Category Archives: Divinity School

Running Through "Acts"

This is a new type of blog post for me: the public note pad.

I spent this evening reading through the book of Acts (yeah, the whole thing) in preparation for my New Testament II class with Dr. Robert Brawley. In true twitter style, I thought I would just shout out the first thoughts that came into my head out of this reading, before giving myself, or my readers, the benefit of careful reflection.


• Reading books of the Bible in their entirety, in one sitting, is something I should do more often; so much is missed when we break up our readings — whether done in the interest of spiritual enlightenment or intellectual stimulation — into short pericopes. A lot is happening in Acts in a short amount of time, and most of it is very interconnected.
• Paul really knows how to get to the point. I could take a lesson or two from him in that discipline, and many others as well. He finds words that connect to people in their current contexts. He doesn’t waste time with flattery;* he doesn’t sugarcoat his messages; he doesn’t weigh people down by giving out more information than the present moment requires. And man does he know what to say when you want to put a room on edge. (Acts 23:6)
• Don’t fall asleep when the sermon get’s too long; you just might fall out of a window.
• Acts seems to make some strong differentiations between traditional baptism, such as the kind administered by John the Baptist, and the “Baptism of the Holy Spirit.” From Pentecost through the episode at Cornelius’ house, no one really seems to understand what’s going on with the Holy Spirit. Paul acts like he has a handle on it later on, but doesn’t really take the time to explain what is happening. What is the second baptism, and what relation does it have to the “baptism of repentance” that John called for? Why is it granted to some and not others? Was the fiery phenomena the early apostles experienced unique to that time in the life of the church, or is it something believers should be looking for today?
• Pentecost was apparently marked as a holiday of the church year early on; Paul was hurrying to get back to Jerusalem to celebrate pentecost after several years of missionary work, although he was still persecuting the church when the actual “Day of Pentecost” occurred.
• Apparently, in chapter 16 Paul is kept from going to Asia so that Luke, the author, can join the trip for a while. The only indication readers have of this, however, is the abrupt change from the third person “they” style of narration to the first person “we” and “us.” The perspective shifts back and forth at several points later in the account as the journey progresses from city to city, and year to year.
• Secular life and religious life seem very compartmentalized in Acts; i.e., even in the midst of intense religious controversy — such as dueling pharisees and sadducees debating the doctrine of immortality while simultaneously stoning a man to death — life goes on. The normal Roman citizen is completely oblivious, and, other than in the interest of pursuing an odd sense of curiosity, probably couldn’t care less. The exception, of course, is Paul’s life. He blends ministry, work and daily life together in a way that seems to either baffle or captivate everyone else.
• Apart from the sadducees, most of Paul’s opposition comes from people with financial interests at stake: the men exploiting the young prophetess, the magicians, rival philosophers and the silversmiths who sell idols to pagan worshipers. None of these people are confronted by Paul, but they all take offense to him and his work.
• Peter seems to step up and take control of the Jerusalem church right away. No one seems to question this, but how his leadership role came to be is not really spelled out either.
• Paul is the man.
• Barnabas seems to be the nicest guy ever.


Well, that turned out to be a little longer than I thought. In an effort to both write more blog posts and spend more time reading, I plan to begin doing more of these on-the-fly lists of thoughts. Dangerous, I know.

* In most of Paul’s letters, eloquent, theologically rich salutations seem to be the norm. In public speaking, however, at least within the narrative of Acts, he has little space for extraneous words.

Colorful India

[audio:https://davidajr.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/colorfulindia-227.jpgwp-content/uploads/2011/01/Aerosmith-Taste-of-India.mp3|artists=Aerosmith|titles=Taste of India]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


What to do with Christmas

Do you ever find yourself getting frustrated by the apparent secularization of Christmas? As the baby Jesus shares the spotlight with Santa Claus, and glowing, mailbox-size candy canes pop up alongside nativity displays, it’s easy to grow nostalgic for a time when the celebration of Christmas as a Christian holiday was unfettered by commercialism — when reverent worship services and quiet family gatherings weren’t juxtaposed alongside raucous winter festivals and velvet-clad pop stars.

But was there ever really such a time? Why did Christians begin celebrating the birth of Jesus to begin with?

Despite its contemporary prominence in Christian culture, formal celebrations of Christmas did not begin until the fourth century. Easter, not Christmas, was the focal point of the year for the early church. The gospels themselves reflect this: only Matthew and Luke give any account of the birth of Jesus, and they vary greatly in details and significance, while all four gospels share a powerful record of Jesus’ arrest, crucifixion and resurrection. When Christmas celebrations began to take shape in the church, Christians combined elements of the nativity stories presented in Luke and Matthew with other traditions that had been picked up along the way. The first record of Christians celebrating the birth of Jesus is found in the Philocalian Calendar of 354. Long before this, however, December 25 had been a high point in Roman culture.

Traditional calendars marked December 25 as the winter solstice, and it was popularly celebrated as the birthday of the pagan god Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. The festival for Sol Invictus fell right in the middle of two other popular Roman feast days — the harvest festival, which began on Dec. 17, and the New Year’s festival that typically lasted five days (ending on what also became an important Christian holiday, the Day of Epiphany, or “The Twelfth Day of Christmas” according to one obnoxious Christmas jingle)

Naturally, it made sense for the church to take advantage of the existing excitement that surrounded the winter festival when forming a new holiday to celebrate the birth of God’s son. From the very beginning, Christmas has not been a day set apart for Christians to retreat from the world; rather, it has been a day Christians use to celebrate with, and hopefully, transform the world. Taking unholy things and making them holy, as the 4th Century Christians did with the pagan worship of Sol Invictus, is a fitting way to remember the reason that Christ came into the world to begin with. He has transformed us, unholy as we are, into new creations. Let us continue searching for new ways to do the same.


Adventures in Hebrew, episode one

God’s RocketShip

One of the most exciting elements of my Divinity School work this semester has been the opportunity I’ve had to study Hebrew with Dr. Barry Jones. I’ve never been very good in the foreign language skills department. In high school and college I dabbled in a couple of different languages, but simply trying to get a handle on the nuances and grammar of my own native tongue has been more than enough to push my linguistic abilities. For brevity’s sake, however, let me simply say that Hebrew is fun.

Working through scripture in its original language has been challenging and invigorating. Each little gain in understanding of these sacred texts opens up new truths and insight for me, but I still have a very long ways to go before reading a book, or even a sentence, in Hebrew is as natural and clear as it is in English. So why bother with trying to read the Bible in its original language? Aren’t there already enough English translations available? Haven’t hundreds of translators and scribes been pouring over these texts for thousands of years already? What can I possibly find in the original languages that hasn’t already been identified, dissected and translated by other, more qualified biblical scholars?

Probably nothing.

But that’s not really why we read the Bible, is it? It’s true that some people spend great amounts of time and effort scouring the letters and phrasings of scripture for secret codes, looking for hidden messages that supposedly reveal everything from the date of the apocalypse, to which candidate will win the 2012 presidential election in the United States of America. Others aren’t searching for secret codes, but they are reading the texts in hopes of finding a special verse or word that supports their own presupposed view of God and what he deems to be right behavior, as opposed to reading the lessons and stories of scripture with fresh ears, trying to understand them within the context of the overarching message of the gospel.

Whenever I move through the pages of the Bible, I know that I am walking down a path that many, many people have tread before me; I take comfort in that, and I do not for a moment hope to go one step further than anyone else has already gone. At the same time, I believe that God’s truths aren’t simply passed down from one generation to the next like genetic characteristics or inherited wealth. For scripture to have any real value for an individual, it must be read and understood by that person. If we hope to gain even a glimmer of understanding into the nature of God, we must, each one, seek him out. Knowing how God has worked among the human race in the past is a good place to start. The better informed we are as to the nature of God, of his relationship with mankind, of his movements in history and how he has revealed himself to others, the better equipped we are to identify his presence in our own lives as we seek to live within his will. This is the primary reason that I read the Bible — to know God.

One of the simple benefits of understanding the original language of scripture came through this week’s vocabulary lesson. Among our list of new words to learn for the week was the verb נשא (pronounced: nă•sá) which means to lift or to carry. This is the verb used in Exodus 20:7, the third commandment, translated in the NET (and similarly in the KJV) as “You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain”. In my experience, most people have understood this to be an admonition against using a name for God as a frivolous slur or in conjunction with obscene language. The verb נשא certainly does support this interpretation. The commandment makes it clear that “lifting up” the Lord’s name to invoke a curse is a sordid thing to do — unless of course, you really, really mean it. However, נשא has another meaning here that, at least in this case, seems to fit this context better than the traditional understanding of “lifting up” God’s name alongside other language that is in poor taste.

The second meaning of the verb נשא, “to carry,” seems to fit in well with the rest of the Exodus story, and even with the rest of the Biblical narrative. Beginning with the exodus and continuing on for much of history, God’s people were not associated with a particular place; they were not known for their great wealth and possessions; they were not known for military superiority or for their hold on a valuable resource. They were known by the law they had been given, and by the God, Yahweh, who gave them that law. As they roamed through the wilderness, carrying all of their few possessions with them, they always found themselves to be strangers in foreign land. What kept them together — what set them apart from the other nations that surrounded them — was their identity as a people chosen by God, called by his name. This act of “carrying” God’s name was not a small thing for the Israelites — it was the most important thing they had!

In 2 Chronicles 7, during a relatively brief period of prosperity and national wealth in the history of Israel, God reminds Solomon, the great king, of this first treasure the Hebrew people had claim to, saying:

“If my people, who are called by my name, humble themselves, pray, seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and heal their land.”

When the prophet Jonah was sleeping onboard a ship in peril, the ship’s crew woke him up and asked him who he was. Jonah didn’t tell them his name. He didn’t tell them which town he was from, who is parents were or what he did for a living. He simply said, “I worship Yahweh.” This statement, of course, wasn’t entirely true. It was simply the latest in a string of mistakes Jonah had made. He claimed to be a worshipper of Yahweh, but in reality, he was caught in the act of fleeing from the Lord, of ignoring his responsibilities and following his own desires. Jonah was “carrying” the name of the Lord, but he was not living as one who truly belongs to God.

As Christians, we often divert our attention and make known our disapproval when we hear the name of Jesus used as a statement of anger or frustration, but are we as quick to hold ourselves accountable when our actions or words — though they may be perfectly acceptable by society’s standards — are not worthy of one who carries the name of Christ? How many Christians today pay lip service to God when it’s convenient, but don’t put forward any real effort to follow his commandments to honor the Lord in all we do, and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves? Is it worse to ignore God altogether, or to acknowledge him in word but not in deed?

Let us strive to never carry the name of Christ in vain.


India

So, I’m going to India.

Several weeks ago, I was presented with the opportunity to be a part of Campbell University’s first official mission team sent to India. After much prayer and discussion, Kristen and I decided I should take advantage of this unique opportunity for ministry, spiritual growth and education. I am very excited; I know God will do great things with and through our team. The trip is quickly approaching, however, and a few things still have to be worked out. 1,825 things, to be exact. I am responsible for raising $2,500 towards the expenses of our mission team, and there is still a good ways to go. Oh yeah, and I need to get this together within the next three weeks or so.

If you are able to help with this effort, in any way whatsoever, it would be much appreciated. I have setup a secure PayPal account that allows you to easily make a contribution to this mission opportunity using your check card or any other major credit card. Donations can be tax deductible, but contact me first so I can be sure your donation goes through the proper channels.

I look forward to sharing more information with you as we continue to prepare for the trip. You can bet photos and stories from India will be popping up on the blog during and after the trip. In the mean time, here is an excerpt from a letter I sent out to a few close friends.

Thank you all for your prayers and support as we prepare for this mission, as we travel and as we serve others in the name of Christ in India.



In December, I have the opportunity to participate in a unique experience: a mission trip to Kolkata, India. This will be the first time a mission team of Campbell students will travel to India. The majority of our time will be spent in Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), working with the Missionaries of Charity — the society of aid workers founded by Mother Teresa in response to Christ’s call to carry his gospel, and his love, to the poorest of the poor in our world. Our team will minister alongside the Missionaries of Charity, assisting them as they care for orphans, the sick, the dying and those with special needs. We will also participate in “as you go” ministry, providing food and a word of prayer for the poor on the streets of Kolkata, Delhi, and Agra as we move through India.

First of all, I ask for your prayerful support of our endeavors. Pray for our team as we prepare to travel to India. Pray that Christ would give us open minds and open hearts, that we will be able to recognize the specific opportunities he has called us to as we seek to minister to his hurting children in India. Pray for us during the days that we are in the country (Dec. 27 to Jan. 7) that we would not be overwhelmed or discouraged by the needs that come before us, but that we would be strengthened by the Holy Spirit to listen as only he can, to speak a word of truth and encouragement to the ones who need to hear it, and, most of all, to demonstrate the love of Christ in all we do. Pray for the brothers and sisters that oversee the mission houses in India. Pray that they would be strong and courageous as they go about their work, especially during the hard days. Pray that they would not be lured into feelings of complacency or despair by the nature of their work, but that they would be alert and sensitive to the movement of the Spirit in their lives as well. Additionally, if you feel led to contribute financially to this mission trip, checks can be made payable to Campbell University and given to me or sent directly to the school.

I look forward to partnering with you in this endeavor, as we seek to share Christ’s love with those in need.


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Getting Our Feet Wet

[audio:https://davidajr.files.wordpress.com/2010/09/baptism-17.jpgwp-content/uploads/2010/09/Psalm-147_12.mp3|titles=Psalm 147:12]

 

 

Today, September 16, 2010, was a very special day for me.

This morning just before 11 o’clock, with a handful of my friends looking on, I was baptized in the tradition of my faith.

Then, before I had time to really process the moment, I was baptized again.

And again.

And…again.

Hopefully persistence counts for something.

The scene might have been a little odd to passersby, but it was a great experience for me and my fellow Divinity School students. Understanding the purpose and practice of baptism is included in the curriculum for our Life and Work of the Minister course, and practicing baptism means getting in the water.

The mission statement of Campbell Divinity School is “to provide Christ-centered, Bible-based, and Ministry-focused theological education.” These three elements are represented, to some extent, in every course the school offers, but the three-fold purpose also guides, in a larger perspective, the multi-facted approach of the entire Master of Divinity program. Most of the courses required for the M.Div. degree can be classified as either a spiritual development course, a course in classical theological education, or as a practical, vocation-driven course. Balancing these three aspects of theological education really allows students to grow spiritually and academically as they work to discern God’s call on their lives, and it is something Campbell does very well.

It’s amazing how my experiences in and outside of the classroom continue to build on each other. Just last week, in Church History I, our discussion was focused on the baptismal practices of the early church. Very quickly in the life of the early church, baptism became such an important part of the spiritual development process that a waiting period of at least three years was implemented for catechumens in order to give them sufficient time to contemplate their own faith experiences and develop healthy practices of discipleship that would allow them to contribute to the church once they became full members. Understanding this influenced our discussion on the spirituality and theology of baptism in Life and Work of the Minister. With this discussion still fresh on our minds this morning, we waded into the water to practice the practical aspects of baptism before we are called on to lead a formal baptismal service. The M.Div. degree at Campbell is really almost like three degrees in one — and at 90 hours, it often feels like enough work to earn three separate masters degrees — but there isn’t anything else I’d rather be doing at this point in my life.

Having professors and peers that I know are genuinely concerned about my spiritual growth is an indescribable blessing. Having courses that keep me challenged academically makes every day fresh and exciting. And besides, where else could I go to get my feet wet, knowing all the while that a quick hand is there to catch me if I slip off into rough water?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Preaching Brimstone and…. Water?

Out of the Depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
Let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my supplications!

If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities,
Lord, who could stand?
But there is forgiveness with you,
so that you may be revered.

Psalm 130:1-4 (NRSV)

Do you ever hear something that just makes you cringe?

Maybe it’s simply a word that seems vile to your ears. Maybe it’s a harsh truth that stirs up strong feelings when you hear it brought up in casual conversation. Or maybe its a lie; you just get sick at the thought of dangerous untruths digging deeper and deeper into the social consciousness of the people you care about.

I’m not sure which category of cringe-inducing remarks this fits into, but the end result is the same: I can’t help but wince whenever I hear people, especially Christians, talk about the “Old-Testament-god of wrath and vengeance, of fire and brimstone.”

Some people I know who identify God this way are individuals with no real interest in the Lord. They have an image of a God that is cruel and vindictive — often because that is how he has been portrayed by their Christian friends — and they have made up their minds that they want nothing to do with that type of God, so they give up on him all together. My heart breaks for these people. I pray for them, and I hope that I can find a way to show them some portion of the true love that God has for them.

What is more confusing to me is how some Christians talk this way as well. They speak of one god who was legalistic, rigid, demanding and dangerous — an old god who brought down fire from heaven to consume those who displeased him — and another god who is welcoming, compassionate, forgiving and full of love — a Good Shepherd who will leave everything behind to rescue one lost sheep. It’s as if all of a sudden, God changed his mind about how he was going to run things; he changed his mind about how he wanted creation to be ordered; he changed his mind about what kind of relationship he wanted to have with his people, and so he sent Jesus to Earth to give us an update and let us in on the new plan.

This kind of thinking doesn’t make sense to me. I don’t believe God changed his mind. He has always wanted people everywhere to seek him out, to know him, to live in relationship with him and to build healthy relationships with others in order to honor him. When God revealed himself in the person of Jesus, he gave humanity its clearest and most direct glimpse at himself as part of the ongoing revelation that began at the beginning and is still unfolding to this day. In Jesus, men and women saw better than ever the love, compassion, wisdom and grace that God has for all people. That same love Jesus lavished on those he came in contact with, and the same desire he showed to live in intimate relationship with his followers, was not anything new — it had been God’s will all along, but somehow the message kept getting misunderstood; it still does today.

To be honest, not that long ago I had conflicting images of God’s judgment and God’s grace. I had a hard time reconciling the God that created the universe, that preserved Noah’s line in the flood, that lead his people on an exodus out of Egypt and established a line of priests, prophets and kings in Israel with the God who was born in a manager, lived as a homeless wanderer, built relationships with people that crossed all racial, economic, social and religious lines, and then died on a cross to demonstrate his own steadfast love for mankind. The Yahweh of the Old Testament and the Jesus of the New Testament seemed so far apart in my eyes.

Then I decided to read the Old Testament; Not just the stories of Adam, Noah, Abraham and Moses, but the sacred writings of God’s prophets and priests. Imagine my surprise when I saw the love of Christ embodied in these ancient scriptures.

If any preacher epitomizes the “Fire and Brimstone” style of homiletics, Amos is the man. The book of Amos begins with harsh words for Israel’s neighbors, who have attacked their distant cousins living across the border and pillaged cities that were living in peace. Amos declares God’s judgment will literally be demonstrated by fire raining down from heaven and consuming these people. Then he turns his sight on Israel. Because God’s people have traded in real justice and loving relationships for hypocritical religion and shrewdly-amassed wealth, they also will reap their just rewards. Yet the book of Amos isn’t all doom and gloom. It is a desperate plea to the people. Amos, again and again, calls for his listeners to turn back to Yahweh, to repent, to denounce their greedy lifestyles, to stop paying lip service to God and start living in community with one another as God intends.

The first several chapters of Amos seem to be all judgment with no hope, but don’t give up! Keep reading, and you’ll learn that even when God’s people have utterly disregarded his word and turned their backs on the needs of their neighbors, the Lord is still waiting with open arms to take them back, to call them his own children again, to forgive their sins and guide them into a better life.

Listen to this funeral song I am ready to sing about you, family of Israel:
“The virgin Israel has fallen down and will not get up again.
She is abandoned on her own land
with no one to help her get up.”
The sovereign Lord says this:
“The city that marches out with a thousand soldiers will have only a hundred left;
the town that marches out with a hundred soldiers will have only ten left for the family of Israel.”

The Lord says this to the family of Israel:
“Seek me so you can live!
Do not seek Bethel!
Do not visit Gilgal!
Do not journey down to Beer Sheba!
For the people of Gilgal will certainly be carried into exile;
and Bethel will become a place where disaster abounds.”

Seek the Lord so you can live!
Otherwise he will break out like fire against Joseph’s family;
the fire will consume
and no one will be able to quench it and save Bethel.

The Israelites turn justice into bitterness;
they throw what is fair and right to the ground.

(But there is one who made the constellations Pleiades and Orion;
he can turn the darkness into morning
and daylight into night.
He summons the water of the seas
and pours it out on the earth’s surface.
The Lord is his name!
He flashes destruction down upon the strong
so that destruction overwhelms the fortified places.)

The Israelites hate anyone who arbitrates at the city gate;
they despise anyone who speaks honestly.
Therefore, because you make the poor pay taxes on their crops
and exact a grain tax from them,
you will not live in the houses you built with chiseled stone,
nor will you drink the wine from the fine vineyards you planted.
Certainly I am aware of your many rebellious acts
and your numerous sins.
You torment the innocent, you take bribes,
and you deny justice to the needy at the city gate.
For this reason whoever is smart keeps quiet in such a time,
for it is an evil time.

Seek good and not evil so you can live!
Then the Lord, the God who commands armies, just might be with you,
as you claim he is.
Hate what is wrong, love what is right!
Promote justice at the city gate!
Maybe the Lord, the God who commands armies, will have mercy on those who are left from Joseph.

Because of Israel’s sins this is what the Lord, the God who commands armies, the sovereign One, says:
“In all the squares there will be wailing,
in all the streets they will mourn the dead.
They will tell the field workers to lament
and the professional mourners to wail.
In all the vineyards there will be wailing,
for I will pass through your midst,” says the Lord.

Woe to those who wish for the day of the Lord!
Why do you want the Lord’s day of judgment to come?
It will bring darkness, not light.
Disaster will be inescapable,
as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear,
then escaped into a house,
leaned his hand against the wall,
and was bitten by a poisonous snake.
Don’t you realize the Lord’s day of judgment will bring darkness, not light —
gloomy blackness, not bright light?

“I absolutely despise your festivals!
I get no pleasure from your religious assemblies!
Even if you offer me burnt and grain offerings, I will not be satisfied;
I will not look with favor on your peace offerings of fattened calves.
Take away from me your noisy songs;
I don’t want to hear the music of your stringed instruments.
Justice must flow like torrents of water,
righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.”

Amos 5:1-24 (NET)

What do you read there?

Amos reminds me, first of all, that God is inescapable. Whether we acknowledge him or not, trying to hide ourselves from God is as futile “as if a man ran from a lion only to meet a bear, then escaped into a house, leaned his hand against the wall, and was bitten by a poisonous snake.” Sounds like a scene from a movie, doesn’t it? We cannot hide our actions, or even our motives, from the one who made the stars in the sky and the hairs on our heads. This brings us to the next point, that even if God’s big plan for the world, and for my life, seems hard to decipher, it’s important to remember that the most important task he has called us to is to live honest lives, to practice social justice, to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in so doing, honor and worship him with our lives — not just with our organized religious services. “Seek good and not evil so you can live! Hate what is wrong, love what is right. … Justice must flow like torrents of water; righteous actions like a stream that never dries up.” This is the faithfulness God demands from us! This is the type of faithfulness he tried to communicate to his people through the law given to Moses, it is the type of faithfulness the ancient prophets tried to call the Israelites back to, and it is the type of faithfulness perfectly embodied in the person of Jesus.

Then there is the prophet Hosea. Working through Hosea, God took another unique approach to getting his message across to the people. While Amos courageously proclaimed God’s truth to the people until they couldn’t hear it anymore, Hosea modeled the steadfast love and forgiveness God shares with us in his own family relationships. Apparently, at the Spirit’s guidance, Hosea was lead to marry a local prostitute. After the honeymoon period, he continued preaching, and she continued plying her trade; yet Hosea was more than ready to take her back, never hesitated in forgiving her infidelity and always offered unfailing love — even to one who spurned him again and again! When the prostitute is so buried in her life of sin that she is taken into slavery, Hosea goes into town and buys her back. He pays for his own wife, like any other man in the street could, so that he can take her back home with him, forgive her once again, and try, one more time, to begin building an intimate relationship based on love, not selfish pleasure.

This is the type of enduring love the God of the Old Testament has for his people — for all people — even in the darkest of times. The writings of Amos, Hosea, Jonah and the other prophets speak of painful things — suffering, poverty, slavery and death. These hard things are a part of life, often brought into being by our own hands. These things are not God’s will for our lives, but he is committed to finding a way to work through them for the good of creation.

When Israel was a young man, I loved him like a son, and I summoned my son out of Egypt. But the more I summoned them, the farther they departed from me. They sacrificed to the Baal idols and burned incense to images. Yet it was I who led Ephraim, I took them by the arm; but they did not acknowledge that I had healed them. I led them with leather cords, with leather ropes; I lifted the yoke from their neck, and gently fed them.

They will return to Egypt! Assyria will rule over them because they refuse to repent! A sword will flash in their cities, it will destroy the bars of their city gates, and will devour them in their fortresses. My people are obsessed with turning away from me; they call to Baal, but he will never exalt them!

How can I give you up, O Ephraim?
How can I surrender you, O Israel?
How can I treat you like Admah?
How can I make you like Zeboiim?
I have had a change of heart!
All my tender compassions are aroused!
I cannot carry out my fierce anger!
I cannot totally destroy Ephraim!

Because I am God, and not man — the Holy One among you — I will not come in wrath!

Hosea 11:1-9 (NET)

The way I see it, God hasn’t changed at all.

Unfortunately, I don’t see that we have changed much either.


Round One

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Life is a blur.

It’s hard for me to believe the summer is gone and I’m already stepping into my second semester at Campbell Divinity School. It’s even harder for me to believe that I have only been a seminarian for about six months; the experiences and lessons I’ve had already seem rich enough to fill a lifetime.

In my first semester, I learned to look at the Bible from a new perspective in Dr. Tony Cartledge’s Old Testament class. I began to understand the complex steps scholars have taken to identify biblical authors based primarily on the unsigned materials they left behind millennia ago (i.e., the Bible). More than anything else though, I have picked up a deep appreciation for the beauty and wisdom that permeates the ancient Hebrew scriptures.

I picked up some more knowledge on how the Bible came to be in its present form in my Introduction to Theological Education class with Dr. Michael Cogdill. I also gained some insight into what it means to be “called” by God to a task, and how people have interpreted and responded to their own calls throughout time. Dr. Cogdill’s class marked the beginning of my own journey of exploration into the classical spiritual disciplines, which have continued to captivate me to the point that I have lead a study on the disciplines with other adults at my church, and continue to find new avenues of application in my own life.

Dr. Daniel Day helped me to discover the difference between an essay and a sermon. As a person who has done a fair amount of writing, I have never been very fond of outlines or strict methodology, but my Ministry of Preaching class with Dr. Day opened my eyes to an entirely different genre of writing — one that is part conversation, part lecture and part prayer. My sermon writing and delivery has improved as a result, and I have found several opportunities to put my preaching lessons into practice over the past few months.

In Worship & Spiritual Formation I gave some serious thought to my own life and tried, as objectively as possible, to chart out the course of spiritual development I have taken over the past 24 years, identifying the major movements, and mentors, that have helped build me into who I am today. I began to understand a little more clearly what Christian fellowship is really all about, and what I can do to help foster that fellowship in all of my interactions with others.

The weekend I spent in downtown Raleigh participating in a poverty simulation pushed me to redefine what it means to be homeless. I walked away from that experience with a keen sense of the value of the personal relationships I hold dear in my own life, and just how illusory our culture’s concept of wealth is.

I signed up for Designing Church Ministries and Programs hoping to get a few pointers on holding Wednesday night youth lessons or putting together a Sunday school lecture, but Drs. Brian Lee and Johnny Ross had plans much deeper than that. Over the course of the semester, our class re-evaluated what it means to be a church in a post-modern culture, and picked up some valuable insights and timeless truths to help keep us focused as we seek to further the Kingdom of God in a rapidly changing world.

Dr. Bruce Powers explained the concepts and principles of servant leadership, as demonstrated by Jesus, in a class called Congregational Leadership — then he proceeded to live out his teachings over the rest of the semester, never missing an opportunity to push us to a new level of thinking as he challenged us to reconsider our preconceived notions of what it means to be a leader, how to identify the relational dynamics in complex situations and how to understand — and even embrace — the paradox of living a life of faith.

As if this whirlwind wasn’t enough, I decided to tack on a summer class: Introduction to Urban and Social Ministries with Professor Stan Yancey. Nearly every Monday in June and July, my fellow students and I visited, observed and discussed projects in place at a variety of very different ministry sites in downtown Raleigh. From homelessness to AIDS; mental illness to chemical addictions; broken families, broken dreams and broken faith; clothes closets, soup kitchens, day cares and emergency shelters — we took it all in, and I would venture to say that not one of us closed out the summer as quite the same person he or she was on June 1.

My first semester at Campbell has been simply incredible. Academically, I have been challenged more than I have by any school experience I have had before; at the same time, I have never felt burdened with work — each experience has truly been a joy. Spiritually, I have been nourished and encouraged beyond anything else I have ever experienced. Every day I walk into class absolutely amazed at how awesome Yahweh is. I continue to be blown away at how my experiences at Campbell keep building directly on the spiritual and academic foundation God has been laying in my life all along.

Hang on.

Here comes the next step.


Waiting on God

My sermon from this morning:


1 Kings 19:11-18

The Lord said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of Yahweh, for Yahweh is about to pass by.”

Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before Yahweh, but Yahweh was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but Yahweh was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but Yahweh was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

Then a voice said to him, “What are you doing here, Elijah?”

He replied, “I have been very zealous for Yahweh, God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.”

Yahweh said to him, “Go back the way you came, and go to the Desert of Damascus. When you get there, anoint Hazael king over Aram. Also, anoint Jehu son of Nimshi king over Israel, and anoint Elisha son of Shaphat from Abel Mehola to succeed you as prophet. Jehu will put to death any who escape the sword of Hazael, and Elisha will put to death any who escape the sword of Jehu. Yet I reserve seven thousand in Israel — all whose knees have not bowed down to Baal and all whose mouths have not kissed him.”

NIV


No one likes being told what to do. We all want to find our own way, make deals on our own terms, and build lives that reflect our individual concepts of success. Self-sufficiency is a heavily lauded virtue in the 21st century. The great American dream maintains that anyone, willing to work hard and think a step ahead of the masses may find wealth, success, and comfort, so long as he sticks to his guns and doesn’t let the whining voices of naysayers distract him from that purpose.

Today, however, it seems harder than ever to avoid the cackles and hollers of the crowd. We live in a world where everyone seems to be an expert on everything. Parents are being constantly drawn into magazine articles and books written by experts who all claim to have the key to raising good children; the only problem is, most of those experts have never raised any children of their own, and none of their methods seem to match up. Any hour of the day I can turn on CNN and listen to four self-proclaimed experts breaking down the critical issue that’s crippling our government today. They’ll tell me what I need to do about it, who I need to vote for and what club I need to join to fix the country; it all sounds great until I realize if I heeded their advice, I’d have to run in four different directions all at once. Go strolling through the grocery store on a Tuesday evening and chances are you’ll run into a friend and find yourself caught up in conversation about the week. Let a concern about a budding conflict at work slip out, however, and you’ll likely find every shopper within ear shot, whether they have a clue about your life or not, has a piece of advice to offer that will surely clear up the matter once and for all.

There is no end to the “expert” advice available today. New philosophies on living are a dime a dozen; most of them seem so blatantly ridiculous on their face, you just can’t help but say, “Come on man, are you really serious Joe? Can’t you see that listening to that crackpot is just a waste of your time?” But you can’t say that. You try to get the words out, to steer your friend down the right path, but your voice is overpowered by the excited shouts and fury of the crowd, and before you know it, Joe has jumped onto the next bandwagon that just came into view. At the same time, your friend is still firmly parked right where he’s always been: Lost in a sea of noise.

This is the situation the prophet Elijah found himself in as he tried to remain faithful to God amidst a people who proudly clung to an “anything goes” way of life. At the urging of their crooked queen and her puppet husband, King Ahab, the people of Israel began to worship Baal alongside Yahweh. They didn’t want to sever their ties with the Lord completely — you never know when a second opinion might come in handy — but just to keep their bases covered, they figured it would be alright to follow the trend and pay homage to Baal as well. To Elijah, the absurdity of this line of thinking made it laughable on its face. The people couldn’t see it that clearly though. The noise of the crowd, the pressure of the experts, was simply too great. The prophet’s voice, and the people’s reason, were lost in the chatter. So what did Elijah do? How could he show this people the error of their ways? You know what happened next. Elijah proposed a test. He had the people build an altar for Baal while he straightened up the neglected altar of Yahweh. Sacrifices would be made for each god, and which ever god acknowledged the sacrifice by consuming it with fire — proving his deity with supernatural power — that was clearly the god to follow. The people agreed. They built their altar to Baal, but crying out to the phony god didn’t seem to be working. Elijah, being the human that he was, couldn’t help but rub it in their faces a little. “Maybe Baal is sleeping. Or maybe he’s relieving himself,” Elijah teased. “Shout louder, then he’ll hear you!”

Then Yahweh showed up. He lit up his altar with a fire and heat the people hadn’t known before. Scripture tells us that the flames licked the water out of the moat Elijah had built around the altar. If that wouldn’t get the people straight, what would? The people believed all right, at least the ones who were there, at least for a little while. Elijah had done it. He had given the job his all and he had made good on his claims. The prophet was a model of success. But his troubles were just beginning. Queen Jezebel didn’t take Elijah’s rebuke sitting down. She wanted his head, and normally what Jezebel wanted, Jezebel got.

So Elijah, the great model of success — the symbol of a job well done; the man who had all the answers — very quickly found himself in a place where he needed some help. Elijah needed some good advice.

Don’t be fooled into thinking that just because we have an abundance of cheap, one-size-fits-all advice floating around in the world today that good advice has become a relic of the past, or that quality guidance isn’t worth the trouble often required to find it.

John D. Rockefeller, the famous oil tycoon of the 19th century who still, all things considered, holds claim to the largest fortune amassed in a single lifetime, wasn’t above heeding good advice. Of his wife Laura, Rockefeller once said “Her judgment was always better than mine. Without her keen advice, I would be a poor man.”

A modern-day tycoon, Eric Schmidt, chairman and CEO of Google, told CNN Money in 2009 that one of the keys to his success was hiring a coach to guide him through the murky waters of business dealings. Schmidt didn’t come to this realization easily though. “Why would I need a coach? Am I doing something wrong?” Schmidt thought to himself when the idea was first proposed. “My argument was, how could a coach advise me if I’m the best person in the world at this?” Then Schmidt realized a coach doesn’t come in to take over the game for you. A coach doesn’t even play the game. A good coach gives you the advice you need to be the best you can be at the game you play.

Abraham Lincoln, faced with the most difficult circumstances a president could imagine, also knew where to turn for advice when all other options seemed bleak. Following the Battle of Gettysburg, considered by most historians to be the turning point of the Civil War, Lincoln spoke with Gen. Dan Sickles, who had witnessed the travesty and successes of that pivotal moment first hand: “Well, I will tell you how it was,” Lincoln, always the statesman, began. “In the pinch of the campaign up there (at Gettysburg) when everybody seemed panic stricken and nobody could tell what was going to happen, oppressed by the gravity of our affairs, I went to my room one day and locked the door and got down on my knees before Almighty God and prayed to him mightily for victory at Gettysburg. I told him that this war was his war, and our cause his cause, but we could not stand another Fredericksburg or Chancellorsville. … And after that, I don’t know how it was, and I cannot explain it, but soon a sweet comfort crept into my soul. The feeling came that God had taken the whole business into his own hands and that things would go right at Gettysburg, and that is why I had no fears about you.” ¹

Elijah also knew where to turn for a word of guidance when all other voices rang hollow. Elijah needed to hear God’s voice! Elijah needed to hear the Lord say that everything would be all right! Elijah needed someone to tell him “get back on your feet and get back to work!”

Elijah knew he needed to hear God’s voice. He wanted to hear God so badly, but he wasn’t ready to listen. He wasn’t in a place where he could pick God’s voice out from the noise of the world. So, Elijah left. He left the place his own work had brought him to and he went looking for God.

Elijah already knew he needed to stay away from his enemies. He was steering clear of Ahab, Jezebel and any others who obviously meant him harm. But Elijah also needed to get away from his friends, from his helpers, his supporters. As encouraging and well meaning as they were, Elijah’s friends were still not the ultimate authority for him, and they were not the ones he had to answer to when his work was done. So Elijah went off, alone, to find a quiet place. Finding peace wasn’t easy though. Elijah didn’t walk into a quiet office and find God sitting in an easy chair ready to hand over the plan. Scripture tells us Elijah spent an entire day in the wilderness, where he became so discouraged he simply wanted to die. He asked God to let him give up, to let him quit. Elijah cried: “It is enough; now O Lord, take away my life, for I am no better than my ancestors.” But despite his frustration, his emotional emptiness, and the scattered, distracted state of his own mind, Elijah still wanted to hear God’s voice. So he continued in the desert for 40 more days, each day getting a little further from the things that had been distracting him.

When we’re tired of listening to the dull drone of this world, or when the sweet words of our companions just don’t have the kick we need anymore, we have to be willing to put ourselves in a place where we can hear God speak. We have to be willing to take the time to search for a spot where we can clear our minds, where the distractions that keep calling out to us can’t reach us anymore. Sometimes trying to ignore the world around us simply isn’t enough. Sometimes turning off the t.v. and putting up a mental wall to protect us from the noise on the street just doesn’t cut it anymore. We must be able to recognize that. If we truly believe the message God has for us is worth listening to, we must be willing to go through the trouble of finding a place of quiet solitude; A place where we can hear him speak.

Elijah found his place in an empty cave, on a desolate mountain in the middle of the wilderness. The Spirit of God had led him there. Elijah knew it was the place he needed to be, and he was willing to go through the trouble of clearing off his agenda, of rescheduling his appointments and going to this place where he could meet with the Father.

Still, the voice of God didn’t ring out loud and clear. The account of Elijah’s encounter with God is one of the most poetically moving stories in scripture:

“Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire.”

How often do we want God’s guidance to be as clear and obvious in our lives as a hurricane. There isn’t much anyone can do to deny a hurricane. Caught in the middle of a storm, the reality of the situation is all around. The fallen trees, the ruined houses, torrential rivers running down city streets, overturned cars and broken power lines — everything declares the truth of the situation. This is a hurricane. But that would be too easy. God doesn’t typically speak that way, and Elijah knew it. He knew that God’s fiery, undeniable message to the prophets of Baal was not something he could expect every time he needed a word from the Lord. Elijah knew he would have to be patient, and he would have to listen closely to what was coming next.

“After the fire came a gentle whisper.”

Other translations describe this word of the Lord coming as “a sheer silence.” Either way, it was something Elijah would have likely missed had he not been deliberately, patiently waiting for it.

A reading of this text begs the question “How did Elijah know what to listen for?” How do we distinguish the voice of the Lord from the other unexpected storms that come our way? Elijah knew what to listen for because he had heard God speak before. Long before God brought down fire to consume Elijah’s sacrifice at Mount Carmel, Elijah had seen the way God spoke through scripture. Elijah knew the stories of Moses, of Joshua and Gideon, of Samuel and David. Elijah knew the scriptures and the stories of his people. He had heard them, and studied them and told them so many times, that the God they described was not just a character in a book. The God they described was a real deity, who loved his people and cared for them. By the time Elijah had a personal encounter with God, he already knew the sound of God’s voice, he knew the rhythm of the stories God told and he knew the purpose God had in mind for his people, for his world. When God spoke to Elijah, he didn’t have to bring him up to speed on the mission, on how the world had gotten to the point it had or why he cared enough to reach out to the people of Israel — Elijah already knew all of that, so God could get on to the details of the day, of the present assignment and the immediate obstacles that needed to be overcome.

If Elijah knew God’s voice from his study of scripture, how much more prepared should we be to listen to God today! We have nearly four times the sacred texts that Elijah had at his disposal. We live in a world that has not only experienced and recorded the messages of God’s prophets and kings, but we have a record of the life, the teachings, and the Word of God’s very son! We have the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Are we any better off for it? Do we study the scriptures to understand God as Elijah surely did? Studying the scriptures is not a task reserved for pastors and scholars; It is the first step Christians must take toward knowing God.

After Elijah received his message, he didn’t keep it to himself. He went right away and confided his experience with other believers. He took his interpretation of God’s message and went to find out what other, trusted believers thought about it. The prophet went, as God had commanded, to anoint a young man, Elisha as his successor. Elijah shared his vision with Elisha. He didn’t force it upon him as a decree, but he confided it to him in an effort to seek confirmation. Elijah found his successor ready, and most importantly, willing, to step into the role God had prepared him for. Elijah found confirmation of God’s directions in his relationship with other believers. God had told Elijah to find these three young men — Elisha, Hazael and Jehu — and set them to work. All along, though, God had been leading these other faithful Israelites toward the same goal. Their life experiences and their relationships with God confirmed Elijah’s interpretation of God’s message for him, and it was only after confiding in them, and listening to them, that the instructions God had given Elijah began to make sense.

Picking God’s voice out from the crowd isn’t always easy. It certainly wasn’t easy for Elijah. With so many voices competing for our attention today, we must strive to be evermore diligent as we seek to follow his will for our lives. Finding a time and a place to be still and listen for God’s voice is essential for anyone hoping to draw closer to him. Living lives that put us in constant fellowship with the scriptures and with other believers is key to staying within the boundaries of God’s will, and a sure way to find yourself growing into the Christ-like servant each of us longs to be.


1. Gordon Leidner, author of Lincoln on God and Country, and many other works concerning the nation’s 16th president, reports this conversation took place on July 5, 1863.

Living in the Light

Not content to let two months go by without making a little headway on my M.Div degree, I signed up for two courses this summer — the first course is really a practicum project related to my ministerial internship, while the other is a pretty intense introduction to urban and social ministry; in fact, that’s the name of the course: Introduction to Urban & Social Ministry.

Each week we spend several hours visiting a multitude of ministry sites and service agencies, listening to staff, asking questions and talking with the people they serve. Though each organization has a unique mission statement and a slightly different target group of clientele, I think it’s fair to say that all of them are focused on making the world, and specifically central North Carolina, a little better representation of the Kingdom of God.

Several of our visits have been incredible, eye-opening experiences, but this week was particularly meaningful for me. We didn’t have a regular class session this Monday because of the holiday, but we were still assigned independent visits for the week. So Saturday night I found myself sitting in the back row of my first Narcotics Anonymous meeting. I needed to attend the meeting for class, but apart from school, this was an important moment for me as someone I am close to was celebrating a new Spiritual Birthday — the one-year anniversary of an addict’s last commitment to get clean and stop using. It was much more exciting, and more important, than celebrating a biological birthday.

“I am the light of the world. The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

—Jesus

As I sat through the meeting listening to speaker after speaker giving personal testimonies, reading passages from the NA book and encouraging one another through their struggles, I was struck by the simple honesty that pervaded the group. Every time someone stood to speak, whether it was to deliver a keynote speech or to ask a short question, the first words to come out were always “I’m David (or Charlie, or Bobbie or Rachel) and I’m an addict.” It didn’t matter if the speaker had gotten high that morning or if he had been clean for 30 years. There was not a stigma of shame or embarrassment associated with the label — something I’m sure takes many, many meetings like this to overcome — it was just the simple truth. “I’m a human, and I’m an addict.” These were authentic people.

I left the meeting that night wondering what the world would be like if everyone was as honest with themselves, and as authentic with others, as this group of humble addicts. I went home. I went to bed. Then I went to church.

Our Sunday school passage that day came from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians:

For you all are sons of the light and sons of the day. We are not of the night nor of the darkness. So then, we must not sleep as the rest, but must stay alert and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night and those who get drunk are drunk at night. But since we are of the day, we must stay sober by putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet, our hope for salvation.

For God did not destine us for wrath but for gaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that whether we are alert or asleep we will come to life together with him.

Therefore, encourage one another and build up each other, just as you are in fact doing.

1 Thessalonians 5:5-11 (NET)

Paul is writing to the church in response to questions the believers had about the Parousia, but his instructions are meant to be a guide for daily living at all times, not just in the final days.

The metaphor of light and darkness is an oft used one. In my experience, Christians like to think of living in the light as leading a righteous life; that is, avoiding the major pitfalls of sin and obeying God’s law to the letter. In contrast, being a child of darkness implies living a life marked by sin, day-in and day-out; a life totally separate from God and the law.

I think there may have been a little more depth to the “light” Paul spoke of than we tend to acknowledge; we have a way of trimming God down to size when he gets too big for our tastes. From time to time, we may fool ourselves into believing we are living righteously, pleasing God with our good works and outdoing those poor fools who still choose to walk around in darkness. I heard it said today that there are really only two kinds of people in the world: Baptists, and sinners. I’m afraid a handful of people from my own faith tradition aren’t the only ones to fall into this trap of ignorance. Such thinking proves at least one fact with absolute certainty — those who call themselves righteous have yet to stumble out of the dark their religion has pulled them down into.

I think the “light” Paul spoke of is best described not as righteousness, but as truth. Truth with God, truth with others, and especially truth with one’s self. Jesus has called us to live our lives within the truth of his Creation, of his Divinity, of his Humanity. We must accept the truth that we will never measure up to the righteousness of God, but we can accept his Grace and continue striving to live within his will for our lives.

Unfortunately, we live in a world that doesn’t put much value in authenticity or in truth. We put on different facades when we go to work, when we go to school, when we go to church, when we’re out with our friends and when we’re at home with our families. It’s expected of us, and those who don’t follow the status quo are often penalized for their lack of conformity.

“A time is coming — and now is here — when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such people to be his worshipers.”

—Jesus

What would happen to our world if our churches began to live and breath with the same spirit of honesty and truth that pushes that group of recovering addicts to better themselves, to value true fellowship over fleeting pleasure and to walk together on the journey that leads them closer to God? What would happen if before I got up to deliver the invocation this Sunday, I felt compelled to tell the congregation that “I’m David, and I am a sinner,”?

I think we would begin to see the light of Christ a little more clearly.