The Illusion and Disillusion of the Christian Life

A sad fact of life today in many Christian churches is that the message proclaimed is confused, the pastors set the agenda and expect many people to follow—without question. But is that the Church that Jesus established? Is that the Church that Paul describes? Not at all. But the problem is not new with this latest generation of pastors, leaders, and churches.

Paul wrote to his protege, Timothy, in his second letter, these sobering, realistic, necessary words:

12 Indeed, all who desire to live godly in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. 13 But evil men and impostors will proceed from bad to worse, deceiving and being deceived. 14 You, however, continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, 15 and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. 16 All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; 17 so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:12–17 NAS)

The real Christian life for the one who believes in Jesus Christ and desires to lead a godly life is the expectation that you will be persecuted—even (or especially) in the church! And the church will not lack for “evil men and imposters” (v. 13). They will not be content with how God describes and desires the church to be, rather as evil men and imposters, they are not only open to deception but they will deceive so that the deterioration of the church will continue. The deceivers will mock, ridicule, and manipulate Christians who hold to the truth.

Paul lays out the path for us as Christians to follow. Notice that Paul does not give “Five easy steps to have a better marriage” nor ‘How to be successful in life” nor “Love everyone and be open to learn how to explore greater dimensions of spirituality.” Rather, Paul points them back to the basics of the Christian faith centered on Jesus Christ. That means seeing what the Bible says about sin, law, confession, forgiveness, Gospel (what Jesus Christ has done for us and still does for us), and everything that flows from it, namely 2 Tim. 3:14-15.

Tragically it is popular among many pastors to preach and teach new ways of the law “in order to be more spiritual.” “The good old way,” “fire and brimstone,” “shape up or get out” “get on the bus so you don’t miss”— That path might look inviting initially, but each leads to even greater tragedy, greater despair of failing to live according to man-made rules. And worse, they will begin to apply the Law to those already broken by sin under the law. And worse they will proclaim the Gospel to those who are secure in their sin, who have not been broken by the Law.

Paul is not encouraging or promoting “new ways,” rather what has been given in Scripture is sufficient for all time: it is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). Rather than blazing new trails ahead, Paul is calling Christians back to that which was given by God centuries ago, even before the era of the New Testament.

For pastors and teachers, popularity, the latest trends, or fashion are not the solutions and never were. Nor is rewinding the calendar to a “golden age” the answer. Going back to what Scripture taught, what faithful pastors and teachers have proclaimed from Scripture, that will be revolutionary for the church today. And that will be life-saving for people and churches as they grow in faith in Jesus Christ. If pastors do not teach the Scriptures, then they need to be confronted: “reprove, correct, and train in righteousness” for the benefit of the church.

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For more on the Church: Matthew 16:13–20; 18:15–20; Acts 2, Ephesiasn 2; 4; Romans 3–8; 12; 1 Corinthians 11–12; 1 Peter; 2 Peter; 1 John

27 Years ago: Life—Death—Life

The weekend of January 31, 1993 looked to be an interesting football weekend. The Buffalo Bills would face the Dallas Cowboys. Having been an “anti-Cowboys” fan since the early 1960s, there would be no doubt who I would cheer for. That was my expectation.

But before the game ever started there was another battle that would dominate that weekend and month. I was not prepared for this battle, I felt totally overwhelmed by it. And yet…

Our older son would turn 23 just a couple months after the Super Bowl. He had been involved in drugs since 1984, spent more than a year in a psychiatric hospital before his 18th birthday, in jail/prison two different times before he turned 22. He was married at age 21, married an attorney who was an addict. Not a good mix.

The Accident: 9:30 AM

On Friday, Jan. 29, about 9:30 AM my wife received a call from an ER nurse at the closest hospital to where our son lived, about a 6-hour drive from where we lived. The nurse asked my wife a couple questions, readily acknowledging that she had reached the right people. She said “there was a serious car accident, your son and his wife were involved. We are just starting to treat them in the ER.” Then she stopped, shouted into the phone, “Oh, no! He’s gone critical, don’t leave!!” Click

Now what? We couldn’t drive 6 hours on that information. What if the concern wasn’t that bad? Or what if we would be too late to see them, even if we left now?

We immediately began calling our prayer chain at church: prayers for his life, for the surgery, for his wife, for peace in the midst of the storm.

The nurse called back about 5:30 PM and explained a little. Our son showed signs of deteriorating quickly. He had broken three ribs, punctured his lungs, had a broken clavicle, had broken his pelvis in three places. Most urgent, however, his brain began to swell. They rushed him into surgery by the neurosurgeon, who removed ½ of his skull.

At the hospital: 11:00 PM

Later that night, when we drove there, we discovered that the neurosurgeon had injured his hand and had been out for several months. This was his first day back, and his first surgery. Not the weekend we expected!

We arrived about 11 PM and began to receive the reports about his injuries before they would even let us see him. The surgeon said: “To be honest, we don’t know how this will go. But, it will be 4-6 weeks before we know whether he will live. It will be at least a year before we know how much of his motor skills he will retain. This is best case scenario.”

A slam to the gut! But he was alive, step one. And then they let us go into the critical care unit to see him. Yep, as you would expect, tubes everywhere, monitors for every part of his body, his body and head wrapped. No visible response from him at all. 

We learned from police reports that he had pulled out to cross a highway, right into the path of a car going 55 mph. The impact was right at the post where the driver’s door would open. We saw the car a couple days later. We still can’t explain how he survived. The door and frame were shoved half way across the front seat where his seat had been. I still couldn’t visualize how his body wasn’t torn apart. It was a miracle that he was even breathing.

His wife had been injured but in a different way. Her brain was suffering from “shaken brain syndrome.” Outwardly there were no broken bones, no lacerations, but the brain injury was harder for them to treat. Measurements were not in noticeable terms for us. But she was recovering slowly.

Recovery Begins

By Saturday he recognized us, and he could hold a pen and write on a note pad: “I love you” and “God loves me.” At that point that response was sufficient for us. By Sunday the doctor was able to remove the breathing tube long enough to say a couple words. Not much, but far more than we expected. In fact, that afternoon, he was able to watch a little TV and could follow the Super Bowl. Even the neurosurgeon was surprised at his progress.

He had another surgery on Tuesday, We had to leave on Wednesday, but kept in contact with the hospital and the doctor. He had another surgery on Friday to replace his skull that had been taken out initially, and another surgery the following Monday.

You have got to be kidding me!

10 days after the accident, our son was released from the hospital. The surgeon couldn’t believe the progress. We told him it was a miracle; he said he couldn’t argue with that.

But all was not well with our son. He tried walking with crutches (broken pelvis, broken ribs do not make good companions for recovering from surgery). By that next Friday he had fallen in his home and couldn’t get up. His wife was still in the hospital. So he managed to pull the telephone to himself (the days before cell phones) and called me. I immediately left, drove all the way up, got there about 11 PM, cleaned/showered him, cleaned their house, got breakfast for him, and immediately I turned around to bring him home with us.

It took him about a month living with us before he was able to do most things for himself. I took him back to his home, and he wife was released and they settled into their recovery together.

Not exactly the Super Bowl weekend I had anticipated. But we were thankful for him being alive. The road gets dark over the next 25 years, including him going missing for 18 years.

But I will always look back to this Super Bowl weekend and marvel at God’s surprising (to us!) goodness to our son and his wife. No, not what we expected. But isn’t that life in this world, even with God?

“Can’t even walk…”

The wear and tear of life can be a big burden. For many of us this relates to the challenges of quarantine and attendant problems. But for some the weariness and burden is much bigger, preceding the pandemic. It encompasses more than the threat of the disease, more than being saturated with headlines that dominate the media, especially social media.

As I have faced some challenges of getting older, I have also experienced multiple physical injuries that are invisible to most people. This goes back at least to 2013. The physical pain may pass but the effects linger, unseen, and many times unfelt. The major problem is the accumulative effect of multiple problems. And that can be mentally and emotionally overwhelming.

Living in the era of the quaratine and all that such entails means that we have new normal for life. It is complicated when some “prescriptions” to solve problems may actually interfer with other problems. Many Christians want to offer the solution, but it ends up often just pushing what you can do to overcome. Long term this can lead to exhaustion: physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.

Jamie Lynn Wilsom recorded a song (written by Colbert and Joyce Croft in 1975) seven years ago that expresses this exhaustion:

Even to walk is a challenge at times like this. But as she expresses it in song, it doesn’t end with “I can’t even walk…” But “I can’t even walk without God leading, holding my hand.”

So while the overwhelming nature of our times might be too much, the answer is not to “push through,” as if we have the strength to conquer everything. Rather “I can’t even walk without You holding my hand.”

This brings to mind Psalm 91, which I wrote about in 1985 while in seminary. The last three verses articulate the faith that clings, not to our strength, but to God’s promises, even in the worst of times.

So as we move forward this year and coming years, let us find strength, hope, and encouragement in God’s Word in the promises of Psalm 91.

Reflections on Changes

This month marks many changes and new avenues of life. I am retiring effective September 1, 2020, and I have submitted my resignation to the congregation. In many ways, this is a difficult change, especially emotionally. But that has more to do with many other things happening in my life, not in the church. 

From a physical perspective, this is necessary. I have endured several injuries over the past five years, each causing both pain and more limited activity. Because a couple of these accidents have involved hits to my head, I have noticed gaps in my thinking. So it is time for my body to not be under the stress.

Overall, I have been tired for several years, and it shows. Spiritually much has been happening (much of it good), but the tiredness has affected me in this realm as well. I have been working non stop since I was five years old, beginning with hand planting field corn on 5 acres. Cutting wood for furnace in MN winters, baling hay and selling excess, snow plowing for years. Yeah, I’m tired.

So what is next? We will be moving out of California soon (no specifics yet). I have many books I plan to read. And I will be writing reviews on them as that happens. I will still teach in our seminary as requested. I will still serve on the Clergy Commission, and occasionally provide pulpit supply as requested.

Truth be told, I am looking forward to the change. I am ready for it, spiritually, emotionally, physically.

I am thankful for all the wonderful people I have served over the past 35 years. Grateful for the fellowship, help, and listening ear. 

Appropriate retirement quotes

 Retirement isn’t the end of the road, but just a turn in the road.

Retire from your job, but never retire your mind

The best part about being retired is never having to request time off.

Thanks everyone. We are now preparing our 29th move (for real).

One Voice among Many

Whose Voice Is Heard?

The Gospel reading for this Sunday is John 10:1–10

1 “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber. 2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. 5 Yet they will by no means follow a stranger, but will flee from him, for they do not know the voice of strangers.” 6 Jesus used this illustration, but they did not understand the things which He spoke to them.

7   Then Jesus said to them again, “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. 8 All who ever came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. 9 I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture. 10 The thief does not come except to steal, and to kill, and to destroy. I have come that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly. (NKJV)

It doesn’t take long for us to be aware of how many voices fill our world. Some are rather pleasing—singing, chanting voices, descriptive voices, teaching. Some not so pleasant—sirens wailing, metal crushing metal, explosions of air, enticing voices to turn away the Shepherd.

We face a deluge of voices, so much so that soon we lose track of the uniqueness of voices, especially the voice of the Shepherd. Perhaps we turn off our ears to most of the noise, filtering for only certain voices.

In the midst of all that confusion, cacophony, we miss the most critical voices. Voices that speak beauty, love, even hope, trust, peace.

Jesus spoke about the use of a voice, namely His own voice.

2 But he who enters by the door is the shepherd of the sheep. 3 To him the doorkeeper opens, and the sheep hear his voice; and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. 4 And when he brings out his own sheep, he goes before them; and the sheep follow him, for they know his voice. (NKJV)

Jesus uses the imagery of the shepherd and his sheep, to emphasize the relationship between shepherd’s voice (Jesus) and His sheep (us) who hear His voice. How comforting to hear His voice in the midst of all the other voices and attention seekers’ voices trying to draw us away, to drive the sheep (us) away —and keep them (us) away.

Jesus urges His sheep to listen to His voice, to be trained in such a way that we, the sheep, can distinguish between His true voice from all the false voices that lure us.

How are we doing listening to His voice? Is His voice just one of many competing voices of the crowds? Even in the Christian realm, many voices sound enticing, offering the latest and greatest. But do they reflect the voice of the Shepherd? Sadly many do not.

Let’s focus on listening to the voice of Jesus.

Listening to the voice of Jesus does not happen in a mystic kind of experience. Rather, we hear Jesus’ voice in the Bible and not just the New Testament. As we have learned in the Wednesday Bible class, Christology in the Old Testament, the entire Old Testament points toward Jesus.

So, we listen to Jesus’ voice as prefigured in the Old Testament, and as presented in the New Testament. We can listen with our ears, our eyes, our hearts as we stay with the Bible. One of the modern conveniences, the internet, allows us to listen to and read the Bible anywhere any time, i.e., Biblegateway (https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/audio/) offers several translations which you can listen to. You can also read in many translations. You can also listen to more options on YouTube searching by translation.

Let’s listen to the voice of Jesus, our Shepherd, our Good Shepherd. Today and every day.

Justification from Good Friday

Isaiah 52:13–53:12 is the Old Testament reading for today, Good Friday. This text is one of the high points in the Old Testament, shining forward to the crucifixion of Jesus. Isaiah’s name is translated “Yahweh saves” or Yahweh is salvation,” and equivalent forms in Hebrew are Joshua (Jehoshuah), Hosea, and Jesus (Greek), and we certainly see this in section of chapters 52-53.

Isaiah lived ~740–681 BC, seven centuries before the time of Christ. Yet, it is as if Isaiah had been sitting on the hill overlooking Jersusalem, watching everything happening to Jesus on the day of His death. Isaiah’s perspective is not just a historical referent, but rather a theological commentary of what was happening. I encourage you to read this section of Isaiah today and join him on that theological ledge.

Perhaps the most significant passage is Isaiah’s bold declaration: (53:10-11 NKJV)

10 Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise Him;
He has put Him to grief.
When You make His soul an offering for sin,
He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days,
And the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in His hand.
11 He shall see the labor of His soul, and be satisfied.
By His knowledge My righteous Servant shall justify many,
For He shall bear their iniquities.

Already in the early years of the 7th century BC, Isaiah was proclaiming Jesus’s bearing sins as the basis of justifying many. Notice how Paul references this in his letter to the Romans, and Peter proclaims in his Pentecost sermon.

18 Therefore, as through one man’s offense judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man’s righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life. 19 For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so also by one Man’s obedience many will be made righteous. (NKJV)

“Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ [Messiah].” (Acts 2:36 NKJV)

The centrality of justification by faith (faith worked by the Holy Spirit which receives that justification) is central to Romans, but in fact, central to the whole New Testament. That is the basis of the Reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther, and continues today. When we read, speak, preach, and teach about Jesus Christ and His work of justifying sinners, the Holy Spirit uses that message to create faith in the one who listens, believes, and receives that judgment: justified!

So, Isaiah has great historical significance for the people of his era, for the fulfillment in Jesus’ death on the cross, and for the telling about that same salvation content today. It isndeed a Good Friday to see the prophecy and fulfillment together.

And this is a message to all who fit this description:

 

 

On the night when He was betrayed

The Passover meal with the family had been a Jewish custom for centuries. It was a time for the family to gather, to hear the story of God’s deliverance of His people. He used 10 plagues to force the Egyptians to release them from captivity. (Exodus 7-11). Then God gave them the Passover feast to remember, commemorate, and be part of that delierance event. God gave the Israelites instructions for offering of a passover lamb, taking its blood and putting it on the doorposts of the tent  (Ex. 12:1-13).

Now the blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you are. And when I see the blood, I will pass over you; and the plague shall not be on you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt. (Exodus 12:13 NKJV)

Now fast forward to the time of Jesus. On the Passover night when all Jews gathered (with familiy members) to partake of the deliverance of their ancestors, Jesus was with His disciples to participate in the Passover. But this night was different because of what Jesus said and did.

And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to the disciples and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant [testament], which is shed for many for the remission of sins. (Matthew 26:26-28 NJKJV)

Christians have gathered on this night, not just to commemorate, but to share in the body and blood of Jesus, to receive for the forgiveness of sins. As a congregation we celebrate and receive these gifts every Sunday every service.

This year is different, as we are not physically gathering together to receive the Lord’s Supper. And that seems strange. For me this is the first Maundy Thursday I have missed since 1963.

But in God’s provision, we still receive the same forgiveness of sins in our service tonight. We confess our sins, then we receive the words of forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ words:

Truly I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven; and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18 NAS)

The forgiveness is the same, God’s provision of such great news of forgiveness cannot be stopped —even by the virus. And so as we receive this forgiveness tonight, we look forward to our gathering again, whenever that may be, and celebrate even as Paul wrote:

23 For I received from the Lord that which I also delivered to you: that the Lord Jesus on the same night in which He was betrayed took bread; 24 and when He had given thanks, He broke it and said, “Take, eat; this is My body which is broken for you; do this in remembrance of Me.” 25 In the same manner He also took the cup after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant [testament] in My blood. This do, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of Me.” 26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He comes.  (1 Corinthians 11:23–26)

To Change or Not to Change

During this time of change and adjustment in all aspects of life, we also long for the “normalcy.” One of our temptations is to think “how do we adjust worship to make it more compelling?” While that sounds enticing, perhaps that is the wrong question. It assumes that something was missing or lacking in our worship life. But what if we were not missing anything? What if our worship life really was God giving to us what we desperately need: forgiveness, righteousness, hope, comfort? Paul reminds us that what we preach and what our worship life focuses on is: the message of the cross.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. (1 Cor. 1:18 NKJV)

Thus, we don’t need to bring enticements into our worship life. God has the best gifts already for us: “the message of the cross is the power of God to save.” We don’t need a show, or to be entertained. We need the life that God gives, freely because of what Jesus has done.

During Holy Week, we get to concentrate on the essentials:

  • Palm Sunday: Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey amidst the acolades of the people, which later turn to calls for His crucifixion.
  • Maundy Thursday: Jesus Shares the Passover meal, but more importantly He institutes the Lord’s Supper. Not just a fellowship meal, but Him giving His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins.
  • Good Friday: Jesus offers His very life for sinners, like you and me. He who was guiltless takes on our guilt of sin. He dies in our place.
  • Easter: Jesus overcomes, sin, death, and the devil when He rises from the dead. That changes history for everyone who believes in Him.

For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him. (2 Cor. 5:21 NKJV)

Maybe changing is the wrong focus. Maybe the focus is on Christ and what He has done for us, and continues to do for us.

This is the day the LORD has made;
We will rejoice and be glad in it. (Ps 118:24 NKJV)