Wednesday, January 28, 2009

We’re In This Together – some thoughts on Nehemiah and the church.

New friends are sometimes surprised to learn that punk is my favorite kind of music. I mean, if I were banished to the furthest of the nether-regions with my ten-dollar portable cassette player and allowed only one genre – punk, no question. Those new friends are surprised because I don’t look punk, that is, I haven’t adopted the fashion. I played punk music for the better part of a decade and didn’t look the part then, either. In the mid to late nineties, some of the punk kids at my shows openly expressed their displeasure about my appearance and called me hilarious words like “poser” and “dick”. Ha ha ha. My spent tissues were more punk than those kids.

As a culture, punk has confused and disappointed me. People wanted to draw battle lines and shout slogans of unity. As Jello Biafra (vocalist for the Dead Kennedys) said, when you have this supposedly egalitarian movement using words like “us” and “them” without defining either us or them, you leave the defining up to the individual. Suddenly, “them” describes anyone who doesn’t agree with you or your set of friends. Then that golden movement centered around the unity of the individual (again, ha ha ha) splinters into an innumerable amount of impotent subcultures.

When I read that explanation of infighting and splits in the punk movement, my first thoughts were to compare this with the church. I mean, the Reformation was obviously necessary. The church had become uncompassionately wealthy, corrupt, and more focused on politics than holiness. The common man needed to read the scriptures for himself. That sort of thing needed to happen. But then you had centuries of people fighting wars over how to take communion or baptize folks. And so on and so on until today, where literally hundreds of denominations stand as a testimony of disagreement and misdirected anger within the body of Christ. Is it any wonder that the Western Church reminds me of snotty punk kids? If you don’t wear a tie and jacket, you’re not punk… so to speak.

Instead of parroting slogans of unity like I did back in 1997, I wanted to spend time today talking about co-operation within the church by looking at the book of Nehemiah.

In some ways, the Western church is in shambles. Rubble. Burned stones piled in heaps. In the first chapter of his book, Nehemiah is working as a servant for the king of Persia. One day, he asks his brother and some other men how the escaped exiles are faring in Jerusalem. Nehemiah 1:3-6 says, “They said to me, ‘The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire.’ When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. I said, ‘I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments, let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father’s house have sinned.’”

When I read that passage, I remarked how Nehemiah’s first response to the condition of Jerusalem is to confess his own sins. This was correct, I believe. I mean, it’s easy to look at the condition of the church and assume that it’s someone else’s fault, or everybody else’s fault, but you and me are spotless lambs. Were he still alive at the time of Christ, Nehemiah would have understood what Jesus said in Matthew 7:3-5, “Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.”

As we read on in Nehemiah, we’ll find that corporate repentance is also needed before the restoration. For several weeks, the people had been rebuilding the walls at a miraculous pace while resisting opposition from surrounding nations. In chapter 8, after the reconstruction, a priest named Ezra reads from the scriptures in the presence of the whole people all day. As the people listened, God convicted them of their sins as a nation and they fell in repentance together. Then, the people purposed in their hearts to obey God’s commands again. At the end of chapter 8, this is demonstrated with their observance of the Feast of Booths, which had not been celebrated for centuries since the time of Joshua.

I’ve begun to see a pattern in the Bible where God moves powerfully when His people do something together. Whether it’s in repentance (like in Nehemiah 8), or sacrifice (Numbers 7), or praise and dedication (1 Kings 8), God shows up in power.

Also, notice how Ezra didn’t scold the people or heap guilt upon them. He read the word of God and allowed their hearts to bear its conviction. Now we live in an age where the Holy Spirit moves among us. Jesus said in John 16:8 of the Holy Spirit, “And He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Although it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict people, we can continue to proclaim the word as Ezra did and allow God to work through it.

I’ve heard teaching on Nehemiah a few times. Not a lot aside from a focus on building walls and standing in the gap and stuff. But never have I heard anyone talk about the last chapter of the book. Have you read it? It’s weird. Okay, so get this, Nehemiah goes back to work for the King of Persia and later hears about all sorts of idiocy happening back in Jerusalem. So he returns to set things straight. A priest had taken a room in the temple and made it into a residence for his relative. Nehemiah throws the guy’s stuff out of the temple and has the room cleansed and restored to its proper function. He had to rebuke the people for not tithing to the priests and temple caretakers, who had dispersed in their poverty and left the house of God.

Then he saw that some men were taking their goods into Jerusalem on the Sabbath to sell in the market. He has the gates closed on Sabbath to discourage them from breaking God’s commands, but one night sees them camped outside the gates waiting to be let inside. He said to them in Nehemiah 13:21, “Then I warned them and said to them, ‘Why do you spend the night in front of the wall? If you do so again, I will use force against you.’ From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath.”

But even crazier is what Nehemiah does at the end of the last chapter. He saw that the people were intermarrying with foreigners and in Nehemiah 13:25-27 says, “So I contended with them and cursed them and struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, ‘You shall not give your daughters to their sons, nor take of their daughters for your sons or for yourselves. Did not Solomon king of Israel sin regarding these things? Yet among the many nations there was no king like him, and he was loved by his God, and God made him king over all Israel; nevertheless the foreign women caused even him to sin. Do we then hear about you that you have committed all this great evil by acting unfaithfully against our God by marrying foreign women?’”

After doing these things, Nehemiah keeps asking God to remember the good that he has done and asks for favor. “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out my loyal deeds which I have performed for the house of my God and its services.” “For this also remember me, O my God, and have compassion on me according to the greatness of Your lovingkindness.” “Remember me, O my God, for good.” I think Nehemiah kept asking God to remember his deeds and show favor because he was pissing off a lot of people. But if Nehemiah understood that the sins of one affect the whole people, as he demonstrated by his personal confession in the first chapter, then he knew that these individual sins put the whole people in danger of God revisiting His wrath. They were in it together and needed to hold each other accountable.

I don’t have the answers for how we can fix division in the Western church. But if the book of Nehemiah is any indication of how we can start, I say we start by recognizing our own individual shortcomings and coming to God in repentance. It can’t and won’t stop there, so don’t think that you alone have to bear the burden for millions of people messing up God’s church. Jesus thankfully gave us the Holy Spirit to carry out that part of His plan for us. We can, however, continue to pray for the restoration and teach the Word knowing that Jesus came to heal all things, even the church.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

God's Merciful Use Of His Mercy - Or, how a seven-year-old can slam-dunk.

A man once approached me at a conference in Indiana and asked if I was Isaiah. When I told him that he’d found the right man, he held up a copy of Stark Raving Obedience and began to thumb through many highlighted pages. “I’ve been meaning to ask you about something,” he said. “You talk a lot about both ‘Faith’ and ‘Belief’.” He read from a passage that talks about a person’s lack of faith versus unbelief. Then he asked, “I still don’t understand the difference between ‘Belief’ and ‘Faith’. You use the words interchangeably throughout the rest of the book. Could you explain this for me?” The best answer I could give him at the time was that he had a copy of the first edition, a three-year-old version full of hilarious typos and half-explanations. Which was more of a commercial for the second edition than an answer.

To be honest, it took a full two weeks before I could confidently define my use of the two words. Belief is when a person mentally ascribes themselves to a system of thought. Faith is when the person begins to apply that system of thought to their lives through action.

Many Christians have historically used the words “Grace” and “Mercy” interchangeably as well. I want to make sure you know what I mean when I say these words. As I understand it, grace is a gift freely given to one who did not earn or deserve the gift. A good example of this is how Boaz treated Ruth in the book of Ruth. She was a foreigner, a widow, and a woman. In that culture, she had no rights, and yet Boaz showed her favor without asking for anything in return. That’s grace.

I’ve heard a few people teach on God’s messy covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15. I first heard it from Ray Vanderlaan, so my credit goes to him here. God promises Abraham that he and his descendants will possess the Promised Land. Abraham asks God, “How am I supposed to know you’re telling me the truth?” So God has Abraham split a cow, a goat, and a ram into halves, placing the halves opposite of each other. This would allow for the animals’ blood to run together and form a sort of path.

Vanderlaan taught that this was a common Bedouin custom for making a covenant. One man would walk through to say, “If I don’t keep my end of the deal, you can split me in two and walk in my blood.” The other man would do the same. An admittedly severe agreement, but this is what God asked of Abraham. Instead of allowing Abraham to walk through the bloody path, God caused Abraham to sleep and spoke His promise. When Abraham awoke, he saw a smoking pot, and then a flaming torch, pass through the halved animals. By doing this, God passed through the path Himself both times as if to say, “If I don’t keep my end of the agreement and uphold my promises, you can kill me and walk in my blood. And if you don’t keep your end of our agreement to follow me as your only God, you can kill me and walk in my blood.”

Of course, Abraham would be the one to break the covenant, but God’s promise was to take the punishment for our failure Himself. This promise was fulfilled with Jesus’s death on the cross. This is the free gift of grace, and it’s ours to accept or deny.

When we do accept Jesus and His forgiveness of our sin, Colossians 3:3 says, “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God.” Many sections of the New Testament teach that our righteousness, justification, and holiness are found in Jesus. This works because we’re hidden in Him. When God looks at us, He doesn’t see our mistakes, our trauma, our sickness, our wounds, or any of that stuff. He sees Jesus. The Old Testament prophets, when telling of the coming Messiah, said He would suffer, be broken, bruised, striped, crushed, and slaughtered for our iniquity, sin, transgression, illness, and infirmity. God doesn’t want to punish us because He already punished Jesus. When we place ourselves under the covering of Jesus’s blood, we’re, well, covered. In 2 Timothy 2:11-13, Paul wrote, “It is a trustworthy statement: For if we died with Him, we will also live with Him; If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us; If we are faithless, He remains faithful, for He cannot deny Himself.”

Of course, just because all of our sins are forgiven doesn’t mean we use grace as an excuse to live an intentional lifestyle of sin. Paul explains this gorgeously in Romans 6. To be sure of God’s grace is to be sure of our salvation in Jesus and this understanding is foundational to the life of every believer.

Mercy is more of a head-scratcher for people, I think. I see mercy as God’s affectionate attitude toward us, His goodwill, and the help He wants to offer. When explaining my idea of mercy to a close friend, I compared it to the brief period of my life when I wanted to play basketball. I was, I don’t know, seven or so, and I wanted to try dunking the ball. I don’t even know if I was four feet tall at the time, but I kept trying to dunk. And I mean repeatedly. I probably stuck my tongue out a few times thinking that was Michael Jordan's secret. My dad laughed as he watched, and I kept saying, “I’ll get it, I’ll get it!” But, come on, there was no way I would dunk that ball. So my dad stepped in and said, “Let me help you.” He lifted me up as I jumped and I was finally able to dunk the ball.

Now, I could have refused his help and insisted that I was going to dunk on my own. But it would have been pathetic of me to really commit to that kind of denial. And it would have been cruel of my dad, or at least way less cool of him, to watch me struggle in futility and demand that I do the impossible without his help. When I let him help me, though, I wanted him to help me over and over again. It was more fun for both of us.

Some people think that God is like the dad who forces the kid to dunk the ball on his own. They feel like failures when they can’t do everything right, or they imagine that God views them as failures, too. But Jesus didn’t come to make us feel like failures. The angels in Luke 2 proclaimed God’s pleasure for us when Jesus was born. God is pleased with us because we’re hidden in Jesus, His beloved son, with whom He is very pleased.

There are parts of scripture that tell us believers should spread the gospel, baptize people, make disciples, heal the sick, and yeah, sometimes, raise the dead. Many Christians don’t see that happening around them. It’s possible that when we try to do these things, we’re under four feet tall and trying to dunk, assuming we’re trying at all. We have to accept the truth that we can’t do it on our own.

But God is there, waiting for us to let Him help. As I read through the book of Isaiah last month, many passages reassured me of God’s mercy. In Isaiah 41:13 says, “For I am the LORD your God, who upholds your right hand, who says to you, Do not fear, I will help you.” Later in Isaiah 46:3-4, God tells His people, “Listen to Me, O house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, you who have been borne by Me from birth and have been carried from the womb; even to your old age I will be the same, and even to your graying years I will bear you! I have done it, and I will carry you; and I will bear you and I will deliver you.” And still later in Isaiah 49:15-16 when Israel says God has forsaken them in a time of need, the Lord replies, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, but I will not forget you. Behold, I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.”

God wants to help us, to carry us. And He won’t forget us. It’s not possible for Him to forget. Whatever situation you may struggle with, the problem is not on His end. I learned this recently while listening to a recording of John Wimbur. He’s the guy that started the Vineyard Fellowship. He spent a year in agony from the time he began to pray for healing to finally seeing someone healed.

“I mean, God was at every meeting,” he says toward the end of the message. “A wonderful presence. We would worship in total abandonment and weep. People would be converted. It was wonderful. The air would thicken up with His presence. God was with us! We knew it! But we would pray these pitiful prayers. ‘Oh God, if you’re up there, anywhere... If you’ve ever done anything at any time...Here is a worthy subject...’ Have you ever prayed prayers like that? You have too. You’ve prayed prayers just like that. You’re just like me.”

Finally, God miraculously and hilariously healed someone that he prayed for one morning. That day, he said, “I had a vision, a really graphic one. The first I’d ever had before. I was in my car driving. It was a beautiful morning, of course it would be. And all of a sudden, superimposed over the landscape, as far as I could see, is what looked like a cloud bank. It went all the way across the sky. As I looked at it, I realized it wasn’t a cloud bank, it was a honeycomb. It was dripping. And below the honeycomb are people. They were in all kinds of different postures. Some were reverent. They’re weeping. They’ve got their hands out catching this honey. Some are sharing with their friends while others come by and dipping their fingers other peoples’ honey. And still other people are really irritated. They’re trying to get out of this honey because they don’t like it. I pulled over to the side of the road to sit and look at it and said, ‘God, what is this?’ He said, ‘John, that’s my mercy. For some people, it’s a blessing. And for some people, it’s not. John, don’t ever beg me for healing again. Look at it. There’s plenty for everyone. The problem isn’t on my end. The problem is down there where you are.’ Our God sent mercy in His son. He sent His Word to heal them. The problem we have is receiving it.”

Our Father, God, is favorably disposed to us. He wants to help us live and thrive and walk with Him. Sometimes we don’t accept His help because we want to do it on our own. Sometimes He’s waiting for us to drop that victimized, weak sort of prayer that Wimbur described and come to Him confidently as His children, knowing that dad wants to help. Other times, He’s asking us to learn how to remain in Him through the Holy Spirit as Jesus taught in John 16 because that’s where our joy is made complete. But whatever your circumstances are, His grace is available to you through Jesus and His mercy is so abundant it drips down from heaven. It delights Him to lift you high in the air and let you hang on the rim.