Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Behold the Face of God

Bruce Hindmarsh: Newton on the Spiritual Life 

Tony Reinke. Newton on the Christian Life: To Live Is Christ. Theologians on the Christian Life. Wheaton, IL. Crossway, 2015. $19.99.
John Newton is remembered today as the author of the hymn “Amazing Grace” and as a dramatically converted slave-trader who later supported the cause of abolition. But he was known in the 18th century, and after, as one of the leading evangelical pastors of his generation in England, and above all as a pastoral letter-writer. Everyone seemed to write to him for advice. By the end of his life he was always working from a stack of 60 or so unanswered letters. 
Tony Reinke has immersed himself in these letters in order to make Newton’s valuable teaching on the Christian life available to another generation.

Reinke shows that the center for Newton’s vision of the Christian life in all these letters is the believer’s union with Christ (e.g., 47, 55, 68). According to Newton, maturity involves a deeper and deeper appreciation for, and dependence upon the sufficiency of Christ for overcoming the intractable nature of sin and the painful experience of personal trials. This Christ-centeredness meant that though Newton’s spirituality was deeply concerned with experience, it was oriented away from spiritual self-preoccupation toward contemplating Christ—looking unto Jesus.
Newton’s focus upon contemplation was one of the emphases that first attracted me to him. He is thoroughly Reformed, evangelical, and biblical in his theology, and he is no mere rationalist head-on-a-stick. These letters deal with real experience and hold out hope of real progress in the Christian life. Ultimately he teaches that the goal of the Christian life is to behold the face of God in Christ in humility and wonder. Contemplation is not for Newton a boutique spirituality or a “Catholic thing.” It is the basic Christian life and the way of maturity.
Reinke’s excellent chapter about Newton on reading Scripture (ch. 10) is parallel in many ways to Robert Wilken’s account of the reading of Scripture among the church fathers. Augustine regarded the Bible as nothing less than “the face of God for now,” because by gazing into the Scriptures with an attitude of prayer and devotion we encounter the living God as we await the fullness of vision in the life to come. This is the spirit and manner in which Newton sought for Christ in all the Scriptures. There is much here in Newton to reconcile the “text critical” and “theological interpretation” schools of Bible scholarship today.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

O God, There Is None But Thee

Bethany post:  Enemies of God

When Jesus went to Gethsemane, it was not just human adversaries he was facing – soldiers, guards, even one of his friends turned traitor. “It was the concentration of all those unseen forces that opposed the kingdom of God because they knew it to be the powerful opponents of their own kingdom-dreams,” N.T. Wright observes in The Way of the Lord: Christian Pilgrimage Today.
It was, “the forces of oppression and violence, the unseen pull that makes people fight rather than be reconciled, that makes them choose brutality rather than humanity, tribe rather than world, self rather than God. These forces had opposed Jesus throughout his public career, sometimes shrieking at him from the lips of some poor deranged spirit, sometimes carping at him in the sneers of the religious, sometimes issuing threats against him from the royal palace.”
Today, your enemies are the same. The evil one and his minions mock your great name and blind people from seeing your glory. You are spoken against and demeaned throughout the world. Our culture is full of blasphemy. The evil one taunts your church, saying, “Do not let Christians deceive you, saying the Lord will deliver you. Surely the cross is foolishness.” His ability to spread discord and enmity is great and his manipulation and subtlety is clever.
Therefore, Lord, we pray as the Psalmist prayed in Psalm 71, “May my accusers perish in shame; may those who want to harm me be covered with scorn and disgrace.” When those who seek injustice are victorious, your justice is trampled upon. When those who seek to wield the weapons of anger and mischief succeed, your peace and prosperity are mocked. Therefore, come into the battle and fight for your people and your name. Shame those who speak against you – even as you call them to know you. Come and show what your bare arm can do!
May all who seek you – even your enemies whose hearts we pray would return to you – rejoice and be glad! Arise and wake up to bless your people so that your name will not be shamed among your revilers. May those who love your salvation say evermore, “God is great!” For, in you, we take refuge; let us never be put to shame. For your righteousness reaches the heavens. You have done great things. O God, there is none but thee.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ultimate King

Bethany post:  God's Mercy in our Rejection 

We confess that we stand in a long line of your people who have rejected your leadership. When the Israelites demanded, “Give us a king to lead us”, you lamented because you wanted to be their king. You even warned them that a king would take their land and resources without solving their problems. 
But they did not listen. Instead, they said, “We want a king! Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.” They did not meditate and muse on your promises: “The Lord will fight for you; you need only to be still.” 
In your great mercy, however, you gave them many good kings who sought your face. Solomon, for example, asked for things that would bless others. He prayed in Psalm 72, “Give the king your justice, O God … May he judge your people with righteousness.” He also prayed for things that would benefit himself: “Long may [the king] live; may gold of Sheba be given to him! … May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun!” 
But he tethered his requests to the great reality of knowing you as the ultimate king: “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever, may the whole earth be filled with his glory! Amen and Amen!” When he asked for blessings, he asked them for the sake of your glory. That by his rule, all people would know that you are king.
Today, we ask you to bless our leaders for the sake of your glory. Give them your justice that they may rule us with righteousness. Give them courage to defend the poor against the oppressor. Give them wisdom to make difficult decisions with limited information. May they be like rain that falls on mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In their days, may the righteous flourish and peace abound. 
Over all of this, however, we pray that they might know you. May they fear you while the sun endures. May they fall down before you. May your name endure forever.
Amen and Amen.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Each Day is a Gift

Todd Billings:  God is Bigger Than My Cancer

“There’s no doubt about the diagnosis,” the doctor said. Incurable cancer. A fatal disease. I had just celebrated my tenth anniversary with my wife, and we were busy raising our children, aged 1 and 3.
The next week, as I prepared for chemotherapy, my wife smiled and handed me a handmade card, colored bright with crayons and signed by a fifteen-year-old girl with Down syndrome in our congregation. My tears flowed as I read the top:
“Get well soon! Jesus loves you! God is bigger than cancer!”
My tears were a mingling of grief and joy. Yes, God is bigger than cancer, and bigger than my cancer! The girl in my church wasn’t denying that the path of my future seemed to be narrowing, hidden beneath the fog of a diagnosis. But she testified that God is greater: the God made known in Jesus Christ shows us that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5).
In my tears, I relished the fact that in the body of Christ theological truths are not a commodity trafficked and controlled by theology professors like myself. God is bigger than cancer, period.

Does God Owe Me 80 Years?

As I learned more details about my diagnosis, I realized that overnight my expected lifespan had been chopped by decades. This news reinforced my gratitude for each breath and the gift of every moment — the opportunity to hug my children, to cherish my wife, to labor in my vocation for God’s glory.
Cancer changes your perception of life. Each day comes to us as a gift from the gracious hand of God — whether it is the last day of a short life or the first day of a long and healthy life. But living into the reality that each day is a gift also involves coming to recognize a stark, biblical truth that is deeply countercultural: God is not our debtor.
Surely God is not capricious or untrustworthy. God has disclosed himself as gracious in his dealings with creation, with Israel, and most fully, in Jesus Christ. The Triune God binds himself to covenant promises that include, envelop, and hold us in a communion that sin and death cannot break. God is faithful to these promises, fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
But this does not mean life is “fair,” or that we are shielded from all of the present consequences of sin and death. God is not our debtor. He does not “owe” us a certain number of requisite years of life.
God does not “owe” us a certain number of requisite years of life.
Christ promised to never leave us as orphans (John 14:18) — but Christ never promised us the American dream, a comfortable retirement, or that we will soak in all the expected blessings of what we think is “normal” life. Each day is a gift. Each year is a gift. Each decade, for each of us, is a gift that comes gratuitously from God’s hand, not from our entitlement to live a “normal” life or life span. The “abundant life” that Christ offers is not measured by the length of this life (John 10:10).

Groaning Before the Lord

Yet, even if God does not “owe” me a particular lifespan, the stinging questions are unavoidable: Why would God take away my children’s father in the middle of their childhood?
I have watched others die. I knew a cancer patient whose family prayed and prayed for healing. But his healing didn’t come — and death came before anyone expected. His path of suffering seemed senseless. Was that the path I was destined to walk?
Moreover, for years my wife and I prayed for children. And our prayers had been answered. But to what end? Was God toying with us? I join the Psalmist in lament: “He has broken my strength in midcourse; he has shortened my days. ‘O my God,’ I say, ‘take me not away in the midst of my days — you whose years endure throughout all generations!’” (Psalm 102:23–24).
Through the Psalms, God gave me a means to bring my anger and confusion into his presence. Again and again, in communal and personal prayer, I began to see how my suffering is part of a much larger drama — for God is bigger than cancer.

Hoping Enough to Lament

I was not given a magical answer as to why God allowed my cancer to hit me. I still don’t know what the future holds. But the Psalms have paved a path for me to rest in the hands of the Almighty, delighting in his work, even when it is a strange work, a hard work on the road of suffering.
In the moments of darkest anguish, the psalmist shows us that God accepts our rawest laments: “But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people” (Psalm 22:6). Do we feel alienated, angry, and confused? The psalmist has been there, too. And the depth of our anguish has been exhausted in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, who joined with the psalmist in lament: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1).
In the moments of darkest anguish, the psalmist shows us that God accepts our rawest laments.
But even in the darkness the Psalms are shot through with hope because God’s covenant promises are ever at the center. While some Psalms are songs of exuberant praise, jumping up and down in exaltation that God is truly the God he promises to be, many other Psalms, like the one Jesus prays on the cross, are Psalms of lament. Yet, even the darkness of this anguished cry of lament points to God’s promise: “My God, my God.” Even when he feels abandoned, the psalmist brings his burden before the Almighty. “Why have you forsaken me?” Only those who know they belong to God can press this question to God. God promises that he will not abandon or forsake his people (Psalm 94:14). Thus, it is an act of trust and hope to lament — to remind God of this promise when things seem desolate, when God’s promise seems to ring hollow.
In this way, lament is not just “venting” toward God, dumping our emotions upon him. It is bringing our confusion, anger, and even protest before the Almighty, allowing the Spirit to reshape our lives and affections into Christ’s image, and all in the security of God-centered hope.

A Joy Bigger than Cancer

At the center of God’s revelation is not a secret about how to live a lengthy, self-sufficient and secure life. We’ve been united to Christ by the Spirit follow the way of the crucified Lord. On this path, we do not seek out suffering for its own sake; but we do expect for the God of Jesus Christ to be active in the most unlikely places: on the path of suffering, on a path hidden from the light of worldly glory. We are a people who take up our crosses to follow Christ.
And this is not a joyless path.
Instead, when we follow the path of prayer with the psalmist, we shed tears of joy and celebration as well as tears of lament. Lamenting and hoping in God with the psalmist is a practice that runs counter to our consumer culture. Rather than soaking in self-satisfaction or self-pity, in these seasons of sorrow we find our affections reshaped by God — we delight in what delights God, we grieve over what grieves him. It is a joy that is bigger than cancer.
The Psalms are doing this for me, fixing my eyes upon God’s promises and God’s mighty acts — in the past, and in the incredible blessings of life and breath in each moment I have now. Indeed, even though we join the Spirit in grieving at the corruption of God’s creation through tragedies like cancer, we can hope that since our Lord is the crucified and risen one who broke the power of death, he can work even in the midst of what seems to be senseless suffering in our lives.
For now, joy and lament go together in our lives. For as we cry to God “out of the depths,” we also trust that “with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption” (Psalm 130:7)
And as we walk Christ’s cross-shaped path, we will continue to groan with the Spirit until Christ’s returns (Romans 8:23). We groan and we also rejoice with the psalmists in God’s faithful love. For God is bigger than cancer.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

We Aren't Immortal

Psalm 49
13-15 This is what happens to those who live for the moment,
    who only look out for themselves:
Death herds them like sheep straight to hell;
    they disappear down the gullet of the grave;
They waste away to nothing—
    nothing left but a marker in a cemetery.
But me? God snatches me from the clutch of death,
    he reaches down and grabs me.
16-19 So don’t be impressed with those who get rich
    and pile up fame and fortune.
They can’t take it with them;
    fame and fortune all get left behind.
Just when they think they’ve arrived
    and folks praise them because they’ve made good,
They enter the family burial plot
    where they’ll never see sunshine again.
20 We aren’t immortal. We don’t last long.
    Like our dogs, we age and weaken. And die.

Monday, May 4, 2015

God of All Times

David Mathis post: 10,000 Reasons - Worship in the Good and Bad

I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. (Philippians 4:12)
He is not just the God of our good times. He is the God of all times. Which means he’s also the God of our worst times.
He is not just God when we abound, as Paul writes in Philippians 4:12, but also when we are brought low. He is God when we have plenty to eat and when we experience hunger. He is God in our abundance and God in our need. He is God in any and every circumstance, and this is wonderfully good news — because life is so much more than just the good times.

Even and Especially the Bad Things

When Paul says in Romans 8:28 that “for those who love God, all things work together for good,” his point is not to persuade us that all the good things in our lives work for our good. We already believe that. It’s easy to imagine that the good things work for good.
The point is that even and especially “the bad things” in our lives, and our hardest of times, are being worked for our eternal good by our almighty and merciful Father.
To make sure we get the point, the next few verses list some of the worst possible things: tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, sword (Romans 8:35), even being put to death for the faith (Romans 8:36). Will these bad things, the greatest difficulties, the worst sufferings ultimately bring us down and work for our bad? “No,” he says, “in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us” (Romans 8:37).

The Most Meaningful Moments

It is true that the good times in life are for singing, “Bless the Lord, O my soul.” God means for us to worship his holy name when life is good, when the sun comes up, when a new day dawns. He wants us to sing in gratitude and praise when all is well and when it’s easy to see his kindness and love and patience and goodness. In the best of times, yes, we should be on the lookout for some of the ten thousand reasons we have for praising him.
But the times that we truly sing like never before are when the “whatever may pass” is hardest, and the “whatever lies before me” is most difficult. It’s in life’s toughest seasons, as we feel life’s greatest losses, that we learn to worship at new depths and with thicker, richer substance.
“The times we truly sing like never before are the days when life is most difficult.”
Life’s most meaningful moments and the seasons of most soul-stirring worship typically come not when life feels at its peak, but when our strength is failing, even when our end, or the end of a loved one, is drawing near. These are the times when we discover like never before that God truly is with us and transcends the blessings of this life and really is all we need.
We may have ten thousand reasons to praise him in the best times, but this one reason can suffice in the worst times: He is God. And no matter what else we lose, nothing can separate us from him.
I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:38–39)