the heart of the battle

Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. Pray also for me, that whenever I speak, words may be given me so that I will fearlessly make known the mystery of the gospel, for which I am an ambassador in chains. Pray that I may declare it fearlessly, as I should.

Ephesians 6:10-20

Near the end of a letter which marks what God is doing on the earth through the gospel and the church, and the impact that’s to make in our lives and witness, we have this word: we’re in no less than a spiritual battle, all the way around.

It’s easy for us to get mired into other things, even other battles, be they political in different ways, and those of our own making perhaps connected to “the pride of life.” It’s not like all those things are necessarily out of bounds, though they may be for a time, so that we can step back, and regain our bearings.

The real crux of the matter which underlies everything else is spiritual. And not in the way of the early popular Frank Peretti writings, which I think he improved on later. To reflect Scripture, and real life, it’s more complex than that. But a reaction might be to remove the spiritual element entirely, particularly the thought of the demonic and satanic, relegating such to some bygone time when people didn’t know better. Like C. S. Lewis wrote, the devil would like us to either deny his existence altogether, or see him behind everything, probably preferring the former.

As those in Christ, we’re in a spiritual battle no less. And it’s a battle for the gospel and the difference it can make in the world. But each of us are individually, as well as collectively involved in that. We’re either strong in the Lord, taking up the full armor of God, and standing firm, or we’re not. Our provision is Jesus Christ and the gospel.

We would do well to memorize and mediate on this passage, quoted above. And we apply it in large part by remaining daily in the word: Scripture, and in prayer. If we’re looking for some place and experience that’s pleasant, than we best look elsewhere. It’s not like the Lord doesn’t give us rest along the way, but that he’s also with us through the darkest valley (Psalm 23).

To the extent that we Christians understand the spiritual battle we’re in, and prayerfully act on that, we’ll see God move in ways that are helpful for people, and societies. Yes, for ourselves. Whether we like it or not, that’s the reality in which we live. And as we accept that, and act according to God’s word, we are a witness to the world of the needed difference in our own lives and churches Christ makes. In and through Jesus.

it take a church

Nowadays there seems to have been a backlash against what was used by a political candidate here in the US some years back: “It takes a village.” Actually that has plenty of truth in it, just as does the idea that we can’t depend on others to do for us what only we can do. They can’t live our lives for us. Nor should we expect others to do for us what we can do ourselves. True. But the prevailing emphasis on individual rights and freedom nowadays perhaps is the idea that we can get along just fine on our own, that we need no one else.

God’s word and its fulfillment in Jesus tells us something entirely different. Humans are made for community. Yes, some of us like our space, and need more separation than others. But none of us were made for isolation, for solitary confinement. As God says in Genesis: “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make one corresponding him,  as complements to each other” (Genesis 2; my paraphrase).

Sin divides us from God and each other. At its core sin is a violation of love for God, and for neighbor, which really ends up being all humanity, especially in the world in which we live today, a shrinking globe due to our ability to traverse so well. God’s saving work in Christ is at heart a reconciliation to God and to each other. That reconciliation is front and center in the church. Through the gospel: baptism and the Lord’s table being central in enacting and displaying it.

“It takes a church” we might say. Yes, made up of imperfect, broken, yet being put together people like you and I. Just ordinary people, and often struggling to one degree or another. But our lives are meant to be lived not in isolation, but with others. If we’re “in Christ” by faith, then we’re in Christ’s body, the church. Our identity then, is not only in Christ, but in his body, the church.

That seems often minimized in evangelical Christian circles, with an emphasis on people’s individual response to the gospel and God’s word. But it is not minimized in the very Scripture we evangelicals hold as central to our faith. We need to acclimate ourselves to something different. The life of God we find in Jesus is especially made known in the church. And imbibed and then lived out yes even in the church through what we might call the sacraments, and our lives lived together in communion with each other. And from that sent out on mission. In and through Jesus.

marking the time in which we live

29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

1 Corinthians 7:29-31

It all depends on what is meant by “the present crisis” (verse 26). Gordon Fee in his excellent 1 Corinthians commentary sides with something like the lot for all of us in this present age before Jesus returns (my words). It is not something “impending” (NRSV), that is, something to come. But present, a present crisis, or distress.

But it does indeed seem strange that these gifts of God inherent within our humanity in the created order, should be taken with a kind of grain of salt, or not necessarily received as they otherwise would, since “this world in its present form is passing away.”

The point is that through the death and resurrection of Jesus, with a view to his return, the new creation is breaking in, and the old is passing. It is likely a matter of already/not yet theological thought, in that our salvation is present (along with the salvation of the world), but not yet completed. So that in the meantime, we live as those not rooted in the present, but in the future. Our lot is cast there, so that we don’t live like those whose lot is fully cast here (consider the book of Ecclesiastes).

Does this mean that we live escapist lives now, simply wanting to avoid this present evil age (Galatians 1:4)? Not at all! We live fully in the present, as those who are looking to God’s promise for the future to break in now, at this time, and someday to be complete when Jesus returns. And this is to be realized through the power of the gospel, and through the church, in the present. Something happening now, but its consequences only fully realized later.

Paul’s words here are to encourage a devotion to the Lord which singleness can bring, in one’s focus and time. But it includes those who are married as well, that their focus too should be singular. But in context, definitely not neglectful of their marital duties to their spouse, or the upbringing of their children.

These are words of encouragement to me today. I need to see everything in light of the present distress that all Christians live in during this present life. So that my sights are set on God’s will, and following Christ, rather than on the myriads of things people have their minds and hearts set on in this world. Not that those things don’t have their place. For example it is good to live and eat healthy, and for us as Christians, primarily out of devotion to Christ, but for our own good as well. But this is not a priority of first importance. For example, if God called a man or woman to a mission for the gospel that potentially put them in harm’s way, they might do well to go it alone, without a family, and the added concern that would cause. And their first priority would not be their own safety, but faithfulness to the mission. Not that safety wouldn’t matter, it just wouldn’t be first priority overall.

Another important word for us from God’s word. For us to pray over and grapple with, as we seek to live lives for the good of others, and for God’s glory now, in and through Jesus.

the beauty of evangelicalism in the good news in Jesus (not US or any other politics of the world)

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Acts 11:19-26

Because of how white evangelicals, unlike the rest of evangelicals voted in the last election, and how that tradition has become identified with an element of  politics in the US, good people and leaders have either left evangelicalism, or think it should be renamed, the term in their minds ruined because of its meaning to many. I too am concerned over the connotation. No church should be given over to a political entity of this world, and known for that. Instead every church should be known for its adherence to and witness for the gospel.

But at its historical roots evangelicalism was a movement in the church born from a desire to witness to the good news, in promoting missionaries to spread the word to the nations, and from experiencing revival such as in the Great Awakening. And to this day, when such churches thrive, that is at least their ideal and more or less their practice.

What is needed, frankly, is leadership within the church which refuses and even, when necessary repudiates the example of some leaders who make it plain that their emphasis is a US political one, maybe for a given candidate of whatever party or stripe. Churches must take a stand against that if their conviction is that what they’re about is solely the gospel, the good news of the Lord Jesus. I would like it if churches would do that in more subtle ways, by simply ignoring such as they go about fulfilling their calling. But perhaps sometimes words may need to be said. Much wisdom is needed because it should never turn into something which puts something of the politics of this world into a category that identifies the church. Our kingdom is not from that place, but is from God’s grace and kingdom in Jesus. Many of our concerns might overlap political concerns of this world, for sure. But our identity as church and Christians is to be wrapped up only in Jesus and the good news in him.

That aside, we exist to grow in the word of truth, in the gospel, and to share that gospel with others. In how we live (1 Thessalonians 4:11-12), as well as what we say in our witness to the gospel. An ideal I hope is renewed and continues on in churches born of the evangelical tradition. So that we and others might know the beauty of our Lord in the good news- the gospel, in and through him.

scripture, the gospel and the church, and paradigmatic changing books (and *Our Daily Bread Ministries*)

One of the reasons I very much like the ministry I’m working for, Our Daily Bread Ministries, is that it doesn’t get fancy and try to impress, nor does it get tangled up in controversial matters, but it faithfully teaches the truth of God’s word, with an emphasis on its fulfillment in the good news in Jesus. The stated mission of the ministry is “to make the life-changing wisdom of the Bible understandable and accessible to all.” And the vision: “to see people of all nations experiencing a personal relationship with Christ, growing to be more like Him, and serving in a local body of His family.”

It is home of possibly the most well known Christian devotional in the world, Our Daily Bread, but there’s much more, as you’ll discover when you visit their/our website (see first link above). The devotional in my opinion, by the way, is great by itself, but there’s much more, and it’s all good. I listen everyday to Discover the Word which is an approximately 14 minute conversation in matters grounded in God’s written word, scripture.

I have worked there since December of 1999, and am glad to be part of this ministry. It frankly has grown on me. I have a propensity to ask hard questions and be open to different ways of interpreting and seeing things, and I tend to do that. Though as I get older, I am less apt and happy to do so. But sometimes that’s needed, and not just individuals doing that, but believers together. So I’ve found that the influence of working for so long at this ministry has grown on me for good. The ministry is strong in terms of scripture, the gospel, and the church.

It doesn’t at all for a second, by the way, matter what I think. I would much rather say what we believe as Christians and let it go at that. But I also share on this blog my thoughts, so it’s hard to avoid expressing it that way. We all have our unique perspectives from our experiences which we bring to the table. It is best by far when we listen well to each other, all in the mix together.

I have had paradigmatic shifts through various books, the first I can recall being N. T. Wright’s book, The Challenge of Jesus, then Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed along with another book of his, The King Jesus Gospel. Add to that Allan R. Bevere’s book, The Politics of Witness. And now I think I may be on the cusp of another paradigmatic shift through Greg Boyd’s book, Cross Vision. I have in recent years thought that my theology of the cross is not strong enough. If nothing else, Boyd’s book should help me that way. I’m not sure precisely where I’ll land, but I very much like where he’s going and what he’s trying to do in the book.

Theology and science have plenty of similarities. They’re open ended in their search for truth, so that the quest continues. While at the same time, they’re solidly based in certain givens, in theology (I mean Christian, of course), the truth of the gospel. Like hypotheses being tested in science by peers (peer reviews), so it is in theology both by professional theologians, and by the church at large. So I look forward to praying and thinking through with others Boyd’s thoughts in days to come. All of us likely won’t agree on all the details, including Boyd’s. But we want to all remain united from scripture in the centrality of the good news in Jesus, and the mission the church has in helping us receive that good news for ourselves, and come to share it with others. That is our hope, our goal, indeed, our passion. By God’s grace in and through Jesus.

the word and the world

John R. W. Stott, was one of the greatest writers of my lifetime, himself a pastor and theologian, and astute Bible teacher wrote a number of books, all of them helpful. One of them which stands out to me is Between Two Worlds. In it he presents a compelling case for in that time having the Bible in one hand, and the newspaper in the other. Of course today one has to be wary of much of what passes for news, particularly on the internet. You’ll find plenty of bogus, or misleading stories, either the headline not supported by what follows, or the article misleading at best. So one has to dig, and try to find news sources which will present actual facts in a balanced way so as to give the true picture. While letting people from all sides have their say. A challenge, and some outlets are better at that than others.

Although the book is geared to preaching, we can take plenty away from it for our witness. Even the idea itself is stimulating in helping us think through just how we’re to reach our world. A simple witness of what the Lord has done in our lives is helpful, and all the more good if it can speak to where others live, not an easy task, since there are different challenges people face. And different perspectives, along with views on life, which we do well to become aware of.

I’m a strong believer in being in scripture day and night (Psalm 1). But I’m also a believer in trying to keep tabs on what’s up in the world near and far; locally, regionally, nationally, and internationally. To especially try to see everything in terms of the gospel making inroads especially into places it hasn’t before. We care about the world, because God cares about it, and it’s only human to do so. We want the best for our loved ones and for others.

A central part of the case Stott adeptly laid out was the need to study and seek to understand culture. He speaks in the book of he and some clergy friends going to a films, and then afterwards discussing their meaning and the ramification of that for understanding culture, the world in which they lived. One of the terms I find unhelpful is timeless, saying God’s word is timeless for example. There is truth in it if we mean the word is in a sense above and beyond time, but it always speaks into time. No, it is better to use a word like timely, since even though scripture was written within a certain cultural context and time, we are to prayerfully study and reflect on how it speaks and impacts our own day. In missional language which used to be commonplace, it is called contextualization. In the words of scripture, we seek to understand the times and what we as God’s people should do. Especially together as the church, each of us individually having our part. And we do better to grapple with these things together.

And so I feel most at home with a Bible in hand, and a cup of coffee in the other. And NPR* along with the internet not far away. I need both, as long as I don’t get caught up and taken away into something going on in the world.  Instead we seek to be those who are present in Jesus, the one who is Emmanuel, God-with-us to God’s people, and for the world.

*And other news outlets. Good to listen to perspectives one does not share, and some of that is achieved on NPR, but good to go to other places as well, to listen and weigh what is said.

the free fall in our society– the church and the state

I really struggle over the relation of the church and the state. I respect scholars and Christian traditions in their various takes on the matter. I think there’s often good we can take out of varying viewpoints.

That said, I also think the so-called “Constantinian turn” of the church when the Roman Empire became formally Christian, was in some sense the death knell of what the church is called to be in the world: a witness to another lord, the one true Lord, and to the one good news in him. One can plausibly argue otherwise, and surely some of what they say will have plenty of truth in it. But a major problem I see today in the United States is the emphasis on the importance of the morality of the state, as if it somehow ought to be Christian in some way or another. This is the case from both the religious left and the religious right, the former emphasizing world peace and the right to do whatever, and the latter emphasizing a certain morality as in “family values.” Both have a code of ethics, but the attention is turned almost completely to the state, it seems.

Regardless, this is my take on the current sea change in the United States, of course same sex marriage, etc., all in the equation. The church needs to hold the line both on the teaching of the gospel: the good news concerning Jesus, and righteousness: God’s will in Jesus. And of course, that is to be a witness for the world, hopefully impacting the state for good. But the church must neither be influenced by the world, nor expect the world to be influenced by it. If I read the Bible right, that is. But to hear people both from liberal, progressive and conservative perspectives, you would have to think that much depends on what the state is doing, that is all that essentially seems to matter, and the church is present to applaud and support that.

It doesn’t matter one whit what the world does, what the state does, the church must kindly tow the line, holding to the teaching of our Lord, of righteousness. The church always must pray for the state, and be a witness to it of the power of Christ and the gospel. And it does need to be present for the good of all, including the state, praying for its blessing, as well as for the good of all people.

But the church must be careful not to compromise its calling to be a witness to the one good news in the one Lord and Savior, Jesus.