Seeing the Spirit

February 28, 2018

For many the Holy Spirit is an impersonal, imperceptible, and indiscernible force.  Cloaked in mystery, many find it difficult to “get a handle” on the Spirit. The Spirit has no “face” like Jesus nor any personal metaphors, such as parent, mother, or husband, like Israel’s God.

Our desire, of course, is not so much to control or manipulate the Spirit as much as it is to have a way of conceiving or visualizing the Spirit’s identity. Without any framework for understanding, we are at a loss to even identify what the Spirit does in our lives much less experience God through the Spirit.

Our pneumatic imagination needs a little help. Paul, I think, offers such. The Spirit appears in practically every chapter of Paul’s letters, and saturates his theology. While “God in Christ” is the center of Paul’s theology, the Spirit is a living, enabling, and enriching presence that connects redeemed humanity with the Redeemer God. We have access, Paul says, to God in Christ “by the Spirit” (Ephesians 2:18).

Without some understanding of the Spirit, then, our experience of God remains in a conceptual wasteland. That is not only lamentable but dangerous. Spiritual discernment entails that we “see” the Spirit at work in our lives or else we will mistake other spirits for the Holy Spirit.

So, what does Paul offer us by way of a conceptual landscape that will help identify the Spirit in our lives. I “see” in Paul a three-fold typology for thinking about the Spirit’s work. This typology is not a box in which to enclose the Spirit, nor is it a gizmo to manipulate the Spirit. Rather, it is a tool to unmask our eyes so that we might “see” what the Spirit is doing–to recognize the Spirit in our lives.


The Spirit’s foundational function is to facilitate communion between God and us. Our communion with God is the “communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Corinthians 13:12).

Jesus did not leave us as orphans; instead, God poured out the Holy Spirit upon the church. This out-pouring is the gifting of God’s presence among us. We are inhabited by God through the Spirit (Ephesians 2:22); we are the temple of the Holy Spirit (2 Corinthians 6:19). The Spirit is the one through whom we experience God in the present. The Spirit’s presence enables our communion with God; more than that, communion in the Spirit is communion with God.

This presence, which is the fulfillment of God’s presence in the temple in Israel and anticipates the fullness of divine presence in the new heaven and new earth, is how we now live in fellowship with God. We worship in the Spirit (Philippians 3:3), we pray in the Spirit (Ephesians 6:18), and we are washed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:11).  We are “in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells” in us (Romans 8:9). The Spirit is the air we breathe, and every breath is communion with God.

This communion, of course, is not merely vertical. It is also horizontal, that is, we commune with each other by what we share in the Spirit (Philippians 2:1). We love each other in the Spirit (Colossians 1:8). Because we have all been baptized in the Spirit and have drunk of the same Spirit, we are one body where ethnic, economic, and gender barriers are transcended (1 Corinthians 12:13;  Galatians 3:28).

We “see” the Spirit when we enjoy the sweet fellowship of others, experience the peace and joy of the Spirit in communion with God, and encounter God in the assembly of God’s people as we worship in the Spirit. We must not secularize these moments as if they are produced by our own internal powers. Rather, we relish them and delight in them because we know, by God’s promise, that the Spirit is present to generate them. They are moments where heaven and earth meet in the Spirit.


The Spirit communes with us, and this communion is transformative. The Spirit is no passive presence. On the contrary, the Spirit is an active, enabling and transforming presence. The Spirit dwells within us so that we might live in the Spirit.

Salvation involves transformation. Because we are children of God, God sends the Holy Spirit into our hearts and we experience the intimacy of divine communion. But this is not the end game; it is not God’s goal. This intimacy includes a shared life, and it transforms us. We are increasingly, by the Spirit, transformed (metamorphized!) into the image of Christ from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

The Holy Spirit is the presence of divine holiness within us, and this holiness bears fruit. Paul called it the “fruit of the Spirit” (Galatians 5:22). This is what it means to “live by the Spirit,” that is, it is to manifest a life of love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Spirit leads us into a such a life by renewing our hearts, empowering our souls, and moving our wills.

The presence of the Spirit is a necessary first step for such a life, and without that presence there is no transformation that images Jesus who himself was led and empowered by the Spirit. The reality of that presence, however, is evidenced in a holy life as we are “sanctified by the Spirit” (2 Thessalonians 2:13).

We “see” the Spirit when we are patient with the stubborn, when we are kind to the ungrateful, when we are at peace in the midst of the storm, when we are generous with the poor, and when we are gentle with those who disagree. We must not secularize these moments as if they are self-actualizations. Rather, we give thanks that the Spirit is at work in our lives to empower them. We credit the Spirit rather than our programs, our will power, or our own goodness.


God gives the Spirit as a communing and transforming presence. God created to commune with us, and God redeems to transform us. And God goes one step further. God gifts us so that we might participate in the transformation of the world.

“Through the Spirit,” Paul writes, God gives the body of Christ the capacity to serve each other and the world. These “manifestations of the Spirit” are for the “common good,” and the gifts are “activated” and distributed by the Spirit of God (1 Corinthians 12:7-8, 11).

It is important, however, to note that presence comes first, then transformation, and finally giftedness. We might think of this as a spiral of activity where there is reciprocity but also movement toward a goal. God dwells in order to commune. That communion transforms us, and, as people in the process of transformation, God gifts us so that we might participate in the mission of God. The gifts are best used by transformed people. This is why 1 Corinthians 13 comes between 1 Corinthians 12 and 14. Giftedness without love is useless; more than useless, it is detrimental. Transformation must shape the use of the Spirit’s gifts.

Too often the lists of 1 Corinthians 12 become the focus when talking about gifts. Romans 12 also has a list of gifts. The two lists are not the same; in fact, there is little overlap. Neither are exhaustive, and together they are not exhaustive. They are illustrative.

Gifts are whatever capacity we have to participate in the mission of God. Whatever “talent” we use to further the mission of God–whether it is software programming, musical ability, environmental passion—they are divine gifts. Too often we talk about “talents” as if they are natural dispositions independent of God’s work among us. One of the reasons we feel so distant from the Holy Spirit is because we secularize our gifts; we minimize the Spirit’s role. Giftedness, inclusive of “talents,” is a manifestation of the Spirit!

We “see” the Spirit when transformed people (or, better, people in the process of transformation) use their gifts in service to the mission of God, which is the transformation of the whole world. We “see” the Spirit when an environmental biologist cares for the creation, when a nurse compassionately cares for the sick, when a debt mediator reconciles a creditor and a debtor, and when an actor embodies the gospel in a drama (even if the drama never mentions God at all). We “see” the Spirit’s gifts in action when brokenness is healed.


Often we don’t “feel” the Spirit in our lives, and sometimes we misinterpret what the Spirit is doing. There is no promise that we will always “feel” the Spirit, and there is the persistent danger that we will misinterpret what the Spirit does. This is why is it is important to “see” the Spirit through the lens of the biblical narrative, the story of God. Whether we feel the Spirit or not, God has promised the Spirit’s presence, and God has provided a narrative that frames our understanding of the Spirit’s work so that we might “see” the Spirit.

The most significant danger we face, I think, is the minimization of the Spirit. We minimize the Spirit when we secularize what is, in fact, the Spirit’s work. We often fail to “see” the Spirit because we attribute whatever goodness, joy, or warmth we experience to powers other than the Spirit. We fail to “see” the Spirit because we are blinded by our own pride.

The Spirit is personal, discernible, and visible. The Spirit is God among us to transform us into the image of Christ and to gift transformed people with good works for the sake of the body and the world. We “see” the Spirit every day, if only we have eyes to see what God is doing.

Holy Saturday–Sitting By the Grave

March 26, 2016

Good Friday, and then Easter.

But a day is missing in that story. To move from Friday to Sunday we must walk through Saturday.

Saturday, however, is a lonely day. Death has won. Hope is lost. Jesus of Nazareth lies in a tomb. His disciples are afraid, hiding, and deeply depressed. Everything in which they had invested for the past three years seems pointless now.  They forsook their Master; they lost faith in that moment. They are leaderless, hopeless, and aimless.

On Holy Saturday we sit by the grave to feel the gloom of the grave, to face the reality of death itself. It is a day to weep, fast, and mourn. The late second century church (e.g., Irenaeus) fasted from all food on this day because it was a day of mourning. They did not break the fast until Easter morning.

Those of us who have spent time at graves–in my case the grave of a parent, wife, and child–understand this grief, the despair of the grave. I have spent much of my life running away from graves, and I have rarely spent much time thinking about Holy Saturday.

It is much easier to skip from Friday to Easter than to dwell on Holy Saturday. As what happened in my life, we skip grief as much as possible. It is easier to run from grief. We prefer to escape it rather than face it or endure it.

Holy Saturday reminds me to grieve, to lament. It reminds me to rail against death, the enemy of both God and humanity. It reminds me to protest death and renew my hatred for it. It reminds me to feel again and sit with the disciples in their despair.

Indeed, to sit with the disciples is to sit with humanity in the face of death. When we sit at the grave we recognize our powerlessness. We cannot reverse death; we cannot defeat this enemy. Holy Saturday creates a yearning for Easter. We need Easter for without it we are dead.

But Easter is a faint victory if we do not fully recognize the horror of death. Death threatens us with non-being, and it dismantles life so that there is no meaning, purpose, or joy that lasts. Easter is God’s gift; it is God’s “Yes” to Death’s “No.”

Yesterday we remembered the death of Jesus on Good Friday, today we sit at the grave, but tomorrow, Sunday, we are renewed by the hope of the resurrection.

Jesus walked that path, and we follow him.  We, too, will have our Friday; one day we will be entombed and loved ones will mourn at our graves. However–by the grace and mercy of God–on that great day we will rise again to walk with Jesus upon the new heaven and new earth.

That is the meaning of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter.

A Lord’s Supper Home Meal — A Method

July 24, 2012

On many different occasions, and some recently, I have been asked about how I conceive or conduct the Lord’s supper as a home meal. Others who are doing something similar have wanted to compare their practices with my own. I have never explicitly addressed this on my blog but now is an opportune moment.

The Lord’s supper as a meal is not a weekly event for me but it is fairly common.  In my small group, several of my classes and other occasions I have led or participated in group meals as the “Lord’s supper.”

Why do this?  Well, first the Lord’s supper is a supper, that is, it is an evening meal (the meaning of deipnon). Second, I think the supper was intended for smaller groups. The Jerusalem church, though 3000 strong on the day of Pentecost, met to “break bread” in their homes in small groups. Third, the supper as a group meal engenders intimacy among its participants. There we experience fellowship at the most basic level through eating together; there we show hospitality toward each other; and there we experience grace around the table.

When I lead the Lord’s meal, I have a fairly general outline of how the meal will proceed. This is not rigid but I think ritual is important or else the meal will lose focus and degenerate into a generality that cannot carry the weight of the moment. Nevertheless, the meal varies in order, Scripture texts, and meditation. But here is the general order in which I lead the meals (by the way, the food is already on the table as we sit down).

1.  Lighting of candles.  I like two central candles on the table to symbolize the light of creation and the light of new creation.  We give honor and praise to the Father and Son in this way as we remember that the Holy Spirit (the flame of love) illuminates us and brings us into the presence of the Father and Son.

2.  Each participant has a small candle in front of their plate.  I ask each, in turn, to light their candle (the lighter is passed around) and give thanks for something that God is doing in their lives. We begin with our basic response to the light of God, that is, we give thanks.

3.  I offer a meditation on the Lord’s Supper using a text of Scripture. This may range from the traditional texts like 1 Corinthians 11 or Luke 22.  But I don’t limit myself to them. Other texts also come into play such as Psalms of thanksgiving (like Psalm 116, 107, 118) and other texts that carry the meaning of the meal within them or through application.

4.  Breaking of the Bread. I use a whole loaf that is large enough for every person at the table to take a substantial piece (not just a pinch).  I take the bread in my hands and talk about the meaning of the bread.  The bread is from the earth that nourishes our bodies but the bread is also a means of experiencing the new creation through as the raised, living body of Christ. We eat this bread for both physical and spiritual nourishment.  I then break the bread and offer a prayer of thanksgiving, and then distribute it.  I give it to the people on either side of me and they break off a piece and pass it down to those around the table.  As each one gives the bread to the other, they say:  “This is the body of Christ which is given for you.”  We all eat the bread.

5.  We begin eating and drinking what is available on the table.

6.  At some point at the beginning of our eating (after we all have food on our plates), I will remind the participants of the two candles and that by the presence of the Spirit, the living Christ is the host of this table.  If we have some ongoing intimacy as a group (that is, this is not the first time we ever met or a special occasion), I will ask each to share something that is happening in their life in their walk with God (struggles, triumphs, etc.). This is a community meal.  At the end of the sharing, we pray for each other.

7.  Towards the middle of the meal, I will remind the table that this is the communion of the saints, which includes the saints around the world at present but also the communion of the saints who now inhabit the heavens with God. I begin by recalling the presence of Sheila, Dad and Joshua at the table with us, and ask each to remember one who is already in the heavens but present at the table with us even now. We remember that we commune with the saints as well as with God.

8.  In connection with this remembrance, I ask each to share a name for whom we might pray.  Depending on time, they may explain why the name, but usually I just ask for names without explanation.  This is for a time of intercession.  We pray over the names, and I don’t usually list the names again in the prayer but simply acknowledge that God has heard and we call up God to act.

9.  In this context, I will share or ask another to share another scripture.  One of my favorites at this point is Psalm 116.  It is a thanksgiving Psalm that reminds us that we cannot repay God’s goodness except to lift up the cup of thanksgiving and celebrate a meal with God (the Psalm is written in the context of a thanksgiving sacrifice).

10.  Towards the end of the meal, I take the pitcher that is filled with the fruit of the vine and talk about the “cup” we are about to drink.  I remind us that this is the blood of Christ which is poured out for us for the remission of our sins. In this moment we experience reconciliation with God–we are forgiven.  But I also remind us that the “cup” is something we share with Christ, that is, we share the cup of suffering as persons who follow Jesus to the cross.  We are reminded that we are disciples committed to follow Jesus daily, even to a cross.

11.  Pouring the Cup.  I take the pitcher and pour some into a cup (something like a wine class perhaps) for the person sitting next to me.  As I pour, I say, this is the blood of Christ for you and invite them to share the cup of Jesus. In turn, they pour the cup for the person next to them and around the table till all have their cups filled. Someone then prays over the cup, giving thanks for what God has done in Jesus. And we drink together as we say “Thank you, Jesus.” Many times we cling our glasses together in a toast.

11.  As each pours the cup for the other, I ask that they affirm that person for something in their life. In what way do they see Jesus in this person who sits at the table with them? For what do they give thanks for them and acknowledge their communion in Christ?  In this way, we share an intimacy with each other and express our gratitude for each other as we express our gratitude to God.

13.  As we drink and conclude the meal, I don’t want the cup to simply end with a sip. Rather, as we drink and continue to drink (and finish eating as the case may be), I ask each person in turn to share one word (with an explanation) that is prominent in their heart and mind at that moment. What are they experiencing? We share a word that expresses our heart.

14.  Sometimes dessert is offered as a taste of the eschaton–as a present foretaste of coming joy.

15.  As the meal winds down and we conclude eating, I end the meal with some kind of benediction. It could be a prayer, a blessing, a Scripture reading.

This is a method; it is certainly not a standard or the method.  I think the meal can be conducted in any number of ways.  However, I do think several things are important:

  • Scripture (the Word) to Open the Meal
  • Bread and Fruit of the Vine
  • Communion of the Saints
  • Intercession for the Saints
  • Expressions of Gratitude
  • Benediction as Closure

Perhaps some might find this helpful.  For whatever its value, there it is!    🙂

Meeting God at the Shack — Published on Kindle

December 3, 2011

Since the publication of William Young’s book The Shack in the light of my own personal journey into the world of spiritual recovery (which I experienced in 2008).  I found much in Young’s novel that paralleled my own experience.

It is now available on Amazon entitled:  Meeting God at the Shack: A Journey into Spiritual Recovery.

For those who have read my previous material on God, faith and suffering (such as Yet Will I Trust Him or Anchors for the Soul), this book is a continuation of my journey. I think it is more profound and more mature than my previous writings on the subject. It is, nevertheless, still ultimately inadequate as an “answer” to the struggle of life, faith and peace in human hearts, including my own. Nevertheless, God offers peace even when there are no “answers”.

The first part of this book discusses spiritual recovery while the second part addresses some of the theological questions that concern many. But even in the second part I am much more interested in how this parable and the theological questions it raises offer an entrance into the substantial themes of divine love, forgiveness, healing and hope. These are the main concerns of the book.

I think the question the novel addresses is this:  How do wounded people come to believe that God really is “especially fond” of them?

Only after reading the book through this lens are we able to understand how Young uses some rather unconventional metaphors to deepen his point.

My interest is to unfold the story of recovery in The Shack as I experienced it through my own journey. So, I invite you to walk with me through the maze of grief, hurt, and pain as we, through experiencing Mackenzie’s shack, face our own “shacks.”

James A. Harding: “A Bible Reading on Giving”

March 2, 2011

James A. Harding, the namesake of Harding University and co-founder of Lipscomb University, placed as much emphasis on giving, tithing and trusting in God’s provisioin as he did any other topic.  The sin of covetousness is idolatry and it “hurts the church more than any other,” he wrote.  We hate the extreme, but we tolerate the subtle when it is the “chief end and aim in life” to make money, where someone “comes to meeting with tolerable regularity, lives well, dresses well, and gives about two percent of his income publicly to the Lord’s cause” but thinks of making money ten times more than anything else.  Such a man “trusts in money” and “he heaps it up” because he does not trust God to take care of him or his family (“Two Dreadful Sins that are Very Prevalent,” Gospel Advocate 29 [1887], 658).

Not money, but the kingdom was Harding’s central concern. How one holds their wealth and how one treats the poor are as significant to discipleship as any other value. He was not opposed to making money, but he advised loaning it to the Lord. “If Christians are wise,” he wrote, “they will be diligent in business; and then, when they have money, they will use it with a free hand in ministering to widows and orphans, in caring for the poor, in having the gospel preached, or to sum it all up, in lending it to the Lord” (“Scraps. Wealth and How to Use It,” Gospel Advocate 26 [1886], 674). Indeed, Christians should think of their careers as not only participating in the kingdom of God but also that their income is for the sake of the kingdom of God.   “If every Christian in the world would run his business, whatever that may be, solely for the advancement of God’s kingdom; if he should consider himself as being in the world simply and solely for that purpose, what a wonderful change we would have in the world” (“Three Contradictory Theories,” The Way 3.1 [4 April 1901] 4).

Harding was a firm believer that every follower of Christ ought to give “at least” ten percent of their income to helping the poor and helping others proclaim the gospel (“The Churches and the Societies—A Contrast,” Gospel Advocate 25 [1883], 794). Harding practiced what he preached. In 1902 Harding testified that some thirty years previous he had decided to tithe and that over those years he had increased the percentage “eleven times” (“Scraps,” The Way 4 [10 April 1902] 10). L. C. Sears, Harding’s grandson, tells us that “in later years [the Hardings] were giving 65 percent of their income” to the kingdom of God (“J. A. Harding,” in Harding College Lectures 1967 [Austin: Firm Foundation Publishing House, 1967], 74).

His “Bible Reading on Giving,” which is rooted in some specific testimonies from Scripture, has added power because it aries out of the life of family who embodied the principles taught therein. He published it several times, but for the first time in The Way 3 (January 26 1899) 10-12 which was one of his first articles in his newly founded periodical.  The lengthy article is provided below.

     The topic class of the Bible School recently had for the subject of the day: “The Bible Doctrine of Giving.” We will endeavor to reproduce the lesson here as an example of what we do in that class and what will appear from time to time in the The Way. As we read the rich promise of God to those who give, nothing but a lack of faith will prevent us from becoming more generous and whole-hearted in his service.

     1. Abraham paid tithes to Melchisedec.  “And he blessed him, and said, Blessed be Abram of God Most High, possessor of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, which hath delivered thine enemies into thy hand. And he [Abram] gave him a tenth of all.” (Gen. 14:19,20, R.V.; read the entire chapter; also Heb. 7:10.) From this we learn the custom of paying tithes was at least four hundred years older than the law of Moses. It was incorporated in that law, but was recognized as a righteous thing to do for hundreds of years before. The Arabs, the Greeks, the inhabitants of Sicily and those of the Roman province of Asia, the Carthaginians, Phenicians [sic], and many other ancient nations, especially those of the East, paid tithes. Among the Mohammedan States is I practiced to this day. Many Christians regularly give the full tenth of their incomes to the Lord; some of them, much more than this. The law of Moses required a tenth to be given to the Levites; and, as it appears, a second tenth was to be expended at Jerusalem at the annual feasts for feeding the poor. If every member of the church of God would give one-tenth of his entire income to the Lord, what an abundance we would have for attending to our poor and for spreading the gospel! Abraham’s giving did not impoverish him; he grew richer and richer; and no man of his day was so highly honored and blessed by the Lords.

     2. “And Jacob vowed a vow, saying, If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat, and raiment to put on, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace; then shall the Lord be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that thou shalt give me I will surely give the tenth unto thee.” (Gen. 28:20-22). When Jacob made this vow, he was going from his father’s house, with no property but the staff in his hand; when he returned twenty or forty years later, he was rich in wives, children, herds, flocks, and servants—so rich that he considered it a little thing to make his brother a present of five hundred and eighty animals, including goats, sheep, camels, kine, and asses. He did not lose anything by giving a tenth.

     3. “Honor the Lord with they substance, and with the fist fruits of all thine increase; so shall they barns be filled with plenty, and they vats shall overflow with new wine.” (Prov. 3:9,10.) Here is a positive promise that if a man will honor the Lord in giving, as he ought to do, he shall be blessed with an abundance—a promise that all believers in the Bible are assured was most fully kept in Old Testament times; but many are not so fully assured that it holds good now, and hence they are afraid to give. Many  Christians, according to their own confessions, give but trifling sums for the support of the religion of Christ, not as much as they spend for coffee or tobacco or for some secret society or for a pleasure trip to Niagara. Some will spend more for a piano for their children than they will give in five years for the cause of Christ.  Surely they do not believe the promise holds good now; but we will see about that when we come to the quotations from the New Testament.

     4. “There is that scattereth, and in increaseth yet more; and there is that withholdeth more than is meet, but it tendeth only to want. The liberal soul shall be made fat; and he that watereth shall be watered also himself.” (Prov. 11:24,25, R.V.) It pays to please God. He who is generous and liberal in ministering to others, who does to others as he would have them do to him, pleases the Father, and the Father will not fail to bless him most abundantly here and hereafter.

     Jesus says: “Verily I say unto you, There is no man that hath left house, or brethren, or sisters, or mother, or father, or children, or lands, for my sake, and for the gospel’s sake, but he shall receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses, and brethren, and sisters, and mothers, and children, and lands, with persecutions: and in the world to come eternal life.” (Mark 10:29,30, R.V.). So Jesus spoke then, and he changes not. He is “the same yesterday and to-day, yea and forever;” and he who does not believe it is as much as an infidel, it seems to me, as he who does not believe “He that believeth [10] and is baptized shall be saved.” Every word of God is true, one as true as another; every promise of God is good, and any one of them is just as certain to be fulfilled as any other as any other one when the conditions have been complied with. When one takes God at his word and acts on his promise; when he is liberal and grows in liberality, the fulfillment of the promises greatly strengthens his faith till he can say in full assurance by faith: I know that God “is, and that he is a rewarder of them that seek after him.” Such faith becomes like knowledge, and is called knowledge in the Bible.

     5. “He that hath pity upon the poor lendeth unto the Lord, and his good deed will he pay him again.” (Prov. 19:17, R.V.) Sam. Jones, I believe it was, who, in commenting upon this passage, said: “If you like the security, come down with the cash.” If a man gives to the poor in the name of the Lord, he lends to the Lord; and who can believe that with such a loan in his possession the Lord would let that man suffer from want? Even a kind, just man would promptly pay a debt, if he could, if he were to see the lender pressed hard for the money. Especially would he be prompt in returning it, if it had been loaned to him in sympathy when he himself was in some straits. If men are thoughtful and generous in such things, is not God infinitely more so? Many a man has refrained from giving to the poor when they needed help badly, or from contributing to the Lord’s cause when a fine opportunity for doing good thereby presented itself, because he was afraid he would come to want if he should spend his money in that way. What a mistake! That is the very way to lay up money so as to be sure to have it at hand ready for use when you really need it. It is right to be wise and discreet in giving, but be sure to give.

     6. “Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: for every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, who, if his son shall ask him for a loaf, will give him a stone; or if he shall ask for a fish, will give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them; for this is the law and the prophets.” (Matt. 7:7-12, R.V.) It is sometimes said that Jesus does not argue; the he simply states his case on his own authority without giving reasons to convince the understanding of his hearer. But notice how fine and strong the argument is here, and how logical the conclusion. Men who are weak, sinful, and selfish give good things to their children, when they ask for them; how much more, then, will the infinitely good, strong, wise, and unselfish Heavenly Father give good things to his children? It is only necessary that they should ask him in faith, with a confidence and affection similar to that which they feel to their earthly fathers. A kind, earthly father will withhold no good thing from his affectionate, obedient child that he can in righteousness give to him; so the Heavenly Father withholds no good thing from them that walk uprightly. Notice also how clearly the conclusion follows from this argument. Inasmuch as God’s child can get what he needs, when he needs it, by asking for it, he can afford to give freely to other that need; so Jesus says, in conclusion of this paragraph: “All things therefore whatsoever ye would that men should do unto you, even so do ye also unto them.” And this is what it is to love your neighbor as yourself. Do you believe what Jesus says here, my brother? If you do, you will act upon it; if you do not act upon it, you do not believe it.

     7. “Give, and it shall be given unto you; good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, shall they give into your bosom. For with what measure ye mete it shall be measured to you again.” (Luke 6:38, R.V.) Here the Savior teaches not only that we should give, but that we should give abundantly; for even as we give to others, so also will men give to us; God will see to it that it shall be so; he gives to us through men. Man a man is poor and has a hard time, and devotes nearly all of his time and thought to making a living, and makes a poor one at that, simply because he is close and niggardly and fearful. If he would take God at his word and begin at once, with a cheerful heart, to give a liberal pr cent of his income to the Lord’s cause, his affairs would brighten up at once.  Do you doubt it? And what will become of you if you live and die doubting Christ? The beautiful story of the Shunammite woman (see 2 Kings 4:8-37; 8:1-6) illustrates how God deals with the generous-hearted who do good to his servants. This woman saw that Elisha was a man of God, and, at her suggestion, she and her husband built a room for [11] him “on the wall” and furnished it, that he might turn in at any time as he passed to and fro. As a result of her kindness, God gave her a son, and when her property had been lost to her and her son by their long absence on account of a famine, it was all returned to her again, with all the fruits of it from the time of her departure till she returned. This is not an exception; it is simply an illustration of the rule.

      8. “But this I say, He that soweth sparingly shall reap also sparingly; and he that soweth bountifully shall reap also bountifully. Let each man do according as he hath purposed in his heart; not grudgingly, or of necessity; for God loveth a cheerful giver. And God is able to make all grace abound unto you; that ye, having always all sufficiency in everything, may abound unto every good work: as it is written, He hath scattered abroad, he hath given to the poor; his righteousness abideth forever. And he that supplieth seed to the sower and bread for food, shall supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and increase the fruits of your righteousness; ye being enriched in everything unto all liberality, which worketh through us thanksgiving to God.” (2 Cor. 9:6-11, R.V.) Let us notice carefully the lessons to be drawn from this passage.  Paul was exhorting the Corinthians, as he had before taught them, and the disciples of Macedonia and Galatia, to give to the poor saints in Judea. The land of Palestine was greatly troubled at this time. The troubles that culminated in the destruction of Jerusalem, and in the awful miseries that afflicted the Jewish people at that time, were already distressing the people; business was interrupted, agriculture interfered with, and the Hebrew Christians were poor and poorly prepared to stand the famine.

     (a) In exhorting the  Gentile Christians to contribute to their wants, Paul teaches the following lessons:

     (b) Giving in God’s service is not squandering the means for your own support in old age or sickness; it is rather a sowing from which you may expect to reap a big harvest, when the need comes, if you have sown liberally.

    (c) If a man gives little, he will receive little; if he gives much, he will receive much.

    (d) Each one should give cheerfully as he chooses to give, and not at the dictation of another; for God loves a cheerful giver.

    (e) God is not only able to supply you abundantly with all that you need, but, when you do liberally and cheerfully give in his service, he will supply and multiply your seed for sowing, and he will increase the fruits of your righteousness, so that you shall be enriched in everything, and your liberality shall cause many thanksgivings to go up to God.

     My brother, do you believe this doctrine? Then you will give liberally, and, as your faith grows, you will give more and more. You will not long be content with giving a tenth; soon you will give fifteen cents on the dollar—then twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-three and one-third, thirty-five, and so on; for you will find that the more you give, the more you will have to give, and the more good you can do, and the more the name of God will be glorified in you. As Solomon says: “The liberal soul shall be made fat; and he that watereth shall be watered himself.”

     9. “Be ye free from the love of money; content with such tings as ye have: for himself hath said, I will in nowise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee. So that with good courage we say, The Lord is my helper; I will not fear: what shall man do unto me? Remember them that had rule over you, which spake unto you the word of God; and considering the issue of their life, imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, and to-day, yea and forever.” (Heb. 13:5-8, R.V.)  This is a good passage and one that we need to meditate much upon. “Be ye free from the love of money.” As an illustration of what it is to love money to the very greatest degree, consider the following incident:  While waiting at a railway station, a few nights ago, I overheard a man say to another: “My greatest pleasure is in making money; and my next greatest pleasure is in keeping it.” What a worshiper of Mammon! With him money was far above every other God. Never before had I heard a man so openly and boldly announce himself a money worshiper, an idolater, an utterly selfish man. Perhaps there are not many as bas as he proclaimed himself to be; but there are many people who love money, who hoard it, who are misers without knowing it. Many others are selfish and spend money rather for their own pleasures than for the cause of Christ. The miser takes pleasure in making money and in keeping it; even self-denial and pain become pleasures to him when they enable him to make and keep money. The Christian should take pleasure in making money by honorable diligence that he may spend it for Christ; self-denial and pain should give him pleasure when he realizes that thereby he is advancing the cause of Christ. As the chief pleasure of [12] the ardent Mammon worshiper is to make and keep money, so the chief pleasure of the child of God should be to advance the cause of his Master in every way that he can. With him the all-important thing should be the service of Christ, the glorification of his name, the extension of his kingdom, the salvation of his people; this devotion should be so far first in his heart that all other interests are as nothing in comparison with it. God help us to be real Christians.

      This passage teaches that the Christian need not concern himself about how he will come out, if he is thus free from the love of money, and content with such things as he has, for the apostle reminds us that  God has said: “I will in no wise fail thee, neither will I in any wise forsake thee.” And Jesus, long before this letter to the Hebrews was written, had said: “Seek ye first his kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you;” and the Master was talking about our temporal needs—food, raiment, and such things—when he said it. Then the apostle exhorts these Hebrew Christians to remember the ancient worthies who had the rule over them, and who spoke unto them the word of God; and he tells them to consider their lives, to observe how they terminated, and to imitate their faith. He wants us to consider Abraham, Moses, Joshua, Samuel, David, Jeremiah, Daniel, and the great host of heroes of the former days, and to live lives of faith and self-denial like they did.  Are you afraid to do it? Do you fear that such a life would not turn out so well for you? Then he reminds you that Christ has not changed; he is the same being they served—just as strong, just as wise and good and loving, just as considerate of his servants as he ever was, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and to-day, yea and forever.” He just as positively tells us under the new covenant the he will give us temporal blessings as he spoke it to them under the old covenant; his assurances that he will hear and answer prayer now are just as full and complete as they were then. All that is lacking is that we should believe now as those grand servants of God believed then, and the blessings will be poured out upon us in abundance.

      I have quoted, in this article, as I do generally, from the Revised Version. If you will compare the quotations with the same passages in the Common Version, you will see how much stronger and clearer some of them are in the Revision.   J.A. H.

Hungering for Easter (Lenten Reflections)

March 31, 2010

Text: 1 Corinthians 15:19-28

Death is an enemy.

On occasion death can be a relative good. When the quality of life, for example, is significantly diminished and there is unbearable pain, we might think dying is better than living—but only in a relative sense. Life is better than death since God created life but not death.

But death, the enemy, reigns. We are powerless before it. We cannot control it. We have no authority over it. Death comes when it wills. We may be able to delay it, but it still comes.

Indeed, death has a long history. It goes back to Adam (and Eve). Though shalom (peace) once ruled a world in which God delighted and rested, sin vandalized the goodness of creation and death assumed its dictatorship. Death was an alien invader in the world God created. Chaos now reigns through death. In Adam all die.

Without hope death gives way to despair. But God has a plan. Christ is God’s response to Adam; resurrection is God’s answer to death. God does not intend for his creation, including our bodies, to disappear into nothingness. God will raise our bodies from the dead in order to live fully in the renewed creation, the new heaven and new earth.

God has a plan, and it is Jesus the Messiah. Jesus was not only human—authentically human in every way, but he is the new human through his resurrection. He is the first of a new humanity, one that will live forever on a renewed earth. His resurrection promises a future humanity. In Christ all are made alive.

Jesus is the first of a coming harvest. Jesus is the first fruit of the harvest; there is more to come. The resurrection of Jesus belongs to the future but occurred in the past as a prediction of the future.

The resurrection of Jesus is a preview of coming attractions. But this preview does not leave us wondering what the end of the drama will be. Instead, in the resurrection of Jesus, we see death destroyed.

The resurrection of Jesus is the power of God that destroys all authority, power and dominion. Death no longer reigns, but Jesus. The Empire no longer wields power, but the kingdom of God. Satan no longer holds the keys of Hades (death) but the living Christ does.

Death is the last enemy and it will not last. Death will not win. This is what we celebrate every Sunday, and this what we celebrate on Easter. God has given us hope in this life and through the resurrection God will give us life after death—not just life “in heaven” after death, but life after life after death in the new heaven and new earth.

God will not abandon his loved ones in the grave. Life wins. Death loses.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is death an enemy? In what sense?
  2. Identify the contrasts that appear in 1 Corinthians 15:19-28. What do they tell you about our hope?
  3. What does it mean to say that Jesus is the “first fruits” of the coming harvest?
  4. How has hope shaped your life? What difference has it made? In what way have you experienced hope in the face of death?

Hungering for a New Day (Lenten Reflections on Psalm 118)

March 24, 2010

Text: Psalm 118 (see this post also)

The resounding refrain of this Psalm—the climactic confession of Israel—is worth repeating…over and over and over, “His steadfast love endures forever.” Psalm 118 beings and ends with this confession. It invites Israel and all those who fear Yahweh to praise the enduring love of God.

It rings true throughout the whole history of Israel. From the calling of Abraham to the Exodus to return for Babylonian exile, “the steadfast love of Yahweh endures forever.” This is the stability of Israel’s faith; it is the one thing we can count on. God loves, he loves faithfully and he loves unchangingly.

Psalm 118 is the testimony of one believer’s experience which anticipates Jesus’ own experience. Indeed, it is our experience as well.

This Psalmist, as he comes to the temple, recalls the harrowing experience of the recent past. He was distressed and troubled; surrounded and almost defeated. Yahweh disciplined him severely and the Psalmist remembered his trouble.

But the steadfast love of the Lord is forever. Yahweh helped, delivered and rescued. Yahweh provided strength and courage in the crisis. Yahweh gave life when death surrounded him.

And now the Psalmist comes to the temple to offer a thanksgiving sacrifice. Open the gates! Let the triumphant one enter! The Lord has saved him; let us give thanks to the Lord.

“Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”
“The stone that the builders have rejected has become the chief cornerstone!”
“This is the day Yahweh has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it!”

This is a victory celebration. Once defeated, but now victor. Rejected, but now welcomed. A day of lament and mourning has been changed into a day of rejoicing.

This movement within the Psalmist’s life is also the experience of Israel from Egyptian bondage to the land of Canaan, from Babylonian exile to restoration in the land of Judah.

It is also the experience of Jesus. The New Testament uses the language of Psalm 118 to describe the victory of Jesus and to introduce us to a new day (see Matthew 21:42-44; Mark 12:10; Acts 4:11; 1 Peter 2:7; Luke 13:35; Mark 11:9; Matthew 21:9; 23:39).

It is also our experience. When we move from lament to praise, from sorrow to joy, from discipline to transformation, we experience the newness, hospitality (welcome!) and excitement of this Psalm.

Lent is a season of discipline. Through spiritual practices we are formed by God, drawn deeper into God’s life, and are refined by the fiery trial.

Lent gives birth to Easter. The journey in the wilderness leads us to refreshing waters. The discipline brings us to a new day. It is a day that God makes—God transforms, God refines, God redeems, God gives life. And we rejoice in it.

On this last week before Easter, we anticipate the announcement of a new day, a new beginning, a renewed life. On Easter we may walk through the gates and celebrate the joy of a new day.

We will hear the angels say, “Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!”
We will hear the call of the congregation, “Let us rejoice in the day the Lord has made!”
We will hear Yahweh say, “Though you were once rejected by many, you are precious in my sight and a jewel in my crown!”

On Easter we will hear the applause of heaven as Psalm 118 celebrates the recurring work of God in the lives of his people…in Israel…in us…and, ultimately, in Jesus.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What range of emotions and circumstances did this Psalmist experience as depicted in the Psalm?
  2. How does the New Testament apply this Psalm to Jesus?
  3. What is your personal testimony about how “wilderness” (discipline or Lent) leads to “renewal” and “thanksgiving”?
  4. Does this Psalm apply to us as well? Can we hear heaven’s applause in this text?

Salvation: Sector 2

November 12, 2009

What is salvation?

In my first post in this series I proposed the below chart as a way of answering that important question. In this post I will comment on the second sector (2).  I debated with myself (which is an interesting thing to observe :-)) whether to proceed numerically 1, 2, 3…. or to proceed temporally (talk about all the past dimensions, then the present, then the future). I finally decided on the numerical method because in this series I ultimately want to emphasize what is usually neglected, that is, the cosmic (and often the communal as well).

Personal Forgiveness of Sins and Relationship with God (1) Moral (Inner and Outer)  Transformation (2) Resurrection of the Body (3)
Communal One Body of Christ: One New Society (4) Reconciliation and Social Transformation (5) The Fullness of the Kingdom of God (6)
Cosmic Resurrection and Exaltation of Jesus (7) Redemptive Emergence of New Creation (8) New Heaven and New Earth (9)

Sector 2 identifies salvation as a present experience of “moral,” both inward and outward, transformation into the image of Christ who is the image of the invisible God. Personal sanctification is the process of becoming like Christ.

I put “moral” in quotation marks because I don’t want to simply identify this transformation by ethical virtues and practices (‘good works”) though it is a significant part of what I am attempting to describe.  The danger is to reduce our transformation to “doing ethics” rather than “being Christ” and to claim the power of this transformation as rooted in our own moral efforts rather than in the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Becoming like Christ entails moral transformation through the fruit-bearing power of the Spirit in our lives. We struggle against the “flesh” (σαρξ). There is a conflict or war inside of us. Indwelling sin battles against the indwelling Spirit so that we are often conflicted and we sometimes do not do what we want. Personal sanctification is a progressive though imperfect struggle against the sinful nature. We are neither perfectionists nor moral defeatists in this struggle–it is a battle that can be won only on the ground of the work of Christ and by the enabling presence of the Spirit but it is a hard-won victory through cooperative grace. The presence of the struggle reveals the presence of Spirit-enabled life. Through moral transformation we are saved from the debilitating power of sin.

This moral transformation is not limited to our inwardness, but is relational and kingdom-directed. It is practicing the kingdom of God just as Jesus did. It is becoming Jesus inwardly and outwardly.

But personal sanctification is not simply about moral transformation, struggle and victory, that is, defeating sin in our lives and being filled with the Spirit. It is also about being–living in communion and fellowship with God, participating in the mutual indwelling life of the Triune God. The Orthodox call personal sanctification theosis, that is, “defification.” It is an ancient characterization of life with God which goes back to at least Irenaeus in the late second century. It is reflected in 2 Peter 1:4 through the language of becoming partakers of the divine nature. We do not become ontologically divine (that is, we do not become infinite, omniscient, omnipotent, etc., so that we are God), but we experience the divine and become participants in the divine community.

Theosis includes moral transformation but it also includes ultimately participation in divine immortality (that is, glorification). Additionally, it includes a present experience of sharing the divine life and communion.  It is about being–living, sharing, communing–with God. Theosis even claims that believers may seek and experience a union with God that is analogous to Jesus’ own transfiguration, that is, believers may enjoy momentary experiences of eschatological communion through inward transfiguration even now as foretastes of what is to come. In other words, we may know God in ways that are beyond knowing and experience the depth of God’s love in ways that go beyond mere cognition (Ephesians 3:14-19).

God is certainly present with us in the now, but our awareness of that presence and communion is limited by our own brokenness and busyness. Spiritual practices, such as solitude, still our minds and hearts in ways that open up the fuller reality of God’s presence with us and enable us to experience the joy of our future blessedness even now. Theosis envisons not only our moral transformation into the likeness of Christ but opens our eyes to see that God draws us into the experience of divine union through the Holy Spirit who cries “Abba” in our hearts.

Our personal present salvation, then, is not only about moral effort (cooperative grace) but also about existential participation in the divine community. Our present salvation is about participation–participation in mission of the kingdom of God and participation in the Triune communion.

Though this participation we become Christ(ians) in the world.

Fearless and Free During Economic Storms V

May 28, 2009

Note: This is the second of six small group studies that are coordinated with a sermon series by Dean Barham, the preaching minister at the Woodmont Family of God. Eventually, his sermons will be available here. The first small group study lesson is here.

Free from Debt and Free to Share

Deuteronomy 15:1-11

Among other things, debt creates poverty. Debt increases poverty. Debt enslaves us to poverty. Debt keeps the poor poor.

The rich rules over the poor, and the borrower is the slave of the lender (Proverbs 22:7).

The Torah provides for the release of debtors since God never intended Israel to be enslaved to debt after their release from Egyptian bondage. God intended freedom, both a freedom from debt and a freedom to share.

Deuteronomy 15 instructs Israel (1) to release people from their debts every seven years and (2) to share with the poor and needy in the land.

When credit card companies hand out credit to young adults, they hook them into debt with dreams of “stuff.” Americana fosters the desire for economic ascendancy through debt but it is actually a trap. Would credit card companies hand out credit if they knew that every seven years the debt would be released? The Torah legislation protects the poor from exploitation from the rich.

At the same time, the wealthy should not use this as an excuse to not help the needy in the land. Some might rationalize that they cannot lend money when the debt may be released in a couple of years. Despite that risk, the wealthy are commanded to share with the poor and lend to them according to their need. The risk is acceptable because the action is rooted in God’s own liberating act and Israel is to imitate God’s redemptive actions.

The reason Israel gives is not rooted in economic security but in who God is and how God has treated Israel. And, yet, there is a promise of security when Israel blesses each other the way God has blessed them.

Paul alludes to Deuteronomy 15:10 when he counsels Corinth to share with the poor saints in Jerusalem: “Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9:7). The “cheer” (hilarity from the word hilaron) derives from sharing God’s own heart and the joy of sharing with those in need. The joy is found in imitating God.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What rationale is present in the text for Israel’s obedience? Why should there be no poor within Israel? Why should Israel give freely to the poor? What motives govern their sharing?
  2. What is the rationale for debt release in Israel? Why do you suppose this legislation is present in the Torah? How does it protect people from life’s tragic circumstances as well from the power of the rich?
  3. If there should be no poor in Israel, why are there poor within Israel?
  4. How does the American economy encourage debt among college students and young adults? What motivates people to incur debt? How does debt constrict our generosity and shape our lifestyle?
  5. Why is debt enslavement? What does the gospel teach about freedom from debt? Why should we see to be free from debt?

Fearless and Free during Economic Storms IV

May 20, 2009

Note: This is the second of six small group studies that are coordinated with a sermon series by Dean Barham, the preaching minister at the Woodmont Family of God. Eventually, his sermons will be available here. The first small group study lesson is here. John Mark presented the oral lesson on this topic,
Living in Community,” Woodmont Hills Church of Christ, Nashville, TN (05/24/2009).

Living in Community

Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.       Luke 12:32-34

And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.  Acts 2:44-45

And with great power the apostles were giving their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and great grace was upon them all. There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.   Acts 4:33-35

I admit it; actually, I confess it–I find “sell your possessions, and give it to the needy” (Luke 12:33) a hard and difficult saying. Probably more than any other saying of Jesus—even “love your enemies”—I’m inclined to throw up my hands and say “I can’t do that.”

As an apprentice of Jesus, this deeply concerns me, challenges me, and drives me to my knees.

Selling for the Needy

Someone in that crowd to which Jesus said “sell your possessions” asked Jesus to adjudicate between himself and his brother over their inheritance. Jesus refused and pointed to their hearts–only they can act on the nature of their hearts. Life, Jesus said, “does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

Ok, I know that, but what does it mean? Well, it means that we don’t build bigger barns. This is the parable that Jesus told in response to this inquiry about inheritance. What do I do with the blessings God has given me? Do I build bigger barns so I can contain them, hoard them and consume them? Or, and I think this is Jesus’ stinging point, don’t build bigger barns. Instead, take your increase and give it to the poor.

Perhaps that is my starting place on my journey to obey “sell your possessions and give to the poor.” Perhaps I just need to start with the simple resolve to never build any more bigger barns and then take my increases and give them to the needy.

So, if you are troubled as I am by this saying to “sell your possessions and give to the needy,” perhaps we start by refusing to build “bigger barns.” We start with using our increase to bless the poor, and then perhaps we can begin downsizing and increasing our giving to the needy. I think God will honor that direction, but God will not honor the other option.

Communal Living

Living in community not only means sharing with the needy in the community, but also sharing the burden of being a community that serves the interests of the kingdom. When a community of disciples acts as a group to serve the world in a particular way, disciples share a common responsibility.

Being part of a community means we share responsibility for the ministries and needs of the community itself, including paying the bills. We don’t expect people outside the community to support those kingdom interests and neither should we expect the needy to fund the community. But membership in the community entails responsibility, and the use of the services, ministries and facilities of the community involves a responsibility to support the group’s efforts through funding.

Regular contributions that share the burden enable the community to continue its ministry within the church as well as to the needy and those outside of the community of faith. If we have received benefit from participation in the community, then ingratitude neglects to share with the community when we have resources to do so.

Communal living means living as a community in sharing our mutual burdens, including financial ones. This is a mark of the kingdom of God in the world—the people of God use their money for the sake of community and invite others into that community to experience the riches of God’s grace.

Questions for Discussion:

  1. What attitudes or perspectives do you see in these Luke-Acts texts that empower the gracious sharing of resources by disciples of Jesus?
  2. What is a contemporary equivalent to “selling our possessions” in terms of providing for the needy? What does that look like in our contemporary economic system where most think in terms of their income rather than their mortgaged property?
  3. What experiences can you share with the group in terms of “selling your possessions” for the needy either as recipient or provider? In what ways have you seen disciples of Jesus live out this principle?
  4. What does “living in community” as one who shares the benefits of a particular community (like Woodmont Hills) mean for regularly contributing to the needs of that community (e.g., paying for the electricity used, services rendered by staff, convenience of a building, etc.)?