20160224

Strength in Weakness :: Readers’ Choice

Bonhoeffer’s Lenten Prayer brought to mind a poem in a favorite book, A Severe Mercy, by Sheldon Vanauken. The poem was written by a Catholic priest named Dom. Julian Stead, who was at the time dying of cancer:

If everything is lost, thanks be to God
If I must see it go, watch it go,
Watch it fade away, die
Thanks be to God that He is all I have
And if I have Him not, I have nothing at all
Nothing at all, only a farewell to the wind
Farewell to the grey sky
Goodbye, God be with you evening October sky.
If all is lost, thanks be to God,
For He is He, and I, I am only I.

— Greg

Readers’ Choice (Originally published February 24, 2016)

“Christ’s time of passion begins not with Holy Week but with the first day of his preaching,” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer. “His renunciation of the empire as a kingdom of this world takes place not at Golgotha but at the very beginning.”

In this season of reflection we reorient our understanding of Christ’s life—his ongoing sacrifice, pouring himself out from the moment of birth. Bonhoeffer continues:

Jesus could have been Lord of this world. As the Messiah the Jews had dreamed of, he could have freed Israel and led it to fame and honor. He is a remarkable man, who is offered dominion over the world even before the beginning of his ministry. And it is even more remarkable that he turns down this offer. He knows that for this dominion he would have to pay a price that is too high for him. It would come at the cost of obedience to God’s will.

“Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him” (Luke 4:8). Jesus knows what that means. It means lowliness, abuse, persecution. It means remaining misunderstood. It means hate, death, the cross. And he chooses this way from the beginning. It is the way of obedience and the way of freedom, for it is the way of God. And therefore it is also the way of love for human beings.
It is only through the power of God’s Spirit that we are able to embrace the radically sacrificial lifestyle of Christ. Remarkably, no Christian is better than another at doing this—we all fail. We all must cry out for God’s strength. Bonhoeffer is a giant of faith, but he was not exempt from this cry; something we see in his Lenten Prayer:
I Cannot Do This Alone
O God, early in the morning I cry to you.
Help me to pray
And to concentrate my thoughts on you;
I cannot do this alone.
In me there is darkness,
But with you there is light;
I am lonely, but you do not leave me;
I am feeble in heart, but with you there is help;
I am restless, but with you there is peace.
In me there is bitterness, but with you there is patience;
I do not understand your ways,
But you know the way for me….
Restore me to liberty,
And enable me to live now
That I may answer before you and before men.
Lord whatever this day may bring,
Your name be praised.
Amen

Today’s Reading
Lamentations 2 (Listen – 4:55)
Psalm 33 (Listen – 2:08)

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20160517

Love in Diversity :: Readers’ Choice

If the greatest effect of God’s love in me is only that I love those similar to me and who agree with me, then I need God as much as I need a new kind of toothpaste. — John

Readers’ Choice (Originally published May 17, 2016)

Love covers a multitude of sins. — 1 Peter 4.8

“One of the reasons why there are so many exhortations in the New Testament for Christians to love other Christians is because this is not an easy thing to do,” D.A. Carson explains. “The church itself is not made up of natural ‘friends.’ It is made up of natural enemies.” It is Christ himself who unites faithful Christians—in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, “nothing more and nothing less.” Carson continues:

What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or any- thing else of that sort. Christians come together, not because they form a natural collocation, but because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ and owe him a common allegiance. In the light of this common allegiance, in the light of the fact that they have all been loved by Jesus himself, they commit themselves to doing what he says—and he commands them to love one another. In this light, they are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.

Carson argues that unity is not intrinsically good. The first church was united around the work of Christ; the people in Babel were united around building glory for themselves. If you want to know what a community values most, look to what the members hold in common.

Churches formed around commitment to a political party—rejecting or ostracizing members of the other party—are confessing their idolatry. Churches which bind around economic status, hobbies, or ethnicity reveal their self-centeredness. Christian unity is an extension of Christ’s love and sacrifice for us, not a sign of our strength.

We are to love Christ more than our ideologies, but we are also to love him more than our desire to penalize or seek retribution from those who hurt us.

There is no Scriptural expectation that love will cover all sins between people. Abusive relationships, even marriages, are to be exited—with Scripture’s blessing—for the benefit of both parties. Short of this, love is expected to cover a multitude of sins. Why? Because living in a broken world exposes us to a multitude of grievances.

Ideological pettiness is the scourge of social media—and it’s bleeding into the real world a little more each day. Not-so for the faithful Christian. Carson concludes, “The reason why Christian love will stand out and bear witness to Jesus is that it is a display, for Jesus’ sake, of mutual love among social incompatibles.”

Today’s Reading
Lamentations 1 (Listen – 4:44)
Psalm 32 (Listen – 1:34)

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20150129

Justice and the Kingdom of God :: Readers’ Choice

This post reminds me that my longing for justice is an intrinsic part of the image of God in which we are created. The anger I feel and the thought, “Someone needs to pay for that,” are theological. This post also reminds me that I am not the cashier who must collect the payment of justice. Ultimately that transaction must belong to God. — John

Readers’ Choice (Originally published January 29, 2015)

By Carl F.H. Henry

“The time has come,” Jesus said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” — Mark 1.15

Some evolutionists have argued that human beings came gradually to depict divinity in terms of ethical norms. But the Bible presents man as standing from his very beginnings in ethical relationships to God, and nowhere portrays law as a gradual conjectural equalization of human interests later declared to be divinely sanctioned. 

The conception of law as purely juridical, and the enforcement simply on grounds of custom or social legislation, reflect a later societal development in which man is considered the originator or revealer of law; such a development first obscures and then eclipses the truth that law in its absolute sense is the revealed will of God.

To be sure, many humanists engage vigorously in the struggles for justice and freedom; their effort, in fact, is sometimes more energetic than that of Christian believers, and should be commended whenever it coincides with the requirements of objective morality. But humanistic ethics has no secure way of transcending a relativistic theory of justice. Factual observations and utilitarian considerations on which humanists base their social concern imply no normative principle; they accommodate no logical transition from the is to the ought. 

The Christian vision of justice is comprehensive and spans all areas of good and evil; it not only vindicates the truly just man condemned to a criminal’s cross, but also summons to final judgment the self-righteous who vaunt themselves as paragons of virtue. 

Reminding his disciples of the approaching, inevitable judgment and justice of God, Jesus commends trustful prayer. His prayerful and faithful followers are to anticipate the Son of Man’s return in power and glory to vindicate the justice that God ordains. 

— Abridged from Carl F.H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority.

Prayer

O Christ, essential Day, O Light
that peels the darkness from the night,
we know you for the Heart of light,
who tell the blessedness of light.

O holy Master of the night
we beg defense against the night
and rest against your breast this night
and peaceful sleep throughout the night.

See what snares the foe prepares
see what villainy he dares—
in vain: your blood has bought your cares
for us, your guidance victory bears.

— From an anonymous hymn used in numerous medieval liturgies.

Today’s Readings
Jeremiah 52 (Listen – 5:49)
Psalm 31 (Listen – 3:11)

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20160426

What Remains :: Readers’ Choice

My prayers so often go to prayers of safety—of manipulation—not to prayers of surrender. How I long for the focus of my prayers to move beyond myself and refocus on God. — Emily

Readers’ Choice (Originally published April 26, 2016)

He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. — Hebrews 1.3

On most days I don’t actually want God; I just want someone more powerful than I am to manipulate things into going my way. Wanting benefits from God versus wanting God is the difference between believing in God and experiencing God. In his sermon The Gospel and Your Self Timothy Keller explains:

If the distance between the earth and the sun (92 million miles) was reduced to the thickness of a sheet of paper, then the distance between the earth and the nearest star would be a stack of papers 70 feet high and the diameter of the galaxy would be a stack of paper 310 miles high. That’s how big the galaxy is. Yet the galaxy is nothing but a speck of dust, virtually, in the whole universe.

The Bible says Jesus Christ holds this universe together with the word of his power… Is this the kind of person you ask into your life to be your assistant?

The safest way to live the Christian life is to relegate God to creating individual comfort, success, and prosperity. This is why, Kierkegaard believes, we insulate ourselves from truly experiencing God:

The matter is quite simple. The Bible is very easy to understand. But we Christians are a bunch of scheming swindlers. We pretend to be unable to understand it because we know very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly. Take any words in the New Testament and forget everything except pledging yourself to act accordingly. My God, you will say, if I do that my whole life will be ruined. How would I ever get on in the world?

The book of Hebrews provides both a promise—Christ is sufficient where everything else fails—and a confrontation—Christ is superlative and following him is consuming. “When God becomes real,” Dr. Keller concludes, “that gets into your heart as an irreducible, unavoidable, inescapable, permanent principle you’ll never be able to escape.”

The unending love, never-failing grace, impartial justice, and unspeakable holiness of God surrounds us in this broken world. The author of Hebrews rejoices, “You, Lord, laid the foundation of the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain.”

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 51 (Listen – 10:15)
Psalm 30 (Listen – 1:32)

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20160715

Faith and Black Lives Matter :: Readers’ Choice

I am still convinced that Black people do not matter to White people. Not yet. And our testimony suffers for this heresy and hypocrisy. — Brian

Readers’ Choice (Originally published July 15, 2016)

In our world, the phrases we repeat are either untrue (“Best movie of the year!”) or run against normative behavior (“If you see something, say something.”) The more untrue or unnatural the phrase, the more often we repeat it. This is one of the reasons the daily and ubiquitous refrain “black lives matter” is so confrontational.

Research from Barna reveals that though 94% of evangelicals believe the Church plays an important role in racial reconciliation, only 13% say they support the message of the Black Lives Matter movement. There is an important faith conversation not only around the phrase itself, but the movement of Black Lives Matter that must be recovered.

Author Stephen Mattson observes that, “Many white Christians will be afraid to say [Black Lives Matter] because they think it’s too political, or too progressive, or too liberal, or too unfair, or too controversial.” But confessing that “black lives matter” doesn’t have to come at the expense of other lives. Historically, it has been when faithful Christians took up the banner of human rights that structural change started to occur.

Wilberforce, who was mentored and encouraged by the Anglican pastor John Newton, was the first to stand up against slavery in Parliament. “Wilberforce’s embracing of the anti-slavery cause was from the direct effect of embracing the Christian worldview,” says The Wilberforce School. Similarly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s message during the civil rights movement was profoundly Christian—even the crescendo of Dr. King’s famous “I have a dream” speech was the Messianic prophecy of Isaiah 40.

The greatest threat to the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t the police or a conservative pundit, it’s the lack of voices supplying it a robust theological vision. Where can you justify human rights without God? As a worldview, evolution robs minorities of rights—bestowing them only on the fittest. Progressivism—humans have rights because we’ve progressed as a society—need only protect human rights as long as it’s agreed upon by the majority (present circumstance, case-in-point).

It is God—the creator of the world and everyone in it—who imbued each human being with dignity and promised not only to serve justice, but to restore all that has been lost.

Yet the chorus of Christian voices has not risen in unity for the oppressed.

We are, of course, socially adept enough to articulate our reasons: Black Lives Matter is not a Christian organization, nor does it seek a theological vision. But we should tremble when our understanding of theology removes us from the world. In Jesus’ story of The Good Samaritan, the Priest and the Levite each had their own reasons for avoiding the victim of a broken world.

Activist Michelle Higgins distills the tension many Christians feel and confronts the insinuated lack of evangelistic passion:

In the conversations I’ve had with people, they are afraid to affirm any part because they fear that it means they are affirming the whole. The fear of association is so huge. The discomfort with standing side by side with somebody who doesn’t believe in Jesus is depressing to me.

Looking back at history, “fear of association” has always been a primary motivator when the Church missed its role in doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. Author Stephen Mattson outlines our history in stark binaries:

During the Indian Removal Act, Native Americans weren’t Christian enough to defend. During times of nativism, the Catholics and immigrants weren’t Christian enough to defend. Throughout the segregation era black Christians didn’t have the support of many white Christians, and when the U.S. put its Japanese citizens in internment camps during WWII, mainstream Christianity was largely silent.

In every modern opportunity to be a radical countercultural force for good in the U.S., many white Christians blew it by conjuring up excuses, looking the other way, and even being directly complicit in the subjugation of other human beings.

So here we are again, facing a historic crisis, where people are fighting for their rights and dignity, and once again many Christians will have to choose whether or not to act. Which begs the question: If Christians have nothing to do or say to support the lives of the marginalized and abused, what good is Christianity at all?

The abolition of slavery and Civil Rights Movement were profound transitions for American society—yet as brutal and difficult as both were, they didn’t accomplish the most difficult part: redeeming the broken hearts that lead to racism.

This is a magnificent opportunity for the Church—but we have to choose. “We don’t see a pursuit for justice because we’ve been conditioned to pursue wealth and acclaim and not necessarily the flourishing of our neighbors,” Higgins laments. Taking the first step toward reconciliation, she writes, “means that you no longer find yourself as the center and most important part of your story.”

In the Church, the phrases we repeat mean the most to us. “Christ has died. Christ has risen. Christ will come again.” What we repeat serves as a catalyst for expressing faith and reminds us what we’re trying to live into. What we repeat expresses our longings for Christ’s incarnation through his Church. What we repeat has power through Christ. Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Black lives matter. Amen.

Weekend Reading List

Today’s Reading
Jeremiah 48 (Listen – 7:31)
Psalm 25 (Listen – 2:18)

This Weekend’s Readings
Jeremiah 49 (Listen – 7:15) Psalms 26-27 (Listen – 3:13)
Jeremiah 50 (Listen – 8:42) Psalms 28-29 (Listen – 2:41)

Submit a devotional for Readers’ Choice

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Email me the title or link. If you don’t mind adding a sentence or two as to why each post was significant to you, I would love to include your voice as well.

Thanks for being part of The Park Forum community. We are so thankful to be part of your devotional rhythm.