Learn What You Believe – Part IV


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Part IV – Suffered, Crucified, Risen

Dear friends:

I am spending this time on the Apostles’ Creed because Jesus-followers need to get a firm grip on what they believe.  So many church people are content to casually believe in Jesus, go to church when they’re in town, and maybe read the Bible occasionally.  It’s good for them and it doesn’t cost anything .  Well, it didn’t used to cost you anything to take luggage with you on the airplane either.  But we are heading towards a time when admitting that you believe in Jesus and go to church (or that you own a Bible) is going to cost something – maybe a lot.  Some readers may already be experiencing that in their work place or at school.  Even if out-in-the-open persecution of Christians in the Western world never happens, you will need your faith more than ever; life will be severely tested in so many ways that casual belief won’t get it done.  So, “get a grip” on your faith while there’s time!

…suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell.  On the third day he rose again;

Suffered/Crucified

Lots of big fancy theological words can get piled up on this one: atonement, propitiation, redemption, justification.  This little chain of historical events carries a lot of freight.  Put simply, Christians believe that every human’s rebellion against God (sin) brings with it the verdict of “guilty”, and the sentence of death.  But God the Almighty Father sent his Only Son our Lord to rescue people by standing in for us to receive the judgment and punishment from God that we deserved for our rebellion.

The fact that Jesus was condemned before Pilate is more than a historical detail – Jesus stood before Pilate accused as a guilty evil-doer.  To rescue us he allowed himself to be condemned by a mortal judge, and sentenced to death.  But the gospel accounts of Jesus display his “shining innocence”.  They show clearly that he had no guilt and evil of his own; he was punished for the evil lodged in our hearts, poisoning our own lives and the lives of others, in ways petty and monstrous.

Crucified, dead and buried seems to be a triple redundancy to state emphatically that Jesus was really, really dead.  But there is significance in the manner of his execution.  The cross was a sign of being cursed.  It carried, of course, a heavy stigma from a human point of view – what would be your first reaction to hear that someone you knew ended up in the electric chair?  Kinda casts some tarnish on your opinion of them (or however tarnish ends up on someone) doesn’t it?  But death on a cross also carried the curse of God’s law (see Galatians 3:13).  To believe that Jesus was crucified means you believe that the entire curse of God lay on you because of your rebellion against God (sin), and falling short of God’s design for you – But!  That curse was lifted off of you, and transferred to Jesus.

Even more, Jesus abandoned himself completely over to the power of death – the curse of sin – “he was dead and buried.”  Death is the power that puts the chains on the human experience, and holds us captive.  Jesus surrendered himself to death to deliver us from it.  “…because [Jesus] suffered death for us, he is now crowned with glory and honor.  Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone” (Hebrews 2:9).

Hell

“He descended into Hell”.  I know what you’re thinking: “Okay, what does that mean exactly, where does the idea even come from, and do I really have to believe that or can I just mumble that part?

John Calvin said, “If it is left out, much of the benefit of Christ’s death will be lost.”  Yes, he really said that.  Admittedly, the Biblical data is slight and indirect, but it is found in Acts 2:31, Ephesians 4:9, and possibly I Peter 3:18-20.  The idea that Jesus descended into Hell pushes the envelope on the necessity of Jesus surrendering himself to the power of death.  What Christians believe that Jesus suffered the pain and torment of death to rescue us – body and soul.  Jesus not only died, but also suffered Hell in order to experience the terrible torments of God’s judgment after death.  When Jesus suffered in your place, he went the full distance.  He suffered the full extent of God’s judgment.  To believe this is to believe, as Calvin states, “…in death we may now not fear those things which our Prince has swallowed up.”  Or as Paul quotes in 1 Corinthians 15:54, “Death is swallowed up in victory.”[1]  If you believe Jesus suffered the full extent of death, you believe that both physical and eternal death have been consumed by your Lord.

Resurrection

Christians believe something that stands the “real world” on its head: Jesus was physically raised from the dead.  Long time church people hardly think about it.  Easter is just the high point on the church’s spring calendar.  We forget how foundational the resurrection is to Christianity and how profoundly it blows “the-way-things-are-supposed-to-work” right out the window.  Paul was very emphatic with the Corinthian Christians that without Jesus’ resurrection Christianity is a joke:

 But tell me this—since we preach that Christ rose from the dead, why are some of you saying there will be no resurrection of the dead? For if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised either. And if Christ has not been raised, then all our preaching is useless, and your faith is useless.  And we apostles would all be lying about God—for we have said that God raised Christ from the grave. But that can’t be true if there is no resurrection of the dead. And if there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then your faith is useless and you are still guilty of your sins. In that case, all who have died believing in Christ are lost! And if our hope in Christ is only for this life, we are more to be pitied than anyone in the world.[2]

Spend time thinking through who put Jesus in the position of being condemned to death, and how they put him there.  The phrases “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried” carry with them the overtones of our world’s hard reality, where lies, corruption, manipulation, misuse of political power and a host of other manifestations of evil are the way it works.  If Jesus rotted in the grave, then all of that evil would have won; Psalm 2 would end at verse three – the powers of earth succeed in their plot to break their chains and free themselves “from slavery to God.”  But God changed the rules, upset the apple cart, turned the tables, re-wrote the book; evil appeared to have gained the upper hand, only to have its scheme transformed into fatal defeat on Easter morning.  Give that careful consideration.

Not only did God’s goodness triumph once for all over evil, but in Jesus’ resurrection love triumphed over hatred.

…the attitude of those who procured [Jesus’] crucifixion was an almost virulent hatred, so bitter that in the end it was capable of ascribing the loveliness and graciousness of his life to the power of the devil.  If there had been no resurrection, it would have meant that the hatred of man in the end conquered the love of God.  The Resurrection is the triumph of love over all that hatred could do … The Resurrection is the final proof that love is stronger than hate.[3]

Suffered, crucified, risen – three words that form the core of God’s loving hope for this world.  Look for how they intersect with your life today.

Next: Ascended, Return and Judgment


[1] Isaiah 25:8

[2] I Corinthians 15:12-19, Tyndale House Publishers: Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004.

[3] William Barclay, The Letters to the Corinthians, The Daily Study Bible Series, Revised Edition, Westminster John Knox Press,1975, p. 147, 148.

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Learn What You Believe – part III


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Part III – Christ, Son, Born, Lord

A friend of my wife’s is vegetarian.  She told us the story once of when she invited friends over to grill, carnivores and vegetores alike.  As he was leaving, one of her carnivorous friends thanked her for providing some real beef on the grill – it was one of the best hamburgers he’d ever had.  The thing was, all she had was the usual vegetarian mushroom/soy/whatever meat “substitute”.  Rather than accepting her point that “you can’t tell the difference”, I preferred to assume that her carnivore guests had very low standards for hamburgers.  After living almost twenty years in cow country, I can claim confidently that the key ingredient to a great burger is not what you pile on top; the essential ingredient is a nice juicy, grilled to perfection patty of ground cow.  Without that, what you have might taste alright, but what you have is not a hamburger, because you don’t have the primary ingredient.

The meat of the Apostles’ Creed – the essential ingredient that makes the Creed the hefty spiritual sandwich that it is – begins with these words “I believe in Jesus Christ…”  Believing in Jesus is the core, the heart of the Christian faith.

I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary …

Anointed

Christians believe that Jesus is the Christ, not that he was born to Joseph and Mary Christ.  It is a title that comes from a Greek word, christos, which reflects a Hebrew word translated as messiah.  Messiah and Christ are interchangeable because they both mean “anointed”;  Put another way, this title is The Anointed One – God’s Anointed One.

In the Old Testament, God would occasionally tell his prophets to anoint a particular person with olive oil to serve as king.  This signified that person as set apart, or ordained, by God for leadership of God’s people.  To believe Jesus to be God’s Anointed One is to believe that Jesus was ordained, set apart, by God to be the leader of God’s kingdom.  Jesus, if you remember the gospel stories (Matthew 3, Mark 1;1-11, Luke 3:21-22, John 1:29-34), was baptized not with olive oil, but the Holy Spirit, right there in the Jordan river by John the Baptist.

As God’s Anointed One, Jesus leads his people as Prophet (teacher), High Priest, and Eternal King[1]:

  • He is our Prophet because Jesus reveals completely everything about God’s will and purpose for fixing the Garden of Eden disaster (in other words, salvation) that had not been made clear before.
  • Jesus is our only High Priest because not only did he sacrifice his own body as the sin sacrifice for all time, but he now performs the priestly task of standing before God on behalf of his people.
  • Finally, Jesus was anointed as our Eternal King because he rules – governs – leads – God’s people as they read and hear the Scriptures, and through his Spirit that lives inside every believer (the Holy Spirit); he protects us against everything that is at war with God’s kingdom, and he provides everything we need to flourish in this freedom-from-sin life he has won for us.

Only Son, born of Virgin Mary

God’s only Son and born of the Virgin Mary are related ideas.

First, aren’t we all supposed to be God’s children, so how can Jesus be God’s only kid?  Well, this is the flip side of saying that God Almighty is Father of Jesus the Messiah.  It recognizes that Jesus’ relationship with God is unique – that uniqueness is spelled out in Philippians 2:6-9 (also see John 1:1-18):

Though he was God,

He did not think of equality with God

As something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;

He took the humble position of a slave

And was born as a human being

When he appeared in human form,

He humbled himself in obedience to God

And died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

Highest honor

And gave him the name above all other names …

Jesus the Christ is uniquely God’s Son because he is fully God, fully human; he was the Divine Agent of Creation (John 1:3); his sacrificial obedience led to the highest honor, his name above any other thing in the created order –  Jesus is to be worshiped.  His relationship with God is unique, essential to his person, a relationship that is integral to God’s triune nature.

For a lot of Protestant Christians, the Virgin Birth is not as important as it was to the early Church.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t significant any more, however.  As you remember from the Christmas story (Matthew 1:18, Luke 1:35), the Holy Spirit was Jesus’, “birth” Dad (well, It wouldn’t be strictly accurate to call the Spirit his “biological” father).  “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” is a shorthand summary of this part of the Christmas story which forms the basis for the verses in Philippians 2.  This is the great mystery of the Incarnation: that Jesus, God’s Only Son, The Anointed, was completely God, and also completely human.  It also means that Jesus was God’s Only Anointed from the very beginning; he wasn’t a supremely exceptional human being who caught God’s attention and “Only Son, The Anointed” bestowed on him by God like some award for excellence.  Believing Jesus was fully God and fully human has been a stumbling point for people down through the ages, because it is difficult to keep in balance.  Yet, if Jesus was not really one or the other then the entire message of Good News gets thrown off track, one direction or another.  Take some time to think on that for yourself to discover what it might mean if Jesus were only God, or only human.

“Only Son”, and “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary” affirm the Incarnation of Jesus from two different directions, the eternal Divine direction, and the helpless human direction.

Lord

The words “Jesus is Lord” are so familiar and time worn that most Christians have lost the significance of the words.  In fact, the concept of Lordship is completely foreign to North American culture.  We have no experience with it, or any valid parallel.  Let’s face it – lordship was a basic cultural structure of the human race until we Americans consciously chose to invent a completely different way to build culture.

In the New Testament the title “Lord” is part of Jesus’ elevation by God to “the place of highest honor “.  Let’s go back to Philippians 2 for a moment where Paul says

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of

highest honor

and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,

in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.[2]

In Philippians Jesus is Lord because his name is above every name; his lordship will be confessed by everyone.  So in the New Testament, the title “Lord” is applied to Jesus in the highest sense possible, that he is God, the God of Israel.  To quote a theologian, the writers of the New Testament used the title “Lord” for Jesus because

…it was the most adequate term for expressing what … believers had come to understand and appreciate of Jesus’ person and achievement and his present decisive role in the outworking of God’s purpose and blessing for the universe.[3]

Most importantly however, how does one respond to such a Lord?  The only possible response to this kind of Lordship is submission (as Philippians 2:10-11 states).  This is another concept North Americans have trouble understanding.  Try it like this: to believe that Jesus is your Lord means that you are no longer “self-employed”.  The responsibility for failure or success, making all the right decisions at the right time, doesn’t rest solely on your shoulders anymore.  Rather, you are now “Jesus-employed”.  He has bought you out, he now owns the whole enchilada, and he is now the one responsible for making sure everything runs well.  To paraphrase Calvin, to claim Jesus as Lord means:

We are [the Lord’s]: let us therefore live for him and die for him.  We are [the Lord’s]: let his wisdom and will therefore rule all our actions.   We are [the Lord’s]: let all the parts of our life accordingly strive toward him as our only [permissible] goal.[4]

That is the goal – not merely to say “I believe in Jesus as my Lord” – but in the mess of every day’s living to strive toward Jesus, the Anointed-Fully-God-Fully-Human, to live for him more, to let his wisdom and will rule your actions more.  Yes, you believe in Jesus Christ, God’s Only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary; so how is that “making you” today?

Up next: Crucified, Descent, Resurrection.


[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 31.

[2] Philippians 2:9-11, NLT.  These words are arranged in the form of verse because most modern scholars believe that Paul was quoting a contemporary hymn.

[3] F.F. Bruce, Paul:Apostle of the Heart Set Free; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977, p. 117.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, The Westminster Press, 1960, p. 690.

Learn What You Believe – part II


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Part II – Father Almighty, Creator

I introduced Part I – Believe in God by saying:

it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe.  If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for?  Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?  Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed. 

Part I went on to examine the words, “We believe in God” from the Creed’s first statement.  I would encourage you to read Part I if you haven’t yet. Now we will look at the next part of that statement, “the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth.”

Father

Next, the Creed describes God the One and Only with a startling word – Father.  Please! Don’t get bogged down with modern indignations about inclusive versus patristic language, because that would miss the marvelous point here.  The point is, God is personal – loving, relational, knowable!  This capital G God is not remote, disinterested, or coldly unaware of you.

The description of God as the Father makes two claims: first, that God is the Father of Jesus Christ, and second, that God is our Father.  The claim that God is the Father of Jesus doesn’t imply that Christians believe Him to be male.  Rather, it expresses the idea that Jesus and God had an intimate, organic, and essential relationship.  Likewise, if you believe God to be your Father, you believe that you have a deep, growing, foundational relationship with God as well.  That is an idea worth spending some time thinking about!

Almighty

Not only is God loving and relational, God is also all powerful.  To believe that God is almighty means more than God has the power to do whatever God wants.  What we really believe is that God rules over everything; Christian and not-Christians, every country, all creatures in the ocean, on land, and in the air, this entire planet, solar system, and anything there is beyond. God rules it all in macrocosm as well as microcosm.  One of the earliest manuals for Christian education during the Reformation states that it is by God’s almighty power that God “rules in such a way that leaves and grass, rain and drought, fruitful and unfruitful years, food and drink, health and sickness, riches and poverty, and everything else, comes to us not by chance, but by his fatherly hand.”[1]

If God were only some benevolent, grandfatherly figure in Heaven, wishing you well, but of limited power, God might desire to answer your prayer, but be unable.  If God were almighty, but not fatherly, God might have the ability to answer your prayer, but be unwilling.  But you believe that God the Father is almighty!  Not only does he will to answer you, God is able to “accomplish infinitely more than we might ask or think.”[2]  This counterpoint formed by God’s Fatherly love and almighty essence means you are able to be patient during tough times, grateful is good times, trusting “[your] God and Father for the future, assured that no creature shall separate [you] from his love, since all creatures are so completely in his hand that without his will they cannot even move.”[3]  What more do you need to sleep well tonight?

Creator

Christians believe that God is maker of Heaven and earth.  This doesn’t mean that Jesus people ignorantly cling to a hopelessly outmoded view of the cosmos from the ancient world.  It means we believe that everything was created by God.  We use a very simple rule of thumb – if it ain’t God, then God created it.  That should about cover it, but just in case, the Nicene Creed clarifies that everything visible and invisible was created by God.  Which brings us full circle – if God alone is creator, and if everything else is creation, then God the Father almighty alone is to be worshiped.

But, we have also just affirmed that God is almighty Creator, and loving, relational God the Father.  Therefore, this simple statement implies that God’s act of creation is an intentional act of love.  Creation was not an accident when God sneezed and divine matter flew into the chaos and spontaneously brought order.  Nor was it the act of a dispassionate divine being who set things in motion then sat back to observe what might happen.  To claim God the Father almighty is Creator affirms that not only is creation good, because God intentionally created it, but also that God wants to be fundamentally involved in every minor detail of what goes on.

What you believe about God determines how you interpret and respond to the circumstances which every day contains.  According to the Heidelberg Catechism, when you believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth, it means, “I trust I him so completely that I have no doubt that he will provide me with all things necessary for body and soul.  Moreover, whatever evil [comes my way] in this troubled life he will turn to my good, for he is able to do it, being almighty God, and is determined to do it, being a faithful father.”[4]

Who knew so much could be packed into this one little sentence, I believe in God the Father almighty, maker of Heaven and earth?  If you haven’t memorized the Apostles’ Creed yet, start with this first line.  Spend time mulling it over, thinking it through, holding it up once in awhile to moments in life; Come to know God as your almighty Father, your Creator.

Coming up, Jesus Christ, God’s only Son.


[1] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 27.

[2] Ephesians 3:20; NLT.

[3] The Heidelberg Catechism, question 28.

[4] The Heidelberg Confession, question 26.

Learn What You Believe – part I


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Part One – Believe in God

Our world is moving towards unprecedented political, economic, and spiritual crisis.  Rapidly.  History suggests that during crisis and upheaval religious faith is stress-tested, and when, at least for the Christian faith, it has shown most brightly through the murk of evil.  Since 315 A.D., when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Empire, Christianity has been main-stream Western culture.  Between then and now, Western Christianity has endured few true stress-tests – and never in North America.  That is changing as our world is being pulled into the whirlpool of crisis.

Just in my own life time Christians in the United States have accepted the notion that it is wrong to talk about their religious views in the public arena – well, if not wrong, then at least in very poor taste.  In our public school systems, we have gone from the occasional outrage of a child being censored for expressing their faith, to commonplace reports of Christian students being denied having Bibles, praying on school property, or flunking for challenging evolution on the basis of faith; American Christians have come to expect those stories, and probably wonder how the children’s parents missed the email that taking Jesus to school results in rough sledding (although to be fair, that hasn’t permeated yet into the rural school districts of “fly-over” states).

Here’s the situation: in the non-western parts of this world, persecution of Christians is the rule; in Western countries, even the United States, it is already more difficult to stand up for Jesus than it was twenty, fifteen, or even five years ago.  As crisis deepens, it isn’t very likely that boldly living for Him will become easier – history suggests it will become much harder.  That’s why it is essential for followers of Jesus to begin now to know what they believe.  If someone sneeringly insults you because of your Christian beliefs, will you know what it is you are insulted for?  Or if one day it is necessary to draw a line in the sand between what you believe and what you are being told to ignore, will you know where the line is to be drawn?

Tens of thousands of Christians are at least familiar with one of the oldest and best summaries of the essential Christian beliefs – the Apostles’ Creed.  This creed had its beginnings in the days of the early church, the 200’s A.D.  In those days being a Christian could be tough.  Becoming a Christian and joining a church was not a casual thing.  Before being baptized as a new Christian, you might go through a couple of years of teaching and examination; the pastor or bishop wanted to be sure that you were truly committed.  And at your baptism, you would recite a creed, a statement, that summarized the faith that you had been learning, and which you were about to commit yourself to.  That was the earliest beginnings of the Apostles’ Creed, as a summary of basic Christian teaching from the Bible and the Apostles, which was used to instruct new believers.  As an official Creed it was formalized almost 600 years later at the end of the 800’s.  This Creed was never meant to be an in-depth explanation of Christian belief, just a basic outline to learn, know, and to teach with.  So let’s get with the teaching, learning, and knowing!

As an outline, the Creed divides into three parts – yes, three!  The notorious three point sermon aside, three means Trinity – God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Sure, the Spirit only gets an honorable mention in the third part – the notorious catch all section – but that’s good enough for a balanced outline!  We will follow that outline in explaining the Creed, first looking at God the Father, then examining God the Son, and finally going into God the Spirit and all the other bits and pieces.

I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

Believe

When saying the Creed out loud in worship, it is traditional to stand.  To say “this is what I believe” with other people is not a simple thing – it’s a big deal, much more than whispering, “Here are some ideas I intellectually buy into.”  Christian singer/song-writer Rich Mullins put it this way in the refrain of his song “Creed”:

and I believe that what I believe is what makes me what I am;

I did not make it, no it is making me…”

In other words, your belief in God and how He has acted in the past and continues to act in the present is what defines who you are; it is what aligns every fiber of your being.  The Presbyterian author Albert Winn suggests that believing is passionate, it contains zeal; it contains power, it is a struggle, it coexists with unbelief.  He has written, “Real believing is always in spite of.  We do not say, ‘of course I believe.’  We say, ‘I dare to believe in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.’”  When you recite this creed you declare that this is what you cling to no matter what.

This solemn oath of trust in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is what the martyrs of the early church died for.  It is what Christians are dying for, being beaten for, arrested, and turned out of their homes for, right now today, in places like Iran, Egypt, China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, Kenya, Burma, and Indonesia (you can learn more at persecution.com).  Proclaiming “I believe …” is not a casual thing at all.  It has power.  It draws a line in the sand between you and the world at large.  The world will respond with hostility because you have just sided against it (look at Jesus’ words in John 15:18-16:4 and 17 about the tension between his followers and the world).  This why Christians stand when they recite the Apostles’ Creed, because declaring “This is what defines us!” is to take a stand against all evil and powers in the world which defy God’s love and righteousness.

God

“I believe in God” is a simple statement that represents a very big idea – belief in God, capital G.  This is a profession of monotheism, that there is only one God, expressed in three persons.  The big deal is that if there is only one God, then that God alone is worthy of total, complete devotion and worship – nothing else, no one else can demand that kind of allegiance.  That means no political ideology however noble, no leader however gifted and promising, no virtue however empowering, nothing, is worthy of owning the first and primary place in your life.  Christians believe that this God is alone God, the supreme, ultimate Other; and therefore is alone worthy of unwavering devotion.  The Scots Confession of 1560 expresses the idea with these ringing words:

We confess and acknowledge one God alone, to whom alone we must cleave, whom alone we must serve, whom only we must worship, and in whom alone we put our trust. (I added the emphasis)

That’s what it means to confess, “I believe in God.”

Coming up next, Part II – Father, almighty, Creator.

The Kingdom’s Walking Dead


Here’s something I wrote last November.  It may seem a little dark and disturbing, but that’s why I offer it to followers of Jesus on Good Friday – a dark and disturbing day.

In Raymond Feist’s book Shadow of a Dark Queen, the “Kingdom” is looking for the right kind of desperate men to carry out a desperate mission.  Agents of the Kingdom find these men by sifting through the criminals who are about to be hung, looking for those who fit their profile.  When the men they select are brought to the gallows, the rope is put around their neck, and the box kicked out from beneath their feet.  Rather than strangling at the end of the rope, these men crash on their faces, because the rope was not tied to the gallows.  But they endure the full soul crushing horror of execution.  They are gathered up, bathed, fed, clothed, and then subjected to a brutal training regimen.   But the noose remains around their neck to remind them that they are dead men living on borrowed time.  They are bullied and subjected to continuous humiliation to remind them that their lives were spared for the benefit of the Kingdom, not their own.  If they manage to survive the mission, they will be pardoned and allowed to begin a new life.   In the story, of the original seventy-five, only five survive.

While I suspect that Feist did not intend to create any parallels with the Good News of Jesus, they are there.  The court room language used in the New Testament suggests that each of us is condemned to execution, with no appeals, because each of us behaves as if God, the King in whom law and justice resides, does not exist, or does not matter.  We are fit only for death.  Yet, even though condemned, Christians are rescued from the gallows (more appropriately, the cross), and then given “on the job training” to serve The Kingdom as effectively as possible.

Fortunately, God’s Kingdom doesn’t employ the methods of bullying and humiliation to break us down.  More importantly, God’s love is the force behind rescuing people from “execution.”  But metaphorically, as a believer, you have a noose hanging from your neck.  You are a dead man, a dead woman, walking.  Like those condemned men in the story, whose lives were owed completely to the “Kingdom”, yours is too.  Consider these verses from the New Testament: “You do not belong to yourself, for God bought you with a high price.[i]”; You have died with Christ”[ii]; For you died to this life”[iii].

Fortunately, God’s promise of a new life isn’t conditional on first surviving some desperate task.  The Good News is that new life begins seeping into us right away, and continues seeping into us every day.  But the biggest parallel between Feist’s story and Christian reality is this: The men in the story were not spared execution so that they were free to go about their own business; they were spared so that their lives belonged to the Kingdom, to serve the Kingdom.  You were not saved from “execution” – complete, total destruction forever and ever – so that you could keep on going about your own business (see Gal. 5:13).  You were saved at the very high price of the life of Jesus, so that your life would belong to him, to serve the Kingdom of God.  Like those condemned criminals of Feist’s imagination, as a believer you go about Jesus’ business with a noose hanging from your neck, in a sense, because you have been rescued from the gallows in order to serve The Kingdom.  You are already dead, you have nothing to lose.

If in fact, you wear a cross around your neck, let that serve in place of a noose.


[i] 1 Co 6:19, Holy Bible : New Living Translation. 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill. : Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S.

[ii] Col. 2:20 Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S.

[iii] Col. 3:3, Holy Bible: New Living Translation, 2nd ed. Wheaton, Ill: Tyndale House Publishers, 2004, S.

The Miracle of Awe


Two trout ... Bronze, black, pink, and deep water-green.

This is for Carl, Fred, and Larry, my ice fishing buddies.

Walking on water isn’t the miracle people think.

Not only have I crunched across the lake’s surface, now I am sitting on it,

staring into a nine inch hole drilled through two feet of ice.

The miracle is

the sunshine and blue sky,

The roiling grey clouds held at bay by the circling mountains,

The wind driven ice particles scooting hundreds of yards across the ice.

The miracle is found in two sixteen inch trout that lie glowing on the ice;

Bronze, black, pink, and deep water-green.

The Word, The Creator, is being revealed and proclaimed in glory too immense for speech,

too delicate to explain.

Today, ice fishing is not an act of idiocy,

Only wordless awe.

The Dog I Gave Up On


This appeared in the Worland Presbterian Church’s newsletter in September of 2010.

Labrador Retrievers are the dominate American gun dog, for good reasons. But while I admire Labs, I’m not crazy

Springers and Phesasants go together

about them. Don’t get me wrong, I had one, a wonderful rangy yellow Lab, all bone and muscle, who performed some incredible feats in the four seasons I had him. It was a tragedy when we had to put him down. But the truth is, I’m nuts about English Springers.
While Labs are focused, disciplined, no fooling around dogs, Springers are riddled with AD HD. They can’t stay focused for more than five seconds before the next shiny new smell sends them ricocheting in a different direction. They’re a cross between Tigger, a jack rabbit, and the Mad Hatter. Their dangerously high energy, goofy sense of humor, and lack of focus will drive you crazy. But as a pheasant dog, the are unequalled. It has to do with DNA.
For example, you never have to teach a Lab about water and retrieving. Water retrieving is so deeply embedded in their DNA that before you take them down to the pond for the first time, they know all about it already . On the other hand, Springer DNA is all about pheasants.
My second Springer was a great example. Charlie was an ugly representative from the shallow end of the Springer gene pool, with lots of problems. He had chronic problems with mites, that led to nasty secondary skin infections. He constantly smelled bad. He either was healing up and smelled of chemicals, or was getting bad again, and smelled like rotting meat. His other primary problem was he didn’t seem to be interested in birds at all. After several years of waiting, training, providing opportunities, Charlie couldn’t care less about being a bird dog.
The last straw occurred the last morning we went fishing on the Blackfoot river in Montana. We were shortly moving back to Wyoming, and this was my good-bye to the Blackfoot, As Charlie and I pulled up to the river, a big turkey came strutting down the road at us, across the bridge and into the brush along the river. “O ho!”, I thought, “I’ll bet ol’ Charlie can’t resist this – this will be fun!” So I dumped Charlie out of his kennel and sent him down the road, thinking he would pick up the scent, and curiosity would do the rest. Didn’t happen. I sent him into the brush, and he couldn’t care less. He was across the bridge and down the road, when the turkey came out of the brush, onto the bridge and hopped up on the guard rail. It was more than I could take. “Charlie, Charlie!”, I was shouting in a whisper, “Come on, come here!” He slowly trotted back onto the bridge, and noticed this enormous feathery thing standing on the guard rail. Any self-respecting bird dog would have hit the after-burners with flames shooting out his eyes, and been half-way over the rail when the turkey flew off. Right. Charlie ambled over, looked at it with mild curiosity as it flew off, giving the equivalent of a canine shrug. “Huh. Interesting. Come on boss, enough messing around, let’s go fishing” was what he was telling me. That was the moment Charlie and I were done. I gave up on him.
Sadly, we moved to a place where I could really use a bird dog. The community we settled into is the epicenter of the best bird hunting Wyoming has to offer.

Theoretically, you could begin bird hunting September 1 with doves, and end some time in May with turkeys. It’s a great opportunity, but pretty tough sledding without a good dog.
I did my best the first weeks of that first fall without one. Taking Charlie was never a consideration, because that case was closed. All the attention I was giving him was taking him for the occasional walk. Our little town was bordered on the north by railroad tracks, and on the east by pasture, then the canal. One day I took Charlie for a quick walk down along the tracks to the canal, then south between the canal and pasture to the highway, then back again – a quick jaunt without a leash.
As we made our way through the thick grass and weeds along the tracks, an odd thing happened. Charlie started sniffing hard, and up in front of him a pheasant flew off. I never gave it a second thought because Charlie was not a bird dog, period. The cover along the irrigation canal was even better, and the coincidence repeated itself. Charlie was hard at work using his nose, and a pheasant popped up.
Back at home, I began to wonder. Could Charlie have actually, intentionally, been looking for those birds? That didn’t seem possible, but a couple more times along the tracks and canal confirmed the coincidence. It was true! Charlie actually was a bird dog! Even though he was from the shallow end of the Springer gene pool, he still had pheasant imprinted DNA. He could care less about grouse, or turkeys, or ducks. But the first scent of a pheasant had triggered his DNA – pheasants he got.
He was never a terrific bird dog. But as we headed into our third season, I thought we were going to have a fun fall. We had worked hard all summer, and he had made significant progress. I was looking forward to it.
But on our family camping trip he bit my daughter on the face with no warning what so ever. My wife took her into town for four stitches, and I tied Charlie up to the picnic table and never said another word to him, even as we took him in to put him down. As cold as my fury was at his betrayal, it still tore my heart out to see the life slip out of him, lying on that table so far from home.
But I had learned something important long before Charlie’s tragic demise. While I had given up on my dog, God has never given up on me.
I am an awful lot like that dog. Created for wonderful things, imprinted with the very nature of God, yet failing so miserably at attaining it; so often not even interested in it; sin infected, smelling bad (usually in a metaphorical sense), capable of cruelly injuring those I love; betraying God at every turn. Yet God has not abandoned me, turned his back, or given up. Daniel recognized that to be true: “O God, you…never give up on those who love you and do what you say.”
Daniel 9.4 (Msg) The Apostle Paul knew it too: “God, who got you started in this spiritual adventure, … will never give up on you. Never forget that.” 1 Cor 1.9 (Msg); “If we give up on him, he does not give up— for there’s no way he can be false to himself.” 2 Tim 2.13 (Msg).
God will never give up on you, period. No matter how miserable of a person you were, are, or may be in the future. God will never treat you as I treated Charlie. Your behavior may tear God’s heart out, but it won’t make God give up on you. As Paul says, never forget that.

Jesus Loves Me This I Know [?]


The Worland ministerial group that meets for breakfast every Wednesday has been an answer to prayer.  Almost immediately they became a support group like I haven’t had for years.  However, the Lord’s quirky sense of humor quickly demonstrated itself when I instantly felt a deep connection with the Charismatics in the group.  These are people whose theology and faith experience are so separate from PC(USA) that I have to ask for translations for what they’re talking about – even when they aren’t speaking in tongues!

From day one these folks have been praying for my healing.  I wasn’t sure at first how I felt about it.  Does God miraculously heal people?  Yes.  Absolutely.  I do believe that, being an ordained Presbyterian pastor aside.  I have never witnessed it first hand, and am cautious to pray for someone’s outright healing.  But I acknowledge that God can, and does heal some people.  What has challenged me though isn’t the intellectual questions about miraculous healing, but a personal question – do I believe that God would heal ME?

Do you see the tension there?  How can I affirm an intellectual belief in God’s healing power, but be unwilling to believe that God would heal me?  Why should I expect God to spare me?  What makes me so special compared to all the people God doesn’t heal?  Cancer miracles are common place now, but no one gets reprieved from A.L.S.   Yes, my dying will put a hardship on my family, but everyday hundreds, thousands of families suffer the same tragedy and survive.  I’m not important enough, worthy enough to expect such a powerful gift from God.  The example of my life and faith through this process may be profoundly used by the Spirit to build The Kingdom.

Exactly.  I am not worthy, important, nor do I have any reason why God should spare me, period.  That’s the whole point of grace.  I got to thinking about when Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, then held a night long healing service for the entire village.  Was it all merely a detached demonstration that God’s kingdom had arrived?  Could Jesus have been detached from compassion, sorrow, and love for the individual people he listened to, touched and restored?  How likely is it that when Peter came to him about his mother-in-law that Jesus first thought was “great, here’s wonderful chance to demonstrate the Father’s kingdom to these people”?  No.  Love had to be Jesus’ first motivation.  Not just immeasurable love for the mass of humanity, or all the people of Israel, or the poor peasant people – what primarily sent him to Peter’s house was his love for Peter, and by extension, his love for Peter’s mother-in-law.

The old children’s song says that I know Jesus loves me because it says so in the Bible.  Yet, the question, “do I believe Jesus would heal ME?” has led me to realize that isn’t enough.  Do I know Jesus loves me because I recognize his love embracing me every day?  Do I know experientially that Jesus loves ME, not just the faceless mass of humanity?  If that is so, and he loved me enough to die for me, he certainly loves me enough to heal me, just because of me, not because of any benefit my continued earthly life might bring his greater purpose here.

I don’t bring this all up to open a can of worms about “healing”.  I share this with you to open the can of worms about the love of Jesus.  Do you really expect him to answer any prayer of yours?  Really?  Why is that?  Because you certainly are not worthy of any answer to pray, let alone something big.  But he does love you.  Do you KNOW that?  So of course Jesus answers prayer, the big and the small.

Living as if You’re Dying without a Bucket List


 

Last May or June I was driving by the Methodist church in Cheyenne and noticed their reader board said, “live each day as if you are dying”. A nice bumper sticker way of expressing a very profound piece of Christian reality. But while people probably read the sign, and sagely commented to themselves “how profound”, I wondered if they really knew what that entails. Do most of us really know what it means to live on death’s doorstep? I was coming to grips with a diagnosis of dying from ALS (Lou Gerigs disease), and as I drove on, began to think about what I might share with someone about the topic.

So what do you do the day after discovering you have 3-5 years to live? Maybe I’m dense, but I’m still figuring that out. However, let me share a couple of insights.

The movie “The Bucket List” reflects what most of us think of in terms of living as if you’re dying. You create a list of everything that is necessary to see and accomplish to make life complete, and then focus your remaining energies on frantically getting those things accomplished. You evaluate your every day living, and make changes.

Like anyone else, part of my initial grief was about all the things I always wanted to do some day and now might never have the chance. I was scared that my way of life wasn’t full enough, and  that now was the time to make radical changes.

Sorry to burst any bubbles, but moving to Worland was never part of that thought process! But that’s what happens when you invite Jesus into the process. Oh, believe me, Jesus and I had some real clenched teeth discussions early on. Yet, I still wanted what he wanted. So I invited him into my bucket list thinking. What I discovered is that there is very little that would make my life incomplete if I failed to see or do. Go fly fishing for salmon in Alaska, down to Argentina, or over to Italy, or fish the bone flats in Belize? Go see the incredible explosion of Christian converts happening in the middle east? Any of those would be a blast, but not essential to make my life complete. It would be amazing to witness what the Spirit is doing changing lives in Muslim countries, but what I REALLY want to see is that happen here. In fact, that is the only thing on my bucket list.

So living as a dead man walking isn’t about my bucket list. Instead, I seem to be on Jesus’ bucket list for me. Taking the kids on a big Disneyland vacation? Not on my bucket list. But someone gave us several thousand dollars last summer to do just that, and I wouldn’t trade it for a trip to Alaska now. Fishing in Belize? How about fishing partners to go ice fishing with in the incredible beauty of western Wyoming? I haven’t had friends to fish with since 1991. The Spirit working in the middle east? How about the Spirit working in and through a group of pastors from a wide range of denominations?

So instead of spending frantic energy every day working on my bucket list, I find myself slowing down instead. God has me taken care of, so I take time to savor life, not squeeze everything out of it. Rather than put energy into planning the ultimate tour of California wine country, I sit on my back step on mild evenings, finishing my wine and enjoying a good cigar. I don’t focus on drumming up the resources to afford the ultimate exotic fishing trip, I value the opportunities just to ice fish with men who are becoming good friends.

I’m discovering that living as a dead man walking Jesus’ way means being is more important than doing. Don’t wait until you end up with some terrible diagnosis – trust that Jesus has you covered today and tomorrow so that you can begin to savor life now.