Personal Update and the Future of the Slasher Pastor

This past Sunday I announced to my church family that I would be stepping down from my pastoral role. This was probably the most difficult decision that I have ever had to make (I spent a long time making it, it was not spur of the moment), and one of the most difficult announcements I have ever had to give.

I gave my church a fuller explanation of my move, but the short answer is that I believe that God is re-directing my path. Pastoral ministry, especially the role of a Senior Pastor, requires a unique and broad set of gifts and disposition, and I came to the conclusion that my gifts/interests are more narrow (focused on teaching/preaching), at least at this point in my life. I’m extremely grateful for the 12 years of ministry and WPBF, including 10 years of pastoral ministry.

My church family, being the kind and loving people that they are, were really supportive. They have been for the past 12 years, so I’m not surprised, yet I especially appreciate it now. The leadership at the church is strong. My co-pastor (and mentor) is picking up the slack. The church body is in good hands.

By God’s grace I am leaving pastoral ministry with a clear conscience. There was no moral failure. There is no unresolved conflict. I believe I faithfully – though certainly imperfectly – did the work God called me to do. God has given me a sense of completion.

So, what’s next?

I am going on a short ministry sabbatical where I enjoy life as a regular church member. If I do return to ministry in the future, I expect to focus specifically on role focused on teaching – verbal and written. That’s my sweet spot in terms of skill and interest.

Professionally, I will be going full-time at my other employer where I work as a Project Manager.

I also look forward to spending more focused time with my family. When you have two jobs, many nights and weekends are taken up with ministry work, though I tried to reduce the impact on my family as much as possible.

What does this mean for the Slasher Pastor?

A number of people asked me if I would continue to write, and encouraged me to do so. I plan to do just that. I expect to re-brand my blog. The title “Slasher Pastor” doesn’t work great for someone who isn’t a Slasher (bi-vocational) or a Pastor. Look for more news on this going forward.

Finally, I appreciate your prayers. As I enter into a period of waiting, pray that God will give me patience and wisdom. Pray that I will learn to rely on him more every day.

Book Review: NIV Halley’s Study Bible

Disclaimer: I received a copy of NIV: Halley’s Study Bible for as a member of the Bible Gateway Blogger Grid in exchange for this honest review.

One of the first Bible study aids I ever used was Halley’s Bible Handbook, which is why I was interested in the opportunity to receive and review NIV Halley’s Study Bible.

The concept for this study Bible is exactly as it sounds: The editors combined notes from Halley’s famous handbook with the text of Scripture in a standard study Bible format. The edition contains notes before each book of the Bible, short summaries of most of the chapters, and notes on specific verses or paragraphs. It also contains maps and pictures that go along with the text. At the end, the book contains the NIV Concordance and another set of maps.

Physically and visually the Bible is high quality, ideal for use in study (a little too large and clunky to bring to church). The designers did a fine job making it easy to read (easier for me than the ESV Study Bible). The insertions – chapter summaries, verse notes, are unobtrusive yet accessible.

We now come to the primary purpose of a study Bible, the contents of the notes: While performing my normal Bible reading and some of my sermon preparation, I used this study Bible and reviewed Halley’s notes. I found them helpful and fair. The difficulty with study Bible’s in general is that they place biblical interpretations alongside the infallible word.  For that reason, I prefer study Bible’s which demonstrate humility whenever there are competing interpretative frameworks. Here, Halley’s Study Bible passes that test.

For instance, Ezekiel 40-48 describes a rebuilt Temple after Israel’s exile. The Temple was not built to these specifications after their return from Babylonians exile. Interpreters, then, look for some future fulfillment of this vision. In one view, we should expect a literal rebuilding of the “millennial Temple” and re-instantiation of the priesthood. In another view, the Temple and priesthood are ideal, not literal, pictures which are already fulfilled in Christ.

Halley’s notes identify both of these perspectives and outlines some of the challenges to the millennial view: “God was to live in this temple ‘forever’ (43:7). This can hardly be said of a literal, material temple. It must be a figurative representation of something, since Jesus, in John 4:21-24, abrogated temple worship and there will be no temple in heaven (Rev 21:22).” Yet, he does not take a definitive position. Speaking of the life-giving stream described in 47:1-12 he says “Whatever specific or literal application these waters may have…” I think he strikes a good balance between sharing the variety of perspectives available while also tipping his own hand. This helps the reader draw a distinction between Word and Interpretation.

All in all, I found this to be a helpful study Bible, and I’m glad to have it in my library.

To whom do the promises of Jeremiah apply?

Despite some excellent one-liners (Jeremiah 29:11), Jeremiah presents major challenges to those who would seek to apply its teaching.

“For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”

Jeremiah 29:11

Jeremiah spoke words from God to the ancient Israelite community (2:1). He spoke to kings (22:1), to those going in and out of the Temple (7:1-2), to those engaged in commerce (17:19), to false prophets (23:9), to exiles living in Babylon (29:1), and to the nations (46:1ff). More than anything, Jeremiah warned of impending judgment and, given the inevitability of judgment, the promise of future restoration.

Specifically, Jeremiah warns that if Israel will not repent, God send in a nation from the north to destroy Jerusalem (1:14-16). Many will die from famine, plague, or the sword (14:12). God will send the rest into exile (13:19). God brings about this judgment because Israel has broken their covenant with God – they worshipped idols (2:5), sacrificed children (32:35), and oppressed the poor (2:34). His judgment is the “natural result” of their sin, an active just punishment against wrong-doing (4:18), and a disciplinary measure intended (30:11) to bring about repentance.

But judgment is not the end of the story. God promises that he will bring Israel back into the land (31:8). He will heal them of their incurable wound (30:17). He will restore their fortunes (30:18). Some of this is fulfilled after 70 years of exile (25:12-14). Some of it finds its final fulfillment in Jesus (New Covenant: 31:31ff).

The Individualistic Approach

Here is the challenge: Because we live in a highly individualistic culture we instinctively apply Jeremiah’s message individualistically. This is natural and, to some degree, right. But it also presents challenges. Consider Jeremiah 29:11. Jeremiah wrote this to a community and, in fact, a subset of the community. The “you” in that verse is a community of exiles, the first wave of exiles, the “good figs” of Jerusalem (ch 24). The “future” is 70 years away. Most of those going into exile will not experience this future first-hand.

We want to read this verse as saying that God will prosper us individually. Instead, it means that for a small subset of Israel, their children and grandchildren will return to the land. What about the rest of Israel? Most of the residents of Jerusalem and Judah will be killed in the upcoming conflict or will die in exile.

For the community judgment is temporary. But for many individuals, judgment is final. God promises that he will not forsake his people but most of the individuals within that community will not experience (at least in this life) restoration, though the faithful will be blessed in exile (29:5-7).

This is complicated further by the fact that a distinction between God’s judgment of Israel and his judgment of the nations. For Israel (and some of the nations) God’s judgment is corrective and temporary and followed by restoration. For others, especially Babylon, God’s judgment is explicitly punitive and final (51:59-64).

All this adds up to say that we cannot woodenly apply God’s promises of restoration to individuals, at least not through Jeremiah alone. When you bring in New Testament writings, you can then make important distinctions between different kinds of judgment. For those who are in Christ, God’s judgment is corrective, intended to bring about repentance and maturity (Heb 12:11). However, for the enemies of Christ, God’s judgment is final. Furthermore, New Testament teaching shows us that while restoration may come in this life, our final hope is for the New Creation.

The Nationalist Approach

Some, recognizing that Jeremiah is not primarily speaking to a nation, have sought to apply his message to an individual nation. So, America is subject to judgment because we have worshipped idols (wealth, status, sex, self), sacrificed our children (abortion), and oppressed the poor and powerless (slavery). God judges the nation through disaster and warfare.

Just as God’s judgments apply, so do his promises. If we as a nation repent, God will restore America to her former glory. We will see peace, justice, and material prosperity.

The problem with this approach is that it ignores key differences between Israel and America (or any other nation). Israel was God’s chosen people, the embodiment of His kingdom, the people with whom God had forged his covenant, a theocratic nation that lived under his law. America is none of those things.

If we are to find ourselves as a nation in Jeremiah, it is more likely to be in chapters 46-51 where God addresses the nations surrounding Israel (such as Egypt and Babylon). Here, the nations are subject to judgment, but do not have the same promise of restoration.

Israel and the Church

Some make the case that all of Jeremiah’s promises only apply to national Israel, either fulfilled 70 years after the initial exile, or to be fulfilled in a millennial kingdom after Christ returns. Depending on your views of the End Times, you may find this convincing. However, even those with a premillennial view of the End Times, should see that many of the promises are fulfilled in Jesus.

For instance, Jesus saw himself as the fulfillment of the New Covenant described in Jeremiah (Luke 22:20). Paul (2 Cor 3:6) and the writer of Hebrews (Heb 8) comes to the same conclusion. That means that there is a correspondence between the warnings/promises to Israel and similar warnings/promises to followers of Jesus: The Church. Peter also drew a connection between the Israelites experience as exiles (Jer 29) and that of the early church (1 Pet 2:11-12).

What, then, is the best way to make sense of God’s warnings and promises in Jeremiah?

First, concerning Jeremiah’s warnings of judgments, draw a distinction between his warnings to the nations and to Israel. When God judges the nations, his judgments are final. When God judges his people (the church) it is corrective and temporary. The Church may very well be under God’s judgment right now. If it is, God calls us to repent. In the meantime, the church will face dangers from without and within connected to our sin. Many will fall away from faith. Many more will compromise their faith. Yet, God will protect a remnant. The Church will never go extinct. The gates of Hell will not overcome her (Mt 16:18).

Second, God will restore his people, the Church. We do not know how long or in what form. The final restoration will have to wait until Jesus returns. At different times and at different places the cycle of judgment and restoration will take different forms.

Third, as we wait for final restoration, the church is called to faithful exile. That means loyalty to God that works itself out in love for neighbor. Faithful exile brings glory to God as God reveals his rescue and blessing to and through his people.

Fourth, we can now see more clearly how Jeremiah applies to individuals. Are you a member of the people of God? If not, your judgment is final. If so, you are part of a community whose judgment is temporary. You enter this community through repentance and faith in Jesus.

As a member of that community are you doing things which lead to God’s corrective discipline? Idolatry or injustice. When you do, are you practicing true repentance or are you taking refuge in mere religious ritual? Are you contributing to a faithful witness to your neighbors or are you compromising your faith to avoid potential conflict?

Are you a person with authority, either in a religious, commercial, or civil environment? Are you using that power for the good of all or to enrich yourself? Are you pursuing justice or tolerating oppression?

These questions and more help us faithfully apply individual/communal calls of Jeremiah.

No worries in the year of drought

The Year of Drought

For many of us, 2020 is a year of drought, a year when the precious rains of social, emotional, spiritual, and economic resources have been withheld, locked away in clouds that turn to vapor on the horizon. We wither under the heat.

The people in Jeremiah’s time knew this feeling, only more so. Their whole way of life was crumbling before their eyes. Collectively they faced the plague, famine, and the sword. To them Jeremiah wrote:

“But blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose confidence is in him.
They will be like a tree planted by the water
    that sends out its roots by the stream.
It does not fear when heat comes;
    its leaves are always green.
It has no worries in a year of drought
    and never fails to bear fruit.”

Jeremiah 17:7-8 (emphasis added)

How do we become like that tree?

Careful readers of the Bible will immediately see the connection between these words and Psalm 1:

Blessed is the one
    … whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
    and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
    which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
    whatever they do prospers.

These two trees share a common trait, they are planted by a stream. That stream provides unfailing resources by which the tree can sprout leaves and bear fruit, even during a season of drought. In Jeremiah 17:7 identifies that stream as trust in the Lord and confidence in him. The psalmist marks the stream as continual meditation on the law of the Lord.

To be a tree without worries in a year of drought we must take nourishment from God and his word.

Where is your trust?

Jeremiah 17:7-8 stands in contrast to 17:5-6

 “Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
    they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
    in a salt land where no one lives.

Trust in God stands in contrast to trust in man. The people of Jerusalem had made a terrible mistake. Instead of trusting God, they put their trust in Egypt and Assyria to save them. They put their trust in idols and those who made them. They put their trust in false prophets. As a result, they neglected to trust God, stopped listening to him, and stopped obeying his Word, especially as it related to undefiled worship and public justice.

Instead of drawing their strength from God, they drew their strength from mere flesh. “They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.” (Jeremiah 2:13)

To be a tree without worries in a year of drought we must beware of putting our trust in the wrong things.

Why trust God?

We can trust God – and draw strength from him – by looking to the past, present, and future.

The past: We know that God is trustworthy because of how he has acted in the past. For Jeremiah, two events stand out: He created the universe and he brought Israel out of Egypt and into the promised land.

The present: Even while the circumstances of Israel’s present were about as bad as they could get, Jeremiah had confidence that the circumstances did not alter God’s character, especially his everlasting love and unfailing kindness.

The future: Israel’s destruction and captivity would be long and painful, but ultimately temporary from a national perspective. Jeremiah calls the exiles to hope by pointing them to a future restoration.

To be a tree without worries in a year of drought we draw strength by recalling God’s past acts of salvation, contemplating his presence and faithfulness, and looking forward to his future restoration.

As we progress through this year of drought now is the time to send those roots down deep into the banks of the stream. God invites all who are thirsty to come and drink from the living water.

Don’t conform!

Do not conform to the pattern of this world… (Rom 12:2)

Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought (Rom 12:3)

Do not be proud… do not be conceited (Rom 12:16)

Do not repay anyone evil for evil (Rom 12:17)

Do not take revenge (Rom 12:18)

Do not be overcome by evil (Rom 12:21)

Do not rebel against authority (Rom 13:2)

Do not harm your neighbor (Rom 13:10)

Put aside deeds of darkness – carousing, drunkenness, sexual immorality, debauchery, dissension, jealousy (Rom 13:12-14)

Stop passing judgment on one another (Rom 14:13)

Do not by your eating [your “freedom”] destroy someone for whom Christ died (Rom 14:15)

Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food (Rom 14:20)

But be transformed by the renewing of your mind (Rom 12:2)

Think of yourself with sober judgment (Rom 12:3)

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves (Rom 12:10)

Never be lacking in zeal (Rom 12:11)

Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer (Rom 12:12)

Share with the Lord’s people. Practice hospitality (Rom 12:13)

Bless those who persecute you (Rom 12:14)

Rejoice with those who rejoice. Mourn with those who mourn (Rom 12:15)

Live in harmony with one another (Rom 12:16)

Be willing to associate with those in low position (Rom 12:16)

If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone (Rom 12:18)

Overcome evil with good (Rom 12:21)

Be subject to the governing authorities (Rom 13:1)

Give to everyone what you owe them – taxes, revenue, respect, honor (Rom 13:7)

Love your neighbor as yourself (Rom 13:9)

Clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ (Rom 13:14)

Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters (Rom 14:1)

Make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister (Rom 14:13)

Make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification (Rom 14:19)

Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up… for Christ did not please himself (Rom 15:2, 3)

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Rom 15:7)

Dear Christian, please wear a mask

Dear Christian,

Please wear masks in enclosed spaces to help slow the spread of COVID-19. I appeal to you on three grounds: To care for the physical well-being of your neighbor, to love your brothers and sisters in Christ, and to demonstrate respect for governing authorities.

To care for the physical well-being of your neighbor

Let me be clear: I do not think Christians who are opposed to wearing masks, or are blase about it, do not care about the well-being of their neighbors or are inherently selfish – though some may be. Instead, they just don’t think that wearing a mask helps slow the spread of the virus. They are skeptical of the evidence.

The evidence, to me anyway, seems clear that masks are effective against viruses, including COVID-19. Check out this article which gives a good summary of the logic and studies behind this argument. You don’t need to take the author at face value. He provides plenty of links to studies which you can follow to conduct your own research.

For the purposes of this post, I will provide a brief summary.

First, masks are more effective at slowing the spread of viruses than they are as a personal protective equipment. That is, our proper motivation for wearings masks is one of concern for others, not fear.

Second, masks protect others by trapping droplets that come out of your mouth when you speak, cough, or sing. This YouTube video uses a laser-scattering experiment to shows how wearing a simple washcloth drastically reduced the number of droplets expelled into the air. This matters a lot, since aerosol spread is one of the main ways that COVID-19 spreads.

Third, people can spread the virus even before they have started showing symptoms, so wearing a mask prevents the spread of the virus after a person has contracted the virus, but before they would know that they have it.

Fourth, many people are skeptical about wearing masks because at the start of the pandemic, health officials discouraged wearing masks. They see this as evidence that health officials are untrustworthy. However, this guidance changed simply because the situation changed. Early on health officials looked at wearing masks primarily in terms of PPE, not in terms of protecting others. Also early on there was a mask shortage so health officials wanted to ensure that medical workers had priority. As evidence for even simple cloth mask effectiveness has increased, and the overall stock of masks has increased, health officials began to issue the guidance we see today.

To quote from the originally linked article:

There are numerous studies that suggest if 80% of people wear a mask in public, then COVID-19 transmission could be halted. Until a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19 is discovered, cloth face masks might be the most important tool we currently have to fight the pandemic.

Christians often respond that by wearing masks we are giving in to fear. I don’t think that’s a great way to frame the discussion. While wearing masks can be an expression of fear, it can also be an expression of love, of concern for the well-being of our neighbors.

To love your brothers and sisters in Christ

As churches begin to re-open Christians who wear masks and those who don’t will be attending church together. Each will have a strong opinion one way or the other. Both may be called upon to demonstrate Christian humility by giving up their “rights” or by acting in a way that is uncomfortable to them.

And so, brother or sister, if you are healthy and unconcerned, consider those in the congregation who have a weakened immune system and are more vulnerable. I appeal to you who don’t want to wear a mask, to consider doing so to make your fellow congregants more comfortable, even if you yourself are not particularly convinced by the first argument.

To demonstrate proper respect for authorities

In many places, wearing masks indoors is mandatory. Many businesses put up signs stating as such. Christians can demonstrate respect for authority by following these guidelines.

While human authorities are not absolute, obedience to human authorities should be the norm for Christians. Obedience to authority, unless it contradicts obedience to God, demonstrates a respect for how God has ordered our lives. Contradicting authority requires us to demonstrate how doing so would cause us to disobey God. That is not the case for wearing masks.

Conclusion

We should show each other grace in this matter. I have written this post merely to appeal to the Christian conscience. When and where we wear masks isn’t always simple. I personally wear it when going to a store but never when I am outside. And, if I’m meeting indoors with just a few people and we can stay six feet apart, I typically won’t wear one. That may be hypocritical on my part, I’m not sure. My point is that there are a lot of gray areas.

However, I want to show how the Christian conscience should move us toward, not away, from wearing masks during this pandemic. Dear Christian, please wear a mask.

Is the gospel sufficient to deal with systemic racism?

Is the gospel sufficient to deal with systemic racism? Yes, but only if we understand and proclaim it in all its implications.

The gospel is the story of God’s work in the world through Jesus: His life, death, resurrection, and future return. The gospel has many implications, but we tend to just focus on one: Personal salvation.

Personal salvation: Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection are what make it possible for us to be forgiven and saved. This is a core implication of the gospel, but it is not the only one. When we reduce the gospel to personal salvation – as important as that is – we diminish its power. [1]

The person with this limited view of the gospel has very few resources to deal with racism, or practically any other sin. The best he could do is say that at least we can hope for a better existence when we die.

Personal sanctification: Having been cleansed of our guilt, the believer is given a new heart. She is transformed in her inner being and experiences continuing sanctification through the Holy Spirit over time that causes her to be more like Jesus.

The Christian who understands this takes an essential next step, both in her Christian walk, and in her ability to confront sin in its various forms. She can now begin the process of self-examination, of confession, and of personal responsibility. She can identify issues within her own heart and disciple others to see the same.

The creation of the people of God: The gospel has an important communal application. It reconciles Jew and Greek, male and female, slave and free, into the unified body of Christ. This teaches us to see our brotherhood in Christ as the essential characteristic which bonds us together. All other identities of nation, language, race, and partisanship become secondary at best.

This understanding of the gospel allows for the formation of reconciled communities which bear witness to the peace-making Kingdom of God. In such communities we begin to learn from and love one another. As one part hurts, so the whole body hurts. We can then begin to see the world from a different perspective. This new perspective is an essential next step in dealing with systemic racism.

The cosmic renewal of all things: The gospel has personal, communal, and cosmic implications. Jesus is coming again, and when he does, he will bring about perfect justice and righteousness on the earth. This is the hope for all believers and, indeed, for all of Creation.

It is possible for this view to lead us to inaction. If Jesus is going to sweep away the old, why should we do anything? Why not just hunker down and wait for his return? We find the answer in the second implication of the gospel – personal sanctification. As we become more like Christ, our values are brought in alignment with his values, or loves with his loves.

We see that he loves justice, so we love justice. And when we love justice, we pursue it, in hope that while we will never accomplish it on this earth, our love for our neighbors drives us to approximate it within our sphere of influence. The fact that a true justice will come spurs us on, knowing that our work is not in vain.

Here we see the gospel in all its glorious implications. This gospel is what drove people like William Wilberforce. He understood the personal and societal implications of the gospel and worked for justice. He no doubt knew that the transforming nature of the gospel was our only hope, but he saw that transforming work as extending beyond (and springing forth from) personal salvation or sanctification, into the community of the church and beyond.

Two errors: This full vision of the gospel saves us from two errors. The first is to view the gospel only in its personal implications. This leaves us few resources to sufficiently love our neighbors.

The second is to conclude that the gospel is really not enough and that if we want to deal with systemic racism we must, then, seek some other solution. Many people are seeking to solve racial issues in this country, but some are not doing it from a perspective antithetical to Christianity. Beware of these false narratives. At best they deal with the symptom of the evil in the world, without properly reckoning with its cause.

For people who long for racial justice, we owe it to the world to present them with a distinctly Christian solution. That means we must actually have one.

The gospel is sufficient to deal with the problems of the world, but only when we see it in all its glorious implications.

[1] Beth Moore described this “reduction” of the gospel message in a more colorful way on Twitter: “

The current state of American Evangelicalism is what we get when the gospel is reduced to an entrance exam instead of a whole way of living, serving, loving & self-giving. The point of discipleship & Bible study is to grow in relationship with Christ and in resemblance to Christ. American Evangelicalism needs to file a missing person’s report. We have lost Jesus.

Mourn sin and Identify sin. Two reflections on George Floyd’s death

In the second half of our church’s “family conversation” mentioned in the last post, I talked about the killing of George Floyd and the events that surround that event. I certainly can’t speak authoritatively or exhaustively on the topic, but I wanted to share two passages that have helped me process and come up with a response. Again, here is a portion of the discussion, which is applicable to a broader audience:

The first one I think of is Matthew 5:4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.”

I have been reading Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s sermons on the Sermon on the Mount and I love what he says about this verse. To paraphrase, he says that this is a mourning over sin. First, we mourn over our sinful and hopeless condition. Second, we mourn over what that sinful condition leads to, our sinful and rebellious actions. Third, we mourn over the sin in the world and the effects of that sin in the world. Mourning and lamenting are a good first step for us.

A member of our church shared a video of her son-in-law and he modeled this so well. We need to allow ourselves to see and feel the brokenness and injustice in the world and then mourn over it. His heart is so evident in that video. It was very moving. It was moving because it was personal, because he entered into the heart of his brothers and sisters. I was convicted by that video.

Let me talk to you white people – and that’s the majority of our church – you and I have a privilege, a luxury that many African Americans do not have. We can ignore this issue if we want to. We can check out whenever we want. I just want to invite you to do something different, to mourn. Even if you don’t know exactly what you are mourning, enter into the mourning of your brothers and sisters in Christ.

The second passage I think of is the entire book of Jeremiah.

I was preaching through the book recently and I made the observation that Jeremiah both points out the universality of our sinful condition and calls out the sin of specific individuals – the powerful civil and religious leaders. We need to go beyond saying “All have sinned”, which is true, and be willing to deal with sin, not just in the abstract, but in the concrete.

I have to do that in my own personal life. When I confess my sin I should not just say “Lord, I sinned, please forgive me.” I need to say “Lord, I feared man instead of fearing you” and “Lord, I was impatient with my children” and “Lord, I was callous toward my brother.” Naming our sin is an important part of confession.

The same principle applies to these events. It is good to say “All have sinned” but it is better to say “Here is a specific sin. Here is a specific rebellion. Here is the way in which specific people are being unjustly treated by other people. Here is my part in that whole mess.”

That means we can and should use words like “systemic racism.” It means acknowledging the historical reality and present experience of our African American brothers and sisters. We can say “racial hatred and violence work in more than one direction” and that would be true, but we should not fail to acknowledge that in our setting and in our nation and communities these exist in asymmetric and unequal ways.

If we fail to do that, we will also fail to adequately deal with the specific injustice. It is true that we will never defeat racism this side of heaven. But we can work towards its end. We can and should work towards a more just future in the hope that Jesus will make all things right, and in the power that he gives us.

Where do we go from here? I don’t really know. The problems seem so large, so much bigger than us, and they are. So for now mourn the fallenness and injustice of our world. Name and confront the sin, and be specific. Then go to God in prayer. Ask him to guide our steps. Trust in the gospel to do its slow and reconciling work in you, and in our world.

Six values that inform the decision on how/when to resume in-person services

In a “family conversation” with my church I shared six values that are driving our decisions on how/when to reopen in-person portions of our ministry. Much of the conversation was unique to our church, but I think the six values themselves are applicable to a wider audience.

These values sometimes live in tension with the others, leading church leaders to think creatively and make difficult decisions. These values are not unique to us our to our church. Pastors, staff, and elder boards all over the country are wrestling through them and their implications.

Value #1: God intended for his people to regularly gather.

While I’m grateful that we have Zoom and Facebook Live, and believe that God is using those tools right now for the spread of the gospel, the current model of virtual services is not ideal and is not, in the long run, sustainable.

I believe that the New Testament expects that his people will regularly gather around the Word and sacrament, participating in fellowship and worship.

However, the New Testament is not always clear about the nature of those meetings such as their size and location. Acts 2:46 tells us that the church met in the Temple courts and in people’s homes. Church buildings are great, but maybe not the only way to “do church” right now.

Value #2: The health of our church members.

As I observe Jesus’ ministry in the gospels, it is clear that he cared about both the spiritual and physical well-being of those who followed him. He healed the sick. He raised the dead. He fed the hungry.

While the first value draws me to think on the spiritual importance of gathering, this second leads me to articles and health guidelines which draw out the risks of gathering.

Caring for the health of those who attend our events is one of my duties as a pastor. To disregard it would be pastoral malpractice.

Value #3: The health of those in our community.

Jeremiah 29:7 tells us to “seek the peace and prosperity of the city.” In a pandemic, gathering in the wrong way or at the wrong time does not only affect those who gather, but those to whom they might spread it. We cannot simply say “I do not care about whether I live or die” since we do not live in an individualistic bubble.

We are part of a broader society and have a responsibility to our neighbors. Every decision we make impacts our neighbors whom we are called to serve and love.

 Value #4: The witness of the gospel.

What does it say to our culture to re-open before it is safe or to re-open in an unsafe manner? For many, the answer will be, and has been: “They do not care about life. They care about continuing to receive money.” Or, perhaps, “They want to make a political statement against their political opponents.”

These accusations may not be true and may not be fair, and we cannot be controlled simply by how others perceive our actions (that would be the fear of man) but, for the sake of the gospel witness, it matters how we present ourselves to our neighbors.

More importantly, we need to search our own souls and ask whether what we are doing fits with the gospel we proclaim and adorns that gospel with love and truth.

Value #5: Honoring our governing authorities.

Our church’s relationship with the governing authorities are complex and those authorities do not have an ultimate authority over the church. However, the Bible emphasizes that we should honor those authorities. If they are not calling us to disobey God, obedience to authorities is the default position.

In Michigan, churches are exempt from the stay-at-home order and so, to meet in any form for worship, would be technically legal as far as I understand. However, I believe that proper honoring of the authorities involves observance not only to the letter, but the spirit of the law.

Even if we do not always agree with those authorities, we are at least called to show them the respect and honor that is their due.

Value #6: A respect for the medical and scientific community.

Underlying the values of #2, #3, and #5 is a value for medical experts who are issuing guidance on when and how to safely meet.

In many sectors of evangelicalism respect for these experts is being undermined in what I believe to be a dangerous and unbiblical way. I say unbiblical because it ignores the doctrines of common grace and general revelation. General revelation tells us that God speaks through his creation and that truth can be discovered through a process of observing the creation around us. Common grace tells us that God sends rain on the just and unjust alike. That is, he gives even to unbelievers the ability uncover that truth.

The history of medicine, its incredible advances over time, have shown us the truths of these doctrines. Therefore, we will continue to listen to and read the advice of the broader medical community. This doesn’t mean they are always right, but it does mean that they are the most reliable source of this type of information right now.

These values, along with a desire to properly disciple the church, leads to a tension and that tension requires creative thinking. These values lead me to ask not just “if and when” we can open, but “how” we can do it in a safe, God-honoring, government respecting, neighbor-loving way.

What Does the Structure of Mark 6:31-8:30 Teach Us About Spiritual Growth?

Talk about a click-bait title!

The Bible teaches, not only in its content, but also in its design and structure.

Check it out. The structure of Mark 6:31-7:37 is as follows:

  • Jesus feeds the five thousand (6:31-44)
  • The disciples cross the sea and land (6:45-56)
    • The disciples show a lack of faith and understanding
  • Jesus conflicts with the Pharisees over the nature of defilement (7:21-23)
  • Jesus talks to a woman about bread (7:24-30)
  • Jesus heals a deaf and mute man (7:31-36)
  • The crowd makes a confession of faith (7:37)

Mark 8:1-30 follows this sequence:

  • Jesus feeds the four thousand (8:1-9)
  • The disciples cross the sea and land (8:10)
  • Jesus conflicts with the Pharisees over the need for a sign (8:11-13)
  • Jesus talks to the disciples about bread (8:14-21)
    • The disciples show their lack of faith and understanding
  • Jesus heals blind man (8:13-21)
  • Peter makes a confession of faith (8:27-30)

Some of the parallels are clear, like feeding of the crowds and healings – in both cases Jesus uses spit in the healing process (7:33, 8:23). Other parallels are less obvious. But I am convinced that the overall structure holds. This begs the question: Why did Mark structure his book like this or, the related question, why did Jesus repeat similar miracles like feeding the crowd?

There may be many reasons for this, but I think the most obvious is this, our first lesson about spiritual growth: Jesus knows we need to learn and re-learn the same lesson. We need repetition before we “get it”. Take a look at the disciples. In both sequences, though at slightly different times, the disciples lack of faith and understanding is pointed out:

Mark 6:50-52

Immediately he spoke to them and said, “Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.” 51 Then he climbed into the boat with them, and the wind died down. They were completely amazed, 52 for they had not understood about the loaves; their hearts were hardened.

Mark 8:14-19

14 The disciples had forgotten to bring bread, except for one loaf they had with them in the boat. 15 “Be careful,” Jesus warned them. “Watch out for the yeast of the Pharisees and that of Herod.”

16 They discussed this with one another and said, “It is because we have no bread.”

17 Aware of their discussion, Jesus asked them: “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened?18 Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember? 19 When I broke the five loaves for the five thousand, how many basketfuls of pieces did you pick up?”

The disciples don’t get it, which is kind of surprising given that they have had the inside track since he called them. They left everything to follow him. Jesus explained the parables to them when their meaning was hidden from the crowds. They saw the miracles of the loaves and the fishes. And yet, they are still described as lacking in spiritual insight. They have ears but don’t hear and eyes that don’t see. At this point, they are much more like the hard soil than the good soil, except for the grace of God.

And this teaches us the second lesson about spiritual growth: Most of us don’t totally “get it” all at once. We need repeated encounters with Jesus.

When I think back over my life I can think of a handful of pivotal moments of spiritual growth but, in all honesty, even those “big ones” only produced a small amount of the spiritual fruit that I’ve seen in my life. Most of my growth (if I can point to any) has come from “routine” encounters with Jesus and his people: Reading scripture, study, attending church, prayer, confession, and working through daily toils.

Will a single sermon change your life? Maybe not, but a lifetime of them will.

Will you have an epiphany the next time you open Scripture? Possibly, but it is more likely that your daily routine of reading the Bible will slowly but steadily enlighten your mind and align your values.

Will that camp experience bring about lasting transformation? Yes, but only if it is followed up through discipleship in a community of faith.

The disciples had their ups and downs and so will we. Jesus was patient with them, and I am incredibly comforted by that fact. The best news is that the disciples ended well. God faithfully completed the work he started in them – by teaching and re-teaching them through his power and presence.