Repentance and Over-reaction

We've been going through the book of Nehemiah since the first of the year. It has been a good study and we've seen some interesting perspectives preached from our team. One of the frustrations I've had in preaching is that I feel like I've come across some great thoughts but - because of time constraints - couldn't preach them.

Other times, like now, I think over a passage I just preached and suddenly realize something about the passage that didn't occur to me until *after* I've supposedly fully preached on it.

Of course, that is one thing a blog can be useful for: communicating some ideas that didn't quite make it into the final cut of the sermon. This is one of those times.

On March 1st, I preached on Nehemiah 9. The passage is very powerful. In summary, the people gather for 'church' and read the Bible for three hours straight. Then, for the next three hours they confessed their sins and worshipped God. One point I made in my sermon (which is good to repeat) is that the people first got Bible input, next they confessed, then they could properly worship.

But this got me thinking, two weeks later, about their confession and repentance. There are several instances when this pattern occurs. It seems to be a pattern of revival: the Bible is 'rediscovered,' read, and people realize that they have completely ignored the requirements that God expects of them. They realize that they have been living in utter rebellion to the righteous judge of the universe. This is a bad situation! Then they confess their sin, make changes to repent, and even make restitution for the wrongs they've committed, all so that they will be reconciled to the loving and gracious God, Yahweh.

This happens most notoriously in the reign of king Josiah when they actually stumble across the Bible while doing a periodic remodeling of the Temple - apparently nobody really cared much about the Bible in times previous (2Chr. 34). It happens again in Ezra (chapter 9 and 10), a couple of times in Nehemiah (Neh. chapters 8 and 9).

Here's a weird thing: when we read stories about how the people read their Bibles, then were profoundly convicted, made a big scene of confession and declare repentance; we are tempted think "over-reaction." Really! In our sophisticated, hyper-suspicious post-modern perspectivalistic meta-narrative; we think those people back then were all about the drama and making a big deal about what certainly are minor issues. Clearly, we believe in all our post-modern smugness, they were over-reacting and really needed to chill.

Well, here's our problem. The Bible says that all *those* folks actually reacted properly. According to the Bible, this means that they got it right and we've got it wrong.

I'm thinking about that. What would it mean about my own personal sensitivity to God's holiness and my own sinfulness if I felt so guilty (heavens! there's a word we don't use today) about my wickedness that I would actually feel compelled to wail (who "wails" these days?), throw dirt all over myself, and tear my clothes?

By the way, why *did* they tear their clothes? Well, clothes were invented a Very Long Time Ago (Gen. 3:7) for the express purpose of hiding our 'real' selves - to hide our sinfulness. From that time to this, clothing has been a way of hiding our true natures and making ourselves somehow to appear better than we are. When people 'rent their garments,' it seems to me that they were actually making a very powerful statement of their confession: "Lord, here I really am: I've been hiding behind these clothes (and other things) - be merciful to me, a sinner!"

Back to the point: what kind of confession and resulting repentance would that really mean if I were so humbled by God's holiness that I would authentically wail out loud at my sinfulness? Well, people around me would certainly consider that rather awkward. That would definitely be "not cool."

Hmmmm. I wonder at which attitude God regards more? The attitude that says, "Dude; chill out! Man, you don't see me getting all emo and narcissistic about all my issues, do you?" or "God be merciful to me, a sinner." Look at Luke 18:10-14 for the answer.

All this tells me that I am not as convicted about my sin as I should be.


Wisdom and Foolishness

"For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." 1Cor. 1:18

I was reading this passage and it struck me anew. For the past six months I've been reminded (and irritating my friends) time and time again by saying that "God is smart and we are stupid." My purpose in repeating this near-mantra is to remind my friends - but especially myself - of a simple reality. Life's issues are hard and complex. That's why we need Jesus (who is the smartest man whoever lived and - oh, by the way, also God) to help us. Rather than rely on our own cleverness, we need to develop the kind of relationship with Jesus that allows him to help us through life's problems.

This passage also strikes at the whole "are-you-really-as-clever-as-you-think-you-are?" thing. When we look at Paul's analysis (and Paul was no mean intellect) both here and other places, we see how very clever God was in using the apparently foolish, weak, low, and non-existent to bring forth something that now is clearly wise, strong, high, and obvious - at least, to those who are being saved.

I've had the interesting experience of rubbing elbows with some pretty smart people. Truly, when you go through law school you really do meet 'scary smart' people and the 'debaters of this age.' And I've met other smart people: physicians, scientists, engineers, business leaders, political operatives, etc. They really understand how things work and can put ideas and facts together to make sense of the world. They understand how this world works.

But - and here's the problem - this world, as it works today, is "not the way it's supposed to be." The world, in this sense, is in profound rebellion to the benevolent judge who created it. And that's utterly ironic as these clever people just don't get it. They are the very ones who ought to be the most perceptive in understanding and discerning what is obvious about God from just observing the created world around them. Paul, in his letter to Romans, makes the case that both the observers of nature and the ethical "moralists" have deliberately ignored the obvious: that God exists, is moral, is personal, and will judge wrong-doing.

Why? Why should such clever people miss the obvious? Well, over in that letter to Romans Paul states that it is not an intellectual issue as much as a issue of the will - they just choose to go the other direction. Back in this passage in 1 Corinthians, Paul give us another insight: "For since (in the wisdom of God) the world did not know God through wisdom ..." (1:21). That is, God cleverly constructed the world in such a way that knowledge about him couldn't be gained through only the intellectual elite.

So - and this is part of "the wisdom of God" - it turns out that very normal folks like you and me can "get it." And it really is very simple: Jesus is good and deserves all the good things, I am bad and deserve all the bad things, Jesus (because he is Really Good) willingly took the punishment that I deserved and gave me his good things. Now that's pretty good news and it doesn't take a rocket scientist to appreciate that. If for no other reason than the science of rocketry wasn't invented until 2000 years later. :-) Back to my point: the good news ("gospel") is pretty easily understood by anyone from five to ninety-five. That's one thing that makes God cleverer than the world.

It is helpful, I think, to note that Paul doesn't bash on intellectuals just because they are smart. Notice he does say that the church, while it doesn't have loads of clever and powerful people in it, apparently does have a few (1Cor. 1:26). I think the point here is that God opposess "elite-ism;" whether "elite" because of worldly power or "non-elite" because lack of seeming influence. God has little regard for power politics. "God is opposed to the proud..." (Prov 3:34; Ps 138:6; Jas 4:6, 1Pt 5:5).


Blogging Shift

It is a bit funny to me, once I realized what has happened.

When I was in school (seminary) I had the opportunity to interact with all these great ideas about the faith, how to live it out, how God tells us to live through the Bible, and all that.  Well, the way I used to ‘metabolize’ those things was to write them out in the blog. Writing the blog helped me to grapple with the issues and engage with the ideas a bit more.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the pastorate. Now that I’m in a full-time pastoral role, I don’t have the need to express all those ideas or write a blog to help me metabolize them. Nope, I’m getting lots of opportunities to put those ideas into practice right here on the job.

Then there’s just the raw time element. I haven’t yet structured my work week and days to carve out time to do blogging.

And, more significantly, there is the confidentiality thing. Some of what I could blog about are things that are happening in the church itself. But that presents some problems. Because even if I start telling stories that happened to me in lay ministry twenty years ago, somebody just might think I was writing about them here and now. I’m still trying to sort out how to make lessons I’ve learned public without unduly embarrassing somebody who was involved in my learning that lesson. As far as embarrassing myself, I’ve done that plenty of times before so that’s not a big issue. :-)

So for those few folks who follow my blog, please be patient with me as I figure out how to do this in the context of vocational ministry.


Courage and Vision

Our church is considering an exercise that will allow us to discover God’s unique vision and calling for us in our community. But there is a cost. It will take time, effort, and more sensitively, money. We, like many churches now, are in a state of “resource challenge.”

Do you all remember the difference between the urgent and the important? The urgent are those things that jump at you and demand your attention. They are immediate, insistent, pressing, and seem utterly critical. But the so-called, urgent can actually be distracting from the important. The important is significant, long-term, strategic, central, ultimate, essential, and even visionary. The important is, well, important! But the urgent is merely urgent.

Here’s how I see things: the budget shortfall is an urgent problem, our lack of coherent vision is an important problem. I’m not – in any way – suggesting that our lack of resources is not painful, hard, or insignificant. But I really do think that if we have a coherent vision from God, the resource challenge will eventually work itself out with a happy ending. That’s the horse before the cart. But if we unduly concentrate on resources, then we will be stuck there.

Let me illustrate that. Guys who ride motorcycles well will tell you that you always keep your gaze on the end of the curve, not on the roadway immediately in front of you. They tell you that when something goofy goes on (lose traction, avoid something on the roadway, etc.), if you keep your eyes on where you should be going you’ll probably come out all right. But if you shift your gaze on where the bike is actually pointed, you’ll get yourself into big trouble - and it will hurt. And that is NOT easy! It takes real mental discipline and a radical courage and trust in the process – and your tires - to not panic. The point from this motorcycling analogy is that it seems to me that we should keep our eyes on where God wants us and follow that line. It takes real leadership discipline and courage, to trust God’s process and not panic.

This is not theoretical, impractical, or “blah-blah” – scriptures are clear: without vision, people are destroyed. This “vision stuff” is practical, pragmatic, and concrete. If we don’t have a true, clear, and focused calling from God, it will destroy us. Do we need a sense of urgency? Then consider what a couple years of drift, indecision, thoughtless, laziness, and ‘business as usual’ will do to any church. That church will either start to die, actually die, or become a zombie-church: dead, but still moving around causing harm.

Let me address the resource thing a bit more. The world’s values and ethos tells us – because we’ve all lived and worked in it – that if we don’t have the resources, then we can’t do good work. I think the Bible tells us something differently. I think the Bible tells us to do God’s work and then the resources will find their way to us. Not only do I really believe that, I’ve seen that happen time and again.

The definition of success that I like the best is this: One, find out what God wants you to do. Two, do it. From my perspective, the more important thing is to get a true, clear, and focused vision from God on what our church is suppose to be doing. And then do it. Neither one of those two things is easy. They both take leadership discipline and courage.