(Monroe, in warmer days!)
If you’re interested I just placed my promo letter about our church’s coming Ministry School on my more academic website.
(Monroe, in warmer days!)
If you’re interested I just placed my promo letter about our church’s coming Ministry School on my more academic website.
(Monroe, in warmer days)
In John 9 Jesus, who has just referred to himself as the “light of the world” and the “light of life,” walks out of the temple in Jerusalem at the end of the Feast of Tabernacles. Outside of the temple he and his disciples see a beggar who has been blind from birth.
Blind people, during ancient times, were often reduced to living outside the city and coming in to beg for food and money. They were marginalized and ostracized. This only added great inner suffering to their already-difficult physical condition.
Jesus and his disciples stop in front of this blind beggar and begin to talk. The disciples ask, regarding the blind man, “Who sinned – this man or his parents?” They assumed, as did many people during that time, that there was some kind of cause-effect relationship between illness and sin. Imagine the blind man listening to all of this. Surely he’s heard it before. He already feels bad enough, being blind and begging to make a living.
Then Jesus says words that, even though he couldn’t see, must have filled him with hope. Jesus said, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned.” Then, Jesus heals the man. The man, instead of being a rejected thing, eventually becomes a follower and worshiper of Jesus. He is set free physically, economically (no more begging for money) and, most importantly, emotionally and spiritually.
The point I love about this story is that Jesus here rejects the theological speculation and dialogue the disciples want to engage in and says, “Forget that stuff. It’s time to do the work of God!” Which is, precisely, to do things like heal blind people and set oppressed people free.
This reminds of something called “The Parable of the Pit,” which I heard John Maxwell give in a message many years ago. It goes like this.
A man fell into a pit and couldn’t get himself out.
A subjective person came along and said, “I feel for you down there.”
An objective person came along and said, “It’s logical that someone would fall down into that pit.”
A Pharisee said, “Only bad people fall into a pit.”
Confucius said, “If you would have listened to me you wouldn’t be in that pit.”
Buddha said, “Your pit is only a state of mind.”
A realist said, “Now that’s a pit!”
A scientist calculated the pressure necessary, pounds and square inches, to get him out of the pit.
A geologist told him to appreciate and study the rock strata in the pit.
An evolutionist said, “You will die in the pit so you can’t produce any more pit-falling offspring.”
The country inspector said, “Did you have a permit to dig that pit?”
A professor gave him a lecture on the elementary principles of the pit.
A self-pitying person said, “You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen my pit!”
An optimist said, “Things could get worse.”
A pessimist said, “Things are going to get worse.”
But Jesus saw the man in the pit, took him by the hand, and lifted him out.
(Warren Dunes State Park)
One day I am going to die. And, all the ones I love in this life will die, too. My wife, my children, my friends, my enemies – all will be gone. And you won’t be here, either. That’s a fact that is more certain than taxes. Think about this – it can be good for you.
I’m a pastor. One of the things I do is funerals. I like doing funerals. I don’t like death. I didn’t like losing my father and mother and my son David who died years ago. But I do like having an opportunity to talk about death. At a funeral I see a lot of people who have faith in God and a lot of people who have no faith in God. In that way they are different. But when it comes to death they are all the same.
Thinking and talking about death makes me feel very intense. I hate death. I did the funerals of both my mom and dad. And I cried. I wept as I held my son David in my arms. I even cried when I buried our 19-year-old cat a few years ago. I hate death. Death is an enemy. I want to see death defeated. Jesus hated death, too. When Mary came to him and told him about the death of Lazarus, Luke 11:35 says, succinctly, “Jesus wept.”
I believe that to understand the answer to “What will happen after I die?” gives you the answer to “What is the meaning of this life?” (The German philosopher Martin Heidegger talks about this in his very abstract writings.) In this regard, I find the Christian answer very hopeful. It’s this:
The resurrection of Jesus tells me that death has been defeated. I believe this. The hope this produces in me makes me want to celebrate. I can’t think of a more deserving victim. I’m glad death has gone down for the count. I still cry when a loved one dies. And yet I have been at some amazing funerals where, in the middle of the tears, there’s real, authentic, hope-filled joy.
Paul, in 1 Corinthians 15, expresses it this way:
“Listen, I tell you a mystery: We will not all sleep, but we will all be changed— in a flash, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For the perishable must clothe itself with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality. When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”
“Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?” The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!”
So now we weep. But hope rises in our hearts. One day we will see this clearly. And it will be an eternal celebration sans the sad tears. Pretty soon we’re all going to die. But death is not the end.
(The resurrection of Jesus can be established as a historical fact. Thus, it’s not, essentially, some philosophical idea. Read, e.g., the great British scholar N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God. Or see: Greg Boyd and George Eddy, The Jesus Legend: A Case for the Historical Reliability of the Synoptic Jesus Tradition. Or check out the on-line essays of William Lane Craig at reasonablefaith.org.)
(Near the corner of Raisinville & N. Custer)
Our church has been sending some mof our leaders to India for several years now, working in conjunction with India Bible Literature. As a church we’ve been all over the nation of India, reaching many people.
I also traveled to India once by myself, and spoke in a number of churches and villages in central India.
So, we have many friends over there. And in one of the areas we reach out to, the Indian state of Orissa, Christians are in great danger. Some have been murdered. All this by Hindu extremists. (Please pause here for a moment and give thanks for our country and the idea of freedom of religion. We don’t murder others who disagree with us.)
For the story, see this article in Christianity Today. “Over 90 churches and Christian institutions have been burned and vandalized, over 700 Christian homes destroyed, and the number of pastors and Christians killed is yet to be known…”
(Sterling State Park)
In today’s nytimes.com there’s an article in the Science section that begins with this: “Taking a significant step toward the creation of man-made forms of life, researchers reported Thursday that they had manufactured the entire genome of a bacterium by painstakingly stitching together its chemical components.”
“Synthetic biologists envision being able one day to design an organism on a computer, press the “print” button to have the necessary DNA made, and then put that DNA into a cell to produce a custom-made creature. “What we are doing with the synthetic chromosome is going to be the design process of the future,” said Dr. J. Craig Venter, the boundary-pushing gene scientist.”
Note, especially, the word “design.” And the idea of “painstakingly stitching together… chemical components.”
So, it’s not an easy thing to design life. But it is designed. Which, for me, argues against such a phenomenally difficult thing happening with a Designer.
And, by the way, evolutionary theory says nothing about this sort of thing. Evolutionary theory is about actually existent life. The word “abiogenesis” is used to describe life coming from non-life. This is NOT an easy thing to have happen.
But now look at this. The nytimes article states: “The synthetic genome made by Dr. Venter’s team was not designed from scratch, but rather was a copy, with only a few changes, of the genetic sequence of a tiny natural bacterium called Mycoplasma genitalium.” Ah, so it’s not really an act of abiogenesis. Now THAT would really be painstakingly difficult. “George M. Church, a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, said, “Right now, all they’ve done is shown they can buy a bunch of DNA and put it together.” ”
Somewhere along the way life came from non-life. That is, from no DNA there came DNA. Psalm 139:13 expresses it this way: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.” You and I have been stitched together in our mother’s wombs. It was not an easy thing, at least from our human perspective. So if scientists accomplish this painstaking process of designing life it will show that, minimally, scientists have painstakingly designed human life. From this one cannot conclude that life is undesigned.
(Lake Erie at Sterling State Park)
In John chapter 7 Jesus is in the Temple in Jerusalem on the last and greatest day of the Feast of Tabernacles. This Jewish festival was a celebration of God’s leading the nation of Israel out of Egyptian bondage into freedom and the promised land.
Jewish pilgrims – thousands of them – converged on Jerusalem for this 8-day event. They set up “tents” (“tabernacles”) in the city and lived in them, much as their ancestors lived in tents during the 40 years of wilderness-wandering. They remembered how God provided food for their ancestors, and how, in a dry wilderness, God provided water, having Moses strike the rock at the base of Mount Horeb.
Every day of the Feast of Tabernacles the high priest would lead a procession from the Temple to the Pool of Siloam. He would fill a golden urn with the water of this pool (which was supposed to bring healing). He would lead the large procession back to the Temple. He would pour the water on the altar. And the people would thank God for the provision of water.
All this happened at the end of the harvest season, so thanks for water that grew the crops was given. There were also prayers asking God to send water in the coming year.
It was on the 8th and final day of the festival that Jesus stood up. He announced: “If any of you are thirsty for water, come to me. I will give you streams of living water which will flow out of you.” John tells us that by “living water” Jesus meant the Holy Spirit. And by the Holy Spirit N.T. Wright means: “God’s refreshing personal presence”; and Gordon Fee means: “God’s empowering presence.”
Yesterday in Monroe there was a water emergency. The intake pipe, located a mile off shore in Lake Erie, froze. Monroe residents were asked to not use water unnecessarily. As I drove down Telegraph Rd last night a number of restaurants were closed because of little water to use. And I thought of Jesus at the Feast of Tabernacles.
The human spirit needs watering. Every day. The soul can get dry. It can get dry in a such a way that no earthly thing or accomplishment can nourish it. But Jesus says that, come to him, and streams of living water will flow in your spirit. He gives us the Holy Spirit, the refreshing personal presence of God. It’s water for the soul. It’s fresh rain falling on the deserts of this life.
“On the last and greatest day of the Feast, Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.” By this he meant the Spirit…” (John 7:37-39)
Our church‘s first Worship-Intercession Night (WIN) is this coming Saturday, Jan. 26, 6-8 PM.
Two hours of worship & prayer in an IHOP format. (International House of Prayer)
Last week I taught at Palmer Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. I’ve taught in their doctoral program since 1996. Here’s a picture of the students in this my class – what a great group of people. I feel deeply privileged to have been with them and teach them.
In the next six weeks they will do the main assignment, which is: pray 5 days a week, one hour a day, for six weeks. I have asked them to keep a spiritual journal. The spiritual journal is this: when God speaks to you, write it down.
I’ve asked them to use an incredible devotional book called A Guide to Prayer for Ministers and Other Servants. Back in the 1980s I used this book for my prayer times for two years.
Today’s Jerusalem Post reports (for the full article go here):
“A stone seal bearing the name of one of the families who acted as servants in the First Temple and then returned to Jerusalem after being exiled to Babylonia has been uncovered in an archeological excavation in Jerusalem’s City of David, a prominent Israeli archeologist said Wednesday.
The 2,500-year-old black stone seal, which has the name “Temech” engraved on it, was found earlier this week amid stratified debris in the excavation under way just outside the Old City walls near the Dung Gate, said archeologist Dr. Eilat Mazar, who is leading the dig.
According to the Book of Nehemiah (7:55), the Temech family were servants of the First Temple and were sent into exile to Babylon following its destruction by the Babylonians in 586 BCE.”
(Valley Forge National Park)
I’m in day 4 of my teaching at the National Christian Conference Center in Valley Forge. I am greatly enjoying the 10 doctoral students in my class. We have a great diversity in the class, which makes it a very rich experience. And, we are experiencing God’s presence and God encountering us. Which is, for me, what this class is all about and, by the way, what life is all about.
How does God transform and renew the human heart? Here’s what I teach about this.
1. Realize how needy you are for transformation. Little or no renewal and transformation will happen if this recognition is not there.
2. Realize the magnitude of the needed transformation. Which is into Christlikeness.
3. Realize you can’t do this on your own; you can’t self-transform.
4. Therefore get into the presence of God. You cannot consistently dwell in God’s presence and remain unchanged.
Below is the handout I gave to my class today. It’s a bit long and, of course, when I teach this material I am stopping to make comments and explain things. Hope it helps!
WHAT IS ‘SPIRIT’: METAPHORS OF SPIRITUAL TRANSFORMATION
Only God can transform us. To be transformed by God we must enter and live in his presence. But what is it in us that gets transformed? The biblical answer is: “spirit.” In this chapter I will present an understanding of “spirit” by using what I refer to as biblical metaphors of spiritual transformation. (Note: metaphors are not “untrue.” We are always using metaphorical words to speak truly and speak about truth. In some ways my entire doctoral dissertation was about explaining this.)
David cried out to God, “What is man that you are mindful of him?” While the emphasis in this verse is on God’s loving care for persons, David wonders, anthropologically, about the meaning of persons: “What is man?” To ask the question of our self-identity is to be in a bathysphere floating towards the ocean’s floor. Simply put, it’s a profoundly deep question. Many claim that gaining a biblical answer to this question takes us a long way towards spiritual and emotional stability.
Christian theists believe that, as persons, we are qualitatively different from the rest of God’s creation. Scholars have written volumes attempting to identify the exact nature of this qualitative distinction. We will say that persons are spiritual creations. “Spirit” is that which separates persons from plants and animals. This question of our spiritual nature is not merely academic. When we pray we may find the question rising in our hearts, “God, who am I?” For this reason Thomas Merton felt that developing a theological anthropology was important for a life of prayer.
If persons are essentially spiritual creations, what is “spirit”? The Bible provides us with many “metaphors of spirit.” These metaphors do not give definitions or point-for-point descriptions of “spirit,” but rather gesture towards the nature of persons as spiritual creations. A “metaphor” is the use of a word, phrase, image, or object to create a framework through which we express or view some aspect of reality or experience. Metaphorical description is necessary because most, if not all, of our common experience cannot be captured in the steel nets of literal language.
To refer to spiritual experience we must often speak metaphorically. Consider, as an example, this metaphorical description of the spiritual life from Thomas Merton: “I consider that the spiritual life is the life of man’s real self, the life of that interior self whose flame is so often allowed to be smothered under the ashes of anxiety and futile concern.” Here Merton uses three biblical metaphors:
1) The spiritual life is that which is most real about persons. 2) The spiritual life is something interior (“below the surface”; “deep inside”). 3) Spirit is “energy,” “fire.” Thus it can be “smothered” or “quenched.” This brief metaphorical description of the spiritual life issues an invitation to consider viewing one’s life through its lens. The biblical metaphors of spirit, while not providing exact definitions, gesture towards the life of the spirit and invite us to participate in this life. They are all grounded in a common understanding of spirituality, which is: To be “spiritual” is to be in God’s presence; to be “unspiritual” is to be apart from God. We can further categorize the biblical metaphors of spirit into types. Our first example is a type of volitional metaphor and is found in Psalm 46:10: “Be still, and know that I am God.” To “be still” means, literally, to “cease struggling.” This means that if we are to be transformed we must surrender to God. Therefore, spirit is something that can either surrender to God or resist God.
Our second metaphor of the spiritual life is a type of activity metaphor: “Rest in the Lord, O my soul.” As Hebrews 6:19 says, “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.” To be in God’s presence means to cease from certain activities so our spirit, like a ship, might be anchored to God who is the dock. To be spiritual is to live securely anchored to God’s Holy Spirit. Conversely, our spirit is lost when it becomes a “restless, drifting, wandering soul.” This is spiritual insecurity. Therefore, spirit is something that can be either securely anchored or drift.
Our third metaphorical description is a type of part/whole metaphor, and speaks of having an “undivided heart” or a “whole heart” (Psalm 86:11). The implication is that we cannot both be in God’s presence and simulataneously attend to someone or something else. I believe this concerns who or what we love. As Henri Nouwen has said, the basic question of the spiritual life is: Who do we belong to? To live out of God’s presence is to be, as James 1:8 says, dipsuchos. It is to have “two psyches,” or be “two-hearted.” In such a condition the spirit is divided regarding its allegiance, and is said to be “fragmented.” In a state of spiritual dipsuchos the human spirit has two lovers. I have found it often happens that when we go alone to a quiet place to pray we are shown how divided our spirits are. Therefore, spirit is something that can be either whole or divided into parts.
Our fourth metaphor of spirit is the central biblical one of energy. “Spirit” is fire. When in God’s presence there may come “tongues of flame.” We can be “on fire” towards God. Nouwen often speaks of our need, therefore, to “tend the fire within.” Conversely, spirit can be “quenched,” or it can “burn out.” A colleague in ministry, speaking of his need for spiritual renewal, once said to me, “What I feel I now need in my life is a burning bush.” Spirit burns, therefore we must tend it to keep it from burning out and guard it so it will not be quenched.
Our fifth example is a type of cathartic metaphor: “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” “Cleanse me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me and I shall be whiter than snow.” The implication is that we truly dwell in God’s presence only with pure hearts. To have a pure heart, as Kierkegaard wrote, is “to will one thing.” Conversely, our hearts can be “stained,” “blemished, ” and covered with “blots,” thus “impure.”
The central biblical image of sin is “stain.” Many agree that the first step to spiritual renewal always involves confession, repentance, and receiving forgiveness. Clean hands and pure hearts are necessary preconditions for loving God. Therefore, spirit is something that can be spotless or stained, clean or unclean, acceptable or unacceptable to God.
Our sixth and seventh examples are both types of dwelling metaphors. The first speaks of “remaining in” or “abiding in” Jesus: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” We can be said to dwell with Jesus if we are branches, connected to the True Vine. To be out of Jesus’ influence is to become “disconnected” from the vine, possibly to attach oneself to other sources for sustenance. Therefore, spirit can attach itself to God or be detached from God.
Another dwelling metaphor speaks of God as “our fortress and strength.” When we live within the walls of God’s protective fortress, “what shall we fear?” Thus Nouwen asks the question, “Do you live in the house of God or the house of fear?” It is in God’s house that our spirits find comfort, encouragement, and strength for the journey. But when we dwell outside these protective walls and life’s attacks come, fear and anxiety predominate. It is in this light that Nouwen offers his “proof” that prayer works. We know that prayer works because when we do not pray our lives are more filled with fears and anxieties. Therefore, spirit has a home, and is endangered when it makes its home anything but God.
Our last three metaphors of spiritual transformation are spatial, and indicate the “location” of spirit. The first concerns “creating a space in your heart” for God. Jesus said, “But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen” (Matt. 6:6). This “upper room” or “secret place” is a heart where Jesus is allowed to live. Our heart is allowed to be Christ’s home. As an old hymn asks, “Have You Any Room for Jesus?” But our “rooms” can be “cluttered,” with no space for God. Therefore, spirit is a roomy space that can be cluttered with so many distractions that God has no opportunity to enter in.
A second spatial metaphor is found in the Quaker expression “to center down.” In both the Old and New Testaments the heart is the “center” or “seat” of all that is unique to persons, to include the will, the passions, thought, and the religious center to which God turns. We are to “love the Lord with all our heart.” God, Who seeks out all things, “knows our hearts.” The movement of our spiritual life should be “centrifugal,” proceeding from the center of our being, rather than a “centripetal” movement that begins with the surface things of life and attempts to move through them to the heart of life. Because we so easily stray from center it is no wonder we often find little meaning in our activity. Therefore, spirit concerns the central reality of persons, and determines all activity and desire. It is the source of being which, in the spiritual life, precedes doing.
Our final metaphor of the spiritual life is also spatial, and speaks of there being “a temple within.” Paul tells the Corinthians that, individually and corporately, they are temples of God’s Holy Spirit. Paul Tournier refers to this inner temple as “the holy sepulchre within.” Tournier refers to this by asking, “What is there then within this sepulchre where all the repressed rubbish of all humanity as well as our own is rotting?” Jesus said we can “whitewash” this sanctuary. To do this would be to live a life of facade, pretense, what Merton called the “false self.” Therefore, spirit is a holy place where God’s Spirit dwells. To be “spiritual” is to allow God to reign in one’s spirit, which is God’s rightful dwelling place. To be “unspiritual” is to occupy that dwelling place with our own ego as king, while painting the outside so as to appear to be spiritual.
There are many metaphors of spiritual transformation. Those we have looked at tell us that spiritual transformation comes as we:
– Surrender to God– Anchor ourself to God– Be whole-hearted towards God– Tend the fire within– Remain clean before God
– Attach ourself to God
– Dwell in God’s fortress
– Make room in our heart for God
– Center our life on God
– Walk in holiness.
 Psalm 8:4a
 See Christ-Centered Therapy, by Neil Anderson,
 This is important to state since contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins deny that there is any qualitative distinction between human beings and animals.
 Other candidates for the uniqueness of persons include: “reason”; “speech”; “self-consciousness”/”self-reflexivity”; rationality + freedom + immortality (the early church Fathers); a “destiny into which man was created to grow into” (Irenaeus; memory + intellect + will (Augustine, using the 3-fold structure of the Trinity); and rational understanding + moral obedience + religious communion. See also William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard, and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982). The understanding of “the image of God” in Genesis is more functional than conceptual. As a result of being created in God’s image we are to do certain things: e.g., subdue, explore, rule the creation in God’s name, etc.
 See Higgins, John J., Thomas Merton on Prayer.
 See Piippo, John Paul, Metaphor and Theology: A Multidisciplinary Approach. Unpublished doctoral dissertation, Northwestern
 Much of our language is metaphorical in origin. For example, when we speak of the “leg” of the table we have forgotten that at some point somebody used the human “figure” to speak of the table’s leg. Paul Ricoeur has shown in The Rule of Metaphor that “figurative language” is language which uses the human “figure” to speak of experience.
 See especially Gordon Fee’s commentary on 1 Corinthians. Fee says that Paul’s basic question for the Corinthian church is, “What does it mean to be “spiritual” or pneumatikos.”
 On spiritual “burnout” and ways to rekindle the flame, see Louis Savary and Patricia Berne, Prayerways.
 Psalm 51:7, 10.
 See Nouwen, Lifesigns; A Cry for Mercy. No one is better in articulating the emotion and spirit of fear than Henri Nouwen.
 See Nouwen, Gracias! A Latin American Journal, p. 44.
 See Geoffrey W. Bromily, Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 416.
 Luke 16:15.
 Tournier, Paul,
 Another metaphor is: To be in God’s presence one must have a “quiet heart.” To be out of God’s presence is to “have ears, but not really hear.” When the human heart is filled with many voices and noises it is difficult to hear the single voice of God. Heart-stillness is the condition where only God’s voice is attended to. “Spirit,” therefore, is something that can be either quieted or chaotic.
 When we reverse the positive biblical metaphors of the spiritual life we see those spiritual conditions which will render prayer-as-relationship-with-God less effective. Relationship with God is blocked when our spirits are:
…focused on life’s peripheral issues
…stained (by sin)
…disconnected from the Vine
…dwelling out God’s fortress
…and so on…