Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Prince of Motown

I've been super busy this week and haven't been able to blog at all, but that doesn't mean that the world has stopped. If you read this blog regularly, or know me at all, you know that I'm a huge fan of the Detroit Tigers. I love the sport of baseball, and have been a Tigers' fan since I was 5 years old.

Last year, the Tigers dominated the American League Central Division, beat the hated Yankees in the first round of the playoffs, and then lost to the Texas Rangers in the AL Championship Series. They showed a lot of heart that year, and Justin Verlander dominated the league by winning both the Cy Young and MVP awards.

A huge part of the Tigers' success was the addition of Designated Hitter and Catcher Victor Martinez. He hit really well, especially with runners on base, and provided outstanding leadership in the clubhouse. But something terrible happened to him last week. In a freak exercising accident, Martinez tore the ACL in one of his knees--an injury that will keep him out of baseball for the entire 2012 season.

Martinez's absence leaves a gaping hold in the Tigers' lineup, one that no Tigers' fan thought could be filled by one person. There was one free agent left on the market, Prince Fielder, who could meet or exceed Martinez's statistical contribution, but Fielder is a first basemen, and Miguel Cabrera was already holding that job down just fine. (Cabrera is arguably the game's best hitter.) Nobody thought the Tigers were in on Fielder, until they announced that they had signed him to a 9 year, $214 million contract!

I was floored. Then I was excited. Then I thought, "Where's he going to play? What about Cabrera? What will happen next year when Martinez comes back? What's he going to be like at the end of that contract? Will he be worth it?"

Miguel Cabrera will be switching to third base, which is actually his natural position. He's a really big guy, and will need to shed a few pounds, but Jim Leyland, the Tigers manager, seems confident he can play there. So I'm not going to worry about the defense. This wasn't a defensive move. This was a move that Mike Ilitch, the Tigers' owner, wanted to make to win a World Series before he dies. (He's 85 years old.) And if everybody stays healthy, this move certainly puts the Tigers into that upper echelon of teams in the game. The Tigers have the games best pitcher in Justin Verlander, one of (if not the) the best hitters in Miguel Cabrera, and now a serious power threat to complement him in Prince Fielder. Besides those high-level, possibly Hall of Fame caliber players, the Tigers have an excellent supporting cast in Jhonny Peralta, Brennan Boesch, Alex Avila, Doug Fister, Jose Valverde, and many others. This is, easily, the most talented Tigers team since they won the World Series in 1984.

Last year, Prince hit .299 with 38 home runs, 120 RBIs, and an OPS of .981. For reference, the man he is replacing in the lineup, Victor Martinez, hit .330 with 12 home runs, 103 RBIs, and an OPS of .850. Martinez is an excellent player, but at 33 years old, he is on the down side of his prime. Fielder is just 27 and still entering his prime. I expect similar numbers to these for at least the first 5 years of the contract.

As a fan, I'm excited about the offensive potential of the Tigers' lineup. Coupled with our excellent starting rotation and shut down bullpen, this team has a great shot to win the World Series. If there were still a move to make, I would really love them to pick up a speedy, defensive wiz at second base. But no team is perfect, and in my opinion, the Tigers are the best team in baseball. Here's to hoping we get Mr. Ilitch, and the city of Detroit, that World Series trophy in 2012.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ember Monday

Yesterday we pressed deeper into the identity of Jesus during our series on the Gospel of Mark. The sermon was called The Question, and the text was Mark 6:1-16. In this text we find Jesus coming back to his hometown of Nazareth, where the people who watched him grow up can't accept who he has become since his baptism. They sneer, cynically, "Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son?" The people who knew him best doubted him the most, so that he was hardly able to do any miracles in Nazareth.

The lesson we learn from the unbelief of the people of Nazareth, especially when contrasted with the faith of the twelve disciples, is that Jesus can only truly be himself in you when you trust him. Your lack of supernatural faith neutralizes his abundance of supernatural power. But the converse is also true. When you respond to Jesus in faith he will unleash his supernatural power in your life. You can listen to the sermon in the audio player on this blog, or you can download it from our podcast: (I've submitted our podcast feed to iTunes several times now, but still can't manage to get us in the podcast directory!)

The music last night was excellent, as always. I especially love the services when Garth shows up with his upright bass. We were especially blessed to have Rocky on the drums--we don't get a full drum kit very often, so we're always excited when we do.

The last song we sang was that old hymn What a Friend, which encourages us to take our burdens to God in prayer. Of all the things that God is teaching me right now, taking my burdens to him in prayer is at the top of the list. And the message of the song is that we can take our burdens to Jesus in prayer because he is our friend! So true.

Ember Church meets every Sunday night at 5pm at 401 E. Schrock Rd. in Westerville. All are welcome.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Anselm's Rational Argument for the Existence of God

I'm reading a book called Belief, which is an anthology of arguments for the reasonableness of faith. It was compiled by Francis Collins, who wrote The Language of God. While I'm not a huge apologetics guy, I do enjoy reading this type of stuff from time to time. Some of it is very mentally stretching for me, making me wish I had taken a philosophy course in college.

I had this moment yesterday when reading a short entry from Anselm of Canterbury. I don't recall reading anything from Anselm before, and while this was just a couple pages long, I could tell I would have an extremely difficult time keeping up with him over the course of an entire book. Do you enjoy apologetics? Do you like to read the classics? What's it like for you to read a book that was written in a time very different from our own?

I'd like to lay out, as best I can, Anselm's rational argument for the existence of God.
"God is something than which nothing greater can be thought." In other words, whatever the greatest thing we can think and imagine in our minds, that is God.

The Bible says, "The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.'" But when this person hears the description, "something than which nothing greater can be thought", he gets a picture of that something in his mind, even though he believes that that something does not exist.

However, "something than which nothing greater can be thought" cannot merely exist in the mind, because then everything that does exist would be greater than it. If "something than which nothing greater can be thought" exists solely in the mind, then it is "something than which many greater things can be thought", which is, of course, absurd.

Therefore, it is definite that "something than which nothing greater can be thought" must exist both in the mind and in reality.
As I understand him, Anselm is basically saying that the greatest thing you can think of must exist both in your mind and in reality, because anything that exists in reality is greater than anything that exists only in the mind. So if God is the greatest thing we can think of, he must exist in reality, otherwise he would not be the greatest thing we can think of.

Anselm wrote this about 900 years ago. What do you think? Is it a convincing argument? Does it have a fatal flaw?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Pastors and Money, Jesus and Paul

This post is a response to a comment from a friend, who was responding to Tuesday's post, Tithing.

For the issue of giving to the local church, we have to look to Paul because, as you say, Jesus was dealing with a pre-local church context. In fact, he was dealing with a Jewish context where tithing was a part of Torah, and he encouraged the people to tithe. "You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former." (Mt. 23:23)

So then, to Paul. This is from 1 Corinthians 9.

1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.

3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? 6 Or is it only I and Barnabas who lack the right to not work for a living?

7 Who serves as a soldier at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat its grapes? Who tends a flock and does not drink the milk? 8 Do I say this merely on human authority? Doesn’t the Law say the same thing? 9 For it is written in the Law of Moses: “Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain.” Is it about oxen that God is concerned? 10 Surely he says this for us, doesn’t he? Yes, this was written for us, because whoever plows and threshes should be able to do so in the hope of sharing in the harvest. 11 If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you? 12 If others have this right of support from you, shouldn’t we have it all the more?

But we did not use this right. On the contrary, we put up with anything rather than hinder the gospel of Christ.

13 Don’t you know that those who serve in the temple get their food from the temple, and that those who serve at the altar share in what is offered on the altar? 14 In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

15 But I have not used any of these rights. And I am not writing this in the hope that you will do such things for me, for I would rather die than allow anyone to deprive me of this boast. 16 For when I preach the gospel, I cannot boast, since I am compelled to preach. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! 17 If I preach voluntarily, I have a reward; if not voluntarily, I am simply discharging the trust committed to me. 18 What then is my reward? Just this: that in preaching the gospel I may offer it free of charge, and so not make full use of my rights as a preacher of the gospel.

Verse 14 is crucial because Paul declares a command directly from Jesus, that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel. Paul, however, lets the Corinthians off the hook in this regard, not because he's being magnanimous, but because of their stubborn and judgmental hearts (v. 3).

The problem is not that Paul shouldn't be asking for money and is, it's that the congregation is judgmental toward and offended by him when he does. The root of this problem, as I stated in the previous post, is that money is an idol for all of us.

Let me go one step further. Almost every pastor I know would do the ministry for free if it were possible. I can't think of a single person in the ministry, that I know personally, who is doing this because it seemed like a wise career choice. They are all doing it because they believe God has called them to the task, and they are so passionate about the proclamation of the Gospel that they would forsake lucrative careers in other fields to give their whole lives to the mission of Jesus. (In case you were wondering, a Master of Divinity is the only Master degree where the typical holder earns less than those with just a Bachelor degree.)

Nobody goes into ministry for the money. I, myself, ministered for free for 2 years. I'm trying very hard to minister for free right now, and am extremely grateful for the generosity of Ember Church in the meantime. Paul ministered for free because the people in Corinth were hard-hearted and judgmental. (In fact, it's more likely that he had to rely on the support of other, more generous and kingdom-minded churches to supplement what he lacked from his tent-making work.) But that is not God's plan for those who preach the gospel. Again, verse 14, "The Lord [Jesus] has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel."

We could even drop down another level and talk about what Jesus commanded his disciples when he sent them out in, say, Mark 6. (Which is the passage I'm preaching from this week at Ember.) Verse 8, "Take nothing for the journey except a staff--no bread, no bag, no money in your belts." What is he saying? He's saying, "Trust my Father to provide for your needs through the generosity of those to whom you preach." So even as far back as the first commissioning of the disciples we see that Jesus' intention is for them to "receive their living from the Gospel."

Someone might say, "Well that's convenient for you to say, guilting people into giving so that you can earn a salary." But that cynicism doesn't negate the explicit command of Jesus. While we pastors, Paul included, might walk on eggshells and put up with a lot because of this cynicism and judgmentalism, it is not what Jesus intends for his church. And the cynicism is wrong. It is, biblically, wrong. But we pastors, like Paul, put up with it for the sake of the gospel. We hem and we haw over money, and we pussyfoot around because we think that, because we earn our living by preaching, we don't have the moral authority to preach on money. That's simply bogus. If money is a near-universal idol, and the Gospel has something to say about all of our idols, and we're called to preach the Gospel, then we've got a moral obligation and a command from Jesus himself to preach on money. If you (and this is a general you) as a Christian are offended by biblical teaching on money, then your idol is showing, and you should expect God to do something to your idol along the lines of what he did to Shiloh, and then to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012


Warning: This post is about money. 

Further warning: Money is probably the most powerful idol in your heart.

I've written this post because money is an important topic for Christians to talk about, but many of us pastors are afraid to talk about it because of the sins of those who have gone before us. We are afraid. But, alas, some things must be said, even at the risk of being lumped in with the Jimmy Swaggarts of the world.

In the interest of full disclosure, part of my motivation to write this post is the financial state of Ember Church. However, I have no intention of trying to motivate people in my own congregation to give so that the church can be rescued. If you were at church last week when we publicly discussed our financial circumstances you know this. (If you attend Ember and missed this information, but would like to know more, please let me know.) What Ember needs is for me to find a full-time job somewhere else in the city, something I am trying to do in earnest. However, what I've written below still needs to be said. As usual, I've tried to state things as clearly and frankly as possible.

I'm convinced that the reason we don't like to talk about or hear about money at church is because we love money, put our faith in it, and wrap our identities around it. Let me be plain. Money is an idol. The more viscerally you respond to a sermon on money, the more likely it is that you are harboring money as a powerful idol on the throne of your heart. I know those are strong words, but I believe them, and I believe they need to be said. God hates all of our idols because they steal his rightful place in our lives, and they ultimately make us less than human.

Last week at Ember I mentioned, while talking about the church's finances, that part of why we tithe--give to the local church--is to wage war against the idol of money that captivates our hearts. If greed is the idolatry of money, then generosity to God's work is the antidote to our greed.

What does the New Testament say about tithing?

Oddly enough, the NT does not mention tithing, though for the earliest Jewish Christians it seems likely that they would have continued to tithe to the Temple, and then given an additional amount for the work of the Church. The Gentile Christians did not have to pay a tithe (which was really closer to a national tax for Israel) for the upkeep and operation of the Temple. So what drove them? Here is a sampling of some Scripture from the NT. (Thanks to a commenter at the Jesus Creed named Amos Paul for compiling these.)
1 Corinthians 16:1-2 • Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.

Romans 15:27 • They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews’ spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings.

1 Corinthians 9:11 • If we have sown spiritual seed among you, is it too much if we reap a material harvest from you?

1 Corinthians 9:14 • In the same way, the Lord has commanded that those who preach the gospel should receive their living from the gospel.

2 Corinthians 8:12 • For if the willingness is there, the gift is acceptable according to what one has, not according to what he does not have.

2 Corinthians 9:7 • Each man should give what he has decided in his heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
Notice that there is no set sum, like a tithe (10%), for the NT churches. Rather, giving is governed by the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity. C.S. Lewis noticed this absence of specific direction, and concluded thusly:
“I do not believe that one can settle how much we ought to give. I am afraid that the only safe rule is to give more than we can spare. In other words, if our expenditure on comforts, luxuries, amusements, etc., is up to the standard common among those with the same income as our own, we are probably giving away too little. If our charities do not at all pinch or hamper us, I should say they are too small. There ought to be things we should like to do and cannot because our charitable expenditure excludes them.”
In other words, give until it hurts. Make sacrifices for the work of God, and especially for the local family of God to which you belong. The church's responsibility is not to make its pastors rich, but to make their work possible, and a joy. God takes very seriously the work to which he has called ministers, and his will is for them to "receive their living from the gospel."

Should I tithe when I am in debt?

I hear this question from time to time. "Isn't it God's will for me to be out of debt? Shouldn't I put that ahead of giving to the church?" In fact, it is God's will for you to be out of debt. However, if you're not going to give to the church because of your debt, then neither should you buy any new clothes, eat out, go to the movies, buy Christmas or birthday presents, or do anything else than the absolute, bare minimum required to survive until you have successfully paid off your debt. If you're so concerned over your debt (and you should be concerned over it) that you would withhold from the work of God in your midst, then you should also withhold from yourself every blessing of life in modern America. No cable. No Netflix. No internet. No cell phone. And you should probably sell as much as you possibly can in order to speed up the repayment of your debt.

Have I overstated things? Maybe I have. But is it right to withhold from God's work and indulge yourself? A cell phone might not feel like an indulgence, but when you're giving $100 to Verizon every month and $0 to your local church, and you claim that you're too in debt to tithe, perhaps something has gone awry in your heart. Perhaps there is an idol on the throne of your heart, the throne that rightfully belongs to Jesus.

My family is in debt. We have a mortgage. We have a car payment. We bought a new HVAC system in 2010 that we're paying off. We had our basement waterproofed. We have a significant chunk of debt to pay off. But, despite our debt, and even though I'm the pastor of the church to which we tithe (Yes, pastors tithe too!), we give sacrificially to Ember Church. We do it because we love the local church, and believe in the power of the community of Jesus and the necessity to fund it. (Incidentally, our giving has not increased since planting Ember. We give the same percentage to Ember that we gave to Heritage.)

To answer the question, Yes, you should tithe even when you are in debt. For many of us, we are in debt because money has been an idol. Paying off your debt will not solve the idolatry problem. But I believe that generosity will.

How much should I give to the local church to which I belong?

There is no definitive number for this. Let the principles of grace, willingness, and generosity guide you. You need to work out with God just how much to give. But don't ask, "How much can I afford?"; ask, "How much, God? How much must I give to kill the idol of money in my heart? How much will it take to starve the beast within me?" I know a family that gives 10% of their pretax income to the local church. They do pretax income because they want to make sure that God and the Church gets financial resources before the Government.

Here are some more tithing tips:
  • Don't chop up your giving. If you've decided on a certain amount to give to the local church, don't reduce that amount to support missionaries or do other charitable giving. Let the local church be your first commitment, then support missionaries from your abundance, if you are able. Also, trust the church to be able to responsibly direct the funds.
  • Never tell your pastor, "My tithe pays your salary." If you still consider it "your tithe", then you haven't been gracious, willing, or generous. When you put it in the basket, it doesn't belong to you anymore. Just as "your taxes" don't pay for every single thing the government does, so "your tithe" doesn't pay for everything the church does.
  • Don't withhold tithe to make a political point or express your dissatisfaction with the pastor. This is childish. Don't let your money do the talking when you're perfectly capable of doing the talking yourself.
  • Trust that God will provide. My family has consistently given more than we can afford, and we have consistently seen God come through for us. Because of God's faithfulness in the past, we have faith for his continued provision in the future.

Tithing is, in the end, a discipleship issue. Tithing calls us to fully root ourselves in a particular faith community, and to follow Jesus in the most sensitive of areas--our bottom lines. It is an act of war with the idol of money. It is an exercise in faith, and God will prove himself faithful.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Ember Monday

Last night was the third week in our series The Gospel (According to Mark). We covered Mark 3:7-35 in a sermon called The Family. It was a different kind of preaching experience for me because, rather than taking one central idea and working it out for a half hour, I went through the text section by section, treating each one independently. Normally, I don't like to preach that way, but the passage I chose was so long, and so full, that I didn't know how else to attack it.

Something huge that came out of the text, for me, was what Jesus was doing when he appointed his disciples. He chose 12 men, which is, for Israel, a tremendously significant number. There were 12 tribes of Israel--12 sons of Jacob--that formed the original nation. Jesus, by choosing 12 men to be his inner circle, was symbolically reestablishing Israel, recreating the nation of God's people. And here's the kicker: He put himself at the center.

What's so significant about that? Well, consider who was previously at the center of Israel. Who was the first one to establish Israel? Who was in the center of the camp as the 12 tribes moved through the wilderness from Egypt to the Promised Land? It was YHWH. Does that mean that Jesus is replacing YHWH? No, it means that Jesus is YHWH, and that he is replacing the YHWH the people thought they knew. Jesus replaces the God you thought you knew. Everything you thought you knew about God is refined and corrected in Jesus.

Giving communion to one another at Ember.
At the end of the sermon we took communion. We did it in a way that was outside of typical. Normally, communion will be passed down the aisles or administered at the front of the church by the priest or pastor. In order to demonstrate that we are a family in Jesus, I had us administer communion to one another. We formed a line (that's what's happening in the picture), and each person administered the elements to the person behind them in line, saying, "The body of Christ, broken for you. The blood of Christ, shed for you." For me, it was a profound picture of the church in action, giving one another the sacred body and blood of Christ, providing the spiritual sustenance to each other we all so desperately need.

Ember Church meets every Sunday evening at 5:00. We rent a beautiful church called The American Baptist of Westerville, which is at 401 E. Schrock Rd. in Westerville, Ohio. Please feel free to come be a part of our community.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Book Review: I Am a Follower

The Church has a leadership problem. So argues Leonard Sweet in his new book, I Am a Follower. The problem, however, is not that we don’t have enough leaders, or that our leaders have lost their way. The problem is that we have become enamored with leadership culture, obsessed with leading, and supremely focused on raising up the next generation of leaders. The trouble is, Jesus never told us to lead. He told us to follow.

The evangelical church has bought into a brand of leadership that, since the economic crisis of 2008, has gone bankrupt. But the lonely, trailblazing, genius-coming-down-from-the-mountain model of leadership is not what Jesus had in mind for his bride. The picture of leadership in Jesus’ mind was himself, and the rest of us are called to follow him. “What the world defines as leadership is not the way God works through his people in the world. …Christians are called to live by faith in a world that lives by fame.” (28-9)

Christians are not to be leaders, Sweet argues. They are to be followers. First followers. In other words, Christians should find where Jesus is going, discover where he is at work, and then take up their crosses and follow him there. “In posing the paradox of the ox with an easy yoke and a light burden, Jesus is inviting followers to ‘walk alongside me. Just be with me, and the doing will come naturally.’ …Leadership is a functional position of power and authority. Followership is a relational posture of love and trust.” (39-40)

I Am a Follower is a prophetic call to abandon the culture of leadership, with it’s cultic practices of celebrity-worship and the fruitless pursuit of power and fame. Instead, we must take up the position of a sheep, humbling ourselves, and permitting Jesus to be the Good Shepherd of us—yes, even us church “leaders”! Sweet’s call is one to return to a position of relationship to God in Jesus Christ, and to forsake our position of function within the institution of Church. “All too often these days, the church’s stories are about success, leadership, justice, happiness. When ministers become social workers, preachers become motivational speakers, and evangelism becomes marketing, the result is a gimcrack gospel that is tawdry, tacky, and cheap. Asked, ‘What story do you love to tell?’ a first follower’s first answer is, ‘I love to tell the story of…Jesus and his love.’” (144)

I Am a Follower is a necessary, if imperfect, book for our times. Evangelicalism is swimming deeper and deeper into the ocean of celebrity and leadership. But there are sharks here, and there is blood in the water! If our primary aim is to focus on leaders, then who will care for the flock? If the image of the ideal Christian is a leader, then what hope is there for followers? The truth is, we are all followers, and Christ will be more glorified when we learn to accept that reality and let him lead.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

God's Sovereignty

N.T. Wright stated something in his book Simply Jesus that I thought was quite profound. Christians talk about how Jesus is Lord, how God is in control and sovereign, but there is plenty of evidence in the world that seems to point to the contrary. "If Jesus is Lord and God is control," the skeptic might ask, "then why Katrina? Why AIDS? Why genocide? The world sure doesn't look like a place where God is King."
The story of Jesus's resurrection and his going into "heaven" are only the beginning of something new, something that will be completed one day, but that none of the early Christians supposed had been fully accomplished yet.

The early Christians were, after all, a small minority, staking their daring and apparently crazy claim about Jesus from a position of great weakness and vulnerability. They were a threat to the established order.... But their threat to the present world was not of the usual kind. They were not ordinary revolutionaries, ready to take up arms to overthrow an existing regime and establish their own instead. Celebrating Jesus as the world's rightful king...was indeed a way of posing a challenge to Caesar and all other earthly "lords." But it was a different sort of challenge. It was not only the announcement of Jesus as the true king, albeit still the king-in-waiting, but the announcement of him as the true sort of king. Addressing the ambitious pair James and John, he put it like this: "Pagan rulers...lord it over their subjects. ...But that's not how it's to be with you" (Matt. 20:25-26). And, as he said to Pilate, the kingdoms that are characteristic of "this world" make their way by violence, but his sort of kingdom doesn't do that (John 18:36). We all know the irony of empires that offer people peace, prosperity, freedom, and justice--and kill tens of thousands of people to make the point. Jesus's kingdom isn't like that. With him, the irony works the other way round. Jesus's death and his followers' suffering are the means by which his peace, freedom, and justice come to birth on earth as in heaven.

Jesus's kingdom must come, then, by the means that correspond to the message. It's no good announcing love and peace if you make angry, violent war to achieve it!
That's a long quote, but he's saying simply this: The cross of Jesus characterizes the rule of Jesus. His rule and reign is spread, not through violence or war, but through proclamation and agape love. In fact, Christianity grows best when it is oppressed and persecuted--in other words, when the powers of the world do to his followers what they did to Jesus.

Now, here's the point I want to make, and this applies to many Christians, particularly to those who are Reformed. The cross of Jesus replaces everything we thought we knew about what it means for God to be "sovereign" and "in control". The iron scepter that Isaiah talked about, the one by which the Messiah would rule, turned out to be the two wooden beams on which the Messiah was crucified. The sovereignty of God is most clearly visible at the cross, where the Son of God was murdered by Roman soldiers under the command of the Roman Governor, Pilate, and at the behest of the Jewish leaders. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians, the strength of God looks like weakness to human eyes.

If you don't perceive God's sovereignty through the lens of the cross, then you fail to perceive it at all. God does not rule with an iron fist, like a great army general; he rules like a sacrificial lamb. The rule and reign of Jesus the King is extended, on earth, through the same means by which it was inaugurated--self-giving, life-losing love. That love, the agape love of the cross, is the one force on earth that no king or general or president can ever stamp out!

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Dance - Your Destiny

C.S. Lewis writes, “In Christianity God is not a static thing…but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.” If we press out this metaphor of dance a bit further, we can understand Father, Son, and Spirit as each dancing, orbiting, around the others. They each give unconditional, infinite agape love to the others. They each give glory to the others. There is an eternal dance of glorifying love going on within the Trinity.

Tim Keller writes, “Because the Father, Son, and Spirit are giving glorifying love to one another, God is infinitely, profoundly happy. …The Father, the Son, and the Spirit are pouring love and joy and adoration into the other, each one serving the other. They are infinitely seeking one another’s glory, and so God is infinitely happy. And if it’s true that this world has been created by this triune God, then ultimate reality is a dance.”

Ultimate reality is a dance. We are meant to dance and move and orbit around the Trinity, our triune Creator God. We are not meant to be still, meaning we are not meant to be the center of the universe. Hell is stasis. Hell is ordering your life around yourself, and demanding that others, even God, dance around you.

But God himself, within his internal dynamics, does not even do this. God is three-personal, and each person of the Trinity orbits around the others in a dance of glorifying agape love.

Have you ever wondered why God created humans? Was he lonely? No, he wasn’t lonely, because he is three-in-one. He didn’t lack for relationships or love. Did he have needs? Like, was he hungry? No, he had no needs. He wasn’t hungry, and he didn’t need to create humans to bring him food. Some ancient religions taught that. But not ours.

What compelled God to create humanity was desire, his desire to extend the divine dance from 3 to infinity. God's desire was to spread the other-glorifying dance of self-giving love within himself to an infinite number of beings created in his image. As Tim Keller says, “You were made to enter into a divine dance with the Trinity.” This does not mean that you or I will ever become divine. We will not. But we will become the closest thing possible: The Bride of Christ.

There is a wedding at the end of Scripture, the marriage between Christ and the Church. We, the Church, will become Christ’s everlasting companion; and so the dance will grow. We will be invited in. As the prophets so often put it from God’s perspective: “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” Your destiny is to join the dance of the Trinity as a full member of the Church, Christ’s Bride.

But this, of course, is not a dance that we must wait for. You are invited to participate now, today. If all of life is a dance, if ultimate reality is a divine dance, then you need, more than anything, to join the dance today. What bride would show up to her wedding not knowing how to dance?

So the onus is on you to learn how to dance. You must learn humility. You must learn agape love. You must commit yourself to seeing the Gospel happen in your heart, in your relationships, and in your community. You must learn to dance with Jesus as a part of a community of faith. You must learn to live within the agape love of the Trinity.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Ember Monday

I was really flying high after our baptism service last week. Seeing God move in people's hearts to take that huge step of baptism is one of the most emotionally rewarding experiences a pastor can have.

Yesterday's service was also a powerful one for me because I felt a freedom to worship that I hadn't had in a little while. I'm convinced it was because I was emotionally and spiritually prepared for worship on a level that I hadn't been yet since we started Ember. Everybody in the building stopped whatever we were doing at 4:30 and gathered to pray. While we had done this sort of thing before, this time it seemed more intentional. The Spirit really moved us, and his presence carried over from that time right into the service.

The sermon was the second in our series on the Gospel of Mark, and we looked at four passages where Mark is demonstrating the authority and Lordship of Jesus in particular realms. When he drove out a demon, Jesus demonstrated that he is the Lord over spirits, both angels and demons. When he healed the crippled man who was lowered on a mat from the roof, he demonstrated that he is the Lord over the human body and all that ails it. When he calmed the storm on Galilee, he demonstrated that he is the Lord over nature. Finally, when he raised Jairus' daughter from the dead, he demonstrated that he is the Lord over life and death. In fact, what Mark is telling us in these episodes is that Jesus is Lord Over All. There is nothing over which he does not have authority. There is no where which he is not King.

Jesus is Lord!

Friday, January 6, 2012

Reading the Bible in a Year

Last year, for the first time in my life, I started a Bible reading plan that I actually finished. It was the M'Cheyne reading plan, and it takes you through the Old Testament once, and the New Testament + Psalms twice in a year. I started the plan on January 1 last year, and, by the grace of God, finished it on December 31. I got behind a lot, especially after Bexley was born, so there were many days of no reading and many days of lots of reading. I had to make up over 20 missed days at the end of the year!

Despite my inconsistencies, it was a very rewarding experience. Though it's indiscernable to me, Breena has noticed a difference in my character. She could always tell, with a fair amount of accuracy, the days I had done my reading and the days I hadn't. (Apparently I'm crankier when I don't read the Bible.) But beyond what this discipline has done to my character is what it has done to my mind and my spirit. I sense deep internal change going on. Fewer impure thoughts. Shorter bouts of despair. Greater attention to the things of God. More passion for Jesus. Order where there was chaos. Clarity where there was fog.

There were many times I wanted to quit. I felt it becoming routine. Mundane. Obligatory. But instead of giving it up so that I could be wholly authentic and not hypocritical at all, I pressed through those emotions and came out the other side. And you know what? There really is a far side of mundane and religious obligation. At first I wanted to do it, then I felt like I had to do it. But instead of giving up at that point, I persevered through it and came to a place where I both wanted to do it and knew that I had to do it. And that was okay.

If you've tried to start a Bible reading before and failed, don't give up. I tried many times and failed. I failed many times in 2011. Just don't give up. Get back on track. Use one of the many plans on YouVersion to keep yourself on pace in 2012. They even have plans as short as one week, so that you can ease your way into the discipline of daily Scripture reading. Just 10 minutes a day in the Word really can change your life!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

An Open Letter to Coach Urban Meyer

Dear Coach Meyer,

First of all, I want to tell you how angry I still am about the 2007 National Championship game. It was embarrassing. Humiliating. Your Gators destroyed us; there's simply no getting around that. I thought we had that game in the bag. I thought we would coast to our second National Championship in five years. But you exposed us; and after that game, whether it's fair or not, the narrative became Ohio State versus the SEC. It was a difficult few years. LSU. Texas. (Heartbreak! But we did still beat Oregon in the Rose Bowl, and while it's off the record books, we beat Arkansas in the Sugar.) And then...well, let's not bring up the tattoos. Or last season. It's time to move on. So I want to say this from the bottom of my scarlet and gray heart: I forgive you. You're my coach now. You've come home. Welcome back.

Now, let me make a confession. We made an idol out of Jim Tressel. We dehumanized him by making him superhuman. We set our expectations too high. We demanded his lifeblood, his flesh, his soul. And when he failed us, we turned on him. We sent him away. And I participated in every step of that journey. It wasn't him so much as it was us and our unrealistic expectaions. We, the fans, the alumni, and the boosters were the first ones who sinned. We drove him to it through our dehumanizing idolization. I don't know if we've learned our lesson yet. I hope we have. So please, be careful. We need you to set boundaries with us. If you don't, we'll eat you alive. If you thought things were tough in Florida...well, you ain't seen nuthin' yet.

Do us a favor. Keep that promise to your daughter. Don't violate that contract. Eat lunch. Exercise. Go to your kids' sporting events. Take your wife out for dinner. Love your family and take care of yourself. Keep us at arm's length. Keep the program in it's proper place. Don't lose yourself in the sea of scarlet and gray. Don't listen to us when we turn on you. (We will.) Don't pay any attention to us when we boo your players. (We will.) Don't let the expectations of boosters determine how you run the program. Just do your job and go home to your family with a clear conscience.

Most importantly, and I don't know where you stand with this, abide closely with Jesus Christ. Find a church. (I know a good one that's small and meets on Sunday nights!) Only by fostering a deep and rich relationship with the true King will you be able to keep yourself from becoming what we will try to make you into--a king and an idol. Enter into a Christian community that will treat you as a man and not as a god. Jesus doesn't care if you beat Michigan or win Big Ten Titles or National Championships. He cares if your heart is fully turned toward himself in humble submission to his rule and reign. And win or lose, Jesus, the eternal King, loves you.

God bless you!

Andy Holt
tOSU, Class of 2001

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Mountain Tops

A lot of folks at Ember are also involved with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ), which just had their annual Christmas Conference in Indianapolis. It was, as usual, awesome. I can't wait to hear about it from more of my friends!

I also attended a lot of conferences and retreats as a college student. These were, what I called, "Mountain Top Experiences". They are spiritual highs. You come away from these events highly-motivated, deeply-passionate, and just overall on fire for God.

Typically, however, the fire would die down and the passion would fade, and I would return to "normal", which basically meant I became a shy, timid, cynical person again. I would berate myself for not being able to sustain the spiritual high I got at the conferences and retreats. I thought this was a mark of my being immature and weak. Fortunately, I've learned a few things about myself and about life with God since then, so I'd like to share a few of the things I've learned here.

First of all, The spiritual high is designed to fade. The mountain top experience is emotionally and spiritually unsustainable. And that's okay. What's most important is not what you do or believe on top of the mountain, but what you do and believe in the valleys. You are far more dangerous to the devil in the valleys, if you persist through them with faith, courage, and obedience, than you are on the mountain tops. Anybody can get excited about God for a weekend, but one of the distinguishing marks of a true disciple is that he or she remains faithful to God within their times of spiritual and emotional discouragement.

Secondly, Follow through on whatever commitment you made. Keeping your promises to God is vital to fostering a good relationship with him. You might have been in the heat of passion and fire for Jesus when you committed to him a year of overseas ministry (or whatever), but you still made the promise. Keep it. The devil will do whatever he can to get you to break your promises to God. Remember that when you start rationalize your way out of keeping your commitments.

Lastly, Focus on keeping your trajectory upward. If you could graph your spiritual life, how excited and passionate you are about Jesus, what it would look like? Yes, you will have peaks and valleys. But is it moving in a general, upward (meaning more encouraged and more passionate) trend? To accomplish this, you're going to have to participate in spiritual disciplines. You have to get the things of God firmly rooted into the soil of your heart. So I say, start a prayer journal. Use (or their smart phone app) to start a Bible reading program. Spend 10 minutes today completely disconnected from all media, in total silence. Raise your hands in worship even when you don't necessarily feel like it. Force yourself to engage with God beyond how you're feeling in the particular moment. Push yourself. If you do that, you'll look back on your spiritual high in ten years and think, "Wow. That's my normal, now."

I hope this helps. If you have any other tips, leave them in the comments section.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Ember Monday

Yesterday was another night of firsts at Ember. Our first service of 2012. The first week in our series on Mark. And, most importantly, our first baptisms! Let me tell you the story.

Travis Somers came to me a couple months ago saying he wanted to get baptized. We talked about it for a bit, then somebody had the great idea to have our first baptism service on New Year's Day. What better way to start out the new year than to be baptized?

For a long time Travis was the only person who was scheduled to be baptized. We announced it at church several times, and I'm sure I mentioned it online on numerous occasions, as well. But nobody bit, so Travis was it.

On Saturday my son and I went to the church to get the baptistery ready. We turned on the hot water heater, swept out the baptistery, and wiped it down really well. (By "we" I mean "I did all that while Cyrus colored in the kitchen"!)

I returned to the church the next morning to fill up the baptistery with the hot water from the giant water heater. What came out, however, was a brown, mucky, horribly-stinky water-type solution that might have been hot, but was certainly unsuitable for baptizing. In fact, the water smelled so bad the odor set off the toxic gas alarm on the other side of the sanctuary!

Pastor Mark (the pastor of American Baptist Church - Westerville, where we rent space) and I had no idea what to do. We decided the best course of action would be to dump out the stinky brown water-like substance and fill the baptistery with clean, but extremely cold, water. And boy was it ever cold!

I tried boiling large pots of water and dumping them into the baptistery, but that wasn't having any effect. Also, the stove is in the basement, down a really long flight of stairs and clear on the other side of the building. No, thanks. After unsuccessfully searching around town for a sumbersible water heater, I decided that we would just have to suck it up and deal with the frigid temperatures.

About that time I got word from a friend that Becca Lowe also wanted to baptized. Awesome! That's 2! I made sure that both Becca and Travis knew to wear warm clothes.

During the service, I made a call for those who have never been baptized to come forward and be baptized tonight. I didn't expect anyone to come forward because I had been making cracks about the water temperature all night. But Cody Parsons responded! That made 3!

Normally, I would invite each person to go into the baptistery separately, where I would stand with them and ask them a series of questions, which basically amounts to a profession of faith in Christ. This time, however, we took care of all that before getting into the water.

After they each confessed full faith in Christ and submission to him as King, I got into the baptistery (So cold!) with Travis. We both about died from shock. We managed to get through it, though, and I said as loud as I could, "Based on your profession of faith, I know baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit." And under he went! It was exhilarating! After Travis came Becca, and after Becca came Cody. We all came out alive, and we've all got a great story to tell of the first baptisms we ever had at Ember Church!