A Letter to my Congregation: Pastoral Reflections on Yesterday’s Election

Dear Christian–

We wake up this morning to a new world. Some people are excited, some are saddened and some are devastated… but nearly everyone is shocked. And, ironically, I probably could have written this email regardless of who won last night.

I will leave it to the pundits to try and understand how this happened, what it says about the state of the American public and American politics. But as your pastor, my deeper concern is for the fracturing in our country. Each of us has friends and family (and maybe this even describes you) who are hurting and angry. Half of our country feels disenfranchised, scared or completely betrayed by the system.

So what will we, the church, do now?

The church must walk in integrity. Never has the world needed our faithful walk of obedience more than now. May we, by the power of the Holy Spirit, be full of character and known for our honesty and kindness to all people.

The church must be a beacon of hope in the midst of darkness, confusion and instability. People are going to be looking for something firm to hold onto, and initial indications are that even the financial markets will experience significant turbulation and uncertainty. Politics may fail and finances may falter, but we have the hope of the risen Christ as our foundation.

The church must demonstrate peace and unity. Of all the words to describe our nation right now, words like polarized, fractured, broken and angry come to mind. Not peace and unity. In the coming days, there will be a lot of talk of unifying and drawing together. But it won’t work, not apart from the Spirit’s help anyway. Peace and unity are only possible if they start with the church and are modeled by the church.

The church must pray for wisdom for our leaders. We, as a nation, have a long road ahead with internal and external challenges facing us. All of our elected officials will need the wisdom of Solomon to govern well. So let us pray for that wisdom.

The church must honor and dignify those whom God made in his image. We have a President-elect who has successfully offended and angered women, immigrant, Muslims and many more. Racial tensions are high. Into this brokenness, we can be known as those who build up those who feel most disenfranchised and devalued. And maybe for you, dignifying and honoring God’s image-bearers means respecting our soon-to-be president.

The church must model compassion to the least, the last and the lost. May we be known for our radical generosity and love for those who feel like the system has failed them and need help. Julian the Apostate, the 4th century Roman Emporor, once famously said,”These impious Galileans [Christians] not only feed their own poor, but ours also; welcoming them into their fellowship, they attract them, as children are attracted, with cakes.” This pagan emperor’s biggest problem with Christians is that they were so generous in caring for the poor. May the same be said of us.

The church must be a prophetic voice of truth to the world. Into a world of empty words, deceitful words and false words, we are to speak truth with grace. Because Jesus is truth.

Friends, the world is changing right before our eyes. We could get swept up in the changes. But that is not what the world needs right now. We have the incredible opportunity to be a calming presence to an anxious nation. And we can do so because our hope is not in the president, but in the High King. Let us rest and hope in the words of Revelation 11:15, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.”

For Christ,
Steve

From Suffering to Praise: A sermon on 1 Peter 5:6-11

Peacekeeping vs Peacemaking (Be a peacemaker)

PeaceMakerThe great book of Esther, which I have been studying for the last year plus, concludes with stating that Mordecai (Esther’s cousin and now second in command of all Persia) “spoke peace to all his people” (Es 10:3). Likewise, the apostle Paul spoke peace upon the churches. In fact, every epistle in the New Testament, except for Hebrews, James and 1 & 3 John open with the author pouring “grace and peace” upon his readers.

And Jesus? Jesus is called the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6), he brings peace on earth (Lk 2:14) and he gives peace (Jn 14:27), he makes peace for us with God (Rom 5:1) and he is our peace (Eph2:14).

And us? We are called to be peacemakers. “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Matt 5:9). Notice Jesus calls us to be peacemakers… not peacekeepers. Important distinction.

Peacekeeping assumes everything is ok and strives to maintain the status quo. Peacemaking assumes things are broken and in need of repair.

Peacekeepers detrimentally overlook the pains, heartaches and realities of life in a sinful world. Peacekeepers try to pretend everything is okay. Peacekeepers sweet the dirt under the carpet and hope nobody notices. Peacekeepers shove the skeletons in the closet and tell people not to open it. And what does the Lord God call peacekeepers? False prophets. “My hand will be against the prophets… Precisely because they have misled my people, saying, ‘Peace,” when there is no peace, and because, when the people build a wall, these prophets smear it with whitewash” (Ez 13:9,10). Peacekeepers try and whitewash the problem and make it go away. And that is no peace…

True peace, biblical peace, is not marked by safety and security but by reconciliation and restoration. Peace is not by a temporary ceasefire, but by ultimate victory. Peace is not cheap, but the price of peace is the blood of Jesus (Col 1:20). Peace is not the absence of a threat but the presence of the fruit of the Spirit. Jesus was a peacemaker… and he made peace by giving his life. The call for us, and what I pray is the yearning of my life as I long to be called a son of God, is that I would, like Jesus, make peace. Not that cheap, meaningless temporary ceasefire of peace, but a peace that is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit… to put together what has fallen apart, to reconcile that which is broken, and to restore that which is damaged.

I want to speak peace. I want to be a peacemaker.

You Bled: A Good Friday Responsive Reading

goodfridaybloodIn preparation for our 2015 Good Friday service, I wrote the following responsive reading as part of a service that will call our congregation to reflect on blood: its importance Scripturally, its unique role in God’s story of redemption and the preciousness of the blood of Jesus Christ.

Leader reads L / Congregation reads C

L: When in the earnestness of your prayer, sweat formed on your brow, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: When you were arrested and beaten, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: As the nails drove through your hands and feet, hanging you on the cross, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: When they pierced your side, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: While I was your enemy, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: Even when I denied knowing you, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: For the sins of the world, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

L: For my sins, you bled.
C: Your blood, shed for me.

A: By your blood we are forgiven. By your blood we are saved. We cling to the blood of Jesus. Amen.

A Prayer for Reconciliation in Ferguson and throughout the US… but mostly the Church

Lord of peace, give us peace (Jn 14:27; 2 Thess 3:16).

Prayer2Lord, we want to believe that racial tensions are in the past and that racial issues have been resolved. Yet we have seen this week just how shaky the racial ceasefire is that still exists in our nation. We don’t know, maybe nobody knows, all that happened in Ferguson on that fateful day. We don’t know the details that led to the grand jury’s decision, but we do know that a young man’s life was tragically lost, that a police officer is afraid for the safety of he and his family, that many are hurt and angered, that justice feels out of reach and that there is no win for anyone in this situation, that rioting and looting only amplify the angst of the moment… and we know that the present circumstances are merely symptomatic of a racial divide that goes way deeper than we want to acknowledge… or maybe are even willing to acknowledge.

Lord, we come to you now because it is here, in the midst of tragic circumstances that we don’t fully understand, that we cling to the promise of your sovereign goodness and crying out for your help.

We, your church, come confessing that we have been quick to judge not knowing all the facts. We confess that we have been quick to speak, but slow to listen. We confess that we have not been as grieved as you have at the loss of the life of a man you handcrafted in your own image. We confess that maybe we haven’t even thought this was that big of a deal. We, your church, confess that we have not been the agents of racial reconciliation that you have called us to be. And we confess that in our own hearts and lives we have not valued one another as those made in the image of God and those for whom Jesus died.

Lord, we cry out. We need your help. And we need you to start with us, your church. We need you to change us, to forgive us, to sanctify us. We need you to make us, your church, more like Jesus right now for the sake of a world that is broken and hurting. Give us ears to listen to those who feel like they have no voice. Enable us to love even as, in Christ, we are loved by the Father. Embolden us to recognize and attack the systemic issues of race that divide us. Give us the courage to repent to those we have harmed by our actions or by our failure to act, maybe without even knowing. Strengthen us that we might come alongside those who are hurting, sharing their heavy load. And grant us the yearning to seek a reconciliation that only you can accomplish.

Lord, our nation is hurting and needs the hope of the gospel. Our nation needs the church. So Lord, please, build your church. And start with us. Overwhelm us with grace that we might radiate hope and healing to those around us. May grace flow through us. May the church be known as a place of racial healing. May the church reflect the kingdom of God as racial barriers are torn down and people of “every tribe, tongue, people and nation” (Rev 5:9) gather together to worship Holy God.

Lord of peace, we don’t want another ceasefire. We want healing. We want reconciliation. We want peace. So please, give us the peace you promised in your Word (Jn 14:27).

In the name of the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father… in the name of the Prince of Peace (Is 9:6) – Jesus our Lord, we pray, Amen.

Prescriptive vs. Descriptive Bible Interpretation

The Bible employs many different genres of literature. There is poetry. There are personal letters. There are visions and dreams. There is narrative. Good interpretation of the Bible requires recognizing the genre of the respective passage and applying the appropriate interpretive rules for the genre.

One interpretive decision to make that crosses over genres, but occurs most especially in personal letters and narrative, is whether to understand the passage as descriptive or prescriptive. Let me explain…

Descriptive: Some passages are descriptive. That is, they tell you what was happening. It’s not necessarily telling us whether it is morally right or wrong, just that it is what happened. Example:

He [Solomon] had 700 wives, who were princesses, and 300 concubines. And his wives turned away his heart (1 Ki 11:3).

Was it good for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. Was it right for Solomon to have 1000 women in his harem? No. So this passage is a clear example of a descriptive passage that tells us what was happening, but never infers that it was good or what was should have been happening. The Bible is clear on marriage… one man, one woman, forever.

Prescriptive: Other passages, however, are intended to prescribe moral imperatives upon the reader. Example:

You shall not murder (Ex 20:13).

Murder is wrong. That is clear. This verse (and the 10 Commandments in general) are moral prescriptions of how God’s people are supposed to act (praise God for grace that covers us when we don’t do what we are supposed to do). But the point is that this verse is prescriptive.

In short, when reading the Bible, ask yourself this question: Is this passage describing what should be (prescriptive) or describing what is happening (descriptive)?

Of course, the challenge is, it’s not always as easy as the passages I used as examples above. And sometimes it may even change in the course of a chapter from description to prescription and back again. Let’s look at one more example:

Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair it is a disgrace for him (1 Cor 11:14).

So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? If prescriptive, that means it is morally wrong for a man to grow long hair. But if it is simply descriptive, is the rest of 1 Corinthians 11 where Paul teaches on the Lord’s Supper? Here are back to back sections on Godly worship in the same chapter. So is this passage descriptive or prescriptive? It’s a big decision…

Deciding whether a passage is descriptive or prescriptive is one of the most important decisions we make in properly interpreting the Bible. And if you are ever not sure, ask a friend…

Interact: What passages of the Bible do you struggle to decide if they are descriptive or prescriptive?

Elders & Deacons: Partners in the Gospel

Elders and Deacons

Jesus is the King and Head of the Church. He is the church’s leader and its Chief Shepherd. The church belongs to Jesus, exists for Jesus and is under the authority of Jesus. In God’s sovereign plan and under his authority, he chooses men to serve as elders and deacons to lead, guide, serve and protect his church.

So the question becomes, what’s the difference? The office of elder is an office of teaching and rule. The office of deacon is an office of service. In practice though, it’s less about different roles and more about starting point, as the above illustration demonstrates. The elder typically starts by assessing spiritual needs in people’s lives and moving toward meeting physical needs. The deacon, on the other hand, starts by serving people, moving to a place of teaching people how to grow in maturity as a means of helping them grasp the spiritual implication of the practical assistance provided.

Example: Say a couple’s marriage is struggling and they are falling behind on their bills. Let’s see how the elder and the deacon are likely to respond, starting from the distinct perspective of their respective office.

The elder may begin counseling the couple, assessing their selfish motivations, areas where they are pursuing their own desires rather than seeking to pour the gospel onto the spouse. Out of that counseling and assessing the spiritual needs of the couple, the elder may learn that the couple is having financial problems that are contributing to the marital discord. At that point, the elder may move to provide assistance in meeting the financial problems of the couple.

The deacon, conversely, may start by helping meet the physical needs of the couple: helping with the rent or paying the couple’s electric bill. The deacon, then, started by serving the practical needs of the couple… but not ending there. The deacon then asks diagnostic questions such as:

  • How did you get into these financial difficulties?
  • Is this a one-time challenge or likely recurring? If recurring, what lifestyle changes must the couple make?
  • How is your marriage doing? Are these money problems getting between the two of you?

The elder may start with counseling or teaching a class and move to helping with practical needs. The deacon may start with the practical needs and move to counseling or teaching the couple about Godly approaches to money.

While the starting point may be different, good eldering and good deaconing both require engaging the spiritual and the physical needs of the congregation. And, when done well, they will join hands as partners in the process…