chose the Christians in Rome. They were the perfect target: they were a small group and little was known about them. What was known about them was either conjecture or total falsity. For instance, many of the Christian practices of community and communion had been mistaken for sinister, mysterious practices. While nothing could have been further from the truth, the populace’s ignorance made the Christians a quite misunderstood group. So, they were perfect targets for the Emperor. Nero’s plan to blame the Christians worked, or at least it served as a distraction which then opened the door for Christians in Rome to be persecuted for the next two and a half centuries (the level of persecution varied during this time dependent upon the emperors. Some were worse than others.) Under Nero’s rule, believers were forced to battle wild animals in gruesome spectacles, they were burned at the stake during the evening time while Roman socialites partied, and they were generally made to be hated outcasts through the empire. 
These dramatic events could very well be the backdrop for Peter’s first letter to Christians living in the farther reaches of the Roman Empire. He knew firsthand the persecution and struggle they would be facing soon, and he writes so that they might be encouraged and reminded that God is sovereign even in the most difficult and pressing of times. The general consensus amongst scholars today is that the letter is written to Gentile Christians. The earliest church consisted of Jewish Christ followers, and as they preached and professed that Jesus Christ was the promised messiah, the faith grew in great numbers amongst the Gentiles. While the Jewish people and Jewish Christ followers certainly faced persecution from the Roman Empire, the Gentile Christians had very unique pressures and issues different from their Jewish brothers and sisters.
For Gentile believers, they were converting from a pagan life, with no Judeo reference point for their faith.  So, along with Peter’s encouragement for them in the face of physical persecution, he also challenged them to endure emotional and social persecution. The Gentile believers, coming from a pagan background marked with decadence and licentiousness, would feel the social pressure of leaving that life behind. Many of their friends and peers would question them and ridicule them as to why they left that life behind. The pull of the past and of former practices and behaviors would haunt them at varying degrees at various times. And Peter calls on them to endure and live towards something greater, something that can pass through the fires of life and still be found pure and true.  He called them to honor their faith in God.

In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith- more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire- may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 1.6-7 ESV)

In our ALIVE worship services on Wednesday nights, we are walking through 1st Peter. We’ve introduced the series focusing on the background and context of the book.  It is vitally important to know the background and context of the books of the Bible. Knowing the reality of the struggles of the people and the world context at work enables you to read it in a much more connected sense. These were real people with real pressures living amidst major world events. Many people face physical persecution for their faith all over the world. The book of 1 Peter speaks directly to the pain and struggle of such a frightening reality. Many people face emotional and social pressure as they live out their faith. Maybe it’s a person leaving a lifestyle or a debilitating habit behind. Maybe it’s someone whose friends or family don’t understand why faith is so important to them. Maybe it’s someone who feels like they are constantly battling temptation. Maybe it’s someone who is worn down by the constant news of terror and violence all over the world.  1 Peter speaks directly to all of this.  Peter wrote to people trying their best to make sense of faith in a crazy world with sadness and threats and disregard for life all around them. He wrote to people trying to live out their faith in a culture that put no real boundaries of truth on human behavior, practice, and experience.    
May the story of perseverance of those who went before you through trial and temptation connect you more closely with the testimony of Scripture and strengthen your hope that even in times of difficulty God’s truth and beauty can prevail.

Waterhose

One of the most interesting festivals celebrated in the Old Testament is the Feast of Tabernacles.  It’s also called the Feast of Booths.  There are several Old Testament references to the festival, and one main reference is found in Leviticus 23:34-43.  Here’s a snippet from that passage:

You shall live in booths for seven days; all the native born in Israel shall live in booths, so that your generations may know that I had the sons of Israel live in booths when I brought them out from the land of Egypt. I am the Lord your God. (Lev 23.42-43; NASB)

Let’s be honest, that sounds like a strange command.  Basically, God wanted the people to spend a week in pup-tents out in their front yard.  But interestingly, along with this, came a great feast.  The festival came just after the fall harvest was collected, so they didn’t just pass the time in their little homemade huts, they actually had festive meals and an abundance of food for a week.  So, while living in fragile booths, which were the opposite of opulent, inside they had all the abundance they needed, and were humbled by what they had. 

The original purpose of this festival was to be a yearly reminder of the time of the Exodus.  In that time, the Israelite people had nothing to lean on but God.  So out in the bare wilderness, they experienced an abundance of God’s presence and care.  It might not have been an easy time, but God was certainly working amongst them.  So, in remembrance of this, every year they would celebrate the harvest in booths like the ones made during the Exodus, and they would remember how God was faithful and how abundance is measured by God’s love, not material things.  They would also be humbled by those who went before in faith who had nearly nothing of earthly abundance.  So, during this festival, not only would the people be reminded of God’s presence as abundant, but they would also be humbled by the provision of the season’s harvest, and reminded of those who had little or nothing. 

We need those reminders.  We need to be reminded of how in our part of the world, the majority of us have our basic needs met, and we have a fair amount of comforts.  We need to be reminded and humbled by that because it’s easy to forget.  And when we forget that, we become entitled and out of touch with God.

It’s easy to fall into a mindset, where our use of resources and possessions is like a kid with a water hose.  Near my house, the neighbor kid will literally spray the water hose for hours.  He’ll spray it up into the air, against the fence, through the trees, into the other yards.  I’ll go back into the house or run some errands and come back out and he’s still spraying water.  Now, please here me- I’m NOT judging the kid.  I totally get that he’s just a kid and hasn’t developed a world-view and logical reasoning and all that.  I’m surprised his parents haven’t wondered about the water bill, but the kid just couldn’t know any better.  But the problem is, while he doesn’t know any better, I do.  And the other day I accidentally left the sprinklers on way too long.  It’s easy to become naïve to wastefulness and numb to the abundance all around us.  We get stuck in our own little backyard worlds where the dire straits of people elsewhere on the planet are forgotten.  We live in a country where every block or so there’s an “all you can eat” restaurant.  He has an excuse because he’s just a kid.  We don’t have an excuse, yet in some ways we don’t act much differently.    

The Feast of Tabernacles is a brilliant concept.  Step outside of the day to day, and actually realize the abundance around you.  Humbly celebrate what you have, and be convicted to pray for, give towards, and be actively concerned for those who have much, much less.  And be reminded that God’s desire for his creation is for it to know him and praise him.  And how do we know that is God’s heart?  Well, he celebrated a Feast of Tabernacles of his own.  In the first chapter of the book of Colossians, Paul tells us that God’s fullness dwelt in Christ.[1]  And In the first chapter of the Gospel of John, the text tells us that Jesus came and “dwelt” among us[2]. So, God’s abundance came here amongst us in Jesus Christ.  The word “dwelt” in the Gospel of John verse literally means to put up a tent or to tabernacle.  So then, God put his abundance in a humble, human, fragile form in Jesus- God’s abundance in an earthly dwelling.  It’s a perfectly divine Feast of Tabernacles.

God showed to the world that he is concerned for his creation.  He is abundant with love and grace for his creation.  He is a God who desires his abundance to be seen in his people- not merely by material things and by ease and comforts but shown humbly and powerfully through compassion, grace, love, and truth- a holy abundance.    


[1] Colossians 1.19
[2] John 1.14

Sunglasses

You know how it feels when you leave a two and a half hour movie in the afternoon and walk out into the bright sun?  It hurts.  For some reason it always makes me sneeze.  Weird, I know.  But you have to adjust to the light, and if you have sunglasses, most likely you reach for them.  I read the other day that Oakley sunglass company donated special sunglasses to the Chilean miners. As bad as it is leaving a dark theater, try being underground for 69 days.  That’s two and a half months in darkness.  Their eyes needed special protection from the sunlight.  The last I heard a couple of days ago, the miners were still wearing the glasses.

God is described as light. And he is more amazing than we could ever imagine. Sometimes I think we fear even attempting to gaze at Him. And while Paul is correct in saying that we see through a glass dimly[1] (there are still things of God we don’t comprehend); we are also invited to live in His light. We are called to see the world through His light and even reflect it ourselves. We are invited into this light by Him, and we are free and capable to open our eyes to it by Christ Jesus, who is the light to a dark world[2]

Paul describes it this way in 2 Corinthians 3.12-18:

Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, 13 not like Moses, who put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. 14 But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. 15 Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. 16 But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. 17 Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. 18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Christ is the removal of the sunglasses. And it’s not a blinding but a new vision. It’s a revealing of the truth of the world. In a sense, it’s like leaving a dark room and going into a sunny day.  You can actually see the world for its beauty, its purpose, and even its destructive tendencies. But in seeing that, you aren’t looking through dark glasses or even rose colored glasses. There’s not despair and there is no naivety.  There is a true sense of hope, redemption, and calling. There is the realization that one’s purpose is transformation.  Each is called in Christ to become more and more like the light which God is, reflecting it to those in spiritual and physical need.  (Whoever loves his brother abides in the light, and in him there is no cause for stumbling. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks in the darkness, and does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded his eyes[3]). In 2 Corinthians Paul says this transformation comes from one degree to another.  In other words, God desires our lives to be consistent steps of transformation, drawing closer and closer to His eternal glory and sovereignty.  Our calling towards God never stops or decreases. His light is good, and through Christ Jesus we see more and more of it in every prayer, Scripture reading, and time of authentic worship. 


[1] 1 Corinthians 13.12
[2] John 1.4-5
[3] 1 John 2.10-11

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