Friday, September 30, 2011

Book Review: The Gospel According to Jesus

I was looking forward to reading Chris Seay's book, The Gospel According to Jesus, when I bought it at a book store that was going out of business. In fact, I almost bought his book The Gospel According to LOST, but I decided against it. I think I'd like to go back and read that one now, too.

The thesis of The Gospel According to Jesus is that Christians have long misunderstood the concept of righteousness, and therefore misunderstood their faith. We have mistakenly categorized righteousness in terms of morality and good behavior, he says, and have grossly mistaken the gospel of Jesus Christ for a set of rules and regulations for life. The impetus for the book seems to have come from a Barna survey in which a majority of Christians (including active churchgoers) confessed to being unfamiliar with the term and concept of righteousness. Of those who had heard of the term, most associated it with holiness or faithfulness.

This deeply troubled Seay, because he believes that a proper understanding of righteousness is essential to Christian faith and practice. Here is his definition of righteousness:
...We also know what [God's] righteousness is not: a morality that can be attained by the works of man. The best simplet translation of the word righteousness is "restorative justice." God is stepping into our brokenness and making things right, taking fragments shattered by sin and restoring them to fullness. ...Seeking his righteousness is about being an active agent for his restorative justice in all creation.
By this definition, the righteousness of God is the activity of the restoration of creation through the outworking of God's justice. Jesus said that we are to "seek first his kingdom and his righteousness", that is, God's restorative justice. Our task, as disciples of Jesus, is to see that God's restorative justice is enacted on the earth.

That's all well and good, but is that really what righteousness means? He says it, and he is the president of Ecclesia Bible Society, but is he right? Because he never really proves it. And there are plenty of instances in Scripture where we find the word righteousness, but it certainly doesn't mean "restorative justice."

For example, Genesis 15:6. Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness restorative justice.

Or Deuteronomy 6:25. And if we are careful to obey all this law before YHWH our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness restorative justice.

In fact, perhaps the most damning case comes from Matthew 6, the same chapter in which we find the command to "seek first his...righteousness." Verse 1 reads: Be careful not to practice your righteousness restorative justice in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

Chris Seay was very upset because he believed the church was getting righteousness wrong. But it seems that Chris Seay has also gotten righteousness wrong, or at least defined it too narrowly. I can't attempt to provide a definition here, but I believe that restorative justice is part of what righteousness means, but by no means all of it.

With that, somewhat major, caveat, I thought this book was excellent, and well worth a read by anybody trying to figure out how to follow Jesus well with others. This is really a book about being disciples of Christ together, and the author even models that by bringing in other voices for conversation at the end of each chapter. The most beneficial chapter is actually the last one: The Ten Commandments of a Shalom Life. In that chapter, Chris draws on his experience as a pastor and church planter to give a good and biblical perspective on how to live well the commands of Jesus together.

All in all, this was an interesting and thought-provoking book that will resonate with younger Christians who feel caught between the pull of conservative fundamentalism and liberal emergent-ism.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Playoff Baseball

For the first time in 5 years, the Tigers are in the playoffs. Here's why I like their chances of reaching the World Series.

1. Justin Verlander. The dude will win the Cy Young in the American League, and should win the MVP, too. He was the best pitcher in baseball all year long. He was consistently great, and is putting it all together in a serious way right now. He could pitch 2 games in a 5 game series, or 3 in a 7 game series. You've got to like those odds.

2. Miguel Cabrera. He won the batting title in the American League this year, and also had the highest batting average in all of baseball. Like Verlander, he is consistently great. He's posted nearly identical numbers for the past 5 years. He never seems to slump. And he's on fire right now, hitting 4 home runs in the last week of the season.

3. September. The Tigers went 20-6 over the season's final month. Now that's storming into the playoffs!

4. 16-5. That's the Tigers' record against the other 3 American League playoff teams (NYY, TB, TEX). Sure, that was the regular season. But success breeds confidence, and the Tigers' have dominated the other three playoff teams.

5. Doug Fister. As good as Verlander was this year, Doug Fister was even better down the stretch. He went 9-1 with the Tigers, and had an ERA under 1 over his past 7 starts! That's a rock solid 1-2 punch at the top of your starting rotation!

6. The Lineup. Alex Avila. Jhonny Peralta. Delmon Young. Victor Martinez. Austin Jackson. Even with the loss of Brennan Boesch, this lineup has been mashing. They're balanced. They're confident. And they're ready for the big stage.

7. Opportunity. While the other teams have been fighting their way into the postseason, the Tigers' punched their way into the playoffs by running off 12 straight wins in early September, 9 of which were against the teams directly behind them in the standings. They're the one team that grabbed their playoff opportunity by the throat and pinned it to the ground. They're playing their best baseball right now.

I hope this is our year. The last time the Tigers won the World Series, I was 5 years old. My oldest son is 5 this year. Coincidence? Yes. But there's a lot to like about this team. Let's go Tigers!

Monday, September 26, 2011

My Ordination Service

Last night, at Ember, I was ordained as an elder through the Alliance for Renewal Churches. It was a humbling and special time for me and my family, and also for our congregation. So many people came from all over the state to be there to love on us and support us. Pastor Doug Rumschlag, from Grace Church in Toledo (my home church), delivered a challenging message on the responsibilities of an elder-pastor. Rick Widener and Ray Nethery, from the ARC, performed the ordination ceremony. I love being a part of the ARC, where I get such wonderful support and encouragement.

The music team was especially brilliant last night. If you've never been to Ember, you need to come out and experience it sometime. I know I'm the pastor, so I'm supposed to say that, but if I didn't mean it, I wouldn't say it. I was talking to my wife after the service about how much I love this church, and the way God has brought our team together, and what he is teaching us. It's a high honor to be the pastor of Ember Church. I get to do this! God has been so good to me, my family, and our church. Ordination is just the beginning, and I'm earnestly looking forward to all that God will do in and through our congregation.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Sermon Recap: Scarecrow

Last Sunday was the fifth sermon in our series on Jeremiah called Run with Horses. The sermon was called Scarecrow, and the text was Jeremiah 10:1-16. In this passage, God compares the nature of idols to the nature of himself as Creator. He gives us a look behind the curtain of idolatry, showing the process of the creation of an idol, then comparing that to his act as Creator of the world.

The main point of the sermon was this: Idols are made; YHWH makes. Idols are fakes. They are things we create, and then treat as though they were creators. We make an idol out of money because we think it can create security. We idolize power because we think it can create success. We make a god out of sex because we think it can create happiness. But there is only one true creator: YHWH God.


But the reality is that the only thing our idols can create for us are problems. I quoted The Notorious B.I.G. on this point (which people seemed to find endlessly amusing): "I don't know what they want from me. Seems like the more money we come across, the more problems we see." Sure it's funny to hear a 32-year-old white preacher quote Biggy, but he's right. The only thing our idols create for us is problems.

YHWH is the only real Creator, and the only one who can create solutions to the problems caused by our idolatry. He is the only one who can create good out of evil and turn darkness into light. That's exactly what we see in the cross, where the height of human evil was turned into the greatest good for mankind. That's the power of God.

The sermon audio is available in the sermon player in the right column on the blog.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Ember Monday

Last night was our fifth service, and though I'm not sure how you could make a judgment like this, I would say it was definitely our best. When I think of what defines a "good" church service, the first thing that comes to my mind is the presence of God. We gather together as a community with the purpose of hearing from God and responding to him in worship, and we hope that he will make himself known to us by his presence. And last night he did just that.

I, and others that I talked with, could sense his presence with us. Our worship time was very rich--that's the only word I can use to describe it. I came away extremely encouraged and edified. The first song after the sermon was Revelation Song, led by my beautiful wife Breena and Kelly Heasley. (My wife did a fantastic job, by the way, and it was only the second time she has ever sung in front of a group!) That is such a Spirit-filled song, and it really set a tone for our time of responsive worship.

Because it was the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we wanted to do something to commemorate the event. But yesterday morning I still had no idea what we were going to do, and then my wife came across this amazing video from the I Am Second series. So we started the service with it, and it was a pretty heavy way to begin a worship service. If you haven't seen it yet, and you've got ten minutes, you should definitely watch it: Sujo John - I Am Second

The sermon was the fifth in our Jeremiah series, and I'll post a recap of it tomorrow. I'm becoming more comfortable preaching again. Even though I rewrote the last half of my sermon on Friday night, I felt far less tied to my notes than usual. I've also moved from the floor to the stage, which, I think, has subconsciously made me take the sermon more seriously. Not that I didn't take it seriously before, but being on the stage makes me feel like I'm preaching, whereas being on the floor makes me feel like I'm sharing.

I can't forget to thank the band for rolling with me last night when I asked them to do one more song at the end. Charlie, Garth, Kelly, and Breena...thank you! You guys are awesome! And if you weren't there, you missed Charlie's beatboxing--I mean, "vocal percussion"--on one of the songs. You should definitely come to Ember, because where else are you going to hear a banjo, a pump organ, a fiddle, and beatboxing in the same worship set?!

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Question of Pain & Suffering

Have you ever heard someone ask that old skeptical question, “If God exists, why is there so much pain and suffering in the world?” That’s a good question. It’s a question that deserves a thoughtful, reasonable answer.

But there’s an assumption that lies underneath that question, and it is this: “If God exists, and he is good, then he should only allow pleasure into this world.” But who, by pursuing pleasure, has ever truly found happiness, completeness, and fulfillment? Isn’t our world littered with stories of people who looked like they had it all—money, sex, power—but who were utterly void of character and contentment? Haven’t we seen, through the AIDS epidemic and the horrors of abortion, that the unbridled pursuit of pleasure has brought as much, if not more, pain and suffering than any war in human history?

Not only has the pursuit of pleasure caused untold amounts of pain, but pain and suffering are often far more redemptive than pleasure. Most of us grow and develop character through the most painful, difficult periods of our lives; but few of us grow when things are easy.

Human beings were created by God to exercise dominion over the world. We were created to be Stewards of the earth and Servants of the King, God himself. I believe that God’s intention was to, in the course of due time, invite human beings to reign over Creation with him, seated with him on his throne, so to speak. (By the way, that’s exactly what Jesus promises to those who are faithful in the book of Revelation.)

But our first parents didn’t see that; they got greedy, and so they rebelled against God. The stewards of the earth rebelled against the King of Creation. In our rebellion, we have frustrated our world, living in conflict with it rather than ruling over it with wisdom and grace. We have very little say over the manner in which we live and die on this planet. It's not so much that we live in a fallen world, it's that we are fallen people bringing the world down with us.

Listen to how Paul puts it in Romans 8.
For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies.
What the Christian faith tells us, and what you won’t hear anywhere else in the world, is that God has intimate, first-hand knowledge of human suffering. Jesus, the Son of God, suffered an excruciatingly painful death on the cross. Not only that, but he endured the emotional pain of abandonment, rejection, and betrayal, all in his hour of greatest need. Even more than many of us, God knows what pain and suffering feel like.

But the pain and suffering of Jesus turned into the redemption of all humanity. Through the crucifixion, God forgave us of all our sins. And after the crucifixion came the resurrection, where Jesus’ suffering became his glory. We, too, through faith in Christ, await the day of our own resurrection, when our suffering becomes our glory, and when we begin to do what we were made to do, rule over the earth right alongside the Son of God.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Sermon Recap: Shiloh

Our series through Jeremiah, called Run with Horses, continued this past Sunday night with a sermon called Shiloh. The text for the passage was Jeremiah 7:1-15. In this passage, God threatens to destroy the temple in Jerusalem just like he had destroyed the tabernacle in Shiloh over 400 years earlier.

The point of the sermon was that, sometimes, exile is rescue. The lesson of Shiloh is that God will destroy what we consider sacred in order to save what he considers sacred--us. You've heard it said, "Whenever God closes a door, he opens a window." Not always. Sometimes God closes the door, boards up the windows, and then sets fire to the house with you inside. Sometimes, Jerusalem has to become Shiloh in order for us to learn to abandon our idols.


We become what we worship, and God so passionately loves us that he will do whatever he needs to do to save us from our idols. When we worship the true God, we become more and more like his son Jesus. But when we worship false gods, we are transformed into false images, into a nothingness and a broken cistern. God wants to rescue you from your worship of empty, false, and lifeless gods.

Because we become what we worship, being rescued from our idols is painful. Idolatry puts us in the position of pain, either at the hands of the false gods, who only seek to destroy us, or at the hands of the one true God, who only seeks to save and restore us. Exile will always feel like exile, but in the hands of God, exile is rescue.

Jesus quoted this passage when he judged the temple by driving out the moneychangers. He went so far as to say, "Destroy this temple and I will rebuild it in three days." Essentially, he was saying, "I am the temple of God. You can kill me, but I will rise again three days later." Jesus became Shiloh for us. Jesus, the new and living temple, became Shiloh when he was crucified, not for his sin or idolatry, but for ours. His exile is our rescue.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Ember Monday

Yesterday was our first ever Family Worship Weekend at Ember Church. Our kids are very important to us...and we have a lot of them, so I was very interested to see how this would go. I can tell you, as both the pastor and a dad to three of those kids, I thought it was a smashing success!

We wanted to do some special things for the kids, to make them feel like a part of the service. The incomparable Charlie Vidourek led them in a rousing rendition of Father Abraham. It. Was. Awesome!

After Father Abraham I gave my first ever children's sermon. It was not quite as exciting as the song with hand motions, but we still had a lot of great interaction with the kids. They were super cute, and I was very impressed by how much they knew! It was so fantastic; I can't wait to do it again!

When I finished the sermon, we invited the band to come back up and sing Jesus Loves Me. Our hope was that that song would calm the kids down a bit...and it did! What a sweet time of all-family worship we had at Ember. This may not be something we do every week, but it will certainly be an integral part of our life as a church.