Tasting Heaven Today

(I took this picture of a moth on a wall at Monroe County Community College yesterday. Anyone know what kind it is?)

Today I’m spending time preparing for my first semester Kingdom of God class I’ll teach in our coming Redeemer Ministry School. I absolutely LOVE taking time to study like this and being able to focus on and dig in to the things that I value most highly and deeply.

The main text for my Kingdom of God class is George Ladd’s excellent The Gospel of the Kingdom. Ladd’s essential point is that, in the Bible, the Kingdom of God is both future and present. The presentness of God’s Kingdom is seen in Hebrews 6:5, where we are told that there are those who have “tasted… the powers of the age to come.”

This is a now-thing; an experiential reality of this life. Thus our faith in Jesus is not merely a religion of promise and future hope. Listen to how Ladd writes about this.

“The Age to Come is still future, but we may taste the powers of that Age. Something has happened by virtue of which that which belongs to the future has become present. The powers of The Age to Come have penetrated This Age. while we still live in the present evil Age and while Satan is still the god of This Age, we may taste the powers of The Coming Age. Now a taste is not a seven-course banquet. We still look forward to the glorious consummation and fulfillment of that which we have only tasted. Yet a taste is real. It is more than a promise; it is realization; it is experience. “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We have “tasted the powers of The Age to Come.” (41)

For some really excellent reading on how this shakes down in a person’s life today, see Bill Johnson’s When Heaven Invades Earth.

God’s Outrageous Love – What About Consequences?

(Green Lake, Wisconsin)

I talked today with a friend who comes to my church. He was with us last Sunday when I preached on the parable of the prodigal son, which I called the parable of God’s outrageous love. In this story Jesus tells in Luke 15 the father welcomes back his son who left him, embarrassed him, scandalized him, and treated him like he was already dead. The father throws a huge party for this son who comes back to him!

My friend told me, “OK – but what comes next?” I think that’s a good question. If I understand it correctly (and I may not, but here goes anyway!), my friend was asking about things like consequences and his son’s future behavior. Should there not be some consequences for what the son did? Do we just forget the whole thing and treat it as if nothing happened? I think not. But it’s the transformed heart of the son that will be proactive regarding this, and not the father.

 The purpose of this parable is to show that God’s love is unconditional and is always there. It does not go up and down based on human performance or adherence to rules and laws. But aren’t their rules to be kept? Of course. And at this point we need to distinguish between the commands of God and human-made rules. God’s not into enforcing all the little rules we make because of who we are and what we personally like or dislike. For example, my grandmother wished dearly that I, at age 22, would shave off my moustache. She tried to manipulate me to do this. In this sense her love towards me was conditional – she would tell me “Johnny, you looked so much nicer when you didn’t have that moustache.” Maybe. But God didn’t love me any less because I had one. That, precisely, is the point of this parable; viz., God’s love doesn’t have any “if-clauses.” (“If you do ______, then I’ll love you.”)

I’m assuming that, when the younger son returned to his father, he had a changed heart. He’s humble now. He’s no longer a victim. He acknowledges his bad choices. Like some of you, I was like this younger son. When I returned to God the Father’s loving embrace, there were some consequences of my behaviors that I needed to make right. And, I began to understand and love the commands of God. I saw them then, as I see them now, as life-giving.

So, as I see it, when the younger son returns “home” he:

1. Experiences God’s unconditional love

2. Wants to make things right that he has destroyed or lost (because he has a changed heart)

3. Wants to obey the father’s commands (because he sees them as the way to life)

The Parable of the Father’s Outrageous Love

 

(Monroe)

 

Last Sunday I preached on Luke 15’s “parable of the prodigal son.” This famous and beautiful parable would be better called “the parable of the father’s outrageous love.”  The central character is the father, and neither the younger son nor the older son.

 

About the Younger Son

 

He asks his father for his inheritance. This would have been a scandalous thing to do, since a son only received his inheritance after his father was dead. To ask for it while his father was alive was as good as saying to him, “Father, I view you as dead.” What the son got was probably mostly land, not cash. He cashed in the land and spent it all in a foreign land on sex and who-knows-what-else. It would, at that time, have been a son’s responsibility to care for his father in his old age. But now that he’d sold his father’s land it was like saying “Not only do I consider you dead, don’t plan on me taking care of you when you get too old to care for yourself.”

 

Finally, he comes to senses. He’s lost all his money, he’s an alien in a foreign land who works feeding pigs and even eats the pigs’ food. He is at the very bottom of the social hierarchy, an “expendable” person even below “unclean” persons whom no one cares to help him. He thinks of his father’s love and care and rises up to go home.

 

About the Older Son

 

The older son, in the parable, represents the Jewish religious Pharisees. They are mentioned in Like 15:1-2 as being disgusted that “sinners and tax collectors” are welcomed by Jesus. Jesus hangs with the lowly and poor and hungry and marginalized and weak and sick and blind and filthy and the prostitutes. The Pharisees can’t believe it! The older brother can’t believe it when his father runs to embrace and kiss his screwed-up younger son. And he is shocked that the father throws a huge party for the kid. The older son obeyed all the rules and stayed at home – so why doesn’t he get the party; why didn’t his dad at least take him to Chuck E. Cheese for a good time? The older brother is scary-moralistic and self-righteous. He thinks his younger brother doesn’t deserve a celebration, and if his father should kiss anyone it should be him. In this the older brother is right and he is wrong. He’s right that the younger brother doesn’t deserve his father’s love; he’s wrong in that he deserves it. The older son is an alien in his own father’s home, who does not understand how his father loves.

 

About the Father

 

In the parable the father loves both his sons. He loves them with an unconditional love. A conditional love says “I love you IF… you perform/look nice/keep all the rules.” But the love of this father, and by analogy the love of God, loves with no conditions or strings attached. God longs for both his sons to come back to him. He longs to celebrate the return of his children. And he welcomes them with loving, enveloping arms.

 

This is how God loves you. Unconditonally. No strings attached.

Pain #2

(Warren Dunes State park in SE Michigan)

I recently re-read C.S. Lewis’s The Problem of Pain. Lewis writes to give answers to the philosophical or intellectual “problem” of pain, not to give ideas about how to relieve pain and suffering. Yet for me, and I think for others, it helps to get answers to the question “Why is there any pain at all?”

Lewis argues that a main reason pain exists at all is because 1) God gave persons free will to choose; and 2) not even God “could create a society of free souls without at the same time creating a relatively independent and ‘inexorable’ Nature.” Let me try to explain this.

That you and I have free will to choose between alternatives seems obvious (though, philosophically and scientifically, it’s hugely debated today. If you want to see examples of this debate go to my more academic website johnpiippo.com).

We can make free choices. Lewis says we make these choices in a natural environment that is for the most part already fixed. Lewis writes that “Society implies a common field or ‘world’ in which its members meet.” Let me use this analogy: If you and I are playing chess we are free to move the chess pieces as we choose, but the chess board we play the game on is fixed and cannot be changed. If this were not so we couldn’t play the game of chess at all. So Lewis reasons that if we did not live in a world that was common to us all we would not be able to have free will. Our free will does not impact the fixed world we live in, but has to do with the free choices we make within that fixed world.

If you were the only person that existed in this world the world “might conform at every moment to [your] wishes.” For example, trees might crowd into a shade for you to sit under if you chose this. But because I and many others live in this world along with you we could not expect Nature to conform to human free will, since what I choose would not always be what you would choose. If I were a farmer I might pray for rain today, while you, the golfer, would pray that it would not rain during your game.

Lewis writes it this way: “If the fixed nature of matter prevents it from being always, and in all its dispositions, equally agreeable to even a single soul, much less is it possible for the matter of the universe at any moment to be distributed so that it is equally convenient and pleasurable to each member of a society.” (23)

What’s the point Lewis is trying to make? It’s this. God has given you and I free will. Why? Because without free will love is impossible, and love, for God, is his highest value. God IS love.

Now if I had a piece of wood I could use it to make a chair for you to sit on. Or, I could use it to make a club to beat you with. If I chose to do the latter, why couldn’t God turn the club into something as soft as grass every time I swung it at you? Because, in such a world, wrong actions would be impossible, and therefore “freedom of the will would be void.” In fact, says Lewis, “evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempt to frame them.” (24-25)

Lewis’s conclusion is this: “Try to exclude the possibility of suffering which the order of nature and the existence of free wills involve, and you find that you have excluded life itself.” For there to be human free will it must be the case that there is also human suffering. Read Lewis’s entire chapter in PP for more detail.

 

Pain #1

(Lake Michigan sunset at Warren Dunes State Park)

This summer Linda and I vacationed for a few days on the beach at Warren Dunes State Park in SE Michigan. This is one of our favorite Michigan places. We brought beach chairs, beach umbrellas, and books to read. We sat for 3 days looking out on Lake Michigan and enjoying each other’s company.

I brought C.S. Lewis’s book The Problem of Pain. I last read this book about 35 years ago, and thought I’d give it a re-read. Lewis is a brilliant and creative writer. I found PP to be, for me, better than when I first read it.

I’m going to make a few posts on PP, giving some Lewis quotes and then commenting on them.

Lewis writes: “Christianity is not the conclusion of a philosophical debate on the origins of the universe: it is a catastrophic historical even following on the long spiritual preparation of a humanity which I have described. It is not a system into which we have to fit the awkward fact of pain: it is itself one of the awkward fqacts whioch have to be fitted into any system we make. In a sesne, it creates, rather than solves, the probolem of pain, for pain would be no problem unless, side by side with our daily experience of this painful world, we had received what we think a good assurance that ultimate reality is righteous and loving.”

Here are some bullet-point comments on this.

  •  Lewis, in PP, writes to come to grips with the philosophical and intellectual problem of pain. He does not give us advice on how to physically or emotionally cope with pain. He wants to answer the question “Why pain at all?”
  • If there is no God then there is no intellectual/philosophical problem of pain. This is because, as Bertrand Russell famously wrote, if no God then we live our lives “on a foundation of unyeield despair in a universe which had no prevision of us or our purpose.” Put simply: no God, no purpose…  for anything.
  • For those of us who are Christians pain poses a problem. We have here a clash of two truths: 1) God is all-loving and all-powerful; and 2) pain is real. As Lewis writes, we have the assurance and expectation “that ultimate reality (i.e., God) is righteous and loving.” If this is so, then why pain at all?

Tim Tebow Rejects Porn King Hefner’s Offer

 

(Monroe)

I love the fact that All-American Florida quarterback Tim Tebow chose to opt out of Playboy magazine’s invitation to be their choice on their All-Playboy team.

Here’s some quotes from the tampabay.com article. (A brief article is also on the front page of today’s USA Today sports section.)

“Tim Tebow will not be among the players on the Playboy Preseason All-America team after Florida officials decided not to nominate the junior quarterback because of his religious convictions…

…Tebow is a Christian who is actively involved in missionary work.

“”It was the decision of the University of Florida not to nominate him to the prestigious 52-year old Playboy All-America tradition.” [Playboy senior vice president Gary] Cole told the Times. “I can only guess at their reasons but I know that Tim is a deeply religious young man and perhaps would be uncomfortable accepting an invitation from Playboy. I’m a fairly religious man myself, but I have no problem working and writing for Playboy. It becomes a matter of individual choice.”… “

Cole is a “fairly religious man” and makes his living producing porn? I don’t understand…

Now I’m a Tim Tebow fan. Here’s a young man who is arguably the best player in college football who has enough character to not be manipulated by the multi-billion dollar porn industry. Now that’s different, radical, even revolutionary.

 

Video Clip – Rescuing Prostitutes in Bangkok

(Monroe)

 

Thanks to Holli Brown for sending me this excellent 3-minute video report done at cbn.com of Annie Dieselberg’s Night Light Design ministry in Bangkok. This is a powerful ministry that is rescuing prostitutes in Bangkok.
 
Go here to watch it.
 
Annie and her husband Jeff (who is a pastor in Bangkok) were with us at Green Lake two weeks ago.
 
Jeff told me he wants to come visit Redeemer in October when he’s in the states. Jeff will be at Redeemer Fellowship Church in Monroe Oct 19 – both in the morning service and in the evening service.

Progressive Pentecostalism

(The River Raisin)
I very much enjoyed reading USC sociologist of religion Donald E. Miller’s Global Pentecostalism: The New Face of Christian Social Engagement. Miller traveled the world checking out pentecostal churches that do holistic ministry in their communities and thus make systemic differences and see social transformation. It’s interesting to read Miller the objective sociologist as he comments on these powerful Jesus-like ministries. He says they have the “S Factor,” by which he means the Holy Spirit.

The “S Factor” is “the acknowledgment that there may be “something more” than humanly generated activity in Pentecostalism. Perhaps Pentecostals connect, on occasion, with a reality that is not observable. Perhaps social transformation is not solely explainable by human factors.” (4)

Miller coins the term “Progressive Pentecostalism.” This form of pentecostal Christianity does not stop at physical and emotional manifestations of the Holy Spirit, but understands such manifestations as a Spirit-empowerment to effect personal and social transformation.

Progressive Pentecostalism is non-political. “PPs are not trying to reform social structures or challenge government policies so much as they are attempting to build from the ground up an alternative social reality… They are teaching their members that they are made in the image of God; that all people have dignity and are equal in God’s sight; and that therefore they have rights – whether they are poor, women, or children… They are typically trying to build the Kingdom of God one person at a time.” (5)

For Miller sociological tools are not enough to fully explain what is going on in Progressive Pentecostalism. He writes: “Functional explanations do not account for the whole of religion, however valuable these theories may be in helping us to understand the role religion plays in human life. On occasion, and in some instances, the possibility exists that we are encountering something outside of ourselves. This “something more” is what Christians call God and what Pentecostals identify and interpret as being the presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.” (13)

There are a growing number of PPs. They “have begin to model their behavior after a Jesus who both preached about the coming kingdom and healed people and ministered to their social needs.” (30)

These Christians differ from “Prosperity Gospel” preachers. Miller writes: “It is unlikely that churches emphasizing the Prosperity Gospel of health and wealth will be genuine agents of change within their communities. Too frequently they put most of their energy into producing crusades, tent revivals, and healing meetings and have little time left for addressing the practical social needs of members of their local community.” (31)

Throughout the book Miller provides many examples of PPs who take Jesus’ words on Matthew 25 seriously and seek to live them out. The results are radical and profound. How profound? Miller writes: “In fact, we believe that Pentecostalism may potentially be a subversive political force, especially within autocratic governments that centralize authority within a single omnipotent ruler who claims a godlike status.” (34)

In PP-ism we have, arguably, the full gospel. “The assumption underlying holistic ministry is that it is important to divorce moral and spiritual needs from physical and economic needs. The two are inextricably linked.” (62) “A programmatic focus on conversion is not adequate to help people make their way out of poverty.” (63)

As Miller studied these PP churches, he saw worship leaders and pastors and people on their knees before God in prayer and in humility and in brokenness.

Miller the sociologist asked the question: “Is there a connection between this form of worship and the creation of a civil society? What if senators and presidents bowed before God the way these people were doing, confessing their sins, calling on God for help and inspiration to perform their civic duties?”

“Absent from the conversation of the Pentecostals we interviewed was therapeutic rhetoric regarding finding one’s personal path to self-realization and happiness. The notion of fulfillment was framed entirely differently. Tue happiness is to be found in following God’s will. When one’s priorities are aligned with God’s intentions, then worldly signs of success fade from insignificance.” (149)

So, instead of “my best life now” PPs follow Jesus and spend their lives in redemptive acts that bring the “least of these” out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

A final note. Current internet evangelistic atheists harangue that “religion is intrinsically evil.’ Richard Dawkins has famously warned us that a parent who teaches “religion” to their child is guilty of “child abuse.” Miller’s study provides a powerful answer to such naivete in example and after example after example of Jesus-followers who sacrifice worldly fame and glory for the sake of bringing the kingdom of heaven to earth.

“It’s a Bad Day to Be an Atheist” (The Josh Hamilton Story)

(Warren Dunes State Park, where Linda and I spent the day today)

I’m watching the baseball All-Star home run contest and just saw Josh hamilton hit 28 home runs. The announcers began talking about how Josh was a crack addict who found God and got his life turned around. As he was interviewed aftere hitting these home runs Josh thanked God for the amazing turnaround in just gtwo years of his life. Then the TV announcer said “It’s a bad day to be an atheist.”

Read the espn story of Josh’s life change here.

Here’s a quote from Josh himself:

“When I was using [crack], I never dreamed. I’d sleep the dead, dreamless sleep of a stalled brain. When I stopped using, I found my dreams returned. They weren’t always good dreams; most of the ones I remember were haunting and dark. They stayed with me long after I woke up.

Within my first week of sobriety in October 2005 — after I showed up at my grandmother’s house in Raleigh in the middle of the night, coming off a crack binge — I had the most haunting dream. I was fighting the devil, an awful-looking thing. I had a stick or a bat or something, and every time I hit the devil, he’d fall and get back up. Over and over I hit him, until I was exhausted and he was still standing.

I woke up in a sweat, as if I’d been truly fighting, and the terror that gripped me makes that dream feel real to this day. I’d been alone for so long, alone with the fears and emotions I worked so hard to kill. I’m not embarrassed to admit that after I woke up that night, I walked down the hall to my grandmother’s room and crawled under the covers with her. The devil stayed out of my dreams for seven months after that. I stayed clean and worked hard and tried to put my marriage and my life back together. I got word in June 2006 that I’d been reinstated by Major League Baseball, and a few weeks afterward, the devil reappeared.

It was the same dream, with an important difference. I would hit him and he would bounce back up, the ugliest and most hideous creature you could imagine. This devil seemed unbeatable; I couldn’t knock him out. But just when I felt like giving up, I felt a presence by my side. I turned my head and saw Jesus, battling alongside me. We kept fighting, and I was filled with strength. The devil didn’t stand a chance.

You can doubt me, but I swear to you I dreamed it. When I woke up, I felt at peace. I wasn’t scared. To me, the lesson was obvious: Alone, I couldn’t win this battle. With Jesus, I couldn’t lose. ”

Years ago, at age 21, I was doing drugs nearly every day. I had an encounter with God. I’ve not only not done drugs since then but not even been tempted to do them. Some kind of transformation happened in me when I turned to follow Jesus. I don’t think this proves God and Jesus are real to other people. But I can’t deny that this happened to me, and my life is far better because of it. For me, it functions as partial proof that God and Jesus are real. And this is important to me because, philosophically, I believe it is experience, not theory, that breeds conviction.