? God Helps Those Who Help Themselves ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 4

? God Helps Those Who Help Themselves ?
Sunday, July 21, 2019
Psalm 18:6, 16-17, Psalm 121:1-2, Philippians 2:12-14, Ephesians 2:4-10

However, God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!

Ephesians 2:4-5

“God helps those who help themselves.”

Odds are you have probably said or heard this exhortation at some point in your life. Most Americans believe it is found in the Bible, though no such Scripture exists. In truth, the source is unknown, although it is often attributed to Benjamin Franklin who popularized the phrase in the 1730’s.

At first glance, it seems to express good Biblical truth even if it is not directly quoted from Scripture. Surely God doesn’t want us to just sit back and do nothing. As James writes, “Faith without works is dead” (James 2:17). Likewise, Paul writes to the Philippians to “carry out (or work out) your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12-13)

Anyone working for social justice knows that one of the most important tasks is to help people stand on their own, to break the cycles of poverty, addiction, crime, or whatever else holds them back from being productive members of society who live with a sense of purpose and dignity. We “teach people to fish” rather than simply giving them an endless stream of free handouts.

Honestly, this is all good and true. We should encourage hard work and discipline both in life and in our journey of faith. We do have to “practice what we preach”. We must live out our salvation by fulfilling our baptismal covenant through our prayers, presence, gifts, service and witness. When we pray, God empowers us and guides us into action. Adam Hamilton writes, “Those who fought for civil writes did not simply pray at church. They prayed and then marched, knowing they were likely to be beaten and arrested and that God would somehow see them through.”

So what’s wrong with saying “God helps those who help themselves,” even if it’s not directly quoted from the Bible?

The trouble comes at two key points… when someone cannot help themselves, or when we cannot help ourselves.

We often see others in need and respond by saying that if they work hard and “help themselves,” God will help them out of whatever pit they find themselves in. In some ways, however, this says far more about our cultural work ethic and rugged individualism than it says about God. After all, if we could truly help ourselves, what need have we for God? Why pray at all if we could simply work harder and help ourselves solve whatever dilemma presses in?

More than that, it often becomes an excuse not to help others. Scripture consistently calls us to care for the poor, the orphan, the stranger, the widow, and the needy. In Matthew 25, Jesus tells us that whatever we have done for the least among us, we have done for him, and likewise whatever aid we have refused to others, we have refused for him. Rather than seeing those in need as people who should “pick themselves up by their own bootstraps”, we are called to see in them the face of Christ struggling under the weight of his own cross, and like Simon of Cyrene, perhaps God is calling us to help him carry it for awhile by bearing the burden of others (Matthew 27:32).

Challenging this well worn cliché is not a blanket affirmation of sloth or laziness. Rather it is a recognition that no matter how hard we work, there are times when we simply cannot help ourselves. Despite popular belief, not everyone was born with the same opportunities, abilities or connections. This is why God uses others to answer the cry of the needy, to help them when they don’t have a leg to stand on.

In the end, God helps those who CANNOT help themselves.

God is the God of the hopeless, the God who walks with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. This is grace, amazing grace, that saved even a blind wretch like me who could never save myself from the shackles of sin. When it comes to our salvation, not one of us can help ourselves.

Rather than condemning the helpless, perhaps it would do us well to sing that great hymn again… remembering that we were all lost and helpless, but God rescued us from the pit that we might sing His glorious and “Amazing Grace” all the more.



God's Eye

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I arise today...
Through God’s eye to look before me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

In spite of this, you did not trust in the Lord your God, who went ahead of you on your journey, in fire by night and in a cloud by day, to search out places for you to camp and to show you the way you should go.

Deuteronomy 1:32-33

Deuteronomy 1 tells the story of Israelite spies who looked ahead to the land God had promised them but in seeing the inhabitants there, they turned back and grumbled against God for leading them into an impossible situation. God’s eye had looked before them even as they cried out from slavery in Egypt, and God’s eye saw a future filled with hope and blessing for all the world through this people he had redeemed, but they could only see through the eyes of fear.

As we arise today through God’s eye to look before us, two questions come to mind.

First, Do we really trust that God’s eye is looking out before us?

God set his people free from Egypt and looked out for them day after day in the wilderness, providing for their every need. Still the people grumbled and did not trust that God was truly looking out for them. Over and over again in Scripture we find God’s people complaining that God has led them into a trap, that God has abandoned them, that God would not take care of them, that somehow God’s way was not good enough. Even in the gospels, we find Jesus looking ahead through God’s eyes at the suffering he would have to endure and his closest friend Peter challenges him.

Then Peter took hold of Jesus and, scolding him, began to correct him: “God forbid, Lord! This won’t happen to you.” But he turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan. You are a stone that could make me stumble, for you are not thinking God’s thoughts but human thoughts.”

Matthew 16:22-23

God sees the path more clearly than any of us, but sometimes it is difficult to trust. Like the famous “Leap of Faith” scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, sometimes we can’t even see the bridge God is asking us to cross. We’re not even sure there is anything there to step on. Where is God leading us?

That leads to our second question, “Do we really want God’s eye to look out before us, or would we rather just see for ourselves?”

Have you ever played “Follow the Leader” with your eyes closed or blindfolded. It’s a classic children’s game in church to teach lessons about faith and listening to the Spirit. The goal is to go wherever the leader tells you to go, trusting that they won’t lead you to walk into a wall or a chair. Sometimes there is an added layer of having everybody give directions so you have to listen more carefully for the leader’s voice to know which way to go in the midst of the chaos.

Honestly, I always hated those games. I don’t think I’ve ever completed one without peeking. Sometimes I didn’t trust the leader, but often times, I didn’t trust myself. What if I heard the direction wrong? What if he says left and he meant his left instead of mine? It’s one thing for kids to wander blindly around a classroom, but what if you tried to do the same thing while driving with only a voice over the phone to tell you when to turn, when to brake, etc. The stakes just got a lot higher and I imagine even the most faithful among us would not take on such a challenge.

Yet that’s often what it feels like to trust God’s eyes instead of our own. When all we see ahead is fog, do we really want to trust that God can still see the way, or would we rather just camp out for awhile until the fog clears and we can see for ourselves.

Here’s the irony. We naturally trust our own sight more than we trust what someone else sees, even if that someone is God. Yet whenever God’s people in Scripture rely on their own sight, they almost always take a wrong turn. Why? Because their vision, like ours, is clouded. Our vision is blurred by sin, by doubts, by pain, and most often by fear. We never see as clearly as we think we do.

Maybe this is why Jesus tells the Pharisees, “If you were blind, you wouldn’t have any sin, but now that you say, ‘We see,’ your sin remains” (John 9:41).

This original song written in 2017 speaks to all of those moments when we either can't see or don't want to see the way God is leading us through the chaos of life.

Reflections:

1. How do you think you would score on a “spiritual vision test?” What “astigmatisms” keep you from seeing clearly? Fear? Doubt? Hurt? Sin? Something else?

2. Reflect on a time when you truly took a leap of faith and trusted God’s leading, even when it looked absurd or impossible to you? What was the outcome?

3. Read the story of the blind man in John 9:1-41. Where do you find yourself in the story? Who do you most identify with?


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s ear to hear me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

? God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 3

? God Said It, I Believe It, That Settles It ?
Sunday, July 14, 2019
Matthew 5:17-48, Deuteronomy 23:12-14, 2 Timothy 2:14-15, 2 Timothy 3:15-17, John 1:14-18, John 8:2-11, Leviticus 20:10, 21:9

You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, Don’t commit murder, and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of fiery hell.

Matthew 5:21-22


“You have heard it said… but I say to you…”

Such a statement from almost anyone would quickly raise a red flag today. We hear and use the arguments all the time. “What do you mean, “you say”?” “We’ve always done it this way. Are you telling us we’ve been doing it wrong all this time?” “Who are you to say my parents and great grandparents were wrong?”

I was talking to a group of church people once using a similar sentiment. I have had these kinds of conversations on a wide range of subjects. People have told me I did not preach God’s Word because I didn’t use the King James Version. Another man said I would “burn in hell if I didn’t get my wife to repent because she is a pastor,” which in his mind is clearly against God’s Word. The most extreme I have ever seen involved a church leader who actually believed that God’s commands to Joshua to drive the Canaanites out of the land also applies to white American Christians who are charged with ridding our nation of all minorities and non-believers, especially Muslims. His wife proceeded to send me a series of gruesome and inflammatory internet articles about extremist groups and they warned me that my Muslim friends would rape and mutilate my daughter, who was only 2 years old at the time.

Of course these are extreme distortions of Biblical teaching, but the truth is that Scripture has been used throughout history to oppress women, to endorse slavery, and to justify countless wars, the burning of so-called “witches”, the excommunication of scientists, and many other unjust atrocities throughout human history. This is the kind of violence and extremism that results in an “Us vs. Them” culture where God always just happens to be cheering for our team.

Yet Jesus himself said these words… “You have heard but I say,” not once but several times in His famous Sermon on the Mount. Jesus consistently re-frames the people’s understanding or interpretation of the law, not to undermine it, but to get to the heart of God’s intent. Lust is just as bad as adultery and hating someone is the equivalent of murder. “An eye for an eye” becomes, “love your enemies” and the Sabbath should never prevent us from doing good and bringing healing to others.

It’s easy to affirm, at least in words, because Jesus said it. But we must remember that Jesus’ audience did not attribute to him the same divine authority Christians recognize today. When they accused him of breaking the Sabbath or condemned him for defiling himself with sinners, they could just as easily have pointed to any number of scriptures to make their case and declared… “God said it, that settles it.”

If anything, Jesus, Paul, and other New Testament writers demonstrate that it’s not quite that simple. Scripture, just like any other text, can be twisted and distorted to say just about anything. Dr. Joy Moore talks about those preachers who have a verse for everything stating, “If you’ve got a topic, I’ve got a text.” Whether the text actually applies to the topic hardly matters, so long as it came from somewhere in the Bible, or at least “sounds Biblical.” Dr. Ben Witherington III is known for saying “A text without a context is a proof-text for anything you want to say.”

If God truly says something, and if we truly understand the meaning for our context, then yes, it may be fairly black and white. But more often than not, we are not as clear or certain as we would like to think. Let’s take murder for example. The command, “Thou shalt not murder” is one of the most black and white laws in Scripture and in almost every religion and law code throughout history. But even here we argue about gray areas. What about war, euthanasia, self-defense or the death penalty? Do these controversial issues count as “murder” and if so, are they justified? Some would even take it to the extreme that we must not kill animals, but even if someone could prove that was God’s intent, I imagine few of us would become vegetarian.

There’s no one-size fits all interpretation or even a universal method of Biblical interpretation throughout Christian history. We must wrestle with issues of language, context, socio-historic realities, literary styles, authorial intent, original audience and countless other exegetical and interpretive concerns. Rarely will all Christians of all times and all places ever fully agree on what it is that God actually said.

While I believe we must continue to study and wrestle with the meaning of the text in the context of the global Christian community throughout history, we must be careful making absolute statements that we and we alone have the only “right” interpretation on any given issue. Every time we are certain we are right, we will likely find another sincere Christian scholar interpreting the same passage in a very different way.

Understanding what God actually “said” or “meant” is no small task. If we’re honest, most of the time we are not even as clear as we thought we were about what our spouse means. This complex reality should not paralyze us to Biblical interpretation and study, but it should at the very least give us pause and keep us humble in our beliefs and out judgments against the beliefs of other Christians.

Two final words of advice.

  1. Remember that the Word became flesh… not text.

    When in doubt, always interpret the text through the lens of Jesus’ life for he is the only person to ever live out the fullness of God’s Word on this earth.

  2. Take to heart the wisdom of Mark Twain who writes, “It is not the parts of the Bible I do not understand that worry me, it is the parts I do understand.”

    For as much as Christians argue over the interpretation of obscure and controversial scriptures, we all know far more scripture than we actually put into practice. First and foremost, let us become doers and not merely hearers of those parts of the Word of God that are crystal clear… to love God and love our neighbor (which includes everyone)… to do justice, to love mercy and to walk humbly with our Creator.

    This alone may take more than a lifetime to master, and the world will be far better for it.

Special thanks to my wife, Rev. McKenzie Sefa, who preached this challenging topic today in our first of two pulpit swaps during this “Half-Truths” series. You can here her full message at the link below.



Wisdom

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I arise today...
Through God’s wisdom to guide me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

In an age where false information masquerades as fact and truth is mistaken as fiction, wisdom is perhaps more crucial than ever. Just as much of our news comes from social media headlines or tweets with no substance or nuance, so often our knowledge of scripture is limited to the few verses or catchy “Christian” sayings we read on our Facebook or Instagram feeds. I am reminded of one of my favorite 80’s movies, “Short Circuit.” As the robot, Number 5, increases in his own self awareness, he begins to consume as much information as he can. “Input… Need Input,” he says as he flies through the pages of every book in the house.

Like Number 5, we as human beings have an insatiable thirst for new information. We want to be “in the know” about everything, and we are often unwilling to admit just how much we don’t know about so many things. We need input.

There is nothing wrong with acquiring knowledge. I personally value education more than almost anything else in my life. The problem, however, is not our knowledge or lack of knowledge, but how we apply what knowledge we have. That is where wisdom comes in. As the old saying goes, “Knowledge may teach us that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom tells us not to put it in a fruit salad or a smoothie.”

Perhaps the most beautiful and yet sometimes frightening thing about wisdom is that it is no respecter of persons. It is possible for a child to say something more wise than a Nobel Prize winner. Wisdom does not depend on our level of education or how much knowledge we have. A person can have a photographic memory and store up more information than anyone else and still act foolishly. Likewise, a person who never went to school can be “wise beyond their years” in the way they treat others and in the way they use whatever resources they have. Wisdom is all about our ability to rightly apply what we know, regardless of how much or how little knowledge we have.

I say it’s a beautiful thing because anything that levels the playing field of our social hierarchies can result in greater humility, mutual respect, empathy and love. It is also frightening because those of us who have gained greater knowledge in our lives tend to be proud of what we know and it is not easy to follow the sage advice of someone who may not appear as “smart” or intelligent, at least on the surface.

Perhaps this is why wisdom is in such short supply. Where “knowledge is power,” wisdom often brings humility which in our culture may be interpreted as weakness. Scripture tells us that all Wisdom comes from God and that it is freely available to anyone.

But anyone who needs wisdom should ask God, whose very nature is to give to everyone without a second thought, without keeping score. Wisdom will certainly be given to those who ask.

James 1:5

Some people have greater access to knowledge than others. Some people can afford higher levels of education or greater connectivity to the “information highway” as it were. But everyone has equal access to Wisdom if we only ask.

What would happen if we asked God for wisdom as readily as we seek out and consume new information? Instead of striving to read the entire Bible in a year, for example, what would happen if we took just a few verses and meditated on them day and night to consider how they shape our everyday lives. Here are just a few to consider:

  • 1 John 4:7-11

  • Mark 4:35-41

  • Matthew 5:1-10

  • Matthew 5:43-48

  • Romans 12:1-2

  • Psalm 23

  • Galatians 5:22-26

Consider choosing just one of these passages, or another that God lays on your heart, and sit with it for an entire week without reading anything else. Perhaps read the immediate context before and after these verses, but beyond that, simply ask God each day to examine your heart and show you specific ways to better apply these passages in your day to day life. Ask God for wisdom as you read and meditate on His Word. Read it over and over again. Sit with the words in silence for awhile. Jot down anything the Spirit of Wisdom may be speaking to your heart.

Wisdom is a slow process which is yet another reason we rarely ask for it. We want wisdom just like we want patience… right now. Knowledge gives us the instant gratification we crave, but it is only a shadow of the Wisdom God desires for us to have.

Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes
and clever in their own sight.

- Isaiah 5:21

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight.
Do not be wise in your own eyes;
fear the Lord and shun evil.

- Proverbs 3:5-7

So let us seek the wisdom of the Lord, for “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere” (James 3:17).

Reflections:

1. How do you see the relationship between knowledge and wisdom play out in your own life?

2. Have you every explicitly asked God for wisdom as you read the scriptures? What was that experience like?

3. Choose one of the passages above, or another short passage of scripture God lays on your heart, and sit with it for at least a week (longer if the Spirit leads). One method to consider is the ancient practice of Lectio Divina. You can find more about how to approach scripture in this way at https://www.contemplativeoutreach.org/lectio-divina. Journal about the insights you gain and about your overall experience of reading scripture in this way.


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s eye to look before me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

? God Won't Give You More Than You Can Handle ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 2

? God Won’t Give You More Than You Can Handle ?
Sunday, July 7, 2019
1 Corinthians 10:12-13, James 1:13-17, Psalm 46:1-3, 2 Corinthians 1:8-11, 2 Corinthians 12:7-10

No temptation has seized you that isn’t common for people. But God is faithful. He won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities. Instead, with the temptation, God will also supply a way out so that you will be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13

“Don’t worry, God won’t give you more than you can handle.”

Before we dig into what God does and doesn’t give us, let’s first consider the source of this unhelpful cliché. It is an adaptation of the passage above from 1 Corinthians 10:13

The actual statement from 1 Corinthians 10 reads: “God won’t allow you to be tempted beyond your abilities.”

James elaborates on this point when he writes:

No one who is tested should say, “God is tempting me!” This is because God is not tempted by any form of evil, nor does he tempt anyone. Everyone is tempted by their own cravings; they are lured away and enticed by them. Once those cravings conceive, they give birth to sin; and when sin grows up, it gives birth to death.

James 1:13-15

The ability to overcome temptation and the ability to handle any circumstance that comes our way are two entirely different things. God does not tempt us to sin, but he promises that he will give us the strength to resist temptation. The lure of sin does not have power over us if we are walking in the Spirit because we have died to our sinful nature and been raised to walk in the light of Christ. The good news of the gospel, in fact, is not simply the forgiveness of sin so that we can go to heaven, but the power over sin granted to us by the same grace which saved us in the first place.

Clearly the statement, “God won’t give you more than you can handle,” is a misquoted version of this favorite memory verse from 1 Corinthians. But what do we do with the broader idea? It has become so vital to our faith to believe that no matter how bad things get, we will not get overwhelmed because God won’t give us more than we can handle.

This favorite half-truth often follows right behind “Everything happens for a reason” as a second pillar of our “Bumper Sticker Christianity.” In fact, it utterly depends on the idea that everything happens according to God’s plan and that God causes every bad thing to happen. “God won’t give you more than you can handle” implies first and foremost that everything you have to handle, no matter how tragic, must be from God for some greater divine purpose.

If you missed last week’s message, now may be a good time to go back and check out “Everything Happens for a Reason”.


Two key points to keep in mind:

  1. Not every circumstance you have to handle is from God.

    It is just as likely that the struggle you face is the result of the natural ebb and flow of life, or perhaps even the result of sinful and destructive choices, whether yours or the harmful choices of others that may have had nothing to do with you at all. Nevertheless, the consequences are very real and painful.


  2. Though we may very well be overwhelmed by circumstances beyond our control, God will see us through any circumstance we face.

    This is where we draw hope from the Apostle Paul.

I was given a thorn in my body because of the outstanding revelations I’ve received so that I wouldn’t be conceited. It’s a messenger from Satan sent to torment me so that I wouldn’t be conceited.

I pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me alone. He said to me, “My grace is enough for you, because power is made perfect in weakness.” So I’ll gladly spend my time bragging about my weaknesses so that Christ’s power can rest on me. Therefore, I’m all right with weaknesses, insults, disasters, harassments, and stressful situations for the sake of Christ, because when I’m weak, then I’m strong.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10


“God will help you handle all that you’ve been given” (Adam Hamilton).

As he tells Paul, “My grace is sufficient because my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Take some time to sit with all of the circumstances in your life that overwhelm you. Imagine them circling around you like a storm as you stand with Peter on the water in the middle of the sea. Look up to Jesus and reach out your hand. Invite him to grant you peace, and even if he doesn’t calm the storm, pray that the Holy Spirit might calm the storm in you.

Listen to the sermon below for more on the half truth: “God won’t give you more than you can handle”. For now, let us us pray together with the Psalmist:

God is our refuge and strength,

a help always near in times of great trouble.

That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart…

Psalm 46:1-2a (CEB)

Might

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I arise today...
Through God’s might to uphold me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

Surely God is my help;
the Lord is the one who sustains me.

- Psalm 54:4

I’ll be honest, this image of God is more challenging for me than it probably should be.

Human history has been plagued with the idea that “might makes right” and those in power are often the ones who will do almost anything to get there, no matter who they hurt or walk over in the process. As Lord Acton writes, “Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

I remember children’s songs in church like “What a mighty God we serve,” or “My God is so big, so strong and so mighty, there’s nothing my God cannot do.” On one hand the idea that God is mightier and more powerful than any enemy we may face can be comforting, that is, so long as God is on our side. On the other hand, it is hard to imagine absolute power that does not corrupt. Such power and might, unchecked, is indeed a frightening thought.

In Revelation 15:4, the saints of God sing out the song of Moses saying,

Who won’t fear you, Lord, and glorify your name? You alone are holy. All nations will come and fall down in worship before you,for your acts of justice have been revealed.”

Who would not fear the Lord, indeed. “The Lord, strong and mighty. The Lord mighty in battle” (Psalm 24:8). The King of Glory is King of Kings and Lord of Lords and no power or nation shall stand against him.

Such imagery, though absolutely true, gives me pause. History has shown us time and time again that absolute power cannot go unchecked. It is dangerous. And yet we know God has no equal. Nothing can stand against the Lord.

But we also find comfort throughout the scripture that God’s might is perfectly balanced by God’s love. We find the story in Genesis 18:16-33 where Abraham pleads with God on behalf of the people and God promises to relent for the sake of even 10 righteous people in city. Regardless of the final outcome, God demonstrates to Abraham that he is not some cosmic heartless monster out to destroy the world as so many other gods throughout history have been portrayed.

The difference between the all-powerful God of Scripture and so many other gods throughout ancient mythology is that the God of Scripture is Love. By his very nature, God cannot exercise power and might in any way that does not reflect his loving character.

Nearly every encounter a person has with God in Scripture pans out the same way. Consider the stories of Isaiah, Peter, Paul, and John in Revelation, among others. The person is overwhelmed by God’s holiness, often falling down on their face as though dead. God’s first words in such terrifying moments almost always include the statement, “Do not fear.”

In Isaiah 41, we find God’s encouragement to Israel.

“You are my servant;
I chose you and didn’t reject you”:
Don’t fear, because I am with you;
don’t be afraid, for I am your God.
I will strengthen you,
I will surely help you;
I will hold you
with my righteous strong hand.

- Isaiah 41:9b-10

God’s might, rather than striking terror into our hearts, should fill us with hope and courage because God promises to uphold us in his righteous strong hand. Because of God’s might, we truly have nothing to fear.

Yet we must be careful, for unlike God, our sense of power often does lead to corruption. Centuries of ugly and violent religious history have shown us how easily we humans distort the power and might of God into a threat against our enemies, justifying countless wars in God’s name and condemning all who disagree with us to the fires of hell. We must remember Jesus’ call to love our enemies, and that God desires no one to perish but for all to come to repentance (Matthew 5:43-48, John 3:16). We must not try to manipulate God’s might for our own purposes. Our enemies are not God’s enemies, for even they are beloved and bear the image of God, their Creator.

God’s might will uphold us, but God’s love must prevent us from using his might to tear others down. Perhaps the mightiest act God ever demonstrated was the restraint he showed on the cross when he refused to send down his angel armies to destroy those who crucified his son. Might is not the power to tear down or lord over others. The greatest might of all is the power to sacrifice everything for the sake of love.

Reflections:

1. What is your gut reaction to the thought of a “Mighty God”?

2. In what ways have you experienced God’s might upholding you throughout your life?

3. How do you see God’s power at work in sacrificial acts of love? How might God be calling you to use His power in that way?


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s wisdom to guide me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

? Everything Happens for a Reason ?

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HALF TRUTHS - PART 1

? Everything Happens for a Reason ?
Sunday, June 30, 2019
Romans 8:22-28

We know that God works all things together for good for the ones who love God, for those who are called according to his purpose.

Romans 8:28

Long before Twitter limited our communication to 140 or even 280 characters, Christians have attempted to distill the great mysteries of God and the universe into short catchy and memorable clichés and sound-bites. The result is what I like to call “Bumper-sticker Christianity” or “Street Theology.”

Adam Hamilton calls them “Half-truths” because these clichés often contain just enough truth to sound quite Biblical, but when taken to their logical conclusions they can be misleading and sometimes even hurtful or harmful to the faith of others. We will look at five of these so-called “Biblical” statements over the next few weeks beginning with one of the most common: “Everything happens for a reason.” Other variations on this theme include, “It was God’s will or God’s plan,” or “It was just God’s time.”

At best these sentiments sound like the bad advice of Job’s friends who try to explain away his suffering. At worst they make God out to be not only the author of tragedy, but perhaps even of sin.

God is sovereign, but God also created human beings with free will to make choices for both good and evil. To say that everything that happens is God’s will or God’s plan eliminates the possibility of human choice or responsibility. Consider the following examples as we move beyond this limited and un-scriptural explanation for human suffering.



Scenario 1: Natural Disasters

Two Christian families and next door neighbors pray for safety during a tornado warning. One house is demolished leaving the family with nothing while the house next door remains untouched.

Did God answer the prayers of one family and not the other? Did one family have less faith than the other? Did one family deserve this tragedy more than the other? When the family whose home survived says they were “Blessed by God”, does that mean that the other family is not blessed? Where was God’s grace and protection for them?

Natural disasters are called “natural” for a reason. God does not orchestrate such tragedy for some larger purpose beyond our understanding. Storms come. Sickness and disease ravages the human body and death will catch up with every one of us eventually. This is the nature of life in a fallen world. This is why we place our hope in eternity, but it does not mean that every bad thing that happens is part of God’s perfect will or plan. The truth is, some things “just happen.” The question is “how we will respond?”



Scenario 2: Shootings

School shootings have become all too common in our nation. If it is true, however, that everything happens for a reason, then what role does God play in these tragedies?

When an individual dies, we often say, “It was just their time.” Is that true for all of those children? Was it “just their time” all on the same day? Did God lead the gunmen to sin in order to fulfill that purpose? Did God allow these children to be sacrificed so others might “pray to be saved” when the gospel is preached at their funerals?

Clearly such implications are appalling. No matter how much we say that God’s ways are beyond our comprehension, there is no way that God’s goodness could be so radically different than ours to justify such horrors. Our sense of goodness, righteousness, and justice may be shadows of God’s wisdom and it is true that God’s ways are not our ways, but surely our good is not the opposite of God’s good. If we are made in the image of God, we at least have some sense of what is truly good and what is evil.

Evil is the natural result of sinful human choices. Attributing pain, suffering, and even evil to some inexplicable Divine plan implies that God led the perpetrators of such evil to sin and it removes our personal responsibility as we are called to bear faithful witness to the presence of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. What other sins can we commit and simply respond by saying “The devil made me do it” or “It was God’s will anyway”?



Volumes of similar scenarios could be written to demonstrate the danger in chalking everything up to God’s perfect will or plan but we do not have the time or space here for such exhaustive reflections.

One final thought.

What do we do with the “good things” that do come as the result of horrible circumstances? When the nation came together in love and charity after 9/11 or when family members reconcile their long-held grudges in the face of a loved one dying from cancer, how do we respond? Did God cause these tragedies in order to bring about such good outcomes?

Not necessarily.

Romans 8:28 says that “all things work together for good,” but that does not imply that all things are caused or necessary in order to bring about that good. We cling to inexplicable reasons for every tragedy because we need our suffering to have meaning, but what if we have it backwards? What if the meaning and value of our suffering and tragedy comes not from its cause or reason, but from how we respond?

How is God strengthening us and leading us to grow in love and faith as a result of whatever happened? Do we harden ourselves in anger or do we grow even more urgent in our desire to pour out the love and mercy and grace of God to a hurting loved one and a broken world?

God works with us to bear good, meaningful fruit out of every circumstance, natural or sinful, but just like us, God grieves over the tragedy itself. God weeps with us in our loss and screams with us in our anger against evil and injustice.

The rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike. This is the nature of things. Perhaps the real question is not the reason or cause, but what meaning and goodness will grow in the softened and fertile fields of our hurting hearts and souls.


Not everything happens for a reason, but God can make meaning out of everything that happens.

In her book, “Everything happens for a reason and other lies I’ve loved”, Kate Bowler wrestles with the “easy answers” we so often give in the midst of tragedy and suffering. Her raw and honest experience of God’s truth in the midst of her own tragic circumstances calls us to consider how we might leave our easy answers and cliché explanations behind and instead be willing to sit with others in the midst of their grief and pain as a reminder of God’s healing presence through it all.

Check out her story in this video from TED Talks.

You can find her book on Amazon here.





Click here to listen to entire sermon series - “HALF TRUTHS”









Pilot

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I arise today...
Through God’s strength to pilot me...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)

Irv: You see Sanka, the driver has to work harder than anyone. He's the first to show up, and the last to leave. When his buddies are all out drinking beer, he's up in his room studying pictures of turns. You see, a driver must remain focused one hundred percent at all times. Not only is he responsible for knowing every inch of every course he races, he's also responsible for the lives of the other men in the sled. Now do you want that responsibility?

Sanka Coffie: I say we make Derice the driver.

Irv: So do I, Sanka. So do I.

— Irv Blitzer (John Candy) and Sanka Coffie (Doug E. Doug), Cool Runnings

A pilot steers the ship. He or she is essentially “the driver”. In an age where nearly everyone drives a car and even aircraft fly on “automatic pilot”, we can easily take the pilot’s role for granted. After all, steering isn’t that hard. We do it every day. And just like a plane, sometimes we end up running on auto-pilot. Have you ever had that moment when you pull into the driveway at home and realize you don’t even remember making the last several turns? It’s easy to zone out somewhere along the all too familiar route.

We have the same problem when we try to steer, drive, or pilot our lives. We make a thousand choices a day in our familiar routines without a second thought. We react to input and circumstances almost involuntarily rather than pausing to intentionally consider our response.

The strength of a pilot is a mental strength, the strength of a disciplined and focused mind. Such single-minded focus does not come naturally in a world that turns our attention from one thing to the next at a pace that would give anyone whiplash. As Sanka learned in the movie, “Cool Runnings”, it is one thing to steer a push cart down a dirt hill, but it is entirely something else to steer a metal sled barreling through gut wrenching turns down an icy track.

Life is more like a bobsled track than a wide open downhill slope. We must constantly stay alert. The slightest missed turn can cause unintentional harm to ourselves and those riding closest to us in the sled. The ability to make such split second decisions does not come in the moment. It comes from all of those hours of training and study. Over time, we learn to respond with grace and truth as naturally as we navigate the familiar roads to our homes.

I know a bobsled driver is not exactly what the writer had in mind when he talks of a pilot, but there is one more parallel worth exploring. Unlike flying with an airline pilot, the “passengers” in a bobsled are not passive. They do not sit back sipping on sodas and eating pretzels while the driver or “pilot” does all the work. They must stay low and lean in with the pilot through every curve. Each person in the sled must be in sync with the drivers every move.

Likewise, those on an ancient sailing ship cannot sit back and wait until the pilot steers them safely into port. There is much work to be done. There are sails to be hoisted, ropes to be tied, decks to be cleaned, and a hundred other responsibilities which I know nothing about. The pilot may have the strength and focus to keep the ship on course, but the pilot doesn’t work alone. We must train and discipline ourselves with the strength and focus to follow the pilot’s lead.

To paraphrase Sanka , “I say we make God the driver.”

Reflections:

1. In what ways do you try to pilot your own life? How do you feel about the results?

2. What fears prevent you from giving God complete control of the wheel?

3. What habits or disciplines might God be calling you to strengthen in order to increase your focus and intentional response to the pilot’s every move?


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s might to uphold me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

Rock

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I arise today...
Through the firmness of rock...

The Lorica of Saint Patrick (St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer)


We often describe the Christian life in terms of diving into deeper waters, allowing the wind and waves of the Spirit to take us where it will. This is an important truth, but it is not the whole truth. Yes, life in the Spirit can often seem like a mighty rushing river, but God is also our rock and our salvation, a mighty fortress and a bulwark never failing.

I’ve been to many mountain overlooks throughout North Carolina and Kentucky and most of the popular touristy ones are blocked off with man-made rails to keep people from falling over the edge. But my favorite places in the mountains are on the rocks beyond the rails, where they are accessible. There is one area of Grandfather Mountain past the bridge like this, and a few rock arches in Red River Gorge, Kentucky where I used to hike. But my favorite by far has been the top of Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa.

It is the largest (in terms of land area) mountain top I have ever hiked and it’s views out over the ocean are awe-inspiring. I think that’s what I like most about it. Unlike the Smokey Mountains on my home turf, this mountain literally seems to rise right out of the sea. I sat on the edge of a rock overlooking the sea for well over an hour, on the far side of the mountain where most of the tourists did not wander. As I looked down at the inner city of Cape Town and to the harbor and sea beyond, I thought about the turmoil that nation had gone through, the suffering of Apartheid, the continual rises and falls of governments, the people on the margins who endure the brunt of the decisions made by those on top who are rarely affected. This kind of chaos exists in every nation of course, but the rock I sat upon reminded me that no matter how hard the waves crashed against the base of the mountain, the ground above it all remained solid.

I also remember standing on the Cliffs of Mohr on the Ireland coast. The fog was dense that day. I heard the rough surf below but could not see a things. We couldn’t even see the cliff walls below us. Yet somehow these invisible rocks jutting out of the sea had stood firm against centuries of crashing waves and winds.

When the winds of life throw me off balance and the waves crash hard against the foundations I thought were secure, these are the kinds of places I long to be. I remember standing on the edge of Chimney Rock in Kentucky one April afternoon. A random late year snow storm blew in out of nowhere, but as the wind pressed against me and the snow blinded my view, I became even more aware of the solid rock beneath my feet.

“Why do we run from the rain,” I wrote in a song that day. “Why do we hide from the storm?”

The rock is secure. There is nothing to fear. The ground is firm beneath our feet.

My prayer for the church and for all of us is that we will not only stand firm on the solid rock of Christ, but that we will become a place of stability where others can sit or stand secure even in the midst of their storms, far above the crashing waves of life.

It is one thing to take shelter inside where we cannot see or hear the waves and wind or feel the rain and snow. But sometimes I think we need to spend some time in the middle of the churning sea and feel the storm upon our skin as we sit or stand on the solid rock, on stable earth. The shelters we build to hide ourselves from the world will inevitably crumble, but the mountain stands secure.


Reflections:

1. Where do you need a firm rock to stand on in your life right now?

2. In response to storms, do you tend to retreat to a self-made shelter or stand strong on the mountain to face it? How do you sense God leading you to respond to the storms in your life today?

3. Would people describe you as a rock in their life, a safe and firm place where they can feel secure no matter what they are dealing with? Who might God be calling you to be a rock for this week? Who has God put in your life to be a rock for you?


Our journey through St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer continues next week:

... I arise today,
Through God’s strength to pilot me…

Pray along with the full text of St. Patrick's Breastplate Prayer

Spiritual Awareness

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SPIRITUAL - PART 7

Spiritual Awareness
Sunday, June 16, 2019
John 16:12-15

“I have much more to say to you, but you can’t handle it now. However, when the Spirit of Truth comes, he will guide you in all truth. He won’t speak on his own, but will say whatever he hears and will proclaim to you what is to come.

John 16:12-13

The Spirit may guide us in all truth, but that does not mean we have “all of the truth” about everything.

Sometimes truth may take generations to uncover or discern. How many centuries did astronomers study the skies before they realized the truth that the earth was round and revolved around the sun? Even when Copernicus first released this fundamental scientific truth, the church rallied against him declaring the scriptures such as Psalm 93 which declares that “God has fixed the earth as immovable and firm.” So was Copernicus listening to the Spirit of Truth or was the Church? It took generations to accept, but eventually the Church came to accept that they were wrong. This does not mean that nobody in the church was trying to listen to the voice of the Spirit, or that the Spirit was even directly involved in the natural discovery of scientific realities.

Throughout history, Christians across the globe have disagreed on countless “truth claims”. Early Christians argued over the divine nature of Christ and the Holy Spirit. Were they eternally begotten, co-equal with God, or where they created by God? Was Jesus fully Divine or fully human? Could he be both?

Century after century, groups of Christians separate over any number of “truth claims” ranging from the authority of the Pope to the method and meaning of Baptism. The Methodist Episcopal Church South and other Christians in the 1800’s stood firm on their “truth” that even slavery was an institution ordained and approved by God. Christians fought on both sides of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement, and virtually every other social and political conflict throughout history. Churches still split over almost anything and both sides of every split claim that their side stands on the “Absolute Truth” of Scripture.

Rev. James Howell notes that this “spirit of truth” is perilous, as too many Christians treat “truth” as some sledgehammer to judge or belittle others. St. Ephrem the Syrian (4th century) writes, “Truth and love are wings that cannot be separated, for Truth without Love is unable to fly, so too Love without Truth is unable to soar up; their yoke is one of harmony.” Denominations are lousy about truth; both “sides” blithely presume to have cornered it.

Good Bible believing Christians hold opposing views on countless political, ethical and even moral issues. Some may indeed be misinterpreting scripture. Some may be intentionally twisting scripture to fit their own agenda. But not all. Many people are sincerely trying to align themselves with God’s truth to the best of their ability and yet still come out on different sides of the aisle.

In Acts 15, we read the story of a conflict between Paul and Barnabas which ends in each of them parting ways. Who was right? Which one of them listened to the truth of the Spirit? Scripture doesn’t say, and perhaps it does not matter. In the end, the Spirit guided both of them in successful missionary journeys. Neither one was outcast by the church or by God and yet clearly they could not both have been “right”.

So where is this “Spirit of Truth”?

Why don’t we all hear the same truth when this Spirit speaks?

Perhaps we do. At least on the things that matter most. Holy Spirit reveals to us the nature of God. Holy Spirit teaches us the way of salvation. Holy Spirit convicts us of the truth of sin in our lives and leads us in the way of repentance. Holy Spirit resonates with our spirits to assure us that we are beloved children of the Most High.

Jesus told his disciples there were many things they were not ready to hear. In truth, there are still many things we are not ready to hear. There are many things good Christians have thought were true that are not so black and white. Just like Jesus, Holy Spirit knows the places in our lives where we are ready to see a bit more gray, to hear a more nuanced approach that isn’t always either/or, in/out, right/wrong. But Holy Spirit also knows the places in our lives we need a bit more certainty and assurance and the Spirit teaches us all that is spoken clearly by the Father and the Son. Holy Spirit is the Wisdom of God personified. Wisdom doesn’t simply teach us right and wrong. Wisdom also guides us in how to appropriately apply the truths we have learned.

We may know the truth, for example, that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom reminds us not to put one in a fruit salad or smoothie.

Likewise, Holy Spirit guides us in all truth, but she also grants us the wisdom not to use that truth as a weapon against our brothers and sisters. She grants us the wisdom to be patient with one another, bearing all things in love rather than quarreling with those who hold to a different truth. She even gives us a discerning ear and heart to learn from one another, perhaps even to be corrected in our own misunderstandings of what we thought was true. She gives us humility to admit when we are wrong and the humility to reign in our arrogance and pride in being right.

First and foremost, Jesus says that Holy Spirit will remind them of everything he taught them. This third person of the Trinity, fully divine as Christ and the Father are Divine, will consistently point believers to the Father. The disciples asked Jesus, “Lord, show us the Father”. Perhaps our primary question pray should not be, “Spirit show me the truth so I can be right,” but instead simply pray, “Holy Spirit, show us the Father.”