Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Error of Their Ways

Matthew 22:29  "Jesus replied, 'You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.'"

I always say that the Church is its own worst enemy.  With all of the tasks left undone in this world, with all the lost people walking the streets and all the evil rampant across the globe, the Church too often spends its time and energy wrapped up in the silliest, most ignorant issues and arguments.  Sometimes the only possible explanation to what we see happening is that Satan himself is moving the in-fighting along, and accentuating piddling details that are almost designed to divide.

Not that church people -- and especially church leaders -- are free of guilt in these instances.  Far from it, if people had a sufficient focus upon the true Gospel message, then these issues would not ruin our work.  We must be a true exasperation to God when we bicker with each other over fine points of doctrine and praxis [how we go about things].  But even worse, we must surely enrage him when we stymie others by imposing our own silly laws upon them, judge them by Pharisaical standards, and all-in-all pretend to play God.

During Bible study a couple of weeks ago conversation turned to a time in the Nazarene denomination when legalism had crept into the church and become a defining mark of its character.  Open-toed shoes, television sets, and going to the prom were sinful things that God apparently forgot to mention when handing Moses the tablets.  In diving into the minutiae of people's outward appearance and  in declaring them too susceptible to the devil's snares to dare exposure to the culture around them, the church floundered about while the moral compass of the world most needed its vision.  Entire congregations awoke in the '80s to a new world where everything they believed was challenged, and where Americans by the millions were utterly uninformed about the love of God.  Why?  Because Satan had blinded them to their real work in this world.  This was the reality for most of the so-called evangelical churches of the United States.  They experienced incubated evangelism at best.

But there's nothing new about all this.  Think back to these Sadducees, wise and learned, asking Jesus a theoretical question about a woman whose husband dies, and then the next husband, and then the next, until she goes through seven altogether (all of whom are brothers, which is creepy enough, but that's a different subject).  So in the time of the resurrection, they ask, whose wife will she be?

Jesus dismisses their question and dismisses them as well.  "You are in error," he says, "because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God."  They spent their time on asking questions that only showed a lack of imagination about God.  In heaven, and in the resurrection, things will be perfect, and so these humanly issues will not exist.  How they will be handled is not our business.  God knows, and that should be sufficient for us.  

We still have such thinkers today, heading up our churches, asking questions about things that are below God.  They forget that they are not called to argue over fine points and silly questions, they are called to spread the Gospel. For instance, they forget that the Great Commission says, "Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit;" it doesn't also say to bicker over what Jesus means by "baptize," nor does it say to fidget over whether making disciples of all nations is a form of colonialism.  No, Jesus is more straightforward than that.

Worse though are those insular church leaders -- clergy or laity -- who feel so secure in their place at God's table that they think they can make the rules for who gets to eat there with them.  Though we are of course called to discern right from wrong, we are not called to burden other believers with our personal judgements at every turn.  We can become so obsessed by the perceived peccadilloes of our brothers and sisters that we forget the overarching needs of this world.  As Thoreau put it, "Men will lie on their backs, talking about the fall of man, and never make an effort to get up."  And so it is with the church leader who lacks the pastoral graces.  His fruit is acidic, and he works not for God, but against him.  He is one of a type that pushes people away from God's grace instead of drawing them inwards.  The Gospel is bigger than them -- so much so that it will consume them in the final refining fire, for they are the chaff of this world.

"If anyone causes any of these little ones who believe in me to sin," Jesus says in Mark 9, "it would be better for him to be thrown into the sea with a large millstone tied around his neck."  Indeed, how many young Christians have been turned away by a hypocrite who saw the speck in their eye but not the plank in their own, and would have rather seen their soul condemned than to see them sitting in their church?  Thankfully, this is the exception, not the rule, but for those who have faced the church at its ugliest, where is the direction?  It is in knowing that the Church is bigger than a building or a single set of people.  It stretches across time and space and at its best it exists in the heart of Christ himself, to whom there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.  He is the only person, in the end, we really need to answer to, and his judgement can already be conveyed by the Spirit.  Jesus is God of the living, not of the dead.  So where we encounter dead Christians, who are no longer stirred by the Gospel but instead by gossip, let us leave them to their own devices.  God has work for us to do.  Let's arise and move forward.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Joy in the Morning

Psalm 30:5  "Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning."

I have always been a night owl, and it is easy for me to stay up until two or three in the morning.  I am fortunate to be one of those persons who can function well on just three or four hours of sleep for days in a row, and in fact I find that too much sleep makes me groggy and unfocused.  So given all of this it should come as no surprise that I have had plenty of experience with "all-nighters."  Even now
in my late thirties I stay up all night at least a couple of times per year.  The spring semester of my last year in divinity school, when I was 30, I had ten all-nighters in about a six week period.  That was a bit much, but an occasional night spent working away at something isn't a big problem for me at all.

This verse from the Psalms has always seemed beautiful to me but I never fully understood it until I put it in terms of an all-nighter.  As a night owl, the morning is my least favorite time of day.  I drag myself out of bed and slowly get back into the day's action.  I envy those people who can get up at dawn and hit the ground running, because I'm certainly not one of them.  Because of my aversion to mornings I also find them depressing.  So if something is deeply bothering me I don't find myself imbued with a bright and shiny attitude when I awake -- not at all -- if anything I feel more fear and anxiety as I wake up than at any other time in the day.  It is then that I feel the most vulnerable and the least prepared to deal with life's troubles.  So where is the joy?

But thinking more deeply not just about the verse, but about the entire psalm, I realize that David, the psalmist, wasn't just talking about life's anxieties. He was talking about those rare and horrible times that force us into an entire night's worth of worry and despair, those times when our soul most pitifully and helplessly cries out to God. 

To you, O Lord, I cry,
   and to the Lord I plead for mercy:
“What profit is there in my death,
   if I go down to the pit?
Will the dust praise you?
   Will it tell of your faithfulness?
Hear, O Lord, and be merciful to me!
   O Lord, be my helper!”

David knew those times. He feared for his life, he felt utter abandonment, he broke God's own laws and knew contrition.  He had been through it all in his life.  And he knew that despite the immense pain and agony that life can produce, our God can wipe it all away and replace it with joy:

You have turned for me my mourning into dancing;
   you have loosed my sackcloth
   and clothed me with gladness,
that my glory may sing your praise and not be silent.
O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you forever!

And yet the most famous night anyone in the Bible ever spent without sleep did not turn out this way.  When Jesus prayed through the night in the Garden of Gethsemane, sweating drops of blood in his anguish, he was not rewarded with a joyful daybreak.  He was instead faced with arrest, slander, beatings, and crucifixion.  And here again we see another example of how Jesus Christ went through suffering so that we may have those moments of God's grace, those mornings where we are freed from the shackles of our sinful world and provided a glimpse of God's love and glory.  For let us remember that the verse above is but half a verse; the entire verse makes it clear that what David fears here is not an earthly power or an earthly problem, but God's own anger.  From that, through Jesus' death, we can also be preserved...

For his anger is but for a moment,
   and his favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may tarry for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.