Thursday, April 28, 2016

Fully Satisfied in Him

Vaneetha  Rendall Risner post:  What Does It Really Mean to Be #Blessed?

Feeling blessed is in vogue.
A quick look at Facebook and Twitter shows how many people today feel #blessed. In our social-media world, saying you’re blessed can be a way of boasting while trying to sound humble.
College scholarship? #Blessed. Unexpected raise? #Blessed. Wonderful family? #Blessed.
As Christians we use that term too, of course. We pray God will bless our family. We attribute our undeserved gifts to “God’s blessings.” We talk about ministries being blessed. But what does it really mean? How should we understand the blessing of God?

The Good Life

For believers, is the blessed life synonymous with the successful life? Is it the Christian version of the good life? A loving marriage, obedient children, a vibrant ministry, a healthy body, a successful career, trusted friends, financial abundance — if these are the characteristics of a blessed life, then having all of them should translate into an extraordinarily blessed life.
But does it? If someone had all those things, would they be extraordinarily blessed?
Rather than turning to God, they might feel self-sufficient and proud. Perhaps a bit smug and self-righteous. After all, their hard work would be yielding good fruit.
Moreover, they wouldn’t need to cry out to God for deliverance; everything would already be perfect. They wouldn’t need to trust God; they could trust in themselves. They wouldn’t need God to fill them; they would already be satisfied.

God’s Richest Blessings

My desire for God is greatly fueled by my need. And it is in the areas of loss where I feel my need most intensely. Unmet desires keep me on my knees. Deepen my prayer life. Make me ransack the Bible for God’s promises.
Earthly blessings are temporary; they can all be taken away. Job’s blessings all disappeared in one fateful day. I, too, had a comfortable life that was stripped away within a span of weeks. My marriage dissolved. My children rebelled. My health spiraled downward. My family fell apart. My dreams were shattered.
And yet, in the midst of those painful events, I experienced God’s richest blessings. A stronger faith than I had experienced before. A deeper love than I had ever known. A more intimate walk than I could explain. My trials grounded my faith in ways that prosperity and abundance never could.
While my trials were not blessings in themselves, they were channels for them. As Laura Story asks in her song “Blessings,” “What if your blessings come through rain drops? What if trials of this life — the rain, the storms, the hardest nights — are your mercies in disguise?”
This revolutionary idea of blessing is also firmly established in Scripture.

The Common Thread

One translation of the New Testament (ESV) has 112 references with the words bless, blessing, or blessed, none of which connect blessing to material prosperity. Consider these passages:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are those who mourn . . . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake . . . Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you.” (Matthew 5:3–11)
“Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Luke 11:28)
Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven. (Romans 4:7; quotingPsalm 32:1)
Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial. (James 1:12)
“Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. . . . Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” (Revelation 14:1319:9)
There is no hint of material prosperity or perfect circumstances in any New Testament reference. On the contrary, blessing is typically connected with either poverty and trial or the spiritual benefits of being joined by faith to Jesus.
According to the Key-Word Study Bible, “The Greek word translated blessed in these passages is makarioi which means to be fully satisfied. It refers to those receiving God’s favor, regardless of the circumstances” (emphasis added).
What is blessing, then? Scripture shows that blessing is anything God gives that makes us fully satisfied in him. Anything that draws us closer to Jesus. Anything that helps us relinquish the temporal and hold on more tightly to the eternal. And often it is the struggles and trials, the aching disappointments and the unfulfilled longings that best enable us to do that.

Truly Blessed

Pain and loss transform us. While they sometimes unravel us, they can also push us to a deeper life with God than we ever thought possible. They make us rest in God alone. Not what we can do or achieve for him. And not what he can do or achieve for us.
In pain and loss, we long for Presence. We long to know that God is for us and with us and in us. Great families, financial wealth, and good health are all wonderful gifts we can thank God for, but they are not his greatest blessings. They may make us delight, not in God, but in his gifts.
God’s greatest blessing always rests in God himself. When we have that, we are truly #blessed.

Eyes to See

Reggie Osborne II post:  Give Us Eyes for the Lonely 

Can you see them? Do you know who they are?
They sit among us in the congregation, sometimes at the heart of the body, sometimes on the fringes. They worship on Sundays and gather for Bible studies. Some come to events and activities, hoping that maybe if they come enough and do enough, they will start to belong.
You’re part of the church, we say. They smile and nod. How they desperately want to believe that it’s true — true that they belong, true that the local church feels like home, truly among brothers and sisters in Christ, truly no longer invisible as they are every place else they turn.
But if we’re honest, too often this is not true for those among us who are widows and widowers, orphans and strangers, parents without children and children without parents. They feel so alone — in life and even in the body of Christ.

Look with the Eyes of the Lord

As the church gathers this weekend, try to look around with the eyes of Christ. You may be amazed at what you see.
For the widow who sits in the same pew each Sunday, the dullest, most ordinary order of worship is full of life compared to the home from which she came and will soon return. It sits quiet and empty day after day. Pictures of her husband adorn the walls, subtle reminders of what she no longer has. She misses the joy of companionship. The loneliness is a fog she can’t seem to break through.
Nearby sit the parents of a child who’s run away. Their home is broken in a different way, but it’s no less broken. They call. She doesn’t answer. They pray. She doesn’t come home. Every time she updates her Facebook they are flooded with emotion — joy that she is alive, sadness at what’s been lost, anxiety about what lies ahead. Sunday is their respite as they fight for faith in God’s goodness.
Behind them sits the fifteen-year-old boy, the only Christian in his house. Every word he hears from the pulpit encourages a life that is vastly different from the one at home. The tension in his family is palpable, and his faith is the source. Even to be here on Sunday is against the grain of everything else in his life. Was being here just a huge mistake?
They come to church where there is no belt, bottle, or pill. No yelling, screaming, or fighting. No darkness, no silence, no emptiness. For these precious people, “sanctuary” is not the name of the building. It’s the rest that they find here.
They are lonely and wandering, but for a brief time they feel like they belong. They sing with us and pray with us. They stand when we stand, and they sit when we sit. Here, amid all the smiles, handshakes, and hugs, they feel a closeness that’s missing everywhere else.
This is the only part of their week that feels right.
All of the happy, unbroken, picture-perfect families around them seem oblivious to their struggles. Not that the happy people don’t care — they’re just not paying attention. They’re keeping children quiet, focusing on the sermon, preparing for lunchtime or game-time or nap-time.

Love the Groom — and the Bride

When the service ends, the happy and the lonely go their separate ways.
For widows, orphans, and outliers, the Sunday afternoon journey back home is a portal back to reality. For the lonely, it hardly matters whether their front door opens to a mansion of fine things or a hovel of poverty. Inside is a desolate place.
Are these not Jesus’s people — and our people, too?
Stretching out his hand toward his disciples, [Jesus] said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49–50)
O, that we would increasingly love the body of Christ as we grow in our love for the Head (Colossians 1:18); that we would love the branches like we love the Vine (John 15:5), and every living stone that’s joined to the Corner of God’s great church (Ephesians 2:19–22).
Loving his church is an opportunity to love Jesus himself. You cannot divorce the Groom and his Bride. What God has joined together, let no man separate.
If every happy, intact family among us took it upon itself to initiate toward and welcome the lonely, making visible those around us who feel invisible, what a joyful place our sanctuaries would be.

Give Your Best Love

Each time we gather, we have a fresh opportunity to be a son to the man whose own won’t see him. Every Sunday is a new chance to be a mother to the teenager whose own mother is unbelieving. Each assembly is an avenue to love the family of God with the same passion and devotion reserved for our own blood.
Let the birthday cards and phone calls, Thanksgiving dinners and Christmas feasts, the outings to movies and basketball games flow from the heart of the strong and happy into the wells of the weak and lonely.
Will we love them with our best love, and not relegate them to second-class love on account of their not having the same last name? Will we give them the primary love, the best of yourself, the part that the rest of the world holds back?
Thank God that Jesus did not love us with his second best. With nail-pierced hands stretched out in agony, he loved us with his best. And if we belong to him, we have access to the resources to love his people with our best, as well.
Look around you this weekend and look for the lonely — and reach out and love them! Love them with initiative and creativity and energy they would never expect — and never find anywhere else. And when you love them like that, the world will see it and glorify our Father, who empowers such unexpected love.
God, give us eyes to see the lonely.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Our Goal Is the Holy City

Bruce Ashford post: The Jewish Intellectual Who Predicted America's Social Collapse

Excerpt - see link for entire article


Where Hope Prevails 

As he looked backward, what Rieff saw dimly was the biblical doctrine of creation. Had he reached for the wealth in that Christian doctrine, he might have grasped the enigma of humanity—of our created goodness and fallen badness—along with the Bible’s rich teaching about human flourishing. Moreover, what Rieff yearned to see in the future can only be found in a fully Christian eschatology, in its powerful and beautiful vision of Christ’s consummation of the kingdom. Only a Christian eschatology, rooted in the atonement of Christ and awaiting his triumphant return, can provide both a vision for the future and the power to work toward it. We don’t merely need a heavenly vision; we need divine power to bring heaven down to earth.
This is what Christianity, and Christianity alone, offers. The resurrection of Jesus declares that where death seems to have the final word, the ending is not ultimate. God will restore the earth, and his kingdom will prevail. What he created, what he mourned over as it reveled in deathworks ranged against him, what he pursued and redeemed—this he will restore, from top to bottom. And what finally grounds our hope—a hope that, sadly, seems to have eluded Rieff—is that we’re privy to this finale before the finale. Though we live in the muddy middle of the script, we’ve caught a glimpse of the last scene.
As those who know the end of history’s story, then, Christians can engage in cultural activity with a humble confidence. As dark as it may seem, the realm of culture will one day be raised to life, made to bow in submission to the King. Since Jesus will gain victory and restore the earth, we remain confident. And since it will be his victory, we remain humble.
The 20th-century missionary theologian Lesslie Newbigin aptly captured this idea of Christian hope and action, even amid a culture of death:
[A transformed society] is not our goal, great as that is. . . . Our goal is the holy city, the New Jerusalem, a perfect fellowship in which God reigns in every heart, and his children rejoice together in his love and joy. . . . And though we know that we must grow old and die—that our labors, even if they succeed for a time, will in the end be buried in the dust of time—yet we are not dismayed. . . . We know that these things must be. But we know that as surely as Christ was raised from the dead, so surely shall there be a new heaven and a new earth wherein dwells righteousness. And having this knowledge, we ought as Christians to be the strength of every good movement of political and social effort, because we have no need either of blind optimism or of despair. (Signs Amid the Rubble: The Purposes of God in Human History, 55)

Modest Proposal

John Piper:  Should Christians Cremate Their Loved Ones?

My proposal in this article is that Christian churches be willing to help families financially with simple Christ-exalting funerals and burials, so that no Christian is drawn to cremation because it’s cheaper. I’m not thinking mainly of a line-item in the budget, but of a segregated compassion-fund that church members may give to regularly or as the need arises. Grieving families could quietly approach the overseer of that fund and make it known that they have a need, and all could be handled quietly and carefully between the family and the funeral home.
At the same time, I do believe that pastors should discourage expensive funerals. In a Bible-saturated, counter-cultural church, made up of kingdom-minded sojourners and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), no one should be pressured into the mindset that the more expensive the coffin, the more loved the deceased. Pastors should lead the way in cultivating a church ethos where expensive funerals (and weddings!) are not the norm. God-centered, gospel-rooted, Christ-exalting simplicity should be the norm.
How many evangelicals would choose cremation if it cost as much or more than a simple, traditional service of burial? Very few. There has been a skyrocketing preference for cremation over the past decades in the United States (1960—3.5%; 1999—24.8%; 2014—46.7%; in some states it is over 75%). There are various causes, but the greatest, by far, is the combination of secularization and economics. Fewer people test the practice with biblical criteria, and more people want the cheapest solution.
So my aim here is to touch on both of those causes. First, I am proposing that churches cultivate a Christian counter-culture where people expect simple, less expensive funerals, and where we all pitch in so that every church member can afford such a funeral. Second, I want to give biblical pointers for why burial is preferable to cremation. I say preferable,not commanded, in the hope that the culture created would not condemn or ostracize a person who chose differently. I encourage those who choose cremation not to equate our disapproval with ostracism. Otherwise, real disagreements are not possible among friends.

The Dignity of the Human Body

Two focuses of Scripture lead away from burning toward burying. One is the focus on the meaning and importance of the human body, now and in the life to come. The other is the meaning of fire as it relates to the human body, now and in the life to come.
First, biblical faith, unlike Greek religion, does not view the body as the prison of the soul. So the afterlife has never been viewed as the “immortality of the soul” finally liberated from its physical prison. Rather, Christianity has always viewed the body as essential to full humanity so that the life to come has primarily been seen as the resurrection of the body in glorious eternal life. Paul did not consider the intermediate bodiless state, between death and resurrection, as ideal (2 Corinthians 5:4).
The greatest thing that can be said about the human body is that the eternal Son of God was incarnate in a human body and will have one forever. He “became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). Today in heaven, Jesus has the body he had on earth, glorified. When he comes he will “transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:21). This was an immeasurable elevation in history of the dignity and glory of the human body.
In this life Paul says, “The body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13). He goes on to say even more amazing things about the body.
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body. (1 Corinthians 6:19–20)
Note four stunning facts: 1) Our bodies are the temple of the Holy Spirit. 2) Christ died to purchase us, including the purchase of our bodies, for himself. 3) Therefore our bodies do not belong to us to use as we please, but rather as he pleases. 4) Therefore, we should use our bodies to put the glory of God on display.
  • Our body, God’s dwelling.
  • Our body, God’s purchase.
  • Our body, God’s possession.
  • Our body, God’s glory.
Paul said he hoped to magnify Christ “in my body whether by life or by death” (Philippians 1:20). Glorifying God is what the body is for — in life and in death.
This blood-bought, God-owned temple of the Spirit is not destined for final destruction, but for resurrection glory. It is precisely the continuity between the Spirit-indwelt-body now and the Spirit-work at the last day which guarantees our resurrection:
If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:11)
The body will never be discarded. It has been bought by the blood of Jesus!
All of this leads to a view of burial controlled by symbols which are true to the glory of the human body. Paul’s understanding of burial is that this was a picture of being “sown” in the ground like a seed that will sprout with wildly superior beauty at the resurrection, when the graves are opened at the coming of Christ.
What you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. . . . So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:3742–44)
Burial — sowing the seed of the body — is the biblical picture of belief in the resurrection of the body.
Christians also have seen burial as the laying to rest of the body as though it is sleepingwaiting for the waking of the resurrection. “We who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep” (1 Thessalonians 4:15). “We shall not allsleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). Early “Christian gravesites were called coemeteria (cemeteries), which literally means ‘sleeping places,’ reflecting belief in a future resurrection” (Timothy George).
One of the reasons putting the body in the ground, as if in sleep, was important was that no one knew when the Lord Jesus would come back. Therefore, it was possible that the trumpet could sound not long after the burial, and the dead would be raised very much as if he had only taken a nap.
But the main issue was the message of the symbolism about the preciousness of the body now, and the glory of the body at the resurrection. The double symbolism of sowing seed, as though ready to sprout, and laying to rest, as though ready to waken, was the main reason Christians have buried their dead and provided burial for those who could not afford it.

The Dreadfulness of Fire

The other focus of Scripture that leads away from burning toward burying (besides the importance of the human body) is the meaning of fire as it relates to the human body now and in the life to come.
The use of fire to consume the human body on earth was seen as a sign of contempt. It was not a glorious treatment of the body but a contemptuous one. This is the meaning of Achan’s cremation. He had betrayed Israel and so was not only stoned with his family, but deprived of an ordinary burial by being burned.
Joshua said, “Why did you bring trouble on us? The Lord brings trouble on you today.” And all Israel stoned him with stones. They burned them with fire and stoned them with stones. (Joshua 7:25)
To be sure, fire is a great gift from God. It warms, and brightens, and guides, and cooks, and refines. But in relation to the human body, it is a dreadful thing. It wounds and tortures and kills and destroys.
This is most prominent in relation to the body after death. As a Christian who believes in the judgment of God after death (Hebrews 9:27), the last symbol we want to use, in connection with death, is fire! Hell (gehenna) is a place of fire (Matthew 5:22James 3:6). This fire is meant to be felt by the body.
“It is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.” (Matthew 5:30)
“Fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)
“Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.” (Luke 16:24)
In summary, then, the two biblical focuses that point away from burning to burying are 1) the preciousness of the human body as God’s purchase and possession, now and forever, and 2) the dreadfulness of fire as it relates to the human body especially after death.

Four Other Reasons to Bury

There are other reasons, besides these biblical pointers, that should give us pause before we decide to burn our loved ones. (Using the word “burn” instead of “cremate” is like using the phrase “dismember babies” instead of “abort fetuses” — it prevents us from hiding reality.) For example:
  1. Where Christians are a small minority, cremation is high. And where Christian influence is giving way to rapid secularization, cremation is rapidly increasing. “Almost everyone adhering to Hinduism, Sikhism, Buddhism, and Jainism cremate their dead. . . . Japan has one of the highest cremation rates in the world with the country reporting a cremation rate of 99.85% in 2008. . . . The cremation rate in the United Kingdom has been increasing steadily with the national average rate rising from 34.7% in 1960 to 73.44% in 2008. . . . [In Canada the cremation rate rose] from 5.89% in 1970 to 68.4% in 2009.” (Wikipedia) (Note: The Japanese cities of Tokyo and Osaka have ordinances requiring cremation “due to lack of cemetery space or for sanitary reasons.” I doubt that those two arguments would be decisive if there were not other worldview issues at stake. God will give wisdom to Christians living under this added legal constraint.)
  2. “The first cremation in America took place in 1876, accompanied by readings from Charles Darwin and the Hindu scriptures. For many years, relatively few persons (mostly liberals and freethinkers) chose cremation.” (George)
  3. The nature of the procedure of cremation makes dishonesty difficult to prevent and honesty hard to enforce. For example, how would you know if the crematorium actually cremates your loved one, rather than just disposing of the body? There have been scandals over this very issue. It may be cheaper for the crematorium to dispose of the body. And we all like cheaper.
  4. How would you have any assurance that the ashes they give you are the ashes of your deceased loved one? This is simply impossible to police. For all we know, a crematorium may have common bucket of ashes, and may give you your three pounds. There is no way you can know.

A Modest Proposal

I am encouraging churches to cultivate a Christian counter-culture where people expect simple, less expensive funerals and burials, and where we all pitch in so that a Christian burial is not a financial hardship on anyone. And because of the biblical pointers and the additional reasons above, I am arguing that God-centered, gospel-rooted burial is preferable to cremation. Preferable. Not commanded, but rich with Christian truth that will become a clearer and clearer witness as our society becomes less and less Christian.

But You Remain

Steven Dilla at Park Forum:  What Remains
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 experience 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 surround 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.”