A Theology of Glory

I have felt for sometime that something was wrong. I have never been able to clearly convey the thoughts I’ve had. It has always come out muddled and sounds too much like whining and complaining. I have long sensed a problem, but could not grasp the nature of it. My vocabulary failed me when I tried to explain what I was coming to understand. I lacked the preciseness to convey the difference between what many believe and what the bible teaches. And then it happened. I found the words.fw98ccvzweq-lukas-budimaier

While reading, I found that Martin Luther gave words to what I sensed. He called it a Theology of Glory. This common belief claims presently all the glory we are promised in the age to come. This belief bring a strong entitlement to be happy, blessed, healthy, empowered, strong, victorious, and even prosperous. It embraces all these wonderful promises clearly taught in Scripture. Yet this theology ignores, the reality that presently, between us and the glory that awaits us, stands the cross. The cross brings weakness, suffering, poverty, shame, and the need for hope and endurance. This Luther called a Theology of the Cross. This the bible affirms.

What makes the Theology of Glory dangerous is that if we do not bear our cross, we will forfeit the glory we desire. No cross, no crown. Yet the theology of glory repudiates the cross and looks to avoid everything the cross brings. Long-suffering, weakness, and  burden bearing are not only to be avoided, but are also seen as antithetical to God’s plan for us. It is indeed a theology.

What makes this theology futile is that, no matter how intent we are to achieve glory, it continues to elude us. Something always happens to shatter the illusion. Strife always returns, struggle resurfaces, weakness rears its ugly head. We often blame the flawed people in our lives and are encouraged to severe the relationship, when quite often they are our cross to be bear. Strive as we may, we simply cannot have the promises of the next age now. This world is not our inheritance.

In the cross we come to know God as He has made himself known. In Jesus Christ, the exact radiance of His glory is revealed in the cross he bore. And he has said, “Take up your cross and follow me.”

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A Glimpse of its Glory

Grief, anger, lack of forgiveness and a family is being torn apart. After the death of a single mother, from a large and loving extended family, the child is left in the care of his grandparents. They knew and approved of the mother’s secret and kept the father unaware of the child. When he did discover that he was a father, he immediately took custody of the child. This left those who had been caring for the child, the first two years of his life, completely devastated.

fw98ccvzweq-lukas-budimaierThe father set firm boundaries for the family, to establish some sense of normalcy, which they regularly crossed. There was no malicious intent, they just longing to see the child they felt they were beginning to lose. Desiring to make up for lost time with his son, and to discourage the boundary crosssing, the father further limited access to the rest of the family.

Heartbroken and believing they had no other choices, the grandparents finally sued for visitation rights. They did not want custody. They understood the child rightly belonged with his father. They simply wanted to be a part of their grandson’s life. They argued that the child had experienced his first years of life with them and it was not in the best interest of the child to exclude them. They also believed they had a right to see their grandchild. The dispute was tearing their once loving family apart, as others entered the fray and chose sides.

Yet in this dark family fight is the light of the glory of the gospel. The glory of the Lord Jesus that is intended to shine in our hearts, affect us deeply, and transform us into his image. For the light shines in darkness. The light of the glory of the gospel shines through the words of the angry father as he defended his actions in court. He stood before the judge, visibly shaken and through tears, and with a clear and strong voice he said, “He’s my son, and I shouldn’t have to share him with people who hate me.” The simple truth of his statement is immediately apparent. He shouldn’t have to. In his eyes, their behavior made his decision to keep his son from them justifiable. And in that is the great glory of the gospel.

In that father’s sentiment is the magnanimity of our Lord’s decision to share His only Son with us. He was under no obligation, and our behavior gave him every justifiable reason to keep Him from us. But that we would be reconciled to Him, He not only chose to share His Son with those who hate Him, but He also chose to sacrifice His Son’s life. By the Son’s death we have received life, from the Father. The magnitude of the Father’s sacrifice broke through our hatred and animosity for Him and brought reconciliation. By faith, we have our introduction into this grace in which we now stand. And beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, we are being transformed into the same image with ever increasing glory, just as from the Lord. Wicked indeed are those who, standing in that kind of grace, do not share with others that same grace that brings reconciliation. So, for all who may be in similarly dark places, in the glory of the gospel, the light is shining.

 

 

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The Uneasy Place of Trusting God

IMG_1788The first time I experienced the necessity of trusting God was on my first mission trip. The safety nets that I had taken for granted were all removed. I remember being keenly aware that they were gone. It began in the airport as customs rummaged through our luggage and the team circled there and began to pray. I battled fear with prayer, like a good Christian. But the need to pray for safety seemed more real. More desperate. I prayed fervently before eating and even before drinking water. The struggle to not give in to fear through prayer was intense and exhausting.

My need to pray became more poignant by the contrast  in feelings when the plane bringing us home finally  landed on US soil. I exhaled and unclenched my insides as I let go of my spiritual vigilance. I felt, being home, I could let my guard down; relax more and pray less. Or, at best, I could pray with less intensity. And so I did. But the experience left an impression.

The second like experience came from being the pastor of a church plant. When the initial financial support came to an end, we had to live by the giving of a small congregation. And, like an unwelcomed visitor, the familiar intense, and exhausting need to trust God returned. This time, however, there was not a schedule flight home to comfort. There was no end in sight. You need to know before I go further, that although there have been many deeply stressful moments, God has been faithful. In fear and often great anguish, I prayed. There were times of despair, as we were taken beyond what we could bare. Only in hindsight can we see that His grace proved sufficient. Yet this too has left an impression.

Those intense times brought the sobering reality that I was unaccustomed to trusting God, and when I was forced to, I felt the need to retreat to the familiar ground of idolatry. The place were mammon ruled and the FDA never slumbered nor slept. The place where the social structure was the reason I feared no evil. I found when I was with God alone, I was uneasy and uncomfortable. I feared that, though He was with me, I would be more secure if I had more money, or if I could dial 911.

I am embarrassed by this reality, but it is a reality nonetheless. There seemed to be no need to hide from myself what God already knew of me. It simply highlighted my need to be more like Christ. It illumines the truth that He alone is my standard. O’ how far from Christlikeness I am. Yet I do not despair my condition, for the Father has promised to conform me to the image of His Son. I am grateful that He will finish what He has begun in me. And though my fear in mission and my anxiety in ministry belied my trust in Him, He proved faithful to me in both. So in a strange paradox, I trust that one day, in Him, I will trust in Him. And I identify with that desperate father who first said, “Lord I believe. Help my unbelief.”

 

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Are they itching?

3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but wanting to have their ears tickled, they will accumulate for themselves teachers in accordance to their own desires, 4 and will turn away their ears from the truth and will turn aside to myths.

2 Timothy 4:3,4

Truer words have not been written, which have been more unreflected. The passage suggests that this will be the reality for the many. Yet not many critically consider their own ears. Can we safely assume that our preaching preferences come from our heart and not from our ears? If you will, let’s briefly consider whether it is our hearts that burn or if it is our ears that itch.

Presently, the inexhaustible source of the tickling can be found in these three areas. 1) The validation of the presence of toxic relationships as a sign in all those God is calling to greatness. This is the all too familiar haters who hate because you’re great. 2) The permission to end all burdensome relationships with those who cannot ascend to the same heights of success to which we have been promised. This one  tickles because we all want to take the easy way out and “close the door” on the difficult task of loving the unlovable.  All we need is permission from a trusted authority figure. 3) The victory measured in personal happiness and wellbeing that is so near to you and near to God’s heart for you that just the right step will bring you into its abundance and overflow. And the next step is always the topic of the day’s sermon. While this list does not represent the full extend of the tickling, it is sufficient and recognizable enough for us to consider if our ears are itching.

Paul warns the young pastor in Ephesus that these ears will turn from the truth because it is not in accordance with their own desires. Well, the truth is that our growth is measured by our enduring relationships and our ability to forego personal happiness and wellbeing for the glory of God. In his wonderful book entitled, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Eugene Peterson says,

A successful writer will discover a workable plot and write the same book over and over all his life to the immense satisfaction of his readers. The reader can be literary without thinking or dealing with truth. Prostitute writer.

A successful preacher can also discover a workable sermon plot and preach the same message again and again to the immense satisfaction of his listeners’ ears. The listener can be spiritual without thinking or dealing with truth. Prostitute preacher.

Before I started this post, I considered my intentions. What did I expect to accomplish? My desire is for reflection. That, be still and know, moment. My hope is that you, the reader, will listen more critically to the sermons that so appeal to you. And ask yourself, is it my heart burning from the recognition of truth, or is it my ears itching from my own desires turning me from truth. Consider, reflect, and know that I am praying for your ears.

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A Pastor’s Prayer

I want to do something for thee. I want to show people a better way. A more sure way. The way to the truth of your word. That truth that men’s souls long for. In the word is the living water and the bread of life. That which will fully and forever satisfy our thirst and hunger. I want to show them what is missing when we pay attention myths to right us and allegories to encourage us. Because we are mining for nuggets, we have missed the implications of the great treasure, Christ himself. We cannot have the riches His life brings because, as He said, we are working for the  food which perishes, when the work you require is to believe in the Son.

The great gifts of freedom from sin, guilt, conscience and the emotional health that comes from the liberation have been exchanged for financial freedom and freedom to be all we desire. But the former are the higher things; those things beyond all we can ask or think. These things are well beyond the trifles we settle for in our all too common allegories. Help me to show that the storms of life metaphors are mere distraction from the more fundamental questions about a man who can give orders to nature and they obey.

Father we are lost in the rich, fruitful fields of the Savior. We frantically stuff our pockets with as much as we can carry as if we are pilgrims there. And the Savior Himself stands in His field offering to give us all that is His as an inheritance, if we would but take His hand and cling to Him forever.

That’s what I want to show them. Yet I fear the vision is too big for me. I have but a glimpse of it’s splendor myself. But that which I have seen, I am compelled to share. Help me Lord, lest in my smallness, I fail thee again.

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In His Hands

I am very near fifty now. And in quiet moments of reflection it becomes clear what I am risking. The highest benefits of believing in Jesus are not yet realized. Although it is promised that some will be alive when Christ returns to make good, it is clear that our rewards are not in this life. The older I get the more I understand then, what it means for me to trust Him. My youth is gone, and if we are wrong about Jesus, then I will have wasted my life. The only life I will have. I will have missed my chance to eat, drink, and be merry. I will have spent much of life needlessly fighting the ever-present desire to please myself. Choosing again and again to not seek what I want, but what I believe God desires for me. Never to live my life for myself.

Just to be clear, I’ve sought and caught enough things that I’ve wanted. My conscience has not always prevailed. I’ve silenced it many times, but it has not failed me. I have not seared it completely. I am always called back to the path. We are called to sacrifice our lives, much as Jesus did, in hopes that He will give us another, better life in the age to come. We are called to reserve our highest affections for the better world, and to feel and live as purposeful pilgrims here. And everyday I get closer to the bucket yet farther from it’s list.

No, this is not a crisis of faith, although it used to feel that way. This is a recognition of the presence of faith. It is in these lucid moments that I am finally able to understand what it means to have faith in Jesus; to give my life to Christ. Knowing what I’m losing hasn’t dimmed my hope for what is to come. It simply makes more evident that for my life to have been worth living, Jesus will have to be who He said He was and do what He said He would do. My life depends on Him being faithful. What a great thing the Father has done. I have grown older and found that, indeed, my life is in Jesus’ hand.

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How to Act in Church

When I was a child, the adults use to talk to us often about our behavior in church. There were certain things that you could not do that seemed written in stone. There was a proper way to act in church, stated as firmly and consistently as if from the Old Testament. You didn’t chew gum in church. You didn’t run. It was not proper to play or talk in church. It was frowned upon to walk during the invitation. Ushers would literally frown at you if you did so. These rules were drilled into us, sometimes painfully, so that we would know how to conduct ourselves in church.

Surprisingly, the Apostle Paul was also concerned with how we ought to act in church. Not surprisingly,  however, he does not mention any of the things I was often told. In his letter to Timothy, whom he left to pastor the church at Ephesus, he states plaining that his purpose for writing was so that Timothy would know how one ought to conduct himself in the household of God. Also, in order bring gravity and perspective, Paul adds that the church of the Living God is the pillar and support of the truth. It’s as if what the church is and who it belongs to would have much to do with how one ought to conduct oneself.

In the opening chapter he urges Timothy to instruct certain men not to teach different doctrines. He considered correct teaching essential and proper church conduct. In the household of God there should be but one doctrine; that which was handed down to the church through the Apostles.

These different doctrines, however, took the familiar form of ethical teaching arising from mythical stories passed down through endless generations as truth. Unlike the doctrine of the church which leads to faith and love, these different doctrines led to mere speculation and fruitless discussions.

When someone walks into the household of God, the pillar and support of the truth, they should hear a trustworthy message that deserves full acceptance. They should hear that Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners and not that He came to call the righteous to a higher standard of ethical behavior. That, Paul says, is an unlawful use of the Law. They should hear that even the violent aggressors and foremost of sinners, like Paul, can find the grace of the Lord more than abundant with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus. They should not have to hear the myths of men which amount to speculative ramblings about the ethical standards of the law.

Unlike so many who were concerned about what children were saying in the pews, Paul finds it more necessary to be concerned about what teachers were saying in the pulpit. How to act in church has more to do with the sermon than with chewing gum. The ushers should frown upon any teaching that would suggest that salvation is the result of anyone’s walk, or that our walk in any way contributes to our salvation. We should know how to conduct ourselves in the household of God. We should be examples of Jesus’ perfect patience for all those who would believe in Him for eternal life. We should not simply lift up a standard of righteousness, but lift up the one from whom we have received our righteousness.

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Adequate

Another Lord’s day has come and gone. It was not without considerable effort that I worshipped. I felt impressed with the need to not squander the opportunity with mere lip service, but it was hard to come in from the low places we routinely walk and rise to the heights of worship in response to the benefits we have in Christ that are rarely realized in lower places. I could have let the rhythms of the music move me in the same way other genres cause me to pat my feet. I’ve done it before, but that would have little to do with the Lord. No, that would not do. My struggle revealed two things of which I am in need.

The first is time. Time to reflect more regularly on the benefits we have in Christ so that the gospel would have a greater influence on me as I walk in the low places of life. In response to this need, I found this wonderful prayer that I began to whisper to the Lord from The Valley of Vision. “Glorious Trinity, impress the gospel on my soul, until its virtue diffuses every faculty.” The prayer reflected just what I needed. Not an application to be practiced by me, but the need for the truth of the grace of God to be applied to me.

The second is effectual prayer. I need prayer that is adequate for the complexity of life lived routinely in low places. I realize that the Spirit of God intercedes for me when I do not know what to pray for, but my own silence leaves me feeling emotionally disconnected. I need to talk to Him, but the words fail me. I do not need a spiritual discipline to practice. I need communion with my Father.

The first need I have a measure of control over. I can make time for reflection. And I intend to. The second need will have to be cultivated and there must be growth. I have begun in the place where Israel found the language of prayer; the Psalms. In it, I look for ways to express my frustration, doubt, fear, anger, the desire for vengeance, dismay, exhaustion, and other things that I need to talk to God about. I hide it in my heart so that when I need it, the words will not fail me. I hide it in my heart so that my prayer will be effectual; adequate for the low places of life.

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God and The American Dream: A Question Worth Considering

What if God desired that you live all your days in a difficult and unloving marriage? What if He asked you to continue pursuing in love a spouse who is unfaithful and who does not love you in return? Or what if he asks you to live as a single never finding mutual love and companionship? What if God although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?

 

At the center of the lives of many Christian singles is the dream of getting married, finding love, and having the type of relationship that we have always dreamed of. And we fleece God, in worship and bible study, of every benefit of His divine love and wisdom to achieve that dream marriage and relationship. This is not worship as creator would imply or even worship as response to what He has given in Jesus Christ. This is worship as benefactor. Worship as creator has God at the center and our desires naturally secondary to His divine will. Worship as benefactor has our desires at the center and God coming alongside us with all of His divine love and power to assist us or bless us with our heart’s desire. He is a part of our American Dream.

 

We are pursuing the good life with an idolatrous zeal in the name of Jesus. And because what we want we cloth in the garments of righteousness, the fact that our desire is at the center goes undetected. We are unaware that it is idolatry. When our spouse sins, we are more hurt that they have ruined our dream life than that they have sinned against God Almighty.  So when God Almighty forgives, we don’t. We don’t, because what we have always wanted we now cannot have. They have ruined it and taken from us what is most precious and therefore it is unforgiveable.

 

It is an epistemology really. It is a belief system. It is an idolatrous view of God. We read his word as a prescription for success in life; this life, that is. We snuggle up to Him for all the benefits a righteous life will bring. But for us He is not God, he is a powerful benefactor. We believe that He is real. We believe that He exists outside of us, but simply alongside of us. But God is real and he exists outside of us, but we don’t exist outside of Him. To Him we owe our very existence. Our lives belong to Him, just as a pot belongs to a potter, directing and determining its future. This is the God we often reject in favor of a god who gets His joy from seeing His people happy and blessed.

 

What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction? And He did so, to make known the riches of His glory upon vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory. (Romans 9:22,23) This is God, sovereign, beautiful, true, and worthy of worship.

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The Great Exchange

It’s coming to be called Cultural Christianity. Although my pastoral battles with it are relatively recent, it is not a new phenomenon. William Wilberforce battled it, and wrote an excellent treaties against that “prevailing religious system,” masking itself as “real Christianity” in 19th century England. Besides not being true biblical Christianity, what makes this cultural impostor so dangerous is its wide-spread appeal and cultural acceptability. Although it is not a threat to true Christianity, it is to the masses who seek its temporal salvation. For many, this Christianity is all they have known and, as such, it cannot be wrong; it is too widely accepted and practiced. Cultural Christianity is not practiced by a shadowy group on the fringes of the faith. As Wilberforce described, it is the prevailing religious system. It is believed to be true Christianity, despite its apparent contrast with the historic faith.101_2955

Cultural Christianity has as its core value numerical church attendance for the benefit of the people who attend. This is in contrast with the biblical value of making disciples for the work of the kingdom and the glory of God. This is evidenced by the church growth obsession, and the rise of the mega church within a biblically illiterate culture. In order to facilitate its value of church attendance, Cultural Christianity has adopted the practice of attracting attenders by the beneficial programs they offer. These programs have moved beyond even the many gender and age specific ministries, to include health and fitness, and recreation and entertainment. This value is creating, inadvertently though it may be, a church culture in which people come to be served and not to serve or be equipped to serve. Hopefully this short characterization is sufficient to give you a glimpse of the symptoms. I suggest that they are symptoms, because I believe the root of Cultural Christianity lies deeper than our practices. Our practice arises from our faith.

I believe the cultural Christianity that we see is a reflection of humanities exchange, referred to in Romans 1:23. As a result of suppressing the truth about God, Paul says in this verse, that men exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image. While we do not make the same kinds of 1st century images that are mentioned in the following verse, we have indeed made the same exchange. The god of Cultural Christianity is simply an image of the God revealed in scripture. He closely resembles the God of scripture, but he wants very different things from his people. The kingdom of the god of Cultural Christians is this present world, and all his blessings he bestows, are for the benefit of his people’s well being in this life. Since his kingdom is now, suffering has no place and along with it’s rejection go sacrifice and service. For this god, our happiness is His glory.

Of course these ideals are not true to the one true God of scripture. He asks a sacrifice and even suffering of His people, for His glory and for the love of His Son, who gave His life a ransom for many. His kingdom has not yet been fully realized; it awaits His Son’s imminent return. Only then will there be no more suffering. Until then, we count it joy that we may share in the sufferings of Christ.

Oddly, none of these things I have here mentioned are unfamiliar. Cultural Christianity is a result of suppression and not ignorance. In fact, Paul says that the great exchange of the incorruptible God for an image is simply the result of the suppression of the knowledge of God. That we justify this prevailing religious system suggests the suppression. We simply prefer the image of god with which we are more comfortable. So we make the exchange.

We are all susceptible to Cultural Christianity and its trappings. Therefore, we must always return to the bible, and let it shape our image of God. When we do so, we will find Jesus. He is the exact representation of God’s being. His life of sacrifice, service, and yes, even suffering, becomes our example. As we draw near to Him, we will find grace and the truth about God that we have suppressed. He is the radiance of the glory that we have exchanged for an image. So, we must make one more exchange. We must exchange the lie for the truth; and Christ is the truth. We must exchange the image we have made, for Christ, the image of the invisible God. And when we do, we will find what Wilberforce called, True Christianity.

 

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